One would get tired of keeping hearing how great Simon's books are, how each of them is better than the one before and how it is an unmissable lecture for everyone. Also, over the past year I have come to immensely appreciate and admire Simon not only as a writer, but also as a human being and few things honour me more than being able to call him my friend. or, how he'd put it, 'mate'. So while I'm trying to keep as objective as possible there is an inherent amount of positive bias when writing about his books (although in saying this, and comparing mine to other reviews, I'm probably his harshest critic).
There's no helping it. Honestly, Praetorian II is amazingly great, better than the first of the series, about which I said at the time is his best book yet. I will from now on withhold this title, as his best book is probably, like always, his next one. The objection I had to Marius' Mules series was that it sticks to close to Caesar's diaries, the narrative being thus helped along towards a known ending. To this, he loosened the story around the main historical account and proved his mastery at both creating plots, as well as fleshing out accounts.
Praetorian I was such a great surprise because, while being anchored in a few isolated historically documented facts, it was mainly a work of fiction. An outstanding achievement and a very bold one at that, attacking cliches well established by such a good and famous work as the movie The Gladiator. And here's another cliche for you: Simon constantly sets his own bar very high and he constantly outdoes himself. Yes, Praetorian II is a better book than the first, a gripping lecture that literally kept me awake at night and turning the pages with eagerness, but also with regret that there will probably be more than six months until I will be able to read Praetorian III. A lot of the times, while reading The Price of Treason, I was waiting for a gap, a slowing down of the action, be it end of chapter or whatever, just to be able to put the book down and mind the business of the day.
There's no slowing down of the action. First to last page, poor Rufinus has no time to rest and with him, neither do the readers. If in the first Praetorian Rufinus gets stuck at Hadrian's Villa for quite a while, this second book is all about speed and moving around the empire wherever the interest of the emperor requires it. The emperor, Commodus, makes but a very brief appearance, and that's great. Fictionalizing the lives of great men in history is all good and swell, but only when taking a step back, and having characters from the background of the Roman political life at the forefront of the action we can understand the immensity of the administrative system of the empire, as well as the ways in which individual actions can shape the course of history.
And Rufinus is a great lead. Far from being the perfect smart, strong, witty Bond-esque hero, Rufinus is human, all too human, which makes him even more endearing than Bond. He is clumsy, very naive in some regards, slightly retarded emotionally and not always makes the right decisions. He is driven ahead by a sense of morality and justice, but not all of his decisions are good, he does not always get his way and things do not always go according to his plan, nor does everything works out in the end. A great life lesson here, under the guise of historical fiction. People can be vengeful, can be addicts, can do stupid things. Yet despite all that, they can still be heroes. Just as long as their intentions are good.
For goodness' sake, even the dog is in a moral grey area. Though loyal, reliable and helpful, Acheron, such an endearing character, is also a hindrance to Rufinus at times, who cannot move entirely free because of him. The dog makes him recognizable, and the fact that Rufinus and Acheron need to support and protect each other creates an even stronger bond between them. Another great life lesson.
I said and I maintain that the Praetorian series is, so far at least, a James Bond of ancient Rome. Only better. For the reasons mentioned above, but for a few others, too. Whilst Rufinus is completely devoted to his duty to the emperor, what happens when the emperor himself is getting things wrong? What happens when the emperor himself is a power thirsty usurper? How will Rufinus get through the year of the five emperors? Will Pertinax be the good guy or the bad guy? How about Severus?
Nevermind emperors though. What of Rufinus' brother, Publius? Will he survive his semi-captivity? Are Rufinus' friends Mercator and Icarion still alive? Will he see them again? Does he have a future with Senova? Oh, yes, I am looking forward to Praetorian III. No least because at least part of the action will take place in Dacia. I'm from there, you know?
Right, I said Bond. Frankly, the speed of the action, the importance of reaching key places in time with key elements also reminded me of Jack Bauer. High level corruption is also an element dealt with better by 24 than by Jan Fleming's hero. Except that, again, Simon does one better than the writers of 24 for not going for the ridiculously absurd strong, smart, moral and self-sacrificing hero. There is no such thing as Jack Bauer in real life. There might as well have been a Rufinus though. There is perfect plausibility in the historical existence and deeds of Rufinus, although there is no proof for it.
I'd stop here with my review, but I realise I did not mention Vibus Cestius. New guy, but everyone will like him instantly. I mean, not instantly, but from the second when, after revealing layer after layer of disguises of the so-called 'great game' Simon finally tells us who he really is. You'll love Vibius Cestius. The second you understand who he is.
Another habit I've developed is to send an email to Simon after each review of one of his book to discuss typos and inaccuracies in the text. I could not find any in this book, so the email won't be coming. Instead, I want him to have fun on his documentation trip to Dacia. Or, as he describes it in the very last sentence of the book... 'Another gods-forsaken land of barbarians at the periphery of the civilised world.'
Some things never change, I guess. Have fun in Romania, Simon!