Emperor of Rome by Robert Fabbri

Emperor of Rome Cover

Publisher: Corvus (February 2019)

Series: Vespasian – Book 9

Length: 349 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Throwback Thursday – Legend by David Gemmell

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Publisher: Hachette Audio (22 June 2017) – originally published by Century (April 1984)

Series: Drenai – Book 1

Length: 13 hours and 13 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed as part of my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.

In this week’s Throwback Thursday, I try out a fantasy book that has been on my mind for many years, the 1984 classic fantasy novel, Legend, by the late, great David Gemmell.

Legend was the debut novel from Gemmell, an impressive author who wrote over 30 novels between 1984 and his death in 2006, most of which fell within the fantasy genre. Some of his works included the Rigante, Stones of Power, Jon Shannow and Hawk Queen fantasy series, as well as the Troy and Greek historical fiction series. However, his most famous body of work has to be the Drenai series. Featuring 11 books, the Drenai series were a collection of loosely connected novels set within the same fantasy universe. While the storylines are all linked in some way or another, especially books like the three Waylander novels, the series can pretty much be read in any order, which is kind of what I did.

I actually have a bit of a random history with the Drenai series, as I happened to listen to the 10th book in the series, White Wolf, some years ago. For the life of me I cannot think why I would have grabbed this fantasy book off the shelf. Whatever the reason, the story of White Wolf stuck with me, and I would find myself occasionally remembering details of the plot, while completely forgetting the book’s title or the author’s name. I was eventually able to figure out what book it was thanks to the one clear detail I could remember (the names of the protagonist’s famous swords) and tracked down another audiobook copy of White Wolf to listen to a few years ago. I also really enjoyed White Wolf the second time around and was eager to find out more about the rest of the books in the series.

Out of all of the books in the Drenai series that I looked at, the one that appealed to me the most was the very first one in the series, Legend. Legend tells the story of an epic and desperate siege that sets up the entire Drenai universe and contains the defining story of Gemmell’s most iconic character, Druss the Legend, who also appeared in White Wolf. Many of the story elements of Legend deeply appealed to me, and it also made practical sense to start at the beginning of the series, especially as it serves as a significant point in the series’ chronology. Unfortunately, due to a combination of a lack of time, problems finding a copy of Legend, and a requirement to focus on more recent books, I never got a chance to read Legend or dive deeper into the Drenai series. However, it always remained high on my to-read list, and I am so happy that I finally got a chance to read it.

Legend is the story of the siege of Dros Delnoch, the fortress city that acts as a gateway to the declining Drenai Empire. Dros Delnoch is the greatest fortress in the world. Sitting in the middle of a narrow pass and guarded by six high walls and a great keep, the city should be able to withstand any attack. However, the charismatic Nadir warlord Ulric has forged together a mighty host of 500,000 Nadir tribesmen, which he plans to sweep over the walls of Dros Delnoch.

If the city is able to hold for a few months, a new Drenai army will be able to reinforce the battlements. But with only a small force of 10,000 soldiers within the city, many of them raw recruits, this seems to be an impossible task. However, help soon arrives from the most unlikely of places. Former solider Regnak follows his newfound love to the city, despite his apparent cowardice and dark secrets. A gentleman bandit leads his band of outlaws to man the walls, partly for money and partly to make up for his past sins. The mysterious band of mystical warrior priests, known as The Thirty, also arrives to fulfil their destiny to die in battle. Each group has a role to play in the defence of the city, but only one of the new defenders will give the Nadir pause and raise the defenders’ hopes, the greatest hero of the age, Druss the Legend.

For decades, Druss has fought and defeated every enemy he has come across, but there is one thing even he cannot overcome: time. Now a grizzled veteran of 60 years, Druss has come to the city for one final battle, but first he needs to come to terms with his status as a living legend. Even as an old man Druss is still a dangerous person, and there is a reason that he is known as Deathwalker by the Nadir. As the siege begins, heroes will rise, tragedy will stalk the defenders and a legend will end, but will anything be enough to withstand the Nadir horde?

