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Review : Warrior of Rome The Amber Road by Harry Sidebottom

The Amber Road (Warrior Of Rome, #6) - Harry Sidebottom

I was hoping for a bit more action this time out. I kind of got it. This time though, we’re fighting a desperate rear-guard action while the pagan hordes are rampaging through Harry Sidebottom’s Roman history books for the year 264. Northern section. The northern pagans are clearly made of sterner stuff than their soft southern counterparts and there’s a lot less musing on phrenology, ancient Greek philosophy (probably) and writing of “Sir, sir! Please sir, tell him!” notes back to The Emperor. Not that you would know if the Roman Post Office worked and T. Emperor got to read the notes, as I can’t remember said notes figuring in the stories at all after the eunuch writing them had written them… Anyway that loose end aside – we are now travelling through the lands of The North. Up through what is now Germany, to the coast, over to what is now Denmark. What it was called then, he tells us, but even having lived here for ten years, the names, I can pretty much stake my reputation as a gentleman and a scholar on – I’ve never come across. If I wasn’t looking at the map at the front, he could be talking about areas on the Moon, for all I’d know. All the tribes they go past or meet on their journey, or even are in the same timezone as, we get names, chapter and verse on. Unfortunately, in the end and in what were probably battles vital to the story, I got lost amid all the obscure ancient tribes and Roman Romans. I pretty much also forgot who was fighting who and where. Not a good sign.

 

That leads to what has has bugged me with the whole series really, so many Latin words. Yeah ok, we’re dealing with the Romans and they spoke Latin. Problem is, we don’t. We are reading, he is writing here, in English. I criticised previous books for dropping in Latin words, two or three a time in sentences and then having to explain them, in the same sentence, as breaking up the action into irritation. Here, or in the last two in the ‘Warrior of Rome’ series anyway, he’s just been using the Latin words for just about everything. No explanation I can see. Clearly, we’re supposed to have learned by now. Only, the dog ate my homework, sir! Like writing half the book in a foreign language (!). Becomes meaningless. Comes between me and enjoying the story. I’m not praising ignorance here, but Ben Kane and Robert Fabbri and Douglas Jackson manage to write perfectly good, best-selling, historically accurate, Roman period books without feeling the need to do the same. And I’d hazard a guess their books sell more than HS’s. What do all the Latin words mean? No idea. Are they the right ones for the position, for the period? No idea. Has he made them up? Who knows…actually, maybe he has made them up. Or, they are real Latin words, just don’t mean (Roman Army ranks, etc) what we, in the context of their use in the book, think they do. Probably there are dusty old Latin professors creasing themselves with laughter. As the meaningless to us Latin words actually translate to some hilarious scholarly ‘my dog’s got no nose…’ Latin joke. Could be? Who knows?

 

Ballista, the main character from all the previous Warrior of Rome novels, is still on his mission from (one of) the Roman Emperor(s) to ’somewhere’ up on the northern edge of the empire. Maybe to seal an alliance with them to, if not help Rome, then not helping the Empire’s enemies. Maybe. Ballista seems all along to have been selected for this job because where he will eventually travel to, is where he is originally from. He travels through many lands and deals with many different tribes and customs on his way to an eventual homecoming. Though he comes home to not exactly a warm welcome. It seems that neither the family or the enemies he left behind, are particularly thrilled to see him, but then he doesn’t seem exactly thrilled to be ‘home’ either.

 

Style wise, Harry goes for brevity. Too much. Too little. Maybe thinking he’s adding weight and atmosphere, but really he manages to leaves out the feeling and involvement. Just hard edges remaining. Doesn’t engage. Then, he mentions ‘iron and rust’ so many times, in this (and the last one), he’s probably guilty of product placement of some sort. What with Iron & Rust being the title of his next ’searing scholarship’ book, you see? I’m guessing this is some sort of commentary on the Roman Empire being – at that point – on the road to ruin, but again, as Ballista has had little to nothing to do with anything Roman in the last two books, it is also pretty much meaningless and isn’t developed in any real sense above being stuck in there several times.

 

And then it ended. Just finished. Two epilogues (no less), but still no getting away from it, it just ended. What about the guy who was unmasked as the serial killer stalking them on their holidays in ancient Russia last time out? They ended that one poised just nicely – on reflection and comparison with this one – to go single-minded off in pursuit of him in this one. But no. A couple of mentions tops, but no bearing on story direction. As the next Sidebottom, Iron and Rust, seems to be a different aspect of Roman history and is set, or at least starts, before the ‘Warrior’ books, in 235 and has nothing to do with Ballista or any kind of resolution of this/his story…very odd thing to do. Maybe HS just got bored, ran out of boring books on ancient tribal names and one day said “no more!” “Well, finish this one off and get on with something else”said the publisher. And that he seems to have done. Buy the first four and leave it there.

The Leopard Sword - Anthony Riches

The Leopard Sword - Anthony Riches, Carolyn Caughey

Once again, be warned - if you’re looking for Jane Austin set in 183AD, you better go find some Jane Austen, or Phillipa Gregory, or…or… You know, the stuff that is basically ‘Mills and Boon’ masquerading as Historical Fiction. For girls. Chick Hist Fic. Lit. Etc.

 

This is the fourth of Anthony Riches’ ‘Empire’ series and the first one to leave Britannia. As the series was clearly originally planned, or commissioned as a trilogy (you read the last chapters of #3 and disagree), I guess it’s natural that he should sell further volumes to the publishers, beginning with a change of scenery. Our Tungrian auxiliaries have left Britannia with the revolting natives seemingly subdued. Or at least the tribes have been put in their place for a while. They are back in what seems to be their original stamping ground in northern Gaul (though I was a little disappointed that more was not made of this being back on home territory). Whilst it is trumpeted as a ‘different world’ in the book blurb, it isn’t really. They’ve basically just swapped one hostile country with another and the antagonists wherever they are, want them gone, dead, preferably both. The Ardennes forest is puffed up to be perhaps a more forbidding place, than the forests of (what is now) Scotland and some of the passages set in the forest are really very excitingly tense. The main difference here, is the nature of their opponent. A bandit, freedom fighter, soldier, chieftain known as ‘Obduro.’ His schtick is that no one (apart from the few close confidants he has) know what he looks like. And those who do know what he looks like, don’t know for long, if you get my meaning? This is because he wears a mask of an iron cavalry helmet at all times he is seen in public. Oh, and has a ‘Leopard Sword.’ Again, that was an interesting development that, despite it being the title of the book, wasn’t really picked up and run with as much as I’d have liked.

 

For all the action has moved, some things remain the same. There is still a rather unhealthy preoccupation with testicles, their own and each other’s. Eyebrows, rising minutely, imperceptibly, quizzically, or noticeably, questioning, are clearly still a Roman soldiers best way of communicating emotion. And Anthony Riches still doesn’t seem to have found an editor with 20/20 vision. Oh, and in the Audible version I listened to, obviously aristocratic Romans have speech impediments and/or are effeminate. The more aristocratic, the worse the impediment, you get the idea.

 

If you liked and enjoyed (as I did/have) the previous trilogy, you’ll find nothing not to enjoy here. It is more of the same, with a few extra dimensions added. A more complex plot, maybe as well. Not exactly complicated, but compared with previous outings, more varied, even nuanced. There are still fights, raids and battles, often to the death, but with a more developed undertone - if I can describe it that way. I’m not going to say it’s better (or worse) for that, compared to what I found most appealing in the first three books, which was their rather more straight-ahead story-telling. The only subterfuge there was the fact that one of their number was (and still is actually) not who he wants it to be known he is. Marcus Valerius Aquilais is, in essence, still in hiding, just hiding in plain sight, with the Tungrian Auxiliaries and now doing it in Tungria. His enemies back in Rome have tried a couple of times to find him, but have been unsuccessful. Not because he has tried to lay low and merge in with the background, quite the opposite. But because his friends have had his back for him, while he constantly throws caution out with the bathwater. None of that gets in the way too much here either. The mystery man ‘Obduro', knows who he is really and knows the consequences for him of the knowledge getting out, but nothing really comes of it apart from some taunting.

 

The idea of the mystery rebel in the face mask, whom no one knows the identity of, even his own fellow rebels, is an intriguing one and is handled pretty well here. However, it could have been better and had perhaps more weight, more punch and been a bigger shock when revealed (who it was) if it hadn’t all been contained within the book. By that I mean, if the masked person had been related to someone or something from the preceding books (hope I’m not giving too much away here), instead of being someone we meet in ‘The Leopard Sword’ and leave in 'The Leopard Sword' (I am nearly through the next book, and there has been no mention, or hint, of anything to do with the masked person in that.

 

Don’t get me wrong, this is an enjoyable thundering bull in a china shop of book. Neither Anthony Riches nor his Tungrians take any prisoners with the style of writing or fighting. I’d say you’re either going to like it or not. I can see opinions being divided quite sharply on this. How many would begin by reading this one, I can’t say. The shift in scenery for the Tungrians would at least give new readers a chance to begin here, as do many of the characters. Long-term readers, will again find themselves on the same familiar ground as the characters are (the Tungrians are back where they came from - you see what I did there?). The question of who will read this book, is easy to answer. Men. I can’t for the life of me think a woman would read this, or if she did so by accident, stick around after the first barrack room exchange or the first description of the preferred interrogation practices of either the barbarians or Romans.

 

It would have had four stars, if the expressing of every conceivable emotion by eyebrows shooting hither and thither around a character’s head, were reduced. Also, strangely for the start of the rest of the series, after the #3 was clearly written to end a trilogy, everything here does all end rather completely and with even less dangling ends, than even 'Fortress of Spears.' Which ended like a trilogy might end, but where the author got the nod from the publisher for more while he was doing the edits. With this ending, I imagined the camera pulling back from the final scene, an unseen, off-camera hand slowly closing the door (you've seen it done), voices inside to fade, and we are left to imagine how the characters' lives continue without us. If I hadn't already bought #5, 6 and 7, with #8 on order, I might go along with the above scenario. But as I have them (apart from #8) sat on the shelf over there, I do find the ending a little more than mystifying. Unless he finished up without knowing if the option for more was going to be taken up. Never mind, go read it, see what you think.

