Book Reviews

The Exiled by David Barbaree


Released: June 2019
Publisher: Zaffre
Pages: 384
Rating: 4.5/5

A thrilling novel of Roman political intrigue set amidst the devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

It’s the height of summer in A.D. 79. The Roman Empire just suffered the loss of its beloved emperor Vespasian and his son Titus has now ascended to the throne. In Parthia, a civil war threatens to unglue the newly crowned emperor’s grasp on Rome as one of the warring factions claims to have the deposed emperor Nero leading their ranks.

The imperial family and much of the Roman elite are summering in the Bay of Naples with Mount Vesuvius ever looming in the horizon. Their idyllic summer retreat is torn apart when several people are brutally attacked and there are multiple attempts on the emperor’s life. Yet before they have a chance to recover, massive tremors begin to rock the land. Then the unthinkable happens:

It’s the end of the world.

As an archaeologist and historian with a soft spot for Pompeii, this book was right up my alley. Some of the history was tweaked, but the author had a disclaimer at the beginning advising he changed some historical events to fit his narrative. The alterations were so minor that it didn’t affect my enjoyment of this fantastic novel in the slightest. If anything, his changes made me enjoy it even more.

I didn’t realise when I started reading this that it’s the second novel in a series, but enough of the backstory was given in The Exiled that I didn’t feel lost. However, I’m definitely going to be purchasing myself a copy of the first book, The Deposed, because of how much I enjoyed this one. From what I gather, the previous book surrounds the False Nero legends. Whilst not the focus of The Exiled, the parts of the plot concerning the false Nero- and of Nero surviving after being deposed- were captivating. The actual history of this legend has always fascinated me, as has Nero himself. To imagine him surviving and going full Count of Monte Cristo on those who betrayed him is nothing short of delicious.

If you’re familiar with Roman history, you’ll recognise many of the other key players: Pliny the Younger, Pliny the Elder, Domitian, and Nerva to name a few. The story bounces between the points of view of several characters and the pacing of this was perfect.

Even though there were so many characters in this tale, they were all fully fleshed out and believable. I became very attached to several of them, especially shrewd Domitilla and the larger than life Pliny the Elder. More than once they and the others elicited quite a bit of sympathy from me as they tried to survive in the tumultuous political climate of Rome- where not even the emperor is safe. I think Nerva described it best in the book when saying overthrowing an emperor is just the way power works in Rome:

“One cannot betray Rome. It is a series of buildings beside the Tiber. It can be taken by force, or by intrigue, but never betrayed.”

As for the devastation in Pompeii, the descriptions of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius were incredible. Of all the times I’ve been to Pompeii, I’ve never felt as fully immersed in the devastating chaos as I did whilst reading The Exiled. I pretty much held my breath during those chapters as our characters desperately tried to escape the ash and fire. We focus so much on Pompeii itself but the entire region was affected, the seas thrashing so much that no one in the bay could escape by boat. Instead, they had to crawl their way on land in the oppressive heat and darkness caused by the ash clouds.

“The air is dense with sulfur and ash. I feel as though I’m going to choke on it. The sea remains mountainous and unenviable; the wind unrelenting.”

With the land around them erupting in such a violent, lethal way it’s not hard to imagine why everyone in the region thought the world was coming to an end. It must have been like the gates of Hell opening.

When the ash finally settled and the world was still there, all the rivalries and deception in Rome launched back into full force. Man, were those Romans a devious bunch. The reader is thrust back into it all, right up until the dramatic ending that leaves itself open for further installments; installments I’ll be eagerly waiting for.

Historical fiction can be hit or miss, especially when its characters are from ancient periods or based on real figures. In this instance, however, it’s a total hit. I absolutely relished this political thriller and its twists and turns. Having all the plotting, fighting, and treachery set against such an infamous volcanic eruption made for a truly thrilling read.

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