Nick Brown: The Black Stone (Review and Q&A)

Nick Brown

Nick Brown grew up in Norfolk and has taught English and history in both the UK and abroad. He was inspired to try his hand at historical fiction after reading C.J. Sansom’s Dissolution.

The Black Stone (2014)
(The fourth book in the Agent of Rome series)
A novel by Nick Brown

black stone

AD 273. Obsessed by the solar religions of the east, the emperor Aurelian sets out to obtain every sacred object within his realm. But one – a conical rock said to channel the very voices of the gods – lies beyond his reach. Arabian king Amir Adi has captured the stone and intends to use its fabled power to raise an army against Rome. For imperial agent Cassius Corbulo and his bodyguard Indavara, recovering the stone will constitute their toughest mission yet.

Review

Since book one of this series i have been a fan, I don’t normally find myself gravitating towards mixed genres and this series with its Roman Spies, investigations all mixed in with classic blood and sandals Roman battles is as mixed as you can find.

BUT…it works and works well. I think for me its because it doesn’t really have the big muscle-bound hero, on one person who is just amazingly good at fighting or intelligent beyond his peers etc.. Cassius Corbulo is young, too young, and scared, he never wanted to be part of the Frumentarii, he wanted to be an Orator, to belong to the cerebral arts, to enjoy his status at the top of society. At the beginning he would never have survived without his bodyguard Indavara a man with his own troubled past. The series is set against varying locations of the empire, but always at a time when the Roman world was still struggling with all the varied religions and revolts, as much as it wanted to absorb other cultures, it struggled with the Christ Cult and to add to Cassius’s problems his slave Simo is a member.

Books 4 The Black Stone: unlike books two and three which (were excellent books) showed incremental improvements, the improvements I look for in authors as a series progresses. Book four however goes to a whole new level, the plot is woven with multiple layers of religious intrigue and intolerance, political intrigue, fighting, comradeship and the ever growing relationship and maturity of our band of hero’s. Cassius learns more about his limits, his courage, and his friends. Indavara starts to learn and over come his past. The relationship between these two has matured to a whole new level in this book.

The story the black Stone is well thought out and put together, and has the layers to keep you galloping along at a decent pace. But its the characters that make it a winner, the development of the characters in the book alone is excellent (let alone the series). There are many teasing glimpses of Indavara and his past which i feel will become the focus if a future book in the series. There is very real wear and tear on the team and their personalities and the dynamic as a group. Its this frailty this real humanity that shines out from the page and makes this such a good book. Its so easy to make a near invincible hero or villain, but Nick creates shades of grey. Good guys do bad things for the sake of others or politics, or just that its expedient. Bad guys do good things on a whim, or because they just want to walk away.  All of it means that when reading it you can empathise with the characters, to think..”Yeah..I get that”. The introduction of Gutha was a master-stroke, the perfect bad guy foil to Indavara, you spend so much of the book waiting for them to face off. Also the mystery of a Germanic warrior in the far east, adds such an element of difference to the tale, also bad guy is probably the wrong term, he is a mercenary, he fights for money and his master, so good guy / bad guy in this time period is a matter of perspective, His side pays him, and while they do, they are the good guys! I found this sort of thinking refreshing in a book of this type, rather than the standard good v evil. (im going to stop now before i give something away)

At almost 500 pages you get your moneys worth and a whole lot more, not once did this book feel like it should have been trimmed, despite the length the writing is sparse where it needs to keep the pace flowing and descriptive where you need to feel the heat and desolation of the desert. By the end of the book i guarantee you will be wanting more!

This book is Highly recommended

(Parm)

Q&A

When did you first consider yourself a writer?

That’s a good question; it’s probably only recently that I’d say I was if someone asked what I do. Of course anyone who writes is a writer but I think most people – possibly unfairly – would expect you to have had something published. In creative terms, I’m a big believer in just putting in the hours. Stephen King said it takes a million words to really get to grips with writing and I think there’s a lot of truth to that.

What led you to write Roman fiction?

Even though there are so many books covering the period, the Empire was so long-lasting and vast that the story opportunities are almost endless. Also, the sources allow us to picture the Roman world yet we remain in the dark about so many aspects. That is a compelling and attractive blend for creative minds.

 How much of the character behaviour in the series is based on people you know?

Not a huge amount though I do occasionally use real people for little details like speech patterns or physical behaviour. While I was on holiday in Croatia a couple of years back I saw a striking fellow and started making notes describing his appearance. My girlfriend was a bit bemused at the time but he turned out to be Captain Asdribar from ‘The Far Shore’!

 Where did the inspiration for Cassius come from?

I think it’s quite interesting to focus on a character from the patrician class because it provides a window on the ruling ‘elite’ – both the good and the bad. I appreciate that some of his antics can occasionally put readers off but I have always tried to stay true to how I believe someone like him would behave. At heart he is a good person but very much a product of his class and with all the accompanying traits of a young man with considerable status and power.

 Your Roman books are a mix of investigation (crime) and classic swords and sandals is this deliberate and why?

Absolutely. I think readers are very well served elsewhere if they want huge battles and political machinations so if I had to use one word to describe what I’m aiming for I would say ‘adventure’. There have been military and mystery elements in all four so far but I am always on the lookout for new story ideas.

Where next for our very mixed trio of (mis) adventurers?

Without being too specific, they are returning to a province where they’ve seen plenty of action before. Cassius thinks he’s found himself a nice and easy assignment but you won’t be surprised to hear that things soon go awry.

 If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?

I wouldn’t say I’ve studied anyone’s work to that degree but I am aware of certain aspects of my stuff being influenced by Tolkien, Fleming and Macdonald Fraser.

 Just for Fun: All time fav book?

Easy. ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ Story and character tremendous, not to mention the fact that Tolkien pretty much invented a genre.

Dinner…any 4 people from history, who would you invite and why?

First off, the Roman emperor Aurelian, who ruled at the time my series is set. Mind you, there’s then a danger I would ignore the rest of my dining companions so they need to be just as intriguing. Hammurabi would be another – the ruler of ancient Babylon lived in a fascinating time and led his people for about forty years. Then perhaps Boudicca, though I’d have to remember to seat her well away from Aurelian.  Lastly, I would go for the Roman gladiator Asteropaeus, who was said to have won 107 victories in the arena. Now that guy would have some stories to tell!

Series

Agent of Rome
1. The Siege (2011)
2. The Imperial Banner (2012)
3. The Far Shore (2013)
4. The Black Stone (2014)
The SiegeThe Imperial BannerThe Far ShoreThe Black Stone
Novellas
Death This Day (2012)
The Eleventh Hour (2013)
Death This DayThe Eleventh Hour
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