Quick Review – The Return by Harry Sidebottom

The Return Cover

Publisher: Zaffre (Trade Paperback – 11 June 2020)

Series: Standalone

Length: 307 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Bestselling historical fiction author Harry Sidebottom takes you on a dark and compelling adventure into the mind of a haunted Roman soldier as he returns home only to find more death waiting for him with, The Return.

Harry Sidebottom is an impressive author specialising in exciting and detailed Roman historical fiction novels, whose work I have been enjoying for years.  Sidebottom has so far written two amazing series, the Warrior of Rome series, which followed a barbarian turned Roman general, Ballista, as he attempts to survive the machinations and wars of the Empire, and The Throne of the Caesar’s novels that examined some of the more obscure and chaotic Roman Emperors.  In recent years Sidebottom has started experimenting with some compelling standalone novels.  The first of these, The Last Hour, brought back Ballista and set him on a fast-paced adventure through Rome in a manner reminiscent of the television series 24.  His next novel The Lost Ten, featured a group of 10 mis-matched Roman soldiers who are sent on an infiltration mission into enemy territory to break a high value target out of prison.  His third standalone novel was The Return, which came out last year.  I read it a little while ago and failed to provide a timely review for it.  However, as Sidebottom’s latest novel, The Burning Road, has just been released, I thought I would take this opportunity to quickly review The Return so I have a clean slate when I get my hands on a copy of his latest book.

Synopsis:

He came home a hero.
But death isn’t finished with him yet . . .

145BC – CALABRIA, ANCIENT ROME. After years of spilling blood for Rome, Gaius Furius Paullus has returned home to spend his remaining days working quietly on the family farm.

But it seems death has stalked Paullus from the battlefield. Just days after his arrival, bodies start appearing – murdered and mutilated. And as the deaths stack up, and panic spreads, the war hero becomes the prime suspect. After all, Paullus has killed countless enemies on the battlefield – could he have brought his habit home with him?

With the psychological effects of combat clouding every thought, Paullus must use all his soldier’s instincts to hunt the real killer. Because if they are not brought to justice soon, he may become the next victim.

The Return was an intriguing and compelling novel that contains a brilliant and dark historical murder mystery.  Like some of his previous novels, Sidebottom has blended some unique crime fiction/thriller elements with his traditional historical settings and storylines.  As such, The Return reads like an interesting combination of historical fiction and a darker crime novel, specifically Scandi noir.  This results in a clever and compelling character driven narrative that follows a dark and conflicted Roman protagonist who is forced to investigate a series of murders in his grim and forbidding village.  The author does a wonderful job of blending his historical elements with the compelling crime fiction storyline, and the reader is soon treated to a harrowing and exciting murder investigation.  There is some brilliant use of a darker location, including a forbidding forest, as well as a lot of focus on his haunted protagonist, especially through a series of flashbacks.  All this comes together into an excellent narrative, and it was fascinating to see Sidebottom’s damaged protagonist dive head long into danger while trying to solve the murder and prove his own innocence.  While I did think that the solution to the mystery and the culprits behind the murder was a little obvious, this ended up being an excellent and impressive novel.  Sidebottom really takes the readers on a harrowing and enjoyable ride here, and I ended up getting through it in a few short days.

I was deeply impressed with the dark and guilt-ridden protagonist who Sidebottom set this great story around.  Paullus is a recently returned soldier who received much acclaim during Rome’s war with ancient Greece, but he is also haunted by his actions there, particularly around the fates of two of his comrades.  Thanks to his guilt he constantly sees the Furies, the Roman goddesses of vengeance and retribution, who remind him of the wrongs he commits.  To avoid seeing them Paullus dives headfirst into danger, as the threat of death is the only thing that alleviates his guilt.  This helps turns Paullus into a fascinating and deeply complex figure who has some interesting interactions with his own emotions and the people from his pre-war life who don’t understand what he is going through.  Sidebottom utilises a series of flashbacks to showcase Paullus’ military career and you slowly get the entire story of the protagonist’s heroic past, as well as the event that led to his intense guilt and heartache.  While I did think that Sidebottom might have been a tad heavy-handed with the flashbacks (it makes up nearly half the novel), I did really appreciate the sheer amount of work he put into his great protagonist.  The author did an impressive job of simulating the guilt, fear and anger of a war veteran attempting to re-enter society and it was really compelling to see.  I also deeply appreciated the author’s trick of personifying this guilt into visions of the supernatural Furies, especially as it is never fully established whether they are there or just figments of his damaged mind.  The use of Paullus as the central protagonist really enhanced The Return’s excellent story and he was an outstanding investigator for this fantastic murder mystery.

I also really enjoyed the cool historical fiction elements contained within this novel.  The Return takes place in 145BC, which is one of the earliest times that Sidebottom has explored in his historical fiction novels.  I deeply enjoyed the exploration of this time, especially as Sidebottom features more obscure conquests and locations.  The central location of the story, Calabria in Southern Italy, proved to be a fantastic and interesting setting, especially as this region of Italy contained two distinctive social groups, the Roman settlers and the original inhabitants.  Due to their historical support of Hannibal during the Punic Wars which saw them forced to give up their lands, the locals are treated as second-class citizens by the Romans, who use them as slave labour.  This adds some extra drama and intrigue to the story as these local tribes get caught up in the paranoia and despair around the hunt for the murderer.  I also really appreciated Sidebottom’s examination of the Roman invasion of Greece that the protagonist fought in.  This is one of the more obscure conflicts from Roman history and the author provides a detailed account of the causes, battles, and eventual consequences of the conflict.  I deeply enjoyed exploring this period in the flashback chapters, as there were some detailed and powerful battle sequences which featured some distinctive clashes between Greek and Roman military styles.  Throw in some Greek and Roman mythology as a potential cause for the murders or the protagonists’ actions, and you have quite a brilliant historical tale.  These grim and bloody historical elements blended perfect with the darker story that Sidebottom was telling and it was absolutely fascinating to see how they were incorporated into The Return’s compelling, multi-genre style.

Overall, The Return was an epic and complex novel that continued to showcase Harry Sidebottom’s amazing talent as a writer.  This fantastic novel ended up being one of the more unique historical fiction books I have ever read and I deeply enjoyed the cool combination of classic Roman history and darker crime fiction elements, especially when shown through the eyes of an extremely damaged protagonist.  This book comes highly recommended, and I cannot wait to get my hands on Sidebottom’s latest novel, The Burning Road.

Protector by Conn Iggulden

Protector Cover Final

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Trade Paperback – 18 May 2021)

Series: Athenian – Book Two

Length: 397 pages

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the best authors of historical fiction, the incredible Conn Iggulden, returns with the second epic book in his Athenian series, Protector.

Following the devastating battles of Thermopylae and Artemisium, the Persian army reigns supreme in Greece as King Xerxes stands triumphant in the burnt ruins of Athens.  However, despite his victories, Xerxes has not eliminated the threat of the Athenians, whose citizens have escaped by boat to the nearby island of Salamis.  Determined to wipe them out, Xerxes commits his mighty navy in an attack of the Greek fleet off Salamis, initiating one of the deadliest naval battle of all time.  Over three days of fighting, the Greeks and the Persians engage in a brutal battle, with boats destroyed and men killed in horrific numbers.  In the end, only a act of subterfuge from the sly Athenian, Themistocles, will be enough to stop the attack, although this action may damn him for all times.

Following this battle, the Athenians attempt to rebuild their once beautiful city; however, the threat of the Persians remains as a massive army lurks within Greece.  To finally cripple the Persian ambitions for Greece, famed Athenians, Aristides, Themistocles and Xanthippus, will work to bring together an army of free Greeks.  Led by the powerful armies of Sparta, the Greeks will face the Persian army as the plains of Plataea, while their navy faces them at Mycale.  Can the Greeks overcome the superior numbers of the Persian army to survive, or will the Persian dominion of Greece continue, wiping out their fledgling democracy?  The future of Athens is written here, and the world will never again be the same.

