Casca #28 The Avenger

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May 29, 2012 at 8:37 am #1327

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June 14, 2012 at 1:46 pm #1385
Tony Roberts

Adam France’s 2011 review:

Casca #28 : ‘The Avenger’

Plot overview (From Tony’s site) –
Returning to Constantinople, Casca seeks revenge on the rest of the Brotherhood. Learning that Narses, an imperial general, is one of them, he seeks to gain entry to the palace, and trains as a charioteer to impress the Emperor and Empress who support one of the factions. His success gets him into the palace, but he is then sent to Italy with the army to fight the Goths. On his return the woman he took as his is pregnant from another man and Casca leaves for Persia to fight another war. After victory he returns to find the city gripped by plague and the woman and her lover dead. The girl, Delia, survives and Casca brings her up until she marries. Casca leaves for Italy and fights in one last battle that sees the Goths finally defeated.

My Review –
Okay, so quite an important book this one, not only the last of the sequential early tales but chronologically the first of Tony’s ‘new’ Casca books. Happily I can report that I thoroughly enjoyed it, and found it a real page-turner, burning through it over the course of a couple of days.
Having read all the previous sequential books in order so recently, I can say with some authority that Tony definitely does capture Casca’s essential character very well in this book. A vital thing to have achieved as a new author to the series, bearing in mind the importance of new books seeming to ‘fit’ with what Sadler established. Tony also more or less replicates the style, pace, tone, and feel of the earlier Sadler Cascas in my opinion.
The story itself rattles along at a fair lick, despite featuring some diversions where we see great leaders of the time pondering the politics and wars of the era, but it never falls into the trap I believe Damned did of focusing too heavily upon events Casca is not personally involved in, at the expense of Casca’s own story. When we do get expositional historical diversions it’s rarely for longer than a page or so, and always has some direct bearing upon the campaigns or events Casca is about to be drawn into.
The story is broadly divided into two parts, the first being Casca’s campaign of murder against the Brotherhood and his scheme to gain favour and proximity to the Imperial Court by becoming a champion charioteer, the second being Casca’s various later campaigns with the Byzantine army of Belisarius, during which period it’s made clear his bitterness over the deaths of Ireina and Demos has waned over the passing years and his interest in continuing to pursue his feud is pretty much gone.
Tony clearly knows his Casca books, and he correctly shows Casca to still be in a pretty dark place emotionally at the start of the book. Casca is still murderously thirsting for revenge when he reaches Constantinople, and his temper is on a hair trigger, with him not only brutally slaying numerous Brotherhood members over the course of the first half, but also treating anyone who crosses him quite savagely too. He’s certainly not the best fellow to play a practical joke upon in this period, nearly killing the three charioteers who essentially harmlessly haze him on his arrival at the chariot training camp. Later he anally eviscerates his charioteer rival after catching him trying to nobble Casca’s chariot before a race. Harsh, even for Casca.
However, it’s clear Casca begins to psychologically heal over this period racing, and his rebound relationship with another single mother with a young child whose name is even slightly similar to Demos – Delia – feels very appropriate. Casca has perhaps subconsciously sought out not just a new lover, but a replacement family for the one he lost, and he clearly pours some of his despairing paternal love for Demos into his relationship with Delia, and it’s notable he treats little Delia a whole lot better than he does her mother. Indeed the only times we see Casca and Carina make love it’s when Casca has been teased to bursting, then left hanging, by Theodora and Carina is arguably just a handy lay with whom Casca works off his frustration.
There’s no indication Casca ever loves Carina, but on the other hand his affection and obvious love for Delia seems to me to actually be the relationship that begins to draw him back into a somewhat lighter place mentally.
I’m glad Tony didn’t spend too much time detailing the individual chariot races, as it’s hard to make chariots going round and round a track interesting in a novel, and indeed though adequate those race scenes were not particularly exciting. I did really like the idea of Casca finally learning a bit more about the beliefs and organisation of the Brotherhood. It’s easy to forget that while we the readers have by this point in the series seen several secret Brotherhood summit meetings, Casca himself has only really faced the wrath of the Brotherhood without a whole lot of knowledge about who they are and what they believe, beyond their hatred of him. So the scenes where Casca sneaks into the Brotherhood’ s meeting disguised as one of their members is great.
The second half is a lot more about big battles and Casca’s involvement in Belisarius’ ongoing campaigns than Casca’s own feud. This is handled well by and large, though I did find that the story briefly became somewhat slow for a short period when Casca was in Italy for the first time, however the pace quickly picked up again thereafter, so no big deal. The battles were appropriately exciting and bloody, and it was nice to see Casca always in the thick of them.
I wasn’t sure what to think about Casca’s strange relationship with Narses, on the one hand it did make sense for Casca to temporarily work with him, on the other Casca seemed a little too quick to put aside his burning hatred for the eunuch. Ultimately, the storyline did sort of work, because it was always clear that given half a chance each of them was ready and waiting to betray the other.
The biggest and most exciting thing in the whole book though, in my opinion, was Casca opening up to Delia, his daughter in all but blood, and telling her the truth about who he is. For a start, I found it fascinating that the German tribes at large clearly still tell the Legend of the Walker of Helsfjord in this time. This has possibly major implications for Casca’s future dealings with and travels through the lands of the German tribes over coming centuries, that he is still remembered by them, even if only in legend.
I could be wrong, but I think Delia is only the second person Casca tells his full story too, the first being Shiu of course. He doesn’t tell Neda, or Lida, or Glam, or Jugotai, or anyone else that springs to mind. Sure he only tells her when she corners him, and when she has already guessed part of the truth, but still this shows the depth of his feelings for her. Ever since I first read the books I always thought it would be great to have some kind of familial line that were connected to Casca in some way and could feature in different eras and places, so it’s great to finally have this feature in a series book. I can’t wait to see future meetings between Casca and Delia and Licinius’ descendants, and have a yen to draw up a family tree that will hopefully stretch down the ages after we get to start seeing more about this new presumably ongoing storyline.
My one slight worry was the changing of Delia’s husband’s family name to Longinus, that felt unnecessary and actually quite dangerous, in that it would potentially draw the unwanted attention of the Brotherhood toward them.

