Waiting on Wednesday – Death to the Emperor by Simon Scarrow

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.  In this latest Waiting on Wednesday I check out the next upcoming entry in one of my favourite historical series, Death to the Emperor by Simon Scarrow.

Death to the Emperor Cover

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Each year I am lucky enough to get my Roman fix with an awesome novel from one of the leading historical fiction authors Simon Scarrow.  Scarrow, who has written several great historical series and standalone novels in his career (for example the World War II thriller Blackout), is best known for his Eagles of the Empire series.  Set during some of the most turbulent years of Roman history, the Eagles of the Empire series follows Prefect Cato and Centurion Marco, two elite Roman veterans as they traverse Rome’s provinces, fighting its many enemies.  I have been a major fan of this series for years, having read all the current entries (check out my reviews for The Blood of Rome, Traitors of Rome, The Emperor’s Exile and The Honour of Rome).  As such, I am always very excited when I find out about the next thrilling entry in the series, and it looks like I don’t have too much longer to wait.

The next book in the series will be the cool sounding Death to the Emperor, which is set for release in November.  The 21st entry in this long-running series, Death to the Emperor will continue storylines set up in recent novels after Cato and Marco returned once again to Britannia, the province they fought to capture in their first campaign together.  This time, the two veterans, both of whom are currently hiding out from Emperor Nero (Cato has secretly spirited away Nero’s former mistress and is hiding her), will be dragged into another deadly conflict against the tribes of Britannia.

For the synopsis below, it looks like Death to the Emperor might serve as a prelude to Boudica’s uprising, perhaps featuring the earliest salvos.  If that is the case than it will be interesting to see the war unfold from the protagonist’s eyes, especially as both Cato and Marco have a long history with Boudica.  No matter what, I already know I am going to have an amazing time with Death to the Emperor and it will no doubt be one of the more exciting and action-packed novels from the second half of 2022.

Synopsis:

 AD 60. Macro and Cato – two battle-scarred heroes of the Roman army – face tribal uprisings and battles to the death with unmatched courage in barbaric Britannia.

The hard-won province of Britannia is a thorn in the side of the Roman Empire, its tribes swift to anger, and relentless in their bloody harassment of the Roman military. Far from being a peaceful northern enclave, Britannia is a seething mass of bitter rebels and unlikely alliances against the common enemy. Corruption amongst greedy officials diverts resources from the locals who need them. For the military, it’s a never-ending fight to maintain a fragile peace.

Now it’s time to quell the most dangerous enemy tribes. Two of Rome’s finest commanders – Prefect Cato and Centurion Macro – are charged with a mission as deadly as any they have faced in their long careers. Can they win the day, or could this be the last battle?

A stunning and unforgettable story of warfare, courage and sacrifice as brave men face an enemy with nothing to lose . . .

Desperate Undertaking by Lindsey Davis

Desperate Undertaking Cover 2

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Trade Paperback – 12 April 2022)

Series: Flavia Albia – Book 10

Length: 398 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Buckle up for an intense, captivating and exceedingly memorable historical murder mystery as bestselling author Lindsey Davis unleashes the 10th entry in the deeply clever and compelling Flavia Albia series, Desperate Undertaking.

It’s that awesome time when I get to gush about the newest entry in Davis’s excellent, long-running Flavia Albia series, which has been a major fixture in my reading schedule for the last several years.  The sequel series to her iconic Marcus Didius Falco novels, the Flavia Albia novels follow the daughter of Davis’s original protagonist as she solves unusual murders across ancient Rome.  Thanks to the series’ typical great combination of intriguing characters, complex mysteries, excellent historical elements and great humour, I always have an amazing time reading these novels, which usually get very high ratings from me.  Some of the more intriguing Flavia Albia novels in recent years include The Third Nero, Pandora’s Boy, A Capitol Death, The Grove of the Caesars (one of my favourite books of 2020) and A Comedy of Terrors.  Due to the quality and entertainment capability of this series, I eagerly keep an eye out for Davis’ new book each year and I was exceedingly chuffed when I got a copy of Davis’ latest novel, Desperate Undertaking.

Rome, 89 AD.  The year is coming towards an end and the city is ready to enter a sleepy holiday period.  Unfortunately, murderers are notoriously bad at taking breaks, and Flavia Albia, paid informer, dogged investigator and daughter of notorious busybody Marcus Didius Falco, is about to get dropped into the most disturbing case of her life.  With her parents away on holiday and her impromptu family preparing to settle in for the quiet period, Albia receives a job request she cannot refuse.  An aged actor, part of a troupe her parents travelled with in their youth, has been killed, horribly crucified in a public place.  Starting her investigation, Albia and her husband, Tiberius, are shocked to discover this is not the only murder confronting them as they suddenly discover the first victim’s widow was also murdered in terrible circumstances.  Her last words to Albia: “The undertaker did it…”.

Determined to find the person responsible for the horrific murders of her parent’s friends, Albia begins her investigation, diving into Rome’s theatre scene.  But when another actor associated with the troupe is killed in a cruelly inventive way, Albia begins to realise that these are no ordinary murders.  A twisted and determined serial killer is on the loose, bearing a terrible grudge against the actors and anyone associated with them.  Worse, their exceedingly public killings all bear striking similarities to some of the most brutal moments in classic plays, causing their victims to suffer in horrific ways.

With the bodies piling up and the city in an uproar, Albia must solve the most unusual and deadly case of her career before more of her parents’ friends end up dead.  But the closer she gets to the truth, the more she begins to realise that these murders bear a strong connection to one of her father’s past cases.  Worst, Albia soon realises that her connection to the currently absent Falco has made herself and everyone she loves a target of a demented killer determined to get revenge.

Davis does it again with Desperate Undertaking, producing a wildly entertaining and exceedingly clever historical murder mystery that I had a brilliant time reading.  Perfectly bringing together a disturbing mystery with an excellent historical setting, some great characters and the author’s trademark humour, Desperate Undertakings is an outstanding read and it ended up being yet another Flavia Albia book that gets a full five-star rating from me.

I must admit that I have sometimes found Davis to be a bit of an inconsistent writer; while most of her novels are extremely good, a few of them do not quite measure up in terms of substance or entertainment.  However, Desperate Undertakings is easily one of the better books in the Flavia Albia series as Davis pulled together an exceptional and dark murder mystery narrative that will leave a memorable impression on the reader.  For this latest story, Davis drops a lot of the family/household storylines that have been a significant, if slightly distracting, feature of the previous novels, and instead focuses on an intense and elaborate murder mystery that effortlessly grabbed my attention and ensured I was extremely hooked on this fantastic novel.  The book starts off extremely strong, firstly with a foreboding introductory short chapter, and then with a great series of compelling early chapters that drag the protagonist into the investigation.  These early chapters feature two dramatic (literally) and elaborate murders that really stand out due to their brutal and distinctive nature (the second one is particularly gruesome and over-the-top), as well as their connections to some of Davis’s iconic protagonists.  As such, the reader becomes really invested in the case early on, and you soon get thrust into an elaborate in clever murder inquiry storyline.  Davis sets up this investigation really well, and there are a series of great leads, potential suspects and unique theories that pan out as the novel proceeds in an excellent way.  While the novel slowed down slightly after the initial murders, the next series of killings picks the pace right up again, which the story maintains for the rest of the book.  I really enjoyed how the entire mystery came together, and there are some really clever twists and turns here, with seemingly minor characters or story elements coming back in some big ways later in the book.  Everything leads up to a big and impressive conclusion and readers will be left rocked by the elaborate and powerful nature of the plot, as well as how damn dark this novel got in places.

