The invention of the printing press with movable type was arguably one of the biggest impulses that brought about the advent of the Renaissance and on...moreThe invention of the printing press with movable type was arguably one of the biggest impulses that brought about the advent of the Renaissance and one of the biggest change agents in civilisation.The ability to print texts in large quantities quickly and at a markedly reduced cost changed medieval society in much the same way as the advent of the internet did ours. As an English Lit major specialising in book history, Gutenberg is naturally a person of interest to me, so when I saw Alix Christie’s Gutenberg’s Apprentice on the Headline site I knew I had to read it. Within its covers I found a riveting tale of a man driven by vision and ambition and the apprentice who was pressed into his service against his desire.
Gutenberg’s Apprentice works on several levels. The most obvious one is Peter’s story, his involuntary apprenticing to Gutenberg, his slow growing appreciation of the printing arts, and his finding a place for himself in this changing world. The second level is the story of the transmutative nature of the age. The middle of the fifteenth century was a tempestuous era in which politics and religion were all in a state of flux and the world seemed on the constant precipice of war. Through Gutenberg and Peter’s story we witness how unsettling these times were for the people living through them. Lastly, the narrative functions as a mirror on our recent history. The book is very much a reflection of our society’s reaction to the advent of the internet. There is fear, horror, and disgust, but also great enthusiasm for this new art, utter devotion to the idea and an acknowledgement of its limitless possibilities.
The characters of Peter Schoeffer and Johannes Gutenberg are at the heart of the story, which is told from Peter’s point of view. Christie manages to convey his anger, frustration, and confusion with his new status and master very well and makes it easy to let the reader identify with him. Peter was trained to be a scribe and his love for his craft and his pride in the manuscripts he produces shines through. As a scribe he’s also in a unique situation to understand the meaning of Gutenberg’s invention, though even Peter doesn’t foresee its eventual consequences to society. Peter is a sympathetic character: a dutiful son to his adoptive father, a hard worker, but also ambitious and not always as good a friend and suitor as he should be. I loved the stormy relationship between Peter and Gutenberg, which goes from reluctant to true respect and even a strange kind of affection to ultimately anger and resentment.
Gutenberg is a bit of a Steve Jobs avant le lèttre – a visionary, ambitious, ruthless, and driven to complete his vision to perfection. His is clearly a brilliant mind, but a troubled one and one that doesn’t play well with others. The way he set up his workshop, essentially closeting his workers away for the duration, so as to not let the secret of his invention spill out was somewhat maniacal and disturbing. Yet at the same time, despite his mercurial moods and foul temper, the workshop where Peter labours with about a dozen others is a harmonious and fascinating place and the scenes where we just witness the men at work on creating their bibles were some of my favourite in the book.
Like today, business espionage was rife and in the days before the invention of patents, anyone could steal your design, which explains Gutenberg’s obsession with secrecy. Yet, his secrecy was also due to political machinations. Gutenberg was an odd duck, a patrician working as a tradesman, yet not part of any Guild, something that creates no end of tension between him and the Guilds in the novel, both due to the Guilds’ innate trust of those from the social strata above them and the fact that they couldn’t control – and profit – from his trade. Additionally, there are the politics of the Church and the Holy Roman Empire, which were largely clerical, but manifested in secular affairs as well. Gutenberg has his spoon in all of these boiling pots, stirring them this way and that to gain as much advantage as he can and not always with a positive result. It creates added tension in the story and lends urgency to the narrative as Gutenberg, Peter, and the crew strife to finish their work before it is discovered.
Gutenberg’s Apprentice is sneakily compelling. Christie’s prose is evocative and atmospheric, drawing the reader into Gutenberg’s workshop and the streets of Mainz. While this review has focused mostly on Peter and Gutenberg, there are several more wonderful characters, such as Peter’s adoptive father, Johann Fust, and Peter’s sweetheart, Anna to name but two. Gutenberg’s Apprentice shows a world on the cusp of a major technological revolution and if the book is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of the book, is it just as much a compelling read for those who are interested in societal change and the forms it takes. I loved Gutenberg’s Apprentice and I highly recommend it. Alix Christie is certainly an author whose work I’ll be keeping an eye on in the future.
Women disguising themselves as men to be able to do things or go places denied them by societal conventions due to their sex is an age-old phenomenon,...moreWomen disguising themselves as men to be able to do things or go places denied them by societal conventions due to their sex is an age-old phenomenon, in life and in literature. From Shakespeare's Rosalind, Viola, and Imogen, to Tolkien's Eowyn, Martin's Arya, and Pierce's Alanna, we can find many different versions of and motives for the phenomenon. But one of the most common motives seems to have been so that our main character can take up arms, be it as a vocation as Alanna, to save a beloved family member as Mulan does, or to escape from her pursuers unseen as Arya does. Those are all fictional examples, but there are many historical ones too: Joan of Arc and Hannah Snell come too mind, but as Kameron Hurley points out there are many more. In Neverhome Hunt focuses on just such a woman who takes up arms to keep her husband from going to war, because she wants to see places, because she is just more suited to it, and because she believed in the cause.
Ash is all of the above, but with the added motivation of a traumatic event in her past which is slowly revealed through the narrative. The mystery of why Ash left for the war and Bartholomew stayed was long unsolved, as was her mother’s fate. The reason for her mum’s fate was stunning, especially once we find out the identity of their erstwhile neighbours. Yet this slow reveal is also the novel’s biggest weakness. It only comes towards the end of the novel and our way there is rather meandering and somewhat slow. Despite this slow pace, the narrative never fails to compel and this is mostly due to Ash’s voice and the unusual narrative structure. Ash tells her story to the reader in a no-nonsense way; she’s not exactly ignorant, but she comes across as an honest and hard-working farmer, who hasn’t gone much beyond basic schooling. This is echoed in the structure of the novel. It’s divided in a large number of 2-4 page chapters, which somewhat alleviates the slow feel of the book.
Strangely enough, Ash’s being female is far less of a driving point for the narrative than you’d expect. Is certainly plays its part in how the story plays out, especially in the latter part of the book, but it serves more to emphasise the alienating nature of war and Ash’s trauma than to be a "woman warrior caught and tried”-story. I’d argue that Ash’s story shows the cost of war on its combatants – not just in her own experiences, but also in that of her fellow combatants – and that this was the true heart of the narrative. As one of her fellow (female) soldier puts it: “I made it back, sure enough, but never felt I’d made it home.” And that resonates strongly with Ash’s narrative; from the moment we meet her until the end of the book Ash is striving to get back, home to her farm, to Bartholomew, and to the person she was before she left. But that is a place and person that is gone forever and it’s this fact that she discovers over the course of the book.
Neverhome wasn’t a perfect read, but it was a compelling one. It’s historical fiction, yet I don’t think there were any true historical persons included in the main cast. The setting in the Civil War was interesting, especially since I don’t know that much about that war beyond the basics. Neverhome isn’t a cheery tale, in fact the ending of the book is just painfully tragic. Ash’s tale ends in tears and in a confession that I didn’t see coming, even if the signs are there to find throughout the book. If you like your fiction towards the more literary end of the spectrum, Neverhome will definitely be one for you.
Billed as Sherlock meets Dr Who and provided with a gorgeous cover, Jackaby first caught my eye when I saw it on one of the Book Smugglers Radar posts...moreBilled as Sherlock meets Dr Who and provided with a gorgeous cover, Jackaby first caught my eye when I saw it on one of the Book Smugglers Radar posts. And despite having watched neither show, only being aware of them through my twitter timeline, I was intrigued. With good reason as it turns out, because William Ritter’s debut is a delightful read.
The story is told from the viewpoint of Abigail Rook. She’s a girl in her late teens who has run away from home to have adventures, rebelling against her parents who think girl children can have all the learning they want – even go to university – as long as when the time comes, they don’t get any ideas to use their brains and wiles for anything else than netting themselves a husband. Abigail was having none of that and took her tuition money and ran ending up in New Fiddleham. I really enjoyed Abigail’s character. There is a down-to-earth practicality to her that I found oddly compelling. Fiercely independent, she’s also remarkably unflappable, though somewhat queasy at the sight of blood.
While Abigail is our narrator and the heart of the story, the star is the titular Jackaby. Eccentric, but brilliant, it is in Jackaby that the nods to Holmes and Dr Who are strongest, right down to the long scarf and tasting the evidence. Despite his oddities, or perhaps because of them, Jackaby remains less aloof from his assistant than would normally be proper, especially in the late nineteenth century. He’s a brilliant detective, who is regarded more as a bane than a help by the local constabulary as they don’t truck with his supernatural explanations. But Jackaby’s matter-of-factness about the existence of supernatural creatures and phenomena, make Abigail’s blithe acceptance of them more convincing.
Of course this easy acceptance is helped along by the fact that Jackaby’s house cum offices somewhat resemble a Tardis House, with impossible rooms and too-large spaces in it. Not to mention the other inhabitants, the house’s previous owner Jenny, now deceased yet still around, and Jackaby’s former assistant Douglas the mallard. Lastly, there is Charlie; a young police man at the start of his career, he instantly takes a shine to Abigail and she to him. Yet in the midst of the murder investigation they land in and with some other complicating factors, this remains a case of longing looks and polite exchanges, culminating in a daring rescue. I loved how Ritter built up Abigail’s relationship with all of these characters. My favourite supporting character had to be the ghostly Jenny,
In New Fiddleham Ritter has created a great setting. The town itself felt picturesque and lovely, without being overly described that way or coming on twee. The lore and mythology at the base of this alternate world is familiar, but with a twist. While the presence of out and out magic is never confirmed, there certainly are occult and supernatural beings and phenomena, although they aren’t the ones you’d expect. New Fiddleham felt like a real place, one that you could just step into and explore, yet it is a fictional town. At least, according to Google maps it doesn’t exist. It says a lot for Ritter’s ability to convey a sense of place through his narrative that New Fiddleham felt so convincingly real.
The murder mystery, which serves as the foundation of the plot, is fascinating and more complex than I initially thought, though I cottoned onto the culprit a little before the big reveal. The clues are all there, seeded throughout the narrative and Ritter cleverly places so they are just mis-aligning unless you are looking at them in the exactly correct way. I do think that those well-versed in British folklore and faery lore will figure out the truth about some of the characters faster than I did.
The book’s greatest draw, may also be its greatest flaw; I expect many reader will be drawn to the Sherlock/Dr Who billing, but as someone who is only aware of them as cultural phenomena and not a fan at times the references felt like window dressing and also made me wonder about the hints and nods I missed due to unfamiliarity with the shows.
Still, even if I felt a little left out of the in-jokes at times, I had a fantastic time with Jackaby. I found the narrative compelling and Abigail a fabulous main character, one I hope to meet again in the future. I think that any mystery lover, Holmes, or Dr Who fan will very much enjoy this book and will get a kick out of the quirky character that is R. F. Jackaby. William Ritter has delivered a wonderfully atmospheric and fun debut novel with Jackaby and I hope it the first of many novels from this promising new author.
The Second World War has always held a special fascination for me both due to the important role it played in my country’s history and because my dad...moreThe Second World War has always held a special fascination for me both due to the important role it played in my country’s history and because my dad used to read to me from all sorts of WWII adventure novels when I was little. Since those early years I’ve read a lot of books on the topic, both fiction and non-fiction. When I was approached about reviewing And Some Fell on Stony Ground it wasn’t a hard decision to say yes, since it fit squarely in that wheelhouse and sounded fascinating. A fictional memoir – meaning that while this story was fictional, but that the experiences it was based on weren’t fictive – the narrative follows the last active hours of an RAF pilot’s career in a close-up, hard-hitting fashion, one that does away with the shining, heroic accounts of such exploits and instead focuses on the bone-chilling fear and danger these young men faced every operation they flew.
Told in a close third-person point of view over the course of about twelve hours, the narrative is both claustrophobic and a close examination of the emotional state of the novel’s protagonist Leslie Mason. While set over half a day, we get more of Mason’s war experience through copious flashbacks; memories triggered by events, scents, and sounds Mason encounters during his preparations and actual running of the day’s operation. It is a fascinating, stream-of-consciousness-esque way of giving the reader an insight to Mason’s state of mind and the larger scope of the experiences of the Bomber Boys.
The book’s protagonist, Leslie Mason, is somewhat of an anti-hero. The look at his thoughts and emotions is searingly honest; due to the fictional veneer and the fact that what we get are mostly internal dialogues, the story is not concerned with honour and saving face, which means we get the dirt and grit of Mason’s inner life. His story includes a depressing litany of loss, with the majority of the aircrews not making it to the end of the war. A tour of duty was commonly thirty flown ops, a number that at times seemed endless, especially once the raids became a sort of grim routine. Mason describes a strange sort of stasis: no looking to the future or remembering the past, only the endless now to survive. This timeless and harrowing existence wore down most crew members’ ability to cope with the mental strain. Yet most men shared the desperate wish to hide any weakness, in fear of being labelled a malingerer, which let to a lot of repressed PTSD symptoms and lasting mental scars.
And Some Fell on Stony Ground is far more a psychological autopsy of Leslie Mason than a rip-roaring war adventure, which it isn’t meant to be in any case. Yet it illustrates that while Mason is somewhat of the anti-hero, as Richard Overy puts it in his introduction to the book, these young men were truly heroic, facing their fears each day and flying despite the terror and danger. While Mann's intent may have been to counterbalance the popular vision of the valiant, brave, and fearless flying boys of the RAF with a more truthful account of life as a bomber pilot, he at the same time strengthens the impression of the bravery of these pilots in a way that feels more genuine than most.
A vividly depicted and starkly honest account of the realities of war, Leslie Mann’s fictional memoir And Some Fell on Stony Ground will be of interest to anyone interested in World War II, the psychological effects of combat, and a look at the inner workings of a bomber crew on operation. Published in collaboration with the Imperial War Museums and with an introduction by Richard Overy, which gives context to Mann’s narrative and explains the contemporary attitudes to combat stress-related afflictions suffered by the combatants, And Some Fell on Stony Ground was a gripping read and one I won’t quickly forget.
Jessie Burton's debut novel The Miniaturist is set in seventeenth-century Amsterdam. This was Holland's Golden Age and as such an important part of my...moreJessie Burton's debut novel The Miniaturist is set in seventeenth-century Amsterdam. This was Holland's Golden Age and as such an important part of my country's heritage. For that reason alone the book would have been of interest to me. Add to that the wonderful inspiration for the book, the Oortman doll-house still on display in our Rijksmuseum, and the fact that a lot of people who's opinion I respect were saying nothing but good things about it, and the book became a must-read.
To be frank, I loved The Miniaturist to pieces, so much so that I don't even know where to begin. From the synopsis I'd expected the novel to have a love story within its pages in addition to a mystery, yet while relationships are at the core of the narrative and love plays its part, this is not the story of a young wife falling in love with her husband. Instead the novel explores how secrets bind and divide people and how a society's view of what is acceptable can stunt and shape people's lives. Burton weaves a stunning tale that captivates with its central mystery and its characters.
For Nella, young and somewhat vulnerable, moving into the Brandt household is somewhat of a shocking experience. Hoping for a loving marriage, with all that entails, she's disappointed and hurt to find her husband largely absent – ostensibly on business – and spending most of her time with her sister-in-law Marin and the servants Cornelia and Otto. The latter two are more family than staff having lived for Marin and Johannes for over five years since they were very young. Cornelia is a feisty, cheerful girl and soon becomes a friend to Nella. Otto is officially Johannes’ man servant, though he’s more of a steward for the household and he is something of a curiosity in Golden Age Amsterdam. Because Otto is black. Bought and freed by Johannes, he is devoted to the Brandt family, but always an outsider as people always regard him as a novelty and often treat him badly.
Marin and Johannes are quite enigmatic when we first meet them. It’s only slowly that they reveal themselves to Nella and the reader, in some cases not quite voluntary either. I loved Marin’s independent and headstrong nature. At points she comes across as a bully, not just domineering Nella, but Johannes as well. And strangely, Johannes lets her, which isn’t something you’d expect from a powerful merchant of that era. Johannes is a kind, though absent, man and he has some secrets of his own to keep. The growth in Nella’s regard and appreciation for both Marin and Johannes was very well handled and by the end had me in tears. Burton writes them just beautifully, with a sharpness and pathos that gives them a wonderful depth and brings them to life.
The rest of the cast is just as vividly drawn. I especially enjoyed the awful Agnes and Frans Meermans, clients of Johannes’ and old family friends turned rivals. They were deliciously horrid and petty, with just enough of a reason to be so to make them just this side of intolerable. But the most striking character of the book and the most elusive was the titular miniaturist. We never actually meet her, yet her presence in the book is all pervasive. I loved how Nella’s enchantment with her work slowly turns suspicious and later into horror. She becomes a brooding and threatening presence in Nella’s life and we never learn whether she means to aid or harm Nella and the rest of the Brandt household.
The darkness and mystery at the heart of the novel is like pure chocolate, bitter yet irresistible. The secrets revealed are tragic one and all and in some cases quite unexpected. Yet they all highlight the hypocrisy of society in what it deems acceptable and proper. It shows that you can get away with anything as long as it takes place behind closed doors and you have enough money and power to buy people off. Yet accumulate too much of both and people will do anything to bring you down. It’s a social commentary not just of seventeenth-century Amsterdam, but of contemporary society as well.
As I said above, I absolutely adored The Miniaturist. While its plot is resolved and the story brought to a resounding close, it left me wanting more. I didn’t want to leave Nella and her household, I wanted to know what happens next, what becomes of them now? Nella’s story may be over, but with The Miniaturist Jessie Burton’s has only just begun. This book is a stellar debut, one of my favourite books read so far this year, and I highly recommend it.(less)
Reading Irregularity, Jurassic London’s sixth full-length anthology and the second edited solo by Jared Shurin, was a strange reading experience, as I...moreReading Irregularity, Jurassic London’s sixth full-length anthology and the second edited solo by Jared Shurin, was a strange reading experience, as I’ve read a lot of seventeenth and eighteenth century literature at university. Much of that was in the Penguin Classic editions (the ones with a black spine and a red bar at the top) and while the cover is in no way reminiscent of those, the font used for Irregularity really resembles the look of those editions. Add to that the fact that a lot of the stories are written in the same language and with the same sensibility as those classics and for a moment it seemed as if I’d traveled back in time to my student days. Thankfully, reading Irregularity in no way felt like an essay assignment, in fact it was fantastic fun.
Irregularity is clever, subversive and just so much fun. Out of fourteen stories there were only two that didn’t really work for me: Rose Biggin’s A Game Proposition and Roger Luckhurst’s Circulation. Biggin's story didn’t sit well with me, because I had a hard time following the game and the dialogue, which made me have to reread sections several times and caused me to lose the rhythm of the story. Luckhurst’s Circulation just didn’t connect. A story of a clerk sent to San Domingue in the Caribbean to check up on one of the sugar plantations, the story is both a critique of slavery and a horror story about medical research. And I didn’t really get it.
The other stories all worked really well for me though. How could I not love the grandfather paradox library in Nick Harkaway’s Irregularity, or Simon Guerrier’s Ada Lovelace creating a Victorian version of Jurassic Park, literally loosing the dinosaurs in the crystal palace? Or James Smythe’s exploration of failure and its ability to drive a man insane? There are five stories I wanted to give bit more time too as they really hit it out of the park for me.
E.J. Swift - The Spiders of Stockholm This amazing tale set in eighteenth century Sweden mixes the Enlightenment drive to classify things and order them with magic. In traditional secondary world fantasy magic and (mechanical) science are often exclusionary, either because magic precludes the drive to invent machinery to perform tasks humans can’t or won’t do, or because understanding how a thing works destroys its magic. Swift takes this latter trope and places it in our own eighteenth century and combines it with the belief that there is power in the knowledge of true names. This combination made for a bittersweet story and Swift managed to write a story about spiders that didn’t give me the willies, which is a feat in and of itself.
Adam Roberts - The Assassination of Isaac Newton by the Coward Robert Boyle Robert’s story starts with the line: “You will excuse me if I remark,” said Boyle, “how strongly I am struck by your resemblance to Brian May.” After which I was properly sold on this story, no matter where Roberts was going to take it. I love me some Queen! Roberts litters this tale of a scientist desperate to speed up scientific progress with references to Queen lyrics and other classic pop songs. The most referenced and most iconic of these is Bohemian Rhapsody which left me to wonder whether it would age well or if in a decade or so younger readers would even get the references, but given Bohemian Rhapsody’s almost permanent top three spot in best of-lists perhaps this isn’t that much of a worry as it would have been for say Single Ladies.
Richard de Nooy - The Heart of Aris Kindt In the Netherlands the seventeenth century was known as The Golden Age in which our country prospered: we sailed the seven seas, we were a bastion for free expression of thought with many natural philosophers publishing their work out of the Netherlands because they were forbidden in their own country, and some of our greatest painters were active in this period. One of them was Rembrandt and it is he and his work on one of his master pieces The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp that are the focus of Richard de Nooy’s story. What happens when the subject of the painting, the titular Aris Kindt starts showing some strange phenomena? And is science always more important to scientist than prestige? I loved De Nooy’s smart and atmospheric story and now I want to go visit the original painting when I’m next in The Hague!
Kim Curran - A Woman Out of Time It’s no secret I’m a fan of Kim Curran’s work, but I’d never read any short fiction by her before or non-YA work for that matter. So I was looking forward to seeing how her style and voice worked in adult short form. The answer is that it worked beautifully. I truly loved this mysterious tale of time-traveling beings – it remains unclear whether they are aliens or god-like entities – who have a decidedly patriarchal outlook on how life on Earth and its scientific development should progress and the trouble they have to go through to keep women from out-thinking and literally out-shining the men around them. It’s a tale with a modern sensibility but one that fits in-between the other tales in the anthology quite harmoniously.
Tiffani Angus - Fairchild's Folly One of the received wisdoms about anthologies is that they should close out with a bang and so with one of their strongest stories and Irregularity’s editor Jared Shurin certainly kept to that rule with Fairchild’s Folly. A beautiful meditation on the nature of love and humanity’s unrelenting need to categorise things I really loved this last story. The structure of the story told through letters and short sections of straight narrative, flashing between several points in time within a twenty-year span was very well done and lent this relatively short story a far larger feeling and scope than its length would have the reader expect.
As I’ve come to expect from Jared Shurin and his small press Jurassic London, Irregularity is a solid anthology with impressive and fantastic stories. I really like Irregularity’s theme and while I wasn’t as blown away by this anthology as I was by their last anthology The Book of the Dead, it’s still a highly recommended collection of short stories. Shurin has once again gathered together a strong slate of authors, some well known, some less so, but just as talented. If you’re looking for clever, intelligent and entertaining stories Irregularity certainly has that for you in spades.
I first became aware of Susan Spann when I came across her first novel Claws of the Cat last year. It immediately pinged a lot of the alerts on my rad...moreI first became aware of Susan Spann when I came across her first novel Claws of the Cat last year. It immediately pinged a lot of the alerts on my radar: historical fiction, a murder mystery and an interesting setting in feudal Japan. Unfortunately I never came across the book, so I missed out on picking it up, but when I was approached about reviewing the second one I knew I had to say yes. For those of you who like me haven’t read the previous book: don’t worry Blade of the Samurai stands alone beautifully and makes for a very satisfying read.
The book is set in feudal Japan at the end of the sixteenth century. It’s an interesting era and one I don’t know that much about, as I’m more familiar – if only a smidgen – with its history a century later. I really enjoyed the setting and the way Spann evokes Kyoto, though beyond canals, bridges, wooden houses and sliding doors, she leaves it pretty nebulous on the whole. With an author writing in a culture different from their own, there’s always the risk of over explanation, to make sure that the reader understands all of the nuances and details included in the narrative. Spann doesn’t make this mistake, giving enough context to clarify meaning, but without turning into a textbook on Japanese history. She accomplishes this by using the nice device of having her narrator Hiro working as a translator for an outsider, one of the rare foreigners present in Japan, the Portuguese Jesuit Father Mateo. This conceit allows Spann to comment on Japanese culture and society both through Hiro explaining it to Mateo and by having Hiro wince every time Mateo behaves in a not-Japanese manner, that had he been Japanese would have given offence. The one thing that made the text sometimes a little harder to grasp was the fact that some Japanese vocabulary used wasn’t translated. It turned out there was a glossary for these terms in the back, which I only found out after I’d finished the book, and while the gist of them was clear from their context, I found myself distracted by it.
As mentioned, the book’s narrator and main protagonist Hiro officially is a translator to Father Mateo, which makes him look at Japanese society with different eyes. But Hiro himself is somewhat of an outsider in and of himself already, due to being a shinobi, an assassin, which is a breed of men taught to hold themselves apart and furthermore by dint of his cover story, which is that he is a masterless samurai, a ronin, and as such is considered of lesser rank. This outsider status also helps to allow the reader into the story and this, for most readers, unfamiliar society. The samurai treat him with disdain and he’s often at a disadvantage socially speaking, especially in this story where much of the investigation takes place within the Shogun palace, a place peopled by those of the Samurai class. Hiro’s unique training has also made him somewhat blind to class boundaries, something that the palace officials he has to deal with observe with a jaundiced eye. In a society underpinned by the principle of honour, pretending to be someone he’s not and having to tolerate disrespect is hard for Hiro and I liked that Spann shows him having to force himself to not react.
Hiro’s employer, Father Mateo is an interesting character. A devout man of staunch faith, he’s nevertheless quite flexible in his thinking, though somewhat uncaring about giving offence to his hosts through his Western manners. It’s also in elements of Father Mateo’s household that the story’s standalone character falls down the most. Blade of the Samurai never repeats the explanation for how and why Hiro comes to serve as Mateo’s bodyguard, only that he has a fat contract to do so and that as a consequence his life is linked to that of Mateo. Similarly, it was never quite clear to me whether Ana, the housekeeper, was Japanese or Portuguese. From her behaviour I’d say Japanese, however, Ana seemed more like a Portuguese name. If she is Portuguese, how did she end up in Japan? In the grand scheme of things not knowing these details doesn’t affect the plot, but they did shake me from the narrative several times.
The mystery was tightly plotted. The murder was somewhat of a locked-room mystery, with the attendant back and forth between suspects. I loved the concept and especially seeing how Hiro’s theories develop. Of course the initial main suspect, Kazu, is Hiro’s friend and he really wants to believe in his innocence, especially considering he’s a shinobi from the same clan. Hiro can completely absolve him of guilt at first and as a consequence stays suspicious of Kazu, something that almost ruins their friendship. I really loved the interplay between these to, as I did the relationship between Hiro and Mateo, which is more a friendship than anything else. I kept second guessing myself as to who the real culprit was and the final reveal was amazing. I really liked the way the plot played out and it made for a very satisfying ending.
