Emperor Rome: The Splendour Before the Dark by Margaret George

Macmillan | 2018 (15 November) | 571p | Review copy | Buy the book

Emperor Nero: The Splendour Before the Dark by Margaret GeorgeIt is AD 64 and the Emperor is in his villa in Antium, to the south of Rome, where he performs his own epic on the Fall of Troy for his appreciative audience of friends and fellow artists. It is while Nero is there that an exhausted messenger arrives from Rome and tells him that the city is burning. The Great Fire of Rome has begun and it is threatening everything in its path, including Nero’s own palace. Nero immediately rides back to Rome as fast as he can, determined to fight the fire with his own hands, alongside the fire officers and crews who are working day and night to save the city. What Nero experiences over the coming days and nights will change him forever, but it will also give his vision new expression – Nero will rebuild Rome. Its splendour will astonish the world.

The Splendour Before Rome completes Margaret George’s superb and original portrait of Rome’s most famous and infamous emperor that began with The Confessions of Young Nero. In the first novel we saw Nero’s rise to power, his transformation from the unknown young child Lucius into heir to Claudius’s throne, finally becoming emperor himself. It was a part of Nero’s life largely controlled and steered by his notorious mother Agrippina, whose fate forms such a central role in the first book and in the emperor’s life. It is from that point that Margaret George now resumes her story, covering the period from the Great Fire of Rome – possibly the most well-known event of Nero’s reign – through to the very end. You can read The Splendour Before Rome without having read The Confessions of Young Nero first, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

The Nero that presents himself to us here – for most of the novel is written in Nero’s own words – is not one that I’ve met before, and I’ve read a lot of wonderful books over the years that feature him. Margaret George explains in her afterword that she believes that Nero has been unfairly treated by Roman commentators, who had their own agenda to maintain, leading to a whole series of rumours that were perpetuated by later historians, not to mention Hollywood. Whether you agree with this or not, Margaret George here pulls together the strands of Nero’s life, finding the roots of some of the gossip that grew up around him, while also presenting a fascinating portrait of what absolute power can do to a young man who’d really much rather race chariots and compose heroic verse than rule an empire. It’s an intriguing mix. In one sense, we’re given reasons to explain why Nero was regarded as he was by historians, but conversely we’re also given glimpses of a man who failed in the one role he couldn’t maintain – emperor. He is both misunderstood and flawed.

Nero is conflicted and his self-awareness of this is a truly fascinating element of Margaret George’s treatment of him. Nero talks of the dark Nero, the third Nero, that will do anything to keep alive his other two Neros – the emperor and the artist. We’ve seen in the first book what his dark side will make Nero do but in this second book Nero does his best to suppress the evil. Instead he wants to focus on the arts and also on his passion for chariot racing, a cause of great scandal to Rome’s elite. The senate is shocked by Nero’s decision to go to Greece and compete in all of its festivals (all compressed into one year on his orders). Nero seems oblivious to how he is perceived by Rome and carries on regardless, but there are clues for us that this cannot end well.

Nero is oblivious to other things as well – how people will regard his great Golden House that he will build across much of the city’s centre, and then there’s the enormous colossus statue of himself that will tower over Rome. Nero genuinely believes that the people around him are his friends. He accepts their criticisms because he is a humble artist and that is what artists must do – they will always have their critics. But there comes a time when he will learn the truth about what they really think about him. And he is amazed.

The emperor might have his enemies but he is also loves and is loved and we see that here, especially in the figure of his wife Poppaea but also in his first love, Acte. The fate of Poppaea is dealt with so well while Acte is given occasional chapters as narrator, revealing another side to young Lucius, as she will always regard him. And then there’s the tragic figure of Sporus.

Certain infamous deeds of Nero’s reign seem to take place in the shadows, especially the persecution of the Christians in the aftermath of the fire. It’s as if Nero can distance himself from these acts. It’s described almost as if it’s a dream. Nero seems proud that he’s never hurt anyone with his own hands but, as emperor, with power over life and death, this is a meaningless belief. Especially as many are forced to die by their own hand. I really loved this conflict between Nero’s view of himself and the view of others that we’re given tantalising glimpses of – the Nero who makes decisions about the government of the empire without consulting his senate, who evicts people to seize their land for his own palace, the extravagance of that palace. At times he is deeply saddened when people he loves seem not to love him back. He struggles to explain why when we can see it as clear as day. He is also very superstitious. He is a man who lives in dread of his fate while seeing signs to it all around. Nero is also an outsider – at odds with the ideal of Roman martial masculinity. There is no doubt that he is looked down upon. At times, one might almost feel pity for him. Almost.

