The King and the Slave – Tim Leach (Atlantic Books)
Following on from the magnificent The Last King of Lydia, The King and the Slave isn’t so much a sequel as a depiction of another phase in the life of Croesus, once the King of Lydia, the richest king of them all and now reduced to slavery in the household of Cyrus, the King of the Persians. Croesus is a man transformed, progressing toward wisdom, but his relatively content existence is thrown into chaos on the death of Cyrus. The new king, Cambyses, is the epitome of the corruption of power. No-one is safe from his madness. Leach writes beautifully. Every page is rich in the colour of historyand, although the time in which the novels are set is remote (6th century BC), Leach brings it into the present thanks to the remarkable portraits he paints. The themes are large and important to the people of this novel – life, the pursuit of happiness, friendship, good kingship, moral responsibility, a good death.
Age of Iron – Angus Watson (Orbit)
This might be labelled as fantasy but to me it’s pure (pre)historical fiction, a glorious look at Britain back in its Iron Age glory, populated by fierce warriors, terrifying druids and the finest craftsmen and women of the age. How real it feels! The novel is set in the years immediately before Caesar’s much anticipated arrival and, as the preface states, ‘The following is what really happened’. And, after reading this bloody, thrilling and exhilarating tour de force of an adventure, who am I to argue? Our three leads, Dug, Lowa and Spring, take us on a journey across Iron Age southern Britain as they travel in pursuit of Zadar, honing their skills, getting to know each other, fighting their way from fort to fort, town to town. Their trip is marked by numerous memorable adventures, many of which it’s a miracle anyone can survive, and the people they meet prove time and time again that Dug is right in his philosophy of life – never trust anyone and never help anyone – that he can never keep.
Enemy of Rome – Douglas Jackson (Bantam)
In this Year of the Four Emperors, nowhere is safe as faction upon faction puts its legions into the field. Gaius Valerius Verrens is in a particularly tight spot – friend to one emperor (Vitellius) but fighting for another (Otho), Valerius has reached the end, awaiting a traitor’s death on the bitterly contested soil of Pannonia. But Valerius is a man with powerful friends and it is one of them, Titus, who saves him, putting him to work to support the campaign of his father Vespasian, a general watched closely by destiny. Valerius is frequently to be found in the midst of deadly action. The battle and skirmish scenes are second to none – vividly presented in terrifying detail with, poignantly, several personal stories brought to a close under a blade’s edge or a horse’s hooves. Finally, though, the war must reach the streets of Rome itself. Jackson is a fine writer whose recreation of past lives and places is enriched by a thorough historical and military knowledge and impressive insight.
The Black Stone – Nick Brown (Hodder & Stoughton)
It is AD 273 and ‘grain man’ or spy Cassius Quintius Corbulo is stationed in Bostra, Arabia, growing accustomed to his military rank while bemoaning the absence of his manservant, the Christian Simo. It’s almost just as well, then, when spymaster Abascantius turns up with a new, perilous mission for Cassius and his ex-gladiator bodyguard Indavara. The Black Stone, an object believed to conduit divine powers, has been stolen from Roman hands, which is unfortunate because emperor Aurelian is determined he needs it to sanctify his rule. Cassius must go undercover into the desert and recover it from the terrifying forces that guard it. This is the fourth in Brown’s wonderful Agent of Rome series and it is a little different to its predecessors. Extra time is given to the increasingly involved relationships between Cassius, Indavara and, once he returns, Simo. For me, this is a particularly strong feature of the novel. Large themes are lightly placed into the novel and it raisesthe adventure into something very memorable.
War at the Edge of the World – Ian Ross (Head of Zeus)
At the turn of the 4th century AD, the Roman Empire is a world divided. There are now two Emperors, each supported by a Caesar. Peace has, somewhat miraculously, held sway but the abdication of the two supreme Emperors in AD 305 leaves the Empire wide open to ambition, intrigue and, not least, barbarian attack. Nowhere is this more felt than on the fringes of the Empire, along the Wall that guards its northern edge. Stationed here is Centurian Aurelius Castus, his missionis to rejuvenate and reinforce the Wall’s legions – and in the nick of time, too. Castus attracts trouble like a corpse attracts flies and he ensures that this is a breathless, exciting read, with danger coming from all angles, including from traitors. The barbarians north of the Wall are frightening and exotic, a compelling foil to the Roman soldiers who must fight for their lives. War at the Edge of the World is the first in a new planned series and I look forward to following it through this most fascinating anddramatic period of British and Roman history.
The Sword of Attila – David Gibbins (Macmillan)
Almost six centuries after the sacking and complete destruction of Carthage by the legions of Rome, it is now the turn of Rome’s soldiers to run for their lives from north Africa. But safety is temporary. In the mid 5th century AD, there comes an even greater threat, one so feared that one of Rome’s greatest enemies, the Visigoths, considers joining its forces to those of Rome – Attila King of the Huns. But despite this, possibly because of it, this is a time of heroes. Aetius is Rome’s Commander in Chief, a man who inspires hope. His nephew Flavius is one of his bravest soldiers, rising through the ranks over several years of campaigns, taking the war against Attila across Europe and into the Hun heartland itself. This is his compelling story, added to by Arturus, a warrior monk from Britain, and the degenerate rulers of Rome. This is a hugely entertaining novel, thoroughly researched and vividly characterised. Here are people from all parts of the known world, the fictional, the semi-fictional and the factual figures all complementing each other perfectly.
God of Vengeance – Giles Kristian (Bantam)
Norway in the late 8th century AD. The land and sea are divided and ruled by kings and jarls, united in alliances sealed by oathsworn bonds of fealty. To break this oath is to lose all honour and vengeance will be pursued with a godlike fury. King Gorm’s betrayal of Jarl Harald is complete – the jarl is defeated in sea battle, tricked in parley, his people slain in their village or enslaved. Harald’s youngest son Sigurd, survives with his father’s brother in arms, Olaf, the fearful Asgot the godi and Sigurd’s boyhood friend, Svein. Their mission is simple, to rescue Sigurd’s sister and to wreak vengeance on Gorm. Sigurd must prove himself. He must find his small band a ship worthy of their quest. He must prove godly favour through ritual and magic and he must win new followers to join his men. This is a glorious novel, unapologetically violent, fabulously celebratory of all things Viking. Sigurd’s quest for vengeance is exciting, brutal, bloody and driven.
Kate Atherton is an acclaimed book blogger with an expertise in historical fiction.