The Lost Ten by Harry Sidebottom

The Lost Ten Cover

Publisher: Zaffre (Hardcover – 18 April 2019)

Series: Standalone

Length: 351 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of my favourite authors, Harry Sidebottom, returns with another excellent piece of Roman historical fiction, The Lost Ten.

Sidebottom is a particularly skilled historical fiction author who has written some amazing novels in the last 10 years, all of which have focused on the Roman Empire in the turbulent 3rd century AD. His works have included his excellent Warrior of Rome series, which features one of the first books I ever reviewed, King of Kings, and his well-researched Throne of the Caesars series. Sidebottom also wrote a fantastic historical fiction/thriller hybrid last year, The Last Hour, a truly awesome book that featured the protagonist of his Warrior of Rome series. The author has continued his intriguing experiment of combining historical fiction with other thriller sub-genres in his latest book, The Lost Ten, which I have been looking forward to for a while.

Rome, 265 AD. Junior Roman officer Marcus Aelius Valens is instructed to join a small squad of soldiers on a daring raid into Persia. Their objective is to infiltrate the country and make their way to the dreaded Castle of Silence, an impregnable prison high up in the mountains. Once there, they are to free young Prince Sasan, the King of Persia’s disgraced nephew, and bring him back to Rome.

Journeying to the Roman border, Valens joins up with an eclectic group of soldiers recruited from the frumentarii, Rome’s infamous secret agents. An outsider amongst these hard-bitten soldiers, Valens suddenly finds himself in command when an ambush kills their commanding officer. Aware of the consequences of abandoning their mission, Valens leads his troops onwards to Persia.

However, the closer they get to the Castle of Silence, the more misfortune seems to befall the small unit. As his soldiers die one at a time, Valens begins to believe that there is a traitor among them who does not wish for their mission to succeed. Can Valens unmask the saboteur before it is too late, or will the squad die trying to achieve their impossible mission?

This was another spectacular read from Sidebottom, who has once again done a fantastic job bringing modern thriller vibes to an ancient Roman historical setting. The Lost Ten is a fast-paced action adventure, with a clever plot hook and an excellent band of new characters that I had a lot of fun reading and which lived up to my high expectations for this novel.

While his Warrior of Rome books always had a bit of a thriller feel to them, as Ballista was usually hunting down some form of traitor or spy, Sidebottom has recently started to push the envelope even further by combining together Roman historical fiction with a variety of different thriller sub-genres. His previous novel, The Last Hour, was essentially 24 set in ancient Rome, and his next novel is apparently going to emulate a Scandi noir novel in the hills of Calabria. In The Lost Ten, Sidebottom utilises a special forces thriller storyline which sees Roman troops attempt an impossible infiltration deep into enemy territory. As a result, this novel reads a lot like an episode of Seal Team or The Unit if the team had to infiltrate antique Persia. In order to complete their objective, the team has to arrive at the border incognito, set up a cover story as traders, and then pass into Persian territory, fooling the locals and military as they near their goal. Once there, they have to find a way into the impenetrable fortress and then get their hostage out of Persia alive while being pursued by a massive army. This results in an extremely exciting and action-packed novel that was an absolute blast to read. I loved seeing all these classic spy scenarios play out in this classic Persian setting, and the special forces storylines work exceedingly well with the historical fiction background. Sidebottom has really hit onto a winning formula by mashing these genres together, and I am very excited to see how his next book turns out.

One of the aspects of The Lost Ten that I really enjoyed was the great characters who made up the Roman unit heading into Persia. Sidebottom has written a great group of protagonists with some rather interesting character traits and individual stories. The main character, Valens, who serves as the principle point-of-view character, has an intriguing arc that sees him go from being a naïve and disheartened young solider, to canny veteran troop leader throughout the course of the book. The rest of the Ten are a fantastic mixture of distinctive and rough killers who really don’t want to be going along on this mission. These troops help give the story a real Dirty Dozen vibe which I quite enjoyed, and it was also fantastic to see the group come together as they faced adversity.

In addition, it is revealed early on in the book that one of the squad characters is a traitor who is actively working to sabotage the mission. However, the identity of this double agent is not revealed until much later in the story. Instead, several chapters are shown from the perspective of the traitor, showing what actions he is taking to betray the team, such as killing the original commander or organising ambushes from bandits. As more and more misfortunes befall the group, Valens becomes suspicious and starts trying to identify the saboteur in the ranks, resulting in a wonderful storyline that plays into the thriller aspect of the book exceedingly well. Sidebottom does a clever job of hiding the identity of the traitor for the majority of the story, and the reader is fed a series of clues to slowly work out who it is. The reader is also shown the hidden character’s motivations for betraying the others, and the political and personal realities that are driving him. All of this comes to a fantastic conclusion, and this was an excellent part of the story that Sidebottom handles exceedingly well.

Sidebottom once again makes great use of the 3rd century Roman setting that has been a defining feature of all his previous novels. The Lost Ten is set in the same universe as all of Sidebottom’s other books and occurs in the same year as The Last Hour. There are actually several mentions of Sidebottom’s recurring protagonist, Ballista, and it sounds like he is getting into trouble campaigning in Gaul. The author does an amazing job showcasing the rough lands that lie between the Roman Empire and Persia and all the difficulties that would have occurred travelling to the Persian Empire. As the protagonists enter Persia, the readers get an interesting look at the landscape and Persian customs, many of which seem strange to the Romans and result in much contemplation and discussion. Sidebottom shows off several interesting areas of Persia, and it is clear that he has done his research into this location. The author also heads back to the familiar setting of ancient Rome, allowing the reader to get a good sense of the political situation in 265 AD. Sidebottom also examines the role of the frumentarii, Rome’s secret police/agents, who have appeared in several of his novels before. The various actions of this organisation are really intriguing, and it was cool to see modern spy tactics at work in this historical setting. There were some absolutely fascinating historical inclusions in this book that I had a lot of fun reading, and they proved to be an excellent backdrop to The Lost Ten’s thrilling storylines.

The Lost Ten is an outstanding book from Sidebottom that shows why he is one of the most captivating authors of Roman historical fiction in the world today. The author’s decision to combine a contemporary special forces thriller storyline with a well-researched historical setting payed dividends and resulted in a compelling and exciting read.   As a result, this book comes highly recommended and is a must-read for those people looking for an exciting historical thriller. I am looking forward to Sidebottom’s next book and cannot wait to see what he produces next.

The Last Hour by Harry Sidebottom

The Last Hour Cover.jpg

Publisher: Zaffre

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 CaesarsThe 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.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars