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A Treachery of Spies – Manda Scott

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I find it easy, when reviewing Manda Scott’s books, to run out of superlatives. I have never yet been disappointed in any of her body of work and if you are a fan of historical fiction and have not yet encountered her books, then don’t waste time here. Go buy one and get reading.

Three years ago, I read her book Into the Fire with raw, new interest, for she had turned from the milieu of ancient Rome and created a tale in a dual timeline that linked the campaigns of Jeanne d’Arc with a modern police procedural thriller. Into the Fire was my book of the year and I remember badgering her, asking when she was planning on a second book, and simultaneously wondering how on earth she could achieve such a thing.

Then, as something of a side-shot here, last year I read Kate Quinn’s vaunted and most excellent Alice Network, which was similarly my book of the year last year. That novel is a dual timeline work too, set in Post-war France and during the First World War and delving into the world of women spies.

So along comes A Treachery of Spies. And, for me, though it’s only August, it seems clear this is going to be my book of this year. While the novel can be read as a standalone and is not reliant upon the reader having finished Into The Fire, it certainly adds something to have done so, for it explains in depth the motivations and history of the main modern character, Ines Picaud, and a few of her supporting cast. This is not a sequel to that book but more of a second tale, independent and glorious in its own right.

Treachery involves once more a police investigation in modern Orleans, this time into a mysterious death – the body of an old woman found in a car park with a very specific grouping of gunshots and post-mortem mutilation. And while the first book simultaneously led us around France in the retinue of the Maid of Orleans, this one delves into French resistance activity during the height of the Second World War. This, then, is the best of books for me, for it feels a little like what would happen if those two favourite books of mine had met.

The story is one of suspicion, betrayal, murder and espionage on a truly epic scale, telling the tale of spies trained by the British and dropped into France to aid the resistance, of their handlers, the intricacies of coded communications and the-so-called Jedburgh operatives sent over around the time of the invasion of Normandy to aid the resistance in their work. It is also the tale of Picaut’s investigation into an increasingly dangerous series of attacks that has a complex and hidden connection to the survivors of that world of wartime horror. One central theme that helps define the plot is that of revenge, combined with a strong sense of brother- and sisterhood. The heroes of wartime France form bonds that will last ’til death, no matter what the future holds, and similarly some actions leave a call for revenge that echoes through the years.

For the sake of avoiding spoilers, I won’t delve into plot specifics any further. What I will do is say that I cannot conceive of how Scott began to piece together this complex and twisting tale, and that when I read a novel with any kind of mystery element I constantly attempt to solve the puzzles as I go. Sometimes I unwrap the plot early. Sometimes I manage parts of it. With this book, I remained uncertain to the very end, and even the one thing I did anticipate I constantly found myself doubting. That is a good sign for a thriller in my opinion.

Scott continues her excellent portrayal of the world of modern French policing, but here she also shows a great understanding of the world of wartime espionage and of occupied France. The world she builds for the reader is flawless in its realism and vibrant and terrifying throughout. But despite a strong plot, beautiful prose and a vivid environment, for me it is her characters that stand out. From the beginning it seems we are focused on one historical character for point of view, but as the tale unfolds we are treated to more than one insight, and each character she builds for the reader is real and true.

And as the narrative moves to a close, we are introduced to a concept that is both chilling and horribly current and relevant. In this, I can only salute Scott. A Treachery of Spies is, then, a masterpiece, which is what I’ve come to expect from the author. The two problems she creates are: setting herself such a high bar to leap with her next book, and making me wait now before I get to read it.

Bravo. Treachery is out tomorrow. Pre-order it now or go out and buy it tomorrow.

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Written by SJAT

August 8, 2018 at 8:21 am

Michael by Prue Batten

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MICHAEL_Cover

Anyone who’s read my reviews over the years will know how much of a fan I am of Prue Batten’s work. She and I have known one another for a long time now, having come up together as writers from the same humble start (one shared by other great authors like Gordon Doherty and Douglas Jackson, in fact.) But throughout my career, I have always watched for Prue’s latest work and devoured it, because, in a nutshell, she writes so well that I am constantly envious of her fantastic work.

