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Posts Tagged ‘Aquila

Empire 8: Thunder of the Gods

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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.

Written by SJAT

June 25, 2015 at 2:47 pm

The Emperor’s Knives

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What can I say by book 7?

If you’re a fan of the Roman era and you read books, then if you haven’t started the Empire series by now, I can only assume you’ve been living in a darkened closet hiding from the CIA and living on pizza pushed under the door. Riches has solidly secured himself a place among the giants of Historical Fiction, vying with the likes of Ben Kane, Douglas Jackson and Manda Scott in terms of style, plot, character and readability.

If you are that pale frightened figure in the closet, risk the CIA spotting you, and rush out to a bookstore tomorrow. Or pre-order from Amazon today and have it delivered to your door. It’s worth risking the possibility that Chuck and his black-suit-clad pals will find you. And here’s why:

Most writers have trouble with such a long series, I think. Even the greatest (witness Sharp for example) hit a lull where it becomes formulaic and sags for a while. To keep things fresh through seven books it quite impressive on its own.

The ‘EMPIRE’ series has managed just that. In fact, I would say now, looking back over the series, that the first three books are much in a vein with one another as straight military history beat-em-ups with a little betrayal and secrecy stuff and a smattering of politics thrown into the mix. From book 4, however, Riches clearly decided that more could be done with his characters and began to expand the scope of the series. From German bandits and sacred woods to Romanian gold mines and Imperial betrayal and then back to Britain for a book and a covert mission that will overturn everything and leave our hero in the eternal city, the series exploded into variety and excitement on a previously undreamed-of level.

The characters became more complex and understandable, the settings more exciting and vivid, the plots more twisty and turny and fascinating, and all in all, the books endlessly readable.

The Emperor’s Knives is the culmination of one particular story arc in the series. This is not a shock to anyone keeping up, just from the title. If you’ve got through, say, four or five of the books, you probably already have an inkling of what’s coming in this volume.

If you’re new to the series, check out reviews of the others and then come back. If you want to avoid the chance of spoiling things in the series so far, look away now and come back to the red marker…

So….

Look AWAY, I said!

Yes, Corvus/Aquila being back in Rome gives him the perfect opportunity to put old ghosts to rest and deal with the infamous group of imperial covert killers who have been murdering the aristocracy on imperial orders and acquiring their cash and land for the throne. A senator, a mob-boss, a Praetorian officer and a champion gladiator. All marked for death by our hero. But how will he go about it?

New characters are introduced, about whom we are already aware (including those who originally trained Marcus in the martial skills) and old enemies reappear in stunning ‘Bastard-o-colour’.

Yes, this is the culmination of the ‘Aquila family betrayal and murder’ plot, but then you knew that from the title! In this case, it’s not about the destination, but about the journey. And what a ride. Corvus is about to get revenge in spectacular fashion.

OK. BACK TO THE NON-SPOILER STUFF

Be prepared. If you know Riches’ work then by now you’ll know he’s got a tendency to throw in a few curveballs to wrong-foot the reader and screw his expectations. You’re gonna get that. In spades. Several times in this, I found myself saying ‘Oh? Oh, right. Well, then…’ and then going back to the story.

Corvus/Aquila doesn’t grow as a character, because he doesn’t need to. At this point he’s as fully fleshed out as he ever needs to be. More would just be OTT. But he does get some fantastic scenes, speeches and moves. And the supporting cast DO grow. Particularly Scaurus, who I already loved. New characters have appeared, some of whom will likely run through more books in the series, and some of whom are the stronger characters Riches has yet created.

The tale completes the aforesaid particular story arc but goes beyond, tying in more threads, and the end puts in place something for book 8 that I’ve been waiting for for ages. It is very easy when tying up a massive plot arc to leave it feeling either twee or contrived or both. This does not do so, though. This volume concludes in a most satisfactory and not entirely expected manner, leaving a couple of threads for future books and the reader feeling sated.

Riches’ books, though, have two strengths which have always been in evidence and only grow with each release: They are break-neck paced, in the same fashion as Mike Arnold’s civil war books, dragging the reader along in breathless admiration. And they are so realistically readable. There is simply no effort involved. You open the book and let go and the story whisks you along without any hard work. All in all, Riches is clearly still getting better with every book, which by book 7 is quite impressive!

It’s out tomorrow. BUY IT, or I’ll tell the CIA where you live and stop the pizza deliveries! Oh, and as a special incentive, the hardback includes a short story that you DO NOT WANT TO MISS!

Written by SJAT

February 12, 2014 at 9:00 am

The Tony’s Gold

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I’ve been a fan of Tony Riches since Corvus first put in an appearance in Wounds of Honour, and I’m always pleased to pick up an ‘Empire’ book.

I’ve done reviews of the others so far, and I would reference them in this review. The first three in the series I always considered very much a single story arc over three books. Moreover, they were staunchly and solidly novels of the Roman military.

Cue Tony’s curveball: The Leopard Sword. The fourth book in the series was something of a departure in style, concentrating more on an ingenious plotline of intrigues and banditry than on the military campaigns we’d come to expect. Having read reviews and spoken to people since, I’m not sure how well-received the change was. I personally thought it was a triumph and a real growth in character, style and plot crafting.

Well The Wolf’s Gold should be an all-pleaser as far as I can see. In one way, it’s very much a return to a military-oriented plotline, with stretches of good solid campaigning in there, which should please the die-hard ‘Military Riches’ fans, and yet also involves a depth, ingenuity and intricacy of plot that has been born – in my opinion – from the style of Leopard Sword.

The plot to this masterpiece moves us once more. The first three books had us in Northern Britannia, and the fourth shifted the action to the forests of Germany, while in this one, the poor beleaguered Tungrian cohorts are sent to Dacia (modern Romania) into the Carpathian mountains to provide defence for the gold mines that are essential for imperial revenue. It is here that they will meet a number of interesting and often dubious characters and fall foul of plots and tricks that will once again have them fighting for their lives and have centurion Corvus creating crazy plans that have little chance of success.

As always with Tony’s writing, he sacrifices just the tiniest modicum of uptight concern for anachronistic idiom (something more authors could do with trying) in favour of something that feels realistic and appropriate to the reader and creates a flow of text that’s never interrupted.

And that’s a big part of this book. From the very start it races away and takes the reader with it. The flow is just too easy to read and hard to put down. As usual there is a humour among the soldiers that borders on the tasteless at times, and feels thoroughly authenic (and also happens to make me laugh out loud) combined with a brutal combative narrative that pulls no punches and coats the reader with gore, all overlaid with a few saddening scenes and thoughts.

From the might of Sarmatian hordes and their perfidious nobles to the treachery of self-serving mine owners, the untrustworthiness of border troops, the mindless buffoonery of the upper class legionary Tribunes, the madness of battles on ice, and the heart-pounding stealthy infiltrations of installations by a few good men, Wolf’s Gold should win on many levels and certainly does with me.

Moreover, this novel sees a significant advance in the overall arc of Corvus’ history, his murdered family and the imperial intrigues that accompany it.

As a last aside, Tony is one of few writers of Roman fiction who rarely feels the need to name-drop, his characters almost always fictional and self-created, which I find refreshing and even when he does so, it is fascinating. In this case we are introduced to not one, but two, future attempted usurpers of Imperial power.

All in all, Wolf’s Gold is a storming read, and Riches’ best yet. I cannot wait to see what is going to follow in book 6 following the events of this.

Written by SJAT

October 25, 2012 at 7:22 pm

Anthony Riches’ Empire

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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!)

Written by SJAT

September 30, 2012 at 10:46 pm