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A Gross of Pirates

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While there’s really no way I could claim to have read this for research, read it I did, and entirely for fun. I have written about pirates many times: the fictional Ghassan and Samir in Dark Empress, Kemal Reis and other Barbary sailors in The Priest’s Tale, and the Mauri pirates in my forthcoming fourth book in the Praetorian series (Lions of Rome), and so I thought I had a pretty good handle on pirates of all sorts of eras and cultures. Heck, I even own three textbooks on historical piracy.

This book opened my eyes. And gave me so many ideas for novel plots it’s untrue, to boot. A gross of pirates is exactly what it claims to be. I expected it to be another informative, and perhaps dry, history of piracy. This it is not.

What it is is a catalogue of real historical figures. A gross of them, in fact, categorised into eras and cultures. There are well-known names in there: John Paul Jones, Barbarossa, Morgan, Drake, Calico Jack. But with 144 pirates in there, clearly you are going to find names you’ve not discovered before.  For me, particularly fascinating were Jeanne de Clisson, Uluj Ali, and Henry Every.  In fact, of 144 pirates, I could say in truth that I knew less than 20, which is pretty good.

Each pirate is treated with a brief precis of their life – a mini but well-presented biography. With 308 pages and 144 pirates, you can immediately work out roughly how much page space is given to each character. As a writer, I can tell you that this is no bad thing. Having a word limit imposed makes you hone and pare down the text so that what you end up with is a really well-written and pertinent piece of writing, rather than perhaps a rambling account given to descriptive. The old Dragnet line leaps to mind: ‘Just the facts, ma’am’. And Breverton does an excellent job with this. Each account is engaging and informative.

In short, if you are an academic or writer with even a remote interest in the sea and its history, this book will give you endless resources. If you are just a lover of history or the sea, this will be an engaging and fascinating collection. If you simply like to read something fun, then this is actually for you too. Read. Enjoy. ’nuff said…

You can buy the book here, and I urge you to do so. 🙂

Written by SJAT

December 15, 2018 at 10:29 pm

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!

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

Nautical Meanderings

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Despite the fact that my books mostly revolve around land-cased military history, I have inevitably found myself involved in the retelling of naval actions from time to time. Given than my books centre on the Roman period and the later middle ages it is no surprise that the majority of what I have written involves the use of Galleys by one power or another. And so I have found myself studying the ‘galley’ (a ship with sails but also powered by banks of oars and largely designed for head-on ramming acts) in various locations, times and situations. And so I thought it might be nice as part of this great Nautical Blog Hop to recount some nuggets of interesting and fun facts rather than banging on about a specific era or location. And so, here we go… some fascinating facts about the galley:

There can be little doubt that the galley is the longest running design for a military ship in nautical history. With few critical changes, variations on the design existed from at least 3rd Millennium BC Egypt to 19th Century Eastern Europe. A lifespan in excess of four thousand years is pretty impressive.

The ‘Isola Tiburina’, the Tiber Island in the middle of Rome, has a curious connection with the galley-style vessel.  According to legend, the Roman people sent a deputation on board a ship to the Greek city of Epidauros to obtain a statue of the healing God Aesculapius. When it returned, a prophecy-laden snake indicated the island as the site for the proposed temple and one of the resulting aspects was that the island was formed into the shape of a quinquereme to bear the temple. A glance at an aerial photo will give you a good idea of the shape, and a visit to the place will reveal one remaining piece of carving hidden on the city side of the island:

513 Isola Tiburina

Galleys throughout history have taken much the same form: a forward firing platform, a rear housing, and between them row upon row of oar benches with a narrow passage between them. This design (especially taking into account the ram at the fore) made the front a powerful attacking force in combat, but the sides, with no defences and bearing only the oar banks was a vulnerable point. The result of this was a reliance upon formations among fleets that allowed multiple galleys to protect one another’s flanks, a tendency that informed the tactics of galley fighting for millennia.

