When the deputy commander of Rome’s Imperial Security Service is assassinated on the island of Rhodes, Cassius Corbulo swiftly finds himself embroiled in the investigation. Assisted once more by ex-gladiator bodyguard Indavara and servant Simo, his search for the truth is complicated by the involvement of the dead man’s headstrong daughter, Annia.
Braving hostile seas, Cassius and his allies follow the assassin’s trail south aboard a ship captained by a roguish Carthaginian smuggler and manned by his disparate, dangerous crew. Their journey leads them to the farthest reaches of the empire; to a ruined city where the rules of Roman civilization have long been abandoned, and a deadly battle of wits with a brutal, relentless foe.
Nick Brown’s The Far Shore features the second Roman setting in my historical fiction month and it’s the second such series I’m not starting at the beginning. Despite not starting with the first book in the Agent of Rome series, The Far Shore is very readable and it doesn’t feel like the reader misses crucial information by not having read the previous books. More than Anthony Riches’ Empire series, Agent of Rome feels episodic, especially since The Far Shore is essentially a murder mystery. However, that may not be true for all of the books in the series, but I can only judge by this one. And The Far Shore is an exciting story, with a satisfyingly neat ending, that left me curious to learn more of Cassius, Indavara, and Simo.
Interestingly, while Cassius Corbulo is the book’s protagonist, I connected far more strongly with his bodyguard Indavara. In fact, at times I found Cassius downright unsympathetic. Cassius can be arrogant and headstrong and not always too considerate of the feelings of those around him. It’s a trait that comes to the fore most often in his treatment of Indavara, Annia, and Annia’s maid Clara. His thoughts and behaviour as regards the two women isn’t pretty—in his view of the world women should be seen and not heard, demure, dutiful and should know their place. Annia is none of these things, she’s opinionated, just as headstrong as Cassius and isn’t content with waiting at home for the men to discover who killed her father—unsurprisingly, I rather liked her. His exasperation with her behaviour, which at times is quite warranted, is often interspersed with thoughts that she’s quite attractive and if only she’d be better behaved, which exasperated me in turn. On a similar track are his dealings with Clara; while she seems to reciprocate his advances, it made me feel squicky as I kept doubting whether she’d ever really have been able to say no, seeing as she’s a slave.
But Cassius’ relationship with Indavara was the one that frustrated me the most. While at times it feels like there is a friendship in the making there, Cassius can’t seem to get over his snobbishness and forget that Indavara used to be a gladiator and as such is a freedman, not a citizen. Yet, there is certainly a lot of fellow-feeling there and he does seem to want to do right by Indavara, when he thinks about it consciously. At the same time, when Indavara catches Annia’s interest over Cassius, instead of acknowledging he’s jealous, he lashes out and decides Indavara is overreaching himself. However, I did like the fact that he’s called out on his behaviour and that he apologizes to Indavara later on in the story. His interactions with Indavara are contrasted with his far more equitable relationship with his man-servant Simo, another character I really liked.
Indavara is a mysterious character. We get the rough sketch of how he became Cassius’ bodyguard, but we don’t get any background on him other than that he used to be a gladiator and he’s saved Cassius’ life on several occasions. He’s a combination of hard experience in battle and a rather naive, innocent and uneducated soul outside of it. I found him a compelling character and I appreciated the petulance with which he regards Cassius’ treatment of him at times. His tentative romance with Annia was delightful and I loved the fact that he was so conscious of not wanting to overstep her boundaries. When we finally do learn more about Indavara’s past, near the end of the narrative, it clarifies a lot about him and I wonder if one of the next books won’t focus on the questions raised by this revelation.
The mystery central to the narrative is expertly plotted and paced. I really liked how it was resolved, though it came at a cost that I hadn’t foreseen at all. Brown doesn’t pull any punches and doesn’t keep anyone safe, and the lion almost killed me. I enjoyed the fact that while there are some pitched battles in the book, most of the conflict is of the more stealthy variety, which is fitting for a book featuring an intelligence officer. Additionally, Cassius is not a gifted warrior, in fact he’s middling at best, something that I found refreshing as usually this isn’t the case. Brown also took the action of the book to a portion of the Roman Empire I hadn’t encountered before and it was interesting to see how different things are on the other side of the Mediterranean.
The Far Shore was a really enjoyable book, whose last 150 or so pages I tore through in one sitting. Even if Cassius wasn’t the easiest protagonist to like at times, I did come to care for him as I did for his companions. The story was exciting and well-paced and I certainly hope to read more of Cassius’ adventures in the future. If you like your historical fiction set in the Roman period and like mysteries, then this is certainly a book you need to check out.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.