The Grove of the Caesars by Lindsey Davis

9781529374278

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Trade Paperback – 2 April 2020)

Series: Flavia Albia – Book Eight

Length: 399 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Get ready for an outstanding historical murder mystery as one of my favourite authors, Lindsey Davis, returns with another book in her amazing Flavia Albia series, The Grove of the Caesars.

“Don’t go to the Grove.”

Rome, 89 AD. Flavia Albia, professional informer and all-around busy body, is still adjusting to domestic life with her new husband. When he is called away for a family emergency, Flavia takes up the reins of his construction business and begins to supervise several of their projects, especially a demolition and construction job within the sprawling gardens outside the city that Caesar long ago gifted to the people of Rome.

Ignoring the subtle warnings of those men familiar with the gardens to stay away from them and their accompanying sacred grove, Flavia visits the worksite, where she finds a series of mysterious scrolls buried in a cave. Why has someone buried a mass of scrolls from obscure Greek philosophers, and what dark secrets do the scrolls hold? Before Flavia can investigate any further, a woman is brutally murdered at a party held at the grove, and two of Flavia’s slaves go missing.

It turns out that there is a killer lurking in the sacred grove; one who targets women and who has successfully avoided detection for years. With the local vigiles failing to properly investigate the crime, Flavia decides to take on the case. However, can Flavia catch a murderer clever enough to escape justice for two decades, especially once the Emperor’s sinister secret agent Karus takes over the investigation? Forced to work with Karus once again, can Flavia find justice for all the murdered women, or will she end up as the next victim of one of Rome’s most dangerous killers?

The Grove of the Caesars is a deeply compelling and highly entertaining novel that once again follows the clever and likeable protagonist, Flavia Albia, as she investigates a gruesome murder in the heart of ancient Rome. This is the eighth book in the excellent Flavia Albia series, which acts as a sequel to the 20-book long Marcus Didius Falco series of historical murder mystery novels. I have been a major fan of the Flavia Albia books for years, having read and reviewed all the previous novels in the series as soon as they came out (make sure to check out my reviews for the previous three books, The Third Nero, Pandora’s Boy and A Capitol Death). All of Davis’s previous novels have been extremely enjoyable, and I have been looking forward to reading The Grove of the Caesars for some time now, and once again Davis did not disappoint. The Grove of the Caesars is another outstanding read that successfully combines together a great murder mystery storyline with a detailed historical setting and engaging central protagonist to produce a captivating narrative that I ended up reading in very short order.

At the centre of this amazing novel is a captivating and dark mystery storyline that sets the protagonist against a cunning and vicious serial killer. The Grove of the Caesars actually has two mysteries contained within it, one involving buried scrolls that the protagonist finds hidden within a cave, and the more pressing case of the murderer within the gardens. Flavia ends up working on both cases simultaneously, and the two mysteries wrap together quite well to produce a great storyline, especially when also combined with some of the other plot elements that Davis throws into it. Both of these mysteries are really clever, and the author makes sure to fill the book with all manner of alternative suspects, intriguing swerves and false leads to keep the reader guessing right up to the end. There were a number of fantastic elements to these mysteries, from the impressive way that they were investigated to the stunning developments and the great conclusions both of them had, including some surprising revelations that came out at the end of the case of the buried scrolls. Davis once again makes sure to portray the investigation in a very modern manner, so that this case felt more like a contemporary mystery novel at times, which I thought worked really well with her enjoyable protagonist and which fit in with the very modern way that the author portrays her historical setting. I was a bit surprised about how dark this book got at times, as Davis, usually has a bit of a lighter tone with her writing, even though they follow murder mysteries. However, the central case of the serial killings was pretty gruesome at times as the antagonist, who displayed a number of characteristics associated with more modern serial killers, did some rather horrible things to his various victims. While it did give this book a bit of a stronger tone at times, I felt that having such an evil antagonist really helped to drag me into the story, as I looked forward to seeing him get caught, and this was overall a really excellent mystery storyline.

Another key aspect of the story is the detailed and compelling historical setting of ancient Rome. Historical Rome always has such potential as a setting, and Davis always does a fantastic job of bringing the city to life in all its chaotic glory, while also making all the inhabitants seem a lot more modern in their actions and attitudes. The Grove of the Caesars was no different, and I really enjoyed seeing the fun way that Davis melds her captivating mystery with this cool setting to create a great story. However, Davis also makes sure to set this story apart by her exploration of one of ancient Rome’s most fascinating features, Caesar’s gardens. The gardens are a sprawling set of sacred groves, forested areas, winding paths, statues and other intriguing features that were originally commissioned for Caesar himself and then gifted to the city after his death. Davis does an amazing job exploring this historically impressive garden, including its location, features and history, and I had a fantastic time learning more about it. It also serves as a really distinctive and compelling setting for The Grove of the Caesars’s story, and I enjoyed seeing the protagonist explore it trying to find hints and clues to the various crimes. I also enjoyed the more sinister air Davis gave the gardens once the reader knows that there is a killer stalking them, especially at night, and which helps to add a bit of tension to the story in the scenes where the protagonists is walking in the gardens alone.

One of the best parts of this book has to be the fun central protagonist, Flavia Albia, who is one of my favourite main characters in fiction at the moment. Flavia serves as The Grove of the Caesars’s sole narrator and point-of-view character, and it is through her eyes that we see most of the story unfold. For the most part, Flavia is a very confident and collected individual with bundles of sass and sarcasm and an unbelievable amount of life experience and cynicism after years spent working as an informant and investigator in Rome. It is thanks to this entertaining world view that most of the book’s humour is derived, as Flavia is full of all manner of funny comments and amusing observations about the world around her. This provides a much lighter tone for most of the novel, as Flavia can be rather sarcastic and witty, even during the darkest of moments. However, in The Grove of the Caesars she does get rather angry in places, especially after witnessing so much violence against women and other helpless characters, and her rage towards the book’s primary antagonist is quite palpable at times, making for some rather dramatic scenes. I also enjoyed the way that Davis works in a large amount of the protagonist’s home and family life into the story, and it is always entertaining to see Flavia interact with her outrageous and eccentric extended family, who offer help and hindrances to her life and investigations in equal measures. I also liked how the author has continued the storyline that sees Flavia and her husband take in and adopt a variety of interesting stray characters they encounter in their cases and add them to their growing household. It was rather fun to see characters who were first introduced in prior books make an impact on this novel’s mystery, and it makes for a fun continuity. I look forward to seeing more of Flavia Albia in the future, and I cannot wait to see what crazy adventures she gets up to next time.

I also have to highlight the wildly entertaining big story moment that occurred about two-thirds of the way into the book. In her last few books, Davis has taken to include a major sequence that features Flavia finding herself in the midst of an over-the-top situation. This includes the very funny sequence in Pandora’s Boy which saw an all-out brawl between a huge group of mixed participants in a collapsing temple, or the rather outlandish chase sequence that occurred in The Third Nero, that featured legionnaires, heavy Persian cavalry, chariots and an elephant in the heart of Rome. In The Grove of the Caesars, Davis makes sure to include another of these outrageous moments, this time featuring a desperate boat chase taking place in the middle of a park, thanks to a disused maritime gladiatorial arena. This chase sequence is filled with all manner of mishap and chaotic moment, as Flavia and several other key characters take to several dilapidated boats to try and resolve the situation, which has a rather extreme ending. Needless to say, this was my favourite part of the entire book, and I found myself laughing several times as events unfolded.

Lindsey Davis has once again shown why she is one of the best authors of historical murder mysteries, as The Grove of the Caesars is a wildly entertaining and addictive read. Davis has pulled together and exceptional story, filled with two compelling mysteries, great characters and an intriguing and distinctive historical setting. I had an amazing time reading this book, and it gets a full five-star review from me. I am eagerly awaiting Davis’s next novel (apparently titled A Comedy of Terrors), and I cannot wait to get my next Flavia Albia fix, this time next year. In the meantime, make sure to check out The Grove of the Caesars if you are in the mood for an exciting and clever read.

Waiting on Wednesday – Daughters of Night and Blackout

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.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings. Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them. For my latest Waiting on Wednesday article, I am going to take a look at two excellent sounding historical murder mysteries that are coming out later this year.

Daughters of Night

The first of these books is Daughters of Night by Laura Shepherd-Robinson, the intriguing follow-up to one of my favourite novels from last year, Blood & Sugar. Blood & Sugar was Shepherd-Robinson’s captivating and fascinating debut novel which featured a clever mystery revolving around the slave trade in late 18th century London. I really loved this fantastic book; it received a full five stars from me and it made several of my best-of lists from last year, including my favourite novels of 2019 list, my favourite debut novels of 2019 list and my favourite books from the first half of 2019 list. As a result, I am very excited to see how Shepherd-Robinson’s second book turns out and I cannot wait to see where the series goes next.

This book, Daughters of Night, will be set in the same universe as Blood & Sugar, and it is actually going to follow the wife of Blood & Sugar’s protagonist, who was a minor character in the first novel, as she attempts to solve a whole new murder.

Goodreads Synopsis:

From the brothels and gin-shops of Covent Garden to the elegant townhouses of Mayfair, Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s Daughters of Night follows Caroline Corsham, as she seeks justice for a murdered woman whom London society would rather forget . . .

Lucia’s fingers found her own. She gazed at Caro as if from a distance. Her lips parted, her words a whisper: ‘He knows.’

London, 1782. Desperate for her politician husband to return home from France, Caroline ‘Caro’ Corsham is already in a state of anxiety when she finds a well-dressed woman mortally wounded in the bowers of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. The Bow Street constables are swift to act, until they discover that the deceased woman was a highly-paid prostitute, at which point they cease to care entirely. But Caro has motives of her own for wanting to see justice done, and so sets out to solve the crime herself. Enlisting the help of thieftaker, Peregrine Child, their inquiry delves into the hidden corners of Georgian society, a world of artifice, deception and secret lives.

But with many gentlemen refusing to speak about their dealings with the dead woman, and Caro’s own reputation under threat, finding the killer will be harder, and more treacherous than she can know . . .

It sounds like this upcoming book is going to contain another intriguing historical murder mystery, and I am very curious to see how this next mystery plays out. I am also looking forward to seeing how the author portrays the complex city of London and its society in this book, as I really loved the historical elements that were contained in Blood & Sugar. I have very high hopes for this novel, and I recently featured it in an article about upcoming books that I think could be five-star reads. Daughters of Night is currently set for release on 25 June 2020, and I am quite keen to get a copy of this book.

Blackout Cover

The second book that I am going look at in this article is Blackout by Simon Scarrow. I have long been a fan of Simon Scarrow, mainly because of how much I love his epic Eagles of the Empire Roman historical fiction series (make sure to check out my reviews for the 17th and 18th entries in the series). Scarrow has also produced a few other fantastic books throughout his career, including his Revolution series, several novella series and some standalone novels such as The Sword and the Scimitar and Hearts of Stone. While he also has 19th entry in his Eagles of the Empire series coming out later this year, I luckily don’t have to wait until November to get my Scarrow fix, as he has an awesome-sounding historical murder mystery coming out in August with Blackout.

Goodreads Synopsis:

Berlin, December 1939

As Germany goes to war, the Nazis tighten their terrifying grip. Paranoia in the capital is intensified by a rigidly enforced blackout that plunges the city into oppressive darkness every night, as the bleak winter sun sets.

When a young woman is found brutally murdered, Criminal Inspector Horst Schenke is under immense pressure to solve the case, swiftly. Treated with suspicion by his superiors for his failure to joining the Nazi Party, Schenke walks a perilous line – for disloyalty is a death sentence.

The discovery of a second victim confirms Schenke’s worst fears. He must uncover the truth before evil strikes again.

As the investigation takes him closer to the sinister heart of the regime, Schenke realises there is danger everywhere – and the warring factions of the Reich can be as deadly as a killer stalking the streets . . .

This also looks like it is going to be quite an excellent read, and I am really looking forward to it. I will honestly grab any Scarrow book that I can get my hands on, but this one sounds particularly intriguing. I have previously read some rather good murder mystery novels set in Nazi Germany, and I am really curious to see what sort of mystery novel Scarrow can produce with this compelling setting. Blackout sounds like it is going to be an exciting and entertaining read, and I cannot wait to check it out.

Both of these upcoming novels sound like they are going to be really impressive, and I think that they both have a lot of potential. I have had some extremely positive experiences with both these authors in the past, and I look forward to being wowed by them once again.

A Testament of Character by Sulari Gentill

A Testament of Character Cover

Publisher: Pantera Press (Trade Paperback – 3 March 2020)

Series: Rowland Sinclair – Book 10

Length: 337 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Acclaimed Australian author Sulari Gentill returns with the 10th book in her bestselling Rowland Sinclair series, A Testament of Character, an intense and compelling new entry which was a lot of fun to read.

Gentill is an excellent Australian author who has written several amazing books since her 2010 debut. While her main body of work is the Rowland Sinclair series, Gentill has also written The Hero trilogy, a young adult fantasy trilogy based on classic Greek stories, and the standalone novel Crossing the Lines. I am mostly familiar with her Rowland Sinclair books, however, as I have read the last several books in this series, all of which have been extremely enjoyable due to their fantastic blend of history and mystery. The Rowland Sinclair books follow the adventures of the titular Rowland Sinclair, a wealthy left-wing Australian gentleman artist, and his three artistic friends in the 1930s, as they find themselves in the middle of several murder investigations. Each Rowland Sinclair book is a fun and entertaining part of my yearly reading calendar, and I have been looking forward to checking out A Testament of Character for a while now.

In 1935, after the horrors they experienced in Shanghai, Rowland and his bohemian friends Edna, Clyde and Milton are enjoying a leisurely holiday in Singapore before heading back to Australia. However, their travel plans are dramatically changed when Rowland receives tragic news. An old friend of Rowland from his Oxford days, Daniel Cartwright, has died suddenly, and he has appointed Rowland as the executor of his vast estate.

Detouring from Australia to Cartwright’s home city of Boston, Rowland and his companions arrive for the funeral and find themselves in the midst of controversy and familiar conflict. Not only was Cartwright estranged from the rest of his family, especially his brothers, who disapproved of his lifestyle choice, but it turns out he was murdered, and the police have yet to find any suspects. Even more mysteriously, Cartwright had only just written every member of his family out of the will, leaving all his money to an unknown man everyone claims does not exist.

Determined to carry out the last wishes of his dear friend, Rowland attempts to find the man who apparently meant so much to him. However, his investigation quickly turns sour, as he runs into numerous people who do not want Cartwright’s will to come to pass. Forced to scour Boston, New York and other parts of post-Depression America for leads, the four friends encounter all manner of dangerous and eccentric characters as they pursue their quest. However, none of them are prepared for the terrible truth they encounter, especially now that Cartwright’s killer has them in their sights.

A Testament of Character is an exciting and compelling novel that proves to be a fantastic new addition to the Rowland Sinclair series. Gentill has done an amazing job coming up with another captivating story that not only features an exciting and gripping mystery but which takes an intriguing look at America in the 1930s. This story contains the series’s usual blend of fun, intrigue and action, as the four exceedingly liberal protagonists get into all manner of trouble across conservative America. There are some rather impressive and at times dark scenes throughout this book, and Gentill has also included some major character developments that will appeal to long-term readers of this series. The end result is an exceedingly enjoyable and thrilling story of love, adventure and revenge which proved extremely hard to put down.

At the heart of this book lies a clever mystery storyline that revolves around the murder of the protagonist’s friend and the identity of the mysterious beneficiary of the will. Gentill crafts an excellent multi-layered mystery, with a number of surprising twists, turns and false leads on the way to the exciting conclusion. While I was able to guess a little bit in advance who the main perpetrator turned out to be, all the revelations that came out in the final confrontation were really impressive and helped wrap up the entire mystery storyline extremely well. I also thought that Gentill came up with a very compelling and memorable motivation for the various crimes featured within the book. Some of these reveals were a bit dark and shocking, but they did make for some very dramatic and captivating sequences throughout the book. Overall, I thought that this was one of the strongest mysteries to have so far been featured within one of the Rowland Sinclair books, and it served as an amazing centre to this entire fantastic book.

One of the most distinctive features of this whole series is the way that Gentill dives into the history and culture of the period in which the books are set. She has previously done a wonderful job of exploring parts of 1930s Australia, Europe and occupied Shanghai, and in A Testament of Character Gentill’s characters explore post-Depression America. This proves to be an excellent backdrop to the book’s superb story, and I loved the examination of the key cities of Boston and New York, as well as some rural areas of the country. Gentrill provides the reader with a fantastic and at times in-depth look at various parts of the 1930s American culture and society. This is done in two distinct ways, the first of which involves the protagonists exploring America as Australians, providing an outsider’s perspective of the events or places they visit (while constantly getting complemented for speaking such good English!). The second way is through Gentill’s inclusion of historical newspaper clippings at the front of every chapter. The use of these newspaper clippings is another recurring trait of the Rowland Sinclair series, and I have always enjoyed the way in which the articles relate to some cultural or historical aspect of the chapter the clipping fronts. Through the use of these methods, the author paints an intriguing picture about America during this period, which I think worked extremely well as a background to the main mystery plot. This is especially true as some of the motives and elements of the mystery revolve around the social attitudes and cultural expectations of the time, which the reader will need to have a bit of an understanding about. I have to say that I was glad that as part of this examination of historical America, Gentill also had a look at public opinion around the Nazis and fascists in the lead up to World War II, as this has been one of the more interesting story threads to follow throughout the series.

Another distinctive aspect of the Rowland Sinclair series is the way that Gentill writes a number of historical figures into the story, either as cameos or in major roles. The best previous example of this is easily the author’s inclusion of Eric Campbell and The New Guard (an ultra-right-wing Australian organisation in the 1930s) as recurring antagonists in some of the books, as these real-life historical figures are great foils to the progressive protagonists. Gentill continues to do this in A Testament of Characters, making great use of several iconic American historical figures to flesh out the story and create several memorable inclusions. Several of these historical figures have pretty major roles in the plot, including Joseph Kennedy, F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife and fellow author, Zelda Fitzgerald. There are also some fun cameos from several other notable people, including Errol Flynn, a young JFK, Marion Davies, Randolph Hearst and Orson Welles, as well as several other characters who were in Boston or New York during the 1930s. There are also a ton of references to other unique figures in America during this time, including the Parker Brothers Company (Monopoly was released in 1935, and the protagonists of course end up playing a game), as well as a unique goat competition that was held in Central Park, of which Gentill of course names the winner. This is an extremely fun and amusing part of A Testament of Character, and I always enjoy seeing Gentill’s protagonists run into these real-life historical figures, especially as the author does a fantastic job examining and showcasing their personalities and motivations. I love how Gentill effortlessly works these people into the plot, and the reader is always left wondering who is going to appear next.

A Testament of Character is a superb and exciting new addition to the outstanding Rowland Sinclair series that is really worth checking out. Sulari Gentill has once again produced a fantastic mystery storyline that strongly benefits from the author’s clever dive back into 1930’s history. This results in a powerful and exhilarating novel which makes amazing use of its fun, distinctive inclusions and intriguing characters. I cannot wait to see what misadventures Rowland Sinclair and his friends get up to in their next book, and this is a truly wonderful Australian series with a real unique flair to it.

Waiting on Wednesday – The Grove of the Caesars and The Return

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.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings. Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them. For my latest Waiting on Wednesday article I take a look at two upcoming historical murder mysteries which I believe are going to be really incredible. Both of these historical mysteries have amazing-sounding plots set in the ancient Roman Empire, and they have been written by two of my current favourite historical fiction authors, Lindsey Davis and Harry Sidebottom.

The Grove of the Caesars Cover

The first of the books I will be looking at is The Grove of the Caesars by legendary Roman historical fiction author Lindsey Davis. The Grove of the Caesars is set for release in early April 2020 and will be the eighth book in Davis’s Flavia Albia series, which is itself a sequel to Davis’s long-running Marcus Didius Falco series. The Flavia Albia series follows its titular protagonist as she investigates a series of murders and other crimes in ancient Rome, and is distinctive thanks to its intriguing mysteries, fantastic depictions of the city and its often humorous tone. I have long been a fan of the Flavia Albia series, having been lucky enough to receive a copy of the first entry, The Ides of April, back when it was first released. I have since gone on and read the rest of the books in this series, and I currently have reviews for the last three books in the series, The Third Nero, Pandora’s Boy and A Capitol Death, on my blog. For this upcoming book in the series, Davis has come up with another amazing sounding plot premise, which is sure to result in an excellent and enjoyable read.

Goodreads Synopsis:

Too many people tell Flavia Albia, ‘Don’t go to the Grove’. Such warnings will only lure her to the place she is warned away from, Julius Caesar’s Gardens, where she finds more than one intriguing mystery.

Someone has buried tattered scrolls here, by unreadable ancient philosophers. Hardly has she taken an interest in what looks like book collecting fraud, when far worse happens. A present evil stirs in the undergrowth. A man holds a birthday party that goes terribly wrong, exposing a long series of neglected crimes.

Albia learns that a serial killer has haunted the gardens and grove for years targeting women. It isn’t her place to investigate; that’s the job of a dubious vigiles cohort, beefed up by the sinister imperial agent, Julius Karus who she thinks is vile. But sympathy for the dead women and their grieving relatives resonates with Albia. Even if she has to work with Karus, nothing will stop her until the serial killer in the sacred grove is at last caught and brought to justice.

I really like the sound of this great book and cannot wait to get my hands on it. Not only has Davis apparently come up with an intriguing story which sets its fun protagonist against a deadly serial killer, but it looks like she will weaving some interesting historical details about Ancient Rome throughout the book. Davis has featured a number of fascinating and unique aspects about parts of ancient Rome into her books before, and I look forward to learning more about Caesar’s gardens, as well as how ancient book collecting fraud would apparently look.

Based on my previous experiences with Davis’s work, the moment I heard that there was going to be another Flavia Albia novel coming out I knew that I was going to enjoy it. This series is extremely entertaining, and I always have a great time unravelling the clever mysteries that Davis comes up with, especially as they often result in large-scale farcical fights. This new story sounds particularly fascinating, and cannot wait to see how it unfolds.

The Return Cover

The second book is The Return, the latest novel from the innovative author Harry Sidebottom, who has been doing some cool things with the Roman historical fiction genre in the last couple of years. Sidebottom is an excellent historical fiction author who has primarily written Roman historical fiction since his debut in 2008. While I am a big fan of his original Warrior of Rome series, his most recent work has been particularly interesting to me, as he has been mixing in distinctive thriller elements to his books. This started with his 2018 release, The Last Hour, which was essentially 24 in ancient Rome as his main protagonist races against the clock to stop the assassination of his Emperor. He followed this up last year with The Lost Ten, which utilised military thriller elements to create quite a compelling story about a group of Roman soldiers infiltrating an impregnable Persian fortress. Both of these books were amazing pieces of fiction and I really enjoyed reading them. His upcoming book, The Return, sounds like it is going to be an intense and compelling read, as Sidebottom is apparently attempting to work elements usually associated with Scandi-noir fiction into this historical fiction tale.

Goodreads Synopsis:

145BC – CALABRIA, ANCIENT ROME. Gaius Furius Paullus has returned home after years of spilling blood for Rome. One of the lucky few to survive a lifetime of brutal battle, he intends 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 is set to be another amazing and intriguing read from Sidebottom, and I am looking forward to seeing how he combines historical fiction with a dark murder mystery. The whole idea of a troubled and traumatised Roman solider returning home and being forced to try and investigate a crime is pretty darn cool, especially as the after-effects of war start to have an impact on his psyche. I have to say that I am very curious about this one, and I am expecting The Return to be one of the most unique novels of 2020. The Return is due to be released in early June 2020, and I will have to make sure I get it as soon as I can.

Both of these amazing sounding upcoming books should prove to be real highlights of my early 2020 reading year. The Grove of the Caesars and The Return have some extremely awesome plot concepts behind them, and I am really excited to read the latest books from two of top historical fiction authors in the world today.

Magnus and the Crossroads Brotherhood by Robert Fabbri

Magnus and the Crossroads Brotherhood Cover

Publisher: Corvus (Hardcover – 3 December 2019)

Series: Crossroads Brotherhood – Collected Edition

Length: 369 pages

My Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bone Fire by S. D. Sykes

The Bone Fire Cover

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Hardcover – 25 July 2019)

Series: Somershill Manor Mystery – Book Four

Length: 310 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

In the mood for a clever and captivating historical murder mystery? Look no further than the latest book from the brilliant S. D. Sykes, The Bone Fire, which continues the adventures of her reluctant 14th century murder-solving protagonist, Oswald de Lacy, who this time finds himself stuck in a unique situation.

After several years of respite, the Plague returns to England in 1361. As a survivor of the original outbreak in 1350, Oswald de Lacy, lord of Somershill in Kent, knows the devastation the sickness can bring. Desperate to save his family, he accepts an invitation from one of his friends, Godfrey, to shelter for the winter in his remote castle in the Romney Marsh with a select company of friends and allies. The rules are simple: once the de Lacy family enters the castle, the gates will be closed and no-one will be allowed to leave until the Plague has passed.

Arriving just ahead of the Plague with his wife, son, mother and valet, de Lacy finds that Godfrey’s castle is a grim refuge filled with a disagreeable group of fellow guests and servants. Despite this, the castle appears to be the safest place for them, especially with the Plague already ravishing the outside countryside. That is until their host is found murdered in his own library.

As the residents deal with the shock of losing the lord of the castle, other bodies are discovered within the castle walls. With nowhere to run except onto the plague-infested island outside the castle walls, de Lacy must once again rely on his talent for solving mysteries to save the day. However, it soon becomes apparent that de Lacy is up against a ruthless killer who delights in violence and is seemingly able to move about the castle undetected. Can de Lacy solve this crime before it is too late, or will he and his family face a fate worse than the sickness keeping them trapped within the castle?

The Bone Fire is the fourth book in Sykes’s Somershill Manor Mystery series, which started back in 2014 with Plague Land. The Somershill Manor Mystery books are an intriguing historical mystery series which follows the investigations of its protagonist in the land devastated by the Black Death. I had not previously read any of Sykes’s books, although her preceding release, City of Masks, is probably one of the books I most regret not reading in 2017.

I was initially drawn to The Bone Fire by the beautiful cover and the really cool-sounding plot, and I thought that this novel had some real potential. I am extremely glad I decided to get a copy of this book, as I was blown away by the fantastic and clever story. Sykes does an excellent job of combining a complex and compelling murder mystery with a unique and fascinating historical setting. The entire story is extremely fast paced, and I found myself racing through the book in no time at all, especially as it proved to be pretty darn hard to disengage from the fantastic story.

Those readers who have not had the opportunity to read any of Sykes’s books can easily enjoy The Bone Fire without any foreknowledge of the previous entries in the Somershill Manor Mystery series. Each of the books in the series can be read as a standalone novel, although existing readers will note the continuation of character arcs from the earlier entries in the series. Some information from the previous books does play a role in the story, including how the protagonist survived the first outbreak of the Plague, however Sykes always does a careful job of reintroducing these elements in The Bone Fire well before they become relevant to the plot.

At the heart of this book lies an excellent murder mystery storyline, as the protagonist is forced to investigate a series of killings in a remote English castle. Sykes has come up with a thrilling murder mystery storyline that follows a twisting and intriguing investigation. The protagonist has a huge bevy of potential suspects, each of whom has their secrets and schemes, which de Lacy has to unravel in order to get to the bottom of the murders, and there are a variety of motives for the killings occurring in the castle. The case goes in some very interesting directions, and the end result was very satisfying, with some well-plotted-out twists and some truly unique motivations for a murder. I had a great time trying to figure out who the killer was, and this was a terrific storyline to centre the book upon.

