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.

Emperor of Rome by Robert Fabbri

Emperor of Rome Cover

Publisher: Corvus (February 2019)

Series: Vespasian – Book 9

Length: 349 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

After eight years of being one of my favourite yearly highlights of the Roman historical fiction scene, Robert Fabbri brings his bestselling Vespasian series to an end with the ninth and final book, Emperor of Rome.

Rome, 68 AD. Vespasian started his life as the second son of a rich but rural Roman family from the Sabine Hills. Looked down upon by the older Roman families for his family’s humble origins, Vespasian was never expected to obtain any major power in Rome. But after nearly 40 years of political intrigue, unusual adventures and a distinguished military career, Vespasian may actually be in a position to claim the ultimate prize: becoming Emperor of the Roman Empire.

Ever since he first arrived at the city of Rome at the young age of 16, Vespasian has lived under several unhinged or easily manipulated emperors of the Julio-Claudian line, each of whom was worse than the last. The latest of these emperors, the ruthless and insane Nero, has ordered Vespasian to put down a major rebellion in the Roman province of Judaea. However, this appointment is the ultimate no-win situation. If he fails in his task, his family’s prestige and political future are over. But if he succeeds in bringing the rebellion to an end with a successful military campaign, he will incur Nero’s lethal jealousy for obtaining glory that could make him more popular than the Emperor. As Vespasian debates what course of action to take, news from Rome will change everything.

The rebellion of several legions and their noble commanders has forced Nero to commit suicide, and his death results in a massive power vacuum. Vespasian, being in charge of two legions and having allies governing key provinces, is now a major contender for the throne, especially with his brother Sabinus lobbying for him back in Rome. Moreover, for years Vespasian has been gifted with signs and portents of his eventual rise to power, and he wants to claim his destiny. However, Vespasian is not the only person with dreams of imperial power, and several others are marching on Rome. The Year of the Four Emperors has begun, and only one man will be left standing.

Robert Fabbri’s Vespasian series are fun and at times over-the-top novelisations of the life of one of Rome’s most important emperors. The main series is made up of nine books, but there is also a related standalone novel, Arminius: The Limits of Empire, as well as the ebook-only Crossroads series. I have been a huge fan of the series for some time and have read and reviewed several of the books in the series, as well as the Arminius novel, although only my review for the previous Vespasian novel, Rome’s Sacred Flame, is currently featured on my blog. This series really has been a favourite of mine for some time, and I have been looking forward to Emperor of Rome for a few months. Unfortunately, this book does mark the end of the series, as Fabbri brings his epic story to a close and finally brings his chosen Emperor to the throne.

Emperor of Rome is a fantastic new addition to this awesome series. It tackles the chaotic period following the death of Nero, known as the Year of the Four Emperors. I felt that Fabbri did a fantastic job finally showing the ascension of Vespasian to the throne and covering a number of other interesting historical events, many of which would have widespread implications in the future. The overall story is a great blend of action and politics, and it also ends the story of several important characters from the series, as well as the rise of some of the next generation of Roman politicians and rulers.

Emperor of Rome is primarily told from the point of view of its protagonist, Vespasian, as he campaigns in the east of the Roman Empire. This allows for Fabbri to tell a different story to some of the other historical fiction novels that feature the Year of the Four Emperors. Rather than get bogged down in the politics happening in Rome, the focus is instead completely on Vespasian and his companions as they observe the chaotic events occurring in Rome from afar while trying to decide the best time for Vespasian to make his move. I thought that this was a rather clever way to look at the story as it let Fabbri examine the potential political, military and personal implications of each of Vespasian’s actions during this period, especially as early moves on Vespasian’s part might have seen him be overthrown by some other potential candidate for the throne. Emperor of Rome also showcases the early reign of Vespasian to a degree, and it was great to finally see the character gain the throne after nine books.

