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

Reviews, news and inside the world of books.

Posts Tagged ‘douglas jackson

War Games

leave a comment »

wargames

I’ve been a fan of Doug Jackson’s writing for a long time, from his Roman work on the Caligula series and the Hero of Rome series to his Jamie Sinclair novels. Quite simply, unless he contemplated regency romance, there probably isn’t a Jackson novel I wouldn’t read. When I learned that he had taken an unpublished manuscript and released it himself as an ebook I was clearly going to read it.

The first thing that strikes me is that I read a lot of fiction released by big publishing houses and I read a lot of independent fiction (which varies in quality from the sublime to the ridiculous). This is the second time I have read an independent release by an otherwise traditionally published author. And what I noted straight away is that it further blurs the line between the two. A good independently published book is better than a poor traditionally published one. And this is for certain a really good independently published book. In fact, Transworld might have slipped up in letting this one pass. Well, Transworld’s loss is our gain, as you can buy the ebook of War Games for £2.15.

Tell you about the book, you say?

Alright. War Games is a modern thriller rooted in Scottish history, which occupies that same niche as the author’s Sinclair novels, or any number of investigative thrillers. But it is different. The protagonist of War Games is… a psychic investigator. The urge to add ‘Duh, duh, duhhhhhh’ after that is almost irresistable. The concept might put some folk off, I’ll admit. I’m not a huge fan of the psychic angle in book or film myself, but if it is done well, then it’s a great read. I’ll come back to the plot after a couple of tangents.

The book is set in the lowlands and borders of Scotland, which is Doug’s home territory, and the level of depth of knowledge and love that has gone into the descriptions of the locations is wonderful. And I am familiar with the area, having spent time at many of the locations myself, so I can vouch for how spot on Doug’s descriptions are.

The book is set in the present day (give or take a few years) but the plot delves into a background that covers anything from the ancient world up, focusing very heavily on the 12th to 14th centuries. Since we are familiar with the author’s historical knowledge and ability from other books, it should be no suprise how well this informs the plot and text of War Games.

The narration is told in the first person, and with an almost ‘voice-over’ aspect that puts me in mind of the classive film noir detectives, or the original theatrical release of Blade Runner. To some extent this can ham up a plot, but that can be a drawback or a bonus, depending on how it is integrated into the story. In War Games I found it positively endearing. It was evocative of so many detective movies of my youth and cast a certain ‘book noir’ aspect to it that worked for me.

As I said, I generally avoid all things psychic, but saying that I absolutely love the Necroscope novels of Brian Lumley which feature a whole slew of psychically-enabled investigators working for the British government. The reason? It was REALLY well done. It was believable and played to the realist in me rather than promoting the fantastical. Jackson’s hero does the same. The psychic aspect of it is such a minor facet of the whole and is so downplayed and shot through with strains of realism that it comes across as perfectly normal, which is hard to do, and works well.

So go on… back to the plot. Glen Savage – Falkland islands and Northern Ireland veteran and unhappy psychic is living close to the breadline trying to support himself and his wonderful wife, who suffers badly with MS, when he is offered a lucrative contract by a Muslim Scot with seemingly unlimited funds. Having spent the time between his military service and this point with a brief flare of a career as the psychic that helps the police – at least until that cash cow caught foot and mouth – he is the only choice Mr Ali can turn to when his daughter goes missing and the police are particularly unhelpful.

Cue an investigation into a crazed serial killer who is driven by madness and an odd identification with a long-dead crusader to murder those he sees as enemies of the faith.

And that’s enough of plot. I don’t want to ruin it. A last few notes, though. This is a tale with a serious leaning towards religious schism and long-standing creed hatred combined with a serial killer tale on a par with the top writers in the field. The writing is excellent as always, but with a raw edge and ‘noir’ aspect that adds atmosphere to the story. And the sideline exploration into the world of living with Multiple Sclerosis is fascinating too.

In short, War Games is a really absorbing story that hits the mark in a number of ways. I heartily recommend it.

