A red-blooded and sly master-work of historical fiction. This is the viking world as it must surely have been - brutal, primitive, restless, heroic. R...moreA red-blooded and sly master-work of historical fiction. This is the viking world as it must surely have been - brutal, primitive, restless, heroic. Raids and feuds. Wave-swept voyages of high peril. Devious schemes, blazing pride, and unshakeable loyalties.
Bengtsson has a sure grasp of the essential codes of honour and mutual obligation that underlie this often savage world. Chieftain to follower. Husband to wife. Warrior to fellow. His depiction of the domestic hall of Red Orm is as colourful and insightful as the voyages and duels. Wives, stable-hands, travelling troubadours are brought to full-bodied life. Bengtsson does not need to resort to the modern techniques of internal dialogue and 'hot', emotional perspective to draw his characters and their dramas. He lets actions and snippets of clever dialogue do the talking.
And for all the harrowing brutality of the Denmark of the 10th century, all is evoked with an eye to the human comedy. The hard-won insight and cheerful folly of these distant, yet roundly human characters. Here Orm comments on the seasickness of men new to voyaging:
"It takes time for landlubbers to appreciate the beauty of life at sea. With this wind, though, they can vomit to windward without its blowing back into the face of the next man, and many quarrels between irritable persons will thereby be avoided. But I doubt whether they appreciate this. Understanding does not come naturally to a man at sea, but only by experience."
Here is true wisdom, expressed in an understated, wry manner. Bengtsson's tone reminds me of Jack Vance, another chronicler of the ways of far-off and cultures who never failed to find the subtle threads of humour in even the most alien societies.
How gratifying to discover, in your middle age, a book that you will return to again and again. It gives me hope that there remain other masterworks out there beyond my horizons, waiting to be discovered and plundered.
Difficult to rate this one compared to the first seven Aubrey-Maturin books. It was a slight let-down compared to the rest of the series, but still to...moreDifficult to rate this one compared to the first seven Aubrey-Maturin books. It was a slight let-down compared to the rest of the series, but still top-notch historical fiction.
Early in the Ionian Mission I was impressed with how O'Brian eases the reader back into the situations and characters of the series. A deft reminder here. A tasteful recap there. This is excellent stuff for someone like me, who is working through the books at around one per year.
However, O'Brian goes on to over-use his character tags, and they become tiresome. Yes, Tom Pullings is excellent Lieutenant. Really knows his stuff. Can't go wrong with Tom Pullings by your side. Top-notch sailor. Superb Lieutenant. Makes the captain's job so much easier, does an officer like Tom Pulling. Deserves his own command. And on and on. This is ham-fisted stuff for such an elegant writer.
Then there's the plotting. The Ionian Mission has a strange shape, with side-trips, unresolved expectations, and a peculiarly rushed climax. Though I suppose there's merit - not the least of which is an organic realism - in unpredictable naval endeavors. Still, not quite as satisfying as the previous novels.
But this is all quibbling. The Ionion Mission is unsatisfying only in comparison with O'Brian's earlier titles in the series. This is still a marvelously intelligent and immersive story of adventure in the age of sails.(less)
This is my first Christian Cameron novel, and I come to new historical fiction authors with a great deal of wariness. There's too much shlock out ther...moreThis is my first Christian Cameron novel, and I come to new historical fiction authors with a great deal of wariness. There's too much shlock out there in the genre - from hack war porn to anachronistic romanticism. However, Cameron really knows his stuff, and makes few concessions to modern sensibilities in this thorough account of the military exploits and obsessions of Alexander the Great, told as the reminiscences of Ptolemy, one of his childhood Macedonian friends, and later the founder of a dynasty in Egypt.
