New Release alert – Lady Estrid – a novel of eleventh-century Denmark by M J Porter

Today (29th October) sees the release of Lady Estrid – a novel of eleventh-century Denmark. It’s not an addition to the Earls of Mercia series, but readers will certainly recognise many of the main players, even if their story is being told from a different point of view.

I’m going to be taking Lady Estrid on a blog tour, starting next week (November 2nd), and there will be some exciting excerpts, author interviews and inspiration posts, so look out for the posts.

Right now, I’m going to share the blurb with you.

“Daughter, Sister, Duchess, Aunt. 
Queen.

United by blood and marriage. Divided by seas. Torn apart by ambition.

Lady Estrid Sweinsdottir has returned from Kiev, her first husband dead after only a few months of marriage. Her future will be decided by her father, King Swein of Denmark, or will it?

A member of the ruling House of Gorm, Estrid might not be eligible to rule, as her older two brothers, but her worth is in more than her ability to marry and provide heirs for a husband, for her loyalty is beyond question. 

With a family as divided and powerful as hers, stretching from England to Norway to the land of the Svear, she must do all she can to ensure Denmark remains under the control of her father’s descendants, no matter the raging seas and boiling ambition that threatens to imperil all.”

Lady Estrid is available as an ebook and a paperback, and I hope you’ll enjoy it.

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(This page contains some Amazon affiliate links.)

Stuart Rudge, author of Rise of a Champion and Blood Feud, joins me for a look at building Islamic Zaragoza

Well, this is a first. Today, I welcome Stuart Rudge to my blog. He’s going to tell us all about his research for his new book, Blood Feud, Legend of the Cid Book 2, available now. So, I hand it over to Stuart and he’s going to tell us about building Islamic Zaragoza, which features in his new book.

Research can be boring and tedious – or, it can be interesting and engrossing. When I was researching the Islamic city of Zaragoza for my latest novel, Blood Feud, I found myself leaning in the camp of the latter. The more I was looking in to what medieval Islamic cities looked like and how they functioned, the more I was looking forward to describing it in my novel. Today, I am going to show you how I researched Zaragoza, and how it might have looked in the days of El Cid. Let’s go on a little tour.

I will start with the name. Before the Romans came to Spain, it was a village named Salduie, and then the Romans founded a colony for retired veterans and named it Caesaraugusta. After the Islamic invasion and conquest, it was renamed Saraqusta, which eventually evolved in to the modern name, Zaragoza. As I like to have historically authentic names to my novels, I have plumbed for the Islamic version of the name, like I have done with all of the various taifa kingdoms in the same period (e.g. Toledo is Tulaytula, Valencia is Balansiya, etc).

Below is a screenshot from Google Maps of the centre of modern Zaragoza, and includes some of the key features of the Islamic settlement. The orange lines indicate the approximate outline of the walls built by the Moors, along with the site of the Aljaferia palace, and La Zuda palace, which were key landmarks of the city in the eleventh century.

Estimated site of Islamic Saraqust

The Aljaferia

The Aljaferia palace is a unique building, as it is one of the only complete structures standing today which dates to the taifa period of Spanish history. Dating to the eleventh century, the palace was named “Palace of the Joy” by amir al-Muqtadir, and he held his court and greeted his embassies in his “Golden Hall” as he described it. The modern interior is largely different to what the Islamic amirs would have walked through, as the city was conquered by the kingdom of Aragon at the beginning of the twelfth century, and over time the Christian monarchs converted it to suit their tastes, but we do have examples of friezes from the eleventh century, and the columns and archways give us an indication of Islamic architectural and artistic styles from the period, as seen below. 

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/7/72/La_Aljafer%C3%ADa_-_Palacio_taifa_-_Detalle_04.JPG/220px-La_Aljafer%C3%ADa_-_Palacio_taifa_-_Detalle_04.JPG
Column capitals and yeseria, c. eleventh century.
Images: Wikipedia

In its zenith it would have been a place of wonder and beauty, a tranquil palace in the centre of a neigh impregnable fortress just outside of the main city. As the building was being renovated during the latter half of the eleventh century, the only part of the citadel which the story of Blood Feud takes part in is the Troubadour tower, which preceded the citadel by around two hundred years, being part of an earlier fortification which was incorporated in to the Aljaferia palace.   