The Fort - Bernard Cornwell

The Fort - Bernard Cornwell

Try as I might - and I tried - I could not get a fix on this one. I couldn’t see to figure out what he wanted to, or was was trying to do, with the book. In the end - and after reading the historical afterword and the back - it seemed most likely that he just wanted to find out about the incident and write down his notes. For himself. Putting his name on it - and it helps if the name you can put on it is Bernard Cornwell of course - and selling it was a bonus.

 

But that doesn’t help us readers, does it?

 

It is about an incident in the American Revolutionary war - against the British, if your history isn’t up to it. The British are building a fort at a place called (back then) Majabigwaduce. Nowadays it’s called Castine. Though that didn’t place it any more for me. In fact, the name Majabigwaduce provided a block on me getting a fix on the book right from the start. Being unable - in your head - to pronounce the place where all the action takes place, is not helpful for, even prevents, creating a bond of any sorts while reading. And a daft name at that. Were it me, I’d have kept with the name it has now and explained the change in the notes.

 

As far as I could gather, it was after the actual revolution, and while there was still some doubt as to where it would go. The attack on the fort set up by the British, was the US’s greatest loss of shipping in wartime, until Pearl Harbour. Or something like that. Many a reputation ruined, some created. The person who comes out of the whole situation - and the book - worst, is Paul Revere. There seems very little point to him at all. Apart from being picked up by an early version US marketing machine, that is. The British are doomed to lose the war, but they win the battle here. Mainly because the US forces are so incompetant. More than they are anyway.

 

And I never did property figure out who was on which side. Who were ‘rebels’ who were ‘loyalists’ as both sides seemed to use the terms about themselves. The Fort skated around looking for a purpose in the first half. Kind of found something to hook onto when the actual attack on the fort began. But then lost its way again. Flashes of ok-ness, but nothing more from then on in. He’s written better.

Review: Of Merchants & Heroes by Paul Waters

Of Merchants & Heroes - Paul Waters

This is one, I thought after I’d finished it, that perhaps would have benefited by having its ‘Historical Note’ at the start. I certainly found it to be a better book looking back at it after having read the Historical Note, than I did while I was actually ploughing through it. Though, I can maybe see why note was placed at the end, not least because some readers may be put off by the information about homosexuality in the ancient Greek and Roman world. Not an easy one to know how to feel about. Because while homosexuality was accepted - hell, even the Spartans encouraged it to build up comradeship - it hasn’t featured at all in any of the Roman epics I’ve read. Ever. Even ones with Greek people in them. The only mention of it I can think of, off the top of my head, is in an Anthony Riches book recently, where a prostitute is described by one of the Centurians as being able to ‘suck cock like a Greek sailor after a week at sea.’ Only a week? And see, it was something the Greeks did. Funny people, the Greeks. Well, never mind…

 

Of Merchants and Heroes is set at the end of the Third Century B.C., towards the end of Rome’s war with Hannibal and Carthage. A young lad called Marcus, goes on a trip to Greece with his father. Their boat, them and the other passengers, is captured by pirates. The boy’s father is killed and a young girl on the boat, decides to kill herself before the pirates can think of other ‘treatments' for her. This seems to have a profound effect upon the young boy. Father dying, hatred of the man who caused it, I can understand. The girl, less so, but there you go. He vows to all sorts of gods, to avenge his father’s death. He then finds his way back to Italy and is taken in by his uncle, a minor business man, who proceeds to marry the boy’s mother, becoming of course, his new father. Marcus is not impressed by his uncle in any way and trains as a soldier. They move to Tarentum in the south where he makes friends with the Praetor’s son, Titus. Praetor dies, son largely takes over. Then, he becomes friends - I forget how - with a vision of Greek perfection, called Menexenos.The story thus far, has essentially been a series of small incidents, chance meetings, accidental observations, potential intrigues, dinner parties and nothing of any real substance after the killing of his father in the early pages.

 

I could go on with all the to-ing and fro-ing between Italy and Greece, mixing business, with pleasure, with being urged to social climb by his father, to training in the gym and walking in the gardens, fields and woods with this Menexenos lad. But I won’t. That’s about all that happens from there on in, until they finally get Philip of Greece (no, not even THAT one) to come out and fight. Let’s face it, what we have here is the long drawn out tale of a love-struck, love-sick, 17-odd-year old, drippy Roman, wandering aimlessly around Italy and Greece mooning after some athletic, god-like Greek boy.

 

It isn’t what I expected, but it isn’t because of that that I found it dull. It isn’t because of the homosexuality not fitting in with my (ancient) world view either. I know it went on, just as it does today, so what? It is dull, because absolutely nothing at all happens in a very, very, v e r y long time. You start off well meaning enough with “OK, this looks like it could be interesting.” Then, “Right, it’s clearly one that takes its time warming up.” To, ”So, what IS this about then? A gay love story, set in ancient Rome and Greece….why? Why set it back then, why not set it now? Ah, yes, ‘Brideshead Revisited’ has already been written.” Through, “Have I missed something? No, I haven’t. It’ll really have to pull it out of the fire in the last 100 pages…actually, even if it does, it’s wasted my time with the first 300! Oh well, only another 100 pages to go…” Finally you finish it off with a thump down on the coffee table and a “Oh, well, at least I got it cheap.” Nothing more.

 

Several times, it seems like he tries to put in something to suggest it is, in case you didn’t notice, something more than it actually is. Late on, when setting off after the pirate who has captured his step-father, he says; “it was the dark anger that had fashioned my life and made me different from other men.” Well, no. From having read the whole thing, there’s very little evidence, apart from a couple of chance meetings or sightings of the pirate that had very little effect on him once they were over, that this pirate has had any effect on him whatsoever. Unless, the pirate DID make him ‘different to other men’? Can’t see it. The incident with the pirate, the girl jumping to her death and the killing of his father, apart from neatly, too neatly, book-ending the story, have had little, to no bearing on the story or his character. The addition of this phrase at the end, smacks of desperation to me. Of the writer admitting he has failed to convey this theme through the story and character development during the book and falling back on realising he's going to have to come out and state it. So we add importance to the story, that really isn't found there.

 

But, wait - let’s now read that ‘Historical Note’…

 

The Historical Note talks of the book's lofty aims and as though they have been achieved. No. But it does help explain some of the waffle I’ve read. So, say we give it a chance, say we read all the way through thinking “what the f@ck?!” Then read the historical note and think “OK, maybe…”

 

There is an interesting air of melancholy, as the Historical Note, erm, notes. Let’s say it's a look at the Greek and Roman worlds on the cusp of change. He is, from the title onwards, comparing the new Roman, with the older Greek, civilisations, the ancient world changing to Merchants, from Heroes. And when contrasted with the Greek, the book finds Roman civilisation distinctly lacking. So, maybe it is showing the end of the simple, but noble - and what we would nowadays almost dismissively call ‘lofty’ - ideals of the Greeks, being given the elbow by the Romans. Rome seems on the edge of its aspirations of Empire, Greece and the Greek ideal, is on the wane. That’s where he’s at, fairly and squarely. For him, the Greeks are philosophers and poets, athletes and warrior heroes, educated by, and the latest in a long line of, philosophers, poets, heroes and athletes. Romans are grubby, dull, penny-pinching merchants and career soldiers. Further more, it does seem to suggest that Rome’s empire building began, or rather gained pace, through a desire to keep any possible enemies at as long an arm’s length from Rome as possible. Sensible enough. The Greek influence, or at least its philosophers and poets (if not its athletic homosexuals), were beginning to find their way to the region’s new centre of power and change Rome’s dour brick buildings to something more artistic that the book can live with. What it can’t live with, is the loss of - what seem to be - Greek ideals of, for instance, art for art’s sake, sport for the love of sport and the pursuit of physical perfection that it both needs and develops. But, like it or not, and the prevailing mood of the book is not to like it overly much, Rome is on the rise. Its message is being spread far and wide through its tradesmen, rather than its artisans. Through merchants and merchandise, rather than ideals and heroes. Roman values you can touch and buy, Greek you can’t. All that.

 

Why the homosexual love story, when a hetrosexual one could well have achieved the above aims just as well? Yeah, he’s in love with this Greek perfection. I get that. Maybe it’s by showing - and it’s most certainly not the ‘bisexuality (that was) ubiquitous in the ancient world,’ our lad Marcus is no way bisexual. He never even looks at a girl after the first few pages. He is full-on gay. Which kind of negates the premise, but never mind - love for love’s sake. That could/does reach across the ‘borders’ subsequently imposed on it at “the end of the classical period.” Maybe that was what he was thinking about while writing all the melancholic meandering.

 

Looked back on in this light, it is indeed possible it did achieve some of its purpose. It’s a pity that you have to wait until the story’s finished to get it. I’m not gonna say it justifies the previous hundreds of pages of Fotherington-Thomas-like ‘Hello clouds, hello sky,’ drifting aimlessly backwards and forwards across the Aegean, but when you have read the Historical Note, it does at least give a little perspective to all the flannel. Some of it, anyway. You can see perhaps why he wanted to write the book. Though not why he forgot to put a story in it. But, take out the homosexual love story - and you’ve got nothing left.

 

I’m going to have to differ with Manda Scott quoted on the cover of my copy, here and say that far from being “A masterpiece that deserves to become one of the classics of historical fiction” this is a monumentally dull, very slight tale, that only gains some measure of respectability, by looking at it in the rearview mirror. I came close to giving up many times, kept hanging on in the hope it was going to get better, but it didn’t. I’m still thinking, despite the oft-stated physical stature and presence and the many descriptions of their stamina and ability with all forms of weaponry - they wouldn't have lasted five minutes with Anthony Riches' motley crew of barely house-trained, roughneck, Tungrian assault troops, freezing their knackers off out there on Hadrian's Wall. Not even four minutes if you started referring to your mate's body as 'perfection', 'god-like' or 'beautiful.' No firm handshakes, beers all round here, that’s for sure.

