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Caesar’s Emissary

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You might remember that some time back I reviewed the first short story in this series with mixed feelings due to the heavy use of modern vernacular. Well, recently I have been reading pre-publication manuscripts, my own work for heavy edits and very serious research texts, and so with a couple of days free, I picked up the second book, and thought ‘I’ve done too much heavy stuff recently, so why not?’

I’m glad I did. I cannot be certain whether it was because this time I was prepared for what I was about to read, or possibly that with a second story, Johnston had honed his craft some, but I enjoyed Caesar’s Emissary far more than the first book.

These, by the way, are very much not serious, heavy Historical Fiction. If you are looking for another Ben Kane or Conn Iggulden, you’re looking in the wrong direction. But if you’re looking for an entertaining light read to fill in a few hours, then look no further.

The humour in these books is akin to Ron Gompertz, I would say, if a little more direct. There is an odd undercurrent of the old ‘film noir voiceover’ in the way they are written. In this volume, Mettius is talked into going to Alexandria to sort out the grain shipments there. In the process he gets himself tangled up with the Ptolomaic rulers and all sorts. The highlight for me was a scene in a bar with a local comedian doing his skit.Sounds barking mad, but for some reason it worked and was a truly entertaining scene with some real laugh-out-loud lines.

This, for instance, is a joke from the sketch about the Ptolomaic dynasty:

“The other night [my wife] said she wanted to have sex with her brother. I told her I wasn’t in the mood.”

And here’s part of his description of Alexadria, which I love:

“Wild statues of bird gods and those weird animals with human heads they called sphinxes were everywhere. It was as if some deity had grabbed a cauldron and mixed Greek aesthetics, the Egyptian fascination with the afterlife, a pinch of balmy climate and a shitload of money…”

I think I am rapidly warming to these short, humorous episodes. And if you are a student of the era you will find a lot of in-jokes and colour that will sit well with you. Johnston’s stories have become my palate cleanser of choice between larger works.

Written by SJAT

November 11, 2016 at 10:35 am

21 Centuries of novels

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Like history? Need a good book to read? Well here’s a selection of some of my favourites. I’ve chosen one book by one author for each century, showcasing the very best of that era in my opinion. A few of those centuries are empty, mind, clearly telling me where I need to concentrate my reading, so I’ve skipped about 5. And needless to say, I’ve ignored my own humble scribblings. These are all from other writers, and of the ones I’ve met, they are not onlys skillful storytellers, but also most excellent people.

5th Century BC

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To be honest, I was going to make this list much shorter, but there was simply no way I could ignore this novel, so I had to extend the timeframe to include the best book I’ve read by one of the very best authors ever to put finger to keyboard. Christian Cameron’s ‘Killer of Men’ brings to life the world of ancient Greece in a way no other writer can. It is like climbing into the skin of the character and living through him

3rd Century BC

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Few writers have tackled the world of early Rome and done it well. One is the tremendous Ben Kane. He has rapidly risen to become one of the pillars of the Historical Fiction world, famed for several series spanning quite some timeframe. But my favourite of Ben’s novels is still ‘Hannibal: Enemy of Rome’. It is a story of friendship, family and sundered cultures in a time which even to many of us Roman-o-philes is still a fairly hazy world. Hannibal brings the Punic Wars to life.

1st Century BC

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Alongside Ben Kane, one of the acknowledged giants of Historical Fiction is the great Conn Iggulden. It all started for Conn with ‘Emperor: The Gates of Rome.’ A novel of the early life of Julius Caesar, it is immersive and gripping and set the standard for many authors to follow. And best of all, it triggered a series of four more excellent novels.

1st Century AD

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Huge selection to choose from here, and some astoundingly good books from great writers, so the competition is fierce. But for my money, the prize for the 1st century just has to go to Douglas Jackson for his superb opus ‘Hero of Rome.’ Simply the best, most harrowing, most breathtaking scene imaginable as Boudicca’s rebellion hits Colchester. Every now and then I re-read it to remind myself what I need to try and live up to.

2nd Century AD

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Again, a time well covered by some excellent writers, and with so many memorable names, but for sheer personal reading pleasure I have to go with Ruth Downie’s Medicus, a tale about a Roman military doctor and his significant other solving a case of disappearing dancing girls in Chester during the reign of Hadrian. Elegantly written, historically accurate, with flowing prose and the most wonderful sense of humour, it sort of exemplifies the most widely accessible of all historical fiction. I’ve yet to find someone who doesn’t love it. For the record, I very nearly subdivided this century to include Anthony Riches, but rules are rules, and I can only select one. But if you’re after extra reads, launch in Riches’ direction.

3rd Century AD

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Long professed on this blog as one of my favourite series, Agent of Rome by Nick Brown takes us into the troubled world of 3rd Century Rome with a member of the Imperial Security service. By turns funny, thought-provoking and gripping, the book is guarenteed to drag you along and the series never fails to disappoint. Makes me weep for the sites often mentioned in these books that I would love to visit, but are in the troubled lands of the Middle East.

4th Century AD

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Ian Ross introduces us to the Constantinian era in his debut ‘War at the Edge of the World’, showing us where the world of that most famous emperor began through the eyes of a grizzled centurion. An unusual era for Roman fiction, and a welcome addition. Gordon and I have tackled Constantine too, but Ian got there first and did a damn fine job, I must say.

5th Century AD

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‘Eagle in the Snow’ by Wallace Breem has long been considered one of the seminal works on the Roman world. Most Roman fiction authors will cite this as one of the best books written. Set at the very end of the Western empire, it is a somewhat sad and heart-wrenching view of the decline of a glorious world, and has certainly influenced my own opinions on the genre.

6th Century AD

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Alright, I know Guy Gavriel Kay writes fantasy, or at least Historical Fantasy, but his books are so heavily researched and so closely based on real events and people that sometimes they are more historical than some of the theoretical historical fiction based on the time. Such is ‘Sailing to Sarantium’, a fantasy twist on the world of Justinian and Belisarius. It is simply one of the best books (along with its sequel, being a dualogy) I have ever read in any genre. It deserves to be in this list

9th Century AD

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‘Raven: Blood Eye’ by Giles Kristian. Kristian has written a series set in the English civil war, and a new series of viking novels that are something of a prequel to this and more epic in scale. But there is something about Raven, and its sequels, that just grab me. They are adventure incarnate as Vikings seek fame and fortune across Europe. It is hard to deny the value of these books as works of great historical fiction.

10th Century AD

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And while we’re in the Viking era, though a little later, I’ll offer you ‘The Whale Road’ by Robert Low. Low’s books are very different to Kristian’s. They lack some of the ease of adventurous style of the Raven series, but they hit a new sweet spot in being very much ‘of their time’. They feel like great Scandinavian epics, and the world they explore, being Eastern Europe and the Russian steppes, is fascinating and unusual.

11th Century AD

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One could potentially accuse me of nepotism by adding Gordon Doherty. He is a good friend and we are working together on a series. However, I am drawn time and again to cite him as the very best of what the Indie publishing world can offer. ‘Strategos: Born in the Borderlands’ is a tale of the early medieval Byzantine world and is simply breathtaking in its atmosphere and colour. I defy you to disagree.

12th Century AD

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Robin Hood has been done quite a bit. In both literature and on screen. But ‘Outlaw’ by Angus Donald takes an approach I’d never considered, treating him as something of a mafioso crime lord. Seen through the eyes of Alan a Dale, this book is something new in a very old hat world. And better still, the following 7 books take Robin Hood through the whole world of the 12th and then 13th centuries. This book is simply a ‘belter’. For the record, Outlaw pipped Prue Batten’s Gisborne to the post by the width of a shadow.

13th Century AD

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Narrowly squeaking in at the end of this century I’d place Robyn Young’s ‘Insurrection’. I enjoyed Robyn’s Templar series, despite my fear of all things Templar (writers seem incapable of touching the subject without getting mystical and creepy). But this tackling of the Scottish wars of Independence under Robert de Brus takes us in unexpected directions and earns its place as a fascinating read.