And to give you a great glimpse into the world behind the book, I managed to get the author to answer a few questions. Thank you, Doug, and here we go…

SIMON: Most of the locations in War Games are strewn around the borders and lowlands of Scotland. I’m quite familiar with a few of the sites myself and I know that you’re from the area. How much were the locations selected in line with your plot, or was the plot to some extent tweaked by the inclusion of locations you were dying to use?

DOUG: When I finished my first novel (it became Caligula, but I didn’t then have publisher) I had no idea what to do next, but I’d enjoyed it so much it seemed a pity not to write another. By then I knew I was I capable of writing a historical novel, so why not try something different? What came next was a crime novel written in the first person because the main character started talking to me in my sleep in a kind of Fifties Noir Sam Spade voiceover kind of way. When I started writing it I had an idea that I wanted to make the Borders a character, in the way James Lee Burke does with so successfully with New Orleans and the Bayou. I suppose there was also an element of passing on my love of what is a very special place and encouraging others to visit it.The actual locations were dictated by the need to have links with one of the main historical figures in the book.

*Note from Simon: this answer came after I had written the bulk of the review, and I am fascinated by the synergy between what I got from the book and what Doug intended.*

SIMON: Was it interesting writing about a subject that is local in both time and place rather than the ancient world or thrillers that range around the globe? Did you find anything different about the process?

DOUG: Probably the most difficult thing about writing a contemporary novel in a place you’re very familiar with is to ensure that none of the events or locations comes across as mundane. When Glen Savage walks down a street or drives along a road he always has to be thinking something fascinating to do with the case, or his own, very specialised situation, and experiencing the sense of place very vividly.

SIMON: There is something of a religious conflict theme to the novel which in light of more recent events is actually quite current, but also runs the risk of that old chestnut of something you should never discuss. Were you nervous about touching on the religious theme and the relations between Islamic and Christian characters, and were you forced to make any changes to your story to avoid trouble?

DOUG: I had to think long and hard about some of the religious and cultural aspects of the book and the actions of some of the characters. But when you’re writing a murder mystery about a contemporary killer whose actions are being driven by events that happened hundreds of years ago you’re on relatively safe ground. The events and the inhumanity we see all around us every day go far beyond anything in the book.

SIMON: I have always been impressed by your level of research and knowledge when writing your Roman novels, but it is plainly obvious from your other works that you are well versed in the subject of the modern military. Added to that the police procedural aspects of War Games, and I’m led to ask how much your career in reporting and newspapers has contributed to your wealth of knowledge?

DOUG: My background as a journalist certainly helps. It is amazing the detail you pick up along the way. I’ve attended dozens of trials, several of them involving murder, and that gives you an insight into how the police work. That said I don’t need too much detail about the likes of forensics and pathology because Glen only knows what he knows and any other information he gets is from internet research in the same way I do. I’ve always been interested in military matters. When I was young I wanted to join the army, but as I got older it became clear I was too much of a wimp. I have hundreds of books on the subject and have read many hundreds more over the years. As far as the army etc are concerned I’m comfortable in just about any age, though I sometimes have to research the fine detail. I love playing at being a general. If only they’d let me join at that rank, with a batman with a G&T at hand at all times.

SIMON: Despite writing novels based in the Roman era (a very superstitious time) and esoteric modern thrillers which touch on mysterious subjects, your protagonists have thus far all been solidly rooted in the pragmatic world. For all the realism of the lead character in War Games, the fact cannot be avoided that he is a Psychic Investigator. What led you to explore such an idea, and was it difficult keeping the ‘real feel’ of the novel with such an unusual lead?

DOUG: I think that if you’re writing a contemporary detective novel in such a crowded genre your character has to have something that makes him different, so that and the fact that the police do call on psychics was the trigger for the psychic angle. The Savage character is actually based on a sergeant in the Scots Guards I met on a freezing day in Crossmaglen, young and very personable man, but hard as nails and probably the most – I think the word is competent – individual I’ve ever met. The most difficult part was deciding just how psychic to make him. He can’t know too much or he’d just be able to point to the killer, and he can’t use it too little or what’s the point of having the ability. In the end I decided to make his powers sporadic and relatively unreliable, so that sometimes he’s as sceptical of his ability as other people are. He’s a man who exudes confidence, but his experiences in the Falklands have left him mentally fragile.

