The only list that mutters!

Well, it’s that time again, when everyone puts their list of best books of the year up, so I will too. They all put them up too early though, I wait until the year is actually over, if you’ve noticed.

So that makes my list that much better, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Anyway, in time-honoured tradition, here are all the books I finished last year, in the order I read them:

*You’ll note that they are books I read last year, not books that were necessarily released last year, though of course some were. Where I’ve got round to writing a review, click on the book title to go to the review page.

  1. The Templar Cross (Templar 2) : Paul Christopher
  2. Masters of Rome (Vespasian 5) : Robert Fabbri
  3. Crusade (The Making of England 2) : Stewart Binns
  4. American Assassin (Mitch Rapp 1) : Vince Flynn
  5. Good As Dead (Tom Thorne 10) : Mark Billingham
  6. Blood Tracks (Tess Grey and Po Villere 1) : Matt Hilton
  7. The Pale Criminal (Bernard Gunther 2) : Philip Kerr
  8. The Thunder God : Paul Watkins
  9. Hereward The Immortals (Hereward 5) : James Wilde
  10. Fire & Steel (King’s Bane 1) : C.R. May
  11. Kill Shot (Mitch Rapp 2) : Vince Flynn
  12. The Virgin of The Wind Rose : Glenn Craney
  13. Savage Continent. Europe in the Aftermath of World War II) : Keith Lowe
  14. Enemy of Rome (Gaius Valerius Verrens 5) : Douglas Jackson
  15. Cut and Run (Joe Hunter 4) : Matt Hilton
  16. A German Requiem (Bernard Gunther 3) : Philip Kerr
  17. The Templar Throne (Templar 3) : Paul Christopher
  18. The Double Game : Dan Fesperman
  19. Brother’s Fury (Bleeding Land Trilogy 2) : Giles Kristian
  20. Tripwire (Jack Reacher 3) : Lee Child
  21. Transfer of Power (Mitch Rapp 3) : Vince Flynn
  22. Hannibal. Fields of Blood (Hannibal 2) : Ben Kane
  23. Knight of The Cross : Steven A. McKay
  24. Blood and Ashes (Joe Hunter 5) : Matt Hilton
  25. Anarchy (The Making of England 3) : Stewart Binns
  26. Scourge of Rome (Gaius Valerius Verrens 6) : Douglas Jackson
  27. The Templar Conspiracy (Templar 4) : Paul Christopher
  28. The Maharaja’s General (Jack Lark 2) : Paul Fraser Collard
  29. Imperial Fire : Robert Lyndon
  30. Lionheart (The Making of England 4) : Stewart Binns
  31. The Third Option (Mitch Rapp 4) : Vince Flynn
  32. Rome’s Lost Son (Vespasian 6) : Robert Fabbri
  33. The Visitor (Jack Reacher 4) : Lee Child
  34. The Harrowing : James Aitcheson
  35. Keane’s Company (Keane 1) : Iain Gale
  36. The Far Shore (Agent of Rome 3) : Nick Brown
  37. Separation of Power (Mitch Rapp 5) : Vince Flynn
  38. Gods of War (King’s Bane 2) : C.R. May
  39. Executive Power (Mitch Rapp 6) : Vince Flynn
  40. The Secret Speech (Leo Demidov 2) : Tom Rob Smith
  41. Nemesis (Harry Hole 4) : Jo Nesbø
  42. The Count of Monte Christo : Alexandre Dumas
  43. Dead Men’s Harvest (Joe Hunter 6) : Matt Hilton
  44. Echo Burning (Jack Reacher 5) : Lee Child
  45. The Twelfth Department (Captain Alexei Dimitrevich Korolev 3) : William Ryan
  46. The Wolf and the Raven (The Forest Lord 2) : Steven A. McKay
  47. Hannibal. Clouds of War (Hannibal 3) : Ben Kane
  48. Without Fail (Jack Reacher 6) : Lee Child
  49. The Furies of Rome (Vespasian 7) : Robert Fabbri
  50. The Templar Legion (Templar 5) : Paul Christopher
  51. Blood and Blade (The Bernicia Chronicles 3) : Matthew Harffy
  52. Memorial Day (Mitch Rapp 7) : Vince Flynn
  53. The Death of Robin Hood (The Outlaw Chronicles 8) : Angus Donald
  54. Consent to Kill (Mitch Rapp 8) : Vince Flynn
  55. God of Vengeance (The Rise of Sigurd 1) : Giles Kristian
  56. Terror Gallicus (Brennus. Conqueror of Rome 1) : C.R. May
  57. Red Templar (Templar 6) : Paul Christopher
  58. Dead Letter Drop (Max Flynn 1) : Peter James
  59. The Devil’s Assassin (Jack Lark 3) : Paul Fraser Collard
  60. Act of Treason (Mitch Rapp 9) : Vince Flynn
  61. Persuader (Jack Reacher 7) : Lee Child
  62. Iron & Rust (Throne of The Caesars 1) : Harry Sidebottom
  63. Agent 6 (Leo Demidov 3) : Tom Rob Smith
  64. Protect and Defend (Mitch Rapp 10) : Vince Flynn

Well, looking at that list, you can maybe see that my aim for reading in 2016, was to read as many of the series as I’ve got (the books laid in for, Mitch Rapp for example), or already begun, as possible.

