Hooray, hooray, it’s released today…
Those of you who’ve not already had it on pre-order, scurry along and buy a copy of Ben Kane’s latest opus today. Why? I’ll tell you why…
Hannibal has always been my favourite of Ben’s novels, and therefore the series my fave of his series. The first novel (Hannibal: Enemy of Rome) was a stunning delve into not only a period of Roman history that’s not often dealt with, but also into the nature of love and friendship in a time of brutal war. It was simply excellent. The second book (Fields of Blood), though not quite topping the dizzying heights of the first book, was also a fine work, delivering just what the title suggested as Carthaginians and Romans fought desperately across Italy. Book three, simply, is a bloody triumph in every way.
It must be hard (and as a man who writes myself, I can really feel this) to tell the third story in a series in which the three main characters are on opposing sides in a war and outside the war entirely and yet engineer a plot in which the three interact. I mean, it would be easy enough to do so if you didn’t mind it feeling trite, contrived, implausible and basically fairly poo. And yet for the third time in a row, Kane has done so, and this time best of all, with a looming expectation of doomed meetings swept aside and the result a truly realistic, serendipitous calamity.
The fact that the action takes place in a limited scope lends C.O.W. a tightness that some novels lack. Though it takes place over two years and the time stretches on at points, the geographical limits (all within the Island of Sicily and perhaps 3 places thereon) provides a very strong, tight situation.
Kane has clearly taken some of the most famous moments in Roman history into this novel, but more than that, he has visited their sites, lived their lives and felt the atmosphere there and this shows through in the work. It is full of life, colour, vigour and stunning realism. Whether it is military action, civilian sacrifice, base cunning, or noble honour, they are all displayed with real understanding.
Highlights for me include…
No spoiler here, I reckon. The moment you know it’s Punic Wars and Sicily (which is very early in the book) you will expect the siege of Syracuse. This is one of the most famous of all Roman military engagements, and involved some of the most outlandish and astounding actions. And you will devour the first assault hungrily.
The action in Enna is perhaps some of the most poignant and harrowing work I’ve ever read. It shows how deeply Kane can make you feel for even a passing character.
And the last section of the book? Well, I won’t go into spoiler details, but it rivals Doug Jackson’s treatment of the defence of Colchester in Hero of Rome, and that remains one of my most powerful scenes of any book. The tense, fraught excitement it builds is second only to the continual flip-flopping between hope and despair, hope and despair, hope and despair. Really it has to be read to be experienced, so that alone is a reason to buy.
The characters have grown since book 2, let alone book 1. They are more adult and react appropriately (and Kane as always pulls no damn punches when putting them in situations to elicit such a reaction). But the reappearance of at least one super S.O.B. adds villainy to the tale, and the appearance of at least one new hero adds joy.
In conclusion, Clouds of War is tight, well-written and exciting, full of colour, and realistic and even heartbreaking in places as one could imagine it might be. It is character driven and is a feast to the imagination.
I, for one, cannot wait for book 4.
What can I say by book 7?
If you’re a fan of the Roman era and you read books, then if you haven’t started the Empire series by now, I can only assume you’ve been living in a darkened closet hiding from the CIA and living on pizza pushed under the door. Riches has solidly secured himself a place among the giants of Historical Fiction, vying with the likes of Ben Kane, Douglas Jackson and Manda Scott in terms of style, plot, character and readability.
If you are that pale frightened figure in the closet, risk the CIA spotting you, and rush out to a bookstore tomorrow. Or pre-order from Amazon today and have it delivered to your door. It’s worth risking the possibility that Chuck and his black-suit-clad pals will find you. And here’s why:
Most writers have trouble with such a long series, I think. Even the greatest (witness Sharp for example) hit a lull where it becomes formulaic and sags for a while. To keep things fresh through seven books it quite impressive on its own.
