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

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Archive for the ‘Renaissance’ Category

Plague Road

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I used to sit, cocooned in my own little Roman world, reading Roman books and not straying beyond that. In fairness, there’s so much good Roman fiction out there you can actually do that. But then new names, books and series pop up here and there and make me leave my comfort zone. Recently I’ve been rather getting into my historical mysteries, everything from Roman to cold war and the whole gamut of eras in between. I was surprised at how immersive I found Robin Blake’s mysteries set in 1740s Preston. In fact, I loved them so much that when the publishers offered me a new title set in the 1660s I simply had to say yes. I’m very glad that I did.

I’d not previously been aware of L.C. Tyler and assumed that he was a new writer. Boy was I wrong. Turns out this is the third in a series, and the author has many other mysteries out besides. In fact, he’s the chair of the Crime Writers Association, which gives you some idea of his pedigree.

Excited at the prospect, I opened the cover and began. I almost put it down straight away. The book is written in first person, present tense, a tense that I find hard work and has put me off numerous novels in the past. I persevered. It took only a page and I got over it. I still don’t like that tense in books, but Tyler’s easy style completely negates any issues I ever have with it.

Then I hit the second of my two snags. The protagonist is a lawyer in plague-struck London, 1665. He is propositioned by a powerful politician and drawn into a mission to retrieve a stolen document. At first the hook for the character seemed to me rather spurious. Why a lawyer would get himself involved in such things seemed unlikely. But once again, I was taking things at face value. You see, this is, as I said, the third volume in a series, and so I have clearly missed out on much character development (something I will be going back to remedy, by the way, as soon as I have time.) And as I ignored my problem with the hook (the maguffin if you will), and read on, the reasons gradually became clear as I came to understand the history of the various people involved.

So that’s my intro. Two reasons I should have stopped reading by my usual standards. And yet I didn’t. Why? Well, for four reasons, I think.

Firstly, there’s Tyler’s prose. It is a mark of just how good he is that I not only overcame my almost pathological dislike of that writing tense and even came to enjoy it! That’s a first. The style is easy while being elegant, direct and pacy without undue brevity, descriptive without being cumbersome. This is clearly the skill of an author who has long since honed his craft.

Secondly, there’s the setting. I know a little about the restoration period, the plague and the great fire, but not a great deal, so exploring this world through the eyes of a clearly very knowledgeable man was new and fascinating.

Thirdly, there’s the plot. In some ways this is a murder mystery, but it is so much more. It includes political shenanigans with far-reaching, country-threatening effects. It reminds me a little of ‘The Four Musketeers’, or possibly a restoration ‘Where Eagles Dare’. Complex and elegant.

But for me very much the biggest win is the protagonist. He has a dry wit in very much the manner that I particularly enjoy. There are moments when John Grey is talking that he is so satisfyingly, hilariously cutting that even Edmund Blackadder would be cursing and wishing he’d thought of saying that. He has shot up the list to become one of my very favourite characters. There are many great lines in the books, but here’s a nice example:

“There are good lies and bad lies. We told some good lies to rescue you. This will be a good lie too. And it will be a very small one. Not big enough to go to Hell for. Just big enough to go to Salisbury.”

I wont immediately say ‘go and buy this book’ despite the fact that it’s published on the 6th. And I’m reviewing it early for a very good reason. Because what I am saying is that this book makes it worth reading the first two volumes in the series, and now you’ve got chance to get them and read them before this one comes out.

John Grey is a new hero of mine. He will be for you too. Check out the series and do it soon.

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

Christopher Gortner – The Tudor Conspiracy

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My interest in the Tudor era stemmed not from my history teacher (who was a teacher of the most excellent sort), and not from books (I was not reading history texts at that age), but from two things: My first visit to the historical sights of London – including the Tower and Hampton Court – and the Royal Armouries (then in the tower) with the magnificent armour of Henry VIII. Needless to say, as a lover of history, the interest that triggered has never left, and though my focus is primarily on the ancient world, I still love a little Renaissance culture from time to time.

If, like me, you’re fascinated by the intrigues, plots, wars and religious troubles of the Tudor era, you’re probably already aware that Christopher Gortner, author of a number of excellent novels, including The Queen’s Vow – Review here, has a fabulous novel out, named The Tudor Conspiracy, already available in hardback but now in paperback release. The sequel to The Tudor Secret, and second in the ‘Elizabeth’s Spymaster‘ series, this novel sees Mary Tudor, new to the throne of England, facing plots and threats. Her half-sister Elizabeth is in grave danger as one of Mary’s perceived enemies, and only the resourceful Brendan Prescott can save her by plunging into a world of danger and plots.

I am privileged to have been asked to be part of Christopher’s Blog Tour for the release of the new book, and there follows a guest post by the man himself, in which he delves into the rivalry between the two sisters who sit at the heart the novel’s plot. Read and enjoy:

The Tudor Conspiracy

Mary and Elizabeth: Sisters and Rivals

There is something fascinating, and disturbing, about family members who turn on one another. The Tudor dynasty is no exception. Though Henry VIII did not sire many children, considering how often he wed, history has perhaps no sisters more famous for their rivalry than his two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth.

Born of the king’s marriages to his first and second wives, respectively, Mary and Elizabeth were both declared bastards in turn after Henry divorced Mary’s mother, Catherine of Aragon, and had Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, beheaded. The rivalry between the two mothers, each determined to hold onto their crown and defend their child, set the stage for a legacy of mistrust between the daughters, who were as different in temperament as any sisters could be.

The eldest by seventeen years, Mary went from an adored childhood to a horrifying adolescence in which she saw her beloved mother supplanted by another. Humiliated and relegated to the status of a servant in her baby sister Elizabeth’s household, the scars of Mary’s teenage years can’t be underestimated.

Elizabeth, on the other hand, was barely three when her mother died and she was made illegitimate. A famous quip from this time is attributed to her when informed of her new status: “How is that yesterday I was Princess Elizabeth and today only Lady Elizabeth?” Young as she was, Elizabeth had a keen grasp of her situation. She grew into womanhood surrounded by danger and became adept at the rules of survival, aware that one misstep could lead to her doom, her mother’s example always before her.

Both sisters understood the perils intrinsic to royal life, but while Elizabeth learned to play the cards dealt to her, Mary remained steadfast in her right to stand above the crowd. They both had courage but their experiences couldn’t have been more disparate. Elizabeth was born into, and raised, in the Protestant Faith; like their brother Edward, she embraced it. Mary resisted, both from a deep-seated belief inculcated in her as by the rigidity of her own character, which was not given to change even when circumstances called for it. In the end, whatever rapprochement the sisters found as outsiders uncertain of their place, denigrated into savage rivalry when Mary became queen against all odds and they found themselves pitted against each other.

Mary could not forgive the insults tendered to her by Anne Boleyn and in time, she came to see Elizabeth as the very incarnation of her late mother. In turn, Elizabeth began to recognize the stony threat that Mary’s hatred posed to her and her fragile position as the sole hope for the Protestant cause in England. Their pasts had made them who they were; and their struggle for supremacy would divide the country, sisters and rivals unto death.

This rivalry is the core of my new novel, THE TUDOR CONSPIRACY. Thank you for spending this time with me. To find out more about me and my books, please visit me at: www.cwgortner.com

* * *

My thanks again to Christopher Gortner.

The Tudor Conspiracy by Christopher Gortner is published by Hodder & Stoughton in paperback and ebook, £8.99.

Go buy it. Amazon link here.


Written by SJAT

January 23, 2014 at 11:25 am

Tom Swan

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A nice review for you today, in that it comes out of the blue and not as part of my ‘leaning tower of reading matter’. You see, I have a set pile of books I’m working through in an order, and occasionally a book comes up that I really fancy or by a writer that I love, and I shuffle it to the top. But in addition to that, I have a tendency to ‘palate cleansers’. When I’ve been nose-deep in four or five serious historical works in a row, I like to interrupt the dangerously towering pile with something short and light and pleasant. Early on I used to have to spend a day trawling through the various shorts out there, deciding what to stack up as potential palate cleansers. Then, courtesy of Robin Carter of Parmenion Books I found a source of the perfect shorts to tap regularly.

Robin is a huge fan of the writer Christian Cameron (and I can understand why.) His ancient Greek epics include God of War about Alexander the Great, the Tyrant series, the Long War series, and he is now foraying into the high Medieval period, with his upcoming novel: The Ill-Made Knight. I’ve read a few of his classical tales and they are incredibly deep in content, bold in scope and well-written. They are not – I will hasten to point out – light reads and belong with the powerful Historical Fiction works of Ben Kane, Robyn Young, Manda Scott and their ilk. So when Robin started making appreciative noises about a set of short stories written by Cameron I wondered how easily his epic narrative style could possibly translate into shorts.

And so, at an appropriate palate cleansing moment in my reading, I downloaded and read the first part of Tom Swan and the Head of Saint George.

And since then, any time I need a palate cleanser, I just check online and see whether another part is out yet! I’ve now read parts 1-5 and part 6 is due out in two days, just in time to fit in my book pile yet again.

Set aside Cameron’s other works for this moment (and this moment only, as I would also urge you to pay attention to his Greek epics too) and I will concentrate on Tom Swan.

In truth, this isn’t so much a set of short stories, as one long story, told in episodes, like the old television serializations. Remember Flash Gordon (in black and white)? The Lone Ranger? Well add Tom Swan in that list and you won’t go far wrong. In style it is a classic adventure serial, with each episode leaving the reader saying ‘Damn! What next?’ and waiting for part x to emerge from the virtual quill.

Tom Swan is set in the mid 15th century (in a time and in locations not a great deal removed from those in which I am currently writing). The tale follows a young Englishman of dubious (illegitimate) noble heritage as he finds himself on the losing side on a French battlefield and through a series of strange fortunes and misadventures, finds himself employed by a Cardinal from Constantinople in the very year that great city is destined to fall to the Turk, exploring the known world, swashing his buckle, kissing princesses, defending fortresses, stealing treasures and spying for governments.

Tom Swan is something of an Indiana Jones of the later Middle Ages.

The tales are told with the sheer depth of knowledge that Cameron displays in his more epic works, but also with a lightness of heart and spirit and a sheer love of adventure that carries the reader along with him to each cliffhanger, making him feel like that young child watching the TV and wondering how Flash was going to escape next week.

Each book is only 99p ($1.55) on Kindle (these are an electronic book only, by the way) and I think you really can’t lose spending that paltry pittance on part one HERE for Amazon UK and HERE for Amazon.com just to see if you like it.

I think you will.

Written by SJAT

June 18, 2013 at 4:46 pm

The Queen’s Vow

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I’m delighted (and honoured) to have been asked to take part in the blog tour of C.W.Gortner, author of the newly-released ‘The Queen’s Vow’. I’ve recently finished reading the book (the first of the author’s I have tried) and was impressed and pleased with the work.

The Queen’s Vow is one of the smoothest, most emotive historical novels I have read in some time. I have not read Gortner’s earlier books, though one in particular has caught my eye from time to time as a ‘will read’. This one held a particular appeal to me when I discovered that its subject was Isabella of Castile, and so I dived in.

I will state for the record that the book is not my usual fare. While I am a voracious reader of historical fiction, I tend towards the military, action-packed, blood-and-guts tales of Rome, the Civil War or Napoleonic campaigns. I rarely read tales of more court-based life or family sagas. The Queen’s Vow is very much a saga of a family in the court circles of Castile and Aragon, seen from the perspective of the young woman who will become one of Spain’s most famous historical figures. While there are murders and treachery, wars and sieges and violent unpleasant deaths, they are all seen from the perspective of the recipient of their report rather than seen first hand. This is not meant in any way as a condemnation, just a reporting of the style of the work – the tale, after all, is focused on the great Queen and her struggles in the court.

Where this story wins out for me is its style. The tale is evocative of the great dusty, dry world of medieval central Spain, draws the reader into the mindset of an innocent in such a twisted, dangerous world as the Castilian court, and delivers a flavour of the era so clear that the reader can almost taste and smell the world Isabella experiences.

There are elements in there that brought scenes and flashes of great movies to mind for me. The scenery and lands in the timeless ‘El Cid’, the loss of girlish innocence in a world of intrigues and plots seen in ‘Elizabeth’ (a plot with many similar elements), the twisted religious fervour of ‘Name of the Rose’. Many others. But if you can picture some of those things it might help give you a flavour of how the Queen’s Vow reads.

The tale follows the life of Isabella (most famously remembered in the company of her later husband Ferdinand) from her youth as an exiled royal scion, through all the twists and turns of a royal succession that should be hers, to the final seat of power and consolidation of her throne that comes with an almost unacceptable price. Isabella begins the tale as a quiet, almost demure and submissive girl, but through a series of dangers and difficult situations and over the years of betrayal and fear, her young, naïve, innocence is hardened like diamond into a powerful vision of her future and belief in herself. With her beloved Fernando (Ferdinand of Aragon) by her side she begins to forge a single realm from the fractured states of Spain and a catholic land from a mixed world of Christian, Jew and Moor.

During this era, so many astounding events that have affected the world as a whole took place, and they all have a place in this story: The Reconquista and the fall of Granada – the final expulsion of the Moors from Spain, the patronage of Christopher Columbus and his plan to find a new route to the Indies, the combining of the two great Kingdoms of Aragon and Castile to forge the future nation of Spain, the foundation and growing power of the Holy Inquisition under the dangerous priest Tomas de Torquemada, and the edicts that led to the expulsion of the Jews from the land. A time of momentous change that saw more upheaval in Spain than any other era, and created the Spain that we know today.

The Queen’s Vow will transport you to that world and bring it to every sense, not just your eyes. You will hear, see, smell, taste and even feel the dry and dangerous world of Isabella, and perhaps even come to understand the hardships that turned the shy Infanta Isabella into the great Queen of history.

On a last word, as an English reader, I sometimes find it jarring when I read historical works by an American writer, as the idioms and common expressions – not to mention spellings – can make the English reader pause and have to make sure of the intended meaning of the sentence. I expect American readers of English writers have the same issue. One thing that really astounded me about Gortner’s prose is that, despite the national differences in language, it read as easily and smoothly as a native English work and I noticed nothing that caught me off guard.

All in all, this is not a work to rush through, as much historical fiction is. You could read it fast, but you would probably not enjoy it as much. Most of the value of this work to me was its flavour and feel, and that is powerfully conveyed if you devote enough time to savouring the book.

I will, for sure, be reading the Last Queen, which, though written earlier, details the next phase of Spain’s historical development.

So there’s my review. However, as an added treat, I had the opportunity last week to pose a few questions for the author, who has kindly answered them for my (and your) edification:

1. I found the feminine perspective in the book thoroughly engrossing. How difficult do you find it to write from that perspective, as a male author? Writing from the perspective of another gender cannot be easy, especially when also taking into account the medieval mindset.

I’m often asked this question and I can’t say it’s easy simply because I think that whenever a writer chooses to inhabit a character in the first person— whether that character is a medieval queen or a serial killer or indeed anyone who is not the writer— we must first slough off the preconceptions, judgments, opinions and preferences that comprise who we are. Otherwise, we cannot become the person who is telling the story; we cannot convince our audience of our character’s sincerity. However, emotion is not defined by gender. We all know longing, desire, hatred, love, fear, ambition, and sorrow. It is our culture which dictates how we may express ourselves, according to our gender. When I write, I engage in preparatory work that helps me strip aside the layers of societal expectation and experiences that make up who I am, so I can discover how my character will experience her world. It probably helps as well that I grew up in a family of strong women; I often sat mesmerized as a boy, listening to my aunts tell stories, exchange secrets and private sorrows. Perhaps I absorbed something of the language that women employ. Whatever the case, I find it comes naturally to me. The only time I’ve had to resort to outside consultation was learning how it felt to give birth.

2. Your descriptive of locations and structures is presented with particular clarity and atmosphere. Have you visited the locations of which you write? It feels as though you have personal experience of them and a solid image in your mind’s eye.

I consider travel an essential component of my research. For me, the experience of seeing the landscape and the places where my characters lived, regardless of how much these may have changed, is invaluable. There are sensory details that books and the internet cannot convey: the color of a sky, the sound of the wind, the shape of a castle as dusk falls. These are the moments that make a story leap to life and I always discover something new and unexpected when I travel, no matter how familiar the country may be to me, as, for example, Spain is. In Seville, while visiting the alcazar, I had a conversation with a curator about Isabella’s stay there that shifted my entire perception of that time in her life. I hadn’t planned to have her flee to Seville to escape her own pain, but after the conversation it became apparent she may have gone to Andalucia for precisely that reason. This is the kind of on-the-ground research I live for!

3. Given the written histories, how far were you obliged to bridge the gap between recorded events and unknown motivations of the people involved?

It’s always a fine line, treading the balance between facts and the emotional motivations of those who lived them. Few people of the medieval and Renaissance eras have left personal memoirs, yet a novelist does not have the luxury of saying, “Well, she did this but we don’t know why.” That is the crucial difference between fiction and non-fiction: for the fiction writer, the why is everything. Without it, there is no story. And so we must piece together what we can from extant documentation, chronicles, ambassadorial dispatches, letters and proclamations, as well as the records of council meetings and such. It’s painstaking work, because we end up shifting through paper in search of an oft-elusive kernel of emotional truth. I like to say that being a historical novelist is like being part psychologist, part sleuth, part forensic investigator, and part game show host. We have to employ all these different skill sets based on relatively few facts, and figure out what our character was feeling. Sometimes we hit on it, and sometimes we have to guess. I try to be as scientific as possible; I work up a detailed psychological and emotional portrait of my character and do my utmost to discover who she may have been in order to determine how she may have felt about key events. But in the end, I do bridge that historical divide with some degree of educated assumption, grounded in as much factual evidence as I can uncover. I think I get close but who knows? I could be dead wrong. That’s part of the challenge and the joy of writing in this genre; you’re never 100% sure.

4. While the story is complete and has a definitive arc, I wondered why you decided to end it with the Jews and Columbus in 1492, when there was a further decade of Isabella’s life with Inquisition troubles and Moorish revolts and in fact the death of their only male heir?

For this particular novel, I wanted to narrow the focus to how a neglected princess became queen. I had already covered Isabella’s later life and death in my first novel The Last Queen, albeit as seen through her daughter Juana’s eyes. Indeed, 1492 is precisely when that book starts. Thus, it seemed like the perfect ending for The Queen’s Vow: that moment of Isabella’s greatest triumph, when she’s become the monarch she was meant to be. I feel for now that my time with her is complete but perhaps I’ll return to her in the future and finish the story of her life in her own words.

6. While the architect of the Inquisition (Torquemada) is portrayed in a dangerous, negative manner (increasingly so during the second half of the book), were you not tempted to make him an outright villain from the outset, given that it would be almost impossible to portray him favourably?

Of course, that is the seduction of the truly malignant in history:  they almost demand that we turn them into caricatures. But even Torquemada had his reasons, unfathomable as they are to us. He was a human being with all of our complexity and contradictions, and I wanted to retain this core part of him. I wanted to depict a man of terrifying convictions, who exerted immense persuasion over an impressionable girl who desperately needed to hear that God had a purpose for her, without turning him into a Svengali. Torquemada is a terrible figure in history with a horrible legacy, but if we forget his ultimate humanity, then we accord him a power he does not deserve. In this novel, he is the voice of thousands throughout Europe, who hated and feared those who were different from them. He is the voice of our past and our present:  to this very day, there are those among us who preach similar paths of destruction in the name of faith. That is his lesson to us.

Thank you for having me. I’m honored to be here. To learn more about me and my work, please visit me at my website at www.cwgortner.com.

For more reviews and interviews and more, check out the rest of Christopher Gortner’s blog tour:

THE QUEEN'S VOW blog tour poster

Written by SJAT

January 7, 2013 at 11:09 am