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Marik’s Way by Nick Brown

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Marik

As a Roman fiction author who detoured into the world of fantasy myself, and a long-term reader and lover of both Historical fiction and Fantasy, I am always on the lookout for those authors who do the same. If a writer is good in either of those genres, there is a good chance they will hit the sweet spot in the other too. I am, for instance, waiting for Angus Donald’s foray into a Chinese-style fantasy, so much did I love his Outlaw books. And then there’s Nick Brown.

It doesn’t take much to discover how much I value Nick’s writing. Just scroll down my reviews at the side and you’ll find my high opinion of all his Agent of Rome books. I was sad to see that he was no longer working on Corbulo’s tales, but upon talking to him, was also intrigued and fascinated to learn that he too was working on a fantasy novel. In fact, in terms of disclosure, Nick and I have become friends, and thus I will admit that I managed to read a copy of Marik’s Way long before release. Rest assured that I retain objectivity, even when I gush. Nick’s writing has formed some of my absolute favourite Roman books of recent years.

Marik’s Way is the start of a new adventure for Nick Brown. I believe it to be the beginning of a series of novels, rather than a one off, which sits well with me, as I’d hate to know that there would be no more. The novel is, in short, as classy as any of his Roman work. What, for me, it loses in lacking the deep world of Roman history and my love thereof, it gains in granting the author the freedom to become truly creative. The book is written with as much skilled prose and engaging conversation, as colourful characters and tense action as his Agent of Rome series, but additionally, it has given him the opportunity to build a world completely from the ground up. As a former (ish!) role-playing gamer, I am familiar with the process of fantasy world building, and unless the creator is thorough and has an eye for what will grab a reader that world will fail to engage. The fact that I found myself making notes and wanting to know more of places, concepts and people that gained a mere mention is a fantastic sign.

Marik is an interesting character in himself. Very unlike Cassius Corbulo, too. Where Corbulo was a bright young man who had been somewhat forced into activity from a would-be hedonistic lifestyle and treated folk with the disdain of the Roman patrician classes, Marik is a rough, if intelligent, former soldier, with a somewhat corroded sense of right and wrong, a pragmatic approach and a tendency to low cunning. He is a hero, for sure, but only in that he stops four paces short of being an anti-hero, and could easily become a villain with just a few slips. My kind of character, in short. In fact, for some time I struggled with liking him as a person, but I pushed on, for some of the greatest of literature’s characters have come across at first as unbearable (Sherlock Holmes, for example.) Marik becomes gradually more likeable, more understandable, and more redeemed as the book progresses, though he never loses the edge that makes you suspect he could change if he felt the need.

The tale comes to some extent in three parts, or at least that was how I found it. An introduction, with Marik wandering and poor, seeking a path and a way to live, struggling with bad work and worse people. This was an exploration of Marik and his world. Then we had a journey, which I might be tempted to liken to a fantasy Heart of Darkness. This led to epiphanies and a massive action extravaganza that occupied at least the last third of the book. That last section? Well let me tell you I relived the excitement of The Wild Geese and Zulu in a fantasy setting. It was a fabulous read that kept me turning the pages again and again.

In short, this book should appeal to lovers of fantasy, but probably also historical fiction. Marik’s Way is a brave departure from form, but a very worthwhile one, and I encourage everyone to go grab this novel at the earliest convenience.

🙂

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Written by SJAT

August 23, 2018 at 11:58 pm

Posted in Fantasy

Tagged with , , , , , , ,

Tough Rides – China

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We’re taking a brief break from books again this week to look at a different kind of media. For those of you following this blog, you’ll remember that earlier this year I reviewed a great motorcycle adventure in both DVD and book format called the ‘Middle Kingdom Ride‘, and that during the summer I reviewed the second in the series – ‘Tough Rides – India‘. Well the great news is that Ryan and Colin Pyle are busy producing the third adventure in the series, this time in Brazil, to which I am eagerly looking forward. But in the meantime, here’s a worthily re-packaged re-release to grab the attention of anyone who hasn’t yet seen that and who has an interest in travel and/or bikes.

