A Fiction Reading Year in Review – 2020

I know I won’t have been the only one to have struggled to find books engaging throughout 2020but there are two trends that have mainly characterised my reading throughout the year. I’ve either found myself in Early England (before 1066), or in the loving embrace of cosy 1920s murder mysteries. I don’t think it’s possible to get further apart.

But there are some books that have fallen outside of those two trends, and two of these books, have been my standout books of the year.

Anne O’Brien’s The Queen’s Rival was a true treat.

I was lucky enough to get an advanced copy from Netgalley so didn’t have to wait until the summer to enjoy it.

Here’s the blurb:

One family united by blood. Torn apart by war…

England, 1459: Cecily, Duchess of York, is embroiled in a plot to topple the weak-minded King Henry VI from the throne. But when the Yorkists are defeated at the Battle of Ludford Bridge, Cecily’s family flee and abandon her to face a marauding Lancastrian army on her own.

Cecily can only watch as her lands are torn apart and divided up by the ruthless Queen Marguerite. From the towers of her prison in Tonbridge Castle, the Duchess begins to spin a web of deceit – one that will eventually lead to treason, to the fall of King Henry VI, and to her eldest son being crowned King of England.

This is a story of heartbreak, ambition and treachery, of one woman’s quest to claim the throne during the violence and tragedy of the Wars of the Roses.”

I loved this book, and more than that, O’Brien’s choice to tell her story almost exclusively through letters inspired me when I was struggling to write Lady Estrid, and gave me a means to tell a complex family story. But, even without that, I highly recommend this book. Anne O’Brien tells engaging and captivating stories of England’s forgotten women, and that is just the sort of book that appeals to me.

It’s available now in ebook, audiobook and hardback, and when I wrote this, the ebook was only 99p, an absolute steal.

Next up on my list of excellent reads is Camelot by Giles Kristian.

Here’s the blurb:

Britain is a land riven by anarchy, slaughter, famine, filth and darkness. Its armies are destroyed, its heroes dead, or missing. Arthur and Lancelot fell in the last great battle and Merlin has not been these past ten years. But in a small, isolated monastery in the west of England, a young boy is suddenly plucked from his simple existence by the ageing warrior, Gawain. It seems he must come to terms with his legacy and fate as the son of the most celebrated yet most infamous of Arthur’s warriors: Lancelot. For this is the story of Galahad, Lancelot’s son – the reluctant warrior who dared to keep the dream of Camelot alive 

Camelot had a wonderful feel to it, and while, I wasn’t quite as enamoured of it as I was Lancelot, the sort-of prequel, I still can’t recommend it enough. The way Kristian evoked the Arthurian legend was amazing. No matter how much I ‘knew’ what was going to happen, I still wanted the characters to triumph, and that, was a little piece of genius.

Camelot is available now in hardback, ebook and audio book.

One thing I’ve noticed is that I really didn’t read a lot of fantasy this year, which is strange for me. When I did read, I found solace in some tried and tested favourites, Mark Lawrence’s The Girl and the Stars, Katharine Kerr’s return to Deverry with the wonderful Sword of Fire and Terry Pratchett – I’ve been trying to listen to some audiobooks, and although I’m still not sure I like it, I have found the Terry Pratchett audiobooks to be great entertainment, especially as I’ve read all the books in the past. I have the last book in Peter Newman’s Deathless Trilogy to read as well, but I’ve been saving it up because it’s going to be a real treat.

(I’ve just noticed that Mark Lawrence wrote a review for Sword of Fire on the cover. How funny. But, I’ve been a fan of Katharine Kerr for well over twenty years – maybe that’s why I like Mark Lawrence as he clearly is as well.)

But to return to historical fiction, I have stepped, just once or twice, further back in time than the Early English period to the Romans and the Greeks.

Sons of Rome by Turney and Doherty was a fantastic read, each author taking the part of one of two characters, interchanging their lives in a format that worked so well. I have book 2 to read now and I’m excited about that. And also The Gates of Rome by Conn Iggulden was a stellar read, and I’m still quite cross about the ending! He better put that right if there’s a sequel. I’m also going to give an honourable mention to Derek Birk’s Britannia World’s End. I really, really loved the first book. The second book was not quite as stellar but was still a welcome return to the characters from Book 1.

I’ve also taken on some beta reading projects this year, and have been really impressed by the quality of fiction that people are writing. I’ve been taken to Australia and New Zealand at the time of the gold rush, to Ancient Egypt, to Tudor England, 17th century Paris, 19th century Italy and now I find myself in 19th Century America. I hope these books are released and then I can share my reviews. I read books listed on Netgalley and also on The History Quill. If you love getting your mitts on books before they’re released, I highly recommend both of them, and The History Quill especially if you’re after fresh new voices in historical fiction.

