S.J.A.Turney's Books & more Blog

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Iron Castle

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The Iron Castle.indd

Now, unusually, the Iron Castle has been out a week before I’ve got my review up. Why? Simple: I have had a plethora of books and manuscripts to read all arriving in a short time and most of which will never see the light of review day, but all had deadlines. And shuffling them around, one thing was clear… Angus Donald’s Outlaw novels do not deserve to be shoe-horned into the middle of such a rush. They deserve to be savoured like a 12 year old single malt. So I have taken my time and enjoyed every nuance of the book.

Anyone who’s followed my blog or my Goodreads or Amazon reviews will know my opinion of Angus’ books. They are one of the top series of historical fiction out there. I have enjoyed each of the books, though I have always maintained that the best in the series was King’s Man (the third of six). Well, the Iron Castle might just topple that for me.

I think that anyone who’s read the first five books will agree that with the death of the Lionheart and the somewhat off-shoot nature of the plot of book five, we all wondered how the interactions and situations would work with King John on the throne, what with Robin being such a loyal follower of Richard. How could the series continue to work? Well the good news is that with this return to the intrigues and dangers of interacting with the Plantagenet dynasty, the whole feel of the book has actually taken a step up rather than down. Serving a man the protagonists dislike more than the enemy has its own special fascination and informs not only the plot of the book, but the deeds and desires of the characters.

So what’s it about? Well you know I avoid spoilers as much as possible, but there are certain things I think I can say without ruining anything for you. Through Robin’s desire for settled security for his wife and children, he finds himself taking an oath to John. Through Alan’s ongoing fealty to Robin, so does Alan. Both men therefore find themselves dragged to France to take part in John’s wars over the ownership of Normandy, with King Phillip of France looming in the east, Arthur of Brittany in the west and other troublesome characters in the south. The defence of the crown land of Normandy would look utterly daunting were it not for one thing: the route for Phillip into Normandy is guarded by Chateau Gaillard, the great Iron Castle built by King Richard a few years earlier. This imposing and unconquerable fortress is the one great bastion holding the enemy from John’s lands. I think you can probably see where this is going, particularly given the book’s title. Expect a siege. I did.

The siege of Chateau Gaillard is a familiar event to many lovers of medieval history, and was one of the most brutal of the age. It made it recently onto Dan Snow’s TV series Battle Castle. Given the fact that I was already familiar with the siege and many years ago spent a day exploring the ruins of the castle, I was particularly interested to see how Angus handled the great and horrible event. The answer is: masterfully. There are a few books out there that have portrayed a siege in a fashion that actually had me sweating and biting my nails for the heroes as I read. Nick Brown’s ‘Siege’. Douglas Jackson’s ‘Hero of Rome’ and Paul Fraser Collard’s ‘Maharajah’s General’ are three of the best. The Iron Castle has now joined that list. It has all the tension, glory, despair and horror of a Zulu or a Masada and more. The fate of the ‘Useless Mouths‘ still leaves me with a bitter taste in my mouth.

And as the threads of the characters and plot weave about the siege, there is a hint of treachery and betrayal that informs some of the more critical events and which will leave the reader guessing until the very end.

The main characters continue to grow, which is pleasing, especially six books into a series. Robin is becoming a straighter, less despicable character, which had to happen with Royal commission and a family. Alan seems to have finally tipped past that point where the concerns of youth guide his hand – he’s been heading that way for three books – and is now a grown man in all respects.

Simply, this series is a long way from done, clearly. Book six reaches heights I had not expected and injects new strength into the Outlaw books.

The Iron Castle is now available in hardback and various e-formats. Go buy it, people, and see how a siege is written.

Gordon Doherty – July Author Interview

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This month’s author interview is my good friend and comrade in fictitious gore, Gordon Doherty, the man behind the acclaimed Legionary and Strategos series. Gordon’s work is renowned and has been well-received in many countries, and if you’re a fan of late Rome or Byzantium, you cannot do better than delve into his work. Just have a look and judge the books by their covers! ;-)

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And just to add to the joy of that, yesterday saw the release of the final tome in the Strategos trilogy, Island in the Storm. Get it HERE


And now, on with the interview.

Your two series that have hit the shelves thus far (Legionary and Strategos) are both based in the Late Roman/Byzantine world, for all they are many centuries apart. What has drawn you so strongly to that eastern region and that complex time that it has dominated two series?

In a word; mystique. There is a certain something about the Eastern Empire and Byzantium that feels unattainable. Some buried knowledge that, no matter how many layers I sift through and peel away, will always elude me. It is a perpetual source of intrigue.
Militarily, I am fascinated by the gradual decline of the legions of old and the subsequent rise of the armies of Byzantium – the tagmata and the themata (ironically, the latter played a similar role to that performed by the early republican legions, both being soldier-farmers raised to fight in times of peril).
Culturally and politically, the empire changed drastically too, becoming an amalgam of ages recent and long past: the populace shunned Latin and spoke Greek, the Byzantine Emperors adopted the attire of and behaved in many respects like ancient Persian Kings, and the old pantheon was consigned to history as the Christian God became the empire’s new patron.
From the time of Legionary, in the 4th century AD, to the era of Strategos in the 11th century AD, the empire was compelled to adjust and adapt as the world changed around it. This, of course, could be said of the earlier Western Empire, but in that era, Rome was a burgeoning force, a rapidly expanding power, whereas the Eastern Empire of late antiquity onwards embraced change more often than not purely to survive. And it is that visceral concept of survival that inspired me to write the tales of Pavo and Apion.

How do you research your books? I know people who make heavy use of reenactment, people who walk every inch of their locations, people who research deeper than any mainstream academic, and, of course, there are people who rely heavily on imagination, it all being fiction after all. All of these seem viable routes in their own way and for their own types of work.

I’m not a reenactor, though I do have a few bits and bobs of kit, including the rather magnificent 4th century intercisa helmet, below, that has become the talisman (I tried really hard not to say ‘brand’ there) of the Legionary series. On a tough writing day, it’s nice to glance across the room and see the kit, imagine the legionaries marching to war in it . . . then try it on and pretend you’re one of them. [Gordon’s Top Tip #237: always remember to check your neighbours are not in their garden and in full view of your living room window when you’re strutting about in just your underpants and this helmet.]


I wouldn’t say I’m an avid explorer, but I do get out and about. It particularly helps that I love the region I write about, so my regular trips abroad to Turkey and Greece are great fun and highly informative. Waking up to an Anatolian sunrise, eating fresh bread and local honey then going for a run or a walk through the burnt-gold countryside is inspirational stuff.

Overall though, I would say that the bulk of my research centres on reading the primary and secondary sources. They also usually serve as the spark for new novel ideas, prosaically (amusingly so, sometimes) unveiling some savage twist in history that sets my imagination aflame. However, I think that a novel spawned purely from historical texts could be pretty dry. So a combination of the previously mentioned factors – the first-hand experience of handling kit or travelling to historical sites – really help to breathe life into a work of fiction. For me though the ‘magic’ really comes when you add imagination to the mix.

Despite being strong, controlled and martial characters, both of your protagonists – Pavo and Apion – did not start their lives as military heroes, but as rather innocents thrown into a world for which they are perhaps not initially suited and finding a path regardless. Do you find this aspect makes the character stronger? And consequently was it a very different concept when you came to write the sequels and the characters had grown into their military roles?

Stronger? I’ll let the readers be the judge of that . I’d say that their difficult beginnings make them easier to write about. This might sound like the strapline for the latest novel from the Twilight Universe (“A teenager who didn’t fit in . . . ”) but I can empathise with the feeling of being swept along by life, finding yourself in awkward places and rather crap circumstances. It’s not a unique concept, but both Pavo and Apion face some pretty brutal episodes early on, and from there, it’s up to them as to how they handle it: their choices make them who they are.
Once a character has ‘come of age’ and found their place in martial life, it certainly is a different prospect to write of them again. Apion, for example, is a very different man between books 1 and 2 in the Strategos series. By the time of ‘Rise of the Golden Heart’, twelve years have passed and he has little of the emotional fragility he suffered as a boy. No longer could I have him frozen by acute fear or doubt – or at least I certainly couldn’t have him letting the armies he led see this. I really had to work hard to change my perception of him for that book.

Your books are solidly rooted in the physical world, and yet there is a necessary leaning toward the religious, given that both of your series revolve around a Christianised Empire fighting strange, pagan enemies with old Gods and beliefs. Strategos even dips heavily into mystical overtones. Do you feel that a little religious context and mysticism adds something to a peek into past times?

Absolutely. The transition to Christianity and the slow death of the old pagan gods presents an irresistible crucible for tension all across the Roman world. In Legionary, Pavo and the men of the XI Claudia are stationed on the empire’s borders, where they practice Mithraism (a cult thought to be loosely based on a Zoroastrian deity, Mithra). Mithraism was the cult of the border legions for many years – well into the 5th century – after the inner empire and the major population centres had long eschewed pagan worship in favour of Christianity. I can only imagine how they felt, standing on the edge of the Roman world, facing barbarian hordes, defending an empire that had shunned their faith.
Then, as the Eastern Roman Empire morphed into what we now call the Byzantine Empire, the pagan gods were left behind for good. It became God’s realm, and the people saw it as God’s vision of Heaven recreated on Earth. There was no concept of a holy war, only because there was no other type of war to require the definition. Soldiers marched to battle only if they believed it was to protect God’s Empire. This absolute mindset might seem foreign to us in the present day, but it was the cornerstone of Byzantine life. In fact I’d readily admit that I have kept the religious aspect of my books relatively light simply because I think it would be almost impossible to authentically convey the dominance of religious thought in those times.
Mysticism really comes to the fore in the Strategos series, and has a vital part to play when Apion, a staunch Christian at the outset of the trilogy, loses his faith. One can only wonder what kind of crutch a man might fall back on in a world where, unlike today, there was no alternative to religion.

