Commodus by Simon Turney

Commodus Cover

Publisher: Orion (Trade Paperback – 11 June 2019)

Series: The Damned Emperors – Book 2

Length: 482 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Acclaimed historical fiction author Simon Turney catalogues another infamous ruler of Rome in the second book of his The Damned Emperors series, Commodus.

Rome, 162 AD. The Roman Empire is in a rare period of peace and stability, with two brothers, Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, both ruling as Emperor. The future also looks bright, as for the first time in Rome’s history, two male heirs have been born to a ruling Emperor. However, only one of these children is destined to become Emperor and make his own mark on history. His name is Commodus.

Raised as Rome’s golden child, Commodus eventually succeeds his father as Emperor following a period of war, rebellion and disease. Beloved by the people and loathed by the Senate, Commodus styles himself as Hercules reborn, becoming a great patron and competitor of gladiatorial fights, chariot races and other feats of martial strength. However, behind the scenes, Commodus’s life has been filled with tragedy and despair, and he hides a darker side beneath his golden exterior.

As Commodus succumbs more and more to his inner demons, Rome is rocked by power struggles and plots, as his family and servants attempt to control or usurp the unpredictable Emperor. Only one woman, Marcia, truly understands Commodus and can keep his mind together. Born a simple palace servant, Marcia was the love of Commodus’s life and a skilled player of Roman politics. However, not even Marcia can contain Commodus’s self-destructive urges forever, and eventually she must decide whether she will die at the hands of her great love or make the ultimate betrayal.

Commodus is the second book in Turney’s The Damned Emperors series, which takes a look at some of the most tragic, infamous and self-destructive rulers of ancient Rome. After presenting an exciting tale of insanity and vengeance in Caligula, Turney now takes a look at one of the most intriguing emperors in Roman history, Commodus. The result is a powerful, well-written and captivating piece of historical fiction that I absolutely fell in love with and which easily earns a full five-star rating from me.

Commodus is truly one of the more fascinating figures in Roman history, which is saying a lot. While most would probably know him as the villain in the movie Gladiator, as portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, he actually had a long and controversial reign, with many events that are hard to believe. As a result, a book focusing on his life is bound to be interesting; however, Turney goes above and beyond, presenting a well-researched and deeply compelling novelisation of Commodus’s life. Not only does Turney explore some of the more extraordinary aspects of Commodus’s reign, such as his devotion to becoming the new Hercules, his exploits in the arena or the cult of personality he formed around himself, but Turney also attempts to explain why he may have done them. This results in a clever and thought-provoking look at the entirety of Commodus’s life, including several formative events that are known, or are likely to have happened, and which may have led to some of his more extreme actions later in life. I really enjoyed the potential scenarios that Turney came up with to explain Commodus’s personality, and his justifications featured towards the end of the book are really quite interesting and very compelling. There are also some interesting historical tweaks to some of Commodus’s actions, but I feel that these work in the wider aspect of the story and help to create a more believable narrative. The end result is an outstanding examination of this fascinating historical figure which will allow the reader to see Commodus in a whole new light.

Turney has done an amazing job telling this story, thanks in part to the use of an excellent point-of-view character. The story is told from the perspective of Marcia, the women in love with Commodus, and is set out as a personal chronicle of Marcia’s actions, which run parallel to the life of Commodus. Turney takes more historical liberties with this character and re-imagines Marcia as a close childhood friend of Commodus. The use of Marcia as the story’s narrator and the subsequent re-imagining of parts of her life story are done extremely well, allowing the author to have a single, consistent narrator who is constantly close to the main character. This was the best way to tell the complete story of Commodus’s life, and it was an amazing storytelling device from Turney which completely justifies historical variations in the character.

