In 2014 I read more books than I think I’ve ever read before in just one year – 155. It’s fair to say that I’ve spent more time with my nose stuck in a book than I have doing just about anything else (except for that painful 9 to 5 activity which pays for many of the books). On the whole the standard of books has been high, although not, arguably, as high as in 2013, but that may be me being ridiculously picky having read so much. Whittling so many books down to a manageable ‘Best of’ list is nigh on impossible – most good books mean a lot to me as I read them. But I got the chainsaw out and managed to hack the pile down into two more practical lists divided between my two main reading genres – Historical Fiction and Thrillers, and Science Fiction. These include a couple of books which I read at the end of 2013 but reviewed at the beginning of 2014. Not wanting to miss out some of the older books that I thoroughly enjoyed in 2014, there’ll be another post for them.
I must take this opportunity to thank so much all of the wonderful publishers who have been so generous and supportive to this blog this year and over the years. I must also thank everyone who has taken the time to read my reviews and to the bloggers and readers of Twitter whose book tips have made me spend far too much money.
So with no more waffle and in no particular order (except for listing my favourite historical novel last), here are my top ten Historical Fiction novels of 2014, written in the full and frustrated knowledge that I’ve not been able to read all of the historical novels this year that I wanted to. Click on the titles for the full reviews.
Historical Fiction of 2014
Plague Land by S.D. Sykes, Hodder & Stoughton.
When the Black Death had finally eaten its full in 1350, the communities that had survived were left in turmoil, the strings holding society together on the verge of snapping. Oswald de Lacy had been destined for a monastic life, having been sent to the monastery at a tender age, but after his father and two elder brothers were despatched in short measure by the plague, Oswald was recalled by his mother and sister and he assumed, while not yet twenty, the title of lord of Somerhill Manor. The Kent village of Somerhill is a shadow of its former self, many of its occupants, all valuable workers on the Somerhill farm, are dead and several of the survivors have succumbed to superstition and fear. When the body of a young girl is found, her throat torn, the villagers believe the local priest Cornwall when he tells them that she was murdered by no mortal hand but by devil’s beasts, humans with the heads of dogs.
The mystery at the heart of Plague Land is fabulous. I worked out some of it but certainly not all of it and it kept me on tenterhooks to the last page. I really wanted to know. In fact, I found everything about Plague Land unputdownable as it immersed me so fully in the mid 14th century, carried along as I was by these excellent characters as well as by S.D. Sykes’ wonderful writing. There is a lot going on in this book, all of it fully engaging – S.D. Sykes is to be congratulated.
The King and the Slave by Tim Leach, Atlantic Books
When I opened The Last King of Lydia last year, a debut novel set during a period of history I knew very little about, I had no idea that this fabulous book was set to become one of my favourite novels of all. It was complete in itself but it now has a follow up, The King and the Slave, which isn’t so much a sequel as a depiction of another phase in the life of Croesus, once the King of Lydia, the richest king of them all and now reduced to slavery in the household of Cyrus, the King of the Persians. Croesus is a man transformed. His progress to wisdom, begun on a funeral pyre, continues but Croesus the slave has become much more than the King of Lydia ever was, a king who used blinded slaves to count his piles of gold. Croesus might now be more aware, more content in the companionship of his two closest friends, fellow slaves and once slaves of his own Isocrates and his wife Maia, but he will never be less than an object of curiosity for Cyrus. But Croesus’ relatively content existence is thrown into chaos on the death of Cyrus. The new king, Cyrus’ son, is Cambyses who is the epitome of the corruption of power. No-one is safe from his madness, especially after the king is slighted by the Egyptian Pharaoh and his mind is set on fury and vengeance. The King and the Slave presents the incredible story of this insane king, his cruelty and sadism, all the time watched by the one man who wants to save him, his slave Croesus, who is kept little more than one step away from death.
Tim Leach writes and imagines beautifully. Every page is rich in the colour of history and although the time in which the novels are set is remote (6th century BC) Leach brings it into the present thanks to the remarkable portraits he paints. The themes are large and important to the people of this novel – life, the pursuit of happiness, friendship, good kingship, moral responsibility, a good death. I am so delighted, but not surprised, that The King and the Slave is every bit as wonderful as The Last King of Lydia. Hugely moving, the events take place on a mix of grand and small stages but, above all, it is always believable and makes us at home in this ancient distant setting. Fabulous.
