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A Treachery of Spies – Manda Scott

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I find it easy, when reviewing Manda Scott’s books, to run out of superlatives. I have never yet been disappointed in any of her body of work and if you are a fan of historical fiction and have not yet encountered her books, then don’t waste time here. Go buy one and get reading.

Three years ago, I read her book Into the Fire with raw, new interest, for she had turned from the milieu of ancient Rome and created a tale in a dual timeline that linked the campaigns of Jeanne d’Arc with a modern police procedural thriller. Into the Fire was my book of the year and I remember badgering her, asking when she was planning on a second book, and simultaneously wondering how on earth she could achieve such a thing.

Then, as something of a side-shot here, last year I read Kate Quinn’s vaunted and most excellent Alice Network, which was similarly my book of the year last year. That novel is a dual timeline work too, set in Post-war France and during the First World War and delving into the world of women spies.

So along comes A Treachery of Spies. And, for me, though it’s only August, it seems clear this is going to be my book of this year. While the novel can be read as a standalone and is not reliant upon the reader having finished Into The Fire, it certainly adds something to have done so, for it explains in depth the motivations and history of the main modern character, Ines Picaud, and a few of her supporting cast. This is not a sequel to that book but more of a second tale, independent and glorious in its own right.

Treachery involves once more a police investigation in modern Orleans, this time into a mysterious death – the body of an old woman found in a car park with a very specific grouping of gunshots and post-mortem mutilation. And while the first book simultaneously led us around France in the retinue of the Maid of Orleans, this one delves into French resistance activity during the height of the Second World War. This, then, is the best of books for me, for it feels a little like what would happen if those two favourite books of mine had met.

The story is one of suspicion, betrayal, murder and espionage on a truly epic scale, telling the tale of spies trained by the British and dropped into France to aid the resistance, of their handlers, the intricacies of coded communications and the-so-called Jedburgh operatives sent over around the time of the invasion of Normandy to aid the resistance in their work. It is also the tale of Picaut’s investigation into an increasingly dangerous series of attacks that has a complex and hidden connection to the survivors of that world of wartime horror. One central theme that helps define the plot is that of revenge, combined with a strong sense of brother- and sisterhood. The heroes of wartime France form bonds that will last ’til death, no matter what the future holds, and similarly some actions leave a call for revenge that echoes through the years.

For the sake of avoiding spoilers, I won’t delve into plot specifics any further. What I will do is say that I cannot conceive of how Scott began to piece together this complex and twisting tale, and that when I read a novel with any kind of mystery element I constantly attempt to solve the puzzles as I go. Sometimes I unwrap the plot early. Sometimes I manage parts of it. With this book, I remained uncertain to the very end, and even the one thing I did anticipate I constantly found myself doubting. That is a good sign for a thriller in my opinion.

Scott continues her excellent portrayal of the world of modern French policing, but here she also shows a great understanding of the world of wartime espionage and of occupied France. The world she builds for the reader is flawless in its realism and vibrant and terrifying throughout. But despite a strong plot, beautiful prose and a vivid environment, for me it is her characters that stand out. From the beginning it seems we are focused on one historical character for point of view, but as the tale unfolds we are treated to more than one insight, and each character she builds for the reader is real and true.

And as the narrative moves to a close, we are introduced to a concept that is both chilling and horribly current and relevant. In this, I can only salute Scott. A Treachery of Spies is, then, a masterpiece, which is what I’ve come to expect from the author. The two problems she creates are: setting herself such a high bar to leap with her next book, and making me wait now before I get to read it.

Bravo. Treachery is out tomorrow. Pre-order it now or go out and buy it tomorrow.

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Written by SJAT

August 8, 2018 at 8:21 am

Shadows of War by Michael Ridpath

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Shadows Of War (Traitors Book 2) by [Ridpath, Michael]

A year or two back I reviewed Michael Ridpath’s Traitor’s Gate, and it was in my top books of the  year. I was somewhat excited to discover a sequel was out. I have little reading time these days but I shuffled this straight to the top.

