Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Friday, 8 June 2012

Rome: The Eagle of the Twelfth - M. C. Scott - Excerpt and Author Commentary

Today on the blog I am delighted to share with you an excerpt from the new historical novel by M. C. Scott - Rome: The Eagle of the Twelfth, plus a commentary on this excerpt from the author. 

Commentary on the excerpt from Rome: The Eagle of the Twelfth. 

Every book grows from a different seed: some from newspaper articles, some from a found object, some from a sight or a sound... and in historical writing, most often from a stray sentence in one of the great contemporary texts, Suetonius, or Tacitus, Pliny or Seneca, that leaves the question... how did that happen?  How might it have felt like to be that person. 

The Eagle of the Twelfth grew from just such a short paragraph in Josephus, describing the capture of the Eagle of the Twelfth legion at the battle of Beth Horon. Without question, the novel stands alone, but because it was written in a sequence, and grows from the same temporal universe as the two Rome previous novels (and the Boudica:Dreaming series that preceded them), I wanted to ground it in the time line of characters we were growing to know, particularly the character of Sebastos Pantera, whom we first meet in The Emperor's Spy as a boy of twelve who, as an adult, comes in from the cold of provincial Britain to be... the Emperor's (unwilling) spy.  By chance, I had created a Parthian character in The Coming of the King and Estaph, glorious man-mountain that he is, gave me a thread I could follow back into Pantera's earlier life, when he is still an idealist, and young and has things he needs to prove to himself and his world as a newly trained agent of the spymaster Seneca.  Demalion of Macedon, who enters the Twelfth legion after this Parthian expedition, is the narrator and the core around which the Eagle of the Twelfth is built, but this scene in which Pantera kills the King of Kings, and so engineers the return of the rightful King to his throne, is the heart of the connection between Demalion and Pantera.   It's a basic axiom of writing that if the writer enjoys writing a scene (given basic competence), the reader should feel the energy and become immersed in the reading.  It's not always true, and nor is it always true that the scenes ground out of the coal face by worn-down fingernails are always hard to read, but it's a good generality.  It's fairly safe to say that I loved writing this scene - and it came before the current obsession with bows and archery: Pantera has always been good with a bow.  Here, we see the depths of what he can do with it, and it gives us a weapon that is crucial a lot later in the story although I had no idea at the time of writing that this would be the case. It was fun, though, the first testing of the colour palette of the novel; rich, deep and satisfying to write, and, I hope, to read. 