Lamentation by C.J. Sansom, Mantle
Matthew Shardlake, lawyer and sergeant, might be forgiven for thinking he has been permitted, finally, the gift of a peaceful retirement from the intrigues of court, allowed instead to nurture his legal practice, to care for his dependents. But all such hopes die in flames, alongside the tortured body of Anne Askew, whose terrible death Shardlake is forced to witness as some sort of punishment. While some may debate secretly whether Anne died a heretic or martyr, others have even more dangerous thoughts. The court is once more divided between reformers and traditionalists, the troubled mind of the diseased, obese, dying King Henry VIII wavering between the two. The traditionalists are determined to find a link between Anne Askew and other deniers of transubstantiation and Henry’s reformer Queen, Catherine Parr. Henry loves his nurse Queen but she may be about to prove herself her own worst enemy. Catherine’s uncle and adviser Lord William Parr calls on Shardlake to once more put himself at the service of Catherine, a woman he holds truly dear even though such service has already almost cost him his life.
It’s been a considerable time since I read a Matthew Shardlake novel. Lamentation is the sixth in the series but the gap between the books is rarely a short one. I also hadn’t read the previous novel, Heartstone, having stalled over Revelation. I was in two minds whether to return to the series but I read the opening chapter in the bookshop and it was magnificent. I was captivated, bought the book and read it straight away, barely drawing breath. Lamentation is the best of the series that I’ve read but it is also one of the finest Tudor novels that I’ve ever read, and I’m including the Hilary Mantel novels in that.
The Iron Castle by Angus Donald, Sphere
The year is 1203 and the Earl of Locksley has a new master. With Richard the Lionheart long dead, his youngest brother John is now King of England and Duke of Normandy, neither of which title is safe. Philip of France is driving John from his Normandy lands while stirring up John’s nephew Arthur to threaten his English throne. Infamous rebel, Robin of Locksley is given the chance by John to win back his titles and land. They will be his reward for three years’ service to a king that no-one can trust. Sir Alan Dale’s sword follows his master’s and, against all better judgement, both men soon find themselves leading their mercenaries, the Wolves, into combat in France. But with one crisis over, another one begins and much of the novel presents the siege of Château Gaillard, Richard I’s greatest fortress, now threatened by Philip of France’s army and the power of his mighty siege engines. Robin and Alan, with their Wolves, are among the defenders on the inside, who have to battle not only Philip but also the overwhelming numbers of townspeople who have taken refuge behind these strong walls, draining the castle of its food and resources. Every arrow counts when there are none to replace them.
I read most of The Iron Castle in one sitting. It’s such an exciting, thrilling adventure but it is also full of life and lives, pulled from history and given breath on the page. With no doubt at all, this is my favourite of Donald’s Outlaw series.
The Black Stone by Nick Brown, Hodder & Stoughton
It is AD 273 and ‘grain man’ or spy Cassius Quintius Corbulo is stationed in Bostra, the capital of the Roman province of Arabia, growing accustomed to his military rank while bemoaning the absence of his manservant, Simo. Simo might be a slave, and a Christian one at that, but Cassius has never been able to shrug off his affection for the man who can anticipate his every need. A visit to Simo’s father, though, has overrun and Cassius is losing his patience. His ex-gladiator bodyguard Indavara is still by his side but even he, a man of few words, is showing signs of trying to shake off his ties to Cassius. It’s almost just as well, then, when spymaster Abascantius turns up with a new, perilous mission for Cassius and Indavara. The Black Stone, an object believed to conduit divine powers, has been stolen from Roman hands, which is unfortunate because emperor Aurelian is determined he needs it to sanctify his rule. Cassius is tasked with gathering a troop of Roman soldiers to go undercover as a merchant and his guards to trace the stone into the desert. The quest will begin in the city of Petra where, it is believed, an agent may have some clues for them (if the local gangs haven’t killed him first for his gambling debts). All the time, though, they hear stories of a new chief in the hills, supported by a tall blond giant and an old woman, who is gathering the local tribes to him. It doesn’t take an imperial agent to work out that Rome has a new enemy.
