Book Review – Betrayal: The Centurions I by Anthony Riches (historical fiction)

Here’s the blurb:

“Rome, AD 68. Nero has committed suicide. One hundred years of imperial rule by the descendants of Julius Caesar has ended, and chaos rules.

His successor Galba dismisses the incorruptible Germans of the Imperial Bodyguard for the crime of loyalty to the dead emperor. Ordering them back to their homeland he releases a Batavi officer from a Roman prison to be their prefect. But Julius Civilis is not the loyal servant of empire that he seems.

Four centurions, two Batavi and two Roman, will be caught up in the intrigues and the battles that follow – as friends, as victims, as leaders and as enemies.

Hramn is First Spear of the Bodyguard. Fiercely proud of his men’s honour, and furious at their disgrace, he leads them back to the Batavi homeland to face an uncertain future.

Alcaeus is a centurion with the tribe’s cohorts serving Rome on the northern frontier – men whose fighting skills prove crucial as Roman vies with Roman for the throne. A wolf-priest of Hercules, he wields the authority of his god and his own fighting prowess.

Marius is a Roman, first spear of the Fifth Legion: a self-made man who hates politics, but cannot avoid them in a year of murderous intrigue.

Aquillius, former first spear of the Eighth Augustan, like Hramn, is in disgrace for refusing to dishonour his oath of loyalty. But their paths will lead them to opposite sides of an unforgiving war.

And Civilis, Kivilaz to his countrymen, heroic leader, Roman citizen and patriotic Batavi, will change both the course of the Empire’s destiny and that of the centurions.”

For a book that’s only 400 pages long, Betrayal by Anthony Riches, took a painful amount of time to read. It is, and perhaps only people who’ve read the book will understand this comment, as hard to read as the struggles his crack Batavi troops endure as they forge rivers in all their armour. This is a huge shame. I can almost understand what the author was trying to achieve with this novel, and perhaps, for those who know the period well it will be a great success, but as a newly come reader to Roman era historical fiction, I found I needed to rely on my very sparse knowledge from other Roman historical fiction books to even have an inkling of what was happening.

Much of this could perhaps be remedied with a few more ‘signposts’ for the reader throughout the text. While the author informs us where the action is taking place, it would have been better to have known who the storyline actually involved. The characters all seem to have a number of different names and the author uses them freely, when in actual fact, they all just needed one name, and probably their title before that name – Centurion, Decurion, Legatus etc etc. In a story with so many characters the author really needs to help the reader by informing them as to who they’re reading about – there were great swathes of this novel when I literally had no idea which character the storyline was about and how it related to the other person I’d just been reading about. Some of this is due to the story being told, and the ‘actual’ events that took place, but much of it is just sloppy storycrafting.

The prologue is almost unreadable – sentences taking up the ENTIRE page on my Kindle and it took me three attempts to get through it. I was relieved when the prologue ended and the real story could get under way, but even that relief didn’t last too long. While the events of the prologue are later seen to have real significance to the storyline, I think they’re mentioned so often, that a ‘flashback’ would have sufficed. There is painstaking detail about the equivalent of a game of football/rugby but on other occasions, the characters somehow appear ‘overnight’ in Italy from Germany with very little explanation as to why, and and then travel back just as quickly. It makes me feel that there either wasn’t enough to make this a complete story, or that the author was trying to achieve too much in one book.

I do not believe that historical fiction should be ‘dumbed’ down so that readers can relate to it but it must be told in a manner that’s understandable to those who know little about it. This is the seventh work of Roman historical fiction I’ve read in as many weeks, and apart from one other (which I also struggled with) it is the one I enjoyed the least and also, understood the least. A real shame as I enjoy intelligent novels about the politics of the time, but this completely defeated me.

Betrayal was released on 9th March 2017 and is available here;

Book Review – Alice and the Assassin by R J Koreto

Here’s the blurb;

“In 1902 New York, Alice Roosevelt, the bright, passionate, and wildly unconventional daughter of newly sworn-in President Theodore Roosevelt, is placed under the supervision of Secret Service Agent Joseph St. Clair, ex-cowboy and veteran of the Rough Riders. St. Clair quickly learns that half his job is helping Alice roll cigarettes and escorting her to bookies, but matters grow even more difficult when Alice takes it upon herself to investigate a recent political killing–the assassination of former president William McKinley.

Concerned for her father’s safety, Alice seeks explanations for the many unanswered questions about the avowed anarchist responsible for McKinley’s death. In her quest, Alice drags St. Clair from grim Bowery bars to the elegant parlors of New York’s ruling class, from the haunts of the Chinese secret societies to the magnificent new University Club, all while embarking on a tentative romance with a family friend, the son of a prominent local household.

And while Alice, forced to challenge those who would stop at nothing in their greed for money and power, considers her uncertain future, St. Clair must come to terms with his own past in Alice and the Assassin, the first in R. J. Koreto’s riveting new historical mystery series.”

I loved this book. From the first page you’re expertly drawn into New York in 1902 by the two main characters – Miss Alice Roosevelt – a very feisty 17 year old who speaks her mind, says the odd naughty word and lets no one get in her way because she is the President’s daughter, and Mr St Clair, an old (but not that old) soldier, lawman and rancher who is now her Secret Service Agent in light of the previous President’s assassination.

Immediately the reader is drawn into a possible conspiracy regarding the previous President’s assassination which no one, other than Miss Alice, thinks needs investigating and which only gets bigger as Alice and St Clair discover more and more, by calling on contacts and following up each and every lead they’re presented with. They visit the Italian district, the Chinese district, the docklands, the jail and the odd nice restaurant, as well as travelling on the ‘elevated’.

The storyline evolves at a good pace, the chapters are quite short and by the time you reach the end of the novel you might well have worked out who it is a little bit before Miss Alice, but other than that, you will have been kept guessing and wondering whether she’s making more of something than she should, to just relieve the boredom of her, and Mr St Clair’s days.

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and very much appreciated the author’s efforts to describe old New York. I hope there are more books in this series.

This book is due for release in April 2017, and in the meantime you can preorder a copy here,

 

Book Review – Blood Forest by Geraint Jones (historical fiction) Highly Recommended

Here’s the blurb:

“Gladiator meets Full Metal Jacket in Geraint Jones’ spectacular debut Blood Forest, where honour and duty, legions and tribes clash in bloody, heart-breaking glory.

It is AD 9. In Northern Europe an army is dying, and an empire is being brought to its knees.

The Roman Empire is at the height of its power. Rome’s soldiers brutally enforce imperial rule, and its legions are the most efficient and aggressive fighting force in the world. Governor Varus leads 15,000 seasoned legionnaires north to subdue the Germanic tribes. To Rome these people are savages, ripe for conquest. But the Romans know little of this densely forested territory governed by fiercely independent chieftains. Rome’s supposed ally, Arminius, has unified the disgruntled tribes, leading the would-be conquerors towards a deadly trap. As the army marches deeper into enemy territory, one small band of soldiers must face the deadliest of foes, alone.”

I must first make two things very clear 1) I don't like Ancient Rome/the Romans and I have no interest in studying it because I'm an Anglo-Saxonist 2) I tried to give this book a 4 star but I've had to give it a 5. 

I am, I must confess, conflicted by those two points above! However, for all that I don't like books on Ancient Rome or the Romans (to me the Romans are all about sandals and skirts - and sandals are mentioned quite a few time) this story by Geraint Jones is stunning. I devoured it in two days and the reason I've opted for the 5 star is because the storyline infected my dreams last night and that means it's had a big impact on me. In case you want to know, it was the cover and the title that made me want to read the book.

I can not, and won't, attest to any historical accuracy in this story. As I said, I'm not a Roman historian however, the majority of this novel is about a small group of men, in a much larger army, and the events take place so far from Rome that the whole Roman 'thing' isn't actually all that important. This is a story of men, battle and comradeship, and perhaps, honour. It is very brutal, it is filled with foul language and hideous images of death and the dying. 

