Monthly Archives: September 2011

Traitor’s Blood (Stryker Chronicles 1) by Michael Arnold

Publisher: Hodder
Pages: 384
Year: 2010
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Bought copy

Review:
Despite having lived in Charles I’s Oxford for most of my life, I’m ashamed to admit that the English Civil War has remained a bit of a mystery to me. I’ve sat in a seat in Charles I’s wooden Oxford Parliament, I’ve admired his statue outside the Bodleian, I’ve read my Sir Walter Scott and I’ve even excavated some Civil War defences. But, until reading Mike Arnold’s Traitor’s Blood, I hadn’t thought about the impact of this perilous and key period of English history on the lives and fortunes of men and women, people just like you and me, who were trying to make as comfortable a life as possible for themselves. That is, until Roundheads and Royalists marched through the towns and villages, stealing resources, houses, horses, sons for the cause. Sometimes, townspeople stood together and defended their homes but it’s possible that, more often than not, they got a pike in the gut for their trouble.

Traitor’s Blood, the first in a series to chronicle the adventures of Royalist Captain Stryker, combines the thrill and excitement of adventure – and it is very exciting – with something more thought provoking. Those caught up in the conflict, whether they wore the red sashes of the Royalists or the orange sashes of the Parliamentarians, were fighting for ideals. Charles I was a divine appointed monarch to many and they flocked to the standard of their king and his glamorous, giant of a nephew Prince Rupert. Others fought for a republic, free of papacy and the whim of a weak king. This idealism, as Arnold vividly shows here, led brave men to horrendous deaths in hand to hand combat. The soldiers may have had pistols and cannon but these could only be fired the once. After that, it was all swords, daggers and fists.

Beginning with Edgehill in October 1642, the first (and indecisive) full battle between the Royalists and Rebels, Traitor’s Blood follows the mission of Captain Stryker, set by Prince Rupert, to apprehend a spy wanted by both sides. Stryker has only half a face, the rest was burnt away by his arch enemy turncoat Eli Makepeace. It’s not long before Stryker realises that chief resistance to his mission will come from this very same man. There is another dangerous threat in the shape of Roger Tainton, a Puritan knight in black armour, who is as resolute as he is skilled in strategy and fighting. Matters are complicated by Frenchwoman Lisette Gaillardia who has her own mission, set by Charles I’s queen, and who will bring her own force to bear on Stryker and his men.

In addition to the thrill of the action and the horror of the history, a principal reason for the success of Traitor’s Blood lies in the characterisation. While there is the element of the familiar in villains such as Makepeace, the majority of characters are vividly realised to the extent that there is good and bad in all. In particular, Roger Tainton is admirable despite his determination to destroy our hero, while Stryker himself knows full well he is a killer. Other men, leaders on both sides, know that they are forcing their men forwards to near certain death, just to protect a road, a house or a river, long enough for reinforcements or an escape.

We follow events over just a couple of months and, in these very early stages of civil war, neither side has the advantage despite both believing they have the moral high ground. This to and fro between successes and failures builds the drama of the novel. After all, there is a long way for Charles to go before he reaches the block. The disorganisation permits small enclaves of fighting in besieged houses or among the trees. Legends grow. Soon everyone knows about the one-eyed Captain Stryker.

Michael Arnold writes extremely well, picturing the grand scene of a battle as well as the more intimate moments. I enjoyed the details, especially in the descriptions of clothes and weapons, in the terrain and in the map the story evoked in my mind of familiar places and landmarks. For the first time, I found myself thinking about this time in England’s history when warfare was both medieval and modern, and made even more dangerous for that.

I’m usually put off a book if comparisons are drawn between its hero and Sharpe – I am not a fan of the Sharpe novels. Traitor’s Blood deserves to stand and be read on its own merit. When all is said and done, Captain Stryker is a terrific military hero, combining just the right amout of honour, heart and ruthlessness, who gathers some fascinating characters about him, not least Lisette.

I’m delighted to say that the second in the Stryker Chronicles, Devil’s Charge, was published this August and there are more on the way.

Hannibal: Enemy of Rome by Ben Kane

Publisher: Preface
Pages: 464
Year: 2011, Pb 2012
Buy: Hardback, Kindle, Paperback
Source: Bought copy

Review
When the Romans kicked Carthage in the teeth by stealing Sicily off them in the First Punic War, it was only a matter of time before the Carthaginians struck back with a vengeance. That vengeance took the formidable shape of General Hannibal Barca, a bunch of elephants and a mass of infantry and cavalry gathered from across the Carthaginian Mediterranean empire.

