The author’s biographical blurb informs the reader that Anthony Riches holds a Degree in Military Studies from Manchester University and this, his first novel, arose from a visit to Housesteads Roman fort in 1996.
The basic story line involves his hero being sent to Britain immediately prior to both the murder of his family in Rome at the orders of the, newly sole, Emperor Commodus and an incipient rebellion by the native population. There are all the usual ingredients with agents of his enemies in Rome hunting for him and friends of his family acting to keep him hidden from discovery all in a teeth of a gathering storm which could sweep the Romans from Britain for ever. As the blurb says:
“Marcus Valerius Aquila has scarcely landed in Britannia when he has to run for his life – condemned to dishonourable death by power-crazed Emperor Commodus. Desperate the Praetorian Guard officer agrees to take a new name, serve in an obscure regiment on Hadrian’s Wall and lie low until he can hope for justice…”
The author’s interest in the military psyche is apparent in how he writes, the story relates quite a realistic image of military men and how they might think and react in any period from history both on and off duty. This realism appropriately extends to some gory detail of both injuries and death in the period. There are several of the relatively minor ‘faults’ you might expect from a new author including; the preface and the first chapter having subheadings with dates but none in the rest of the book which although forgivable leaves a question whether it was intentional or not.
What is less forgivable are a few elementary errors in Roman military details; despite his hero’s unit being auxiliaries the descriptions of their weapons and style of fighting arms them with the gladii of legionaries rather than the spartha of auxiliaries and cavalry. While there is known to have been movement at centurion level and above between the auxiliaries and the legions other elements of the storyline also blur distinctions between the ‘citizen’ legionaries and the ‘non-citizen’ auxiliaries. How secret could his ‘secret’ identity remain from his enemies in Rome the way everyone he comes in contact with seems to soon find out who he really is or at the very least that he is living under an assumed name?
I also wonder at his love interest being not just the wife of another unit’s commander but also acting as its doctor in a period where the female role was more usually to run the matrimonial home and any trained doctor let alone a female doctor were apparently few and far between in Rome let alone at the back end of the empire.
As I’ve indicated there are a few problems or at least minor niggles with this book. Against that there are some very good points, including those showing a wealth of research in areas not usually considered by new authors. Within the context of how the story is written I can accept a lot of his reasoning ‘explaining’ some of the inconsistencies noted above.
In addition I have seen complaints in one or two reviews about the maps included in the book and at first also thought the names which had been used for the locations of forts along Hadrian’s Wall were strange. They were not the familiar English or Latin litany such as Vindolanda, Arbeia, Chesters and Housesteads. However a quick check at www.roman-britain.org proved that most of the fort names used in the map are actually an Anglicised equivalent of the original Latin names.
I also have to admit that ultimately I did not find the occasional inconsistency or modern idiom too distracting and thoroughly enjoyed reading the book from start to finish in the shortest time I have a new novel for several years. Riches’s characters and several key elements of his storyline may not have their origins in any written history I know about but I found myself enjoying reading the build up to the climactic battle at the end of the book and wanting to read more. A second book, in what is apparently intended as a trilogy, has already been published in hardback and I will be looking out for it.
My advice is that if you can ignore the somewhat realistic gore and the occasional historical inaccuracy this is actually quite a good read and well worth a look if you wish something in the military line which has some of the ‘taste’ of Rome about it.
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