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Posts Tagged ‘Viking

Winter’s Fire

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Winter’s Fire is almost certainly my favourite Giles Kristian book so far, and that’s no mean feat, since I generally find the second book in a series to be the poorer cousin. Mind you, this might be the second book in Sigurd’s rise, but realistically it’s the fifth novel he’s written in the ongoing Sigurd and Raven series. Is it good? Let’s just say I spent this afternoon making Viking-based jokes and comments around Ripon and singing ‘Fimbrulvinter, fimbrulvinter’ to the tune of Spongebob Squarepants. Oddly, nobody asked me why, so I never got the chance to explain that Winter’s Fire is released today.

I really enjoyed God of Vengeance last year, especially following the somewhat dark and heavy Brothers’ Fury, and was more than pleased to be back in Kristian’s vision of the Viking world. And Winter’s Fire continues that tale perfectly. But there are subtle differences. Because this is not the disastrous cause of Sigurd’s vengeance, but part of his journey, there is less need for doom-laden anguish in this book and more room for humour. In that respect it reminds me more of the original Raven books than its immediate predecessor. There is more humour and adventurous yarn-weaving here than in the previous book, and that is very welcome to me. Historical fiction takes itself rather too seriously at times, and it is nice to be able to laugh at a fart gag from time to time. After all, we’re all mentally 12 when you come down to it.

Kristian’s skill as a storyteller and constructor of plots is notable with this book for one reason in particular to me. Like The Empire Strikes Back (yes, I return to my usual trilogy comparison) Winter’s Fire does not tell a focused story which ties up tight at the end. It roves as a plot, with tendrils reaching out in different areas, introducing new elements and bringing old ones back. Indeed, from part way through the book, we are given an entirely new thread to follow as Sigurd’s sister’s own tale becomes as important as a central theme as his. And the story kind of ends (minor spoiler I guess) on something of a cliffhanger, in the old fashioned weekly adventure serial style. How will the hero get out of this? And yet, despite the apparent disparate nature of the plot, it just works. It reads beautifully, it feels like a tale that grows, then focuses, then comes to a satisfactory conclusion. Indeed, as I said, it is, I think, my fave of his works thus far.

The story follows Sigurd and his motley crew as they prepare for the backlash of his killing of Jarl Randver in the previous book. He knows King Gorm will come for him, or send men to do so. And with his Odin Favour he manages to slip the net, of course, and set off on a new epic. But what he doesn’t know is that a new villain has promised the treacherous king that he will take Sigurd’s life. Thus begins a series of seemingly random events that will send Sigurd into the service of a King and a Jarl he’s never heard of and his sister Runa into the arms of a religious sisterhood the like of which we would love to see armed to the teeth and paying a visit to ISIS. Threads you could almost forget from early in the book will come into play near the end.

Moreover, as well as the usual crew, who we know and love from other books, there are several new and exciting characters brought forth in this book. The villain, who you will soon identify, is a true, chilling, evil bastard. He is not the common or garden villain that Randver was. This fellow is a truly unpleasant piece of work. You’ll love him. You’ll hate him. You’ll love to hate him. And the former champion of King Gorm? Well, I’ll let you discover that on your own. And the seidr-wife? Well she is just too cool.

I could go on for hours. The fact is that this book will almost certainly be in my year’s top 10 in December. It’s a work of the skald’s art. It came out today. That means you can have it on your e-reader or in the mail to you within the minute if you just open a new tab. Do it. Just go do it. It’s a win in every way. Kristian has been in the top tier of historical and adventure writers for years, but he’s just upped his game again.

Written by SJAT

April 7, 2016 at 10:21 pm

Fire and Steel

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Fire-and-Steel

Now here’s the thing. The Dark Ages bore me. As a historical period I find it generally mundane and uninteresting. As the subject for books and movies it holds little more interest. Not, for some odd reason, Vikings, by the way. Vikings oddly interest me. But all the thousand mud-dwelling peoples that flit around NW Europe between 410 and 1066? Yawn.

Saying that, every now and then there’s something set in the era that interests me.

Fire and Steel manages – and this is critical for me – to avoid the pit falls and cliches that plague the era. And, given the fact that the book references both Arthur (as in KING Arthur) and Beowulf, it’s pretty impressive managing to stay on track and not make me run for the hills. The Arthurian and Beowulf connections are very subtly handled.

The story is interesting in that it tells the tale (or at least the first part of the tale) of the Angle invasion that to some extent creates a unified English identity and helps forge a nation out of a land that has erstwhile been just fragmented tribes. Apparently this is a spin-off from another series, with one of that series’ side characters as its protagonist, but it’s kind of hard to tell. It works well on its own and while there are moments where the background is probably better fleshed out if you’ve read the others, it is well enough covered that you do not strictly need it.

The battle scenes are well written. Detailed without being ‘info-dump’, graphic without being offensively so. In fact, the latter part of the book is more or less one great battle, with several different scenes. This is portrayed nicely and quite cinematically. The characters are believable and maintain a camaraderie that allows the reader to bond with them. In particular, I was impressed with the naval scenes, right down to the terminology and the clear knowledge behind them. The plot moved along at a good pace, never managing to get bogged down and, if I had a complaint about any of the above it would be that it ends rather suddenly. Not on a cliffhanger, just sort of ‘here’s the army all ready for war. See you next week on Dark Age arse-kickers.’ I guess that will probably niggle me into reading book 2 when it comes out, mind.

