The Lost Ten by Harry Sidebottom

The Lost Ten Cover

Publisher: Zaffre (Hardcover – 18 April 2019)

Series: Standalone

Length: 351 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of my favourite authors, Harry Sidebottom, returns with another excellent piece of Roman historical fiction, The Lost Ten.

Sidebottom is a particularly skilled historical fiction author who has written some amazing novels in the last 10 years, all of which have focused on the Roman Empire in the turbulent 3rd century AD. His works have included his excellent Warrior of Rome series, which features one of the first books I ever reviewed, King of Kings, and his well-researched Throne of the Caesars series. Sidebottom also wrote a fantastic historical fiction/thriller hybrid last year, The Last Hour, a truly awesome book that featured the protagonist of his Warrior of Rome series. The author has continued his intriguing experiment of combining historical fiction with other thriller sub-genres in his latest book, The Lost Ten, which I have been looking forward to for a while.

Rome, 265 AD. Junior Roman officer Marcus Aelius Valens is instructed to join a small squad of soldiers on a daring raid into Persia. Their objective is to infiltrate the country and make their way to the dreaded Castle of Silence, an impregnable prison high up in the mountains. Once there, they are to free young Prince Sasan, the King of Persia’s disgraced nephew, and bring him back to Rome.

Journeying to the Roman border, Valens joins up with an eclectic group of soldiers recruited from the frumentarii, Rome’s infamous secret agents. An outsider amongst these hard-bitten soldiers, Valens suddenly finds himself in command when an ambush kills their commanding officer. Aware of the consequences of abandoning their mission, Valens leads his troops onwards to Persia.

However, the closer they get to the Castle of Silence, the more misfortune seems to befall the small unit. As his soldiers die one at a time, Valens begins to believe that there is a traitor among them who does not wish for their mission to succeed. Can Valens unmask the saboteur before it is too late, or will the squad die trying to achieve their impossible mission?

This was another spectacular read from Sidebottom, who has once again done a fantastic job bringing modern thriller vibes to an ancient Roman historical setting. The Lost Ten is a fast-paced action adventure, with a clever plot hook and an excellent band of new characters that I had a lot of fun reading and which lived up to my high expectations for this novel.

While his Warrior of Rome books always had a bit of a thriller feel to them, as Ballista was usually hunting down some form of traitor or spy, Sidebottom has recently started to push the envelope even further by combining together Roman historical fiction with a variety of different thriller sub-genres. His previous novel, The Last Hour, was essentially 24 set in ancient Rome, and his next novel is apparently going to emulate a Scandi noir novel in the hills of Calabria. In The Lost Ten, Sidebottom utilises a special forces thriller storyline which sees Roman troops attempt an impossible infiltration deep into enemy territory. As a result, this novel reads a lot like an episode of Seal Team or The Unit if the team had to infiltrate antique Persia. In order to complete their objective, the team has to arrive at the border incognito, set up a cover story as traders, and then pass into Persian territory, fooling the locals and military as they near their goal. Once there, they have to find a way into the impenetrable fortress and then get their hostage out of Persia alive while being pursued by a massive army. This results in an extremely exciting and action-packed novel that was an absolute blast to read. I loved seeing all these classic spy scenarios play out in this classic Persian setting, and the special forces storylines work exceedingly well with the historical fiction background. Sidebottom has really hit onto a winning formula by mashing these genres together, and I am very excited to see how his next book turns out.

One of the aspects of The Lost Ten that I really enjoyed was the great characters who made up the Roman unit heading into Persia. Sidebottom has written a great group of protagonists with some rather interesting character traits and individual stories. The main character, Valens, who serves as the principle point-of-view character, has an intriguing arc that sees him go from being a naïve and disheartened young solider, to canny veteran troop leader throughout the course of the book. The rest of the Ten are a fantastic mixture of distinctive and rough killers who really don’t want to be going along on this mission. These troops help give the story a real Dirty Dozen vibe which I quite enjoyed, and it was also fantastic to see the group come together as they faced adversity.

In addition, it is revealed early on in the book that one of the squad characters is a traitor who is actively working to sabotage the mission. However, the identity of this double agent is not revealed until much later in the story. Instead, several chapters are shown from the perspective of the traitor, showing what actions he is taking to betray the team, such as killing the original commander or organising ambushes from bandits. As more and more misfortunes befall the group, Valens becomes suspicious and starts trying to identify the saboteur in the ranks, resulting in a wonderful storyline that plays into the thriller aspect of the book exceedingly well. Sidebottom does a clever job of hiding the identity of the traitor for the majority of the story, and the reader is fed a series of clues to slowly work out who it is. The reader is also shown the hidden character’s motivations for betraying the others, and the political and personal realities that are driving him. All of this comes to a fantastic conclusion, and this was an excellent part of the story that Sidebottom handles exceedingly well.

Sidebottom once again makes great use of the 3rd century Roman setting that has been a defining feature of all his previous novels. The Lost Ten is set in the same universe as all of Sidebottom’s other books and occurs in the same year as The Last Hour. There are actually several mentions of Sidebottom’s recurring protagonist, Ballista, and it sounds like he is getting into trouble campaigning in Gaul. The author does an amazing job showcasing the rough lands that lie between the Roman Empire and Persia and all the difficulties that would have occurred travelling to the Persian Empire. As the protagonists enter Persia, the readers get an interesting look at the landscape and Persian customs, many of which seem strange to the Romans and result in much contemplation and discussion. Sidebottom shows off several interesting areas of Persia, and it is clear that he has done his research into this location. The author also heads back to the familiar setting of ancient Rome, allowing the reader to get a good sense of the political situation in 265 AD. Sidebottom also examines the role of the frumentarii, Rome’s secret police/agents, who have appeared in several of his novels before. The various actions of this organisation are really intriguing, and it was cool to see modern spy tactics at work in this historical setting. There were some absolutely fascinating historical inclusions in this book that I had a lot of fun reading, and they proved to be an excellent backdrop to The Lost Ten’s thrilling storylines.

The Lost Ten is an outstanding book from Sidebottom that shows why he is one of the most captivating authors of Roman historical fiction in the world today. The author’s decision to combine a contemporary special forces thriller storyline with a well-researched historical setting payed dividends and resulted in a compelling and exciting read.   As a result, this book comes highly recommended and is a must-read for those people looking for an exciting historical thriller. I am looking forward to Sidebottom’s next book and cannot wait to see what he produces next.

The Emerald Tablet by Meaghan Wilson Anastasios

The Emerald Tablet Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Trade Paperback – 25 June 2019)

Series: Benedict Hitchens series – Book 2

Length: 404 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

It’s time for another exciting archaeological adventure in the turbulent 1950s as Meaghan Wilson Anastasios returns with the second book in her Benedict Hitchens series, The Emerald Tablet.

Anastasios is an Australian academic who started writing fiction back in 2014 when she co-wrote her first historical fiction novel, The Water Diviner, with her husband, Andrew Anastasios. This first book was fairly successful and was loosely adapted into a film of the same name featuring Russel Crowe. Last year, Meaghan Anastasios wrote her first solo novel, The Honourable Thief. The Honourable Thief serves as the first book in the Benedict Hitchens series, which follows the adventures of the series’ titular protagonist, Benedict Hitchens, an ambitious American archaeologist living in Turkey.

In The Honourable Thief, Hitchens, a respected academic and war hero, was seduced by the beautiful Eris, who showed him a fabulous collection of artefacts she had apparently recovered. The seduction and the artefacts were revealed to be part of an elaborate con which ended up ruining Hitchens’s academic reputation and forced him to live a life of exile in Istanbul. The incident also provided Hitchens with a series of clues which eventually leads him to the hidden tomb of Achilles. However, this was revealed to be part of a further con: while he was able to find the tomb, Eris and her employer, Garvé, a man who Hitchens had significant history with during World War II, subsequently stole the tomb’s greatest treasure, the Shield of Achilles.

Now, a year later in 1956, Hitchens’s excavation of Achilles’s tomb has helped restore his academic reputation, and his life is back on track. However, he has never forgotten Eris, who still has a hold on his heart even after she betrayed him. When he finds out that Eris, now calling herself Essie, is in Istanbul researching a rare and ancient document, he decides to investigate what she is up to. He quickly discovers that she and Garvé are searching for the Emerald Tablet, a legendary artefact rumoured to hold powerful alchemical secrets that could alter the world.

Determined to keep the Emerald Tablet out of Garvé’s hands, Hitchens begins his own hunt for the tablet. With his friend the crooked antiques dealer Ilhan Aslan at his side, Hitchens follows a series of clues deep into the Middle East. However, this is a dangerous time, as tensions between Egypt, Israel and the European powers are at an all-time high. Hitchens and Aslan soon find that the Emerald Tablet’s trail leads them right into the middle of the chaotic Suez Canal crisis. With agents of the various world powers also searching for the tablet and a murderous assassin following Hitchens’s every move, can he recover the tablet before it is too late, or will Garvé once again outsmart him? And what will happen when Hitchens once again comes face-to-face with the woman who stole his heart?

This was a fantastic follow-up to Anastasios’s first solo novel, and the author has done a great job continuing the story from the first Benedict Hitchens book. The Emerald Tablet has a fast-paced and exciting story focused on the search for an intriguing artefact and featuring an interesting look at a major historical event of the 1950s. In addition, Anastasios tries out some new storytelling methods and a focus on one of the villains from the first novel, which work well to create a fascinating overall narrative. All of this results in an amazing book which I had a fun time reading.

While the first book in the series, The Honourable Thief, employed several separate timelines spread out through the book, Anastasios chose a different format for The Emerald Tablet. This second book is told in a linear way, with the events occurring in a chronological order. This time, however, the story is told from the perspectives of Hitchens and Eris/Essie, who show two different sides of the hunt for the Emerald Tablet.

I really enjoyed the central hunt for the Emerald Tablet that formed the main part of the book. Not only has Anastasios chosen an absolutely fascinating artefact for all the characters to chase but she has created a compelling archaeological and historical mystery surrounding its hidden location. The point-of-view characters are forced to follow a series of elaborate historical clues, many of which can be interpreted in different ways thanks to historical context or locations. Having the two-separate point-of-view characters works incredibly well for this part of the story, as both Hitchens and Eris receive different hints or have conflicting interpretations of the same historical clues, which results in them searching in different locations. This central story is filled with a number of great twists and betrayals, and I quite liked how the protagonists had to contend with agents of the various world powers who have an interest in the tablet for their own ends. Agents of the American, Soviet, British, Israeli and Turkish governments all have a role to play in the adventure, as well as agents of the central antagonist, Garvé. Not only does this increase the action and intrigue of the book but it also raises the stakes of the hunt for the artefact. The reader is constantly left guessing about the location and nature of the artefact Hitchens is hunting for. This was an excellent central narrative for this book, and I had a great time exploring this new archaeological mystery.

Just like she did with The Honourable Thief, Anastasios has chosen a fascinating treasure that the book’s various characters are trying to locate. The Emerald Tablet is an intriguing item out of history and mythology, which is rumoured to hold the secrets to transmutation. The author does a fantastic job of exploring the various myths and theories about the origins and nature of the tablet and the reader gets a great idea of its potential and why it has been hidden. It was a great summary of such an intriguing and unique item from history, especially as the author plays up the mystical side of the whole artefact. There are also outright hints that magic or alchemy, especially the alchemical transmutation of the Emerald Tablet, are real in this universe, which not only makes this story just that little more entertaining, but it could result in some fun adventures in the future. The whole mystical angle also allowed the author to explore some of the occultist groups of the early 20th century, such as the followers of Aleister Crowley, who was quite a peculiar historical figure. Readers will find all of this incredibly riveting, and I felt that these curious subjects added a lot of interest to the overall story.

Anastasios’s use of historical Turkey and Crete was one of the highlights of The Honourable Thief, and I loved that she has once again chosen another captivating historical setting to use as the backdrop for this sequel. While the author does set a bit of The Emerald Tablet in Turkey, this book also explores the Suez Crisis of 1956, as the point-of-view characters spend time in Egypt and Israel and witness some of the crisis firsthand. Most of the course of the war is shown through the excellent use of realistic newspaper clippings set at the front several chapters that showcase how the situation between Egypt, Israel, France, England, the United States and other nations broke down and led to conflict. However, the accounts from Hitchens and Eris reveal that parts of the crisis where instigated as a cover for some of the sides to attempt to seize the Emerald Tablet. This makes for a fun tweak to history which fits the rest of the story quite well. The use of two separate point-of-view characters also allowed for a broader vision of the crisis, as one character mostly viewed it from Egypt, while the other saw it from within Israel, and both characters interacted with members of the country who had opinions about the upcoming conflict. I once again really enjoyed Anastasios’s use of 1950s historical settings, especially the Suez Crisis, and I feel it is one of the best parts of her Benedict Hitchens books.

