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The Centurions 2: Onslaught

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Image result for anthony riches onslaught

Early this year I had the opportunity to read and review Anthony Riches’ first Centurions book, Betrayal. I have now finished the second volume in this trilogy. It should be something of a clue as to the value I place on Riches’ work that my reading time has dropped by 75% this year due to work commitments, and yet I still made time to read both of these.

I said in my last review that the first book felt like a step into a more serious and deep style for Riches. This pace and style does not let up in the second volume of the series. This is one of the deepest and most complex of all military history series I have read.

You’ve heard the phrase ‘does exactly what it says on the tin’? Well this series does just that. Book 1 was military and political, with many switchbacks. Betrayal formed a core theme to the tale. Book 2 continues that trend. Onslaught. That is precisely what this book is. If you are looking for Machiavellian politics or civic and historical investigation or cunning mystery, this is not the book. If you are seeking war, then boy, this is for you.

Onslaught picks up the story of the Batavian revolt in Germania. There is manoeuvring politically through the contenders in the Year of the Four Emperors, but it is done on a personal and unit level in the provinces, not in noble families on the streets of Rome. Onslaught brings you unrelenting war. But it is not dull or repetitive, despite its martial theme throughout. It is possible to make a book about unrelenting war engaging. Movies do it often. Zulu. The Longest Day. Too Late the Hero. So do not hesitate if you’re a fan of the Roman military. This series is for you.

The greatest beauty of this book comes in two parts. Firstly, Riches is a military historian and knows his Roman warfare to an almost unparalleled level. The result then is a deep exploration and illustration of Roman/Germanic warfare in almost every aspect. It is almost like a lesson in Roman war. Secondly, because half these people are Germanic whether they be fighting for Rome or the native contingent, and the other half are Roman but are of their own split loyalties, this is no simple Roman vs Barbarian romp, but makes the reader appreciate the complexities and shades of grey in real Roman history.

The upshot? Well if you read book 1 you’ll be reading 2 anyway. If you haven’t then you are missing out as this is a whole new step from Riches. If you’re new to Riches’ work anyway then what the hell have you been doing? Pick up a book and get caught up.

Highly recommended as always by this man, one of the top authors in the genre.

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The Centurions 1: Betrayal

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betrayal

I’m sure if you’re reading my blog you’ll already be familiar with Riches’ work, in the form of his late 2nd century ‘Empire’ series. It came as something of a surprise to me last year to learn that while he is still continuing that series, Riches had sidestepped into a slightly earlier era with a trilogy project based on the Batavian Revolt.

For the record, I’m a huge fan of Riches’ Empire series, which has everything I look for in rollicking historical mayhem. But Betrayal is a different beast entirely. It feels considerably more grown-up than the Empire series (which sounds like an insult to Empire, but is not meant as such.) There is just something altogether more serious, thoughtful and… well, grown up… about this series. There’s no other way to put it.

Set during the Year of the Four Emperors, despite my love of Riches’ work, I approached Betrayal nervously. It is an era that has already been plumbed thoroughly by a number of very good writers, and the whole subject has become a little bit stale for me recently, the last good treatment I read being Doug Jackson’s. I needn’t have been concerned. Riches has done himself proud by looking at this oft-viewed piece of history from a new angle and a new point of view, which is impressive.

In fact, the general direction of the book reminded me of Ben Kane’s seemingly preferred angle, taking on a critical event in Roman history from a non-Roman point of view. In this case, it is largely told from the point of view of Civilis, a Batavian officer, with additional angles provided by a number of centurions on different sides of the conflict. And for anyone not familiar with the Year of the Four Emperors, there are most definitely more than two sides to look at.

Initially, I was a little perturbed by the number of angles and viewpoints, to be honest. Be aware that there are a lot of characters and units to familiarise yourself with, and that can require a lot of memory and concentration. But the same could be said with his Empire series, which involves a good number of important supporting characters, and yet that did not take me long to get the hang of. The same is the case here. It did not take too long to start grasping who was who and what was going on.

