S.J.A.Turney's Books & more Blog

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Devil’s Assassin

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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.

Written by SJAT

May 10, 2015 at 9:25 pm

The value of experience

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For those who don’t know, as well as reviewing book and writing historical fiction, one of my other hobbies is kitting myself up as a late 1st century legionary and reenacting with the 20th legion at Chester. I would heartily recommend such a pastime to anyone interested in the era. The kit’s not cheap to assemble, of course, but many units will have spare kit that you can borrow while putting together your own, and some manufacture their own. And it’s a hobby that most folk could cope with. I myself am almost extraordinarily unfit and slightly portly, and yet this past weekend I marched 10 miles in the kit seen above with my legionary brothers to raise money for the Park In The Past project. It’s great fun, it’s fascinating, and there is a level of camaraderie you’ll find in few other hobbies.

But do you know what? It’s also extremely educational. One aspect of reenactment is regularly termed ‘experimental archaeology, and for very good reason. Reenactment is the only way to even attempt to understand what it was to BE those characters about whom we write. I know a number of my peers also march in kit, or take part in civil war battles, involve themselves with living history and so on. It is possible to be truly knowledgeable without doing something like this, but to actually experience something of the life is to add life to the knowledge. I have discussed the matter at length with the superb Christian Cameron, whose works are very human and personal, and who reenacts ancient Greek, medieval and also Revolutionary War eras!


The thing is: for those of us writing in the ancient world, and particularly in the Roman era, on which I am focusing here, the documentary and visual evidence leaves huge gaps. Rome is one of the few distant worlds which has left us a wealth of sculpture, painting, written texts and buried artefacts that help us understand their world. And yet despite this, there are holes in our understanding. Here are some examples:

Military clothing. We know that legionaries wore tunics from the Republican era right through to the late empire. But even at the height of the Principate when we have the best records, there are few notable reference to the tunic’s colour (I’m not including the late empire here, as it’s a different beast entirely.) Wall paintings from Pompeii and an Etruscan tomb suggest red tunics, as do some vague references, but there is no direct text to support that. Other sources show legionaries in white or undyed tunics. It is my personal belief that only officers wore the red and that undyed was the standard for legionaries. This is largely the work of logic, since the cost of purchasing and importing red dye to dye between two and perhaps five garments for each man of a five-thousand strong legion seems unrealistic to me. Yet some reenactors will point to their white tunics and the russet stains left by wearing armour in bad weather and will use that as evidence for the need for red tunics. Some (I marched alongside two this weekend) wear blue tunics, just to outline the fact that no one knows for sure. The unit I serve with allows a wide variety of colours and fabrics, so long as there is a common element, in the belief that since legions were based long-term in a region, they would take to using whatever local sources and dyes were commonly available and cheap. This is another very reasonable assumption. The answer to the colour question might never be known, but by trial and error we can start to understand the potential of the answers.

Footwear. It is a general common understanding that Roman soldiers wore Caligae (the strapped sandal-like military boots) everywhere. More recently a wealth of evidence has begun to appear to suggest that closed boots were a lot more common that previously believed. And believe a reenactor when they tell you that boots are much more practical and sensible in damp conditions, and therefore it has to be believed that the Romans wore mostly enclosed boots in more adverse environments. Many of the men I marched with this weekend own both types of footwear, but the weekend was generally a damp one, and the number of caligae in evidence compared to boots was extremely small. Experience overturning theory. That is the value of reenactment.


Tweaks. Legionaries are shown carrying their shields on their backs in numerous depictions. And yet there is little evidence as to how that actually worked. This is one aspect in which reenactment is a prime source of information. For instance, the way I carried my shield (above) was comfortable throughout the march, and yet if we had been attacked by slavering barbarians somewhere outside Lower Kinnerton, I would have been dead long before I’d struggled with the buckles and got the shield on my arm. So there goes that theory. Len Morgan of the 14th showed me his shield strap, and things fell into place, for his was carried over one shoulder, not the neck, with a second strap around the chest. The result? Unbuckle under one armpit and the shield was already on his arm. That quick. Trial and error. The reenactor has potentially solved how this was done. Some shields’ grips within the boss are so restrictive and tight that manoeuvering with them comfortably shreds the back of the hand. It would have been near impossible for a legionary to have functioned with my shield, until I took a leaf from a friend’s rulebook and rebuilt the grip. Now it is comfy and I can throw it around as required:


There are so many other things. How were men arranged in the testudo? Think about the aspect of height! A shorter man between two taller ones will result in a hole in the defence. I discovered this last year at an event when I was hit in the face with a thrown missile. So a testudo should, for preference, be organised by height, so that when called, every man knows his place and there are no gaps. How do you stop a helmet bouncing around when it’s hanging down your front during a march? Simple: you tuck the cheek guards around the baldric of your sword. I never knew that until this weekend, but it makes so much sense.


