Book Review – Catherine of Braganza by Sarah-Beth Watkins (history)

Here’s the blurb;

Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese princess, married Charles II in 1662 and became the merry monarch’s Restoration queen. Yet life for her was not so merry – she put up with the king’s many mistresses and continuous plots to remove her from the throne. She lived through times of war, plague and fire. Catherine’s marriage saw many trials and tribulations including her inability to produce an heir. Yet Charles supported his queen throughout the Restoration, remaining devoted to her no matter what. Outliving her husband, she ended up back in her home country and spent her final days as queen-regent of Portugal.

Although a historian myself, anything after the Tudors does almost defeat me because it’s not a period I’ve studied at great length – and this is probably just the right sort of book for me to read about a time period I know little about.

The author’s tone is light, and dispenses with any sort of discussion about sources and their reliability, rather focusing on what can be pieced together about Charles II’s Queen, which doesn’t seem to be a great deal. It is told in a chronological order – which I always like – and while I would have quite liked a list of Charles II’s mistresses and illegitimate children – Charles does not feature massively in the text. Not that he’s not there – and there are a few times when I was struck by Charles’ regard for his wife, unable to give him the legitimate sons he needed, and yet fiercely loyal to her for all that – apart from perhaps in his younger days when his treatment of her was quite scandalous.

Overall, a very enjoyable and quick read – I especially enjoyed the mentions of the French court as it brought back all my memories of studying Louis XIV. I think it would help to have some understanding of the time period when reading the book – but as I discovered while reading, I did actually know more about the time period than I thought I would.

This is released on 28th April 2017 and you can get a copy here;

 

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On this day in history – April 23rd 1016 – the death of King Aethelred II of England

 

1001 years ago the death of Aethelred II of England came at a time of crisis for England. Aethelred had not been a popular king (at least according to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle) and he’d already been ousted from power once, back in 1013, when King Swein of Denmark, after years of failed attempts, had finally managed to win a resounding victory in England and sent Aethelred II to his brother-in-law’s Court in Normandy with his tail between his legs.

Sadly, King Swein did not live long, in fact not at all, lending credence to the idea that he might have been injured in one of the many battles with the Ealdormen of England who’d fallen, one by one, under his command. Swein’s son, Cnut, had hopes that the English would declare him their King, but he was young and the English seemed to take some delight in asking their deposed king back to England, which he ruled for another 2 years, with Cnut baying at his heels and hoping to repeat his own father’s success.

When Aethelred died, England was in the middle of a war between Aethelred’s son, Prince Edmund, and Prince Cnut; a war muddied by the dubious actions of one of the ealdormen of England, Eadric, named Streona – the aquisitor – in later sources. He had been Aethelred II’s son in law, and had risen to power in 1006 and somehow, and it is a mystery how, had managed to keep on the good side of Aethelred for the whole of the previous decade. It was, in many ways, Eadric’s actions throughout the rest of 1016 that essentially settled the matter of who of the two contenders for the kingdom would be victorious, but that, as many would say, is a matter for another story. But if you’re curious, then please have a look at my fictionalised account of the period; Cnut, the Conqueror.

Here’s the blurb;

A new chapter in the epic Earls of Mercia saga.

England: The Second Viking Age

To gain what he wanted, what he felt he was owed, he would do anything, even if it meant breaking his oaths to a woman he loved and the mother of his son.

Swein, King of Denmark, and briefly England, lies dead, his son ousted from England as King Aethelred returns from his exile in Normandy at the behest of his Witan and the bishops. Aethelred might have relinquished his kingdom to Swein, the Danish conqueror, but with Swein dead, the men have no interest in supporting an untried youth whose name resounds with the murder of one of England’s greatest bishop’s, a youth known only for his savagery and joy of battle, a true norse man who utilizes his weapons without thought.

But Cnut wants a kingdom and he will do anything to gain one.

As England is ravaged by a civil war between the sons of two former kings, Edmund, son of King Aethelred, and Cnut, son of Swein, the men must make personal decisions in the heat of battle as they strive to reclaim their birthrights whilst doing all they can to stay alive.