Book one was set in Germany in the year before the Second World War. It was a tense thriller the built constantly and presented a time and place that was darkly fascinating to explore. I had no idea how there could be a book two.

Shadows of War presents a whole new story set in the first half year or so of the war (39-40) as Germany begins to press home its power, threatening Western Europe and Britain defies the Nazi regime, despite a strong sector that favours terms with Hitler and a cessation of hostilities.

On the face of things, I would saw SoW lacks a little of the tension and grit of the first book, but I think what it lacks in the stressful action, it makes up for in other ways. This book’s exploration of the politics and the motivations on both sides is extraordinary. And a dozen times through the novel I came across a fact that was of such intense interest and surprise to me that I had to run off to Google to convince myself that this wasn’t just hokum made up on the spot for the plot. For the record, it isn’t. The book is fictional, but everything in it is possible, even when you can’t believe it.

Though there are scenes of exciting espionage and action, much of the more military aspect in this comes from a peripheral source that, in truth, the book doesn’t specifically need, but which supplies a great deal of pertinent information in a manner that also gives us a soldier’s eye view of the frontlines of General Guderian’s blitzkrieg push into the west.

There is at least one moment in the book that utterly threw me. A totally unexpected event that I tip my hat to the author for.

It is at times poignant, at times dark and frightening, at times exciting and even uplifting. I think, though, that the thing I value most in the book is its atmosphere and its portrayal of the time and people. If the events that Ridpath recounts here happened, and they very well might have, then it casts a dark reflection of our great pride in being a nation that stood up to Nazi horror.

Shadows of War is a worthy sequel, a book that made me blink, made me think, and left me with questions and a torrent of emotion. I guess that says it all. Rest assured I shall seek out a third book if Ridpath decides to write it. I highly recommend reading this and its predecessor. Probably back-to-back they are even better.

Go get it, people.

Written by SJAT

June 5, 2018 at 10:01 pm

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Ashes of Berlin

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I’ve been something of a devotee of Luke McCallin’s Reinhardt books since the first one. There was something about the adventures of a distinctly non-Nazi Wehrmacht officer investigating murders in the Balkan territories. It was a region about which I knew little and a time which oddly fascinates me, despite being far from my own era of choice. And interestingly McCallin’s familiarity with the locale and the subject shone through and gave the books great depth and value. I loved both books one and two.

I hesitated over book 3. Honestly, despite loving the first two I really hesitated. Because the war has ended after book 2 and that means that book 3 was guaranteed to be vastly different. Ashes of Berlin is set in 1947, in a city that is divided and overseen by an uneasy alliance of British, American and Russian, with the Germans still there and downtrodden or working desperately with one group or another. I couldn’t see this possibly being anywhere near as engaging as the previous two. But… because it’s McCallin and Reinhardt, I went to it anyway.

In fairness, it took me perhaps the first 10% of the book to get into it. For a while I thought my doubts had been borne out over the setting. But oddly the plot was still grabbing. And so it pulled me along. And I’m glad it did, because after that initial adjustment, I came to appreciate what a rich setting it is.

This world is very different from the wartime Balkans of books 1 and 2, and yet oddly similar in some ways. For Reinhardt, now serving back in the police in Berlin as he once had long ago, he is still beleaguered, untrusting and downtrodden by superiors. They’re just different superiors now. And the brutality and horror of post-war Berlin is every bit the match for the brutality and horror of wartime Sarajevo. McCallin has really pulled out the stops in his research. I cannot imagine how much reading and note-taking he must have gone through for this. But it is a triumph.

The plot is actually better than both the first two. Where books 1 and 2 tended to wander a little by necessity, this one is much tighter and more defined. It is also much harder to anticipate. It unfolds slowly and carefully and caught me out numerous times. I like a good mystery and only with a good plot do I start to guess and work out ahead of the reveal. I was wrong. Several times I was wrong. McCallin has thrown so many curve-balls I kept getting hit in the back of the head.

There are 3 major triumphs in this book for McCallin. The Plot, which I’ve already mentioned. And there’s no point in me trying to explain any of it, but it starts with a man who drowned on dry land, put it that way. Then there’s the world. The atmosphere, the landscape, the descriptive. It is stunning. It becomes immersive and all-consuming. I felt I came to know 1947 Berlin intimately. But thirdly, there is the matter of character. I’d felt there was nowhere really to grow Reinhardt after the war. Gods, but I was wrong. And he is surrounded by a stunning cast. In particular one American, one Brit and one senior Russian. They are so beautifully drawn and realistic it is hard not to picture them in your head.

So there it is. You might have read books 1 and 2 (The Man from Berlin and The Pale House) or you might not. If you haven’t give them a read. If you have, do not be put off by the change of scene with book 3. It outstrips its predecessors. Just read McCallin. He’s a master of the craft.

Written by SJAT

August 12, 2017 at 8:32 pm

Isis Covenant

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Some time ago I read the first of James Douglas’s “Jamie Saintclair” thrillers, and I’ve been awaiting thne opportunity to get to the second. Well, now I’ve finally read The Isis Covenant.

There is a certain genre of tale that was made popular by Dan Brown, owing to Indiana Jones and revolving around the mystical and the occult in the modern world. And despite Brown’s fame, there are plenty of writers who, to my mind, are better examples. One is Simon Toyne. Another is James Douglas.

Douglas’ thrillers strike, for me, a superb balance. They revolve around an art dealer and antiquarian, which links the modern to the ancient and strikes a chord with the historian in me. And they revolve around mystical objects, whether they be true or simply misinterpretations of the mundane, which adds the thrill. And finally, at least with the first two books, they connect with the Second World War and the Nazi lunatics’ search for occult items to help empower their master race (a subject that’s a guilty pleasure for me). Superb mix, and guarenteed to hit the spot in at least some way for most readers.

The Isis Covenant takes characters and some dangling threads from the first book in the series and reintroduces them, tugging on those threads and using them to weave a whole new story.

A twisted son, a vengeful neo-Nazi, a stymied cop and Jamie Saintclair all seeking an ancient Egyptian crown and the priceless stone that has long been separated from it together believed to bestow prolonged life. And the search will take them into the world of ageing secret Nazis, Russian gangsters, American assassins and so much more.

Utterly satisfying, well-plotted, gripping and colourful, the Isis Covenant is a perfect sequel to the first great book in the series.

Written by SJAT

January 31, 2017 at 12:25 am

The Man From Berlin

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A while ago I saw two novels by Luke McCallin on a promotion and, in a fit of ‘why notness’ I bought them. The thing is, I may be solidly rooted in ancient history with most of my reading there, but every now and then I’m partial to a little World War 2 fiction. Michael Ridpath’s ‘Traitor’s Gate’ made it into my annual top 10. And I rather liked the look of a murder investigation in a WW2 setting.

First off, this is a novel with a fascinating and I might even hazard ‘unique’ viewpoint. Few works of fiction choose to take a member of the wartime German forces as a protagonist. Yes, I’ve seen a few, but not many. Because it’s a brave novelist who takes it on. Because there is a very fine line to walk with it. It’s hard to make the character sympathetic to a modern non-German, I think, because of inherent prejudices born of half a century of ‘White hat – black hat’ thinking. And if you try to make him too sympathetic you run the risk of losing credibility with the character. In that respect, McCallin has hit the sweet spot. Reinherdt is very realistic, and yet sympathetic. More so, I think, even than Ridpath’s hero. In fact as a character he reminds me of Korolev in William Ryan’s pre-war Russian thrillers.

And perhaps a word then about setting. Because in WW2 stories we are very familiar with England, France, Germany and Russia as settings. We’ve also seen North Africa, and on occasion Italy, and Greece. Yugoslavia is a new one on me, and really an incredibly rich and complex setting, with the territory itself almost torn apart by internecine wars, completely ignoring the Germans in overall control. Then there are Italians present, partisans, British in threat form at least. And Orthodox, Muslim and Catholic. And everyone hates everyone else. McCallin does an excellent job of painting 40s Yugoslavia. I wonder if he has spent time there? It certainly felt like he knew the place well.

