The Singing Sword: Jack Whyte

★★★

A Dream of Eagles / The Camulod Chronicles: Book 2

When we last encountered Publius Varrus and his friend Caius Britannicus, the two men had founded a colony in south-west Britain, hoping to preserve Roman values and public order even after the Empire inevitably withdraws from the island. This second book in the series shows us the teething struggles of the infant colony, as Saxon raids multiply along the coast and, far across the sea, the Roman empire begins to tear itself apart. While I was glad to be reunited with our two doughty protagonists, of whom I grew rather fond in the first book, I felt that this sequel failed to live up to its eventful predecessor. Pacing becomes a serious issue here, and some factors which only niggled faintly in the first volume became problematic in The Singing Sword. And yet there’s still the pleasure of watching various Arthurian motifs (or characters) coming into being. In short, a curate’s egg – and hopefully only a temporary misstep.

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The Skystone: Jack Whyte

★★★★

A Dream of Eagles / The Camulod Chronicles: Book I

Two men meet in the African desert. One is Caius Britannicus, a brilliant Roman general who has been taken captive by one of the desert tribes. The other, his rescuer, is Publius Varrus, a centurion finally heading home to a new posting in his native country. Both men are Britons; both, by a quirk of Fate, are destined to head over the seas together to take up new positions in the same legion. And that same Fate has greater things in store, because Jack Whyte’s gripping historical novel isn’t just a story of Roman Britain, giving us a rare fictional glimpse of that cataclysmic moment in the late 4th century when the legions deserted the islands for good. It’s also the first in an epic series of novels that (I presume) will follow the families of Caius Britannicus and Publius Varrus down the ages, at least as far as their mutual great-grandson, who will become the King Arthur of legend. So far, the tale has been utterly absorbing, rationalising the legends into a completely plausible tale of honour, nobility and brotherhood in the dying days of the Roman Empire, when one man’s dream becomes the foundation of a new age.

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Venus in Copper: Lindsey Davis

★★★½

Marcus Didius Falco: Book 3

Yes, all right, I’m reading out of order again. When I bought this book the other day, I knew that I had Book 2 lying around somewhere, but just couldn’t put my finger on it. Only now, as I write, have I noticed it staring at me accusingly from the bookshelf (if you’ve been to my flat, this state of mild book chaos will be understandable). I just couldn’t resist a touch of Roman comedy crime drama, so went ahead with Venus in Copper in the hope that I’d be able to catch up; and I have, though I’ve evidently missed a couple of crucial plot points for the wider series. In this instalment, our Roman gumshoe is hired for what seems to be an everyday kind of case: checking the credentials of a potential bride. But there are two catches. He’s been hired not by the groom, but by the groom’s sisters-in-law (the whole family being almost embarrassingly arriviste); and the problem is not the character of the bride so much as the fact that her last three husbands have died swiftly, in mysterious circumstances. What is Severina Zotica up to?

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Deposed: David Barbaree

★★★½

A remote prison in the scrubland outside Rome, 68 AD. The kind of place that you’re sent when the world wants to forget that you even exist. One afternoon, as young Marcus runs errands at the jail, he sees a new prisoner brought in. A man who has been blinded and brutalised, whom the guards treat with scorn as they leave, who has been brought here to be forgotten. A man named Nero. Eleven years later, Rome has settled into the rule of Vespasian, though the struggles of rival would-be emperors are fresh enough to make life difficult for his son Titus, who has taken charge of keeping the peace. Old factions die hard in Rome. And then, one day, news comes of a new arrival in the city. A senator from distant Spain, unknown to anyone. A blind man, with a young man named Marcus at his side, who has come with a great fortune to play his part in Rome’s future.

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Chariot of the Soul: Linda Proud

★★★★½

The end of September was an exciting but rather fraught period for me at work, so I didn’t get round to reading or writing anywhere near as much as I hoped. With the dawn of October, I could breathe a sigh of relief and lose myself in books once again, and the first one I turned to was a novel I’d been saving for a time when I could really appreciate it. Some of you will remember how much I enjoyed Linda Proud’s Botticelli Trilogy and her prequel A Gift for the Magus. I’ve been intrigued ever since I heard that her new book would take her into unfamiliar territory, in the mysterious and dark days of early Roman Britain. Now at last I’ve had the chance to curl up with Chariot of the Soul, and it was everything I’d hoped it would be: a sensitive, thoughtful book that looks at our small island and touches on very timely themes about identity, assimilation, compromise and confrontation with a great pan-European power.