I had intended on not starting any new series in ’16, but didn’t quite manage it. I’m going to continue to read up the series I have started, then get on to the one-offs in 2017. I want to be able to still read series, but read the latest book, as it is released. Not be behind the curve. Also, there are some really quite interesting one-offs out there, and in my collection, that I’d really like to get on to. I’m not against reading series or authors writing them, but I’d like to see an author or publisher take more of a chance on a one-off. It seems a given that any new author is signed if he/she has one book finished and two more sketched out. We need to get away from that, I feel. Get away from the feeling that book one is merely setting the scene for two and three and is stretched out further than it really should have been, the otherwise really just fine Harry Sidebottom’s Iron and Rust springs to mind in that category.

I also have a few Non Fiction books lined up that I’d really like to get on with as well.

My Goodreads aim will again be to read 52 books in the course of the year. I made it up to 64 partially thanks to

  1. Two doses of Influenza, one after the other
  2. Some enforced ‘use it or lose it’ holiday home alone while the wife slaved
  3. Listening to audiobook versions of some of the books I actually have physical versions of (I’ve recently moved from Audible to Storytel. Nothing against Audible as a service, just that Storytel gives me unlimited listening a month, for one flat fee, whereas Audible gives you one credit for your fee, after that you have to buy, or wait for the next month’s credit). I can listen to and from work in the bus, and while walking from the bus to work and back and…well, you get the picture

52 – 64 books read in a year is really about the limit for reading, appreciating, ruminating on and writing an honest appreciation I think. Anyone saying they’re reading more, isn’t really doing any one of those properly. And you can quote me on that.

And speaking of categories…

consent-to-kill-vince-flynnblood-and-blade-matthew-harffyThe Award for the ‘Most Improved’ Series Award
Sharing this award is:
Vince Flynn for The Mitch Rapp Series
The still unexplained ten year gap between three and four (or was it two and three?) apart, this series gets better and better. I noted that he seemed to be aiming to write the perfect thriller, he’s there for the last two I’ve read. The UK publishers clearly want you to think ‘Jack Reacher’ when you see the covers, but these are so much better.
Matthew Harffy for The Bernicia Chronicles
Well, if you read book one and then book three, you’d wonder if they were written by the same person. So either he’s got a ghost-writer, or he’s improved a hundred-fold in the space of three books. Personally, I’m leaning towards the former.

the-wolf-and-the-ravenAward for the ‘Best Series Based on the lyrics for Duran Duran’s ‘Hungry Like The Wolf” Award
Steven A. McKay for Wolf’s Head, The Wolf and the Raven, Wolf’s Bottom, Rise of the Wolf, I’m On The Ground I’m After You and many more.

 

the-death-of-robin-hood-angus-donaldThe Award for ‘Sad To See It End’ Series Award
Angus Donald for The Outlaw Chronicles
I’ve maybe had my doubts about this series a couple of times – too much of it set in France – but…Angus got his revenge in the best possible way with an absolutely magnificent final book. He’s gone on to new writing pastures and I’m still misting over thinking about the final scene in this book. Really, do yourselves a serious favour and read the series (in order) if you haven’t done so yet. Robin Hood lives!

the-furies-of-rome-robert-fabbriThe Award for the Most Consistent Series Award
Robert Fabbri for Vespasian
When I’m blown away by book seven in an on-going series and champing at the bit for the next one, you know the series has something good going for it. The Furies of Rome was nothing short of a masterclass in Historical Fiction, one more authors in that field could well do with reading.

Gods of War CR MayThe Award for The Most Surprisingly Good Series Award
C. R. May for King’s Bane. Well, where did this come from?! Somewhere in East Anglia, I think. And the post to Denmark … well, anyway, Cliff (I feel I can call him Cliff now) was kind enough to send me a copy of the first King’s Bane book, and i was seriously blown away with how good it was and how quickly I became completely immersed in the pre-Viking European world he created.

The Bleeding LandBrothers' FuryThe Award for Biggest Disappointment Award
No! Not in that way…it’s because there are (so far) only two in Giles Kristian’s absolutely magnificent English Civil War trilogy. It’s listed as a trilogy and is set up after book two for a number three, but for one reason and/or another, it’s just a duo as yet. But what a hum-dinger book three is/will (hopefully) be. Maybe we should crowd-fund it? Stranger things have happened. I’m in!