The ‘EMPIRE’ series has managed just that. In fact, I would say now, looking back over the series, that the first three books are much in a vein with one another as straight military history beat-em-ups with a little betrayal and secrecy stuff and a smattering of politics thrown into the mix. From book 4, however, Riches clearly decided that more could be done with his characters and began to expand the scope of the series. From German bandits and sacred woods to Romanian gold mines and Imperial betrayal and then back to Britain for a book and a covert mission that will overturn everything and leave our hero in the eternal city, the series exploded into variety and excitement on a previously undreamed-of level.
The characters became more complex and understandable, the settings more exciting and vivid, the plots more twisty and turny and fascinating, and all in all, the books endlessly readable.
The Emperor’s Knives is the culmination of one particular story arc in the series. This is not a shock to anyone keeping up, just from the title. If you’ve got through, say, four or five of the books, you probably already have an inkling of what’s coming in this volume.
If you’re new to the series, check out reviews of the others and then come back. If you want to avoid the chance of spoiling things in the series so far, look away now and come back to the red marker…
Look AWAY, I said!
Yes, Corvus/Aquila being back in Rome gives him the perfect opportunity to put old ghosts to rest and deal with the infamous group of imperial covert killers who have been murdering the aristocracy on imperial orders and acquiring their cash and land for the throne. A senator, a mob-boss, a Praetorian officer and a champion gladiator. All marked for death by our hero. But how will he go about it?
New characters are introduced, about whom we are already aware (including those who originally trained Marcus in the martial skills) and old enemies reappear in stunning ‘Bastard-o-colour’.
Yes, this is the culmination of the ‘Aquila family betrayal and murder’ plot, but then you knew that from the title! In this case, it’s not about the destination, but about the journey. And what a ride. Corvus is about to get revenge in spectacular fashion.
OK. BACK TO THE NON-SPOILER STUFF
Be prepared. If you know Riches’ work then by now you’ll know he’s got a tendency to throw in a few curveballs to wrong-foot the reader and screw his expectations. You’re gonna get that. In spades. Several times in this, I found myself saying ‘Oh? Oh, right. Well, then…’ and then going back to the story.
Corvus/Aquila doesn’t grow as a character, because he doesn’t need to. At this point he’s as fully fleshed out as he ever needs to be. More would just be OTT. But he does get some fantastic scenes, speeches and moves. And the supporting cast DO grow. Particularly Scaurus, who I already loved. New characters have appeared, some of whom will likely run through more books in the series, and some of whom are the stronger characters Riches has yet created.
The tale completes the aforesaid particular story arc but goes beyond, tying in more threads, and the end puts in place something for book 8 that I’ve been waiting for for ages. It is very easy when tying up a massive plot arc to leave it feeling either twee or contrived or both. This does not do so, though. This volume concludes in a most satisfactory and not entirely expected manner, leaving a couple of threads for future books and the reader feeling sated.
Riches’ books, though, have two strengths which have always been in evidence and only grow with each release: They are break-neck paced, in the same fashion as Mike Arnold’s civil war books, dragging the reader along in breathless admiration. And they are so realistically readable. There is simply no effort involved. You open the book and let go and the story whisks you along without any hard work. All in all, Riches is clearly still getting better with every book, which by book 7 is quite impressive!
It’s out tomorrow. BUY IT, or I’ll tell the CIA where you live and stop the pizza deliveries! Oh, and as a special incentive, the hardback includes a short story that you DO NOT WANT TO MISS!
It is criminal that it’s taken me so long to read ‘Sword of Rome’. Particularly given that Doug Jackson’s books are some of the literary highlights of my year. However, events conspired to keep it from me. What that meant was that during that dark and miserable time following New Year, at least I had a book to read which I was confident would be a belter!
