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The Centurions 2: Onslaught

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Early this year I had the opportunity to read and review Anthony Riches’ first Centurions book, Betrayal. I have now finished the second volume in this trilogy. It should be something of a clue as to the value I place on Riches’ work that my reading time has dropped by 75% this year due to work commitments, and yet I still made time to read both of these.

I said in my last review that the first book felt like a step into a more serious and deep style for Riches. This pace and style does not let up in the second volume of the series. This is one of the deepest and most complex of all military history series I have read.

You’ve heard the phrase ‘does exactly what it says on the tin’? Well this series does just that. Book 1 was military and political, with many switchbacks. Betrayal formed a core theme to the tale. Book 2 continues that trend. Onslaught. That is precisely what this book is. If you are looking for Machiavellian politics or civic and historical investigation or cunning mystery, this is not the book. If you are seeking war, then boy, this is for you.

Onslaught picks up the story of the Batavian revolt in Germania. There is manoeuvring politically through the contenders in the Year of the Four Emperors, but it is done on a personal and unit level in the provinces, not in noble families on the streets of Rome. Onslaught brings you unrelenting war. But it is not dull or repetitive, despite its martial theme throughout. It is possible to make a book about unrelenting war engaging. Movies do it often. Zulu. The Longest Day. Too Late the Hero. So do not hesitate if you’re a fan of the Roman military. This series is for you.

The greatest beauty of this book comes in two parts. Firstly, Riches is a military historian and knows his Roman warfare to an almost unparalleled level. The result then is a deep exploration and illustration of Roman/Germanic warfare in almost every aspect. It is almost like a lesson in Roman war. Secondly, because half these people are Germanic whether they be fighting for Rome or the native contingent, and the other half are Roman but are of their own split loyalties, this is no simple Roman vs Barbarian romp, but makes the reader appreciate the complexities and shades of grey in real Roman history.

The upshot? Well if you read book 1 you’ll be reading 2 anyway. If you haven’t then you are missing out as this is a whole new step from Riches. If you’re new to Riches’ work anyway then what the hell have you been doing? Pick up a book and get caught up.

Highly recommended as always by this man, one of the top authors in the genre.

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The Centurions 1: Betrayal

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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!

Hunting The Eagles

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It’s been a year or two since I last journeyed with Tullus and his companions in Eagles At War. And in some way, I feel that has improved my approach to the book rather than having launched into it on its release, because as this story opens 5 years have passed since the dreadful massacre in the Teutoborg forest where 3 legions were obliterated, a few straggling survivors limping back beaten and dejected to Roman lands.

Tullus is determined to revenge himself in Arminius and the Germans who destroyed his legion and handed the survivors dishonour by taking their eagle. Back in Rome where the new emperor Tiberius is being hailed, Tullus learns that the nobke general Germanicus is planning a campaign to chastise the Germans and recover the eagles. Sidestepping the rules, he signs on with this new army and makes his way back to Germania to have his revenge.

But Arminius has not been idle, and is stirring up trouble again, and so the two peoples – age old enemies – are lining up for a set-to of immense proportions. In this novel we are treated to our familiar heroes of both sides from book 1 facing endless trouble (rebellious legions, uncooperative tribes, burned-earth tactics, immense brutality and more.) Oh and my favourite scene rescuing endangered Germanic family members before Germanicus’ army rolls over them.

As always with Kane’s books, the characters are well-drawn, the scene perfectly set, the descriptive deep and powerful, the plot pacy and strong, the writing effusive and consuming. But the thing at which Kane excels for me, and which makes his books some of the darker and more powerful in the genre, is the level of reality the reader is made to feel. Every scene is so intricately woven with the yarns of human fact, deep emotion, historical detail and raw strength that Kane’s books can leave you needing to rest and recover before pressing on. His is a rare talent in provoking such a response, and it can often feel that you are experiencing the story far more than any other way other than actually being there.

