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

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Posts Tagged ‘hardback

Empire 8: Thunder of the Gods

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Looking back over the series from the start I am struck by just how far we’ve come with young Marcus Aquila. The series began (and stayed for 3 books) in northern Britannia, in the cold and the damp with hairy bearded barbarians instigating wars and troubles and our hero hiding from the Emperor’s fury under an assumed name, sheltered by friends of friends. How long gone are those days now? For here, in book 8, with all the momentous changes we have witnessed in between, we find our hero and his friends in the dusty, exotic east, facing the might of dreaded Parthia at the very behest of those Imperial authorities from whom Marcus spent so many years hiding. Not only at their behest, I might add, but even carrying their authority, delivered by the Praetorian fleet and with the power of (the power behind) the throne. Yes, we have certainly come a long way. Which sits well with me. I have noted several times recently in reviews how long series need to change, grow and refresh to keep their pace and interest. And the Empire books are doing that. Indeed, I would say that book 8 is the finest in the series so far, vying mainly with book 5 for me.

So what’s the book about? Well if you’re new to the series, I probably threw a few spoilers at you there. Stop now and go buy book 1. Book 8 takes us to new lands and with new style. The whole feel of the book is more exotic than previously. And given the fact that for the first time our heroes are facing not hairy barbarians or sneaky Romans, but an adjacent empire every bit as old and cultured as Rome, there is a new feeling of sophistication and style about it. Marcus and friends land in Syria, sent east by the Imperial chamberlain on an ‘offer they cannot refuse’ sort of basis. As I said, they have authority now. Scaurus is to take command of the legion there and is faced with corruption, crime and downright deviousness at the highest levels of both military and civil control in the province. But our heroes have no time to unpick all the threads in this web of corruption, for they have an urgent task to perform. A powerful border fortress is in danger from a Parthian army. Due to the troubles he finds, legate Scaurus will have only half the legion to help him take and hold the fortress of Nisibis against the greatest power in the east. And through an unfortunate series of incidents our young Marcus finds himself once more evading arrest, though this time by the governor instead of the throne. Can our friends hold Nisibis? Can they even get there intact? After all, the Parthians are one of the fiercest nations on Earth and have seen off more than one Roman army in the past. Well, you’ll have to wait and see how that turns out, as I’m not spoiling it for you.

However, in terms of the story’s content, there are various things I will say. The addition of a new character – a young tribune not too different from our own protagonist 8 books ago – is a win. Varus is an instantly likeable and sympathetic character. The Parthian princes and their senior men are well-rounded and very interesting. In fact, one prince’s bodyguard, who will play a large part in the book as it unfolds, truly captured my imagination and was a joy to read.  But the icing on the cake in this story goes to the portrayal of the emperor of Parthia – the King of Kings himself. He is a cultured, urbane, clever, witty, easy, very realistic character. Don’t get me wrong – there is a constant air of threat, for this man could have nations killed with a snap of his fingers, but being dangerous does not stop him being fun or interesting. Kudos in particular to Tony for the King of Kings.

There is the usual bloodshed. Don’t worry, you battle-a-holics. Tony is unrelenting in bringing you the brutal side of Rome and its military skill. But know also that this book is far more than just military fiction. It is surprising, deep, explores to some extent the similarities and differences between ancient cultural enemies, and utterly refuses to bow down to the ‘Rome good, barbarian bad’ shtick that has for so many decades plagued the world of ancient fiction. Not only are his characters thoroughly three dimensional, but so are his nations as a whole. The plot is well crafted, with a few true surprises here and there, and runs off at breakneck pace, dragging you with it. I sat down for ten minutes’ read after lunch one day and put it down an hour later. It is that addictive a read.

I find that most good novelists truly hit their stride at about book 3 or so in a series, and while they may continue to get even better over time, often they plateau at an improved level of ability for the rest of their series. I thought Tony had done that with book 4, when the series began to change from straight military fiction to a more varied, deeper level of plot. Yet now, with book 8, he has taken things up a notch again in my opinion. I was already impressed and addicted to the Empire books, so now I’m hopelessly lost. In short: Thunder of the Gods is Riches’ best book to date, a landmark in the series and a totally engrossing read.

