My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I am going back in time by reading this one. I was lucky enough to be sent (the latest as it was at the time) The Black Stone, which was actually number four in the series. I’d seen the name and some of the covers before that, but not got onto reading any. But having been solidly impressed by TBS, I’m making up for lost time by starting (again) at the beginning with The Siege.
And maybe time-travel is perhaps not at all a bad metaphor for me to use for this review. As Nick Brown certainly has a knack for bringing the period, the landscape and the characters to convincingly vivid life. We’re back in 270 AD, on the eastern edges of the Roman Empire and as with all the best books, the story is a deceptively simple one. The main character – and of the subsequent novels of course – is Cassius Corbulo. He is just 19 as the book begins, straight from officer training, he is sent to command the Roman forces who find themselves in the path of Queen Zenobia of Palmyra’s rapidly advancing forces. And they’re not happy. Not with the Romans anyway. The Roman forces Cassius is sent to command have been lacking a Centurion and discipline and the usual Roman efficiency has suffered accordingly. Problem is, Cassius isn’t a Centurian yet. But he thinks it best not to let his forces in on the secret just yet. He faces an uphill struggle to convince the Legionary veterans that they should take orders from a beardless ‘boy,’ ‘Centurian’ or not and a lot of the story is about Cassius trying to win them over and prepare them to face the Palmyrians – or at least hold on until the Roman reinforcements can arrive to save the day. Though, Cassius isn’t sure they’re coming. Another little secret he has to keep from his men. What Cassius is, if not an actual Centurion, is a ‘Grain Officer.’ An ‘agent of the Imperial Security Service. An independent wing of the military, the Service had been established during the time of the Emperor Domitian. Originally concerned with the supply and distribution of grain to the legions, it’s officers were spread far and wide across the Empire.’ They seem to be a mixture of spy and Internal Affairs. And ‘the Service’ are disliked by the ordinary soldiers. So understandably, Cassius would rather the men under him did not find out too much about that little secret either.
The ‘Siege’ of the title, develops rather like the Roman version of The Alamo, if you’ve seen the John Wayne film. I did, at times, think it read a little like a western. The new Sheriff sent to sort-out a run-down, lawless town, in a lawless area, etc. The Wild West. Except here, it’s the Wild East. If you’re a Roman, West if you’re a…, well, you get the picture. The soldiers need convincing that running away and hiding isn’t their best option, no matter how much more attractive that might seem to be when compared with taking orders from a suspiciously youthful Centurion. There are old-soaks who’ve seen it all before, there are trouble-makers, there’s a very interesting Praetorian Guard character, who is trying to obliterate his internal pains by staying drunk (we’ve all done it), but who Cassius thinks may hold the key to the fort’s forces’ survival. There are good-guys who seem like they can be relied on and there are quite probably spies lurking here and there. Then, all the time in the background, there’s the ever-nearing, unavoidable date with destruction, in the shape of the Palmyrians coming inexorably closer. Something’s got to give and Cassius is determined it isn’t going to be the Romans, not on his watch.
As the book progresses, so does the character of Cassius. He starts out, as we all would no matter how much training we had behind us, scared shitless and decidedly unsure if this was the right career choice. He develops slowly, as experience only comes with time in the job – not something he has a lot of just now. But, you can see he is already on the way to developing the instinct to do the right thing at the right time in the right situation. The real key to survival in the Roman army, I’d think.
As I say, this is the first in the Agent of Rome series. It is now five books long and was clearly imagined to be a quite lengthy series. Nick (I feel I can call him Nick now) gets straight down to the business of this book’s story – and the action – rather than spend ages giving scene-setting and/or background, that we pick up along the way. Which is as I like it.
So, if you want to be transported back to 3rd century eastern Roman Empire, then I can’t think of better place to start or finish, than Nick Brown’s Agent of Rome series.
Buy The Siege at The Book Depository
Now, See how this book fits in my Historical Fiction Timeline.