Posts Tagged ‘Anthony Riches’
I’m sure if you’re reading my blog you’ll already be familiar with Riches’ work, in the form of his late 2nd century ‘Empire’ series. It came as something of a surprise to me last year to learn that while he is still continuing that series, Riches had sidestepped into a slightly earlier era with a trilogy project based on the Batavian Revolt.
For the record, I’m a huge fan of Riches’ Empire series, which has everything I look for in rollicking historical mayhem. But Betrayal is a different beast entirely. It feels considerably more grown-up than the Empire series (which sounds like an insult to Empire, but is not meant as such.) There is just something altogether more serious, thoughtful and… well, grown up… about this series. There’s no other way to put it.
Set during the Year of the Four Emperors, despite my love of Riches’ work, I approached Betrayal nervously. It is an era that has already been plumbed thoroughly by a number of very good writers, and the whole subject has become a little bit stale for me recently, the last good treatment I read being Doug Jackson’s. I needn’t have been concerned. Riches has done himself proud by looking at this oft-viewed piece of history from a new angle and a new point of view, which is impressive.
In fact, the general direction of the book reminded me of Ben Kane’s seemingly preferred angle, taking on a critical event in Roman history from a non-Roman point of view. In this case, it is largely told from the point of view of Civilis, a Batavian officer, with additional angles provided by a number of centurions on different sides of the conflict. And for anyone not familiar with the Year of the Four Emperors, there are most definitely more than two sides to look at.
Initially, I was a little perturbed by the number of angles and viewpoints, to be honest. Be aware that there are a lot of characters and units to familiarise yourself with, and that can require a lot of memory and concentration. But the same could be said with his Empire series, which involves a good number of important supporting characters, and yet that did not take me long to get the hang of. The same is the case here. It did not take too long to start grasping who was who and what was going on.
This is not a straightforward military romp. It is not a ‘swords and sandals adventure’. This is a deeply complex novel and, while it revolves around military units, the first book revolves more around the political machinations of powerful men, tribal politics and the strengths and failings of a number of imperial personas. In fact, battle scenes are rare for a Riches novel, with good in-your-face combat early and late in the story, sandwiching a knotty plot that is treated with respect and intelligence.
And the win for me? It gave me a new respect for the Batavians and their place in Roman history. Made me appreciate and consider the part they played in the early empire and the individuality of a people I had always rather lumped in as ‘one of those tribes.’
This is a superb book, and the start of what promises to be a cracking trilogy, given how this builds, and how it ends. The book is out on March 9th, and I suggest you pre-order it now or set a reminder to buy it in a fortnight!
One of the best ways, in my experience, to guage the quality of fiction is how easy it is to read. Yes, there is some crap out there that is an easy read, and yes, there are great reads out there that require concentration and work. But more often than not a book that just grabs your attention and drags you along from beginning to end is a success. I find Anthony Riches’ books to be like that. They hook you in the first few pages, relieve you of sleep, food and work and occupy your waking moments until you reach the end and close the book with a smile. Case in point: Empire IX – Altar of Blood. Started it one morning. Finished it the next afternoon. Couldn’t stop reading it.
Part of it now has become the familiarity with the characters, the setting and the writing style. By the ninth book in a series, readers know they’re going to get what they want. They’re on a safe bet. But kudos is due any author who makes it to book 9 in a series and isn’t simply rehashing old stuff. I pick up Riches’ books and I know I’m in for a treat, though. And even this far into a series, I know I’m in for new twists and fresh discoveries.
Riches, you see, is unpredictable. He cannot be counted on to give us happily ever after, to give us tested formula for all my comments about familiarity. Riches might kill off someone important any moment. He will take us to new places and may even turn the tables so that previous friends are enemies and previous enemies friends. Such keeps things fresh.
With the ninth in the empire series, there is a new feel to the start. Altar of Blood begins with viciousness and eye-watering brutality, and then settles down into an opening tale of tragedy. Then gradually, as our hero is put through the emotional mill yet again, the true tale of the book comes out. We are re-introduced not only to the usual characters but also to the wicked emperor and the snake Cleander. And then our heroes are sent off on a dreadfully dangerous secret mission into barbarian lands, following a brief ‘Dirty dozen’ recruitment session. Interestingly, where the previous books have focused primarily on our friend Corvus/Aquila with interludes carried by his friends, this book is almost entirely narrated around characters that were formerly supporting cast, with Aquila only occasionally coming to the fore.
