Game of Empires, Reviewed by Michael Barry

The seventh century AD was a dangerous place: the remnant of the Roman empire, with its capital in Constantinople, was under threat. The Persian empire was attacking from the east, while on the western border barbarian hordes were pushing hard. While ramshackle empires were crashing into each other, like doomed galaxies, faiths and heresies were equally engaged in passionate and violent struggles.

Game of Empires is a story which tells at high speed the story of Rodi a fourteen-year old boy who we meet in a condemned cell in Constantinople. This young barbarian’s talent as a master forger is spotted by Alaric, the emperor’s Lord Treasurer and effective ruler of the empire on behalf of his master. Saving him from death, Alaric has Rodi trained in the necessary tradecraft of a spy and sends him to the Balkans to see what the tribes there are up to. As cover, Rodi choses to travel with Cosmas, a kind but naïve missionary – rather like an evangelical Pickwick – who is intent on converting the heathen hordes.

Richard Blake makes full use of his period setting to create the perfect backdrop for his amoral hero who kills who he must, and sleeps with whoever he has to, in order to survive in his brutal chaotic world. The parallels with our own world are at times evident and disturbing. But, more than just an ancient James Bond, Rodi manages to balance pity for the innocent missionary with his own ruthless focus, as he tries to find out for his masters what the enemies of the emperor have in mind.

Blake has a telling eye for detail. In one memorable scene, Rodi evades trip wires to steal a document from inside a messenger’s baton, read it by the light of fire-flies, before escaping and closing inside bolts behind him by means of twine and mutton fat.

This story has sex, violence, a rapid page-turning pace, and a very powerful sense of the competing ancient cultures. Rodi faces death in many ways, including possible sacrifice before a pagan idol, before extricating himself. It is not too much of a spoiler to say the hero survives. I eagerly await his next exploits in the dangerous world of the collapsing Roman empire.

Published on on the 13th June 2015

© 2015, richardblake.

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