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Richard the Lionheart and Robin Hood

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So I started reading this book:

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And I started reading it, sadly, just a few short months after I finished writing my novel set in 1204, including odd events mentioned in this text. But that being said, I did confirm that what I had written conforms with Bartlett’s accounts (mainly of post-Byzantine Cyprus). So that’s my background to the book. And unusually, I’m going to review two books at once, and you’ll understand why half way through.

Why read any bio of this famous/infamous king of England? And why read this one in particular? Well, not just for the names, although Conan the Duke, Count Vulgrin and Grimaldo Grimaldi certainly draw the eye and make it sound like a work of fantasy. Why? Because Richard is probably England’s most famous king, and I reckon that if you ask the average person in the street, they wouldn’t be able to tell you why. That’s why. And why this one? well because, I reckon, it’s a great all-round and accessible work.

And this is the thing. Biographies can sometimes focus so much on the individual that it becomes meaningless, lacking context. This book does not. In fact, it is a biography of a dynasty more than a man. And even broader: of an age as much as a family. With kings being such a force at the centre of national, religious and military policy, any biography of the king should by rights include something of a general history. This book does that.

It covers every major flashpoint of which I have been aware in the history of the Angevins: the murder of Thomas Beckett, the battle of Horns of Hattin, the Jews of York, Acre, Jaffa and Chalus among others. And in doing so, it ties it all to Richard and his Angevin family, a dynasty that it turns out is as riven and troubled as any imperial Roman one.

I will state here my only two gripes. One is that the book could really have done with a family tree to which to refer, and I had to find one online to help me at times. The other was the author’s use of the phrase ‘both orders had been decimated at Hattin’, which niggles me as a Roman historian, for decimation specifically relates to the execution of one man in ten, and is frequently misused in place of obliteration.

The book is set out in a reassuringly chronological manner, covering the subject in stages: Early life, the politics of family, coronation and consolidation, the rise of the crusade, and then its fall, capture and imprisonment, John’s betrayal and release, war with France and finally demise and its impact. The treatment of John is also very fair, I think, which is unusual in a world in which he is uniformly villainised without adequate explanation. Parts of the tale, which reads often like a general history, are boosted by anecdotal asides, which is nice.

Several things occurred to me and were noted down during my read:

  • I’d never considered how much impact the death of Barbarossa had on the crusade
  • The collapse of the bridge at Gisors under Phillip mirrors the collapse of the Milvian Bridge under the emperor Maxentius, about which I’ve written. An odd symmetry.
  • The only assessment possible of Richard (like Marcus Aurelius) is only possible against a background of constant war, and we have no idea what kind of a peacetime king he would have been.
  • I’d forgotten how cool the Blondel and captivity story was.

The book ends in a summing up and what effects Richard had on history. All in all, this was a cracking read and one of the better biographies I have read. I highly recommend it. And to give you a taste, here’s a lovely quote:

“Only one son stood by his deathbed and he, ironically, was illegitimate […] Henry reportedly said of him that he was his only true son; it was the others who were bastards.”

My favourite line in the book. And during the closing parts of the book, unsurprisingly there is a short nod to the legend of Robin Hood and Richard’s part in it. And that’s the interesting thing. I’ve also just finished a ‘biography’ of Robin Hood, which I received ahead of publication and was planning to review, and this just seems to be kismet, the two being so aligned. So I now also give you:

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Now in fairness, I fully expected to hate this and to poo-poo it. I’m too rooted in historical record to give great credence to legends. That being said, there is an element of truth to all legends, and so, like King Arthur, or Achilles, or Troy, or Springheeled Jack, I occasionally indulge to see what other people think. I did so here.

It is a brave, and interesting, premise to launch your book treating Robin as a historical figure and then looking into the historiography of it, trying to ascertain how valid it is. And that warmed me to it. For Matthews is not stating that Robin was definitely real, lived in Privet Drive with his aunt Flo and worked for the water board. He presents evidence and himself treats it with suspicion as well as fascination. So my initial scepticism was gradually worn away.

The first thing the book did, and its first quarter is devoted to this, is to examine the earliest surviving ballads. Here, I encountered a tale that was at one and the same time the old, familiar Robin Hood of legend, but also a new and surprising take. I find myself even now wondering why no author or filmmaker has ever tried to turn this original medieval tale into a movie or book. It would surely be a new angle, despite being also the earliest. Robin comes across a lot more brutal and wily here.

And the thing that really struck me is that despite the traditional treatments I’ve seen and read, the Robin of earliest legend may not have been born during the time of Richard the Lion heart and King John. In fact, in the quoted text, there is reference to King Edward, making it likely Edward I or II, at the end of the 13th century, not the 12th! I was astounded. For this alone, the book was worthwhile.

Another interesting assertion is that Robbinhood might be a now-lost medieval term for an outlaw. That would make tracking the legend down nigh-on impossible, of course, so Matthews continues to examine any historical Robins. What he presents, based on the works of medieval tale-tellers, is more than one plausible historical Robin Hood, or the basis for them. This fascinated me.

The book then moves into investigations into possible pre-Medieval origins for the Robin legend, connecting ancient mythology, Saxon legend and more with the tale. For me, the book got a little bogged down at this point. The depth of the mythological work was impressive and probably deserves a book in its own right, but at times it seemed to me somewhat peripheral or tangential to the purpose of the book. I may be being unfair here, and will leave that to other readers to decide for themselves.

We then go on to examine the potential historical background of the other characters in the tale, being Marian and the ‘Merry Men’. This, again, fascinated me, and made it worthwhile.

What did surprise me was that half the book turned out to be recounted ballads of Robin Hood, the last 120 pages given over to these appendices. I felt that this was somewhat unnecessary and lacked the focus on the subject that I saw in the early chapters, since without Matthews’ commentary on it, it became little more than source material.

The upshot? A brave attacking of a tricky subject. Despite a couple of negatives, one of which being the brevity of the actual work, it threw my preconceived notions aside and provided me with fascinating new nuggets of information that I treasure.

I enjoyed it. If you have an interest in the subject, you probably will, too.

So there you go. Two books in one post, the first out now the second in May. Fascinating reading, for sure.

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Written by SJAT

April 23, 2019 at 9:00 am

Marik’s Way by Nick Brown

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As a Roman fiction author who detoured into the world of fantasy myself, and a long-term reader and lover of both Historical fiction and Fantasy, I am always on the lookout for those authors who do the same. If a writer is good in either of those genres, there is a good chance they will hit the sweet spot in the other too. I am, for instance, waiting for Angus Donald’s foray into a Chinese-style fantasy, so much did I love his Outlaw books. And then there’s Nick Brown.

It doesn’t take much to discover how much I value Nick’s writing. Just scroll down my reviews at the side and you’ll find my high opinion of all his Agent of Rome books. I was sad to see that he was no longer working on Corbulo’s tales, but upon talking to him, was also intrigued and fascinated to learn that he too was working on a fantasy novel. In fact, in terms of disclosure, Nick and I have become friends, and thus I will admit that I managed to read a copy of Marik’s Way long before release. Rest assured that I retain objectivity, even when I gush. Nick’s writing has formed some of my absolute favourite Roman books of recent years.

Marik’s Way is the start of a new adventure for Nick Brown. I believe it to be the beginning of a series of novels, rather than a one off, which sits well with me, as I’d hate to know that there would be no more. The novel is, in short, as classy as any of his Roman work. What, for me, it loses in lacking the deep world of Roman history and my love thereof, it gains in granting the author the freedom to become truly creative. The book is written with as much skilled prose and engaging conversation, as colourful characters and tense action as his Agent of Rome series, but additionally, it has given him the opportunity to build a world completely from the ground up. As a former (ish!) role-playing gamer, I am familiar with the process of fantasy world building, and unless the creator is thorough and has an eye for what will grab a reader that world will fail to engage. The fact that I found myself making notes and wanting to know more of places, concepts and people that gained a mere mention is a fantastic sign.

