Swords Around the The Throne | Ian Ross | 2015 | Head of Zeus | 415p | Review copy | Buy the book
When Centurion Aurelius Castus saved the life of emperor Constantine in battle he changed his own life for good. Castus becomes one of the swords around the throne, one of the Protectores, the imperial bodyguard. Constantine is not a man to avoid personal danger and so Castus has his hands full trying to protect the emperor from restless Germanic tribes along the Rhine, an uneasy border that Constantine is determined to bring under Roman control once and for all. But angry Germanic warriors almost pale into insignificance against the threat posed by other Romans. Rome has been seized by Maxentius, the son of former emperor Maximian who has himself come out of retirement to rule by the side of his son. But Roman politics are rarely that simple, especially during the first years of the 4th century AD.
With Castus looking on, the ground shifting beneath his feet, Constantine marries Maximian’s daughter and the old emperor joins Constantine to fight against his son in Rome. Maximian works his influence on Constantine’s household, he has his eye on Castus. It’s not long before Maximian’s true intent is revealed and Castus is caught in the storm – battles, sieges, bloody plots ensue. Nobody can be trusted, the women in the household are no more reliable than the spies and eunuch servants who move silently around the corridors. Castus wants so hard to be able to trust one woman in particular. It might be unwise.
Swords Around the Throne continues the story of Aurelius Castus from War at the Edge of the World but everything starts afresh. I’d recommend you read the enjoyable At the Edge of the World first but it certainly isn’t necessary. In the previous novel Castus had a bloody battle on his hands against the terrifying tribes north of Hadrian’s Wall. The focus was very much on Britain despite the presence of the rising family of Constantine. In Swords Against the Throne Castus is taken out of that environment and put in the heart of Constantine’s court and clashes head on with historical events. The action moves down the Rhine from Colonia Agrippina and Treveris to Lugdunum, Arelate and Massilia, modern day Marseille, where the novel reaches an utterly thrilling and adrenalin-pumping climax. Every step of the novel is marked by action, allowing Castus plenty of opportunities to put to effective use his famous military prowess.
Life has become complicated for Castus. His battle experience is unquestionable but now he has to learn about Roman politics, which is all the harder because he is caught right in the centre of it. As a result there are some intriguing and fascinating characters in Swords Around the Throne and refreshingly not all of them are men. Constantine’s wife and her women contribute enormously to the novel, highlighting all too well the machinations of the men who control them. Maximian is an enjoyable villain, backed up by a cast of unpleasant and dangerous sneaks. It’s not surprising that Castus feels out of his depth. Castus is much more satisfying and rounded a character than in War at the Edge of the World and Swords Around the Throne benefits from that – he is now far less of the ‘Knucklehead’ (his old nickname) although I still think he can be developed further.
The action scenes are especially well done and the final third of Swords Around the Throne is thoroughly exhilarating and utterly thrilling. Massilia provides a fantastic backdrop to the Civil War and Castus plays a significant role in events there, and not just because of brute force. Ian Ross shows considerable skill in bringing the war to life, there is a strong authenticity to the extensive action sequences – horror, terror and sadness play their part in the battle every much as bloodlust and anger. I cared deeply for a fair few of the characters and there’s a strong sense that not all of them are going to make it. This is a fascinating period in Roman history. It’s also complicated with faction pitted against faction. Ian Ross dramatises it very well indeed, not least because of the enormously likeable tour de force caught slap bang in the middle of it – Aurelius Castus.
I must add that, just like its predecessor, Swords Around the Throne is a very handsome hardback – with a ribbon!
War at the Edge of the World