Ben Kane thunders back into the charts with what I can only describe as an epic novel of the Teutoburg disaster. I’m a fan of Ben’s work, though since I read it his first Hannibal book has remained my favourite. Until this one.
I’m sure there are folks out there who don’t know the history Varus’ disastrous campaign in Germany in 9AD, of Arminius and the tribes. Of the Teutoburg massacre. A lot of you will, even those not particularly au fait with Roman history. It is the most ignominious military loss in Roman history and infamous as such. It ranks up there with Crassus’s death at Carrhae or the unpleasant fate of Valerian, the only emperor ever captured by the enemy. I shall spare you the details. Suffice it to say that this is a novel about Rome and the German tribes in their early days, when there was potential for a settled, Romanised Germany that would become truly part of the Empire. It was a fragile time, but a hopeful one for Rome, and for some of the natives. But not all the Germans were ready to bow their head to the emperor. Cue one man with an ambitious plan to unite tribes whose mutual hatreds went back centuries based purely on the belief that they hated Rome more even than they hated each other. As governor Varus plans his summer marches into the east, so Arminius, the son of a chieftain and a man trained by decades of Roman service, begins to put his plan into action.
Enough about the plot. No spoilers (though to be honest a glance at any webpage or book that mentions Varus or Arminius will immediately barrage you with spoilers if you are in the dark. No matter. This book is not written hinged on complete innocence on the part of the reader. As a man who knows the events around which it is based, I can say with certainty that knowledge of the Varian disaster does not ruin the book, so don’t worry about that.
The book is divided into two parts, with the first being the events that form the backdrop to the rebellion, introducing us in detail to the characters, locations, motivations and themes. The second part is the part that most of you will be waiting for. It surprised me to find how much of the book Ben had devoted to the lead-up, when I had assumed the disaster itself would provide enough material for a book on its own, and possibly even more than one book. But d’you know what? It worked. The way Ben has built the plot gives it so much more of a human edge and a personal feel that it would have missed had it concentrated more on the battle itself at the expense of what precedes it. It also means that the book starts slowly, peacefully and pleasantly, and gradually builds pace throughout the first half, with tension rising, and then gallops into the second part in a crescendo that just peaks time and again right to the end of the book.
What I think deserves first special mention here is Ben’s characters. Not for their realism or depth. If you’ve read Ben’s books before then you expect nothing less than deep and realistic characters. No, what I like is who Ben has chosen to tell his story. We have Varus, the governor, a senatorial noble of Rome. We have Arminius, the German chieftain serving in Rome’s military. Yes, they are the prime movers in the events behind the book. But in order to give us the events from an intimate level, we also have a veteran centurion – Tullus – and a young legionary recruit – Piso. Thus every level is open to the reader, from those who shape the empire to those who die for it. Writing a tale like this from four such disparate viewpoints cannot be easy, but it is carried out with skill, and the reader can identify with and follow each of the four. Also, each is sympathetic in their own way – even Arminius! Oh, there is one loathsome character in there, but I’ll let you find him on your own. In fact, Varus is here given a very favourable treatment, flying in the face of the more common portrayal of an impetuous fool. Refreshing. And because of the way the story is written, there is no sense of ‘good guy and bad guy’ in Eagles at War. As is so often the case in reality, both sides are simply people, each with their own belief in the value of their motives.
In terms of themes, the book gives us a nice view of what it might have been like in the early stages of the Romanisation of a land, with tribal leaders both obsequious and resistant, some trying to outdo each other in the new regime while others grumble about taxes. It also makes some use of an aspect of the Roman military that is very rarely mentioned in novels: the slaves. When an author deals with the five thousand men of a legion, plus the cavalry and support etc, what is often forgotten is that most officers would have at least one slave, and the senior ones probably and entire household of them. Think on the activity of slaves in a Roman camp, serving one legate, one camp prefect, six tribunes and sixty centurions, plus various other officers. We are not talking about the odd body, after all. The human aspect is handled well particularly through the trials and tribulations of young Piso, and of a woman with her girl and pup, who become a recurring thread. And as for the sheer power of the loss of a legion’s eagle? Well that is put over very well. The chaos of unsought and unexpected combat is a major theme in the second part of the book and drives the narrative at least as much as the specifics of the timeline.
