Iron & Rust is the first of Harry Sidebottom’s planned trilogy Throne of the Caesars and is quite different in tone and ambition to his Warrior of Rome series. The Warrior of Rome novels are earthy, exciting, frequently funny and filled with engaging characters. Iron & Rust is grander in scale and more emotionally distanced, dissecting power politics at the highest level. It’s a study in power – why it’s desired, how it’s achieved, how it might be held. The characters are not loveable and function like chess pieces. Their machinations are appalling – sometimes desperate, sometimes pathetic – and what is at stake is not simply power but survival. Overwhelmingly there’s a sense of nowhere to run, nowhere to hide; no place of safety. These players cannot choose to remove themselves from the game.
Is it entertaining? Yes indeed. But it’s not a light read. It’s information-dense, with surprising, sometimes startling, insights into how people thought and behaved in the Roman Empire of the 3rd Century C.E. It’s thoughtful about politics and philosophy. It’s very well-written, which is not always the case within this genre. I enjoyed the second book of this trilogy, Blood & Steel, better than Iron & Rust; I think the pacing and characterization gain confidence. But Iron & Rust is extremely interesting and sets up the trilogy well.