I mentioned recently that some of the I sometimes stumble upon many of my favourite books by accident. Perhaps picked up at a secondhand stall, or simply because I like the picture on the cover or, in the case of The Siege, because it made up a two for three offer at Waterstones.
I usually save my star-rating until the end, but I shall nail my colours to the mast at the start and say this is five star material and certainly one of my books of 2011.
The year is 270AD and the 19 year old Cassius Quintius Corbulo has been consigned to the army by his father as punishment for his philandering and to get some discipline in his life. The only concession is that he is bought a commission in the Imperial Security Service, known as ‘grain men’ because they were originally concerned with the distribution of supplies to the legions.
He finds himself in Syria at the time of the Palmyran uprising, Rome’s former allies now lead by the widowed Queen Zenobia. Her armies are marching on Antioch and the fate of Rome’s empire in the east is in the balance.
But in the desert, water and supplies are crucial to both sides and Cassius is sent to take command of the fort of Alauran which has a precious well and granary. His task is to maintain Roman possession until a relief column can be sent.
So he finds himself with the remnants of the Third Legion and a band of Syrian auxiliary slingers while arrayed against him is the Palmyran stretegos Azaf and his party of swordsmen, cavalry and mounted archers.
The siege that ultimately follows is not on the grand scale. Alauran is small and its walls are weak and the Roman defences improvised. Neither are there vast armies involved. There are fewer than 100 Romans and their allies ranged against 300 Palmyrans. But the battle is more intense because of it.
The bloody battle is fierce and gory and Nick Brown (right) paints a vivid portrait of a young man who is learning about a soldier’s life the hard way.
I won’t write about the outcome, other than to say that there are two more Agent of Rome books in the pipeline for publication in 2012 and 2013.