S.J.A.Turney's Books & More

Reviews, news and inside the world of books.

The Oracles of Troy

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GlynIliffe

I’ve had this book in my reading pile for some time, but didn’t want to read it until I’d finished writing my section of the coming collaboration on the Trojan War (A Song of War) because I didn’t want to directly influence my own telling. Now that my work on that tale is done, I allowed myself to read Iliffe’s book. And by happy coincidence, the author has agreed to write the foreword for our collaboration, so boy am I glad that I liked his book, else this could have been awkward! ;-)

Fortunately, The Oracles of Troy is an excellent piece of writing. It tackles the end of the Trojan war only, long after Achilles’ death and the events of the Iliad. It deals with the fall of Troy and the end of the war, telling a tale that is rarely covered. In fact, early Greece is rarely touched by authors at all, so it is very much virgin territory, so this should be of great interest to all readers of ancient historical fiction.

One thing that stood out for me is the legendary feel of the tale. While in our own work we tried to pare out the myth and work with a prosaic, real-world Troy, Iliffe has given the world of Greek myth full reign in his story, which makes it a whole different beast, and a fascinating one at that. In this era the lines between history and fantasy blur a great deal, as any student of Homer will know, and so we discover mystic visions, monsters, magical weapons and invulnerable heroes here in very much the mould of Homer himself. That adds a certain level of adventure to the story beyond straight history and pushes it into the world of myth. The result? Magnificent. And a book that should appeal to readers of fantasy as well as those of history. And at no point does the use of this legendary mythic aspect interfere with the readability or flow of the story. In fact, it is such an inherent thread that the tale would be comparatively dull without it.

Beyond that, the characters deserve mention. This tale is told principally from the point of view of Odysseus (being part of the chronicles of that most wonderful hero.) But his is not the only view we are treated to. Sometimes we see through Diomedes’ eyes. Often through those of Helen herself. But most of all we are treated to a fictional character’s view – a man called Eperitus with a complex history, who travels as Odysseus’ closest friend and helper. And though Eperitus is Iliffe’s own creation, he syncs so well with the extant cast of Greeks and Trojans that any reader not fully conversant with Homer would never know it. The whole nature of Eperitus is so well constructed that I have to applaud the author on this most stunning piece of plotting.

So grab a copy of the Oracles of Troy and set sail with Odysseus as he investigates ancient tombs, fights monsters, builds horses, sneaks into cities, becomes a master of disguise and brings about the downfall of the greatest city in the world.

Highly recommended, folks.

Dark Waters

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I find myself exultant that I was once more able to immerse myself in Blake’s world of 18th Century Preston, and yet also saddened that I have now read all the Cragg and Fidelis mysteries written thus far and am looking across a probably long span until book 5 puts in an appearance.

As with the other three of these books I have read (and not, sadly in the correct order, for this is book 2) Blake has done a damnably good job with Dark Waters. As a mystery, it hits all the right spots, being more filled with red herrings and misdirection than a poorly-signed crimson fishery. What seems initially to be a simple case of death by misadventure soon becomes obviously politically motivated as Preston undergoes an election. But there is more to it than that. So much more that you’ll not grasp the truth until Blake chooses to reveal it near the end. With most mystery novels I am comfortable at least having a stab at a solution part way through. Not with this one.

The characters are as wonderfully drawn as always. In particular our two heroes, the stolid coroner and the light-hearted doctor. But also the entire supporting cast – both those who will go on to other books and those who are just one-shot characters – are lifelike, colourful and eminently readable.

But pushing aside plot and character, once again for me the great achievement of Blake is to make a long-gone era in place that is familiar to me in its modern incarnation a vivid and engaging place. 1740s Preston is displayed in all its fascinating seediness, for there is much more seedy and underhanded to this world than glorious and noble. It is a world of blood and mud and poverty and vile things, scattered with pockets of humanity and civilization as the world gradually modernises. In the other books we have been treated to the unseenly underbelly of the noble classes, the stinking rotten world of the tanners and more. In Dark Waters we are treated to an 18th century election. And if you think modern elections are dirty, underhanded and wicked things, wait til you read this!

Once again, Blake’s work is a triumph. I for one can’t wait to see the next installment.

The Death of Robin Hood

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Death-of-Robin-Hood

If ever there was a spoiler in the title, eh? But come on, we’ve been expecting this book for a while. Angus Donald’s superb Outlaw Chronicles have run to 8 books, which is pretty good for any series to maintain freshness and individuality, but we could see by book 6 that the characters were beginning to age and to look towards the end. And book 7 pretty much told us there was only one more tale to tell. And yet we’ve all hungered for this last outing for a year.

Donald’s series has gone from strength to strength over the greater part of a decade. The first book was one of the most outstanding debuts ever written in the genre and, though the second was, to my mind, the weakest of the series, that was still a gripping book. But I had maintained throughout that my favourite in the series was King’s Man – the third. Until now.

I know from personal experience how hard it can be to finish a series. Managing to engineer a plot that effectively ties up each and every loose end to a satisfactory level is nightmarish work. It is only when one tries that one realises just how much a series has exploded outwards over its course and just how much there is to resolve. And mine was only a four book series. Donald must have been head-scratching and fretting at this plot for a while. And yet however he went about it, he’s pulled off a real coup with this novel.

The war between King John and his barons we encountered in book 7 resurfaces in this last tale, with Alan and Robin joined by old friends and new as they navigate the impossible currents of their masters’ politics. Fighting for justice against King John is one thing, but when those very rebels offer the throne instead to the French, then which was can a loyal Englishman turn? This is the dilemma Robin and his friends end up facing. That’s something of a spoiler, I guess, but an early one, and if I’m to tell you anything about the book at all, it has to include the fundamental point of it.

From a brutal siege at Rochester castle, we follow the adventures of Robin and Alan across Kent and the south, imprisonment and war, betrayal and revenge, all the way to Nottingham and Lincoln. There are four points I think about this work that deserve specific mention.

There is a sense of ‘full circle’ about book 8. In book 1 we met Robin Hood the outlaw, running a vicious godfather-like world and carrying out guerilla war in the forests against the authorities. Over successive books, Robin had changed, achieving legitimacy, title and a role at the heart of the Kingdom. Here, now in book 8, we are treated, at least for a while, to a return to form. There is a sense that despite the characters’ now rather mature age, we are seeing them relive their youth and the excitement of those rebel days. This I loved. This, for me, is what I will take away from the novel.

Angus Donald is rapidly becoming the ‘master of the siege’. It can be extremely difficult to include at least one siege in a book multiple times within a series. I’ve done it myself, and it’s very easy for them to become blase and samey. There are sieges throughout the Outlaw Chronicles, and some of the books pretty much centre on one (The Iron Castle, for example.) And in book 8, there are two sieges to handle. And you know what? They are exciting, unpredictable, fresh and superbly-executed. Every siege Donald handles he manages to produce something new and worthwhile, which is a masterful thing.

The characters are fluid and changing. It is ridiculously easy to maintain a character, and it is equally easy to mess up their progression. To have your characters grow old and mature over a series in a realistic and noticeable way while maintaining the traits that make them who they are is a skillful thing. Alan and Robin, Thomas and Miles, plus their many companions, are painted well and have grown with the reader. Even the absence of Little John does not mar the sense of character at the heart of the book.

Finally, the death of Robin (see? I told you the title held a spoiler.) Such a momentous event – in history, let alone at the climax of a series – has to be handled just right. To have Robin die in some glorious golden way would be cheesy to say the least. To have him butchered out of hand in a sad, random manner would leave the reader huffing grumpily. To achieve something that is realistic, tragic, sad, noble and personal is a real bonus. And that is how this book ends. It is all those things, but I think the most important point is that it is personal. Robin’s end is not some great battle scene like the one that took King Richard. It is the result of strands of the tale long in the making, and it is truly a personal thing. Also, it took me by surprise in the end, which is magnificent. Oh, not that he might die – note once more the title – but how it might come about.

In short, The Death of Robin Hood is a tour-de-force and has shot to the very top as the best in the series, which is fantastic for a finale. If you’re not read the books, you’re in for a treat, because there are 8 now waiting for you and you can demolish the whole tale from beginning to end. If you have, then fear not, loyal readers. Donald has done you proud. This book ends the Outlaw Chronicles with a bang AND a whimper. It’s out today. Go buy it… trust me.

Caesar’s Ambassador

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caesars-ambassador-alex-johnston

Caesar’s Ambassador is a short story I picked up at random somewhere along the line and has just sat there on my kindle. Recently, I had a day free in my reading schedule, so I decided to give it a read.

The story is set in a very familiar milieu for me, being the first year of Caesar’s Gallic Wars (the setting for Marius’ Mules I) and takes as its main character one Marcus Mettius, who is a minor supporting character in Caesar’s book. Mettius is one of two men the general sends to negotiate with the German king Ariovistus and who are captured and held by the man. That’s pretty much his run in history apart from minting coins the year of Caesar’s death. Virgin ground to work with then for a storyteller.

This is only a short story, but if you like it, there are a run now of about six shorts in the series, which probably adds up to a good sized novel between them. As you may know, my policy on reviewing books is to only review those I consider at least 3* books, since poor reviews can damage an author’s livelihood and it seems unfair to do that simply because I don’t like it. For me, Caesar’s Ambassador was really hard to rate. In the end I’ve given it 3 stars, but it could have gone up or down from there because there are so many things about it I like and, while there’s only one thing I don’t, it’s pretty crucial.

So on the positive side, this is a truly fresh and interesting angle on the events of Caesar’s De Bello Gallico, an interesting, bold and inventive choice. Mettius himself is an interesting character with an intriguingly uncharted history, and Johnston has done a sterling job of bringing him to life, giving him real personality and filling in history’s blanks. He’s also done an excellent job of depicting the times and the locations, with some of the detail being exquisite (a scene in a tavern particularly stands out.) Better still, given Mettius’ history, Johnston has chosen a character he can take on from there, and I know he covers quite a few years in subsequent books. The story is pacey, the characters vivid, the descriptive excellent. Additionally, there is a quirky humour throughout that really hits the spot, reminiscent for me of Ron Gompertz’s novels.

So what didn’t I like about it then? Quite simply the heavy anachronisms. I’m hardly free of blame for that myself, though I have gradually ironed out such things as I progress. But even at my strongest, I was nothing to this. Johnston’s idiom and terminology are almost entirely modern American in the tale, and some of the phrases used in an ancient setting just had me wincing. I’ll hold my hands up and say that as a Brit, perhaps I’m not the target audience and that for all I know this is a standard in the American market, but I don’t think that’s the case. For me the idioms and modern, anachronistic terms marred what could have been an excellent tale.

I still enjoyed Caesar’s Ambassador, and I will read the second in the series when I have the time, and so I leave it up to you whether this is a story for you, as I cannot doubt that what damaged it for me will certainly appeal to some readers, and I’m not so arrogant as to think I am right all the time. To be honest, at $0.99 it’ll hardly be breaking the bank to take a punt on it and see what you think.

Written by SJAT

July 21, 2016 at 8:57 am

The Lone Warrior

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I’m behind on reading one of my favourite series, but I’m catching up now. The Lone Warrior is the fourth book in Paul Fraser Collard’s excellent mid-nineteenth century series and, coincidentally is out in paperback today.

Jack Lark bean some time ago in The Scarlet Thief as something of an anomaly, an imposter. A low-ranker impersonating an officer. It was a very singular tale with, as far as I could see, little scope for an ongoing series. Then Paul surprised me with The Maharajah’s General, which repeated certain elements of the first, with impersonation and subterfuge, but also blew a hole in the very idea by revealing his true self and sending the series on something of a sharp tangent. This was good as a series, especially one with such a unique concept, would soon become stale if it simply repeated that concept over and over. So the third book – The Devil’s Assassin – took us in new directions. Jack was no longer wearing a mask, and instead went into tremendous action as his true self. And at the end of that book, he was free of his long-standing lie and released from the military.

So when I came to Lone Warrior, I truly had no idea what to expect. Jack was no longer in the army. He was no longer pretending to be someone he wasn’t. What could happen next? In fact what does happen is a new and fascinating angle. What could drag Jack back into the world of war and danger? What else but a woman. And the danger? Well Jack has faced it in the Crimea, with a rogue Maharajah and then in Persia. And throughout the second book, when he was serving in India, I kept wondering when we would encounter the Sepoy Mutiny, one of the few great events of Raj history of which I’m actually aware. And now, in book four, we’re there.

I won’t spoil the plot. If you’ve read the other books then you know what sort of thing to expect. If not, you’re in for derring-do and thunderous action. A character who is down-to-earth and practical living in the world of the English gentleman amid a sea of the empire’s enemies. All right, I’ll try to nudge the story without ruining it. Jack has fallen for a girl. It’s easy to see why when you read her. And after saving her from some dreadful people, he agrees to take her back to her home in Delhi. His timing is somewhat poor, arriving in the city the day before said Sepoy Mutiny kicks off and drags the whole of India into war, challenging English rule and almost succeeding. And so Jack finds himself in a city besieged by the enemy. Oh it doesn’t end there, and Jack finds himself once more serving with the British, displaying his forte – the art of killing.

And therein lies what for me is the great strength of the novel: the British siege of Delhi. The action is brutal and thick and fast and the pace never lets up. Nor, incidentally does the horror or violence, though Collard manages to enfold it all in a great epic tale of adventure and sometimes Flashman-esque action. But yes, to the siege. There are two movie sequences that to me portray the utter chaos of battle better than all others. The lesser of the two is the opening to Gladiator. The better is the start of Saving Private Ryan. Well, that is what you’ve got in Collard’s siege of Delhi. This is a third of the book at least, with all the action, intensity and brutality of the D-Day landings. It is warfare masterfully told. Gloriously horrifying, and it proves once more that Paul Fraser Collard is at the top of his game and the top of the genre.

Lone Warrior is exhilarating and packed with vivid characters and scenes and deserves to be read. Go buy it, people.

The Earthly Gods

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Earthlygods

Are you reading Nick Brown’s ‘Agent of Rome’ series? If not, then you need to check into either your local bookshop or your local head doctor. Nick Brown has created one of modern Historical Fiction’s most absorbing and accessible series, and if you are not already reading it, you need to go out and buy The Siege now, to get started.

Some writers write excellent books but can get a little bogged down with the need to portray their tale with ultra-realistic, technical period detail. Very laudable, but it can sometimes make a book hard going. Others, conversely, write with so many modernisms and anachronisms that it can hardly be called Historical Fiction at all. Few hit the perfect sweet spot where they are giving you high quality historical fiction but presented in such a way that it is truly entertaining for both the knowledgeable and the novice. Nick Brown fits that role, I think.

So, to the book.

The preceding five volumes in the series have introduced us to the character of Cassius Corbulo, his slave Simo and his bodyguard Indavara, as well as a lovable donkey. We have seen the breadth of the Roman east in many circumstances, from siege and warfare to criminal investigation, to undercover missions, dangerous sea voyages, corrupt army officers and much more. This volume once more shows us a new angle, but with ‘Earthly Gods’ we are, I think, seeing a subtle shift in Brown’s series. To this point, while the characters have grown and changed with their experiences, each tale has been a single contained story that could be read as a standalone book, even if the reader might miss important nuances that way. Now things are changing. Book 6 follows directly on from the previous volume, picking up an open thread from book 5 and following it. The plot for book 6 still contains its own standalone tale – helping Syrian natives hunt their daughters who have been illegally enslaved and sold. But it also follows the thread of Indavara’s disappearance at the end of the previous book, giving it a sense of series continuity that is new. And even the standalone element within it, to be honest, draws in characters from the very first book. So, in essence, while presenting a new plot, this volume also drags in elements from across the series, binding it all together rather neatly. As such there is a different type of depth to it than the previous volumes.

Moreover, while there is violence and womanising throughout the series, this volume begins to explore darker themes, with illegal slavery and enforced prostitution, as well as plague and the working to death of mine slaves. Such matters have to be dealt with carefully in my experience, lest they turn readers away, but be assured that Brown has managed it perfectly. Despite these darker underlying themes, the book is delivered with Brown’s usual engaging prose, easy humour and insight into the fascinating character of his protagonists. No one in Brown’s world is truly black or white, but all are varying shades of grey.

The plot? Well, I always try to avoid potential spoilers, but here we go…

Faced with the disappearance of his bodyguard and friend Indavara, Corbulo is landed with a difficult choice: forget about a friend in peril or defy his powerful masters. Needless to say, Corbulo is no longer the haughty young man who left Rome 3 years ago, and even going against Imperial Security will not deter him from attempting to save his friend. And so begins a dangerous quest outside the bounds of his duty. Skipping out of town unnoticed, going undercover and trying to avoid his own employers and fellow agents, Corbulo embarks on a twin mission, to find his friend and to help locate the missing daughters of his Syrian allies. Their journey will take them through plagues and into salt mines, all the way to Byzantium, pitting them against a powerful yet shady group of men. Once again the history of Indavara is being unwrapped slowly before our eyes, but it seems that Earthly Gods is set to be something of a game-changer in that respect, too, as that reveal accelerates rapidly now, and something of the future direction of the series is hinted at.

In short, this is everything a reader of the series has come to expect from Brown’s work, and something else beside. It is perhaps a step up. It is certainly a riveting read and kept me turning the pages long after I’d planned to put the book down.

Yet another win from Nick Brown. Long may Corbulo adventure.

Written by SJAT

June 30, 2016 at 9:00 am

The latter days of Rome

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Ok here we go. It might take a while to load as this is an image heavy blog post. There follow 23 images. And here’s your big quiz question to begin: which of these images are Roman. Go for it…

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAKONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERABC6KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERABC4KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERABC2BC1AD1AD2AD3AD4AD5AD6AD7AD8AD9AD10AD11AD12AD13AD14AD15

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Ok? Got your answers in order? Here we go…

It was a trick question. All of the above are Roman. Or, if I need to put it another way, if you could ask the builder or designer or commissioner of these structures, they would all tell you they were Roman. And they cover a period of over 2000 years. Yes, I know. It’s often staggering to think of that. At the end of the post, I shall detail the pics, if you’re interested.

Right, the reason for all this tomfoolery is because I keep finding myself confronted with words like decline, fall, and twilight applied to the Roman Empire. It is mostly the fault of Edward Gibbon and his renowned ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’, of course. And because of him Alec Guiness was in a film with the same theme. And you know what? They are talking about the period following the death of Marcus Aurelius and the reign of Commodus. And here’s the thing: Rome had existed for 933 years when Aurelius died (if you take the founding in 753 as Gospel, anyway.) But if you count an emperor of an empire that consider themselves Roman in an unbroken chain back to the days of Augustus, then the empire went on til 1453 when Mehmed the Conqueror took Constantinople. That means there was still 1273 years of being Roman to go. So this decline and fall seems to have taken place less than half way through? Pah!

Ian Ross has written a series of novels based around the rise of Constantine around 305 AD. His series is called Twilight of Empire. Now don’t get me wrong, they are very good books and I would recommend them. It’s just that monicker that makes me twitch. 305? 1148 years is a hell of a long twilight, isn’t it? Especially in a day that’s 2206 years long. So can even that era really be called a decline or twilight?

Because here’s the thing: Rome changed. Everyone seems to have this set view of the Roman Empire being the legions in their segmented plate with rulers in togas building playing-card shaped forts, shouting in Latin, worshiping Jupiter and conquering barbarians. Think again. Rome had been through many phases even by Gibbon’s time of theoretical fall. It had been an Etruscan monarchy with a military heavily based on the Greek model. It had been a republic with a Hellenistic/Etruscan/Gallic model of armies. It had been a principate with the first true professional standing army. And it had been an empire that meets common public expectations.

