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

Reviews, news and inside the world of books.

Posts Tagged ‘military

Warrior of Rome

leave a comment »

The Warrior of Rome series is a set of novels of the later Roman Empire (mid 3rd century AD) revolving around a man who is as much barbarian as he is Roman. Marcus Clodius Ballista is a member of a Germanic tribe who has long since been married into the Roman aristocracy. He is a Roman military officer with a barbaric background. He is also the man who took the life of an emperor in one of the many bloody usurpations of the mid 3rd century. Ballista is loosely based on a shadowy figure of real history about whom very little is truly known.

harry

Ballista is one of the most engaging characters in the world of Roman fiction, especially when his extended familia are taken into account. He manages to give us both the insider and the outsider’s view of almost every facet of Roman society, which is fascinating. His wife, being truly old nobility, gives an even better and slightly different Roman view, as do the Scottish and Irish barbarians who accompany him. Indeed, every new character Sidebottom introduces who gets a visible thought process gives us a new view, and for that alone these books should be valued. And as an aside, I took book 5 of this series on audio, and the accents give it some extra level the text could never manage. So kudos there for the audio versions.

If I have one criticism of Sidebottom’s books it is the tendency for ‘info-dump’. This is particularly noticeable in the first book. But in honesty I suspect it is natural and unavoidable, since Sidebottom is a lecturer in ancient history at Oxford. He is one of the most knowledgeable men in the business, and slipping even a single percentage of his knowledge into his work would result in info dump. In some ways it is fascinating. I study Rome on a daily basis and learn everything I can, yet nary a chapter goes by without me noting something down, impressed with what I’ve just found out.

Yet despite the wonderful looks we get at the Roman world, and the amount we constantly learn by reading Sidebottom’s work, the prime concern of a writer of fiction is to entertain.  I enjoyed the first Warrior of Rome book, but found it slightly harder going perhaps than some other writers in the genre. Still, it was grabbing enough that I moved onto book 2, and with that I was dragged unstoppably into Ballista’s world. Book 2 for me began the rollercoaster. So whether you love book 1 or not, don’t stop. Believe me.

Sidebottom’s writing, while good from square one, improves over the first three books until it reaches an optimum point, for me, at about that point. From then on he has become one of my favourite writers of Roman fiction, and Ballista has become one of my favourite characters. The author’s descriptive has blossomed into a thing of beauty, his action scenes are breath-stealing, his plots are tight and never flap loose, and his character interaction has become familiar and realistic. In short, Sidebottom is as good as they come.

1

This first book in the series (Fire in the East) revolves around a city named Arete, situated by the Euphrates, to which the perpetually unpopular Ballista is dispatched by the emperor Valerian . His remit? To defend Arete against the Persian King of Kings. The book is a siege in its entirety, and takes some time to build. The characters by whom Ballista finds himself accompanied in Arete add a great deal to the joy of the book. I won’t spoil the plot for you, but to be honest, in this volume it is tension and style that drive. The plot is fairly basic in its bones, though there is some interesting side action produced by potential treachery from within. It is hard to read this book and not learn something about late Roman siege warfare. I once read a treatise on Zeugma and chemical warfare and this book makes oblique but heavy reference to that situation. By the end of it, I suspect you will be looking forward to seeing what Sidebottom can do with Ballista in other situations.

2

Book two (King of Kings) is, for me, when the Warrior of Rome series truly takes off. Sidebottom is beginning to settle into his style, the info dump of book 1 has become more subtle and the story more rich and complex. This is the tale of Valerian and his ill-fated war with Shapur, the King of Kings. I knew what was coming here, being familiar with Shapur and Valerian’s history, and yet the foreknowledge of what was coming did not ruin the tale, which is one of war and politics so tightly entwined that there is no separating them. In this book, Ballista makes new enemies both within and without the empire. It ends on something of a climax, so we knew book 3 would be good. Also, with some direct exploration of the Christian persecutions, this book spends some time exploring theological values and their importance. This is the first time I saw Sidebottom exploring a new theme as a subtext. It was not the last.