Her prose is pure class, highly descriptive, emotive and yet also as smooth as a mill pond and as beautiful and detailed as a Canaletto. She cut her teeth on dark faerie fantasy with an excellent full series – the Chronicles of Eirie – before moving on to the Medieval world with her Gisborne series, and then a trilogy of spin-offs from that concentrating on some of the more interesting supporting cast. And that is where we are now. The Triptych Chronicles (Tobias, Guillaume, and now Michael.)

I’m not going to enthuse about it here, because it will all be hyperbole. You get the gist. I will say that it easily matches all of Prue’s other work, which is to say that it is utterly magnificent. And given that I know Prue has had more than a year of real life shake-ups that must have required all her attention and distracted her from writing, it does not show, which is another mark of a true professional. Quality-wise, be assured that once you read Prue’s work, you will want to devour all her books.

The Triptych Chronicles, as I said, expand upon some of the supporting characters from her Medieval series, and this last one is a magnificent example of how to take an interesting secondary character and thrust them into the limelight with enough depth and realism to make them worthy of a series on their own. Michael was, for me, in the original series a minor character with a few interesting questions hovering over his head. This book not only answers those questions, but it gives us the whole truth and history of the character, intricately tied into a plot that is tense, gripping and ineffable. I did not eff it, I have to say. Trade wars in Constantinople form the backbone of the story, though it is Michael’s place in them and his shadowed past that create the true tale. Oh, and I also have to add that I have spent time in Istanbul and written about it myself on several occasions, and I have come across no one who can capture the feel and the spirit of the place like Prue.

This may be her last Medieval novel. I do not know. But it is a great way to go out in style, if so, and we can guarantee that there will be other great reads ahead in whatever milieu Prue chooses. Michael is released TODAY! That’s 20th July. Go buy it. And if you’ve not read any of her other books, go buy them all.

UK copies through Amazon HERE

Written by SJAT

July 20, 2018 at 3:18 pm

Shadows of War by Michael Ridpath

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Shadows Of War (Traitors Book 2) by [Ridpath, Michael]

A year or two back I reviewed Michael Ridpath’s Traitor’s Gate, and it was in my top books of the  year. I was somewhat excited to discover a sequel was out. I have little reading time these days but I shuffled this straight to the top.

Book one was set in Germany in the year before the Second World War. It was a tense thriller the built constantly and presented a time and place that was darkly fascinating to explore. I had no idea how there could be a book two.

Shadows of War presents a whole new story set in the first half year or so of the war (39-40) as Germany begins to press home its power, threatening Western Europe and Britain defies the Nazi regime, despite a strong sector that favours terms with Hitler and a cessation of hostilities.

On the face of things, I would saw SoW lacks a little of the tension and grit of the first book, but I think what it lacks in the stressful action, it makes up for in other ways. This book’s exploration of the politics and the motivations on both sides is extraordinary. And a dozen times through the novel I came across a fact that was of such intense interest and surprise to me that I had to run off to Google to convince myself that this wasn’t just hokum made up on the spot for the plot. For the record, it isn’t. The book is fictional, but everything in it is possible, even when you can’t believe it.

Though there are scenes of exciting espionage and action, much of the more military aspect in this comes from a peripheral source that, in truth, the book doesn’t specifically need, but which supplies a great deal of pertinent information in a manner that also gives us a soldier’s eye view of the frontlines of General Guderian’s blitzkrieg push into the west.

There is at least one moment in the book that utterly threw me. A totally unexpected event that I tip my hat to the author for.

It is at times poignant, at times dark and frightening, at times exciting and even uplifting. I think, though, that the thing I value most in the book is its atmosphere and its portrayal of the time and people. If the events that Ridpath recounts here happened, and they very well might have, then it casts a dark reflection of our great pride in being a nation that stood up to Nazi horror.

Shadows of War is a worthy sequel, a book that made me blink, made me think, and left me with questions and a torrent of emotion. I guess that says it all. Rest assured I shall seek out a third book if Ridpath decides to write it. I highly recommend reading this and its predecessor. Probably back-to-back they are even better.

Go get it, people.

Written by SJAT

June 5, 2018 at 10:01 pm

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The Last Hour

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Image result for the last hour

Rarely does a book all-but leap off the shelf, batter me round the head and say ‘read me’, but the Last Hour was one such rarity. At first glance all I knew was that it was a thriller set in the later Roman empire about a man struggling to make his way through the city against unassailable odds to halt a plot. Sounded soooo good. And I love Sidebottom’s writing – his Ballista books are some of my favourites.

It was not until I actually opened the book, courtesy of Netgalley, that I realised this is for me absolutely the best of both worlds. This is all what I said above, but it is ALSO a Ballista book. This is a new Warrior of Rome novel, taking the whole series and its wonderful characters in a bold new direction, which I love.

It was interesting reading this after the other Warrior of Rome books, for gradually over the series Ballista has built up a familia of fascinating characters who have become almost as central to the plots as the hero himself. They are often set in quite a sweeping scale with epic fights and Cecil B. DeMille scenes. The cast of the Last Hour is seriously stripped back, focusing almost entirely upon Ballista himself, with walk-ons and mentions for everyone else. And it is all tightly-set. One man, in one city, in one day. The focus in terms of time and character is a new and very welcome thing.

With this whole novel set in a single day in Rome, Sidebottom gets to unleash every ounce of his considerable knowledge of the Roman world in a steady flow and in an incredibly engaging way. There is not a hint of ‘info dump’ here. Everything Sidebottom writes that will educate the reader is slipped seamlessly into the tale, and believe me, there’s a lot. I like to think I know the ancient city of Rome well. I’ve explored it endlessly in books and research and on foot with my camera. But even though I know the place well, still I get surprised by some of the revelations in this book.

Quite simply, this is a historical/political thriller that would sit well on a shelf alongside modern thrillers by Tom Clancy, Dan Brown, or Frederick Forsyth, but with an added dimension, in that it is also a cracking historical novel. As I said earlier: the best of both worlds. The book is out on the 8th of March. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Written by SJAT

February 7, 2018 at 9:36 am

The Centurions 2: Onslaught

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Image result for anthony riches onslaught

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Court of Broken Knives

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I am an on-off reader of fantasy, partially due to the lack of time I have for reading, which means I really have to focus my decisions to the currently relevant. My fantasy reading has recently been limited to Guy Gavriel Kay (because he has always been my favourite writer) and Miles Cameron, because I know the man, and he is a DUDE! Thus I might have let this one slip by had I not bumped into the author at a convention in Scarborough the year before its publication and thought ‘that sounds interesting. I’ll have to give that a read.’

I will start by saying that it’s perhaps not the easiest read. If you are looking for Pratchett or Eddings or the like, keep looking. But to clarify, I find there are two types of novel into which I can generally categorise everything I read. Some are easy reads. They are like a horse race, where you get caught up in the speed and excitement and dragged break-neck to the end. They are excitement and fun and glory and I love ’em (in movie terms let’s say Kingsman). Other novels can be harder to read, but perhaps have a different sort of reward, pushing you to a more cerebral experience (in movie terms I might offer Schindler’s List). I read fewer of this sort of book, but that does not mean they are not as good or have less to offer. Quite the contrary, in fact. Court of Broken Knives for me fits into that second category. I have pushed myself in its reading, but it has paid off in interesting ways.

I had no preconceptions going into the novel. Plot, I will deal with first. And I will be careful. You know I hate spoilers. The opening plot is simple enough. A party of mercenaries on their way to a foreign city to kill a bunch of people. And those who hired them in the city maneuvering politically throughout. Seems reasonable. A good plot, in fact. Then at maybe 40-50% of the book, everything changes. The plot takes a side alley, zig-zags to lose any anticipated ideas, does a few loop the loops and comes out the other side leaving you rubbing your eyes and wondering if Machiavelli’s line is strong and running in London bloodlines. Other than this I am not going to touch on plot. Just… experience it.

There are two strengths to this novel that stand out for me.

One is the writing itself. Smith-Spark’s prose is far from your standard fare. It is often jagged, broken, staccato. It sometimes flounces and flows into the brain, but often comes at you like knives (quite appropriately, I suppose). In doing so it manages to convey something that is lost in a more commonplace style. There is utter, raw emotion in the prose. Some is first person, some third, some past tense, some present, and the point of view leaps between a number of principle characters. The language is sometimes beautiful and haunting, sometimes sharp and horrifying. But in this manner, it is always refreshing, and I have enjoyed it. It is a style of writing I will long remember and appreciate.

