Date: March 28, 2013
Format: I read it as a paperback.
Pages: 430 pages
The Roman Emperor Aurelian has defeated Queen Zenobia and crushed the Palmyran revolt.
Faridun’s Banner, hallowed battle standard of the Persian Empire, has fallen into Roman hands and is to be returned to the Persians as part of a historic peace treaty. But on the eve of the signing the banner goes missing.
Recalled to Syria, imperial agent Cassius Corbulo is charged with recovering the flag. Accompanied by his faithful servant Simo and ex-gladiator bodyguard Indavara, Cassius must journey across the dangerous wastes of Syria to the equally perilous streets of Antioch. He and his companions face ruthless brigands, mysterious cults, merciless assassins and intrigue at every turn.
(Source: Amazon product description.)
Short Version: Gripping from beginning to end, with an emphasis on memorable, relatable characters.
Longer Version: This is the second in the “Agents of Rome” series by Nick Brown, and I haven’t read the first. I’m going to, though, and it didn’t really spoil my reading of this one, which is fantastic and brilliant (I was up until 2:30am reading it last night. That kind of fantastic and brilliant.)
Disclaimer: I am interested in ancient history to begin with and have done a few university subjects on Roman history, so I brought a little pre-existing understanding of the world and culture the story takes place in. If you don’t, Brown gives you ample help in that respect – a map, an afterword (this is particularly fascinating, as he accounts for what elements of his story are fact and what are fictional story-building), and an utterly confident style that explains much along the way and leaves you trusting the narrative completely.
Characters are the most important element in fiction to me, so I’ll discuss those first – if I don’t care about the characters in a piece, it doesn’t matter how much I like the rest of the story. The primary characters come down to three men, as outlined in the summary above. Each are drawn with a deft hand, and they’re people I care about and ones I want to see prosper in their adventures. Brown’s characters are entirely human and wonderfully flawed, particularly our main character Cassius, a young man who struggles between the arrogance of his youth and position, and a genuinely humble and kind spirit (after making a mockery of Indavara’s apparent ignorance, he backtracks and admits his own sword-play is an embarrassment.)
Although quite taken by Cassius, I have to admit my favourite remains the enigmatic ex-Gladiator Indavara. I have a feeling he has a lot of very interesting secrets (most strong, silent types in fiction do!) Looking forward to seeing what Brown does with him later in the series.
Did I say ‘gladiator’? Yes, I did. Very early in the book there is a fantastic sequence in which Indavara is forced into the arena to fight first another gladiator and then a bear. The entire thing is practically humming with energy. If you want to know how to write an action scene well, just read this one over and over again.
One thing I struggle with in historical novels is that too often, the writer goes for a stilted, archaic kind of dialogue that leaves me cold toward the characters in particular and the book in general. Here I was amazed and delighted at the dialogue, which bounces naturally without coming across as overtly “modern” either:
“I had a dream last night,” Indavara answered, his brow knotted.
“There were animals in it.”
Cassius knew where this was going; Indavara struck him as just the type to ascribe dire consequences to his nocturnal imaginings.
“Let me guess – owls.”
“How did you know?”
Cassius rolled his eyes. “You dreamed of owls so there’ll be storms on our journey. Nonsense. Maybe there will, maybe there won’t. Your dreams have nothing to do with it. It’s the will of the Gods or whatever else controls these things. My aunt won’t travel for a month if she dreams of moving statues. But she’s a silly old woman. What’s your excuse?”
My only (extremely slight) qualm with this book was the one significant female character, Lady Antonia. Since this takes place in an extremely male-oriented society I’m neither surprised nor offended at the lack of women characters, but the interlude in which Cassius is thrown together with Antonia to gather information at a banquet seemed a little out of left field. While she does strike our Cassius as a MILF and basically offers him sex, she’s also shown to be clever and brave and adventurous, and I hope to see a little more of her in future books (and not just as Cassius’s sexual partner. Though, that too. There’s a conversation between Indavara and Cassius about each man’s “upper limit when it comes to women” that is laugh-out-loud hilarious.)
Despite the historical setting, this is in many ways a detective novel and follows the tried-and-true detective formula: our main detective is thrown together with an investigative partner they don’t appreciate (and one they do), and travels about looking for clues. As the clues come together and the list of suspects narrows, the once-leisurely storytelling amps up into an action-packed, deeply satisfying denouement… and then, being a series, we get the slightest hint of what’s in store next for our third-century hero and his cohorts.
For my part, can’t wait.