Using Marcia as the point-of-view character also allowed Turney to tell an addictive historical tale of love, revenge, ambition and tragedy. Marcia is a tragic character in this book, and her storyline is really quite powerful. The daughter of a servant in the Imperial Palace, Marcia is allowed to grow close to Commodus, becoming his childhood friend and confidant before circumstances conspire to keep them apart. However, Marcia’s determination to be with Commodus results in a series of power plays, plots and other nefarious actions as she tries both to free herself and to deal with other people who wish to influence the Emperor. Despite some of the terrible actions she commits, Marcia comes across as a very sympathetic character in this book, and your heart goes out to her with some of the setbacks she encounters. Her romance with Commodus, while caring and filled with love, is also very dramatic, as Commodus’s moods and the influences of others in his circle often place strains and boundaries on them being together. The final, tragic result of this story is told extremely well, as the reader gets to see the highs of their love, swiftly followed by the swift, one-sided deterioration of their relationship. This results in a devastating conclusion to the book, and the reader is left reeling at how this romance comes to an end.

In addition to the story of Commodus and Marcia, Turney also does an excellent job exploring Roman history and events during the span of Commodus’s life in the second half of the second century. Some truly fascinating events occurred during this period of Roman history, including wars, plagues and the reign of proxy tyrants such as Cleander and Perennis. The author covers these events in some detail, and it is really interesting to see how some of the events unfolded, how long they lasted and what actions led up to them. Commodus is also filled with a number of intriguing depictions of Roman life, and the various ancient Roman settings proved to be an amazing background for this great story.

Commodus is a first-rate novel and easily one of my favourite pieces of historical fiction for 2019. Turney is an incredibly skilled author whose dedication to historical detail pairs well with his amazing ability to tell a dramatic and powerful story. Commodus comes highly recommended, and I cannot wait to see which flawed ruler of Rome Turney focuses on in his next instalment of The Damned Emperors series.

Throwback Thursday – The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton

The Andromeda Strain Cover.jpg

Publishers: Brilliance Audio (Audiobook Edition – 26 May 2015)

                        Knopf (12 May 1969)

Series: Standalone/Book 1

Length: 8 hours 15 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed as part of my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.

For this week’s Throwback Thursday I take a look at a classic techno-thriller from legendary author Michael Crichton, The Andromeda Strain.

The Andromeda Strain was released nearly 50 years ago, in May 1969, and represented a bold new direction from Crichton, who had previously done several pulpy crime novels, such as Odds On and Scratch One, under the name John Lange, as well as the medical crime thriller A Case of Need, which he wrote under the name Jeffrey Hudson.  The Andromeda Strain was considered to be part of the new techno-thriller genre and is still considered to be a major example of this genre.

I have only read three of Crichton’s books before, including Jurassic Park (for obvious reasons), The Lost World and Pirate Latitudes.  While I have always intended to go back and read some more of Crichton’s works, I have never had the time to do so.  However, with the recent announcement that The Andromeda Evolution is being released in November to correspond with the 50-year anniversary of The Andromeda Strain, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to check out one of Crichton’s earlier books.  For that reason, I listened to the audiobook version of The Andromeda Strain narrated by David Morse.

When a military satellite comes down in the small town of Piedmont, Arizona, nearly all the residents in the town die.  They are victims of a mysterious new pathogen that either instantly clotted all the blood in their body or drove them to suicide.  The military quickly activate the Wildfire protocol, and a small government team of scientists and doctors take command of Piedmont and the satellite.

Believing that the satellite contains an extraterrestrial organism, the team bring it and the two survivors of Piedmont, an old man and a baby, to a secret and secure underground Wildfire laboratory for study.  Deep in the laboratory, the team attempt to identify and categorise the organism which has been given the codename Andromeda.  However, Andromeda is evolving a way no member of the Wildfire team believed possible, and not even the laboratory’s nuclear bomb safeguards may be enough to keep it contained.

After listening to The Andromeda Strain over a couple of days, I found it to be an extremely thrilling and complex novel that I really got into and which I am eager to review.  However, after 50 years and thousands of reviews I am not too sure how much I can really say about this book that has not already been said.  That being said, when looking at this book from a 2019 perspective, I feel that The Andromeda Strain is still an extremely strong techno-thriller, with some expert storytelling and an in-depth scientific base that is still relevant in this modern era.