The author manages to avoid stereotyping his Roman soldiers, and all of the 'main' small group (Felix, Titus, Moon, Rufus, Chicken, Micon, Cnaeus and Pavo) have something to add to the story. It is told in the first person - which makes for a quick and easy read anyway - but our main character - whose name we only find out very late on in the novel and who we must call 'Felix' as the rest of the cast do - is an intriguing, if conflicted individual. And to be honest, most of the soldiers are conflicted - in the descriptions of the way the men deal with the violent conflict they find themselves in - the author spares nothing in allowing them to be twisted and changed by the many violent actions they've taken part in, or are forced to take part in, and while we may deplore their acts with our more modern sensibilities - so much of this novel is life and death that we too end up accepting what they're doing.

The reader might not like all of the men, I don't think we're meant to, but that means that we can respect the actions they take.

Even if you don't like Roman historical fiction, I would still recommend this novel to you. The writing style is fresh, the battle scenes well told so that even though there are many battle scenes, they never feel repetitive, and although I think the weakest part of the novel might well be its ending, when all the secrets and lies are exposed about the truth of the men making the decisions for the army that Felix and his comrades are a member of, I would still be interested in reading more about Felix.

This book is available to buy from April 9th 2017.

Book Review – The Earthly Gods by Nick Brown (historical fiction)

Here’s the blurb;

“Unable to make any progress in locating the missing Indavara, a desperate Cassius has been given an unrewarding assignment in Antioch. But when an old ally’s daughter is kidnapped, he feels duty-bound to repay a long standing debt. Disillusioned with the tawdry demands of the Imperial Security Service, he disobeys his superiors and leaves Syria, determined to do some good.

Accompanied by nomadic chieftain Kabir and a trio of warriors, Cassius soon finds himself in Greece hunting a vicious band of slave-traders trafficking women across the Empire. But these are no common criminals, and as Cassius sets out to bring them down, he finds himself up against ruthless, cunning men with powerful friends and a lot to lose.”

This is the first Agent of Rome novel that I’ve read, but about the fourth or fifth ‘Roman’ novel I’ve read in recent weeks.

This novel is different to all the others as it is entirely fictitious and not reliant on an historical event, or on an important battle. Instead, the story reads a little more like a travelogue through some of the Roman provinces, ending up in Byzantium. For me, this wasn’t a particularly thrilling account, concerned rather too much with money, horses and obtaining food and somewhere pleasant to sleep (which seems to have been almost impossible).

The main ‘mystery’ itself – concerned with three missing girls from a Syrian tribe that one of the main characters has come upon in a previous novel, seemed very thin in places – I felt there was a lot of ‘padding’ to the story and not actually much story but a lot of travelling and interaction with other Romans who Cassius is trying to avoid – as effectively he’s AWOL from his post. This was perhaps done as a literary invention to create some tension to the novel, in which case, I don’t think it was very successful.

The sub-plot, concerned with Cassius finding his missing bodyguard, is given little room in the novel – just the odd chapter here and there told from the missing man’s point of view – and the eventual reason for the kidnapping of his bodyguard is not so much far-fetched, as downright disappointing, and his eventual discovery is accomplished incredibly quickly in the end and without any great drama.

Overall, I find the novel to be enjoyable but not riveting and although I read it quite quickly, some of that was down to simple perseverance. Perhaps I would have done better to start with an earlier book in the series but I’m not sure that Cassius, with all his arrogance, will ever quite be my idea of any sort of hero.

And you can buy it here;

Book Review – Eagles in the Storm by Ben Kane (historical fiction)

Here’s the blurb;

“Arminius has been defeated, one of the three eagles has been recovered, and thousands of German tribesmen slain. Yet these successes aren’t nearly enough for senior centurion Lucius Tullus. Not until Arminius is dead, his old legion’s eagle liberated and the enemy tribes completely vanquished will he rest. But Arminius is still at large, devious, fearless and burning for revenge of his own. Charismatic as ever, he raises another large tribal army, which will harry the Romans the length and breadth of the land. Into this cauldron of bloodshed, danger and treachery, Tullus must go – alone. His mission – to find and bring back his legion’s eagle – will place him in more danger than he has ever faced before. Can he succeed? Can he even survive?”

