Fresh-faced teenager Cassius Corbulo never wanted to be a soldier – and certainly not a hero – but the Roman army has quite literally left him holding the fort.
It’s 270 AD and Syria is one of the most volatile outposts of Marcus Aurelius’s weakened empire which is facing the constant threat of invasion and revolt.
Into this cauldron of simmering rebellion steps the noble-born Cassius, a callow nineteen-year-old and the leading player in a superbly crafted, all-action debut novel from scriptwriter turned author Nick Brown.
Roman fiction is becoming a crowded market but Brown’s intelligent and exhilarating story excels in its perfect pace, vivid combat sequences and superb characterisation.
He brings to life Roman warfare in all its raw intensity and excitement... the fear, the tension, the physical endurance and the sheer blood-soaked brutality.
After an ill-advised dalliance with one of his aunt’s handmaidens, Cassius’s father dispatched him from Rome to join the army and learn a bit of ‘discipline.’
He was supposed to be an intelligence agent for the Imperial Security Service, an elite group which acts as the ‘eyes and ears’ of the emperor, but his arrival in Syria coincided with a rebellion unleashed by Queen Zenobia of Palmyra.
The ambitious and charismatic ruler has turned her Roman-trained army against her former masters and the once invincible legions have been crushed. Arabia, Palestine and Egypt have fallen and now Antioch, Syria’s capital city, stands exposed.
Cassius has been assigned the menial task of rounding up wounded legionaries but then urgent new orders arrive.
He is the only ranking Roman officer left in the line of the Palmyran advance and must take command of the fort of Alauran, the last stronghold still in Roman hands, and hold it against the enemy until reinforcements arrive.
What Cassius finds at Alauran would daunt the most seasoned veteran, let alone a teenager with no experience of war. A mere scattering of divided and demoralised legionaries remain, backed up by some fractious Syrian auxiliaries and a drunken Praetorian Guardsman.
Ranged against him is a formidable Palmyran army led by the seemingly invincible Azaf, a highly skilled swordsman who has the god-given talent of weighing up his opponents and his battle options in the blink of an eye.
With the enemy just days away, Cassius must somehow find the discipline, resourcefulness and courage to organise the garrison, save Alauran and secure Rome’s eastern frontier...
The first of a new series, The Siege delivers a thrilling coming-of-age adventure with an unlikely but likeable hero whose exploits are set to win an army of fans.
(Hodder, paperback, £7.99)