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Agent of Rome – The Emperor’s Silver

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Quite simply there are perhaps 5 or 6 series that, when their new books are released, I drop anything I’m reading and dive into. Anyone who follows my reviews will already know my opinion of Nick’s work, so this should be a nice easy review.

The Agent of Rome series began with The Siege, which was one of the strongest debuts I’ve ever read and immediately defined the pace and quality of the entire series. There was little room for the author’s ability to grow and shape as he wrote, which is the natural thing to observe over a series, since the first volume was already perfectly polished. The problem with that kind of start is that it’s difficult to keep to the expected quality. So far, though, I’ve seen no dip in the series, which is excellent.

And while I say that there’s little room to grow when you begin at the top anyway, that’s just regarding the author’s ability to put across his tale. There is always room for the work itself to grow, and Nick has become extremely proficient at crafting a plot that is tight, clever and self-contained, and yet allows for exploration of subplots, outside themes and character expansion throughout. I think that is the most notable thing about this novel: the character growth.

In book one we were introduced to Cassius Corbulo, unwilling secret service man, and to his stalwart slave Simo. In book 2, in a move about which I was initially skeptical, we met the gladiator Indavara and saw him become Corbulo’s bodyguard. In book 4, they acquired a mule. Essentially, several disparate characters, each as deep as the next, have become a family and the reader cares about them all, and not just the principle protagonist. In fact in some ways, he is the shallowest of them and it is the lives of his companions that actually draw the sympathy and interest of the reader.

In The Emperor’s Silver (the fifth volume in the series) we find Corbulo in Syria following his unpleasant sojourn in Arabia in the previous book. He and his people are still suffering strained relationships after those events and Corbulo himself is still trying to come to terms with killing a man in cold blood. In an effort to avoid the bloody revolt going on in Egypt, Corbulo inveigles his way into Marshal Marcellinus’ good books and gets himself assigned to the Levantine cities to investigate a case of counterfeit coinage.

The beauty of the Agent of Rome series’ premise (as opposed to say my own Marius’ Mules books, which are grounded solidly in military campaigning) is that the potential for stories is vast and all-encompassing. Nick’s plots are each fresh and varied, and each book carries us to new territory, never growing stale. Appropriately, this is a new and fascinating plot, investigative and tense, more social and character-driven than the previous work, which involved a great deal more action and espionage.

Book 5, though, has two particular subplots running throughout that add something strong. The first is Indavara. After three books with the history of the gladiator only loosely hinted at (the man has no memory of his time before the arena) Nick has opened up the Pandora’s box of Indavara’s past. Only a crack so far, with tantalising glimpses of what’s to come. And secondly, someone is after Corbulo! I mean there’s always someone after Corbulo. It’s part of his job that he makes enemies, but in this case, it seems to be something else, disconnected from the plot. And these two subplots are not quite what they seem. They… oh well I’ll let you discover that for yourself. No spoilers here.

If I had one small criticism of book 5 it would be the number of plot threads left open at the end. I realise that this is a deliberate choice and understand clearly why Nick has concluded it in such a manner, though it feels a little like the last page should simply say ‘Tune in next week for…’ The flipside of that, of course, is that we know how book 6 is going to start and what at least part of it is going to be about. Personally I can’t wait to see what happens next and as usual I will be on Twitter, badgering Nick for news of the next book.

The Emperor’s Silver continues the high standard Nick Brown set himself to begin with, the plot strong, the characters vivid, the atmosphere heady and exotic, the descriptive imaginative and the pace fast and comfortable. As with all the previous volumes it is a book that I picked up intending to ready 20 or 30 pages and put it down 100 pages later.

If you’ve read books 1 to 4, The Emperor’s Silver is released today and you really should go get it. If you haven’t, where have you been? But now is an excellent time to catch up.

Go buy Agent of Rome 5 today and you’ll be glad you did. Put aside a few days and be prepared to lose yourself in Roman Syria.

Written by SJAT

June 4, 2015 at 9:41 am

Nick Brown: Agent of Rome

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tbs

What can I say? Nick Brown set himself a very high standard with his first novel, which was outstanding for a debut. And despite that, he managed to top it with book 2 and again with book 3. Book 4, then. Sometimes I am, at this point in a series, a little worried that the fire and ingenuity will have gone from the writing. I have to say that I did not worry about that with Nick. His writing is always top-notch, his plots seamless and his narrative excellent. I had no doubt that this would match up to his high standard, and it did.

