Review: Rome’s Lost Son (Vespasian VI) by Robert Fabbri

Rome's Lost Son Robert Fabbri4 of 5 stars

Vespasian #VI

My version:
Hardback
Historical Fiction Rome
Corvus Books
2013
Bought

Rome, AD 51: Vespasian bring’s Rome’s greatest enemy before the Emperor. After eight years of resistance, the British warrior Caratacus has been caught. But even Vespasian’s victory cannot disentangle the newly made consul from Roman politics: Agrippina, Emperor Claudius’ wife, pardons Caratacus.

Claudius is a drunken fool and Narcissus and Pallas, his freedmen, are battling for control of his throne. Separately, they order Vespasian to Armenia to defend Rome’s interests. But there is more at stake than producing a client kingdom. Rumours abound that Agrippina is plotting to destabilise the East. Vespasian must find a way to serve two masters – Narcissus is determined to ruin Agrippina, Pallas to save her.

Meanwhile, the East is in turmoil. A new Jewish cult is flourishing and its adherents refuse to swear loyalty to the Emperor. In Armenia, Vespasian is captured. Immured in the oldest city on earth, how can he escape? And is a Rome ruled by a woman who despises Vespasian any safer than a prison cell?

There are two things about novels dealing with Roman times at the height of the Empire. Did all the politicking that all the Roman writers I’ve read write about, actually go on? Or is it just a device that has become a given in Hist Fic circles? Or are we applying a 21st Century view on first century politics? It’s politics, it goes on now, it must have been the same back then. My thoughts as well, would be that a book like this really could cross over to more modern genres, and appeal to those who liked ‘House of Cards,’ for example. And, in Roman times (thought this could cover all periods ‘a long time ago’ were there ever any dull days? Where nothing of note, no poisonings, no huge banquets, no Emperors shagging their half-brothers in public. Days where it rained all day and they sat inside in front of the fire and watched a fresco. You know what I’m saying. Of course, that sort of thing wouldn’t make a good book, let alone a series (of seven, as Robert F is up to now). Maybe, as he points out at the end, saying that this book is speculative, covering at least in part, a period undocumented in Vespasian’s life, maybe the reason there is nothing, is because he didn’t do anything. ‘Ides of March AD 51. Got up, messed about, went to bed.’

The first part, third or so, is concerned with goings on in Rome. Setting out the problems and the reasoning for why the rest of the book deals with what it does. There are perhaps one or two too many ifs and buts and maybes and names ending in ‘us’ to keep total track of, but apart from glazing over a couple of times, I can see why it’s there. Some authors, sensibly, stay at a distance from all the politicking – Ben Kane, Anthony Riches I’d venture – they seem more interested in the consequences of the machinations, than the machinations themselves. I hope authors aren’t including all this kind of thing because it appears to add a certain gravitas to their work. Certainly, given that we know where Vespasian ended up, he had two choices – go along with all this, play the great game, or remove himself from it all. From reading about the period after this book details, from Douglas Jackson for example, that he seems to have done a little of both.

All that aside, there’s a lot to like about this, once it moves away from the plate of spaghetti that is Roman politics (in Historical Fiction at least) of the time. The writing is as ever, absolutely first-rate. You’re allowed in immediately, and you know, pretty much where you’ve got Vespasian. Thinking back over the previous books, you can see what a superb job Robert F has done in slowly developing the Vespasian character to be where he is now. He is also making some points about the free-for-all that was the beginnings of Christianity and Paul(us) in particular, hijacking and deifying of it for his own ends. If I were to go out on a limb, and put words in RF’s mouth, I’d say he wasn’t a great fan of Christianity. I’m not either, I’d hasten to add, but then, I’m not a great fan of any religion and especially not one created and twisted away from its original message.

It didn’t quite take me by the spatula and swing me round by the denarii like, for example, Rome’s Fallen Eagle, but it is a very strong volume in the overall series. And, judging by the end of this one, the next book is going to be a tense affair, as all is ready for Nero to take centre stage. If it’s anything like the one dealing with Caligula, we’re going to need a strong stomach, nerves of steel and hope the story goes off with Vespasian rather than staying in Rome.

You can buy Rome’s Lost Son at The Book Depository

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Tribune of Rome Robert FabbriRome's ExecutionFalse God of RomeRome's Fallen EagleMasters of Rome

 

 

 

 

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Review: ‘Hannibal, Enemy of Rome’ by Ben Kane

Hannibal Enemy of Rome
The verdict: 5 of 5 Stars

Hannibal, Enemy of Rome is book 1 of Ben Kane’s Hannibal trilogy.