Desperate Undertakings is extremely well written and I loved how Davis pulled this entire novel together.  Davis once again hits the perfect blend of murder mystery, historical elements and character driven story elements in this book, as the reader is engrossed in this brilliant Roman based tale.  I did feel that this one was significantly darker in places than some of Davis’s previous novels, which I really liked, especially as it results in some particularly gruesome killings.  The story is once again told from the perspective of central character Flavia Albia as she traverses the mean streets of Rome to find her culprit.  This central focus allows for much of the books fantastic humour, as Albia’s comedic and exceedingly modern perspective of events is extremely entertaining, while also providing a Roman noir feel for the murder investigation.  Like most of the books in the Flavia Albia series, Desperate Undertakings can easily be read as a standalone read, with any relevant elements from the previous novel rehashed for the new reader.  However, Desperate Undertakings also bears a strong connection to one of Davis’s older novels, the sixth book in the Falco series, the 1994 release Last Act in Palmyra.  Multiple characters and elements from this book make an appearance here, with several of them serving big roles in this book, either as supporting characters, suspects or victims.  Davis rehashes the events of this previous book extremely well, and readers who haven’t had the chance to enjoy it are still able to enjoy Desperate Undertakings without any issues, while those who have will no doubt enjoy the fun call back.  I felt that these past elements were utilised extremely well, especially as these past events also impacted the present storyline.  This entire novel came together brilliantly, and I was extremely enthralled by its great writing and powerful story the entire way through.

I always deeply enjoy how Davis portrays the historical elements in her novels and Desperate Undertakings was a particularly good example of this.  The reader is once again treated to breathtaking depictions of ancient Rome, with everything from the chaos of the streets, the culture of the people, and the slapdash take on law enforcement used to full effect throughout the course of the plot.  There are some brilliant descriptions of some of ancient Rome’s earlier sties, especially as the murders make use of some iconic locations for the sites of their crimes, and you get an excellent sense of the city thanks to Davis’s descriptive and powerful writing.  However, the best part of these historical elements is the dive into the Roman theatre scene, which is a key part of the books plot.  Davis provides an intriguing and entertaining look at the city’s theatre elements throughout the novel, and you soon become deeply engrossed in her entertaining portrayal of these eccentric and proud actors and entertainers.

Desperate Undertakings also takes quite an intriguing look at the various plays and performances put on during this period as the killer utilises some of Rome’s bloodiest and most elaborate plays as a basis for setting up their murders.  This causes the protagonist to really dive into all the plays of the period and you get a good idea of several of the more iconic and distinctive ones, especially those that have elements of death involved.  I found it really interesting to find out about this part of Roman culture, especially the deadly twists that are sometimes involved with them, and it was a great part of the plot.  I also felt that Davis did a remarkable job working these historical theatre aspects into the plot of Desperate Undertakings, and it really helped to make the murder mystery stand out.  I particularly enjoyed how the author broke the book down into sections, each one of them named after a play that corresponds to the murder that Flavia is about to discover.  This allows for a glorious bit of foreshadowing, especially for those with an interest in classics and theatre, and it was an excellent addition to the book.  I deeply appreciate how Davis utilised these historical plays as the inspiration for her murders in Desperate Undertaking and it really gave this book a very distinctive feel.  Readers are warned that some of the murders are a bit graphic thanks to how they are portrayed in these plays, and you are in for some barbaric punishment as a result.

Another strong aspect of Desperate Undertakings was the excellent and compelling characters that Davis featured throughout.  As usual, this great cast is headed up by the intrepid Flavia Albia, who serves as the main protagonist and point-of-view character for the book.  Albia is a really entertaining protagonist, especially as Davis presents her as a cynical private investigator with very specific views of the reality of life in ancient Rome.  The daughter of another cynical protagonist, Falco, Albia spends most of the book making astute and hilarious observations about the people, locations, and events around her, and much of the book’s humour results from the amusing and noticeably modern way she sees the world around her.  As such, Albia really adds a lot to this intriguing story and it is always so much fun to see her waltzing around Rome solving her elaborate cases.  It was particularly interesting to see her reactions to the murders that occur in Desperate Undertakings.  Despite her familiarity with death and Rome’s underbelly, these killings really hit her hard due to their brutal nature and the connection that the victims have to her parents.  I felt this was a really compelling and powerful change to the character, and it really helped to highlight just how dark this book got in places.

Desperate Undertaking also features a wide cast of characters, all of whom have some entertaining or intriguing moments through the book.  Davis utilises a blend of established characters, new figures and even several characters who have not appeared since the Falco series.  All these characters are utilised extremely well in this novel, and the author does a good job of introducing (or reintroducing) them throughout the course of the plot.  As usual, this includes Albia’s husband, Tiberius, who serves as a good straight man to Albia’s eccentric antics, and helps to focus the investigation in places.  Other interesting characters include a newly introduced cop who balances between competence and political expediency and serves as another excellent foil to Albia’s more unusual investigation methods.  The various actors and theatre related figures are pretty entertaining, and Davis introduces some eccentric characters, many of whom serve as potential suspects or victims as you get to know them more.  I also felt that Davis did a good job with the killer (or killers) featured in this book, as they have a unique motivation, and a compelling personality that is slowly uncovered throughout the course of the book.  Finding out just who they are and why they are doing these dreadful killings is extremely fascinating and results in some brilliant character moments.  Other supporting characters are also extremely entertaining, including a very strong butcher and two very cultured vigils, and I had a brilliant time getting to know them all.

With the extremely awesome and captivating Desperate Undertakings, the always incredible Lindsey Davis continues to reign from atop the historical murder mystery mountain.  This latest Flavia Albia novel is exceedingly epic, containing a brilliant and dark investigation story that sees the series’ outstanding protagonist encounter a truly demented killer.  With some fascinating and distinctive historical elements, especially those surrounding the bloody and memorable plays, Desperate Undertakings really stands out and was an amazing amount of fun to read.  This was one of the better and more memorable entries in this excellent long-running series, especially with its vicious murders and great character work, and it comes extremely highly recommended.

