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Customer Review

16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fortress of Spears, 29 April 2011
This review is from: Fortress of Spears: Empire III (Empire series) (Hardcover)
"Fortress of Spears" marks the third outing for Antony Riches' erstwhile hero, Marcus Aquila - aka Centurion Corvus - of the 2nd Tungrian Auxiliaries, set in 2nd Century Roman Britain.

Fresh from the climatic battle of "Arrows of Fury", Riches wastes no time in throwing young Marcus back into the fight and the opening of `Fortress' is a bloody mosaic of shield crunching action. What sets Riches apart from many of his peers is his ability to write the big set-piece piece battle, the one-to-one fight scene or the dirty little skirmish with equal aplomb. Anyone who has read the author's previous two works will know that his brand of action comes with a healthy dose of realism. In Riches' world, war is a stinking, filthy business - and a dangerous one to boot.

Riches is heartless with his readers in this aspect: characters - well loved characters in some cases - are killed. Sometimes with drama, but more often than not, with little ceremony in the prose. Someone falls in battle scene, we're not sure who, only that it's a centurion or a tribune (for instance)... only later do we discover who has died and the impact it has on the men that have lived with, worked with and fought alongside him for long.

For me, this is one of Riches' greatest strength as a writer: his merciless pragmatism about the horror warfare. The reality he brings to these action sequences, the confusion, the fear and indeed the heroism of the men - on both sides - is brought into stark relief in a way I've not read since Pressfield's "Gates of Fire."

All that said, it would be wrong to think that this novel (and the others in the "Empire" sequence) survive on action alone. Each of the characters are well drawn and fully realised. The hunted Marcus Aquila, the indefatigable Dubnus, the grizzled Frontinius and more, each has their own motivations and raison d'etre that go far beyond simple plot mechanics.

In this latest outing, Riches throws some new faces into the mix, the nominal villains Rapax and Tiberius Varius Excingus. I say nominal, because in Riches' brutally real Britannia, these men are only serving their emperor and doing what it takes to get their job done.

In this case, their job is to hunt down and kill Marcus Aquila. And they're fully prepared to do what it takes to get it done.

It's rare that so much care is lavished over the antagonists, and I can't help but think that the author was particularly gleeful in his execution of these two `frumentarii' (translated literally as `corn collectors' but this was a nom de voyage for the emperor's secret service). Rapax and Excingus blaze a bloody and ruthless trail through Britannia, using every advantage available to them to bring their quarry down - up to and including the kidnapping of his pregnant wife-to-be. Nice guys these are not, but as depicted by Riches, you understand why they do what they do. Except, perhaps, these chaps enjoy their jobs a little too much for you warm to them!

The plot of Fortress of Spears is multi-faceted, taking us with Marcus on his journey to the titular stronghold, the quest of the frumentarii to bring him down, the newly made Centurion Dubnus and his mission to retrain a failed squad into effective soldiers and much more besides. By focusing on the auxillaries rather than the legions, Riches affords himself - and us - a broader range of military action than would otherwise be feasible. Anyone that has read the first two novels in the series will realise that Riches is taking us through the various arms of the Roman military. "Wounds of Honour" is primarily an infantry novel, "Arrows of Fury" focuses on the archers and here, in "Fortress of Spears" we get a grunt's eye view of the cavalry unequalled since Breem's "Eagle in the Snow."

I think that with "Fortress of Spears", Riches has come of age. The Empire series as a whole are amongst the finest historical fiction novels I've ever read, but "Fortress of Spears" is the best to date. A good sign, as the author is getting better and better, book by book.

Riches writes with an effortless style but his works are anything but light-touch. Sumptuously researched, action-packed and containing plot lines that twist, turn and surprise, these novels are a must for any reader of historical fiction. No longer a new voice in the genre, Riches is setting a new benchmark in quality for the action-historical.
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Showing 1-1 of 1 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 5 Nov 2011 12:27:34 GMT
Mike Reed says:
A very good write-up Russ. I've read it before, very precise. Mike Reed.
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