1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
A Slow Burn That Pays Off,
This review is from: The Siege: Agent of Rome 1 (Paperback)
I bought this based on the reviews which emphasised the siege aspect and likened it to 'Rourke's Drift', among other things. Novels set in the Roman period - especially periods away from the usual late Republican/early Empire era - always attract me and this did not fail to deliver. The story is the classic set up of a mismatched officer and his unruly men who must pull together to defend a lonely outpost in the Syrian desert from the invading Palmyran forces. The protagonist, a 'grain' officer - in other words, a secret service agent - ends up as acting Centurion over a bunch of misfits and burnt-out Romans. He is young and inexperienced and those under him clearly resent him. The novel thus sets up a double tension: the imminent arrival of the invading forces and the internal struggle to win respect and contsruct and coherent strategy to defend the fort of Alauran.
Nick Brown does a servicable job of both elements - there are tensions within the Roman soldiers both among each other and against Cassius the protoagonist while the arrival of the Palmyran forces is introduced through their commander and his subordinates. Conflict and tension among the Romans, not to mention possible betrayal, all combine well to place the future of the fort in jeopardy.Once the enemy arrives and the fighting begins, the novel picks up pace and is suitably bloody and effective.
I have a number of criticisms but these are minor and personal and in no manner reflect badly upon the author - these are only my own reservations after all: I felt that the period setting was a little too 'modern' and that the characters were typical of infanty fighting men as we understand them and that there was lacking a certain 'period' feel. This fort and its situation could equally have been set in Africa in the 19th century or during the Crusades or now in Afghanistan. It lacked for me something of the feel for a period in which gods and superstition and a different mindset were prevalent. This is always a difficult thing to achieve - many authors make an effort not to do that but deliberatly set the tone as 'modern' to bring a reader in. I must confess that I prefer to be moved back in time (even if it is a conceit!) a little more. Again, I stress that this is a personal preference.
Mention has been made in other reviews about some of the 'tactical' choices made by the enemy and how unrealistic these were. These mentions are a criticism of the author and stress that in real life these things would not have happened. I both agree and disagree here. I write often in the Roman period and research continually to help me in that respect. Would cataphract cavalry engage in the manner described in the book? Yes and no. Did I feel put off from reading when these events happened? Not at all. It worked as I understood the mindset of the enemy commander and I know enough about our understanding of that period to know that we will never completely understand or grasp what happened on the battlefield. What matters here is that Nick Brown wrote well enough that it felt plausible - and that for me is evidence of his skill as a writer.
As for Cassius himself, I never really felt for him as a rounded character. I always felt slightly distanced and therefore cold towards him and this for me was a major reason why I am giving 3 stars and not 4. Again, I stress this is a personal reason and not a critical or techical one. As a reader, I needed something more to really root for him in the fort and this was not forthcoming in the novel. I will buy the second novel now that I have read this one (I love the period afterall and much as Sidebottom has cornered this period I will not allow him a monopoly on it!) in the expectation that Nick Brown will develop Cassius along with his craft!
In conclusion, I would say that the novel is solid and a little predictable but that the last third works well and left me satisfied in my expectations. I know this might read as a little dry in terms of criticism but I would add that I am a very demanding reader and I was always lookig for that something extra to lift this among the many other Roman military novels out there.
I am looking forward to the next adventure of Cassius!