Desperate Undertaking Cover 1

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Quick Review – A Comedy of Terrors by Lindsey Davis

A Comedy of Terrors Cover

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Trade Paperback – 1 April 2021)

Series: Flavia Albia – Book Nine

Length: 386 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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I am a big fan of several great historical fiction series currently running, but one I find to be particularly entertaining is the Flavia Albia series from bestselling author Lindsey Davis.  Davis has been dominating the ancient historical murder mystery scene for years, first with her extensive Marcus Didius Falco novels, and then with the successor Flavia Albia series, which follows the daughter of the original series’ protagonist.  While I never had the opportunity to get into the Falco novels, I have been reading the Flavia Albia books since the outset and have had a brilliant time with all of them, including The Third Nero, Pandora’s Boy, A Capitol Death, and The Grove of the Caesars, each of which have been excellent in their own way.  Indeed, this is such a great series that I have been pretty eager to start reading the latest novel, Desperate Undertaking, which I just got my hands on a couple of days ago.  I really want to read it next, but before I start, I absolutely must do a review of the preceding novel in the series, A Comedy of Terrors.

A Comedy of Terrors was the ninth book in the Flavia Albia series and was released this time last year.  I had initially planned to read A Comedy of Terrors when it first came out, but unfortunately, it took me a little longer to grab it than I intended.  By the time I was able to fit it into my reading schedule, I was a bit rushed off my feet with other reviews and other reading (excuses, excuses!), so I never got a chance to really write anything about it when I finished.  This was an inexcusable oversight of my behalf, and it is one that I really wanted to fix before checking out Desperate Undertaking, so here we are.

Plot Synopsis:

In Rome, 89 A.D., poisonings, murders, and a bloody gang war of retribution breaks out during the festival of Saturnalia, and when her husband, Tiberius, becomes a target, it’s time for Flavia Albia to take matters into her own hands — in Lindsey Davis’s next historical mystery, A Comedy of Terrors.

Flavia Albia, daughter and successor of private informer Marcus Didius Falco is twiddling her thumbs with no clients during the December festival of Saturnalia. But that doesn’t mean all is quiet. Her husband Tiberius and the Fourth Cohort are battling organized crime interests that are going to war over the festival nuts. A series of accidental poisonings, then bloody murders of rival nut-sellers, and finally a gruesome warning to Tiberius from the hidden criminal powers to back off.

Albia has had just about enough and combines forces with Tiberius to uncover the hidden criminal gangs trying to worm their way into the establishment at a banquet of the emperor Domitian.


A Comedy of Terrors
was another fun book from Davis that takes the reader back to ancient Rome to investigate an intriguing mystery.  In this case, the book revolves around Flavia and her family’s dangerous interaction with a criminal gang who are trying to take advantage of a religious festival and have come into conflict with Flavia’s husband Tiberius.  This results in an interesting story which sees Flavia getting involved in several conflicts, intimidation attempts, assorted mysteries and other connected events, all in the name of investigating the gang’s activities and trying to bring them down.  At the same time, Flavia is dealing with multiple personal and familial issues, as she and Tiberius now find themselves responsible for Tiberius’s semi-orphaned nephews.

I must admit that this wasn’t my absolute favourite Flavia Albia novel, and I felt that the story was lacking some of the usual flair and tight storytelling that I usually so enjoy from Davis’s novels.  A Comedy of Terrors’s narrative was a bit unfocused in places, particularly when it came to main storyline involving the ancient Roman gang.  Rather than the series’ typical attention on a central investigation, this was a bit more of a meandering affair, which, while interesting in places, did seem to go on some random tangents.  There was also a much greater examination of the protagonist’s home life, as not only did Flavia and Tiberius have their young relatives to look after, but there was also some domestic drama around their unusual household of slaves, servants and random family members.  While I enjoyed seeing the continued domestic evolution of the formerly wild Flavia and the notoriously honest Tiberius, which resulted in several rather entertaining scenes, I could see newer readers who came for the mystery getting a bit frustrated with this extra attention on family life.  Still, A Comedy of Terrors did have some great moments throughout its plot, and Davis did the usual excellent job of combining crime fiction and historical elements together into an entertaining story filled with the writer’s fantastic sense of humour.  In addition, the characters were sharply written as always, there were some intriguing historical crime fiction elements to the plot (who would have thought there was criminal opportunity in festival nuts?), and I still really enjoy the author’s inclusion of modern attitudes and reactions in this historical environment.  I particularly loved the final resolution of the case which saw a classic gangster move turned around on its user in dramatic fashion, which served as an amazing end to this fantastic book.

Overall, A Comedy of Terrors was another great addition to the Flavia Albia series by Lindsey Davis.  While it lacked some of the focus and compelling mystery of some of Davis’ most impressive reads, this was still a clever piece of historical crime fiction, and I loved seeing the continuation of her character-driven storylines.  A must read for fans of this series, I cannot wait to see what happens in the 10th book, Desperate Undertakings.

A Comedy of Terrors Cover 2

The Burning Road by Harry Sidebottom

The Burning Road Cover

Publisher: Zaffre (Trade Paperback – 5 January 2022)

Series: Standalone/Warrior of Rome

Length: 344 pages

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

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One of my favourite historical fiction authors, Harry Sidebottom, returns with another epic and intense historical adventure, The Burning Road, a fun-filled, action-packed thriller.

There are some amazing historical fiction authors out there now who focus on Roman history to create some excellent and compelling novels.  However, one of the best is the extremely talented Harry Sidebottom, a historian turned author who has been producing some awesome and unique reads.  I have been a major fan of Sidebottom ever since reading his debut novel, Fire in the East (an exceptional siege novel) back in 2008.  I really enjoyed his Warrior of Rome (which followed a Germanic Roman soldier, Ballista) and Throne of the Caesars series, both of which contained some exceptional historical elements.  Sidebottom has also had a lot of success recently with some standalone novels, especially his last three books, which cleverly combined his historical knowledge with elements from thriller subgenres.  This included his 2018 release, The Last Hour, which brought back Ballista and set him on a 24-esque romp through ancient Rome; The Lost Ten, which was reminiscent of special forces thrillers; and The Return, a dark and complex murder mystery that had interesting Scandi noir overtones.  I deeply enjoyed all these previous novels, and I was very excited when I received a copy of Sidebottom’s latest book, The Burning Road, a couple of weeks ago.

Sicily, 265 AD.  Throughout the strategic volcanic island, a call of freedom has been heard as a charismatic slave starts to rally his fellow enslaved workers.  The various estates and towns are in a state of uproar as vicious slaves and captured barbarian warriors rise up to kill their masters.  As the revolution gains strength and results in greater bloodshed, the fate of the island may rest in the hands of a legendary warrior, Marcus Clodius Ballista.

After years of fighting for corrupt emperors and battling deadly Roman politics, Ballista is finally free from his responsibilities, determined to enter retirement.  Whilst travelling with his eldest son, Marcus, to his estates on Sicily, their ship hits a terrible storm, forcing it aground on the west coast of the island.  Barely surviving the rough surf and destructive storm, Ballista and Marcus are soon thrust into even greater danger when a band of armed slaves mercilessly kills the other shipwrecked survivors.

Barely escaping the rampaging slaves, Ballista leads his son inland, hoping to discover what chaos has befallen Sicily.  They soon discover that the entire island is in revolution, with any non-slave at risk at being killed or brutalised.  Determined to keep his son alive and rescue his family on the other side of the island, Ballista and Marcus attempt to cross the entirety of Sicily on foot.  Constantly harassed by marauding bands of former slaves, the two Romans must find a way to survive and reach their family before it is too late.  But can the old veteran and rash youth work together to survive and save all of Sicily, or will one of Rome’s greatest warriors finally be finished off by rampaging slaves?

