Magnus and the Crossroads Brotherhood by Robert Fabbri

Magnus and the Crossroads Brotherhood Cover

Publisher: Corvus (Hardcover – 3 December 2019)

Series: Crossroads Brotherhood – Collected Edition

Length: 369 pages

My Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5 stars

From the mind of one of the most entertaining authors of historical fiction, Robert Fabbri, comes Magnus and the Crossroads Brotherhood, a superb collection of fun and exciting short stories set in the same universe as Fabbri’s bestselling Vespasian series.

Over the last couple of years, Fabbri’s Vespasian series has been one of my absolute favourite historical fiction series out there, so much so that Fabbri is now one of those authors whose works I will automatically buy, no questions asked. The Vespasian books, which ran between 2011 and 2019, examined the life story of the titular character, Vespasian, and showed the events that eventually led to him becoming emperor of Rome. Fabbri utilised a mixture of historical facts and a number of fictionalised potential adventures to tell an entertaining story which also mixed in some of the wildest and most over-the-top recorded tales of ancient Rome and its Emperors. This series featured a huge cast of figures from Roman history and it also made use of several fictional characters of Fabbri’s own design to move the story along. While the books featured several great fictional characters, the most significant of these was Magnus.

Marcus Salvius Magnus, mostly referred to as Magnus in the series, was Vespasian’s best friend, confidant and fixer throughout the series and was at his side for most of the wild adventures Vespasian found himself on. Magnus was the leader of the South Quirinal Crossroads Brotherhood, one of the major criminal gangs in ancient Rome, but he also worked for his patron, Vespasian’s uncle, Gaius Vespasius Pollo, and helped him and his nephews rise politically. Magnus appeared in all nine Vespasian books and was a major part of the series. Fabbri evidently enjoyed featuring him in his stories as he was also used as the protagonist of the Crossroads Brotherhood series of novellas, which featured six separate novellas released between 2011 and 2018.

Magnus and the Crossroads Brotherhood is the first full collection of the six Crossroads Brotherhood novellas, which follow the adventures of Magnus and his brethren as they navigate the dangerous criminal underbelly of ancient Rome. Set out in chronological order across several points in the Vespasian series (which was set over the course of 40-plus years), these various short stories each feature a different criminal enterprise, including fixing a chariot race, manipulating an arms dealer, and property speculation, all whilst trying to stay on top of the city’s rival criminal organisations and surviving the crazy whims of Rome’s rulers.

This was a fun and exciting book that I really enjoyed, and I am exceptionally glad that I was able to read all these great novellas inside a single book. Fabbri has produced some truly entertaining tales which not only tie in with and close up some gaps in the Vespasian series but also provide a much more in-depth look at one of the series’ more amusing characters and the criminal undertakings he was getting up to in ancient Rome.

The featured novellas were a lot of fun to read, and I really liked the clever and fast-paced stories contained within them. Fabbri did an exceptional job of using the short story format to introduce and conclude a compelling tale as this book features some absolute rippers, each of which is around 60 pages long. The author has come up with some very intriguing scenarios for each of these short stories, all of which follow Magnus as he embarks on a new scheme or implements elaborate and at times brutal plans to gain power and wealth and address some form of threat to his criminal organisation. The sheer variety of criminal enterprises that Fabbri came up with is very impressive, and I enjoyed seeing how the author imagined Roman politics and crime would have intersected. I also liked how some of the crimes that the protagonists engaged in had a more modern flair to them, such as engaging in the lucrative opium trade. Out of all of these short stories, I think my favourite was the second one featured in this book, The Racing Factions. The Racing Factions followed Magnus as he attempted to fix a chariot race, to not only make himself and his associates a lot of money but also get revenge on a crooked bookie who foolishly tried to cheat Magnus out of his winnings. This story was filled with all manner of double-crosses, plotting, manipulations and intrigue, as Magnus put all the pieces into place for his revenge, resulting in a chaotic and entertaining story that can be quickly read in a short period of time. While The Racing Factions was my favourite short story, there were honestly no weak links in this book, and I loved every novella that was included, especially as I was able to easily read their entire stories in a single session each.

While each of the novellas can easily be enjoyed as standalone stories, there are some real benefits to reading all of them within this collected edition. The main advantage is that the reader gets to see each of the stories progress in chronological order over the course of many years. This allows us to see how Magnus slowly evolves over the years, becoming more devious as he ages, and it is interesting to see what happens to the various side characters in the novellas. While some of Magnus’s companions age with their leader and seem ready to retire with him, you also get to see the rise of Magnus’s successor, Tigran. Tigran is introduced in the first novel as a street urchin, and he rises up the ranks each story, eventually becoming a viable contender for Magnus’s throne. The slowly building tension between Magnus and the ambitious Tigran is quite intriguing, and it makes for a really fun confrontation in the final book. I also liked how having all the novellas in one place allowed Fabbri to showcase the continued street war between the South Quirinal Crossroads Brotherhood and their rivals the West Viminal Brethren. The West Viminal Brethren make several plays for Magnus’s interests throughout the course of the books, and many of the criminal plans featured where Magnus’s destructive retaliation, which caused some real trouble for the West Viminal Brethren and their leader.

While the character of Vespasian only briefly appears in a couple of stories within Magnus and the Crossroads Brotherhood, this book has some major connections to the Vespasian series. While each of these novellas has their own self-contained adventures, one of the main reasons they were written was to help fill in the gaps between the various Vespasian books. As a result, some of the novellas provide background on how Vespasian or his brother came to be in some key position of power or unique place at the start of certain books within the series. There were also some examinations of how Magnus was able to readily come up with key ideas that were later used in the main books, such as how he came up with a certain inventive murder technique that was necessary to eventually eliminate one of Vespasian’s opponents. These novellas also helped explain the reasons why Magnus was often away from Rome in the company of Vespasian rather than staying in the city running his criminal brotherhood. Through short introductions that appear in front of each novella featured in this book, Fabbri explains the context of each of these and details what gaps he was trying to fill. This of course means that Magnus and the Crossroads Brotherhood is going to hold a lot more appeal to those readers who are already familiar with the Vespasian series, especially as they will have a much better appreciation for each of these novella’s backgrounds. That being said, no knowledge of any of the Vespasian books is really required to enjoy the fun stories contained within this collected edition, and Magnus and the Crossroads Brotherhood would actually be a fantastic introduction to Fabbri’s excellent historical fiction series.

I quite enjoyed the intriguing snapshots of ancient Rome that Fabbri included in each of the novellas. There are some truly fascinating aspects of Roman life explored in this book, from the popularity of the chariot races for all levels of society, the various forms of law enforcement patrolling the streets, the role criminal organisations may have played and many other cool historical elements. I personally really liked how most of the stories were centred on some form of ancient Roman festival or celebration. There are some obscure and weird festivals occurring here, from one celebration that sees organised mobs from the various neighbourhoods fight over the head of a sacrificed horse, to another festival where the Rome’s dogs are brutally punished for failing to stop an ancient invasion of the city. These prove to be distinctive and interesting backdrops for several of the stories, especially as the protagonist uses several elements of these celebrations in his schemes, in often entertaining ways. As a result, this is a great read for fans of ancient Roman fiction, and I guarantee you will find some intriguing and entertaining portrays of Roman culture and society in this book.

Magnus and the Crossroads Brotherhood is a fantastic new addition from the amazing Robert Fabbri, which proved to be an exceedingly entertaining book. I really loved being able to read all of these excellent novellas in one place and I deeply enjoyed every one of their exciting and captivating stories. This is a perfect companion piece to Fabbri’s outstanding Vespasian series, and there is quite a lot to love about this collection of fun novellas. Compelling pieces of fiction like this is one of the main reasons why Fabbri is one of my favourite historical fiction authors at the moment, and I cannot wait to get my hands on his upcoming book, To the Strongest.

