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

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Posts Tagged ‘Napoleonic

Devil’s Assassin

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Jack Lark is one of my favourite literary creations of the modern swathe of historical fiction. Paul Fraser Collard’s debut work was one of my top ten reads of the year (and was certainly in the top half of those.) The second book in the series I was a little worried about, since the premise of the first book was new and interesting but really didn’t lend itself to the possibility of a sequel. Somehow, Paul pulled it out of the bag. The second book was amazingly not a carbon copy of the first, and yet managed to continue the theme. The second one, in fact, stepped up the stakes a little. But the question was: what could he do with book 3? He surely couldn’t follow similar lines.

And so he hasn’t. The Devil’s Assassin has taken the story of our favourite fraud and slewed it off at a tangent. No longer is Jack the roguish low-born masquerading as his betters. Or maybe he still is, but in a very different way, and for very different reasons. After his service with the Maharajah in book 2, Jack has made his way south, still in India. He is still living an assumed life, with no money or influence, making it from one day to the next on his wits and luck. But things are about to change. Because someone in his city is about to find out his secret, and that person will have more use for Jack in his employ than swinging on a gallows. And even as military intelligence get their claws into Jack, the Shah of Persia is interfering in international matters and war is looming on the horizon.

And here is the meat of the plot. There is (or are) spy (ies) in the British armed forces, and Jack is set to hunting them. But throughout this intrigue and mystery, there is also a war taking shape. So against a background of military campaigning, our (anti) hero continues to try and unravel the espionage plot. In some respects this book feels like two very disparate stories running concurrently. The war against the Shah is told in such glorious detail, scope, colour and depth that I had largely forgotten the entire spy plot when it suddenly reappeared from behind a bush and shook me by the shoulders. Collard has clearly enjoyed in this book taking an almost unknown British military campaign and bringing it to the reader’s attention, and he does it very well, the manoeuvres and desperate counter offensives described evocatively, but also with enough clarity that the reader can follow the entire thing, on both a personal level and as a grand military action.

Interestingly, this book marks a turning point in the series. It is clear in retrospect that while Collard pulled off a feat with book 2, the whole character of Jack and the premise of the series were resulting in writing the hero into a corner. Sooner or later, something would have to break unless the books were going to turn into those carbon copies we all want to avoid. And when that break happened, it was hard to see how Jack could progress except at the end of a Tyburn knot. And that is the gem of this book. It has achieved the unachievable and given Jack a new lease of life and Collard a universe of possibility with which to proceed.

The character of Jack has definitely grown in this work. The death and destruction that has surrounded his career has begun to change (and haunt) our hero. This is good – not for him, but certainly for us. A character has to grow and change in order to keep the reader’s interest and to inform the book with realism, and Jack is beginning to morph from a sharp young adventurer into an tired war-horse. He has a long way to go yet, but the signs are definitely there.

Paul Collard has a very readable fluid style of writing, which draws the reader along and involves them without ‘dumbing’ anything down. He does not sacrifice style and value for ease of reading, and yet it is an easy read. His characters’ speech is realistic and comfortable for the reader, and his descriptions of exotic locations and cultures are totally immersing, especially when described from the point of view of the stiff Victorian British officer.

In short, after two top books, The Devil’s Assassin is yet another win from a writer at the top of his game. Go get it, folks.

Written by SJAT

May 10, 2015 at 9:25 pm

Top Ten Reads of 2014

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It’s that time again where I choose the top ten books I read throughout the year. This year I have reviewed fewer books than in the previous two. A few I’ve read have not made it to review because they didn’t quite match up to the level of quality of those I have done, but others were held back because they have not yet been published and were still in draft manuscript form (I read quite a lot of those this year.) Note that these ten are in Author order, not preferential countdown. If you missed these books in 2014 go read them in 2015.

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I suspect I have now reached a point where certain authors are pretty much guarenteed a place in my top ten unless a new unknown suddenlyblows my socks off. Mike Arnold is one such. Captain Stryker’s adventures are a highlight of my year and are always highly anticipated, never failing to thrill. In this fifth installment, Arnold created a perfect tightly-knit mix of action, suspense, intrigue and character. See my full review here.

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In one of the most outstanding Roman series available, Nick Brown upped his own game again this year with a heady, evocative, exotic thriller, sending Corbulo on the hunt for a stolen relic in the eastern provinces. Corbulo and his allies continue to grow and evolve as characters, and Brown quickly shot to the top reaches of the Roman A-list for me. See my full review here.