SIMON: Will there be another Glen Savage mystery?

DOUG: War Games is actually the second Glen Savage book I’ve written, but people I showed it to thought the first – Brothers in Arms – which documents what happened to him in the war, as well as investigating the mysterious deaths of some of his former comrades – worked better as a second book. The problem with that is that I had to incorporate several key introductory scenes from Brothers into War Games, so I need to do some rewriting before I self-publish it. I’m slightly off the pace with my current Valerius novel, so unfortunately I don’t have the time at the moment but hopefully before Christmas.

Well all I can say is how much I enjoyed the book and how grateful I am that the author took the time to answer my questions. Thank you Doug for your insight.

Go buy the book folks, right HERE

Advertisements

Enemy of Rome

with 2 comments

Hi folks, sorry for the extended hiatus. A few books I couldn’t yet or wouldn’t review have combined with school holidays and then a punishing month of writing madly to schedule and resulted in little time to read, review or just plain whiffle. But recently I’ve been back to the reading again, and to get me started, I was spurred on by the resurfacing of an old fave…

eor

Valerius Verrens is back, guys, and back with a bang! Those of you who are following the series will remember that book 4 (Sword of Rome) had ended in something of a cliffhanger, as though the book hadn’t ended but rather hit an advert break. Well ‘Enemy’ picks up seamlessly where ‘Sword’ left off, continuing to tell the story of the Year of the Four Emperors from Verrens’ point of view.

In my review of book 4 I analogised the plot with a pinball machine, Verrens being twanged and shot back and forth betweem protagonists and antagonists almost against his will, necessity and honour requiring that he surrender himself to his fate.

Well I would say that book 5 follows suit, but it wouldn’t be a fair analogy. For unlike the ordered, almost Machiavellian maoeuvering of the previous book, Enemy of Rome picks up the pace and feels more like Verrens is a stick caught in the current of a fast flowing river as it plummets over a fall. He keeps hitting rocks and getting caught in eddies, and all the time moves closer and closer to the precipice.

That’s the feeling. Doug continues to tell the story of one of Rome’s most fateful years with style and vision. Indeed, I found in this book something of the same world-changing prose that created the infamous ‘temple scene’ of book 1 that remains one of my favourite pieces of writing of all time. You see Doug tackles something not many people can write convincingly: a night battle. Oh it’s easy enough to write the mechanical aspect of such an event. But few people can convey the panic, the confusion and the dread involved in it. Doug has done that in spades. The battle scenes in this are masterpieces, and none more so than the night fight.

But enemy of Rome is more than a string of battle scenes. As I noted with my stick and current analogy, Verrens does not often get to play the same role for very long: prisoner, general, negotiator, spy, protector, besieger. Verrens plays his part in the wars that we knew were coming between Vitellius and the rising star of the era: Vespasian. But he will also play his part in the intrigues in Rome, where camps are polarising and the streets are unsafe, while the woman he loves is forced to play a careful game in the house of Vespasian’s brother, for that same house plays host to the vile Domitian.

I think probably the only problem I ever have with these books is that my view of Domitian sits at odds with Doug’s. I see him as a somewhat withdrawn and antisocial character, but an able administrator and a man with sense who was handed the reins of a runaway empire and managed to bring it to a halt. But then every good novel needs antagonists, and Domitian certainly fits the bill with the Verrens series. He is certainly a loathesome character in these books. But praise due in a similar vein for changing my view of another historical figure. My picture of Aulus Vitellius has always been drawn from the views of his opponents and successors, and the picture Doug paints of him is a truly sympathetic one that tugs at the heartstrings. Bravo Doug for your Vitellius.

The story rockets towards the conclusion, which is every bit as exciting and tense as a reader of Doug’s work has come to expect, all the time keeping the flavour and the plot alive, and even leaving time for the characters to grow as it progresses. And what of the end? Well obviously I won’t ruin things for you. No spoilers. But suffice it to say that unlike the cliffhanger of book 4, this book has something of a game-changing ending that might see book 6 when it arrives being something of a departure. I’m certainly looking forward to it, anyway.

