Hodder & Stoughton | 2019 (18 April) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book
One of the novels I’ve been looking forward to the most this year, with no doubt at all, is The Scorpion’s Strike by Anthony Riches. I’ve read and loved everything that this author has ever written (just see the long list of reviews and features at the end of this review!) but there’s something a little extra special about this book. After a gap of three years – a gap that has been very well filled with the superb Centurions trilogy – the Empire series resumes and centurion Marcus Valerius Aquila is back! And how good it is to see him.
The Scorpion’s Strike is the tenth in the series, which means that you’ll get more from it if you’ve followed Marcus’s extraordinary journey, and that of his group of loyal Tungrians and Britons, from the beginning but I think this one does well as a stand alone novel. Marcus has come a long, long way since his journey began in Wounds of Honour, a novel I reviewed nine years ago. This review assumes that you've had the pleasure of reading the others.
It is AD 186 and Marcus and his Tungrians have returned to Rome after their deadly mission into the forests of Germania. It's good to see their families again but the reunion is brief. Marcus is still trapped by his past. The Emperor Commodus and his chamberlain Cleander continue to have a hold over him, and Marcus and his friends can't escape their grip. They are to be sent to Gaul to lead a force of Praetorians to defeat Martinus, a Roman soldier turned rebel who is becoming a magnet for anyone with a grudge against Rome. His threat is becoming dangerous. If it's a choice between fighting for their lives on a foreign field of war or trying to survive political games in Rome, it's clear which Marcus, Scaurus, Julius and the others would opt for. But with Marcus's children and Julius's wife left as hostages, and with Cleander adamant that Marcus will not return alive to challenge his own vulnerable position, our friends' imminent future couldn't look more uncertain.
Almost immediately it’s as if we’ve had no gap at all and I was right back in the midst of Marcus's story and we're marching again with the troops. Our centurions and the tribune Scaurus have had a shift up in rank, which adds humour as they learn their new responsibilities and they're soon tested as they're thrown into battles and skirmishes against an enemy who knows better than most how to fight the Roman way. He's a worthy opponent. Anthony Riches knows his stuff and this is especially seen in the battle scenes, which are thrilling as well as bloodsoaked, but also in the scenes in which the army march, build camps, prepare for the fight. It all feels real as well as making the heart beat faster. And it's good to see that Marcus's promotion doesn't stop him displaying his gladiatorial prowess with two blades.
The emphasis has moved away from Marcus's private life, which is good I think as it had become desperate, thanks to Commodus, an emperor who deserves every one of his countless enemies. Cleander adds political interest but the focus is on the military campaign and, interestingly, on the relationship between the Tungrians and the Praetorians as they have to fight side by side. We get to know a fair few of them over the course of the novel, which is always a risk, as you know with this series that not all will live to fight again.
Anthony Riches is a fantastic author, one of my very favourites, and his Empire series is one I wouldn't be without. As we'd expect, Marcus continues to have a price on his head. His survival and that of his comrades is not guaranteed. The fight will be dirty. Excellent – welcome back!
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
Betrayal: The Centurions I
Onslaught: The Centurions II
Retribution – The Centurions III
An interview for The Eagle’s Vengeance
An interview for The Emperor’s Knives