Category Archives: Review

Betrayal: The Centurions I by Anthony Riches

Hodder & Stoughton | 2017 (9 March) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

betrayal-by-anthony-richesIt is AD 68 and the dynasty founded by Julius Caesar a century before has been brought to a violent and ignoble end by the suicide of Nero. The result is months of chaos as ‘usurper emperors’ use Rome’s legions to fight for the throne. The first of these, Otho, dismisses the imperial bodyguard, a band of Batavi, incorruptible Germanic warriors favoured by Julius Caesar. They are sent home in disgrace to defend the upper Rhine and with them is sent Julius Caesar Civilis, a Batavi officer suspected of treachery against Nero but with the enviable gift of making mud not stick. The drama of the imperial power struggle plays out across the empire but events are taking place in northern Germany that could change everything – eyes turn to the Batavi and Rome’s generals wonder what they will do.

Betrayal is the first in a new trilogy by Anthony Riches and it takes as its subject one of the most utterly fascinating periods in history – the Year of the Four Emperors – and focuses on the significant part played in it by the Batavi legions as well as the other legions garrisoned in a series of camps in northern Europe. The focus tightens further onto a small group of centurions, their officers and their men – Batavi and Roman – who are influenced by the intrigue of the times but also help to shape it.

Over the course of this novel, I became fully immersed, its story bringing me close to the history, involving me deeply in its intrigue as well as in the human lives that lay behind it. The relationships between these soldiers are complicated. You do need to have your wits about you to keep up as we move from fort to fort (some of the characters’ names are quite similar) but the effort is rewarded immensely as you get to know these men and learn what matters the most to them. It isn’t immediately obvious to us, or to others in the book, where allegiances lie and therein lies the expectation, intrigue and betrayal. Floating above it all is the enigmatic Civilis, a source of potential trouble if ever there was one. But for whom?

If I had to pick favourites it would be Scar and Alcaeus of the Batavi and the Roman Aquillius but there are plenty of others to grab the attention and each of them receives their moment of glory. And the story for some is set to develop further in future volumes.

There is some great action in Betrayal, some fantastic battle sequences, and they feel very different to battles in most other Roman military historical fiction that I’ve read. The Batavi were extraordinary warriors who fought in unusual ways and this adds so much to those sequences. The fact that this is also Civil War, despite the range of tribes brought into battle, adds to the tension as people switch sides, dither between them, or are cruelly treated by their own people.

You only have to look at my list of other reviews below to see that I’ve read all of Anthony Riches’ novels and I love his Empire series (which will pick up again once this trilogy is complete) but I think Betrayal is the finest book he’s written to date. Riches always displays his knowledge of the period as well as Roman military matters but there is much more to Betrayal. The story is complex but it is told brilliantly. The planning that must have gone into it is astounding. A great deal of information is put before us but Riches brings out its inherent drama and tension and also makes these fighting men seem very real, finding their motivations, setting them against the enormous stress of this difficult period when the Roman empire was under such threat from within. Just imagine what it must have been like for these men! Nothing is inevitable here. Anything can change as usurper defeats usurper.

The quality of writing is good indeed. There are sections with the barracks language that is so common in some Roman military historical fiction and does wear me down to be honest but this is outweighed by some great writing. This is confident, vivid and vigorous prose that gives real authority to its subject. There’s a military poetry to parts of this novel and I lapped it up. It reminded me in places of medieval, classical and Anglo-Saxon accounts of war. I love such use of language.

Betrayal is a fine, fine novel. And it brings with it great news. Onslaught, the second in the trilogy, follows in September, a mere sixth months from the publication of Betrayal. I love that I don’t have too long to wait. Each of the the trilogy is also accompanied by a graphic novella that depicts its prologue. I’ve read the first and it adds wonderfully to the whole experience of Betrayal, contributing to its spirit. Betrayal is a triumph, introducing a trilogy that I’m so excited to read, and I have no doubt that it will feature in my year-end lists.