 

But…here is the book I was most impressed with, made the biggest impression on me in 2016

The Prestigious Solid Gold Speesh Reads Best Book of 2016 Award


The HarrowingThe Harrowing
: James Aitcheson

From the moment I started it to the moment I finished it, there was never any doubt in my mind that this was going to be the best book I would read all year. I’m still reviewing the video his words created in my mind every so often. I don’t think it will fade. It was a book set in the aftermath of 1066, that felt bang up to date. It’s the best of 2016 and probably many other years as well.

My review

You can buy The Harrowing here

Honourable mentions

The Death of Robin Hood : Angus Donald
It’ll be a classic for future generations.

The Thunder God : Paul Watkins
Unbelievably good Viking saga. How they should be wrote.

Agent 6 by Tom Rob Smith
The final bittersweet book in the Leo Demidov trilogy.

Well, thanks for reading all the way down here, thanks for reading my blog in 2016, I hope you come back in 2017. I also hope the books you read last year, were at least as good as those I read. Have a happy and safe new year – and, good reading!

Review: The Furies of Rome – Robert Fabbri

the-furies-of-rome-robert-fabbri5 of 5 stars

Series:
Vespasian 7

My version:
Hardback
Historical Fiction Rome
Corvus
2016
Bought

AD58. Rome is in turmoil once more.

Emperor Nero has surrounded himself with sycophants and together they rampage by night through the city, visiting death and destruction as they go. Meanwhile, Nero’s extravagance has reached new heights. The Emperor’s spending is becoming profligate at the same time as the demands of keeping the provinces subdued have become increasingly unaffordable. Could Nero withdraw from Britannia, and at what price for the Empire?

As the bankers of the Empire scramble to call in their loans, Vespasian is sent to Londinium on a secret mission, only to become embroiled in a deadly rebellion led by Boudiccia, a female warrior of extraordinary bravery. As the uprising gathers pace, Vespasian must fight to stay ahead of Rome’s enemies and complete his task – before all of Britannia burns.

First up – Have you ever known a time when Rome wasn’t in turmoil? It clearly is the mainstay of people writing Roman-era fiction of course, to have Rome constantly in the afore-mentioned turmoil, but come on! There must have been some dull years? Some quiet times, like when all the stuff got built. Still, the period we’re entering into here, is one of the most tumultuous in Rome’s history. I’m no expert in Roman history, I’m just going by the number of books I’ve read set in this period (!). And the little bit I do/did know about it. The time of four, or was it five? Emperors. In quick succession. Good riddance to half of them as well.

Second up, really should be first up: This book, Furies of Rome, is a masterpiece. A master work. The work of a writing master at the peak of his game. A masterpiece after six previous volumes? Outrageous! If you haven’t read the previous books in the series, are you in for a treat. If you have and thought they were excellent, this one will take you even further into Rome-heaven. What really did it for me, was the big battle with Queen Boudicca towards the end. That is both a masterpiece of clear, effective, well-planned writing, and a masterly description of a masterpiece of tactical awareness and battle planning from (not Vespasian!), but Paulus. That is worth the entrance fee on its own, really, but it could only be so effective having been set on top of the already fabulous build up. We start in Rome, with some pretty hairy moments for Vespasian as he tries to steer a path to survival through Nero’s madness – and the opportunists trying to take advantage of Nero’s near total doo-lally-ness. It’s a relief, and not just for Vespasian, to be able to get away from the tensions of Rome, to the quiet, calm, backwater that is Britannia. A province that refuses to be governed quietly and with revolting natives all over the show.

Vespasian has developed, not really a thicker skin, but, at least by the end of this book, I detected a more laissez faire kind of attitude. More, what will be, will be. The prophecy that was made at his birth, the meaning of which he has slowly begun to if not figure out, then more than suspect what it is, seems to have given him the ‘do your worst, I know what is inevitably going to happen’ attitude. I got the idea that, in the final chapter back in Rome (it’s not giving anything away, I’ve checked), he kind of feels that the worst that could possibly have happened to him, has and hasn’t. That it’s more downhill sailing from here on. That I’m even able to think that, think back on the development of the character as it has happened over seven books, and notice subtle changes, speaks – for me – volumes about the work of Robert Fabbri in being able to do it.

The title also had me thinking. Obviously, the furies could refer to the dangerous women there are in Rome and here, Vespasian faces dangerous women at every turn. The storms and the fury being stirred up by Nero, is another. Then when he gets to Britannia, there’s Boudicca, of course. But she is matched, in a subtly different way, by Vespasian’s long-time mistress, Caenis. She, really comes good here, showing in full light, the strengths and subtleties that have been hinted at in previous volumes. A fury from Rome, of ever there was one.

There’s so much to appreciate and savour in The Furies of Rome, that it would be churlish of me to suggest it’s because Vespasian returns to his old Britannia stamping grounds. But I’ll suggest it anyway.