3

Book three (Lion of the Sun) is where Sidebottom has truly settled into the series. In the absence of Valerian, while his son Galerius rules in the west, traitors rise to the imperial purple. Traitors who know Ballista and know how to use him. The plot of this book is, in honesty, a little tangled, as we are sent all over the place along with Ballista, given various tasks and kept over busy. Throughout it, we are screaming at the hero to do something about his ridiculous situation. His family is being used as leverage to set him against the rightful emperor, after all. But rest assured, as the book winds slowly towards the conclusion, Ballista begins to turn things around. He has a subtle plan and before you realise what he is moving to solve all his problems. Clever, Sidebottom. Clever.

4

Book four (The Caspian Gates) sees our hero thrown into a border region by the emperor, keeping him out of the way. It is a masterpiece in Machiavellian politics, as Ballista is sent to save those he has already wronged, slept with and generally messed up. Ballista is being used, and it is the best he could hope for. What results is an impressive siege and control situation that puts the siege of Arete from book 1 into perspective.  This book is the moment I realised that Harry knew as much about the non -Roman world as he did about the Roman. It is an exploration of local politics that I cannot imagine is less than mind-boggling for a man who wasn’t there at the time. It is an immensely satisfying book, bringing old demons into the mix. Oh, and if you’re a lover of Jason and Argonauts, this book will carry you over old ground.

5

Book five (Wolves of the North) sees Ballista sent to the Steppe regions in trans-Black Sea Russia. Here, the tribes are troubled, and Rome seeks peaceful accord with them. But Ballista is sent to treaty with the Heruli and discovers that there is a politic world well outside that of the Imperium. Best of all (and something that makes this one of my fave of his books) is that this also incorporates a mystery surrounding  a sacred serial killer. I love books like that, and Sidebottom clearly need to branch out, as this book was gruesome and complex beyond his others. This, after maybe book 2 or 3, is my fave. Oh,and the solution with the native conflicts s brilliant too.

6

Book six begins Ballista’s family back in the North facing the legions of the usurper Postumus, which was fascinating to read. Freshly returned from the east, Ballista is sent by Gallienus to solidify the support of the tribes who are currently in sway of a pretender emperor. Ballista is sent north, travelling through dangerous unknown lands with crazed natives, into the world from which he once came. The journey is much of the book, and when he arrives the world he left is no longer there. The grand change here between the world of Ballista’s youth and the current is enough to make the reader quiver.

The story is unfinished. I felt a number of times that the protagonist might die, especially in the last book. But this is not the case. Ballista is moving on. And I want to know more. I have read Harry’s Iron and Rust books and I know their value. But I need Ballista to turn west again…

If anyone wants to find out more, head to York this weekend, where Harry will be in the author tent. Don’t miss this opportunity folks, if you’re on the area.

 

🙂

Advertisements

Written by SJAT

June 3, 2017 at 1:03 am

Rome’s ballistic missile

leave a comment »

Image result for mike bishop pilum

Whether you’re a reenactor or a historian or a writer or reader of Roman history, you will have come across this weapon. Along with the gladius, it is the staple of the Roman soldier. In fact, given the varied evolutionary form of Roman swords, the pilum might be the ONLY staple.

Prepare to have your horizons broadened once more. I thought I knew quite a lot about the pilum. I was, of course, wrong. I suspect Mike Bishop counts ancient Roman military facts to fall asleep at night. By the time he moved into long trousers, he was already more knowledgeable than I will ever be.

Osprey produce some of the very best works of military history. Bishop produces the best in Roman text books. The combination is always going to be good, as was proved in his earlier outing with the gladius in the same series.

Image result for m.c. bishop

This book opens by shattering the common myths of the weapon. The book moves through the disputed origin of this most infamous weapon, into its development and the many changes it underwent during the great length of Roman military power. Even relatively unexplored aspects such as the ‘throwing strap’ are dealt with – and this is something I only came across a year or two ago in my research.