In fact, part two reminded me in style at times of two different tales. It carries the epic scale of The Longest Day, roving back and forth across the locations, giving us a view of events from several angles without dropping the pace of the action. And it also contains all the tension and eeriness of a nervous journey, a-la Apocalypse Now (or Heart of Darkness, of course). The legions are strung out, there is trouble communicating, there are isolated pockets of men involved in their own tiny wars all forming part of one great whole.
All in all, this is a masterpiece of the genre, from the earliest stages of the troubles right up to the tense, violent climax. In fact, twice in this read I was so hooked that I continued reading at night long after I was really ready for sleep. Roll on the next book, I say, for I think I know what it will involve….
Looking back over the series from the start I am struck by just how far we’ve come with young Marcus Aquila. The series began (and stayed for 3 books) in northern Britannia, in the cold and the damp with hairy bearded barbarians instigating wars and troubles and our hero hiding from the Emperor’s fury under an assumed name, sheltered by friends of friends. How long gone are those days now? For here, in book 8, with all the momentous changes we have witnessed in between, we find our hero and his friends in the dusty, exotic east, facing the might of dreaded Parthia at the very behest of those Imperial authorities from whom Marcus spent so many years hiding. Not only at their behest, I might add, but even carrying their authority, delivered by the Praetorian fleet and with the power of (the power behind) the throne. Yes, we have certainly come a long way. Which sits well with me. I have noted several times recently in reviews how long series need to change, grow and refresh to keep their pace and interest. And the Empire books are doing that. Indeed, I would say that book 8 is the finest in the series so far, vying mainly with book 5 for me.
So what’s the book about? Well if you’re new to the series, I probably threw a few spoilers at you there. Stop now and go buy book 1. Book 8 takes us to new lands and with new style. The whole feel of the book is more exotic than previously. And given the fact that for the first time our heroes are facing not hairy barbarians or sneaky Romans, but an adjacent empire every bit as old and cultured as Rome, there is a new feeling of sophistication and style about it. Marcus and friends land in Syria, sent east by the Imperial chamberlain on an ‘offer they cannot refuse’ sort of basis. As I said, they have authority now. Scaurus is to take command of the legion there and is faced with corruption, crime and downright deviousness at the highest levels of both military and civil control in the province. But our heroes have no time to unpick all the threads in this web of corruption, for they have an urgent task to perform. A powerful border fortress is in danger from a Parthian army. Due to the troubles he finds, legate Scaurus will have only half the legion to help him take and hold the fortress of Nisibis against the greatest power in the east. And through an unfortunate series of incidents our young Marcus finds himself once more evading arrest, though this time by the governor instead of the throne. Can our friends hold Nisibis? Can they even get there intact? After all, the Parthians are one of the fiercest nations on Earth and have seen off more than one Roman army in the past. Well, you’ll have to wait and see how that turns out, as I’m not spoiling it for you.
However, in terms of the story’s content, there are various things I will say. The addition of a new character – a young tribune not too different from our own protagonist 8 books ago – is a win. Varus is an instantly likeable and sympathetic character. The Parthian princes and their senior men are well-rounded and very interesting. In fact, one prince’s bodyguard, who will play a large part in the book as it unfolds, truly captured my imagination and was a joy to read. But the icing on the cake in this story goes to the portrayal of the emperor of Parthia – the King of Kings himself. He is a cultured, urbane, clever, witty, easy, very realistic character. Don’t get me wrong – there is a constant air of threat, for this man could have nations killed with a snap of his fingers, but being dangerous does not stop him being fun or interesting. Kudos in particular to Tony for the King of Kings.
There is the usual bloodshed. Don’t worry, you battle-a-holics. Tony is unrelenting in bringing you the brutal side of Rome and its military skill. But know also that this book is far more than just military fiction. It is surprising, deep, explores to some extent the similarities and differences between ancient cultural enemies, and utterly refuses to bow down to the ‘Rome good, barbarian bad’ shtick that has for so many decades plagued the world of ancient fiction. Not only are his characters thoroughly three dimensional, but so are his nations as a whole. The plot is well crafted, with a few true surprises here and there, and runs off at breakneck pace, dragging you with it. I sat down for ten minutes’ read after lunch one day and put it down an hour later. It is that addictive a read.
