The Siege (Agent of Rome #1), by Nick Brown


‘The Siege’ (2010) is the engaging and lively opening of a series of novels set in the crisis of the 3rd Century CE, during which Palmyra broke away from the Roman Empire. I wanted to read and review it partially because the setting was intrinsically interesting to me, and partly because it’s a great example of a debut from a writer with similar interests, background and style to mine. I wanted to grow as a writer and learn more about what it takes to become (whisper it) published.

My first impressions of the physical book (a glance at the cover and a scan of the blurb) were that it immediately seemed somewhat solider and more substantive than the average sword & sandals fare which clutters many a bookshop’s shelf, the cover iconography of which invariably features eagles, helmet crests, SPQR and hyperbole. The cover and the title of ‘The Siege’ are tonally very different from this norm – they speak of grit rather than glamour, reality rather than rhetoric – so my hopes were high.

Happily, this early optimism was borne out by the quality, pace and style of the writing within. Detail follows obviously, but in summary, Brown writes as fluidly and entertainingly as, say, Cornwell in his  Uthred of Bebbenburg phase, just without the twenty year apprenticeship  churning out sub-par boddice-rippers with titles like ‘Sharpe’s Revenge’. That this is a first novel is really very impressive.

The story is pretty much all action, with the tension building relentlessly from the first chapter. And the action is breathlessly told, but without the glorying in viscera which can blight this genre. That said, there are also plenty of opportunities for the characters to be explored and fleshed out. When you read a weak book of this type, you can reach the end with only the sketchiest ability to differentiate between the main protagonists. Here, to pick an example from many, the embittered and vindictively violent NCO – so often a trope – became elevated through the writing to a real person. When Strabo [SPOILER KLAXON] eventually succumbs to his inevitable death-in-pursuit-of-vengeance, it’s an affecting moment.

It’s tempting as a writer to imbue a book’s hero with the ability to solve problems, to be the fulcrum around which key actions pivot, but Brown has elected to create an altogether quieter, less self-assured character in the form of ‘Centurion’ Cassius Corbulo. In fact, he is acutely aware of his shortcomings in experience, gravitas and physicality and spends most of the book in a state of rising panic about being ‘found out’. This is a brave decision for an author to take, as it makes the task of connecting with the character less straightforward for the average reader. It worked though – I found myself believing in Cassius as a human, because of his fragility and uncertainty. It also affords the author greater creativity, I think. He has freed himself from the safety net of having the hero save the day through sheer force of his brilliance and has to generate a more complex, tricksier resolution to each plot twist.

I also really enjoyed the minor authorial touches which have been skilfully applied and which made the story much more authentic. For example, we all know that in the pre-Pasteur world, lives were nasty, brutish and short and disease and disability rife. However, this is an inconvenient, dull historic fact that is usually glossed over in books set in the distant past. Not so here. In ‘The Siege’, one character is clearly dying of lung cancer, although is oblivious to the cause of his ailment. Another has some kind of unspecified mental impairment. These medical conditions are not opportunistically inserted plot points. They serve no narrative purpose. They’re in there because that’s what it would have been like.

A similar example of the writer’s craft which Brown applies adroitly is the way in which he uses incidental description to draw a mental picture for the reader, gestures and postures deftly described so that the scene comes to life in the reader’s mind.  Equally, sparing use is made of quotations from writers and poets whose epithets would have been the cliches of the time and constantly in people’s mouths. It’s all very convincing.

Likewise, the inclusion of details from the period – e.g. the way in which the colour purple was made from the excretions of snails – is never clumsily handled and doesn’t come across as the superfluous imparting of facts from an historian. For an author to ignore the fact that the past was ‘another country’ and focus only on the story is really just historical fiction tourism: the utilising of the past for colour and interest with little genuine interest in how it must shape the story. It’s difficult to get right, hence why many don’t bother – first you have to do the research, then you need to weave relevant details in without being preachy or dry. Brown achieves this, which is why ‘The Siege’ is, for me, proper historical fiction. The story doesn’t just happen to occupy a picturesque and easily-parsed corner of the past (e.g. ‘the roaring twenties’), it inhabits its period and could not take place anywhen else.

So, safe to say that I really enjoyed it and will make haste in the direction of Agent of Rome #2.

The final couple of pages are taken up with Acknowledgements, in which Brown hints at the long journey this book took to publication, the countless hours of redrafting and seeking feedback from anyone who would give it. It’s a reminder that success is the product of talent multiplied by effort, and that a book of this quality only became so incrementally – a very useful lesson on which to end.