Prisoner by S. R. White

The Prisoner Cover

Publisher: Headline (Trade Paperback – 31 August 2021)

Series: Hermit – Book Two

Length: 421 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out 5 stars

Prepare for a twisty and dark Australian murder mystery novel as author S. R. White presents the compelling and powerful Prisoner.

Deep in rural Northern Australia, a dead body has been found in the middle of a dank and dangerous swamp.  The corpse is staged to appear like a crucifixion, with the man’s arms and legs tied to poles, and his chest caved in with several blows.  Called to the scene of the crime, Detective Dana Russo soon discovers that the victim was a convicted rapist who had only been released from prison a few hours earlier and whose crime occurred only a short walk away from his murder site.

Determined to get to the bottom of this unusual murder, Russo and her team swiftly begin tearing apart the victim’s life in prison and find that he had been in communication with two local sisters who offered him a place to stay once he was released.  Investigating the sisters, they discover a unique pair of siblings who have been irreparably damaged by trauma and abuse and who live separate from the rest of society.  Believing that the solution to the mystery may lay with them, Russo brings them both in for questioning, but finds them uncooperative and elusive.

Under pressure to solve the crime, the detectives slowly unwind an intriguing case, concerning corruption, drugs and prison gangs.  However, the further they dig, the more apparent it becomes that the sisters are hiding some dark secrets about themselves and the victim.  Forced to dig deep within herself, Russo uses the memories of her own traumatic childhood to analyse the suspects and find some common understanding with them.  Can Russo break through these two unlikely suspects, or will the solution to this murder never be revealed?

This was a pretty cool and captivating novel from former British Police officer turned author S. R. White.  Prisoner is White’s second novel and serves as a sequel to his 2020 debut, Hermit.  This proved to be a fantastic read and I deeply enjoyed the intriguing and powerful narrative, especially as White loads his book with a complex mystery and some deeply damaged characters.  I got pretty hooked on this book as it progressed and ended up finishing it in only a couple of days.

Prisoner contains a very impressive and compelling narrative that I really found myself getting drawn into.  The novel mostly starts off focusing on the murder, with the discovery of the body in the first few pages, and then the protagonists immediately jump into the investigation, including the interrogation of one of the main suspects.  As the story progresses, you get some other interesting elements thrown in, mostly around Dana Russo and one of her other colleagues as they deal with some dark personal history.  There is also a captivating subplot regarding internal police politics that produces a real shakeup in the department and has some potential series-wide ramifications.  However, most of the story remains on the mystery, and I really appreciated the creativity and darkness that the author fits into the case.  Despite being a sequel to White’s first book, Prisoner can easily be read as a standalone novel, and no prior knowledge of the characters or the setting is needed.  I felt that the entire narrative progressed along at a great pace, and there were no slow bits throughout the book, as the reader was either reading about the case or dealing with the intense personal demons of the various characters.

I must highlight the fantastic writing style that White featured throughout this novel.  While most of the focus of Prisoner is on central character Russo, the author makes good use of multiple perspectives, mainly of the other detectives on the investigation team, to move the story along and provide some alternate points of view and different investigative threads.  White utilises a very detailed writing style, which encourages a slower reading pace to make sure you don’t miss anything, and I felt that enriched the mystery and increased the realism of the plot.  I also must highlight the incredibly detailed descriptions of the swampy landscape that surrounded the crime scene and the Northern Australian town where the plot is set.  White paints a grim picture of small, isolated community on its last legs, where even the landscape has turned against it.  You can really feel the stickiness and deadliness of the swamps, and it proves to be quite a haunting background to several scenes.  I also must mention the really fun and unique take that several of the characters had on the film Signs.  This film, which I personally rather enjoyed, is brought up several times and becomes a key plot point.  While that does sound a little strange, its inclusion worked surprisingly well, and the subsequent discussions and insightful analysis of the film and its themes, ended up fitting into the overall narrative quite seamlessly, helping to create quite a unique tale.

I also deeply enjoyed the crime fiction/mystery elements of Prisoner, which really helped to turn this into quite a compelling and exciting story.  White crafts together a really clever and psychologically intense mystery for this book, and I had a wonderful time seeing the protagonists unwind it.  The author sets up a great methodical criminal investigation, with the characters slowly uncovering clues, backstory and various suspects throughout the story.  While the police do achieve an impressive amount in just a couple of days, there is a gritty sense of realism to much of the story, and I really enjoyed seeing the police in action.  The best part of the investigation is easily the focus on interrogations as the protagonist engages two uncooperative suspects in several separate interviews throughout the course of the book.  These interrogation sequences are among some of the best parts of the entire book, as Russo really dives into the pasts and minds of her suspects, which also requires her to reach back and harness some of her own trauma to break through to them.  This, combined with the rest of her team’s investigation, proved to be quite fascinating, and I really enjoyed seeing the cooperative work and professional skills involved.  I also quite enjoyed the solution to the murder, especially as White comes up with quite a unique and dark motivation for the crime.  There are several good suspects and motivations for the murder, which at times made me question who the killer might be.  However, I thought the overall resolution of the mystery was extremely clever, and it really made great use of the dark psychology of some of the characters.

