Waiting on Wednesday – The Lost Ten by Harry Sidebottom

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

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

Goodreads synopsis:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waiting on Wednesday – A Capitol Death and Shadows of Athens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Blood of Rome by Simon Scarrow

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Publisher: Headline

Publication Date – 13 November 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

The Last Hour by Harry Sidebottom

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Publisher: Zaffre

Australian Publication Date – 1 May 2018

World Publication Date – 8 March 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

Pandora’s Boy by Lindsey Davis

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Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Publication Date – 5 April 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Five Stars

The Throne of Caesar by Steven Saylor

The Throne of Caesars Cover

Publisher: Constable

Australian Publication Date – 6 March 2018

World Publication Date – 20 February 2018

 

Steven Saylor’s long-running ancient Roman detective series returns as Gordianus the Finder deals with the most infamous murder in Roman history: the assassination of Julius Caesar.

For decades, Gordianus the Finder has been the most respected investigator in all of ancient Rome.  After a lifetime of solving crimes and murders for the city’s rich and powerful, Gordianus is determined to retire from the investigative game and enjoy a life of luxury.  However, one last surprise has been thrust upon him: Gordianus’ adopted son Meto has spent years in the service of Caesar as his trusted aid and ghost-writer, and Caesar now seeks to reward Meto by making his father a senator.  Reluctantly accepting this rise in station, Gordianus’ ascension will take place in five days’ time, on the Ides of March.

Caesar has an ulterior motive for meeting with Gordianus.  Warned by visions and prophets, Caesar believes that his life may be in danger, and that disaster may strike before the conclusion of the Ides.  He requests that Gordianus keep his ears to the ground and quietly question leading members of the Roman nobility to see if there is any basis to his concerns.  While initially sceptical of any attempts on the dictator’s life, Gordianus’ suspicions are aroused when one of Caesar’s old rivals, Senator Cicero, also asks him to watch out for potential conspiracies.  As Gordianus begins his investigation, he finds himself in the middle of dangerous historical events, and even the legendary Finder may be unable to stop what is to come.  The Ides of March are approaching, and Caesar’s life isn’t the only one at risk.

The Throne of Caesar is the 16th book in the Roma Sub Rosa series, a series that also includes three prequel novels and two collections of short stories.  Saylor began in 1991 with Roman Blood, set in 80 B.C. some 36 years before the events of this book, and he has slowly been working towards the assassination of Julius Caesar.  Indeed, the last three instalments of the series were prequels produced while Saylor perfected his account of this famous murder.  It was definitely worth the wait, as Saylor has produced an extremely detailed and well-researched account of the infamous killing.

Gordianus’ investigation and social interactions are used to introduce the reader to many of the key people involved with the plot, as well as to discuss the political atmosphere that lead up to the assassination.  The Ides of March is the centrepiece of the novel.  It is clear that Saylor has consulted the key historical records of the killings, as he has made sure to include several of the lesser-known events that happened on the day.  For example, Saylor includes descriptions of the supposed visions Caesar’s wife, Calpurnia, had the night before, and Decimus Brutus’ intervention at Caesar’s residence the morning of the Ides.  Saylor also dedicates a good part of the book to examining the aftermath of Caesar’s death, including the political manoeuvrings that immediately followed, as well as the violent funeral.  As a result, the description of the killings and the surrounding circumstances are first rate, and this aspect of the book will appeal to Roman history buffs.

As Saylor discusses in the author’s notes, writing a murder mystery around the assassination of Julius Caesar is particularly hard, as his death is one of the most well-known events in Roman history, with all the conspirators condemned to historical infamy.  Saylor, however uses this to his advantage and manages to create a large amount of suspense by counting down the days until the 15th of March and hinting at the events that are to come.  All the reader can do is keep going through the novel, knowing that Gordianus will be unable to stop the murder, even as he gets closer and closer to the truth.

Saylor also compensates for the lack of mystery around the death of Caesar by including a second murder subplot.  Elements of this additional murder mystery are hidden in the background of most of the book, as the reader’s attention is directed towards the upcoming assassination, and the investigation into the second murder comes to the fore after Caesar’s death.  The actual events of the second murder are unique and will be of particular interest to fans of a certain Shakespearean play.

One of the best features of The Throne of Caesar is the significant incorporation of Greek mythology throughout the book.  Several Greek myths are discussed, and parts of the plot mirror elements of these myths.  Many of these myths are also included as centrepieces of two Roman epic poems written by Gaius Helvius Cinna, a famous historical poet, which are a major part of the plot.  While one of the plays featured is completely fictional and with no historical basis, the other play is Zmyrna, considered by Cinna to be his greatest achievement, the text of which is unfortunately lost to history.  Saylor provides an interesting possible narrative for the lost play, which flows into the plot of his mystery with great effect.  The overall effect of Saylor including these myths and legends is very striking, and it provides the reader another viewpoint into the lives of the ancient Roman characters who put great stock in these old and religious stories.

