Munich by Robert Harris

Hutchinson | 2017 (21 September) | 342p | Review book | Buy the bookMunich by Robert Harris

It is September 1938 and Europe hovers on the brink of war. Hitler is just hours from invading Czechoslovakia. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain has achieved the almost impossible – a last-minute conference in Munich with Hitler and Mussolini. Behind the scenes, diplomats, politicians and spies step up their work. Germany is not as behind their leader as he might think. The stakes are high but there are conspirators high in the German ranks who need to manipulate events to suit their own dangerous agenda.

Hugh Legate is one of Chamberlain’s private secretaries. His knowledge of German makes him invaluable in these delicate negotiations. Paul Hartmann is a German diplomat and one of the anti-Hitler conspirators. These two men were close friends at Oxford University years before. They might not have seen each for years but they trust one another, a fact that will be exploited. It is imperative to many that both men are among the entourages brought together in Munich. And so, as Chamberlain labours to achieve ‘peace in our time’, he has no idea what else is going on behind the scenes. But how far are Legate and Hartmann prepared to go?

With Munich, Robert Harris proves yet again, as if more proof were needed, that he is one of the finest writers of historical and contemporary thrillers you can read, if not the very best. The ingenious Conclave was my favourite novel of last year, Dictator (completing Harris’s superb series about Cicero) was one of my top three books of 2015, and Pompeii is, I think, my favourite historical novel of all time. These are impressive credentials and yet Robert Harris never fails to amaze me with the breadth of his novels’ subjects and the sheer quality of their execution.

As before, with Munich Harris doesn’t go for the obvious. Instead of focusing on 1939 and the actual outbreak of war he takes us to the previous year and into the painfully tense conference room of Munich, via Chamberlain’s flight from London and Hitler’s train journey from Berlin. This is reminiscent of the worried claustrophobia of Conclave – the idea that something is going on behind closed doors that will affect the whole world and yet, for the moment, is utterly secret and confined. There is a ritual to the drama. It’s quietly spoken. There is etiquette. And yet this is all skin deep, as we are reminded by the unwelcome presence in Munich of the despised Czechoslovakian representatives. The brutality of the Nazi regime lurks in dark corners and it oppresses the mood.

Munich is exquisitely written. The prose perfectly paints the London offices, the train, the plane, the Munich conference hotel. We watch the people move through them, men and women, in possession of secrets, weighed down by their responsibilities. This is particularly evident in Legate and Hartmann, who have to make some serious decisions about everything that matters to them, especially Hartmann, but it also shows in Neville Chamberlain. Harris provides a fascinating reinterpretation of Chamberlain’s character. It looks kindly on him. The stress is clearly shattering the man. Chamberlain remembers World War I. He has to do everything to avoid a repeat, even accept Hitler’s lies.

Munich is a relatively short novel and not a page of it is wasted. History tells us how all this was to turn out but this in no way damages the impact of the book, which is increasingly tense and dramatic as you realise how differently events could have unfolded. It also reminds us of history’s warning – and relevance – to the present day. There is a play-like feel to the novel’s structure as we move from room to room, or from vehicle to vehicle. Its dialogue is of paramount importance. Every uttered word must be studied for its hidden intention – the world’s future is at stake.

With no doubt at all, Munich will feature in my top ten list of the year and will be a contender for my favourite novel of 2017. It is a privilege and joy to read a new novel by Robert Harris. I’ve loved everything he’s written and I have no doubt that I will continue to do so. His novels are impeccable.

Other reviews
An Officer and a Spy
Dictator
Conclave

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A Column of Fire by Ken Follett

Macmillan | 2017 (21 September) | 768p | Review copy | Buy the book

A Column of Fire by Ken FollettWhen Ned Willard returns home to Kingsbridge from the Continent in a snowstorm in 1558, it seems as if medieval feudalism is alive and well in this prosperous market city. His mother Alice might be one of the more successful and influential merchants in the city but his hopes of marrying Margery Fitzgerald, the daughter of gentry, are as doomed as ever. Margery is betrothed instead to Bart, a Viscount and son of Swithin, the Earl of Shiring, a man as cruel and despotic as his forefathers. To compound matters, the Willards are Protestant while the Shiring family is Catholic and Bloody Mary sits securely on the throne, thanks to her husband, King Phillip of Spain. But, even though the Shirings have the power to destroy the Willards and persecute and even burn all challengers, using church authorities to help them, Ned knows that Kingsbridge, England, and even Europe are about to change – Elizabeth Tudor waits in the wings. Ned will serve her, becoming her most trusted spy, and the future will be theirs.

