TOP 100 REVIEWERon 7 April 2013
Almost a year ago, I had praised Manda Scott's "The Eagle of the Twelth", mentioning that it was the "best so far". For me, this one has turned out to be even better. Arguably, all reviews are somewhat subjective, and this is clearly the case when assessing a piece of historical fiction. Some will tend to be a bit fussy and want the book's historical background to be as "accurate" as possible. Others may be more interested in characterization and want the main characters to "feel real" or even "be likable". Others still may just want to read a good and exciting story with lots of action and suspense and some (like me) just want all of that in each historical novel that they read, and preferably in large doses. This is what I got with this book.
The plot tales place in AD 69, the Year of the Four Emperors that followed the death of Nero and saw four candidates compete and take the throne. By the time the book begins, two of them - Galba and Otho - are already dead and Vitellius, the third one, rules in Rome thanks to the Rhine legions that have put him there. Vespasian, the commander in chief in the East and whom Nero had tasked with putting down the Jewish rebellion, has a difficult choice to make: to let his fellow commanders and troops proclaim him Emperor or to try to refuse to protect the lives of his brother Sabinus, his beloved mistress Caenis and his second son Domitian, all of which are trapped in Rome, and at the mercy of Vitellius and his ruthless brother Lucius.
When I began reading this book, my initial reaction was to sigh and think that this was yet another story about the civil war of AD 69 and Vespasian's successful bid for the throne. In fact, it is essentially a spy story and a thriller, with our usual hero - Sebastos Pantera - sent by Vespasian to Rome in order to stir up trouble against Vitellius and his regime and protect his family. Therefore, contrary to my initial expectations, the story itself turns out to be quite original and takes place mainly within Rome, as Pantera, hunted by the Vittellians, wages his war of subversion against them.
The second main quality of this novel is, unsurprisingly for one of Manda Scott's books, the superb characterization that is on display. Arguably, some characters may "sound and feel" more credible and plausible than others, and readers may prefer some of the fictional characters to others. The historical characters, however, are rather superbly drawn, with the best of the lot being Vespasian and Caenis, in my view. The character of the ageing Vespasian, which I had already found rather remarkable in "The Eagle of the Twelth", is quite simply superb and corresponds to the rather sympathetic and very human picture that both the written sources and his biographer (Barbara Lewick in her superb scholarly book on Vespasian) paint. Close behind are the characters of Domitian (the future Emperor and the last of the Flavians), unsure of himself and of his father's affection, somewhat withdrawn and feeling almost autistic at times, and of Vitellius, who is shown as being both weak and out of his depth, rather than bad or cruel. I was a bit less convinced by the character of Lucius, who did not feel quite so "real" to me as most of the others.
Among the fictional characters, however, the legionary officers on both sides (Geminus, Valens and Trabo) were also excellent, with just about the right mixture of soldier's honour, ambition and ruthlessness to make them believable. Also good, even if we see much less of them, are the generals Mucianus (on Vespasian's side) and Caecina (for the Vitellians). I missed similar portraits, especially that of Antonius Primus (the commander of the forces backing Vespasian and who marched on Rome), with the latter never quite making it into the story (although Petilius Cerialis, a family relation of Vespasian, briefly does). I suppose that this ploy - the growing and nearing menace which is just over the horizon - is another way to build up suspense (and it worked, at least for me!).
Then there is a third feature in this book which makes it a superb piece of suspense: the whole story is told as a collection of vignettes seen from the perspective of the various characters involved in it, as these are mostly questioned as part of an inquiry to investigate the events. This feature is probably the most impressive. It allows the author to present the same events with different perspectives. It also allows for presenting the various personalities involved. It finally adds considerably to the suspense of the whole story, especially since the one of the only ones who is NOT interviewed happens to Pantera.
Finally, you should note that this book can perfectly well be read without having to go through the whole series. A superb and exciting read, finished at 3am, and which I cannot recommend enough...