I recently had the opportunity to read an advance copy of Andrew Latham’s ‘The Holy Lance’. Initially I was hesitant, I have to admit. I am reasonably familiar with the Knights Templar in both popular myth and actual historical record, and am, frankly, a little sick of the endless connections made between the Templars and various supernatural or secret cult activities. I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, to read the book and discover that, although it revolves entirely around a group of Templars and the eponymous artefact, there is not a hint here of the ‘secret society and weirdo damned Templars’. This is a tale of knights, duty and the battling of inner demons, not the Rosicrucians or the Masons in armour trying to hide the body of Christ or some such.
Once I realised that it was a work of historical fiction about the real Poor Knights of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon and had not fallen into that most common and woeful trap of ‘Dan-Browniness’, I was properly enticed, and dived right in. In fact, despite the artefact at the heart of the tale being such a mythical, sacred item, the book remains grounded and realistic. After all, just because something is mythical has never stopped real people hunting it and believing in it (witness not only the Holy Grail or the Ark of the Covenant, but also the Nazi obsession with relics and occult objects.)
Inside, what I came across was a solid tale based during the Third Crusade, in the aftermath of the dreadful battle at the Horns of Hattin. Rather than being some ‘Indiana Jones and the Holy Grail’ knock-off, the story does not wallow in the supernatural, raising the spear of Longinus – the Holy Lance supposed to have pierced Christ on the cross – to be some kind of earth-changing relic. It is simply a religious relic, albeit an important one, sought by a number of the power groups active during the crusade, for its morale-boosting effects and the belief that it aids an army in victory. Richard Coeur de Lion sends the protagonist on a mission to recover the spear and aid his cause in the Holy Land. Completely as an aside from the main plot and characters, incidentally, I also have to point out that I love this unusually realistic portrait of the great Richard I, as opposed to the usual ‘bearded action hero’.
I will not delve too deeply into the nuances and details of the plot, for that way lie spoilers and disappointment. What I will say is that this is a hunt, and something of a race, to acquire the Lance, run by more than two groups. The political situation is nicely put, with conflicting forces not always on opposing sides of the war. Indeed, the oiliest, wickedest bad guys in this nominally belong to the same side as the Templar protagonist. Characters struggling to regain prominence or to maintain it in a world where power and position are most important are pitted against unwilling hunters who are bound by duty and oath to service. Christians both pious and base struggle against each other, as well as against the agents of Saladin (also, incidentally, a refreshing and unusual characterisation) in an effort to bring the lance back to their faction. Don’t forget that in this awful crusade, the English and the French probably hated one another more than either of them hated the Saracen!
Strangely, for me, the most important and most powerful thread (themes?, ideas?) in the novel, which so outweighs the main plot concerning the lance and the machinations of the powerful, is the personal journey of the protagonist. A former knight who joined the Templars to seek a way out of a world of blood, violence and base impulses, Michael Fitz Alan faces a daily battle against his inner demons and, while he is a strong, often irritatingly unyielding and deadly character, this dark, uncertain side of him is what makes him real to the reader. He is a character that sits well in his place in the plot and will drive the story on beyond this volume with ease.
The upshot is that the Holy Lance is an action packed, tense race to recover a holy relic, pitted against the hordes of the Saracen, power-hungry Christian nobles, his own masters of dubious ethics and various side-groups. Throughout the story, the character of Fitz Alan unfolds, and thus is born the series of the English Templars. Roll on book 2, I say.
Very unusual subject matter for me, but everyone needs a little change now and then, eh? Variety, as they say, is the spice of life.
I recently had the opportunity of a review copy of this book (and the associated DVD) and rearranged my reading schedule to fit it in. Nearly everything I read is historical, where it be fiction or non-fiction, but my love of travel and adventure is strong too, and I am a sucker for travelogues on TV, so I jumped at this chance.
Amazingly, this tremendous journey, painstakingly documented in both text and film, was carried out by the two stars from their own funds. They did not receive the financial and logistical backing of the BBC or Nat Geo, or any of the great media groups that usually produce such series. They did not get given special treatment from the authorities as media stars. They were not donated bikes. They used up their savings, sold a house, quit jobs and did it themselves. Did what? you ask… Oh yeah. Here’s what they did:
Ryan Pyle is a freelance photographer from Canada who’s lived in Shanghai for a decade now. He loves China. He loves the culture and the people and has been documenting it with his camera now for years. He’s also an enthusiastic, if relatively amateur, motorcyclist. His brother Colin owned a company back in Canada, but was tiring of the life and sought adventure – and he’s also a biker! So from Ryan’s enthusiasm and Colin’s need for change was born the idea of the Middle Kingdom Ride. The Middle Kingdom, you see, is a phrase derived from China’s name for itself, based on the principle that China was at the centre of its world. Ryan had this crazy idea that the two brothers could leave behind work and ordinary life – including, most wrenchingly, their wives – and take two bikes and a small support crew and ride around the circumference of China. China hold the longest unbroken border that can be driven or ridden, and to do so would not only be fascinating and an amazing achievement, but it would also be a world record.
(The route around China for the Middle Kingdom ride)
Ryan and Colin sought financial and logistical support, but the deals they made fell through, leaving them alone. Not to be thwarted, the pair decided that they would do what they intended, with or without support. And so they found a filmmaker who was enthusiastic over the idea, who would travel behind the bikes in an SUV. And through careful planning around the route, arranged a series of local guides from each region who would join the support vehicle for a section of the trip. That was it. Two brothers on bikes, and two men in an SUV behind them.
So that’s the background. As for the ride itself? Well suffice it to say that, despite having recently watched Sue Perkins’ Mekong journey and Levison Wood’s Walking the Nile, this journey was at least up there with the others, and was actually better than them in some ways. The journey has everything, because the brothers are not just riding bikes around the country, they are also immersing themselves in the culture at every opportunity. Thus we are treated to seeing the more draconian side of the Chinese administration, the life of Mongolian peasants from their own level, oppressed-yet-rebellious Tibet, tourist-oriented river journeys and everything in between. One thing that struck me throughout was how friendly and helpful and genuinely interested almost everyone they met seemed to be.
Then there were the hiccups. From broken bikes to more broken bikes, to two broken bikes at the same time, to almost uncrossable terrain, to impassable landslides, to forbidden expressways with angry policemen, to whole forbidden regions, the world seems to batter the pair on a regular basis. And yet, the brothers continually push down the disappointments and fears and overcome to push on. Even with the requisite number of falls – some of them quite hard, too. Anyone who’s ridden a bike will probably tell you that a fall is inevitable at some point. I myself have come off one a few times, though never badly. All I would say it that, given the terrain across which these two rode, it is just astounding that they didn’t fall more often.
I won’t delve any deeper into the content of the journey, as that’s for the reader/watcher to discover for themselves.
I read the book and then watched the DVD, and if you feel like doing both, that is most definitely the order in which to do it. The DVD will allow you to picture what you have already read, and the – by necessity – sparser detail in the DVD is best approached by having read the book and being able to fill in the blanks as it were
The book is fascinating. It is well written and well edited and proofed. The book follows the journey from its conception to its conclusion, divided up into chapters at the appropriate spots. Each chapter is lovingly told by Ryan in excellent detail, aided I’m sure by the fact that both brothers kept a video diary at the end of each day’s ride, and by the video footage that had been taken. At no point does the read become dull or repetitive, which I consider an achievement when you’re writing about 60 days and 18,000 km of motorcycle journey. But there is no lag in the tale. At the end of each chapter, Colin adds his impression of the same events, which sometimes throws new light on things and allows for an interesting counterpoint to the main text. If I had one criticism of the book it was that the first half of the journey takes up nearly 3/4 of the book, and so it feels like less justice has been done to the second half of the ride, but I suspect that most of the reason for that is that the latter leg of the journey was faster, on more major roads and with less trouble. Better not to labour whole sections of ‘we rode and nothing happened’ I suppose. The book is an excellent record of the journey, but also forms an amazing glimpse into the lives, minds and emotions of both brothers. All in all, the book was an excellent read, and I found myself glued to it at times.
The DVD matches up in its production to any of the travelogues you will catch on TV. Using footage from the support crew as well as from the helmet cameras of both riders and their video diaries at the days’ end, the film-maker has done an excellent job of production. It is a thoroughly professional piece. Split into six episodes it allows you to in some way, join in with the ride, and experience some of what the brothers felt and saw. I have two minor criticisms of the DVD. One was the length of the introduction and ‘previously on’ at the start of each episode, which had to be sat through to get to the film (though this is a common problem I’ve found with travelogues and in no way unique to this DVD!) And the other is that in places the sound is not so good. Of course, that is occasioned by the fact that this was a proper adventure with only two men supporting, not a whole film crew with a mic boom and so on. So the sound you hear on the film is not the clean sound of the large-scale documentary film-maker, but the real sound of the journey. And while that means that sometime you might have to listen hard to hear over the truckstop noises, it does mean that you are truly immersed in the journey. So I suppose in retrospect they’re not so much criticisms, as comments. The DVD does not have the level of detail that the book has, of course, so as I suggested earlier, if you get both book and DVD, read the book first. However, the DVD is well enough produced and written that if you don’t read the book, you won’t know you’re missing the minutiae, and the DVD will still be a treat to watch. Really, the scenery alone makes it worthwhile, to be honest.
So there you go: two brothers, two motorcycles, 18,000 kilometers. One of the most fascinating, varied, and well-documented journeys you will get to read or see. And now, it seems, the brothers have gone on to ride around the edge of India next, so I bet you can guess what I’m getting and shuffling into the reading pile now?
Kate Quinn first came to my attention last year when I read Day of Fire, the collection of cross-threaded tales by various Roman authors set against the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD. I have to say that normally, since my trend in reading is towards the military and espionage end of the historical fiction, I probably wouldn’t have read a book with this title or cover until I had run out of books where legionaries smash someone over the head, but the thing is: Kate Quinn’s contribution to that collection of Vesuvius tales was one of the highlights of it – one of the finest pieces of writing. It showed her skill at the craft of not just writing, but storytelling. And in recent years I have learned to approach literature with an open mind. So when I was given the opportunity to read an advance copy of Lady of the Eternal City, I snapped up the chance and thanked Kate very much.
A quick word on the plot. As usual, I hate to expound too much on plots for fear of spoilers, but this plot deserves a solid treatment, really, and so I’ve delved deeper than usual, and I hope I haven’t thrown in anything I shouldn’t.
This is a novel of Hadrian. Not a biography in any way, and he is not the protagonist, but it is definitely a story about him, for he is the hub around which the world and all Kate’s characters thereupon spin. We pick up the story at the very beginning of Hadrian’s reign, with the former empress still very much alive and a certain level of trepidation across Rome as its nobles anticipate the emperor’s arrival.
None is filled with more trepidation though than Vix (Vercingetorix the Red – I thought at first I’d hate that name and it would bug me, given its Republican Gallic connotation, and yet funnily I quickly warmed to it.) Vix is a former gladiator and slave, a legionary and war hero who saved the life of Hadrian’s predecessor Trajan, and finally a Praetorian tribune. He is strong, brave and well-placed. But he and Hadrian have a history that is not all roses. And Vix has a history with the emperor’s wife, which is troublesome to say the least.
Vix and Sabina are two of the rich cast in this novel, joined by Sabina’s neice Annia and … this is where students of Roman history will see how the book is going to get interesting … Vix’s adopted stepson Antinous. The history of Antinous and Hadrian is one well documented, but this additional connection brings it home and makes the tale so much more immediate and personal. In addition to this, though, and of great interest to me personally, was an extra cast member in the form of young Marcus Aurelius – always one of my favourite characters in imperial history.
The story deals with Hadrian’s growth into his role and life within it until his eventual decline, all seen from the point of view of those few around him who are able to influence his fickle, dangerous moods. And in parallel it follows the growing relationship between Hadrian and Antinous. I won’t tell you how that one ends, but many of you who know Hadrian will already know that!
We are treated to Hadrian’s great travels round the empire as events unfold, from Rome across the Roman world, beginning with Britannia. My favourite interlude in the trip incidentally, was for the Elusinian mysteries, which have long fascinated me and it was nice to see a novelised treatment of them. Although the descriptions of Egypt drew me right back to that haunting place.
Essentially, the plot follows the relationship of Antinous and Hadrian and their relations and loves from their first distant connections to the emperor’s final days via love and tragedy in between.
What impressed me so much about this book was the handling of character. Vix is a worthy protagonist, of course, though being fictional, he can be anything Kate wants to make him. But when you’re dealing with such larger-than-life characters as Hadrian, Antinous, Antoninus Pius (still known as Titus at this point) and Marcus Aurelius, not to mention Sabina herself – the lady of the eternal city, being able to achieve a three-fold win with them is near impossible. Because the best portrayals of real characters are: believable, historically accurate, and surprising. And to do all three is the work of a true master/mistress of the author’s craft. I will focus on the principal character here because, while he is not one of the book’s protagonist, he is the one who influences them all and who they all influence…
Hadrian is not what I’d expected. I’d never seen him as capricious and dangerous before. History throws at us the picture of the ‘great’ emperor Hadrian and we laud his abilities and vision. We do not notice the idiosyncracies that go along with such genius. The Hadrian in Kate’s novel is unpredictable, violent, dangerous, clever, far-sighted, loving, adventurous and brave, and so much more. He is a truly fascinating character.
What adds to the many facets of the man, though, is his progress as an emperor. Though he is strong willed and – let’s face it – has ultimate power at his fingertips, there is a recurring theme in the book that the great man would fall foul of his own dark side and bring the empire down with him if it were not for those clever men and women surrounding him, trying to nudge him onto a path of not only greatness, but also goodness. In that respect, Vix and Sabina are the most important characters in the novel, I would say.
At the start of the novel I dreaded reading on, for I feared Hadrian was set up as a true villain, but that is not the case, and as the book progressed I came not only to understand the man, but even to appreciate him. His final scenes in the book are wonderfully portrayed and stay with me.
Throw away your mental image of Hadrian and delve into that which Kate provides. It is a fascinating study of a man and a tale that is somewhat harrowing in places – the sort of harrowing you can only experience when you become too invested in a character.
The tone and writing of the book is rich and opulent, like the world in which the characters live, and at times it might seem over-so, but I think that is just a facet of writing well about character’s motivations in the world of imperial Rome and the circles of power. And I think that the book would have been poorer for a plainer approach. Interestingly for me, Kate is an American author, and I can usually spot an American voice in the prose straight away. To some English readers, a strong American tone can be distracting, but with Kate’s prose it blended seamlessly into the history and felt as comfortable to a British reader as a British author would.
So in short, this is a very intricate character-driven piece about the complex character that was Hadrian and the effects upon him of those few folk who were strong and wily enough to help him be what he needed to be. It is also a tale of more than one love and more than one loss. It is a rich Roman tapestry that draws your attention and holds it throughout.
Highly recommended, and confirms what I suspected: Kate Quinn is at the top of her game.
An unusual era is tackled well by a new author in this engaging read. Set in an era about which I have some knowledge but am far from ‘knowledgeable’, this is a tale of the aftermath of the death of Alexander the Great and the jostling for position of his varied successors, told from the point of view of a young recruit. Andrikos is forced to flee his small Anatolian town after a run in with some lowlifes leaves him in trouble, and he heads off to join the army and get away for a while.
Cue the meat of the story, which is a military saga set amid battles, raids and individual ‘secret’ missions of which Andrikos finds himself part. For those of you who like your Historical Fiction strewn with battles and bodies, this is your kind of book. It is fairly graphic and brutal, but that is largely tempered by the fact that it is told from the point of view of the young recruit, with all his own problems, glories, cameraderie and excitement.
I understand from his website that Kachel is ex-military, having served in the Middle East, and that comes as no surprise. Reading this book I would have guessed that the man writing the combat scenes had personal experience of same, and especially the harsh military training which occupies much of the first half of the book. The feeling of realism is strong and there is little hint of outlandishness about it.
Indeed, the book does to some extent come over as a Macedonian/Hellenistic sort of ‘Heartbreak Ridge’. That’s not a complaint… I love that movie. But it is a fairly concise way of putting forward what I felt about the book. So, given what I’ve said, you’ve probably already decided whether you’re interested in it. I would certainly recommend it to readers of ancient military histfic readers. I will leave you with one up and one down about it:
Kachel has clearly done a great deal of research into the era. His knowledge of the military, politics and social culture of the post-Alexandrian era comes through in the text. For me it was an informative as well as engaging read. As I say, I’m no expert on the era, but he comes across as very knowledgable, and I doubt most potential readers would find much to complain about in that respect.
For me, Spoils of Olympus: By the Sword was a solid 4 star read. In terms of story and characterisation, it could well have been a 5. And although there were typos (‘route’ for ‘rout’) and incorrectly-chosen words (‘they accosted his background’) here and there, what knocked a star down for me was the inclusion of a certain type of modern phrasing that somewhat shatters the historical illusion (early on in the book, for instance, I came across the phrase ‘pussywhipped’ which was the worst of these that I read and stuck in my head all the way through.)
So there you go. A relatively small negative against a swathe of positives. If the ancient military is your thing, I suspect you’ll enjoy this book. Give it a try.
For the sake of transparency, I’ll say that I’m a friend of the author, though as always I will not allow that to influence my review. Also, I would say that I have really no experience with this era, though I was lucky enough to have read and early first draft of part of this book, so when I picked up the finished article I was somewhat prepared, though the book has changed considerably since then.
My great love is Rome, and I love in particular late Rome. Living in the north of England, the events of 383-410AD (from Maximus’ withdrawal of troops to the Roman withdrawal total) are ingrained in my psyche. But what happens after 410 and Roman money and government is removed from Britain? I mean, my knowledge from then on is largely Mediterranean-based and full of Vandals, Goths and Byzantine Emperors and Persian Satraps.
Well, so what does happen after 410? Well, in this particular read, a bunch of Saxons (Seaxens) – whose headman had served with the Roman border forces in Britannia and had returned to Germania after 410 – decides to return to the island, meet up with those of his tribe who stayed and married locals, and find a place in Britain to settle. So the Wulfsuna (Wolf Sons) have come back for good.
But two major events are about to kick that headman’s son in the metaphorical nuts. Firstly, the betrayal of their cousins upon arrival leaves them with his father dead and the tribe divided and in disarray – and with that strong enemy lurking somewhere, the job unfinished. Secondly, on the far side of the island, a young seeress is hounded from her village, haunted by the past and with visions of a brutal future in which the picts of the north swamp her home. These events are all going to combine and cause both horror and elation for the wolf sons as she joins with the tribe, while their betrayer seeks allies among the picts.
Enough of the plot, per se, in case of spoilers. Suffice it to say there is the oddest love triangle you’ll see, a plot driven by visions and guilt and revenge, and a most excellent fight in the woodland to boot!
The book is very well written. I’m not talking about the prose, the language, the copy etc, though I have to say they were all good. I found not one editing error or problem with the whole book. No. I’m talking about the writing itself. It is, I believe, one of the most difficult possible things for a writer to write convincingly from the point of view of the opposite sex, especially in a historical context. In no way would I ever be able to write convincingly a period piece among, for instance, Georgian ladies at leisure. One of them would inevitably grasp a gladius and dispatch another in a swathe of blood, with numerous fart jokes. Hence, I find it thoroughly impressive that Elaine Moxon has managed to write a tale of which two thirds revolves around the androcentric culture and battle lust of the warrior men of a Saxon tribe, and do it as convincingly as Giles Kristian or Rob Low portray their Vikings.
As I’ve said, I have little knowledge of the era in the north once the Romans left, so I can hardly claim to be any kind of expert in the historical accuracy. But, saying that, the whole book felt to me thoroughly immersed in the period and culture. It felt authentic, and for the reader, I would say that’s what matters. From the few points that I was able to consider the accuracy of, I would say that Elaine has hit the mark pretty much all the way through. It appears that she has really put in the research and knows her stuff. I do know that she attends and even gives talks on the Roman world at her local historical site and spends a deal of time with reenactors.
Lastly, for those who dislike the unknown/magic/spiritual in their historical fiction, you might want to think twice here. The mystical thoroughly influences and pervades this book. For me, it worked well and in fact felt appropriate as is often the case with such works.
On balance, this was a thoroughly immersing read and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in ‘Dark Age’ fiction or who is happy to dabble in this strange time.
Something a bit different for you tonight. Something a little removed from the usual historical fiction. Scandinavian history is one of my more peripheral hobbies, rather than something I focus on. I have a basic grasp of the history and the lore, and I love the 13th warrior and The Vikings. I enjoyed the novels by Giles Kristian and Rob Low. And I loved running my fingers over the carvings of Viking names in the Haghia Sophia in Istanbul. But really, all that is VIKING stuff. Scandinavian, yes, but thoroughly Odin-based ship sailing, axe-wielding, treasure-hunting, monastery-sacking rape-and-pillage merchants.
So this short collection is different in two very important ways. Firstly, it’s not a novel. So remember that before you rush out expecting it to be one. This is a collection of Scandinavian folk tales translated in verse from old forms. It is, in essence, a book of translated poetry of Scandinavian epic style. Secondly, it is not about Vikings. In fact, despite a few famous names turning up in it and the obligatory appearance of trolls, it actually bears much more resemblance to the medieval tales of King Arthur. This is more a collection of tales about unfortunate knights, swooning ladies, evil tricksters and some disastrous misunderstandings that end in very Hamlet-esque scenes of utter carnage.
These tales are, in short, tales of Christian medieval Scandinavia, twisted here and there with the addition of more ancient lore. Even the famous Harald Hardrada turns up here more resembling a medieval baron than the last of the great vikings.
Clearly Cumpstey knows his subject and the language, and the translations are therefore pretty much spot on, easy for the reader and seemingly close to the original feel. Here and there, it feels as though the translation has hit a pebble and detoured, but that is the problem with translating something as personal as poetry. It is not straightforward and what sits well with one reader might not appeal to the next.
Each of the tales in this book is introduced by the author with a little background and explanation, though about halfway through, I decided to skip the intros and read the poems first, since I had realised I was going into every tale already knowing what to expect. And when I did this I had more fun, picking the story from the poetry and then reading the intro afterwards to confirm things and find out what I’d not noticed.
So to sum up, this is a lovely little collection that covers a subject I doubt many of us are particularly familiar with and does it with grace and panache, and a great deal of academic knowledge pressed into it. It won’t necessarily suit those of you who read your historical works to watch Romans cleave barbarians into pastrami, but for those of you with an interest in the skaldic lore of medieval Scandinavia, or just those who feel intrigued, it is a nice collection to read.
It now sits on my kindle next to my collection of Imādu d-Dīn Nasīmī’s works. Boy, am I starting to look clever!