Book review: Imperial Fire by Robert Lyndon

Imperial Fire
Imperial Fire
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How about a thrilling adventure to kick off the new year?

Robert Lyndon, whose epic debut novel Hawk Quest made giant waves last year, sails back with a cracking sequel set in the dynamic, dangerous post-Norman Conquest era which saw powerful empires clamouring for dominance.

There was none more ambitious than the Byzantine empire, licking its wounds after a disastrous defeat to a Frankish force led by the genius general Robert Guiscard and eager to get its hands on a weapon that could make its armies virtually invincible – gunpowder.

Inspired by his own experiences as a falconer, climber and traveller in remote places, this is a writer whose gift is time travel… the ability to whisk us away to an exciting, pioneering 11th century world where warfare is an everyday reality.

Through the power of prose, presence and sheer blood-curdling action, we join a band of half-willing mercenary warriors as they embark on a mission seemingly impossible to the far off land of Song Dynasty China.

It turns out to be a journey few would want to miss as we follow this eclectic band of brothers across treacherous seas, broiling deserts and into the uncharted land of mountains and plains beyond the Silk Road.

Many of them are destined to die along the way but they are driven by the rewards which promise to be unbelievable.

The year is 1081 and from the Normans in the north to the Byzantines in the south, battles rage across Europe and around its fringes.

At the heart of the action is the tough Frankish mercenary Count Vallon and his army of Outlanders, men recruited from all over the Byzantine empire and beyond to work in the service of the soldier emperor Alexius.

When Alexius suffers an ignominious defeat to the Norman adventurer ‘Crafty’ Robert Guiscard at the port of Dyrrachium on the Adriatic coast, Vallon is chosen to lead a quest on behalf of the Byzantine empire to find the formula for the legendary ‘fire drug.’

It’s a compound used by the Chinese to frighten off evil spirits but its explosive potential could be the answer to the empire’s military prayers.

But Vallon – a man seemingly made of grit and earth – is also flesh and blood and at 39, he is starting to count the cost of 20 years of campaigning and resents being packed off on a mission that will involve well over two years of travel and travail.

As he says farewell to his wife and daughters in Constantinople, he takes with him a squadron of highly trained soldiers, his old friends Sicilian physician Hero and Wayland the English hunter, his adopted son Aiken and a truculent young upstart called Lucas.

All the principal players have their own reasons for going and all have secrets, some of them deadly, and ahead of them are terrible dangers. The cunning, resourceful, steadfast and courageous Vallon will be severely tested…

Imperial Fire is a true tour-de-force… a page-turning odyssey packed with the perfect blend of adventure, conspiracy, pulsating action, a sprinkling of romance, and history in all its raw, brutal, grim and glorious reality.

Lyndon has a prodigious imagination and the skill to translate his knowledge and his vision of past events into stories that both thrill and inform.

Historical novel writing at its best…

(Sphere, hardback, £18.99)