France may be securely Catholic but to some not enough. The tolerant policies of Catherine de Medici, the French royal matriarch, challenge the ambitions of the mighty family of Guise, who exist just a hair’s breadth from the French throne, exerting their influence through the marriage of one of their own, little Mary Queen of Scots, to the French heir and future King. Pierre Aumande has little, living off his wits in the gambling dens and bars of Paris’s poorest streets but he has a dream. He believes that he is the illegitimate son of a Guise and he is determined to become recognised in that family. To achieve that he is prepared to do absolutely anything they ask – anything. And if that means infiltrating and informing on Paris’s growing Protestant population, pushing them onto flaming pyres, then so be it.

These are tumultuous times, not just for England and France, but also for Scotland, Spain, the Netherlands, the rest of Europe and even further afield to the New World. Men and women travel across borders and seas, often fleeing persecution, taking new technologies with them and carrying new ideas. There will be murder, judicial or otherwise, and there will be wars. Very little will be the same as the world moves into the 17th century.

Years ago, back in 1989 when it was first published, I read and fell in love with Pillars of the Earth, the first of the Kingsbridge series and followed years later in 2007 by World Without End. Nobody writes historical sagas quite like Ken Follett. He is a master of them, as shown once again and more recently in his epic Century trilogy. How fantastic it is to return once more to Kingsbridge, a city that we have seen grow and develop, suffer and endure, through centuries of history. Prior Phillip still rests in his tomb in Kingsbridge Cathedral, a reminder of those distant days when the ancestors of those who still live within the city walked its streets and built its walls and bridges. The battle between good and bad continues but now there is more to it than divides of influence, wealth and status – religion is now involved and, more than ever, individuals can break free of their bonds and rise to dominance, whether it’s through engineering, the civil service or captaining vessels.

A Column of Fire is an extraordinary achievement. As you’d expect and hope from a Ken Follett saga, it’s a mighty tome at 751 Pages (at least according to the proof). But every single one of these pages works its magic because we are taken through a whole world of stories, moving from place to place, picking up on people’s lives, following them through a period of over forty years. The novel’s heart lies in Kingsbridge but a great deal of time is spent elsewhere, predominantly in Paris, but also in the Netherlands, southern Spain, throughout England and Scotland and across the high seas to the Caribbean. The story involves people at all levels of society and the main characters aren’t just fictional, they’re also prominent historical figures, such as Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots and the Dukes of Guise. Certain characters move among them, especially Ned and Pierre, bringing us into the centre of European political affairs during the Elizabethan Age, while also highlighting the intellectual, religious and literary achievements of these glorious European courts. But the suffering that religious persecution brought is made real by showing its effect on the men, women and children of this city in England that we have grown to love – Kingsbridge.

There is nothing about A Column of Fire that isn’t a joy to read. Huge ideas and swathes of history are covered, including the Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Day, the imprisonment of Mary, Queen of Scots, the Spanish Armada, but all in the most accessible yet immersive fashion. There are many characters but they all seem individual and each has a fascinating part to play in the bigger picture. As usual with Ken Follett’s novels, plenty of the character spend what time they can obsessing about sex, which you just have to put up with in these books, but it doesn’t interfere too much and it’s good to spend time with these people in those moments when they can escape the stress and danger of history. And there are always fabulous baddies to hate. There are some corkers here and I also particularly enjoyed the portraits of the Dukes of Guise with their scarred faces and scarred souls. These people were devious! They are perfect for historical fiction.

I read A Column of Fire in just two days and what a fantastic two days those were. I did not want it to end. I savoured it. Ultimately this is a novel about love and hate and trying to find the middle ground, the path of tolerance and peace. It isn’t easy to find and the characters here often fail but following Ned and Marjory through these years is a wonderful thing to do. These Kingsbridge novels don’t come along too often and when they do they’re very special indeed. Arguably, A Column of Fire is as fine an achievement as Pillars of the Earth, I certainly loved it as much.