Written by SJAT

June 25, 2015 at 2:47 pm

The Emperor’s Knives

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What can I say by book 7?

If you’re a fan of the Roman era and you read books, then if you haven’t started the Empire series by now, I can only assume you’ve been living in a darkened closet hiding from the CIA and living on pizza pushed under the door. Riches has solidly secured himself a place among the giants of Historical Fiction, vying with the likes of Ben Kane, Douglas Jackson and Manda Scott in terms of style, plot, character and readability.

If you are that pale frightened figure in the closet, risk the CIA spotting you, and rush out to a bookstore tomorrow. Or pre-order from Amazon today and have it delivered to your door. It’s worth risking the possibility that Chuck and his black-suit-clad pals will find you. And here’s why:

Most writers have trouble with such a long series, I think. Even the greatest (witness Sharp for example) hit a lull where it becomes formulaic and sags for a while. To keep things fresh through seven books it quite impressive on its own.

The ‘EMPIRE’ series has managed just that. In fact, I would say now, looking back over the series, that the first three books are much in a vein with one another as straight military history beat-em-ups with a little betrayal and secrecy stuff and a smattering of politics thrown into the mix. From book 4, however, Riches clearly decided that more could be done with his characters and began to expand the scope of the series. From German bandits and sacred woods to Romanian gold mines and Imperial betrayal and then back to Britain for a book and a covert mission that will overturn everything and leave our hero in the eternal city, the series exploded into variety and excitement on a previously undreamed-of level.

The characters became more complex and understandable, the settings more exciting and vivid, the plots more twisty and turny and fascinating, and all in all, the books endlessly readable.

The Emperor’s Knives is the culmination of one particular story arc in the series. This is not a shock to anyone keeping up, just from the title. If you’ve got through, say, four or five of the books, you probably already have an inkling of what’s coming in this volume.

If you’re new to the series, check out reviews of the others and then come back. If you want to avoid the chance of spoiling things in the series so far, look away now and come back to the red marker…

So….

Look AWAY, I said!

Yes, Corvus/Aquila being back in Rome gives him the perfect opportunity to put old ghosts to rest and deal with the infamous group of imperial covert killers who have been murdering the aristocracy on imperial orders and acquiring their cash and land for the throne. A senator, a mob-boss, a Praetorian officer and a champion gladiator. All marked for death by our hero. But how will he go about it?

New characters are introduced, about whom we are already aware (including those who originally trained Marcus in the martial skills) and old enemies reappear in stunning ‘Bastard-o-colour’.

Yes, this is the culmination of the ‘Aquila family betrayal and murder’ plot, but then you knew that from the title! In this case, it’s not about the destination, but about the journey. And what a ride. Corvus is about to get revenge in spectacular fashion.

OK. BACK TO THE NON-SPOILER STUFF

Be prepared. If you know Riches’ work then by now you’ll know he’s got a tendency to throw in a few curveballs to wrong-foot the reader and screw his expectations. You’re gonna get that. In spades. Several times in this, I found myself saying ‘Oh? Oh, right. Well, then…’ and then going back to the story.

Corvus/Aquila doesn’t grow as a character, because he doesn’t need to. At this point he’s as fully fleshed out as he ever needs to be. More would just be OTT. But he does get some fantastic scenes, speeches and moves. And the supporting cast DO grow. Particularly Scaurus, who I already loved. New characters have appeared, some of whom will likely run through more books in the series, and some of whom are the stronger characters Riches has yet created.

The tale completes the aforesaid particular story arc but goes beyond, tying in more threads, and the end puts in place something for book 8 that I’ve been waiting for for ages. It is very easy when tying up a massive plot arc to leave it feeling either twee or contrived or both. This does not do so, though. This volume concludes in a most satisfactory and not entirely expected manner, leaving a couple of threads for future books and the reader feeling sated.

