Fortress of Spears by Anthony Riches
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The third of Anthony Riches’ Empire series, Fortress of Spears was quite clearly written as the ending to a trilogy. Maybe it was submitted, they read it, got back to him and said “we’ll have some more of that, thanks.” “D’oh!”
If you’ve come across the first two in the series, you’ll be on (very) familiar ground here. However, whilst again being set on and around the Roman Wall in the north of Britannia province, this one does actually start off back in Rome, with the murder of a Senator by a Corn Officer and a member of the Praetorian Guard. They will then proceed to kill his whole family. As you did back then. The Senator has gossiped and given away the first two books’ hero, the fugitive Marcus’ new identity and location. Their pursuit of ’truth and justice’, then runs through the book, leading from Rome, to a bloody climax of revenge and retribution in the far north of Britain. Luckily, while Marcus has enemies in high places, he also has the necessary number of friends in low places and when the supposedly friendly foes – unbeknown to him – snatch his bride to be, they aren’t slow to do what(ever) has to be done. That is a sub-plot, however, as the main thrust of the action, front and centre, involves the continuing campaign against the northern Britons, on both sides of the wall. And it can get messy. In fact, you’re going to need a strong stomach for parts of this. Riches, presumably (one would hope, for his sanity’s sake) has based it all on assiduous research, because several characters go through ’the mill’ in many sections of the story.
The action again takes place in a relatively small area, the harsh, largely barren, wild and dangerous – if you spoke Latin and had a long nose – landscape, north of Hadrian’s Wall. If you go there today, you’ll get the idea of how it might have been. Beautiful now, but probably not back then, if you were Roman. It is only ever referred to as ‘the wall’ or ‘frontier’ in these books. As this area was, again if you were a Roman soldier, effectively unknown territory, you can perhaps imagine the fear and trepidation the soldiers and auxiliary troops must have felt when venturing – told to venture – out there. “You are now leaving the Roman Empire, just don’t count on coming back,” as the sign probably didn’t say. The Antonine Wall, further north than Hadrian’s Wall, was built in the years after 142, before being abandoned in the 160s. As these books take place in the 180s, I’m guessing the soldiers are at least travelling to places they have heard of, if not visited, recently. Having the action take place in a relatively small area, works well. It almost puts the action in a vice, squeezed, as it were, into a pressure cooker-like intensity. Simple, effective. This story again has threats both from in front of the Wall, in the form of them there Celts and their never ceasing campaign to rid their country of the invaders, but also behind it, in the form of the afore-mentioned Praetorian Guards. So our hero Marcus Aquila, finds that the danger this time out, isn’t always covered in tattoos, stripped naked, painted blue and screaming in a language that sounds like a cat coughing up a fur ball. It is also dressed in smart black armour, is sent from Rome on the Emperor’s business and is sneaking around behind him.
The book delivers in all the ways the first two have. There isn’t a lot of development in terms of character and/or story complexity, it’s all very similar to one and two. Presumably with ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ type feeling from Mr. Riches and publisher. And why not? You get exactly what you came for in Fortress of Spears and if you came for what the book delivers, you’re going to go away happy and I’ll admit that I’m liking these books very much indeed. However, I do feel duty bound to say that it can’t be fulsome praise the whole way. Especially as we’re now into book three. The main characters could do with a bit more development, the minor, bit-part players have been the more interesting. I’m thinking here Dubnus and the Prefect Scaurus in particular. Amongst the Roman soldiers, there are basically just several versions of the same character. Bluff, honest, blunt, battle-weary, suspicious of barbarians and officers alike, with no time for polite niceties and a liking for regularly roughing up Quartermasters.
