Category Archives: Review

The Twyford Code by Janice Hallett

Viper | 2022 (6 January) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Twyford Code by Janice HallettMany years ago, schoolboy Steven Smith found on a bus a book by Edith Twyford, a writer now considered old-fashioned, a bit dodgy. It’s covered in strange scribbles and messages. He took it to his teacher Miss Isles who became obsessed with it, believing the book to contain a code that could decipher a great mystery. On a school trip to Bournemouth shortly afterwards, she vanished without trace, her disappearance haunting Steven for the rest of his days.

After a stretch in prison, Steven decides to do something about it. He determines to decipher the code himself and to find out what really happened to Miss Isles. Steven isn’t good at writing and so he records all of his interviews with his old schoolfriends and anyone else he encounters in his investigations to solve his own past. But Steven soon discovers that he isn’t the only person to be intent on solving the mystery of the Twyford Code and by then it is too late. Steven is caught in a web and, just out of reach, the answers to it all tantalise.

The Appeal was my favourite crime mystery of 2021 and one of my very top reads of the year. It’s actually one of my favourite novels of all time, not just for the story it tells but for the way in which it tells it. It’s ingenious. It’s an updated epistolary novel, which involves the reader with the mystery in such an engaging and thoroughly gripping way. It’s a hard act to follow but Janice Hallett is a very clever writer and in The Twyford Code she tweaks the style just a bit to deliver another original and consuming standalone mystery.

This time, the novel comprises a series of transcripts. These contain numerous mis-hearings of certain words, presumably due to the transcription software, adding a very curious element to the prose. This is the sort of novel, like its predecessor, in which the reader needs to keep their wits about them, staying alert and always on the look out for clues. The whole book is a puzzle. But where does it lead?

The Twyford Code is also a novel about a vulnerable boy who grows into a damaged soul. We learn about his relationships with his family, his school days and the trouble that he has found himself in. Now he has a mission. But will it be the death of him?

More than that, I cannot say. These are books to immerse oneself in, to be driven by curiosity and fascination to discover where they lead. I cannot wait for the next novel.

PS – I love the cover!

Other review
The Appeal

Galaxias by Stephen Baxter

Gollancz | 2021 (21 October) | 544p | Bought copy | Buy the book

Galaxias by Stephen BaxterAt 9.48am, 5 January 2057, Tash Brand pauses on a bridge across the Tyne in northern England on her way to work. The winter Sun is low in a cloudy sky. And in that instant the Sun blinks out and the world goes dark and everyone in it becomes deeply afraid. As the hours of crisis progress, the ramifications of a Sunless planet become increasingly apparent and the horror of that must be dealt with by scientists, politicians, astronauts, and individuals. There’s another edge to it as well. A discovery on the Moon reveals that the Sun’s disappearance was a deliberate act. Humanity is not alone in the Galaxy and whatever it is out there is watching Earth and has come to a decision.

A new Stephen Baxter novel comes as a joy to me. He has written some of my very favourite novels – the magnificent Long Earth series with Terry Pratchett and, on his own, Proxima, one of my favourite books of all time, as well as the truly brilliant Flood and Ark. Baxter has big ideas and I love how he pours them into his stories of space exploration, of epic effort, of first contact, of global disaster, of a great universe. I love these books! Galaxias contains several of these themes. On one level it is a disaster novel as it gives us an apocalyptic vision of a planet now known to be vulnerable and defenceless, with all of its life facing extinction. There are also actual disasters as Earth changes – volcanic eruptions, massive storms, tragedies in space.

Mostly, though, Galaxias is the story of how nations deal with an unknowable alien threat as well as a dire series of crises when any action could motivate another attack from whatever it is watching Earth. They deal with it in different ways, notably China versus America. But it’s also a tale of three close friends, Tash (who works for the British Science Minister), Mel (who works for the Astronomer Royal) and Whu Zhi (an astronaut whose fiance is stranded in space by the Blink). The three of them together (or remotely) try and unravel what is happening, each making journeys beyond Earth. I loved these three people and felt deeply engaged with them as they struggle with the science but also with their lives in this situation.

