Gaius Valerius Verrens returns. A Hero of Rome, Valerius is a man and soldier well-known for his false wooden fist, his right hand lost in the service of Rome, the cost of a last stand against the fury of Boudicca. In this fourth adventure or mission, Valerius is caught up in the whimsical death of Nero in AD 68 and its bloody aftermath. Valerius is known for his valour and for his morality, not to mention that most dangerous of attributes – loyalty – and having rejected the throne himself he becomes the tool of those who won’t. Servant of Otho but friend of Vitellius, Valerius is sent by Otho to persuade Vitellius not to challenge his new rule and not to march on Rome. As towns, districts and legions choose their allegiances and prepare to make a stand or advance in threat, Valerius is caught in the middle. What makes it worse is that there is a man literally after his blood and as Valerius moves across the empire on his mission to broker peace, this enemy is a constant terrier at his heels. More pleasurable for Valerius, is the appeal of Domitia, first met in Avenger of Rome and here back to give Valerius something much closer to his heart to fight for.
This series is without doubt one of the finest about and has been a highlight of my reading summers for several years now. Last year’s Avenger of Rome was one of my top books of 2012, putting pressure on its successor Sword of Rome. I’m delighted to say that Sword of Rome is at least as good and I would go as far to say that its second half is one of the most exciting, heart pumping and compelling pieces of historical fiction I have read. If you want an example of how tense and exhilarating Roman military fiction can be then look no further. We’ve seen it before in this series – the brutal siege of the Temple of Claudius by Boudicca’s vengeance-seeking army in Hero of Rome remains one of my favourite scenes from any novel. In Avenger of Rome we have Valerius’ harrowing and memorable journey across the sea and desert to Antioch. In Sword of Rome there are several standout set pieces (including a wonderful scene crossing the mountains) but the novel contains a siege and a battle that are outstanding. It was a late night before I could put Sword of Rome down finished, feeling drained but my blood pulsing.
Each book in this series could be read alone, including Sword of Rome, but I would recommend that you read each in turn and not deny yourself that pleasure. Like the novels before, Sword of Rome presents an evocative image of the Roman empire in these most notorious of its days. While Valerius is fortunate to have Serpentius, his faithful companion, he is cursed by treacherous friends, as so many were in these times for sure. Some characters seem almost too distorted to be real but this is the period of Nero and this is what life was like for those wanting to hang on to power. Other characters from outside the historical record – such as Juva, the brave sailor who forms the First Adiutrix for Otho – are reminders of the ideal of Rome, so under threat. Juva and his companions fight for Rome; Valerius is doing what he thinks is best for Rome. Yet all the time we are aware as Valerius is not of the treachery, even madness, at work. Nero might be dead but his legacy lives on.
Valerius is a fantastic creation. Different from others because of his arm, such a visible reminder of heroism to those without any, he has to fight all the harder and in battle he has to rely on others. For much of this novel, Valerius is robbed of his wooden fist. He is vulnerable like few heroes of Roman military fiction are. He is also a thinker. Possibly not a good idea at this time.
Sword of Rome ends on a cliffhanger to end all cliffhangers and it is with great expectation and not a little worry that I await the next in the series. Douglas Jackson has an incredible ability to put the reader into the mind of his Hero of Rome Valerius and the result is a powerful rollercoaster that towards the end put my heart and stomach into my mouth. The aftermath of Nero’s death was a dangerous time for Rome and here we experience exactly why. Superb.
Sword of Rome Blog Tour this Saturday
Douglas Jackson is also, as James Douglas, the author of a great series of thrillers. The third one, The Excalibur Codex, is published at the end of the month. I’ve read it and it is a book you won’t want to miss. A review will follow closer to the publication date.