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Posts Tagged ‘persia

Salamis (Long War 5)

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Fabulous historical fiction grabs you like a passing charioteer and drags you round the hippodrome at breakneck speed. Simply: Salamis makes that seem slow.

Book 5 of the Long War series is by far the fastest-paced, most direct, exciting and powerful of the series to date. Impressive at such an advanced stage of a saga.

After the breath-stealing ending of The Great King, Greece is not just in danger. It is on the eve of extinction.  Boeotia and Attica are about to be overrun by the Persians and are utterly hopeless. The Greek fleet languishes, unbeaten and yet still somehow losing the war. The eastern states of Greece are evacuating, fleeing west to whoever will take them, the Great King is coming, and Arimnestos has family and friends in the danger zone. And so the tale begins.

I had somehow expected book 5 to follow much the same format as the previous ones: a wide-ranging epic that covers a lengthy era and several themes. No. With a short opening of brutal fear in the face of advancing horror we are launched straight into a fight for the future of Greece, which occupies the bulk of the book. And this is not like Marathon (book 2, you might remember) which deals with a number of subjects around that great battle. This is a full on treatment of one of the world’s most important naval engagements.

This is, if you will, Cameron’s ‘The Longest Day’ or ‘Zulu’ or ‘Waterloo’. This is a military engagement told in breathtaking detail and heartbreaking style. From individual boarding actions and personal duels on board to grand strategies and political machinations on a huge scale, this battle – this novel – is enthralling.

Be warned: you are about to lose favourites. Obviously. No writer of military histfic can write about history’s greatest battles without cracking a few eggs so to speak. But on the brightside, there are genuine moments of bright glory and wonder here.

Because in addition to the great battle itself, this book contains a growing element of family and community, on both a grand and a personal scale. We are about to see new relationships formed, old loves rekindles, long enmities buried and endless loose threads tied up. Essentially, Salamis is a masterpiece, and announces the coming closure of the series.

Salamis is released today. Go buy it. Buy it now. For the love of Artemis, read this series!

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The Great King (Long War 4)

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We’re well and truly Arimnestos’ captive audience now. We’ve seen him grow and become the warrior, the leader, the sailor, the merchant, the pirate, the explorer. But the third volume in the series, while being a departure that took us on a great adventure, ended with us coming full circle, back to old friends and right back into the heart of what our friend the Plataean had for so long left behind.

And so The Great King picks up from that moment. This book will take you to amazing places and see astounding things, and interestingly, it includes two of the greatest and most important pivotal moments in Greek history, though the reader will not be aware of this initially, since the book’s title refers to neither directly. I will try to hint and explain without spoilers.

To some extent, ignoring the divisions into parts that are handed us, I would say there are three distinct parts to The Great King. The Games. The Journey. The War. And throughout the three parts, certain themes wind and develop.

Our friend Ari finds himself in the company of old Persian friends and in the odd situation of having to help the enemy of his people form alliances with Carthage against Greece due to his old oaths. Of course, we also know that Ari’s great personal nemesis – Dagon – is Carthaginian and that there can be no doubt that these two will meet again.

And, having delivered Persian ambassadors to hated Carthage, Ari finds himself in the company of a Spartan athlete who seeks passage to Olympia for the games. Thus opens part one, in which we are treated to a stunning and fairly in-depth depiction of the Olympic Games, entwined with plots and enmities between competing states, and a gathering of some of the most important men in Greece to discuss what to do about the Great King in Persia, who has begun preparations for the invasion of Greece on a grand scale. Here a new thread in the tale is opened and in addition to the wonderful material about the games, we are treated to a great introduction to Sparta and the Spartans. This famous state and its people had, you might remember, fought against Arimnestos with his Plataeans and their Athenian allies four books ago. Frankly, with this new insight into Sparta (who I’d always thought of as complete tossers) I have suddenly found that I love them and their leaders in Cameron’s tale. And the Spartans are a theme that will play out throught the book.

With the ending of the games, Ari goes home and tries to put his house in order, and this is nice to see from the point of view of the character’s progression, but is something of an aside in the main plot.