Cnut: the Conqueror, is an Earls of Mercia side story (full length novel) to mark the millennial anniversary of Cnut’s accession to the English kingdom in 1016.

 

 

Book Review – Betrayal: The Centurions I by Anthony Riches (historical fiction)

Here’s the blurb:

“Rome, AD 68. Nero has committed suicide. One hundred years of imperial rule by the descendants of Julius Caesar has ended, and chaos rules.

His successor Galba dismisses the incorruptible Germans of the Imperial Bodyguard for the crime of loyalty to the dead emperor. Ordering them back to their homeland he releases a Batavi officer from a Roman prison to be their prefect. But Julius Civilis is not the loyal servant of empire that he seems.

Four centurions, two Batavi and two Roman, will be caught up in the intrigues and the battles that follow – as friends, as victims, as leaders and as enemies.

Hramn is First Spear of the Bodyguard. Fiercely proud of his men’s honour, and furious at their disgrace, he leads them back to the Batavi homeland to face an uncertain future.

Alcaeus is a centurion with the tribe’s cohorts serving Rome on the northern frontier – men whose fighting skills prove crucial as Roman vies with Roman for the throne. A wolf-priest of Hercules, he wields the authority of his god and his own fighting prowess.

Marius is a Roman, first spear of the Fifth Legion: a self-made man who hates politics, but cannot avoid them in a year of murderous intrigue.

Aquillius, former first spear of the Eighth Augustan, like Hramn, is in disgrace for refusing to dishonour his oath of loyalty. But their paths will lead them to opposite sides of an unforgiving war.

And Civilis, Kivilaz to his countrymen, heroic leader, Roman citizen and patriotic Batavi, will change both the course of the Empire’s destiny and that of the centurions.”

For a book that’s only 400 pages long, Betrayal by Anthony Riches, took a painful amount of time to read. It is, and perhaps only people who’ve read the book will understand this comment, as hard to read as the struggles his crack Batavi troops endure as they forge rivers in all their armour. This is a huge shame. I can almost understand what the author was trying to achieve with this novel, and perhaps, for those who know the period well it will be a great success, but as a newly come reader to Roman era historical fiction, I found I needed to rely on my very sparse knowledge from other Roman historical fiction books to even have an inkling of what was happening.

Much of this could perhaps be remedied with a few more ‘signposts’ for the reader throughout the text. While the author informs us where the action is taking place, it would have been better to have known who the storyline actually involved. The characters all seem to have a number of different names and the author uses them freely, when in actual fact, they all just needed one name, and probably their title before that name – Centurion, Decurion, Legatus etc etc. In a story with so many characters the author really needs to help the reader by informing them as to who they’re reading about – there were great swathes of this novel when I literally had no idea which character the storyline was about and how it related to the other person I’d just been reading about. Some of this is due to the story being told, and the ‘actual’ events that took place, but much of it is just sloppy storycrafting.

The prologue is almost unreadable – sentences taking up the ENTIRE page on my Kindle and it took me three attempts to get through it. I was relieved when the prologue ended and the real story could get under way, but even that relief didn’t last too long. While the events of the prologue are later seen to have real significance to the storyline, I think they’re mentioned so often, that a ‘flashback’ would have sufficed. There is painstaking detail about the equivalent of a game of football/rugby but on other occasions, the characters somehow appear ‘overnight’ in Italy from Germany with very little explanation as to why, and and then travel back just as quickly. It makes me feel that there either wasn’t enough to make this a complete story, or that the author was trying to achieve too much in one book.

I do not believe that historical fiction should be ‘dumbed’ down so that readers can relate to it but it must be told in a manner that’s understandable to those who know little about it. This is the seventh work of Roman historical fiction I’ve read in as many weeks, and apart from one other (which I also struggled with) it is the one I enjoyed the least and also, understood the least. A real shame as I enjoy intelligent novels about the politics of the time, but this completely defeated me.

Betrayal was released on 9th March 2017 and is available here;

Book Review – Skullsworn by Brian Staveley (fantasy)

Here’s the blurb;

“Brian Staveley’s new standalone returns to the critically acclaimed Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne universe, following a priestess attempting to join the ranks of the God of Death.

Pyrre Lakatur doesn’t like the word skullsworn. It fails to capture the faith and grace, the peace and beauty of her devotion to the God of Death. She is not, to her mind, an assassin, not a murderer–she is a priestess. At least, she will be a priestess if she manages to pass her final trial.

The problem isn’t the killing. Pyrre has been killing and training to kill, studying with some of the most deadly men and women in the world, since she was eight. The problem, strangely, is love. To pass her Trial, Pyrre has ten days to kill the ten people enumerated in an ancient song, including “the one you love / who will not come again.”

Pyrre is not sure she’s ever been in love. If she were a member of a different religious order, a less devoted, disciplined order, she might cheat. The Priests of Ananshael, however, don’t look kindly on cheaters. If Pyrre fails to find someone to love, or fails to kill that someone, they will give her to the god.

Pyrre’s not afraid to die, but she hates to quit, hates to fail, and so, with a month before her trial begins, she returns to the city of her birth, the place where she long ago offered an abusive father to the god and abandoned a battered brother—in the hope of finding love…and ending it on the edge of her sword.”

So I am new to the writing of Brian Staveley and I found this book to be a slog from beginning to end, and in the end, it was only sheer determination that drove me to the end, and not a desire to know the ending of the narrative. The novel felt very much like the hot and muggy climate that the story takes place in, and which the author goes to great pains to constantly describe, it clung to you, the smell, the heat, the sweat, but a good shower and the whole thing was washed clean away with little remaining to remind you of the story.

There are moments in this book when I thought it was fantastic, but they were too short and too few and far between and sadly, were too often stopped abruptly by a complete change of pace by the author, or the ending of a chapter. And, my word, does the author like to ‘world build’. I would have much preferred a style that didn’t involve long and torturous ‘backfill’ when a character did something that the author was unable to explain away. I felt, almost like a bad joke, that if it needed that much explanation then, really, that scene shouldn’t have happened or wasn’t needed.

There were also moments when the plot made no sense whatsoever. There are too many ‘gods’ and too many events that seem ‘forced’. There is no overriding narrative that holds the story together, and the author revels in using language that I’ve never heard of. Repeatedly I had to make use of the dictionary on kindle to understand the words – a strange occurrence as I’ve never had to do this before in any of the many books I’ve read. There are also, and this is a pet peeve, lots of silly sounding names for all the peripheral characters – Gods, people, places.

I very much tried to be open minded about the novel. From my own experience about writing side-stories to an already established universe, I know how hard it can be to find a storyline that doesn’t depend on the other novels – one that truly stands alone – and from what I can gather, I think the author has done this. However, if the novel was intended to inspire me to read more of the ‘world’ that has been created, it has failed. While Pyrre may have been a bold and decisive character, ultimately, I found her to be too ‘little’. There was little to love there, in fact, the characters who surround Pyree are far better – perhaps because we don’t constantly have to listen to their self-doubt – Ruc Lan Lac, Kossal and Ela. They might be more one-dimensional – but they are easier to connect to and understand.

Yet, I still give the novel 4 stars – mainly because it is so detailed and confident in itself and I’m sure that fans of the series will love it.

And you can buy it here from April 25th 2017;

 

 

 

Book Review – Alice and the Assassin by R J Koreto

Here’s the blurb;

“In 1902 New York, Alice Roosevelt, the bright, passionate, and wildly unconventional daughter of newly sworn-in President Theodore Roosevelt, is placed under the supervision of Secret Service Agent Joseph St. Clair, ex-cowboy and veteran of the Rough Riders. St. Clair quickly learns that half his job is helping Alice roll cigarettes and escorting her to bookies, but matters grow even more difficult when Alice takes it upon herself to investigate a recent political killing–the assassination of former president William McKinley.

Concerned for her father’s safety, Alice seeks explanations for the many unanswered questions about the avowed anarchist responsible for McKinley’s death. In her quest, Alice drags St. Clair from grim Bowery bars to the elegant parlors of New York’s ruling class, from the haunts of the Chinese secret societies to the magnificent new University Club, all while embarking on a tentative romance with a family friend, the son of a prominent local household.

And while Alice, forced to challenge those who would stop at nothing in their greed for money and power, considers her uncertain future, St. Clair must come to terms with his own past in Alice and the Assassin, the first in R. J. Koreto’s riveting new historical mystery series.”

I loved this book. From the first page you’re expertly drawn into New York in 1902 by the two main characters – Miss Alice Roosevelt – a very feisty 17 year old who speaks her mind, says the odd naughty word and lets no one get in her way because she is the President’s daughter, and Mr St Clair, an old (but not that old) soldier, lawman and rancher who is now her Secret Service Agent in light of the previous President’s assassination.

Immediately the reader is drawn into a possible conspiracy regarding the previous President’s assassination which no one, other than Miss Alice, thinks needs investigating and which only gets bigger as Alice and St Clair discover more and more, by calling on contacts and following up each and every lead they’re presented with. They visit the Italian district, the Chinese district, the docklands, the jail and the odd nice restaurant, as well as travelling on the ‘elevated’.

The storyline evolves at a good pace, the chapters are quite short and by the time you reach the end of the novel you might well have worked out who it is a little bit before Miss Alice, but other than that, you will have been kept guessing and wondering whether she’s making more of something than she should, to just relieve the boredom of her, and Mr St Clair’s days.

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and very much appreciated the author’s efforts to describe old New York. I hope there are more books in this series.

This book is due for release in April 2017, and in the meantime you can preorder a copy here,

 

Book Review – Blood Forest by Geraint Jones (historical fiction) Highly Recommended

Here’s the blurb:

“Gladiator meets Full Metal Jacket in Geraint Jones’ spectacular debut Blood Forest, where honour and duty, legions and tribes clash in bloody, heart-breaking glory.

It is AD 9. In Northern Europe an army is dying, and an empire is being brought to its knees.

The Roman Empire is at the height of its power. Rome’s soldiers brutally enforce imperial rule, and its legions are the most efficient and aggressive fighting force in the world. Governor Varus leads 15,000 seasoned legionnaires north to subdue the Germanic tribes. To Rome these people are savages, ripe for conquest. But the Romans know little of this densely forested territory governed by fiercely independent chieftains. Rome’s supposed ally, Arminius, has unified the disgruntled tribes, leading the would-be conquerors towards a deadly trap. As the army marches deeper into enemy territory, one small band of soldiers must face the deadliest of foes, alone.”

I must first make two things very clear 1) I don't like Ancient Rome/the Romans and I have no interest in studying it because I'm an Anglo-Saxonist 2) I tried to give this book a 4 star but I've had to give it a 5. 

I am, I must confess, conflicted by those two points above! However, for all that I don't like books on Ancient Rome or the Romans (to me the Romans are all about sandals and skirts - and sandals are mentioned quite a few time) this story by Geraint Jones is stunning. I devoured it in two days and the reason I've opted for the 5 star is because the storyline infected my dreams last night and that means it's had a big impact on me. In case you want to know, it was the cover and the title that made me want to read the book.

I can not, and won't, attest to any historical accuracy in this story. As I said, I'm not a Roman historian however, the majority of this novel is about a small group of men, in a much larger army, and the events take place so far from Rome that the whole Roman 'thing' isn't actually all that important. This is a story of men, battle and comradeship, and perhaps, honour. It is very brutal, it is filled with foul language and hideous images of death and the dying. 

The author manages to avoid stereotyping his Roman soldiers, and all of the 'main' small group (Felix, Titus, Moon, Rufus, Chicken, Micon, Cnaeus and Pavo) have something to add to the story. It is told in the first person - which makes for a quick and easy read anyway - but our main character - whose name we only find out very late on in the novel and who we must call 'Felix' as the rest of the cast do - is an intriguing, if conflicted individual. And to be honest, most of the soldiers are conflicted - in the descriptions of the way the men deal with the violent conflict they find themselves in - the author spares nothing in allowing them to be twisted and changed by the many violent actions they've taken part in, or are forced to take part in, and while we may deplore their acts with our more modern sensibilities - so much of this novel is life and death that we too end up accepting what they're doing.

