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

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Spoils of Olympus

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An unusual era is tackled well by a new author in this engaging read. Set in an era about which I have some knowledge but am far from ‘knowledgeable’, this is a tale of the aftermath of the death of Alexander the Great and the jostling for position of his varied successors, told from the point of view of a young recruit. Andrikos is forced to flee his small Anatolian town after a run in with some lowlifes leaves him in trouble, and he heads off to join the army and get away for a while.

Cue the meat of the story, which is a military saga set amid battles, raids and individual ‘secret’ missions of which Andrikos finds himself part. For those of you who like your Historical Fiction strewn with battles and bodies, this is your kind of book. It is fairly graphic and brutal, but that is largely tempered by the fact that it is told from the point of view of the young recruit, with all his own problems, glories, cameraderie and excitement.

I understand from his website that Kachel is ex-military, having served in the Middle East, and that comes as no surprise. Reading this book I would have guessed that the man writing the combat scenes had personal experience of same, and especially the harsh military training which occupies much of the first half of the book. The feeling of realism is strong and there is little hint of outlandishness about it.

Indeed, the book does to some extent come over as a Macedonian/Hellenistic sort of ‘Heartbreak Ridge’. That’s not a complaint… I love that movie. But it is a fairly concise way of putting forward what I felt about the book. So, given what I’ve said, you’ve probably already decided whether you’re interested in it. I would certainly recommend it to readers of ancient military histfic readers. I will leave you with one up and one down about it:

Kachel has clearly done a great deal of research into the era. His knowledge of the military, politics and social culture of the post-Alexandrian era comes through in the text. For me it was an informative as well as engaging read. As I say, I’m no expert on the era, but he comes across as very knowledgable, and I doubt most potential readers would find much to complain about in that respect.

For me, Spoils of Olympus: By the Sword was a solid 4 star read. In terms of story and characterisation, it could well have been a 5. And although there were typos (‘route’ for ‘rout’) and incorrectly-chosen words (‘they accosted his background’) here and there, what knocked a star down for me was the inclusion of a certain type of modern phrasing that somewhat shatters the historical illusion (early on in the book, for instance, I came across the phrase ‘pussywhipped’ which was the worst of these that I read and stuck in my head all the way through.)

So there you go. A relatively small negative against a swathe of positives. If the ancient military is your thing, I suspect you’ll enjoy this book. Give it a try.

Written by SJAT

February 28, 2015 at 8:41 pm

Wulfsuna

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For the sake of transparency, I’ll say that I’m a friend of the author, though as always I will not allow that to influence my review. Also, I would say that I have really no experience with this era, though I was lucky enough to have read and early first draft of part of this book, so when I picked up the finished article I was somewhat prepared, though the book has changed considerably since then.

My great love is Rome, and I love in particular late Rome. Living in the north of England, the events of 383-410AD (from Maximus’ withdrawal of troops to the Roman withdrawal total) are ingrained in my psyche. But what happens after 410 and Roman money and government is removed from Britain? I mean, my knowledge from then on is largely Mediterranean-based and full of Vandals, Goths and Byzantine Emperors and Persian Satraps.

Well, so what does happen after 410? Well, in this particular read, a bunch of Saxons (Seaxens) – whose headman had served with the Roman border forces in Britannia and had returned to Germania after 410 – decides to return to the island, meet up with those of his tribe who stayed and married locals, and find a place in Britain to settle. So the Wulfsuna (Wolf Sons) have come back for good.

But two major events are about to kick that headman’s son in the metaphorical nuts. Firstly, the betrayal of their cousins upon arrival leaves them with his father dead and the tribe divided and in disarray – and with that strong enemy lurking somewhere, the job unfinished. Secondly, on the far side of the island, a young seeress is hounded from her village, haunted by the past and with visions of a brutal future in which the picts of the north swamp her home. These events are all going to combine and cause both horror and elation for the wolf sons as she joins with the tribe, while their betrayer seeks allies among the picts.

Enough of the plot, per se, in case of spoilers. Suffice it to say there is the oddest love triangle you’ll see, a plot driven by visions and guilt and revenge, and a most excellent fight in the woodland to boot!

The book is very well written. I’m not talking about the prose, the language, the copy etc, though I have to say they were all good. I found not one editing error or problem with the whole book. No. I’m talking about the writing itself. It is, I believe, one of the most difficult possible things for a writer to write convincingly from the point of view of the opposite sex, especially in a historical context. In no way would I ever be able to write convincingly a period piece among, for instance, Georgian ladies at leisure. One of them would inevitably grasp a gladius and dispatch another in a swathe of blood, with numerous fart jokes. Hence, I find it thoroughly impressive that Elaine Moxon has managed to write a tale of which two thirds revolves around the androcentric culture and battle lust of the warrior men of a Saxon tribe, and do it as convincingly as Giles Kristian or Rob Low portray their Vikings.

As I’ve said, I have little knowledge of the era in the north once the Romans left, so I can hardly claim to be any kind of expert in the historical accuracy. But, saying that, the whole book felt to me thoroughly immersed in the period and culture. It felt authentic, and for the reader, I would say that’s what matters. From the few points that I was able to consider the accuracy of, I would say that Elaine has hit the mark pretty much all the way through. It appears that she has really put in the research and knows her stuff. I do know that she attends and even gives talks on the Roman world at her local historical site and spends a deal of time with reenactors.

Lastly, for those who dislike the unknown/magic/spiritual in their historical fiction, you might want to think twice here. The mystical thoroughly influences and pervades this book. For me, it worked well and in fact felt appropriate as is often the case with such works.

On balance, this was a thoroughly immersing read and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in ‘Dark Age’ fiction or who is happy to dabble in this strange time.

Written by SJAT

February 19, 2015 at 11:23 am

Warrior Lore

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Something a bit different for you tonight. Something a little removed from the usual historical fiction. Scandinavian history is one of my more peripheral hobbies, rather than something I focus on. I have a basic grasp of the history and the lore, and I love the 13th warrior and The Vikings. I enjoyed the novels by Giles Kristian and Rob Low. And I loved running my fingers over the carvings of Viking names in the Haghia Sophia in Istanbul. But really, all that is VIKING stuff. Scandinavian, yes, but thoroughly Odin-based ship sailing, axe-wielding, treasure-hunting, monastery-sacking rape-and-pillage merchants.

So this short collection is different in two very important ways. Firstly, it’s not a novel. So remember that before you rush out expecting it to be one. This is a collection of Scandinavian folk tales translated in verse from old forms. It is, in essence, a book of translated poetry of Scandinavian epic style. Secondly, it is not about Vikings. In fact, despite a few famous names turning up in it and the obligatory appearance of trolls, it actually bears much more resemblance to the medieval tales of King Arthur. This is more a collection of tales about unfortunate knights, swooning ladies, evil tricksters and some disastrous misunderstandings that end in very Hamlet-esque scenes of utter carnage.

These tales are, in short, tales of Christian medieval Scandinavia, twisted here and there with the addition of more ancient lore. Even the famous Harald Hardrada turns up here more resembling a medieval baron than the last of the great vikings.

Clearly Cumpstey knows his subject and the language, and the translations are therefore pretty much spot on, easy for the reader and seemingly close to the original feel. Here and there, it feels as though the translation has hit a pebble and detoured, but that is the problem with translating something as personal as poetry. It is not straightforward and what sits well with one reader might not appeal to the next.

Each of the tales in this book is introduced by the author with a little background and explanation, though about halfway through, I decided to skip the intros and read the poems first, since I had realised I was going into every tale already knowing what to expect. And when I did this I had more fun, picking the story from the poetry and then reading the intro afterwards to confirm things and find out what I’d not noticed.

