Commodus by Simon Turney

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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 – Star Wars: Darth Vader: Volume 1 – Vader

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Publisher: Marvel COmics

Writer: Kieron Gillen

Artist: Salvador Larroca

Colourist: Edgar Delgado

Publication Date: 20 October 2015

My Rating: 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 check out the fun and exciting first volume of the Darth Vader comic book series, Vader, which features the destructive adventures of the Star Wars trilogy’s greatest villain, Darth Vader, and presents a new story for Disney’s extended universe.

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When I previously reviewed two volumes of the Darth Vader: Dark Lord of the Sith comic book series (Legacy’s End and The Burning Seas), I mentioned how much I love the classic Star Wars movie villain Darth Vader. This current series is pretty epic and does an amazing job of telling the story of Darth Vader’s early adventures following the fall of the Jedi and the rise of the Empire. However, another Darth Vader series, helmed by writer Kieron Gillen and artist Salvador Larroca, commenced in 2015 off the heels of the Star Wars comic book series.

This first volume of this Darth Vader series is set after the events of A New Hope and deals with the fallout of the destruction of the Death Star. It is also deeply connected with the Marvel 2015 Star Wars comic series that started around the same time, especially the first volume of this series, Skywalker Strikes. Issue #1 of the Darth Vader comic, for example, starts just after the events that occurred in first three issues featured in the Skywalker Strikes, and both Star Wars #6 and Darth Vader #6, which close out each series’ respective first volume, end at the exact same moment of time.

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For nearly 20 years, Darth Vader has been the most feared being in the Empire, loyally serving under the Emperor as his most effective enforcer and most trusted subordinate. However, recent failures have damaged his relationship with his master. The destruction of the Death Star on his watch has left the Empire vulnerable, and his failure to stop the recent Rebel assault on Cymoon (as seen in Star Wars issues #1- #3) has made them look weak. The Emperor, displeased with his apprentice’s failures, has placed Grand General Tagge in command of Vader and is keeping secrets that could prove deadly to him. At the same time, Vader finds himself intrigued by the young, unnamed Rebel who is responsible for the destruction of the Death Star, especially after their encounter on Cymoon, where he discovered that his old master, Obi-Wan Kenobi, gifted the boy the lightsabre Vader once wielded as Anakin Skywalker.

Concerned with the events occurring around him, Vader decides it is time to start operating outside of the Emperor’s orders. Not only does he send the bounty hunter Bobba Fett to capture the mysterious Rebel pilot and bring him directly to Vader; he also recruits the rogue archaeologist, Doctor Aphra, as his agent. Using Aphra’s knowledge and contacts and the two murderous droids she has assembled, Vader amasses the resources needed to investigate the Emperor’s hidden agenda. However, his investigation reveals that the Emperor has commissioned research into a series of deadly individuals meant to take Vader’s place at the Emperor’s side. As he attempts to deal with this new competition, Vader finds himself rocked by another revelation: the pilot who destroyed the Death Star is named Skywalker!

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Darth Vader: Volume 1: Vader features issues #1-6 of this series, and features the writing of Kieron Gillian and the artistic talents of Salvador Larroca. Gillian and Larroca are veteran comic book talents with a variety of different titles under their belts, although both are probably best known for their work with Marvel Comics. The two of them have formed an effective creative team in the last few years, as they have worked together on a number of Star Wars comic book titles, including all 25 issues of this Darth Vader series. The two have also produced the last 30 or so issues of the amazing Star Wars series, creating several of the series best moments, and have worked together on the entertaining Doctor Aphra title, which follows the adventures of the popular character, Doctor Aphra, who is introduced in this volume of Darth Vader. I think at this point I actually have a copy of every Star Wars comic this pair have created together, and it is almost guaranteed that I will feature more of their work in the future.

I started getting into the 2015 Darth Vader series late last year after I was blown away by the Darth Vader: Dark Lord of the Sith comics. I am extremely happy that I decided to check out the 2015 Darth Vader series, because I absolutely loved this first volume of the series, Vader, and had an amazing time reading it. Not only was this one of the first comic book volumes in the new Star Wars canon that showed what an absolute badass Darth Vader is but it features a captivating story, some major Star Wars moments, incredible artwork and iconic new characters.

