The Siege – Agent of Rome – is screenwriter Nick Brown’s first foray into novel writing; the two are surprisingly different disciplines, but Brown has crossed the divide with some aplomb.
Cassius Corbulo is a young officer whose well-connected family have landed him a commission in the Emperor’s secret service – one of the corn-men (frumentarii) as they were known. He’s despatched to Palmyra during Queen Zenobia’s revolt and receives orders to take command of the fort of Alauran.
The fort must be defended at all costs as it contains a well and supplies that could be used by the Palmyrans and enable them to strike deep into Roman territory.
Sadly for Cassius, the soldiers of Alauran are hardly the best of the best and are outshone by their Syrian auxiliaries in almost every department. Young and with a touch of arrogance about him, Cassius is still a little unsure of himself and is faced with the daunting task of whipping his men into shape and, crucially, gaining their respect.
The Siege, then, does what it says on the tin, a boy’s own adventure about a band of plucky defenders holding their own against superior forces in a far-flung (yet strategically important) outpost. It’s an exciting read, very fast paced with some characterisation sacrificed on the altar of action. And in this type of novel, there’s nothing wrong with that – you’re not reading The Siege for a deep study of the Roman psyche (and if you are, pay more attention to the blurb on the back next time).
That’s not to say that the characters are bland in any way, shape or form, but in my view they’re stock for the most part – necessarily so, I think. We can’t spend too long dwelling on the motivations of all and sundry in this type of story and I think any such delving would make the novel feel unbalanced and clumsy.
So – a thoroughly enjoyable read; I believe that Cassius’s further adventures will be somewhat different. This book feels very much like a first act and the experiences the hero has are designed to steel him for later tests. Establishing him as arrogant, cool under pressure, able to make the hard decisions will, I think, be called into play in later stories. Bear in mind, the novel is subtitled “Agent of Rome,” so I’d expect more cloak and dagger in future works - The Siege really seems to function as Cassius’s “Casino Royale.”
And I think that Cassius needs to take this direction. The problem that any author has when writing straight Roman military fiction today is that we’re in a bit of a Golden Age. Tony Riches, Ben Kane, Simon Scarrow, Harry Sidebottom – these are all masters of this particular craft, so a new kid on the block is going to have to be pretty impressive to get a look in.
Which is unfair, but that’s how its – comparisons are going to be made and with the best will in the world, Nick is not yet in the aforementioned authors league.
“Yet” being the key word in that statement: clearly Nick Brown has the craft of storytelling at his fingertips – as mentioned, The Siege is a fast-paced and satisfying read. But it doesn’t offer aficionado’s of the genre anything new – and with the hugely daunting competition out there, I think that needs to be taken into consideration.