The story of Hannibal is legendary but there is much, much more to Ben Kane’s novel than a retelling of Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps. In fact, I’d argue that the book’s title is misleading. Hannibal is present, as charismatic as one would wish, but, for much of the novel, he is an embodiment of hope or evil. He is the force that drives the Mediterranean to war. The focus instead is on the men who flock to Hannibal – whether to fight and die for him or to destroy him and his army.

We follow Hanno, a young Carthaginian nobleman, and his friend Suni who play truant one fateful day, stealing themselves away to fish but instead find themselves adrift at sea until captured by pirates and sold as slaves in Capua. Suni is sold to be a gladiator but Hanno is bought by the young Roman equestrian Quintus, a youth whose bravery is matched by that of his spirited sister Aurelia. After Hanno saves Quintus and Aurelia, it’s only a matter of time before the two young men become friends despite the great difference between them. Their fathers oppose one another on the battlefield and the goal of both boys is to reach their fathers and join them in the fight.

Hannibal takes us from North Africa to Spain, Italy and Gaul. The horrendous hardships that Hannibal’s men face as they cross the Alps – from the elements, the mountains themselves and from the tribes that control them – are described in compelling detail. The miracle is that any man or beast survived at all. While virtue is found on both sides and neither side is the favourite, there is brutality here, as life becomes something precious and at risk. Ben Kane doesn’t shy away from presenting the outrages of both sides just as he doesn’t make any character faultless. Quintus and Hanno are both very likeable but through the course of the pages we see them become the tools of war. Hanno’s brothers Bostar and Sapho, deeply competitive and flawed, demonstrate even further what happens when war and vengeance becomes the reason for being. The fathers of Quintus and Hanno have both learned lessons that their sons have yet to recognise.

Quintus’ sister Aurelia is a particularly attractive creation here. Contracted to marriage with a wealthy man fighting alongside her father she longs to hunt, fight and ride with her male relatives but, thanks to the potentially very dangerous situation at home that Quintus and her father have left her and her mother to face, she shows that the women left behind could be equally brave and resolute.

The action sequences in Hannibal are thrilling and exciting but they don’t dominate. Rich characterisation and involving relationships ensure that you will finish Hannibal quickly, wanting to learn the fate of the people who fill its pages. Fortunately, this is the first in a new series and there is much more to come.

Ben Kane is author of The Forgotten Legion Chronicles.

Fortress of Spears (Empire III) by Anthony Riches

Publisher: Hodder
Pages: 352
Year: 2011, Pb 2012
Buy: Hardback, Kindle, Paperback
Source: Bought copy

Review
With no time for us, or hero Marcus Aquila, to draw breath, the third instalment in Anthony Riches’ superb Empire series pushes Centurion ‘Corvus’ even further north, beyond Hadrian’s Wall, in pursuit of lord Calgus, who has now committed more than one personal atrocity against the young, wronged Roman officer. Some we know about from the previous two books in the series but the latest is a shocker and sets the pace for Fortress of Spears. However, too merciless even for the locals opposing Rome, Calgus is now a prisoner of the very tribes he sought to unite. They head north and the Second Tungrians, including Corvus, are on his trail. Their goal is the Fortress of Spears, the northern fort of Dinpaladyr, famous for its deadly defences.

Life is even more complicated for Marcus now, he is in love with Felicia, the soldiers’ doctor. The possibility of future happiness tantalises Marcus but Rome and Commodus are getting nearer and are more determined than ever to uncover the identity of the supposed traitor Marcus Aquila. Two frumentarii – corn collectors or spies – are sent after Marcus, travelling relentlessly though this most dangerous of borders, accompanied by murderers and rapists. There is one clear way for the spies to distract Marcus from his determined quest for Calgus and that is to kidnap his love. But Marcus is not alone. He is surrounded and supported by a group of prefects, decurions, first spears and centurions that we have grown to care deeply for over the preceding two books. These feelings only intensify in Fortress of Spears.

