Category Archives: Review

Thunder of the Gods (Empire VIII) by Anthony Riches

Thunder of the Gods | Anthony Riches | 2015 (2 April) | Hodder & Stoughton | 419 | Review copy | Buy the book

Thunder of the Gods by Anthony RichesCenturion Marcus Valerius Aquila and Scaurus (newly promoted above his social rank to Legatus) are heading East. After recent tumultuous events, Rome is now far too hot to contain either man. They are ordered to take their Tungrians to the remote fortress of Nisibis, critically positioned between Armenia and the Parthian Empire, and crucial for the control of the lucrative spice and silk trade. But Nisibis is under siege from Parthian forces. While not officially at war with Rome, minor Parthian kings, including a son of Parthia’s King of Kings, are waging their own campaign. They have already spilled Roman blood, catching the Sixth Cohort by surprise and slaughtering them almost to the very last man. It is up to Aquila, Scaurus and their battle-hardened centurions and first spears to reignite the fire in the demoralised local legion and take the fight back to the Parthians and smash them into dust.

The fight is not an easy one. Between the Tungrians and Nisibis stands an army of cataphracts and archers, determined not to let a single Roman pass. But Parthia is to learn that Tungrians are no normal soldiers, Aquila is no ordinary man. The fight will be brutal. The battle will have consequences for both sides, forcing Aquila to venture deep into Parthian territory to Ctesiphon, the exotic and dangerous lair of the King of Kings himself, where nobody is safe and little is as it seems.

Thunder of the Gods is the eighth novel in Anthony Riches’ popular Empire series but it marks a new phase in the story. Much was resolved in the previous novel, The Emperor’s Knives, which means that, while I would recommend you treat yourself and start this wonderful series from the very beginning, Thunder of the Gods would also make a good entry point for those who have yet to meet Marcus and his Tungrians.

Life is moving on for Marcus and there’s a sense in this eighth novel that the story is now bigger than he is. His wife isn’t featured at all, his burning desire for vengeance is no longer an issue, and so for much of the novel – at least the first half – Marcus takes a step back and gives Scaurus and the Tungrians the limelight. Many of the familiar characters we know and love are here, several of them reminding us of past heroic actions across the Roman Empire, including Britain. But, as before, we know that Anthony Riches will take them into the deadliest of dangers. There is no guarantee that all will survive and there are shocks, especially now that we care so much for these battered, scarred and trouble-seeking warriors.

Thunder of the Gods is packed with exciting battle scenes, made all the more thrilling by the insights we’re offered into Roman fighting techniques – Riches knows his stuff and it’s on fine display here. The world of the Roman soldier is contrasted with that of the Parthian knight and a vivid picture is painted of Parthian warfare as well as its elaborate, ritualised and lethal court life and politics. To add further background, the novel closes with extensive notes about the historical and military context.

There is an added poignancy in Thunder of the Gods. The novel takes us into areas now under the control of IS and some of the sites referred to here are now gone for ever.

This is very much lads’ military fiction – the banter is coarse and rather fragrant and there is a lot of it. In fact, there was a bit too much of this for me during the first half of the book. My other issue with the novel revolved around the denouement in Parthia which for me, without giving anything at all away, fell a little flat. I am a huge fan of the Empire novels (and of Roman military fiction as a whole) and so comparisons are inevitably made with other books in the series. The Emperor’s Knives is an extremely hard act to follow. But while Thunder of the Gods isn’t my favourite Empire novel, it is most certainly a thoroughly enjoyable, energetic and furious read which comes into its own during the second half, especially when swords are drawn in these remote and exotic fringes of the Roman world.

There is a strong sense that the world is now opening up for Marcus Valerius Aquila. He’s no longer bound by his past. I’m excited thinking where Anthony Riches will take him in future novels, Marcus Valerius and his battle-hungry Tungrians.