There follows a tale of subterfuge and double dealing, insurgency and counter insurgency, chases, battles in deep forest and swamp, catharsis and healing, treachery and betrayal and heroism in unexpected places. The tale owes something in form to ‘Heart of Darkness’ or ‘Apocalypse Now’, but one thing is certain: with Riches’ own blend of adventure, action, violence, harsh language and reality born of understanding the military mind, he is becoming something of a Tarantino of historical fiction. Fresh, unpredictable, fascinating and exciting.
And Husam! Oh, Husam, you are sooooo cool.
Altar of Blood is out in paperback today. Have you read the series? No. Then get started, as you’ve a treat ahead of you. If you have, then rest assured, volume nine is far from disappointing. Go buy it now.
How propitious. Thursday is blog day and this post, which is my top 10 reads of 2015 happens therefore to fall on New Year’s Eve. These are the best of my reads this year and are presented in order of Author surname, not preference. And, oddly, there are some of my fave authors not represented here, simply because I’ve not read one of their books this year. And for good measure I’ve thrown in a bonus read at the end! Enjoy the list.
Tobias – Prue Batten
The first in a trilogy of spin-offs from Prue’s Gisborne series, Tobias was a hit this year since it maintained her absolutely tip-top standards of prose, style and character, while taking a step forward in terms of plot and action. It represents Prue’s best work so far and is a perfect marriage of style and content. Read my review here.
The Emperor’s Silver – Nick Brown
One of my all-time fave series came back with a bang this year. Nick Brown took a novel character type and a little-used era and created the Agent of Rome. And his protagonist has grown and acquired friends through the series, and though this one stands out partially for the intricate plot, it mostly does so because of the impressive character growth of the supporting cast, which was long anticipated and very welcome. Read my review here.
The Great King – Christian Cameron
The Long War series is one of the most immersive and expansive series in historical fiction, and the Great King stands out from the rest of the series for me because it contains everything I seek in this kind of work. It covers one of the greatest military engagements in Greek history, explores the Olympic Games and leads us a journey into the heart of Persia. All really good stuff. Read my review here.
The Devil’s Assassin – Paul Fraser Collard
Jack Lark is one of the best literary inventions of the past decade. A truly unique character idea and one that initially I thought would have trouble managing a second book. And this one is the third! The third Lark book is also a game changer, taking us off on a tangent from what we were expecting, which is a brave move for an author and sometimes fails in execution. This one didn’t. Read my review here.
The King’s Assassin – Angus Donald
The Outlaw chronicles have been a welcome staple of my reading for years now, and consitently make my top 10. King’s Assassin is something new, though. It feels different from the other novels in the series. To some extent, it felt like what had been a proper boy’s adventure series had grown up, passing through to become something different. It is the penultimate in the series and there is a definite feel of something coming to an end. Read my review here.
America’s First Daughter – Stephanie Dray & Laura Kamoie
A new writer for me – two new writers, in fact. I’d encountered Stephanie’s work as part of the A Day Of Fire collection, but this was something else and a phenomenal achievement. It was a new type of read for me entirely, and one born from the most unique perspective. It opened up new avenues of interest in my life, and for that alone it deserves a top ten spot. Read me review here.
Eagles at War – Ben Kane
Again, Ben Kane moves into a new milieu, having dealt with the Caesarian era, Hannibal and Spartacus. And this time he’s moved more into my period of choice. To take on the Teutoborg disaster and try to cover the scope in a single novel is a massive undertaking and he did it justice from both sides of the conflict, which was nice to see. Read my review here.
Lady of the Eternal City – Kate Quinn
Again, a contributor to A Day Of Fire, Kate Quinn proved herself to me with this novel, which is languorous and exotic and yet at the same time informative and pacy, showing a side of the emperor Hadrian that I had never even imagined. A win on several levels. Read my review here.
Thunder of the Gods – Anthony Riches
The empire series is on its eighth book now and seems to be running from strength to strength. Here we have moved geographically into the Middle East to explore the Parthian world in a truly action packed and fast paced military adventure. The reason for this win: Riches has settled into the characters beautifully and has managed to change directions with the overall plot arc now. Read my review here.
