Palatine by L.J. Trafford

Karnac Books | 2015 | 417p | Review copy | Buy the book

Palatine by LJ TraffordIt is AD 68 and Nero has much more on his mind than simply ruling the Empire that is so lucky to have him. For one thing, Nero fancies himself in love with the perfect specimen of Roman womanhood, a new Poppaea (to replace the one that Nero kicked to death), who just happens to be a eunuch called Sporus. But Nero needn’t worry because while he spends his energy on love and the arts, his private secretary Epaphroditus can look after the dull business of rule, backed up by the two Praetorian Prefects (known as ‘the drunk one’ and ‘the sober one’). But the sober Prefect Sabinus has had enough of the degeneracy of Nero’s court and is keen to take advantage of the rumblings of rebellion coming from elsewhere in the empire, particularly Gaul. The powerful are beginning to shuffle for position, including Galba. It’s only a matter of time.

Palatine is the first in L.J. Trafford’s Four Emperors series, that period of civil war and short reigns that marked the fall of Nero and the ensuing troubled months. Nero is gold dust for authors and clearly L.J. Trafford enjoyed every minute of capturing Nero on paper. And here he is at his dissolute best or worst, depending on your point of view. There’s no end of maidens (senators’ daughters) to deflower and people to murder. At one point he looks for an assassin to do one of his jobs but specifies that he has to be able to speak Greek so that he can recite verse to his victim before killing him. This is Nero at his most deranged and he has turned madness into an artform.

What I enjoyed about Palatine, though, is that much of the events unfold through the eyes and experiences of slaves, servants and the most vulnerable, such as prostitutes. Even Sporus, the enthusiastic eunuch, is allowed his moments as a normal human being caught up in circumstances beyond his control, a young man with friends who love him. Then there is Philo, Epaphroditus’s secretary, who has recently been freed but still serves his master. But now he lives outside the Palace and has to cope with looking after himself without the Palace feeding him, clothing him and putting a roof over his head. Freedom is good but it comes at a cost. And it doesn’t free him from the savagery of those whose job it is to keep slaves in their place with brutality and sexual predation. We are given a fascinating portrait of servitude in Nero’s court in all its shapes and sizes. I really enjoyed this perspective.

Palatine is a tale of salacious goings on and there is a gossipy feel to its style that I found overpowering and too rich at times. There are some moments that made me laugh at loud, there is wit in abundance here, but for me this was overshadowed by the relish with which this decadent court is depicted. There are scenes of utter cruelty but they are lost among the rollicking. This, though, is a matter of personal taste and I can understand why many would find the style of Palatine so enjoyable and fun to read. This is a history and muddle of conspiracies that Suetonius would have revelled in and, if that’s your sort of thing, then you will love it.

For me, though, it’s the descriptions of life below stairs in the imperial court that stands out in Palatine. But we can be in no doubt of what drives everyone – while some must struggle just to stay alive and sane, for others it’s time for change. Nero has to go.

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The Collector by Fiona Cummins

Macmillan | 2018 (22 February) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Collector by Fiona CumminsIf you’ve not read Rattle then tread no further. The Collector follows hot on the heels of Rattle and the two should be read together. This review assumes that you’ve already had the ‘pleasure’ of meeting the Bone Collector.

Our young and valiant hero Jakey escaped the Bone Collector but he had to leave behind little Clara, a fact that will haunt the boy just as it tears apart Clara’s mother, Amy. Life for Amy has stopped. There is so little hope left but what there is comes from DS Etta Fitzroy, whose mission in life is to recover Clara and finally lock the Bone Collector away from the world. Etta is perhaps the only person who believes Clara is still alive. But she can’t have much time left – if she has any at all. As for the Bone Collector, he knows that the police know who he is. He must begin his collection again from scratch but how he mourns the loss of Jakey. How he still wants that extraordinary child in his collection. He needs an assistant, a son even, someone who knows how he feels, someone who is driven to collect. He knows just the person.

Rattle was one of the creepiest thrillers that I read last year, with characters that stayed on the mind. Notably its children. Clara and Jakey are precious and so innocent. Jakey has to deal with a life shortening disease. He won’t make old bones. But he is full of the joy of life, just as Clara believes in her heart that she must be rescued soon because the snow is beginning to fall. Christmas is coming. Father Christmas will save her. My heart fell for these children utterly and there are moments in both of these novels that are painfully poignant and desperate. I’m so glad that Fiona Cummins returned to the story with The Collector. I needed to know what was going to happen.

While Clare and Jakey are innocent, others are not and we’re given a new and intriguing character in The Collector, Saul. He’s complex, undoubtedly odd, and his relationship with his mother is one of the most absorbing parts of the novel. Parenthood is a big theme in these novels and it comes in all shapes and sizes but each type is here under scrutiny.

It’s so good to see the return of Etta Fitzroy, a favourite character of mine in both books. She’s enduring a Herculanean struggle but knows she must never repeat the old mistakes. She is so driven and kind. And another one here who could be described as desperate.

Fiona Cummins writes beautifully and she is also brilliant at characterisation – of both the good and the evil kinds. The Bone Collector himself is truly a demon, despite his physical fragility, but he’s only one of the fascinating characters in The Collector. There are several stories here, all intertwining, illuminating one another. The result is a novel every bit as excellent and chilling as Rattle. It’s a large book but it’s undoubtedly a pageturner. This is an urgent read but with such innocence in danger how could it be anything else?

Other review
Rattle

The Prince and the Whitechapel Murders by Saul David

Hodder & Stoughton | 2018 (22 February) | 294p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Prince and the Whitechapel Murders by Saul DavidIt is 1888 and Major George ‘Zulu’ Hart has returned to England a war hero, decorated with the Victoria Cross. He brings with him his wife and their young child. One would think that they would be ready for a well-deserved rest, but George wishes he were on another fighting commission abroad, and he is well aware that he and his wife are far too profligate for his salary. So he has no choice but to accept his new mission, as unusual as it may seem. Hart is asked to keep the Prince of Wales’s son Prince Albert, known to everyone as Eddy, safe for a year. The Prince, a cavalry officer in George’s regiment, a charismatic, handsome and likeabale man, lives on the edge of scandal. He and his friends frequent London’s male brothels and are seen out and about in Whitechapel, one of London’s most poverty-stricken areas. It’s only a matter of time before Eddy’s behaviour brings disgrace on the royal family.

The timing couldn’t be worse. Irish nationalism is on the rise and its threat has reached London. Prince Eddy is a target for Irish assassins. And the streets of London are restless. A killer is slaughtering Whitechapel’s female prostitutes in the worst of ways. He is known as Jack the Ripper and the rumours surrounding his identity are growing out of control. Major George Hart has no choice but to suspect the worst.

The Prince and the Whitechapel Murders is the third ‘Zulu’ novel by military historian Saul David but this stand alone novel represents a bit of a change for the author. There are no battles to fight here, no recognisable enemy. Instead, what we have is a stand alone Victorian murder mystery featuring a military hero who now has to play detective but must also play a social game. This story also gives George a chance to find out more about the Duke of Cambridge, the man he believes to be his father, and this adds a welcome personal element to the novel’s development.

The relationship between George and the Prince is arguably the most appealing aspect of the novel. There is an etiquette of behaviour demanded by the Prince’s royal position but there is also the matter of army rank – George Hart outranks Prince Eddy and there is a real tension from this that I found fascinating. The novel moves between different worlds – the regulated army, the police investigation into the Ripper murders, the stews of Whitechapel, its brothels and also the pubs where men meet to plot harm. The most vividly depicted are the streets of Whitechapel. The fact that we know what happened to Jack the Ripper’s latest victims, and who they were, adds foreboding.

The investigation into the identity of Jack the Ripper forms the heart of the novel and there are some intriguing suggestions made. I did guess the outcome as presented here very early on and so I’m not sure that it works especially well as a whodunnit but the novel does capture well the squalor of Whitechapel and the constraints of the police investigation.

I found much of the novel rather cold and clinical. I never warmed to George Hart. His family plays very little part in the proceedings and the other relationships in the novel are emotionless. There is a major crime in the book, apart from the Jack the Ripper murders, which is truly horrifying and shocking and yet it’s almost brushed aside.