Wow, now this was a fun and intense novel from Sidebottom, who once again highlights his skill as a particularly inventive author of Roman historical fiction.  I deeply enjoyed The Burning Road, especially as Sidebottom once again combines compelling historical elements with an impressive and action-packed thriller storyline.

I had a lot of fun with the incredible and extremely fast-paced narrative that Sidebottom featured in The Burning Road.  While it took me a little while to get into this book (mainly because I couldn’t find any reading time), once I started, I honestly couldn’t stop, and I ended up powering through The Burning Road in less than a day.  The Burning Road has a brilliant story that pits Sidebottom’s best protagonist, Ballista, and his teenage son right in the middle of an intense slave revolt on Sicily.  Sidebottom sets this all up perfectly, with a quick prologue to establish that the slave revolt has occurred, before focusing entirely on Ballista and Marcus, who are shipwrecked off the coast of the island.  At first, the scenario reminded me of another historical fiction novel, The Gladiator by Simon Scarrow, which featured slaves revolting on Crete.  However, Sidebottom takes this in a very different direction, with a dark and non-stop story that sees the protagonist forced to navigate across the island, encountering all manner of odd characters and a ton of enemies.  The first two-thirds of the book see the protagonists on their own, walking a hellish volcanic landscape filled with murderous slaves, which was so damn cool.  Sidebottom was clearly trying to emulate some post-apocalyptic thrillers here, and there is even a scene that is a brilliant homage to The Road.  This makes for some intense and bloody sequences, and you will find yourself glued to the pages as you wait to see what danger they will encounter next.  The final third of the book sees Sidebottom return to his original writing element as Ballista is drafted into leading the defence of a besieged city.  This leads to an amazing and unique set of siege sequences, as Ballista and a small force of civilians attempt to hold back an overwhelming army of enraged slaves, which leads to a bloody and satisfying conclusion.  I loved this brilliant combination of story elements, especially the brutal walk across Sicily, and it makes for one heck of a story.

One of the best things about The Burning Road was the compelling central characters, especially as Sidebottom used it to tell a touching an enjoyable father-son story.  The first of these is Ballista, the protagonist of the Warrior of Rome series, who returns for another gruelling adventure.  As a former Germanic prince turned Roman soldier, siege expert and noble, Ballista is an old hand at danger and once again rises to the challenge even with his advancing age.  However, this time Ballista is forced to undertake his battled filled journey with his young teenage son, Marcus (also called Isangrim).  Setting Ballista and Marcus up as the main point of view characters, Sidebottom tells a fascinating tale that not only follows their desperate journey but which dives into their relationship and personality.  Due to Ballista’s military career, these two aren’t particularly close, with Marcus slightly resenting his barbarian father.  However, over the course of the book the two slowly grow closer as they face constant ordeal.  Sidebottom paces this growth in their relationship perfectly and you soon get really invested in seeing how much they begin to trust and rely on each other.  I enjoyed seeing this paternal side of Ballista, which enhanced his already complex character, and Marcus grows to become an enjoyable companion, especially as he begins to realise everything his father has done for him and how he has tried to prepare him.  This great father-son relationship becomes a major part of the book’s plot, and it put me in mind of some other similar adventures such as The Road, or even the recent God of War game (I may have imagined Ballista speaking in Christopher Judge’s voice).  This was a brilliant and powerful heart to the entire book, and it will be fascinating to see how much Marcus is featured in any of Sidebottom’s future novels.

I was also very impressed with the interesting historical detail that Sidebottom featured throughout The Burning Road.  The author has clearly done a ton of research on the various subjects contained within and there is a comprehensive reference section at the back, including a history book written by Sidebottom himself.  As such there is an amazing sense of authenticity to the setting and figures featured within The Burning Road which really helps to drag the reader into the story.  This period of Roman history has always been a rich ground for Sidebottom’s novels, and it was fascinating to see some more detail about the politics of the time.  I loved all the awesome detail about Sicily, which proves to be an exceptional and fascinating background setting for the story.  Sidebottom, who has visited Sicily many times, does a great job of filling in the historical blanks around the island and he portrays it as it would have appeared during Roman times.  All this impressive attention to environmental detail results in some cool romps through forests, mountains and ancient towns, and I think that the author really captured the historical soul of this island.  One of the big historical elements that Sidebottom invests a lot of time exploring is slavery during the Roman era.  The author includes a fascinating examination of how slaves are treated during this period, as well as some of the philosophical thought surrounding the entire process, both from the masters and the slaves.  The subsequent slave revolt really helps to highlight the Romans’ reliance on a large population of slaves to maintain their society and having the outsider Ballista explore this provided an interesting alternate perspective to the practice.  I also deeply appreciate the desperation and anger that the various slave characters had, which helped to turn them into a sympathetic enemy, even if you want the protagonists to survive more.  All this really added a lot to the overall story, and I look forward to seeing which area or historical period Sidebottom will explore next.

The Burning Road was another exceptional and epic read from Harry Sidebottom, who continues to flourish as one of the most inventive and exciting authors of historical fiction out there.  This latest novel features an intense and unique historical fiction tale chock full of action, character growth and some fascinating bits of period detail.  I had an absolute blast getting through this amazing novel, and The Burning Road comes very highly recommended as a result.

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Quick Review – The Return by Harry Sidebottom

The Return Cover

Publisher: Zaffre (Trade Paperback – 11 June 2020)

Series: Standalone

Length: 307 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

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Bestselling historical fiction author Harry Sidebottom takes you on a dark and compelling adventure into the mind of a haunted Roman soldier as he returns home only to find more death waiting for him with, The Return.

Harry Sidebottom is an impressive author specialising in exciting and detailed Roman historical fiction novels, whose work I have been enjoying for years.  Sidebottom has so far written two amazing series, the Warrior of Rome series, which followed a barbarian turned Roman general, Ballista, as he attempts to survive the machinations and wars of the Empire, and The Throne of the Caesar’s novels that examined some of the more obscure and chaotic Roman Emperors.  In recent years Sidebottom has started experimenting with some compelling standalone novels.  The first of these, The Last Hour, brought back Ballista and set him on a fast-paced adventure through Rome in a manner reminiscent of the television series 24.  His next novel The Lost Ten, featured a group of 10 mis-matched Roman soldiers who are sent on an infiltration mission into enemy territory to break a high value target out of prison.  His third standalone novel was The Return, which came out last year.  I read it a little while ago and failed to provide a timely review for it.  However, as Sidebottom’s latest novel, The Burning Road, has just been released, I thought I would take this opportunity to quickly review The Return so I have a clean slate when I get my hands on a copy of his latest book.

Synopsis:

He came home a hero.
But death isn’t finished with him yet . . .