Blade of the Samurai was a terrific read, with only some minor quibbles. If you enjoy well-plotted historical crime fiction then I recommend you take a look at this one as it is highly entertaining. The book has convinced me I’ll have to track down a copy of Claws of the Cat at some point to learn how Hiro and Mateo first met. And I sincerely hope there’ll be many more adventures in the Shinobi Mysteries, but we’re guaranteed at least one more due out next year. Until then you can get caught up with Claws of the Cat and Blade of the Samurai.
Elizabeth Fremantle writes historical fiction set in the Tudor era. In a market where one would expect every aspect of this family’s turbulent reign t...moreElizabeth Fremantle writes historical fiction set in the Tudor era. In a market where one would expect every aspect of this family’s turbulent reign to have been mined to exhaustion, Fremantle approaches it through avenues that have been lightly travelled, if not missed entirely. In her first book, Queen’s Gambit, she focused on Henry VIII’s often overlooked last wife Katherine Parr and in her second novel, she focused on the similarly neglected Grey sisters. Having read Karleen Bradford’s The Nine Days Queen in the Dutch translation when I was about ten or eleven, Jane Grey has always fascinated me. When I saw the synopsis for Fremantle’s Sisters of Treason, the story of Jane’s younger sisters, I knew I had to read this book. Katherine and Mary Grey make for compelling leading ladies and the book was a fantastic read.
The titular Sisters of Treason are Katherine and Mary Grey, the younger sisters of Jane Grey. We only meet them after their sister has met her fate on the executioner’s block and they are ensconced at court as ladies of the Queen’s Chamber. We follow them through the next two decades and see Northumberland’s bid to keep the throne in Protestant hands after the young King Edward’s death haunts their lives and how by dint of their blood they will always be regarded as a threat to the throne. But while a story of court politics and conspiracy what stands out most is their humanity. These are just two girls, different as sisters can be bound by love and blood.
Katherine is beautiful, impetuous, and impulsive; the spitting image of her beloved, treasonous father she has his passionate heart and loves boldly an unwisely. It’s hard not to love Katherine as a character, as she’s complex in unexpected ways and has some of the most interesting relationships in the narrative. I loved her close friendship with Jane ‘Juno’ Seymour and the mischief they get up to together. But Katherine takes some very dangerous decisions and it’s hard to see her go down that road knowing where it’ll end. I loved Katherine’s indomitable optimism and loyalty though, she’s steadfast in her love, whatever it may bring her.
Mary Grey was perhaps my favourite character in this book. The youngest of the three sisters, Mary is set apart by her crooked back and small stature. Even as a young teen, she remained small enough to comfortably be held on a lap, as Queen Mary often did, something that Mary Grey despised. Mary’s voice is something special. While conscious of the way her back dictates how others treat her and understandably angry and bitter about this, she is a good and kind person, though quick of wit and sharp of tongue when provoked. It is this that attracts Elizabeth’s attention once she becomes queen. Mary is also an astute observer of court life and it is through her that we learn of most of the plotting and politics going round at court. Mary has learned at a young age that people will overlook her and speak of things in front of her that should have been kept secret.
Mary is not the only character that is at once of the court and outside it. Our third narrator Levina Teerlinck –court painter and close friend of Frances Grey, the girls’ mother – is also someone who moves through the court mostly unregarded. When sat in the queen’s rooms to sketch scenes and draw portraits, people often forget to watch their words. Levina is also our clearest viewpoint of the religious strife that marked Queen Mary’s reign. She witnesses the countless burnings and as a “reformed” Catholic is closely watched by Bishop Bonner’s informers and even threatened into informing on their neighbours. She’s also instrumental in the creation of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs in this story, an element that adds an extra element of suspense to the story. Levina’s viewpoint is also that of a more mature woman, one who is settled in a happy marriage, one that requires work but brings contentment, and as such is a good mirror to Katherine’s youthful passions.
Mary and Elizabeth Tudor might not be central characters in Sisters of Treason, they are huge presences in the book and ones that hold huge and frightening power over the Grey girls, a fact that especially Elizabeth is wont to remind the sisters of regularly. Despite their fearsome presences Fremantle doesn’t paint these two powerful women as ogres. For example, while Mary earned her nickname Bloody Mary to the fullest this didn’t stem from being an awful person, but from desperation and the devout conviction that the Catholic faith was the one true faith and that for the good of her people she should bring them back to the Roman Church. Elizabeth is a hard young woman, one who knows what she must do to survive on the throne, yet at the same time she yearns for love and has to rein in her heart at each opportunity. Fremantle shows us two very human queens, marked by their awful, painful youths and by the pressures of the Tudor throne. In their portrayal, and indeed in much of the narrative, the reader finds a contemplation of the meaning of power, of what people will do to gain and/or keep it and how the whiff of a chance at it changes them.
Sisters of Treason is a remarkable book, one that I just couldn’t stop reading. Fremantle’s writing is clean and precise and conveys layers of depth in its narrative. I loved Katherine, Mary, and Levina and their story. I loved learning more about this family, who is so often relegated to the footnotes of Tudor history. With Queen’s Gambit Fremantle suitably impressed me, with Sisters of Treason she’s made me a fan. If you love Tudor-era historical fiction then Elizabeth Fremantle’s Sisters of Treason is a must-read. I can’t wait for her next book to see who she tackles next!
Clifford Beal’s Gideon’s Angel impressed me very much last year and when the author told me a prequel was in the works I couldn’t wait to get my hand...moreClifford Beal’s Gideon’s Angel impressed me very much last year and when the author told me a prequel was in the works I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. Raven’s Banquet is set 26 years before Gideon’s Angel and is told in memoir form by Richard Treadwell in 1635, so nine years after the main events related in the book and running up to the earliest events recounted in Gideon’s Angel. While the narrative as such stands alone quite well, its ending clearly makes it a prequel and the 1635 arc definitely isn’t resolved. To find out what happened the reader will have to seek out the next book.
What then is the value of this prequel? First of all, it allows Beal to delve deeper into Treadwell’s history and develop his character further. The reader is introduced to a younger, more idealistic Richard Treadwell. Not always as sympathetic as he is in Gideon's Angel, however, as Treadwell is very much a son of privilege and one that feels he's been less well-treated by his family than he ought to have been. His motivation for joining the Danish army is also rather surprising. Of course there is the young man's dream of glory and riches to be gained, but Treadwell also seems genuinely devout and willing to die to save the Protestant people of Germany from the clutches of the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor. This motivation isn't just surprising given the Treadwell we know, but it is also hard to fathom for someone like me, who’s largely agnostic. Yet this kind of militant devotion is of all ages, just consider the jihadis in the Middle East or some of the more militant fundamentalist Christian groups in the US.
Second, the prequel allows Beal to introduce more information on Treadwell's gift. His ability to see the dead is examined in more depth, including the fact that he was told to never ever reveal what he saw for fear of being denounced. We also learn that his ability makes him prone to haunting, something that serves to drive the plot forward in an interesting way, without leading him by the nose. The third element that makes this prequel a good addition to the history of Richard Treadwell, is the fact that we learn more about the mysterious Anya, a Roma woman who aids Treadwell and provides him protection from the supernatural. I liked learning more about his connection to Anya and how they met, but it was also Anya who was at the heart of the thing that bothered me most about the book. Treadwell, in keeping with the time the book is set in, refers to Anya and her folk as gypsies. While historically completely accurate and a quick search of the OED online doesn’t provide any other contemporaneous term, its use made me wince, since its now widely considered a racial slur. Beal works hard to incorporate era-appropriate language and language use, succeeding at this well. The language feels authentic, even if the subject matter isn’t, though even that is debatable as in Treadwell’s time people did truly believe in witches.
Even though her being called a gypsy made me wince, I really did love Anya. She a person all her own, living her life on her own terms and appearing and disappearing at will in Treadwell’s life. Another group of women that choose to live life on their own terms are the women who save Treadwell and his comrades after the battle at Lütter. This band of women living on the Kroeteberg are women widowed by war, who have chosen to fend for themselves in the woods making charcoal, leaving their children behind with relatives. Chief among them are the Oma, the German (and Dutch) word for grandmother, who is the camp’s leader and priestess, and Rosemunde, her second-in-command. Rosemunde is such a decisive figure and her ultimate choice to free Richard was stunningly written and her courage hit me hard. Rosemunde lives on her own terms and not on those of any man’s. Anya, Rosemunde, and the other Kroeteberg women are exemplars of women ostracised and worse, because of not submitting to male dominance. Again something that is still relevant today.
Other characters worth mentioning are the bluff and hearty Balthazar, who is hard as nails yet at the same time is kind, Richard’s brother William, who we see in the framing timeline set in 1635, and the creepy and dangerous Christoph. In truth, none of the men in Treadwell’s squad are men you’d like to meet in a dark alley, but Balthazar seems capable of kindness as does the converted papist Andreas. Christoph, however, is something else and he deserved everything he got. The growth in the relationship between Richard and William was lovely, yet it still feels as if there are some pieces of their story missing; perhaps these will be added in a later story.
Raven’s Banquet is a wonderfully captivating story, yet it should be read in conjunction with or after Gideon’s Angel. That way you’ll get all the nuances, plus the cliffhanger ending is softened by either already knowing what happens or being able to find out immediately. Beal’s second Treadwell novel is a truly enjoyable read and I hope we’ll meet Treadwell again as between his leaving Lütter and his being taken in 1635, there’s still quite a gap of adventures to be filled.
Snorri Kristjansson's debut Swords of Good Men was one of my favourites of last year. So I was looking forward to reunite with Audun and Ulfar after...moreSnorri Kristjansson's debut Swords of Good Men was one of my favourites of last year. So I was looking forward to reunite with Audun and Ulfar after that rather game-changing ending of the last book. Not to mention that when my review copy arrived there was this to consider, which completely made my month. Saying I started Blood Will Follow with high expectations is putting it very mildly. For the most part Kristjansson met all of them, even exceeded some of them, though the book did somewhat suffer from Middle Book Syndrome. I started to wonder where the plot was going about halfway through, as it felt a little meandering, but trusting Kristjansson to know what he is doing, I read on to find that everything came together beautifully. Be aware that there will be spoilers for the previous book in the series, so if you want to remain spoiler-free best not read on.
Blood Will Follow is in large part about exploring the characters of Audun, Ulfar, and Valgard in more depth. I really loved the development of Audun and Ulfar. We learn more of Audun's history and witness Ulfar's grief over Lillia. But sadly, we see precious little interaction between them, as they go their separate ways quite early on. I found Audun's narrative more compelling, mostly because Ulfar in his grief turns a bit cold and callous, while Audun retreats into himself, which isn't that different from how we met him at Stenvik—Audun is your prototypical strong and silent type. I loved Audun's stay with Helga, who was an amazing character and whom I hope we'll see more of, but from the way we left her, I'm sure we will. Helga is a wonderfully self-contained, independent woman, who stands up for herself and doesn't accept any man's dominion over her. The way she continuously put her presumptuous neighbour Johan Aargard in his place was fantastic. Here is a woman with agency and power who is not afraid to use it. She's also quite mysterious and I hope we learn more of her past.
I loved seeing Ulfar with his uncle Alfgeir Bjorne and the group he leaves Uppsala with containing Goran, Arnar and Inga. Ulfar had some great travelling scenes and the growing bond between Arnar and Inga was rather sweet. In addition to Audun and Ulfar's storyline we also follow Valgard's story and he is as confusing and infuriating as ever. He does things that are despicable, he's a turncoat, and an opportunist, yet at the same time he is kind where he doesn't need to be, for example when he treats a young girl who has been raped by some of the soldiers with tender care. And there are several other acts of Valgard's that are up for numerous interpretations and it'll be interesting to see how his story will develop.
As before Kristjansson peoples his book with great secondary characters. There are those who we've met before in Swords of Good Men, such as Finn, Jorn, Runar and of course King Olav, who remains a strange figure in his blind devotion to the White Christ and his almost child-like belief in his power. The one character that had me cheering when they reappeared upon the page was Thora. I loved her in the previous book and she was just as cool in this book. There are also several new characters, several of whom have been mentioned above, but one who hasn't been mentioned but who I really liked as well, though technically he's one of the not-so-good guys, was Botolf. Like Skargrim he was just too entertaining not to like him.
I liked the mythical inclusions and the way that the old gods and the new are pitted against each other. There are several times when Kristjansson sneaks the old gods into the narrative in an active role and in hind sight I missed some of the signs the first two times. Reading back certain passages the clues are clearly seeded in them, I just didn't pick up on them. There was also a bit of a change in Kristjansson's writing style; the changes in point of view were less cinematic and fast, and became more traditional, chapter by chapter, probably due to the fact that the storylines are set in three different places, instead of in the small village. And while there were still elements of the style and rhythm of Old English poetry in the ebb and flow of the prose it was less pronounced than in Swords of Good Men.
While I had my doubts when they parted, by the ending of Blood Will Follow it was clear that it was necessary for Ulfar and Audun to go their separate ways for a while to come to grips with their situation and regain their equilibrium. And even if I wondered at the pacing, it was still a joy to spend time with Audun, Ulfar, and even Valgard. Slight case of middle book syndrome or not, Kristjansson delivers another gripping read, proving he knows how to weave a tale that will enthral his readers. Blood Will Follow has placed Kristjansson firmly on my must-read list and I'll be impatiently waiting for the last instalment of the Valhalla series. Go read the book and then come join me in the waiting; I'll keep your seat warm and the mead to hand.
