Anthony Riches’ Empire series is without doubt one of the most exhilarating and heart thumping of all Roman series being published at the moment and one of its many attractions is that there is no sign of it taking a rest. This month, the sixth Empire novel is published, The Eagle’s Vengeance, and in it we see Marcus Valerius Aquila and his cohort of Tungrians return to the place where we first met them – Hadrian’s Wall.
The Eagle’s Vengeance would stand alone if you asked it to but as with most series I would recommend that you read the books in order, beginning with Wounds of Honour. You are at risk of discovering some of Aquila’s previous story if you read on.
Set in the late 2nd century AD, the Tungrians arrive back at the Wall in a time of crisis. The barbarians have united, albeit in bad temper, and the forts of the more northern Antonine Wall have been abandoned. The Tungrians are despatched northwards, to a seemingly impregnable mountain fort surrounded by swamp where it is believed barbarians guard the eagle of the Sixth Legion alongside other disturbing relics from this slaughtered army. Rescuing the eagle, though, may be the least of the Tungrians’ worries.
Each of the Empire novels is very different than others in the series. Not only have they moved around the empire, they have also focused on different elements of the Roman military world, whether it be the cavalry, bowmen or infantry, sieges or pitched battles, Roman soldiers or foreign auxiliaries. While you are absorbing all of this fascinating detail, you are being entertained by the continuing story of Marcus Valerius Aquila, or Two Knives, to evade the imperial forces that would see him as dead as his murdered family in Rome. In disguise, and now with a wife and son, he is still protected by his officers and men. After all this time, we have grown fond of them all – Dubnus, Julius, Arminius (my personal favourite) and Qadir, to name but a few. But as the cohort fights its way across the Empire – usually put in the position of greatest danger – life can be too short and there are no guarantees here that everyone will survive.
There is something very satisfying about the story of The Eagle’s Vengeance. There are reminders of events and people from the earlier novels (especially the first three) and it allows the possibility of tying up some loose ends while continuing to work at the knots of the more deeply embedded mystery of why the emperor is intent on wiping Aquila’s bloodline from the surface of the earth. This is a great mix and works very well.
Above all else, The Eagle’s Vengeance is a fantastic adventure, packed full of intrigue, feats of courage and all out battle between men, between armies, between different ways of life and cultures. This is a developing series and so not all characters feature as heavily here as they do in others – there were a couple of old favourites I missed particularly – but this is made up for by the introduction of new characters.
The Eagle’s Vengeance is written with supreme confidence and assurance. These are well developed characters; this is a subject the author knows inside out; there are few allowances made for the squeamishness of the reader’s stomach. There is gore and horror as well as swearing by the bucketload (possibly a bit too much for me), but what else would one expect on this hostile frontier, where a day might mean the difference between life and death? For the first few chapters, as the soldiers wait for their next mission, there is lots of banter between the men – you are expected to know who everyone is, what their ranks are, what their relationships are – and if you haven’t read the other novels then you might be confused by this. I’ve read every word of them all and I got muddled. But, as soon as the cohorts begin to head north, we settle into the story and the thrills and the dangers avalanche. The last section of the book is magnificent.
I have enjoyed this series from its beginning and I cannot wait for the next. May it run and run.
I am delighted to have been able to ask Anthony Riches questions about The Eagle’s Vengeance and the series and they will follow very shortly.