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Marik’s Way by Nick Brown

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Marik

As a Roman fiction author who detoured into the world of fantasy myself, and a long-term reader and lover of both Historical fiction and Fantasy, I am always on the lookout for those authors who do the same. If a writer is good in either of those genres, there is a good chance they will hit the sweet spot in the other too. I am, for instance, waiting for Angus Donald’s foray into a Chinese-style fantasy, so much did I love his Outlaw books. And then there’s Nick Brown.

It doesn’t take much to discover how much I value Nick’s writing. Just scroll down my reviews at the side and you’ll find my high opinion of all his Agent of Rome books. I was sad to see that he was no longer working on Corbulo’s tales, but upon talking to him, was also intrigued and fascinated to learn that he too was working on a fantasy novel. In fact, in terms of disclosure, Nick and I have become friends, and thus I will admit that I managed to read a copy of Marik’s Way long before release. Rest assured that I retain objectivity, even when I gush. Nick’s writing has formed some of my absolute favourite Roman books of recent years.

Marik’s Way is the start of a new adventure for Nick Brown. I believe it to be the beginning of a series of novels, rather than a one off, which sits well with me, as I’d hate to know that there would be no more. The novel is, in short, as classy as any of his Roman work. What, for me, it loses in lacking the deep world of Roman history and my love thereof, it gains in granting the author the freedom to become truly creative. The book is written with as much skilled prose and engaging conversation, as colourful characters and tense action as his Agent of Rome series, but additionally, it has given him the opportunity to build a world completely from the ground up. As a former (ish!) role-playing gamer, I am familiar with the process of fantasy world building, and unless the creator is thorough and has an eye for what will grab a reader that world will fail to engage. The fact that I found myself making notes and wanting to know more of places, concepts and people that gained a mere mention is a fantastic sign.

Marik is an interesting character in himself. Very unlike Cassius Corbulo, too. Where Corbulo was a bright young man who had been somewhat forced into activity from a would-be hedonistic lifestyle and treated folk with the disdain of the Roman patrician classes, Marik is a rough, if intelligent, former soldier, with a somewhat corroded sense of right and wrong, a pragmatic approach and a tendency to low cunning. He is a hero, for sure, but only in that he stops four paces short of being an anti-hero, and could easily become a villain with just a few slips. My kind of character, in short. In fact, for some time I struggled with liking him as a person, but I pushed on, for some of the greatest of literature’s characters have come across at first as unbearable (Sherlock Holmes, for example.) Marik becomes gradually more likeable, more understandable, and more redeemed as the book progresses, though he never loses the edge that makes you suspect he could change if he felt the need.

The tale comes to some extent in three parts, or at least that was how I found it. An introduction, with Marik wandering and poor, seeking a path and a way to live, struggling with bad work and worse people. This was an exploration of Marik and his world. Then we had a journey, which I might be tempted to liken to a fantasy Heart of Darkness. This led to epiphanies and a massive action extravaganza that occupied at least the last third of the book. That last section? Well let me tell you I relived the excitement of The Wild Geese and Zulu in a fantasy setting. It was a fabulous read that kept me turning the pages again and again.

In short, this book should appeal to lovers of fantasy, but probably also historical fiction. Marik’s Way is a brave departure from form, but a very worthwhile one, and I encourage everyone to go grab this novel at the earliest convenience.

🙂

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Written by SJAT

August 23, 2018 at 11:58 pm

Posted in Fantasy

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Tough Rides – China

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We’re taking a brief break from books again this week to look at a different kind of media. For those of you following this blog, you’ll remember that earlier this year I reviewed a great motorcycle adventure in both DVD and book format called the ‘Middle Kingdom Ride‘, and that during the summer I reviewed the second in the series – ‘Tough Rides – India‘. Well the great news is that Ryan and Colin Pyle are busy producing the third adventure in the series, this time in Brazil, to which I am eagerly looking forward. But in the meantime, here’s a worthily re-packaged re-release to grab the attention of anyone who hasn’t yet seen that and who has an interest in travel and/or bikes.

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When the Middle Kingdom Ride was first released I have no doubt that it was intended to be a once-in-a-lifetime thing. It certainly felt like it, and it had been a whole change-of-life, drop-everything-and-try-something amazing project. Having decided to pursue further ‘tough rides’, though, the original has been re-released but with a new name, new look and new format in keeping with the budding series. The DVD of MKR is now available on Blu-Ray as ‘Tough Rides: China’ (you can buy it here.)

