Book Review – Kin by Snorri Kristjansson – An intriguing idea – Viking murder mystery

This book intrigued me from the beginning – but perhaps the comments I read such as ‘no one does Vikings like this’ were slightly misleading for this particular book by the author. To begin with, I was quite confused by the direction the story was taking.

The characters in the book are intriguing and well thought out – well, most of them are, some of them are just confusing and it does take a while to sort out who everyone is, and it does, I’m afraid to say, start to become much easier to understand once the ‘action’ has started and the number of characters has diminished somewhat. That said, it takes nearly half of the book for this to happen, and the anticipation of ‘who’ will be the victim does start to become more important than why there will be a victim because the why is very clear from early on.

Much of the story is told from one point of view, that of Helga, and that is good. However, every so often, the author does drop in a different point of view, which is a bit jarring and perhaps not needed.

That said the book flows well, and I enjoyed reading it and only spent some of my time wondering about the historical accuracy of it all, and whether certain things would actually have happened.

An intriguing idea.

Kin is released today and you can get a copy from here.


Book Review – Ælfred’s Britain – Max Adams – Highly Recommended

Here’s the blurb;

“In 865, a great Viking army landed in East Anglia, precipitating a series of wars that would last until the middle of the following century. It was in this time of crisis that the modern kingdoms of Britain were born. In their responses to the Viking threat, these kingdoms forged their identities as hybrid cultures: vibrant and entrepreneurial peoples adapting to instability and opportunity.

Traditionally, Ælfred the Great is cast as the central player in the story of Viking Age Britain. But Max Adams, while stressing the genius of Ælfred as war leader, law-giver, and forger of the English nation, has a more nuanced and variegated narrative to relate. The Britain encountered by the Scandinavians of the ninth and tenth centuries was one of regional diversity and self-conscious cultural identities: of Picts, Dál Riatans and Strathclyde Britons; of Bernicians and Deirans, East Anglians, Mercians and West Saxons.”

Aelfred’s Britain is an excellent book, not confining itself to the period of Alfred’s rule but comprehensively offering an account of England from the reign of Alfred’s grandfather to the end of the reign of his youngest grandson (King Eadred) in 955. This makes it much more than a book about Alfred and rather a book about Britain and the Vikings just before, after and during The First Viking Age.
Instead of focusing on England and the Vikings, the book covers the actvities of the Vikings in Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales, in a very similar vein to the wonderful book by Claire Downham ‘Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland: The Dynasty of Ívarr to A.D. 1014’, along the way noting events on the Continent and in the homelands of the Vikings and Danes.
This ia an important development in the history of the period and a step that should have been taken long, long ago. There is little point in knowing events in England in isolation during this period – a wider view point should and must be adopted.
The author also employs an enjoyable and enlightening look at the ‘map’ of Britain – offering something of a handy guide to the various ‘stopping-off’ points available to the men and women from Scandinavia along the coast and riverways.
Some may find the author’s naming conventions a little annoying – but it seems to me that all historians have a preferred naming convention and insist on sticking to it no matter what – and it is only a slight bug-bear but that is because I know much of the period well.
This is a far more ‘historical’ book than The King in The North (which I always felt was too much like a travel guide for comfort) but it is, at heart,a book by an archaeologist, and this means that the archaelogy is used to ‘clothe’ the ‘known’ historical facts and vice versa. Yet, and I must applaud this, the author, while relying on some slightly dubious ‘primary’ sources, does ensure that the reader is aware of this – and the reader would do well to heed the warnings.
Overall a very enjoyable book, filled with fascinating insights that adopts a view point that has been a long time in being applied to this time period.

The hardback and ebook is out now and can be purchased here;



Delving into Anglo-Saxon Charters

Historians of the Anglo-Saxon period can extract a huge amount of information from sources that look as though they’re not going to be of any value. Sometimes, however, historians can get a little carried away and can, unfortunately, gleam too much information from sources that might not be quite as genuine as first thought.

As I finally get my nose down and do the research for my dissertation my primary concern is looking at the Anglo Saxon Charters from 994-1016. These are few in number and they have been utilised to show anything and everything from the King’s favourite ealdormen, to the existence of a royal scriptorium churning out charters for the King, to defining the boundary of lands mentioned within them, and these endeavours are all to be applauded, but it is necessary to take a moment and think about the implications of the work being done.