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When the Middle Kingdom Ride was first released I have no doubt that it was intended to be a once-in-a-lifetime thing. It certainly felt like it, and it had been a whole change-of-life, drop-everything-and-try-something amazing project. Having decided to pursue further ‘tough rides’, though, the original has been re-released but with a new name, new look and new format in keeping with the budding series. The DVD of MKR is now available on Blu-Ray as ‘Tough Rides: China’ (you can buy it here.)

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So why a new review? Well because the new format deserves the press. I thoroughly enjoyed MKR when I first watched it, and my only real complaint with it was that the sound quality occasionally dipped. Well the blu-ray format is much clearer, which alone makes it a worthwhile improvement. But the real value is in the display. You see, one of the most amazing things about the travelogue was the scenery, which is absolutely stunning and captured with style and grace, especially considering the minimal manpower and equipment available on the journey. Truly, the scenery was breathtaking. And on Blu-ray, that really comes across. Don’t take my word for it. Load up the blu-ray on an HD widescreen and when you’re looking at the Mongolian and Tibetan landscapes it’s like something from Tolkien. Simply stunning.

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The menu navigation on this edition is also much improved and having the series on one blu-ray instead of two DVDs adds another level of ease to it. And in case you’ve not read my earlier review, I’ll include a little something about the background of the ride from it out here. Do check out the whole review here for more information, though. If you enjoy a good travelogue in the vein of Michael Palin’s or Levison Wood or Billy Connolly, then these deserve your attention.

(From earlier review:)

Amazingly, this tremendous journey, painstakingly documented in both text and film, was carried out by the two stars from their own funds. They did not receive the financial and logistical backing of the BBC or Nat Geo, or any of the great media groups that usually produce such series. They did not get given special treatment from the authorities as media stars. They were not donated bikes. They used up their savings, sold a house, quit jobs and did it themselves. Did what? you ask… Oh yeah. Here’s what they did:

Ryan Pyle is a freelance photographer from Canada who’s lived in Shanghai for a decade now. He loves China. He loves the culture and the people and has been documenting it with his camera now for years. He’s also an enthusiastic, if relatively amateur, motorcyclist. His brother Colin owned a company back in Canada, but was tiring of the life and sought adventure – and he’s also a biker! So from Ryan’s enthusiasm and Colin’s need for change was born the idea of the Middle Kingdom Ride. The Middle Kingdom, you see, is a phrase derived from China’s name for itself, based on the principle that China was at the centre of its world. Ryan had this crazy idea that the two brothers could leave behind work and ordinary life – including, most wrenchingly, their wives – and take two bikes and a small support crew and ride around the circumference of China. China hold the longest unbroken border that can be driven or ridden, and to do so would not only be fascinating and an amazing achievement, but it would also be a world record.

Ryan and Colin sought financial and logistical support, but the deals they made fell through, leaving them alone. Not to be thwarted, the pair decided that they would do what they intended, with or without support. And so they found a filmmaker who was enthusiastic over the idea, who would travel behind the bikes in an SUV. And through careful planning around the route, arranged a series of local guides from each region who would join the support vehicle for a section of the trip. That was it. Two brothers on bikes, and two men in an SUV behind them.

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Written by SJAT

October 22, 2015 at 9:42 am

Tough Rides – India

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tri

Some of you will remember that a while back I ran a review of a book and DVD combination of an adventurous motorcycle journey around the periphery of China. The adventurers themselves were a pair of Canadian brothers, Ryan and Colin Pyle, who had pretty much staked everything they had to ride the adventure of a lifetime.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book and DVD both and recommended them a number of times. Well it seems that our favourite Canadian bikers have acquired the taste for the extreme. I recently learned that they had followed up their journey around China with one around India, and are even now engaged on a similar escapade around Brazil. For those of you who didn’t hear about the first one, the premise was simple (even though the journey was far from): Two men on bikes riding around the circumference of the country.

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The second series (Tough Rides: India) follows the same principle, starting from Delhi and riding around the outline of India in a clockwise direction.

The first thing I can most definitely say is that compared with the first volume, which was self-funded and self-produced and was the brothers’ first attempt at anything like this, Tough Rides: India has a more polished feel. The first was an excellent DVD but at times had a little issue with clarity of sound or roughness of segue. That is gone in this series. Clarity and professionalism-wise, it might well have been BBC or Discovery Channel.