I’m still gonna picture Vespasian with a full head of hair though…

You can buy The Furies of Rome at The Book Depository

I’m on Goodreads

Related reviews on Speesh Reads:

Rome's Fallen Eagle

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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Review: Scourge of Rome by Douglas Jackson

Scourge of Rome

5 of 5 stars

Gaius Valerius Verrens 6

My version:
Hardback
Historical Fiction Roman Empire
Transworld
2015
Bought

AD 70. Gaius Valerius Verners has been disgraced, dishonoured and banished. To return to Rome would be to face certain death.

Such a punishment would break a lesser man, but Valerius knows his only hope of survival – and the restoration of his family’s fortunes – lies with his friend Titus, son of the newly-crowned Emperor Vespasian, and now commander of the Army of Judea. And so, the former military Tribune journeys east and into the heart of a brutal and savage rebellion.

Reaching the Roman legions arrayed around the walls of the city of Jerusalem, Valerius finds Titus a changed man. Gone os the cheerful young officer; in his place is a ruthless soldier under pressure from an impatient emperor to terminate the Judean uprising at any cost. Soon Valerius finds himself drawn into a web of intrigue spun by Titus’ lover, Queen Berenice of Cilicia, and his venal advisor, Flavius Josephus – unlikely allies who have an anterior motive for ending the siege quickly…

But clandestine negotiations in the murky tunes beneath Jerusalem are not going to win Valerius back his freedom. Only amid the heat and blood of battle can he rediscover the glory that brought him the title ‘Hero of Rome.’

I’m fair rattling through this series right now. And why not? They’ve got to be in a photo-finish for the best-written historical fiction of any period. Scourge of Rome is no different, being full of interesting incident, excitement and plenty beside to keep you gripping the book until you throw it off a cliff at the end…

Where book 5, Enemy of Rome, was I felt Serpentius’ book, this one is most definitely Valerius.’ Mainly because of all the leg-over action he gets. Err…anyway, it is he that, from beginning the series as a Hero of Rome, could well be being described as ‘Cast Out by Rome’ at the beginning of this book. He has to trek across the Eastern deserts, trying to find a way back into Rome. I’ve thought about the differences between Valerius’ idea of what Rome should be, coming off worse in the collision with what Rome actually turns out to be, before. Here, I wondered if absence of from Rome would cause that to fade and ‘Rome’ the idea still be the shining ideal. It possibly is still that way to Valerius, as we know he’s far from being stupid, so why would he strive so hard for and to get back to Rome, if he didn’t think it was worth fighting for? Serpentius still plays an important part in the book, but more subdued (you’ll see why), and not always involving the popping up at the last minute to deflect a killing stroke from some unprotected part of Valerius’ anatomy. He is the better, strangely, for the ‘problem’ from book 5, more thoughtful (!) and even interestingly vulnerable, leading to a contemplation that more water has flowed under the bridge, than remains to flow. I like Serpentius a lot. As I too am beginning to think that way. Erk!

As with a few of the (longer than three books) series there are on the go at the moment, especially of the Roman sort, you have to ask the question, could you read this one on its own? Could you read this as a one-off, because you can’t be bothered finding and reading the rest of the series first, or you don’t know that it’s #6 of a series? I’d imagine it’s a worry, not only for the writer, but also the publisher. The trend these days does seem to be in creating a ‘brand’ series, something that will sell/recoup investment over several volumes, one-offs historical novels are generally a thing of the past. Unless you’re a previously well-established writer. Which must make it hard for a new writer to get started with a ‘name’ publisher. Which might explain why (it seems to me) more writers are going through the self-publishing route. Anyway, could you read Scourge and not have the feeling you really should have read the others? Yes. I think you could. The explanations are there, but built in to the story, as if the story began here and you discover bits about his past as an explanation for his actions, as you go. Then there’s enough self-contained action you keep you happy and the time period, as mentioned earlier, is an interesting one. More so, if you had a little background knowledge *raises hand* of the period before starting.

I think I’d be right in saying that Douglas Jackson describes and interprets (as much as one can from 2,000 years distance) the characters, even some of the events (?) surrounding beginning at least, of the Emperor Vespasian’s reign, in relation to other writers writing of the period I’m currently on the go with. Robert Fabbri for example. Though his (RF) Vespasian (for me, where I am in the series at least) hasn’t got close to being Emperor as yet, however, Douglas and Robert do seem to differ, partly on the character of Vespasian’s brother Sabinus.

Writing about this period, the Jews in Palestine, the start of the Christian religion, could have been an opportunity for making some comparisons with the current troubles down there. Wisely, perhaps, Douglas stays out of it. Robert Fabbri has come closer to the birth of Christianity, but both steer clear of any kind of ‘they were here first’-type angle. You and I can draw our own conclusions, maybe.