If a reader asked me ‘Why should I buy Gordon’s books? What’s different about them? What’s the hook?’ I know what I’d say. What would you say to that?

Because they are ace! Better than a crème egg that is unexpectedly chocolate the whole way through!
Seriously though, I won’t claim there is one ‘silver bullet’ factor that makes my books different. I think it’s all in the blend: my style of writing, my (at times unhealthy) fascination with the underdog and my overactive imagination.
I aim to tell stories that will hook you from the off, whisk you into the past, thrill you throughout, neither bore you with too much history nor neglect it. I target adventure, action and intrigue in equal measure. And you’ll get some rather mucky dying as well (Quote from GoodReads on one character’s demise: “Urgh – that was rank. It put me off my tea!”).
But most of all, I try to take you to my character’s side. Long after you’ve finished reading, I want you to remember Pavo and Apion, their comrades and the choices that made them who they were. I want you to remember the march to war, the campfire where the legionaries were bantering on the eve of a battle in which they knew most would fall, the front line where they stood side by side with you, moments from clashing blades with the onrushing enemy. That, in a nutshell, is why I started writing: so I could commit my imagination to paper, live out the adventure, bring together and build upon the flashing thoughts and ideas and create a world in which they could thrive.

Simon says: My two penneth, incidentally, is that Gordon’s books are unrelenting, action packed and breackneck in pace. You will never experience a lull or ennui in the process.

Both of your protagonists so far are very much a ‘civilized force’ in a world of chaos and barbarism. Given that you have become somewhat noted for the brutality and savagery of your bad guys and the scenes of violence they instigate, are you not tempted to write a tale from that point of view? An antihero series in which civilization is the enemy?

Tempted? Yes, definitely. It would make perfect sense for me to do this, given my aforementioned love of the underdog. In fact there might well be a project coming up where the protagonist’s roots are firmly planted outside of the ‘civilized’ world. It would require a huge shift in perspective, but yes, I would wager that this will happen at some point.
Regardless of the protagonist’s origins in any such tale, I can guarantee you this: there will be brutal, violent savagery on both sides

In movies, the creator often gets to release a director’s cut and tweak things after release. Authors get no such option. Have you ever written a scene that you wish you’d done another way? That you think was too violent, or too tense, or too languid (or of course not violent enough!)

I always re-read the previous books in a series before working on the next volume, and the pattern is usually the same: I scan a certain line or scene a couple of times, scratch my head and wonder something like: ‘Why on Earth didn’t I make that guy fall into a ravine and have his eyes pecked out by vultures?’
I think it’s natural as I develop as a writer to consider things I wrote last week, last month or last year and wish I had written them differently, but I could drive myself mad if I thought about it too much. If you ever write the perfect novel, then, effectively . . . you’re done. Where do you go from there? How can you top perfection? Also, there’s no guarantee that a seemingly ‘perfect’ tweak will actually improve things: I always remember in English class at high school when I got an A for a short story (a low key tale involving a time machine and Armageddon if I recall correctly). The teacher said I was a hair’s breadth from an A+, so I went off and rewrote parts of it, tried to vamp it up, resubmitted it . . . and got a B!
So when I look back on my existing books and have thoughts on how I could have made an emotional scene more poignant, a battle scene more frantic, or a villain’s end more gruesome, I just smile and store those ideas for the future. When they have had a chance to mature, I’m sure they’ll stand me in good stead for some new project (so the bloke about to stop for the night and have his dinner by the nice, friendly-looking ravine had better beware!).

I have noted that in the Strategos series, there is a great deal of ‘blurring of the lines’ between good guys and bad guys. It would obviously be easy to label the Byzantines as good and the Seljuks as bad from the protagonist’s point of view (something that might be applied to the Legionary series), and yet you have created a complex background in which it is at least as easy to sympathise with the Seljuks as the ‘Roman west’. Do you deliberately try to show the humanity (and lack thereof) on both sides?

Strategos started as a look at the lives of ordinary people caught between two great, warring empires. I always envisioned some of the core characters, particularly in the first volume ‘Born in the Borderlands’ to be non-partisan. Indeed, Mansur – Apion’s Seljuk mentor – is the epitome of this: a Seljuk living in Byzantine lands, a man who has shunned his faith, a man who tries to lead the life of a pacifist despite the brutality going on all around him. I did have a notion of the Seljuk Sultans being something of the enemies/villains of the piece, but not far from the outset, I realised I couldn’t bring myself to represent them as such without the tale becoming both trite and unfaithful to history. Yes, there were some grim individuals in the Seljuk armies and courts, but also many noble men. Equally, Byzantium’s courts and lands had a delicate balance of good and foul people. Thus, the notion of blurring the lines blossomed naturally to cover not just the core characters, but the entire world of Strategos. It’s a tale of people, some bad, few good, and many somewhere in between.

What are you reading at present?

