Book review: The Last Hour by Harry Sidebottom

There's a plot to kill the Emperor of Rome and just 24 hours to save him'¦ can one man meet this epic challenge?
The Last Hour by Harry SidebottomThe Last Hour by Harry Sidebottom
The Last Hour by Harry Sidebottom

Welcome back to the stunning ancient world, recreated in all its splendour and corruption by the master of Roman novels, Harry Sidebottom, an Oxford classicist and expert in ancient warfare whose magnificent Warrior of Rome series has sold over half a million copies.

It is here in the dangerous and volatile second half of the third century AD – as the once invincible empire disintegrates under pressures from foreign invaders – that we meet up again with the Romanised barbarian Marcus Clodius Ballista.

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The tough soldier of German origin, who has survived the machinations of the Roman Empire and a series of political and military crises, is back in a gripping, edge-of-the-seat historical action thriller which melds Jack Reacher with Jack Bauer.

What’s different in this new Ballista adventure is the exciting timescale… in a story punctuated by menace, violence and the breathtakingly authentic backdrop of the City of Rome itself, our hero has only one day and night to save the Emperor knowing that if he fails, his own family will die too.

In this non-stop rollercoaster ride, packed with death, bloody betrayal, hair-raising pursuits and nail-biting suspense, Sidebottom also treats us to an authentic and atmospheric portrait of ancient Rome, its grandeur and squalor, its sights, sounds and smells, and its fascinating people, from the wealthy senators and powerful officials to the filthy vagrants, the dead collectors and the ‘midnight hags.’

Marcus Clodius Ballista has been dispatched to the towering Mausoleum of Hadrian by Scarpio, the powerful Prefect of the City Watch, but it seems his real intention might have been to send Ballista to his death.

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The assignation was a trap and Ballista has only narrowly escaped being killed, but not before one of his would-be assassins confessed that there is a plot to kill the Emperor Gallienus in the last hour of daylight as he leaves the Colosseum in just 24 hours.

Behind Ballista, the sun is setting over the centre of the known world and far below him, the river is in full flood. As footsteps pound up the stairs, Ballista is cornered so he jumps. Bruised and battered, he crawls out of the raging river but he is alone, barefoot and unarmed, without money or friends, trapped in a deadly conspiracy.

Ballista grew up with Gallienus and he is honour bound to save him, but the barbarian-turned-Roman also knows that if he fails to halt the assassination, chaos and violence will ensue and if the Emperor dies, every single person Ballista loves will die too.

The next 24 hours will be perilous… the City Watch has orders to take him alive and other, more sinister, forces want him dead. As darkness falls, he realises he has only one day to expose the conspirators, and save the leader of the world.

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Ballista, the fatalist who believes ‘a man is tied to his fate, like a dog to a cart,’ must run, bluff, hide and fight his way across the Seven Hills. He must reach the Colosseum, and the Emperor, before it’s too late…

Sidebottom is on cracking form in this sensational, race-against-time adventure which pits Ballista against a legion of ruthless enemies including the Praetorian Guard, the City Watch and the much-feared frumentarii, the secret service of the Roman Empire.

In trademark style, Sidebottom also gives us an intriguing insight into the Roman way of life as Ballista travels at breakneck speed though some of the city’s iconic streets and landmarks, outwitting his assailants, taking on the mightiest in Rome and all the while trying to unravel a deadly political conspiracy.

Historical novelists, says Sidebottom, ‘are the gatekeepers of history and have a duty to get things right.’ So if you want to be entertained as well as reliably informed, enjoy all-action thrillers, fancy a fascinating whistle-stop tour of the ancient City of Rome, and revel in witnessing a bygone world brought to vivid, visceral life, then The Last Hour should tick every box.

(Zaffre, hardback, £12.99)