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
Empire VIII: Thunder of the Gods
Empire IX: Altar of Blood
An interview for The Eagles Vengeance
An interview for The Emperor’s Knives

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

Viking | 2017 (2 March) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Witchfinder's Sister by Beth UnderdownIt is 1645 and England is torn apart by Civil War. But young woman Alice Hopkins has her own private suffering to endure. Alice’s husband Joseph has died unexpectedly and violently, leaving her alone in London, struggling with grief and poverty. When she discovers that she is pregnant, Alice realises she has little choice. She must return home to the small town of Manningtree in Essex and seek refuge in the house of her young brother, Matthew. They haven’t spoken for years but Alice hopes that she might find a welcome there, especially since their mother, just like her husband, is also so recently in her grave.

Mannigtree is not as Alice left it. The town is divided by superstition and fear, ruled over by a few rich and powerful men, led – Alice is surprised to discover – by none other than Matthew. Their mission is to seek out witches and, wherever they look they are bound to find guilt, for how could an elderly widow not confess to devil worship when tormented by the cruel methods of the witchfinder, Matthew Hopkins?

Alice finds herself caught in the middle of a situation almost impossible to escape. She loves her brother, she wants to heal him from whatever pain has changed him, but above all else she wants to help these women, particularly as Matthew searches closer and closer to home for his victims. And it is Alice’s story, told in her own words, that we hear in The Witchfinder’s Sister and it is an engrossing one. It is as if Alice has been thrown back into a distorted version of her past – she is reunited with friends and enemies that she knew as a girl, she relives memories of her time with her mother, father and brother, of her early days with her now dead husband, she wanders through familiar houses, rooms and streets. She must deal with grief, as well as the worry of carrying a fatherless child, but above all else she cannot escape the fear of Matthew. And there are moments in this novel when I felt afraid, too.

Matthew is a fascinating, dark character. Beth Underdown constructs his character perfectly from his weaknesses, failings and superstitions. He appears truly menacing and evil. But the author widens her picture to take a broader look at society during these troubled, lawless times in the mid 16th century and shows how dangerous a weapon power can be when placed in the hands of a weak man. Because it isn’t just Matthew Hopkins at fault here. And too many of the women we meet here have difficult lives, while some face tragic ends.

I thoroughly enjoyed the portrait of rural life in England’s eastern counties during the 1640s. There are plenty of the incidental details that I love in historical fiction, particularly here in regards to housekeeping, including clothing, furniture and possessions. But there is also an appealing timelessness and strangeness about The Witchfinder’s Sister‘s setting, which seems so cut off from the rest of England, including from the Civil War. Events here are not normal, even for the period, and we should be shocked by what happened. And this is, of course, based on a true story. Matthew Hopkins was a monster and through Alice’s eyes we see the devil revealed.

It’s not often that I read a book in one day, barely moving an inch, but that’s what happened with The Witchfinder’s Sister. This is a beautifully written, stunning debut novel from Beth Underdown, combining historical fiction with psychological thriller – the result is compelling and thrilling. Don’t miss it!

Written in Bones by James Oswald

Michael Joseph | 2017 (23 February) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

Written in Bones by James OswaldFor a few moments the man in the sky thinks he might be flying. Until he smashes into a tree. And with death comes the realisation that this had been a terrible final fall. It’s no easy matter to get the body disentangled from the tree but once it is, it falls to Inspector Tony McLean to discover his identity and find out who is responsible. Matters are complicated by the young boy who found the body – or, rather heard its impact – when out walking his dog. The child is the son of a notorious criminal, murdered a few weeks before the boy’s birth ten years before. Nobody really wants to talk about that. Perhaps it’s time they did. McLean doesn’t believe in coincidences, especially not the weird ones.