The novel covers big themes and it is fair to say that much of the novel is spent with characters in meetings discussing what is going on, trying to ‘science’ the situation, explaining it to non-scientists (and therefore us). Some did go over my head but not much. I was fascinated as revelation follows revelation. But there is also action and wonder as we travel to the Moon, through the Solar System. The concept of Galaxias looms over the novel and I found it truly terrifying. But above all is the question of what on earth happened to the Sun?!

I do have an issue and that is with the ending, which seemed too sudden after all that has preceded it (and I don’t think I understood it). But otherwise I was engrossed throughout and really, really wanted to know what would happen next as the situation evolves in very surprising ways. My favourite character is Whu, who seems to be cut adrift in so many ways.

Galaxias, like most novels by Stephen Baxter, made me think and made me marvel. There are reasons why Baxter is one of my favourite novelists, and they’re here to be seen in Galaxias.

Other reviews
Proxima
Ultima
Xeelee: Vengeance

With Terry Pratchett
The Long Earth
The Long War
The Long Mars
The Long Utopia
The Long Cosmos

With Alastair Reynolds
The Medusa Chronicles

Book review of 2021

Happy New Year! 2021 is done – hooray! 2022, behave yourself. I had a better book year in 2021 than the previous year (The Year That Shall Not Be Named). I’m still not up to the heady heights of The Before Times but I’m getting there and my love of reading has definitely returned in full glory. Although now it has to compete not only with jigsaws (people, make more jigsaws, I’ve done THEM ALL) but also with my new crocheting and knitting addiction. This fiddly new hobby may not have legs because I’m flippin useless at it. Anyway, enough of all that. Time for the books!

I read 111 books in 2021 and, because I picked and chose, I really enjoyed the vast majority of them and those that I didn’t I left off the blog. I don’t waste energy on books I don’t enjoy but I love to spend it on the books I love. These books were a mix of hardbacks, paperbacks and audiobooks and included historical fiction (my true love of 2021), science fiction, action or spy thrillers and a few crime novels. Thanks so much to all of the lovely publishers for so kindly sending me review copies, thanks to my favourite Oxford bookshops for swapping my pennies for gorgeous books, and congratulations to every author who had a novel out in 2021. It’s a huge achievement.

It seems impossible to pick my top ten but I’ll give it a go. And so, in no particular order until my top pick…

Favourite ten books of 2021

The Appeal by Janice HallettThe Appeal by Janice Hallett
Without doubt, this is one of the most enjoyable crime novels I have ever read. I love cosy crime and this novel dances around with it – it’s both ingenious and fun – and it works brilliantly as an epistolary novel. The clues are there. You just have to see if you can work them out. I got some but by no means all. This is a witty book. Some of the observations in the correspondence had me rolling with laughter as we see the contradictions, slurs, sucking ups and lies. As for the plot, I’m saying nothing. It is an absolute pleasure to watch it unfold in this unusual and engrossing fashion.

A Winter War by Tim LeachA Winter War by Tim Leach
It is 173 AD and only the Danube stands between the mighty army of Marcus Aurelius and the complete destruction of the Sarmatians, a fierce, fractious nomadic people. Tim Leach is an amazing writer and now he portrays a clash of cultures on the fringes of a Roman empire ruled by an enigmatic, cruel philosopher emperor. We spend time with Marcus Aurelius, camped by the Danube, and it’s a dangerous place, but most of the time is spent with Sarmatian Kai and those closest to him, his friend, his daughter, his lover and his slave. And his extraordinary sister. Through Kai, Tim Leach explores the society of the Sarmatians, its blurring of genders and roles, its strange and terrible traditions, its relationship with horses and the land, and its complete lack of perception about what the Romans really are, what they represent and what they will do. This is gorgeous prose, immersing the reader in the trials of this cold, cold place at such a time of brutal crisis.

Beyond the Hallowed Sky by Ken MacLeodBeyond the Hallowed Sky by Ken MacLeod
It is the 2070s when a brilliant scientist receives a letter from her future self giving her the formula for Faster Than Light travel. At the same time an engineer in Scotland witnesses something that should not be possible. I love Ken MacLeod’s science fiction. It blends hard SF and wondrous things with the reality of a recognisable future, firmly set in Scotland. Beyond the Hallowed Sky begins a new trilogy and it starts it brilliantly. Ken MacLeod brings this future into people’s ordinary lives and it all makes it seem so believable and on our own horizon. But there is much in the novel that is far from ordinary. There are space ships but space ships like no others – they are fantastic! – and wonders. This is also a tale of first contact and it’s not like one I’ve seen before.

