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Posts Tagged ‘epic

Blood and Blade

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I had the opportunity to read an advance copy of Matthew’s new Bernicia Chronicles novel a few weeks back, which pleased me immensely, as his work had been on my radar for some time and I’d been meaning to find time to fit in his first book.

I’ll say at the outset that Dark Age, Anglo-Saxon Britain is not my era of choice and an author has to work hard to draw and keep my attention. I have discarded a dozen Dark Age novels unfinished. Kudos to Harffy then that I stayed riveted to Blood and Blade right to the end, especially given that this is the third book in his series and I had been dropped in the deep end, unfamiliar with the characters and the ongoing story arc.

One of the strengths of the novel is the characters. The lead, a little like Cornwell’s Uhtred, is a little straightforward for my taste, but that works well in the book, as he becomes the linchpin around which the fascinating cast of supporting characters work, and some of those secondary cast really did intrigue and delight me.

The tale ranges across the length of England, from Northumberland down to Essex and Wessex, then back up to the north and beyond into the wilds of southern Scotland where it reaches a breakneck, action-packed conclusion, resolving a long-term thread that has clearly been developing in earlier books.

The pace is good, the characterisation excellent, the writing absorbing. All in all a very good read.

Written by SJAT

December 1, 2016 at 11:14 am

America’s First Daughter

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AFD-website-300x457

You might remember that back in November I told you all about a great book that was coming soon, of which I’d had the fortune to acquire an advance copy? Well it’s time to remind you, because it’s out TODAY! Yep, you can go buy your gleaming, absorbing copy of America’s First Daughter right now. Why? Well here’s how I reviewed it (and scroll down for more goodies too!):

This review has been a while in coming as I’ve been working out how to tackle it. Firstly let me make clear just how stunning a book it is. Now let me explain a little…

America’s First Daughter is not exactly my general sphere of reading. I tend towards swords, explosions, boobs and fart jokes in my reading. Alright, that’s maybe a simplification, but you get the idea. I like my historical fiction generally action packed and usually ancient or medieval. So the saga of a 18th-19th century family, their relationships and the political turmoil that surrounds them is a little out of my comfort zone. But every now and then it does you good to step outside your comfort zone. And with Stephanie now being an acquaintance of mine through involvement in a joint work, I felt it would do me no harm to read this, especially when she very kindly offered me an advance copy, wondering what an Englishman would make of what is in essence a very American book.

Firstly, I’ll tackle the form of the book. This is to some extent an old-fashioned family saga. It purports to be a tale of the daughter of Thomas Jefferson and in principle it is that, but it is much more besides. It is a tale that delves deep into the lives of the whole family and many of their friends – and enemies, in fact. It is the tale of the birth and growing pains of a nation. And it is epic in scope, both temporally and geographically. Covering more than forty years, it takes us from the last days of the American revolution to the late 1820s, showing not only a changing, growing family, but also a changing, growing world. And it takes us from the States to France and back. A truly epic work (and at 592 pages, you can see that!)

And so on to the style. There are a few writers who are capable of creating works of fiction that are so beautifully crafted that it matters little what tale they are actually attempting to tell, it will always be exquisite. Guy Gavriel Kay is such a writer. He could write a user manual for an Epson printer and make it something you clutch to your heart. Mostly, though, this appears to be the province of female writers. Prue Batten is one. I’ve said before that her writing is like silk. She could write a telephone book and I’d be riveted to it. Recently I have discovered several female American authors who have similar skills. Kate Quinn is one. Stephanie Dray is another. Their writing is heady, hypnotic and thoroughly immersive. And that is what I get from reading America’s First Daughter.

In short it is a beautifully written treatment of a family in the early days of the United States. The tale opens with out eponymous heroine in her father (Thomas Jefferson)’s study, after his death, going through the seemingly endless letters and correspondence he has left. And thus begins the story of Martha Jefferson and her family. Each chapter opens with a letter from or to one of the Jefferson family, which gives the chapter its direction. The authors then expand on the letter and give it form and content as Martha Jefferson recounts the chapters of her life in relation to that letter, each one taking us a step forward in time. It is a fascinating way to view a life and I can only doff my cap to the ladies for the sheer inventiveness of what they have done and for what must have been one of the most immersive and challenging research projects of all time. Imagine taking the collected correspondence of a man known for his letters, sorting them out and crafting a story from them. Impressive, isn’t it?

