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The Earthly Gods

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Earthlygods

Are you reading Nick Brown’s ‘Agent of Rome’ series? If not, then you need to check into either your local bookshop or your local head doctor. Nick Brown has created one of modern Historical Fiction’s most absorbing and accessible series, and if you are not already reading it, you need to go out and buy The Siege now, to get started.

Some writers write excellent books but can get a little bogged down with the need to portray their tale with ultra-realistic, technical period detail. Very laudable, but it can sometimes make a book hard going. Others, conversely, write with so many modernisms and anachronisms that it can hardly be called Historical Fiction at all. Few hit the perfect sweet spot where they are giving you high quality historical fiction but presented in such a way that it is truly entertaining for both the knowledgeable and the novice. Nick Brown fits that role, I think.

So, to the book.

The preceding five volumes in the series have introduced us to the character of Cassius Corbulo, his slave Simo and his bodyguard Indavara, as well as a lovable donkey. We have seen the breadth of the Roman east in many circumstances, from siege and warfare to criminal investigation, to undercover missions, dangerous sea voyages, corrupt army officers and much more. This volume once more shows us a new angle, but with ‘Earthly Gods’ we are, I think, seeing a subtle shift in Brown’s series. To this point, while the characters have grown and changed with their experiences, each tale has been a single contained story that could be read as a standalone book, even if the reader might miss important nuances that way. Now things are changing. Book 6 follows directly on from the previous volume, picking up an open thread from book 5 and following it. The plot for book 6 still contains its own standalone tale – helping Syrian natives hunt their daughters who have been illegally enslaved and sold. But it also follows the thread of Indavara’s disappearance at the end of the previous book, giving it a sense of series continuity that is new. And even the standalone element within it, to be honest, draws in characters from the very first book. So, in essence, while presenting a new plot, this volume also drags in elements from across the series, binding it all together rather neatly. As such there is a different type of depth to it than the previous volumes.

Moreover, while there is violence and womanising throughout the series, this volume begins to explore darker themes, with illegal slavery and enforced prostitution, as well as plague and the working to death of mine slaves. Such matters have to be dealt with carefully in my experience, lest they turn readers away, but be assured that Brown has managed it perfectly. Despite these darker underlying themes, the book is delivered with Brown’s usual engaging prose, easy humour and insight into the fascinating character of his protagonists. No one in Brown’s world is truly black or white, but all are varying shades of grey.

The plot? Well, I always try to avoid potential spoilers, but here we go…

Faced with the disappearance of his bodyguard and friend Indavara, Corbulo is landed with a difficult choice: forget about a friend in peril or defy his powerful masters. Needless to say, Corbulo is no longer the haughty young man who left Rome 3 years ago, and even going against Imperial Security will not deter him from attempting to save his friend. And so begins a dangerous quest outside the bounds of his duty. Skipping out of town unnoticed, going undercover and trying to avoid his own employers and fellow agents, Corbulo embarks on a twin mission, to find his friend and to help locate the missing daughters of his Syrian allies. Their journey will take them through plagues and into salt mines, all the way to Byzantium, pitting them against a powerful yet shady group of men. Once again the history of Indavara is being unwrapped slowly before our eyes, but it seems that Earthly Gods is set to be something of a game-changer in that respect, too, as that reveal accelerates rapidly now, and something of the future direction of the series is hinted at.

In short, this is everything a reader of the series has come to expect from Brown’s work, and something else beside. It is perhaps a step up. It is certainly a riveting read and kept me turning the pages long after I’d planned to put the book down.

Yet another win from Nick Brown. Long may Corbulo adventure.

Written by SJAT

June 30, 2016 at 9:00 am

Flames of Cyzicus

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foc

How long has it been since I last read of Cassius Corbulo in ‘The Black Stone’? Well I’m not sure, but it feels like half a decade. And I don’t know how long we have to wait for the next instalment. It gets like that with a really good series, doesn’t it? Like a drug. You’re waiting, twitching, for your next fix. Luckily, Nick Brown has given me enough of a fix to keep me going until his next novel is released.

Flames of Cyzicus is a short story of around 10,000 words, which is long enough to tell a good story, but short enough to make a quick and easy read in one session. It is a self-contained tale and once again represents Nick Brown at his best.

Corbulo, an agent of Imperial Security (a frumentarius or ‘grain man’) is currently in the Anatolian city of Cyzicus, working on the staff there with the responsibility for arranging the grain supply for a visiting legion, when in the dark of night one of the city’s four main granaries is incinerated. Faced with the loss of a quarter of the grain for which is is responsible, and fearing that other such disaster is still to come, Corbulo sets out on an investigation to discover the cause of the trouble.

If you have read Nick’s series so far you will find this tale to be every bit as action packed, humourous, intriguing, intelligently-plotted, character and plot driven and exotic as the novels. The plot works in a surprisingly tight arc.

If you’ve not read any of Nick’s work, this might very well be your perfect entry point to the series, to dip your toe in the water, so to speak. There are no major spoilers for the other books and just hints as to what Corbulo has gone through, so at 99p you can afford to try it and see whether you fancy the series. My hunch is that you will.