Marik is an interesting character in himself. Very unlike Cassius Corbulo, too. Where Corbulo was a bright young man who had been somewhat forced into activity from a would-be hedonistic lifestyle and treated folk with the disdain of the Roman patrician classes, Marik is a rough, if intelligent, former soldier, with a somewhat corroded sense of right and wrong, a pragmatic approach and a tendency to low cunning. He is a hero, for sure, but only in that he stops four paces short of being an anti-hero, and could easily become a villain with just a few slips. My kind of character, in short. In fact, for some time I struggled with liking him as a person, but I pushed on, for some of the greatest of literature’s characters have come across at first as unbearable (Sherlock Holmes, for example.) Marik becomes gradually more likeable, more understandable, and more redeemed as the book progresses, though he never loses the edge that makes you suspect he could change if he felt the need.

The tale comes to some extent in three parts, or at least that was how I found it. An introduction, with Marik wandering and poor, seeking a path and a way to live, struggling with bad work and worse people. This was an exploration of Marik and his world. Then we had a journey, which I might be tempted to liken to a fantasy Heart of Darkness. This led to epiphanies and a massive action extravaganza that occupied at least the last third of the book. That last section? Well let me tell you I relived the excitement of The Wild Geese and Zulu in a fantasy setting. It was a fabulous read that kept me turning the pages again and again.

In short, this book should appeal to lovers of fantasy, but probably also historical fiction. Marik’s Way is a brave departure from form, but a very worthwhile one, and I encourage everyone to go grab this novel at the earliest convenience.

🙂

Written by SJAT

August 23, 2018 at 11:58 pm

Posted in Fantasy

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My Dear Hamilton

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Two years ago I had the delight of reading America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie. It was one of my top reads of the year, despite being on a subject about which I knew virtually nothing and had never previously considered. It’s taken the intervening time for the same pair to produce their next book, and I have been eagerly awaiting it. The problem with these two authors is that I tend to run out of superlatives while describing them.

My Dear Hamilton is a grand, sweeping tale of love and betrayal, of war and political wiles, of the birth of a nation and the changing of the world, spread over some fifty years of the life of Eliza Hamilton, wife of the founding father Alexander Hamilton. It begins during the worst times of the War of Independence and follows the life of Eliza as she becomes involved in the war on a personal level and lives through the aftermath, her relationship with her husband and dealing with the scandalous fallout of his affair, follows through to the death of her husband (no spoilers here, but this took me by surprise) and on for some two decades following as Eliza continues to be a strong woman with a destiny and a purpose far beyond being Hamilton’s wife.

Firstly, I knew NOTHING about Alexander Hamilton, let alone Eliza. I have a passing knowledge of the War of Independence and the founding fathers, probably in line with most British readers, who focus largely on the famous names (Washington, Franklin, Arnold etc). To learn about him through Eliza’s eyes, as well as about the impressive woman herself and several other cast members, was superb. A particular highlight for me was their portrayal of the French general Lafayette, who I knew very little about, but who is something of a scene stealer. It was interesting to learn part of American history about which I was completely oblivious. The characterisation of each and every character is beautifully developed from what must have been dry letters from which they worked, and the scene setting of a troubled, changing world is masterfully done.

The best thing about these two authors, though, even with vivid characters, beautifully-crafted scenes, and depth of historical detail, is the writing itself. They manage to tell the story in an eminently readable way, with a flow and an ease of prose that is utterly impressive given that they also manage to keep the language entirely in keeping for the era, without resort to modern idioms and colloquialisms. Reading every page is a pleasure for the writing alone.

So there you have it. A worthy successor to America’s First Daughter. In fact, My Dear Hamilton might even be better.

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And there’s more. I also had the opportunity to ask the authors a few questions, so here we go:

How difficult was it to put across such a complex relationship and the equally complex world in which they lived and yet not lose sight of either in the process?

Eliza’s relationship with Alexander was one of the great joys in writing My Dear Hamilton–and one of the biggest challenges. There were a number of times in writing this book that we felt like we were drowning in the research–but we also know that’s part of the process, especially when you’re writing about a couple who seemed to know everyone in early America, and about a woman who lived to be 97! And we were in good company in being sometimes overwhelmed by the Hamiltons, because Lin-Manuel Miranda felt the same way working on Hamilton: An American Musical and the advice he got was to cut out anything that wasn’t directly relevant to the story he was trying to tell in the musical. We tried to do the same. Cut out anything that didn’t have a direct bearing on their relationship or Eliza’s experience. That’s why we have so many deleted scenes!

Was it difficult to deal with the aftermath of a sex scandal without imposing on it modern morals and experience?