One of the largest galley-type vessels ever built (according to Athanaeus) was that of the Graeco-Egyptian pharaoh Ptolemy Philopator. This immense vessel was a catamaran-style twin-hull, 130m in length (as opposed to the largest Roman vessel, the quinquereme, at 45m), had 7 rams (as opposed to 1), 480 oars with 4000 rowers (as opposed to 180 manned by 300 rowers). Sounds info-dump and not exciting? Then picture a twin-hulled, catamaran-style oared galley twice the size of HMS Victory (Nelson’s flagship) and with a crew complement larger than any aircraft carrier ever built! Now, how’s it look?

The heights of galleys could vary. John of Austria had the beaks of his galleys removed so that his forward facing central guns could achieve a low enough trajectory to fire on his Turkish enemies. Worth noting here also is that young John was a tender 24 years of age when he commanded his fleet of 213 vessels against the power of the Ottoman navy in an engagement we will get to later on.

Back in 56 BC (and in Marius’ Mules III!), the Romans found themselves in war against the Veneti, a seafaring tribe on the Biscay coast of Brittany. In their first few engagements the Romans quickly discovered that the Veneti’s ships were too high and solid for Roman galleys to easily overcome by ramming, and their large sails and affinity with the sea allowed them to out-manoeuvre the Romans when needed. The Roman commander, Decimus Brutus, managed to solve the problem by attaching hooks to long poles so that when the ships closed, the Roman sailors reached up and raked the Gallic sails, rendering the Veneti ships immobile and helpless and allowing the ever-efficient Romans to board them and achieve victory.

The design of a galley left no room for leisure or comforts. The entire deck was taken up by rows of oar seats, fighting platforms, steering sections, artillery, masts and so on. This meant that there were no permanent above deck structures on a galley. The only shelter available was in the fairly limited hold below deck or temporary tent-like structures that were raised at the stern as required.

One of the most brutal and decisive galley-led battles in naval history occurred off the island of Djerba in southern Tunisia in 1560. The Ottoman fleet under Piyale Pasha and Turgut Reis, with 86 vessels, faced an alliance of Spanish, Maltese and the Italian city-states with in excess of 200 ships. The Turks took the Christians by surprise and achieved a resounding victory in a matter of hours, sinking 60 ships as opposed to only a small number of their own, the casualties being roughly 10 Christians to every Turk!

The different types of galley were more often than not defined simply by the number or oars, the number of oar banks, and the number of sailors on each oar. This has led to more than the well-known biremes, triremes, quadraremes and quinqueremes of the Roman world, but also the liburnian (a light bireme), the Ottoman kadirga (with single banks of oars and with varying rower numbers but with a unique sail configuration) and many others depending upon regional requirements.

A number of reconstructions have been attempted of galleys throughout history, but there is only one known surviving original galley in an intact condition and it survives in a museum in Istanbul. This Kadirga (which is the Turkish for galley) belonged to the Sultan Mehmet IV in the mid 17th century and is intricate and decorative, and yet still displays the brute basicness of an early-medieval galley. The entire vessel survives barring its masts and sails, and a video showing part of it can be found here:

Galleys were short range, day-trip vessels. The lack of living space and storage room for provisions meant that only essential supplies and water for the oarsmen could be kept aboard. This limited operation to a day, and therefore galleys rarely strayed far from the nearest coastline, putting in for the night.

Though it is tempting to think of galleys as either an ancient world phenomenon or a Mediterranean or Baltic thing, it will probably surprise most Brits to discover that Britain has been the target of numerous attacks and landings involving galleys over the centuries. Julius Caesar used them twice to land in Kent, several Spanish galleys were captured in battle at Winchelsea in Sussex in 1350, the French used them in the Battle of the Solent, which saw the sinking of the Mary Rose, were part of Spain’s armada in 1588, and even bombarded Penzance in 1595.

Polybius tells us of one of the most outlandish, peculiar and innovative anti-ship weapons in history. At the siege of Syracuse during the Second Punic War, the Roman galleys fell foul of ‘Archemedes’ claw’. This enormous weapon seems to have been a massive grappling hook on a crane that could grab attacking ships and haul them out of the water, tipping the up and sinking them. Archaeological evidence of this weapon has never been found, though some clever reconstructions have proved that such a thing could have existed and worked,

The most famous engagement of galleys since the end of the ancient world is the Battle of Lepanto, fought between the Ottoman Empire and the ‘Holy League’ of the western Mediterranean off the coast of Greece in 1571. A crushing victory for the Christians, this battle was the engagement that put a stop to Ottoman expansion to the west, and was also the last time a Mediterranean sea battle would take place between galley-based fleets. As an interesting side note, one of the Spanish combatants in the battle was Miguel de Cervantes, who would later find fame as the author of Don Quixote.

Galleys (or in Turkish: Kadirga) were the stock vessel of the infamous Barbary pirates, such as the dreaded Hayreddin Barbarossa. From the late 15th century until the 18th, these vessels were a feared and all-too common sight around the western Med. Operating from Ottoman controlled ports in North Africa (the Barbary coast), Turkish galleys raided so freely and with impunity that Spain went to the trouble of fortifying their coastal churches and building watchtowers around their entire coast at mile-long intervals. My novel The Priest’s Tale involves the first flowering of this feared force.

Polybius tells us of one Roman invention that dates from First Punic War. The ‘corvus’ (raven) was a hinged bridge fitted at the prow of a Roman galley, with a bird’s-beak-shaped spike beneath the outer edge. As the Roman vessel rammed a Carthaginian ship, the bridge could be lowered, the spike sticking into the deck and allowing a relatively-stable boarding platform to overcome the enemy ship. The effectiveness of the weapon is questionable, given the drawbacks on heavy swells, but it marks yet another Roman advance in galley-based war.

Salamis! No, not a collection of northern Italian sausages, but one of the most famous sea battles in world history. Fought off the coast near Athens, this entirely galley-based action between the Greeks and the Persians in 480BC, aided by the famous defence of Thermopylae by 300 Spartans, effectively ended the Persian invasion of Greece which until this point had looked unstoppable. Despite being outnumbered and outclassed, Greek tactics won the day as they lured the Persians into a small bay where the weight of numbers made no difference, and they resoundingly smashed the fleet of Xerxes.

One of the most feared weapons of the ancient world could be found on the prow of the Byzantine Dromon. ‘Greek Fire’, though its precise makeup is uncertain, was essentially the napalm of the ancient world. A liquid fire that burned even on water, such a weapon could be dangerous to the wielder on board a wooden vessel, but if used right (fired from a tube according to evidence) it was brutal and deadly against enemy shipping. Imagine the effect of napalm on a timber vessel!

Though they are easily considered ancient or medieval vessels, the last galleys built were surprisingly recent. In 1796 the last galley class vessels were constructed in Russia as part of Catherine the Great’s forces in the coalition against the French Empire, and these vessels were yet to see military action.

Polybius (that great and informative storyteller of the ancient world) has a last nugget for us. Those of you who have studied the Romans will recognise their tendencies toward innovation rather than invention, and this tendency was never better illustrated than in the case of war with Carthage. Rome had been repeatedly chastised by the Punic fleet, whose ships were bigger and better. Polybius tells us: “On this occasion the Carthaginians put to sea to attack them as they were crossing the straits, and one of their decked ships advanced too far in its eagerness to overtake them and running aground fell into the hands of the Romans. This ship they now used as a model, and built their whole fleet on its pattern”. In short: a shipwrecked Carthaginian quinquereme formed the blueprint for the new Roman fleet which would turn the tide of naval war against Carthage.

In the mid-15th century BC the Pharaoh queen Hatshepsut sent a five-galley fleet to exract taxes and oaths of allegiance from the fabled land of Punt somewhere south of Egypt (possibly in the Somalia/Eritrea area.) The images of these ships are still to be seen on her temple at Deir El-Bahri and are among the earliest recorded pictures of galleys.


The battle of Actium in 31 BC remains one of the most famous sea battles of the ancient world. It also marks the high point of the Roman fleet’s value as, from this point on, the Roman navy becomes more of a troop-transport and pirate-control force than a military fleet.  The final naval action of the Republic and the end of the civil wars, Actium saw a Roman fleet under Antony and Cleopatra thoroughly smashed – through a combination of misfortune, misinterpreted signals, betrayal and panic – by a roughly equal Roman fleet under Octavian and Agrippa. This victory heralded the rise to unrivalled power of the man who would become Rome’s first emperor.