This is not a straightforward military romp. It is not a ‘swords and sandals adventure’. This is a deeply complex novel and, while it revolves around military units, the first book revolves more around the political machinations of powerful men, tribal politics and the strengths and failings of a number of imperial personas. In fact, battle scenes are rare for a Riches novel, with good in-your-face combat early and late in the story, sandwiching a knotty plot that is treated with respect and intelligence.

And the win for me? It gave me a new respect for the Batavians and their place in Roman history. Made me appreciate and consider the part they played in the early empire and the individuality of a people I had always rather lumped in as ‘one of those tribes.’

This is a superb book, and the start of what promises to be a cracking trilogy, given how this builds, and how it ends. The book is out on March 9th, and I suggest you pre-order it now or set a reminder to buy it in a fortnight!

Tales of Byzantium

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I am something of a lover of all things Byzantine these days, and an avid reader of historical fiction, of course, and so it’s no wonder really that this book came to my attention. Tales of Byzantium is a collection of three short stories, and so I shall deal with each individually briefly, and then the whole thing to finish.

The first story is primarily a love story. It is the tale of Constantine Porphyrogenitus and his lady Helena (he’s one of my heroes, responsible for Tekfur Saray palace in Istanbul.) This story actually takes up more than half the whole book. Once I realised that this was a romantic tale, just a short way in, I thought I probably wouldn’t like it – historical romance has to be done exceptionally well to hook me. But oddly I stuck with this, and am glad I did, for it is far more than a love story. It is an examination of the characters, of what it meant to be a member of one of the great dynasties, to be the empress, it’s an examination of the dichotomy of the whole Byzantine world, in that they were such a cultured ancient people, who were the most powerful nation imaginable, and yet they were also riven by self-destructive tendencies and unable to come to terms with their both east and west and the changing world around them. Perhaps for me, most of all, I enjoyed the scenery, for Istanbul (Constantinople) is my heartland, and I could picture every location as it was brought forth. No. In honesty, it was the characters of Constantine and Helena. They were beautifully portrayed. So if romance is not your thing, brush that trend aside and read it anyway, paying attention to the people.

The second tale is more my usual fare, being a military story based around a siege involving another of my faves, Manuel Komnenos (or Comnenus in the tale). The characters in this (Manuel in particular) are immensely likeable and deeply realistic. The story is one that has something of a twist, and I liked the way it was framed as a retrospective view. There are action scenes, some humour, and a light exploration of the politics of the era. War fans will enjoy the moments of the actual siege. My one complaint about this tale is that it could so easily have been a much bigger story. It could have been played out slower and longer, as long as the first story, really, and that would have given us more tension over the events that are central to the story and more opportunity to come to know Manuel. All in all, it’s a nice story and a good read. I just feel it was a slightly missed opportunity for something larger.

The third tale is of an exiled princess, who, trapped in a tedious life in a monastery, manages to live a life in almost solitude despite being in a city of millions. Demeaningly for a woman of her status, she is given the task of teaching a young nun to read and in doing so decides that an unfinished story should be finished. This is Anna Komnena, who wrote the great Alexiad which documented the empire at the time of the earliest crusades. Once more, this is a beautiful vignette well-written and lovingly-researched, with well-fleshed out characters and attention to detail. Once again, though, I felt that this came across more as the prologue of a much grander work than a tale on its own. If Stephenson decides at some point to write a grand epic of the eleventh and/or twelfth centuries in thew Byzantine world, this would make a lovely start to it.

Overall, then, the writing is lovely. The characters are presented just right, there is a depth and colour to the world that Stephenson has clearly treated as a labout of love. The stories are entertaining and intriguing and tell of some of the great characters of the Imperial dynasties with a great deal of historical knowledge and accuracy. The whole book is a very easy and enthralling read. My only issue was that of the three tales only one felt complete, the other two being a little brief for me. But at 99p in ebook form, it is well worth the money and worth a read nonetheless, and certainly made me appreciate the author’s skill. I shall look out for further work by her.

Written by SJAT

November 17, 2016 at 2:00 pm

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.

