Head of Zeus | 2019 (10 January – ebook: 1 December, 2018) | 467p | Review copy | Buy the book
Triumph in Dust is the sixth novel in Ian Ross’s fantastic Twilight of Empire series, books which have followed the career of soldier, centurion and general Aurelius Castus in campaigns across the late Roman empire, from Britannia to Persia, during the early 4th century AD. Triumph in Dust is set more than a decade after the events of the previous novel, Imperial Vengeance, and would, I think, stand alone well. But I’d definitely urge you to pick up this series and read it from the beginning with War at the Edge of the World, if only to find out just how far our hero Castus has come. It’s been an extraordinary, dangerous, thrilling journey.
It is 336 AD. After so many years of conflict and civil war, the empire is at peace. Constantine the Great continues to build the empire’s mighty new capital city of Constantinople. Former general Aurelius Castus is now 60 years old and retired, content in the company of his beloved wife and daughter, trying so hard to forget the terrible events that drove him from Constantine’s service over a decade before. But Castus is not to be left in peace. The Persians are stirring. They threaten the empire’s eastern border with bloody war. Constantine needs an experienced and wise man to assess the situation, to travel across the region’s forts and cities, preparing them for the possibility of war. Only one man will do – Aurelius Castus. Castus is not as young as he used to be. He suspects that his strength and health are failing him. But, after years of retirement, Castus can’t resist the lure of action and command. But, where Castus is going, he will have far more to fear than the Persians. Castus is a famous, respected general. To many, with Constantine nearing the end of his life, Castus is a threat.
Triumph in Dust is an outstanding novel. We’re familiar with Castus and his struggles with Constantine, the emperor’s sons and family as well as with his rival emperors. Castus has had years caught in the middle of civil war, in the most perilous situations. But now Castus embarks on a final mission for an emperor who has caused him so much grief and pain, and it stands out for the very personal struggle that it will bring. Castus is on his own. He has men to advise him, notably his beloved son Sabinus as well as his dear friend and secretary Diogenes, but this is ultimately a personal battle of strength for a man who fears that he may not have much time left. He must find the power within himself but, when it comes to it, he will do once more what he’s always done best – fighting for his empire, sword in hand, with his bare fists if he has to.
Triumph in Dust pits the Roman Empire against arguably its deadliest enemy – the Persians – and the action takes place in the hot deserts of the east. It’s a challenging environment. Life is hard in these forts, towns and cities, travelling between them across the featureless sand can be lethal in the heat. Officials can be corrupt and power-driven. It’s Castus’ job to rally the legions at these remote posts, while constantly being aware that he risks a dagger in the back. But when the war does come then Castus will be ready.
At the heart of Triumph in Dust is what I’ve always enjoyed the most in Roman military historical fiction – a siege! The siege of Nisibis in 337 AD is brilliantly depicted by Ian Ross. It’s exhilarating, exciting, shocking, bloody, astonishing and more. I’ve read some good Roman sieges in fiction over the years but this really must be a contender for the very best. And the fact that Castus is there fighting tooth and claw alongside his men makes us sit even further on the edge of our seats. The book also contains one of the very best depictions (Douglas Jackson has also done this brilliantly) I’ve read of the Roman fighting formation of testudo, the tortoise. With Castus at its heart, we really feel like we’re there and it is truly, truly horrifying, challenging and frightening.
Ian Ross describes Roman warfare so well. He brings the details of it to life in vivid colour and smells. But he is also a master of the rest of it – the politics, the conspiracies and cunning – as well as the details of life in a Roman town, including Constantinople, during the 4th century AD. It feels so real all around us. The story of Castus contrasts with that of his wife Marcellina who must face her own battle to survive as she sees a side to these places that Castus never can.
An element of these books that I’ve always enjoyed is their treatment of early Christianity. In previous novels we’ve seen Constantine’s ambiguous relationship with the faith, as well as his mother’s devotion, but in Triumph in Dust we see very little of Constantine. Instead, we see the role that early Christianity – and a couple of its saints – played in the town of Nisibis, when the town is at peace and also at war. It’s really fascinating and makes the people behind the mosaic iconography of Byzantium seem real and, in the case of St Jacob of Nisibis, extraordinary and very charismatic. Castus, of course, hangs on to his paganism which is so much a part of who he is. This tension between faiths, between the new and the old worlds, between Rome and Constantinople, is such an original and compelling element of the series and is particularly resonant in its finale.
There’s always sadness in seeing a much loved series come to a close but Triumph in Dust is a triumphant conclusion. Castus is larger than life and yet still just a man. His reputation soars but we see him at his most vulnerable and at his most alone. It’s a fine portrayal and one I won’t forget. Thanks must go to Ian Ross and Head of Zeus for such a spectacular series.
Other reviews and features
War at the Edge of the World (Twilight of Empire 1)
Swords Around the Throne (Twilight of Empire 2)
Battle for Rome (Twilight of Empire 3) (with interview)
The Mask of Command (Twilight of Empire 4)
Imperial Vengeance (Twilight of Empire 5)
Guest post by Ian Ross, author of Triumph in Dust