A crack squad of undercover Intelligence officials, on a desperate, life or death, race against time mission deep in enemy territory in the southern Arabian peninsula, against a backdrop of rising insurgency…
The situation now, in Yemen? The new ‘Bourne’? The new James Bond? A modern anti-terrorist thriller?
Nope, nope and maybe, partly-nope.
For this is a thrilling novel set in AD273 and the undercover mission is being carried out by a specially selected squad of Roman soldiers, under the command of Agent of Rome, Cassius Corbulo*
Corbulo has been delegated by his boss, who is doing something his boss wants done and as his boss is Emperor, it needs to be done, yesterday. Or earlier. Cassius’ mission he has no choice but to ‘choose’ to accept, is to travel through hostile territory, break into the enemy’s stronghold, re-capture a magical and mysterious black stone and get out again. Alive – if possible. The Emperor, Lucius Domitus Aurelianus, wants the black stone, largely because that’s what Roman Emperor’s do. Want things they don’t have. The problem is that Ilaha, who has set himself up as rebel leader and self-styled high priest of the Sun God religion, wants to use the black stone’s possibly other-worldly powers, to enrapture and enrage the desert peoples, raise a huge army and rise up and smash Rome’s rule in the region.
So, all to play for…
The Agent of Rome series has come a little out of left-field for me. Something told me I’d seen the jacket covers, but – obviously – not read the books before getting sent this one. It is also different to the Roman series’ I’ve been reading, in that it isn’t trying to imagine how actual, documented, historical events (might have) unfolded. Here, we’re in (the latter) stages of the Roman period, but the story is an imagining of the kind of thing which might have gone on, rather than what actually happened. A little outside history’s spotlight, I thought. As I understand it, over a fifty year period from AD235, some 26 Emperors were declared by the Senate. Documenting that mess would be a little difficult, not to say confusing, I’d say. Here, in 273, the current situation is that “for the first time in years we seem to have an Emperor who knows what he’s doing.” When it comes to mysterious black stones, anyway.
It isn’t the first of the series, which is where I otherwise prefer to start a series – for good or bad – even coming late to the party, as now. It is number four**, but I was advised that it was pretty well self-contained. It is. The story uses the devices many of the best do, to remind you that there is a ‘previously, on The Agent of Rome,’ dropping mostly the ‘that reminds me of the time’-type comments, without ever getting in the way and having me feel that I couldn’t possibly get the most out of it without having read the others. I could. You can. That’s probably at least partly due to its clear, open, even welcoming style. I knew next to nothing about the period and was therefore glad there were no feelings of “You haven’t done your homework, have you Jones?!” (H. Sidebottom). Or “You can’t read long Latin words? You can’t remember what happened two paragraphs back? Neither can I, so no problem.” (A. Riches). I felt treated like an adult, out for excitement. Which is why I read.
The characters are good, solid, well-drawn and totally believable. The main man Cassius is an honest, positive character. Resourceful, adaptable and intelligent, with an eye for the small details, though not entirely convinced of his (obvious to others) abilities. A little like us all, then. And an ideal spy. He is from northern Italy, so maybe not being Roman, as in from Rome, and influenced by the power for power’s sake political turbulence of Rome, allows for his more worldly objectivity and practicality. He has an ex-gladiator bodyguard called Indavara, who is clearly the kind of friend you’d want at your side, or to have your back in a fight. But who has, thanks to memory loss, an intreguing (not least to him) unknown past, pre-Gladiator that is. Makes him kind of stateless, rootless, living for the here and now. It was interesting, that the story trusted him to go off on his own a few times. Such that he is at least as ‘main’ a character, as the story’s figurehead Cassius. The black sheep in a Roman-kind of way, is Cassius’ newly converted to Christianity slave Simo. Who finds that believing in a religion promoting non-violence isn’t going to go down all that well with your Roman gods-believing boss when his back is against the wall.
There is some great, enjoyable interplay between the main characters. Realistic, understandable dialogue – as in, you understand where they’re coming from. “’Indavara really likes that mule.’ ‘What can I tell you. Similar level of intellect.’” He also embellished the main story with many smaller interesting incidents and brushes with danger along the way, that further expanded on the period feel, placing you and the characters comfortably in their time and surroundings. With the area seeming to be as unstable then as it is now and what looks like the early use and sale of what would later become oil, it seems very little has changed in 1800-odd years.
I’m not going to compare it with other Roman period novels I’ve read recently. What if, as it is a spy novel after all, I compare it with 1960’s spy stories? Which was old-school spying before ‘technology’ and this is after all, spying a long, long time before (any) technology! Yeah, well, I just think that sometimes, Historical Fiction as good as this, needs to be looked at a little differently, to take it out of the box it’s dumped in and set out against the wider fiction world.
I always think the mark of a good book is that you forget you’re actually holding paper and reading words on a page, you’re watching the video it’s set playing in your head. The Black Stone passed that test with flying colours. In fact, it had a filmic feel all through. The start, assembling the team to go on the mission, reminded me of The Dirty Dozen, parts of the rest, was a kind of Die Hard in the Desert. The whole, feels like it wouldn’t take much to convert to a film script.
I couldnt have enjoyed The Black Stone any more if I’d tried. It’s a world I want to come back to again. Soon. And you know what’s sad? I slowed down reading the last third. Because I didn’t want to it to finish. But what’s happy? I’ve got the others in the series ready to read.
*If you’ve read any of my recent Roman (novel) reviews, you’ll recognise the name ‘Corbulo’ (you were taking notes?) He is related to the General Gnaeus Domitus Corbulo from the Douglas Jackson ‘…of Rome’ series.