I read the hardback version, bought with my own hard-earned…

Here’s what the version I have says about the story:

The great Carthaginian General, Hannibal, has never forgotten the defeat and humiliation of his father by Rome. Now he plans his revenge and the destruction of the old enemy.

Soldier of Carthage
While Hannibal prepares for war, the young son of one of his most trusted military commanders goes on an innocent adventure with his best friend – and disappears.

Slavery
Captured by pirates (no, not that sort), put up for sale in the slave market, one of the boys is sold as a Gladiator, the other as a field slave. They believe they will never see home or family again.

A world ablaze
But their destiny – interwoven and linked with that of their Roman masters – is to be an extraordinary one. The devastating war unleashed upon Rome by Hannibal, will last for nearly twenty years. It will change their lives – and history – for ever.

It’s been a good while since I read a Ben Kane, however, on the evidence of this magnificent, enthralling, captivating book, I’ve really been missing out and is something I intend to rectify – and quickly.

First of all, it’s a long one – it’s a good 150 pages before the man himself puts in an appearance, for example. However, there’s hardly a sentence, a word even, wasted the whole way through. I was glued to it the whole way through and by the end, I found myself wishing it had been twice as long. It’s long, but still too short. Good then that it’s the first volume in a trilogy. Gooder still…that I have the others lined up on the shelf over there.

To be honest, sometimes, (even) I can’t quite put my finger on exactly why I thought a book was so good. Then I think, does it even matter? No. At those times, maybe it’s just best to sit back and enjoy the ride. Then…’enjoy,’ that’s the point, isn’t it? I read to enjoy a good story about something I’m interested in. Or not, that makes me interested in it, because it’s a good book. That’s Hannibal.

So, what did I enjoy? Well, Ben Kane does have the (deserved) reputation – in my book anyway – for writing battle scenes that are perhaps a cut (!) above the others. However, excellent battle scenes apart, it was the verbal cut and thrusts, jabs straight to the heart – and of course the final delivery of the death blow – of the Senate debate scenes between Publius and Marcus Minucius Rufus that really impressed and will stay with me. The crackle of tension, the ebb and flow, the poise and grace, the delicate, ‘crikey, it could go either way here’ balance, leading us to the final coup de grace. Superb writing is superb writing, whatever the genre. And this, that, is superb writing.

I thought the tension between the Carthaginian brothers was 99% believable. There were a couple of minor occasions where they clearly, in the real world, have reacted differently. In making the people different to us, in that they lived 2,000-odd years ago, but clearly like us in many ways, so we relate to them, you surely have to, as a reader and a writer, stick with the thought ‘what would I do in that situation?’ Then when you’re absolutely sure that you and anyone you know, would have belted the other brother one, for instance, and he doesn’t, he says ‘fair enough, lets get on with it,’ it sticks a little. No matter.

Carthaginians and Romans are treated even-handedly. No good guys and bad guys. I suppose there could have been a temptation to treat the Carthaginians more favourably, as the underdog, perhaps, the Romans less so. I think Ben has avoided taking sides, to free the story – and himself – from the reader’s own perceived confines, with one eye on how the rest of the story has to unfold. Because the temptation of writing what at least I was expecting, the ‘plucky small guy up against the evil Empire’ must have been very great.

I’ve been incredibly fortunate in my time, and especially of late, to read some truly exceptional books set at various points of the Roman era. Hannibal, Enemy of Rome continues that disturbingly good trend. Highly recommended.

 

Buy Hannibal, Enemy of Rome at The Book Depository

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Then this happened…

Clearly too tough to be contained by a puny padded envelope, yesterday,
Agent of Rome: The Black Stone by Nick Brown landed in a welter of blood and corpses on my doormat.

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OK, Parcel Postie knocked politely on the door and gave it to me.

But once inside the house, the book fought its way out of the envelope and demanded, at the point of a Roman-type sword, I read it.

Now.

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Who am I to argue with a book as tough as that?

 

Buy yours at The Book Depository.

Review: Avenger of Rome

Avenger of Rome
Avenger of Rome by Douglas Jackson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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.

Buy Avenger of Rome.

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Review: Defender of Rome

Defender of Rome
Defender of Rome by Douglas Jackson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Defender of Rome, the second in Douglas Jackson’s ‘…of Rome’ series, was an absolute pleasure to read, from start to finish.

