Book Review: The Black Stone

The Black Stone by Nick Brown, Agent of Rome #4

273 AD. Obsessed by the solar religions of the east, the emperor Aurelian sets out to obtain every sacred object within his realm. But one - a mysterious rock said to channel the power of the sun god - lies beyond his reach. Warrior-priest Ilaha has captured the legendary stone and is using it to raise an army against Rome. For imperial agent Cassius Corbulo and ex-gladiator bodyguard Indavara, stopping him constitutes their greatest challenge yet. Assisted by a squad of undercover soldiers and a Saracen chieftain, they trek south across the deserts of Arabia, encountering sandstorms, murderous money-lenders and a ruthless German mercenary. And when they finally reach Ilaha's mountain fortress, they face thousands of warriors who will give their lives to protect him ... and the black stone.

About two weeks ago I read Nick Brown's short story, Death This Day, which takes place before the actual events of The Siege, the first book in his Agent of Rome series. After just a few paragraphs into it, I really got the urge to read more Roman stories and luckily I still had The Black Stone awaiting one. The Black Stone is already the 4th book in the Agent of Rom series written by Nick Brown, with his first book he had already completely won me over and continuing in this series has only gotten me further excited about the upcoming books in the series. I am a big fan of Roman fiction and read some great stories but the Agent of Rome series is and will remain one of my favorites. 

In the previous book, The Far Shore, Nick Brown took us to the island of Rhodes where Cassius had to retrieve a specific document, but finds himself intertwined in something much larger. Having faced the treacherous seas, Cassius much prefers his stay on solid ground and this is also where his next assignment takes place. I am a big fan of what Nick Brown is doing with the Agent of Rome series. Often when you read the urban fantasy detective stories or Sherlock Holmes stories, they can be considered case files, and this is a trend that is emerging in the Agent of Rome series as well. As I have said in my earlier reviews, these books focus on Cassius Corbulo who is an agent of Rome's secret police, the frumentarri, they are like the police officers. So in short these books highlight a new case for Cassius to solve. Really cool stuff to have such an historical correct "detective" themed stories.

The story of The Black Stone picks up with a scene that shows that the black stone, a stone that is said to have divine powers, is stolen from the Romans from their temple in Emesa. This was far from a simple walk in, pick up the stone and walk away kind of scene, it was brutal and vicious this is something that readily inspired the harsh and gritty Roman, alternate history feeling to the story. Ok so an important relic of the Romans is stolen and it is Cassius Corbulo's task to retrieve it. Now this might sound as a fairly easy task, a done deal, but first Cassius needs to cross the desert and locate the stone and the locals are far from helpful. Luckily for Cassius he isn't on his own in this ordeal, he is helped by his trusty companion Simo and his bodyguard and man with a past Indavara. Additionally to them Cassius also get the call over 20 extra soldiers. In the end there are some very nice confrontations between the different forces at play. Now the premise of the story might sound a bit simple and plain but just let me tell you this, it is far from it. The idea's are straightforward but Nick Brown involves a lot of extras in his story to build a very rich and detailed world and fully bring his characters to the forefront. 

This latter aspect of first the Agent of Rome series and secondly The Black Stone makes it a very enjoyable story top read, not necessarily giving the focus on the bloody gladitorial battles (and don't get me wrong I like those a lot, Gladiator, is still one of my favorite movies), but also focusing on showing the world and more importantly the development of the characters within the world and how they live in it.  

For the world, Nick Brown has alraedy shown various locations in his preceding books, from islands, treacherous seas and the political "corrupt" Rome this time around he takes you across the desert of Arabia. I am not that familiar with the whole history of it but the feeling that Nick Brown inspires when you read these scenes feel very authentic and like you are right there next to Cassius in the desert. The writing style describes this readily pulls you into the story and just doesn't let you go. A few days ago I tweeted about a particular scene in the book which really put a huge grin on my face. It showed Cassius at his wittiest and perhaps funniest so far. When you look at the whole of the story the often grim and bleak prospect of the Roman world, that is outside the gates of the grandiose and rich Rome, this little witty moment really made the story for me. Something opposite to the humorous moments are what happens in the end. This gave a very realistic feeling to everything. With all the horrible stuff that Cassius has gone through its only natural. All in all great writing and very diverse; jumping for hardend battle scenes to personal and emotion confrontations. Nick Brown knows how to get the setting just right. 

As for the characters, Nick Brown develops his "steady" cast even further. In the review of The Far Shore I mentioned that the focus was more on some other character but this time around Cassius is once again the spotlight, and definitely for the better. Cassius has already seen a lot of things and these previous events have already greatly build his characters. In the beginning of the book when Simo is missing this did lead to some funny scenes where he has becomes perhaps a bit to reliant on his servant and when he is not around he cannot be bothered. But when push comes to shove, Cassius does show that he is not reliant on any additional character to make his own decisions and not necessarily to pick his clothes for the day. Cassius' overall development in The Black Stone really marks him as a very real character especially given the what happens in the end, didn't see it coming but was a very great ending to see, and looking back over everything, very natural. Next you have Cassius'' bodyguard Indavara, I like him, I like him a lot. The beginning of the book when he is in the contest, just good stuff, it brings out, for some the worst and for others the best in his character. For me the best in any case. Indavara, the ex-gladiator has a past and now he just wants normality but that is definitely hard to get, he wants to play fair but other don't and then yes, when you mess with Indavara you get what you deserve. As for his servant Simo, he was in every story so far for me a bit of a background persona more doing what Cassius told him to do, but in this part, Nick brown does voiced him for me more stronger with his own opinion and his own actions. I think this really showed that Nick Brown want you as a reader to experience every character in full color. It clearly falls to note that a lot of time and effort is put into developing real characters. This is a very strong point to the Agent of Rome series. 

So far Nick Brown has written four very solid stories in the Agent of Rome series and with each new addition, the series only keeps on getting better. Showing more of the Roman empire, different warring tribes and of course developing the character even more. These stories can be viewed as individual "case files" for Cassius to solve as you see with the popular detective series but if you read them as a whole the books get much more justice. 

One again Nick Brown has written a powerful story with The Black Stone, not only wanting to show the Roman times but also showing how people lives in that time, happy moments and bad moments. This isn't Roman fiction that centers around action alone but also on human emotional actions. Nick Brown has shown that he is a strong writer and his stories fall in the category of over to soon. Luckily for me there are 3 more books in the making and the next one is due out next summer. I must urge you to pick up these books asap they won't disappoint you.   


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