Wow, that was another exceptional historical novel from the always impressive Iggulden.  Iggulden has been one of the leading historical authors for years, and I have deeply enjoyed several of his works, including his epic War of the Roses series and the fantastic standalone novel, The Falcon of Sparta.  Last year, he introduced The Gates of Athens, the first novel in his new Athenian series, which will cover some of the most iconic formative years of ancient Athens.  The Gates of Athens was an excellent novel that was one of my favourite historical books of 2020.  As a result, I have been eagerly awaiting the next entry in the Athenian series, and Iggulden really did not disappoint with Protector.

Protector contains an epic and intense narrative that highlights the chaotic events following the battle of Thermopylae.  This novel has a fantastic start to it, as the story immediately shows the iconic battle of Salamis, a deadly battle of ships and men as the fate of the entire population of Athens hangs in the balance.  This first battle is pretty damn intense, and you get a real sense of the fatigue, despair and destruction that the participants and observers of the battle are feeling.  This battle lasts for a good while, and I loved that Iggulden did not waste any time getting into it, ensuring that the reader is pretty hooked for the rest of Protector.  Following Salamis, the narrative focuses on the rebuilding of Athens and the attempts to bring the Spartans into the war to face the lurking Persian army.  While not as exciting as the start of the book, this central part of Protector is deeply fascinating, and I personally enjoyed the interplay of politics and historical fact, as Iggulden expertly depicts the lead-up to the next battles against Persia.  It also perfectly sets up the epic two battles that are the defining part of Protector, Plataea and Mycale, which occurred around the same time as each other.  Both these battles are pretty intense and action packed, although the elaborate and bloody battle of Plataea is the real highlight, especially as the stakes surrounding it are extremely high.  I deeply enjoyed seeing these two amazing historical battles unfold, and Iggulden ensures that they are bloody, action-packed and compelling.  It was also really cool to see the fascinating, if occasionally tragic aftermath of these battles, and it sets up some intriguing historical storylines for future entries in this series.

I really appreciated the incredible historical detail that Iggulden brought to Protector.  The author has clearly done his research when it comes to this iconic historical battles and he does an incredible job bringing them to life.  So many key moments from the battles are fantastically captured throughout Protector, and the reader gets an amazing idea of the tactics, armaments and movements of the participants, as well as their chaotic flow and carnage.  While the battles themselves are pretty amazing, Iggulden also ensures that the underlying politics, motivations and historical figures associated with them are also detailed, ensuring that the reader gets a full view of why these events are happening and their overall impact on the people of Greece and Persia.  All of this is extremely fascinating, and I personally loved learning more about this period, especially as Iggulden presents it in a compelling and exciting manner.

One of the things that I most enjoyed about The Gates of Athens was the amazing portrayal of several major historical figures.  Iggulden continues this fantastic trend in Protector, as he once again looks at several major Greek and Persian characters.  The most prominent of these are probably the three Greek strategos, Aristides, Themistocles and Xanthippus.  Despite their political conflicts in the first novel (Themistocles orchestrated banishments for both), the three are forced to work together for the greater good of Athens and prove to be an effective team.  Iggulden does an amazing job getting into the heads of all three of these figures, and it was interesting to see how the author envisions what these great men would have been thinking or doing during these historical events.  All three have a significant part of Protector told from their perspective.  In particular, each of the three major battles featured within this novel is primarily told from one character’s perspective, with Aristides leading the Athenian force at Plataea, Xanthippus fighting at Mycale, while Themistocles unleashes his cunning during the battle for Salamis.  I really enjoyed the portrayals of all three characters, and it was interesting to see them during some of their most iconic moments.  In particular, Iggulden provides some intriguing insight to Xanthippus’s mental state after Mycale and some explanation for why he participated in several massacres.  I also deeply enjoyed the way in which Iggulden portrays the tragedy of Themistocles, whose own cleverness and guile eventually catches up with him.

In addition to these three main Athenian characters, Iggulden also spends time with some younger Athenian figures, particularly Cimon and Pericles, Xanthippus’s youngest son.  This proves to be an intriguing examination of the younger Greek characters and Iggulden is setting up some new protagonists for the later entries in the series, particularly with Pericles.  There is also some significant focus on several great Spartan characters, such as the war leader, Pausanias, who also provides an excellent alternate viewpoint to the battle at Plataea, as well as an alternate way of thinking from the democratic Greeks.  I also liked the way in which several Persian characters were featured, include Xerxes and General Mardonius, especially as it allowed for another fascinating viewpoint that paints the Greek characters in a whole new light.  All these great historical figures are expertly brought to life by Iggulden, and I had a wonderful time learning about their stories and tragic fates.

In his second entry in the Athenian series, Conn Iggulden once again demonstrates his mastery of the historical fiction genre by crafting a captivating and addictive tale of war, intrigue and personal ambition from iconic moments in Greek history.  Protector is an exceptional and fast-paced novel that presents a powerful vision of the unique and world-changing battles of Salamis, Plataea, and Mycale.  This is a clever and intense historical novel which comes highly recommended, and historical fiction fans will deeply enjoy the cool and fascinating tale within.  I look forward to the next chapter in the Athenian series and I cannot wait to see the war and politics that is yet to be unleashed on this city.

The Three Paradises by Robert Fabbri

The Three Paradises Cover

Publisher: Corvus (Trade Paperback – 21 February 2021)

Series: Alexander’s Legacy – Book Two

Length: 413 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5

One of my favourite authors of historical fiction, the always amazing Robert Fabbri, returns with the second entry in his epic Alexander’s Legacy series, The Three Paradises.

Alexander the Great is dead, and the battle for his empire has only just started!

Chaos reigns in the Macedonian controlled territories of Asia and the Mediterranean as the formerly loyal followers of Alexander fight amongst themselves for control of his mighty empire.  With the former front-runner for control, Perdikkas, murdered by his own men, the way forward is now even more uncertain.  In Macedonia, Alexander’s regent Antipatros seeks to hold the empire together, even if that means ignoring the ambitions of his volatile son.  In the east, the sly Greek Eumenes runs to avoid a death sentence placed on his head by the Macedonian army and must once again fall back on his intelligence and cunning to survive the forces lead by the one-eyed general Antigonos.  In the heart of the Macedonian army, two dangerous queens, Roxanna and Adea, each attempt to press their claims through their two unsuitable kings while also working out the best way to kill one another.  In Egypt, the bastard brother of Alexander, Ptolemy, secures his powerful position by seeding chaos across the rest of the Empire, while in the west, Alexander’s vicious mother, Olympias, bides her time, waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike. 

As these players make their moves to secure power, Antipatros attempts to mediate peace and keep all the Macedonian territories together by calling for a historical conference at The Three Paradises.  However, as the lies, treacheries and bloody battles continue, will there even be an empire left to save?  Some will rise, some will fall, and the world will never be the same again!

This was another incredible and deeply entertaining read from Fabbri, who has once again turned the insanities of history into another amazing novel.  I have been a major fan of Fabbri ever since I was lucky enough to receive one of the fantastic books in his compelling and memorable Vespasian series.  All of the books in this series (including Rome’s Sacred Flame, Emperor of Rome and the tie-in volume of short stories, Magnus and the Crossroads Brotherhood), were incredibly fun to read, and I really enjoyed each and every one of them.  Fabbri continued his impressive run last year when he started his brand new ancient history series, Alexander’s Legacy, set in the immediate aftermath of Alexander the Great’s death after he failed to select an heir to rule his empire.  The first book in this series, To the Strongest, was an amazing and clever read that not only set the scene perfectly but also provided the reader with a detailed and captivating tale of betrayal and destruction.  As a result, I have been keeping a very keen eye out for Fabbri’s second Alexander’s Legacy novel and I was very happy when I received a copy of The Three Paradises.

For this latest novel, Fabbri has come up with another awesome and captivating tale that dramatizes the crazy events that followed Alexander’s sudden death.  Told through multiple viewpoints, The Three Paradises continues to explore some of the key parts of the post-Alexander period, including a number of battles, conferences and manipulations recorded in history.  This results in an epic and captivating tale of betrayal, conspiracy and lies as everyone attempts to gain power.  I absolutely loved all the outrageous proceedings that occurred throughout this book, and Fabbri does an amazing job featuring as many real historical events as possible.  If you are unfamiliar with the history, than you are going to find that The Three Paradises’ story goes in some extremely unexpected directions as various key people rise or fall. 