In this book, Crichton utilised a very dry, detailed and scientific approach to his writing, slowly covering every aspect of the events unfolding before each of the protagonists, while also providing the reader with backstory on the characters and briefings on the various relevant scientific and political components of the book.  Despite this somewhat less exciting writing style, Crichton is still able to create quite a thrilling atmosphere throughout the book as the story gets closer to the inevitable disaster part of the plot.  Crichton really adds to the suspense by mentioning the various mistakes that the protagonist are making and hinting at all the problems going on around them that will eventually lead to the release of the Andromeda microbe.

I did feel that the book ended rather suddenly, and I was surprised that the investigation part of the story was still going with only a short amount of the book left to go.  I found it interesting that the part of the story that dealt with the release of Andromeda and the subsequent race to stop the nuclear explosion about to wipe out the lab was introduced so late in the book and solved so very quickly.  I was expecting a large portion of the story to focus on the main characters getting past all of the impressive contamination protocols in order to stop the nuclear explosion.  Instead, this was all solved within about 10 minutes of audiobook narration, or probably five to 10 pages of a normal book.  While I was surprised about this, I suppose it does make sense in the context of the rest of the story, where the characters and briefing material did mention several times that there was a three-minute delay between the bomb arming and the explosion.  This was all extremely thrilling, and I felt that the book is still capable of keeping authors on the edge of their seats.

One of the things that really surprised me about the book was the advanced level of technology that was featured within a story written and set in 1969.  Perhaps this is simply ignorance as a result of being a child of the 90s, but I feel it is more likely the result of Crichton having a great understanding of technology and potential future advances that might be utilised within a high-level government laboratory.  Certainly, the scientific features of this book are extremely impressive, and I felt that they were still extremely relevant and understandable in a 2019 context.  For example, all the extreme quarantine methods surrounding the Wildfire laboratory sound like perfectly reasonable steps that modern laboratories could use to keep pathogens contained.  All the discussions about viruses and micro-organisms were also incredibly detailed, and I felt that much of the information discussed around those is still relevant today, and modern audiences will still be able to understand and consider it quite easily.

I did find the concept of the Odd-Man Hypothesis to be extremely interesting.  In essence, the Odd-Man Hypothesis states that out of all the humans in the world, unmarried men are the most likely to make the best and most dispassionate decision in the face of an emergency.  This becomes a key part of the story, as one of the characters is designated as the Odd-Man and is the only person with the ability to shut off the laboratory’s nuclear self-destruct device.  Now this is one theory that does not translate to more modern times, although, in fairness, most of The Andromeda Strain’s characters did not take it that seriously either.  That being said, it was an extremely intriguing element to read about, and I enjoyed the discussion around its viability and use within the context of the story.

As I mentioned above, I chose to listen to The Andromeda Strain in its audiobook format.  There are actually a number of different audiobook versions of The Andromeda Strain out there, each with different narrators, such as an earlier version narrated by Chris Noth.  I ended up listening to the most recent audiobook version of this book, although I imagine a new version is sure to follow soon, especially with a sequel about to come out.  The version I listened to was narrated by actor David Morse and was released in 2015.  This version is 8 hours and 15 minutes long, and I found myself powering through it very quickly.

I think that the audiobook was a really great way to listen to The Andromeda Strain, as it allows the reader to absorb the huge amount of scientific detail and discussion a lot easier.  I felt that David Morse was an excellent narrator for this book, and that his basic narration voice perfectly fit the books tone and style.  Morse also comes up with some great voices for this book, and I was particularly impressed by his weary old man voice.  As a result, I would highly recommend the audiobook version of The Andromeda Strain, as it is definitely an outstanding way to the listen to this fantastic story.

