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Book Review of “The Road to Rome”

A much wiser man than myself once said, “Be patient. All good things come to those who wait.” For once, this aphorism rang true. After two weeks of fruitless trips to the mailbox, Ben Kane’s highly anticipated third novel in the Forgotten Legion Chronicles arrived at my doorstep. Like a petulant child presented with a birthday gift I tore open the packaging, removed The Road to Rome from its bubble-wrapped confines and immediately became enmeshed in the continuing saga of the twins, Fabiola and Romulus, and Tarquinius, the Etruscan soothsayer.  Six hours and half a gallon of coffee later, I laid the book down, sad that it ended and hungry for more.

The Road to Rome begins right where The Silver Eagle left off:   In Alexandria, Egypt where Romulus and Tarquinius have finally arrived following years abroad after serving in Crassus’ disastrous campaign to tame the Parthian Empire.  Press-ganged into Caesar’s legions, Romulus and Tarquinius find themselves embroiled in the Roman Civil War.  Forced to fight for their lives against overwhelming Egyptian forces, only the military genius of Caesar and the fighting spirit of his legions ward off annihilation.  While Romulus fights for his life with the rest of Caesar’s small expeditionary force, his twin, Fabiola, sets sale from Alexandria and returns home with her lover, Marcus Decimus Brutus.  Heartened by what she thought to be a fleeting glimpse of her brother, whom she believed dead along with the rest of Crassus’ ill-fated expedition, once back in Rome Fabiola continues with her obsessive quest to murder Caesar.

What makes The Road to Rome different from other historical novels involving Julius Caesar’s demise is the prism through which the drama unfolds. Convinced that Caesar is their father (the twins’ mother was raped by a Roman nobleman) and therefore responsible for her former life as a slave and prostitute, Fabiola becomes the catalyst for the plot to murder Caesar on the Ides of March.  Using the wiles gleaned from a life of being forced to have sex with men against her will, Fabiola enlists the help of disaffected nobles such as Marcus Brutus and Cassius Longinus, even while she conducts an affair with Caesar’s most trusted lieutenant, Marcus Antonius, the deadly enemy of her lover.  Finally, after years of separation and not truly knowing whether the other twin was alive or dead, the siblings are reunited after Romulus earns his freedom and fortune from none other than Julius Caesar himself.   Fabiola wastes no time in recruiting Romulus into the conspiracy to murder Caesar, revealing to Romulus that Caesar was the noble who raped their mother.  Faced with the complex emotions and moral conflict of having experienced slavery, life and death in the gladiator pits, the camaraderie of the legions and ultimately freedom and redemption, Romulus finds his relationship with his twin sister under the strain of this turmoil:  Romulus loves and respects Caesar, but had previously sworn to kill the man responsible for the rape of their mother and their subsequent enslavement.

In sum, Ben Kane brilliantly weaves historical nuggets into a taut, riveting historical thriller sure to please those who like their history served with a side of fiction.  And in case you are wondering whether you will had to have read the prequels to The Road to Rome, put your mind at ease.  This book can stand alone without resort to the previous two novels in the The Forgotten Legion Chronicles, a quality this reviewer considers a must when assessing a series book.

Review of The King of Plagues

I really had no clue as to what to expect from The King of Plagues, the third novel in Jonathan Maberry’s Joe Ledger series. I have never read the prequels to Maberry’s newest release so when I responded to an email query and agreed to review the book my private concern was that I not be bored. And freedom from boredom is a guarantee no author, agent or publicist will ever issue regardless of the quality of the book at hand. It’s too subjectively vague a standard, intuited to the preferences and tastes of the individual. Thankfully, boredom was not an issue with this read.

The King of Plagues is a fast moving, action-packed read that provides enough back-story and hindsight in its narrative so that the reader quickly becomes invested without the necessity of having to have read the first two books in the series. Well done, Mr. Maberry. Crafting a third novel in a series that can stand on its own merits without a reader having knowledge of its predecessors is no small feat and one that Maberry made look easy. It also helps to have a suspenseful, conspiracy driven plot and conflicted characters.

