Since book one of this series i have been a fan, I don’t normally find myself gravitating towards mixed genres and this series with its Roman Spies, investigations all mixed in with classic blood and sandals Roman battles is as mixed as you can find.
BUT…it works and works well. I think for me its because it doesn’t really have the big muscle-bound hero, on one person who is just amazingly good at fighting or intelligent beyond his peers etc.. Cassius Corbulo is young, too young, and scared, he never wanted to be part of the Frumentarii, he wanted to be an Orator, to belong to the cerebral arts, to enjoy his status at the top of society. At the beginning he would never have survived without his bodyguard Indavara a man with his own troubled past. The series is set against varying locations of the empire, but always at a time when the Roman world was still struggling with all the varied religions and revolts, as much as it wanted to absorb other cultures, it struggled with the Christ Cult and to add to Cassius’s problems his slave Simo is a member.
Books 4 The Black Stone: unlike books two and three which (were excellent books) showed incremental improvements, the improvements I look for in authors as a series progresses. Book four however goes to a whole new level, the plot is woven with multiple layers of religious intrigue and intolerance, political intrigue, fighting, comradeship and the ever growing relationship and maturity of our band of hero’s. Cassius learns more about his limits, his courage, and his friends. Indavara starts to learn and over come his past. The relationship between these two has matured to a whole new level in this book.
The story the black Stone is well thought out and put together, and has the layers to keep you galloping along at a decent pace. But its the characters that make it a winner, the development of the characters in the book alone is excellent (let alone the series). There are many teasing glimpses of Indavara and his past which i feel will become the focus if a future book in the series. There is very real wear and tear on the team and their personalities and the dynamic as a group. Its this frailty this real humanity that shines out from the page and makes this such a good book. Its so easy to make a near invincible hero or villain, but Nick creates shades of grey. Good guys do bad things for the sake of others or politics, or just that its expedient. Bad guys do good things on a whim, or because they just want to walk away. All of it means that when reading it you can empathise with the characters, to think..”Yeah..I get that”. The introduction of Gutha was a master-stroke, the perfect bad guy foil to Indavara, you spend so much of the book waiting for them to face off. Also the mystery of a Germanic warrior in the far east, adds such an element of difference to the tale, also bad guy is probably the wrong term, he is a mercenary, he fights for money and his master, so good guy / bad guy in this time period is a matter of perspective, His side pays him, and while they do, they are the good guys! I found this sort of thinking refreshing in a book of this type, rather than the standard good v evil. (im going to stop now before i give something away)
At almost 500 pages you get your moneys worth and a whole lot more, not once did this book feel like it should have been trimmed, despite the length the writing is sparse where it needs to keep the pace flowing and descriptive where you need to feel the heat and desolation of the desert. By the end of the book i guarantee you will be wanting more!