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 – Oswald: Return of the Kingby Edoardo Albert (historical fiction)

Here’s the blurb:

“The exiled family of King Aethelfrith of Northumbria arrive, after much hardship, on the island of Iona, where the monastery founded by St Columba has become a centre of worship and learning. Young Oswald becomes firm friends with a novice, Aidan. When Aidan professes his final vows, Oswald and his little brother Oswy are received into the church. As befits a young prince, Oswald learns to fight. However, Aidan’s example attacts him and he is on the point of deciding to become a monk when news reaches Iona that his half brother, Eanfrith, has been killed by Cadwallon, the king who defeated Edwin. Oswald sails back to Northumbria and meets Cadwallon in battle, defeating and killing him. Oswald, now undisputed king of Northumbria, gives Aidan the island of Lindisfarne as his base. But Penda, the last great pagan king in England, is raising troops against him.”

I received a free E-Arc from Netgalley.

Oswald, Return of the King is the first book I’ve read by the author.

Oswald is, unfortunately, a dense read that suffers with some pacing issues, but more than anything, is plagued by unnecessary and near constant Bible quotations. It would perhaps, have been better if the novel had been named after the monks of Lindisfarne or Iona, because the focus of the novel is not actually Oswald. The author has made great use of the work of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, (as must everyone who writes and studies about this time period), and I couldn’t help thinking that Bede would have been overjoyed by the author’s firm adherence to his ideas – to write a history of the Church – and not a history of the people throughout this period, but for myself, I felt that this detracted from what should have been an exiting read and instead descended into a long and tedious story about a highly fictionalised accounting of how Christianity was introduced to the Saxons of England. Christianity was a weapon, just like a warrior’s sword, shield and spear, but the author, writing for a Christian Press, makes no reference to the political nature of the imposition of Christianity.

As to the story itself, Oswald does not become King of Bernicia until 48% of the book has passed, and then there is some definite fudging of events and dates which takes the reader to the final battle – or should I say ‘finally a battle’. Until this point much has been made of the amassing of troops – but the Battle of Heavenfield, where Oswald gains his kingdom, is a disappointing fight between two men in a quarry, an amassing of troops at York slithers away as a truce is called, and Maserfield is the only battle that gets any ink – even the supposed overthrow of the Gododdin earns no more than the recall of a messenger reporting to his king.

This period of history is defined by its battles and its warriors, but this is a novel of saints and Christianity, and needs to be read with a clear understanding of what it is, and not what it could have been, or what a reader might well expect it to be.

The cover is, however, stunning!

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 – Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson (fantasy)

Here’s the blurb;

“Brandon Sanderson’s epic fantasy trilogy overturns the expectations of readers and then goes on to tell the epic story of evil overturned in a richly imagined world.

A thousand years ago evil came to the land and has ruled with an iron hand ever since. The sun shines fitfully under clouds of ash that float down endlessly from the constant eruption of volcanoes. A dark lord rules through the aristocratic families and ordinary folk are condemned to lives in servitude, sold as goods, labouring in the ash fields.

But now a troublemaker has arrived and there is rumour of revolt. A revolt that depends on criminal that no-one can trust and a young girl who must master Allomancy – the magic that lies in all metals.”

Wow, this book starts with quite a bang, dragging you in, and then seems to sort of stop for a bit, by which time I was considering not reading anymore but really, did I have any choice?

It was a thoroughly enjoyable novel but didn’t quite produce what I was expecting it to, becoming an almost typical fantasy book, complete with the same themes etc. Some of it was also a bit too nice! I know that might sound daft but I was expecting terrible events that never really materialised. That said, I will be reading Book 2 and 3.
I very much enjoyed the interplay of the short chapter headings and the way they contrasted with the story – and the little twist at the end was clearly quite obvious if I’d been paying enough attention!

On a final note – it is a typical fantasy book – it is very long and detailed, and sadly, Book 2 has not started well – but I might persevere.

And you can buy it here;

Book Review – Requiem for the Wolf by Tara Saunders – 5 stars. Highly recommended.

Here’s the blurb;

“They told him that the Lost were animals. Crazed and brutal, they said, a danger to themselves and others. Hero, they called him, for providing the mercy of a clean death. They lied.

The Tiarna Beo is a land frozen in the still moment between acts of savage violence. Forty years after a Purging that drove an entire race either into the ground or north through the mountains, every man watches his words and his neighbour. Only a fool draws attention to himself, and only the suicidal travel from the North.

Growing up fatherless in a cold and grieving home, Breag had a clear vision for his future – a good woman, a family of his own and a quiet life. When his good woman betrays him, her confederates force him into the Tiarna on a mission to find one of the Lost and bring it home to be sacrificed. Mired in hopeless duty and wandering rootless among people who would kill him if they knew what he was, Breag struggles to hold on to the frayed edges of his humanity.

But no good deed goes unpunished. When his rescue of a brutalised young woman reveals her to be the Lost he has spent eight years hunting, Breag is forced to choose between her life and his future. And she’s not prepared to go quietly. Breag’s choice will create ripples that ignite the fumes of anger among his people and theirs, and ultimately to burn the entire kingdom down around his ears.”

I received a free E-Arc from Netgalley.

