At the turn of the 4th century AD, the Roman Empire is a world divided. There are now two Emperors, each supported by a Caesar. Peace has, somewhat miraculously, held sway but the abdication of the two supreme Emperors in AD 305 leaves the Empire wide open to ambition, intrigue and, not least, barbarian attack. Nowhere is this more felt than on the fringes of the Empire, along the Wall that guards its northern edge. Centurion Aurelius Castus has been newly promoted, the result of extraordinary bravery on the Danube, an act which brought him to the attention of the Constantines, a family that is close enough to touch extreme imperial power. The promotion means that Castus is reassigned to Hadrian’s Wall, his mission is to help rejuvenate and reinforce the legions there, because they are about to be needed.
The tribes to the north of the Wall are themselves going through turmoil after the mysterious and unexplained death of the King of the Picts. It is imperative to retain their allegiance. Castus is ordered to escort two diplomats to negotiate, the daughter of one pleading with Castus to keep her father safe. But it is a trap. Castus must draw on all his prowess as a soldier and strategist to survive against almost insurmountable odds.
War at the Edge of the World, Ian Ross’s first historical novel, is an action-packed, steamroller of a novel from its opening pages. Aurelius Castus attracts trouble like a corpse attracts flies and he ensures that this is a breathless, exciting read. Ian Ross, pulling us behind him, dives headfirst into the uneasiness of late Roman Britain, at a time when Constantine was poised to take over the Empire using Britain as his springboard. The northern border is in danger of descending into violent chaos but Rome still has bite and the battle between Castus and his men and the forces beyond the Wall is a brutal one. Treachery doesn’t help matters. There are spies north of the Wall and it will take more than Castus’s sword arm to overcome them. And then there’s the ambitious and deadly Cunomagla, a woman unlike any Castus has met before.
I enjoyed War at the Edge of the World and raced through it. This is a period of history that I have become fascinated by since reading the superb The Lion and the Lamb last year and I was keen to get back to it. The emphasis in War at the Edge of the World, though, is very much on adventure and action. There are intriguing glimpses of Roman political mischief at this most tumultuous of times but they remain tantalising hints. Castus’s nickname is Knucklehead and, while the novel makes clear that there is much more to Castus than that, he is not a man of many words. Castus lives by the sword. He does learn to make good use of his wits over the course of the novel but he is a soldier, nothing more, nothing less. The nickname is a frequent reminder of this. Less satisfactory are the few and far between female characters.
If you enjoy action-packed Roman military fiction, then I think you’ll most certainly enjoy War at the Edge of the World. The barbarians north of the Wall are frightening and exotic, a compelling foil to the Roman soldiers who must fight for their lives. War at the Edge of the World is the first in a new planned series and I look forward to following it through this most fascinating and dramatic period of British and Roman history.
I must also mention what an attractive hardback this it – I do love a hardback with a ribbon!