Despite the early era of the majority of galley action, the last battle seen by a galley was actually surprisingly recent, in 1854. As part of Russia’s Baltic fleet, galleys were deployed in the abortive attacks on the Finnish port city of Turku.

As a last note of interest, it will no doubt surprise a few people to learn of the great mistake in the classic Charlton Heston movie Ben-Hur. Made a galley slave, our hero saved his commander when the ship sank. The problem here is that Roman galleys did not utilise slave labour on their oars. Despite the regularity throughout history with which slaves were made use of in oared ships, Roman galleys were rowed by freedmen except in times of dire emergency when manpower was lacking.

File:058 Conrad Cichorius, Die Reliefs der Traianssäule, Tafel LVIII.jpg

And so that concludes my bit of fun on the subject of galleys. Hope you enjoyed it and maybe found something that you hadn’t known before. If you’ve had a good time, please visit the other excellent blogs on this blog hop:

J.M. Aucoin

Helen Hollick

Doug Boren

Linda Collison

Margaret Muir

Julian Stockwin

Anna Belfrage

Andy Millen

V.E. Ulett

T.S. Rhodes

Mark Patton

Alaric Bond 

Ginger Myrick 

Judith Starkston

Seymour Hamilton

Rick Spilman

James L. Nelson

Prue Batten

Antoine Vanner 

Joan Druett

Edward James

Nighthawk News

Written by SJAT

September 17, 2013 at 8:00 am

Julian Stockwin? No Kydding…

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I’ll admit from the beginning that, despite this being the 13th Kydd novel, it is only the second that I’ve read, though I now realise that they are actually quite readable as standalone novels if the reader wishes.

I’ve recently been heavily devoted to reading ancient through medieval fiction, but I opened ‘Betrayal’ with enthusiasm. It has been a long time since I read Napoleonic era novels, but I was, to some extent, weaned on Forrester, Dudley Pope, and Alexander Kent. Having now read two of the Kydd novels I have confirmed for myself that Stockwin’s protagonist is easily the match for Bolitho, Hornblower or Ramage.

I won’t go too much into the specific plot of the book, as usual, to avoid spoilers, but the action begins in Africa, around Cape Town and with a magnificent opening chapter that evokes all the mystery and dangers of darkest Africa, the dangers of the French enemy, and the ingenuity and sheer daring of Kydd and his men. It also nicely introduces (or reintroduces) the main characters for those of us who have had time out from the series. Looking at a long period of excruciating boredom (and more importantly reduced chance of glory or advancement) patrolling the secure cape, Kydd’s commander, Popham, sets off on an unauthorized, outrageous and downright dangerous plan to try and subvert Spanish control of South America. Kydd, somewhat reluctantly agrees to join and is dragged into a little known action in history of which I had never even previously heard (thanks, Mr Stockwin, as I learned something new and particulary fascinating here.)

The action picks up very quickly and then sails along (pun intended) throughout the book. Checking the dust jacket I read of Stockwin’s history in the navy and realised whence one of the two things that impressed me most came. The author’s clearly first-hand and near-encyclopedic knowledge of all things ships and sailing combined with his obvious love of the period show through at every moment in the book without fail, bringing a depth of detail that adds to the read rather than stalling it. The other thing that impressed me most, even above the level of research that clearly went in, was the authentic feel just to the social aspect of the story. The speech is at once familiar and easy to read, and yet seems true to period and deeply atmospheric. The interaction between characters, particularly those of different classes or nationalities is wonderful.

But as in many good long-running series, one other thing worth mentioning is the clear growth of the characters and the ties that bind them together. As I said, I’ve only read one other Kydd novel before, and that was around six books ago. The result is that I could easily see how much Kydd has grown and changed over the books, while retainging those parts that make him the character people loved from the start. In addition the bond between he and Renzi is a joy to read.

In all, this was an excellent read as a standalone, so I can imagine that series devotees will love it. Stockwin stands up there with the best of Napoleonic and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone.

Well done, Julian. Now I must go back and fill in the blanks.

Written by SJAT

October 11, 2012 at 7:38 pm