The Black Stone is the fourth in Nick Brown’s wonderful Agent of Rome series and this one is a little different to its predecessors. At almost 500 pages, it is by far the longest and this means that extra time is given to the action adventure element of the story and the increasingly involved relationships between Cassius, Indavara and, once he returns, Simo. For me, this is a particularly strong feature of the novel and I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know more about Simo and – especially – Cassius and Indavara. Large themes are lightly placed into the novel and it raises the adventure into something very memorable. Its ending leaves the reader crying out for more and I have no doubt that this fantastic series will continue to grow from strength to strength.
Kingmaker: Winter Pilgrims by Toby Clements, Century
It is 1460. A young nun, Katherine, is attacked while outside her convent’s walls by bandits led by the lawless son of Sir Giles Riven. She is saved by a monk, Brother Thomas, whose natural talent for fighting is borne out by the loss of Riven’s eye. There can be no safety for Katherine and Thomas now. The vengeful rage of Sir Giles is matched only by the brutality of the prioress. There is no alternative but for the two to flee, Katherine disguised as the boy Kit, into a world of which they have no experience. Thomas believes that they may find forgiveness in the holy city of Canterbury but their plans are waylaid before they are almost begun. They are taken under the wing of ex-Pardoner and, for very different reasons, outcast Robert Daud who has treasures of some sort or another in his bag. Events take an upper hand and the small group find themselves ensnared by the warring factions of the day, the deadly duel of York and Warwick against the king and his stronger foreign queen. Thomas, an archer in the making, and Kit, gifted with healing hands, become trapped in loyalties, patronised by Sir John Fakenham and his son Richard, caught on a course that will take them to Calais, to south west Wales and to sites of slaughter in the Wars of the Roses, most notably and horrifically the Battle of Towton. Without doubt this is the most harrowing and vivid battle scene that I have ever read.
What a book! This superb novel, alive with fire, blood and mud, has brought me as close to the Wars of the Roses as I could ever want to get. Historical fiction at its best, not least because it reveals the heart and human tragedy that suffered in a civil war that was fought around towns and landscapes that we know so well today and yet they now show so few scars from this violence and division. Normal people, not just nobles and knights, suffered horrendously in this war, as in any war, and yet, as Kingmaker shows, away from the battlefield, in the convents, houses and towns of 15th-century Europe, life could be almost as dreadful. But this isn’t a depressing tale, it’s simply mesmerising.
God of Vengeance by Giles Kristian, Bantam
Norway in the late 8th century AD. The land and sea are divided and ruled by kings and jarls, united in alliances sealed by oathsworn bonds of fealty. To break this oath is to lose all honour and vengeance will be pursued with a godlike fury. King Gorm’s betrayal of Jarl Harald is complete – the jarl is defeated in sea battle, tricked in parley, his people slain in their village or enslaved. Harald’s youngest son Sigurd, who so recently, for the first time, staggered Harald’s men with his innate warrior prowess, survives with his father’s brother in arms, Olaf, the fearful Asgot the godi and Sigurd’s boyhood friend, Svein. Their mission is simple, to rescue Sigurd’s sister, bound for the slave market or a hatefilled marriage, and to wreak vengeance on King Gorm and his henchman Jarl Randver. Sigurd must prove himself, as a wearer of rings let alone a giver of them. He must find his small band a ship worthy of their quest. He must prove godly favour through ritual and magic and he must win new followers to join his men. So begins a quest that will hold the reader spellbound.
This is a glorious novel, unapologetically violent, fabulously celebratory of all things Viking. Sigurd’s quest for vengeance is exciting, brutal, bloody and driven. Without doubt, God of Vengeance is one of the finest historical novels of the year. The whole book is such a brilliant read and I am thrilled that Giles Kristian has returned to a world that he has made his own.