Hunting the Eagles is one of Kane’s finest tales and builds on the first in the series, covering slightly less familiar events than that first military disaster. I shall be fascinated to see what he does with the last book of the trilogy.

Buy it. Read it. Experience it.

 

War at the edge of the world

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I wasn’t sure what to expect from Ian Ross’ debut, to be honest. I’ve a soft spot for the Late Roman Empire these days, and it often worries me that writers won’t do the era justice. After all, for centuries now scholars have considered everything from the early 3rd century onwards to be the Decline and Fall etc. I needn’t have worried. What should you expect from War at the edge of the world? Rollocking Romans, put simply.

This book, set at the time of the tetrarchy with Constantius as Augustus, is based at a time when the Roman world was on the cusp of new things. Only fifty years earlier was what they call the ‘crisis’ of the third century and an era of soldier emperors. Within fifty years will be the flowering of fully Christian Rome. This is the time when things change. And that was nicely reflected in the book for me.

Essentially, the story and its action and characters could have taken place in any Roman era with just a few tweaks. That is how familiar Ross’ Rome is. At the level of the general soldier much is as it has always been. It’s the detail and the background, oddly, that show us we are in late Rome. Details like the armour, weapons and clothing are not what you would find in Principate books. And in the overall background, there are Christians about, watched with suspicion, but they are there. There is a system of emperors rather than a straight Dynasty. But the most striking thing for me is that, appropriately for the era, Rome is no longer the centre of the world. Yes it’s a great city, but it’s no longer the home of emperors. Imperial courts are held at Nicomedia or Trier, or more or less wherever the emperor is. And the emperors are not Italian these days. In fact the majority descend from Balkan stock. It is nice to see this ‘devolved’ state of later Rome shown in books.

Then there’s the writing and the style. For those of you who read Roman fiction often, the best comparison I can present you with is Anthony Riches. Ross’ book reminded me in many ways of the first three of Riches’ Empire series. The story flows well and hardly ever lags from its fast, adventurous pace. The plot is intelligible but not simplistic, the descriptive atmospheric but not over-the-top. The writing is very easy and engrossing. It is very easy to pick this book up for a 5 minute read and put it down after an hour wondering where the time has gone.

There is, I would say, nothing strikingly unusual about most of the characters for the regular reader of Roman fiction. Grizzled centurions, barely-disciplined ne’er-do-wells, untrustworthy civilians in high authority, barbarous barbarians etc. The exceptions for me are the teacher-turned-legionary, who I found entertaining and would like to see more of, and the female Pict, who broke the mould a little.

In short, War at the edge of the world was a welcome surprise for me. A fast paced, very engaging read, at the same time comfortably familiar and yet strangely exotic, it was one of the best debuts I’ve seen and I shall most definitely be reading the second volume.

Written by SJAT

May 5, 2016 at 7:09 pm

Eagles At War

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Ben Kane thunders back into the charts with what I can only describe as an epic novel of the Teutoburg disaster. I’m a fan of Ben’s work, though since I read it his first Hannibal book has remained my favourite. Until this one.

I’m sure there are folks out there who don’t know the history Varus’ disastrous campaign in Germany in 9AD, of Arminius and the tribes. Of the Teutoburg massacre. A lot of you will, even those not particularly au fait with Roman history. It is the most ignominious military loss in Roman history and infamous as such. It ranks up there with Crassus’s death at Carrhae or the unpleasant fate of Valerian, the only emperor ever captured by the enemy. I shall spare you the details. Suffice it to say that this is a novel about Rome and the German tribes in their early days, when there was potential for a settled, Romanised Germany that would become truly part of the Empire. It was a fragile time, but a hopeful one for Rome, and for some of the natives. But not all the Germans were ready to bow their head to the emperor. Cue one man with an ambitious plan to unite tribes whose mutual hatreds went back centuries based purely on the belief that they hated Rome more even than they hated each other. As governor Varus plans his summer marches into the east, so Arminius, the son of a chieftain and a man trained by decades of Roman service, begins to put his plan into action.

