Wounds of Honour by Anthony Riches
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is a real Roman hum-dinger. A magnificent slap in the face, reality check of a Historical Fiction novel. A fresh, no-nonsense, take no prisoners, exciting, testosterone-driven assault on the Historical Fiction senses. It’s one that should be listed at the top under the Wikipedia entry for ‘couldn’t put it down.’ Really good.
According to the dust jacket, Anthony Riches holds a degree in Military Studies and it shows. He knows his stuff, but doesn’t shove it in your face the whole time, like one Mr Sidebottom can tend to do. He’s gone for the angle that life and behaviour in the army, and on the parade ground, has largely been the same down the ages. And that Roman soldiers act mostly the same as their modern counterparts. Only the names of the god(s) they pray to and the weapons they use, have been changed. That and being able to look into the eyes of the person trying to kill you. I think what Anthony seems to be saying here is; what makes an army function well today is precisely what made an army function well back then. Training, routine, comradeship, loyalty to each other and the cause you’re fighting for and teamwork drilled in so much that it becomes unthinking second nature. The Roman Army was a professional fighting machine, just like ours are today. What I got from it was also the message that even though there’s close on two thousand years between us, we’re not that different now as people, to how they were then. It helps the reader relate to the characters and the situations. Obviously I can’t really relate to a Roman soldier facing death at the end of a blue-painted Pict’s spear, but by thinking he’s no different to me basically, I am in a better position to perhaps care a bit more about what he must have been going through. A bit more than endless chapters of political manoeuvring, debauchery and feeding people to the lions. You can’t get away with that sort of behaviour nowadays, not even here in Harlev, East Jutland. I feel closer, more of a kinship to these characters, I’m trying to say. I have really no idea of the truth of course, but reading a book like this, I’m more than prepared to say ‘ok, that’s how it was.’ It really is a down and dirty close look at life in the Roman Army and is absolutely enthralling for that alone.
The story is a tight one, honing in on life during wartime on Hadrian’s Wall, the northern part of Britannia, in the late second century AD. Our main character is one Marcus Valerius Aquila, who arrives at the wall as a way to disappear from the fatal attractions of the Emperor Commodus back in Rome. He goes ‘undercover’ somewhat, to disguise his high-born background, assumes a new name and identity and joins the ordinary soldiers on the wall. Of course, some of his secrets do ‘escape’ and treachery – or at least the threat of it – is never far away. Luckily, for me anyway, the intrigue and decadence and if he does this, what does Whatshisnameus Maximus think of all this over there in Whereveritwas, that usually has me sighing with ‘here we go again’-itis, is pretty much absent from ‘Wounds of Honour.’ Whilst there are hints of things going on ‘backstage’ the book concentrates on a relatively small field of operations, and a small number of characters, just behind and just in front of, Hadrian’s Wall.
Of course, I don’t really care, being a man, but it’s is certainly a man’s, man’s, man’s world in the Roman Army and ‘Empire.’ A macho man’s world at that. Not much time for women. Unless they’re being paid for ‘relaxation’, or held-captive, or tending to wounds. I think there’s only one woman character in the first 150-odd pages. And that was a wife of a senator, who had nothing to do with anything. Like I say, no problem for me, but I’d rather hope that in subsequent stores from the ‘Empire’ world, Anthony can find a way to introduce more women. I’m not necessarily wanting ‘love interest’, that isn’t what these sort of books are all about, but the nuances female characters would create wouldn’t go a miss. Not the least for increasing his readership market by about a half and hopefully helping with purging Goodreads and Amazon of their derivative, lazy, bodice-ripping, Mills & Boon crap that masquerades as Historical Fiction, but is really ‘Love Actually’ set three hundred years ago again and again and again.
For me, I’d consider it high praise indeed to be compared favourably to Douglas Jackson’s first (well, the first Roman-period novel of his that I read, anyway). And thats what I’m doing. Favourably compared, but in no way overshadowed. I really was impressed all the way up to to stunned, and am having to hold myself back from rushing head-long into the rest of the series (I have taken the precaution of collecting the whole of Anthony’s Empire series (so far) before reading the first one, don’t ask me why). I’m really not sure why I should feel so impressed, if you understand what I mean, as I’d come across Anthony Riches and the exalted Romanesque on-line company he keeps, so it was easy to figure that ‘Wounds of Honour’ would be good. How good it was, I suppose I really wasn’t prepared for.