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Posts Tagged ‘espionage

Alice Network

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I do like to periodically step outside my comfort zone with books. And little is more outside my comfort zone than this. World War I, of which I know little – in particular WWI Espionage, about which I know nothing – combined with post-war searches for lost loved ones. This, in theory, is so not my cup of tea that it’s a double espresso. And yet I was twitching to read it, partially because it was time to step away from ancient history for a bit, and partially because of the author.

I came across Kate Quinn years back through mutual connections. Her Roman novels are superb. While much of my reading at the time was ‘boys own’ Roman military, Kate seemed to have cornered the personal angles of the Roman court and nailed it perfectly. For me it was refreshing and fascinating. Kate and I have since worked on two projects together (for the sake of transparency.) Despite her brilliance with Roman tales, Kate was urged to move into the 20th century for her next book. I was dubious. She was so good at what she did, why change? But I watched (thank you social media) the process that resulted in The Alice Network. And I was intrigued. I wanted to read this book, as I said, because I needed a change and because I trust Kate’s writing.

The Alice Network is two tales that become one. A dual timeline. Charlie, in 1947 hunting her lost cousin Rose in postwar France, hoping that she survived, and Eve in 1915 Lille, part of a spy network that was undermining the Kaiser’s world and aiding Britain and France’s war effort. To be honest, I’m going to spend very little time on the plot, for fear of spoilers. Essentially, Charlie comes across Eve during the hunt for her missing cousin, and the two suddenly discover a mutual thread that leads them on a chase around postwar France, hunting a murderous collaborator. That’s enough. It’s all you get and no more.

I knew little about WW1 espionage. I had heard the name Edith Cavell, but could have told you little or nothing about her. For the record she is but a cameo here. This is not her story. This is the story of the members of the Alice Network, of which I had never heard. Quinn has pulled at a thread of history about which I was entirely ignorant and unraveled a fascinating subject. Like the best historical fiction, The Alice Network is full of real events and real characters, with a fictional heroine to tie it all together.

I have come across the name Oradour Sur Glane, though, in my trips around France. It is a place I always wanted to go. Its inclusion in this book took me by surprise, but it is part of an intricate web woven by Quinn, a web that includes real characters about whom I was unaware and real situations and places tied together with a clever plot.

The story tales several forms. For Charlie, in 1947, it is a hunt for a lost cousin which sends her into the unknown with surprising and intriguing companions, shunning her rich family. In the process she meets Eve. For Eve, in 1915, it is a tale of espionage that has seemingly been very unsung in literature and which carries nail biting tension and impressive depth of character. Kudos to Kate for this. Gradually, as their stories coalesce and intertwine, it becomes more and more about the growing sisterhood between Charlie and Eve.

The Alice Network is a book that tests every emotion in a way I thought only Guy Gavriel Kay could. It is a masterpiece of emotion and power and will drag you along like an action movie because, despite its investigative subject and personal approach, it is full of tension and pace. Quinn excels at creating deep, fascinating and believable characters, and this novel is full of them.

I choose a book of the year each year. I do it in retrospect in December, when I have a full year’s reading. Not so this year, I suspect. Books by authors I love will strive hard to match this one, but even at this early stage I doubt any will manage. The Alice Network is clearly going to be my book of the year in 2017,

Read this book. You are missing a genre-defining event if you don’t. Alice Network is released on July 12th but you can pre-order it now. Here’s the Amazon link: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0062654195/

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Written by SJAT

May 29, 2017 at 12:22 pm

The Earthly Gods

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Are you reading Nick Brown’s ‘Agent of Rome’ series? If not, then you need to check into either your local bookshop or your local head doctor. Nick Brown has created one of modern Historical Fiction’s most absorbing and accessible series, and if you are not already reading it, you need to go out and buy The Siege now, to get started.

Some writers write excellent books but can get a little bogged down with the need to portray their tale with ultra-realistic, technical period detail. Very laudable, but it can sometimes make a book hard going. Others, conversely, write with so many modernisms and anachronisms that it can hardly be called Historical Fiction at all. Few hit the perfect sweet spot where they are giving you high quality historical fiction but presented in such a way that it is truly entertaining for both the knowledgeable and the novice. Nick Brown fits that role, I think.

So, to the book.