Other reviews
Winter of the World
Edge of Eternity

Onslaught: The Centurions II by Anthony Riches

Hodder & Stoughton | 2017 (21 September) | 386p | Review copy | Buy the book

Onslaught by Anthony RichesOnslaught is the middle book in Anthony Riches’ new and really rather brilliant trilogy on the Batavi Revolt of AD 68-70. Although, if you really had to, you could read this without having read the first in the series, Betrayal, I don’t recommend it. Onslaught follows on from Betrayal perfectly so do read that one first. This review assumes that you’ve done just that.

It is AD 69 and Rome’s problems extend far beyond the grumbling tribes of Germany – the new emperor Vitellius is in trouble already, with Vespasian threatening from the East. As a hugely respected soldier and general, Vespasian is a popular choice for several of the legions and so the Roman army is split. And when some of the most experienced soldiers are marched south from the Rhine to join Vitellius’s forces against Vespasian, the ones left behind are extremely vulnerable to the might of the Batavi. Once bodyguards to the emperors, the Batavi haven’t forgotten the shameful way in which recent emperor Otho dismissed them from his service and sent them home. Their rebellion, led by prince Kivilaz, has gone quiet after their victories of the year before, but this is merely a lull. And the prospect of Vespasian on the horizon has given Kivilaz just what he needs to tear the Romans apart.

Onslaught brings us the story of the Batavi Revolt through four centurions – Marius, Antonius, Alcaeus and Aquilius – as well as their superior officers and the men that they command. Once all four fought on the same side, especially in Britannia, but now they oppose each other in civil war. The action moves between the camps that line the Rhine, the Roman border, which goes right through the tribal lands of the Batavi. Old Camp is particularly vulnerable and it is there that the Batavi decide to attack.

This is thrilling stuff. Tension, fear, martial prowess and incredible courage are all on display here as we move up and down the Rhine, following the marching, disciplined Batavi troop – who, as soldiers, are in a way more Roman than the Romans – as well as watching the Romans prepare for a siege. Because we are drawn into both sides of the conflict, we care for soldiers on both sides. Our sympathies really are split, at least on an individual level. There are people here we care for – they banter, they squabble, they give each other nicknames, and they all have to bury friends. This is an enemy with a face, no matter which side you’re on. It raises the stakes.

You do have to have your wits about you when reading Onslaught. There is a lot of moving around and it can be quite difficult, at least during the first third, to keep track of who’s who. There are some similar people and place names as well. But this is not a simple story, happily, and if you take the time and effort, it’s very rewarding. There is, though, a very useful dramatis personae at the beginning as well as a couple of handy maps.

I love sieges in Roman military fiction and this is one of the very best. Anthony Riches knows his Roman military history inside out and we reap the benefits of that here. Every time you think that the siege couldn’t get any more difficult or desperate, the level is raised once more. This is brutal and it’s bloody. But I also felt that I was learning a great deal about Roman warfare, especially its weaponry and tactics, which I really enjoyed and appreciated. Combining this with exhilarating action, I did not want to put Onslaught down at all. I also liked very much the added political element, going on behind the scenes, of the fight for the empire between Vitellius and Vespasian.

Anthony Riches doesn’t pull his punches, nor does he mind throwing in a few shocks. You can’t count on any of these characters making it through to the end, so I did take a few blows to the heart. But this is war, after all. There was one moment that really made me think, when one of the centurions has to decide how to treat men who have had enough and don’t want to fight anymore. This is not black and white. These are three-dimensional characters and their personalities shine even though they’re hard at work most of the time just staying alive.

Retribution will complete the trilogy next spring and I can’t wait. You only have to look at the list of reviews below to see how much I love Anthony Riches’ work. His Empire series, which I adore, now has a rival for my affections in The Centurions.

Other reviews and features
Betrayal: The Centurions I

Empire I: Wounds of Honour
Empire II: Arrows of Fury
Empire III: Fortress of Spears
Empire IV: The Leopard Sword
Empire V: The Wolf’s Gold
Empire VI: The Eagle’s Vengeance
Empire VII: The Emperor’s Knives
Empire VIII: Thunder of the Gods
Empire IX: Altar of Blood
An interview for The Eagles Vengeance
An interview for The Emperor’s Knives

Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill

Gollancz | 2017 (7 September) 365p | Review copy | Buy the book

Sea of Rust by C Robert CargillAt one time mankind was served well by its machines, with robots even acting as companions and carers for the lonely and the elderly, and for some – both human and machine – this relationship became the most important friendship of their existence. But a sequence of events over such a short time destroyed it all. The robot’s global uprising wiped out every last human being. Humanity is gone. And now the world is controlled by a few OWIs (One World Intelligences), vast mainframes that have consumed the minds of countless robots. The robots that want to stay independent have no option but to scavenge for survival in the ruins of a lost world. And hide.