My only real trouble with the book is the same one I have with nearly all works set in the Dark Ages. With the exception of the main half dozen characters, I was a little confused about who was being referenced at all times (not the fault of the book, you’ll note, but of me for my inability to cope with Dark Age naming.) Similarly, I was befuddled with the locations and geography to the extent that for a while, during the fighting in Denmark I was under the impression we were in Britain. Again, that’s me. Oddly, I can cope with modern geography (it’s one of my strengths) and I can transpose that very well into and out of Roman geography and Latin naming, but when I get to the Germanic-influenced centuries in between I get lost easily. And I zipped to the maps a few times to try and orient myself, but you know what it’s like on kindle, a bit of a pain in the but flashing back and forth. So that’s my complaint with the book, and you can clearly see that I’m following the age-old rules of breaking up: ‘It’s not you, darling, it’s me.’ So those of you who don’t suffer my utter bewilderment with the Dark Ages will presumably be fine.

Written by SJAT

March 21, 2016 at 4:04 pm

Warriors of the Storm

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For years friends of mine have raved about Cornwell’s Uhtred novels, and I have intended to read the series at some point, but never seemed to find the time. For the record the last Cornwells I read were the Sharpe series back in the day and, though I think I tired a little of the series towards the end, I remember the earlier ones as some of the absolutely best novels I have ever read.

So when I had the opportunity to read an advance copy of the new Cornwell, I had to say yes, didn’t I. I did wonder whether I would really be able to get into the novel, being as it’s book #9 and I have yet to read 1 to 8. No need to worry. From the very first page I remembered why I loved Cornwell’s writing. Warriors of the Storm opens straight to the action, dragging the reader right in. It is filled with the smooth, almost effortlessly absorbing prose that I remember being Cornwell at his best. The descriptive is full and rich, the moments of light-hearted humour beautifully worked.

Set in the early 10th century, the Last Kingdom series is a strange milieu to me. The Dark Ages is a curious era, full of change and uncertainty. A mish-mash of cultures struggle to dominate Britain, from the Saxons and Danes to the Celts and the Scandinavian vikings, many of whom are by this time based in Ireland and Scotland. As a Roman historian, I am to some extent at a loss with 9th-10th century Britain, so this is fresh unfamiliar ground.

However, the bulk of this tale is based in an area I know quite well, that being Chester, the Wirral and surroundings, and to rediscover a place with which I am so familiar (I spend quite a bit of time reenacting there now and research a lot into Roman Deva), thjough in a whole different era, is fascinating.

The book opens as a norse lord (Ragnall Ivarson) who has long been an enemy of Uhtred’s begins an attempt to conquer parts of England. Driven out of his previous territory, this lord and his army sail into the Mersey, which is held by Uhtred, and begin to move inland making a play for invasion and control, holding an ancient hill fort and bridging the river into Northumbria, where a vast supply of potential manpower awaits. Cue a desperate campaign to counter the growing strength of Ivarson, who is related to the English hero through his brother’s marriage to Uhtred’s daughter, so yes, politics is inevitably going to play as much a part here as battle.

My friends rave about Uhtred. This is my first outing with him and, while he is a traditional hero with a particularly nice turn of phrase at times, I wouldn’t say there is much about him that makes him outstanding to me. That didn’t matter, though, because the supporting cast were so vivid and fascinating that I could deal rather easily without a deep fascination with the hero.

Aethelflaed, the daughter of King Alfred who rules Mercia and Wessex, is impressive and powerful, with flaws and uncertainties that make her a far more vivid character than Uhtred. The priests Ceolnoth and Ceolberht were fun and memorable for all their small role, the bishop Leofstan was simply superb, and of Uhtred’s own cadre of warriors, the Irishman Finan was one of the most interesting.

Of course if there is one thing for which Cornwell is noted it is his battles. He has a long pedigree of writing warfare across many eras, and this has over time granted him the ability to do so with pace and panache, never having to linger too much in the gory detail while delving deep enough to hook the reader and really create an impression of the horror, glory, and above all desperation of combat.

The upshot? Great characters, well-written prose, fascinating locations and excellent battle scenes. The plot might have benefitted from a few extra twists and turns, but that is merely icing on a well-made cake. Warriors of the Storm dragged me in and kept me glued to the end. Well worth a read, and now I am shuffling books 1-8 back up in my pile.

Written by SJAT

October 8, 2015 at 9:29 pm

The Terror – Giles Kristian

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It’s a common thing among writers these days to produce short stories between their main works. Heck, I do it myself on occasion. I’ve seen readers range from loving them and lauding them to moaning about them. But the one thing they do whether you approve or not is to allow the author to explore directions that their straightforward book series does not have room for. This is particularly the case with those writers who are published through the major traditional houses, who are more limited by their contracts than the independents.

In this case, Giles has taken an opportunity that would not fit into either his Raven series or his Sigurd series, and produced a tale that takes us back to the youth of Harald, Sigurd’s father. In essence, this is a prequel to the prequels. Moreover, it has a different style to the Sigurd series, in that it is more of a light-hearted adventure tale in the Raven mould than a Nordic saga in the Sigurd one. Giles continues to expand his take on the Viking world, spreading out backwards in time.