So…to the end. The series shows no signs of either ending, though it will have to one day, as Valerius hasn’t yet achieved immortality – though it is going according to plan so far…but I digress…the end of this book: Holy cow! A cliffhanger of a cliffhanger! A cliffhanger, thrown over the edge of a cliffhanger! I’ve not seen a (longer than three) series do it like this before (I’m not saying it hasn’t been done, just I’ve never seen it). Incredible feeling of ‘YOU BUGGER!” as I realise all the pages left are the historical note end things and not a happy ending. Wow! Magnificent! Roll on the next one…

You can buy Scourge of Rome at The Book Depository

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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

The only list that matters – Best in Show 2015!

The best book I read all year, was…

First, a list over all the books I started to read (or finished, in the case of the first on the list) in 2015.

Click on the title to go to my review for the book.

Apocalypse : Dean Crawford
The Bourne Ascendancy : Eric van Lustbader
A Traitor’s Fate : Derek Birks
Cockroaches : Jo Nesbø
The Last Viking : Berwick Coates
The Moscow Option : Jeremy Duns
The Iron Castle : Angus Donald
Avenger of Rome : Douglas Jackson
Viking America : James Robert Enterline
The Sea Road : Margaret Elphinstone
The Sword and the Throne : Henry Venmore-Rowland
Sword of Rome: Douglas Jackson
Crowbone : Robert Low
The Serpent Sword : Matthew Harffy
The Black Stone : Nick Brown
The Confessor : Daniel Silva
Potsdam Station : David Downing
Blood Will Follow : Snorri Kristjansson
The Bone Tree : Greg Iles
Killing Floor : Lee Child
Hereward. Wolves of New Rome : James Wilde
False God of Rome. Vespasian III : Robert Fabbri
The Corners of the Globe : Robert Goddard
Lehrter Station : David Downing
An Officer and a Spy : Robert Harris
Masaryk Station : David Downing
Wulfsuna : E.S. Moxon
Catastrophe : Max Hastings
The Northmen’s Fury : Philip Parker
The Cairo Affair : Olen Steinhauer
Hanns and Rudolf : Thomas Harding
The Siege : Nick Brown
The Ends of the Earth : Robert Goddard
The Bloody Meadow : William Ryan
The Long Ships : Frans G. Bengtsson
Slash and Burn : Matt Hilton
The Redbreast : Jo Nesbø
Rome’s Fallen Eagle : Robert Fabbri
The Sword of the Templars : Paul Christopher
The King’s Assassin : Angus Donald
March Violets : Philip Kerr
Hannibal. Enemy of Rome : Ben Kane
The Imperial Banner : Nick Brown
Path of Gods : Snorri Kristjansson
The Scarlet Thief : Paul Fraser Collard
Solomon Creed : Simon Toyne
Child 44 : Tom Rob Smith
Die Trying : Lee Child
The Cross and The Curse : Matthew Harffy
At The Ruin of The World : John Henry Clay
I Am Pilgrim : Terry Haynes

Well, I read a whole load of very good, enjoyable books in 2015. Several from authors I’d read before and some from authors new to me. On reflection, there were several contenders for best book, however, as I decided I really couldn’t single one out like that, here’s, by genre, my picks from last years’ crop.

Click on the cover to buy the book from The Book Depository, click on the title, to read what passes for my review.

Thriller
The Bone TreeThe Bone Tree by Greg Iles
If you’ve read this, you’ll know what I’m on about. It’s an 800-page monster. but grips like a vice from the get go and does not let go. I read it over a long weekend and, as the cliche goes, could not put it down.
You do need to have read Natchez Burning (the first in this trilogy and also an 800-page monster), to get the full impact from the book, as that sets up a lot of the revelations and general fuck ME!”s you get from what goes on and what is revealed in The Bone Tree. If you’ve read Natchez Burning, but not got onto this yet, you’re in for a treat. If you’ve not read either, do so now! Steven King cannot be wrong! (He’s quoted on the front cover, if you’re wondering).
Book three is out in the spring, I think.

I Am PilgrimI Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes
What can I say? I’m finding I am still speechless at how good this one was. Another beast of a long one, but it doesn’t read like it – you won’t notice how long it is once you get well and truly glued too it – you’ll think only that it’s too short when it’s over. Bang up to date in story, treatment and all that, it doesn’t have an agenda and you’re not supposed to either have your prejudices confirmed or destroyed. A refreshingly ‘this is how it is’ sort of thing. A one-off, which is a rarity, though it would stand being a series, but it’s probably best it isn’t. The Guardian’s quote obviously ignores The Bone Tree, but otherwise, for once, they’re not too far off the pace. Incredible enjoyment. And that’s why we read, isn’t it?

Historical Fiction

Probably my most read genre, so there was always going to be a few to choose from here. I had a particularly good year and it came down to three I couldn’t get a cigarette paper in between.

Hannibal Enemy of RomeHannibal Enemy of Rome by Ben Kane
For me, a glorious return to the Ben Kane fold. It’s not that he went away or anything daft like that, just it had been quite a while since I’d read one of his books. He is very active, as they say, on the old social media, so I feel like I’ve also been along for the ride, even without actually reading one of his books for a couple of years. I decided to skip Spartacus and get straight into Hannibal. Wow! I was captivated the whole way through. It’s a good long book, but it’s also lean, mean and effective storytelling. An even-handed presentation of wars between Carthage and Rome, that takes neither sides, nor prisoners. A real pleasure to read and learn and a super set-up for the other two in the trilogy, not to mention the next series.