The calm, assured, precise and evocative prose is dotted with little hints of Rome’s history – and continuing relevance. In fact, there is clearly such a deep knowledge of the Rome of AD63, the period in which the book is set, that it sometimes seems like it could only come, as the book says about Valerius himself on more than one occasion, from someone from born and bred in Rome. But Douglas Jackson is, I know, a proud Scotsman. And lives now. So the level of thoroughly assimilated background research of what Rome was looked, smelled and felt like for a Roman in AD63 is something to be marvelled at.

At first glance, it seems like less out and out action than previous one. Certainly, a move from the turbulence of Britannia on the edge of the Roman Empire, to the Empire’s heart, would seem to herald a calmer life for Valerius. Wrong. After returning, or rather being returned, to Rome, as a ‘Hero of Rome’, Valerius is finding life as a lawyer, the politicking, wheeling and dealing in the city where the scandal never sleeps, not entirely to his taste. He has to work for Nero, not an easy job at the best of times, but at this time, it’s even more tricky. The new fledgling religion of Christianity is making its way into Roman circles. And it and its practitioners must be stopped. Well, actually, Nero wants Valerius to root out Christians and for ’stopped,’ read ‘killed.’ So he’s to defend Rome against this new threat (now you see where the title comes from).

So, if you were a true believer of the Roman gods, believing Nero is your Emperor appointed by those gods, like Valerius, surely no problem? Wrong. As you may have guessed, it’s not quite that simple. Valerius’ sister is gravely ill. He is recommended to go look in the seedier side of town for a Judean healer. He finds this healer. The healer turns out to be a Christian. So the person he desperately needs to save his sister, is the person he needs to bring to Nero’s justice. To be objective for a moment, Nero is right. The new Christians are a threat to his power. That is, his power as Emperor as he’d like to wield it. Think about it; Christianity was a threat to Rome. A threat to the way Rome has been for the last several hundred years. A threat to the way of life of ordinary Romans brought up in and functioning in the Roman system as it has been for hundreds of years and as they believe it will be for hundreds of years more. So, as not all Romans who live and work within the system, would be power-crazed, megalomaniacs, like the monkey at the top of the tree, even ordinary, honest, hard-working, decent Romans might also find themselves on the same side as Nero and see Christians as a threat to the certainty of their lives and Rome as it is. And see that as something worth defending. Slaves and the downtrodden might take issue and see it another way and that would explain Christianity’s attraction to the powerless and dispossessed. However, in Defender of Rome, Valerius quickly finds out, it isn’t just the poor who have fallen for the new religions promises of better times to come.

But then, when it looks like it’s settling down to be a really quite intriguing tale of juicy intrigue and the conundrums for Valerius of rooting out early Christians – the story quite literally moves away from the political cesspit Rome is, to the plains of Dacia and it becomes something else entirely. A trilling, white knuckle ride, a just one more page, one more chapter then, read through the night action thriller. By turns tense and exciting, nervous and explosive with some heart-stopping action sequences, though I guarantee, not of the type you’re thinking.

This is a(nother) wonderful book from Douglas and as I say, reads like it’s written by one who also trod those very Roman streets Valerius knows so well. With first ‘Hero-‘ and now ‘Defender of Rome,’ the series has got off to a flying start, and if they aren’t on your shelves already, they really should be. Very soon. Do it now, in fact.

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Review: Of Merchants and Heroes

Of Merchants and Heroes
Of Merchants and Heroes by Paul Waters
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one, I thought after I’d finished it, that perhaps would have benefited by having its ‘Historical Note’ at the start. I certainly found it to be a better book looking back at it after having read the Historical Note, than I did while I was actually ploughing through it. Though, I can maybe see why note was placed at the end, not least because some readers may be put off by the information about homosexuality in the ancient Greek and Roman world. Not an easy one to know how to feel about. Because while homosexuality was accepted – hell, even the Spartans encouraged it to build up comradeship – it hasn’t featured at all in any of the Roman epics I’ve read. Ever. Even ones with Greek people in them. The only mention of it I can think of, off the top of my head, is in an Anthony Riches book recently, where a prostitute is described by one of the Centurians as being able to ‘suck cock like a Greek sailor after a week at sea.’ Only a week? And see, it was something the Greeks did. Funny people, the Greeks. Well, never mind…

Of Merchants and Heroes is set at the end of the Third Century B.C., towards the end of Rome’s war with Hannibal and Carthage. A young lad called Marcus, goes on a trip to Greece with his father. Their boat, them and the other passengers, is captured by pirates. The boy’s father is killed and a young girl on the boat, decides to kill herself before the pirates can think of other ‘treatments’ for her. This seems to have a profound effect upon the young boy. Father dying, hatred of the man who caused it, I can understand. The girl, less so, but there you go. He vows to all sorts of gods, to avenge his father’s death. He then finds his way back to Italy and is taken in by his uncle, a minor business man, who proceeds to marry the boy’s mother, becoming of course, his new father. Marcus is not impressed by his uncle in any way and trains as a soldier. They move to Tarentum in the south where he makes friends with the Praetor’s son, Titus. Praetor dies, son largely takes over. Then, he becomes friends – I forget how – with a vision of Greek perfection, called Menexenos.The story thus far, has essentially been a series of small incidents, chance meetings, accidental observations, potential intrigues, dinner parties and nothing of any real substance after the killing of his father in the early pages.