Antonia Hodgson's debut The Devil in the Marshalsea was one of the books I've been looking forward to reading ever since it was announced. Set in the...moreAntonia Hodgson's debut The Devil in the Marshalsea was one of the books I've been looking forward to reading ever since it was announced. Set in the early eighteenth century featuring a murder mystery set in one of the most hellish places in London, it sounded like it would hit all my reading buttons. But the book didn't just meet my hopes and expectations, it exceeded it; within the pages of this first novel I found a compelling narrative telling the story of vibrant and engaging characters, written in a smooth and self-assured style that lends its narrator a strong voice and draws the reader into Georgian London in all its stinking squalor and splendour.
Much of the narrative is set within the confines of the Marshalsea, a debtor's prison. And it's a curious place with on the Common Side hundreds of people living in what can only be described as hell on earth, while two steps away on the Master's Side people live in relative discomfort, but not in the dire circumstances found on the other side of the Wall. In fact, there were even people living in the Marshalsea, often former debtors, who lived there by choice and plied their trade there in a very profitable manner. Yet all live in fear of the Governor and the threat of being sent to the Common Side and almost certain death. Hodgson paints the Marshalsea for her reader in vivid detail, providing us with input for all senses and providing her tale with a strong sense of place.
Into this putrid stew of humanity falls our protagonist, Tom Hawkins. A feckless, charming rogue, Tom is hock-deep into depth and even a last-ditch effort to gamble his way out of it by winning large at cards is foiled when he gets robbed on his way home. So he finds himself in the Marshalsea and he has to discover what he is really made off when he is charged with finding the murderer of Captain Roberts. Tom is a sympathetic character. While he's clearly landed himself in a heap of trouble through his aimless existence and his rebellion against his father's wishes for his future, he has a lot of redeemable qualities, one of which is his inability to stand by and watch events unfold and the other is his inherent honourableness, something he initially doesn't even believe he has. It's impossible to enter the Marshalsea and leave unchanged, but whether for the better or worse is always in question. Tom's growth during the book ensures that if he gets out of debt, he's changed for the better and Hodgson manages this change without it seeming forced. But first he needs to get out of debtor's prison, for which he'll need to solve the Captain's murder.
The mystery in the book is a fascinating one, as it is many-faceted and the suspects are many, most of them equally likely. Hodgson lays down some very interesting false trails for Tom and the reader to follow and she had me fooled several times. Of course Tom doesn't solve the mystery on his own, he's aided by several people and obstructed by several too. Chief among his allies is Samuel Fleet, the titular devil of the Marshalsea. Fleet is generally disliked and distrusted by the inhabitants of the Marshalsea, yet he takes a liking for Tom and takes him under his wing. After Tom Fleet was easily my favourite character in the book. He's devious, clever, observant and acidly humorous, but above all he's loyal. I liked his care for Kitty Sparks, his ward, as there seems to be a genuine bond there and he really wants the best for her. Kitty was a great character, she's spirited, strong and she doesn't take any nonsense from anyone, up to and including Fleet.
The Devil in the Marshalsea is one of my favourite debuts this year. Hodgson's evocative writing makes for an immersive, gripping read, unspooling a complex web of intrigues and motivations to create a fascinating murder mystery. If this is only her debut novel, I can't wait to see where she'll go in the future. The Devil in the Marshalsea is a 'can't miss, must read'-debut for historical crime fiction fans. Highly recommended!
The first book in the Thomas Hill series, The King's Spy, was one of the first books set during the English Civil War I read and it was certainly one...moreThe first book in the Thomas Hill series, The King's Spy, was one of the first books set during the English Civil War I read and it was certainly one that opened my eyes to this fascinating era of British history. It also had a rather intriguing protagonist, a bookseller who was also a cryptographer. I really enjoyed that first book, especially since Andrew Swanston gave the reader the opportunity to try her own hand at decrypting the messages, though to be honest, I am not made for these sorts of exercises, yet I still found it captivating. The King's Exile, the second book in the series has languished on my TBR-pile for a while, but when I finally opened it up it was very easy to get back into Thomas' world. The narrative was very different from last time, with far less puzzles and decrypting and more surviving and action, yet all the same very entertaining.
The book is set in a very different locale than last time. Instead of Oxford and Romsey, we follow Thomas to Barbados in the Caribbean. Not only did this give Swanston the opportunity to show the corruption of Cromwell's Republic, but it also allows him to showcase that the Civil War didn't just affect England and its close neighbours such as Ireland and Scotland, but its colonies too. I loved this emphasis as I'd never really considered this and since we are usually shown the reverse position, where trouble in the colonies destabilises the situation at home. The difference between the rigid, strict nature of Cromwellian society and the more relaxed, less hidebound Barbadian planter society is shown and used to good effect, but Swanston doesn't paint Barbados as a paradise, in fact he stresses the horrid conditions slaves and indentures servants were forced to live and work in.
One of my issues with The King's Spy was that it was somewhat heavy on exposition, with Thomas regularly lecturing people and by extension the reader on the topic of cryptography. The King's Exile however is far less prone to info-dumping and also less of a puzzle narrative; in fact, decrypting doesn't come into play until very late in the book. Instead, Thomas has to rely on his wits and courage to first survive the brutal journey to Barbados and then the awful treatment by his owners. His trial-and-error explorations of edible fruits and philosophical approach to making sense of his situation were wonderful to read. And we also see him applying his mind to accounting and military strategy, which leads to some interesting situations.
Swanston has a very readable writing style and I loved the new characters we meet in this book. My favourites were Mary Lyte, a young lady who has grown up on Barbados, and Patrick, a mulatto slave, who due to his education and wonderful personality is treated more like an adoptive sibling than a servant. Patrick is wonderful, but there was one thing that was hard for me to resolve and that is his complete peace with his existence. I mean I can understand that his situation is about the best he could hope for short of being set free, but he doesn't even really seem to mind the fact that he is still a slave, however much he's loved. That just felt odd to me. Mary was amazing; her free spirit and her determination to decide her own destiny and doing so regardless of what her brother thinks was fantastic and I love how Thomas is secretly rooting for her to get her way. Another fantastic character whose iron spirit I loved was Thomas' sister, Margaret. I loved how strong she is and how self-reliant. Her pulling a gun on the man who is responsible for Thomas' exile was a great scene.
The King's Exile is a great sequel to The King's Spy, one that allows Swanston to prove that the cryptography included in the former wasn't just a gimmick and that he doesn't need it to write a compelling story. Because The King's Exile is very much a character-driven story and all the stronger for it. Having enjoyed this book a lot, I'm looking forward to getting my hands on The King's Return, the next book in the series which was published last month.
In 2012 I read Henry Venmore-Rowland's debut The Last Caesar, the first book about Aulus Caecina Severus, and enjoyed it very much. Its sequel The Sw...moreIn 2012 I read Henry Venmore-Rowland's debut The Last Caesar, the first book about Aulus Caecina Severus, and enjoyed it very much. Its sequel The Sword and the Throne languished somewhat on my TBR-pile even though I did truly want to know what happened next, so it was one of the first titles I put on the list for my Historical Fiction Month. And it was certainly good to return to Severus' story, though it is a very different one from The Last Caesar. Where that book was about Romans but not Rome, this book is still about Romans, but Rome is very much part of the narrative. It is also a far bleaker story than Venmore-Rowland's debut with its protagonist growing older, wiser, and increasingly bitter.
Severus' development is very well done. He truly changes, yet the reader can still see glimpses of the more sympathetic younger Caecina and thus don't completely lose her sympathy for him; because he does become somewhat unlikeable. He becomes a little paranoid, very "why me?" and rather refuses to really look at his actions and motives with a critical eye. This resistance to honest self-examination is displayed most plainly in how he views Valens. Severus absolutely hates him and doesn't trust him at all, but at the same time exhibits exactly the behaviour that he abhors in Valens. He slowly falls apart and especially in the last third to quarter of the book I found myself exasperatedly wondering what he was thinking.
Fortunately, Severus had at least some companions who tried to keep him honest in Quintus and Totavalas. Ironically, both of them are considered barbarians and certainly not civilized, Roman insiders. We also get to see what Rome's corruption does to these two. Lovely Quintus who grew into such a good man and leader in the last book is completely crushed by the dishonourable actions taken in the name of the good of the Empire. And Totavalas – who we learn isn't actually named Totavalas, but is called that because the Romans can't pronounce his Hibernian name – has to balance his loyalty to Severus with his own conscience and tries to steer Severus right, but in the end even he has an eye out for the bottom line and advancing his own interests. Severus' treatment of Salonina and Domitia was disheartening, particularly as he doesn't even realise how much of the problems between him and Salonina are his fault. And it's sad to see him dismiss her so easily.
Venmore-Rowland manages to walk the fine line between making a character unsympathetic and making them unlikeable. Not just in his treatment of Severus, but also in his treatment of Valens and Vitellius. Severus portrays both Valens and Vitellius as less than honourable men; he actively dislikes Valens and merely tolerates Vitellius because he can be useful to him. Yet despite Severus' unkind portrayal of them and his ascribing mostly unflattering motivations to them, Venmore-Rowland manages to slip in little glimpses of humanity and decency in their characterisation, which serve to make the reader consider the reliability of Severus' narration. That isn't to say that Valens and Vitellius aren't grasping and power-hungry, because they are, but they are more nuanced than the unremitting black Severus paints them with.
The book is written as an apologia and as such Severus breaks the fourth wall quite often and consciously. It's an enjoyable form, and more than last time we get the sense throughout the book that this will be a tragedy instead of a triumph. The book is bleak and once things go into a spiralling tail spin for Severus the reader gets swept along in the almost helpless feeling that comes over Severus that he is unable to stop what is happening. Bad decision follows bad decision and at times I just wanted to shake some sense into the man. When we reach the end it is both sudden and dramatic and allows Severus at least some chance at redemption.
The Sword and the Throne is the finale of a wonderful debut duology for Venmore-Rowland. I loved these books and admire the risk the author took in the way he developed Severus' character. This story is complete, but in his historical note Venmore-Rowland hints that he might return to the characters of Aulus and Totavalas, something I sincerely hope he does as I'd love to learn more about this indefatigable Hibernian prince. If Roman historical fiction is your reading sweet spot then this is a series you shouldn't miss.
Nick Brown's The Far Shore features the second Roman setting in my historical fiction month and it's the second such series I'm not starting at the be...moreNick Brown's The Far Shore features the second Roman setting in my historical fiction month and it's the second such series I'm not starting at the beginning. Despite not starting with the first book in the Agent of Rome series, The Far Shore is very readable and it doesn't feel like the reader misses crucial information by not having read the previous books. More than Anthony Riches' Empire series, Agent of Rome feels episodic, especially since The Far Shore is essentially a murder mystery. However, that may not be true for all of the books in the series, but I can only judge by this one. And The Far Shore is an exciting story, with a satisfyingly neat ending, that left me curious to learn more of Cassius, Indavara, and Simo.
Interestingly, while Cassius Corbulo is the book's protagonist, I connected far more strongly with his bodyguard Indavara. In fact, at times I found Cassius downright unsympathetic. Cassius can be arrogant and headstrong and not always too considerate of the feelings of those around him. It's a trait that comes to the fore most often in his treatment of Indavara, Annia, and Annia's maid Clara. His thoughts and behaviour as regards the two women isn't pretty—in his view of the world women should be seen and not heard, demure, dutiful and should know their place. Annia is none of these things, she's opinionated, just as headstrong as Cassius and isn't content with waiting at home for the men to discover who killed her father—unsurprisingly, I rather liked her. His exasperation with her behaviour, which at times is quite warranted, is often interspersed with thoughts that she's quite attractive and if only she'd be better behaved, which exasperated me in turn. On a similar track are his dealings with Clara; while she seems to reciprocate his advances, it made me feel squicky as I kept doubting whether she'd ever really have been able to say no, seeing as she's a slave.
But Cassius' relationship with Indavara was the one that frustrated me the most. While at times it feels like there is a friendship in the making there, Cassius can't seem to get over his snobbishness and forget that Indavara used to be a gladiator and as such is a freedman, not a citizen. Yet, there is certainly a lot of fellow-feeling there and he does seem to want to do right by Indavara, when he thinks about it consciously. At the same time, when Indavara catches Annia's interest over Cassius, instead of acknowledging he's jealous, he lashes out and decides Indavara is overreaching himself. However, I did like the fact that he's called out on his behaviour and that he apologizes to Indavara later on in the story. His interactions with Indavara are contrasted with his far more equitable relationship with his man-servant Simo, another character I really liked.
Indavara is a mysterious character. We get the rough sketch of how he became Cassius' bodyguard, but we don't get any background on him other than that he used to be a gladiator and he's saved Cassius' life on several occasions. He's a combination of hard experience in battle and a rather naive, innocent and uneducated soul outside of it. I found him a compelling character and I appreciated the petulance with which he regards Cassius' treatment of him at times. His tentative romance with Annia was delightful and I loved the fact that he was so conscious of not wanting to overstep her boundaries. When we finally do learn more about Indavara's past, near the end of the narrative, it clarifies a lot about him and I wonder if one of the next books won't focus on the questions raised by this revelation.
