Book Review: The Iron Hand of Mars by Lindsey Davis

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.

Favourite Quote

“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.

Review

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.

Rating

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Book Review: Ruso and the Root of all Evils by R.S. Downie

Ruso and the Root of all Evils is the third book in this Roman mystery series by R.S.Downie.

Summary (from Goodreads)

At long last, Gaius Petreius Ruso and his companion, Tilla, are headed home—to Gaul. Having received a note consisting only of the words “COME HOME!” Ruso has (reluctantly, of course) pulled up stakes and brought Tilla to meet his family.

But the reception there is not what Ruso has hoped for: no one will admit to sending for him, and his brother Lucius is hoping he’ll leave. With Tilla getting icy greetings from his relatives, Lucius’s brother-in-law mysteriously drowned at sea, and the whole Ruso family teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, it’s hard to imagine an unhappier reunion. That is, until Severus, the family’s chief creditor, winds up dead, and the real trouble begins…

Engrossing, intricate, and—as always—wonderfully comic, Ruth Downie’s latest is a brilliant new instalment in this irresistible series. This is everything we’ve come to expect from our charming, luckless hero.

Favourite Quote

“Anyway,” continued Cass, “I can’t pray to Christos.  You’ll have to do it.  You’re not married.”

“Does that matter?”

“Christos’ followers are supposed to obey their husbands.”

Review

This book was enjoyable to read and well-written, full of engaging characters and entertaining storylines.  My favourite character has to be Tilla.  She is simply fantastic: brave, unrepentant, compassionate, and independent. And poor Ruso – he has so much to put up with, and things just keep getting worse for him.

I guessed the culprit but not the ending.  Indeed, towards the latter part of the book, I was driven to keep reading by a need to find out just how the story would conclude.

I liked the author’s style of writing; fairly short chapters that mostly end with a new twist or turn in the plot.  This gave the story a good pace and instilled in me an insatiable desire to read just one more chapter, then another, then another…more or less until I finished the book.

I would recommend this book to those who enjoy their historical fiction set in the ancient Roman world, and, if you love Lindsey Davis’ Falco series, I think you will love this one too.

Rating

Short Story Review: The Shrine by Ben Kane

The Shrine is the short story prequel to Eagles at War, the first book in the Eagles of Rome trilogy by Ben Kane.

Summary

The story is set in Mogontiacum, Gallia Belgica in 6BC, and Lucius Cominius Tullus, a Roman soldier, has just accepted a promotion.  The new post involves a transfer, moving from the Twenty-First legion to become a centurion in the Eighteenth, stationed in Vetera.  En route, he pauses on the way, to watch the famous footrace in Mogontiacum after which he decides to visit the local shrine.  The shrine in question is the temple to Magna Mater (the Great Mother) and Isis.

But his stay there is not to be a quiet one.  Neither will it be easy to forget…

Favourite Quote

“Piss off,” hissed Tullus.  He had no woman.  The army was work enough.

Review

I really enjoyed this short story.  It served as a great introduction to the character of Tullus and to the location: the German frontier. This period in Roman’s history fascinates me, and so I found the not-too-heavy, yet still rich detail of the setting a rewarding read.  One of my interests is in ancient religion so the part of the story set in the temple held me captivated.

I especially enjoyed reading the “note from the author” at the end of the story, as it explained how and why the story came about.

I’ve already gone out and bought a copy of Eagles at War, and am looking forward to begin reading it.  Tullus sounds like an interesting character and I want to see how his story unfolds, as I am aware of the events that happen round this time in this part of the empire.

If you’ve yet to read any of Ben Kane’s books, why not pop over to Wattpad and give this short story a read for free? (Here’s the link if you’re interested.)

Rating

 

Book Review: Rome: The Emperor’s Spy by M.C. Scott

rome the emperor spy front cover

The story begins in AD 63, in Coriallum in Gaul, during the reign of the emperor Nero.  It has come to the attention of the Emperor that a prophecy is in circulation predicting that Rome will burn in the year of the phoenix and bring the kingdom of heaven to earth.  Understandably Nero wants to prevent this from happening, and so he asks the spy, Sebastos Pantera to find out what he can, who is involved and ultimately to ensure that this prophecy doesn’t become reality.

