Prototype by M.D. Waters

Publisher: Dutton Books
Pages: 384
Year: 2014 (24 July)
Buy: Hardback
Source: Review copy

Prototype by M.D. WatersReview
Prototype is the sequel to Archetype, published just a few months ago, and picks up where its predecessor left off. You wouldn’t want to read Prototype first so, if you read this, do be aware that it contains information about what Emma endured in Archetype. Suitably warned, on with the review!

Set in a dystopian near future America, this is a society in which women are few and far between, fertile women even more scarce. Girls are confined to Women’s Training Centers (WTCs), where they learn to be wives, waiting to be selected by the sons (or fathers) of the rich. Emma Wade knows now that this is all a lie. These girls are cloned, the hosts then killed, their new bodies engineered for childbirth. Emma had been the wife of Declan Burke, the man who created all this, but now she knows who she really is – a clone, the re-working of another man’s stolen wife, a mother, a witness to the process, someone who can never forget the original Emma’s memories of a loving husband, giving birth and fighting in the rebellion.

While Archetype followed Emma Burke’s journey to self-awareness, a path that is challenged by her strong feelings for both Declan and flashbacks of her original husband Noah, Prototype focuses on Emma Wade’s reintegration into the rebellion. It traces her painful relationship with Noah and their child (and Noah’s new partner) and, above all else, her vengeance against Declan, to claim back the lives and identities of the girls and women he has destroyed, and is still destroying. Meanwhile, Declan will stop at nothing in his determination to get Emma back.

Prototype is as fast and entertaining as its predecessor, largely thanks to the extremely likeable and confused heroine, Emma. Told in the first person in the present tense we are intimately connected with Emma’s desperate and frightened search for truth and identity. This inevitably means that other characters are less well-realised but that is largely because Emma is no more aware of their motives than we are. There are some difficult obstacles in Emma’s path and despite the fact that the rebel comrades of the original Emma know that she is strong, we know her fragility.

Archetype was confusing in places due to the mix of real time events with dreams and memories. It was difficult trying to keep pace with what was real and what was in the past. This confusion is removed in Prototype and the narrative benefits from that. As before, though, the world-building is largely absent, limited to transporters and clone technology. I would have liked to have known more about what was going on outside Emma’s world, and also outside America. There are hints that the outside world is very different. There would also have been room for more about the Women’s Training Centers and about the actual procedure of cloning.

Instead, the emphasis throughout remains on Emma’s mind as she works through her feelings for Noah, their child and Declan. The romance and dystopian themes about young womanhood, as well as the cover, suggest that this is a Young Adult book although it is not intended to be. Nevertheless, I would argue that both Archetype and Prototype would be greatly enjoyed by older teens.

I am very pleased that Prototype followed so closely on the heels of Archetype – I’m not good at dealing with cliffhangers. I think, though, that the two books would have been better served up as one. However, Prototype proved a satisfying end to an enjoyable and pleasingly disturbing story.

Other review

Masters of Rome by Robert Fabbri (Vespasian V)

Publisher: Atlantic Books/Corvus
Pages: 416
Year: 2014 (7 August)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Masters of Rome by Robert FabbriReview
Britannia, AD 45. Sabinus, elder brother of Vespasian, has been snatched by the druids, betrayed by spy Alienus, suspended naked and filthy in a cage until his brother should come to his rescue at which time both men will be sacrificed to the goddess Sullis. Such is the plan but Vespasian is a soldier and officer who has learned his craft, forming meaningful alliances with local chieftains, able to take those harsh decisions which can save an army at the cost of the valued few. But in the druids, Vespasian’s might and determination, a mirror of Rome, comes against an enemy of a type he’s not encountered before. The battle will take all of his cunning and take Vespasian to the very edge of what he can endure.

Rome, though, is no safer a place. These are the days of Claudius, an emperor only slightly less mad than the man who preceded him and the one who is to follow. The dribbling fool is in the thrall of his captivating wife, Messalina, a woman notorious to all (but her husband) for her voracious sexual appetites. Rome is ruled in all but name by Claudius’s three freedmen but even they cannot compete with the reach of the empress. A plan is hatched, Vespasian is caught in the middle. Having proven himself in the field, Vespasian must now use every political skill he can muster to bring down Messalina while all the time securing his family – and his wealth – for the future that has been prophesied.

