Head of Zeus | 2022 (14 April) | 432p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book
It 25 BC and Egypt is not what it once was. Pharaoh-less, it is ruled by Romans, hungry for its wealth and resources. The Queen of the Kush, far to the South, also has her eye on it and that means trouble. The 22nd legion is sent up the Nile to deal with the Queen’s army and raiders and among it is Titus Cervianus, an army medic and scientist who has the distinction of being both extremely talented at mending people while being incredibly unpopular and picked upon. It doesn’t help that he finds himself friends with one of the legion’s troublemakers, Ulyxes. As they travel deeper into Egypt, there is danger everywhere, from within the legion, from terrifying enemy fighters, and from the Nile itself, which thrashes with crocodiles.
I love a Roman military adventure and have read many of them over the years. The Capsarius is such a fine example for lots of reasons, not least its author, Simon Turney. What he doesn’t know about the Roman world and its military engine isn’t worth knowing. The amount of research he does for each of his books (fiction and non-fiction) is extraordinary and all of that means that you can enjoy his novels while also feeling that you’re learning something.
The setting of The Capsarius is fantastic and it is effectively a military tour up the Nile at a time with the wonders of ancient Egypt are fading but are still marvelled at and have a power to awe. Temples are described in beautiful detail that captures the enigma of Egyptian religion and architecture. I’ve visited many of these places myself on a leisurely cruise up the Nile and the novel brought back memories of the colour and heat of middle and southern Egypt.
But this is a dangerous place for Cervianus, not least because his fellow soldiers keep wanting to kill him while the officers in charge make reckless decisions about their mission. Cervianus seems to reel from one disaster to the next, while all of the time the legion is plagued by attack, the hostile environment, the heat, and then there are the crocodiles. I’m rather glad there were none of those on my cruise. Unfortunately, the crocodiles seem to like nothing better than the taste of a sweaty Roman soldier.
Cervianus’ medical knowledge is called upon with alarming regularity and the detail of his progressive methods is both fascinating and, I have to say, gory. But there is something really appealing about Cervianus. He is an entertaining and true companion, loyal, very unlucky and clever. Despite being widely unliked, he does find friends in strange places, including among the native Egyptian auxiliaries, who are fascinating in their own right.
I thoroughly enjoyed this tale of an unusual man and his exploits on the trail of the Kush queen’s army. The descriptions of the Nile and the legacy of its pharaonic past are wonderful as the army moves further and further away from Alexandria ad the familiar. Simon Turney knows his stuff and the fascinating detail and insight makes this novel stand out. If you love Romans and the ancient world, you’ll love this.
Other reviews (also writes as S.J.A. Turney)
Marius’ Mules I: The Invasion of Gaul
Marius’ Mules II: The Belgae
Writing historical locations – a guest post
With Gordon Doherty – Sons of Rome