Empire 8: Thunder of the Gods
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.