Riches’ books, though, have two strengths which have always been in evidence and only grow with each release: They are break-neck paced, in the same fashion as Mike Arnold’s civil war books, dragging the reader along in breathless admiration. And they are so realistically readable. There is simply no effort involved. You open the book and let go and the story whisks you along without any hard work. All in all, Riches is clearly still getting better with every book, which by book 7 is quite impressive!

It’s out tomorrow. BUY IT, or I’ll tell the CIA where you live and stop the pizza deliveries! Oh, and as a special incentive, the hardback includes a short story that you DO NOT WANT TO MISS!

Written by SJAT

February 12, 2014 at 9:00 am

Grail Knight

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GK

One of the highlights of my year is the new Angus Donald novel, but this new book was slightly more anticipated than usual. You see, while I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all Angus’ books, I have noted the opposite of what they used to say about the Star Trek Movies (the even movies were the better ones). While I thoroughly enjoyed Holy Warrior (2) and Warlord (4), it was Outlaw (1) and King’s Man (3) that were outstanding in the series and eclipsed many other great reads of the time. So would book 5 continue this trend?

Simply, yes. Grail Knight may well be the best of the five and, even if not, it is on a par with the outstanding King’s Man, which is about the highest praise to give anyway.

Why is it a win? Well to start with, Angus has consistently managed to take Robin Hood (one of the most cliched subjects in history) and write a series about him that repeatedly side-steps cliche and delivers fresh, engaging and fascinating tales that do not irritate in the way Robin Hood could so easily do (ahem, Ridley Scott!) That in itself is a feat. But this tale is also about the Holy Grail. No it’s not a spoiler. Even if you didn’t realise from the title (giveaway #1) the lead-up in book 4 made it obvious this was going to happen. And if there’s anything that delivers more cliche and general awfulness than Robin Hood as a subject, it is the Holy Grail. And yet in this book, Angus has managed to avoid cliche and awfulness very neatly. The result is that, in a book about two things that are a minefield of cheese, Angus has created a gem of a tale that delivers shock, joy, fascination and sheer power. Kudos.

The tale delves deeper into the awful and mysterious ‘Master’ and his secretive order within the Knights Templar. It portrays the Templars in an unusual light, making them bad guys, dubious and selfish, harsh and outside the law, while not accusing them of heresy and demon worship as seems to be the norm for writers these days. (Minor spoiler coming here:) The quest for the grail leads Alan from his home in Westbury, alongside his liege lord Robin, leaving a ruined home and a dying love to search for the one thing that can save her. It leads us to Cathar country in south west France and explores that beautiful world, centring on somewhere I have always wanted to visit. The plot never falters, hurtling along at pace, ever goading the reader to ‘just a few more pages’. The plot is neatly constructed and leaves no loose ends, in fact tying up a number of frayed threads from the previous books!

Probably the biggest win for this book with me, though, is the cast. As well as the essentials, a number of old friends return, including one of my faves – Sir Nicholas de Scras. And… Nur. You see I had become rather irritated with the witch woman in the previous books and had even gone as far as to grumble about her on Twitter at Angus! And yet she returns in Grail Knight to take her place in the cast and does so in such a well-crafted way that I thoroughly enjoyed it and found that I was appreciating her part as much as any other.

The book is happy and sad, full of subterfuge and open action, tense and calming, magical and spiritual and practical. It has everything you might expect from one of Angus’ books, but in spades.

Be prepared to put aside all your other hobbies and much sleep (I read 80 pages in the middle of the night yesterday) and enjoy a book every bit as good as King’s Man. Fans will not be disappointed and, if you haven’t read Angus’ other books, I would recommend them as always, but now with 25% more voracity!

Oh and the ending? Masterful. Simply masterful.

I sent the author a message when I had almost finished it, calling Grail Knight a Tour De Force and that is what it is.  This stunning piece of Historical Fiction is out in hardback today and you can go get it here.

Written by SJAT

August 1, 2013 at 2:54 pm

Brothers´ Fury

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Where do I begin?

Perhaps with the fact that I wrote most of this review days ago on a Spanish keyboard and was totally unable to upload it from my position in the south of Spain. So… instead of the book being released today, it’s already been out several days and will hopefully already be a bestseller.