The mystery central to the narrative is expertly plotted and paced. I really liked how it was resolved, though it came at a cost that I hadn't foreseen at all. Brown doesn't pull any punches and doesn't keep anyone safe, and the lion almost killed me. I enjoyed the fact that while there are some pitched battles in the book, most of the conflict is of the more stealthy variety, which is fitting for a book featuring an intelligence officer. Additionally, Cassius is not a gifted warrior, in fact he's middling at best, something that I found refreshing as usually this isn't the case. Brown also took the action of the book to a portion of the Roman Empire I hadn't encountered before and it was interesting to see how different things are on the other side of the Mediterranean.
The Far Shore was a really enjoyable book, whose last 150 or so pages I tore through in one sitting. Even if Cassius wasn't the easiest protagonist to like at times, I did come to care for him as I did for his companions. The story was exciting and well-paced and I certainly hope to read more of Cassius' adventures in the future. If you like your historical fiction set in the Roman period and like mysteries, then this is certainly a book you need to check out.
Vikings! While Giles Kristian first reached my radar with his Viking novels, the first of his works I actually read was his Civil War novel The Bleed...moreVikings! While Giles Kristian first reached my radar with his Viking novels, the first of his works I actually read was his Civil War novel The Bleeding Land. This book, chronicling the fate of the Rivers family during the Civil War completely blew me away, as did its sequel Brothers' Fury–in fact, I'm still hoping for a third instalment. However, when God of Vengeance was announced as a new Viking novel and a prequel to Kristian's Raven series I was equally stoked, because I'd finally get to read one of his Viking tales. And it was every bit as good as I'd hoped. It combined everything I loved about his Civil War books – his sense of language, character development, and gut-punching action scenes – with Vikings. What more could I have asked for? Well, a glossary actually, but it turned out there was supposed to be one in the book, but due to a printing error it got omitted and will be added to later printings. So, well-fixed before I mentioned it really. But what about the actual story?
I adored the story. If there is such a thing outside of super hero comics, I'd call this story an origin story if I ever saw one. Recounting how Sigurd becomes the Jarl he is in the Raven trilogy, there are several tropes belonging to an origin story that can be identified in the narrative, such as Pure Will, It's Personal, and This Means War! He collects a band of brothers, some of whose coming were foretold him in a vision he has while trying to gain the favour of the All-Father. And this process is fascinating, especially as we get small flashes of their own history, sometimes long before they meet Sigurd. I loved Sigurd, who is a young, proud and reckless youth at the start of the book and how much he feels he needs to prove himself, only to manage doing so under the most horrific circumstances imaginable: having to avenge the murder of his entire family and rescuing his sister.
Sigurd is a strong and compelling character, but he is surrounded by equally interesting characters. He starts out with just a handful of survivors from Skudeneshavn, men who have known him for his entire life and with a vested personal interest in revenge. His father's right hand Olaf, who everyone calls Uncle, is a strong and calming influence, while the godi Asgot has a more sinister cast to him though he's equally loyal to Sigurd. God of Vengeance is in no way just a boys' tale; both Sigurd's little sister Runa and the shield-maiden Valgerd play important roles in the narrative. These two women are completely different, but they have their determination to decide their own faith in common. And while they are clearly women, there is never a doubt that they aren't as capable and brave as the men. Of the heroes Sigurd gathers together, the ones you sense will go down in history in a Skald's tale never to forgotten, it's hard to pick a favourite, but of the other men he finds my favourites were the grey-beards found at Osøyro. Their sense of honour, pride and bravery and their ultimate choices in battle made them irresistible and I loved how Sigurd acknowledges this. Between the band of brothers (and sisters) Sigurd collects there is a sense of friendship and camaraderie that is best gauged by the banter between them. This was one of my favourite things about the narrative, the formation of this strong bond between all of them.
Another aspect of the book that I really liked was its writing. Kristian has a strong sense of language and he uses it to its fullest. Even more strongly than in his Civil War series, he plays with the words and the rhythms. He also includes a lot of (Old-)Norse words, for which that previously mentioned glossary would have been useful, though their meaning becomes clear from the context as well and their English counterparts are used as well. At times the writing takes on the cadence and style of Old-Norse and Anglo-Saxon poetry such as is displayed in Beowulf with its alliterative verse and kennings. His writing is vivid and graphic, evoking all senses, even taste and smell. The descriptions of battle are violent and gory and manage to convey both the euphoria the men feel, some of them almost seem to be berserkers, and how sick at heart they are after. Kristian also spares no-one and none of his characters are safe, a fact that left me wide-eyed in shock several times while reading the book.
I loved God of Vengeance and its heroes. The book ends with a satisfying climax, but leaves Sigurd's tale unfinished and I hope Kristian will return to him in his next book, because I'm dying to know what happens next. With God of Vengeance Kristian returns to his (literary) roots and does so in a compelling manner. If you love Vikings or exciting tales of adventure and war, then this is a book for you. Similarly, if you enjoy origin stories of any stripe then this is a powerful one and it even has capes!
Reading The Scarlet Thief at this point in time was an oddly well-timed choice as it turns out, set as it is in the Crimea. It appears history truly c...moreReading The Scarlet Thief at this point in time was an oddly well-timed choice as it turns out, set as it is in the Crimea. It appears history truly can be cyclical if one compares what is revealed about the origins of the Crimean War with what is happening there now. It was also a closer look at a conflict I've never learned that much about, beyond Florence Nightingale and Tennyson's The Charge of the Light Brigade. And what a hopeless conflict it was. Paul Fraser Collard paints us a vivid and horrifying picture of life at the front and the terrible cost of life, not just to the armed forces on both sides, but to the innocent inhabitants of the Crimea as well, who were burned out of their houses and robbed of all their possessions in a scorched earth policy to deny resources and cover to the enemy. But The Scarlet Thief is more than descriptions of death and horrible war wounds, there is also a lot of humour and a wonderful protagonist who will capture your heart.
Said character is Jack Lark, former mud lark from London's seedier streets. As a commoner, Jack's opportunities for advancement are limited. He will never be able to rise above the rank of a non-commissioned officer, with Quartermaster being the pinnacle of achievement. For a young man set on bettering himself and one who considers many officers incompetents, this is a frustrating situation to be in. He feels that the redcoats are not treated well by their officers and he has some rather progressive (for the time) ideas as to how one should lead his men. The way his frustrated ambitions influence his decisions was interesting, unlike another factor influencing him that I didn't care as much for—his relationship with Molly. Molly was my biggest problem with this book. Not the character in itself, which was fine, but her story arc and how this was used to move the plot forward felt a little clichéd and it’s a trope we've seen many times before. Once Jack and his officer, Arthur Sloames, leave the Aldershot garrison to join the King's Royal Fusiliers and ship out to the Crimea the narrative picked up and really started speeding up once Jack arrives at Kalamata Bay.
Collard shows the bleak life of the enlisted (or drafted) men in the Victorian British Army, one on the cusp of modernity with its leaders struggling to adjust their thinking and strategies to new materiel and changing social mores. Jack's leading from the front fits right in with this. Jack starts of despising the other officers thinking them all arrogant aristo's who are only there because they had the money not because they had the skills, but throughout the book he learns that they are not all alike and comes to view them in a different light. In fact, Jack's connection with some of his fellows and first his officer are delightful and one of the strengths of the book. The way he bonds with his orderly was wonderful and I loved how he gains respect for his second-in-command Digsby-Brown. I adored the quiet scenes we're shown of camaraderie between the men and the way that they all become equal, be they enlisted or criminal conscript. But not just Jack's dealing with his friends is wonderfully written, The Scarlet Thief has a fantastic villain in Sergeant Slater and some more equally distasteful characters, most notable the aptly named Major Peacock.
One element that confused me was the troop formations. There were divisions and brigades and companies and they all had different names and in the end I rather lost track of how the command structure worked and who belonged with whom. This difficulty might be due to my unfamiliarity with the British Army of that era, but this was one of those occasions where an appendix showing how the forces were structured would have been useful. Then again, it seems as if once the battle started the hierarchy in and structure of the army didn't really matter in any case, as it's one chaotic mess and many soldiers lost their unit and forgot their orders anyway. The battle depicted is terrifying, chaotic, noisy, stinking of death and blood and an enormous amount of casualties, who often perished from the most gruesome wounds.
The Scarlet Thief is an impressive look at the atrocities of war; unflinching in its descriptions and honest in its assessment of its characters' human nature in all of its beauty and monstrosity. Collard leaves us with a great set up for the following book, which promises to be interesting and very different from the Crimea. I'm curious to see where exactly Jack will go in The Maharajah's General and whether he'll remain there or move on to a new identity after. Needless to say I'll be back to check in with our Mr Lark in the next book, hopefully sooner than later as I already have the review copy for it on my shelf. The Scarlet Thief is a must-read for any lover of military historical fiction.
Lauren Owen's debut The Quick has drawn a lot of comparison to Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian. And there is certainly merit to the comparison: bot...moreLauren Owen's debut The Quick has drawn a lot of comparison to Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian. And there is certainly merit to the comparison: both deal with a quest to defeat an ancient evil, both of them are historical thrillers featuring vampires, and both are rather hefty tomes. For me, however, the comparison is most apt as regards my reaction to their respective endings—I felt both endings lessened the impact of their narrative and left me rather bemused and disappointed. That isn't to say that I didn't enjoy The Quick, because I did and there is much to recommend the novel, such as Owen's prose, the atmosphere the book oozes, and the relationships between several of the main characters.
The book is riddled with love stories as Owen showcases many different types of relationship, from sibling love, to romantic love and platonic love. There is the close and complicated relationship between our two protagonists, James and Charlotte Norbury, a brother and sister forced to rely on each other for love and support in the absence of a loving parental figure. The deep and abiding, but ultimately platonic relationship between Shadwell and Adeline Swift, the vampire hunters, is beautifully rendered. There is something inevitable about Charlotte's relationship with her eventual husband and it sometimes felt a little forced, but it also felt genuine and in the end, it might have been my favourite thing about the book if not for James' love story. Because James' romance is lovely. Not to give any spoilers for it, but it was heartfelt, beautiful, and quite tragic and it truly broke my heart.
Owen's writing was gorgeous and I really liked the different points of view she provides. While they don't always propel the narrative onwards, they do serve to etch in the details of her Victorian Gothic London, which is soupy, luscious, malodorous, huge, and crowded. Some of my favourite bits were included in the secondary points of view, especially that of little Liza. The book does have an odd sense of pacing, where sometimes years or months went by in a sentence and yet much of the narrative only describes a few days. There were also some inconsistencies in the book that didn't make sense to me. For example, some of the vampires living on Salmon street are children and they remain child-like in appearance and behaviour, no matter their true age. The fact that their appearance doesn't change, that their aging has halted, isn't surprising; what did surprise me was their child-like behaviour and thought process. Especially as it is stated that the adult vampires perhaps don't age in appearance, but that they do get old mentally and sometimes go mad or despondent due to the never-ending duration of their unlife.
As I mentioned before, as with The Historian the ending did not serve The Quick well. The ending is sudden and feels as if it is just cut off. Like with The Historian, this might beis to leave an opening for a sequel, but I'd not seen anything about a possible sequel to The Quick before googling it just now and it left me seriously hacked off when I realised that was the end. Additionally there are several threads which get tied off, but which don't actually feel resolved or felt unnecessarily drawn out. Again, perhaps this will be solved in the sequel, but at the time of reading I didn't know there would be one, so it was rather disappointing.
On the whole I enjoyed reading The Quick, but the disappointment of its ending and the unfinished feel of the story, left a bitter after taste. I didn't want to throw the book across the room as I did want to do with The Historian and that's not just because I was reading it on my iPad—Lauren Owen's writing was reason enough to read the book. At the same time even though there will be a book two that finishes this story, I probably still won't go back to it. I am however looking forward to reading other works by Lauren Owen in the future as she is clearly a very talented writer. And if you enjoyed The Historian and gothic vampire novels then The Quick is a book that will be right up your alley.
Shakespeare, the Grand Master of the English Language.While there is no shortage of historical novels featuring William Shakespeare, Rotten at the Hea...moreShakespeare, the Grand Master of the English Language. While there is no shortage of historical novels featuring William Shakespeare, Rotten at the Heart is the first one I've read which was narrated by the Bard himself. I was wondering how Daniels (a not-so-secret pen name for Dan O'Shea) would pull it off especially as the flap text said that it was written in Will's own Elizabethan voice. And that is always a risky thing, because how many people will be turned off by the strangeness of the language. In fact it made me think of this. And admittedly I found the book slower going than I usually read. On the other hand I loved the snippets of Shakespearean lines included in the story, not as literal quotes, but worked into the narrative in an organic way.
The William Shakespeare we encounter in Rotten at the Heart is a sympathetic character. He's done some less than decent things, most notably largely abandoning his family in Stratford and seducing and ruining a young London girl's life by breaking her heart, which leads to her suicide. Yet despite all this we're given the sense that at his core he wants to be a decent man and he knows he should do better. This is illustrated through his attempts to reconnect with his wife and by his guilt over the death of the girl and one of his apprentices who is killed trying to protect him. Will is no hero or amazingly talented with the blade, but he is a keen observer of humanity, which allows him to discern meaning and discover connections where others have missed them. Most of the leaps in reasoning Will makes are well underpinned, though at times he makes almost Sherlockian deductions, but not so much as to be an annoyance.