The Holy Thief – William Ryan
One of the most atmospheric books I have ever read. Quite simply that. A Gorky Park for this decade, Holy Thief is a perfect marriage of intricate plot and foggy, dangerous, cloying atmosphere. The protagonist is extremely real and sympathetic and I felt totally drawn into the time. Read my review here.
Into The Fire – Manda Scott
One of the most ambitious novels I have ever encountered, Into the Fire was a duel timeline treat dealing with modern police procedure and political shenanigans and the campaigns of Joan of Arc. It was a masterpiece in both times and probably hits my top ten of all time. Read my review here.
So there we go. 11 books in a top 10, and each and every one a gem. If you didn’t get round to reading one of them this year, go get it for 2016. Happy New Year and happy reading everyone.
You may have missed my review of Anthony Riches’ latest epic a week or two back, but if you did, here’s a little treat for you. I’ve been treated to a nice little Q&A session with the author himself. Hopefully if you’ve not read my reviews or possibly even his books, this interesting and enlightening little interview will push you to doing so. After all, the Empire series continues to ride at the crest of the wave of current Historical Fiction.
My blog reviews of the last four books can be found here:
and my goodreads reviews of the previous three here:
So without further ado (ron ron ron, ado ron ron), here’s a little peek into the mind of the man behind this fantastic series:
Q. In ‘The Emperor’s Knives’ you take significant steps towards dealing with some of the background plot that has underlay the entire series so far. Did you consciously decide to bring the series over the last few books to a position where that could happen, or did the progress of the series serendipitously put you in a position to deal with it?
A. I have a masterplan…*smiles smugly*…*then looks shifty*…oh alright, no I don’t, not really. What I do have is a load of history books and an overactive subconscious. The way it works is that I read the histories, find a relevant fact, and then off we go. So, for example:
**spoiler alert** (don’t read this if you’ve not read book 6 yet!)
it’s recorded that a consignment of coins stamped with a head that wasn’t the emperor’s was at the root of the death of a certain praetorian prefect in about AD185 – and so it wasn’t rocket science to draw a line from Dacia (where the gold came from), through Britannia (where it was intended to be used in the purchase of legionary loyalty) to Rome (where the Tungrians take it to see justice done)
**spoiler over, (bet you wish you hadn’t read it now, don’t you!)
Picture me in the Henhouse (writing hidey hole) grinning with smug pleasure as my “cunning plan” came together without conscious volition.
And you thought it was all cleverly planned, eh? What do you mean, ‘no, I didn’t’? Harrumph.
Q. In book 7, your locations are more vivid and intricate than ever before. How important to you is it to visit a place that you are going to write about first?
Hugely. I’ve been to all of the locations. All over northern England and southern Scotland, Belgium (Tungria), Rome several times…the only place I’ve not been is Romania (Dacia), just because I ran out of time – did it show, I wonder? And of course I’ve not yet been to…ah, but you don’t want to know where book 8’s set, now do you?
Q. Was it a whole new experience after 6 books which revolved strongly around military campaigning on the empire’s borders to instead work on something more intrigue based in the great city? And given a choice, which do you prefer?
A. Both (**copout alert**). It was a huge change, and I loved it, but it gives me big problems in book 8 from a ‘getting back to basics’ perspective. I’m like a farm boy who’s seen the big city and then has to go back to his plough… Although it’s nice to get the Tungrians back on stage, especially my latest soldier character, ‘Jesus’. You’ll know why they call him that when you meet him!
Q. Your books contain a few historical characters as well as your fictional ones, such as Commodus, Cleander and Clodius Albinus. How do you go about deconstructing the myths about those people and then assembling them to portray within your story?
A. What I actually do is a mixture of debunking as much myth as I can (for example, the revisionist view of Perennis is that he was probably doing a decent job of being emperor in the absence of Commodus showing any interest) with the reality of needing characters who can fit into my version of the late second century (which mean that he is also the man commanding the loyalty of the Knives). I think the two approaches can co-exist pretty well. Clodius Albinus was reputed to be ‘the best of men’, but who can say what was motivating the writer, in an age where you had to get paid to be able to afford to write, and there were no pubic institutions to do the paying, which only left individuals – like Clodius Albinus! And after all, this is fiction!