Review: The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

The Lost Symbol - Dan Brown

It would be a cliché to give Dan Brown a bad review. Like me proving my good-taste blog-writer credentials. Too easy as well. It must be pretty much expected to say a Dan Brown book is poor. Especially so if I was reviewing The Da Vinci Code. Which was actually excellent, if you read it early enough in its incredibly successful life, that is. A real spellbinding thriller - you know it. It was of course, one of the first of that kind of book, but because of all the similar, “me too!”“we want to sell as many as Dan Brown so we’re gonna write one just like it,” “we’ve also got a Dan Brown on our author list and we’re gonna plaster ‘just like/better than Dan Brown!’ all over just about anything we’ve got…”, it got somewhat tainted by the hundreds of poor imitations. I know it’s true, ‘cause I bought half of them!

 

Even though I tried to like The Lost Symbol, because I liked ‘Da Vinci Code’ and didn’t need to, ‘cause I got it free from the ‘estate’, shall we say, of a friend of my father-in-law’s, it disappointed again and again until suddenly it was a disappointment all the way through.

 

How? Why?

 

Lets’s see. Well, first we’ve got a dysfunctional family producing flawed geniuses whose parents died young (And, the mother ‘murdered’? I think you’d have a hard time getting a conviction there, even in an American court). Which is meant to elicit our sympathy and make them believable. Wrong. Eyes shoot to top of head at that hoary old cliché. And gets me thinking; “He thinks that is gonna work? Oh dear, bad start.” Then there’s a fiendish criminal mastermind. Whose fiendish nastiness is supposedly made more fiendishly intolerable, due to his hyper refinement and what we are supposed to presume - not having had access to the amounts of cash he has and is required - is hyper refinement and therefore good taste. Good taste defined purely by the amount of cash things cost. Like footballers believe. And they play football why? Because they were good at football and nothing else. It’s not like it was a choice between Physics Professor at Oxford or playing football, now was it? You know the sort. “That Fabergé egg looks like shit!” “But it’s worth millions!” “That Fabergé egg looks stunningly lovely!” What it boils down to, is that what he thinks is character development, is actually a really exceptionally dull catalogue list and produces a character exactly the same as every other devilish fiend across the house brick-size thriller market.

 

And, all the way through, I can’t think of if Robert Langdon was actually described, physically. Clothes and age, yes, but not what he looks like. So, i’m supposed to think Tom Hanks? And his likeability is supposed to radiate out and have you to like the story. Nope, that didn’t help either. Langdon’s supposed be brilliant at codes and code solving…or is he? I can’t actually remember him solving anything in this book. All the codes are solved by others, or the right way has been directed by others and Langdon has just said ‘yes, that’s right!’ No plot turn is based upon his unique ability to solve codes. Even though he is chosen, by the pantomime villain, as the only person in the world who can solve the riddle. Clearly not true. As Langdon himself says; “You know I didn’t do anything, right?” Or, for the umpteenth time; “I'm not sure I entirely understand it myself." As far as I could see, he didn’t understand anything of what was going on the whole way through. Lord only knows why his rabbit in the headlights character was in the book anyway. They could have managed just as well without him.

 

So, the daughter of dysfunctional family, with genius siblings, genius father, blah, blah, blah, becomes a scientist. A brilliant one, totally dedicated to science, of course; “Science had become her life partner, and her work had proven more fulfilling and exciting than any man could ever hope to be.” ‘Any’ man? Oh get a life! American thriller writers, as I’ve noted so many times, seem to think it gives their characters more credibility, even believability, if they are 100%, black or white, full-on, no compromises, nowhere to go after saying it, totally, dedicated to something at the cost of everything else. Their social lives, their families - if they have one - everything. Grow up! So childish. “I hate you with all my heart!” How old was I when I last said something like that? 6? 7? As if this gives the character a fully-rounded completeness. For the love of God! "Katherine Solomon had read every word Albert Einstein had ever written..." See? All, or nothing. No where to go after saying that. Except for us. We go and question the validity of that statement. It’s meant to say a lot, but says nothing. Did she read the "milk, eggs, marge, jam..." Shopping note Einstein wrote once? I guarantee he did write something like that, and she read it? Or the “pick up dry cleaning, ring plumber" note? No. So she hasn't read every word he had ever written. So why say she had? Why include a demonstrable lie? Face it Dan, it makes Katherine Solomon less believable. If that were even possible.

 

And while we’re on that sort of putting your back up-type of thing. A challenge: Have you ever told anyone, you feel, or have been, ‘nurtured’ by something/anything? Ever? So, why do it? All it does is stop me in my tracks. Stop me reading. Make the reading disjointed. Interrupt the flow that there should be because this is a thriller. It’s supposed to have flow. I suppose he thinks a character who professes to be ‘nurtured’ by something or someone, is more rounded. But unfortunately, it’s only in the way of him being both an idiot and quite probably a piss-head idiot. More one dimensional. Flat. Dull. Face it, if anyone told me they felt nurtured, to my face, I’d laugh and point. You would too. You know you would.

 

So, the baddie goes to sort the scientist woman out. But he doesn’t drive in his car to meet her, this fiendish madman, he is “pulled onward by destiny’s gravity.” Groan! What is surely supposed to strike terror into our hearts, comes out like a comedy parody of a horror film; because he is, wait for it, “The Hand of the Mysteries.” You can almost hear the “duh, duh, durrrrh!" in the background. And anyway, this one is surely Silas from Da Vinci Code? With money, without the religion? And darker eyes?

 

Then, the document they want to see the whole of, that they can only find a censored copy of on the net. They can't identify the IP number. It doesn't exist. And even the brilliant computer expert can’t trace it. So they overpay a hacker, who tries everything, but gets nowhere. "His best hacking tools were entirely ineffective at breaking into the document or unmasking Trish's mysterious IP address." Clearly, the people behind the document do not want to be identified. At all. Ever…But, wait, didn’t our people ‘Google’ the original document? But never mind that. Clearly they do NOT want to be found. Then, the phone rings. "This is systems security for the Central Intelligence Agency. We would like to know why you are attempting to hack one of our classified databases.” "Ah! So THAT’S who it belongs to, why did we bother paying someone to find out who it was, when THEY will ring US?!” “What?” Says CIA person; “D’oh!”

 

What’s the rest of it actually about? Don’t worry about that, it’s not worth it. And the end, the supposed denouement, face it, even if you think I’m wrong, we’ve been led to think there will be a big reveal - is a huge fudge. I’m not even sure what it was and I'm writing this after just having read it. The reveal, like the book and the book after the reveal, just went on and on. And on. Until, I think, well, it was, or at least it could have been…ah, fuck it, I don’t care any more. Muddled, mixed up, no punch.

 

It’s clear that DB wanted to write an epic, a worthy follow up to Da Vinci Code. So, ”’Epic’, eh? that means long! Excellent! And so, the story not only stops and starts, stretched thinner than a 50-year old’s comb-over, but comes to a grinding halt to be placed on life-support, padded out with all sorts of airy-fairy ‘scientific’ nonsense - that because it has appeared in the ‘real’ world and is mentioned in his foreword (or afterward, or wherever it was), attains some sort of credibility. ‘Noetics’? OK, it IS a thing, but if it needs to be explained at such length, by two ‘brilliant minds’ holding a conversation that isn’t actually a conversation, but is each lecturing the other, he knows it is a load of old fanny and my mind gores off to make a cup of coffee.

 

It’s tricky to see what Dan Brown wanted to do with The Lost Symbol. Apart from follow up a huge money spinner, with another (long) one. There is some commentary on the fundamental points of Christianity - all religion, in some cases - but a lot of it is buried away in what is a pointlessly over long book. The revelations (for those who hadn’t read Holy Blood, Holy Grail et al) in The Da Vinci Code, were much more up front and in your (especially if you were a Catholic) face. Here, the little nuggets - ‘Amen/Amun’ (though I can’t remember him mentioning Akhenaten for example), are much further below the surface. One does get the idea that Dan Brown may be an Atheist, he may be wanting to undermine religion(s) by showing their commonality - which would suggest he would welcome another controversy like Da Vici Code, partly to put his ideas over, partly to sell books of course. And is showing that you can pretty much find anything you want to look for in texts like the Bible. Either he’s very naive, or he’s very clever, slipping his ideas in under our radar. But does the average airport bookshopper care enough? About Freemasons, for example? Hasn’t all that been done enough already? While some of these ideas are pretty controversial, not least because they are logical, something religions never like, their below the radar buried-ness, suggests either he isn’t sure of the ideas, or doesn’t really know how to incorporate them into the suspense side of the story. As he did - admit it - to great effect with the Da Vinci Code. While that was a real page-turner, can’t put it down, runaway train - this decidedly is not. There were times when I had to keep reading, very, very occasionally because the story captured me, but mainly it was due to the short, choppy, chapter style. Which meant that I thought; “ok, I’ll give it one more chapter…oh, only two pages long, that’s not telling me anything - one more then…oh, three pages, well, the story might move on/go somewhere next time, so one more then…” etc.

 

One final thing that really irritated me, was a really shocking disregard for the First Nation peoples. The people who were in America before Washington and the other slave-owners decided they wanted a new land in which to own their slaves…He explains that The Library of Congress was “One of the first buildings in Washington to have electric lights, it literally shone like a beacon in the darkness of the New World.” ‘Darkness of the New World’? I bet the Native Americans would beg to differ there. "The founding fathers had envisioned America as a blank canvas, a fertile field on which the seeds of the mysteries could be sown" 'Hello! We were here! It wasn't a blank fucking canvas! There was already a very developed, well functioning civilisation here! We got crushed by the founding fucking fathers!’ As someone much later would say; “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, my brothers and sisters, Plymouth Rock landed on us!”

 

And why three stars if it’s so bad? One star because I managed to go all the way through. One star carried over from ‘Da Vinci Code.' And it gets a full, whole star for having, on P27:
”Awesome!” Someone shouted.
Langdon rolled his eyes, wishing someone would ban that word.”


Quite right, as any sane, sentient being realises. The last fall-back of those unable to express themselves properly. And the only reason why it gets three and not two.

Review: Defender of Rome by Douglas Jackson

Defender of Rome - Douglas Jackson

Defender of Rome, the second in Douglas Jackson’s ‘…of Rome’ series, was an absolute pleasure to read, from start to finish.

 

The calm, assured, precise and evocative prose is dotted with little hints of Rome’s history - and continuing relevance. In fact, there is clearly such a deep knowledge of the Rome of AD63, the period in which the book is set, that it sometimes seems like it could only come, as the book says about Valerius himself on more than one occasion, from someone from born and bred in Rome. But Douglas Jackson is, I know, a proud Scotsman. And lives now. So the level of thoroughly assimilated background research of what Rome was looked, smelled and felt like for a Roman in AD63 is something to be marvelled at.