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Paul Collard managed a rare thing last year with the Scarlet Thief: he took a barely touched milieu and a fresh, unusual idea for a character and crafted a stunning debut. This year’s sequel could easily have been either a poor follow up or a yawn-worthy repeat of book 1. Yet, despite the inherent difficulties, he managed to keep the tale fresh and exciting, and the story echoed at times one of my fave movies – Zulu. Read me full review here.

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One of history’s fiercest sieges retold in one of the year’s most tense, gripping novels. Angus Donald’s characterisation of Robin Hood continues long beyond the death of Richard I and into the reign of the ignoble King John in this latest offering, which is one of the strongest in the series so far. See my full review here.

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Valerius Verrens is one of the best Roman characters in literature, running the whole gamut from war hero to tortured lover to dishonoured refugee to spy and so much more. Jackson has written books that are tense, dark, exciting, edgy and more, and in this latest, he really doesn’t disappoint. Read the full review here.

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This far, Hannibal has been my favourite of the three series by Kane. It is, I think, the most human, the most sympathetic and the most varied in scope, despite how geographically wide the Forgotten Legion books were. Hanno and Quintus are well-pitted against one another, and are both taken to the reader’s heart. This latest in the series takes one of the most critical moments in the Punic Wars and weaves an exciting tale around it. Read the full review here.

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I had read Kristian’s Raven saga and, like you I’m sure, was hungry for more. But he was busy on his civil war series. And then suddenly we were treated this year not to a new Raven book, but to a prequel. The beginning of it all, as Sigurd flows into the pages of fictional history. Gods, I’d missed Sigurd, and he came back with a bang. Read the review here.

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Remember how I mentioned the possibility of a new find blowing my socks off? Well had it not been for a read of Ridpath’s opus on a whim, Douglas Jackson would have had two books in this list! Ridpath’s tale of love, loss, intrigue, espionage and tense uncertainty in pre-war Berlin was something of a surprise for me. One of my absolute faves. Read the full review here.

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Kydd is as much the quintessential Napoleonic era sailor character as any Hornblower, Bolitho, Ramage or Aubrey. And he travels to some stunning locales to take part in some truly nail-biting escapades. Stockwin manages to write in a very authentic period prose and yet tell tales with the cinematic punch of a blockbuster, and I think Pasha is his most absorbing to date. The story also contains changes that will affect the future of the series. Read my full review here.

So there you go. Ten books to catch up on if you missed them. Happy new year every one. I hope you all have a good one, and I cannot wait to see what new gems 2015 will produce.

Written by SJAT

December 31, 2014 at 9:00 am

Pasha – Julian Stockwin

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I cannot tell you what a pleasure it is to be back at sea once again with Captain Thomas Kydd. Though the majority of my reading is of novels set in the ancient world or at most in the high medieval era, every now and then I like to dip into another era for a change, and Stockwin is fast becoming one of my absolute favourites.

If you’ve not read any of the Kydd series, I’d best warn you that you might not want to start with this volume, Pasha being the fifteenth book in the series. Of course, the bright side of that is that if you haven’t read any of them, I’m switching you onto not just one book, but 15.

Set in the late 18th to early 19th century, the series follows the nautical adventures of one Thomas Kydd, a low born southern Englishman who rises through the ranks of the British Navy, as well as those of his confidential secretary Nicholas Renzi. The first volume begins in 1793, meaning – those of you familiar with the era will probably already have thought of this – the reader has some of the most amazing and world-changing events to come.

So on to Pasha – Volume 15 – which takes place in 1807. After the disastrous debacle in South America from book 13 and the brief sojourn in the Caribbean in book 14, Kydd is called back to England. Fearing for his career and even legal repercussions after South America, our hero returns with his ship l’Aurore to face his doom. What he is returning to is far from what he expected.

More than any other book in the Kydd series I am fearful of giving anything away with Pasha. It is a book far too easy to spoil for the prospective reader, and so I shall attempt to tempt you without detailing too much plot.

As you might guess from the title, this book takes place in the Eastern Mediterranean – the domain of the Ottoman Empire. Sent east from the coast of Spain with orders to put himself at the disposal of the British ambassador in Constantinople, Captain Kydd finds himself at a critical moment in Ottoman history. Allied with both Britain and Russia, the Ottoman sultan is in the unenviable situation of being attacked by their Russian ‘friends’ while being wooed by their enemy the French. The British ambassador is desperate and nervous and on the verge of something precipitous, and Kydd is unable to do much more than do as he is told.