Well damn, that was a pretty epic book and one that was well worth the wait it took for me to get around to reading this. Legend was an incredible and enthralling read that had me hooked from the very beginning all the way to the very last word. It is a classic piece of fantasy action and adventure. Gemmell loaded his story with some truly compelling and flawed characters to create an outstanding read. Featuring a ton of amazing, pulse pounding action, heartbreaking tragedy and an epic siege, this book was absolutely fantastic, and I am really glad I read it.

Probably the main thing that I liked about the book was Gemmell’s outstanding portrayal of a massive fantasy siege. I have always loved the classic siege storyline, and there is something about a huge army attacking a castle that I cannot turn away from. The siege of Dros Delnoch within Legend is easily one of the best sieges that I have ever read, as Gemmell produces a magnificent battle around the city that lasts nearly the entire book. The whole setup for the siege is pretty insane, with 500,000 Nadir tribesmen (who bear a lot of similarities to the historical Huns) attacking a Drenai (essentially Roman) city with six massive walls. The author does an amazing job properly pacing out this siege throughout the novel, including appropriating enough time to really showcase all the pre-siege activities, including training, preparation of the defences and initial sabotages before the first battle even happens. Once the battle begins, though, it is a non-stop barrage of action as the defenders fight off multiple assaults each day.

Due to the author’s excellent storytelling and character work, the reader becomes extremely invested in the fate of the defenders, and each time a wall falls, or the attackers gain an inch, you are mentally rooting for them to fight back. There are a number of discussions and plans that take place throughout the book, and it is quite fascinating to see the thought and planning that the author put into the defence of his city. I especially liked how the city’s six walls played into the battle, as the defenders’ decisions on how and when to hold these battlements provided some great moments and debates for the reader to appreciate. The siege lasts the entire book and features a huge number of epic fight sequences, all of which will get your adrenaline racing and your heart pounding. I loved every second of the siege that was featured in this book, and I hope to see it brought to life on screen one day (provided they do it right).

In addition to its first-rate siege, Legend also features a large number of complex and well-written characters. The first is Regnak, who turns into one of the book’s main characters. Regnak is a former soldier who is first presented as a coward, looking to flee all personal responsibility, although this is quickly revealed to be a side effect of being a natural ‘baresark’. However, when he meets Virae, the daughter of the Earl of Dros Delnoch, he falls in love and follows her back to the siege. Regnak has a great storyline about finding one’s inner courage and overcoming one’s issues, and while his romance with Virae is a bit weird at times, it does result in some tragic scenes throughout the book. Next you have the members of The Thirty, an order of 30 warrior priests who enter the fight knowing that 29 of their members are going to die. Not only do the priests represent most of the fantasy elements of this book thanks to their physic abilities but their ability to see into the future results in some interesting debates about destiny and fate. Quite a few members of The Thirty are introduced, although most of their story is focused on their youngest member, Serbitar, and his mentor, Abbot Vintar, as Serbitar has the hardest time accepting the future and wants to change it to help the defenders.

Without a doubt, the best character in the entire book is Druss the Legend. Druss is Gemmell’s most iconic character and has appeared in several other books in the Drenai series, all of which occur before the events of Legend. These include The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend, which details the rise of Druss and the events that made him a legend, The Legend of Deathwalker, which features an earlier encounter with Ulric and the Nadir, and White Wolf, where I first encountered the character of Druss. However, Legend is definitely the character’s defining book, as it features the conclusion of his epic life and his final stand.

There is a lot of great character work involved with Druss, and the man is a pretty epic character. He is an older man, many years past his prime, who was faced with a choice: die in glory at Dros Delnoch or decline into obscurity. Choosing to die in battle (mainly to spite Death), Druss arrives in Dros Delnoch ready to fulfil his destiny. Gemmell does an outstanding job portraying Druss as an old and wise warrior who is weakened by age but is still a far more capable warrior than many of the others involved with the siege. While readers will enjoy the action sequences featuring Druss, the main thing about the character is the way that he attempts to come to terms with his status as a living legend whose body can no longer keep up with his myth. Druss knows that his reputation as a man who always wins is one of the main things that keeps the soldiers going, and he is constantly working to inspire the soldiers and show that he is still the super human many of them think he is. However, at the same time he must deal with the tangible impacts of age and must try to overcome them in order to survive and inspire on the battlefield. This examination of a man uncertain about his continuing place in the world and who knows he is going to die very soon is extremely well done, and readers cannot help but fall in love with the character and get very invested in his storyline, even though you know how it is going to end. The Druss that is featured in Legend is probably one of the finest fantasy characters that I have read, and I look forward to reading some additional books featuring him in the future.

