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Posts Tagged ‘Ben Kane

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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Top 10 reads of 2015

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How propitious. Thursday is blog day and this post, which is my top 10 reads of 2015 happens therefore to fall on New Year’s Eve. These are the best of my reads this year and are presented in order of Author surname, not preference. And, oddly, there are some of my fave authors not represented here, simply because I’ve not read one of their books this year. And for good measure I’ve thrown in a bonus read at the end! Enjoy the list.

Tobias – Prue Batten

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The first in a trilogy of spin-offs from Prue’s Gisborne series, Tobias was a hit this year since it maintained her absolutely tip-top standards of prose, style and character, while taking a step forward in terms of plot and action. It represents Prue’s best work so far and is a perfect marriage of style and content. Read my review here.

The Emperor’s Silver – Nick Brown

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One of my all-time fave series came back with a bang this year. Nick Brown took a novel character type and a little-used era and created the Agent of Rome. And his protagonist has grown and acquired friends through the series, and though this one stands out partially for the intricate plot, it mostly does so because of the impressive character growth of the supporting cast, which was long anticipated and very welcome. Read my review here.

The Great King – Christian Cameron

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The Long War series is one of the most immersive and expansive series in historical fiction, and the Great King stands out from the rest of the series for me because it contains everything I seek in this kind of work. It covers one of the greatest military engagements in Greek history, explores the Olympic Games and leads us a journey into the heart of Persia. All really good stuff. Read my review here.

The Devil’s Assassin – Paul Fraser Collard

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Jack Lark is one of the best literary inventions of the past decade. A truly unique character idea and one that initially I thought would have trouble managing a second book. And this one is the third! The third Lark book is also a game changer, taking us off on a tangent from what we were expecting, which is a brave move for an author and sometimes fails in execution. This one didn’t. Read my review here.

The King’s Assassin – Angus Donald

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The Outlaw chronicles have been a welcome staple of my reading for years now, and consitently make my top 10. King’s Assassin is something new, though. It feels different from the other novels in the series. To some extent, it felt like what had been a proper boy’s adventure series had grown up, passing through to become something different. It is the penultimate in the series and there is a definite feel of something coming to an end. Read my review here.

America’s First Daughter – Stephanie Dray & Laura Kamoie

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A new writer for me – two new writers, in fact. I’d encountered Stephanie’s work as part of the A Day Of Fire collection, but this was something else and a phenomenal achievement. It was a new type of read for me entirely, and one born from the most unique perspective. It opened up new avenues of interest in my life, and for that alone it deserves a top ten spot. Read me review here.

Eagles at War – Ben Kane

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Again, Ben Kane moves into a new milieu, having dealt with the Caesarian era, Hannibal and Spartacus. And this time he’s moved more into my period of choice. To take on the Teutoborg disaster and try to cover the scope in a single novel is a massive undertaking and he did it justice from both sides of the conflict, which was nice to see. Read my review here.

Lady of the Eternal City – Kate Quinn

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Again, a contributor to A Day Of Fire, Kate Quinn proved herself to me with this novel, which is languorous and exotic and yet at the same time informative and pacy, showing a side of the emperor Hadrian that I had never even imagined. A win on several levels. Read my review here.

Thunder of the Gods – Anthony Riches

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The empire series is on its eighth book now and seems to be running from strength to strength. Here we have moved geographically into the Middle East to explore the Parthian world in a truly action packed and fast paced military adventure. The reason for this win: Riches has settled into the characters beautifully and has managed to change directions with the overall plot arc now. Read my review here.

The Holy Thief – William Ryan

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One of the most atmospheric books I have ever read. Quite simply that. A Gorky Park for this decade, Holy Thief is a perfect marriage of intricate plot and foggy, dangerous, cloying atmosphere. The protagonist is extremely real and sympathetic and I felt totally drawn into the time. Read my review here.

Into The Fire – Manda Scott

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One of the most ambitious novels I have ever encountered, Into the Fire was a duel timeline treat dealing with modern police procedure and political shenanigans and the campaigns of Joan of Arc. It was a masterpiece in both times and probably hits my top ten of all time. Read my review here.

