With no time for us, or hero Marcus Aquila, to draw breath, the third instalment in Anthony Riches’ superb Empire series pushes Centurion ‘Corvus’ even further north, beyond Hadrian’s Wall, in pursuit of lord Calgus, who has now committed more than one personal atrocity against the young, wronged Roman officer. Some we know about from the previous two books in the series but the latest is a shocker and sets the pace for Fortress of Spears. However, too merciless even for the locals opposing Rome, Calgus is now a prisoner of the very tribes he sought to unite. They head north and the Second Tungrians, including Corvus, are on his trail. Their goal is the Fortress of Spears, the northern fort of Dinpaladyr, famous for its deadly defences.
Life is even more complicated for Marcus now, he is in love with Felicia, the soldiers’ doctor. The possibility of future happiness tantalises Marcus but Rome and Commodus are getting nearer and are more determined than ever to uncover the identity of the supposed traitor Marcus Aquila. Two frumentarii – corn collectors or spies – are sent after Marcus, travelling relentlessly though this most dangerous of borders, accompanied by murderers and rapists. There is one clear way for the spies to distract Marcus from his determined quest for Calgus and that is to kidnap his love. But Marcus is not alone. He is surrounded and supported by a group of prefects, decurions, first spears and centurions that we have grown to care deeply for over the preceding two books. These feelings only intensify in Fortress of Spears.
Wounds of Honour focused on the infantry, Arrows of Fury has Syrian archers at its heart. In Fortress of Spears, it’s the turn of the cavalry and, as with the previous two books, there is much to be enjoyed from Anthony Riches’ descriptions of life in a different unit. This is particularly pleasing here, because Marcus is followed on to horseback by some of the larger than life figures that make this series especially enjoyable, notably Arminius and Martos, who have sworn to defend Marcus to the death despite a natural hatred of Rome.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again until I’m blue in the face, Anthony Riches’ military expertise makes every page both gripping and informative. As the series progresses, you’re placed deeper and deeper within the dangerous, vibrant and remote world of the Roman border during the 2nd century AD. You also get a sense of the many different peoples, brought together from across the empire, who manned this border – apart from Rome and yet within its grasp. Marcus and his group of centurion friends are well known to us now and while, in some ways, this third books ends with some closure, their stories thankfully are set to continue in next year’s fourth novel The Leopard Sword.