Gladiator meets Clint Eastwood in an alt-historical world where Rome never fell, religious belief has a lot more at stake, and Europe looks more like the Wild West than you’d expect.

The Incorruptibles - John Hornor Jacobs

In the contested and unexplored territories at the edge of the Empire, a boat is making its laborious way up stream. Riding along the banks are the mercenaries hired to protect it – from raiders, bandits and, most of all, the stretchers, elf-like natives who kill any intruders into their territory. The mercenaries know this is dangerous, deadly work. But it is what they do. In the boat the drunk governor of the territories and his sons and daughters make merry. They believe that their status makes them untouchable. They are wrong. And with them is a mysterious, beautiful young woman, who is the key to peace between warring nations and survival for the Empire. When a callow mercenary saves the life of the Governor on an ill-fated hunting party, the two groups are thrown together.

I love a good alternative history, but I often find that they go badly wrong in trying to stretch themselves too thin: they imagine a whole world of consequences for the alternate timeline, and then try and follow every single one of them, to the detriment of a good story. The Incorruptibles is quite the opposite, and it benefits enormously. 

The world of The Incorruptibles is large, but we only see a small part of it. A Ruman senator and his family steam lazily upriver on a hunting trip, paced by scouts who have lived their entire lives on the wild frontier lands of the mountains. All we hear of Rume and the wider world is contained on this ship and its surrounding camps. The worldbuilding is tight and focused, and all the more fascinating for it. And this is a Western as much as a fantasy/alternative history, so the setting is important: harsh landscapes, long-suffering men, a community living in the shadow of its own compromised morality… and demons.

The Roman empire in the Wild West…                         (Image: Source)

Though I don’t usually like stories about demons and Hell, I thought this aspect of the tale was very well placed; Shoe and his spirituality, the Rumans and their prosaic beliefs, the cold, strange engineer-warlock types who bind demons to power machinery and light buildings, all of these meld together into a serviceable meditation on the power of religion to guide a life, particularly when the evidence of the truth of that religion is everywhere and unavoidable. I was interested to see that the avenue for atheism is still there, however: if all gods are demons, then perhaps demons are not gods?

The book ends with the promise of a sequel, but that’s neither here nor there to me, I think. The story works well on its own, and could quite easily be left as-is. A good fantasy, a good western, a good book all round.