14th Century AD

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Michael Jecks’ ‘Fields of Glory’. Well I knew Jecks as a crime writer. I read this entirely by accident, expecting murders and investigations. What I got instead was a saga of military campaign during the Hundred Years War, with some proper villains thrown in to boot. Jecks’ knowledge of his era shows in a tale that is so thoroughly believable and immersive. One of the best.

15th Century AD

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‘Into the Fire’ by Manda Scott is one of three books on this list some might argue as not Historical Fiction. But the fact is that it is a dual-timeline novel, and half the book is set in the time of Jeanne d’Arc, the maid of Orleanse, so it qualifies for me. This is a thriller of the very highest calibre, switching back and forth between Joan of Arc and a series of grizzly arson events in modern France. Scott cut her teeth in the ancient orld and has an instinctive knack for bringing the past to life, which she does in spades here.

17th Century AD

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‘Hunter’s Rage’ is actually the 3rd book in Michael Arnold’s series of Civil War adventures. And once more, the 17th century for me is an era rich in excellence, so Arnold has really pulled out the stops to surpass the others. Hunter’s Rage for me was the moment in this excellent series when he truly hit his stride, and the prose was effortless, the story gripping, the pace breakneck, the history thorough and the characterisation vivid and astounding.

18th Century AD

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The 18th century for me is a largely unplumbed time, but recently I was introduced to the works of Robin Blake, and so I have no problem filling this century.’A Dark Anatomy’ is the first of four books (so far) in a series of historical mysteries that have kept me entertained, researching the events surrounding them, and hungry for more.

19th Century AD

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Oh, Paul Fraser Collard, why’d you have to be so damn good? You knocked D.E. Meredith off the top spot by a fraction of a hair’s breadth. The Jack Lark series have been likened to Sharpe. They’re not. They’re better than Sharpe. They are what Shapre should wish to be. ‘The Scarlet Thief’ was the first in the series and a book I didn’t believe could possibly sprout sequels. I was wrong. Collard is at the top of his game from square one, which is incredibly rare. Read this book, set in the time of the Crimean war, and you’ll agree.

20th Century AD

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‘Traitor’s Gate’ by Michael Ridpath is fascinating. It’s not quite a historical saga. It’s not quite a thriller or whodunnit. It’s not quite a war story. But in some ways it’s all of those. It is one of the best books I have read in the modern era, showing you the world of Nazi Germany before the outbreak of the war. I felt for the characters, and the premise at times chilled me to the bone. I loved it. So will you.

21st Century AD

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Simon Toyne’s ‘Sanctus’ is the third of the ‘not-quite’ hist-fic books on this list. Yes, it’s set in this century, but the themes, culture and alternate history suffusing and surrounding it for me qualify it as Historical Fiction. It is the first of a trilogy of quasi-religious myseries in a similar vein as (though to my mind better than) Dan Brown. As a story it is a unique and fascinating idea, and truly hit the big time in my top books. 21st century meets thousands of years of history in this blinder.

So there you go. A book a century. If you’ve not read them, you can fill your reading llist in advance for winter. Have fun and happy reading.

Written by SJAT

October 16, 2016 at 6:59 pm

The Oracles of Troy

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I’ve had this book in my reading pile for some time, but didn’t want to read it until I’d finished writing my section of the coming collaboration on the Trojan War (A Song of War) because I didn’t want to directly influence my own telling. Now that my work on that tale is done, I allowed myself to read Iliffe’s book. And by happy coincidence, the author has agreed to write the foreword for our collaboration, so boy am I glad that I liked his book, else this could have been awkward! 😉

Fortunately, The Oracles of Troy is an excellent piece of writing. It tackles the end of the Trojan war only, long after Achilles’ death and the events of the Iliad. It deals with the fall of Troy and the end of the war, telling a tale that is rarely covered. In fact, early Greece is rarely touched by authors at all, so it is very much virgin territory, so this should be of great interest to all readers of ancient historical fiction.

