5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 6 June 2012
This book stands very well on its own even if you have not yet read the Boudica series, although some of the characters are developed from the earlier work. Pantera is a former spy, re-engaged by the Emperor Nero to track down the source and meaning of a mysterious prophecy about the burning of Rome, which he is desperate to prevent. Pantera, who has no desire to be involved in such intrigues, does so out of a sudden attachment to 10 year old Math, son of the warrior Caradog, although reduced to thieving and whoring at the start of this work. Math seems to inspire love in others too. There is a healer of Jewish descent called Hannah who also loves him, and Nero falls for him as soon as he sees him, although that appears as much lust as love.
This tangled and somewhat dark beginning opens up into a spy thriller which takes as key players most of the key historical figures of the period. Nero, of course, but also Seneca and Saint Paul/Saul of Tarsus (here called Saulos) as well as the British warrior Caradog (Caratacus) and others, bringing together a broad sweep of the Roman Empire. Potentially epic in its scope, the story nevertheless reads nicely as a spy thriller and kept me engaged throughout. Where sometimes character development seemed a little terse in this work that was largely because those characters had already grown through the earlier series.
Strengths of the novel are Manda Scott's attention to setting and other small details. This was a well researched Roman novel without some of the obvious problems that spoil other works in the same genre.
However the novel was not perfect. The plot kept me engaged but at times perhaps could have been faster, and the intrigue was not as original and unexpected as I would have liked. Also the decision to identify Judas the Galilean with Jesus (thus ripping him out of the correct historical timeframe to no great advantage) and to make Saint Paul a murderous villain seemed to me to be a step to far, and made the book remind me of some Dan Brown nonsense. No one who knows anything about the historical Saint Paul could have identified that man (whatever your view of him) with the TV spy villain of this book.
But that comparison with Dan Brown is unfair. Manda Scott's work is clever, and not as formulaic as Brown's, and although her chapters are short, they are not the "attention deficit disorder" length of Dan Brown's snippets. The story is more satisfying, better told, and much better researched.
I do have a major problem with the research though. Manda Scott says at the end of her book that she got the idea for the plot from a TV documentary suggesting a Christian sect had indeed set the great fire of Rome (in fact Rome had many fires - the city was an overpacked tinderbox). She then states that in research she discovered this TV Programme was wrong - that no such sects existed at the time.
But instead of abandoning the idea she makes the gentile branch of the early Christian church culpable instead. She bases this on two books she has read: the Mythmakers and one by Robert Eisenman. She is convinced by Eisenman's theories, but sadly she is all but alone in that as these have been thoroughly refuted by Pauline scholars, whom she has not apparently read.
So what if it makes a good story though? And so I still liked this book. It was a grand and enjoyable fictional adventure. Nevertheless to base it on the outlandish theories of a couple of books is again something that inspires an unfortunate comparison with Dan Brown - almost an attempt to stir up controversy to boost sales. Who would have thought it? The Saulos of this book is unrecognisable from the author of books such as Galatians and 1 Corinthians, and a better story may have created a truly original villain instead of this one.
I did like the take on Nero, mind. We know that our sources about the emperors were coloured by the later views of them, and having him less mad and more honourable than the source accounts could well have some historical truth about it... or maybe not. But in any case it is fiction and it worked nicely here.
8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on 5 July 2012
The Rome series (a general series note to give you an idea of my impression of Manda's writing and this series in particular.) All good historical fiction is written in an absorbing fashion, such that the reader enjoys every turn of the page. Often, an embellishment is added - just a word, a speech, a turn of phrase, even a physical description - that is so well-written and gorgeous in its own right, that it makes the whole novel. The Rome books in particular, and Manda's writing in general, takes that embellishment and stretches it to cover the whole book. The entire tale is an embellishment. The whole of every one of the Rome books I've read is so beautifully constructed, finely crafted and gracefully, magnificently worded, that the whole book is one long triumph of the writer's art.
Rome: The Emperor's Spy is a complex tale, drawing together a number of apparently disparate threads into one story so deep and important that it's simply impossible not to be impressed. The cover tells the reader that a prophecy predicts that Rome will burn and that Nero (an oft 2-dimensional character in Literature) will set the hero to preventing it.
Therein lies the obvious problem: anyone who is going to read this book likely knows enough of the history to know how the book is likely to end (Rome in flames). On first inspection, it's a pointless tale. Only it isn't. I try not to give spoilers in my reviews but the upshot (plot-wise) with this book is not the characters trying to stop an event that we all know is going to happen, but the things that lead to that event, that lead to the characters reaching that event, and what effects the event has upon them. A chariot racing driver with scars and deadly secrets, a young sneak-thief and horse tender, an Imperial spy with a history among both Jews and Britons, a woman from Alexandria with the most exotic secret of all. How these people fit into a plot with an apparently forewritten ending is stunning.