The Man Who Died Twice by Richard OsmanThe Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman
He’s done it again! Once more Richard Osman features in my top ten post and I doubt it’ll be the last time. The plot is magnificent and works on so many levels. Enough said about that. Rarely have I felt so warmly attached to characters and, in these books, there’s not just one or two characters to love but several. A fabulous plot, beautifully witty and kind, clever, poignant and tragic at times, even shocking, and so completely fun to read. How I love Joyce… See you next year!

A Marriage of Lions by Elizabeth ChadwickA Marriage of Lions by Elizabeth Chadwick
This wonderful author tells an utterly engrossing and captivating story of Joanna of Swanscombe and her marriage to Henry III’s half brother William de Valence. She gives Joanna and William the limelight they deserve, bringing them out of the shadow of the monstrous and astonishing Simon de Montfort and the weak Henry III. I was particularly fascinated by the depiction of Henry III’s marriage. Elizabeth Chadwick illuminates this period of medieval history like no other author I can recall. The men, women and children of her novels are so believable and genuine. Their motivations and aspirations are so well understood. Joanna lived so many hundreds of years ago but, thanks to Elizabeth Chadwick, I can feel a connection.

The Whole Truth by Cara HunterThe Whole Truth by Cara Hunter
There are lots of reasons why this is such a good series but one of them is its Oxford location. It’s my hometown and, while it’s often the location of thankfully fictional murder, this is the Oxford that I know and love. I recognise buildings, streets, the feel of the place. Like the other novels, it’s clever and engaging. A range of perspectives are used, including the first-person viewpoint of detective Adam Fawley who, at times, even seems to address us. But we also spend time with members of his team and his wife, Alex. All of them seem preoccupied with something and I like that, it’s how life is. Mixing with these are extracts from all kinds of things – tweets, newspaper reports, police interviews, texts. I love it! The best of an excellent series.

Three Words for Goodbye by Hazel Gaynor and Heather WebbThree Words for Goodbye by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb
I absolutely loved this – which was no surprise because I think these authors work magic together (Hazel Gaynor is also one of my favourite authors in her own right). This has the perfect blend of history, romance and friendship as two sisters, who have drifted apart, travel together across pre-war Europe from New York to deliver three letters to important people in the life of their beloved and dying grandmother, Violet. I was riveted. The fact that the sisters are due to return home on the Hindenburg adds a little extra tension. It has a fascinating historical setting and the descriptions of 1930s’ Paris, Venice and Vienna, as well as the voyage aboard the Queen Mary, are fabulous. As for the section aboard the Hindenburg….

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky ChambersThe Galaxy and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers
This is the final novel in this fantastic Wayfarer universe that Becky Chambers has created, with its wealth of traditions and customs, its hostilities and unions, its loneliness and its companionship and its wonderful, strange collection of species. I adored every page of The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, only wishing it were longer. This is such a good series, one of the very best in science fiction, but this book, its glorious finale, is my favourite. The four species represented here, trapped together on the planet Gora, are so different from each other, in appearance, in nature, in their methods of communication and perception, in their relationships and in their desires. I don’t want to say much at all about these characters because it is such a joy learning about them but I must say that the Laru have to be the most loveable alien species I have ever encountered in fiction.

The Royal Secret by Andrew TaylorThe Royal Secret by Andrew Taylor
It is 1670 and the squalid and decaying court of Charles II is rife with intrigue as the unsteady Stuart crown is threatened by forces in the Netherlands and France. The King’s Secret is clever, historically rich and detailed, and extremely engrossing. I can’t rave about it enough as this fabulous series gets even better. It tells a great story (the King’s sister is quite a character) – compelling, tragic and thoroughly intriguing and, of course, it is deliciously steeped in the atmosphere of this secretive and diseased court of Charles II. The King’s Secret is quite possibly the best of the series, which is saying something.