Enemy of Rome by Douglas Jackson, Bantam
It is AD 69 and civil war is threatening to tear the foundations of Rome apart. In this Year of the Four Emperors, nowhere is safe as faction upon faction puts its legions into the field. Gaius Valerius Verrens is in a particularly tight spot – friend to one emperor (Vitellius) but fighting for another (Otho), Valerius has reached the end, bare foot, awaiting a traitor’s death on the bitterly contested soil of Pannonia. But Valerius is a man with powerful friends and it is one of them, Titus, who saves him, putting him to work to support the campaign of his father Vespasian, a general watched closely by destiny. Valerius’s orders are to join commander Marcus Antonius Primus and eradicate Vitellius’s forces which stand between Vespasian and Rome. It’s unfortunate to say the least that Primus would much rather enjoy the sight of Valerius’s corpse than the thought of having the man among his staff. Valerius is driven, though, not just by his reprieve but also by the thought of Domitia, daughter of the great general Corbulo, and now living under the protection of Vespasian’s brother Sabinus in Rome, not to mention the beady lecherous eye of the other son, Domitianus.
The novel is divided in two with much of the book dealing with war and all its complications and blood. Valerius and his servant (although he’s far more friend than servant), Serpentius, are frequently to be found in the midst of battle or leading small numbers in lethal raids. The battle and skirmish scenes are second to none – vividly presented in terrifying detail with, poignantly, several personal stories brought to a close under a blade’s edge or a horse’s hooves. Finally, though, the war must reach the streets of Rome itself and the result is a conclusion that cannot be put down unfinished. Douglas Jackson is a fine writer whose recreation of past lives and places is enriched with a thorough historical and military knowledge and impressive insight. He knows all about pace and action but he is also one of those authors who makes the reader feel that they are witnessing history – and what a period of history this is to be brought alive.
The Tudor Bride by Joanna Hickson, Harper
The Tudor Bride picks up Catherine’s story just where we left it at the end of The Agincourt Bride. The young woman and bride arrives in England, carried ashore on the shoulders of her new courtiers, ready to take her place as queen of a foreign land beside the almost godlike figure of England’s lion, Henry V. But for Catherine the difficulty doesn’t come from learning a new language or getting to know new customs, or even a new husband, it comes from the gentleman and ladies of her court. Young women like Eleanor Cobham compete for position in her household and Catherine soon learns that a slight, however unintentional, may become a wound never to be forgotten. Likewise, trouble brews between Henry’s brothers. The Duke of Gloucester in particular is a man to be watched by this young woman, fulfilling her duty, trying so hard to produce heirs for a country that hates her home. All, though, might have been bearable if Henry V had lived. But he didn’t.
In this deeply evocative and consuming novel, Joanna Hickson presents a living, breathing portrait of Catherine during the best and worst of times. As a widow and mother to a small boy king, her position is precarious at best. Aside from the political and social difficulties Catherine faces, she is a very young woman, beautiful and kind, who has to fight against people who would willingly destroy her rather than allow her any future happiness. For others, her hand in marriage is a great temptation. Kept from her son, spied upon by his regents and tormented by those who once served her, Catherine’s lot is laid out before us in a novel that I couldn’t let out of my sight. This is historical fiction at its very finest and every bit as wonderful and mesmerising as its predecessor The Agincourt Bride. Characters both historic and fictional shine in this novel, each leaving their own mark, led by Catherine de Valois, Henry V’s queen and widow, and her faithful servant and companion Mette. I cannot praise this superb novel enough, I only wish I hadn’t finished it.
And finally, my favourite historical fiction novel of the year and joint favourite novel of the year (the other favourite will be revealed in the Science Fiction post).
The Winter Crown by Elizabeth Chadwick, Sphere
It is December 1154 and Eleanor of Aquitaine is crowned Queen of England in Westminster Abbey alongside her younger husband, the charismatic and ever restless King Henry II. Now Queen of England and Duchess of Normandy and Anjou, once Queen of France and always, in her own right, Duchess of Aquitaine, Eleanor is now in the realms of making history, becoming arguably the most famous and powerful woman of the Middle Ages. But the legend of Eleanor, the beautiful Duchess, muse of the troubadors, Crusader, Queen and mother to surely one of the most dysfunctional broods in royal history, is one well worth retelling and in no writer’s hands is she safer than in the care of Elizabeth Chadwick. The Winter Crown is the second in a trilogy which will, I have no doubt, become the definitive fictional account of this remarkable woman, who is brought to life on these pages as Alienor. The Winter Crown focuses on Alienor’s prime years, the years in which she gave Henry child after child, becoming almost the brood mare she least wanted to be, years in which she lost children and the years that killed the one-time great love between Henry and Alienor.
