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

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Top Ten novels of 2012

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Here we go. It’s almost New Year, so it’s time I followed the leader (Kate’s Book Blog) and did a rundown of my top 10 books of the year. I read just under 60 books altogether this year, though some were poor and I only actually rated and reviewed 40-some. So this represents at least the top 20% of my year’s reading and in no particular order. To have rated them in order would just have been too difficult in many cases. They are all simply excellent. If I had my arm twisted, I might just inch towards The Bleeding Land as my all out fave but, as I say, many of them are vying for that spot.

So here we go. The best books I read in 2012, with purchase links and my reviews from the time:

The Bleeding Land by Giles Kristian (buy it at Amazon)

Some time ago, I launched into Giles Kristian’s Raven Saga. You may have seen my reviews knocking around, as they were so good I ran from one to the next seamlessly and enjoyed all three immensely. They were up there with some of the best adventure/historical fiction I’ve read. I never flinched from recommending them. But recently, Giles has turned his not-inconsiderable literary talents toward a new theatre: the English civil war

The civil war is not a period I know a great deal about and, while I have a passing interest in it, it’s never hooked me so much that I sought out things to read about it (I much prefer looking at historical sites relating to it than reading about it.) It may be that, for me, the civil war has always been just a little too recent.

Saying that, I knew Giles was a good writer from his earlier stuff, and the promo video produced for the book pushed me ever further towards it.

And so I settled into the book not really knowing what to expect but, perhaps, waiting for a Raven-esque adventure saga with lots of God’s Teeth and Damn Your Eyes and Have At Him, Sirrah -s. Ok, there are a few of those, but the novel is totally not what I expected. I suspect, furthermore, that a number of people who were real Raven fanatics will dislike this shift into a deep, thoughtful and saddening world, while other folk who would not consider Raven will flock to it.

The Bleeding Land, you see, is not a war story. It is a tale of a torn family, of the love of brothers and sisters pulled by the fickle strands of fate in different directions to such an extent that they are at war. It is a tale of love and loss and heartbreak and strength and perseverance and duty and honour. In fact, the tale actually ends just after the first major battle of the Civil War, which gives you an idea of where the meat of the story lies: not in battle, but in the story of those who fight it.

That’s enough of the plot. Don’t want to ruin it for you. I will say three things in particular that I consider strengths and which should draw you to want to read it.

Firstly, there is the sheer visual nature of the narrative. It is almost impossible not to completely visualise every scene he writes. In fact, there is such depth of feeling in the descriptive that you can even smell, hear or taste the scene. It was such a shock from almost the opening scene to be drawn so completely in that I felt I was there. This alone is phenomenal and a rare gift.

Secondly, there is the nature of the battle scenes. Battle scenes are very easy to write (from personal experience) for excitement, for horror, for gore, for valour and so on. What Giles manages is to write his civil war millitary engagements from the smallest skirmish to the great ckash at Edgehill with such care that they are all-encompassing. They are all of the above and more and, given the descriptive I mention previously, they are evocative of every clash you’ve seen in a classic movie: the cannon fire in Cromwell, the volley fire in Zulu. They are scenes that will stay in your memory.

Thirdly, the simple skill with words. A score of times or more in the text, I read a phrase, a line, a description, that made me wish I could write even half that well. It is a beautiful piece of narrative.

So go on… You need to follow the tale of Tom and Mun, their parents and sister, of Emmanuel and the folk of Lancashire good and bad. And cheer Prince Rupert (and the King, for I am and will always be a Royalist at heart). This emotional roller-coaster of a tale will tear out your heart and rebuild it only to batter it again. As a last word, I would compare Kristian’s treatment of a torn family to the standalone works of Guy Gavriel Kay (and I can think of no higher praise, Kay having been my favourite writer for decades.)

Buy the Bleeding Land and experience it.

Hannibal: Enemy of Rome by Ben Kane (buy it at Amazon)

Some time ago I read and reviewed (with a very favourable review) Ben’s first trilogy – the Forgotten Legion. At the time, those three books, along with a few works by Anthony Riches, Douglas Jackson and Simon Scarrow, very much set the standard for Roman historical fiction. Certain scenes from those books have stayed with me, no matter how much other Roman fiction I read (and that is most of what I read). I consider a book that still has an effect on the reader a long time after reading to be a rousing success.