Masters of Rome is the fifth novel in Robert Fabbri’s superb series chronicling the life and career of Vespasian, a man who against all odds survived Rome’s most infamous emperors only to ascend – somehow, miraculously – to the purple himself. Vespasian is now in his late thirties, a married man with two children, albeit children he barely knows, a difficult wife and a tolerant mistress. The events of previous novels continue to exert their influence, leaving debts that Vespasian must continue to pay, but the price is now exceedingly rich, demonstrating yet another stage in Vespasian’s transformation. There is a strong sense that Vespasian is conscious throughout of the damage that his ambition is doing to his soul and this is one of the major themes of the novel – in Masters of Rome we are given a glimpse into the religion that determined the Roman character, walking hand in hand with its materialism and greed, and the spirituality with which it was assaulted. There is a wave of fear that courses through the pages of this novel, spreading from the groves and springs of Britannia to the temples and gardens of empire. Vespasian feels it and, reading it, so do we. Vespasian must also learn a stark lesson about the Rome that he serves – the ideal is now becoming the personal.

The last novel in the series, Rome’s Fallen Eagle, is a marvellous book and was my favourite of the sequence and one of my top reads of 2013. Masters of Rome, though, surpasses it. This is an achievement indeed. As with the previous novel, the book is divided into two, but here the two are unified by what they reveal about the character of Vespasian and the world he must face and conquer. Liberties are taken with history but they serve a dramatic purpose and the result is a novel that is never less than harrowing, powerful and unputdownable until the very last page.

Every one has their own idea about what the druids would have been like and Robert Fabbri plays with this brilliantly, tapping into the fears of Rome and projecting it onto the page. The novel becomes imbued with superstition, dread and evil. Anything can happen and it does. What matters is that Vespasian must believe it. But this is not the only religion Vespasian encounters in Britannia – there is the stuff of legend here as well as the origins of Christianity.

Back in Rome, Vespasian encounters a state of affairs no less horrifying than the druids as decent men are destroyed at the whim of an insatiable harlot and her pitiful husband. Vengeance becomes a key theme and it’s no less potent or satisfying when exercised against empresses than betrayers.

Each of the Vespasian series could be read as standalone novels, each contains unobtrusive clues to previous events, but to read one without the others would be such a shame. Robert Fabbri is a superb storyteller. He doesn’t shy from depicting violence or venality, far from it, but it always serves the purpose of the story. Fact and fiction mix well in these pages, the goal always being to show the progression of one of Rome’s most remarkable men – Vespasian – while presenting the extraordinary world in which he moved. Masters of Rome is also, I would argue, the most exciting of the series. Nothing was going to get between me and the last 150 pages.

2014 is proving to be an outstanding year for historical fiction – Masters of Rome is right up there with the very best. Long may this series continue.

Other reviews
Vespasian I: Tribune of Rome
Vespasian II: Rome’s Executioner
Vespasian III: False God of Rome
Vespasian IV: Rome’s Fallen Eagle

Hurricane Fever by Tobias S. Buckell

Publisher: Del Ray
Pages: 269
Year: 2014
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Bought copy

Hurricane Fever by Tobias S. BuckellReview
Prudence ‘Roo’ Jones used to be a spy for Caribbean intelligence services but now he is retired, focused on raising his teenage nephew Delroy, whose parents were both killed in a hurricane. Another such storm, one of many, is about to hit the islands but, as Roo and Declan batten down the hatches of their boat, prepared to ride out the onslaught in the mangroves, Roo receives a phone message from one of his old brothers in arms, Zee. But the message is a failsafe, only to be heard if Zee is dead. Zee’s voice asks for help, for his murder to be avenged, a request that Roo could never refuse especially when it is backed up by the arrival on the island of Kit, Zee’s sister, who is after vengeance of her own. But Roo knew Zee very well – and he was not a man with a sister.

Set in the near future, at a time when the environment has taken some punishment, submerging islands, producing a conveyor belt of hurricanes, mankind has also been given a genetic boost. Devastating injuries are now quick to heal, moods easier to calm, but with this technology comes a threat that is every bit as deadly as the storms that batter the Atlantic and Gulf shores. As the very wealthy gather for a Hurricane Party, safe in the knowledge that they can escape at the last minute, Roo and Kit have a conspiracy to fight, one that killed Zee and could very well kill almost everyone on the planet if not stopped in time.