Other reviews and features
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
An interview for The Eagles Vengeance
An interview for The Emperor’s Knives

Holy Spy by Rory Clements

Holy Spy | Rory Clements | 2015 | Hodder & Stoughton | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

Holy Spy by Rory ClementsIt is 1586 and Elizabethan London is a powder keg of conspiracies. The Spanish fleet and army are amassed on the Dutch coast ready to set sail and smite Elizabeth down. To the Catholic Church, Elizabeth is a heretic and salvation awaits an assassin, her replacement already lined up. Mary Queen of Scots has been moved to a new, more secure prison deep within England, but all she needs is just one of any number of gallant idealists to come to her rescue. But Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s Mr Secretary and Chief Intelligencer, is better able than most to play a game of spies. With a network of agents well placed around England and Europe, he is waiting to set the perfect trap, for Mary and for the young men who flock to the imprisoned queen’s cause. If he is the cat, then Anthony Babington is the mouse. Poised to persuade Babington into the trap is John Shakespeare, a spy who knows where his loyalties lie but, nevertheless, is only too aware of the fate that lies ahead for Babington and his band of ‘Pope’s White Sons’.

Holy Spy is a marvellous depiction of one of the most infamous of English conspiracies, the Babington Plot. But the novel is far from a straightforward re-enacting of events. John Shakespeare is a humane man living during a period of history in which torture and execution are realities, even a form of entertainment for the city’s rabble (of all classes). He is doing a job that he believes in but he wants to do it in his own way. He is a likeable man and, perhaps not surprisingly for a novel as sensitive and penetrative as this one, a fair few of the traitors are likeable, too.

The Babington Plot shares the pages of Holy Spy with a mystery that comes much closer to Shakespeare. A merchant has been murdered and the man who did it declares, even on the scaffold with his dying breath, that he was paid to do it by the rich man’s widow, Katherine Giltspur. The city is baying for her blood. Even Elizabeth wants her hung up as an example. But Shakespeare knows her. She was once Kat Whetstone and there was a time when he thought that they were in love. From her hiding place, Kat reaches out to John to save her.

From the very beginning of Holy Spy I was hooked – by the duel mysteries, the meticulously vivid portrayal of London (so different from the London we know today and yet fascinatingly familiar), and the richly imagined characters, many of whom strut through the pages like they own it. Francis Walsingham is perfectly polite and reasonable but to me he was the black shadow looming large and sinister over the novel. We don’t meet Elizabeth, we just hear of her, but she’s a charismatic force, nonetheless. Babington is captivating, as is Savage, the man who swore an oath to kill Elizabeth. I cared for them both, feelings made all the harder to bear because history makes no secret of their end. I had less time for the men who entrap Babington but their portraits are thoroughly entertaining and well-drawn, especially Gilbert Gifford, known to the really rather odd sister whores who are paid to keep him true as their little pink pigling. Shakespeare’s feelings towards the plotters are as ambiguous as our own and the whole presentation of the plot is both complex and rewarding. Rory Clements is to be congratulated for making such a well-known plot so three-dimensional and believable, not at all black and white.

We’re on more familiar ground with Kat Whetstone and the villains that Shakespeare comes up against in his efforts either to clear her name or reconcile himself to her guilt. Gangster Cutting Ball is a quite extraordinary figure – memorable to say the least. Other little details that I especially liked are the memories of Boltfoot Cooper, John’s assistant, of his years aboard Sir Francis Drake’s ship and the tantalising glimpses we have of the character of Jane, Shakespeare’s new maid.

Although John Shakespeare is the older brother of William Shakespeare, the playwright has no presence here and I liked that. I was pleased that the focus was entirely on John and I had been worried before I began that William would keep popping up, completely unnecessarily. The relationship is almost an irrelevance – at least at this stage of the series.

I didn’t know what to expect from this – Holy Spy is the first novel I’ve read in a well-established series. But what I got was a thoroughly entertaining, disturbing and involving mystery that I found next to impossible to put down. It’s a substantial book but I was driven to read it over just 24 hours. Rory Clements is a wonderful writer who clearly knows Tudor England inside out and his enthusiasm – as well as concerns – for the period shine out. I loved it. I will be catching up.