I love these two books. Aside from the drama of Nero’s own conflicted personality, there are dramas of other kinds – the fire is described brilliantly as we follow its destructive path across the ancient city, burning its temples and holy places. It’s impossible not to warm to Nero the fire fighter. The chariot racing scenes are thrilling and I really enjoyed the chapters spent on Nero’s great cultural tour of Greece. Then there’s the great love affair of Nero and Poppaea, which is treated here in a wholly original way. Poppaea is such an unusual woman, as was Nero’s mother, and Margaret George does wonders in bringing such complex personalities to life.

I have enjoyed Margaret George’s ‘biographies’ for many years and her portrait of Nero is a fine addition to them. Here we have Nero as he may have been. Perhaps as Nero might have recognised himself. This remarkable, flawed, possibly mad, individual here gets the chance to speak for himself and his words are never less than riveting.

Other review
The Confessions of Young Nero

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The Rebel’s Revenge by Scott Mariani

Avon | 2018 (15 November) | 404p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Rebel's Revenge by Scott MarianiBen Hope is back! The Rebel’s Revenge is the 18th novel in a series that has seen Ben Hope wreak havoc across the globe (especially on hire cars) as he does his best to save it. The latest thriller is self-contained and stands alone brilliantly so you’d have no trouble picking this one up even if you haven’t read the others. Although, once you’ve done so, I really hope you go back and read Ben’s earlier adventures. This is my favourite series of thrillers in all the world, my choice for a Desert Island, and I wouldn’t and couldn’t be without them. The Rebel’s Revenge yet again proves why.

Ben Hope has a serious day job. He owns a camp in France that trains military operatives in the rescue of hostages. Holidays aren’t something that Ben does too often but he’s grabbed the chance to visit Louisiana to see his favourite saxophonist in what is likely to be his final performance. But, yet again, the fates have something else in mind for Ben Hope. When he is wrongly accused of a terrible murder, he must go on the run to find the true killers and clear his name. The victim was killed with a sabre, a sword first used during the American Civil War. By chasing the history of the sword, Ben will find himself immersed in the secrets of this remote part of Louisiana where, for some, the Civil War never ended while for others it can never be forgotten.

It’s a fabulous story. Ben is on unfamiliar ground and I was every bit as fascinated as he is as Ben learns about the American Civil War, Cajun culture (including the food that Ben comes to love so much), the legacy of slavery and the deep warmth of many of its people – as well as the absolute cruelty of others. Perhaps there’s a little here that feels like a stereotype but I enjoyed so much the way in which the story is put together. There’s so much going on and yet again Ben must overcome villains that seem to compete with one another to be the most evil. The Louisiana setting is so richly evoked. This is a book steeped in mood and atmosphere. And it is extremely exciting!

I could rave about these thrillers all week but it’s worth saying that while some mystery thrillers have a tongue-in-cheek air to them, there’s nothing like that about the Ben Hope thrillers. These action-packed adventures are tense, often violent, revealing cruelty in many of its monstrous and sinister forms. They are impossible to put down and they are all brought together with the fantastic creation that is Ben Hope, the blond ex-SAS Major whose personal life has brought him such torment because he knows far better how to deal with bad guys than he does with those who love him. He’s honourable, brave, likeable, even though death stalks him. He drinks like a fish. And I love him. In the The Rebel’s Revenge, Ben leaves his personal life, his family and friends behind him for a solitary adventure in which he will meet new people to care for and fight for. Ben always cares so much.

I am so pleased that two Ben Hope novels a year are published. I’d happily have one a month but two a year is a huge achievement and one I really appreciate. Ben Hope returns next May in Valley of Death. Fantastic!

Other reviews
Ben Hope 7: The Sacred Sword
Ben Hope 8: The Armada Legacy
Ben Hope 9: The Nemesis Program
Ben Hope 10: The Forgotten Holocaust
Ben Hope 11: The Martyr’s Curse
Ben Hope 12: The Cassandra Sanction
Ben Hope 13: Star of Africa
Ben Hope 14: The Devil’s Kingdom
Ben Hope 15: The Babylon Idol
Ben Hope 16: The Bach Manuscript

Ben Hope 17: The Moscow Cipher

The Blood of Rome by Simon Scarrow

Headline | 2018 (15 November) | 369p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Blood of Rome by Simon ScarrowIt is AD 55 and Tribune Cato and his chief centurion Macro must once again go to war. This time they are to be sent east. Rome has a new and very young Emperor, Nero, who must quickly make a demonstration of power. Opportunity comes from Armenia. The mighty Parthian Empire has ousted King Rhadamistus of Armenia and replaced him with a king of their own. Rome will not tolerate a Parthian puppet state so close to its eastern border, nor will such a display of aggression be permitted. General Corbulo is despatched to put Rhadamistus back on his throne.

But Corbulo has grander designs. While he focuses on preparing for war against Parthia itself, he sends Cato and Macro ahead to escort Rhadamistus back to his kingdom. It will be a fearful journey, one from which Cato and Macro are not expected to return alive, but the most difficult challenge facing Cato and his men is Rhadamistus himself, for Rhadamistus is a monster.

The Blood of Rome is the seventeenth novel in Simon Scarrow’s Eagles of the Empire series, better known to many of us as the Cato and Macro series. I have read and loved this series for years and I look forward every year to each new book. It’s fair to say that The Blood of Rome follows on the heels of a run of particularly brilliant novels in the series and, with such a standard to be measured against, it turned out to be, for this reader anyway, one of the least successful of the books. This isn’t to say that there isn’t much to enjoy here, as there is. Cato and Macro are indefatigable as always in their drive to entertain us while they attempt to put the Roman Empire to rights, sword in hand, at great risk to themselves and to those they love.

The mood of The Blood of Rome is dominated by the figure of King Rhadamistus, a despicable excuse for a human being (let alone for a king), and his behaviour hangs over the novel and events like a black shadow. The fact that he’s merciless towards his own men, however, is not the worst of his crimes in my book – that honour falls to what he does to Cato. Cato descends into the depths during The Blood of Rome. He is damaged by what he sees. I think that Simon Scarrow treats the subject of traumatised soldiers well here. There is no reason to believe that soldiers in antiquity were exempt. But what I did have trouble with is how Cato acts out of character and on occasion acts with deliberate cruelty. There is one incident in particular (and you’ll know the one I mean when you read the book) that shocked me absolutely, and not in a good way. And I’m not sure it fits with this series of novels. Macro continues to act in the same loveable way which makes Cato’s new behaviour even harder to deal with, for this reader at least.

This is also one of the more violent books of the series. I have nothing against violence in Roman military historical fiction (as that would be daft!) but the increase of it reflects the book’s darkened mood and the state of Cato’s mind. Cato’s attitude towards women also continues to cause me a few problems. There’s a casual callousness, a dislike, in the way he treats them, as if he were always the innocent. Which he is not.

Having said all that, I found the final third of the novel more enjoyable and I became wrapped up in the Armenian power struggle and the thrilling action sequences that drive the book on. Cato’s relationship with Macro is so entertaining to watch. There are some fascinating details about Roman warfare here, especially the use of siege weaponry, and this campaign, which was so important to Nero, is one that deserves attention. It’s an incredible story. The fact that most people are still in ignorance about the new emperor’s character also tantalises for the future. As always, I look forward to the next outing for Cato and Macro and hope that Cato can find some peace (while still fighting a war, if you see what I mean!).

Other reviews
The Blood Crows
Brothers in Blood
Britannia
Invictus
Day of the Caesars
With T.J. Andrews – Invader

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Granta Books | 2018 (20 September) | 160p | Review copy | Buy the book

Ghost Wall by Sarah MossSilvie’s father Bill is obsessed by the lives of our Iron Age ancestors. He is a bus driver, not an academic, but he believes himself in tune with the prehistoric past and considers himself an expert in that kind of subsistence living. And so when he has the chance to re-enact the past in a reconstructed Iron Age settlement in a remote part of Northumberland, he leaps at the chance. He is determined that his wife and daughter will immerse themselves every bit as much. There will be a professor and his small group of students with them, but Bill will not permit them to distract him from his obsession, although he may be able to share with the professor some of his firsthand knowledge of survival.

For Silvie, named after a Celtic goddess, there is no peace to be found in this re-enacted life. With a mother who is emotionally distant and shut down and, more to the point, an abusive controlling father watching her every move, Silvie becomes haunted by those who really did live like this over two thousand years ago and who made the ultimate sacrifice in the ancient bogs, killed by the people they knew. But, although Silvie looks back to the past, she must first survive the present.

Ghost Wall is such a beautiful written, melancholic and mesmerising novella. At about 160 pages, not a word is wasted in evoking this strange world as it exists in the minds of the father, Bill, and in his bullied daughter. Their relationship, so central to the story, is placed in such a fascinating setting – this reconstructed prehistoric settlement – and the past really does infuse the present, even while some of the students do their best to break the rules. The novella begins back in the Iron Age with the sacrifice of young girl and this sets the mood so effectively for what is to come. We spend most of the time deep within Silvie’s thoughts as she tries to carry out the role expected of her while she makes friends with the students whose lives are so very different from her own.

It’s such a tragic story and I think that there is more than enough material here for a novel much longer in length. And that would be my only ‘complaint’. I would have loved more time spent on this archaeological experiment. My background in archaeology really enjoyed this element of the story and I’d have liked much more of it. Also the story comes to a rather hurried finish and, although I found the ending very good, I thought more could have been made of it. But having said all that, Ghost Wall is such an immersive read that you’ll probably finish in one sitting, as I did. It’s haunting and elegant while also depicting something of the harshness of the Iron Age and the unforgiving nature of its spiritual beliefs. This was a time when life could be a daily struggle, lived in debt to the gods, but for Silvie modern life is hardly easier. Sarah Moss mingles so perfectly, and disturbingly, the distant past and present and the result is spellbinding.

Someone Like Me by M.R. Carey

Orbit | 2018 (8 November) | 512p | Review copy | Buy the book

Someone Like Me by MR CareyLiz Kendall has to work all the hours that she can to make ends meet but it’s worth it – she’s making a life for her teenage son Zac and little daughter Molly and everything is better now that she’s finally left her husband Marc because he is a bully of a man. Then one day, after he drops the children off late, he and Liz have a fight and it gets vicious. Marc’s fingers are around her neck. And then suddenly Liz fights back. She doesn’t know how she does it. It’s as if she’s not moving her own hands, that her thoughts aren’t even her own. But it works. Only after that Liz can’t shake off the horrible dread that she now has another side within her, one that will not let go.

Not too far away in the same small American town lives teenager Fran. This young girl is deeply troubled. It’s hardly surprising. She was the victim of a terrible, famous kidnapping when she was a small child. She barely escaped with her life. Fran’s doing her best to live a normal life, supported by a wonderful father, and regularly receiving psychiatric support. But there’s something a little different about Fran – sometimes she can see things changing around her. It’s frightening. She finds friends, though, in the most unlikely of ways and they will protect her to the death.

I am going to find it very difficult indeed to express here just how much I fell in love with Someone Like Me and some of the truly fabulous people within it. M.R. Carey is nothing less than a genius, not least for his imagination which creates such believably unusual dark yet hopeful worlds and populates them with characters we adore. Who can ever forget Melanie in The Girl With All the Gifts? I’ve loved all of Carey’s books (including those written under other names) but I must declare that Someone Like Me is my favourite.

I’m going to give very little away because part of the great pleasure of reading Someone Like Me is unravelling its layers for yourself. It is full of surprises. In fact, during the second third of the novel I rather thought I knew where it was heading and became a little complacent. I was wrong. And that’s when I fell so deeply for this book and for some of its lives – most particularly Fran, Lady Jinx and Molly. I have no words to describe how much I love Molly and Jinx. The love we feel for them makes sections of this novel heart wrenching. It’s impossible not to feel completely involved. And with the pain we feel comes the huge reward of reading a novel that is so utterly captivating.

I’m not usually one for comparisons but I can understand those that have been made with Stephen King. The American small town setting is similar but so too is its sense of horror which can be found in the everyday and in the extraordinary. The line between the two is blurred. There is both terror and hope as innocence is attacked. It also demonstrates the horror that can be found in normal lives, particularly for those who suffer domestic violence or abuse of any kind. How some people can survive these things is a strong theme of this wonderful novel.

Someone Like Me is a substantial novel but every one of its 500 pages is a pleasure. I read this book so quickly. It kept me company late into the night. I couldn’t let these characters go and they haunt me still. What an exciting writer M.R. Carey is. He astounds with each novel. Where on earth (or beyond) will he take us next? This is a real contender for my book of 2018.

Other reviews
The Girl with All the Gifts
The Boy on the Bridge
Fellside

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Orion | 2016, Pb 2017 | 560p | Bought copy | Buy the book

Magpie Murders by Anthony HorowitzOne wet August evening, Susan Ryeland, Head of Fiction at Ryeland Books, picked up the manuscript of the latest Atticus Pünd detective mystery by Reyland Books’ most successful author, Alan Conway. And so we begin to read Magpie Murders, the last case, set in the 1950s, for Atticus Pünd, a man half-Greek and half-German who survived a concentration camp only now to be defeated by a tumour. But, while one part of him wishes to withdraw, to sit and reflect on the meaning of his life, another part of him welcomes the distraction of a new and final case.

The housekeeper of Pye Hall, a grand house in a small village near Bath, has been found dead at the bottom of the stairs. It looks as if she tripped over the vacuum cleaner lead but Mary Blakiston knew everything that went on in the village, its deepest secrets, and that meant that she was a woman with enemies, surrounded by people with motive and opportunity. But this will not be the only death in the village. Atticus Pünd will have a final investigation worthy of his famous powers of detection.

But, of course, that is not at all what Magpie Murders is about. And to discover its true mystery and enigma, I urge you to read the novel for yourself. Anthony Horowitz is the master of playing with the novel format, as seen in The Word is Murder and the very recent The Sentence is Death, and here he turns the whodunnit inside out and upside down. The result is a murder mystery the like of which I haven’t read before.

Magpie Murders is a substantial book and yet not a page is wasted or surplus. This is plotting at its very best. It is enormously intricate and elaborate, full of games and puzzles, layers within layers, all playing on the idea of author as character and the blurring of fiction and reality. It’s an immensely enjoyable and rewarding read that manages to be both clever and welcoming. I am in awe of Anthony Horowitz’s skill as well as of his talent in writing such thoroughly entertaining crime fiction which works in so many unexpected ways, but not least for providing the page-turning pleasure we expect from a whodunnit.

Other reviews
The Word is Murder
The Sentence is Death

Noumenon Infinity by Marina J. Lostetter

Harper Voyager | 2018 (23 August) | 561p | Bought copy | Buy the book

Noumenon Infinity by Marina J LostetterA few days ago I read, devoured and absolutely adored Noumenon by Marina J Lostetter. I immediately went out and bought its sequel, Noumenon Infinity. Hours of spellbound reading ensued. So I can now report that Infinity is not only every bit as good as Noumenon, it is even better. It takes all of those elements of the first book that I loved so much and gives them that extra twist, that extra push – enhancing its sense of wonder to such a degree that I could not put Infinity down. Having said all that, Infinity completes the two-part story begun with Noumenon and so you most certainly won’t want to read it without having read Noumenon first. This review assumes that you’ve had the pleasure and that you don’t mind hearing a little about what has gone on before. If you haven’t read Noumenon yet then STOP what you’re doing and read it right now!

Noumenon Infinity begins where Noumenon left off, with the start of a new voyage by Convoy Seven, still crewed by our familiar set of clones but now with a few new faces to get to know. As they head back to the Web and the Seed, they will learn more about these enigmatic and immense artifacts. And they will be tested to the very limit of what they can endure as the legacy of the past and their responsibility for the future threaten to overwhelm them.

But now we have a second convoy to follow – the mysterious Convoy Twelve, which, launched around the same time as Convoy Seven on its original voyage, disappeared without trace. Now we will learn the truth about what happened to this crew which was never intended to stray far from Earth. And what they have discovered will change everything.

I’m saying no more than that but how I want to because we are taken here into unknown starry distant space territory that cries out for me to shout about it. Both storylines, which alternate throughout this thankfully praise the stars substantial book, are equally brilliant and brilliantly different from one another. Two perspectives of wondrous things and I couldn’t have been more gripped if I tried.

We know some of these characters very well by now, even though we have met them in their different incarnations. We’re so fond of the AI who now is so ancient she is the repository of almost everything in human history. As the personalities evolve, the significance of their past lives grows more important than ever. This is a novel about legacy and identity. But above all else, in my opinion, it is about being an explorer. What drives people to explore the unknown at immense risk to themselves? What drives humanity on? Where are we all heading? What is the alternative to exploration? And if we do explore, where are we actually going? Does it matter if we don’t get there ourselves if our hundred times removed descendent does instead? And what do we do when we get there? So many questions and they’re the biggest questions.

And then you can throw in all those other things I love about science fiction set among the stars – spaceships, distant planets, alien artefacts, AIs, people adapting to life aboard a generation starship, bloodcurdling terror, love, the unknown. All of it described so beautifully and evocatively, with humour and sensitivity, by Marina J. Lostetter, an author who can do no wrong in my eyes.

So now that this mini-series of two books is complete and on the shop shelves, do yourselves a favour and read it. Just like the best of Peter F. Hamilton, these are novels to which I’ll return and I can’t wait to see where Marina J. Lostetter’s imagination will take her – and us – next.

Other review
Noumenon