Emperor: The Death of Kings by Conn Iggulden

(Cover picture courtesy of Barnes and Noble.)

In a sparsely settled region of North Africa, a band of disheveled soldiers turn their eyes toward one man among them: their leader, Julius Caesar.  The soldiers are Roman legionaries.  And their quarry is a band of pirates who dared to kidnap Julius Caesar for ransom.  Now, as Caesar exacts his revenge and builds a legend far from Rome, his friend Marcus Brutus is fighting battles of another sort, rising to power in the wake of the assassination of a dictator.  Once, Brutus and Caesar were as close as brothers, devoted to the same ideals and attracted to the same forbidden woman.  Now they will be united again by a shock wave from the north, where a gladiator named Spartacus is building an army of seventy thousand slaves—to fight a cataclysmic battle against Rome itself.

In The Death of Kings, Conn Iggulden has managed to simultaneously thrill and annoy me.  He thrills me with his wonderful writing, the characters he brings to life and his fast-paced plot, yet he manages to annoy me in his usual fashion when he changes major historical events to suit his narrative.  But before I start ranting, let me list the many reasons to read this novel.

It is mostly historically accurate and Iggulden excels in bringing near-mythical figures like Caesar, Sulla, Marius, Pompey and Cato the Younger to life.  In their own time they were the leading men of Rome, but they had not achieved the legendary status they have today.  Iggulden takes that into account as he develops these characters that are not much different than you or I.  They love, lust, fight, cry, rejoice and, most importantly, have doubts about their abilities or if they are fighting for a worthy cause.  One of my favourite characters (aside from Caesar himself) is Marius because he had always been a larger than life figure in my mind before Iggulden made him more human.

The Death of Kings is definitely more fast-paced than the first book because Caesar is grown up, more involved in politics and plays an active part in many battles that were going on at the time.  There’s also an interesting subplot featuring Cornelia (his first wife) and Sulla that Iggulden uses to kill off the Dictator.  We also see more of Brutus, who is a very strong, but fatally flawed character.  These two subplots do not take away from all of the action and instead are used to bring the plot forward, which is why I love them.

But, as regular readers will know, Conn Iggulden annoys me because he sees fit to mess with history.  He kills off Sulla and Cato, both of whom died many years after the events of The Death of Kings.  In Iggulden’s novel, Sulla is poisoned when in fact he died of old age after retiring from the office of Dictator.  Cato publicly commits suicide to avoid execution just before Pompey and Caesar go to put down Spartacus’s rebellion.  Cato really did commit suicide, but it was not until after the battle of Pharsalus when Caesar finally defeated Pompey after a bitter civil war.  In my opinion, killing off Cato so early denied us a look at the dour senator who was always a thorn in Caesar’s side.

I give this book 4/5 stars.

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