Bantam Press | 2018 (6 September) | 462p | Review copy | Buy the book
Hammer of Rome is the ninth and (sighs) final novel in Douglas Jackson’s magnificent series featuring Gaius Valerius Verrens, our one-armed Hero of Rome who has taken part in many of the Roman Empire’s greatest campaigns during the second half of the 1st century AD, most memorably in newly-conquered Britannia, in Judea, in the deserts of the East, in Spain, and in Rome itself. I’d urge you to read the other books before Hammer of Rome – if you have you’ll be fully invested in watching Verrens’ journey come to an end after all these years. This review assumes you’ve had the pleasure.
It is AD 80 and Valerius is in Britannia doing what he does best – leading a legion. Back at the head of the Ninth Legion, Valerius is ready to go wherever governor Agricola sends him and it looks as if the long overdue invasion of the north is about to get underway at last, building on Valerius’ previous success against the Brigantes. Rome wants to remove at least one legion from Britannia but, before that can happen, the quarrelsome Caledonian tribes must be defeated. But it looks as if a new potential leader has arisen to unite the tribes together against the Roman threat from the south – King Cathal, known to the Romans as Calcagus – and he wants nothing more than to wipe out Rome’s legions and steal their eagles and their honour.
If only all Valerius had to deal with was Calcagus…. The emperor Vespasian has died, succeeded by his son and Valerius’s great friend, Titus. At last, Valerius and his family can make plans for the future. They can even see a future. But waiting in the wings is Ttitus’s younger brother Domitian and Domitian hates few men more than he hates Valerius. That future is about to be snatched away.
I read Hammer of Rome with excitement (I started it on the day it arrived) and sadness. I have no desire to see this series end. I’ve read it for almost ten years. I can’t tell you how much I’ll miss it. But I couldn’t wait to see how the story of Valerius will end. I’m certainly not going to reveal what happens but I will say that the ending is thoroughly fitting, an enormous achievement in its own right.
The action sequences are as meticulously researched and as exhilarating as ever. Valerius is not the man he used to be when it comes to warfare. He’s much older, he’s more irreplaceable, and he can be more cruel, but he is also far wiser. Nevertheless, he still has moments of extreme recklessness. Only now he is prepared to accept that this cannot continue. One of the elements that I really liked about Hammer of Rome is that Cathal isn’t particularly presented as an enemy – instead he is shown to be a worthy opponent. We spend time with him. We like him, as does Valerius and his fantastic scout, Gaius Rufus – surely one of the best characters in the entire series. The Romans aren’t presented as civilised any more than the tribes are presented as barbaric (although one of the last remaining Druids, and one of the most revolting characters of the series, might have something to say about that). This is a story of conquest after all, a cruel and violent act. Valerius is a man of his time but he is aware of his responsibilities to be as fair as possible.
Hammer of Rome is such a wonderful novel – Valerius is mature, middle-aged, a family man and a man well worth knowing. The battle scenes are as thrilling as ever but so too are all the other scenes, including the chapters scattered throughout that take us back into the heart of a Rome that is becoming very dangerous indeed. There are new characters to enjoy here but we also meet some familiar names while there are quiet moments to remember those who are now gone.
Douglas Jackson is one of the finest writers about today, irrespective of genre. This series is a glorious achievement and so too is the book that completes it, Hammer of Rome. Gaius Valerius Verrens will be missed, although it does mean that readers can now enjoy the full story in its entirety though each of the nine books.
I read the first book, Hero of Rome, before I began reviewing and so for the sake of completeness – and because I really wanted to! – I’m re-reading it. Its depiction of Boudicca’s Revolt and the storming of the great Temple of Claudius is peerless in Roman historical fiction, in my opinion (only rivalled by the siege of Jerusalem in Douglas Jackson’s Scourge of Rome, the sixth book in the series). I cannot wait to read those scenes again. A review will follow shortly. And so if you haven’t read any of this series yet, the timing couldn’t be more perfect, with all nine marvellous books laid before you.