The other is character. Let me say from the outset that this novel is full of utter bastards. There are few people in it who I would give the time of day, and those who are good and sympathetic are so riddled with doubt and demons that they are morally bankrupt anyway. This is a novel FULL of anti-heroes. And you find yourself supporting one against another. Because something about Smith Spark’s characterisation carries the genius of making the irredeemably wicked and unpleasant oddly lovable. I cared about characters I had no right caring about and should really have been rooting for the demise of. Oh, and there’s plenty of that, too. Anthony Riches and myself both have something of a rep for brutally offing important characters. Smith-Spark is no slacker in that department.

In short, prepare yourself for a Machiavellian bloodbath of epic proportions, full of lovably loathsome characters. Settle in, light the fire, pour a fine scotch, and marvel at this new fantasy world.

The Court of Broken Knives is an oddly fascinating gem.

Written by SJAT

September 21, 2017 at 10:15 pm

Ashes of Berlin

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I’ve been something of a devotee of Luke McCallin’s Reinhardt books since the first one. There was something about the adventures of a distinctly non-Nazi Wehrmacht officer investigating murders in the Balkan territories. It was a region about which I knew little and a time which oddly fascinates me, despite being far from my own era of choice. And interestingly McCallin’s familiarity with the locale and the subject shone through and gave the books great depth and value. I loved both books one and two.

I hesitated over book 3. Honestly, despite loving the first two I really hesitated. Because the war has ended after book 2 and that means that book 3 was guaranteed to be vastly different. Ashes of Berlin is set in 1947, in a city that is divided and overseen by an uneasy alliance of British, American and Russian, with the Germans still there and downtrodden or working desperately with one group or another. I couldn’t see this possibly being anywhere near as engaging as the previous two. But… because it’s McCallin and Reinhardt, I went to it anyway.

In fairness, it took me perhaps the first 10% of the book to get into it. For a while I thought my doubts had been borne out over the setting. But oddly the plot was still grabbing. And so it pulled me along. And I’m glad it did, because after that initial adjustment, I came to appreciate what a rich setting it is.

This world is very different from the wartime Balkans of books 1 and 2, and yet oddly similar in some ways. For Reinhardt, now serving back in the police in Berlin as he once had long ago, he is still beleaguered, untrusting and downtrodden by superiors. They’re just different superiors now. And the brutality and horror of post-war Berlin is every bit the match for the brutality and horror of wartime Sarajevo. McCallin has really pulled out the stops in his research. I cannot imagine how much reading and note-taking he must have gone through for this. But it is a triumph.

The plot is actually better than both the first two. Where books 1 and 2 tended to wander a little by necessity, this one is much tighter and more defined. It is also much harder to anticipate. It unfolds slowly and carefully and caught me out numerous times. I like a good mystery and only with a good plot do I start to guess and work out ahead of the reveal. I was wrong. Several times I was wrong. McCallin has thrown so many curve-balls I kept getting hit in the back of the head.

There are 3 major triumphs in this book for McCallin. The Plot, which I’ve already mentioned. And there’s no point in me trying to explain any of it, but it starts with a man who drowned on dry land, put it that way. Then there’s the world. The atmosphere, the landscape, the descriptive. It is stunning. It becomes immersive and all-consuming. I felt I came to know 1947 Berlin intimately. But thirdly, there is the matter of character. I’d felt there was nowhere really to grow Reinhardt after the war. Gods, but I was wrong. And he is surrounded by a stunning cast. In particular one American, one Brit and one senior Russian. They are so beautifully drawn and realistic it is hard not to picture them in your head.

So there it is. You might have read books 1 and 2 (The Man from Berlin and The Pale House) or you might not. If you haven’t give them a read. If you have, do not be put off by the change of scene with book 3. It outstrips its predecessors. Just read McCallin. He’s a master of the craft.

Written by SJAT

August 12, 2017 at 8:32 pm