The mid 12th century was, until recently, very unfamiliar ground for me. I know the late days of Henry II and his sons Richard and John because, well let’s face it, they’re what we think of in Britain when we hear the word ‘medieval’. But of Stephen and Matilda and the early life of Henry? No. Until recently, that is, when I read the rather superb Demon’s Brood, which was a history of the Plantagenet dynasty and rather opened my eyes to how interesting their era was.
King’s Company, then, takes place in this world. A world where King Stephen and his cousin, the Empress Matilda, are at war, England a ravaged, torn and frightened place. The plight of the ordinary folk in this world is brought to the forefront with the protagonist William, who belongs to a family with a small estate in the south of the country and whose father died in the service of the King.
Dreaming his whole life of becoming a knight and doing glorious deeds, William remains tied by duty to the family holding and daily drudgery. Then one day things change when he is jumped by bandits on the road and is saved by a dashing young nobleman. The two become fast friends and the young man, Richard, spends much time at the family estate.
Only after many months of their bonds of friendship tightening does William realise that Richard is not quite what he thought and, with one ill-conceived act he finds himself launched into a world where his illusions of the glory of knighthood are torn away, his belief in the nobility and royalty shattered and his preconceptions all destroyed as he meets a young man who dreams of ruling an England not ravaged by war and torn apart by divided loyalties.
The characters in King’s Company are believable and likeable. Henry, in particular, stood out for me. As a protagonist, William is perfect: young, open-minded and strong willed, and pitted alongside a cast of older, more grizzled characters they drive the plot along well.
The basis of the plot becomes fairly obvious early on, when Richard pries information from the family that the reader can’t help but realise will lead to something, and there’s a faint predictability to that, but once that one predictable event passes, the story rolls on fresh, interesting and unforeseeable. Indeed, gradually as the novel unfolded I found myself wondering more and more where it was going to lead. Towards the end I feared it was bound for something of an anticlimax, since the novel does not reach the conclusion one might expect from early on, but Taylor throws us a final turn in the plot that brings us to a very satisfying conclusion.
The scene-setting is done well, and the prose is excellent. To give you some idea of the style, the book has gone onto my shelves next to Angus Donald’s Outlaw series. It is less brutal and dark than those books, though. In fact, while King’s Company is far from being a children’s book, the lack of extreme violence, graphic scenes and bad language make it a very acceptable and easy read for all ages.
King’s Company is an excellent medieval romp and comes highly recommended.
A while ago I saw two novels by Luke McCallin on a promotion and, in a fit of ‘why notness’ I bought them. The thing is, I may be solidly rooted in ancient history with most of my reading there, but every now and then I’m partial to a little World War 2 fiction. Michael Ridpath’s ‘Traitor’s Gate’ made it into my annual top 10. And I rather liked the look of a murder investigation in a WW2 setting.
First off, this is a novel with a fascinating and I might even hazard ‘unique’ viewpoint. Few works of fiction choose to take a member of the wartime German forces as a protagonist. Yes, I’ve seen a few, but not many. Because it’s a brave novelist who takes it on. Because there is a very fine line to walk with it. It’s hard to make the character sympathetic to a modern non-German, I think, because of inherent prejudices born of half a century of ‘White hat – black hat’ thinking. And if you try to make him too sympathetic you run the risk of losing credibility with the character. In that respect, McCallin has hit the sweet spot. Reinherdt is very realistic, and yet sympathetic. More so, I think, even than Ridpath’s hero. In fact as a character he reminds me of Korolev in William Ryan’s pre-war Russian thrillers.
And perhaps a word then about setting. Because in WW2 stories we are very familiar with England, France, Germany and Russia as settings. We’ve also seen North Africa, and on occasion Italy, and Greece. Yugoslavia is a new one on me, and really an incredibly rich and complex setting, with the territory itself almost torn apart by internecine wars, completely ignoring the Germans in overall control. Then there are Italians present, partisans, British in threat form at least. And Orthodox, Muslim and Catholic. And everyone hates everyone else. McCallin does an excellent job of painting 40s Yugoslavia. I wonder if he has spent time there? It certainly felt like he knew the place well.
The plot, then. We are immediately presented with a murder case which is given to Reinhardt as a member of the Abwehr to solve, because while one of the victims is a wealthy, spoilt, man-eating female local journalist, the other is also a German officer of the Abwehr. I have to admit that I was half way through the book before the investigation really picked up pace and we began to discover what was going on, but that was not a fault. The investigation is endlessly messed around with for political, personal and ethnic purposes and it is only when Reinhardt becomes truly galvanised in his role that things pick up speed. The plot is almost as complex as the setting and gives us something of an insight into just how difficult and labyrinthine the internal politics of wartime Germany and the wehrmacht actually were.
All in all, the novel was intricate, fascinating, and kept dragging me back. It is not the most pacy novel I’ve read, with some parts feeling a little languid, but when the action comes, it comes thick, fast and unforgiving. Similarly, while there are times when I felt the plot becoming a little muddled, all comes out well and the ending is very satisfying. And like all good whodunnits, many of the things that slip past early on as not vastly important actually do in the end have a place in the tale and a bearing on the case.
So the upshot is that as soon as I have the time, I shall be reading the second Gregor Reinhardt novel. If you have any interest in the war, or in complex murder investigations – and certainly if both – then you might well want to give the Man from Berlin a try. An absorbing read.
Something a bit different for this Thursday’s review. I’ve been tidying the bookshelves of my office and four of my research texts in particular caught my eye. Why? Because they’re the four I have that are in French. I’m not a fluent French speaker, by the way. I have ‘holiday French’ along with more specialised Gallo-Roman-connected French. This means that when I need to read a book on Rome in French, I can instinctively translate about every third sentence at a glance, and the other two I will need to work on. Hard work? Yes. Especially for research. But rewarding? Well yes. Let me explain why, for each book:
A comic book! Gods, yes. Some consider it a lesser form of literature, and maybe if you’re talking about Dennis the Menace I might nod, but this graphic novel of Rome vs Gaul at the last great stand is really a very high quality read. This was one of the books I bought when I was writing Marius’ Mules VII, which centred on the siege of Alesia, and it influenced my vision of the battle and the warriors as much as any archaeological or topographic research. The authors and illustrators have put such passion into the detail, that it is impossible to not appreciate it. The armour and equipment are authentic. The oppidum of Alesia itself is spot on, having walked the site a few years back, and the Roman siege works are very well done. What’s the story? Well, I couldn’t tell you in truth. I didn’t read it as a story. For me this was a visual thing. And as a series of images of the events leading up to Alesia and the battle itself, it is hard to beat. Some day I will read it as a novel too. Hopefully it won’t disappoint. I have the feeling it won’t.
Another text I bought for Marius’ Mules VII. This, however, is a serious text book. An archaeological treatise with a focus on the site and its remains rather than the famous battle that took place there. And this book I read whole chunks of. Not everything, since it is all encompassing, right down to dealing with the trial excavations in the days of the Second French Empire. For me it’s a 4* book, rather than 5, as it tends to be a little rambling at times, and could be more organised and focused. A two page spread on Napoleon III, I deemed rather unnecessary, for instance. And many pages are given over to antique illustrations connected with the subject (woodcuts and 19th century maps for eg). But as far as it lags in that respect, the upsides of this book are fabulous for anyone interested in Alesia. The archaeological work in the book is covered in such detail even a true expert would learn something. And the topographical illustrations are excellent, too. My interpretation of the Roman defences in my own account is almost entirely based on this book.
Moving on from Alesia, this is a book I bought when writing Marius’ Mules VIII. Roman Marseilles is not a subject that is heavily covered in books, and certainly not in any depth. I bought this, expecting something a little like the Alesia one above – a graphic novel with some nice illustrations. It’s not. And any other books in the Voyages d’Alix series that cover places I will write about, I shall most certainly buy. The series covers many, many places in ancient times, from Jerusalem to Mexico, even! And it is not a graphic novel at all. It is a proper research book – just written for kids. Now that suits me down to the ground, since it meant it was picture heavy and much easier to read/translate. Each two page spread through the book covers an aspect of ancient Massalia, from religion to the port, to trade, to baths and so on. And along with a good descriptive text, it is illustrated with photos of remains and finds, and with reconstructions of the style and quality you can see on the cover above. Best of all for me, it had two panoramic views of the city, one during the period of Greek control and one later, under the Romans. Without this book, my view of Marseilles in MM8 would have been very different. And it will come into play again next year, when I get to MM10 and the siege of that same city.
The jewel of the collection. I cannot recommend this book highly enough, even if you’ve not a word of French. Anthony Riches, author of the excellent Empire series, put me onto this book and I bought it immediately, and have opened it at least once a week now for years. It is a complete visual topography of Rome in the age of Constantine. It is organised by region and nowhere is left out (most books covering this sort of subject focus on the famous bits and gloss over the rest.) Whole sections of very informative text, accompanied by lovely glossy photos of the current city’s remains, are punctuated with fold out maps in the form of panoramic reconstructions (again such as on the cover above.) But these are great big and very detailed images. Better still, each one is unlabelled and clear (again as above), but is accompanied by a copy of the same image a little washed out and with each location labelled. I cannot stress enough the value of this to anyone trying to understand the ancient city of Rome. Praetorian 1 and 2 were both written using this as an almost constant research text. Not so Marius’ Mules, as the book concentrates on the early 4th century city, and the Rome of Julius Caesar would look a great deal different. But…. well, just buy it and look at it. Try not to drool on the pages!
So there you go. Four French books in one review. If you’ve an interest in the subject, they’re all recommended, each for different reasons.
Back to normal next week with a 20th century historical novel review.
Winter’s Fire is almost certainly my favourite Giles Kristian book so far, and that’s no mean feat, since I generally find the second book in a series to be the poorer cousin. Mind you, this might be the second book in Sigurd’s rise, but realistically it’s the fifth novel he’s written in the ongoing Sigurd and Raven series. Is it good? Let’s just say I spent this afternoon making Viking-based jokes and comments around Ripon and singing ‘Fimbrulvinter, fimbrulvinter’ to the tune of Spongebob Squarepants. Oddly, nobody asked me why, so I never got the chance to explain that Winter’s Fire is released today.
I really enjoyed God of Vengeance last year, especially following the somewhat dark and heavy Brothers’ Fury, and was more than pleased to be back in Kristian’s vision of the Viking world. And Winter’s Fire continues that tale perfectly. But there are subtle differences. Because this is not the disastrous cause of Sigurd’s vengeance, but part of his journey, there is less need for doom-laden anguish in this book and more room for humour. In that respect it reminds me more of the original Raven books than its immediate predecessor. There is more humour and adventurous yarn-weaving here than in the previous book, and that is very welcome to me. Historical fiction takes itself rather too seriously at times, and it is nice to be able to laugh at a fart gag from time to time. After all, we’re all mentally 12 when you come down to it.
Kristian’s skill as a storyteller and constructor of plots is notable with this book for one reason in particular to me. Like The Empire Strikes Back (yes, I return to my usual trilogy comparison) Winter’s Fire does not tell a focused story which ties up tight at the end. It roves as a plot, with tendrils reaching out in different areas, introducing new elements and bringing old ones back. Indeed, from part way through the book, we are given an entirely new thread to follow as Sigurd’s sister’s own tale becomes as important as a central theme as his. And the story kind of ends (minor spoiler I guess) on something of a cliffhanger, in the old fashioned weekly adventure serial style. How will the hero get out of this? And yet, despite the apparent disparate nature of the plot, it just works. It reads beautifully, it feels like a tale that grows, then focuses, then comes to a satisfactory conclusion. Indeed, as I said, it is, I think, my fave of his works thus far.
The story follows Sigurd and his motley crew as they prepare for the backlash of his killing of Jarl Randver in the previous book. He knows King Gorm will come for him, or send men to do so. And with his Odin Favour he manages to slip the net, of course, and set off on a new epic. But what he doesn’t know is that a new villain has promised the treacherous king that he will take Sigurd’s life. Thus begins a series of seemingly random events that will send Sigurd into the service of a King and a Jarl he’s never heard of and his sister Runa into the arms of a religious sisterhood the like of which we would love to see armed to the teeth and paying a visit to ISIS. Threads you could almost forget from early in the book will come into play near the end.
Moreover, as well as the usual crew, who we know and love from other books, there are several new and exciting characters brought forth in this book. The villain, who you will soon identify, is a true, chilling, evil bastard. He is not the common or garden villain that Randver was. This fellow is a truly unpleasant piece of work. You’ll love him. You’ll hate him. You’ll love to hate him. And the former champion of King Gorm? Well, I’ll let you discover that on your own. And the seidr-wife? Well she is just too cool.
I could go on for hours. The fact is that this book will almost certainly be in my year’s top 10 in December. It’s a work of the skald’s art. It came out today. That means you can have it on your e-reader or in the mail to you within the minute if you just open a new tab. Do it. Just go do it. It’s a win in every way. Kristian has been in the top tier of historical and adventure writers for years, but he’s just upped his game again.
Every now and then you read a bit of a game changer. I read a lot of historical fiction, and most of that is quite sombre and takes itself very seriously. So it’s nice once in a while to read something light-hearted. And that’s what this book is… in spades.
The story of one man’s first couple of years in teaching, this tale is told as a retrospective from the completion of his degree and his initial excitement at landing a job in teaching through disillusionment, pain and discomfort, practical joking, humour, alcohol, idiocy, madness and heroic stands against THE MAN (who in this case is ‘the woman’).
The story is a gentle, insightful, personal, and humorous look at the early days of a career. It is a beautifully written homage to that noble profession. And given the fact that this man is a science teacher, and my own interactions with science have been less than successful, it has to have been written well enough to keep my attention.
Back in the day, I read a number of excellent humorous books that were written in diary form. The prime one for me, which I read annually and never failed to make me laugh, was ‘The Art of Course Moving’ by Michael Green. This book reminded me of it. It is the first book in a year, I think, to make me laugh out loud, and even bring tears to my eyes. There is no better recommendation for a humorous book than that.
In short, this was a cracking read. Funny, touching, and easily readable, it is well worth less than the price of a pint for the kindle copy. Not currently available on paperback, but perhaps will be soon. Buy it, sit back with your feet up, and chuckle away a few hours.
I’ve not read Smith’s previous Hector Cross novels, so it is possible that I was a bit of a disadvantage reading this, given the clear complexity of the characters’ backgrounds where they have crossed paths more than once. Fortunately the history is fairly well explained in around the first 10% of the book, though it does come across a little as being sort of shoehorned in to set the scene so the story can leap forward.
I’m not sure how much of the book was Wilbur Smith and how much Tom Cain (who I’ve not read) but to me the prose felt slightly different from Smith’s usual form – though not in a bad way. Just different.
The plot moves forward apace at all times and rarely lags at all, which is good with this sort of thriller. One seeks immediacy and excitement, after all. From the initial jailbreak – not a spoiler really, since it’s at the start – through the whole text, there’s a rousing quality to the book and a fairly cinematic feel.
The characters are, in fairness, a little 2-dimensional for me. The hero is just a little bit too heroic and powerful, the bad guy is lifted straight from a scene where he should be torturing James Bond, etc. Mind you, with thrillers, strong character archetypes help drive the plot, and it might be that a little more greyness and depth of character could have slowed the tale.
The storytelling itself flip-flops a little between cliched soap-opera and excellent in-your-face phrasing. The result is not jarring, though, and for me the moments of sheer genius prose more than made up for the more eye-rolling moments.
Overall? For me this is not a genre-defining novel, and don’t expect great literary fayre. But if what you’re looking for is a few hours of fun excitement with solidly-written action scenes and villains you can boo at, then you can do a lot worse than Predator.
Today I would like to welcome author, Simon J. A. Turney, and illustrator, Dave Slaney, to my Interview Café.
Thank you both so much for dropping by for a chat about your up and coming book, Crocodile Legion: A Roman Adventure, it’s really lovely to see you both here.
You are my first victims… er… I mean, my first interviewees…
I thought I would start with the quote which can be found on amazon for, Crocodile Legion: A Roman Adventure, to give our readers some idea of what lies in store for, Marcus and Callie, the sibling protagonists.
The prefect of Egypt needs money. And the men of the 22nd Legion must brave mazes and tombs and curses and crocodile gods to get to it.
Marcus and Callie, orphaned in ancient Alexandria and taken in by their uncle, the standard bearer in the legion, are about to travel…
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