On to the review…

The Bleeding Land was my top book last year, despite some hefty opposition. It was, for me, a game-changer of a book and certainly propelled Giles from an entertaining Skald to a first-rate producer of literature. It was also something of a self-contained novel. I worried upon starting Brothers’ Fury as to whether he could really keep up the dreadful heartbreak of the first into a second book. Well in a way, he hasn’t. And in a way that was the best thing to do.

TBL was harrowing and dark, bleak and soul tearing. Oh, it entertained and there was humour,  but the darker side of it was extraordinarily powerful. I did suspect that Giles would struggle to reproduce that for a second run with the same effect on the reader. But he has, I suspect, not tried to. Instead, this novel takes a more active, immediate and even at times positive direction, which adds a new dimension to the saga and makes it fresh and gives it a new draw. Where the first book was a dark tale of grief and struggle with flashes of humour and adventure, this is more a story of war and action with flashes of the darkness that pervaded the first. In short, where the first novel left the reader fearing for the future of the Rivers family, Brothers’ Fury provides sparks of hope for the future.

It is not quite so much a self-contained novel in the way of the first, but appears as something of a bridge between the introductory heartbreak of TBL and the epic conclusion that is to come in book 3. You see, this is a trilogy, and I often find trilogies fall easily into the Star Wars analogy. The first book was Star Wars. It was almost a complete tale in itself. The third book will be ‘Jedi’ it will finish the tale with gusto and edge-of-the-seat action. The middle tale (Brothers’ Fury) is ‘Empire’. It is an exercise in the building of character and the deepening of the situation. It places the protagonists at their most crucial moments and spins the threads that will allow the conclusion to draw together. Mun, Tom and Bess are (to analogise further) frozen in carbonite, flying out in the Falcon and recovering in sickbay (no guesses who’s doing what). For a while I felt that the plot was a little disjointed until I realised what  it was doing: it was preparing me for what was to come.

Brothers’Fury takes us from a solid conclusion in book 1 to a breath-taking ‘Dear God‘ situation at the end of the second by way of epic battles, heart-stopping sieges, close encounters and stealthy forays into enemy territory. The three main characters grow and deepen and to some extent become more understandable and sympathetic, and the introduction of new characters is also welcome. Jonathan Lidford in particular was a highlight for me.

Giles has lost nothing of his style, language and storytelling ability. Brothers’ Fury was a joy to read and continued the tale of the Rivers children in just the right manner to avoid treading the same ground again and just right to thoroughly entertain. It left me wanting part three straight away, which is always a good sign.

A highly recommended read for the summer. Go get it, people.

Written by SJAT

May 28, 2013 at 12:08 pm

Angus the Warlord

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A few weeks ago I ran a bit of a special blog entry (see here) about Angus Donald and his series of Outlaw books, based on the fact that his third novel in the series, King’s Man, had just been released in paperback. Well, good news, Donald-o-philes and Robin Hood loons: The fourth in the series has just been released in hardback form. So, here’s my two-penneth to get you all fired up to go buy it…

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I finished Warlord a few nights ago (I am on holiday in darkest Snowdonia with the phone reception and wifi capability of a dead capybara on a pointy stick so I’ve only just had the chance to post this).

I found that Warlord followed the trend in Angus’ series in that THERE IS NO TREND. Honestly, one thing you can really count on with the Outlaw books is that any new title will have a new story, a fresh angle and a different feel and theme to it. There is nothing formulaic or repetitive about the series in any way.

Outlaw was a tale of survival and redemption with Alan Dale and the infamous Robert Odo of Locksley, better known as Robin Hood. The story took us in a new and interesting way around familiar old legends, with a fresh and brutal interpretation of Robin that is nothing like the man in green of classic TV.

The second book, Holy Warrior, took us to Outremer and the world of the crusaders, with a now-legitimate Robin. The mood was darker and more soul-searching and, to be quite honest, left me feeling angry at Robin and, to a lesser extent, Alan. This was, for me, the ‘Empire Strikes Back’ of the Outlaw series.

