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Caesar’s Emissary

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You might remember that some time back I reviewed the first short story in this series with mixed feelings due to the heavy use of modern vernacular. Well, recently I have been reading pre-publication manuscripts, my own work for heavy edits and very serious research texts, and so with a couple of days free, I picked up the second book, and thought ‘I’ve done too much heavy stuff recently, so why not?’

I’m glad I did. I cannot be certain whether it was because this time I was prepared for what I was about to read, or possibly that with a second story, Johnston had honed his craft some, but I enjoyed Caesar’s Emissary far more than the first book.

These, by the way, are very much not serious, heavy Historical Fiction. If you are looking for another Ben Kane or Conn Iggulden, you’re looking in the wrong direction. But if you’re looking for an entertaining light read to fill in a few hours, then look no further.

The humour in these books is akin to Ron Gompertz, I would say, if a little more direct. There is an odd undercurrent of the old ‘film noir voiceover’ in the way they are written. In this volume, Mettius is talked into going to Alexandria to sort out the grain shipments there. In the process he gets himself tangled up with the Ptolomaic rulers and all sorts. The highlight for me was a scene in a bar with a local comedian doing his skit.Sounds barking mad, but for some reason it worked and was a truly entertaining scene with some real laugh-out-loud lines.

This, for instance, is a joke from the sketch about the Ptolomaic dynasty:

“The other night [my wife] said she wanted to have sex with her brother. I told her I wasn’t in the mood.”

And here’s part of his description of Alexadria, which I love:

“Wild statues of bird gods and those weird animals with human heads they called sphinxes were everywhere. It was as if some deity had grabbed a cauldron and mixed Greek aesthetics, the Egyptian fascination with the afterlife, a pinch of balmy climate and a shitload of money…”

I think I am rapidly warming to these short, humorous episodes. And if you are a student of the era you will find a lot of in-jokes and colour that will sit well with you. Johnston’s stories have become my palate cleanser of choice between larger works.

Written by SJAT

November 11, 2016 at 10:35 am

Caesar’s Ambassador

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Caesar’s Ambassador is a short story I picked up at random somewhere along the line and has just sat there on my kindle. Recently, I had a day free in my reading schedule, so I decided to give it a read.

The story is set in a very familiar milieu for me, being the first year of Caesar’s Gallic Wars (the setting for Marius’ Mules I) and takes as its main character one Marcus Mettius, who is a minor supporting character in Caesar’s book. Mettius is one of two men the general sends to negotiate with the German king Ariovistus and who are captured and held by the man. That’s pretty much his run in history apart from minting coins the year of Caesar’s death. Virgin ground to work with then for a storyteller.

This is only a short story, but if you like it, there are a run now of about six shorts in the series, which probably adds up to a good sized novel between them. As you may know, my policy on reviewing books is to only review those I consider at least 3* books, since poor reviews can damage an author’s livelihood and it seems unfair to do that simply because I don’t like it. For me, Caesar’s Ambassador was really hard to rate. In the end I’ve given it 3 stars, but it could have gone up or down from there because there are so many things about it I like and, while there’s only one thing I don’t, it’s pretty crucial.

So on the positive side, this is a truly fresh and interesting angle on the events of Caesar’s De Bello Gallico, an interesting, bold and inventive choice. Mettius himself is an interesting character with an intriguingly uncharted history, and Johnston has done a sterling job of bringing him to life, giving him real personality and filling in history’s blanks. He’s also done an excellent job of depicting the times and the locations, with some of the detail being exquisite (a scene in a tavern particularly stands out.) Better still, given Mettius’ history, Johnston has chosen a character he can take on from there, and I know he covers quite a few years in subsequent books. The story is pacey, the characters vivid, the descriptive excellent. Additionally, there is a quirky humour throughout that really hits the spot, reminiscent for me of Ron Gompertz’s novels.

So what didn’t I like about it then? Quite simply the heavy anachronisms. I’m hardly free of blame for that myself, though I have gradually ironed out such things as I progress. But even at my strongest, I was nothing to this. Johnston’s idiom and terminology are almost entirely modern American in the tale, and some of the phrases used in an ancient setting just had me wincing. I’ll hold my hands up and say that as a Brit, perhaps I’m not the target audience and that for all I know this is a standard in the American market, but I don’t think that’s the case. For me the idioms and modern, anachronistic terms marred what could have been an excellent tale.