I find that most good novelists truly hit their stride at about book 3 or so in a series, and while they may continue to get even better over time, often they plateau at an improved level of ability for the rest of their series. I thought Tony had done that with book 4, when the series began to change from straight military fiction to a more varied, deeper level of plot. Yet now, with book 8, he has taken things up a notch again in my opinion. I was already impressed and addicted to the Empire books, so now I’m hopelessly lost. In short: Thunder of the Gods is Riches’ best book to date, a landmark in the series and a totally engrossing read.
The seventh book in Angus Donald’s superb Outlaw chronicles is out today. Well, you know how I feel about the Outlaw books, don’t you? Just in case anyone’s still unaware of them, these books represent a whole new and very realistic treatment of Robin Hood, seen through the eyes of the minstrel (and so much more) Alan Dale.
Some series of historical fiction find a winning formula and stick to it. I would say, in fact, that most of those series do that. An author finds the sweet spot where his readers are happiest and continues to write in it. Some manage to continue with great success, though others start to feel stale some time around book five or six, I find. Other authors – rarer, braver ones – allow their series to grow and change like a living thing, which runs the risk of annoying those readers who enjoy that sweet spot, but allows the author to explore more and the reader to experience more. They do not become stale.
The Outlaw chronicles have grown and changed throughout Angus’ career as a novelist, and have done so with great success. In fairness, they would have to do, since they have covered two and a half decades of Alan’s life. He has changed from a young scamp to a mature, responsible knight in his time, and that journey from boy to man has been gradually reflected throughout the series, giving them a sense of growth and allowing the reader to identify with, and truly believe in, the character.
That being said, even with the general progression of time in the series, book seven has moved on more than usual, and feels slightly different – though far from in a bad way. Indeed, despite the ongoing plot threads I suspect a new reader could pick up book seven and not be lost by the missing of the previous books. A decade has passed since the siege of Chateau Gaillard and the events related in The Iron Castle, and that’s some gap to bridge. Needless to say it is bridged in style.
Angus has never shied away from handling the great events of the 12th and 13th centuries in his books, from the Third Crusade, the rescue of the Lionheart from Germany, the Holy Grail, the Cathar Heresy, right to the siege of Gaillard. All these events have been inextricably entwined with the characters in his books, both Robin and Alan as well as the supporting cast. And book 7 takes on one of the most important events in British history – the signing of the Magna Carta. Propitious timing, given that only a few days ago that event celebrated its 800th anniversary.
A quick note on the plot and events within (avoiding spoilers at all costs): This tale takes us on from Robin and Alan’s previous position as landowners of England suffering the whims and oppression of the tyrant King John. The last two books or so have languished solidly within that nightmare situation. Well, with book 7 that tense, dangerous world is coming to a head. John is determined to reclaim his lost lands in France, but he is unpopular and poor as kings go. Wars cost money and need men. To get the men he needs he will have to hire mercenaries and send cash to his friendly rulers across the sea. And that means more money. And where does that money come from? Clearly from men like Robin and Alan. England is being squeezed until every last penny pops out, and that is crippling the people and fomenting unrest among the nobles. Though they will fight in France to reclaim his territory, John’s nobles are beginning to think the unthinkable: of the death of a tyrant. And you can be sure that Alan is expected to play a part…
King’s Assassin masterfully weaves together three or four major plot threads, with each one having a bearing on the others, each having an immediate connection to the current tale while also recalling events in the previous books. There is war. There are daring escapes. There is betrayal – LOTS of betrayal. There are assassinations and sieges, desperate flights and heroic duels. But there is also a grounding in the real world. None of this is Errol Flynn leaping onto candelabra and laughing as he pinches the sheriff’s hat. It is all a tale that could so easily have happened as it is written.
