Thunder of the Gods | Anthony Riches | 2015 | Hodder & Stoughton | 419p | Review copy | Buy the book
Centurion Marcus Valerius Aquila and Scaurus (newly promoted above his social rank to Legatus) are heading East. After recent tumultuous events, Rome is now far too hot to contain either man. They are ordered to take their Tungrians to the remote fortress of Nisibis, critically positioned between Armenia and the Parthian Empire, and crucial for the control of the lucrative spice and silk trade. But Nisibis is under siege from Parthian forces. While not officially at war with Rome, minor Parthian kings, including a son of Parthia’s King of Kings, are waging their own campaign. They have already spilled Roman blood, catching the Sixth Cohort by surprise and slaughtering them almost to the very last man. It is up to Aquila, Scaurus and their battle-hardened centurions and first spears to reignite the fire in the demoralised local legion and take the fight back to the Parthians and smash them into dust.
The fight is not an easy one. Between the Tungrians and Nisibis stands an army of cataphracts and archers, determined not to let a single Roman pass. But Parthia is to learn that Tungrians are no normal soldiers, Aquila is no ordinary man. The fight will be brutal. The battle will have consequences for both sides, forcing Aquila to venture deep into Parthian territory to Ctesiphon, the exotic and dangerous lair of the King of Kings himself, where nobody is safe and little is as it seems.
Thunder of the Gods is the eighth novel in Anthony Riches’ popular Empire series but it marks a new phase in the story. Much was resolved in the previous novel, The Emperor’s Knives, which means that, while I would recommend you treat yourself and start this wonderful series from the very beginning, Thunder of the Gods would also make a good entry point for those who have yet to meet Marcus and his Tungrians.
Life is moving on for Marcus and there’s a sense in this eighth novel that the story is now bigger than he is. His wife isn’t featured at all, his burning desire for vengeance is no longer an issue, and so for much of the novel – at least the first half – Marcus takes a step back and gives Scaurus and the Tungrians the limelight. Many of the familiar characters we know and love are here, several of them reminding us of past heroic actions across the Roman Empire, including Britain. But, as before, we know that Anthony Riches will take them into the deadliest of dangers. There is no guarantee that all will survive and there are shocks, especially now that we care so much for these battered, scarred and trouble-seeking warriors.
Thunder of the Gods is packed with exciting battle scenes, made all the more thrilling by the insights we’re offered into Roman fighting techniques – Riches knows his stuff and it’s on fine display here. The world of the Roman soldier is contrasted with that of the Parthian knight and a vivid picture is painted of Parthian warfare as well as its elaborate, ritualised and lethal court life and politics. To add further background, the novel closes with extensive notes about the historical and military context.
There is an added poignancy in Thunder of the Gods. The novel takes us into areas now under the control of IS and some of the sites referred to here are now gone for ever.
This is very much lads’ military fiction – the banter is coarse and rather fragrant and there is a lot of it. In fact, there was a bit too much of this for me during the first half of the book. My other issue with the novel revolved around the denouement in Parthia which for me, without giving anything at all away, fell a little flat. I am a huge fan of the Empire novels (and of Roman military fiction as a whole) and so comparisons are inevitably made with other books in the series. The Emperor’s Knives is an extremely hard act to follow. But while Thunder of the Gods isn’t my favourite Empire novel, it is most certainly a thoroughly enjoyable, energetic and furious read which comes into its own during the second half, especially when swords are drawn in these remote and exotic fringes of the Roman world.
There is a strong sense that the world is now opening up for Marcus Valerius Aquila. He’s no longer bound by his past. I’m excited thinking where Anthony Riches will take him in future novels, Marcus Valerius and his battle-hungry Tungrians.
Other reviews and features
Empire I: Wounds of Honour
Empire II: Arrows of Fury
Empire III: Fortress of Spears
Empire IV: The Leopard Sword
Empire V: The Wolf’s Gold
Empire VI: The Eagle’s Vengeance
Empire VII: The Emperor’s Knives
An interview for The Eagles Vengeance
An interview for The Emperor’s Knives