I still enjoyed Caesar’s Ambassador, and I will read the second in the series when I have the time, and so I leave it up to you whether this is a story for you, as I cannot doubt that what damaged it for me will certainly appeal to some readers, and I’m not so arrogant as to think I am right all the time. To be honest, at $0.99 it’ll hardly be breaking the bank to take a punt on it and see what you think.

Written by SJAT

July 21, 2016 at 8:57 am

Welcome to Blackpoo

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Every now and then you read a bit of a game changer. I read a lot of historical fiction, and most of that is quite sombre and takes itself very seriously. So it’s nice once in a while to read something light-hearted. And that’s what this book is… in spades.

The story of one man’s first couple of years in teaching, this tale is told as a retrospective from the completion of his degree and his initial excitement at landing a job in teaching through disillusionment, pain and discomfort, practical joking, humour, alcohol, idiocy, madness and heroic stands against THE MAN (who in this case is ‘the woman’).

The story is a gentle, insightful, personal, and humorous look at the early days of a career. It is a beautifully written homage to that noble profession. And given the fact that this man is a science teacher, and my own interactions with science have been less than successful, it has to have been written well enough to keep my attention.

Back in the day, I read a number of excellent humorous books that were written in diary form. The prime one for me, which I read annually and never failed to make me laugh, was ‘The Art of Course Moving’ by Michael Green. This book reminded me of it. It is the first book in a year, I think, to make me laugh out loud, and even bring tears to my eyes. There is no better recommendation for a humorous book than that.

In short, this was a cracking read. Funny, touching, and easily readable, it is well worth less than the price of a pint for the kindle copy. Not currently available on paperback, but perhaps will be soon. Buy it, sit back with your feet up, and chuckle away a few hours.

Written by SJAT

March 31, 2016 at 10:18 am

The Terror – Giles Kristian

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It’s a common thing among writers these days to produce short stories between their main works. Heck, I do it myself on occasion. I’ve seen readers range from loving them and lauding them to moaning about them. But the one thing they do whether you approve or not is to allow the author to explore directions that their straightforward book series does not have room for. This is particularly the case with those writers who are published through the major traditional houses, who are more limited by their contracts than the independents.

In this case, Giles has taken an opportunity that would not fit into either his Raven series or his Sigurd series, and produced a tale that takes us back to the youth of Harald, Sigurd’s father. In essence, this is a prequel to the prequels. Moreover, it has a different style to the Sigurd series, in that it is more of a light-hearted adventure tale in the Raven mould than a Nordic saga in the Sigurd one. Giles continues to expand his take on the Viking world, spreading out backwards in time.

Once again, this being a prequel, it can be read independent of Giles’ other books, and would make the perfect taster if you’re not sure that his writing is for you.

The story revolves around a quest followed by a group of young men in the hope of winning the hand of a beautiful girl, the daughter of a Jarl. They must locate and subdue ‘The Terror’ and steal it from its current keeper for their own Jarl. I won’t tell you about The Terror itself. I’ll leave that a surprise for you, but be assured, it’s good. Swimming icy waters, fighting angry warriors, wrestling dangerous creatures, and of course, drinking, swearing, farting and in-fighting, Harald is determined to make a name for himself and win the girl. It is an interesting look at a character we were only given a tantalising glimpse of in God of Vengeance (check out my review of that book on the right-hand panel) and also introduces as a young man one character who runs through every viking work Giles has written thus far. Uncle. That is all.

So, it’s a short story only available as an e-book. It’s a piddly 99p. That’s gotta be worth a dip into the pocket. You can’t buy a sandwich for that, and a sandwich wouldn’t last you as long. Go get it on kindle here.

Going onwards, sorry for a rather sporadic burst of reviews recently. I’ve been beta reading unpublished works and running read throughs of my own joint work and have had little time for leisure reading. That’s changing again now, though, so more reviews to come.

Written by SJAT

November 28, 2014 at 10:23 am

Roads and aqueducts

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A couple of years ago I became aware of Ron Gompertz’s opus ‘No Roads Lead To Rome’ and bought and read it. For some reason, I never got round to reviewing it, but I shall now make up for that error by reviewing the sequel with reference to the first.