The latest addition to the Roma Sub Rosa series is a meticulously detailed and well-crafted book that acts as a unique and powerful chronicle of an important historical crime.  A suspenseful and compelling read, The Throne of Caesar serves as a great continuation of the story of Gordianus the Finder, and it will be interesting to see where Saylor takes the series next.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

Rome’s Sacred Flame by Robert Fabbri

Rome's Sacred Flame Cover

Publisher: Corvus

Australian Publication Date – 1 February 2018

World Publication Date – 24 January 2018

 

Explore the dark side of Roman history in the new novel from veteran historical fiction author Robert Fabbri.

In Rome, 63 AD, Nero reigns as Emperor.  Meanwhile, Vespasian has been given the lucrative appointment of Governor of Africa, exploiting the rewards of his previous adventures.  Before Vespasian can settle into the role of governor, he must first travel to the remote desert kingdom of Garama to negotiate the release of hundreds of Roman citizens held as slaves.  He and his companions, Magnus and Hormus, arrive on the eve of a slave revolt that threatens the entire kingdom.  Forced to flee across the desert with hundreds of freed slaves and few provisions, the Romans must avoid the chaos of Garama while also dealing with traitors in their midst and harsh desert conditions.

However, even revolting slaves and desperate conditions hold little danger compared to the problems brewing within Rome.  Nero’s reign has reached new peaks of insanity and chaos.  Like his predecessors, Nero is depraved and deranged, humiliating the citizens of Rome while destroying all who displease him. When he returns to Rome, Vespasian soon discovers that all the previous Emperors he had survived were nowhere near as dangerous as Nero.  Vespasian determines that it is time for the reign of Nero and the unstable Julio-Claudian bloodline to end.

However, Vespasian has made many enemies over the years, and all are plotting to use the unstable Emperor as a deadly weapon to destroy him and his family.  Vespasian must use all his skill and daring to survive while also trying to turn the chaos to his own advantage.  With conspiracies and danger all around, few will survive, especially with the Great Fire of Rome about to engulf the city.

Fabbri is a prominent and prolific author of Roman historical fiction whose distinctive books have one of the most entertaining examinations of Roman history.  Rome’s Sacred Flame is the eighth book in Fabbri’s Vespasian series, not including Arminius: The Limits of Empire, a recent standalone novel which runs parallel to the events of earlier books in the series.

This is an engaging series exploring the exploits of the future Emperor of Rome, Vespasian, during the earlier days of his life as he rose to power.  Fabbri makes use of what little is known about Vespasian’s early political career by including all the moments of his life recorded in the surviving Roman histories.  Fabbri also works the character of Vespasian into a number of key historical events that happened during his lifetime, such as famous deaths, ascensions, wars and other more infamous incidents.  All of the books in the Vespasian series describe a wide range of memorable episodes in Roman history, even though it is unlikely, but not impossible, that Vespasian, who was a prominent senator during these times, would have been involved.

Rome’s Sacred Flame continues this trend by inserting Vespasian right into the middle of some of the more interesting events of the Emperor Nero’s reign.  Through Vespasian’s eyes we see some of Nero’s infamous parties, one of the more significant plots against the Emperor’s life, the brewing persecution of the Christians, and, most importantly, the Great Fire of Rome, during which, some sources indicate, the Emperor played the lyre as the city burned.  Many fans of history will love the detail that Fabbri goes into when he examines all the events surrounding the fire: the politics of the time, the initial outbreak of the fire, the attempts to fight it, Nero’s supposed response, the fire’s conclusion and the eventual rebuilding of the city.

Readers will also be intrigued by Fabbri’s inclusion and interpretation of the Garmantes and their capital city of Garama.  The Garamantes were the people of a small kingdom that historians and archaeologists believe existed in south-western Libya around the same time as the Roman Empire was at its peak.  Many historical fiction writers have neglected the Garamantes in their works, instead favouring the more impressive enemies of Rome, so Fabbri’s use of the limited historical and archaeological facts available to create a unique society and civilization for his story is particularly interesting.

Like the other books in Fabbri’s Vespasian series, Rome’s Sacred Flame contains a large number of scenes that focus on the supposed depravity of Rome, especially during the reigns of last Julio-Claudian emperors.  This results in a compelling and engaging narrative, especially as Fabbri takes pains to describe these scenes in great detail, building a terrific story on what little historical evidence is available.  It is also offers something different to many of the other current Roman historical fiction series, which recently have tended to shy away from exploring these events to the same degree.

Once again, Fabbri has produced a highly exciting and thoroughly entertaining addition to his best-selling series.  Fans of Roman historical fiction will love the unique viewpoints and historical conclusions Fabbri explores in Rome’s Sacred Flame, as well as the exploration of Rome’s supposed dark side.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars