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Posts Tagged ‘Army

Hunting The Eagles

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It’s been a year or two since I last journeyed with Tullus and his companions in Eagles At War. And in some way, I feel that has improved my approach to the book rather than having launched into it on its release, because as this story opens 5 years have passed since the dreadful massacre in the Teutoborg forest where 3 legions were obliterated, a few straggling survivors limping back beaten and dejected to Roman lands.

Tullus is determined to revenge himself in Arminius and the Germans who destroyed his legion and handed the survivors dishonour by taking their eagle. Back in Rome where the new emperor Tiberius is being hailed, Tullus learns that the nobke general Germanicus is planning a campaign to chastise the Germans and recover the eagles. Sidestepping the rules, he signs on with this new army and makes his way back to Germania to have his revenge.

But Arminius has not been idle, and is stirring up trouble again, and so the two peoples – age old enemies – are lining up for a set-to of immense proportions. In this novel we are treated to our familiar heroes of both sides from book 1 facing endless trouble (rebellious legions, uncooperative tribes, burned-earth tactics, immense brutality and more.) Oh and my favourite scene rescuing endangered Germanic family members before Germanicus’ army rolls over them.

As always with Kane’s books, the characters are well-drawn, the scene perfectly set, the descriptive deep and powerful, the plot pacy and strong, the writing effusive and consuming. But the thing at which Kane excels for me, and which makes his books some of the darker and more powerful in the genre, is the level of reality the reader is made to feel. Every scene is so intricately woven with the yarns of human fact, deep emotion, historical detail and raw strength that Kane’s books can leave you needing to rest and recover before pressing on. His is a rare talent in provoking such a response, and it can often feel that you are experiencing the story far more than any other way other than actually being there.

Hunting the Eagles is one of Kane’s finest tales and builds on the first in the series, covering slightly less familiar events than that first military disaster. I shall be fascinated to see what he does with the last book of the trilogy.

Buy it. Read it. Experience it.

 

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Altar of Blood

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One of the best ways, in my experience, to guage the quality of fiction is how easy it is to read. Yes, there is some crap out there that is an easy read, and yes, there are great reads out there that require concentration and work. But more often than not a book that just grabs your attention and drags you along from beginning to end is a success. I find Anthony Riches’ books to be like that. They hook you in the first few pages, relieve you of sleep, food and work and occupy your waking moments until you reach the end and close the book with a smile. Case in point: Empire IX – Altar of Blood. Started it one morning. Finished it the next afternoon. Couldn’t stop reading it.

Part of it now has become the familiarity with the characters, the setting and the writing style. By the ninth book in a series, readers know they’re going to get what they want. They’re on a safe bet. But kudos is due any author who makes it to book 9 in a series and isn’t simply rehashing old stuff. I pick up Riches’ books and I know I’m in for a treat, though. And even this far into a series, I know I’m in for new twists and fresh discoveries.

Riches, you see, is unpredictable. He cannot be counted on to give us happily ever after, to give us tested formula for all my comments about familiarity. Riches might kill off someone important any moment. He will take us to new places and may even turn the tables so that previous friends are enemies and previous enemies friends. Such keeps things fresh.

With the ninth in the empire series, there is a new feel to the start. Altar of Blood begins with viciousness and eye-watering brutality, and then settles down into an opening tale of tragedy. Then gradually, as our hero is put through the emotional mill yet again, the true tale of the book comes out. We are re-introduced not only to the usual characters but also to the wicked emperor and the snake Cleander. And then our heroes are sent off on a dreadfully dangerous secret mission into barbarian lands, following a brief ‘Dirty dozen’ recruitment session. Interestingly, where the previous books have focused primarily on our friend Corvus/Aquila with interludes carried by his friends, this book is almost entirely narrated around characters that were formerly supporting cast, with Aquila only occasionally coming to the fore.

There follows a tale of subterfuge and double dealing, insurgency and counter insurgency, chases, battles in deep forest and swamp, catharsis and healing, treachery and betrayal and heroism in unexpected places. The tale owes something in form to ‘Heart of Darkness’ or ‘Apocalypse Now’, but one thing is certain: with Riches’ own blend of adventure, action, violence, harsh language and reality born of understanding the military mind, he is becoming something of a Tarantino of historical fiction. Fresh, unpredictable, fascinating and exciting.

And Husam! Oh, Husam, you are sooooo cool.

Altar of Blood is out in paperback today. Have you read the series? No. Then get started, as you’ve a treat ahead of you. If you have, then rest assured, volume nine is far from disappointing. Go buy it now.

The Pale House

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Back in April I read McCallin’s first Reinhardt novel (The Man From Berlin) completely off the cuff, as it sounded different and interesting. Set in wartime Sarajevo with a rather lost, bitter detective in the Abwehr, it was a fascinating, complex read with an unusual point of view and setting. Without wanting to risk spoilers, the way it ended suggested that any sequal would have rather a different feel, and the character would be different.

It’s taken me a while to find the time, but now I’ve read the second book (The Pale House) and, while I had initial reservations, I am impressed and thoroughly enjoyed it. Reservations why? Well, as I said above the previous book had a somewhat game-changing ending, and I think the first maybe 10-15% of The Pale House is spent putting Reinhardt back in a position where he can investigate the plot. It feels a little like the suggested future at the end of book 1 has been glossed over to allow book 2 to flow. So to be honest it took me maybe 10% to settle into it. Then, as Reinhardt returns to Sarajevo, this time as one of the Feldjaeger – the Wehrmacht’s military police – he stumbles across a grisly scene that will have long-reaching effects for him and the military in Bosnia. And with that discovery, the plot begins to roll forward.

And what a plot. You see, while I thought this book took a short while to untangle its legs and get running, once it did it quickly began to outstrip the first book. The plot is tighter, more delicate, intricate, and yet carefully, cleverly revealed to the reader. Moreover, the plot is compounded with a number of subplots, some of which are linked and others not, forming a grand scheme that, while it was easy to pick out about half way through some of what was happening, right to the very end I was still being hit by surprises.

In Reinhardt’s world, no one can be trusted. The enemy are not the allies (Britain, the USA and Russia.) They are, to some extent, the partisans plagueing Bosnia. They are also the native para-military nominally organisations allied to Germany and yet causing more trouble than any enemy. But the most insidious enemies in Reinhardt’s world almost always come from among his own people – among the hierarchy of the German military.

Quite simply, I’m not going to tell you anything about the plot other than how nice it is, as it would be far too easy to accidentally drop in a spoiler. I shall just say that this book is set some time after the first, and while there are a few faces cropping up who we met in book 1, they are largely incidental or at best supporting characters. This is a whole new tale with a whole new cast and it shows that McCallin is anything but a one trick pony. The Pale House is, despite my initial worries, better than The Man From Berlin. I heartily recommend them both. They are tales outside my era-based comfort zone, but I love this series and I am excited to note that a third novel (The Divided City) is due out in December.

Written by SJAT

September 3, 2016 at 10:05 am

Spoils of Olympus

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An unusual era is tackled well by a new author in this engaging read. Set in an era about which I have some knowledge but am far from ‘knowledgeable’, this is a tale of the aftermath of the death of Alexander the Great and the jostling for position of his varied successors, told from the point of view of a young recruit. Andrikos is forced to flee his small Anatolian town after a run in with some lowlifes leaves him in trouble, and he heads off to join the army and get away for a while.

Cue the meat of the story, which is a military saga set amid battles, raids and individual ‘secret’ missions of which Andrikos finds himself part. For those of you who like your Historical Fiction strewn with battles and bodies, this is your kind of book. It is fairly graphic and brutal, but that is largely tempered by the fact that it is told from the point of view of the young recruit, with all his own problems, glories, cameraderie and excitement.

I understand from his website that Kachel is ex-military, having served in the Middle East, and that comes as no surprise. Reading this book I would have guessed that the man writing the combat scenes had personal experience of same, and especially the harsh military training which occupies much of the first half of the book. The feeling of realism is strong and there is little hint of outlandishness about it.

Indeed, the book does to some extent come over as a Macedonian/Hellenistic sort of ‘Heartbreak Ridge’. That’s not a complaint… I love that movie. But it is a fairly concise way of putting forward what I felt about the book. So, given what I’ve said, you’ve probably already decided whether you’re interested in it. I would certainly recommend it to readers of ancient military histfic readers. I will leave you with one up and one down about it:

Kachel has clearly done a great deal of research into the era. His knowledge of the military, politics and social culture of the post-Alexandrian era comes through in the text. For me it was an informative as well as engaging read. As I say, I’m no expert on the era, but he comes across as very knowledgable, and I doubt most potential readers would find much to complain about in that respect.

For me, Spoils of Olympus: By the Sword was a solid 4 star read. In terms of story and characterisation, it could well have been a 5. And although there were typos (‘route’ for ‘rout’) and incorrectly-chosen words (‘they accosted his background’) here and there, what knocked a star down for me was the inclusion of a certain type of modern phrasing that somewhat shatters the historical illusion (early on in the book, for instance, I came across the phrase ‘pussywhipped’ which was the worst of these that I read and stuck in my head all the way through.)

So there you go. A relatively small negative against a swathe of positives. If the ancient military is your thing, I suspect you’ll enjoy this book. Give it a try.

Written by SJAT

February 28, 2015 at 8:41 pm

Facts about Fritz

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An unusual review of a little gem for you today. As you know I occasionally like to review the odd non-fiction work among the novels I read. Well the other day I came into possession of a copy of Facts about Fritz by Robin Schafer and Tim Hardy. Rob is a German military historian and consultant (and without doubt the most knowledgeable such I have ever come across) and Tim is a talented graphic designer. Together they have combined their skills to release this wonderful item.

If, like me, you have a passing knowledge of the First World War, mostly gained through school, holidays in northern Europe… and Blackadder, of course… then this book might prove as fascinating and informative to you as it does to me. If you are already an expert, it is pitched a little below your level to be honest, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth having. Far from it.

Essentially, this book is 50 pages, with every two pages being an individual fact sheet on one aspect of the German army in 1914-1918. The production is superb. Glossy and beautiful, it’s a thing of beauty. But beyond that, it is chock full of period photographs, fascinating images of artefacts surviving to the present day, anecdotes and accounts from witnesses as well as the facts themselves as provided by the informed mind of Rob. The content varies from short factoids – such as

“Approximately 40,000 Messenger dogs operated with German units during the war.”

to letters written by the men at the front, to lengthy paragraphs detailing for instance the Reich’s Postal Service, to extracts from contemporary tales. All interspersed with appropriate imagery.

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Subjects covered include such wide-ranging matters as the Iron Cross, Flags, Trench Newspapers and the Flying Circus.

The book is an objective and factual work on the army of the Kaiser’s Germany and should be fascinating to anyone who has even a passing interest in the era. The book costs £7.99 and is currently only available through Tim Hardy’s website HERE. I would also urge you to keep an eye on Rob’s site –  as well as being fascinating in general, he has another book on Fritz and Tommy coming out next year through the History Press and that will be worth grabbing.

Back with some more choice fiction for you in the next week. 🙂

Written by SJAT

October 22, 2014 at 10:55 am

Anthony Riches’ Empire Series

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You may have missed my review of Anthony Riches’ latest epic a week or two back, but if you did, here’s a little treat for you. I’ve been treated to a nice little Q&A session with the author himself. Hopefully if you’ve not read my reviews or possibly even his books, this interesting and enlightening little interview will push you to doing so. After all, the Empire series continues to ride at the crest of the wave of current Historical Fiction.

My blog reviews of the last four books can be found here:

and my goodreads reviews of the previous three here:

So without further ado (ron ron ron, ado ron ron), here’s a little peek into the mind of the man behind this fantastic series:

Q. In ‘The Emperor’s Knives’ you take significant steps towards dealing with some of the background plot that has underlay the entire series so far. Did you consciously decide to bring the series over the last few books to a position where that could happen, or did the progress of the series serendipitously put you in a position to deal with it?

A. I have a masterplan…*smiles smugly*…*then looks shifty*…oh alright, no I don’t, not really. What I do have is a load of history books and an overactive subconscious. The way it works is that I read the histories, find a relevant fact, and then off we go. So, for example:

**spoiler alert** (don’t read this if you’ve not read book 6 yet!)

it’s recorded that a consignment of coins stamped with a head that wasn’t the emperor’s was at the root of the death of a certain praetorian prefect in about AD185 – and so it wasn’t rocket science to draw a line from Dacia (where the gold came from), through Britannia (where it was intended to be used in the purchase of legionary loyalty) to Rome (where the Tungrians take it to see justice done)

 **spoiler over, (bet you wish you hadn’t read it now, don’t you!)

Picture me in the Henhouse (writing hidey hole) grinning with smug pleasure as my “cunning plan” came together without conscious volition.

And you thought it was all cleverly planned, eh? What do you mean, ‘no, I didn’t’? Harrumph.

Q. In book 7, your locations are more vivid and intricate than ever before. How important to you is it to visit a place that you are going to write about first?

Hugely. I’ve been to all of the locations. All over northern England and southern Scotland, Belgium (Tungria), Rome several times…the only place I’ve not been is Romania (Dacia), just because I ran out of time – did it show, I wonder? And of course I’ve not yet been to…ah, but you don’t want to know where book 8’s set, now do you?

Q. Was it a whole new experience after 6 books which revolved strongly around military campaigning on the empire’s borders to instead work on something more intrigue based in the great city? And given a choice, which do you prefer?

A. Both (**copout alert**). It was a huge change, and I loved it, but it gives me big problems in book 8 from a ‘getting back to basics’ perspective. I’m like a farm boy who’s seen the big city and then has to go back to his plough… Although it’s nice to get the Tungrians back on stage, especially my latest soldier character, ‘Jesus’. You’ll know why they call him that when you meet him!

Q. Your books contain a few historical characters as well as your fictional ones, such as Commodus, Cleander and Clodius Albinus. How do you go about deconstructing the myths about those people and then assembling them to portray within your story?

A. What I actually do is a mixture of debunking as much myth as I can (for example, the revisionist view of Perennis is that he was probably doing a decent job of being emperor in the absence of Commodus showing any interest) with the reality of needing characters who can fit into my version of the late second century (which mean that he is also the man commanding the loyalty of the Knives). I think the two approaches can co-exist pretty well. Clodius Albinus was reputed to be ‘the best of men’, but who can say what was motivating the writer, in an age where you had to get paid to be able to afford to write, and there were no pubic institutions to do the paying, which only left individuals – like Clodius Albinus! And after all, this is fiction!

Q. Although the bulk of the Roman military was made up of auxiliary forces and native units, the most famous fighting force was the legions and it is with them that 90% of the public will immediately identify when they think of Rome. What prompted you to write about the less famous auxilia than the legions?

A. I just felt it was time someone had a try at them, and it was great fun. After all, it was the auxiliaries who did the lion’s share of the fighting by the time of this series, so the first time one of my characters called the legions ‘roadmenders’ there was a real snigger in it for me. Mind you, that might rebound on the Tungrians at some point. They may not be auxiliaries for ever, you know!

Q. Book 8 looks to be set in the east. Beyond that, what does the future hold for ‘Two Knives’ and his companions?

A. Another 25 years of war on every frontier, civil war, the biggest battle of the second century which lasted two days (TWO DAYS!!!), a military strongman, treachery, honour and blood. Lots of blood!

So thank you to Tony for that and a reminder that book 7 (The Emperor’s Knives) is out now in hardback and book 6 (The Eagle’s Vengeance) is released in paperback tomorrow.

Go buy!

Written by SJAT

February 26, 2014 at 8:00 am

Hannibal’s back

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I’ve been a fan of Ben Kane’s books since the Forgotton Legion, and when last year I read Hannibal: Enemy of Rome, it shot up into my top Historical Fiction reads and came out as clear top of Ben’s books. Given the fact that my love of Rome tends towards the Principate era and that I’ve never really concentrated on the early Republic, it surprised me how much it gripped me. And then Ben disappeared off for a while to write his Spartacus series. Don’t get me wrong: the Spartacus books were excellent books and I thoroughly enjoyed them, but when Hannibal was my fave, it made me twitch having to wait so long for a second in the series.

And finally, as time allowed, I managed to get stuck into Fields of Blood.

Taking up where the first book finished, with Carthaginian forces firmly ensconced in Italy and threatening Rome, we knew this book was going to involve some of the most brutal fighting in the republic’s history. Most likely, it was going to involve Cannae – a name that despite my lack of in depth knowledge of this early era, I was well aware of. No one can give any level of study to the roman military without hearing the names of a few choice battles: Alesia, Adrianople, Actium, the Teutoborg forest… and of course Cannae.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. This book is still about people primarily, rather than powers or armies. It still centres on the Roman group of Aurelia, Quintus and Gaius and the Carthaginian family of Hanno, Sapho and Bostar.

And what this second book in the series does (and does very well) is to grow the characters beyond the bounds of the first book, and to deepen and expand the relationships between them, largely by testing those relationships to breaking point.

Quintus and Gaius and Fabricius are away at war, leaving the women at home, where Aurelia struggles against her apparent destiny in an arranged marriage while the man she really loves fights for the Carthaginian general intent on destroying Rome. While she does what she can to fight this fate, her mother struggles with family troubles and loan sharks intent on ruining her.

Quintus finds himself threatened with dismissal and being sent home, and decides on a drastic course of action that will see him beginning his military career over, from the bottom, where he will encounter dangers from within his own ranks as well as from the enemy.

Hanno is still recovering from having let Hannibal down and has narrowly escape brutal punishment. Now he is doing all he can with his phalanx of men to regain the favour of his general while at the same time trying to decide whether his brother Sapho is really mad enough to want him out of the way.

The scene is set. Hanno and his army are worryingly close to the farm where he had first got to know Aurelia, and she is almost all he can think of – her and a Roman officer who has become the focus of his vengeance.

Parallels can be found between the two young men’s journey throughout the book, the main of which is watching their progress and growth as military men while having to keep out a wary eye for the dangers that hover about them waiting to put a knife in their spine.

As usual with Ben’s books, the level of historical detail included within is stunning, with close attention paid right down to sentence level, and the authentic feel that lends the book is intense.

And on to the battle. I won’t ruin it for anyone. There will be people who do not know how great and important Cannae was to Rome. There will be people who do not know which side won. And therefore I’m not going to tell you. Read the book and find out. But suffice it to say Cannae was immense. In fact, Ben described it just today as ‘the bloodiest battle on Italian soil for 2000 years’, so that gives you some idea. And the level of attention Ben has lavished even on the battle means that it occupies a sizable chunk of the book.

Given that the entire battle is seen through the eyes of Quintus and Hanno, it is quite impressive how the epic scale is made plain to the reader while maintaining a personal point of view of the close action encountered by the characters. It is hard not to be swept up in the action, rejoicing and cheering for both sides when things are going their way and panicking and fretting for them all when they’re not. And if you’re not familiar with the battle already, you will be kept guessing about the outcome for a while.

But despite all of this, and the power of the battle itself, the thing that the book actually left me with more than anything is something I encountered with Giles Kristian’s Bleeding Land. It was the aftermath of the battle. Just as with that other book, where we experienced the dead freezing on the field below Edgehill while ghouls snapped off their fingers for the ring they bore, in Fields of Blood we get to experience all the horror of the battlefield in high summer, full of the most unimaginable sights, to witness the relief of the victors as soldiers seek out their family among the survivors or the dead, to see the surviving losers running scared, hiding in groups and experiencing utter despair. To see what happens to the people as they hear the news.

The story of Hannibal is far from over and Ben Kane has many more books in the series before he writes of Zama and the fall of Carthage, but this is a significant step in the tale both on the scale of the nations themselves, and of the characters that go through it all.

With some series, I find myself beginning to get irritated with characters in the second book because they are not changing or growing, or just become stagnant. Such is not the case in Fields of Blood. I just want to see more of them and am now going to have to impatiently anticipate ‘Clouds of War’.

Bravo once again, Ben. For you to produce a book that actually manages to get me behind Rome’s enemies is quite a feat!

Kane’s top series and it looks to be going from strength to strength, people. Buy and enjoy.

Written by SJAT

September 2, 2013 at 2:13 pm