Sunday, October 8, 2017

Review: Altar of Blood Empire IX by Anthony Riches

A historical resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2017

In the ninth and final installment (at least for now) of Anthony Riches' Empire series dubbed "Altar of Blood", we find the young centurion Marcus Valerius Aquila accompanying Tribune Rutilius Scaurus and about three dozen hand-picked men from the Tungrian cohorts back to Germania where they have been charged with kidnapping the seer of the fiercesome Bructeri tribe. The sinister imperial chamberlain, Marcus Aurelius Cleander, has not revealed the reason for this clandestine action across the Renus (Rhine) into such dangerous territory but Scaurus and his men are not given any choice in the matter.

The Bructeri are one of the six tribes who attacked Publius Quintilius Varus and massacred the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth legions at the battle of the Teutoburg Forest at the beginning of the first century. Six years after the famous disaster, Lucius Stertinius, a general serving under Germanicus, swept through the Bructeri territory between the Amisia and Luppia rivers, destroying everything in their path and recovering the eagle of Legio XIX.

The Bructeri next appear in history during the Batavi revolt of 69-70 CE. Their tribal seer during that period was named Veleda. It is said she foretold the Batavi success in that uprising and was considered the tribe's spiritual leader.

Germanic Warrior courtesy of military artist Johnny Shumate
Of course, that was all more than a century before our novel's time period but it made the existence of a revered tribal seer quite believable and certainly explained the bad blood between the Romans and the Bructeri.

To make an almost impossible situation worse, Germania Inferior is now governed by Tribune Scaurus' arch nemesis, Clodius Albinus. Albinus is actually a historical figure who served the emperor Commodus in both Gallia Belgica and, later, Britain.  But when a false rumor claimed Commodus was dead (before he actually was), Albinus denounced Commodus before his soldiers in Britain, calling Commodus a tyrant, and maintained that it would be useful to the Roman Empire to restore to the Senate its ancient dignity and power. Although this declaration pleased the Senate it understandably riled Commodus who sent Junius Severus to relieve Albinus of his command. But, the relief order was not received until Commodus and even his successor, Pertinax, were murdered in 193 CE, a year that was to become known as the Year of the Five Emperors.

In our story, though, Albinus is still just a duplicitous schemer who is trying to thwart Tribune Scaurus in his mission or at least claim the captive seer and credit for the mission's success. Tribune Scaurus is going to have to use every bit of cunning he possesses to escape a determined Bructeri war band and prevent his men from being sacrificed on an "Altar of Blood" - that of either the Bructeri's bloodthirsty war god Wodanaz or an unscrupulous Roman's ambition.

One of my favorite characters was captured by the Bructeri in this novel and I spent a good deal of time worrying about his ultimate fate. I certainly didn't want to visualize him spread-eagled on a bloody altar with a wild-eyed shaman hovering over him with a wickedly-sharpened knife! As you can tell, over the course of nine novels I have closely identified with such finely crafted characters and felt a member of their select group.  I will definitely miss them although I suspect Riches is not yet done with them all as the seer claims Rutilius Scaurus will play a key role in the Year of the Five Emperors!

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