The Last King – New Release Alert

With my new ‘hero’ I’ve decided to forge a different path to previous books. I’ve done bloody and sweary before (Pagan Warrior and The Lady of Mercia’s Daughter) and I’ve done battles and politics (Brunanburh) but for The Last King I wanted something different; full-on action and adventure, in a historical setting, with a hero it’s impossible not to admire. If I’m going to tell the story of the ninth century in England, a period that most historical fiction readers will associate with Bernard Cornwell’s Uhtred, and most historians with Alfred, I needed a strong storyline and a character worthy of that storyline.

Luckily, there’s one such man. Enter King Coelwulf, the almost unknown and completely forgotten about King of Mercia. When I say unknown and forgotten about I mean completely that. If it is indeed the same historical character, Bernard Cornwell has poor old Coelwulf die during a feast with King Alfred and his wife, paving the way for Lord Æthelred (at least he does in The Last Kingdom).

This isn’t actually Bernard Cornwell’s fault. Until the coin find in 2015, no one thought a great deal of Coelwulf. His name appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle but it’s far from in a complimentary way (For details of the coin find go here (The Ashmolean Museum – Watlington Hoard)). But he’s been in my thoughts ever since I wrote The Lady of Mercia’s Daughter in 2016, but he’d never fully formed, until, one day, he just did; not just bloody and sweary, but bloody, sweary and brutal, a man with skills to be admired, and a single-minded determination.

So, I give you Lord Coelwulf, proud Mercian and staunch warrior.

The Last King is available now, the sequel, The Last Warrior will be available from June.

 

Book Review – Commodus by Simon Turney – historical fiction – highly recommended

Here’s the blurb;

“Welcome to a fracturing Roman empire in the second century AD: ravaged by plague and with wars rumbling on along all frontiers. One man tries to hold everything together but, beset by personal tragedy from a young age, who is holding him together?
You’ve heard the stories: the crazy emperor who thought he was Hercules and fought in the Colosseum as a gladiator. But is ‘crazy’ too easy a label? Could there have been a method behind the perceived madness?”

Commodus by Simon Turney is my sort of historical fiction – people who actually lived – with their lives told in an intriguing and interesting way, bolted around known ‘facts’ and not a little imagination to bring the character alive! This is the first book I’ve read by Simon Turney but it won’t be the last.

The story is a well-told tale of a Roman Emperor who, I must assume, has a bit of a bad reputation. This is a sympathetic account of his rule, and I doubt I’ll be the only person who finishes the novel and considers just what it is about him that’s quite so bad (apart from his delight in killing exotic animals that would garner a great of bad press in our day and age) – in that respect, the author does an excellent job of rehabilitating a bit of a dodgy character.

A thoroughly enjoyable read. Highly recommended. I read it in a day!

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for a review copy.

Commodus is now available in paperback, and is available from here, as well as from other retailers!

 

 

Book Review – A Tapestry of Treason by Anne O’Brien – historical fiction – highly recommended

Here’s the blurb;

“Her actions could make history – but at what price?

1399: Constance of York, Lady Despenser, proves herself more than a mere observer in the devious intrigues of her magnificently dysfunctional family, The House of York.

Surrounded by power-hungry men, including her aggressively self-centred husband Thomas and ruthless siblings Edward and Richard, Constance places herself at the heart of two treasonous plots against King Henry IV.  Will it be possible for this Plantagenet family to safeguard its own political power by restoring either King Richard II to the throne, or the precarious Mortimer claimant?

Although the execution of these conspiracies will place them all in jeopardy, Constance is not deterred, even when the cost of her ambition threatens to overwhelm her.  Even when it endangers her new-found happiness.

With treason, tragedy, heartbreak and betrayal, this is the story of a woman ahead of her time, fighting for herself and what she believes to be right in a world of men.”

A Tapestry of Treason is a stunning novel. The character of Lady Constance is a revelation – she is perhaps the most complicated of Anne O’Brien’s historical ‘women’ to date, and the book delightfully fluctuates between the conspiracies and treasons that she’s involved in, even though she is, but a woman in a man’s world. How she survived the king’s wrath on so many occasions is a bit of a miracle.

In the end, I was completely hooked on the novel, and just read the last 40% or so in one sitting, in heightened anxiety from each high to each new low. Lady Constance certainly wins the heart of the reader, even if she herself would never admit to even having a heart.

I believe this is the best of Anne O’Brien’s books to date.

Thank you to the Netgalley and the publisher for my review copy. I would certainly have read it anyway – and I’m just delighted I got to read it so far in advance of being released.

A Tapestry of Treason is now available in paperback, and is available here.

‘The Reading’ End of Year Review

I’ve read many, many books this year. Some have been fab, some not so fab, and some have just filled a little niche that needed filling. I’ve also written, read and re-read a fair few of my own books this year. But I’m not going to include those in this.

When I look back, I see I’ve read many historical fiction books this year – the majority just historical fiction, but also a few that were historical who-dun-its. I’m a fan of Marple and Poirot, so this does make sense to me.

In fact, 24 of the 71 books I’ve read this year (thank you for keeping track Goodreads), have been historical (and a further 6 of those have been my own historical fiction books, so yes, historical fiction accounts for a great deal of my reading.)

Of those, here are my five favourites of the year. I’m not going to put them in any order, because I enjoyed them all for different reasons.

Anne O’Brien’s A Tapestry of Treason was one of the first books I read this year, and it was a wonderful read. Commodus by Simon Turney was another of the stand out books, as was The Last of the Romans by Derek Birks (which I’ve just discovered I didn’t review on my blog, so there’s a link to Goodreads), Sword of Kings by Bernard Cornwell and Wolf of Wessex by Matthew Harffy. I was lucky enough to get review copies of many of these books, although I took a chance on The Last of the Romans through Kindle Unlimited and was really pleased I did.

I also read some historical fiction that really didn’t appeal to me, in the end. I prefer historical fiction to be about ‘real’ people (I know their stories will be fictionalized) and told in an engaging and interesting way.

As to the historical mysteries I read, I’m going to highlight Silent Water by PK Adams, a fellow indie author, who takes the reader to Tudor Era Poland. It was fascinating.

As to those novels I read which took a historical era as their background, I thoroughly enjoyed The Dark Days Deceit by Alison Goodman – a sort of fantasy/historical mash-up that concluded the trilogy in a completely satisfactory way.  And The Body in the Garden by Katharine Schellman which isn’t released until next year, but which is an enjoyable who-dun-it. I’ll review it closer to the time.

I also read quite a bit of sci-fi this year, and here the standout book must be Skyward by Brandon Sanderson. I didn’t realise it was aimed at a Young Adult audience. I devoured it, even though I’ve tried Brandon Sanderon before and really didn’t enjoy his story (ducks for cover). I’m really looking forward to finding the time to read Book 2.

I’ve not read as much fantasy as normal this year. But, what I did read was well worth it. Here, I’m going to wax lyrical about Peter Newman. His series, The Deathless, inhabits such a weird and wonderful world that it completely absorbs me. If you’ve not read the first two books in the trilogy, then you’re in for a real treat. The Ruthless was released earlier this year, and I know the third part is due out next year. I’m keen to read it.

I also read all of Mark Lawrence’s four releases this year – Holy Sister concluded the Book of the Ancestor trilogy, and he also released The Impossible Times trilogy, through Amazon Publishing. These are probably still fantasy but in a 1980’s setting (unless they’re sci-fi). I enjoyed them all, but confess, the D and D setting of The Impossible Times trilogy was a bit trying at times. Still, the 1980s was perfectly encapsulated – like an episode of Stranger Things.

I’m also going to mention the John Gwynne book I read this year – A Time of Blood. Foolishly, it wasn’t the first in a series, but goodness me, it was gripping, and I’ve now got the first book to read!