In addition to the examination of Vespasian’s bid to become emperor, Fabbri also focussed on Vespasian’s campaign in Judea, which is a significant event in Middle Eastern history. For much of the book, the province of Judea (modern Israel/Palestine) and its Jewish population are in revolt against the Romans. Vespasian, and later his son Titus, lead a particularly vicious campaign against the population, killing or enslaving thousands. Fabbri spends quite a lot of time describing the events of this conflict, sometimes known as the First Jewish-Roman War, and mostly relies on the accounts of the Romano-Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote several works on the subject and actually appears as a character in Emperor of Rome, as a basis for this story. Fabbri does an amazing job providing an account of this conflict. A number of key events of this war are covered in this book, including several ridiculous events that apparently actually occurred around the siege of Jotapata. I was greatly intrigued by the author’s novelisation of this conflict, as I had not read too much about it before in other works of historical fiction. The author brings a gritty realism to the conflict and does not hold back on the probable violence, cruelties and dehumanisation of the Jewish people that would have occurred during this war. This was a captivating but essential part of Vespasian’s story, and one that was necessary to explore in order to fully understand the actions required to become Emperor.

Several of the previous books in the Vespasian series have had an enjoyable supernatural edge to them, as the protagonist encountered ancient gods, prophets and sorcerers, as well as some biblical figures from early Christianity. This is continued in Emperor of Rome, mainly in the form of omens and prophecies that Vespasian has received in the previous books that show he is destined to be a great ruler, such as his viewing of a phoenix while on a mission in Africa. In this book, many of these signs come together, encouraging Vespasian to finally make his bid for Emperor. The look at the influence of such omens and prophecies added an intriguing element to the overall story. I also liked how some of the prophecies and predictions of the some of the characters were relevant to larger historical events in the future, such as the spread of Christianity or the current conflict in modern Israel/Palestine. These supernatural elements have always been one of the things that helped distinguish the Vespasian books from other Roman historical fiction series out there, and it was great to see so many of the events from the previous books finally come together here in the final chapter of the book.

Emperor of Rome is an amazing conclusion to this outstanding and entertaining historical fiction series. Fabbri has always had the fantastic ability to turn historical fact into wild and captivating tale filled with action, intrigue and historical excesses, and in this final book he once again takes several intriguing historical events and uses them to craft another excellent story. I will miss reading the Vespasian series each year, but at the same time I am also very excited, as Fabbri’s next series, The Alexander Legacies, is set to be released next year, and it sounds like it will look at some other exciting times in ancient history.

Waiting on Wednesday – The Lost Ten by Harry Sidebottom

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

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This week I will be looking at an exciting new historical fiction novel that is coming out in April 2019, The Lost Ten by Harry Sidebottom.  Harry Sidebottom is a well-established historical fiction author whose novels set in the Roman Empire are some of the best in the business.  I have long been a huge fan of Sidebottom.  I have previously mentioned how his second book, King of Kings, was one of the first books I ever reviewed, and I absolutely loved his most recent release, 2018’s The Last Hour.  So I am extremely eager to get my hands on The Lost Ten, which sounds like it will be quite a fantastic read.

Goodreads synopsis:

A desperate rescue attempt deep behind enemy lines . . . this nail-biting adventure has all the hard-edged appeal of the Bravo Two Zero mission.

When Valens, a junior officer in the Roman Army, joins a crack squad of soldiers on a dangerous mission, little does he know what’s in store for him. Tasked with rescuing the young Prince Sasan, who has been imprisoned in the impenetrable Castle of Silence, the troops set out across Mesopotamia and into the mountains south of the Caspian Sea.

Deep in hostile territory, inexperienced Valens finds himself in charge. And as one by one his soldiers die or disappear, he begins to suspect that there is a traitor in their midst, and that the rescue is fast becoming a suicide mission.

Valens must marshal this disparate group of men and earn their respect, before it’s too late…

I love the sound of this plot synopsis, as it implies that Sidebottom will continue his winning formula from The Last Hour, where he combined pulse-pounding thriller elements with his usual detailed and intriguing historical fiction plots.  This worked extremely well with The Last Hour, which was essentially 24 in Rome, and I am excited to see how a high-risk special forces mission will play out in this ancient setting.

