Empire by Anthony Riches Hodder & Stoughton HK$160 A first-time historical novelist looking around for a suitably meaty subject could do a lot worse than select the Roman empire, which, 2,000 years ago, covered much of Europe and beyond. Anthony Riches, ordinarily a business systems manager, has done a highly creditable job with Empire: Wounds of Honour, the first in a trilogy covering the adventures of Marcus Valerius Aquila. It's not giving too much away to relate that Marcus has to flee Rome to escape the wrath of the emperor, and conceals himself under an assumed name in an army unit posted to Hadrian's Wall in Britain, on the northern fringe of the empire. Part of the wall still stands today, and it was a summer visit (in driving rain) to one of the remaining forts that provided Riches with his inspiration. He's done a good job with subsequent research, Empire being especially strong on historical detail. Roman soldiers awaiting an attack would muddy the ground in front of them to deny the enemy a sure footing, and strew it with caltraps. Having marched all day carrying 27kg of arms and equipment, legionaries would build a defensive position before bedding down for the night. Camp followers, from prostitutes to tinkers, would settle down next to the army encampments, making a good living but in dire peril should the enemy attack. Riches has also deftly caught the spirit of friendly rivalry that exists between army units the world over - today and two millennia ago - with infantry and cavalry mocking each other's supposed shortcomings, and fellow commanders engaging in an unrelentingly fierce banter. However, it's the battle scenes - vivid, shocking and engrossing - that really grant Empire its page-turning credibility. Riches places his readers on the front line as Roman and Briton clash. These were conflicts when quarter was neither expected nor given, when the wounded were unlikely to survive and generals on the losing side could expect their heads to be paraded stuck on the end of a pole. The only minor blemish in Empire is an occasional lapse in authentic dialogue. When the British chieftain, Calgus, is rallying the tribes to attack the Romans, he sounds more like a chief executive trying to pep up his recalcitrant staff ('I want you all to be very clear about what we're committing ourselves to ...'). And when a traitor's throat is slit, his killer walks away with the line: 'Well, that at least feels a bit better,' which could have been taken from Monty Python's Life of Brian. Again, it's revealing little to record that Marcus survives a major battle at the end of the book and seems to have eluded - albeit temporarily - imperial ire. There's also a love interest, whose husband conveniently dies. Such military literary heroes as Richard Sharpe and Jack Aubrey have a new companion in arms.