Aqueduct to Nowhere is Gompertz’s third release (just out) and the second of his humorous Roman series.

I will open by stating for the record that both of these books are Historical Fiction, but with the emphasis heavily tilted towards the fiction part. Those of you who are seeking the heavy, fact-laden world of Rome, a la Harry Sidebottom, Ben Kane and the like may not appreciate the light-hearted style. It seems to me in both cases that Gompertz has not chosen the world of Rome as his arena and written a tale based in it, but rather has invented a plot and characters that enthralled him and then sought a milieu in which to base it.

Both books centre on humorous narrative with clever turns of phrase and rib-tickling moments rather than the gritty historical reality of many books set in the era. Historical accuracy is not a paramount concern, but then that is not what the books are written for. One does not slam a Douglas Adams or a Robert Rankin for their accuracy, but instead appreciates the humour they provide. And that is it in a nutshell. I have enjoyed both Gompertz’s books not as a historian but as a reader of light-hearted fiction, chuckling along as I read.

No Roads Lead To Rome was the tale of an itinerant centurion seeking his retirement pay, and an unfortunate Jewish boy sought in connection with a crime, and focused on the way the two characters’ lives intersected, involving along the way: a hapless governor, a greedy and dubious advisor, a peasant girl, a former gladiator, and a plot to do away with the Emperor Hadrian. It was a somewhat intricate plot and, while containing a few jarring historical inaccuracies, tickled me enough that I enjoyed it on its own narrative merit rather than the Classical history I had initially expected. The tale was a little disconnected at times, jumping hither and thither and perhaps a little loosely wound, but I would recommend it to a reader who sought light, humorous entertainment and had at least a passing interest in the era. That last is, however, less important than is usually the case with books set in ancient Rome.

Aqueduct to Nowhere picks up where the first book left off with a plot involving the same young Jewish protagonist, the same hapless governor and motley assembly of villains and lunatics. Set during the Saturnalia festival and involving a plot to bring the governor to trial for his crimes, ‘Aqueduct’ will appeal to the same audience as ‘No Roads’, with a rib-tickling formula that blows raspberries at serious Roman history. However, despite still displaying a fewinaccuracies, I would say that Gompertz has pulled together a lot more realistic colour and trivia for the second book, and has created a much tighter plot and narrative which lacks any of the discontinuity of the first. In fact, while historical accuracy still plays second fiddle to plot and style, there are a lot more snippets of Roman life that sneak into this book. I would also say that the author’s humorous turns of phrase have noticeably stepped up, to the point that I took note of a few corkers which sadly I cannot relate as windows update restarted my laptop and lost my list!

So there you have it. These tales – and the new book in particular – are enjoyable, tongue-in-cheek romps through a dishevelled and poor backwater province, set against the glorious, rich, deep tapestry of Hadrianic Rome. If you want a good few hours of entertainment and colour, dive right in.

Written by SJAT

October 14, 2013 at 7:57 pm

Vigil – A short story

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Gaius Postumus turned over in his bed, snorting and pulling the cover tight up to his throat. What a lovely dream. He knew it was a dream, for sure, but continued forcing himself to stay that little bit more sleepy, prolonging the night time images as long as possible. Half a sow turned on the spit, fat dripping down into the fire and sizzling with a delicious smell. Probably wine. Those goblets looked like wine goblets. He wondered who was holding the party, since he seemed to be the only guest. Why so many goblets and so much food just for him.

Finally, the messages from his frantic and overactive nostrils won through a passage into his gluttonous brain, and Postumus’ right eye flicked open with some difficult, the sticky sleep still trying to hold it shut.


His eye closed again and a satisfied smile crept across his face. Of course there would be smoke. You couldn’t roast a hog without there being some smoke. He would have to tell Safranius how delicious it was in the morning.


The morning.


The eye flicked open again.

In a fraction of a second, before even the left eye could join its fellow in wideness, Postumus was out of the bed and frantically panicking, spinning this way and that and waving his arms, achieving entirely nothing.

He stopped, trying to remember his training through the combined fug of sleep and panic. As one of the vigiles, the fire-fighters of Rome, Postumus had been trained well and trained hard for months in every aspect of his duties. It had been said, even by his mother, that his head was so thick that not even basic concepts could pass into it. Hurtful and untrue, but he had to sadly confirm that at this very point, standing in his room on the second floor of the insula that had been allocated as the headquarters of the Second century in the Fourth cohort of vigiles, he couldn’t even remember his name without concentrating really hard.