But for me (possibly due to my outsider’s view of the subject) the real win for America’s First Daughter was what I learned or was led to reconsider…

  • The very agrarian culture of the early Unites States with its landowners and estates, granting them political rights – reminiscent to me of ancient Rome in odd ways.
  • The amazingly close gap between the American revolution and the French revolution (a mere 13 years!)
  • The strange world of women in the era, given a very Victorian value system, and yet with strong women forging their own destinies very much ahead of their time.
  • The surprising strength of the abolitionist cause in Virginia, well in advance of the civil war. In fact the level of liberal thought seems more prevalent than I’d expected for the time.
  • Again, though, hos close the Revolution and the Civil war are in time, given how they seem to belong to such different eras in history.
  • The word Yankee. Its use led me to look up its origin and guess what: no one seems to know. It is a mysterious word.
  • The close cultural connections between the US and France at the time. And some of the history of Lafayette (who I mostly knew from a street name in New Orleans!)

There are so many more things I reexamined because of the book, but you get the idea. One mark of a good book has to be how much it makes you think, after all.

And I think also that it is quite brave of the authors to tackle this time and these people. It’s not like writing about ancient Rome or the crusades, because the people Stephanie and Laura are writing about here are real people whose families still exist and might be picking up the book and reading about great, great, great, great grandpappy. This is only perhaps 7 generations back, and I have knowledge of my family at that time. To tackle such troubling social situations involving those families is impressive.

One line from the book that stays with me and goes some way to explaining the epic scale of the work is “Though I’ve known personally five of the six presidents before him…”

If you are a lover of deep, very personal, very emotional prose, then you’ll probably buy this without my recommendation. If you are a lover of action adventure, well, take a punt. Have a try – you might well be surprised. I was. Stephanie and Laura (who is thus far unknown to me) have created something with such depth and languid style that it deserves to be read. And it’s out now! You can buy it here, and I recommend that you do.

And here, just to whet your appetite, is a short extract from the tale:

And what of our future . . . ?” I asked.

Mr. Short smiled. “If you could give up all thoughts of the convent, our future depends upon the orders your father is awaiting from America. Your father has asked that in his absence, I be appointed in his place as chargé d’affaireswith commensurate salary. If I receive such an appointment, then I can present myself to your father as a worthy suitor. Otherwise, I’m afraid he’ll consider me a wandering wastrel without employment.”

“He would never!”

Mr. Short chuckled mirthlessly. “You think not? I have in my possession a letter from your father lecturing me on the need to build my fortune. The most memorable line reads: This is not aworld in which heaven rains down riches into any open hand.

How churlish of Papa, but had I not, from the youngest age, also received letters filled with his lectures? “You mustn’t worry, Mr. Short. If my father requested your appointment, then it’s sure to come. But until it does, how can I be sure of your intentions in asking for my love?”

I didn’t expect him to laugh. “You’re Jefferson’s daughter, to the bone. You want evidence. Well, give me the chance and I’ll give you the proofs you require—both of my love and of the world you should love too much to abandon even for God. I wouldn’t have you enter a convent, much less love, in ignorance.”

“What do you think me ignorant of?”

With mischief twinkling in his eyes, he stopped, drawing me into a grove of trees. Beyond us, in the ditch, we heard boys playing a ball game in the dim lamplight. Somehow, in the dark, Mr. Short’s fingertips found my cheeks, and his mouth stole over mine. This first kiss was soft and tender. As if he feared frightening me. Nevertheless, it shocked me. It was like my heart was a loaded cannon he’d held fire to, and it threatened to shoot out of my chest. But I wasn’t frightened and I didn’t pull away. Instead, it seemed quite the most natural thing to kiss him back, mimicking what he did, glorying in every soft, sweet sensation.