Overall, I loved this dive back into the past and I had a lot of fun listening to this classic techno-thriller.  Crichton is an amazing author, especially when it comes to a more science-based story, and I am incredibly impressed that his story still holds up 50 years after it was first published.  I am extremely curious to see where the upcoming sequel, The Andromeda Evolution, takes the story, and how well new author Daniel H. Wilson replicates Crichton’s style.  This book has also encouraged me to check out some more of Crichton’s works, and I am looking forward to reading some more of this author’s excellent techno-thrillers, as well as some of his intriguing historical fiction pieces.

Cold Iron by Miles Cameron

Cold Iron Cover 1.jpg

Publisher: Hachette Audio (Audiobook Format – 30 August 2018

Series: Masters & Mages – Book 1

Length: 19 hours, 29 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

 

I recently managed to read one of the books that was featured in my Top Ten Books I Wish I Had Read In 2018 list.  I have to say I was quite impressed with this book, Cold Iron by Miles Cameron, as it is one of last year’s most intriguing fantasy reads.

Miles Cameron is the pseudonym historical fiction author Christian Cameron uses when he writes fantasy novels.  Cameron debuted in 1999 with Rules of Engagement, the first book in the seven-book long Alan Craik thriller series, which he wrote with his father, Kenneth Cameron, under the joint pseudonym of Gordon Kent.  In addition to this joint series, Cameron started writing his own novels in 2003 when he wrote his first historical fiction novel, Washington and Caesar.  Since then, Cameron has written over 15 historical fiction novels, including the multiple books in his Tyrant, Long War and Chivalry series.  In 2013, Cameron branched off again into a new genre, fantasy, with his five-book long Traitor Son Cycle, which he wrote as Miles Cameron.  Cold Iron is the first book in his brand-new fantasy series, called the Masters & Mages series.

I am mostly familiar with Cameron through his historical fiction works, having read and reviewed a couple of books in his Tyrant and Long War series early in my career.  I particularly enjoyed the first book in his Long War series, Killer of Men, which set a young protagonist from Plataea on an adventure across ancient Greece and Persia.  Unfortunately, I failed to get any of Cameron’s books in the intervening years and was completely unaware that he had written any fantasy books.  So when I came across Cold Iron and recognised the author, I was deeply intrigued and thought it would be an interesting book to check out, especially as it had been receiving some great reviews.  After mentioning it in one of my Top Ten lists, I decided to check out the audiobook version of this book a few weeks ago.  I was especially keen to check it out as the second book in the Masters & Mages series, Dark Forge, has recently been released, although it looks like this second book will be released in a number of different formats throughout the year.

Cold Iron follows Aranthur Timos, a young student at The Academy, a prestigious institute of magic, science and other scholarly pursuits that lies at the heart of a mighty empire.  Aranthur, a poor farmer’s son, is not the best student at The Academy, and aside from some slight skill with the sword, nothing sets him apart from any of the other students.  But fate has something special in store for Aranthur.  Travelling back to his family farm for the holidays, Aranthur stops at a small inn.  When bandits attack the owners of the inn, Aranthur steps in to try and help, and in doing so sets a momentous series of events into play.  His actions that night inadvertently place him in the middle of a vast and terrible conspiracy, as he comes to the attention of the inn’s other guests, including a powerful priest, a master swordsman, a young gentleman spy and an enigmatic and dangerous beauty.

After returning to The Academy, the results of Aranthur’s actions at the inn indirectly introduce him to a number of new friends that help him excel at his studies.  But a series of chaotic events are occurring across the lands.  The city surrounding The Academy is in turmoil, as factions and noble houses fight against each other.  Worse, refugees are flooding in from lands to the east, driven out of their homes by a group known as the Disciples, followers of a shadowy figure known as the Master, who seek to return the world to an ancient status quo where only the nobles have access to magic.  Despite being a simple student, Aranthur keeps finding himself in the centre of the momentous events sweeping the city.  Can Aranthur survive all the mysterious events occurring around him, and, if he does, what sort of person will he become?

I absolutely loved this book; it gets a well-deserved five stars from me.  Cold Iron is an extremely clever coming-of-age fantasy story set within an immensely detailed and inventive new world.  I have found with some of Cameron’s previous works, such as the books in his Chivalry series, that the author has a very particular writing style, such as his propensity to include large amounts of detail in his paragraphs and the utilisation of a somewhat more formal dialogue.  This style has always worked well with the author’s historical fiction work, and I felt that this writing style translated across well to this fantasy book.  It was reminiscent of some of the older classical fantasy stories, although with some more modern language.  This results in the book having a much more unique feel to it, which I found to be quite curious and actually helped draw me into the story.

The overall story of Cold Iron is quite an intriguing fantasy read that places its protagonists and point-of-view character in the centre of a worldwide conspiracy.  There are so many elements to this story to enjoy, including an excellent coming-of-age focus.  Throughout the course of the book, the protagonist, Aranthur, grows from a poor and insignificant student to a central figure in the fight for kingdoms and the freedom of magic.  The story is quite clever as it focuses on a character who, rather than being the dreaded “chosen one” fantasy trope, is instead thrust into events by accidentally being in a certain place at a certain time.  I really enjoyed how everything that happens to Aranthur throughout the book is the direct result of the one tavern fight at the start of the book, and he is drawn into the subsequent events or introduced to key characters through sheer coincidence.  The resultant conspiracy is deeply intriguing and ties in really well with Cameron’s excellent fantasy elements.  I am also a sucker for a storyline involving magical schooling or training, so I loved how this story was set within a magical university and focused quite a bit on the protagonist’s training.  All of these elements work together to produce an incredible overall narrative that I really enjoyed listening to.

For this new series, Cameron has come up with a fun and detailed fantasy world.  The Masters & Mages series is set in a sprawling world that features a number of diverse human nations.  Only a small part of this world is explored within this first book, although there are quite a number of references to nations outside of the central settings, and events occurring in these locations impact on the main story.  This world appears to be in a post-medieval point of its history, with early firearms starting to be utilised, although older technologies such as crossbows are still in use.  The setting comes across a bit like Italy or France during a similar time period, but with a magical edge to it that works quite well.  The main setting is a gigantic and rich city of canals and elaborate architecture that hosts The Academy, and this serves as a perfect location for the intriguing, conspiracy-laden fantasy story.  The city is filled with a huge number of factions, refugees and competing noble houses, creating quite a significant amount of internal political strife which plays into the story quite well.  There are also some examinations of some more rural areas within the world, and Cameron does a spectacular job of presenting the more down-to-earth folk that live in these locations.  The locations featured within this book were very well done and I look forward to seeing what new lands are explored in future books.

One of the most interesting things about the setting of the book was how several of the issues and plot points have some interesting parallels with modern issues.  For a bit of context, the world that the Masters & Mages series is set within a world where a historical revolution installed a series of reforms that granted magic and education to the lower classes.  Now even quite poor families have access to basic magic that cleanses water, helps create fires and heal people, resulting in a better class of life for the common people.  At the same time, women are able to attend classes at The Academy and learn magic and other skills.  The book’s antagonists are determined to reverse these reforms and return magic to the rich and the nobles and ensure women have no more power.  This has resulted in a number of invasions and wars that have resulted in a huge number of refugees entering the city and other locations, much to dismay of the city’s rich and powerful.  I found the motivations of the antagonists to be very interesting, and it is easy to see some real-life parallels.  Intolerance towards refugees is a major issue at the moment, and it is deeply fascinating to see this reflected in a work of fantasy fiction.  In addition, the book featured quite a lot of intolerance towards people of certain nationalities, including the protagonist’s nationality.

