Fresh from their victory in Germania, Marcus Aquila and the Tungrians have been sent to Dacia, on the north-eastern edge of the Roman Empire, with the mission to safeguard a major source of imperial power.
The mines of Alburnus Major contain enough gold to pave the road to Rome. They would make a mighty prize for the marauding Sarmatae tribesmen who threaten the province, and the outnumbered auxiliaries are entrusted with their safety in the face of a barbarian invasion.
Beset by both the Sarmatian horde and more subtle threats offered by men who should be their comrades, the Tungrians must also come to terms with the danger posed by a new and unexpected enemy.
They will have to fight to the death to save the honour of the empire – and their own skins.
Starting a long-running series a few books in is always a bit daunting, which is why it’s taken me so long to actually read Anthony Riches’ The Wolf’s Gold, despite having a review copy since it was published in 2012. Because The Wolf’s Gold is the fifth book in Riches’ Empire series, which follows the trials and tribulations of Marcus Valerius Aquila, a Roman centurion who is set on the path of vengeance after his father and his family are murdered. But as I now have books five, six, and seven and this month is historical fiction month on the blog, I decided to take a leap and see how I went. And fortunately it went quite well; while there were definitely elements of the book that refer to past events, Riches does explain the bare bones for new readers and the story can be easily followed without having read the previous books. However, I did have the sense that I was missing some of the nuances of character interactions, but rather than being a nuisance, it made me want to find the previous books and get caught up on the story.
In The Wolf’s Gold Marcus and his cohort have been sent far from their normal post in Britannia and we join them in Dacia. For someone who isn’t that familiar with Roman history beyond the well-known facts, especially outside of Western Europe, trying to find my feet in the terminology and geography of the Roman world was a bit difficult at first, but I soon found my footing and settled into it. Riches writes with an economy of language that doesn’t leave much room for lavish and detailed descriptions, but focuses more on action and dialogue. It was a style I needed to get used to especially after my last reads having been books that were quite the opposite, but which suited the story and the plot quite well. Riches doesn’t waste his words and at about a third from the end I came to realise that nothing he writes is wasted; scenes that didn’t seem to have a very large impact on the narrative at the time they occur turn out to be pivotal to the resolution of the plot. As a consequence the plotting is very tight and far more complex than it appears at first blush.
Marcus Aquila is quite a sympathetic main character. He’s an honourable man, a leader who cares for his men and who inspires a lot of loyalty in his comrades. I really liked his friendship with his fellow centurions and his senior officers. Marcus is also a very capable character, who seems to have a natural knack for soldiering and strategy. While he is the protagonist of the series and the novel, his isn’t the only point of view in the book. In fact, Riches employs many points of view, several of them recurring, such as those of Julius and Scaurus, some of them one time only such as those of Mus and Lupus. It creates a dynamic narrative allowing the author to play fast and loose with what the reader knows. Because while several points of view allow us to see things one perspective couldn’t cover, it also allows Riches to keep things hidden from the reader, only to be hinted at and then later revealed with a flourish. Mostly these revelations are a welcome tada-moment in the narrative. There was only a reveal towards the end of the book for which I had missed any and all clues that left me a bit confused and grumpy as it just came out of left field for me.
I have a soft spot for military tales, be it historical, non-fiction, fantasy, or science fiction. What attracts me is not just that often these are tales of people rising to the occasion, beyond what they ever thought they were capable of, but also the cohesion and camaraderie of people serving in a unit. The loyalty a strong unit has to each other and the banter that often accompanies people being stuck at close quarters with each other, when done well, never fails to draw me in to a story. And this sense of brotherhood, connection and banter is something that Riches gets across very well. I love the way the men mock each other and joke about, only to risk life and limb for each other in the next scene. What Riches also portrayed very well is the ruthless nature of Roman politics and the way that military command and warfare was a way to get ahead in the Senate, leading to treachery and corruption quite often. These political officers are contrasted to the career officers quite starkly, as are those of Roman descent and those who are from outlying provinces. It makes life interesting for Marcus and company, since not even a victory is set in stone—it’s all about how it’s spun politically in Rome.
Despite some troubling finding my feet, I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent with Marcus and the Tungrian cohorts in Dacia. Riches tells a compelling tale that spares no one and had me blinking in shock at some of the turns of events in the book. I was completely drawn in by the men of the Tungrian cohorts and I was really glad I could crack open the next book, The Eagle’s Vengeance, immediately. While The Wolf’s Gold stands well enough on its own – its plot and the Tungrians’ mission for the book are all resolved and completed – the overarching story is clearly still ongoing, with Marcus having received an important new piece of information to aid him in his quest for justice and revenge. I may have only joined the adventure late, but I’m glad I did and I look forward to spending many more books with Marcus, Julius, Scaurus and company.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.