Excerpt from Rome: The Eagle of the Twelfth

Three arrows sang in the clean, cold air.
Soaring high across the iron sky, they held their own fine tune; a chord played so close together as to make almost a single note. There are men who will tell you they could not have come from the same bow, but they had; with my own eyes I saw Pantera shoot them.
I did not shout now, nobody did. Even the King of Kings sat in measured silence, watching their flight.  Afterwards, that was what the gathered kings remembered most clearly: that alone among their party, their King had not cried out.
The first arrow struck the boar behind its shoulder and buried deep, so that only the peacock flights stood blue-green against its steaming hide.  
The beast barely slowed its charge, but then I had been taught that nobody had ever stopped a boar, but with a ten-foot spear with a good broad blade and a cross piece one third of the way down the haft - and a lot of luck.
The second arrow struck the beast in the eye and buried as deep as the first; the raven flights were lost against the black bristle, which meant that the heavy iron barbs had penetrated the bone of the beast’s skull, exactly as they were supposed to.
The boar grunted once, a sound so like a man disturbed in slumber that I nearly looked away to see who else had made the sound. But I did not, for Vilius’ hand tightened on my wrist, holding me steady.
Thus it was that he and I witnessed together the moment when its haunches ceased to power the boar towards the King of Kings and it toppled sideways to the turf.
‘Good shot!  What a shot!  Did you see that?  Did you—?’
All around, seventeen minor kings gave enthusiastic vent to their relief, none moreso than Ranades IX, the bluff, broad-shouldered king of Hyrcania, in whose country they hunted, and under whose hospitality, the King of Kings had so nearly met his end.
If Vardanes had died, Ranades would have been required at the very least, to take his own life. He might also have had to hand over his kingdom first, thus ensuring the deaths of all six of his sons. Such were the rules of sovereignty in the Empire of Parthia.
The royal shouts ricocheted off the forest wall and rolled out across the sea.  Shore birds fled, and a single raven rose from far back in the forest.
As if at its command, the shouts of the kings halted, severed so suddenly, so completely, that the silence fell like a hammer.
I did not see the third arrow strike, but, forewarned, I turned to my right in time to see Vardanes II, King of Kings, by right of birth and war and parricide, supreme ruler of Parthia and all her kingdoms, slide sideways on his magnificent bay mare.  
There he hung, half-dismounted, held by the trappings of gold about his thighs, with the third of Pantera’s arrows protruding from the mail shirt above his heart, its raven flights black against the bright silver of his chest, its barbed point bloody at his back, where it came out a hand’s breadth to one side of his spine.
‘Run!’  This time I did slew my horse sideways. ‘That mad fool has ruined us! Run for your—oof!
That mad fool  - Pantera - had slammed his elbow into my solar plexus, robbing me of breath, words and movement.  From my other side, Vilius Cadus grabbed my mount’s reins, so that even when I could breathe again, I could not escape.
Cadus’ voice wove over my head, fine as a breath. ‘Demalion, be still.  Smile. Particularly smile at the king of Hyrcania. Do this, and we will live. Fail and we will die in exactly the manner you fear most.’
‘And watch the kings,’ Pantera said, from my other side. ‘See who takes command. It may change what happens next.’
I knew what was going to happen next; it involved razor-knives and hot irons and hammers and pain made to last for days on end.  I eased my free hand back, towards the dagger at my waist, trying to work out whether I had time to draw it and plunge it into my own neck before the men on either side could stop me.
Even as I did so, I found myself absorbed in the developing tableau ahead, where the seventeen client kings gathered about the bay mare, none knowing which amongst them had the authority to touch the sacred body of their Supreme Ruler.
Ranades IX, king of Hyrcania, settled the matter.  Breaking free of the others, he pushed his own mount close to the king’s magnificent bay and, leaning in from his own saddle, took the King of King’s in his arms with the care of a man for his most beloved brother.  
They were not brothers, in fact, not even distant cousins. Ranades of Hyrcania was a man in his full middle age with six importunate sons who might yet try to depose him, while the King of Kings was one such son among nine, who had succeeded in deposing his father, killed three of his brothers and set himself on the throne.
Nevertheless, the king of Hyrcania’s wide face was composed in lines of evident regret as he eased his supreme ruler free of the gold trappings that held him fast.   
Holding the body across his arms as he might carry a child, or a woman, he stepped his horse neatly backwards; a man born to horsemanship. The other kings stepped with him in a ring of royal mourning, each man gluing his shoulder tight to the next, for now was not a time to stand out from the crowd.  
Ranades IX, of course, already stood out: the murder had taken place on his land, in his kingdom, by a man invited to his court: Pantera.  
I felt the moment when seventeen kings turned their attention our way.  I held still only because Cadus held me, but Cadus himself was cursing under his breath, invoking gods and their progeny with a vicious invention that three years in his legion had yet to teach me.  
Pantera was not cursing.  Pantera, in fact, was leaning forward on his saddle, watching the kings with a kind of weary patience, as if he had better things to do, more interesting places to be.  Two or three of the men opposite recognized the loook and began to shout suggestions of how his death might be made as deeply interesting – and lengthy - as possible. Under Ranades’ stare, they fell silent.