The list goes on. I could spend all day telling you just the things I learned this last weekend, let along over the past year or two.

And that’s where it becomes more than a hobby for a writer. It becomes research, pure and simple. I’ll freely admit that in my earlier work there were mistakes and assumptions. I cannot go back and correct such assumptions at this stage, but I can try and avoid any and all such issues with every new book. Consequently, there is a wealth of detail in my more recent books that has come directly from first-hand experience with the 20th Valeria Victrix. Without that experience, I would have missed out on some gems of knowledge and colour, and a few directly-related events. There is little that prepares you to write about the difficulties of stomping up a hill laden with gear than doing it.

The effect of several contubernia of men chanting while marching under a bridge or tunnel has to be heard to be believed!

Oh and the weight of a good Celtic torc came as something of a surprise too! And as for wearing the jangling willies…. ;-)


The value of reenactment and living history in writing. Ask Christian Cameron, Robert Low, Caroline Lawrence and others. I guarantee they will all have taken value from their experience and put it into their work.

Now to take my experiences of the post-march booze-up and apply it to Fronto’s experiences in the wine trade.

Written by SJAT

May 5, 2015 at 11:03 am

Flames of Cyzicus

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How long has it been since I last read of Cassius Corbulo in ‘The Black Stone’? Well I’m not sure, but it feels like half a decade. And I don’t know how long we have to wait for the next instalment. It gets like that with a really good series, doesn’t it? Like a drug. You’re waiting, twitching, for your next fix. Luckily, Nick Brown has given me enough of a fix to keep me going until his next novel is released.

Flames of Cyzicus is a short story of around 10,000 words, which is long enough to tell a good story, but short enough to make a quick and easy read in one session. It is a self-contained tale and once again represents Nick Brown at his best.

Corbulo, an agent of Imperial Security (a frumentarius or ‘grain man’) is currently in the Anatolian city of Cyzicus, working on the staff there with the responsibility for arranging the grain supply for a visiting legion, when in the dark of night one of the city’s four main granaries is incinerated. Faced with the loss of a quarter of the grain for which is is responsible, and fearing that other such disaster is still to come, Corbulo sets out on an investigation to discover the cause of the trouble.

If you have read Nick’s series so far you will find this tale to be every bit as action packed, humourous, intriguing, intelligently-plotted, character and plot driven and exotic as the novels. The plot works in a surprisingly tight arc.

If you’ve not read any of Nick’s work, this might very well be your perfect entry point to the series, to dip your toe in the water, so to speak. There are no major spoilers for the other books and just hints as to what Corbulo has gone through, so at 99p you can afford to try it and see whether you fancy the series. My hunch is that you will.

Just go buy it, eh? It’s the price of a packet of biscuits but much more nourishing…

Written by SJAT

April 13, 2015 at 9:25 pm

The Holy Lance

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I recently had the opportunity to read an advance copy of Andrew Latham’s ‘The Holy Lance’. Initially I was hesitant, I have to admit. I am reasonably familiar with the Knights Templar in both popular myth and actual historical record, and am, frankly, a little sick of the endless connections made between the Templars and various supernatural or secret cult activities. I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, to read the book and discover that, although it revolves entirely around a group of Templars and the eponymous artefact, there is not a hint here of the ‘secret society and weirdo damned Templars’. This is a tale of knights, duty and the battling of inner demons, not the Rosicrucians or the Masons in armour trying to hide the body of Christ or some such.

Once I realised that it was a work of historical fiction about the real Poor Knights of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon and had not fallen into that most common and woeful trap of ‘Dan-Browniness’, I was properly enticed, and dived right in. In fact, despite the artefact at the heart of the tale being such a mythical, sacred item, the book remains grounded and realistic. After all, just because something is mythical has never stopped real people hunting it and believing in it (witness not only the Holy Grail or the Ark of the Covenant, but also the Nazi obsession with relics and occult objects.)