Given Cameron's background as a military officer and ancient war re-enactor, it's no surprise that this hefty novel focuses on the training and composition of Alexander's military machine, and the great campaigns, battles, and sieges that marked Alexander's meteoric life. We learn of the demanding and cruel upbringing of Ptolemy as one of King Philip's pages, and the deadly intrigue around the Macedonian court in Pella. It's a tribute to Cameron's skills as a writer that he sustains suspense about the outcome of the factionalism, even though we know the historical outcome.
Then it's off to war, where Cameron's offers a convincing depiction of Alexander's growing megalomania and war-madness. It's harder to maintain narrative suspense here, as Alexander's campaign in Asia will be likely be familiar to most readers. By the time Alexander and his army are crossing the Indus, we are as weary of the campaign as the grumbling Macedonian veterans.
For historical fiction of a military bent, this is a well-written novel. While the text often succumbs to pedantic accounts of military formations, and Cameron can't seem to restrain himself from demonstrating his thorough knowledge of the tactics and equipment of the era, the prose is fine and the dialog and characterizations strong for genre fiction.
However, editing errors abound, from glaring proofing oversights, to Cameron's linguistic ticks that crop up again and again ("you just try it' after every tough military maneuver, and "Macedon, eh?" to point out the brutality the Macedonian, over and over and over again). There's a better novel waiting within for a more careful re-write to draw out.
A more substantial problem is how Cameron builds his Ptolemy into a super-ass-kicking-warrior-genius-lover. Given his survival of the Successor Wars with a secure control of Egypt, it's likely that Ptolemy was a very clever man. Cameron has Alexander call Ptolemy 'his Odysseus.' Which is apt. And no doubt a man given the the brutal and warlike upbringing of a royal page in Macedon would be a fierce fighter in the field. But Cameron lays Ptolemy's excellence on too thick. He is a wise and considerate master of slaves, a cunning and beloved officer, a brilliant cavalry scout, deadly in hand-to-hand combat, brave above all others, willing to speak truth to power, and lover to the most beautiful and intelligent courtesan of the era. There isn't a major campaign, battle, or siege where Ptolemy isn't there at the crucial moment to save the day with desperate courage or masterful insight. It gets tiresome.
This is historical fiction told well, with excitement and veracity. Cameron's depiction of a power-mad Alexander leading a brutal regime is a refreshing corrective to the hero-worship we typically find in accounts of these figures. However, his shrewd treatment of Alexander is undermined by the over-the-top wish fulfillment of his Ptolemy. He's a compelling enough character without making him out to be a super-heroic protagonist. This characterization did mar an otherwise strong historical novel, but Cameron showed enough here as a novelist and expert on ancient Greece that I intend to follow up with his other series on the era.(less)
A deft account of the struggle for supremacy among Alexander's generals in the wake of his death. Romm is sure-footed in his tour of the Macedonian wa...moreA deft account of the struggle for supremacy among Alexander's generals in the wake of his death. Romm is sure-footed in his tour of the Macedonian warrior and dynastic culture that first conquered and then contested the Hellenic world and the Near East. He has his clear favorite in Eumenes, who serves as a sort of protagonist among the Diadochoi. The book goes into great detail about the political wranglings and uprisings in Athens - almost half the book - which felt disproportionate to me. Though I suppose the limited sources limit freedom of scope in a work like this. And it cuts out at the death of Eumenes and Olympia, leaving out the 20 years of war that followed. However, a very readable and credible history of a fascinating period.(less)
Like a lot of people not old enough to remember the 60s first-hand, my impressions of the era come from pop-culture cliches and simplifications peddle...moreLike a lot of people not old enough to remember the 60s first-hand, my impressions of the era come from pop-culture cliches and simplifications peddled by and for baby boomers. And as a non-American, I've watched the culture wars and political polarization of the U.S. with perplexity. Then I read William Manchester's The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America 1932-72, and the era took on more substance for me. Manchester's chapters on the 60s, along with the increased political content in season six of Madmen, whetted my appetite for a more thorough treatment of the era.
