S.J.A.Turney's Books & more Blog

Interesting and informative rambling

Korolev 1: The Holy Thief

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Every now and then I read something completely on spec that is very much outside my comfort zone. It does you good to vary your reading and experiences, of course. And having caught sight of this book and its author in a Twitter conversation, I felt it deserved a try.

Good call.

The Holy Thief takes place in 1930s Soviet Moscow and follows a rather complex investigation by a police officer into a grisly murder. The investigation leads the somewhat world-weary and rather un-Sovietly inquisitive Korolev into a world of truly dangerous and complicated plots. The murders are associated with the sale of valuables by the Russian state to fund the Five Year Plan and the disappearance of one particular valuable. A simple (though not really so much) murder investigation is made more difficult by the interference of the NKVD (the forerunner of the KGB) who have their own connected investigation going, foreign nationals, the now-banned Orthodox Church, the semi-official organised crime echelons and so much more.

You know those American movies where it turns out not to be a simple FBI investigation, because the CIA and the NSA are involved and some senator or other is out for himself and using them all, and everything descends in a spiral of espionage and deceit? Well that sort of thing plays equally well in 30s Russia, apparently. The plot is well weaved, but it made all the better by the labyrinthine webs of official government departments.

The feel of the book, for me, is something like a cross between the movies Gorky Park and Enemy Of The State with a healthy dose of film noir. The main character is extremely believable and despite the clever connections he makes and the string of punishments he suffers, there is nothing unrealistic there. He is simply lucky, bright and bloody minded.

But for me there is one aspect that makes the book a win. Despite great characters and a good plot, the best thing about the Korolev mysteries so far is the atmosphere. The author’s knowledge and research have been poured into the book until it surpasses the ‘full’ mark and have left us with something that feels REALLY authentic. It made me endlessly grateful that I don’t live in 30s Moscow, for a start. You can almost feel the grimy, rainy street beneath you as you read. Few authors have achieved quite such a level of authenticity in a setting.

Basically the book wins on so many levels. I recommend buying it and reading it. It’ll keep you riveted right to the very end.

Written by SJAT

October 1, 2015 at 10:42 am

Golden Lion

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2015-09-23 20.29.15

A fascinating book and one I was looking forward to reading. I’ve read a few of Smith’s novels in the past and he’s a recognised master of the pen and I’ve read everything Giles has written and have yt to be disappointed by him. So something written by both of them? Well it had to be a win.

The book is the latest in the Courtney series of which I had thus far read only one. Since Smith books tend to leap about a bit era-wise and the Courtney series more than most I didn’t know what exactly to expect.

The book is set in the reign of Charles II with characters who remember the civil war all too well. It takes place on the Indian Ocean and the shore of Africa around Zanzibar. It involves an earlier villain previously presume dead and a series of revenge plots. It is as action packed and evocative as you would expect from either writer.

There are echoes of pirate era tales and of Napoleonic naval books, of African adventure and of British Empire colonialism. There are aspects of religious conflict, of slave trading, of piracy and hunting of snares and rescues, of sea battles and duels. Essentially it should have something for every reader of action adventure.

Having recently involved myself in several different collaborations I am intrigued as to how this one was carried out. I have experienced alternating chapters, separate parts to one novel and even multiple viewpoints. This one bears the hallmarks of none of them.

The writing to me feels more like a Smith book, as though Smith has essentially written the prose right through. But most aspects of the plot feel very Giles Kristin to me, from the superb and chilling array of villains to the hairpin plot twists to the cameraderie of the sailors right down to the locations.

The combination has produced an excellent tale whatever the case, though I couldn’t help but feel that Giles’ part was somewhat downplayed in the novel’s paperwork, with his name in relatively small print, a scant mention and no picture on the flyleaf etc.

So the upshot… would I recommend it? Yes I would. I suspect that readers of both writers will enjoy it. I think readers will get most from it if they have at least some familiarity with the Courtney novels and in particular the one that comes chronologically immediately before this but that being said I had not read that one and the book still worked for me. A hearty slice of adventure in an unusual milieu I would say and a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Written by SJAT

September 24, 2015 at 9:00 am

Roma Nova – Inceptio

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I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from Inceptio. I’d heard of it, seen the rather handsome cover and actually met Alison briefly at a historical fiction do, and when I had a gap in my revue pile, I slotted it in for a read.

Firstly, let me say that I really enjoyed the book. It was engaging and fasincating, thrilling in places and beautifully described. The characters were quite realistic and empathic.

So what is it like, given my aforementioned lack of expectations? Well, I’d say few readers will get everything they seek from it, but most certainly everyone will get something. The obsessive Roman fiction nuts might find it a little too modern. The crime nuts may cluck at their plot being laden with alternate history. The sci-fi lovers will approve of some of the concepts, but could find too much history and realistic modern world filtered in. The Romance lovers might be irked that thrillerdom keeps getting in the way. But the simple thing is that few readers are so specific, and most readers will find at least one aspect of Inceptio that they love, while many will appreciate the all-round. Because there’s crime, thriller, action, military, romance, hints of sci-fi-near-future, exploration of character and so much more. And anyone who likes any of that will read this and enjoy it.

So this is alternate history. A recreation of the modern world in which some decision was made another way at some point in history and things turned out differently. The story takes as its premise not a world in which Rome did not fall, but a world in which a small Roman colony in the Alps survived that fall and the fall of Byzantium in the east, going on to become some sort of Romanized utopia with overtones of Switzerland. And because of the presence of this nation, the rest of the world has developed slightly differently.

Our heroine, Karen (at least for some of the time!) finds her normal New York life turned upside down following a small incident, which sets in motion a chain of events that leads to her learning that she is in fact an heiress, a noble, even a scion of a family in Roma Nova. There ensues a tale that is one of self discovery and personal re-creation as Karen discovers life in the world of New Rome while pyscopaths hunt her, men vie for her attentions and a growing sense of duty forces her to train, learn and join paramilitary forces.

Parts of this story will surprise you, parts will excite you, and parts will enthrall you, but all of it will make you think and make you want to know what happents next. I find it hard to believe you will read Inceptio and not find something about it that really grabs you.

In short, go get Inceptio and introduce yourself to the world of Roma Nova.

Written by SJAT

September 17, 2015 at 8:00 am

Bandits of Rome

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There are a few gems out there in the world of independent fiction and despite the increasing (now vast) swathe of Roman fiction hitting virtual shelves, still certain writers and works stand out. Alex Gough came to my attention last year with his debut work Watchmen of Rome, which immediately hit me as a cut above the general quality of releases and was, in fact, a thoroughly absorbing and well-written book.

Given that, when I found out that he’d written a sequel, I virtually drooled with anticipation.

Bandits of Rome maintains the high standards set by the first book and continues to build characters and relationships while forming a completely separate plot, totally independent of the previous volume.

Following the troubles in Rome with the rogue priestess and the conflagrations in Watchmen of Rome, Carbo sets off with his vigiles friend, his woman and a small entourage to lay eyes for the first time on the plot of land that had been granted him on his retirement from the army. But on the journey, a chance encounter with an intriguing and deadly pair of killers leads him into a feud that threatens everything he cares about.

The characters from book one continue to deepen (with one notable exception – you’ll understand that when you read it) and the new characters are well-rounded and credible. In fact, Carbo himself becomes a much more 3dimensional character in this second volume as we are treated to a whole different side of him that makes him more human and sympathetic. The bad guys are at once creepy, vicious, dislikable and yet somehow fascinating. The settings, in small town and countryside estate, are a nice juxtaposition to the tight urbanism of book 1 and are described well enough that they capture the imagination and can easily be seen in the mind’s eye.

The plot was fresh, plausible and exciting, and possibly surpassed that of book 1. The pace never really let up, which made the book an enthralling read, pulling you along in the plot with never a pause. And there are moments in this novel, following a certain point in the story, which I consider to be extremely powerful writing, hitting the reader between the eyes and wrenching at their gut.

In short, Bandits of Rome is a very worthy sequel to an excellent book. I heartily recommend both of these. Carbo is fast becoming one of the seminal heroes of Roman fiction.

Written by SJAT

September 3, 2015 at 9:52 am


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Prue Batten has long been one of my favourite writers for quality of prose. Her word-spinning ability is at the top of her craft and anything she writes is enticing and enthralling, flowing across the pages with simple grace. The fact that the more she moves into the world of medieval historical fiction the more her plots also deepen and improve just adds to the reasons to read her work.

The Gisborne trilogy started out somewhere on the border between historical fiction and historical romance, and despite that not really being my thing, I read them it and loved it because, as I’ve said before, Prue could write a phone book and make it absorbing. But with the second and third volume in that series, the focus moved more towards the traditional historical genre and the action increased along with the intrigue, all without losing anything of character or style.

Tobias is the first novel in a series of standalone spin-off novels from that series and while it retains every aspect of skill and beauty I’ve come to expect from Prue, the novel also shows once again a strengthening of plot and deepening of knowledge and centrality in the medieval world. Here’s how Tobias as a novel really wins for me in 5 points.

  1. The characters. Tobias and his brother Tomasso are two of my favourite characters from the Gisborne trilogy. They stand out as a fascinating pair and, being dwarves, there is a real depth to them, given the medieval fascination with such folk. They are written truly sympathetically and beautifully and rather than being so empathically written that their stature does not affect the tale, rather it does affect the tale as it should and the reader starts to see the world from that height, which is an amazing thing. The supporting cast are also excellent, in particular including Mehmet, who is again one of my favourite characters from the series and probably deserves a book of his own, Prue (hint, hint…)
  2. The location. In addition to the ship on which the characters travel, the cast stop at Crete, which is one of my favourite places, and the plot centres very heavily on Constantinople, where the majority of the tale takes place. And Istanbul is one of my top 2 places on Earth, with which I am very familiar. So as well as loving the settings, I could feel the heady atmosphere of the place and picture every junction, facade and doorway.
  3. The plot is beautifully crafted, like the ribbons around a maypole, each thread entwining with the others, under, over, under, over. For the plot given at the start of the book, and what drives our heroes into their long and fraught journey is only the opening salvo of what is a deep, complex and in places surprising plot, involving a clandestine business deal, a woman of great importance with enemies across Byzantium, a missing holy icon and a sinister force hunting the pair.
  4. The interaction between the two brothers. The pair may be virtually identical to others but they are very different people and the growing rift between them and the way they deal with each other in their turbulent relationship throughout is perfectly done.
  5. Atmopshere. In the Gisborne series, we have felt the cold, damp, dour atmosphere of Medieval England, the hot, dusty, dangerous atmosphere of Outremer, the glittering, cultured atmospheres of Genoa and Venice. Well now, Prue has turned her attention to that cultural melting pot that is Istanbul and the join between Europe and Asia. It is one of my favourite things to experience and I felt it oozing out from the pages, so well done there, Prue.

So there we go. I don’t think I’ve spoiled the plot for you, but if you’ve not read the Gisborne series, I heartily recommend them. If you have, you’ll LOVE Tobias. The novel can be read as a standalone if you so desire, but you’ll get a lot more from it if you’ve read the Gisborne books and have a grounding in the characters, so that’s definitely the best way to do it if you have the leisure.

Another Batten masterpiece. And it’s out today. Go get it and be entranced.

Written by SJAT

August 31, 2015 at 9:33 am

War Games

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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

Tough Rides – India

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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.

Written by SJAT

August 20, 2015 at 9:00 am


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