Review: SHIELD OF THE RISING SUN, by Adam Lofthouse, published by Lume Books

ISBN: 978 1 83901197 9

I am writing this in a room in a hotel in Auckland, New Zealand.

Outside the weather looks bright and clear, with clouds thinly covering the skies. In here it’s warm and not humid, and the room is in many ways a typical conference centre type of bedroom.

However, there is nothing usual about this place. It is a quarantine centre. Two brothers and I are in isolation before we can be released into New Zealand proper.

Two weeks ago our oldest brother was diagnosed with a cancer that is incurable. It was a staggering blow to all four of us – we have always been very close, and the idea of our number shrinking has been dreadful. So we arranged the relevant papers and flew out to New Zealand, here to remain in an isolation centre for at least two weeks.

I do not say all this in some desire for sympathy, but to explain that I am not, probably, in the very best mental state for relaxation and enjoyment of a new book. My mind is, not unnaturally, focused  on other matters.

So, to the story.

Shield of the Rising Sun is a book that requires a little concentration. It is a very interesting approach to a complicated story, because this is effectively several stories rolled into one. The (sort of) present day, and thus present tense story of Faustus, and also the stories of his father Albinus and their friend the frumentarius, or spy, Clavus.

We are therefore presented with three different timelines, which makes it sound a great deal more complicated than it really is.

Albinus is a centurion in the army, who is commanded by Marcus Aurelius to protect his son Commodus.

Now I should state here and now that my own education about Roman history is basically formed by the literature of Ben Kane and Anthony Riches, with the sweeping tale of Gladiator thrown in for good measure. That film was based on the very end of Marcus Aurelius’s life,  of the beginning of Commodus’s reign (and the end of it, I guess), and there is little of that in this book. Rather, this hinges on the plots to remove the Emperor and replace him with one or another of pretenders to the throne before Commodus reached it himself. It is a story told from the perspective of Albinus and then the other two.

For those who like the period, who enjoy the mix of politics and casual violence inherent in Roman culture, this will grip. The battle scenes are well-written, the derring-do of the sections with the frumentarii will appeal to many, and the more modern sections with Faustus (set in 193 AD rather than the 172-175 AD of Albinus) are also interesting.

However, I have to say that, while the whole story gelled quite well, I did put the book down with a certain sense of having missed something. 

I believe, although I’m not sure, that this is the final book in a series. There are constant references to Albinus’s wife, to an incident in which Faustus was attacked, and during which his adoptive mother and brother were killed. This is a bit of a recurring theme, as are mysterious stories of how Faustus’s mother, Albinus’s wife, disappeared, and how Albinus was bereft without her.

Now I love a good mystery, but the strong indication here is that the whole tale is told in previous books – and that makes the witholding of the mystery difficult to swallow. After all, if you have read previous books in the series, you will know what is being spoken about; if you haven’t read the previous stories, these hints become a little annoying. 

But, as I said at the outset, these are not the best times for me to review a book. My mind is on other things. And yet, surely if a book is to succeed, it must succeed on several levels, and one of the most vital is that of distraction and entertainment. A book should hold a new world between its covers, and if it is working, it should absorb the reader. For me it did not quite succeed – but again, these are extraordinary times for my family and me. So any negative impressions I have must be set against that background.

It does have to be said that I was happy to pick this up while flying to New Zealand, that I was keen to pick it up while in quarantine in New Zealand, and that I missed the characters when I finished it. 

What I liked was the sense of place that Adam gives. I did feel the surroundings in woods in Germany, I felt the sun in Syria, and I smelled the excrement in many of the cities he described. 

There was one main aspect that grated, and that was the 21st century emotions that kept appearing. While I can cope with the behaviour of Faustus, there were many times when Albinus really did read entirely as a modern man. His emotional reactions just didn’t quite ring true for me.

So, a good book, a pleasant read, a diversion, and enjoyable – but there is one thing that I still don’t understand: what has “Shield of the Rising Sun” got to do with anything? 

I have literally no idea.

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