Q. Although the bulk of the Roman military was made up of auxiliary forces and native units, the most famous fighting force was the legions and it is with them that 90% of the public will immediately identify when they think of Rome. What prompted you to write about the less famous auxilia than the legions?
A. I just felt it was time someone had a try at them, and it was great fun. After all, it was the auxiliaries who did the lion’s share of the fighting by the time of this series, so the first time one of my characters called the legions ‘roadmenders’ there was a real snigger in it for me. Mind you, that might rebound on the Tungrians at some point. They may not be auxiliaries for ever, you know!
Q. Book 8 looks to be set in the east. Beyond that, what does the future hold for ‘Two Knives’ and his companions?
A. Another 25 years of war on every frontier, civil war, the biggest battle of the second century which lasted two days (TWO DAYS!!!), a military strongman, treachery, honour and blood. Lots of blood!
So thank you to Tony for that and a reminder that book 7 (The Emperor’s Knives) is out now in hardback and book 6 (The Eagle’s Vengeance) is released in paperback tomorrow.
As well as reading this excellent book – which is released TODAY by the way – I have had the opportunity to pose a few interesting questions of the author. So without further ado, here is my review, followed by a nice little Q&A with the man himself.
Anyone who’s kept up with my reviews over the past few years will already know how much I enjoy Anthony Riches’ books. He is among the leaders in the field of Historical Fiction in my humble opinion, and never ceases to thrill and entertain me with his work. And when the next in the Empire series appears in Coming soon lists, my reading pile gets reordered appropriately.
The Eagle’s Vengeance has some tough acts to follow. I would say that the first three of the series were very much on a par with one another, and told a story in a 3 book arc (albeit a sub-story of the main story arc). They were excellent books and I highly rated them. However, books 4 and 5 took us off in new and fascinating directions, diverging from the extant tale and into wonderful unexpected worlds. They were also each a significant step up, in my view, on their predecessors. So Book 6 had a lot to live up to.
I was a little surprised to find that after two tales that took the characters across the Empire towards the east, this book began with them returning to Britannia, where it had all begun and where the first three books had been set. On some level, that made me expect the story to drop straight back into the arc of the first three books and I wondered whether it might falter for me.
In fact, while returning to old ground, Riches has kept the feel fresh and new, tying up a number of ends that have been flapping loose for 3 books now while taking us forward into the greater arc of the series by leaps and bounds.
For those of you who’ve not read the previous books, beware a few spoilers here and skip this paragraph. You have been warned. Remember those loose ends? They are, now we go back to them, far more significant than I remembered. A legionary eagle lost by the 6th to the northern tribes? Corvus’ true identity known to too many people for comfort? An unavenged senior officer? Look to Riches to deal with them at last.
So what is the Eagle’s Vengeance? Well it does what it says on the tin. The tale revolves around – at a basic level – the hunt for a legion’s eagle now in the hands of barbarians. For good reasons, only one unit in the whole of Britannia is suitable to send after it, and within that unit, only a small party of men stand a chance. And so is born a huge plan for distractions with military campaigns in order to allow a group of righteous thieves the opportunity to retrieve the lost item.
But as has become the norm in a Riches book, it is never that simple. Be sure that if the plot looks straightforward, that is because you are only seeing part of the big scheme. Be assured that there is more to the Eagle’s Vengeance… MUCH more. For those of you like me who have been itching to see an advance into the deeper plot involving the protagonist’s past, this is the book. It sort of marks a turning point in the grand plot, I think.
As usual, we see the departure of at least one old friend, but equally, we are introduced to a few new exciting characters. It wouldn’t be Riches any other way. And for those of you who don’t know his work, I will issue my usual warnings: Riches’ military stories have the in-your-face feel that I have encountered in the real military. The violence is brutal, as is much of the humour, and the sexual content is above Carry On level. But that should in no way put you off. They are simply excellent.
ON NOW TO SPEAK WITH THE AUTHOR:
I’ve enjoyed The Eagle’s Vengeance every bit as much as I’d hoped, given the high praise I’d heaped on the previous books in the series. It’s no small feat to keep the quality up consistently over six books of a series, and yet you’ve managed to do so in spades. Is it difficult to take your cast – who are now so well rounded and experienced – and come up with a new situation in which to immerse them, in which you can draw out new responses and new sides of already familiar characters?