 

At first glance, it seems like less out and out action than previous one. Certainly, a move from the turbulence of Britannia on the edge of the Roman Empire, to the Empire’s heart, would seem to herald a calmer life for Valerius. Wrong. After returning, or rather being returned, to Rome, as a ‘Hero of Rome’, Valerius is finding life as a lawyer, the politicking, wheeling and dealing in the city where the scandal never sleeps, not entirely to his taste. He has to work for Nero, not an easy job at the best of times, but at this time, it’s even more tricky. The new fledgling religion of Christianity is making its way into Roman circles. And it and its practitioners must be stopped. Well, actually, Nero wants Valerius to root out Christians and for ’stopped,’ read ‘killed.’ So he’s to defend Rome against this new threat (now you see where the title comes from).

 

So, if you were a true believer of the Roman gods, believing Nero is your Emperor appointed by those gods, like Valerius, surely no problem? Wrong. As you may have guessed, it’s not quite that simple. Valerius’ sister is gravely ill. He is recommended to go look in the seedier side of town for a Judean healer. He finds this healer. The healer turns out to be a Christian. So the person he desperately needs to save his sister, is the person he needs to bring to Nero’s justice. To be objective for a moment, Nero is right. The new Christians are a threat to his power. That is, his power as Emperor as he’d like to wield it. Think about it; Christianity was a threat to Rome. A threat to the way Rome has been for the last several hundred years. A threat to the way of life of ordinary Romans brought up in and functioning in the Roman system as it has been for hundreds of years and as they believe it will be for hundreds of years more. So, as not all Romans who live and work within the system, would be power-crazed, megalomaniacs, like the monkey at the top of the tree, even ordinary, honest, hard-working, decent Romans might also find themselves on the same side as Nero and see Christians as a threat to the certainty of their lives and Rome as it is. And see that as something worth defending. Slaves and the downtrodden might take issue and see it another way and that would explain Christianity’s attraction to the powerless and dispossessed. However, in Defender of Rome, Valerius quickly finds out, it isn’t just the poor who have fallen for the new religions promises of better times to come.

 

But then, when it looks like it’s settling down to be a really quite intriguing tale of juicy intrigue and the conundrums for Valerius of rooting out early Christians - the story quite literally moves away from the political cesspit Rome is, to the plains of Dacia and it becomes something else entirely. A trilling, white knuckle ride, a just one more page, one more chapter then, read through the night action thriller. By turns tense and exciting, nervous and explosive with some heart-stopping action sequences, though I guarantee, not of the type you’re thinking.

 

This is a(nother) wonderful book from Douglas and as I say, reads like it’s written by one who also trod those very Roman streets Valerius knows so well. With first ‘Hero-‘ and now ‘Defender of Rome,' the series has got off to a flying start, and if they aren’t on your shelves already, they really should be. Very soon. Do it now, in fact.

Review: Conquest, Making of England #1 by Stewart Binns

Conquest - Stewart Binns

This is probably going to be seen as a guilty pleasure and I have glanced at reviews which would suggest it is quite possibly not all that cool to say (a bit like admitting to thinking The Da Vinci Code was one hell of a rattling good and enjoyable read, which is was, you know it), but … I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Yes, I can see what is wrong with it, but as a whole, it holds together nicely, and with a relatively unobtrusive style and is an all round rattling good tale.

 

Of course, I’ve come across Hereward several times. Several recent book series have featured the 11th Century Fenland Terror. James Aitcheson has had him in his tale. James Wilde has written three, soon to be four, excellent novels based on him and his exploits, real or imagined. The brilliant Marc Morris, in his The Norman Conquest non-fiction look at the people who brought you 1066 and all that, mentions Hereward several times and provides a good look at all the facts, the few there are, about him, as well as mentioning some of the more speculative stories. Whether you come from other books to Marc’s book, or go from there to other Herward stories, you can see that (amongst others) the two James’ do at least touch base with what is ‘known.’ As does Stewart Binns here. However, and perhaps even more than James Wilde (at least until I’ve slapped some peepers on #4 ‘The Wolves of New Rome’), he picks up the Hereward ball and runs more than a little further with it. Wilde and Binns both seem to agree on Hereward’s struggle with his anger issues, but they solve them in different ways. I don’t think James Wilde has his Hereward at Senlac Hill, nor does James Aitcheson. Their Herewards only really come front of stage in the period after Hastings. I think both Binns and Wilde are also implying that Hereward, real person or not, is possibly the source for the later development of the Robin Hood myth. Something that possibly Robert Holdstock might like to comment on (if he hasn’t already done so and quite honestly, after struggling through the stream of consciousness nonsense that was most of Gate of Horn, Gate of Ivory, I finally let him go his own way) in a ‘Mythago Wood’ novel. I don't know.

 

The story begins, perhaps surprisingly, in the mountains of Greece. To where the heir to the Eastern Roman Empire, travels in search of enlightenment from a legendary old warrior, now turned hermit. Turns out, the old warrior knew the Prince’s father, fought for him in the Varangian Guard. The warrior is now 82, but instead of giving the Prince the One to Ten of what to do, tells him a story, from which he can draw his own lessons from. It is the warrior’s life story.

 

You’ve guessed by this point, that the old hermit, is Hereward, though he does seem to have the name Godwin for some reason. He begins telling his story from his wild childhood days, through his rebellious youth, to adulthood and maturity, through many of the period’s historic milestones his lifespan has encompassed. He was, of course, at Hastings and tried to rally the English forces thereafter, but had to, in the end, leave and travel abroad.

 

There are several nice touches. Here, Hereward has to persuade a reluctant Harold to take the throne. Where Harold actually sympathises with Edward’s position and therefore, William’s claims. You can see, with some of the incidents that go on in Harold and Hereward’s time in Normandy, where some of the tactics they would later use against William, come from, for instance. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence for any of the above, though if I remember rightly, James Wilde does have Hereward on the continent before Hastings. Here, Edward, on his deathbed, makes Harold his successor. Again found in other books and history. After the rebellion dies out, Hereward agrees to go abroad (James Wilde has his Hereward meeting William, but only after the battle, Morris says there is a legend that they met), to save England from further turmoil and anguish at William’s hands, but that could be blamed on Hereward.

 

As a whirlwind tour of the period’s hotspots and big names, in Britain and (the rest of) Europe, it is undoubtably a great read. Some of the people he meets, may be stretching it a little, but then I don’t know enough about (for instance) Spanish folk-law to comment with any certainty. In that respect, it read a little like Tim Severin’s Viking trilogy, just crammed into one book. Severin has one Viking journeying to all the places associated with the Vikings’ history, meeting most of the big players and generally living the fullest life imaginable (another excellent read/guilty pleasure if you’re one of the costumes and corset Ancient and Medieval Historical Fiction lilly-livers elsewhere on Goodreads). Maybe this is like that but on steroids, having to pack it all into one book and all. And it can feel a bit mechanical for that. Like he had to check all the names and places of his list and he was damned if he wasn’t going to get them all in! The stuff about a mystical talisman too, I could have done without. Never liked fantasy elements creeping in to what essentially wants to be read like a true story. Takes it all on a bit of a seers and sages trip. It’s better when it has even its tenuous grip on reality. But, people of the time believed in all that and the One God to rule them all hadn’t replaced the touching of wood to ask for the help of the spirit who lived in that wood … still hasn’t really, has it?

 

So, it gets a solid three stars from me. However, it gets a fourth star solely for mentioning, on several occasions (starting on page 385) the Bishop of Aarhus. Why? Well, that’s the town in Denmark where I now live! Cool, eh? It is Scandinavian’s oldest town, I read today, though in Viking times, was called ‘Aros.’ However, I haven’t checked when the name changed, so I can’t call young Stewart B. on it. Not that anyone would know where a town called ‘Aros’ was…hmm…not that namy people know where Aarhus is, so much of a muchness.

 

Leave your ego at the front cover and enjoy a good romping read. I for one will certainly be getting hold of the next in what I think is a trilogy. These sort of things usually are.

Oh yeah, read the dedication at the start. A very interesting, quite possibly unique, sentiment. I’ve not come across its like before. Proves his heart’s in the right place, whatever you think of the rest of the book.

Review: Out of Exile by Luke Preston

Out of Exile: A Tom Bishop Rampage - Luke Preston

Luke Preston's first Tom Bishop book, Dark City Blue, was excellent. Out of Exile is (in my view) better, much better. Dark City Blue was like reading the Quick Start Guide to a killing machine. Lots of bullet point passages. Often literally. The bullets, that is. Out Of Exile is more like the Tom Bishop Owners ManualDark City Blue was full-out, full-on, no stopping for passengers, no prisoners taken-style novel writing. Make no mistake, this is still a book that shoots first and says ‘oh, shit!’ later, but it’s more. More nuanced, more developed, more subtle (!) and more exciting and satisfying for it.

 

We know now that we’re in Australia. I could figure that in DCB, but here it’s named. Melbourne, Australia and we're in the company of the Victoria Police Department. Or some of it anyway. When the book starts, Tom Bishop is in prison. He has been for a while. Not surprising - from the authorities' point of view, that is - after the trail of death and chaos he left behind at the end of ‘Dark City Blue.’ However, even at this early stage, warning lights should go off for the reader who has read Dark City Blue. We were with Bishop on his ‘rampage,’ remember? From our point of view, what he was doing, wasn’t a ‘killing spree’ for the sake of going on a ‘killing spree’. It was Bishop trying to protect his family and himself and sorting out some people before they sorted him out. Getting his revenge in first. So, that he is in prison for it, still in prison for what happened, should tell you a little of what and who he is obviously up against here.