I could go on with all the to-ing and fro-ing between Italy and Greece, mixing business, with pleasure, with being urged to social climb by his father, to training in the gym and walking in the gardens, fields and woods with this Menexenos lad. But I won’t. That’s about all that happens from there on in, until they finally get Philip of Greece (no, not even THAT one) to come out and fight. Let’s face it, what we have here is the long drawn out tale of a love-struck, love-sick, 17-odd-year old, drippy Roman, wandering aimlessly around Italy and Greece mooning after some athletic, god-like Greek boy.

It isn’t what I expected, but it isn’t because of that that I found it dull. It isn’t because of the homosexuality not fitting in with my (ancient) world view either. I know it went on, just as it does today, so what? It is dull, because absolutely nothing at all happens in a very, very, v e r y long time. You start off well meaning enough with “OK, this looks like it could be interesting.” Then, “Right, it’s clearly one that takes its time warming up.” To, ”So, what IS this about then? A gay love story, set in ancient Rome and Greece….why? Why set it back then, why not set it now? Ah, yes, ‘Brideshead Revisited’ has already been written.” Through, “Have I missed something? No, I haven’t. It’ll really have to pull it out of the fire in the last 100 pages…actually, even if it does, it’s wasted my time with the first 300! Oh well, only another 100 pages to go…” Finally you finish it off with a thump down on the coffee table and a “Oh, well, at least I got it cheap.” Nothing more.

Several times, it seems like he tries to put in something to suggest it is, in case you didn’t notice, something more than it actually is. Late on, when setting off after the pirate who has captured his step-father, he says; “it was the dark anger that had fashioned my life and made me different from other men.” Well, no. From having read the whole thing, there’s very little evidence, apart from a couple of chance meetings or sightings of the pirate that had very little effect on him once they were over, that this pirate has had any effect on him whatsoever. Unless, the pirate DID make him ‘different to other men’? Can’t see it. The incident with the pirate, the girl jumping to her death and the killing of his father, apart from neatly, too neatly, book-ending the story, have had little, to no bearing on the story or his character. The addition of this phrase at the end, smacks of desperation to me. Of the writer admitting he has failed to convey this theme through the story and character development during the book and falling back on realising he’s going to have to come out and state it. So we add importance to the story, that really isn’t found there.

But, wait – let’s now read that ‘Historical Note’…

The Historical Note talks of the book’s lofty aims and as though they have been achieved. No. But it does help explain some of the waffle I’ve read. So, say we give it a chance, say we read all the way through thinking “what the f@ck?!” Then read the historical note and think “OK, maybe…”

There is an interesting air of melancholy, as the Historical Note, erm, notes. Let’s say it’s a look at the Greek and Roman worlds on the cusp of change. He is, from the title onwards, comparing the new Roman, with the older Greek, civilisations, the ancient world changing to Merchants, from Heroes. And when contrasted with the Greek, the book finds Roman civilisation distinctly lacking. So, maybe it is showing the end of the simple, but noble – and what we would nowadays almost dismissively call ‘lofty’ – ideals of the Greeks, being given the elbow by the Romans. Rome seems on the edge of its aspirations of Empire, Greece and the Greek ideal, is on the wane. That’s where he’s at, fairly and squarely. For him, the Greeks are philosophers and poets, athletes and warrior heroes, educated by, and the latest in a long line of, philosophers, poets, heroes and athletes. Romans are grubby, dull, penny-pinching merchants and career soldiers. Further more, it does seem to suggest that Rome’s empire building began, or rather gained pace, through a desire to keep any possible enemies at as long an arm’s length from Rome as possible. Sensible enough. The Greek influence, or at least its philosophers and poets (if not its athletic homosexuals), were beginning to find their way to the region’s new centre of power and change Rome’s dour brick buildings to something more artistic that the book can live with. What it can’t live with, is the loss of – what seem to be – Greek ideals of, for instance, art for art’s sake, sport for the love of sport and the pursuit of physical perfection that it both needs and develops. But, like it or not, and the prevailing mood of the book is not to like it overly much, Rome is on the rise. Its message is being spread far and wide through its tradesmen, rather than its artisans. Through merchants and merchandise, rather than ideals and heroes. Roman values you can touch and buy, Greek you can’t. All that.

