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Fields of Glory

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Fields-of-Glory

I’ve been meaning to read one of Jecks’ books for some time, given the high recommendations they seem to garner from my friends. I picked this one up for a read, knowing it was the first in a series. I was rather confused for a short while as I thought Michael wrote mysteries, and it turns out that this is not the first in that series, but the first in a new, recent series of more mainstream historical fiction.

Initially, I found things a touch hard work, due partially – I’ll admit – to this not being the book I thought it was! But partially due to the fact that there is quite a cast and most of the dramatis personnae get their own screen time, as it were. Each chapter seems to deal with the viewpoints of perhaps three or four of the characters. Oh, there’s a main protagonist, but he is more of a hub around which everything happens, in my opinion, than the man who makes it happen. And I was a little lost as to where the plot was going, other than a grand enterprise of the English at war in France.

Then, just when I was starting to wonder what was really going on, everything seemed to gel. Several threads of plot intersected, several of the main characters met, and the whole thing seemed to sort of fall into place. I wonder whether this is a symptom of the mystery writer – it certainly began to resolve the way I find a good mystery does – but once things had started to intersect it changed the whole books for me.

From that moment on (maybe a third into the book) I was utterly hooked. Not so much on the plot as a whole, but on the subplots and characters. I had a feeling I knew where the main story was going, and which battle it was heading for, given my passable familiarity with the Hundred Years War. But I needed to know more about the characters and their motivations and to see what befell them. I give you several prime examples:

  • The soldier wracked with guilt over something he has done that he cannot reveal.
  • The former monk who messes about with guns and people think is with the devil
  • The girl whose father was executed and keeps having to fight for her life
  • The young lad with the shady past who hungers for war, even as a novice.

You see what I mean? Well, the writing is as good as you would expect from a founder member of the Historical Writers Association and other such excellent groups. It is engaging and clever, authentic and yet easily readable. It pulls you in.

So I expected a murder mystery. I got the hundred years’ war. Am I disappointed? Am I hell! It was a cracking read that I highly recommend. Go check it out, folks.

Written by SJAT

May 26, 2016 at 9:00 am

Skin and Bone

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A week or so ago I discovered, and started reading, Robin Blake’s Cragg and Fidelis mysteries. Go back a week and check out my review of the Scrivener to see how highly  I rated it. Well never one to subscribe to the ‘too much of a good thing’ theory, I read the fourth and latest book next. And guess what? It’s better.

Once again, I found that Blake had engineered a plot that was just complex enough to titillate the brain cells. Between about pages 50 and 100 I formed my opinion of what had happened. I got it about 75% right, I reckon, but there were aspects I hadn’t realised were coming.

For that is what Blake does. He presents you with a case, and then throws in tangents. None of these, I might add, are included just for the heck of it. They all have purpose and bear on the story as a whole, even if in a rather circumspect manner. I am beginning to see a style evolve. The Blake method. The same way Christie always had her detective gather her suspects for the reveal, or Columbo says ‘just one more thing’. Blake is a master, I suspect, of redirection. And that creates plots that are deep and complex, requiring some picking apart. You can never say ‘he did it, guv’ because there is ALWAYS more to it than that.

Once again, Blake shows an almost unparalleled knowledge of regency Lancashire and once again he displays it in such a way that you learn and experience and feel that you’re there, but never with ‘info dump’. The history is always woven into the story, which remains accessible to everyone. Anyone can read these books and enjoy them, regardless of era. Go on. You’ll love ’em.

If anything, the main characters are more likeable and believable than in the previous volume. There is definitely less preachy goodness among the protagonists, which makes it feel all the more authentic. I suspect that this is because the plot of book 4 revolves around a subject which even in the 1740s would shock and revolt, so the reactions are realistic, while in the previous one, slavery is abhorrent to the main characters, but that really puts them in a minority in the period.

So here we go, without wanting to provide spoilers:

A body is found in a tanning pit (the mechanics of this are vile. Don’t read while eating your lunch like I did). It is a baby, though there is some discussion as to whether it is a stillbirth or a murdered newborn. Thus begins an investigation you won’t be able to help yourself second-guessing which takes in the modernisation and progress of the city, the loss of ancient ways, the danger of noble monopolies, the rather seedy goings-on below (and above!) stairs in the houses of the great and good, and a disaster that, while almost costing Cragg his career, in some ways makes him. And where the previous book left me wanting to pursue the fate of those who escaped, this has a very satisfactory ending and an excellent dramatic conclusion.

In short, folks, it’s a win. Read this series. I’m going to catch up on the ones I’ve missed shortly.

The Scrivener

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Every now and then I come across a new series of books and wonder ‘why haven’t I come across these before?’ This is most definitely one of those. Robin Blake has created an immersive series set in, for me, a largely unknown era.

The Scrivener is in fact the third in a series, currently of 4, of mysteries set in mid 17th Lancashire. The book is billed as a Cragg and Fidelis mystery. Cragg is Preston’s coroner, and his friend Fidelis is a doctor. Between them, their skillsets and authority give them most of what they need to pick apart complex murders and plots, but it is not quite that straightforward. In fact, the book is written from the point of view of Cragg, and Fidelis seems to be more of a supporting character. In fact, Cragg’s clever and forthright wife is almost as helpful in their solution as Fidelis, though I have thus far read only one of the four books.

The Scrivener is a complex plot, which seems to have several threads with at best tenuous connections. A businessman shot dead in Preston, who seems to have been swindled. A trade mission to Guinea which is being investigated by an insurance agent. A trove of Civil War treasure found on Preston moor by a man now suffering a dreadful disabling medical condition, a will with peduliar conditions… it’s a wealth of fun for the mystery fan. The threads tie up nicely as the book draws to a close in the manner of all good mysteries. If I had one complaint about the plot it was a minor dissatisfaction that not everything in those threads is fully detailed and viewed by the reader. Some of it is reduced to a single line of second hand report. Still, this is merely the tidying up of the case. It just set my OCD twitching. The one that got away still nags at me, but enough about that in case I cause spoilers.

The writing is excellent, in that Blake manages to evoke the feel of the 17th century and create a brooding atmosphere while at the same time making everything relevant to the modern reader, easy to digest and at times perfectly light-hearted and enjoyable. The characters are likeable and believeable. They do not so conform to stereotypes that they  are common, which is nice, since mystery protagonists often do. Again, with characters, there is one thing that nags at me, which is that the protagonists (or Cragg at least) is at times a little too good and politically incorrect for the time, in respetc of slavery and bear-baiting, for example. It really doesn’t spoil the book, mind, and probably makes it accessible to a number of readers who would otherwise be put off. Blake’s history and social culture of 1740s Lancashire is stop on, thorough, and fascinating, to the extent that I lost track of the things I learned in this book. Best of all, for me, is that I live just across the Pennines from Preston and have spent quite a bit of time in the area, so a lot of this is quite familiar to me.

I would recommend this book (and therefore probably the series) to readers of historical fiction, and to lovers of mystery. To those who fill the middle group in that Venn diagram, you’ll love it. I see readers of D.E. Meredith’s Hatton and Roumande mysteries loving Robin Blake, for example.

Written by SJAT

May 12, 2016 at 10:01 pm

War at the edge of the world

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I wasn’t sure what to expect from Ian Ross’ debut, to be honest. I’ve a soft spot for the Late Roman Empire these days, and it often worries me that writers won’t do the era justice. After all, for centuries now scholars have considered everything from the early 3rd century onwards to be the Decline and Fall etc. I needn’t have worried. What should you expect from War at the edge of the world? Rollocking Romans, put simply.

This book, set at the time of the tetrarchy with Constantius as Augustus, is based at a time when the Roman world was on the cusp of new things. Only fifty years earlier was what they call the ‘crisis’ of the third century and an era of soldier emperors. Within fifty years will be the flowering of fully Christian Rome. This is the time when things change. And that was nicely reflected in the book for me.

Essentially, the story and its action and characters could have taken place in any Roman era with just a few tweaks. That is how familiar Ross’ Rome is. At the level of the general soldier much is as it has always been. It’s the detail and the background, oddly, that show us we are in late Rome. Details like the armour, weapons and clothing are not what you would find in Principate books. And in the overall background, there are Christians about, watched with suspicion, but they are there. There is a system of emperors rather than a straight Dynasty. But the most striking thing for me is that, appropriately for the era, Rome is no longer the centre of the world. Yes it’s a great city, but it’s no longer the home of emperors. Imperial courts are held at Nicomedia or Trier, or more or less wherever the emperor is. And the emperors are not Italian these days. In fact the majority descend from Balkan stock. It is nice to see this ‘devolved’ state of later Rome shown in books.

Then there’s the writing and the style. For those of you who read Roman fiction often, the best comparison I can present you with is Anthony Riches. Ross’ book reminded me in many ways of the first three of Riches’ Empire series. The story flows well and hardly ever lags from its fast, adventurous pace. The plot is intelligible but not simplistic, the descriptive atmospheric but not over-the-top. The writing is very easy and engrossing. It is very easy to pick this book up for a 5 minute read and put it down after an hour wondering where the time has gone.

There is, I would say, nothing strikingly unusual about most of the characters for the regular reader of Roman fiction. Grizzled centurions, barely-disciplined ne’er-do-wells, untrustworthy civilians in high authority, barbarous barbarians etc. The exceptions for me are the teacher-turned-legionary, who I found entertaining and would like to see more of, and the female Pict, who broke the mould a little.

In short, War at the edge of the world was a welcome surprise for me. A fast paced, very engaging read, at the same time comfortably familiar and yet strangely exotic, it was one of the best debuts I’ve seen and I shall most definitely be reading the second volume.

Written by SJAT

May 5, 2016 at 7:09 pm

King’s Company

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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.

Written by SJAT

April 28, 2016 at 9:38 am

The Man From Berlin

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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.

Written by SJAT

April 21, 2016 at 3:22 pm

Roman research – en Francais

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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:

01

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.

02

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.

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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.

04

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.

Written by SJAT

April 14, 2016 at 9:48 am

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