So to sum up, this is a lovely little collection that covers a subject I doubt many of us are particularly familiar with and does it with grace and panache, and a great deal of academic knowledge pressed into it. It won’t necessarily suit those of you who read your historical works to watch Romans cleave barbarians into pastrami, but for those of you with an interest in the skaldic lore of medieval Scandinavia, or just those who feel intrigued, it is a nice collection to read.

It now sits on my kindle next to my collection of Imādu d-Dīn Nasīmī’s works. Boy, am I starting to look clever!

Written by SJAT

February 9, 2015 at 10:03 pm

Testament of Mariam

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I’d been intrigued by this book for some time. I had spoken to Ann via social media, where I had been introduced to her by a friend, and of the numerous books Ann has released, this one particularly piqued my interest early on. And so I bought it and added it to my reading list, awaiting the time when I had a free week or so in my reading schedule.

The story? The story is simple. When the Emperor Constantine and his various bishops sat in their council chamber and decided what stories of the Christian sect would go into the official Bible, they selected many bits and pieces, letters and visions and so forth, but they chose only four gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But a gospel is simply a memoir by one of the people who knew Jesus, and so with those four they included, think on how many gospels they discarded, including the ones of the other disciples. I have oft heard of various apocryphal gospels and been intrigued as to what other views of the figure ‘Jesus’ they might have given us.

Well, the Testament of Mariam is a fictional gospel. Narrated by the ageing matriarch of a farming family in Gallia Narbonensis, it soon becomes clear that this old woman who now lives in a Roman world with a family and farm of her own was once a very different person, living an impoverished life in Gallilee with a sizeable family, one of whom was destined to change the world.

For this is a tale of Jesus (Yeshua in his own tongue) from his youth to his last days, told by a sister history does not document. Mariam gives us a view of the Jesus with whom anyone brought up in the Christian world is familiar, but with a refreshing new angle. The stories we all know are all in there, but given new – and infinitely more realistic – light as Swinfen unfolds the magic and lays it out in the form of a real life.

Enough, then, of the story. What of the writing? I have long held only two writers to have an ability with prose that surpasses even the highest of literary standards. Guy Gavriel Kay remains my writing idol, and the wonderful Prue Batten uses language that makes her works feel like reading silk. Well, I think Ann Swinfen will join them now to make a trio.

The prose is simply delightful, and threaded throughout with detail that many authors miss, along with a heady, exotic taste of the lands of the ancient Levant. The names of people and places are all given in an authentic tongue, and throughout, care is paid to keeping them within a genuine historical environment and mindset.

Perhaps what I liked most about this read, and what kept me coming back to it, though, was the investigation I felt I was carrying out as I read. Not only was I slowly piecing together who the characters in the novel were in terms of Biblical text (given the language changes) but I was starting soon to watch out for famous scenes of Jesus’ life and spotting them in this more realistic setting. That was a wonderful aspect of the book.

One of my current bugbears in books is use of tenses. I find first-person, present tense narrative tiring and difficult, and regular changes in tense to be jarring. Strangely, this does both at times, and yet still flows gracefully and at no point deterred me. In fact, from the second chapter on, I found it helpful.

In short, then, this is a delight of a novel. If what you seek in your historical fiction is sword-maimings and glorious sieges, then this probably isn’t the book for you. But if you love to immerse yourself in a lost culture, or want to see the New Testament from a new and refreshing angle, I would recommend The Testament of Mariam.

Bravo, Ann.

Written by SJAT

January 28, 2015 at 10:49 pm

Highwayman Ironside

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I’ll warn you at the outset that this is a review of a short story, not a full novel, since I know a number of folk don’t read short stories. To be honest, I rarely do, except when they’re penned by authors whose full works I regard very highly. Then, often the shorts are side-adventures of their main characters from their novels and thus I tend to read them as part of a series.

I have had Ironside sitting on my kindle, bugging me to read it for quite some time. The reason I hadn’t? Precisely because it was an independent short story and not part of an ongoing series, and with my towering reading pile, there was no easy space to slot it in. But it was never removed from the list, because the author – Michael Arnold – is one of my absolute faves in the historical genre at the moment. He’s something of a ‘golden boy’ for me, since each time he releases one of his ‘Stryker’ novels, I know damn well it’s going to end up in my top 10 at the end of the year. So despite not having got round to reading this short work, I knew I’d enjoy it. And then, surprisingly, last week I found a book in my reading list had been withdrawn temporarily, and I had time. Well, how nice.

Highwayman Ironside is a quick read. Roughly a third of the length of the majority of novels on my kindle, I raced through it rather quicker than I would like, since I hate reaching the end of a book I’m enjoying. And, sadly, the problem with HI is that I had just got into the characters and the swing of things when it ended.  Still, I am not downhearted, partially because for less than the price of a beer, this is a few hours of top-notch entertainment, and partially because the more people tell Michael that this is a lovely intro to the characters and can we now have a novel, the more chance there is that he might do just that!

If you are not familiar with Michael’s books, then shame on you! Check out my reviews on the right-panel listing under ‘Stryker’. You’ll see just how highly I rate them. The Stryker novels are set during the English Civil Wars and follow a Royalist captain on a series of adventures. The character has been compared to Cornwell’s Sharpe, though I prefer Stryker myself. So enter a new milieu in the form of Highwayman Ironside. The tale is set in the 1650s, in the aftermath of the series of bloody civil wars that have devastated the land. They feature a trio of criminals on the highways of southern England, each of whom is interesting in their own right, led by Samson Lyle, known as the Ironside Highwayman.

A former Parliamentarian during the wars and a close companion of Cromwell himself, Lyle has become sick of the new regime, having witnessed firsthand the slaughter in Ireland and, disillusioned with the lack of change under the new revolutionary government, he has been named a traitor and a criminal. Driven by a sense of righteous revenge over the death of his loved ones, Lyle now rides the highways, seeking out those he sees as responsible and doing them mischief.

As you can see there is considerably more to the character than a simple highway robber. He is no Dick Turpin. To some extent, I occasionally caught a shadow in the story that made me think I was looking at the future of Captain Stryker. This story takes place over only three different scenes, yet tells an exciting tale of robbery, single combat, chases, infiltrations and investigations, flight and even a somewhat romantic interlude. In all, the story is well worth the read and I urge you to have a go. And then, hopefully, we’ll have bought enough copies to make Michael pick up his quill and pen a full-length tale of the Ironside Highwayman.

Written by SJAT

January 16, 2015 at 3:08 pm

Sancti Trilogy – Simon Toyne

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It’s actually been quite a long time since I read the first two Sancti books, but for a variety of reasons I have only just got round to the third. I also then discovered that, to my surprise, I never posted a review of either on my blog. So, time to amend that. I will end this post with the review of the third book that I have just completed, but I have also decided to repost the reviews of the first two, previously posted to Goodreads. So here are the trilogy in full…

SANCTUS (Book 1) – Originally reviewed 2012

It’s been a while since I read anything non Historical, but had this recommended to me, so I bumped it up the pile.

I read it in short order, in every five minutes available.

Sanctus is intriguing, complex and absorbing from beginning to middle.

I use this odd turn of phrase because the second half is also intriging, complex and absorbing, but it is also exciting, action-packed, fascinating and explosive (quite literally).

Once you’re about 25 pages in, the book is impossible to abandon. You just HAVE to know.

Essentially, the novel has the feel and components of every conspiracy/supernatural/quasi-religious novel ever, but manages to avoid being derivative, predictable, boring, dry, or silly – all things I have found in novels of a similar genre.

I won’t detail the plot as that would be far too complex and spoil things, but a war between ancient sects over the greatest secret at the heart of organised religion has spilled over into the present day.