I was interested to see the return of a few old characters I had all but forgotten, and impressed and surprised at one particular event that was very brave of Angus to handle, I have to say. Enough said about that. No spoilers is my policy. But you’ll know what I mean when you get to it. The book is extremely well written, as you would expect, the prose poetic and carrying a feel of the language and idiom of the era, and is up there at the very top of the series, and indeed of the whole genre. King’s Man has always been my favourite of Angus’ books, but King’s Assassin is truly every bit as good.
There is a palpable feeling of closure about this book, which at once makes me sad and makes me want to shake Angus’ hand. There can be no doubt that the Outlaw Chronicles are coming to an end soon. Not with this book, but with one or two perhaps left to go. While that means that I am facing the possibility of no more Robin and Alan in a few years time, it does mean that Angus is determined not to drag out the series to its detriment and can instead take it out with a bang, which is the perfect thing to do. And, of course, it means we might then be treated to a new hero from one of my favourite Hist-Fic writers.
Go and find King’s Assassin in your favourite store. Read it. You won’t be disappointed. It is one of those really hard to put down books.
Bravo again Angus
This was a book I jumped at the chance to read and review. I have visited Rome many times and, though my tours largely focused on the ancient sights of the city, I have long-since devised a number of walks of my own that cover the best sights to visit. I might, therefore, be the most critical type of reviewer possible for this book. I’ll give an overview at the end, but concentrate on the various tours contained within first.
Tour 1 is, sadly, largely pointless. It is a general ‘best bits’ tour that by its very nature leaps around and fails to make the best of anything, the text of the tour almost constantly referring to other tours, the phrase (see tour x) appearing repeatedly. I feel that if this tour had been put at the end to finish off the book rather than as an introduction, it would have worked much better. Simply, if you intend to use this book to tour Rome, I would ignore tour 1 entirely and start at 2.
Tour 2 concentrates on St Peters and the Vatican. No0t much strolling through Rome in 2. More fighting through crowds in a relatively small area. The text goes into great detail of what is to be seen in the Vatican museum and reads a lot more like a very specific and detailed museum guide book than a walking tour of Rome. That being said, it is interesting and made me want to revisit the museum and use the book, so it has value.
Tour 3 deals with the Borgo area between the Vatican and the river, including the Castel Sant Angelo and the Tiber and Janiculum hill. This was the first time that I felt I was ‘strolling through Rome’ and I enjoyed that feeling. The information imparted is fascinating in places and delivered well. There is a tendency again once the tour takes us into the Castel to turn into the detailed museum guide again, though as I noted earlier, that has a use too.
Tour 4 takes us to Trastevere and the Ghetto area on either side of the Tiber. This was, for me, when the book really hit its stride. The tour is a sensible route, taking in the best the area has to offer, allows for a real soaking up of the feel of Rome, and the facts and anecdotes given within are fascinating and useful. Next time I go, I shall make use of tour 4. There is a growing feeling at this point of ‘baroque-oholism’, which is a common theme in Rome guides, but a number of the details here had me scrambling for Google Earth to check them out, which is an excellent sign.
Tour 5 takes us to the Capitol and the Capitoline museums. The outside stroll here is atmospheric and interesting, which is impressive, given that the area in my experience is mostly busy, fraught, covered with buses and tourists taking selfies, and smells mostly of carbon monoxide. When the tour climbs the hill and focuses on the museums (some of the best in the world, by the way) it falls back into the by-now-familiar detailed museum guide. However, in contrast to the earlier parts like this, the fun and fascinating incidental background notes and anecdotes prevent this from simply becoming a list and make the museum tour excellent.
Tour 6 is my most familiar area, the forum and Palatine. The attention to detail here is impressive, given that the author focuses throughout the book on every era of the city, yet his knowledge of the ancient ruins is pretty impressive. I noted no glaring inaccuracies, and even found myself nodding approvingly as he relates a little-known detail that is more commonly ignored or even plain wrong. The tour is nice and again feels like it lives up to the book’s title. In fact it coincides quite nicely with my own version of that walk, which I found pleasing. One odd hiccup I noted (real nerd stuff here, so feel free to ignore) was the author’s assertion that the emperor Maxentius’ son Romulus died in 309 at the age of 4. Given that the year of his birth is uncertain and highly contested, his age at death is dubious and almost certainly wasn’t 4. More irksome, though, is that on tour 14, he claims that Romulus died in 307 (309 is right, by the way.)
