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G. J. Lockhart (Scotland)

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Wounds of Honour (Empire)
Wounds of Honour (Empire)
by Anthony Riches
Edition: Hardcover

8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Surely this isn't a debut novel!, 16 Sep 2009
It is always with a sense of trepidation that one approaches a new author in the field of historical fiction. When it is a genre awash with heavy-hitters like Bernard Cornwell, Conn Iggulden and Wilbur Smith there is always a sense of what is almost sympathy with the newcomer. As a reader you are hoping against hope that this new author will pass muster and be good enough to compete with these long standing names, but you know deep down it is unlikely. You want the novel to be entertaining, captivating and give a real sense of the period. Especially when you consider the various periods that have been covered by the heavyweights of the genre, there are some seriously tough acts to follow.
Fortunately Riches does not disappoint. In fact, the very opposite is true, he has produced a first novel of extreme maturity and worthy of high praise. Set during the reign of Emperor Commodus, the action of this debut novel is based in the contested region around Hadrian's Wall, ever plagued by war. Unruly tribes from the North are counterpointed by the ever present threat of uprising from the Britons living South of the wall. The Roman legions present are having to balance these various dangers as well as the difficulties of defending such a vast area of land with relatively few men.
The main protagonist is a young Roman sent to the end of the Empire, initially to join one of the front line legions. However the carefully woven plot soon pulls young Marcus Valerius Aquila away from his intended path - throwing him unbidden into a tale of conspiracy, murder and greed. Riches manages to succeed in drawing the plots and intrigue of Rome herself across the Empire to disrupt and destroy the lives of both good Romans and the Britons who serve them.
Marcus' character is well supported by the allies he meets along the way, creating for us not only a believable persona but also a core of central `cast' members for whom the reader soon develops real affection, or antipathy depending how Riches weaves the narrative. The confrontation and battle scenes reflect the brutal violence of the age, and succeed in emphasising to us just how short and bloody life in AD 182 could turn out to be. The evident historical knowledge of the period only ever enriches it, and never weighs down the reader's enjoyment.
This is where Wounds of Honour really succeeds. By the mid-point of the book there is a real momentum building up, and I found myself rooting for Marcus and his companions while generating real anger against those that make their best efforts to undermine or kill him. The best way I can communicate just how captivating the novel is would be to recount how the arrival home of my girlfriend passed unnoticed for fifteen minutes by me, knee-deep in the mud and blood of Roman Britain. It was only after a pointed cough and "hello" that I managed to drag myself back to reality.
Whilst this may not be the ideal advert, it certainly exemplifies how enthralling this work of fiction turns out to be. As a reader who has a passion for historic fiction of any era, and has read the Emperor series by Iggulden, I was more than pleasantly surprised at the quality of this newcomer to the scene.
You will not find me levelling any criticism at Riches' work, it would have been easy in the early stages when there is a level of confusion to the plot for Riches to lose the reader, largely due to the similarities between various Roman names and the fast moving nature of the story. However, what some would consider an unavoidable difficulty is skillfully overcome as the twists and turns reveal themselves, breaking any misgivings like barbarians against a shield wall.
So how does one summarise this new entrant into the world of historical fiction? Capable, believable, exciting. Enthralling. Intriguing. Although it is a rarity to pour such praise onto a volume, in the case of Wounds of Honour this reviewer was more than a little impressed. The most significant cause for annoyance is that the second volume in the series is not released until April 2010, leaving me with an awfully long time to wait before I discover where Marcus' tale will travel next. The best things come to those who wait - so I am waiting!
Cornwell, Iggulden, Smith - Beware. There is a new power on the rise.
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