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Gladius

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gladius

I love Osprey’s military history books. I have a shelf full, mainly of the ancient world ones, but with some variation. Each book is written and illustrated by different contributors, and consequently they are of varying quality (though only one or two I’ve come across have ever been less than good). On occasion, though, an Osprey book reaches the heights of excellence and becomes a real ‘go-to’ book on the subject.

As well as Osprey books, I like Mike Bishop’s books. I have half a dozen of them, published either by Armatura Press or by Pen and Sword. And I know when I pick up one of Bishop’s books that I will not be able to argue with or have reason to doubt a word therein. Along with Mary Beard and Adrian Goldsworthy, Bishop is one of those folk in whose knowledge I have implicit trust.

So an Osprey book by Mike Bishop? Hell yes! ‘The Gladius’ is one of Osprey’s most recent publications, part of their Weapon series, which covers everything from spears to assault rifles. I cleared my table, for I wanted no distractions, and I read it. Then, because I knew how much I’d learned and how much must have escaped my memory, I read it again. And soon, after reviewing it here, I’ll read it again. And as long as I am writing Roman fiction, I will constantly go back to it for reference, probably more than any other Osprey book.

This book takes you through the evolution of the ‘Spanish Sword’ from its origins, through adoption by the Roman republican army, its gradual changes in form, and to its eventual supplanting by other types of blade more suitable for the changing nature of Roman warfare. It covers the types of Gladius found, in incredible detail. Pompeii, Mainz, Ring-pommel and others, even less well-known to the lay reader. It examines their use and their role in combat, their methods of manufacture, the part they have played in Rome’s history, and even their effects on the world that followed.

The level of knowledge and detail in the book is impressive. I had not previously been aware of the level of variation or the sheer scale of finds that are referenced. I had not considered the possibility that blades were not formed from one forging of steel and not forge welded with separate edges of different types of steel. I had not considered just how clever the grip of the sword is. I was not aware of the discrepancies in the ancient accounts of their use that, to be honest, as a writer I can exploit!

And therein lies an extra level of value for me in this book. I have learned a number of things on a subject that I thought held little new for me. Boy was I wrong. And what I have learned will filter into my own novels, lending them an extra adge of authenticity.

What you have here is one of the very best Osprey books on offer. Knowledgeable, educational, and fascinating, yet put forward in a very accessible way (one of Osprey’s strengths and, helpfully, one of Bishop’s too.) It is also beautifully illustrated throughout, which supports the text beautifully, including some fascinating detailed drawings by the author. There is no filler or padding in this book. It is 100% on course with its subject and no matter how much you think you know your Roman weaponry, you’ll learn something from reeading it.

Pride of place on my shelf. Is it on yours yet?

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Written by SJAT

December 1, 2016 at 10:50 am

Douglas Jackson’s Sword of Rome

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djsor

It is criminal that it’s taken me so long to read ‘Sword of Rome’. Particularly given that Doug Jackson’s books are some of the literary highlights of my year. However, events conspired to keep it from me. What that meant was that during that dark and miserable time following New Year, at least I had a book to read which I was confident would be a belter!

I was so right. The Valerius Verrens series is one of the strongest historical series on sale at the moment of ANY era, let alone just the Roman. The first book (Hero of Rome) was one of the best I have ever read, and certainly concerned one of the most tense and memorable scenes of any novel. The sequel (Defender) was a strong contender and surprisingly successful, given the dark content and the controversial subject matter. Then along came book 3 (Avenger) and it was clear at that point that Doug’s series had hit the top of the genre. Avenger was one of my favourite books, perhaps better than Hero, though nothing will ever match the ‘siege of Colonia’ scenes. And with a lot to live up to, book 4 looked like it was fighting uphill, given that its subject matter is already strongly represented in Historical Fiction. Against the odds, Jackson has managed to turn that subject into a novel that vies with the best, and at least matches the quality of his previous epics if not surpassing them.

The reason?

It was the way the story was told, for me. The year of the four emperors (the civil war of 69AD) is a famous time about which I have read a great deal, and it is hard to find a new angle to examine such a thing. Henry Venmore-Rowland produced a nicely detailed account from a traditional viewpoint. Manda Scott showed us the same events from a most unusual and fascinating perspective. So what was left? Simply, to tell Valerius’ own story using the evens of the time as the pinball table around which our unwilling hero is bounced painfully.

Valerius is an excellently-constructed and believable character. Not a superman in a cuirass or a blue-eyed boy of the people. Nor is he even the embittered veteran. He has avoided or transcended all stereotypes to become a fully rounded character in whom everyone will be able to see something familiar and to their liking. In a similar fashion, Serpentius, his right hand man, is a character who has grown beyond mere ‘supporting cast’ status now, to the point where he could almost support his own spin-off.

In this installment, Valerius, having journeyed to Spain to serve Galba, who is set on becoming Nero’s successor, finds himself drawn into a sequence of events that will see him killing emperors, acclaiming emperors, serving emperors in battle and on secret missions, and standing his moral ground against them – and we’re talking more than one emperor here. Essentially, in this turbulent year, most characters of no conscience could float through the currents by throwing their support behind whoever wears the purple this week. Most characters of conscience would live for an emperor and die for him as the next contender comes along. Valerius is lucky (or possibly UNlucky) enough that while his conscience and his unbreakable word force him to support even lost causes against old friends, blind luck and a pig-headed unwillingness to back down see him bounce back each time.

Hence the pinball analogy. That is what the book will leave you with.

You will experience this heart-stopping time in Roman history from the fertile lands of southern France, to the seething streets of Rome, to the countryside of Latium, the deadly Alpine passes, the forests of Germany, and the beleaguered lands of northern Italy. And Valerius will be your guide.

Apart from the sheer breakneck speed of the plot, and the tense action, there are three things I find recommend Sword of Rome:

Focus on unusual details. What do you know about the First Adiutrix Legion? I know their basic history and they’re quite a fascinating bunch, but I only know them from dry textbooks. Now I’ve had the chance to see them face to face.

Characters. Apart from the powerful continuing characters and at least one truly stunning, wicked bad guy returning, Jackson’s portrayals of the unyielding Galba, the unfortunate Otho, the unwilling Vitellius and the unmanned Nero are fresh and vivid and help them stand out in a year when an emperor could come and go faster than you can put on your pants!

The plot arc. The very obvious plot arc for anyone wanting to write a book on the year of the four emperors begins with Nero’s fall from grace and demise, follows through the numerous brief reigns, and ends with the accession of the dynasty-founding Vespasian. It seems clear. Henry VR split his story into two books, but it was still a standalone story in two halves. Manda covered the arc in one go. Jackson has eschewed the obvious and left the tale in a most unexpected place. Reaching the epilogue, all I could think of was ‘When is Enemy of Rome out?’

So there you have it. Breakneck action, vivid characters, a fresh, believable perspective, and a fabulous plot with a stunning, unexpected end. Don’t want to read it yet? Are you barking mad?

Go buy. And if you’ve not started the series, check out my review for the last book by clicking on ‘Valerius 3’ on the right menu.

Another masterpiece, Doug.

Written by SJAT

January 28, 2014 at 5:14 pm