Aljafería Palace
Frontal image of the Aljaferia palace, with the Troubadour Palace on the right
Image: Wikipedia

La Zuda Palace

Before the amir of Zaragoza moved his court to the Aljaferia palace, the governors of the city were housed in La Zuda palace. Located in the old Roman part of the city, it was built adjacent to the corner section of the Roman wall next to the river, and like the Aljaferia, it was a similarly fortified and secure site.  

The current site is occupied by a sixteenth century tower and an eighteenth century church, which has replaced an earlier medieval church, and since none of the Islamic site remains, we have no definitive way of knowing what the palace would have looked like. In my view, the exterior wall would have looked something akin to that of the Aljaferia, albeit on a smaller scale. The interior is where imagination is needed. I took inspiration from the Aljaferia, the Alcazar of Seville and the Alhambra of Granada, three of the most famous Islamic palaces in Spain, thrown in with some artistic creativity, to create what I believe would have been a (roughly) accurate portrayal of what an Islamic palace would have looked like; a tranquil haven away from the hustle and bustle of the city. An example of what I came up with is below:

“Walking around the palace, I wondered why al-Muqtadir was moving his court to the citadel outside the walls. As we passed through the gate, we entered a courtyard with a long pool which stretched to a hall at the opposite end, with trees bearing peaches, lemons and pomegranates that ran parallel to the pool. Pointed archways with alternating black and white painted blocks were held up with thin black columns, and the walls were painted white with black script running down each wall. The colonnades around the periphery led to side rooms shielded with silken drapes, whilst bronze incense burners hung from the ceiling, filled the air with a perfumed scent intensified by the sweetness of the fruit trees. Court officials sauntered here and there as guards stood vigil with tall spears; each man wore the uniform of pale yellow favoured by the amir. There was relative silence within the palace save for the occasional chatter which echoed in the corridors, and made it a tranquil haven away from the commotion of the city.

            Idris led us across to the opposite side of the courtyard and through to a large hall, and here the decoration was more elaborate. The walls bore intricate patterns painted in vibrant blues, reds and yellows, and it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. I marvelled and let my jaw hang slack, for something so striking was rare in Castile and I could have lingered all day to drink it in. Fine bronze statues of stags lined the walls too, and the domed ceiling was of smooth, dark stone studded with small pieces of coloured glass, so it resembled the stars twinkling in the night sky. The perfumed scent intensified, and the air was filled with the sound of a man uttering what seemed like poetry to an audience.”    

The Roman City

By the eleventh century, the shell of the old Roman city of Caesaraugusta would still have been intact. The fact that part of the Roman walls still stand suggest they would have stood in some capacity in the Islamic period. We know that some parts still stood, as they do today, yet other parts would have been stripped of their masonry to be used elsewhere in the city for new structures, and only the foundations would have remained to form some sort of border or barrier. As the Moors built another wall around their own city, there was no need to fully maintain the Roman fortifications.

Estimated site of Roman Caesaraugusta

Part of the section in Zaragoza involves Antonio tailing an old foe towards the wharfs, and again later on when he is trying to prevent his escape. In my research I found scant information relating to what the Islamic wharf would have looked like at the time, and had to improvise. But around a month or so before I was going to release the book, I stumbled across the website Zaragoza.es. On there, it had a little pamphlet with information about the Roman forum, the wharf and the walls. From the below picture, we can garner quite a lot of how things looked.

Artist impression of how the Roman forum and wharfs would have looked. 
Image: Zaragoza.es

The central structure and wide open space is the old Roman forum, which was the beating heart of the city, and the structure below it, facing the river, is a huge warehouse. The image below shows a reconstruction of what the warehouse may have looked like.

Cross section of old Roman warehouse.
Image from Zaragoza.es

We know from sources that the forum was all but gone by the eleventh century; given the close proximity to the river, it is likely the area was turned in to a large market. It is also likely that the warehouse was still functioning at this time, and was used as a place to store goods coming straight from the ships before being taken to market, or further afield on the back of mules. Given the length of the wharf and the amount of ships that could have been docked at any one time, it is not hard to imagine the area as a hive of activity, with men coming from all corners of Europe, Africa and the Middle East, bringing goods such as spices, leather and metal work, raw materials from far off lands, luxurious silks and linens, and even slaves.  

