The Earthly Gods | Nick Brown | 2016 (16 June) | Hodder & Stoughton | 325p | Review copy | Buy the book
Cassius Corbulo is a man torn. He still has two years to serve in the Roman army or, more specifically, as an agent in the Roman secret service, but his bodyguard and freedman Indavara has been kidnapped and Cassius is determined to find him. Cassius and his servant, the Christian Simo, wait in Antioch, seeking out any clue while their money whittles away to nothing, Cassius finding relief in the bottom of a flagon of wine. But Cassius’s boss has had enough. It’s time for Cassius to resume his post and take on his next mission. With few funds left, Cassius is close to doing what he’s told, but then an old comrade from the past turns up in dire need of help.
Kabir, a chieftain who fought bravely alongside Cassius in a siege some time ago, has also lost someone dear to him. His daughter and her two friends, all seventeen years old, were kidnapped some weeks ago, stolen into slavery, and Kabir, his son and their small troop of family and soldiers will do anything to find them. But they need help. Cassius is an officer in the Roman army, a feared grainman. Doors can open when that kind of man comes knocking. That’s if Cassius will help, of course, but Simo knows very well that his master can do nothing else. Not if, in return, Kabir and his men will help him find Indavara, before there is no-one left to find.
The Earthly Gods is the sixth novel in Nick Brown’s excellent Agent of Rome series, during which Cassius Corbulo, Simo and Indavara have been put through their paces on a number of perilous and extraordinary missions on behalf of the Roman emperor. This novel is a little different. No longer constructed around historical events, The Earthly Gods sees Cassius and Simo step outside history into the unknown – an adventurous journey across the eastern Roman empire to Byzantium and beyond to rescue Kabir’s daughter and her friends from a group of merciless slave traders and slave owners who have become known through the shadows and secret corners of the empire as the ‘Earthly Gods’.
As usual, the strong appeal of the novel can be found in the characters of Cassius and Simo and their relationship. They might be owner and slave but these two men are becoming friends, family even, with all of the confused thinking that this entails. Simo, a Christian and therefore inherently foreign to Cassius, a good Roman, knows that he will be freed once Cassius has completed his military service – so how does that alter his relationship with his master? But actually, as we know from reading and loving these books, Simo has himself altered Cassius. Cassius, once a young, boisterous and privileged, if disgraced, young Roman aristocrat is not quite that any more, although bits of the man he once was do peep out now and again.
In this novel, though, Cassius misses the influence of the powerful yet largely silent Indavara and this is a real loss. Cassius needs that influence, he needs his friend, and so he will go wherever he must to find him. Indavara does turn up sporadically through the novel but not as much as we’re used to and we miss him, too.
The adventure is an exciting one, giving us glimpses into life across much of the eastern empire. This is a hunt and the stakes are high. I must admit, though, that this story isn’t the strongest of the series, possibly because it takes place outside history and focuses instead on a personal mission. It also, towards the end, in one particular section, crossed my comfort barrier and took me where I didn’t want to be. This is a shorter novel than the others and almost has the feel of an interlude about it, taking Cassius where he has to go, on a diversion, regathering his family, before he can return to his destiny.
Cassius has developed a great deal as a character and this novel plays a significant part in that development. It also brings us closer to Simo, particularly as a slave in a book which features slavery as a major theme – illegal slavery, though, not ‘normal’ slavery, this distinction isn’t easy for Simo.
The Agent of Rome series continues to be one of my favourite Roman historical series. Its novels can be read independently but I do think you’re in for a treat by reading them in order. I can’t wait to see what’s next for Cassius and those he has grown to love.
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)
Agent of Rome V: The Emperor’s Silver