Rather than include exerts from in-world historical texts or other common world building techniques Boyle writes about the daily events as they happen and leaves the reader to deduce much of the background. This adds greatly to both the impression that this is a record from a larger world and that the narrator has the unthinking prejudices and ignorance of a real person.
The novel tells the story of the Gatherers, a tribe of vassal warriors charged with collecting taxes from other subjugated states by a classical empire. As the story proceeds the Gatherers uncover a potential rebellion which may actually be an invasion. With the empire rotten with decadence and the forces ranged against them divided by hidden agendas the Gatherers are forced to change not only their role in the empire but their very way of life.
The eponymous scribe is the only Gatherer who can write. He is also a lecher and a coward. At the start of the book he is attached to the personal staff of Hector, chieftain of the Gatherers and arguably the hero of the story, a position Urgus struggles to keep as the story proceeds. Apart from the epilogue, the story is told in as series of extracts from his scrolls, so is filled with examples of self-justification and prejudice. However, Boyle successfully describes events clearly enough that the reader can deduce other possible interpretations and produces a more sympathetic character than many fantasy heroes.
Even filtered through Urgus’ perceptions the other major characters are described with similar depth and credibility.
With an empire more interested in violent arena games and fashion than maintaining its power it would be easy to draw parallels with the Roman Empire. However, the other nations are different from the Goths and Vandals, making the possible collapse more than a retelling of the sack of Rome. The scale, both geographically and narratively, is also quite small emphasising personality over history.
Overall I enjoyed this novel greatly, and foresee rereading it in the future. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys well-constructed low fantasy or believably flawed protagonists.