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Giulio Cesare: George Frideric Handel (1724)

Handel: Giulio Cesare

(directed by David McVicar, Glyndebourne, 20 July 2018)

It’s always nerve-racking when you go to see something you love live for the first time. What if it doesn’t live up to expectations? What if one of the cast has a sore throat? What if, horror of horrors, the manager comes onstage to announce a substitution? But at the same time, how can you resist? My opera buddy H and I had decided that we would pay virtually anything to see the revival of David McVicar’s marvellous Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne, and our resolution was put to the test when the more affordable seats were snapped up within seconds after going on sale. However, our budget-stretching seats in row B were absolutely worth the cost. Many of the cast from the 2005 production returned, with Sarah Connolly triumphant in the title role, and we could admire every little detail. Coupled with a lavish picnic and a gang of equally excited friends (inevitably christened Team Giulio), it made for a perfect day out, and I can promise you that it did live up to all those months of anticipation.

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Roman Blood: Steven Saylor

★★★½

Roma Sub Rosa: Book I

Time to meet another pioneering Roman detective, this one operating some decades earlier than Lindsey Davis’s engaging Falco. It’s 80 BC when we first encounter Gordianus, called the Finder, a man known in a certain section of society for his ability to find not only things but truth. Gordianus has previously worked with some of Rome’s leading advocates, but he’s always been fully conscious of his status as persona non grata in polite circles. This is usually reinforced by the status of the go-betweens sent to deal with him. And this is why he’s surprised when a very well-bred young slave arrives at the door of his sprawling, shabby old house one morning, offering him work. The slave’s name is Tiro. And the man who wants Gordianus’ help is Tiro’s master, a fresh young advocate just starting out on his career, named Cicero.

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Caligula: Douglas Jackson

★★½

As a counterbalance to philosophical tales of European angst, I turned to this historical novel set in ancient Rome, hoping for a diverting dose of swords and sandals. The cover is misleading: the main character is not a soldier but Rufus, a young animal trainer whose gift with exotic creatures brings him into the orbit of the emperor Gaius, usually known as Caligula. There are swords, certainly, thanks to the Praetorian Guard; sandals, presumably; and some sand, courtesy of the arena. There’s even an elephant. But what this story really lacks is soul. Relying on coincidences, handily-overheard monologues and a rather lacklustre romance, it never really takes flight.

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New Pompeii: Daniel Godfrey

★★★

New Pompeii: Book I

Any book which begins with a murder attempt at the British Museum is bound to catch my attention. Nick Houghton, a specialist in Roman history who’s struggling to find tenure at a university, is unwillingly caught up in the chaos. With one of his friends deeply implicated in the plot, he expects to be arrested; but instead the unthinkable happens. He is offered a job by the CEO of NovusPart, one of the most powerful and controversial companies in existence. For NovusPart has developed a technology that can cheat history, plucking people out of the ‘timeline’ and transporting them forward in time, saving them from plane crashes, death or disaster. And they’ve decided that Nick is just the person to help them out with their most recent and most ambitious project: the wholesale relocation of the population of Pompeii (in 79 AD) to the present day.

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Imperium: Robert Harris

★★★★½

Cicero: Book I

This book has roosted patiently on my shelf for some time and I’m not quite sure why it’s taken me so long to get round to it. Perhaps I just couldn’t stomach yet another version of the fall of the Roman republic? Or perhaps, shamefully, I felt that a novel about the life of Marcus Tullius Cicero would be rather dry? I was wrong, of course. I was utterly, completely wrong and am glad to be so. Harris’s novel has all the drama of a modern political thriller, underpinned by conscientious faithfulness to place, time and character. It’s superbly paced. Seen through the eyes of Cicero’s devoted secretary Tiro, this is the story of a brilliant man, a tireless, probing and ruthless lawyer, whose desire for rank brings him into the orbit of the most powerful – and infamous – men in Rome. It is a mixed blessing. With the help of such men, Cicero can rise to the heights he has always dreamed about. But at what cost?

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