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Posts Tagged ‘historical fiction

Dark Asylum review and Q&A

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I am a devotee of novels set in the ancient world and much of my reading centres around that period, though over the past few years I have strayed more and more outside my comfort zone. I have found myself becoming increasingly fascinated with the darker side of the 18th and 19th centuries, and with that I’ve found a resurgence of my old love of mysteries and whodunnits. Action and adventure novels set in the Victorian era have to be truly exceptional to attract me, but I am becoming a sucker for a good 19th century mystery. D. E. Meredith, Essie Fox and Robin Blake are some recent highlights.

How nice to have discovered another author who knows how to weave an enthralling mystery in such a dark and fascinating world. Dark Asylum is actually Thomson’s second novel and, while I have not read the first, I will now have to remedy that. I’m sure I’m in for a treat.

Thomson conjures up a dark and chilling world full of vivid and memorable characters all bound up in a (in this case certainly) complex plot that kept me guessing right to the end. Actually, I thought I had it pinned down twice and was wrong both times, which is nice to experience. And despite the darkness of the setting and the subject matter, Thomson manages to interject just enough quirky humour to keep the book a hearty read that drew me back in every spare minute. In fact, while there are moments in the book that made me squirm a little, there were also moments that made me chuckle out loud and note down the page number to repeat a humorous passage to my wife.

Dark Asylum takes us on a voyage through the world of Victorian madness, its diagnosis and treatment, the institutions that dealt with it and the world from which it sprang. There are doctors here both likeable and dreadful, who are experimenting with phrenology, drugs, lobotomies, therapeutic treatments and so much more. It is a world of medical upheaval and change, and not all of that change is pleasant or tasteful. One thing worthy particularly of note is the characters. They are both vivid and interesting, and they are each memorable and individual, which is not always the case in such a genre.

It is not until about 1/4 of the way through the book that we begin the true mystery, though the lead up to this point, introducing the characters and their world, is made all the more relevant by a side-tale running throughout, telling the backstory of our villain. That information is slowly released throughout, and never too early. Best of all, the unveiling of the truth towards the end is another corkscrew of twists and surprises.

This is, quite simply, a cracking book and deserves to be read. Go get yourself a copy. And as an extra treat, I have been in contact with the publisher and E. S. Thomson agreed to answer a few questions for me, so if the review alone has not tempted you to delve into Jem Flockhart’s adventures, have a little peek into the mind behind them…

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Are the locations in Dark Asylum based on real buildings either extant or now-vanished? Do you visit buildings of the period to flesh out your vision in preparation for describing them?

In this case no, I didn’t. I made everything up or used books of the period that described places.  The apothecary, the asylum, the convict transport ship are all out of my own head but based on what I read. I have been in a Victorian asylum building – I used to work in one (Craighouse, in Edinburgh) – and very grand it was too.  But it was built in the 1870s, and Angel Meadow was an old asylum, from before the asylum building programmes of the 1870s and 1880s.  Most of these sorts of places – smaller asylums – no longer exist. 


Dark Asylum is set in a harsh and very dark world. The Victorian London of which you write is a Gothic masterpiece of gloom, misery and wickedness. Given both this and the grisly subject of which you were writing, how do you attempt (and clearly succeed) in lightening the tone with moments of humour? It must be something of a balancing act.

Actually, I find I do get tired of the gloom and darkness. And at those points, just when it seems too much, I put in some humour – mainly to give the reader a rest.  I think that people are often absurd, even when they try not to be.  Dr Mothersole and his curious ideas for treating the mad, or Mrs Roseplucker, the brothel-keeper who turned to writing Penny Dreadfuls, were very easy to do.  As you say, the difficult bit is knowing when do do it, for how long, and when to stop.  Did I succeed?  I’ll let others be the judge

I was interested to see how far you pushed the boundaries in this novel in places. Is there anything about the era or setting that you are tempted to write out, or are uneasy about describing?

I suppose it depends where you think those boundaries are. I’m  uneasy about describing child prostitution – which is probably why I had the child who was pimped by her mother leap out of the bed and beat her would-be rapist to death with a poker before he had chance to do anything to her.

You have some truly colourful characters in Dark Asylum, a number of which I loved. Do you find it difficult to create characters who stand out so when the setting of your books is an era of conformity and often drab uniformity?

No I don’t find it difficult. I think there were more eccentric people in this period than people realise.  What is difficult is finding roles for women that are not boring or completely anachronistic.  I got round this by having a cross-dressing main character.  But if you want feisty women in your novel (and I do), this is not as straightforward as it is when writing a novel set in the present.

Jem is an interesting character and I found myself often wondering how she gets by without accidentally revealing her true gender. Clearly there are moments in the book where people have an inkling, but presumably you are limited in the situations you can describe (for instance having to share a room/bathroom with someone?)

Jem is based on James Barry, who spent her life dressed as a man, and practiced medicine as such in the British Army for her whole working life.  Barry graduated in medicine from Edinburgh university some 40 or so years before women were permitted to study medicine. Clearly, if she could live her life disguised as a man in such a male environment then I can manage it for Jem in a novel.  She doesn’t share a room, so that’s never a problem.  Some people seem to guess than Jem is disguised – but no one ever comes out with it and says “you are a woman!” – so you never really know whether they have worked it out or not.

Your first Jem Flockfart novel was set in the same locale as this, and I note from the back matter of the book that your next is also set in London. Are you not tempted to set a novel somewhere more familiar to you (Lancashire or Lothian for example?) Edinburgh clearly has rich pickings in the Victorian era

I left Lancashire 30 years ago, so it is not familiar to me at all anymore.  As for Edinburgh, in fact, almost all of the medical history details in the books are Scottish – mainly because I know about it thanks to my PhD, and also because Scottish medicine and medical education were surprisingly dominant in this period. Scotland punches well above its weight in the history of medicine.  So in fact i am using a lot of Scottish detail.  However,  I set the books in London because I wanted a large anonymous city, much of which has been rebuilt since the 1850s, rather than the smaller more intimate locations of Edinburgh, where everyone knows everyone else’s business.  I based the location of the first Jem story on St Thomas’s hospital in London, which was indeed knocked down to make way for a railway in the late 1840s.  Yes, I know Edinburgh intimately – I’ve been here for 30 years, but I didn’t want so distinctive a place to have a central part in the novel.  London in this period was massive, stinking, sprawling – and undergoing great change.  I wanted all this in my novel. Besides, Edinburgh is currently very well represented by historical novelists.  As a result, I don’t think the pickings are as rich as you might think.

A frivolous one to finish: what do you like to read for leisure.

Crime fiction mostly – Sherlock Holmes is an old favouite.  At the moment I’m reading Chris Brookmyre.

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Thank you, Elaine, for your time. There you go, folks. Buy Dark Asylum and immerse yourself in a great read.

Written by SJAT

March 13, 2017 at 1:18 pm

Scourge of Rome

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It took me far too long to find time to catch up with one of the very best historical series in the current world of books. I’ve missed Valerius Verrens. Due to the time I left between this book and the last one it took me a few short chapters to get back into the swing of things, but once I was reaquainted with Verrens and Serpenrius and reminded of how things stood at the end of the previous volume, I was dragged along with the plot at breakneck speed as usual.

An outcast from Rome, due to his conflict with the unpleasant Domitian – son of the new emperor – Valerius seeks out the one place he thinks he can recover his reputation, at the side of the emperor’s other son, Valerius’ old friend Titus, who is busy prosecuting the war against the rebels in Judea. What follows is a gradual building in tension and action filled with good guys, bad guys, and my favourite – realistic grey, part good, part bad, guys. The book introduces us to a powerful queen and her clever, beautiful servant, who Valerius immediately has eyes for, helping him forget Domitia back in Rome, to a scarred tribune who knows Valerius of old, to the Jewish rebel leaders, and to the complex Josephus. It culminates with the dreadful siege of Jerusalem.

There are many things that commend this book (as with all Doug’s work). The writing, which is clear, expressive, direct and yet subtle. The characterisation, for he creates seemingly real people we can believe in. The settings, which are vivid and lovingly described. The action, which is exciting and well-told. The plot, which is perfectly constructed and at no time drags, strays or confuses. But there are two particular things for me that made Scourge a win over even many others in this very series:

The siege of Jerusalem. This is one of the most powerful events in the history of the Roman empire, and one that could easily prove to be divisive and troublesome for a writer (touching on the subject of the destruction of the Jewish world from the viewpoint of those destructors.) And yet the subject is handled lovingly, sympathetically and yet with such stark horror and brutality that the real terror of what happened over those awful weeks. Moreover, Doug’s visual reconstruction of the magnificence that must have been Jerusalem before its sack is unparalleled. This siege is one of Doug’s best pieces of writing and one of the best battles I have ever seen described, actually almost on a par with his genre-defining Colchester burning scene in Hero of Rome.

And, the character of Josephus. I knew of Josephus before the book, as will many followers of Roman history. We know of him from his account of the Jewish wars, and I for one have read much of that account. But I had never thought much about the man behind that writing. In my head I had him pegged as a good guy – a Jew who compromised and consequently survived the war to bring us the history of it. It had never occurred to me to think on how he might have come about all his knowledge of the war, on how he managed to survive in a world where he might well be killed just for his heritage, and on how he might be viewed by his own people. Josephus was the most surprising thing for me in the book, and a characterisation I value highly.

So, in short, this book is as good as any other in the Valerius series (which is to say a cut above most other series in the genre) and is actually probably the second best in the whole saga. It is unrelenting in pace, vivid, surprising, horrifying and even heart-warming in places. A testement to Jackson’s ability, it comes highly recommended. Go read it.

Written by SJAT

January 15, 2017 at 2:38 pm

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.

 

Strategos: Island in the Storm

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Three years ago I reviewed the second book in Gordon’s Strategos trilogy, which I loved as much as the first. It goes to show how busy I am and how many books there are in my reading pile that it’s taken me 3 years to get to the final volume in a series I love. But here we are. I’ve been back with Mr Doherty’s golden prose once more and loving it.