In short, then, this novel is a strong component in the continual growth of the Valerius Verrens series and really will not let you down. Full of tension and fury, tortured honour, impossible love and dreadful inevitability, it will keep you riveted til the very end.

Read the book, folks.

Douglas Jackson’s Sword of Rome

with one comment

djsor

It is criminal that it’s taken me so long to read ‘Sword of Rome’. Particularly given that Doug Jackson’s books are some of the literary highlights of my year. However, events conspired to keep it from me. What that meant was that during that dark and miserable time following New Year, at least I had a book to read which I was confident would be a belter!

I was so right. The Valerius Verrens series is one of the strongest historical series on sale at the moment of ANY era, let alone just the Roman. The first book (Hero of Rome) was one of the best I have ever read, and certainly concerned one of the most tense and memorable scenes of any novel. The sequel (Defender) was a strong contender and surprisingly successful, given the dark content and the controversial subject matter. Then along came book 3 (Avenger) and it was clear at that point that Doug’s series had hit the top of the genre. Avenger was one of my favourite books, perhaps better than Hero, though nothing will ever match the ‘siege of Colonia’ scenes. And with a lot to live up to, book 4 looked like it was fighting uphill, given that its subject matter is already strongly represented in Historical Fiction. Against the odds, Jackson has managed to turn that subject into a novel that vies with the best, and at least matches the quality of his previous epics if not surpassing them.

The reason?

It was the way the story was told, for me. The year of the four emperors (the civil war of 69AD) is a famous time about which I have read a great deal, and it is hard to find a new angle to examine such a thing. Henry Venmore-Rowland produced a nicely detailed account from a traditional viewpoint. Manda Scott showed us the same events from a most unusual and fascinating perspective. So what was left? Simply, to tell Valerius’ own story using the evens of the time as the pinball table around which our unwilling hero is bounced painfully.

Valerius is an excellently-constructed and believable character. Not a superman in a cuirass or a blue-eyed boy of the people. Nor is he even the embittered veteran. He has avoided or transcended all stereotypes to become a fully rounded character in whom everyone will be able to see something familiar and to their liking. In a similar fashion, Serpentius, his right hand man, is a character who has grown beyond mere ‘supporting cast’ status now, to the point where he could almost support his own spin-off.

In this installment, Valerius, having journeyed to Spain to serve Galba, who is set on becoming Nero’s successor, finds himself drawn into a sequence of events that will see him killing emperors, acclaiming emperors, serving emperors in battle and on secret missions, and standing his moral ground against them – and we’re talking more than one emperor here. Essentially, in this turbulent year, most characters of no conscience could float through the currents by throwing their support behind whoever wears the purple this week. Most characters of conscience would live for an emperor and die for him as the next contender comes along. Valerius is lucky (or possibly UNlucky) enough that while his conscience and his unbreakable word force him to support even lost causes against old friends, blind luck and a pig-headed unwillingness to back down see him bounce back each time.

Hence the pinball analogy. That is what the book will leave you with.

You will experience this heart-stopping time in Roman history from the fertile lands of southern France, to the seething streets of Rome, to the countryside of Latium, the deadly Alpine passes, the forests of Germany, and the beleaguered lands of northern Italy. And Valerius will be your guide.

Apart from the sheer breakneck speed of the plot, and the tense action, there are three things I find recommend Sword of Rome:

Focus on unusual details. What do you know about the First Adiutrix Legion? I know their basic history and they’re quite a fascinating bunch, but I only know them from dry textbooks. Now I’ve had the chance to see them face to face.

Characters. Apart from the powerful continuing characters and at least one truly stunning, wicked bad guy returning, Jackson’s portrayals of the unyielding Galba, the unfortunate Otho, the unwilling Vitellius and the unmanned Nero are fresh and vivid and help them stand out in a year when an emperor could come and go faster than you can put on your pants!