Tour 7 takes us through the busy Piazza Venezia and out to Campo de Fiori. Again this tour is nicely back into the ‘strolling through Rome’ rhythm. It tends to concentrate heavily on the renaissance and baroque palaces and churches, and will thrill those who love that era. Even for me as a classical historian, I found odd ancient bits and pieces well related and interesting.
Tour 8 covers Campo Marzio, including some of the most famous sights of Rome, such as the Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain. It is something of a mixed bag for sights, covering baroque churches and palaces, as well as Museum tours and ancient ruins. And again it hits the mark for strolling. I learned things I didn’t know here, particularly in relation to the Trevi Fountain. So spot on!
Tour 9 takes us north from there to the Piazza del Popolo. This feels a lot like a follow-on from tour 8 (which is reasonable, since they are largely two parts of the same area of Rome. The feel is similar, and so is the mix of eras and types of sight. It does, for the first time, start to include more concentration on later times, such as the 19th-20th century. Again, it is a stroll.
Tour 10 takes us from that area over the hills in Rome’s northern area. It is an interesting mix, with the whole familiar ‘Baroque Church’ thing slowly giving way to urban parks and gardens with Renaissance mansions. This is probably the quietest and most peaceful area within the walls where a visitor can stroll, and definitely makes a good tour.
Tour 11 concentrates on the Quirinale hill. This is, in my opinion, something of a less-visited and oft-overlooked area of Rome, and so it was nice to see this tour. The area is rather complex and tough to navigate for the uninitiated, so at this point the guide becomes more or less essential. Wandering around here can get you hopelessly lost. It was well handled, even the side-visits it recommends being sensible and well-placed, and again I even learned something important to me. I had not been aware of the remains of the Serapeum on the hill, but that is now noted for my next visit.
Tour 12 heads through the area of Termini station and the Esquiline hill. Again this is familiar stomping ground for me. In fact my own favourite walk starts here and heads out towards the walls at Porta Maggiore. Instead, though, this tour takes in the great basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore (another Museum-guide in detail) and then heads down into the heart of the ancient city once more. I felt that some of the more obscure but fascinating sights were bypassed or glossed over on the way past in favour of the bigger ones, but again that is a common thing with guides.
Tour 13 covers the Lateran and Caelian hills. I found this tour very odd indeed. It covers many of my favourite parts of Rome, but seems to do so in a haphazard, random route, zipping about and doubling back, when it could easily have been done in a more sensible circuit. Indeed, a different circuit would have included some excellent locations that are completely missed here, like Nero’s nymphaeum, or the great Severan fountain head in Piazza Vittorio Emanuelle II. All in all it felt a little rushed and incomplete. Essentially, the southern third of the city seems to be covered in one tour, compared with the best part of ten tours covering the north. The south feels neglected.
Tour 14 begins the same way, with a nice little circuit around Porta San Paolo area, then nipping out to take a bus to the Via Appia. In my opinion tour 13 and the opening section of 14 could easily have been detailed out into half a dozen more sensible and in-depth tours which would then have matched those in the first half of the book. However, on a bright note, once the tour heads into the Via Appia, we are once more strolling with detailed and fascinating notes from our guide. I was even impressed at the level of detail on even the lesser monuments here.
Tour 15 was an interesting tour. It is well-described and interesting. However, I think it has no real place in this guide as it details the ancient city of Ostia Antica away on the coast, a train ride from the city. Moreover, Ostia is such an amazing place (akin to Pompeii and Herculaneum) that is deserves (and has) its own guides in far more depth than this walking tour. I feel the space and time in the guide would have been better used doing justice to the southern regions of the city.
And there we go. 15 tours in detail.
