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Hunting The Eagles

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It’s been a year or two since I last journeyed with Tullus and his companions in Eagles At War. And in some way, I feel that has improved my approach to the book rather than having launched into it on its release, because as this story opens 5 years have passed since the dreadful massacre in the Teutoborg forest where 3 legions were obliterated, a few straggling survivors limping back beaten and dejected to Roman lands.

Tullus is determined to revenge himself in Arminius and the Germans who destroyed his legion and handed the survivors dishonour by taking their eagle. Back in Rome where the new emperor Tiberius is being hailed, Tullus learns that the nobke general Germanicus is planning a campaign to chastise the Germans and recover the eagles. Sidestepping the rules, he signs on with this new army and makes his way back to Germania to have his revenge.

But Arminius has not been idle, and is stirring up trouble again, and so the two peoples – age old enemies – are lining up for a set-to of immense proportions. In this novel we are treated to our familiar heroes of both sides from book 1 facing endless trouble (rebellious legions, uncooperative tribes, burned-earth tactics, immense brutality and more.) Oh and my favourite scene rescuing endangered Germanic family members before Germanicus’ army rolls over them.

As always with Kane’s books, the characters are well-drawn, the scene perfectly set, the descriptive deep and powerful, the plot pacy and strong, the writing effusive and consuming. But the thing at which Kane excels for me, and which makes his books some of the darker and more powerful in the genre, is the level of reality the reader is made to feel. Every scene is so intricately woven with the yarns of human fact, deep emotion, historical detail and raw strength that Kane’s books can leave you needing to rest and recover before pressing on. His is a rare talent in provoking such a response, and it can often feel that you are experiencing the story far more than any other way other than actually being there.

Hunting the Eagles is one of Kane’s finest tales and builds on the first in the series, covering slightly less familiar events than that first military disaster. I shall be fascinated to see what he does with the last book of the trilogy.

Buy it. Read it. Experience it.

 

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

21 Centuries of novels

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

5th Century BC

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

3rd Century BC

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

1st Century BC

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

1st Century AD

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

2nd Century AD

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

3rd Century AD

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

4th Century AD

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

5th Century AD

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

6th Century AD

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

9th Century AD

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

10th Century AD

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

11th Century AD

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

12th Century AD

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

13th Century AD

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

14th Century AD

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

15th Century AD

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

17th Century AD

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

18th Century AD

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

19th Century AD

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

20th Century AD

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

21st Century AD

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

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

Written by SJAT

October 16, 2016 at 6:59 pm

Caveat Emptor

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I suspect Ruso was my favourite investigator of crimes by the time I’d finished the first book in Ruth Downie’s Medicus series. The second book expanded this world to include darker themes and the wild north. And by the time Ruso went home to Gaul in the third book he was not only my favourite investigator, but one of my favourite characters in any book series. Left with something of an uncertain future at the end of that book, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the fourth book, other than being sure it would be highly entertaining.

Caveat Emptor takes us back to Britain, where Ruso and Tilla (now man and wife) find themselves dragged into problems galore. Tilla becomes a friend and helper to a native woman who has got herself into disastrous trouble, her man the tax collector having disappeared with the money. Ruso finds himself appointed by the province’s assistant procurator to investigate the disappearance of the tax collector and his money.

What follows is a complex and thoroughly engrossing investigation taking us from the docksides of Londinium (London) to the finance offices of Verulamium (St Albans). A plot that involves a fascinating and shady cast of characters from lurking town guards to power-hungry councillors to weaselly clerks to half-blind noblemen and so on. A plot that, I might add, while I grasped parts of the solution half way through, parts kept me guessing to the end. A plot that is not all it seems at any given point.

But once more, the major wins of the book are the main characters and Ruth’s writing. Having met Ruth now, and discovered what a truly nice lady she is, it amazes me how she seems to be able to get into the mindset of hen-pecked males or vicious mysogenists or the like so well that they read as truly authentic. Ruso is at times hapless, at times heroic, mostly beleaguered and often confused. He is a man who tries to do the right thing, even though at times he’d like nothing more than to do the wrong one. Tilla is no barbarian, nor is she a Roman matron. She is not a charicature but a person, with all the complexity that implies. And as always with Ruth’s writing, the threads of gentle quirky humour that run throughout add counterpoint to the seriousness of the situations in which they find themselves and make the books something special and a delight to read.

As a last treat, here’s just a taster of the sort of writing that makes me love Ruth’s work:

As the ostler had promised, the ginger mare was keen to go – but not necessarily forward. After winning the argument over which of them was steering, Ruso urged it out under the archway and onto the wide expanse of the North road.

If that kind of writing doesn’t make you want to read, then I reckon nothing will.

Caveat Emptor. A beautifully constructed mystery. And now I go on to read the next book – Semper Fidelis.

Plague Road

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I used to sit, cocooned in my own little Roman world, reading Roman books and not straying beyond that. In fairness, there’s so much good Roman fiction out there you can actually do that. But then new names, books and series pop up here and there and make me leave my comfort zone. Recently I’ve been rather getting into my historical mysteries, everything from Roman to cold war and the whole gamut of eras in between. I was surprised at how immersive I found Robin Blake’s mysteries set in 1740s Preston. In fact, I loved them so much that when the publishers offered me a new title set in the 1660s I simply had to say yes. I’m very glad that I did.

I’d not previously been aware of L.C. Tyler and assumed that he was a new writer. Boy was I wrong. Turns out this is the third in a series, and the author has many other mysteries out besides. In fact, he’s the chair of the Crime Writers Association, which gives you some idea of his pedigree.