Rome's Fallen EagleRome’s Fallen Eagle by Robert Fabbri
This was an absolute joy to read. Really excellent descriptive work and a captivating story, with no signs of Robert having to straight-jacket the/his Vespasian character in order to fit things into what is the accepted historical timeline and facts and all that. After a stomach-churning time in Rome with the previous book (False God of Rome), this one is – especially as he’s out in the open of Germania and Britannia (albeit in the forests most of the time) – a real breath of fresh historical air. There’s a freedom, a sense of adventure and a clarity of purpose that is just perfect. And, that it’s number four in a series, when most series are showing signs of the well having run dry, is even more remarkable. Well, I think so anyway.

The Sea RoadThe Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone
Speaking of remarkable…I can’t remember who and when this was recommended but I’m really, really glad I read it. She is a Scottish writer as far as I can see and if, like me, you have any sort of interest in the Vikings voyages to North America, you’ll love this book. Poignant, wistful, yearning, tear-jerking…all kinds of wonderful stuff. Keep your wits about you to get the most from the ending section. Real saga storytelling i the 21st Century that knocks nonsense like the last few Robert Low Viking parodies into place. Also proof, if Robert Low and Giles Kristian need it, that it didn’t always rain from leaden skies, every day, ‘back then.’

Non Fiction

I also occasionally venture out and sample the real world, so here goes:

Hanns and RudolfHanns and Rudolf by Thomas Harding
A thoroughly intriguing and surprisingly even-handed look at the lives of two Germans leading to, during the and after, the Second World War. That, by a quirk of fate, one was born Jewish and one to German parents, starts the comparison. Their fates obviously diverge somewhat, after that seemingly even start. Whilst the main thrust, is the author’s trying to figure out what his grandfather (?) did during the war, that he didn’t feel the need to talk about, it’s most rewarding for, through not actually writing the comparing and the contrasting, looking at why, how someone became the Commandant of Auschwitz. People who know more than me are never going to agree, and it’s wrong to look for a one line answer, however…this comes closest of all the books I’ve read – and I’ve read a few.

An Officer and a SpyAn Officer and A Spy by Robert Harris
Not strictly non-fiction, but a dramatising of fact, in fiction in a A Day of The Jackal-type way. If that guy who wrote Schindler’s Ark can get away with it, Rober Harris can, the other way, in my list.
I was familiar with the name Dreyfus and also with Affair and that it was a big deal to French people, both back then, and now. So, I thought, let’s find out. After reading a few barnstormers by the formidable M. Harris, I got into this. Phew! Incredible…such bravery, such fortitude, such stupidity, bare-faced lying and moral courage. If right was done, it was done too late to save face, lives were ruined and very few came out smelling of roses. As a way of understanding the utterly stupid – though probably not thought stupid at the time – mind-set that led to World War I, it’s indispensable.

And finally Esther…

Independent

Well, it should be a genre, or maybe not a genre, as they write in genres, but…erm, well, many plucky authors – and you make up your own reason why here – clearly send their manuscripts to the boss of Decca, or the umpteen people the Hairy Potter woman did. And, as a blind blogger, I don’t see Self-Published as a different genre to be avoided like a plague, not touched with a barge-pole, I’m way too good to waste my time on that stuff, don’t you know, now what does this publisher want me to say, oh yes : It’s BRILLIANT! Yes, I see them as books and stories and really, really good.

The two I know are Independent sort of things I read this year, both – fortunately – turned out to be excellent. So, purely in order of ace-ness of cover, here they are:

The Serpent SwordThe Cross and The CurseThe Serpent Sword and The Cross and The Curse by Matthew Harffy
Despite having a face that says ‘read my books or I send the boys round’ Matthew seems a really nice guy. Goes without saying, he knows his Anglo-Saxon onions too. The loner, outsider, proving his worth against the odds, isn’t new. However, it is new when set in Anglo-Saxon invasion times. That’s after the Romans and before the Vikings, to you and me. The real beauty here, is The Cross and the Curse. Fan-Saxon-Tastic! I almost wanted to hug him, but then thought of the publicity shot and thought better of it – it’s so good. Go buy it (it’s out NOW!) as they say) and get in on the ground floor, then it won’t just be me saying ‘of course, I’ve been reading Harffy for years, don’t you know?’