Safranius would kill him.

The heavy pall of roiling smoke was coming under the door to his room in puffs. That meant it must be coming up the stairwell.

Postumus slapped his hand over his face. Idiot. His had been the simplest duty of all, tonight. The rest of the century were absent. Half of them were asleep in their own homes, it being their week off-duty. Many of the others had been given special leave to go to the Lucaria festival. The rest would be out patrolling the streets, watching for signs of fire or for acts of criminal behaviour. Safranius would be leading the first patrol.

He would be less than happy to get back to the headquarters some time just before dawn to find it had been gutted by fire and all because the untrustworthy idiot he left in charge of the insula had started the stove in the kitchen to cook his fish supper and had come over ever so tired and gone to bed, leaving it burning.


His days in the vigiles would almost certainly be numbered after this. Particularly given that debacle last week with the explosion at the emporium. His wages would be halved for the next thousand years to pay for the replacement pump.

Hurriedly throwing on a cloak and grateful that he’d gone to sleep wearing his tunic and breeches and not even unlacing his boots because he was so tired, he decided on his course of action. He would have to check the extent of the fire and get down to the yard. In the central courtyard that had previously been the light well for the insula, a series of large tablets on the walls bore the instructions and rules and regulations for all trainee vigiles. He would have to read them and remind himself of what to do next.

Reaching out, he grasped the door handle and pulled.

The words ‘back draft’ rose though the levels of denseness in his head a fraction of a second before the explosion of boiling fire blew the suddenly freed door into the room, knocking him flat, but miraculously protecting him from the worst of the heat.

Struggling out from under the battered portal, he peered fearfully around the room. The blast had calmed and the fire was starting to take hold on the walls and furniture in his room. Pulling himself upright, he wandered across to the large bronze mirror next to a small glowing oil lamp that seemed almost ridiculous in the circumstances.

His eyebrows had gone and his lush, curly black hair had disappeared as far back as his ears, leaving only tiny charred stumps. His face was covered in sooty grime, pink lines extending from his eyes where he had instinctively screwed them up.

He looked idiotic. But then people told him that under normal circumstances, too.

Leaning to the side, he peered out into the corridor. The formerly painted walls, white and red, with a decorative strip of something he couldn’t remember, were black, fire ripping its way along the wooden railing that surrounded the stair well. Leaning the other way, he could see the blanket of flame that filled the corridor, blocking off any chance of reaching the other stairs. Other than trying to jump down the fifteen foot drop into the light well, these stairs would have to do.

All the vigiles had practiced the jump, of course. They were supposed to be able to manage something as easy as that. It was often required in the course of duty. Postumus, with his somewhat portly figure and his apparently severed connection between mental function and the gangling muscle-free flesh he called limbs, had never managed anything but a temporarily-crippling belly-flop onto the hard floor. He had in the past year, broken one ankle, twisted another, cracked five ribs and broken his nose during training jumps. Two months ago Safranius had given up trying.

Honestly, if it weren’t for his illustrious lineage and the sizeable donations his long-suffering father made to help the vigiles, he would probably have been thrown out long ago.

Taking a deep breath and gagging on the smoke, he stepped closer to the stairs, muttering a quick and very fervent prayer to the lares and Penates of the building.

A flickering orange glow was visible through the cracks in the wooden staircase. Downstairs was already an inferno. But there was nothing else for it. He had to brave it.

Putting one foot delicately on the top step, he applied pressure and winced as it groaned and shifted underfoot. Biting his lip, he put all his weight on that leg and moved down a step. Another charred groan.

Postumus whimpered and hoped his bladder would hold under the panicked pressure.

He was just reaching out with his first leg again when a noise caught his attention.


“Mister Socks!”

The second step cracked as he turned hurriedly and ran back up into the corridor. Mister Socks was the station cat; a mangy, fat thing with an evil temper, one ruined eye, a perforated ear and a bad case of flatulence. Of the eighty periodical occupants of the building, the only one that treated Postumus as anything other than an unfortunate piece of furniture was Mister Socks. It wasn’t that he didn’t bite and scratch the overweight vigil; he did, and frequently, but less frequently than he bit and scratched the others.