Excited at the prospect, I opened the cover and began. I almost put it down straight away. The book is written in first person, present tense, a tense that I find hard work and has put me off numerous novels in the past. I persevered. It took only a page and I got over it. I still don’t like that tense in books, but Tyler’s easy style completely negates any issues I ever have with it.

Then I hit the second of my two snags. The protagonist is a lawyer in plague-struck London, 1665. He is propositioned by a powerful politician and drawn into a mission to retrieve a stolen document. At first the hook for the character seemed to me rather spurious. Why a lawyer would get himself involved in such things seemed unlikely. But once again, I was taking things at face value. You see, this is, as I said, the third volume in a series, and so I have clearly missed out on much character development (something I will be going back to remedy, by the way, as soon as I have time.) And as I ignored my problem with the hook (the maguffin if you will), and read on, the reasons gradually became clear as I came to understand the history of the various people involved.

So that’s my intro. Two reasons I should have stopped reading by my usual standards. And yet I didn’t. Why? Well, for four reasons, I think.

Firstly, there’s Tyler’s prose. It is a mark of just how good he is that I not only overcame my almost pathological dislike of that writing tense and even came to enjoy it! That’s a first. The style is easy while being elegant, direct and pacy without undue brevity, descriptive without being cumbersome. This is clearly the skill of an author who has long since honed his craft.

Secondly, there’s the setting. I know a little about the restoration period, the plague and the great fire, but not a great deal, so exploring this world through the eyes of a clearly very knowledgeable man was new and fascinating.

Thirdly, there’s the plot. In some ways this is a murder mystery, but it is so much more. It includes political shenanigans with far-reaching, country-threatening effects. It reminds me a little of ‘The Four Musketeers’, or possibly a restoration ‘Where Eagles Dare’. Complex and elegant.

But for me very much the biggest win is the protagonist. He has a dry wit in very much the manner that I particularly enjoy. There are moments when John Grey is talking that he is so satisfyingly, hilariously cutting that even Edmund Blackadder would be cursing and wishing he’d thought of saying that. He has shot up the list to become one of my very favourite characters. There are many great lines in the books, but here’s a nice example:

“There are good lies and bad lies. We told some good lies to rescue you. This will be a good lie too. And it will be a very small one. Not big enough to go to Hell for. Just big enough to go to Salisbury.”

I wont immediately say ‘go and buy this book’ despite the fact that it’s published on the 6th. And I’m reviewing it early for a very good reason. Because what I am saying is that this book makes it worth reading the first two volumes in the series, and now you’ve got chance to get them and read them before this one comes out.

John Grey is a new hero of mine. He will be for you too. Check out the series and do it soon.

Persona Non Grata

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(Also released as Ruso and the Root of all Evils)

I have a growing fondness for historical mysteries rather than the straightforward military novels or sagas or character biographies. Over the past year or two I have discovered Robin Blake, William Ryan, Luke McCallin, D.E. Meredith and others. But my favourite series is still Ruth Downie’s Ruso books. I read the first two a while back, but have simply not found the time to catch up with the series. Well last week I decided to change that since for once I did not have anything to read to a deadline.

The first of Ruth’s books (Medicus AKA Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls) introduced us to the Roman doctor Gaius Petreius Ruso, as well as to his friend Valens and the headstrong native British woman Tilla. It was set in Chester (Deva) in the reign of Hadrian and immediately hooked me with its clever mix of intricate plot, believable characters, well-dressed setting and gentle humour. The second novel (Terra Incognita/Ruso and the Demented Doctor) was somewhat darker to my mind, following the escapades of our favourite pair in the north, among the forts on the Stanegate where the emperor’s wall will soon take shape. Involved with a native uprising and brutal murders, there was much development in particular of Tilla’s character.

This third installment is so far very much my favourite. Why? Because it has everything that swept me away in the first book, and so much more. Summoned back to his family’s farm in southern Gaul by a mysterious note and with a medical furlough from the army with a wounded foot, Ruso and Tilla hurry back to their lands near Nemausus to find out what has happened.

Cue a beautifully involved plot involving a poisoning, a ship lost at sea, bankrupcy, double-dealing, misdirection and business deals gone horribly wrong. I won’t spoil the plot, but my minor spoiler would be that when the man visits Ruso to discuss his debts and then drops dead in front of him, I almost laughed aloud, realising what this would mean with regards to the suspicions of murder.

It is simply beautifully executed, but with a new added facet: Ruso’s family. An overbearing stepmother, a brother with his head in the sand, an enthusiastic sister-in-law, demanding and disobedient sisters, a worrying ex-wife, a disapproving ex father-in-law and a pack of small children. And more… the cast goes on, and yet each is lovingly treated. The interactions between the characters are what truly make these novels for me.

Yes the plot is excellent, this history faultless, the prose graceful and the atmosphere absorbing, but the icing on the cake is the dialogue. Ruth is plainly the mistress of dialogue.I annoyed my wife yesterday by chortling reapeatedly and interrupting her to read her the choicest snippets. Because Ruth’s dialogue never fails to raise a smile from me. It is often wonderfully light-hearted and engaging, and yet at no point is it in any way unrealistic.

Quite simply, along with one or two other authors (G.G. Kay and Prue Batten leap to mind) Ruth Downie’s writing makes me feel like a talentless hack when I go back over my own.#

I shall not leave it so long this time before I move on to book 4. If you’ve not ready Ruth’s books, do yourself a favour and start…

Written by SJAT

September 15, 2016 at 4:18 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.