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.

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.

A Capitol Death by Lindsey Davis

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Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Hardcover – 4 April 2019)

Series: Flavia Albia – Book 7

Length: 383 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

For the last 30 years, Lindsey Davis has been one of the most prolific and impressive authors of ancient history murder mystery, writing 28 amazing books during this period. Starting in 1989 with The Silver Pigs, Davis introduced the world to Falco, the private investigator who solved murders in ancient Rome. This series, known as the Marcus Didius Falco series, eventually ended after 20 books in 2010; however, several of the characters and storylines explored in these books were continued in 2013’s The Ides of April, the first book in the new Flavia Albia series. In each of the following years, Davis has released a new book in this second series, resulting in A Capitol Death, which is the seventh Flavia Albia book to be released.

I was lucky enough to get a copy of The Ides of April when it first came out, and absolutely fell in love with the awesome main character and her fantastic investigations. I have since gone out of my way to grab every book in the Flavia Albia series, as Davis is one of my auto-buy authors, and I currently have reviews for the last two books in the series, The Third Nero and Pandora’s Boy on my blog. I really loved Pandora’s Boy last year, and it even got an honourable mention on my Top Ten Reads for 2018 list. As a result, I have been quite eager to get my hands on A Capitol Death for a while now.

In Rome, in 89 AD, while the city is preparing for the return of the cruel Emperor Domitian, murder is literally in the air. The body of a minor government official has been found at the base of the symbolic Capitoline Hill, and it appears that he was pushed off the top of the cliffs. While a case like this would usually be a low priority for the city’s authorities, the man who died was responsible for all the transportation during the Emperor’s upcoming triumph and his death is now politically sensitive.

Enter Flavia Albia, professional informer and adopted daughter of the legendary investigator Falco. Employed by her husband, the magistrate Faustus, to investigate the murder for the city, Flavia sets out to discover who is responsible for this crime. However, that is easier said than done, as the victim is revealed to have been an extremely unpleasant individual whose attitude and shady dealings made him a very unpopular person. With a huge list of suspects lining up before her, Flavia has her work cut out for her.

When a second murder occurs on the hill, the case becomes even more complicated. Flavia must work out the connection between the two victims and who would want to murder both of them. As the start of the Emperor’s triumph gets closer, Flavia must interrogate a lengthy list of people, including oyster farmers, slaves, diviners, goose handlers, seamstresses and more in order to find the killer. What happens when the killer finds her instead?

A Capitol Death was another great addition to the Flavia Albia series, and well worth the wait. Davis once again sets a compelling mystery within her excellent Roman historical setting, and sets her unconventional protagonist on the case to find out the truth in an ancient city that is portraying some very modern attitudes and mentalities. The result is a captivating and entertaining read that I was able to finish off in relatively short order. While I did not quite enjoy A Capitol Death as much as the last two Flavia Albia novels, this was still a fantastic piece of historical crime fiction and I will be grabbing the eighth instalment of this series when it comes out next year.

At the heart of this story is a well-thought-out and compelling murder mystery. Davis constructs a complex case, involving a deeply unpopular victim, a huge number of suspects with substantial motives, very little evidence and a complete lack of cooperative witnesses. Without modern forensic techniques in this ancient setting, the protagonist’s main investigative recourse is to talk to everyone with a connection to the victim in an attempt to find out who would want to kill him. As a result, Flavia digs her way through the lives of everyone involved in the case, finding out deficiencies in stories and the various connections between the various suspects and witnesses. I really enjoy the way that the protagonist investigates this case, and it is interesting to see the variety of evidence and leads she can come up with simply by asking the right questions. The case has a substantial number of twists and turns, as well as a huge number of likely suspects that act as good red herrings. The entirety of the case is very intriguing, and I really enjoyed the investigative angle of this book.

While the murder investigation is a key part of the main plot, Davis also spends a bit of time focusing on the chaotic personal life of series protagonist Flavia Albia. Between setting up her new home, dealing with her high-maintenance family and helping out a husband only recently recovered from a freak lightning strike, there is a lot going on for the character, even before she is forced to investigate a murder. While some readers might have trouble caring about a character setting up a household, entertaining her family or finding reliable domestic help, I actually found it to be an enjoyable part of the book, mainly because the author uses these scenes to make a number of jokes of humorous observations. In addition, after all these books, I have grown attached to the main character and I am genuinely interested to see how her life progresses.

Davis has always done a great job of utilising the ancient city of Rome as a setting for her stories, and she continues to do this in A Capitol Death. This story is set in 89 AD, during the reign of the Emperor Domitian, and features an interesting version of the city. In this book, Domitian is returning to the city after a military campaign and the city is organising a triumph in his honour. This means that the city is filled with all manner of secret agents, Praetorians and officials organising the triumph for the Emperor, which makes for an intriguing background setting for this story. I really enjoyed the author’s examination of the triumph, which becomes a big focus of the book due to several of the case’s suspects or persons of interest being involved in its planning and set-up. There are a number of sequences that show the huge amount of preparation that goes into the triumph, and it was entertaining to see how they may have faked certain required elements of the triumph, such as dressing up random citizens to use as fake captured prisoners.

