Reviewed by Lucy Middlemass
The Night Watch
Someone is killing gladiators. Prefect of the Night Watch Gallus Secundus must find out why.
Violence has already spilt out of the arena and into Gallus’ life. He’s struggling with the death of his wife and son, but has no idea the latest gruesome killings are linked to his own loss. In Rome life can be bought and it’s pretty cheap. Anyone could die and anyone could be the killer.
The Night Watch is fast and there’s always something going on. Gladiator Palpitus provides much of the pace and he becomes a surprising hero. His storyline runs alongside Gallus’, and he’s the more entertaining. There’s some skill in creating a cruel character who rather steals the show. I’d have liked more Palpitus. His story also provides the opportunity for a great description of the architecture of the Undercity where he journeys to save a boy from slavery.
The Night Watch takes place in a convincing world, complete with appealing details. Fires burn. The gladiatorial arena is flooded for watery entertainment. There’s a rabid hyena in the tunnels. The author explores every part of the city from the Senator’s luxurious villa to the filth and deprivation of the slums. The backdrop is almost as interesting as the plot, and it’s never forgotten. However, although the story starts as a historical murder mystery, it becomes a paranormal fantasy.
Gallus himself finds fantasy difficult to separate from reality. He’s initially sceptical the gods exist but as he hunts the killer, luck and coincidence tempt him to believe. Gallus doubts and chooses to ignore his experiences but because of the paranormal aspect, I wasn’t sure what the reader is supposed to believe is real. There is so much reality towards the start of the story, like this description of rats on a corpse, “a pair of rats, one as massive as a cat and another much smaller and seemingly tugged along as though by the larger rodent’s gravity, scampered across the sand and began wresting chunks of flesh from the bloody stumps.” that the later otherworldly aspects are a noticeable contrast.
There’s a great deal of death. People die in the arena and people die on the streets. Some of the deaths are central to the plot, others happen in a few words to characters the reader barely gets to know. The characters all acknowledge this is how things are in Rome and they’re not always concerned. Even those with power seem unable to change anything. The violence is too frequent and creative to be genuinely unsettling, but it’s occasionally disconcerting to invest in a character who dies so quickly.
There are some neat twists, original descriptions and even minor characters are mostly distinct and memorable. The Night Watch is a fun and gritty read, full of bloodshed and humour.
The Night Watch