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Blood and Blade

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I had the opportunity to read an advance copy of Matthew’s new Bernicia Chronicles novel a few weeks back, which pleased me immensely, as his work had been on my radar for some time and I’d been meaning to find time to fit in his first book.

I’ll say at the outset that Dark Age, Anglo-Saxon Britain is not my era of choice and an author has to work hard to draw and keep my attention. I have discarded a dozen Dark Age novels unfinished. Kudos to Harffy then that I stayed riveted to Blood and Blade right to the end, especially given that this is the third book in his series and I had been dropped in the deep end, unfamiliar with the characters and the ongoing story arc.

One of the strengths of the novel is the characters. The lead, a little like Cornwell’s Uhtred, is a little straightforward for my taste, but that works well in the book, as he becomes the linchpin around which the fascinating cast of supporting characters work, and some of those secondary cast really did intrigue and delight me.

The tale ranges across the length of England, from Northumberland down to Essex and Wessex, then back up to the north and beyond into the wilds of southern Scotland where it reaches a breakneck, action-packed conclusion, resolving a long-term thread that has clearly been developing in earlier books.

The pace is good, the characterisation excellent, the writing absorbing. All in all a very good read.

Written by SJAT

December 1, 2016 at 11:14 am

Gladius

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I love Osprey’s military history books. I have a shelf full, mainly of the ancient world ones, but with some variation. Each book is written and illustrated by different contributors, and consequently they are of varying quality (though only one or two I’ve come across have ever been less than good). On occasion, though, an Osprey book reaches the heights of excellence and becomes a real ‘go-to’ book on the subject.

As well as Osprey books, I like Mike Bishop’s books. I have half a dozen of them, published either by Armatura Press or by Pen and Sword. And I know when I pick up one of Bishop’s books that I will not be able to argue with or have reason to doubt a word therein. Along with Mary Beard and Adrian Goldsworthy, Bishop is one of those folk in whose knowledge I have implicit trust.

So an Osprey book by Mike Bishop? Hell yes! ‘The Gladius’ is one of Osprey’s most recent publications, part of their Weapon series, which covers everything from spears to assault rifles. I cleared my table, for I wanted no distractions, and I read it. Then, because I knew how much I’d learned and how much must have escaped my memory, I read it again. And soon, after reviewing it here, I’ll read it again. And as long as I am writing Roman fiction, I will constantly go back to it for reference, probably more than any other Osprey book.

This book takes you through the evolution of the ‘Spanish Sword’ from its origins, through adoption by the Roman republican army, its gradual changes in form, and to its eventual supplanting by other types of blade more suitable for the changing nature of Roman warfare. It covers the types of Gladius found, in incredible detail. Pompeii, Mainz, Ring-pommel and others, even less well-known to the lay reader. It examines their use and their role in combat, their methods of manufacture, the part they have played in Rome’s history, and even their effects on the world that followed.

The level of knowledge and detail in the book is impressive. I had not previously been aware of the level of variation or the sheer scale of finds that are referenced. I had not considered the possibility that blades were not formed from one forging of steel and not forge welded with separate edges of different types of steel. I had not considered just how clever the grip of the sword is. I was not aware of the discrepancies in the ancient accounts of their use that, to be honest, as a writer I can exploit!

And therein lies an extra level of value for me in this book. I have learned a number of things on a subject that I thought held little new for me. Boy was I wrong. And what I have learned will filter into my own novels, lending them an extra adge of authenticity.

What you have here is one of the very best Osprey books on offer. Knowledgeable, educational, and fascinating, yet put forward in a very accessible way (one of Osprey’s strengths and, helpfully, one of Bishop’s too.) It is also beautifully illustrated throughout, which supports the text beautifully, including some fascinating detailed drawings by the author. There is no filler or padding in this book. It is 100% on course with its subject and no matter how much you think you know your Roman weaponry, you’ll learn something from reeading it.

Pride of place on my shelf. Is it on yours yet?

Written by SJAT

December 1, 2016 at 10:50 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

Tabula Rasa

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Only an excellent writer with a superb set of characters and an imagination full of fresh ideas can fuel a series to last more than maybe 4 or 5 books in a series. The fact that Tabula Rasa is book 6 in Ruth Downie’s series, then, is telling. The fact that, yet again, it is an absolutely cracking tale is even better.

I figure I’m past having to explain why I love Ruth’s books at this point, but to recap my view over the whole series, this is it in a nutshell:

  • Truly believable, very sympathetic and engaging characters
  • Intricate, carefully-crafted plots
  • Deep, realistic, historically accurate portrayal of the ancient world
  • Fascinating details that add colour and realism
  • Quirky sense of humour that always hits the spot
  • True historical mysteries, shot through with shrewd social observations

So there you go. That’s why I love the Ruso books. This book, in particular, brings in some of my favourite characters in the whole series. Some returning, some new. Tribune Accius, Valens, Albanus, Virana… and in particular Pertinax and Fabius. Oh, boy but Fabius is one of my fabourite supporting characters of any book I’ve read.

Tabula Rasa (‘Clean Slate’) is set in the forts on the Stanegate during the building of Hadrian’s wall. Ruso is back with the army, along with his better half, Tilla. He is serving as the medic in a tiny fort in the middle of nowhere that happens (much to his chagrin) to be close to the farm of one of Tilla’s relatives. Essentially the root of the tale is a case of ‘missing person’. Well, missing persons, at least. Ruso’s clerk has vanished, while his uncle Albinus is coming north to see him. And a local boy has vanished. As if the tension between locals and Roman invaders were not enough, the medicus pulls what I am coming to think of as ‘a Ruso’ and exacerbates the situation completely by accident. What follows is an excellent investigation that roams across the Stanegate forts and even beyond the wall, searching for the boy and trying to piece together why he was taken.

This area is somewhat home turf for me, so it was fascinating to read about places I know well. And I have to say I’d not twigged what was going on until Ruth revealed the truth towards the end of the book, so kudos there.

As usual, Tabula Rasa is pacy, clever, witty, thought-provoking and fascinating. I am starting to twitch at the thought that I now only have one Ruso book left before I will have to wait like everyone else.

Highly recommended as always. Ruth Downie’s books sell themselves.

Written by SJAT

October 21, 2016 at 9:02 am

Ruth Downie on the journey to Rome

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I am fortunate indeed today to play host to a guest post by the marvellous Ruth Downie as part of her Blog Tour, celebrating the release of her latest masterpiece ‘Vita Brevis’. As you may be aware, I’m currently reviewing the whole series of Ruth’s books, which will continue this week with Semper Fidelis, followed by Tabula Rasa and then the new book. But that can all wait for now while I let Ruth inform and entertain you in her own words. Over to you, Ruth…

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Travelling to Rome – the long way

Medicus, the first book in the series that features legionary medic Ruso and his British partner Tilla, has this printed at the front:

O diva…

serves iturum Caesarem

in ultimos orbis Britannos.

Which roughly means,

Oh Goddess…

safeguard Caesar as he sets off

for the remotest regions of the Earth—Britain.

(Horace)

Most of the stories in the series are set in those “remotest regions:” the Wild West of the Roman empire.

“Are Ruso and Tilla going to Rome?” the editor would ask from time to time, and I would keep very quiet. Anything was better than admitting, “I don’t dare, because other writers do Rome so well.” Besides, there was plenty to write about here.

What drives the first half-dozen books is the tension between Roman and Briton, occupier and occupied—all the clashes, compromises and misunderstandings that ensue when foreign boots land on native soil. All, in some way, connected to the attempts of Ruso and Tilla to forge a life together.

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We come in peace…

Even in times of relative peace, there was plenty of drama going on in Roman Britain without me having to make it up. The sale of people into the sex trade isn’t new – it’s something Hadrian tried to restrict. The use of religion to whip up violence goes back at least as far as the Druids.  The connection between power and greed comes out in a hundred subtle ways: the official traveller who bullies the innkeeper into giving him a horse he isn’t entitled to; the tax collector who demands that payments in wheat be delivered so far away that it’s impossible to avoid paying him exorbitant fees to transport them; the town councillor who tries to vote for a contract knowing one of his relatives will rake in the profit that follows. Then there’s the casual violence of soldier on civilian, and the use of false measures, loaded dice and fake coinage, some of which is on display in the British Museum.

Add in the splendid locations on offer—Chester, York, Verulamium, Hadrian’s Wall, Roman London and a brief trip to the South of France so Tilla could shock Ruso’s family—and there didn’t seem much reason to send anyone to Italy. Besides, how would the story work without the Roman-vs-Briton tension?  I’d already painted myself into enough of a corner by giving them a baby to look after.

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Ah, the family pile…

But… there are stories you can tell in cities that don’t work as well in a rural society. Stories about slum landlords with horrible agents (at last, revenge for that gruesome student flat!). Stories about arriving as an immigrant and an outsider. Stories about vast buildings that reach up to trap the sky. Stories about watching your fellow-countrymen offered up for auction in a slave market. In a city of a million people it’s quite possible that an abandoned body could remain anonymous, whereas in Britannia it’s hard not to believe that somebody would know somebody else who knew the dead person’s cousin. And then there’s Pliny’s assertion that doctors are “sharks using medical practice to prey on people” and that “only a doctor can kill a man with impunity.”

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There’s no shortage of material. So when Ruso’s former commanding officer invited him back to Rome at the end of book six, it felt as though it was time to take the plunge. Never mind what other writers had done. Rome was a massive city, and there would be plenty for Ruso and Tilla to get their teeth into in “Vita Brevis”. Provided, of course, they could find a babysitter.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Ruth Downie is the author of the New York Times bestselling Medicus, as well as Terra Incognita, Persona Non Grata, Caveat Emptor, Semper Fidelis, and Tabula Rasa. She is married with two sons and lives in Devon.

Follow her at ruthdownie.com and on Twitter @ruthsdownie.

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Vita BREVIS

A Gaius Ruso Mystery

By Ruth Downie

22nd September 2016
hardback – £16.99

Bringing both the majesty and depravity of ancient Rome to life, Ruth Downie concocts a delicious mix of crime novel, mystery, and history lesson in the latest novel in her bestselling Medicus series, VITA BREVIS.

 “Downie writes with her usual humor and depth . . . Perfect for fans of the Falco novels by Lindsey Davis, this entertaining New York Times best-selling series and its endearing characters deserve as long a run” —Booklist

“A deftly crafted and consistently compelling read from beginning to end, ‘Vita Brevis’ clearly establishes author Ruth Downie as a consummate and accomplished master of historical crime fiction” —Midwest Book Review

*****

Ruso and Tilla’s excitement at arriving in Rome with their baby daughter is soon dulled by their discovery that the grand facades of polished marble mask an underworld of corrupt landlords and vermin-infested tenements.

Ruso finds that his predecessor Doctor Kleitos has fled, leaving a dead man in a barrel on the doorstep with the warning, ‘Be careful who you trust’. Distracted, Ruso makes a grave mistake, causing him to question his own competence and integrity.

With Ruso’s reputation under threat, he and Tilla must protect their small family by tracking down the vanished doctor – and discovering the truth behind the man in the barrel.

VITA BREVIS is brimming with humor, clever plot twists, and evocative historical details, as Ruth Downie follows her beloved characters in their next adventure.

 *****

And check out the next stop on her blog tour: A Fantastical Librarian

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Caveat Emptor

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I suspect Ruso was my favourite investigator of crimes by the time I’d finished the first book in Ruth Downie’s Medicus series. The second book expanded this world to include darker themes and the wild north. And by the time Ruso went home to Gaul in the third book he was not only my favourite investigator, but one of my favourite characters in any book series. Left with something of an uncertain future at the end of that book, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the fourth book, other than being sure it would be highly entertaining.

Caveat Emptor takes us back to Britain, where Ruso and Tilla (now man and wife) find themselves dragged into problems galore. Tilla becomes a friend and helper to a native woman who has got herself into disastrous trouble, her man the tax collector having disappeared with the money. Ruso finds himself appointed by the province’s assistant procurator to investigate the disappearance of the tax collector and his money.

What follows is a complex and thoroughly engrossing investigation taking us from the docksides of Londinium (London) to the finance offices of Verulamium (St Albans). A plot that involves a fascinating and shady cast of characters from lurking town guards to power-hungry councillors to weaselly clerks to half-blind noblemen and so on. A plot that, I might add, while I grasped parts of the solution half way through, parts kept me guessing to the end. A plot that is not all it seems at any given point.

But once more, the major wins of the book are the main characters and Ruth’s writing. Having met Ruth now, and discovered what a truly nice lady she is, it amazes me how she seems to be able to get into the mindset of hen-pecked males or vicious mysogenists or the like so well that they read as truly authentic. Ruso is at times hapless, at times heroic, mostly beleaguered and often confused. He is a man who tries to do the right thing, even though at times he’d like nothing more than to do the wrong one. Tilla is no barbarian, nor is she a Roman matron. She is not a charicature but a person, with all the complexity that implies. And as always with Ruth’s writing, the threads of gentle quirky humour that run throughout add counterpoint to the seriousness of the situations in which they find themselves and make the books something special and a delight to read.

As a last treat, here’s just a taster of the sort of writing that makes me love Ruth’s work:

As the ostler had promised, the ginger mare was keen to go – but not necessarily forward. After winning the argument over which of them was steering, Ruso urged it out under the archway and onto the wide expanse of the North road.

If that kind of writing doesn’t make you want to read, then I reckon nothing will.

Caveat Emptor. A beautifully constructed mystery. And now I go on to read the next book – Semper Fidelis.

Persona Non Grata

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(Also released as Ruso and the Root of all Evils)

I have a growing fondness for historical mysteries rather than the straightforward military novels or sagas or character biographies. Over the past year or two I have discovered Robin Blake, William Ryan, Luke McCallin, D.E. Meredith and others. But my favourite series is still Ruth Downie’s Ruso books. I read the first two a while back, but have simply not found the time to catch up with the series. Well last week I decided to change that since for once I did not have anything to read to a deadline.

The first of Ruth’s books (Medicus AKA Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls) introduced us to the Roman doctor Gaius Petreius Ruso, as well as to his friend Valens and the headstrong native British woman Tilla. It was set in Chester (Deva) in the reign of Hadrian and immediately hooked me with its clever mix of intricate plot, believable characters, well-dressed setting and gentle humour. The second novel (Terra Incognita/Ruso and the Demented Doctor) was somewhat darker to my mind, following the escapades of our favourite pair in the north, among the forts on the Stanegate where the emperor’s wall will soon take shape. Involved with a native uprising and brutal murders, there was much development in particular of Tilla’s character.

This third installment is so far very much my favourite. Why? Because it has everything that swept me away in the first book, and so much more. Summoned back to his family’s farm in southern Gaul by a mysterious note and with a medical furlough from the army with a wounded foot, Ruso and Tilla hurry back to their lands near Nemausus to find out what has happened.

Cue a beautifully involved plot involving a poisoning, a ship lost at sea, bankrupcy, double-dealing, misdirection and business deals gone horribly wrong. I won’t spoil the plot, but my minor spoiler would be that when the man visits Ruso to discuss his debts and then drops dead in front of him, I almost laughed aloud, realising what this would mean with regards to the suspicions of murder.

It is simply beautifully executed, but with a new added facet: Ruso’s family. An overbearing stepmother, a brother with his head in the sand, an enthusiastic sister-in-law, demanding and disobedient sisters, a worrying ex-wife, a disapproving ex father-in-law and a pack of small children. And more… the cast goes on, and yet each is lovingly treated. The interactions between the characters are what truly make these novels for me.

Yes the plot is excellent, this history faultless, the prose graceful and the atmosphere absorbing, but the icing on the cake is the dialogue. Ruth is plainly the mistress of dialogue.I annoyed my wife yesterday by chortling reapeatedly and interrupting her to read her the choicest snippets. Because Ruth’s dialogue never fails to raise a smile from me. It is often wonderfully light-hearted and engaging, and yet at no point is it in any way unrealistic.

Quite simply, along with one or two other authors (G.G. Kay and Prue Batten leap to mind) Ruth Downie’s writing makes me feel like a talentless hack when I go back over my own.#

I shall not leave it so long this time before I move on to book 4. If you’ve not ready Ruth’s books, do yourself a favour and start…

Written by SJAT

September 15, 2016 at 4:18 pm