At the feel of my lips teasing softly at his, he groaned and pulled back. “Oh, my heart . . .”

The sweet taste of him still on my lips, our breaths puffing in the night air, I asked, “Have I done something wrong?”

He held my cheeks in his hands. “The error was all mine. I’d beg your pardon if I could bring myself to regret it, but I never want to regret anything with you, so tonight I must content myself with one kiss.”

Only one? I wanted to lavish a thousand kisses on his face. Hislips, his cheeks, his ears. The desire was a sudden hunger, a desperate plea inside me echoing like the cry of peasants for bread.

“What if I’m not yet content? Wasn’t kissing me meant to be the proof of your intentions?”

“No, Patsy. Kissing you, then stopping before satisfaction, is the proof of my intentions, which I hope you’ll see are honorable and directed toward your happiness.”

Better still, there is a Rafflecopter giveaway. Irritatingly, I couldn’t get the code to embed in this page, but click on the link just there to enter and perhaps win a signed copy with a tote and notebook.

About AMERICA’S FIRST DAUGHTER:

In a compelling, richly researched novel that draws from thousands of letters and original sources, bestselling authors Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie tell the fascinating, untold story of Thomas Jefferson’s eldest daughter, Martha “Patsy” Jefferson Randolph—a woman who kept the secrets of our most enigmatic founding father and shaped an American legacy.

From her earliest days, Patsy Jefferson knows that though her father loves his family dearly, his devotion to his country runs deeper still. As Thomas Jefferson’s oldest daughter, she becomes his helpmate, protector, and constant companion in the wake of her mother’s death, traveling with him when he becomes American minister to France.

It is in Paris, at the glittering court and among the first tumultuous days of revolution, that fifteen-year-old Patsy learns about her father’s troubling liaison with Sally Hemings, a slave girl her own age. Meanwhile, Patsy has fallen in love—with her father’s protégé William Short, a staunch abolitionist and ambitious diplomat. Torn between love, principles, and the bonds of family, Patsy questions whether she can choose a life as William’s wife and still be a devoted daughter.

Her choice will follow her in the years to come, to Virginia farmland, Monticello, and even the White House. And as scandal, tragedy, and poverty threaten her family, Patsy must decide how much she will sacrifice to protect her father’s reputation, in the process defining not just his political legacy, but that of the nation he founded.

Buy Links:

Amazon: http://amzn.to/1oT6IZw

Barnes and Noble: http://bit.ly/1oT6Hon

iBooks: http://apple.co/1Kz82KS

Kobo: http://bit.ly/1Q19xyl

Add it to your Goodreads:  https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25817162-america-s-first-daughter

Advanced Praise for America’s First Daughter:

“America’s First Daughter brings a turbulent era to vivid life. All the conflicts and complexities of the Early Republic are mirrored in Patsy’s story. It’s breathlessly exciting and heartbreaking by turns-a personal and political page-turner.” (Donna Thorland, author of The Turncoat)

“Painstakingly researched, beautifully hewn, compulsively readable — this enlightening literary journey takes us from Monticello to revolutionary Paris to the Jefferson White House, revealing remarkable historical details, dark family secrets, and bringing to life the colorful cast of characters who conceived of our new nation. A must read.” (Allison Pataki, New York Times bestselling author of The Accidental Empress)

About Stephanie Dray:

STEPHANIE DRAY is an award-winning, bestselling and two-time RITA award nominated author of historical women’s fiction. Her critically acclaimed series about Cleopatra’s daughter has been translated into eight different languages and won NJRW’s Golden Leaf. As Stephanie Draven, she is a national bestselling author of genre fiction and American-set historical women’s fiction. She is a frequent panelist and presenter at national writing conventions and lives near the nation’s capital. Before she became a novelist, she was a lawyer, a game designer, and a teacher. Now she uses the stories of women in history to inspire the young women of today.