The latter days of Rome

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Ok here we go. It might take a while to load as this is an image heavy blog post. There follow 23 images. And here’s your big quiz question to begin: which of these images are Roman. Go for it…

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Ok? Got your answers in order? Here we go…

It was a trick question. All of the above are Roman. Or, if I need to put it another way, if you could ask the builder or designer or commissioner of these structures, they would all tell you they were Roman. And they cover a period of over 2000 years. Yes, I know. It’s often staggering to think of that. At the end of the post, I shall detail the pics, if you’re interested.

Right, the reason for all this tomfoolery is because I keep finding myself confronted with words like decline, fall, and twilight applied to the Roman Empire. It is mostly the fault of Edward Gibbon and his renowned ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’, of course. And because of him Alec Guiness was in a film with the same theme. And you know what? They are talking about the period following the death of Marcus Aurelius and the reign of Commodus. And here’s the thing: Rome had existed for 933 years when Aurelius died (if you take the founding in 753 as Gospel, anyway.) But if you count an emperor of an empire that consider themselves Roman in an unbroken chain back to the days of Augustus, then the empire went on til 1453 when Mehmed the Conqueror took Constantinople. That means there was still 1273 years of being Roman to go. So this decline and fall seems to have taken place less than half way through? Pah!

Ian Ross has written a series of novels based around the rise of Constantine around 305 AD. His series is called Twilight of Empire. Now don’t get me wrong, they are very good books and I would recommend them. It’s just that monicker that makes me twitch. 305? 1148 years is a hell of a long twilight, isn’t it? Especially in a day that’s 2206 years long. So can even that era really be called a decline or twilight?

Because here’s the thing: Rome changed. Everyone seems to have this set view of the Roman Empire being the legions in their segmented plate with rulers in togas building playing-card shaped forts, shouting in Latin, worshiping Jupiter and conquering barbarians. Think again. Rome had been through many phases even by Gibbon’s time of theoretical fall. It had been an Etruscan monarchy with a military heavily based on the Greek model. It had been a republic with a Hellenistic/Etruscan/Gallic model of armies. It had been a principate with the first true professional standing army. And it had been an empire that meets common public expectations.

And if we accept that Rome had changed, morphed and grown from its start as an agricultural village to the great empire Aurelius left to his son, then why should we consider the changes that follow a decline or fall?

There was a century or so of political turbulence, yes, and the borders came under much pressure, yes. But even during that time there were periods of golden stability. Gallienus ruled for 15 years with a record that does him credit, for example. And during this time, art changes and blossoms. The mosaicists become multichrome and complex following African influences. Paintings become more varied and imaginative. Religion starts to become a much wider and more complex animal. Cultural identity is becoming mixed. What is a Roman in the late 3rd or early 4th century? Many emperors have now come from Africa, Syria and the Balkans. This is, to my mind, not a decline but a period of change driven by struggle and need, but one of glorious revolution. Sometimes change is difficult, but that does not mean it loses its value.

And so Constantine marks another turning point, as he for the first time shifts the focus of power. Rome is no longer the heart, but Constantinople. Does that make it less Roman? No. The inhabitants are still Roman, ruled by Roman emperors. The army is now a more diaphenous, complex and mobile thing, and includes members of the very peoples they used to fight. The equipment owes as much to the Germanic peoples and the Parthians as to ancient Rome and Greece. But they are still, in their minds, Roman.

Then Rome (the city) falls to the Goths and a short while later the last western emperor disappears into obscurity. Chisel that headstone of empire then, as Gibbon predicted. But no… wait a minute… there’s this thing we now term the Byzantine Empire, centred around Constantinople. But guess what? They did not think of themselves as Byzantine. That is a modern monicker. To them, they were Roman. It was the Roman empire, plain and simple. It spoke Greek, and was centred on Constantinople, and it was a Christian world. But it was still Roman.

So there you have it. Rome, to my mind, fell in 1453 after 22 centuries. It did not decline and fall between the 2nd and 5th centuries. Commodus did not mark the crucial apex before the downward slide. Equally, Constantine ruled during an earlier period of empire, not its twilight. In fact, its final decline I would put at 1204, when the Pope’s crusaders sacked Constantinople and crippled imperial power for good. THAT is the decline and fall. Two and a half centuries at the end  consisting of desperate emperors clinging on in the face of Italian belligerence and Turkish expansion.

