Review: The City War by Sam Starbuck


Rating: 4.25 stars

Senator Marcus Brutus is finding it perilous times to be a Senator in Rome, especially one not lined up behind Caesar.  Caesar is making moves to get rid of the Republic and crown himself Emperor of Rome and that is something Marcus Brutus just  cannot abide.  Brutus has devoted his life as has his family to the Republic of Rome and to see it demolished under Caesar sickens him. When he retreats to his country estate with his brother-in-law and lover, Cassius, he knows that there are hard decisions to be made and soon if the Republic is to be saved.

Cassius has pulled his long time lover, Marcus, out of Rome for a purpose. There is a mutiny brewing in Rome and he is part of it.  Even his sister agrees that something must be done about Caesar and soon if the Republic is to survive.  Now to make Marcus Brutus understand how necessary is the course of action Cassius and others have planned, as well as the major role Brutus is to play. And he hopes their love is strong enough to survive what he intends to throw before it.

Tiresias claims to be an orphaned boy when he meets Brutus on the road to his country estate.  But looks can be deceiving especially when the boy looks as delectable as Tiresias.  Tiersias appears before Brutus on a gorgeous animal and states that all the horses that Brutus owns should look as good.  And of course, Marcus Brutus is hooked, hiring the young man and sending him on ahead to the estate.  In one move, Brutus has captured Tiresias’ heart and loyalty as Tiresias has captured his.

All three men will face the toughest decisions of their lives as Caesar’s ambitions start to cause even the sanest of Senators to think the unthinkable. Cassius will ask everything of the man he has loved since childhood.  Tiresias will follow Marcus Brutus back to Rome and perhaps his death.  And Marcus Brutus?  He faces the loss of everything he loves. The Republic of Rome, his lover Cassius, the young boy who idolizes him and even the man who protected him when others would have put him to death – Caesar himself.

If you love history, especially the era of ancient Rome, this is the book for you.  Sam Starbuck takes a well known historical fact, the assassination of Caesar and the well known “Et tu, Brutus?” and makes it all so relatable as well as the human actions that set it in motion.  This is the assassination as seen from Marcus Brutus’ anguished perspective and a needed reminder that there are always more than one way to look at history.  Sam Starbuck has done, as he relates in his blog, his research and it certainly shows.  He makes Rome and its countryside come alive again as well as the incidents some might know only from the dusty tomes of history.

Into the tale of deceit and conspiracy, Starbuck weaves the story of the romance between Cassius and Brutus, a long established affair that is even given support by their wives.  This is really not a far fetched idea as a well known quote about Caesar (from one of his many enemies) was that Caesar was a “husband to every wife and a wife to  every husband”, which meant that Caesar himself entertained men as well as women sexually.  Here homosexuality had not yet been demonized by Christianity and the taking of male lovers was almost a given, albeit with some strict behavioral guidelines.  And this includes the mentor/young man sexual relationship which is mentioned here with regard to two couples.  The first is Aristus, former tutor and publican, now old friend of Marcus Brutus the younger.  They have an established sexual relationship in which Aristus mentored  Brutus in the ways of homosexual love, which ended when Brutus was no longer his student (in every respect).  The second  relationship of a similar manner is that between Marcus Brutus and Tierisias. While certainly a deeper relationship emotionally, at least on Tiresias’ side, it is still in keeping with the older man benefactor/young student or recipient bond.  I never felt that their connection was deeper than that, at least on Brustus’ part.

And really that is the heart of my quibbles with this wonderful in every other respect story.  I loved The City War as an intimate look into the events leading up to the assassination of Caesar from the POV of the main conspirator.  But as a m/m romance, that is a much harder sell.  The long standing sexual affair between Cassius and Brutus has all the elements of two men who know each other intimately inside and out.  They have been through war campaigns together and lasted through their marriages, even to the sister of one of them. So I kept waiting to feel a equally intimate connection between them, one born of romantic love and not that of brothers in arms.  And I never felt it.  Or bought into it.  And I think that is perhaps far more realistic a take on their relationship than that of two men deeply in love with one another.

And that carries over to the relationship between Brutus and Tiresias. That is a relationship of unequals, as it has to be.  Roman society as well as Roman thought would not allow it to be anything else.  There is an equally surprising factor about Tiresias that I felt the author handled beautifully and with great respect.  This was so well done that I want to give Sam Starbuck a little extra kudos for the character and Tiresias’ back history.  Really, Tiresias is one of the most interesting characters you will meet between these pages.  Really, he is a lovely surprise that gives this already fascinating story a added dimension.

At 123 pages, The City War is a quick yet well researched look into one of history’s most infamous moments.  I thought Sam Starbuck did a wonderful job here and look forward to his next story.  This is part of the Warriors of Rome series from Riptide Publishing.  So if history, gladiators, Rome and everything in between is your thing, run out and pick this one up.  Continue on to the rest of the series and settle down for a great trip back in time to the golden age of Rome.

Guest Post by Sam Starbuck and Contest for The City War Blog Tour


Scattered Thoughts and Rogue Words is happy to have Sam Starbuck here to blog about his latest book, The City War, published by Riptide Publishing:

Hello everyone! I’m pleased to be hosted by Scattered Thoughts today as part of a blog tour for  The City War, my first novella to be released with Riptide Press.

This is the second part in a series of posts I’m doing about the process of writing historical romantic fiction, and how one gets from being a history nerd to a romance writer in a few easy steps; today’s entry is about the delicate dance of historical fiction. To thank you all for reading, I’m offering a chance to win $10 in credit with Riptide Publishing; every comment you leave on the post today and for the entire tour enters you to win!

Something that comes up frequently when people talk about writing historical fiction of any subset is the difficulty of Getting Everything Right. If you set a story in ancient Roman culture — as the Warriors of Rome series is — it’s easy to leave out things we’re aware don’t belong: microwaves, cellphones, pianos. It’s often harder to leave out things we don’t know don’t belong — did the ancient Romans have books, or only scrolls? Did they have plates and cups? Did they have toilet paper? (Yes, Yes, and No.)

It’s daunting, the idea of having to know a dead culture so well that you can create a whole world without screwing it up.

But it’s also fun.

One of the things I researched for The City War was the food served at feasts, particularly feasts for the nobility of the highly class-stratified culture of Rome. 

The servants brought in trays of apricots in sweet sauce and lentils imported from Egypt, roasted thrushes, goose livers in garum and oysters in cumin sauce.

“The servants brought in trays of apricots in sweet sauce and lentils imported from Egypt, roasted thrushes, goose livers in garum and oysters in cumin sauce. Cassius occasionally licked sweet apricot sauce off his thumb, glancing at Brutus with lowered eyelids to see if he noticed. Brutus saw that Aristus did, and the older man drank more wine than usual. Brutus just busied himself counteracting the heat of the cumin with bites of honey-soaked melon, and ignored them both as children. He was getting tired of Cassius’s air of mystery.

By the time the servants brought in the pig—small but well-cooked, and stuffed with tender laurices and fragrant spices—Brutus saw the horse-boy watching the dancers as well, crouched in a shadow behind a tall window that let the breeze pass from the outer yard into the triclinium.”

It sounds delicious and poetic, but sometimes that’s part of the trick of historical fiction; goose livers in garum seems luxurious, if slightly gross to our modern sensibilities, until you find out that garum is a sauce made from fish that’s been left to decay in the sun for days. “Stuffed with tender laurices” makes the mouth water — until you look it up, as one of my editors did, and realize that a laurice is the term for the unborn fetus of a rabbit, a delicacy in ancient Rome. But part of the joy of writing for this era in particular is the fierceness and the nearness to the food chain that even the upper classes were required by their limited technological means to engage in. It was an earthy time.

Historical fiction is about getting the world right, but also getting the sense of the world right. It’s important to understand the spirit of an era — and sometimes to temper it a little in places, particularly when writing romance, which I’m also addressing today over at  Well Read.

Bio: Sam Starbuck is a novelist and blogger living in Chicago because he enjoys trains, snow, and political scandals. By day, he manages operations for a research department at a large not-for-profit, and by night he is a pop-culture commentator, experimental cook, advocate for philanthropy, and writer of fiction. He holds two degrees in theatre, which haven’t done much for his career but were fun while they lasted. His love of ancient cultures and art crimes makes him a very strange conversationalist at parties. His novels include Nameless, Charitable Getting, and Trace, published independently, and The City War, published with Riptide Publishing. He blogs here, and you can check out his writerly accomplishments here.

The City War 

Blurb: Senator Marcus Brutus has spent his life serving Rome, but it’s difficult to be a patriot when the Republic, barely recovered from a civil war, is under threat by its own leader. Brutus’s one retreat is his country home, where he steals a few precious days now and then with Cassius, his brother-in-law and fellow soldier—and the one he loves above all others. But the sickness at the heart of Rome is spreading, and even Brutus’s nights with Cassius can’t erase the knowledge that Gaius Julius Caesar is slowly becoming a tyrant.

Cassius fears both Caesar’s intentions and Brutus’s interest in Tiresias, the villa’s newest servant. Tiresias claims to be the orphaned son of a minor noble, but his secrets run deeper, and only Brutus knows them all. Cassius, intent on protecting the Republic and his claim to Brutus, proposes a dangerous conspiracy to assassinate Caesar. After all, if Brutus—loved and respected by all—supports it, it’s not murder, just politics.

Now Brutus must return to Rome and choose: not only between Cassius and Tiresias, but between preserving the fragile status quo of Rome and killing a man who would be emperor.

You can buy The City War or read an excerpt here at Riptide Publishing.

Thank was wonderful.  My review of The City War will be posted tomorrow and you won’t want to miss it. And don’t forget to enter your name in the contest.  Just leave a comment and you are entered into the contest to win $10 in credit at Riptide Publishing. The Winner of the contest will be announced at the end of the tour.

Good luck, everyone.  And my thanks to Sam Starbuck and Riptide Publishing for stopping by today.