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: Hannibal. Fields of Blood by Ben Kane

Ben Kane - Hannibal Fields of Blood

4 of 5 stars

Hannibal 2

My version:
Hardback
Historical Fiction Second Punic War
Preface
2013
Bought
August 216 BC

Hannibal’s campaign to defeat Rome continues as he marches south to confront his enemy.

With him is a young soldier, Hanno.

Like his general, Hanno burns to vanquish Rome. Never has the possibility seemed so likely.

But a stealthy game of cat and mouse is being played as Rome’s generals seek to avoid confrontation.

Eventually the two armies meet under a fierce summer sun. The place is Cannae – the fields of blood.

The battle will go down in history as one of the bloodiest ever fought, a battle in which Hanno knows he must fight as never before – just to stay alive.

The real art with books like this, where anyone with half an interest in history can tell you that Hannibal lost, eventually, is how to write the story fresh, exciting and even how to keep the reader on the edge of their seat. I always remember reading Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal and being held captive, kept guessing and on the edge of my seat – even though I am/was old enough to know that De Gaulle didn’t die in that way at that time. So I think it says much about the quality of Ben Kane’s writing that he pulls off the story with ease. It’s exciting, it flows like a river in spring flood, it’s sometimes tense, mostly thrilling, always well-worth reading.

I suppose there is a slight familiarity breeding comfort-type feeling. I wasn’t as blown away as I was reading the first, but that’s only because by the second (of three) I know the characters, the story so far and so it would really have to be a monumental work to throw me off a cliff like that did. It is however, at least on a par with the first, maybe not better, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s job is to get us from book one and set up the third in the trilogy, which will of course see Hannibal, or Rome, win, or lose…

I have been surprised by these two books. I’m not sure why really. I’ve read Ben Kane’s work before, but maybe long enough ago to have forgotten what a superb writer he can be. I was also surprised, after book 1, that he could do it again. I shouldn’t have been. The good characters are still with us and are developing nicely. I still feel a bit frustrated that Hanno doesn’t stick on on (one of his) older brother(s), but there you go. I’m not really sure how his part in this will end, and that’s as it should be. The climactic battle at Cannae is handled really well – Giles Kristian had better watch out there. Aurelia is the chief character on the Roman side and she has developed to be a cut above a lot of the women characters in Hist Fic books like this. Still, BK has always has written strong – and interesting – female characters. And I think possibly one of the main reasons why I’m liking these books so much is, that the religion ‘everything in the hands of the gods’ nonsense is pretty much kept to a minimum.

My only quibble is, that he could have looked a bit more at why/how Hannibal inspired such devotion and loyalty in his troops. An inspired General, isn’t enough. The Cannae tactics aren’t earth-shatteringly different to do it, I didn’t feel. Why the Carthaginians is obvious, but as this is the Second Punic War, only a generation after the first, where the Carthaginians haven’t had time to replenish their armies with Carthaginians and have to take in mercenaries and allies, I think I’d have liked a bit more in that direction. However, the books aren’t really about who Hannibal was and why and that would be too restrictive for BK, I’d guess. Here, he wants to tell the tale and its background from the point of view of those who fought and were affected by it, which is, as ever, open to discussion and interpretation. If he tried to write about Hannibal, he’d no doubt suffer from Scholar-Attack, as all the dusty old professors who have devoted their lives to the study of Hannibal, would pop up to poo-poo his conclusions. Better to shoot high, aim low – as Yes once said. My other qui…my TWO quibbles are all that, and an occasional feeling that he spreads himself a little thin over the social media. I agree that it is a superb way of interacting with your readership, potential readership as well, However, one gets the feeling sometimes, that he barely has time to do what after all IS his job, that of writing books. Hence the “today’s 5,000 word target reached!”– type posts here and there. What I read – and to be fair to BK, it isn’t just him, other writers are infected with this disease – “switched the Writing Machine on for a couple of hours while I went out on a bike ride, gave a talk, walked for charity, got back and, hey presto! 5,000 words done. Let’s send it off and see if the Agent can make a book out of it!” Remember knitting? Your Gran used to sit there twiddling wool into incredible knots with skill built up over generations and handed down to her from her mum and her mum’s mum…and then those knitting machines? Where someone like me (if I’d had the interest) could have connected some wool to it and moved the shuttle thing from left to right and a couple of hours later, there’s a jumper! I could write 5,000 words in a day, no bother. The’d be absolute shite, but I could do it alright. I’d be fine if an author posted “wrote 17 words today – but they’re the result of 8 hours hard work and they’re the best 17 I’ve ever written!” I’d buy that book! It’s about quality, not quantity. And a book doesn’t have to reach a certain number of words before it’s ‘a book.’ Nor is it finished, just because it has reached a certain number of words. I don’t want that. Personally, I’d like to feel that BK does all these other things after he’s sweated over the writing of the book. Partly because if his books are excellent as it is, think how they’d be if he put his mind to it? Or at least, I’d like to get the impression he was books first, all the other, fourth and fifth. Just me. Buy this one, and the one before, they’re excellent.

