This review has been a long time coming. I was always intrigued with the premise and I picked up the paperback a couple of years ago, intending to read it, but scheduled reviews and my own writing got in the way. Last year, when I had a brief lull, I tried to find time again, but again events conspired to stop me. I bought the audio book, thinking it might allow me to circumvent my own workload, but I soon discovered that I simply don’t have the time for audio books, between work and kids. In the end, I bought the kindle version (so yes, I now have three copies of the Somnambulist!) and recently I found enough of a gap in things to actually read it.
Good job I did.
I’m not particularly au fait with the Victorian era. I’ve seen a few movies, of course, read some Conan Doyle, D.E. Meredith, Stockwin, Cornwell, Collard and so on, but it’s mostly been centred around military or espionage plots. I used to love the Edgar Allen Poe type genre, but it seems that for the last decade or two no one has been able to write gothic Victoriana without throwing in vampires, which has started to bore me to death . Not so, this book. The Somnambulist has a much more real feel to it, is solidly grounded in the real world, does not run to monsters and fantasy.
The plot is nicely involved and with a number of surprises and twists, as young Phoebe Turner, through a series of unpleasant circumstances, finds herself the companion of a lady in an eerie gothic country house. The contrast, incidentally, between her early days in squalid London and this country residence, is very nicely put over. In her new life, Phoebe starts to unearth clues as to the gaps in her own past. Quite simply there is far too much in the book to try and put over here, and spoilers for the Somnambulist would be all too easy to slip in. Suffice it to say, the book is a rather twisted journey of realisation and discovery filled with rich characters and chilling moments, written against a vivid background.
If I were to label two down sides for me, they would be the level of involvement of the book – which at times became perhaps over-complex, forcing me to try and mentally place all the strands as I read – and the pace. I realise that the latter is a natural symptom of the milieu in which Fox is writing, so that’s not a comment on her ability or style, but more on Victorian history and why I don’t often read it. The more Fox has tried to put over the most authentic feel of character and descriptive for the era she can, the more the plot slowed by necessity, which is my main problem with 18th/19th century literature (I cannot stand Thomas Hardy, am excruciatingly bored by Austen and the Brontes, and just about tolerate Dickens.)
That being said, please don’t be put off by this. The characters are extremely realistic, the locations fascinating, the narrative atmospheric almost to the point of smog leaking from the pages, and the twisted plot and its excellent conclusion very well planned and well written. As a debut it was a heady and fascinating book to read, and it has achieved what is probably the most important goal of any debut author – it has made me put Fox’s second book, Elijah’s Mermaid, on my ‘must read’ list.
I read the first two of Ruth Downie’s excellent Ruso books some time ago, and reviewed the first on Amazon in the days before this blog was largely dedicated to books. I’ve been, this week, reading other books that I’ll be releasing the reviews of shortly, but for my usual Thursday post, I thought it was time to up the reviews of these two from mere ‘I bought this product’ reviews to proper examinations.
Off we go then. Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls (‘Medicus’ in the US) was, at the time, far from my common fare. I’m not a general consumer of whodunnits and police/medical procedurals, though I’ve read most of the Agatha Christies in my time. I came to read Ruso not through its whoddunit aspect, but through its connection to the Roman legions.
What I discovered was that the first Ruso novel is far from a tense, dry, fuddling story. It is more the story of the medicus, Ruso, the events that surround him, and the array of interesting and bizarre folk that serve alongside. The plot at times seemed almost incidental to the general interaction of character and the colour of the ancient Britain Ruth takes us through, though that detracted nothing from the book I must say. In fact, I found it enchanting. That the sheer vivacious colour of the book was so enthralling that the plot for me took second place is utterly impressive for a writer, especially on a debut. From the very beginning I was absorbed.
The whole tale is told with a constant, quirky humour that serves to make the whole situation and background more human. Indeed, it is the very humour that defines much of the protagonist’s character. I have, since I read this book, talked to many people who bemoan the overwhelming seriousness of historical fiction and it is surprising how often Ruso is cited as a shining gem of light heartedness in the genre.
