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

Interesting and informative rambling

My writing has a process?

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I was invited by the lovely and talented Prue Batten to take part in a writing process blog tour. For any of you who’ve not listened to me blather at great length about Prue before, you might like to check out her work: the fay fantasy Chronicles of Eirie and the medieval Gisborne saga. Her words are like silk. They are like a fine wine. They are beautiful. Check out Prue’s writing process here: Am I Unique?

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The tour requires that I answer several questions, and I find them to be sharp, complex ones on the whole, but we start with the easy one:

1. What am I working on?

And yet even that is far from simple. You see unlike most writers, who are sensible and logical and not clearly barking like me, I am apparently unable to concentrate on one project at a time. My imagination constantly runs riot and hurls thoughts at me that begin with phrases like ‘But what if…’ or ‘And what about…’ and I find myself branching out and adding another tandem project to my roster. And so… what am I working on?

Well, the simple one is The Assassin’s Tale, which will be released in less than 2 months. This is the third book in the Ottoman Cycle, following the adventures of Skiouros, a Greek former thief at the end of the Fifteenth century as he journeys around the Mediterranean on a quest for vengeance. For those of you who’ve read The Thief’s Tale and The Priest’s Tale, you might be interested to hear that the action here moves from Spain to Italy in the hunt for the exiled Turk.

But then there’s another project. A secret project. Shhhhh! No details, hints or teasers for you here, I’m afraid, but this is a project that is taking place intermittently between the others, alongside the talented Gordon Doherty. Yes we are working together on something, and I love it. :-) News on that will follow in due course.

And then there’s the OTHER project! This third one is a joint project with the superb Dave Slaney, the man who has designed most of my book covers and done other wonderful sterling illustrations here and there. Dave and I have joined forces to create a childrens’ book based on the Roman military, with my story and Dave’s amazing images. Having seen some of the early sketches, I can only say it’s going to be a belter of a book! :-)

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2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Hmmm. ‘Which genre?’ I would have to ask. I’m mostly known for writing in the Republican Roman era, but I’ve also written Roman principate stuff, 15th century Turkish/Byzantine, epic fantasy with a classical feel, a few contemporary short stories, and so on…

I suppose, then, that I simply have to try and answer ‘what is different about my work?’ Probably nothing is my answer. After all, such a question can only reasonably be answered by the readers. I can tell you what I think might be different, or perhaps what I hope is different:

I think I hit a nice mix. I have a tendency towards graphic violence in my work (hard not to when dealing with ancient warfare) but I think it is tempered by my general avoidance of sexual content beyond suggestion, my sparsity with bad language and the general idea that my books are suitable for all ages, so long as they don’t mind a bit of blood & guts. They’re also tempered with a bit of humour. I do feel that Historical Fiction is often lacking a sense of humour, and I like a little lightness of mood in my work.

Is that a good answer? I’m afraid it’s the best I have. :-)

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3. Why do I write what I do?

Ye Gods! Because I love it. Anyone who reads this blog will be aware of what I read from my book reviews. If you note the sort of books I read, you’ll be left in no doubt as to why I write what I do. I am inspired to ever greater heights by people like Guy Gavriel Kay, Manda Scott, Anthony Riches, Ben Kane, Angus Donald, Giles Kristian, Doug Jackson and so many, many more. And, of course, I am obsessive over ancient history. I cannot spend enough hours wandering among ruins or visiting the most far-flung and exciting archaeological sites. And when I’m not visiting, writing, or reading other people’s novels, I am reading non-fiction. Incidentally, in that regard check back early next week for a mega-review of one of the giants of Roman non-fiction, Mike (MC) Bishop.

Marius Mules I Italian Cover

4. How does my writing process work?

Ha. Like a gaudily-painted runaway steamroller!

Actually, I start with an idea, often based upon a specific tiny event. These are usually unknowns, such as the event at the heart of the Thief’s Tale (no spoilers.) Equally often it is because I just want to write about a certain place that fills me with awe, or a character who fascinates me.

