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Posts Tagged ‘historical fiction

The Death of Robin Hood

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If ever there was a spoiler in the title, eh? But come on, we’ve been expecting this book for a while. Angus Donald’s superb Outlaw Chronicles have run to 8 books, which is pretty good for any series to maintain freshness and individuality, but we could see by book 6 that the characters were beginning to age and to look towards the end. And book 7 pretty much told us there was only one more tale to tell. And yet we’ve all hungered for this last outing for a year.

Donald’s series has gone from strength to strength over the greater part of a decade. The first book was one of the most outstanding debuts ever written in the genre and, though the second was, to my mind, the weakest of the series, that was still a gripping book. But I had maintained throughout that my favourite in the series was King’s Man – the third. Until now.

I know from personal experience how hard it can be to finish a series. Managing to engineer a plot that effectively ties up each and every loose end to a satisfactory level is nightmarish work. It is only when one tries that one realises just how much a series has exploded outwards over its course and just how much there is to resolve. And mine was only a four book series. Donald must have been head-scratching and fretting at this plot for a while. And yet however he went about it, he’s pulled off a real coup with this novel.

The war between King John and his barons we encountered in book 7 resurfaces in this last tale, with Alan and Robin joined by old friends and new as they navigate the impossible currents of their masters’ politics. Fighting for justice against King John is one thing, but when those very rebels offer the throne instead to the French, then which was can a loyal Englishman turn? This is the dilemma Robin and his friends end up facing. That’s something of a spoiler, I guess, but an early one, and if I’m to tell you anything about the book at all, it has to include the fundamental point of it.

From a brutal siege at Rochester castle, we follow the adventures of Robin and Alan across Kent and the south, imprisonment and war, betrayal and revenge, all the way to Nottingham and Lincoln. There are four points I think about this work that deserve specific mention.

There is a sense of ‘full circle’ about book 8. In book 1 we met Robin Hood the outlaw, running a vicious godfather-like world and carrying out guerilla war in the forests against the authorities. Over successive books, Robin had changed, achieving legitimacy, title and a role at the heart of the Kingdom. Here, now in book 8, we are treated, at least for a while, to a return to form. There is a sense that despite the characters’ now rather mature age, we are seeing them relive their youth and the excitement of those rebel days. This I loved. This, for me, is what I will take away from the novel.

Angus Donald is rapidly becoming the ‘master of the siege’. It can be extremely difficult to include at least one siege in a book multiple times within a series. I’ve done it myself, and it’s very easy for them to become blase and samey. There are sieges throughout the Outlaw Chronicles, and some of the books pretty much centre on one (The Iron Castle, for example.) And in book 8, there are two sieges to handle. And you know what? They are exciting, unpredictable, fresh and superbly-executed. Every siege Donald handles he manages to produce something new and worthwhile, which is a masterful thing.

The characters are fluid and changing. It is ridiculously easy to maintain a character, and it is equally easy to mess up their progression. To have your characters grow old and mature over a series in a realistic and noticeable way while maintaining the traits that make them who they are is a skillful thing. Alan and Robin, Thomas and Miles, plus their many companions, are painted well and have grown with the reader. Even the absence of Little John does not mar the sense of character at the heart of the book.

Finally, the death of Robin (see? I told you the title held a spoiler.) Such a momentous event – in history, let alone at the climax of a series – has to be handled just right. To have Robin die in some glorious golden way would be cheesy to say the least. To have him butchered out of hand in a sad, random manner would leave the reader huffing grumpily. To achieve something that is realistic, tragic, sad, noble and personal is a real bonus. And that is how this book ends. It is all those things, but I think the most important point is that it is personal. Robin’s end is not some great battle scene like the one that took King Richard. It is the result of strands of the tale long in the making, and it is truly a personal thing. Also, it took me by surprise in the end, which is magnificent. Oh, not that he might die – note once more the title – but how it might come about.

In short, The Death of Robin Hood is a tour-de-force and has shot to the very top as the best in the series, which is fantastic for a finale. If you’re not read the books, you’re in for a treat, because there are 8 now waiting for you and you can demolish the whole tale from beginning to end. If you have, then fear not, loyal readers. Donald has done you proud. This book ends the Outlaw Chronicles with a bang AND a whimper. It’s out today. Go buy it… trust me.

Caesar’s Ambassador

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Caesar’s Ambassador is a short story I picked up at random somewhere along the line and has just sat there on my kindle. Recently, I had a day free in my reading schedule, so I decided to give it a read.

The story is set in a very familiar milieu for me, being the first year of Caesar’s Gallic Wars (the setting for Marius’ Mules I) and takes as its main character one Marcus Mettius, who is a minor supporting character in Caesar’s book. Mettius is one of two men the general sends to negotiate with the German king Ariovistus and who are captured and held by the man. That’s pretty much his run in history apart from minting coins the year of Caesar’s death. Virgin ground to work with then for a storyteller.

This is only a short story, but if you like it, there are a run now of about six shorts in the series, which probably adds up to a good sized novel between them. As you may know, my policy on reviewing books is to only review those I consider at least 3* books, since poor reviews can damage an author’s livelihood and it seems unfair to do that simply because I don’t like it. For me, Caesar’s Ambassador was really hard to rate. In the end I’ve given it 3 stars, but it could have gone up or down from there because there are so many things about it I like and, while there’s only one thing I don’t, it’s pretty crucial.