Just go buy it, eh? It’s the price of a packet of biscuits but much more nourishing…

Written by SJAT

April 13, 2015 at 9:25 pm

Nick Brown: Agent of Rome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by SJAT

June 10, 2014 at 8:21 pm

June Author Interview: Nick Brown

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

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

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

Introducing Nick Brown:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are you reading at present?

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

Written by SJAT

June 1, 2014 at 8:00 am

Nick Brown: Agent of Rome

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nb1 nb2

Today is publication day for the paperback release of Nick Brown’s second book (The Imperial Banner) and in honour of that, I give you a ‘Two-fer’. Herein is my review not only of the new novel, but also of its predecessor. So… Sit back and get ready to rumble with Agent of Rome: The Siege

I was wary of beginning  ‘The Siege’ and put it off for a long time. Having read the blurb, it looked to me to be ridiculously close in plot to Harry Sidebottom’s first Warrior of Rome, in that both involve a Roman site under siege from an eastern power at almost the same point in history. The locations are close, both in Syria. The times are roughly a decade apart.

I needn’t have worried. There are similarities, yes, but… well let me put it this way: I could give two artists the brief to paint a picture of a tree on a hill in September, and one might look like a Monet while the other might be a Braque. So that’s that dealt with. The two stories are dissimilar enough to make comparisons pointless.

Brown has taken on an interesting premise for the main character, selecting a member of the Imperial Secret Service; one of the (in)famous Frumentarii or grain officers. What he has done is to tackle the service in the style of a sensible, sensitive young nobleman with only the best intent at heart. This is not the sly, devious, murderous, dangerous view of that organisation we are used to. There is very little reference in detail to the service in this book as, despite being an officer of it, Corbulo is thrown into a situation where he is more active as a military officer.

As usual, I won’t push the plot other than to say that it involves a tiny Roman garrison at the far eastern edge of Syria, full of misfits and laxity, which faces a siege by the forces of the newly expansionist Palmyrene empire. More need not be said and indeed should not, lest the plot be ruined.

What I can say is that Brown has created a believable and fascinating view of frontier life in third century eastern Rome, full of well-painted and interesting characters, each driven by realistic needs and desires, thrown together into a horrendous situation.

In short and as an incentive to go read it – The Siege was reminiscent of that most excellent of all siege movies: Zulu, and I can think of no higher praise than that.

So if i haven’t enticed you enough with that, I give you my review of book 2, released in pb today (as I remind you) – Agent of Rome: The Imperial Banner:

I was interested to see what Nick would do following on from the Siege. It was such a self-contained novel and unlike many other first novels, it did not leave enough threads dangling from which to tie on a follow up-plot. And so I was extremely pleased as I started reading ‘Banner’ to find that he hasn’t even tried that. This is a second book that could almost be read as a standalone, barring a few references to define characters. Instead of a story arc, it would appear that this series is going more down the Indiana Jones route, with linked but self-contained stories. Refreshing.

Just as refreshing is the fact that many writers seem, to me, to write a storming first book, then waver a little on the second, making it too complex or too dark or suchlike, before finding their feet with a third triumph. Nick seems not to fall into this convenient category. In fact, I will say with hand on heart that this Book 2 is considerably better than the first, though I thoroughly enjoyed that too.

‘Banner’ is a complex whodunnit mixed with a treasure hunt. It is action pretty much from beginning to end and, though it lacks the ‘combat brutality’ of the first, it has swordfights, adventure, sneaking around underground passages and mines, infiltrating cults, following suspects, making arrests, bar room punch-ups, twists, turns, gladiators and so much more.

I wrote something myself a while back (as yet still under wraps) which a friend labelled ‘James Bond in ancient Rome’. That phrase came to mind with this book too, along with Peter Ustinov tapping his temple and talking about the ‘little grey cells’. You see that, to me, is what it felt like: an exciting, engaging mix between Indiana Jones, Hercule Poirot and James Bond.

The main character is not so much growing – he’s young and inexperienced and the books take place too close in time for much change to become apparent – but he is deepening. The reader is coming to understand him more. The best thing about this is that Cassius doesn’t need to change. Again, many writers seem to see the need for characters to grow with each book. It’s sometimes unnecessary. A well-defined character shouldn’t change too much or he might lose what makes him catchy. And with the return of his slave Simo, who is also becoming deeper and more relevant, and the addition of the new and engaging Indevara, Cassius has two companions who are different enough that the three bounce off each other well, creating thoughtful moments, humourous moments and angry moments. It is often the interplay that makes a book and that is strong with these leads.

I will add also that Nick has done such a good job of portraying Roman Syria that the reader feels everything as he/she reads it. It is descriptive and atmospheric.

But finally, as I come rambling back to the start of my description, the strength of this book above all else lies in its plot: An item of almost inestimable value has been stolen and there are no leads. Cassius is drawn into the desperate investigation with an extremely short time limit before the world he knows is endangered (and he even more so.) A race against the hourglass to uncover the perpetrator among a nest of potential villains in an investigation that tracks across Syria and the great city of Antioch.

So read Nick Brown’s books. And even if The Siege doesn’t pique your interest, at least pick up a copy of The Imperial Banner and give it a go. You won’t regret it.

Written by SJAT

March 28, 2013 at 2:13 pm