Nick Brown’s Agent of Rome series has become one of my favourite series, not just of historical or Roman fiction but of any genre. It brings the world of the Roman secret service to life. Its place at the top of my To Be Read Pile was sealed by The Far Shore, the third and best of the series and also one of my top reads of 2013. You can read my full review here but, if I had to sum it up (and I quote from my best of 2013 post): The Far Shore is a thoroughly enjoyable, fast and furious, often funny Roman adventure, populated by people I care about and set in a world in which demons are at work. I was so pleased to be asked to do an interview with Nick to coincide with the recent publication of The Far Shore in paperback. So with no further ado, except to thank Nick for his time, here it is.
Congratulations on The Far Shore! This is such a great series and The Far Shore was one of my top reads of 2013. What inspired you to write a series of novels about a Roman spy, a type of character that could have been very difficult to like?
Thanks very much! When I was working on the first book (original title: ‘Edge of the Empire’) I came across the ‘frumentarii’, a group often referred to as Rome’s ‘secret service’. I thought this seemed like a fantastic opportunity for a character charged with a series of unusual assignments. It’s true that spies are not generally all that ‘likeable’ but having proved himself as an investigator and ‘fixer’ I think Cassius’s superiors now appreciate his abilities. His commander, Abascantius, probably better represents the reality of the ‘grain men’ – a ruthless, crafty type who spends his time spying on Rome’s enemies at home and abroad.
The Agent of Rome series is set in the late 3rd century AD. What made you pick this particular period in Roman history?
When I saw what was already out there, it seemed logical to go later; I liked the idea of an empire struggling to survive – plenty of drama and excitement. And, when I looked closer, the era of Aurelian was appealing because he was a strong, comparatively ‘heroic’ leader. Also, though he only reigned for five years, those years were packed with incident.
Apart from Cassius, who is an immensely likeable hero, you have created two other very strong and memorable characters: Simo the Christian and Indavara the freed gladiator. Do you see them continuing to have a prominent role in the series?
Definitely. Simo was there from the beginning of course and my editor encouraged me to build up his role- something that has really benefited the series. When it came to the second book, it was clear that Cassius would need a bodyguard and I thought it would be a great start to see him win his freedom. Looking back, I suppose I didn’t really anticipate how the trio and their relationships would unfold but this aspect has developed naturally and become very important. I won’t spoil the surprise for people who haven’t got to book three yet but Indavara has his own secrets and story to explore and I certainly consider him an integral part of the series now . As a writer, it’s nice for me to be able to leave Cassius sometimes and write sections from Indavara’s point of view; occasionally Simo’s too.
The next novel, The Black Stone, is published this June. Can you give us any hints about Cassius’s next mission?
Well it’s set in Arabia, certainly Cassius’s biggest challenge yet and one that will have very personal consequences for him. In terms of genre it is a bit of a change because it’s not so much a mystery as a series of obstacles he and his allies have to overcome. It is probably the most action-packed so far though and – for the first time since The Siege – we follow one of the antagonists, which I hope adds a different dimension.
Do you know how long the series will run? Is it well mapped out or does each book have a life of its own as you write it?
I have my own ideas and a pretty solid structure for the overall arc though it’s hard to say exactly how many there will be. For the individual books I also do a fairly detailed plan but I’ve learnt that it’s important to leave room for organic developments while writing – sometimes it’s good to surprise yourself!
You bring the Roman period to life but does any other period of history appeal to you for a future novel?
I think you can find compelling stories in most eras but I would definitely like a crack at World War Two at some point. I would certainly like to do something set in Britain – easier for research!
Which novelists have inspired you and what have been your favourite recent reads?
As far as inspirations go I would mention writers like Fleming, Tolkein and C.J. Sansom in terms of historical fiction. A novelist I really admire at the moment is Joe Abercrombie who has a fantastic style and uses language in a very powerful way.