Staymaker is the first book by indie author Andy Millen, and is something of a departure for my reading pile for, while it is in the strictest sense a historical novel, it is much more ‘gangland’ than ‘blitzkrieg’.
The novel revolves around the smuggling rackets of the mid 18th century – a time when the government duty on good such as rum and tea and bans on export of wool along with compulsory sales systems were making the poor poorer. Thus rose groups, gangs and families who were by the letter of the law criminals, yet considered themselves ‘free traders’ and were often hailed as something of a dark hero by local residents and the folk they supplied at vastly improved rates.
And therein lies something of what drew me to it.
This is not a straight tale of bad guys and good guys. Every man in Staymaker is a shade of grey (though some are darker than others.) The tale and the action that unfolds within will evoke memories of old movies, series and books that you have probably forgotten. Moonfleet. Poldark. Jamaica Inn. Even Treasure Island and kidnapped. That certain era of history. And it really does evoke it. It is a well-written, well-characterised and well-plotted novel that brings us the story of a gang and its leaders who bear in many ways a resemblance to the Krays of the mid 60s in East London. Yes they were dangerous and even murderous men. But to the folk who lived around them, there was a certain respect (speaking as a man who has family who lived around them) for the levels of control they kept which prevented random crimes from afflicting the common folk.
I feel certain that you will experience the time and the location through the telling of the tale, and certain scenes are so nicely put together that they are almost cinematic.
The one negative point I must raise for a fair review is that the proofing of the book is a little lacking and would benefit from a solid edit (an issue that is a common hiccup with the indie writers and of which I myself have fallen afoul before now.) Typos, incorrect words occasionally and regular misplacings of speech marks were notable and for that I dropped the book from a 5 star to a 4 star rating. But I feel sure that with the next release that extra star will not be found wanting – as with other indie writers clearing up edits and rereleasing is a simple thing and I expect Millen will release a version 1.1 in the near future. And it is nothing but a hiccup in the scheme.
So that’s my thing. Buy Staymaker and read it for a thoroughly engrossing tale of the seedy underbelly of 18th century trade and familial wrenches through the gangs of the south east. You will, I’m sure, be transported back to an era of secretive signals and hidden trade.
Nice one, Andy. I look forward to seeing what next bleeds from your quill.
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.
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,
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.
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.