My favourite book of 2021 is…

The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper
Pompeii, AD 74: Amara wasn’t always a slave and ‘Amara’ wasn’t always her name. A Greek and a doctor’s daughter, family ruin led her on this path to slavery and prostitution in the Wolf Den, Pompeii’s most notorious Lupanar, or brothel. The women who work alongside her on these stone beds in confined cells come from all sorts of backgrounds. Some know no other life, saved from rubbish heaps where they had been dumped as babies, but others, like Amara and Dido, stolen from her home in Carthage, remember their past lives and are desperate for freedom. Amara is determined to get it, but at what cost? The Wolf Den isn’t salacious, it isn’t erotic. Instead, it is a fascinating portrayal of these women’s lives, so full of misery and abuse but with such fight and resilience. It is a romance of sorts but this isn’t romance as we would know it. We know what looms over Pompeii and the fate in store for it. For much, if not all, of the novel, the reader can forget about that. Our attention is on AD 74 and not on AD 79, such is the power of the storytelling, but that fate is there and I really hope the author returns to Pompeii to continue its story and that of its she-wolves. The Wolf Den is utterly engrossing and immersive. I will never see Pompeii with the same eyes again.

Must mentions

I must also mention that in 2021 I re-read (listened to) the Cazalet novels by Elizabeth Jane Howard – loved them! And in 2021 I continued my addiction to Jodi Taylor’s Time Police and Chronicles of St Mary’s series. This is partly because they are brilliantly narrated by Zara Ramm. If you’ve not listened to any of them, please do. They are truly wonderful. I should also say that I’ve yet to read the new Expanse novel!

Happy New Year!

The Honour of Rome by Simon Scarrow

Headline | 2021 (11 November) | 431p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Honour of Rome by Simon ScarrowIt is AD 58 and retired Praetorian Centurion Macro has arrived in Londinium, Britannia, with his new wife Petronella. It wasn’t plain sailing getting there, to put it mildly, and, now that she’s seen the place, Petronella isn’t impressed. But the plan is to spend Macro’s retirement running the inn and brothel that he co-owns with his formidable mother Portia while also managing a farm in the veteran’s colony of Camulodunum.

If only matters ever went to plan for Macro. It isn’t long before Macro discovers that Londinium is a lawless place, run by gangsters, and he’s managed to get himself noticed by rival gangs after barely a day in this backwater. There will be trouble. And it’s not all plain sailing in Camulodunum either, where the veterans find themselves called up to deal with some hostile tribe members. Petronella’s increasing fears about the safety of Britannia seem well-founded. If only Cato were around to help Macro.

The Honour of Rome is the twentieth (wow!) novel in Simon Scarrow’s ever-popular Eagle series featuring the exploits of best friends and colleagues Centurion Macro and Prefect Cato. The two names go together as well as fish and chips and salt and vinegar (I’m clearly hungry) but this state of affairs has shifted thanks to Macro’s reluctant retirement from the Roman army. The last novel, The Emperor’s Exile, mainly focused on Cato and his troubles in Sardinia, with Macro making an occasional appearance, and this time we’re with Macro, his wife and mother in Britannia, with Cato turning up later on. I must admit that it’s when the two are together that I’m at my happiest. We’ll have to see how that works out in future novels although I think the signs are good.

Nobody attracts trouble like Macro and he’s up to his neck in it almost by the end of page one, as if he wasn’t scarred enough already. You can just imagine Petronella rolling her eyes at him as he gets into one scrape after another. Macro has a formidable foe in this novel in the shape of the gangsters running the local protection rackets. He also joins a force to tackle unrest among the local tribes near Camulodunum. It’s difficult to know which is more deadly.

I’m not a particular fan of novels about gangsters and I discovered with The Honour of Rome that this also extends to Roman gangsters but I really enjoyed the descriptions of Londinium, a city in its earliest days. Barely any time at all has passed since the conquest – which involved Cato and Macro – and there is a real feel of the wild west about the place. It’s also mid Winter, which doesn’t help the feeling of desolation. The reader will be well aware that Boudica’s revolt looms at the time in which this novel is set and so there is extra interest in the references to Macro’s old friend, Boudica herself.

The Honour of Rome is full of action, fighting, military skirmishes and camaraderie between old soldiers. It’s difficult not to be carried along by Macro as he immerses himself in this new environment and finds his place. There is, to be warned, violence and cussing. I liked how this masculine world is also offset a little by the inclusion of the very likeable Petronella and the indomitable Portia.

