Book review: Agent of Rome: The Black Stone by Nick Brown
When you are an officer spy in the service of a Roman emperor, every mission you undertake is dangerous…
But ‘grain man’ Cassius Corbulo has unexpected domestic problems too, and they could cause him more grief than a death-defying quest to the forbidding Hejaz mountains of Arabia.
One can never predict where fate will take Nick Brown’s reluctant imperial agent Cassius who was dispatched into the Roman Army by his wealthy father after disgracing himself with a servant girl.
However, one thing is for sure… the road will be long, hard and perilous, and will transport us to heart-stopping adventures in ancient Rome’s vast wastelands and far-flung hotspots.
Scriptwriter turned author Brown has joined the elite legion of top-notch Roman history-mystery authors, dishing up feasts of blood-soaked soldiering, thrilling political intrigue and an addictive and compelling brand of military cynicism and comradeship.
In the fourth book of his superb Agent of Rome series, it’s AD 273 and at the great temple at Emesa in Syria, priests guard a sacred black rock said to channel the power of the sun god Sol. It is renowned, mysterious and the Emperor Aurelian plans to bring it to Rome.
Aurelian has become obsessed by the solar religions of the East and he has set out to obtain every sacred object within his realm. But only weeks before he arrives, the stone is taken in a swift and deadly raid during the Festival of Mars.
Ruthless German mercenary Gutha and his men captured the priceless stone for eccentric warrior-priest Ilaha who is using it to raise an army against Rome. Ilaha is determined to show Aurelian that the tide is turning and Rome is losing control of Arabia.
For Cassius and his ex-gladiator bodyguard Indavara, stopping him poses their greatest challenge yet. But the mission is compounded by other problems. Simo, Cassius’s reliable Gaulish manservant and mentor, is on leave to visit his father and Indavara is feeling restless, neglected and haunted by his dark past.
Assisted by a squad of undercover soldiers and a Saracen chieftain, Cassius, masquerading as a merchant, and a small squad of men trek south across the deserts of Arabia, encountering sandstorms and murderous money-lenders.
And when they finally reach Ilaha’s mountain fortress, they face thousands of warriors who will give their lives to protect him… and the black stone.
Brown moves into new and exciting territory in The Black Stone… the energy levels remain high, the backdrop is awe-inspiring and the legendary action sequences continue apace, but he also gives us pause to enjoy the dramatic and ever-evolving relationship between Cassius and his blood brothers.
In Cassius, we have a young man who defies the traditional notions of ‘heroic.’ Self-absorbed, youthfully arrogant and an unashamed womaniser, he lacks the killer instinct… and yet he is breathtakingly courageous and fiercely loyal to his friends.
Meanwhile, Simo is increasingly turning inwards to his Christian religion and Indavara is looking outwards to both himself and his past. Can their diverging paths continue to be channelled into the service of Cassius and his emperor?
Their next adventure promises to be another remarkable voyage of discovery…
(Hodder, paperback, £7.99)