Written in Bones is the seventh novel in James Oswald’s fine Inspector McLean series – one of my favourites – and it goes from strength to strength. McLean doesn’t have the best of relationships with his superiors and this is partly because McLean is particularly adept at uncovering the strange and the unusual. He discounts nothing and is prepared to prove the impossible possible. Sometimes in these novels there’s a hint of something inexplicable, almost other worldly, but it’s always subtly treated, just adding to the undercurrent of criminal evil that flows beneath these streets and houses. McLean, better than anyone, can tap into it. The resulting stories are clever, gripping and extremely atmospheric, set so well in Edinburgh and brilliantly written by James Oswald.

As with most fictional detectives, McLean has a history and homelife that influences his career but it never intrudes. I love his unusual home and his complicated relationship with the cat. And then there’s the car. How McLean loves his car. McLean is a fascinating individual even before he begins a crime case and he’s backed up by some other intriguing characters, such as Grumpy Bob and Call-me-Stevie. The senior police officers are an extraordinary bunch. Even the police station is a little bit odd with one newer building built on top of the basement of another. People like to think it’s haunted even though McLean insists it isn’t. In Written in Bones, there’s another factor affecting its mood – a bleak, frozen Scottish winter. You can feel the chill in your bones. This book might have fewer hints of the supernatural than some of the others but it more than makes up for this with mood.

The story is such a good one and makes use of previously encountered individuals, although no other knowledge of the series is needed to enjoy Written in Bones. As usual, McLean goes his own way in his investigations but he has the full support of his junior officers. Tony McLean is such a likeable man. His bosses might not get on with him but everyone else does. Here, McLean has to break in a new detective constable and I really enjoyed the pages that the two share.

These books are always hard to put down and Written in Bones is no different. James Oswald is such a fine, elegant writer, as brilliant at creating mood as he is characters and plot. Not surprisingly, Written in Bones went straight to the top of my reading pile as soon as it arrived and it rewarded me with such a brilliant, gripping read. If you’ve yet to read these books, you have such a treat in store.

Other reviews
Natural Causes
The Damage Done

Ragdoll by Daniel Cole

Trapeze | 2017 (23 February) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

Ragdoll by Daniel ColeThere is nothing ordinary about this particular corpse. It comprises the stitched together dismembered remains of six people – male and female, black and white, tall and short. Each of the limbs – and torso and head – have something distinguishing about them. Just enough to give away clues as to their origin and, perhaps more importantly, their connection to each other (other than through the thick, uneven, cruel stitching). It isn’t long before the media award the murderer with a name – the Ragdoll Killer.

Sergeant William Fawkes (aka Wolf) has just returned to the London Met after a long time away. It’s possible that he may never be the same again after the part he played in bringing another infamous serial killer, the Cremation Killer, to court. It certainly destroyed his marriage. But like it or not, he’s back on the job and his first case is the Ragdoll Killer, surely a murderer every bit as evil as the one who almost destroyed his life. With Wolf on the new case is his old partner Detective Emily Baxter. She too has her own problems, while the newbie on the case, Detective Alex Edmunds, has everything to prove. But he has the mind and ability to do it. It’s a small team working on the Ragdoll Killer case and tempers are frayed, especially when the killer sends the press the names of the next ragdoll, the next six people on his death list along with the days on which they will meet their fate. It doesn’t help that the sixth and final person on the list is none other than Wolf himself.

Ragdoll is the debut novel by Daniel Cole and you wouldn’t guess it for an instant. This is such an accomplished, confident and fine piece of writing but, not only that, its plot is absolutely fantastic! We’re left guessing from the very beginning but this almost plays second fiddle to the thunderously dark and menacing mood that hangs over the whole proceedings, as well as the novel’s great characterisation, dialogue, and wit. There are moments here that made my jaw drop almost off my face, the shocks are so horrifically shocking, while there were other moments that made me laugh out loud. This is a novel as witty as it is dark.