While the murder mystery storyline is an excellent part of this book, readers will also be entranced by Sykes’s use of a fascinating historical setting. Like the first two books in this series, the author has set the story in the midst of plague-ravished England. However, unlike the previous books, which dealt with the first bout of the Black Death between 1348-51, this story is set in 1361, when a second plague hit the country. This time the populace, including all the characters in this book, were much more aware of how deadly the Plague could be and took steps to try and avoid it. Sykes does an amazing job capturing the subsequent sense of despair, fear and paranoia that emulates from people who previously experienced the Plague, and it makes for a fantastic emotional background to the story. The various theories and ideas of the cause of the Plague are pretty fascinating, as are the methods with which the protagonists attempt to protect themselves from its influence. It also results in some heartbreaking, if not cruel, decisions from the protagonist, who is still traumatised from his experiences during the first sickness, and results in some dramatic character moments.

I really enjoyed the way that Sykes utilised the Plague and other intriguing historical aspects, such as religion, to enhance the murder mystery storyline of this book. The restrictions of the Plague keeping the residence within the castle helped make the story feel like a classic whodunnit in places with a small group of suspects trapped in an enclosed location and only one investigator trying to sort out the entire case. The historical setting also resulted in a number of intriguing potential motives for the story, such as religious differences, complex inheritances, arranged marriages and even clocks, all of which adds a compelling edge to the story.

The Bone Fire by S. D. Sykes is an exciting and gripping historical murder mystery that is really worth checking out. The author did a fantastic job creating a clever mystery storyline that perfectly utilises its bleak and intriguing historical setting. The end result is a terrific fourth book from Sykes that was a lot of fun to read. It is safe to say that Sykes’s Somershill Manor Mystery series is now firmly on my reading radar, and I will be keeping an eager eye out for the next book in the series.

Usagi Yojimbo – Vol 33: The Hidden by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo The Hidden Cover

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (9 July 2019)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Volume 33

Length: 200 pages

My Rating: 5 out of stars

While there are a number of great books and comics coming out this year, one of the releases that I have been most keenly looking forward to was this year’s volume of Usagi Yojimbo. Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai is a fantastic comic book series that utilises Japanese style, characters and history into an excellent series. This series is one of my favourite bodies of work, and I will move heaven and earth to get each instalment, and I especially loved last year’s volume, Mysteries. I was pretty darn excited to get the 33rd volume, The Hidden, and powered through it the afternoon that I received it.

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The Hidden continues the story of Miyamoto Usagi, a wandering ronin samurai who lives in a version of medieval Japan populated by anthropomorphic animals. Usagi’s life occurs in the early 17th century, during the Edo era of Japan. This is a pretty interesting time period to set a story, as with the land mostly at formal peace thanks to the rule of the Shogun, many samurai have been forced to roam the land without a master to serve. Usagi, a highly skilled samurai based on the legendary historical warrior Miyamoto Musashi, has been forced to live the ronin lifestyle after the death of his lord. Wandering the roads and seeking employment as a Yojimbo (a bodyguard), Usagi encounters all manner of rogues, bandits and criminals, as well as a number of supernatural foes from Japanese folklore.

The Hidden is made up of issues #166-#172 of the series and is actually one of the rare Usagi Yojimbo volumes to feature just one single adventure rather than multiple interconnected or standalone stories. This volume also continues to pair Usagi with Inspector Ishida for the entire volume. Ishida, who is essentially a Japanese Sherlock Holmes (although based on real-life Honolulu policeman Chang Apana), is a recurring character within the Usagi series who has appeared in multiple volumes, often for just one issue or adventure. However, after teaming up to investigate a murder a couple of volumes ago, Usagi has been living in Ishida’s town and assisting him with his investigations. As a result, Ishida has become a secondary protagonist for the last two volumes, with Mysteries, for example, focusing on the two solving several different crimes.

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This new volume starts with a brand-new case, when two samurai are pursued into the city and brutally murdered. When Usagi and Ishida discover crucifixes on the dead samurai’s bodies, they quickly realise that both the victims where Kirishitans (Christians). Christianity, which has been bought into the country by European missionaries, has recently been outlawed in Japan by the Shogun, and his agents are hunting down all practitioners. It soon becomes clear that the dead samurai were killed by agents of the Shogun who were attempting to recover a mysterious book of foreign design.

However, in a twist of fate, a petty thief manages to steal the book off the corpse of one of the samurai. This thief is now the most wanted man in the city, as the Shogunate agents and their hired killers attempt to find him and the book at all costs. As Usagi and Ishida work out what has happened, they are determined to bring the killers to justice. Hunting for both the book and the criminal who stole it, Usagi and Ishida, with the help of the masked master-thief Nezumi, manage to locate part of the book, and what they discover could rock the entirety of Japan. As they attempt to come to terms with their discovery, the Shogunate agents determine that the two investigators are a threat and decide to eliminate once and for all.

