This 26 February is an extraordinary day for book releases. I don’t think I’ve known a day like it. But one new paperback release stands out – The Black Stone by Nick Brown. This fabulous addition to Nick’s Agent of Rome series featured in my top ten historical fiction list for 2014 and I cannot sing its praises enough.
The author has very kindly offered me two signed paperbacks, hot off the presses, to offer as giveaways on For Winter Nights. If you’d like a signed copy (and you live in the UK or Ireland), please send an email to me at email@example.com by the end of next week (Friday 6 March). And here is why you need to read this book.
It is AD 273 and ‘grain man’ or spy Cassius Quintius Corbulo is stationed in Bostra, the capital of the Roman province of Arabia, growing accustomed to his military rank while bemoaning the absence of his manservant, Simo. Simo might be a slave, and a Christian one at that, but Cassius has never been able to shrug off his affection for the man who can anticipate his every need. A visit to Simo’s father, though, has overrun and Cassius is losing his patience. His ex-gladiator bodyguard Indavara is still by his side but even he, a man of few words, is showing signs of trying to shake off his ties to Cassius. It’s almost just as well, then, when spymaster Abascantius turns up with a new, perilous mission for Cassius and Indavara.
The Black Stone, an object believed to conduit divine powers, has been stolen from Roman hands, which is unfortunate because emperor Aurelian is determined he needs it to sanctify his rule. Cassius is tasked with gathering a troop of Roman soldiers to go undercover as a merchant and his guards to trace the stone into the desert. The quest will begin in the city of Petra where, it is believed, an agent may have some clues for them (if the local gangs haven’t killed him first for his gambling debts). All the time, though, they hear stories of a new chief in the hills, supported by a tall blond giant and an old woman, who is gathering the local tribes to him. It doesn’t take an imperial agent to work out that Rome has a new enemy.
The Black Stone is the fourth in Nick Brown’s wonderful Agent of Rome series and this one is a little different to its predecessors. At almost 500 pages, it is by far the longest and this means that extra time is given to the action adventure element of the story and the increasingly involved relationships between Cassius, Indavara and, once he returns, Simo. For me, this is a particularly strong feature of the novel and I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know more about Simo and – especially – Cassius and Indavara.
The action part of the novel is extremely exciting and well-plotted, which is what you’d expect from Nick Brown after three other excellent Roman adventures, but while I did enjoy the mystery and enigma of Ilaha and Gutha, I was enthralled by the developing drama between Cassius, Indavara and Simo. During the later stages of the novel, this grows to great heights and there were tears – a fair few of which were mine. Both Cassius and Indavara are very young men dealing with events completely out of the ordinary. Simo is the man who could keep them sane but, as his allegiance turns increasingly to Christ, Cassius has to deal with this and he doesn’t like it. All sorts of questions about slavery are raised here.
Honour and bravery also play their part as many of the characters, those with both large and small roles to play, are placed in positions where they have to question their loyalty to their leader, their families, their emperor or chief and their gods – as well as to their own memory. All of this contributes to a tale that is both exciting and poignant in places.
Religion as a theme gets considerable attention in The Black Stone, not just the Christianity of Simo but also the cultism of Ilaha and the more formal Roman religion of Cassius and his men. Indavara continues to be confused by other men’s relationships to their gods but here, in his own worship, another side of Cassius is glimpsed. These large themes are lightly placed into the novel and it raises the adventure into something very memorable. Its ending leaves the reader crying out for more and I have no doubt that this wonderful series will continue to grow from strength to strength.