It is said the eyes are the windows to your soul. Anthony Riches seems to take that (a little too much) to heart in his ‘Empire‘ series. Any emotion can be expressed from surprise to anger and all points in between, by a narrowing of the eyes and/or a raising of the eyebrows. So, what does that make the brows then? The venetian blinds to the soul? It’s worth musing on, because, that’s what you do here. The story tries to pop up now and then, but stands no chance against the absolute blizzard of eyebrows shooting hither and yon, from every character in every situation. Mid-pitch battle, in blood-thirsty, backs against the wall, life or death situations, are my favourites. “Just a moment, seven foot tall screaming barbarian, I need to look at my comrade and raise an inquisitorial eyebrow. All done. Now, where were we…?” But, not so fast there – a new way of expressing all emotions is introduced in ‘Vengeance.’ The raising of both eyebrows! “Oh my good god! He’s raising both eyebrows at me – the absolute fiend!” And, it’s not just confined to the Legions in ‘Eagle,’ there has also been a rather virulent outbreak amongst the barbarians as well. Nothing can stand in the way of the power of the eyebrow!
Yeah, yeah, anyway, what’s it about, apart from rampant brow-raising?
It’s the sixth in the ‘Empire’ series and if you’ve read the others, you’ll know exactly where you are with this one. The good news is, that we’re back in Britannia, back up on Hadrian’s Wall. I felt that the previous one (‘Wolf’s Gold’) wasn’t as good for the shift in locale away from Britannia. All those bloody foreign barbarians raising their eyebrows – how dare they! Our favourite enemy, Calgus, is back, despite being mostly a cripple since his run-in with our hero, Marcus Aquila (though, shhh…he’s ‘Corvus’, to you) and (at least one of) his two swords in a previous book. This time, Calgus is attempting to control the barbarian forces from the shadows behind the throne, as I suppose it could be described. Then, there is more than a little chaos in the Roman forces, on both sides of the Wall and our Tungrian (not ‘Hungarian,’ as my spell-check tries to put) cohort is sent to clean up – as only they can. In fact, they’re sent into the wastes (if you were a Roman, ’home’ if you were a photo-Scot), beyond Hadrian’s Wall. They journey even beyond the Antonine wall, on an impossible mission to rescue the Sixth Legion’s Eagle – an important symbol of power for both the Legions and the barbarians. All good so far. But the name of the (until Marcus and pals get there, obviously) impregnable barbarian fortress where the Eagle is being held and worshipped? ’The Fang.’ Oh dear. There, right there, my eyes become the windows to my soul – and they’re laughing.
The first Empire book was good. No doubt about that. It was a blast of new, fresh interest in a scene I thought needed it. But as the series has gone on, I realise – that that was it. He shot his bolt early and the rest have been – so far – on reflection, a disappointment, an unfulfilled promise. Here, there’s some good stuff about a Roman soldier having been captured and tortured by the barbarians, but then having escaped and survived in hostile territory, hunted day and night by warriors who turn out to be women. He goes to the edge of madness, but is the only one who can get them to the entrance of the fortress, so has to be trusted. That and the passages following the Romans coming back from the fortress (I’m not giving anything away! You know he’s gonna get out with the Eagle, the trick is still making it put you on the edge of your seat), is good. Good enough to make up for the bad? They eyebrows? Not quite.
And don’t get me started on the repeating of words, from one sentence to another. Where another (see what I did there?) word could and should have been suggested by an editor who is clearly blind (and even that is to take the responsibility off Anthony Riches, who shouldn’t have written it in the first place). For goodness’ sake, I’ve seen Tweets where an author has apologised for repeating a word – and that’s inside 140 characters!
My star count has been reflecting my (waning) enthusiasm for the Empire series and going down as the ‘sequence’ has progressed. I’m afraid that this one struggles to make it the two, but I’ll be generous – for the marshes sections (and despite the eyebrow raising there in) and I’ll give it three.
Criticise my grammar and writing all you like, but I clean toilets in a hospital. Writing or editing isn’t my only job!