Defender of Rome
Two years after Valerius’ defence of Colonia against Boudicca in “Hero of Rome”, the eponymous characters is in Rome. Changed by the events he lived through he is a darker, slightly hollow man. Struggling to find a path, he finds himself landed with a new task by the unstable emperor Nero: to root out and bring to ‘justice’ a rabble rouser, a leader of the sect of Christians in Rome.
Plagued by a frail and ill sister, a splintered family relationship, the uncertain moods of the emperor and the machinations of those who wield power under Nero, including the prefect of the Praetorians, Valerius’ investigation, aided by gladiator friends, unearths a number of secrets, some of which cut deep. The story builds to a massive crescendo, set to a backdrop of another great event of the era.
Defender is, in short, a great book and a worthy successor to the excellent Hero of Rome. There are three things that particularly impressed me:
1. Valerius’ character. In Hero, we were introduced to a man who was still young and relatively full of promise, even optimistic and loving. Defender sees him changed. Doug has done an excellent job of painting the character of a man who has suffered the things Valerius did in Britannia. It feels like a natural progression and is therefore perfectly done.
2. The portrayal of Nero. That emperor has had a lot of treatment by a lot of authors before now, and yet this did not feel old or samey for some reason. There is about the character an oily wickedness, mixed with a childish excitement that really brings him to life. You will truly hate this emperor.
3. The way the Christians are portrayed. Until now the best such portrayal in Roman fiction I had seen was Simon Scarrow’s Eagle in the Sand. This now rivals it, for sure. This period of the church is so vague as nothing was truly codified until Constantine I, and it is all too easy to imagine the early church as very similar to the later Catholic one, but with a more Judao-Roman feel. Doug’s treatment is more like an offshoot of Judaism, which, of course, it was. It is sensitively handled and well done, without being preachy or particularly pro or anti. It is objective, given that the lead character is a pagan.
All in all, I would recommend that anyone who’s read Hero of Rome dive in and read Defender. If you haven’t, just read both!