The Last Hour is Harry Sidebottom’s first novel through his new publisher, Bonnier Zaffre. It’s extremely fast-paced, like online gaming, with a new peril confronting our hero Ballista literally every corner he turns. Ballista has 24 hours to gain access to the emperor, Gallienus, to warn of an assassination plot.
Gallienus, with gold dust in his hair and gemstones on the soles of his shoes and distinctly decadent tendencies, might not merit the pains Ballista goes through, but Gallienus was one of Ballista’s few early friends when Ballista was first in Rome as a royal Angle hostage, and Gallienus has been a sponsor since, even forgiving Ballista and granting him his life after Ballista was acclaimed ‘emperor’ briefly by troops under his command in the east, so Ballista owes him. Besides, as one of the emperor’s protégés, Ballista knows he and his family – his wife Julia and their two sons – will be killed if the emperor falls.
Ballista’s rich back-story is detailed in the previous six novels in the Warrior of Rome series, all of which I love. Sidebottom’s novels are well-written, with an outstanding sense of location and geography, excellent characterization, and psychologically interesting plots. They are always well researched, as we might expect from an Oxford academic who lectures in Roman history.
This novel is no less well researched –the details of each episode, and some ingenious plot points, offer astonishing insights into the Rome of the 3rd century of the Christian Era – but it would be possible to read this thriller simply as a thriller, without really registering the scholarship invested.
This is both a strength and a weakness. A strength, in that readers looking for an adrenalin rush can get swept with the flow. A weakness, in that it can threaten to render Harry Sidebottom’s usually multi-dimensional texts to a flatter, more generic experience. This might be just what the new publisher requested.
Sidebottom’s other series, The Throne of the Caesars, comprises three novels which are longer, much more informationally dense, and much more somber. It’s tempting to speculate some fans of the Warriors of Rome books found The Throne of the Caesars too weighty.
If this is the case, I trust Sidebottom will be given free rein to roll out his planned narratives for Ballista’s future without being compelled to maintain the break-neck speed of The Last Hour.
I look forward to leisurely banter, some reflection time, some ominous pacing and unexpected “Gotcha’s!” when next we meet Ballista. I miss the complexities.