We're in the third century BC. The Romans have at last driven Hannibal out of Italy and there's a plan to destroy Carthage once and for all. Against this background our young Roman hero, Marcus, is captured by pirates who attack the ship in which he's sailing to Greece with his father. The pirates kill all the passengers except Marcus, who manages to escape, vowing to hunt down and kill the pirate captain in revenge for his father's death. Once home, however, he finds he has a more pressing problem to deal with in the ample form of his Uncle Caecilius, who has decided to marry his mother. Marcus is a sensitive, intelligent lad, whilst horrid Uncle C. is a grasping philistine of a merchant with his greedy eye permanently on the main chance. Needless to say, they don't get on, but Marcus sweats it out for several years, farming and merchanting in his uncle's employ until the fates lead him to his destiny by way of love and war - for no sooner has he lost his heart to a beautiful Greek than a new threat to civilisation comes rampaging out of the East in the form of Philip V of Macedon, one of whose henchmen is the very pirate who murdered his father.
Of Merchants and Heroes is the first novel by Paul Waters, who ran away to sea at 17 and during his travels fell so much in love with the classical world that he went on to get a degree in classics. He certainly knows his stuff. His world-building is excellent, evocative and authentic. But this novel just didn't work for me. It's partly a problem of pacing. The story gets off to a cracking start with the ship's capture and Marcus's escape. Then it slows to an uphill crawl whilst other people are introduced and we follow Marcus's rather dull career in agriculture and trade. It doesn't pick up again until over halfway through when the love story takes off and the tale hurtles toward its denouement with tense and vivid action scenes worthy of Bernard Cornwell, Conn Iggulden or Simon Scarrow, interspersed with a little philosophy-lite.
The other problem lies in the characters, who never quite rise from the page. Marcus remains an annoyingly po-faced prig throughout, his lover a paragon of physical and intellectual perfection, whilst the venality of Uncle Caecilius is laid on with a trowel to the point of caricature. The rest of the cast - the wordly-wise courtesan, the straitlaced Roman official and his wastrel brother, etc, etc - never grow beyond stereotype.
Also rather heavy-handed are the clues the author strews about to indicate that Marcus isn't one for the girls, before finally producing the goods (so to speak). At which point it all seems rather an anti-climax (sorry). Oh, and there's one scene that did liven up the dull phase a bit - but for the wrong reason: young Marcus puts the wind up a bunch of battle-hardened Carthaginian soldiers attacking a detachment of Roman cavalry by running at them shouting a battle cry. With only a bit of DIY weapons training behind him, he kills their leader and the rest of them scuttle off. I just didn't believe it, even if Marcus does claim to have Mars on his side.
If Of Merchants and Heroes were a straight-up historical adventure yarn, none of this would matter particularly, but it comes garlanded with puffs likening it to Mary Renault's novels, which made me look forward to something more, or at least different. Not only does this sort of silly hype risk setting up the reader's expectations for possible disappointment, it's hardly fair to the author to deny him his own voice in this way. If I were Paul Waters, I'd rather be known as "the unique Paul Waters" than "a Mary Renault readalike". But I think the author needs to write a few more novels before that's likely to happen. On this showing, though, I wouldn't entirely rule it out.
For another opinion, see the Historical Novels Review's Editors' Choice for February 2008 (scroll down to end).