The Prince and the Whitechapel Murders takes as its subject one of the most infamous and terrible crimes of the Victorian age and adds to it the rather less well known activity of the Irish Fenians as well as the scandalous behaviour of the Queen’s eldest grandson. Major George Hart is thrown into the midst of it all. Possibly there is too much plot for a relatively short novel to juggle but it certainly deals with a fascinating time and raises some interesting themes about Victorian society, morality, politics and murder.

Embers of War by Gareth L Powell

Titan Books | 2018 (20 February) | 411p | Review copy | Buy the book

Embers of War by Gareth L PowellTrouble Dog was once a warship but this sentient vessel made a choice and turned her back on violence, choosing to work instead for the House of Reclamation, an organisation that rescues ships in distress. This can be a lethal business as Sal Konstanz, the captain of Trouble Dog and her small crew, knows only too well. But when a mayday comes across from an extraordinary region of space called the Gallery, Trouble Dog is the nearest ship. A tourist cruise vessel has been fired upon by an unknown enemy, an attack that might not be an isolated incident. Trouble Dog‘s sibling vessels warn her not to go but Trouble Dog is driven by a need to atone for past sins and will not be held back.

The war might have ended but the peace is uneasy, violence still flaring in quiet pockets of human space. On one remote planet Ashton Childe and Laura Petrushka, two spies from opposing sides, work together. Their mission is to rescue the poet Ona Sudak who was on the ship attacked in the Gallery. The rescue will be far from easy and soon Trouble Dog and her crew as well as Childe realise that the consequences of the attack could have repercussions for the entire Galaxy.

I am a huge fan of space opera but most especially when it’s a space opera as well written and gripping as Gareth L Powell’s Embers of War. There’s an explosive opening and that sets the scene and mood for the entire novel but there is far more to this book than warfare and fighting. We’re also given all the other things that I would wish for – fascinating worlds, intriguing characters and relationships, sentient starships, curious aliens and their artefacts, the promise of something huge threatening from the shadows.

I loved the Gallery and Powell describes it beautifully. I need wonder in my space-based science fiction reads and the Gallery supplies me with an awful lot of it. I want to know every detail about the planets in this system as well as all that they suggest about the other life forms, past and present, in the universe. I enjoyed the way in which we learn about humanity’s entry into interstellar travel. I loved the back stories that we learn about some of the characters, particularly about Sal’s past. This is a rich universe for Gareth L Powell to explore, in Embers of War and in future books.

Trouble Dog is an appealing character in her own right, a mixture of dog, human and machine. And we learn a little about the way she thinks thanks to the wonderful structure of the novel which moves between the main characters. I love science fiction novels that do this. I don’t want to be confined, I want to explore it all. And the heads we pop into are varied, from the ship herself to the non-human engineer Nod, and to Ona Sudak marooned on one of the Gallery’s planets. There are some great female characters in Embers of War and they fit perfectly into their distinct roles. Trouble Dog inevitably reminds us of the sentient starships of Iain M Banks but she doesn’t suffer from the comparison.

There is plenty of action in Embers of War and it’s thrilling stuff – moments of real peril as well as violence. But these scenes don’t get in the way of us getting to fall for the characters. Embers of War is a thoroughly exciting pageturner, full of characters and personalities I couldn’t get enough of, and it sets up the next novel in the series beautifully. There are themes and ideas here that I can’t wait to see explored further as we’re taken deeper into space, into a universe that could prove to be very frightening indeed.

Gallery of the Dead by Chris Carter

Simon & Schuster | 2018 (8 February) | 500p | Review copy | Buy the book

Gallery of the Dead by Chris CarterWhen model Linda Parker returns home after a full day’s work to her affectionate cat and stylish house in Los Angeles she is in for the biggest shock of her life. It will also be her last. Her murder will horrify even the most hardened of LA’s Police Department, even Detectives Robert Hunter and Carlos Garcia of the Ultra Violent Crimes Unit. The murder isn’t going to stay their sole property for long. Clues link the murder to others across the United States and so the FBI soon come calling to claim the case.

But Hunter is no normal detective. He wrote the rule book of detection as far as the FBI is concerned and they know that his intuition and instinct will be invaluable, not least in linking murder victims who have nothing in common. With Hunter and Garcia working alongside Special Agents Erica Fisher and Larry Williams, this case is going to be like no other that Hunter has investigated. The killer is certainly unique. But Hunter believes that the murderer is leaving them messages. If only he can work out what they are. And quickly, too. Time is short, and for the next victim it’s about to run out.