Hurricane Fever is a fast and furious thriller. It’s not long at all before the pace and tension builds and then it doesn’t let up for a moment until the book is done. I am a big fan of technothrillers, especially when they throw environmental disasters and genetic threat into the mix (Michael Crichton could do no wrong in my eyes), and Hurricane Fever delivered just what I hoped. The hero Roo is an interesting, likeable man and enough time is spent on him to make the reader genuinely care about him and want to know more. He’s not your typical James Bond figure – he’s dreadlocked, Caribbean and a boatman – but he’s all the more exciting and unpredictable for that. Kit is also intriguing, not least because for much of the book we’re trying to work out who she is, every bit as much as Roo is.

As you’d hope with a thriller such as this, the baddies are particularly nasty and their plan is suitably ambitious. There’s little doubt that good will win in the end but there are a fair few shocks along the way, including one that really did make me stop and start.

My one complaint is that Hurricane Fever is a little short at well under 300 pages. But this does mean that the thriller is well-focused and little time is wasted. It is also very well written. I read it in a day and the book was great company. It would make for perfect holiday reading (perhaps less so for a Caribbean cruise). This isn’t the first of Buckell’s novels to feature Roo – Arctic Rising is also available. I snapped it up straight away, although I sense that by comparison with Hurricane Fever, this one could prove a little chilly…

Guest post: The joys of writing Byzantine historical fiction by author Richard Blake

As a reader of historical fiction, there is one (actually, there’s more than one) period of history and place in history that for some reason I cannot fathom passes me by – Byzantium. Therefore, when well-known Byzantine historical fiction author Richard Blake contacted me, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to find out more about the appeal of this period to an author. With thanks to Richard, and with no more ado, his post follows.

The joys of writing Byzantine historical fiction

As the author of six novels set in seventh century Byzantium, I’m often asked: Why choose that period? There’s always been strong interest within the historical fiction community in Classical Greece, and in Rome a century either side of the birth of Christ, and the western Dark Ages. With very few exceptions – Robert Graves’ Count Belisarius, for example, or Cecelia Holland’s Belt of Gold – Byzantium in any period of its long history is a neglected area. Why, then, did I choose it?

Conspiracies of RomeThe short answer is that I wanted to be different. I won’t say that there are too many novels set in the other periods mentioned above. There is, even so, a very large number of them. If there is always a market for them, standing out from the crowd requires greater ability than I at first thought I had. And so I began Conspiracies of Rome (2008) I ran at once into difficulties I hadn’t considered, and that could have been shuffled past had I decided on a thriller about the plot to kill Julius Caesar. Solving these difficulties put me through a second education as a writer, and may even have shown that I do possess certain abilities. Before elaborating on this point, however, let me give a longer answer to my question: Why choose Byzantium?

Looking at our own family history, we tend to pay more attention to our grandparents than our cousins. Whatever they did, we have a duty to think well of our grandparents. We often forget our cousins. So far as they are rivals, we may come to despise or hate them. So it has been with Western Europe and the Byzantine Empire. The Barbarians who crossed the Rhine and North Sea in the fifth century are our parents. They founded a new civilisation from which ours is, in terms of blood and culture, the development. Their history is our history. The Greeks and Romans are our grandparents. In the strict sense, our parents were interlopers who dispossessed them. But the classical and Christian influence has been so pervasive that we even look at our early history through their eyes. The Jews also we shoehorn into the family tree. For all they still may find it embarrassing, they gave us the Christian Faith. We have no choice but to know about them down to the burning of the Temple in 70AD. The Egyptians have little to do with us. But we study them because their arts impose on our senses, and because they have been safely irrelevant for a very long time.

Byzantium is different. Though part of the family tree, it is outside the direct line of succession. In our civilisation, the average educated person studies the Greeks till they were conquered by the Romans, and the Romans till the last Western Emperor was deposed in 476AD. After that, we switch to the Germanic kingdoms, with increasing emphasis on the particular kingdom that evolved into our own nation. The continuing Empire, ruled from Constantinople, has no place in this scheme. Educated people know it existed. It must be taken into account in histories of the Crusades. But the record of so many dynasties is passed over in a blur. Its cultural and theological concerns have no place in our thought. We may thank it for preserving and handing on virtually the whole body of Classical Greek literature that survives. But its history is not our history. It seems, in itself, to tell us nothing about ourselves.

