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

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Posts Tagged ‘Spy

Plague Road

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plagueroad

I used to sit, cocooned in my own little Roman world, reading Roman books and not straying beyond that. In fairness, there’s so much good Roman fiction out there you can actually do that. But then new names, books and series pop up here and there and make me leave my comfort zone. Recently I’ve been rather getting into my historical mysteries, everything from Roman to cold war and the whole gamut of eras in between. I was surprised at how immersive I found Robin Blake’s mysteries set in 1740s Preston. In fact, I loved them so much that when the publishers offered me a new title set in the 1660s I simply had to say yes. I’m very glad that I did.

I’d not previously been aware of L.C. Tyler and assumed that he was a new writer. Boy was I wrong. Turns out this is the third in a series, and the author has many other mysteries out besides. In fact, he’s the chair of the Crime Writers Association, which gives you some idea of his pedigree.

Excited at the prospect, I opened the cover and began. I almost put it down straight away. The book is written in first person, present tense, a tense that I find hard work and has put me off numerous novels in the past. I persevered. It took only a page and I got over it. I still don’t like that tense in books, but Tyler’s easy style completely negates any issues I ever have with it.

Then I hit the second of my two snags. The protagonist is a lawyer in plague-struck London, 1665. He is propositioned by a powerful politician and drawn into a mission to retrieve a stolen document. At first the hook for the character seemed to me rather spurious. Why a lawyer would get himself involved in such things seemed unlikely. But once again, I was taking things at face value. You see, this is, as I said, the third volume in a series, and so I have clearly missed out on much character development (something I will be going back to remedy, by the way, as soon as I have time.) And as I ignored my problem with the hook (the maguffin if you will), and read on, the reasons gradually became clear as I came to understand the history of the various people involved.

So that’s my intro. Two reasons I should have stopped reading by my usual standards. And yet I didn’t. Why? Well, for four reasons, I think.

Firstly, there’s Tyler’s prose. It is a mark of just how good he is that I not only overcame my almost pathological dislike of that writing tense and even came to enjoy it! That’s a first. The style is easy while being elegant, direct and pacy without undue brevity, descriptive without being cumbersome. This is clearly the skill of an author who has long since honed his craft.

Secondly, there’s the setting. I know a little about the restoration period, the plague and the great fire, but not a great deal, so exploring this world through the eyes of a clearly very knowledgeable man was new and fascinating.

Thirdly, there’s the plot. In some ways this is a murder mystery, but it is so much more. It includes political shenanigans with far-reaching, country-threatening effects. It reminds me a little of ‘The Four Musketeers’, or possibly a restoration ‘Where Eagles Dare’. Complex and elegant.

But for me very much the biggest win is the protagonist. He has a dry wit in very much the manner that I particularly enjoy. There are moments when John Grey is talking that he is so satisfyingly, hilariously cutting that even Edmund Blackadder would be cursing and wishing he’d thought of saying that. He has shot up the list to become one of my very favourite characters. There are many great lines in the books, but here’s a nice example:

“There are good lies and bad lies. We told some good lies to rescue you. This will be a good lie too. And it will be a very small one. Not big enough to go to Hell for. Just big enough to go to Salisbury.”

I wont immediately say ‘go and buy this book’ despite the fact that it’s published on the 6th. And I’m reviewing it early for a very good reason. Because what I am saying is that this book makes it worth reading the first two volumes in the series, and now you’ve got chance to get them and read them before this one comes out.

John Grey is a new hero of mine. He will be for you too. Check out the series and do it soon.

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The Pale House

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Back in April I read McCallin’s first Reinhardt novel (The Man From Berlin) completely off the cuff, as it sounded different and interesting. Set in wartime Sarajevo with a rather lost, bitter detective in the Abwehr, it was a fascinating, complex read with an unusual point of view and setting. Without wanting to risk spoilers, the way it ended suggested that any sequal would have rather a different feel, and the character would be different.

It’s taken me a while to find the time, but now I’ve read the second book (The Pale House) and, while I had initial reservations, I am impressed and thoroughly enjoyed it. Reservations why? Well, as I said above the previous book had a somewhat game-changing ending, and I think the first maybe 10-15% of The Pale House is spent putting Reinhardt back in a position where he can investigate the plot. It feels a little like the suggested future at the end of book 1 has been glossed over to allow book 2 to flow. So to be honest it took me maybe 10% to settle into it. Then, as Reinhardt returns to Sarajevo, this time as one of the Feldjaeger – the Wehrmacht’s military police – he stumbles across a grisly scene that will have long-reaching effects for him and the military in Bosnia. And with that discovery, the plot begins to roll forward.

