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Posts Tagged ‘saxon

Fire and Steel

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Fire-and-Steel

Now here’s the thing. The Dark Ages bore me. As a historical period I find it generally mundane and uninteresting. As the subject for books and movies it holds little more interest. Not, for some odd reason, Vikings, by the way. Vikings oddly interest me. But all the thousand mud-dwelling peoples that flit around NW Europe between 410 and 1066? Yawn.

Saying that, every now and then there’s something set in the era that interests me.

Fire and Steel manages – and this is critical for me – to avoid the pit falls and cliches that plague the era. And, given the fact that the book references both Arthur (as in KING Arthur) and Beowulf, it’s pretty impressive managing to stay on track and not make me run for the hills. The Arthurian and Beowulf connections are very subtly handled.

The story is interesting in that it tells the tale (or at least the first part of the tale) of the Angle invasion that to some extent creates a unified English identity and helps forge a nation out of a land that has erstwhile been just fragmented tribes. Apparently this is a spin-off from another series, with one of that series’ side characters as its protagonist, but it’s kind of hard to tell. It works well on its own and while there are moments where the background is probably better fleshed out if you’ve read the others, it is well enough covered that you do not strictly need it.

The battle scenes are well written. Detailed without being ‘info-dump’, graphic without being offensively so. In fact, the latter part of the book is more or less one great battle, with several different scenes. This is portrayed nicely and quite cinematically. The characters are believable and maintain a camaraderie that allows the reader to bond with them. In particular, I was impressed with the naval scenes, right down to the terminology and the clear knowledge behind them. The plot moved along at a good pace, never managing to get bogged down and, if I had a complaint about any of the above it would be that it ends rather suddenly. Not on a cliffhanger, just sort of ‘here’s the army all ready for war. See you next week on Dark Age arse-kickers.’ I guess that will probably niggle me into reading book 2 when it comes out, mind.

My only real trouble with the book is the same one I have with nearly all works set in the Dark Ages. With the exception of the main half dozen characters, I was a little confused about who was being referenced at all times (not the fault of the book, you’ll note, but of me for my inability to cope with Dark Age naming.) Similarly, I was befuddled with the locations and geography to the extent that for a while, during the fighting in Denmark I was under the impression we were in Britain. Again, that’s me. Oddly, I can cope with modern geography (it’s one of my strengths) and I can transpose that very well into and out of Roman geography and Latin naming, but when I get to the Germanic-influenced centuries in between I get lost easily. And I zipped to the maps a few times to try and orient myself, but you know what it’s like on kindle, a bit of a pain in the but flashing back and forth. So that’s my complaint with the book, and you can clearly see that I’m following the age-old rules of breaking up: ‘It’s not you, darling, it’s me.’ So those of you who don’t suffer my utter bewilderment with the Dark Ages will presumably be fine.

Written by SJAT

March 21, 2016 at 4:04 pm

Warriors of the Storm

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For years friends of mine have raved about Cornwell’s Uhtred novels, and I have intended to read the series at some point, but never seemed to find the time. For the record the last Cornwells I read were the Sharpe series back in the day and, though I think I tired a little of the series towards the end, I remember the earlier ones as some of the absolutely best novels I have ever read.

So when I had the opportunity to read an advance copy of the new Cornwell, I had to say yes, didn’t I. I did wonder whether I would really be able to get into the novel, being as it’s book #9 and I have yet to read 1 to 8. No need to worry. From the very first page I remembered why I loved Cornwell’s writing. Warriors of the Storm opens straight to the action, dragging the reader right in. It is filled with the smooth, almost effortlessly absorbing prose that I remember being Cornwell at his best. The descriptive is full and rich, the moments of light-hearted humour beautifully worked.

Set in the early 10th century, the Last Kingdom series is a strange milieu to me. The Dark Ages is a curious era, full of change and uncertainty. A mish-mash of cultures struggle to dominate Britain, from the Saxons and Danes to the Celts and the Scandinavian vikings, many of whom are by this time based in Ireland and Scotland. As a Roman historian, I am to some extent at a loss with 9th-10th century Britain, so this is fresh unfamiliar ground.

