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The Mask of Command (Twilight of Empire) by Ian Ross

Warning: spoilers ahead for previous books in the series.

The Mask of Command (Twilight of Empire) by Ian Ross

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: The 4th book centring on the rocky life of Castus Aurelius doesn't disappoint. Every maleficent twist and turn of Roman politico-military life is here together with Ian Ross' own brand of excitement and adventure making it a should-read.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: January 2017
Publisher: Head of Zeus
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1784975258

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305AD: Castus Aurelius, following the death of his predecessor, has been promoted to commander (or vir perfecctissiums) of the Roman forces at the Rhine. He's also been ordered to take Crispus, Constantine's son and heir, for the character-building experience. That complicates matters as when Castus isn't trying to keep Crispus alive, he's finding it difficult to increase his own chance of survival, especially considering how the last Rhine commander met his end.

British author and Ancient Rome specialist Ian Ross is back with Aurelius' fourth outing. We're 5 years on from Battle For Rome and life has definitely gone on while we've been away. Castus' marriage has improved since his wife's near-fatal brush with espionage and his little boy grows strong. So strong, in fact, that Castus' father-in-law wants to adopt the lad but not if Castus can help it!

Where the Roman Empire is concerned, the junior-emperor model is failing again. The brittle truce between the two – Christian-persecuting Licinius and Christian convert Constantine – has cracked, bringing both sides back to civil war. From our viewpoint this makes life really interesting as the tribal system across mainland Europe ensures that there are more than two factions. We may have locals who are loyal to one or the other Roman leaders but then there are the rogue anti-Roman elements that crop up adding even more excitement and uncertainty.

Indeed, again Ian shows us his writing prowess throughout but excels when it comes to the edge of the seat battle scenes. (Battles bringing us to the edges of our seats that is. Edge of the seat battles would just be messy and damaging to innocent upholstery.) Then there's the way that he salts the adventure with those wonderful historical nuggets, making many who consider they've 'done' Ancient Rome think again.

This time we come away with a better idea of the contemporary tribal identities, ensuring we never view them as homogenous barbarians again. There are times when we even wonder who deserves the barbarian title more, preferring a tribe's morality to that of the 'civilised' conquering culture. However there's no shame in that; at times so does Castus!

It's also interesting to consider the different reasons why Romans adopted the new Christian faith of their leader. Some may well have done because they believed in it but others adopted it because being in line with Constantine marked them as a person of class and discernment. For these people it was a badge denoting status rather than a belief system.

As series followers will already know, there is a softer side to our favourite commander. This becomes evident again when his love life isn't always as successful as his military career to date. Any love interest must take second place to being able to differentiate friend from foe; not easy in a world coated with malice and justifiable paranoia.

Ian leaves us with a ray of hope, along with a couple of beautifully placed conundrums for next time. Yes, although not everyone who starts this story with us will make it through to that final chapter, there will be a next time. I'm actually hopeful for many more next times despite Castus Aurelius being in his mid-40s now. I mean, there must have been a centenarian or two in those days, mustn't they?

(Huge thanks go to Head of Zeus for providing us with a copy for review.)

Further Reading: If you've not read Book 1, Book 2 and Book 3 do please treat yourself. If you've read them or you fancy something else from the Roman world, we also highly recommend The Graveyard of the Hesperides by Lindsey Davis.

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