One of the biggest highlights of this book were the damaged and traumatised central characters, who White spent a substantial amount of time exploring throughout the course of the story.  This includes a mixture of characters who previously appeared in Hermit and some new characters brought in for Prisoner.  This includes central protagonist Dana Russo, the detective in charge of the investigation.  Dana had a very traumatic childhood, brought on by an abusive mother who beat and emotionally tormented her following her father’s death.  While this was revealed in the previous novel, it was recounted once again in Prisoner, especially as details of the case end up mimicking parts of Dana’s life.  The protagonist is forced to dive deep into her prior experiences to help solve this case, and it was fascinating to see how she could instantly spot signs of abuse, as well as rationalise the various reasons behind it and the impacts it can have on a young person.  The protagonist also uses her experiences to get into the minds of her two main suspects, resulting in some intense and extremely powerful interrogation scenes, where both suspect and interrogator are broken down at the same time.  White also produces some more revelations about Dana’s terrible childhood, including a certain reveal on the last page that was pretty memorable, and I really liked the compelling picture he painted around this impressive leading character.

The other characters who proved to be extremely compelling were the main suspects of the murder case, Suzanne and Marika Doyle.  The Doyle siblings are instantly identified as persons of interest in the case due to their house’s proximity to the crime scene and the fact that they wrote to the victim in prison and helped to organise his parole, despite having never met him.  Upon examination of their history, as well as an insightful look at their house, it soon becomes apparent that both siblings had a hard childhood because of their controlling mother.  Their life story becomes a key part of the overarching plot as Russo attempts to uncover their full history and personalities, as she believes it is important to solve the case.  The eventual reveals about the siblings and their relationship, their past and their emotional states is extremely captivating, and White paints quite a dark and troubled narrative around them that was really fascinating.  The way that this ties into the murder and their relationship with the victim is very clever, and White really outdid himself making these two sibling suspects.

I also must give a quick shout out to the character of Lucy Delaney, one of Dana’s co-workers and an invaluable resource in the case.  Dana and Lucy got quite close to each other in the previous novel, with Dana revealing some of her childhood trauma to her, something she rarely does.  In this novel, you get a much closer look at Lucy, who reveals some of her own personal issues, and the shared grief becomes a major part of her connection to Dana.  Unfortunately for Lucy, she gets dragged into some internal police politics, which impact her and her secrets quite severely and will likely become a recurring issue in the series, especially if the relationship between Dana and Lucy progresses.  Aside from Lucy, I felt that the police characters represented an interesting blend of personalities and skills, such as the wily veteran Mike or the similarly damaged officer Ali, who helped to give the film more personality.  It will be interesting to see how these characters are featured in the future, and I look forward to learning more about them.

Prisoner by S. R. White is a clever and moving piece of Australian crime fiction that proved to be a real treat to read.  White has produced a deep and compelling murder mystery narrative that focuses on a fantastic group of damaged protagonists and suspects, and who have some dark stories to tell.  I really loved the more methodical and grounded police investigation angle of this book, especially the inclusion of some powerful interrogation sequences, and I was impressed with how the narrative unfolded.  An excellent and captivating murder mystery, Prisoner comes highly recommended, and you will have a great time getting through the latest book from this fantastic Australian author.

Quick Review – Breakout by Paul Herron

Breakout Cover

Publisher: Headline (Trade Paperback – 9 March 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 291 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Prepare yourself for one of the most exhilarating and action-packed novels of 2021 with the ultra-exciting thriller novel, Breakout by Paul Herron.

Breakout is an intriguing and fantastic novel that caught my eyes earlier this year.  This fun book was written by Paul Herron, the pseudonym for established author and screenwriter Paul Crilley.  Crilley, whose body of work includes his Delphic Division, The Invisible Order and The Chronicles of Abraxis Wren novels, appears to have taken this opportunity to dive into the thriller genre in a big way with Breakout.  While I have not read any of Herron/Crilley’s books before, I found myself really drawn to this latest novel due to its outrageous and fun-sounding plot.

Synopsis:

As explosive as a Hollywood blockbuster, this high-concept thriller is perfect for fans of James Patterson, David Baldacci and Gregg Hurwitz.

A LETHAL STORM. THE MOST DEADLY PRISON. WHO WILL SURVIVE THE NIGHT?

Jack Constantine – a former cop who killed one of his wife’s murderers in an act of vengeance – is serving his time in Ravenhill penitentiary, a notorious ‘supermax’ home to the most dangerous convicts in the country.

When an apocalyptic superstorm wreaks havoc across the USA, the correctional officers flee the prison…but not before opening every cell door. The inmates must fend for themselves as lethal floodwaters rise and violent anarchy is unleashed.

Teaming up with Kiera Sawyer, a Correctional Officer left behind on her first day of work, Constantine has one chance of survival – he must break out of a maximum security prison. But with the building on the verge of collapse, and deadly chaos around him, time is running out…

Breathless, exhilarating and brilliantly original, this high-octane thriller is perfect for fans of Gregg Hurwitz, Lee Child and David Baldacci – and blockbuster action movies like John Wick.

As you can imagine, the idea of a supermax prison with all the inmates loose and a destructive superstorm on the way was something that sounded pretty damn awesome and it was one of the main reasons that I wanted to read Breakout.  There were so many cool things that could happen with such a narrative and Herron made sure to produce an epic and fast-paced narrative that is guaranteed to keep your attention through every electrifying scene.