And what a plot. You see, while I thought this book took a short while to untangle its legs and get running, once it did it quickly began to outstrip the first book. The plot is tighter, more delicate, intricate, and yet carefully, cleverly revealed to the reader. Moreover, the plot is compounded with a number of subplots, some of which are linked and others not, forming a grand scheme that, while it was easy to pick out about half way through some of what was happening, right to the very end I was still being hit by surprises.

In Reinhardt’s world, no one can be trusted. The enemy are not the allies (Britain, the USA and Russia.) They are, to some extent, the partisans plagueing Bosnia. They are also the native para-military nominally organisations allied to Germany and yet causing more trouble than any enemy. But the most insidious enemies in Reinhardt’s world almost always come from among his own people – among the hierarchy of the German military.

Quite simply, I’m not going to tell you anything about the plot other than how nice it is, as it would be far too easy to accidentally drop in a spoiler. I shall just say that this book is set some time after the first, and while there are a few faces cropping up who we met in book 1, they are largely incidental or at best supporting characters. This is a whole new tale with a whole new cast and it shows that McCallin is anything but a one trick pony. The Pale House is, despite my initial worries, better than The Man From Berlin. I heartily recommend them both. They are tales outside my era-based comfort zone, but I love this series and I am excited to note that a third novel (The Divided City) is due out in December.

Written by SJAT

September 3, 2016 at 10:05 am

The Earthly Gods

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Are you reading Nick Brown’s ‘Agent of Rome’ series? If not, then you need to check into either your local bookshop or your local head doctor. Nick Brown has created one of modern Historical Fiction’s most absorbing and accessible series, and if you are not already reading it, you need to go out and buy The Siege now, to get started.

Some writers write excellent books but can get a little bogged down with the need to portray their tale with ultra-realistic, technical period detail. Very laudable, but it can sometimes make a book hard going. Others, conversely, write with so many modernisms and anachronisms that it can hardly be called Historical Fiction at all. Few hit the perfect sweet spot where they are giving you high quality historical fiction but presented in such a way that it is truly entertaining for both the knowledgeable and the novice. Nick Brown fits that role, I think.

So, to the book.

The preceding five volumes in the series have introduced us to the character of Cassius Corbulo, his slave Simo and his bodyguard Indavara, as well as a lovable donkey. We have seen the breadth of the Roman east in many circumstances, from siege and warfare to criminal investigation, to undercover missions, dangerous sea voyages, corrupt army officers and much more. This volume once more shows us a new angle, but with ‘Earthly Gods’ we are, I think, seeing a subtle shift in Brown’s series. To this point, while the characters have grown and changed with their experiences, each tale has been a single contained story that could be read as a standalone book, even if the reader might miss important nuances that way. Now things are changing. Book 6 follows directly on from the previous volume, picking up an open thread from book 5 and following it. The plot for book 6 still contains its own standalone tale – helping Syrian natives hunt their daughters who have been illegally enslaved and sold. But it also follows the thread of Indavara’s disappearance at the end of the previous book, giving it a sense of series continuity that is new. And even the standalone element within it, to be honest, draws in characters from the very first book. So, in essence, while presenting a new plot, this volume also drags in elements from across the series, binding it all together rather neatly. As such there is a different type of depth to it than the previous volumes.

Moreover, while there is violence and womanising throughout the series, this volume begins to explore darker themes, with illegal slavery and enforced prostitution, as well as plague and the working to death of mine slaves. Such matters have to be dealt with carefully in my experience, lest they turn readers away, but be assured that Brown has managed it perfectly. Despite these darker underlying themes, the book is delivered with Brown’s usual engaging prose, easy humour and insight into the fascinating character of his protagonists. No one in Brown’s world is truly black or white, but all are varying shades of grey.

The plot? Well, I always try to avoid potential spoilers, but here we go…

Faced with the disappearance of his bodyguard and friend Indavara, Corbulo is landed with a difficult choice: forget about a friend in peril or defy his powerful masters. Needless to say, Corbulo is no longer the haughty young man who left Rome 3 years ago, and even going against Imperial Security will not deter him from attempting to save his friend. And so begins a dangerous quest outside the bounds of his duty. Skipping out of town unnoticed, going undercover and trying to avoid his own employers and fellow agents, Corbulo embarks on a twin mission, to find his friend and to help locate the missing daughters of his Syrian allies. Their journey will take them through plagues and into salt mines, all the way to Byzantium, pitting them against a powerful yet shady group of men. Once again the history of Indavara is being unwrapped slowly before our eyes, but it seems that Earthly Gods is set to be something of a game-changer in that respect, too, as that reveal accelerates rapidly now, and something of the future direction of the series is hinted at.