I’ve read a fair few fictional depictions of Henry II over the years and I must say that his portrait in The Winter Crown has the most authentic feel of them all. Refusing to wear a crown or the trappings of rank, this is a power engine of a man. There is little or no sentimentality in him. Everyone has their use and everyone has a price. His battles with Thomas Becket, a man that Henry made into what he became, forms much of the first half of the book. The remainder raises the curse that was to afflict Henry through the rest of his life – his sons. Elizabeth Chadwick is such a fine writer. She brings history to life so vividly it is as if we are witnessing it ourselves and not simply reading it on the page. The prose, including the dialogue, has a lightness to it, nothing is forced, it feels natural and real. The events took place centuries ago but Elizabeth Chadwick makes travelling back through the years seem effortless. The Summer Queen is such a fine novel but I think The Winter Crown even exceeds it which is an enormous achievement and fills me with excitement and anticipation for The Autumn Throne.
The only way I could create a list of ten was to first create a list of 22. I love each of these books and heartily recommend them:
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
A Day of Fire: a novel of Pompeii (anthology)
Trinity by Conn Iggulden
Savage Magic by Lloyd Shepherd
Masters of Rome by Robert Fabbri
The Storms of War by Kate Williams
Warlord’s Gold by Michael Arnold
The Spider of Sarajevo by Robert Wilton
A King’s Ransom by Sharon Penman
The Emperor’s Knives by Anthony Riches
Sisters of Treason by Elizabeth Fremantle
I must mention that the historical series of Michael Arnold, Douglas Jackson, Robert Fabbri, Angus Donald, Nick Brown, Ben Kane, Giles Kristian, Anthony Riches and Conn Iggulden provide me with enormous pleasure every single year – many thanks to them! Another favourite author of mine, Manda/M.C. Scott, hasn’t published a novel in 2014 and so I am particularly excited for The Girl Who Walked into Fire (about Joan of Arc), to be published in May 2015.
Good mystery thrillers have been few and far between in 2014 but much was made up for by Andy McDermott producing not one but two thrillers this year! One of my final reads of 2014, I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh, took me into unfamiliar territory – the pyschological thriller – and it was outstanding. Here are my favourite thrillers of the year.
The Valhalla Prophecy by Andy McDermott, Headline
Andy McDermott’s Nina Wilde and Eddie Chase thrillers are among my very favourite novels. When one of these books comes out, it goes right to the top of the reading pile and, as with The Valhalla Prophecy, I’ll be there at midnight, downloading it to my kindle in its first seconds of existence in the big wide world. The Valhalla Prophecy is the ninth novel in the series and it’s been two years since the last. How I’ve missed them! But it was well worth the wait. This is thriller writing at its very best. This might be a series but it doesn’t matter too much if you read this before reading the others or read any of them out of order.
The Valhalla Prophecy has a dual narrative for much of its length. When Nina and Eddie are persuaded to visit Sweden on the trail of a deadly black toxin, the stuff of Viking legend which, if discovered, could mean the world’s demise through cancerous plague, it awakens memories in Eddie of a mission he undertook to Vietnam eight years before during his divorce from the unparalleled Sophia. The same people are involved again and, because of his previous experiences, Eddie knows better than anyone how this Viking mystery should remain unsolved and forgotten. Unfortunately, Nina has other ideas. Andy McDermott is a master of humorous dialogue between Nina and Eddie and other characters. But McDermott does not shy away from evils in the world. Eddie falls back on juvenile jokes as an escape from what he has seen and in this novel we get a glimpse of it ourselves. It’s nasty and we can see why it continues to haunt Eddie and why he has made the promise he has to reveal its secrets to no-one.