The best way to describe Breakout is that it is very similar to the most insane action movie script you have ever seen.  Herron has essentially written nearly 300 pages of wall-to-wall excitement and movement, as the protagonists are thrust into an unthinkable situation with very little chance of survival.  The author does an incredible job setting up the initial threads of this great story, with compelling and detailed introductions of the troubled central character, Jack Constantine, the prison, the storm, and the other personalities contained within the prison.  The author also makes good use of some flashback sequences at the start that not only tell Jack’s story but also set up some major plot points, such as two characters the protagonist really wants to kill and a major antagonist.  All of this set up ensures that when the mayhem begins, it can go on at a continuous pace, with Jack, the trapped rookie prison guard, Keira Sawyer, and other associates running into problem after problem without any additional background information.  These obstacles include rival prison gangs, flooding, insane winds, collapsing buildings, impromptu fight clubs, a deranged cult leader, and a vengeful gangster.  These inclusions ensure that the reader can barely take a breath without something cool happening, and it is extremely easy to read this novel in one sitting.  All this leads up to big conclusion as the protagonist has to make some big decisions, as well as deal with the consequences of a few good twists that Herron added.  I deeply enjoyed this entire narrative, and action lovers everywhere are going to have an absolute blast getting through this fun book.

Breakout contains an intriguing array of characters, although I must admit that I was not taken by central protagonist, Jack Constantine.  Constantine is a bit of an ass at the best of times, as he is very arrogant and selfish.  I honestly had a hard time feeling any sympathy for the character at times, mainly because he brings all his problems on himself.  However, the deficits of this lead character are more than made up for in some of the supporting characters and antagonists featured throughout the book.  The most prominent of those is Keira Sawyer, a first-day prison guard who finds herself trapped in the prison and needs to work with Constantine to survive and escape.  I felt that the author did a great job with Keria, a strong and passionate character with a hidden backstory.  While Herron could have written Keria as a damsel in distress, he instead showed her to be a tough and resourceful figure, capable of holding her own and gaining the respect of the inmates.  I also really have to highlight Constantine’s friend and cellmate, Felix, the fantastic teller of tales.  Felix is an intensely funny character with a very unique outlook on life and the prison system.  This character is insanely likeable, and together with Constantine and Keria, Felix helps to form an excellent central trio of protagonists who you cannot help but cheer for as the action commences.

I was also quite impressed by the antagonists of this story.  Herron ensures that the protagonists have to face off with a huge raft of different criminals and gangsters as they attempt to make their escape, and it was really cool to see the range of personalities that emerged.  The main antagonist is Malcolm Kincaid, a dangerous and sadistic Miami crime figure who was able to get away with terrible acts of violence for years until Constantine framed him for murder.  Kincaid is rightfully pissed and spends much of the novel trying to brutally kill Constantine and his friends, while also causing general mayhem around the prison, including initiating an involuntary Russian roulette tournament.  Kincaid was an excellent main antagonist, and I loved some of the twists that were revealed around him.  The other villain I really liked was Preacher, a demented serial killer with a major religious bent who convinces some of the prison’s more insane members to join him in a fun little murder cult.  Preacher was a pretty intense baddie, and I loved the inclusion of a murderous cultist and his friends to an already fun story.  The final antagonist I want to talk about is the superstorm itself.  The storm, Hurricane Anna, is an absolute beast that wrecks the entirety of Florida, as well as several other states.  Herron does an amazing job bringing this crazy storm to life throughout the book, and you get to experience a number of powerful scenes where characters encounter Anna in all its windy glory.  The entire storm was an insane and fantastic addition to the plot, and it was so cool to see the character attempt to escape its pure destructive power.

Overall, I felt that Breakout was an extremely fun and exciting novel that was an absolute treat to read.  Due to all the incredible action, crazy villains and major set pieces, this is an outstanding thriller that readers will have a fantastic time getting through, especially as the action never ends.  It honestly would not surprise me if this was turned into a major blockbuster film in the next few years (perhaps with Dwayne Johnson), and it is one that I know I would deeply enjoy.  Highly recommended to anyone who wants to increase their heart rate, Breakout is an incredibly awesome read!

Blackout by Simon Scarrow

Blackout Cover

Publisher: Headline (Trade Paperback – 30 March 2021)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 424 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of the leading authors of historical fiction, Simon Scarrow, breaks new ground in a thrilling and captivating historical murder mystery, Blackout.

Berlin, December 1939.  As the citizens of Berlin worry about a potential upcoming conflict with Britain and France, the Nazi party continues to sink their claws into every aspect of German society.  But as a bleak winter sets in and enforced blackouts plunge the city into darkness, a far more sinister threat begins to stalk the streets of Berlin.

A young woman has been found brutally murdered near a busy set of train tracks.  The victim is a former famous actress with a powerful husband.  Due to her marital connections, as well as a scandalous past with various high-ranking Nazi figures, including Goebbels, her case has dangerous political implications.  To that end, her case is assigned to Criminal Inspector Horst Schenke of the Kriminalpolizei, the Kripo, one of the few police officers not to join the party.  Due to his apparent disregard for the party and the importance of the victim, Horst is under intense pressure from the head of the Gestapo to solve this case.  However, what begins as an easy murder case swiftly devolves into something far more dangerous when a second body is found, and Horst is forced to face the reality that he is chasing a serial killer.

As the bodies of more young women are discovered, Horst rushes to find a killer before the government attempts to hush up the fact that a killer is loose within their perfect Nazi society.  But with the Gestapo interfering at every step and key suspects protected by the Abwehr, German Military Intelligence, this case proves difficult to solve.  When a survivor is found, Horst thinks this may be the opportunity to find the killer.  However, when the witness is revealed to be Jewish, Horst is forced to find a way to protect her from both the killer and the Gestapo.  Can Horst find the killer before it is too late, or will he discover that disloyalty to the Nazi government is considered a far worse crime?

