I had to, thanks (?) to an eye infection, ‘read’ this with Audible. And very glad I was too. What top notch entertainment it is! So good in fact, I’ve had it read to me twice inside a month – and enjoyed every single Roman minute of it.
We’re back in AD 182, in Roman Britain, in the Roman Legions, at the northern edge of the province of Britannia, in what I suppose could be called no man’s land, between Hadrian’s and the Antonine Wall(s). Not the ideal place to be if you’re a Tungrian Legionarry from Tungria, but most definitely the place to be if you’re a reader after entertainment, enjoyment and excitement. Why not the ideal place to be if you’re a Legionary? Mainly because the people who do want to be there, the thousands of blue-painted local tribes, don’t want you there. And are about to set about removing you. Forcibly. But at least the Tungrians have been there a while, they almost know what to expect and from where to expect it. What then the new arrivals from warmer climes, the detachment of archers (the dealers of those furious arrows?) from Syria – how must they be feeling, strangers in a decidedly strange land?
I would describe ‘Arrows of Fury’ as taking place very close to the action. It doesn’t mess about and try and cut away, back and forth trying to control a confusing multitude of story threads, in multiple locations and have characters speculating the whole time on what may or may not be happening and to whom, in those other locations. This takes you right to the heart of where the story – and action – is. The sights, the smells, the living and the dying. This is straight ahead storytelling. Drops you in it and gets on with it. However, being a story about Rome and Romans, tension and treachery are, inevitably, never that far from the surface. On either side of the Wall. The Romans may – or may not, depending on which of the Centurians you talk to – have a fugitive from Imperial justice, a traitor to some, amongst their number. Can he be found, can he be kept secret? The native tribes are trying to build up their strength to send the Romans packing, but are led by a man seemingly as intent on removing tribal leaders he sees as rivals, as he is the Romans. Perhaps the interesting difference with ‘Arrows of Fury’ (and presumably the others in the series I have, but have yet to read) is that the tension is actually created in the form of screaming multitudes of barbarians arriving out of the mist before you’ve had your breakfast. A much more ‘honest’ tension, I feel, than that created by multi-faceted power struggles in the Senate. Just me?
It’s a ‘strong’ story. No doubt about that. Strong characters and – understandably (unless you’re one of the delicate ladies who lunch, of the various ‘Historical Fiction’ groups on Goodreads who can’t understand) – strong language. Unless you’re gonna go to your grave deluding yourself that Historical Fiction is heaving bodices and essentially ‘Murder She Wrote’ set several hundred years ago, then you’re gonna understand one thing about this type of Historical Fiction. We (those of us reading this now) read in English. We want to read a book set in Roman times. They spoke Latin. We (unless we’re related to Harry Sidebottom) can’t understand Latin. So the people doing the walking the talking the fighting and the speaking, have to converse in English in the story we’re reading. Arrows of Fury wouldn’t sell many copies (outside of Oxford) if it was written in Latin. So what is happening, is Anthony is writing, in English, in the manner of the Romans. Consider it a kind of translation. Now, we’re dealing with soldiers here. Apart from the Officer, the Equine class I think were the top of the Roman heap, they aren’t going to be all that well educated. And anyway, let’s face it, when down to your last half dozen comrades, with your backs to the burning stockade, with several hundred half-naked, hairy, screaming for blood, painted blue warriors about six paces away, axes red with your friend’s blood about to come down on your head, an ‘oh dear me, we’re in trouble here’, just ain’t gonna cut the Roman mustard. Is it? It is if you read the really childishly naive comments irritating the fuck out of me in several discussions there, but not if we’re dealing with the Roman soldiers on the frontiers of the Empire in Northern Britain in AD 182 in Anthony Riches’ books. Deal with it.
Personally, I’m not gonna argue the toss about wether a Roman soldier would have exclaimed (the Latin equivalent of) ‘fuck me sideways’. I know I would have said that or its Latin equivalent) were I a Roman soldier faced with hoary hoards of blue-painted animals in human guise descending at a great pace upon me, so I’m cool.
Arrows of Fury is a gripping story (mostly around the throat) that builds on the previous book – Wounds of Honour – the first In Anthony Riches’ Empire series, pretty seamlessly. A down and dirty tale of life on the front line, life on the edge at the edge of the Roman Empire. We know the characters, we know the time and the location, we know they’re going to have to get out of tight spots, we just don’t know how. Still, we’re not alone in that… There are (so far) seven books in the Empire series and it would seem like Anthony Riches has hit on a reasonably simple formula. Tell it like it is. Or was.