The adventure is a blast from start to finish! There are gun battles, fights in planes, streets and jungles, in icey canyons and Russian military compounds (to name just a few). The story itself contains the right mix of history, archaeology and 21st-century threat. It’s a more intense novel than previous books in the series. It’s still funny but it is less light-hearted and it is disturbing. The Viking element is less important than it might have been in an earlier novel but The Valhalla Prophecy is an ambitious and lengthy thriller. It has well over 500 pages and each of those pages is overflowing. This book is an investment of your time. How brilliant then that it rewards you so fully.
I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh, Sphere
I Let You Go begins with the death of a child, a five-year-old boy, run over crossing the street in front of his warmly-lit, welcoming house not long before Christmas. The mother let go of Jacob’s hand for an instant, just to push hair behind her ears. It was enough. A driver hit her boy and then drove away, leaving them in the road. And now she must deal with loss compounded by guilt for that instant, a moment she relives time after time after time. That instant in time changed the life of Jenna Gray forever. Unable to cope, she walks away, moving to a quiet holiday cottage on the Welsh coast, a place untouched by tourism during the winter months. She makes no effort to rebuild her life, merely learning how to exist one day at a time, but soon the lives of others begin to touch her own, allowing her a glimpse of a future. But the past will not let Jenna Gray go.
The story is divided into first person and third person narratives. We experience Jenna’s story through her own eyes but the police investigation is told by our knowledgeable narrator. This means that we are given a wider view of the case but it doesn’t stop us getting close to Ray, the DI, and Kate, his detective who is new to the job. But it’s not just these two we get to know – we spend time with the whole department as well as moving into Ray’s home, witnessing first hand the impact that investigating such a traumatic case as this, the death of a child, can have on police families. I Let You Go contains a twist that beats most that I’ve encountered in the past and, rather unusually, I didn’t guess it. But I soon realised that I Let You Go is much, much more than a psychological thriller with a twist. It’s hard to believe that it is a debut novel – Clare Mackinstosh is a supremely confident writer, sparing in her words, making the best use of each. It’s not often I read a novel in one day but I did just that with I Let You Go.
Zodiac Station by Tom Harper, Hodder & Stoughton
Captain Franklin of the Terra Nova, a US Coast Guard ice breaker, sits down to tell us the beginning of our tale, how his crew out on the Arctic ice spotted a bear coming towards them. A few shots fired above its head failed to stop it. One last frantic shot saw it fall but when they approached it, it turned out to be not a bear at all but a man in a red jacket bearing the insignia of Zodiac Station, a scientific research base. Safely aboard the vessel, Tom Anderson awakes and slowly recounts, to the captain and to us, the story of the disaster that devastated Zodiac Station, leaving himself as its sole survivor. As the story continues, the reader enters the frozen world of Zodiac Station, the narrative shifting from the perspective of one to another of its scientists, focusing on Anderson, the medical doctor Kennedy and scientist Eastman, with the enigmatic figure of Greta shadowing them all. While Franklin’s contribution remains in the third person, the others are immediate and in the first person, including journal extracts. All recall the disintegration of Zodiac Station deep within the Arctic, an environment that is watched over from the distance by polar bears and the faded industrial remains of people who lived and worked here long ago. Something sinister is at work and it threatens the life of everyone in the Station.
As one would expect from a Tom Harper thriller, the plot is deliciously clever and is as twisty as you could wish for. When all we have to go on are the words of the last inhabitants of Zodiac Station, we’re advised to keep our wits alive. There are some great moments, too, not least in the Station’s dedicated Thing night – original version, obviously – which, disaster or no disaster, has to go on, no matter what. This sense of absurdity, madness even, is perfectly in tune with this extraordinary environment which is threatened from without and from within. You can never forget the bears. There’s not much separating man from beast in this world, nor reality from horror.