Emperor of Rome by Robert Fabbri

Emperor of Rome Cover

Publisher: Corvus (February 2019)

Series: Vespasian – Book 9

Length: 349 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

After eight years of being one of my favourite yearly highlights of the Roman historical fiction scene, Robert Fabbri brings his bestselling Vespasian series to an end with the ninth and final book, Emperor of Rome.

Rome, 68 AD. Vespasian started his life as the second son of a rich but rural Roman family from the Sabine Hills. Looked down upon by the older Roman families for his family’s humble origins, Vespasian was never expected to obtain any major power in Rome. But after nearly 40 years of political intrigue, unusual adventures and a distinguished military career, Vespasian may actually be in a position to claim the ultimate prize: becoming Emperor of the Roman Empire.

Ever since he first arrived at the city of Rome at the young age of 16, Vespasian has lived under several unhinged or easily manipulated emperors of the Julio-Claudian line, each of whom was worse than the last. The latest of these emperors, the ruthless and insane Nero, has ordered Vespasian to put down a major rebellion in the Roman province of Judaea. However, this appointment is the ultimate no-win situation. If he fails in his task, his family’s prestige and political future are over. But if he succeeds in bringing the rebellion to an end with a successful military campaign, he will incur Nero’s lethal jealousy for obtaining glory that could make him more popular than the Emperor. As Vespasian debates what course of action to take, news from Rome will change everything.

The rebellion of several legions and their noble commanders has forced Nero to commit suicide, and his death results in a massive power vacuum. Vespasian, being in charge of two legions and having allies governing key provinces, is now a major contender for the throne, especially with his brother Sabinus lobbying for him back in Rome. Moreover, for years Vespasian has been gifted with signs and portents of his eventual rise to power, and he wants to claim his destiny. However, Vespasian is not the only person with dreams of imperial power, and several others are marching on Rome. The Year of the Four Emperors has begun, and only one man will be left standing.

Robert Fabbri’s Vespasian series are fun and at times over-the-top novelisations of the life of one of Rome’s most important emperors. The main series is made up of nine books, but there is also a related standalone novel, Arminius: The Limits of Empire, as well as the ebook-only Crossroads series. I have been a huge fan of the series for some time and have read and reviewed several of the books in the series, as well as the Arminius novel, although only my review for the previous Vespasian novel, Rome’s Sacred Flame, is currently featured on my blog. This series really has been a favourite of mine for some time, and I have been looking forward to Emperor of Rome for a few months. Unfortunately, this book does mark the end of the series, as Fabbri brings his epic story to a close and finally brings his chosen Emperor to the throne.

Emperor of Rome is a fantastic new addition to this awesome series. It tackles the chaotic period following the death of Nero, known as the Year of the Four Emperors. I felt that Fabbri did a fantastic job finally showing the ascension of Vespasian to the throne and covering a number of other interesting historical events, many of which would have widespread implications in the future. The overall story is a great blend of action and politics, and it also ends the story of several important characters from the series, as well as the rise of some of the next generation of Roman politicians and rulers.

Emperor of Rome is primarily told from the point of view of its protagonist, Vespasian, as he campaigns in the east of the Roman Empire. This allows for Fabbri to tell a different story to some of the other historical fiction novels that feature the Year of the Four Emperors. Rather than get bogged down in the politics happening in Rome, the focus is instead completely on Vespasian and his companions as they observe the chaotic events occurring in Rome from afar while trying to decide the best time for Vespasian to make his move. I thought that this was a rather clever way to look at the story as it let Fabbri examine the potential political, military and personal implications of each of Vespasian’s actions during this period, especially as early moves on Vespasian’s part might have seen him be overthrown by some other potential candidate for the throne. Emperor of Rome also showcases the early reign of Vespasian to a degree, and it was great to finally see the character gain the throne after nine books.