So on the positive side, this is a truly fresh and interesting angle on the events of Caesar’s De Bello Gallico, an interesting, bold and inventive choice. Mettius himself is an interesting character with an intriguingly uncharted history, and Johnston has done a sterling job of bringing him to life, giving him real personality and filling in history’s blanks. He’s also done an excellent job of depicting the times and the locations, with some of the detail being exquisite (a scene in a tavern particularly stands out.) Better still, given Mettius’ history, Johnston has chosen a character he can take on from there, and I know he covers quite a few years in subsequent books. The story is pacey, the characters vivid, the descriptive excellent. Additionally, there is a quirky humour throughout that really hits the spot, reminiscent for me of Ron Gompertz’s novels.

So what didn’t I like about it then? Quite simply the heavy anachronisms. I’m hardly free of blame for that myself, though I have gradually ironed out such things as I progress. But even at my strongest, I was nothing to this. Johnston’s idiom and terminology are almost entirely modern American in the tale, and some of the phrases used in an ancient setting just had me wincing. I’ll hold my hands up and say that as a Brit, perhaps I’m not the target audience and that for all I know this is a standard in the American market, but I don’t think that’s the case. For me the idioms and modern, anachronistic terms marred what could have been an excellent tale.

I still enjoyed Caesar’s Ambassador, and I will read the second in the series when I have the time, and so I leave it up to you whether this is a story for you, as I cannot doubt that what damaged it for me will certainly appeal to some readers, and I’m not so arrogant as to think I am right all the time. To be honest, at $0.99 it’ll hardly be breaking the bank to take a punt on it and see what you think.

Written by SJAT

July 21, 2016 at 8:57 am

The Lone Warrior

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I’m behind on reading one of my favourite series, but I’m catching up now. The Lone Warrior is the fourth book in Paul Fraser Collard’s excellent mid-nineteenth century series and, coincidentally is out in paperback today.

Jack Lark bean some time ago in The Scarlet Thief as something of an anomaly, an imposter. A low-ranker impersonating an officer. It was a very singular tale with, as far as I could see, little scope for an ongoing series. Then Paul surprised me with The Maharajah’s General, which repeated certain elements of the first, with impersonation and subterfuge, but also blew a hole in the very idea by revealing his true self and sending the series on something of a sharp tangent. This was good as a series, especially one with such a unique concept, would soon become stale if it simply repeated that concept over and over. So the third book – The Devil’s Assassin – took us in new directions. Jack was no longer wearing a mask, and instead went into tremendous action as his true self. And at the end of that book, he was free of his long-standing lie and released from the military.

So when I came to Lone Warrior, I truly had no idea what to expect. Jack was no longer in the army. He was no longer pretending to be someone he wasn’t. What could happen next? In fact what does happen is a new and fascinating angle. What could drag Jack back into the world of war and danger? What else but a woman. And the danger? Well Jack has faced it in the Crimea, with a rogue Maharajah and then in Persia. And throughout the second book, when he was serving in India, I kept wondering when we would encounter the Sepoy Mutiny, one of the few great events of Raj history of which I’m actually aware. And now, in book four, we’re there.

I won’t spoil the plot. If you’ve read the other books then you know what sort of thing to expect. If not, you’re in for derring-do and thunderous action. A character who is down-to-earth and practical living in the world of the English gentleman amid a sea of the empire’s enemies. All right, I’ll try to nudge the story without ruining it. Jack has fallen for a girl. It’s easy to see why when you read her. And after saving her from some dreadful people, he agrees to take her back to her home in Delhi. His timing is somewhat poor, arriving in the city the day before said Sepoy Mutiny kicks off and drags the whole of India into war, challenging English rule and almost succeeding. And so Jack finds himself in a city besieged by the enemy. Oh it doesn’t end there, and Jack finds himself once more serving with the British, displaying his forte – the art of killing.

And therein lies what for me is the great strength of the novel: the British siege of Delhi. The action is brutal and thick and fast and the pace never lets up. Nor, incidentally does the horror or violence, though Collard manages to enfold it all in a great epic tale of adventure and sometimes Flashman-esque action. But yes, to the siege. There are two movie sequences that to me portray the utter chaos of battle better than all others. The lesser of the two is the opening to Gladiator. The better is the start of Saving Private Ryan. Well, that is what you’ve got in Collard’s siege of Delhi. This is a third of the book at least, with all the action, intensity and brutality of the D-Day landings. It is warfare masterfully told. Gloriously horrifying, and it proves once more that Paul Fraser Collard is at the top of his game and the top of the genre.

Lone Warrior is exhilarating and packed with vivid characters and scenes and deserves to be read. Go buy it, people.

A Dark Anatomy

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Having been enthralled with Blake’s third and fourth books in the Cragg and Fidelis series, I felt it only right to go back and cover the ones I’ve missed. This, then, is the first book of the series. Having gone from the latest to the first, I expected to be less impressed, for it’s natural for writers to grow and improve with their work, but all I can say is this must have been a heck of a debut, for it matches his more recent novels in quality, style and content.

And I also expected some sort of lengthy introduction to the characters and the setting, and to experience the moment when the two title characters of the series meet and become friends. But no. Not for Blake. We are thrown straight into the world as it stands with no messing about, for a mystery waits to be untangled. That was rather refreshing, I think, for ‘origin stories’ can often take up enough of a first book that they rather eclipse the plot. Not so: Dark Anatomy.

The plot of this first book revolves around a squire’s wife found dead in the woods with a cut throat. But this is no simple murder. Far from it. For there lurk deep undercurrents of dissatisfaction among the locals, marital troubles, potential dark magicks brought back from the New World, troublesome con-men, secretive itinerant workers, stolen bodies and so much more. I won’t delve any deeper into the plot than that for fear of spoilers. But suffice it to say that I had more than one surprise as the plot unfolded. The plot itself was a work of genius and if anything is better than the other two I read, for the solution is simply masterful and ingenious.

Blake paints a picture of Regency north-west England that is at once realistic and immersive, and yet accessible and eminently readable. His characters are believable and the protagonists sympathetic. The whole thing comes out as a well-wrapped package of mystery that will give you a few very happy hours opening.

I highly recommend all Robin Blake’s books, but start with this one.

Skin and Bone

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A week or so ago I discovered, and started reading, Robin Blake’s Cragg and Fidelis mysteries. Go back a week and check out my review of the Scrivener to see how highly  I rated it. Well never one to subscribe to the ‘too much of a good thing’ theory, I read the fourth and latest book next. And guess what? It’s better.

Once again, I found that Blake had engineered a plot that was just complex enough to titillate the brain cells. Between about pages 50 and 100 I formed my opinion of what had happened. I got it about 75% right, I reckon, but there were aspects I hadn’t realised were coming.

For that is what Blake does. He presents you with a case, and then throws in tangents. None of these, I might add, are included just for the heck of it. They all have purpose and bear on the story as a whole, even if in a rather circumspect manner. I am beginning to see a style evolve. The Blake method. The same way Christie always had her detective gather her suspects for the reveal, or Columbo says ‘just one more thing’. Blake is a master, I suspect, of redirection. And that creates plots that are deep and complex, requiring some picking apart. You can never say ‘he did it, guv’ because there is ALWAYS more to it than that.

Once again, Blake shows an almost unparalleled knowledge of regency Lancashire and once again he displays it in such a way that you learn and experience and feel that you’re there, but never with ‘info dump’. The history is always woven into the story, which remains accessible to everyone. Anyone can read these books and enjoy them, regardless of era. Go on. You’ll love ’em.

If anything, the main characters are more likeable and believable than in the previous volume. There is definitely less preachy goodness among the protagonists, which makes it feel all the more authentic. I suspect that this is because the plot of book 4 revolves around a subject which even in the 1740s would shock and revolt, so the reactions are realistic, while in the previous one, slavery is abhorrent to the main characters, but that really puts them in a minority in the period.

So here we go, without wanting to provide spoilers:

A body is found in a tanning pit (the mechanics of this are vile. Don’t read while eating your lunch like I did). It is a baby, though there is some discussion as to whether it is a stillbirth or a murdered newborn. Thus begins an investigation you won’t be able to help yourself second-guessing which takes in the modernisation and progress of the city, the loss of ancient ways, the danger of noble monopolies, the rather seedy goings-on below (and above!) stairs in the houses of the great and good, and a disaster that, while almost costing Cragg his career, in some ways makes him. And where the previous book left me wanting to pursue the fate of those who escaped, this has a very satisfactory ending and an excellent dramatic conclusion.

In short, folks, it’s a win. Read this series. I’m going to catch up on the ones I’ve missed shortly.

America’s First Daughter

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You might remember that back in November I told you all about a great book that was coming soon, of which I’d had the fortune to acquire an advance copy? Well it’s time to remind you, because it’s out TODAY! Yep, you can go buy your gleaming, absorbing copy of America’s First Daughter right now. Why? Well here’s how I reviewed it (and scroll down for more goodies too!):

This review has been a while in coming as I’ve been working out how to tackle it. Firstly let me make clear just how stunning a book it is. Now let me explain a little…

America’s First Daughter is not exactly my general sphere of reading. I tend towards swords, explosions, boobs and fart jokes in my reading. Alright, that’s maybe a simplification, but you get the idea. I like my historical fiction generally action packed and usually ancient or medieval. So the saga of a 18th-19th century family, their relationships and the political turmoil that surrounds them is a little out of my comfort zone. But every now and then it does you good to step outside your comfort zone. And with Stephanie now being an acquaintance of mine through involvement in a joint work, I felt it would do me no harm to read this, especially when she very kindly offered me an advance copy, wondering what an Englishman would make of what is in essence a very American book.

Firstly, I’ll tackle the form of the book. This is to some extent an old-fashioned family saga. It purports to be a tale of the daughter of Thomas Jefferson and in principle it is that, but it is much more besides. It is a tale that delves deep into the lives of the whole family and many of their friends – and enemies, in fact. It is the tale of the birth and growing pains of a nation. And it is epic in scope, both temporally and geographically. Covering more than forty years, it takes us from the last days of the American revolution to the late 1820s, showing not only a changing, growing family, but also a changing, growing world. And it takes us from the States to France and back. A truly epic work (and at 592 pages, you can see that!)

And so on to the style. There are a few writers who are capable of creating works of fiction that are so beautifully crafted that it matters little what tale they are actually attempting to tell, it will always be exquisite. Guy Gavriel Kay is such a writer. He could write a user manual for an Epson printer and make it something you clutch to your heart. Mostly, though, this appears to be the province of female writers. Prue Batten is one. I’ve said before that her writing is like silk. She could write a telephone book and I’d be riveted to it. Recently I have discovered several female American authors who have similar skills. Kate Quinn is one. Stephanie Dray is another. Their writing is heady, hypnotic and thoroughly immersive. And that is what I get from reading America’s First Daughter.

