Casca #1 The Eternal Mercenary

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May 29, 2012 at 8:26 am #1325

Review found on the web Review on Elliot’s Blog

  • This topic was modified 8 years, 4 months ago by avatarPete.
June 1, 2012 at 8:27 am #1351
Tony Roberts

This is a review of Eternal Mercenary by Adam France of the UK that he put on the old forum.
Casca : #1 ‘The Eternal Mercenary’

Plot overview –
This the first book in the series both chronologically and in order published, begins in a US Army field hospital in Vietnam in 1970. Two overworked military doctors, Colonel Robert Landries and Major Julius Goldman, encounter a seriously wounded US soldier (apparently from the 1st Cavalry, though that’s unclear), who seemingly has uncanny and possibly supernatural healing powers that are repairing a massive head wound before the doctor’s eyes. Later Goldman is sitting beside the mysterious patient, Casey Romain, when he wakes, and apparently through hypnotism begins to tell Goldman the staggering story of his life.
The narrative then switches to Jerusalem in the time of the Caesars, where Casey is a Roman legionary named Casca Rufio Longinius (or Longinus …both spellings are used at different points of the novel?) who becomes cursed with immortality by Jesus Christ while overseeing the crucifixion. The book then details the next century or more of Casca’s cursed existence, from him being a slave in the copper mines of Achaia, a gladiator in the arenas of Rome, a galley slave, and then a wandering mercenary.
The book ends with Casca having vanished from the field hospital and a few years later turning up in the Israeli army during the war of 1973, continuing his curse to remain a soldier, ever fighting and suffering, but never being able to find the peace of death.

My Review –
So, this was the first reread I have made of this book in years and I was pleased to find I still thoroughly enjoyed it. Firstly, it is a fairly light read, I breezed through it in a few hours and I’m not generally speaking a particularly fast reader. It doesn’t linger on deep philosophy and is essentially what it sets out to be; an exciting and action packed page turner.
However, having said that I do think this book works because it does have some thoughtfulness to it. Sadler understood the evil men do, he also understood that human beings haven’t really changed that much down the ages, and his Romans are very contemporary in their attitudes, failings and weaknesses.
Casca himself is certainly no Mary-Sue (or Gary-Stu if you prefer) whiter-than-white infallible hero, he starts out as more or less a typical veteran legionary. He’s a bit better with the sword than most, but by no means a god of duelling. He has the same weaknesses and failings as most other soldiers down the years; he drinks, he whores, he let’s his privates do his thinking, he’s not particularly bright or clever, he’s brave but he feels fear going into battle, he kills without thought or regret when he’s told to do so by his superiors, but though occasionally swept up by the bloodlust of battle he doesn’t take such pleasure in killing that he seeks it out. He can be thoughtless and callous, and though it’s not spelt out he basically fights for the legion, rather than any noble cause, for the men either side of him, his comrades and for the eagle standard, but seems to care little for politics or the glory of the Empire, or any such airy causes.
I saw an interesting TV show the other day where a British soldier recently returned from Afghanistan said ‘civilians think we veterans drink to forget the horrors we’ve seen in war, they’re wrong, we drink because we cannot find excitement and joy like we found in battle in the civilian world’. This might not be true for every soldier, but Casca seems to feel the same. He talks about how keeping his own skin intact is more important to him than his higher duties to the state and legion, but also of relishing the savage joy of carnage when the legion is let loose upon fleeing and beaten foes. He clearly loves the camaraderie of military life and the discipline and chores too. He likes the mindless routine of cleaning kit and polishing armour, it eases his mind, and calms him.
Only later, after decades spent in the mines and meeting the wonderful little scholar and martial artist Shiu Lao Tze, does Casca begin to expand his thinking and to basically begin to wise up. He says at one point that he never needed to be clever before, his life was simple and he had little need of original thought. Naturally being cursed with immortality eventually changes that and Shiu’s philosophies seem to genuinely help him get on a path that can perhaps allow him to go on into eternity without going stark staring mad.
On that point Shiu is a great character, he is genuinely likeable, funny, and interesting, and the friendship between he and Casca is touching and believable, helping to humanise Casca greatly. I always loved the way he calls Casca ‘big nosed barbarian’ and variations thereof.
One thing that struck me on this reread is that Sadler doesn’t write ‘smart’ with Casca’s story, he writes interesting and from the heart. A smart author wouldn’t have ‘wasted’ sixty odd years of the first century AD with Casca being a slave in a mine or galley that whole time. However that Sadler did just that somehow gives the series as a whole a solid foundation, and seems authentic in a strange way. Casca was a slave, and that’s that, he suffered for decades and this sets up the series from this point, it becomes an integral part of Casca’s story, it shapes his later personality. Being a soldier forever, on and off, might have its down sides, but there are far worse ways to live out eternity, Casca knows this very well because he’s been there by the end of this first book.
Another interesting note is that for a character who ends up getting a lot of girls in later books Casca does extremely poorly on that front in this one. He nearly beds Rheza the dancing girl, but is arrested before he does. During his time as a slave in the mines he has no women for thirty years (!), while a successful gladiator he bangs about but clearly in a uncaring and unfeeling way, sometimes actually sleeping with noblewomen purely for money, followed of course by another thirty odd years without any female company whatsoever while a galley slave. It’s notable the first genuine love interest is Neda, whom Casca basically marries and settles down with for a fair while and states is the first true love of his life. In this book, James Bond he ain’t.
Essentially I think I still love this book because unlike some of the later books Casca here is not just a kind of immortal tourist, dressed up in toga and seeing the horrors of the Roman era before moving on to something else, this a real story and despite his curse to remain what he is, and his own inner musings during Avidius Cassius’ campaign against the Parthians that he has not changed since his first days with the legions, Casca does in fact change. By the end of the main body of the book he is no longer the simple legionary who rammed the spear into Jesus on the cross near the start. He is no longer just an average soldier, Casca has become the wandering immortal of the rest of the series, doomed to suffer but to always return to the standards as a soldier.
That’s why this book is probably my favourite, Casca has a clear arc, he goes from unthinking uncaring soldier, then mute trancelike slave, to being woken up first by his friendship with Minitre, then all the more so by his deep relationship with Shiu, after which he becomes more than he was at the start of his recollections, and begins to really think about his life and how he is going to survive eternity. Finally we see him break down mentally at Ctesiphon and try to commit suicide, fail and be forced forward onto the long road he must then walk through the rest of the series.
Another really great thing, is that for once in adventure literature, where usually living forever is portrayed as pretty cool even if it’s meant to be bad, here Casca’s immortality does genuinely seem to be a terrible curse.

* * *

There are a few small niggles, Casca’s last name is spelled differently in a couple of places as I mentioned up the page, at first it’s Longinius, then later Longinus. Sadler repeatedly refers to Casca as being a Roman legionnaire through the first half of the book, rather than the correct term ‘legionary’. A legionnaire is a member of the French Foreign Legion, it’s a different term and incorrect to use when referring to soldiers of a Roman legion. Okay small point, I know.
I also think I detected a smattering of small historical errors near the start of the book, for instance at some points Sadler seems unclear on who’s emperor at the time of the crucifixion. If the crucifixion is in the year 33 AD, then it would be Tiberius who ruled until 37 AD, as is sometimes stated in the book (Casca’s slave amulet has Tiberius’ head upon it for example), but at other points it’s stated or implied Augustus is still Emperor, which is clearly inaccurate as Augustus died in 17 AD.
Also Sadler confuses King Herod Antipas, with Herod Agrippa (‘Claudius’ friend’ – see I, Claudius), again a minor and forgivable error.
On the other hand the descriptions of the Roman games are spot on, except for perhaps being a tad too lethal and bloody, if one accepts the modern view that gladiators rarely fought to the absolute death. It did happen, just not all the time. I think Sadler must have read Daniel Manix’s excellent ‘Those about to die’, which is the best book on the Roman games and well worth a look if you’ve not read it, as some of the scenes in the arena are from that book.