The woman character is/was clearly currently an afterthought. I can’t imagine she was brought in to appeal to female readers, as this series is fundamentally about life in ‘the Army.’ Plus, the story does point out that soldiers weren’t allowed to marry while in the army, doesn’t it? Anyway, there’s what you would expect army types to be concerned with and how they would express it. It’s not subtle. It’s blunt and above all, like it or not Ancient and Medieval History knitting circle – it’s obviously authentic. There is though, an unhealthy male genitalia fixation here. I’m not sure how much the historical records and writings of Roman period historians/things written in Latin on statues would back him up on this front, but I guess AR would say it’s based on solid historical evidence – and is anyway how soldiers have always talked. Which would, presumably, cover the swearing as well, (which I’ve mentioned before). It seems that in the ‘Empire’ books (so far), your ability to do your job, or your ability to take on a certain, usually dangerous, task, is dependent on the size of your genitalia. The more hazardous the task, the larger said genitalia need to be to accomplish said task successfully. Or must have been, once said task is completed, to have enabled said hazardous task’s completion. Of course, never having been a soldier or part of any all-male combative fraternity, I can neither confirm or deny that this is or isn’t true. From my rugby-playing days I can attest that continued, detailed discussion of your or your mates’ ‘crown jewels,’ their size, or lack thereof, would have seen you instantly and permanently branded a ‘woofter.’ Or worse. It presumably did/does go on, but it can be a little wearisome with repetition. Once, twice, yes, we get the idea. Prolonged, repeated use, adds nothing, just creates a wearying effect when (many) other means of expressing the same, could surely be used to similar, if not better, effect. Soldiers are nothing if not creative in their abuse, as my father’s tales of his uncle, a Regimental Sergeant Major during WWII, will confirm, so more linguistic creativity from AR’s characters wouldn’t go amiss.
Another problem could (I’m guessing here as I have absolutely no professional experience to base my opinions on), possibly be the fault of Riches’ editor, or whoever it is that gives the (nearly) final version a through read-through. I’m guessing that’s how these things are done. Mainly, as it’s how I would do them. It is the irritating repeating, within a sentence or two, or the same sentence sometimes, of the same word. Example? P154 “…and you’re going to provide us with the means of making sure he comes to justice quietly. Your Marcus Valerius Aquila has been evading justice with his barbarian friends up here for long enough…” Too subtle? Try this on P157 “Putting his hands to his mouth, he bellowed a greeting to the Romans. ‘Greetings, Romans.’” Giving the benefit of the doubt, the second there could be done for a laugh, but, first is typical of many others. If the second isn’t a joke, is a mistake like the others; why hasn’t the Editor said something? Easy enough to change. I could come with at least a dozen alternatives (so could the Dictionary app on my computer), as I could with the other half dozen I found in only 30 randomly selected pages (I listened to this one on Audible, but I have a hardback version, so that’s why I selected some pages at random, and how I can quote page numbers, despite having listened to the book on Audible…in case you’re wondering). There’s no denying it is irritating and any reviewer that doesn’t mention it isn’t doing his – or, I can think of at least one, ‘her’, job. Just like the editor isn’t. It has happened all the way through the series so far. Can we say that the first three books were submitted in a blaze of euphoria at finding a brave new Roman story writer and not looked at too closely? Possibly. So, from here on, things would be looked at a little more closely? We’ll see…
The final thing? Eyebrows. Eyebrows to convey any kind of emotion, in any kind of situation, from the office, to the battlefield. Eyebrows raised by, especially, Scaurus. P151: “Scaurus shrugged, raising an eyebrow.” (That’s not easy to do, try it). P161: “Scaurus raised an eyebrow…” The tame barbarian gets in on the fun on P170: “Arminius raised an eyebrow…” Or both eyebrows on P175: “Paulus paused again, his eyebrows raised in an incredulous stare.” P181: “The Roman raised an eyebrow.” P187: “He shook his head, raising an eyebrow at his auxiliary colleague…” That’s 6 times, in 36 pages, 340 pages in the book at that average, that’s a shade over 56 eyebrows, or pairs thereof, raised in the course of one not all that long book. Something else to convey incredulity, surprise, doubt, suspicion, anything else, next time out perhaps? Were I the editor. But were I the editor, they wouldn’t have made the print copy. Not more than a couple and well spaced, anyway. I’d have told him “good, but loose the eyebrows, it’s lazy.”
As I said at the start, this is the third in the Empire series. It has felt like he’d maybe written a huge long story and chopped it up into three parts. This clearly is the final part. There is a distinct tie-ing up of loose strings. There’s a Star Trek ending of sorts. You know, in the tv series, where the main story was done, fade out, fade up again to ship’s deck, all participants (still with us) present, sit about discussing what they’ve learnt, finish with crew laughing…Fade to black. You know the sort of thing. While this doesn’t finish with a laugh, it does finish. But then…”hey! I’ve been commissioned to do more!” So, sprinkle a few quick loose ends to take us into the next book(s). To be fair, as the next book does see the action move away from Britain, there should be a feeling of something coming to an end with this one I’ll grant, but not as door-slammingly final as this.
Otherwise, just dandy. It gets four as a carry over from the first two. I’ll be expecting a marked improvement though, in number four.