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Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Strategos: Island in the Storm

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Three years ago I reviewed the second book in Gordon’s Strategos trilogy, which I loved as much as the first. It goes to show how busy I am and how many books there are in my reading pile that it’s taken me 3 years to get to the final volume in a series I love. But here we are. I’ve been back with Mr Doherty’s golden prose once more and loving it.

For me, Strategos III (Island in the Storm) is a win on two levels.

Firstly, I have come to love the setting and characters. I am fascinated by late Rome and Byzantium but am less familiar with the medieval era of that world than the classical. Yet the first Strategos book opened my eyes to it and I drank it in. It’s a testament to a good series and excellent characters when you can step out for 3 years then pick up again and the whole thing is instantly familiar and all the personalities in it come flooding straight back. That’s what happened for me. The tale of Apion’s life is at the same time heroic and glorious and makes the blood surge, but also sad and heartbreaking and thought-provoking. It is a rich tale with depth and a great deal of care put into every detail. And the fact that I knew this was the last book in the trilogy meant that I knew everything had to be tied up and come to an end. This was a masterful drawing together of threads, particularly given that anyone familiar with the events covered in the book knows that things cannot end well. That being the case, reaching an end that satisfies the reader is impressive.

Secondly, the book revolves largely around the Battle of Manzikert. Even not being overly-familiar with the era, I know of that battle. It’s one of those that should go down in history with Alesia, Adrianople, Hastings, Agincourt, Waterloo etc. A world-changing battle. But while I knew the basics (the sides in the battle, the outcome and the rough location) that was all. So this book was educational as well as entertaining. Because I have since finishing it read up a little on Manzikert, and Doherty had clearly done his research. And while reading a non-fiction account of a battle is educational, for me it can’t quite beat an ‘author’s eye view’. Because a good historical author does adequate research to produce as accurate a portrayal of the fight as it is possible to create, and in putting the reader into the action, seeing it through the eyes of those present, the writer makes the reader experience the battle rather than just learning about it. That is the second value to me of this. It made me understand Manzikert and just how important it was.

Doherty is one of the finest historical writers out there at the moment and for me pretty much leads the pack in the Indie book world (myself included.) Don’t read this book if you don’t know the series. Read them all. Buy the Strategos trilogy. You can get the lot on kindle for £10. That’s the price of a pub meal which will last you 15 minutes, while these will give you many hours of pleasure. Surely that’s a no-brainer?

Written by SJAT

December 15, 2016 at 10:30 am

Tales of Byzantium

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I am something of a lover of all things Byzantine these days, and an avid reader of historical fiction, of course, and so it’s no wonder really that this book came to my attention. Tales of Byzantium is a collection of three short stories, and so I shall deal with each individually briefly, and then the whole thing to finish.

The first story is primarily a love story. It is the tale of Constantine Porphyrogenitus and his lady Helena (he’s one of my heroes, responsible for Tekfur Saray palace in Istanbul.) This story actually takes up more than half the whole book. Once I realised that this was a romantic tale, just a short way in, I thought I probably wouldn’t like it – historical romance has to be done exceptionally well to hook me. But oddly I stuck with this, and am glad I did, for it is far more than a love story. It is an examination of the characters, of what it meant to be a member of one of the great dynasties, to be the empress, it’s an examination of the dichotomy of the whole Byzantine world, in that they were such a cultured ancient people, who were the most powerful nation imaginable, and yet they were also riven by self-destructive tendencies and unable to come to terms with their both east and west and the changing world around them. Perhaps for me, most of all, I enjoyed the scenery, for Istanbul (Constantinople) is my heartland, and I could picture every location as it was brought forth. No. In honesty, it was the characters of Constantine and Helena. They were beautifully portrayed. So if romance is not your thing, brush that trend aside and read it anyway, paying attention to the people.

The second tale is more my usual fare, being a military story based around a siege involving another of my faves, Manuel Komnenos (or Comnenus in the tale). The characters in this (Manuel in particular) are immensely likeable and deeply realistic. The story is one that has something of a twist, and I liked the way it was framed as a retrospective view. There are action scenes, some humour, and a light exploration of the politics of the era. War fans will enjoy the moments of the actual siege. My one complaint about this tale is that it could so easily have been a much bigger story. It could have been played out slower and longer, as long as the first story, really, and that would have given us more tension over the events that are central to the story and more opportunity to come to know Manuel. All in all, it’s a nice story and a good read. I just feel it was a slightly missed opportunity for something larger.

The third tale is of an exiled princess, who, trapped in a tedious life in a monastery, manages to live a life in almost solitude despite being in a city of millions. Demeaningly for a woman of her status, she is given the task of teaching a young nun to read and in doing so decides that an unfinished story should be finished. This is Anna Komnena, who wrote the great Alexiad which documented the empire at the time of the earliest crusades. Once more, this is a beautiful vignette well-written and lovingly-researched, with well-fleshed out characters and attention to detail. Once again, though, I felt that this came across more as the prologue of a much grander work than a tale on its own. If Stephenson decides at some point to write a grand epic of the eleventh and/or twelfth centuries in thew Byzantine world, this would make a lovely start to it.

Overall, then, the writing is lovely. The characters are presented just right, there is a depth and colour to the world that Stephenson has clearly treated as a labout of love. The stories are entertaining and intriguing and tell of some of the great characters of the Imperial dynasties with a great deal of historical knowledge and accuracy. The whole book is a very easy and enthralling read. My only issue was that of the three tales only one felt complete, the other two being a little brief for me. But at 99p in ebook form, it is well worth the money and worth a read nonetheless, and certainly made me appreciate the author’s skill. I shall look out for further work by her.

Written by SJAT

November 17, 2016 at 2:00 pm

The Death of Robin Hood

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If ever there was a spoiler in the title, eh? But come on, we’ve been expecting this book for a while. Angus Donald’s superb Outlaw Chronicles have run to 8 books, which is pretty good for any series to maintain freshness and individuality, but we could see by book 6 that the characters were beginning to age and to look towards the end. And book 7 pretty much told us there was only one more tale to tell. And yet we’ve all hungered for this last outing for a year.

Donald’s series has gone from strength to strength over the greater part of a decade. The first book was one of the most outstanding debuts ever written in the genre and, though the second was, to my mind, the weakest of the series, that was still a gripping book. But I had maintained throughout that my favourite in the series was King’s Man – the third. Until now.

I know from personal experience how hard it can be to finish a series. Managing to engineer a plot that effectively ties up each and every loose end to a satisfactory level is nightmarish work. It is only when one tries that one realises just how much a series has exploded outwards over its course and just how much there is to resolve. And mine was only a four book series. Donald must have been head-scratching and fretting at this plot for a while. And yet however he went about it, he’s pulled off a real coup with this novel.

The war between King John and his barons we encountered in book 7 resurfaces in this last tale, with Alan and Robin joined by old friends and new as they navigate the impossible currents of their masters’ politics. Fighting for justice against King John is one thing, but when those very rebels offer the throne instead to the French, then which was can a loyal Englishman turn? This is the dilemma Robin and his friends end up facing. That’s something of a spoiler, I guess, but an early one, and if I’m to tell you anything about the book at all, it has to include the fundamental point of it.

From a brutal siege at Rochester castle, we follow the adventures of Robin and Alan across Kent and the south, imprisonment and war, betrayal and revenge, all the way to Nottingham and Lincoln. There are four points I think about this work that deserve specific mention.

There is a sense of ‘full circle’ about book 8. In book 1 we met Robin Hood the outlaw, running a vicious godfather-like world and carrying out guerilla war in the forests against the authorities. Over successive books, Robin had changed, achieving legitimacy, title and a role at the heart of the Kingdom. Here, now in book 8, we are treated, at least for a while, to a return to form. There is a sense that despite the characters’ now rather mature age, we are seeing them relive their youth and the excitement of those rebel days. This I loved. This, for me, is what I will take away from the novel.

Angus Donald is rapidly becoming the ‘master of the siege’. It can be extremely difficult to include at least one siege in a book multiple times within a series. I’ve done it myself, and it’s very easy for them to become blase and samey. There are sieges throughout the Outlaw Chronicles, and some of the books pretty much centre on one (The Iron Castle, for example.) And in book 8, there are two sieges to handle. And you know what? They are exciting, unpredictable, fresh and superbly-executed. Every siege Donald handles he manages to produce something new and worthwhile, which is a masterful thing.

The characters are fluid and changing. It is ridiculously easy to maintain a character, and it is equally easy to mess up their progression. To have your characters grow old and mature over a series in a realistic and noticeable way while maintaining the traits that make them who they are is a skillful thing. Alan and Robin, Thomas and Miles, plus their many companions, are painted well and have grown with the reader. Even the absence of Little John does not mar the sense of character at the heart of the book.

Finally, the death of Robin (see? I told you the title held a spoiler.) Such a momentous event – in history, let alone at the climax of a series – has to be handled just right. To have Robin die in some glorious golden way would be cheesy to say the least. To have him butchered out of hand in a sad, random manner would leave the reader huffing grumpily. To achieve something that is realistic, tragic, sad, noble and personal is a real bonus. And that is how this book ends. It is all those things, but I think the most important point is that it is personal. Robin’s end is not some great battle scene like the one that took King Richard. It is the result of strands of the tale long in the making, and it is truly a personal thing. Also, it took me by surprise in the end, which is magnificent. Oh, not that he might die – note once more the title – but how it might come about.

In short, The Death of Robin Hood is a tour-de-force and has shot to the very top as the best in the series, which is fantastic for a finale. If you’re not read the books, you’re in for a treat, because there are 8 now waiting for you and you can demolish the whole tale from beginning to end. If you have, then fear not, loyal readers. Donald has done you proud. This book ends the Outlaw Chronicles with a bang AND a whimper. It’s out today. Go buy it… trust me.

Fields of Glory

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I’ve been meaning to read one of Jecks’ books for some time, given the high recommendations they seem to garner from my friends. I picked this one up for a read, knowing it was the first in a series. I was rather confused for a short while as I thought Michael wrote mysteries, and it turns out that this is not the first in that series, but the first in a new, recent series of more mainstream historical fiction.

Initially, I found things a touch hard work, due partially – I’ll admit – to this not being the book I thought it was! But partially due to the fact that there is quite a cast and most of the dramatis personnae get their own screen time, as it were. Each chapter seems to deal with the viewpoints of perhaps three or four of the characters. Oh, there’s a main protagonist, but he is more of a hub around which everything happens, in my opinion, than the man who makes it happen. And I was a little lost as to where the plot was going, other than a grand enterprise of the English at war in France.

Then, just when I was starting to wonder what was really going on, everything seemed to gel. Several threads of plot intersected, several of the main characters met, and the whole thing seemed to sort of fall into place. I wonder whether this is a symptom of the mystery writer – it certainly began to resolve the way I find a good mystery does – but once things had started to intersect it changed the whole books for me.

From that moment on (maybe a third into the book) I was utterly hooked. Not so much on the plot as a whole, but on the subplots and characters. I had a feeling I knew where the main story was going, and which battle it was heading for, given my passable familiarity with the Hundred Years War. But I needed to know more about the characters and their motivations and to see what befell them. I give you several prime examples:

  • The soldier wracked with guilt over something he has done that he cannot reveal.
  • The former monk who messes about with guns and people think is with the devil
  • The girl whose father was executed and keeps having to fight for her life
  • The young lad with the shady past who hungers for war, even as a novice.

You see what I mean? Well, the writing is as good as you would expect from a founder member of the Historical Writers Association and other such excellent groups. It is engaging and clever, authentic and yet easily readable. It pulls you in.

So I expected a murder mystery. I got the hundred years’ war. Am I disappointed? Am I hell! It was a cracking read that I highly recommend. Go check it out, folks.

Written by SJAT

May 26, 2016 at 9:00 am

King’s Company

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The mid 12th century was, until recently, very unfamiliar ground for me. I know the late days of Henry II and his sons Richard and John because, well let’s face it, they’re what we think of in Britain when we hear the word ‘medieval’. But of Stephen and Matilda and the early life of Henry? No. Until recently, that is, when I read the rather superb Demon’s Brood, which was a history of the Plantagenet dynasty and rather opened my eyes to how interesting their era was.

King’s Company, then, takes place in this world. A world where King Stephen and his cousin, the Empress Matilda, are at war, England a ravaged, torn and frightened place. The plight of the ordinary folk in this world is brought to the forefront with the protagonist William, who belongs to a family with a small estate in the south of the country and whose father died in the service of the King.

Dreaming his whole life of becoming a knight and doing glorious deeds, William remains tied by duty to the family holding and daily drudgery. Then one day things change when he is jumped by bandits on the road and is saved by a dashing young nobleman. The two become fast friends and the young man, Richard, spends much time at the family estate.

Only after many months of their bonds of friendship tightening does William realise that Richard is not quite what he thought and, with one ill-conceived act he finds himself launched into a world where his illusions of the glory of knighthood are torn away, his belief in the nobility and royalty shattered and his preconceptions all destroyed as he meets a young man who dreams of ruling an England not ravaged by war and torn apart by divided loyalties.

The characters in King’s Company are believable and likeable. Henry, in particular, stood out for me. As a protagonist, William is perfect: young, open-minded and strong willed, and pitted alongside a cast of older, more grizzled characters they drive the plot along well.

The basis of the plot becomes fairly obvious early on, when Richard pries information from the family that the reader can’t help but realise will lead to something, and there’s a faint predictability to that, but once that one predictable event passes, the story rolls on fresh, interesting and unforeseeable. Indeed, gradually as the novel unfolded I found myself wondering more and more where it was going to lead. Towards the end I feared it was bound for something of an anticlimax, since the novel does not reach the conclusion one might expect from early on, but Taylor throws us a final turn in the plot that brings us to a very satisfying conclusion.

The scene-setting is done well, and the prose is excellent. To give you some idea of the style, the book has gone onto my shelves next to Angus Donald’s Outlaw series. It is less brutal and dark than those books, though. In fact, while King’s Company is far from being a children’s book, the lack of extreme violence, graphic scenes and bad language make it a very acceptable and easy read for all ages.

King’s Company is an excellent medieval romp and comes highly recommended.

Written by SJAT

April 28, 2016 at 9:38 am

Demon’s Brood

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Every now and then you come across a non-fiction title that really stands out and is as much fun to read as a good novel. Such is Desmond Seward’s history of the Plantagenet dynasty. In fact, I found it so interesting that I kept highlighting little sections and will post them here in the review to give you an idea of why this book is so worth reading. Witness extract 1:

1

It came as something of a surprise to me to see the range of dates and kings covered by the book. I had always thought of the Plantagenets as being the sort of Henry II through to Edward I or II sort of era. Surprised me to see that the story begins in the 10th century and only comes to a close in the Tudor era with the last lost scions of the family. 2

The book takes a specific format, beginning with the origins of the Plantagenets and then taking us through the dynasty one king at a time, and then finishing with an examination of the fading of the family from the limelight after Bosworth Field.

3

For each king, we are treated to a brief precis, then a chronological acocunt of their life and reign, focusing on each important aspect separately, with an examination of their personality, the historiography, and then finally a summation at the end. This is a nice, neat way to deal with them and worked very well for me, with a sort of smattering of tit-bits that clung to the memory.

7 Another thing that struck me with the book is just how much I learned, even about the kings I thought I knew quite well. And, indeed, how interesting some of the kings I really knew little about (Henry IV for eg) compared with those I did (Richard I). So as I went through, I selected one little fact about each king that I hadn’t known by was fascinating.  10

*Guffaw*

Here’s a sample of what I learned:

  • Stephen & Matilda – if Matilda hadn’t come out on top, we’d probably have had a king Eustace!
  • Henry II – was given Ireland by the Pope. Who knew?
  • Richard I – offered coastal cities & his sister to Saladin’s brother if he would convert to Christianity…
  • John I – was unusually clean, with an impressive bathing routine
  • Henry III – was thoroughly happily married!
  • Edward I – rebuilt the sinking port of Winchelsea.
  • Edward II – he really did die in the gruesome manner we heard as kids. I’d always thought it exaggeration!
  • Edward III – at the battle of Berwick killed over 4000 Scots, but lost a knight, a squire & 12 foot soldiers…
  • Richard II – his clerk of the King’s Works was one Geoffrey Chaucer!
  • Henry IV – fought in the Baltic crusades with the Teutonic knights. Fascinating.
  • Henry V – first king since the Norman conquest to use English for his written business.
  • Henry VI – was a very prudish fellow who abhored nudity.
  • Edward IV – despite fighting some of the worst actions of his age, he never lost a battle!
  • Richard III – was a very capable sea captain and curtlailed the menace of Scottish piracy.

See what I mean? Fascinating little facts, and there are thousands more waiting for you in the book.

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The book was released by Constable yesterday, and I recommend it thoroughly, whether you have an interest in the Plantagenets or not. It’s always good to learn more about our history, and this is to some extent the forging of the nation we know.

If I haven’t managed to hook your interest with these titbits then I never will. Go buy the book and have a read. You’ll be fascinated.

Written by SJAT

March 4, 2016 at 11:13 am

The Swan Diptych

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Last review before Christmas, and last review of the year: The Swan Diptych by Ian Thomson.

I’ll begin by pointing out that when I started to read the book I had absolutely no idea what to expect, since I knew nothing about it. I believed it to be a work of Historical Fiction. Beyond that: nothing.

And by the time I was a third of the way through it, I was floundering, wondering how on earth I could categorise or pigeon hole the book. It is in the main part historical fiction, but there are heavy elements of fantasy in places, especially in the first of the two stories, while there is a strong undercurrent of crime novel, especially in the second.

The first of the two stories, which takes place in 14th century Lincoln, tells the tale of a Royal visit that goes somewhat awry due to the mental derangements of the cathedral’s dean and the inadvertent pooping of a swan. The story is largely HistFic, but includes the point of view of the swans, who speak at times, lending the fantasy element to the tale. That being said, that element does not detract from the feel of the story and I finished it with a smile on my face, brought about by a gentle, clever humour and a well-written tale. This story is, however, quite short. Perhaps only 1/4 of the whole book.

The rest of the novel is taken up by the second story, though this one in truth feels more like three tales cobbled together into one. It begins as a 16th century murder mystery in a Cambridge college and sets itself up as a proper whodunnit. It was atmospheric and rich and I was just getting into it when it was resolved, less than halfway through the book! The story then shifted to telling the backstory of the murderer in more detail than the story that spawned it, which felt a little odd, and yet it was in itself an excellent story. Then, when that one was over, we leapt forward a generation to another Royal visit, in the time of Elizabeth I, when young students from the first part are now the old masters. Here we are treated to a potted history of the college in the form of a document for the Queen. In all honesty, at three quarters of the way through the book, the second tale felt so disjointed and I couldn’t see where the story was really going. At that point I was preparing to allocate three stars to the book. Then, in the final hour, that last part of the second story threw us the point and the twist that made it make sense.

Overall, while parts of the book were for me a little disjointed, the stories were good and extremely well told. Thomson is apparently an English professor at Lincoln, and his skill with the language shows in his writing. It is graceful and flowing and elegant. And for me, hw stands out in his ability to use archaic language and old-fashioned words and yet fit them seamlessly into the text so that even an uninformed reader can divine the meaning of words he might not know from the context alone. I love, for example, the word ‘flummery’. It made my day reading it.

The Swan Diptych is an engaging read and for any minor difficulties I found with the story structure, full of dark humour, gorgeous language, vivid descriptive and gripping scenes. It will make an excellent few hours’ read for anyone, especially those with an interest in the medieval through Tudor eras, those with an interest in collegiate or ecclesiastical matters, or just those who love a good tale.

Written by SJAT

December 24, 2015 at 12:16 pm