Also, this volume seems to have more depth to it. The first was based purely on the journey and the struggle to complete it (and that was enough, by the way, given the difficulties they faced.) In India, the brothers seem to have gone into the whole project more focused on the production of a travelogue than the journey it charts.

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The places they visit on the route are among those that are at the top of my Asian Bucket List. Varanasi, Amritsar, Taj Mahal and Mahabodhi temples to name but the biggest. It helps that in my heart I am more or less Buddhist in my belief, so the brothers’ journey took in some places that really interested me on many levels. And it seems the pair planned well the sites they would visit to give variety, culture, and the unexpected for the viewer.

As with their journey around China (and any good travelogue) the brothers visit places that are both famous and obscure, ancient and modern, meet fascinating people and discover peculiar customs. Unlike the China journey, there is less focus on the roads and the traffic, though it still plays an important part, obviously. Some scenes are enough to put you off the idea of driving in India, and make my complaints about bad British drivers pale into insignificance.

But the thing I like most about this, especially given the Buddhist leanings I mentioned earlier, is that the brothers explore something of what religion means to the vast and varied population of the sub continent. They visit Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic temples and speak to the holy men and the ordinary believers of them all. And the strange way in which the great religions sit juxtaposed and theoretically at odds, and yet actually work seamlessly to support the people and the land, is fascinating.

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And while the sound has improved immeasurably in volume 2, the photography was already superb and has maintained its high standard, perhaps also improving somewhat. The scenery and imagery is stunning.

As previously, the journey is at times funny, heart-stopping, exciting, sad and exhilarating. It certainly boosted my urge to visit the place.

Bravo Ryan and Colin Pyle. Job well done, I say.

If you have a liking for good travel documentaries, go get this and give it a watch.

Written by SJAT

August 20, 2015 at 9:00 am

The Middle Kingdom Ride

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mkr

Very unusual subject matter for me, but everyone needs a little change now and then, eh? Variety, as they say, is the spice of life.

I recently had the opportunity of a review copy of this book (and the associated DVD) and rearranged my reading schedule to fit it in. Nearly everything I read is historical, where it be fiction or non-fiction, but my love of travel and adventure is strong too, and I am a sucker for travelogues on TV, so I jumped at this chance.

Amazingly, this tremendous journey, painstakingly documented in both text and film, was carried out by the two stars from their own funds. They did not receive the financial and logistical backing of the BBC or Nat Geo, or any of the great media groups that usually produce such series. They did not get given special treatment from the authorities as media stars. They were not donated bikes. They used up their savings, sold a house, quit jobs and did it themselves. Did what? you ask… Oh yeah. Here’s what they did:

Ryan Pyle is a freelance photographer from Canada who’s lived in Shanghai for a decade now. He loves China. He loves the culture and the people and has been documenting it with his camera now for years. He’s also an enthusiastic, if relatively amateur, motorcyclist. His brother Colin owned a company back in Canada, but was tiring of the life and sought adventure – and he’s also a biker! So from Ryan’s enthusiasm and Colin’s need for change was born the idea of the Middle Kingdom Ride. The Middle Kingdom, you see, is a phrase derived from China’s name for itself, based on the principle that China was at the centre of its world. Ryan had this crazy idea that the two brothers could leave behind work and ordinary life – including, most wrenchingly, their wives – and take two bikes and a small support crew and ride around the circumference of China. China hold the longest unbroken border that can be driven or ridden, and to do so would not only be fascinating and an amazing achievement, but it would also be a world record.

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(The route around China for the Middle Kingdom ride)

Ryan and Colin sought financial and logistical support, but the deals they made fell through, leaving them alone. Not to be thwarted, the pair decided that they would do what they intended, with or without support. And so they found a filmmaker who was enthusiastic over the idea, who would travel behind the bikes in an SUV. And through careful planning around the route, arranged a series of local guides from each region who would join the support vehicle for a section of the trip. That was it. Two brothers on bikes, and two men in an SUV behind them.

