The second in the series follows the legions of Claudius from their beachhead near Rutupiae to the battles on the Medway, Thames and before Camulodunum (Colchester). It moves at a great pace making use of several plot threads to keep tension high. As before, the main characters, Cato and Centurion Macro, unify all the threads from the terror and exultation of battle through the politics of military strategy to the machinations of conspiracy.
Scarrow does battles extremely well, if always at the service of plot. Confusion never lasts long; the reader always knows what part the detail plays in the whole picture. The fight is not clean, but it is clear, and Scarrow is able to draw out the action so that every battle has its own arc and could be extracted and read for itself.
Cato is seen to grow in this book. The action in the first was dominated by his need to prove himself; here, though his part is often heroic, he must also come to terms with helplessness and the aftermath of slaughter. His infatuation with the slavegirl, Lavinia, continues and plays a part in the machinations of Vitellius to assassinate the Emperor. Cato is decisive at the denouement of this conspiracy, but Scarrow does not allow him to take the hero's palm - a sign that the book is a little more than a boys' own adventure.
There is, as well, another point of view for Cato to understand and absorb: that of the conquered. Nisus is a surgeon and from North Africa, not only Carthaginian but a direct descendent of Hannibal! He voices the opinion that some might not be grateful for the benefits of Roman civilisation, that they might have been happier as they were. We're not told what Cato makes of this, and Nisus is soon involved in grand conspiracy. It is not clear if the seditious sentiments he uttered were merely a ploy by the author to justify the character's eventual treachery, or if they portend an important theme for the other books. I was a little surprised by the inclusion of these thoughts; they interrupted the flow of the narrative in what might have been an interesting way.
The prose does not hold you up. Nouns have immediate call on their tabloid adjective: "crush the enemy in an iron vice; deadly efficiency; an icy dread; bleak despair; the ruthless efficiency of vigorous training; the grim reality of their predicament". At times he feels the need to make use of every note taken during research - as a boat moors, who throws every rope to whom for it to be tied to every mooring post. However, these are small faults in a fast-moving narrative set in an exotic Britain.