After conducting all of my research, I made myself a little map with all the different sites of the city, and where the Roman and Islamic parts of the city would be. Here is what I came up with:

https://stuartrudge.files.wordpress.com/2020/03/zaragoza-2.png?w=611
My interpretation of how Saraqusta would have looked

The characteristics of both the Roman city and the Muslim city would have been very different. Roman cities generally followed a set of rules; wide, straight streets, close to a water source, with strong walls and a central open space called a forum, where the principle administrative buildings were located. Muslim cities tended to be more compact, with narrow, winding streets, branching off to cul-de-sacs of homes for the inhabitants, with a large space reserved for markets, and various mosques scattered throughout the cities. One example for the differences was transport. The Romans used wagons to transport their goods, and so main streets had to be wide enough to accommodate two wagons travelling abreast, whereas Muslim traders used pack animals such as mules, and so the streets would not be as wide. In a warm climate like Spain, narrower streets coupled with white washed walls of the buildings made the cities feel cooler, darker and more compact.

I hope you have enjoyed this little tour around the medieval city of Zaragoza. For a more in depth look at how I envisioned it, pick up a copy of Blood Feud, the second book in the Legend of the Cid series, and explore the secrets of one of the great taifa states of the medieval period.

Blood Feud is available now, and can be picked up from Amazon here.

The Last King – Now available from Netgalley

The Last King is the start of a new series, set in ninth-century Mercia.

It’s set for release on 23rd April 2020, and for those who are Netgalley members, you can download it now.

https://www.netgalley.com/widget/228544/redeem/ff3f936927ee67350b8a608047fa1ccce3c285d584d0df01563d5999093a0245

For those who might have to wait just a little bit longer, here’s the blurb and a cover image.

They sent three hundred warriors to kill one man. It was never going to be enough.

Mercia lies broken but not beaten, her alliance with Wessex in tatters.

Coelwulf, a fierce and bloody warrior, hears whispers that Mercia has been betrayed from his home in the west. He fears no man, especially not the Vikings sent to hunt him down.

To discover the truth of the rumours he hears, Coelwulf must travel to the heart of Mercia, and what he finds there will determine the fate of Mercia, as well as his own.

The Last King is available for preorder now.

The Last King

Book Review – Commodus by Simon Turney – historical fiction – highly recommended

Here’s the blurb;

“Welcome to a fracturing Roman empire in the second century AD: ravaged by plague and with wars rumbling on along all frontiers. One man tries to hold everything together but, beset by personal tragedy from a young age, who is holding him together?
You’ve heard the stories: the crazy emperor who thought he was Hercules and fought in the Colosseum as a gladiator. But is ‘crazy’ too easy a label? Could there have been a method behind the perceived madness?”

Commodus by Simon Turney is my sort of historical fiction – people who actually lived – with their lives told in an intriguing and interesting way, bolted around known ‘facts’ and not a little imagination to bring the character alive! This is the first book I’ve read by Simon Turney but it won’t be the last.

The story is a well-told tale of a Roman Emperor who, I must assume, has a bit of a bad reputation. This is a sympathetic account of his rule, and I doubt I’ll be the only person who finishes the novel and considers just what it is about him that’s quite so bad (apart from his delight in killing exotic animals that would garner a great of bad press in our day and age) – in that respect, the author does an excellent job of rehabilitating a bit of a dodgy character.

A thoroughly enjoyable read. Highly recommended. I read it in a day!

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

Commodus is now available in paperback, and is available from here, as well as from other retailers!

 

 

Book Review – Oathbreaker by Adam Lofthouse – historical fiction

Review of Oathbreaker by Adam Lofthouse (Roman historical fiction)

Here’s the blurb;

“It’s not the shadows you should fear, but what hides within.”
Alaric is an enemy of Rome.
For too long he has thwarted the empires attempts to gain control over the land that has long resisted them: Germania.
To the Romans he is a scourge, always evading their carefully laid traps. But to the tribes he is much worse: Outlaw, chief killer, battle turner, Oathbreaker.
All men know him, all men fear him. At his back is a war host, on his shoulder sits Loki, the Trickster.
A deal has been struck between the legions and the tribes: lifelong enemies agree to become friends, for a time. The eagles’ march with the wolves, together they hunt the raven.
Isolated and lacking in allies, will Alaric be able to break free from the noose that slowly encircles him? Or will the Sly One once more come to his rescue?
OATHBREAKER: One man’s stand against the tyranny of empire.