The Terror of ConstantinopleIndeed, where not overlooked, the Byzantines have been actively disliked. Our ancestors feared the Eastern Empire. They resented its contempt for their barbarism and poverty, and its ruthless meddling in their affairs. They hated it for its heretical and semi-heretical views about the Liturgy or the Nature of Christ. They were pleased enough to rip the Empire apart in 1204, and lifted barely a finger to save it from the Turks in 1453. After a spasm of interest in the seventeenth century, the balance of scholarly opinion in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was to despise it for its conservatism and superstition, and for its alleged falling away from the Classical ideals – and for its ultimate failure to survive. If scholarly opinion since then has become less negative, this has not had any wider cultural effect. As said, there are few novels set in Constantinople after about the year 600. I am not aware of a single British or American film set there.

I discovered Byzantium when I was fourteen. I was already six years into what has been a lifelong obsession with the ancient world. I had devoured everything I could find and understand about the Greeks between Solon and Alexander the Great, and about the Romans till the murder of Domitian. I was teaching myself Latin, and thinking about Greek. Then, one happy afternoon in my local library, I came across Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I could, and one day will, write an essay about the literary and philosophical debt I owe him. For the moment, it’s enough to say that he led me straight into the so far unexplored history of Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages. And, though frequently gloomy, what a magnificent history that is. When I studied History at university, I chose every course option that kept me there. Since then, sometimes for years on end, I’ve buried myself in the unfolding story of the Byzantine Empire. Hardly surprising that, when I turned to historical fiction, my first and only choice should be Byzantium.

The Blood of AlexandriaOf course, I revere Classical Antiquity. But, once your eyes adjust, and you look below the glittering surface, you see that it wasn’t a time any reasonable person would choose to be alive. The Greeks were a collection of ethnocentric tribes who fought and killed each other till they nearly died out. The Roman Empire was held together by a vampire bureaucracy directed more often than in any European state since then by idiots or lunatics. Life was jolly enough for the privileged two or three per cent. But everything they had was got from the enslavement or fiscal exploitation of everyone else.

Now, while the Roman State grew steadily worse until the collapse of its Western half, the Eastern half that remained went into reverse. The more Byzantine the Eastern Roman Empire became, the less awful it was for ordinary people. This is why it lasted another thousand years. The consensus of educated opinion used to be that it survived by accident. Even without looking at the evidence, this doesn’t seem likely. In fact, during the seventh century, the Empire faced three challenges. First, there was the combined assault of the Persians from the east and the Avars and Slavs from the north. Though the Balkans and much of the East were temporarily lost, the Persians were annihilated. Then a few years after the victory celebrations in Jerusalem, Islam burst into the world. Syria and Egypt were overrun at once. North Africa followed. But the Home Provinces – these being roughly the territory of modern Turkey – held firm. The Arabs could sometimes invade, and occasionally devastate. They couldn’t conquer.

One of the few certain lessons that History teaches is that, when it goes on the warpath, you don’t face down Islam by accident. More often than not, you don’t face it down at all. In the 630s, the Arabs took what remained of the Persian Empire in a single campaign. Despite immensely long chains of supply and command, they took Spain within a dozen years. Yet, repeatedly and with their entire force, they beat against the Home Provinces of the Byzantine Empire. Each time, they were thrown back with catastrophic losses. The Byzantines never lost overall control of the sea. Eventually, they hit back, retaking large parts of Syria. More than once, the Caliphs were forced to pay tribute. You don’t manage this by accident.

The Sword of DamascusThe Byzantine historians themselves are disappointingly vague about the seventh and eight centuries. Our only evidence for what happened comes from the description of established facts in the tenth century. As early as the seventh century, though, the Byzantine State pulled off the miracle of reforming itself internally while fighting a war of survival on every frontier. Large parts of the bureaucracy were scrapped. Taxes were cut. The silver coinage was stabilised. Above all, the great senatorial estates of the Later Roman Empire were broken up. Land was given to the peasants in return for military service. In the West, the Goths and Franks and Lombards had moved among populations of disarmed tax-slaves. Not surprisingly, no one raised a hand against them. Time and again, the Arabs smashed against a wall of armed freeholders. A few generations after losing Syria and Egypt, the Byzantine Empire was the richest and most powerful state in the known world.