It surprised us that modern moralists are probably both more forgiving in some ways and less forgiving in others regarding this sex scandal. Hamilton’s contemporaries condemned him for the Reynolds affair mostly out of religious sentiment; the idea that a man might stray even if he loved his wife was more common at the time. So it’s possible that we condemn him more for betraying his wife than any sense of sexual morality. Our approach to the founders has always been to take into consideration a reader’s contemporary moral point of view, but also respect that these were men and women of their times, looking for ways they differed from their contemporaries in ways good and bad.

Elizabeth Schuyler had such a far-reaching and varied life, was it difficult to stay on point in the Hamilton tale and not get lost in the wealth of angles?

Yes! Fortunately, we had each other to help keep the other on track. But since she lives to be 97 and did so many interesting things in the fifty years after her husband died, we definitely felt pulled to want to tell all the parts of her story. That was especially true because no other book in fiction or nonfiction has much treated Eliza’s life after her husband’s death, so we wanted to share as much as we could about those decades. As a result, it was hard to rule scenes out, but we did–to the tune of about 60,000 words of deleted scenes!

In your use of letters and documents, did you ever need to, or were you tempted to, skip ones that did not easily fit the tale you were telling?

When writing historical fiction, you always have to leave things out. Usually the reason is that it isn’t germane, it’s too detailed, it starts a whole new kind of story, or it’s boring. When dealing with Founding Fathers though, we tend to err on the side of caution in including things that are important to a fair treatment. But in writing this book there was one letter in particular that we debated for a long time, ultimately deciding to leave it out. It was a letter between Alexander Hamilton and his very close friend and brother-in-arms, John Laurens, that included some bawdy joking about Hamilton’s wedding night. We don’t entirely let Alexander off the hook in that moment, but in the end, we decided that it might too greatly stretch readers’ willingness to sympathize with Hamilton and Eliza’s thinking about him.

How much did you have to ‘fill in the gaps’ in the historical record, and were there any times/angles that were not covered adequately in the letters?

As we mention in our Note from the Authors at the back of the book in far more detail, most of what we know about Eliza must be extrapolated from the evidence left behind by her husband, her father, and her family members. The  internal struggles she must have faced in the aftermath of betrayal and tragedy remain frustratingly out of reach for historians. But, thankfully, fiction can go where historians rightly fear to tread. And as novelists we were honored to look at the historical pieces of the puzzle and imagine the rich inner life that the historical fragments leave unspoken. We attempted to craft plausible answers to questions about Eliza’s reaction to her husband’s adultery. How she balanced her deep religious faith with disillusionment and worldly practicality. And how she might’ve come to terms with both the man—and the country—that she sacrificed for and which sometimes disappointed her.

Having brought Eliza to the reading world, and before that Martha Jefferson, what’s next?

We’re working on a project on women of the French Revolution together, and Stephanie is embarking on her next solo project featuring the Marquis de Lafayette! So please sign up to receive alerts about our next releases at DrayKamoie.com!

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So that’s it, folks. The book is out and highly recommended. Go get it HERE

And don’t miss out on other fascinating blogs involved in My Dear Hamilton’s blog tour so far:

and more tomorrow:

Hearts & Scribbles – Excerpt
Literature Goals – Excerpt
Reviews by Tammy and Kim (Rachel & Jay) – Review & Excerpt
What Is That Book About – Excerpt

MDH Tour Banner

Richard II: A True King’s Fall

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I do like to intersperse, in the rare leisure time I get, my fiction reading with a little non-fiction (quite apart from all the Roman non-fiction research I do.) This book was an interesting choice, because to sum up everything I knew about Richard II in one sentence: “Pubs called the White Hart are named after him.” Pretty feeble, eh? The white hart was Richard’s own insignia. Also I tend to get a little mixed up in the Plantagenet era. On the bright side, the Richards aren’t to difficult to separate. 1st was a bloodthirsty warrior who bankrupted the country fighting his crusades and yet for some reason is the country’s most beloved monarch, and 3rd is Shakespeare’s hunchbacked villain. No for me, of course. I’m a Yorkshireman, so I know him for the heroic king and Henry Tudor for the usurping French/Welsh tart. But that’s an argument for another time. Damn you, Stanley…

The book opens with a who’s who. More non-fiction should do this. A common issue with numerous eras is lots of very similar names and trying to keep them straight in your head. I get that a lot with Roman names. To have a handy reference point at the start is invaluable in a world where at first glance everyone appears to be called Henry or Edward.

Then we launch into the biography in chronological order beginning with his youth, obviously. And that, I would make clear, is what this is: a biography of the man Richard II, not an account of his reign. It delves into family, relationships, motivations and the minutiae of Richard’s personal life and connections. It does not provide a vast wealth of information about the time and events of his reign.

As such, I found it interesting, yet it left me with unanswered questions. Since I know so little about his reign I was constantly cross referencing with my friend Google to fill in the socio-political gaps. But hey, I’m used to that with my Roman research. And this being non-fiction, it’s not like you’re going to lose the pace and feel of it by branching out to find out more about Wat Tyler.

But what Warner omits in terms of the political history, we gain in terms of an in-depth look at the character and life of an oft-overlooked monarch. Oh, and it is graced with some lovely colour plates too. In short, if you’re wanting a study on the reign of the White Hart King, and you’re not au fait with the history already, this might not serve you so well. But if you want to understand the man, or you are already versed in the politics of the time, then it should be a treat.

Written by SJAT

February 17, 2018 at 9:27 am

Heroines of the Medieval World

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In the interest of transparency, I’ve been a friend of the author of this book on Facebook for years, our joint interest in history being the connection. That being said, our direct historical paths have rarely intersected, mine being military in the classical era and hers being more of a social history angle in the Medieval era. Then, oddly, there came a convergence. In the same year I signed up to writing a Medieval novel and selected as major characters two strong women, Sharon Bennett Connolly announced this book. Given the odd connection, I was dying to read it. I was therefore really pleased to be offered a review copy and a chance to be part of her blog tour.

My Medieval heroine characters (whose identity I will not reveal for fear of spoilers) actually do not appear in Sharon’s books. In fairness they are REALLY obscure characters, so that’s not a surprise. But the fact is that, despite their absence in the text, Sharon’s book is a wealth of information and a learning curve for anyone wanting to research the role of women in the era. And, of course, for anyone simply with a passing interest in the subject. It has great value for research and just for general interest and gave me a number of new insights that will inform my own tale.

I had expected the book to be a series of biographies, with each section focusing on a different woman. I was surprised, therefore, to find that it had instead a thematic approach. Each chapter covers one aspect of women in the medieval era. One, I was interested to find, was about women and religion, which was the subject that currently interested me. But there are other aspects that also touch on my subject. Really, the book covers ever angle I can think of on the subject, missing nothing.

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(Medieval women playing music)

I shall condense my review of the book into pros and cons. You will be pleased to hear, no doubt, that I have only one con to mention and consequently I shall start with that.

Cons: The only downside I found in the book may be more of a failing in me. There was, I thought, a tendency to assume that the reader was familiar with the era and comfortable with the names and details. Consequently, I spent time either dazzled by a machine gun barrage of Medieval names or having to read back and re-check facts. I am, of course, used to writing Roman military, and while I’m currently working on Medieval stuff I spend a lot of time double and treble checking and correcting things. I suspect that this con is unlikely to touch on the general readership, since most people who buy and read this book will be more comfortable with the era and conventions than I. The upshot? Not much of a con at all I guess.

Pros? Well there’s plenty, but four deserve mention specific here:

  1. The sheer level of depth and research Sharon has put into every nuance of her book is impressive. In fact it is this level of detail that led in some way to my only con (noted above.) It is impossible to argue against the veracity of her text, she is simply that thorough. I consider at best 50% of my non-fiction books to be ‘go-to’ texts that I feel I can completely trust. This book has joined that illustrious section.
  2. Also, it is put together in an almost conversational fashion, the information delivered in an easy, informal manner. There is an almost skald-like way she approaches these characters, as though they are not so historical characters under the microscope as friends about whom she has SO MANY STORIES.
  3. The thematic approach means that I could concentrate on the aspects that had more connection with my own subject. I suspect that as a reviewer I should approach all aspects equally, but that’s not really what non-fiction works are for. They are for specific research. And the organisation of this book works well in that respect in that it is also therefore non-consecutive and the reader can leap back and forth to the sections that are most pertinent without having to rely on missed text in between.
  4. Finally, this book covers a huge swathe of time and geography. From the pre-Norman conquest world deep into the age of chivalry this is a really all-consuming text. One might think, given the very specific nature of the subject that it would focus on a short period or locale, but this is actually a more far-reaching work than I expected.