But finally, I will mention the books I’ve read from the Early English period. I’ve not read as widely as I might have liked, but it can be hard to read what you’re writing about at the same time. I’ve spent some time with Matthew Harffy’s creations with Fortress of Fury and A Time For Swords. I’ve also returned to the world of Christine Hancock’s Bright Helm and I can assure that she has a new book, hopefully next year, which readers are going to really, really enjoy – a slight diversion from Byrhtnoth but still very much mentioning him. I’ve been lucky to read a really early copy of it, and I love it already. Bring it on!

I have the last Uhtred book to read, War Lord, but I’ve been saving it up for the holidays.

But, the thing that has really got me through the year has been a vast selection of murder mystery books. The majority have been set in the 1920s in the UK, but I have just discovered E M Powell’s Stanton and Barling mysteries set in the 1100s. These are so entertaining, if quite gory, and what I enjoy most about them, is I’ve never yet guessed who actually committed the murders! The same could be said for the Posey Parker mystery books by L B Hathaway which elevate the 1920s murder mystery to a whole new level. The Verity Kent murder mysteries are also excellent, and have a theme that runs through them all.

So, what I can take away from this is that much of the year has been spent reading cosy murder mysteries, although not many of them have been that cosy. It seems that I need a good mystery to help me unwind and one that’s not too gritty, and one that’s certainly set in the past.

Thank you to the authors who’ve kept me entertained this year, and happy reading everyone. I’m looking forward to more in 2021.

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Book Review – Camelot by Giles Kristian – historical fiction

Here’s the blurb:

‘Britain is a land riven by anarchy, slaughter, famine, filth and darkness. Its armies are destroyed, its heroes dead, or missing. Arthur and Lancelot fell in the last great battle and Merlin has not been these past ten years. But in a small, isolated monastery in the west of England, a young boy is suddenly plucked from his simple existence by the ageing warrior, Gawain. It seems he must come to terms with his legacy and fate as the son of the most celebrated yet most infamous of Arthur’s warriors: Lancelot. For this is the story of Galahad, Lancelot’s son – the reluctant warrior who dared to keep the dream of Camelot alive.’

I’ve just reread the review I wrote for Lancelot nearly two years ago, and even I’m blushing about how effusive I was about it!

Camelot begins in much the same way. The lead character is a young man, about to take his vows to become a monk on the tor at Glastonbury when his world completely changes. The depiction of life on the tor is wonderfully evoked, and even if the author could have just written ‘bird’ ‘tree’ and ‘flower’ I’m sure many will appreciate the attention to detail. (I’ve never been ‘at one’ with nature).

The story starts quite slowly, drawing you back into the world of post-Roman/pre-Anglo-Saxon Britain with deft skill and then the story truly begins to take shape, secrets are revealed, and the ties to the previous book begin to be revealed.

I truly don’t want to give too much of the story away, but the ‘quest’, for that is what it becomes, takes readers from Cornwall to Anglesey and then further, the fear of what is to come in the future a palpable threat and even though we all know what’s going to happen, in the end (outside the scope of the book) I couldn’t help but hope that it would all be very, very different. The characters demand it from the reader.

And the end, is once more, where I have some small complaints about the story. It’s not that it doesn’t do what I want it to do, it’s just that the ending seems wrong for the story, but then, perhaps, it was always going to because that is the legend of Arthur.

But before that ending, the legends of Arthur and his knights are beautifully evoked, and I think a particular strength is the depiction of King Constantine, a bit part character, but immensely powerful and the very embodiment of a land falling to chaos all around him, and yet not prepared to give way and accept what seems to be the inevitable.

This book, once more, has its flaws, some scenes seem unnecessary, and others are skipped over too quickly, but it feels so true to the legends. There’s so much that’s only half-seen, hinted at but never actually known.

A welcome return to Giles Kristian’s ‘world’ first created in Lancelot, and, I think the author notes at the end of the novel explain a great deal. Now, give me the story of Arthur and his knights at the height of their prowess (please!).

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for my review copy.

Camelot is available from 14th May 2020 from here:

Book Review – Camelot by Giles Kristian – historical fiction

Here’s the blurb:

‘Britain is a land riven by anarchy, slaughter, famine, filth and darkness. Its armies are destroyed, its heroes dead, or missing. Arthur and Lancelot fell in the last great battle and Merlin has not been these past ten years. But in a small, isolated monastery in the west of England, a young boy is suddenly plucked from his simple existence by the ageing warrior, Gawain. It seems he must come to terms with his legacy and fate as the son of the most celebrated yet most infamous of Arthur’s warriors: Lancelot. For this is the story of Galahad, Lancelot’s son – the reluctant warrior who dared to keep the dream of Camelot alive.’