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So why a new review? Well because the new format deserves the press. I thoroughly enjoyed MKR when I first watched it, and my only real complaint with it was that the sound quality occasionally dipped. Well the blu-ray format is much clearer, which alone makes it a worthwhile improvement. But the real value is in the display. You see, one of the most amazing things about the travelogue was the scenery, which is absolutely stunning and captured with style and grace, especially considering the minimal manpower and equipment available on the journey. Truly, the scenery was breathtaking. And on Blu-ray, that really comes across. Don’t take my word for it. Load up the blu-ray on an HD widescreen and when you’re looking at the Mongolian and Tibetan landscapes it’s like something from Tolkien. Simply stunning.

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The menu navigation on this edition is also much improved and having the series on one blu-ray instead of two DVDs adds another level of ease to it. And in case you’ve not read my earlier review, I’ll include a little something about the background of the ride from it out here. Do check out the whole review here for more information, though. If you enjoy a good travelogue in the vein of Michael Palin’s or Levison Wood or Billy Connolly, then these deserve your attention.

(From earlier review:)

Amazingly, this tremendous journey, painstakingly documented in both text and film, was carried out by the two stars from their own funds. They did not receive the financial and logistical backing of the BBC or Nat Geo, or any of the great media groups that usually produce such series. They did not get given special treatment from the authorities as media stars. They were not donated bikes. They used up their savings, sold a house, quit jobs and did it themselves. Did what? you ask… Oh yeah. Here’s what they did:

Ryan Pyle is a freelance photographer from Canada who’s lived in Shanghai for a decade now. He loves China. He loves the culture and the people and has been documenting it with his camera now for years. He’s also an enthusiastic, if relatively amateur, motorcyclist. His brother Colin owned a company back in Canada, but was tiring of the life and sought adventure – and he’s also a biker! So from Ryan’s enthusiasm and Colin’s need for change was born the idea of the Middle Kingdom Ride. The Middle Kingdom, you see, is a phrase derived from China’s name for itself, based on the principle that China was at the centre of its world. Ryan had this crazy idea that the two brothers could leave behind work and ordinary life – including, most wrenchingly, their wives – and take two bikes and a small support crew and ride around the circumference of China. China hold the longest unbroken border that can be driven or ridden, and to do so would not only be fascinating and an amazing achievement, but it would also be a world record.

Ryan and Colin sought financial and logistical support, but the deals they made fell through, leaving them alone. Not to be thwarted, the pair decided that they would do what they intended, with or without support. And so they found a filmmaker who was enthusiastic over the idea, who would travel behind the bikes in an SUV. And through careful planning around the route, arranged a series of local guides from each region who would join the support vehicle for a section of the trip. That was it. Two brothers on bikes, and two men in an SUV behind them.

Middle_Kingdom_Ride mkr5

Written by SJAT

October 22, 2015 at 9:42 am

Istanbul, not Constantinople

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So, after 6 years we just made it back (this time with 4 of us rather than 2) to Istanbul. And confirmed that it is still our joint favourite location on Earth along with Rome. It is somewhat hard to beat. And so for those of you who’ve not considered visiting or who are wavering as to whether to go, here’s my top tips…

