It’s not often you meet a character in the first few pages of a book you just know you are going to like, care about and want to follow in all future books…which you decide you’re going to have to be buying even though you’re only 10 pages in to the first one.
‘Hero of Rome’s Gaius Valerius Verrens, Tribune of the XXth Legion, stationed in first century Britain, is one of those characters.
But first. There are a lot of authors writing about Rome and all things Roman just now. A quick look at my Amazon ‘Recommendations for you’, would suggest that I read nothing other than about life in breastplates, short skirts and thigh-length boots. And about Roman soldiers. At the last count, there were no less than nine different authors writing about all things Roman on my list.
Too many? Hard to say. But Rome does sometimes feel a rather crowded space in the Historical Novel world. And there are some really rather tip-top authors in there. Ben Kane is probably the best known, mainly because apart from writing some superb books on the Roman period, his name also appears on just about every other Historical Fiction author’s book, as a recommendation. Certainly, it seems you’re no one if Ben Kane hasn’t said you are. And, as he is also used as a recommendation on other books about other periods of Historical Fiction, other publishers would clearly seem to think he is well enough known outside the Roman period to warrant a place on their author’s cover.
So how to set yourself apart, how to distinguish yourself and your books from the others? There’s nothing wrong of course, in wanting to read more than one author’s books about all things Rome. The danger as I would think of it, especially seen from the author’s point of view, must be that the reader might mix them all up together. You read about Rome, but can’t tell me which is by which author. You could clearly also become character confused. You begin a new book, right after a previous book set I the same arena (you see what I did there?) and start giving the characters the wrong characteristics, because they come from an other author’s characters. If I read a book about a specific period, I generally read another, from a different period straight after. And I try not to read two books by the same author either side of a time period shift, as it were.
But I digress. How do you distinguish your books and your characters and therefore the story, from the others?
Well, you start with the book itself. The paperback version of ‘Hero of Rome’, looks great, feels great, smells and probably even tastes great as well. It can’t be underestimated, whether you realise it or not, how the physical ‘presence’ of a book can affect your perception of it, both before and during the reading. Many times, you can and should, judge a book by its cover (and I have droned on before about how important a cover is for a book. Not least to keep the pages together, ahem…). The good feeling of quality starts even before you’ve read a word. Just holding the book, feeling and looking at the cover, I knew I was going to enjoy this one.
Then you need to be a damn fine writer. Like, say, Douglas Jackson. It is obvious he has, as the inside cover puts it; ‘turned a lifelong fascination for Rome and the Romans’ into an elegant, engaging and almost effortless style of writing. Easily conveying the story, bringing out the different characters – Roman, Celtic, Briton – and making you feel involved in their stories and their lives. I was so bound up in the story at one point that, even though I knew this is the first in a series of novels involving (at least some) of these characters, at one point during a battle, when I had no idea of the outcome, I said to myself (there was a handball game – I live in Denmark – on in the background); “ok, if he scores a goal in the next 2 minutes, the character survives”. I really felt as though they needed the help of an external, 21st Century power. The Håndbold god. That, for me, is good writing. Couldn’t guess where it was going, didn’t want to, didn’t dare take my eyes off it.
Stop the blather, you say, what’s it about?
Gaius Valerians Verrens, is a Tribune in the Roman Army stationed in Britain. He is looking forward to going back to Rome and continuing his career in Law and Politics. He’s not a reluctant hero in anyway, possessed by self-doubts and all the other nonsense authors usually load onto their characters thinking it gives them depth and, character. But Valerius does have perhaps a more ‘mature’ and well-rounded view of why he and his countrymen are in Britannia and there’s a sense that he actually seems to care about how the Britons feel about the Romans. That and he’s a bloody good soldier of course, one who doesn’t mind ‘cleaving someone to the breastbone’, as my old hero Robert E. Howard used to put it.
