The Last Hour

Phil: Books make great Christmas presents. Carefully chosen, they tell the recipient that you have thought about them, and yet they are so easy to wrap.

My friend is interested in Roman history and when I spotted The Last Hour by Harry Sidebottom, I thought that a novel set in Rome during the empire would be perfect.

A few months later, it came back to me, enjoyed, but described as “a bit Dan Brown”.

Now I’ve had the chance to read it, I’m not sure about Mr Brown, perhaps a bit Leslie Charteris.

The plot concerns Ballista, a Roman soldier and confidant of the Emperor. He learns that there is a plot to assassinate his friend an hour before sunset the next day. All he has to do is fight his way across Rome and speak to the Emperor.

In the way seems to be most of the official armies and police of the city. It seems the plotters know who he is and have the ability to spread his description almost instantly to their men.

Fortunately, like Charteris’s Saint, Ballista is indestructible. He is beaten, stabbed, slashed, half-drowned and he just keeps on going. OK, his motivation is that with the Emperor out of the way, vengeance will see his wife and family killed, but even so, for 350 pages, he’s either fighting or running. There’s a brief respite among some Christians for a kip, but precious little food. By the fourth chapter, his bloodstream must be 100% adrenalin.

This aside, I enjoyed the descriptions of Rome itself. The author has done his research and we learn a lot about the society – how honour and family matter. The various tensions between different races, the conflict between religions.

The finale at the Colosseum fascinated the engineer in me with descriptions of various trapdoors to lift beasts and prisoners into the arena. Less appealing is the details of how people met their ends in the arena. Sadly, I suspect that entertainment like this would prove just as popular today if it were Saturday evening television.

The story moves at pace, but I found myself getting as tired as Ballista should have been. It’s hard work reading this as you try to follow yet another gruelling punch-up. A fair few people are killed by our hero simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and without Roman sensibilities, I found that a bit hard. Realistic maybe, but I’m a bit of a wuss about this sort of thing.

Towards the end, there is a seed of doubt in Ballista’s mind about the Emperor. Power has corrupted and it may be that the man simply isn’t worth saving. Maybe the conspirators are right and he needs to go. That’s the trouble with dictatorships, there’s no easy way to replace the man at the top. Needless to say, the seed falls on fallow ground and there’s never any real option other than to save the man, to protect Ballista’s family.

By the end we see Ballista earning a phyric victory. As a hero of the empire, he’s promptly shipped off to lead the legions, well away from his beloved family. There is obviously a sequel planned, but you’ll need (I suspect) to limber up for more crunching action if you fancy taking it on.

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