Here’s my review:

The main character in Oathbreaker, Alaric, is very far from being any sort of hero. Yes, he might be prepared to stand apart from the might of the Roman Empire, but he doesn’t care who he tramples on along the way. Sometimes he’s almost likeable, but a lot of the time, he’s just a single man, making slightly dodgy decisions, often based on his own rage and fury, and trying to live with the consequences.
Alaric is proud of his reputation, but of course, it means that he has far more enemies than allies, as becomes clear as the plotline develops. Alaric also suffers from that most common of problems, he believes the accolades he receives and even revels in them. Having not read the previous two books by this author, which feature Alaric, I’m not sure how his character develops after the events of Oathbreaker, but I’m curious to find out.
Unlike many ‘Roman’ era books, there is actually very little Roman in Oathbreaker. Rather the story is of outsiders looking in, understanding how the Roman Empire works, perhaps better than the Romans do!
Oathbreaker rarely falls into the traps of novels sent in this era, although there are a few ‘back story’ elements that are a little too expected, and the reader, just like Alaric’s most loyal friend, Ketill, does work out what’s actually happening long before Alaric does!
A firm four stars from me – it’s great to read a book that merges the Roman world and that of tribal Germania and have it told from the viewpoint of those tribes. I look forward to reading more.

Oathbreaker is available now, and should be on the list of all who read Roman historical fiction!

You can get a copy from here:

 

Book Review – Commodus by Simon Turney – historical fiction – highly recommended

Here’s the blurb;

“Welcome to a fracturing Roman empire in the second century AD: ravaged by plague and with wars rumbling on along all frontiers. One man tries to hold everything together but, beset by personal tragedy from a young age, who is holding him together?
You’ve heard the stories: the crazy emperor who thought he was Hercules and fought in the Colosseum as a gladiator. But is ‘crazy’ too easy a label? Could there have been a method behind the perceived madness?”

Commodus by Simon Turney is my sort of historical fiction – people who actually lived – with their lives told in an intriguing and interesting way, bolted around known ‘facts’ and not a little imagination to bring the character alive! This is the first book I’ve read by Simon Turney but it won’t be the last.

The story is a well-told tale of a Roman Emperor who, I must assume, has a bit of a bad reputation. This is a sympathetic account of his rule, and I doubt I’ll be the only person who finishes the novel and considers just what it is about him that’s quite so bad (apart from his delight in killing exotic animals that would garner a great of bad press in our day and age) – in that respect, the author does an excellent job of rehabilitating a bit of a dodgy character.

A thoroughly enjoyable read. Highly recommended. I read it in a day!

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

Commodus is now available in paperback, and is available from here, as well as from other retailers!

 

 

Storm of Steel by Matthew Harffy – historical fiction

Here’s the blurb;

“AD 643. Anglo-Saxon Britain. A gripping, action-packed historical thriller and the sixth instalment in the Bernicia Chronicles. Perfect for fans of Bernard Cornwell.

Heading south to lands he once considered his home, Beobrand is plunged into a dark world of piracy and slavery when an old friend enlists his help to recover a kidnapped girl.

Embarking onto the wind-tossed seas, Beobrand pursues his quarry with single-minded tenacity. But the Whale Road is never calm and his journey is beset with storms, betrayal and violence.

As the winds of his wyrd blow him ever further from what he knows, will Beobrand find victory on his quest or has his luck finally abandoned him?”

Storm of Steel is the next book in the Bernicia Chronicles, following the life of Beobrand – henceforth known as ‘grimdark’ Beo or just plain grumpy. Life seems quite hard for Beo, often torn between the decisions he makes and the oaths he must fulfil, and this is just another of those occasions when he’s forced to take actions he might not strictly have wanted to.

The majority of Storm of Steel takes place at sea, or near the sea. There’s a lot of ‘ship’ stuff and the weather, as always in Anglo-Saxon England (he he) is rubbish, and its winter and no one sails in the winter, apart from grimdark Beobrand. There are storms aplenty and it always seems to rain/snow/sleet! There’s a lot of sea sickness and quite a bit of action. And then, almost abruptly, the book ends.
There are many things about the book that are good, but at times the story feels a little laboured, and I still don’t like the scenes where the POV moves away from Beobrand. The story is not particularly complicated, and because it’s Beobrand, even the scenes where his life might be in peril, are destined to end with his survival. That said, the final big ‘scene’ is very well written and enjoyable (but yes, it takes place both at sea. on the shore and in the rain – in fact, I think it’s snowing and sleeting), but I would have liked a bit more here, rather than moving forward to a few months later.
A firm 4/5 and my thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the review copy.

Storm of Steel is released on 9th May 2019 and you can purchase a copy here, although other retailers are available!

Book Review – Queen of the North by Anne O’Brien – historical fiction

Here’s the blurb;

“To those around her she was a loyal subject.

In her heart she was a traitor.

1399: England’s crown is under threat. King Richard II holds onto his power by an ever-weakening thread, with exiled Henry of Lancaster back to reclaim his place on the throne.

For Elizabeth Mortimer, there is only one rightful King – her eight-year-old nephew, Edmund. Only he can guarantee her fortunes, and protect her family’s rule over the precious Northern lands bordering Scotland.

But many, including Elizabeth’s husband, do not want another child-King. Elizabeth must hide her true ambitions in Court, and go against her husband’s wishes to help build a rebel army.

To question her loyalty to the King places Elizabeth in the shadow of the axe.

To concede would curdle her Plantagenet blood.

This is one woman’s quest to turn history on its head.”

Queen of the North by Anne O’Brien is an engaging novel. Elizabeth Percy is an intriguing character – in many ways just as headstrong as her husband – Harry Hotspur, and with a firm belief in the value of her own royal birthright.

The blurb for the book is, sadly, misleading. Much of Elizabeth Percy’s vitriol is not directed against Richard II, indeed she seems to really rather like him for the brief appearance he makes, but rather against the next king, Henry IV, who usurps the throne, with the support of the Earl of Northumberland and her husband, but who then fails to pay the desired blood price. It is Henry IV that she wishes to see removed from the throne of England, not Richard II, although it is her nephew that she wishes to replace him with. In this, her husband is very much in agreement.

There is a wonderful sense of impending doom throughout the first half of the novel, but I didn’t feel as though the second half succeeded with quite the same sense of drama. That said, Elizabeth is too interesting a character to not want to read about all of her life, and I enjoyed the character’s own journey to self-realisation that occurs by the final pages of the book.

All in all, a firm addition to Anne O’Brien’s cast of somewhat ‘unlikely’ heroic women of the Middle Ages who have sadly been overlooked by the joy that is popular history.

A firm 4/5 and my thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the review copy.

Queen of the North is released in paperback on 18th April 2019, and you can grab your copy here, although other retailers are available. (To all GOT fans, I dare you to say this title without a bit of Jon Snow – King of the North – ’cause I can’t.)

And, just to tease you, the next book in Anne O’Brien’s expanding collection, A Tapestry of Treason, due out in August 2019, is a wonderful and delightful book. Check it out as well.

New Release Alert – The Innkeeper – Fantasy #IndieApril

 

Here’s the blurb;

‘Mann has a secret he can tell no one, and it’s not that the beguiling whores of Slutet believe he’s the best shag they’ve ever had.

No, being able to summon anything he wants, from thin air, is not something he wants to share. Neither is the fact that he has no recollection of his past, or that, as time goes on, his life never ends. (He doesn’t mind if the whores want to tell everyone about his prowess in the bedchamber, mind, and neither does he mind sharing it with all who come asking).

Not that his summoning power is his only secret, but the end of the millennia and a meeting of apparent strangers might be about to answer the questions he never even realised he had.

Whether a Nine or a None, Mann has a duty only he can fulfil, and this cycle, he’s failed, spectacularly. But there’s always tomorrow, or, rather, yesterday, to do it all over again, if he can only find what he lost.’

As a Nine or a None, Mann must uncover his destiny by revisiting the past.

 

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;