Saviour of Rome | Douglas Jackson | 2016, Pb 2017 | Bantam Press | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book
Saviour of Rome is the seventh novel in Douglas Jackson’s wonderful series featuring Roman officer and honoured Hero of Rome Gaius Valerius Verrens. This novel closely follows on from the harrowing events portrayed in Scourge of Rome and so I would certainly suggest you read that first at least. Even better to have read the entire series because Saviour of Rome will have its repercussions and you’ll appreciate this all the more fully if you’ve grown as attached to the characters of Valerius and his former slave and bodyguard Serpentius as I have. The review below assumes you’ve read the series.
The empire is settling down after the Year of the Four Emperors and the civil war that accompanied it. Vespasian is now on the throne, supported by his son Titus (a good friend of Valerius), hindered by his other son Domitian (a bad enemy of Valerius), and determined to put the money back into Rome’s coffers, not least so he can build his fancy new amphitheatre. Vespasian has become aware that certain mines in Spain are not sending as much gold back to Rome as they should. Suspecting a conspiracy, he sends Valerius off to investigate the shady, dirty and perilously dangerous world of Roman gold mining, a hell on earth for those cursed with the job of hacking the gold out of the rock.
Valerius has more on his hands than he might have thought. There are rumours that the local tribes in Spain have a new hero, a bandit that haunts the hills, known to many as the Ghost and to others as the Snake.
Valerius Verrens is a reluctant agent of Rome and now, more than ever, he has reasons to stay in the city, but his sense of duty and purpose have always rivalled and compromised his quest for happiness. Through these novels, Serpentius has been his constant companion, his right hand man – quite literally, because Valerius is a hero without a hand thanks to his service in Britain. But now Valerius must manage without him and it leaves him vulnerable, which is a pity because he has enemies around every corner.
Saviour of Rome removes Valerius from history and places him in the entirely fictional context of a rebellious Spanish gold mine. This is in direct contrast to the previous novel which put Valerius right at the heart of Rome’s infamous subjugation of Jerusalem. While this means that the events of Saviour of Rome have less resonance and appear potentially less significant, it also means that it is Valerius himself who has become central to the story and it is Valerius – and Serpentius – who moves this story along. The glimpses we have of Serpentius in his new setting matter a great deal and are such a highlight of the novel.
As usual, Valerius is adept at finding trouble and he finds more than his fair share here as we discover the plight of the men and women who are made to suffer in the name of gold mining and the corruption of those who exploit them. We see the effects of civil war on this place so distant from Rome and yet Rome’s influence is also demonstrated to be as watchful as ever. Valerius is such an interesting character, straddling the good and bad of Roman imperial rule. Although a great soldier, he knows how vulnerable his missing hand has left him but he also knows that, because of it, others can make the deadly mistake of underestimating him. Past events have changed Valerius and they are still changing him now.
Saviour of Rome is such a fine addition to the series. It’s different to the others in many ways and allows us to see these characters in a new light now that history has left them alone for a short while. Douglas Jackson writes beautifully and this is on full show here. He also never spares us the ugliness and barbarity of certain aspects of this world and they are also revealed. People have a great deal to lose. They are determined not to lose it. The tension is high as Valerius becomes more and more frustrated by his mission, the setting within (and under) the mountains is brilliantly painted in all its grandeur and claustrophobic horror, the cast of characters varied and enigmatic, the fighting bloody.
This is one of my very favourite series of novels, regardless of genre, and it is fascinating to watch it develop and evolve. I cannot wait to find out what the fates, and Douglas Jackson, have next in mind for Valerius Verrens.