For me, Strategos III (Island in the Storm) is a win on two levels.

Firstly, I have come to love the setting and characters. I am fascinated by late Rome and Byzantium but am less familiar with the medieval era of that world than the classical. Yet the first Strategos book opened my eyes to it and I drank it in. It’s a testament to a good series and excellent characters when you can step out for 3 years then pick up again and the whole thing is instantly familiar and all the personalities in it come flooding straight back. That’s what happened for me. The tale of Apion’s life is at the same time heroic and glorious and makes the blood surge, but also sad and heartbreaking and thought-provoking. It is a rich tale with depth and a great deal of care put into every detail. And the fact that I knew this was the last book in the trilogy meant that I knew everything had to be tied up and come to an end. This was a masterful drawing together of threads, particularly given that anyone familiar with the events covered in the book knows that things cannot end well. That being the case, reaching an end that satisfies the reader is impressive.

Secondly, the book revolves largely around the Battle of Manzikert. Even not being overly-familiar with the era, I know of that battle. It’s one of those that should go down in history with Alesia, Adrianople, Hastings, Agincourt, Waterloo etc. A world-changing battle. But while I knew the basics (the sides in the battle, the outcome and the rough location) that was all. So this book was educational as well as entertaining. Because I have since finishing it read up a little on Manzikert, and Doherty had clearly done his research. And while reading a non-fiction account of a battle is educational, for me it can’t quite beat an ‘author’s eye view’. Because a good historical author does adequate research to produce as accurate a portrayal of the fight as it is possible to create, and in putting the reader into the action, seeing it through the eyes of those present, the writer makes the reader experience the battle rather than just learning about it. That is the second value to me of this. It made me understand Manzikert and just how important it was.

Doherty is one of the finest historical writers out there at the moment and for me pretty much leads the pack in the Indie book world (myself included.) Don’t read this book if you don’t know the series. Read them all. Buy the Strategos trilogy. You can get the lot on kindle for £10. That’s the price of a pub meal which will last you 15 minutes, while these will give you many hours of pleasure. Surely that’s a no-brainer?

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December 15, 2016 at 10:30 am

Blood and Blade

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

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

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

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

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

Written by SJAT

December 1, 2016 at 11:14 am

Vita Brevis

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The seventh novel in Ruth Downie’s Ruso and Tilla series takes us from Roman Britain (the setting for the majority of the books) for our first glimpse of Hadrianic Rome. And what a glimpse it is.

If you follow my reviews at all, you’ll be well aware by now of my opinion of this series and Ruth Downie’s awesome talent for storytelling, so you’ll be unsurprised to know that this is one of my highest rated books.

Following a former commander from Britain, Ruso brings Tilla and their new baby to Rome, seeking the good old ‘streets paved with gold’, only to find out that they are, in fact, paved with charlatans, criminals, gawpers and cockroaches. Oh, and barrels with bodies sealed inside. Yes, Ruso’s getting himself involved once again, entirely through atrocious luck, with a mystery. He receives an offer he cannot refuse: a ready made medical practice with patients, including a rich patron, and accommodation, all just waiting for him. But entirely apart from the delivery of the body in a barrel, he starts to worry that something is wrong because the former doctor has vanished without trace. Cue once again a truly complex, labyrinthine plot. As Ruso and Tilla battle debt collectors, wicked morticians, medical con-men, angry patrons, credulous neighbours, Christians and so many more, Ruso finds his life spiralling once more out of control, his reputation hanging on  knife edge, Tilla trying to hold things together.

As with all Ruth’s plots, Vita Brevis is a masterpiece of subtlety and complexity intertwined. As with all her books, character, colour, detail, pace and humour are prime movers. The characters are so well constructed, and we’ve known that since book 1, but the fact is they have have 6 books to grow, and they are now old friends. Well, the main characters are. The supporting ones are new, obviously, but are instantly dislikeable. Oh, some are likeable, but the majority are unpleasant, oily, corrupt Roman city-folk. And colour? Well, you just won’t believe the colour of the Rome Ruth paints until you read it. Detail? Well there are very few writers I have read who have anything close to Downie’s knowledge of her era. She is skilled as an author but also knowledgeable as a historian and archaeologist. I always feel confident with her work that I am experiencing the closest thing to actually being there. Pace is easy. It is almost impossible to put down a Ruth Downie book. They drag you in and then pull you along until you blink in disbelief that you’re at the end. and finally, humour. Well, there is so little light-hearted or humorous material to be found in the genre, that to see the ongoing quirky humour of Ruso and Tilla is always a heartwarming thing.

Gods, but Vita Brevis (Life is Short) is the latest in the series. This is the first time I’ve finished a Ruso book without there being another one waiting to be read. Come on Ruth. Maybe we can somehow push the calendar forward a year? In short: buy this book. Read this book.

Written by SJAT

November 22, 2016 at 10:22 pm

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