The mystery at the heart of the book is ostensibly a murder mystery, but quickly devolves into a more sinister and far-reaching conspiracy. Its build-up was excellently done and I really liked the fact that Daniels mixed in a secondary mystery, to do with Shakespeare's company's theatre lease. This second mystery is a far more economical plot and I really enjoyed this sidestep which also links up to the primary investigation of the book. Shakespeare doesn't really have a primary sidekick, but he pulls in assistance as needed: he consults with an apothecary, a lawyer, his theatre friends, and even the Queen's head torturer. I really enjoyed this approach and it also allows the reader to see Will interact with all walks of Tudor London life, shown in all its chaotic and pungent nature.
The writing in Rotten at the Heart is wonderful. Daniels' use of Elizabethan language, the mixing in of lines and phrasings from Shakespeare's plays, and his evocative descriptions of Tudor life work together to draw a vivid and exciting picture of Shakespeare's London and bring the Bard to life. And not just the Bard, but also his companions and contemporaries, such as Richard Burbage, Philip Henslowe, Edward Alleyn, and George Carey, Baron Hunsdon are given life on the page. I really enjoyed the camaraderie of The Lord Chamberlain's Men, Burbage and Will chief amongst them. The numerous lines and phrases littered throughout Shakespeare's narrative – as he is the one to relate this tale – show a careful reading of Shakespeare's work and they are fun to pick out. The book starts off with an introduction by Bartholomew Daniels on how he discovered Shakespeare's journal on which the book is based. It was a device I enjoyed and it also made the whole thing gain a bit of plausibility, because how often aren't rare manuscripts and books (re)discovered in a legacy or abandoned library? More often than we'd consider likely, I'd guess.
Rotten at the Heart is an entertaining and well-constructed historical mystery novel, one that takes a bit more work to read than a novel written in modern English, but is well worth the effort. I loved getting to know Daniels' Shakespeare and I'm glad we'll get to see more of him. The second Detective Shakespeare novel, A Death Owed God, will be out January of next year. In the meantime, Rotten at the Heart is a great starter of the series.
The latest instalment in Anthony Riches' Empire series is The Emperor's Knives. After a stint in Dacia and a short stay in Britannia, this outing take...moreThe latest instalment in Anthony Riches' Empire series is The Emperor's Knives. After a stint in Dacia and a short stay in Britannia, this outing takes Marcus and friends to the Eternal City, the Capital of the World, Rome itself. All of our favourite Tungrians are along for the ride and in Rome we meet some old acquaintances in the form of Senator Decimus Clodius Albinus, who we last saw in Dacia while still a legatus, and Tiberius Varius Excingus, someone Marcus last saw before his stay in Germania. These links are revealed early on, though never explained in-depth, but enough for a new reader to understand their context. And if that wasn't enough, there are gladiators! All of which makes for an exciting mix and a riveting story.
The book is filled with conspiracies and double crosses and no one’s alliances are what they appear to be on the surface. Especially since Excingus' loyalties are for sale to the highest bidder and he also has his own agenda, which makes untangling the lines between all the players doubly complicated. In some cases, the mysterious talks become too mysterious, as at one point Scaurus has a talk with someone, whose identity I still haven't figured out. It's quite possible however that those who've read the entire series will know who this patron was. I also liked how Riches showed how quickly alliances in Rome could shift based on politics, honour, and personal gain.
Despite Excingus' ample help, almost leading Marcus and friends by the nose, in tracking and dealing with them, I was surprised by the apparent ease with which the first three Knives were dispatched. While the Tungrians are good, this was rather too easy. However, it does leave us free to follow Marcus in his quest to kill the last Knife, which forms the meat of the story. Marcus together with one of his fellow Tungrians joins the Dacian Ludus as a gladiator, so he can get close to Mortiferum, the last of the Emperor's Knives who killed his family. I loved this look at the inner workings of a gladiator school and the Flavian Amphitheatre better known as the Colosseum. There is an interesting metaphor for modern day celebrity culture to be found in the way gladiators became virtual slaves in order to win fame and fortune and the adulation of the people. Granted, not all gladiators became one by choice, it was also a punishment for criminals and the fate of many prisoners of war.
The philosophy behind this tale of revenge is interesting as in the end, Marcus himself admits revenge is hollow, feeling only emptiness once his revenge was accomplished instead of the satisfaction he'd expected to feel. There is a strange morality to this book where death is treated as an everyday occurrence and as a means of entertainment for the masses. In the previous two Empire books I've read the body count was equally high, but fascinatingly it only became disturbing in The Emperor's Knives. In all likelihood, this is due to the fact that many of the previous deaths took place in battle and this is a natural outcome of war, while the deaths in this book are often quite premeditated, not only killing those marked for vengeance, but also relatively innocent bystanders, whose biggest crime was for example drawing guard duty on the wrong night. And of course, the blood-letting in the arena, where men, women, and beasts are sent out to die in horrible combat or other indignities—the larger the amount of blood spilled, the louder the watching crowds cheered. Marcus is an honourable man, he's never written as anything less, yet in this book he's also a cold-hearted killer, killing everything standing between him and the objects of his revenge, something that felt jarring and a little disturbing.
There is also a lot of humour and ingenuity in The Emperor's Knives. I loved the ruse the Tungrians set up to protect Felicia, when she goes to live in her father's house in the city of Rome, instead of the cohorts' barracks. The barber shop is fantastic and quite funny, especially the way that the less-than-reputable standard bearer Morban runs the shop. In the scenes in the shop and throughout the book there is an enormous amount of banter to be found; often it's off-colour and low-brow, at times dry or acidic, but it feels genuine and adds comic punctuation for the darker scenes in the book. My favourite addition to the cohorts’ forces was the group of engineers headed by Avidus, as sappers are a special breed and I hope they'll be around in the next book as well.
The Emperor's Knives is a wonderful addition to the Empire series. Rounding out a multiple book story arc with Marcus' family avenged, it'll be interesting to see where Riches will take Marcus and the Tungrians next, especially given the commissions handed out at the end of the book. I'm really glad that I took a chance and started the Empire series five books in, as the three I've now read are excellent and Marcus and company make for great entertainment. While The Emperor's Knives needs perhaps a bit more grounding in the series than the previous two books, it still stands alone exceedingly well. If historical fiction set in the Roman Empire is to your taste, you can't afford to miss The Emperor's Knives.
After reading and really enjoying the previous book in the Empire series, I was glad to be able to dive in to the sixth book, The Eagle's Vengeance im...moreAfter reading and really enjoying the previous book in the Empire series, I was glad to be able to dive in to the sixth book, The Eagle's Vengeance immediately. Fresh of their victorious campaign in Dacia, the Tungrian cohorts return to Britannia only to find themselves sent out on a new mission upon arrival. The events in The Eagle's Vengeance are directly tied to those from the first three books, in which Calgus – the cohorts' main adversary in this book – plays an important part. Despite this strong link the story is quite self-contained; you haven't had to read the previous books to understand this one. This seems to be a pattern with Riches' books, which seem to be episodic in nature while all part of the same larger narrative arc.
The Eagle's Vengeance opens with prologue set north of the Antonine Wall and shows us how Calgus manages to scheme his way back into a position of power within the Britannic tribes. It was a powerful sequence and illustrated that there aren't just power-grabbing, ambitious men in the Roman ranks, but that the Britons have their fair share of them too. From here we move to the First Tungrian cohort, which has just landed back on the shores of Britannia. From there Riches launches us into the action quite quickly, when Scaurus and his men are given a mission to retrieve the Sixth Victorious Legion's lost Eagle from the impenetrable fortress where it is kept. The Eagle is the embodiment of the Legion's honour and without it the legion will be disbanded and its leaders will be discharged in disgrace. The Tungrians are under a lot of pressure to complete their mission impossible successfully.
The above forms the set up for what is basically a heist novel. While the main force of the cohort provides a distraction, Marcus and a selected group of soldiers go into Venicones territory covertly to infiltrate the Fang and get the Eagle back. On the surface this seems pretty straight-forward, however Riches manages to layer several story arcs on top of each other, making the mission far less A-to-Z than it looks. While I enjoyed Marcus and company's covert storyline, I found the main cohort's arc more compelling, especially once they rejoin forces with Marcus and have to escape a Venicone ambush and do so in what can only be called an epic move. The battle Riches describes is awe-inspiring and had me holding my breath at points. And like in The Wolf's Gold, Riches shows us the harsh reality of Roman warfare and reminds us that it was a lethal career choice for many, if not most legionnaires—not all of the Tungrians will make it out alive.
Back below the Wall, we're also given a storyline from the point of view of Marcus' wife, Felicia. I loved her viewpoint and I was really pleased to read more about her, after seeing her at a bit of a remove in The Wolf's Gold. Her arc is was very cool and I lost her fearlessness and her interactions with her assistant Annia. I was rather disappointed that we only got so little pages from her point of view. It served the story and showing us more from her perspective would probably have led to unnecessary padding of the narrative, but I still would have loved to have seen more of her.
The Eagle's Vengeance is a fabulous story, with amazing battle descriptions and quite emotionally touching scenes, both tender and heart-breaking. With this second book I've read by Anthony Riches, I've certainly become a convert to his writing and I was glad I once again got to move on in the story immediately by picking up The Emperor's Knives. As The Wolf's Gold, The Eagle's Vengeance can be read as a standalone novel, but if you're anything like me, you'll only want more of Marcus, the Tungrians, and Anthony Riches' writing.
Dark, gloomy, and oppressive, the Victorian Dublin we're presented with in The Convictions of John Delahunt is eerily like Dickensian London and yet q...moreDark, gloomy, and oppressive, the Victorian Dublin we're presented with in The Convictions of John Delahunt is eerily like Dickensian London and yet quite different. In his debut novel Andrew Hughes takes us to this harsh, but beautiful city to tell us the tale of the murderer John Delahunt. A figure of historical record with documented crimes, Delahunt is the beating heart of this tale, yet it's not just his tale. It's also a look at how the Dublin police force functioned at the time and it's a love story and an unexpected one at that.
When we meet John Delahunt he's awaiting his execution in Kilmainham prison and he is allowed to write down his final testimony. He decides to do so and tell his entire story. So we zip back to his time as a rather feckless student of natural philosophy and learn about the evening that set the events in motion that end up with him in this cell awaiting his death. And it is rather unnerving how one incident can set of this cascade of events. And the reader must wonder whether there isn't more to John's development than this moment in time. Getting drawn into the nefarious goings-on in the Castle doesn't truly excuse some of the actions John takes, as they don't seem out of character for him and I'd expected many people in the same situation didn't make that choice.
John also isn't a very likeable or even sympathetic character, yet he's compelling and I wanted to know how he got where he was when we met him, so I kept reading even if I didn't actually like him. John is indolent, selfish and self-absorbed. He also came across as callous and cruel. There were a few story lines that did make him somewhat more sympathetic, such as his recounting of his childhood and how his father changed after his mother's death and of course his relationship with Helen. At first I thought his involvement with Helen was one of convenience and strategy as he seemed rather indifferent to her, but it is only in the latter half of his narrative that his true feelings for her come to the fore. And I have to say as his marriage came apart at the seams I did feel sorry for him.
Helen was quite interesting as well. On the one hand she's the demure daughter of a prosperous Dublin society family, hemmed in by rules and zealously watched over by a governess. On the other she's strong-willed and adventurous, setting her cap at John and going after him as well, even suggesting that they elope when John doesn't get her father's consent to marry her. Similarly, she's an active participant in John work for the Castle, helping him make lists of acquaintances and thinking off information to provide the Castle on them. Her story broke my heart and while her sudden return to a virtuous patrician's daughter was jarring, I also felt glad she was able to return to her family and with a chance at re-entering society and building a happier life for herself.
Hughes' portrayal of Castle practices and the way they collect and hoard information on citizens and put that information to use is chilling. It rather reminded me of the argument used in the whole NSA discussion, that even if you've done nothing wrong you don't want people to keep all this information on you, because it's all about how that information is interpreted and how an interpretation can be used against you. It was also frightening how quickly and far John went down the rabbit hole once the agents at the Castle got their hooks in him. They are corrupt and unscrupulous and to satisfy their demands, John commits increasingly baser and crueller acts though he doesn't seem to suffer huge pangs of conscience over it.
Due to the nature of the narrative – a first-person confession – at times the reader has to wonder about its reliability. Not only the usual caveats of a first-person limited narration apply, but in addition we know John isn't the most trustworthy person, so how much faith should we place in his veracity? This kept going through my mind throughout the book, especially as there are several scenes were John asks to see Sibthorpe, the chief intelligencer, and gets told that there is no such person. In the end though, even if Delahunt twists some things to put himself in a better light, I do think his narration is largely reliable. The fact that he seems to feel a need for honesty in his last hours and the purpose he puts his testimony to argue in his favour.
The Convictions of John Delahunt is a fascinating story, compellingly written, featuring a protagonist who would have been called grimdark had he been the star of a fantasy novel. Andrew Hughes paints his story with swift, sure strokes and manages to create a vivid picture of Victorian Dublin complete with a murky atmosphere that matches that of the time's penny dreadfuls. I very much enjoyed Hughes' debut, it was a rich and gripping reading experience. If this is his first novel, I can't wait to see where he goes in the future. The Convictions of John Delahunt comes highly recommended.