One thing that stood out for me is the legendary feel of the tale. While in our own work we tried to pare out the myth and work with a prosaic, real-world Troy, Iliffe has given the world of Greek myth full reign in his story, which makes it a whole different beast, and a fascinating one at that. In this era the lines between history and fantasy blur a great deal, as any student of Homer will know, and so we discover mystic visions, monsters, magical weapons and invulnerable heroes here in very much the mould of Homer himself. That adds a certain level of adventure to the story beyond straight history and pushes it into the world of myth. The result? Magnificent. And a book that should appeal to readers of fantasy as well as those of history. And at no point does the use of this legendary mythic aspect interfere with the readability or flow of the story. In fact, it is such an inherent thread that the tale would be comparatively dull without it.

Beyond that, the characters deserve mention. This tale is told principally from the point of view of Odysseus (being part of the chronicles of that most wonderful hero.) But his is not the only view we are treated to. Sometimes we see through Diomedes’ eyes. Often through those of Helen herself. But most of all we are treated to a fictional character’s view – a man called Eperitus with a complex history, who travels as Odysseus’ closest friend and helper. And though Eperitus is Iliffe’s own creation, he syncs so well with the extant cast of Greeks and Trojans that any reader not fully conversant with Homer would never know it. The whole nature of Eperitus is so well constructed that I have to applaud the author on this most stunning piece of plotting.

So grab a copy of the Oracles of Troy and set sail with Odysseus as he investigates ancient tombs, fights monsters, builds horses, sneaks into cities, becomes a master of disguise and brings about the downfall of the greatest city in the world.

Highly recommended, folks.

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.

The Lone Warrior

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I’m behind on reading one of my favourite series, but I’m catching up now. The Lone Warrior is the fourth book in Paul Fraser Collard’s excellent mid-nineteenth century series and, coincidentally is out in paperback today.

Jack Lark bean some time ago in The Scarlet Thief as something of an anomaly, an imposter. A low-ranker impersonating an officer. It was a very singular tale with, as far as I could see, little scope for an ongoing series. Then Paul surprised me with The Maharajah’s General, which repeated certain elements of the first, with impersonation and subterfuge, but also blew a hole in the very idea by revealing his true self and sending the series on something of a sharp tangent. This was good as a series, especially one with such a unique concept, would soon become stale if it simply repeated that concept over and over. So the third book – The Devil’s Assassin – took us in new directions. Jack was no longer wearing a mask, and instead went into tremendous action as his true self. And at the end of that book, he was free of his long-standing lie and released from the military.

So when I came to Lone Warrior, I truly had no idea what to expect. Jack was no longer in the army. He was no longer pretending to be someone he wasn’t. What could happen next? In fact what does happen is a new and fascinating angle. What could drag Jack back into the world of war and danger? What else but a woman. And the danger? Well Jack has faced it in the Crimea, with a rogue Maharajah and then in Persia. And throughout the second book, when he was serving in India, I kept wondering when we would encounter the Sepoy Mutiny, one of the few great events of Raj history of which I’m actually aware. And now, in book four, we’re there.

I won’t spoil the plot. If you’ve read the other books then you know what sort of thing to expect. If not, you’re in for derring-do and thunderous action. A character who is down-to-earth and practical living in the world of the English gentleman amid a sea of the empire’s enemies. All right, I’ll try to nudge the story without ruining it. Jack has fallen for a girl. It’s easy to see why when you read her. And after saving her from some dreadful people, he agrees to take her back to her home in Delhi. His timing is somewhat poor, arriving in the city the day before said Sepoy Mutiny kicks off and drags the whole of India into war, challenging English rule and almost succeeding. And so Jack finds himself in a city besieged by the enemy. Oh it doesn’t end there, and Jack finds himself once more serving with the British, displaying his forte – the art of killing.

