Altar of Blood | Anthony Riches | 2016 | Hodder & Stoughton | 389p | Review copy | Buy the book
My love for the Empire series by Anthony Riches knows no bounds and so it was one of those jumping up and down while hugging a book moments when the latest, Altar of Blood, turned up in the letter box. Altar of Blood is the ninth novel in the series that chronicles the arduous life and bloody career of Centurion Marcus Aquila and his Tungrian cohort in the second half of the 2nd century AD. A lot has happened over the last eight books (an understatement if ever there was one) and so it’s definitely worth reading them in order. Having said that, Altar of Blood stands fantastically well as a standalone novel and so if you wanted to dive in and get a taste of the series then this would be no bad place to plunge, not least because Marcus is starting a new phase in his life. But afterwards you must go back and read them all…
It is AD 186 and Aquila, Scaurus, Dubnus, Julius, Qadir and (my personal favourite) Arminius have returned with the rest of the Tungrians to Rome after their recent exploits in the East. But there is to be no rest. The emperor Commodus and his advisers have another mission for this fearless, cunning and fierce band of soldiers, horsemen and archers. They are to be sent to the north-west, into hostile territory across the Rhine, where the only Roman the locals want to see is a dead Roman. But as Scaurus prepares to take his men out of Rome, all know that the dangers of the barbarian forest are almost nothing compared to the peril of the vipers that rule the imperial city. If ever there was a time for them to leave Rome, this is it.
The mission seems as simple as it lethal. Scaurus is to lead his men into a forest that still hides the bleached bones of Romans slaughtered almost two centuries before. This is where Varus lost three legions and their eagles to a Germanic uprising that has kept the region east of the Rhine free of empire ever since. But the Germans are stirring again, led by the Bructeri tribe, inspired by its priestess. And it is that priestess that the Tungrians are charged with finding and stealing. Failure is not an option – the defeated will find no peaceful death on the bloody altar of the Bructeri priests.
And so begins a thriller of an adventure that this reader couldn’t devour fast enough. Altar of Blood has it all – battle, intrigue, secrets, fantastic locations, tension, mystery, terrifying priests and, in the middle of it all, our troop of Tungrians who will fight to the last breath to defend their comrades. These men have seen it all, endured it all, and now more is to be asked of them as they venture deep into this forest, knowing that not only do the local tribes want them dead (preferably in the most painfully prolongued manner) but so too do certain Romans that they encounter on the way. Hemmed in with evil on both sides there is nothing for them to do but fight, fight, fight and stay alive to fight some more.
I love this series so much. It might be the story of Aquila but he is just one of many men that we care for so deeply and in this novel, as in some of the others, he has no more page-time than his colleagues. If anyone is the focus of Altar of Blood, I’d say it’s Scaurus and Qadir, and I really like how each character is given the time that he deserves.
Altar of Blood presents a fantastic story. The mission is thoroughly exciting and I couldn’t get enough of it, but it also made me think a great deal about the meaning of ‘Empire’, to these soldiers and to the men and women that they confront. There’s no glamour here. The Tungrians know only too well what type of man their emperor is. The glories of the past lie smashed underfoot in the forest that saw Rome’s most infamous defeat. It’s all that Scaurus can do to stay alive among fellow Romans, let alone among hostile tribes. Rome is not what it was and yet the Tungrians continue to risk – and give up – their lives for it. This played on my mind while I was reading Altar of Blood – I liked that.
Anthony Riches does locations like no other author of Roman historical fiction I can think of. So many of his novels have such memorable scenes set in all kinds of setting, whether on ice, in a mountain pass, on Hadrian’s Wall or, as now, in a muddy, enemy-filled forest that must have haunted the Romans who laboured through it. The priestess adds an extra element of superstition into the fearful mix. And yet there are great surprises here and I loved where the twists took me. The novels are always bloody and this is no different and I loved it. I get on less well with swearing in novels but – and I don’t know whether this is me becoming de-sensitised or not – this seemed less prominent here than in other books in the series.
Anthony Riches is about to take a break from the Empire series. His next three novels, The Centurions, will chronicle the Batavian Revolt of AD 69-70. I cannot wait! I am reassured, though, that Riches will return to Marcus and the Tungrians in the future. I’ve enjoyed the Empire series for years, each new addition goes straight to the top of my reading mountain, but if you forced me to pick a favourite then I really do think it would have to be Altar of Blood. I loved every page.
Other reviews and interviews
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
Empire VIII: Thunder of the Gods
An interview for The Eagles Vengeance
An interview for The Emperor’s Knives