Set in same period – AD68/69 – as Henry Venmore-Rowland’s The Sword and the Throne and Robert Fabbri’s Vespasian series, Sword of Rome might be the fourth installment in Douglas Jackson’s series about Gaius Valerius Verrens, but it shows no sign of slacking in pace or quality. Avenger of Rome was an exceptional book, this is equally so.
It is set in the period known as ’the year of the four Emperors.’ Though as Douglas points out at the end, it’s actually five Emperors and 18 months. Valerius Verrens has snuck into Rome to try and get the Praetorian guard to declare for Galba and do the necessary with Nero. Valerius is only wanting to do what is best for Rome and eventually has to take matters into his own hands, so Galba can take the Purple. But, waiting in the wings, frustrated both at Galba’s inflexibility once in power and his own lack of subsequent advancement, is Valerius’ old companion, Otho. Who, it now turns out, has designs on doing HIS best for his idea of ‘Rome.’ The rise of Otho doesn’t – obviously, as this IS Rome after all – please everyone. Especially not the veterans in Rhine Legions. With each side promising power and riches beyond compare – and the Empire’s finances – to all and everyone, things get complicated. Not least for Valerius. Though, it has to be said, not for us. As while Douglas Jackson has a little bit more of a difficult job to do, steering Valerius’ path through surely the most complicated period in Romes already complicated history, his sure historical hand and clear, accessible writing style never falters. Valerius has some important decisions to make. Which is tricky, as the situation in Rome – and further afield – is getting more and more chaotic, not to say bloody, by the day.
It was good to have my analysis of Valerius’ situation right now, from Avenger of Rome, proved right here in Sword. Vitellius says “If you have a failing, Valerius, it is that you are too honest and too loyal. You will act in the best interests of Aulus Vitellis? No, Gaius Valerius Verrens will act in the best interests of Rome, because Gaius Valerius Verrens is wedded to a sugar-dusted image of Rome that has nothing to do with the sewer-breathed reality…” Valerius’ loyalty was, still is, to Rome, not necessarily the Emperor – if the Emperor proves himself unworthy of that/his loyalty. In the hands of another man, perhaps less pricipled than Valerius, that would be like giving him carte blanch to do whatever he likes and calling it ‘loyalty’ to whoever he likes. Valerius is made of sterner stuff, however snd keeps his eyes on the prize, which is a Rome he can feel comfortable supporting, not to say killing and possibly dying for. It’s a fine distinction, one that could prove his undoing, but one that is essential to Valerius’ future. The immediate and /or otherwise.
Valerius’ motivations and reasons for doing what he does, are always satisfyingly in keeping with his previous – and developing – character. There are no decisions that cause you to think “Ahhh…the Valerius I’ve got to know wouldn’t have done that!” Or “Woah! Where did THAT come from?!” The reading joy and satisfaction comes from trying to think ahead for Valerius, trying to figure out how Valerius might react if such a situation happened, or maybe that, or maybe that. And being proved wrong. The shocks and surprises come in the form of the events Valerius must try and negotiate his way safely through. They can’t be anticipated, often either by us or Valerius. It is Valerius’ reaction to these shocks, that may be surprising, but always on reflection, that fit his character. He has matured, that was clear from Avenger. He is older and wiser, and as the tumultuous events swirl around him, a figure – almost the only – of calm and common sense. A rock on which other characters crash, or realise they can cling to. Even he would admit the ‘simple soldier’ is long gone. What he is now, is a survivor. Living day to day, though that is partly because long-term plans are nigh on impossible to make – a ‘long-term plan’ in AD69 Rome, is one that sees out the day.
Valerius aside, the character that comes more to the fore for me here, is his faithful, ex-Gladiator friend Serpentius. He’s been more than a bit part previously, but here I felt he really gets some serious page-time development. He’s a threat, a friend, a companion a sparring partner. He’s become indispensible to Valerius – after all, who else is going to ‘kill’ him?
What was interesting for me, having just finished Henry Venmore-Rowland’s very wonderful The Sword and the Throne, which is set at exactly the same time, but on the opposite side to Valerius, was that Sword of Rome features several of the attacks and the final set battle from The Sword and the Throne. Whereas in that one, my sympathies were undoubtedly, 100% with Caecina, here, he’s clearly a cowardly, arrogant upstart, and I’m convinced he’s just seizing the best chance, siding with Vitellius, while attacking Otho’s brave, loyal Legions. How good writing is that? On both sides.
There are just a couple of problems. The predilection of having (a minimum of) two emotions expressed on someone’s face, at the same time will, I guarantee, have you trying to replicate such a thing yourself and looking like you’re a participant in a gurning competition. The times when three competing emotions are present, sometimes all three named, sometimes two with ‘…something else,’ will probably necessitate being driven to hospital. Doesn’t happen in real life. I’ve tried.
Another thing I think that could be worked on for future installments is the repeated references to ‘bright/glittering/gleaming/shining (etc) iron’ used to describe either the first glimpse of an opposing force, where the actual soldiers can’t be made out, or as generally a kind of lazy shorthand, instead of describing the weapon(s) as sword, knife/dagger or spear. Oh, and he does also seem to catch a mild dose of what we Doctors are calling ‘Anthonyrichesitis’ during Sword. It is most often characterised by the pursing of the lips (to show internal conflict, emotion (of any shade) or an impending decision). Think of how your face is watching a video on YouTube where a naked guy runs into a plate glass door he hasn’t seen. That’s the one. Luckily, it’s only a mild case here, not the full-on epidemic from the dreadful ‘The Emperor’s Knives’ outbreak of 2014.
Otherwise, this is a continuation of the absolutely exellent work that has defined the ‘~ of Rome’ series as a whole. It is frustrating, that this kind of HistFic doesnt get the recognition it deserves. In the press, TV, film. If he was a woman and there was less fightin’ more lovin’ more internal conflict, less external conflict-solving, Douglas Jackson would be a household name. I’m just glad his name in my household. On the shelves. Over there >>