Once again, this being a prequel, it can be read independent of Giles’ other books, and would make the perfect taster if you’re not sure that his writing is for you.

The story revolves around a quest followed by a group of young men in the hope of winning the hand of a beautiful girl, the daughter of a Jarl. They must locate and subdue ‘The Terror’ and steal it from its current keeper for their own Jarl. I won’t tell you about The Terror itself. I’ll leave that a surprise for you, but be assured, it’s good. Swimming icy waters, fighting angry warriors, wrestling dangerous creatures, and of course, drinking, swearing, farting and in-fighting, Harald is determined to make a name for himself and win the girl. It is an interesting look at a character we were only given a tantalising glimpse of in God of Vengeance (check out my review of that book on the right-hand panel) and also introduces as a young man one character who runs through every viking work Giles has written thus far. Uncle. That is all.

So, it’s a short story only available as an e-book. It’s a piddly 99p. That’s gotta be worth a dip into the pocket. You can’t buy a sandwich for that, and a sandwich wouldn’t last you as long. Go get it on kindle here.

Going onwards, sorry for a rather sporadic burst of reviews recently. I’ve been beta reading unpublished works and running read throughs of my own joint work and have had little time for leisure reading. That’s changing again now, though, so more reviews to come.

Written by SJAT

November 28, 2014 at 10:23 am

The Oathsworn Series – Robert Low

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rlo

It strikes me that I may have been a little remiss in my reviewing. (Major understatement alert.)

It has been quite some time since I began the literary journey that is Rob Low’s Oathsworn series, and yet at no point have I reviewed them. My bad, Rob. My – as they say – bad…

Time to rectify the situation. You see, I’ve had my copy of Crowbone waiting to be read for ages, and finally, while on my recent research trip, I found the time and got stuck in, which instantly reminded me of why I love this series and spurred me to this blog post.

If you are not already aware of Rob’s work and this series, then allow me to enlighten you (though you may glean some of this from the pics and titles of the 5 book covers above). Robert Low is a Scottish author, rightly renowned for his two series of books: The Kingdom series which deals with the Scottish Wars of Independence under the Bruce, and the Oathsworn series, which follows the misadventures of a Viking crew. Rob is an imposing fellow. He has been involved in Viking reenactment for many years and his build and looks will immediately have you picturing him swinging an axe and shouting imprecations at Loki. He looks like he should write Viking books! And yet, with a varied, fascinating and very literary background, that imposing image is tempered by the discovery that it contains a witty, urbane raconteur, who can entertain a room with merely a look. Given that, imagine what he can do with a tale…

The Oathsworn series is fascinating, in that each book feels like a personal journey of the character involved, truly authentic-feeling and absorbing. They do not feel like novels with carefully constructed plots and intricately built characters. That is not to say that they are not, mind. They just don’t feel like it. They feel like a man’s life being revealed to you once scene at a time. Therein, I think, lies the truly unique nature of these books and what makes them a work of art rather than a series of books. Authenticity in even the feel of the text.

The series follows the life and exploits of one Orm ‘Bear-slayer’, initially a somewhat nervous and reluctant youngster, and I will give a short paragraph about each of the five books here. If you are worried about spoilers or finding anything out too soon, feel free to stop after book 1, or however far you’ve read…

1. THE WHALE ROAD

The first tale of the oathsworn sees Orm’s earliest adventures, in which he earns (doesn’t he?) the name ‘Bear-slayer’ and finds himself taking the Odin oath of the crew of the Fjord Elk under the impressive Einar. If, like me, when you think of Vikings, you think of Scandinavia, Denmark, northern Britain and the islands thereabouts, you’re in for a surprise. The Whale Road takes us in entirely opposite directions, heading to the eastern Baltic and European Russia. Here you will learn a great deal about the Vikings that takes you far from the Norwegian raiders you are likely familiar with. Rob’s clear knowledge of the era and the peoples of whom he writes comes through educationally in the book without ever feeling like he is having to teach you. I repeat that the books all feel like a skald’s tale of a man’s life. So, The Whale Road takes us east on a quest to find the ultimate treasure of the age: the silver hoard buried with Attila the Hun. In a tale that nods in the direction of a Viking Indiana Jones, We are on a treasure hunt, on which Orm will lose many friends, make new ones, learn much about himself and grow from a boy into early manhood and ultimately find himself at the very top of the heap, and wishing perhaps that he wasn’t. The book, like most of those that follow, is told in the first person, lending it a real feel of being inside Orm’s head. In essence, book 1 is a treasure hunt, an engrossing read and a powerful debut novel, filled with deceptive priests, witch-women and Odin-oathed raiders.