This was another amazing novel from one of my absolute favourite authors.  Scarrow is best known as a Roman historical fiction author due to his long-running and impressive The Eagles of the Empire series, which I am a particular fan of (see my reviews for The Blood of Rome, Traitors of Rome, and The Emperor’s Exile).  However, Scarrow has also branched out into other historical periods with his Revolution quartet, the standalone novels The Sword and the Scimitar and Hearts of Stone, and a modern crime novel he wrote with his colleague Lee Francis, Playing with Death (which I really need to check out).  His latest book, Blackout, is an interesting change of pace from some of the previous Scarrow novels I have enjoyed, presenting a compelling murder mystery story with the dark historical setting of Nazi Germany.  Blackout, which was unfortunately delayed from last year, proved to be an excellent read, and I loved the complex and powerful story that Scarrow came up with.

Scarrow’s latest book has an outstanding narrative that starts with a Nazi social party scene quickly leading to the brutal murder.  This shocking opening in the dark of a blacked-out Berlin sets the scene for the rest of Blackout perfectly, and lets the reader know that they are in for an intense and dark tale.  The narrative then advances to the next day, with a great introduction to central protagonist Inspector Horst Schenke, who gets to showcase his deductive ability while also covering his personality and feelings about the Nazi government.  Once the case proper begins, Horst and his team are thrust into a lethal hunt for a serial killer, while also having to contend with the vicious politics and intrigue of the Nazi party.  Horst finds himself caught between the Gestapo, German Military Intelligence, and other influential Nazis, each of whom are attempting to manipulate the situation for their own ends.  This blend of mystery and dangerous political intrigue makes for a fantastic read, and I enjoyed the compelling balance that Scarrow produced.  The mystery itself is well crafted, with the author ensuring there is a complex and tangled web to unravel, with several promising suspects.  There are some very cool twists added into the plot, and I quite enjoyed the exciting conclusion and eventual reveal of the killer.  This is also a very effective standalone mystery, which would serve as a great introductory novel if Scarrow ever wanted to revisit this setting and characters in the future.  A series set around this book could go in some interesting directions, and I for one would be quite keen for that.

Easily the most captivating and fascinating part of this novel is the amazing historical setting that Scarrow used as the backdrop to his amazing mystery.  While several great mystery series have used World War II Germany as a setting before (the Bernie Gunther series by the late, great Philip Kerr comes to mind), I think that Blackout was a particularly good example of how it could be done, with Scarrow making sure that it really enhanced this already incredible story.  Scarrow skilfully works several fantastic and intriguing elements of this iconic setting into his narrative.  This includes the blacked-out winter streets and train lines of 1939 Berlin, which serve to hide the killer’s actions and ensures an easy hunting ground.  I also appreciated the air of worry and uncertainty that inhabited many of the characters as they are constantly left wondering if their country is heading towards a bigger war with Britain and France, not knowing of their government’s master plan.  There is also a certain amount of nationalism, patriotism and casual racism/anti-Semitism on the streets, which is a confronting and concerning aspect that the protagonist has to deal with.  There is also a fascinating focus on the way in which the Nazis infested all aspects of the German government and administration, particularly the police.  Inspector Horst is constantly butting heads with other members of the police force who were only promoted due to their party allegiances, rather than any skill or ability, which impacts the protagonists to successfully investigate his crime.  Add in the compelling depictions of German politics and Nazi interference that I mentioned before, and you have a very impactful and distinctive setting, which really helped to turn this crime novel into something very special.

Scarrow has a knack for creating some interesting and likeable characters, and this is certainly true for Blackout.  Inspector Horst is a fantastic protagonist, a former famous race car driver who experienced a traumatic crash several years ago.  He has since reworked himself as a talented police investigator and a rare man of honour in troubled times.  There is a lot to like about Horst, including his brilliant investigative skills, his courage in the face of danger, and his complete disregard for the Nazi leadership.  As one of the few senior police officers who has not joined the Nazi party, Horst is a bit of a black sheep amongst the ranks of his organisation, especially as he barely contains his disdain for the Nazis and what they are doing to his country.  This invariably leads him into a whole mess of trouble, which sees him in the crosshairs of the Gestapo and other Nazi figures, who seek to use his neutrality and skill for their own advantages.  I had a lot of fun following Horst throughout this novel, and it was great to see how a non-Nazi supporter would survive amongst the authoritarian ranks of German police in this period.  There are several great storylines surrounding this character, including about the trauma he is experiencing from his crash, as well as guilt at his failure to save the people closest to him.  I really enjoyed this character in Blackout, and it seems likely that Scarrow would have some very compelling storylines in place for this character if he ever revisited this series.

Aside from Horst, there are several other compelling side characters in this novel, which include a mixture of fictional characters and real historical figures.  One of the better characters is Ruth, the only apparent survivor of one of the serial killer’s attacks.  Ruth is a feisty and combative character, made so by her position as one of the few Jewish people still remaining in Berlin.  Despite being threatened by the entire German apparatus as well as a serial killer, Ruth remains strong throughout the book and is a very inspirational character to follow.  I also quite enjoyed the character of Liebwitz, a Gestapo agent assigned to Horst’s unit to spy on him and report back to the Gestapo commander.  However, Liebwitz proves to be a rather unusual Gestapo agent, more concerned with facts and analysis, rather than Nazi internal politics, and it was fascinating to see an honest and non-sociopathic member of the Gestapo.  While there is a lot of mistrust for Liebwitz in the beginning, he soon becomes a major part of the investigation, and Scarrow sets up some very interesting storylines for him.  Finally, I also quite enjoyed the killer of the story.  Several sequences in Blackout are shown from his point of view, although his identity is kept hidden towards the end of the book.  Scarrow paints an interesting picture of this killer’s mental state, and it was interesting to see his motivations run parallel to the goals of the Nazi party, which he uses to justify some of his actions, and indeed his actions are something that the Nazi leadership might approve of.  I felt that the author did a good job setting this antagonist up throughout the novel, and I rather liked the twist surrounding their eventual reveal.

Simon Scarrow continues to show why he is one of the leading authors of historical fiction with the outstanding and captivating historical murder mystery, Blackout.  Breaking into a whole new historical period and setting, Scarrow produces a fantastic and powerful murder investigation which makes amazing use of its complex characters and detailed historical setting.  Featuring all manner of twists, political intrigue and devious Nazi characters, Blackout was a compelling and intriguing read that comes highly recommended.  I cannot wait to get my next hit of Scarrow, and luckily I don’t have to be patient for long as the next Eagles of the Empire book, The Honour of Rome, is out in a few months time.

The Emperor’s Exile by Simon Scarrow

The Emperor's Exile Cover

Publisher: Headline (Trade Paperback – 10 November 2020)

Series: Eagles of the Empire – Book 19

Length: 434 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of the top authors of Roman historical fiction, Simon Scarrow, returns with the latest exciting novel in his Eagles of the Empire series, The Emperor’s Exile.

Rome, 57 A.D.  Following their adventures in Parthia, Legionary veterans Tribune Cato and Centurion Marco return to Rome with the remnants of their Praetorian Cohort.  Thanks to the ever-shifting politics of Rome and the fickleness of Emperor Nero’s court, Cato faces a hostile reception from some of Nero’s advisors, who hold him responsible for the military disasters experienced in the Parthian campaign.  Soon Cato has his command taken away from him, while Marco decides to resign from the Legions in protest, determined to live out his retirement in Britain.

Isolated in Rome, Cato is forced by one of Nero’s advisors to take on a new and dangerous mission.  Nero’s mistress, the beautiful Claudia Acte, has risen too high too quickly, and Nero’s political enemies have manipulated him into sending her into exile.  Travelling with a select group of Praetorian officers and his new advisor, the spy Apollonius, Cato must escort Claudia to the location of her exile, the island province of Sardinia, where he has another mission to accomplish.

Sardinia has long been plagued by tribes of bandits living wild in the centre of the island.  These proud decedents of the original inhabitants of Sardinia have been causing problems in recent months, raiding the local villages and ambushes caravans.  Taking command of Sardinia’s entire garrison, Cato begins to work out a strategy to defeat the locals and regain his position in Rome.  However, this proves harder than originally anticipated as Cato needs to contend with a disorganised military force, a dangerous plague that is beginning to overwhelm the island and a surprisingly competent group of bandits with unparalleled knowledge of the local landscape.  Worse, Cato begins to have dangerous feelings for Claudia, feelings which his enemies will exploit and which could set the entirety of Rome against him.  Can Cato pacify Sardinia before his entire force is decimated, or have his adventures finally come to an end?

This was another fantastic and highly enjoyable historical fiction novel from one of my favourite authors, Simon Scarrow, who has produced an impressive new entry in his long-running Eagles of the Empire series.  The Eagles of the Empire books are easily among the best Roman historical fiction series out there at the moment, and I have had an amazing time reading every single entry in this series, including the last two novels, The Blood of Rome and Traitors of RomeThe Emperor’s Exile is the 19th Eagles of the Empire book and the author has produced another impressive story, featuring great historical elements and some fantastic character work.  I had an awesome time reading this book and it is definitely worth checking out.

The Emperor’s Exile contains an extremely fun and captivating narrative which follows Cato work to defeat a new enemy in a new historical setting.  Scarrow sets up an exciting and fast-paced story for this latest book, with the protagonist forced to deal with all manner of politics, intrigue and various forms of deadly peril in rather quick succession as he is assigned his mission and attempts to complete it.  This naturally results in all manner of impressive action sequences which are a lot of fun to watch unfold, including one particularly good extended siege sequence.  It is not all action, adventure and historical undertakings, however, as the book also has an intriguing focus on its central protagonist, Cato.  Cato, who has been evolving as a character over the last 18 books, continues to develop in The Emperor’s Exile in several dramatic and emotionally rich ways.  Not only does he have to adapt to a major change in his personal circumstances with the retirement of a great friend but he continues to question his role in the Roman army and whether he wants to remain a brutal killer.  Throw in an ill-conceived romance, his continued regrets about his past actions and his disastrous first marriage, as well as a certain major change in his appearance for the future, and this becomes quite a substantial novel for Cato which also opens up some intriguing storylines in the future.  I had a wonderful time reading this book and, once I got wrapped up in the story, I was able to power through the book extremely quickly.

In addition to having a great story, The Emperor’s Exile also serves as a key entry in this impressive, long-running series.  While readers who want to check out this book do not particularly need to have read any of the previous Eagles of the Empire books, mainly because Scarrow does an excellent job of revisiting story aspects and characters from prior novels, those established fans of the series are going to find this book particularly significant and memorable.  This is because one of the main protagonists of this series, Centurion Marco, who has been a major part of all 18 previous novels, retires from the Legions 100 or so pages into the book then subsequently disappears off to Britain, leaving Cato to his own adventure in Sardinia.  Scarrow has been telegraphing Marco’s plans to retire for the last couple of books, and it is a natural consequence of the author realistically aging his characters (15 years have elapsed within the series at this point).  While it was somewhat expected, it was still weird and a bit sad not to have Marco fighting along Cato in this latest adventure, especially as their comradeship is one of the defining aspects of this series.  That being said, Cato has grown a lot over the last 18 books and the natural progression of Cato and Marco’s dynamic as characters did necessitate them splitting off at some point.  It will be interesting to see how Scarrow features Marco in the future, especially if he plans to continue the Eagles of the Empire series for several more books (I personally would love it if he goes all the way into The Year of the Four Emperors, as it would wrap up the Vitellius and Vespasian storylines from the earlier books quite nicely).  Based upon how The Emperor’s Exile ends, it looks like Marco is going to appear in the next book, but it is uncertain whether he will continue on as a central protagonist, become an occasional character or go down in a final blaze of glory.  I personally think that Scarrow is planning to permanently retire Marco as a character soon, potentially replacing him with new character, Apollonius.  Apollonius is the dangerous and insightful spy who Cato teamed up with during the previous novel, and who followed Cato back to Rome in this book.  Apollonius served as Cato’s aide, scout and confident during The Emperor’s Exile in place of Marco, and it looks like he will be a major character in the next book as well.  I quite liked Apollonius as a character and it will be interesting if he ends up as Marco’s replacement, especially as he shares a very different dynamic with Cato than Marco did.  All of this makes The Emperor’s Exile quite an intriguing entry in the overall series and I am extremely curious to see what is going to happen to these amazing protagonists next year in the 20th book in the series.

As always, this novel is chock full of fantastic historical detail and storytelling as the author sets his story in some intriguing parts of Roman history.  Not only does the reader get a great view of Rome under the control of Emperor Nero (whose chaotic rule as described in this novel has some interesting modern parallels) but the main story takes place in the island province of Sardinia, off the Italian coast.  Sardinia is a fascinating province that I personally have never seen used before in Roman historical fiction novels and which proved to be a fantastic setting for most of this book’s story.  Scarrow really dives into the history, culture and geography of the island, explaining how it became a Roman province, examining some of the key towns and ports and highlighting the difference between the locals and the Roman settlers.  There is a particularly compelling focus on the tribes who controlled the centre of the island and it was rather interesting to see how a group of rebellious barbarians managed to survive so close to Italy during this period.  Scarrow also provides the reader with his usual focus on the Roman legions/auxiliaries, providing impressive details and depictions of how the Roman war machine operated and what their usual tactics and strategies are.  All of this really helps to enhance the novel and I had an amazing time exploring Sardinia with the Roman protagonists.

Another intriguing aspect of The Emperor’s Exile was the plague storyline that saw the inhabitants of Sardinia, including Cato and his soldiers, have to contend with a deadly infectious sickness.  This plague added an excellent edge to the storyline, serving as a hindrance to the protagonists and ensuring that they constantly have to change their plans while dealing with their enemy.  Not only does this serve as a clever handicap for the Romans but readers cannot help but make some comparisons to modern day events.  While I could potentially be reading a little too much into this and it is possible that Scarrow always intended to feature a plague in this book, I cannot help but think that this was a deliberate choice by the author.  Either way, it proved to be an extremely fascinating part of the book and it was fun to compare the reactions of these historical characters to the actions of people in the real-world.  While this story inclusion may potentially prove to be a little tiring for readers sick of any mentions of disease, infection and quarantine in their day-to-day lives, I thought it was a great addition to the novel, especially as it raised the dangerous stakes of this exciting novel.

With his latest novel, The Emperor’s Exile, Simon Scarrow continues to show why he is one of the top authors of Roman historical fiction in the world today.  This latest novel serves as a key entry in his amazing Eagles of the Empire series and it takes the reader on an outstanding, action-packed adventure, loaded with some great character moments and some impressive historical settings.  I had a fantastic time reading this book and I cannot wait to see how Scarrow continues this epic series next year.  Luckily, I only have to wait a few more months for my next dose of this author’s work as his World War II crime fiction novel, Blackout, is set for release next March.

Traitors of Rome by Simon Scarrow

Traitors of Rome Cover

Publisher: Headline (Trade Paperback – 12 November 2019)

Series: Eagles of the Empire – Book 18

Length: 447 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From one of my favourite historical fiction authors, Simon Scarrow, comes the 18th book in his long-running Eagles of the Empire series, Traitors of Rome, which once again sends his protagonists, Cato and Marco, into another dangerous scenario against Rome’s enemies. This is another of Scarrow’s books I have really been looking forward to, especially after enjoying the previous entry in the series, The Blood of Rome.

In AD 56, Rome and its great eastern rival, Parthia, are on the brink of war. Both the Roman Emperor Nero and Parthia’s king, Vologases, are in need of a great victory to fully secure their rule, and Rome’s territory has already begun to experience raids from a Parthian noble. Into this chaos Tribune Cato and Centurion Marco have been sent. Leading a cohort of Praetorian Guards, Cato and Marco have been assigned to serve under General Corbulo, who has gathered a force of over 20,000 Roman soldiers to fight against the Parthians. Unfortunately, most of the men under his command are badly trained and ill-prepared for battle, and Corbulo is desperate for more time to get them into shape.