The Britons and Celts are also looking forward to him – and all the other Romans – returning to Rome. Perhaps more than Valerius. Britannia has been under Roman occupation for a number of years now, but that doesn’t mean that all the local population is happy with that. Romans are good for trade, whether you’re Roman or Briton, as some realise, but others want them gone and the old ways back. The Druids as guardians of the old ways are roving the land spreading dissent and bringing the situation to a boil. Valerius begins the story by getting involved with the 22nd Legion in battles against the locals in the south west of Britain, just over the (modern) border in what is now Wales. However, while the Legions have plans to move north west and finish the troublesome Druids once and for all, Valerius is detailed to go east, to ‘Colonia’, north east of Londinium. Ostensibly a mission to reconnoitre and repair the roads, he finds the local Roman garrison have gone more than a little bit native and are looking a little past their best. Valerius is in for a surprise. In many ways. Especially when ‘Rome’, as in the Emperor back in Rome, decides that their investment in Britain isn’t turning out to be such a good idea after all and the local people suddenly find that they are going to be made to pick up the bill. With interest. Turns out, the Romans have had their eyes on not so much the green and pleasant land, but the gold that they think lies under it. It has cost a lot of Sestertii to invade Britain and now the Romans have decided they want their investment back. The Britons are not in the slightest bit happy about this, as you can imagine. The new Roman ways have steamrollered over the ages-old Celtic beliefs and customs and so, egged on by the Druids, Boudicca becomes a violently eloquent spokeswoman for that unhappiness. While Valerius is buffeted about Britannia by his leaders and the natives, Douglas Jackson subtly builds up the undercurrent of tension and atmosphere that leads to a momentous final battle, with an effective, concise and controlled style.
So, ‘Hero of Rome’, pretty much has it all, wouldn’t you say? There are goodies. There are baddies. There are baddies who might be goodies and other ‘goodies’ whom it might be a good idea not to turn your back on – at the very least. In fact, Valerius finds out very quickly that not all his enemies are the ones outside, spreading dissent. But he also finds he has friends in the most unexpected of places – and at the most unexpected times. All this and the excellent descriptions of Roman life, art and industry, the interaction between the Roman occupiers and their new British subjects and thoughts of both sides on the benefits or otherwise of the arrangement, are especially well done, most thought provoking, if you ask me. I hate it when reviewers say things like ‘an evocative recreation of Roman Britain’. I mean, how do they know? Unless they have a time machine we don’t know about, they have no idea about how life really was back then, the – as XTC once so eloquently put it, ‘smell, touch, taste.’ We can make guesses and I suppose some guesses make more sense than others. And I’m far from being anywhere near an expert on Roman Britain. I just like reading books on the subject and dreaming a little. I like history and history from a long time ago precisely because of the uncertainty of how it really was back then. Because then there is room for me to dream and imagine how it was, using the author’s work as a guide in those dreams. Douglas Jackson is one of the best guides you could hope to come across.
As I say, the whole has a nice flow to it. Not constantly broken up and the story jilted every couple of lines by the completelly unnecessary insertion of a Latin word, a phrase or a description, or two. Looking at you, Harry Sidebottom. Especially his last. It distracts from the story as you try and understand what it is supposed to mean – and why on earth he’s ruined a perfectly harmless story by putting it in. Here, there’s a confidence and an understated surety running through the whole of this involving story. A trust, it felt like. That Douglas Jackson knows his subject, has absorbed it and is writing a story in a very natural way, without pushing his knowledge and research up in your face. Make sense? I don’t know, it’s hard trying to grab and tie a nuance down, but that’s how it felt. It also felt satisfyingly plotted and logical in its development, the whole full and well rounded, but with masses of promise for the future story developments. You like Valerius and want to join his adventures again. Maybe it’s because some of the central themes – most developed out to a conclusion, some not and some maybe for later enjoyment – are strong enough to carry us through a story no matter when it is set, that make it easy for a 21st Century me, relate to and understand fully the motivations of not just a 4th Century Valerius, but also the Britons, Druids, Boudicca and all those caught in between.
This has been my first encounter with the Roman world of Douglas Jackson. And it won’t be the last. ‘Hero of Rome’ is as good a piece of Historical Fiction as you’re likely to come across in a long, long time. And the really good news, for me anyway; it’s only the start of our adventures together.
*This is an enlarged review based on my Goodreads review. This one is better.