2. THE WOLF SEA

Now leading the oathsworn and beginning to appreciate what Einar went through, Orm finds himself on a new quest to retrieve his sword, which contains the only ‘map’ to the great silver treasure of Attila. Taken from him by one of the many adversaries who weave in and out of this entire series, Orm and the somewhat depleted Oathsworn crew head south into the great city of Constantinople and beyond, into the deserts of the Levant region. If you never thought of Vikings all over eastern Europe and the Russian steppe, you certainly will never have thought of them in the Syrian desert. But with the villain Starkad and the troublesome priest, Martin, involved, nothing was ever going to be easy. Orm’s first real test as a leader is a brutal one and is perhaps one of the principle reasons that throughout the series, Orm repeatedly attempts to settle and quit the raiding life, though the Norns have a different weaving for him. Book two, then, has moved on from being a treasure hunt into a man-hunt, though there is always the overshadowing presence in the background of that great silver pile that everyone wants and only the Oathsworn can find. Orm has grown up a little, though he is still a young man and probably too young to be in the commanding position that he occupies. Book 2 is a perfect follow-on from book 1, maintaining the same feel, the ongoing threads of the plot and villains from the first, and is an equally absorbing and fascinating read.

3. THE WHITE RAVEN

A book that will always stand out of the series for me simply for being the first appearance of Crowbone! The White Raven picks up several years after book 2 and finds Orm and his Oathsworn settled and attempting a land-bound life. As always, though, Orm’s path is prickly, and the Norns will not allow his thread to stay settled for long. When one of their women is kidnapped, the Oathsworn take to the whale road once more to retrieve her and get more than they bargain for. Retrieving her and freeing the curious young displaced prince of Norway – Crowbone – from enslavement on the way, they soon find themselves once more in Russian (Rus) lands, captured by a powerful prince and facing agonising death unless Orm relents and leads their captor back to that cursed pile of Silver buried with Attila. The third novel finds the crew of the Fjord Elk back on the trail of their first exploits, this time with Orm in charge and grown into a capable leader. With the entertaining and mesmerising character of Crowbone along for the ride, this is the best of the the first four books in my opinion, and sees old familiar faces return for both good and evil, and some new fascinating ones too. The descriptions of the dreadful conditions they face slogging out across the steppe stay with me several books on. While still maintaining the same feel as the first two and fitting seamlessly into the series, White Raven to me represents a step up for the series and shows that the Oathsworn saga has legs for more tales yet without losing any freshness, even merely in the tying up of loose ends. It’s a bravo! opus, this one.

4. THE PROW BEAST

By now the Oathsworn have achieved fame (and/or infamy) across the whole Viking world and the long-suffering and reluctant Orm finds himself and the Oathsworn once more ripped from an attempt at settling and thrown into the action. Orm finds himself responsible for the protection of a queen bearing the unborn heir to the throne of Sweden, only to have an old enemy reappear and ravage and burn his lands, ship and hall, forcing the surviving Oathsworn and their charges and women up into the hills. Soon, though, they are set upon a duel quest to retrieve the young man given to Orm’s foster care by his own Jarl, Brand, and to put an end to that loathesome enemy that has caused all these fresh troubles. This quest will take them away from the sea once more, marching south across eastern Europe, up a dangerous river, rather ‘heart of darkness’ style, not at all sure that they are strong enough to survive it, let alone achieve their goals at the end of it. The Prow Beast is, for me, the bleakest of the Oathsworn books and, while just as well written and absorbing as its predecessors, I found it a little harder to read because of the unremitting unpleasantness of the plot and the Oathsworn’s position. The light that shines in this darkness, though, is once more the inclusion of the excellent Crowbone character. A strong read, if bleak, and a perfect continuation of the series.

5. CROWBONE

And so we come to the (currently) last book in the series. Crowbone is something of a departure for Rob’s Oathsworn. While officially the 5th book in the series, it feels more like the first book in a new series that is perhaps a spin-off, or a sequel series? Not only does this book focus (as the title suggests) on Crowbone, with Orm as more of a supporting character, it is also written in the third person instead of the first, which gives it a very different feel. To be honest, it makes it a much easier and powerful read, if it perhaps loses a fraction of the depth of feeling that the others had. Having read that sentence back, it looks to me as though I’m criticising it or putting it down in some way. I’m not. Quite simply, Crowbone is now my favourite Oathsworn book. It grabs the reader by the eyeballs and drags them headlong through the action. This novel focuses on prince Olaf of Norway (aka Crowbone) who is now grown to young manhood and seeks the axe of Eirik Bloodaxe to affirm his right to the throne currently occupied by a usurper. Crowbone is one of the Oathsworn, but now, the older, wiser and very self-assured Orm places the young man in command of a ship of his own and sends him off on a quest for the axe. The action here continually switches between three groups all on the same quest and racing for the prize: The Oathsworn of Prince Crowbone, the crew of another would-be-King of Norway – the dispossessed son of Eirik Bloodaxe, and a group of killers accompanying the Oathsworn’s oldest antagonist – the despicable priest Martin of Hammaburg. Yes, there are three crews belting around the Baltic, the North Sea and the Irish sea this time, visiting Ireland, Mann, Orkney, the coast of Continental Europe and finally into Arctic Finland. And in between, we are occasionally treated to scenes of Orm and his men. This is both a race to a prize and a coming-of-age story for young Crowbone, who is driven to depths that actually distressed me a little and made me dislike the man at times. Crowbone maintains the power and the authenticity of the first four Oathsworn books, but throws in new elements and a fresh, ‘headlong rush’ feel. It is at the same time a wonderful continuation and a bright departure. It is simply a great read.

