Ruling Rome is a dangerous business, and Emperor Nero is on the throne without an heir, about to learn this to his peril. Young Aulus Caecina Severus, nearly thirty years old and just recently covered in glory thanks to a successful campaign against Boudicca in Britain, is caught up in a scheme against Nero that could lead to incredible danger or even more glory and authority. For his appointed emperor, he’s required to lead armies, commit treason, fight against his own people, and even suffer torture. Told from the perspective of his older self, Severus takes us through what is called the Year of Four Emperors as we witness some of the worst depths of the Roman political machine.
Unlike a lot of the other Roman focused historical fiction I read, this isn’t really a blood and guts, down to earth, as it really was book. It could have been fairly easily and at times it approaches that level. After all, Severus sees his fair share of battles, and the book opens with one. But Severus’s tone makes it very clear to us that he is more sophisticated than that. He’s not a plain soldier, but a man who feels he warrants greater things and who has been educated to take them. I think the book’s mildly arrogant tone perfectly fits a Roman citizen who spends most of the book amongst people he calls barbarians in Rome’s conquered territories.
Though the politics of this particular period in history are fairly complex, Venmore-Roland does a good job of simplifying them enough that he won’t lose his audience while keeping the tension high. I’d never heard of this period in history, and I was definitely intrigued enough to keep on reading throughout. There are a lot of back door conversations and at times the info-dumping gets very severe. This is a natural consequence of the fact that our main character is far away from Rome, the nerve center of most of the rebellion, and has to receive information and instructions from messengers. He’s also very, very reactionary in this respect. There are a few times when he takes action, like when he leads a battle and saves his men from complete destruction, but usually he hears about or is faced with an event and has to react to it.
What this book does focus on is the level of treachery that could go on within the Roman empire. Severus takes part in a rebellion against the sitting emperor, other people join the rebellion and then defect, he fights against men who are essentially on the same side as him thanks to treachery, and so on, without spoiling the actual events of the book. It’s an entertaining ride through treason, that’s for certain.
The Last Caesar would be a great historical fiction read for someone who is particularly interested in the Roman empire or would like a battle-focused novel without the same blood-and-guts feel of similar books in the genre.
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