I did find The Honour of Rome very entertaining as always. While not being my favourite of the series, it is always good to spend time with Macro and Cato, and the clues are there that make me want to read the next novel very much indeed.

Other reviews
The Blood Crows
Brothers in Blood
Britannia
Invictus
Day of the Caesars

The Blood of Rome
Traitors of Rome
The Emperor’s Exile
With T.J. Andrews – Invader
Blackout

The Spirit Engineer by AJ West

Duckworth | 2021 | 304p | Bought copy | Buy the book | Listen to the audiobook

Belfast, 1914 and it is two years since the Titanic sank, taking with it to the cold dark depths William Jackson Crawford’s brother-in-law Arthur. William’s wife Elizabeth looks for comfort from medium Kathleen Goligher, who claims that restless spirits can speak through her. But William is a sceptic and a scientist who is determined to prove Kathleen a liar and fraud. But, when he attends an event to expose her, he hears voices that he cannot explain, intensified after further tragic events. Could it be that the rational scientist and teacher is himself haunted? William Jackson Crawford must know and his obsessive investigations attracts celebrity attention. But then William, the famous Spirit Engineer, begins his own experiments and enters the darkness.

I’m a big fan of historical gothic novels and The Spirit Engineer is a novel I couldn’t wait to read. I actually listened to the audiobook, which is wonderfully read by Dickon Farmar. This is a story that really lends itself to that format and gave it an extra creepy atmosphere. Excellent. The novel begins with tragedy and the reader is well aware that soon, this being 1914, there will be many more restless souls, people dying before their time on the battlefields of northern Europe. But, for Belfast, the loss of the Titanic is an immediate source of grief and questions about the nature of life and death. William Jackson Crawford, a real person and Professor of Engineering, can’t reconcile his wife’s need to commune with the dead with his own scientific query for fact. But then he hadn’t suffered his own tragedy quite yet.

This is an extremely atmospheric and pretty disturbing novel. It begins in normality, with William suspecting his wife of having an affair, thanks to some strange letters from their former maid who left in mysterious circumstances. But the more William becomes obsessed, the darker the book becomes. And it’s then that you start to take notice of the shadows in the room.

There are moments of surreal lightness, such as when William attracts the attention of celebrities of the day, such as Arthur Conan Doyle and Houdini, but we’re entering the world of the macabre and gothic melodrama as we descend deeper into William’s mind. My one stumbling block in the novel was how absolutely despicable William Jackson Crawford is and being in his mind is not a pleasant place to be as the novel and his madness progress. His cruelty and the distress he causes are upsetting. But The Spirit Engineer is a powerful novel and it presents a compelling portrait of a man’s spiral into darkness.

The Spirit Engineer is a genuinely frightening novel, steeped in atmosphere, with a witty edge. The author’s achievement is even more incredible when you realise that this is a true story. AJ West finds the heart of it. Perfect reading or listening for these winter nights.

Beyond the Hallowed Sky by Ken MacLeod

Orbit | 2021 (25 November) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

Beyond the Hallowed Sky by Ken MacLeodIt is the 2070s when a brilliant scientist receives a letter from her future self giving her the formula for Faster Than Light travel. At the same time an engineer in Scotland witnesses something that should not be possible. On Venus, an unusual spy works to make sure that an astonishing discovery remains hidden. A Cold Revolution has divided the UK and the scars remain from the conflict. It’s not something that people want to talk about. People easily defect between the two and travel is permitted but there is a distrust and competition for technology is intense. With Faster Than Light technology thrown into the mix, humanity could extend beyond our solar system. But perhaps it already has.

I love Ken MacLeod’s science fiction. It blends hard SF and wondrous things with the reality of a recognisable future, firmly set in Scotland. Beyond the Hallowed Sky begins a new trilogy and it starts it brilliantly. There are timely themes with the UK disjointed and adrift intensified by memories of a recent conflict. But it’s not all doom and gloom. There have been leaps in technology – people travel in luxurious airships, their every need is anticipated by an obliging AI, and virtual reality devices enable pilots to manouevre machines thousands of miles away from the comfort of their own homes.