However, the bulk of this tale is based in an area I know quite well, that being Chester, the Wirral and surroundings, and to rediscover a place with which I am so familiar (I spend quite a bit of time reenacting there now and research a lot into Roman Deva), thjough in a whole different era, is fascinating.

The book opens as a norse lord (Ragnall Ivarson) who has long been an enemy of Uhtred’s begins an attempt to conquer parts of England. Driven out of his previous territory, this lord and his army sail into the Mersey, which is held by Uhtred, and begin to move inland making a play for invasion and control, holding an ancient hill fort and bridging the river into Northumbria, where a vast supply of potential manpower awaits. Cue a desperate campaign to counter the growing strength of Ivarson, who is related to the English hero through his brother’s marriage to Uhtred’s daughter, so yes, politics is inevitably going to play as much a part here as battle.

My friends rave about Uhtred. This is my first outing with him and, while he is a traditional hero with a particularly nice turn of phrase at times, I wouldn’t say there is much about him that makes him outstanding to me. That didn’t matter, though, because the supporting cast were so vivid and fascinating that I could deal rather easily without a deep fascination with the hero.

Aethelflaed, the daughter of King Alfred who rules Mercia and Wessex, is impressive and powerful, with flaws and uncertainties that make her a far more vivid character than Uhtred. The priests Ceolnoth and Ceolberht were fun and memorable for all their small role, the bishop Leofstan was simply superb, and of Uhtred’s own cadre of warriors, the Irishman Finan was one of the most interesting.

Of course if there is one thing for which Cornwell is noted it is his battles. He has a long pedigree of writing warfare across many eras, and this has over time granted him the ability to do so with pace and panache, never having to linger too much in the gory detail while delving deep enough to hook the reader and really create an impression of the horror, glory, and above all desperation of combat.

The upshot? Great characters, well-written prose, fascinating locations and excellent battle scenes. The plot might have benefitted from a few extra twists and turns, but that is merely icing on a well-made cake. Warriors of the Storm dragged me in and kept me glued to the end. Well worth a read, and now I am shuffling books 1-8 back up in my pile.

Written by SJAT

October 8, 2015 at 9:29 pm

Wulfsuna

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For the sake of transparency, I’ll say that I’m a friend of the author, though as always I will not allow that to influence my review. Also, I would say that I have really no experience with this era, though I was lucky enough to have read and early first draft of part of this book, so when I picked up the finished article I was somewhat prepared, though the book has changed considerably since then.

My great love is Rome, and I love in particular late Rome. Living in the north of England, the events of 383-410AD (from Maximus’ withdrawal of troops to the Roman withdrawal total) are ingrained in my psyche. But what happens after 410 and Roman money and government is removed from Britain? I mean, my knowledge from then on is largely Mediterranean-based and full of Vandals, Goths and Byzantine Emperors and Persian Satraps.

Well, so what does happen after 410? Well, in this particular read, a bunch of Saxons (Seaxens) – whose headman had served with the Roman border forces in Britannia and had returned to Germania after 410 – decides to return to the island, meet up with those of his tribe who stayed and married locals, and find a place in Britain to settle. So the Wulfsuna (Wolf Sons) have come back for good.

But two major events are about to kick that headman’s son in the metaphorical nuts. Firstly, the betrayal of their cousins upon arrival leaves them with his father dead and the tribe divided and in disarray – and with that strong enemy lurking somewhere, the job unfinished. Secondly, on the far side of the island, a young seeress is hounded from her village, haunted by the past and with visions of a brutal future in which the picts of the north swamp her home. These events are all going to combine and cause both horror and elation for the wolf sons as she joins with the tribe, while their betrayer seeks allies among the picts.

Enough of the plot, per se, in case of spoilers. Suffice it to say there is the oddest love triangle you’ll see, a plot driven by visions and guilt and revenge, and a most excellent fight in the woodland to boot!

