Tag Archives: MidEast

Sword of Damascus Reviewed by John

Unlike its three predecessors, The Sword of Damascus (Damascus) takes place shortly before the narrative of the 96-year-old Aelric from the monastery at Jarrow (and not 70 some-odd years prior). This definitely puts a different spin on the story, with Aelric suffering from the physical shortcomings wrought with age – with death soon looming — instead of from the view of a handsome and energetic 20-something.

Readers are advised to read the prior books in order (Rome, Constantinople, and Alexandria) before delving into Damascus. Without the knowledge of what happened previously, the tale and the relationships between the characters in this tale would be very hard, if not impossible, to follow. That said, I really enjoyed the story and the vivid descriptions of late 7th century life and the transcendently dark but driving aspects of human nature (greed, avarice, decadence and mayhem) that was alive then as it still is now.

Main character Aleric/Alaric has really grown on me in his old age. Hence my highest rating.

Now some report having a big problem with Blake’s vivid depiction of some obscene and gruesome scenes. After Damascus, they swear they will never read another Aleric tale. Good riddance to them. Unlike other writers of historical fiction, Blake does not shy from writing about well-documented, let's face it common, historical depravities such as rape, torture, and, yes, lustful necromancy. Such travesties and horrors undoubtedly occurred in the past, in these times, by these peoples. True fans of historical fiction should not be afraid to read about them and contemplate what their occurrence may mean about humanity's shared history.

Perceptive readers will recognize Blake's esoteric warnings of unchecked political power, religious zealousness, and cultural relativism I believe he could not help but impart throughout the story. The powerful and rich have treated (and continue today to treat) the powerless and poor inconceivably cruelly and in ways of utter disdain.

Maybe it is just that some societies, especially my beloved Western ones, have a strong capacity to hide such mistreatments from our day-to-day view?

Similar to previous Alaric adventures, Damascus is sprinkled with some excellently endearing quotes, including:

· “When I was younger, I believed the conventional wisdom that lust is abolished by age. Then I found out that, if lust may be dulled, all that really goes is the ready means of satisfying it.”

· “…there’s no reasoning with the barbarian mind. You’ll get more sense out of women or idiot children.”

· “Rather as young women look at each other to see who might be fairest, so the very old look at each other to see who is more broken down and ready for the grave.

Published on Goodreads, on the 18th May 2016

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Sword of Damascus, Reviewed by Thomas Fontanari

Würdige Fortsetzung der Aelric Romanserie. Obwohl der schurkische Kirchenmann Aelric mittlerweile ein Greis ist, strotzt das Buch vor Action, Intrigen und Erotik. Die interessante geschichtliche Hintergrundperiode wird ebenfalls gekonnt ausgeleuchtet. Besonders erfeulich an Richard Blakes Romanen ist, daß er der Verführung widersteht, die Vergangenheit aus unseren modernen Augen zu sehen und Figuren zu erfinden, die nichts als moderne Charaktere in altertümlicher Kleidung sind. So kommt wirklich frühmittelalterliches Feeling auf und der Leser wird nicht aus dem spannenden historischen Roman gerissen.

Translation:

Worthy continuation of the Aelric novel series. Although the roguish monk Aelric is now an old man, the book is full of action, intrigues and eroticism. The interesting historical background is likewise illuminated capably. Especially fascinating in Richard Blake's novels is that he resists the seduction to see the past from our modern eyes and to invent figures which are nothing but modern characters in fancy clothes. Thus really early-medieval feeling arises and the reader it is not torn from the sense of a tight historical novel.

Reviewed on the 22nd April 2015 by Thomas Fontanari

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Sword of Damascus, Reviewed by RogTheDog

It is no secret that I really, really like this series – its blend of accurate historical background, and fictional, character-full, action is a true joy.

And this is – so far as I have read the series – just about the best. With fully-fleshed travels through Spain, Africa and the Middle-East, this novel's paced style kept me short of sleep, because I could not put it down. With some great, strong characters, which are both believable and well-rounded, set against a backdrop of intrigue in dark-ages Damascus, the storyline weaves and bobs with unerring timing toward its explosive denouement.