Inside, what I came across was a solid tale based during the Third Crusade, in the aftermath of the dreadful battle at the Horns of Hattin. Rather than being some ‘Indiana Jones and the Holy Grail’ knock-off, the story does not wallow in the supernatural, raising the spear of Longinus – the Holy Lance supposed to have pierced Christ on the cross – to be some kind of earth-changing relic. It is simply a religious relic, albeit an important one, sought by a number of the power groups active during the crusade, for its morale-boosting effects and the belief that it aids an army in victory. Richard Coeur de Lion sends the protagonist on a mission to recover the spear and aid his cause in the Holy Land. Completely as an aside from the main plot and characters, incidentally, I also have to point out that I love this unusually realistic portrait of the great Richard I, as opposed to the usual ‘bearded action hero’.

I will not delve too deeply into the nuances and details of the plot, for that way lie spoilers and disappointment. What I will say is that this is a hunt, and something of a race, to acquire the Lance, run by more than two groups. The political situation is nicely put, with conflicting forces not always on opposing sides of the war. Indeed, the oiliest, wickedest bad guys in this nominally belong to the same side as the Templar protagonist. Characters struggling to regain prominence or to maintain it in a world where power and position are most important are pitted against unwilling hunters who are bound by duty and oath to service. Christians both pious and base struggle against each other, as well as against the agents of Saladin (also, incidentally, a refreshing and unusual characterisation) in an effort to bring the lance back to their faction. Don’t forget that in this awful crusade, the English and the French probably hated one another more than either of them hated the Saracen!

Strangely, for me, the most important and most powerful thread (themes?, ideas?) in the novel, which so outweighs the main plot concerning the lance and the machinations of the powerful, is the personal journey of the protagonist. A former knight who joined the Templars to seek a way out of a world of blood, violence and base impulses, Michael Fitz Alan faces a daily battle against his inner demons and, while he is a strong, often irritatingly unyielding and deadly character, this dark, uncertain side of him is what makes him real to the reader. He is a character that sits well in his place in the plot and will drive the story on beyond this volume with ease.

The upshot is that the Holy Lance is an action packed, tense race to recover a holy relic, pitted against the hordes of the Saracen, power-hungry Christian nobles, his own masters of dubious ethics and various side-groups. Throughout the story, the character of Fitz Alan unfolds, and thus is born the series of the English Templars. Roll on book 2, I say.

Written by SJAT

March 26, 2015 at 10:27 am

The Middle Kingdom Ride

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Very unusual subject matter for me, but everyone needs a little change now and then, eh? Variety, as they say, is the spice of life.

I recently had the opportunity of a review copy of this book (and the associated DVD) and rearranged my reading schedule to fit it in. Nearly everything I read is historical, where it be fiction or non-fiction, but my love of travel and adventure is strong too, and I am a sucker for travelogues on TV, so I jumped at this chance.

Amazingly, this tremendous journey, painstakingly documented in both text and film, was carried out by the two stars from their own funds. They did not receive the financial and logistical backing of the BBC or Nat Geo, or any of the great media groups that usually produce such series. They did not get given special treatment from the authorities as media stars. They were not donated bikes. They used up their savings, sold a house, quit jobs and did it themselves. Did what? you ask… Oh yeah. Here’s what they did:

Ryan Pyle is a freelance photographer from Canada who’s lived in Shanghai for a decade now. He loves China. He loves the culture and the people and has been documenting it with his camera now for years. He’s also an enthusiastic, if relatively amateur, motorcyclist. His brother Colin owned a company back in Canada, but was tiring of the life and sought adventure – and he’s also a biker! So from Ryan’s enthusiasm and Colin’s need for change was born the idea of the Middle Kingdom Ride. The Middle Kingdom, you see, is a phrase derived from China’s name for itself, based on the principle that China was at the centre of its world. Ryan had this crazy idea that the two brothers could leave behind work and ordinary life – including, most wrenchingly, their wives – and take two bikes and a small support crew and ride around the circumference of China. China hold the longest unbroken border that can be driven or ridden, and to do so would not only be fascinating and an amazing achievement, but it would also be a world record.


(The route around China for the Middle Kingdom ride)

Ryan and Colin sought financial and logistical support, but the deals they made fell through, leaving them alone. Not to be thwarted, the pair decided that they would do what they intended, with or without support. And so they found a filmmaker who was enthusiastic over the idea, who would travel behind the bikes in an SUV. And through careful planning around the route, arranged a series of local guides from each region who would join the support vehicle for a section of the trip. That was it. Two brothers on bikes, and two men in an SUV behind them.