The book is very well written. I’m not talking about the prose, the language, the copy etc, though I have to say they were all good. I found not one editing error or problem with the whole book. No. I’m talking about the writing itself. It is, I believe, one of the most difficult possible things for a writer to write convincingly from the point of view of the opposite sex, especially in a historical context. In no way would I ever be able to write convincingly a period piece among, for instance, Georgian ladies at leisure. One of them would inevitably grasp a gladius and dispatch another in a swathe of blood, with numerous fart jokes. Hence, I find it thoroughly impressive that Elaine Moxon has managed to write a tale of which two thirds revolves around the androcentric culture and battle lust of the warrior men of a Saxon tribe, and do it as convincingly as Giles Kristian or Rob Low portray their Vikings.

As I’ve said, I have little knowledge of the era in the north once the Romans left, so I can hardly claim to be any kind of expert in the historical accuracy. But, saying that, the whole book felt to me thoroughly immersed in the period and culture. It felt authentic, and for the reader, I would say that’s what matters. From the few points that I was able to consider the accuracy of, I would say that Elaine has hit the mark pretty much all the way through. It appears that she has really put in the research and knows her stuff. I do know that she attends and even gives talks on the Roman world at her local historical site and spends a deal of time with reenactors.

Lastly, for those who dislike the unknown/magic/spiritual in their historical fiction, you might want to think twice here. The mystical thoroughly influences and pervades this book. For me, it worked well and in fact felt appropriate as is often the case with such works.

On balance, this was a thoroughly immersing read and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in ‘Dark Age’ fiction or who is happy to dabble in this strange time.

Written by SJAT

February 19, 2015 at 11:23 am

My writing has a process?

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I was invited by the lovely and talented Prue Batten to take part in a writing process blog tour. For any of you who’ve not listened to me blather at great length about Prue before, you might like to check out her work: the fay fantasy Chronicles of Eirie and the medieval Gisborne saga. Her words are like silk. They are like a fine wine. They are beautiful. Check out Prue’s writing process here: Am I Unique?

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The tour requires that I answer several questions, and I find them to be sharp, complex ones on the whole, but we start with the easy one:

1. What am I working on?

And yet even that is far from simple. You see unlike most writers, who are sensible and logical and not clearly barking like me, I am apparently unable to concentrate on one project at a time. My imagination constantly runs riot and hurls thoughts at me that begin with phrases like ‘But what if…’ or ‘And what about…’ and I find myself branching out and adding another tandem project to my roster. And so… what am I working on?

Well, the simple one is The Assassin’s Tale, which will be released in less than 2 months. This is the third book in the Ottoman Cycle, following the adventures of Skiouros, a Greek former thief at the end of the Fifteenth century as he journeys around the Mediterranean on a quest for vengeance. For those of you who’ve read The Thief’s Tale and The Priest’s Tale, you might be interested to hear that the action here moves from Spain to Italy in the hunt for the exiled Turk.

But then there’s another project. A secret project. Shhhhh! No details, hints or teasers for you here, I’m afraid, but this is a project that is taking place intermittently between the others, alongside the talented Gordon Doherty. Yes we are working together on something, and I love it. 🙂 News on that will follow in due course.

And then there’s the OTHER project! This third one is a joint project with the superb Dave Slaney, the man who has designed most of my book covers and done other wonderful sterling illustrations here and there. Dave and I have joined forces to create a childrens’ book based on the Roman military, with my story and Dave’s amazing images. Having seen some of the early sketches, I can only say it’s going to be a belter of a book! 🙂

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2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Hmmm. ‘Which genre?’ I would have to ask. I’m mostly known for writing in the Republican Roman era, but I’ve also written Roman principate stuff, 15th century Turkish/Byzantine, epic fantasy with a classical feel, a few contemporary short stories, and so on…

I suppose, then, that I simply have to try and answer ‘what is different about my work?’ Probably nothing is my answer. After all, such a question can only reasonably be answered by the readers. I can tell you what I think might be different, or perhaps what I hope is different:

I think I hit a nice mix. I have a tendency towards graphic violence in my work (hard not to when dealing with ancient warfare) but I think it is tempered by my general avoidance of sexual content beyond suggestion, my sparsity with bad language and the general idea that my books are suitable for all ages, so long as they don’t mind a bit of blood & guts. They’re also tempered with a bit of humour. I do feel that Historical Fiction is often lacking a sense of humour, and I like a little lightness of mood in my work.

