The Wolf's Gold: Empire V (Empire series) Hardcover – 25 Oct 2012
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This is fast-paced and gripping "read-through-the-night" fiction, with marvellous characters and occasional moments of dark humour. Some authors are better historians than they are storytellers. Anthony Riches is brilliant at both. (Conn Iggulden)
A damn fine read . . . fast-paced, action-packed. (Ben Kane)
Stands head and shoulders above a crowded field . . . . real, live characters act out their battles on the northern borders with an accuracy of detail and depth of raw emotion that is a rare combination. (Manda Scott)
'Muscular in prose and approach, the novel is riveting and direct.' (History Today on THE LEOPARD SWORD)
'This is a fast-paced, action-packed read. Anthony Riches brings alive the harsh reality of the Roman world - the period, people, and culture - in a frenetic and exciting novel which is well researched and tinged with humour. The battle scenes are vivid and expertly told . . . Difficult to put down, this is a welcome addition to the genre . . . Recommended' (Historical Novels Review on THE LEOPARD SWORD)
The fifth book in the Empire sequence (following The Leopard Sword) takes centurion Marcus to Dacia, to save the empire's best gold mines from an unexpected enemy. Praised by authors as varied as Conn Igguleden, Ben Kane and Manda Scott, Empire is set in the 180s against the background of the Roman Empire in a time of unrest.See all Product description
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The first quality is that this book can be read on its own, just like The Leopard Sword, because it contains enough elements to inform the reader about most of the important developments that happened in the previous episodes. This is probably worth mentioning because it is not that frequent in series. It is, however, preferable to read the volumes one after the other.
Another "usual" ingredient found in Anthony Riches is the "barrack-speech" style and bantering that he uses (and sometimes perhaps over-uses) for his various Roman auxiliary heroes. In this respect, he is a bit of an "anti-Sidebottom". The latter will "treat" you to your lesson in Latin and Greek culture, with quotations of the classics liberally spread across the book. The former will treat you with the swearing, crude jokes and multiple biological and sexual references (all in modern English) that you can probably find among troopers in army around the world, both now and then. Regardless of your personal preferences, both devices are intended to engage the reader and make the story "feel" real. Both styles work rather well, as far as I am concerned, although, for both authors, there is always the risk of over-doing it and this can sometimes happen.
A related point is that whole story is largely built around dialogues, descriptions of places and battles and fights. The dialogues are frequently used to tell the reader what has happened in a more lively way, with the added benefit of making the story more "faced-paced" and also giving the reader the impression that the book is "action-packed". Another of Riches' devices that he typically uses to make the story feel and sound "real" is the interesting mixture he introduces with plots and intrigues, "workplace" rivalries between two senior officers coming from different backgrounds, arrogance and incompetence and the whole spectrum of feelings and behaviours that a reader somewhat expects to find in any human organization.
Then you have the historical research that backs up each of his books, including this one. While this might be less obvious than in Sidebottom's books, where it is very much on display (at the risk of annoying some readers), it is very much present. There were, for instance, very rich and productive gold mines in Dacia, as this was probably one of the main reasons for the Romans to attack and conquer the Dacian Kingdom in the first place, although this could make the border strategically more difficult to defend. There were also rivalries and tensions between Roman officers, especially between the professional centurions, prefects and equestrian tribunes on the one hand, and the amateur large stripe Tribunes and Legates who still came from the senatorial order at the time. At least initially, and despite holding the highest ranks, the amateurs from the senatorial class were at an obvious disadvantage. If they were intelligent and wanted to become competent, then they had to listen to, gain the respect of and become accepted by the professional officers and the men. One of the quickest ways to start doing so was to be seen as sharing the same fate and sufferings as them. For instance, that could mean marching with them on foot (at least part of the time) instead of riding on horseback as they were entitled to. This - the need for any officer to be accepted and respected by the men he commands - is also something that has not changed very much with modern armies.
Another of Riches' little twists in a similar vein is the song that the Auxiliary Tungrian cohorts are made to sing about the cavalry and what they do to their horses. Superficially, a reader may find it amusingly coarse, although this might be somehow missing the main point and purpose of "the exercise". The real reason is to keep the men from thinking about their sufferings and exhaustion so that they can cover the last few miles without giving up, therefore saving the men's lives and keeping the unit together. This kind of technique is still used nowadays, as the author seems to know very well.
