Review: Blood and Steel – Harry Sidebottom

4 of 5 stars

Series: Throne of the Caesars 2

My version: Hardback
Historical Fiction Rome
Harper Collins
Bought signed

AD238. In a world of battle and betrayal, men will fight – and kill – to sit on the throne of the Caesars.

Emperoro Maximinus’ reign hangs in the balance. At the helm of an Empire that is bleeding manpower and money to sustain his wars in the north, rebellions flare in the far reaches of its territories.

In Africa, Gordian The Elder and Younger, are proclaimed as the new Augusti. A family descending from the imperial bloodline, they represent a chance for the establishment to take back the Empire.

In Rome, the first blood of the revolt is shed when an assassin murders Maximinus’ Prefect, announcing to Rome that their ruler is dead and the Gordians have taken the throne. Still bitter at having a soldier from the barracks wearing the Imperial purple, the Senate endorses the rebellion. The Gordiani are hailed as Emperors.

But as chaos descends on the capital, news reaches Maximinus of the betrayal. A man of war, he acts with decisive brutality and violence on the dusty plains outside Carthage. Bloody battle will determine the fate of the Roman Empire.

The Speeshus Rex Fact Dept report: ‘Caesar’ is a title of imperial character. It derives from the cognomen of Julius Caesar, the Roman dictator. The change from being a familial name to a title adopted by the Roman Emperors can be dated to about AD 68/69, the so-called Year of the Four Emperors.

Well, in a very Giles Kristian-like way, Harry has really turned it around in book two. This is much, much more like it. I’m not saying that all Historical Fiction has to be filled with battles and action, action, action, but when you set it up as such in the blurb, you better deliver. Book One didn’t, book two does.

Of course, writing about the Roman period in history, is a fail-safe for intrigue, backstabbing, plots, battles galore, civil wars every five minutes, wait a decade for a new Emperor and then four come along at once. Not to mention brothers shagging sisters, marrying mothers and generally in Rome, anything goes for a writer. Harry Sidebottom, even if I didn’t know anything about his background, is clearly a cut above, when delivering rock-solid Roman well-researched fiction. Anything goes, obviously, but with Harry, you know it’s going to be fact-filled. But academic-typess don’t always deliver riveting books – the Paul Cartledge book I read on the Spartans managed to kill that subject stone-dead for me, as an example. Harry has always been above that, no matter what my gripes as a grumpy old man might be.

Here, he develops three strands. One covering the prospective rebellion in Africa, where the Gordians are based. One in Rome, where any Emperor’s power base has to be, where he has to be sure of support, both amongst the Senate and the plebs. And the one, for me the most interesting one, up north, where Maximinus is trying to make sure that the Empire’s northern borders are secure and even pushed forward, to possibly give new revenue streams to pay for it all. That the Senators and the hoi-polloi back in Rome don’t see this, but just see that Maximinus has killed their friends, is partly the problem that Maximinus has to overcome. But, subtle he ain’t, and you just know what kind of solution he would have in mind for dealing with this insurrection. It’s not going to be pretty. I’m with him (I know how to keep my head attached to my neck!), and I was very satisfied, even allowing a “Yes!” escape my lips once or twice when Maximinus finally found out and got down to business.

As (very) good as this one is, as involving it is, compared to the first volume especially, it’s still not quite all it could be. There is still way too much ruminating on this and that by the characters, masquerading as teaching us about all things Rome. Clearly you can take the lad out of the classroom, but you cant take…well, you know.

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