And if we accept that Rome had changed, morphed and grown from its start as an agricultural village to the great empire Aurelius left to his son, then why should we consider the changes that follow a decline or fall?

There was a century or so of political turbulence, yes, and the borders came under much pressure, yes. But even during that time there were periods of golden stability. Gallienus ruled for 15 years with a record that does him credit, for example. And during this time, art changes and blossoms. The mosaicists become multichrome and complex following African influences. Paintings become more varied and imaginative. Religion starts to become a much wider and more complex animal. Cultural identity is becoming mixed. What is a Roman in the late 3rd or early 4th century? Many emperors have now come from Africa, Syria and the Balkans. This is, to my mind, not a decline but a period of change driven by struggle and need, but one of glorious revolution. Sometimes change is difficult, but that does not mean it loses its value.

And so Constantine marks another turning point, as he for the first time shifts the focus of power. Rome is no longer the heart, but Constantinople. Does that make it less Roman? No. The inhabitants are still Roman, ruled by Roman emperors. The army is now a more diaphenous, complex and mobile thing, and includes members of the very peoples they used to fight. The equipment owes as much to the Germanic peoples and the Parthians as to ancient Rome and Greece. But they are still, in their minds, Roman.

Then Rome (the city) falls to the Goths and a short while later the last western emperor disappears into obscurity. Chisel that headstone of empire then, as Gibbon predicted. But no… wait a minute… there’s this thing we now term the Byzantine Empire, centred around Constantinople. But guess what? They did not think of themselves as Byzantine. That is a modern monicker. To them, they were Roman. It was the Roman empire, plain and simple. It spoke Greek, and was centred on Constantinople, and it was a Christian world. But it was still Roman.

So there you have it. Rome, to my mind, fell in 1453 after 22 centuries. It did not decline and fall between the 2nd and 5th centuries. Commodus did not mark the crucial apex before the downward slide. Equally, Constantine ruled during an earlier period of empire, not its twilight. In fact, its final decline I would put at 1204, when the Pope’s crusaders sacked Constantinople and crippled imperial power for good. THAT is the decline and fall. Two and a half centuries at the end  consisting of desperate emperors clinging on in the face of Italian belligerence and Turkish expansion.

Anyway, that’s my two-penneth for the day. And it gave me the opportunity to post some nice piccies too. Back soon with another book review.

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Pic details:

  1. The ‘Romulean Huts’ on the Palatine in Rome (8th century BC)
  2. Outfall of the Cloaca Maxima sewer in Rome (circa 7th century BC)
  3. Temples at San Omobono in Rome (6th century BC)
  4. Temple of Castor & Pollux in the Roman forum (5th century BC)
  5. Servian Walls of Rome (4th century BC)
  6. Temple in Largo Argentina, Rome (3rd century BC)
  7. Walls of Tarragona in Spain (2nd century BC)
  8. Mausoleum of Augustus, Rome (1st century BC)
  9. House of Argus, Herculaneum (1st century AD)
  10. Hadrian’s Wall at Willowford, England (2nd century AD)
  11. Walls of St Albans, England (3rd century AD)
  12. Aqueduct of Valens, Istanbul (4th century AD)
  13. Theodosian Land Walls of Istanbul (5th century AD)
  14. Haghia Sophia, Isanbul (6th century AD)
  15. Church of St Titus, Gortyn, Crete (7th century AD)
  16. Haghia Irene, Istanbul (8th century AD)
  17. Church of St Paolo Fuori le Mura, Rome (9th century AD)
  18. Monastery of Constantine Lips, Istanbul (10th century AD)
  19. Chora Church, Istanbul (11th century AD)
  20. Church of the Pammakaristos, Istanbul (12th century AD)
  21. Palace of Constantine Porphyrogenitus, Istanbul (13th century AD)
  22. Brontochion Monastery, Mistra, Greece (14th century AD)
  23. Bridge over the Armira River, Bulgaria (15th century AD)

Written by SJAT

June 26, 2016 at 12:11 pm

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