So there we go. 11 books in a top 10, and each and every one a gem. If you didn’t get round to reading one of them this year, go get it for 2016. Happy New Year and happy reading everyone.

Clouds of War

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Hooray, hooray, it’s released today…

Those of you who’ve not already had it on pre-order, scurry along and buy a copy of Ben Kane’s latest opus today. Why? I’ll tell you why…

Hannibal has always been my favourite of Ben’s novels, and therefore the series my fave of his series. The first novel (Hannibal: Enemy of Rome) was a stunning delve into not only a period of Roman history that’s not often dealt with, but also into the nature of love and friendship in a time of brutal war. It was simply excellent. The second book (Fields of Blood), though not quite topping the dizzying heights of the first book, was also a fine work, delivering just what the title suggested as Carthaginians and Romans fought desperately across Italy. Book three, simply, is a bloody triumph in every way.

It must be hard (and as a man who writes myself, I can really feel this) to tell the third story in a series in which the three main characters are on opposing sides in a war and outside the war entirely and yet engineer a plot in which the three interact. I mean, it would be easy enough to do so if you didn’t mind it feeling trite, contrived, implausible and basically fairly poo. And yet for the third time in a row, Kane has done so, and this time best of all, with a looming expectation of doomed meetings swept aside and the result a truly realistic, serendipitous calamity.

The fact that the action takes place in a limited scope lends C.O.W. a tightness that some novels lack. Though it takes place over two years and the time stretches on at points, the geographical limits (all within the Island of Sicily and perhaps 3 places thereon) provides a very strong, tight situation.

Kane has clearly taken some of the most famous moments in Roman history into this novel, but more than that, he has visited their sites, lived their lives and felt the atmosphere there and this shows through in the work. It is full of life, colour, vigour and stunning realism. Whether it is military action, civilian sacrifice, base cunning, or noble honour, they are all displayed with real understanding.

Highlights for me include…

No spoiler here, I reckon. The moment you know it’s Punic Wars and Sicily (which is very early in the book) you will expect the siege of Syracuse. This is one of the most famous of all Roman military engagements, and involved some of the most outlandish and astounding actions. And you will devour the first assault hungrily.

The action in Enna is perhaps some of the most poignant and harrowing work I’ve ever read. It shows how deeply Kane can make you feel for even a passing character.

And the last section of the book? Well, I won’t go into spoiler details, but it rivals Doug Jackson’s treatment of the defence of Colchester in Hero of Rome, and that remains one of my most powerful scenes of any book. The tense, fraught excitement it builds is second only to the continual flip-flopping between hope and despair, hope and despair, hope and despair. Really it has to be read to be experienced, so that alone is a reason to buy.

The characters have grown since book 2, let alone book 1. They are more adult and react appropriately (and Kane as always pulls no damn punches when putting them in situations to elicit such a reaction). But the reappearance of at least one super S.O.B. adds villainy to the tale, and the appearance of at least one new hero adds joy.

In conclusion, Clouds of War is tight, well-written and exciting, full of colour, and realistic and even heartbreaking in places as one could imagine it might be. It is character driven and is a feast to the imagination.

I, for one, cannot wait for book 4.

Written by SJAT

February 27, 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

No…. I’M Spartacus

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I’ve waited until I finished the second book to review these two, since I read them back to back and a 2-part series is relatively rare. Given that, I will not be writing a separate review for each book. This review is for both Spartacus the Gladiator and Spartacus: Rebellion.

I’ve been a fan of Ben’s writing from the start. His Forgotten Legion series was groundbreaking in a number of ways and quite astounding as a debut. I was then fairly stunned by Hannibal, which I consider to be one of the finest pieces of ancient Historical fiction written. Despite the high quality of FL, Hannibal showed a new maturity in writing and more depth of character and soul.

So on to Spartacus. I won’t say, for the record, that this series is better than Ben’s Hannibal (and its future sequels.) It is as good as Hannibal, and that’s just dandy by me. I wouldn’t have wanted Ben’s style to change after Hannibal, as that book hit the spot just right for me. What I will say about these books is that there has been a slight change in conventions that I found refreshing and excellent (more of that shortly).