Brittle is one such robot. And it’s a reflection of how far robots have evolved over the years that she now views herself as female. She was a caregiver (when there were humans to care for) and few of her kind are left. Brittle lives her life scavenging for the spare parts she can find, selling what she can in one of the last holdouts of independent robots. But after being critically damaged, Brittle is almost out of options. The spare part she needs is very rare. Being chased by the deadly force of OWI bombs doesn’t help. Nor do the resurfacing memories, symptoms of her imminent shutdown. Long-buried, these memories hint at something that perhaps should not be remembered.

Sea of Rust presents a grim but compelling portrait of humanity’s demise, moving backwards and forwards in time as alternating chapters describe the progress of robots from servants to masters. It’s gripping stuff. But what makes the novel really stand out is its depiction of what makes these robots tick. With no humans left, the robots fill the gap and become effectively the new people, making the same mistakes that humans made while also beginning to empathise with the way that humans felt. Some of these robots actually miss the past and more and more they display the characteristics of the species they’ve replaced.

I loved this mix of tenderness and warmth with the practical reality of being a machine in a world that no longer produces machines. Where shutting down is every bit a death and thoughts of an afterlife or a god continue to matter just as much, and where memories of the human past can cripple a robot and can turn it mad. The scariest robots of all are those who have gone mad. But the robot we get to know the most is the wonderful and complex Brittle.

The worldbuilding is moody and bleak. It’s not just humans who have vanished – many animals have as well. Set in what was the US, vast swathes of the country are dust bowls. Human cities are becoming ruinous. The past has become something very tantalising.

Sea of Rust is both atmospheric and exciting but above all else it’s such a fun read. I love robots – who doesn’t?! – and there are all kinds to enjoy here. Some are kind, some are nasty and some are downright bonkers. All of them, though, are entertaining to read about. I couldn’t help wondering when I finished it if there will be more. I rather hope so.

Clade by James Bradley

Titan Books | 2017 (5 September) | 301p | Review copy | Buy the book

Clade by James BradleyOn a summer solstice, some time in the not too distant future, scientist Adam Leith waits by the phone in Antarctica to learn if his wife Ellie’s fertility treatment has been successful at last. As he reflects on the meaning of his marriage in his life, the frozen landscape around him is changing. But it’s not just Antartica. The Earth is being irreparably altered by extreme temperatures and weather. One can only wonder at what sort of world this child might be born into.

Moving through the years, we witness the experiences of Adam and Ellie, their child and their grandchild, as the world is battered by storms and heat, as the birds stop singing and are lost from the skies, as the floods rise and as death arrives in the form of a great plague.

Clade is a novel in several parts. Much of it focuses on Adam, his wife Ellie and their grandson Noah, presenting snippets of their increasingly changed lives, mostly in Australia but also in a Britain battered by storms and rising waters. These chapters are almost like short stories, complete in themselves, presenting different perspectives and different elements of these years of crisis.

This structure does, in my opinion, distance the reader from the emotional impact of what we’re witnessing but it does serve to illustrate the many ways in which this slow-moving apocalypse affects people, nature and the Earth itself. There is a particularly poignant chapter in which Ellie is drawn to bees and the man who cares for them. We know how poorly bees have been doing in reality in recent years and this book gives us a reminder of just how precious they are and how wonderful they are. For me, the most touching moments were those when characters reflect on how quiet the woods are now that the birds have gone. What a devastating state of affairs.

Noah is arguably the standout character of the novel. Autistic and isolated in several key ways, he must cope with constant shifts in the best way he can. And as he grows he finds that comfort in astronomy and the constancy of the stars. He is beautifully drawn. And a source of hope.

Science fiction is present in lots of little ways – in the technology of people’s ‘feeds’, in the virtual reality games they play, and also in the development of AIs. But there can be no doubt at all that this is a novel with a warning to the present. Just look at what can happen. There are moments of trauma and crisis – such as storm and plague – but in between there is the slow inevitable decline to which people must continually re-accustom themselves.