In addition to the examination of Vespasian’s bid to become emperor, Fabbri also focussed on Vespasian’s campaign in Judea, which is a significant event in Middle Eastern history. For much of the book, the province of Judea (modern Israel/Palestine) and its Jewish population are in revolt against the Romans. Vespasian, and later his son Titus, lead a particularly vicious campaign against the population, killing or enslaving thousands. Fabbri spends quite a lot of time describing the events of this conflict, sometimes known as the First Jewish-Roman War, and mostly relies on the accounts of the Romano-Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote several works on the subject and actually appears as a character in Emperor of Rome, as a basis for this story. Fabbri does an amazing job providing an account of this conflict. A number of key events of this war are covered in this book, including several ridiculous events that apparently actually occurred around the siege of Jotapata. I was greatly intrigued by the author’s novelisation of this conflict, as I had not read too much about it before in other works of historical fiction. The author brings a gritty realism to the conflict and does not hold back on the probable violence, cruelties and dehumanisation of the Jewish people that would have occurred during this war. This was a captivating but essential part of Vespasian’s story, and one that was necessary to explore in order to fully understand the actions required to become Emperor.

Several of the previous books in the Vespasian series have had an enjoyable supernatural edge to them, as the protagonist encountered ancient gods, prophets and sorcerers, as well as some biblical figures from early Christianity. This is continued in Emperor of Rome, mainly in the form of omens and prophecies that Vespasian has received in the previous books that show he is destined to be a great ruler, such as his viewing of a phoenix while on a mission in Africa. In this book, many of these signs come together, encouraging Vespasian to finally make his bid for Emperor. The look at the influence of such omens and prophecies added an intriguing element to the overall story. I also liked how some of the prophecies and predictions of the some of the characters were relevant to larger historical events in the future, such as the spread of Christianity or the current conflict in modern Israel/Palestine. These supernatural elements have always been one of the things that helped distinguish the Vespasian books from other Roman historical fiction series out there, and it was great to see so many of the events from the previous books finally come together here in the final chapter of the book.

Emperor of Rome is an amazing conclusion to this outstanding and entertaining historical fiction series. Fabbri has always had the fantastic ability to turn historical fact into wild and captivating tale filled with action, intrigue and historical excesses, and in this final book he once again takes several intriguing historical events and uses them to craft another excellent story. I will miss reading the Vespasian series each year, but at the same time I am also very excited, as Fabbri’s next series, The Alexander Legacies, is set to be released next year, and it sounds like it will look at some other exciting times in ancient history.

The Devil’s Half Mile by Paddy Hirsch

The Devil's Half Mile Cover.jpg

Publisher: Corvus

Australian Publication Date – 25 July 2018

World Publication Date – 22 May 2018

 

The Devil’s Half Mile is a spectacular debut from new author Paddy Hirsch that combines history, mystery and financial wrongdoings into one gripping read set in the heart of historic 1799 New York.

On the eve of the 19th century, freshly graduated lawyer Justice “Justy” Flanagan, returns to his home city of New York after fighting the English in the Irish Rebellion.  Changed by his education and his memories of the vicious war, Justy is determined to investigate the tragic death of his father.  Most people believe that his father, a speculative trader, committed suicide following his role in the Wall Street Panic of 1792.  However, Justy is convinced that his father was actually murdered and he is determined to find out the truth.

After reconnecting with old friends and family, Justy starts his investigation by seeking work in the fledging Wall Street stock market.  As he begins to examine the fraud and the people that led up to the last great financial panic, he finds that his most promising leads are all long gone, while any new witnesses he encounters soon turn up dead.  In addition, Justy is drawn into the case of a brutal killer who is stalking the streets of New York, targeting women and leaving them dead and disfigured.

Establishing a connection between the death of his father, the 1792 crash and the current spate of murders, Justy finds himself embroiled in a massive conspiracy that could bring down the fledgling American nation.  With his friends in danger and with few people that he can trust, Justy must use all his skills to unravel this plot or else wind up the same way as his father.