There is a lot of good character work included in The Emerald Tablet. Not only do we finally get a close look at the mysterious character from the first book, Eris, but we get to further explore the psyche of Hitchens following the traumatic events of the previous book. Eris’s background is revealed in this book and it is a pretty interesting tale. I really enjoyed seeing her side of the story in this book. Not only does it allow the author to showcase this character’s past and her association with the villainous Garvé but we also get to see her motivations for the actions in this book and The Honourable Thief, including her feelings for Hitchen’s following her betrayal of him. Hitchens was already a fairly emotionally damaged character in the first book due to the death of his wife during World War II. However, Eris’s betrayal in the previous book has also had a marked impact on him, and he is obsessed with finding her again. This becomes one of his main motivations in The Emerald Thief, and he goes to extreme lengths to try and claim the tablet before she does, partially to frustrate her and partially in case it leads him to her. Their eventual meeting is an excellent part of the book, and we finally get to see how their relationship might be without the manipulations of Garvé. Certain complications will likely make this relationship an intriguing part of any future books in the series, and I look forward to them reuniting again. Can I also say: thank goodness that Hitchens wised up a little in this book. After some serious blunders from the genius archaeologist in the first book, I was glad that it took a little more to fool him this time.

I feel the need to comment on some of the rather racy scenes that Anastasios included in this book which may prove to be a bit surprising for some readers. Not only is there a rather disturbing ritualistic orgy as part of the story but there was a rather explicit scene in the first few pages of the book that nearly threw me off right at the start. I personally thought that these scenes were a bit unnecessary and somewhat distracting from the main story, but there were some plot reasons for them, and the rest of the story is really enjoyable.

Overall, The Emerald Tablet is an extremely entertaining novel, which does a superb job building on the foundations of the first book in the series. Anastasios has done an outstanding job combining together a fascinating archaeological mystery with emotional character work and an excellent historical setting. The Emerald Tablet is an amazing read, and I look forward to seeing what crazy artefact Benedict Hitchens attempts to find in his next book.

Nemesis by Rory Clements

Nemesis Cover.jpg

Publisher: Zaffre (Trade Paperback Format – Australia – 3 March 2019)

Series: Tom Wilde – Book 3

Length: 317 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Historical thriller and murder mystery author Rory Clements returns with the third book in his electrifying and clever Tom Wilde series, Nemesis.

August 1939.  War is on the horizon, and while most of the world is preparing for the next great conflict, Cambridge Professor Tom Wilde is enjoying a holiday in France with his partner, Lydia.  That is, until a mysterious man alerts him to the fact that one of his former students, an idealistic young man by the name Marcus Marfield, is currently being held in an internment camp on the France-Spain border after his involvement in the Spanish Civil War.  When Wilde finds Marfield at the camp he moves quickly to secure his release, and they flee the country just as the Germans begin their invasion of Poland.

Back in England, the country moves to a war footing, as the Allies attempt to persuade America to join them against the Nazis.  While many Americans oppose joining the war, the sinking of the passenger ship the SS Athenia may be the spark that brings them into the war.  With the Nazis attempting to convince the world that Churchill orchestrated the sinking of the Athenia to galvanise American support against Germany, Wilde and his companions return to Cambridge.

Once back in the city, Wilde begins to notice a change come over Marfield.  At first attributing it to his shell shock following his battles in Spain, a series of mysterious deaths around Cambridge all seem to link to the recently returned Marfield.  These events are tied to a deadly conspiracy to keep America out of the war for good.  A spy ring is active in Cambridge, and Wilde must find a way to uncover it before it is too late.  Can Wilde once again avert disaster, and what role does Marfield play in this conspiracy?

