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;

 

 

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Book Review – Viking Sword by M J Porter (historical fiction)

I’m not going to review my own book – fear ye not – but I am going to use this as an excuse to pull together some of the reviews that Viking Sword received under its previous guise of Ealdorman. So here’s the blurb:

“It’s the second Viking Age in England, and King Æthelred II reigns.

Five ealdormen represent him in the old Saxon kingdoms.

Battles are being fought against the viking raiders looking to plunder England for her wealth.

Leofwine is the ealdorman of the Hwicce.

On a diplomatic mission in 994, escorting home Olaf, the King of Norway, Leofwine is gravely injured in battle, losing the sight in one eye, and badly scarring half of his face.

Leofwine fears his new wife will find him repulsive and leave him, but she stands loyally by his side when he arrives home, delighted that her husband is still alive, as she had been told he died in battle.

Leofwine spends time with his wife and their infant son, Northman, as he recovers from his wounds.

He is a good man and a brave leader, but now his men fear his limited vision will be a hindrance when he leads them in battle, and that fear is increased when Leofwine falls in front of them.

But Leofwine is smart.

He trains his loyal hound Hunter to walk ahead of him, indicating where he may trip, and he trains hard to make up for his limited vision.

Having lost his own father in battle with the raiders, Leofwine has taken care of the lands with the help of his father’s closest confidant, Wulfstan, since he was a boy.

But he knows a great battle is looming, and he is not sure if his king, who has never lead his men in battle before, is up to the task of ridding the land of the raiders, and putting a stop to the Viking menace once and for all.”

Here’s review number 1

“Having read the Dragon of Unison books by this author, I thought I’d give this book a try too. I studied early Anglo-Saxon Northumbria but don’t know very much about that part of the later Saxon period (around 1000AD) or the history of that area but it was a really good read. The battle scenes were well covered and the story was interesting – history nearly always concerns itself with kings and court so its interesting to read about the lives of other people at that time, even if they are lords and attend meetings with the king and his court. I liked the characters as people (apart from the ones I wasn’t supposed to like) and the setting was totally believable so this all helps me when I’m reading historical novels to know some actual research has been done. The only criticism I have, and its a minor one, is that it would have been nice to have had an anchor point before I started reading – e.g. King Alfred (who everyone has heard of). To know how long he had been dead before the action takes place and the relationship between him and the king in the book, would have helped me to place the story a bit better. The list of major characters in the back of the book was very helpful for this. I was so keen to see how the story developed that I’ve already bought the second book and am half way through that.”

And review number 2

“I actually found this book to be quite a good, interesting, entertaining read.

I can’t speak for the historical accuracy of this novel. I only know bits and pieces of the time this novel is set in. But I found the characters to be interesting and well-written and the storyline to be engaging, one that kept me reading.

The amount of characters with similar-sounding names was a bit confusing, though. By the end of the book, I was struggling to differentiate between the different people.

I really liked the relationships between the characters, especially Leofwine and his wife. The scenes between them were particularly sweet and it was nice to see that real love had grown from the arranged marriage.

I felt that the author did a really good job of showing the politics that was in the kingdom. I also thought that it came across really well how difficult Leofwine found his injury and partial blindness – as well as how he learned to compensate for that disability. Of course, anyone who wasn’t whole in that time would have a much more difficult time of it than someone with that kind of injury in modern day.

The descriptions in the book were really good and I was able to see a lot of the events happening in my mind, especially when it came to the fighting scenes. I did, however, notice quite a few errors in the books – apostrophes used when something was supposed to be plural; and Hunter changed gender at one point.

I think I’d definitely be interested in reading more books in this series. It would be good to see what else is going to happen.”

And review number 3

A”n enjoyable story, with a minimalist style. The pacing was sound, but there were quite a few grammatical errors. The author needed to spend more time in editing, it needed just a bit more polish, but the story did not suffer despite this. I appreciated the author’s emphasis on setting and world building, not choosing to lump a bunch of shallow action sequences in, merely for the sake of grabbing fickle readers. Sword play is great, but I prefer depth of character and the author clearly does as well.
A good read, I would recommend it to those who can enjoy fantasy or historical fiction that is not layered with commercialized violence.”

 

These reviews all offered slightly different scores on the review, but I really appreciated the readers taking the time to not only read my book, but also to review it! So thank you again, and if it’s wet your appetite, then please grab yourselves a copy from Amazon.

 

 

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 – 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 – The Shadow Queen by Anne O’Brien (historical fiction) Highly recommended

Here’s the blurb;

“From the Sunday Times bestselling author of The Queen’s Choice

A tale of treachery, power-hungry families and legal subterfuges.

Woven through it is a remarkable story of a beautiful girl, desirable as a bride, growing to be a woman of foresight and power.

A story of love and loyalty and of the cost of personal ambition. The story of the woman who would ultimately wield power as the King Mother to 10 year old King Richard II.”

I received a free E Arc from Netgalley.

The Shadow Queen is a fantastic read. Very well paced from beginning to end, it charts the life of Joan of Kent, the cousin of King Edward III, who is a prominent character throughout the story. I always enjoy it when an author finds a 'new' historical character to offer to their readers - for too long the Tudors and the Wars of the Roses have garnered far too much interest, as have the few women who were prominent in Medieval Times - Isabella of Castille and Elearnor of Aquaitaine. Often, no matter how hard an author might try, historical events can only be manipulated so much and I much prefer a fresh story.

Joan is an acerbic character - and some of the best passages in the book stem from when her nature is allowed to fly free - this is often when speaking to the men in her life - but at these times the characters feel very alive and real. So beguiling is she that I found it difficult to put the book down and read it in two days, even though I was supposed to be reading another novel.

I don't wish to spoil the nature of the story - for the unravelling of events around Joan is one of the author's strongest story telling techniques - suffice to say while some elements of her life garner slightly too much time in the novel, and others a little too little - the story is fantastically well crafted without dwelling too much on romance and matters of the heart because this isn't in the strong willed nature of the Plantaganet Princess, who is only too aware of her own power and strength because of her blood.

5 stars and a highly recommended for this story.

I would, however, have liked some longer historical notes at the end with more details about Joan as opposed to the royal family members she interacted with.

And you can buy it here when it’s released on 4th May 2017.

 

 

 

Book Review – Catherine of Braganza by Sarah-Beth Watkins (history)

Here’s the blurb;

Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese princess, married Charles II in 1662 and became the merry monarch’s Restoration queen. Yet life for her was not so merry – she put up with the king’s many mistresses and continuous plots to remove her from the throne. She lived through times of war, plague and fire. Catherine’s marriage saw many trials and tribulations including her inability to produce an heir. Yet Charles supported his queen throughout the Restoration, remaining devoted to her no matter what. Outliving her husband, she ended up back in her home country and spent her final days as queen-regent of Portugal.

Although a historian myself, anything after the Tudors does almost defeat me because it’s not a period I’ve studied at great length – and this is probably just the right sort of book for me to read about a time period I know little about.

The author’s tone is light, and dispenses with any sort of discussion about sources and their reliability, rather focusing on what can be pieced together about Charles II’s Queen, which doesn’t seem to be a great deal. It is told in a chronological order – which I always like – and while I would have quite liked a list of Charles II’s mistresses and illegitimate children – Charles does not feature massively in the text. Not that he’s not there – and there are a few times when I was struck by Charles’ regard for his wife, unable to give him the legitimate sons he needed, and yet fiercely loyal to her for all that – apart from perhaps in his younger days when his treatment of her was quite scandalous.

Overall, a very enjoyable and quick read – I especially enjoyed the mentions of the French court as it brought back all my memories of studying Louis XIV. I think it would help to have some understanding of the time period when reading the book – but as I discovered while reading, I did actually know more about the time period than I thought I would.

This is released on 28th April 2017 and you can get a copy here;

 

On this day in history – April 23rd 1016 – the death of King Aethelred II of England

 

1001 years ago the death of Aethelred II of England came at a time of crisis for England. Aethelred had not been a popular king (at least according to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle) and he’d already been ousted from power once, back in 1013, when King Swein of Denmark, after years of failed attempts, had finally managed to win a resounding victory in England and sent Aethelred II to his brother-in-law’s Court in Normandy with his tail between his legs.

Sadly, King Swein did not live long, in fact not at all, lending credence to the idea that he might have been injured in one of the many battles with the Ealdormen of England who’d fallen, one by one, under his command. Swein’s son, Cnut, had hopes that the English would declare him their King, but he was young and the English seemed to take some delight in asking their deposed king back to England, which he ruled for another 2 years, with Cnut baying at his heels and hoping to repeat his own father’s success.

When Aethelred died, England was in the middle of a war between Aethelred’s son, Prince Edmund, and Prince Cnut; a war muddied by the dubious actions of one of the ealdormen of England, Eadric, named Streona – the aquisitor – in later sources. He had been Aethelred II’s son in law, and had risen to power in 1006 and somehow, and it is a mystery how, had managed to keep on the good side of Aethelred for the whole of the previous decade. It was, in many ways, Eadric’s actions throughout the rest of 1016 that essentially settled the matter of who of the two contenders for the kingdom would be victorious, but that, as many would say, is a matter for another story. But if you’re curious, then please have a look at my fictionalised account of the period; Cnut, the Conqueror.

Here’s the blurb;

A new chapter in the epic Earls of Mercia saga.

England: The Second Viking Age

To gain what he wanted, what he felt he was owed, he would do anything, even if it meant breaking his oaths to a woman he loved and the mother of his son.

Swein, King of Denmark, and briefly England, lies dead, his son ousted from England as King Aethelred returns from his exile in Normandy at the behest of his Witan and the bishops. Aethelred might have relinquished his kingdom to Swein, the Danish conqueror, but with Swein dead, the men have no interest in supporting an untried youth whose name resounds with the murder of one of England’s greatest bishop’s, a youth known only for his savagery and joy of battle, a true norse man who utilizes his weapons without thought.

But Cnut wants a kingdom and he will do anything to gain one.

As England is ravaged by a civil war between the sons of two former kings, Edmund, son of King Aethelred, and Cnut, son of Swein, the men must make personal decisions in the heat of battle as they strive to reclaim their birthrights whilst doing all they can to stay alive.

Cnut: the Conqueror, is an Earls of Mercia side story (full length novel) to mark the millennial anniversary of Cnut’s accession to the English kingdom in 1016.