The Imperial Banner (Agent of Rome) by Nick Brown

Book Review by Alex Johnston

First things first. Great cover – it made me want to go eat a pound of raw meat, grab a sword, and challenge somebody to a fight in the arena. Given my levels of health, physical prowess, and fearlessness, none of the above would be a good idea, especially if my opponent was over six years old. (“Face me in the arena, you cowardly cur, and you won’t live to see the second grade!”) But I can take solace in the fact that the book’s main character, Cassius Quintius Corbulo, isn’t much of a fighter either. He’s smart, though, and that intelligence, combined with the fierce devotion of his Christian slave Simo, and the muscle and fighting skill of his bodyguard, Indavara, makes him a force to be reckoned with.

And about that bodyguard – the book starts out with his “retirement” as a gladiator, having been promised his freedom after twenty victories in the arena. No easy feat, as his owner, Capito, has bet large sums on the opposite outcome occurring in game twenty. Doesn’t he know that owners of sports franchises get in trouble for doing that sort of thing? Anyway, the bastard rigs it. Nick Brown does a fantastic job of portraying the scene in the arena in great detail – all of the props, players, and predicaments. Our hero (and he is that, even if not the main character) falls into a particularly beloved category – he’s a fierce killer, but because he has lived a sheltered life of being whipped, stabbed, and otherwise intruded upon, he’s also kind of awkward in his personal interactions. Sort of like Helena in Orphan Black.

I’ve not read previous books in the series, so it took me a little while to get a feel for the main character, Cassius Quintius Corbulo. He’s young and smart, and kind of a lovable prick. I never really doubted that he’d do the right thing in any given situation, at least eventually, but I can’t really say that I’d like to hang with him. He’s a little short on the warm and fuzzies. That’s the great thing about books, though. You can choose the nature of your association, and I really enjoyed accompanying him on his investigations.

Investigations – so he’s a Roman detective, certainly not a rarity in historical fiction. Not a problem for me – I really enjoy that character type, as portrayed by Steven Saylor and others. But Corbulo’s different in a way that I found quite interesting. He’s an amateur – a reluctant soldier/bureaucrat doing his time until his tour of duty is up. But higher ups have noticed his intelligence in previous adventures, and he’s pressed into investigative work. I found Nick Brown’s portrayal of his investigative process and prowess fascinating – he kind of rambles and shambles along, following leads with insight and intelligence, but without the professional elan of a Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe or Gordianus. More like the way an intelligent lay person would go about it. So the reader is left guessing where things are headed, which I really enjoyed.

I liked this book a lot. Nick Brown takes us on a tour of Syria in the mid third century C.E., and what a tour it is! Mystery cults, soldiers, conmen, thieves, Christians, one-percenters and on and on. Gloomy prisons and dead bodies in muck coexist with taverns and glittering parties in mansions. If it isn’t too cliché to say, I felt like I was there. If it is too cliché to say, I still felt like I was there. These characters and locales are not only well portrayed and developed – the relationships among them all are finely fleshed out. You know, I have to say, I felt like, well, like I was….

The book’s subtitle is “Dark Forces Threaten a Fragile Peace.” The “fragile peace” refers to a peace treaty being negotiated between Rome and Persia, in the middle of the third century C.E. I enjoyed learning more about the history of that time and place, which is one of the reasons we all love historical fiction, isn’t it? A key component of the treaty was the return to Persia of its imperial standard, Faridun’s Banner. That relic, sacred to the Persians, had been captured and held by the Palmyrans for the previous ten years, and the Romans had acquired it after giving said Palmyrans a solid ass-whuppin’. The handover was to occur in less than a month, and wouldn’t you know – the damn thing goes missing. This is not good, and Corbulo needs to find it and get it back, like pronto. That’s the plot, but there are intriguing subplots – Christian persecution, betrayals, and other things that I’m glad nobody spilled to me before I read the book, so I’ll just shut up now.

Oh – one other thing. Nick Brown does the word “fragile” in his subtitle proud. He does a superb job of conveying the tension and unease permeating the region in the aftermath of Aurelian’s defeat of Queen Zenobia. This made the mood and place seem very real, and also made the book difficult to put down. Did I mention that I felt like I was there? Gotta go – I need to run and buy the other books in the series.

Alex Johnston is the author of several fiction books about Marcus Mettius, a minor character in Julius Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic War.

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