Why the homosexual love story, when a hetrosexual one could well have achieved the above aims just as well? Yeah, he’s in love with this Greek perfection. I get that. Maybe it’s by showing – and it’s most certainly not the ‘bisexuality (that was) ubiquitous in the ancient world,’ our lad Marcus is no way bisexual. He never even looks at a girl after the first few pages. He is full-on gay. Which kind of negates the premise, but never mind – love for love’s sake. That could/does reach across the ‘borders’ subsequently imposed on it at “the end of the classical period.” Maybe that was what he was thinking about while writing all the melancholic meandering.

Looked back on in this light, it is indeed possible it did achieve some of its purpose. It’s a pity that you have to wait until the story’s finished to get it. I’m not gonna say it justifies the previous hundreds of pages of Fotherington-Thomas-like ‘Hello clouds, hello sky,’ drifting aimlessly backwards and forwards across the Aegean, but when you have read the Historical Note, it does at least give a little perspective to all the flannel. Some of it, anyway. You can see perhaps why he wanted to write the book. Though not why he forgot to put a story in it. But, take out the homosexual love story – and you’ve got nothing left.

I’m going to have to differ with Manda Scott quoted on the cover of my copy, here and say that far from being “A masterpiece that deserves to become one of the classics of historical fiction” this is a monumentally dull, very slight tale, that only gains some measure of respectability, by looking at it in the rearview mirror. I came close to giving up many times, kept hanging on in the hope it was going to get better, but it didn’t. I’m still thinking, despite the oft-stated physical stature and presence and the many descriptions of their stamina and ability with all forms of weaponry – they wouldn’t have lasted five minutes with Anthony Riches’ motley crew of barely house-trained, roughneck, Tungrian assault troops, freezing their knackers off out there on Hadrian’s Wall. Not even four minutes if you started referring to your mate’s body as ‘perfection’, ‘god-like’ or ‘beautiful.’ No firm handshakes, beers all round here, that’s for sure.

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Review: Tribune of Rome

Tribune of Rome
Tribune of Rome by Robert Fabbri
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think I must have read most of the current ‘big guns’ (or should that be ‘big ballistae’?) of modern Roman Historical Fiction. I usually try and read one or two of other genres, or at least periods, inbetween, just because I’m afraid of them all blurring into one if I don’t. Until this book, Robert Fabbri was a new, sometimes difficult to spell correctly, name to me. Afterwards, and I’m really glad I made the effort to get hold of Vespasian’, as I found it a thoroughly enjoyable, well-written and rewarding read.

We’re back in the first Century AD. This time, in the area of countryside around Rome. Vespasian is 16 and is living on the family farm with his mother and father. His ambitious mother and father. They mean well, I suppose, his mum and dad…though they are mainly ambitious that Vespasian and his brother do well, for the sake of the family and the family name. Vespasian’s elder brother Sabinus, has just returned home from his first period away with the army. Vespasian has been running the family estates, and is actually quite good at it. However, Mum and Dad have other plans for Vespasian. He must do his bit for the advancement of the family fortunes and so his next rung on the Roman social ladder, is that he too must join the army. So, the 16-year old Vespasian journeys with his brother to the big city (not many bigger at the time, of course), to the centre of the world, to Rome. Here, Vespasian and his brother are to seek help with their advancement from their uncle. They also get valuable lessons in how to (hopefully) avoid the many pitfalls involved with said advancement in Roman social society. Luckily for me – as endless backstabbing and double-dealing Roman-style talking usually sends me walking…not everything goes according to plan. Vespasian soon finds himself, mostly unknowingly, caught up in someone called Sejanus’ machinations in trying to depose the ageing Emperor Tiberius. Vespasian has to get the hell out of Dodge and past the Praetorian Guards, in something of a hurry. He finds an escape route, by taking up a relatively (hopefully) obscure position as Tribune somewhere out on Rome’s Balkan frontier. But troubles find him even out there. Though they are at least troubles of the sort – attacks from local tribesmen, presumably not too keen on being another Roman frontier province – that can be solved more easily with a sword and a shield. A kind of problem solving Vespasian, (still only 16, I checked) is showing he has both the aptitude – and sometimes surprising for a 16-year old – the strength, for. In the meantime, he has of course, being 16 and a riot of Roman hormones – some things don’t change – has fallen in love. With the ‘wrong’ girl. With a slave girl. Fortunately later on, she might actually be the right girl, when…well, you’ll have to buy the book(s) to find out.