I was surprised that many of the incredible events depicted in this novel are recorded in history, and it just goes to show that reality is sometimes a lot stranger than fiction.  I felt that Fabbri did a fantastic job depicting each of these events as they are chronicled in history, especially as he also attempts to fill in some of the gaps and come up with some of the possible discussions that would have happened in advance of them.  While some of the facts are no doubt dramatically exaggerated per Fabbri’s trademark style, this turned out to be a really detailed historical read and I loved the cool focus on this unique period.  I ended up enjoying The Three Paradises a bit more than the preceding novel in which the overarching storylines of the series were set up.  The Three Paradises jumps into the action a lot more quickly, and I think that the story flowed a lot better, especially as Fabbri ended up reintroducing the line break in this novel’s format.  All of this was incredibly epic, and readers will love Fabbri’s unique interpretation of these historical betrayals and battles.

One of the most intriguing parts of the Alexander’s Legacy series is the author’s use of multiple historical figures as his point of view characters.  This series focuses on a large selection of major players in this conflict, each of whom become the focal character of multiple chapters within the novel.  The Three Paradises in particular features 10 separate historical point-of-view characters, each of whom play a unique role in the events preceding the death of Alexander.  All 10 are former members of Alexander’s court that have gone into business for themselves and are now attempting to take power or shape the empire the way they want.  Fabbri brings each of these historical figures to life by examining their actions or descriptions from history and crafting a personality that matches their outrageous deeds or brilliant decisions.  Each character is given a title or nickname at the start of the story, usually centred on their personality or role in the empire (for example, The Sly, The Mother, The Wildcat or The Bastard) as well as a simple but clever representative icon.  Fabbri then builds on them from there, examining their various actions during the wars this book focuses on and highlighting nearly every decision or bold move that history records them doing.  Fabbri also throws in a little of his trademark exaggeration and creative licence, especially for characters like Olympias (although not by much), which really enhances the historical craziness this novel contains. 

As a result of his unique character creation, The Three Paradises ends up with a fantastic and diverse group of point-of-view characters whose exploits are a lot of fun to watch unfold, although readers should really not get too attached to them, as many do not survive the book.  These characters include the aged statesman, Antipatros, who uses his experience and canny nature to attempt to guide and control several of the other players, with various results.  You also have the scheming queens Roxanna and Adea, both of whom are linked to one of the people named king following Alexander’s death.  Roxanna was Alexander’s wife and the mother his child, while Adea is a close relative of Alexander who ended up marrying his mentally deficient half-brother.  Both of these queens are vicious and dangerous creatures who attempt to gain power over the stubborn Macedonian men, while also feuding amongst themselves over the status of their respective king.  Fabbri really amps up certain elements of these two queens’ characteristics, such as Roxanna’s murderous ambition (to be fair, she did reportedly kill several of Alexander’s other wives after his death), or Adea’s lesbianism.  Both prove to be really fun additions to this novel, and it was quite interesting to see how they influenced these hectic events.

There is also a lot of focus on Alexander’s mother, Olympias, a member of the cult of Dionysus and a figure of wrath and vengeance that every other major character is intensely afraid of.  Fabbri has a lot of fun portraying Olympias in this novel, and he really plays her up as a crazed snake priestess, showing several of the alleged rituals cultists of Dionysus would have performed.  I was quite surprised at how Olympias’s storyline unfolded in this novel, mainly as I was very unaware of how much influence she had after Alexander’s death, and she proved to be an extremely intense and memorable addition to the cast. 

My favourite character, however, is still Eumenes, who Fabbri appropriately nicknamed The Sly.  Eumenes is a Greek clerk who was able to gain some power after Alexander’s death by advising some of the other players and trying to keep the empire together.  The Three Paradises sees Eumenes take on a more military role, and he proves himself a skilled commander, able to out-think the supposedly superior Macedonian enemies.  However, Eumenes’s ambitions are constantly stymied by the stubbornness of his Macedonian followers or allies, all of whom believe in the superiority of the Macedonian people and are often reluctant to follow a Greek, even if he is the smartest person in the room.  It proves to be very frustrating to see one of the best and smartest characters constantly defeated by events outside his control, but you still stick with him in the hopes that he can once again get a victory.

In addition to the returning cast from the first book in the series, Fabbri also introduces two new characters to replace some of the casualties that occurred in To the Strongest (like I said, don’t get too attached to these characters).  These two new characters include Kassandros, nicknamed The Jealous (and represented by an icon of a boar, an animal that lies at the heart of his jealousies), and Polyperchon, nicknamed The Grey.  Both Kassandros and Polyperchon are introduced about halfway through The Three Paradises in response to a major character death, and they end up being great additions to the story.  Kassandros is the eldest son of one of the other point-of-view characters, and serves as an interesting antagonistic figure in the book.  Thanks to his sense of entitlement and the major chip on his shoulder, it really does not take Kassandros long to get on the reader’s nerves, and you find yourself pulling for his enemies, no matter how despicable they may be.  Polyperchon, on the other hand, is an older figure, portrayed as a bit of a loser.  Polyperchon is a person who thrives best as a second in command, rather than being the man in charge, and is uncertain how to proceed when he has to make the hard decisions.  Naturally, events conspire to give him a great deal of power, which results in disaster for Polyperchon and those allied with him, as he fumbles the job, allowing some of the other characters to take control.  Overall, I had an outstanding time following this unique collection of historical figures, and I look forward to seeing whom Fabbri focuses on in the next novel, especially after several more were killed off in The Three Paradises.

Aside from the 10 point-of-view characters, Fabbri also features a massive cast of side characters, most of whom are real historical figures.  The author does an impressive job of working each of these supporting characters into the plot, and you end up getting a pretty good idea of how each and every one of them played a role in the war, as well as some minor details about their personalities and intentions.  While it was interesting to learn more about all these historical characters, I did find it a little overwhelming to try and follow who was who at times, especially as there were great deal of characters, and several had similar names.  While I was generally able to keep up with what was happening thanks to an excellent character list contained at the end of the novel, readers will need to stay focused on who is being discussed at all times in order to avoid getting lost.

I also must highlight the incredible historical details of this book.  Fabbri has clearly done his research when it comes to ancient Macedonia and not only is The Three Paradises filled with an outstanding depiction of the recorded historical events but the author also tries to capture the various aspects of day-to-day life during this period.  This results in some great scenes chock full of fantastic historical detail, and the reader gets some amazing insights into the culture and attitudes of the conquering Macedonians.  This is particularly true in The Three Paradises’ various action sequences, as the armies of Macedonia face off against each other.  While a lot of the focus may be on the internal politics, personal betrayals and shifting alliances, Fabbri has also included several great fight sequences, and the reader is treated to fantastic battles on land and sea.  The book’s major battle scenes are really impressive, and I loved seeing the various tactics of the Macedonians, whether they are fighting foreign armies or rival groups of Macedonians.  It was particularly cool to see two separate pike phalanxes go up against each other, especially as their cramped and exhausting fight was essentially pointless (victory was decided by the fighting cavalry groups on the flanks).  It was also rather entertaining to see how several key battles were stopped or prevented simply because the Macedonian soldiers discovered that an important person, usually a relative of Alexander, was present with the opposing army, and they would suddenly abandon their generals to follow them.  This examination of the Macedonian mindset was really intriguing, and its limitations and predictabilities has become a fascinating recurring factor of this series.

Robert Fabbri once again shows why he is one of the most entertaining and captivating authors of historical fiction in the world today.  The Three Paradises is an impressive and clever second entry in the amazing Alexander’s Legacy series, which provides a detailed and captivating examination of a crazy period of history.  I absolutely loved this incredible read and I cannot wait to see what happens in the next exciting entry in this awesome series.

The Gates of Athens by Conn Iggulden

The Gates of Athens Cover

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Trade Paperback – 4 August 2020)

Series: Athenian – Book One

Length: 443 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the top authors of historical fiction in the world today, Conn Iggulden, returns with an exciting and deeply impressive novel that chronicles the chaotic formative years of the birthplace of democracy in The Gates of Athens.