The story is brilliant. It’s ridiculously inventive and clever. It might be gruesome and macabre in places but I was filled with admiration for the imaginative flair of the killer (and author). The pace is urgent throughout because we know the killer’s timetable of murder from the very beginning. Our expectations are mirrored by that of the media and public who are pinned to the news as the death clock in the corner of the TV news studio counts down the hours and minutes to the next day of slaughter. The fact that the journalist with the most prominent profile is personally close to Wolf certainly helps to stir up the passions. But, more than anything else, this is an ingenious murder mystery. I didn’t guess any of it and I didn’t even try. I was glued to every page.

Wolf is a fantastic central creation but my favourite, I think even more than Wolf and the violently vulnerable Baxter, is Edmunds. I love the ways in which he tries to ingratiate himself with Baxter, never succeeding, and yet growing ever closer, more by accident than design. I can’t think of many other police partnerships I’ve enjoyed as much as this. There is barely a detective here without some kind of crippling back history – and Wolf’s own past experiences would be impossible to beat – but I really enjoyed the effect of this on their personalities. There is a frisson of insanity running through the incident room. It’s as close to the edge as it can get. It’s as if somebody has lit a fuse and at any moment the whole business could be blown into smithereens.

There are a few elements here that seem familiar, notably the killer communicating directly with the female news reporter, and at times there seems something rather American about the phrasing and tone, but regardless of all that, Ragdoll is one of the most thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining crime thrillers I’ve read. It is a joy to read, fuelled in part by the author’s pleasing sense of humour, and I didn’t want to put it down at all. I was shocked in the best of ways by some of the twists that are revealed along the way. Ragdoll is full of treats from start to finish. I can’t recommend it enough.

The Weight of the World by Tom Toner

Gollancz | 2017 (16 February) | 478p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Weight of the World by Tom TonerThe Weight of the World continues the extraordinary Amaranthine Spectrum series that began in such spectacular, wondrous style with The Promise of the Child. Don’t even think about reading The Weight of the World without having read The Promise of the Child first. This is not a series to dip in and out of. This is a series to lose yourself in, to become enchanted, to fall lost in wonder through its myriad of worlds, marvelling at its wealth of species, both grotesque and beautiful. This review assumes you’ve read The Promise of the Child first. If you haven’t, don’t deny yourself the pleasure any longer.

It is the 147th century. Mankind as we know it has evolved into a range of forms we would barely recognise, some even a hybrid of man and animal. But humans were not the only hominids to originate on Earth that evolved and settled across the Galaxy, living within hollowed out planets and moons – there were others and their legacy is astonishing, terrifying and utterly fascinating. A few humans, though, have survived the millennia as the Amaranthine, immortals with great power, with memories of a distant human past. But immortal they might be in theory, in practice all too often they end their lives in madness and despair, crushed and altered by the weight of time. Once the Amaranthine were revered across the worlds. But now their innate cruelty is revealed, their domains shrinking as war divides the Galaxy and other species compete for glory. Some believe that the longest lived of them all might be the one to save the Amaranthine. Others are more wise.

The Weight of the World continues where The Promise of the Child left off, throwing us back into the heart of the fight for supremacy and knowledge. Lycaste, a beautiful giant, an inhabitant of the Old World or Earth, continues on his mission to discover himself and put right a wrong he believes he has committed. Having left the home planet behind, he journeys with the Amaranthine Maneker (and a rather cantankerous Vulgar), not quite sure where he is being led. Back on the Old World, Lycaste’s old friends, the sisters Eranthis and Pentas, are on an extraordinary journey of their own in the company of another Amaranthine, Jatropha. They carry with them the hope for the future in the shape of Pentas’ baby. But the destiny of the child is far from clear and its burden is immense. This will be a dangerous journey. They will be hunted.