Vespasian (the book) I found inviting, informative and thrilling. Often all at the same time. Vespasian (the character) I thought was sympathetic, understandable and therefore believable. I also found Robert Fabbris style of writing very accessible, with the relevant nuggets of Roman information needed for full appreciation of the background to Vespasian’s situation, Roman society of the time on the whole, really well handled. Presented in a much more natural, and lighter, way than some writers. Prof H. Sidebottom, is an example that springs naturally to mind. Not as in your face, as H. Sidebottom can often be. Reading his last one, I felt like I hadn’t done my homework properly. Robert Fabbri’s way of writing seems a more flowing, natural style and lets the story work without it stopping and starting and where were we now before I had to try and pronounce/try and understand that/yet another difficult Latin word? I actually found myself enjoying how Robert Fabbri writes about the Roman social scene and the myriad of potential pitfalls they seem to have had waiting for them on their way to the top. I didn’t think I liked that sort of thing, but in Robert Fabbri’s hands, it feels fresh and interesting. As a whole, I thought ‘Vespasian’ was well planned and executed, a nuanced picture of a Roman going places, interestingly informative without ever being over powering and above all, very readable.

Vespasian looks like the start of an engaging, convincing and well worth following all the way, Roman saga.

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Review: The Last Caesar

The Last Caesar
The Last Caesar by Henry Venmore-Rowland
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

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Review: Wounds of Honour

Wounds of Honour
Wounds of Honour by Anthony Riches
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a real Roman hum-dinger. A magnificent slap in the face, reality check of a Historical Fiction novel. A fresh, no-nonsense, take no prisoners, exciting, testosterone-driven assault on the Historical Fiction senses. It’s one that should be listed at the top under the Wikipedia entry for ‘couldn’t put it down.’ Really good.

According to the dust jacket, Anthony Riches holds a degree in Military Studies and it shows. He knows his stuff, but doesn’t shove it in your face the whole time, like one Mr Sidebottom can tend to do. He’s gone for the angle that life and behaviour in the army, and on the parade ground, has largely been the same down the ages. And that Roman soldiers act mostly the same as their modern counterparts. Only the names of the god(s) they pray to and the weapons they use, have been changed. That and being able to look into the eyes of the person trying to kill you. I think what Anthony seems to be saying here is; what makes an army function well today is precisely what made an army function well back then. Training, routine, comradeship, loyalty to each other and the cause you’re fighting for and teamwork drilled in so much that it becomes unthinking second nature. The Roman Army was a professional fighting machine, just like ours are today. What I got from it was also the message that even though there’s close on two thousand years between us, we’re not that different now as people, to how they were then. It helps the reader relate to the characters and the situations. Obviously I can’t really relate to a Roman soldier facing death at the end of a blue-painted Pict’s spear, but by thinking he’s no different to me basically, I am in a better position to perhaps care a bit more about what he must have been going through. A bit more than endless chapters of political manoeuvring, debauchery and feeding people to the lions. You can’t get away with that sort of behaviour nowadays, not even here in Harlev, East Jutland. I feel closer, more of a kinship to these characters, I’m trying to say. I have really no idea of the truth of course, but reading a book like this, I’m more than prepared to say ‘ok, that’s how it was.’ It really is a down and dirty close look at life in the Roman Army and is absolutely enthralling for that alone.

The story is a tight one, honing in on life during wartime on Hadrian’s Wall, the northern part of Britannia, in the late second century AD. Our main character is one Marcus Valerius Aquila, who arrives at the wall as a way to disappear from the fatal attractions of the Emperor Commodus back in Rome. He goes ‘undercover’ somewhat, to disguise his high-born background, assumes a new name and identity and joins the ordinary soldiers on the wall. Of course, some of his secrets do ‘escape’ and treachery – or at least the threat of it – is never far away. Luckily, for me anyway, the intrigue and decadence and if he does this, what does Whatshisnameus Maximus think of all this over there in Whereveritwas, that usually has me sighing with ‘here we go again’-itis, is pretty much absent from ‘Wounds of Honour.’ Whilst there are hints of things going on ‘backstage’ the book concentrates on a relatively small field of operations, and a small number of characters, just behind and just in front of, Hadrian’s Wall.