I immediately took a liking to the book’s main character, Joe Ledger. Maybe it’s his name. Or maybe it’s because Ledger is a witty and rugged Department of Military Sciences operative who is willing to do what is necessary to get the bad guys. Grief stricken and recovering from a recent loss, Ledger is recalled to active duty when the historic Royal London Hospital is rocked by explosions and thousands die in the building’s fiery collapse.  Swept up in vortex of dicey missions, clues, and dead bodies, Ledger dogs the trail and pursues those responsible through a series of blood-chilling scenes sure to raise the reader’s pulse. To his horror, Ledger discovers that a shadowy global criminal conspiracy, the Seven Kings, is poised to release a weaponized version of the Ten Plagues of Egypt. Ledger and his team survive assassination attempts, the Ebola virus, red herrings and misdirections as their investigation peels back layers of deception designed to conceal an ugly truth:  terror, war, famine, and disease and fear fuel market meltdowns, stock crashes and beget nations on the verge of chaos, which proves to be profitable for those kindly situated.

In sum, if you’re in the fiction market for a bit of adventurism blended artfully with a dose of suspenseful thriller, then The King of Plagues should find its way to your bookshelf or downloaded onto your e-reader. Enjoy. I did.

Fear and Loathing in Self-Publishing

Where I’m from it’s impolite to speak of those that have passed, but I’d like to apologize to Hunter Thompson for the title of today’s post.  And in other news…I’m cured!  The madness that has remorselessly held me in its grip the past month or so has suddenly subsided, and for once I’m focused on something that isn’t orange and bouncy. It’s a miracle!  No. It’s the fact that the Wildcats lost to UCONN in this past weekend’s Final Four. Oh well. There’s always next year. And besides, I feel more like my old self again and it’s back to the books and literature for this blogger. And if all goes well then more historical fiction and more writing about historical fiction to boot.

I had planned on posting a review of Ben Kane’s newest book, The Road to Rome, but fate or the postal service is to blame for best laid plans going awry. Either way, the book has not yet made it to my doorstep. Until The Road to Rome does arrive, how about taking a peek at an excerpt from a historical novel I recently finished (writing):

“Over two thousand years ago, in a vanished world in which gallant death and honor still holds sway, Gaius Julius Caesar is crushing Briton’s fierce, blue-painted warlords and exacting a heavy price in exchange for peace. News from Rome and word of rebellion in war-ravaged Gaul cut short Caesar’s invasion of Briton, leaving him little choice but to return to Gaul. Leaving for Gaul, Caesar entrusts a depleted legion to Cussius Caesar, and senior centurion, Marcus Rulus. With orders to further explore Briton and return to Gaul with the tribute, Marcus and Cussius find themselves in a remarkable quest to carve a future out of the land.  A Roman Peace in Briton: Blood on the Stone follows the lives of those left behind whose fates become bound to the people of the fabled, fog-bound lands of ancient Briton. Filled with dramatic scenes and abounding in fictional and historical personalities, this first novel in a planned trilogy hooks with passionate storytelling and engulfs the reader in events of historical legend.”

And there it is. The proposed contents for the inside of my novel’s book jacket laid bare for all the world to see. Trust me on this. Condensing a 112,000 word novel into a catchy squib and synopsis is not as easy as it would seem. As a matter of fact, its nigh impossible. Perhaps if I were pursuing the traditional route of publishing, an in-house editor at xyz literary agency would come up with something catchier and squibbier than what my efforts have yielded to date. (xyz agency would likely tell me that “squibbier” is not a word and justly so) Or maybe not. That’s part and parcel of the beauty of self-publishing.

There are risks involved, even for something as seemingly minor as coming up with the jacket squib. On the plus side of the ledger, the writer maintains control of his or her work. On the negative side of the ledger, the writer maintains control of his or her work. Confusing? Not really.  Unless you’re Stephen King  and don’t give two twits about punctuation and sentence structure, most times it just makes sense to have other folks eyeballing your work.  Experienced readers, and proof readers and copy editors will notice things the writer’s mind skips over, or is just too stubborn to notice without the proper prompting.  No matter which route is taken there remains one unavoidable fact: a lot of hard work goes into producing a quality product.

