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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

Enemy of Rome

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Hi folks, sorry for the extended hiatus. A few books I couldn’t yet or wouldn’t review have combined with school holidays and then a punishing month of writing madly to schedule and resulted in little time to read, review or just plain whiffle. But recently I’ve been back to the reading again, and to get me started, I was spurred on by the resurfacing of an old fave…

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Valerius Verrens is back, guys, and back with a bang! Those of you who are following the series will remember that book 4 (Sword of Rome) had ended in something of a cliffhanger, as though the book hadn’t ended but rather hit an advert break. Well ‘Enemy’ picks up seamlessly where ‘Sword’ left off, continuing to tell the story of the Year of the Four Emperors from Verrens’ point of view.

In my review of book 4 I analogised the plot with a pinball machine, Verrens being twanged and shot back and forth betweem protagonists and antagonists almost against his will, necessity and honour requiring that he surrender himself to his fate.

Well I would say that book 5 follows suit, but it wouldn’t be a fair analogy. For unlike the ordered, almost Machiavellian maoeuvering of the previous book, Enemy of Rome picks up the pace and feels more like Verrens is a stick caught in the current of a fast flowing river as it plummets over a fall. He keeps hitting rocks and getting caught in eddies, and all the time moves closer and closer to the precipice.

That’s the feeling. Doug continues to tell the story of one of Rome’s most fateful years with style and vision. Indeed, I found in this book something of the same world-changing prose that created the infamous ‘temple scene’ of book 1 that remains one of my favourite pieces of writing of all time. You see Doug tackles something not many people can write convincingly: a night battle. Oh it’s easy enough to write the mechanical aspect of such an event. But few people can convey the panic, the confusion and the dread involved in it. Doug has done that in spades. The battle scenes in this are masterpieces, and none more so than the night fight.

But enemy of Rome is more than a string of battle scenes. As I noted with my stick and current analogy, Verrens does not often get to play the same role for very long: prisoner, general, negotiator, spy, protector, besieger. Verrens plays his part in the wars that we knew were coming between Vitellius and the rising star of the era: Vespasian. But he will also play his part in the intrigues in Rome, where camps are polarising and the streets are unsafe, while the woman he loves is forced to play a careful game in the house of Vespasian’s brother, for that same house plays host to the vile Domitian.

I think probably the only problem I ever have with these books is that my view of Domitian sits at odds with Doug’s. I see him as a somewhat withdrawn and antisocial character, but an able administrator and a man with sense who was handed the reins of a runaway empire and managed to bring it to a halt. But then every good novel needs antagonists, and Domitian certainly fits the bill with the Verrens series. He is certainly a loathesome character in these books. But praise due in a similar vein for changing my view of another historical figure. My picture of Aulus Vitellius has always been drawn from the views of his opponents and successors, and the picture Doug paints of him is a truly sympathetic one that tugs at the heartstrings. Bravo Doug for your Vitellius.

The story rockets towards the conclusion, which is every bit as exciting and tense as a reader of Doug’s work has come to expect, all the time keeping the flavour and the plot alive, and even leaving time for the characters to grow as it progresses. And what of the end? Well obviously I won’t ruin things for you. No spoilers. But suffice it to say that unlike the cliffhanger of book 4, this book has something of a game-changing ending that might see book 6 when it arrives being something of a departure. I’m certainly looking forward to it, anyway.

In short, then, this novel is a strong component in the continual growth of the Valerius Verrens series and really will not let you down. Full of tension and fury, tortured honour, impossible love and dreadful inevitability, it will keep you riveted til the very end.

Read the book, folks.