The plot arc. The very obvious plot arc for anyone wanting to write a book on the year of the four emperors begins with Nero’s fall from grace and demise, follows through the numerous brief reigns, and ends with the accession of the dynasty-founding Vespasian. It seems clear. Henry VR split his story into two books, but it was still a standalone story in two halves. Manda covered the arc in one go. Jackson has eschewed the obvious and left the tale in a most unexpected place. Reaching the epilogue, all I could think of was ‘When is Enemy of Rome out?’

So there you have it. Breakneck action, vivid characters, a fresh, believable perspective, and a fabulous plot with a stunning, unexpected end. Don’t want to read it yet? Are you barking mad?

Go buy. And if you’ve not started the series, check out my review for the last book by clicking on ‘Valerius 3’ on the right menu.

Another masterpiece, Doug.

Written by SJAT

January 28, 2014 at 5:14 pm

Douglas Jackson – Avenging Rome one page at a time…

leave a comment »

Image

Whew. I finished it. Not a phew as in ‘that was tough going’ but a phew as in ‘wow what a powerful conclusion.’

I’ve been reading Doug Jackson’s books since Caligula first appeared in hardback, while I was still writing my first, and I love his work. But when he started the Valerius Verrens series, something changed and his work stepped up several notches. Hero of Rome (the novel that introduces the character) is one of the best Roman novels I’ve read and the scenes of the evacuation of Colonia in advance of Boudicca’s attack were among the most powerful I’ve seen. The second Valerius novel, Defender of Rome, had a different feel and a different tack. It was a brave novel and a powerful one, if a little bleak and soul-withering at times.

Avenger of Rome is a book I’ve been waiting to read for some time. I found it difficult to see how the story could progress after the second book.

Well Doug did good! Avenger is a triumph of a novel. It has the tension of the first book in the series and the depth of the second combined, but it also has much more. It is far and away the best of the series so far and left me wanting more.

After the horrifying events in Rome in ‘Defender’, in this great tale, Valerius is sent east with the remit of investigating General Corbulo for signs of treason. But nothing is as it seems and, as Valerius becomes more and more involved in matters, he finds himself becoming a valuable and trusted member of the great general’s staff as Corbulo defies imperial edict in order to safeguard the empire, whatever the cost to himself.

Certain things stand out about this book, to me. Firstly, the journey – which occupies a quarter of the book – is a magnificent tale in itself and could quite easily have made the basis for a novel on its own.

Secondly, the book features some of my favourite characters from Roman history (Vespasian, Titus and Corbulo) and does each of them proud, the depiction of Corbulo particularly striking a chord with me as it is very much how I have always imagined him. While I would hardly describe Nero as one of my favourites, I also have to admire the way Doug handles the complex character of the youthful emperor. Nero is an enigma and the character is built upon from the second book to a strangely almost understandable and certainly pitiable combination of paranoia, pride, neediness and hubris. He is too complex to pigeonhole, which is, I suspect, as close to the truth as any writer will get. Indeed, hubris is a strong theme among the more powerful characters in the novel.

Thirdly, the battle. Wow, the battle. Well, come on, it’s hardly a spoiler, is it? You knew there was going to be a battle, right? I know from personal experience how hard it is to write a good battle. Not an ok battle, but a good one. I’ve tried. And in the end, I come down to showing any battle from a point of view of individual encounters, as I simply cannot adequately convey the scale of the whole thing. Doug just did. The scale was immense, the time it took, the numbers, the sheer organisation, and yet not a single detail is lost. Not even the noise. The smell. The tension. The fear. It is a work of sickening beauty.

The upshot? Valerius is one of the most interesting characters in Historical fiction at the moment and each book Doug writes adds to the depth and power of the character. This book has, however, stepped another notch upwards and, where the first left me feeling a little drained with the heart-wrenching conclusion and the second left me feeling weary and saddened, this one left me feeling awed and astounded and waiting to see what comes next (the conclusion almost pushes you straight  into the next tale). Valerius, I will watch you put things right! My sword arm is with you.

Well done, Doug. A fab read. When’s the next due out?

Written by SJAT

September 1, 2012 at 10:43 pm