Anyway, that’s my two-penneth for the day. And it gave me the opportunity to post some nice piccies too. Back soon with another book review.

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Pic details:

  1. The ‘Romulean Huts’ on the Palatine in Rome (8th century BC)
  2. Outfall of the Cloaca Maxima sewer in Rome (circa 7th century BC)
  3. Temples at San Omobono in Rome (6th century BC)
  4. Temple of Castor & Pollux in the Roman forum (5th century BC)
  5. Servian Walls of Rome (4th century BC)
  6. Temple in Largo Argentina, Rome (3rd century BC)
  7. Walls of Tarragona in Spain (2nd century BC)
  8. Mausoleum of Augustus, Rome (1st century BC)
  9. House of Argus, Herculaneum (1st century AD)
  10. Hadrian’s Wall at Willowford, England (2nd century AD)
  11. Walls of St Albans, England (3rd century AD)
  12. Aqueduct of Valens, Istanbul (4th century AD)
  13. Theodosian Land Walls of Istanbul (5th century AD)
  14. Haghia Sophia, Isanbul (6th century AD)
  15. Church of St Titus, Gortyn, Crete (7th century AD)
  16. Haghia Irene, Istanbul (8th century AD)
  17. Church of St Paolo Fuori le Mura, Rome (9th century AD)
  18. Monastery of Constantine Lips, Istanbul (10th century AD)
  19. Chora Church, Istanbul (11th century AD)
  20. Church of the Pammakaristos, Istanbul (12th century AD)
  21. Palace of Constantine Porphyrogenitus, Istanbul (13th century AD)
  22. Brontochion Monastery, Mistra, Greece (14th century AD)
  23. Bridge over the Armira River, Bulgaria (15th century AD)

Written by SJAT

June 26, 2016 at 12:11 pm

Rome and Egypt

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Something a little different for you this week. Two short novellas from two excellent writers, both of whom are contributors to the imminent ‘A Year of Ravens’ to which I have added my own humble tale. And both of these works are available on kindle for free, by the way!

First up we have The Three Fates by Kate Quinn

kq Kate is an author of both ancient and Renaissance novels, though to me (and to many) she is best known for her tales of Rome’s more powerful women during the height of the empire. I recently read and reviewed ‘Lady of the Eternal City’, her latest, and you can check out my review here. I was perusing potential things to add to my kindle when I came across The Three Fates (and the second novella I will be reviewing). Instant download. The Three Fates, I will say from the off, is definitely not a standalone work. As Kate mentions in her notes, this is, in fact, the original beginning of that aforementioned novel, which was later cut and then made it into the world as a free novella by way of introduction. But then, it’s free, so it doesn’t matter to the reader if it is more of a prologue than a tale in itself.

The Three Fates is more of an introduction to the characters (or a reintroduction if you have read Empress of the Seven Hills). It doesn’t have a nicely-defined end, but it does provide a very good introduction to the protagonists and antagonists of ‘Lady’. As a taster it does the job impeccably. It introduces you in a short read to Kate’s writing, which is heady and absorbing and brings the perils and glories of the Hadrianic court into glorious light. Download it for free, read it and see whether you want to go on. I would recommend doing so, having read ‘Lady’, but with this novella you can make up your own mind with no pressure.

Secondly, I also found The Princess of Egypt Must Die by Stephanie Dray

sdI find it harder to comment on this one as an introduction since I’ve not yet read Stephanie’s ‘Lily of the Nile’ to which this connects. The difference between this and Kate’s is that this novella can stand alone as a read. Taking the story from Alexandria to the mountains of Thrace, this story hooked me for the oddest of reasons. Not because of the writing, which is certainly high quality, atmospheric and gripping, and not because of the characters, though they are well fleshed out and believable. And not because of the point of view, since it is written in first-person present tense, which is not my favourite POV to read from.