Overall, I enjoyed the guide and found it a good read and an informative one, which is quite hard to do with me and Rome. I am very picky and choosy here. If you are familiar with the city, you could read it at home, like I did, and picture almost every street. If you are not familiar with the city, and are not actually going there, don’t buy it as you’ll get very little out of it that way. If, however, you are heading to Rome, especially if it is your first time, and you want to squeeze every drop of history and culture into your visit, buy the guide and follow it well. It will take you to amazing places and show you wondrous things. I was disappointed at the things the guide missed (most of which are in the east and the south.) The author has pretty much mapped the north, west and centre to the point where there is nothing you won’t see, but in the south and the east you completely ignore some amazing places. With respect to the list of opening hours and prices, my advice is do not take that as gospel. Such things change with every tide, and even if they officially match the notes in the book, the chances are that for no readily apparent reason they will be different on the day. There is no hard and fast rule about when things are open in Rome. It seems often to be decided daily on a whim.
The upshot? A good buy if you want to go to Rome and be guided around. A few things are missed, but for the general visitor there is an absolute wealth of stuff here that will keep your week’s holiday busy and teach you things along the way. I hope to see a future second edition that pays more attention to the south.
Quite simply there are perhaps 5 or 6 series that, when their new books are released, I drop anything I’m reading and dive into. Anyone who follows my reviews will already know my opinion of Nick’s work, so this should be a nice easy review.
The Agent of Rome series began with The Siege, which was one of the strongest debuts I’ve ever read and immediately defined the pace and quality of the entire series. There was little room for the author’s ability to grow and shape as he wrote, which is the natural thing to observe over a series, since the first volume was already perfectly polished. The problem with that kind of start is that it’s difficult to keep to the expected quality. So far, though, I’ve seen no dip in the series, which is excellent.
And while I say that there’s little room to grow when you begin at the top anyway, that’s just regarding the author’s ability to put across his tale. There is always room for the work itself to grow, and Nick has become extremely proficient at crafting a plot that is tight, clever and self-contained, and yet allows for exploration of subplots, outside themes and character expansion throughout. I think that is the most notable thing about this novel: the character growth.
In book one we were introduced to Cassius Corbulo, unwilling secret service man, and to his stalwart slave Simo. In book 2, in a move about which I was initially skeptical, we met the gladiator Indavara and saw him become Corbulo’s bodyguard. In book 4, they acquired a mule. Essentially, several disparate characters, each as deep as the next, have become a family and the reader cares about them all, and not just the principle protagonist. In fact in some ways, he is the shallowest of them and it is the lives of his companions that actually draw the sympathy and interest of the reader.
In The Emperor’s Silver (the fifth volume in the series) we find Corbulo in Syria following his unpleasant sojourn in Arabia in the previous book. He and his people are still suffering strained relationships after those events and Corbulo himself is still trying to come to terms with killing a man in cold blood. In an effort to avoid the bloody revolt going on in Egypt, Corbulo inveigles his way into Marshal Marcellinus’ good books and gets himself assigned to the Levantine cities to investigate a case of counterfeit coinage.
The beauty of the Agent of Rome series’ premise (as opposed to say my own Marius’ Mules books, which are grounded solidly in military campaigning) is that the potential for stories is vast and all-encompassing. Nick’s plots are each fresh and varied, and each book carries us to new territory, never growing stale. Appropriately, this is a new and fascinating plot, investigative and tense, more social and character-driven than the previous work, which involved a great deal more action and espionage.
Book 5, though, has two particular subplots running throughout that add something strong. The first is Indavara. After three books with the history of the gladiator only loosely hinted at (the man has no memory of his time before the arena) Nick has opened up the Pandora’s box of Indavara’s past. Only a crack so far, with tantalising glimpses of what’s to come. And secondly, someone is after Corbulo! I mean there’s always someone after Corbulo. It’s part of his job that he makes enemies, but in this case, it seems to be something else, disconnected from the plot. And these two subplots are not quite what they seem. They… oh well I’ll let you discover that for yourself. No spoilers here.
If I had one small criticism of book 5 it would be the number of plot threads left open at the end. I realise that this is a deliberate choice and understand clearly why Nick has concluded it in such a manner, though it feels a little like the last page should simply say ‘Tune in next week for…’ The flipside of that, of course, is that we know how book 6 is going to start and what at least part of it is going to be about. Personally I can’t wait to see what happens next and as usual I will be on Twitter, badgering Nick for news of the next book.