Enough about the plot. No spoilers (though to be honest a glance at any webpage or book that mentions Varus or Arminius will immediately barrage you with spoilers if you are in the dark. No matter. This book is not written hinged on complete innocence on the part of the reader. As a man who knows the events around which it is based, I can say with certainty that knowledge of the Varian disaster does not ruin the book, so don’t worry about that.

The book is divided into two parts, with the first being the events that form the backdrop to the rebellion, introducing us in detail to the characters, locations, motivations and themes. The second part is the part that most of you will be waiting for. It surprised me to find how much of the book Ben had devoted to the lead-up, when I had assumed the disaster itself would provide enough material for a book on its own, and possibly even more than one book. But d’you know what? It worked. The way Ben has built the plot gives it so much more of a human edge and a personal feel that it would have missed had it concentrated more on the battle itself at the expense of what precedes it. It also means that the book starts slowly, peacefully and pleasantly, and gradually builds pace throughout the first half, with tension rising, and then gallops into the second part in a crescendo that just peaks time and again right to the end of the book.

What I think deserves first special mention here is Ben’s characters. Not for their realism or depth. If you’ve read Ben’s books before then you expect nothing less than deep and realistic characters. No, what I like is who Ben has chosen to tell his story. We have Varus, the governor, a senatorial noble of Rome. We have Arminius, the German chieftain serving in Rome’s military. Yes, they are the prime movers in the events behind the book. But in order to give us the events from an intimate level, we also have a veteran centurion – Tullus – and a young legionary recruit – Piso. Thus every level is open to the reader, from those who shape the empire to those who die for it. Writing a tale like this from four such disparate viewpoints cannot be easy, but it is carried out with skill, and the reader can identify with and follow each of the four. Also, each is sympathetic in their own way – even Arminius! Oh, there is one loathsome character in there, but I’ll let you find him on your own. In fact, Varus is here given a very favourable treatment, flying in the face of the more common portrayal of an impetuous fool. Refreshing. And because of the way the story is written, there is no sense of ‘good guy and bad guy’ in Eagles at War. As is so often the case in reality, both sides are simply people, each with their own belief in the value of their motives.

In terms of themes, the book gives us a nice view of what it might have been like in the early stages of the Romanisation of a land, with tribal leaders both obsequious and resistant, some trying to outdo each other in the new regime while others grumble about taxes. It also makes some use of an aspect of the Roman military that is very rarely mentioned in novels: the slaves. When an author deals with the five thousand men of a legion, plus the cavalry and support etc, what is often forgotten is that most officers would have at least one slave, and the senior ones probably and entire household of them. Think on the activity of slaves in a Roman camp, serving one legate, one camp prefect, six tribunes and sixty centurions, plus various other officers. We are not talking about the odd body, after all. The human aspect is handled well particularly through the trials and tribulations of young Piso, and of a woman with her girl and pup, who become a recurring thread. And as for the sheer power of the loss of a legion’s eagle? Well that is put over very well. The chaos of unsought and unexpected combat is a major theme in the second part of the book and drives the narrative at least as much as the specifics of the timeline.

In fact, part two reminded me in style at times of two different tales. It carries the epic scale of The Longest Day, roving back and forth across the locations, giving us a view of events from several angles without dropping the pace of the action. And it also contains all the tension and eeriness of a nervous journey, a-la Apocalypse Now (or Heart of Darkness, of course). The legions are strung out, there is trouble communicating, there are isolated pockets of men involved in their own tiny wars all forming part of one great whole.

All in all, this is a masterpiece of the genre, from the earliest stages of the troubles right up to the tense, violent climax. In fact, twice in this read I was so hooked that I continued reading at night long after I was really ready for sleep. Roll on the next book, I say, for I think I know what it will involve….

Written by SJAT

July 2, 2015 at 9:53 am

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