So I came to Nixonland, written by a Rich Perlstein, a man of my exact age. One of its merits is the author would have a more detached perspective on the tumults of the 60s then the ideologues and self-serving participants who were there. And while it doesn't start until 1965, a lot of what we think of as the 60s, in terms of politics, social revolution, and the Vietnam war, fit the 1965-1972 frame better than 1960 to 1969. Perlstein's central conceit - that the political convulsions of the middle-class that characterized politics in that era were personified by Richard Nixon - proved an effective approach.
The meat of the book is a series of national campaigns - Democrat, Republican, congressional and presidential - and the social strife that shaped them. So we have back-room nomination contests, race riots, media campaigns, and vignettes of pop culture. This is the ugly sausage-making of politics, back-lit by lurid scenes of truncheon-weilding riot police and their student radical opponents screaming "fuck you pigs". This is not a short book, so the urban race riots, campus takeovers, peace marches, and nomination conventions are covered with great thoroughness.
For me, in fact, this thoroughness was a weakness of the book. I can handle thorough, detailed histories. However, Perlstein writes in a punchy, journalistic style, so the panoramic account of events does not read smoothly. He gallops hither and yon, a quote about Nixon's composure here, a fragment of detail from a race riot there, now polling figures from a Wisconsin primary, often in the same paragraph. The details are vivid, the tone urgent and ripe with disaster. But it lacks an overarching structure, with the central argument of liberal Franklin hubris versus middle-lass Orthogonian resentment coming to the fore, then receding into the background, overcome by the bird-shot accumulation of detail. To me, Nixonland would have been more effective as either a breezier social history, or a conventionally structured history.
I know that Perlstein is a liberal writer (by American standards), so I was prepared for political bias. However, it seemed even-handed to me. Curiously, while he offers a deliberate and sound explanation of how and why working-class white American turned away from liberalism, and why Nixon appealed to their sense of insecurity and resentment (and racism), he doesn't present the case for the liberal alternative or the New Left. I came away from the book understanding why Ronald Reagan excited conservatives, and what he offered voters, but Perlstein offers no explanation of the source of campus radicalism or black urban rage. Perhaps he thinks the merits of liberalism are self-evident?
In the end, I came away from this exhaustive, lurid account of the polarization of America with a better understanding of the country, and the source of many of today's suspicions and animosities. Many of the 60s cliches were debunked (campus radicals come across as narcissistic and short-sighted) and some ugly truths exposed (for the most part, it's all about race). It sparked an interest in Vietnam, so A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam now sits at the top of my To Read pile. But I now know about all I'll ever want to know about the political wrangling and civil strife of the 60s.(less)
“Fuck this shit” grumbled Slicker Gutwruck as he wearily limped up the hill, bile tickling his tonsils. “I couldn't give an arse about war an...moreThe Piles
“Fuck this shit” grumbled Slicker Gutwruck as he wearily limped up the hill, bile tickling his tonsils. “I couldn't give an arse about war anymore,” he spat. How ironic that I'm so good at it he mused, as his rag-tag squad of soldiers showed off their cool moves on a group of unfortunate peons they got the drop on. There was Broody McBrooderson, master of the garotte; Slicker's second-in-command, Little Miss Sunshine, tougher than any man, and more than capable of commanding Serenity, er, the squad, on her own; wise-cracking Esposito from Brooklyn; Ole Five-Finger Discount; the triplets, Gramps, and the rest. A hard bunch. Sick of fuckin' war. But fuckin' good at it.
Back at HQ, the Big Chief grimly sat in conference, looking over the hardest men of the North like a hamster considering pellets of its own shit. There was Brandis Bowel-burster, clawed face fixed in a rictus of hate, scowling while he stroked his axe made of sharpened pelvic bones. Next to him loomed the always dangerous Farnsbury Flopper, commander of the 3rd Signal Corps, as hard as un-rinsed oatmeal that has dried on a bowl for two days. And eyeing them all cynically from the back of the tent was the Gooch, another complete arsehole.