Ken MacLeod brings this future into people’s ordinary lives and it all makes it seem so believable and on our own horizon. But there is much in the novel that is far from ordinary. There are space ships but space ships like no others – they are fantastic! – and wonders. This is also a tale of first contact and it’s not like one I’ve seen before. But it is here that I’m hampered as I must tell you absolutely nothing about any of it. You need to see it for yourself and experience the sense of discovery that our characters undergo.

The characters themselves are varied – to put it mildly – and all are appealing or coldly frightening. I love the use of AIs and robots in Beyond the Hallowed Sky. I love the mix of technology and human stories and, as the novel develops, the action becomes thrilling and intense. I can’t wait to see how the trilogy develops. This is very intelligent, original and engrossing science fiction, with a really strong sense of foreboding and terror. This is Ken MacLeod at his very best.

I thoroughly recommend David’s review of Beyond the Hallowed Sky at Blue Book Balloon.

Other reviews
Descent
The Corporation Wars: Dissidence
The Corporation Wars: Insurgence

The Mitford Vanishing by Jessica Fellowes

Sphere | 2021 (4 November) | 416p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book

It is 1937 and Europe is marching towards war, with Civil War already raging in Spain. Idealists on both sides – Communist and Fascist – are drawn to the conflict in Spain, perhaps not realising the horrors they will face there. The Mitford family is as divided as Europe but they come together when they realise that Communist sister Jessica (nicknamed Decca) has eloped to France and believed to be heading for Spain. Their former maid Louisa now runs a private detective agency with her ex-policeman husband Guy and the two of them are surprised when novelist Nancy Mitford hires them to track down Decca and her unsuitable lover. Scandal, war, ruination face the young woman if she cannot be found in time.

The Mitford Vanishing is the fifth novel in Jessica Fellowes’ wonderful series, which follows the lives of this extraordinary,  glamorous and controversial family. Each one tends to look at a different sister and so you can pick them up easily but I’d really recommend reading the series from the beginning as then you’ll know more about Louisa and Guy. Louisa is the star of these novels however shiny the sisters are. One thing’s for sure, they all attract trouble and they have kept Louisa’s investigative skills busy since the day she first met them.

This time we’re on the trail of Decca but, as she remains elusive for much of the novel, the focus is on the people that Louisa and Guy meet on their travels across France. The war in Spain looms over events and the details about that are fascinating. Louisa, though, has other matters on her mind and spends much of the novel investigating another case in London of a missing woman while Guy chases clues on the continent.

The novel mixes fact and fiction very well and the scenes in France are particularly compelling. I wasn’t convinced as much by the London missing person case or its conclusion but Decca’s mysterious disappearance is thoroughly entertaining and a great device through which to look at the rise of fascism and the Spanish Civil War.

Louisa is a fabulous main character and I’ve enjoyed following her over the years. Her husband Guy plays a much bigger role than usual and he is improved for it. The two now feel like an equal partnership and they work so well together.

I listened to the audiobook, which was well-read but I think the treebook would be better due to the many brief chapters.

We are running out of Mitford sisters now but arguably the strangest of them all remains – Unity. I really, really hope Jessica Fellowes tackles her next!

Other reviews
The Mitford Murders catch up (The Mitford Murders and Bright Young Dead)
The Mitford Scandal
The Mitford Trial

Vengeance by Anthony Riches

Hodder & Stoughton | 2021 (11 November) | 321p | Bought copy | Buy the book

It is December AD 192 and Marcus Aquila, known and loved by many in his disguise as Marcus Corvus, has returned to Rome, his identity once more hidden. He has a mission and it is a deadly one. The mentor of Marcus’s commander Scaurus has plans. His name is Pertinax. He is a respected and honoured member of the Senate and he and many like him have had more than enough of the megalomaniac gladiator emperor Commodus. The news that Commodus intends to murder Pertinax and many of his colleagues on New Year’s Day is the final desperate straw. But to kill Commodus, a man of Herculean strength, protected by his Praetorians, will take a soldier like no other. But Marcus Aquila is no ordinary man. His swordfighting skills in the arena and on the battlefield are legendary and his hatred and hunger for vengeance against Commodus are unequalled. The soldiers and politicians of Rome wait and watch in the wings. Each has an agenda and each will be merciless.