Bravo to Sharon for her depth of work.

In short, this is a very accessible and informative book that should appeal not only to the serious student or researcher into the subject but to anyone with an interest in the Medieval world and/or the role of women in history.

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So there you go. Do have a look at the other pages in this blog tour, all of which are fascinating (I read them ALL yesterday!)

A review by Annie Whitehead here

An article about non-warrior heroines here

A guest post here

Another guest post by Sharon here

An extract here

Another excerpt here

An excellent review here

An interview with Stephanie Churchill here

A video review here 

A guest post on Nicolaa at the Review here

Another guest post here

And an extract here

About the author:

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Sharon Bennett Connolly, has been fascinated by history for over 30 years now and even worked as a tour guide at historical sites, including Conisbrough Castle. Born in Yorkshire, she studied at University in Northampton before working in Customer Service roles at Disneyland in Paris and Eurostar in London. She is now having great fun, passing on her love of the past to her son, hunting dragons through Medieval castles or exploring the hidden alcoves of Tudor Manor Houses. Having received a blog as a gift, History…the Interesting Bits, Sharon started researching and writing about the lesser-known stories and people from European history, the stories that have always fascinated. Quite by accident, she started focusing on medieval women. And in 2016 she was given the opportunity to write her first non-fiction book, Heroines of the Medieval World, which was published by Amberley in September 2017. She is currently working on her second non-fiction book, Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest, which will be published by Amberley in late 2018.

Written by SJAT

November 11, 2017 at 8:40 am

The Centurions 2: Onslaught

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Image result for anthony riches onslaught

Early this year I had the opportunity to read and review Anthony Riches’ first Centurions book, Betrayal. I have now finished the second volume in this trilogy. It should be something of a clue as to the value I place on Riches’ work that my reading time has dropped by 75% this year due to work commitments, and yet I still made time to read both of these.

I said in my last review that the first book felt like a step into a more serious and deep style for Riches. This pace and style does not let up in the second volume of the series. This is one of the deepest and most complex of all military history series I have read.

You’ve heard the phrase ‘does exactly what it says on the tin’? Well this series does just that. Book 1 was military and political, with many switchbacks. Betrayal formed a core theme to the tale. Book 2 continues that trend. Onslaught. That is precisely what this book is. If you are looking for Machiavellian politics or civic and historical investigation or cunning mystery, this is not the book. If you are seeking war, then boy, this is for you.

Onslaught picks up the story of the Batavian revolt in Germania. There is manoeuvring politically through the contenders in the Year of the Four Emperors, but it is done on a personal and unit level in the provinces, not in noble families on the streets of Rome. Onslaught brings you unrelenting war. But it is not dull or repetitive, despite its martial theme throughout. It is possible to make a book about unrelenting war engaging. Movies do it often. Zulu. The Longest Day. Too Late the Hero. So do not hesitate if you’re a fan of the Roman military. This series is for you.

The greatest beauty of this book comes in two parts. Firstly, Riches is a military historian and knows his Roman warfare to an almost unparalleled level. The result then is a deep exploration and illustration of Roman/Germanic warfare in almost every aspect. It is almost like a lesson in Roman war. Secondly, because half these people are Germanic whether they be fighting for Rome or the native contingent, and the other half are Roman but are of their own split loyalties, this is no simple Roman vs Barbarian romp, but makes the reader appreciate the complexities and shades of grey in real Roman history.

The upshot? Well if you read book 1 you’ll be reading 2 anyway. If you haven’t then you are missing out as this is a whole new step from Riches. If you’re new to Riches’ work anyway then what the hell have you been doing? Pick up a book and get caught up.

Highly recommended as always by this man, one of the top authors in the genre.

Warrior of Rome

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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.

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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.

 

🙂

Written by SJAT

June 3, 2017 at 1:03 am