The Iron Hand of Mars is the fourth book in the Falco series by Lindsey Davis.
Summary (from back of book)
AD 71: Germania Libera: dark dripping forests, inhabited by bloodthirsty barbarians and legendary wild beasts, a furious prophetess who terrorises Rome, and the ghostly spirits of slaughtered Roman legionaries.
Enter Marcus Didius Falco, an Imperial agent on a special mission: to find the absconding commander of a legion whose loyalty is suspect. Easier said than done, thinks Marcus, as he makes his uneasy way down the Rhenus, trying to forget that back in sunny Rome his girlfriend Helena Justina is being hotly pursued by Titus Caesar. His mood is not improved when he discovers that his only allies are a woefully inadequate bunch of recruits, their embittered centurion, a rogue dog, and its innocent young master; just the right kind of support for an agent unwillingly trying to tame the Celtic hordes.
“Are foreign priestesses virgins, sir?”
“I believe it’s not obligatory.” Only Rome equated chastity with holiness; and even Rome installed ten vestals at a time, in order to give latitude for mistakes.
I have read this series from beginning to end a number of times, and my enjoyment of it only grows with each reading. The witty style of the author combined with the historical detail and interesting mysteries is a winning formula, and as such this series is one of my absolute favourites.
The Iron Hand of Mars is quite different to the books that came before it in the series, whose focus tended to be more political rather than military. However, this book is as much of a success as the others. The story of Varus and the lost legions in the Teutoburg Forest is fascinating if haunting, and as “Rome’s greatest defeat” as it is often referred to, it is largely responsible for stopping the spread of Roman expansion into the northern reaches of Europe. And this is the back drop, many years after the event, to the story and Falco’s mission.
The story is cleverly-crafted and as Falco goes about the Emperor’s business, he finds himself in more danger than he has so far working for the Palatine. Due to the nature of his task and the events of the past, the tone is darker and you can feel the oppressiveness of the Tuetoburg Forest as Falco travels through it.
The characters in this book are entertaining and varied: Xanthus, a former imperial barber who wants to the see the world; Helvetius, a despairing centurion in command of untrainable new recruits; Veleda, the priestess – prophetess of the Bructeri who lives in a tower; Justinus, the younger of Helena’s brothers, stationed with the First Legion…However, it is always Helena and Falco who star in the story; they are both endearing, strong-willed, personable and funny, and you can’t help but root for them all the way.
The descriptions of the empire beyond Rome and into the more wild provinces vividly come to life as we follow Falco’s progress. From boat trips down the Rhenus to Samian-ware ceramic factories in Lugdunum and everything else in between, we are given are unforgettable tour of this part of the empire as it was in the first century.
Action, adventure, comedy and even romance, this is historical crime fiction at its best (in my opinion, of course). So, if you are looking for an entertaining read set in the ancient world to immerse yourself in, I would highly recommend you give this book a read.