ThenI pick a concept. A theme. Brotherly strife. Irreconcilable political divides. Civil war. And then build a plot based around the concept and the hook. It rarely takes long. Terry Pratchett in his Discworld novels explained the concept that inspiration sleeted through the universe like shooting stars. Most people get pelted occasionally, but the really lucky (unlucky) ones get battered by them like a soggy cardboard box left out in a rainstorm. I am the latter. If I wrote every hour the Gods sent and subcontracted to four people I would still end up with ideas backing up!

Once I have my basic plot, I write it out, change it, tweak it, alter it, hate it, change it, rewrite it, bin it, start it, alter it, write it out, spill coffee on it, change it, give up on it and eat cake, have a beer, have an epiphany, have another beer, and then at 2am with a mad glint in my eye, I have the story.

The I break the plot down int0 sections, and then into subsections and turn it into a chapter plan. Then I assign a rough word count to each part based on its content.

Then… I drink several coffees, crank up the volume on a little Pink Floyd or Anathema in my office and…. WE’RE OFF!

I write each chapter and – I know this is unique to me, so here’s a helpful hint – at the end of every chapter I run a close edit of that chapter. Then, periodically, I go back when I reach critical moments and run another edit. I also have grammar nazi’s running edits for me throughout. Then, when I’ve finished it, I have one final edit and then send it out to a few trusted test readers. Then it’s a last edit based on their findings, and then it’s ready.

Tales of Ancient Rome

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Ok folks. I’ve given you an insight into the randomness and craziness that is my process. Now, the next part of this tour I am supposed to recruit 3 others to pass on the torch to. However, due to time constraints and the fact that I was abroad for a chunk of the planning of this, two of the people I have asked simply did not have time to take part. I can sympathise with that, in truth. But I have managed to secure for you two more writers to investigate. Go check out their blogs now and watch for their own responses on Monday.

ELAINE MOXON:

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Elaine Moxon is a Birmingham-based Historical Fiction writer and former Holistic Therapist. Her grandfather’s tales of his youthful adventures in rural Italy gave her a love of storytelling, inspiring her to write from an early age. She has a passion for languages, travel, art and history, her favourite eras predominantly the Saxon and Viking ages. She has contributed articles, short stories and poetry to online magazines ‘Birmingham Favourites’ and ‘Crumpets & Tea’. Her Grime-Noir Thriller short film ‘Deception’, produced and directed by Lightweaver Productions, has been nominated for the 2014 American Online Film Awards in New York. She is also a frequent speaker at Letocetum Roman Museum in Wall, Staffordshire, giving historical talks and readings from her forthcoming debut novel.

On a personal note, I have read a large chunk of Elaine’s forthcoming Saxon epic, and it’s a tale with style and oomph. I look forward to the full thing, and I urge you to keep an eye on her. Her responses to these prying questions will go live on Monday 14th on her blog at: http://elainemoxon.blogspot.co.uk/

 

aaaaaannnnnddddd….

A J (ANTHONY) ARMITT

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A fab fella, engaging writer and sometime partner in crime of mine, here’s Tony’s bio in his own words:

‘I live in Manchester, England with my wife, three kids and two cats. In our household hierarchy, I figure just beneath the felines.

On moonlit nights I can be found looking under the bed or checking the back seat of my car. I have an over-active imagination.

I write dark, twisted fiction, and have an irrational fear of zombies, and, thanks to Stephen Spielberg, I’m also terrified of sharks. My biggest fear would have to be zombie-sharks. (Damn that over-active imagination!)

My first book ‘Entwined – Tales from the City’ has been the #1 bestselling horror anthology on numerous occasions. I hope the follow up book ‘Entwined – Tales from the Village’ will do equally as well when I finally get around to finishing it.’

… Tony is a man with a cruel, vivid, stunning imagination and when he puts his tales into words they will shock and thrill you. Look his work up on Amazon, including his many contributions to the ‘Inkslinger’ compilations from which the funds go to charity. Tony’s responses will also be up on Monday 14th, and his blog can be found here: http://ajarmitt.blogspot.co.uk/

Written by SJAT

April 11, 2014 at 8:00 am

The wonder of Miniature Books

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Imagine my delight when I returned from Istanbul to find, among all the usual dross post, bills and invitations to patronise any number of local businesses, this little gem:

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Oh yes, I guess that doesn’t do it justice. You can see what it is: a book on ‘The Latin Of The Legions’. A very nice hardback, beautifully bound and illustrated. What you can’t really see is the scale. Let me try that again…

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There. See what I mean? The book is about half the size of my mobile phone! And it is exquisite. Let me show you the inside cover…

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How beautiful is that? I’m sure any number of my Roman-obsessed friends are already twitching and wondering where it would look best on their shelves/in their office. If not, then you need to see it for yourself, then you will.

This was a gift from Pat Sweet, the wonderful brains and talent behind the book and the company that produces it. Apparently this particular volume was inspired by Marius’ Mules, which I take to be one of the most astounding blush-worthy complements I have ever received.

This little treasure has taken pride of place on my history books shelf, alongside my treasured signed copy of Roman Military Equipment by Bishop & Coulston and my 1912 copy of Stettiner’s Rome in Her Monuments. It is simply that worthy.

Want it? Of course you do. Go get it here.

But more than that, there will be so many titles you will want, when you peruse Bo Press Miniature Books’ website. I’ve earmarked a few myself. Just look at this one page alone:

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You might notice there Gisborne, a short story by the excellent Prue Batten, and Nugget: The Black Wombat – a children’s tale by Prue. Marcus is the proud owner of the latter, which even has a tiny, exquisite map in the back! But look at the binding. Isn’t it astounding?

Click on that link above and have a look through the site yourself. An artist such as Pat deserves support and I urge you to check out her site.

Beautiful.

Happy Thursday, all.

Written by SJAT

March 27, 2014 at 11:29 am

Istanbul, not Constantinople

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So, after 6 years we just made it back (this time with 4 of us rather than 2) to Istanbul. And confirmed that it is still our joint favourite location on Earth along with Rome. It is somewhat hard to beat. And so for those of you who’ve not considered visiting or who are wavering as to whether to go, here’s my top tips…

0016 Blue Mosque

  1. Most important of all: do not be put off. Do not allow rumour or uncertainty to put you off. When we went this time, we happened to time it (yes more than a year after the park riots) but only a week after the hospital riot following the poor young lad’s death. A number of people expressed concerns, and we could understand them and expected to have to be wary. The simple fact is that we felt safe everywhere and more than that: welcome and encouraged. Even with some political problems, the Turks are a friendly people and Istanbul is a relaxed, pleasant place.
  2. Go off the beaten track. Istanbul has maybe a dozen major historical sites that are thrown at you constantly (eg Aya Sofya, Basilica Cistern, Blue Mosque, Chora Church, Topkapi palace.) There are lesser sights. And then there are the unusual ones. And then there are the astounding ones. Istanbul is packed with sights like a pomegranate with seeds. Some of them require a bit of walking or extensive tram use. Go for it. It’s cheap, you’ll see things you’d regret missing, and exploration is half the fun of the city.
  3. Do not book a short trip. The girls behind us returning to the plane said that next time they were only booking a one-way ticket so that they can choose when to come back. They were right. Istanbul sucks you in and tries to keep you. If you want to immerse yourself in it stay for a week minimum. If you’re wanting to see whether it’s for you, do 4/5 nights, but take it from me: it is. Book longer.
  4. Get yourself in the mindset. Istanbul is a meeting of worlds but also a meeting of ages. It is the ancient, the medieval, the renaissance, the new and the modern as well as just east and west. Read C C Humphreys’ A place called Armageddon, or Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic, or Christian Cameron’s Tom Swan series (or might I suggest my own Ottoman Cycle!) Having a good historical context for the place will give you something you might not see otherwise. Oh, and if not a reader (why are you here again) you could watch Topkapi or From Russia With Love, or play that Assassin’s Creed game.
  5. Keep your eyes open. Istanbul is absolutely chock full of odd fragments. There is every chance that when you walk down a side street you will see a wall with layers of bonding tiles. It’s Roman/Byzantine. Or early Ottoman stolen style. It might be the back wall of a garage which was a monastery 1200yrs ago, or a couple of 3rd century columns supporting a doorway, or a 17th century watchtower. Nothing in that city is what it seems.
  6. Plan in advance. Search out everything you can find and make sure you don’t miss something just because you don’t know about it. If necessary, mail me and I will send you a fairly comprehensive list. Rank things. And go. Do it. But take maps. Be prepared. PPPPPP as they say. :-)
  7. Try the foods and drinks. It’s not Turkey without Koftas, good Kebabs, coffee like sweet silt, and of course yogurt and sherbert. Do not buy a fez. Only a feckin’ idiot buys a fez… like the muppet we watched wearing one while sucking face outside a mosque at a cafe table.

Given that, here are things (not necessarily the top ones you get pointed at) not to miss:

  1. Spend a day walking the walls. Start at the Yedikule fortress, walk the land walls, and then the sea walls via Golden Horn and then Marmara. It is a stunning journey full of wonders. It’s long, but it is more than worthwhile and you will see Istanbul from every angle.
  2. Go and visit the monastery of the Pammakaristos (Fethiye Camii) and explore Fener and the area around it. It is the most truly local and real area you will find and that church/museum is one of the most amazing places in the city.
  3. You will visit the Basilica cistern. You might visit the 1001 column cistern. There are a hundred of these water tanks in the city, but do not miss dinner at the Sarnic restaurant. Dinner in a Roman cistern among the myriad of columns is a special thing.
  4. Walk the Blachernae area. Some of it has been horribly reconstructed and some is under current work, but everywhere from the Chora to the Golden Horn… walk it just inside the walls. You will see a side of the city you would otherwise miss!
  5. The Hippodrome is hard to miss. You will find a thousand tourists being herded round it every hour. Go past the end of it and trace the Sphendone – the curved end – down and back up. If gives an idea of scale you would fail to see any other way.
  6. When you visit the Aya Sofya, realise that this was attempt #2 of Justinian’s church. The first version on a small scale was the church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, now known as Küçük Ayasofya Camii. Try to get there. It’s beautiful.
  7. Istanbul is full of Roman honorific columns. Track them down and visit for a fun quest: Hippodrome columns x3. Goth’s Column, Cemberlitas, Column of Marcian and Column of Arcadius. And then look for the REALLY obscure ones.
  8. Take the boat trip up the Bosphorus. It’s cheap. It’s relaxing. It’s fun and it’s educational. Take the short trip for a 2hr rest. Take the long one if you want to get as far north as Anadolu Kavagi, but be prepared to eat seafood for a while then.
  9. Go for dinner at Palatium restaurant on Cankurtaran. It was a stunning atmosphere, an amazing meal and an all round great evening. But even more, in their courtyard you can descend into the rooms of the Byzantine Imperial palace.
  10. Simply: stroll. Enjoy the city. The more you wander and meet the people and find the unusual unexpected sites, the more you will fall in love with the place and the people.

And with that now in the bag, here are another 10 reasons to visit:

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Fragments of the Arch of Theodosius

Aya Sofia 14

The Haghia Sophia (Aya Sofya) of Justinian

Basilica Cistern 01

Basilica Cistern (Birbindirek Sarnic)

Blachernae - Palace of Porphyrogenitus 2

Palace of Constantine Porphyrogenitus (Tekfur Saray)

Bosphorus - Rumeli Fortress 9

Rumeli Hisar, the fortress of Europe

Chora church 10

Church of Saint Saviour in Chora (Cariye Camii)

Column of Marcian 2

Triumphal column of the emperor Marcian

Land Walls 14

Reconstructed section of the Land Walls of Theodosius

0041 Hippodrome

The Hippodrome of Constantinople as it is today.