* * *

I do have a couple of small moans. Well, it wouldn’t be one of my reviews if I didn’t right?
Firstly, I’m not sure what the editing procedures are for these books, but I noticed a few cases of rather stilted and unnatural sounding dialogue and one or two grammatical errors, all of which should really have been spotted and corrected at the editorial stage in my opinion.
There are also one or two descriptions of combat that felt either a little hard to picture what precisely was happening, or which felt rather too unnecessarily flashy. The opening prologue’s bandit ambush being a notable example of this. Casca can and does use martial arts as we know, but he tends to hold it back as a secret skill in these early eras, however often he seemed to use his oriental martial arts as a first resort in this story. In the case of the ragtag brigands, I think Casca would have just killed them with his sword without any flashy antics for example.

* * *

In summary, I really liked this book and if all Tony’s books are as good as this one, or better, then the future of the series is certainly in safe hands. While successfully capturing the style and feel of the early sequence books, it ably continues and more or less wraps up Casca’s active campaign of assassination against the Brotherhood in revenge for the deaths of Ireina and Demos, though his archenemy Narses does still remain at large at the end of the book – a loose end that judging from Tony’s timeline will be resolved in a future story.
The addition of Delia and the implication of her descendants becoming allies of Casca is an excellent addition to the wider series mythology, and along with Sentinel the book makes a great duology about Casca’s adventures and misadventures during the height of the early Byzantine Empire.
I would rate this as a four out of five book, it loses a point only really for the occasional stilted dialogue and slight grammatical glitches which could have been caught by more thorough editing.
I am rather despondent now that, until I reach the twentieth century, (oh and the US Civil War I guess), I am now faced with standalone books. I do so love the sequential style of the early books, the way Casca’s emotional state can be clearly tracked from book to book, and characters and places can recur. It’s going to seem a shock I’m sure to now jump forward five hundred years to 1066, still on the bright side that just goes to show how much blank space there still is on the timeline. 🙂

Points of interest –

Set during – 535 – 552 AD

Could we fit any other stories in here? –
The story starts in 535, directly after the end of Sentinel, with Casca returning to Constantinople and eventually becoming a charioteer (and a guard officer to Justinian and Theodora) during the next phase of his war against the Brotherhood until 538, when he is sent to Italy and Rome in time for the end of the siege (which lasted from March 537 to March 538). He then remains in Italy with the army for roughly three years until 541 when he returns with Belisarius briefly to Constantinople, before moving on into Persia for more campaigning until 542 at which time once more he returns to Constantinople with Belisarius.
From 542 to 548 Casca lives a simple life as Delia’s guardian and surrogate father, working as a dock hand in Constantinople. Unusually we can date Delia’s wedding to the exact day (as Empress Theodora dies the following day); 27th June 548. This means Casca first met Delia in 536, and became a charioteer in that year, as it’s mentioned she was six years old when they first met and eighteen when she married.
Leaving Constantinople in 548 Casca drifts through the Balkans doing short term bodyguard work, before joining up with the army of Germanus Justinus shortly before his death in 551. Thereafter Casca continues on with the Byzantine army, though hiding amidst the Lombard auxiliaries, until the Battle of Taginae, in July 552, after which time he heads across the Danube with his Lombard comrades into barbarian lands once more.
I guess it would be possible to add a short story or two in Casca’s time in Italy (538 – 541), and in theory a low key story could be squeezed into his time drifting (548 – 551), however Tony does a good job of keeping the story over this whole period pretty tight, so there are certainly much more open time periods in which to set new tales.

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