* * *

And now for a few more notes on the series as a whole:

 

Characters. There is a high body count in this series. It is wise not to get too attached to any crewmember. It’s been a while since I read the earlier books, but a few characters still stand out, such as Einar and particularly Gunnar Raudi. But as the series develops, even ignoring Orm and Crowbone, there are some truly awesome characters that fill the rowing places of the Fjord Elk. Red Njal will always be a favourite character, as will Finn and his sword, The Godi. The supporting cast changes often and die with astonishing regularity, but there are always strong characters in there, and you will doubtless find a few favourites, as I did.

Watch out! If you are of a nervous disposition, you might want to skip the series. The Oathsworn books are truly violent and pull no punches in terms of gore, the unseemly activities of sea raiders and even their language. That’s just my stock warning. This lack of pulling punches is part of what gives the series its power and feeling of authenticity. If you’re happy to read about axes in heads, the rapine of seafaring peoples and lines like ‘Row, f**k your mothers!’ then read on and enjoy. I did.

Just like the rolling supporting cast, over five books the series develops a number of villains, some of whom are brief, while others are a continual thorn in Orm’s side. To be honest, somewhere in the middle of the series there were beginning to be enough of them that I had to concentrate a bit to remember who was who when the bad guys came burning, kidnapping and causing trouble. But the most important ones stand out as loathesome and despicable, and you’ll get to exercise your ‘hate muscle’ a little. Mind you, given the normal life and activities of the Viking raiding party, you might occasionally wonder whether the good guys are actually any better than their enemies. After all, they’re all just people really. The greying of morals is again part of what gives the books their feeling of authenticity.

The Fjord Elk. Get ready for the Oathsworn’s ship. You remember the USS Enterprise? How many times have Kirk or Picard blown it up or crashed it? And yet there’s always a new Enterprise to be built and christened, flown into danger and then blown up again? Then you’ll be right at home. The Fjord Elk is a name, not a ship. It gets passed on with every new vessel that bears Orm’s prow beast. The Oathsworn’s ships have a terrible habit of being burned, sunk or otherwise wrecked.

Right. I think that about covers it. What a long impromptu post. If I’ve not persuaded you to try the Oathsworn, then I bow to your resistance. Orm and Crowbone’s adventures deserve your attention. Give them a read, I urge you.

And now, back to some writing of my own.

Vengeance is here

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gov

Remember Raven? Well you should do! Giles Kristian’s debut book and the series that followed were ground-breaking for me, being the first Viking novels I had read. They had all the action, excitement and fur-wrapped adventure – with frozen snot in your beard – as a reader could hope.

Then Giles stopped (or more accurately paused) the Viking writing to delve into the world of the English Civil War with The Bleeding Land, which was one of the deepest, most harrowing pieces of historical fiction I ever read. A sequel spawned to that, and here was I awaiting the third of those novels. But no. Giles is of Norwegian descent and clearly he was, to quote a famous scene, pining for the fjords. As a surprise, instead of a third civil war novel, or even a fourth Raven one, we are given… (insert drumroll here) A PREQUEL!

Enter God of Vengeance. For those of you who haven’t read the Raven books, you’re in luck. This could be read without any prior knowledge. In fact perhaps it would even be better. For those who have, this novel tells the tale of our Raven fave Sigurd as a young man and treats us to his introduction to several of the solid characters who will make up his crew in Raven (including the excellent Black Floki.)

Sigurd is too young to accompany his father to war as part of King Gorm’s war on the rebel Jarl Randver. Instead he travels to a clifftop with family and friends to watch the sea battle unfold. To his horror, instead of seeing his father win easy glory, he watches as King Gorm betrays his father and the three ships are overwhelmed.

Thus begins Sigurd’s saga and a new series for Giles as the Odin-favoured wily hero, betrayed, orphaned and homeless sets out with the few survivors of his father’s oath-sworn to form a band of warriors – based upon a Gods-sent vision – in order to seek revenge on his enemies and regain his  honour. Ranging around a relatively small region of the western coast of Norway, Sigurd will wade through blood if he must to achieve his goal.

One of the surprising things about this book is the inclusion of a strong female character. Strong females are not all that common in ancient-medieval fiction anyway, and in the Viking world perhaps even less common. This shield maiden is a welcome addition to the cast.

The thing I will say above anything that recommends this book is the writing. Giles’ early works were very action/adventure, in the best possible way, while his civil war saga has  been harrowing and dark and emotional. God of Vengeance seems to draw on both sides of his writing to create a new, different style. It has the feel of a traditional Viking Saga. The wordsmithing in it is fine and authentic-feeling, and it will transport you right back to the era. Giles has moved on from being a storyteller of the highest calibre to being  a true Skald.

God of Vengeance is out today and if you loved Sigurd as the supporting character of Raven, you’ll LOVE him as the hero of his own saga.

Buy it today.

Written by SJAT

April 24, 2014 at 8:00 am

Hereward: End of Days

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I have to say, of course, that I review this – even after three books on Hereward – as something of a layman. It’s not an era I am familiar with, and I know little of Hereward other than vague connections between the name and rebellions in the days of the early English. By the time I got to the 3rd book, though, I have to admit it was pretty obvious that the series could not have a happy ending. Though I don’t know the history of Hereward, I do know that William the Conqueror founded a dynasty of Kings and his rule passed from his hands into other legitimate successors, not the bloodied ones of East Anglian rebels. So to some extent the ending was a foregone conclusion.

That doesn’t necessarily matter, of course. Gladiator is a great story. We all knew it had a doomed ending, but that made it no less poignant or exciting. Braveheart was a foregone conclusion, but still stirred the blood. The story of Spartacus can hardly have a happy ending, but that didn’t stop Ben Kane writing a damn good tale about him. Because sometimes the doomed hero is the best tale.

Hereward book 1 was a strong story, and only dropped a star on my review due to the almost superhero-powerful nature of the protagonist. However, it was still a storming tale, and book 2 only improved matters, deepening the character and the plot together. Book 3 concludes the tale of Hereward’s resistance to the Normans in great power, style and character. Indeed, by this time, the hero is such an excellent character and so absorbing for the reader that we truly care about him, which makes the doom of the ending we know is to come all the more powerful.

Despite going into the book with a sense of gloom as I thought I knew what must happen, I was constantly surprised by the fact that the English actually were winning! Hereward and his chums were bloodying the nose of the Conqueror and winning the fight. I had one of those moments where I wondered whether Wilde had diverged from clear history and done a Tarantino, Inglorious Basterds thing, having Hereward somehow win! And then everything went piriform as I expected it to from the start, but only due to unforeseen (and also unreported due to spoilers) circumstances. And even though towards the end of the book, it was once more obvious things could not end all hunky dorey, still Wilde had a number of surprises for me. Indeed, the ending really came at me out of the blue. Unexpected. And fab.

Basically, by this book, Wilde’s writing style has really hit the perfect stride and his characters are now well rounded and believable, even the new creations. And that leads me to Deda. ‘Nuff said. Deda should have a book of his own, James, as should Kraki. Bear that in mind, when thinking of your next project.

End of Days is full of action and bloodshed, subterfuge and trickery, murder and flight, treason and negotiation. Grit your teeth at the action in the swamps (as superb as it was in book 2). Wonder at the power of the Conqueror, who is every bit the match for Hereward. And love the book for what it is: a superb conclusion of a tale that should have been told long ago. It is, in short, a bloody marvel.

Raven Saga

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*Reposted to replace lost posts from 2012*

r1

I was doubly surprised by Raven. I bought it, in all fairness, because I’d spoken to Giles on twitter – he’s a really nice fella – and it had a cool cover. There. Admission of guilt.

I’ve got 3 viking sagas sat in my bookshelves, all unread, because I obsess over the Roman era and I have trouble with Viking culture, because I’ve always thought they didn’t have one. So it took me a long time to get around to braving Raven. So that was my first stumbling block: not been keen to launch into viking tales.

Moreover, opening the book, I discovered that it’s written in first person perspective. I’m not a lover of such. I find that I can read most genres and even novels that are hard work if they’re in 3rd person, but they have to be exceptional for me to bother in first person. Stumbling block 2.

I started reading Raven, teeth gritted against the perspective, expectations of cultural interest low, but knowing that the author is an articulate, intelligent and pleasant man. Thus I persevered… until page 2.

As soon as I turned the page it was no longer a matter of perseverance. I was quite simply hooked. All my expectations, worries and niggling doubts vanished and by the 2nd chapter I was rethinking my attitude to the viking era in general. You see, though I had little interest in the whole Viking thing, it turns out that I love them, but had forgotten it, locking it away deep inside with a label saying: to be opened when you’re busy arrogantly pigeon-holing things. Suddenly I remembered Kirk Douglas as Einar in the Vikings. Suddenly I was remembering Asterix and the Normans. Suddenly I was back by the campfire in the Thirteenth Warrior, listening to the twelve norsemen boast. It turns out that I was blinkering myself.

Raven is an engrossing story, surprisingly taking place mostly on land, despite the longboats in early play. As much of the tale revolves around their Saxon victims/allies/acquaintances in Britain as it does around the norsemen. Raven himself is a fascinating character, built in many layers and continuing to acquire them as the story progresses. The other characters are equally strong: Sigurd the great Jarl, Olaf the second in command, Black Floki (my personal fave) and a cast of many glittering folk. There are twists, magnificent actions sequences that will have you shouting for the brotherhood, gruesome scenes of torture and murder, rousing heroic moments, betrayals, love interest… in short everything you could want from the book.

Along with Angus Donald’s Outlaw series, this is one of few series in 1st person perspective that is not only readable, but simply magnificent.

I am currently halfway through the sequel now and finding it every bit as good as the first. In short, Raven was an attitude changing book for me and has opened up a new genre entirely as readable.

Buy Raven and you’ll want to read the others.

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I so enjoyed the first Raven book that I wasted little time launching into the second. It started just as I expected, launching into a continuation of the story from Blood Eye, with just as much ‘oomph’. I was hooked.

However, Sons of Thunder is a different novel. Not what I expected and certainly not just a continuation of the story, though it does do that admirably too.

The first book had been a rip-roaring constant barrage of action and battle, heroics and betrayal, sneak attacks and audacious plans. Sons of Thunder built for only a couple of chapters on the same theme before sweeping all the plans from the table with surprise actions and decisions by the principal characters.

