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The Centurions 2: Onslaught

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Image result for anthony riches onslaught

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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betrayal

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!

Scourge of Rome

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sor

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.

The Art of M C Scott

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rtaow

There’s only one way in which I could say Manda Scott’s work is predictable: every time I pick up a new Scott book, I can guarantee it will be new, refreshing, fascinating and totally different from anything that’s gone before.

I’ve loved the Rome series from the first book and it’s natural for a series to improve as the reader gets used to the characters, the milieu and the writer’s style. Scott’s series is different, though. The first and second books followed a style, being third-person tales revolving around a small group of characters based on a central protagonist. The third though, Eagle of the Twelfth, was a wonderful departure, continuing the series while yet taking it out on a wide swing, choosing a new viewpoint and treating the series’ main character in an almost peripheral fashion. I’d wondered after that how Scott was going to tackle a fourth book in the series. And the answer is that she’s thrown the reader another astounding curve-ball. Rome: The Art of War is a stunning tale written in the most unusual, fresh and astounding way that it will have authors crying out ‘Why did I never think of that?’

So what is this astounding style? Well the entire story (which takes place over a surprisingly short space of time) is told in the form of the affidavits or sworn statements of almost all the characters that had a role in it. Each chapter is told from the point of view of another character, in the first-person, and yet each picks up the tale where the previous teller left off, giving the reader a view of the entire story through the eyes of those that were instrumental in it. Once again, as in the previous book, the central protagonist of the series is not the teller – he is the subject of the story instead, and it is interesting to see him being assessed by each teller, often with different views of him. I cannot think of an adequate comparison for the method of storytelling, which in itself is a suggestion of how fresh the style is.

This is, of the entire series, the book most rooted in espionage. Though the main character throughout all four (Pantera) is a spy, this is the first time we’ve had a chance to see him in his element, doing what he does best rather than in the field, in the provinces. The result is a twisting, turning, often surprising trip into the seedy underbelly of Rome. A comparison struck me at one point that I can only see as favourable. One of my favourite movies of all time is Where Eagles Dare. If you’re familiar with it, you’ll remember the scene at the dining table with the German officers under the watchful gaze of Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood. You’ll remember how the story suddenly corkscrews through the revelations of double and triple agents and plans and background set up so long ago that the characters must have live more than one life for a long while. THAT is the direction I found the Art of War going. Magnificent. Another comparison that leapt to mind is the scene of main characters besieged upon the capitol, which put me in mind of the stunning scene of Colchester’s temple siege in Doug Jackson’s Hero of Rome (to my mind one of the most tense and nail biting scenes ever written.)

Characterisation is, as always, perfect, especially given that a number of important characters or ones that will wind up dead cannot have a say in the tale and are only seen through the eyes of others. I’ll largely gloss over this because if you’ve read books 1-3 you’ll know what you’re in for, but I will state for the record that I’ve long had a hidden soft spot for the Emperor Domitian. He may have been damnatio and condemned by history, but we all know who writes the histories and the fact remains that Domitian had a very academic and studious mind, was very popular in a number of important circles, actually repaired Rome’s broken economy and probably only suffered history’s hammer because of his relationship with the senate. Well, Scott has painted a sympathetic and believable portrait of this strange and complex man and I found that one of the freshest and most memorable parts of the tale.

In short, this is the conclusion of the Year of the Four Emperors, taking the story from Vespasian initial claim to the purple, through to the death of Vitellius and the way being opened for him. It takes the manoeuvring of troops and men (and mostly spies and agents) that has slipped into being a footnote of Vespasian’s story and opens it up in fascinating detail, telling the tale closely and with great care. Mixed in with the documented facts are the interwoven storylines of Scott’s spies, from the secret network of Seneca to that of Antonia, the network of street urchins that rule Rome’s rooftops, the agents of the emperor Vitellius and his cruel and dangerous brother, and so much more, forcing Pantera to call in all his favours and contacts built up over a lifetime in an attempt to put the right man on the throne for the good of the empire.

Rome: The Art of War is a masterpiece and out on Thursday 28th. Read it and agree.

Written by SJAT

March 26, 2013 at 2:52 pm