145BC – CALABRIA, ANCIENT ROME. After years of spilling blood for Rome, Gaius Furius Paullus has returned home 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 was an intriguing and compelling novel that contains a brilliant and dark historical murder mystery.  Like some of his previous novels, Sidebottom has blended some unique crime fiction/thriller elements with his traditional historical settings and storylines.  As such, The Return reads like an interesting combination of historical fiction and a darker crime novel, specifically Scandi noir.  This results in a clever and compelling character driven narrative that follows a dark and conflicted Roman protagonist who is forced to investigate a series of murders in his grim and forbidding village.  The author does a wonderful job of blending his historical elements with the compelling crime fiction storyline, and the reader is soon treated to a harrowing and exciting murder investigation.  There is some brilliant use of a darker location, including a forbidding forest, as well as a lot of focus on his haunted protagonist, especially through a series of flashbacks.  All this comes together into an excellent narrative, and it was fascinating to see Sidebottom’s damaged protagonist dive head long into danger while trying to solve the murder and prove his own innocence.  While I did think that the solution to the mystery and the culprits behind the murder was a little obvious, this ended up being an excellent and impressive novel.  Sidebottom really takes the readers on a harrowing and enjoyable ride here, and I ended up getting through it in a few short days.

I was deeply impressed with the dark and guilt-ridden protagonist who Sidebottom set this great story around.  Paullus is a recently returned soldier who received much acclaim during Rome’s war with ancient Greece, but he is also haunted by his actions there, particularly around the fates of two of his comrades.  Thanks to his guilt he constantly sees the Furies, the Roman goddesses of vengeance and retribution, who remind him of the wrongs he commits.  To avoid seeing them Paullus dives headfirst into danger, as the threat of death is the only thing that alleviates his guilt.  This helps turns Paullus into a fascinating and deeply complex figure who has some interesting interactions with his own emotions and the people from his pre-war life who don’t understand what he is going through.  Sidebottom utilises a series of flashbacks to showcase Paullus’ military career and you slowly get the entire story of the protagonist’s heroic past, as well as the event that led to his intense guilt and heartache.  While I did think that Sidebottom might have been a tad heavy-handed with the flashbacks (it makes up nearly half the novel), I did really appreciate the sheer amount of work he put into his great protagonist.  The author did an impressive job of simulating the guilt, fear and anger of a war veteran attempting to re-enter society and it was really compelling to see.  I also deeply appreciated the author’s trick of personifying this guilt into visions of the supernatural Furies, especially as it is never fully established whether they are there or just figments of his damaged mind.  The use of Paullus as the central protagonist really enhanced The Return’s excellent story and he was an outstanding investigator for this fantastic murder mystery.

I also really enjoyed the cool historical fiction elements contained within this novel.  The Return takes place in 145BC, which is one of the earliest times that Sidebottom has explored in his historical fiction novels.  I deeply enjoyed the exploration of this time, especially as Sidebottom features more obscure conquests and locations.  The central location of the story, Calabria in Southern Italy, proved to be a fantastic and interesting setting, especially as this region of Italy contained two distinctive social groups, the Roman settlers and the original inhabitants.  Due to their historical support of Hannibal during the Punic Wars which saw them forced to give up their lands, the locals are treated as second-class citizens by the Romans, who use them as slave labour.  This adds some extra drama and intrigue to the story as these local tribes get caught up in the paranoia and despair around the hunt for the murderer.  I also really appreciated Sidebottom’s examination of the Roman invasion of Greece that the protagonist fought in.  This is one of the more obscure conflicts from Roman history and the author provides a detailed account of the causes, battles, and eventual consequences of the conflict.  I deeply enjoyed exploring this period in the flashback chapters, as there were some detailed and powerful battle sequences which featured some distinctive clashes between Greek and Roman military styles.  Throw in some Greek and Roman mythology as a potential cause for the murders or the protagonists’ actions, and you have quite a brilliant historical tale.  These grim and bloody historical elements blended perfect with the darker story that Sidebottom was telling and it was absolutely fascinating to see how they were incorporated into The Return’s compelling, multi-genre style.

Overall, The Return was an epic and complex novel that continued to showcase Harry Sidebottom’s amazing talent as a writer.  This fantastic novel ended up being one of the more unique historical fiction books I have ever read and I deeply enjoyed the cool combination of classic Roman history and darker crime fiction elements, especially when shown through the eyes of an extremely damaged protagonist.  This book comes highly recommended, and I cannot wait to get my hands on Sidebottom’s latest novel, The Burning Road.

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The Honour of Rome by Simon Scarrow

The Honour of Rome Cover

Publisher: Headline (Trade Paperback – 9 November 2021)

Series: Eagles of the Empire – Book 20

Length: 431 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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One of the best authors of Roman historical fiction, Simon Scarrow, returns with another exceptional adventure back in time with The Honour of Rome.

2021 has been a particularly good year for Simon Scarrow readers, as this acclaimed historical fiction author has released two fantastic novels.  The first of these, Blackout, was a clever historical murder mystery novel set in pre-war Nazi Germany, which contained a fantastic and impressive story.  While I deeply enjoyed Blackout, I was a little more excited for the next awesome entry in Scarrow’s long-running Eagles of the Empire series.  The Eagles of the Empire books follow two officers in the Roman army, Centurion Marco and Prefect Cato, as they fight in multiple battle fields across the Roman Empire.  I have been a major fan of this series for years and have had the pleasure of reading every prior entry in it, while also reviewing some of the latest entries, including The Blood of Rome, Traitors of Rome and The Emperor’s Exile.  As such, I was very excited when I received the latest entry in this series, The Honour of Rome, a couple of days ago, and instantly started reading it.  The Honour of Rome is the 20th novel in this series and takes its great protagonists on another intense adventure.

Britannia, 59 AD.  After retiring from the Roman Legions, former Centurion Marco has travelled back to Britannia 15 years after he helped conquer it.  Now a married man, Marco is hoping for a quiet life, enjoying the fruits of the successful inn in Londinium that he half-owns with his mother.  However, not everything is as calm as he hoped.  There are rumours about the tribes being restless once again, and the streets of Londinium are alive with criminal gangs.

Upon arriving at his mother’s inn, Marco discovers that she is being extorted for protection money by a ruthless gang.  Determined to stop this, Marco attempts to resist the gangsters, only to find himself outmatched and a potential pawn into the middle of a vicious gang war.  At the same time, Marco finds himself drawn into the defence of the colony, especially when one of the local tribes refuses to pay any more taxes.

After a bloody punitive raid with a group of veteran reserve soldiers, Marco returns to Londinium, only to face the consequences for his defiance.  Beaten and bloodied, Marco is unsure how to fight back until his old friend Cato appears.  Cato, who has left Rome without leave to hide Nero’s exiled mistress, is always willing to back Marco up in any sort of fight, and he has an ambitious plan to end the gang problem once and for all.  Will the team of Marco, Cato, and their veteran allies be enough to overcome the city’s vicious gangs, or have these proud war heroes finally met their match?

This was another awesome novel from Scarrow, who has once again produced an exciting and fast-paced historical fiction read that perfectly envisions the landscape of Roman-occupied England.  The Honour of Rome is a great read, and I loved the cool combination of historical and crime fiction elements throughout it.  I ended up reading this book in only a few short days and loved every second of it.

