River of Gold is the eleventh novel in Anthony Riches’ best-selling Empire series and its considerable strengths are all the more impressive because of it. The plot has a familiar structure (as in Thunder of the Gods, for instance). The opening presents us with an overwhelming danger appearing at the edge of the Roman Empire. This erupts on the southern border in the Egyptian desert. Cleander, right hand man to the sybaritic Emperor Commodus (familiar from the movies Gladiator and The Fall of the Roman Empire) sends Tribune Scaurus, Centurion Marcus Valerius Aquila and their familia to deal with it. This is a suicide mission and by no means their first, as they all have histories examined in earlier books that continue to motivate them now.
The first section of the main plot introduces us to Scaurus’ team. It does this artfully through the eyes of Ptolemy, an Egyptian sent to guide them as they sail south to Alexandria and then march into the desert – as yet unaware of the full danger that they face. The central narrative section describes how they go about planning their mission as they begin to understand the true scale of what confronts them, and takes us through its early stages. The climax brilliantly describes a siege where our handful of heroes hold out against overwhelming odds in the remains of a ruined fort. And I admit that I had to read the denouement more than once as I skimmed through it breathlessly first time, utterly gripped by the suspense of the narrative, dazzled by the unexpected twists and counter-twists.
As is often the case with a long-running series, the author is so comfortable with the central protagonists that s/he invests extra in the newcomers. In River of Gold, the wide-eyed innocent Ptolemy, a recent Christian convert called Demetrius, High Priest and General Tantamani and Kushite Kandake Amanirenas all shine particularly brightly.
Anthony Riches’ style is perfectly suited to his narrative. It is unfussy and clear. There are few Latin, Greek or technical terms to distract his readers. Everyone speaks (in character) in simple English – a point worth making as this genre hosts a range of styles when characters speak in a variety of voices from contemporary Latinate dialogue to the argot of modern army soldiers.
The setting is also excellent. Alexandria, the Nile and the desert itself; the cities and pyramids that the characters pass, are all brought to life beneath that blazing sun. As with his geographical research, Anthony Riches’ historical research is spot-on, although he modestly gives much of the credit to others, particularly in the matter of the ancient tribes of what is now southern Egypt and northern Sudan. There is little if anything he doesn’t know about the structure of legions in the later Empire, and, as with all the rest, this knowledge is worn lightly and serves simply to underpin a gripping narrative full of breath-taking action, unforgettable characters, and dazzling twists and turns.