The reign of Commodus (180-192) was also a reign of terror, as depicted in the book, and in which any senatorial family and any rich family more generally, could become the Emperor's target and/or the target of his henchmen. This was not new. It happened a number of times before under the reigns of Tiberius, with Sejanus in particular, and under Caligula and Nero. The practice went way back, with the proscriptions of Sylla under the Republic being an example. One of the motivations was to get hold of their wealth. Another one was to physically eliminate anyone who potentially could become the focus of an opposition. A third was to confiscate the assets of the wealthiest, possibly on trumped up charges of treason, and to redistribute them to your own henchmen and supporters. The three motivations were closely linked.
Another interesting feature in this volume is Riches' use of a technique we already saw hikm using in "the Leopard Sword" (and in previous volumes). While Marcus Aquila is still very much the hero of the story, he gets to share the "main role" in this episode with Scaurus. We learn quite a bit about the past of the latter character, his connection with a rather powerful general who we will certainly come across again and his ability at playing the politico-military game. In the previous episode, the "co-hero" was rather Frontius.
Finally, there are the "barbarians". Here again, there is more to it than meets the eye. What looks and feels like a bit of caricature at times ("good Romans versus bad Barbarians") is quite a bit more subtle once you scratch below the surface. Riches is in fact showing us the perspective and the biases of the Roman side. There are some notional "good Barbarians" (for instance the Tungrians and the cohorts of Britons) and these are the ones that fight alongside the Romans as allies or auxiliaries, essentially do as they are told and are likely, within time, to become entirely assimilated by the Empire. The others are, of course, the "bad barbarians", because they essentially refuse the Roman order and raid the Empire. The book also shows that, in practice, things tended to be rather more complicated and people could change sides, although I will stop there to avoid spoilers. One last comment is about the Sarmatians. Once again, Anthony Riches historical note is rather excellent and he is perfectly correct in alluding to the fact that the Sarmatians gave the Romans a very good run for their money. Their combination of heavy lance cavalry and horse archers was particularly dreaded by the Roman army and they would represent a major threat for the Romans for at least another two centuries after the events taking place in this book.
I've done reviews of the others so far, and I would reference them in this review. The first three in the series I always considered very much a single story arc over three books. Moreover, they were staunchly and solidly novels of the Roman military.
Cue Tony's curveball: The Leopard Sword. The fourth book in the series was something of a departure in style, concentrating more on an ingenious plotline of intrigues and banditry than on the military campaigns we'd come to expect. Having read reviews and spoken to people since, I'm not sure how well-received the change was. I personally thought it was a triumph and a real growth in character, style and plot crafting.
Well The Wolf's Gold should be an all-pleaser as far as I can see. In one way, it's very much a return to a military-oriented plotline, with stretches of good solid campaigning in there, which should please the die-hard 'Military Riches' fans, and yet also involves a depth, ingenuity and intricacy of plot that has been born - in my opinion - from the style of Leopard Sword.
The plot to this masterpiece moves us once more. The first three books had us in Northern Britannia, and the fourth shifted the action to the forests of Germany, while in this one, the poor beleaguered Tungrian cohorts are sent to Dacia (modern Romania) into the Carpathian mountains to provide defence for the gold mines that are essential for imperial revenue. It is here that they will meet a number of interesting and often dubious characters and fall foul of plots and tricks that will once again have them fighting for their lives and have centurion Corvus creating crazy plans that have little chance of success.
As always with Tony's writing, he sacrifices just the tiniest modicum of uptight concern for anachronistic idiom (something more authors could do with trying) in favour of something that feels realistic and appropriate to the reader and creates a flow of text that's never interrupted.
And that's a big part of this book. From the very start it races away and takes the reader with it. The flow is just too easy to read and hard to put down. As usual there is a humour among the soldiers that borders on the tasteless at times, and feels thoroughly authenic (and also happens to make me laugh out loud) combined with a brutal combative narrative that pulls no punches and coats the reader with gore, all overlaid with a few saddening scenes and thoughts.
From the might of Sarmatian hordes and their perfidious nobles to the treachery of self-serving mine owners, the untrustworthiness of border troops, the mindless buffoonery of the upper class legionary Tribunes, the madness of battles on ice, and the heart-pounding stealthy infiltrations of installations by a few good men, Wolf's Gold should win on many levels and certainly does with me.
Moreover, this novel sees a significant advance in the overall arc of Corvus' history, his murdered family and the imperial intrigues that accompany it.
As a last aside, Tony is one of few writers of Roman fiction who rarely feels the need to name-drop, his characters almost always fictional and self-created, which I find refreshing and even when he does so, it is fascinating. In this case we are introduced to not one, but two, future attempted usurpers of Imperial power.
All in all, Wolf's Gold is a storming read, and Riches' best yet. I cannot wait to see what is going to follow in book 6 following the events of this.
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