The Exiled is the second novel in a fascinating new Roman series which seamlessly blends thriller with history. Last year’s opener, Deposed, was justly shortlisted for the Historical Writers Association Debut Crown Award. This novel is as good as Deposed and much better than Harris’s Pompeii. The comparison is relevant because the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79 is at the centre of both novels, so they deal in similar territory, the characters here and are much more engaging. Barbaree creates a credible ancient world, both the Parthian and Roman empires come to life on the page. This thriller has internecine rivalries, political intrigue and civil war not to mention a clash of empires. It’s part spy story, part historical adventure and it’s intelligent and pacy. Here are brothels, Roman games, a Parthian harem, military encampments, sea voyages and the lives of slaves and masters in two very different royal houses. It all feels authentic and the action never stops coming. Barbaree is very good on the atmosphere of a kind of Cold War period, the negotiations between parties, and the devastation of Pompeii when Vesuvius erupts (the tension builds nicely to that event). The mix of real and fictional characters works well, as does the speculation and invention Barbaree shows because the historical records of the Parthian empire are sparse. This can be read as a standalone and will suit fans of Simon Scarrow, Robert Fabbri, Harry Sidebottom, Con Iggulden and Ben Kane, although I think Barbaree is a better writer than any of them on the politics and history and as good as them on thrills.

A.D. 79. Rome has been at war with Parthia for a quarter century, the rivalry is set to last for nearly two centuries. Titus is the new Caesar following the death of Vespasian. The Parthian empire is in the middle of a civil war as three royal brothers fight for the throne. A pretender with a rag tag army is claiming to be Nero and is threatening the peace of Rome by allying with one of the Parthian brothers, Artabanus.

Shortly before becoming Caesar, Titus consults a Sybil at the Temple of Apollo, the eight year old child warns of disaster befalling Rome if the Trojan (usurper) is allowed to cross the Euphrates: “mountains will fall.” But Titus cannot conceive how the mountains could fall, even the gods do not possess such power.

1st April, A.D. 79. Parthia, of the three brothers fighting for the kingdom the youngest, Pacorus, was named heir by their father, Vologases I. A decision Artabanus IV and Vologases II dispute, both claiming to be rightful king. Pacorus has the upper hand in land possession and battles and Artabanus has been forced to flee with his army to regroup. In Artabanus’s harem Himerus, chief eunuch, announces to the eighty-eight wives of the emperor that there will be no battle today, the women are relieved. Except for Zenobia, who knows that the war is coming, it is only a matter of time. Himerus takes Zenobia aside, Darius the Satrap of Bactria wants to see her. The Satrap still values Zenobia’s advice, she was his favourite wife before he gave her to the king, with three of his daughters, as his bond to Artabanus’s cause. Naturally, Zenobia no longer trusts her ex-husband but she knows her future is now linked to Artabanus’s success so she agrees to spy for Darius at the meeting of the two armies in the morning. A Roman force led by a man claiming to be Nero is looking for allies for his cause.

18th August the foot of Vesuvius – a boar hunt. Gaius is instructed by his uncle Pliny to befriend the emperor’s brother, Domitian, and newcomer Marcus Ulpius, nephew of Lupius Ulpius, mysterious Spanish adviser to Titus. Gaius is neither a mixer or a hunter but he will come to see the importance of his mission. The Parthian hostages Barlaas and Sinnaces are part of the hunt too.

Titus has decided it is in the interests of Rome to back Pacorus in parthia’s internal war. He has invited their envoys for parley. On the eve of the meeting Barlaas, a hostage for thirty years, is attacked in the street and almost killed. Coincidence? Meanwhile, Pliny’s spy in Spain reports that Lucius Ulpina is not who he claims to be. A deadly game of intrigue and revenge unfolds, while the ground begins to shake beneath the feet.

Well plotted and paced, The Exiled is an exciting read. I liked the strong female characters, particularly Domitilla and Zenobia. The detail Is beautifully reimagined and the three fake Neros are an interesting new aspect of the period for a fictional thriller. This really does feel like the ancient world. The notes and maps are a useful addition.

Paul Burke 4/4

The Exiled by David Barbaree
Zaffre 9781785763380 pbk Jun 2019