I’ve just finished David Drake’s ‘Belisarius: Thunder at Dawn’. It’s a fascinating alternative history of the Byzantine general’s adventures. It is more than a tad overwritten, but beautifully so (if that makes sense). So, to counterbalance that with something more pacy, I’ve just started ‘The Lost Ark’ by J.R. Rain, an adventure novel about a quest to find Noah’s Ark. The reviews said it was hugely cheesy and a bit ‘Indiana Jones’. It is both. And it is cracking fun too!

And finally, can you give us any clues or hints as to what your next project is? Strategos III is your current new release, and I gather it is to be the final part of the series, so what we can hope to see on the shelves in the next few years? (note for G: I think it would be best to look further ahead than our joint project and gloss over that)

‘Strategos: Island in the Storm’ is indeed the end to the trilogy. The likelihood is that the next two years will see me working on Legionary 4 & 5, and a covert joint project with a certain Mr Turney.
After that, I have a shortlist of what to tackle next. I have taken advice from my agent over what would be ‘box office’ and from friendly readers who have pitched ideas to me. I also have my own personal cravings as to what part of history I should immerse myself in next*.
There’s a chance I might be staying in the late Roman Empire, a possibility that I’ll be moving west from my beloved Byzantium and there’s a prospect that I’ll be shooting back through time into the Bronze Age. There’s also a slim chance that I might try my hand outside historical fiction too.
Having spent the last three or four years writing for a living, I know how much time and emotional investment goes into creating a novel and the world and characters that go with it. I’d hate to spend either unwisely, so my choice will be crucial.

*And I have midlife crisis notions of buying a campervan and going off to explore the world for a few years, but that’s not what readers want to hear ;)


So all that remains is for me to send you off to buy Gordon’s books, which you should so clearly already have done, and to say thank you to him for his time and insight in this interview.

Gordon’s website

Gordon on Facebook

Gordon on Twitter

Gordon on Amazon

Next blog up: Angus Donald’s Iron Castle

Written by SJAT

July 9, 2014 at 9:00 am

Watchmen of Rome

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I had the privilege to be one of the lucky few to read a proof copy of this novel quite a while before it was released. The story revolves around a retired soldier returning to Rome only to find himself drawn into unexpected conflict when he steps in to save an innocent from local thugs. Through a series of unforeseen events, he ends up owning a tavern in the city and becoming involved with the not-particularly-respected local vigiles (watchmen and firefighters).

Soon, he finds himself caught in the middle of deadly enmities and a plot by a foreign priestess to destroy Rome for what it has done to her people. Carbo is no hero, no noble or champion, but on his shoulders and those of his disprespected friends rests the future of the city and possibly the Empire.

This book has been produced through a small independant press, having read the early draft I can already say that ‘Watchmen’ is easily the match of any of the Roman fiction out there published by the major houses and they missed a gem in it.

The book is a good example of an action adventure plot at its best, with a pace that doesn’t let up throughout, with no slow parts or chunks that could have been cut. Characterisation is strong, particularly in the case of Carbo, who while being the protagonist is far from a heroic character. He is a realistic, believable fellow, who does what he must and what he feels needs doing not for the glory of success or the desire to follow a moral path as much as through expediency and necessity. Also, I particularly liked his friend in the vigiles, as I’m sure you will too.

The crescendo as the book lunges towards its finale is fabulously portrayed, very visually and with edge-of-your-seat action.

In short, the book is one of the better reads in the genre and I would urge anyone to take a chance and give it a read. If you love Rome, action, adventure, intrigue and comedy even, you’ll enjoy it.

A top read,

Written by SJAT

July 7, 2014 at 9:57 am

Warlord’s Gold

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So this is book five in Mike Arnold’s civil war series and I’ve been reading and reviewing since book 1. What can I say that I haven’t already said?

This series is promoted as the ‘Sharpe of the Civil War’. In truth, though I love my Bernard Cornwell series, we are rapidly approaching the point where dear Captain/Major/Colonel Sharpe is actually the ‘Stryker of the Napoleonic Wars’. For me, Captain Innocent Stryker has now become one of the quintessential characters that define modern historical fiction. Macro and Cato, Alan Dale, Valerius, Hatton & Roumande, Two-knives, Raven, Jack Lark, Orm… and Stryker.

Arnold was unpredictable, I feel, in his first three books, in that though each one was an engrossing and rivetting read, they varied between books that were breakneck action, complex hunts, character-driven pieces and so on. By book 3 he had largely hit his stride of combining every stunning aspect into one novel. Book 4 (Assassin’s Reign) was a superb masterpiece of the genre and showed that he had crested the wave and could be relied upon to keep up the standard in every way. Book 5 confirms that.

Warlord’s Gold not only hits the spot in every aspect of historical fiction, it is also Arnold’s tightest, well-resolved and yet most wide-ranging plot yet. Our story begins with two distinct threads (ignoring bad guys that we know are going to converge with one or the other), with Stryker in the Scillies and Forrester (my personal fave character) heading south from Oxford on a special mission. For a lot of the book I presumed this was going to be the way of things, with two stories being told concurrently, each with their own heroes, villains and plots. And yet Arnold seamlessly joins them during the tale, bringing them together into a siege situation the like of which a lover of Zulu would enjoy.