I was so right. The Valerius Verrens series is one of the strongest historical series on sale at the moment of ANY era, let alone just the Roman. The first book (Hero of Rome) was one of the best I have ever read, and certainly concerned one of the most tense and memorable scenes of any novel. The sequel (Defender) was a strong contender and surprisingly successful, given the dark content and the controversial subject matter. Then along came book 3 (Avenger) and it was clear at that point that Doug’s series had hit the top of the genre. Avenger was one of my favourite books, perhaps better than Hero, though nothing will ever match the ‘siege of Colonia’ scenes. And with a lot to live up to, book 4 looked like it was fighting uphill, given that its subject matter is already strongly represented in Historical Fiction. Against the odds, Jackson has managed to turn that subject into a novel that vies with the best, and at least matches the quality of his previous epics if not surpassing them.
It was the way the story was told, for me. The year of the four emperors (the civil war of 69AD) is a famous time about which I have read a great deal, and it is hard to find a new angle to examine such a thing. Henry Venmore-Rowland produced a nicely detailed account from a traditional viewpoint. Manda Scott showed us the same events from a most unusual and fascinating perspective. So what was left? Simply, to tell Valerius’ own story using the evens of the time as the pinball table around which our unwilling hero is bounced painfully.
Valerius is an excellently-constructed and believable character. Not a superman in a cuirass or a blue-eyed boy of the people. Nor is he even the embittered veteran. He has avoided or transcended all stereotypes to become a fully rounded character in whom everyone will be able to see something familiar and to their liking. In a similar fashion, Serpentius, his right hand man, is a character who has grown beyond mere ‘supporting cast’ status now, to the point where he could almost support his own spin-off.
In this installment, Valerius, having journeyed to Spain to serve Galba, who is set on becoming Nero’s successor, finds himself drawn into a sequence of events that will see him killing emperors, acclaiming emperors, serving emperors in battle and on secret missions, and standing his moral ground against them – and we’re talking more than one emperor here. Essentially, in this turbulent year, most characters of no conscience could float through the currents by throwing their support behind whoever wears the purple this week. Most characters of conscience would live for an emperor and die for him as the next contender comes along. Valerius is lucky (or possibly UNlucky) enough that while his conscience and his unbreakable word force him to support even lost causes against old friends, blind luck and a pig-headed unwillingness to back down see him bounce back each time.
Hence the pinball analogy. That is what the book will leave you with.
You will experience this heart-stopping time in Roman history from the fertile lands of southern France, to the seething streets of Rome, to the countryside of Latium, the deadly Alpine passes, the forests of Germany, and the beleaguered lands of northern Italy. And Valerius will be your guide.
Apart from the sheer breakneck speed of the plot, and the tense action, there are three things I find recommend Sword of Rome:
Focus on unusual details. What do you know about the First Adiutrix Legion? I know their basic history and they’re quite a fascinating bunch, but I only know them from dry textbooks. Now I’ve had the chance to see them face to face.
Characters. Apart from the powerful continuing characters and at least one truly stunning, wicked bad guy returning, Jackson’s portrayals of the unyielding Galba, the unfortunate Otho, the unwilling Vitellius and the unmanned Nero are fresh and vivid and help them stand out in a year when an emperor could come and go faster than you can put on your pants!
The plot arc. The very obvious plot arc for anyone wanting to write a book on the year of the four emperors begins with Nero’s fall from grace and demise, follows through the numerous brief reigns, and ends with the accession of the dynasty-founding Vespasian. It seems clear. Henry VR split his story into two books, but it was still a standalone story in two halves. Manda covered the arc in one go. Jackson has eschewed the obvious and left the tale in a most unexpected place. Reaching the epilogue, all I could think of was ‘When is Enemy of Rome out?’
So there you have it. Breakneck action, vivid characters, a fresh, believable perspective, and a fabulous plot with a stunning, unexpected end. Don’t want to read it yet? Are you barking mad?
Go buy. And if you’ve not started the series, check out my review for the last book by clicking on ‘Valerius 3′ on the right menu.
Another masterpiece, Doug.