But there are other things going on as well.  A young boy named Math, who dreams of driving a chariot on the greatest stage in Rome, has caught the emperor’s eye.  Nero’s reputation for cruelty is well-known, and so Pantera and the leader of the chariot team Math races for, Ajax, do all they can to protect him from the emperor.

This journey will take them all from northern Gaul to Alexandria and then on to Rome.  But can they really protect Math from the most powerful man in the Empire?  And what of the healer Hannah?  What is her story?  As they get closer to the truth, many secrets will be revealed…but will they be able to stop Rome burning?

I have a somewhat mixed review of this book.  Let’s start with the positives: This was an interesting take on the Great Fire of Rome and I loved the characters.  It was them that kept me reading, hooking me from the beginning of the story and not letting me go until I had reached the last pages.  Many of them were some of the best characters I have come across and have earned a place on my favourite characters list.

The negative: I found it very hard to get interested in the story line itself.  The whole idea of the prophecy rather surprisingly did not grab my attention.  Usually I love this sort of thing.  Instead, I was reading because I liked the characters.  I wanted to know how they fared as the story unfolded.

The book is packed with historical detail and so it doesn’t matter where in the Roman Empire the current scene is set, you can clearly visualise it and the characters.  The characters are well-rounded and interact convincingly with each other.  The story is well-paced and is moved forward by scenes full of action and energy.

Although this is the first book in this particular series, I learned that a few of the characters had featured in the author’s previous series based around the Celtic warrior queen, Boudicca.  Even though it has no bearing on the understanding of this book or my enjoyment of it, had I known beforehand, I probably would have read that series first.

I am looking forward to reading the next book in the series, Rome: The Coming of the King, to see what happens to my favourite characters and what trials they come up against next.

Book Review: Venus in Copper by Lindsey Davis

Venus in Copper Front CoverVenus in Copper is the third book in the Falco series by Lindsey Davis.

Falco’s third case is nothing if not complex.  Having distanced himself from working with the Palace – the Flavians like to keep a hold of their money, making it hard for any honest investigator to get paid – he finds himself employed by a close-knit bunch of freedmen.  The case: stop a gold-digger black widow from marrying and then murdering the only unmarried one amongst them.

The gold digger is one Severina Zotica.  She has a shady past: three dead husbands who died in mysterious circumstances leaving their fortunes to her.  Naturally anyone would be worried about their friend – a rich friend – who wanted to get involved with such a woman.

But are these freedmen as concerned as they make out to be?  When Falco goes to meet them in their sprawling villa on the Pincian Hill, what he finds is that the freedmen have much more money than taste (which they are happy to show off in any way they can).  However, they are very, very canny when it comes to business.  The question is, is it their friend or his money they are thinking about?

And what does this case have to do with a foul-mouthed parrot named Chloe and a circus snake-dancer?  Falco will need all his wits about him if he’s to uncover the truth…

I have been reading this series over and over again for over ten years and I have yet to tire of it.  In fact, I love these books so much, that as soon as I pick one up, I have to read it all before I can put it down again.  So it comes as no surprise that I finished Venus in Copper in a day.

Lindsey Davis explains the complexities of Roman life very easily.  From the proper naming conventions of freedmen to the insurance fraud that was rife throughout the city, Rome in its many shades is brought to colourful life with historical accuracy.

One of the things I love about these books is the humour that is woven through the story.  These really are some of the most entertaining historical reads I have come across.  Falco’s personality shines through and he is surrounded with a wonderful supporting cast: his long-suffering mother, Petronius Longus of the Aventine Watch, his classy girlfriend Helena Justina…to name but a few.

The story itself is gripping.  As Falco tries to work his through the case and the upheavals in his private life, you cannot help but get drawn into the tale, rooting for the man at every turn.

I would recommend this book (and the whole series) to anyone who loves historical and / or detective fiction.  Falco is one of the most original and interesting private investigators I have come across and these books really do stand apart from others in the genre.