Wounds of Honour focused on the infantry, Arrows of Fury has Syrian archers at its heart. In Fortress of Spears, it’s the turn of the cavalry and, as with the previous two books, there is much to be enjoyed from Anthony Riches’ descriptions of life in a different unit. This is particularly pleasing here, because Marcus is followed on to horseback by some of the larger than life figures that make this series especially enjoyable, notably Arminius and Martos, who have sworn to defend Marcus to the death despite a natural hatred of Rome.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again until I’m blue in the face, Anthony Riches’ military expertise makes every page both gripping and informative. As the series progresses, you’re placed deeper and deeper within the dangerous, vibrant and remote world of the Roman border during the 2nd century AD. You also get a sense of the many different peoples, brought together from across the empire, who manned this border – apart from Rome and yet within its grasp. Marcus and his group of centurion friends are well known to us now and while, in some ways, this third books ends with some closure, their stories thankfully are set to continue in next year’s fourth novel The Leopard Sword.

Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 467
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Bought copy

Review
I’ve merely dabbled in science fiction literature, which is a mystery to me because I’ve positively revelled in sci fi movies over the years. Seeking to redress this shameful imbalance, I sought advice on a good sci fi tale and, amongst the suggestions, was the Culture of Iain M. Banks and, more specifically, the first from this universe, Consider Phlebas (1988).

Having not especially warmed to books by Iain Banks, I was not expecting to feel much differently about those he wrote with an M. in his name. However, always ready to take a gamble, I dived in and found myself in a a very different place from where a book had ever set me before. I was off world. But, from the very first page, I was hooked.

Consider Phlebas introduces us to the Culture, a space travelling society that relies on machines to spread its ideals of education and knowledge. It is at war with the Idirans, a brutal race served by slave creatures (just as the Culture is served by machine drones) and who uphold spirituality and belief in gods. When one of the Culture’s space craft crashes and its controlling Mind escapes to Shar’s World, a Changer – Bora Horza Gobuchul – is given the task by the Idirans to recover the Mind before the Culture can. This is not so simple, largely because Shar’s World is a Planet of the Dead, ruled over by an ominpotent being. Also, Horza has his own ongoing battles – internally, as he continues to justify his hatred of the Culture, and externally, in his ongoing duel with Perosteck Balveda. Balveda belongs to Special Circumstances, in other words, she is a Culture spy.

The fates conspire against Horza and part of the excitement of Consider Phlebas is produced by never knowing what will befall our unlikely hero next. At one point he finds himself on Clear Air Turbulence, a pirate vessel under the control of the largely inept captain Kraiklyn. The ship is manned by a strange bunch of humanoids, including Yalson, the slightly furry and courageous female crew member who gives a possibility of another kind of future to Horza, this man who can change his appearance to that of any victim and has venom in his teeth and under his nails.

Horza is not a perfect hero – far from it. He is a killer and he is driven by goals and desires that he keeps secretive. Life means very little to him. Although he may be troubled by thoughts of love – love he has abandoned and love he fears now – he is merciless. Nevertheless, as the story progresses and, for example, we find Horza at the mercy of a bunch of the grotesque Eaters (they eat everything that no-one else would eat, including humans), we warm to him and accept him at his word, which is that he is committed to destroy a culture that hates spirituality and puts its faith in the machine. The fact that the Culture that we see is many times more attractive and appealing than the monstrous Idirans helps to give the book some of that confused yet rather entertaining morality that Banks sought.

Likewise, Culture agent Balveda makes her own journey through the tale, demonstrating how blurred the distinction is between hero and enemy, good and evil. People change and not only on the outside.

Apart from the story, that races along, the strength of Consider Phlebas lies in the beauty of the writing. It is evocative in the extreme and yet this is achieved through the minimal amount of words. You can see the orbital worlds, the monumental spaceships, the games, the snow covered mountains and the tunnels that fall away for many miles with all the vigour and colour that you need to put yourself there. The moments of tenderness, the fear and wonder that characters feel, whether humanoid or not, and the brutal and violent fights are all vividly realised in the most economic of styles. It’s a beautiful style.

I realise that I have arrived late to Iain M. Banks’ Culture. However, I’m very glad it was there waiting for me when I found it.

Many thanks to Anthony Riches for putting me on the right path.