I very intrigued by the Castle of Silence that is referenced in the synopsis, which brings a very intense and impenetrable stronghold to mind.  From the other details contained within plot summary, it sounds like the Romans will have to infiltrate the Parthian Empire.  I love the idea of a small force getting into this massive and sprawling empire, and I am very interested to see how the Parthians are able to insert a spy into a crack Roman unit.

Overall, I am extremely excited for this latest book from Harry Sidebottom, who has to be one of my favourite historical fiction authors.  The Lost Ten sounds like it will be a thrilling and action-packed novel, and I really cannot wait for Sidebottom to once again blow my mind with his thriller/historical fiction hybrids.

Waiting on Wednesday – A Capitol Death and Shadows of Athens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Blood of Rome by Simon Scarrow

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Publisher: Headline

Publication Date – 13 November 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

The Last Hour by Harry Sidebottom

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Publisher: Zaffre

Australian Publication Date – 1 May 2018

World Publication Date – 8 March 2018

 

Ballista is back, baby!  One of the best writers of Roman historical fiction, Harry Sidebottom, brings back his original protagonist for an incredibly gripping and action-packed novel that perfectly combines the thriller and historical fiction genres.

In Rome, in 265 AD, Marcus Clodius Ballista, former Dux Ripae of Rome and loyal friend of Emperor Gallienus, enters the Mausoleum of Hadrian to meet with an informant who wishes to talk to him about a plot to kill the emperor and usurp his throne.  But the meeting is a trap, the informant is murdered, and Ballista is forced to jump into the River Tiber to escape the horde of assassins sent to kill him.

Washed up outside of the city and pursued by killers, Ballista only has 24 hours until Gallienus is murdered.  With the conspirators still unknown to him, Ballista has no idea who he can trust and who can help him, but he must find a way to warn the emperor of the plot against him.  If he fails, not only will his friend will be assassinated but Ballista’s family will also die in the ensuing takeover.

Now alone, unarmed, and with no money, bodyguards or friends around him, Ballista must find a way to re-enter the city and transverse the entirety of Rome to get to the emperor’s side.  But the city is now a very dangerous place for him.  The city watch are fully mobilised and ordered to arrest Ballista at all costs.  In addition, mobs of disguised killers are searching for him everywhere, and they have no intention to taking him in alive.

As Ballista makes his way through the streets of Rome, he must find a way to avoid all the people searching for him while also overcoming the other dangers that lurk throughout the city.  Will Ballista be able to save his friend and his family, or will his final defeat take place in the heart of the empire he has spent his whole life protecting?

Harry Sidebottom is a renowned British historian and veteran author of Roman historical fiction, having previously written two best-selling series, Warrior of Rome and Throne of the CaesarsThe Last Hour is the 10th book from Sidebottom and a spinoff off from his Warrior of Rome series, featuring his original protagonist, Ballista.  Ballista is a heavily fictionalized version of a famous Roman prefect, and served as the main character of Sidebottom’s first six books.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Sidebottom’s works, as his debut novel, Fire in the East, was one of the first pieces of historical fiction that I ever read, and featured one of the best accounts of a siege that I have ever read.  His second book, King of Kings, was also one of the first books that I ever reviewed, and was a fantastic sequel that featured great story elements, set in an interesting and underused period of Roman history.  Sidebottom’s latest book, The Last Hour, is an amazing hybrid of the thriller and historical fiction genres, featuring an intense, high-stakes journey through the ancient city of Rome.