This week I was fortunate enough to attend an event at the Oxford Literary Festival in which Lindsey Davis, Robyn Young, Rory Clements and Antonia Hodgson held an animated and extremely entertaining debate about which period is best – Roman, medieval, Elizabethan, Civil War or Georgian. I am a Romanist through and through (it was a thrill to meet Lindsey Davies at last after reading and enjoying her books for thirty years) but Rory Clements convinced me that there really is more to the Elizabethan Age than I thought. This is a period that I thought I was done with but now, thanks to Holy Spy and a few other books I’ve been fortunate enough to read over the last year or two, I feel that it is refreshed.

Oxford Literary Festival, 24 March 2015

Oxford Literary Festival, 24 March 2015 – ‘Which period is best?’

Science fiction catch up: Gravity by Tess Gerritsen

Gravity | Tess Gerritsen | 1999 (this edn 2004) | Harper | 391p | Bought copy | Buy the book

Gravity by Tess GerritsenWhen Debbie Haning is fatally injured in a car crash, an unpredictable sequence of events is triggered. Her husband, Bill, is aboard the Space Station. He must be returned to see his wife. While he waits for the emergency space shuttle, he finds distraction in his work, an experiment that has gone wrong – a cell specimen has mutated, producing a gelatinous, expanding substance. When medic and research physician Emma Watson arrives at the Space Station, it’s not long before she must deal with the repercussions and yet another shuttle is summoned, this time to remove the dead.

Gravity moves between the Space Station and Earth. While Emma Watson has more than enough on her plate to deal with in space, her soon to be ex-husband Jack McCullum, a failed astronaut, is about to have his relationship to NASA as space surgeon renewed. Emma is going to need all the help she can get.

Meanwhile, on the Space Station, the organism is loose. At first, the little green globules floating in the Station’s atmosphere seem innocuous; nothing more serious than escaped drips of juice or shed drops of blood. But then the eyes begin to redden, the sickness comes, the headaches and the fever. The big threat to the crew doesn’t come from the living sufferers, though, it comes from the dead.

Gravity is an addictive novel. It has all the ingredients for a page turning horror thriller in space – claustrophobia, a diminishing number of victims, suspicion, intriguing science and, this above all else, gore by the bucketload. Tess Gerritsen knows her stuff. The medical details are thorough (as to be expected from Gerritsen’s background) but this is backed up by the meticulous research into late 20th-century space exploration. The text is littered with acronyms and technical speak – fortunately, there’s a glossary at the end – and this adds to the reader’s sense of immersion (not to mention claustrophobic panic).

While I was fascinated by Gravity, I was tempted to put it to one side half way through. It is exceedingly gory and bloodily revolting. There are only so many exploding brains I can cope with. But the second half upped the pace, turning Gravity from a succession of unpleasant deaths into a tale of survival. We become caught up in Jack’s determined efforts to get Emma home and from that moment on Gravity becomes a page turner of the highest order.

Other review
Die Again

The Raven’s Head by Karen Maitland

The Raven’s Head | Karen Maitland | 2015 | Headline | 480p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Raven's Head by Karen MaitlandVincent was once an English pauper but now he lives high in a great French lord’s tower, trapped by poverty to be a scribe apprentice, dreaming forlornly of the lord’s beautiful daughter, resigned to endless drudgery and squalour. And then there comes his chance. A secret comes into Vincent’s possession, one that would bring his mighty lord down so low he would never recover. Vincent threatens him and, in response, the lord promises him rich rewards and entrusts him with a task. Vincent is told to deliver a silver raven’s head but Vincent’s acceptance is his downfall. His attempts to sell the raven’s head meet with failure and it is almost as if it is the raven’s head itself that guides Vincent on, back to England, and the dark manor of Lord Sylvain, a renowned and feared alchemist.

Wilky is a young child snatched from his family as payment for a debt and sent to live in the confines of a monastery where nothing good can breathe. Wilky is renamed Regulus and his only comfort comes from the fellowship of the other boys. As the boy grows it becomes ever clearer to him, as hope dies, that there can be only dark purposes for his imprisonment.