Enough on the plot and writing style. Suffice it to say, the plot is extremely well-crafted, while the writing style is so comfortable and enticing that it is easy to get lost in the tale. Even with a busy life and demanding children, I finished the book in 3 days.

Since my era of choice is Rome, this Civil War series teaches me something with almosy every chapter, and I come away after a Mike Arnold book more insufferably knowledgable than ever I was before. Even just in the use of language (sotweed, dragooners, lobsters and so on.)

But for me, no matter what else good I can say of this series, Arnold’s strength that makes him stand out among peers is his characters. He is capable of creatin such vivid characters that even half-way into their first scene the reader can thoroughly visualise them in their head. Stryker and Forry are prime examples of this, and carry from book to book, with Stryker being easily one of the top 3 most memorable characters in the whole genre for me. But even one-shot villains or supporting characters in these books are so vivid and clear that they steal the stage from one another at every turn. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Arnold creates the most impressive complete nutcases in the literary world! In this particular book we meet a thoroughly disreputable and enjoyable smuggler-turned-privateer, a misshapen vengeful lunatic (though you might know him), a zealous Balkan killer, a reluctant military commander with the heart of a lion and more. It really is a treat to read in terms of character.

The less said about the plot the better, for fear of spoilers, but it will be giving nothing away to those who have read the first four and have seen the book’s title that this one revolves around Cade’s missing treasure and its recovery. In fact it is something of a race between two parties to deliver the gold to their opposing masters, with action all around the south coast this time, ranging from Basing House in Hampshire to the Scilly Isles. One thing for sure is that you cannot predict the path of the plot, so don’t try.

In short, Arnold has become a master of his art, and this book just shows it. This review is redundant for anyone who’s read the rest of the series. If you’ve read books 1-4, you’ve had book 5 on pre-order anyway, I’m pretty damn sure. If not, then you’ve not read any of these. WHY???? Go out and buy them all at once. Don’t waste time where you might have to wait for the next book to be delivered. Take my advice and get them all now.

A thoroughly absorbing masterpiece that deserves to hit the top and stay there.

Gisborne III: Book of Kings

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Those of you who follow my blog and reviews, or even just listen to me blather on Facebook or Twitter will already know of Prue Batten and how I regularly vaunt her writing. If you are new to these or need a reminder, I would say to you simply that of all the writers I know (and not just the independent ones) Prue’s writing style is the most mesmeric, flawless, silken and almost poetic. She could write up the minutes of a meeting of a county council’s session and make it sound like a ballad. So you already have an inkling of where I’m going with this review.

Prue became noted early on as a writer of fantasy – a rather unusual and intriguing fantasy world of her own creation that revolved around the mythical Faerie. These books were rather darker than many would assume when they hear the word Faerie, for Prue has given us more of a view into the kind of Fey that still dominate the folklore of the Celtic world. The sort of Faeries that steal children, play with mortals’ minds and trick and deceive. Such were the chronicles of Eirie. Needless to say, I love them and would recommend them to a fantasy reader who’s looking for something a little different, with depth and insight.

Then, in a move that came as a surprise to me, a few years ago, Prue turned her hand to the genre of Historical Fiction. Thus was born Gisborne: Book of Pawns. In very brief summary, this was the tale of a young noblewoman from Aquitaine in the 12th century, a ward of Richard Coeur de Lion, who falls in with Guy of Gisborne (yes, him. You’ve heard of him.) Essentially, a medieval tale with a strong lean towards the Romantic genre, this was a tale of betrayals and survival and with Prue’s mastery of the written word was an instant hit with me, despite not shooting for my area of interest. It was enough that I leapt at the second book immediately, when Gisborne: Book of Knights was released. Better for me, the second volume in the series took everything I liked about the first, but threw in a healthy tale of voyages, swordfights, crusades and so on. Really hit the spot, that did. If you want to see more, click here for my review of the first two books some time back.

And recently I sat watching Prue’s comments on Facebook, telling of how she was wrapping up with the third book. And I had the opportunity (lucky me) to get my hands on an advance reading copy. Well, Gisborne III is now out on Kindle, so feel free to rush off and buy your copy if you already know you want it (Amazon link here).

What can I say? Gisborne III is everything I had expected. Once more, it takes a subtle half-step away from the romantic content and a heavy ten paces into the world of troubled 12th century Europe. For those of you who have read the first two books, I will give one thing away here: Ysabel has grown up. I expect that, like me, you have torn you hair out over two books with Ysabel’s foolish tendency to mess everything up because she cannot hold herself back and leaps foolhardy into trouble at every step. Not so in this book. You will still recognise the same headstrong girl and she still has her moments of ‘ARGH!’ lack of foresight, but they are much fewer and on many occasions she now actually thinks before she acts. Additionally, old friends return (Peter, Tobias and so many more) and new interesting characters appear – one of whom made the book for me to some extent. When you read it, you’ll soon work out who that one is, I’m sure.

