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Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Joan of Arc by Moya Longstaffe

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Joan of Arc is one of those fascinating iconic figures that we are all drawn to: an underdog who stands her ground and defies the establishment. I have had a minor fascination with her since I was a kid, standing in Rouen and looking up at the tower that bears her name, or looking at the horseshoe she reputedly nailed to the door of a church in Chablis.
That being the case, this was guaranteed to be an interesting book for me. But it was so much more than I expected. I should have noticed the clue in the title. Joan of Arc and the Great pity of the land of France. This is more than just a biography of the maid of Orleans (it is that too, and it’s a good one, but she’s been dealt with often.) What this really excels at is putting Joan in the historical and political context.
I expected to belt through the first few chapters that were essentially scene-setting. Mistake. Partially due to the fascination of the subject, and partially due to the way Longstaffe puts it over, I as dragged deep into the text on every page, always learning, always fascinated. The mad king of France in particular impressed me. By the time we started to learn about Joan, it was extremely easy to see how the Franco-English situation had created the perfect world for such events, and how she fitted into it.
The portrayal of Joan and the examination of her life and events that follows is detailed without being a slog, colourful, interesting, and above all objective. In fairness, I’ve read other biographies and seen documentaries and films, so little was truly new for me, though there was some deeper investigation into some of the more obscure angles. It was a good, solid biography though, as I said before, made far superior by the context into which it fit.
The last third of the entire book deals with her capture, trial, execution and the ongoing story. This was nice. All too often a book on Jeanne skips the preamble and the later moves. Often they rush to Joan believing she was given a task by god so they can trawl through the military and political manoeuvrings that constituted her life and works, and then pretty much end with the gruesome burning. Not this book. Just as it sets the scene and then places Joan in it, it slowly, methodically, and very thoroughly, wraps it all up. we are treated to an in-depth investigation into her trial and then tantalising ideas of what it meant for the future.
All in all, this was an excellent biography. Not necessarily new ground, but examined in a new way for me, and made richer and more meaningful in doing so. I heartily recommend it not just for research but also simply for the joy of learning. A lovely read.
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Written by SJAT

March 21, 2018 at 11:23 pm

Richard II: A True King’s Fall

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I do like to intersperse, in the rare leisure time I get, my fiction reading with a little non-fiction (quite apart from all the Roman non-fiction research I do.) This book was an interesting choice, because to sum up everything I knew about Richard II in one sentence: “Pubs called the White Hart are named after him.” Pretty feeble, eh? The white hart was Richard’s own insignia. Also I tend to get a little mixed up in the Plantagenet era. On the bright side, the Richards aren’t to difficult to separate. 1st was a bloodthirsty warrior who bankrupted the country fighting his crusades and yet for some reason is the country’s most beloved monarch, and 3rd is Shakespeare’s hunchbacked villain. No for me, of course. I’m a Yorkshireman, so I know him for the heroic king and Henry Tudor for the usurping French/Welsh tart. But that’s an argument for another time. Damn you, Stanley…

The book opens with a who’s who. More non-fiction should do this. A common issue with numerous eras is lots of very similar names and trying to keep them straight in your head. I get that a lot with Roman names. To have a handy reference point at the start is invaluable in a world where at first glance everyone appears to be called Henry or Edward.

Then we launch into the biography in chronological order beginning with his youth, obviously. And that, I would make clear, is what this is: a biography of the man Richard II, not an account of his reign. It delves into family, relationships, motivations and the minutiae of Richard’s personal life and connections. It does not provide a vast wealth of information about the time and events of his reign.

As such, I found it interesting, yet it left me with unanswered questions. Since I know so little about his reign I was constantly cross referencing with my friend Google to fill in the socio-political gaps. But hey, I’m used to that with my Roman research. And this being non-fiction, it’s not like you’re going to lose the pace and feel of it by branching out to find out more about Wat Tyler.

But what Warner omits in terms of the political history, we gain in terms of an in-depth look at the character and life of an oft-overlooked monarch. Oh, and it is graced with some lovely colour plates too. In short, if you’re wanting a study on the reign of the White Hart King, and you’re not au fait with the history already, this might not serve you so well. But if you want to understand the man, or you are already versed in the politics of the time, then it should be a treat.

Written by SJAT

February 17, 2018 at 9:27 am

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