The thriller aspects of this book are exhilarating.  The protagonist is aware of a devastating assassination that is about to be committed and has only a limited time to reach and save the target.  Sidebottom incorporates a ticking clock element to the story, as Ballista is constantly aware of the passing of time and how short a period he has to complete his objective to save not only his friend but his entire family as well.  Needless to say, the author takes this story right down to the wire, and the reader has no idea whether Ballista will succeed or not; readers who are familiar with the previous books in the series will recall that King of Kings ended with Ballista and the previous emperor being both betrayed and captured by the enemy.  The story gains a significant amount of intensity as the protagonist has no idea of who he can trust, nor who is aligned against him.  Sidebottom also goes out of his way to ensure that the readers are in the dark about who the main conspirators are, even towards the end of the story.  This intrigue is compounded as Sidebottom gives his audience a tantalising view of the antagonists meeting while also frustrating the readers by ensuring that these characters use codenames when talking to each other.  As a result, the reader is intently drawn into the story by both the protagonist’s mad dash through the city and the immense desire to work out who the conspirators are and what their full plan is.

In addition to its electrifying thriller elements, The Last Hour also features an incredible exploration of ancient Rome and the range of people the protagonist encounters during his time in the city.  Sidebottom is determined to highlight several different groups of people that were a factor in the city, including the city watch, the Praetorian guards, the emperor’s Germanic bodyguards and the frumentarii, who served as the emperor’s secret police.  Each of these groups is an essential part of the emperor’s security and has a significant role to play in this novel, and the readers will be intrigued by Sidebottom’s descriptions of each of them.  Ballista also encounters a range of other Roman citizens, from simple shopkeepers and men of the street to members of the city’s criminal underground, cults of Egyptian priests, hidden Christians and even drunk Roman nobles looking to assault people they meet on the street.  Each of these adds to the rich tapestry of the historical city that Sidebottom has woven into existence.  This tapestry is further enhanced by Sidebottom’s determination to provide detailed examinations of several of ancient Rome’s buildings and locations.  These range from historically significant locations, like the coliseum, the Praetorian camp and the emperor’s palace, to more mundane locations that were a unique feature of the city of Rome, such as massive bathhouses and large apartment-style buildings.  All these historical elements serve as terrific background for this extraordinary thriller based story.

Readers of this book are also in for an action-packed treat as the protagonist rampages through ancient Rome, continuously fighting off either the people hunting him or the regular citizens of Rome attacking him for their own reasons.  As a result, The Last Hour is filled with innumerable action sequences that are guaranteed to amuse and delight all the action fanatics out there.  Readers will be gifted with sequences that include a crazy fight and flight across the rooftops of the city, and a down-and-dirty fight in the steamy and mechanical workings of a bathhouse.  There is also a siege on the roof of one of the city’s monuments and a large pitched battle in the streets of Rome.  These fight scenes are great fun and increase in intensity throughout the book as the protagonist’s countdown goes on.

Harry Sidebottom has once again produced an incredible, fast-paced and exceedingly exciting action novel that combines the very best elements of a first-rate thriller with all the research and detail of an excellent historical fiction novel.  A truly unique and utterly entertaining piece of literature, The Last Hour once again shows why Sidebottom is one of the very best authors writing about ancient Rome.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

Pandora’s Boy by Lindsey Davis

Pandora's Boy Cover.jpg

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Publication Date – 5 April 2018

 

Ancient Rome’s premier female detective returns in the latest Flavia Albia mystery from veteran historical crime author Lindsey Davis.

Rome, 89 AD.  Flavia Albia, the daughter of the legendary investigator Falco, is now a proficient private investigator and informant in her own right.  When the ex-wife of her husband, Tiberius, brings a case of family drama to her, Flavia is tempted to refuse, but when Tiberius disappears she needs a distraction.

The case revolves around a teenaged girl found dead in the prosperous Quirinal Hill district of Rome.  The girl, Clodia, was the apparent victim of a poisoned love potion, and her parents and grandparents are blaming each other for her death.  What begins as a simple investigation quickly becomes complicated when the witch accused of supplying the potion turns out to be the sister of the city’s biggest crime boss.  No-one is talking, and everyone in the Quirinal Hill has a secret.