The charters survive very often as later copies. Historians will do all they can to determine if the copy is based on an original – checking witness lists, cross checking to see if people mentioned were alive or dead at the time of the charters composition and trying to find independent information that verifies the authenticity of the charter, or not as the case may be. But ultimately any charter that has survived has done so because it had some intrinsic value to a monastery or a person interested in the contents of that charter for a reason other than historians are now using it for. As such the survival of any charters from this period can perhaps be more of an indication of events occurring in the thirteenth century, when monasteries and their lands were coming under attack and the truth of their claims was being very closely examined, than what was really happening in the time period when the charter purports to have been written. And, even then the Charter may only survive in one copy.

It feels to me sometimes as though historians build fantastical arguments that are coherent and make perfect sense, until the foundation for the claims are more closely examined. Should huge sweeping statements be made about the career of one man based on only 41 references to them in Anglo-Saxon Charters?

Perhaps not, but if we don’t use the information available, then those awful words, ‘The Dark Ages’ will make a reappearance and no one will be prepared to comment or speculate on anything. So with all that being said, being a historian of one time period (Anglo-Saxon, Tudor, War of the Roses etc) often actually involves being an expert on a different era as well, as well as knowing Latin, Anglo Saxon, Old English, Old Norse, Irish and all the other languages that have dominated the writing of history for the last 1500 years.

It’s an unenviable task, and I wouldn’t be able to do my research if I wasn’t standing on the shoulders of giants and evaluating their arguments and accepting, or disagreeing with what they say. One thing I’ve found to be helpful, is to examine the source closest in time to the period under investigation. As such for 994-1016, I can use the Anglo-Saxon Charter, provided I accept that the source is later and biased in favour of certain people and places. But I can use the overwhelming feeling at that time, say ten to twenty years after events (which is still a long time – think of how we now view the 1980’s or the 1990’s) and try to determine a ‘platform’ on which other information can be built or tested against it. Admittedly that means that I need to understand events taking place during the reign of Cnut (and beyond) in order to understand events being recorded in the reign of Aethelred II.

But I started this with a discussion about sources, and have wondered at a wonderful 21st century tangent for some time. I’ll try to drag myself back to 1000 years ago, but first I must say that there is also the bias of the current historian to take into account. We are a suspicious lot, not happy to accept anything at face value, and always looking for the crux of any information provided by our ancestors. It can only be assumed that they were just as devious and untrusting as we are, and so back to the sources. Can we use them? Should we trust them? To me it looks like there’s not actually much choice but to mine them for every available facet of information. And so I shall! With my devious little mind, and my belief that nothing may be as it seems!!


Book Review – Killer of Kings by Matthew Harffy – historical fiction

Here’s the blurb;

“AD 636. Anglo-Saxon Britain. A gripping, action-packed historical thriller and the fourth instalment in The Bernicia Chronicles. Perfect for fans of Bernard Cornwell.

Beobrand has land, men and riches. He should be content. And yet he cannot find peace until his enemies are food for the ravens. But before Beobrand can embark on his bloodfeud, King Oswald orders him southward, to escort holy men bearing sacred relics.

When Penda of Mercia marches a warhost into the southern kingdoms, Beobrand and his men are thrown into the midst of the conflict. Beobrand soon finds himself fighting for his life and his honour.

In the chaos that grips the south, dark secrets are exposed, bringing into question much that Beobrand had believed true. Can he unearth the answers and exact the vengeance he craves? Or will the blood-price prove too high, even for a warrior of his battle-fame and skill?”

Killer of Kings is the fourth full-length novel in The Bernicia Chronicles, but only the third that I’ve read, although I’ve also read the short-story that accompanies the series which I actually enjoyed more than the full-length novels because it was about Beobrand’s brother, who seems to be a wee bit cheerier than poor grumpy Beobrand.

Killer of Kings starts very strongly – the short prologue is excellent and I thought, because of what happens in it, that it was the beginning of something quite monumental. Sadly that’s not the case and instead, the first 50% of the novel is taken up with almost only one battle. Personally, I found it to be a very long build up to the battle, and then dismissed far too quickly.

The remainder of the story is very much a trip down memory lane for Beobrand, and this bit of the novel I really quite enjoyed before Beobrand goes off to settle an old blood feud.

I found the novel to be moderately entertaining but would have appreciated more sophistication in the plot line. As I said, 50% of the novel is concerned with only one battle, and so what comes after feels at times rushed and also a little bit too easy for old Beobrand to accomplish what he wants. He quickly takes up with moaning and grumbling about his injuries (as he did throughout book 3) but he is almost a happier Beobrand than throughout the previous book.

Overall, he is too easily swayed from his own wishes by weak attempts to incite him to honour which fall a little flat. The ongoing Christianity/Pagan Gods thing is, I know, a staple of the time period, but as with the Bernard Cornwell books, I feel it could be handled in a far more sophisticated manner, if not, entirely forgotten about for much of the book. Penda the Pagan was, as the author admits, no persecutor of Christians and as such, it’s difficult to make the East Anglian battle about religion – it was about ambition and strength, and we are told little about what happens as a consequence of the battle in terms of who is, or isn’t king, and what impact this might have had on Penda and Oswald..

The side-story – taking place at home and in his absence – is used to string the novel along – a battle scene followed by what’s happening in his absence – and while I know this is a literary convention employed by many to great affect. I found the back story to be a distraction from Beobrand’s tale, and also, a little too predictable, even as it mingles with Beobrand’s journey to his childhood home.

Overall I think the novel is a firm three star, bordering on a four, and therefore I’ve given it a four. The author has a strong view of the Albion inhabited by Beobrand and his comrades and this is a strength of the novel.

Killer of Kings is available from 1st June 2017.


Book Review – Vindolanda by Adrian Goldsworthy – historical fiction

Here’s the blurb;

“AD 98: The bustling army base at Vindolanda lies on the northern frontier of Britannia and the entire Roman world. In twenty years’ time, the Emperor Hadrian will build his famous wall, but for now defences are weak, as tribes rebel against Roman rule, and local druids preach the fiery destruction of the invaders.

Flavius Ferox is a Briton and a Roman centurion, given the task of keeping the peace on this wild frontier. But it will take more than just courage to survive life in Roman Britain”

Vindolanda arrived just at a time when my curiosity in all things Roman was starting to quest for something a little closer to home than Rome and Germany (as all the previous Roman era books I’ve read have been based far afield). Living close to Hadrian’s Wall I was delighted to see this title and pounced on it with delight.

The novel starts well enough, and I was quite hooked from the word go but unfortunately, the author’s vast knowledge on the Roman Empire and military matters, in particular, makes the novel far too complex for someone who has only newly come to Roman era historical fiction. I am sure that those who adore Roman historical fiction and non-fiction will revel in the author’s painstaking details of the forces marshalled at Vindolanda and further afield, of the different cohorts and groups of men sent to fight and ensure Rome’s domination, but I struggled to make any sense of what was actually happening unless the action was focused exclusively on Ferox, who I think is supposed to be the hero of the novel but who has a bit of a rough time of it as his character is never allowed to fully develop – he has potential but the author fails to evolve him as he deserved.

I also very much struggled in remembering who all the characters were. Three of the men all have names beginning with C and despite my best efforts, I utterly failed to keep the three of them clear in my mind – often what happened to them told me more about who I was reading about than anything else. There are also a whole host of British tribes to add to the conundrum of who everyone was and while I salute the attempt at authenticity and indeed believe that it should be a part of all historical fiction, I believe that a much better job could have been done of ensuring that the reader knows what’s happening. There were great swathes of conversation where no indication was given as to who was speaking with who. Just a little ,’Ferox spoke” etc would have made the novel far more ‘user-friendly.’

There are a number of fighting/battle scenes that I struggled to fully comprehend, although I imagine others more skilled in Roman military history may fare much better, and these are well spaced throughout the novel. I found it quite surprising how few Romans died in the battles, and also how often the Britons were naked, but perhaps this is historically accurate.

There were elements of the book that flowed very well and others that didn’t. I think with a little work on pacing, and removing all the strange tense changes that occur, this novel could be much more accessible and better received by a whole host of Roman era fans – as it would appear that there is huge interest in this subject. But at the moment – it has the feel of a work in progress and one with more work still to be done. Having just read another historian’s attempt at historical fiction, I feel that on this occasion, Goldsworthy fails to do his subject justice. A shame all round, compounded when I read the notes at the back and realized that the entire story was completely made up. I do like my historical fiction to have some basis in historical fact.

Vindolanda is available from1st June and is available from here;


Film Review – King Arthur:Legend of the Sword – highly, highly recommended (historical fantasy)

I don’t often offer my opinions on films – as they can be somewhat divisive. However, given the bad press surrounding this film – apparently it’s a flop, I feel compelled to write a little in support of the film as I went to see it and it was massively entertaining and so well done, I think people might need a little nudge in the right direction and a bit of positivity.

Firstly, I am not a huge fan of King Arthur legends – (apart from Sword in the Stone – obviously). I often struggle with the ‘historical placement’ of it all and the huge body of medieval literature and idealism that has affected the original ‘legend’. There is no need to fear on that part in this film. The massively imaginative reimagining of ‘England’ by Guy Ritchie is so vast and encompassing that you can’t help but love it. This is Camelot and Londinium as you’ve probably never seen it before. The landscapes are stunning, the details amazing – even the costumes don’t jar and the music, with its thundering drums, adds to a movie that starts a little slowly for all of 5 minutes, and then just builds and builds until the fantastic conclusion.

If you’re a fan of Guy Ritchie movies everything he’s accomplished since Lock, Stock is there (I am a huge fan of his Sherlock Holmes films because, again, they are so refreshing, and I think the Man from UNCLE is very underrated because it’s so damn stylish). This is Londinium with all the ‘street talk’ of Lock, Stock and the attitude of its characters and their ‘banter’ is up there with the best Sherlock lines. There are some fantastic and quirky camera angles used that really add to the enjoyment of the film – this is a film without dull moments, and I mean none – (unlike Guardians of the Galaxy 2 which was also awesome but has a bit in the middle that’s a bit ‘flat’). It starts, and it rolls and it keeps going.

If you’re a fan of Arthurian Legends then too, this has much to offer. Camelot is there, Uhtred, Vortigern, the Lady of the Lake, Druids and even Merlin gets more than a mention. This is an ‘epic’ England of ‘Arthurian’ times – and if sometimes Ritchie plays a little bit hard and fast with some of the expected storylines, this shouldn’t detract because you’ll be too busy laughing, or watching in amazement with your mouth hanging open!

This is clever, and witty craftsmanship. Having seen a few ‘good’ action films recently, this film suffers from none of their flaws – while it’s as stylistic as Assassin’s Creed and has superb music to accompany it (I felt the music in Assassin’s Creed throbbing through my veins), King Arthur benefits from a plot and story that drives it ever forward. The slightly forced camaraderie of The Great Wall, (which again is a stylistically fantastic film and very well made) has no place in this film – the main stars work so well together that everything feels natural and never forced.

Jude Law is stunningly evil, Charlie Hunnam doesn’t falter once, his delivery is fantastic, and the actress playing the druid is mystical and powerful and beautiful in a mystical way. The supporting cast, which is both vast and small, is filled with familiar faces – it’s good to see the guy from Game of Thrones, the little nod to the BBC Merlin series, and ‘Blue’ is a little gem. The David Beckham cameo didn’t even make me flinch and some might not even recognise him as he delivers his lines in a bluff ‘Londinium’ accent. Eric Bana is exceptionally heroic as Uhtred, and I’m not unconvinced that Jason Statham doesn’t have a cameo as well.

And all this before I even get to the fantastical elements of this historical fantasy (which I’m not spoiling – go and see them) because they are so well done.

For all those fans of Vikings, this is a film for you that doesn’t suffer from the need to drag out storylines for an entire season. For fans of The Last Kingdom – this film will show you how this sort of thing should be done – there’s no half-ass fighting scenes, weak dialogue, or moody ‘elf’ man. The kings and warriors in this don’t pansy around with wooden crosses around their necks, worrying about what ‘their’ God might or might not think about everything that’s going on.

This is a ‘reimagined’ world of epic proportions, and as you might have noticed, I really can’t praise it enough, so put down your latest historical fiction/fantasy novel, and get yourself to the cinema! This is how ‘Arthur’ should be done.

