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

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Posts Tagged ‘Gladiator

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to write the next Marius’ Mules or Fantasy novel, and I had an agent showing some interest if I could produce a new unpublished series.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

Nick Brown: Agent of Rome

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nb1 nb2

Today is publication day for the paperback release of Nick Brown’s second book (The Imperial Banner) and in honour of that, I give you a ‘Two-fer’. Herein is my review not only of the new novel, but also of its predecessor. So… Sit back and get ready to rumble with Agent of Rome: The Siege

I was wary of beginning  ‘The Siege’ and put it off for a long time. Having read the blurb, it looked to me to be ridiculously close in plot to Harry Sidebottom’s first Warrior of Rome, in that both involve a Roman site under siege from an eastern power at almost the same point in history. The locations are close, both in Syria. The times are roughly a decade apart.

I needn’t have worried. There are similarities, yes, but… well let me put it this way: I could give two artists the brief to paint a picture of a tree on a hill in September, and one might look like a Monet while the other might be a Braque. So that’s that dealt with. The two stories are dissimilar enough to make comparisons pointless.

Brown has taken on an interesting premise for the main character, selecting a member of the Imperial Secret Service; one of the (in)famous Frumentarii or grain officers. What he has done is to tackle the service in the style of a sensible, sensitive young nobleman with only the best intent at heart. This is not the sly, devious, murderous, dangerous view of that organisation we are used to. There is very little reference in detail to the service in this book as, despite being an officer of it, Corbulo is thrown into a situation where he is more active as a military officer.

As usual, I won’t push the plot other than to say that it involves a tiny Roman garrison at the far eastern edge of Syria, full of misfits and laxity, which faces a siege by the forces of the newly expansionist Palmyrene empire. More need not be said and indeed should not, lest the plot be ruined.

What I can say is that Brown has created a believable and fascinating view of frontier life in third century eastern Rome, full of well-painted and interesting characters, each driven by realistic needs and desires, thrown together into a horrendous situation.

In short and as an incentive to go read it – The Siege was reminiscent of that most excellent of all siege movies: Zulu, and I can think of no higher praise than that.

So if i haven’t enticed you enough with that, I give you my review of book 2, released in pb today (as I remind you) – Agent of Rome: The Imperial Banner:

I was interested to see what Nick would do following on from the Siege. It was such a self-contained novel and unlike many other first novels, it did not leave enough threads dangling from which to tie on a follow up-plot. And so I was extremely pleased as I started reading ‘Banner’ to find that he hasn’t even tried that. This is a second book that could almost be read as a standalone, barring a few references to define characters. Instead of a story arc, it would appear that this series is going more down the Indiana Jones route, with linked but self-contained stories. Refreshing.

Just as refreshing is the fact that many writers seem, to me, to write a storming first book, then waver a little on the second, making it too complex or too dark or suchlike, before finding their feet with a third triumph. Nick seems not to fall into this convenient category. In fact, I will say with hand on heart that this Book 2 is considerably better than the first, though I thoroughly enjoyed that too.

‘Banner’ is a complex whodunnit mixed with a treasure hunt. It is action pretty much from beginning to end and, though it lacks the ‘combat brutality’ of the first, it has swordfights, adventure, sneaking around underground passages and mines, infiltrating cults, following suspects, making arrests, bar room punch-ups, twists, turns, gladiators and so much more.

I wrote something myself a while back (as yet still under wraps) which a friend labelled ‘James Bond in ancient Rome’. That phrase came to mind with this book too, along with Peter Ustinov tapping his temple and talking about the ‘little grey cells’. You see that, to me, is what it felt like: an exciting, engaging mix between Indiana Jones, Hercule Poirot and James Bond.

The main character is not so much growing – he’s young and inexperienced and the books take place too close in time for much change to become apparent – but he is deepening. The reader is coming to understand him more. The best thing about this is that Cassius doesn’t need to change. Again, many writers seem to see the need for characters to grow with each book. It’s sometimes unnecessary. A well-defined character shouldn’t change too much or he might lose what makes him catchy. And with the return of his slave Simo, who is also becoming deeper and more relevant, and the addition of the new and engaging Indevara, Cassius has two companions who are different enough that the three bounce off each other well, creating thoughtful moments, humourous moments and angry moments. It is often the interplay that makes a book and that is strong with these leads.