This book, is quite simply, an absolute gem. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not the easiest read out there – but it’s well worth persevering with the slightly heavy writing style – which sometimes feels like wading through treacle (in a good way). The author does not, as opposed to some writers, waste a single word in this story. Everything is loaded with importance and each and every word must be read to fully appreciate the nuanced style of writing. I did, on occasion, have to backtrack and reread a paragraph or two. This is not a book to read while doing something else – it’s a book that demands your full attention, all the time, and one where you might have to take designated breaks just to absorb what you’ve read and to think about something slightly less dark and self-centred thoughts.

There is a heavy Celtic? influence to the writing – the names of places and people may not roll easily from tongues unused to the elaborate words. Neither is the author the type to throw her entire world building at your feet within the first few paragraphs or sentences – no the world building unravels as deliberately slowly as the writing – but we need to know everything we’re told – there are no wasted words even here.

The conflict between the Brotherhood, the Guard and the Daoine – all with old hurts and new ambitions to temper their relationships with each other, provides a vision of a desperate world – a world on the brink of something – we just don’t know what. Everyone in this book is scared of something being revealed against their wishes.

The book centers around a number of main characters – Breag, Sionna, Carad, Cu, Tarbhal and Laoighre. None of these characters is simple (apart from maybe Cu but even he has his secrets) and none of them is a simple goodie or baddie, they all have back stories and carry life’s judgments like a weight around their neck. This is no simple tale of good vs evil. There are too many lies and half truths from all of them – they all have something they wish to accomplish and seem content to do so at others expense and in the end, the ones who accomplish the most, are those that manage to bend their wants to the reality of events, and you have no idea who that’s going to be. Every betrayal is a fresh wound to the reader, and every success heavy with the scent of future failure.

This book got into my head and stayed there. Perhaps a simple tale, exceeding well told, or perhaps a more complex one, I genuinely think that the reader can take away from the story what they want but I doubt that many will be able to skim read this and will find themselves sunk into the Tiarna Beo and wishing for much, much more in the future.

P.S. You may have guessed that I liked this book – read it, please! Don’t let it get ‘lost’ in the huge number of fantasy books out there.  I’m not sure that the ‘blurb’ does it justice. The story is about much more than just Breag.

And you can buy it here;https://www.amazon.co.uk/Requiem-Wolf-Tales-Tiarna-Book-ebook/dp/B01N6L55KJ/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1487319816&sr=1-1&keywords=Requiem+for+the+Wolf

 

Book Review – Blood and Circuses by Kerry Greenwood

Here’s the blurb from the book,

“Phryne Fisher is bored. Life appears to be too easy, too perfect. Her household is ordered, her love life is pleasant, the weather is fine. And then a man from her past arrives at the door. It is Alan Lee from the carnival. Alan and his friends want her to investigate strange happenings at Farrells Circus, where animals have been poisoned and ropes sabotaged. Mr. Christopher has been found with his throat cut in Mrs. Witherspoon s irreproachable boarding house and Miss Parkes, an ex-performer, is charged with his murder.Phryne must go undercover deeper than ever to solve the circus malaise. She must abandon her name, her title, her protection, her comfort, even her clothes. She must fall off a horse twice a day until she can stay on. She must sleep in a girls tent and dine on mutton stew. And she must find some allies.Meanwhile, in Melbourne, the young and fresh-faced policeman Tommy Harris has to solve his own mysteries with the help of the foul-spoken harridan Lizard Elsie, or Miss Parkes will certainly hang. Can Phyrne uncover the truth without losing her life?”

This is the second Phryne Fisher book I’ve read, (and I’m now addicted to the TV series as well) and I found I enjoyed it much more than the first. This is probably because I’m used to the characters from the TV series. That said, I also think it’s an easier read than the first book I read – which was Ruddy Gore and I will review soon.

The book flows well although I did notice that by the time the real work of solving the mystery was under way, I was 80% through the novel, and as such, it seems that solving the mystery is of secondary importance to the story of the circus and the attendant ‘hanger-on’s’. A fair portion of the novel is also concerned with the investigation taking place by the police and concerned with the gang warfare – and this rounds out the story nicely, but means that we spend less time with Phryne than you might expect.

Overall – an enjoyable jaunt set in the late 1920’s in Australia.

For those who’ve not watched the TV series, or read one of the books, a little more information. Phyrne Fisher is a very elegant lady of the 1920’s, but with a penchant to get involved in some quite grizzly murders that the Police can’t solve without her help. She is a confident woman, not the youngest, but because she came into her money later in life she both appreciates it and flaunts it to equal measure. That being said, it’s difficult not to find her no-nonsense approach to everything life can throw at her, invigorating, and to enjoy reading about Australia at the same time.

I’ve long been a fan of a really good period piece who-done-it. I’m never happier than with a good Marple, or my firm favourite, Poirot, and I can’t help wondering what the esteemed gentleman would think of the slightly more risque Phryne Fisher. (If you decide not to read the books, then please, do give the TV series a chance – it’s a grower and slightly addictive).

And you can buy it here;https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1590582357/ref=x_gr_w_bb?ie=UTF8&tag=x_gr_w_bb_uk-21&linkCode=as2&camp=1634&creative=6738