The book also features an amazing cast of secondary characters, each of whom adds so much to the story featured within Legend. These characters include:

  • Orrin – the commander of the forces defending Dros Delnoch. Orrin is a nobleman who is inexperienced and ill-suited for command. However, once Druss arrives, he works hard to change his ways and become a worthy leader of his troops. He has an amazing redemption arc and turns into quite a likeable character.
  • Bowman – a forest bandit who Druss convinces to join the defence of the city. Initially pretending he is there for money; it is eventually revealed that he is searching for some sort of redemption as well. Bowman’s sarcastic wit adds some necessary humour to the story and he proves to be quite a likeable character.
  • Gilad and Bregan – two farmers who sign up to the army and find themselves becoming heroes of Dros Delnoch. These two characters allow Gemmell to show the story of the common defender of the city. Together they have quite a surprisingly compelling storyline, and the readers actually get quite invested in their survival.
  • Hogun – one of the few professional soldiers in the city. Hogun serves as a great secondary observer for most of the book, and his growing respect and camaraderie with the other defenders mirrors the reader’s growing attachment to all those people featured within Legend.
  • Ulric – leader of the Nadir horde attacking the city. Ulric is presented as a visionary like Atilla the Hun or Genghis Khan, who has united his people against a common threat and now seeks to create a mighty empire. I quite liked how Ulric, despite being the antagonist, is only partially presented as an evil man. Instead, he sees all the violence he does as necessary and he even grows to respect the defenders of the city, especially Druss. Ulric turns out to be quite a complex and well-written antagonist that reader ends up respecting to a degree.
  • Caessa – a female member of Bowman’s band, who harbours a deep secret. She’s not my favourite character, but her storyline has a few intriguing twists, and it is interesting to see her growing attachment to Druss.

In addition to all the characters mentioned above, there are also a huge bevy of other minor characters from both sides of the conflict whose point of view and feelings are examined throughout the book. Not only does this allow for a number of short and, in some cases, tragic stories for the reader to enjoy; it also increases the scope of the battle. Overall the character work is pretty impressive, and pretty much every character allowed for a richer and more captivating tale to be told. If I had one criticism of Legend’s characters, it would be that the female characters are mostly portrayed as over-emotional, irrational or downright catty in most of their interactions, which makes the book feel a bit socially dated at times.

I ended up listening to an audiobook version of Legend narrated by Sean Barrett. At only 13 hours and 13 minutes, Legend represents a fairly quick listen, especially when you get stuck into the story. I had a fantastic time listening to the audiobook version of this book, and I felt that it really helped me sink into the story and appreciate all the amazing action and drama going on in the city. Barrett has an excellent voice for an older fantasy like Legend, and I really felt he got to the heart of most of the book’s characters. I strongly recommend the audiobook version of Legend, and I will probably check out the other books in the series on audiobook as well.

Legend really did not disappoint, as it easily met every single one of my high expectations. I enjoyed every minute of this exceptional book and it gets an easy five stars for me. I cannot overstate how epic in scale and writing the siege featured in this book was, and all of the characters within this story are just sensational, especially the Legend himself, Druss. I fully intend to check out some additional books in Gemmell’s Drenai series in the future, although there are so many interesting choices that I’m not too sure where to start. Be sure to check out future instalments of Throwback Thursday to see which other Gemmell books I look at.

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by K. J. Parker

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback Format – 9 April 2019)

Series: Standalone

Length: 350 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Ok, now this was one hell of a book!!!

K. J. Parker’s Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is an exceptional piece of fantasy fiction that keeps the reader enthralled with its excellent story, fantastic self-aware humour and one of the best depictions of a siege that I have ever had the pleasure of reading. The end result was an excellent read that I just had to give a full five stars to, and it has to be one of my favourite books of 2019 so far.