In 490 BC, Darius, King of Persia, rules a vast and powerful empire of millions.  None dare oppose him except the city states of Greece who openly defy him and refuse his demands to bow to his authority.  Determined to conquer them, Darius leads a powerful fleet across the sea towards the city of Athens.  However, the people of Athens are unlike any opponent that Darius has faced before.  Having only recently overthrown their own tyrants, they will never again bow down to a single man, no matter the cost.

As Darius’s army lands near the city on the plains of Marathon he finds a host of Athenian hoplites waiting for him ready to defend their home.  This fierce battle will set of a series of events that will not only change the life of everyone in Greece but also serve as the defining moment for several citizens of Athens, including the charismatic and scheming Themistocles, the clever and honest Aristides and the mighty warrior Xanthippus, father of Pericles.

As these leaders of Athens battle for the future of their city the choices they make will have far reaching impacts as, years later, another king of Persia, Xerxes, will lead an immense invasion of Greece in order to satisfy his father’s honour.  However, despite his vast armies and navies, Xerxes will face surprising opposition as a small force of determined Greeks decides to hold against him on both land and at sea at a place called Thermopylae.  Will the bravery of few be enough to save many or will freedom and democracy be crushed before it can truly begin?

Well damn, now that was an epic book.  I have been saying for a while that I thought that The Gates of Athens was going to be one of the best historical fiction books of 2020.  Well, just like the oracle of Delphi when she prophesised the fate of Leonidas, it turns out that I was right, as this new novel turned out to be an exceptional historical tale that proved extremely hard to stop reading.  Mind you, the awesomeness of this prediction is rather tempered by the fact that this was a historical fiction book written by Conn Iggulden, so it was a bit of a given that it was going to be damn good novel.  I am a major fan of Iggulden, having read several of his prior books including entries in both his incredible Emperor and War of the Roses series, as well as his standalone novel, The Falcon of Sparta.  This latest book from Iggulden serves as the first entry in his Athenian series, which is set to be a fantastic series over the next couple of years.

The Gates of Athens contains an extremely impressive and sprawling historical storyline that showcases and recreates some of the early defining moments of ancient Athens.  The story starts off with the battle of Marathon and then explores the aftermath of the war and its many consequences.  This results in a great multi-character narrative which shows how the various decisions of the protagonists impacted the events of the second half of the book, which is set several years later and examines the battle of Thermopylae.  Iggulden utilises a number of different character perspectives throughout the course of the plot, allowing the reader a larger view of the events occurring, while also providing some alternate viewpoints about the same events.  While there is an obvious focus on the major battles against the Persians, The Gates of Athens has a lot of different elements to it and at many points this awesome novel changes focus to examine political intrigue, social struggles, personal relationships and intense character development.  Iggulden does an outstanding job writing all of these different elements and it really comes together into an amazing overarching historical narrative.

In addition to The Gates of Athens’s fantastic story I also have to highlight the book’s detailed and intriguing historical setting.  As the title suggests, The Gates of Athens is primarily set within the ancient city of Athens, and Iggulden has done an incredible job bringing this iconic historical location to life.  The author spends significant time examining several different aspects of the city.  This includes an in-depth look at its history, its recently introduced democratic political structure, its military defences, its economic status and its layout, and an exploration of the day-to-day lives of its citizens.  Iggulden also attempts to dive into the mindset of the people of Athens, showing their collective feelings and opinions, including the immense pride that they had in being a unique and unprecedented society that extols the values of democracy and freedom (you know, except for all the slaves).  All of this comes together into a rich tapestry of culture and society that acts as a love letter to ancient Athens and everything it represented.  All of this proves to be an excellent setting for the story, and I really appreciated the lengths that Iggulden went to in order to show the reader what being an Athenian was all about.

Another fantastic part of this book was the compelling people that the author set the complex story around.  All the major characters in this novel are real-life historical figures who had a significant hand in the history of Athens, including Xanthippus, Aristides and Themistocles.  Each of these three people are extremely fascinating individuals who achieved many great things, and Iggulden does a fantastic job exploring some of the major events that occurred to them during the years that The Gates of Athens was set, including the roles they played in battles and political gambits, their impact on the city and their various rises and falls in fortunes.  I had an amazing time seeing each of their individual stories unfold.  I particularly enjoyed the way that Iggulden portrayed each of these characters, showing Themistocles (a person Iggulden praises very heavily in his Historical Notes sections) as a self-made political climber with limitless ambition, Aristides as a relentless honest person, and Xanthippus as a honourable but hot-headed individual.  Each of these main characters engage in various political battles against each other, adding significant drama and intrigue to the story, although it proved to be rather heartening to see them come together for the good of Athens and its people at various points in the book.

I also have to highlight the use of Xerxes, King of Persia, who acts as the book’s main antagonist.  Iggulden spends a good amount of time exploring this fascinating figure and examines his various motivations for invading Greece in the way that he did.  Xerxes serves as intriguing counterpoint view to the major Greek characters, and I liked this more grounded portrayal of him as a man who has inherited unlimited power and does not quite know what to do when he encounters Greeks who refuse to bow down before him.  Overall, Iggulden did an outstanding job with each of these characters, and I also really appreciated how he started setting up several other secondary characters, such as Pericles, who will probably be the protagonists of future books.

This book also has plenty for those readers who love some historical action as The Gates of Athens contains a number of major battle sequences, which showcases the fights between the Greeks and the Persians, including the battle at Marathon, and the conflicts that took place around Thermopylae.  These battle sequences are written extremely well and provide excellent and detailed reconstructions of how these battles are played out.  Iggulden has obviously done his research when it comes to these ancient battles, as each of them are chocked full of historical detail, providing the reader with immense amounts of information.  I really liked all the tactics, equipment, disposition and manoeuvres that featured and the actions of various participants during each of these fights, all of which really helps to paint a picture for the reader.  While the various land battles are very impressive, including great depiction of the Spartans’ stand against the Persians at Thermopylae (with a historically accurate number of combatants), I really have to highlight the fights that occur at sea.  As this is a book about Athens there is a major focus on the Athenian navy and their allies and the combat that they saw at Thermopylae.  Iggulden really dives into all the aspects around these naval battles, including showing all the preparation and training that the Greek sailors did before the invasion, as well as the various tactics and naval combat techniques that were developed.  The eventual fight against the Persian armada is really impressive with some amazing action sequences that show the rival fleets against each other.  These depictions of ancient combat and classic battles were extremely awesome, and they were a key part of why I had such a great time reading this book.

The Gates of Athens by Conn Iggulden is an impressive and expansive piece of historical fiction that proved to be a fantastic book to get lost in.  Iggulden once again shows why he is one of the most talented writers of historical fiction in the world today with this outstanding epic that combines masterful storytelling with compelling historical elements, great characters and some exciting action sequences.  This is easily one of the best historical fiction books of 2020 and it gets a full five-star rating from me.

To the Strongest by Robert Fabbri

To the Strongest Cover

Publisher: Corvus (Trade Paperback – 2 January 2020)

Series: Alexander’s Legacy – Book One

Length: 415 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

War and chaos are about to be unleashed following the death of history’s greatest conqueror in the new epic historical fiction novel from amazing author Robert Fabbri, To the Strongest, the first book in his new Alexander’s Legacy series.

This is a clever and compelling new novel from Robert Fabbri, who has successfully moved away from historical Rome to ancient Greece and Macedonia. I am a massive fan of Fabbri’s writing, and he is probably one of my favourite historical fiction authors at the moment due to his work on the incredibly entertaining Vespasian series. His last several novels have all been rather top notch (check out my reviews for the eighth and ninth book in the series, Rome’s Sacred Flame and Emperor of Rome, as well as the associated short story collection, Magnus and the Crossroads Brotherhood), and I have been really looking forward to reading To the Strongest for a while now. I actually read this book a few months ago, but I am only just getting around to writing a review for it now. This is not because I didn’t enjoy the book; on the contrary, I absolutely loved it, I just got a little distracted after reading this book and kept forgetting to come back to it (to be fair, it’s been a rather hectic year). Now that I have a little time, I thought I would go back and review this great book, contains a clever and intriguing story concept.