Website |Newsletter | Facebook |Twitter | AMERICA’S FIRST DAUGHTER Website

About Laura Kamoie:

Laura Kamoie has always been fascinated by the people, stories, and physical presence of the past, which led her to a lifetime of historical and archaeological study and training. She holds a doctoral degree in early American history from The College of William and Mary, published two non-fiction books on early America, and most recently held the position of Associate Professor of History at the U.S. Naval Academy before transitioning to a full-time career writing genre fiction as the New York Times bestselling author of over twenty books, Laura Kaye. Her debut historical novel, America’s First Daughter, co-authored with Stephanie Dray, allowed her the exciting opportunity to combine her love of history with her passion for storytelling. Laura lives among the colonial charm of Annapolis, Maryland with her husband and two daughters.

Website |Newsletter | Facebook |Twitter | AMERICA’S FIRST DAUGHTER Website

America’s First Daughter

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AFD-website-300x457

This review has been a while in coming as I’ve been working out how to tackle it. Firstly let me make clear just how stunning a book it is. Now let me explain a little…

America’s First Daughter is not exactly my general sphere of reading. I tend towards swords, explosions, boobs and fart jokes in my reading. Alright, that’s maybe a simplification, but you get the idea. I like my historical fiction generally action packed and usually ancient or medieval. So the saga of a 18th-19th century family, their relationships and the political turmoil that surrounds them is a little out of my comfort zone. But every now and then it does you good to step outside your comfort zone. And with Stephanie now being an acquaintance of mine through involvement in a joint work, I felt it would do me no harm to read this, especially when she very kindly offered me an advance copy, wondering what an Englishman would make of what is in essence a very American book.

Firstly, I’ll tackle the form of the book. This is to some extent an old-fashioned family saga. It purports to be a tale of the daughter of Thomas Jefferson and in principle it is that, but it is much more besides. It is a tale that delves deep into the lives of the whole family and many of their friends – and enemies, in fact. It is the tale of the birth and growing pains of a nation. And it is epic in scope, both temporally and geographically. Covering more than forty years, it takes us from the last days of the American revolution to the late 1820s, showing not only a changing, growing family, but also a changing, growing world. And it takes us from the States to France and back. A truly epic work (and at 592 pages, you can see that!)

And so on to the style. There are a few writers who are capable of creating works of fiction that are so beautifully crafted that it matters little what tale they are actually attempting to tell, it will always be exquisite. Guy Gavriel Kay is such a writer. He could write a user manual for an Epson printer and make it something you clutch to your heart. Mostly, though, this appears to be the province of female writers. Prue Batten is one. I’ve said before that her writing is like silk. She could write a telephone book and I’d be riveted to it. Recently I have discovered several female American authors who have similar skills. Kate Quinn is one. Stephanie Dray is another. Their writing is heady, hypnotic and thoroughly immersive. And that is what I get from reading America’s First Daughter.

In short it is a beautifully written treatment of a family in the early days of the United States. The tale opens with out eponymous heroine in her father (Thomas Jefferson)’s study, after his death, going through the seemingly endless letters and correspondence he has left. And thus begins the story of Martha Jefferson and her family. Each chapter opens with a letter from or to one of the Jefferson family, which gives the chapter its direction. The authors then expand on the letter and give it form and content as Martha Jefferson recounts the chapters of her life in relation to that letter, each one taking us a step forward in time. It is a fascinating way to view a life and I can only doff my cap to the ladies for the sheer inventiveness of what they have done and for what must have been one of the most immersive and challenging research projects of all time. Imagine taking the collected correspondence of a man known for his letters, sorting them out and crafting a story from them. Impressive, isn’t it?

But for me (possibly due to my outsider’s view of the subject) the real win for America’s First Daughter was what I learned or was led to reconsider…

  • The very agrarian culture of the early Unites States with its landowners and estates, granting them political rights – reminiscent to me of ancient Rome in odd ways.
  • The amazingly close gap between the American revolution and the French revolution (a mere 13 years!)
  • The strange world of women in the era, given a very Victorian value system, and yet with strong women forging their own destinies very much ahead of their time.
  • The surprising strength of the abolitionist cause in Virginia, well in advance of the civil war. In fact the level of liberal thought seems more prevalent than I’d expected for the time.
  • Again, though, hos close the Revolution and the Civil war are in time, given how they seem to belong to such different eras in history.
  • The word Yankee. Its use led me to look up its origin and guess what: no one seems to know. It is a mysterious word.
  • The close cultural connections between the US and France at the time. And some of the history of Lafayette (who I mostly knew from a street name in New Orleans!)

There are so many more things I reexamined because of the book, but you get the idea. One mark of a good book has to be how much it makes you think, after all.

And I think also that it is quite brave of the authors to tackle this time and these people. It’s not like writing about ancient Rome or the crusades, because the people Stephanie and Laura are writing about here are real people whose families still exist and might be picking up the book and reading about great, great, great, great grandpappy. This is only perhaps 7 generations back, and I have knowledge of my family at that time. To tackle such troubling social situations involving those families is impressive.

One line from the book that stays with me and goes some way to explaining the epic scale of the work is “Though I’ve known personally five of the six presidents before him…”

If you are a lover of deep, very personal, very emotional prose, then you’ll probably buy this without my recommendation. If you are a lover of action adventure, well, take a punt. Have a try – you might well be surprised. I was. Stephanie and Laura (who is thus far unknown to me) have created something with such depth and languid style that it deserves to be read. And you’ll have to wait for a short while yet, I’m afraid, since it is not released until March 1st next year. But you can pre-order it here, and I recommend that you do.

Warrior Lore

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icwl

Something a bit different for you tonight. Something a little removed from the usual historical fiction. Scandinavian history is one of my more peripheral hobbies, rather than something I focus on. I have a basic grasp of the history and the lore, and I love the 13th warrior and The Vikings. I enjoyed the novels by Giles Kristian and Rob Low. And I loved running my fingers over the carvings of Viking names in the Haghia Sophia in Istanbul. But really, all that is VIKING stuff. Scandinavian, yes, but thoroughly Odin-based ship sailing, axe-wielding, treasure-hunting, monastery-sacking rape-and-pillage merchants.

So this short collection is different in two very important ways. Firstly, it’s not a novel. So remember that before you rush out expecting it to be one. This is a collection of Scandinavian folk tales translated in verse from old forms. It is, in essence, a book of translated poetry of Scandinavian epic style. Secondly, it is not about Vikings. In fact, despite a few famous names turning up in it and the obligatory appearance of trolls, it actually bears much more resemblance to the medieval tales of King Arthur. This is more a collection of tales about unfortunate knights, swooning ladies, evil tricksters and some disastrous misunderstandings that end in very Hamlet-esque scenes of utter carnage.

These tales are, in short, tales of Christian medieval Scandinavia, twisted here and there with the addition of more ancient lore. Even the famous Harald Hardrada turns up here more resembling a medieval baron than the last of the great vikings.

Clearly Cumpstey knows his subject and the language, and the translations are therefore pretty much spot on, easy for the reader and seemingly close to the original feel. Here and there, it feels as though the translation has hit a pebble and detoured, but that is the problem with translating something as personal as poetry. It is not straightforward and what sits well with one reader might not appeal to the next.

Each of the tales in this book is introduced by the author with a little background and explanation, though about halfway through, I decided to skip the intros and read the poems first, since I had realised I was going into every tale already knowing what to expect. And when I did this I had more fun, picking the story from the poetry and then reading the intro afterwards to confirm things and find out what I’d not noticed.

So to sum up, this is a lovely little collection that covers a subject I doubt many of us are particularly familiar with and does it with grace and panache, and a great deal of academic knowledge pressed into it. It won’t necessarily suit those of you who read your historical works to watch Romans cleave barbarians into pastrami, but for those of you with an interest in the skaldic lore of medieval Scandinavia, or just those who feel intrigued, it is a nice collection to read.

It now sits on my kindle next to my collection of Imādu d-Dīn Nasīmī’s works. Boy, am I starting to look clever!

Written by SJAT

February 9, 2015 at 10:03 pm

Clouds of War

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Clouds-Hardback-182x183

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