Scarrow has come up with another amazing and entertaining story for this compelling book, which takes his long-running protagonists on another intense and bloody adventure.  One of the things that I have always enjoyed about the Eagles of the Empire series is the range of different subgenres that can be blended with its historical fiction elements.  The Honour of Rome is a great example of this as Scarrow utilises a crime fiction based storyline that blends with the overarching historical elements extremely well.  The protagonist is swiftly drawn into a vicious confrontation with two warring gangs of criminals upon his arrival in Londinium, which proves to be an outstanding basis for the main storyline.  At the same time, he once again becomes involved in the Roman garrison’s ongoing conflicts with the local Britons.  This combination of crime and military elements is very effective throughout the novel, and I liked seeing the conflicts with both gangsters and rebellious natives.  This also allows Scarrow to bring in several solider characters into the main crime-fiction storyline as backup as the story progresses, and it was pretty fun to see a bunch of retired soldiers taking on the antagonists.  The author really sets up everything extremely well in this book, and there isn’t a moment of calm or quiet throughout the entire novel, as the protagonist gets involved in several intense and well-written fights and battle sequences.  I found the last third of the novel to be particularly exciting, especially as the protagonists attempt an ambitious and risky strategy.  This results in the predictable satisfying, if bloody, conclusion, and Scarrow has made sure to set up some cool new storylines that will no doubt be the basis for the next few books.  An enjoyable and action-packed thrill-ride from start to finish, I had a fantastic time reading this latest historical adventure.

One of the more interesting things about The Honour of Rome was the noticeable change in character focus that helped set it apart from the other Eagles of the Empire books, namely that it spent most of the narrative focusing on only one of the series’ protagonists.  This is not too surprising, especially as the previous book in the series, The Emperor’s Exile, focused on Cato to such a degree that I kind of assumed that Scarrow was planning to permanently retire Marco.  However, I’m pleased to say I was wrong about this, as two-thirds of this latest book is exclusively told from Marco’s perspective.  I had a great time following Marco in this novel, and it is always a lot of fun to see the gruff and hard-headed Centurion in action.  There are some great moments surrounding Marco in this novel, from being out of his depth when it comes to combating criminals rather than enemy soldiers, to his great camaraderie with the fellow veterans in the colony.  You also have to love the fun interactions that occur around him as he finds himself stuck between his strong-willed wife and his equally strong-willed mother.  This ended up being a really good Marco novel, and I deeply enjoyed it.  Of course, Cato does show up towards the end of the book, and the novel is soon back to its typical dynamic, with Cato taking tactical lead.  There are also some interesting long-term storylines surrounding Cato, especially as he has fled from Rome with the Emperor’s exiled mistress.  It was great to see this team in action once again, especially as they enact another madcap scheme, and I had another fun time following them.

I also rather enjoyed the cool historical setting featured within this great novel, as the protagonists once again return to Britannia.  Historical Britannia is a well-utilised setting in the Eagles of the Empire books, having been the location of several of the earlier novels, including the first five entries in the series.  It made me a little nostalgic to see this damp and gloomy setting once again, especially as it proves to be just as chaotic and violent as ever.  This book makes full use of its clever move from the more traditional battlefields of Britannia to the city of Londinium, and I loved the inclusion of a crime-ridden, early London, especially as Scarrow tries his best to show it in all its dark and rapidly expanding glory.  I also enjoyed the inclusion of the veterans’ colony that was a major secondary setting for much of the book.  It proved to be fascinating to follow these characters who have chosen to settle in this harsh country and spending time conquering it, and I liked their inclusion in the novel.  It was pretty cool to see these retired soldiers in reserve taking on enemies, both on a proper battlefield and against the criminal element, and I thought it was a fun and compelling inclusion to the story.  I also appreciated that, after several books, we finally get a continuation of the Boudica storylines that were set up in some of the earlier novels.  Scarrow is also clearly setting up Boudica’s rebellion for later in the series, and I cannot wait to see how our protagonists, with their established history with Boudica and her people, will fit into it.

With this awesome 20th entry in his amazing Eagles of the Empire series, Simon Scarrow continues to highlight why he is one of the absolute best authors of historical fiction in the world today.  The Honour of Rome has a brilliant and compelling story that perfectly blends historical and crime fiction elements together into one thrilling tale.  I had a wonderful time reading this great book, and I deeply appreciated the way in which Scarrow continues the adventures of his compelling characters by once again returning them to the familiar setting of occupied Britannia.  The Honour of Rome is another highly recommended historical read, and I cannot wait to see what happens next in this series.

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The Emperor’s Exile by Simon Scarrow

The Emperor's Exile Cover

Publisher: Headline (Trade Paperback – 10 November 2020)

Series: Eagles of the Empire – Book 19

Length: 434 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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One of the top authors of Roman historical fiction, Simon Scarrow, returns with the latest exciting novel in his Eagles of the Empire series, The Emperor’s Exile.

Rome, 57 A.D.  Following their adventures in Parthia, Legionary veterans Tribune Cato and Centurion Marco return to Rome with the remnants of their Praetorian Cohort.  Thanks to the ever-shifting politics of Rome and the fickleness of Emperor Nero’s court, Cato faces a hostile reception from some of Nero’s advisors, who hold him responsible for the military disasters experienced in the Parthian campaign.  Soon Cato has his command taken away from him, while Marco decides to resign from the Legions in protest, determined to live out his retirement in Britain.

Isolated in Rome, Cato is forced by one of Nero’s advisors to take on a new and dangerous mission.  Nero’s mistress, the beautiful Claudia Acte, has risen too high too quickly, and Nero’s political enemies have manipulated him into sending her into exile.  Travelling with a select group of Praetorian officers and his new advisor, the spy Apollonius, Cato must escort Claudia to the location of her exile, the island province of Sardinia, where he has another mission to accomplish.

Sardinia has long been plagued by tribes of bandits living wild in the centre of the island.  These proud decedents of the original inhabitants of Sardinia have been causing problems in recent months, raiding the local villages and ambushes caravans.  Taking command of Sardinia’s entire garrison, Cato begins to work out a strategy to defeat the locals and regain his position in Rome.  However, this proves harder than originally anticipated as Cato needs to contend with a disorganised military force, a dangerous plague that is beginning to overwhelm the island and a surprisingly competent group of bandits with unparalleled knowledge of the local landscape.  Worse, Cato begins to have dangerous feelings for Claudia, feelings which his enemies will exploit and which could set the entirety of Rome against him.  Can Cato pacify Sardinia before his entire force is decimated, or have his adventures finally come to an end?

This was another fantastic and highly enjoyable historical fiction novel from one of my favourite authors, Simon Scarrow, who has produced an impressive new entry in his long-running Eagles of the Empire series.  The Eagles of the Empire books are easily among the best Roman historical fiction series out there at the moment, and I have had an amazing time reading every single entry in this series, including the last two novels, The Blood of Rome and Traitors of RomeThe Emperor’s Exile is the 19th Eagles of the Empire book and the author has produced another impressive story, featuring great historical elements and some fantastic character work.  I had an awesome time reading this book and it is definitely worth checking out.