The plot? Well you know I don’t like to risk spoilers, but I will give you hints. Now in Venice, Ysabel has only a brief moment with Guy before he disappears off into the wide world to help his King, who has returned from the Holy land to find much of Europe set against him and is attempting to journey home through hostile lands. During his absence, Ysabel begins to suspect that she and her household are being watched by a malevolent presence. Her fears prove to be well-founded when her young son is kidnapped following a thoroughly engrossing and heart-in mouth scene. Thus begins a quest to find and rescue young William and uncover the truth behind a sinister new antagonist who seems to have at his command the small group of renegade fallen templars from the previous volume.

This is the last of the Gisborne trilogy, so expect a crescendo and a wrap up, though it appears a series of standalone spin offs, based on the supporting characters, is in the offing, so there is that to look forward to.

As always with Prue’s work, Gisborne III is a joy to read, smooth and eloquent, with a well-constructed plot weaved around well-imagined characters and, despite the grace and charm of her writing, no punches are pulled with the scenes of violence and destruction that are a necessity of a thriller, especially one set in such an era.

Bravo Prue, once again.

Go out and buy it folks.

The Oathsworn Series – Robert Low

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It strikes me that I may have been a little remiss in my reviewing. (Major understatement alert.)

It has been quite some time since I began the literary journey that is Rob Low’s Oathsworn series, and yet at no point have I reviewed them. My bad, Rob. My – as they say – bad…

Time to rectify the situation. You see, I’ve had my copy of Crowbone waiting to be read for ages, and finally, while on my recent research trip, I found the time and got stuck in, which instantly reminded me of why I love this series and spurred me to this blog post.

If you are not already aware of Rob’s work and this series, then allow me to enlighten you (though you may glean some of this from the pics and titles of the 5 book covers above). Robert Low is a Scottish author, rightly renowned for his two series of books: The Kingdom series which deals with the Scottish Wars of Independence under the Bruce, and the Oathsworn series, which follows the misadventures of a Viking crew. Rob is an imposing fellow. He has been involved in Viking reenactment for many years and his build and looks will immediately have you picturing him swinging an axe and shouting imprecations at Loki. He looks like he should write Viking books! And yet, with a varied, fascinating and very literary background, that imposing image is tempered by the discovery that it contains a witty, urbane raconteur, who can entertain a room with merely a look. Given that, imagine what he can do with a tale…

The Oathsworn series is fascinating, in that each book feels like a personal journey of the character involved, truly authentic-feeling and absorbing. They do not feel like novels with carefully constructed plots and intricately built characters. That is not to say that they are not, mind. They just don’t feel like it. They feel like a man’s life being revealed to you once scene at a time. Therein, I think, lies the truly unique nature of these books and what makes them a work of art rather than a series of books. Authenticity in even the feel of the text.

The series follows the life and exploits of one Orm ‘Bear-slayer’, initially a somewhat nervous and reluctant youngster, and I will give a short paragraph about each of the five books here. If you are worried about spoilers or finding anything out too soon, feel free to stop after book 1, or however far you’ve read…


The first tale of the oathsworn sees Orm’s earliest adventures, in which he earns (doesn’t he?) the name ‘Bear-slayer’ and finds himself taking the Odin oath of the crew of the Fjord Elk under the impressive Einar. If, like me, when you think of Vikings, you think of Scandinavia, Denmark, northern Britain and the islands thereabouts, you’re in for a surprise. The Whale Road takes us in entirely opposite directions, heading to the eastern Baltic and European Russia. Here you will learn a great deal about the Vikings that takes you far from the Norwegian raiders you are likely familiar with. Rob’s clear knowledge of the era and the peoples of whom he writes comes through educationally in the book without ever feeling like he is having to teach you. I repeat that the books all feel like a skald’s tale of a man’s life. So, The Whale Road takes us east on a quest to find the ultimate treasure of the age: the silver hoard buried with Attila the Hun. In a tale that nods in the direction of a Viking Indiana Jones, We are on a treasure hunt, on which Orm will lose many friends, make new ones, learn much about himself and grow from a boy into early manhood and ultimately find himself at the very top of the heap, and wishing perhaps that he wasn’t. The book, like most of those that follow, is told in the first person, lending it a real feel of being inside Orm’s head. In essence, book 1 is a treasure hunt, an engrossing read and a powerful debut novel, filled with deceptive priests, witch-women and Odin-oathed raiders.


