Falco and Helena return to Rome after their adventures in Germania, straight into the bosom of Falco’s difficult family.
An army friend of his elder brother, Festus – who died a hero’s death in the Judean War – has lodged himself in Ma’s home and proceeds to make trouble for the Didius family, and Falco in particular.
We get to meet Falco’s errant father, Geminus, too and end up spending a lot of time in the company of The Didius Boys in a plot that revolves around stolen art, Mediterranean shipping, soldiers’ pay, Greek statues and auctions.
Unlike many of the explorers and spies of The Great Game, Colonel Gardner didn’t leave behind his own polished account of his travels in Central Asia, nor of his years as an officer in the Sikh Empire, from the Empire’s glory years under Maharaja Ranjit Singh and through the familial treachery and turmoil that followed on from Ranjit Singh’s death. Even his younger years are veiled in the mists of time – but safe to say Scotland doesn’t feature (despite the tartan!)
So, there’s plenty of of scope for biographical sleuthing and rehabilitation from the always readable John Keay.
Five chapters, each one narrated by a member of Scott’s expedition and each one sharing their experiences of a different stage of the fatal race to the South Pole. Each stage spans the narrator’s birthday.
A thoroughly enjoyable romp on the wrong (non-Roman) side of the Rhenus / Rhine, for the reader at least, as Marcus Didius Falco is ordered by Emperor Vespasian to deliver the Iron Hand of Mars to the 14th Gemina, one of the legions controlling the border between Roman Gaul and Free Germany. And to do a spot of investigating on the side with the aim of reaching a peace settlement with the Celtic tribes of Free Germany. Not much to do there then.
Experiences en route to to frontier, and beyond it, prove to be rather less enjoyable for those involved – Falco, Helena’s beloved younger brother Justinus, and a crew of novice legionaries under the command of grizzled Centurion Helvetius. And a flamboyantly attired hairdresser to Emperors, keen to do a spot of sight seeing abroad…….