 

Then, in the dead - again quite literally - of night, someone, somewhere, wants him out of jail and back on the right side of THEIR law. Except, the right side of the law isn’t easy to tell from the wrong side. In Out of Exile, the lines are, as ever, more than a little ‘blurred’ - especially when Tom Bishop is around. Someone wants Bishop back on the street, right or wrong side of the law, but would rather not have too many other people know about it. Rogue Cops want ‘justice’, want to be left in peace to continue their corrupt ways and not have to be bothered by trifling matters like Internal Affairs investigations. So it all goes just that little bit wrong and both the ramifications and body counts, mount up. To the top. Of the Police force. But the Police's top brass are, unfortunately for Bishop, more concerned with their image than his justice. Too bad. But then, Bishop isn’t the only one making the wrong assumptions here. He, like us, thought ‘Justice’ the criminal mastermind, who was actually a Police mastermind from Dark City Blue was no more. Mainly because Bishop had killed him. Boy, was he wrong. 'Justice' seems to be sill at large. ‘Large’ being an appropriate description for the amount of money that is being skimmed off the top (bottom and sides) of the Victoria Police budget.

 

It is an ingenious plot, it must be said. Our Luke does like dumping his Tom Bishop character in the soft and smelly. From a great height and up to his ear-balls. Then saying “OK, get out of that!” I’m sure he sets up situations for, the long-suffering (and I do mean ’suffering’ and ‘long’), Tom Bishop, where he doesn’t know how he’s going to get Bishop off the hook. In fact, I’m surprised Bishop hasn’t turned round to Luke and said “Enough is ENOUGH!" and stuck one on him. Maybe he has. Maybe the rest of the book is Luke’s revenge. But it’s what makes Bishop such an interesting character. He is put upon, but he doesn’t ask for or want our sympathy. He wants to get on with his life. He wouldn’t bother anyone, if they didn’t bother him. I’d have to hold back from calling Bishop a ‘hero’, or even an ‘anti-hero’, he’d probably beat me to a pulp - if I was lucky. Bishop is actually a pragmatic realist. He sees things how they are, says what needs to be said then does - what he can - that needs to be done. Often, it’s the right thing, but occasionally…

 

So, that's clear, then: Bishop is dead, but he isn’t. Justice was dead, but isn’t. The Police are on our side, but maybe they aren’t. And then…just when you know where the plot is - it disappears. With a turn you probably won’t see coming, but one that fits and works and elevates the book further above its predecessor and the majority of others in its class.

 

All in all, fantastically addictive. I read it so quickly, I was more or less held spellbound. I forgot to take notes and had to read it again, just to make sure. I’ve not done that before.

Review: The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason

The Rule of Four - Ian Caldwell, Dustin Thomason

This is gonna be easy: Bollocks.

Long-winded, convoluted, meandering, unnecessary, “me-too” bollocks at that. 

I can only surmise that the people quoted at length on the back cover, who really ought to know better, have been blinded by the dazzling array of ancient scholars poets and painters mentioned inside. As usual, they seem to be describing a book they may well have read, but that, with the best will in the world, isn’t this one. It certainly isn’t “one part The Da Vinci Code’, one part ’The Name of the Rose.” That’s up the top on the back there to say "you've heard of Da Vinci Code', but are too intellectual to read it? Well it's ok to read this, cause we've put The Name of the Rose' at the top as well!” !t isn’t. It wants to be, but isn’t in the same ball-park, however your opinion of the two other books is.

It is a very dull book about another very dull book. A 'real' book it seems, with a very nearly unpronounceable title. One I can’t be bothered going all the way over there to find. One that some Princeton students have decided they can decipher. Not that I could find any reference to anyone ever deciding it actually needed deciphering. Maybe I didn’t look hard enough. It’s perfectly possible. But what’s Wikipedia for, if not to save you the trouble of deciding if anyone has ever felt it needed deciphering and wasn’t actually just a load of dull old crepe?

Can I be bothered reciting the plot? Well, if there is one, it tries to maybe be about obsession. But I really got beyond caring. It really doesn't connect. Tries to, obsessively, but misses. The obsession caused by at least two of them going them very nearly going doo-lally trying to decipher the book, sliding around Princeton in the snow, missing deadlines, fumbling relationships, setting fire to the college library and all that student-type jazz. As with all American novels, of what ever genre, involving four students, each is a unique, borderline genius in his own way (of course). Though (of course) with troubled backgrounds. But they’re, navel-staring, indecisive characters that really aren’t all that interesting, no matter how many scarves they wear.

(And why can’t there be a normal, struggling through, only ever understanding their college years, years later, average intelligence, bloke, in any of these things? US authors always seem to think it’s more convincing if they have characters who are absolutely, exceptionally, brilliantly talented at something - or many things - and then try to suggest they are also ordinary, because they stay up all night researching, wear tatty clothes and forget to eat for days. I wore tatty clothes because I hadn’t two brass farthings (Hey, I remember Farthings!) to rub together. Mainly because I’d spent the rest on BEER, but that’s another story).

Back to the name of the book inside the book. What a mistake that was! There can’t be anyone who has read the ‘Da Vinci Code’ bit on the back and then ‘The Rule of Four’ who hasn’t tried to pronounce the ancient book’s title a couple of times, given up, then skipped over every mention thereafter. It means you at no time connect with their obsession. You should be able to understand their obsession, by connecting with it. But if you glaze over at the mention of the book’s name, how can you come past that to connect with their problems? Can’t be done. Nope.

In its early stages, it doesn’t know what it wants to be. Where it wants to go. Actually, I NEVER felt it came to a proper decision there. A quest to decipher a code becomes an in-depth look at rich kids’ student life at Princeton. Clearly, their editor nudged one of them and points to the supposed premise of the story and yells “get on with it!” No surprise it’s written by two of them. One must have gone on holiday at points during the writing, then couldn’t be bothered reading what the other had written when he got back and just carried on with his section where the other left off. And no, the Princeton stuff isn’t good background setting, it’s padding. It’s there to say to US readers: "Hey! We’ve got somewhere equally as snooty as Oxford and Cambridge!” That’s all. Then, towards the end, realising one of them has written too much about staying up late at Princeton, the other decides to finish it (and you) off with page after page (after page) of explanation of what the unpronounceable book supposedly leads to. And where. Always a bad sign, as I’ve noted elsewhere. Shows they haven't done their job well enough earlier on. And it does go on and on. A couple of pages would have been more than enough. Once it’s clear what it is the book leads to, whilst hiding it from ‘the unworthy’, I’ve lost interest. As, I suspect, the ending shows the authors had too.

A waste of time. Mostly mine. At least they got paid for it.

Review: The Lion and the Lamb by John Henry Clay

The Lion and the Lamb - John Henry Clay

Set in a period I knew very little about, The Lion and The Lamb I found to be in the end, an excellent book, instantly engaging, really well written and a thoroughly good investment of my - and your - time and money. OK, I got it as a Christmas present, so of my friend’s money. But I digress…

 

It is set during what seems to be the latter days of the Roman occupation of Britain, AD363, to be exact. This is Britain in the final years before Rome finally withdrew all her soldiers. When the Roman Romans, were getting set to abandon their British project, and the British who’d become Roman, were beginning to get worried. That part doesn’t play a huge part in most of the book, but I felt it was an essential and well played undercurrent, especially as there come more and more ‘outrageous’ barbarian attacks along the coast. That the ‘barbarians’ are the enemy and invaders and are essentially the descendants of the people who were conquered by the Romans when they invaded, is an ironic delight.

 

The story follows Gaius Cironius Agnus Paulus and his family. They are from a British tribe, but are full-blooded British Romans now. After what could be called a ‘misunderstanding’, Paulus flees their home in (what is now) southern England, gets ‘press-ganged into the Army and is sent north to Hadrian’s Wall. A punishment sees him sent even further north, where amidst the corruption and treachery, he finally sees the light, as it were, and realises he needs to return home, whatever the consequences. Along the way, he meets an Irish slave girl, Eachna, herself with a somewhat disrupted family background, in its own way not too dissimilar to his and they journey south to confront barbarians, his family and the ‘rabbit in the headlights’ attitudes of the southern Romano-British society. Phew! If all that reminds you - minus the fighting of Barbarians - of some of Jane Austin’s work, then it did me too. There is, especially with Paulus’ sister and her attitude to what is and what isn’t important and how you do something feels more important than what you are doing, something of the Emma here. And that’s a good thing, in my book. Think Jane Austin, set in Roman times. But with more balls. And not the dancing kind.

 

It was a change perhaps, from the Roman epics I’ve been reading of late, in that it isn’t bristling with battles - but it was a refreshing change. In looking at the attitudes, morals and lifestyles of the rich and famous Roman Britons - trying to be more Roman than the Romans sometimes - you really do get a feel for a country about to have the certainty of how their lives have been for the previous 400-odd years, removed. Not knowing, as The Clash once so eloquently put it; Should I Stay or Should I Go?

 

If I had to pick holes, and I feel I have to, one thing that did irritate me, was the switching between the two areas of the story. One chapter with the son up north, the next with the family down south. I can see why he would do it, but by a little over half way, it’s became a little forced, mechanical and risked becoming a distraction. Fortunately, he managed to pull it back from the brink in the final third and that, packed with intrigue, tension and flow, made the book as a whole.

 

It reminded me in many ways (and not just because of its British setting) of Douglas Jackson’s Rome’ series. The first in the series, as that is set in Britain, anyway. The same instant engagement and ease of story telling. If you’ve been reading any of the first three in Anthony Riches’ Empire series (as they too are set in northern Britain, but some 180-odd years earlier), this could well be seen as the antidote. A really pleasant break from the full-on, hard living, hard drinking, (and in Anthony Riches’ stories) hard-swearing, epics I’ve read a lot of just lately. I still love them, but I think I can appreciate this all the more for having come away from them, and will appreciate them all the more when I come back from this. If you follow?

 

It’s also well worth staying on for the Afterword and Historical stuff. Very interesting to see how delicately he’s woven his tale in and out of the available facts.

Review: The Whitehall Mandarin

The Whitehall Mandarin - Edward Wilson

For an old Cold War spy (novel-reading) warrior like me, I really can’t resist books that come with recommendations like, “The thinking person’s John le Carré” and especially when it is described as an “old fashioned spy story.” Drawback is, many of the ones I go through with that their outside, can’t deliver on the inside.

 

With The Whitehall Mandarin, Edward Wilson delivers. It’s a dramatic step up from the bright shiny, trashy, 'me-too’ thrillers one sees so (too) many of. There’s a depth of ambition, an understated confidence, an assurance and understanding of nuance, that makes it simply a delight to read. I was hooked (lined and sinkered) from the first page and kept spellbound to the last.