Now leading the oathsworn and beginning to appreciate what Einar went through, Orm finds himself on a new quest to retrieve his sword, which contains the only ‘map’ to the great silver treasure of Attila. Taken from him by one of the many adversaries who weave in and out of this entire series, Orm and the somewhat depleted Oathsworn crew head south into the great city of Constantinople and beyond, into the deserts of the Levant region. If you never thought of Vikings all over eastern Europe and the Russian steppe, you certainly will never have thought of them in the Syrian desert. But with the villain Starkad and the troublesome priest, Martin, involved, nothing was ever going to be easy. Orm’s first real test as a leader is a brutal one and is perhaps one of the principle reasons that throughout the series, Orm repeatedly attempts to settle and quit the raiding life, though the Norns have a different weaving for him. Book two, then, has moved on from being a treasure hunt into a man-hunt, though there is always the overshadowing presence in the background of that great silver pile that everyone wants and only the Oathsworn can find. Orm has grown up a little, though he is still a young man and probably too young to be in the commanding position that he occupies. Book 2 is a perfect follow-on from book 1, maintaining the same feel, the ongoing threads of the plot and villains from the first, and is an equally absorbing and fascinating read.


A book that will always stand out of the series for me simply for being the first appearance of Crowbone! The White Raven picks up several years after book 2 and finds Orm and his Oathsworn settled and attempting a land-bound life. As always, though, Orm’s path is prickly, and the Norns will not allow his thread to stay settled for long. When one of their women is kidnapped, the Oathsworn take to the whale road once more to retrieve her and get more than they bargain for. Retrieving her and freeing the curious young displaced prince of Norway – Crowbone – from enslavement on the way, they soon find themselves once more in Russian (Rus) lands, captured by a powerful prince and facing agonising death unless Orm relents and leads their captor back to that cursed pile of Silver buried with Attila. The third novel finds the crew of the Fjord Elk back on the trail of their first exploits, this time with Orm in charge and grown into a capable leader. With the entertaining and mesmerising character of Crowbone along for the ride, this is the best of the the first four books in my opinion, and sees old familiar faces return for both good and evil, and some new fascinating ones too. The descriptions of the dreadful conditions they face slogging out across the steppe stay with me several books on. While still maintaining the same feel as the first two and fitting seamlessly into the series, White Raven to me represents a step up for the series and shows that the Oathsworn saga has legs for more tales yet without losing any freshness, even merely in the tying up of loose ends. It’s a bravo! opus, this one.


By now the Oathsworn have achieved fame (and/or infamy) across the whole Viking world and the long-suffering and reluctant Orm finds himself and the Oathsworn once more ripped from an attempt at settling and thrown into the action. Orm finds himself responsible for the protection of a queen bearing the unborn heir to the throne of Sweden, only to have an old enemy reappear and ravage and burn his lands, ship and hall, forcing the surviving Oathsworn and their charges and women up into the hills. Soon, though, they are set upon a duel quest to retrieve the young man given to Orm’s foster care by his own Jarl, Brand, and to put an end to that loathesome enemy that has caused all these fresh troubles. This quest will take them away from the sea once more, marching south across eastern Europe, up a dangerous river, rather ‘heart of darkness’ style, not at all sure that they are strong enough to survive it, let alone achieve their goals at the end of it. The Prow Beast is, for me, the bleakest of the Oathsworn books and, while just as well written and absorbing as its predecessors, I found it a little harder to read because of the unremitting unpleasantness of the plot and the Oathsworn’s position. The light that shines in this darkness, though, is once more the inclusion of the excellent Crowbone character. A strong read, if bleak, and a perfect continuation of the series.


And so we come to the (currently) last book in the series. Crowbone is something of a departure for Rob’s Oathsworn. While officially the 5th book in the series, it feels more like the first book in a new series that is perhaps a spin-off, or a sequel series? Not only does this book focus (as the title suggests) on Crowbone, with Orm as more of a supporting character, it is also written in the third person instead of the first, which gives it a very different feel. To be honest, it makes it a much easier and powerful read, if it perhaps loses a fraction of the depth of feeling that the others had. Having read that sentence back, it looks to me as though I’m criticising it or putting it down in some way. I’m not. Quite simply, Crowbone is now my favourite Oathsworn book. It grabs the reader by the eyeballs and drags them headlong through the action. This novel focuses on prince Olaf of Norway (aka Crowbone) who is now grown to young manhood and seeks the axe of Eirik Bloodaxe to affirm his right to the throne currently occupied by a usurper. Crowbone is one of the Oathsworn, but now, the older, wiser and very self-assured Orm places the young man in command of a ship of his own and sends him off on a quest for the axe. The action here continually switches between three groups all on the same quest and racing for the prize: The Oathsworn of Prince Crowbone, the crew of another would-be-King of Norway – the dispossessed son of Eirik Bloodaxe, and a group of killers accompanying the Oathsworn’s oldest antagonist – the despicable priest Martin of Hammaburg. Yes, there are three crews belting around the Baltic, the North Sea and the Irish sea this time, visiting Ireland, Mann, Orkney, the coast of Continental Europe and finally into Arctic Finland. And in between, we are occasionally treated to scenes of Orm and his men. This is both a race to a prize and a coming-of-age story for young Crowbone, who is driven to depths that actually distressed me a little and made me dislike the man at times. Crowbone maintains the power and the authenticity of the first four Oathsworn books, but throws in new elements and a fresh, ‘headlong rush’ feel. It is at the same time a wonderful continuation and a bright departure. It is simply a great read.

