One of the reasons why I started this bookish blog is that I have a drive to write about things that mean a lot to me, in this case stories. Douglas Jackson has written three novels, now four, about Rome and its empire and they have each enthralled me. I’m in the process of putting reviews of all of them up here. In the meantime, I can give you my thoughts on Defender of Rome, the second book in Doug’s latest series, which is so hot off the presses the ink is running. It’s set to be published on 15 August. I was fortunate enough to get hold of one of the first copies at the Festival of Historical Writing in Kelmarsh last weekend.
Defender of Rome follows the story of Gaius Valerius Verrens on his return to Rome from Britannia, after his experiences during the war against Boudicca. That’s putting it mildly. It was a horrific time and Valerius did not walk away unscathed. This bloody time earned Valerius his crown and title of Hero of Rome. It also cost him dear, so dear that his battle will continue as he finds a way to overcome it. If you’ve not read Hero of Rome, the first in this series, I suggest you waste no further time. It is a superb tale of Rome’s legions and towns under threat from the the British tribes and the sheer courage of a young man who has the ability to see both sides of a war, while fighting for what he believes. With the Britons literally pounding on the walls, there is sheer excitement here mixed with poignancy and fate. This is a novel I heartily recommend you read and once you’ve finished it you’ll want to read Defender of Rome.
This second novel finds us and Valerius back in Nero’s Rome. As Hero of Rome, Valerius has a certain immunity from the whims of the emperor but these are quickly eroded as the agents around Nero, and the emperor himself, discover in Valerius a suitable agent or pawn to stop the spread of the new disease that seeps through every strata of Rome’s society – Christianity. It boils down to a choice between his own death, and that of every Judaean in Rome, or he must find the Rock of Jesus, Petrus, and persuade him to turn himself in. Of course, these aren’t ordinary deaths that blight the future of Valerius – think lions, women imprisoned in cages too small to sit in and human torches.
Valerius discovers that Christianity has spread, even beyond Rome to the legions on the eastern borders. It has also reached within his own family.
But what makes Defender of Rome such a fine and fast novel to read is not just the action, and it doesn’t let up, it’s the characterisation of the hero himself. Valerius is complex. He too becomes obsessed with Petrus but for different reasons than those that make the Christians willingly offer themselves up for sacrifice for him. Valerius’ valour draws men and women to him and it takes him and them to the extremes of what they can endure. He is a Roman but his nature goes deeper than that.
Along the way we have other characters to grapple with, including Nero himself, the monstrous artist, his wife Poppaea and her friend Fabia, Valerius’ team of gladiators, Seneca, Nero’s secret agents, Petrus and Saul. The women here, as in Hero of Rome, stand tall despite the fact that they can be chattals to those on their own side and lambs to the slaughter to the enemy. The call of Christianity here as an eternal salvation, a way out, rings true indeed. One of the things, though, that I most like about these books is the style. Just as in past novels, Douglas Jackson’s descriptions of the gladiatorial arena or the Wicker Man have evoked real emotion in me, in Defender of Rome, there is more of the same and it is as powerful and as poignant as ever.
For a second book, in what I hope is a long series, the ending is totally satisfying, leaving any future stories wide open. The only problem with buying this book a month ahead of its publication is that I have longer to wait for the next one.