Of course, it was Postumus that fed Mister Socks, which might go a long way to explaining it. Many of the others just kicked the station cat and would happily evict the menacing, evil creature. It was Postumus that had renamed ‘That Smelly Bastard Cat’ as Mister Socks. It was so much nicer.

Running along the corridor, he spotted the four legged terror of the station crouched in a doorway, hissing at the danger all around. Beyond, the inferno had gripped the corridor, making it impassable to man and beast alike. Through the doorway, the glow of violent orange spoke volumes. A rafter fell between the two of them, roaring with dancing flames and sealing off the cat. Even the wooden frame of the balcony above the light well on remaining wall was starting to char and fall away.

“Don’t worry Mister Socks. I’m coming.”

Carefully, he edged toward the burning beam and jumped across it, just as another fell where he had been standing but a moment before. His heart lurched. A whole insula, just for the sake of a late night snack and forty winks!

Reaching out, his face turned away from the searing heat, he reached out for Mister Socks, muttering soothing noises.

The cat turned its one baleful eye on him and leapt away, momentarily touching the charring balcony to gain leverage, and dropped to the courtyard below, landing, as expected, on its feet. Postumus leaned close to the balcony and stared down to see Mister Socks give him a superior glance, turn, display its bottom in graphic detail, and then prance away to the safety of the street.

Postumus sobbed.

Standing straight and taking in ragged breaths, the vigil nodded to himself and turned. Taking two steps carefully across the burning rafters, he felt his bowels loosen a little as a third crashed down next to him, bouncing off his foot and hurting his little toe.

A moment later, he was back at the stairs.

Carefully navigating the first, he passed over the cracked second step and winced as the third almost gave under him. He could feel the hot glow beneath him and a gust of warm air blew his tunic up around his armpits.

Pushing it back down coquettishly, he stepped as lightly as possible down the stairs to the first turning. The fire on the floor below was blazing, filling the corridors. There was no way out that did not involve passing through a wall of fire.

Taking yet another deep breath and gagging and coughing on the roiling smoke, he unfastened his cloak from around his neck and wrapped it around him as thoroughly as he could, leaving a small spy-hole to see through.

Damn that cat.


Safranius was going to crucify him.


The people out in the street would be watching in amusement as the fire-watch station burned down, knowing damn well who was at the heart of the problem.


Lowering his head, Postumus charged into the sheet of roaring flame, his legs pumping as they scorched and seared while he ran, heedless of the pain, through the corridor, around the bend, past the well-room and its blessed water, through the courtyard, where he managed a couple of deep, cleansing breaths without slowing, and on into the far side of the building.

The main corridor ran from the light well and past rooms that had once been people’s residences, out past the shops that occupied the outer façade, looking onto the street.

Without pausing, he ran on along the corridor. The flames had not yet consumed the main entrance, but it was dark and solid with smoke.

Choking, wheezing, and stinging red from the heat, Postumus burst out into the street, the twin hills of the Palatine and Caelian rising before him, behind the insulae opposite. He stopped, heaving breaths, bent double with his hands on his knees, coughing up black dust and spitting soot onto the road.

Mister Socks appeared from nowhere and rubbed around his red raw ankles, purring affectionately.

It was then that Postumus straightened and looked about him.

Buildings flowered with blooms of flame. Roiling black columns rose from insulae along the street. Flames burst from windows and screaming citizens ran wildly in the thoroughfare, their panic infectious.

The city was afire.

But something Safranius had taught him had apparently stuck in his brain after all.

How to track the source of a fire.

Buildings were burning all the way along the street and up side alleys also. But the progression was clear. The insula of the Second century in the Fourth cohort of vigiles was the furthest gone and the epicentre of the spreading chaos.

“Gods, Postumus. What have you done?”

* * * * *

The great fire of 64 AD burned for five and a half days and levelled three quarters of the city, destroying thousands of homes and some of the grandest buildings that had stood for half a millennium. Rumour placed the cause in the hands of the Emperor Nero, who hurriedly, and very effectively, passed the blame on down to the burgeoning cult of Christians.

Gaius Postumus rose to the rank of tribune, commanding one of the cohorts of Vigiles, one of few survivors of the service during the conflagration.

Of the fate of his fish supper, history does not relate.

Written by SJAT

October 14, 2011 at 1:36 pm