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 – 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 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.

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 – Deposed by David Barbaree (historical fiction) Highly Recommended

Here’s the blurb;

“More gripping than Game of Thrones and more ruthless than House of Cards – this a stunning new thriller of power, treachery and revenge

In a darkened cell, a brutally deposed dictator lies crippled – deprived of his power, his freedom – and his eyes.

On the edge of utter despair, his only companion is the young boy who brings him his meagre rations, a mere child who fears his own shadow. But to one who has held and lost the highest power, one thing alone is crystal clear: even emperors were mere children once.

Ten years later, the new ruler’s son watches uneasily over his father’s empire. Wherever he looks rebellion is festering, and those closest to him have turned traitor once before.

To this city in crisis comes a hugely wealthy senator from the very edge of the empire, a young and angry ward at his heels. He is witty but inscrutable, generous with his time and money to a leader in desperate need of a friend – and he wears a bandage over his blinded eyes.

The fallen emperor’s name is Nero.”

Wow, what a stunning debut novel.

I’ve never read any Roman themed novels before the last few weeks, but it would seem that they are both very popular and really rather numerous (I think this is now my sixth or seventh). That said, the books that I’ve read have, more of less, dealt with similar time periods and events. In the case of this novel, I’ve not long since read The Young Nero by Elizabeth George which follows Nero through his younger years and this novel seemed quite a perfect follow up.

This novel, however, is far more wickedly complicated and an absolute delight to read. It has a fast pace and is a very easy read. A note for future readers – do take account of the chapter headings – the novel moves through many different points of views and through two different time periods, as well as occasionally going backward in that time period. It sounds complicated, but it’s a brilliant way of unravelling the events of the novel.

I think it would be fair to say it’s a fairly simple story told in a complicated way – it’s about intrigue in the Roman Government during the AD 60’s-70’s – but it is also so much more than that because of the multiple point of views. This allows the author to decipher events as others see them, with all their attendant prejudices, worries and fears. It is, it must be said, as complex as the House of Cards and as much fun. The portrayal of the corrupt nature of the Roman Government is done very well – I garnered much more from this novel about events in Rome and the wider Roman Empire than I did The Young Nero.

The two timelines, interwoven throughout the novel, eventually offer explanations to the events taking place in the later timeline and while some may find the storyline a little far-fetched, I found it to be told in such a believable way that I had no problem allowing the author to take me down a slightly unconventional route.

My only slight gripe is that I’d assumed this was a standalone novel, and clearly it isn’t, which means I’ll have to keep my eye out for the next novel because I am incredibly keen to read more about Barbaree’s reimagining of Ancient Rome and his Deposed Nero.

And you can buy it here (and should) from May 4th 2017;

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.