The Death of Kings: Julius comes into power and loss

The Death of Kings by Conn IgguldenThe Death of Kings by Conn IgguldenThe Death of Kings by Conn Iggulden

Julius is a young soldier. He fights in northern Africa, but he is not in command. Still, he is very well trained, is charismatic and trusts his instincts, and he is beginning to learn what it means to command and why he loves everything Rome stands for. He is confident, idealistic, and capable, a potent combination that leads to many victories. By the end of the novel, he will deal with Spartacus and Sulla, pirates, and senators who wish him ill. He will taste true power, love, and loss.

Published in 2004, Conn Iggulden’s The Death of Kings, the second of four entries in the EMPEROR series (after The Gates of Rome), is a work of historical fiction, though it’s just as much a work of action/adventure. To some extent, it’s not SFF at all, except for one character with a mystical power to heal others. Still, there’s so much here that would have appealed to me when I was in middle and high school, reading David Eddings and Robert Jordan, that it seems worth reviewing here at FanLit.

Julius and his best friend and rival, Marcus, are talented soldiers. Marcus, actually, is an exemplary swordsman. Though they are separated here, both have a knack for getting into battles, fistfights, and sword fights. Both excel at taking men who have given up and turning them into dangerous soldiers. Every now and then, they wade into political intrigues that require them to confront dictatorship, its merits, and whether it is a threat to Rome. Women find both of them fascinating. Sometimes there is gambling, too. They are capable and proud, sometimes perhaps even arrogant, but they have each other’s back.

Some critical readers will complain than the history here is sometimes a bit hit or miss. To be honest, I only knew because Iggulden explains in a straightforward manner after the novel what he has changed, and why. Readers who come to this novel with a stronger command of the history that underpins the story may not be as patient with these discrepancies as I. Still, it says something about fiction that its demand for narrative structures and thematic arcs is so difficult to reconcile with history. At the end of the day, Iggulden seems to have sacrificed history for the sake of his novel, while also undermining the integrity of his novel in order to capture as much of Caesar’s career as he could. I found it interesting to consider that Caesar’s career was so impressive that it perhaps could be captured in a novel. To be honest, in these moments, I find Iggulden’s honesty more interesting than the “based on a true story” that seems enough to make blockbuster biopics worthy of “Oscar consideration.”

Ultimately, readers who want the true history might do well to read the non-fiction works that Iggulden recommends at the end of this novel. The Death of Kings is first and foremost a fun read about fights, power, and intrigue. Though long (over 500 pages), I’d certainly recommend it to readers who are looking for something to read on the beach. There’s just enough history that it feels instructive, even if we all really came here for drawn swords and political intrigue.

Published in 2004. The acclaimed author of Emperor: The Gates of Rome returns to the extraordinary life of Julius Caesar in a new novel that takes us further down the path to glory . . . as Caesar comes into his own as a man, warrior, senator, husband, leader. In a sparsely settled region of North Africa, a band of disheveled soldiers turn their eyes toward one man among them: their leader, Julius Caesar. The soldiers are Roman legionaries. And their quarry is a band of pirates who dared to kidnap Julius Caesar for ransom. Now, as Caesar exacts his revenge and builds a legend far from Rome, his friend Marcus Brutus is fighting battles of another sort, rising to power in the wake of the assassination of a dictator. Once Brutus and Caesar were as close as brothers, devoted to the same ideals and attracted to the same forbidden woman. Now they will be united again by a shock wave from the north, where a gladiator named Spartacus is building an army of seventy thousand slaves—to fight a cataclysmic battle against Rome itself.

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RYAN SKARDAL, on our staff from September 2010 to November 2018, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

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