Today is the day of the publication in paperback of Nick Brown’s Agent of Rome: The Imperial Banner. I cannot praise this book enough. A heart-thumping, adrenalin-dripping, blood-thumping Roman adventure, it takes us back to the AD 270s and the aftermath of the emperor Aurelian’s defeat of the Palmyrans, led by the enigmatic and extremely glamorous Queen Zenobia. Cassius Corbulo, a young and somewhat reluctant agent or spy is given the treacherous mission of finding the stolen Persian imperial banner which is a crucial requirement of any peace settlement between these two great, battle-weary empires. It was never going to be easy and it doesn’t help that Cassius, his ex-gladiator bodyguard Indavara and his servant Simo are distracted by the Christian Problem that Rome was determined to stamp out at the time.
There was only one sensible course of action after reading Book 2 in the series and that was go back and read Book 1: The Siege.
While it is never ideal to read a series in the wrong order, it’s better than not having read it at all. The Imperial Banner presents us with a fully-rounded and fascinating individual for a hero and I was intrigued to see where he came from. In The Siege we see Cassius Corbulo’s first mission as a 19-year-old cornman or agent of Rome. Cast out from his family after an indiscretion, Cassius is sent off to ‘man up’. He arrives in the Syrian desert in 270 AD. Zenobia is still claiming victories, fought for by warriors obsessed by her beauty and charisma. Cassius is ordered to the small, pitifully neglected desert fort of Alauran and is charged with holding it until reinforcements arrive. Palmyran attack is inevitable; the fort is built around a well that the enemy must control to advance. Unfortunately, the fort is manned by the dregs of Caesar’s own legion, the Third, as well as remnants from other legions and Syrian sling shooters. Leaderless, soaked in wine, divided by racism, the fifty legionaries and Syrian auxiliaries are all that stand between the frightened and inexperienced Cassius and certain death. It wouldn’t be a quick death either.
Siege stories, if done well, are almost impossible to put down (I think of Fire in the East by Harry Sidebottom and The Wolf’s Gold by Anthony Riches) and Nick Brown has done an excellent job. But what makes The Siege such a successful novel is the fact that events are allowed to build up at a pace that takes us closer and closer to the edge of our comfy seat. There’s no point depicting the against-all-odds struggle of fifty men against overwhelming odds if we don’t care about those men. Nick Brown makes us care. But when we first meet these men it doesn’t bode well. More than one is ill, most are poorly disciplined, none have been paid. The most dangerous fighter amongst them, an ex-Praetorian of colossal dimensions, is in no fit state to stand up let alone wreak fire and brimstone on a hoard of Palmyrans.
And then there’s Cassius Corbulo, our hero. Unclear of his own status, not knowing how to deal with these men so much older than him, terrified of how he will act when faced with the gory horror of hand-to-hand combat for the first time, this is a very young man who wants to let nobody down but more than anything wants to live to see his mother again. He’ll obey orders almost blindly but incredibly his idealism, so ridiculous as it seems in the situation, inspires these men and when the siege begins you will be desperate for Cassius and his men. So many of them won’t make it. This is a Zulu situation.
The Imperial Banner is more polished as one might expect from a second novel but The Siege is a fine book. It is cleverly paced and the characters are developed very well indeed. Cassius’ new servant Simo is a fascinating individual, even more so when you know how his character develops in The Imperial Banner. Here, we are getting to know him just as Cassius is. This novel is full of individuals whose names we learn and whose fate we care about. The action when it comes is so thrilling but it is also harrowing. There is a realism about it that crosses these two thousand years.
I might have read these two books in the wrong order but I will be reading every one as they come from now on.