To that end, he orders Cato to lead an embassy into Parthia to negotiate a peace treaty with Vologase. This embassy’s purpose is to delay the Parthian offensive long enough for Corbulo to finalise his preparations. Leading a small group of soldiers and accompanied by one of the general’s agents, Cato makes his way into Parthia, beset by raiders and pirates, with an uncertain reception from Vologase and his nobles awaiting him.

At the same time, the small kingdom of Thapsis on the border near Parthia has risen in revolt against Roman rule. Determined to swiftly end the revolt Corbulo leads a force to retake the kingdom with Marco at his side. However, what was initially believed to be an easy victory quickly turns into an arduous campaign as the Romans encounter heavy resistance. Worse, the harsh conditions and the even harsher discipline of Corbulo soon begin to wear on the soldier’s morale and loyalty. As Cato and Marco attempt to succeed in their missions, both officers are beset by unexpected setbacks and suspicious activities. It soon becomes apparent that a Parthian spy has infiltrated the Romans and is sabotaging their efforts and stoking a mutiny amongst the Roman ranks. Can Cato and Marco catch them before it is too late, or will this be their final mission?

This latest book from Scarrow is a fantastic and enjoyable read which features a cool new story with some unique and intriguing elements to it. I really like where Scarrow took the plot in Traitors of Rome, as he utilises two separate but equally enjoyable storylines by splitting up the two protagonists and sending them on separate missions. Both of the storylines are fairly different from each other, with Marco’s storyline being the more classic Roman military operation, while Cato’s storyline features a clandestine operation behind enemy lines with major political and espionage ramifications to it. This makes for a more complex narrative, but I found that the two different storylines worked very well together, and I really enjoyed seeing both of these plots progress. Scarrow does a good job of splitting the book between these two thrilling adventures and both of these storylines are a lot of fun.

I like some of the different elements that Scarrow featured in this fantastic, action-packed story. For example, the Cato plot had a really good team-up between Cato and the mysterious “clerk” Apollonius of Perga, a shrewd and ruthless agent of the general who lives to be mysterious and who Cato does not know if he can trust. Their relationship eventually evolves into grudging mutual respect, especially after they are forced to escape from Parthia in a great part of the book which sees them pursued by the army and other opportunists across the land. The Marco plot is also really intriguing, as it focuses on the difficult campaign to conquer Thapsis and the resultant hardships faced by the Romans when their supply lines are broken. This devolves into a messy situation where the men are fast losing their morale and General Corbulo’s harsh and unjust punishments to maintain military order and discipline start to push them in the direction of a mutiny. How this whole situation breaks down over the course of the campaign is rather fascinating, and of course Marco is caught in the middle of it. These two separate storylines come together in a great way towards the end of the book, and it looks like the series will be going in a new direction for the next book.

As always, Scarrow is a master of writing excellent historical action sequences, and after 18 books his depictions of Roman military combat have gotten pretty darn good. There are a few large-scale battle scenes throughout this book which show off Roman close-combat fighting, and the reader gets to see several other Roman battle strategies put into play. There are also several smaller-scale fights, especially in the Cato storyline, where Cato and his men face off against a more disparate array of opponents, from Parthian patrols to pirates. All of these action sequences are really well written and provide the reader with all their required excitement and thrills.

Overall, Traitors of Rome was another fantastic addition to Scarrow’s outstanding Eagles of the Empire series. Scarrow has produced another intense and exciting adventure story which goes in some cool new directions and once again puts his likeable protagonists in the middle of some major conflicts with their lives on the line. This is still one of my favourite historical fiction series of all time and is probably the best long-running Roman military sagas out there. It does feel like this series is starting to wrap up, especially as Marco gets married in this book and starts talking about retirement; however, this might be some sort of prelude to a great tragedy that keeps him in the army. Still, I am very much looking forward to the next book in the series, and I cannot wait to see where the story goes next.

The Blood of Rome by Simon Scarrow

The Blood of Rome Cover.jpg

Publisher: Headline

Publication Date – 13 November 2018

 

One of the best and most prolific writers of Roman historical fiction, Simon Scarrow, returns with another outstanding adventure of his two Roman protagonists, Cato and Marco.

In AD 55, Nero has recently ascended to the throne, and the Roman Empire prepares itself for war with its great rival, the Parthian Empire, which sits to the east of Rome’s territories.  This recent conflict is centred on the neutral border kingdom of Armenia, which sits between the two great empires.  Years earlier, the brash Iberian prince Rhadamistus conquered Armenia and declared himself king, ruling as a terrible tyrant.  In response, a recent Parthian backed invasion routed Rhadamistus from Armenia and placed a Parthian prince on the throne.  Unwilling to let this strategic territory fall into Parthian hands, Rome sends its greatest general, Corbulo, to the east to reclaim Armenia for Rhadamistus and meet any subsequent hostilities from the Parthians.

The recently promoted Tribune Cato and his long-time companion, Centurion Marco, desperate to escape the deadly politics of Rome, lead the escort for General Corbulo.  When an early opportunity to take Armenia with minimal interference from the Parthians presents itself, the only forces that Corbulo can rely on are Cato and Marco’s elite cohort of Praetorian Guards.  Placed in command of an advance force, Cato must lead a mixed column of Romans and King Rhadamistus’s troops through unknown and hostile terrain towards Armenia’s capital.  Forced to balance his orders against the desires of the unstable Rhadamistus, Cato struggles to maintain the strength of himself and his men.  With traitors and enemies all around them, can Cato and Marco succeed, or will they find themselves killed in a strange land?