Last Judgement by John Carter, Penguin
Paris, 1314; the Grand Master of the Knights of the Temple is burned at the stake. He faces Notre Dame Cathedral, his hands bound as if in prayer. But it’s not a prayer that moves his lips but a curse against all those who have destroyed his Order, damning its knights to death or flight. One such knight, Arnaud de Faulke, bears witness and leaves Paris to fulfil his last duty to his Master. Faulke’s task and the journey it takes him on takes many years and along the way he is careful to leave clues so that when the time should come that the Order is reborn future knights will be able to follow in his footsteps and continue their age-old mission for vengeance. In the present day, Jack, Angela and Sean – soldier, scholar and obsessive, each with a driving interest in determining the truth about this most infamous of medieval Orders – are given the opportunity to follow the last Templars, to search out their clues, to recover the treasure in whatever form it should take. Our three heroes, though, are unaware that the clock is ticking, that knights of the New Order are one step ahead. They have a deadline to catch.
I am a huge fan of mystery thrillers but good ones are a bit of a rare beast. I have to be able to control my incredulity, to believe the fantastical, to accept this alternate perilous world in which I’m placed where anything can happen and does, to not want to put the story down for a minute longer than I have to. I’m delighted to report that Last Judgement made me do all of this, stealing my weekend in that most pleasant of ways. Between the atmospheric opening page and the excitement and tension of the last, Last Judgement presents a thrilling race across old and new worlds, covering thousands of miles and several cultures. Well-written throughout, the thriller is also intelligently done, packed with the kind of historical details that make me want to research places and people.
Pyramid by David Gibbins, Headline
Marine archaeologist and adventurer Jack Howard, together with his friend and diving partner Costas, makes an extraordinary discovery in the depths of the Red Sea – a find that puts under the brightest spotlight one of the key events of the Old Testament. But this is not a good time to be in Egypt. Religious extremists are on the verge of taking over the country, throwing it back into another Dark Ages, taking its people and archaeological treasures to the brink of suppression, death and extermination. It was these dangerous conditions that caused Jack and Costas to flee Egypt in the previous novel, Pharaoh, but their discoveries then were more than enough to bring them back and now, in the Red Sea and in the sands below the pyramids of Giza, there are wonders even more spectacular waiting to be found. That’s if Jack and Costas survive, of course, and the chances of that lessen with every passing hour.
Pyramid is a fast moving archaeological adventure although as with David Gibbins’ other novels and especially Pharaoh, I would hesitate to use the word ‘thriller’ to describe them. There are none of the baddies you’d expect in a conventional mystery thriller. Instead the excitement and danger here come from the dives themselves, from the unknown and from the very real and imminent threat of political and military coup. A worthy successor to last year’s Pharaoh.
Finally, my favourite thriller on the year:
Biblical by Christopher Galt, Quercus
John Macbeth is a psychiatrist involved in one of several projects around the globe which seek to take consciousness one step further by investing artificial intelligence with self-awareness. Science leads the way, religions fade, humanism is key. But that was before ‘the staring’ began. People began to stop dead in the street, staring over other people’s shoulders or through their bodies, intent on something that nobody else could see. When this happens to car drivers, pilots of planes, leading political or industrial figures, it’s time to take notice. Macbeth is better placed than most to try and understand this strange behaviour, because he is also subject to it. He too feels the deja vu, the chill in the air, the presence of ghosts. Staring is followed by suicides, committed by people completely out of character, sometimes in large numbers. Then there are the visions, followed by larger events, ones shared by whole cities. But these large scale phenomena are accompanied by countless numbers of personal experiences by men, women and children, each of whom sees something different, is taken out of their time and finds themselves lost, terrified, hunted, something else. And it is these stories, along with those mass events, which fill the pages of Biblical, spellbinding the reader who has no idea what could possibly happen in the next chapter.
It would be difficult to imagine a world less certain than the one portrayed in Biblical. As a result, anything can and does happen to leading characters. The book has more twists than a corkscrew. But what is also contains are grand themes, most notably religion versus science, in all levels of life, society and government. There is a philosophical element, too, concerning the nature of existence and its relation to time. Everything becomes questionable. Whatever is happening affects people on a profound level. Biblical is such a clever thriller, with science fiction and apocalyptic colours, but it is also hugely entertaining and well-written. One of my most memorable reads of the year.
Next time, Science Fiction…