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This first volume of Darth Vader contains some epic sequences that really highlight how awesome and destructive the character of Vader really is. I loved the opening scene in particular, which features Vader having a covert meeting with Jabba the Hutt at Jabba’s palace on Tatooine. This meeting is in some ways very similar to the meeting Luke has with Jabba at the start of Return of the Jedi, with Vader entering alone to stand before Jabba in his audience chamber. However, some key alterations really show how different Vader’s style is compared to his son’s. Rather than attempting to negotiate like a Jedi, Vader slaughters his way in, deliberately avoids standing on Jabba’s hidden trap door, kills every minion that Jabba ambushes him with and then proceeds to force choke Jabba until he gets his way. It makes for one hell of an introduction to the series, and does an incredibly successful job of setting up Vader as a major badass. This first issue #1 also has a great ending, showing Vader nonchalantly having a conversation over a smoking pile of Tusken Raiders that he spent the day killing. This is a nice call-back to his past as Anakin Skywalker and it also shows how much more causal he now is around death and destruction, especially as he leaves simply saying, “All my present business is concluded.”

I also liked how this volume showed a completely different side to Vader’s relationship with the Emperor. The series is set in some unique circumstances, as it occurs right after the destruction of the Death Star, and the Emperor’s displeasure at Vader for allowing it to happen is vast. Vader in turn is suspicious of the Emperor’s secrets, and actively starts working behind the Emperor’s back for the first time. The sequences featuring Vader assembling his own private resources and working against the benefits of the Empire are quite fascinating, and results in some interesting missions. I also really liked the part of the book when Vader and the Emperor eventually find out each other’s secrets, especially as it results in an interesting discussion. While the Emperor is actually impressed with Vader showing initiative and working outside the system, Vader is outraged that the Emperor has been creating abominations to replace him for the last 20 years. The Emperor reveals that he has been disappointed with Vader ever since he was defeated at the end of Revenge of the Sith, and that he needs to prove himself worthy of the Emperor again.

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While all the above scenes are pretty awesome, the best part of this volume is the incredible conclusion of the volume in issue #6. Vader, already enraged after his talk with the Emperor, finds out that the young Jedi he encountered is named Skywalker. The building anger within Vader as he finds out is palpable as he flashes back to the events of Revenge of the Sith and realises that the Emperor lied to him; he did not actually kill Padmé before she gave birth to their child. The switch between Vader’s reaction in the present and the scenes from the past is done perfectly, building up the tension around Vader and making for some amazing pages. The scene then continues with Vader calling up the Emperor to confront him, in a nice continuation of the storyline I mentioned above. However, rather than revealing that he knows the Emperor lied to him all those years ago, he instead keeps it secret and indicates he understands his place with the Emperor. The final pages reveal Vader staring off into space and stating, “I have a son. He will be mine. It will all be mine”, referring to the Empire and the galaxy with the last part. There is so much in this scene to love. Not only do we actually get to see the moment where Vader finds out Luke is his son, a major moment in Star Wars history that ties together parts of the prequel series with the original trilogy, but we also get a look into Vader’s mind when he finds out the truth after all these years. This whole sequence is just incredible and has to be one of my favourite moments in this entire series. It also cleverly matches the end of the first volume of the related Star Wars comic book series and actually expands on that original comic for fans who were curious about it.

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While the focus on Darth Vader is amazing, this volume also features the introduction of several outstanding new characters in the Star Wars canon, Doctor Aphra and her droids. Dr Aphra is an awesome character, as she is essentially an anti-Indiana Jones living in the Star Wars universe. Aphra recovers valuable (and often extremely dangerous) artefacts from across the galaxy, either for her own use or to sell for a profit. However, in this first volume, Aphra is forced into Vader’s employ and must help him obtain the means to act outside the Emperor’s notice. Aphra story arc in the first volume is pretty darn compelling. While Aphra is willing to help Vader, and even thinks of it as a cool opportunity, she is under no illusions about the fact that Vader will kill her at some point in the future and is a constant mess of emotions as a result. There is a fantastic scene in this volume where Aphra makes it clear to Vader that she knows he is eventually going to kill her and begs him to show some mercy when the time comes and use his lightsabre rather than worse methods, such as chucking her out of an airlock (this actually comes into play later in quite a clever way). I also liked that the creative team really played up the Indian Jones aspects of her character at times, such as her introductory sequence, where she is forced to escape a series of booby traps, including a spherical droid, similar to the boulder sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Humour like that really makes Aphra an excellent addition to this volume, and I love how the creative team are able to get some dark moments out of her relationship with Darth Vader.

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In addition to Aphra, we are introduced to her droids 0-0-0 (Triple Zero) and BT-1, who are fun parodies of C-3PO and R2-D2. Like C-3PO and R2-D2, Triple Zero and BT-1 are a protocol droid and astromech duo, but with a few key differences. Triple Zero has been programmed with a number of languages and human protocols, but he has also been programmed for torture and is equipped with a number of syringes and other torture implements. BT-1, on the other hand, is actually a lethal assassin droid disguised as an astromech in order to appear harmless, and is loaded with multiple weapons, including a massive cannon and a flamethrower. Both of them had been decommissioned by the Empire for being too dangerous (which tells you a lot), but are brought back online by Aphra and Vader. These two droids are an extremely fun duo, acting a lot like the iconic C-3PO and R2-D2, except with a complete disregard for human life and a desire for as much destruction and death as possible. The discussion the two have in this first volume about killing the various creatures they come into contact with are very funny: “Hahaha! You are on fire and also dead.” I also found it amusing that, even though they are remorseless killers, the two droids get along better than C-3PO and R2-D2 ever did, with Triple Zero actually complimenting BT-1 and appreciating everything he does, especially all the murder. These two are an extremely entertaining couple of characters, and it was fun to see them parody the classic Star Wars droids in such a clever way.

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I loved the artwork in this volume, and some of the cool details that were included in the various scenes added so much to the story. For example, the fantastic closing sequence where Vader finds out his son is still alive is superbly enhanced by the cracks that appear on all the glass around Vader as he comes to his realisations. This looks so cool and really highlights how angry he is feeling. The art also showcases all the awesome action contained within this book, especially when it comes to all the destruction Vader and his cohorts unleash to achieve their goals. There are so many explosions and so much destruction laced throughout the book, and the artists who contributed to this first volume make them look pretty darn spectacular. I also loved the close-up action when Vader gets to work with the force and his lightsabre. The artists do an impressive job showcasing all the destruction he is capable of, and the reader is constantly reminded of that amazing Darth Vader scene at the end of Rogue One. The artists also do an amazing job conveying character emotion through the subtleties of their facial expressions. You get a real idea of what the characters are feeling thanks to the artwork, whether it is Doctor Aphra’s fear whenever she has to deal with a pissed of Vader, or the constant anger Vader is feeling throughout this volume. I am particularly impressed with how they were able to compensate for the helmet Vader is always wearing in order to show off Vader’s various emotions. Subtle things like the tilt or shape of the mask and the character’s body language seemed to speak volumes at times, and I think that they captured Vader’s emotions perfectly every time. Vader featured some very clever and very impressive artwork, which not only stand on its own, but which enhances the book’s story substantially.

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The first volume of the 2015 Darth Vader series was an outstanding example of Star Wars fiction which really modernises one of the most iconic Star Wars characters of all times. Darth Vader is masterfully reborn here as a being of pure destruction, as this first volume places him in some extremely compelling situations. I loved where the story went in this first volume, and the creative team have come up with some amazing scenarios and several excellent new characters who are so unique and creative they manage to escape Vader’s sizeable shadow. Overall, this first volume did a fantastic job setting the stage for the rest of the series, and I had an incredible time reading this comic.

Emperor of Rome by Robert Fabbri

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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 Last Hour by Harry Sidebottom

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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