In the mid 1st century AD, Roman rule in Britannia has one last hurdle to overcome – Caratacus, King of the Catuvellauni and leader of the resistance. Prefect Cato and his one time commander and now subordinate Centurion Macro are thrown back into the fray. Their mission is to capture Caratacus, bring glory to the emperor Claudius and resolution to the British problem. But there is far more to it than that. Claudius’ government is controlled by two men, Narcissus and Pallas, spy masters who are at war. Pallas has despatched an agent to Britannia to halt Claudius’s conquest of the islands and, while they’re about it, to kill Cato and Macro. In response, Narcissus sends his own agent, none less than his son, to warn the two soldiers and help them drive Caratacus and his men into the ground.
Last year I read The Blood Crows, the twelfth in Simon Scarrow’s Cato and Macro series but my first. I loved it and so I have been counting the days to its follow up, Brothers in Blood, especially as I knew that it too would be set during this most fascinating of events, the conquest of Britannia. Cato and Macro have history in the islands, all of which I’m not familiar with as I’ve not followed the series from the beginning but my lack of knowledge didn’t matter. Scarrow drops hints and clues to what has gone before. If you’ve read The Blood Crows, though, then Brothers in Blood makes for an excellent successor following directly on its heels and taking Cato and Macro further into Britannia on the heels of Caratacus.
There are two strands to Brothers in Blood. One puts us on military campaign along with Cato, Macro, their general Ostorious and tribune Otho, a man whose match is more than met by his wife Poppaea, who is determined to accompany her husband into the field no matter what the cost. The other reminds the familiar reader of the deep friendship and trust between Cato and Macro – Cato the young officer, newly wed, who has genuine strategic skill and cunning to match his courage and Macro who is a force of nature in the battlefield, already the killer of one of Caratacus’s brothers and now intent on more. Both Cato and Macro are battle scarred and under no illusion about the men who might lead them, though fully confident in their own soldiers, including the now famous blood crows. These are two men who always want to lead from the front, they never tire, they never give in. They might banter and bicker but they are a united front. Cato has been placed as leader of the army’s baggage train, an insult, but this isn’t going to get in the way of a good fight.
For much of the novel the adventure follows the army in Britannia on the trail of Caratacus – a mission that goes better than planned but everything goes to pot when Caratacus manages to pull a miraculous victory out of defeat, and heads off to the land of the Brigantes to stir up trouble in the lands of Rome’s ally Queen Cartimandua. From this point on, Brothers in Blood comes alive and culminates in an exhilarating and thoroughly entertaining hill fort battle. This to me really brought the period alive, the conflict between Celt and Roman, and I was completely gripped.
There is much to enjoy here – the battles, the banter and the subterfuge. I particularly enjoyed the moments when Roman met Celt in the great halls of these Britannia tribes. But I didn’t find Brothers in Blood as satisfying as its predecessor The Blood Crows – I found its mystery unconvincing and unsubstantiated and much of the book jogs along at an undemanding pace. All in all not many challenges are made on the author or reader. But the final third compensates for this to a large degree, also hinting at future troubles in the making, and, as a result, my interest is kept alive for the fourteenth in the series.
The Blood Crows