After the excellent first two books in his Tom Wilde series, Corpus and Nucleus, Clements continues the adventure of his series’ titular character, Tom Wilde, as he investigates a series of Nazi espionage activities around Cambridge in the lead-up to World War II.  I have quite enjoyed this series in the past and was looking forward to continuing the story in Nemesis.  The latest book is a thrilling story that takes place just at the outset of the war and utilises the several historical events and figures to turn this into quite an intriguing tale.

Nemesis is a really good historical thriller which combines a great spy story with the historical context of early World War II.  The previous books in the Tom Wilde series have all contained compelling and complex mysteries with huge implications for England and the allies, and Nemesis is no different.  Clements has crafted together an excellent mystery that has massive, worldwide implications, and I really enjoyed unravelling the mystery, especially as the author presents all sorts of doublecrosses, twists, cover-ups and mysterious deaths to confuse the reader away from the main goal of the antagonists.  The antagonists’ master plan is quite out there, and it is one of those plots that would have had massive historical implications.  I quite like the role that new character Marcus Marfield played in this plot, as the protagonists and the reader are constantly trying to work out what his secrets are and what kind of person he truly is.  Overall, I found the thriller and mystery elements of this book to be quite clever and captivating, and readers will enjoy uncovering the full extent of the antagonist’s overall plot.

One of the most interesting parts of the Tom Wilde series so far was its setting during the chaotic pre-World War II period.  In Nemesis, Clements sets his story right at the start of the war and immediately shows all the panic and preparation that followed this declaration of war.  Clements did a fantastic job portraying the low-key sense of dread and paranoia that the inhabitants of England would have felt in the build-up to the war in the previous books in the series, and in Nemesis these feelings are realistically amplified now that the war has begun.  The author has quite a good grasp on a number of historical events and feelings during this period, and I quite liked seeing the Cambridge viewpoint of the war.  The Cambridge setting has always been a fantastic highlight of this series, but it was quite intriguing to see the author incorporate all the various changes to the city that occurred as a result of the war into his novel.  Clements dives deep into the Cambridge lifestyle when it comes to the war, whether it involves the removal of the rare books from the colleges, the preservation of the stained glass windows, the roles that the professors were being assigned in the war effort or even the many Communist professors throwing away their party membership cards when it became clear that the Soviets were supporting the Nazis.

Clements also ties his story in quite closely with one of the more interesting early events of World War II: the sinking of the passenger liner the SS Athenia as it sailed across the Atlantic.  I was deeply fascinated not only with the depictions of this event, but the discussions and conspiracy theories that resulted from it.  This was especially true when it came to the examination about the sinking of the ship being used to bring the United States into the war.  The likelihood of America joining in the war became a major part of the story, and it was interesting to see what the European characters thought about America’s reluctance to enter the war, especially as one of the protagonists is an American character, and one of the chief architects of America’s isolationist policy, Joe Kennedy, was the United States Ambassador to England at the time.  I thought that the historical elements that Clements explored were a real highlight of this book, and readers will enjoy his literary examination of these events.

While the main focus of the book’s story is a conspiracy and the start of the war, Clements does take his time to continue to develop a number of the characters introduced in the previous books.  For example, Wilde continues to deepen his relationship with his romantic partner, Lydia, and I quite liked the role that Lydia played in investigating the case alongside Wilde.  There is also a significant focus on Wilde’s American friend Jim Vanderberg and his family, especially as Vanderberg’s family are passengers aboard the Athenia.  Phillip Eaton, the British spy who was hit by a car in the last book of the series makes a return in Nemesis, and the reader gets to see his struggles to recover from his horrific injuries while still working as an intelligence officer.  A number of intriguing new characters are introduced in this book and it will be interesting to see what role they and the existing characters will play in any future entries in this series.

In the latest book of his enjoyable Tom Wilde series, Nemesis, Rory Clements once again delivers a captivating historical thriller that brings the reader into the early days of World War II.  Featuring an incredible overarching mystery and some detailed examinations of intriguing historical events and settings, Nemesis is a deeply interesting book that is well worth checking out.  I am very curious to see where Clements takes the series next, and I look forward to seeing what impact Thomas Wilde will have on the rest of World War II.