Anthony Riches’ Empire series has become essential reading for any fan of Roman history and historical fiction. It excels not just because of the standard of writing and the historical detail – which are always second to none – but because each book is different, each book surprises and thrills, while giving us more quality time with some of my very favourite Romans: Marcus Valerius Aquila and his cohort of larger than life Tungrians. Riches has refined his Empire recipe now to perfection. No surprises then that the seventh, The Emperor’s Knives, is a candidate for the title of best of the series while also continuing the trend of being entirely different from any of the wonderful books that precede it.
It is extremely difficult to review a book that is seventh in a long running series. While you could undoubtedly read and enjoy The Emperor’s Knives without having read any of the others, I must recommend that you instead start from the beginning and get to know and love these Tungrians and their officers just as much as I do. This review inevitably contains information about what has gone before, not least because The Emperor’s Knives is a pivotal novel in the series and has a lot to do with how things ended in The Eagle’s Vengeance. Having uttered my words of warning, I’ll continue.
The Empire books might be one series but there are sub-series within it. The first three novels introduce our characters – Marcus, Scaurus, Dubnus, Julius, Arminius, Qadir, Martos and Felicia and others – on their missions along and north of Hadrian’s Wall. In The Leopard Sword (book 4), the cohort moves away from the familiar into the unknown on the continent, discovering a whole host of new enemies and threats to do combat with. The individual adventures, of which there are many, are just one side to the novel; the other is the struggle of Marcus Valerius Aquila to survive to wreak vengeance on the agents who slaughtered his family in Rome. In The Emperor’s Knives, following the outstanding confrontation of the last novel’s conclusion, this reaches a head. This book marks a turning point in Marcus’s story, moving the emphasis away from the Roman army and shifting it towards Roman politics with the action set in the very heart of Rome itself. This is a totally different enemy and it is embodied by the emperor’s Knives, a small band of men whose fearful control of Rome Marcus and his legate Scaurus are determined to end.
The Emperor’s Knives is a pageturner from start to finish. We know Marcus and Scaurus so well now that we fully understand how driven they are. After all this time, the end is in sight and there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that they or their men will not do to win vengeance. The Tungrians themselves are billeted in Rome, waiting for their next orders, so they have plenty of time to help their officers in their plan and what an elaborate, satisfying plan it is too. We do spend time with the old favourites – there is still time for a laugh and mischief – but the mood is different. This is much more personal. There are also new characters to get to know as we’re immersed in the contradictory worlds of politicians and gladiators. Another bonus here is the wonderfully-realised city of ancient Rome. I’ll never look at the Colosseum with the same eyes again.
As is to be expected, there is violence and blood, vile language and gore. There is rage and fury by the cartload. There are also twists and surprises around every corner. The Emperor’s Knives has a fantastic plot. It’s thrilling but it’s also clever. You just never know what horrors Anthony Riches is going to force upon our Tungrians next and that is as true in this book as it is in all the others. You’ve just got to hold on, keep an eye on your favourites and hope for the best.
The Empire series is set to run and run and if there is one series that can retain its freshness and exuberance, it’s this one. Which is just as well because each addition to the series is a highlight of my reading year. Long may it continue.
The hardback edition has the added bonus of an exclusive short story.
You can read my Q&A with Tony Riches for this book here.