Zaffre | 2019 (18 April) | 355p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is AD 265. The attention of the Emperor Gallienus is on rebels in the West but Volsianus, the powerful Praetorian Prefect has his eye on the East. The chance has come to unsettle the legendary, enormous Persian Empire. The King of Kings has turned on his brother, a man respected for his learning and wisdom, imprisoning his nephew, the child Prince Sasan, in the Castle of Silence, a dreadful, impenetrable fortress close to the far side of the Caspian Sea. It’s only a matter of time before the order is given for the boy to be murdered horribly. Volsianus is determined that won’t happen. He wants the prince in Roman hands, as a pawn in his own games.
A team is assembled to undertake the formidable journey through Mesopotamia to the Castle of Silence. Murena, the head of the frumentarii, Rome’s spies, is given the task of recruiting some of the ten men who will meet in the eastern city of Zeugma, ready to begin a mission that is surely suicidal. And it’s not long after they set off that the first death occurs, putting the young equestrian officer Marcus Aelius Valens in charge and totally out of his depth. He must pull this strange and hostile group together as they head deep into the desert and drylands and yet all the time, as mishap follows mishap, Valens’ suspicion that there is a traitor in their midst increases. This must surely be a one-way mission. He must prepare to fight for his life, then die for Rome.
The Lost Ten is a standalone Roman thriller by Harry Sidebottom, the master of Roman military historical fiction. There was something about the TV thriller 24 in the author’s last novel, The Last Hours, as our hero had just a day to save the emperor’s life from an unknown assassin. This time we’re put in SAS-thriller territory. This is a rescue mission by a team of ruthless, highly capable soldiers in a hostile environment. Not all will make it, if any. It will all depend on the strength, courage and leadership of one man. Throw in an inaccessible, terrifying fortress and an enemy that has developed the most sophisticated, cruel ways in which to commit murder, and you have something irresistible.
Ballista is Harry Sidebottom’s most famous hero and, although he doesn’t feature here (only getting a few welcome mentions), we’re still in Ballista’s Rome and Empire. This is familiar territory and the author knows it inside out. It’s a fascinating journey into the East and every step of it is marked by action, natural disaster and treachery. We’re given glimpses of the boy in his tower and we will him to be freed and so we are invested in this story, just as we are exhilarated by its thrills.
Harry Sidebottom writes so well and his novel is enriched by his impressive historical military knowledge. But none of it feels heavy or out of place. It merges with the novel perfectly. We’re not distracted in anyway from the extraordinary endeavour of Valens and his men.
I loved The Lost Ten. It’s extremely exciting, historically fascinating and with a fantastic setting. I gobbled it up. I think readers of modern military thrillers will really enjoy this one while those of us, like me, who can’t get enough of Harry Sidebottom’s Roman storytelling will lap it up. There’s also something very appealing about a stand alone Roman thriller. Excellent!