You can buy Hannibal, Fields of Blood at The Book Depository

Related reviews on Speesh Reads:

Hannibal Enemy of RomeThe Road To Rome

 

 

 

 

Me, on Goodreads

Review: Enemy of Rome by Douglas Jackson

Enemy of Rome
5
of 5 hands

My version:
Hardback
Historical Fiction Rome
Bantam Press
2014
Bought, Signed

Summer AD 69. Rome and its empire are in turmoil, caught in the coils of a desperate and destructive civil war. The emperor Otho is dead by his own hand and his rival, Aulus Vitellius, occupies the imperial throne. However, a new challenge has arisen in the East – the legions of Titus Flavius Vespasian have declared him their Emperor.

In the dry heat of an August morning, Gaius Valerius Verne’s prepares for his last day on this earth. Wrongly accused of deserting his legion on the field of Bedriacum, it seems he is destined to die a coward’s death.

Then the executioner’s hand is stayed. Vitellius’ enemies will spare the life of the man who was once Hero of Rome if he pledges allegiance to Vespasian and his cause. Valerius – tired of the endless slaughter and helping that he might be reunited with his lost love – agrees. And so he must battle his way south to Rome in order to persuade his friend Vitellius to stand down for the greater good of the city, its people and the empire.

But this is civil war and this is Rome, and Valerius – his loyalties divided and branded an enemy of the people – is trapped in a maze of distrust, corruption, betrayal and blood-letting…

Book Five and not only the series, but the readers are beginning to flag…

not a bit of it!

This is, to quote another blogger, “brilliant!” This could be the exuberant first novel from a fresh new author, this could be the final novel in a long series where everything comes satisfactorily together. This could be the best novel in the series – so far (#5 is as far as I’ve got).

This period of Rome’s history is fairly well populated with authors just now. I’ve come across people like Robert Fabbri (his series is about Vespasian, after all), Henry Venmore-Rowland and even (!) Anthony Riches eyebrow-festooned epics touch on it, if I’m not very much mistaken. I’m not sure if that’s an advantage or disadvantage. In that, you might read about a character in one of them, who is described, or acts, in a different way in another book. For instance with H V-R’s superb The Sword and The Throne, the historical character of Aulus Cecina Severus comes over – to me – as a tragic, flawed character, but one who eventually got my sympathy. Here, he’s handled differently. As is the character of Vespasian’s brother Sabinus, compared to how Robert Fabbri has written him. So, what stops me thinking of other writer’s depictions, when reading them in Douglas Jackson’s book? It could lead to a “well, he wouldn’t have said THAT or done THAT!” while thinking of the wrong version. There is some cross-over, but to be fair, the characters that feature in the other books I’ve mentioned, aren’t too prominent here. The book(s) have more to do with a fictional character in a non-fiction period and Douglas Jackson manages to find a clear path throughout and I didn’t get confused. Much.