Throw into the mix a British nobleman acting as a spy and intriguer in the court of the Sultan, and things can only become more complex. At stake in this mess is the potential for Napoleon Bonaparte to secure an alliance with the Ottoman Empire and with it, a route for his forces into the wide world without having to break out past the British Navy. So no pressure, then?

Cue intrigue, races under fire, sea battles, imprisonment, escape, trickery, panic, land assaults and so much more in a switchback tale that is easily the best in the series and stands to be one of my top books of the year.

Incidentally, there is one scene in the book that will stay with me for a long time, because it reminds me very closely of one of my favourite movie moments of all time. Remember that scene in Das Boot, where the sub has been stuck on the bottom of the sea and manages to resurface but has to make a run through the Straits of Gibraltar on diesels, with the captain in the conning tower, yelling ‘Verdammt’ as he pounds his fist on the sub while guns blast from both sides? You don’t? Well now go out and watch that movie too! But there is a comparable scene in Pasha that held me with the same power.

Finally, I will say once again that Stockwin’s writing is among the most authentic in the field. Not only has he managed to get the feel of the era in his speech and descriptive, but his own history in the Royal Navy informs everything he writes and lends it an air of authority. Moreover, in addition to that wonderful prose and conversation, in this particular volume, he manages to add in the exotic heady culture of Ottoman Istanbul. It is a win, quite simply.

Kydd is back, and volume 15 is the best yet, full of surprises and excitement.

The book is out today. Go get it.

Written by SJAT

October 9, 2014 at 8:00 am

Julian Stockwin? No Kydding…

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I’ll admit from the beginning that, despite this being the 13th Kydd novel, it is only the second that I’ve read, though I now realise that they are actually quite readable as standalone novels if the reader wishes.

I’ve recently been heavily devoted to reading ancient through medieval fiction, but I opened ‘Betrayal’ with enthusiasm. It has been a long time since I read Napoleonic era novels, but I was, to some extent, weaned on Forrester, Dudley Pope, and Alexander Kent. Having now read two of the Kydd novels I have confirmed for myself that Stockwin’s protagonist is easily the match for Bolitho, Hornblower or Ramage.

I won’t go too much into the specific plot of the book, as usual, to avoid spoilers, but the action begins in Africa, around Cape Town and with a magnificent opening chapter that evokes all the mystery and dangers of darkest Africa, the dangers of the French enemy, and the ingenuity and sheer daring of Kydd and his men. It also nicely introduces (or reintroduces) the main characters for those of us who have had time out from the series. Looking at a long period of excruciating boredom (and more importantly reduced chance of glory or advancement) patrolling the secure cape, Kydd’s commander, Popham, sets off on an unauthorized, outrageous and downright dangerous plan to try and subvert Spanish control of South America. Kydd, somewhat reluctantly agrees to join and is dragged into a little known action in history of which I had never even previously heard (thanks, Mr Stockwin, as I learned something new and particulary fascinating here.)

The action picks up very quickly and then sails along (pun intended) throughout the book. Checking the dust jacket I read of Stockwin’s history in the navy and realised whence one of the two things that impressed me most came. The author’s clearly first-hand and near-encyclopedic knowledge of all things ships and sailing combined with his obvious love of the period show through at every moment in the book without fail, bringing a depth of detail that adds to the read rather than stalling it. The other thing that impressed me most, even above the level of research that clearly went in, was the authentic feel just to the social aspect of the story. The speech is at once familiar and easy to read, and yet seems true to period and deeply atmospheric. The interaction between characters, particularly those of different classes or nationalities is wonderful.

But as in many good long-running series, one other thing worth mentioning is the clear growth of the characters and the ties that bind them together. As I said, I’ve only read one other Kydd novel before, and that was around six books ago. The result is that I could easily see how much Kydd has grown and changed over the books, while retainging those parts that make him the character people loved from the start. In addition the bond between he and Renzi is a joy to read.

In all, this was an excellent read as a standalone, so I can imagine that series devotees will love it. Stockwin stands up there with the best of Napoleonic and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone.

Well done, Julian. Now I must go back and fill in the blanks.

Written by SJAT

October 11, 2012 at 7:38 pm