Nick Brown: Agent of Rome
Today is publication day for the paperback release of Nick Brown’s second book (The Imperial Banner) and in honour of that, I give you a ‘Two-fer’. Herein is my review not only of the new novel, but also of its predecessor. So… Sit back and get ready to rumble with Agent of Rome: The Siege
I was wary of beginning ‘The Siege’ and put it off for a long time. Having read the blurb, it looked to me to be ridiculously close in plot to Harry Sidebottom’s first Warrior of Rome, in that both involve a Roman site under siege from an eastern power at almost the same point in history. The locations are close, both in Syria. The times are roughly a decade apart.
I needn’t have worried. There are similarities, yes, but… well let me put it this way: I could give two artists the brief to paint a picture of a tree on a hill in September, and one might look like a Monet while the other might be a Braque. So that’s that dealt with. The two stories are dissimilar enough to make comparisons pointless.
Brown has taken on an interesting premise for the main character, selecting a member of the Imperial Secret Service; one of the (in)famous Frumentarii or grain officers. What he has done is to tackle the service in the style of a sensible, sensitive young nobleman with only the best intent at heart. This is not the sly, devious, murderous, dangerous view of that organisation we are used to. There is very little reference in detail to the service in this book as, despite being an officer of it, Corbulo is thrown into a situation where he is more active as a military officer.
As usual, I won’t push the plot other than to say that it involves a tiny Roman garrison at the far eastern edge of Syria, full of misfits and laxity, which faces a siege by the forces of the newly expansionist Palmyrene empire. More need not be said and indeed should not, lest the plot be ruined.
What I can say is that Brown has created a believable and fascinating view of frontier life in third century eastern Rome, full of well-painted and interesting characters, each driven by realistic needs and desires, thrown together into a horrendous situation.
In short and as an incentive to go read it – The Siege was reminiscent of that most excellent of all siege movies: Zulu, and I can think of no higher praise than that.
So if i haven’t enticed you enough with that, I give you my review of book 2, released in pb today (as I remind you) – Agent of Rome: The Imperial Banner:
I was interested to see what Nick would do following on from the Siege. It was such a self-contained novel and unlike many other first novels, it did not leave enough threads dangling from which to tie on a follow up-plot. And so I was extremely pleased as I started reading ‘Banner’ to find that he hasn’t even tried that. This is a second book that could almost be read as a standalone, barring a few references to define characters. Instead of a story arc, it would appear that this series is going more down the Indiana Jones route, with linked but self-contained stories. Refreshing.
Just as refreshing is the fact that many writers seem, to me, to write a storming first book, then waver a little on the second, making it too complex or too dark or suchlike, before finding their feet with a third triumph. Nick seems not to fall into this convenient category. In fact, I will say with hand on heart that this Book 2 is considerably better than the first, though I thoroughly enjoyed that too.
‘Banner’ is a complex whodunnit mixed with a treasure hunt. It is action pretty much from beginning to end and, though it lacks the ‘combat brutality’ of the first, it has swordfights, adventure, sneaking around underground passages and mines, infiltrating cults, following suspects, making arrests, bar room punch-ups, twists, turns, gladiators and so much more.
I wrote something myself a while back (as yet still under wraps) which a friend labelled ‘James Bond in ancient Rome’. That phrase came to mind with this book too, along with Peter Ustinov tapping his temple and talking about the ‘little grey cells’. You see that, to me, is what it felt like: an exciting, engaging mix between Indiana Jones, Hercule Poirot and James Bond.
The main character is not so much growing – he’s young and inexperienced and the books take place too close in time for much change to become apparent – but he is deepening. The reader is coming to understand him more. The best thing about this is that Cassius doesn’t need to change. Again, many writers seem to see the need for characters to grow with each book. It’s sometimes unnecessary. A well-defined character shouldn’t change too much or he might lose what makes him catchy. And with the return of his slave Simo, who is also becoming deeper and more relevant, and the addition of the new and engaging Indevara, Cassius has two companions who are different enough that the three bounce off each other well, creating thoughtful moments, humourous moments and angry moments. It is often the interplay that makes a book and that is strong with these leads.
I will add also that Nick has done such a good job of portraying Roman Syria that the reader feels everything as he/she reads it. It is descriptive and atmospheric.
But finally, as I come rambling back to the start of my description, the strength of this book above all else lies in its plot: An item of almost inestimable value has been stolen and there are no leads. Cassius is drawn into the desperate investigation with an extremely short time limit before the world he knows is endangered (and he even more so.) A race against the hourglass to uncover the perpetrator among a nest of potential villains in an investigation that tracks across Syria and the great city of Antioch.
So read Nick Brown’s books. And even if The Siege doesn’t pique your interest, at least pick up a copy of The Imperial Banner and give it a go. You won’t regret it.