I thought a few times, that while the book and series is obviously about Verrens, this one at least, I felt was his Spanish bodyguard and close friend Serpentius’ book. Good as Valerius is, Serpentius is better. If it wasn’t for Serpentius’ knack of turning up in Verrens’ wrong places at exactly the right times, some of the scrapes would be much too close for comfort. While Serpentius is a wolf in a wolf’s clothing, the character of Verrens is maturing very nicely. He’s lost a few more of his idealistic edges along the way and giving more priority to finding what is right for him, than Rome, when even he can see that marrying the two will be a nigh on impossible job. Hence the ‘lost love’ angle in the sleeve blurb. There are a couple of incidents which I felt were dealt with a little too quickly, could have been spread out for tension over more than just a chapter (the spy following Valerius. The letters sent by Domitia). However, the magnificence of the whole, sweeps aside any minor niggles. This is vintage Verrens, vintage Jackson all the way.

It’s got to be difficult keeping up the interest let alone standard when you’re at number five in a series. However, in the safe hand of Gaius Valerius Verrens and the equally safe hands of Douglas Jackson, Enemy of Rome is a really excellent book, with a story full of colour, vitality, action, drama, suspense. And an ending borrowed from Shakespeare in Love? I think so. Equally poignant, not to say heartbreaking. Valerius might have lost a hand while stationed in Britannia, but he clearly came back with a stiff upper lip…

You can buy Enemy of Rome at The Book Depository

Related reviews on Speesh Reads:

Hero of RomeRome's Fallen EagleArrows of FuryMe, on Goodreads

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

Review: At the Ruin of the World by John Henry Clay

At The Ruin of the Worldout of 5 siliqua

My version:
Hardback
Historical Fiction
late Roman period, Europe
Hotter & Stoughton Publishers
2015
Bought from Goldsboro Books
Signed

AD448.

The Roman Empire is crumbling.

The Emperor is weak. Countless Romans live under the rule of barbarian kings. Politicians scheme and ambitious generals vie for power.

Then from the depths of Germany arises an even darker threat: Attila, King of the Huns, gathering his hoards and determined to crush Rome once and for all.

In a time of danger and deception, where every smile conceals betrayal and every sleeve a dagger, three young people hold onto the dream that Rome can be made great once more. But as their fates collide, they find themselves forced to survive in a world more deadly than any of them could have imagined.

What can they possibly do to save the Empire, or themselves, from destruction?

It took a while before it dawned on me that this wasn’t quite what I’d thought, hoped, it was. A continuation of the first – The Lion and The Lamb. It is set in the same historical period, a bit later maybe and in southern France and Italy, rather than Britannia. Other than that, I’m struggling to see what he wanted to do with this. Of course, a look at the final phase(s) of the Roman Empire, but it really doesn’t come over enough. Doesn’t hit hard enough. There is a sense of the mental struggle there must have been, seeing their whole lives, pasts, presents and futures, being swept away by ‘barbarians.’ That sense of surety in society continuing forever how it had been being called into question. However, by going in so ‘close’ to just a few families, it just seems like they’re the only ones having problems, while things go on, somewhere else, around them. I can well imagine that what I got out of it, I brought with me, by knowing something of what went on and drawing some conclusions, others might not.

It’s an interesting period. A very interesting period and whilst the book is nicely written and in many ways does touch on a lot of the elements that made the time interesting, I finished and found myself missing something, wanting more. Apart from the final few chapters, it really didn’t reach out and grab me as I thought it should or would, if it had continued with the characters from his first book.

Related review: The Lion and the Lamb

Buy At the Ruin of the World 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: The Siege

The Siege

The Siege (Agent of Rome 1) by Nick Brown

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am going back in time by reading this one. I was lucky enough to be sent (the latest as it was at the time) The Black Stone, which was actually number four in the series. I’d seen the name and some of the covers before that, but not got onto reading any. But having been solidly impressed by TBS, I’m making up for lost time by starting (again) at the beginning with The Siege.