The Robur Empire is one of the great civilisations in the world, and at its heart lies the City, capital and seat of power of the Emperor, kept safe by its impenetrable walls, powerful armies and unsurpassed navies.  However, that safety is unexpectantly compromised when a massive force of soldiers appears out of nowhere, slaughtering the entire imperial army, crippling the navy and completely surrounded the City.

The only forces left garrisoned in the City are the men of the Empire’s Engineering Corps, led by Colonel-in-Chief Orhan, who suddenly finds himself in charge of the defence of the City.  Orhan is a coward, a glorified bridge builder, a man able to work the complex imperial military system for his own gain and a foreigner despised by most of Robur society, but he is not a great military leader.  He is, however, one of the most devious and underhanded men the army has ever seen, and these might just be the qualities needed to save the City from destruction.  As Orhan works to unite the various factions in the City to his cause and come up with a range of unique defences, he makes a shocking discovery.  A figure from his past is leading the assault against the City, and Orhan quickly realises that he might be on the wrong side of this battle.

I really enjoyed this latest book from Parker, who has created a complex and captivating fantasy tale that proves exceedingly hard to put down.  K. J. Parker is actually a pseudonym of author Tom Holt, who was able to keep the dual identity secret for 17 years before it was revealed in 2015.  Between his two identities, the author has written an amazing number of books since his 1987 debut, mostly focused on the fantasy genre.  This includes over 30 humorous fantasy novels as Tom Holt, five historical fiction novels, the Fencer, Scavenger and Engineer trilogies as Parker, a number of standalone fantasy books and a huge range of short fiction, some poems, songs and even some non-fiction work.  For those who may be concerned, no reading of any of Parker’s prior work is required to enjoy Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City as this latest book is a standalone novel.  Still, I will be keeping an eye out for any future books by either Tom Holt or K. J. Parker as I really enjoyed the author’s writing style and fantastic sense of humour.

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is an intriguing novel that is told from the perspective of its “hero” Orhan, who is narrating the story of his defence of this city within a historical text.  This story is incredibly entertaining, as not only does it feature a first-rate siege within an excellent fantasy location, but it is told by a complex and multi-layered character who paints the entire ordeal of being in charge in a very funny light.

I am a man who loves a good siege storyline, but this has to be one of the best ones that I have ever had the pleasure of reading.  At the start of the siege the situation looks grim, as a vast host surrounds the City, whose defenders have all been slaughtered outside the walls, with the exception of Orhan’s engineers, who lack the basic military supplies and machinery to defend the City.  As the enemy start a conventional long-term siege with advanced weaponry and superior forces, Orhan is forced to come up with something to delay their inevitable defeat in the hopes of reinforcements turning up.  Without the required men, equipment or leadership, they cannot rely on the traditional 15 methods of defending a walled city that the books suggest, so he has to rely on the on his own 16th way, which involves bluffing, chaos and mad-cap innovation.  As a result, much of the book features Orhan’s many unconventional methods to defend the City, whether it involves taking symbolic control of the entire empire, legitimising and attempting to control two rival criminal gangs or creating devastating new siege weapons.  The protagonist and his men’s engineering prowess comes in effect quite a bit throughout the book, and I loved seeing the machines and other unique defence methods that he deploys as a result.  All the various deceptions and tactics used to hold the City against this superior force is widely entertaining and I absolutely loved the siege storyline which serves as an amazing centre to this incredible story.

The setting that the author chooses for this book is pretty interesting and adds a lot of great elements to the story.  The Robur Empire is pretty much the Roman Empire, with the City being this universe’s equivalent of Rome.  I thought that the City was a fantastic setting for the vast majority of the story, and the various factions and problems with such a large city really tied into the great siege storyline.  The City’s criminal organisations, the Greens and the Blues, former charioteer supporters (very Roman) turned rival criminal unions, are the cause of a large amount of strife, and I liked how their own battles and self-importance became such a major part of this book.  I also felt that Parker did an amazing job portraying a city that sits at the heart of a massive empire, and the attitudes of the people within felt pretty accurate.