Thirdly, King’s Man was the tale of King Richard’s imprisonment in Germany and Alan and Robin’s part in his return to power. It was also the tale of Prince John’s rise and then fall. It was a story of intrigue and espionage and to that point the best in the series, I would say.

And so, to Warlord. Once again, Angus has taken us in a new direction. Alan and Robin move with the action to Normandy, this time, to Richard’s brutal and protracted war with Phillip of France. There are three very distinct threads of action in this tale, though not consecutive or in order, but the tale is an amalgam of the three, bound together like a celtic knot.

Firstly, Alan Dale is beginning to delve into the secrets that surrounded his father’s expulsion from Notre Dame in Paris and his subsequent death upon the order of a mysterious and powerful figure. This story involves murder, conspiracy, penetration deep into the heart of the enemy in Paris, and the investigation of some of the most powerful men in the world. This is as good a mystery tale in itself that it could fill a novel on its own and stand up to the best histfic murder mysteries out there

Secondly, there is the war itself, which is told in vivid description, with all the heroic scenes expected of Coeur de Lion’s somewhat rash valour and excitable nature. But it is also brutal and unpleasant, giving us details about the world of medieval warfare that goes beyond the simply ‘what happened and who won?’ style of history and explores the effects on the ordinary soldiers and the people caught in the middle of a war between their masters.

Thirdly, there is the tale of Alan’s growth and love and his manor at Westbury, the depredations of his land under the vicious Hag of Hallamshire, the growing relationships with Goody and his men, including young Thomas, the squire, who is now almost the Alan we remember from the first book.

So that’s a rundown of what Warlord is about, missing out too many spoilers. “But”, I hear you say, “what’s it like?”

Warlord is simply excellent. It brought to mind elements of a number of my favourite things, including some of the feel of the Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars video game (that may sound a strange comparison, but it remains one of the best-written and most evocative plots I have ever found and if you haven’t played that game, buy it straight after Warlord), the siege scenes in medieval movies like Jeanne d’Arc (an average film to my mind, but an excellent siege scene), visits I have made to some of the book’s locations in my youth (the Chateau Gaillard I found particularly breath-taking), the great tales I read as a boy of Richard the Lion Heart and his wars, and even a touch of the Arthurian legends, mixed with Christian myth and more.  See how much the book makes me think of other very cool things?

Old villains that survived the previous books are just as vile and loathsome as ever, but are somewhat cast into the shadows by the arrival of new and all-the-more twisted and maniacal antagonists. Old friends are back in their full glory, and with them others who were previously minor and now begin to come to the fore. The last fight in the book is some of Donald’s best work and had me almost twitching and leaning left and right with the swings as I read (like when you watch a rollercoaster on TV). It was, for me, on a par with the most excellent duel scene in King’s Man, about which I have previously raved.

As with the previous books, and increasing with each new release, one of my fave characters is King Richard himself. I suspect that the amount of research Angus has done on this famous king is deeper and more involved than anything else he has undertaken in his work, and it shows. Angus’ portrayal of Coeur de Lion is magnificent, and easily the best I’ve come across either on paper or screen. That alone makes Warlord an outstanding book.

So the upshot is that Warlord is another winner from the author of Outlaw. If you like his books, you’ll buy this one, I’m sure, and if you’ve not read any, then you need to buy them all and start from the beginning.

Oh… and Warlord throws us some tremendous teasers for what to expect in book 5. It makes me hunger for the next release

Buy the book on Amazon here or visit Angus’s site here.

As always, Mister Donald…. Bravo!

Written by SJAT

July 23, 2012 at 5:28 pm

M C Scott’s ROME

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Am I to become a fount of ideas for great historical reads? Heck, there are worse things to be. And in this particular latest suggestion, I have for you a novel of such paramount import that you need to rearrange your reading pile and slide it in next…

I dare say that there are some of you who are not familiar with M C Scott’s novels. She has written a fair wealth of fiction, not all Roman; not even all historical, from thrillers, to apocalyptic mysteries, to tales of Boudicca. But it is her Rome series that I am particularly interested in and that I urge you to consider. This (The Eagle of the Twelfth) is actually the third of Scott’s Rome novels. The reviews I have already written for the first two are openly visible on Amazon:

Rome: The Emperor’s Spy        Rome: The Coming of the King

or on Goodreads:

Rome: The Emperor’s Spy        Rome: The Coming of the King

and hopefully you’ll pop along and have a look at those too. And now, on to the main event…

For the purpose of this post/review, I’m going to assume that you’ve read the first two, or at least a review of them that has you interested (see above if lazy). I shall, however, as always attempt to include as few spoilers as possible.