And maybe time-travel is perhaps not at all a bad metaphor for me to use for this review. As Nick Brown certainly has a knack for bringing the period, the landscape and the characters to convincingly vivid life. We’re back in 270 AD, on the eastern edges of the Roman Empire and as with all the best books, the story is a deceptively simple one. The main character – and of the subsequent novels of course – is Cassius Corbulo. He is just 19 as the book begins, straight from officer training, he is sent to command the Roman forces who find themselves in the path of Queen Zenobia of Palmyra’s rapidly advancing forces. And they’re not happy. Not with the Romans anyway. The Roman forces Cassius is sent to command have been lacking a Centurion and discipline and the usual Roman efficiency has suffered accordingly. Problem is, Cassius isn’t a Centurian yet. But he thinks it best not to let his forces in on the secret just yet. He faces an uphill struggle to convince the Legionary veterans that they should take orders from a beardless ‘boy,’ ‘Centurian’ or not and a lot of the story is about Cassius trying to win them over and prepare them to face the Palmyrians – or at least hold on until the Roman reinforcements can arrive to save the day. Though, Cassius isn’t sure they’re coming. Another little secret he has to keep from his men. What Cassius is, if not an actual Centurion, is a ‘Grain Officer.’ An ‘agent of the Imperial Security Service. An independent wing of the military, the Service had been established during the time of the Emperor Domitian. Originally concerned with the supply and distribution of grain to the legions, it’s officers were spread far and wide across the Empire.’ They seem to be a mixture of spy and Internal Affairs. And ‘the Service’ are disliked by the ordinary soldiers. So understandably, Cassius would rather the men under him did not find out too much about that little secret either.

The ‘Siege’ of the title, develops rather like the Roman version of The Alamo, if you’ve seen the John Wayne film. I did, at times, think it read a little like a western. The new Sheriff sent to sort-out a run-down, lawless town, in a lawless area, etc. The Wild West. Except here, it’s the Wild East. If you’re a Roman, West if you’re a…, well, you get the picture. The soldiers need convincing that running away and hiding isn’t their best option, no matter how much more attractive that might seem to be when compared with taking orders from a suspiciously youthful Centurion. There are old-soaks who’ve seen it all before, there are trouble-makers, there’s a very interesting Praetorian Guard character, who is trying to obliterate his internal pains by staying drunk (we’ve all done it), but who Cassius thinks may hold the key to the fort’s forces’ survival. There are good-guys who seem like they can be relied on and there are quite probably spies lurking here and there. Then, all the time in the background, there’s the ever-nearing, unavoidable date with destruction, in the shape of the Palmyrians coming inexorably closer. Something’s got to give and Cassius is determined it isn’t going to be the Romans, not on his watch.

As the book progresses, so does the character of Cassius. He starts out, as we all would no matter how much training we had behind us, scared shitless and decidedly unsure if this was the right career choice. He develops slowly, as experience only comes with time in the job – not something he has a lot of just now. But, you can see he is already on the way to developing the instinct to do the right thing at the right time in the right situation. The real key to survival in the Roman army, I’d think.

As I say, this is the first in the Agent of Rome series. It is now five books long and was clearly imagined to be a quite lengthy series. Nick (I feel I can call him Nick now) gets straight down to the business of this book’s story – and the action – rather than spend ages giving scene-setting and/or background, that we pick up along the way. Which is as I like it.

So, if you want to be transported back to 3rd century eastern Roman Empire, then I can’t think of better place to start or finish, than Nick Brown’s Agent of Rome series.

 

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Buy The Siege at The Book Depository

Now, See how this book fits in my Historical Fiction Timeline.

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

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Review: The Sword and the Throne

The Sword and the Throne
The Sword and the Throne by Henry Venmore-Rowland
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you haven’t read Henry Venmore-Rowland’s  previous novel The Last Caesar you really should have. However, it’s not vital, you’ll soon get totally caught up in this wonderful book all on its own.