0016 Blue Mosque

  1. Most important of all: do not be put off. Do not allow rumour or uncertainty to put you off. When we went this time, we happened to time it (yes more than a year after the park riots) but only a week after the hospital riot following the poor young lad’s death. A number of people expressed concerns, and we could understand them and expected to have to be wary. The simple fact is that we felt safe everywhere and more than that: welcome and encouraged. Even with some political problems, the Turks are a friendly people and Istanbul is a relaxed, pleasant place.
  2. Go off the beaten track. Istanbul has maybe a dozen major historical sites that are thrown at you constantly (eg Aya Sofya, Basilica Cistern, Blue Mosque, Chora Church, Topkapi palace.) There are lesser sights. And then there are the unusual ones. And then there are the astounding ones. Istanbul is packed with sights like a pomegranate with seeds. Some of them require a bit of walking or extensive tram use. Go for it. It’s cheap, you’ll see things you’d regret missing, and exploration is half the fun of the city.
  3. Do not book a short trip. The girls behind us returning to the plane said that next time they were only booking a one-way ticket so that they can choose when to come back. They were right. Istanbul sucks you in and tries to keep you. If you want to immerse yourself in it stay for a week minimum. If you’re wanting to see whether it’s for you, do 4/5 nights, but take it from me: it is. Book longer.
  4. Get yourself in the mindset. Istanbul is a meeting of worlds but also a meeting of ages. It is the ancient, the medieval, the renaissance, the new and the modern as well as just east and west. Read C C Humphreys’ A place called Armageddon, or Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic, or Christian Cameron’s Tom Swan series (or might I suggest my own Ottoman Cycle!) Having a good historical context for the place will give you something you might not see otherwise. Oh, and if not a reader (why are you here again) you could watch Topkapi or From Russia With Love, or play that Assassin’s Creed game.
  5. Keep your eyes open. Istanbul is absolutely chock full of odd fragments. There is every chance that when you walk down a side street you will see a wall with layers of bonding tiles. It’s Roman/Byzantine. Or early Ottoman stolen style. It might be the back wall of a garage which was a monastery 1200yrs ago, or a couple of 3rd century columns supporting a doorway, or a 17th century watchtower. Nothing in that city is what it seems.
  6. Plan in advance. Search out everything you can find and make sure you don’t miss something just because you don’t know about it. If necessary, mail me and I will send you a fairly comprehensive list. Rank things. And go. Do it. But take maps. Be prepared. PPPPPP as they say. 🙂
  7. Try the foods and drinks. It’s not Turkey without Koftas, good Kebabs, coffee like sweet silt, and of course yogurt and sherbert. Do not buy a fez. Only a feckin’ idiot buys a fez… like the muppet we watched wearing one while sucking face outside a mosque at a cafe table.

Given that, here are things (not necessarily the top ones you get pointed at) not to miss:

  1. Spend a day walking the walls. Start at the Yedikule fortress, walk the land walls, and then the sea walls via Golden Horn and then Marmara. It is a stunning journey full of wonders. It’s long, but it is more than worthwhile and you will see Istanbul from every angle.
  2. Go and visit the monastery of the Pammakaristos (Fethiye Camii) and explore Fener and the area around it. It is the most truly local and real area you will find and that church/museum is one of the most amazing places in the city.
  3. You will visit the Basilica cistern. You might visit the 1001 column cistern. There are a hundred of these water tanks in the city, but do not miss dinner at the Sarnic restaurant. Dinner in a Roman cistern among the myriad of columns is a special thing.
  4. Walk the Blachernae area. Some of it has been horribly reconstructed and some is under current work, but everywhere from the Chora to the Golden Horn… walk it just inside the walls. You will see a side of the city you would otherwise miss!
  5. The Hippodrome is hard to miss. You will find a thousand tourists being herded round it every hour. Go past the end of it and trace the Sphendone – the curved end – down and back up. If gives an idea of scale you would fail to see any other way.
  6. When you visit the Aya Sofya, realise that this was attempt #2 of Justinian’s church. The first version on a small scale was the church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, now known as Küçük Ayasofya Camii. Try to get there. It’s beautiful.
  7. Istanbul is full of Roman honorific columns. Track them down and visit for a fun quest: Hippodrome columns x3. Goth’s Column, Cemberlitas, Column of Marcian and Column of Arcadius. And then look for the REALLY obscure ones.
  8. Take the boat trip up the Bosphorus. It’s cheap. It’s relaxing. It’s fun and it’s educational. Take the short trip for a 2hr rest. Take the long one if you want to get as far north as Anadolu Kavagi, but be prepared to eat seafood for a while then.
  9. Go for dinner at Palatium restaurant on Cankurtaran. It was a stunning atmosphere, an amazing meal and an all round great evening. But even more, in their courtyard you can descend into the rooms of the Byzantine Imperial palace.
  10. Simply: stroll. Enjoy the city. The more you wander and meet the people and find the unusual unexpected sites, the more you will fall in love with the place and the people.

And with that now in the bag, here are another 10 reasons to visit:

Arch of Theodosius Fragments 5

Fragments of the Arch of Theodosius

Aya Sofia 14

The Haghia Sophia (Aya Sofya) of Justinian

Basilica Cistern 01

Basilica Cistern (Birbindirek Sarnic)

Blachernae - Palace of Porphyrogenitus 2

Palace of Constantine Porphyrogenitus (Tekfur Saray)

Bosphorus - Rumeli Fortress 9

Rumeli Hisar, the fortress of Europe

Chora church 10

Church of Saint Saviour in Chora (Cariye Camii)

Column of Marcian 2

Triumphal column of the emperor Marcian

Land Walls 14

Reconstructed section of the Land Walls of Theodosius

0041 Hippodrome

The Hippodrome of Constantinople as it is today.