Flattery will get you anywhere Simon! But that’s a good question, because I’ve just completed the seventh book – The Emperor’s Knives – and now I have the enjoyable task of picking out the next venue for the Tungrians. I’m helped somewhat by the actual history of the period, which was rather gritty, after most of a century of relative stability under five ‘wise emperors’ (which really meant ‘strictly no idiots allowed to inherit the throne and repeat the mayhem of the Julio-Claudian succession’). Once Commodus was in the big chair things started to heat up, with wars in Britannia (books 1 – 3), Dacia (book 5), and bandits all over the place (book 4 and more to come). And it’s a big empire, with vulnerable frontiers and some really nasty enemies. Then, once we reach AD193 the Severan civil war kicks off, and three generals dispute the throne of over three years, leading up to the titanic battle of Segedunum (Lyons) with hundreds of thousands of men fighting over the empire’s fate. And after that we’ve got another fourteen years with Septimius Severus, a fairly unpleasant hardman, roaming the empire and stamping flat the pockets of unrest that sprang up while the soldiers were away from their provinces fighting for power while his sons grow up with a poisonous hatred for one another. So that’s one side of it – history, pure and simple.
But there’s another side to the writing that I like to practise – showing the reality behind the history. Books 1 to 3 focused on the nature of Roman power in northern Britannia, in book 4 it was the grain supply to the Rhine legions, in book five it was Dacian gold, in book 6 (out on Thursday!!!) it’s the wreckage of the long deserted Antonine Wall, and in the next book it’ll be Rome, and a subject I’ve wanted to write about for years. It’s going to take about 25 books to get us to York, in AD211, and I aim to invest them all with as much of that background history as I can. And book 8? Somewhere distant, and warm.
After three books, you took the Empire series away from the Northern Frontier and off to first Germany and then Romania in two very different style of adventures from the previous more-military based novels. Now, with ‘Eagle’, you’ve brought the cast back to Britain and old adversaries from early in the series. Was it a pre-planned and conscious decision – part of a grand story arc – that precipitated this, or was it more a fluid decision, born of your current interests and ideas? Also, were you hesitant about returning to old ground after two books away?
I wouldn’t have used such a portentous term – not until I’d had several pints, at least – but you’ve given me all the excuse I need. It’s the “grand story arc” thing, mainly, although I was also fascinated to imagine the remains of the Antonine Wall as well. I had to bring the Tungrians back to Britannia in order for them to deal with some unfinished business and unwittingly follow a trail of gold that will turn the imperial palace upside down when its implications become clear. Mind you, they weren’t happy that morning I decided to march them north without allowing them to go back to The Hill. Not happy at all.
A number of geographical features in ‘Eagle’ are clearly familiar, such as the Antonine wall and a number of forts, rivers and lakes. I even spotted the frying pan shape of woodland while perusing Google Earth (as I sometimes do to give myself a nice overview of the terrain). One thing I was unsure about was the Venicone fortress: the Fang. Is this entirely fictional, or did you extrapolate from an existing feature? Does the Fang exist in some form, across the river from Stirling?
It’s there, and it’s called the Dumyat. I’ll send you some pictures to post, taken one sunny evening in 2008 when I was working in Glasgow and plotting for the Tungrians to make their way north at some point. Like Wellington, I put that piece of ground in my pocket until I needed it. Of course I doubt it was ever actually called The Fang, (there’s a hint of Tolkien in there if you squint hard enough), and it was apparently used by the Maeatae, but who’s to say that the Venicones weren’t there before them?
As with previous books in the series, despite writing about an auxiliary cohort, you have managed to seamlessly integrate odd and unusual characters (I myself have been a fan of Qadir since his first appearance.) In this volume, the fascinating group of characters led by Drest were something of a departure from the standard Roman military or Barbarian tribes that necessarily form the bulk of the Dramatis Personae. Do you come up with your plot and then carefully craft characters who could fulfil their role with plausibility, or do you find yourself forming interesting characters and then looking for a way to use them or tweaking the plot to facilitate their inclusion?