Wulfsuna by E.S. Moxon
Despite having the same surname as one of my neighbours (also English) near here at Speesh Towers in deepest Harlev, Denmark, this is a superb first effort from the lovely Ms.M. She of course got an extra star for either being from Birmingham, or now living there, I forget which. Anyway, this is in the same sort of ball-park as Matthew, in the Anglo Saxon ball-park, that is. However, in a way, the Wulfsuna stories are the other side of the fence (in that ball-park?), I thought. As they start, with the main characters coming over to Britain, rather than Matthew’s already having been here a good while. I thought a lot of Snorri Kristjansson’s books, in that there were some fantasy elements woven into what is obviously a very clever interpretation of the historical records. As in, she knows what we know and uses that as a launch pad for the stories.
I think I’m right in putting this in the Independent pile, though it is published by Silverwood Books. Anyway, who needs a tin-pot genre like Indie, when the story and writing is as good as this? Not me, no sir.

So there you have it. It could well be, if you’ve read any of the above, that you think differently. That’s great. All I hope, is that you enjoyed whichever books you read last year and you enjoy all the books you read this year. That’s, as I say, what it’s all about. Reading books for enjoyment. And I finish and review all the books I start. Oh, thanks for reading this blog, btw.

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

Me, on Goodreads

Review: Rome’s Fallen (Eagle Vespasian IV) – Robert Fabbri

Rome's Fallen EagleMy rating : 5 of 5 stars

What a relief to be done with Caligula! Not just for Vespasian and the rest of the Roman population of AD41, but also for us in 2015 reading Robert Fabbri’s excellent books. In the nicest possible sense, it is good that Caligula has met his just desserts. He cast a terrible, malignant shadow over the previous book, False God of Rome. His unpredictability and not all that slow descent into madness, was fantastic writing from Robert Fabbri, but hard to stomach sometimes. That made it’s impression (rightly so) even more forceful, I felt.

Anyway, Caligula is stabbed in the vitals on the way home from yet another debauched theatre visit. By a hooded man. However, despite having done just about everyone, apart from Caligula’s wife, a tremendous favour, the Roman bunting is a little slow to be put out. This is die to the only alternative to Caligula as Emperor is Claudius (CLAVDIVS to give him his proper Shenley Court Comprehensive shool-watching the Derek Jakobi TV version I CLAVDIVS-name). ‘What’s wrong with that?’ you who haven’t read the story so far, or skipped your school History lessons, might cry: Well, to bring you up to speed, the only problem with that, with Clavdivs is, he a drooling, stammering, half-idiot. Perfect as a politician then. Well, he is the only game in town – for now – that most can agree on. The best least worst solution to the succession. However, he is surrounded by powerful men. Both physically, in the shape of the feared Prætorian guard, and with Narcissus, Pallas and Callistus, three of the schemingest schemers it will ever be the Romans’ misfortune – but our good fortune – to come up against. Each is seemingly trying to out-do the other in proving their loyalty to Clavdivs by proving to the Roman people, the mob, that Clavdivs is a worthy Emperor. And what better way to do that than have the Roman army go off in search of a stolen Legion Eagle in Germania. Not just any stolen Eagle, but the one that was lost at the scene of possibly Rome’s greatest – as in worst – defeat. The catastrophic, humiliating defeat 40 years previously in the Germanian Teutoburg forests. Capturing and returning the Eagle would go a long way to restoring Roman pride and ensuring Clavdivs’ popularity. Not to mention subduing the troublesome Germanians and setting the Empire nicely up for another round of expansion, where Clavdivs can prove his worth by out-doing even the great Julius Caesar – not to mention Caligula – and conquering Britannia.

Luckily for Robert Fabbri and us, it is Vespasian who is sent off on what most believe is an impossible mission that even Ethan Hunt would think twice about. That of finding and bringing the Eagle back. I can’t now remember whether that is fiction Robert F has put in, or actual fact, based on likelihood, but either way, it works. And how! As we – Vespasian and us – escape from Rome’s clutches, the story and the writing blossom, flow and soar. If something can blossom and soar at the same time. Incredible stuff. So exciting, compulsive and compelling. I hate cliches to do with book reading – you try ‘devouring’ a book one day, can’t be done – but I really did not want to put the book down. Even to have my tea. Or my breakfast. And I’ll be sending the marriage guidance counselling bill direct to Mr Fabbri. It engages immediately and never lets go – not until the end anyway. The story, the character, the author have really been set free by coming out from the stifling confines of the Caligula period. The hunt for the Eagle’s residing place in the threatening, mysterious forests of Germania, is done a little like Southern Comfort, if you’ve ever seen that film, mixed with Predator. Remember what happened in those two and you’ll get what’s going on here. It really is done so well, the sense of threat is palpable. Superb writing! Historical Fiction, any kind od Fiction even, at its very best. Very filmic too, which may or may not be a coincidence…

I’m going to go on a limb and say it’s one of the two best books I’ve read this year. The other being Greg Iles’ The Bone Tree. For sure in the best three anyway. Certainly the best Roman-period book I can remember ever reading. It really reads like a modern-day thriller, set in AD 41. Robertus Ludlumus. And it’s the fourth in the series, how can THAT be? Shouldn’t people be running on auto-pilot at this point? Not Mr F. If you like your action fast and your Romans and Barbarians furious, then pick up Rome’s Fallen Eagle now! Go on, do it! (You see what I did there?).