This is only the third book about the Roman Empire that I’ve read, and bizarrely, one of the other one’s (read in the last two weeks) begins where Ben Kane has clearly started his trilogy that ends with Eagles in the Storm. That’s a long way of saying that even though I’ve not read the two other books in this series, I have some idea of the storyline that Ben Kane has been writing about, and while it’s probably not necessary, as there are more than enough illusions to the previous 2 books in this one, it meant that I was very comfortable and could enjoy this book without worrying that I was missing out on back story.

The story is mainly told from three different viewpoints – Tullus, a Roman Army Veteran, Arminius, the enemy of the Romans and Piso, one of Tullus’ soldiers.

Tullus is an honourable soldier, bedevilled by the events that happened in AD9 when his men, under the command of Varus, were annihilated by the traitor Areminius, the Eagle of his Legion stolen, leaving him carrying the burden of revenge ever since.

Aremenius, the chieftain who masterminded the events of AD9, has been striving to keep the disparate tribes of his homeland united against the Romans ever since, and the previous year (AD15) saw him suffer a setback that he wishes to overcome with a new campaign against the Romans. This is pretty hard to organise, as the chieftains he needs to convince are not easily swayed, because they seem to spend much of their time a little bit too drunk!.

Piso, one of Tullus’ soldiers, provides the view point of a ‘normal’ soldier in the Roman army.

While I can’t attest to the historical accuracy, because I’ve never studied this time period, I found this to be a very enjoyable story, if a little too obsessed with the need for the men to ‘pee and poo’ (I’m using polite words here) while on the march, or while fighting. This is essentially a book about men but then, it’s a story of soldiers and I assume that the Roman’s perhaps didn’t invite women into the ranks.

The pacing of the book is good, there is a slight wrinkle near the end, but in the end everything ends as it needs to, and as it should. So yes, it’s a little bit predictable, but hey ho, it’s still a fun read and I’ve already downloaded the two ‘shorts’ that Ben Kane has written to accompany the trilogy.

This book is released on 23rd March 2017 and can be purchased from here:

 

Book Review – The Confessions of Young Nero (historical fiction)

Here’s the blurb;

“The New York Times bestselling and legendary author of Helen of Troy and Elizabeth I now turns her gaze on Emperor Nero, one of the most notorious and misunderstood figures in history.

Built on the backs of those who fell before it, Julius Caesar’s imperial dynasty is only as strong as the next person who seeks to control it. In the Roman Empire no one is safe from the sting of betrayal: man, woman—or child.

As a boy, Nero’s royal heritage becomes a threat to his very life, first when the mad emperor Caligula tries to drown him, then when his great aunt attempts to secure her own son’s inheritance. Faced with shocking acts of treachery, young Nero is dealt a harsh lesson: it is better to be cruel than dead.

While Nero idealizes the artistic and athletic principles of Greece, his very survival rests on his ability to navigate the sea of vipers that is Rome. The most lethal of all is his own mother, a cold-blooded woman whose singular goal is to control the empire. With cunning and poison, the obstacles fall one by one. But as Agrippina’s machinations earn her son a title he is both tempted and terrified to assume, Nero’s determination to escape her thrall will shape him into the man he was fated to become—an Emperor who became legendary.

With impeccable research and captivating prose, The Confessions of Young Nero is the story of a boy’s ruthless ascension to the throne. Detailing his journey from innocent youth to infamous ruler, it is an epic tale of the lengths to which man will go in the ultimate quest for power and survival.”

The Confessions of Young Nero is the third book I’ve read in the last three weeks about Rome and her Empire. I was most intrigued to find out more about a time period that I’ve little studied and which previously, I’ve had little interest in, but did find it quite annoying that there are no years given throughout the text – I wanted to know where Nero’s story fit with the other books I’ve read.

To begin with, The Confessions of Young Nero is a very good introduction to the life of corrupt Rome. The story starts when Nero can be no more than a three year old, and, being told in his voice, progresses well as he grows and develops while all around him the ambitions of his family, and then his mother in particular, guide his path. There are murders and plots and deaths and a wonderful collection of debauched characters, as there should be in any story of Rome, and all in all, the story begins to build to something that promises to be truly intriguing.

Sadly, this doesn’t happen. No sooner has Nero become Emperor than the focus of the book shifts and suddenly all the drama and intrigue happens only in Nero’s fantasies as he strives to be an artist as opposed to an Emperor. This would not have spoilt the story if the focus had been a little less on building works and reciting poetry, and playing musical instruments and more on how he actually governed, as there is very little of this, other than the occasional long list of people he has in positions of power who are fulfilling certain roles for him.

I understand from reading the comments by the author that this is very much a revisionist approach to Nero, and I have no problem with that at all. For too long the stereotypes of historical figures have masked any efforts to find out the truth beneath all the lies and mishaps of the survival of historical documents, and yet, in this case, the story that emerges isn’t one that holds the readers attention as well as it should have done.

There were brief glimpses that the story would become somewhat more interested in the way that Nero actually ruled, but these are never fully realised, and the reader is left thinking that being the Emperor was easy-peasy provided you could stay alive to do so. This is a shame. I would have liked to know more about events in Britain and more about events concerning the followers of Christ, but these details are only given in short bursts, two tantalizing to offer any real insight.

The author presents an incredibly detailed view of Rome and its surrounding cities – how realistic this is, or isn’t, I can’t say, but there are points when it does feel as though you might be strolling around Rome or Pompeii, and that is an enjoyable aspect of the novel.

I would say it started as a good 4/5 star novel, but withered away at the end when I was only reading because I knew I’d nearly finished it.

And you can buy it here;

 

Book Review: A Mighty Dawn by Theodore Brun (historical fantasy)

Here’s the blurb:

“A gripping and brilliantly realized debut epic adventure set in eighth-century Denmark. This is the beginning of an ambitious new series in the vein of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones.

Hakan, son of Haldan, chosen son of the Lord of the Northern Jutes, swears loyalty to his father in fire, in iron, and in blood. But there are always shadows that roam. When a terrible tragedy befalls Hakan’s household he is forced to leave his world behind. He must seek to pledge his sword to a new king. Nameless and alone, he embarks on a journey to escape the bonds of his past and fulfil his destiny as a great warrior.

Whispers of sinister forces in the north pull Hakan onwards to a kingdom plagued by mysterious and gruesome deaths. But does he have the strength to do battle with such dark foes? Or is death the only sane thing to seek in this world of blood and broken oaths?”

A Mighty Dawn by Theodore Brun is a, sometimes brutal, coming of age tale set in the Scandinavian lands of the middle to second part of the first millennium. Paganism is the worship of choice, and the threads of Norse Mythology mingle through the story, as is to be expected for a story set at this time. It is not a work of historical fiction, but rather historical fantasy, or just plain fantasy with its basis set in the past.

I would divide the novel into three main parts. The first third, when the reader is introduced to Hakon and Inga, is very, very well written. The plot develops in an almost predicatable well (until …. well you’ll have to read it), but the author weaves the plot incredibly well so that when the big reveal came, I was incredibly shocked. I had been expecting the outcome to be very, very different to what actually happened. While Hakon is not exactly the most likable of characters at this point, he is a bit difficult to like because his concern is only with himself, he is well portrayed and the reader understands his anguish, his love and his hatred of Konur, as well as his difficult relationship with his father. The story is mired in the old Norse legends.

The second part of the novel revolves around ‘Hakon’s journey’, after his betrayal, ever northwards, and again, is a well articulated part of the story. While Hakon is now quite glowering and bad tempered, the tone of the story is lightened by the addition of his companion, Kai. a younger man than Hakon and one with a silken tongue and very good cooking skills. The journey ever northwards still contains much of old Norse legends and, because it takes place on the cusp of winter, sees them battling terrible weather in order to reach their destination through an almost deserted landscape.

It is really from this part of the story onwards that I felt the tale faltered a little. It’s still well written but I had some problems with the more fantastical elements of the storyline and these detracted from my overall enjoyment of what had started out as a very entertaining read. I also felt that the author’s great skills in producing characters as engaging as Hakon and Kai faltered a little, relying more on stereotypes than previously.