Graham Edwards' Talus and the Frozen King combines three of my favourite genres into one fascinating tale. The book is a historical crime fantasy, set...moreGraham Edwards' Talus and the Frozen King combines three of my favourite genres into one fascinating tale. The book is a historical crime fantasy, set in an era which I'd not read any books in since reading the first four books in Jean M. Auel's Children of the Earth series, the Neolithic. As such is more fantasy than historical fiction, a fact corroborated by the author in his Author's Note, since there just isn't enough historic fact to create anything but speculative fiction. The Neolithic island community of Creyak did make for an interesting setting and created the ideal stage for what is essentially a locked room mystery. Living on an island without easy access to the main land, means that the murderer is most likely a member of the community.
Every crime novel needs a detective and Edwards provides him in the person of Talus the bard. Talus is a detective very much in the mould of Sherlock Holmes and Monk. He's idiosyncratic, brilliant, not always easy to deal with, curious to the point of obliviousness, and ultimately always solves the puzzle or the crime. Talus is an old soul. While his age is never stated, he feels like an older person; he's travelled widely, he's balding, and he seems to be able to easily project and receive authority. And he's quite the philosopher; he spends a lot of time thinking about what he sees and about human nature. I liked that Edwards chose to make him a bard, because he's got the gift of the gab and it creates an easy entry into the various communities he encounters.
Every detective needs his sidekick, which in this case was provided by the ex-fisherman Barn. I liked Bran a lot. He's a sounding board for Talus, an assistant and his friend. He is also very much the emotional heart of the novel. While Talus is brilliant, Bran is the one to recognise human connections, while struggling with getting his own feelings under control. Because Bran is still very traumatised by the loss of his beloved wife and trying to find an answer to the question of how to give meaning to his life. His connection to Lethriel, the village herb-mistress, initially due to her resemblance to his late wife and later because they genuinely form a friendship created an interesting dynamic in the relationship between Talus and Bran, when Talus enlist her as another of his assistants.
Every book needs an interesting plot. The one in Talus and the Frozen King is intricate, especially as it's very much a case of Talus and Bran having to unravel the complicated (family) dynamics and history of the Creyak settlement. The one thing that nagged at me was the fact that Talus being a Sherlock-like deductive detective meant that as the reader you are constantly put on the back foot. I never had a sense of what or how he'd reached a conclusion or who'd be the killer. Normally I enjoy being surprised, but in this case I wasn't so much surprised by the plot twists as confused by the lack of clues to form my own suspicions. The only thing that helped me was the fact that Bran often felt much the same and said so in the passages written from his point of view.
The writing was solid with some beautiful passages and some deeply thoughtful considerations on the nature of love, life and death. These somewhat philosophical questions are posed by the various characters to themselves, to others, and of course indirectly to the reader. Answers are suggested or hinted at, but never set in stone. It was this aspect, combined with the Neolithic setting and its crime focus that made me really enjoy Talus and the Frozen King and I hope this was just the first instalment in a series. I'd love to see what else Talus and Bran will come across as they journey farther north towards the Northern Lights.
Jack the Ripper's identity is a mystery for the ages. As the first modern serial killer and certainly the first whose acts have been so well documente...moreJack the Ripper's identity is a mystery for the ages. As the first modern serial killer and certainly the first whose acts have been so well documented, he has been the inspiration for countless stories, many of them creating their own solution for the riddle of who he was. Letters From a Murderer is the latest novel in this vein and it has to be said, the story John Matthews paints is riveting. It's clear that Matthews knows his Ripper history and he weaves in some very detailed facts into his fiction, making his story that much more plausible.
Letters From a Murderer plays off the assumption that one of the possible reasons of the sudden stop to the Ripper murders was because he emigrated. In the book the Ripper has moved to New York and has resumed his bloody work in the seething ant hill that is the poorer quarters of the metropolis. Once a connection is made to the Ripper murders, the London authorities refer the New York Police Squad to Finley Jameson, a Brit and former protégé of the London criminalist Thomas Colby, who has been living in New York after the death of his aunt. Jameson is called in to consult with the new lead investigator on the case, Joseph Argenti.
The title is a great word play on both the letters the Ripper sent to the police and the press – the first of which famously began Dear Boss... – and on one of the plot points. The case is very much a psychological game between Jameson and Argenti on the one hand and the Ripper on the other. The Ripper makes the case personal by blaming the further deaths of any victims on Jameson for not catching him sooner. Matthews succeeds in making the reader doubt everyone, the only one whose veracity is never suspect is Argenti. Argenti is a good man and an upstanding police officer, a fact that results in a great subplot to the novel. Corruption was rife in the NY police force at the time and Mathews incorporates this into his story through the antagonism between Argenti and McClusky and other cops on the take. McClusky is in the pocket of Michael Tierney, one of the big crime lords of the city, and their animosity towards Argenti, not to mention their need to keep their agreement under wraps creates some interesting situations for our intrepid investigators. It made the story less about the Ripper case and more about the characters of Argenti and Jameson, while at the same time adding extra tension to the Ripper story line.
Argenti and Jameson are fascinating characters. There are some Sherlockian overtones in both Jameson, with his less-than-recreational use of the poppy, and in his assistant Lawrence, who has an almost savant-like recall. Like Holmes there are also rumours of mental illness, which in Lawrence's case are well known. Jameson is a privileged member of the upper class and as such doesn't always blend very well with those he works with and investigates. But for all his short-sightedness and occasional boorishness to those less-fortunate than he, he isn't a bad man. This is illustrated by his taking Ellie Cullen under his wing to teach her how to read. I loved Jameson's interactions with Ellie. She's a fabulous character and I liked how Matthews leveraged her to humanise the victims, especially since society at large at the time didn't really seem to care about these women whose work was less than respectable and lived on the edges of society. This is re-enforced by Argenti's feelings whenever he has to notify the parents of another victim. He sees them as human first and foremost and not as beneath notice. Argenti is a bit older and a solid working cop, with a loving family life. I liked that they were included in the novel; we see him around them and the love shared among them, which might go some way to explaining his sympathy for the grieving parents, but Argenti is also a man with a secret. We learn the full extent of his secret late in the book and it makes a lot about Argenti clearer, though it's more of a deepening of our understanding than that he's revealed in a new light.
Letters From a Murderer was a compelling read with two fabulous lead investigators, who I hope we'll get to see much more of in the future. Matthews tells a great story laced with pathos and unexpected twists, which I just couldn't put down. It was an exciting and gripping narrative, which elaborates on the Jack the Ripper mystery in a novel way. If you enjoy historical crime fiction, this is the book to put on your Christmas wish list this year.
I first encountered Christopher Gortner's writing last year when I reviewed The Queen's Vow, about Queen Isabella of Castile. I loved the book and I...moreI first encountered Christopher Gortner's writing last year when I reviewed The Queen's Vow, about Queen Isabella of Castile. I loved the book and I was intrigued with this next book, written under a slightly different name – his biographical fiction is published as CW Gortner – and with a different approach to historical fiction. I have a weak spot for historical crime fiction and this historical mystery is close enough kin to that as makes no difference. Not having read the first book in the series, an oversight I'll have to rectify in the future, I was worried that I might have missed too much back story, but luckily this book stands alone pretty well and the important bits get re-introduced quite organically in the narrative.
The Tudor Conspiracy contains a nice mix of historical and fictional characters. The book's main character Brendan Prescott is fictional and a great protagonist. He's a very sympathetic character, even when he does some pretty stupid things. While some of his actions could be ascribed to grief, his interactions with Sybilla, one of Mary's maids of honour, killed me; I couldn't believe he'd do that. I loved his squire Peregrine, who is your typical scampy side-kick and Brendan's fiancée Kate. They formed a wonderful adoptive family and their chemistry was wonderful. Gortner's portrayal of Elizabeth and Mary is interesting too. Gortner shows Mary's softer side; he doesn't just show her as the religious zealot responsible for so many deaths that she was nicknamed Bloody Mary. Instead he shows her compassion for others and the way her loyalty to her mother guide her religious beliefs. The more I read about her, the more I pity her. Elizabeth is a mix of a calculated survivor and a lonely girl desperate to have the love of her sister. Gortner's portrayal of the Dudleys surprised me at first, but when I started to think about it I realised that Dudley is often portrayed as a venal and ambitious man, when not shown from Elizabeth's point of view and at least in this book she seems not to be as smitten with him as she's usually shown to be.
The plot is based on a true historical event, the Wyatt conspiracy, is quite interesting – it was also one I wasn't familiar with – and the powers that Gortner positions behind it are somewhat unexpected. In addition to the internal politics, there are also influences from outside who impact English politics—Ambassador Renard and the Spaniards. While seemingly a straightforward marriage proposal from Charles V to bring England back into the Catholic fold through a union between his cousin and his son, Philip had grander plans and played for future stakes as it were. Gortner managed to slip some surprises into the narrative that were very skilful sleight-of-hand and which made the story even more complex and exciting.
The Tudor Conspiracy is a fantastic read, with well-written characters and a captivating plot. Gortner's Tudor Court is a far less glamorous and far more dangerous place than we've seen it portrayed as on both the large and the small screen, but for all that it is far more compelling. I'm planning to check out the previous book, The Tudor Secret, and I'll definitely be along for Brendan's next adventure, The Tudor Vendetta, next year.
One of my biggest fears is losing my sight. The thought of losing my vision and the ability to read and to watch my girls freaks me out even to contem...moreOne of my biggest fears is losing my sight. The thought of losing my vision and the ability to read and to watch my girls freaks me out even to contemplate. So when I read the above cover copy for Rebecca Mascull's debut novel The Visitors, I was immediately captured by the visual of this little girl completely cut off from sight and sound and I wondered how Mascull would portray her and let her tell her story, as from glancing at the first few pages I'd seen the book was told in Liza's first-person perspective. The answer to that question is beautifully. I found Liza's story haunting and evocative and if it hadn't been for the pesky need for sleep and the fact that I have two toddlers running around, I would have finished this book in one sitting.
Adeliza, the book's narrator, is a fascinating character. I loved the way that Mascull managed to convey her world even though she was deafblind and could only experience it through touch and smell. Adeliza is born with bad eye sight which slowly fades as her cataracts worsen. She isn't born deaf, but contracts scarlet fever when she is two and becomes deaf from complications of the disease. Mascull's description of the slow retreat of Liza's senses and her growing isolation happens within the first page and a half, but is vivid and gripping, leaving me in no doubt as to her writing chops. The need to communicate is paramount in all humans and it is a relief when Liza gets the opportunity, as her growing frustration and the helplessness of not just Liza but those around her as well is almost painful. When Lottie grabs her hand and manages to connect, it forms a crack in her closed shell of a world, one that is opened further by having her undergo an, at the time, dangerous procedure which allows Liza to regain her sight. Throughout all of this we follow Liza and her voice is compelling, especially once she starts exploring the world with her new abilities. It's an almost magical experience and Liza's joy and wonder radiate of the page.
Liza's almost constant companion and her window on the world is Lottie. A young woman from an oystering family, who do seasonal work at Liza's father's hop farm, she is a wonderful character, loving and clever. The book is as much about the love and friendship between her and Liza as about anything else. Without Lottie, Liza would have no voice, no way to have broken from her dark shell and their mutual devotion is touching. The older Liza gets the more of a well-rounded person Lottie seems to become, more of an individual with her own needs and desires, mirroring Liza's ability to see people separate from their meaning to her.
Lottie's twin brother Caleb is both alluring and mysterious, somewhat of the strong, silent and broody type. Given Liza's strong attachment to Lottie it's not surprising she'd love Caleb as much as she does, though at the same time it shows how much of a little girl she still is. Father is loving and protective and I loved that he learned all the ways to communicate with Liza. He was far from the stereotypical Victorian father figure, who is only seen at a distance and is a stern presence in his children's lives. Instead he's a warm and comforting presence in Liza's existence and their bond is genuine and deep. Mother is a far more distant figure, though given her fragile (mental) health that isn't surprising. Nevertheless, she does truly love Liza, like her father and they try to do their best by her. The Visitors, the ghostly presences only Liza can see, are fascinating. Especially at the beginning I wasn't sure whether they were real or just signs of Liza's underused optical nerves firing at random, but I love how they are brought along and how Liza's understanding of them develops. In the end, they are a solid part of the plot and I thought they were a wonderful creation.
Some of the most powerful scenes in the book are those set in South Africa during the Boer War. While I knew it was a war between the Dutch and British immigrants, the particulars of that war were unknown to me and as such The Visitors proved educational. The visual descriptions are evocative and sometimes even disturbing. Caleb's voice in his letters is distinct and the situations he relates, especially of his experiences at the refugee camp that Lottie and Liza later encounter, are harrowing and the latter feels rather current if one considers the pictures we see of modern refugee camps in Syria, Chad, the Sudan, or Kenya.
Rebecca Mascull's The Visitors might seem a slim, little book at 256 pages, but it certainly packs a punch. It is a stunning story, told in beautiful prose and clear visuals. Mascull's debut combines many elements – history, friendship, romance, ghost stories, adventure – and melds them into a distinctive and unique blend. The Visitors tells a story that will haunt the reader beyond its pages and I for one am glad to have been haunted by it.
After reading and reviewing The Secret Life of Bees I started The Invention of Wings with a bit of trepidation, because reviewing The Secret Life of...moreAfter reading and reviewing The Secret Life of Bees I started The Invention of Wings with a bit of trepidation, because reviewing The Secret Life of Bees was hard and the book left me more than a little conflicted. Still, I'd heard a lot of good about Sue Monk Kidd's latest novel and it certainly sounded very interesting, so I dove right in and didn't come up for air until I finished the book. Well, I did have occasional breaks to feed myself and the girls and entertain them and to reload the washer and the dryer, but other than that the book had me spellbound.