So that’s the background. As for the ride itself? Well suffice it to say that, despite having recently watched Sue Perkins’ Mekong journey and Levison Wood’s Walking the Nile, this journey was at least up there with the others, and was actually better than them in some ways. The journey has everything, because the brothers are not just riding bikes around the country, they are also immersing themselves in the culture at every opportunity. Thus we are treated to seeing the more draconian side of the Chinese administration, the life of Mongolian peasants from their own level, oppressed-yet-rebellious Tibet, tourist-oriented river journeys and everything in between. One thing that struck me throughout was how friendly and helpful and genuinely interested almost everyone they met seemed to be.

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Then there were the hiccups. From broken bikes to more broken bikes, to two broken bikes at the same time, to almost uncrossable terrain, to impassable landslides, to forbidden expressways with angry policemen, to whole forbidden regions, the world seems to batter the pair on a regular basis. And yet, the brothers continually push down the disappointments and fears and overcome to push on. Even with the requisite number of falls – some of them quite hard, too. Anyone who’s ridden a bike will probably tell you that a fall is inevitable at some point. I myself have come off one a few times, though never badly. All I would say it that, given the terrain across which these two rode, it is just astounding that they didn’t fall more often.

I won’t delve any deeper into the content of the journey, as that’s for the reader/watcher to discover for themselves.

I read the book and then watched the DVD, and if you feel like doing both, that is most definitely the order in which to do it. The DVD will allow you to picture what you have already read, and the – by necessity – sparser detail in the DVD is best approached by having read the book and being able to fill in the blanks as it were

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The book is fascinating. It is well written and well edited and proofed. The book follows the journey from its conception to its conclusion, divided up into chapters at the appropriate spots. Each chapter is lovingly told by Ryan in excellent detail, aided I’m sure by the fact that both brothers kept a video diary at the end of each day’s ride, and by the video footage that had been taken. At no point does the read become dull or repetitive, which I consider an achievement when you’re writing about 60 days and 18,000 km of motorcycle journey. But there is no lag in the tale. At the end of each chapter, Colin adds his impression of the same events, which sometimes throws new light on things and allows for an interesting counterpoint to the main text. If I had one criticism of the book it was that the first half of the journey takes up nearly 3/4 of the book, and so it feels like less justice has been done to the second half of the ride, but I suspect that most of the reason for that is that the latter leg of the journey was faster, on more major roads and with less trouble. Better not to labour whole sections of ‘we rode and nothing happened’ I suppose. The book is an excellent record of the journey, but also forms an amazing glimpse into the lives, minds and emotions of both brothers. All in all, the book was an excellent read, and I found myself glued to it at times.

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The DVD matches up in its production to any of the travelogues you will catch on TV. Using footage from the support crew as well as from the helmet cameras of both riders and their video diaries at the days’ end, the film-maker has done an excellent job of production. It is a thoroughly professional piece. Split into six episodes it allows you to in some way, join in with the ride, and experience some of what the brothers felt and saw. I have two minor criticisms of the DVD. One was the length of the introduction and ‘previously on’ at the start of each episode, which had to be sat through to get to the film (though this is a common problem I’ve found with travelogues and in no way unique to this DVD!) And the other is that in places the sound is not so good. Of course, that is occasioned by the fact that this was a proper adventure with only two men supporting, not a whole film crew with a mic boom and so on. So the sound you hear on the film is not the clean sound of the large-scale documentary film-maker, but the real sound of the journey. And while that means that sometime you might have to listen hard to hear over the truckstop noises, it does mean that you are truly immersed in the journey. So I suppose in retrospect they’re not so much criticisms, as comments. The DVD does not have the level of detail that the book has, of course, so as I suggested earlier, if you get both book and DVD, read the book first. However, the DVD is well enough produced and written that if you don’t read the book, you won’t know you’re missing the minutiae, and the DVD will still be a treat to watch. Really, the scenery alone makes it worthwhile, to be honest.

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So there you go: two brothers, two motorcycles, 18,000 kilometers. One of the most fascinating, varied, and well-documented journeys you will get to read or see. And now, it seems, the brothers have gone on to ride around the edge of India next, so I bet you can guess what I’m getting and shuffling into the reading pile now?

Get the book here and the DVD here in the UK, or here (DVD) and here (book) elsewhere. And enjoy…

Written by SJAT

March 19, 2015 at 11:40 am