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

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The Centurions 1: Betrayal

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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!

Agent of Rome – The Emperor’s Silver

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Quite simply there are perhaps 5 or 6 series that, when their new books are released, I drop anything I’m reading and dive into. Anyone who follows my reviews will already know my opinion of Nick’s work, so this should be a nice easy review.

The Agent of Rome series began with The Siege, which was one of the strongest debuts I’ve ever read and immediately defined the pace and quality of the entire series. There was little room for the author’s ability to grow and shape as he wrote, which is the natural thing to observe over a series, since the first volume was already perfectly polished. The problem with that kind of start is that it’s difficult to keep to the expected quality. So far, though, I’ve seen no dip in the series, which is excellent.

And while I say that there’s little room to grow when you begin at the top anyway, that’s just regarding the author’s ability to put across his tale. There is always room for the work itself to grow, and Nick has become extremely proficient at crafting a plot that is tight, clever and self-contained, and yet allows for exploration of subplots, outside themes and character expansion throughout. I think that is the most notable thing about this novel: the character growth.

In book one we were introduced to Cassius Corbulo, unwilling secret service man, and to his stalwart slave Simo. In book 2, in a move about which I was initially skeptical, we met the gladiator Indavara and saw him become Corbulo’s bodyguard. In book 4, they acquired a mule. Essentially, several disparate characters, each as deep as the next, have become a family and the reader cares about them all, and not just the principle protagonist. In fact in some ways, he is the shallowest of them and it is the lives of his companions that actually draw the sympathy and interest of the reader.

In The Emperor’s Silver (the fifth volume in the series) we find Corbulo in Syria following his unpleasant sojourn in Arabia in the previous book. He and his people are still suffering strained relationships after those events and Corbulo himself is still trying to come to terms with killing a man in cold blood. In an effort to avoid the bloody revolt going on in Egypt, Corbulo inveigles his way into Marshal Marcellinus’ good books and gets himself assigned to the Levantine cities to investigate a case of counterfeit coinage.

The beauty of the Agent of Rome series’ premise (as opposed to say my own Marius’ Mules books, which are grounded solidly in military campaigning) is that the potential for stories is vast and all-encompassing. Nick’s plots are each fresh and varied, and each book carries us to new territory, never growing stale. Appropriately, this is a new and fascinating plot, investigative and tense, more social and character-driven than the previous work, which involved a great deal more action and espionage.

Book 5, though, has two particular subplots running throughout that add something strong. The first is Indavara. After three books with the history of the gladiator only loosely hinted at (the man has no memory of his time before the arena) Nick has opened up the Pandora’s box of Indavara’s past. Only a crack so far, with tantalising glimpses of what’s to come. And secondly, someone is after Corbulo! I mean there’s always someone after Corbulo. It’s part of his job that he makes enemies, but in this case, it seems to be something else, disconnected from the plot. And these two subplots are not quite what they seem. They… oh well I’ll let you discover that for yourself. No spoilers here.

If I had one small criticism of book 5 it would be the number of plot threads left open at the end. I realise that this is a deliberate choice and understand clearly why Nick has concluded it in such a manner, though it feels a little like the last page should simply say ‘Tune in next week for…’ The flipside of that, of course, is that we know how book 6 is going to start and what at least part of it is going to be about. Personally I can’t wait to see what happens next and as usual I will be on Twitter, badgering Nick for news of the next book.

The Emperor’s Silver continues the high standard Nick Brown set himself to begin with, the plot strong, the characters vivid, the atmosphere heady and exotic, the descriptive imaginative and the pace fast and comfortable. As with all the previous volumes it is a book that I picked up intending to ready 20 or 30 pages and put it down 100 pages later.

If you’ve read books 1 to 4, The Emperor’s Silver is released today and you really should go get it. If you haven’t, where have you been? But now is an excellent time to catch up.

Go buy Agent of Rome 5 today and you’ll be glad you did. Put aside a few days and be prepared to lose yourself in Roman Syria.

Written by SJAT

June 4, 2015 at 9:41 am

Christopher Gortner – The Tudor Conspiracy

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My interest in the Tudor era stemmed not from my history teacher (who was a teacher of the most excellent sort), and not from books (I was not reading history texts at that age), but from two things: My first visit to the historical sights of London – including the Tower and Hampton Court – and the Royal Armouries (then in the tower) with the magnificent armour of Henry VIII. Needless to say, as a lover of history, the interest that triggered has never left, and though my focus is primarily on the ancient world, I still love a little Renaissance culture from time to time.

If, like me, you’re fascinated by the intrigues, plots, wars and religious troubles of the Tudor era, you’re probably already aware that Christopher Gortner, author of a number of excellent novels, including The Queen’s Vow – Review here, has a fabulous novel out, named The Tudor Conspiracy, already available in hardback but now in paperback release. The sequel to The Tudor Secret, and second in the ‘Elizabeth’s Spymaster‘ series, this novel sees Mary Tudor, new to the throne of England, facing plots and threats. Her half-sister Elizabeth is in grave danger as one of Mary’s perceived enemies, and only the resourceful Brendan Prescott can save her by plunging into a world of danger and plots.

I am privileged to have been asked to be part of Christopher’s Blog Tour for the release of the new book, and there follows a guest post by the man himself, in which he delves into the rivalry between the two sisters who sit at the heart the novel’s plot. Read and enjoy:

The Tudor Conspiracy

Mary and Elizabeth: Sisters and Rivals

There is something fascinating, and disturbing, about family members who turn on one another. The Tudor dynasty is no exception. Though Henry VIII did not sire many children, considering how often he wed, history has perhaps no sisters more famous for their rivalry than his two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth.