‘Let the Nubians come forward.’  Gilded by a new authority, Ranades’ voice lifted over the shouts of his peers.
The forty Nubians hurried to his bidding, although, for the first few yards they carried with them the kingfisher pavilion. Enough of them had died for letting it dip below their waist level, that the rest would have carried it into living fire and died holding it, had they been so ordered.
Ranades took a patient breath. He had grey eyes, the colour of iron, restless as the ocean, with not a shade of doubt in them that I could see.
‘Set down the pavilion. Bring only the trestle. Our Lord must be carried to the palace. You may not touch him.  There must be furs, somewhere, on which he can lie?’
He looked around, his gaze already glancing over the other kings as over lesser men and it became apparent that they had missed their first opportunity, and that, did they not act swiftly, all authority would leak from the dead man to this one, living, who was giving all the orders when the others gave none.
Three of the younger men, contemporaries of the dead king, caught each others’ eyes and, as one, stepped their horses smoothly back out of the royal group.  
They had features sharp as foxes beneath their beards, and were clearly related. Their eyes had the same vulpine slant, but their cheekbones were neither as high nor as distinct as those in Hyrcania, where men from the king downwards each had cheekbones jutting sharp as bridges beneath their eyes from which the rest of their face hung as an afterthought.
They wheeled their mounts, these fox-faced men with their black beards and hate-filled eyes and pushed them at me, at Vilius Cadus, and at Pantera, the trader-archer who had slaughtered the King of Kings, and so signed his own death warrant.
Yet who still carried his bow, and had at his hip a quiver full of arrows, several of them fletched in black.
As one who lives a whole life between heartbeats, I saw him nock one, and draw his bow to its fullest.
‘Which of you first?’ Pantera asked, and smiled.
The three bearded men hauled their horses to a mouth-destroying halt.  
‘Do you dare—?’ asked the first. The blue tern marked on his horses brow-harness marked him as Monobasus, king of Adiabene, a province to the south and west of Hyrcania.
Pantera arched one brow. ‘I have killed a usurper, a traitor to the King of Kings, a pretender to the throne that was not rightfully his. Do you wish that I had not?  Be careful what you say. There are many others present and they are all listening with interest.’
It was his calm that held them in the first moments.  I had heard that voice before, and it set the small hairs upright down the length of my spine.  I was relieved that Pantera was not speaking to me.  
Covertly, I looked at him.  In the spirit of wild detachment that had taken hold of me, I wanted more than anything else to know if Pantera’s heart was beating as hard as my own.
It could not be, I concluded, because Pantera was holding a Scythian war bow at full draw with the arrow perfectly steady. But the knuckles of both his hands were green-white in the cold light and I saw a ribbon of sweat slide down the line of his jugular vein, to vanish beneath the folds of the lambs’ wool cloak.  He may not have been strung tight as I had imagined in the morning, but he was nowhere near as calm as he made himself seem.
‘The King of Kings is dead,’ said the king of Adiabene, hoarsely.
‘The King of Kings can never die,’ Pantera said with careful patience.  ‘And in this case, he certainly has not done so.  My Lord?  It may be timely now for you to reclaim your throne.’
He cast his voice over his shoulder, north, to the ever-moving sea, and  there, from amongst the huddle of cooks and pot-boys and serving-men, a figure stepped forward.  
He was taller than any of the servants, and, now that he removed the cap that had hidden it, his stone grey hair was full and flourished to his shoulders; the hair of a man who has fed well through his life, who has never had his head shaved to show his servitude.  His bearing was tall and vigorous and as he walked through them; the slaves and servants fell to their knees and pressed their brows to the turf.  
Very shortly afterwards, the seventeen client kings slid down from their horses and did likewise.  King Ranades IX of Hyrcania was not first, but he was most assuredly not last. He dropped the body he had been holding as a man might drop a dead snake, and his brow touched the turf and stayed there while the man they had believed to be dead these past eight months, walked past to mount the bay mare.
Thus it was that Vologases I, King of Kings, Lord of all life, supreme ruler of the Parthian empire, may the gods forever venerate his name, returned to reclaim the throne from the son who had done his best to usurp it.

Thank you very much to the author and the publisher for this excerpt and commentary.

You can visit the author's website here, and follow her on facebook, and on twitter @hare_wood

MC Scott is Chair of the Historical Writers' Association - find out more here. 


  1. Hi Lindsay! I just did a post and mentioned your blog! I thought you might like to stop by and read it when you get a chance. Sorry I haven't been visiting as much lately, I've taken a little break from blogging.

    Megan @ Storybook Love Affair

    1. Hi Megan, thanks for letting me know about the post, I've now visited and commented. Very kind of you to mention my blog! Left you a message there. Take care :)

  2. Hi Lindsay, Megan's mention of your blog reminded me to pay a visit. I'm just going to make a cup of tea before reading your post. It looks like an interesting read.

    1. Hi Barbara, thanks very much, I hope you enjoyed this post. Very kind of Megan to mention me.


Thank you so much for taking the time to visit and leave a comment. It's great reading your comments and I really appreciate them :)