The Art of War by MC Scott

Rating 9.0/10
For those of you who like action over incense then this is for you.

Manda Scott's latest installment of the covert life of Sebastos Pantera demonstrates her growing skills in presenting a story through many narrators. The action of the novel is told through the eyes of both sides as the race either to retain Vitellius as Emperor of Rome, or have Vespasian rise to secure the Purple reaches its climatic denouement in the fateful year A.D.69, commonly known to modern history as "The Year of the Four Emperors." We open with an assassination attempt on Vespasian as he sits in his camp in the province of Judea. An assassination thwarted by a returning Pantera. An assassination that forces Vespasian to declare himself Imperator and instruct Pantera to go to Rome to ensure the safety of his mistress, Caenis, his brother, Sabinus, and his youngest son, Domitian.

The novel shows the flawed ideology of Pantera. Having been firmly convinced he would show a new star to rise in the East, having picked Menachem for the task in the earlier novels - and failed - he actually condemns Menachem's people to death with his change to raise Vespasian. A man whose son, Titus, would eventually sack the Jewish Temple, subdue Judea. This is the sad reality behind the subsequent action of the novel, but it is not something Scott focuses on as Pantera goes to Rome where he is on the run from the ever loyal centurion Geminus who has been selected to find and kill him. Loyalty - this is the character theme of the novel, the one asset prized by spies above all else, the one asset never trusted. What follows is a series of Acts where Jocasta, Caenis, Pantera, Trabo... and a host of others... play out their lives to see which of their masters will be Emperor. Pantera is controlling the strings with his use of the "silver boys", his natural ability to twist and turn, his excellence at subterfuge, his foresight at the long game... all are vital in his deadly battle of wits against Vitellius' brother, Lucius. The events in the novel take us all over the back streets of Rome, neatly avoiding "tourist" descriptions of major Roman buildings (Scott even manages to avoid the Temples of Jupiter and Saturn during the rain-sodden "siege" on the Capitoline Hill); we dive in and out of brothels with some verve, we follow Pantera as he changes from one disguise to another, we duck and dive with him in and out of dark alleys, scramble over rooftops, fight with him when needed. It is this which makes this novel so much better than its predecessor. This novel is constrained both by time, place, and historical events. Scott has a much tighter framework around this novel than in recent books and the fact of it seems to work very well. There is much more focus on action than internal philosophy, more gritty reality and less pungent smoke and mirrors dressed up as pagan ritual. It may be Trabo who says "the past was far more alive to me than the present", but the irony is this entire novel is very much about the present and how the future will result from it.

However, this is not all praise. Two items in the novel jarred. The first is the opening words are of a love scene - Vespasian's memory of he and Caenis. It seems a trifle pointless as though it was an idle whim of narration, rather than purposeful to what follows in the next few pages. The other is with the tone of the multiple narrators (which, in itself is a difficult technique in a novel). They all seem to speak in the same way, think in the same way, act with the same motions, are described using similar adjectives, figurative and metaphorical terms. The tone remained barely changeable from one narrator to the next. All, of course, covered up by the fact that the nature of that tone, style, descriptive power, storytelling ability (whilst singular) is excellent. Yet, the voices were not unique and I would have liked to have heard that in their words. For example, I found the thoughts of Trabo to be the same as Caenis, the descriptive angers of Geminus to be like Trabo, the weariness of Pantera expressed in words in the same manner as the timidity of Vitellius. The reality is that they simply would not have been. Trabo should be rougher, coarser, saltier, more visceral; Caenis a curious mixture of poised aristocracy mixed with the common understanding of one who has been a slave. I did not feel the differences in their turns as narrators. Curiously, Scott does have her characters shift in tone and delivery when they are not the narrator. I "feel" the boorishness of Lucius, sense the psychosis of Trabo when he is merely a third party to the action. Attributes that disappear when they are asked to speak in the first person singular by the author.

Each section of the novel is titled with the word "Spies". Whilst the protagonists label themselves spies, the reality is the are Kingmakers (or Emperor-makers to be rather more precise). The novel is called "The Art of War". It is not. Not really. It is the "Art of Espionage" in reality (though that doesn't let you get in a Sun Tzu quote). It is all about the very intelligent people who would make their own contenders Emperor and the methods to which they will go to ensure they win. The reality is that there is only one winner, as readers we know this from the start, our curiosity is piqued to understand which of Scott's players are who they say are. Something we only find out in the final, bloody executions when everyone is present in the same place. Not quite the gentility of Hercule Poirot in this ending.

The novel is what I have come to expect of Manda Scott. It is different in style to her previous outing with Pantera. Personally, I prefer this style. The next will inevitably be different again. For those of you who like action over incense, like swordplay over oratory (i.e those who would prefer Ben Kane over Stephanie Dray) then this is for you. Those who delighted in the dream sequences, the pagan romance in the "Dreaming" novels, may be slightly disappointed. What is true though, is that it's a darn good read as all novels set in Rome seem to be and show that Manda Scott is in full possession of her literary powers. It will be interesting to see where Pantera goes next. As I mentioned earlier, the key theme is loyalty. It is this theme that is the hub of the action, it is this theme that Jocasta understands and tell us about in a rare moment of introspection, of talking directly to us, the readers.
"Everyone thinks that it was Pantera's actions that changed the course of this war and brought about what happened... it is also true that here in Rome, Trabo was the hub about which we all turned; his loyalty was the one thing we had all bought and none of us owned and in the end it was that - his loyalty - that we all needed."

It's a great book. Read it

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