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The Bukoleon palace. Probably my favourite single place in Istanbul…

Written by SJAT

March 22, 2014 at 12:24 am

Clouds of War

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Hooray, hooray, it’s released today…

Those of you who’ve not already had it on pre-order, scurry along and buy a copy of Ben Kane’s latest opus today. Why? I’ll tell you why…

Hannibal has always been my favourite of Ben’s novels, and therefore the series my fave of his series. The first novel (Hannibal: Enemy of Rome) was a stunning delve into not only a period of Roman history that’s not often dealt with, but also into the nature of love and friendship in a time of brutal war. It was simply excellent. The second book (Fields of Blood), though not quite topping the dizzying heights of the first book, was also a fine work, delivering just what the title suggested as Carthaginians and Romans fought desperately across Italy. Book three, simply, is a bloody triumph in every way.

It must be hard (and as a man who writes myself, I can really feel this) to tell the third story in a series in which the three main characters are on opposing sides in a war and outside the war entirely and yet engineer a plot in which the three interact. I mean, it would be easy enough to do so if you didn’t mind it feeling trite, contrived, implausible and basically fairly poo. And yet for the third time in a row, Kane has done so, and this time best of all, with a looming expectation of doomed meetings swept aside and the result a truly realistic, serendipitous calamity.

The fact that the action takes place in a limited scope lends C.O.W. a tightness that some novels lack. Though it takes place over two years and the time stretches on at points, the geographical limits (all within the Island of Sicily and perhaps 3 places thereon) provides a very strong, tight situation.

Kane has clearly taken some of the most famous moments in Roman history into this novel, but more than that, he has visited their sites, lived their lives and felt the atmosphere there and this shows through in the work. It is full of life, colour, vigour and stunning realism. Whether it is military action, civilian sacrifice, base cunning, or noble honour, they are all displayed with real understanding.

Highlights for me include…

No spoiler here, I reckon. The moment you know it’s Punic Wars and Sicily (which is very early in the book) you will expect the siege of Syracuse. This is one of the most famous of all Roman military engagements, and involved some of the most outlandish and astounding actions. And you will devour the first assault hungrily.

The action in Enna is perhaps some of the most poignant and harrowing work I’ve ever read. It shows how deeply Kane can make you feel for even a passing character.

And the last section of the book? Well, I won’t go into spoiler details, but it rivals Doug Jackson’s treatment of the defence of Colchester in Hero of Rome, and that remains one of my most powerful scenes of any book. The tense, fraught excitement it builds is second only to the continual flip-flopping between hope and despair, hope and despair, hope and despair. Really it has to be read to be experienced, so that alone is a reason to buy.

The characters have grown since book 2, let alone book 1. They are more adult and react appropriately (and Kane as always pulls no damn punches when putting them in situations to elicit such a reaction). But the reappearance of at least one super S.O.B. adds villainy to the tale, and the appearance of at least one new hero adds joy.

In conclusion, Clouds of War is tight, well-written and exciting, full of colour, and realistic and even heartbreaking in places as one could imagine it might be. It is character driven and is a feast to the imagination.

I, for one, cannot wait for book 4.

Written by SJAT

February 27, 2014 at 8:00 am

Anthony Riches’ Empire Series

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You may have missed my review of Anthony Riches’ latest epic a week or two back, but if you did, here’s a little treat for you. I’ve been treated to a nice little Q&A session with the author himself. Hopefully if you’ve not read my reviews or possibly even his books, this interesting and enlightening little interview will push you to doing so. After all, the Empire series continues to ride at the crest of the wave of current Historical Fiction.

My blog reviews of the last four books can be found here:

and my goodreads reviews of the previous three here:

So without further ado (ron ron ron, ado ron ron), here’s a little peek into the mind of the man behind this fantastic series:

Q. In ‘The Emperor’s Knives’ you take significant steps towards dealing with some of the background plot that has underlay the entire series so far. Did you consciously decide to bring the series over the last few books to a position where that could happen, or did the progress of the series serendipitously put you in a position to deal with it?