Of course, I don’t really care, being a man, but it’s is certainly a man’s, man’s, man’s world in the Roman Army and ‘Empire.’ A macho man’s world at that. Not much time for women. Unless they’re being paid for ‘relaxation’, or held-captive, or tending to wounds. I think there’s only one woman character in the first 150-odd pages. And that was a wife of a senator, who had nothing to do with anything. Like I say, no problem for me, but I’d rather hope that in subsequent stores from the ‘Empire’ world, Anthony can find a way to introduce more women. I’m not necessarily wanting ‘love interest’, that isn’t what these sort of books are all about, but the nuances female characters would create wouldn’t go a miss. Not the least for increasing his readership market by about a half and hopefully helping with purging Goodreads and Amazon of their derivative, lazy, bodice-ripping, Mills & Boon crap that masquerades as Historical Fiction, but is really ‘Love Actually’ set three hundred years ago again and again and again.

For me, I’d consider it high praise indeed to be compared favourably to Douglas Jackson’s first (well, the first Roman-period novel of his that I read, anyway). And thats what I’m doing. Favourably compared, but in no way overshadowed. I really was impressed all the way up to to stunned, and am having to hold myself back from rushing head-long into the rest of the series (I have taken the precaution of collecting the whole of Anthony’s Empire series (so far) before reading the first one, don’t ask me why). I’m really not sure why I should feel so impressed, if you understand what I mean, as I’d come across Anthony Riches and the exalted Romanesque on-line company he keeps, so it was easy to figure that ‘Wounds of Honour’ would be good. How good it was, I suppose I really wasn’t prepared for.

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Saturday Book News

The Man Booker Prize was announced the other week.

Mann Booker WinnerAnd here’s the result!

Someone called Elanor Catton won. That’s her on the left holding – in two hands, as it’s a 900-page monster I’ve heard – her winning tome.

I think I did read one winner’s book once. JM Coetze‘s book called The Life & Times of Michael KThe Life and Times of Michael K, I think that was one of his that won. Can’t remember much about it now, above the title (the version pictured is the cover of the version I had, it’s different now).  And I’m hardly likely to read, or even see for sale, any of the books by the people on the shortlist. Living in Denmark, and all.

Anyway, what interested me was, the Daily Telegraph reporting on how much betting there was on the prize. As if any of the people putting money on the thing had any evidence or knowledge to base their selections on. Unless the people doing the betting, were also the judges. But then, that surely would be against the rules? I would have thought that the odds were set by the betting company. But what do they go on? The only thing I can think of that they could possibly go on, is genre. Which genre they think is likely to win, based on previous results. Given that the people most likely to be putting money on, couldn’t possibly have read all the books and then taken a critical judgement, based on which one they thought was best.

The bookies must just love this one. Oh and the guy top right in the pictures in the Telegraph article, sheesh! Way to make me want to buy your book!

The Gold of TolosaAnthony Riches recommended a book.

Called The Gold of Tolosa, by Philip Matyszak. Not surprisingly, it’s set in Roman times. And apart from the dreadful cover design, looks very good. Here’s the SP:

Meet Lucius Panderius, war hero, connoisseur of fine wines and Germanic prostitutes – and the perpetrator of the biggest gold theft in history. This first novel by well-known writer and historian Philip Matyszak takes us from the mean streets of Rome to the even meaner streets of Gallic Tolosa in a journey filled with ambush, intrigue, battle and double-cross. In 105 BC Rome is faced with extinction, both from a huge army of invading barbarians and by a dark curse that has been festering for generations. It falls to Lucius Panderius to avert both threats, and incidentally to make himself richer than Croesus. Though fiction, the Gold of Tolosa is historically accurate and explains how enough loot to recapitalize a third-world economy was taken in a theft that really did happen. Whether Lucius is crossing swords with barbarian warriors or Roman magistrates, the pace is never less than frantic, and ancient Rome has never been more fun …

It looks a little home-baked to me that cover there, Going against one of the pieces of advice given by a leading publisher recently. I am firmly of the opinion that you can judge a book by its cover. So I would probably wait to see if this gets picked up by a major publisher before parting with my hard-earned for it.

Anthony himself has this to say about it:

Just read ‘The Gold of Tolosa’ by the estimable Philip Matyszak. It’s different to the usual Roman fiction by some distance, and I’d place it closest to Lindsay Davis if I were seeking a comparison. I’m sure Maty will have his own view as to what it’s most like, although to be fair the style is very much his own, as anyone that’s read his excellently informative non-fiction output (I devour them whole) can attest.

While it’s not the usual blood and gutsathon, the book does have it’s swordy stabby moments, and the story itself is both solidly entertaining and highly entertaining. It will certainly keep you reading, and I don’t think I’ve read anything better from an authenticity perspective. Very highly recommended, if you like your Romans.

