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Ben Kane recently said that one of his early ideas for a Roman historical novel was about soldiers stationed at Hadrian's Wall. When he was asked if he would ever consider revisiting the idea, he said he still liked the idea, but a number of authors had used it since. One of these is Anthony Riches, whose ''Empire'' series is set on Hadrian's Wall and to judge from ''Wounds of Honour'', it's certainly an idea worth exploring.
Riding to the Northern outpost of the Roman Empire to deliver a message, Marcus Valerius Aquila is seemingly attacked by a band of barbarians, but is rescued by a group of Tungrian irregulars, fighting as part of the Roman army. Arriving at his destination, it soon becomes clear that the attack was deliberate, as his father has been condemned as a traitor back in Rome by Emperor Commodus and his whole family have been put to the sword.
Although there are some determined to finish the job the Emperor started, fortunately Marcus finds some support on Hadrian's Wall. A plan is hatched to hide him amongst the Tungrians, although not everyone in his new legion is impressed at the plan to make him a centurion. Marcus has a fight to win over his own men, even as the threat from the barbarians grows and the potential for battle looms. On top of this, his secret may not be quite as secret as he thought.
I thoroughly enjoyed ''Wounds of Honour'', as Riches' feel for the pacing of a story and the perfect way to combine the political manoeuvrings with the potential excitement and danger of life on a war footing is very much in evidence all the way through. With Marcus needing to build up his reputation with his own men before he even gets to battle, we get a good look at life in the irregular legions, both in training and during their rare down time. Although the main focus is on their training, Riches manages to mix situations up very well so that the pace of the book remains high, even when there isn't a lot of action.
The major characters are very well drawn, with each having a distinct personality that helps separate them. Riches contrasts the inexperience of Marcus with the maturity of Rufius and the rough edges of Dubnus, yet making sure the reader is in no doubt that all these varied people are on the same side. Some of the minor characters do blur into each other a little and we never get to see the real differences between the Roman irregulars and the barbarians they were drawn from, but this doesn't tend to be a major concern, as the story moves on swiftly enough that you pass over these things very quickly.
My main concern was that the battle scenes seemed a little generic, with the thrown spears and sword thrusts in the melee all blending into one another. It may be that I've been spoiled by the vividness of Ben Kane's depictions of the heat of battle and someone who hasn't read his work wouldn't feel their absences in Riches' writing as much as I did. There wasn't quite as much intrigue in this story as in Kane's work either, but that doesn't mean ''Wounds of Honour'' isn't a gripping story, as Ben Kane has set the bar so high in Roman historical fiction that many writers will fall short, which is no disgrace at all.
The one aspect of the book that did jar slightly was the use of language, particularly from the Tungrian irregulars. Some of the phrases they used, most notably when they were hurling insults at each other, seemed a little too modern. Perhaps this was a deliberate attempt to separate their language from that used by the Romans, but it did stick out a little and proved to be a slight distraction from events on the occasions it stuck out the most.
This aside, though, ''Wounds of Honour'' is certainly a very good debut novel and site quite happily alongside other books in the genre. It's not perfect, but perfection is so difficult to attain and this doesn't fall too far short and with this being a debut novel as well as the opening to a series, I'm confident that Riches' writing will improve as he goes along. This will make future books worth keeping an eye on and with someone good enough to be worth a look, there's no better place to start than at the beginning. Unfortunately, 'Wounds of Honour" isn't available terribly cheaply at the moment, with a cheapest purchase price of £5.30 from the Amazon Marketplace, although this may come down when the paperback version becomes available in March 2010. My local library has plenty of historical fiction books available, however, so this may be one you can find to borrow and it's definitely worth a read on that basis.
This is a slightly amended version of a review previously published under my name at www.thebookbag.co.uk