On top of the great setting, Parker has also created an intriguing, extended world for this story.  The Robur Empire is a great overall setting for most of this book, as its setup, design and attitudes are very similar to the ancient Romans.  Parker’s initially subtle use of racial identity in this empire is quite intriguing, and it becomes a major part of the book.  Essentially the empire is made up of the pure-blooded Robur, who are called blueskins due to their darker skin colouration.  Then there are those people with white skin, who are given the derogatory name of milkfaces, who are treated like second-class citizens within the empire, and who came from lands conquered by the Imperials.  Not only does this become an important plot point with the army attacking the City made up completely of milkfaces, but it is reminiscent of the Roman Empire, when the pure-blooded Roman citizens looked down upon the paler barbarians from Gaul, Britain or Germany.  I also liked how the author tried to replicate the precision military system of the Romans with the Robur, and it was fun to see how the problems of such a system came into play throughout this book, such as having the military resources of the entire empire being kept in supply depo sites rather than in the capital.  I quite enjoyed these fantastic settings, and I thought that they were an excellent place to set these complex stories.

While the siege storylines and settings are extremely amazing, this book would be nothing without its main character and the person narrating this fictional historical text, Orhan.  Orhan is an amazingly complex character, and the personality that Parker creates for his hero is outstanding.  Orhan is a milkface who has risen to high military command within the Robur Empire due to his abilities as an engineer.  As a result of his hard early life and the constant belittlement and discrimination by the blueskins he serves under, he is an incredibly cynical person with a very jaded outlook on life.  The author does an amazing job transcribing these character traits onto the page, often in a sarcastic and very entertaining manner as he describes the events going on around him, and the reader gets a great sense of the character’s frustrations.  While Orhan is attempting to defend the City, his own narrations reveal him to be an extremely self-serving and selfish person who has been forced by circumstances rather than duty to protect the City.  His motivations become even more complex as he begins to wonder if he is on the wrong side of the conflict, as the invading army is completely made up of milkfaces like himself, and even when he is doing the right thing the blueskins in the city that he is defending still treat him badly.  Even with that doubt, he is a surprisingly (especially to himself) effective commander, whose deceitful and inventive nature, as well as his extensive knowledge of history and engineering, allows him to come up with some outstanding defensive strategies.  My favourite has to involve his unique method for dealing with the enemy’s sappers, which sees him use his knowledge of the City, his craft and his ability to manipulate his opponents to create a fantastic response.  The entire sequence involving this anti-sapper technique is one of the best parts of the book, and I love the doubt and regret he experiences as a result of his actions.  Overall, Orhan is an outstanding narrator, and his depiction of the chaotic event and his part in them really made this story for me.

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is an exceptional piece of fantasy fiction, and I think I already have a contender for my future top ten books of 2019 list.  This book has to be read to fully appreciate its complexity and cleverness, and I found it to be boundlessly entertaining and widely funny.  K. J. Parker’s latest book comes highly recommended, and it is well worth checking out.

Bloody Rose by Nicholas Eames

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Publisher: Orbit

Publication Date – 10 July 2018

 

Sensational fantasy author Nicholas Eames follows up his exceptional debut with the five-star novel Bloody Rose, featuring an epic quest storyline which takes its protagonists through a series of wild adventures in a spectacular and large-scale fantasy landscape.

In the human lands of Grandual, mercenary bands hold a celebrity status among the people.  Originally formed to help protect against the horrors of the world, most bands now spend their days touring from city to city, fighting monsters in arenas in order to gain fame, glory and money.  The most famous of these bands is Fable, led by the notorious Bloody Rose, daughter of the land’s greatest hero, Golden Gabe.  Years after her father led a mercenary army to rescue her from a horde of monsters, Rose has reformed Fable with the druin Freecloud, the shaman Brune, the Inkwitch Cura and their booker, the waggish satyr Roderick.  With a massive chip on her shoulder, Rose is determined to take on the toughest jobs and challenges that she can find.