Queen of Kings by Maria Dahvana Headley

Publisher: Bantam
Pages: 448
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Review
The love story of Antony and Cleopatra is one of the most enduring and popular tales from antiquity and its tragic end is well known. But, while Antony was a Roman through and through, Cleopatra was queen of a more exotic land and she was regarded as the the embodiment of the goddess Isis. In Queen of Kings, Maria Dahvana Headley, takes this idea to its extreme and looks at the choices that Cleopatra may have made if she could have used the dark power of Isis to save the man she loved.

Trapped in the Mausoleum, waiting for the victorious Octavian to claim her for his triumphant return to Rome, Cleopatra uses an ancient spell to merge with Isis. The bite of the asp transforms her into something crazed and monstrous. She can take on the form of snakes and lions but she has become even more fearful than that. She is now a vampire that must feed on her own people by night and is never sated. Of course, it’s not them she wants vengeance on. It’s Octavian she wants.

Like any good book, there are several layers to Queen of Kings. On the one hand, we have a dark and quite sexy tale of Cleopatra’s deep passion for Antony, a passion which drives her to inhuman deeds. On the other hand, we witness Cleopatra’s growing realisation that when all’s said and done, no matter what she does, Antony will never be more than a ghost. In that sense, we follow Cleopatra’s journey into despair and sadness as she begins to deplore what her grief has made her and she begins to come to terms with her new skin. There is something unbearably sad about Antony’s lot.

We witness the fear and loathing that others feel for Cleopatra but our feelings for her are not allowed to be straightforward. Most painfully, we see what Cleopatra’s selfishness has done to her daughter Selene. Selene turns from this monster of a mother to none other than Octavian, the murderer of Cleopatra’s son, in search of security. We also follow much of the book from the perspective of Cleopatra’s scholar Nikolaus who, better than anyone, knows what Cleopatra has unleashed and fears it. He runs from it while also trying to destroy it.

Rather than being a tale of Cleopatra with elements of horror, this is first and foremost a vampire story with lashings of historical detail thrown in for the mix. You won’t find Cleopatra, Antony of Octavian from history here but what you will read is a dark and very sensuous tale of a woman, the original femme fatale, so stricken by grief, rage and guilt that she will turn the moral order of the world on its head in order to win vengeance.

To sum up, Queen of Kings is a fast and undemanding read that pumps new and original blood into the vampire genre.

Caligula and Claudius by Douglas Jackson

Publisher: Corgi, Bantam
Pages: 496p, 416p
Links: Caligula, Claudius
Source: Bought copies

Review
First published in 2008, Caligula gave us our first introduction to Bersheba, the emperor’s elephant, cared for and loved by Rufus, the slave of the animal keeper Fronto. Not only does Rufus have to come to terms with his own position as a slave but he must also adapt to survive at the whim of the emperor. In this, he is taught an ugly lesson by gladiator Cupido. I dare you to read it and not flinch.

Cupido, Rufus and the animals that he cares for have only two reasons for living: to make money for their master and, more importantly, to provide amusement  for that most unstable of emperors, Caligula.

As the novel opens, we’re left in little doubt about the nature of this man, Caligula, and his self-professed ownership of every living creature within his realm. Whether it’s blinding baby birds, breaking the bones of noble Roman matrons or overseeing the slaughter of human and animal in the arena, Caligula is a man to be amused by the ownership of a elephant. As long as Rufus keeps Bersheba under control, he is able to live a relatively privileged life on the edges of the imperial court. Although the danger is constant, not least because Rufus may find himself at any moment a focus of fun at the emperor’s feasts. However, Caligula is not aware of everything going on around him and Rufus finds himself at the centre of much more than he had bargained for.

In Claudius, Rufus and Bersheba have a new emperor to deal with, another ruler who may well be a sandwich short of a picnic. Claudius, the stuttering emperor (try and put Derek Jacobi from your mind), has a mission to complete what the illustrious Julius Caesar could not, the conquest of Britannia. And what could bring that about more symbolically than the might and majesty of the emperor’s own elephant?

In Britannia, Rufus (and Bersheba) must learn that they are more than ceremonial and the consequences leads to one of the most terrifying scenes I have read in a novel for quite some time – the Wicker Man. In all its horror and violence, we see how Romans and Britons were prepared to treat one another in this time of invasion, connivance and domination.

