Book review: The Ghosts of Athens by Richard Blake

What’s in a name? More than 75 years of skulduggery when you are the ageing Brother Aelric of Jarrow ... but were once Alaric the Magnificent, legate and senator of the Roman Empire.

Holy hypocrite and man with a past, the uncompromising anti-hero of Richard Blake’s superb series set in the dying days of the Roman Empire, is back to amuse and bemuse us with his fifth outrageous adventure.

Aelric, now aged 97, bewigged, toothless and occasionally subject to the indignity of being transported around in a wheelbarrow, has lost none of his caustic wit and can still sniff out trouble at ten paces.

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His youth ended long ago but his mental agility is undiminished and when the crumbling empire demands his services, albeit it with a little blackmail, Aelric must jump (or in his case, shuffle) into action.

Of course, Aelric lives on memories and not dreams so when he is asked to write an account of what took place at the notorious Little Council of Athens over 70 years ago, to settle a religious dispute between the Emperor and the Pope, those in power get more than they had bargained for.

Closeted in Canterbury and surrounded by sheets of papyrus, Aelric, or Alaric as he then was, takes us back to 612AD and to decadent, desperate Athens, the empire’s most vulnerable city.

Alaric, a 22-year-old senator, fresh from a bloodbath in Egypt that may or may not be regarded his fault, is forced to divert the imperial galley to Athens for reasons the emperor has neglected to share with him.

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In a vague commission, every word of it ‘dripping with menace,’ Alaric must drop anchor off Piraeus and follow orders from Lord Priscus, commander of the East, a man more reliant on opium than his soldierly skills.

Alaric finds a demoralised and corrupt provincial city where the military situation is disastrous, the harvest has failed and starvation is setting in. And the word is that an army of twenty million barbarians is on the move and preparing to sweep through the passes into Athens before the month is out.

There are also the not insignificant problems of an explosive religious dispute, the decapitated corpse of a high-ranking woman and hints of something far worse than murder.

Is Alaric on a high level mission to save the empire or has he been set up to fail? He will have to call upon all his formidable intellect and ruthless ingenuity to survive his enemies inside and outside the city walls . . .

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The Ghosts of Athens delivers so much more than just another Roman adventure story ... with a lethal, freewheeling hero who worries more about a spot on his nose than ruffling the feathers of the rich and powerful and who wheels and deals in such a fascinating period of history, there can never be a dull moment.

Add this to devious plotting, superb period detail and the joy of being transported back in time by a born storyteller, and the dangerous, dying Roman Empire comes alive in all its bloody technicolour.

Warfare, intrigue, murder, politics, betrayal and the devious, deadly Aelric ... Blake’s perfect recipe for a sumptuous Roman feast.

(Hodder & Stoughton, paperback, £13.99)

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