In short it is a beautifully written treatment of a family in the early days of the United States. The tale opens with out eponymous heroine in her father (Thomas Jefferson)’s study, after his death, going through the seemingly endless letters and correspondence he has left. And thus begins the story of Martha Jefferson and her family. Each chapter opens with a letter from or to one of the Jefferson family, which gives the chapter its direction. The authors then expand on the letter and give it form and content as Martha Jefferson recounts the chapters of her life in relation to that letter, each one taking us a step forward in time. It is a fascinating way to view a life and I can only doff my cap to the ladies for the sheer inventiveness of what they have done and for what must have been one of the most immersive and challenging research projects of all time. Imagine taking the collected correspondence of a man known for his letters, sorting them out and crafting a story from them. Impressive, isn’t it?

But for me (possibly due to my outsider’s view of the subject) the real win for America’s First Daughter was what I learned or was led to reconsider…

  • The very agrarian culture of the early Unites States with its landowners and estates, granting them political rights – reminiscent to me of ancient Rome in odd ways.
  • The amazingly close gap between the American revolution and the French revolution (a mere 13 years!)
  • The strange world of women in the era, given a very Victorian value system, and yet with strong women forging their own destinies very much ahead of their time.
  • The surprising strength of the abolitionist cause in Virginia, well in advance of the civil war. In fact the level of liberal thought seems more prevalent than I’d expected for the time.
  • Again, though, hos close the Revolution and the Civil war are in time, given how they seem to belong to such different eras in history.
  • The word Yankee. Its use led me to look up its origin and guess what: no one seems to know. It is a mysterious word.
  • The close cultural connections between the US and France at the time. And some of the history of Lafayette (who I mostly knew from a street name in New Orleans!)

There are so many more things I reexamined because of the book, but you get the idea. One mark of a good book has to be how much it makes you think, after all.

And I think also that it is quite brave of the authors to tackle this time and these people. It’s not like writing about ancient Rome or the crusades, because the people Stephanie and Laura are writing about here are real people whose families still exist and might be picking up the book and reading about great, great, great, great grandpappy. This is only perhaps 7 generations back, and I have knowledge of my family at that time. To tackle such troubling social situations involving those families is impressive.

One line from the book that stays with me and goes some way to explaining the epic scale of the work is “Though I’ve known personally five of the six presidents before him…”

If you are a lover of deep, very personal, very emotional prose, then you’ll probably buy this without my recommendation. If you are a lover of action adventure, well, take a punt. Have a try – you might well be surprised. I was. Stephanie and Laura (who is thus far unknown to me) have created something with such depth and languid style that it deserves to be read. And it’s out now! You can buy it here, and I recommend that you do.

And here, just to whet your appetite, is a short extract from the tale:

And what of our future . . . ?” I asked.

Mr. Short smiled. “If you could give up all thoughts of the convent, our future depends upon the orders your father is awaiting from America. Your father has asked that in his absence, I be appointed in his place as chargé d’affaireswith commensurate salary. If I receive such an appointment, then I can present myself to your father as a worthy suitor. Otherwise, I’m afraid he’ll consider me a wandering wastrel without employment.”

“He would never!”

Mr. Short chuckled mirthlessly. “You think not? I have in my possession a letter from your father lecturing me on the need to build my fortune. The most memorable line reads: This is not aworld in which heaven rains down riches into any open hand.

How churlish of Papa, but had I not, from the youngest age, also received letters filled with his lectures? “You mustn’t worry, Mr. Short. If my father requested your appointment, then it’s sure to come. But until it does, how can I be sure of your intentions in asking for my love?”

I didn’t expect him to laugh. “You’re Jefferson’s daughter, to the bone. You want evidence. Well, give me the chance and I’ll give you the proofs you require—both of my love and of the world you should love too much to abandon even for God. I wouldn’t have you enter a convent, much less love, in ignorance.”

“What do you think me ignorant of?”

With mischief twinkling in his eyes, he stopped, drawing me into a grove of trees. Beyond us, in the ditch, we heard boys playing a ball game in the dim lamplight. Somehow, in the dark, Mr. Short’s fingertips found my cheeks, and his mouth stole over mine. This first kiss was soft and tender. As if he feared frightening me. Nevertheless, it shocked me. It was like my heart was a loaded cannon he’d held fire to, and it threatened to shoot out of my chest. But I wasn’t frightened and I didn’t pull away. Instead, it seemed quite the most natural thing to kiss him back, mimicking what he did, glorying in every soft, sweet sensation.

At the feel of my lips teasing softly at his, he groaned and pulled back. “Oh, my heart . . .”

The sweet taste of him still on my lips, our breaths puffing in the night air, I asked, “Have I done something wrong?”

He held my cheeks in his hands. “The error was all mine. I’d beg your pardon if I could bring myself to regret it, but I never want to regret anything with you, so tonight I must content myself with one kiss.”

Only one? I wanted to lavish a thousand kisses on his face. Hislips, his cheeks, his ears. The desire was a sudden hunger, a desperate plea inside me echoing like the cry of peasants for bread.

“What if I’m not yet content? Wasn’t kissing me meant to be the proof of your intentions?”

“No, Patsy. Kissing you, then stopping before satisfaction, is the proof of my intentions, which I hope you’ll see are honorable and directed toward your happiness.”

Better still, there is a Rafflecopter giveaway. Irritatingly, I couldn’t get the code to embed in this page, but click on the link just there to enter and perhaps win a signed copy with a tote and notebook.

About AMERICA’S FIRST DAUGHTER:

In a compelling, richly researched novel that draws from thousands of letters and original sources, bestselling authors Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie tell the fascinating, untold story of Thomas Jefferson’s eldest daughter, Martha “Patsy” Jefferson Randolph—a woman who kept the secrets of our most enigmatic founding father and shaped an American legacy.