I’ve also listened to my first audiobook, and while I found it great to walk to, I confess, I’m not sure audio is for me. If I’m writing myself I have music on, and because I normally walk to get away from writing, I don’t find listening to stories to be restful. But I do have a fully stocked Audible library so that might change.

While I’ve managed to read a great many books this year, I’ve now found my enthusiasm for ‘new’ waning a little and I’ve sought refuge in a few classic PERN novels, and for 2020, I plan on indulging in the Deverry books by Katharine Kerr in anticipation of the new book coming out in 2020. The books have all been released with fantastic new covers, and I might just have to treat myself to them all over again.

I’ve also not read as many non-fiction books this year as I might normally do. But I think that will change in 2020. I’ve got a great deal of research to do for future projects. Of those non-fiction books I have read, they’ve all been something I was interested in any way, and I’m going to mention Warrior and The Lost Heirs of the Medieval Crown. Both were very readable and well written.

I would like to thank Netgalley and also some very brave authors who’ve allowed me access to Advanced copies of their books throughout the year. It makes for much more varied reading!

 

Book Review – The Wolf of Wessex by Matthew Harffy – historical fiction – highly recommended

Here’s the blurb;

AD 838. Deep in the forests of Wessex, Dunston’s solitary existence is shattered when he stumbles on a mutilated corpse.

Accused of the murder, Dunston must clear his name and keep the dead man’s daughter alive in the face of savage pursuers desperate to prevent a terrible secret from being revealed.

Rushing headlong through Wessex, Dunston will need to use all the skills of survival garnered from a lifetime in the wilderness. And if he has any hope of victory against the implacable enemies on their trail, he must confront his long-buried past – becoming the man he once was and embracing traits he had promised he would never return to. The Wolf of Wessex must hunt again; honour and duty demand it.

I was lucky enough to get an EARC of Wolf of Wessex from the author.

I’ve read all the previous books by Matthew Harffy set in seventh-century Bernicia, and many will know that I have a few complaints about his grumpy main character. Wolf of Wessex is a breath of fresh air, set two centuries later and with a new main character who doesn’t infuriate me with his grumpiness and general ill-temper all the time.

I’d give Wolf of Wessex a full 5/5, without even having to think about it. The story presses on at a good pace,  there are lots of short, sharp chapters, and a good mystery as well.  The attention to detail with regards to the forest landscape was really good as Dunston is forced to leave his home while still utilising the skills his solitary lifestyle has taught him.

The writing truly flows, the descriptions feel natural, and the pacing is fab. It’s a page-turner that I highly recommend.

Wolf of Wessex is released on 14th November, and is available from here:

Book Review – Sword of Kings by Bernard Cornwell – historical fiction

Here’s the blurb;

“Uhtred of Bebbanburg is a man of his word.

An oath bound him to King Alfred. An oath bound him to Æthelflaed. And now an oath will wrench him away from the ancestral home he fought so hard to regain. For Uhtred has sworn that on King Edward’s death, he will kill two men. And now Edward is dying.

A violent attack drives Uhtred south with a small band of warriors, and headlong into the battle for kingship. Plunged into a world of shifting alliances and uncertain loyalties, he will need all his strength and guile to overcome the fiercest warrior of them all.

As two opposing Kings gather their armies, fate drags Uhtred to London, and a struggle for control that must leave one King victorious, and one dead. But fate – as Uhtred has learned to his cost – is inexorable. Wyrd bið ful ãræd. And Uhtred’s destiny is to stand at the heart of the shield wall once again…”

I sometimes feel that this series of books has long since run its course, but Sword of Kings, Book 12, had me intrigued just from reading the blurb.

Lord Uhtred has firmly moved into a time period I know, study and write about, and while sometimes it’s hard to read the way another person treats ‘your’ characters, I thoroughly enjoyed the starkly different interpretation of events surrounding King Edward’s death, because, quite simply, there is no ‘right or wrong’ when writing about this period. It’s a very much anything goes scenario, and into this, Lord Uhtred, bored and old, having finally captured Bebbanburg, is allowed to take centre stage.

Uhtred is older, but not wiser, and once more, if it wasn’t for the intervention of others, he would certainly not make it to the end of Book 12, hale and hearty.

Uhtred has as many enemies as normal, and his loyalties are split, but the will is strong to enact some revenge when he realises his ships are being attacked by an old enemy he ‘s made an oath to kill. Heading South, with the news that King Edward is either dying or dead, while plague pushes its way ever northwards, there’s a great deal of time spent on board ship. There’s a battle on a ship, and then another battle, and then there’s tides, rivers, currents, different boats, oars, sails and many other ship related activities. (It does get a little repetitive). There’s the Farne Islands, Kentish coasts, London, rivers in Mercia, London once more and then a bridge as well as a wall.

The action is pretty full-on but somewhat repetitive. Uhtred makes any number of bad decisions, and then the quest for revenge drives him on, even though it probably shouldn’t.

In effect, Uhtred turns the tide of ‘history’ once more, and not necessarily to his favour.

The old rivalries between paganism and Christianity continue, as does Uhtred’s unease with the plans the new king has for Northumbria, and for him. It’s these scenes that I find most tedious. I would like a little more nuance to Uhtred, but it seems his character will never develop more than it has. BC tries to make Uhtred appear as more than just a thug by adding a few women to the cast, as well as a host of orphans, and having his relationships with them testify that he isn’t ‘a ‘bad man’ just a righteous one who must abide by his oaths.’ Essentially, if Uhtred likes you, then that’s good, but if not, then you’re in trouble.

There are many elements to the story that I would change – the insistence on Anglo-Saxon place names being one of them, the ship ‘lingo’ another one – but hey, it’s Uhtred. You know what you’re getting from the start, and you won’t be disappointed, although you might feel a bit seasick!

Here’s to the next book.

Sword of Kings was released on 3rd October, and is available from here:

Book Review – Lost Heirs of the Medieval Crown by J F Andrews – historical non-fiction

Here’s the blurb;

When William the Conqueror died in 1087 he left the throne of England to William Rufus … his second son. The result was an immediate war as Rufus’s elder brother Robert fought to gain the crown he saw as rightfully his; this conflict marked the start of 400 years of bloody disputes as the English monarchy’s line of hereditary succession was bent, twisted and finally broken when the last Plantagenet king, Richard III, fell at Bosworth in 1485. The Anglo-Norman and Plantagenet dynasties were renowned for their internecine strife, and in Lost Heirs we will unearth the hidden stories of fratricidal brothers, usurping cousins and murderous uncles; the many kings – and the occasional queen – who should have been but never were. History is written by the winners, but every game of thrones has its losers too, and their fascinating stories bring richness and depth to what is a colourful period of history. King John would not have gained the crown had he not murdered his young nephew, who was in line to become England’s first King Arthur; Henry V would never have been at Agincourt had his father not seized the throne by usurping and killing his cousin; and as the rival houses of York and Lancaster fought bloodily over the crown during the Wars of the Roses, life suddenly became very dangerous indeed for a young boy named Edmund.

Lost Heirs of the Medieval Crown is an engaging study of exactly that. Taking the reader from the years after the Norman Conquest until the beginning of the Tudor era, there is much to learn about those who should have been king or queen had happenstance been a little different.

The author has an engaging writing style, and if, every so often, the opinions offered are purely based on the author’s personal preference, it can be overlooked, as most historians will always have a personal favourite or enemy from the time period that they study, and the author does make it clear when offering a personal opinion.

It is a very readable book, and I particularly enjoyed reading about Lady Constance at the beginning of the 1400s (as I’ve just read a fiction book about her). Neither does the author shy away from such difficult topics as the murder of the lost heirs, and is as even-handed when recounting the lives of the Black Prince, as those who suffered at the hands of over-mighty uncles.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for my review copy.

Lost Heirs of the Medieval Crown is released on 2nd October, and is available from here; and also from here:

https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Lost-Heirs-of-the-Medieval-Crown-Hardback/p/16791

(I am struggling to get a cover image so please click one of the links as it is really quite fab!)