Set in the late 2nd century AD, three Empire novels have followed the dangerous and thrilling path of Marcus Valerius Aquila, a man on the run, as he fought for victory by Hadrian's Wall against the northern tribes and manoeuvred himself into the loyalties and affections of his fellow centurions and soldiers. We have met infantrymen, cavalry and bowmen, a succession of different forces from across the empire, all gathered to keep the northernmost tip of the empire secure while, as the emperor Commodus' corruption becomes ever more apparent, gaining another more secret mission of keeping Marcus safe from the tyranny that has wiped out his entire family and, since then, good friends.
But Roman Britain is no longer safe for Marcus. The deadly reach of Commodus now stretches even to this remote border of the empire. Marcus is in disguise as centurion Marcus Tribulus Corvus of the second Tungrian auxiliary cohort but his success in that role (winning him the name of Two Knives) has left a blazing trail for Commodus' spies to trace. Marcus and his love Felicia, the army's doctor, may have survived the latest attack on them at Hadrian's Wall but the time has come for Marcus to move on. However, because this is Marcus we're talking about, a centurion beloved of his men and fellow officers, he's not on his own. As The Leopard Sword begins, Marcus leads his auxiliaries back home, to the city of Tungrorum in Germania Inferior, a city depleted by plague and now threatened by a forest of bandits, led by Obduro, a man hidden behind a Roman cavalry mask and armed with a sword that can cut iron blades in two, the Leopard Sword.
The Leopard Sword is different from its predecessors, effectively marking the end of a trilogy and beginning a new phase in Marcus' career and in the story. Leaving Hadrian's Wall behind, Marcus, Felicia, Dubnus, Julius, Arminius, Martos, Scaurus, Qadir and many more figures who will be so familiar to anyone who has enjoyed the previous Empire novels, now find themselves unwelcome in Tungrorum, a city with little morale, an impoverished population and lousy leadership. Matters not helped by the thugs in the woods who steal the city's grain and separate men from their heads.
Aside from the change in location, The Leopard Sword also brings other characters more to the fore, such as the big Tungrian Julius, pushing Marcus a little into the background, as if reflecting the entire cohort's aim of giving Marcus an anonymous security. The emphasis, then, is on the change of scene for our familiar bunch and on its resolution to rid the town of its menace. As evidence of a personal vendetta becomes apparent between Obduro and someone in the Roman camp, an intriguing mystery develops - just who is the man behind the cavalry mask? As in the previous novels, Marcus and the other men all risk their lives repeatedly as matters heat up, the pages race by and the mysteries deepen.
Anthony Riches manages like few others to bring the world of the Roman soldier to life before your eyes. It's not just because of the many small daily details of this hard existence that the books are filled with, it's also because of all the other less tangible aspects of this past time and way of life that are mixed in - the banter, the religious beliefs, the loyalties, the fights, the gambling, the play, the punishments and the betrayals. All of these are here with all their rough edges and their appeal intensified because the men here are drawn from across the known world. We have Romans, Tungrians, Britons, Germans, Hamatians - some in Roman uniform and some in furs. All battle-scarred and here tied together by their loyalty to their cohort, their prefect, their first spear and to Marcus, one of my favourite characters in Roman historical fiction.
The Leopard Sword is a confident, assured novel that takes its time. It allows the new and old characters space to sum one another up while we get used to the streets of Tungrorum. When the time comes and we enter the terrifying woods of Tungria and cross its black rivers, you might want to hold on. This book could not be prised from my hands as events unfolded.
You could read The Leopard Sword without having read the three preceding Empire novels but I would most definitely recommend that, if you don't read them before, you must certainly read them straight afterwards. This review is from a review copy for which I'm grateful!