“I foresee great struggles at my funeral games.”

Babylon, 323 BC. After bringing together one of the largest and most expansive empires the world has ever seen, Alexander the Great lies dying at a young age, and no one is truly prepared for his passing. With no legitimate heir yet born, and no obvious frontrunner to succeed Alexander as ruler of the conquered lands that make up the Macedonian empire, his loyal followers assemble at his death bed and beg him to reveal who he will leave the empire to. Alexander’s answer is simple: “To the strongest.”

Now the entire empire is up for grabs, and it does not take long for the prediction laden within Alexander’s final words to come to pass. As the news of the king’s death travel throughout the land, many seek to take advantage, either to take control themselves, or to better their own personal situation. The empire soon dissolves into a ruthless battle for the throne, as the various parties scramble for power, with shifting alliances, devious betrayals and far-ranging schemes becoming the new norm.

But in the end, only one will emerge victorious. Will it be Perdikkas, the loyal bodyguard who Alexander seeming left this ring to (the Half-Chosen); Roxanna, Alexander’s wife who bears his unborn heir (the wildcat); Antipatros, the man left behind to govern Macedonia (the Regent); his most capable warriors Krateros (the General) or Antigonos (the One-Eyed); the devious Olympias (the Mother); the clever Ptolemy (the Bastard); or the sneaky Greek advisor Eumenes (the Sly). Which man or woman has the cunning or ruthlessness to outlast the others and survive? Let the struggles begin!

What a fun and fascinating piece of historical fiction. Fabbri has crafted together an epic and clever novel that tells the outrageous true story of the aftermath of Alexander the Great’s life. Told from the perspective of a number of major figures who fought or schemed throughout this period of history, Fabbri turns all these events into an outstanding and enjoyable story that proves extremely hard to put down at times. Containing a compelling writing style, several excellent battle sequences and numerous betrayals, manipulations and shifting loyalties, this is an impressive first entry in the Alexander’s Legacy series, which does an excellent job setting up all the initial conflicts that were caused in the initial aftermath of Alexander’s death while also leaving a lot of room for the series to advance into the future.

To the Strongest is a fantastic and entertaining novelisation of some rather intriguing events from ancient history that do not get a lot of coverage in modern fiction. I think the thing that I liked the most about this book is the fact that most of the crazy events that Fabbri features within it actually happened in one shape or form, or are recorded as such in the historical record. The period of history post-Alexander the Great is not one that I am massively familiar with, and so I did a bit of reading into it after I finished To the Strongest, mainly because I was rather curious to see how much of this actually happened. It turns out that nearly all of the craziest events that occurred, such as the brutal murder of several of Alexander’s wives, the theft of his corpse by one of the characters, and a particularly disastrous river crossing with a troupe of war elephants, really did occur, and required very little literary embellishment on Fabbri’s part to make this any more exciting and compelling. I really loved learning about all these cool moments from history, and I think that Fabbri did an amazing job converting these myriad events into a cohesive and enjoyable narrative. From what I understand, there are plenty more battles and betrayals to go, and I am rather looking forward to seeing the full scope of these events unfold in future books.

In order to tell his story, Fabbri utilises a number of different character perspectives from a large roster of unique historical figures. There are 11 point-of-view characters featured within this novel, each of whom narrate multiple chapters within the book. Fabbri has provided each of these characters with their own nickname and symbol, both of which help to distinguish the character and to highlight certain character elements or parts of their history. The use of these multiple character perspectives makes for quite an interesting novel, as it allows the reader to see a much wider viewpoint of the conflicts occurring around the entire empire, as well as the multiple sides involved in it. This mixture of character-specific chapters also allows the reader to get something different out of each chapter, as chapters that follow a warrior will feature more battle sequences, while other chapters are geared more towards political fights or intrigue. This mixture works really well, and it helps to produce a diverse novel with various compelling story elements to it. The chapters are not evenly distributed between the characters, with some getting multiple chapters throughout the course of the book, while others only get a few chapters here in there. Two characters in particular only appear in one half of the book each, with one getting killed off about halfway through, while another only appears a while after. Most of this is due to the fact that some characters were not as prominent in history until a later date, and I imagine that some of these characters will be utilised more significantly in later books.

I liked Fabbri’s take on all the characters contained within the novel, and he came up with a great group of historical people to centre this story on. I thought that he did a fantastic job portraying the sort of vicious and manipulative sort of people who would have tried to take advantage of the situation, and these are the sort the sort of characters that Fabbri excelled at creating in his previous Vespasian series. There are some truly enjoyable characters amongst the main 11 point-of-view historical figures, although I personally enjoyed the parts of the book that featured the Greek advisor Eumenes (the Sly). Eumenes is an exceedingly clever individual who is generally looked down upon within Alexander’s Macedonian empire due to his Greek heritage. Despite this, Eumenes is able to gain quite a bit of power and influence in the post-Alexander era by advising and working with some of the other characters, and is generally the most politically capable out of all of them. As a result, you see quite a bit of him, as not only does he has a large number of his own chapters but he also appears in a number of other characters’ point-of-view chapters, attempting to negotiate or advise these characters to a beneficial course of action. Watching him try and deal with all the other characters is pretty entertaining, especially as they are all rather dismissive of him at times, while he is clearly exasperated by their behaviours and desires, especially with one particular character who he sides with but who completely ignores some of his better suggestions.

Aside from the 11 point-of-view characters, Fabbri has also included a huge group of interesting side characters, most of whom were real-life historical figures. These side characters do a good job of bolstering the story set around the point-of-view characters, and it was intriguing to see how their arcs played out through the course of the story. Fair warning, there are a quite a few side characters utilised throughout the story, which can get a little confusing at times. Fabbri did however include a useful character list in the back of the novel which I did find myself occasionally referencing to keep track of who was who, and which proved to be rather helpful. Overall, I thought that this turned out to be a great group of diverse characters, and I am looking forward to seeing how the surviving members of the cast progress in future books.

I did have a slight criticism with how the book was set out, particularly relating to the spacing between paragraphs. Now, I would usually say that complaining about how a paragraph is formatted is rather nit-picky, but in this case, it was a bit of a legitimate problem. In the version of To the Strongest that I had, there were no breaks between any of the paragraphs, and usually this was not too much of a problem (even if it did make the pages a tad blocky). However, there was also a complete lack of spacing between two paragraphs that are parts of two separate scenes within the same chapter. This means that there are no obvious breaks between certain scenes within the novel, as the next paragraph could be the same scene or a whole new scene altogether, and this had a bit of an impact of how the story flowed throughout. For example, there are a number of places where you have some of the characters talking about one thing, and the next paragraph could either be a continuation of that same scene, or a completely new sequence set several days or weeks in the future. Several times throughout his book, I would get completely lost about what is happening when I started reading the next paragraph without realising that it had jumped to a whole new scene in the future. While it was fine, and I was able to get back into the flow of things once I realised what had happened, it did lead to several moments of confusion, which I think could have been avoided by placing a line break to indicate when a certain scene had ended. While this is a rather minor issue, it did keep recurring throughout the book, and I felt that it should have been avoided. Still, the epic story more than made up for it, and this formatting only had a minor impact on my overall enjoyment of To The Strongest.

To the Strongest by Robert Fabbri is an amazing and exciting historical fiction novel that I had a fantastic time reading. Fabbri has chosen an extremely intriguing historical period to explore within this novel, and his excellent portrayal of the chaos that followed the death of Alexander the Great makes for an outstanding story. I loved how the author used his vast array of historical characters to showcase all the potential battles and manipulation that occurred during this time, and it helped to create a fun and unique read. This is a first-rate read from Fabbri, and I cannot wait to read all the future books in this cool historical fiction series.

The New Achilles by Christian Cameron

The New Achilles Cover

Publisher: Orion (Hardcover – 18 April 2019)

Series: The Commander series – Book 1

Length: 399 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Acclaimed historical fiction author Christian Cameron once again returns to his favourite setting of ancient Greece with his latest novel, The New Achilles.

