Book Review: Brothers in Blood
Keeping Up With the Romans
by Simon Scarrow
The Overlook Press, 2015
Long-time Roman historical novelist Simon Scarrow’s latest book is the 13th installment, a daunting enough prospect, but Scarrow is such an old hand at inviting newcomers into the world of the Roman legions that the narrative of Brothers in Blood feels as fresh and unweighted as a first novel.
Scarrow’s two main characters, his charismatic team, return here: the willful, somewhat prissy Prefect Quintus Licinius Cato and his loutish, true-hearted friend Centurion Lucius Cornelius Macro, both now assigned to Britain in the hunt for the famed resistance leader Caractacus. And since this novel takes place in AD 52 during the reign of aging emperor Claudius, the intercut scenes taking place in the city of Rome likewise feature a duo of men, the scheming and powerful freedmen running Claudius’ court, Pallas and Narcissus. It’s from Rome that the tentacles of a mysterious plot reach out to threaten Cato and Macro all the way in the mist-capped hill of Britannia, where the hunt for Caractacus is heating up – and where Cato is learning the unsavory side of authority:
Cato nodded as he did some quick mental arithmetic. Macro’s cohort had suffered heavy losses at the fort and rather than field six sparsely manned cohorts, Cato had ordered that the survivors be formed into two units with a more acceptable level of manpower so that they could operate as effective tactical units. The same was true of his own cohort, the Second Thracian Cavalry. There were just enough troopers left to fill the saddles of three squadrons, barely ninety men in all. So his command, the escort of the baggage train and camp followers, amounted to two hundred and ten men. If Caractacus managed to slip a raiding force in between General Ostorius’s main column and the rearguard they could play havoc before a sufficient force could be marshaled to drive them off again. And if that calamity did come about, it was certain that the general would hold Cato to account, despite the lack of men available to him. Such were the iniquities of an officer’s life, Cato reflected with weary bitterness.
A passage like that neatly illustrates why Scarrow’s historical novels are so popular; he’s developed to a high art the technique of seamlessly working exposition into his narrative without slowing it down half a step. His Roman-colonized Britain is very effectively evoked, and he takes evident delight in his secondary characters, presenting almost all of them as in one way or another some kind of foil to Cato and Macro, as in the case of strutting popinjay Tribune Otho, who tends to call people “chaps” and is therefore to be despised:
The polished strips of his leather jerkin gleamed in the sunshine and his cloak was clean and showed none of the fraying or small tears that marred the cloaks of the other officers. The rest of his armour and equipment was equally new and to cap it all he wore closed leather books dyed red that laced up to the tops of his shins.
‘As bright as a newly minted denarius,’ Macro muttered with a disapproving shake of his head. ‘He’s going to stand out like a swinging dick at a eunuch massage parlor. Every Silurian warrior worth his salt is going to be after his head.’
There’s never any real dramatic tension in these Cato and Macro novels, but thanks to Scarrow’s skill at both catchy dialogue and vivid action sequences, most readers will hardly notice the lack of it. This series is pure entertainment, and this latest installment is about as satisfying a way to spend 90 minutes as anything a Roman history buff could want.