Two years after the great fire of Rome and the close of Rome: The Emperor’s Spy, Sebastos Abdes Pantera has pursued Saulos to Judaea. As we recall, Pantera is a Roman spy and pupil of Seneca while Saulos is the arch enemy of Roman and Hebrew alike. Known to history as St Paul but here freshly interpreted as an agent of vengeance and death, Saulos has recovered from his severe burns, resulting from the fire, and now has his destructive sights fixed on Herod and his family and the annihilation of the entire Hebrew race. Pantera’s injuries are more of the mind. Still mourning his lost family in Britain and with his new family safely despatched to Mona, the sacred island of the Druids, Pantera focuses on restoring peace to Israel.
Pantera is a loved man – he is surrounded my men such as Mergus and women like Hypatia who would die for him. By contrast, Saulos is followed by the Berber huntress Ikshara who is tied to him only through lies and deceit.
The Coming of the King carries us around the Kingdom of Judaea in 66 AD. The focus is on the court of Herod, his sister Berenice and his niece Kleopatra. They are surrounded by rioting Hebrews and Syrians, pacifists and warmongers. As the influence of Saulos grows, the voice of reason dies, and the royal family leaves their palace at Caesarea for Jerusalem where they are effectively undersiege and under attack from without and within. Pantera’s influence also grows, uniting the descendants of the Galilean, gaining arms and support through a daring assault on the seemingly impenetrable fortress of Masada in the desert.
However, the action of The Coming of the King, although exciting, is not what makes the book. As with the previous novel, what makes The Coming of the King special is the deeply realised characters and the prose that is used to create them and shape their actions. Pantera and Saulos are not new to us – and I would certainly recommend that you read The Emperor’s Spy first – but Kleopatra, Berenice and Ikshara are brilliant additions to the series of novels while, rather noticeably, Herod himself is barely touched upon at all.
The prose is as beautiful as one would expect from Manda Scott. This is not a book to rush through. The past and fears for the future influence the actions of each of the characters as they keep an eye on the wider world at play here. The descriptions of the streets, the people in those streets, the politicians and soldiers, the fanatics and the desert dwellers – all are beautifully presented and make this feel indeed like a journey to 1st-century Israel, with its political conflicts and its religious struggles.
I would argue that this second novel does not quite reach the heights of the astonishing first book in the series, but it does conclude well the story of Saulos. Whether you agree with the interpretation of Saulos or not, there is a validity to the argument and power in its execution and the pairing of Saulos and Pantera is fascinating. Possibly, the problem here is that The Emperor’s Spy presented such outstanding characters – Hannah and Math (not to mention Nero himself) – that I missed them.
The story continues next year with The Eagle of the Twelfth, the story of the legion of the damned. I can’t wait.