Where to start with my love of this series, Empire, by Anthony Riches…. This is the twelfth in the series and it continues the run of enthralling, hugely entertaining and involving action thrillers set during the reign of one of Rome’s most bonkers emperors (which is saying something). You don’t need to have read them all to enjoy Vengeance but, if you have, you’ll have more of an idea of why Marcus and Scaurus are prepared to embark on what is surely a suicide mission. The world of the early books in the series was kinder to Marcus in some ways – he had a family to support him in his exile. Now his world is smaller, focused and he is supported by his old comrades, Britons, Tungrians, Syrians, Greeks – many of whom are built like an ox. They all adore Marcus. Now they’re going to step into the lion’s den to keep him safe.

Vengeance is a thriller from start to finish. It is so exciting! It’s full of underhand trickery, plotting, rather dim and bitter Praetorians, gladiatorial combat, lascivious feasting, senate pomposity, palace politics, and it is all brilliantly done. Anthony Riches knows his stuff and I love how this book is set in Rome, some of it even in the palace, above and below stairs. It’s full of fascinating details – such as how people can access certain areas of the palace and how Commodus was fed his daily feast of gladiators to fight. We see what life was like as a servant in the palace, as a mistress, as a soldier. And, what I find completely fascinating, how a conspiracy comes into shape and how ideals and greed just don’t get along. Rome as a society and power seems both knowable and totally alien. I love it.

And then there’s Commodus. We may know him from Gladiator but there’s much more to him here. Not long before the Pandemic hit, I went to Rome and I saw the astonishing statue of the emperor as Hercules. What a beautiful statue. Here we see the madness behind it unveiled. I love how Anthony Riches does that. He takes the known facts, buildings and dates and builds such an enthralling story around them.

Vengeance is, with no doubt at all, one of my favourites of this fabulous series. It’s such a good self-contained story in its own right that I think anyone would enjoy it. You’d then, no doubt, fill your shelves with the other eleven books in the series, so you can see what life was like in those long ago days when the young Marcus found himself on the front line in Britannia serving alongside a bunch of terrifying warriors that we have now come to love so much. More, please!

Other reviews
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 X: The Scorpion’s Strike
Empire IX: Altar of Blood
Empire X: The Scorpion’s Strike
Empire XI: River of Gold
Betrayal: The Centurions I
Onslaught: The Centurions II
Retribution – The Centurions III

An interview for The Eagle’s Vengeance
An interview for The Emperor’s Knives

Commander by Paul Fraser Collard

I must start this review with a bit of an apology. I’ve fallen behind with reviews because I’m currently unwell, with orders to rest, walk a lot and eat a lot, so the upshot is that I’m now daunted by the reviewing task ahead of me! Not helped, of course, by the fact that I’m reading like a reading ninja. So I hope you’ll forgive me if I do a series of short reviews. There are some books I really want you to read and I don’t want to hold you up!

Commander by Paul Fraser Collard

Headline | 2021 (28 October) | 386p | Review copy | Buy the book

Commander by Paul Fraser CollardEgypt, 1869. Jack Lark is working as an official agent for the Consul-General but he is bored. The chance for adventure and purpose comes when he meets the famous explorer Sir Samuel White Baker, who has been engaged by the Pasha of Egypt to lead an expedition into the Sudan to eradicate the slave trade and open the area to commerce. It will be an arduous journey. The danger posed by smugglers and slavers will be more than equalled by the horrendous conditions of travelling up the crocodile-infested Nile into deepest Africa with the water levels dropping by the day. Jack Lark cannot wait.

Commander is the tenth novel by Paul Fraser Collard to feature Jack Lark, an enigmatic man of inscrutable feelings, with a taste for disguise, a need to protect his heart, and a great skill with the rifle and sword. He is a born leader, despite the London slums of his birth. But Jack is getting on in years. There are more aches and pains than there used to be. He should take it easy. But he really doesn’t want to do that. Although the tenth, there’s no actual need to go back to the beginning if you haven’t met Jack before, other than that you would be in for a treat.

This is a novel full of adventure and excitement, whether that’s because of the scenes of hand to hand combat, or from the drama of Lark, his men and the crew trying to inch the expedition vessels through the clogged up, narrow Nile, watched by reptile eyes. There is also violence and there were scenes I had to skim over. I am rather squeamish. As usual, there is also female interest but these women have no need of Jack Lark. They have their own role to play in the story.

