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

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

The Grove of the Caesars Cover

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

Goodreads Synopsis:

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

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

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

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

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

The Return Cover

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

Goodreads Synopsis:

145BC – CALABRIA, ANCIENT ROME. Gaius Furius Paullus has returned home after years of spilling blood for Rome. One of the lucky few to survive a lifetime of brutal battle, he intends to spend his remaining days working quietly on the family farm.

But it seems death has stalked Paullus from the battlefield. Just days after his arrival, bodies start appearing – murdered and mutilated. And as the deaths stack up, and panic spreads, the war hero becomes the prime suspect. After all, Paullus has killed countless enemies on the battlefield – could he have brought his habit home with him?

With the psychological effects of combat clouding every thought, Paullus must use all his soldier’s instincts to hunt the real killer. Because if they are not brought to justice soon, he may become the next victim.

The Return is set to be another amazing and intriguing read from Sidebottom, and I am looking forward to seeing how he combines historical fiction with a dark murder mystery. The whole idea of a troubled and traumatised Roman solider returning home and being forced to try and investigate a crime is pretty darn cool, especially as the after-effects of war start to have an impact on his psyche. I have to say that I am very curious about this one, and I am expecting The Return to be one of the most unique novels of 2020. The Return is due to be released in early June 2020, and I will have to make sure I get it as soon as I can.

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

Magnus and the Crossroads Brotherhood by Robert Fabbri

Magnus and the Crossroads Brotherhood Cover

Publisher: Corvus (Hardcover – 3 December 2019)

Series: Crossroads Brotherhood – Collected Edition

Length: 369 pages

My Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hit-Girl, Volume 3: In Rome by Rafael Albuquerque and Rafael Scavone

Hit-Girl, Volume 3 In Rome Cover.jpg

Publisher: Image Comics

Publication Date: 19 February 2019

Length: 104 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The world’s most dangerous 12-year-old, Hit-Girl, continues her world tour of crime fighting, this time heading to Rome to bring her unique brand of justice to a new group of criminals in another fantastically fun and brutal adventure.

Mindy McCready, the pre-teen vigilante killer better known as Hit-Girl, has successfully embarked on a one-girl international crusade against crime. Not only has she decimated the criminal underworld of Colombia, but she successfully eliminated a group of Canadian drug dealers while surviving all the hazards of the Great White North. Her latest adventure sees her travel to romantic and historical Rome, where a completely different breed of gangsters awaits her.

After failing to stop a masked cat-burglar stealing a bejewelled skull at the Toronto International Airport, Mindy finds herself accidently transported to Rome. Managing to recover the skull from the thief, a talented young woman known as La Gatta (the Cat), Mindy attempts to uncover who hired her to steal it and why. However, her investigation puts her firmly in the crosshairs of a dangerous and deranged mob boss, Gilistina Malvolia, who is determined the have the skull no matter what.

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Teaming up with La Gatta, Mindy faces off against Gilisina’s legion of followers in Rome in a bloody game of cat and mouse. But between killer nuns, crazed bikers and medieval monks, Mindy might have bitten off a little more than she can chew. Is Hit-Girl capable of going up against Rome’s boss of all bosses, or will she meet a gruesome end at the hands of Gilistina and the bloody saint she serves?

In Rome is the third volume of the deeply entertaining new Hit-Girl series, which has spun off from the popular Kick-Ass comics by Mark Millar. The character of Hit-Girl appeared in all of the previous Kick-Ass comics and was also the main character of the Hit-Girl limited series (now referred to as Book Two of The Dave Lizewski Years of Kick-Ass). After the end of the final series of The Dave Lizewski Kick-Ass comics, Hit-Girl decided to leave New York and go on a worldwide tour of vigilante justice. This international killing spree is covered in the ongoing Hit-Girl comic series, which started in early 2018. The Hit-Girl comics now feature a series of four issue storylines (which are later released within their own collected volume), with each storyline featuring a change of writers and artists. I really enjoyed the first volume of the Hit-Girl series, In Colombia, last year and I previously reviewed it on this blog where I gave it a full five stars. The second volume, In Canada, was an interesting follow-up, and I quite enjoyed the fun change in location.

The focus of this review is In Rome, which is the third volume of the Hit-Girl series. Containing issues #9-12 of the Hit-Girl series, this comic was written by Rafael Albuquerque and was drawn by his frequent collaborator Rafael Scavone. In Rome was an excellent addition to this amazing series, and I really enjoyed where the creative team took this fun and exciting story. Not only does it feature an enjoyable and fascinating plot, but there is some excellent character work contained within and some superb artwork, making for a deeply entertaining read.