A. I have a masterplan…*smiles smugly*…*then looks shifty*…oh alright, no I don’t, not really. What I do have is a load of history books and an overactive subconscious. The way it works is that I read the histories, find a relevant fact, and then off we go. So, for example:

**spoiler alert** (don’t read this if you’ve not read book 6 yet!)

it’s recorded that a consignment of coins stamped with a head that wasn’t the emperor’s was at the root of the death of a certain praetorian prefect in about AD185 – and so it wasn’t rocket science to draw a line from Dacia (where the gold came from), through Britannia (where it was intended to be used in the purchase of legionary loyalty) to Rome (where the Tungrians take it to see justice done)

 **spoiler over, (bet you wish you hadn’t read it now, don’t you!)

Picture me in the Henhouse (writing hidey hole) grinning with smug pleasure as my “cunning plan” came together without conscious volition.

And you thought it was all cleverly planned, eh? What do you mean, ‘no, I didn’t’? Harrumph.

Q. In book 7, your locations are more vivid and intricate than ever before. How important to you is it to visit a place that you are going to write about first?

Hugely. I’ve been to all of the locations. All over northern England and southern Scotland, Belgium (Tungria), Rome several times…the only place I’ve not been is Romania (Dacia), just because I ran out of time – did it show, I wonder? And of course I’ve not yet been to…ah, but you don’t want to know where book 8’s set, now do you?

Q. Was it a whole new experience after 6 books which revolved strongly around military campaigning on the empire’s borders to instead work on something more intrigue based in the great city? And given a choice, which do you prefer?

A. Both (**copout alert**). It was a huge change, and I loved it, but it gives me big problems in book 8 from a ‘getting back to basics’ perspective. I’m like a farm boy who’s seen the big city and then has to go back to his plough… Although it’s nice to get the Tungrians back on stage, especially my latest soldier character, ‘Jesus’. You’ll know why they call him that when you meet him!

Q. Your books contain a few historical characters as well as your fictional ones, such as Commodus, Cleander and Clodius Albinus. How do you go about deconstructing the myths about those people and then assembling them to portray within your story?

A. What I actually do is a mixture of debunking as much myth as I can (for example, the revisionist view of Perennis is that he was probably doing a decent job of being emperor in the absence of Commodus showing any interest) with the reality of needing characters who can fit into my version of the late second century (which mean that he is also the man commanding the loyalty of the Knives). I think the two approaches can co-exist pretty well. Clodius Albinus was reputed to be ‘the best of men’, but who can say what was motivating the writer, in an age where you had to get paid to be able to afford to write, and there were no pubic institutions to do the paying, which only left individuals – like Clodius Albinus! And after all, this is fiction!

Q. Although the bulk of the Roman military was made up of auxiliary forces and native units, the most famous fighting force was the legions and it is with them that 90% of the public will immediately identify when they think of Rome. What prompted you to write about the less famous auxilia than the legions?

A. I just felt it was time someone had a try at them, and it was great fun. After all, it was the auxiliaries who did the lion’s share of the fighting by the time of this series, so the first time one of my characters called the legions ‘roadmenders’ there was a real snigger in it for me. Mind you, that might rebound on the Tungrians at some point. They may not be auxiliaries for ever, you know!

Q. Book 8 looks to be set in the east. Beyond that, what does the future hold for ‘Two Knives’ and his companions?

A. Another 25 years of war on every frontier, civil war, the biggest battle of the second century which lasted two days (TWO DAYS!!!), a military strongman, treachery, honour and blood. Lots of blood!

So thank you to Tony for that and a reminder that book 7 (The Emperor’s Knives) is out now in hardback and book 6 (The Eagle’s Vengeance) is released in paperback tomorrow.

Go buy!

The Emperor’s Knives

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What can I say by book 7?

If you’re a fan of the Roman era and you read books, then if you haven’t started the Empire series by now, I can only assume you’ve been living in a darkened closet hiding from the CIA and living on pizza pushed under the door. Riches has solidly secured himself a place among the giants of Historical Fiction, vying with the likes of Ben Kane, Douglas Jackson and Manda Scott in terms of style, plot, character and readability.

If you are that pale frightened figure in the closet, risk the CIA spotting you, and rush out to a bookstore tomorrow. Or pre-order from Amazon today and have it delivered to your door. It’s worth risking the possibility that Chuck and his black-suit-clad pals will find you. And here’s why:

Most writers have trouble with such a long series, I think. Even the greatest (witness Sharp for example) hit a lull where it becomes formulaic and sags for a while. To keep things fresh through seven books it quite impressive on its own.