In addition to the examination of the political make-up of the city and the preparation for the military triumph, Davis also spends this book looking at some other fascinating aspects of the city and its citizens. The presence of certain witnesses who live outside the city of Rome necessitates a visit to one of the smaller Roman towns on the Italian coast, and it is always interesting to see the protagonist leave the city. The visit also allows the author to spend some time highlighting the process behind the creation of the coveted imperial purple dye that was used for the priciest garments in ancient Rome. There was also an intriguing focus on Capitoline Hill as the site of a murder. The Capitoline Hill, as one of the original Seven Hills of Rome, is a major feature of city, and Davis really dives into its history and importance during the course of her book, giving the reader a great idea of what this historical location is like and what goes on there. I always love it when an author takes the time to teach the reader about some obscure aspects of history, and Davis showcases some really cool bits of historical trivial in A Capitol Death. This is a fun aspect of this book and one I quite enjoyed, especially as Davis does an excellent job of weaving it into the murder mystery part of the story.

I have always loved the way that Davis has introduced characters with more modern attitudes and personalities into her historical stories, as it makes for a funny and enjoyable story. Watching characters in an ancient setting act exactly like a person in a modern city is always enjoyable, and Davis makes sure to amp up the snark in each of her characters, making for a fun bunch of characters. Flavia is of course the snarkiest of them all, and as the story’s narrator and point-of-view character, her amusing opinions, thoughts, descriptions of the other characters and anecdotes from her past really help to give this book a light-hearted and entertaining tone. This is always a great feature of the Flavia Albia books, and I am glad that Davis continued it in this book.

This was another amazing outing from Davis that once again shows why she is the master of the ancient history murder mystery. Not only does she do an excellent job blending together a clever murder mystery with some fascinating historical details, but she also brings her trademark humour to the mix, creating another entertaining tale. I look forward to continuing this series next year, with The Grove of the Caesars, set to be released in April 2020, and I am sure I will have an incredible time reading the next instalment of the Flavia Albia series.

Nothing Ventured by Jeffrey Archer

Nothing Ventured Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Trade Paperback – 10 September 2019)

Series: William Warwick series – Book 1

Length: 323 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

One of the biggest names in modern fiction, Jeffrey Archer, returns with Nothing Ventured, an intriguing piece of historical crime fiction that starts up his brand-new William Warwick series.

William Warwick, son of a respected London defence attorney, has always dreamed of becoming a detective in the London Metropolitan Police Force. Despite the opposition of his father, William enrols as a trainee police officer at the start of the 1980s after finishing university. Armed with determination, sharp observation skills, an education in fine art and a can-do spirit, William is unaware of the adventures in store for him.

After quickly making the rank of detective constable, William is assigned to Scotland Yard’s Arts and Antiquities squad. While also investigating of a series of different art crimes and frauds across London, the squad is mainly concerned with capturing Miles Faulkner, a criminal mastermind responsible for the thefts and forgeries of some of the most expensive art in England. All previous attempts to capture Faulkner have failed miserably, as the criminal is always two steps ahead of the police.

As William becomes more and more involved in investigating the various crimes Faulkner is organising, he makes a crucial breakthrough when he befriends Faulkner’s wife, Christina. Christina is willing to return a valuable stolen Rembrandt from Faulkner’s personal collection in return for help from the police. Can Christina be trusted, or will Faulkner once again evade justice and continue his dastardly schemes? In addition, what happens when William falls head over heels in love with Beth, a research assistant at the museum the Rembrandt was stolen from, whose family secrets may drive a terrible wedge between her and William?

I have mentioned before how Jeffrey Archer, or the Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare as a Member of the British House of Lords, is one of the more colourful professional novelists in the world today. Archer has produced over 30 diverse books since 1976, including several standalone novels, a bestselling long-running series, several collections of short stories, three plays, three non-fiction books about his time spent in prison, and four children’s books. I have read several of his books in the past, although I only have his 2018 book, Heads you Win, currently reviewed on my blog at the moment.

Nothing Ventured is a fantastic new novel from Archer and is the first book in a planned eight-part William Warwick crime fiction series. The William Warwick series actually has a very interesting origin, as William Warwick served as the protagonist of a fictional series of books written by the main character in Archer’s most iconic series, the Clifton Chronicles, Harry Clifton. Following the end of the Clifton Chronicles in 2016 and several requests from his fans to expand on the adventures of Warwick, Archer started on this series. The William Warwick series will examine the career of its titular character and show the various cases he investigates that helped him to become a great detective.