In the first book, we say Cassius Corbulo thrown into the action defending a siege against incredible odds. In the second, he was set to hunting down a stolen banner than could avert or start a war. In book 3 he began a manhunt, following a murder investigation. Book 4 should realistically feel familiar, being another plot concerning the tracking down and recovery of a stolen item. Worry not. It is a fresh and thrilling investigation and in no way similar to, or derivative of, book 1.

I will only deal briefly with plot in case of spoilers. This story involves a perilous journey through the desert lands of modern Syria and Jordan in an attempt to recover the infamous Black Stone of Emesa, a sacred object that the deranged emperor Elagabalus had utilised in his weirdness decades earlier. His journey will bring him – undercover, of course, and with a sneaky column of local auxiliaries – into direct conflict with a madman rising like scum to the top of the southern Saracen tribes and inciting hatred against Rome and its taxes. Set to recovering the stone by his Service seniors and to uncovering the true nature of the tribes’ defiance by the province’s governor, Corbulo is going to find himself torn in numerous directions and trying to stay alive and keep his command intact while achieving several conflicting missions.

Enough. If I’ve not convinced you to buy it, I will now. Go buy it or I’ll send you an angry bear in the post!

Seriously, there are two things that deserve to be said about The Black stone.

1. I noticed in this, more than any of the other three, a true case of well-written and plotted and thoroughly realistic character progression. Corbulo, Simo and Indevara are so well portrayed here that they feel like close friends, and the changes the dreadful circumstances into which they are thrown wreak upon both them and their relationships are beautifully written. And watch out too for a couple of really stupendous new characters, including a bad guy that goes solidly into the ‘I wish I’d invented him’ folder.

2. The ease of the book. Some books are wonderful, but hard work, and you have to make yourself concentrate on. Others are easy reads, because they are rather basic. Very few are easy reads, that pull you headlong through the book, but are also wonderful pieces of literature. This is one. Go get this series and read them through. You will not be disappointed.

… and I have the angry bears on order. You have been warned.

Written by SJAT

June 10, 2014 at 8:21 pm

June Author Interview: Nick Brown

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nick_brown

A few years ago now, a new name popped up among the extant heavyweights of Roman fiction. Friends mentioned his first book: Agent of Rome – The Siege favourably, and I decided that I ought to add it to my towering ‘to be read’ pile. At the time, I was trying to catch up with a few series I’d fallen way behind on, and wasn’t sure whether I really needed to commit another Roman author to my busy reading list, and in the end, reading it kept getting put back again and again. Clever me. You see, Nick was about to release his second book when I finally got round to reading the first.

The Siege surpassed my expectations by many a mile and gripped me. Nick rocketed straight up to take his place among those heavyweights I’d mentioned. And because I’d been so lax, joy of joys, I had a sequel to read pretty much straight away! Well, we’re now four books down Nick’s road and I’m a firm fan, waiting along with plenty of others for the next installment with boyish eagerness. And his fourth opus is almost here.

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6th of June is D-Day, when we commemorate the Normandy Landings. But 5th of June is N-Day, when we celebrate the release of Agent of Rome – The Black Stone. A review will be posted here in a few days, so keep an eye out, but in the meantime, with propitious timing, my author interview for June is with the man himself. Well I’ve bigged him up enough for now, so let’s see what he has to say about his work…

Introducing Nick Brown:

Cassius Corbulo is something of a unique character in the field of Roman fiction (and even in Historical fiction in general.) A dissolute, privileged background, his enforced military experience and his career unravelling plots and mysteries for the authorities of Rome make Corbulo truly individual. What made you decide upon your unusual protagonist?

There are two aspects to that really. In terms of the ‘grain men’ – often called Rome’s secret service- they were involved in so many fields (espionage, policing, assassination to name a few) – that the dramatic opportunities seemed huge. In terms of Cassius himself, that dates back to ‘The Siege’ – I wanted a character who was young, inexperienced, certainly not a warrior but someone with the intelligence to organise the threatened garrison of Alauran. That just seemed a bit more interesting than a more typical sword-wielding, inspirational type.