Is that a good answer? I’m afraid it’s the best I have. 🙂

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3. Why do I write what I do?

Ye Gods! Because I love it. Anyone who reads this blog will be aware of what I read from my book reviews. If you note the sort of books I read, you’ll be left in no doubt as to why I write what I do. I am inspired to ever greater heights by people like Guy Gavriel Kay, Manda Scott, Anthony Riches, Ben Kane, Angus Donald, Giles Kristian, Doug Jackson and so many, many more. And, of course, I am obsessive over ancient history. I cannot spend enough hours wandering among ruins or visiting the most far-flung and exciting archaeological sites. And when I’m not visiting, writing, or reading other people’s novels, I am reading non-fiction. Incidentally, in that regard check back early next week for a mega-review of one of the giants of Roman non-fiction, Mike (MC) Bishop.

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4. How does my writing process work?

Ha. Like a gaudily-painted runaway steamroller!

Actually, I start with an idea, often based upon a specific tiny event. These are usually unknowns, such as the event at the heart of the Thief’s Tale (no spoilers.) Equally often it is because I just want to write about a certain place that fills me with awe, or a character who fascinates me.

ThenI pick a concept. A theme. Brotherly strife. Irreconcilable political divides. Civil war. And then build a plot based around the concept and the hook. It rarely takes long. Terry Pratchett in his Discworld novels explained the concept that inspiration sleeted through the universe like shooting stars. Most people get pelted occasionally, but the really lucky (unlucky) ones get battered by them like a soggy cardboard box left out in a rainstorm. I am the latter. If I wrote every hour the Gods sent and subcontracted to four people I would still end up with ideas backing up!

Once I have my basic plot, I write it out, change it, tweak it, alter it, hate it, change it, rewrite it, bin it, start it, alter it, write it out, spill coffee on it, change it, give up on it and eat cake, have a beer, have an epiphany, have another beer, and then at 2am with a mad glint in my eye, I have the story.

The I break the plot down int0 sections, and then into subsections and turn it into a chapter plan. Then I assign a rough word count to each part based on its content.

Then… I drink several coffees, crank up the volume on a little Pink Floyd or Anathema in my office and…. WE’RE OFF!

I write each chapter and – I know this is unique to me, so here’s a helpful hint – at the end of every chapter I run a close edit of that chapter. Then, periodically, I go back when I reach critical moments and run another edit. I also have grammar nazi’s running edits for me throughout. Then, when I’ve finished it, I have one final edit and then send it out to a few trusted test readers. Then it’s a last edit based on their findings, and then it’s ready.

Tales of Ancient Rome

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Ok folks. I’ve given you an insight into the randomness and craziness that is my process. Now, the next part of this tour I am supposed to recruit 3 others to pass on the torch to. However, due to time constraints and the fact that I was abroad for a chunk of the planning of this, two of the people I have asked simply did not have time to take part. I can sympathise with that, in truth. But I have managed to secure for you two more writers to investigate. Go check out their blogs now and watch for their own responses on Monday.

ELAINE MOXON:

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Elaine Moxon is a Birmingham-based Historical Fiction writer and former Holistic Therapist. Her grandfather’s tales of his youthful adventures in rural Italy gave her a love of storytelling, inspiring her to write from an early age. She has a passion for languages, travel, art and history, her favourite eras predominantly the Saxon and Viking ages. She has contributed articles, short stories and poetry to online magazines ‘Birmingham Favourites’ and ‘Crumpets & Tea’. Her Grime-Noir Thriller short film ‘Deception’, produced and directed by Lightweaver Productions, has been nominated for the 2014 American Online Film Awards in New York. She is also a frequent speaker at Letocetum Roman Museum in Wall, Staffordshire, giving historical talks and readings from her forthcoming debut novel.