I will add also that Nick has done such a good job of portraying Roman Syria that the reader feels everything as he/she reads it. It is descriptive and atmospheric.

But finally, as I come rambling back to the start of my description, the strength of this book above all else lies in its plot: An item of almost inestimable value has been stolen and there are no leads. Cassius is drawn into the desperate investigation with an extremely short time limit before the world he knows is endangered (and he even more so.) A race against the hourglass to uncover the perpetrator among a nest of potential villains in an investigation that tracks across Syria and the great city of Antioch.

So read Nick Brown’s books. And even if The Siege doesn’t pique your interest, at least pick up a copy of The Imperial Banner and give it a go. You won’t regret it.

Written by SJAT

March 28, 2013 at 2:13 pm

No…. I’M Spartacus

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I’ve waited until I finished the second book to review these two, since I read them back to back and a 2-part series is relatively rare. Given that, I will not be writing a separate review for each book. This review is for both Spartacus the Gladiator and Spartacus: Rebellion.

I’ve been a fan of Ben’s writing from the start. His Forgotten Legion series was groundbreaking in a number of ways and quite astounding as a debut. I was then fairly stunned by Hannibal, which I consider to be one of the finest pieces of ancient Historical fiction written. Despite the high quality of FL, Hannibal showed a new maturity in writing and more depth of character and soul.

So on to Spartacus. I won’t say, for the record, that this series is better than Ben’s Hannibal (and its future sequels.) It is as good as Hannibal, and that’s just dandy by me. I wouldn’t have wanted Ben’s style to change after Hannibal, as that book hit the spot just right for me. What I will say about these books is that there has been a slight change in conventions that I found refreshing and excellent (more of that shortly).

I won’t say much about the plot, to be honest. Anyone who follows any review I write knows that I don’t like to risk spoilers. But, that being said, the general tale of Spartacus is a matter of record that most people will have at least a basic knowledge of. So, bear in mind that you sort of know how this saga is going to end. I mean, there’s only a certain amount of license a writer can realistically get away with (and Ben Kane seems to be very sparing with artistic license anyway) and to have the books end with Spartacus riding off into the sunset would be a little hard to swallow.

So prepare yourself. I spoke to Ben at the History In the Court event a few days ago and he wondered whether I’d cry at the end, given that apparently a lot of others had. Well, Ben, I have to admit to a few sneaky tears there, but to be honest there had been eye moistening for at least two chapters in anticipation…

One thing I find I have to say and it’s the only thing that could be construed as criticism, I suspect, is that in both books, I actually wished they were slightly longer, despite that they were long anyway! The reasoning behind this is that the time spent in the ludus at Capua has some of the most important plot buildup of the whole story, but I felt that I would have liked to see more of the non-plot-important gladiatorial contests during that time (some are reminisced about or alluded to that I’d have liked to have read directly.) It is possible, of course, that this is my own problem fuelled by having recently watched the Spartacus series and craving such fights – bear in mind that it’s almost impossible to read Spartacus without drawing certain comparisons if you’ve watched the series, but I’m confident these books will come out of the comparison favourably. Similarly, in the second book, a number of the smaller battles or skirmishes that are not critical are referenced only in reminiscence or conversation, and I kind of missed seeing them myself. Again, perhaps just my bloodthirsty tendencies showing through.

But on with reviewing: One thing that I particularly loved that was, if memory serves me correctly, a new convention in Ben’s writing, is the regular inclusion of an ‘inner dialogue’ for the major characters. At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about this, but as the books progressed, I decided I really liked it and loved the effect it had on conversation. Often two characters will converse, but their private thoughts have a secondary conversation above them. This really gives a boost to the understanding of the motives and desires of the characters.