The reader might not like all of the men, I don't think we're meant to, but that means that we can respect the actions they take.

Even if you don't like Roman historical fiction, I would still recommend this novel to you. The writing style is fresh, the battle scenes well told so that even though there are many battle scenes, they never feel repetitive, and although I think the weakest part of the novel might well be its ending, when all the secrets and lies are exposed about the truth of the men making the decisions for the army that Felix and his comrades are a member of, I would still be interested in reading more about Felix.

This book is available to buy from April 9th 2017.

Book Review – Red Sister by Mark Lawrence (Highly recommended ) fantasy

Here’s the blurb;

It’s not until you’re broken that you find your sharpest edge

A brilliant new series from the bestselling author of PRINCE OF THORNS.

“I was born for killing – the gods made me to ruin”

At the Convent of Sweet Mercy young girls are raised to be killers. In a few the old bloods show, gifting talents rarely seen since the tribes beached their ships on Abeth. Sweet Mercy hones its novices’ skills to deadly effect: it takes ten years to educate a Red Sister in the ways of blade and fist.

But even the mistresses of sword and shadow don’t truly understand what they have purchased when Nona Grey is brought to their halls as a bloodstained child of eight, falsely accused of murder: guilty of worse.”

 

Red Sister by Mark Lawrence is a stunning book – I can’t deny that – initially I wanted to hold with a four star review but I’ve changed it to a five star because it is that good, and while I have reservations about it from my view point of a fan of his two previous trilogies (completely unrelated to this book – although the previous two are related to each other (remember that when you finish reading this book)), that’s hardly the fault of this book.

Where to begin – Mark Lawrence never starts a book with endless world building – neither does he stick it down your throat about two or three chapters in – in fact he is elusive to it being almost frustrating about the visions he has in his head. This is a compliment. World building – so beloved of all fantasy authors (so it seems) often gives me a bit of a headache because it is so tediously done. Honestly, I’m not that interested in how magic systems work/religious sects organise themselves – if the story works and its believable then I’m happy. (Lawrence does provide a detailed explanation of all of this at the very beginning – but it’s not part of the text of the story and because I love surprises, I didn’t read it and still haven’t, it made me think he finds world building in the main text as tedious as I do and decided to get it over and done with in one foul-swoop).

In Red Sister, Lawrence has envisaged something new, and also, eminently relatable. This is frustrating – when he does ‘new’ it’s great but sometimes he falls back onto more conventional fantasy ideas and sometimes I want to beat him for being a little bit lazy, almost as though it’s all been a bit too much and he’s had to incorporate something into the text that is easy, and already ‘known’ by those who read fantasy. As such there are painful parts of the text which are too much like Harry Potter ( a lot too much like Harry Potter), and there are brilliant parts where his four ‘races’ – so different to elves, dwarves, orcs and dragons – speak for a level of imagination that few others can employ. The ending – so shocking to many in other reviews – was signposted a little along the way if you just looked – and the narrative – while brilliantly done – does tend to dwell on the day to day life of little more than a child at school.

There are flashes of that old Lawrence from his first two trilogies – the witty speech of Jalan and his self-obsessed nature – and the brutality of Jorg – but they are only flashes and I think that other fans of his work will be left feeling the same way I do – not hard done by – but surprised – like, constantly surprised – that he could have changed his style so much. I have hopes that Nona might become as foul mouthed as his first two main characters – but she’s at a convent so I might be reaching a little too far.

This story will, however, win Lawrence a whole host of new fans – I don’t know where they’ll go from Red Sister, apart from onto the sequels, because I’m not totally convinced that they will appreciate Jorg and Jalan. Neither am I trying to imply that Lawrence has sold out for a bigger audience – the book is still brilliant – it is worth a read – it’s an easy book to like and an even easier book to read – but, well … just but really. It’s weird to feel the way I do after a five star book – I think that really I was hoping for a little ‘more’ perhaps a book worthy of a 6/5!!

And you can buy it from April 6th here –