Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Review: The Imperial Banner by Nick Brown Book Two in the Agent of Rome series

History resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2017


When we left Imperial Agent Cassius Corbulo at the end of "The Siege", Book One of the "Agent of Rome" series, a teenaged Corbulo had survived the brutal attack on a lonely Roman outpost deep in the Syrian desert by forces of the Palmyran Queen Zenobia.  The youngster had managed to pull together the undisciplined remnants of the Roman garrison and combined them with an auxiliary detachment of local slingers, and a drunken demoralized Praetorian "hero of Rome" to withstand an onslaught of tribesmen led by the best swordsman in the Palmyrene Empire.

As book two, "The Imperial Banner," opens, we find Corbulo assigned to recover a battle standard of the Persian Empire that fell into Roman hands at the end of the Palmyrene revolt but has since gone missing.  The Roman emperor Aurelian plans to return the standard to the Persians as part of a historic peace treaty,  so the pressure is on the Imperial Service to find it.

The so-called "Pseudo-Corbulo", once thought
to be the portrait of Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo,
actually a portrait of an unknown personality
of the 1st century BC. Image courtesy of
Wikimedia Commons.
Corbulo is once again accompanied by his faithful Gallic servant, Simo. But his superior, Abascanthius, thinks Corbulo needs more protection on this assignment since the detail assigned to escort the banner to the emperor was composed of experienced veterans who all vanished as well. So he assigns a bodyguard named Indavara, a former gladiator, to Corbulo to take care of any rough stuff that should happen along the way.

We learned in Book One that Corbulo, despite his clever intellect and his distant familial lineage from the illustrious General Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo, has very marginal sword skills despite the basic military training he received when joining the service.  This continues to be a bit disconcerting to me since I am used to most protagonists in this genre being highly skilled warriors.  But with at least the presence of a skilled bodyguard Corbulo should be able to survive violent encounters without relying upon an opponent's blunder.

The prelude to the book details Indavara's astonishing final performance in Rome's most celebrated arena.  The veteran of hundreds of bouts and a crowd favorite, Indavara faces multiple uneven contests in his last bid for freedom because his corrupt lanista has wagered a huge sum against Indavara's survival.  This passage was very exciting and really ratcheted up my expectations for this new character.

Relief of Mithras slaying the bull photographed at the
National Museum of Rome, Baths of Diocletian, Rome, Italy
by Mary Harrsch © 2005
As the story unfolds, Corbulo tracks the banner back to Antioch where he tries to determine if the prize has been purloined by a rich merchant or a member of the provincial governor's staff.  One of the administrators turns out to be the head of the local Mithras cult so readers get a chance to learn a little about Mithraism along the way.

But as the bodies piled up, I expected to read about more spectacular encounters between Indavara and the villain's minions.  However, most of the deaths occur "off-stage" so-to-speak, except in the final confrontation.  I would have preferred more direct action but maybe I'm just getting bloodthirsty in my old age!

Also, although the primary characters were well drawn, there was little backstory or character development for the potential culprits, so Corbulo's eventual triumph lacked the level of gratification it could have had if the reader had a chance to develop an appreciation for the capabilities of Corbulo's opponents.  Still, the author did a great job of recreating ancient Antioch and life in the 3rd century CE Roman east and I found it an entertaining read.

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