The ‘EMPIRE’ series has managed just that. In fact, I would say now, looking back over the series, that the first three books are much in a vein with one another as straight military history beat-em-ups with a little betrayal and secrecy stuff and a smattering of politics thrown into the mix. From book 4, however, Riches clearly decided that more could be done with his characters and began to expand the scope of the series. From German bandits and sacred woods to Romanian gold mines and Imperial betrayal and then back to Britain for a book and a covert mission that will overturn everything and leave our hero in the eternal city, the series exploded into variety and excitement on a previously undreamed-of level.

The characters became more complex and understandable, the settings more exciting and vivid, the plots more twisty and turny and fascinating, and all in all, the books endlessly readable.

The Emperor’s Knives is the culmination of one particular story arc in the series. This is not a shock to anyone keeping up, just from the title. If you’ve got through, say, four or five of the books, you probably already have an inkling of what’s coming in this volume.

If you’re new to the series, check out reviews of the others and then come back. If you want to avoid the chance of spoiling things in the series so far, look away now and come back to the red marker…

So….

Look AWAY, I said!

Yes, Corvus/Aquila being back in Rome gives him the perfect opportunity to put old ghosts to rest and deal with the infamous group of imperial covert killers who have been murdering the aristocracy on imperial orders and acquiring their cash and land for the throne. A senator, a mob-boss, a Praetorian officer and a champion gladiator. All marked for death by our hero. But how will he go about it?

New characters are introduced, about whom we are already aware (including those who originally trained Marcus in the martial skills) and old enemies reappear in stunning ‘Bastard-o-colour’.

Yes, this is the culmination of the ‘Aquila family betrayal and murder’ plot, but then you knew that from the title! In this case, it’s not about the destination, but about the journey. And what a ride. Corvus is about to get revenge in spectacular fashion.

OK. BACK TO THE NON-SPOILER STUFF

Be prepared. If you know Riches’ work then by now you’ll know he’s got a tendency to throw in a few curveballs to wrong-foot the reader and screw his expectations. You’re gonna get that. In spades. Several times in this, I found myself saying ‘Oh? Oh, right. Well, then…’ and then going back to the story.

Corvus/Aquila doesn’t grow as a character, because he doesn’t need to. At this point he’s as fully fleshed out as he ever needs to be. More would just be OTT. But he does get some fantastic scenes, speeches and moves. And the supporting cast DO grow. Particularly Scaurus, who I already loved. New characters have appeared, some of whom will likely run through more books in the series, and some of whom are the stronger characters Riches has yet created.

The tale completes the aforesaid particular story arc but goes beyond, tying in more threads, and the end puts in place something for book 8 that I’ve been waiting for for ages. It is very easy when tying up a massive plot arc to leave it feeling either twee or contrived or both. This does not do so, though. This volume concludes in a most satisfactory and not entirely expected manner, leaving a couple of threads for future books and the reader feeling sated.

Riches’ books, though, have two strengths which have always been in evidence and only grow with each release: They are break-neck paced, in the same fashion as Mike Arnold’s civil war books, dragging the reader along in breathless admiration. And they are so realistically readable. There is simply no effort involved. You open the book and let go and the story whisks you along without any hard work. All in all, Riches is clearly still getting better with every book, which by book 7 is quite impressive!

It’s out tomorrow. BUY IT, or I’ll tell the CIA where you live and stop the pizza deliveries! Oh, and as a special incentive, the hardback includes a short story that you DO NOT WANT TO MISS!

Written by SJAT

February 12, 2014 at 9:00 am

Douglas Jackson’s Sword of Rome

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djsor

It is criminal that it’s taken me so long to read ‘Sword of Rome’. Particularly given that Doug Jackson’s books are some of the literary highlights of my year. However, events conspired to keep it from me. What that meant was that during that dark and miserable time following New Year, at least I had a book to read which I was confident would be a belter!