The Emperor’s Exile contains an extremely fun and captivating narrative which follows Cato work to defeat a new enemy in a new historical setting.  Scarrow sets up an exciting and fast-paced story for this latest book, with the protagonist forced to deal with all manner of politics, intrigue and various forms of deadly peril in rather quick succession as he is assigned his mission and attempts to complete it.  This naturally results in all manner of impressive action sequences which are a lot of fun to watch unfold, including one particularly good extended siege sequence.  It is not all action, adventure and historical undertakings, however, as the book also has an intriguing focus on its central protagonist, Cato.  Cato, who has been evolving as a character over the last 18 books, continues to develop in The Emperor’s Exile in several dramatic and emotionally rich ways.  Not only does he have to adapt to a major change in his personal circumstances with the retirement of a great friend but he continues to question his role in the Roman army and whether he wants to remain a brutal killer.  Throw in an ill-conceived romance, his continued regrets about his past actions and his disastrous first marriage, as well as a certain major change in his appearance for the future, and this becomes quite a substantial novel for Cato which also opens up some intriguing storylines in the future.  I had a wonderful time reading this book and, once I got wrapped up in the story, I was able to power through the book extremely quickly.

In addition to having a great story, The Emperor’s Exile also serves as a key entry in this impressive, long-running series.  While readers who want to check out this book do not particularly need to have read any of the previous Eagles of the Empire books, mainly because Scarrow does an excellent job of revisiting story aspects and characters from prior novels, those established fans of the series are going to find this book particularly significant and memorable.  This is because one of the main protagonists of this series, Centurion Marco, who has been a major part of all 18 previous novels, retires from the Legions 100 or so pages into the book then subsequently disappears off to Britain, leaving Cato to his own adventure in Sardinia.  Scarrow has been telegraphing Marco’s plans to retire for the last couple of books, and it is a natural consequence of the author realistically aging his characters (15 years have elapsed within the series at this point).  While it was somewhat expected, it was still weird and a bit sad not to have Marco fighting along Cato in this latest adventure, especially as their comradeship is one of the defining aspects of this series.  That being said, Cato has grown a lot over the last 18 books and the natural progression of Cato and Marco’s dynamic as characters did necessitate them splitting off at some point.  It will be interesting to see how Scarrow features Marco in the future, especially if he plans to continue the Eagles of the Empire series for several more books (I personally would love it if he goes all the way into The Year of the Four Emperors, as it would wrap up the Vitellius and Vespasian storylines from the earlier books quite nicely).  Based upon how The Emperor’s Exile ends, it looks like Marco is going to appear in the next book, but it is uncertain whether he will continue on as a central protagonist, become an occasional character or go down in a final blaze of glory.  I personally think that Scarrow is planning to permanently retire Marco as a character soon, potentially replacing him with new character, Apollonius.  Apollonius is the dangerous and insightful spy who Cato teamed up with during the previous novel, and who followed Cato back to Rome in this book.  Apollonius served as Cato’s aide, scout and confident during The Emperor’s Exile in place of Marco, and it looks like he will be a major character in the next book as well.  I quite liked Apollonius as a character and it will be interesting if he ends up as Marco’s replacement, especially as he shares a very different dynamic with Cato than Marco did.  All of this makes The Emperor’s Exile quite an intriguing entry in the overall series and I am extremely curious to see what is going to happen to these amazing protagonists next year in the 20th book in the series.

As always, this novel is chock full of fantastic historical detail and storytelling as the author sets his story in some intriguing parts of Roman history.  Not only does the reader get a great view of Rome under the control of Emperor Nero (whose chaotic rule as described in this novel has some interesting modern parallels) but the main story takes place in the island province of Sardinia, off the Italian coast.  Sardinia is a fascinating province that I personally have never seen used before in Roman historical fiction novels and which proved to be a fantastic setting for most of this book’s story.  Scarrow really dives into the history, culture and geography of the island, explaining how it became a Roman province, examining some of the key towns and ports and highlighting the difference between the locals and the Roman settlers.  There is a particularly compelling focus on the tribes who controlled the centre of the island and it was rather interesting to see how a group of rebellious barbarians managed to survive so close to Italy during this period.  Scarrow also provides the reader with his usual focus on the Roman legions/auxiliaries, providing impressive details and depictions of how the Roman war machine operated and what their usual tactics and strategies are.  All of this really helps to enhance the novel and I had an amazing time exploring Sardinia with the Roman protagonists.

Another intriguing aspect of The Emperor’s Exile was the plague storyline that saw the inhabitants of Sardinia, including Cato and his soldiers, have to contend with a deadly infectious sickness.  This plague added an excellent edge to the storyline, serving as a hindrance to the protagonists and ensuring that they constantly have to change their plans while dealing with their enemy.  Not only does this serve as a clever handicap for the Romans but readers cannot help but make some comparisons to modern day events.  While I could potentially be reading a little too much into this and it is possible that Scarrow always intended to feature a plague in this book, I cannot help but think that this was a deliberate choice by the author.  Either way, it proved to be an extremely fascinating part of the book and it was fun to compare the reactions of these historical characters to the actions of people in the real-world.  While this story inclusion may potentially prove to be a little tiring for readers sick of any mentions of disease, infection and quarantine in their day-to-day lives, I thought it was a great addition to the novel, especially as it raised the dangerous stakes of this exciting novel.

With his latest novel, The Emperor’s Exile, Simon Scarrow continues to show why he is one of the top authors of Roman historical fiction in the world today.  This latest novel serves as a key entry in his amazing Eagles of the Empire series and it takes the reader on an outstanding, action-packed adventure, loaded with some great character moments and some impressive historical settings.  I had a fantastic time reading this book and I cannot wait to see how Scarrow continues this epic series next year.  Luckily, I only have to wait a few more months for my next dose of this author’s work as his World War II crime fiction novel, Blackout, is set for release next March.

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River of Gold by Anthony Riches

River of Gold Cover

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Hardback – 6 August 2020)

Series: Empire – Book 11

Length: 339 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

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From one of the top authors of Roman historical fiction, Anthony Riches, comes River of Gold, the action-packed and epic 11th entry in his bestselling Empire series.

Aegyptus, 187 AD.  Under the command of Tribune Scaurus, decorated Centurion and former fugitive, Marcus Valerius Aquila, serves with several elite veteran officers, each of whom has displeased the Imperial hierarchy in some way.  These Roman soldiers now find themselves part of an informal troubleshooter unit, destined to die if they should ever fail one of their impossible tasks.  The Roman Empire is once again in danger as a mysterious army advances from the south of Africa, killing a major garrison and conquering a key port city at the southernmost border of the empire.  In order to solve this problem, the Emperor’s corrupt advisor sends Centurion Marcus and his comrades on another dangerous mission.