The preceding five volumes in the series have introduced us to the character of Cassius Corbulo, his slave Simo and his bodyguard Indavara, as well as a lovable donkey. We have seen the breadth of the Roman east in many circumstances, from siege and warfare to criminal investigation, to undercover missions, dangerous sea voyages, corrupt army officers and much more. This volume once more shows us a new angle, but with ‘Earthly Gods’ we are, I think, seeing a subtle shift in Brown’s series. To this point, while the characters have grown and changed with their experiences, each tale has been a single contained story that could be read as a standalone book, even if the reader might miss important nuances that way. Now things are changing. Book 6 follows directly on from the previous volume, picking up an open thread from book 5 and following it. The plot for book 6 still contains its own standalone tale – helping Syrian natives hunt their daughters who have been illegally enslaved and sold. But it also follows the thread of Indavara’s disappearance at the end of the previous book, giving it a sense of series continuity that is new. And even the standalone element within it, to be honest, draws in characters from the very first book. So, in essence, while presenting a new plot, this volume also drags in elements from across the series, binding it all together rather neatly. As such there is a different type of depth to it than the previous volumes.

Moreover, while there is violence and womanising throughout the series, this volume begins to explore darker themes, with illegal slavery and enforced prostitution, as well as plague and the working to death of mine slaves. Such matters have to be dealt with carefully in my experience, lest they turn readers away, but be assured that Brown has managed it perfectly. Despite these darker underlying themes, the book is delivered with Brown’s usual engaging prose, easy humour and insight into the fascinating character of his protagonists. No one in Brown’s world is truly black or white, but all are varying shades of grey.

The plot? Well, I always try to avoid potential spoilers, but here we go…

Faced with the disappearance of his bodyguard and friend Indavara, Corbulo is landed with a difficult choice: forget about a friend in peril or defy his powerful masters. Needless to say, Corbulo is no longer the haughty young man who left Rome 3 years ago, and even going against Imperial Security will not deter him from attempting to save his friend. And so begins a dangerous quest outside the bounds of his duty. Skipping out of town unnoticed, going undercover and trying to avoid his own employers and fellow agents, Corbulo embarks on a twin mission, to find his friend and to help locate the missing daughters of his Syrian allies. Their journey will take them through plagues and into salt mines, all the way to Byzantium, pitting them against a powerful yet shady group of men. Once again the history of Indavara is being unwrapped slowly before our eyes, but it seems that Earthly Gods is set to be something of a game-changer in that respect, too, as that reveal accelerates rapidly now, and something of the future direction of the series is hinted at.

In short, this is everything a reader of the series has come to expect from Brown’s work, and something else beside. It is perhaps a step up. It is certainly a riveting read and kept me turning the pages long after I’d planned to put the book down.

Yet another win from Nick Brown. Long may Corbulo adventure.

Written by SJAT

June 30, 2016 at 9:00 am

Roma Nova – Inceptio

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I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from Inceptio. I’d heard of it, seen the rather handsome cover and actually met Alison briefly at a historical fiction do, and when I had a gap in my revue pile, I slotted it in for a read.

Firstly, let me say that I really enjoyed the book. It was engaging and fasincating, thrilling in places and beautifully described. The characters were quite realistic and empathic.

So what is it like, given my aforementioned lack of expectations? Well, I’d say few readers will get everything they seek from it, but most certainly everyone will get something. The obsessive Roman fiction nuts might find it a little too modern. The crime nuts may cluck at their plot being laden with alternate history. The sci-fi lovers will approve of some of the concepts, but could find too much history and realistic modern world filtered in. The Romance lovers might be irked that thrillerdom keeps getting in the way. But the simple thing is that few readers are so specific, and most readers will find at least one aspect of Inceptio that they love, while many will appreciate the all-round. Because there’s crime, thriller, action, military, romance, hints of sci-fi-near-future, exploration of character and so much more. And anyone who likes any of that will read this and enjoy it.

So this is alternate history. A recreation of the modern world in which some decision was made another way at some point in history and things turned out differently. The story takes as its premise not a world in which Rome did not fall, but a world in which a small Roman colony in the Alps survived that fall and the fall of Byzantium in the east, going on to become some sort of Romanized utopia with overtones of Switzerland. And because of the presence of this nation, the rest of the world has developed slightly differently.