The section on the pilum’s construction and manufacture is detailed enough that the reader (if he was more competent than I, anyway) could go away and make a pretty good example.

Other sections cover the methods of usage throughout Roman military history, maintenance, ownership, transportation and more. Notably, he even explores the end of the weapon’s usage, its successors and influence, but also the limitations and failures of the weapon.

Image result for pilum

Not only is the text enlivened throughout with excellent illustrations, many by the author, but is also explained and clarified with tables of appropriate details from excavations and ancient sources

One thing that always stands out for me with Bishop’s work is how clearly it is the most explored and reasoned of studious texts. Constantly Bishop compares archaeological evidence with a wealth of primary historical sources, which is as far as many historians get. But Bishop also compares the work of reenactors and utilises common sense and logic to answer questions that none of these sources could do on their own. As such, I trust his judgement on Roman military equipment above all others.

And as a final note, the section of the throwing of the weapon makes it look so easy. I’ve done it. It isn’t!

Anyway, if you like your Roman history or your military/weapon books, this is a cracking tome. I like my Osprey books, but this is one of the best, and one to which I will repeatedly turn while writing my novels.

Go get it.

Bishop

Written by SJAT

May 24, 2017 at 9:30 am

The Centurions 1: Betrayal

leave a comment »

betrayal

I’m sure if you’re reading my blog you’ll already be familiar with Riches’ work, in the form of his late 2nd century ‘Empire’ series. It came as something of a surprise to me last year to learn that while he is still continuing that series, Riches had sidestepped into a slightly earlier era with a trilogy project based on the Batavian Revolt.

For the record, I’m a huge fan of Riches’ Empire series, which has everything I look for in rollicking historical mayhem. But Betrayal is a different beast entirely. It feels considerably more grown-up than the Empire series (which sounds like an insult to Empire, but is not meant as such.) There is just something altogether more serious, thoughtful and… well, grown up… about this series. There’s no other way to put it.

Set during the Year of the Four Emperors, despite my love of Riches’ work, I approached Betrayal nervously. It is an era that has already been plumbed thoroughly by a number of very good writers, and the whole subject has become a little bit stale for me recently, the last good treatment I read being Doug Jackson’s. I needn’t have been concerned. Riches has done himself proud by looking at this oft-viewed piece of history from a new angle and a new point of view, which is impressive.

In fact, the general direction of the book reminded me of Ben Kane’s seemingly preferred angle, taking on a critical event in Roman history from a non-Roman point of view. In this case, it is largely told from the point of view of Civilis, a Batavian officer, with additional angles provided by a number of centurions on different sides of the conflict. And for anyone not familiar with the Year of the Four Emperors, there are most definitely more than two sides to look at.

Initially, I was a little perturbed by the number of angles and viewpoints, to be honest. Be aware that there are a lot of characters and units to familiarise yourself with, and that can require a lot of memory and concentration. But the same could be said with his Empire series, which involves a good number of important supporting characters, and yet that did not take me long to get the hang of. The same is the case here. It did not take too long to start grasping who was who and what was going on.

This is not a straightforward military romp. It is not a ‘swords and sandals adventure’. This is a deeply complex novel and, while it revolves around military units, the first book revolves more around the political machinations of powerful men, tribal politics and the strengths and failings of a number of imperial personas. In fact, battle scenes are rare for a Riches novel, with good in-your-face combat early and late in the story, sandwiching a knotty plot that is treated with respect and intelligence.

And the win for me? It gave me a new respect for the Batavians and their place in Roman history. Made me appreciate and consider the part they played in the early empire and the individuality of a people I had always rather lumped in as ‘one of those tribes.’

This is a superb book, and the start of what promises to be a cracking trilogy, given how this builds, and how it ends. The book is out on March 9th, and I suggest you pre-order it now or set a reminder to buy it in a fortnight!