 

The story begins in 1957, though is still feeling echoes of the Second World War, 1948 and one Lady Penelope Somer’s time in Malaysia. She later becomes the first woman to be Permanent Under Secretary of State - effectively head - at the Ministry of Defence and is also the character around whom the story ultimately revolves. However, she’s not the story’s main figure, dare I say. That honour goes to William Catesby - he’s the one with most page-time here anyway. He shares his name with one of English history's most infamous traitors, Robert Catesby (I didn’t know that either), one of the ringleaders of the Gunpowder Plot of 5 November, 1605. That slight ancestral problem aside, our Catesby is an SIS officer who, as his colleagues - on both sides - frequently point out, is a working class lad from a nondescript East Anglian fishing village, with slight socialist tendencies that are now somewhat at odds with his chosen profession and especially the social circles in which he now operates. He is, as opposed to his not so illustrious predecessor, employed to track spies and traitors down, rather than recruit them. Although, hmmm…maybe…Anyway, as the story begins, we do indeed find him working to uncover a traitor. An American one. One the scientists and Naval officers he’s recruited, think is passing their information on to the Americans. Their information is being passed it on alright - but to the Russians. And that first double blind, is it a double - or triple bluff - should set you up nicely in the frame of mind to wrestle with the twists and tangles the plot will have you tied up in later. Catesby and the British SIS roll the American and his network up and pass him over to the US authorities, who bundle him off back ‘home’ to the States for further ‘processing.’ End of problem. Except it isn’t. It’s just the start. And becomes a problem on both sides of the Atlantic and all the way over to the far East.

 

It is a beguiling and entrancing tale, that weaves itself deftly in and out of the main events and political flash-points of the late ’50’s and ’60’s. From the fall-out after World War II, the start of the Cold War, the Bay of Pigs ‘debacle’ (depending on where you saw it from), to the Cuban missile crisis, the assassination of JFK, the Profumo affair, the Paris riots and on to the disaster that was the corporate sponsored mess of the Vietnam War. A war the biggest superpower in the world couldn’t hope to win, but didn’t dare admit it. Especially to itself. The story snakes and twists its way along the corridors of power and through seedy parties in stately homes full of people who should know better, but had enough influence that they really didn’t need to worry whether they needed to care, to end up amid the jungles of Vietnam and finally, the minefields of Whitehall. Phew! There is undoubtedly a lot going on in and a lot to take from this wonderful novel. Primarily, I thought anyway, how an individuals idealism has to be sacrificed to ‘realpolitik’ when national strategy becomes involved. The price paid by individuals caught up in the great game - those further down the pile, as well as those at the top. That ‘realpolitik', as the book says a couple of times, derives in part from the mantra; ‘our enemy’s enemy is our friend.” When expedient reality intrudes on political ideals - as many of the characters, from Catesby to Cauldwell, to Miranda to the USA and Vietnam, find out. Often at the cost of a ‘Faustian pact with Satan.’ (I knew studying Christopher Marlowe at school would come in handy one day!).

 

The book treats you like an adult, WITH an attention span, is one way I thought of it whilst under way. It’s not all laid on a plate for you and you will have to rewind a few times to make sure you got it right. OK, just me then...It manages to be both modern and timeless at the same time. By being set in the past, dealing with past events, he has a chance to concentrate on the fears and contradictions bound up in what surely was the ‘golden age’ of spying. Without doubt, spies operated on a higher intellectual plane back then (in the books, anyway). Look nowadays, at the ‘Bourne’ films and their “get me eyes on him people, now!” - shouts person in control centre, to some nerd just out of college employed to press buttons. In 'The Whitehall Mandarin', technology is dependant on having enough coins in your pocket for the phone booth, hoping the people in the flat opposite can’t lip read and remembering the appropriate colour of drawing pin to leave in a park bench. American intelligence agencies might be rushing headlong into the future, but thankfully, the British secret service still reminds me of the well-meaning likes of Monty Python: “Can you keep a secret?” “Yes!” “Well you’re in then!” And if there’s one thing the book’s final premis is based around, it’s the British aristocracy’s ability to do just that. Keep a secret.

 

The Whitehall Mandarin certainly hits the sweet spot of style and substance, dead centre. Its messages come from the situations and mistakes of the past, but as those mistakes are still being made today, it is clearly still relevant, in the here and now. It all makes The Whitehall Mandarin an absolutely captivating read and a delight of anticipation to return to after being away. It’s superbly well-paced, with a balanced structure that not only helps to increase the reading pleasure, but must have been a joy, not to mention fantastic fun, to plan and then write. The feeling of satisfaction when Edward realised it was all going to come together, is only to be jealous of. Yes, there are some weighty themes from some of recent history’s pivotal periods dealt with here, but the book always seems to remember to be an enjoyable experience. And it is unquestionably exciting, not to mention extremely tense, as you try and make sense of all the clues, the lies and half truths, the double or triple bluffs, the what-ifs, buts and maybes, that lead to an almost breathless rush to try and keep up with Catesby as he nears the point of unlocking the story’s final secrets. I’m thinking that this will be the book I’ll be measuring all my other ‘thrillers’ against in the future. And most will be found wanting.

 

For sheer fun on the reader’s side, the post-WWII, Cold War generation of spying will surely never be equalled and I admit I purred like the cat that got the cream throughout reading The Whitehall Mandarin. In contrast to many others, this is a modern spy novel that does deserve to be compared with the greats of yesteryear on its cover. You really shouldn't let a book of this calibre, this level of satisfying enjoyment, pass you by. Do whatever you can to get hold of a copy. Have sex with a teddy bear if you have to - better still, go to a bookshop and buy one, how old fashioned is that?

Review: Arrows of Fury

Arrows of Fury  - Anthony Riches

I had to, thanks (?) to an eye infection, ‘read’ this with Audible. And very glad I was too. What top notch entertainment it is! So good in fact, I’ve had it read to me twice inside a month - and enjoyed every single Roman minute of it.
 
We’re back in AD 182, in Roman Britain, in the Roman Legions, at the northern edge of the province of Britannia, in what I suppose could be called no man’s land, between Hadrian’s and the Antonine Wall(s). Not the ideal place to be if you’re a Tungrian Legionarry from Tungria, but most definitely the place to be if you’re a reader after entertainment, enjoyment and excitement. Why not the ideal place to be if you’re a Legionary? Mainly because the people who do want to be there, the thousands of blue-painted local tribes, don’t want you there. And are about to set about removing you. Forcibly. But at least the Tungrians have been there a while, they almost know what to expect and from where to expect it. What then the new arrivals from warmer climes, the detachment of archers (the dealers of those furious arrows?) from Syria - how must they be feeling, strangers in a decidedly strange land?
 
I would describe 'Arrows of Fury' as taking place very close to the action. It doesn’t mess about and try and cut away, back and forth trying to control a confusing multitude of story threads, in multiple locations and have characters speculating the whole time on what may or may not be happening and to whom, in those other locations. This takes you right to the heart of where the story - and action - is. The sights, the smells, the living and the dying. This is straight ahead storytelling. Drops you in it and gets on with it. However, being a story about Rome and Romans, tension and treachery are, inevitably, never that far from the surface. On either side of the Wall. The Romans may - or may not, depending on which of the Centurians you talk to - have a fugitive from Imperial justice, a traitor to some, amongst their number. Can he be found, can he be kept secret? The native tribes are trying to build up their strength to send the Romans packing, but are led by a man seemingly as intent on removing tribal leaders he sees as rivals, as he is the Romans. Perhaps the interesting difference with 'Arrows of Fury' (and presumably the others in the series I have, but have yet to read) is that the tension is actually created in the form of screaming multitudes of barbarians arriving out of the mist before you’ve had your breakfast. A much more ‘honest’ tension, I feel, than that created by multi-faceted power struggles in the Senate. Just me?
 
It’s a ‘strong' story. No doubt about that. Strong characters and - understandably (unless you’re one of the delicate ladies who lunch, of the various 'Historical Fiction’ groups on Goodreads who can’t understand) - strong language. Unless you’re gonna go to your grave deluding yourself that Historical Fiction is heaving bodices and essentially ‘Murder She Wrote’ set several hundred years ago, then you’re gonna understand one thing about this type of Historical Fiction. We (those of us reading this now) read in English. We want to read a book set in Roman times. They spoke Latin. We (unless we’re related to Harry Sidebottom) can’t understand Latin. So the people doing the walking the talking the fighting and the speaking, have to converse in English in the story we’re reading. 'Arrows of Fury’ wouldn’t sell many copies (outside of Oxford) if it was written in Latin. So what is happening, is Anthony is writing, in English, in the manner of the Romans. Consider it a kind of translation. Now, we’re dealing with soldiers here. Apart from the Officer, the Equine class I think were the top of the Roman heap, they aren’t going to be all that well educated. And anyway, let’s face it, when down to your last half dozen comrades, with your backs to the burning stockade, with several hundred half-naked, hairy, screaming for blood, painted blue warriors about six paces away, axes red with your friend’s blood about to come down on your head, an ‘oh dear me, we’re in trouble here’, just ain’t gonna cut it. Is it? It is if you read the really childishly naive comments irritating the fuck out of me in several discussions there, but not if we’re dealing with the Roman soldiers on the frontiers of the Empire in Northern Britain in AD 182 in Anthony Riches’ books. Deal with it.
 
Personally, I’m not gonna argue the toss about wether a Roman soldier would have exclaimed (the Latin equivalent of) ‘fuck me sideways’. I know I would have said that or its Latin equivalent) were I a Roman soldier faced with hoary hoards of blue-painted animals in human guise descending at a great pace upon me, so I’m cool.
 
'Arrows of Fury' is a gripping story (mostly around the throat) that builds on the previous book - 'Wounds of Honour’ - the first In Anthony Riches’ Empire series, pretty seamlessly. A down and dirty tale of life on the front line, life on the edge at the edge of the Roman Empire. We know the characters, we know the time and the location, we know they’re going to have to get out of tight spots, we just don’t know how. Still, we’re not alone in that… There are (so far) seven books in the Empire series and it would seem like Anthony Riches has hit on a reasonably simple formula. Tell it like it is. Or was. Straight ahead, no messing about, get down and dirty and concentrate on good believable - timeless - characters and rock solid story telling. 

