Zaffre | 2020 (ebook: 11 June, Hardback: 1 October) | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 145 BC and Roman soldier Gaius Furius Paullus has returned home to his farm in Calabria, south of Rome, after two years of fighting to protect and extend the empire’s growing borders. But Paullus has returned alone. His childhood friend Alcimus was killed in action and now Paullus must face his friend’s grieving father. The matter is complicated by the fact that Paullus was awarded the civic crown for his bravery in battle. This now places him equal to any man in his community, even his elders. It benefits people to befriend him as he becomes a pawn in their petty games but most of all it means he must endure the scrutiny of everyone who wonders why, if he was so brave, he didn’t bring his friend back home safely to his family.
Then the bodies begin to appear. Other farmers are murdered and their bodies horrifically mutilated. Rumours begin that an old demon has returned to haunt the woods and fields. Paullus isn’t so sure. He suspects a human hand has done this evil work and he sets out to discover the killer before he too is either blamed for the murders or killed himself. And all the time he is haunted by the events of the last two years. Carthage had only just been taken in an absolute bloodbath but Paullus had faced his own hell on earth, in the destruction of Corinth in Greece. Paullus now realises he may have brought death back home with him.
Harry Sidebottom is a well-known and fantastic writer of Roman historical military fiction and is particularly well-known for his Warrior of Rome series. In recent books, though, the author has been trying something different while keeping his writing feet firmly in the world of ancient Rome. In The Last Hour we were given an excellent Roman thriller, which took place over the course of one day. This was followed by the fabulous The Lost Ten, which tells the story of a rescue mission deep into enemy territory. The Return gives us something different again – a stand alone murder mystery featuring a detective who has been traumatised by war and is desperate to find peace and can only achieve that by defeating evil.
The period of Roman history is also different. The centuries are turned back and we’re now in the mid 2nd century BC, to the Roman Republic, which is most certainly unknown territory for this reader at least. It feels different. People seem to be more superstitious – gods and demons lurk everywhere, watching everything. Society is more rural and farm-based, at least in Calabria where this novel is set, and soldiers are picked from that society to fight for Rome, in this case to fight the league of Greek cities which are attempting one final time to defeat their conquerors. There is plenty of military action in The Return and there aren’t many authors who can write about Roman warfare with such knowledge and insight as Harry Sidebottom. These scenes are tense, violent, exhilarating and realistic. Paullus knows better than anyone how horrific it was, how absolutely appallingly the people of Corinth suffered. He sees it every time he closes his eyes.
The novel moves back and forwards as Paullus continues to remember what he’s trying to forget. These memories interrupt the present where he faces a different kind of enemy. I really enjoyed the depictions of this Roman rural society, with its rules, superstitions and codes. It is all absolutely fascinating and described with such colour and atmosphere. It is a very immersive read.
This was my first read of the Lockdown (the publication was delayed, as with so many books), when I was finding it extremely difficult to settle on a book to read. I was very fortunate that this book arrived at just the right time and allowed me to escape back into the Roman past. The Roman period is my favourite for historical fiction (and for history, generally) and so at the moment I can’t get enough of it. The Return is such a fine example and shows yet again why Harry Sidebottom is one of my very favourite authors. If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading any of Harry’s books before then The Return would make an excellent introduction.