From her earliest days, Patsy Jefferson knows that though her father loves his family dearly, his devotion to his country runs deeper still. As Thomas Jefferson’s oldest daughter, she becomes his helpmate, protector, and constant companion in the wake of her mother’s death, traveling with him when he becomes American minister to France.

It is in Paris, at the glittering court and among the first tumultuous days of revolution, that fifteen-year-old Patsy learns about her father’s troubling liaison with Sally Hemings, a slave girl her own age. Meanwhile, Patsy has fallen in love—with her father’s protégé William Short, a staunch abolitionist and ambitious diplomat. Torn between love, principles, and the bonds of family, Patsy questions whether she can choose a life as William’s wife and still be a devoted daughter.

Her choice will follow her in the years to come, to Virginia farmland, Monticello, and even the White House. And as scandal, tragedy, and poverty threaten her family, Patsy must decide how much she will sacrifice to protect her father’s reputation, in the process defining not just his political legacy, but that of the nation he founded.

Buy Links:

Amazon: http://amzn.to/1oT6IZw

Barnes and Noble: http://bit.ly/1oT6Hon

iBooks: http://apple.co/1Kz82KS

Kobo: http://bit.ly/1Q19xyl

Add it to your Goodreads:  https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25817162-america-s-first-daughter

Advanced Praise for America’s First Daughter:

“America’s First Daughter brings a turbulent era to vivid life. All the conflicts and complexities of the Early Republic are mirrored in Patsy’s story. It’s breathlessly exciting and heartbreaking by turns-a personal and political page-turner.” (Donna Thorland, author of The Turncoat)

“Painstakingly researched, beautifully hewn, compulsively readable — this enlightening literary journey takes us from Monticello to revolutionary Paris to the Jefferson White House, revealing remarkable historical details, dark family secrets, and bringing to life the colorful cast of characters who conceived of our new nation. A must read.” (Allison Pataki, New York Times bestselling author of The Accidental Empress)

About Stephanie Dray:

STEPHANIE DRAY is an award-winning, bestselling and two-time RITA award nominated author of historical women’s fiction. Her critically acclaimed series about Cleopatra’s daughter has been translated into eight different languages and won NJRW’s Golden Leaf. As Stephanie Draven, she is a national bestselling author of genre fiction and American-set historical women’s fiction. She is a frequent panelist and presenter at national writing conventions and lives near the nation’s capital. Before she became a novelist, she was a lawyer, a game designer, and a teacher. Now she uses the stories of women in history to inspire the young women of today.

Website |Newsletter | Facebook |Twitter | AMERICA’S FIRST DAUGHTER Website

About Laura Kamoie:

Laura Kamoie has always been fascinated by the people, stories, and physical presence of the past, which led her to a lifetime of historical and archaeological study and training. She holds a doctoral degree in early American history from The College of William and Mary, published two non-fiction books on early America, and most recently held the position of Associate Professor of History at the U.S. Naval Academy before transitioning to a full-time career writing genre fiction as the New York Times bestselling author of over twenty books, Laura Kaye. Her debut historical novel, America’s First Daughter, co-authored with Stephanie Dray, allowed her the exciting opportunity to combine her love of history with her passion for storytelling. Laura lives among the colonial charm of Annapolis, Maryland with her husband and two daughters.

Website |Newsletter | Facebook |Twitter | AMERICA’S FIRST DAUGHTER Website

Praetorian: The Price of Treason

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An empire controlled by an evil powermonger. An elite fighting force clad in white. A small band of rebel heroes racing to bring freedom and truth to the empire… sound familiar?

No, not Star Wars. But while you’re standing in the queue today, eager to see Kylo Ren, you can order Praetorian: The Price of Treason online  for £2.49 on Kindle or £8.99 in paperback.

396 pages of intrigue and danger in the Rome of the emperor Commodus. Good Praetorians, bad Praetorians, weird prefects, vengeful sailors, ambitious legates, defiant senators, wicked politicians, Rufinus, and a dog…

Yes, Rufinus is back.

Two years have passed since the emperor’s loyal Praetorian guardsman Gnaeus Marcius Rustius Rufinus foiled Lucilla’s great assassination plot. Plagued by the ghosts of his past, Rufinus has enacted his own form of justice upon the praetorian cavalrymen who murdered the imperial agent Dis two years earlier.

But the Fates will not let Rufinus rest. Rome is beginning to seethe with rumour and conspiracy as Perennis, the prefect of the Praetorian Guard, and Cleander, the imperial chamberlain, continue to play their ‘great game.’

With the tide of opinion turning against their commander, Rufinus and his friends embark upon a mission to save the Prefect’s family, only to uncover a plot that runs deep… to the very heart of the empire. Armed with rare and dangerous evidence, Rufinus faces insurmountable odds in an attempt to bring the truth to light. To save his prefect. To save Rome. To save everyone he cares about.

You can buy it here

Merry Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Winter to everyone.

Si

Written by SJAT

December 17, 2015 at 11:27 am

Feud by Derek Birks

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The Wars of the Roses are a period of British history that I (and I suspect plenty of other people) blithely think they know about, and we’re quite blase about the whole thing. And yet when I think about what I know, all I could really tell you is that it went on for decades and that it ended at Bosworth Field in 1485 with a Welshman with a big nose and a cruel hunchback searching for a horse. Well, a little more than that, obviously, but you get my drift. And I don’t buy into the evil Richard III hunchback myth either, but then I’m a son of the white rose, so that goes without saying.

Feud is the debut novel by Derek Birks and the first in a four book series. I wasn’t sure what to expect going into it. Was it going to be a bloody battles historical novel, or a family saga? Well, simply it is both.