Gisa is a young woman, barely more than a child, who works with her uncle, an apothecary. She attracts the attention of Lord Sylvain and watches in horror as her aunt and uncle hand her over to help him with his experiments behind those big, forbidding walls.

The Raven’s Head is a bewitching novel indeed. It is steeped in ancient alchemy, its enigmatic laws giving name to each of the chapters, while the supernatural plays around its edges. Most of all, though, it is a deeply atmospheric story of medieval life, set in the 1220s. The three young people – Vincent, Wilky and Gisa – are victims (albeit, in Vincent’s case, a feisty one) of this superstitious, greedy and feudal world, of the aristocracy, of the church, and if they are to escape this trap they can rely only on themselves. Parenthood is nothing to trust, money and food are things to steal or cheat for, and those who should protect are the most dangerous. This is medieval society at its very bottom, in all its stink and mess, preyed on by those so much nearer the top.

The narrative is split three ways in a very interesting way. Vincent tells us his story in the first person past tense. It is his account that holds the novel together, introducing us to its major themes, taking us to its richly visualised locations. The tales of Wilky and Gisa by contrast are told in the third person present tense. This makes their stories much more immediate, frightening and dangerous. We do not know if they will survive, their experiences are lived in the moment. In Karen Maitland’s skilful hands, this mix of tenses and narratives works very effectively indeed. It contributes to the novel’s mixed mood – the physical reality of this harsh existence contrasts with the psychological horror of the unknown. But at the heart of the novel, though, is Lord Sylvain, truly a frightening figure, brilliantly combining within him medieval scientific hunger with melodramatic villain. As for the monks – they haunt these pages and poor Wilky’s terror is unforgettable.

The Raven’s Head is a richly rewarding read and it is beautifully written by one of today’s great masters of medieval historical fiction. Karen Maitland’s prose is colourful, vivid and earthy. She captures the mood of people often overlooked in history who would have seen the world in a very different way from the one we might imagine. This is a place in which demons and devils can walk alongside angels while death is a frequent visitor and a mother’s love can be absent entirely. I enjoyed all of the narratives but I was completely captivated by young Wilky. It is a wonderful portrait.

This is a frightening novel in places, it is exuberant and humorous when the characters demand it and it is also at times very sad indeed. It is a place with a stench – there are so many smells in this novel. It is also a pageturner. Events are soon out of control for our three young people and the excitement builds as the pages fly by. After reading the superb The Vanishing Witch last year, I was very excited to see what Karen Maitland would come up with next. I’m not a bit surprised that The Raven’s Head is every bit as good.

Other review
The Vanishing Witch

Death Falls by Todd Ritter

Death Falls | Todd Ritter | 2015 | Avon | 336p | Review copy| Buy the book

Death Falls by Todd RitterOn 20 July 1969 one of the most memorable events of modern history took place, Neil Armstrong took mankind’s first step on the Moon. But for the Olmsteads, a family living in the quiet Pennsylvania town of Perry Hollow, this was to be a day they’d remember for the worst of reasons. Young Charlie Olmstead, a child caught up in the thrill of the landings, went out into the street as if there he could spot the tiny figures landing on the Moon with his own eyes. He never returned home. His bicycle was found washed over a nearby waterfall, his body was never found but was presumed taken by the fierce flow of water. But gone is not forgotten. Charlie’s mother Maggie never gave up hope that she would see him again. But forty years on she died, her hopes unmet.

Maggie’s other son Eric, a famous crime fiction author who was a babe in arms at the time of Charlie’s disappearance, arrives to bury his mother. Hidden away, he finds decades of research, all of the clues that Maggie uncovered over the years, all of it suggesting that Charlie was not a lone case, that more young boys disappeared without trace. Eric is determined to finish what his mother started, to find out what really happened to Charlie, helped by Kat Campbell, his former teen sweetheart, who is now the local police chief, just as her father was so long ago on the night that Charlie vanished.