Gallery of the Dead is the ninth book in Chris Carter’s Robert Hunter series, following on the heels of The Caller, one of my favourite thrillers of last year. Just like The Caller, Gallery of the Dead works really well as a stand alone novel. It’s clear almost immediately how talented and charismatic a detective Hunter is and no time is wasted before we’re all thrown into the midst of the case. And what a nasty case it is, too. It is gory but even though I’m generally a squeamish reader I was fine with it. We’re in serial killer thriller territory here, which feels far removed from real life, and so the author can get away with murder.

The relationship between Hunter and Garcia is very appealing in these books and Gallery of the Dead is no different. Hunter can feel detached and a little cold, although he is working at warming up a bit, but there’s none of that distance with Garcia. And in this novel we have the added bonus of Fisher and Williams. The relationship between the four of them adds a human side that lightens the mood in a thriller that is often intense and strongly focused.

The case is most certainly a good one although I had some minor misgivings about the way in which it unfolds at the end (for reasons I can’t mention here). But, despite this, Gallery of the Dead gripped me from its creepy first pages. It’s a substantial book but I read it in a couple of pages, grabbing every opportunity I could to read it. Chris Carter is so good at moving a thriller along, packing it full of intensity, evil and pace. I’m still catching up with the Hunter series and Gallery of the Dead, on top of the superb The Caller, has reinforced my desire to do so as quickly as possible.

Other review
The Caller

The Dark Angel by Elly Griffiths

Quercus | 2018 (8 February) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

When Italian archaeologist Dr Angelo Morelli finds some Roman bones in a remote and tiny Italian hilltop town, he’s intrigued enough by them to call on his old friend Dr Ruth Galloway, a forensic anthropologist from Norfolk. Angelo is sure that the addition of a foreign expert at the scene may attract some media attention – he likes to be in the spotlight. But it’s such a beautiful place and Ruth jumps at the chance to spend a fortnight away from home, especially if she can bring Kate her daughter as well as her best friend and her little boy. They will have the run of a lovely old apartment in the local castle, the home of Angelo’s late father. The sea isn’t far away, the town has bars and cafes, and there should be hardly any work at all. It sounds perfect.

But, of course, that’s the dream. The reality is a little different. The history of the small town lives within it, its people cannot let the past go, and something troublesome murmurs below the surface. And Angelo is convinced that somebody is trying to hurt him, even kill him. It’s perhaps fortuitous then that circumstances conspire to bring DI Harry Nelson to Italy from Norfolk. But keeping Ruth and Kate safe is not all that’s on Nelson’s mind. Nelson is a man who carries the weight of the world on his shoulders.

The Dark Angel is the tenth book in Elly Griffiths’ outstanding Ruth Galloway series, a series that is deeply and widely loved by many. It’s certainly one of the series that I love the very most. Ten books! That is something to celebrate indeed. This might be crime fiction but, as all devotees of the series know, that is not what these books are about. There are pleasing mysteries in them all, including The Dark Angel, but the focus, and our attention, is most definitely on Ruth, Nelson and Kate as well as the other regular characters who are so important in their lives, such as Michelle, Cathbad, Judy and Cloughie. Even Bruno the dog and Flint the cat. If you haven’t read any of the others then you would certainly enjoy The Dark Angel but I think you might be missing its point – and to find that you’d need to have fallen for Ruth and those she loves.

The Italian setting is absolutely wonderful! I always enjoy the Norfolk locations of the other books but this hilltop town is so beautifully created, such a mix of stunning scenery and history with foreboding and menace. As Ruth spends her days here, drinking wine, dipping in the sea, mixing with the locals, I felt myself transported. I loved the depiction of the children – and had a laugh when Ruth has to cover up (literally) the things in the smart apartment that they break. I could feel the heat on my skin and almost taste that wine. Glorious.

