Review: Masters of Rome (Vespasian V) by Robert Fabbri

Masters of Rome

IV out of V stars

My version:
Hardback
Historical Fiction, Rome
Corvus Books
2014
Bought from Goldsboro Books
Signed, dated

Britannia, AD45: In the shadow of Stonehenge, Vespasians brother, Sabinus, is captured by druids. The druids want to offer a potent sacrifice to their gods – not just one Roman Legate, but two. They know that Vespasian will come after his brother and they plan to offer the siblings on Midsummer’s Day. But to whom will they be making this sacrifice? What were the gods of this land before the Celts came? Only the druids still hold the secret and it is one of pure malevolence.

Vespasian must strive to save his brother whilst completing the conquest of the South-West, before he is drawn inexorably back to Rome  and the heart of Imperial politics. Claudius’ three freedmen remain at the focus of power. As Messalina’s time as Empress comes to a bloody end, the three freedmen each back a different mistress. But who will be victorious? And at what cost?

If you’ve been with Robert Fabbri’s story of Vespasian from the start *raises hand* then you’ll know what you’re getting with each book. Great writing, a flexible approach to weaving the story in and out of the historical timeline, facts, speculation, and a superb story. Every time. That’s not to say they’re predictable, this is Rome we’re talking about, and at one of its most tumultuous periods (weren’t they all?) at that. And, it’s a ‘real’ historical character, Vespasian, trying to steer his family’s ship safely through dangerous and largely uncharted waters. If you’ve anything about you, you’ll know how it all ends, the trick Robert Fabbri has to do – and is doing it magnificently so far – is keep us on the edges of our seats, trying to figure out what could possibly happen next, how and if Vesp will survive…

Book IV, was incredible. One of my most favouritest books of last year. This one carries on where that left off. In that Vespasian and the Roman Army are still in the process of subduing the Britons. Or the Celts. Mostly, the Druids, who don’t want to see common sense, and who believe they are custodians of an even older legacy. That of the peoples and their beliefs, who were in Britannia before the Celts. The Roman’s idea that Britain is a strange, mysterious, dismal, unfriendly island, is communicated very well and Vespasian sees and hears about things that must have had the average Legionary quaking in his sodden sandals before, during and after his time in the gods-forsdaken isle.

It is largely the druids, their power over the local population and the power they claim that is behind them, that fills the first third to a half and which, for me, continues the superb form from Rome’s Fallen Eagle. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what to make of the passages involving the druids and their summoning of their god(s). As Arthur C Clark pointed out, if your civilisation’s technology can’t explain why something happens as it does, then it is magic. Because I’m reading this now, and know that things don’t happen like they’re being described here, either now or back then, then we’re deep into fantasy territory. That is then taking us away from the reality of the rest of the story and I’m asking, how much of the rest can I believe? I didn’t catch Vespasian or another character coming up with a practical explanation, so I read it as fantasy. Which I then have trouble marrying to the realistic, factual nature of the rest. Problematical. It’s one thing believing tales of people swearing they know of someone who swears they saw this happen, it’s another to describe it happening in front of the otherwise perfectly sane Vespasian.

The battle planning, is where it would seem Vespasian’s strength lies. His tactics, even during the fighting, where they have to be adjusted and changed, are calm, confident, largely faultless, or lucky. Which of course, gives up good reason to believe how he managed to weave his way through the politics back in Rome.

Whilst I would have liked Vespasian to stay in Britain for longer, unfortunately, history says otherwise. So, it is when Vespasian returns to Rome, that moves us into a whole different kind of story. Instead of not being able to believe their eyes, they know they can’t always believe their ears and the words, of their fellow Romans. I will admit to dropping off a couple of times during the early stages of this section. I don’t do Roman politics and too much examining of the ins and outs of this person doing this and that person maybe not doing that, and then that will happen…with names you’re not really sure who they are…However hoorah! it all gets pulled around in the second half of the back in Rome section and finishes with mental high-fives, as assorted characters you really didn’t like, get what’s coming.

Vespasian has been, for me, over the last two books at least, something of an innocent at large. He is now old enough to realise he has to take his situation and responsibilities more seriously and being sent to reclaim the Eagle last time out and subdue the druids in this, have clearly opened his eyes more than somewhat. Through the course of this book, he slowly changes, or alters character. Not dramatically, just there’s a hardening of determination, he can see things more clearly – even on the higher plain back in Rome. He becomes more worldly wise and this shows in his actions at the end, where in previous books, you feel he would have been out of his depth.

All in all, a worthy successor to #4 and a nice set up to #6. The Vespasian series has been an absolute and intriguing joy to read, and will continue to be so for many volumes to come.

You can buy Masters of Rome at The Book Depository

Related reviews:
Tribune of Rome. Vespasian I
Rome’s Executioner. Vespasian II
False God of Rome. Vespasian III
Rome’s Fallen Eagle. Vespasian IV

Me, on Goodreads

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