The Emperor’s Silver continues the high standard Nick Brown set himself to begin with, the plot strong, the characters vivid, the atmosphere heady and exotic, the descriptive imaginative and the pace fast and comfortable. As with all the previous volumes it is a book that I picked up intending to ready 20 or 30 pages and put it down 100 pages later.
If you’ve read books 1 to 4, The Emperor’s Silver is released today and you really should go get it. If you haven’t, where have you been? But now is an excellent time to catch up.
Go buy Agent of Rome 5 today and you’ll be glad you did. Put aside a few days and be prepared to lose yourself in Roman Syria.
Excellent short video by the superb Christian Cameron here. Give it a watch and learn something, folks. :-)
Originally posted on With Pen and Sword:
I thought I’d try a different media. This video was made by my friend Allan Joyner of Allan Joyner Productions. The music is by Schola Magdalena . The thoughts are almost entirely my own.
And by the way, I’m all to aware of the many inaccuracies the camera catches, despite all of our best efforts. Reenacting is always, at best, a compromise. But there’s a lot we can learn from it, anyway.
Jack Lark is one of my favourite literary creations of the modern swathe of historical fiction. Paul Fraser Collard’s debut work was one of my top ten reads of the year (and was certainly in the top half of those.) The second book in the series I was a little worried about, since the premise of the first book was new and interesting but really didn’t lend itself to the possibility of a sequel. Somehow, Paul pulled it out of the bag. The second book was amazingly not a carbon copy of the first, and yet managed to continue the theme. The second one, in fact, stepped up the stakes a little. But the question was: what could he do with book 3? He surely couldn’t follow similar lines.
And so he hasn’t. The Devil’s Assassin has taken the story of our favourite fraud and slewed it off at a tangent. No longer is Jack the roguish low-born masquerading as his betters. Or maybe he still is, but in a very different way, and for very different reasons. After his service with the Maharajah in book 2, Jack has made his way south, still in India. He is still living an assumed life, with no money or influence, making it from one day to the next on his wits and luck. But things are about to change. Because someone in his city is about to find out his secret, and that person will have more use for Jack in his employ than swinging on a gallows. And even as military intelligence get their claws into Jack, the Shah of Persia is interfering in international matters and war is looming on the horizon.
And here is the meat of the plot. There is (or are) spy (ies) in the British armed forces, and Jack is set to hunting them. But throughout this intrigue and mystery, there is also a war taking shape. So against a background of military campaigning, our (anti) hero continues to try and unravel the espionage plot. In some respects this book feels like two very disparate stories running concurrently. The war against the Shah is told in such glorious detail, scope, colour and depth that I had largely forgotten the entire spy plot when it suddenly reappeared from behind a bush and shook me by the shoulders. Collard has clearly enjoyed in this book taking an almost unknown British military campaign and bringing it to the reader’s attention, and he does it very well, the manoeuvres and desperate counter offensives described evocatively, but also with enough clarity that the reader can follow the entire thing, on both a personal level and as a grand military action.
Interestingly, this book marks a turning point in the series. It is clear in retrospect that while Collard pulled off a feat with book 2, the whole character of Jack and the premise of the series were resulting in writing the hero into a corner. Sooner or later, something would have to break unless the books were going to turn into those carbon copies we all want to avoid. And when that break happened, it was hard to see how Jack could progress except at the end of a Tyburn knot. And that is the gem of this book. It has achieved the unachievable and given Jack a new lease of life and Collard a universe of possibility with which to proceed.
The character of Jack has definitely grown in this work. The death and destruction that has surrounded his career has begun to change (and haunt) our hero. This is good – not for him, but certainly for us. A character has to grow and change in order to keep the reader’s interest and to inform the book with realism, and Jack is beginning to morph from a sharp young adventurer into an tired war-horse. He has a long way to go yet, but the signs are definitely there.
Paul Collard has a very readable fluid style of writing, which draws the reader along and involves them without ‘dumbing’ anything down. He does not sacrifice style and value for ease of reading, and yet it is an easy read. His characters’ speech is realistic and comfortable for the reader, and his descriptions of exotic locations and cultures are totally immersing, especially when described from the point of view of the stiff Victorian British officer.
In short, after two top books, The Devil’s Assassin is yet another win from a writer at the top of his game. Go get it, folks.