I finished Avenger of Rome, or it finished me. Hard to decide. One hell of a thrilling ride. Four books into what was originally described as a trilogy and no sign of slacking, just getting better and better. There is no doubt for me that, at the moment, when we’re talking Roman-period Historical Fiction, it’s Douglas Jackson, Robert Fabbri – and then the rest.
The story has now moved into quite a recognisable and well-trodden period of Roman history. We’re in AD66 and Nero is persuaded to rid himself of the leading Roman General of the time, Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo. Not because Corbulo is incompetent, disloyal or even a threat to Nero, but because he is too good and as such, seen as a threat. An increasingly mentally fragile Nero sends his ‘Hero of Rome, Gaius Valerius Verrens to the east, to Antioch, to spy on Corbulo. Problem is, Corbulo knows Valerius is a spy and Valerius knows he knows and so do the soldiers loyal to Corbulo and…well, it gets complicated from there. The Roman forces in what is now the Middle East, are trying to hold off the expansionist ambitions of the Parthian King (probably ‘of Kings’) Vologases. Though, Rome’s definition of ‘expansionist’ would probably also cover sitting there, minding your own business, doing none any harm, of course. But Vologases has dared to raise an army of simply stupendous size and has decided to take on Rome in what Rome obviously considers, their backyard. The Roman forces are surrounded and not just death, but annihilation seems inevitable. Amongst all this, Valerius he falls both for Corbulo’s daughter – and her father’s brilliance as a leader. Corbulo’s mistake, is then two-fold – to remain loyal to Nero and to think for himself as to what the best solution to the Parthian problem might be. He is old-fashioned enough to still believe in honour and duty and Rome.
Can they rescue the situation? There’s the problem with writing a series and people reading the series knowing it is a series and that there are more to come – how to build up sufficient tension and doubt, when readers know there is another book after this one? I have no idea how he does it, but Douglas Jackson does it wonderfully well. Valerius seems to have become harsher. He’s certainly more on edge and there is also an edge to his personality that has developed from the previous book, ‘Defender of Rome.’ He seems less at peace with himself and his situation and though he still enjoys his soldiering he may well be beginning to see he can’t hide behind the ’simple soldier’ epithet much longer. What it is, I think, is that Valerius is realising his devotion to Rome is devotion to an ideal of Rome, that isn’t quite reflected in the reality. I wouldn’t say he’s become or becoming, cynical, as he still believes it can be changed. Maybe he is realistic enough to realise it can’t be changed ‘back,’ as it has never quite lived up to the ideals that were perhaps originally set. But, that it could be changed to something that is better able to strive after those ideals, if never quite achieve them. Soldiers like Valerius and Corbulo realise they need to be loyal to ‘Rome’ and therefore their Emperor, but, in this case, not necessarily to Nero. And where does that leave their (different ideas of) honour? Valerius has had to struggle with this before, but during ‘Avenger’, he seems to be beginning to break ‘free’ of his mental chains. The question is, would a change of Emperor help him, or weaken his loyalty to Rome further?
Douglas Jackson must be our leading writer of this type of Roman Historical Fiction, the real sort, the exciting, stirring, solidly rooted in the facts and actual events sort. It is superbly well put together, deftly paced and rewarding on a variety of levels. Powerful at times, harsh at others, soft, reflective and thoughtful at others. There is all the stomach-clenching tension, heart-breaking sadness you need to put yourself through the mangle, get your pulse pounding and give your brain some useful exercise. As previously, he scatters interesting tidbits of Roman information throughout the book. Not IN YOUR FACE, like I find Harry Sidebottom, not getting in the way of the story as his most often are, but complimentary, whilst always retaining the flow. There are of course the requisite signs of the Roman Writer’s Club, with some eyebrow-raising, though they are mercifully few and, interestingly, on one occasion even without eyebrows. That’s never easy.
If your fingers aren’t pounding out ’S.W.O.R.D. O.F. R.O.M.E’ on your keyboard on whatever on-line shop you get your books from, or banging on the door of your local bookshop, check your pulse – you may have died.
PS : If you’re wondering where this fits with the other Roman Epic series there are around at the moment – it’s the same period as Robert Fabbri’s Vespasian and Henry Venmore-Rowland’s two books. Anthony Riches has his Legions – and their eyebrows – in Rome at about the same time just now as well.