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While I may have had to wait a whole year to read this latest volume, it was definitely worth it. Sakai has once again produced an outstanding comic book that I could not have put down for anything. Not only has Sakai written an intriguing and clever story with a great mystery and an informative look at a new aspect of Japanese history, but he tells it through his beautiful Japanese-inspired artwork that really brings the characters and the landscape to life. Together this results in another exceptional piece of work that I absolutely loved.

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The main story focuses upon Usagi and Ishida’s investigation into the murders of Christian samurai and the hunt for the mysterious book the Shogunate agents are searching for. This was a really interesting story, and I liked how Sakai took the entire volume to really flesh out the investigation. The two characters go on a compelling adventure in this book, running into a number of colourful characters, dodging political restraints, interrogating a number of suspicious characters and getting into several deadly fights. However, what starts out as an intriguing investigation soon turns into a deep and powerful tale of convictions, belief and faith, and the things one must do to preserve all three. This is shown by a number of characters, including Usagi and Ishida, who risk everything to find the truth and more. There is also the amazing character arc of new character Hama, whose heart-rending sacrifice is one of the most memorable parts of this book. There is also a fairly major revelation about one of the other characters towards the end of the volume that actually changes the way you see the story and is guaranteed to make you look back to see the various things you missed the first time. Several recurring Usagi characters are used exceedingly well in this book. The mysterious masked thief Nezumi makes a great return, helping the protagonists with their investigation. It is always cool to see Nezumi in action, and I enjoy seeing the grudging respect build between him and Ishida, despite them living on opposite sides of the law. Everyone’s favourite snitch, Toady, makes another appearance, adding a lot of humour to the story as he attempts to weasel his way into more gold. Overall, this was another well-written and captivating story that was a real pleasure to read.

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One of my favourite aspects of the Usagi Yojimbo books is that Sakai often uses them to explore some fascinating piece of Japanese history, culture, mythology or industry and present them in a way that his western audience can appreciate. I was really glad that he continued this trend in The Hidden, as this time he takes an intriguing look at the role of early Japanese Christians in 17th century Japan. These Christians, who are the titular hidden ones of this volume, were an outlawed minority, due to Christianity directly contradicting a number of traditional Japanese beliefs and therefore challenging the authority of the Shogun. This latest volume shows this persecution in action, as the city is locked down by agents of the Shogun who are hunting for a valuable Christian item. The reader gets a sense of the illicit and hidden nature of these Christians and the way they were hunted, and Sakai also shows certain unique parts of this hunt, such as the fumi-e (trampling image). The fumi-e was an image of a cross that the Shogun’s enforcers placed on the ground in front of the gates of barricades that were set up at key points of the city. In order to pass through the barricades, pedestrians were forced to stamp on the image, showing their disdain for the Christian religion, and those who refused to step on the image were arrested as Christians. This was a fascinating part of Japanese history that I found incredibly interesting to see in action, and one that Sakai was able to cleverly work into the book’s plot. There were also a few fun scenes which looked at a black-market dealer who sold items which originated outside of Japan. Due to the Shogun isolating the country, these were incredibly valuable items, and I liked seeing what items this dealer considered valuable (the dealer’s European dress also made for a stunning visual as well). All of this was really cool to learn about, and I cannot wait to see what aspects of historical Japan the author explores in his next volume.

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Sakai’s fantastic artwork is once again one of the major highlights of this volume. Sakai is a particularly skilled artist who always does a fantastic job bringing the beauty and grace of Japan and its culture to life. The artwork on the surrounding landscape is just spectacular, and I always love attention to the historical detail on the buildings and people inhabiting his towns. One of the highlights of The Hidden that I particularly liked was the consecutive prayer gates leading up to a shrine that the characters visit. The visuals on all these gates were just amazing and very distinctive. I also really enjoyed the way that Sakai portrays his battle sequences in his series; he has a real talent for bring multiple high-energy battle scenes to life. I especially like how he manages to convey so much action and intensity in his still frames, and it really shows off some cool aspects of Japanese sword play. This was another beautifully illustrated volume, and the great art goes exceedingly well with the fantastic story Sakai has devised.

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Volume 33 of Usagi Yojimbo, The Hidden, was another excellent addition to this amazing series. Sakai once again produces a compelling story in his unique comic-book universe which results in a spectacular volume that I know I am going to read again and again in the future. While this was an outstanding Usagi Yojimbo story, I now have the downside of having to wait a whole other year to get my next Usagi fix. Make sure to check back next year when I will no doubt gush about how much I loved volume 34 of this series.