Greece, 223 BCE. War has come to Greece, as the various Mediterranean powers, including Egypt, Rome and Macedon, engage in a proxy battle on Greek soil. In a sacred sanctuary near the city of Epidauros, Alexanor, a former marine from Rhodes, has spent several years training to become a healer, seeking to escape his violent past. However, war will find Alexanor once again when the Spartans invade the nearby city of Megalopolis, forcing the surviving defenders to bring their wounded to Alexanor’s sanctuary.

Among the wounded is the leader of the men who attempted to fight against the Spartans at Megalopolis, a young man called Philopoemen. After saving his life, Alexanor finds his future tied into that of Philopoemen, who is destined to become one of ancient Greece’s greatest military leaders. Allied with the armies of Macedon against the Spartans and their Egyptian paymasters, Philopoemen proves to be a capable military commander. More importantly, his bravery and skill in battle earn the respect of his fellow Greeks, many of whom consider him to be Achilles reborn.

When prevailing political and military currents require Philopoemen to help with a civil war on Crete, Alexanor travels with him. There they will attempt to take on the powerful city-state of Knossos with an eclectic mix of troops and minimal support from Macedon and the Achaean League. Can Philopoemen and Alexanor succeed, or will the new Achilles fall short of his destiny?

Christian Cameron is a skilled author who has written a number of books throughout his career. While the author is probably best known for his historical fiction work, he has also branched off into fantasy under his pseudonym of Miles Cameron, including his Masters & Mages series, the first book of which, Cold Iron, I previously reviewed here. His latest book, The New Achilles, is the first book in his The Commander series, which will follow the life of the historical figure Philopoemen. This is the third of Cameron’s series which focuses on ancient Greece, with his Tyrant and Long War series both focusing on different periods of ancient Greek history. I have always found that Cameron has a very thorough writing style, and he tends to throw himself into the historical details of his books. This is continued with The New Achilles, as the reader is presented with a very complex tale that may prove a little harder to connect with. However, this book is well worth sticking with, as the author has created an outstanding historical tale that focuses on quite a remarkable character from history.

While The New Achilles does contain some other story elements, at its core it is an intriguing story about the life of Philopoemen. Philopoemen was a skilled general and political leader who was responsible for turning the Achaean League into a viable military power in Greece. He is sometimes known as “the last of the Greeks” (I believe that the next book in this series will be called The Last Greek) due to being one of the last great Greek generals before the Roman era. I have to admit that this was a historical character I had no real experience with, so I was extremely curious to see the author’s vision of his life and deeds. Cameron tackled the story with his usual highly detailed writing style, presenting a comprehensive novelisation of several key events of Philopoemen’s life, his earliest successes and his campaign on Crete. However, there is apparently a large amount of this man’s story left to tell, as he accomplished a great many deeds during his long life. I felt that the author did a fantastic job of capturing the personality of this larger-than-life figure, and I really enjoyed the well-paced story that showed his early rise to prominence.

The story is told from the perspective of the fictional character Alexanor, who, after healing Philopoemen, continues to encounter him and eventually becomes his friend and confidant, accompanying him on several adventures. I liked the use of an outside narrator to tell Philopoemen’s story, and Alexanor is an excellent character in his own right, as he constantly has to balance his duties as a medically trained priest with his desire to help Philopoemen win his battles and his wars. There are issues from his past that he has to deal with, including trauma from a previous war, a lost love and family strife, all of which make for an intriguing character. Another benefit of having a priest as a narrator is that it allows the author to spend time exploring ancient Greek medicine. This was a particularly fascinating element of the book’s story and it was extremely intriguing to see how ancient medicine compares to more modern techniques, and the differences and similarities in knowledge are quite interesting. It also results in some compelling ethical deliberations from the narrator about the dissection of human corpses, which, while strictly forbidden, could result in greater medical knowledge. Overall, I quite enjoyed the author’s use of Alexanor as a narrator, and his focus on his life was an intriguing and enjoyable addition to the story.

This book is set during quite a chaotic period of Mediterranean history, with a huge number of different ancient empires and city-states engaging in various wars and conflicts, many of which have an impact on The New Achilles’s story. Cameron makes sure to examine the various political implications of many of the conflicts occurring around the same time as the events Philopoemen was involved with, and it is quite fascinating to see what effect something like the war between Carthage and Rome could have on the inhabitants of Greece. In addition to the consequences of these distant wars or events, Cameron also looks at the political and national makeup of the various forces arrayed in the conflicts that Philopoemen and Alexanor are involved with. These could get quite complex at times, with a range of alliances, competing city-states and mercenary forces involved or attempting to intervene in a conflict. An example of how complex things could get could be seen in the protagonists extended conflict on Crete, where Philopoemen led a force of Achaean League troops to support one Cretan city state against the on the behest of Macedon. The opposing Cretan city-state was supported by the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt, whose Spartan allies joined in and led the fight against Philopoemen. Various other mercenary groups of different nationalities such as the Thracians and the Illyrians were also employed in this conflict and had various roles in the battles and politics. While the sheer number of different historical groups can get a bit overwhelming at times, Cameron does a great job explaining their history and their allegiances, and it is quite fascinating to see the roles they played in various conflicts.

Like many of Cameron’s previous books, the author’s dedication to historical detail and accuracy in The New Achilles is extremely impressive. Each page is full of intriguing elements from history, and it is easy for the reader to find themselves transported to this classical historical landscape. The author not only looks at the military and political aspects of this historical setting; he also examines day-to-day life for the various Greek civilisations. Cameron also makes use of a whole glossary of historical Greek terms and names throughout The New Achilles, all of which gave his story a greater sense of authenticity.

The New Achilles features a huge number of battle scenes and sequences, as the author captures a number of the historical fights Philopoemen was involved with. These battle sequences were extremely exciting, as the author presents some gritty and blood battle scenes. These were quite spectacular, and I loved the realism contained within the story as even the victors find themselves covered in all manner of wounds, and rarely is there a battle where the main characters come out unscathed. This is particularly true for Philopoemen, who tends to suffer injuries in nearly every battle he gets involved with, due to throwing himself into the heart of the fight. I thought this was a clever inclusion from the author, as not only does this reflect some historical accounts of the relevant battles but it is incredibly refreshing to see a hero that does not emerge from a battle unscathed. I quite enjoyed the examination of Greek battle tactics and weaponry, and the battle sequences in this book are fairly spectacular and well worth checking out.

Christian Cameron’s latest book, The New Achilles is a detailed and compelling examination of a truly remarkable, if overlooked, historical figure. The story of Philopoemen’s life proves to be an amazing focus for the plot, and Cameron brings a number of intriguing aspects of the ancient Greek period to life with his trademark detail orientated writing style. This was an incredibly interesting and captivating read, and I am looking forward to seeing how Philopoemen’s life progresses from here in future instalments of The Commander series.

Waiting on Wednesday – A Capitol Death and Shadows of Athens

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.

Historical fiction and murder mysteries have long been blended together in order to produce some incredible and unique works of fiction over the years.  I am a huge fan of this popular genre mashup, and have personally reviewed several of these books over the last year.  Examples include one of my top books of the year, Tombland by C. J. Sansom; the incredible murder investigation set during Cromwell’s England in Destroying Angel by S. G. MacLean; and even some more contemporary historical mysteries such as Murder Mile by Lynda La Plante.  Each of these books is a lot of fun, and I find that the combination of history and mystery elements usually work together extremely well to create some incredible stories.

Some of the most intriguing examples of historical murder mysteries are set in much more ancient civilisations, such as Greece or Rome, which allow for some much more unique stories.  Examples include Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series or Australian author Gary Corby’s The Athenian Mysteries, which are a particular favourite of mine.  With some extremely interesting releases just around the corner, this week I will be looking at two upcoming murder mystery books set in ancient times that I am extremely eager to get copies of.

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The first of these books is A Capitol Death by Lindsey Davis.  Davis has long been the gold standard of ancient historical murder mysteries, with books such as her long-running Marcus Didius Falco series and its follow-up, the Flavia Albia series, both of which contain amazing mysteries set in the heart of ancient Rome.  I have been a huge fan of the Flavia Albia series for years, and have read all six previous books in the series.  I also reviewed the sixth book in the series, Pandora’s Boy, early last year, awarding it five stars.  As a result, I have huge hopes for A Capitol Death, which will be the seventh book in the series, and based on Davis’s previous work I already know I am going to love it.

In Rome, ruled by the erratic Emperor Domitian, Flavia Albia is dragged into the worst sort of investigation—a politically charged murder—in Lindsey Davis’s next historical mystery, A Capitol Death.

A man falls to his death from the Tarpeian Rock, which overlooks the Forum in the Capitoline Hill in Ancient Rome. While it looks like a suicide, one witness swears that she saw it happen and that he was pushed. Normally, this would attract very little official notice but this man happened to be in charge of organizing the Imperial Triumphs demanded by the emperor.

The Emperor Domitian, autocratic and erratic, has decided that he deserves two Triumphs for his so-called military victories. The Triumphs are both controversial and difficult to stage because of the not-so-victorious circumstances that left them without treasure or captives to be paraded through the streets. Normally, the investigation would be under the auspices of her new(ish) husband but, worried about his stamina following a long recovery, private informer Flavia Albia, daughter of Marcus Didius Falco, steps in.

What a mistake that turns out to be. The deceased proves to have been none-too-popular, with far too many others with much to gain from his death. With the date of the Triumphs fast approaching, Flavia Albia must unravel a truly complex case of murder before danger shows up on her own doorstep.

The synopsis for the new book sounds pretty incredible, as the series’ titular investigator, Flavia Albia, steps up to investigate an intriguing new mystery.  It sounds like this investigation will dive into some political intrigue surrounding the unpopular Emperor Domitian.  Davis has combined mysteries with ancient Roman politics before, such as in the series’ fifth book, The Third Nero, and the end result was pretty spectacular.  I am hoping that Davis will continue to provide the reader with her trademark blend of powerful mysteries, amazing historical elements and outrageous humorous moments, and I am looking forward to any big comedy set pieces, such as the incredible climax to The Third Nero or the big brawl sequence in Pandora’s Boy.  The story in the previous book also hinted at the return of an old antagonist from the original Falco series, and I am looking forward to seeing if that comes into play within A Capitol Death.

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The second book that I am interested in checking out is a new mystery from debuting author J. M. Alvey.  This new book, Shadow of Athens, is set to be released in March and will take place in Athens in 443 BC.

443 BC, and, after decades of war with Persia, peace has finally come to Athens. The city is being rebuilt, and commerce and culture are flourishing.

Aspiring playwright Philocles has come home to find a man with his throat cut slumped against his front gate. Is it just a robbery gone wrong? But, if so, why didn’t the thieves take the dead man’s valuables? With the play that could make his name just days away, he must find out who this man is, why he has been murdered – and why the corpse was left in his doorway.

But Philocles soon realises he has been caught up in something far bigger, and there are those who don’t want him looking any further . . .

This sounds like it could be a really cool book read.  A murder mystery set in ancient Greece has a lot of potential, and I will be interested to see if Alvey’s book will fully explore the historical complexities of this ancient city while also producing a compelling mystery.  I liked that the protagonist of Alvey’s book will be an actual real-life Greek historical figure, in this case, the famous tragic playwright Philocles.  Placing real-life historical figures in the middle of fictional murders is always a compelling story choice, and I am really hoping that Alvey will explore this protagonist’s work as a playwright.  It also sounds like the investigation within Shadow of Athens might play into Athenian politics and will probably have something to do with the war with Persia, both of which are incredibly appealing to me and will hopefully lead to some great story developments.

In addition to the awesome-sounding premise, I have to say that I really enjoyed the striking cover art that this new book had, and I found that its eye-catching imagery really grabbed my imagination.  Shadow of Athens already has some very positive pre-reviews from some notable authors, including one of my favourite historical fiction authors at the moment, Andrew Taylor.  As a result of these endorsements, combined with the intriguing plot synopsis, Shadow of Athens is probably the historical fiction debut I am most looking forward to at the moment and I am excited to see how impressive this new author is.

As a result, I think that both of these books have a lot of potential, and could prove to be some of my favourite reads of early 2019.

The Honourable Thief by Meaghan Wilson Anastasios

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Publisher: Macmillan Australia

Publication date – 31 July 2018

 

In her first solo novel, Australian Meaghan Anastasios has produced a deeply compelling historical drama that combines a thriller storyline with an archaeological investigation into one fun and invigorating narrative.

In 1955, world-renowned archaeologist and war hero Benedict Hitchens has been living a life of academic exile in Istanbul.  His promising archaeological career and professional reputation were destroyed after a chance encounter with the mysterious Eris, who held a horde of ancient treasures that validated the legends of the Iliad.  When Eris and her treasures suddenly disappear, Ben’s attempts to find her result in suspicion from the authorities and disbelief from the world at large.  His only tangible proof of the encounter is a small tablet that hints at the existence of Achilles, Ben’s archaeological obsession.

Now, Ben embarks on an ambitious plan to flush out the people responsible for Eris’s disappearance, hoping to bring her to justice and salvage his life and reputation.  The clues that he uncovers take him on a quest to find the tomb of Achilles, travelling through Greece, London and Turkey in order to locate one of the world’s greatest treasures.  However, a shadowy group is manipulating Ben at every turn.  Can Ben find the Achilles’s tomb before the ghosts of his past catch up with him?

Despite this being her first solo book, Anastasios is already a successful author, having previously teamed up with her husband to produce the historical drama The Water Diviner, which was adapted into a movie starring Russell Crowe.  While this book does not appear to be connected to Anastiasios’s previous work, both stories are primarily set in Turkey and focus on key events in the country’s history.  The Honourable Thief does contain a fun little callback to her other novel when its main character is at one point nicknamed ‘the Water Diviner’ due to his uncanny ability to find archaeological material.

The overall story that Anastasios presents with The Honourable Thief is a fantastic narrative that combines mystery and suspense aspects, great historical fiction elements, exploration of Greece and Turkey, and a whole lot of archaeology.  There is a great focus on the impact of World War II on Greece, especially Crete, as well as a detailed examination of Turkish history and culture.  Having the protagonist work on uncovering both an archaeological investigation and a conspiracy around missing artefacts is an interesting combination that creates a very interesting story.  The ties to the stories of the Iliad as the protagonist examines the possibility of finding the tomb of Achilles are fascinating and will appeal to fans of the classics.

The author has split The Honourable Thief into two parts and three separate timelines.  Part I of the book only briefly touches on the storyline set in 1955, and instead focuses on the events in the protagonist’s life that led up to the latest timeline.  One of these storylines looks at Ben’s early life during the 1930s and 1940s, including his experiences during World War II.  The second storyline is set in the early 1950s and focuses on the events that led up to Ben losing his reputation and the beginnings of his self-destructive life in Istanbul.  Part II of the book mostly contains the 1955 storyline, and follows Ben’s quest to clear his name.

This split into three distinct storylines is a great way to highlight The Honourable Thief’s intricate narrative, and it was interesting to focus on the earlier timelines in the first half of the book.  This also allows the main plot to continue almost uninterrupted in the second half of the book, ensuring that the reader can completely focus on the intense and electrifying adventure set around the protagonist’s hunt for answers.  This formatting decision was a great change of pace from other novels that slowly reveal their protagonist’s past through the course of the entire story.

While the vast majority of The Honourable Thief is told from the protagonist’s point of view, some very short chapters that buck this trend have been added into Part II of the book.  These smaller entries are inserted before the longer chapters that focus on the protagonist and contain brief, shadowy conversations between the story’s villains.  During these chapters, these hidden characters discuss and analyse the actions of Ben and work out ways to manipulate him further.  The identities of these conspirators are not revealed within these chapters, which builds intrigue as the reader tries to work out who they are.  These short chapters are a terrific addition to the book, as they provide the story with some short, but stimulating, breaks in the narrative.  It also adds a completely new perspective to the story and allows the reader insight into the machinations of the book’s antagonists.

