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 – The Seven by Peter Newman – fantasy – recommended

“Years have passed since the Vagrant journeyed to the Shining City, Vesper in arm and Gamma’s sword in hand.

Since then the world has changed. Vesper, following the footsteps of her father, journeyed to the breach and closed the tear between worlds, protecting the last of humanity, but also trapping the infernal horde and all those that fell to its corruptions: willing or otherwise.

In this new age it is Vesper who leads the charge towards unity and peace, with seemingly nothing standing between the world and a bright new future.

That is until eyes open.

And The Seven awakes.”

I received a free EArc from Netgalley and notice that this has just come out in paperback so I am sharing my review again!

After only a few pages, I decided to read the previous book in the series, as the world I discovered was both intriguing and quite alien. I thought I needed some back story, and indeed I did. My review for The Malice is here.

https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2011536175?book_show_action=false&from_review_page=1

I should also perhaps have taken the time to read The Vagrant but impatience won out, and anyway, The Vagrant, unlike in The Malice, is a real part of this final part of the trilogy (I am assuming it’s the final part).

Anyway, back to The Seven.

The world created by Peter Newman throughout The Vagrant series is inherently alien. It feels new and strange and, on occasion, very, very weird. This, more than anything, immediately draws the reader in, for Newman’s descriptions are sparse in the extreme, and I was often left decrying his lack of description (which is weird for me because I often skip excess descriptions in books content to let my imagination hold sway). Neither is it just his descriptions that are sparse, the whole nature of the book is trimmed down so that you really have to read each and every word – there’s no skipping a bit because you sort of know what’s about to happen. There is also, in the grand scheme of things, little conversation. This ties with the ‘pared’ down nature of the planet that these people inhabit.

The characters in this final book – Vesper, Samael and Scout, The Vagrant, Jem, her daughter, Obeisance and The Seven, as well as The First, Neer and other characters from the earlier book (including The Buck although not as much as I might have liked) – are all scarcely sketched and yet all have very distinct characters. There is no need to’like’ any of the characters (not like in some books) and yet throughout the series you gain respect for them all – even when they might be being cowardly or acting contrary to what we might hope they do. This is a strength of the book – for all the weirdness and strangeness – these are people (I use that word lightly) that we can understand if not relate to.

I very much enjoyed the ‘backstory’ in The Seven. Throughout The Malice I found it a little distracting, but in The Seven, the back story is vitally important, and indeed, at the end, I would have liked to know more about Massala and her creations.

Book 3 is eminently more readable than The Malice – and I don’t think it was because I knew more about the ‘world’ of The Vagrant – I think the storyline is more recognizable and therefore flows better. Yet I don’t think the author ever quite gives the reader what they want – there is not really a happily ever after, there is just an ending, and one which is never wholly assured until it actually happens.

There are very good battle scenes, and very good ‘political’ scenes and yet through it all, the world of The Vagrant remains aloof – difficult to grasp onto. It is not a typical fantasy book and some might well struggle with it, but I think it’s well worth the struggle (The Malice took me a month to read because I struggled with elements of it – The Seven is a much quicker read) and it is refreshing to read something so very different and ‘new’.

The Seven is available now and can be purchased 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;

 

 

Book Review – Darien-by C F Iggulden – fantasy

Here’s the blurb;

TWELVE FAMILIES. ONE THRONE.

WELCOME TO THE EMPIRE OF SALT.

The city of Darien stands at the weary end of a golden age. Twelve families keep order with soldiers and artefacts, spies and memories, clinging to a peace that shifts and crumbles. The people of the city endure what they cannot change. Here, amongst old feuds, a plot is hatched to kill a king.

It will summon strangers to the city – Elias Post, a hunter, Tellius, an old swordsman banished from his home, Arthur, a boy who cannot speak, Daw Threefold, a chancer and gambler, Vic Deeds, who feels no guilt – and Nancy, a girl whose talent might be the undoing of them all. Their arrival inside the walls as the sun sets will set off a series of explosive events. Before the sun returns, five destinies will have been made – and lost – in Darien.

I received a free EArc from Netgalley.

In the preface to the novel, the author gives his thanks to those writers of fantasy that have influenced his own writing. I was not surprised to find the names of Mark Lawrence and Robin Hobb amongst those mentioned as they are such huge names in the fantasy genre, (there are many others as well, but I've not read them all). As such, I was keen to begin reading the author's first foray into fantasy, expecting great things from such a well-regarded author, if one I've often struggled to appreciate as much as everyone else, finding his style to be a little too cold in regard to his historical characters. This novel certainly feels much warmer towards the various main characters and this is one of its strengths. This warmth makes the storyline much easier to read (I've often been left wondering why he even bothered to write about some of the characters he's chosen in the past- when it seems he had neither passion or regard for them).

Yet for all that, this novel is not astounding or jaw dropping as a Mark Lawrence and Robin Hobb book would be, with their pitch perfect characterizations and world building. It is a reasonably well-crafted novel, although little but character development seems to happen for the first 50% of the novel, and from then on, some of it seems a little rushed. I was also a bit, well peeved, to find a whole new character being introduced at about 80%. I always think this smacks a little too much of desperation (a bit like a who done it when the author brings in a new character as the actual perpetrator even though we've never heard of them before). It is a fairly run of the mill fantasy - the story is enjoyable without being astounding; the magic abilities of some of the characters are interesting; the baddies are bad, the goodies are good and there are a few in-between who we don't ever learn enough about to say one way or another - they are filler for the rest of the story.

I also found some of the author's naming conventions to be annoying - Tellius, Nancy, Daw, Arthur, Lady Sallet - too much of a mix with no firm basis for why these names are relevant  -poor Nancy should have had a much exotic name (although without any X's or Z's in it).

Yet, for all that, this is without doubt, the most enjoyable novel I've yet read by this author. I'm sure that his fans will very much enjoy it, and if it opens their eyes to the wonderful worlds of Robin Hobb and Mark Lawrence, then this should be seen as a plus. Sometimes it takes a popular author to jump genre to find that new genre new fans. 

If there's a second book would I read it? At the moment, I don't know. The novel would need to be about something a little different - I like my fantasy to be bold and new - always a little different and not regurgitating the same old stories (I might be in the minority here) - and as such, this novel is a little too mundane for me. There is nothing new on offer in this fantasy series - but, as I said, this might be just what some people are looking for.

Darien is released on 13th July 2017, and is available from 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!!