I love the first two Rome books. I’ve given them both a well deserved 5 of 5 stars in reviews. What I need is to give them 9 of 10, I think, so that I have somewhere new to go with Eagle of the Twelfth for, while the first two novels are excellent, this one is outstanding and deserves a little extra credit.

In a fresh, unusual, and most welcome move, Manda has taken the Rome series off at a tangent, though rather than forming a separate series along the new line, she has bent the original tales to follow.

The first two novels are essentially the tale (told in two parts) of Sebastos Abdes Pantera, an agent of Seneca in the reign of Nero, and his longstanding battle with a man of equal skill and knowledge, though twisted into something wicked and dangerous, seeking ultimate power and destruction at once. They are told in the traditional third person and follow on in a tried-and-tested chronology.

Not so, Eagle of the Twelfth. Where previously, Pantera has been the principal character with a supporting cast of fascinating others, in this tome, Pantera IS that fascinating other, while the story revolves around a fresh, new character: Demalion of Macedon. Moreover, the tale is told in first person from Demalion’s point of view, lending it a personal and emotional feel way above and beyond the first two books.

I spent some time wondering why the author had settled on this new perspective. Then something clicked. Other than the new and fresh feel it lent the book, it also solved a potential problem. You see, the second book seals off one chapter in the life of Pantera, and his tale could have ended there, but for the fact that Scott left him in a somewhat untenable position from where he was unlikely to bounce back. This new direction allows the tale to become more of Demalion and his part in giving Pantera a future. I won’t say that this was the reason the book was written this way, but it certainly works nicely like this.

After a rousing prologue, the story begins some years before the first Rome novel, in the territory of the King of Kings, ruler of the vast Parthian Empire, anathema of Rome. Here, Demalion, a young man fresh to the Fifth legion, has been seconded to help Pantera on a mission deep within enemy territory.

Having succeeded, he is recommended for promotion by Pantera and receives it, to his great regret. You see, the only legion he can be promoted into is the Twelfth Fulminata, a legion with a reputation for ill luck and disaster to whom no soldier wishes a transfer.

So begins the first part of the tale: a story of personal growth and trying to remake a disasterous legion once more into a proud fighting force. Unfortunately, the Twelfth is doomed to suffer setback after setback, resulting finally in the ultimate disgrace for a legion: the loss of its Eagle.

By this point, however, the tale has once more caught up with Pantera, following the events of the first two Rome books, and the second half or so of ‘Eagle’ tells the tale of the first great Jewish war, painting into its history the part that must be played by Pantera, the loss of the eagle and the attempt to recover it, and the growth and blossoming of the great soldier and deep person that is Demalion of the Twelfth.

This book is at least the equal of the first two in the series in Scott’s ability to paint vivid and wonderful, believable characters, with all their flaws and foibles, loves and fears, and also in her masterful treatment of the animals in her stories, but this story also goes deep into what it means to be a soldier of Rome and what the legions meant to those who served in them. It is an educational tool as much as a great tale in that respect, and I cannot recommend it highly enough as both gripping tale and educational tool.

Eagle of the Twelfth is a masterpiece on an almost unprecedented scale in the world of Roman fiction. I find it mind-boggling trying to imagine how Scott planned this book without a time machine, a reenactment group, a whiteboard the size of Westminster and twelve coloured pens and half a dozen assistants.

I do believe that it is possible to read this as a start to the series, though I suspect the reader will get more out of it following the series in written order. Whether you want to read this now and see if my ravings stand up, or start with the Emperor’s Spy and build up to it, give it a go. You owe it to your soul.