This series is off to a good start with Nothing Ventured, as Archer creates a compelling and enjoyable read that does a fantastic job introducing the readers to his new protagonist and showing the early days of his police career. Archer has always excelled at creating historical fiction narratives that focus on the lives of specific characters, and Nothing Ventured is no exception. Within this book, the reader gets a great idea of the character of Warwick and sees the struggles and early influences that drive him to become a successful police detective. The reader is also introduced to a bevy of interesting side characters, many of whom are set up to be major friends, colleagues, love interests or antagonists of Warwick through the future books of the series. Overall, Archer does a superb job setting up his overarching series in Nothing Ventured, and the intriguing mysteries explored within, as well as the introduction of a likeable new protagonist, should ensure readers will check out future instalments of this series.

One of the most intriguing aspects about Nothing Ventured was the focus on the artistic world and the subsequent fraud or theft that accompanies it. At the start of the book, the protagonist studies art history at university and subsequently develops a life-long love for the artistic greats. This appreciation of art becomes an important part of his future career, as it helps him join the Arts and Antiquities squad. Throughout the course of Nothing Ventured, Warwick and his colleagues investigate a number of different instances of art fraud, including forgeries of famous works, fraudulent signatures of historical figures and the forging of fake antique coins, among several other interesting examples. I thought that this was an absolutely fascinating focus for this book, and I really enjoyed reading about all the different ways art fraud could be committed. It also allowed for a number of unique and compelling mysteries, and readers will enjoy seeing the diverse outcomes that result from these cases. I also enjoyed the various discussions about art that permeated the book’s narrative. Archer is obviously very passionate and knowledgeable about classic artworks and antiquities, and this shines through in his writing. I am hoping that this focus on art will continue in future books of the William Warwick series, as it really helped set this book apart from some other historical mystery series.

The focus on the art world in Nothing Ventured also allowed Archer to introduce a great antagonist in the form of Miles Faulkner. Faulkner is a criminal mastermind who specialises in crimes involving art and is the bane of the Arts and Antiquities squad. Faulkner is a great gentleman-thief character, who is in many ways quite similar to Warwick, especially when it comes to his love and appreciation of artistic works. However, unlike Warwick, he uses his knowledge for his own benefit and is a fantastic master criminal. I really enjoyed the various ways that Faulkner was able to outsmart the police in this book, and he proved to be a worthy opponent to Warwick and his colleagues. The reveal of the true depths of Faulkner’s intelligence and deviousness in the last sentence of the book is masterfully done and Archer is clearly setting the character up as one of the major antagonists of this series. I look forward to seeing him return in future entries in this series, and I am sure he will continue to be a great villain.

Readers should also keep an eye out for the chapters in which Archer splits the focus between two separate events occurring at the exact same time. This is done a couple of times throughout the course of the book, and these split chapters are a lot of fun to read. They are mostly done to highlight the differences between two similar events happening in different areas; for example, showing two different police operations occurring at the same time, or two unrelated court cases with implications for the protagonist that are running in separate court rooms. The inclusion of these simultaneous events was done really cleverly in places, and it resulted in a couple of amazing and compelling chapters which I felt were some of the book’s best scenes. I hope that Archer continues to utilise this writing technique in the future books of this series, as it was a true highlight of Nothing Ventured.

Jeffrey Archer has once again created a thrilling and intriguing novel that focuses on the life of an English protagonist in a historical fiction setting. Nothing Ventured is the compelling first instalment of a crime fiction series with some real potential. Within this first book of the William Warwick series, Archer has come up with an intriguing life story to follow, introducing some great characters and producing some captivating mysteries and criminals that readers will love to unravel in future books. The massive planned William Warwick series should ensure Archer remains one of the bestselling historical fiction authors for the next eight years, and I look forward to seeing how the career and life of the titular main character progresses in the next instalment of the series.

Commodus by Simon Turney

Commodus Cover

Publisher: Orion (Trade Paperback – 11 June 2019)

Series: The Damned Emperors – Book 2

Length: 482 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Acclaimed historical fiction author Simon Turney catalogues another infamous ruler of Rome in the second book of his The Damned Emperors series, Commodus.

Rome, 162 AD. The Roman Empire is in a rare period of peace and stability, with two brothers, Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, both ruling as Emperor. The future also looks bright, as for the first time in Rome’s history, two male heirs have been born to a ruling Emperor. However, only one of these children is destined to become Emperor and make his own mark on history. His name is Commodus.

Raised as Rome’s golden child, Commodus eventually succeeds his father as Emperor following a period of war, rebellion and disease. Beloved by the people and loathed by the Senate, Commodus styles himself as Hercules reborn, becoming a great patron and competitor of gladiatorial fights, chariot races and other feats of martial strength. However, behind the scenes, Commodus’s life has been filled with tragedy and despair, and he hides a darker side beneath his golden exterior.

