Invader | Simon Scarrow and T.J. Andrews | 2016 | Headline | 369p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is AD 44 and Roman-Britain continues to fight its new Roman masters despite the recent defeat of Caratacus. Horatius Figulus is a minor officer, an Optio, in the Sixth Century of the Second Legion. He’s happy to keep things that way. Better to be an anonymous soldier, seeing out his years of service and still being alive at the end of it, but Figulus’s bravery makes him stand out. And that, combined with his half-Celtic parentage, brings Figulus to the attention of his superiors when they need some help to put the rebelling Durotiges tribe in their place. And so begins a series of adventures in which Figulus leads an increasingly close and skilled group of soldiers against an enemy that knows how to strike fear into the hearts of their Roman opponents – with their warriors and also with their Druids.
Invader takes us across the south of Roman Britain, including the Isle of Vectis (the Isle of Wight), in pursuit of the Durotiges and their Druid priests. Although at times it’s difficult to know who is the hunted. Rome’s policy is to pacify the locals whenever possible and so Figulus also becomes instrumental in imposing a Romanised king on the tribe. But all the time Figulus retains his own identity, remembering his past and his heritage, while carrying out his orders to the best of his ability. It’s not long before Figulus can barter with his betters and then, as Centurion, he comes into his own.
Invader was originally published as five novellas, each placing Figulus in the heart of another perilous adventure, with one following on from the other. While this does mean that the novel when combined has an episodic feel to it, the stories lead into one another relatively smoothly and characters do develop, especially Figulus and Ancasta, the King’s daughter. I grew to care for Figulus more than I thought I would.
Towards the centre of the book, possibly because of the episodic structure, I felt that Invader lost its pace after a strong start. But the final third of the book, in which Figulus has to venture deep behind enemy lines to recover his comrades from a fate worse than death at the hands of the Druids is edge-of-the-seat stuff and I couldn’t put the book down. We head deeper and deeper into the bogs and marshes of hostile Britain, with little chance of emerging alive on the other side – this is great stuff! And you just know that there’s no chance of everyone surviving, despite the best efforts of Figulus, a man who cares deeply for his men.
While I’m not a big fan of books being published first in episodic format before being put together, Invader is more successful than most I’ve read, largely because there is a crescendo of excitement that builds throughout the novel. The final third in particular is thrilling but the most successful elements of the book are the appealing character of Figulus and that other character that leaves such a lasting impression and is so fiercely fought over – early Roman Britain.