In short, this is everything a reader of the series has come to expect from Brown’s work, and something else beside. It is perhaps a step up. It is certainly a riveting read and kept me turning the pages long after I’d planned to put the book down.

Yet another win from Nick Brown. Long may Corbulo adventure.

Written by SJAT

June 30, 2016 at 9:00 am

The Madagaskar Plan

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A few days ago Guy Saville pointed out on Facebook that the paperback of The Madagaskar Plan was coming out today. I’ve had both this and The Afrika Reich sitting in my ‘to-be-read’ pile for some time. I ummed and ahhed over whether it would be wise to start book 2 before I’ve read book 1, but heck with it… I did.

Interestingly, there is enough background, and there are enough illuminating flashbacks in this book that it does not seem to rely entirely upon the first to be readable. Not that I’d heartily recommend starting with book 2, because now that I’ve done it, I have to go back and read book 1 to see what I missed.

Firstly, what is The Afrika Reich trilogy and this book in particular? Well, it’s almost Historical Fiction. It’s a ‘what if’ scenario. The premise behind the series is that the Dunkirk evacuations failed, Churchill resigned over the failure and consequently the succeeding British government came to peaceful terms with the Nazis. By the early 50s, when the book is set, Britain still has its Imperial holdings, Germany has overrun Russia and controls roughly half of all African territory, and the United States is out of it as a neutral nation. Africa is divided between Britain and Germany, with a few smaller states belonging to Italy, Portugal etc, and a neutral South Africa.

Madagaskar is the greatest imaginable prison camp for deported Jews. Europe having been largely emptied of them, there are 5 million living on the island under SS rule, being gradually worked to death.

Burton Cole, a survivor or earlier clashes in Africa and clearly the hero of the first book, returns to Britain to find his lover – a former Austrian Jew – has been found out by her cuckold husband and deported to Madagaskar. He thence rushes off to find her. Meanwhile, his former nemesis, Hochberg, the governor of German Kongo, has his own reasons building to head to the island in the hope of achieving German domination of the continent. And his deputy, now in exile. And a Jewish partisan. And others.

Incredibly skillfully, Saville weaves a web that brings so many seemingly disconnected elements, many with totally different motives, to the island and into the crucible of destruction. For Madagaskar is an island on the very brink of revolt, and the world is watching tensely, for any shake might bring America into the matter. There is no forced or over-woven aspect to the drawing together of the strands of plot.

A word needs to be said on the characters. Despite this being Britain and Nazi Germany, do not expect to read with a ‘black and white’ moral attitude. You will find every shade of grey on both sides. Some of the Germans are almost sympathetic. Some of the British are downright loathsome. And they are all believable, which is perhaps the most critical thing.

Despite the ‘alternate reality’ setting of the novel, it is so realistic and clearly feasible that it doesn’t jar the reader at all. In fact, it is all too easy to accept this version of history as the truth. It so nearly could have happened.

The feel of the plot is something of a mix. It is part war story, part espionage, part drama, part prison movie. At times it felt a little like The Wild Geese, at others Where Eagles Dare, and others again Papillon. It is all of those things but not them alone. It is a masterful example of the craft of fiction and kept me riveted from beginning to end.

It’s out in paperback today. Go get these books folks, and make sure you have them read before the final part of the trilogy is published.

Written by SJAT

January 28, 2016 at 1:51 pm

Korolev 1: The Holy Thief

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Every now and then I read something completely on spec that is very much outside my comfort zone. It does you good to vary your reading and experiences, of course. And having caught sight of this book and its author in a Twitter conversation, I felt it deserved a try.

Good call.

The Holy Thief takes place in 1930s Soviet Moscow and follows a rather complex investigation by a police officer into a grisly murder. The investigation leads the somewhat world-weary and rather un-Sovietly inquisitive Korolev into a world of truly dangerous and complicated plots. The murders are associated with the sale of valuables by the Russian state to fund the Five Year Plan and the disappearance of one particular valuable. A simple (though not really so much) murder investigation is made more difficult by the interference of the NKVD (the forerunner of the KGB) who have their own connected investigation going, foreign nationals, the now-banned Orthodox Church, the semi-official organised crime echelons and so much more.