For soon, Ari is bound for the heart of the enemy’s lands. He is tasked with taking Spartan heralds to the court of the Great King of Persia. Despite his Persian friends, guarantees of passage and so much more, there is tremendous danger in the exotic Persian court. Here we are treated to the most fascinating clash of cultures – the rigid, haughty, ascetic Spartans and the languid, oiled and perfumed, glittering Persians. But you know, if you have any inkling of what’s to come in Greek history (and if you’ve been paying attention in the book’s first half) that nothing can really come of this, barring intelligence gathering, for Xerxes of Persia will not be turned from his course of war.

And so we move into the third part of the plot for me, as Arimnestos returns from the great journey. There follows an odd little interlude of sailing, trading and piracy, and then, finally comes the main event. I won’t spoil it. You might already know what’s coming, but for those who don’t I won’t give the game away. Suffice it to say that the war now begins in earnest and one of the greatest moments in the world’s military history will come to pass. You will read lines early on that will reveal what is to come. The last part of this book contains the opening salvos of the greatest war the states of Greece ever fought. It contains battles on land and sea, Ari’s quest for revenge against Dagon, and pivotal moments that will leave you breathless and exhausted.

As with all the Long War books (and all Cameron’s work, in fact) the writing is excellent. It is at once immediate and action packed, and yet thoughtful and educational. A weight of knowledge and a wealth of powerful and heady descriptive is conveyed without sacrificing pace, excitement, humour and horror.

And you know what? Thank good old Zeus that Salamis (book 5) is out tomorrow, because when you read the end of The Great King, you’ll really not want to wait. Check in tomorrow for my last review in the Long War series.

Poseidon’s Spear (Long War 3)

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So where can Cameron take us? Arimnestos of Plataea is a grown man now, fully trained and experienced. He has fought in and won one of the greatest battles of the age. But after Marathon, the world has changed, and so has our hero. Life as he has known it has gone.

It is all too wasy for a writer with a series to fall into a rut. Too easy to just keep telling the same story over and over again with minor variations or just to continue to tell a saga in fairly repetitive chunks. A few authors will, once their series is settled, run off at a tangent to explore new ideas and new themes and styles. It can be a gamble, as some readers will always just want more of the same. But if it’s done right it can invigorate and frshen an ongoing series. Sort of like a sorbet palate cleanser between courses. With Poseidon’s Spear, Cameron has done just that.

This is not a tale of war or family. It is not a tale of Greeks and Persians. This is the very spirit of adventure. A series of events conspire to see Ari at sea once more, where he falls foul of the powerful and dangerous Carthaginians and finds himself a slave, tortured and tested to the limit of his endurance. Really, there is too much in terms of twists and turns, changes and stories in this tale to relate them individually, and that would just ruin the book for you. Essentially, once he is freed from the clutches of the unpleasant Carthaginian ‘Dagon’ he sets off on his greatest adventure, collecting new friends on the way, including other former slaves.

The Carthaginians control the trade in tin, which is needed by smiths and armourers across the Mediterranean world, and Ari and his friends soon form a plan to secure tin and make themselves rich. Not through trade with Massalia or Carthaginian Spain, but by going directly to the source: a misty, cold semi-mythical island far to the north that one day will be Britain. Of course, to get there by ship requires that a sailor pass the Pillars of Hercules and sail out into the great western ocean. In those days, with the ships of the Greek world, such a journey was all but impossible and only legendary sailors of myth had done so comfortably.

This begins a journey that will see Romans and Africans and Greeks and Gauls sharing ships, making and losing fortunes, finding and losing loves, all as they journey in search of the source of tin. In the process, Ari will pick up an Illyrian prince (whose own fate forms the last part of the book), become a hunted man and an enemy of Carthage, shed his preconceptions of the non-Greek world and open himself to the great wealth of experience that is the west.

For the reader, seeing the Pre-Roman west through the eyes of a wonder-filled Greek is a fascinating process, and it certainly made me wish I could go back and rewrite some of the Gallo-Roman work I have penned with one eye on this fascinating portrayal of the world.

