I’ve been a fan of Doug Jackson’s writing for a long time, from his Roman work on the Caligula series and the Hero of Rome series to his Jamie Sinclair novels. Quite simply, unless he contemplated regency romance, there probably isn’t a Jackson novel I wouldn’t read. When I learned that he had taken an unpublished manuscript and released it himself as an ebook I was clearly going to read it.
The first thing that strikes me is that I read a lot of fiction released by big publishing houses and I read a lot of independent fiction (which varies in quality from the sublime to the ridiculous). This is the second time I have read an independent release by an otherwise traditionally published author. And what I noted straight away is that it further blurs the line between the two. A good independently published book is better than a poor traditionally published one. And this is for certain a really good independently published book. In fact, Transworld might have slipped up in letting this one pass. Well, Transworld’s loss is our gain, as you can buy the ebook of War Games for £2.15.
Tell you about the book, you say?
Alright. War Games is a modern thriller rooted in Scottish history, which occupies that same niche as the author’s Sinclair novels, or any number of investigative thrillers. But it is different. The protagonist of War Games is… a psychic investigator. The urge to add ‘Duh, duh, duhhhhhh’ after that is almost irresistable. The concept might put some folk off, I’ll admit. I’m not a huge fan of the psychic angle in book or film myself, but if it is done well, then it’s a great read. I’ll come back to the plot after a couple of tangents.
The book is set in the lowlands and borders of Scotland, which is Doug’s home territory, and the level of depth of knowledge and love that has gone into the descriptions of the locations is wonderful. And I am familiar with the area, having spent time at many of the locations myself, so I can vouch for how spot on Doug’s descriptions are.
The book is set in the present day (give or take a few years) but the plot delves into a background that covers anything from the ancient world up, focusing very heavily on the 12th to 14th centuries. Since we are familiar with the author’s historical knowledge and ability from other books, it should be no suprise how well this informs the plot and text of War Games.
The narration is told in the first person, and with an almost ‘voice-over’ aspect that puts me in mind of the classive film noir detectives, or the original theatrical release of Blade Runner. To some extent this can ham up a plot, but that can be a drawback or a bonus, depending on how it is integrated into the story. In War Games I found it positively endearing. It was evocative of so many detective movies of my youth and cast a certain ‘book noir’ aspect to it that worked for me.
As I said, I generally avoid all things psychic, but saying that I absolutely love the Necroscope novels of Brian Lumley which feature a whole slew of psychically-enabled investigators working for the British government. The reason? It was REALLY well done. It was believable and played to the realist in me rather than promoting the fantastical. Jackson’s hero does the same. The psychic aspect of it is such a minor facet of the whole and is so downplayed and shot through with strains of realism that it comes across as perfectly normal, which is hard to do, and works well.
So go on… back to the plot. Glen Savage – Falkland islands and Northern Ireland veteran and unhappy psychic is living close to the breadline trying to support himself and his wonderful wife, who suffers badly with MS, when he is offered a lucrative contract by a Muslim Scot with seemingly unlimited funds. Having spent the time between his military service and this point with a brief flare of a career as the psychic that helps the police – at least until that cash cow caught foot and mouth – he is the only choice Mr Ali can turn to when his daughter goes missing and the police are particularly unhelpful.
Cue an investigation into a crazed serial killer who is driven by madness and an odd identification with a long-dead crusader to murder those he sees as enemies of the faith.
And that’s enough of plot. I don’t want to ruin it. A last few notes, though. This is a tale with a serious leaning towards religious schism and long-standing creed hatred combined with a serial killer tale on a par with the top writers in the field. The writing is excellent as always, but with a raw edge and ‘noir’ aspect that adds atmosphere to the story. And the sideline exploration into the world of living with Multiple Sclerosis is fascinating too.
In short, War Games is a really absorbing story that hits the mark in a number of ways. I heartily recommend it.
And to give you a great glimpse into the world behind the book, I managed to get the author to answer a few questions. Thank you, Doug, and here we go…
SIMON: Most of the locations in War Games are strewn around the borders and lowlands of Scotland. I’m quite familiar with a few of the sites myself and I know that you’re from the area. How much were the locations selected in line with your plot, or was the plot to some extent tweaked by the inclusion of locations you were dying to use?
DOUG: When I finished my first novel (it became Caligula, but I didn’t then have publisher) I had no idea what to do next, but I’d enjoyed it so much it seemed a pity not to write another. By then I knew I was I capable of writing a historical novel, so why not try something different? What came next was a crime novel written in the first person because the main character started talking to me in my sleep in a kind of Fifties Noir Sam Spade voiceover kind of way. When I started writing it I had an idea that I wanted to make the Borders a character, in the way James Lee Burke does with so successfully with New Orleans and the Bayou. I suppose there was also an element of passing on my love of what is a very special place and encouraging others to visit it.The actual locations were dictated by the need to have links with one of the main historical figures in the book.
*Note from Simon: this answer came after I had written the bulk of the review, and I am fascinated by the synergy between what I got from the book and what Doug intended.*
SIMON: Was it interesting writing about a subject that is local in both time and place rather than the ancient world or thrillers that range around the globe? Did you find anything different about the process?
DOUG: Probably the most difficult thing about writing a contemporary novel in a place you’re very familiar with is to ensure that none of the events or locations comes across as mundane. When Glen Savage walks down a street or drives along a road he always has to be thinking something fascinating to do with the case, or his own, very specialised situation, and experiencing the sense of place very vividly.
SIMON: There is something of a religious conflict theme to the novel which in light of more recent events is actually quite current, but also runs the risk of that old chestnut of something you should never discuss. Were you nervous about touching on the religious theme and the relations between Islamic and Christian characters, and were you forced to make any changes to your story to avoid trouble?
DOUG: I had to think long and hard about some of the religious and cultural aspects of the book and the actions of some of the characters. But when you’re writing a murder mystery about a contemporary killer whose actions are being driven by events that happened hundreds of years ago you’re on relatively safe ground. The events and the inhumanity we see all around us every day go far beyond anything in the book.
SIMON: I have always been impressed by your level of research and knowledge when writing your Roman novels, but it is plainly obvious from your other works that you are well versed in the subject of the modern military. Added to that the police procedural aspects of War Games, and I’m led to ask how much your career in reporting and newspapers has contributed to your wealth of knowledge?
DOUG: My background as a journalist certainly helps. It is amazing the detail you pick up along the way. I’ve attended dozens of trials, several of them involving murder, and that gives you an insight into how the police work. That said I don’t need too much detail about the likes of forensics and pathology because Glen only knows what he knows and any other information he gets is from internet research in the same way I do. I’ve always been interested in military matters. When I was young I wanted to join the army, but as I got older it became clear I was too much of a wimp. I have hundreds of books on the subject and have read many hundreds more over the years. As far as the army etc are concerned I’m comfortable in just about any age, though I sometimes have to research the fine detail. I love playing at being a general. If only they’d let me join at that rank, with a batman with a G&T at hand at all times.
SIMON: Despite writing novels based in the Roman era (a very superstitious time) and esoteric modern thrillers which touch on mysterious subjects, your protagonists have thus far all been solidly rooted in the pragmatic world. For all the realism of the lead character in War Games, the fact cannot be avoided that he is a Psychic Investigator. What led you to explore such an idea, and was it difficult keeping the ‘real feel’ of the novel with such an unusual lead?
DOUG: I think that if you’re writing a contemporary detective novel in such a crowded genre your character has to have something that makes him different, so that and the fact that the police do call on psychics was the trigger for the psychic angle. The Savage character is actually based on a sergeant in the Scots Guards I met on a freezing day in Crossmaglen, young and very personable man, but hard as nails and probably the most – I think the word is competent – individual I’ve ever met. The most difficult part was deciding just how psychic to make him. He can’t know too much or he’d just be able to point to the killer, and he can’t use it too little or what’s the point of having the ability. In the end I decided to make his powers sporadic and relatively unreliable, so that sometimes he’s as sceptical of his ability as other people are. He’s a man who exudes confidence, but his experiences in the Falklands have left him mentally fragile.
SIMON: Will there be another Glen Savage mystery?
DOUG: War Games is actually the second Glen Savage book I’ve written, but people I showed it to thought the first – Brothers in Arms – which documents what happened to him in the war, as well as investigating the mysterious deaths of some of his former comrades – worked better as a second book. The problem with that is that I had to incorporate several key introductory scenes from Brothers into War Games, so I need to do some rewriting before I self-publish it. I’m slightly off the pace with my current Valerius novel, so unfortunately I don’t have the time at the moment but hopefully before Christmas.
Well all I can say is how much I enjoyed the book and how grateful I am that the author took the time to answer my questions. Thank you Doug for your insight.
Go buy the book folks, right HERE
Some of you will remember that a while back I ran a review of a book and DVD combination of an adventurous motorcycle journey around the periphery of China. The adventurers themselves were a pair of Canadian brothers, Ryan and Colin Pyle, who had pretty much staked everything they had to ride the adventure of a lifetime.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book and DVD both and recommended them a number of times. Well it seems that our favourite Canadian bikers have acquired the taste for the extreme. I recently learned that they had followed up their journey around China with one around India, and are even now engaged on a similar escapade around Brazil. For those of you who didn’t hear about the first one, the premise was simple (even though the journey was far from): Two men on bikes riding around the circumference of the country.
The second series (Tough Rides: India) follows the same principle, starting from Delhi and riding around the outline of India in a clockwise direction.
The first thing I can most definitely say is that compared with the first volume, which was self-funded and self-produced and was the brothers’ first attempt at anything like this, Tough Rides: India has a more polished feel. The first was an excellent DVD but at times had a little issue with clarity of sound or roughness of segue. That is gone in this series. Clarity and professionalism-wise, it might well have been BBC or Discovery Channel.
Also, this volume seems to have more depth to it. The first was based purely on the journey and the struggle to complete it (and that was enough, by the way, given the difficulties they faced.) In India, the brothers seem to have gone into the whole project more focused on the production of a travelogue than the journey it charts.
The places they visit on the route are among those that are at the top of my Asian Bucket List. Varanasi, Amritsar, Taj Mahal and Mahabodhi temples to name but the biggest. It helps that in my heart I am more or less Buddhist in my belief, so the brothers’ journey took in some places that really interested me on many levels. And it seems the pair planned well the sites they would visit to give variety, culture, and the unexpected for the viewer.
As with their journey around China (and any good travelogue) the brothers visit places that are both famous and obscure, ancient and modern, meet fascinating people and discover peculiar customs. Unlike the China journey, there is less focus on the roads and the traffic, though it still plays an important part, obviously. Some scenes are enough to put you off the idea of driving in India, and make my complaints about bad British drivers pale into insignificance.
But the thing I like most about this, especially given the Buddhist leanings I mentioned earlier, is that the brothers explore something of what religion means to the vast and varied population of the sub continent. They visit Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic temples and speak to the holy men and the ordinary believers of them all. And the strange way in which the great religions sit juxtaposed and theoretically at odds, and yet actually work seamlessly to support the people and the land, is fascinating.
And while the sound has improved immeasurably in volume 2, the photography was already superb and has maintained its high standard, perhaps also improving somewhat. The scenery and imagery is stunning.
As previously, the journey is at times funny, heart-stopping, exciting, sad and exhilarating. It certainly boosted my urge to visit the place.
Bravo Ryan and Colin Pyle. Job well done, I say.
If you have a liking for good travel documentaries, go get this and give it a watch.
Fabulous historical fiction grabs you like a passing charioteer and drags you round the hippodrome at breakneck speed. Simply: Salamis makes that seem slow.
Book 5 of the Long War series is by far the fastest-paced, most direct, exciting and powerful of the series to date. Impressive at such an advanced stage of a saga.
After the breath-stealing ending of The Great King, Greece is not just in danger. It is on the eve of extinction. Boeotia and Attica are about to be overrun by the Persians and are utterly hopeless. The Greek fleet languishes, unbeaten and yet still somehow losing the war. The eastern states of Greece are evacuating, fleeing west to whoever will take them, the Great King is coming, and Arimnestos has family and friends in the danger zone. And so the tale begins.
I had somehow expected book 5 to follow much the same format as the previous ones: a wide-ranging epic that covers a lengthy era and several themes. No. With a short opening of brutal fear in the face of advancing horror we are launched straight into a fight for the future of Greece, which occupies the bulk of the book. And this is not like Marathon (book 2, you might remember) which deals with a number of subjects around that great battle. This is a full on treatment of one of the world’s most important naval engagements.
This is, if you will, Cameron’s ‘The Longest Day’ or ‘Zulu’ or ‘Waterloo’. This is a military engagement told in breathtaking detail and heartbreaking style. From individual boarding actions and personal duels on board to grand strategies and political machinations on a huge scale, this battle – this novel – is enthralling.
Be warned: you are about to lose favourites. Obviously. No writer of military histfic can write about history’s greatest battles without cracking a few eggs so to speak. But on the brightside, there are genuine moments of bright glory and wonder here.
Because in addition to the great battle itself, this book contains a growing element of family and community, on both a grand and a personal scale. We are about to see new relationships formed, old loves rekindles, long enmities buried and endless loose threads tied up. Essentially, Salamis is a masterpiece, and announces the coming closure of the series.
Salamis is released today. Go buy it. Buy it now. For the love of Artemis, read this series!
We’re well and truly Arimnestos’ captive audience now. We’ve seen him grow and become the warrior, the leader, the sailor, the merchant, the pirate, the explorer. But the third volume in the series, while being a departure that took us on a great adventure, ended with us coming full circle, back to old friends and right back into the heart of what our friend the Plataean had for so long left behind.
And so The Great King picks up from that moment. This book will take you to amazing places and see astounding things, and interestingly, it includes two of the greatest and most important pivotal moments in Greek history, though the reader will not be aware of this initially, since the book’s title refers to neither directly. I will try to hint and explain without spoilers.
To some extent, ignoring the divisions into parts that are handed us, I would say there are three distinct parts to The Great King. The Games. The Journey. The War. And throughout the three parts, certain themes wind and develop.
Our friend Ari finds himself in the company of old Persian friends and in the odd situation of having to help the enemy of his people form alliances with Carthage against Greece due to his old oaths. Of course, we also know that Ari’s great personal nemesis – Dagon – is Carthaginian and that there can be no doubt that these two will meet again.
And, having delivered Persian ambassadors to hated Carthage, Ari finds himself in the company of a Spartan athlete who seeks passage to Olympia for the games. Thus opens part one, in which we are treated to a stunning and fairly in-depth depiction of the Olympic Games, entwined with plots and enmities between competing states, and a gathering of some of the most important men in Greece to discuss what to do about the Great King in Persia, who has begun preparations for the invasion of Greece on a grand scale. Here a new thread in the tale is opened and in addition to the wonderful material about the games, we are treated to a great introduction to Sparta and the Spartans. This famous state and its people had, you might remember, fought against Arimnestos with his Plataeans and their Athenian allies four books ago. Frankly, with this new insight into Sparta (who I’d always thought of as complete tossers) I have suddenly found that I love them and their leaders in Cameron’s tale. And the Spartans are a theme that will play out throught the book.
With the ending of the games, Ari goes home and tries to put his house in order, and this is nice to see from the point of view of the character’s progression, but is something of an aside in the main plot.
For soon, Ari is bound for the heart of the enemy’s lands. He is tasked with taking Spartan heralds to the court of the Great King of Persia. Despite his Persian friends, guarantees of passage and so much more, there is tremendous danger in the exotic Persian court. Here we are treated to the most fascinating clash of cultures – the rigid, haughty, ascetic Spartans and the languid, oiled and perfumed, glittering Persians. But you know, if you have any inkling of what’s to come in Greek history (and if you’ve been paying attention in the book’s first half) that nothing can really come of this, barring intelligence gathering, for Xerxes of Persia will not be turned from his course of war.
And so we move into the third part of the plot for me, as Arimnestos returns from the great journey. There follows an odd little interlude of sailing, trading and piracy, and then, finally comes the main event. I won’t spoil it. You might already know what’s coming, but for those who don’t I won’t give the game away. Suffice it to say that the war now begins in earnest and one of the greatest moments in the world’s military history will come to pass. You will read lines early on that will reveal what is to come. The last part of this book contains the opening salvos of the greatest war the states of Greece ever fought. It contains battles on land and sea, Ari’s quest for revenge against Dagon, and pivotal moments that will leave you breathless and exhausted.
As with all the Long War books (and all Cameron’s work, in fact) the writing is excellent. It is at once immediate and action packed, and yet thoughtful and educational. A weight of knowledge and a wealth of powerful and heady descriptive is conveyed without sacrificing pace, excitement, humour and horror.
And you know what? Thank good old Zeus that Salamis (book 5) is out tomorrow, because when you read the end of The Great King, you’ll really not want to wait. Check in tomorrow for my last review in the Long War series.
So where can Cameron take us? Arimnestos of Plataea is a grown man now, fully trained and experienced. He has fought in and won one of the greatest battles of the age. But after Marathon, the world has changed, and so has our hero. Life as he has known it has gone.
It is all too wasy for a writer with a series to fall into a rut. Too easy to just keep telling the same story over and over again with minor variations or just to continue to tell a saga in fairly repetitive chunks. A few authors will, once their series is settled, run off at a tangent to explore new ideas and new themes and styles. It can be a gamble, as some readers will always just want more of the same. But if it’s done right it can invigorate and frshen an ongoing series. Sort of like a sorbet palate cleanser between courses. With Poseidon’s Spear, Cameron has done just that.
This is not a tale of war or family. It is not a tale of Greeks and Persians. This is the very spirit of adventure. A series of events conspire to see Ari at sea once more, where he falls foul of the powerful and dangerous Carthaginians and finds himself a slave, tortured and tested to the limit of his endurance. Really, there is too much in terms of twists and turns, changes and stories in this tale to relate them individually, and that would just ruin the book for you. Essentially, once he is freed from the clutches of the unpleasant Carthaginian ‘Dagon’ he sets off on his greatest adventure, collecting new friends on the way, including other former slaves.
The Carthaginians control the trade in tin, which is needed by smiths and armourers across the Mediterranean world, and Ari and his friends soon form a plan to secure tin and make themselves rich. Not through trade with Massalia or Carthaginian Spain, but by going directly to the source: a misty, cold semi-mythical island far to the north that one day will be Britain. Of course, to get there by ship requires that a sailor pass the Pillars of Hercules and sail out into the great western ocean. In those days, with the ships of the Greek world, such a journey was all but impossible and only legendary sailors of myth had done so comfortably.
This begins a journey that will see Romans and Africans and Greeks and Gauls sharing ships, making and losing fortunes, finding and losing loves, all as they journey in search of the source of tin. In the process, Ari will pick up an Illyrian prince (whose own fate forms the last part of the book), become a hunted man and an enemy of Carthage, shed his preconceptions of the non-Greek world and open himself to the great wealth of experience that is the west.
For the reader, seeing the Pre-Roman west through the eyes of a wonder-filled Greek is a fascinating process, and it certainly made me wish I could go back and rewrite some of the Gallo-Roman work I have penned with one eye on this fascinating portrayal of the world.
As always, Cameron’s experiences with the military and reenactment inform his text and give everything a realism and accuracy that few could match. But what came across more in book 3 was the surprising level of knowledge the author seems to have concerning the world of ancient ships and sailing. I can only assume that among his talents and experience, Cameron has also sailed ships somewhat. And I am quite stunned by his portrayal of pre-Roman France, Spain and Britain, considering Cameron’s Canadian residence and American nationality. It feels accurate and immersive.
All in all, a departure for the series, a wonderful palate cleanser, and yet at the same time a great continuation of the saga of Arimnestos of Plataea. Oh, and the conclusion? Well Ari has now a new and great enemy out there somewhere we know will come up again, but also the end scenes come as something of a surprise, and set up the opening of book 4 beautifully. So drop by tomorrow for the review of The Great King
How does a writer possibly follow the scale and originality of a book like Killer of Men? Well, follow me through this review, and I’ll explain how.
The first book of the Long War told of how Arimnestos became a Killer of Men. Through hard labour, unexpected fights, slavery, piracy and brutal war, the young Plataean became a great hero and killer whose name alone made Greeks and Persians quake. But while those events changed Arimnestos the man, they did not change his path. For at the end of them, he returned to his home and to his forge, gave up all the trappings of heroism and war and became a simple blacksmith once more.
Marathon, while a continuation of the tale, is a whole different story. Marathon is the story of how events changed the life and the path of Arimnestos of Plataea.
Our hero has settled in his ancient home. He is a man of name and property. His former comrades live and work nearby, but they still itch for war and glory. Not so, Arimnestos. He is content. But events will never conspire to leave him in peace. No. Soon, our friend finds himself heading to Athens, where he is dragged into legal difficulties and heads out to secure the forgiveness of Gods to clear himself of any shame or impropriety.
And so begins his next stage of the Long War. Rushing hither and thither in ships, saving cities, fighting hopeless sea battles, making new friends and re-acquainting himself with old enemies, Arimnestos soon leaves behind the life of a quiet smith and becomes the great Miltiades’ favourite war dog once more.
But things are about to change. For what started as the Ionian revolt in the previous book is about to explode. As the Great King of Persia’s most vicious satrap begins to move against Greece to chastise them for their involvement, the Greeks find themselves hard pressed and pushed back.
A survivor of one of the worst disasters of the war, Arimnestos returns home only to find old enemies still at work there. He is wed and tries once more to carve out a life in Plataea, but the world will not let him rest. Athens is under threat, and Plataea owes Athens its support. Elected as the military leader for Plataea, Arimnestos joins old friends and new (and even a few enemies) in a great bid to defy Persia – the greatest single power in the world. Persia is coming for Athens. And the focus of their meeting point will be the fields of Marathon.
What happens in this book will finally make it clear to Arimnestos that he can no more settle into life as a village smith than a duck could hunt an eagle. War is in his blood and the troubles of the world will leave him with nothing but the need to exercise his great abilities.
Enough of ruining the plot for you.
There is a terrible danger for any writer in tackling a famous battle. I’ve done it myself with Alesia. Ben Kane has done so time and again in his works. Few people can do a great battle justice. And let’s face it, Marathon is one of the greats. In fact, I’d bet money that if any layperson in the street were asked to name a Greek battle, the few who could would name Marathon.
And while this story is about far more than Marathon, that great battle is the climax. And it is treated in a MASTERFUL way. Cameron has hit the sweet spot in this series where he can carry in his story the hubris, glory and almost mythical bravery of ancient Greek warfare. There are elements of the Iliad in here, it is that authentic. But despite that he is able to also make the reader aware of the base level of that war throughout, giving a realistic grounding to the scenes. The hero may be godlike and leaping from wall to wall with shining spearpoint, a hero in every way. But the ground beneath him squelches with blood and filth and shattered bone and crying boys and widows. It is a gift as a writer to be able to carry off such a combination. It is what makes his battle scenes both glorious and horrific in equal measure.
The final scenes in this book will leave you exhausted.
Arimnestos, the Killer of Men, has led you through one of the darkest hours in Greek history in this second volume. Where will he go next? Check out tomorrow’s review…