Book Review – Lancelot by Giles Kristian – highly recommended (historical fiction)

Here’s the blurb;

“Set in a 5th century post-Roman Britain besieged by invading war bands of Saxons and Franks, Irish and Picts, Giles Kristian’s epic new novel tells – through the warrior’s own words – the story of Lancelot, the most celebrated of all King Arthur’s knights. And it’s a story that’s ready to be re-imagined for our times.
It’s a story imbued with the magic and superstition that was such an integral part of the enchanted landscape of Britain during this dark times. Many of the familiar names from Arthurian mythology will be here – Mordred and Gawain, Morgana and, of course, Merlin – as will be those vital icons of the legend such as the Round Table and the sword in the stone but these will be reinvented, reforged for a new generation of readers.
Lancelot is a story of warriors and kings, of violent, of warfare and bloodshed but it is also a story of loyalty and friendship, of over-arching ambition, of betrayal and guilt, of love and lust, and the win tragedies of revenge and remorse.”

I received a free EArc from Netgalley.

Lancelot is a brilliant book. I really can’t recommend it enough – but at its heart, it is also flawed. The more I think about this, the more I imagine this might have been done on purpose – a mirror image of the character, perhaps.

When I first began reading Lancelot I simply thought the author had been very clever with his book title. (Go check my Goodreads log for the book – I say it there). The story, while it might have been about Lancelot, could just as easily have been about just about any character in post-Roman/pre-Saxon/settlement period Britain (everyone has their own word for this period). It was not necessarily a Lancelot that anyone would recognise.

For all that, the young Lancelot is an intriguing character, and even if the book had just been an author with a clever title, I would probably have been just as impressed as I ultimately was.

The world Lancelot inhabits is a wonderful reimagining of Britain at this strange time period – with the Romans fled, and the Saxons on the surge. It is stuffed with warlords and kings, with kingdom names and conjures up a wonderful landscape of the time period. While all the action takes place in those areas which would be termed, British or Pictish, the very ‘smell’ of the Saxons is always blowing on the wind., for all that it is modern-day Cornwall, Devon, Wales and Scotland that form the backdrop for the story and there are only very occasional Saxon characters.

We meet Lancelot in the first chapter, Guinevere takes longer to appear, and Arthur? Well, his father makes an appearance before him – and Arthur only arrives 50% through the book. And this is as it should be – after all, this is Lancelot’s story and not that of Arthur’s. We do meet Merlin not long after Guinevere – so the ‘names’ we know from the Arthur Legend are firmly there – Tintagel is often mentioned, as too is Excalibur.

As in any novel about a famous warrior, there is a great deal of training, fighting and ‘rough-stuff’ from the other boys being trained, but mixed with the twin thread of friendship and magic. The magic is artfully arranged – it is just ‘accepted’ without explanation, and that appealed to my less than ‘magical’ mind. Other authors may have ‘overcooked’ the whole Merlin/Druid/Old Gods stuff but I think it is handled exceedingly well throughout the story. The ‘friendship’ element is also very skillfully told – it becomes more and more important as the book progresses.

Lancelot has a lovingly crafted feel to it. It meanders down little-trodden paths, and we might be left wondering why, but just as Robin Hobb manages with her ‘Fitz’ books, it never feels irrelevant. It’s a delightful tale of occasional irrelevance, that I just didn’t want to end, and I never say that about a book.

There were times when I couldn’t fathom what the author would do with his characters next and there were parts where I felt cheated. At 80% through I was completely perplexed, and actually, the ending of the book is either its weakest element or the author at his cleverest (I still can’t decide). it is here that he relies most on the readers ‘prior’ knowledge of the Arthur legend – and we are left to make our own assumptions until the very final scene, when there is, once more, some closure.

I really did love this book, but I would have liked to be much, much longer – I would have liked all the ‘gaps’ filled in, I would have liked answers to question that are asked but never resolved, I would have like more Arthur and Lancelot, and I would certainly have liked more, much more, of those famous battles, but Lancelot is a wonderful and powerful retelling of a legend that we already think we know – but which is ripe for retelling. It relies on an understanding of the legend – while also reworking it. A fine piece of work that I thoroughly enjoyed – even if I didn’t initially want to! 🙂

Lancelot is released on 31st May 2018 and is well, well worth a read.

Get your copy here;

 

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Book Review – Devil’s Wolf (High Corbett) by Paul Doherty – historical murder mystery

Here’s the blurb;

1296: King Edward I has led his army to Scotland, determined to take the country under his crown. But the fierce Scots have no intention of submitting to their oppressor and violent and bloody war breaks out.

1311: Sir Hugh Corbett, Keeper of the Secret Seal, finds himself back in Scotland and is revisited by the horrors he witnessed there fifteen years ago.

An anonymous letter was delivered to the new king. It promised information about a fatal incident that could allow England to finally bow out of the war with the Scots. Tasked with finding out the truth about the murder, Corbett is forced to take risks he would rather avoid and put his faith in the words of strangers.

But with an unknown traitor lurking in the shadows and danger around every corner, will Corbett be able to unravel the complex web of plots in time?

I received a free EArc from Netgalley.

Devil’s Wolf is an enjoyable jaunt through early fourteenth century England. I found it particularly enjoyable as its setting is very familiar to me.

While the beginning of the novel is somewhat repetitive, as Hugh tries to work out what’s happening and tries to order his thoughts, the end of the novel is far more complex and reads more quickly.

The characterisations are good, and the author certainly doesn’t shy away from killing off characters left, right and centre.

I credit this author with helping me learn to love reading again after a pretty rubbish time many years ago – his Egyptian books are wonderful – as such it’s great to discover all these other books of his, of which I was unaware.

Devil’s Wolf is out now and can be found here;

Book Review – Warrior of Woden by Matthew Harffy – historical fiction

Here’s the blurb;

“AD 642. Anglo-Saxon Britain. A gripping, action-packed historical thriller and the fifth instalment in the Bernicia Chronicles. Perfect for fans of Bernard Cornwell.

Oswald has reigned over Northumbria for eight years and Beobrand has led the king to ever greater victories. Rewarded for his fealty and prowess in battle, Beobrand is now a wealthy warlord, with a sizable warband. Tales of Beobrand’s fearsome black-shielded warriors and the great treasure he has amassed are told throughout the halls of the land.

Many are the kings who bow to Oswald. And yet there are those who look upon his realm with a covetous eye. And there is one ruler who will never kneel before him.

When Penda of Mercia, the great killer of kings, invades Northumbria, Beobrand is once more called upon to stand in an epic battle where the blood of many will be shed in defence of the kingdom.

But in this climactic clash between the pagan Penda and the Christian Oswald there is much more at stake than sovereignty. This is a battle for the very souls of the people of Albion.”

I received a free EArc from Netgalley.

Overall Book 5 is far stronger than Book 4 and it doesn’t do what I thought it would do (in a good way).

For nearly 50% of the book, Beobrand is a much happier character than we’ve seen before. I thought this was an excellent evolution of his character, but sadly it doesn’t last and soon he’s moaning as much as in the previous books. This is one of my biggest problems with the series. Beobrand is just not very likeable and I find that hard in a series focused on him and where he’s supposed to be the hero or even the anti-hero. He just isn’t heroic enough for my liking, and will clearly never be. He seems genuinely unhappy with his lot in life – unhappy with his not-wife, his son, his king, his hall, who he’s killed before, who he hasn’t killed before, his horse – it would be nice if he was happy about something! 🙂

As to the story itself, it’s a very ‘Northumbrian’ interpretation of events in Britain at this time – there is no attempt to offer anything other than the version of events as given by Bede and other sources, which means that poor old Eowa gets very short shift . This is a shame as there was definitely scope for betrayal and double-dealing here, but because the story is about Beobrand, the possibilities are not explored. In fact, the major players of the period are so distant as to almost be missing from the story completely – the story we get could have been written anytime, anywhere, it is not truly about events in Britain at the time – a shame really when the events themselves are so significant. It would have been good to have a stand-off between Oswald and Penda – a real grudge battle, but instead, Penda is never actually encountered, only his actions. The ‘real’ (and I use that with caution) events of the period are simply the background to the story – even as a warrior of the king, the focus remains firmly on Beobrand at all times.

Where events are specifically directed at the period, there is a lack of clarity – they are fighting the Welsh and hate them and yet Cynan is Welsh, and one of Beobrand’s trusted gesithas. Penda is a pagan and reviled as such for this (especially for his blood sacrifice) – and yet Beobrand is pagan as well with his hammer necklace etc. This might pass many people by, or it might annoy. I just found it confusing.

Yet if I overlook all those problems, the book is stronger than previous ones in the series. It could have been great but it doesn’t quite make it because of the issues listed above and because many of the battle scenes are a bit disappointing. Maserfelth – the great battle – becomes a bit of a rugby scrum, and it is the later, smaller (‘made-up’) skirmishes, that are written with more flow and clarity. As I said, it’s as though events in Britain are there only for Beobrand to ride through/stamp through and glower through, and essentially much of the last half of the book is setting up events for future books.

It will also be interesting to see what happens with Penda, for Penda, whether he is the ‘Warrior of Woden’ or not, is going to be around for a very long time to plague and terrorise the kingdom of Bernicia.

A firm 4/5 – the series is getting better but a few issues remain.

Warrior of Woden is released on 1st April 2018 and you can get a copy here.

 

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.