Vespasian. Tribune of Rome (Vespasian I): my review
Rome’s Executioner (Vespasian II): my review
False God of Rome (Vespasian III): my review

All posts on Speesh Reads mentioning Robert Fabbri

Buy Rome’s Fallen Eagle (Vespasian IV) at The Book Depository

Me, at Goodreads

Review: Vespasian False God of Rome (Vespasian III)

False God of Rome

False God of Rome by Robert Fabbri
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Robert Fabbri seems to be documenting, pretty much minute by minute, the career of Vespasian. Vespasian is a pretty well-known historical character and that is the problem, I guess, with writing about a historical figures – how to keep the excitement up, given that your readers most probably know how their ‘story’ ends, or when the person died. So this incident here, in book x of x, clearly isn’t gonna kill him. So how to keep me on the edge of my seat knowing that? Robert Fabbri has done a really excellent job so far, doing just that, keeping the excitement and interest and generally here, he continues the good work.

We’re on book three (of nine, I think I’ve seen him say), it is AD33 and Vespasian’s brother Sabinus is out in the province of Judea. And you know what happened in AD33/34 in Judea? Yes, that. There is a fair bit about the ’new’ religion of Christianity, with some very good points made, however, the arrest, trial and execution of ‘Yeshua’ feel more than a little awkward. Trying to shoehorn Gospel references into the narrative as Vespasian’s older brother turns out to be the one who, by demanding his death on behalf of the Senate, caused Jesus’ crucifixion, doesn’t really work. Especially in the context of what I’ve read in the uniformly excellently planned and written previous two books. There is also a look at – in my interpretation of it, and thinking about the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten – the origins of belief in one single god, over the Romans’ many. I’d say young Robert has read The Holy Blood, The Holy Grail at some point.

So, Vespasian, after an adventure or two in the Libyan desert, returns to Rome with what he found there and has to turn to his aunt for guidance. She, you’ll remember from the previous books, is a Roman matron of the old school, with more fingers in more pies than she has fingers. She’s soon plotting to help steer Vespasian through the minefields (I know, I know) and quicksands that passed for Roman politics. Tiberius is soon ‘replaced’ by Caligula and a brave new dawn, full of hope and…well, you (probably) know how quickly Caligula’s reign deteriorated. Caligula, was, coincidentally, reasonably sane, in his pre-Emperor days, but absolute power soon corrupts absolutely, though unluckily for Vespasian, Caligula still considers him to be his friend. And Vespasian finds out all too quickly, that he doesn’t need enemies when he’s got a friend like Caligula. Caligula has had the great idea of building a bridge over the bay at Naples and of riding across it, wearing the breastplate of Alexander The Great. As you would. So, Vespasian is sent to get it. Well, steal it, as the Egyptians aren’t all that keen on lending it to a madder than a barrel-load of monkeys Emperor.

Again, as Robert says in the Historical Note at the end, he has followed pretty much what is/was known about Caligula’s excesses. If he hadn’t said that, I’d have recommended psychiatric help after reading some of the stuff here, I must say. However, the interesting theme that Robert at least partly follows, is how Vespasian realises that Caligula is – as Caligula himself says in a rare moment of relative lucidity – a mirror for human behaviour. Including Vespasian’s own. If he had unlimited power. People treat Caligula like a god, so he begins to think he is one. And if a god says something is so, it is. The word of (a) god cannot be faulted, discussed or argued against. Democracy goes against that and is therefore against the word of God, as God isn’t a democracy (hello, IS!). And, raises the question as to just who is the ‘False God’ of the book’s title, eh? Vespasian does, as I say, begin to wake up towards the end and begins to realise that divine right or not, Caligula may have to ‘make way’ for another, for the good of Rome’s – and everyone else’s – future.

It did feel like it got very bogged down in political affairs when it moved back to Rome. Not sure what it was all supposed to signify. His thorough understanding of the situation at the time? Historical accuracy? I don’t know. And I couldn’t tell you much about all the ins and outs now. It switched me off and didn’t really seem relevant or anything that couldn’t have been effectively condensed without losing, maybe even gaining, impact. To be fair, you do get a very good idea of how rigid Roman society was at the very top end. Sometimes, even the slaves seem to have more ‘freedom.’

Like I say, I wasn’t all that convinced at the start and in periods in the middle, but it sure sneaked in under my skin by the end. If you know anything of the history of how Vespasian’s life progressed, you’ll find clues, or at least incidents, here that will surely be used later as explanation to how he got the ideas for his future plans.

Buy Vespasian False God of Rome

My review Vespasian Tribune of Rome

My review Vespasian Rome’s Executioner

Me on Goodreads

Review: Sword of Rome

Sword of Rome cover
Sword of Rome by Douglas Jackson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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 >>

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