Just when you thought the brilliant, all-action Empire series couldn’t get any better, its battle-hardened creator, Anthony Riches, plays a trump card.
There are few Roman fiction fans who haven’t yet fallen under the spell of Centurion Marcus Aquila, the tough and wily Tungrian officer whose exploits in the far reaches of 2nd century Rome’s empire have become the stuff of reading legend.
Thunder of the Gods is the eight book in this pulsating series which has taken us from the wilds of Hadrian’s Wall to Germania and Dacia, into a nest of vipers in Rome itself and now deep into the dangerous heart of the Parthian empire.
Military historian Riches has made it his business to reveal not just the grim everyday realities of Roman soldiers’ lives but to conjure up the perilous political and military world which these awesome fighting men inhabited.
And his latest brutal, breathtaking thriller is a rip-roaring triumph as the now familiar and much-loved band of brothers take on one of their most murderous and exhilarating missions yet against a cunning and inventive military fighting machine.
Centurion Marcus Corvus is one of the Tungrians’ most inspirational officers. His nickname is ‘Two Knives’ but his real identity is Marcus Valerius Aquila from a high-ranking family declared traitors and slaughtered by megalomaniac Emperor Commodus.
After recent events in Rome, the empire’s capital city is no longer a safe place and Marcus and the Tungrians are ordered east on a dangerous mission to the heart of the Parthian empire (a major political and cultural power once part of modern-day Iran).
Rome and Parthia have vied for supremacy in these desolate border lands for centuries. The Tungrians have been ordered to relieve the siege of an isolated fortress at Nisbis, situated between Armenia and the Parthian empire and on the route of the famous, money-making Silk Road.
But their mission is doomed unless they can turn the disaffected Third Legion into a fighting force capable of resisting the terrifying Parthian cataphracts, horsemen noted for their prowess with the bow.
For Marcus, the road will be even more hazardous. When all does not go to plan, he is forced to travel to the enemy capital of Ctesiphon where he must try to persuade the Parthian empire’s King of Kings to halt a war that threatens not just the humiliation of the Roman empire but the slaughter of his friends…
Whether he is wearing his historian’s hat or his military helmet, Riches serves up a true Roman-style banquet of authentic history, charismatic warriors, fearsome foes, deadly combat, nail-biting tension and gut-wrenching emotion.
This is warfare at its most visceral and visual… Roman spears, swords, axemen, bolt-throwers and bowmen pitted against Parthia’s thousands of knightly but deadly accurate horse archers, and a secret, natural but lethal weapon.
Leavened by dark, earthy humour, the camaraderie of the cohorts and Riches’ love of springing the most unexpected surprises on his readers, this is about as good as it gets for lovers of raw and rugged Roman fiction.
(Hodder, paperback, £7.99)