Move on one book, and up a thousand notches.

Hannibal took me by surprise. I have an interest in all Roman history, but my knowledge of the Punic war period is considerably less than other eras. I did understand beforehand that at this point the Roman army was more of a Graeco-Etruscan force than the military machine the world generally remembers, drawn from citizen volunteers rather than a standing force. I knew (as does everyone) about the crossing of the Alps. Beyond that, my knowledge of the conflicts and the peoples is almost entirely drawn from holiday visits to Spain, Italy and Tunisia. I was unsure what to expect with the book, as I really didn’t know how much of an enthralling tale Ben could spin out of the bare bones of what I knew.

The upshot is that, despite the title of this book, the tale is not about Hannibal. Oh, it’s about that campaign, and Hannibal is in it, even to the point of being an important supporting character. But it is not about him. Equally, those events from the sacking of Saguntum, through the crossing of the Alps and the first conflicts in Northern Italy, are the central events around which the story hinges, but they are not the story itself.

The story is actually the tale of a Carthaginian nobleman and his three sons, and a Roman/Oscan family from near Capua. It is a heart-wrenching tale of friends and enemies experiencing the build-up to, and beginnings of, a war between their peoples, and the effects this has on their lives and relationships. Don’t get me wrong: this is no family saga of the little-old-lady variety, and includes just the right amount of warfare, intrigue, danger and adventure to make it a page-turner in every respect, but it has the refreshing aspect of being a family saga as well – something I’ve not seen done well in ancient novels before.

In fact, as I think about it, the only book I can use to compare is Guy Gavriel Kay’s `Lions of Al-Rassan’ (and I consider this a high complement, since GGK has been my favourite writer since my teens.) There is a similar doom between the books, looking at friends separated by a gulf of nationality and fated to meet in those most unhappy of circumstances.

Essentially, I loved Hannibal and rank it up with my faves now. I think it has seen Ben’s writing take on a whole new strength and its particular draw for me is his depth of character and family on both sides, the realism of the people and the sympathy and empathy the reader cannot help but feel. Having read this I am now champing at the bit for the two Spartacus novels (one of which is waiting on my shelf and the other is released shortly.)

Bravo Ben. Hannibal 2 now eagerly awaited.

Strategos by Gordon Doherty (buy it at Amazon)

I’ll state for the record that Gordon emerged from the same writing-feedback site as I (and a few others), and have since come to know him through Twitter too. But this fact in no way influences the following review, as nepotism does not float my boat. Feel free to simply disregard it if you must, but you do so at your peril.

I gave Gordon’s first book 5 stars. I honestly thought it was that good. Reading it just made me jealous over the relative quality of my own work. Now that I’ve read Strategos, I wish I’d given it 4 stars, as this book is significantly better and I can’t reflect that in the ratings, so there you go. Both fab books, but this is better.

Strategos seems to be the work where Gordon’s writing has matured into a solid style that is easily the challenge of most established Histfic authors. I feel you will find it hard to tell that this is not a traditionally published novel. Even the shaky editing and typos that are a regrettable feature of self-published work are suspiciously absent. I think I found three or four typos in the whole book, which is a number I expect to find in any work. And the editing? Well it’s tight and on-track all the way through.

The story is complex and deep, involving a twisting tale of intrigue and revenge that entwines the protagonist’s path all against the background of a great and tumultuous time of desperate military actions to preserve a dying empire. What impressed me particularly is that there is no Good guy/Bad guy black-and-white attitude in Strategos. It is hard not to find likeable and appreciable traits in the bad guys. Not all the good guys are that good. Indeed the main antagonists are ostensibly on the same side as the hero.

The story had a plausible tale of personal growth and overcoming the most outrageous obstacles, the unit cameraderie a reader tends to seek in any military histfic, scenes of horror and glory, but pulls no punches and at times leaves the reader feeling a little hollow and angered at events.

For those of you who like the Byzantine era, I’m sure you’ll like this. Gordon’s done a great deal of research and it shows (I’m not knowledgable enough on the subject to find any errors if there are any, so I can’t tell if it’s mistake free. You’ll have to do that yourself and comment appropriately). What I CAN say is that if, like me, you have a deep love of the Roman era or the Medieval/Crusading era, you should find this fascinating, as it is an era that is a definite crossover. To have a man who is the descendant of the Roman legionary, armoured in a late-Roman fashion, facing an enemy that would not seem out of place fighting the crusaders in Outremer is a fascinating thing.

There is also an overtone of spirituality and strangeness that threads throughout the story, pointing at a greater destiny that must become apparent in a future book.

If I have a criticism (and it’s really hard to find one) it was that the ending was a little abrupt. I was expecting a sort of wind-down epilogue, but the plot wrapped up and the story ended with a sharp stop. In the grand scheme of things I hardly think this is a reason to put anyone off, so go ahead and read the book and see for yourself. And, since indie authors are oft accused of promoting one another blindly, please do comment on this review if you think I’ve been fair and on-the-ball.

Happy reading.

Vale, Haga.

Avenger of Rome by Doug Jackson (buy it at Amazon)

Whew. I finished it. Not a phew as in `that was tough going’ but a phew as in `wow what a powerful conclusion.’

I’ve been reading Doug Jackson’s books since Caligula first appeared in hardback, while I was still writing my first, and I love his work. But when he started the Valerius Verrens series, something changed and his work stepped up several notches.

Hero of Rome (the novel that introduces the character) is one of the best Roman novels I’ve read and the scenes of the evacuation of Colonia in advance of Boudicca’s attack were among the most powerful I’ve seen. The second Valerius novel, Defender of Rome, had a different feel and a different tack. It was a brave novel and a powerful one, if a little bleak and soul-withering at times.
Avenger of Rome is a book I’ve been waiting to read for some time. I found it difficult to see how the story could progress after the second book.

Well Doug did good! Avenger is a triumph of a novel. It has the tension of the first book in the series and the depth of the second combined, but it also has much more. It is far and away the best of the series so far and left me wanting more.
After the horrifying events in Rome in `Defender’, in this great tale, Valerius is sent east with the remit of investigating General Corbulo for signs of treason. But nothing is as it seems and, as Valerius becomes more and more involved in matters, he finds himself becoming a valuable and trusted member of the great general’s staff as Corbulo defies imperial edict in order to safeguard the empire, whatever the cost to himself.

Certain things stand out about this book, to me. Firstly, the journey – which occupies a quarter of the book – is a magnificent tale in itself and could quite easily have made the basis for a novel on its own.

Secondly, the book features some of my favourite characters from Roman history (Vespasian, Titus and Corbulo) and does each of them proud, the depiction of Corbulo particularly striking a chord with me as it is very much how I have always imagined him. While I would hardly describe Nero as one of my favourites, I also have to admire the way Doug handles the complex character of the youthful emperor. Nero is an enigma and the character is built upon from the second book to a strangely almost understandable and certainly pitiable combination of paranoia, pride, neediness and hubris. He is too complex to pigeonhole, which is, I suspect, as close to the truth as any writer will get. Indeed, hubris is a strong theme among the more powerful characters in the novel.

Thirdly, the battle. Wow, the battle. Well, come on, it’s hardly a spoiler, is it? You knew there was going to be a battle, right? I know from personal experience how hard it is to write a good battle. Not an ok battle, but a good one. I’ve tried. And in the end, I come down to showing any battle from a point of view of individual encounters, as I simply cannot adequately convey the scale of the whole thing. Doug just did. The scale was immense, the time it took, the numbers, the sheer organisation, and yet not a single detail is lost. Not even the noise. The smell. The tension. The fear. It is a work of sickening beauty.
The upshot? Valerius is one of the most interesting characters in Historical fiction at the moment and each book Doug writes adds to the depth and power of the character. This book has, however, stepped another notch upwards and, where the first left me feeling a little drained with the heart-wrenching conclusion and the second left me feeling weary and saddened, this one left me feeling awed and astounded and waiting to see what comes next (the conclusion almost pushes you straight into the next tale). Valerius, I will watch you put things right! My sword arm is with you.

Well done, Doug. A fab read. When’s the next due out?

Rome: Eagle of the Twelfth by M. C. Scott (buy it at Amazon)

I love the first two Rome books. I’ve given them both a well deserved 5 of 5 stars in reviews. What I need is to give them 9 of 10, I think, so that I have somewhere new to go with Eagle of the Twelfth for, while the first two novels are excellent, this one is outstanding and deserves a little extra credit.

In a fresh, unusual, and most welcome move, Manda has taken the Rome series off at a tangent, though rather than forming a separate series along the new line, she has bent the original tales to follow.

The first two novels are essentially the tale (told in two parts) of Sebastos Abdes Pantera, an agent of Seneca in the reign of Nero, and his longstanding battle with a man of equal skill and knowledge, though twisted into something wicked and dangerous, seeking ultimate power and destruction at once. They are told in the traditional third person and follow on in a tried-and-tested chronology.

Not so, Eagle of the Twelfth. Where previously, Pantera has been the principal character with a supporting cast of fascinating others, in this tome, Pantera IS that fascinating other, while the story revolves around a fresh, new character: Demalion of Macedon. Moreover, the tale is told in first person from Demalion’s point of view, lending it a personal and emotional feel way above and beyond the first two books.

I spent some time wondering why the author had settled on this new perspective. Then something clicked. Other than the new and fresh feel it lent the book, it also solved a potential problem. You see, the second book seals off one chapter in the life of Pantera, and his tale could have ended there, but for the fact that Scott left him in a somewhat untenable position from where he was unlikely to bounce back. This new direction allows the tale to become more of Demalion and his part in giving Pantera a future. I won’t say that this was the reason the book was written this way, but it certainly works nicely like this.

After a rousing prologue, the story begins some years before the first Rome novel, in the territory of the King of Kings, ruler of the vast Parthian Empire, anathema of Rome. Here, Demalion, a young man fresh to the Fifth legion, has been seconded to help Pantera on a mission deep within enemy territory.

Having succeeded, he is recommended for promotion by Pantera and receives it, to his great regret. You see, the only legion he can be promoted into is the Twelfth Fulminata, a legion with a reputation for ill luck and disaster to whom no soldier wishes a transfer.

So begins the first part of the tale: a story of personal growth and trying to remake a disasterous legion once more into a proud fighting force. Unfortunately, the Twelfth is doomed to suffer setback after setback, resulting finally in the ultimate disgrace for a legion: the loss of its Eagle.

By this point, however, the tale has once more caught up with Pantera, following the events of the first two Rome books, and the second half or so of ‘Eagle’ tells the tale of the first great Jewish war, painting into its history the part that must be played by Pantera, the loss of the eagle and the attempt to recover it, and the growth and blossoming of the great soldier and deep person that is Demalion of the Twelfth.

This book is at least the equal of the first two in the series in Scott’s ability to paint vivid and wonderful, believable characters, with all their flaws and foibles, loves and fears, and also in her masterful treatment of the animals in her stories, but this story also goes deep into what it means to be a soldier of Rome and what the legions meant to those who served in them. It is an educational tool as much as a great tale in that respect, and I cannot recommend it highly enough as both gripping tale and educational tool.

Eagle of the Twelfth is a masterpiece on an almost unprecedented scale in the world of Roman fiction. I find it mind-boggling trying to imagine how Scott planned this book without a time machine, a reenactment group, a whiteboard the size of Westminster and twelve coloured pens and half a dozen assistants.

I do believe that it is possible to read this as a start to the series, though I suspect the reader will get more out of it following the series in written order. Whether you want to read this now and see if my ravings stand up, or start with the Emperor’s Spy and build up to it, give it a go. You owe it to your soul

King’s Man by Angus Donald (buy it at Amazon)

After Outlaw and Holy Warrior, I simply couldn’t wait for the ordinary trade paperback of King’s Man. I bought the outsized ROI edition and then also the kindle version. And I don’t regret it.

Outlaw was an astounding debut for me. It challenged my perceptions of Robin Hood, created a whole new epic around him and kept me rivetted, It also showed Angus’ not inconsiderable knowledge and in-depth research into an era that is very complex and vast.

Holy Warrior took the tale in a different direction and, while a more mature story , was darker and more troubling, though no less a great read. It made me fear for the future of the series, given my changing views of the principal characters, in much the same way as (as a sad Star Wars fan) ‘Empire’ is dark and troubling. In those dark and troubling tales real change and growth and character are brought out.

Then: King’s Man. Quite simply it is a breathtaking book. While the previous two novels were very much separate stories in a series, this has bound the whole group together, drawing on a great wealth of detail from both previous works and using them to weave a spellbinding story based around Richard I’s detaining in Germany after the crusade.

Obviously, that is not all there is to the book, but it is the main post around which the hall of King’s Man is constructed. The story includes dangerous journeys through foreign lands, ordeals of holy inquisition, troubles with Templars, an unusual and excellent view of medieval London, sieges, warfare, assassination and so much more.

I was astounded to see the return of some favourite characters that I had not thought to see again, and the introduction of some new classics (Rix – wow what a character). An extra note worth making is that Alan has grown so much by the 3rd book that he’s no longer the impressionable child of the earlier works, but has really come into his own, showing a real taent for character growth.

I could go on about character, description, plot and more, but only at the risk of rendering the review to long to be readable. So I will finish with this:

King’s Man is the best of Angus’ novels to date and one of the best novels I have read, period. It is beautifully written, with care to detail and surprises and twists that knocked me aside. The story is a true arc and no tiny detail is left unused and ignored. I fear now for the upcoming ‘Warlord’, for I find it hard to see how Angus can improve on this.

Whether in Hardback, Outsize pb, upcoming trade Paperback, or e-version, read this book. If you have read the first two, grab your reading list and push this to the top. If you have not, read all three back-to-back. I cannot recommend it any higher than that.

Empire: The Wolf’s Gold by Anthony Riches (buy it at Amazon)

I’ve been a fan of Tony Riches since Corvus first put in an appearance in Wounds of Honour, and I’m always pleased to pick up an ‘Empire’ book.

I’ve done reviews of the others so far, and I would reference them in this review. The first three in the series I always considered very much a single story arc over three books. Moreover, they were staunchly and solidly novels of the Roman military.

Cue Tony’s curveball: The Leopard Sword. The fourth book in the series was something of a departure in style, concentrating more on an ingenious plotline of intrigues and banditry than on the military campaigns we’d come to expect. Having read reviews and spoken to people since, I’m not sure how well-received the change was. I personally thought it was a triumph and a real growth in character, style and plot crafting.

Well The Wolf’s Gold should be an all-pleaser as far as I can see. In one way, it’s very much a return to a military-oriented plotline, with stretches of good solid campaigning in there, which should please the die-hard ‘Military Riches’ fans, and yet also involves a depth, ingenuity and intricacy of plot that has been born – in my opinion – from the style of Leopard Sword.

The plot to this masterpiece moves us once more. The first three books had us in Northern Britannia, and the fourth shifted the action to the forests of Germany, while in this one, the poor beleaguered Tungrian cohorts are sent to Dacia (modern Romania) into the Carpathian mountains to provide defence for the gold mines that are essential for imperial revenue. It is here that they will meet a number of interesting and often dubious characters and fall foul of plots and tricks that will once again have them fighting for their lives and have centurion Corvus creating crazy plans that have little chance of success.

As always with Tony’s writing, he sacrifices just the tiniest modicum of uptight concern for anachronistic idiom (something more authors could do with trying) in favour of something that feels realistic and appropriate to the reader and creates a flow of text that’s never interrupted.

And that’s a big part of this book. From the very start it races away and takes the reader with it. The flow is just too easy to read and hard to put down. As usual there is a humour among the soldiers that borders on the tasteless at times, and feels thoroughly authenic (and also happens to make me laugh out loud) combined with a brutal combative narrative that pulls no punches and coats the reader with gore, all overlaid with a few saddening scenes and thoughts.

From the might of Sarmatian hordes and their perfidious nobles to the treachery of self-serving mine owners, the untrustworthiness of border troops, the mindless buffoonery of the upper class legionary Tribunes, the madness of battles on ice, and the heart-pounding stealthy infiltrations of installations by a few good men, Wolf’s Gold should win on many levels and certainly does with me.

Moreover, this novel sees a significant advance in the overall arc of Corvus’ history, his murdered family and the imperial intrigues that accompany it.

As a last aside, Tony is one of few writers of Roman fiction who rarely feels the need to name-drop, his characters almost always fictional and self-created, which I find refreshing and even when he does so, it is fascinating. In this case we are introduced to not one, but two, future attempted usurpers of Imperial power.

All in all, Wolf’s Gold is a storming read, and Riches’ best yet. I cannot wait to see what is going to follow in book 6 following the events of this.

Hereward: The Devil’s Army by James Wilde (buy it at Amazon)

Boy was I happy.

I’d read Hereward by James Wilde recently and, while I had a couple of issues with the book, on the whole I’d thoroughly enjoyed it. So now that the sequel (Hereward: The Devil’s Army) is out, I was intrigued to see how the story went on and whether the writer’s tack or style had changed since the first book.

I read it in four days, despite this week being a ruthlessly busy time with few free moments. In short, Devil’s Army is everything I could have hoped for in a sequel to Hereward. My two main issues with the first book were the somewhat stereotypical nature of the hero and the sparse treatment of the two great battles the book deals with. It may be that the sequel has escaped this problem by not dealing with world-famous battles and having an already-established hero, but I don’t believe that is the case. I think James has taken his treatment of the main character and deepened and broadened his perspective. Hereward had changed throughout the first book, in sometimes jarring ways, and in the sequel his nature changes again several times, but subtly and with finesse, for which I think applause is due. And, while there are no famous historic battles in this one, there are two ways this book wins out. I have (since the first book) read something about the events in Hereward’s period of activity and can say that Wilde seems to have really done his homework, using the accepted history, but also making intuitive leaps in gaps in the knowledge. Also, though there may be no great battles in this book, there are plenty of non-famous ones, and they are treated with an in-depth and exciting narrative.

As with the first book, Wilde’s narrative style is so enthusing and visual that he could have written a phone book and made it riveting. His descriptions make you feel cold with the icy claws of winter, or terrified in a hut of desperate and dangerous peasants. While I’m giving Devil’s Army 5 stars, I can’t see anything he ever writes being worthy of less than 4, just because of the way it’s written.

From the devastation of the north under the conqueror’s army, to the fortress in the swamps at Ely, to the numerous betrayals of the loyal and doomed English, to the amazing Harald Redteeth (who I think I want to be), to the almost Martin-Sheen-rising-from-the-river-in-Apocalypse-Now ambushes that devastate the cold Normans, every step is a win. The plot is well-written and well-rounded and ties up beautifully from beginning to end, with more hooks, twists, surprises and stunning scenes than the first, and more than most novels in the genre.

I would recommend people read these books. Hopefully you will love Hereward and its sequel. Hereward was a gripping read, but the Devil’s Army is a tour-de-force and a welcome addition to my shelf of great Historical Fiction

Insurrection by Robyn Young (buy it at Amazon)

Insurrection immediately took me by surprise. All I really knew of it was that it was a story of Robert Bruce. Now like most of you (I suspect) my knowledge of this great historic figure is fairly limited to the fact that he was King of Scotland, that he won at Bannockburn in 1314, and some guff about sitting in a cave and watching a spider spin a web – oh and Braveheart. Actually, that’s not quite true. Being a Yorkshireman, I also knew that Bruce was actually of the DeBrus family that came from Guisborough near my home and were originally about as Scottish as Kaiser Wilhelm II. But you get my point. My knowledge was sketchy and mostly revolved around his kingship.

And so it intrigued me to discover that Insurrection is a story that begins with Robert as a teenager, freshly returned from fosterage in Ireland to his family’s lands in Scotland. In fact, the story begins more with a little background to Edward I of England and the events leading to the death of King Alexander of Scotland. But I’m confusing the issue there.

Insurrection tells the story of Robert from his youth in a safe, stable Scotland, through the period of disaster following the death of Alexander, and through the wars and feuds with the Comyn and Balliol families that lead to Robert siding with the hated English during the first wave of troubles.

I won’t tell the story beyond that. If you want spoilers, read the book. What I will do is tell you why you should do that.

As with Robyn’s Brethren trilogy, she has not simply told the history, but interwoven a creative new story within the web of the historical fact, turning this from a straight history book to a fresh and much more personal novel.

Among the threads of Edward and Robert’s story are echoes of the Arthurian legends which, while not central to the tale, are important enough to the characters to inform their actions. This additional facet not only helps to deepen the story and flesh out the characters, but also helps to fill in some of the historical gaps in the reasons for their actions.

To me, the greatest strength of the novel is the fairness levelled at the various sides. There is a great tendency when talking of William Wallace, Robert Bruce and Edward – the Hammer of the Scots – to paint the Scots as heroic, hard-done-by highlanders in kilts and woad (thank you Mel Gibson) and the English as stony-faced robots seeking only pleasure in the destruction of the Scottish way of life. Not so Robyn’s treatment.

Robyn has recognised immediately that the nobles on both sides of this war were almost all of Norman descent and were far more similar than they were different. The Scottish lords are fractious and argumentative, half of them supporting the English over their own people, many of them hating each other more than the English. Robert Bruce is, of course, no exception. In fact there are times when the reader despairs over Robert’s actions – a sign that the character has a truly real feel. There are no clear-cut good guys and bad guys in the story.

Insurrection is not a short book – be prepared for a sizeable read but, given that, the story races by at such pace that it seems much shorter. An exciting and involving story, very well written, the book should find a place on your shelves. Read it and finally push the Hollywood glam of Braveheart out of your mind.

Sanctus by Simon Turney (buy it at Amazon)

It’s been a while since I read anything non Historical, but had this recommended to me, so I bumped it up the pile.

I read it in short order, in every five minutes available.

Sanctus is intriguing, complex and absorbing from beginning to middle.

I use this odd turn of phrase because the second half os also intriging, complex and absorbing, but it is also exciting, action- packed, fascinating and explosive (quite literally).

Once you’re about 25 pages in, the book is impossible to abandon. You just HAVE to know.

Essentially, the novel has the feel and components of every conspiracy/supernatural/quasi-religious novel ever, but manages to avoid being derivative, predictable, boring, dry, or silly – all things I have found in novels of a similar genre.

I won’t detail the plot as that would be far too complex and spoil things, but a war between ancient sects over the greatest secret at the heart of organised religion has spilled over into the present day.

Toyne has, perhaps wisely – given the religious aspect of his plot, created a fictional location and sect set within the real world, twisting the real world so that it becomes his plaything, aiding his plot while remaining so familiar it’s impossible not to recognise everything.

I delayed going for a pint that was already in and standing on the bar to read the last 10 pages, and there is simply no higher recommendation than that.

My only fear, given its ending, is that I can see no way that a sequel can match up, despite this being the first in a trilogy.

I love the first two Rome books. I’ve given them both a well deserved 5 of 5 stars in reviews. What I need is to give them 9 of 10, I think, so that I have somewhere new to go with Eagle of the Twelfth for, while the first two novels are excellent, this one is outstanding and deserves a little extra credit.

In a fresh, unusual, and most welcome move, Manda has taken the Rome series off at a tangent, though rather than forming a separate series along the new line, she has bent the original tales to follow.

The first two novels are essentially the tale (told in two parts) of Sebastos Abdes Pantera, an agent of Seneca in the reign of Nero, and his longstanding battle with a man of equal skill and knowledge, though twisted into something wicked and dangerous, seeking ultimate power and destruction at once. They are told in the traditional third person and follow on in a tried-and-tested chronology.

Not so, Eagle of the Twelfth. Where previously, Pantera has been the principal character with a supporting cast of fascinating others, in this tome, Pantera IS that fascinating other, while the story revolves around a fresh, new character: Demalion of Macedon. Moreover, the tale is told in first person from Demalion’s point of view, lending it a personal and emotional feel way above and beyond the first two books.

I spent some time wondering why the author had settled on this new perspective. Then something clicked. Other than the new and fresh feel it lent the book, it also solved a potential problem. You see, the second book seals off one chapter in the life of Pantera, and his tale could have ended there, but for the fact that Scott left him in a somewhat untenable position from where he was unlikely to bounce back. This new direction allows the tale to become more of Demalion and his part in giving Pantera a future. I won’t say that this was the reason the book was written this way, but it certainly works nicely like this.

After a rousing prologue, the story begins some years before the first Rome novel, in the territory of the King of Kings, ruler of the vast Parthian Empire, anathema of Rome. Here, Demalion, a young man fresh to the Fifth legion, has been seconded to help Pantera on a mission deep within enemy territory.

Having succeeded, he is recommended for promotion by Pantera and receives it, to his great regret. You see, the only legion he can be promoted into is the Twelfth Fulminata, a legion with a reputation for ill luck and disaster to whom no soldier wishes a transfer.

So begins the first part of the tale: a story of personal growth and trying to remake a disasterous legion once more into a proud fighting force. Unfortunately, the Twelfth is doomed to suffer setback after setback, resulting finally in the ultimate disgrace for a legion: the loss of its Eagle.

By this point, however, the tale has once more caught up with Pantera, following the events of the first two Rome books, and the second half or so of ‘Eagle’ tells the tale of the first great Jewish war, painting into its history the part that must be played by Pantera, the loss of the eagle and the attempt to recover it, and the growth and blossoming of the great soldier and deep person that is Demalion of the Twelfth.

This book is at least the equal of the first two in the series in Scott’s ability to paint vivid and wonderful, believable characters, with all their flaws and foibles, loves and fears, and also in her masterful treatment of the animals in her stories, but this story also goes deep into what it means to be a soldier of Rome and what the legions meant to those who served in them. It is an educational tool as much as a great tale in that respect, and I cannot recommend it highly enough as both gripping tale and educational tool.

Eagle of the Twelfth is a masterpiece on an almost unprecedented scale in the world of Roman fiction. I find it mind-boggling trying to imagine how Scott planned this book without a time machine, a reenactment group, a whiteboard the size of Westminster and twelve coloured pens and half a dozen assistants.

I do believe that it is possible to read this as a start to the series, though I suspect the reader will get more out of it following the series in written order. Whether you want to read this now and see if my ravings stand up, or start with the Emperor’s Spy and build up to it, give it a go. You owe it to your soul

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Written by SJAT

December 27, 2012 at 9:30 pm

4 Responses

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  1. A good list, Si. I would add Marius MulesIV to make it a definitive list in what has been a great year for my particular taste in reading material.

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    fromtheprivacyofmyhead

    December 27, 2012 at 9:49 pm

    • Oooo. Cheers, Alun. Happy me, now.

      Like

      SJAT

      December 27, 2012 at 9:55 pm

  2. A GREAT blogpost. I’m in awe of your ability to read so many books in a year. Do you sleep???? I managed maybe 10 for the year. Terrible. But they were right across the genres, a good mix which was interesting.
    The wonderful thing too that you have shown, is that independent writers can stand proud with mainstream writers…despite the image that pervades. I would love to see your critical facility outside of the genres listed as you seem to nail the qualities within a good book with ease and can express those to the potential reader in easily understood language. Thank you for this.

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    prue batten

    December 27, 2012 at 9:50 pm

    • My pleasure. Gisborn might well be one of my first reads of the New Year. Could be a top 10-er! There is one non-HF title in there. I was nudged to read Sanctus and glad I did.

      Like

      SJAT

      December 27, 2012 at 9:57 pm


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