Our heroine, Karen (at least for some of the time!) finds her normal New York life turned upside down following a small incident, which sets in motion a chain of events that leads to her learning that she is in fact an heiress, a noble, even a scion of a family in Roma Nova. There ensues a tale that is one of self discovery and personal re-creation as Karen discovers life in the world of New Rome while pyscopaths hunt her, men vie for her attentions and a growing sense of duty forces her to train, learn and join paramilitary forces.

Parts of this story will surprise you, parts will excite you, and parts will enthrall you, but all of it will make you think and make you want to know what happents next. I find it hard to believe you will read Inceptio and not find something about it that really grabs you.

In short, go get Inceptio and introduce yourself to the world of Roma Nova.

Written by SJAT

September 17, 2015 at 8:00 am

Marston Moor

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History is replete with ‘turning-point’ battles. Alesia saw the effective end of Gaul against Caesar. Senlac Hill saw the beginning of Norman England. Borodino changed the fortunes of Napoleon. Marathon halted the Persian invasion of Greece. And as often as not, they are almost accidents. Gettysburg occurred when two armies happened to bump into each other, more or less. Marston Moor is one of those battles. Basically, I’m not going to tell you why. If you don’t know the details of the battle of Marston Moor, then you are at an advantage reading the book, so please do keep yourself in the dark. Because I do know the history and the result. And yet as I read, I found myself on the edge of my seat, hoping to see things that I knew couldn’t possibly happen in historical fiction. This, I would say, is one mark of a good writer with an absorbing series – you become so invested in the characters that you want to see things turn out in ways you know they cannot.

Phew, this is going to be a tough review without throwing out spoilers. Suffice it to say that Marston Moor is a great, crucial and extremely bloodthirsty battle, so you know before you open the book that there’s going to be a great deal of mayhem and death – and heroism, of course, and treachery, and all the Mike Arnold factors. But essentially, with such a battle, be prepared for that.

I noticed what I perceived to be several shifts in the series in this book, and in Arnold’s writing of the series. Firstly, the focus in the series has always been on the main character – Stryker – for obvious reasons. In more recent books, Forrester has had his times in the limelight too. But until now the enemy have only been seen in glimpses that are pertinent to the flow of the story. In Marston Moor, we are introduced to the great enemy – the Parliamentarians – on a fairly personal level. We meet several of their commanders, both good and bad. We meet Cromwell – very well portrayed, by the way. Strangely likeable and dislikeable at the same time. And we meet one of my personal heroes of British history: Sir Thomas Fairfax. As a Yorkshireman, Black Tom is my chosen man from the civil war. As a staunch Royalist myself, I’ve always thrown my lot in with their camp in civil war stories. And yet Black Tom Fairfax, a parliamentarian, is one of those powerful characters. Anyway, enough ranting on that. Arnold, then, has begun to show us the face behind the enemy’s visor. And to show their human side.

And not all new characters in this book are real historical ones. Arnold continues his strong track record of bringing us vile and hateful villains and believable and sympathetic new heroes. For though this is largely a tale of that great battle, there is another story weaving throughout, involving treachery and espionage – a tale that harks back to earlier books and will doubtless reach ahead through the series.

There was, for me, a slight feeling of a change of direction with the series here, though it might be that that is simply the effect of the subject matter of the book. I guess we will have to wait (gaaagh!) for book 7 to confirm that. And though the direction might be shifting, I have to say that the quality and the pace are not. As usual, Marston Moor is delivered at breakneck speed and with colour and depth throughout.

For me, this book took on an extra valuable aspect, as I am very familiar with many of the locations, from Stryker’s activity across in Lancashire and Forry’s time in York, through all the places in between and right to Marston Moor itself, which I have walked before now. Even the small towns and small villages are close to both my home and my heart, so it was lovely to see their inclusion.

Once battle is joined, be prepared, I would say, for a certain amount of confusion. Though I knew the battle to a certain extent beforehand and was familiar  with many of the leaders and their units, I still found it hard in places to quite latch onto the detailed strategy, and instead threw myself into the action, heedless of the grand scheme above. And, to be honest, that might be a good thing. Too often in historical novels about giant battles I concentrate on the detail rather than the feel. And if you surrender to the feel of Arnold’s battle, what you are faced with is something akin to the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan, or perhaps the mess that was A Bridge Too Far. Because battle is a chaotic and all-consuming thing and Arnold’s depiction carries you along with the action.

And this tale involving a great battle, be prepared for the death of at least someone you have followed throughout the series. It’s inevitable. A battle on this scale cannot be adequately told with all important protagonists escaping with their hides intact. That would be simply unrealistic. And not everyone can achieve everything you want them to. Thus at the end of Marston Moor, Arnold’s entire series balances on a knifepoint.

So there you have it. Great characters, new viewpoints, colour and action, pace and style, one of Britain’s most important and desperate battles told in all its horror and glory. How can you resist it. Arnold continues to ride high as one of the masters of the genre, comparable to the greats. In fact, I think the regular comparisons to Sharpe do him an injustice, for Stryker is a deeper character with greater scope than Sharpe. Perhaps we are approaching times when Stryker will be the one used for comparisons?

The book is out today. Go buy it, people… £9.99 on Amazon

Devil’s Assassin

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Jack Lark is one of my favourite literary creations of the modern swathe of historical fiction. Paul Fraser Collard’s debut work was one of my top ten reads of the year (and was certainly in the top half of those.) The second book in the series I was a little worried about, since the premise of the first book was new and interesting but really didn’t lend itself to the possibility of a sequel. Somehow, Paul pulled it out of the bag. The second book was amazingly not a carbon copy of the first, and yet managed to continue the theme. The second one, in fact, stepped up the stakes a little. But the question was: what could he do with book 3? He surely couldn’t follow similar lines.

And so he hasn’t. The Devil’s Assassin has taken the story of our favourite fraud and slewed it off at a tangent. No longer is Jack the roguish low-born masquerading as his betters. Or maybe he still is, but in a very different way, and for very different reasons. After his service with the Maharajah in book 2, Jack has made his way south, still in India. He is still living an assumed life, with no money or influence, making it from one day to the next on his wits and luck. But things are about to change. Because someone in his city is about to find out his secret, and that person will have more use for Jack in his employ than swinging on a gallows. And even as military intelligence get their claws into Jack, the Shah of Persia is interfering in international matters and war is looming on the horizon.

And here is the meat of the plot. There is (or are) spy (ies) in the British armed forces, and Jack is set to hunting them. But throughout this intrigue and mystery, there is also a war taking shape. So against a background of military campaigning, our (anti) hero continues to try and unravel the espionage plot. In some respects this book feels like two very disparate stories running concurrently. The war against the Shah is told in such glorious detail, scope, colour and depth that I had largely forgotten the entire spy plot when it suddenly reappeared from behind a bush and shook me by the shoulders. Collard has clearly enjoyed in this book taking an almost unknown British military campaign and bringing it to the reader’s attention, and he does it very well, the manoeuvres and desperate counter offensives described evocatively, but also with enough clarity that the reader can follow the entire thing, on both a personal level and as a grand military action.

Interestingly, this book marks a turning point in the series. It is clear in retrospect that while Collard pulled off a feat with book 2, the whole character of Jack and the premise of the series were resulting in writing the hero into a corner. Sooner or later, something would have to break unless the books were going to turn into those carbon copies we all want to avoid. And when that break happened, it was hard to see how Jack could progress except at the end of a Tyburn knot. And that is the gem of this book. It has achieved the unachievable and given Jack a new lease of life and Collard a universe of possibility with which to proceed.

The character of Jack has definitely grown in this work. The death and destruction that has surrounded his career has begun to change (and haunt) our hero. This is good – not for him, but certainly for us. A character has to grow and change in order to keep the reader’s interest and to inform the book with realism, and Jack is beginning to morph from a sharp young adventurer into an tired war-horse. He has a long way to go yet, but the signs are definitely there.

Paul Collard has a very readable fluid style of writing, which draws the reader along and involves them without ‘dumbing’ anything down. He does not sacrifice style and value for ease of reading, and yet it is an easy read. His characters’ speech is realistic and comfortable for the reader, and his descriptions of exotic locations and cultures are totally immersing, especially when described from the point of view of the stiff Victorian British officer.

In short, after two top books, The Devil’s Assassin is yet another win from a writer at the top of his game. Go get it, folks.

Written by SJAT

May 10, 2015 at 9:25 pm