These are the two main narratives of The Weight of the World but there are several more, some of which take up rich swathes of the novel, providing other perspectives of the war and giving us insight into the great mystery at the heart of the Amaranthine Firmament. Each of these strands takes us to different planets and starships. The variety is immense and they each come alive due to the sheer quality of Tom Toner’s imagination and writing prowess. World building doesn’t come better than this. I really believe that. The things we see and experience! Some of it is utterly horrible, even gruesome; some of it is frightening (the scratch of claws in the dark); some is light and bewitching – there may be evil but with it comes love, not to mention humour and wit. Creatures who have lived for millennia have seen it all. There are also moments here that filled me with awe and wonder.

There is no doubt at all that this is proving a complicated, multi-layered story. I needed the glossary of names and places, that’s for sure (plus the catch up summary at the beginning). And the size of that glossary hints at just how much variety and breadth there is in these pages. But while it took me about a third of The Promise of the Child to grasp its wonder, there was no such delay with The Weight of the World. I was hooked from the very beginning. We haven’t yet reached the stage of the series in which we can find resolutions and there are as many questions as answers but I love the ways in which it’s heading as well as its pace which allows us the time to explore.

Tom Toner paints his characters and worlds beautifully, even when they’re at their ugliest. This is a clever, ambitious, inventive, wondrous series, brilliantly executed, that leaves me wanting more and soon. It might be only February but this is the science fiction novel to beat this year and it most certainly won’t be easy.

Other review
The Promise of the Child

Stasi Wolf by David Young

Zaffre | 2017 (9 February) | 402p | Review copy | Buy the book

Stasi Wolf by David YoungStasi Wolf is the second novel to feature East German police detective Oberleutenant Karin Müller, taking place a few months after the events of Stasi Child. Both novels stand alone very well but, as Stasi Wolf begins, life has changed for Karin Müller. And so this review assumes you’ve read Stasi Child.

It is 1975 in East Berlin and the career of police officer Oberleutenant Karin Müller has taken quite a knock since the conclusion of her last case. It’s never a good idea to get on the wrong side of the Stasi. But someone it seems wants to give her a second chance. To the south west of Berlin lies Halle-Neustadt, a brand new model town of apartment blocks, all built to the most modern specifications to house worthy citizens. But not all is perfect in this communist paradise. Newborn twins have been stolen from the town’s hospital and one has been found dead. The Stasi are determined that the crime should be solved with the utmost tact and secrecy – nothing must be allowed to tarnish the reputation of Halle-Neustadt. Karin Müller is given the case and, with little choice in the matter, packs up her life and heads south.

Halle-Neustadt is no ordinary town. Its streets have no names, it buildings are just numbered and many of them are empty and silent, the perfect place to hide a crime. Prevented from making public searches or appeals for information, Müller is well aware of the difficulty she faces as the clock ticks away and the surviving twin remains lost. And it is only a matter of time before more children will need to be found.

Stasi Child was such a fine debut novel from David Young, introducing one of the most fascinating and original detectives in contemporary crime fiction. Incredible as it seems, Stasi Wolf is even better, taking us back into the dangerous, chilly setting of the DDR, where spies hide among neighbours and Stasi eyes keep watch. But what makes Karin Müller particularly fascinating is her relationship to the state. She believes in communism and, despite her conflict and unease with the Stasi, she still believes this society can work. Even though she has seen it at its worst.

In this new case, removed from East Berlin, we learn more of the ways in which the Stasi affect so many aspects of society but driving this excellent novel on is the mystery itself. Ultimately, this is a novel about child snatching and that is something that goes beyond politics. But while there are themes here that affect people wherever they are from, in whatever period, East Germany in the mid 1970s is not a place that can be disentangled from its government, just as it cannot forget its past and the legacy of war and defeat.

Stasi Wolf is utterly steeped in atmosphere. Even when its weather is hot, the story still chills, the menace remains sinister. David Young immerses us in its time and place but the characterisation is equally successful. Karin Müller stands out but there are others, too, that you won’t forget. Müller’s personal life is an important feature of this novel and it winds through the story, adding further mystery. Pieces of narrative move between the past and present, hinting at other troubled lives. It is totally gripping. This is not a novel that’s easy to put down, and its conclusion will have you on the edge of your seat.