The Devil’s Half Mile is an excellent piece of historical crime fiction that contains an impressive dark mystery designed to enthral the reader with its rich and compelling cat-and-mouse game between the protagonist and the antagonists facing him.  There are a number of great twists and turns throughout this story, as well as some truly surprising reveals, astonishing character decisions and dark and unique motivations for the underlying conspiracy.  Hirsch has also filled this book with some dark and tense moments, including a fantastic sequence in which the protagonists and his comrades engage in a shadowy fight aboard a docked ship, with both sides trying to find and outthink the other in the darkness.

A real standout part of this book is Hirsch’s fabulous use of the historical setting of New York.  Back in 1799, New York was a large town, quickly growing in size and importance.  The author includes some amazing descriptions of the city’s landscape and buildings during this period as the reader is brought back in time to this historical cityscape.  There is a real effort to showcase how the people of this era lived, and includes examinations of the people inhabiting the city and the young nation of America, with a particular focus on the criminals, the former slaves, the Wall Street traders and the fledgling police force.  The author has also done a spectacular job of conveying how people of New York felt during this time, as well as the sense they had about the importance and potential future of the city.

Hirsch has also ensured that this novel is filled with a huge amount of time-appropriate vocabulary.  This vocabulary is inserted throughout the entire story and gives it a real sense of authenticity and accuracy.  This also includes a comprehensive appendix that contains all the slang and terms used throughout the book.  If you have ever been keen to see ‘fart catcher’ or ‘snakesman’ used in context with a story, this is the book for you.

The book’s title, The Devil’s Half Mile, is a reference to Wall Street, the banking and stock-trading hub of New York.  Because of its prominence in the book’s overarching mystery storyline, significant time is spent examining the financial aspects of this young city, with a particular focus on one early example of modern economic history, the Panic of 1792.  The Panic of 1792 was a financial credit loss that rocked America only a few years after the country’s banking service was first introduced.  Hirsch, who has a financial background, explores the origins of this panic and does an amazing job tying it into the plot of the story and using it as a motive for the book’s various murders.  There are some absolutely captivating descriptions of the early Wall Street stock market, as the author explores its origns in coffee houses, how trade was undertaken, and the rules and early regulations that controlled it back then.  This examination of the stock market is a fascinating part of The Devil’s Half Mile, and all of it works well as a part of dark, murder mystery story.  Readers should also keep an eye out for mentions and brief cameos from American historical figures that were a part of the burgeoning bank scene, including Alexander Hamilton.

The author has created a great protagonist for this story.  While at first Justy seems to be a basic main character, with a huge range of skills and plans, such as being a lawyer, soldier, policeman and man familiar with the city’s criminal element, it soon becomes apparent that he has a dark side to him, as the author spends time examining his history during the 1798 Irish Rebellion.  The protagonist has been changed by his wartime experiences, and this plays well into the main story, as he tries not to let the horrors he experienced and perpetrated affect who he is.  This deeper examination of the character’s past also allows the reader a glimpse of the Irish Rebellion, a part of history rarely even mentioned in historical fiction.  Examining the cause, how it was fought and some of the people involved is a great story in itself, and I can easily see parts of it being used in future books in this series.  It also gives a bit of backstory for Lars Hokkanssen, the large half-Irish, half-Norwegian sailor comrade of Justy, who is definitely one of the best side characters in the book.

Filled with an enthralling overarching mystery and brilliant settings, this superb story is an amazing debut from newcomer Paddy Hirsch.  Featuring unique looks at underutilised parts of history and one of the best examinations of old school New York you’re likely to find in all of fiction, this is a highly recommended read and a great piece of historical fiction.

My Rating:

Four stars

Rome’s Sacred Flame by Robert Fabbri

Rome's Sacred Flame Cover

Publisher: Corvus

Australian Publication Date – 1 February 2018

World Publication Date – 24 January 2018

 

Explore the dark side of Roman history in the new novel from veteran historical fiction author Robert Fabbri.