And therein lies what for me is the great strength of the novel: the British siege of Delhi. The action is brutal and thick and fast and the pace never lets up. Nor, incidentally does the horror or violence, though Collard manages to enfold it all in a great epic tale of adventure and sometimes Flashman-esque action. But yes, to the siege. There are two movie sequences that to me portray the utter chaos of battle better than all others. The lesser of the two is the opening to Gladiator. The better is the start of Saving Private Ryan. Well, that is what you’ve got in Collard’s siege of Delhi. This is a third of the book at least, with all the action, intensity and brutality of the D-Day landings. It is warfare masterfully told. Gloriously horrifying, and it proves once more that Paul Fraser Collard is at the top of his game and the top of the genre.

Lone Warrior is exhilarating and packed with vivid characters and scenes and deserves to be read. Go buy it, people.

Skin and Bone

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A week or so ago I discovered, and started reading, Robin Blake’s Cragg and Fidelis mysteries. Go back a week and check out my review of the Scrivener to see how highly  I rated it. Well never one to subscribe to the ‘too much of a good thing’ theory, I read the fourth and latest book next. And guess what? It’s better.

Once again, I found that Blake had engineered a plot that was just complex enough to titillate the brain cells. Between about pages 50 and 100 I formed my opinion of what had happened. I got it about 75% right, I reckon, but there were aspects I hadn’t realised were coming.

For that is what Blake does. He presents you with a case, and then throws in tangents. None of these, I might add, are included just for the heck of it. They all have purpose and bear on the story as a whole, even if in a rather circumspect manner. I am beginning to see a style evolve. The Blake method. The same way Christie always had her detective gather her suspects for the reveal, or Columbo says ‘just one more thing’. Blake is a master, I suspect, of redirection. And that creates plots that are deep and complex, requiring some picking apart. You can never say ‘he did it, guv’ because there is ALWAYS more to it than that.

Once again, Blake shows an almost unparalleled knowledge of regency Lancashire and once again he displays it in such a way that you learn and experience and feel that you’re there, but never with ‘info dump’. The history is always woven into the story, which remains accessible to everyone. Anyone can read these books and enjoy them, regardless of era. Go on. You’ll love ’em.

If anything, the main characters are more likeable and believable than in the previous volume. There is definitely less preachy goodness among the protagonists, which makes it feel all the more authentic. I suspect that this is because the plot of book 4 revolves around a subject which even in the 1740s would shock and revolt, so the reactions are realistic, while in the previous one, slavery is abhorrent to the main characters, but that really puts them in a minority in the period.

So here we go, without wanting to provide spoilers:

A body is found in a tanning pit (the mechanics of this are vile. Don’t read while eating your lunch like I did). It is a baby, though there is some discussion as to whether it is a stillbirth or a murdered newborn. Thus begins an investigation you won’t be able to help yourself second-guessing which takes in the modernisation and progress of the city, the loss of ancient ways, the danger of noble monopolies, the rather seedy goings-on below (and above!) stairs in the houses of the great and good, and a disaster that, while almost costing Cragg his career, in some ways makes him. And where the previous book left me wanting to pursue the fate of those who escaped, this has a very satisfactory ending and an excellent dramatic conclusion.

In short, folks, it’s a win. Read this series. I’m going to catch up on the ones I’ve missed shortly.

Medicus

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ddg

I bought this to read, not because of the investigative/whodunnit side, but because of the Roman legion aspect. I’m not much of a crime or thriller reader, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.

What I discovered was that the first Ruso novel is far from a tense, dry, fuddling story. It is more the story of the man, Ruso, and the events that surround him, the array of interesting and bizarre folk that serve alongside. The plot at tantimes seemed almost incidental to me, though that detracted nothing from the book. From about page 3 I was absorbed.

The whole tale is told with a constant, quirky humour that serves to make the whole situation and background more human. Indeed, it is the very humour that defines much of the protagonist’s character.

In short, I loved the book far more than I could ever hope and just cannot wait to see what messes our fave medicus can get involved with next.

Written by SJAT

November 5, 2015 at 4:29 pm