Death Falls is an immensely entertaining piece of crime fiction that succeeds in teasing the brain every bit as much as it raises the blood pressure. The story it tells is packed with puzzles, red herrings and twists so unexpected I didn’t see any of them coming. This is one of those crime thrillers that actually makes the reader (at least this one) gasp out loud as yet another audacious shock jumps out of the page and smacks you round the face. I pride myself on being rather good at working out clues and guessing whodunnit ahead of the big reveal but not a chance here. I was gloriously beaten by Todd Ritter’s really rather incredible plotting abilities.

Aside from the hunt, there are characters here that I really enjoyed getting to know. Kat in particular is an immensely likeable figure, coping with a young son while at the same time trying to hold together a tiny police department with almost no support at all from the local mayor. There’s a history there. There are hints of a previous notorious case involving a serial killer (Death Falls isn’t the first novel, there is its predecessor Death Notice to investigate as soon as possible). Eric, of course, takes Kat further back into her own history and the pain of their lost love colours this novel and makes us sympathetic to both.

Kat and Eric investigate the whole community, helped by Nick Donnelly, once a cop but shabbily discharged when injured and now making a dangerous living by privately investigating cold crimes. The people that they meet help bring this small town to life, as it was forty-odd years ago in 1969 and as it is now. This sense of past is increased by the direction in which the investigations take Kat, Eric and Nick.

Linking Charlie’s disappearance to such a key event as the Moon landings works extremely successfully, capturing my curiosity immediately, setting the mood for the novel from the very beginning. Secrets are everywhere, clues are hidden in the most surprising of places, and truths are difficult to accept. I was riveted by Death Falls, loving its twists and caring for its characters, living and dead, and its climax lived up entirely to all that had gone before. Excellent!

The Well by Catherine Chanter

The Well | Catherine Chanter | 2015 | Canongate | 382p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Well by Catherine ChanterThe Well is a haven, an Eden almost, in a Britain on which rain no longer falls. But at this one particular farm, named for its unfailing well, the rain still falls at night, just enough to keep the grass green, trees in leaf and the farmland fertile enough for crops and animal feed. When Ruth and Mark bought The Well they had no idea that they were buying more than an escape from London. But, in the years since, as Britain dried up and life changed, their fate became tied completely to their home, keeping them there while drawing others to it as well.

The Well, though, becomes famous for more than just its inexplicable rain and fertility. As the novel begins, Ruth is returned to The Well as a prisoner under house arrest. She has been found guilty by the draconian emergency water laws but, perhaps no worse than that, she is suspected of murder. In a story narrated in the present tense by Ruth, we are slowly allowed into this troubled woman’s world and memories. We are shown The Well past and present – once the happy home of Ruth, her husband Mark, her daughter Angie and Angie’s young son Lucien and now a prison containing just Ruth and her three guards, each of whom Ruth dehumanises with imagined names.

But the past was never that perfect. Ruth is an unreliable narrator. There is a strong sense that her memories are wishful thinking and as they parade before us it’s soon clear that everything was going wrong long before Ruth and Mark arrived at The Well. To some, Ruth is a witch, a murderer or, most especially in the eyes of her husband, a mad woman. To others, Ruth is linked entirely to The Well. To them she is a saviour, someone holy, just as The Well itself is a new Eden. A succession of visitors arrive at the farm – travellers, a religious female sect, a priest, guards. We see them all through Ruth’s eyes and we witness how they change her. But it’s a blinkered, distorted vision, not least as it is revealed to us by a woman near enough destroyed by grief and guilt.

The Well is a powerfully compelling read. Its portrait of a disintegrating, destructive marriage makes for painful reading, lightened by the brief moments Ruth spends with her grandson. Ruth’s relationship with Angie is a difficult one, much of its problems not fully revealed to us. The past is not a place where Ruth feels happy. There is scandal in the past, involving Angie and another involving Mark. The Well was supposed to save Ruth from this.