Scarrow is one of the leading authors of the historical fiction genre, whose work over the last 18 years is comparable to such established authors of the genre as Bernard Cornwell, Ben Kane or Conn Iggulden.  The Eagles of the Empire series, which started in 2000 with Scarrow’s debut, Under the Eagle, is the author’s most distinctive work, and features some superb description of Roman military action.  In addition to his main series, Scarrow has also written several other great pieces of historical fiction.  He co-wrote the Roman Arena and Invader novella series with T. J. Andrews, which are set in the same universe as the Eagles of the Empire series.  He also wrote the epic Wellington and Napoleon Quartet, also known as the Revolution Quartet, which provided an impressive examination of the opposing lives of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington.  In addition to his series work, Scarrow has also written two standalone novels, The Sword and the Scimitar, which covers the siege of Malta, and Hearts of Stone, a dramatic novel set in Greece during World War II.  All of Scarrow’s novels are amazing pieces of historical fiction, and are really worth checking out if you are a fan of the genre.

The Blood of Rome is the 17th book in The Eagles of the Empire series, and follows the two protagonists’ return to Rome’s Eastern provinces for the first time since the eighth book in the series, Centurion.  I have always been a massive fan of this series and consider it to be one of the best pieces of Roman military fiction series on the market today.  After reading all of the previous books in The Eagles of the Empire series, I was particularly keen to get a copy of The Blood of Rome and eager to see where the protagonist’s latest adventure would take them.  After powering through it in a day, the result was pretty much what I expected: I loved Scarrow’s latest literary offering.  This latest book contains another fantastic historical fiction story, as the protagonists embark on an exciting campaign into an interesting new historical setting and it was great to see how the characters continue to evolve and progress in their lives.

Scarrow’s The Eagles of the Empire series has always boasted some incredible depictions of ancient Roman military combat, with most books containing several battles of varying size used to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the Roman tactics and techniques.  This is continued in the Blood of Rome, with several battles featured throughout the book.  While most of these battles are small and quick skirmishes that differ from the traditional Roman battle sequences, the Roman soldier’s tactics and training and the effectiveness of their equipment are on full display, creating some amazing scenes.  In addition to the classic Roman legionnaires, which make up the bulk of Cato and Marco’s forces, Scarrow also focuses on the more unusual forces that the Roman’s used in combat, in the form of a cohort of auxiliary slingers, as well as a detachment of Roman siege equipment.  Both of these distinctive units get a good showing throughout the book, and both are fascinating to see in action.  The author also contains an interesting portrayal of Roman soldiers fighting side-by-side with allied troops, and it is intriguing to see the issues and advantages involved with such allies.  Overall, The Blood of Rome is another excellent example of Scarrow’s skill at portraying Roman military action sequences, and is one of the best parts of this book.

This book is also set in an extremely fascinating historical period and focuses on the rivalry between Rome and Parthia.  The continuous conflict between Rome and Parthia has always been a great literary background for many pieces of Roman historical fiction, and Scarrow has already examined it in some of his earlier books.  The conflict within The Blood of Rome continues to explore this legendary rivalry, and is an opening book in what appears to be a sequence of novels that will focus on an expanded war between the two rival nations.  This first book in this sequence looks at a rather minor opening conflict, played out as a proxy war within Armenia, but it contains a great examination of the politics at the time and the differences in battle style and tactics of the two nation’s militaries.  I really enjoyed the examination of the role of border kingdoms and provinces, such as Armenia, stuck in the middle of these two proud and ambitious empires.  The main story of The Blood of Rome, the invasion of Armenia and Rhadamistus’s attempts to claim the throne, are real pieces of history, and it was really interesting to see them utilised in this story.  All of the historical background for this book is incredibly fascinating and I had a great time reading about an amazing period of history.

The character of Rhadamistus was another intriguing addition to the book that added a whole new element to story.  Rhadamistus is a well-known historical tyrant and brutal man of ambition, and Scarrow did a good job showcasing the character’s casual cruelty and arrogance.  He was a pretty despicable character as a result, and watching the protagonists attempt to placate and counter his more ruthless actions added some dramatic twists to the story.  Scarrow examines certain parts of Rhadamistus’s life, and it was very fascinating to see his eventual fate and the role his reign as king had on the rival empires of Rome and Parthia.

I really liked Scarrow’s depiction of one of his main characters, Cato, throughout this novel.  Cato has never had an easy life, having been forced into the army at an early age, but the events of the last few books have been particularly hard on him.  As a result, certain incidents within The Blood of Rome finally push him over the edge, and it was a refreshing change of pace to see one of these usually indomitable characters show some real vulnerability.  This was a very realistic inclusion, and I thought it added some much-needed character growth to Cato.  It also served an essential story element, as his condition resulted in Cato being open to Rhadamistus’s manipulation.  This was a great part of The Blood of Rome that represents some intriguing adaptation within this long-running series.

Simon Scarrow once again produces an epic piece of historical fiction as he continues his outstanding The Eagles of the Empire series.  His long-running protagonists, Cato and Marco, are once again thrust into a fantastic historical military fiction adventure, and there are a ton of great elements for the readers to enjoy.  Another amazing outing from Scarrow, this is a highly recommended read for all fans of the historical fiction genre, as the author continues to produce some of the best Roman military fiction in the business.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars