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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.

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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.

Warriors of the Storm

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For years friends of mine have raved about Cornwell’s Uhtred novels, and I have intended to read the series at some point, but never seemed to find the time. For the record the last Cornwells I read were the Sharpe series back in the day and, though I think I tired a little of the series towards the end, I remember the earlier ones as some of the absolutely best novels I have ever read.

So when I had the opportunity to read an advance copy of the new Cornwell, I had to say yes, didn’t I. I did wonder whether I would really be able to get into the novel, being as it’s book #9 and I have yet to read 1 to 8. No need to worry. From the very first page I remembered why I loved Cornwell’s writing. Warriors of the Storm opens straight to the action, dragging the reader right in. It is filled with the smooth, almost effortlessly absorbing prose that I remember being Cornwell at his best. The descriptive is full and rich, the moments of light-hearted humour beautifully worked.

Set in the early 10th century, the Last Kingdom series is a strange milieu to me. The Dark Ages is a curious era, full of change and uncertainty. A mish-mash of cultures struggle to dominate Britain, from the Saxons and Danes to the Celts and the Scandinavian vikings, many of whom are by this time based in Ireland and Scotland. As a Roman historian, I am to some extent at a loss with 9th-10th century Britain, so this is fresh unfamiliar ground.

However, the bulk of this tale is based in an area I know quite well, that being Chester, the Wirral and surroundings, and to rediscover a place with which I am so familiar (I spend quite a bit of time reenacting there now and research a lot into Roman Deva), thjough in a whole different era, is fascinating.

The book opens as a norse lord (Ragnall Ivarson) who has long been an enemy of Uhtred’s begins an attempt to conquer parts of England. Driven out of his previous territory, this lord and his army sail into the Mersey, which is held by Uhtred, and begin to move inland making a play for invasion and control, holding an ancient hill fort and bridging the river into Northumbria, where a vast supply of potential manpower awaits. Cue a desperate campaign to counter the growing strength of Ivarson, who is related to the English hero through his brother’s marriage to Uhtred’s daughter, so yes, politics is inevitably going to play as much a part here as battle.

My friends rave about Uhtred. This is my first outing with him and, while he is a traditional hero with a particularly nice turn of phrase at times, I wouldn’t say there is much about him that makes him outstanding to me. That didn’t matter, though, because the supporting cast were so vivid and fascinating that I could deal rather easily without a deep fascination with the hero.

Aethelflaed, the daughter of King Alfred who rules Mercia and Wessex, is impressive and powerful, with flaws and uncertainties that make her a far more vivid character than Uhtred. The priests Ceolnoth and Ceolberht were fun and memorable for all their small role, the bishop Leofstan was simply superb, and of Uhtred’s own cadre of warriors, the Irishman Finan was one of the most interesting.

Of course if there is one thing for which Cornwell is noted it is his battles. He has a long pedigree of writing warfare across many eras, and this has over time granted him the ability to do so with pace and panache, never having to linger too much in the gory detail while delving deep enough to hook the reader and really create an impression of the horror, glory, and above all desperation of combat.

The upshot? Great characters, well-written prose, fascinating locations and excellent battle scenes. The plot might have benefitted from a few extra twists and turns, but that is merely icing on a well-made cake. Warriors of the Storm dragged me in and kept me glued to the end. Well worth a read, and now I am shuffling books 1-8 back up in my pile.

Written by SJAT

October 8, 2015 at 9:29 pm

Into The Fire

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Anyone who caught my blog post on Monday would probably have realised then what a glowing review this book was lined up to get. From near the start I knew it was destined for my annual top 10, and by half way through it had solidly claimed the #1 spot of anything I’d read this year (against some pretty stiff opposition too!) And basically any novel I read between now and New Year is really going to have to go some to challenge this one.

So now: how to go about reviewing Into The Fire without risking spoilers. I will do it.

And for that I’ll tackle the plot first.

In an unusual treat, this novel is written in two timelines, with two interlinked stories that run concurrently throughout the book. Orleans in 2014 is the setting for an investigation into murder and arson, compounded with political intrigues leading up to an important election, strained relationships in and out of work, shadows of the past that are long and all-consuming and racial/religious tensions. Capitaine Inès Picaut really has her work cut out fighting the clock to solve her case in the midst of media frenzy, hampered by some vivid and truly believable characters. And at the root of much of this trouble there are threads suggesting a connection to events some six centuries earlier. Cue plotline 1, which takes place in 1429, following the rise of the girl who became a saint – Jehanne d’Arc. The story is not told from her perspective, though, as she begins to turn the tide against the English in the Hundred Years’ War only to fall foul of her own success and betrayal and jealously among her countrymen, quite aside from the many enemies of France who want to see her destroyed. The protagonist for this timeline is Tod Rustbeard, a Scottish/French spy working for the powerful Duke of Bedford, and it is fascinating to watch how Tod (Tomas) grows and changes throughout the three years of his story. And as the novel progresses, there is never any doubt that how the Maid of Orleans’ story ends will have deep and far reaching effects on Capitaine Picaut’s investigation.

I will tell you no more of the plot. I won’t spoil it for you. I can only suggest with every ounce of my being that you buy the book and read it at your earliest opportunity.

In terms of language, tense and person in a book can change the entire feel of the story for me. I am always comfortable with the familiar and most common third person perfect tense (eg ‘Manda Scott wrote an excellent book’) and have recently become quite a devotee of first person perfect (‘I read an excellent book’.) I still have trouble with first person present, which I come across occasionally (‘I reach out and grasp the book’) which I find makes for hard reading and unnecessary concentration on text rather than content. Into The Fire is written (unusually in my experience) in third person present tense (‘John sells a book’.) For maybe a chapter or two I found I had to adjust to this style, and worried that it would make the book a rather involved read. I was wrong. In fact, it became very familiar and comfortable as a style, and because of the tense, lent the story a directness and immediacy that would have been missing in a perfect tense. So bravo for that, Manda. The tension of the medieval espionage and of the contemporary police thriller are jacked up a notch just through the decision to write in this manner.

Interestingly, while the story of Jehanne d’Arc ranges across medieval France in line with historical events, the modern thriller takes place in a remarkably small area, rarely leaving Orleans and even then not travelling far. This means that while we are treated to the exotic glory of some of France’s most impressive locations, we get to know Orleans well, from its physical geography to its people, its organisations and even its media and its crime. There is definitely something to be said for thoroughly exploring a location in text rather than ranging far and wide, and the detail of modern Orleans adds to the realism and the credibility of the plot.

The characters I have already touched on to some extent, but they deserve their own mention. Every character is realistic. I mean right down to the faceless ones, let alone those with a speaking part. The main characters (Cpt Picaut and Tod Rustbeard) are as deep and well constructed as any character I’ve read (precisely what I’d expect from the writer who brought us Pantera in the Rome series. The former is a thoughtful, intelligent and strong police officer, who is not without her faults, of course, with plenty of demons in her past who influence her present in so many ways. The latter, I thought initially to be a fairly brash and unlikeable man, but who quickly develops to be far, far more and so much deeper, himself living with a past that has left marks on his soul. To some extent, I found myself hoping for redemption and success on Rustbeard’s part from a fairly early stage. The supporting cast too are well-written and credible. From the fascinating Patrice – the police’s pet technology genius – to the captain’s estranged and soon-to-be-ex husband, Luc and his inscrutable sister Lise, to the leader of an Algerian crime family, and so many more, the contemporary cast are individual and memorable. And from the Maid of Orleans herself, through her own captains, the King’s captivating sister, the Duke of Bedford and the almost-nobodies in the Maid’s army and entourage upon whom Rustbeard’s mission is reliant, the historical cast is intriguing and strong, vividly portrayed and bring that period of history to life.

On a last note about Manda’s work here, it is abundantly clear just how much effort the author has put into the research behind this tale, both in terms of the history and legend of Joan of Arc, and in terms of modern Orleans, French culture and the police work that form the backbone of the plot. Of course, Manda cut her teeth on thrillers before moving into the realm of historical fiction and the ease with which she has combined the two genres to create something special is fascinating. But I challenge you to find a detail out of place or anything that is not perfectly in place in the tale and its prose. Until I had the opportunity last weekend to pose a few questions to the author – even while I was 2/3 of the way through the book – I was under the impression that Into The Fire was a standalone work. I am overjoyed to now know that this is not the case and that a follow up under the current title of Accidental Gods is in the works. I simply cannot wait for that.

So for those of you who’ve not read Manda’s new book, I cannot recommend it highly enough. Six stars out of five. Go buy it, people.

And for the giveaway I ran in my last blog entry, the winner of a signed copy is Ian Robinson, so congrats Ian. Get in touch with an address and thank you.

Maid of Orleans

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Something slightly different for you today.

I am currently engrossed in Manda Scott’s latest opus – Into The Fire – and will be posting my review of it on Thursday in my usual scheduled slot, so look out for that. But in the meantime, I have been so utterly enthralled by the book that I felt perhaps it was time for another non-review post in between, about the character who is central to Manda’s new book: Jehanne d’Arc – a.k.a. Joan of Arc.

Furthermore, the lady herself (Manda, not Jehanne) has kindly answered a few questions I put to her and offered a signed copy of Into The Fire as a giveaway. So, when you’ve finished reading, please do comment on the post, and on Thursday when I release my review, I will randomly select one of those folk who commented on this and they will receive a signed copy of Into The Fire from Manda. And trust me, this is a giveaway you want to win, and a book you want to read. I am three quarters of the way through it myself, and it’s clearly going to be one my absolute top books of the year and, let’s face it, probably in the #1 spot.

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(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

So who was Jehanne d’Arc? Well I’m going to give you the sanitised potted historical version. If you really want to explore this question in depth, you need to read Manda’s book. As the legend goes, Jehanne was born in a village called Domremy, loyal French surrounded by Burgundian lands (who at the time sided with England rather than with France.) As a young girl she experienced a vision, in her father’s orchard, of the archangel Michael who told her it was her task to drive the English from France and see that the young Dauphin was crowned King. That was in 1425 when she was just twelve or thirteen years old. A few years passed and she begged to be allowed to visit the Dauphin’s court, but no one would believe her until she had a vision and detailed a French defeat before it had happened. That was in 1429, and consequently she was taken seriously and allowed to visit Chinon. The rest is history. In no time, this simple French maid was clad in plate, riding a charger and leading the French army into battle, beginning with the siege of Orleans.

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(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

As I said, if you want to dig a little deeper into who the Maid of Orleans really was, then Into The Fire is the book for you.

So what was happening between France, England and Burgundy, then? Well, it’s important to remember that at this time France as the nation we understand did not exist. Much of it was either subject to the English crown and had been since William the Bastard had come over from Normandy, or was part of one independent duchy or another. In fact the lands that the French king could call his own were at best half of what we now think of as France, mostly south central and southeast. The English crown had laid claim to all French lands for as long as anyone could remember and by 1429 had spent almost a century trying to conquer them. The French house of Valois was rather beleaguered, for the powerful Duchy of Burgundy, who were a branch of that same family, were at loggerheads with the French Dauphin over succession and therefore sided with England. Moreover, other powerful duchies in the north, such as Hainault and Flanders, had joined the English against France. Despite Scottish alliance and various other foreign supporters, France was in 1429 looking down the barrel of the gun, so to speak. And into the mess steps the maid from Domremy, with God on her side and a vision of a victorious France ruled by a king anointed in the ancient manner.

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Photo courtesy of me, in Rheims 2012

And how did it end? Well again, I’m not going to throw any spoilers at those of you who don’t know the history. But it is a tale of ignominious capture, heroic resistance, political manoeuvering and religious trial. Bear in mind that this is the same era of history that saw the Knights Templar under de Molay tortured and executed for heresy. You can imagine how the misogynistic authorities in the 15th century might view a girl who led armies and defied kings. But like so many larger-than-life figures throughout history, while Jehanne’s death may have signalled the end of that particularly glorious summer for France, it guaranteed her a place in world history. For who can forget Joan of Arc, the maid of Orleans? And Jehanne forms the core of Into The Fire, which is a novel written in dual timelines, set in France in 1429 and in Orleans specifically in 2014. Investigation, arson, murder and political shenanigans form a modern tale that interweaves with the story of the Maid.

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(Photo of Rouen’s Tour Jeanne d’Arc courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

* * *

So, bearing in mind that I have not yet quite finished the book when I posed these questions to Manda, there follows a short Q&A with the talented lady herself.

* * *

Simon: Every nation seems to have its one folk hero. In England it is Robin Hood, in Scotland The Bruce, Romania has Vlad Dracula, while Germany has Arminius. The USA has Washington and Spain has Rodrigo Diaz (El Cid). France, interestingly, could easily claim at least two equally notable and equally romantic figures in that role. Most notably, given the general misogynistic tendencies of the ancient world right through to the 20th century, do you think it is Jehanne d’Arc’s gender that sets her apart and has made her more noticeable and more beloved than, perhaps, Vercingetorix, who had struggled with a very similar fight to throw out an invader some fifteen centuries earlier?

Manda: That’s a really interesting duo.  Because I’m currently immersed in WWII,I’d be inclined to add Jean Moulin and Pierre Brossolette to the list – and definitely Violet Szabo, she was extraordinary and the recent newspaper reports of her medals being sold gave the highly sanitised version of her death.  But that’s a whole separate discussion. 

I think Jehanne was set apart for a number of reasons and definitely the kind of ingrained misogyny that says a woman can’t be a knight, and can’t fight, can’t lead men, can’t be a warrior… this definitely contributed both to her failure at the time to win over the French Court (she had her ardent admirers, but those closest to the man she made king loathed her and contributed materially to her downfall) and then to the shaping of the narrative afterwards.  Because she was a woman, she had to be tried as a heretic, not as an enemy combatant.  Because the rules for detecting heresy were remarkably well described, not to say proscribed, they had to question her endlessly on the nature of her ‘counsel’ and not on her martial skills.  They also had regularly to verify her virginity because  it was a well known ‘fact’ that the devil could not consort with a virgin and this closed off one of their avenues of legal attack.  The whole thing was a pantomime, edging around the fact that she was a woman doing things that their narrative of the world said were impossible: none of it would have happened if she were a man.  
And so the myth was set – aided and abetted by those around the French court who had no greater reason to like her than did the English – and it has carried on down half a millennium to the 1920s when she was canonised, not for her martial skill or her rescue of France, but for her (imagined) piety – a detail which doesn’t stand up to the facts on the ground – and her ‘martyrdom’ which is one of those ghastly tropes that says if you die horribly, we’ll all love you for it afterwards.  And now, in the twenty first century, she’s a repository for the projections of the extreme right (perfect woman: virginal, pious, republican) and the extreme left for whom she’s a gender-bending feminist anti-christian shaman, none of which is true either (tho’ she did wear boy’s clothes and really didn’t want to give them up, which in those days, was a form of transvestitism that saw her burned, so perhaps the first of these might be true. I don’t think she was making political points, though. She was being practical). 
So: she was successful, where Vercingetorix wasn’t. She was fighting the English, who are still a fairly unpopular group in parts of France, whereas the Romans are universally admired… and the early spin means that people can project all they want on to her – and do – which is harder with a tribal chieftain who was kept seven years in a pit and then strangled in public on the orders of Julius Caesar.  All of which makes her an easy target for people who want to create saints. 
Simon: I know that you visited sites in France connected with the Maid of Orleans in research for this novel. I remember myself standing in Rouen where she met her end, as well as various other sites – the old market of Troyes, the church at Chablis, where one of her horseshoes is reputedly nailed to the door, and so on. And even now, many years on, I can remember the atmosphere redolent in such places. I remember being entranced by it even as a young man. Into The Fire is almost flooded with atmosphere, and puts me in mid of those sites even as I read. How much has visiting the appropriate places coloured your impress and descriptions of them in the book?
Manda: Definitely visiting Orléans made a huge impression on me – in fact, the whole of the Loire valley Jargeau, Meung-sur-Loire, Chinon, Blois… they’re all fascinating places. They’ve changed, obviously but the whole geography of the place and the relationship of the towns to the river is central to understanding the brilliance of her brief military campaign there.  And then the basilica at Cléray-Saint-André was very central to the contemporary thread of the narrative, so seeing that helped me to shape the parts of the action that needed to be there.  I never went to Rouen, I couldn’t face it.  – Rank cowardice on my part, but I studied the pictures and watched some videos and that was quite enough.  In a broader sense, though, seeing the remnants of the old town in Orléans, being places that are at least broadly similar did make a huge difference to gaining a feel of who she was. 

Simon: Jehanne has been the subject of a number of works of literature and cinema – those connected with William Shakespeare, Milla Jovovich, Ingrid Bergman and Mark Twain are just the more memorable. Given how unlikely it is that you have never read or seen such works, and given how iconic the Maid’s chastity and piety are, how hard was it to break the chains of common conception and build your own Joan in defiance of such works?

Manda: George Bernard Shaw, Vita Sackville West, Mark Twain… and yes, all the rest.  The amazing thing is, that until I read VSW’s biography, I’d never read anything more detailed than the Ladybird Book of Joan of Arc that I had in my collection when I was a kid (embarrassingly, my only real knowledge of Richard I comes from the same source – a Ladybird book. I really need to expand my reading).  What I gleaned from that was a story of a young woman so devoted to her imaginary friend in the sky that she was set as a figure head at the front of the troops while the men got on with the real work and was then burned for her trouble, and oddly enough (or not, if you’ve read anything else I’ve written), that held no interest for me at all.  I didn’t want to read anything else, watch any of the films, or see any of the plays.   It was only when I read an article that began to point me to the great gaping gaps in the accepted narrative that she became interesting as a person and then I didn’t want to read anyone else’s fictional account because I wanted to find her for myself.  So breaking the chains of common conception is the point of a lot of what I write – the world is no always how we’ve been told and I want at least to hold up the known detail and stare at it and let people see the gaps. If they work a different ‘best fit’ to fill them, that’s fine, but at least we don’t have to keep swallowing the nonsense that suited – and still suits – those who’d rather we didn’t question reality too closely. 
Simon: Into The Fire is written in two separate, yet concurrent timelines, which must be mind-numbing to keep together in terms of continuity and plot. Moreover, they are both set in France in different eras, requiring the novel to be written from a point of view that is truly Gallocentric. Was it difficult to cast aside your Britishness and look at the English as both a militaristic invader and a modern foreign nation, depending upon the timeframe? I note with interest, given your Scottish roots, the ready inclusion of the Auld Alliance in the earlier timeframe, which is historical record, but also feeds your plot perfectly.
Manda: You hit this one on the head. I am a Scot and unless you’ve been raised in Scotland, it’s hard to explain exactly the degree to which England is still the enemy. My father was a true blue Thatcher-loving Tory, but still, every single day as he drove us the 45 minutes from our tiny rural village into school in Glasgow, he told us the stories of our ancestors – the men who had fought and died at Flooded, at Bannockburn, at all the other hundreds of times when the Scotts were (notionally) on the Scottish side and the English were the bad guys. There was a Covenanter’s hill above the village I grew up in and we knew its history, and that of Glasgow when we knew nothing else.   I could sing Flower of Scotland (and still can, tho’ you wouldn’t want to hear it: I’m the world’s worst singer) and have never yet learned the words to the UK National Anthem. It’s an odd kind of double think because we know that England isn’t really the enemy. But equally we know that for a long time it was, that it could not be trusted and that France was our friend. And if I ever forgot, one of the first big historical series I ever read was Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond series which is all Scotland and France. And then her amazing, glorious, much-overlooked King Hereafter, which is the true story of MacBeth as a Viking, and easily the best viking book ever written. 
So putting myself in the head of the French who had just lost Agincourt was easy after a childhood filled with moments when in my childhood imagination,  I had stood as a lone survivor after the defeat of Flodden or the victory of Bannockburn. And understanding civil war was easy after the many, many retellings of the treachery of the Campbells against the MacDonalds at the Massacre of Glencoe and the whole dreadful treachery that made James VI into James I and lost Scotland’s sovereignty.   The discovery of the plaque to the ‘Auld Alliance’ with the names of the Scots who fought for the freedom of Orléans was an immensely moving moment and helped to craft a substantial arm of the historical narrative. 

Simon: It’s an old favourite, I know, but I’m unapologetic. Given the sheer variety of eras and milieus that you take on in your writing, and that this seems to be a standalone novel, what’s next?

Manda: It *isn’t* a standalone novel!  I’m writing ACCIDENTAL GODS  – just passed the 110k mark of what will, I think, be around 180k – it continues the stories of the surviving key characters from the 2014 thread of INTO THE FIRE and the historical thread is supplied by their grandparents’ generation in WWII and beyond (I’m in 1956 now, briefly, having cruised through 1941 – 44 in England and France).  This is a completely fascinating period and one thing that rose to the top in all my reading was the difference between the Maquis and the Resistance, and the differing roles of the SOE in the rural areas rather than the cities where they have so often been depicted.  And then the Jedburghs fell from the sky: three man teams with two officers and a radio operative who dropped in uniform after D-Day and helped to co-ordinate the rural Maquis groups and make sure they were fighting the right war in the right place at the right time.  Eisenhower said afterwards they were the worth of 3 extra divisions and although there were some terrible mistakes (Vercours, for instance), there was some outstanding work done. More to the point, the US parts of these went on to form the nucleus of the newly formed CIA and spent the rest of their lives trying to do the same again in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq – and they’re doing it now in Syria, trying to arm the Kurds and train up local militias and they haven’t worked out that this was viable in France were the locals were white westerners living in a liberal (ish) democracy and it doesn’t necessarily work in the rest of the world. 
What I really want to look at is how we got from there – 1945 with Bletchley Park and all that it undoubtedly achieved – to 2015 and GCHQ/NSA and their avowed intention to collect everything about everyone and keep it forever. Particularly I want to look at the creation of STUXNET virus, and the blocking of the last round of the climate talks in Denmark.   The nature of democracy is changing. Accountability is growing more tenuous. It’s a very, very fertile area for a fiction writer to look at the way things are. 
All that’s left to say, then, is thank you to Manda for her generosity and time in answering my questions and in offering such a wonderful prize for one lucky reader. Get commenting for your chance to receive a signed copy of this most enthralling book, you lucky people.

Warlord’s Gold

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mawg

So this is book five in Mike Arnold’s civil war series and I’ve been reading and reviewing since book 1. What can I say that I haven’t already said?

This series is promoted as the ‘Sharpe of the Civil War’. In truth, though I love my Bernard Cornwell series, we are rapidly approaching the point where dear Captain/Major/Colonel Sharpe is actually the ‘Stryker of the Napoleonic Wars’. For me, Captain Innocent Stryker has now become one of the quintessential characters that define modern historical fiction. Macro and Cato, Alan Dale, Valerius, Hatton & Roumande, Two-knives, Raven, Jack Lark, Orm… and Stryker.

Arnold was unpredictable, I feel, in his first three books, in that though each one was an engrossing and rivetting read, they varied between books that were breakneck action, complex hunts, character-driven pieces and so on. By book 3 he had largely hit his stride of combining every stunning aspect into one novel. Book 4 (Assassin’s Reign) was a superb masterpiece of the genre and showed that he had crested the wave and could be relied upon to keep up the standard in every way. Book 5 confirms that.

Warlord’s Gold not only hits the spot in every aspect of historical fiction, it is also Arnold’s tightest, well-resolved and yet most wide-ranging plot yet. Our story begins with two distinct threads (ignoring bad guys that we know are going to converge with one or the other), with Stryker in the Scillies and Forrester (my personal fave character) heading south from Oxford on a special mission. For a lot of the book I presumed this was going to be the way of things, with two stories being told concurrently, each with their own heroes, villains and plots. And yet Arnold seamlessly joins them during the tale, bringing them together into a siege situation the like of which a lover of Zulu would enjoy.

Enough on the plot and writing style. Suffice it to say, the plot is extremely well-crafted, while the writing style is so comfortable and enticing that it is easy to get lost in the tale. Even with a busy life and demanding children, I finished the book in 3 days.

Since my era of choice is Rome, this Civil War series teaches me something with almosy every chapter, and I come away after a Mike Arnold book more insufferably knowledgable than ever I was before. Even just in the use of language (sotweed, dragooners, lobsters and so on.)

But for me, no matter what else good I can say of this series, Arnold’s strength that makes him stand out among peers is his characters. He is capable of creatin such vivid characters that even half-way into their first scene the reader can thoroughly visualise them in their head. Stryker and Forry are prime examples of this, and carry from book to book, with Stryker being easily one of the top 3 most memorable characters in the whole genre for me. But even one-shot villains or supporting characters in these books are so vivid and clear that they steal the stage from one another at every turn. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Arnold creates the most impressive complete nutcases in the literary world! In this particular book we meet a thoroughly disreputable and enjoyable smuggler-turned-privateer, a misshapen vengeful lunatic (though you might know him), a zealous Balkan killer, a reluctant military commander with the heart of a lion and more. It really is a treat to read in terms of character.

The less said about the plot the better, for fear of spoilers, but it will be giving nothing away to those who have read the first four and have seen the book’s title that this one revolves around Cade’s missing treasure and its recovery. In fact it is something of a race between two parties to deliver the gold to their opposing masters, with action all around the south coast this time, ranging from Basing House in Hampshire to the Scilly Isles. One thing for sure is that you cannot predict the path of the plot, so don’t try.

In short, Arnold has become a master of his art, and this book just shows it. This review is redundant for anyone who’s read the rest of the series. If you’ve read books 1-4, you’ve had book 5 on pre-order anyway, I’m pretty damn sure. If not, then you’ve not read any of these. WHY???? Go out and buy them all at once. Don’t waste time where you might have to wait for the next book to be delivered. Take my advice and get them all now.

A thoroughly absorbing masterpiece that deserves to hit the top and stay there.

Vengeance is here

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gov

Remember Raven? Well you should do! Giles Kristian’s debut book and the series that followed were ground-breaking for me, being the first Viking novels I had read. They had all the action, excitement and fur-wrapped adventure – with frozen snot in your beard – as a reader could hope.

Then Giles stopped (or more accurately paused) the Viking writing to delve into the world of the English Civil War with The Bleeding Land, which was one of the deepest, most harrowing pieces of historical fiction I ever read. A sequel spawned to that, and here was I awaiting the third of those novels. But no. Giles is of Norwegian descent and clearly he was, to quote a famous scene, pining for the fjords. As a surprise, instead of a third civil war novel, or even a fourth Raven one, we are given… (insert drumroll here) A PREQUEL!

Enter God of Vengeance. For those of you who haven’t read the Raven books, you’re in luck. This could be read without any prior knowledge. In fact perhaps it would even be better. For those who have, this novel tells the tale of our Raven fave Sigurd as a young man and treats us to his introduction to several of the solid characters who will make up his crew in Raven (including the excellent Black Floki.)

Sigurd is too young to accompany his father to war as part of King Gorm’s war on the rebel Jarl Randver. Instead he travels to a clifftop with family and friends to watch the sea battle unfold. To his horror, instead of seeing his father win easy glory, he watches as King Gorm betrays his father and the three ships are overwhelmed.

Thus begins Sigurd’s saga and a new series for Giles as the Odin-favoured wily hero, betrayed, orphaned and homeless sets out with the few survivors of his father’s oath-sworn to form a band of warriors – based upon a Gods-sent vision – in order to seek revenge on his enemies and regain his  honour. Ranging around a relatively small region of the western coast of Norway, Sigurd will wade through blood if he must to achieve his goal.

One of the surprising things about this book is the inclusion of a strong female character. Strong females are not all that common in ancient-medieval fiction anyway, and in the Viking world perhaps even less common. This shield maiden is a welcome addition to the cast.

The thing I will say above anything that recommends this book is the writing. Giles’ early works were very action/adventure, in the best possible way, while his civil war saga has  been harrowing and dark and emotional. God of Vengeance seems to draw on both sides of his writing to create a new, different style. It has the feel of a traditional Viking Saga. The wordsmithing in it is fine and authentic-feeling, and it will transport you right back to the era. Giles has moved on from being a storyteller of the highest calibre to being  a true Skald.

God of Vengeance is out today and if you loved Sigurd as the supporting character of Raven, you’ll LOVE him as the hero of his own saga.

Buy it today.

Written by SJAT

April 24, 2014 at 8:00 am