Review: The Imperial Banner by Nick Brown

The Imperial BannerEarly exit poll suggests:
out of 5 Stars

My version:
Paperback
Hodder & Stoughton
2012
Bought, thanks to doing an extra shift.

Historical Fiction, Roman period

272 AD
Faridun’s Banner, hallowed battle standard of the Persian Empire, has fallen into Roman hands and is to be returned to the Persians as part of a historic peace treaty. But on the eve of the signing, the banner goes missing.

Imperial Agent Cassius Corbulo is charged with recovering the flag. Accompanied by faithful servant Simo and ex-gladiator bodyguard Indavara, Cassius must journey across the dangerous wastes of Syria to the equally perilous streets of Antioch, where ruthless brigands, mysterious cults, merciless assassins and intrigue wait at every turn.

The second of Nick Brown’s Agent of Rome series, The Imperial Banner, takes place a year or so, if I read it right, after the events of the first book featuring Imperial Roman Agent Cassius Corbulo, The Siege.

At the beginning of this story, we are introduced to a new character, the ex-gladiator, Indavara. Though, when we first meet him, he’s yet to be ex-ed, as it were (and anyway, I always think winning your freedom by getting a wooden sword would have been more than a bit of a let-down, given straight to the kids, surely). As I’ve already read the fourth book, The Black Stone (Mr Nick was kind enough to send me a copy in return for an honest review, honestly), I do know that Indavara makes it to book four at least, so he’s got to be a strong character to stay the distance – in every way. And he is. Silent, strong and, enigmatic. But that’s mainly because he’s a man of few words. Very few.

So how were Nick Brown’s words? Straight from the start I felt like I actually knew the characters, in real life. I cared for/about them, warts and faults alike, like new, old friends, even Simo. Before I knew where I was, I’m three days into can’t put it down country. It doesn’t follow the ‘usual’ path for a Roman-period historical novel. It’s not a romp, of the typical ‘swords and sandals’ type. It’s more than that. It’s more of an investigation into the case of the missing banner, searching for the facts, wether those in charge like them or not. I thought it was more comparable with something from the here and now, like a Frost novel. Not the TV series, the ‘darker’ books. Little more low-key perhaps than The Siege, where you knew from the start, that the enemy was coming towards the end, so it was all about the build-up to a huge fight. This is all the more interesting for not really having the plot set out from the start. It goes where the investigation leads it. Obviously, the mission is to return the banner, but if it will be, or is, is in doubt all along. For me, it’s also interesting to have a Roman series set in the east of the Empire. Not the first, but I seem to have read too few.

Cassius has been an Imperial Agent a year or more now, and – in Secret Roman Agent-terms – he’s still very wet behind the ears. Before he can be The Man from R.O.M.E., of book four. And he can’t tell anyone. But he can show them his spear…well, a kind of replica badge of office thing anyway. This gets him all sorts of free passes: access to places a normal citizen wouldn’t get access to, fear created at will, discounts off toiletries and free rides on the bus (I’m gonna have to sack that researcher!). Cassius left home and Rome, under something of a cloud. He was sent to the army by his father to be made a man of. So working for The Security Service is not a calling and that gives Nick scope to be objective about not just life as a Roman agent, but life as a Roman in the east, through Cassius’ eyes. Cassius has to resilient, resourceful and sharp to succeed as an agent in the secret service and it seems like he’s unknowingly surprising himself along the way, solving the problems that confront him as he goes. The sort that you only see how far you’ve come, when you look up and look back to where you started from. Cassius’ character has developed very satisfyingly from The Siege. “I am now in the employ of the Imperial Security Service and am therefore expected by all and sundry to be a lying, underhand scoundrel. I wouldn’t want to disappoint anyone.” There is a really gratifying, natural, feel to the progression from the first book, in the filling in of the background of all the characters, the Service, not just the reasoning and motives of Cassius. However, the character development of Cassius alone is worth the admission price. On the downside however, he does have an irritating tendency to fall over at the wrong/inopportune moments.

As hinted at earlier, I felt that, in some ways, it’s a brave book – especially for a second novel –  in going against (my, anyway) expectations, you know you’ve read them: Incident (‘prologue’) some years before main story. Minor bloody battle/skirmish. Reflection, home life, love interest. Huge problem emerges. Preparation for…Huge battle. With optional ‘Star Trek’ ending. It is one of character and relationship building, within the novel and between the characters, and the reader. The Imperial Banner is totally believable, very exciting and worth an extra star for doing something different with a Roman-type novel.

You can – and should – buy The Imperial Banner at The Book Depository

My Agent of Rome series reviews:
1: The Siege
4: The Black Stone

Me, on Goodreads

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