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This third volume of Hit-Girl is a pretty crazy and over-the-top read, containing a very weird story. Not only does it continue to showcase the rampage of a 12-year-old vigilante as she takes out every bad person she comes across in the most gruesome or hyper-violent way she can, but it also features a very unique new set of opponents for her. The villain of In Rome is a murderous old lady, Gilistina Malvolia, who has managed to take control of the entire criminal underbelly of Rome. Gilistina is a former nun who, after being kicked out of her order for murder, now follows the teachings of a former Vatican assassin who was canonised as a saint. To that end, she now controls the city through fear and violence, murdering anyone who disappoints her, including a poor wannabe pasta chef in a rather fun introductory scene for her. Gilistina is after the bejewelled skull that Hit-Girl liberates, the skull of her beloved saint, and she is tearing up Rome to find her. As a result, Hit-Girl must go up against Gilistina’s minions, including nuns armed with machine guns, angel inspired bikers and monks armed with medieval weapons. This is all deeply insane and I loved every minute of it as this crazy story is a deeply fun and thrilling treat.

In addition to the fantastically kooky story, there are also some great character moments throughout the comic which add some dramatic elements to the plot. One of my favourite parts of it is Mindy’s team-up with the thief La Gatta. La Gatta, whose real name is Paola, is a master thief who gets caught up in Gilistina’s plans to obtain the saint’s skull and is forced to work with Mindy to survive. Despite being way older than Mindy, La Gatta comes across as the more scared and incapable of the two and is constantly shocked by all the extreme violence going on around her. The two girls bond throughout the book, especially over apparent similarities in their familiar situations and their relationship reminded me a bit of her dynamic with Kick-Ass (sarcastic younger girl mentoring someone older but way more out of their depth). It was nice to see her team up with a friend for once in this series, rather than with a killer she is blackmailing or the ghost of her father, and there are some generally funny moments between the two of them. It also ends in a rather good plot twist that I will be interested to see if the series comes back to at some point.

In Rome also does a great job of looking at the unique dynamics of Hit-Girl’s character. Despite the fact that she was raised as the ultimate killing machine, Mindy is still a little girl, and this shows through in a number of different ways, from her cute civilian outfit and toys to her rather black-and-white view of criminality. There is also a tangible sense of innocence lost around her, as well as a longing for family and her dead father, as she makes sure to interfere in an attempted theft from a tourist family she witnesses. The look of despair and unhappiness on her face after she sees the happy family walk off after she helps them is pretty heartbreaking and it makes you appreciate that she’s not as emotionally put together as her confident exterior would imply. This longing for family and connection also explains her willingness to work with La Gatta, as she sees a lot of herself in her, and it also opens her up to some subtle manipulation. All of this proves to be a really intriguing addition to the story, and I am curious to see what other examinations of Hit-Girl’s character are done in future volumes of this series.

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This volume of Hit-Girl contains some pretty amazing artwork which I really enjoyed. The artistic team behind In Rome have done a great job drawing this epic adventure, and there are some awesome scenes throughout. Based on what the story is about, there is an obvious focus on all elaborate violence and death that Hit-Girl brings wherever she goes. There are some gruesome and bloody sequences throughout the book and all the different forms of fights and violence are done pretty spectacularly. I also liked the cool designs they came up with for the various characters; I was especially impressed by the realistic faces which did a fantastic job conveying all the character’s emotions. For example, you get a real sense of the anger and hatred of Gilistina (whose stooped old-lady look is a lot of fun), the despair of the various victims of either Gilistina or Hit-Girl or the complex range of emotions of Mindy, which range from joy while she kills everyone, to something more subtle and tragic when she settles down long enough to feel. This great artwork combines extremely well with the volume’s excellent story, and it produces a really enjoyable Hit-Girl comic.

Overall, I really quite enjoyed the third volume of Hit-Girl, In Rome, and I thought it was an absolutely fantastic addition to the series. This is a perfect read for anyone interested in a fun and thoroughly entertaining comic chock full of ridiculous plot points, intense action and some character work that is surprisingly deep at times. This has proven to be an outstanding series, and I really like how they change creative teams with each volume. I must make an effort to get the next few volumes of this series, and I am especially intrigued by the fourth volume in the series, In Hollywood, which was written by Kevin Smith. In the meantime, In Rome is really worth checking out, and I would definitely recommend it.

Traitors of Rome by Simon Scarrow

Traitors of Rome Cover

Publisher: Headline (Trade Paperback – 12 November 2019)

Series: Eagles of the Empire – Book 18

Length: 447 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 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

a capitol death cover

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.

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.