Martyr - Rory Clemens

Martyr: A Novel of Tudor Intrigue - Rory Clements

Martyr is a really good, well worked, evocative and thoroughly convincing journey back to the late 16th Century Elizabethan England and the time of Shakespeare. John Shakespeare, actually. Will’s older brother. John isn’t an actor or playwright, he’s a detective. Though this is of course set before there was a Police force, he is more of a private detective, working for the Lord Walsingham trying to keep England, and in particular Good Queen Bess, safe from the threat - real and imagined - from Philip the King of Spain, his armada, Catholics in general, the Inquisition and traitors of an assorted, generally foreign, nature.

 

In the aftermath of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, Shakespeare starts investigating the really rather grisly murder of a young women, who may or may not have been mixed up in intrigues she probably shouldn’t have been mixed up in. Shakespeare is on legitimate Royal business, but even so it’s not all plain sailing. Shakespeare has unwanted competition in his investigation. Everywhere his investigation takes him, he seems to be one step behind the unscrupulous and ruthless Richard Topcliffe. A man with his own private rack down in the family torture chamber is to be avoided at all costs, especially but not necessarily, if you’re a Catholic. Topcliffe has his own agenda and has dressed up petty ruthless revenge in ‘I’m doing the Queen’s business more than you are', Royal finery.

 

England has been and is whipped up into a frenzy of Catholic-hating and traitors, real or imagined, are around every corner, under every bed, in every house or country pile, either murdering people in most foul ways or hiding for days in their stinking priest holes. And there is a plot to murder England’s potential hero of the hour, Sir Francis Drake. The thought, unspoken but felt by all is, that if he dies, England will be open to Spanish - and even worse, Catholic - invasion.

 

Clements does a really good job of evoking the mood and the tension of the period. As well as conveying the all suspicion and noble ends to justify really rather unpleasant means. And while on the subject of unpleasant - we get shown around the stinking streets of London, into the veritable hell-holes and corrupt pits that were Elizabethan prisons, and a tour across the south of England down to Plymouth in a desperate race against time to rescue Sir Francis Drake. Mostly to rescue him from himself, it has to be said. As a character, John Shakespeare is perhaps a little too idealistic, even naive for his time. Which makes him a thoroughly likeable character for our time, even if like-ability was necessary - he is brother to William for goodness’ sake! Worth reading about for that alone (I know he’s made it up, btw).

 

If you wanted to look outside the confines of the book and see where the themes are today. It is in the suspicion of people’s with a different culture to ours’, who do things differently and also have the temerity to think they’re right, have God on their side and we’re wrong. You can see it in your newses every day, can’t you? Even 'Catch 22', sometimes - as in the thoughts of how far is it needed to go to show your loyalty. If loyalty is behind the means, does it excuse the means? Can you be more loyal because you are prepared to be more ruthless? Does hesitancy through decency and humanity, show weakness? Fortunately - for those locked up these days, the prison system is a little better, certainly cleaner, and your well-being while inside doesn’t depend (entirely) on how much money you can pay the gaoler to keep the other prisoners off your back and your hands out of the thumbscrews.

 

I didn’t know at the time of reading, but Martyr is apparently the first in Clements’ series of novels about his fictional detective and brother to William, John Shakespeare. And this bodes very well for the series. I’ll be reading them.

Review: Wounds of Honour - Anthony Riches

Wounds of Honour Empire 1 Ssb - Anthony Riches

This is a real Roman hum-dinger. A magnificent slap in the face, reality check of a Historical Fiction novel. A fresh, no-nonsense, take no prisoners, exciting, testosterone-driven assault on the Historical Fiction senses. It’s one that should be listed at the top under the Wikipedia entry for ‘couldn’t put it down.’ Really good.

 

According to the dust jacket, Anthony Riches holds a degree in Military Studies and it shows. He knows his stuff, but doesn’t shove it in your face the whole time, like one Mr Sidebottom can tend to do. He’s gone for the angle that life and behaviour in the army, and on the parade ground, has largely been the same down the ages. And that Roman soldiers act mostly the same as their modern counterparts. Only the names of the god(s) they pray to and the weapons they use, have been changed. That and being able to look into the eyes of the person trying to kill you. I think what Anthony seems to be saying here is; what makes an army function well today is precisely what made an army function well back then. Training, routine, comradeship, loyalty to each other and the cause you’re fighting for and teamwork drilled in so much that it becomes unthinking second nature. The Roman Army was a professional fighting machine, just like ours are today. What I got from it was also the message that even though there’s close on two thousand years between us, we’re not that different now as people, to how they were then. It helps the reader relate to the characters and the situations. Obviously I can’t really relate to a Roman soldier facing death at the end of a blue-painted Pict’s spear, but by thinking he’s no different to me basically, I am in a better position to perhaps care a bit more about what he must have been going through. A bit more than endless chapters of political manoeuvring, debauchery and feeding people to the lions. You can’t get away with that sort of behaviour nowadays, not even here in Harlev, East Jutland. I feel closer, more of a kinship to these characters, I’m trying to say. I have really no idea of the truth of course, but reading a book like this, I’m more than prepared to say ‘ok, that’s how it was.’ It really is a down and dirty close look at life in the Roman Army and is absolutely enthralling for that alone.

 

The story is a tight one, honing in on life during wartime on Hadrian’s Wall, the northern part of Britannia, in the late second century AD. Our main character is one Marcus Valerius Aquila, who arrives at the wall as a way to disappear from the fatal attractions of the Emperor Commodus back in Rome. He goes ‘undercover' somewhat, to disguise his high-born background, assumes a new name and identity and joins the ordinary soldiers on the wall. Of course, some of his secrets do ‘escape' and treachery - or at least the threat of it - is never far away. Luckily, for me anyway, the intrigue and decadence and if he does this, what does Whatshisnameus Maximus think of all this over there in Whereveritwas, that usually has me sighing with ‘here we go again'-itis, is pretty much absent from 'Wounds of Honour.' Whilst there are hints of things going on 'backstage' the book concentrates on a relatively small field of operations, and a small number of characters, just behind and just in front of, Hadrian's Wall.

 

Of course, I don’t really care, being a man, but it’s is certainly a man’s, man’s, man’s world in the Roman Army and ‘Empire.' A macho man’s world at that. Not much time for women. Unless they’re being paid for ‘relaxation’, or held-captive, or tending to wounds. I think there’s only one woman character in the first 150-odd pages. And that was a wife of a senator, who had nothing to do with anything. Like I say, no problem for me, but I’d rather hope that in subsequent stores from the ‘Empire’ world, Anthony can find a way to introduce more women. I’m not necessarily wanting ‘love interest’, that isn’t what these sort of books are all about, but the nuances female characters would create wouldn’t go a miss. Not the least for increasing his readership market by about a half and hopefully helping with purging Goodreads and Amazon of their derivative, lazy, bodice-ripping, Mills & Boon crap that masquerades as Historical Fiction, but is really 'Love Actually' set three hundred years ago again and again and again.

 

For me, I’d consider it high praise indeed to be compared favourably to Douglas Jackson's first (well, the first Roman-period novel of his that I read, anyway). And thats what I’m doing. Favourably compared, but in no way overshadowed. I really was impressed all the way up to to stunned, and am having to hold myself back from rushing head-long into the rest of the series (I have taken the precaution of collecting the whole of Anthony’s Empire series (so far) before reading the first one, don’t ask me why). I’m really not sure why I should feel so impressed, if you understand what I mean, as I’d come across Anthony Riches and the exalted Romanesque on-line company he keeps, so it was easy to figure that 'Wounds of Honour' would be good. How good it was, I suppose I really wasn’t prepared for.

Review: The Pagan Lord

The Pagan Lord: A Novel (The Saxon Stories, #7) - Bernard Cornwell

When Bernard Cornwell is on form, he can be at least as good, if not a whole lot better, than most everyone else. When he's ticking over, he's also a whole lot better than a whole lot of other writers in the Historical Fiction field. And while there's no doubt I enjoyed The Pagan Lord and thought it was very good, it does have the sound of Bernard Cornwell ticking over. I thought Death of Kings was an excellent book, but it doesn’t seem that Cornwell has used that as a transitional book to take Uhtred to better places, character-wise, or style-wise. I enjoyed this, don’t get me wrong. But I think BernardCornwell is a little on autopilot at the moment. In many ways, Cornwell is rather like the mood that radiates off Uhtred in The Pagan Lord - smart, cunning, savvy, clever. He's been there, done that. Many times. But he’s also irritating. Why? Later.

 

It goes wrong for Uhtred, the 'Pagan Lord' of the title, from the beginning (actually, I’d like BC to give us an idea of how we’re supposed to pronounce ‘Uhtred’ in our heads while we’re reading this. Idea?) Uhtred goes to try to capture his son, to stop him from shaming the family name and becoming a priest. Of Christ, not Uhtred’s Odin. Uhtred is, understandably for an old-fashioned, died in the wool Viking, somewhat less than chuffed at this development. He tries to reason with his son, threatening to cut him off, as it were, but he instead almost accidentally manages to kill another priest. As you do. Uhtred most likely normally wouldn't lose much, if any, any sleep over this sort of thing. But itisn’t the sort of thing that is going to endear him to his Christian neighbours. To make matters worse, he then returns home to find his hall has been attacked and burnt to the ground by Cnut Longsword, while he was away. He decides to meet with Cnut, only to find that Cnut thinks Uhtred has taken his (Cnut’s) wife and son. Which he hasn’t. And he suspects a double-cross. He returns home to find his peace-loving Christians neighbours have burnt down what remained un-burnt from the last burning. As you do in 10th Century pre-England. So, as he can’t convince anyone to trust him when he says there is treachery afoot, Uhtred’s not in the best of moods at the start of The Pagan Lord. Dark days for Uhtred and it doesn’t get much better.

