Australian Publication Date – 1 May 2018
World Publication Date – 8 March 2018
Ballista is back, baby! One of the best writers of Roman historical fiction, Harry Sidebottom, brings back his original protagonist for an incredibly gripping and action-packed novel that perfectly combines the thriller and historical fiction genres.
In Rome, in 265 AD, Marcus Clodius Ballista, former Dux Ripae of Rome and loyal friend of Emperor Gallienus, enters the Mausoleum of Hadrian to meet with an informant who wishes to talk to him about a plot to kill the emperor and usurp his throne. But the meeting is a trap, the informant is murdered, and Ballista is forced to jump into the River Tiber to escape the horde of assassins sent to kill him.
Washed up outside of the city and pursued by killers, Ballista only has 24 hours until Gallienus is murdered. With the conspirators still unknown to him, Ballista has no idea who he can trust and who can help him, but he must find a way to warn the emperor of the plot against him. If he fails, not only will his friend will be assassinated but Ballista’s family will also die in the ensuing takeover.
Now alone, unarmed, and with no money, bodyguards or friends around him, Ballista must find a way to re-enter the city and transverse the entirety of Rome to get to the emperor’s side. But the city is now a very dangerous place for him. The city watch are fully mobilised and ordered to arrest Ballista at all costs. In addition, mobs of disguised killers are searching for him everywhere, and they have no intention to taking him in alive.
As Ballista makes his way through the streets of Rome, he must find a way to avoid all the people searching for him while also overcoming the other dangers that lurk throughout the city. Will Ballista be able to save his friend and his family, or will his final defeat take place in the heart of the empire he has spent his whole life protecting?
Harry Sidebottom is a renowned British historian and veteran author of Roman historical fiction, having previously written two best-selling series, Warrior of Rome and Throne of the Caesars. The Last Hour is the 10th book from Sidebottom and a spinoff off from his Warrior of Rome series, featuring his original protagonist, Ballista. Ballista is a heavily fictionalized version of a famous Roman prefect, and served as the main character of Sidebottom’s first six books.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Sidebottom’s works, as his debut novel, Fire in the East, was one of the first pieces of historical fiction that I ever read, and featured one of the best accounts of a siege that I have ever read. His second book, King of Kings, was also one of the first books that I ever reviewed, and was a fantastic sequel that featured great story elements, set in an interesting and underused period of Roman history. Sidebottom’s latest book, The Last Hour, is an amazing hybrid of the thriller and historical fiction genres, featuring an intense, high-stakes journey through the ancient city of Rome.
The thriller aspects of this book are exhilarating. The protagonist is aware of a devastating assassination that is about to be committed and has only a limited time to reach and save the target. Sidebottom incorporates a ticking clock element to the story, as Ballista is constantly aware of the passing of time and how short a period he has to complete his objective to save not only his friend but his entire family as well. Needless to say, the author takes this story right down to the wire, and the reader has no idea whether Ballista will succeed or not; readers who are familiar with the previous books in the series will recall that King of Kings ended with Ballista and the previous emperor being both betrayed and captured by the enemy. The story gains a significant amount of intensity as the protagonist has no idea of who he can trust, nor who is aligned against him. Sidebottom also goes out of his way to ensure that the readers are in the dark about who the main conspirators are, even towards the end of the story. This intrigue is compounded as Sidebottom gives his audience a tantalising view of the antagonists meeting while also frustrating the readers by ensuring that these characters use codenames when talking to each other. As a result, the reader is intently drawn into the story by both the protagonist’s mad dash through the city and the immense desire to work out who the conspirators are and what their full plan is.
In addition to its electrifying thriller elements, The Last Hour also features an incredible exploration of ancient Rome and the range of people the protagonist encounters during his time in the city. Sidebottom is determined to highlight several different groups of people that were a factor in the city, including the city watch, the Praetorian guards, the emperor’s Germanic bodyguards and the frumentarii, who served as the emperor’s secret police. Each of these groups is an essential part of the emperor’s security and has a significant role to play in this novel, and the readers will be intrigued by Sidebottom’s descriptions of each of them. Ballista also encounters a range of other Roman citizens, from simple shopkeepers and men of the street to members of the city’s criminal underground, cults of Egyptian priests, hidden Christians and even drunk Roman nobles looking to assault people they meet on the street. Each of these adds to the rich tapestry of the historical city that Sidebottom has woven into existence. This tapestry is further enhanced by Sidebottom’s determination to provide detailed examinations of several of ancient Rome’s buildings and locations. These range from historically significant locations, like the coliseum, the Praetorian camp and the emperor’s palace, to more mundane locations that were a unique feature of the city of Rome, such as massive bathhouses and large apartment-style buildings. All these historical elements serve as terrific background for this extraordinary thriller based story.
Readers of this book are also in for an action-packed treat as the protagonist rampages through ancient Rome, continuously fighting off either the people hunting him or the regular citizens of Rome attacking him for their own reasons. As a result, The Last Hour is filled with innumerable action sequences that are guaranteed to amuse and delight all the action fanatics out there. Readers will be gifted with sequences that include a crazy fight and flight across the rooftops of the city, and a down-and-dirty fight in the steamy and mechanical workings of a bathhouse. There is also a siege on the roof of one of the city’s monuments and a large pitched battle in the streets of Rome. These fight scenes are great fun and increase in intensity throughout the book as the protagonist’s countdown goes on.
Harry Sidebottom has once again produced an incredible, fast-paced and exceedingly exciting action novel that combines the very best elements of a first-rate thriller with all the research and detail of an excellent historical fiction novel. A truly unique and utterly entertaining piece of literature, The Last Hour once again shows why Sidebottom is one of the very best authors writing about ancient Rome.