As always, Cameron’s experiences with the military and reenactment inform his text and give everything a realism and accuracy that few could match. But what came across more in book 3 was the surprising level of knowledge the author seems to have concerning the world of ancient ships and sailing. I can only assume that among his talents and experience, Cameron has also sailed ships somewhat. And I am quite stunned by his portrayal of pre-Roman France, Spain and Britain, considering Cameron’s Canadian residence and American nationality. It feels accurate and immersive.

All in all, a departure for the series, a wonderful palate cleanser, and yet at the same time a great continuation of the saga of Arimnestos of Plataea. Oh, and the conclusion? Well Ari has now a new and great enemy out there somewhere we know will come up again, but also the end scenes come as something of a surprise, and set up the opening of book 4 beautifully. So drop by tomorrow for the review of The Great King

Marathon (Long War 2)

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How does a writer possibly follow the scale and originality of a book like Killer of Men? Well, follow me through this review, and I’ll explain how.

The first book of the Long War told of how Arimnestos became a Killer of Men. Through hard labour, unexpected fights, slavery, piracy and brutal war, the young Plataean became a great hero and killer whose name alone made Greeks and Persians quake. But while those events changed Arimnestos the man, they did not change his path. For at the end of them, he returned to his home and to his forge, gave up all the trappings of heroism and war and became a simple blacksmith once more.

Marathon, while a continuation of the tale, is a whole different story. Marathon is the story of how events changed the life and the path of Arimnestos of Plataea.

Our hero has settled in his ancient home. He is a man of name and property. His former comrades live and work nearby, but they still itch for war and glory. Not so, Arimnestos. He is content. But events will never conspire to leave him in peace. No. Soon, our friend finds himself heading to Athens, where he is dragged into legal difficulties and heads out to secure the forgiveness of Gods to clear himself of any shame or impropriety.

And so begins his next stage of the Long War. Rushing hither and thither in ships, saving cities, fighting hopeless sea battles, making new friends and re-acquainting himself with old enemies, Arimnestos soon leaves behind the life of a quiet smith and becomes the great Miltiades’ favourite war dog once more.

But things are about to change. For what started as the Ionian revolt in the previous book is about to explode. As the Great King of Persia’s most vicious satrap begins to move against Greece to chastise them for their involvement, the Greeks find themselves hard pressed and pushed back.

A survivor of one of the worst disasters of the war, Arimnestos returns home only to find old enemies still at work there. He is wed and tries once more to carve out a life in Plataea, but the world will not let him rest. Athens is under threat, and Plataea owes Athens its support. Elected as the military leader for Plataea, Arimnestos joins old friends and new (and even a few enemies) in a great bid to defy Persia – the greatest single power in the world. Persia is coming for Athens. And the focus of their meeting point will be the fields of Marathon.

What happens in this book will finally make it clear to Arimnestos that he can no more settle into life as a village smith than a duck could hunt an eagle. War is in his blood and the troubles of the world will leave him with nothing but the need to exercise his great abilities.

Enough of ruining the plot for you.

There is a terrible danger for any writer in tackling a famous battle. I’ve done it myself with Alesia. Ben Kane has done so time and again in his works. Few people can do a great battle justice. And let’s face it, Marathon is one of the greats. In fact, I’d bet money that if any layperson in the street were asked to name a Greek battle, the few who could would name Marathon.

And while this story is about far more than Marathon, that great battle is the climax. And it is treated in a MASTERFUL way. Cameron has hit the sweet spot in this series where he can carry in his story the hubris, glory and almost mythical bravery of ancient Greek warfare. There are elements of the Iliad in here, it is that authentic. But despite that he is able to also make the reader aware of the base level of that war throughout, giving a realistic grounding to the scenes. The hero may be godlike and leaping from wall to wall with shining spearpoint, a hero in every way. But the ground beneath him squelches with blood and filth and shattered bone and crying boys and widows. It is a gift as a writer to be able to carry off such a combination. It is what makes his battle scenes both glorious and horrific in equal measure.