Another big win for me was the character of Carbo. Clearly a fictional creation, Carbo is the Yin to Spartacus’s Yang in many ways and provides a counterpoint to the main star. I will say that he is in no way a sidekick or comedy relief. He is a strong protagonist in his own right, but helps to balance Spartacus. Well done for Carbo, Ben. Not only is he an important character, a plot foil, a companion and so much more, he is also the main chance the book has for any sort of positivity in the outcome.

Similarly, I loved Navio, and the portrayal of the young Caesar. On the Roman side, it is interesting to see Caesar and Crassus at this stage in their development, giving an insight into what creates the men who will exist and are portrayed in the Forgotten Legion.

Incidentally, as well as the sadness of the inevitable conclusion, there is one scene in the first book (a death scene) that I actually found worse. It was for me a harrowing read with all the soul-crushing skill of a Guy Gavriel Kay work. Fabulous in its awfulness.

In an echo of the plot construction of the Forgotten Legion, there is an overriding element of the mystical and the divine in this work which goes deeper than simply describing the attitudes of the people in the setting, but actually provides foretellings, insights, and even explanations as to the reasons for the events of the Third Servile War. One day I may well go back through these books and read them with a different mindset, going in to them with the idea that the whole string of events is somewhat defined and informed by prophecy and divine whim, rather than the straight historical viewpoint I attacked them with this time.

All in all, these two books create the deepest, most realistic and yet refreshingly different telling of the Spartacus rebellion yet. Forget Blood and Sand and Kirk Douglas. The characters here are authentic feeling and very much sympathetic, even on the Roman side. The fights and battles are up to the very high standard that fans of Ben Kane’s work will have come to expect. The undertones of divine influence are subtle and yet powerful. As always, Ben appears to have meticulously researched everything and the historical accuracy of the books is as strong as I can believe it could get. There is never a let up in the story’s pace or the action, and you will genuinely be as sad at the conclusion that you have no more to read as you are at the storyline itself.

It’s a win on many levels. It’s so sad that there’s nowhere to go and the series has to end there. There could always be the possibility of a prequel, of course, since sequels are unrealistic. But anyone who watches Ben on twitter will be able to heave a sigh of relief knowing that he’s working on the next Hannibal book now.

Written by SJAT

September 22, 2012 at 7:55 pm

Gladiator Short

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Tarentius sat up slowly.

It was still dark and he was hungry. So hungry. When was the last time he ate? Must have been before the last bout. The lanista had given them all a good solid meal of pork, bread and vegetables to help build both strength and courage for the fight. And the fight finished hours and hours ago. Sometime in the early afternoon. It must have been half a day ago; no wonder he was so ravenous.

Throwing off his scant cloth cover, he climbed off the pallet and stumbled in the darkness. He knew the layout of the ludus intimately and could easily find his way to the kitchens with his eyes shut. This late into the night, all the others would be asleep in their cots and the only lights burning would be the torches and lamps in the lanista’s apartments and office. Perhaps in the kitchens too if it was more ‘early’ than late, the slaves preparing the gladiators’ morning meal.

Shuffling with a tired gait out into the hall, he could hear the rumbling snored of Braxus the Thracian, a sound like a collapsing insula. Beyond was the familiar wheezing, whistling snore of Paris and then the strange whimpering, dog-like night noises of the two young Numidians retiarii. Even with bad direction sense, and old hand here could navigate just by the sounds.

He must have been absolutely exhausted after that last bout, to have fallen asleep early and missed the evening meal. He couldn’t remember falling asleep or being shouted, but then the bastards who ran the place would hardly fall over themselves to make sure he got his meal. Even with five successful fights under his belt, he was still a slave, and any meal they didn’t have to cook was money saved.

Tarentius growled as he pondered on the unfairness of the situation. One day he might emulate Spartacus and give the lanista a taste of his own lash.

After supper, though.

Grinning, he saw the flickering torchlight from the kitchen doorway as he turned the corner. Someone was busy doing food for the morning. He wondered if they had something tasty to spare?

Rounding the corner, Tarentius entered the kitchen, fixing his gaze on the young Gaulish cook.

“Mmmm… braaaaaiiiinssssss….”

The cook fainted.

Written by SJAT

September 23, 2011 at 1:15 pm