To be honest, the mystery is not the most gripping or involving. In fact, it’s almost entirely incidental. I was carried away by Ruth and by Nelson. I’m saying nothing about what happens between them in these pages but I could not have been more engrossed and read much of it in one sitting. The story moves between events in Italy and back home in Norfolk and I was kept at the edge of my seat. I suppose you could call this a soap opera, it’s certainly a tangled web, and I couldn’t get enough of it.

Elly Griffiths writes about people and relationships so beautifully. The language is light and so real and genuine. It provokes an emotional response and I spent hours utterly engaged by it. Elly Griffiths writes with such heart and insight for these characters that she clearly loves every bit as much as we do. We are the richer for it, even though I was an emotional wreck by the end of it. I cannot wait for the next book in the series. Luckily, I have a couple of books in Elly Griffiths’ other series, the equally brilliant Stephens and Mephisto novels, to keep me going. We are so lucky to have Elly Griffiths and the fact that she is as prolific as she is talented is something to celebrate.

Other reviews
The Chalk Pit (Ruth Galloway)
The Zig Zag Girl (Stephens and Mephisto 1)
The Vanishing Box (Stephens and Mephisto 4)

Scourge of Wolves by David Gilman (Master of War 5)

Head of Zeus | 2018 (8 February) | 446p | Review copy | Buy the book

Scourge of Wolves by David GilmanScourge of Wolves is the fifth novel in David Gilman’s powerful and uncompromising chronicle of the Hundred Years War. If you haven’t read the others in the series, beginning with Master of War, then tread no further with this review. Much has happened to our hero Thomas Blackstone in the years since the Battle of Crécy in 1346 and so spoilers for the earlier novels are inevitable.

It is the winter of 1361 and the Hundred Years War has drawn to an unlikely and reluctant close. Or so it seems. The French King John, captured by the English at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356 and held hostage in England ever since, has now been ransomed and returned to Paris. But the terms of the release are harsh. France has been brought to its knees. Whole towns must be handed over to England. Many are resisting and the situation is aggravated even more by the bands of lawless routiers or mercenaries who scour the defeated land for what gold is left, fortifying towns for their own evil ends. It’s a mess. Edward III and his son the Black Prince need a man they can trust to sort it out and claim their promised towns. Who better to ask than Sir Thomas Blackstone? And Sir Thomas and his men will have to fight for every step they take.

Scourge of Wolves throws us, and Sir Thomas, immediately into the throes of action. Without the support of a standing army behind them, Thomas’s men are in trouble from the very first page. Their enemy is more desperate and cruel than ever, the walls of France’s fortified towns are more daunting than ever. Not all of Thomas’s swordsmen and archers will survive. This is hard for us. We’ve been following their adventures for several years. We’ve lost so many already. There’s a sense that it can only get worse.

The novel is full of action, there’s barely time to draw breath. There are walls to scale, skirmishes to fight, monsters to punish. And Sir Thomas is not quite sure who he can trust in these lawless days. David Gilman really knows his stuff. The novel is fully immersed in medieval warfare – in its weapons and soldiers, horses, armour, executions and injuries.There’s gore by the bucketload. Medieval war wounds are not a pretty thing and we’re given a detailed depiction of the treatment of one particularly nasty injury. David Gilman presents a fascinating portrait of these terrible times, when plague is still recurring (just to compound the woes of the poor peasantry) and war seems without end. We’re given moments with the powerful – notably the king and dauphin of France – but on the whole Scourge of Wolves keeps us firmly in the field of battle. I must admit to missing the Black Prince in this novel.

It’s undoubtedly exciting! There are many breathless scenes in which survival seems an impossibility. This is military historical fiction, the war leaves little time for anything but fighting, and so this is largely a male history with one notable and rather unpleasant exception. Scourge of Wolves is more action-based than the others, or at least that’s what it felt like to me, and so I did find myself being rushed along from one danger to the next with little time to draw breath or look around – this novel does rely on the reader knowing the characters from the previous books – but I continue to enjoy following the adventures of Sir Thomas Blackstone and his men. One of these days I hope he will find some peace but I sense those days are far off.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, I do love Head of Zeus hardbacks with their ribbons!

Other reviews and features
Master of War
Defiant Unto Death (Master of War 2)
Gate of the Dead (Master of War 3) – review and interview
Viper’s Blood (Master of War 4)
An extract of Viper’s Blood
Guest post – War in the Last Horseman