The Last Hour
Harry Sidebottom takes up his sword for a seventh time in his Warrior of Rome series with his new novel, The Last Hour. Marcus Clodius Ballista, despite his Roman name, is every inch a German barbarian, but he remains loyal to his friend, the Roman Emperor Gallienus. Many powerful Romans do not, however, regard the Emperor with a similarly friendly eye. These shadowy plotters mean to assassinate the Emperor unless Ballista can reach Gallienus first and warn him. During the next 24 hours, beset on all sides, alone, unarmed and without money, Ballista must avoid the chasing hounds to forewarn the Emperor.
As Ballista is chased across the city, down seemingly every side street, he becomes a veritable Roman Jack Bauer as he battles, as only a warrior of the German’s calibre could hope to, through a huge number of brutal but superbly drawn fight scenes. Ballista, too, is a refreshingly complex character whose actions feel very contemporary to his era. The lack of a controlling antagonist, though, means Ballista’s enemies can at times blend into one another. While Ballista makes his bloody way across the city of Rome, the reader learns a huge amount about the Eternal City, with Sidebottom expertly creating a fantastic sense of place, rich in authentic detail. Sometimes, however, the reader is drawn down narrative side streets, slowing the pace of the chase; a discussion of Roman philosophy or religion does slow down the urgency Ballista surely feels. Once the final quarter of the book is reached, however, the chase is really on, and the author piles on an adrenalin rush of 24 hours in Rome until the satisfyingly dramatic conclusion at the Coliseum.