270 AD. Rome has ruled Syria for over three centuries. But now the weakened empire faces a desperate threat: Queen Zenobia of Palmyra has turned her Roman-trained army against her former masters and the once invincible legions have been crushed. Arabia, Palestine and Egypt have fallen and now Antioch, Syria's capital, stands exposed.
Cassius Corbulo is a young intelligence agent fresh from officer training. He has been assigned the menial task of rounding up wounded legionaries but then urgent new orders arrive. He is the only ranking Roman officer left in the line of the Palmyran advance. He must take command of the fort of Alauran, the last stronghold still in Roman hands, and hold it against the enemy until reinforcements arrive.
The Siege by Nick Brown is the first book in a series of historical fiction centering around the Roman Empire in the beginning in the year of 270 AD. When I first read the synopsis of The Siege, I immediately thought that this would be a fresh story. Though set in the Roman Empire, there is this new idea where instead of going on the offensive wage war, the main protagonist Cassius must defend a stronghold against the Palmyran invaders. Similar to Insurrection, the book I read and reviewed prior to this book, I am pleasantly surprised by the richness and the historic feel this book gave me.
The Agent of Rome series is more than just a retelling of past events. The majority of the characters are fictitious and the only real historical event covered is the invasion by the Palmyran Queen, Zenobia. All the legionnaires may have been made up by the author, but, even though they are not based on real people, they still fit in well with the storyline.
In The Siege, we follow a young, just-out-of-academy, officer named Cassius Corbulo. On location in Syria, Cassius is charged with making sure the Roman stronghold of Alauran can withstand the invasion by the Palmyrans. This is easier said than done. It was nice to see how Cassius was received into the stronghold by the other legionnaires - some accepted him straight away as their superior officer, but others were more reluctant. In the end he manages to get almost everyone on his side and helping him out - even the auxiliaries. Everyone except for ‘The Praetorian’, who prefers a jug of wine every now and then. Cassius’ role as the protagonist in the story becomes quite engaging as you see him rallying the troops to make the stronghold ready for the coming assault.
Another strength of this story is getting a perspective of Palmyran force led by Azaf. We get to see how organized and well equipped the Palmyran force is, which gave me the feeling that the Romans were in for quite a daunting task. Secondly, we get to see the contrast in how Cassius prepares to defend the assault comparted to how Azaf is planning to conduct his assault. This style of narration to show both sides was pretty neat, and I thought that it gave an extra dimension to the story.
The Siege wouldn’t be a historical/military fiction without a great battle. In the last half of the book, after all the preparations have been made, the story becomes rapid in pace as we follow the defenders running around trying to eliminate any possible enemy breakthroughs. At the same time we get to see how Azaf is guiding his force strategically to take advantage of possible weaknesses in the stronghold. It is a great display of fighting scenes and a great payoff for all build-up leading to this moment.
At the beginning of the story, there was mention that Cassius only had to hold out until reinforcements would arrive. The author did a great job building this plot line, creating tension by questioning whether the reinforcements would arrive in time. In the last few pages there are only a handful of Romans left compared with eight times as many Palmyrans, along with their feared leader Azaf. I actually thought this would be it, the Roman defeated in the end, but then Nick Brown introduced a new person into the fray. Looking back I could have anticipated this, but I was so drawn into the last stand of the Romans I didn’t see it coming. Everything came together greatly for a nice, cool and bloody ending!
The Siege is good book showing an unlikely Roman officer forced into doing something that he was not fully trained for. The Siege has an engaging and unique writing style that allowed a nice build up from the preparations to the final clash between the Romans and Palmyrans.
Thanks to Hodder and Stoughton for kindly providing me with a review copy.
Review by Jasper de Joode
8/10 from 1 reviews
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