So that’s the background. As for the ride itself? Well suffice it to say that, despite having recently watched Sue Perkins’ Mekong journey and Levison Wood’s Walking the Nile, this journey was at least up there with the others, and was actually better than them in some ways. The journey has everything, because the brothers are not just riding bikes around the country, they are also immersing themselves in the culture at every opportunity. Thus we are treated to seeing the more draconian side of the Chinese administration, the life of Mongolian peasants from their own level, oppressed-yet-rebellious Tibet, tourist-oriented river journeys and everything in between. One thing that struck me throughout was how friendly and helpful and genuinely interested almost everyone they met seemed to be.


Then there were the hiccups. From broken bikes to more broken bikes, to two broken bikes at the same time, to almost uncrossable terrain, to impassable landslides, to forbidden expressways with angry policemen, to whole forbidden regions, the world seems to batter the pair on a regular basis. And yet, the brothers continually push down the disappointments and fears and overcome to push on. Even with the requisite number of falls – some of them quite hard, too. Anyone who’s ridden a bike will probably tell you that a fall is inevitable at some point. I myself have come off one a few times, though never badly. All I would say it that, given the terrain across which these two rode, it is just astounding that they didn’t fall more often.

I won’t delve any deeper into the content of the journey, as that’s for the reader/watcher to discover for themselves.

I read the book and then watched the DVD, and if you feel like doing both, that is most definitely the order in which to do it. The DVD will allow you to picture what you have already read, and the – by necessity – sparser detail in the DVD is best approached by having read the book and being able to fill in the blanks as it were


The book is fascinating. It is well written and well edited and proofed. The book follows the journey from its conception to its conclusion, divided up into chapters at the appropriate spots. Each chapter is lovingly told by Ryan in excellent detail, aided I’m sure by the fact that both brothers kept a video diary at the end of each day’s ride, and by the video footage that had been taken. At no point does the read become dull or repetitive, which I consider an achievement when you’re writing about 60 days and 18,000 km of motorcycle journey. But there is no lag in the tale. At the end of each chapter, Colin adds his impression of the same events, which sometimes throws new light on things and allows for an interesting counterpoint to the main text. If I had one criticism of the book it was that the first half of the journey takes up nearly 3/4 of the book, and so it feels like less justice has been done to the second half of the ride, but I suspect that most of the reason for that is that the latter leg of the journey was faster, on more major roads and with less trouble. Better not to labour whole sections of ‘we rode and nothing happened’ I suppose. The book is an excellent record of the journey, but also forms an amazing glimpse into the lives, minds and emotions of both brothers. All in all, the book was an excellent read, and I found myself glued to it at times.


The DVD matches up in its production to any of the travelogues you will catch on TV. Using footage from the support crew as well as from the helmet cameras of both riders and their video diaries at the days’ end, the film-maker has done an excellent job of production. It is a thoroughly professional piece. Split into six episodes it allows you to in some way, join in with the ride, and experience some of what the brothers felt and saw. I have two minor criticisms of the DVD. One was the length of the introduction and ‘previously on’ at the start of each episode, which had to be sat through to get to the film (though this is a common problem I’ve found with travelogues and in no way unique to this DVD!) And the other is that in places the sound is not so good. Of course, that is occasioned by the fact that this was a proper adventure with only two men supporting, not a whole film crew with a mic boom and so on. So the sound you hear on the film is not the clean sound of the large-scale documentary film-maker, but the real sound of the journey. And while that means that sometime you might have to listen hard to hear over the truckstop noises, it does mean that you are truly immersed in the journey. So I suppose in retrospect they’re not so much criticisms, as comments. The DVD does not have the level of detail that the book has, of course, so as I suggested earlier, if you get both book and DVD, read the book first. However, the DVD is well enough produced and written that if you don’t read the book, you won’t know you’re missing the minutiae, and the DVD will still be a treat to watch. Really, the scenery alone makes it worthwhile, to be honest.


So there you go: two brothers, two motorcycles, 18,000 kilometers. One of the most fascinating, varied, and well-documented journeys you will get to read or see. And now, it seems, the brothers have gone on to ride around the edge of India next, so I bet you can guess what I’m getting and shuffling into the reading pile now?

Get the book here and the DVD here in the UK, or here (DVD) and here (book) elsewhere. And enjoy…

Written by SJAT

March 19, 2015 at 11:40 am

Praetorian: The Great Game

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Praetorian Blog Tour

So today Praetorian is released into the world, and the blog tour begins. Who better to kick it off than me, eh?