Toyne has, perhaps wisely – given the religious aspect of his plot – created a fictional location and sect, twisting the real world so that it becomes his plaything, aiding his plot while remaining so familiar it’s impossible not to recognise everything.

I delayed going for a pint that was already in and standing on the bar to read the last 10 pages, and there is simply no higher recommendation than that.

THE KEY (Book 2) – Originally reviewed 2012

Like most of the readers of Sanctus (I would guess) I finished that book wondering how on Earth Simon was going to follow it up. The ending of the first was pretty world-shaking, after all.

It took me a long time to getting round to reading The Key, largely because of a heavy reading list requirement and not having the free moments, but I have always had it floating in my MUST GET TO pile. I finally discovered that I had free moments and leapt on the books with a sense of urgent excitement.

It took me maybe the first 50-60 pages to make my mind up about it. It seemed to be a little jarring after the end of the first in some ways, despite flowing almost seamlessly in others. In retrospect, I put this down to having spent too long away and not being caught up properly. Certainly as soon as I was familiar once more with the characters and settings, I was racing away, turning pages at a rate of knots.

The story seems to be wide and in parts unconnected for a while, but if you’ve read Sanctus, you’ll be prepared for the ingenious ways that the apparently baffling disparate tie in to the story’s heart. As with Sanctus, I got the end marvelling at it and smiling at the perfect neatness of it and yet kicking myself because I should have been able to piece it together.

Where the first book focused entirely on Gabriel and Liv and their allies and the mysterious citadel of Ruin and the dark secret it has housed since the earliest days (no spoilers in my reviews, gov), the second in the series focuses on the source of the Sacrament: the garden of Eden and a hunt set against the clock with the prize being a nebulous good but the cost of failure being deadly to those characters we follow and appalling for the world in general.

As characters we liked from book 1 become all the more fabulous, we are introduced to a succession of new villains of the most vile and odious kinds (and often the merely misguided or stupid) and new locations (the Vatican was clearly going to become involved at some point). The addition of a few twists that made me raise my eyebrows made it a masterpiece for me.

Where I started unsure and a little out of my depth, it took only a few breaths before I was being dragged headlong through the tale by Toyne’s action narrative and by the end I was grumbling that it was over. Bravo on a superb follow up. Loved it.

THE TOWER (Book 3)

What can a person expect from the conclusion of such a trilogy? I mean, it’s an apolcalypic-strength trilogy, so the third book would really have to be a killer, of course. Expectations should be high, and therefore, of course, are surprisingly low, because it’s not going to be easy to do – and probably hasn’t been – and you don’t want to hype it so much to yourself that it doesn’t live up to it.

So it was a bit of a surprise.

After a year and a half since I read book 2, rather than finding it hard to get back into, the characters unfamiliar, and the plot threads lost and discordant, instead I found it an instant win.

The Tower grabs the reader not slowly and constructively like The Key, but like the original Sanctus. I read two chapters (his chapters are really short) and then simply could not put it down.

For our two continuing main characters, the story picks up precisely where it left off, involving once more the great citadel of Ruin and the ‘blight’ that is scything its way through the faithful and the desert location where Liv had brought the sacrament and turned hate and destruction into hope and beauty.

But this book also draws in new characters, most notable those belonging to the FBI in western-states America. Agent Shepherd is about to become involved in an investigation into why NASA is being targeted by religious fanatics and hijacking and destruction of the greatest telescopes in the world. Because although the Sancti are no more, the sinister Novus Sanctus is putting all his pieces into play to prevent the Biblical End of Days. But the end of days might not be what the public suspect.

This is as good as the original book. Written at a pace that is non-stop action, The Tower is a stunning finale, that draws together all the threads and plunges us headlong into a fantastic, unexpected conclusion.

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So there you go. Three books of a trilogy, each valuable as a read, but when put together, a stunning and rewarding way to spend your time. Simon Toyne is by far my favourite writer of the ‘quasi-religious thriller genre’, outstripping Dan Brown by so far they can’t even communicate by phone!

If you’ve not read the Sancti, go get them and read them.

Back in a few days now, with Mike Arnold’s ‘Highwayman: Ironside’

Written by SJAT

January 10, 2015 at 9:30 pm

Top Ten Reads of 2014

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It’s that time again where I choose the top ten books I read throughout the year. This year I have reviewed fewer books than in the previous two. A few I’ve read have not made it to review because they didn’t quite match up to the level of quality of those I have done, but others were held back because they have not yet been published and were still in draft manuscript form (I read quite a lot of those this year.) Note that these ten are in Author order, not preferential countdown. If you missed these books in 2014 go read them in 2015.

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I suspect I have now reached a point where certain authors are pretty much guarenteed a place in my top ten unless a new unknown suddenlyblows my socks off. Mike Arnold is one such. Captain Stryker’s adventures are a highlight of my year and are always highly anticipated, never failing to thrill. In this fifth installment, Arnold created a perfect tightly-knit mix of action, suspense, intrigue and character. See my full review here.

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In one of the most outstanding Roman series available, Nick Brown upped his own game again this year with a heady, evocative, exotic thriller, sending Corbulo on the hunt for a stolen relic in the eastern provinces. Corbulo and his allies continue to grow and evolve as characters, and Brown quickly shot to the top reaches of the Roman A-list for me. See my full review here.

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Paul Collard managed a rare thing last year with the Scarlet Thief: he took a barely touched milieu and a fresh, unusual idea for a character and crafted a stunning debut. This year’s sequel could easily have been either a poor follow up or a yawn-worthy repeat of book 1. Yet, despite the inherent difficulties, he managed to keep the tale fresh and exciting, and the story echoed at times one of my fave movies – Zulu. Read me full review here.

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One of history’s fiercest sieges retold in one of the year’s most tense, gripping novels. Angus Donald’s characterisation of Robin Hood continues long beyond the death of Richard I and into the reign of the ignoble King John in this latest offering, which is one of the strongest in the series so far. See my full review here.

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Valerius Verrens is one of the best Roman characters in literature, running the whole gamut from war hero to tortured lover to dishonoured refugee to spy and so much more. Jackson has written books that are tense, dark, exciting, edgy and more, and in this latest, he really doesn’t disappoint. Read the full review here.

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This far, Hannibal has been my favourite of the three series by Kane. It is, I think, the most human, the most sympathetic and the most varied in scope, despite how geographically wide the Forgotten Legion books were. Hanno and Quintus are well-pitted against one another, and are both taken to the reader’s heart. This latest in the series takes one of the most critical moments in the Punic Wars and weaves an exciting tale around it. Read the full review here.

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I had read Kristian’s Raven saga and, like you I’m sure, was hungry for more. But he was busy on his civil war series. And then suddenly we were treated this year not to a new Raven book, but to a prequel. The beginning of it all, as Sigurd flows into the pages of fictional history. Gods, I’d missed Sigurd, and he came back with a bang. Read the review here.

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Remember how I mentioned the possibility of a new find blowing my socks off? Well had it not been for a read of Ridpath’s opus on a whim, Douglas Jackson would have had two books in this list! Ridpath’s tale of love, loss, intrigue, espionage and tense uncertainty in pre-war Berlin was something of a surprise for me. One of my absolute faves. Read the full review here.

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Kydd is as much the quintessential Napoleonic era sailor character as any Hornblower, Bolitho, Ramage or Aubrey. And he travels to some stunning locales to take part in some truly nail-biting escapades. Stockwin manages to write in a very authentic period prose and yet tell tales with the cinematic punch of a blockbuster, and I think Pasha is his most absorbing to date. The story also contains changes that will affect the future of the series. Read my full review here.

So there you go. Ten books to catch up on if you missed them. Happy new year every one. I hope you all have a good one, and I cannot wait to see what new gems 2015 will produce.

Written by SJAT

December 31, 2014 at 9:00 am

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