Born of the king’s marriages to his first and second wives, respectively, Mary and Elizabeth were both declared bastards in turn after Henry divorced Mary’s mother, Catherine of Aragon, and had Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, beheaded. The rivalry between the two mothers, each determined to hold onto their crown and defend their child, set the stage for a legacy of mistrust between the daughters, who were as different in temperament as any sisters could be.

The eldest by seventeen years, Mary went from an adored childhood to a horrifying adolescence in which she saw her beloved mother supplanted by another. Humiliated and relegated to the status of a servant in her baby sister Elizabeth’s household, the scars of Mary’s teenage years can’t be underestimated.

Elizabeth, on the other hand, was barely three when her mother died and she was made illegitimate. A famous quip from this time is attributed to her when informed of her new status: “How is that yesterday I was Princess Elizabeth and today only Lady Elizabeth?” Young as she was, Elizabeth had a keen grasp of her situation. She grew into womanhood surrounded by danger and became adept at the rules of survival, aware that one misstep could lead to her doom, her mother’s example always before her.

Both sisters understood the perils intrinsic to royal life, but while Elizabeth learned to play the cards dealt to her, Mary remained steadfast in her right to stand above the crowd. They both had courage but their experiences couldn’t have been more disparate. Elizabeth was born into, and raised, in the Protestant Faith; like their brother Edward, she embraced it. Mary resisted, both from a deep-seated belief inculcated in her as by the rigidity of her own character, which was not given to change even when circumstances called for it. In the end, whatever rapprochement the sisters found as outsiders uncertain of their place, denigrated into savage rivalry when Mary became queen against all odds and they found themselves pitted against each other.

Mary could not forgive the insults tendered to her by Anne Boleyn and in time, she came to see Elizabeth as the very incarnation of her late mother. In turn, Elizabeth began to recognize the stony threat that Mary’s hatred posed to her and her fragile position as the sole hope for the Protestant cause in England. Their pasts had made them who they were; and their struggle for supremacy would divide the country, sisters and rivals unto death.

This rivalry is the core of my new novel, THE TUDOR CONSPIRACY. Thank you for spending this time with me. To find out more about me and my books, please visit me at: www.cwgortner.com

* * *

My thanks again to Christopher Gortner.

The Tudor Conspiracy by Christopher Gortner is published by Hodder & Stoughton in paperback and ebook, £8.99.

Go buy it. Amazon link here.

the-tudor-conspiracy-blog-tour-poster-1

Written by SJAT

January 23, 2014 at 11:25 am

Agent of Rome: The Far Shore

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Far-Shore

Some time back I read the first two Agent of Rome books back to back and reviewed them. They were excellent reads, quite different from one another, given the fact that they are part of a series.

So, when given the opportunity to read the third in the series, I leaped at the chance.

The Far Shore continues the adventures of Cassius Corbulo of the Imperial Security Service (the Grain men or Frumentarii), his Gaulish slave Simo, and his ex-gladiator bodyguard Indavara. It takes place only a short time after the events of The Imperial Banner, and continues to build the relationship between the characters.

I will (as usual) not delve too deep into the plot, in case of spoilers for people, but I will say a few things. For those of you who have read the first two, this third book bears a lot more resemblance to the second than the first, in that it is considerably more investigative than martial. While the first novel was an eponymous siege, and the second was based around the recovery of a stolen item, this third is a manhunt that crosses seas and takes place in more than one province. Do not be thrown by the cover, which might suggest a very naval tale. While large sections of the book take place at sea, there are also hefty sections on dry land. With Nick’s usual flair for the dramatic, the plot never lets up and even when you think everything should be over and settled, you look and realise there’s still a hundred pages left and the excitement is far from over.

Character is important in Nick’s books. Containing his protagonists to the three men with a small supporting cast means that the characters get a lot of exposure and shine. Given the huge differences in their character, background and status, the interplay between them is always stunning. The first book saw a great deal of development in Corbulo’s character, and the second did much the same with Simo. Well this third book expands the scope and depth of Indavara nicely. In addition, a few of the supporting cast were beautifully portrayed (I’m thinking particularly of Carnifex and Eborius).

There is, I think, a tendency in Roman fiction to place too much emphasis on authenticity at the expense of readability (while there is also – particularly in the self publishing market- much the opposite.) Nick Brown has hit it just right, I think, to feel authentic and maintain a good level of historical accuracy, and yet not compromise the ease of reading and the touch of modern colloquialism that makes the reader identify with the tale. His speech is realistic and his descriptive atmospheric without being burdensome. In all, the writing is so tight and comfortable that it drags you along apace without the requirement to expend effort.

I would say that in this third installment there are a few moments of predictability that were not there in the first two. Some actions and responses were a little obvious, but do not let that put you off in any way. To some extent it actually helps, given the subject matter. After all, this is basically a spy thriller/action adventure. James Bond would not be James Bond without a little capture and humiliation. Indiana Jones would have suffered had it lost a few of its predictable moments. A sense of anticipation of events helps. Action, excitement and mystery, mixed with a little vicious, bloody violence and a well-rounded tight sense of humour that surfaces at just the right times.

All in all, I would say that The Far Shore is a good, solid, thrilling continuation of the series and a growth of the main characters, while exploring newer, more varied territory.

I look forward to Corbulo’s next foray with impatience.

Read the book. Read all three if you haven’t. You won’t regret it.

Written by SJAT

July 18, 2013 at 11:05 am