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The Bukoleon palace. Probably my favourite single place in Istanbul…

Written by SJAT

March 22, 2014 at 12:24 am

Unsung sites to visit in Britain

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Here’s a quick Top #5 list of my favourite not generally well-known historical sites in Britain.

#5 – Aesica.

The Roman fort of Great Chesters on Hadrian’s Wall. Not under English Heritage control. Not covered in tourists gawking. Aesica is generally largely empty when I visit. Though the fort has not been excavated in the past century, somewhat dilapidates remains were consolidated after the 19th century excavation and are still visible (sections of wall, gates, internal buildings, the strong room.) Though overgrown and often being grazed by sheep, there is something I find magical and peaceful about Aesica and I always try to visit when I am in the area.

#4 – Jervaulx.

The cistercian ruins of Jervaulx Abbey are among the most evocative and beautiful anywhere in the world. The abbey is privately owned and payment is by honesty box. Again a serenely fantastic place. Go there early or late and you will likely be alone, which is the best way to wander among the breathtaking ruins. Combine a visit with a trip to the nearby Brymor Ice Cream place and you have the makings of an unforgettable day.

#3 – Whorlton Castle.

Close to the North Yorkshire Moors, near the A19 there is a hill covered in trees. From a certain angle on the road, you can catch a glimpse of the gatehouse of Whorlton castle. Turn off the road and pass through the village and go find it. Most of the castle lies as sad rubble at ground level among the tree roots, though the gate house stands proud and impressive. You will likely be alone to explore this absorbing little hill. Just down the lane is also a partially ruined church. A magical find.

#2 – Newminster Abbey.

Hardly anything remains of Newminster, standing buried in and entwined by the woods on the edge of Morpeth, Northumberland. A few small arcades, the occasional arch, scattered stonework across the ground. It is not easy to get to and therefore is rarely visited. Make the effort to climb the styles and cross the boggy ground, though. You will never find a more magical site than this. There is sommething almost fantasy, Elvish even about the arches and the tree roots. The place sends a shiver up my spine. Photograph courtesy of timojazz on flickr:

#1 – Hardknot.

The Roman name of this fort high on a mountain pass in the Lake District is not known. The fort seems to have been used for only 20 years. The walls are well preserved (with a little reconstructive help.) There are remains of various internal buildings, extramural baths, and even a parade ground with viewing mound that is higher up the hillside and requires a very wet, soggy climb. The fort is lovely, but it is the situation that really makes this something special and probably my #1 site to visit in Britain:

Written by SJAT

September 28, 2011 at 2:42 pm

Posted in Travel

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Are you a pole-vaulter? No, I’m a German… and how did you know my name was Walter?

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So for those of you who didn’t know, we were away recently for a week in Poland. Although we generally treated it like a holiday, we were there primarily with all wifey’s family to be at my brother in law’s wedding to the most fantastic Polish lass. So, before I go any further, if you’re holding a glass, raise it to Garry and Agnieszka. Most of this entry is photos, so beware, those of you still residing in 1989 with dialup connections! I have deliberately avoided shots of the wedding and reception and happy couple with one nicely anonymous exception, for their privacy. Click on the photo for more details. Here we go:

Written by SJAT

September 6, 2011 at 3:39 pm

Posted in Travel

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City of dreams and dust

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Now that blog title deserves to be the title of a novel if anything ever did.

Today I bring you a dream once again; not a funny post this time, but I think you’ll like it. Only occasionally do I remember a dream well enough to detail it hours after waking. But this? This was was fab and one day will likely be a location in a book I write. It’s so vivid and fantastic. I’ll give you the background to begin with.

In this dream I was on holiday in Tunisia and exploring an ancient city (still inhabited, but with many ancient things) alongside my dad and several other people. So the scene is set. I don’t know how vividly I’m going to be able to paint this, so bear with me.

(Note. I see, reading back before publishing, that I seem to leap tense an viewpoints a few times. I thought about correcting this, but this is not a novel. This is a dream, and should be a little disjointed and confused, so I leave/left/will leave this as it is, with all its faults.)

I shall now give you the guided tour of this mysterious dream city as I experienced it. Approaching along the gorge, the first impression is amazing. To either side the cliffs rise to impressive heights and there is a wide area before the town. The valley floor descends from a saddle, so you are looking down a slope at this. Like a giant low cylinder, inaccessible rocky cliffs rise in the centre with a city nestled on top. Just visible down the gorge to the left of it is an area of raised ground, like a step on the side of the cliff, on the top of which a well-preserved Byzantine theatre sits in dusty ruined glory. Getting to it will involve some climbing, but we are determined.