The Legend of Arthur was released in the UK on 21st May 2017.


Book Review – The Outcasts of Time by Ian Mortimer (Historical Fiction) Recommended

Here’s the blurb;

“The year is 1348 and brothers John and William have been infected by the plague. Their fate is sealed. Until a voice from the skies offers them a choice: ‘You may stay here and spend your last six days with your wife and children. Or you may put yourself in my hands now. I will wipe the scars from your face and the swellings from your body. I will extinguish your fever. I will let you live your last six days in the distance of the future.’

John and William agree: they will live for six more days and in return they will do good deeds in order to try to save their souls. But there’s a twist: each of those six days will begin ninety-nine years after the last, delivering them each time to an increasingly alien existence. As they travel, the reader travels with them, seeing the world change with conflict, disease, progress and enlightenment. But all the while time is counting down to a moment of judgement.”

I received a free E-Arc from Netgalley.

Ian Mortimer is a fantastic historian – looking at the past with new eyes and in so doing shedding light on events that are often, erroneously, presented as a fait accompli. For this reason, I was very excited to be given the opportunity to read and review his first work of fiction.

The Outcasts of Time is a deeply intriguing novel, looking not at the past through our perception, but rather the future (which is now our past) through the eyes of a man who lived over 600 years ago. This means that instead of our own misconceptions being applied to the past, every new century is seen afresh, with old eyes that note the changes and the differences as well as the similarities. That said, the novel is not always successful in doing this in an entertaining way, there are the odd occasions where I pondered whether the novel was actually going to be able to successfully bring to a conclusion what appears, at points, as nothing more than a random collection of chance encounters in and around the area of Exeter with different people throughout the 600 year period. I must point out, however, that in the end, I was very pleased to have all the events brought together and to be given some understanding of John’s ‘chance’ encounters.

The initial portrayal of the Black Death is as bleak as we could expect, and edged with harshness. I can understand why the events drove John to seek the option of travelling into the future as opposed to his hideous and painful death. What then transpires is a painstakingly detailed tramp through both the historical and the physical landscape. The book covers a small geographical area – wherever John and his brother could walk in a day’s journey. This feels, on occasion, a little restrictive, and yet the research involved in the endeavour can not be underestimated. Ian Mortimer has either envisaged, or drawn from the historical record, painstaking detail about the way the landscape, people and places changed throughout the 600 years from the Black Death. While this detail may occasionally slow the narrative it can not be ignored. What else would you notice if you did travel through time? It would be people’s clothes, haircuts, the decorations in their houses, the style of buildings and the food available to eat – not to mention the changes in bathrooms.

The grander events of history – the well known wars and kings and queens – are touched upon but they don’t constitute what John is hoping to achieve. He is looking for redemption – to save a soul in order to save his own – and his comments and feelings remain those of a man born and raised in the fourteenth century, confused and beguiled by events almost beyond his comprehension, which only increases with distance from his own time.

The author works hard to bring out every naunce of change through time – right down to evolving speech and the changing of names – by the end John is no longer John of Wrayment but John Everyman – time and language mangling his name, and depriving him of almost everything apart from his brother’s ring and his memories. By making John a stone carver, the author even manages to show that even something as ‘permanent’ as stone can be mangled and broken through time – the carvings John has made, based on his family and friends, gradually fall away and lose their shape. Nothing, it seems, is ever permanent, no matter the initial intent.

The people John meets are perhaps a little too easily convinced of his journey through time, and I do feel that the last two centuries – the 1800’s and 1900’s perhaps work better – but that is probably because they are more ‘real’ to me – they are more comprehensible to me just as those centuries closer to John seem to make more sense to him. This, I think, is to be expected.

I would also add that quite a bit of the novel is concerned with religion and religious change. This is fascinating, but also, on occasion, a little overpowering, and yet reflects the concerns of John very eloquently. It shows how recently religion has ceased to be such a major presence in the lives of many.

When John offers the opinion that “The man who has no knowledge of the past has no wisdom” he is speaking for the rationale behind this novel and doing so very eloquently.

Recommended to all who enjoy history and historical fiction.

The Outcasts of Time is released on 15th June 2017 and you can buy it here.