The Emperor’s Silver | Nick Brown | 2015, Pb 2016 | Hodder & Stoughton | 405p | Review copy | Buy the book
Cassius Corbulo, imperial agent and spy, is not a happy man. Bostra, the capital of the Roman province of Arabia, is no longer safe. He’s been attacked, his home besieged. The past seems to be catching up with him, putting a price on his young head. It’s just as well, then, when a new mission comes up to distract him and send him north. Emperor Aurelian has just issued new coins around the empire, provoking a splurge in counterfeiting. One particularly successful and bothersome gang of forgers is believe to be operating out of Berytus (Syria). Cassius is sent to Berytus under disguise as Centurion Crispian, his mission to ferret out the gang. Accompanying Cassius as always are his two faithful – yet independently minded – companions, his slave Simo and his bodyguard and freedman Indavara. Cassius is not surprised to discover that taking on a gang of merciless criminals is only slightly more difficult than controlling his own household.
On these edges of empire, money is everything, local power is paramount, and Cassius has his hands full trying to trace the trail of dirty money. Cassius might be determined and conscientious, working on the authority of the emperor’s highest officers, but he is also young and impetuous. The local military and town elders have their own agendas and it’ll take more than a prod from Cassius’s politically gifted spearhead to put them on the straight and narrow. Matters aren’t helped by Cassius falling hook, line and sinker for more than one red herring thrown in his path. To be quite honest, there are times when Cassius can be a complete embarrassment to himself and to all of us watching.
But Cassius is, sometimes, willing to admit his failings and there is no doubt that during The Emperor’s Silver Cassius learns a great deal about himself and the two men that he would, he really would, lay down his life for. And that is a big reason why this wonderful series goes from strength to strength. Each novel’s plot is a joy to read but it is always backed up by the rich relationships between Cassius, Simo and Indavara. The Emperor’s Silver is the fifth novel in the series and, like each of the others, it does well as a stand alone novel but there is a real pleasure to be had from following these three men through their trials and aspirations.
All of the novels feature darker undertones, contrasting with the energetic action plots. This novel is no different. Slavery is here shown for the ugly word it is and although it’s dealt with in a non-lecturing way it’s a nonetheless powerful theme, not least because it makes Cassius think very deeply about his relationship to his own slave Simo. Added to slavery is exposure. In the Roman world (as in others), unwanted infants were abandoned, sometimes on rubbish tips, and that’s what we see here. Simo is a Christian and when he arrives in Berytus he joins the local Christian community to scour the tips for infants. Indavara soon does the same. This is all the more powerful because Indavara is trying to remember his own forgotten childhood. Indavara is a tough man, a born fighter, an ex-gladiator, but he is deeply troubled. Cassius just does the best he can to understand and even help, not easy for someone from a privileged Roman background with all of the comfortable arrogance and prejudice that this suggests. But for all his flaws, and there are many, Cassius is impossible to dislike. And, to contrast with this, Simo, who sometimes has a saintly air about him, is shown to be less than perfect, showing little hints of his own Christian prejudices. Indavara is simply lost.
The plot of The Emperor’s Silver is thoroughly entertaining with some exhilarating action sequences (especially involving aqueducts). The baddies are extremely horrible. But the book also provides a fascinating glimpse of life within an eastern Roman town, its mix of local and centralised government, its military and its industry, with all of the greed, corruption – and sometimes idealism and good service – that this entails. It’s painful these days reading a novel that includes regular mention of Palmyra. This novel reminds us of the region’s Roman past and it is wonderful. I always look forward to this series every year and, yet again, Nick Brown has outdone himself. As for that ending…!
Agent of Rome I: The Siege
Agent of Rome II: The Imperial Banner
Agent of Rome III: The Far Shore
An interview – The Far Shore
Agent of Rome IV: The Black Stone (review followed by an interview with the author)