Jack Lark is one of my favourite fictional heroes and it’s good to see him back. I loved the Nile setting and for me that’s the stand out feature of this excellent addition to the series.

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The Swift and the Harrier by Minette Walters

Allen & Unwin | 2021 (4 November) | 512p | review copy | Buy the book

The Swift and the Harrier by Minette WaltersIt is 1642 and England is descending into Civil War. The country is divided as are families, even minds, as tradition and religion and long-held loyalties come under attack from brave new ideas. Jayne Swift is the daughter of a gentry family in Dorset but she has long resisted attempts to marry her off and now her parents and brothers are learning to accept her as a physician with a growing reputation for her skill. When Lyme Regis is besieged by a Royalist army, led by one of the King’s nephews, Jayne’s skills are needed by both sides. Jayne’s intention of remaining neutral, being physician to both Royalist and Parliamentarian, is suspected by some and there are claims on her from both sides. One man in particular seems to walk the line between each side, the mysterious William Harrier, who first appears to Jayne as a footman but acts like no servant. This is a war like no other as the prospect of a King’s execution makes all too clear.

I love Minette Walter’s writing and characterisation whatever the genre and I love that she has turned her attention to the English Civil War, one of my favourite periods of history. The Swift family embodies the tragedy of this war, with the very real possibility that father may face son, brother may face brother, on the battlefield. The Swift and the Harrier examines the trauma of this as well as the efforts people, including landowners, made to resist the war and its pillaging, looting, violent soldiers. Effectively, this is a war of three sides. Sometimes all would be calm, when the fight is taken elsewhere, but at other times it literally comes to the door.

Jayne Swift is defiantly neutral whereas William Harrier’s allegiances are, at least initially, unclear. This means that the novel shows us both sides, making a distinction between the cause and those who fought for it. The ways in which an army treats its soldiers is important to Jayne, the physician who must pick up the pieces, and it’s telling that many of the Royalist soldiers are effectively pressganged whereas the Parliamentarian soldiers are well-trained and motivated. Neither side emerges smelling of roses but The Swift and the Harrier made me re-evaluate my own assumptions about the Civil War and it completely altered my point of view. As someone who lives in Oxford, surrounded by reminders of Charles I’s residence in the city, it’s about time that I looked over the city’s walls to the claims of the other side! All of which means that I was thoroughly engrossed in the novel.

A substantial chunk is set during the siege of Lyme Regis and this is enthralling. I know and love the place and it was fascinating to imagine the bombardment and privations of the siege in the town, and the role of the cobb, which I’ve walked along so many times. The descriptions are fantastic and it’s also good to imagine the role that women would have played in the defence of their homes and families. Jayne’s own role as physician is carefully drawn. It feels believable. She works closely alongside male doctors, giving an air of authenticity to her role, but whereas some of them cling to medieval ways, Jayne is all about hygiene and cleanliness.

The main subject of the novel, apart from the war itself, is the  growing relationship between Jayne and the enigmatic William Harrier, who pops up at critical times in the novel. He is a man of many guises but he remains mysterious. As a result, I didn’t particularly warm to him, as I did to Jayne and her brothers, and I did think there was a certain inevitability to this element of the story.

My favourite characters were the novel’s eldest – Lady Alice, Jayne’s father and the Duke, William’s grandfather. The impact of civil war on the older generations is particularly fascinating. Too old to fight, their opinions ignored, their loyalties to the old ways trampled upon, their sons divided, it must have been extraordinarily difficult. Jayne’s father is a good man who struggles to hold his family and home together. His growing pride in his daughter is wonderful. The Duke is a marvellous creation! There is a tenderness in the way that Minette Walters writes these characters. She is also at pains to show that one must look below the surface in judging a person. I did enjoy Cromwell’s cameo appearance!

The Swift and the Harrier is a fine novel, reassessing a period of history that continues to fascinate and has left its mark across the land. It’s beautifully written. It’s brutal at times – the opening chapters contain a horrific scene (don’t let that put you off) – it’s also tense. But there are also quiet and happy times as families go against the mood of the times and come together.

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