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;

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 – The Earthly Gods by Nick Brown (historical fiction)

Here’s the blurb;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And you can buy it here;

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

Here’s the blurb;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Here’s the blurb;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And you can buy it here;

 

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

Here’s the blurb;

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

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

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

You can buy it here but read Book 1 first!

Book Review -Ruddy Gore by Kerry Greenwood

Here’s the blurb,

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

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

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

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

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

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

And you can buy it here;

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