The plot, then. We are immediately presented with a murder case which is given to Reinhardt as a member of the Abwehr to solve, because while one of the victims is a wealthy, spoilt, man-eating female local journalist, the other is also a German officer of the Abwehr. I have to admit that I was half way through the book before the investigation really picked up pace and we began to discover what was going on, but that was not a fault. The investigation is endlessly messed around with for political, personal and ethnic purposes and it is only when Reinhardt becomes truly galvanised in his role that things pick up speed. The plot is almost as complex as the setting and gives us something of an insight into just how difficult and labyrinthine the internal politics of wartime Germany and the wehrmacht actually were.

All in all, the novel was intricate, fascinating, and kept dragging me back. It is not the most pacy novel I’ve read, with some parts feeling a little languid, but when the action comes, it comes thick, fast and unforgiving. Similarly, while there are times when I felt the plot becoming a little muddled, all comes out well and the ending is very satisfying. And like all good whodunnits, many of the things that slip past early on as not vastly important actually do in the end have a place in the tale and a bearing on the case.

So the upshot is that as soon as I have the time, I shall be reading the second Gregor Reinhardt novel. If you have any interest in the war, or in complex murder investigations – and certainly if both – then you might well want to give the Man from Berlin a try. An absorbing read.

Written by SJAT

April 21, 2016 at 3:22 pm

The Madagaskar Plan

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A few days ago Guy Saville pointed out on Facebook that the paperback of The Madagaskar Plan was coming out today. I’ve had both this and The Afrika Reich sitting in my ‘to-be-read’ pile for some time. I ummed and ahhed over whether it would be wise to start book 2 before I’ve read book 1, but heck with it… I did.

Interestingly, there is enough background, and there are enough illuminating flashbacks in this book that it does not seem to rely entirely upon the first to be readable. Not that I’d heartily recommend starting with book 2, because now that I’ve done it, I have to go back and read book 1 to see what I missed.

Firstly, what is The Afrika Reich trilogy and this book in particular? Well, it’s almost Historical Fiction. It’s a ‘what if’ scenario. The premise behind the series is that the Dunkirk evacuations failed, Churchill resigned over the failure and consequently the succeeding British government came to peaceful terms with the Nazis. By the early 50s, when the book is set, Britain still has its Imperial holdings, Germany has overrun Russia and controls roughly half of all African territory, and the United States is out of it as a neutral nation. Africa is divided between Britain and Germany, with a few smaller states belonging to Italy, Portugal etc, and a neutral South Africa.

Madagaskar is the greatest imaginable prison camp for deported Jews. Europe having been largely emptied of them, there are 5 million living on the island under SS rule, being gradually worked to death.

Burton Cole, a survivor or earlier clashes in Africa and clearly the hero of the first book, returns to Britain to find his lover – a former Austrian Jew – has been found out by her cuckold husband and deported to Madagaskar. He thence rushes off to find her. Meanwhile, his former nemesis, Hochberg, the governor of German Kongo, has his own reasons building to head to the island in the hope of achieving German domination of the continent. And his deputy, now in exile. And a Jewish partisan. And others.

Incredibly skillfully, Saville weaves a web that brings so many seemingly disconnected elements, many with totally different motives, to the island and into the crucible of destruction. For Madagaskar is an island on the very brink of revolt, and the world is watching tensely, for any shake might bring America into the matter. There is no forced or over-woven aspect to the drawing together of the strands of plot.

A word needs to be said on the characters. Despite this being Britain and Nazi Germany, do not expect to read with a ‘black and white’ moral attitude. You will find every shade of grey on both sides. Some of the Germans are almost sympathetic. Some of the British are downright loathsome. And they are all believable, which is perhaps the most critical thing.

Despite the ‘alternate reality’ setting of the novel, it is so realistic and clearly feasible that it doesn’t jar the reader at all. In fact, it is all too easy to accept this version of history as the truth. It so nearly could have happened.

The feel of the plot is something of a mix. It is part war story, part espionage, part drama, part prison movie. At times it felt a little like The Wild Geese, at others Where Eagles Dare, and others again Papillon. It is all of those things but not them alone. It is a masterful example of the craft of fiction and kept me riveted from beginning to end.

