Britannia | Simon Scarrow | 2015, Pb 2016 | Headline | 340p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is AD 52 and the Druids are prepared to make their final stand against Britain’s Roman invaders. Acting Governor Legate Quintatus is ready for the fight. He is determined to make a name for himself by eradicating the Druids from their strongholds in northern Wales (as it now is) and the island of Mona so that when a permanent Governor of Britannia does arrive, he’ll know who to take his orders from.
Centurion Macro and Prefect Cato and their force of Blood Crows have proved themselves to Quintatus in the recent struggle against Caratacus. They have every intention of being at the vanguard of the attack on the Druids. But when Macro is injured in a skirmish outside their fort in the hills, it is Cato who is left to advance against the enemy without his comrade by his side. Macro must stay behind to train the ranks of new recruits. After Cato and the main part of the army leave for Mona, Macro hears reports that the neighbouring hills and settlements are empty of warriors. It is soon worryingly clear that the army may be marching into a trap, while, all the time, the winter closes in, turning the very ground beneath their feet into the Romans’ enemy.
Britannia is the fourteenth novel in the much-loved Macro and Cato series Eagles of the Empire by Simon Scarrow. Inevitably in a series this long some are better than others and I’m delighted to say that I thought Britannia to be among the very best and quite possibly my favourite. From the opening chapter, Scarrow plunges us deep into a place that is as dangerous as it is atmospheric, the winter creeping in, beset by the hostility of the people who live in these hills, all too aware of the distance that separates the Roman soldiers from their homes and families. Cato in particular is missing his wife who must have given birth to their child by now. The not knowing is proving difficult. But after just a few pages Macro is badly injured and, while giving us a satisfyingly gory glimpse into Roman medicine on the frontline, this determines the shape of the rest of the book and it is done very successfully indeed.
I thoroughly enjoyed the way that the novel moves between Cato and Macro, showing us life in the fort as well as on the march. The tension steadily builds as we get to know the men that Cato leads as well as those that Macro has been left behind to train. There are bigger issues at stake here, too. The political situation in Rome is perilous and, as always, its reach spreads to Cato and Macro. Everyone, and especially Quintatus, has something to prove. Of course, the Britons and Druids might have something to say about that.
The action and drama never let up from first to last pages with a few set pieces along the way that put the reader right on the edge of their seat. There is one scene in particular involving Cato and boats during a great storm that is absolutely fantastic, brilliantly written and imagined.
Britannia is a little different from the other novels in the series that I’ve read. It refreshes the relationship between Cato and Macro and moves along elements in their story that may have long-term repercussions for them both, especially for one of them. More than anything, though, Britannia is a thoroughly exciting novel, which stands alone well in its own right as a piece of Roman military historical fiction, while also strongly affirming that there is a lot of life left in this enjoyable and popular series.