What I like is the depth of characters within the book; I was involved in real lives here, it seemed, as it always does seem when the storytellers' art is plied with skill, as here. I felt the cold dampness of Jarrow, my mouth dried up in the arid deserts of Africa, and I worried with Alaric/Aelric at the duplicitous nature of Damascan politicking.

A fine romp, this, then, and the highlight of the series so far, for me.

Reviewed on the 22nd July 2015 by RogTheDog

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Sword of Damascus, Reviewed by Martin B

This is a superb first person adventure thriller set a few hundred years AD. Incredibly well told story and such a atmospheric narrative of the Roman empire in its decline.

If you like the Flashman papers then this is the book for you. I honestly have not enjoyed a book this much since I discovered Flashy.

Read this and you will be hooked.

Reviewed on Amazon, 21st August 2014

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Sword of Damascus – Chapter One

Chapter One: Jarrow, Thursday 27th December 686

“Is that wank on your sleeve?” I croaked accusingly. The boy opened his mouth and stepped backwards through the doorway. I gave him a bleary look and carried on with pulling myself together. If I’d supposed I could hide that I’d been dozing, this was – all else aside – the wrong boy. Out of habit, I’d spoken Greek. Edward was barely competent in Latin. I leaned forward in the chair. My neck was hurting where my head had fallen sideways. The beer jug I’d brought with me into my cell was empty, and I was feeling cold again.

“My Lord Abbot presents his compliments,” Edward opened in obviously rehearsed Latin, “and begs your presence in the bell tower.” His face took on a faint look of relief before lapsing into its usual blankness.

“The bell tower, indeed!” I grunted. “And Benedict imagines I can skip up and down his twelve foot ladder as if I were one of Jacob’s angels. One day, if he’s lucky, he might have eight years of his own to every foot of that ladder.” But I stopped. It was plain I’d lost the boy. I groaned and reached for my stick. As I finally got to my feet, he tied the threadbare shawl about me. I ignored the offer of his arm for support, and made my own way into the corridor.

As I came back to what passes with me for life, I noticed that the banging had stopped yet again. I looked round. My cell was only a few yards along from the side gate of the Monastery. It was still barred. Still, the buckets of water I’d suggested were filled and ready for use.

“Do be a love, Edward,” I said, now in English, “and have some more charcoal put in that brazier. It’s perishing in here again. If I’m to live long enough to have my throat cut, you’ll need to keep me warmer than you do.” I looked again at him. Wanking would have been pardonable in the circumstances. But it was most likely snot.

***

I gripped at the rail and looked down at the rain-sodden waste that is Northumbria. On better days, you can see from here all the way down to the Tyne. This wasn’t one of the better days. In the mist that had come up again, a few hundred yards was about the limit. There was a fire burning now close by the limit of visibility, and some of the northern beasts were dancing about it. I supposed they’d looted more beer from somewhere. Lucky beasts! I thought.

“So, what is it that’s got all these old women in another panic?” I wheezed. I spoke again in Greek. This time, I got an answer.

“It’s over here,” said Brother Joseph in his flat Syrian accent. He guided me across the floor of the little tower and pointed down to a spot about fifty feet from the main gate. “The Lord Alaric will see that we do indeed have a new development.”

“The Lord Alaric died when he left Constantinople,” I said, now softly. “I must tell you again I’m plain Brother Aelric – born in Richborough, to die in Jarrow.”

“It is as Your Magnificence wishes,” he said with one of his maddening bows. No point arguing here and now, I thought. I looked out again into the mist. My heart skipped a beat and my hands tightened on the rail. Focussing isn’t what it used to be. But I could see from his hair that they’d got hold of young Tatfrid. He was one of the boys who hadn’t been able to make it through the gates before they swung shut. Now, he’d been dragged from whatever hiding place he’d found. They’d nailed him to a door and slit his belly open. His guts they’d arranged about him in the shape of an eagle’s wings and nailed them in place. How they’d kept him alive was beyond me. But if he was no longer up to screaming, he was still twisting. The door was propped up at the angle of a pitched roof, and more of the beasts were dancing in front of it. One of them was pulling at the boy’s trousers, and another was waving a knife up at us. It wasn’t hard to see what they had in mind. It was all noiseless, and, with the progress of the afternoon, white mist swirled thicker on the ground like insubstantial snow, hiding the lower halves of the cavorting bodies.