So, as it’s unfair to say ‘dreadful cover’, without saying what I would do to make it better – I’d change the typeface of the title – certainly not have it as a cut-out face, but not too bold, move the title down and the two lines closer together. Then, never, never range the author’s name right. It should be the same as the title, centred. As it is now, it looks like someone, at the stage before, said “it’s great, but where’s the author’s name?!” “Shit! Better put that on as well.” ie, it looks like an after-thought where it is now. But really, never do it yourself. Or let a family member do it. No matter how good they were at collages back in Primary School.

Ben Kane-athon

Ben has been running a raffle to win the manuscript for his next book in the Hannibal series, Clouds of War. £5 donation got you a ‘ticket’. The draw has been made, a winner has been found. Here’s what Ben has written:

Altogether, 132 x £5 ‘tickets’ were sold for the Clouds of War raffle. Most importantly, that means that £660 has been raised for Combat Stress (£690, if you count the £30 that a friend donated, while asking not to be entered into the raffle). THANK YOU SO MUCH to all of you who donated. That’s an amazing amount to raise in such a short time.

As I ran a post showing that the cover had been designed already, this shows a couple of things about the workings of the book-writing industry.

It would seem, that as Amazon had a page with the new cover for an, at the time, unfinished novel, the people designing the book cover – what do they go from? Must be a synopsis. Douglas Jackson posted a very interesting Blog post the other day, where in amongst all the good advice to prospective authors, he showed his synopsis’ for a series, presumably abandoned for now at least, on the English Civil War. So, the designer would be given some idea of what the book is about. General information as in Doug’s post. As the author is working on the manuscript after the synopsis is written, when he/she sees the ideas for the cover, they can decide which – if any – fit with where they are with the story at that particular moment. As the synopsis is the idea the author sells and the publisher buys, I’m guessing he is in some way contract-bound not to stray too far from that. So a cover designed from a brief synopsis, would still be a pretty accurate visual idea of how the final book will be. I’m guessing, obviously.

Ben says it is the final manuscript, though that may be final from his side. I can well imagine that the publishers may well either suggest a change – if that whole process hasn’t been gone though already – or that the version they typeset, for printing, will have to be checked again for errors. As we always managed to be making changes right up until the night before printing anything – work expands to fill the time available, as the old maxim goes – I can well imagine that there will still be room for changes for a while yet. A pretty decent prize, whichever you look at it.

If you would like to donate to Combat Stress, you can do so here.

Max Hastings

Max Hastings CatastropheContinuing our recent 1066 theme…erm, anyway, Max Hastings’ latest got a pretty damn fine write-up in the Telegraph the other day.

I have, as you know, read, reviewed and raved about Max Hastings’ previous WWII book, All Hell Let Loose. As the writer of the Telegraph article seems to have got, though of course, better articulated the feelings I got from AHLL, I think Catastrophe will have to go on the old Christmas list.

Something somewhere is telling me The Guardian weren’t as keen, but no matter.

Angus Donald

It really wouldn’t be right to go a whole post without mentioning young Angus. So I will rectify that immediately.

Grail KnightWarlord with writingEven though his latest in the Outlaw series Grail Knight has only just been released, it would seem that the previous, Warlord, is still going strong. Here’s what he posted the other day:

My publisher is doing yet another reprint of Warlord. Wise choice, in my humble op. Seems people like the book

Probably just as well, as Amazon are listing the hardback – a new version, by the looks – at an eye-watering £59.99! You can, of course, find it cheaper elsewhere. Though you are of course subject to their evaluation of what constitutes ‘as new’ and ‘very good’. Though having said that, I’ve had very good results from Abe Books.

King's Man 3And, he announced that King’s Man is now available as a paperback in the USA. The cover (left) looks a bit different to the UK one, but seems in keeping with the other US versions of his Outlaw series. Click on the cover to buy your copy.

With it all going so well for Angus – he should be good for a fiver until pay-day…

Incase you were wondering, that is if you haven’t got on to reading Angus’ Outlaw series yet, what order to read them in, here’s my handy, cut-out and keep guide.

1. Outlaw (out now as paperback)

2. Holy Warrior (out now as paperback)

3. King’s Man (out now as paperback)

4. Warlord (out now as paperback)

5. Grail Knight (out now as hardback)

The next one, nearly finished draft-wise, will be called The Iron Castle. Be out in the new year. They’re all equally excellent, but – if you haven’t done so yet – I really would recommend that you read them in order. You’ll feel better about it.