In the city of Ardburg, Tam Hasford is sick of her job slinging drinks at the local pub to the famous mercenaries passing through.  As the daughter of two mercenaries herself, Tam craves adventure, and when Fable rolls into town looking for a new bard, Tam jumps at the opportunity to travel with Bloody Rose and her band.  Gaining a well-deserved reputation for her singing and an accidental reputation as a fighter, Tam receives the moniker ‘The Bard’ and a crash course in the mercenary lifestyle of drinking, gambling, fighting and good times.

But while Tam is having fun in her new role, there is still work to be done.  A massive monster horde has once again left the wilds and is threatening several human cities.  All of Grandual’s mercenary bands are gathering to meet them, all except Fable.  Rose is leading her band in the opposite direction and appears unconcerned with the potential devastation the monsters could cause.  Has Bloody Rose lost her nerve or does she have a far more dangerous quest in mind?  While Fable’s plan to become legends may prove to be successful, they will have far more destructive consequences than anyone could ever predict.

Bloody Rose is the incredible sequel to Eames’s 2017 debut, Kings of the Wyld, and forms the second book in Eames’s The Band series.  Set several years after the events of the first book, Eames switches up the story, focusing on the adventures of Rose and her band of mercenaries, while telling the narrative through the eyes of new point-of-view character Tam.  While there are many tie-ins with the first book, including several of the main characters, Eames has mostly shifted the focus onto a new generation of characters.

Although Bloody Rose is the second instalment in this series, curious readers can easily start their adventure with this book.  This book’s point-of-view character, Tam, never directly experienced the battles of the first entry in the series, and she ends up having quite a few conversations that describe or dramatise the events of the previous novel.  As a result, new readers who start with Bloody Rose will not experience any confusion and will be able to enjoy this story right off the bat.  That being said, readers who start with this book will probably get a hankering to read Kings of the Wyld due to how amazing Bloody Rose is.

This is a substantial piece of fantasy literature with a powerful story that is guaranteed to draw the reader in from the first page.  The huge scope of this story is just remarkable, as what begins as a simple adventure story transforms into an epic battle for the survival of all life in the world.  Much of this scope is the result of the significant number of secondary characters and antagonists that are introduced throughout the book.  It is a testimony to Eames’s skill as a writer that all these characters don’t overwhelm the story, and the reader finds themselves interested in seeing how each these characters ends up.  The use of a brand new point-of-view character to tell this story is a clever move from Eames as it allows a fresh insight into this world of mercenary bands and monsters, moving on from the old veterans that were the focus of Kings of the Wyld.

The author has infused his narrative with a huge amount of humour, most of it quite adult and over the top in nature.  This humorous tone infects quite a lot of the way that the book is told and makes it a very fun read.  There are some extremely funny scenes through the book, from debates about fake cockatrices, to the antics of a drunken satyr, to discussions about the dietary requirements of minotaurs.  While this humour is a key and overwhelmingly fun part of the story, Eames does get deadly serious in several parts of the book when the protagonists encounter dark days.  These darker scenes are felt particularly hard by the reader, mainly due to the sudden shift away from the lighter tone of the rest of the book.  While there are several examples of this throughout the story, I found that the final scenes of this book were particularly intense and had me absolutely captivated.  This clever combination of the outstanding comedy overtones and the gripping dramatic moments works exceedingly well and turns Bloody Rose’s story into one of the best fantasy narratives I’ve had the pleasure of reading.

In addition to the great use of comedy, drama and story, Eames has also packed this book with a significant amount of action and adventure.  The protagonists of this story essentially fight everyone as they adventure across the land, and participate in all sorts of combat, including arena battles with monsters, fights with titanic creatures, large-scale battles and even a few tavern brawls.  All these action sequences work well with the book’s other elements.  Not only do these battles result in some devastating moments but Eames also includes some comedy in these fight scenes, which can prove to be very entertaining.  Readers should also keep an eye out for the fun and inventive combat tactics used throughout this book, which are not only destructive but creative.  Never has red hair been used in battle so effectively.  With as much conflict and combat as you’ll ever need in a book, this is a perfect read those looking for those looking for their next injection of thrilling action and adventure.