I swallowed and looked steadily down. Oh, I’ve seen suffering and death enough to fill many more years than I’ve been in the world. One way or another, I’ve caused enough of it myself. But it isn’t every day you see one of your best students butchered. Only five days before – no, it must have been just three – and he’d been construing Vergil downstairs. Now, the poor boy was – I forced myself to look away and turned back to Joseph.

“Can you get an arrow into the right spot?” I asked. He looked and pursed his lips. He nodded and reached for his bow.

“In the name of God – no!” It was Benedict. He hadn’t followed the words, but the meaning was plain enough. He snatched at the bow and threw it down. “Has there not been enough killing?” he cried indignantly in Latin. “If these benighted children have brought perdition on their heads, must we now do likewise?” I bent slowly down and took up the bow. I gave it back to Joseph.

“Take careful aim,” I said. “We can settle things with the Bishop as and when.” I stared at the Abbot until he looked away. As Joseph fitted an arrow, there was a sudden commotion over on our right. It was the Chieftain and his retainers. They stood in a tight group, their cloaks pasted heavily about them by the fine rain. As I strained to see then properly, the herald stood forward and began another shouted message. The work of gelding laid aside for the moment, everyone nearby gathered round him to wave spears and shout fiercely at every pause.

“What’s he saying now?” I asked. Benedict had assured me their language was close to English. I’ve known many Germanic tongues, and most of them have been pretty close to English if you can hear past the different inflections. This one was beyond me. It might have been a dog down there barking away.

“He says, Master,” someone whispered from behind, “that they will all go away tomorrow morning if we but open the gate and let them take what had brought them across the wide northern seas to obtain. They also ask for food.” I looked round as far as my neck would turn. It was Edward. His words had come out in a strangled gasp, and I’d not recognised the voice. His face carried a look of alarm – of alarm, which was natural enough, but also of confusion, and just a little of fascinated curiosity.

“They want food, eh?” I snarled. “Well, they can go fuck themselves!” I looked back to Joseph. “Any chance of getting an arrow in the Big Man?” I asked. He shook his head. I’d guessed already the wet leather was as good at this distance as plate armour. But it had been worth asking. “Then see to poor Tatfrid,” I said. Before he could protest again, I took Benedict by the arm and moved with him until we were looking again at the distant fire.

“Where is King Aldfrith?” he wailed again, pulling on the few strands of hair his tonsure had left. “Why has he not sent men to protect us?” It was a stupid question. Even if word had reached the royal court, they were all probably still too hung over from Christmas to set out to the rescue. And according to the villagers who’d made it through the gate, the attack party had come ashore at Yellow Tooth Creek. It was one of those darting attacks from across the northern sea that are over before anyone outside the immediate area even notices. We were on our own. If I’d believed a word of what I now daily recited, it was for us to huddle within the thick walls of the Monastery and pray for a miracle.

“If we’d just done as they asked,” Benedict stuck up again – “if we’d but listened to their plea for food, they might even now be back on their ship.”

“Might?” I sneered. “Might?” I paused at the twang of Joseph’s bow and the soft thud a moment later. I listened to the low, terrified murmur of the other monks and boys behind us. I didn’t bother turning. I’d already seen Joseph in action. He didn’t miss. “My dear Benedict,” I said with a change of tone, “you never open a gate to these animals. You’ve seen what they did to the other villagers they caught. My age and your vows may have made them a superfluous treasure. But I rather fancy dying with my testicles still attached.”

I looked again at the fire. The mist was blotting out most of the sound. But if I listened hard, I could those dancers barking like a whole pack of rabid dogs.

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Sword of Damascus, Reviewed by Pam Norfolk

Age has not entirely wearied Brother Aelric of Jarrow and the years have not yet condemned him to a sedate and sedentary lifestyle.

He’s well over 90 and should be taking it easy … but the year is 686 AD and the former Lord Alaric, Legate Extraordinary to the Roman Emperor, is heading off to Damascus to face siege, kidnapping, a terrifying chase and a confrontation that will settle the future of mankind.

Aelric, Richard Blake’s duplicitous and deadly 7th century antihero, returns for his fourth adventure and this time he must use all his wile and wit to help combat the triumphant Muslim caliphate which is sweeping up from Arabia to threaten Constantinople itself.