Suddenly I found I was reading more of an epic journey than an action fest. The story slowed into a languid, highly atmospheric and often tense journey, bringing the reader into an intimate understanding of what life would be like among the brotherhood of Sword-Norse aboard their dragon ships. I will say straight away that this was a surprise direction as far as I was concerned for the story to take, though in no bad way. Indeed, it lent a new freshness and interest to the tale.

I did, however, wonder really where the tale was going to go. I found myself thinking ahead and trying to see how the story might pan out, never quite able to work it all out.

And then, again, somewhere around two thirds of the way through the book, the direction changed once more, and suddenly the pace was breakneck, every bit as exciting and action-packed as Blood Eye. Indeed, I would say that Giles packed into a third of this book as much excitement as there had been in the first novel of the series, an achievement for which I doff my cap to him.

The story leaps and turns and twists in so many unexpected ways that I find it hard to describe how much I enjoyed it, and it builds to the very end to a moment that will be a defining one in the saga for me; one of those ‘Lo, there do I see my father’ moments from 13th Warrior (thanks Giles). It sets up the third tale beautifully and makes it almost impossible to pause before launching into that book (which I have just done).

The characters continue to entertain and build, some departing their life in appropriate manners, other previous unknowns coming to the fore. Raven himself continues to become stronger and more sure, and my personal fave remains Floki.

The highlight of the book for me was (without spoilers) the manner in which the Norsemen reacted and adapted to what was, for them, a thoroughly alien environment. It was masterfully done.

Now: On with Odin’s Wolves…

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So now I have come to the end of the Raven saga and it leaves me feeling a little sad. Perhaps some time, after his new series has been fully aired, Giles might return and write another Raven story. I hope so.

Each of the Raven books has followed beautifully from its previous bedfellow and has progressed the general tale and the growth of Raven himself, but also each of the books has a very individual character and addresses different themes, issues and emotions.

Odin’s Wolves opens with the wolfpack already off the coast of Portugal on their way to the great city of Constantinople. The first third-to half of the books is to some extent a fascinating travellogue of the western Mediterranean as seen through a baffled Norseman’s eyes.

Indeed, approaching half way through the book, I wondered whether that was the form the book would take.

But then they reached Rome and the real plot truly kicked in and picked up pace. I won’t ruin the plot for you, but where the second Raven novel fitted all the action and adventure of the first into just the latter half of the second, this does the same, but even better, with a tight, well-defined, clever and believable plot, foreshadowing the creation one day of the infamous Varangian Guard.

As a Roman/Byzantine nut, it fascinated me and I couldn’t spot a thing out of place.

But despite everything: the ‘Das-Boot’ tension of the run through the Hellespont, the crumbling glory of Rome, the beauty of the Bucoleon palace (one of my favourite places I have ever walked), the fights, the tricks and the glory… the thing that strikes me most about Odin’s Wolves was the growth and changes in the characters, which were subtle, clever, and helped weave the plot. It was this that led me to conclude that Giles hit his perfect stride in this book. Given that, I cannot wait to read The Bleeding Land.

Bravo again. Odin’s Wolves is a masterpiece

Written by SJAT

May 11, 2012 at 9:24 am

Interesting People

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Today I have little to report, so I have instead decided to name 10 people in history that fascinate me. The interesting thing is that none of these people are figures that I knew all about because they were famous, but rather are people that I’ve found out about accidentally and become fascinated as a result.

Philip II of Macedon.

You see everyone knows about Alexander the Great, but fewer know much about his father. And yet, in reading a book a long time ago on Alexander, I came to the conclusion that I prefer his father and find him much more interesting. Philip was a third son of the King of Macedon and spent his entire youth in captivity in Greece. Yet at 22, he returned home, turned the almost collapsed heap that was Macedon once more into a powerful Kingdom, fought back the enemies that threatened it, reorganised the army such that it became the most powerful military machine in the world at that time, and conquered the whole of Greece. If he had not been assassinated by a bodyguard, what could he have achieved. Alexander may be more famous, but without Philip’s groundwork, he’d never have achieved what he did.

William Plunkett

In the belief that the story is true, Plunkett was a highwayman in the early 18th century (see him played by Robert Carlyle in the movie .Plunkett & MacLeane’. The thing about him that fascinates me though, is that he survived, emigrated to America and, according to at least one account, ended up as a colonel fighting for independence against England in 1776. That’s quite a fascinating end for a poor English criminal, eh?

Guzman the Good

Alonso de Guzman. First ever heard of him when I visited Tarifa in Spain many years ago. He is remembered there as a great hero in the mould of El Cid. Guzman was charged by the King with defending Tarifa castle against the moors. His son was held captive by the King’s brother who sided with the Moors and the Prince threatened to kill Guzman’s son unless he surrendered the castle. Guzman said that he would not allow himself to betray his country and that if the Prince killed the boy, he would just damn himself and heap honour on both of them. He even threw his own knife down to them to do it with because it was an untarnished Christian blade. This is a man who put honour above everything. Such people are rare.