Arriving in Alexandria, Marcus and his comrades discover a rich province riddled with corruption and with a much reduced military presence.  Taking command of the local legion, Scaurus marches what soldiers he can down to the site of the massacre to find a new grim reality waiting for them.  After centuries of peace, the mysterious kingdom of Kush has once again declared war on Rome, determined to claim what is rightfully theirs from the weakened Romans.  In order to stop them, Scaurus leads his force deep into enemy territory to recapture an abandoned fortress and hold it against impossible odds.  Their mission is borderline suicidal and only has a slim chance of success, but if anyone can pull of this impossible task, it is Marcus and his friends.

This was another fun and exciting historical novel from Riches which proved to be a fantastic new entry in his Empire series.  Riches is a prolific and talented author who has been writing since 2009, when he debuted the first Empire novel, Wounds of Honour.  Since then he has gone to write an additional 10 novels in this series, as well as writing his separate series, The Centurions.  I have previously read a few of Riches’s books, including the first three entries in the Empire series when they were released.  While these first three books were extremely enjoyable Roman historical fiction novels, I missed the chance to read a couple of entries in the series and fell too far behind to catch up.  However, I recently got a copy of this latest book and, as I was in the mood for a visit back to ancient Rome, I tried out River of Gold to see how it would turn out.

This proved to be a good decision on my behalf as River of Gold ended up being a fantastic and compelling read.  Riches sets up an excellent character-driven story that sets a group of unique Roman officers against a dangerous new foe.  The author does a good job setting the story up, allowing those readers unfamiliar with the series or the historical era to easily jump in, and then sets the characters toward their goals.  This results in a captivating narrative that has a good blend of action, character development and cool historical features, as the protagonists embark on a madcap plan to win the war.  This leads to a number of awesome battle scenes, including an extended siege sequence which was a lot of fun to read, and the various characters find themselves in sufficient danger throughout.  The story ends a tad suddenly, although Riches does a good job of setting up the overall conclusion to the main storyline.  This story also felt a bit short, and I think it could have benefited from another 50 pages or so, perhaps extending out the siege sequence and adding in some more action and peril there.  However, this was still an overall excellent narrative which I was able to get through in only a few short days.

Riches spends a good part of River of Gold focusing on the various characters he has introduced and developed over the course of his long-running series, and this proves to be an entertaining group of protagonists.  In order to examine these characters Riches utilises a detailed, in-narrative character introduction near the start of the book, in which a newcomer reads off personnel files about each of the recurring characters.  While this was rather forced and inelegant way to introduce the characters and their history, it does the job and allows the readers to get an idea of who these protagonists are and their various quirks.  I found this particularly useful after having skipped several books in the series, and new readers will definitely appreciate the background.  Most of these characters get some intriguing arcs throughout the book.  For example, Marcus is once again the lead character of the novel as he tends to get the most important missions and ends up in the most danger, including a particularly close look at the Kush and their society.  Marcus is a fairly typical Roman historical fiction protagonist who has gone from raw recruit to hardened veteran throughout the course of the series, and it was interesting to see the various developments that have occurred since the last Empire novel I read.  Tribune Scaurus also gets a fair bit of attention as the leader of the Roman force and the mastermind behind their attack.  Scaurus is a good leader character, providing the rest of the characters with backbone and fortitude, and I liked his rather unique command style that relates to the dangerous political situation he finds himself in.  The other major character arc that I liked revolved around Cotta, the group’s veteran centurion and Marcus’s mentor, who reluctantly returns to Aegyptus for the first time after assassinating a Roman general who sought to rebel against the Emperor.  Cotta’s interesting subplot revolved around him reminiscing about his past mistakes while he attempts to hide his identity from the legion they have taken over, as they suffered as a result of his actions.  All of these recurring characters provided a great base for the story and some major moments that occurred will definitely rock readers, especially those long-term fans of the series.

While the recurring characters are good, I really have to highlight some of the new characters that Riches created for this novel, one of whom in particular outshines the rest.  This new character is Demetrius, a Christian who accompanies the army down south as part of his holy mission.  Demetrius is a complex and enjoyable character mainly due to his past as a vicious Christian-hunting Roman soldier.  After a series of brutalities, Demetrius sought redemption by joining the Christian cult, and now he fights against the invaders, believing that this fight is a holy war.  Riches focuses a good amount of the plot on Demetrius, and he proves to be a captivating and central figure, offering words of wisdom and defending his newfound Christian beliefs.  I found the author’s portrayal of this character to be really intriguing and I liked the close relationship he formed with some of the recurring characters, especially Marcus, despite that fact that none of them are Christians.  The other new character I liked was Ptolemy, an Imperial secretary and scribe assigned to the group, who provides them with relevant information and history to assist with their mission.  Ptolemy is essentially a walking piece of exposition, and a large amount of the book’s historical information is revealed thanks to him.  Despite this, he was a rather entertaining character, mainly due to the odd-couple friendship he formed with Dubnus.  The two characters are pretty much opposites in every way and end up bickering on a number of subjects, while also building up a mutual respect for each other.  This fun discourse between the two resulted in some great moments throughout the book and he was an interesting addition to the plot.

In addition to the fun story and great range of characters, Riches also invests a significant amount of time and effort in bringing the historical aspects of this novel to life.  The author has obviously done some serious research on the subject of Roman military history as he does a wonderful job showcasing various elements of the Roman legions and soldiers to life, including gear, unit makeup and tactics.  This also translates incredibly across into the various combat scenes throughout the novel, as you get a real feel for how a Roman solider would have felt in combat, especially at the Centurion level, although Riches mostly focuses on unique fight situations in this book.  The book also contains a number of detailed descriptions of the historical landscapes that the protagonists traverse through, such as Alexandria and the rest of historical Egypt.  This proved to be quite a fascinating inclusion in the story and I always enjoy seeing an author’s depiction of historical settings.  However, the most fascinating part of this novel has to be the inclusion of the ancient African Kingdom of Kush, with whom our protagonists face off against.  The Kushites were a powerful and advanced civilization, who, until recently, have been somewhat overlooked by historians and archaeologists.  Riches does an incredible job working them into his novel and setting them up as a rival kingdom to Rome.  Not only does he feature a number of detailed depictions of their culture and military make up during the events of the book, but he also spends time exploring the history of Kush, including their origins as a civilization, their prior history throughout Aegyptus and their conflicts with the Romans.  This was easily one of the most interesting and compelling elements of River of Gold, and I really appreciated Riches’s inclusion of such a unique historical adversary.  Indeed, all of the historical inclusions in this book are excellent, and I had an amazing time exploring them as the story progressed.

River of Gold by Anthony Riches is a captivating and enjoyable novel that takes the reader on a fascinating and action-packed journey through history.  Riches does an excellent job continuing his bestselling Empire series, and I had a great time getting through his exciting story, loaded with great characters and an impressive historical background.  All of this results in an amazing historical fiction novel that is well worth checking out, whether you are a fan of this long-running series or a general historical fiction fan looking for a fun adventure story.

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The Grove of the Caesars by Lindsey Davis

9781529374278

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

Series: Flavia Albia – Book Eight

Length: 399 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

“Don’t go to the Grove.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.