Promoted to the elite Praetorian Guard in the thick of battle, a young legionary is thrust into a seedy world of imperial politics and corruption. Tasked with uncovering a plot against the newly-crowned emperor Commodus, his mission takes him from the cold Danubian border all the way to the heart of Rome, the villa of the emperor’s scheming sister, and the great Colosseum.
What seems a straightforward, if terrifying, assignment soon descends into Machiavellian treachery and peril as everything in which young Rufinus trusts and believes is called into question and he faces warring commanders, Sarmatian cannibals, vicious dogs, mercenary killers and even a clandestine Imperial agent. In a race against time to save the Emperor, Rufinus will be introduced, willing or not, to the great game.
This was a very complicated and hair-raising story about a man who unexpectedly found himself promoted to the Praetorian Guard, after he unknowingly saved the commander from ambush. Leaving his legion behind, in a sort of command performance he was presented to the young emperor Commodus, accoladed in front of the troops, and awarded a place in the Guard. Whether he liked it or not—and he didn’t particularly like it—Gnaeus Marcius Rustius Rufinus (Rufinus for short) was singled out for his past performance and given a secret posting. As you can imagine, this was no ordinary assignment. He was to ferret out potential traitors who were allegedly plotting to kill the emperor, led by Commodus’s nasty, suspicious, dangerous sister Lucilla:
Paternus took a deep breath. ‘Needless to say there’s a great deal of risk involved, and I’m not talking about risk to your life and limb, either. You’re a combat veteran so you’ll be prepared for that. The risk is of discovery with everything that would bring, from us losing any further chance at uncovering the plot down to the inevitable torture of those involved, yourself at the head of the list.’
Doesn’t sound like a job any sane man would want to take on! Unfortunately, Rufinus isn’t given a choice, and his unscrupulous commander sends him into an impossible situation, where he doesn’t know who to trust and hasn’t the vaguest idea how to insinuate himself into Lucilla’s inner sanctum. I have to say, this is not a book for the faint-hearted. There are lots of scenes where Rufinus gets beaten up, lots of blood, lots of killing, lots of torture. I found myself skipping some of the most unsavory passages because I was just too squeamish. But if that sort of thing doesn’t bother you, the action is brisk and the story did keep me on the edge of my proverbial seat. There were some very satisfying twists in the plot and our hero proves himself most resilient—way beyond your average Roman strongman.
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