Scourge of Rome

leave a comment »

sor

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

Gladius

leave a comment »

gladius

I love Osprey’s military history books. I have a shelf full, mainly of the ancient world ones, but with some variation. Each book is written and illustrated by different contributors, and consequently they are of varying quality (though only one or two I’ve come across have ever been less than good). On occasion, though, an Osprey book reaches the heights of excellence and becomes a real ‘go-to’ book on the subject.

As well as Osprey books, I like Mike Bishop’s books. I have half a dozen of them, published either by Armatura Press or by Pen and Sword. And I know when I pick up one of Bishop’s books that I will not be able to argue with or have reason to doubt a word therein. Along with Mary Beard and Adrian Goldsworthy, Bishop is one of those folk in whose knowledge I have implicit trust.

So an Osprey book by Mike Bishop? Hell yes! ‘The Gladius’ is one of Osprey’s most recent publications, part of their Weapon series, which covers everything from spears to assault rifles. I cleared my table, for I wanted no distractions, and I read it. Then, because I knew how much I’d learned and how much must have escaped my memory, I read it again. And soon, after reviewing it here, I’ll read it again. And as long as I am writing Roman fiction, I will constantly go back to it for reference, probably more than any other Osprey book.

This book takes you through the evolution of the ‘Spanish Sword’ from its origins, through adoption by the Roman republican army, its gradual changes in form, and to its eventual supplanting by other types of blade more suitable for the changing nature of Roman warfare. It covers the types of Gladius found, in incredible detail. Pompeii, Mainz, Ring-pommel and others, even less well-known to the lay reader. It examines their use and their role in combat, their methods of manufacture, the part they have played in Rome’s history, and even their effects on the world that followed.

The level of knowledge and detail in the book is impressive. I had not previously been aware of the level of variation or the sheer scale of finds that are referenced. I had not considered the possibility that blades were not formed from one forging of steel and not forge welded with separate edges of different types of steel. I had not considered just how clever the grip of the sword is. I was not aware of the discrepancies in the ancient accounts of their use that, to be honest, as a writer I can exploit!

And therein lies an extra level of value for me in this book. I have learned a number of things on a subject that I thought held little new for me. Boy was I wrong. And what I have learned will filter into my own novels, lending them an extra adge of authenticity.

What you have here is one of the very best Osprey books on offer. Knowledgeable, educational, and fascinating, yet put forward in a very accessible way (one of Osprey’s strengths and, helpfully, one of Bishop’s too.) It is also beautifully illustrated throughout, which supports the text beautifully, including some fascinating detailed drawings by the author. There is no filler or padding in this book. It is 100% on course with its subject and no matter how much you think you know your Roman weaponry, you’ll learn something from reeading it.

Pride of place on my shelf. Is it on yours yet?

Written by SJAT

December 1, 2016 at 10:50 am

Altar of Blood

leave a comment »

https://03fcd67fd51850d3ba6b-6cb392df11a341bce8c76b1898d0c030.ssl.cf3.rackcdn.com/large/9781/4447/9781444732016.jpg

One of the best ways, in my experience, to guage the quality of fiction is how easy it is to read. Yes, there is some crap out there that is an easy read, and yes, there are great reads out there that require concentration and work. But more often than not a book that just grabs your attention and drags you along from beginning to end is a success. I find Anthony Riches’ books to be like that. They hook you in the first few pages, relieve you of sleep, food and work and occupy your waking moments until you reach the end and close the book with a smile. Case in point: Empire IX – Altar of Blood. Started it one morning. Finished it the next afternoon. Couldn’t stop reading it.

Part of it now has become the familiarity with the characters, the setting and the writing style. By the ninth book in a series, readers know they’re going to get what they want. They’re on a safe bet. But kudos is due any author who makes it to book 9 in a series and isn’t simply rehashing old stuff. I pick up Riches’ books and I know I’m in for a treat, though. And even this far into a series, I know I’m in for new twists and fresh discoveries.

Riches, you see, is unpredictable. He cannot be counted on to give us happily ever after, to give us tested formula for all my comments about familiarity. Riches might kill off someone important any moment. He will take us to new places and may even turn the tables so that previous friends are enemies and previous enemies friends. Such keeps things fresh.

