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.

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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;

Book Review – The Malice by Peter Newman – fantasy

“Gamma’s sword, the Malice, wakes, calling to be taken to battle once more.

But the Vagrant has found a home now, made a life and so he turns his back, ignoring its call.

The sword cries out, frustrated, until another answers.

Her name is Vesper.”

First things first, I’ve not read the Vagrant, but having received a free EArc of The Seven (Book 3) I dived right into it and then realised that I really should read, at least, the previous book.

The Malice starts very strongly – the world created feels both relatable and also very strange. This sums up much of the novel. The main characters of Vesper and the Kid are introduced very quickly and immediately feel like realistic characters. Yet the author’s writing style is sparse, almost to distraction, substituting words that sound like what they describe as opposed to describing them, for instance, a WarMech. For me, this meant that I was constantly grasping at even the smallest amount of description, which was strange because I often find author’s engaging in too much description and it annoys me, this was the complete opposite.

For all that, the world is richly imagined, in all its strangeness and it is very strange, and this makes it, at times, quite a difficult read, and that’s why it’s taken me a month to read because I just had to take a break half way through because the ‘weirdness’ and the writing style was giving me something of a headache.

For all that, the book is worthy of perseverance and I’m looking forward to reading The Seven.

All in all, not an easy read, but quite an intriguing one.

The Malice is currently available, as is The Seven, and the first book, The Vagrant.

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.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1972591/?ref_=nv_sr_1

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.

Book Review – Brother’s Ruin by Emma Newman (YA Historical Fantasy)

Here’s the blurb;

The year is 1850 and Great Britain is flourishing, thanks to the Royal Society of the Esoteric Arts. When a new mage is discovered, Royal Society elites descend like buzzards to snatch up a new apprentice. Talented mages are bought from their families at a tremendous price, while weak mages are snapped up for a pittance. For a lower middle class family like the Gunns, the loss of a son can be disastrous, so when seemingly magical incidents begin cropping up at home, they fear for their Archie’s life and their own livelihoods.

But Archie Gunn isn’t a talented mage. His sister Charlotte is, and to prevent her brother from being imprisoned for false reporting she combines her powers with his to make him seem a better prospect. However, maintaining the charade will mean masquerading as Archie’s assistant, and delaying or destroying her own plans for marriage.

When she discovers a nefarious plot by the sinister Doctor Ledbetter, Charlotte must use all her cunning and guile to protect her family, her secret and her city.

Brother's Ruin is a very quick read - more an introduction than anything to events which will follow in forthcoming books.
The story is well-paced and well-structured. The brief snatches of Victorian London that are revealed are well presented - the use of the term 'hansom' cab seems to almost be enough to conjure up the world of Holmes and Watson.
Charlotte Gunn, the main character for all the title is Brother's Ruin, is a likeable character from the word go, although she does have her little secrets, and wants nothing more than to live a normal life as a daughter and future wife of her fiancee. This seems to be impossible as she is a talented Mage, and Mage's must submit themselves to the Royal Society of Esoteric Arts and never marry or know love and so she's desperate to keep her gifts a secret. Not easy when she is capable of doing 'magic' without even thinking about it and is the cause of her brother's 'trial' with the Royal Society to see if he too is a mage. Worried about the consequences if he should fail - (this would result in the family being punished) she decides to help him and at the same time, help her father get out of debt, while at the same time discovering a magical plot which sees the moneylender being none too kind to his debtors. All in all, there's a lot going on for such a small book,  and the author sets up her main character well to have influence and prestige in future adventures.
I would recommend this book to people, but I imagine, many will want Book 2 to be available immediately after reading Book 1.

Brother’s Ruin is released on 14th May 2017.