Marcus Valerius Aquila is back! All fans of the Empire series by Anthony Riches – and we are legion – are very fortunate. Just six months after the publication of The Leopard Sword our impatience for more has been rewarded with The Wolf’s Gold. I had thought that the third in the series, Fortress of Spears, would be nigh on impossible to surpass. It turns out that I was wrong – the latest instalment in what I hope will be a long, long series is a superb piece of Roman military historical fiction and, if I had to choose a favourite of the series to date, it would be The Wolf’s Gold.
Obviously, I trust that you will have read, or intend to read, all of the preceding novels before this one, the fifth. In order to appreciate fully the journey that Marcus Valerius Aquila has made from the persecuted enemy of Emperor Commodus to brave and honourable Marcus ‘Two Knives’ Tribulus Corvus, centurion of a cohort of Tungrians, one should have marched alongside him, across Hadrian’s Wall, into Germania Inferior and now into Dacia, on the north eastern fringe of the empire. Along the way, you should have got to know Felicia, his love and the cohort’s doctor, Dubnus, Julius, Arminius, Lugos, Martos, Scaurus, Morban, Lupus, Qadir – men drawn from across the Roman empire, archers, cavalry, axemen and infantry, who have found a home on the march against Rome’s enemies, living, fighting and killing together as brothers. These are men to care for, not least because they are united in their efforts to protect Marcus from discovery and the fate dealt to his family in Rome.
The clues to the conspiracy surrounding the murder of Marcus’s family continue to trickle in The Wolf’s Gold but they play second fiddle to its main story: the Tungrian’s protection of the rich gold mines of Ravenstone Valley against the Sarmatian hordes – until recently allies of Rome – and of the forts to the north. In these extremities of empire, not everyone is as they seem. Allegiances are as constant as the wind.
What I find particularly successful about The Wolf’s Gold is its focus. With the gold mines the goal of the Sarmatians, the greatly outnumbered Romans are intent on the defence of a valley. It is a siege situation with the surrounding mountain heights the walls. As soldiers work with miners to protect the emperor’s gold and, infinitely more relevant, their own lives, the story is channelled so intensely that the excitement builds with every page. Likewise in the second half of the novel, our heroes are placed repeatedly in situations from which one would not expect them to survive, even fighting on ice. The combination of thrilling action mixed with characters that we have grown to care for deeply and fear for – especially as we never know what Anthony Riches will throw in their (or our) path – is not only edge-of-the-seat storytelling, it’s also completely satisfying.
In this novel, Dubnus takes a secondary role while Scaurus is pushed to the front with Marcus there to support him through these difficult days under siege and attack. After all this time, it’s good to learn more about the other men helping to keep Marcus alive and in every book we learn more about each of them. As a result, Scaurus is now a favourite of mine.
As always, Anthony Riches demonstrates his in-depth knowledge of Roman military history. I trust his expertise and I like how his stories deepen my appreciation for this extraordinary period of history. The Empire series is Roman military fiction. It’s therefore bloody and gory and parts of it stink with the horror of war. But with this fifth novel, Anthony Riches has shown that there is still so much more to tell in the story of Marcus and his brave Tungrians.