The Emperor's spy is a tale of the sharpest, cleverest of men of the era following an ancient Sibylline prophecy and, two of them respectively trying to bring it about or to prevent it. The prophecy tells us that Rome will burn at a specific time, and that this will in turn bring about the destruction of Jerusalem. Can mere mortal men and women (for all their knowledge and skills) prevent such a thing?
Manda builds a plausible alternative to the acknowledged historical events that lead up to the great fire of Rome. Her story does not shy from a new and innovative treatment of a certain famous/infamous sect that was blamed in records for the fire. Her characters are as diverse as any I have discovered in any tale, drawing from the druidic culture of Boudiccan Britain, through the Sibylline oracles, the exotic (if mean) streets of Alexandria, the hotbed of trouble that is Neronian Judea, and the greatest city in the world: Rome itself. Gradually, as the story opens up, the reader is exposed to new and astounding secrets and truths, and each one comes as a greater surprise than the previous, often to the characters involved as much as to the reader.
The settings are evocative and breathtaking, the people wicked, ironic, deep, emotive, brave and so much more, and the story so beautifully woven that it defies simple explanation. Pantera himself is a particularly complex, clever and intricate character.
As the story draws to a close it makes the reader want to read more, and it is exceedingly lucky for us all that Manda has since written two more Rome novels.
11 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on 3 June 2011
After the Boudica series we have had quite a lengthy hiatus from M C Scott until the arrival of `Rome: The Emperor's Spy'. What was particularly noticeable for me on beginning this book was the complete change of format. The rich magic and symbolism of the earlier books are now largely absent and have instead been replaced with a more direct dialogue. To be fair, that is probably a reflection of the earlier setting in the unknown and wild lands of Britain and the later setting in the more `civilised' regions of the Roman Empire. It was however, an immediate sign that this book was going to be different from its predecessors.
I can say with some certainty that this is a book which requires commitment, concentration and patience. It can basically be described as a spy thriller in which several interlocking strands of conspiracy, secrets and subterfuge and woven together in order to create a climactic conclusion to the book. I found that it was extremely slow to get going and also had to maintain a high level of concentration throughout, so that I didn't have to go back and re-read various pages. Quite often, an awful lot happens in very short spaces of time and if you don't stay on top, the book can become confusing as several sub-characters with their own agendas begin to blur and merge.
The author has an exceptional ability to write descriptively, for example, her insightful descriptions of everything to do with chariot racing. Yet it was the amount of time she chose to describe such scenes that often became quite tiresome. I'm not a horse racing fan like Ajax or Nero, but there were many and quite lengthy scenes which were monopolised by the subject. Yes it highlights the depth of research and a devoted attention to detail, but does it reflect what the majority of people expect from a Roman historical thriller? I'm not so sure.
The characters themselves were another issue. It took such a long time for me to become associated with them and establish a connection, that I had almost reached the end of the book. Additionally, Pantera and Ajax often appeared to be mirror images of each other as did Seneca and Shimon and Hannah and Hypatia. A little more character diversification as we have already had in the earlier Boudica series would have supplemented this lengthy read enormously.
Then bizarrely at the end of the book, in the `Author's Note' or as it appeared to me the `Author's Essay'; M C Scott attempts to take on and disprove the Christian faith or `Christian myth' as she puts it, with a list of assumptions and statements relating to Jesus which appear to support her own stance on Christianity. I fully expect an author to state why they have chosen to write their book, what sources they have used, how they may have twisted the record to make a better story etc, but I have seldom seen such a passionate and personal author's note at the end of an historical fictional novel. If the author wishes to write a book which attempts to remove Jesus as the founder of Christianity as we know it, then it should be in a separate book devoted to the subject and not at the very end of a novel. It was a little too much.
So in conclusion, this was a book which was badly let down by poor characterisation and overly lengthy scenes which allowed the mind to wander and often interrupted the book's flow. I would probably buy the author's next book, but I would love to see a return to the magic and brilliance of the earlier Boudica series.