This is an inspiring story – as inspiring as the resistance put up by the Greek city states a thousand years before to Darius and Xerxes. Why write yet another series of novels about the Persian or Punic wars, when a lifetime of research had given me all this as my background? You can ask again: Why Byzantium? My answer is: What else but Byzantium?

And so I’ve written six novels set in the seventh century, mostly within the great cities of the Byzantine Empire. The background in each is the wavering but increasingly successful struggle to break free of the Roman heritage. Conspiracies of Rome (2008) is a kind of prelude. It explains how Aelric, the hero of the entire series – young and beautiful and clever, at least two of which things I’m not – is kicked out of Anglo-Saxon England, and comes to Rome to try his luck. At once, he trips head first into the snake pit of Imperial politics, and doesn’t climb out again until the body count runs into dozens. In Terror of Constantinople (2009), he’s tricked into a mission to Constantinople, where we see the old order of things falling apart in a reign of terror. In Blood of Alexandria (2010), he’s come up in the world, and is in Egypt as the Emperor’s legate, sent there to impose a plan of land reform – which is, you can be sure, entirely his idea. Faced with a useless Viceroy, an obstructive landed interest, and an intrigue featuring the first chamber pot of Jesus Christ and the mummy of Alexander the Great, everything goes tits up, and there’s a climax in an underground complex near to the Great Pyramid.

The next two novels in the series are an apparent digression from the overall scheme. In Sword of Damascus (2011), a very aged Aelric is kidnapped from his place of refuge and retirement in the North of England and carted off to the heart of the Islamic Caliphate. Ghosts of Athens (2012) returns us to the immediate aftermath of Aelric’s less than triumphant efforts in Egypt. I did intend this to be a tightly-constructed thriller set in a horribly broken down Athens. It turned instead into a gothic horror novel – quite a good one, I think; a surprise for the reader, even so.

In Curse of Babylon (2013), I return to Imperial high politics, complete with a Persian a Great King who is described by one of the reviewers as “possibly the most sadistic fictional bad guy I’ve ever encountered.” Because I don’t think I shall write any more in the series, I made Curse of Babylon the most expansive and spectacular of the whole set. It has kidnaps and daring escapes, blood and sex everywhere, acrobatic fights that owe much to Hollywood at its best, and a gigantic battle at the climax.

I suppose there is room for another three or even six. But I’ll not be thinking about that this year, or next year, or perhaps the year after that. My latest novel, The Break (2014) – written under another name – is post-apocalyptic science fiction. This will be followed by a horror novel set in York.

The Ghosts of AthensI haven’t bothered with detailed outlines of the six Byzantine novels. What I will say, however, is that I’ve worked very hard not to make any of them into a factual narrative enlivened by a bit of kissing and a few sword fights. I greatly admired Jean Plaidy as a boy, and she taught me as much as I still know about France during the Wars of Religion. But I don’t regard her as a model for writing historical fiction. So far as we can know or reconstruct them, the facts must always be respected. Indeed, I would say that anyone who wants a reliable introduction to the world of seventh century Byzantium could do worse than start with my novels. Even so, these are novels, and they must stand or fall as entertainment. The plots have to keep the reader guessing and turning the pages. The characters have to live and breathe. Their language and actions need to be credible.

I come now to the difficulty I mentioned in my second paragraph. If you want to write a novel about the plot to kill Caesar, you can leave my readers to supply much of the background. From Shakespeare to Rex Warner and beyond, the reading and the viewing public know roughly what is going on. Everyone likely to buy such a novel knows that Rome had expanded from a city state to an empire, and that its constitution had broken down in the process. Everyone knows that Caesar was ruling as a military dictator, and that this was resented by much of the senatorial aristocracy. Everyone knows who Cicero was, and Mark Antony, and Cleopatra. If you want to write about this, you can largely get on with the plot. You may need to go into a few details about the theoretical legality of Caesar’s power, or the oddities of the Roman electoral system. But much of the job has already been done for you.

You can’t do this with seventh century Byzantium. The reading public can’t be expected to know much at all. You have a continuing Roman Empire after Rome itself has fallen. Paganism is out. Instead, you have a legally established Christian Faith, with ranting clerics whose differing views of the Nature of Christ are turning the Empire into a patchwork of mutually-hostile classes and nationalities. You have a crumbling tax base and an omnipresent threat on the borders with Persia. Later, you have militant Islam. Because readers can’t be expected to know this, you have to tell them.

In Claudius the God, Robert Graves explains the obscure facts of Roman policy in the East with what amounts to a long essay. It’s a good essay. But you can’t do this nowadays. Fashions have changed. Readers are less patient. They want a story to keep moving. You need to integrate your background into the action and dialogue.

The Curse of BabylonI didn’t get this entirely right in Conspiracies of Rome. There’s an authorial explanation at the start of the second section of the novel. This works, but displeased my editor at Hodder & Stoughton. So I worked like a slave on Terror of Constantinople and the other four novels to give my editor exactly what she wanted. In Terror, I allowed myself one explanation of background, but put this into a dialogue between Aelric and a drunken slave who needs to be told about the civil war between Phocas and Heraclius to make sense of a failed murder attempt. In Sword of Damascus, old Aelric is allowed to turn garrulous once or twice when the fourteen year-old English boy he has with him asks questions about the world they’ve entered. On the whole, though, I’m proud of how I eventually got past what seemed an insuperable barrier to writing popular historical fiction set in a fairly unknown period.

It’s easier to show than to describe. But how you do it is a matter of casual asides and revealed assumptions. You pick up what is happening in much the same way as you might from an overheard conversation. To give one example from an alternative history novel I wrote a few years ago, something is described as being “about the same size as a self-charging television battery.” You get the size of the object described from the context. The purpose of the comparison is to tell the reader something more about the technology available. Continue with this throughout the whole course of a novel, and you explain your background without slowing the pace.

A reviewer also complained about the extreme and graphic violence. If I never trouble the reader with graphic descriptions of the sexual act – like most other people, I’m useless at writing porn, and there’s tons of it nowadays on the Internet to suit every taste – my novels are drenched in violence. Another American reviewer said that the torture chamber passages in Blood of Alexandria made him feel unwell for several days. My answer again is that this is how it was, and still is. No government has ever lasted without at least the threat of the executioner and the torture chamber. I see no point in hiding the disgusting means by which power is generally got and maintained.

This has turned out to be a somewhat longer advertisement for my novels than I intended, or was asked, to write. So I’ll conclude by saying that, if you like the sound of them, please consider buying my novels. I think they’re rather good. More to the point, so do the reviewers. You should probably begin at the beginning with Conspiracies of Rome, though Sword of Damascus is my own favourite. All else aside, they make ideal presents for those hard-to-please loved ones.

Richard Blake’s website
Buy the books

Kingdom by Robyn Young

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 484
Year: 2014
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Kingdom by Robyn YoungReview
The year is 1306 – Robert Bruce is finally crowned King of Scotland, his rivals to the throne murdered or in retreat. But the triumph is shortlived, the prophecy as fragile as ever, as Sir Aymer de Valence, earl of Pembroke and cousin to Edward I of England, heads northwards, taking advantage of all those with an axe to grind against Robert, forcing the rebel king to the north-western edges of this unhappy kingdom. So begins eight long years of tug of war between Robert and the English for control of Scotland, culminating in Bruce’s great victory at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.

Nothing about this is straightforward, though. Bruce has to fight tooth and nail to hold his men together, to inspire them to keep on fighting, to bargain ruthlessly with the mercenaries and disinherited, to brave the greatest hardships and personal dangers and, most horrible of all, to endure the loss of his wife, daughter and sisters, captured by Edward and treated with great cruelty – his daughter and sister caged like animals.

Kingdom completes Robyn Young’s Insurrection trilogy – three meticulously researched, passionately intense novels that bring to life the figure of Robert Bruce with all his strengths, weaknesses and drive. There is no doubt that Robert had his flaws, his repeated switching of sides in the previous novel Renegade made him a difficult character to like. He is also not easy to love, just look at his wife, brothers and father. But Robert Bruce is a man with a destiny and in this world in which legend and prophecy are vital, if only as inspiration to others, he cannot turn back.

In Renegade I had a real problem with Robert. I thought him a dishonourable man. I liked him no more than I did Edward I. By contrast, there were an awful lot of women I felt sorry for as well as the men hurt by Robert’s betrayal. In Kingdom, though, Robert atones. In this novel, everything comes to a head, literally at Bannockburn, but also in every other way. He is now set on his destiny and he becomes the hero we want him to be. He is king and there’s no turning back. Sir Aymer is now the unsympathetic figure, chasing Robert and his men over hill and dale, through forests and across rivers and seas. Edward I is a dry husk of a man, dying piece by piece, drained of blood, but unable to let go of life, still able to fly into violent fury at the behaviour of his son and heir, intoxicated by his lover Gaveston. The men that Robert betrayed, notably Humphrey de Bohun, the Constable of England, fight for Edward and his son but loyalties are severely tested, particularly when Humphrey suspects that King Edward’s reimagining of an Arthurian circle of knights was based on lies. Humphrey never loses our sympathies even though he fights on the ‘wrong’ side.

As with Renegade, the female characters are especially powerful in Kingdom and complement the male dominated military action perfectly. Robert’s queen, Elizabeth, is an intriguing figure, tragic, I think, and I liked the pages spent with her very much. Another character that stands out is Alexander Seton, a nobleman who discovers he no longer knows what he’s fighting for. The muddle he gets himself into is hugely involving and it’s hard not to like him. There is no fear of liking either Edward the father or Edward the son, although both are highly entertaining on the page. But Robert now comes into his own, filling the pages of Kingdom with his personality, working on the reader’s affections, winning us over bit by bit, revealing a little of his personal struggles and motivations, making him seem more human than kinglike, earning our approval and support until the book becomes an exercise in tension, drama and suspense.

Robyn Young writes so beautifully. Her medieval knowledge is clearly vast but it is coated in the most stunning prose that moves the story forward while injecting it with a world of historical colour and flavour. The battle sequences, which feature throughout the novel, are brilliantly done, but so too are the moments of reflection. At the heart of Kingdom, though, lies the complicated and often painful relationships between these remarkable people. This is so well done and shows what a miracle it was that Robert was able to tie it all together to bring about such a great victory.

I loved this book. I read the final two thirds in just one day, despite the far less pleasant claims of work on my time. I would argue that each of the novels in this trilogy stands very well alone but as a collection they provide an extraordinary portrait of one of the great duels of medieval history as well as one of its most difficult to know figures. I can only look forward to discovering where Robyn Young will take us next. Kingdom has set the bar very high indeed.

Other review

Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Thomas Sweterlitsch

Publisher: Headline
Pages: 342
Year: 2014 (17 July)
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Thomas SweterlitschReview
The near future is a dark and dirty place, especially for those few who survived the nuclear blast that turned Pittsburgh and its inhabitants into ash. In a society in which adware is fed directly into the brain and eyes, virtual reality is as real as the physical world – every glance, every desire is met by suggestive images, inviting the thinker to make a purchase, take a decision, get a thrill. Every scene that has been filmed is captured in the Archive, which allows the obsessed the perfect means to spend hours and days reliving the past, feeding the grief of Pittsburgh, reliving time with lost loved ones, making believe that the flash of light and heat never happened. John Dominic Blaxton was away from Pittsburgh when the bomb claimed his wife and unborn child. He now spends his days searching for ghosts in the Archive, looking for the murdered, the victims that others are working just as hard to delete from history.

Dominic is a fascinating character and he drives Tomorrow and Tomorrow. The fact that he is suffering is obvious. His is a portrait in grief and it’s a masterly one. He tries to relive over and over moments with his wife, resetting the clock, rewinding and repeating, constantly. Not surprisingly, it drives him to madness and drugs and breakdown, resulting in his dismissal from his job searching for mysteries in the Archive, particularly a young girl, found dead in mud. Her identity had been erased, clues found only by investigating what is missing from the Archive, tracing the trail of lost pixels. Finally clean again, Dominic is hired by mogul Waverly to hunt for his daughter Albion, another victim of the bomb, but another young woman who is being systematically erased from the record.

To say that the case is not straightforward is the mightiest of understatements and it’s not long before Dominic is on the run for his life, leaving a trail of the tortured and murdered in his wake.

The mystery that Dominic becomes committed to solve is only one half of Tomorrow and Tomorrow. It is an exciting and twisty hunt, ingeniously mapped out, but the significant achievement of the novel is both the portrait of Dominic and the world-building. Dominic is surrounded by a host of characters, some dead, some alive, some not who he thinks they are, and they are all richly hinted at. This is a chase, told in the present tense, increasing the immediacy and the danger, and so we never know more than Dominic himself. But what we are given is a thorough and beautifully written portrait of our main protagonist, a man who is only just holding on and is in dire need of leaving his past where it belongs. It’s extremely moving and it’s impossible not to feel greatly for Dominic. But, as the novel makes clear time after time, Dominic is just one of many who suffers from what happened in Pittsburgh, not to mention all those lost burned souls.

For many, pornography has become the choice method of escape. Nothing is sacred. The murdered become objects of titillation on reality TV, the rights to the bodies sold by their families. The female President of the United States is little more than a glamorous executioner, signing the warrants of death live on TV in front of the condemned, followed by scandal and all the more popular and electable for it. There’s no doubt about it – this is distasteful stuff, but it is not done salaciously. Thomas Sweterlitsch is a fine writer and he walks the line between what is acceptable and what isn’t very well (I am a most squeamish reader and I had no problem with this at all). This is a most unattractive future world – hardly unsurprising if it’s a place in which nuclear attacks take place – but there are moments of hope and lightness, seen most particularly in the scenes with Dominic’s friends and family.

Thomas Sweterlitsch combines so well a murder mystery with a stunning portrait of a near future world that is truly horrifying, not just for the obvious bomb devastation and the moral and political degradation of society, but also for its nightmare portrait of social media gone mad. Thrilling and thought-proving, Tomorrow and Tomorrow is a most intriguing and original read.

Plague by C.C. Humphreys

Publisher: Century
Pages: 368
Year: 2014 (17 July)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Plague by C.C. HumphreysReview
A serial killer stalks the streets of London, stabbing gems into the mouths of the slaughtered. With murder, though, walks a friend – plague. The year is 1665 and the city reels under an onslaught of murder, poverty and disease. On the fringes dance the rich. The newly restored monarchy, epitomised by the bewigged and hedonist Charles II, is surrounded by fellow pleasure-seekers who jig their way through the reopened theatres. Everyone, from King to actor, thief and pauper remembers the recent wars. They have left their mark and in many cases a debt.

Captain Coke is a gentleman but he is also a highwayman, albeit one with a bulletless pistol. He does good, adopting as his own his rather gormless apprentice Dickon, teaching the boy to read using sensationalist leaflets, the only literature the boy is interested enough to struggle through. When Coke discovers the bodies of his next intended victims slaughtered upon the highway, he finds one just alive, a young woman who dies in his arms. He flees but he cannot forget. Although Coke should hide, particularly once the thief-taker Pitman catches his scent, he is unable to resist the pleas of friend Sarah Chalker, whose husband John, an actor, is missing.

And all the time, more and more houses are sealed up, their inhabitants locked inside, keeping company the corpses of their relatives killed revoltingly by the hungriest of plagues.

Plague is rich in atmosphere, you can almost smell the stink of the stews and the sickly perfume of the rich. Much of the novel is spent in the poorer streets of the city or in its theatres among the actors and their audience. It’s a far from glamorous society with actresses preyed upon by nobles but it is a world away from the horror of the squalid rooms where the sick die of plague or the tortured die of agony. There are some wonderful cameos here, especially the King and his libertine poet Rochester. I also thoroughly enjoyed the conflicted character of Captain Coke. This is a man who is tormented by his memories from the recent wars – after what he’s gone through how can he live a normal life? Pitman, too, is an interesting character, especially once he has formed a partnership with his prey, but it is Coke, painfully haunted, who stands out for me. Amongst the many believable men and women, though, there are melodramatic, sinister figures, not least the man that Coke must chase.

This is a violent novel and, not surprisingly considering its subject matter, it is exceedingly grim in places. C.C. Humphreys does not flinch from his depictions of murder, torture or plague symptoms. I liked the historical setting enormously and much of the characterisation and narrative but it did cross my squeamish barrier at places, although admittedly it is not a barrier set high. I do think, though, that Plague will be much enjoyed by readers of historical crime fiction.