So what is Praetorian: The Great Game, and how did it come about? Well some years ago, I spent many months sweating through a tale I called Legion 22. It was atmospheric, evocative and character driven. It was also, when I was 90% through it and went back to read through so far, complete rubbish! Oh it was a nice tale, but to pull it together and make it workable would take almost as long as it had taken to write in the first place. Consequently, I gave up in disgust and assigned the book to ‘File 13′.

Rubbish basket full of white crumpled papers

(Legion XXII’s final resting place)

So I was left without a project that I had poured a lot of time and effort into. I was not quite ready to write the next Marius’ Mules or Fantasy novel, and I had an agent showing some interest if I could produce a new unpublished series. I foundered. And as I do at times like that, I procrastinated and filled my time with perusing Roman books for fun. And I toyed with the idea of trying to write a novel about either Caligula, Nero or Domitian and making them the good guy, their reputation ruined after their death by enemies. Not such an outlandish possibility, of course. And while doing this, I came across Commodus. I knew Commodus, of course, and not just from ‘Fall of the Roman Empire’ or ‘Gladiator’. I’ve always seen him as the starting point of Rome’s decline (something we have Gibbon to thank for, I suspect.) But the thing is, this is not all there is of Commodus:


Commodus doing his Gene Simmons impression

Commodus started his reign looking good. He was popular and had all the credentials. If one looks at recorded events and reads between the vilified lines, it is rather easy to produce a picture, not of a complete barking mad barnpot like Elagabalus, but of a man who wanted to rule, but was disinterested in the minutiae of doing so. Commodus wanted to set the empire’s grand policies, and wanted to make Rome great, but beyond that he wanted to watch the races, the games and generally have fun. To this end, he trusted the actual running of his empire to a series of advisers, each of which turned out to be worse than their predecessor. It is therefore easy to see the emperor as a good, if slightly credulous, man who came under the unhealthy influence of some awful men who turned him into what history remembers. After all, very few of history’s notable figures are pure ‘white hat’ or ‘black hat’ good or bad guys.


Alright, maybe in some cases it’s a bit clearer…

So I had my era and a character. But I had done my writing about famous Romans. After all, Caesar and his cronies had figured a lot in the Marius’ Mules series. I wanted a new, unknown character. I was perusing the varied and interesting events of Commodus’ reign and an event leapt out at me. There was a plot against the emperor at the outset of his reign that is largely ignored in Hollywood’s treatments of the man, largely because they are intent on vilifying him and making his sister Lucilla a saint. She was not. But enough about that. Don’t want to ruin the plot, after all… But in reading about the plot, I discovered that it had been stopped by the emperor’s guards. What if I could write the tale of that man. So, the character of Rufinus was born. Again, I won’t delve too deep there for fear of spoilers. But the note at the end of the book picks up from here and tells you everything else. I had my plot, my era, my hero and my villain. From there, a story was in the making. And so, to give you a taster, click HERE to download a PDF copy of the first chapter. I hope you enjoy it.

Don’t forget to check out the next blog on the tour tomorrow (http://bantonbhuttu.blogspot.co.uk/) for a review of the book

And because every good blog post should end with a smile…


Written by SJAT

March 12, 2015 at 11:40 am

Lady of the Eternal City

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Kate Quinn first came to my attention last year when I read Day of Fire, the collection of cross-threaded tales by various Roman authors set against the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD. I have to say that normally, since my trend in reading is towards the military and espionage end of the historical fiction, I probably wouldn’t have read a book with this title or cover until I had run out of books where legionaries smash someone over the head, but the thing is: Kate Quinn’s contribution to that collection of Vesuvius tales was one of the highlights of it – one of the finest pieces of writing. It showed her skill at the craft of not just writing, but storytelling. And in recent years I have learned to approach literature with an open mind. So when I was given the opportunity to read an advance copy of Lady of the Eternal City, I snapped up the chance and thanked Kate very much.

A quick word on the plot. As usual, I hate to expound too much on plots for fear of spoilers, but this plot deserves a solid treatment, really, and so I’ve delved deeper than usual, and I hope I haven’t thrown in anything I shouldn’t.

This is a novel of Hadrian. Not a biography in any way, and he is not the protagonist, but it is definitely a story about him, for he is the hub around which the world and all Kate’s characters thereupon spin. We pick up the story at the very beginning of Hadrian’s reign, with the former empress still very much alive and a certain level of trepidation across Rome as its nobles anticipate the emperor’s arrival.

