Douglas Jackson – Avenging Rome one page at a time…
Whew. I finished it. Not a phew as in ‘that was tough going’ but a phew as in ‘wow what a powerful conclusion.’
I’ve been reading Doug Jackson’s books since Caligula first appeared in hardback, while I was still writing my first, and I love his work. But when he started the Valerius Verrens series, something changed and his work stepped up several notches. Hero of Rome (the novel that introduces the character) is one of the best Roman novels I’ve read and the scenes of the evacuation of Colonia in advance of Boudicca’s attack were among the most powerful I’ve seen. The second Valerius novel, Defender of Rome, had a different feel and a different tack. It was a brave novel and a powerful one, if a little bleak and soul-withering at times.
Avenger of Rome is a book I’ve been waiting to read for some time. I found it difficult to see how the story could progress after the second book.
Well Doug did good! Avenger is a triumph of a novel. It has the tension of the first book in the series and the depth of the second combined, but it also has much more. It is far and away the best of the series so far and left me wanting more.
After the horrifying events in Rome in ‘Defender’, in this great tale, Valerius is sent east with the remit of investigating General Corbulo for signs of treason. But nothing is as it seems and, as Valerius becomes more and more involved in matters, he finds himself becoming a valuable and trusted member of the great general’s staff as Corbulo defies imperial edict in order to safeguard the empire, whatever the cost to himself.
Certain things stand out about this book, to me. Firstly, the journey – which occupies a quarter of the book – is a magnificent tale in itself and could quite easily have made the basis for a novel on its own.
Secondly, the book features some of my favourite characters from Roman history (Vespasian, Titus and Corbulo) and does each of them proud, the depiction of Corbulo particularly striking a chord with me as it is very much how I have always imagined him. While I would hardly describe Nero as one of my favourites, I also have to admire the way Doug handles the complex character of the youthful emperor. Nero is an enigma and the character is built upon from the second book to a strangely almost understandable and certainly pitiable combination of paranoia, pride, neediness and hubris. He is too complex to pigeonhole, which is, I suspect, as close to the truth as any writer will get. Indeed, hubris is a strong theme among the more powerful characters in the novel.
Thirdly, the battle. Wow, the battle. Well, come on, it’s hardly a spoiler, is it? You knew there was going to be a battle, right? I know from personal experience how hard it is to write a good battle. Not an ok battle, but a good one. I’ve tried. And in the end, I come down to showing any battle from a point of view of individual encounters, as I simply cannot adequately convey the scale of the whole thing. Doug just did. The scale was immense, the time it took, the numbers, the sheer organisation, and yet not a single detail is lost. Not even the noise. The smell. The tension. The fear. It is a work of sickening beauty.
The upshot? Valerius is one of the most interesting characters in Historical fiction at the moment and each book Doug writes adds to the depth and power of the character. This book has, however, stepped another notch upwards and, where the first left me feeling a little drained with the heart-wrenching conclusion and the second left me feeling weary and saddened, this one left me feeling awed and astounded and waiting to see what comes next (the conclusion almost pushes you straight into the next tale). Valerius, I will watch you put things right! My sword arm is with you.
Well done, Doug. A fab read. When’s the next due out?