The last to enter the tent was He-Who-Heaves, green of face and unsteady of gait. The other war chiefs inched away warily, vomit frothing in their gullets.
“We have to show the Confederacy who's boss,” growled Brandis. “Those fucking arseholes are too effete and corrupt for my liking. And they're a perfect stock antagonist for our hard Northmen trope.”
The Farnsbury Flopper swirled his granite eyeball in a mug of lager and hissed “Fucking retard, we don't know where the arseholes are.”
“Retard?” queried the Gooch from the shadows. “What's with the anachronism?”
“This is a gritty fantasy story, playing with the genre conventions by mashing up movie, television, and other source material familiar to its audience,” growled Brandis. “Just enjoy the story, you butthead.”
“So there's no internal consistency, even within the conventions of the setting as depicted by the author?”
“Nope,” sneered the Flopper. “That shit don't fly with our crew.”
The Big Chief raised his mangled hand menacingly. “Enough! We do know where the Confederate forces are” he gloated. “Slicker Gutwruck's expert scout/commando/spy/hand-to-hand combat squad has found the whole fucking Confederate army. They're south of Toad Hall, split into three divisions, marching in mutually-supporting columns, converging on this obscure hill called the Piles.”
“The fuck,” interjected the Gooch. “The division was introduced during the Napoleonic era as a military unit containing all the necessary arms – infantry, cavalry, artillery - to sustain independent combat. It was facilitated by the tremendous growth in the size of armies nations could field at the time, owing to improved roads, conscription, the mass production of arms, innovations like canning -”
“Shut it!” shouted the Big Chief. He resumed, glowering. “As I was saying, the first division is commanded by Harold Lacksack. The second, by Marshal Fritz Loober and his chief of staff Colonel Quiff.”
“Whoa, whoa – his chief of staff? What kind of staff work is necessary in a pre-gunpowder army living off the land, without the logistical network, let alone the command and control capabilities, that would support a system of centralized staff planning?”
“Stop thinking and just enjoy the story, you fucking douchebag!” bellowed the Big Chief. He ripped out his own kidneys and waved them in the Gooch's face menacingly. “Any more chirping out of you, mate, and it'll be your kidneys next time.”
The Gooch raised his hands. “Whatever,” he murmured. “Mellow the fuck out.”
The Big Chief resumed. “They're supported by two brigades of conscript cavalry -”
The Gooch couldn't help himself “Conscript cavalry? You mean civilians drafted to fight on hugely expensive animals that take years of training to simply learn how to ride properly, let alone manage in battle? There's a reason every fucking cavalryman in the history of warfare was either born to the saddle, or was an aristocrat who had the means and time to raise his own horses and gallivant around on them all day. And you're suggesting some out-of-work bakers assistant will be assigned to the cavalry, like learning to be a mounted soldier is as easy as cleaning latrines.”
Shaking with fury, the Big Chief drew his dread sword Dreadblade, shimmering in the torchlight, and brandished it balefully before the mouthy critic.
The Gooch carried on, heedlessly. “This is supposed to be a gritty military story, about armies and warfare and all that cool shit. Shouldn't it have at least the basics right in regards to military structures and tactics? I mean, if the author has free license to go completely off the grid about this stuff, why not include jeeps and predator drones? That's about as plausible as an ostensibly renaissance-era army set up like a - “
The Farsnsbury Flopper whipped out a twinned pair of repeating crossbows and shot several bolts into each of the Gooch's eyes, which burst in sprays of glistening gore. The Gooch groaned and sunk to his knees, clawing at his eyes, as puke jabbed his molars.
The Big Chief stepped forward and grunted in rage as he swung Dreadblade in a murderous arc, cleaving the Gooch in two. He shit himself and collapsed on the ground with a deafening crash, lifeblood streaming out of his shit-stinking body like the rivers of beer pissed in Northern halls on the eve of hard-won victories.