Only his natural cunning and courage – death holds little fear for a man already ‘far over its threshold’ – have kept Aelric alive in the dangerous and fast-crumbling Roman Empire.

Aelric is currently teaching Greek and Latin in an old monastery in the wastes of Jarrow where he writes his memoirs and waits for death.

Well that’s the theory… in practice, he’s all set for another amazing mission in the so-called civilized world far from the shores of Britannia.

No sooner has he escaped a siege by northern barbarians on the monastery than he is setting sail for the ravages of the Mediterranean.

In faraway Damascus, Aelric could be very useful to Constantinople’s defenders as he knows the secrets behind Greek Fire, the flame-throwers that have kept what is left of the once-mighty Roman empire safe until now.

But as well as those who seek Aelric’s help, there are other dangerous factions who want to prevent him sharing his knowledge.

Fortunately, Aelric has a ruthless streak, unwithered by the passage of years, but has he met his match this time?

Aelric is a marvellously imagined and wildly eclectic character – when he is not bemoaning his loss of teeth and hearing, his nosebleeds, shivering attacks and other symptoms of old age, he is either harking back to his glorious youth or dispassionately dispatching those who get in his way.

Blake surrounds him with an entertaining mixed bag of characters from the ‘God-bothering’ Brother Cuthbert and Aelric’s put-upon serving boy Wilfred to the psychopathic teenager Edward and the Saracen leader Meekal.

We travel into the heart of a fascinating period of history which saw the survival and resurgence of the Byzantine Empire in the first century of Islamic expansion.

As always, Blake’s plotting is as brilliantly devious as the mind of his sardonic and very earthy hero. This is a story of villainy that reels you in from its prosaic opening through a series of death-defying thrills and spills.

It’s to be hoped that the ageing Aelric will live long enough to take us on another of his remarkable adventures!

Published in The Lancashire Evening Post
on the 27th February 2012

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Sword of Damascus, Reviewed in “The Morning Star” by Matt Coward

The Sword Of Damascus (Hodder, £19.99) is Richard Blake’s fourth book about Aelric, a 7th-century Briton whose natural cunning, charm and ruthlessness have led him from desperate beginnings to the highest councils of the dying Roman empire.

Now extremely old, he’s hiding from his many enemies in a Jarrow monastery until a series of misadventures finds him in Damascus, caught in the struggle between the retreating empire and the rising might of Islam.

But even old and half-blind, Aelric is no man’s pawn for very long.

It would be hard to over-praise this extraordinary series, a near-perfect blend of historical detail and atmosphere with the plot of a conspiracy thriller, vivid characters, high philosophy and vulgar comedy.

Written by Matt Coward and published in The Morning Star,
on the 16th October 2011

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Sword of Damascus, Reviewed by Martin Bourne

arrow in the Dark Ages. Also the cold and wet ages, a particularly wearing combination for Brother Aelric, aged 94. Even worse, a pack of Vikings is threatening dire consequences unless the door of his monastery is opened. Surprisingly, they want him rather than plunder. It turns out they have been paid to bring him to their (unspecified) employer, who Brother Aelric suspects may be the Emperor of Byzantium. This is because he was once the Lord Alaric, legate extraordinary of the emperor, and his last departure from Constantinople was not a happy one. However, things are not as they seem, and the journey into the Mediterranean soon takes a very different course.

This is not an uplifting story. It’s good to see an elderly main character, and to see resolutions via intelligence rather than brute force, but aside from that, Alaric is a typical trendy modern anti-hero. He is cynical, worldly, profane and manipulative. As the story is told through his eyes, and people like that typically ascribe the same attributes and motivations to everyone else, it’s hardly surprising you feel like washing your brain after every chapter. All religious folk are selfish, cowardly hypocrites with sexual hang-ups; the Vikings are greedy, dangerous savages; those in positions of power always have ulterior motives connected to personal gain, and are probably involved in a conspiracy. The few genuinely sincere characters are seen as naïve dupes ripe for exploitation, although inevitably the perennial medieval underdogs, the Jews, come over quite well.

If you like your Dark Age stories to be, well – particularly dark – then you’ll love this.