I was so right. The Valerius Verrens series is one of the strongest historical series on sale at the moment of ANY era, let alone just the Roman. The first book (Hero of Rome) was one of the best I have ever read, and certainly concerned one of the most tense and memorable scenes of any novel. The sequel (Defender) was a strong contender and surprisingly successful, given the dark content and the controversial subject matter. Then along came book 3 (Avenger) and it was clear at that point that Doug’s series had hit the top of the genre. Avenger was one of my favourite books, perhaps better than Hero, though nothing will ever match the ‘siege of Colonia’ scenes. And with a lot to live up to, book 4 looked like it was fighting uphill, given that its subject matter is already strongly represented in Historical Fiction. Against the odds, Jackson has managed to turn that subject into a novel that vies with the best, and at least matches the quality of his previous epics if not surpassing them.

The reason?

It was the way the story was told, for me. The year of the four emperors (the civil war of 69AD) is a famous time about which I have read a great deal, and it is hard to find a new angle to examine such a thing. Henry Venmore-Rowland produced a nicely detailed account from a traditional viewpoint. Manda Scott showed us the same events from a most unusual and fascinating perspective. So what was left? Simply, to tell Valerius’ own story using the evens of the time as the pinball table around which our unwilling hero is bounced painfully.

Valerius is an excellently-constructed and believable character. Not a superman in a cuirass or a blue-eyed boy of the people. Nor is he even the embittered veteran. He has avoided or transcended all stereotypes to become a fully rounded character in whom everyone will be able to see something familiar and to their liking. In a similar fashion, Serpentius, his right hand man, is a character who has grown beyond mere ‘supporting cast’ status now, to the point where he could almost support his own spin-off.

In this installment, Valerius, having journeyed to Spain to serve Galba, who is set on becoming Nero’s successor, finds himself drawn into a sequence of events that will see him killing emperors, acclaiming emperors, serving emperors in battle and on secret missions, and standing his moral ground against them – and we’re talking more than one emperor here. Essentially, in this turbulent year, most characters of no conscience could float through the currents by throwing their support behind whoever wears the purple this week. Most characters of conscience would live for an emperor and die for him as the next contender comes along. Valerius is lucky (or possibly UNlucky) enough that while his conscience and his unbreakable word force him to support even lost causes against old friends, blind luck and a pig-headed unwillingness to back down see him bounce back each time.

Hence the pinball analogy. That is what the book will leave you with.

You will experience this heart-stopping time in Roman history from the fertile lands of southern France, to the seething streets of Rome, to the countryside of Latium, the deadly Alpine passes, the forests of Germany, and the beleaguered lands of northern Italy. And Valerius will be your guide.

Apart from the sheer breakneck speed of the plot, and the tense action, there are three things I find recommend Sword of Rome:

Focus on unusual details. What do you know about the First Adiutrix Legion? I know their basic history and they’re quite a fascinating bunch, but I only know them from dry textbooks. Now I’ve had the chance to see them face to face.

Characters. Apart from the powerful continuing characters and at least one truly stunning, wicked bad guy returning, Jackson’s portrayals of the unyielding Galba, the unfortunate Otho, the unwilling Vitellius and the unmanned Nero are fresh and vivid and help them stand out in a year when an emperor could come and go faster than you can put on your pants!

The plot arc. The very obvious plot arc for anyone wanting to write a book on the year of the four emperors begins with Nero’s fall from grace and demise, follows through the numerous brief reigns, and ends with the accession of the dynasty-founding Vespasian. It seems clear. Henry VR split his story into two books, but it was still a standalone story in two halves. Manda covered the arc in one go. Jackson has eschewed the obvious and left the tale in a most unexpected place. Reaching the epilogue, all I could think of was ‘When is Enemy of Rome out?’

So there you have it. Breakneck action, vivid characters, a fresh, believable perspective, and a fabulous plot with a stunning, unexpected end. Don’t want to read it yet? Are you barking mad?

Go buy. And if you’ve not started the series, check out my review for the last book by clicking on ‘Valerius 3′ on the right menu.

Another masterpiece, Doug.

Written by SJAT

January 28, 2014 at 5:14 pm

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