Emperor: The Death of Kings by Conn IgguldenThere really shouldn’t be a single good reason for Conn Iggulden’s new book, Emperor: The Death of Kings, to stand out the way that it does. It’s not like there is not already a plethora of historical fiction out there. A quick browse through the fiction section picks out books on the battle of Sparta, various minor Roman commanders, and other historical action from ancient times. That’s without even getting into the Patrick O’Brian school of seafaring warfare or the bodice-rippers that pretend at being real novels. Another book about dusty old Rome, let alone a sequel to a book just out last year should not be the big deal that it is.
That said, I had this particular book in my hands the minute it hit the bookstore windows here in London. British author Iggulden’s books are gripping in a way that I have not read in years. Following the events of 2003’s Emperor: The Gates of Rome, which introduced a young Julius Caesar and Marcus Brutus, this continuation features all the elements that made the first book great. Bloody action, savage heroism and a terrible rivalry combine to carry on a story that defies the very nature of this particular tale. We as readers want to find out how it’s going to end, which is ridiculous when any student of history or Shakespeare knows how it ends. It’s a tribute to Iggulden’s skill at reworking one of history’s great epics.
As the new book begins, our heroes are moving along separate paths. Julius Caesar, serving aboard a war galley, is embroiled in a vicious assault on the fort of Mytilene. As in the best parts of Gates of Rome, the action in The Death of Kings is merciless. Iggulden writes of men such as Gaditicus, who in the first few pages, “backhanded a man in the teeth as he ran at him, following through with a short thrust into the ribs.”
In a story supported by historical record, Caesar and his men are captured by pirates and held for ransom in the Mediterranean. Not bowing to any man, especially not a river pirate, Julius demands a higher ransom be suggested before promising to crucify each pirate after having their officers strangled. After months of captivity, he and his band of Roman soldiers are abandoned on the coast of North Africa, where Iggulden imagines the personal charisma of Julius Caesar as he recounts his bid to raise funds and an army before returning to Rome. The fact that all of these events are supported by history makes them all the more compelling.
Back in Rome, Iggulden matches the brutality of those soldiers on the march with the intrigue of the ongoing power struggles of the capital. In a break with history that better suits the pace of the story, the vile dictator Sulla is assassinated by one of Caesar’s servants, leading to a secret war in the back alleys of Rome. Marcus Brutus sets about raising a legion of soldiers, only to be forced to give them up to Caesar’s command on his return. Brutus’s lover Cornelia represents herself well in the difficult task of surviving in a man’s world, while protecting the boy Octavian, a child who will grow to be Emperor himself.
Iggulden’s great skill comes not only in representing ancient Rome with some semblance of historical accuracy but also in balancing those facts with a fantastically told story. History tells us that Caesar set about raising an army on the African coast or that Caesar’s enemy led his men to destruction when he could have led them to escape. Iggulden imagines why these events may have happened in the way that they did. In making the dead live, he searches for meaning in the lives of great men while never forsaking the action and pace of the tale.
The Death of Kings, like the preceding novel, leads up to a bloody and savage finish. Caesar and Brutus are reunited to face a series of crises that will ultimately cost the future Emperor dearly and pit them against another of history’s great characters, the rebel gladiator Spartacus.
This is great reading, not only because it is epic but because it is well told. Iggulden’s depictions of ancient warfare, the intrigue of the Roman Senate, and the clash between Caesar and his many enemies are so convincing that he makes the reader believe this story, making it more vibrant than any history. The Death of Kings is that rare sequel that not only brings a particular world back to life, but breathes new life into it. The ominous knowledge of the developing rivalry between Caesar and Brutus only adds to the bittersweet pleasure of finishing this book and waiting for more.
Emperor: The Death of Kings by Conn Iggulden