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

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The pinnacle of Roman non-fiction

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I usually review fiction books here, and those are usually historical fiction, and quite often Roman. However, as often as I read fiction, I read non-fiction. I will often laud a good work on Twitter or Facebook, but I tend not to do full-blown reviews for them. And there are some excellent writers of Roman non-fiction out there. I could cite John Peddie, or Adrian Goldsworthy, or Mary Beard, or the Adkins’ or a number of others. But a year or two back one name shot up the ranks for me.

I had the opportunity to beta read a walking guide by the excellent Mike (M.C.) Bishop. And amazingly I found it not only fascinating and informative as a non-fiction work, but every bit as entertaining as a good Roman novel. Since then I have acquired and read other Bishop works, and so consider this post a review of three different books (sort of four, actually) by the same author.

mcb

(image courtesy of Andante Travels website)

I will begin with a little bio. Mike Bishop has a superb pedigree in the field of Rome and its military. He has been instrumental in archaeological digs in some of Britain’s most important Roman sites, including on the wall. He has led guided tours to some of the most amazing Roman sites in the world for the unparalleled Andante travels. He has been a guiding light in the Roman Military Equipment Conference. Getting the picture? He has published a number of excellent and informative tomes in the field of Roman military. He also walked Hadrian’s wall more often than I’ve walked to the pub (alright, NO-ONE has done that many trips anywhere, but still) and performed a risk assessment  to the ancient monuments prior to the establishment of the national walking route along it. So when I say he wrote a walking guide to the wall, could you think of anyone more qualified?

wg1 wg2

In fact, some time apart, I beta read both of these books. One might be mistaken for thinking that a guide to walking the wall East-West would be little more than a carbon copy of the West-East one, only mirrored. Of course, this is not true. Both of these E-books, available at Amazon (click on the pic above to go there), are stunning guides. I walked much of the length of the wall many years ago and very much wish these had been out then. Should I get the chance to do so again, I will be doing  it with my kindle in hand and this guide loaded ready. Not only is it informative on a level you will not find in any guidebook I have found on the wall, it is also entertaining. In fact, as something of an ‘armchair archaeologist’ I thoroughly enjoyed reading these books with Google Earth open next to me, following the route from the comfort of my sofa with a good scotch. I ooh and ahh each time I read them at the fascinating little titbits they contain, and chuckle at the humour throughout. Have I sold them yet? If you’re ever going to visit the wall, just don’t do it without one of these guides. And at £2.50 you just cannot go wrong. As a last note, these guides actually made it past some of the most notable fiction last year to make it into my top ten reads of the year (check that post here)

On then to part 2 of my 3-part review:

rme

Ask any writer of Roman fiction to which book they will turn to check any point at all in the matter of military equipment, and I will bet you good money that they cite this tome. It is, quite simply, the bible for Roman military gear. My copy somehow remains pristine despite the fact that ever day that I write more than a paragraph of Roman stuff, I open the book and thumb the pages to check something. Well illustrated and going into surprising detail for its length, this book is perfectly organised for reference, well-categorised and running section by section throughout the history of Rome by period. It revolves mostly around primary and archaeological sources and so is quite clearly a cut above many of its peers. This is one of my most prized literary possessions. If you have any interest in Roma, make it one of yours. And that brings me to part three – my most recent acquisition already up there with my prized works:

rlf

This gem has not long been released by Pen & Sword books. A lovely, glossy hardback packed with information and plans, images and data it is another of those ‘definitive works’ for me, far surpassing the depth of the excellent Osprey book that covers the same subject, but which is restricted by size and cost to more of an overview level. Not only does it go into the background, the planning, the construction and so on of the legionary fortress, but it also contains an excellent gazeteer of the sites, charts, timelines and so much more. This is one of the best Roman military books you will ever own. Check it out.

So there we go. Three books (or more truthfully four) that deserve your attention. If you love your Roman history you can’t afford to delay. Go get them.

Fiction reviews will return next week with Giles Kristian’s excellent new epic: God of Vengeance.

Written by SJAT

April 17, 2014 at 5:03 pm

Hereward: End of Days

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I have to say, of course, that I review this – even after three books on Hereward – as something of a layman. It’s not an era I am familiar with, and I know little of Hereward other than vague connections between the name and rebellions in the days of the early English. By the time I got to the 3rd book, though, I have to admit it was pretty obvious that the series could not have a happy ending. Though I don’t know the history of Hereward, I do know that William the Conqueror founded a dynasty of Kings and his rule passed from his hands into other legitimate successors, not the bloodied ones of East Anglian rebels. So to some extent the ending was a foregone conclusion.

That doesn’t necessarily matter, of course. Gladiator is a great story. We all knew it had a doomed ending, but that made it no less poignant or exciting. Braveheart was a foregone conclusion, but still stirred the blood. The story of Spartacus can hardly have a happy ending, but that didn’t stop Ben Kane writing a damn good tale about him. Because sometimes the doomed hero is the best tale.

Hereward book 1 was a strong story, and only dropped a star on my review due to the almost superhero-powerful nature of the protagonist. However, it was still a storming tale, and book 2 only improved matters, deepening the character and the plot together. Book 3 concludes the tale of Hereward’s resistance to the Normans in great power, style and character. Indeed, by this time, the hero is such an excellent character and so absorbing for the reader that we truly care about him, which makes the doom of the ending we know is to come all the more powerful.

Despite going into the book with a sense of gloom as I thought I knew what must happen, I was constantly surprised by the fact that the English actually were winning! Hereward and his chums were bloodying the nose of the Conqueror and winning the fight. I had one of those moments where I wondered whether Wilde had diverged from clear history and done a Tarantino, Inglorious Basterds thing, having Hereward somehow win! And then everything went piriform as I expected it to from the start, but only due to unforeseen (and also unreported due to spoilers) circumstances. And even though towards the end of the book, it was once more obvious things could not end all hunky dorey, still Wilde had a number of surprises for me. Indeed, the ending really came at me out of the blue. Unexpected. And fab.

Basically, by this book, Wilde’s writing style has really hit the perfect stride and his characters are now well rounded and believable, even the new creations. And that leads me to Deda. ‘Nuff said. Deda should have a book of his own, James, as should Kraki. Bear that in mind, when thinking of your next project.

End of Days is full of action and bloodshed, subterfuge and trickery, murder and flight, treason and negotiation. Grit your teeth at the action in the swamps (as superb as it was in book 2). Wonder at the power of the Conqueror, who is every bit the match for Hereward. And love the book for what it is: a superb conclusion of a tale that should have been told long ago. It is, in short, a bloody marvel.