Harald Hardrada

Heard of him? Probably not. He was a viking in the 11th century. However (and I think I’ve talked about him before) he lived the most amazing life before dying in battle only 30 miles from where I sit. Though you probably think of vikings as hairy barbarians who lived in the icy north, Harald fought all across eastern europe, making a name for himself, served as an officer in the Varangian bodyguard of the Byzantine Emperor in Constantinople, was imprisoned and escaped, fled to Russia where he married a Russian/Swedish princess, became King Harald III of Norway, conquered Denmark for a time, founded the city of Oslo, and invaded England, dying at the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 where he was defeated by Harold II of England, who then had to rush south to fight the battle of Hastings against William the Bastard less than 3 weeks later. Had the battle gone the other way, we would have grown as a Scandinavian country rather than a middle European one. Harald is widely regarded as the last great Viking and with him, the Viking age passes.

Robert de Brus

The one I’m talking about isn’t the famous Bruce who was King of Scotland and featured in Braveheart, but his dad. The de Brus (or Bruce) family are good Yorkshire folk from near me. They founded the priory at Guisborough and only became involved in Scotland when one of them was made Lord of Annandale. The 6th Lord (the one I’m talking of) fought in the Holy Land during the 9th Crusade, helped the English King Edward I crush Wales, and finally took part in the first war of Scottish Independence, on the side of the English! Yes, the father of the man who became King Robert the Bruce and the greatest symbol of Scottish independence, fought against Saracens, Welshmen and Scots all on behalf of the English, and was from a Norman-French family who settled in northern England.

Gnaeus Julius Agricola

Agricola is a well-known name among Roman historians, though many of you will never have heard of him. He was a general under the Emperors Nero, Vespasian, Titus and Domitian. He was the uncle of the great writer Tacitus, who wrote his biography. Agricola was governor of Britain for a time, is responsible for some of the great roads of the province, built the Stanegate line, the precursor for Hadrian’s Wall, conquered the rebellious north, actually beat the Scots and pacified Scotland (though it was subsequently abandoned) and may indeed have even briefly invaded Ireland. His success and reputation were so great that the Emperor eventually had him recalled and shuffled into retirement, Tacitus suggests because his achievements were outshining the Emperor’s. And yet despite a life of military campaigns, involvment with the Boudiccan revolt, the civil war in Rome in 69, and irritating an Emperor not known for his patience, he died peacefully on his estate in the end.

John Lilburne

Freeborn John. He’s actually very important and deserves to be more famous than he is. I’d never heard of him until wifey and I went to see a ‘folk opera’ called Freeborn John in 2008, starring New Model Army, the Levellers, Maddy Prior and Rev Hammer. Since then I have read much of him, and seen him in ‘The Devil’s Whore’ on BBC TV. Lilburne was a radical during the English Civil War. Even back in the 17th century, John espoused the ‘freeborn rights’ of man. He was repeatedly jailed, punished and tried for illegal pamphleting and causing disturbances. He fought for Parliament in the civil war, but resigned his commission in 1645 because he claimed the army was trying to curb his free rights. He may be considered a member of the ‘Levellers’ movement, though he claimed not.  He drafted three constitutions that were never ratified but have been used as the basis for many great documents since. Finally, he was exiled to the Netherlands, though he returned eventually and was subsequently imprisoned yet again. Finally, his health declined in prison and he died while visiting his pregnant wife. He is remembered as one of the earliest proponents of the rights of man.

Colonel Thomas Blood

You may know that name, but probably not. I had heard of him. Blood is infamous in England as the Irishman who, in the late 17th century, attempted to steal the crown jewels of England. He had been a royalist during the civil war, but had switched sides halfway through to support Cromwell. After the royal restoration, he attempted to kidnap the Duke of Ormonde in Ireland and escaped to the Netherlands when his co-conspirators were caught and executed. He returned as a wanted man and attempted to kill the Duke this time, being foiled once again. Then, in 1671, he, in disguise, ingratiated himself with the keeper of the Tower of London’s crown jewels and as a result, managed to steal them, hammering a crown flat and sawing a sceptre in half for transport! However, he was capture while leaving the castle and the crown jewels retained. Blood was taken before the King where, and this is where he becomes a legend in my eyes, the colonel was cheeky and so engaging that the King discovered he liked the man, pardoned him and gave him land! A familiar figure at court afterwards, he continued to be the same audatious man until he eventually fell ill and passed away a free man, never having served punishment for treason, kidnapping or attempted murder.

Alcibiades

Greek statesman from the 5th century BC. Alcibiades is another of those rogues and scoundrels that I like. He was an Athenian that advocated war against Sparta. However, after he was accused of sacrilege and brought to trial in Athens, he fled to Sparta. In Sparta, he advocated war against Athens and became a general. However, he pissed off important people in Sparta and ended up having to run away again, this time to Persia, enemy of all the Greek states. Here, he became a military advisor to Persia until Athens cleared his name and invited him back (not sure why!) He served once again as an Athenian general before being exiled. He was once more on his way to seek refuge with Persia when he died, possibly at the hands of Spartans. Alcibiades is the ancient Greek pinball.

Charles Piazzi Smyth

My final choice is local for me. He is buried in a churchyard in a village on the edge of Ripon, my hometown. Smyth is an interesting 19th century man. Born in Naples, he became Astronomer Royal of Scotland, designed a tent with an attached groundsheet, wrote a book about his travels to Tenerife, travelled to Egypt and became a ‘pyramidologist’ and is buried beneath a small pyramid with a cross on top.

I bet you’ve all got favourite interesting people too eh?

Go on… who are they?