With the ninth in the empire series, there is a new feel to the start. Altar of Blood begins with viciousness and eye-watering brutality, and then settles down into an opening tale of tragedy. Then gradually, as our hero is put through the emotional mill yet again, the true tale of the book comes out. We are re-introduced not only to the usual characters but also to the wicked emperor and the snake Cleander. And then our heroes are sent off on a dreadfully dangerous secret mission into barbarian lands, following a brief ‘Dirty dozen’ recruitment session. Interestingly, where the previous books have focused primarily on our friend Corvus/Aquila with interludes carried by his friends, this book is almost entirely narrated around characters that were formerly supporting cast, with Aquila only occasionally coming to the fore.

There follows a tale of subterfuge and double dealing, insurgency and counter insurgency, chases, battles in deep forest and swamp, catharsis and healing, treachery and betrayal and heroism in unexpected places. The tale owes something in form to ‘Heart of Darkness’ or ‘Apocalypse Now’, but one thing is certain: with Riches’ own blend of adventure, action, violence, harsh language and reality born of understanding the military mind, he is becoming something of a Tarantino of historical fiction. Fresh, unpredictable, fascinating and exciting.

And Husam! Oh, Husam, you are sooooo cool.

Altar of Blood is out in paperback today. Have you read the series? No. Then get started, as you’ve a treat ahead of you. If you have, then rest assured, volume nine is far from disappointing. Go buy it now.

The Pale House

leave a comment »

9781843445517

Back in April I read McCallin’s first Reinhardt novel (The Man From Berlin) completely off the cuff, as it sounded different and interesting. Set in wartime Sarajevo with a rather lost, bitter detective in the Abwehr, it was a fascinating, complex read with an unusual point of view and setting. Without wanting to risk spoilers, the way it ended suggested that any sequal would have rather a different feel, and the character would be different.

It’s taken me a while to find the time, but now I’ve read the second book (The Pale House) and, while I had initial reservations, I am impressed and thoroughly enjoyed it. Reservations why? Well, as I said above the previous book had a somewhat game-changing ending, and I think the first maybe 10-15% of The Pale House is spent putting Reinhardt back in a position where he can investigate the plot. It feels a little like the suggested future at the end of book 1 has been glossed over to allow book 2 to flow. So to be honest it took me maybe 10% to settle into it. Then, as Reinhardt returns to Sarajevo, this time as one of the Feldjaeger – the Wehrmacht’s military police – he stumbles across a grisly scene that will have long-reaching effects for him and the military in Bosnia. And with that discovery, the plot begins to roll forward.

And what a plot. You see, while I thought this book took a short while to untangle its legs and get running, once it did it quickly began to outstrip the first book. The plot is tighter, more delicate, intricate, and yet carefully, cleverly revealed to the reader. Moreover, the plot is compounded with a number of subplots, some of which are linked and others not, forming a grand scheme that, while it was easy to pick out about half way through some of what was happening, right to the very end I was still being hit by surprises.

In Reinhardt’s world, no one can be trusted. The enemy are not the allies (Britain, the USA and Russia.) They are, to some extent, the partisans plagueing Bosnia. They are also the native para-military nominally organisations allied to Germany and yet causing more trouble than any enemy. But the most insidious enemies in Reinhardt’s world almost always come from among his own people – among the hierarchy of the German military.

Quite simply, I’m not going to tell you anything about the plot other than how nice it is, as it would be far too easy to accidentally drop in a spoiler. I shall just say that this book is set some time after the first, and while there are a few faces cropping up who we met in book 1, they are largely incidental or at best supporting characters. This is a whole new tale with a whole new cast and it shows that McCallin is anything but a one trick pony. The Pale House is, despite my initial worries, better than The Man From Berlin. I heartily recommend them both. They are tales outside my era-based comfort zone, but I love this series and I am excited to note that a third novel (The Divided City) is due out in December.

Written by SJAT

September 3, 2016 at 10:05 am