How do you research your books? I know people who make heavy use of reenactment, people who walk every inch of their locations, people who research deeper than any mainstream academic, and, of course, there are people who rely heavily on imagination, it all being fiction after all. All of these seem viable routes in their own way and for their own types of work.

I agree that all are viable and I’m sure most of us employ a healthy mix. I’ve never gone down the re-enactment route though, nor have I been able to visit any of the locations. So I suppose I do rely heavily on research and a healthy dose of imagination. Having read so many great texts on the Roman period (examining everything from sailing techniques to intelligence-gathering; mosaic design to types of bread) I’m always conscious of how indebted we novelists are to historians.

Is there anything you’ve come across based in Corbulo’s time that you are itching to write about? Anything that’s dragging you in and demanding you include it in a plot?

Yes, a few things actually. Usually I will try and include them; if not as a story point then at least as a reference. In ‘The Black Stone’, for example, Cassius speaks to a Saracen ally about a distant island protected by mysterious flying creatures. Cassius knows only the Latin word for them which comes from the northern provinces – dragon!

If you could live in any time period and location, which would you choose. And as a counterpart to that, what historical character would you most like to meet and talk to?

As long as I could take a well-equipped doctor back with me I would be straight off to the third century – just to compare reality with what I have read and imagined. It would be beyond incredible to have a chat with Emperor Aurelian or maybe Queen Zenobia. Then I might jump back in my time machine and head off to see the dinosaurs, followed by a sojourn in medieval England!

You have travelled widely in your career, working in Nepal and Poland. Neither of these fascinating places – which must have had a profound impact on your life – comes close to being within Rome’s sphere of influence, so what made you choose Rome over them for your tales? And consequently, do you feel to any extent limited by the era you have chosen? Admittedly, third century Rome is quite a deep, rich time, but have you ever felt like writing in another era and location too?

Both fascinating places it’s true but it never occurred to me to write about them. I suppose like many people, including yourself, I just caught the Roman bug. The third century appealed because though the Empire was in decline, Aurelian was a very successful emperor. In general, whatever the period, I think there are always more opportunities than limitations. I have thought about many different eras, ancient and modern – it’s just a case of finding the right project, I suppose.

If a reader asked me ‘Why should I buy Nick’s books? What’s different about them? What’s the hook?’ I know what I’d say. What would you say to that?

Er …. well it’s hard to judge your own work but I certainly try to mix dynamic plots with compelling characters and a dash of humour. Within the genre I think the ‘agent angle’ is something fresh, allowing Cassius, Indavara et al to get mixed up with everything from protecting princes to hunting stolen artefacts and investigating murders.

(For the record, for me there are three specific draws for Nick’s books. They are always innovative, intelligent and very well constructed plots. The character and his situations are different from anything else out there in the Roman fiction world at the moment. And finally, they are a very pleasant, comfortable and engrossing read. There is no struggle. Pick up the book for 5 minutes and next thing you know it’s got dark and you’re 200 pages through it!)

Given that your books are something of a mix between mystery, combat, investigation, adventure, historical travelogue, and even humorous character-interaction, it must be very difficult getting that mix just right to keep the reader hooked. How do you go about that and do you ever worry if you have imbalance in these aspects? For the record, they have been the perfect mix for me, by the way…

You’re very kind! I think that all begins with the plotting, though it’s also crucial to make sure that the story is balanced in terms of character. It gets easier after four or five books, especially as the tone/style is quite well established now. Having said that, I am always looking for ways to mix things up. Books five and six will include the most dramatic and challenging situation the trio have faced yet.

In movies, the creator often gets to release a director’s cut and tweak things after release. Authors get no such option. Have you ever written a scene that you wish you’d done another way? That you think was too violent, or too tense, or too languid (or of course not violent enough!)

There are some little things but nothing major – yet. It may well be that I look back in a few years and cringe!

Are you taking each plot as it comes, throwing Corbulo in new directions as the mood takes you, or do you have a finite arc for the series? Where do you see the whole tale taking him in the end?

I do have a basic arc established, yes, though I’m not sure how long it will take to get to get there. As for where Cassius (and Indavara/ Simo) end up that’s one I keep quiet about!