No. This hooked me because it is a fantastic, strange and wonderful mix, belonging to an era of great change and cultural mixing, when the pharaohs were as much Macedonian as they were Egyptian. The world is an odd mix of Egyptian, Greek, Macedonian, and even more barbarous peoples such as the Thracians. And Stephanie seems to have submersed herself in the cultures of all of them and got into the heads of her characters who feel truly alive in a fascinating world. In fact, it was so absorbing that Lily of the Nile is now on my list, largely because having read the novella I need to read on…

So there you go. Two free novellas to help you while away an hour or two. I highly recommend them both.

Happy Thursday, all.

Written by SJAT

October 15, 2015 at 9:25 am

Praetorian: The Great Game

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Praetorian Blog Tour

So today Praetorian is released into the world, and the blog tour begins. Who better to kick it off than me, eh?

So what is Praetorian: The Great Game, and how did it come about? Well some years ago, I spent many months sweating through a tale I called Legion 22. It was atmospheric, evocative and character driven. It was also, when I was 90% through it and went back to read through so far, complete rubbish! Oh it was a nice tale, but to pull it together and make it workable would take almost as long as it had taken to write in the first place. Consequently, I gave up in disgust and assigned the book to ‘File 13’.

Rubbish basket full of white crumpled papers

(Legion XXII’s final resting place)

So I was left without a project that I had poured a lot of time and effort into. I was not quite ready to write the next Marius’ Mules or Fantasy novel, and I had an agent showing some interest if I could produce a new unpublished series. I foundered. And as I do at times like that, I procrastinated and filled my time with perusing Roman books for fun. And I toyed with the idea of trying to write a novel about either Caligula, Nero or Domitian and making them the good guy, their reputation ruined after their death by enemies. Not such an outlandish possibility, of course. And while doing this, I came across Commodus. I knew Commodus, of course, and not just from ‘Fall of the Roman Empire’ or ‘Gladiator’. I’ve always seen him as the starting point of Rome’s decline (something we have Gibbon to thank for, I suspect.) But the thing is, this is not all there is of Commodus:

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Commodus doing his Gene Simmons impression

Commodus started his reign looking good. He was popular and had all the credentials. If one looks at recorded events and reads between the vilified lines, it is rather easy to produce a picture, not of a complete barking mad barnpot like Elagabalus, but of a man who wanted to rule, but was disinterested in the minutiae of doing so. Commodus wanted to set the empire’s grand policies, and wanted to make Rome great, but beyond that he wanted to watch the races, the games and generally have fun. To this end, he trusted the actual running of his empire to a series of advisers, each of which turned out to be worse than their predecessor. It is therefore easy to see the emperor as a good, if slightly credulous, man who came under the unhealthy influence of some awful men who turned him into what history remembers. After all, very few of history’s notable figures are pure ‘white hat’ or ‘black hat’ good or bad guys.

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Alright, maybe in some cases it’s a bit clearer…

So I had my era and a character. But I had done my writing about famous Romans. After all, Caesar and his cronies had figured a lot in the Marius’ Mules series. I wanted a new, unknown character. I was perusing the varied and interesting events of Commodus’ reign and an event leapt out at me. There was a plot against the emperor at the outset of his reign that is largely ignored in Hollywood’s treatments of the man, largely because they are intent on vilifying him and making his sister Lucilla a saint. She was not. But enough about that. Don’t want to ruin the plot, after all… But in reading about the plot, I discovered that it had been stopped by the emperor’s guards. What if I could write the tale of that man. So, the character of Rufinus was born. Again, I won’t delve too deep there for fear of spoilers. But the note at the end of the book picks up from here and tells you everything else. I had my plot, my era, my hero and my villain. From there, a story was in the making. And so, to give you a taster, click HERE to download a PDF copy of the first chapter. I hope you enjoy it.

Don’t forget to check out the next blog on the tour tomorrow (http://bantonbhuttu.blogspot.co.uk/) for a review of the book

And because every good blog post should end with a smile…

 

Written by SJAT

March 12, 2015 at 11:40 am