A bit of both. My good friend Russ Whitfield – author of the Gladiatrix series – and I have discussed the idea of spies and ‘special forces’ by the Roman army, and while there was clearly nothing more effective at the imperial level than the Frumentarii, what was to stop an individual governor or legatus from pulling together a group of hardy and unprincipled scouts to do his dirty work? And so I did just that with Drest and his men. The way it tends to work is that I come up with the characters first, then leave my subconscious to work out what they’re going to do. It wasn’t until I was a good deal more than half way through the book that I knew what their final part in the story would be, or how it would play out. That’s the joy – and the terror – of not plotting the books out before I write them. For every hour spent staring off into space thinking about Ferraris and wondering what the hell to write next there’s a delicious moment of amazement as my fingers skip across the keyboard delivering prose that I’m still making up as it comes out. Exhilarating. Exasperating. Both descriptions would be equally correct, although it usually comes out alright in the end. And Qadir…? His time is coming.
Each tale in the Empire series promises a little more on the dark history of centurion ‘Corvus’ and the plot that led to his exile in Britain in the first place. Each time we have seen another layer of skin peel from the onion, and finally, without wanting to throw in any spoilers, there is a serious swing into the very heart of the plot. Have you been waiting eager to scratch that particular itch?
I’ve been planning it (there’s that story arc thing again) for years, since I first wrote “Wounds of Honour“, although I didn’t think it’d take six books to get to the meat of the matter. And if you enjoyed that snippet of Marcus’s backstory, just wait for ‘The Emperor’s Knives‘…
Can you give us any teasers or hints as to what the future holds for the series and for our favourite centurion ‘Two Knives’?
‘The Emperor’s Knives’ will be quite unlike any Empire book that’s gone before, I can tell you that much. And after I think we’re all going to need a change of scene, and some enemies the like of which the poor old Tungrians haven’t seen before, and trust me, we’ll be getting both of those things.
Where do I start with The Leopard Sword? Strangely, with a comparison.
You see, I’ve been a fan of Tony’s books since the first Empire novel, but to me there is a definitely change between the first three books and this fourth one that makes a comparison viable. I have recommended the first three novels to numerous people since I started them (and bought copies as presents for some) but the target audience for that recommendation was fairly specific. The Empire books have been distinctly miltary in nature, bloodthirsty (aka not for the faint-hearted), rude (in an entirely appropriate way – The Romans has a fairly crude sense of humour and let’s face it, the military is pretty similar throughout history.) So I’ve aimed my recommendations at people with an interest in that area and who I know will appreciate the style.
The Leopard sword has lost none of these things. Everything that a fan of the first three books enjoyed is here. You will enjoy it. Believe me.
But more than that, Empire IV has taken Tony’s writing (and most particularly, I think, his planning of novels) to a whole new level. I will recommend TLS to people who I would baulk at the thought of reading the first three. It shows not only a natural progression from the first three but also a maturity in style that I adored.
Moving from a 90% military plotline to a new and exciting mix of military, whodunnit and thriller, TLS had me guessing almost to the end, with its constant twists and surprises. Every time I thought I’d nailed part of the plot it evaporated like smoke. I could enthuse about this at length and give some fantastic detail, but I will NOT risk spoilers, so enjoy that aspect and be glad I didn’t ruin it for you.
The first three books, for me, were very much a trilogy, and I worried, after the fairly definitive and enormous end of the third, whether Tony could really pull a fourth out of his hat. He’s done that, and made me wish I’d given his earlier books a lower rating so that I could adequately express my high estimation of this one.
As well as the continued ‘real’ feel of the military seen in his earlier books, there is also a much more personal element to TLS for several characters. There are some new and impressive folk to meet, and the bad guy in TLS will rank among my top historical villains. From his very introduction, he exudes style and mystery. Oh, and one of the previously more ‘supporting’ characters has really come into his own in this book and taken a limelight role – not before time.
This book also has a far more complex and intricate plot that its predecessors, and a real feel for the time and the local environment, which play a very important role in the plot itself. The interwoven threads are so neatly tied, it pleased me immensely to see not a hint of a loose end.
Moreover, I feel that Tony may have shifted a tiny amount of his focus so that there is less concentration on the battle and viscera (though don’t panic as there’s still plenty of ICK!) and more on subtle plot twists and character growth. All in all, it’s a subtle move in style, I think, but a welcome and mature one which loses nothing, yet gains everything.
Simply: I love it. Buy it. And – and I rarely will say this – even if you’ve not read the first three or don’t fancy them, buy this anyway. You’ll love it too.
Roll on The Wolf’s Gold (now out in less than a month!)