Published by the Historical Novel Society in 2012

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Sword of Damascus, Reviewed by A. Reader

A Deep historical read, but at a slower pace

Having read Richard Blake’s previous books I knew that it was a book that I had to be in the right frame of mind to read, different authors have different styles.

Your Simon Scarrows, Conn Igguldens and Anthonys Riches type novels whilst containing plenty of history are written in that fast paced action style that many class as Swords and Sandals, or Blood and action. I would put Richard Blake more in the Harry Sidebottom category, Both authors who provide a fantastic rich deep historical read, but at a slower pace. The action is still there its just tempered with a bit more informative history. This is by no means a text book though, as usual for Blake there is plenty of intrigue, the characters are excellently written and the authors passion for his subject period is blatantly obvious.

If you have not read any of this series then I strongly suggest that you go back to the beginning and start there (but that’s a personal preference, I hate starting a story part way through)

Mr Blake will remain on my to buy list for future titles, I recommend this for the history lovers and the swords and sandals types…Just be aware its not as pacey as some you read

Posted on Amazon
on the 21st June 2011

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Sword of Damascus Reviewed by MC

Aelric comes up trumps once more in this fascinating series which combines a boys own joy of adventure and smut, with some pretty decent historical narrative and analysis.

Priscus is undoubtedly the heir apparent to all arch villains from Von Stalhein to Moriarty. it is a pity he does not feature, except in the shadows.

Unlike other reviewers, I thought Sword Of Damascus scampered along at quite a rate of knots. it constantly displays the great talent of Blake for fitting contemporary notions into a believable past with both humour and pathos. These do not knock you over the head but instead induce a fundamental trust in the reality and likeability of the characters. back stories are strong here which further enhances the sense of immersion into this perilous and overlooked period.

Aelric is rotten, luxuriant and full of himself. I would be too.

Review written by MC and published on Amazon
5th July 2012

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Sword of Damascus Reviewed by Kevin Carson

Perhaps the greatest of Blake’s Aelric tales to date

Unlike the previous installments in this series, this one is recounted by Aelric in his extreme old age, as he approaches the century mark. Decades after Aelric preserved Egypt (and its grain shipments) for the Empire, and after the armies of the Caliphate rendered it all wasted effort, he spends his final years in a Kentish monastery teaching classical languages to the children of Anglo-Saxon peasants.

…Until he is sucked back once again into the politics of clashing empires.

The Umayyad Caliph Muawiya, having defeated the partisans of Ali in a civil war, reigns from the recently conquered city of Damascus. The Caliphate conceals barely suppressed political divisions, as the family and close associates of the Prophet simmer with resentment back in the Hejaz, and Muawiya creates a new aristocracy of his own from converted Greeks and Syrians. Of course the Byzantine Empire, shrunk to a core of the City and its European provinces, has its spoon in the political stew of the Caliphate. And all these factions, each for reasons of its own, want Aelric — who once saved the City with his invention of Greek Fire — in Damascus.

The first-person perspective, from Aelric’s extreme old age, of the transitoriness of human affairs, and overshadowed by the prospect of his mortality, give this story bittersweet overtones lacking from the others.

Posted by Kevin Carson on Amazon
on the 8th September 2011

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Sword of Damascus Reviewed by Darren

Aelric: The Sword of Damascus – Richard Blake

Date: 02/02/12
Advantages: A good start
Disadvantages: Not realistic

The sword of Damascus is a work of historical fiction by Richard Blake and is set in the 7th century, it’s main character is the Lord Aelric a 96 year old British noble who is a monk in the monastery at Jarrow and whose student is the future venerable Bede. This is the fourth novel featuring the character Aelric and the book is written as a first person perspective through the eyes of Aelric. The book begins in the monastery at Jarrow with an attack on the monastery by mysterious Northern men, presumably Vikings; they are after Aelric and want to take him back to the Byzantine Empire for something. Aelric accepts his capture and is along with two younger colleagues taken back towards Constantinople, along the way the ship is shipwrecked and the group become fugitives in Northern Africa.