Chances are, if you know anything of ‘The Year of The Four Emperors,’ AD69-ish, then you’ve probably been reading Douglas Jackson and Robert Fabbri (you’ll probably also know, as Douglas Jackson points out, it was actually ‘The 18 Months of the Five Emperors’). I’m going to go out on my rock-solid, totally stable limb here and say The Sword and the Throne puts Henry V-R up there with the two afore-mentioned writers; That is, at the very top of the Roman pile. In my estimation and on my bookshelves anyway. And that’s what counts here.

If you do know anything of the period, you’ll know that the character we’re following, Aulus Caecina Severus, is a young, aristocratic general who was originally loyal to Nero’s successor, Galbus. While Galba promised him some measure of power, that is. Times have changed, Caecina is now feeling overlooked, not to say betrayed, by Galbus and has indeed been ‘recalled’ to Rome, on a “trumped-up charge” of embezzlement. And we all know what that means. Being the serial survivor (serial traitor, if you’re the one currently in The Purple) as he turns out to be, Caecina seizes the next opportunity that comes by, which is to ally himself with Vitellius, who has been thrust, shall we say, forward into declaring himself Emperor. It seems like Caecina is supporting Vitellius partly because he has “all but promised” him promotion to a higher level than Galba had. In the meantime, back in Rome…Galbus has been ‘deposed.’ ‘Deposed,’ ‘murdered,’ what’s the difference? Caecina must now rush with his legions through Switzerland and back to Roman territory, to beat both Otho’s forces and his own rival for Vitellius’ affections, Valens, in the race to have the strongest influence over the new Emperor.

Henry Venmore-Rowland writes in a lively, easy style. Clear and quick-witted. No Latin words dropped in to show off – much more Douglas Jackson than Harry Sidebottom. That’s good, it really is. He also writes in a way that suggests he had a lot of fun writing this. There are also some strong supporting characters in his wife Salonina and his Hibernian Freedman Totavalus, though I would have liked to have heard more of his Gaulish ’Security Advisor’ Lugubrix.

The historical Caecina isn’t supposed – I don’t think – to be a character we need to have much sympathy for (he doesn’t come out of Douglas Jackson’s hands in Sword of Rome, very well, for instance). In The Sword and The Throne, he is painted as having a short temper at times, but makes decisions quickly and decisively and they’re usually turn out to be the right ones. Historically, he seems to have been thought of as an aristocratic back-stabber not particularly interested in the future of Rome, unless it coincided with his plans for his own future, that is. His is a fall from grace that has probably pleased a lot of people down the centuries. However, HV-R has for me, created a strong, character and a story that manages to put over all that, but also paint him (in my view whilst reading anyway) as quite a sympathetic character. I found him likeable and totally understandable in what he did and especially, the why. His fall from grace becomes a tragic one, with an extremely poignant end.

This really is an excellent book, a great story and a very enjoyable read indeed. Talk about bringing history to life! I was left staring into space at the end as my brain tried to cope with how good I thought it was. It just a great shame it isn’t possible to continue the story, if you get what I mean. That’ll have to be left to the very capable pens of Douglas Jackson and Robert Fabbri. Poignant and thought-provoking – the highest praise I can give it, is to say it could have been, should have been and I wish it had been, longer. Though, twice as long would still have been too short. Perfection.

Me, on Goodreads. And dancing.

Review: The Amber Road

The Amber Road
The Amber Road by Harry Sidebottom
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I was hoping for a bit more action this time out. I kind of got it. This time though, we’re fighting a desperate rear-guard action while the pagan hordes are rampaging through Harry Sidebottom’s Roman history books for the year 264. Northern section. The northern pagans are clearly made of sterner stuff than their soft southern counterparts and there’s a lot less musing on phrenology, ancient Greek philosophy (probably) and writing of “Sir, sir! Please sir, tell him!” notes back to The Emperor. Not that you would know if the Roman Post Office worked and T. Emperor got to read the notes, as I can’t remember said notes figuring in the stories at all after the eunuch writing them had written them… Anyway that loose end aside – we are now travelling through the lands of The North. Up through what is now Germany, to the coast, over to what is now Denmark. What it was called then, he tells us, but even having lived here for ten years, the names, I can pretty much stake my reputation as a gentleman and a scholar on – I’ve never come across. If I wasn’t looking at the map at the front, he could be talking about areas on the Moon, for all I’d know. All the tribes they go past or meet on their journey, or even are in the same timezone as, we get names, chapter and verse on. Unfortunately, in the end and in what were probably battles vital to the story, I got lost amid all the obscure ancient tribes and Roman Romans. I pretty much also forgot who was fighting who and where. Not a good sign.

