Zaffre | 2018 (8 March) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book
Ballista runs for his life through the spiraling tunnels of Hadrian’s Mausoleum in the centre of Rome. As he climbs on to its roof top and stares down at the Tiber flowing many feet below him, his options are limited. The stakes, though, couldn’t be higher. At the last hour of daylight tomorrow, after a day of games and spectacle, the Emperor Gallienus will be murdered as he leaves the Colosseum. Ballista knew Gallienus when they were boys growing up together. He may be the only man allowed to get close enough to the emperor to save him. But before Ballista can save the emperor, he must first save himself.
It is the second half of the 3rd century AD. Gallienus is Emperor. The Empire is on the verge of being torn apart from within. And only one man stands in his way…. The Last Hour is a long awaited Ballista Warrior of Rome novel from the master Harry Sidebottom but it’s a Ballista book with a great deal of difference. This isn’t an adventure that sees Ballista fight for his life and those of his men in the empire’s most remote arenas of war – instead, he is placed in the heart of Rome and his high military rank is irrelevant. Ballista has just one task – to save the emperor, on his own, and to escape the conspirators who are intent on ensnaring Ballista in their trap.
The action takes place over just one day and it never lets up. This is a Roman thriller. There aren’t many of these and if an author can be trusted to do it right it’s Harry Sidebottom. The author brings an awful lot to it more than action and swordfights. As a lecturer in ancient history at the University of Oxford, Harry Sidebottom knows his stuff and he always makes sure that his novels are enriched by that knowledge and understanding, but at no expense to their pace and merit as works of fiction. I always learn things from a Harry Sidebottom novel and The Last Hour is no different.
Throughout we’re given little pieces about Roman history and society – whether it be about the place of slaves and women in that world, or its religion and philosophy, its gladiatorial games or arena punishments, or its streets, tenements, temples, villas and inns. This book provides a fantastic tour of Rome. We move right across the city and, despite the pace, we’re given time to take it all in. And we’re taken to places that are evoked so strongly we can almost smell their stench. There are also references to the previous Ballista novels – we meet people we’ve met before and that adds something rather special. But, on the whole, this is a novel in which Ballista must survive, endure and win on his own and its edge of seat stuff, it really is.
The best historical fiction entertains while also informing. The Last Hour succeeds in this perfectly, injecting so much accessible information and detail into a novel that is intensely exciting, all packed into a 24-hour period. Harry Sidebottom’s recent and superb Throne of the Caesars trilogy looked at a year that shook the Roman empire to its core. The Last Hour evokes ancient Rome in an entirely different way, focusing on just a few hours in such a narrow space, as it affects such a small group of people. And yet it informs every bit as much. Life in ancient Rome comes alive in The Last Hour and I loved every page of it.
I’m delighted to post below a taster from The Last Hour to celebrate the novel’s publication this week.
Another scream echoed up the long passageway, then ended abruptly.
Every breath hurt. Sweat was running off Ballista. Would the stairs ever end? It was like some infernal punishment in myth.
A final corner, and there was the door. All the gods let it be unlocked.
The door opened outwards. Ballista closed it behind him, and leant against it as he fought to regain his breath. Forty-three winters on Middle Earth; too long for this exertion.
The roof garden was gently domed, like a low hill. It rose to where a plinth supported a more than life-sized statue of the Emperor Hadrian in a triumphal chariot drawn by four horses. The terrible storms of the last several days had passed, but the air smelt of rain. The stones underfoot were still wet.
There had to be another way down. Ballista pushed himself off the door, set off up the path to the top.
The sun was dipping towards the horizon. It cast long shadows from the cypress trees, dappled where they were festooned with vines or ivy. Less than an hour until darkness.
Ballista circled the base of the statuary. No door, no trapdoor. Nothing. There had to be another way down. A passageway for gardeners, plants, servants. He looked around wildly.
Under the cypresses the garden was thickly planted with fruit trees and flower beds. Paths radiated out. There were hedges, potted plants, heavy garden furniture, small fountains, more statues. The service access would be carefully hidden. The elite did not want to see slaves when they were enjoying the views. There was no time to search.
Ballista thought of the light wells. No, even if he could find one of them, it would be too narrow, offer no handholds. Another thought came to him. He took the path down to the east.
There was a thin wooden rail above a delicate and ornamental screen along the edge of the garden, with yet more statues at intervals. Ballista did not look at the city spread out beyond the river, barely glanced at the swollen waters of the Tiber at the foot of the monument. He gripped the sculpted marble leg of Antinous, the doomed boy, loved by Hadrian. A Roman might have been troubled by the association. As heir to the different world view of the north, such omens did not bother Ballista. He had a head for heights, and leaned out as far as he dared over the rail.
The cladding of the Mausoleum was white marble. The blocks were so artfully fitted together that there was barely a discernible line where they joined. No hope of a finger hold. Seventy foot or more of smooth, sheer wall down to the base, after that ledge perhaps another forty foot down to the narrow embankment and the river. No way to climb down.
Ballista ran back to the head of the stairs, opened the door. The men were nearing the top.