The book tells the story of two extraordinary women. While the facts about Sarah Grimké that Kidd recounts are mostly factual, the life she invents for Hetty 'Handful' Grimké is partly fictional. Hetty was a real person and was the slave given to Sarah on her eleventh birthday, but unfortunately she didn't live past her early teens as explained in the author's note. Despite this difference in facts to follow, both of them feel equally vibrant and real. Of the two, I think I enjoyed Handful's arc the most, just because she's an irresistible character. She's indefatigable, stubborn, and cynical, but she's also never without hope—hope for a better life, for the return of her mother, hope for freedom. Handful's story is anchored by her natural talent at sewing, tailoring and crafting, which she's inherited and learned from her mother. In one way this is literally true; we learn most of Handful's mother Charlotte's history through the story quilt she creates. Quilting and especially quilts with the black triangles that symbolise blackbird wings are Charlotte's speciality.
Sarah, the privileged daughter of a planter judge, is also quite interesting and strong-willed in a totally different way from Handful. She is not just an abolitionist, but a women's rights activist too. Kidd attributes this to Sarah's prodigious intellect which is stimulated by her father and beloved brother Thomas when she is little, but once she actually sets her expectations beyond those fulfilling a traditional female role in Charleston society; this is quickly and completely stopped. The injustice of this coupled with some critical thinking on Sarah's part launches her on the path of abolitionism and feminism. Her taking up the cause of women's rights in addition to abolition was especially interesting, as Sarah and her sister Nina are asked to stop provoking men with their women's right advocating, because it's drawing away attention from the abolitionist cause, something they refuse to do. This reminded me of intersectionality and how even today there is a tension between white feminists and feminists of colour because the former tend to drown out the latter's advocacy on matters specific to women of colour. The two situations are not the same, but reminiscent of each other and I found myself pondering whether Sarah and Nina's refusal to stop advocating for women's rights to achieve abolition first was misguided or courageous. And to be honest, I still don't have an answer.
Kidd's writing is lovely, though I had to get used to the fact that Handful speaks in a patois that is reflected in the writing. Kidd evokes strong visuals and does so in beautiful prose. The scents, sounds and sights of Charleston especially are compellingly drawn for the reader and very much part of the fabric of the book. For better or worse it's home to both Handful and Sarah, even though it's not always that welcoming to either of them and its society is stifling to Sarah.
I loved The Invention of Wings quite a lot. It's a wonderful historical novel and one that really made me think, in the same way The Secret Life of Bees made me think. However, The Invention of Wings didn't have the problems for me that the former had. Sarah Grimké is one of history's less-remembered and celebrated heroines and I hope that Sue Monk Kidd's The Invention of Wings has put her in the spotlight in a lasting way.
Helene Wecker's debut novel has been praised by many ofthe bloggersI follow, it made the Locus Recommended Reading for 2013 and I wouldn't be surpri...moreHelene Wecker's debut novel has been praised by many ofthe bloggersI follow, it made the Locus Recommended Reading for 2013 and I wouldn't be surprised to see it appear on several awards shortlists. And it's no wonder, because it is a remarkable novel. A historical fantasy, the book is set in turn-of-the-19th-century New York, mostly in the Jewish and Syrian communities of that metropolis, though Wecker takes us along on long jaunts through the city. Written in beautiful prose and filled with wonderful characters, who have been haunting me ever since I've finished the book, The Golem and the Djinni is a book to savour slowly and deliberately. Nevertheless, I found it a fast read as I found myself immersed in the narrative and unable to put the book down.
As the title of the book gives away, the protagonists in the book are a golem and a djinni. The choice for these two supernatural entities is refreshing as it moves away from the more well-known supernatural creatures we usually run across in fantasy. Both of these characters are lonely creatures as they are the only one of their kind in New York and they have to keep their true nature well-hidden or risk destruction or imprisonment. I loved Chava as she is a wonderful combination of naiveté and unexpected insights. One of the main questions of the book is whether she could possess a soul given her dark creation, but after spending only a few chapters with Chava the reader will never doubt it. The djinni is something different; he is far more aware of being different and considers himself above humans. He has an uneasy partnership with the man who frees him from the ubiquitous lamp and the only human he really connects with is Matthew, one of the neighbourhood boys. Ahmad is a curious mixture of arrogant fire spirit and empathetic victim and the only one he can really be himself with is Chava. In the crowded anthill that is New York these two lonely souls find each other and of this meeting grows a fascinating friendship.
Wecker spends a lot of time filling out the history of several secondary characters, which was disorienting at first, but started to make sense after the second such seeming digression. What seemed strange at first was that several of the more important secondary characters didn't get such a detailed background, but having finished the book it makes sense. Wecker chooses only to elaborate on history that is germane to the narrative; if a character's history doesn't influence the novel, then it doesn't get explained. In the end, these digressions enrich the novel and create an extra layer of depth to the narrative. They did do some weird things to the pacing of the novel, mostly giving it a rather slow build-up, but it smoothed out in the latter half of the book.
The atmospheres of the Jewish neighbourhood and Little Syria were stunningly created. Wecker manages to drop in details without seemingly trying to show off all her research. I loved the Radzin bakery, where Chava works, and the coffee shop in Little Syria owned by Maryam Faddoul and her husband. We also get glimpses of different parts of New York—the parks and squares Ahmad haunts in his night time walks and the illicit pleasures of the Bowery and the stately homes on Sixty Second Street. The Golem and the Djinni are both outsiders within groups already considered outsiders, since both of these communities consist of recent immigrants, many of whom don't even speak English and can't communicate with those beyond their neighbourhoods easily, which makes these communities little islands in the large sea that is New York. Through Chava and Ahmad, we get an inside view through outsider eyes, which is very interesting.
The plot is both subtle and intricate, coming full-circle in a way I hadn't expected but felt perfect and it almost audibly clicked into place. Its ending is marvellous and emotionally fulfilling, though one wonders what will happen in the future and how the two will adapt in the years to come. I loved The Golem and the Djinni. I think it is an amazing book and if this is what Wecker does in her first novel, we can only look forward to what she'll do next, because it will be fantastic. If I'd read this book when it came out it would have made my top ten debuts hands down and it’s hard to imagine it won't make my favourite 2014 reads in December. I highly recommend The Golem and the Djinni, it's a brilliant story and a stunning debut.
My predilection for historical fiction about royals is well-documented, so when I was approached about reviewing Colin Falconer's Isabella: Braveheart...moreMy predilection for historical fiction about royals is well-documented, so when I was approached about reviewing Colin Falconer's Isabella: Braveheart of France I was easily convinced, especially as I had just watched the episode of the BBC4 series She-Wolves: England's Early Queens about Isabella. And while Falconer's novel covers all the pertinent information of Isabella's life and gives us some inkling of what may have driven her to take over the English throne, I had a hard time connecting or staying connected to the main players in the novel, largely due to the stylistic choices made by the author.
Isabella's story is told from a third person perspective in the present tense in a rather fragmentary style and a somewhat dispassionate tone, with lots of scene breaks and short chapters. This makes it hard to settle into the narrative and connect to Isabella as a character. She starts out sympathetic enough, but during the course of the novel becomes embittered – not completely without cause obviously – and once we come to the end of the novel I found it hard to like her or be understanding of some of the choices she makes, trading a negligent husband for a domineering and callous lover she doesn't even seem to actually like. I also found the way that Isabella's internal dialogue isn't rendered in a clearly defined way problematic, as on several occasions it served more to confuse than to add to the story.
The novel covers Isabella's life from the moment she learns she's to marry Edward until the moment she's finally and irrevocably free from the marriage. Falconer manages to portray Isabella and Edward in a way that makes exceedingly clear how tragic their situation actually was. Isabella is traded away in marriage to ensure peace between England and France, only to find her husband is more interested in the stable boys than in her and she is quickly entrenched in a fierce rivalry with Edward's lover Piers Gaveston. It's this disappointment in her marriage, that fact that she was never first in her husband's affections that causes her slow embitterment and the ultimate breakdown of their partnership. Falconer spends quite some time building up Isabella's considerable political acumen and Edward's dislike of kingship, both due to the restrictions it places upon him and due to the fact that he can never measure up to the legend of his father, Edward I.
At one point in their marriage, after Gaveston is murdered by Edward's barons, they create a smoothly working partnership with Isabella masterminding a kingdom and power for Edward that allows him to avenge his beloved Piers' death. Despite knowing how the story ends, I still found myself hoping they'd work it out and have if not a happy marriage at least a solid one. Falconer seems to be hesitant to portray either of them as the villain in the marriage, instead squarely placing the blame on the Despenser, who becomes Edward's confidant after he loses Piers. Despenser is a venal, cruel, and greedy man who seemingly without conscience destroys people and families for his own gain. It's this that prompts the barons to take action against Edward, but it's not the sole reason Isabella decides to lead them. She is the proverbial woman scorned and she decides to take her fate in her own hands.
She's also driven by her affair with one of Edward's baron Lord Roger Mortimer. A man who has seemingly coveted Isabella from the first time he sees her. While the affair is historically accurate, Falconer never managed to make me believe it. It just seemed so abrupt and, while passionate, just as devoid of true love and companionship as Isabella's marriage to Edward. I think that was the point that the novel truly started to lose me, because I just couldn't wrap my head around this burgeoning affair. Add to this the fact that at this point I'd also lost any overview of which lord was which and whether they were the elder or the younger or newly created and the last third of the novel became a bit of a slog.
Isabella: Braveheart of France is an interesting account of a fascinating queen, but it suffered from its fragmentary pacing, dispassionate tone, and the seeming lack of loving connection between Isabella and Mortimer. If you're looking for a novel to familiarise yourself with Isabella's story, Isabella: Braveheart of France is a good choice, though it doesn't tell her entire story, since it stops after she and the barons dethrone Edward II. If you're looking for a satisfying love story or drama, however, you might be left a little underwhelmed by Isabella and Mortimer.
What makes a man? What makes a hero? Both are questions often asked by different characters throughout Lavie Tidhar's The Violent Century. In some way...moreWhat makes a man? What makes a hero? Both are questions often asked by different characters throughout Lavie Tidhar's The Violent Century. In some ways these are the central questions to the narrative, but neither question is answered in a definitive fashion. The reader is left to formulate her own answer. Tidhar's story is set over the course of the twentieth century, whose violent years gave rise to many heroes, both the comic book kind and those of flesh and blood The narrative shows us these comic book heroes made flesh though an accident with the machine created by the German scientist Dr Vomacht, in an alternate reality that is amazingly detailed in its historical facts and just 'off' enough to feel rather alien at times. Its mood is noir and slowly moves from moody black and white to the grimy over-saturated colours of the sixties on to a still gritty, but sharply-defined present.
Heroism is at the core of the story. All of the Changed are regarded as superheroes, though only the American Changed are designated as such. The others are called Changed or Übermenschen, a term whose connotations – especially given the book's mainly WWII setting – left me uncomfortable and wondering at the ultimate goal for Dr Vomacht's machine. Vomacht's ultimate motivation, beyond studying life, never becomes clear and it's never clear what his machine was actually meant to do. But while they are all shown as Heroes, be they superheroes, Changed or Übermensch, I found the truly heroic moments were found in those brief spells where their humanity shone through. Tank's interposing himself between Oblivion and Fogg and the Nazi’s, with a last exhortation to get to safety, Mr Blur's last sweet smile before running off, so Fogg could make his retreat. Kerach's self-sacrifice to avenge his comrades and not co-incidentally let Oblivion and Fogg get away is another good example. It's these glimpses of humanity and the strong show of fellow feeling between the agents of the Bureau of Superannuated Affairs, especially between Fogg and Oblivion, which make the characters come alive and shine.
The central relationships of the narrative are those between Fogg and Oblivion and Fogg and Sommertag. Fogg and Oblivion are partners and best friends, though Oblivion is gay – or at least bisexual – and there are hints here and there that the relationship at times had gone further than friendship, though this is never explicitly confirmed and might even just be unrequited desires on Oblivion's side or even this reader's faulty interpretation. Sommertag is the unexpected love of Fogg's existence and it's her relationship with Fogg that creates most of the tension in Fogg's life – between him and Oblivion and him and his service to King and Country. While the instant rapport between Fogg and Sommertag seemed somewhat forced, I liked seeing what she loosened in the restrained Fogg. But to me the most interesting relationship was between Fogg and Oblivion. The ending of the book is heart-breaking and made me think that no matter how long and well we know another, we'll never know their entire self.
Stylistically The Violent Century is very strong and quite interesting. Tidhar chooses to tell his story in a great many short chapters, the final tally is 164 and these chapters often switch between time periods and not always the time period stated at the start of the books the narrative is divided into. It weaves an intricate tapestry of motives, memories, history, and world building. Tidhar also doesn't use quotation marks in his dialogues, which took me a while to get used to—it's funny to realise how accustomed we are to the common use of punctuation and how disorienting leaving just one element out. On the whole the stylistics are fabulous, though at times it made for having to reread passages several times before they make sense.
The Violent Century was my first long-form encounter with Lavie Tidhar and hopefully it won't be my last. I was very impressed by this war torn superhero narrative, which touches upon sensitive topics such as the Holocaust, the Eichmann trial, World War II atrocities, but also on less well-known wars such as the Laotian Civil War and US involvement therein and ever holds up a mirror asking us: "What makes a man?" A story that sings around for a bit and got stuck in my head, The Violent Century is a strong contender for my top ten this year.