Book review: Agent of Rome: The Imperial Banner by Nick Brown

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Being an imperial spy has its advantages and disadvantages for reluctant Roman soldier Cassius Corbulo.

There’s the chance for the young undercover officer to make the acquaintance of beautiful women around the vast empire but, when a job does come his way, it’s rarely anything other than the do-or-die variety.

In the follow-up to his pulsating, all-action debut novel The Siege, Nick Brown’s Agent of Rome series moves up a gear to bring us a stunningly visual story which has readers hooked like a gladiator’s net and trident from the very first page.

Screenwriter-turned-author Brown has a wickedly observant eye for vivid combat scenes and the death-defying antics and suspense of the opening sequence of The Imperial Banner is a full-on taster of what’s to come.

Larger than life characters, Roman-style political intrigue and nuggets of real-life history add ballast to what is essentially a terrific blood-and-guts action thriller.

The introduction of a vibrant new character – the strong but silent bodyguard Indavara – is an inspirational literary device which transforms the already entertaining double act between Cassius and his Gallic servant-c um-valet Simo into something resembling the Three Musketeers.

Cassius never wanted to be a soldier ... he is serving five years with the army as a punishment meted out by his father for disgracing himself with a servant girl. His service with the Imperial Security Service saw him become a hero at the notorious Siege of Alauran but his luck could run out at any time.

When he is summoned to Syria, Cassius learns that the Roman Emperor Aurelian has defeated the rebel Queen Zenobia and crushed the Palmyran revolt.

The Roman Emperor Aurelian has defeated Queen Zenobia and crushed the Palmyran revolt. Faridun’s Banner, the ancient and sacred battle standard of the Persian Empire, has fallen into Roman hands and is to be returned to the Persians as the essential component of a historic peace treaty.

But the banner and the legionaries charged with transporting it to Antioch have disappeared. Cassius must recover the hallowed banner before a handing-over ceremony to the new Emperor of Persia in just 19 days time.

To help him negotiate the hazardous wastes of Syria and the equally perilous streets of Antioch, Cassius has been allocated a bodyguard. Indavara, a former gladiator and a man of few words, projects an ‘unyielding, elemental solidity’ but with ruthless brigands, mysterious cults, merciless assassins and danger at every turn, is this a mission impossible for Cassius and his men?

The Imperial Banner is Roman adventure at its best ... brutal action leavened by a cynical brand of military humour, history, mystery, romance and an almost tangible sense of cohesion and camaraderie amongst Cassius and his cohorts.

It’s a formula that works so well in Brown’s capable hands ... Cassius’s next assignment can’t come too soon!

(Hodder, paperback, £6.99)