Roman history is not my forte, this has to be understood from the get go. However, I was hooked on this book from the second page.
This novel is based on a true history of the Roman Empire in the year 68AD, and most of the characters in the story were real people. For some that can limit and constrain, but when reading this book, you do wonder if it really is real history as the author, Henry Venmore-Rowland, writes with a fluency that surprises. Nothing feels forced, as can be the case with true stories, everything seems to happen naturally and not dictated by history.
If you know the history of the era, the year of the ‘Four Emperors’, you will probably be waiting for certain events to happen but with no knowledge of those events one is left thinking “what can possibly happen now?!” and you eagerly read on to find out.
And even if you don’t particularly like the Romans, like me, you will want to read on. The Venmore-Rowland’s style is compelling, his characters are flesh and blood, the language they use is colloquial and familiar, and everything just flows beautifully.
Venmore-Rowland is comfortable in this era and that shows. As the genius Gene Rodenberry often said, a cowboy doesn’t explain how his gun works before he uses it, so why should a space explorer (Star Trek) explain either, and in this novel you are not constantly bombarded with explanations. The narrator will help you out, what a gladius is for, for instance, but as if he is speaking to you, chatting to you, not giving a history lesson.
The story is narrated beautifully by Caecina Severus who takes us through his adventures as he struggles to fulfil a task given to him by his governor, Galba, who is seeking to overthrow Nero. We go from the barren wastes of Spain to the forested chill of Germany and meet fascinating characters along the way. Caecina is not perfect and he is never shy of admitting it. He faces problems but we are with him as he thinks and acts his way out of them. He is a fully fleshed out person, his loves and hates, what annoys him, what delights him…is all laid bare. It is testament to Venmore-Rowland’s skill as a writer that despite this being in the first person, all the characters are real and vibrant.
The novel contains a useful list of dramatis personae and a map, which is pretty essential as Roman names often bear no relation to modern names. Mogontiacum is modern-day Mainz, for instance. It makes the narrative all the more accessible, as does the action starting in Britain which grounds us and creates a frisson of contradiction (he helped quash the rebellion led by Boudicca, how can I like him?!).
This is an excellent debut novel and I believe Henry Venmore-Rowland has a bright future. I heartily recommend it.