Stasi Wolf is a hugely accomplished novel, scoring high as both historical fiction and crime fiction. I love both genres and so I couldn’t have been more entertained by it. This is a series with legs and we’re very lucky to have it.

You can read another review at Novel Heights.

Incendium by A.D. Swanston

Bantam Press | 2017 (23 February) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

Incendium by A.D. SwanstonIt is 1572 and Elizabethan England is threatened as never before. Mary Queen of Scots might be locked away in Sheffield Castle but she remains the focus for Catholic plotters, their fire fuelled by the Pope’s support and by bloody violence done to Protestant Huguenots in Paris and across France. Spanish and French ships are poised to invade, to steal the crown from the heretic queen. Assassins hide in London’s crowded streets. As the summer heat intensifies and the fear of plague stirs, London, England and Elizabeth herself look ready to ignite and explode. And there is competition to be the one to win the eternal glory of lighting that fuse.

Dr Christopher Radcliff is a lawyer in the service of Elizabeth’s longterm favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Leicester more than anyone wants to protect Elizabeth, and Radcliff, a man with agents hidden across the city, is just the person to help him. There are rumours of a new plot, codenamed ‘Incendium’, and its roots are believed to lie in Paris. But people in London are already starting to disappear and be killed, Radcliff’s own agents among them. It’s soon clear that this is no ordinary plot, its conspirators cunning and powerful, their ambition limitless. And they are one step ahead of Radcliff, at least.

Incendium is the first in a new historical series by A.D. Swanston, the author of the marvellous Thomas Hill trilogy set during the Civil War and Restoration (review of The King’s Return). Incendium is every bit as good if not better. The early 1570s were a fascinating time in English history – the persecutions and executions of Bloody Mary were still within recent memory while the overt threat of the Armada was still some time off. While Elizabeth wished to be tolerant of her subjects’ private religious beliefs, in contrast to her sister Mary, this moderation was now severely tested. She only had to look across the channel to the horrors committed in France in 1572 – events which are portrayed here – to know that she and her kingdom were in real personal danger. Elizabeth’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham is away in Paris so Leicester tries to do what he can but he is out of his depth and it shows.

Radcliff is a wonderful character, resourceful and intelligent and he needs to be. He’s also no fool and is well aware that Leicester could get him killed. He’s also been changed by what he’s seen overseas. It haunts him. But Radcliff is aided by some hugely likeable individuals, such as his mistress Katherine Allington, and Ell, a whore who spies for Radcliff but can also make him laugh. Then there’s Rose, Radcliff’s elderly housekeeper, who does what she can to keep her master fed and watered, even when her own roof is rained down in a storm. And there are many more who come and go through these pages.

This is a novel full of character and life and I loved its portrait of Elizabethan London, in the heat and later in the snow. We’re taken into all sorts of places, ranging from palaces to prisons, and all are vividly painted.

Incendium faces head on the ugliness of Elizabethan spying and counter-spying – it could result in brutal murder on one side and the atrocious horror of legal torture and execution on the other. Neither Radcliff and Leicester care for torture but Leicester is unhappily aware that, while he could not carry it out himself, he must ask others to do it for him. Elizabeth’s protection is all that matters. Swanston also doesn’t shy away from the Catholic slaughter of the Huguenots in Paris. I’ve always been fascinated by these appalling events and Incendium is built around them.

Incendium perfectly combines history and fiction, historical figures and those that aren’t, and together they paint such a colourful and compelling picture of Elizabethan London at a crucial time for its Queen and her servants. As a historical thriller it worked perfectly. I loved every page. I can’t wait to meet Christopher Radcliff again.

Other posts
The King’s Return
Spies and spying in the Civil War – a guest post by Andrew Swanston