 

Dark days indeed. And whaddaya know? There’s bad weather. Nearly all the time. Cornwell clearly wants us to get the message that the weather matches Uhtred’s mood. But that really is a bit too obvious for a writer of his calibre, isn’t it? And it’s all the bloomin' time. I could be wrong on this but, I can’t actually remember there being good, or even fine, weather in any of Bernard Cornwell 'Warrior Chronicles' books. And there isn’t here. For instance, when he’s sailing off in his ship, 'Middleniht’, there's 'grey sea, grey sky and a grey mist, and the 'Middelniht' slid through that greyness like a sleek and dangerous beast.' I'm all for the weather as a way of mirroring a mood, but when it's all the time, the time comes when you have to say 'enough already with the dreadful weather!' Obviously it’s England we’re talking about here, so it is going to rain more than most places in the 10th Century, but they had sunshine back then as well! Even in the North Sea. It was on occasion dry and mild in the 10th Century, the sleet in the middle of summer didn't always come at you horizontally. But when the book opens with 'A dark sky. The gods make the sky; it reflects their moods and they were dark that day. It was high summer and a bitter rain was spitting from the east. It felt like winter’, you just think ‘oh, here we go again’. Actually, the only time I can think of in The Pagan Lord when he gets good weather, is when he actually wants bad weather! Obviously as cover for a dastardly deed.

 

Having said all that, the weariness, as befits an old man - old for the Viking age anyway - the ’not again, I'm too old for this shit’ of Uhtred, is outstanding. Understandable, given his luck with Christian sons - Christians on general - and inflammable barns and houses, really. He’s a believable and sympathetic character and one Cornwell obviously loves. That comes over loud and clear. Uhtred is, if I’ve read rightly and with only a couple of historical ‘adjustments’ along the way, an ancestor of Cornwell's. Would explain why.

 

So, my really big problem with this one?

 

And.

 

And. And, and, and. And. Ands, every-bloody-where. In sentences, starting sentences, linking sentences. Ands after commas. Ands starting paragraphs, for goodness' sake.

 

And way too many of them.

 

Cornwell achieves the matter of fact, authoritative style of Uhtred’s narrative, through using 'and' as a link in sentences. Like this:

 

"He (Æthelred) wanted the poets to sing of his triumphs, he wanted the chronicles to write his name in history, and so he would start a war, and that war would be Christian Mercia against Christian East Anglia, and it would draw in the rest of Britain and there would be shield walls again.”

 

Makes events that follow an and appear inevitable, no other outcome could possibly have happened. Makes it seem like the character of Uhtred is very decisive, knowledgeable and authoritative. Fine a few times. However, the constant, almost metronomic use of ‘and’ like that and too much, becomes irritating. And, time and time again - like the bad weather - enough! Try another approach once in a while. It really became a problem for me reading the book. Like it was standing in the way of my enjoying the book to the full. Like I would have done, if there were less ands. In the end, I was looking out for them and becoming more and more irritated. Starting sentences with an and is wrong, grammatically. You know it. Starting a paragraph with one is a real no-no.

 

"And I was a warrior, and in a world at war the warrior must be cruel.”

 

Like that. Still on the statute books as being punishable by a blood-eagle, if I’m not much mistaken. Unless you’re writing advertising copy. Then it’s ok. But this is a book, a decent one, this is Bernard Cornwell and he should know that it’s not ok.

 

And because he used it as a device so frequently, without seeming to even try to consider the maybes of any other kind of approach, is why I felt he was on autopilot, not really worried or thinking about it. Maybe he was thinking of the next Sharpe? I think if you only read Cornwell, you’d imagine that this is both how Historical Fiction is done and as good as it gets. Anyone who has read a few of the (now) many (many) other excellent writers on Cornwell’s block, like me, know different. Like I said, this is good, but while there is much to admire and recommend, I still came away from it feeling it could have been better. I’m no writer (that’s not news to you?), so I couldn’t for the life of me tell you how he should improve, but I just put it down at the end - even with the bombshell - and thought ‘ho-hum, autopilot’.

Review: Knights of the Hawk by James Aitcheson

Knights of the Hawk (The Bloody Aftermath of 1066, #3) - James Aitcheson
Being English, I see Hastings from the English side. We were invaded. They came from Normandy. They won, we lost. Later, we fought back. And lost again. I 'know' of course, about how badly 'we' were later treated by 'them.' Think Robin Hood. It's taken for granted that the Normans are the bad guys. One-dimensional bad guys at that. Until I read James Aitcheson's 'Sworn Sword', I hadn't actually considered that there might actually be a Norman side to 1066 and all that. Which was why, to me at least, 'Sworn Sword' came as such a fresh, wonderful, confusing surprise. Suddenly here was I, an Englishman, rooting for Tancred á Dinant, one of 'them.' A horrid Norman.
 
After reading 'Knights of the Hawk', over a couple of days, though at more or less one sitting, I can safely say that the freshness, the surprise and the satisfaction, are all still there. And then some. Expertly written, with passion and verve, 'Knights of the Hawk' is by far the best book I will read all year. Five of Booklikes' finest stars. Straight out. No doubt. No other conclusion possible.

Expertly weaving his way in and out of what (little) we know of the history of this period (as Tancred says; "...the seasons turn and the years and the decades pass, the stories grow ever wilder, and the myths grow more powerful than the truth") James Aitcheson has created a novel - a series of novels now - brim-filled with the energy, with the sights and sounds and not least the smells, of daily life - and death - on and away from the battlefields of the new Norman Britain. Compelling and gripping and packed with nerve-tingling, nail-biting action, 'Knights of the Hawk' is a story that really could have happened, but one I now think only James could have written.
 
It is five years since the slaughter at Hastings and the English resistance still hasn't been extinguished. The Norman invasion of Britain is bogged down, literally, in and around the English rebels' stronghold at Ely. Something needs to be done to rescue the conquest and someone needs to do it. Now. Step forward Tancred á Dinant. A Norman knight who came over with William, who fought at Hastings and who ruled lands in the west of England as vassal to his sworn lord, Robert Malet. But who has, despite saving the day on frequent occasions in the years since Hastings, fallen somewhat in the esteem and pecking order amongst his fellow Normans. He can't understand why he is 'reduced to this escort duty', guarding supply wagons, instead of being richly rewarded for his efforts in securing the England for King William. Wealth and fame, battle honours and leadership, look to be passing him by. While he could be forgiven for giving up and going home, he's still the only one who actually delivers the goods and gets the Normans into Ely.
 
Then, when they've achieved what they set out to do, reached a point where they might have expected to be able to sit back and enjoy the fruits of all their labours, it starts to unravel for Tancred. He has go against his sworn lord and he suddenly finds enemies where he thought he had friends. Hell, as a Norman, you must realise you're in trouble when you realise you identify with the English leader who stood between you and all you thought you ever wanted. Hereward. "He and I were more similar than I'd realised. We both strove for recognition for our deeds, and struggled against the weighty oaths that bound us. Both of us had at one time led whole armies into the field, yet now found ourselves in somewhat humbler circumstances, lacking the respect we craved and which for a while at least we had commanded." However, as we find out later, by removing Hereward for the Normans, Tancred has in fact removed the obstacle stopping him from getting on with living his own life.
 
That's just the first part of the story, as the book can be said to divide itself into two parts. The first, is in line with what we know of the early years of the conquest. The character of Tancred is James' invention, but the events the books have described and the five years it took before William had anything that passed for total control over his newly conquered kingdom, the treachery, the back-stabbing, the rebellions at Ely led by Hereward, all happened. Exactly what happened, we don't know. But I'll go for James' version if it comes to a vote.
 
The second half of the book moves away from inserting Tancred into known events, and we sail (literally) off into the unknown. Into Tancred's own, self-determined future. He has to leave, to find himself. He has lost his faith in the Norman system, so he must find someone from his past, who can give him a future he can believe in. He has been a part of the Norman war machine, he must now go in search of who he, Tancred, really is. "The Breton had become a Norman, had become bound to England." By freeing himself, Tancred realises it can be he who decides who he is and what path his own future should take.
 
It is of course, the character of Tancred that carries the book. We've a reasonable idea of his character from previous novels, but through the course of 'Knights of the Hawk', he fills out. He's always been adaptable, resourceful and believable, now he's a much more nuanced and fully-rounded character. Actually, he's got the decency you normally associate with being English! But Tancred is sometimes too decent, not devious enough, too trusting to imagine for instance, someone might be laying a trap for him. 'Friend' or foe. As the book progresses, Tancred adapts. I won't say he 'learns', but he becomes more aware of other possibilities than the one he has rushed headlong into. He is a Knight, an honourable one at that, but this belief in his own honour and trustworthiness, as proved time and time again in the most desperate of circumstances, sometimes blinds him. That his fellow Normans might see his honourable actions in a different way, in a maybe more cynical way and use his trustworthiness against him, that's what he doesn't see at first. And it causes frustration, which leads to rashness which leads to murder and exile. Not just from a land and friends - also an ideal. Of honour. Leaving all he knew behind and seemingly having his options reduced, as it were, actually helps him become a more complex character.
 
'Knights of the Hawk' begins stealthily, but like a hunting party in the midst of the mists and marshes of Ely, it creeps up and ambushes you. Rich with compelling dialogue and vigorously peppered with heart-stopping action, desperate feats of derring-do, incident and intrigue, this is a book that keeps you on your toes at all times. Not least with the unexpected alliances that pop up. Unexpectedly. The tension, the suspense and the don't dare breathe even though you're just reading the book, in case you give Tancred away - those sequences are astoundingly well-handled. There are highs and lows and heartbreaks, great tragedy and blinking away the tears optimism. There is so much to remember this book for, but (for now) the way James draws out a scene, twisting the tension level up and up and leading to the final delivery of the outcome - while you're trying not to break the tension and flick a look at the last lines to see how the paragraph ends - is what I will perhaps remember perhaps the most from this novel. If you're going to say you 'devour' a book, then this is delicious. Oh, and an ending that is…well, you'll have to read it, wipe your eyes and trust that Tancred is back soon.
 
This novel has really showcased what a really fine new, young writer we have on the Historical Fiction (battle) field, in James Aitcheson. It surely won't be long before we're comparing people like Bernard Cornwell and Conn Iggulden, to James. There is a maturity and confidence to his writing, that if you'd said this was James 20th book, you'd believe it. The surprising thing is, 'Knights of the Hawk' is just James' third outing - we really are spoiled to still have so much to look forward to from him.
 
And we learned that 11th Century Welshmen liked cleaning their teeth. A lot.