In Rome, 63 AD, Nero reigns as Emperor.  Meanwhile, Vespasian has been given the lucrative appointment of Governor of Africa, exploiting the rewards of his previous adventures.  Before Vespasian can settle into the role of governor, he must first travel to the remote desert kingdom of Garama to negotiate the release of hundreds of Roman citizens held as slaves.  He and his companions, Magnus and Hormus, arrive on the eve of a slave revolt that threatens the entire kingdom.  Forced to flee across the desert with hundreds of freed slaves and few provisions, the Romans must avoid the chaos of Garama while also dealing with traitors in their midst and harsh desert conditions.

However, even revolting slaves and desperate conditions hold little danger compared to the problems brewing within Rome.  Nero’s reign has reached new peaks of insanity and chaos.  Like his predecessors, Nero is depraved and deranged, humiliating the citizens of Rome while destroying all who displease him. When he returns to Rome, Vespasian soon discovers that all the previous Emperors he had survived were nowhere near as dangerous as Nero.  Vespasian determines that it is time for the reign of Nero and the unstable Julio-Claudian bloodline to end.

However, Vespasian has made many enemies over the years, and all are plotting to use the unstable Emperor as a deadly weapon to destroy him and his family.  Vespasian must use all his skill and daring to survive while also trying to turn the chaos to his own advantage.  With conspiracies and danger all around, few will survive, especially with the Great Fire of Rome about to engulf the city.

Fabbri is a prominent and prolific author of Roman historical fiction whose distinctive books have one of the most entertaining examinations of Roman history.  Rome’s Sacred Flame is the eighth book in Fabbri’s Vespasian series, not including Arminius: The Limits of Empire, a recent standalone novel which runs parallel to the events of earlier books in the series.

This is an engaging series exploring the exploits of the future Emperor of Rome, Vespasian, during the earlier days of his life as he rose to power.  Fabbri makes use of what little is known about Vespasian’s early political career by including all the moments of his life recorded in the surviving Roman histories.  Fabbri also works the character of Vespasian into a number of key historical events that happened during his lifetime, such as famous deaths, ascensions, wars and other more infamous incidents.  All of the books in the Vespasian series describe a wide range of memorable episodes in Roman history, even though it is unlikely, but not impossible, that Vespasian, who was a prominent senator during these times, would have been involved.

Rome’s Sacred Flame continues this trend by inserting Vespasian right into the middle of some of the more interesting events of the Emperor Nero’s reign.  Through Vespasian’s eyes we see some of Nero’s infamous parties, one of the more significant plots against the Emperor’s life, the brewing persecution of the Christians, and, most importantly, the Great Fire of Rome, during which, some sources indicate, the Emperor played the lyre as the city burned.  Many fans of history will love the detail that Fabbri goes into when he examines all the events surrounding the fire: the politics of the time, the initial outbreak of the fire, the attempts to fight it, Nero’s supposed response, the fire’s conclusion and the eventual rebuilding of the city.

Readers will also be intrigued by Fabbri’s inclusion and interpretation of the Garmantes and their capital city of Garama.  The Garamantes were the people of a small kingdom that historians and archaeologists believe existed in south-western Libya around the same time as the Roman Empire was at its peak.  Many historical fiction writers have neglected the Garamantes in their works, instead favouring the more impressive enemies of Rome, so Fabbri’s use of the limited historical and archaeological facts available to create a unique society and civilization for his story is particularly interesting.

Like the other books in Fabbri’s Vespasian series, Rome’s Sacred Flame contains a large number of scenes that focus on the supposed depravity of Rome, especially during the reigns of last Julio-Claudian emperors.  This results in a compelling and engaging narrative, especially as Fabbri takes pains to describe these scenes in great detail, building a terrific story on what little historical evidence is available.  It is also offers something different to many of the other current Roman historical fiction series, which recently have tended to shy away from exploring these events to the same degree.

Once again, Fabbri has produced a highly exciting and thoroughly entertaining addition to his best-selling series.  Fans of Roman historical fiction will love the unique viewpoints and historical conclusions Fabbri explores in Rome’s Sacred Flame, as well as the exploration of Rome’s supposed dark side.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars