The Iron Hand of Mars is the fourth in Lindsey Davis' mystery series featuring the ancient Roman detective Marcus Didius Falco. The emperor Vespasian sends Falco on a mission to Germany. Falco is reluctant to go at first, but the emperor's son Titus has his eye on Falco's girlfriend Helena Justina and wants Falco out of the way, so he is forced to leave. Titus sends a barber named Xanthus, who wants to see the world, as Falco's traveling companion. But there is more to Xanthus than meets the eye, and Falco wonders if he's really an assassin.
The situation in Germany is dangerous, since the Batavian forces led by Julius Civilis, formerly in the service of Rome, have revolted. A general who was sent as a hostage to a powerful Druid priestess, Veleda, has gone missing. Falco has to search for the missing general and discover whether Veleda is willing to make peace with Rome. But it is impossible to see Veleda without the permission of her male relatives, who guard her closely. When Falco arrives in Germany, he finds out that another general has gone missing, and he faces hostility from the general's legion, the Fourteenth, because Falco's former legion had failed them in battle. But he finds an ally in Helena's younger brother, Camillus Justinus, who is now a tribune in Germany. Soon Helena joins her brother and Falco there, but Falco has to decide whether he should let Helena marry Titus for the good of Rome.
Falco's mission in Germany takes many twists and turns, and the last part of the book is particularly exciting, as Falco gets lost in a dense forest, with several inept recruits as his companions. Will he be able to complete his mission and return safely to Rome? And will his love for Helena win out over his duty to the empire?
This book marks a departure in the Falco series, since it takes place in the wilds of Germany instead of the mean streets of Rome. But Falco is his usual sarcastic, wisecracking self, and there is much of the delightful banter between him and Helena. It's more of an adventure story than a mystery, so readers expecting a whodunit might be disappointed. But readers who enjoy action will not be, since there is plenty of it, particularly towards the end of the book. Davis gives fascinating descriptions of ancient Germany, particularly the forests and the area along the Rhine, and readers will learn many details of life in a Roman army camp. I would definitely recommend this book, but probably not as the starting point for readers new to the series. It's best to start with the first book, Silver Pigs.
The Iron Hand of Mars is available from the Shapiro Undergraduate Library. Silver Pigs can be borrowed from the Shapiro Undergraduate Library or the Hatcher Graduate Library's Children's Literature Collection (even though it's not really a children's novel).