“Fucking troll” growled the Big Chief.
Slicker Gutwruck, who had a knack for being at the right place at the right time, stepped out of the shadows and spat. “Waste of a good man. A good, hard man. The poor bastard didn't know how to suspend his sense of disbelief and overlook lazy cliche and awful prose. But those are the times.”
He scowled at the blood-oozing body. “I'm sick of genre fiction,” he grumbled. Sick to my arse of it.(less)
Massie is a talented writer, and it was easy to be drawn into the world he evokes in this polished dual biography. We feel for the peculiar upbringing...moreMassie is a talented writer, and it was easy to be drawn into the world he evokes in this polished dual biography. We feel for the peculiar upbringings of children in homes where czars and dukes struggle to raise normal families in the rarified air of late 19th century European aristocracy. The complex political and dynastic problems of the era are deftly drawn. And we feel close to the doomed and awkward couple at the center of the maelstrom.
However, in his efforts to present a corrective to history's judgement of the Romanovs, Massie lapses into hagiography. The monstrous injustices of the Czar's regime are glossed over. His sympathetic portrayal of Alexandra is at odds with the antipathy she aroused in most of those who had contact with her. And ultimately, the central argument of the book - that the Romanovs made bad decisions out of concern for their son - remains unconvincing.
We can see why Alexandra would come to rely on Rasputin to give her emotional support during the ongoing crisis of the heir's survival. What Massie glosses over is why she took such an active - and catastrophic - role in governing Russia during the Great War. And more importantly, why did Nicolas let himself be dominated by her, even though she was entirely ill-equipped to handle such responsibilities?
It seems clear that an honest appraisal of the relationship between Nicolas and Alexandra under the strain of the final years of regime would cast them both in a bad light; she the haughty and foolish meddler, he the weak-willed enabler. So Massie (who surely knows better), lets sympathy get the better of him, and leaves those crucial questions unasked.
In the end, a fine read, but biased and spotty history.(less)
Fantastic stories written by a master of adventure.
Lamb is that rare writer who employs faultless prose in the service of galloping plots. In his sto...moreFantastic stories written by a master of adventure.
Lamb is that rare writer who employs faultless prose in the service of galloping plots. In his stories of the ageing Cossack Khlit, there's not an unnecessary word or kludgey phrase. This is pulp written by a master craftsman.
When it comes to history, Lamb knows his business. The world of Central Asia in the 16th century is exotic, perilous, and colourful, as the setting for pulp adventures should be. Lamb gives us fantastic stories of sieges, breakneck escapes, secret fortresses, assassins, and legends taking shape out of the mist. However, he never stretches credulity too far. This is genuine historical fiction, not fantasy.
And Lamb clearly loved the steppes in all their variety. Cossacks, Mongols, Arabs, Christians, Chinese - all are given a fair treatment at his hands. No European bigotry or condescension here. And no anachronistic attitudes. Khlit and his companions have the rough sensibilities of their world - a brutal warrior world.
Khlit himself is an engaging character - an hard-bitten Cossack deemed too old by his fellows, who sets off across the hostile steppes to make his way by his wits and still-deadly sword.
There's a certain ironic distance to Lamb's portrayal of his characters, which may be out of step with the expectations of modern readers. However, I appreciate that sort of detachment, especially in characters living in distant times and places. I don't need any intense emotional connection with the protagonist to thrill to his struggles. And I enjoy the wry, arch tone that runs through Lamb's writing, from the laconic speech of desperate but stoic warriors, to the understated treatment of calamity. It's the perfect accent to red-blooded adventure. I wouldn't be surprised to learn Lamb was a major influence on Jack Vance, another of my favourites who wrote in the same tone.
One small defect is the lack of maps. But that's quibbling. This is a series all fans of historical adventure and pulp fiction should have in their libraries.(less)