* * *

And now for a few more notes on the series as a whole:


Characters. There is a high body count in this series. It is wise not to get too attached to any crewmember. It’s been a while since I read the earlier books, but a few characters still stand out, such as Einar and particularly Gunnar Raudi. But as the series develops, even ignoring Orm and Crowbone, there are some truly awesome characters that fill the rowing places of the Fjord Elk. Red Njal will always be a favourite character, as will Finn and his sword, The Godi. The supporting cast changes often and die with astonishing regularity, but there are always strong characters in there, and you will doubtless find a few favourites, as I did.

Watch out! If you are of a nervous disposition, you might want to skip the series. The Oathsworn books are truly violent and pull no punches in terms of gore, the unseemly activities of sea raiders and even their language. That’s just my stock warning. This lack of pulling punches is part of what gives the series its power and feeling of authenticity. If you’re happy to read about axes in heads, the rapine of seafaring peoples and lines like ‘Row, f**k your mothers!’ then read on and enjoy. I did.

Just like the rolling supporting cast, over five books the series develops a number of villains, some of whom are brief, while others are a continual thorn in Orm’s side. To be honest, somewhere in the middle of the series there were beginning to be enough of them that I had to concentrate a bit to remember who was who when the bad guys came burning, kidnapping and causing trouble. But the most important ones stand out as loathesome and despicable, and you’ll get to exercise your ‘hate muscle’ a little. Mind you, given the normal life and activities of the Viking raiding party, you might occasionally wonder whether the good guys are actually any better than their enemies. After all, they’re all just people really. The greying of morals is again part of what gives the books their feeling of authenticity.

The Fjord Elk. Get ready for the Oathsworn’s ship. You remember the USS Enterprise? How many times have Kirk or Picard blown it up or crashed it? And yet there’s always a new Enterprise to be built and christened, flown into danger and then blown up again? Then you’ll be right at home. The Fjord Elk is a name, not a ship. It gets passed on with every new vessel that bears Orm’s prow beast. The Oathsworn’s ships have a terrible habit of being burned, sunk or otherwise wrecked.

Right. I think that about covers it. What a long impromptu post. If I’ve not persuaded you to try the Oathsworn, then I bow to your resistance. Orm and Crowbone’s adventures deserve your attention. Give them a read, I urge you.

And now, back to some writing of my own.

Nick Brown: Agent of Rome

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What can I say? Nick Brown set himself a very high standard with his first novel, which was outstanding for a debut. And despite that, he managed to top it with book 2 and again with book 3. Book 4, then. Sometimes I am, at this point in a series, a little worried that the fire and ingenuity will have gone from the writing. I have to say that I did not worry about that with Nick. His writing is always top-notch, his plots seamless and his narrative excellent. I had no doubt that this would match up to his high standard, and it did.

In the first book, we say Cassius Corbulo thrown into the action defending a siege against incredible odds. In the second, he was set to hunting down a stolen banner than could avert or start a war. In book 3 he began a manhunt, following a murder investigation. Book 4 should realistically feel familiar, being another plot concerning the tracking down and recovery of a stolen item. Worry not. It is a fresh and thrilling investigation and in no way similar to, or derivative of, book 1.

I will only deal briefly with plot in case of spoilers. This story involves a perilous journey through the desert lands of modern Syria and Jordan in an attempt to recover the infamous Black Stone of Emesa, a sacred object that the deranged emperor Elagabalus had utilised in his weirdness decades earlier. His journey will bring him – undercover, of course, and with a sneaky column of local auxiliaries – into direct conflict with a madman rising like scum to the top of the southern Saracen tribes and inciting hatred against Rome and its taxes. Set to recovering the stone by his Service seniors and to uncovering the true nature of the tribes’ defiance by the province’s governor, Corbulo is going to find himself torn in numerous directions and trying to stay alive and keep his command intact while achieving several conflicting missions.

Enough. If I’ve not convinced you to buy it, I will now. Go buy it or I’ll send you an angry bear in the post!

Seriously, there are two things that deserve to be said about The Black stone.

1. I noticed in this, more than any of the other three, a true case of well-written and plotted and thoroughly realistic character progression. Corbulo, Simo and Indevara are so well portrayed here that they feel like close friends, and the changes the dreadful circumstances into which they are thrown wreak upon both them and their relationships are beautifully written. And watch out too for a couple of really stupendous new characters, including a bad guy that goes solidly into the ‘I wish I’d invented him’ folder.

2. The ease of the book. Some books are wonderful, but hard work, and you have to make yourself concentrate on. Others are easy reads, because they are rather basic. Very few are easy reads, that pull you headlong through the book, but are also wonderful pieces of literature. This is one. Go get this series and read them through. You will not be disappointed.

… and I have the angry bears on order. You have been warned.

Written by SJAT

June 10, 2014 at 8:21 pm


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