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Scourge of Rome

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It took me far too long to find time to catch up with one of the very best historical series in the current world of books. I’ve missed Valerius Verrens. Due to the time I left between this book and the last one it took me a few short chapters to get back into the swing of things, but once I was reaquainted with Verrens and Serpenrius and reminded of how things stood at the end of the previous volume, I was dragged along with the plot at breakneck speed as usual.

An outcast from Rome, due to his conflict with the unpleasant Domitian – son of the new emperor – Valerius seeks out the one place he thinks he can recover his reputation, at the side of the emperor’s other son, Valerius’ old friend Titus, who is busy prosecuting the war against the rebels in Judea. What follows is a gradual building in tension and action filled with good guys, bad guys, and my favourite – realistic grey, part good, part bad, guys. The book introduces us to a powerful queen and her clever, beautiful servant, who Valerius immediately has eyes for, helping him forget Domitia back in Rome, to a scarred tribune who knows Valerius of old, to the Jewish rebel leaders, and to the complex Josephus. It culminates with the dreadful siege of Jerusalem.

There are many things that commend this book (as with all Doug’s work). The writing, which is clear, expressive, direct and yet subtle. The characterisation, for he creates seemingly real people we can believe in. The settings, which are vivid and lovingly described. The action, which is exciting and well-told. The plot, which is perfectly constructed and at no time drags, strays or confuses. But there are two particular things for me that made Scourge a win over even many others in this very series:

The siege of Jerusalem. This is one of the most powerful events in the history of the Roman empire, and one that could easily prove to be divisive and troublesome for a writer (touching on the subject of the destruction of the Jewish world from the viewpoint of those destructors.) And yet the subject is handled lovingly, sympathetically and yet with such stark horror and brutality that the real terror of what happened over those awful weeks. Moreover, Doug’s visual reconstruction of the magnificence that must have been Jerusalem before its sack is unparalleled. This siege is one of Doug’s best pieces of writing and one of the best battles I have ever seen described, actually almost on a par with his genre-defining Colchester burning scene in Hero of Rome.

And, the character of Josephus. I knew of Josephus before the book, as will many followers of Roman history. We know of him from his account of the Jewish wars, and I for one have read much of that account. But I had never thought much about the man behind that writing. In my head I had him pegged as a good guy – a Jew who compromised and consequently survived the war to bring us the history of it. It had never occurred to me to think on how he might have come about all his knowledge of the war, on how he managed to survive in a world where he might well be killed just for his heritage, and on how he might be viewed by his own people. Josephus was the most surprising thing for me in the book, and a characterisation I value highly.

So, in short, this book is as good as any other in the Valerius series (which is to say a cut above most other series in the genre) and is actually probably the second best in the whole saga. It is unrelenting in pace, vivid, surprising, horrifying and even heart-warming in places. A testement to Jackson’s ability, it comes highly recommended. Go read it.

Written by SJAT

January 15, 2017 at 2:38 pm

Iron Castle

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The Iron Castle.indd

Now, unusually, the Iron Castle has been out a week before I’ve got my review up. Why? Simple: I have had a plethora of books and manuscripts to read all arriving in a short time and most of which will never see the light of review day, but all had deadlines. And shuffling them around, one thing was clear… Angus Donald’s Outlaw novels do not deserve to be shoe-horned into the middle of such a rush. They deserve to be savoured like a 12 year old single malt. So I have taken my time and enjoyed every nuance of the book.

Anyone who’s followed my blog or my Goodreads or Amazon reviews will know my opinion of Angus’ books. They are one of the top series of historical fiction out there. I have enjoyed each of the books, though I have always maintained that the best in the series was King’s Man (the third of six). Well, the Iron Castle might just topple that for me.

I think that anyone who’s read the first five books will agree that with the death of the Lionheart and the somewhat off-shoot nature of the plot of book five, we all wondered how the interactions and situations would work with King John on the throne, what with Robin being such a loyal follower of Richard. How could the series continue to work? Well the good news is that with this return to the intrigues and dangers of interacting with the Plantagenet dynasty, the whole feel of the book has actually taken a step up rather than down. Serving a man the protagonists dislike more than the enemy has its own special fascination and informs not only the plot of the book, but the deeds and desires of the characters.

So what’s it about? Well you know I avoid spoilers as much as possible, but there are certain things I think I can say without ruining anything for you. Through Robin’s desire for settled security for his wife and children, he finds himself taking an oath to John. Through Alan’s ongoing fealty to Robin, so does Alan. Both men therefore find themselves dragged to France to take part in John’s wars over the ownership of Normandy, with King Phillip of France looming in the east, Arthur of Brittany in the west and other troublesome characters in the south. The defence of the crown land of Normandy would look utterly daunting were it not for one thing: the route for Phillip into Normandy is guarded by Chateau Gaillard, the great Iron Castle built by King Richard a few years earlier. This imposing and unconquerable fortress is the one great bastion holding the enemy from John’s lands. I think you can probably see where this is going, particularly given the book’s title. Expect a siege. I did.

The siege of Chateau Gaillard is a familiar event to many lovers of medieval history, and was one of the most brutal of the age. It made it recently onto Dan Snow’s TV series Battle Castle. Given the fact that I was already familiar with the siege and many years ago spent a day exploring the ruins of the castle, I was particularly interested to see how Angus handled the great and horrible event. The answer is: masterfully. There are a few books out there that have portrayed a siege in a fashion that actually had me sweating and biting my nails for the heroes as I read. Nick Brown’s ‘Siege’. Douglas Jackson’s ‘Hero of Rome’ and Paul Fraser Collard’s ‘Maharajah’s General’ are three of the best. The Iron Castle has now joined that list. It has all the tension, glory, despair and horror of a Zulu or a Masada and more. The fate of the ‘Useless Mouths‘ still leaves me with a bitter taste in my mouth.

And as the threads of the characters and plot weave about the siege, there is a hint of treachery and betrayal that informs some of the more critical events and which will leave the reader guessing until the very end.

The main characters continue to grow, which is pleasing, especially six books into a series. Robin is becoming a straighter, less despicable character, which had to happen with Royal commission and a family. Alan seems to have finally tipped past that point where the concerns of youth guide his hand – he’s been heading that way for three books – and is now a grown man in all respects.

Simply, this series is a long way from done, clearly. Book six reaches heights I had not expected and injects new strength into the Outlaw books.

The Iron Castle is now available in hardback and various e-formats. Go buy it, people, and see how a siege is written.