The final scenes in this book will leave you exhausted.

Arimnestos, the Killer of Men, has led you through one of the darkest hours in Greek history in this second volume. Where will he go next? Check out tomorrow’s review…

Written by SJAT

August 10, 2015 at 10:04 am

Killer of Men (Long War 1)

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To begin at the beginning… How many series have you read where you pick up the first book to find an iron-hard, three-dimensional, experienced and world-weary hero awaiting you? They are, barring the anti-hero, the best characters to both read and write. But how often do you get to see that hero created?

That is what Killer of Men is. In terms of superhero movies, this is a great hero’s ‘origin story’. It is the very creation of a hero. Or possibly not quite a hero. After all, an instinctive killer, drawn to war like iron filings to a magnet is not by definition the same as a hero.

Moreover, the book is set during one of the greatest clashes of culture in the history of the world: Greece vs. Persia. But again, in the same way as the novel is the story of the origin of the hero, it is also the story of the origin of that war (it is called the Long War saga for a reason. This was a loooooong war.) And that means that Killer of Men takes place during the Ionian revolt at the very beginning of the great Greek/Persian war.

So what of the actual story?

Arimnestos is an ordinary boy. He is the son of a talented blacksmith who has also had the honour and duty of standing as a hoplite in the line of battle for his small city-state of Plataea. As his city is inevitably dragged into the world stage via a perhaps unwise allegiance with the upcoming demos of Athens, Arimnestos begins a journey of his own. In sickening blurb terms, one might say: from zero to hero.

Sent from his family to study with a retired warrior, Arimnestos learns the skills of the soldier and the hunter, but despite that, not yet the ‘killer of men’ for which the book is named. As the wheel of time turns and he grows to young manhood, the Plataean finds himself in battle against the greatest warriors of his age, the Spartans, on the Athenian flank. Following the battle and a betrayal by one of his own, Arimnestos finds himself alone, with a dead father and brother and sold into slavery.

But here his journey really begins. As a slave (and companion to a young noble) in Ephesus, Arimnestos learns from one of the greatest philosophers of the ancient world, improves his battle skills and is introduced on a very personal level to the Persian people and their leaders.

Well, I won’t spoil the story. But Arimnestos has been a blacksmith’s son, a soldier, and then a slave. He will also be a ship’s navarch, a sportsman, a war-hero, an avenger, and so much more as he succumbs to fate and becomes the killer of men that is his destiny. But throughout the whole tale of his growth to manhood, there is always the background thread that Arimnestos was betrayed, disinherited and sold as a slave. And we know from early in the book that this situation will have to be resolved before the end.

Well that’s the book and the plot and the hero. As for the style? Is anyone not familiar yet with Christian Cameron’s fluid and absorbing work? He writes masterpieces or nothing at all.

In technical terms, while my own knowledge of the world of ancient Greece is much scanter than my knowledge of Rome, I have yet to trip him up with any fact, and he has taught me so much through his writing. He knows his subject thoroughly. He is conversant to an undreamed of extent. Moreover, Cameron is both a reenactor and a military veteran, both of which lend a huge level of authenticity to his scenes of strife. And I mean to a level that few civilians could ever hope to touch.

Cameron is, for me, a composite of all I like in my ancient novels. He can write the stink, terror and chaos of battle as well as Ben Kane, the cameraderie and humour like Tony Riches, the depth of character and inrigue like Douglas Jacskon and the sheer emotion like Manda Scott. As such, he is capable of producing work that speaks to readers of all forms of historical fiction, to every facet of a reader’s soul.

Killer of Men is the saga of a young man driven to the edge of reason and finding in his darkest hour the clarity of the born warrior. It is a tale of growth and of finding oneself, and of revenge and heroism. It is everything you could want in historical fiction.

I cannot recommend the Long War series highly enough. Check in tommorrow for a review on book 2: Marathon.