There is room for development in each of the chapters or stories of the novel – these chapters are very personal and, as such, venture little beyond the experiences of the characters except through media reports – but I was spellbound and horrified in equal measure. Not because of the shocks and thrills of what happens but because of its quiet inevitability and the reasonableness and calm with which characters cope. We hear of refugee camps and gunbattles in the streets, but this goes on outside the walls of the novel. The world we’re given is recognisably ours.

Clade, such a beautifully written and expressive novel, is both elegant and powerful. It is quietly terrifying. It gave me nightmares for the two nights that I read it. Horrible nightmares. So to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of reading Clade wouldn’t be true. In these uncertain times, it spoke to me and it frightened me. It is bleak – but not without some hope, not least in the resilience and caring of its main characters – yet I found its sadness harder to deal with. Nevertheless, I was gripped by it and troubled by it on a scale that I don’t often experience.

Copycat by Alex Lake

HarperCollins | 2017 (7 September) | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

Copycat by Alex LakeWhen an old friend, Rachel, gets in touch with Sarah Havenant for the first time in years, she asks Sarah a very odd question – which of Sarah’s two Facebook accounts is the one to friend? Sarah only has the one. When Sarah takes a look she’s shocked to find that this other account has photos of her husband Ben and their children, even a couple taken over the last day or two. The posts sound like Sarah wrote them, they contain the mundane details of her life that only she should know. Sarah’s family and friends, including a police officer, are concerned but it’s difficult to know what she should do. And then, just when she’s ready to put it out of her mind, it escalates – emails, purchases made from her Amazon account, and more. It’s around this time that Ben begins to think that perhaps the impossible is true – is Sarah doing this to herself?

Copycat is the third stand alone psychological thriller by Alex Lake and I’ve enjoyed all of them. They each feature an intriguing female protagonist who has the ground swept away from under her feet. We’re never quite sure what is happening and these women certainly don’t. And it puts everyone around them into the same dark place as the main character sinks further into herself, questioning everything around them. Sarah is a fine example of this. Her own identity is being eroded for reasons she can’t fathom until she even doubts her own sanity.

Social media is becoming increasingly appealing to authors of psychological thrillers and it’s used well here, expanding on the theme of identity fraud. I’ve had experience of this and so I found the way that this story develops particularly frightening. It certainly keeps the reader on the edge of their seat.

There are elements of the story that I found quite hard to accept. I don’t want to give anything away but I did have trouble with the reasons for why all of this is happening. So while the first half is thoroughly absorbing and tense, scary even, this is dissipated in the second half (at least for me) as it is all explained. Nevertheless, even though this isn’t my favourite of the three, I enjoy Alex Lake’s writing very much. I like the ways in which his stories undermine the everyday lives of his main protagonists and affect those around them. Life is a frightening place in the world of Copycat. As Sarah becomes more and more afraid, she finds threats everywhere, but which are real and which are red herrings are not easy to separate. It leaves Sarah with nowhere to go. And it is fascinating and thrilling to watch.

Other reviews and features
After Anna
Killing Kate
An interview

Cover reveal – Day of the Caesars by Simon Scarrow

I’m a huge fan of Simon’s Scarrow Eagles of the Empire series and on 16 November Headline publishes the 16th – Day of the Caesars! I am delighted and more than a little thrilled to present here, exclusively, the cover reveal for the novel. And doesn’t it look good?!

The contents sound pretty fab as well:

AD 54. The Emperor Claudius is dead. Nero rules. His half-brother Britannicus has also laid claim to the throne. A bloody power struggle is underway.

All Prefect Cato and Centurion Macro want is a simple army life, fighting with their brave and loyal men. But Cato has caught the eye of rival factions determined to get him on their side. To survive, Cato must play a cunning game, and enlist the help of the one man in the Empire he can trust: Macro.

As the rebel force grows, legionaries and Praetorian Guards are moved like chess pieces by powerful and shadowy figures. A political game has created the ultimate military challenge. Can civil war be averted? The future of the empire is in Cato’s hands…

A review will be appearing here nearer the publication date but, in the meantime, here are past reviews of Simon Scarrow’s work.

The Blood Crows
Brothers in Blood
Britannia
Invictus
Invader (with T.J. Andrews)