Macro and Cato are a pair of Roman soldiers who have saved the Empire again and again over the course of 10 different novels together. In this installment, they are embroiled in the intrigue that is commonplace in the capital city itself; as they learn, even the mighty Roman empire is just a few days from rebellion when the imperial stash of grain runs out. Macro and Cato are tasked with infiltrating the Emperor’s own Praetorian guard and discovering who wishes to topple the Emperor and cause chaos in the city before it’s too late to stop.
I’m new to Scarrow’s series about Macro and Cato set across the Roman Empire, currently in the time of Claudius’s rule, but I am a big fan of Bernard Cornwell and this series is considered similar enough to grab my interest. You know the kind of historical fiction I’m talking about; usually that concerned with the grittier realities of battle and intrigue rather than any sort of courtly or royal high life. This is much more firmly on the gritty side, with a fair share of battle, swearing, and conspiracy.
I was curious from the first few pages; a large amount of silver bullion is stolen from underneath the Empire’s nose, leading into a complete scheme to kill the Emperor Claudius. What happens next differs depending who you talk to, but what matters is the Emperor’s life, and so Macro and Cato, who have proved themselves in so many other ways, are set in disguise and placed in wait to discover who is dissatisfied with the Emperor.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, jumping in without having read any of the preceding series, but I found I really didn’t need much prior experience with the characters to get into the story. There is a bit of the backstory between them revealed, mostly as and when it becomes relevant, but it seemed the perfect balance alongside the more fast-paced sections of the plot.
I also loved the touches of research that Scarrow threw into the book. I’ve never really studied the Roman Empire at all, but I have studied classical Latin, and I picked it up immediately when he included the famous phrase that gladiators said to the Emperor before a battle – “We who are about to die salute you” – which is known to have been genuinely said at least once, during the very battle that happens in this book. It was also a new and richer experience for me to read a book set in Rome now that I’ve been there; and Macro and Cato even take trips to Ostia, the port town that I visited which is still so complete. I could envision them walking down those streets, admittedly with a bit more flesh and plaster on the buildings, but the book itself did very well in giving me a mental portrait of Rome and the surrounding countryside.
Praetorian easily stands alone, then, and all by itself had me keen to look into reading the other ten volumes of the series. I’m very curious to see how the relationship between Macro and Cato has grown throughout the series, even if most of them aren’t set in Rome itself, and to pick up on the threads of backstory that were mentioned here. If you’re looking for historical fiction set in the Roman Empire, you can hardly go wrong with this one.
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