I won’t say much about the plot, to be honest. Anyone who follows any review I write knows that I don’t like to risk spoilers. But, that being said, the general tale of Spartacus is a matter of record that most people will have at least a basic knowledge of. So, bear in mind that you sort of know how this saga is going to end. I mean, there’s only a certain amount of license a writer can realistically get away with (and Ben Kane seems to be very sparing with artistic license anyway) and to have the books end with Spartacus riding off into the sunset would be a little hard to swallow.

So prepare yourself. I spoke to Ben at the History In the Court event a few days ago and he wondered whether I’d cry at the end, given that apparently a lot of others had. Well, Ben, I have to admit to a few sneaky tears there, but to be honest there had been eye moistening for at least two chapters in anticipation…

One thing I find I have to say and it’s the only thing that could be construed as criticism, I suspect, is that in both books, I actually wished they were slightly longer, despite that they were long anyway! The reasoning behind this is that the time spent in the ludus at Capua has some of the most important plot buildup of the whole story, but I felt that I would have liked to see more of the non-plot-important gladiatorial contests during that time (some are reminisced about or alluded to that I’d have liked to have read directly.) It is possible, of course, that this is my own problem fuelled by having recently watched the Spartacus series and craving such fights – bear in mind that it’s almost impossible to read Spartacus without drawing certain comparisons if you’ve watched the series, but I’m confident these books will come out of the comparison favourably. Similarly, in the second book, a number of the smaller battles or skirmishes that are not critical are referenced only in reminiscence or conversation, and I kind of missed seeing them myself. Again, perhaps just my bloodthirsty tendencies showing through.

But on with reviewing: One thing that I particularly loved that was, if memory serves me correctly, a new convention in Ben’s writing, is the regular inclusion of an ‘inner dialogue’ for the major characters. At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about this, but as the books progressed, I decided I really liked it and loved the effect it had on conversation. Often two characters will converse, but their private thoughts have a secondary conversation above them. This really gives a boost to the understanding of the motives and desires of the characters.

Another big win for me was the character of Carbo. Clearly a fictional creation, Carbo is the Yin to Spartacus’s Yang in many ways and provides a counterpoint to the main star. I will say that he is in no way a sidekick or comedy relief. He is a strong protagonist in his own right, but helps to balance Spartacus. Well done for Carbo, Ben. Not only is he an important character, a plot foil, a companion and so much more, he is also the main chance the book has for any sort of positivity in the outcome.

Similarly, I loved Navio, and the portrayal of the young Caesar. On the Roman side, it is interesting to see Caesar and Crassus at this stage in their development, giving an insight into what creates the men who will exist and are portrayed in the Forgotten Legion.

Incidentally, as well as the sadness of the inevitable conclusion, there is one scene in the first book (a death scene) that I actually found worse. It was for me a harrowing read with all the soul-crushing skill of a Guy Gavriel Kay work. Fabulous in its awfulness.

In an echo of the plot construction of the Forgotten Legion, there is an overriding element of the mystical and the divine in this work which goes deeper than simply describing the attitudes of the people in the setting, but actually provides foretellings, insights, and even explanations as to the reasons for the events of the Third Servile War. One day I may well go back through these books and read them with a different mindset, going in to them with the idea that the whole string of events is somewhat defined and informed by prophecy and divine whim, rather than the straight historical viewpoint I attacked them with this time.

All in all, these two books create the deepest, most realistic and yet refreshingly different telling of the Spartacus rebellion yet. Forget Blood and Sand and Kirk Douglas. The characters here are authentic feeling and very much sympathetic, even on the Roman side. The fights and battles are up to the very high standard that fans of Ben Kane’s work will have come to expect. The undertones of divine influence are subtle and yet powerful. As always, Ben appears to have meticulously researched everything and the historical accuracy of the books is as strong as I can believe it could get. There is never a let up in the story’s pace or the action, and you will genuinely be as sad at the conclusion that you have no more to read as you are at the storyline itself.

It’s a win on many levels. It’s so sad that there’s nowhere to go and the series has to end there. There could always be the possibility of a prequel, of course, since sequels are unrealistic. But anyone who watches Ben on twitter will be able to heave a sigh of relief knowing that he’s working on the next Hannibal book now.

Written by SJAT

September 22, 2012 at 7:55 pm