There’s action a-plenty in Rome’s Executioner (Vespasian II), on and off the pitch. Ranging from the outskirts of the Roman empire in Dacia in AD 30, to the very centre of power and those who hold it or want it, in the eternal city itself. From full-on combat at the point of a sword to daggers in the back in the dark of Roman side-streets and back alleys. All in all, just what you want to find in a book set in Roman times. However (the good sort) what elevates this one above – the most of – its competition, is the sparkle, invention and wit Robert Fabbri imbues his characters and their stories with. It manages to hold my interest and rapt attention, even in the (totally necessary) political skullduggery set-pieces back in Rome. No mean achievement that. Robert Fabbri really does seem to hit the right balance between intrigue, politicking and action in this series and Vespasian himself, is developing into a very interesting character indeed.
Along with the battles and brawls, intrigue and dirty-dickery, there are also interesting comments on the state of Roman ‘civilisation’ and the intricacy of its politics woven subtly all the way through. As well as thoughts on those pre-Christian festivals that just so happened to take place at the end of a year, involve the giving of gifts and celebrating the birth of a god…To compare it with another long-running Roman series, the ‘Empire’ books of Anthony Riches (of which I’ve just passed #7), I’d have to say it comes out easily on top. Better written and plotted, even after only having read two of them, that’s clear (though to be fair The Emperor’s Knives does show a lot more ambition on Riches’ side than has previously been evident). However, some things are clearly taken as read, by writers of books set in the Roman period – Greeks are obviously all homosexual. Here, as a character called Magnus says, “And it’ll be sometime before he can chew on a decent Roman sausage again; being Greek, he’s partial to sausage, if you take my meaning?” Seems Robert Fabbri’s Romans share much the same opinions of Greeks as Anthony Riches’ boys over in Britannia.
And, though in a different way to the Empire series, you’re going to need a strong stomach while reading Rome’s Executioner. There, it’s mostly about what happens on the battlefield, but Rome’s Executioner is warts and all Roman depravity. Prepare to have your mind – and stomach – tied up in knots trying to follow all the ins and outs of who is trying to stab who in the back trying to out – or second – guess an aged Emperor who has clearly gone stark staring, raving, yip-yip, barking at the moon mad and can – and does – do whatever his skittish mind takes a fancy to. As you would.
As with a lot of the series these days (does no one ever write one-offs any more?), I find myself asking: “do I need to have read #1, Steve?” Here, I’d say maybe not really, but it will help increase the enjoyment. All I thought was that the relationship between Vespasian and his brother Sabinus, does perhaps need a glance at #1, otherwise, you can certainly begin here, no problem.
So, and despite a(n interesting) new twist on the eyebrow raising device, so beloved of Roman period writers, here we have Secundus raising a ‘monobrow,’ I really enjoyed the book and rate it very highly indeed. In my view, the Vespasian series along with Douglas Jackson’s …of Rome series are the best of the many Roman series I’ve read. Vespasian II is up on the podium of the top three Roman novels I’ve read so far. In fact, it will have to be the best, most convincing, most captivating Roman-period book I’ve read since The Lion and the Lamb. I’ll admit, I actually found myself holding my breath at one point. (P117) and I’ll go along with another of the book’s characters’ comments that “This is more fun than arse-licking back in Rome…” Then, as now, I guess. Go away and start this series now, if you haven’t already, I’m sure you’ll agree.