That leads to what has has bugged me with the whole series really, so many Latin words. Yeah ok, we’re dealing with the Romans and they spoke Latin. Problem is, we don’t. We are reading, he is writing here, in English. I criticised previous books for dropping in Latin words, two or three a time in sentences and then having to explain them, in the same sentence, as breaking up the action into irritation. Here, or in the last two in the ‘Warrior of Rome’ series anyway, he’s just been using the Latin words for just about everything. No explanation I can see. Clearly, we’re supposed to have learned by now. Only, the dog ate my homework, sir! Like writing half the book in a foreign language (!). Becomes meaningless. Comes between me and enjoying the story. I’m not praising ignorance here, but Ben Kane and Robert Fabbri and Douglas Jackson manage to write perfectly good, best-selling, historically accurate, Roman period books without feeling the need to do the same. And I’d hazard a guess their books sell more than HS’s. What do all the Latin words mean? No idea. Are they the right ones for the position, for the period? No idea. Has he made them up? Who knows…actually, maybe he has made them up. Or, they are real Latin words, just don’t mean (Roman Army ranks, etc) what we, in the context of their use in the book, think they do. Probably there are dusty old Latin professors creasing themselves with laughter. As the meaningless to us Latin words actually translate to some hilarious scholarly ‘my dog’s got no nose…’ Latin joke. Could be? Who knows?

Ballista, the main character from all the previous Warrior of Rome novels, is still on his mission from (one of) the Roman Emperor(s) to ’somewhere’ up on the northern edge of the empire. Maybe to seal an alliance with them to, if not help Rome, then not helping the Empire’s enemies. Maybe. Ballista seems all along to have been selected for this job because where he will eventually travel to, is where he is originally from. He travels through many lands and deals with many different tribes and customs on his way to an eventual homecoming. Though he comes home to not exactly a warm welcome. It seems that neither the family or the enemies he left behind, are particularly thrilled to see him, but then he doesn’t seem exactly thrilled to be ‘home’ either.

Style wise, Harry goes for brevity. Too much. Too little. Maybe thinking he’s adding weight and atmosphere, but really he manages to leaves out the feeling and involvement. Just hard edges remaining. Doesn’t engage. Then, he mentions ‘iron and rust’ so many times, in this (and the last one), he’s probably guilty of product placement of some sort. What with Iron & Rust being the title of his next ’searing scholarship’ book, you see? I’m guessing this is some sort of commentary on the Roman Empire being – at that point – on the road to ruin, but again, as Ballista has had little to nothing to do with anything Roman in the last two books, it is also pretty much meaningless and isn’t developed in any real sense above being stuck in there several times.

And then it ended. Just finished. Two epilogues (no less), but still no getting away from it, it just ended. What about the guy who was unmasked as the serial killer stalking them on their holidays in ancient Russia last time out? They ended that one poised just nicely – on reflection and comparison with this one – to go single-minded off in pursuit of him in this one. But no. A couple of mentions tops, but no bearing on story direction. As the next Sidebottom, Iron and Rust, seems to be a different aspect of Roman history and is set, or at least starts, before the ‘Warrior’ books, in 235 and has nothing to do with Ballista or any kind of resolution of this/his story…very odd thing to do. Maybe HS just got bored, ran out of boring books on ancient tribal names and one day said “no more!” “Well, finish this one off and get on with something else” said the publisher. And that he seems to have done. Buy the first four and leave it there.

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