Flavia is forced to seek the truth from a variety of people, including warring grannies, concerned parents, criminal lawyers, secretive slaves, a lettuce salesman with an interesting religious statue and, worst of all, the overprivileged offspring of Rome’s elite.  However, as Flavia’s investigation continues and a friend of hers dies, it soon becomes apparent that a vicious gang war is imminent.  Can Flavia solve the crime without getting caught in the crossfire, especially when she has a terrible history with one of the gangs?

Pandora’s Boy is the sixth book in the Flavia Albia series, which acts as a direct sequel series to Davis’ Marcus Didius Falco series.  Davis is one of the most prolific authors of historical whodunits and has a particular focus on novels set in ancient Rome.  For example, her Marcus Didius Falco series contains 20 books, and she has produced some stand-alone books set in the same period.

Like the previous books in the Flavia Albia series, Pandora’s Boy takes a contemporary look at Roman culture and lifestyles.  The inhabitants of Davis’ books act in a very modern way despite their ancient surroundings, and this results in a very humorous interpretation of the ancient Roman characters.  Davis also uses this book to parody a specific group in modern society: the millennials.  Throughout the story, Flavia is forced to follow, interview and generally endure the victim’s friends, who are the offspring of the city’s rich and powerful.  These friends are exceedingly selfish, have sordid love lives and get into all sorts of mischief.  In other words, they act in a very similar way to how modern day millennials are often perceived and portrayed.  Their appearance is quite jarring in the ancient Roman setting and leads to a lot of the books humour.  In all, it is a fun, quirky addition, and an amusing examination of modern society through very ancient eyes.

The core of the book is the death of a young woman and its investigation by the main character.  This is a well-done mystery that takes many twists and turns to keep the attention of the reader.  Flavia’s investigation is done through interviews, trickery, observations and undercover work, and, like many other parts of the book, is infused with Davis’ trademark humour.  The investigation is wrapped up in a final scene that is a throwback to classic murder mystery dénouements.  All the interested parties are gathered together in one place and the investigator reveals their conclusions, eventually leading to their solution to the crime.  Davis provides a perfect parody of this, infused with her own unique touch.  As a result, there are several jokes about this well-used literary device, including discussions around the necessary prep work and tricks to keep the gathered parties’ concentration of the speaker that will greatly amuse many murder mystery buffs.

One of the more diverting and memorable aspects of the Flavia Albia series is Davis’ tendency to include big action sequences that devolve into near absurdity and provide some of the best laughs in the entire book.  For example, in Davis’ previous book, The Third Nero, the climactic scene was a battle in the heart of Rome that featured, among other things, a war elephant, Parthian cataphracts and one of the most improbable chase sequences in all of fiction.  While nothing will quite top this, Davis has striven to include one such scene in Pandora’s Boy, featuring an interrupted séance, an all-out brawl between legionnaires and Vigiles at a collapsing temple, all of which serves as a backdrop to a fight between two warring grannies.  This is an extremely entertaining scene and definitely a highlight to watch out for.

Another notable feature of the books in the Falco universe is the deeper examination of the Roman criminal justice system.  The investigators in these books often deal with the Vigiles and the Aediles, the ancient Roman equivalent of the police and magistrates, many of whom turn into key characters.  This is a unique feature, as most Roman historical fiction books neglect to focus on these institutions, only mentioning them if in the context of political gain.  Pandora’s Boy includes a detailed look at the Vigiles who patrol the Quirinal Hill district and their investigation into the death and other serious crimes.  Loaded up with a suitable modern twist, the inclusion of these characters is an intriguing addition that highlights an often-neglected side of ancient Roman life.

Pandora’s Boy is a wonderful addition to one of the best ancient crime series currently on the market.  Davis once again creates a fantastic murder mystery and infuses it with outrageous humour and a modernistic take on ancient Roman life.  This is an exceedingly fun and deeply absorbing novel that will appeal to a very wide audience of readers.

My Rating:

Five Stars