What are you reading at present?

Lots of non-fiction at the moment. The last book I read was ‘A House in the Sky’, a brilliantly written and very moving memoir by American reporter Amanda Lindhout – she was captured in Somalia by Islamic militants and survived a terrible 460 day ordeal. On a lighter note, I also came across a book called ‘The Far Arena’ – it was written in 1979 and is about a Roman gladiator frozen in ice who is reanimated in the modern world!

And finally, can you give us any clues or hints as to what your next project is? What we can hope to see on the shelves in the next few years?

Well, hopefully a few more Cassius books but at some point I would like to move onto different eras and types of stories. I like reading and writing both fantasy and sci-fi so basically it could be anything.

* * * * *

 Thank you, Nick for taking the time to answer my questions and help enlighten new readers out there. Look out for Book 4 on the 5th, as it’s a stunner once again. For those of you who’ve not had a chance to speak to Nick, I would say that you’re missing out. If you’re on twitter, follow him here.

Also, don’t forget to browse his website here, his facebook page here, and peruse (and buy) his books on Amazon.

Written by SJAT

June 1, 2014 at 8:00 am

Agent of Rome: The Far Shore

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Far-Shore

Some time back I read the first two Agent of Rome books back to back and reviewed them. They were excellent reads, quite different from one another, given the fact that they are part of a series.

So, when given the opportunity to read the third in the series, I leaped at the chance.

The Far Shore continues the adventures of Cassius Corbulo of the Imperial Security Service (the Grain men or Frumentarii), his Gaulish slave Simo, and his ex-gladiator bodyguard Indavara. It takes place only a short time after the events of The Imperial Banner, and continues to build the relationship between the characters.

I will (as usual) not delve too deep into the plot, in case of spoilers for people, but I will say a few things. For those of you who have read the first two, this third book bears a lot more resemblance to the second than the first, in that it is considerably more investigative than martial. While the first novel was an eponymous siege, and the second was based around the recovery of a stolen item, this third is a manhunt that crosses seas and takes place in more than one province. Do not be thrown by the cover, which might suggest a very naval tale. While large sections of the book take place at sea, there are also hefty sections on dry land. With Nick’s usual flair for the dramatic, the plot never lets up and even when you think everything should be over and settled, you look and realise there’s still a hundred pages left and the excitement is far from over.

Character is important in Nick’s books. Containing his protagonists to the three men with a small supporting cast means that the characters get a lot of exposure and shine. Given the huge differences in their character, background and status, the interplay between them is always stunning. The first book saw a great deal of development in Corbulo’s character, and the second did much the same with Simo. Well this third book expands the scope and depth of Indavara nicely. In addition, a few of the supporting cast were beautifully portrayed (I’m thinking particularly of Carnifex and Eborius).

There is, I think, a tendency in Roman fiction to place too much emphasis on authenticity at the expense of readability (while there is also – particularly in the self publishing market- much the opposite.) Nick Brown has hit it just right, I think, to feel authentic and maintain a good level of historical accuracy, and yet not compromise the ease of reading and the touch of modern colloquialism that makes the reader identify with the tale. His speech is realistic and his descriptive atmospheric without being burdensome. In all, the writing is so tight and comfortable that it drags you along apace without the requirement to expend effort.

I would say that in this third installment there are a few moments of predictability that were not there in the first two. Some actions and responses were a little obvious, but do not let that put you off in any way. To some extent it actually helps, given the subject matter. After all, this is basically a spy thriller/action adventure. James Bond would not be James Bond without a little capture and humiliation. Indiana Jones would have suffered had it lost a few of its predictable moments. A sense of anticipation of events helps. Action, excitement and mystery, mixed with a little vicious, bloody violence and a well-rounded tight sense of humour that surfaces at just the right times.

All in all, I would say that The Far Shore is a good, solid, thrilling continuation of the series and a growth of the main characters, while exploring newer, more varied territory.

I look forward to Corbulo’s next foray with impatience.

Read the book. Read all three if you haven’t. You won’t regret it.

Written by SJAT

July 18, 2013 at 11:05 am

Nick Brown: Agent of Rome

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nb1 nb2

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.

Written by SJAT

March 28, 2013 at 2:13 pm