And yet, despite the fact that I have, here concentrated on the subtle, clever humour throughout and the colour and depth of feeling of the novel, there is a solid plot here and, moreover, a huge wealth of knowledge. Ruth, I know, is an archaeologist and, having had the opportunity to speak to her a number of times, I am well aware of the impressive level of knowledge that has gone into this book.
Buy Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls/Medicus and read it. You will not regret it. It is a wonderful book. And so on to book 2…
RUSO AND THE DEMENTED DOCTOR/TERRA INCOGNITA
Ruso book 2 moves us on in the story nicely. Now that we have been introduced to the characters of Ruso and Tilla (his former slave-cum-housekeeper), as well as a fascinating supporting cast, we are to be introduced more to the world of Roman Britain. For in book two we leave the comfortable familiarity of the Deva fortress and march north to the edge of the Roman world, to Coria (modern Corbridge near Hadrian’s Wall).
The change gives us not only the chance to explore more of Ruso’s Britannia, but also to explore more of Tilla’s history. For in the wild north, on the periphery of Roman control, live Tilla’s tribe. And as the intrepid medicus heads towards his destination, the tribes are stirring and an embodiment of their gods – a warrior with antlers who seems ethereal and unreal – so Tilla is about to find her loyalties tested, between her connection to her Roman employer and her estranged family.
And in Coria, awaiting Ruso is news of a murder victim, several obstructive officers, a barking mad unit doctor, rebels, liars, wastrels and so much more. This is more than just a trip to the north.
The feel of this story for me was quite different from the first. The same quirky humour was still there, but now that and the character colour had begun to take second place to the plot. The general feel was also darker and creepier, while maintaining the pace and intrigue. Certainly the book was a worthy successor and deserves praise of the highest order. Again, a masterwork of investigative thriller against a background of lighthearted yet realistic history.
Ruth Downie continues to impress. A review of book 3 will follow soon.
History is replete with ‘turning-point’ battles. Alesia saw the effective end of Gaul against Caesar. Senlac Hill saw the beginning of Norman England. Borodino changed the fortunes of Napoleon. Marathon halted the Persian invasion of Greece. And as often as not, they are almost accidents. Gettysburg occurred when two armies happened to bump into each other, more or less. Marston Moor is one of those battles. Basically, I’m not going to tell you why. If you don’t know the details of the battle of Marston Moor, then you are at an advantage reading the book, so please do keep yourself in the dark. Because I do know the history and the result. And yet as I read, I found myself on the edge of my seat, hoping to see things that I knew couldn’t possibly happen in historical fiction. This, I would say, is one mark of a good writer with an absorbing series – you become so invested in the characters that you want to see things turn out in ways you know they cannot.
Phew, this is going to be a tough review without throwing out spoilers. Suffice it to say that Marston Moor is a great, crucial and extremely bloodthirsty battle, so you know before you open the book that there’s going to be a great deal of mayhem and death – and heroism, of course, and treachery, and all the Mike Arnold factors. But essentially, with such a battle, be prepared for that.
I noticed what I perceived to be several shifts in the series in this book, and in Arnold’s writing of the series. Firstly, the focus in the series has always been on the main character – Stryker – for obvious reasons. In more recent books, Forrester has had his times in the limelight too. But until now the enemy have only been seen in glimpses that are pertinent to the flow of the story. In Marston Moor, we are introduced to the great enemy – the Parliamentarians – on a fairly personal level. We meet several of their commanders, both good and bad. We meet Cromwell – very well portrayed, by the way. Strangely likeable and dislikeable at the same time. And we meet one of my personal heroes of British history: Sir Thomas Fairfax. As a Yorkshireman, Black Tom is my chosen man from the civil war. As a staunch Royalist myself, I’ve always thrown my lot in with their camp in civil war stories. And yet Black Tom Fairfax, a parliamentarian, is one of those powerful characters. Anyway, enough ranting on that. Arnold, then, has begun to show us the face behind the enemy’s visor. And to show their human side.
And not all new characters in this book are real historical ones. Arnold continues his strong track record of bringing us vile and hateful villains and believable and sympathetic new heroes. For though this is largely a tale of that great battle, there is another story weaving throughout, involving treachery and espionage – a tale that harks back to earlier books and will doubtless reach ahead through the series.
There was, for me, a slight feeling of a change of direction with the series here, though it might be that that is simply the effect of the subject matter of the book. I guess we will have to wait (gaaagh!) for book 7 to confirm that. And though the direction might be shifting, I have to say that the quality and the pace are not. As usual, Marston Moor is delivered at breakneck speed and with colour and depth throughout.
For me, this book took on an extra valuable aspect, as I am very familiar with many of the locations, from Stryker’s activity across in Lancashire and Forry’s time in York, through all the places in between and right to Marston Moor itself, which I have walked before now. Even the small towns and small villages are close to both my home and my heart, so it was lovely to see their inclusion.
Once battle is joined, be prepared, I would say, for a certain amount of confusion. Though I knew the battle to a certain extent beforehand and was familiar with many of the leaders and their units, I still found it hard in places to quite latch onto the detailed strategy, and instead threw myself into the action, heedless of the grand scheme above. And, to be honest, that might be a good thing. Too often in historical novels about giant battles I concentrate on the detail rather than the feel. And if you surrender to the feel of Arnold’s battle, what you are faced with is something akin to the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan, or perhaps the mess that was A Bridge Too Far. Because battle is a chaotic and all-consuming thing and Arnold’s depiction carries you along with the action.
And this tale involving a great battle, be prepared for the death of at least someone you have followed throughout the series. It’s inevitable. A battle on this scale cannot be adequately told with all important protagonists escaping with their hides intact. That would be simply unrealistic. And not everyone can achieve everything you want them to. Thus at the end of Marston Moor, Arnold’s entire series balances on a knifepoint.
So there you have it. Great characters, new viewpoints, colour and action, pace and style, one of Britain’s most important and desperate battles told in all its horror and glory. How can you resist it. Arnold continues to ride high as one of the masters of the genre, comparable to the greats. In fact, I think the regular comparisons to Sharpe do him an injustice, for Stryker is a deeper character with greater scope than Sharpe. Perhaps we are approaching times when Stryker will be the one used for comparisons?
The book is out today. Go buy it, people… £9.99 on Amazon
Anyone who caught my blog post on Monday would probably have realised then what a glowing review this book was lined up to get. From near the start I knew it was destined for my annual top 10, and by half way through it had solidly claimed the #1 spot of anything I’d read this year (against some pretty stiff opposition too!) And basically any novel I read between now and New Year is really going to have to go some to challenge this one.
So now: how to go about reviewing Into The Fire without risking spoilers. I will do it.
And for that I’ll tackle the plot first.
In an unusual treat, this novel is written in two timelines, with two interlinked stories that run concurrently throughout the book. Orleans in 2014 is the setting for an investigation into murder and arson, compounded with political intrigues leading up to an important election, strained relationships in and out of work, shadows of the past that are long and all-consuming and racial/religious tensions. Capitaine Inès Picaut really has her work cut out fighting the clock to solve her case in the midst of media frenzy, hampered by some vivid and truly believable characters. And at the root of much of this trouble there are threads suggesting a connection to events some six centuries earlier. Cue plotline 1, which takes place in 1429, following the rise of the girl who became a saint – Jehanne d’Arc. The story is not told from her perspective, though, as she begins to turn the tide against the English in the Hundred Years’ War only to fall foul of her own success and betrayal and jealously among her countrymen, quite aside from the many enemies of France who want to see her destroyed. The protagonist for this timeline is Tod Rustbeard, a Scottish/French spy working for the powerful Duke of Bedford, and it is fascinating to watch how Tod (Tomas) grows and changes throughout the three years of his story. And as the novel progresses, there is never any doubt that how the Maid of Orleans’ story ends will have deep and far reaching effects on Capitaine Picaut’s investigation.
I will tell you no more of the plot. I won’t spoil it for you. I can only suggest with every ounce of my being that you buy the book and read it at your earliest opportunity.
In terms of language, tense and person in a book can change the entire feel of the story for me. I am always comfortable with the familiar and most common third person perfect tense (eg ‘Manda Scott wrote an excellent book’) and have recently become quite a devotee of first person perfect (‘I read an excellent book’.) I still have trouble with first person present, which I come across occasionally (‘I reach out and grasp the book’) which I find makes for hard reading and unnecessary concentration on text rather than content. Into The Fire is written (unusually in my experience) in third person present tense (‘John sells a book’.) For maybe a chapter or two I found I had to adjust to this style, and worried that it would make the book a rather involved read. I was wrong. In fact, it became very familiar and comfortable as a style, and because of the tense, lent the story a directness and immediacy that would have been missing in a perfect tense. So bravo for that, Manda. The tension of the medieval espionage and of the contemporary police thriller are jacked up a notch just through the decision to write in this manner.
Interestingly, while the story of Jehanne d’Arc ranges across medieval France in line with historical events, the modern thriller takes place in a remarkably small area, rarely leaving Orleans and even then not travelling far. This means that while we are treated to the exotic glory of some of France’s most impressive locations, we get to know Orleans well, from its physical geography to its people, its organisations and even its media and its crime. There is definitely something to be said for thoroughly exploring a location in text rather than ranging far and wide, and the detail of modern Orleans adds to the realism and the credibility of the plot.
The characters I have already touched on to some extent, but they deserve their own mention. Every character is realistic. I mean right down to the faceless ones, let alone those with a speaking part. The main characters (Cpt Picaut and Tod Rustbeard) are as deep and well constructed as any character I’ve read (precisely what I’d expect from the writer who brought us Pantera in the Rome series. The former is a thoughtful, intelligent and strong police officer, who is not without her faults, of course, with plenty of demons in her past who influence her present in so many ways. The latter, I thought initially to be a fairly brash and unlikeable man, but who quickly develops to be far, far more and so much deeper, himself living with a past that has left marks on his soul. To some extent, I found myself hoping for redemption and success on Rustbeard’s part from a fairly early stage. The supporting cast too are well-written and credible. From the fascinating Patrice – the police’s pet technology genius – to the captain’s estranged and soon-to-be-ex husband, Luc and his inscrutable sister Lise, to the leader of an Algerian crime family, and so many more, the contemporary cast are individual and memorable. And from the Maid of Orleans herself, through her own captains, the King’s captivating sister, the Duke of Bedford and the almost-nobodies in the Maid’s army and entourage upon whom Rustbeard’s mission is reliant, the historical cast is intriguing and strong, vividly portrayed and bring that period of history to life.
On a last note about Manda’s work here, it is abundantly clear just how much effort the author has put into the research behind this tale, both in terms of the history and legend of Joan of Arc, and in terms of modern Orleans, French culture and the police work that form the backbone of the plot. Of course, Manda cut her teeth on thrillers before moving into the realm of historical fiction and the ease with which she has combined the two genres to create something special is fascinating. But I challenge you to find a detail out of place or anything that is not perfectly in place in the tale and its prose. Until I had the opportunity last weekend to pose a few questions to the author – even while I was 2/3 of the way through the book – I was under the impression that Into The Fire was a standalone work. I am overjoyed to now know that this is not the case and that a follow up under the current title of Accidental Gods is in the works. I simply cannot wait for that.
So for those of you who’ve not read Manda’s new book, I cannot recommend it highly enough. Six stars out of five. Go buy it, people.
And for the giveaway I ran in my last blog entry, the winner of a signed copy is Ian Robinson, so congrats Ian. Get in touch with an address and thank you.
Ben Kane thunders back into the charts with what I can only describe as an epic novel of the Teutoburg disaster. I’m a fan of Ben’s work, though since I read it his first Hannibal book has remained my favourite. Until this one.
I’m sure there are folks out there who don’t know the history Varus’ disastrous campaign in Germany in 9AD, of Arminius and the tribes. Of the Teutoburg massacre. A lot of you will, even those not particularly au fait with Roman history. It is the most ignominious military loss in Roman history and infamous as such. It ranks up there with Crassus’s death at Carrhae or the unpleasant fate of Valerian, the only emperor ever captured by the enemy. I shall spare you the details. Suffice it to say that this is a novel about Rome and the German tribes in their early days, when there was potential for a settled, Romanised Germany that would become truly part of the Empire. It was a fragile time, but a hopeful one for Rome, and for some of the natives. But not all the Germans were ready to bow their head to the emperor. Cue one man with an ambitious plan to unite tribes whose mutual hatreds went back centuries based purely on the belief that they hated Rome more even than they hated each other. As governor Varus plans his summer marches into the east, so Arminius, the son of a chieftain and a man trained by decades of Roman service, begins to put his plan into action.
Enough about the plot. No spoilers (though to be honest a glance at any webpage or book that mentions Varus or Arminius will immediately barrage you with spoilers if you are in the dark. No matter. This book is not written hinged on complete innocence on the part of the reader. As a man who knows the events around which it is based, I can say with certainty that knowledge of the Varian disaster does not ruin the book, so don’t worry about that.
The book is divided into two parts, with the first being the events that form the backdrop to the rebellion, introducing us in detail to the characters, locations, motivations and themes. The second part is the part that most of you will be waiting for. It surprised me to find how much of the book Ben had devoted to the lead-up, when I had assumed the disaster itself would provide enough material for a book on its own, and possibly even more than one book. But d’you know what? It worked. The way Ben has built the plot gives it so much more of a human edge and a personal feel that it would have missed had it concentrated more on the battle itself at the expense of what precedes it. It also means that the book starts slowly, peacefully and pleasantly, and gradually builds pace throughout the first half, with tension rising, and then gallops into the second part in a crescendo that just peaks time and again right to the end of the book.
What I think deserves first special mention here is Ben’s characters. Not for their realism or depth. If you’ve read Ben’s books before then you expect nothing less than deep and realistic characters. No, what I like is who Ben has chosen to tell his story. We have Varus, the governor, a senatorial noble of Rome. We have Arminius, the German chieftain serving in Rome’s military. Yes, they are the prime movers in the events behind the book. But in order to give us the events from an intimate level, we also have a veteran centurion – Tullus – and a young legionary recruit – Piso. Thus every level is open to the reader, from those who shape the empire to those who die for it. Writing a tale like this from four such disparate viewpoints cannot be easy, but it is carried out with skill, and the reader can identify with and follow each of the four. Also, each is sympathetic in their own way – even Arminius! Oh, there is one loathsome character in there, but I’ll let you find him on your own. In fact, Varus is here given a very favourable treatment, flying in the face of the more common portrayal of an impetuous fool. Refreshing. And because of the way the story is written, there is no sense of ‘good guy and bad guy’ in Eagles at War. As is so often the case in reality, both sides are simply people, each with their own belief in the value of their motives.
In terms of themes, the book gives us a nice view of what it might have been like in the early stages of the Romanisation of a land, with tribal leaders both obsequious and resistant, some trying to outdo each other in the new regime while others grumble about taxes. It also makes some use of an aspect of the Roman military that is very rarely mentioned in novels: the slaves. When an author deals with the five thousand men of a legion, plus the cavalry and support etc, what is often forgotten is that most officers would have at least one slave, and the senior ones probably and entire household of them. Think on the activity of slaves in a Roman camp, serving one legate, one camp prefect, six tribunes and sixty centurions, plus various other officers. We are not talking about the odd body, after all. The human aspect is handled well particularly through the trials and tribulations of young Piso, and of a woman with her girl and pup, who become a recurring thread. And as for the sheer power of the loss of a legion’s eagle? Well that is put over very well. The chaos of unsought and unexpected combat is a major theme in the second part of the book and drives the narrative at least as much as the specifics of the timeline.
In fact, part two reminded me in style at times of two different tales. It carries the epic scale of The Longest Day, roving back and forth across the locations, giving us a view of events from several angles without dropping the pace of the action. And it also contains all the tension and eeriness of a nervous journey, a-la Apocalypse Now (or Heart of Darkness, of course). The legions are strung out, there is trouble communicating, there are isolated pockets of men involved in their own tiny wars all forming part of one great whole.
All in all, this is a masterpiece of the genre, from the earliest stages of the troubles right up to the tense, violent climax. In fact, twice in this read I was so hooked that I continued reading at night long after I was really ready for sleep. Roll on the next book, I say, for I think I know what it will involve….
Looking back over the series from the start I am struck by just how far we’ve come with young Marcus Aquila. The series began (and stayed for 3 books) in northern Britannia, in the cold and the damp with hairy bearded barbarians instigating wars and troubles and our hero hiding from the Emperor’s fury under an assumed name, sheltered by friends of friends. How long gone are those days now? For here, in book 8, with all the momentous changes we have witnessed in between, we find our hero and his friends in the dusty, exotic east, facing the might of dreaded Parthia at the very behest of those Imperial authorities from whom Marcus spent so many years hiding. Not only at their behest, I might add, but even carrying their authority, delivered by the Praetorian fleet and with the power of (the power behind) the throne. Yes, we have certainly come a long way. Which sits well with me. I have noted several times recently in reviews how long series need to change, grow and refresh to keep their pace and interest. And the Empire books are doing that. Indeed, I would say that book 8 is the finest in the series so far, vying mainly with book 5 for me.
So what’s the book about? Well if you’re new to the series, I probably threw a few spoilers at you there. Stop now and go buy book 1. Book 8 takes us to new lands and with new style. The whole feel of the book is more exotic than previously. And given the fact that for the first time our heroes are facing not hairy barbarians or sneaky Romans, but an adjacent empire every bit as old and cultured as Rome, there is a new feeling of sophistication and style about it. Marcus and friends land in Syria, sent east by the Imperial chamberlain on an ‘offer they cannot refuse’ sort of basis. As I said, they have authority now. Scaurus is to take command of the legion there and is faced with corruption, crime and downright deviousness at the highest levels of both military and civil control in the province. But our heroes have no time to unpick all the threads in this web of corruption, for they have an urgent task to perform. A powerful border fortress is in danger from a Parthian army. Due to the troubles he finds, legate Scaurus will have only half the legion to help him take and hold the fortress of Nisibis against the greatest power in the east. And through an unfortunate series of incidents our young Marcus finds himself once more evading arrest, though this time by the governor instead of the throne. Can our friends hold Nisibis? Can they even get there intact? After all, the Parthians are one of the fiercest nations on Earth and have seen off more than one Roman army in the past. Well, you’ll have to wait and see how that turns out, as I’m not spoiling it for you.
However, in terms of the story’s content, there are various things I will say. The addition of a new character – a young tribune not too different from our own protagonist 8 books ago – is a win. Varus is an instantly likeable and sympathetic character. The Parthian princes and their senior men are well-rounded and very interesting. In fact, one prince’s bodyguard, who will play a large part in the book as it unfolds, truly captured my imagination and was a joy to read. But the icing on the cake in this story goes to the portrayal of the emperor of Parthia – the King of Kings himself. He is a cultured, urbane, clever, witty, easy, very realistic character. Don’t get me wrong – there is a constant air of threat, for this man could have nations killed with a snap of his fingers, but being dangerous does not stop him being fun or interesting. Kudos in particular to Tony for the King of Kings.
There is the usual bloodshed. Don’t worry, you battle-a-holics. Tony is unrelenting in bringing you the brutal side of Rome and its military skill. But know also that this book is far more than just military fiction. It is surprising, deep, explores to some extent the similarities and differences between ancient cultural enemies, and utterly refuses to bow down to the ‘Rome good, barbarian bad’ shtick that has for so many decades plagued the world of ancient fiction. Not only are his characters thoroughly three dimensional, but so are his nations as a whole. The plot is well crafted, with a few true surprises here and there, and runs off at breakneck pace, dragging you with it. I sat down for ten minutes’ read after lunch one day and put it down an hour later. It is that addictive a read.
I find that most good novelists truly hit their stride at about book 3 or so in a series, and while they may continue to get even better over time, often they plateau at an improved level of ability for the rest of their series. I thought Tony had done that with book 4, when the series began to change from straight military fiction to a more varied, deeper level of plot. Yet now, with book 8, he has taken things up a notch again in my opinion. I was already impressed and addicted to the Empire books, so now I’m hopelessly lost. In short: Thunder of the Gods is Riches’ best book to date, a landmark in the series and a totally engrossing read.