Ruth’s search for salvation is a strong theme – she seeks it with the enigmatic mystical nuns and with the priest. This adds to the mystery of The Well – is it an Eden? If it isn’t, why does the rain stop at its boundaries? And why, if it is somehow holy or unholy, is it such a place of death, despite its life-giving green? Is it evil, or good or simply the place of a weather phenomenon explicable by science?

The dystopian mood matches Ruth’s depression and despair. This is not a light read. Ruth’s mind is not always a pleasing place to spend time. But it is a fascinating one. The writing is beautiful, richly evocative of this strange place and this haunted woman. Our feelings towards the people surrounding Ruth are made instinctive due to the power of the prose. But some figures are ambiguous and surprising. It’s difficult to get to know Ruth. Not surprisingly she wants to lay down her feelings but she chooses what to tell.

I felt uncomfortable reading parts of The Well. It’s a challenging read at times not least because it is so relentlessly sad. It requires the reader to be in the right mood and, if they are, then it is extremely giving. This is an intriguingly created world, full of intentional holes and blurred colours, set within the wondrous and unknowable nature of The Well itself.

The Jackdaw by Luke Delaney

The Jackdaw | Luke Delaney | 2015 | HarperCollins | 425p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Jackdaw by Luke DelaneyA vigilante has grabbed hold of the nation’s attention. Heavily disguised, he seizes city financiers and bankers from the streets, straps them to a chair and puts their fate in the hands of the public. The ordeal is put on Your View (YouTube by any other name) and the killer waits for the Likes and Dislikes to come in. Too many Likes and the victim’s life is forfeit while an excess of Dislikes might mean the victim escapes with his or her life but not necessarily all in one piece. This is a killer unlike any DI Sean Corrigan has encountered before. He appears driven less by bloodlust than by a cold, calculating desire for justice – accompanied by more than a little hunger for publicity. Just as well then that a journalist is all too happy to feed that hunger, even giving him his name – the Jackdaw.

The Jackdaw is the fourth novel to feature Corrigan. By now, Corrigan and his team are well-established as hunters of more unusual killers, those who are especially difficult to catch, cases where Corrigan’s special intuition is necessary. But the world has become darker. Here is a killer who murders and maims in the public eye, claiming to give that public what they want, while Corrigan works for a force that is touched by corruption, making it insecure and threatening. Corrigan isn’t fully trusted. Anna, a psychologist, returns from an earlier novel to keep an eye on him. Tensions between the two are strained.

But any strain Corrigan feels in his work is as nothing compared to the menace posed by the Jackdaw. This strong sense of menace is conveyed through shifting perspectives – we spend time with Corrigan, the Jackdaw, the victims and the journalist. We feel the fear of the financial community, not knowing who will be next, we glimpse the mind of the killer and we shake our heads in bemusement at the madness of the journalist.

The Jackdaw is a novel about a chase and as such it thrills. The twists and turns are satisfying and the end result was a surprise. I’ve come to expect great things from Luke Delaney and The Jackdaw does not disappoint. Sean Corrigan is the reason for much of the novels’ success. His troubled past has given him an edge that he somehow manages not to step over. He could have been one of the killers he hunts. He never forgets that. And it adds a tension to his investigations that is deeply fascinating. But I have also grown to like his team members very much, especially Donnelly but there are many who come and go throughout the book and all are well drawn. But, having said all that, I could have done without Anna and the frisson that her presence adds to Corrigan’s relationship with his wife.

I loved the premise of The Jackdaw – a great idea that also seems topical. While I don’t think Corrigan engaged with the killer’s mind as much as in previous novels – this is a very unusual killer so it’s perhaps not surprising – the case put me on the edge of my seat and I was thoroughly entertained and kept guessing from start to finish.

I must include a note of warning: I would recommend that you read these books from the beginning and in order as The Jackdaw does include very revealing mentions of previous cases.

Without doubt, this is a series to watch and I look forward to spending much more time with DI Sean Corrigan and his team, courtesy of the fine writing and deliciously dark imagination of Luke Delaney.

Other review
Cold Killing