* * *

Oh yeah, I should add the swordfights and action scenes are great too. 🙂

Points of interest –

Set during – Prologue – 1970, Vietnam
Main body – 1 through 165 AD, with lightly detailed or even un-detailed gaps here and there
Epilogue – 1973, Israel

Casca’s Friends –
Lucius Minitre – a garrulous slave overseer at the copper mines of Achaia, who befriends Casca after he saves Minitre from a cave-in.
Shiu Lao Tze – Perhaps the biggest friend and influence upon Casca in his life, Shiu was a Chinese follower of the teachings of Confucius and Buddha. Shiu teaches Casca the basics of Buddhist/Confucian philosophy and eastern martial arts, while they travelled from Achaia to Rome together and later during their respective times in Rome in 63/64 AD.
Crysus –

Casca’s Enemies –
Tigelanius, Roman Commander of the Garrison of Jerusalem (33 AD) – The patrician officer who condemns Casca to the copper mines of Achaia after Casca blots his copy book by killing Decurion Sporus in a brawl fought over the woman Rheza. Tigelanius is your typical arrogant, probably somewhat inept, and definitely cruel nobleman, a type Casca instinctively dislikes. So far as we know Tigelanius lives a long and pleasant life after sending Casca to the mines, fathering a bastard on a commoner woman later who grows up to become Nero’s Praetorian Guard Commander at the time Casca briefly meets Nero.
M. Decimus Crespas – Another arrogant and cruel Roman patrician, who buys Casca from the mines, after Casca and Minitre intrigue together into having Casca save Crespas’ life from thugs secretly hired by Minitre, but then condemns Casca into the life of a gladiator. Later, after Casca is grudgingly freed by Nero
Nero – Yes. That Nero. Who Casca pisses off by beating Jubala whom Nero had bet upon, then after being freed at Nero’s comman, Casca gets blind drunk and publicly smears gutter-muck all over a bust of Nero whilst declaring at the top of his voice he will outlive Nero and Rome, which leads Casca to be sentenced to ‘life’ as a galley slave by the degenerate Emperor.
Jubala – A savagely cannibalistic Numidian gladiator of the Gallic School, who envies Casca’s success in the arena and begins a bloody feud against him, which ends with a grudge match between the pair ending in Jubala’s grisly death at Casca’s hands and Casca winning his freedom at the demand of the adoring crowd.

Casca’ Women –
Rheza – The Armenian dancing girl over whom Casca fights with his Decurion, Casca never consummates his affair with her.
Neda – A Greek farmer’s wife who Casca saves from bandits who have killed her husband, and then shacks up with for a fair while (10-20 years seems likely), building up a prosperous farming estate. Neda was Casca’s first true love, and his time with her was a rare interlude of peace and happiness in his life.

Could we fit any other stories in here? –
Simple answer; Hell yeah! There are some major gaps in this one that would be perfect for multiple new books. For example; Casca is a gladiator, one of the most famous in Rome by the time he wins the wooden sword, for a year or so, yet we only get to see two fights, his first and his last. He fights many more times in the arenas at Rome itself and travels Italia on a tour or two as well. There is certainly enough room for at least one novel more thoroughly detailing his time as a gladiator and perhaps working some kind of interesting plot around that. Shiu is also in Rome at this time, so he could feature as a cameo character in the book.
Next, between the time Casca is shipwrecked and thus freed from being a galley slave (‘last year of the reign of Domitian’ – 96 AD) through to perhaps 130 AD or so when he starts the sequence of being a Chief of a mountain village, then husband to Neda, Casca is wandering the Roman world having adventures. That’s 34 years of wandering. We know some clues about this period (see my timeline), but there is still a great deal of freedom in what adventures could be slotted comfortably in here.
I like Casca in the Roman world stories, so it would be cool to see some of this spare time used well in future books.

Okay … Casca the Barbarian awaits.

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