I’ve just reread the review I wrote for Lancelot nearly two years ago, and even I’m blushing about how effusive I was about it!

Camelot begins in much the same way. The lead character is a young man, about to take his vows to become a monk on the tor at Glastonbury when his world completely changes. The depiction of life on the tor is wonderfully evoked, and even if the author could have just written ‘bird’ ‘tree’ and ‘flower’ I’m sure many will appreciate the attention to detail. (I’ve never been ‘at one’ with nature).

The story starts quite slowly, drawing you back into the world of post-Roman/pre-Anglo-Saxon Britain with deft skill and then the story truly begins to take shape, secrets are revealed, and the ties to the previous book begin to be revealed.

I truly don’t want to give too much of the story away, but the ‘quest’, for that is what it becomes, takes readers from Cornwall to Anglesey and then further, the fear of what is to come in the future a palpable threat and even though we all know what’s going to happen, in the end (outside the scope of the book) I couldn’t help but hope that it would all be very, very different. The characters demand it from the reader.

And the end, is once more, where I have some small complaints about the story. It’s not that it doesn’t do what I want it to do, it’s just that the ending seems wrong for the story, but then, perhaps, it was always going to because that is the legend of Arthur.

But before that ending, the legends of Arthur and his knights are beautifully evoked, and I think a particular strength is the depiction of King Constantine, a bit part character, but immensely powerful and the very embodiment of a land falling to chaos all around him, and yet not prepared to give way and accept what seems to be the inevitable.

This book, once more, has its flaws, some scenes seem unnecessary, and others are skipped over too quickly, but it feels so true to the legends. There’s so much that’s only half-seen, hinted at but never actually known.

A welcome return to Giles Kristian’s ‘world’ first created in Lancelot, and, I think the author notes at the end of the novel explain a great deal. Now, give me the story of Arthur and his knights at the height of their prowess (please!).

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for my review copy.

Camelot is available from 14th May 2020 from here: (the preorder is currently only £2.99 for kindle – wowsers – so I’m posting this before release date for everyone to take advantage of the offer)

Book Review – A Time of Blood by John Gwynne – Fantasy – Highly Recommended

Here’s the blurb;

Defy the darkness. Defend the light . . . At the battle of Starstone Lake, Drem and his friends witnessed horrors they’ll never forget. They saw magic warping men into beasts and a demon rise from the dead, creating something new and terrifying. So they flee to warn the Order of the Bright Star. But the demons’ high priestess, Fritha, is determined to hunt them down. Concealed in Forn Forest, Riv struggles to understand her half-breed heritage. She represents the warrior angels’ biggest secret, one which could break their society. So when she’s found by the Ben-Elim’s high captain, he goes in for the kill. Meanwhile, demonic forces are gathering a mighty war-host, to crush their enemies and rule the world of man. All while the Ben-Elim are fractured and facing betrayal. Like heroes of old, Riv, Drem and the Bright Star’s warriors must battle to save their land. But can the light triumph when the dark is rising? A Time of Blood (Of Blood and Bone: Book Two) is the spectacular follow-up to A Time of Dread by John Gwynne.

‘This is extraordinarily good, an epic feat of the imagination. In this series Gwynne is setting a new benchmark in fantasy. I’d love to see it on screen’

Giles Kristian ‘A great read that accelerates the pace and goes one up on its excellent predecessor . . . Exciting, action-packed fantasy’

Mark Lawrence A Time of Blood by John Gwynne is a great book. Or rather, A GREAT BOOK.
I have not read any of John Gwynne’s other books, and yes, this is Book 2 in a series and I HAVE NOT READ BOOK 1. (If you read the book, you’ll understand the capitals.) I was interested in it because it’s title is so like that of the wonderful Deverry books by Katharine Kerr – at least in the UK – where one of the series is called A Time of Omens, A Time of Justice, A Time of Exile and A Time of War. I was hoping for something as good as Deverry and found it, although it is much bloodier, as the title suggests.
It is a sign of just how well this book is written, that I picked it up, and by 5% through, was fully committed to the characters even though I had no back story, and, to be honest, very little idea of what was actually going on, and it is not that easy to work out what’s happening, but I wanted to.
The main characters are all intriguing and well-written, and there is a great deal of action and many battle scenes. The different POV’s mean that we don’t always know what’s happening with some characters, as the scenes taking place are described by someone else, even though the others are there. I believe it’s this that allows the story to move so quickly.
While the idea behind the story may not be that original, two sides on opposite sides of an impending war, the way the story unfolds is exhilarating and exquisitely well told.
I’m already a bit forlorn as I need to know what happens next!

A Time of Blood was released in hardback and ebook on 18th April 2019 and is available here (as well as with other retailers). I highly recommend this book. A firm 5/5. I read it in a day!

Book Review – Lancelot by Giles Kristian – highly recommended (historical fiction)

Here’s the blurb;

“Set in a 5th century post-Roman Britain besieged by invading war bands of Saxons and Franks, Irish and Picts, Giles Kristian’s epic new novel tells – through the warrior’s own words – the story of Lancelot, the most celebrated of all King Arthur’s knights. And it’s a story that’s ready to be re-imagined for our times.
It’s a story imbued with the magic and superstition that was such an integral part of the enchanted landscape of Britain during this dark times. Many of the familiar names from Arthurian mythology will be here – Mordred and Gawain, Morgana and, of course, Merlin – as will be those vital icons of the legend such as the Round Table and the sword in the stone but these will be reinvented, reforged for a new generation of readers.
Lancelot is a story of warriors and kings, of violent, of warfare and bloodshed but it is also a story of loyalty and friendship, of over-arching ambition, of betrayal and guilt, of love and lust, and the win tragedies of revenge and remorse.”

I received a free EArc from Netgalley.

Lancelot is a brilliant book. I really can’t recommend it enough – but at its heart, it is also flawed. The more I think about this, the more I imagine this might have been done on purpose – a mirror image of the character, perhaps.

When I first began reading Lancelot I simply thought the author had been very clever with his book title. (Go check my Goodreads log for the book – I say it there). The story, while it might have been about Lancelot, could just as easily have been about any character in post-Roman/pre-Saxon/settlement period Britain (everyone has their own word for this period). It was not necessarily a Lancelot that anyone would recognise.

For all that, the young Lancelot is an intriguing character, and even if the book had just been an author with a clever title, I would probably have been just as impressed as I ultimately was.

The world Lancelot inhabits is a wonderful reimagining of Britain at this strange time period – with the Romans fled, and the Saxons on the surge. It is stuffed with warlords and kings, with kingdom names and conjures up a wonderful landscape of the time period. While all the action takes place in those areas which would be termed, British or Pictish, the very ‘smell’ of the Saxons is always blowing on the wind., for all that it is modern-day Cornwall, Devon, Wales and Scotland that form the backdrop for the story and there are only very occasional Saxon characters.

We meet Lancelot in the first chapter, Guinevere takes longer to appear, and Arthur? Well, his father makes an appearance before him – and Arthur only arrives 50% through the book. And this is as it should be – after all, this is Lancelot’s story and not that of Arthur’s. We do meet Merlin not long after Guinevere – so the ‘names’ we know from the Arthur Legend are firmly there – Tintagel is often mentioned, as too is Excalibur.

As in any novel about a famous warrior, there is a great deal of training, fighting and ‘rough-stuff’ from the other boys being trained, but mixed with the twin thread of friendship and magic. The magic is artfully arranged – it is just ‘accepted’ without explanation, and that appealed to my less than ‘magical’ mind. Other authors may have ‘overcooked’ the whole Merlin/Druid/Old Gods stuff but I think it is handled exceedingly well throughout the story. The ‘friendship’ element is also very skillfully told – it becomes more and more important as the book progresses.

Lancelot has a lovingly crafted feel to it. It meanders down little-trodden paths, and we might be left wondering why, but just as Robin Hobb manages with her ‘Fitz’ books, it never feels irrelevant. It’s a delightful tale of occasional irrelevance, that I just didn’t want to end, and I never say that about a book.

There were times when I couldn’t fathom what the author would do with his characters next and there were parts where I felt cheated. At 80% through I was completely perplexed, and actually, the ending of the book is either its weakest element or the author at his cleverest (I still can’t decide). it is here that he relies most on the readers ‘prior’ knowledge of the Arthur legend – and we are left to make our own assumptions until the very final scene, when there is, once more, some closure.

I really did love this book, but I would have liked it to be much, much longer – I would have liked all the ‘gaps’ filled in, I would have liked answers to questions that are asked but never resolved, I would have liked more Arthur and Lancelot, and I would certainly have liked more, much more, of those famous battles, but Lancelot is a wonderful and powerful telling of a legend that we already think we know – but which is ripe for retelling. It relies on an understanding of the legend – while also reworking it. A fine piece of work that I thoroughly enjoyed – even if I didn’t initially want to! 🙂

Lancelot is available now, and Camelot is due for release in May 2020.

Get your copy here;