“In 9 AD Rome suffered a brutal defeat at the hands of her secret enemy, Arminius. The humiliation of General Varus echoed around the ancient world, but the Imperial response was not swift. It was only when Germanicus Caesar was appointed Governor of the Gallic provinces that Rome’s vengeance began. Over the next few years the young general was to conduct a series of lightning raids and manoeuvres that would take him deep into the heart of German lands and secure a reputation of nigh invincibility for the disgraced Roman army.
Cave Canem approaches this short history from the perspective of one of those who served in the ranks of the Roman invaders, not a general or even a foot soldier, but a hound – Ferox. One of the many animals, thrown wantonly into the fray, used to service the implacable ambition of the Roman war machine.”
Cave Canem – beware the dog.
What an interesting novel this was – I had no idea what to expect, and what I found was an intriguing historical fiction written from the perspective of Ferox, the companion/war dog of a Roman soldier named Marcus. It’s a slice of life story set during the Roman invasion of Germany, which follows Ferox and Marcus on the campaign and details their struggles with war, conflict within the ranks, and the guerrilla tactics of the German tribes. Outside of the fact that it’s written from the perspective of a dog there are no fantasy elements at all, and yet I found the tale compelling enough that at no point was I unhappy or bored.
One thing that did concern me was my lack of knowledge of the period, and I wanted to make sure I was able to talk about whether or not Bennett’s tale was historically accurate or simply invented for the story. For this, I consulted with a friend who is something of a history buff (huge thanks to Quill for his help with this) , and from our conversations it emerged that Bennett does indeed appear to have done his homework. The drudgery of war is covered at some length, but it’s interspersed with some nice details of the period and and enough authentic history that it makes for a fascinating read. Ferox’s account gives us a perspective in which he is an outside observer who has a limited understanding of the conversations he overhears, which works surprisingly well. Despite his fierce loyalty to his master, there is a dispassionate quality to the prose, and Marcus himself is not an overly emotional man. However, his conflict with a rival soldier and his sense of duty and camaraderie towards his men does a good job of showing us that this is a character we can identify with and want good things for. His love of Ferox, in particular, is never in question.
The structure of the novel doesn’t have a particularly solid beginning, middle or end, but having read it I don’t think of that as a criticism. I was very much carried along with the toil of life as a Roman soldier, and the sprinkling of real history interspersed with fictional lives. I have never been a big reader of historical fiction, but I found myself enjoying it a great deal. Ferox himself was an interesting character, and his perspective, driven mostly by scent and his interpretation of the human emotions around him, made for a nice change of pace. I think there were some limitations to the character development due to this unusual choice, but it was refreshing enough that I didn’t mind.
The novel wasn’t entirely without issues, however. Some characters are introduced fairly late in the novel and needed more development in order to get across the emotional punch that I feel Bennett was looking for. On the whole the book would have benefited from some additional editing – there are multiple spelling and grammatical errors throughout, and a good editor could perhaps have helped with all of these problems. Ferox’s intelligence seems to wax and wane depending on the needs of the plot – at one point he is aware of the metric system, which raised an eyebrow for me. With that said, I went into this novel with no expectations and was largely pleased with what I found. For history enthusiasts and people interested in this time period, this was an engrossing story that took some risks which for the most part, paid off. Well done.
Score. 7.2/10 (4 Stars)
Bingo Squares 2018
- Fewer than 2500 Goodreads Ratings
- Historical Fantasy