Book review: Empire: The Leopard Sword by Anthony Riches

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The Empire strikes back as historian and novelist Anthony Riches takes up the thrilling story of imperial fugitive Marcus Valerius Aquila, fighting as a centurion while on the run from the deadly forces of ancient Rome.

The Leopard Sword is part four of this brilliantly fast-paced, blood-soaked and brutal evocation of an empire battling the tyranny of its megalomaniac ruler Commodus and struggling to maintain the security of its northern lands.

As the action shifts from the tribal tribulations of wind-swept, damp and chilly Hadrian’s Wall in Britannia to the bandit-infested forests of Tungria in Germania, there is no let up in Riches’ ability to demonstrate what it meant and how it felt to be a Roman soldier.

His plots bristle with emotion, realism and electrifying tensions, his multi-layered characters open doors onto the fascinating everyday life of the Roman army and the sense of adventure that underpins the whole series makes each book a fresh source of excitement and enjoyment.

Riches knows his stuff and boy, does it show. Small but subtle visual and historic details have the power to transform the routine into the epic, and as the dramas in each chapter of Marcus’s chequered career unfold, so too do the hidden personalities and back stories of those who surround the young centurion.

It’s now AD 182, Britannia has been subdued and the murderous agents of the emperor, who slaughtered Marcus’s patrician family and nearly captured our hero, have been defeated by his loyal friends and fellow combatants.

But in order to protect those he holds dear, including his army medic wife Felicia, from the wrath of Commodus, he must leave the province which has been giving him shelter.

Under the assumed name of Marcus Tribulus Corvus, centurion of the second Tungrian auxiliary cohort, he leads his men from the northernmost tip of the empire in Britannia to the legion’s original home in Germania.

There he finds a very different world from the constant skirmishes on the British frontier, but still a land with its own very real dangers.

Tungrorum, the centre of a once prosperous farming province, a city already brought low by the ravages of the eastern plague that has swept through the empire, is now threatened by an outbreak of violent robberies.

A mysterious bandit chieftain called Obduro, his identity always hidden behind an iron cavalry helmet, is stealing and killing with impunity. His name is on the lips of every soldier in the province and his intricately patterned sword – sharper, stronger and more deadly than any known to the Romans – is the lethal symbol of his unstoppable power.

But what makes him doubly dangerous is his determination to enlist as many Romans as possible to his cause.

Marcus and his men must find him and unmask him before he destabilises the whole northern frontier of the empire...

While Marcus, his cohorts and the Empire series grow in stature, readers await the next instalment of this challenging and entertaining tour-de-force with a sense of heightened anticipation... and armed, of course, with the confidence that once again the ‘master of Rome’ will not disappoint.

(Hodder & Stoughton, hardback, £12.99)