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John Barnes (1957 - )

Caesar's Bicycle
Harper Prism, 1997
Barnes & Noble


Mark Strang, a top Crux Ops agent, travels back to 49 BC to assassinate Julius Caesar in order to make things come out right in one of the numerous alternate time lines that is becoming linked to his own (which is our own). In the course of this assignment, he comes to respect Caesar’s abilities, which complicates his mission. This is fun reading, for those who like science fiction, time travel and alternate history all in one. It is not a novel to read to find out much about ancient Rome, for 3 reasons. 1) the characters don’t go back to ancient Rome until page 100 of the novel (the earlier part is stage setting and other battles) 2) the author is not always quite right about Roman history or Latin and, most of all, 3) this Rome is that of an alternate timeline, where Caesar was assassinated in 49 BC, not 44 BC & Pompey and Crassus were left around afterwards to pick up the pieces. I think Barnes is pretty good in his view of the characters of Caesar, Pompey and Crassus and not too far off in his view of the top-down nature of Roman politics and the treatment of slaves. But the fact that an earlier time-traveller had introduced bicycles and firearms to the age roils the waters (& makes any of the legionary fighting unhistoric) as does Pompey’s escape from Caesar in a hot-air balloon. Some of this can be lots of fun, but it is more so if the reader already knows what the real Roman history was. (Note: the narrator, Strang, does often mention how the conditions he found in this time-line differed from the ones in his/our own.) There is plenty of action, mostly violent, and some humor as well, and someone who knew little or no Roman history might decide to go on and read some real stuff (or more accurate historical fiction) if intrigued by this, but Steven Saylor would be a better choice. There is very little sex in the story, which might make the book ok for high school level, and the violence is not very involving (no characters that we’ve come to like are killed and the other deaths are more abstract than gory.) There are no deep themes and thoughts presented, though the reader might be moved to consider some of the “what-ifs” of history that could have spun out a different timeline than the one we got. So, recommended as light entertainment reading with a Roman flavor, but not as anything that will instruct or move the reader. Fred Mench 9/98

- Fred Mench, 9/1/1998

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