On a personal note, I have read a large chunk of Elaine’s forthcoming Saxon epic, and it’s a tale with style and oomph. I look forward to the full thing, and I urge you to keep an eye on her. Her responses to these prying questions will go live on Monday 14th on her blog at: http://elainemoxon.blogspot.co.uk/

 

aaaaaannnnnddddd….

A J (ANTHONY) ARMITT

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A fab fella, engaging writer and sometime partner in crime of mine, here’s Tony’s bio in his own words:

‘I live in Manchester, England with my wife, three kids and two cats. In our household hierarchy, I figure just beneath the felines.

On moonlit nights I can be found looking under the bed or checking the back seat of my car. I have an over-active imagination.

I write dark, twisted fiction, and have an irrational fear of zombies, and, thanks to Stephen Spielberg, I’m also terrified of sharks. My biggest fear would have to be zombie-sharks. (Damn that over-active imagination!)

My first book ‘Entwined – Tales from the City’ has been the #1 bestselling horror anthology on numerous occasions. I hope the follow up book ‘Entwined – Tales from the Village’ will do equally as well when I finally get around to finishing it.’

… Tony is a man with a cruel, vivid, stunning imagination and when he puts his tales into words they will shock and thrill you. Look his work up on Amazon, including his many contributions to the ‘Inkslinger’ compilations from which the funds go to charity. Tony’s responses will also be up on Monday 14th, and his blog can be found here: http://ajarmitt.blogspot.co.uk/

Written by SJAT

April 11, 2014 at 8:00 am

Hereward: End of Days

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I have to say, of course, that I review this – even after three books on Hereward – as something of a layman. It’s not an era I am familiar with, and I know little of Hereward other than vague connections between the name and rebellions in the days of the early English. By the time I got to the 3rd book, though, I have to admit it was pretty obvious that the series could not have a happy ending. Though I don’t know the history of Hereward, I do know that William the Conqueror founded a dynasty of Kings and his rule passed from his hands into other legitimate successors, not the bloodied ones of East Anglian rebels. So to some extent the ending was a foregone conclusion.

That doesn’t necessarily matter, of course. Gladiator is a great story. We all knew it had a doomed ending, but that made it no less poignant or exciting. Braveheart was a foregone conclusion, but still stirred the blood. The story of Spartacus can hardly have a happy ending, but that didn’t stop Ben Kane writing a damn good tale about him. Because sometimes the doomed hero is the best tale.

Hereward book 1 was a strong story, and only dropped a star on my review due to the almost superhero-powerful nature of the protagonist. However, it was still a storming tale, and book 2 only improved matters, deepening the character and the plot together. Book 3 concludes the tale of Hereward’s resistance to the Normans in great power, style and character. Indeed, by this time, the hero is such an excellent character and so absorbing for the reader that we truly care about him, which makes the doom of the ending we know is to come all the more powerful.

Despite going into the book with a sense of gloom as I thought I knew what must happen, I was constantly surprised by the fact that the English actually were winning! Hereward and his chums were bloodying the nose of the Conqueror and winning the fight. I had one of those moments where I wondered whether Wilde had diverged from clear history and done a Tarantino, Inglorious Basterds thing, having Hereward somehow win! And then everything went piriform as I expected it to from the start, but only due to unforeseen (and also unreported due to spoilers) circumstances. And even though towards the end of the book, it was once more obvious things could not end all hunky dorey, still Wilde had a number of surprises for me. Indeed, the ending really came at me out of the blue. Unexpected. And fab.

Basically, by this book, Wilde’s writing style has really hit the perfect stride and his characters are now well rounded and believable, even the new creations. And that leads me to Deda. ‘Nuff said. Deda should have a book of his own, James, as should Kraki. Bear that in mind, when thinking of your next project.

End of Days is full of action and bloodshed, subterfuge and trickery, murder and flight, treason and negotiation. Grit your teeth at the action in the swamps (as superb as it was in book 2). Wonder at the power of the Conqueror, who is every bit the match for Hereward. And love the book for what it is: a superb conclusion of a tale that should have been told long ago. It is, in short, a bloody marvel.