Though I intend on self-publishing (insert horrified gasps here) I have been fortunate in that my manuscript’s odyssey started way back when I stumbled across a local book club whose members just so happened to have an appetite for historical fiction. Though I’m not a member of their book club they were  kind enough to read the manuscript in its infancy.  Suffice to say their reviews and feedback proved invaluable to the evolution of the novel. The novel continued to form as it made its rounds amongst interested family and valued friends. More feedback resulted and revisions quickly followed. Finally, a veteran copy-editor with an eye for details and historical context undertook the project after a chance encounter at a second-hand store.  Another round of rewrites ensued.  During this three year period the manuscript had also been accepted for review by a couple of literary agents who ultimately declined representation.  Boo hoo. How will I ever recover from the stigma of rejection?

By doing it myself that’s how. Gasp. Sniff. The horror of it all. Yes. All of that. I’m sure some of you must think this blogger to be quite mad and still mired in the last ebbing throes of Final Four fever. I assure you that’s not the case. I’m content and at peace with self-publishing.  Don’t get my meaning crossed. It’s not that self-publishing is any easier than having an agent and publishing house.  It’s not. It’s actually harder. Looming great is the proverbial mountain that must be scaled.  But it’s not as if I’m the first writer to go it alone. He of the wanton punctuation, Stephen King, and others like Virginia Woolf, Thomas Paine, John Grisham, Mark Twain, Hemingway, T.S. Elliot and Beatrix Potter are a mere handful of the literary giants who at one time or another took a rejected manuscript and published it themselves.  Self-publishing stories invariably make for good story telling as well.  It’s hard not to admire the pluck shown by John Grisham who wouldn’t give up and sold copies of his first novel from the trunk of his car.  Or how about the most recent self-publishing hero Amanda Hocking who endured rejection after rejection from agents and publishing houses, but still managed to sell hundreds of thousands of copies of her self-published novels.

My hat is off to all of them and from their examples I will take inspiration and be ever mindful to hone and polish my work before releasing the same for public consumption.  That day is not too far off.

Ever the Fool

Draining another cup of complimentary coffee, I tossed the empty Styrofoam cup into the waste basket and sidled into the chair opposite a neatly dressed gentleman whom I only have occasion to see once a year.  As soon as my bottom touched down, an overwhelming sense of dread engulfed me. The temperature outside was not even 40 degrees, but my nerves did not know the difference and the sweat  poured from my face, stinging eyes and continuing in salty rivulets as it coursed through the stubble of my unshaven cheeks and jaw and into the cotton fabric of my hoodie.

“Do you have everything?” the gentleman asked.

“I think,”  I said, frisking my jeans pockets one last time and emerging with stray lint and an old piece of gum. Not surprisingly, the gentleman refused the offer of gum.  “It should all be there,” I said, sliding the manila folder across the desk and into the practiced hands of  my tax preparer, Rob.

Rob opened the packet and riffled through the assortment of documents, clucking his tongue against the side of his cheek. “Here we go,” he said, his hand emerging with the sweet stuff: w-2′s, student loans and mortgage interest documents, charitable contributions, etc. “Let’s see what the damage is.”

My heart leaped into my throat and the walls seemed to push inward, the room suddenly grown smaller.  “Damage? What do you mean?” I asked, already knowing the answer but loathe to accept it.

“What you’re going to owe to the state and Uncle Sam,” came the reply.

And there it was. The proverbial shot across the bow. The dread words most taxpayers never wish to have muttered in their presence.  My adrenal glands reacted as expected: overly so. Squirming in the chair, images of indentured servitude and debtors prison competed for slots in my mind’s eye with visions of stony-faced tax collectors demanding my eldest born in exchange for clemency.

Rob took in the spectacle, a sympathetic smile turning up the corners of his mouth. “If anything,” Rob added, his fingers already gliding over the keyboard of the computer, feverishly adding and subtracting, exempting this and crediting that.  It was not long before the familiar whir of a high speed printer spat out the sum of last year’s labors.

Rob scanned it over and looked up, his expression flat and unreadable. He cleared his throat.  “Your refund is…”

I never heard the amount.  It didn’t matter. I was too busy reveling in another year of mediocrity to really care.  Thanking Rob, I left his office with dreams of converting the tax refund into  a cross-country flight to Houston and hotel room and a pair of seats for the Final Four.  That’s right. I’m still struggling with madness, or as someone with no medical training diagnosed; I have Final Four Fever.  What? You thought this blog post was about taxes? Not a chance. Not with UK still playing ball.

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