Eames has also created a vast world to be the setting for this story, filled with a huge number of fantasy creatures and massive amount of world building lore.  Having such a large and well-established world is essential for a story of this magnitude.  The protagonists do a substantial amount of travel from one end of Grandual to the other, exploring large cities, small towns, barren wastes, massive battlefields and dangerous forested areas.  The author has also filled this story with every classic fantasy and mythological creature one could think of, as well as a few unique creatures from his own imagination.  All these creatures are a great addition to the story, resulting in some very fun battle sequences throughout the book, especially when their a huge number of these creatures in action.  One of the more intriguing races is the druin, the rabbit-eared humanoids created by Eames which used to rule all the humans and monsters of this fantasy world.  There is some fascinating history around the druin which has some significant impacts on the story, as well as gifting these creatures with some cool abilities that come into play in a variety of great ways.

The author has also spent time developing a fantastic band of main characters for the reader to follow on their adventure.  Using his new narrator, Tam, to full effect, the reader is given an introduction to every member of Fable and learns their history and motivations in significant and interesting detail.  A decent amount of time is spent looking at all of the members of Fable and the reader is given a deep understanding of each of them.  Each member of the band is a fairly unique fighter and character in their own right, but together they form a fun team.  Eames really hammers home how close these band members become throughout the book, and the reader becomes attached to the characters as they grow closer together.  This makes any potential harm or trauma they experience particularly hard for the reader to experience, and really adds to the books emotional depth.

With the follow-up to his epic debut, Eames has once again demonstrated why he is one of the freshest and most exciting new voices in fantasy fiction.  This exceptional story is an action-packed bonanza that sees several compelling characters engage in a heroic quest across an impressive fantasy landscape.  With the perfect blend of comedic adventure, epic fantasy storytelling and some dramatic character moments, Bloody Rose is an exceptional and excellent read that is guaranteed to become your new favourite story.

My Rating:

Five Stars

City of Lies by Sam Hawke

City of Lies Cover.jpg

Publisher: Bantam Press

Publication Date – 3 July 2018

 

Poison, murder, conspiracy, and war are all on the way for readers of City of Lies, one of the best fantasy reads of the year from Canberra author Sam Hawke.

In the country of Sjona, the capital city of Silasta is a glittering beacon of culture and art.  Young nobleman Jovan and his family serve a special role, subtly protecting Sjona’s ruler, the Chancellor, and his heirs from being poisoned.  As a result of his training, Jovan is now capable of detecting and identifying poisons that could be slipped to his charges.  While his uncle and mentor directly protects the Chancellor, Jovan serves the Chancellor’s carefree young heir, Tain.

When Jovan and Tain return to the city following a diplomatic journey, they are soon placed in a terrible situation.  The impossible has happened: an unidentified poison has been slipped to the Chancellor, killing him and Jovan’s uncle.  Without their respective mentors’ guidance both young men are thrust into new roles: Tain as an untested Chancellor, and Jovan now responsible for the safety of his nation’s ruler.

However, things can always get worse.  A mysterious army has arrived undetected at the gates of Silasta, and the city, which has never known anything but peace, is soon besieged.  The army appears to be made up of Sjona’s peasants and contains powerful individuals in control of spirits.  With the majority of the military far away fighting in another conflict, few professional soldiers are left to defend Silasta, and Tain must lead a desperate defence against a superior force.

As the siege continues, it soon becomes apparent that not everything is as it seems.  Why is the city being attacked, and how did no one see this coming?  A deep conspiracy lies across the capital and no one can be trusted, not even Silasta’s ruling council.  It also appears that the person who killed the Chancellor is still at large within the city and is aiming to poison Tain as well.  As Jovan utilises all his skill to protect his friend, his sister Kalina searches for the traitors hiding inside their walls.

City of Lies is Australian author Sam Hawke’s debut novel and represents an outstanding first outing from a remarkable new talent.  This ambitious book contains a fantastic plot, with some unique story elements and an elaborate thriller narrative that combines perfectly with the book’s overarching fantasy narrative.  This is the first book in Hawke’s planned Poison War series, and is focused on two separate point-of-view characters, Jovan and Kalina, who each narrate around half the book.

