Top critical review
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on 10 December 2013
This is the third book in this series with the same main character(s), the first two being 'Wounds of Honour' and 'Arrows of Fury'. Sadly, I'm getting a bit bored now as the story doesn't seem to be fresh any more and this third book is one long series of violent action sequences. It would be perfectly acceptable to pick this up as your first AR novel and read this as a stand alone book although, as is always the case, the story makes far more sense if you've read the other two books first.
That Anthony Riches knows his period is very clear and the detail of everyday life in a Roman encampment is great. If you are a 'buff' for this sort of thing (and I am) then the structure of this world will be no problem but if you've just dipped into this book for a diversion, then the difference between a spatha and a gladius, a round shield or an oval shield and segmented versus scale armour will pass right past you. More importantly, much of the depth of the book depends upon some knowledge of the politics and military structure of the Roman forces of the period and none of this is explained. For instance, the roles of Legatus, Tribune, Decurion, First Spear etc are important to the context yet, to a fresh reader, will be bewildering. Add to that the politics and social hierarchy between, say, an auxiliary cohort and a regular soldier, upon which much of the base of the plot rests, and it's easy to get lost (how many men make up a 'tent party' (8) and how many are in a legion (88)). I think that, on some previous novels, a glossary of this structure has been provided and that is so helpful. But such helpful information is absent here.
My other grumble is in the one-dimensional nature of some of the characters. All of the 'heros' are big men (larger than average men). All have hearts of gold. All of them are loyal and honourable beyond the most ardent Boy Scout. All of them are more than a match for four or five opponents. Then there are the 'villains'. All of these have a permanent sneer, are cowardly and dishonourable, are universally rapacious and poor soldiers. Having absolutely every character fall into such a cliched role makes for an unbelievable world and this causes a slightly jarring juxtaposition between really great detail in an unrealistic setting.
One other thing that I've noticed in this book that I don't recall in the earlier novels is an increased use of modern idioms. Things like a character asking a question with a phrase such as "And this affects me how?". Language is often a difficult subject in historical novels but one thing guaranteed to jar a reader out of the 'moment' is modern idioms.
OK, that's enough of the grumbles. If you like a book that is packed with action (even if a bit repetitive) and with good descriptions of the Borders of 2,000 years ago, then this will float your boat. The overall writing style is fluid and holds the attention and some of the secondary characters are very compelling.
My grumbles are, really, aimed at Mr Riches himself. Few authors start with his advantage of a brilliant knowledge of his subject and I just know that he can use that to better effect than Fortress of Spears; come on Mr R, you can do better! I very nearly gave this book four stars but withheld one just because I feel a bit let down by the author, who seems a bit too lazy to fulfil his potential. I will, certainly, buy the next book in this series because I'm not giving up on Anthony Riches yet and, when push comes to shove, I still enjoyed reading this book.