You know those American movies where it turns out not to be a simple FBI investigation, because the CIA and the NSA are involved and some senator or other is out for himself and using them all, and everything descends in a spiral of espionage and deceit? Well that sort of thing plays equally well in 30s Russia, apparently. The plot is well weaved, but it made all the better by the labyrinthine webs of official government departments.

The feel of the book, for me, is something like a cross between the movies Gorky Park and Enemy Of The State with a healthy dose of film noir. The main character is extremely believable and despite the clever connections he makes and the string of punishments he suffers, there is nothing unrealistic there. He is simply lucky, bright and bloody minded.

But for me there is one aspect that makes the book a win. Despite great characters and a good plot, the best thing about the Korolev mysteries so far is the atmosphere. The author’s knowledge and research have been poured into the book until it surpasses the ‘full’ mark and have left us with something that feels REALLY authentic. It made me endlessly grateful that I don’t live in 30s Moscow, for a start. You can almost feel the grimy, rainy street beneath you as you read. Few authors have achieved quite such a level of authenticity in a setting.

Basically the book wins on so many levels. I recommend buying it and reading it. It’ll keep you riveted right to the very end.

Written by SJAT

October 1, 2015 at 10:42 am

Agent of Rome – The Emperor’s Silver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by SJAT

June 4, 2015 at 9:41 am

Devil’s Assassin

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Jack Lark is one of my favourite literary creations of the modern swathe of historical fiction. Paul Fraser Collard’s debut work was one of my top ten reads of the year (and was certainly in the top half of those.) The second book in the series I was a little worried about, since the premise of the first book was new and interesting but really didn’t lend itself to the possibility of a sequel. Somehow, Paul pulled it out of the bag. The second book was amazingly not a carbon copy of the first, and yet managed to continue the theme. The second one, in fact, stepped up the stakes a little. But the question was: what could he do with book 3? He surely couldn’t follow similar lines.

And so he hasn’t. The Devil’s Assassin has taken the story of our favourite fraud and slewed it off at a tangent. No longer is Jack the roguish low-born masquerading as his betters. Or maybe he still is, but in a very different way, and for very different reasons. After his service with the Maharajah in book 2, Jack has made his way south, still in India. He is still living an assumed life, with no money or influence, making it from one day to the next on his wits and luck. But things are about to change. Because someone in his city is about to find out his secret, and that person will have more use for Jack in his employ than swinging on a gallows. And even as military intelligence get their claws into Jack, the Shah of Persia is interfering in international matters and war is looming on the horizon.

And here is the meat of the plot. There is (or are) spy (ies) in the British armed forces, and Jack is set to hunting them. But throughout this intrigue and mystery, there is also a war taking shape. So against a background of military campaigning, our (anti) hero continues to try and unravel the espionage plot. In some respects this book feels like two very disparate stories running concurrently. The war against the Shah is told in such glorious detail, scope, colour and depth that I had largely forgotten the entire spy plot when it suddenly reappeared from behind a bush and shook me by the shoulders. Collard has clearly enjoyed in this book taking an almost unknown British military campaign and bringing it to the reader’s attention, and he does it very well, the manoeuvres and desperate counter offensives described evocatively, but also with enough clarity that the reader can follow the entire thing, on both a personal level and as a grand military action.

Interestingly, this book marks a turning point in the series. It is clear in retrospect that while Collard pulled off a feat with book 2, the whole character of Jack and the premise of the series were resulting in writing the hero into a corner. Sooner or later, something would have to break unless the books were going to turn into those carbon copies we all want to avoid. And when that break happened, it was hard to see how Jack could progress except at the end of a Tyburn knot. And that is the gem of this book. It has achieved the unachievable and given Jack a new lease of life and Collard a universe of possibility with which to proceed.

The character of Jack has definitely grown in this work. The death and destruction that has surrounded his career has begun to change (and haunt) our hero. This is good – not for him, but certainly for us. A character has to grow and change in order to keep the reader’s interest and to inform the book with realism, and Jack is beginning to morph from a sharp young adventurer into an tired war-horse. He has a long way to go yet, but the signs are definitely there.

Paul Collard has a very readable fluid style of writing, which draws the reader along and involves them without ‘dumbing’ anything down. He does not sacrifice style and value for ease of reading, and yet it is an easy read. His characters’ speech is realistic and comfortable for the reader, and his descriptions of exotic locations and cultures are totally immersing, especially when described from the point of view of the stiff Victorian British officer.

In short, after two top books, The Devil’s Assassin is yet another win from a writer at the top of his game. Go get it, folks.

Written by SJAT

May 10, 2015 at 9:25 pm