Is there room in the Roman market for another author writing fiction set in Ancient Rome? When you’re as good as this, there is. When your name’s as big as Henry Venmore-Rowland – you better create a lot of room.
And he does, he has.
Henry Venmore-Rowland (so good they named him thrice?) was a new author to me – and reading his biography and looking at his picture, he’s a new author to him as well! He is powerful young, that’s for sure. But, as James Aitcheson (Sworn Sword, Splintered Kingdom, Knights of the Hawk) has proved, age is no barrier to writing absolutely tip-top Historical Fiction. And it isn’t here either.
The Last Caesar is a really good, readable book. An engaging, accessible and maybe even surprisingly confident first effort. If someone popped up half way through and said HV-R was a wizened professor of Romeology at some ancient university, you’d believe them.
The main character, who tells the tale, is Aulus Caecina Severus. He’s a likeable chap, just into his 20s as his tale starts. He is writing his story as an older man remembering how it was. So he is able to add some hindsight. Like Alan Dale in Angus Donald‘s Outlaw Chronicles. But this is much more of a conversational style. He’s writing, it seems, as though this story will be read by a person from the same period, not later generations. So there isn’t the need for so much explanation, as he presumes you know what he’s talking about. It all creates a much more conversational, open, accessible style. There are nods and winks and things taken for granted, as someone would who was writing for people who knew his world, because they were living in it. Makes for a really open and inviting sort of style, I felt.
His story starts with Severus seeing action in Britain, the last days of the defeat of Boudicca. This caught my attention, as I’d just come off the back of an exceptionally good novel by Anthony Riches, set roughly in the same period and part of the Roman Empire. Though his recollections actually begin in the reign of Nero, with his posting to Hispania and his intention to use this as a way to return to Rome a wealthy man. He gets invited to a meeting, which turns out to be a meeting to plot the overthrow/removal of the Emperor Nero. Which puts him over a rather Roman-type barrel really. There’s no real way back after you’ve been to an ‘overthrow the Emperor’ party. The story does, of necessity for staying withing binocular distance of the historical facts, move on to Spain, to France to Germania and the massed Legions of the Rhine. As HV-R points out at the afterword, he sticks close to what facts are known about the year of the four emperors (as he says, the eighteen months of the five emperors doesn’t have the same ring), so the journeying and the people met are in keeping with what actually happened.
And given the fact that I can tend to glaze over at the use of too many Roman names and lose track or even interest – in the case of the last Harry Sidebottom I read – in who Severus Aquilla Maximus was or who he’s double-crossing (insert Roman word here) with his (insert Roman name of instrument here), this never feels like you really should have paid more attention because I’m gonna be testing you at the end and you’ll be kept in after school if you’re not 100% correct (hello Prof. Sidebottom again).
The Last Caesar is a really good, solid, enjoyable story, with characters that are easy to care about and care enough about to care about what might happen to them in their future. And with enough other, more minor characters, to keep one more than intrigued as to what fate might have planned for them in their future. This book is – as yet – one of two and, as these things usually get written in threes, we can only hope that we shall be spending a lot more time in the exciting company of AC Severus et al. There is a lot of politicking as the action his lead character could have taken part in, is of course limited. So it isn’t staggering from one pitched battle to another. But the politicking, the back-stabbing etc doesn’t descend into cliche, as you find in some Roman stories, but rather backs up, compliments and makes understandable the characters actions.
A thoroughly coherent, believable and interestingly enticing read. I look forward to getting stuck into the second (and hopefully more) novel(s) from young Henry Venmore-Rowland.