Empire 8: Thunder of the Gods

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Looking back over the series from the start I am struck by just how far we’ve come with young Marcus Aquila. The series began (and stayed for 3 books) in northern Britannia, in the cold and the damp with hairy bearded barbarians instigating wars and troubles and our hero hiding from the Emperor’s fury under an assumed name, sheltered by friends of friends. How long gone are those days now? For here, in book 8, with all the momentous changes we have witnessed in between, we find our hero and his friends in the dusty, exotic east, facing the might of dreaded Parthia at the very behest of those Imperial authorities from whom Marcus spent so many years hiding. Not only at their behest, I might add, but even carrying their authority, delivered by the Praetorian fleet and with the power of (the power behind) the throne. Yes, we have certainly come a long way. Which sits well with me. I have noted several times recently in reviews how long series need to change, grow and refresh to keep their pace and interest. And the Empire books are doing that. Indeed, I would say that book 8 is the finest in the series so far, vying mainly with book 5 for me.

So what’s the book about? Well if you’re new to the series, I probably threw a few spoilers at you there. Stop now and go buy book 1. Book 8 takes us to new lands and with new style. The whole feel of the book is more exotic than previously. And given the fact that for the first time our heroes are facing not hairy barbarians or sneaky Romans, but an adjacent empire every bit as old and cultured as Rome, there is a new feeling of sophistication and style about it. Marcus and friends land in Syria, sent east by the Imperial chamberlain on an ‘offer they cannot refuse’ sort of basis. As I said, they have authority now. Scaurus is to take command of the legion there and is faced with corruption, crime and downright deviousness at the highest levels of both military and civil control in the province. But our heroes have no time to unpick all the threads in this web of corruption, for they have an urgent task to perform. A powerful border fortress is in danger from a Parthian army. Due to the troubles he finds, legate Scaurus will have only half the legion to help him take and hold the fortress of Nisibis against the greatest power in the east. And through an unfortunate series of incidents our young Marcus finds himself once more evading arrest, though this time by the governor instead of the throne. Can our friends hold Nisibis? Can they even get there intact? After all, the Parthians are one of the fiercest nations on Earth and have seen off more than one Roman army in the past. Well, you’ll have to wait and see how that turns out, as I’m not spoiling it for you.

However, in terms of the story’s content, there are various things I will say. The addition of a new character – a young tribune not too different from our own protagonist 8 books ago – is a win. Varus is an instantly likeable and sympathetic character. The Parthian princes and their senior men are well-rounded and very interesting. In fact, one prince’s bodyguard, who will play a large part in the book as it unfolds, truly captured my imagination and was a joy to read.  But the icing on the cake in this story goes to the portrayal of the emperor of Parthia – the King of Kings himself. He is a cultured, urbane, clever, witty, easy, very realistic character. Don’t get me wrong – there is a constant air of threat, for this man could have nations killed with a snap of his fingers, but being dangerous does not stop him being fun or interesting. Kudos in particular to Tony for the King of Kings.

There is the usual bloodshed. Don’t worry, you battle-a-holics. Tony is unrelenting in bringing you the brutal side of Rome and its military skill. But know also that this book is far more than just military fiction. It is surprising, deep, explores to some extent the similarities and differences between ancient cultural enemies, and utterly refuses to bow down to the ‘Rome good, barbarian bad’ shtick that has for so many decades plagued the world of ancient fiction. Not only are his characters thoroughly three dimensional, but so are his nations as a whole. The plot is well crafted, with a few true surprises here and there, and runs off at breakneck pace, dragging you with it. I sat down for ten minutes’ read after lunch one day and put it down an hour later. It is that addictive a read.

I find that most good novelists truly hit their stride at about book 3 or so in a series, and while they may continue to get even better over time, often they plateau at an improved level of ability for the rest of their series. I thought Tony had done that with book 4, when the series began to change from straight military fiction to a more varied, deeper level of plot. Yet now, with book 8, he has taken things up a notch again in my opinion. I was already impressed and addicted to the Empire books, so now I’m hopelessly lost. In short: Thunder of the Gods is Riches’ best book to date, a landmark in the series and a totally engrossing read.

Written by SJAT

June 25, 2015 at 2:47 pm

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