None is filled with more trepidation though than Vix (Vercingetorix the Red – I thought at first I’d hate that name and it would bug me, given its Republican Gallic connotation, and yet funnily I quickly warmed to it.) Vix is a former gladiator and slave, a legionary and war hero who saved the life of Hadrian’s predecessor Trajan, and finally a Praetorian tribune. He is strong, brave and well-placed. But he and Hadrian have a history that is not all roses. And Vix has a history with the emperor’s wife, which is troublesome to say the least.

Vix and Sabina are two of the rich cast in this novel, joined by Sabina’s neice Annia and … this is where students of Roman history will see how the book is going to get interesting … Vix’s adopted stepson Antinous. The history of Antinous and Hadrian is one well documented, but this additional connection brings it home and makes the tale so much more immediate and personal. In addition to this, though, and of great interest to me personally, was an extra cast member in the form of young Marcus Aurelius – always one of my favourite characters in imperial history.

The story deals with Hadrian’s growth into his role and life within it until his eventual decline, all seen from the point of view of those few around him who are able to influence his fickle, dangerous moods. And in parallel it follows the growing relationship between Hadrian and Antinous. I won’t tell you how that one ends, but many of you who know Hadrian will already know that!

We are treated to Hadrian’s great travels round the empire as events unfold, from Rome across the Roman world, beginning with Britannia. My favourite interlude in the trip incidentally, was for the Elusinian mysteries, which have long fascinated me and it was nice to see a novelised treatment of them. Although the descriptions of Egypt drew me right back to that haunting place.

Essentially, the plot follows the relationship of Antinous and Hadrian and their relations and loves from their first distant connections to the emperor’s final days via love and tragedy in between.

What impressed me so much about this book was the handling of character. Vix is a worthy protagonist, of course, though being fictional, he can be anything Kate wants to make him. But when you’re dealing with such larger-than-life characters as Hadrian, Antinous, Antoninus Pius (still known as Titus at this point) and Marcus Aurelius, not to mention Sabina herself – the lady of the eternal city, being able to achieve a three-fold win with them is near impossible. Because the best portrayals of real characters are: believable, historically accurate, and surprising. And to do all three is the work of a true master/mistress of the author’s craft. I will focus on the principal character here because, while he is not one of the book’s protagonist, he is the one who influences them all and who they all influence…

Hadrian is not what I’d expected. I’d never seen him as capricious and dangerous before. History throws at us the picture of the ‘great’ emperor Hadrian and we laud his abilities and vision. We do not notice the idiosyncracies that go along with such genius. The Hadrian in Kate’s novel is unpredictable, violent, dangerous, clever, far-sighted, loving, adventurous and brave, and so much more. He is a truly fascinating character.

What adds to the many facets of the man, though, is his progress as an emperor. Though he is strong willed and – let’s face it – has ultimate power at his fingertips, there is a recurring theme in the book that the great man would fall foul of his own dark side and bring the empire down with him if it were not for those clever men and women surrounding him, trying to nudge him onto a path of not only greatness, but also goodness. In that respect, Vix and Sabina are the most important characters in the novel, I would say.

At the start of the novel I dreaded reading on, for I feared Hadrian was set up as a true villain, but that is not the case, and as the book progressed I came not only to understand the man, but even to appreciate him. His final scenes in the book are wonderfully portrayed and stay with me.

Throw away your mental image of Hadrian and delve into that which Kate provides. It is a fascinating study of a man and a tale that is somewhat harrowing in places – the sort of harrowing you can only experience when you become too invested in a character.

The tone and writing of the book is rich and opulent, like the world in which the characters live, and at times it might seem over-so, but I think that is just a facet of writing well about character’s motivations in the world of imperial Rome and the circles of power. And I think that the book would have been poorer for a plainer approach. Interestingly for me, Kate is an American author, and I can usually spot an American voice in the prose straight away. To some English readers, a strong American tone can be distracting, but with Kate’s prose it blended seamlessly into the history and felt as comfortable to a British reader as a British author would.

So in short, this is a very intricate character-driven piece about the complex character that was Hadrian and the effects upon him of those few folk who were strong and wily enough to help him be what he needed to be. It is also a tale of more than one love and more than one loss. It is a rich Roman tapestry that draws your attention and holds it throughout.

Highly recommended, and confirms what I suspected: Kate Quinn is at the top of her game.

Written by SJAT

March 10, 2015 at 8:30 am


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