So. A is the first approach. Imagine a cross between these three but all jammed in a deep ravine.

Hopefully you’re getting something of the impression that I had. Imagine it now very brown and dusty, as one might imagine such a place in the mountains of central Tunisia.

We then make our way round the left ravine beneath the cliff upon which sits the town itself towards the theatre (B). I’m finding it hard to find a way to describe the theatre. Most of you will know what an ancient theatre looks like, I’m sure. So, to help, the closest I can picture in the real world to this monument is this:

After exploring the theatre, we travel round the back of the town, ignoring for now the narrow ascent, and to what you might consider the ‘opposite corner’. Here there is a waterfall (C). The water pours out of a hole in the cliff above, as though from an underground passage higher up than we are. Ther waterfall flows from here as a narrow river down the side of the ravine that we haven’t yet seen and disappears out into the valley However, at the base of the waterfall is a covered walkway that goes beneath and behind the waterfall. Here is the best impression I can manage of this:

And this is when it got kind of breathtaking. Behind the waterfall (D on the map) was a massive cave (there may have been a small hole in the centre high up open to the light now that I think about it) but mostly it felt like being in a cave, though it was quite bright inside. And the best bit? The cave was a huge, calm lake formed from the waterfall. Clear and glassy, it reflected and made gently lapping noises. And from the waterfall, the covered walkway continued across the lake on stilts until at the centre it became a wide, circular wooden covered pavillion surrounded by blue, almost glowing water. I give you the following to try and help create the impression:

Not, of course, meant be accurate, but to give you the feel and nudge you in the direction of the right impression. The interior of the pavillion was lit by lanterns and was decorative and beautifully peaceful. I was sort of sad to leave, while being excited because there was so much still to see.

We make our way back out past the waterfall and into the barren, brown, dusty heat. Now we backtrack, ignoring the narrow river, and to the ascent (E) that we passed on the way to the waterfall. This ascent is narrow and rocky and stepped. Clearly there were never any vehicles in the town. Nothing could reach it except on foot. It was a heck of a climb. Fof some reason my vertigo is not an issue here. This is as good an impression of the path as I can manage

Once at the plateau, we finally reach the town itself. Because the top is uneven, it is a maze of narrow streets and alleys with roofs sticking up between trees. The path we are (F) on appears to follow the top of a wall from where the ascent ends. There are numerous ways off this high path and down into the town. Sadly, we do not descend into the place itself. I’m not sure whether this was because of time constraints. I have the feeling it was possibly because of the danger of getting lost in the maze of paths and not being able to find one of only two exits from the town.

We stop briefly above the roofs to look down on G. G is a massive roof of Byzantine date, which is, in fact a great cistern that stores the rain water (and probably water carried by bucket and rope mechanism from the river below) and that feeds the entire town. This cistern is our only side trip from the wall, as it can be reached without going into the streets and we go to examine it before climbing back up to the wall. This is a composite collection to give you an impression of the town, its buildings, the wall, the cistern etc. Just gaze at them and let the feeling settle over you. Nice, isn’t it?

Sadly, once we reach the end of the wall-walk, what lies at the far end is another precipitous descent(H); the other exit from the town. Bidding a fond farewell and with a last, longing, glance across the rooftops, we begin to climb down. Once we reach the ground level once again, close to the narrow river, which we follow out of the ravine and back into the wider valley.

As dreams go, this one ranks up among my absolute all-time favourites. And I can still remember every last detail so clearly. Amazing.

Don’t you want to go there for real? When I have finished Dark Empress, and then likely Marius’ Mules III, I have several possible projects lined up, including a children’s book and one called Legion 23. However, I may have to shoehorn in another project in order to use this place. It’s just too amazing to waste. This is the third day in a row when my unconscious mind has told me I need to travel again. Wanderlust is now invading my dreams also.

Hope you enjoyed your virtual tour. Have a good weekend everyone.

For reference, the locations used to give impressions here include many that I just don’t really know, but also Constantine’s Basilica in Trier, Istanbul’s Cisterns, a ruined Armenian Cathedral, the walls of Girona, the paths at Masada, the Meteora monasteries, Petra’s theatre, and the Casale Rotondo near Rome.

Written by SJAT

January 14, 2011 at 12:44 pm