Book Review: Shadows In Bronze by Lindsey Davis

Shadows in Bronze is the second book in the Falco series by Lindsey Davis.

It is 71 AD.  Marcus Didius Falco, a private investigator living in Rome, has the rather unpleasant task of disposing of a body eleven days dead and decaying, a job given to him by the Emperor Vespasian.  The man was part of a conspiracy to overthrow the Emperor, and whilst his treasonous activities had caught up with him, the rest of the conspirators flee Rome.

But when they start dying in mysterious circumstances, Falco is sent to persuade them to return to Rome for their own safety and to try and make them see that Vespasian wants to reconcile with them, not make an example of them.  In order to do this, Falco must travel across Magna Graecia and the Campania in an attempt to track them all down.

His job is made even harder by the ever-present shadow stalking him wherever he goes.  Who is it?  And what do they want?

To complicate matters, his relationship with Helena Justina, a senator’s daughter, seems to be only getting worse.  And the further into the investigation he gets, the more it seems that Helena might somehow be involved…

Shadows in Bronze continues where The Silver Pigs (book #1 in the Falco series – read the review here) left off, and it does so seamlessly.

In this second instalment, we see a number of the characters we were introduced to in the first book make a welcome return, including Falco’s best friend Petronius Longus and the woman Falco has fallen in love with, Helena Justina.  We are also introduced to a number of a new faces: Larius, Falco’s nephew; Nero, an ox; Arria Silvia, Petro’s wife and Caprenius Marcellus, Helena’s dead ex-husband’s adoptive father.

The places visited as we move through the book are well-described and come to life with ease.  As Falco travels around the Bay of Naples especially, we see the Roman world at perhaps its most colourful…fancy boats, luxury villas and holiday homes, country estates whose vineyards climb the fertile slopes of Mount Vesuvius. (It is eight years before the cataclysmic volcanic eruption that destroys Pompeii and Herculaneum).

Lindsey Davis is an extraordinarily talented writer who manages to combine historical accuracy with a number of plots, sub-plots and a rich cast of characters, creating an engaging, entertaining and memorable read.

I can’t recommend this book (or the series) highly enough, and I am looking forward to re-reading book 3, Venus in Copper.

Book Review: The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis

The Silver Pigs is the first book in the Falco series by Lindsey Davis.

It is 70 AD.  Marcus Didius Falco is a private investigator in Rome.  Vespasian has only been emperor a short while, and after the Year of the Four Emperors, the Empire has yet to settle down again.

Whilst in the forum, Falco comes across a young pretty woman on the run from a couple of thugs.  Her name is Sosia Camillina.  Being the gentleman that he is, Falco makes the quick decision to help Sosia.

And so, with this small act begins his involvement in a trade corruption scandal, one that has the highest of ambitions and stretches from the furthest reaches of the Empire to it’s very heart.  Silver pigs from the mines in Britain – a place that Falco does not have fond memories of – have been going missing.  Now they have turned up in Rome.

When someone close to Falco ends up murdered, he is willing to do anything, no matter the cost, to uncover the truth and bring a killer justice…even return to Britannia, where he served his not so glorious stint in the army.  But what will he find when he gets there?

As I mentioned in this review I am currently returning to a few of my favourite book series. The Falco books by Lindsey Davis is one of them. I have absolutely loved each and every one of these books and they certainly get better and better with each re-read.

The Roman world the author describes is vivid and historically accurate.  As we travel across the length and breadth of the Empire – from Rome to the far-flung province of Britannia, we are given an evocative glimpse into the Roman world as it is brought to life with ease and in such a way as to make it accessible to those unfamiliar with this period in history.

Each and every character in the story has depth, and their respective roles and and interactions move fluidly through the story.  The book is peopled with realistic personalities; some you’ll like, some you won’t; some that will become firm favourites.

The Silver Pigs is a story that blends historical detail with tragedy, mystery and humour, weaving a novel that is hard to forget, and one that it’s hard not to get caught up in…a thoroughly mesmerising read…

I can’t recommend this book (or the series) highly enough, and I am looking forward to re-reading book 2, Shadows in Bronze.