Hodder & Stoughton | 2017 (9 March) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is AD 68 and the dynasty founded by Julius Caesar a century before has been brought to a violent and ignoble end by the suicide of Nero. The result is months of chaos as ‘usurper emperors’ use Rome’s legions to fight for the throne. The first of these, Otho, dismisses the imperial bodyguard, a band of Batavi, incorruptible Germanic warriors favoured by Julius Caesar. They are sent home in disgrace to defend the upper Rhine and with them is sent Julius Caesar Civilis, a Batavi officer suspected of treachery against Nero but with the enviable gift of making mud not stick. The drama of the imperial power struggle plays out across the empire but events are taking place in northern Germany that could change everything – eyes turn to the Batavi and Rome’s generals wonder what they will do.
Betrayal is the first in a new trilogy by Anthony Riches and it takes as its subject one of the most utterly fascinating periods in history – the Year of the Four Emperors – and focuses on the significant part played in it by the Batavi legions as well as the other legions garrisoned in a series of camps in northern Europe. The focus tightens further onto a small group of centurions, their officers and their men – Batavi and Roman – who are influenced by the intrigue of the times but also help to shape it.
Over the course of this novel, I became fully immersed, its story bringing me close to the history, involving me deeply in its intrigue as well as in the human lives that lay behind it. The relationships between these soldiers are complicated. You do need to have your wits about you to keep up as we move from fort to fort (some of the characters’ names are quite similar) but the effort is rewarded immensely as you get to know these men and learn what matters the most to them. It isn’t immediately obvious to us, or to others in the book, where allegiances lie and therein lies the expectation, intrigue and betrayal. Floating above it all is the enigmatic Civilis, a source of potential trouble if ever there was one. But for whom?
If I had to pick favourites it would be Scar and Alcaeus of the Batavi and the Roman Aquillius but there are plenty of others to grab the attention and each of them receives their moment of glory. And the story for some is set to develop further in future volumes.
There is some great action in Betrayal, some fantastic battle sequences, and they feel very different to battles in most other Roman military historical fiction that I’ve read. The Batavi were extraordinary warriors who fought in unusual ways and this adds so much to those sequences. The fact that this is also Civil War, despite the range of tribes brought into battle, adds to the tension as people switch sides, dither between them, or are cruelly treated by their own people.
You only have to look at my list of other reviews below to see that I’ve read all of Anthony Riches’ novels and I love his Empire series (which will pick up again once this trilogy is complete) but I think Betrayal is the finest book he’s written to date. Riches always displays his knowledge of the period as well as Roman military matters but there is much more to Betrayal. The story is complex but it is told brilliantly. The planning that must have gone into it is astounding. A great deal of information is put before us but Riches brings out its inherent drama and tension and also makes these fighting men seem very real, finding their motivations, setting them against the enormous stress of this difficult period when the Roman empire was under such threat from within. Just imagine what it must have been like for these men! Nothing is inevitable here. Anything can change as usurper defeats usurper.
The quality of writing is good indeed. There are sections with the barracks language that is so common in some Roman military historical fiction and does wear me down to be honest but this is outweighed by some great writing. This is confident, vivid and vigorous prose that gives real authority to its subject. There’s a military poetry to parts of this novel and I lapped it up. It reminded me in places of medieval, classical and Anglo-Saxon accounts of war. I love such use of language.
Betrayal is a fine, fine novel. And it brings with it great news. Onslaught, the second in the trilogy, follows in September, a mere sixth months from the publication of Betrayal. I love that I don’t have too long to wait. Each of the the trilogy is also accompanied by a graphic novella that depicts its prologue. I’ve read the first and it adds wonderfully to the whole experience of Betrayal, contributing to its spirit. Betrayal is a triumph, introducing a trilogy that I’m so excited to read, and I have no doubt that it will feature in my year-end lists.
Other reviews and features
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
Empire IX: Altar of Blood
An interview for The Eagles Vengeance
An interview for The Emperor’s Knives