He might be deployed on the edge of empire but wily Roman centurion Marcus Aquila is always at the heart of the action... and the intrigue.
The Wolf’s Gold is Anthony Riches’ fifth novel in the outstanding Empire series and it’s pleasing to report that his stories of thrill-filled, heart-pounding heroics in the reign of the notorious emperor Commodus just get better and better.
Authenticity and mind-blowing battle sequences have always been Riches’ strong points and now he can add masterful storytelling and plotting to his list of attributes.
His thumping good novels are rich in dialogue, characterisation, military realism and the kind of black humour that brings to life the hardy warriors who formed the fighting backbone of the Roman Empire.
Here he transports his battle-hardened hero Aquila, a patrician with a secret past, from campaigns in the wilds of ancient Germania to lawless Dacia (modern day Romania) where the mines of Alburnus Major hold enough gold to pave the road to Rome.
Centurion Marcus Corvus of the 1st Tungrian cohort is an inspirational officer. Known as ‘Two Knives,’ he is the kind of leader that any man would follow into danger without needing an order.
But Marcus is on the run from the Rome of capricious Emperor Commodus who has executed the young officer’s high-ranking father and family, declaring them all traitors.
Marcus and the Tungrians have been sent to Dacia, on the north-eastern edge of the Roman Empire, with the mission to safeguard the gold mines, a major source of imperial power.
The mines would make a mighty prize for the marauding Sarmatae tribesmen who threaten the province, and the outnumbered auxiliaries are entrusted with their safety in the face of a barbarian invasion.
Beset by both the Sarmatian horde and more subtle threats offered by men who should be their comrades, the Tungrians must also come to terms with the danger posed by a new and unexpected enemy. They will have to fight to the death to save the honour of the empire – and their own skins.
Riches gets as near as is possible to the life of the Roman soldier... his world-weary wit, his ruthlessness, his earthiness, his fighting spirit, his prejudice and his shared camaraderie.
Throughout this exciting series, we have come to know the trusty band of brothers who make up the Tungrians and watched their characters and relationships develop as they face hardship, danger and death.
Thrilling plotlines have taken them to the empire’s most dangerous corners and their adventures and misadventures are always recounted at breakneck speed whilst still retaining meticulous attention to detail.
The Wolf’s Gold is a first-class action novel, brimming with brutal combat and suspense, and yet threaded through with a subtle brand of melancholy and evocations of the power politics that made Rome tick.
A must-read for historical fiction fans...
(Hodder, paperback, £7.99)