That’s the genesis of the story, this is the fourth of Richard Blake’s novels to feature the Lord Aelric and after reading this novel I have no interest in finding the other three novels. I have a policy of always finishing a novel no matter how bad it is, this policy has only failed for three books and a book has to be truly awful for me to stop reading it. This book almost joined as a fourth but I battled through to the end, and well let’s say it was a constant disappointment throughout. The book begins with a decent interesting start, a raid on a famous monastery, a decrepit old man is taken back towards the Empire he helped rule a life time earlier and with plenty of hints of skulduggery and old news coming back to haunt him. That was the start the first fifty pages read like this is going to be a decent adventure/mystery story set in the full blaze of the early days of the Byzantine Empire and I looked forward to plenty of action and adventure.

That was when the author decided to use the old technique of going backwards in time to move forward the storyline, so we are transported back 80 years or so to a younger fitter Aelric and his antics in Constantinople all those years ago. The main problem with this is that the chapters aren’t dated and the first person narrative doesn’t alter between him as a 20 year old and him as a 96 year old, confusing it is and does the story from 80 years ago make any sense well no not really. After the second or third going back in time, the reader starts to get the feeling the author has only added these sections because he likes graphically discussing sex and violence which is hardly suitable for a man in his Nineties.

Anyway after the initial interest my reading soon waned, the all action nature of the antics of a 96 year soon change from interesting to barely believable, the author gives this very old man almost super-human capabilities. The old Aelric is involved in desert marches, knife fights, fist fights, and fulfilment of lust and desire. That would be almost believable but for the fact for all the other parts of the novel the author keeps reiterating through Aelrics own words that old age is de-habilitating and that he is barely a man anymore but that old man is still capable of besting two young men in a knife fight?

Slowly the plot unpicks itself, those flashbacks are made clear and characters of little importance at the beginning become prominent and the fate of Empire hangs on Aelrics aging shoulders. Did I care at this point? Not really, the characters whilst well researched and thoroughly defined give the feel of transience, they are in the book only to shine light on the central character that of the corrupt king in waiting Aelric. I feel that the book has tried to do too many things, aimed at placing Aelric at the centre of the world at the time has rather pushed the boundaries of possibility and trying to write a story of an old man travelling for many months on ships, camels, horse and cart whilst fending off brigands, pirates and corrupt officials whilst still grumbling about swollen teeth, bad breathe and painful knees is too much of a push. I think the book would have worked as an old man’s memories of time past when he fought pirates and was at the centre of the Empire but as it is the book is not realistic and as such loses the reader.

Darren

Summary: Not the best

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Sword of Damascus – Description

687 AD. Expansive and triumphant, the Caliphate has stripped Egypt and Syria from the Byzantine Empire. Farther and farther back, the formerly hegemonic Empire has been pushed – once to the very walls of its capital, Constantinople.

All that has saved it from destruction is the invention of Greek Fire. Is it a liquid? Is it a gas? Is it a gift from God or the Devil? Or is it a recipe found in an ancient tomb? Few know the answer. But all know how it has broken the Islamic advance and restored Byzantine control of the seas.

Yes, without this “miracle weapon,” Constantinople would have fallen in the 7th century, rather than the 15th, and the new barbarian kingdoms of Europe would have gone down one by one before the unstoppable cry of Allah al akbar!

But what importance has all this to old Aelric, now in his nineties, and a refugee from the Empire he’s spent his life holding together? No longer the Lord Senator Alaric, Brother Aelric is writing his memoirs in the remote wastes of northern England, and waiting patiently for death. For company, he has his student, Wilfred, sickly through bright, and Brother Joseph, another refugee from the Empire. Or there’s ghastly Brother Cuthbert to despise – or to envy for his possession of pretty young Edward.

Then a band of northern barbarians turns up outside the monastery – and then another. Almost before he can draw breath, Aelric is a prisoner and, with Edward, headed straight back into the snake pit of Mediterranean rivalries.

Who has snatched Aelric out of retirement, and why? What is the nature of Edward’s fascination with a man more than eighty years his senior? How, together, will they handle the confrontation that lies at the end of their journey – a confrontation that will settle the future of mankind?

Will age have robbed Aelric of his charm, his intelligence, his resourcefulness, or of his talent for cold and homicidal duplicity?

“As always, Blake’s plotting is as brilliantly devious as the mind of his sardonic and very earthy hero. This is a story of villainy that reels you in from its prosaic opening through a series of death-defying thrills and spills.” The Lancashire Evening Post

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