The book follows the … well, the feud, obviously… between the Elder family and their neighbours, the Radcliffes. To some extent, the story of the families opened a little fast for me, launching straight into the moment of critical mass in the families’ struggles from the first page without much of a chance to acclimatise to the characters. In retrospect, given the size and scope of the book, I expect Derek took the deliberate decision to cut down on early chaff.

Driven from his lands and with his family dead, captive or scattered, Ned Elders sets off on a mission to put things right in the face of insurmountable odds. And as the story follows his journey, as well as those of his sisters, his friends and his enemies, the tale interweaves with the events of political and military manoeuvering and warfare leading up to the dreadful battle of Towton in 1461.

Firstly, let me say that this novel is an indie published work and is at the very top of the quality scale. It is exceptionally well written and polished. Apart from the fairly precipitous beginning and a perhaps over-complex web of events that led me to regularly think back and work out where everyone was, everything I found about the book was good. The writing is descriptive and immersive, yet driven along by the characters at a surprisingly swift pace. Those characters are well rounded and quite believable. There is nothing superman about them. They are human, with flaws and feelings, and they struggle through bad times. And Derek is not averse to killing important characters, so don’t get too attached to the supporting cast. The battle scenes are bloody and action packed, and the (many) scenes of individual derring-do are excellent.

Moreover, there is a sense that this feud that forms the backbone of the tale is rather unnecessary. The characters are not black and white on the whole, but grey. The Radcliffes actually contain good people in the end, and the actions of the Elders at times can be a little questionable. Although there can be no doubt that Edmund Radcliffe is definitely a slimeball! Nicely done, I’d say.

The landscapes here – and the book stretches from North Yorkshire to Wales, to Shropshire and London, and back north again – are well painted, and some of the area is local to me, so I could visualise the places well.

The first novel deals with the feud and achieves a good, finite ending on that family squabble, yet we are still left with questions about the future of the family during these tumultuous times. And so this book took me to 1461 and left me wanting to read the other three, which I presume will gradually bring me to Bosworth field and the end of the Wars.

In short, an excellent debut with some memorable characters and a good swift pace. Give it a read and you’ll not be disappointed.

Written by SJAT

December 10, 2015 at 11:32 am

America’s First Daughter

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This review has been a while in coming as I’ve been working out how to tackle it. Firstly let me make clear just how stunning a book it is. Now let me explain a little…

America’s First Daughter is not exactly my general sphere of reading. I tend towards swords, explosions, boobs and fart jokes in my reading. Alright, that’s maybe a simplification, but you get the idea. I like my historical fiction generally action packed and usually ancient or medieval. So the saga of a 18th-19th century family, their relationships and the political turmoil that surrounds them is a little out of my comfort zone. But every now and then it does you good to step outside your comfort zone. And with Stephanie now being an acquaintance of mine through involvement in a joint work, I felt it would do me no harm to read this, especially when she very kindly offered me an advance copy, wondering what an Englishman would make of what is in essence a very American book.

Firstly, I’ll tackle the form of the book. This is to some extent an old-fashioned family saga. It purports to be a tale of the daughter of Thomas Jefferson and in principle it is that, but it is much more besides. It is a tale that delves deep into the lives of the whole family and many of their friends – and enemies, in fact. It is the tale of the birth and growing pains of a nation. And it is epic in scope, both temporally and geographically. Covering more than forty years, it takes us from the last days of the American revolution to the late 1820s, showing not only a changing, growing family, but also a changing, growing world. And it takes us from the States to France and back. A truly epic work (and at 592 pages, you can see that!)

And so on to the style. There are a few writers who are capable of creating works of fiction that are so beautifully crafted that it matters little what tale they are actually attempting to tell, it will always be exquisite. Guy Gavriel Kay is such a writer. He could write a user manual for an Epson printer and make it something you clutch to your heart. Mostly, though, this appears to be the province of female writers. Prue Batten is one. I’ve said before that her writing is like silk. She could write a telephone book and I’d be riveted to it. Recently I have discovered several female American authors who have similar skills. Kate Quinn is one. Stephanie Dray is another. Their writing is heady, hypnotic and thoroughly immersive. And that is what I get from reading America’s First Daughter.

In short it is a beautifully written treatment of a family in the early days of the United States. The tale opens with out eponymous heroine in her father (Thomas Jefferson)’s study, after his death, going through the seemingly endless letters and correspondence he has left. And thus begins the story of Martha Jefferson and her family. Each chapter opens with a letter from or to one of the Jefferson family, which gives the chapter its direction. The authors then expand on the letter and give it form and content as Martha Jefferson recounts the chapters of her life in relation to that letter, each one taking us a step forward in time. It is a fascinating way to view a life and I can only doff my cap to the ladies for the sheer inventiveness of what they have done and for what must have been one of the most immersive and challenging research projects of all time. Imagine taking the collected correspondence of a man known for his letters, sorting them out and crafting a story from them. Impressive, isn’t it?

But for me (possibly due to my outsider’s view of the subject) the real win for America’s First Daughter was what I learned or was led to reconsider…

  • The very agrarian culture of the early Unites States with its landowners and estates, granting them political rights – reminiscent to me of ancient Rome in odd ways.
  • The amazingly close gap between the American revolution and the French revolution (a mere 13 years!)
  • The strange world of women in the era, given a very Victorian value system, and yet with strong women forging their own destinies very much ahead of their time.
  • The surprising strength of the abolitionist cause in Virginia, well in advance of the civil war. In fact the level of liberal thought seems more prevalent than I’d expected for the time.
  • Again, though, hos close the Revolution and the Civil war are in time, given how they seem to belong to such different eras in history.
  • The word Yankee. Its use led me to look up its origin and guess what: no one seems to know. It is a mysterious word.
  • The close cultural connections between the US and France at the time. And some of the history of Lafayette (who I mostly knew from a street name in New Orleans!)