With all that said, this is a very well articulated story. The author has a good style that means that although the book is quite long, it disappears under the reader’s eyes at a fast rate. I picked the book up to only read the beginning (and work out how long it was as I was reading on the kindle), but soon became embroiled in the storyline and was then unable to put the book down, reading it over one weekend.

I would recommend the book to fans of historical fantasy and look forward to the next book in the series.

And you can buy it here:

Book Review – The Dark Days Pacts by Alison Goodman (Book 2 in the Dark Days Club)

Here’s the blurb;

“June 1812. Just weeks after her catastrophic coming-out ball, Lady Helen Wrexhall—now disowned by her uncle—is a full member of the demon-hunting Dark Days Club. Her mentor, Lord Carlston, has arranged for Helen to spend the summer season in Brighton so that he can train her new Reclaimer powers. However, the long-term effects of Carlston’s Reclaimer work have taken hold, and his sanity is beginning to slip. At the same time, Carlston’s Dark Days Club colleague and nemesis will stop at nothing to bring Helen over to his side—and the Duke of Selburn is determined to marry her. The stakes are even higher for Helen as she struggles to become the warrior that everyone expects her to be.”

The Dark Days Pact doesn’t suffer from a lack of intrigue and action. Far from it. Whereas The Dark Days Club was a little slow to get going – the author needing to show just how constrained society was for women at this period of time – Book 2 neatly sidesteps the problem by having Lady Helen learning to walk and talk just like a man, and indeed the descriptions of her being dressed as both a man and a woman, highlight just how ridiculous fashion was during the Georgian period.
As soon as that’s been accomplished, Lady Helen finds herself caught in the middle of a number of different intrigues as she tries to please everyone, and initially, fails quite magnificently.
If anything, my only slight problem with the novel is the Duke of Selburn, who quite simply, gets in the way time and time again. As others have mentioned – you can’t help wondering if he is The Great Deceiver but that is not answered in this novel, and possibly won’t be for a good few to go.
Bring on Book 3!

This is a Young Adult book but I was drawn to the first novel because of its historical setting – the early 1810’s. The author provides a fascinating glimpse of high society at the time and manages to weave contemporary events into the story in a deft fashion. I hoped it would amuse my own Young Adult in the family who is a huge fan of the Shadowhunters series (I prefer the series set in Victorian London), and it worked it’s magic, so much so, that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is now being read. As such I think it appeals to those who like historical fiction with a slight twist, and also the younger generation, although some of the words are a little strange and I did have to point out that there was a dictionary on the kindle to look up what the words meant. Some of the storyline is also a little risque for the younger of the young adults but on another level it works to highlight how much has changed in society in the last two hundred years and how much more accepting today’s world is of well, almost everyone!

You can buy it here but read Book 1 first!

Book Review -Ruddy Gore by Kerry Greenwood

Here’s the blurb,

“Running late to a gala performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore, Phryne Fisher meets some thugs in dark alley and handles them convincingly before they can ruin her silver dress. She then finds that she has rescued the handsome Lin Chung, and his grandmother, who briefly mistake her for a deity.
Denying divinity but accepting cognac, she later continues safely to the theatre where her night is again interrupted by a bizarre death onstage.

What links can Phryne find between the ridiculously entertaining plot of Ruddigore, the Chinese community of Little Bourke St., or the actors treading the boards of His Majestys Theatre?”

Netflix keeps suggesting that I watch the TV series of these books and so I was pleased to be offered the opportunity to read a free E-Arc in exchange for a review from Netgalley.

So, I knew that this was a period piece and I do love a good mystery and I wasn’t disappointed. The writing style is light and infectious (if occasionally a little muddled with Gilbert and Sullivan quotes – something I’m not very familiar with), and the characterisation of Miss Fisher is excellent. It didn’t matter that this was book 7 and the first one I was reading.

I very much enjoyed the attention to detail of both being in a theatre and the 1920’s in Australia, as well as the back story in London, and I might just listen to Netflix and give the TV series a view as well.

Would recommend to all those who like a good period piece who done it.

And you can buy it here;

Just so you know – I am now completely addicted to these novels. They’re short and sweet and very easy to read.