Legionnaire is written by James Gawley and is the first part of the Exiles of Arcadia novella series. In the same manner as Brian McClellan (The Powder Mage) and Django Wexler (The Shadow Campaigns), Mr. Gawley has taken a known historical period (Late Roman Republic in this case), changed details to make it more “fantastical” and added a few storylines to increase the drama but kept the setting as a whole very similar to the real life historical time frame. In fact, Arcadia so closely resembles the Roman Republic that history buffs will immediately recognize some of this novella’s overarching plots from real history. However, this is exactly Mr. Gawley’s aim, for as he himself has stated Legionnaire is an “authentic Roman military adventure (albeit in a fantasy setting).” And anyone who enjoys tales about Rome or fantasy-history hybrids will, without a doubt, enjoy this novella.
The story itself is set about a decade following the rise of Arcadia’s dictator, Tiberius; a man who overthrew the senate, liquidated his enemies’ lives and their riches to pay his supporters, and now governs Arcadia with an iron fist. Unfortunately, Primus Seneca’s father was on the wrong side in the Arcadia civil war, and faced with death or worse, the elder Seneca chose to follow his patron into exile in the wilds of the frontier, where even Tiberius’ wrath could not reach. Naturally, “Little Seneca” was taken with his father.
In the unexplored forests of the north, the rebels have carved out a wild but stable bastion of Arcadian might in the lands of the savage Woade. These clans of giants are fearful of no man; their magic haunted forests are places of dread for even the most steadfast legionnaire; and their desire to kill their hated neighbors second only to their desire for plunder from them. But the Arcadian rebels make due, erecting their outposts, mining resources, and building their armies – ever building their military might. For General Seneca and his patron do not intend to live in this snow-covered wasteland of exile forever. No, they are plotting, planning their return to Arcadia when they will smash Tiberius’ legions and put an end to his despicable dictatorship once and for all.
Primus Seneca, however, is not a party to all the political machinations. No, he is a young man and a proud member of the Dead Men infantry of the legions, and while he craves his father’s attention, he gets none of it. Indeed, Primus’ family is more truthfully his fellow soldiers than his aloof sire. But through hard work and determination, Little Seneca (as some of his fellow soldiers name him) has carved himself a new life with these tough-as-nails veterans of the civil wars. Something which he believed would prove his worth to his father. Yet still he is ignored, and still he forges ahead, hoping to make the best of his lot in life.
However, life is not always good for Primus in the legions. There are ever a few people looking to make the life of the General’s son a little harder. Most of these troublemakers hate Primus for the simple reason of whom his estranged father is. Perhaps his family and theirs were once enemies before the wars, and these men still remember the past wrongs against committed them by Primus’ family, and they harbor dreams of revenge – even if it is only against him. But whatever the cause, it is only through the help of a few grizzled veterans that Primus survives. These older soldiers take him under their wing, protect him, train him, and attempt to enlighten him on why his father never visits him. In this way, Little Seneca slowly learns of his unfortunate birth and the mixed feelings that it has created in both his parents. While there is no doubt that he is loved, there are so many old wounds surrounding his birth and his mother’s decision to remain in Arcadia that most believe that General Seneca would rather ignore Primus than face them. But such news merely makes Primus try harder to prove his worth, and soon, he is given a mission that even his father will not be able to ignore!
Obviously, this setup sounds very much like a ho-hum reconciliation between a father and son, and it is to a certain point, but Mr. Gawley livens it up by creative twists and turns in the otherwise straightforward narrative. Soon, the deep history of this fantasy Roman, its constant political machinations, and frenetic combat immerse one in a world that has both a familiar and exotic flavor. Questions pop up that beg to be answered. Who are the Woade really? Is there more to Seneca’s plight than he knows – or is being told? What is the General’s plan to return to Arcadia? Who built the strange ruins that litter the magic shrouded forests? Why are even the natives so terrified of these ancient places? Are the Arcadian gods even real? And through it all, these mysteries drive this story forward, turning it into so much more than it originally appeared.
If there is anything to complain about with this novella, it is that it left many plots dangling. In fact, the ending is no ending at all, but merely sets up another chapter in the ongoing tale. I understand that many novella series are designed this way, but I personally would have preferred a bit more closure to Primus’ tale than what Mr. Gawley gave me. However, this issue could be chalked up as just my own personal preference.
Legionnaire wasn’t what I was expecting. In fact, it was so much more than I ever envisioned it could be. The fantasy-historical hybrid of the Roman Republic just worked for me. Sure, there were little problems like repetitive narrative, a plot hole, or a few minor errors, but overall, none of these things detracted from my enjoyment of the tale of Primus Seneca, and I fully intend to follow the Exiles of Arcadia series to what I know will be a stunning conclusion.