As Commodus succumbs more and more to his inner demons, Rome is rocked by power struggles and plots, as his family and servants attempt to control or usurp the unpredictable Emperor. Only one woman, Marcia, truly understands Commodus and can keep his mind together. Born a simple palace servant, Marcia was the love of Commodus’s life and a skilled player of Roman politics. However, not even Marcia can contain Commodus’s self-destructive urges forever, and eventually she must decide whether she will die at the hands of her great love or make the ultimate betrayal.

Commodus is the second book in Turney’s The Damned Emperors series, which takes a look at some of the most tragic, infamous and self-destructive rulers of ancient Rome. After presenting an exciting tale of insanity and vengeance in Caligula, Turney now takes a look at one of the most intriguing emperors in Roman history, Commodus. The result is a powerful, well-written and captivating piece of historical fiction that I absolutely fell in love with and which easily earns a full five-star rating from me.

Commodus is truly one of the more fascinating figures in Roman history, which is saying a lot. While most would probably know him as the villain in the movie Gladiator, as portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, he actually had a long and controversial reign, with many events that are hard to believe. As a result, a book focusing on his life is bound to be interesting; however, Turney goes above and beyond, presenting a well-researched and deeply compelling novelisation of Commodus’s life. Not only does Turney explore some of the more extraordinary aspects of Commodus’s reign, such as his devotion to becoming the new Hercules, his exploits in the arena or the cult of personality he formed around himself, but Turney also attempts to explain why he may have done them. This results in a clever and thought-provoking look at the entirety of Commodus’s life, including several formative events that are known, or are likely to have happened, and which may have led to some of his more extreme actions later in life. I really enjoyed the potential scenarios that Turney came up with to explain Commodus’s personality, and his justifications featured towards the end of the book are really quite interesting and very compelling. There are also some interesting historical tweaks to some of Commodus’s actions, but I feel that these work in the wider aspect of the story and help to create a more believable narrative. The end result is an outstanding examination of this fascinating historical figure which will allow the reader to see Commodus in a whole new light.

Turney has done an amazing job telling this story, thanks in part to the use of an excellent point-of-view character. The story is told from the perspective of Marcia, the women in love with Commodus, and is set out as a personal chronicle of Marcia’s actions, which run parallel to the life of Commodus. Turney takes more historical liberties with this character and re-imagines Marcia as a close childhood friend of Commodus. The use of Marcia as the story’s narrator and the subsequent re-imagining of parts of her life story are done extremely well, allowing the author to have a single, consistent narrator who is constantly close to the main character. This was the best way to tell the complete story of Commodus’s life, and it was an amazing storytelling device from Turney which completely justifies historical variations in the character.

Using Marcia as the point-of-view character also allowed Turney to tell an addictive historical tale of love, revenge, ambition and tragedy. Marcia is a tragic character in this book, and her storyline is really quite powerful. The daughter of a servant in the Imperial Palace, Marcia is allowed to grow close to Commodus, becoming his childhood friend and confidant before circumstances conspire to keep them apart. However, Marcia’s determination to be with Commodus results in a series of power plays, plots and other nefarious actions as she tries both to free herself and to deal with other people who wish to influence the Emperor. Despite some of the terrible actions she commits, Marcia comes across as a very sympathetic character in this book, and your heart goes out to her with some of the setbacks she encounters. Her romance with Commodus, while caring and filled with love, is also very dramatic, as Commodus’s moods and the influences of others in his circle often place strains and boundaries on them being together. The final, tragic result of this story is told extremely well, as the reader gets to see the highs of their love, swiftly followed by the swift, one-sided deterioration of their relationship. This results in a devastating conclusion to the book, and the reader is left reeling at how this romance comes to an end.

In addition to the story of Commodus and Marcia, Turney also does an excellent job exploring Roman history and events during the span of Commodus’s life in the second half of the second century. Some truly fascinating events occurred during this period of Roman history, including wars, plagues and the reign of proxy tyrants such as Cleander and Perennis. The author covers these events in some detail, and it is really interesting to see how some of the events unfolded, how long they lasted and what actions led up to them. Commodus is also filled with a number of intriguing depictions of Roman life, and the various ancient Roman settings proved to be an amazing background for this great story.

Commodus is a first-rate novel and easily one of my favourite pieces of historical fiction for 2019. Turney is an incredibly skilled author whose dedication to historical detail pairs well with his amazing ability to tell a dramatic and powerful story. Commodus comes highly recommended, and I cannot wait to see which flawed ruler of Rome Turney focuses on in his next instalment of The Damned Emperors series.

The New Achilles by Christian Cameron

The New Achilles Cover

Publisher: Orion (Hardcover – 18 April 2019)

Series: The Commander series – Book 1

Length: 399 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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