This book contains an amazing and extremely compelling overarching thriller narrative that sees the protagonist attempt to unravel the conspiracies surrounding their city.  Hawke has put a lot of work into creating an elaborate and multilayered plot that draws the reader in with its significant intrigue.  The is so much for the reader to discover as the protagonists try to work out who the army attacking them is, what their motives are, and how the siege relates to the secrets of the ruling class.  This intrigue-driven storyline is amped up even more once it is revealed that the person who poisoned the chancellor might not be a member of the army camped outside the city.  Hawke presents the reader with a number of likely suspects, most of whom are on the city’s ruling council, as well as a range of interesting and plausible motives for the betrayal.  The full extent of the interwoven conspiracies is quite impressive, and Hawke presents an extremely captivating storyline of the protagonists unravelling the plot that is guaranteed to pull in the reader’s full attention.  This is definitely a high point of this fantastic book.

One of City of Lies’ standout features is Hawke’s substantial focus on poisons and role the main character plays in protecting the city’s ruler from harmful substances.  At the start of the story, the Chancellor and the protagonists’ uncle are both poisoned and killed by an unknown toxin.  Jovan, who already served Tain as his ‘proofer’, a combination food taster, poison master, and trusted personal chef, spends the rest of the book trying to defend Tain from a poisoner he knows is out there, who apparently has access to a poison he has no idea how to detect or cure.  The battle of wits between Jovan and the poisoner is an intense part of the book’s narrative, and the reader can feel the desperation that Jovan feels trying to keep his friend and, by extension, his city alive.  There are some great scenes throughout this book as Jovan attempts to work out how poison could be administered to Tain, as well as trying to work out potential cures and solutions to the poison’s victims.

In addition to examining the tension that the book’s poison elements elicit, Hawke also spends a significant amount of time exploring the various toxins of her universe and the techniques of the book’s poison ‘proofers’.  The descriptions of these skills in training is utterly fascinating, and the author has come up with some amazing ideas that prove to be enthralling for the reader.  In addition, Hawke has chosen to deepen the audience’s interest and knowledge of her universe’s poisons by including a page of the protagonist’s ‘proofer tome’ before each chapter in the book.  These pages contain a description of the poison, what effects it has when administrated and what clues the proofer can use to identify the poison in food, such as taste or texture.  This is a fun addition that also contains some information relevant to the book’s plot, and the readers will find themselves deeply exploring the lore being presented to them.  Another cool feature was the way in which Jovan uses his knowledge and cache of poisons in an offensive manner against his opponents to compensate for his lack of martial skill.  There are some fantastic scenes where Jovan uses a range of different substances in the middle of battles, as well as some excellent sequences where he doses potential opponents in advance of a confrontation.

Special mention should also be given to the wonderful fantasy setting that Hawke has created for City of Lies.  The vast majority of the plot is set within the capital of Silasta, a large city that has a reputation and preference for culture and the arts, whilst viewing violence and warfare as a distasteful profession.  The author does an amazing job describing this city’s many wonders, whilst at the same time creating a unique societal setup that plays brilliantly into the story’s intriguing elements.  While the focus of this book is solely within the nation of Sjona, expect the sequels to follow adventures in other countries mentioned.

The siege elements of this book are also very enjoyable and offer another interesting point to this fantastic book.  I’m always a fan of a good siege storyline, especially when it’s told from the point of view of the defenders.  The parts of the book that focus on the siege are extremely well written and provide the book with some substantial action sequences.  It is also fun to see how a city mostly made up of peace-loving artists and performers can defend itself without an army to help.  Hawke produces some great ideas for her defenders, which also ties into the fantastic poison elements above, when the protagonists use their knowledge to create some defences for their city.

Overall, City of Lies is an intrigue-studded masterpiece of a fantasy novel that combines together a range or magnificent story elements with an excellent setting and an addictive overarching thriller narrative.  Hawke’s use of poisons as a key plot point is just incredible and represents one of the most interesting parts of this book, and I am intrigued to see how she will continue to use poisons in future entries in this series.  This is a five-star debut from Hawke, and I would wholeheartedly recommend City of Lies to any fans of the fantasy genre.

My Rating:

Five Stars