Anastasios has created an interesting and memorable protagonist for her excellent story.  When Benedict Hitchens is introduced, he is a disgraced and self-destructive character who does not elicit a great deal of sympathy from the audience.  However, the author’s clever use of the separate storylines allows the reader to view his backstory, which explores his obsession with finding Eris and Achilles.  Both earlier timelines are vital in explaining the character’s motives and emotional baggage, turning Ben into a tragic and sympathetic character.  It is also fascinating to see the changes that have happened to the character during the various timelines.  For example, his experiences change his entire outlook on life and make him more likely to engage in reckless actions.  It also changes his style of archaeology as he goes from the academically accepted practice of carefully digging trenches and laboriously recording every single detail, to a more reckless technique reminiscent of a tomb raider like Indiana Jones.  Anastasios has included an interesting character flaw for her protagonist: despite him being a brilliant archaeologist, he keeps falling for a series of blindingly obvious manipulations, which becomes quite frustrating for the reader to watch.

The reader may find it is possible to predict many of the book’s various twists well in advance, and that lessens the impact of the story.  The eventual reveal of who the antagonists are also was not too uprising.  However, there is one significant, if not slightly ridiculous, twist in the last few pages of the book that nobody is likely to see coming.  While these negative aspects are slightly detrimental to the story, I felt that the all the book’s other amazing elements more than make up for it and turn The Honourable Thief into a captivating and highly enjoyable read.

This fantastic novel is a superb first solo outing from Anastasios, who has crafted an excellent story of betrayal, mystery and adventure, all bound together with archaeology and history.  Cleverly utilising three separate timelines into one compelling narrative, The Honourable Thief is a powerful and distinctive read that will appeal to a huge range of readers.

My Rating:

Four stars

The Falcon of Sparta by Conn Iggulden

THe Falcon of Sparta Cover.jpg

Publisher: Michael Joseph

Publication Date – 3 May 2018

 

One of historical fiction’s very best authors is back with an enthralling story that follows history’s greatest warriors on one of their most legendary journeys.  Without a doubt, Conn Iggulden is one of the top authors of historical fiction in the world today.  Since 2003 he has consistently produced some of the most in-depth, detailed and engrossing chronicles of several different historical periods and cultures.  His previous work includes lengthy examinations of Julius Caesar and Genghis Khan in his bestselling Emperor and Conqueror series, and he has also produced the definitive fictional account of one of the bloodiest civil wars in English history with his extraordinary War of the Roses series.  Now, following his 2017 fantasy debut Darien, Iggulden has once again returned to his historical fiction roots by exploring another new realm of history, the Spartans.

In 401 BC, the new Persian king, Artaxerxes II, rules the largest empire in the known world.  With an empire sprawling from the Aegean Sea to the north of India, the king of Persia is the undisputed ruler of 50 million people.  However, despite all their wealth and power, the kings of Persia have never conquered Greece.  From Thermopylae to Marathon and Platea, the Persians have suffered the ferocity of the Greeks, and none are more feared than the men of Sparta.  As a result, it has been many years since the Persians have attempted to invade Greece, and many Spartans now serve as mercenaries in the Persian army.

When Prince Cyrus, Artaxerxes’s brother, is nearly executed by the new king following the death of their father, the young prince is determined to claim the throne of Persia for himself.  After hiring an army of skilled Greek mercenaries led by an elite core of Spartan warriors and the revered Spartan General Clearchus, Cyrus marches against his brother.  But battles can be lost with a single blow, and when Cyrus is killed on the battlefield the Greeks suddenly find themselves trapped in the middle of the Persian Empire.

With Clearchus and the other Greek generals having been killed through treachery, it falls to a young solider, Xenophon, to lead the surviving Greeks to safety.  With limited supplies and no knowledge of the land before them, Xenophon must find a way to lead 10,000 soldiers and an additional 10,000 camp followers back to Greece.  Forced to endure constant attacks from the Persian army as they travel through deserts and across mountains, their journey will become legendary.

The Falcon of Sparta is a standalone novel primarily based on the classic Greek text, Anabasis, which was written by the historical Xenophon.  Iggulden’s novel focuses on the events of the first four of the seven books of Anabasis.

While The Falcon of Sparta does not contain the full version of Anabasis, in some ways it is a much more complete and detailed story that focuses on the people who featured in this great adventure.  Xenophon related his tale in a rather simple and direct manner, and Iggulden has compensated for this by providing his own storytelling and dramatic writing.  Many of the key characters now have significant backstories fictional justifications for many of these characters’ actions and motives.  For example, Iggulden attempts to provide a more complex and dramatic explanation for the schism between Artaxerxes and Cyrus, rather than the historical story that Cyrus simply desired the throne.  Iggulden also provides additional context for one of the main villains of the Anabasis, the Persian noble Tissaphernes, who led the Persian armies against the retreating Greek forces.  In The Falcon of Sparta his role as a villain is greatly expanded.  Not only is he portrayed as a former friend of Cyrus who betrayed him for power but also as one of the main reasons Cyrus fails to seize the throne and the protagonists are placed into such peril.  Iggulden’s additional backstories and character traits make for a much more compelling and complete story with thrilling and absorbing motivations and antagonists.

These additional story elements are greatly enhanced by the author’s use of character perspectives.  For the first two thirds of the story, narration is split between a number of characters, including Cyrus, Clearchus, Tissaphernes, Artaxerxes and Xenophon.  Not only does this split narration help to build up the respective characters’ histories and allow the audience a better view of their personalities, but it also adds significantly to the story as these characters provide various perspectives on the events occurring in the formative parts of the main story.  Through the narrators we are given glimpses into a range of interesting things, including Artaxerxes’s and Cyrus’s thoughts on the war for their father’s throne, as well as the events and feelings that led up to the conflict.  We also see the respect that Cyrus and Xenophon have for their Spartan allies, as they see examples of their effectiveness in combat and their legendary self-discipline.

The scenes told from Tissaphernes’s point of view further highlight his role as a villain as his inner monologue reveals his selfish motivations and ambitions.  The story told from Tissaphernes’s viewpoint helps turn him into an embodiment of the distain that the ancient Persians had for the Greeks and their soldiers.  Despite seeing the Greeks’ substantial battle prowess, Tissaphernes and many of the Persians viewed the Greeks as second-rate soldiers, and it is fascinating to see how deeply held this belief was.

After the first two thirds of the book, the story is told exclusively from the point of view of Xenophon and starts to mostly represent Book III and Book IV of the Anabasis.  This part of the book allows the reader a closer view of the Spartan and Greek forces as they participate in their epic march and is very entertaining.  Even as the story becomes confined to only one narrator, Iggulden is still able to provide the necessary detail and drama in the final part of the book to keep the story going strong and maintain the reader’s attention and enjoyment.

Special attention needs to be given to the masterful portrayal of the Greeks and Spartans in battle.  Iggulden has an incredible eye for detail and an amazing writing style that brings the reader right into the heart of the book’s large-scale action sequences.  In particular, he spends a significant amount of time focusing on the Greeks and the Spartans and does an amazing job of capturing their battle techniques, tactics and mentality.  There are a large number of battle scenes within this book, and Iggulden uses every opportunity to show off the prowess of his heroes in as much detail as possible, allowing the reader to easily witness the events in their minds.  The Persian soldiers are also examined in the scenes narrated by Cyrus, and it is interesting to see the differences in the fighting style and mentality of the Greeks and Persians.  Those interested in reading about this part of history will love the amount of attention given to the Spartans and find many of the associated descriptions deeply fascinating.

Conn Iggulden has once again produced a masterful and absorbing fictional account that focuses on an utterly intriguing historical event.  Bringing the reader right into the middle of the march of the Ten Thousand, Iggulden expands on Xenophon’s Anabasis and provides a more dramatic and elegant story of betrayal, endurance and survival.  The Falcon of Sparta is a love letter to one of history’s most legendary race of warriors, and it provides the reader with a detailed exploration of Spartan warfare, lifestyle and mentality.  This is a breathtaking and highly recommended piece of historical fiction that is guaranteed to drag you in for the long haul.

My Rating:

Five Stars