There are so many more things I reexamined because of the book, but you get the idea. One mark of a good book has to be how much it makes you think, after all.

And I think also that it is quite brave of the authors to tackle this time and these people. It’s not like writing about ancient Rome or the crusades, because the people Stephanie and Laura are writing about here are real people whose families still exist and might be picking up the book and reading about great, great, great, great grandpappy. This is only perhaps 7 generations back, and I have knowledge of my family at that time. To tackle such troubling social situations involving those families is impressive.

One line from the book that stays with me and goes some way to explaining the epic scale of the work is “Though I’ve known personally five of the six presidents before him…”

If you are a lover of deep, very personal, very emotional prose, then you’ll probably buy this without my recommendation. If you are a lover of action adventure, well, take a punt. Have a try – you might well be surprised. I was. Stephanie and Laura (who is thus far unknown to me) have created something with such depth and languid style that it deserves to be read. And you’ll have to wait for a short while yet, I’m afraid, since it is not released until March 1st next year. But you can pre-order it here, and I recommend that you do.

Welcome to Roma Nova

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You might recall that I recently reviewed the excellent first novel in Alison Morton’s intriguing and genre-challenging Roma Nova series, ‘Inceptio’. If not, you’ll find that review HERE and I hope you’ll read it and be interested enough to go try it yourself. But aren’t you lucky? Because Alison’s first three Roma Nova books have been released in an e-book box set for a mere £3.99! Can you afford to pass up a great series for £1.33 a book? No, I don’t think so either. This fascinating series brings together all the action, technology and familiarity of the modern world of politics, espionage and military, along with the flavour, culture and social-facts of ancient Rome in a setting that is both at once, in a unique alternate history. And to celebrate the excellent deal, Alison agreed to answer a few questions for me, delving a little into the background and inspiration for the series. Before we begin, here’s a little something about Alison and her books:

Suppose a part of Ancient Rome survived?

Alison Morton explores just this. In her alternate thriller world, her 21st century Praetorian heroines survive kidnapping, betrayal and a vicious nemesis while using their Roman toughness and determination to save their beloved country. Unfortunately, their love lives don’t run so smoothly…

Alison has written four thrillers against this background – INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO and AURELIA. She’s working on the fifth, INSURRECTIO, out in spring 2016.

But this month, the Roma Nova box set is out and contains the first three books ­­– over a 1,000 pages of action adventure and alternative historical thrills in three books which have 140 five star reviews on Amazon between them.

INCEPTIO – the beginning: New Yorker Karen Brown is thrown into a new life in mysterious Roma Nova and fights to stay alive with a killer hunting her…

“Breathtaking action, suspense, political intrigue” – Russell Whitfield

Grips like a vice.  Excellent pace, great dialogue and concept.” – Adrian Magson

PERFIDITAS – betrayal: Six years on, where betrayal and rebellion are in the air, threatening to topple Roma Nova and ruin Carina’s life.

“Sassy, intriguing, page-turning … Roma Nova is a fascinating, exotic world” – Simon Scarrow

SUCCESSIO – the next generation: A mistake from the past threatens to destroy Roma Nova’s next generation.

“I thoroughly enjoyed this classy thriller, the third in Morton’s epic series set in Roma Nova.”
– Caroline Sanderson in The Bookseller

Historical Novel Society indie Editor’s Choice Autumn 2014

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Even before she pulled on her first set of fatigues, Alison Morton was fascinated by the idea of women soldiers. Brought up by a feminist mother and an ex-military father, it never occurred to her that women couldn’t serve their country in the armed forces. Everybody in her family had done time in uniform and in theatre – regular and reserve ­– all over the globe. She even wrote her history masters’ dissertation on women military!

Alison joined a special communications regiment and left as a captain, having done all sorts of interesting and exciting things no civilian would ever know or see. Or that she can talk about, even now…

But something else fuels her writing… Fascinated by the mosaics at Ampurias (Spain), at their creation by the complex, power and value-driven Roman civilization, she started wondering what a modern Roman society would be like if run by strong women. Now, she lives in France with her husband and writes Roman-themed alternate history thrillers with tough heroines.

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Hi Alison, and welcome.

What settled you on the unusual – and potentially risky – direction of alternate history, rather than simply writing a novel set in either ancient Rome or the modern world?

When I first attAMM Ampurias 1_smacked the keyboard I’d never written anything longer than my history masters’ dissertation. I had no plan, no idea of genre or structure and no definite goal. Nor had I heard of ‘alternate history’ as such. But several years before, I’d read Robert Harris’s Fatherland which, rather cleverly, he’d written shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, so I knew that I could ‘turn’ history. And I’d read a lot of science fiction which opened doors to so many possible worlds.

Fascinated by all things Roman since the age of eleven, I’d clambered over Roman ruins, been entranced by mosaics in former Yugoslavia, Spain, France and Cyprus, walked the limes in Germany and absorbed the atmosphere in the arenas in Nimes, Rome and Caerleon. And studying Latin at school just reinforced it all! But I’d always wondered what Roman women did…

My six years in uniform gave me the idea of making the main character military. So far so Roman. But the story of a courageous heroine doing daring deeds and sorting out the world had been buzzing around in my head for years. Women serve in military units now as standard but this wouldn’t have been possible in ancient Rome, so remembering Robert Harris, I yanked the Roman setting forward into the 21st

Risky? Of course, but why do something straightforward? And there are so many talented Roman writers already…

 

Is there somewhere you’ve been that you use as a visual basis for your Roma Nova? Somewhere that helped create your mental image of it?