Highlights of Cold Iron the spectacular action sequences that occur throughout the book.  There are a substantial number of fight scenes throughout the book, featuring magic, firearms, crossbows and swordplay.  All of these action elements are pretty impressive, and I especially love some of the larger sequences, where all the above methods of combat are being utilised by both sides.  For the most part, only some basic magical techniques are used within fights, which while intriguing, do not result in any eye-popping scenes.  However, there is one sequence where two powerful magic users fight in front of the protagonist, and he sees the destructive potential of their respective magic abilities.  Without a doubt, the most amazing action element is the swordplay.  There is quite a focus on swords throughout the book as the protagonist spends a large amount of time learning and training with them before using them in a number of duals and fights.  Cameron’s insane attention to detail and incredible knowledge of sword fighting makes these scenes absolutely incredible and produce some amazing fight sequences that feel extremely realistic.  These sword fight scenes are some of the best parts of this book and I really enjoyed having them narrated to me.

I had a lot of fun with several of the characters in this book.  The main character, Aranthur, is a pretty good protagonist who goes through some substantial character development in this book.  Not only does he grow to appreciate different points of view and increase his abilities as a warrior and scholar but he actually learns from his mistakes, although in some cases, such as when it comes to learning about women, it takes a little too long.  The other characters featured within Cold Iron are an interesting group.  My favourites include Ansu, a noble from another land who brings some amusing cultural differences; Tiy Draco, a gentleman spy with unclear allegiances; and Dahlia, the feisty warrior student who highlights the abilities and determination of the female students in The Academy.  My favourite character, however, had to be Sasan, the sarcastic and fatalistic refugee and drug addict who Aranthur attempts to help.  Sasan has some of the best lines in the entire book, and his exclamations and actions when under the effect of an enhancement spell were really funny.  Each of these characters is a lot of fun, and I will be intrigued to see what future development awaits them.

I listened to Cold Iron’s audiobook format, narrated by Mark Meadows, and I had a good time listening to this book.  Clocking in at around 19 and a half hours, this is a fairly long audiobook; however, I found myself really drawn into the story, so I was able to get through it fairly quickly.  I personally thought that the audiobook format was the best way to enjoy this book due to the huge amount of detail and worldbuilding that went into this story.  I was able to focus on all the details a hell of a lot more by listening to them, and I think this helped me follow the plot with a lot less confusion.  Cold Iron’s action sequences are particularly good when narrated, and I found that the intense and elaborate sword sequences were really enhanced by this format.  Mark Meadows does a fantastic job of narrating Cold Iron and I really appreciated his work in bringing the story to life.  I felt that the voice Meadows used for the narration of Cold Iron was very appropriate, and I liked listening to all the descriptions and actions that Cameron had inserted into his story.  Meadows also came up with a range of unique voices for his various characters, each of which did a great job of conveying the character’s emotions and personality.  Part of the reason why I liked the character of Sasan so much was because of the voice that Meadows created for him and used to exclaim some of his best lines.  Overall, I would strongly recommend that readers interested in checking out Cold Iron should try its audiobook format, and I was quite glad that I did.

Before I wrap up, I just wanted to make a quick comment on Cold Iron’s cover art.  Cold Iron has two separate covers: the one I have included at the top of this review, and the one I have placed below.  I loved both of these covers individually, and I felt that they contrasted with each other quite nicely.  The first cover is very classy and really exudes an old-school fantasy vibe, which I think represents Cameron’s storytelling style quite well.  However, I did enjoy the more modern look of the second cover, and I really enjoyed the artist’s use of the simple, but effective black and white colour scheme.  Both are very impressive, and I have to say that the artists did a fantastic job with both of them.

Cold Iron Cover 2.jpg

I was very impressed by my first foray into Cameron’s fantasy writings.  Cold Iron is an exceptional piece of fantasy fiction and an easy five stars from me.  This book’s story was incredibly well written and contained a very compelling plot filled with wide-reaching conspiracies, magic and excellent characters.  Set in a brilliant new fantasy world, Cold Iron is an excellent start to the Masters & Mages series and sets it up as a fantasy series to watch out for.  Some paperback versions of the second book in the series, Dark Forge, came out a short while ago, and I am tempted to order a copy in.  However, I may wait until September, when the audiobook version is released, as I found this was a great way to enjoy the first book.  Cold Iron is an outstanding read, and I am really glad I went back and checked out this excellent 2018 release.