"Lucius Faenius Felix arrives in Britannia to command the First Nervana, a renowned cohort drawn from the homelands of the fierce Nervii tribe. The soldier has been recently cheated out of his ancestral estates - and is still grieving from the mysterious murder of his father.
Along with Cai Martis, a veteran cavalry Prefect, the young officer uncovers news of a conspiracy. The resurgent Novantae, a ferocious tribe led by the determined war-chief, Barra, aim to put the Romans to the sword and win back the province.
Surrounded and cut off by their enemies, Lucius and Cai must lead their cohort through hostile territory. Conquer or be conquered.
The Romans attempt to send a message through enemy lines.
The First Nervana make a desperate final stand behind the walls of their fort.
Did the message get through? Lucius and Cai know all too well what is at stake. Victory or death."
The reader is plunged straight into the hard life of a Roman solder via a detailed and vivid depiction of military life recognisable to anybody who has served in a modern military unit. Of course, this is not the era of digitally assisted warfare, but the author shows us exactly how effectively the technology and tactics of the time are used by the Roman military. The emphasis on training and discipline, camaraderie, gallows humour and colourful language reinforces the whole narrative.
The character of Lucius matures under battle. The author does not make the error of going from incompetent newbie to battle-hardened hero, but starts his character’s journey at a reasonable level. Lucius is inexperienced, but intelligent and quick-witted by nature – characteristics essential for a young officer posted to a hostile environment. Relationships such as with Cai develop at a natural pace, as does our knowledge of the range of characters. The personal stories of soldiers and civilians, and their emotional engagement, both round out the characters themselves and increase the stakes (and up the tension for the reader!)
Talking of pace, this varies nicely; sometimes ferocious, other times more relaxed giving the reader breathing space, yet still with an underlying anxiety. The plot is inevitable; the tribes will crash down on our heroes. How they deal with it provides much of the tension.
The richness of detail in this story makes it an alluring read. There are few, if any, historical sources describing the Antonine invasion, so any attempted reconstruction would not be easy. Governor Urbicus must have campaigned against the Votadini and the Selgovae of the Scottish Borders region, the Damnonii of Strathclyde and the Novantae of Dumfries and Galloway. All three of the legions of Britain would have taken part (Legio II Augusta based at Caerleon, the Sixth Victrix based at York and the Twentieth Valeria Victrix based at Chester), as they are all mentioned on the inscriptions recording building work along the Antonine Wall. This legionary core was, no doubt, backed up by a substantial contingent of auxiliary units such as the Nervii in this story. The author has filled in the gap in the sources intelligently and confidently.
Overall, it reminded me of Adrian Goldsworthy’s ‘The Fort’ which I very much enjoyed.
On the production side, the cover is just right, conveying the light in the dark of the cohort’s situation and the hardness of their dilemma. Red is always a good choice for Roman historical fiction! Unfortunately, some of the poor punctuation and typographical mistakes in the edition reviewed jarred, e.g. ‘Trubunus’ for ‘Tribunus’ in the first line of the story and incorrect use of apostrophes for plurals or placed singly for plural nouns. A little attention to the formatting, particularly indenting, would also make the story more relaxed to the eye.
However, once these are cleared up, I would heartily recommend this to a reader who is looking for a new author of Roman fiction. A second in the series is on its way, I understand. Excellent! I shall be reading it.
Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds
© Alison Morton