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Roma Nova is Alpine with a lower lying region to the south, so it may resemble scenery I’ve walked through in Austria on holiday. For climate and agriculture I use Slovenia as a model but see the city streetscapes to be similar to the ones in the older parts of current day Rome; Renaissance buildings perched on top of Roman foundations or incorporating ancient buildings in later ones. I’ve put a gallery together of ‘Roma Nova’ photos on my blogsite.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is your matriarchal society in Roma Nova a deliberate choice to pull away from the history of the patriarchal ancient Roman world?

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Very much so! I’ve nudged it away in several steps. Ancient Roman attitudes to women were repressive by today’s standards, but towards the later Imperial period women had gained much more freedom to act, own property and run businesses. Divorce was relatively easy and step and adopted families commonplace.

Next, Apulius, the leader of Roma Nova’s founders, had married tough daughter of a Celtic princeling in Noricum. She came from a society in which, although Romanised for several generations, women made decisions, fought in battles and managed inheritance and property. Their four daughters were amongst the first pioneers in AD 395 so necessarily had to act more decisively than they would have in a traditional urban Roman setting.

Lastly, given the unstable, dangerous times in Roma Nova’s first few hundred years, daughters as well as sons had to put on armour and carry weapons to defend their homeland and their way of life. Fighting danger side-by-side with brothers and fathers reinforced women’s status and roles. And they never allowed the incursion of monotheistic paternalistic religions. So I don’t think that it’s too far a stretch for women to have developed leadership roles in all parts of Roma Novan life over the following centuries.

 

I somehow picture your desk full of notes and maps of your fictional new world, like Tolkien’s notes on Middle Earth. Do you build the world you have created as you write, or is it fully constructed already?

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Flattered to be mentioned in the same sentence as Tolkien! My world is built in my head, although I do have a sketch map pinned above my desk! If you haven’t hammered out a complete framework before starting, you risk tripping up later, as with the Klingons in Star Trek. Smaller details develop as I go along. I included more food details in my third book as one fan, who admitted to being a chef, pointed out he couldn’t work out what the Roma Novans ate. (Normal European diet, but including a lot of honey, olive oil and beans.)

green fields_smAnd history continues even in an imagined world. INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS and SUCCESSIO are set in the early 21st century, but the fourth book, AURELIA, featuring an older secondary character from the first three, starts in the late 1960s when she was a young woman. Then, two-way traffic stops and starts as it putters along the Decumanus Max, which often leaves Aurelia fuming in her car. When her granddaughter, Carina, drives along the Dec Max in 2010, it’s become one-way. Corded landlines have given way to smartphones in the new century and minor corporal punishment within households has disappeared by Carina’s time.

 

How much do you balance the drawing of inspiration and research from the modern world and sources on ancient Rome?

AMM_PDeG_smI use a layering approach. First of all, Roma Nova is an intrinsically Roman society where citizen service to the state is valued higher than personal advantage, a collective strategy which helped them to survive through the ages. The Roman mind-set is uncompromising, adaptable and ingenious, especially when faced with extinction. Modern Roma Novans exercise the same robust response as their ancestors did to any challenge.

Next, I mine details from the Roman Empire at the end of the 4th century, when the timeline from the real world diverged to form the Roma Novan one. For instance, the monetary unit in AD 395 was the solidus; Roma Novans have retained the name but today use debit cards, currency notes as well as coins, and internet banking.

The third layer is to anchor their modern society with links to and symbols from the past. Praetorians have become a special forces unit with the traditional task of protecting the ruler, but also the state. Unsurprisingly, they are arrogant and elitist, but efficient, with a fearsome reputation. The military train not only with state-of-the-art modern weaponry, on the range and in the field, but also with a gladius in order to enhance reflexes and increase close quarter battle skills and confidence.

Ancient Romans were superb technologists and engineers as well as skilled strategists. So in the modern era Roma Novans are at the forefront of the digital revolution. All my Roma Novan characters use advanced communications and security systems for their period. Sadly, although they continue to eat honey cake and enjoy the (non-lethal) games, there are still poetry evenings, bureaucratic Senate committee meetings, and long, boring lawyers’ speeches to endure when in court.
Do you have a deliberate over-all story arc in mind, or are you taking the series one book at a time?

AMM_forum_smEach book stands alone and dips into an episode in the character’s lives. In the first three, INCEPTIO is the beginning of the story, where we meet the characters whose lives will develop in the next two books. We revisit the heroine’s life several years later in PERFIDITAS when she is established in her new life. At that stage, I realised I needed to complete this cycle so SUCCESSIO looks eight years later at the next generation and is a story of change. So yes, they are connected, and span a fifteen year period.
The AURELIA cycle of three books which I’m writing now, now is planned as a complete arc, but again, each is a standalone story. One of my pet peeves is a cliff-hanger ending, so I’m not inflicting that on my readers!

 

 

Thank you so much for inviting me to be your guest, Simon. Tibi maximas gratias!

And thank you, Alison.

You can find out more on Alison’s box-set at her website here

You can buy it on Amazon here, iTunes here, and Kobo here

Connect with Alison on her Roma Nova blog

Facebook author page

Twitter @alison-morton

and last but not least, on Goodreads

Written by SJAT

November 12, 2015 at 2:28 pm