It’s out in paperback today. Go get these books folks, and make sure you have them read before the final part of the trilogy is published.

Written by SJAT

January 28, 2016 at 1:51 pm

Michael Ridpath – Traitor’s Gate

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There will be those of you out there who watched Valkyrie and loved it.

Traitor’s Gate does the same thing but better.

There will be those who hated Valkyrie.

Traitor’s Gate is more accurate and more tense. You will prefer it.

There will be those who’ve never seen Valkyrie.

Don’t bother. Read Traitor’s Gate!

I’m not an avid reader of the WW2 era, nor a student of the period, though I’ve delved here and there. I’ve watched a number of movies based on the period, including some from the German point of view, but it’s still far from my comfort zone.

To be honest, if a friend of mine had not raved at some point about how good the book was, I would never had picked it up on a whim, needing a change from Roman stuff, and read it.

I’m glad I did. Though early on, I realised that this is not strictly speaking a war book. This is a book about people and espionage and the hell that was the Third Reich before the war. This is a tale about a confused and dreadful time during which trust was hard to come by, and humanity even more so.

Though the direct protagonist and antagonist are fictional, the story introduces us early on as supporting characters to two key figures in the history of the 3rd Reich, both of whom were already familiar to me. Reinhard Heydrich is one. If you know anything about the period, that name should make you shudder. He was one of the architects of the Holocaust and one of the most brutal and unpleasant people during the war, running the Gestapo. The other is admiral Canaris, head of the German secret service, hero of mine and unsung hero of the war. To be honest, if I’d known it involved Canaris, I might have read it earlier.

Essentially, this story tells the dreadful tale of an Englishman in Berlin in 1938 battling with his family loyalties and his conscience in a world rapidly descending into hell. It is refreshing to see a tale that tells of high-powered and intelligent Germans, even in the party itself, understanding that Hitler was bad for Germany as well as for the rest of the world and beginning to put together a plan to remove the Fuhrer from power.

A lot of the story relies on secret negotiations between high level anti-Nazi Germans and peripheral members of the British government, arranging to carry out a coup against Hitler should the Fuhrer decide to invade Czechoslovakia despite British and French opposition.

Traitor’s Gate is a tremendously tense novel, building up with the crescendo of Nazi power in the days before the annexing of the Sudetenland. For those of you who’ve seen Valkyrie, it carries the tense moments of planning the coup in at least as stunning a manner – better, in fact. Despite the fact that even the least informed reader will go into the meat of the novel already aware of the fact that Hitler did not in fact die in 1938, and therefore we know that any plot failed, the novel is so well written that it is impossible not to be swept up in the tension and hope against hope that somehow the plot succeeds. Impressive, that.

In addition to the plot concerning a potential removal of Hitler from power, the story is cleverly interwoven with another thread involving a woman with Jewish ancestry (you can guess the direction that one’s taking.) This allows Ridpath not only to explore aspects of divisions in the higher ranks of the Third Reich and grand moral and political concerns, but also to investigate and reveal the deeper, more personal effects of the rise of Nazi power on the ordinary people of Germany. I gave to say that at least one anecdote told in relation to this thread will stay with me for a long time.

So… the characters are extremely well constructed and smoothly filtered in among real personages of the era, all of whom are excellently portrayed. The feel of the book is utterly atmospheric. It is like stepping into the page and finding yourself in just pre-war Berlin. The plot is tightly-constructed and builds continually to an impressively tense conclusion (especially given the foreknowledge that Hitler doesn’t die!) Clearly Ridpath’s research has been spot on and his storytelling is impeccable.

I simply cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is exactly the sort of book I would not have thought to read, and I would have missed out. Don’t make the same mistake. This will most definitely hit my top ten of the year.

Go get it and read it. You will NOT be disappointed.  Oh, and, currently at £2.19 on kindle it’s also a bargain!

Here’s his website. Here’s the Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk listings. And here’s his twitter handle.

Written by SJAT

November 7, 2014 at 11:02 am