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

Reviews, news and inside the world of books.

Caesar’s Ambassador

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caesars-ambassador-alex-johnston

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by SJAT

July 21, 2016 at 8:57 am

The Lone Warrior

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Earthly Gods

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Earthlygods

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

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

So, to the book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by SJAT

June 30, 2016 at 9:00 am

The latter days of Rome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pic details:

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

Written by SJAT

June 26, 2016 at 12:11 pm

A Dark Anatomy

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rbda

Having been enthralled with Blake’s third and fourth books in the Cragg and Fidelis series, I felt it only right to go back and cover the ones I’ve missed. This, then, is the first book of the series. Having gone from the latest to the first, I expected to be less impressed, for it’s natural for writers to grow and improve with their work, but all I can say is this must have been a heck of a debut, for it matches his more recent novels in quality, style and content.

And I also expected some sort of lengthy introduction to the characters and the setting, and to experience the moment when the two title characters of the series meet and become friends. But no. Not for Blake. We are thrown straight into the world as it stands with no messing about, for a mystery waits to be untangled. That was rather refreshing, I think, for ‘origin stories’ can often take up enough of a first book that they rather eclipse the plot. Not so: Dark Anatomy.

The plot of this first book revolves around a squire’s wife found dead in the woods with a cut throat. But this is no simple murder. Far from it. For there lurk deep undercurrents of dissatisfaction among the locals, marital troubles, potential dark magicks brought back from the New World, troublesome con-men, secretive itinerant workers, stolen bodies and so much more. I won’t delve any deeper into the plot than that for fear of spoilers. But suffice it to say that I had more than one surprise as the plot unfolded. The plot itself was a work of genius and if anything is better than the other two I read, for the solution is simply masterful and ingenious.

Blake paints a picture of Regency north-west England that is at once realistic and immersive, and yet accessible and eminently readable. His characters are believable and the protagonists sympathetic. The whole thing comes out as a well-wrapped package of mystery that will give you a few very happy hours opening.

I highly recommend all Robin Blake’s books, but start with this one.

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.

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