8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on 25 June 2013
One of the worst books I have read, but a lot of people seem very positive. Therefore if you are a fan of the author's previous work, you will most likely enjoy this. If you like Bernard Cornwell, Robert Harris etc. then I strongly recommend that you avoid this book. Dull plot that really drags on even though it is pretty obvious to the reader what will happen. The hero is one of those cliched characters who seems to have amazing skill at his trade, but so much so that one cannot believe in it. For example, riding a boat into a harbour he spots a young boy fishing on the other side of the harbour, who he identifies as a spy because the boy smells of horse urine. I would say that would be impossible in an empty harbour, let alone a busy Roman harbour where there would be hundreds of competing smells. As the hero is so amazingly good, the action fails to generate much sense of tension, since it is obvious he is unbeatable.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 4 March 2015
I ‘won’ a signed copy of Rome on The Review blog page but, having so much else to do, I have only just got round to reading it. It is not my favourite era and I was surprised I enjoyed it so much. The author presents a clear picture and such a vivid atmosphere of ancient Rome that I was quickly drawn in, and couldn’t wait to get back to it of an evening. The characters are all distinctive and well-drawn, particularly Pantera, a spy for the Emperor Nero, whose job it is to discover who is planning the burning of Rome.
For me, once I got into the story and obsessed with reaching a resolution there was a little too much description that got in the way of the action.
Over-all, an excellent book. Well written, well-paced and convincing. M. C. Scott is a new author to me but I will look out for her work from now on.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 12 December 2012
I thought nothing could top Manda Scott's brilliant Boudicca series but her "Rome" series is not only on a par with them, it gives a new dimension to the story. Manda Scott is, for me, probably the best historical novelist of the day, writing beautifully-crafted stories which you don't want to put down whilst also cramming them full of historical information and knowledgeable theories to fill in any gaps. I have also been known to start again at the beginning so as not to lose the feeling of being transported to a very different time with people you almost feel you know. I highly commend both the Rome and Boudicca series to anyone who has an interest in Romano-British history. [[ASIN:0553817671 Rome: The Emperor's Spy: Rome 1
10 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on 2 July 2011
Have to admit, this is one of the rare books I gave up on. M C Scott is also Manda Scott, writer of the half-decent Boudicca books.
Here, however, she tries to re-invent herself as MC Scott ( not quite sure why ) and this tale of a Roman 'super-spy' during Emperor Nero's reign is the result.
I found it far too ordinary, and had far too much unnecessary details when trying to show how "super-human" her super-spy is.
The plot appears to be about a prophetic scroll that gives the date of when Rome will burn , and a Jewish rebellion will occur, although it is subsumed under details of daily life with a chariot-race team ( at least as far as I managed - Alexandria was where i left it ).
It could be good, but for me is continually sluggish, and was getting nowhere fast. I tried twice to re-invigorate my interest in it, but when I tell you that a history of chess in the Cold War reads better and has more interest, I think you understand why I gave it the boot.
I now remember that I didn't actually read the third book of Manda Scott's Boudicca trilogy, as the second was nowhere as good as the first. There's a lesson there !
on 6 July 2015
A different angle on the plethora of Rome based historic fiction novels - not so focused on the battles, more about the behind the scenes goings on - interesting characters - an easy but very good read
4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 5 March 2011
I discovered M. C. Scott when I read one of the books in her Boudica series and found myself immediately hooked. She's one of those authors who delivers every time and leaves you feeling sad when you get to the end of the book because you have been so engrossed in the world she portrays. I read them really quickly because they're hard to put down but have to slow myself down towards the end so that it doesn't end too soon.
In 'Rome: The Emperor's Spy' we get a little bit of everything; intrigue, suspense, love, loyalty and passion. We follow the story of Sebastos Pantera, the son of a Roman soldier who works as a spy. He has been asked by Nero to investigate the prophecy that tells of Rome being burnt to the ground and to stop it coming to fruition.
As ever in her books we are introduced to many varied and interesting characters, some of whom will be familiar to readers of the Boudica series, although anybody who has yet to read the others wont be at a disadvantage. Scott writes her characters in such a way that makes the reader care about what happens to them, even the less likeable ones. Her male characters have depth and vulnerability and one of the things I love about Scott's writing is the way she portrays her female characters. Quite often in historical novels the women are just bystanders, or emotionally/physically weak but not in these books.
Apart from the fascinating view of day to day life during the times we are reading about, there are also some beautifully written insights into the different relationships that occur both between characters of the opposite sex and of the same sex.
We're offered an alternative view of the story of St. Paul and also of Nero and I came away from the book wanting to know more.
Scott is a really good story teller and I look forward to reading more. I originally borrowed this book from the library but then had to buy it as, like with her other books, it's the kind of book that can be read over and over with the reader getting something more from it each time.
10 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on 14 February 2012
I struggled with this book 'till about halfway through, then asked myself why I was wasting my time. It takes too many liberties with history to be a historical novel; it's too slow-paced to be a thriller. Just what is it supposed to be? If you want to know all about chariot racing, you might find it interesting. I didn't and the long, turgid passages about it bored me rigid.