In both Caligula and Claudius, the emperors may take centre stage on the covers, but both rulers represent more of a threat, an ominous presence, sometimes distant sometimes perilously close, in the lives of Rufus and his faithful Bersheba. The focus is very much on the determination of Rufus to survive. Even when his bride is picked for him, Rufus continues to deal with Rome’s monsters, not least by caring for the enormously large but gentle elephant who could crush a man such as Caligula – and yet does not.

There are moments in both novels of such brutality that I could hardly look at the page. However, as I read on I could fully understand the reason for it. Without the evil, the good would not have been as bright.

If possible, I thought Claudius was even more involving than Caligula. Rufus knows his place and his relationship with Bersheba is fully evolved, but now the two of them face a threat in Britannia that makes even the evils of the gladiatorial arena pale by comparison. The violence, though, in both books, is offset by the beautifully drawn characters of Rufus, Cupido, his friends and the relationship with this trusting animal, Bersheba, so far from home.

I still hope that at some time Douglas Jackson will return to Rufus and Bersheba, two of the most wonderfully drawn characters that I’ve read this year.

The Roman Mysteries, The Secrets of Vesuvius by Caroline Lawrence

Publisher: Orion
Pages: 224
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Bought copy

Review
I tend to approach Young Adult or Children’s literature in the same way that I do any other book, with an open mind and an excited sense of anticipation. Just as a good animation film should deliver treats for all its viewers, regardless of their ages, so a well-written book, ostensibly aimed at younger readers, is more than likely to contain some goodies for the less young reader. I would never like to think of myself as an Old Adult…

And so when a writer I hugely respect, Ben Kane, recommended Caroline Lawrence’s Roman Mysteries to me, I snapped one up. Specifically, the second one, The Secrets of Vesuvius. It has Pompeii under volcanic attack in it – big selling point for me. Throw in some Pliny and there was no way I was about to start this series anywhere else.

The Secrets of Vesuvius continues the adventures of a group of children who are drawn from all reaches of the empire, led by the constantly curious, mystery-seeking Flavia, who lives in Ostia with a well-heeled Roman father. Her constant companions are Jonathan (a Jewish Christian), Nubia (a rescued slave and orphan from the Nubian desert) and Lupus (a mysterious, brave Greek boy whose tongue has been cut from him). With them they have an assortment of dogs, led by Flavia’s Scuto, who seems to get into even more mischief than his young mistress. And then there is Miriam, Jonathan’s beautiful and very marriageable older sister (she’s reached the ripe old age of 14).

As the book opens, Lupus saves a floundering tubby drowning man who turns out to be the Admiral of the Roman Fleet, Pliny the Elder. Fortunately, along with his life, the youngsters also save his precious writings and, for both, the kids are rewarded with special, personalised gifts. Flavia’s is a riddle from Pompeii. If she can identify the riddle and seek out the blacksmith Vulcan, there will be treasure. Just as well, then, that the whole group (as well as Pliny) is off to Pompeii to stay with Uncle Gaius. A shame, though, that they picked August AD79.

I’ll say no more about the plot, which has some very pleasing twists and turns as the children (and their dogs) get tangled up in a mix of red herrings, hounds and love. Yes, love is in the air for one of the party. However, one can hardly ignore the fact that the great mountain that dominates these towns is about to blow its top and, as reality hits, there is a very strong menace of danger.

The narrative is mixed with all kinds of details that appealed to me. Jonathan’s father is a doctor and we learn about 1st century AD medicine just as we also learn, in an admirably unobtrusive fashion, something of early Christianity – both its practice and  its standing in the pagan world. Pliny is a delight. I have read a fair amount about Pliny and his attempted rescue of victims of Vesuvius and the details here ring very true. Caroline Lawrence clearly knows her history but, possibly even more importantly, she conveys this knowledge with an accessible and fascinating slight of hand.

Children are in good hands with the Roman Mysteries series. Such books are so important in a child’s progression towards a love and appreciation of the history around them and further afield. As we get a little older, one recognises that there is still so much to learn and a book such as this is not only a lot of fun it lights sparks.

I should also point out that I read Secrets of Vesuvius in a day. I could not put it down. I’ve already snapped up the next, Pirates of Pompeii.

There are quite a bunch of books in this series, not to mention a couple of television series you can buy on DVD. All of the details and more about the characters and their world can be found at the fun Roman Mysteries website. I also recommend Caroline’s blog, which contains some revealing insights into her research for the novels.