I have read a fair few books about the 1066 era now and I was beginning to think I’d maybe seen pretty much all there was to see in terms of how the story could be looked at. Stupid me. I was wrong. ‘1066 What Fates Impose’ has pretty much now set the Gold Standard for Norman Conquest fiction, just as Marc Morris’ ’The Norman Conquest’ has done for non-fiction of the period. In fact, I was drawn to compare the two a few times while underway, with ‘What Fates Impose’ coming out of it very well indeed. Both books have scope, sureness, readability and also a certain amount of tongue-in-cheek-ability (Face it, you got to enjoy a novel that can find place for lines (about Harald Hardrada) like “The old Viking warrior never felt comfortable in churches unless he was robbing them.”). It is also clear (to me) that G.K. has drawn many of the same conclusions as Marc Morris and also writes in a similar way that in its understatement, makes it easily understandable and accessible.
It’s hard not to take sides on the 1066 period – for an Englishman, anyway – and this book, while presenting scenarios for what happened, on both sides, doesn’t end up sitting on the fence either. Clearly its sympathies are with the English. William is a Bastard, literally and figuratively, Harold is a reasonably normal chap (in his youth, at least), thrust into history’s spotlight. He was tricked, the English were unlucky, William was ungracious while knowing he was riding his luck, he got what was coming in the end.
The book has a good, flowing style, full of understated period detail that doesn’t get all prissy, know-it-all, or ‘in your face’ and thereby obscuring the story. It is written in a calm, precise, knowledgable and authoritative way that gave me total confidence that, based on what evidence there is, it could well have happened like this, if the people behaved in this way, for these reasons. In fact, I could go as far as to say it did occur to me that it read as though you have happened upon a translation of a particularly well-kept diary from someone (somehow) close to all the action and all the participants. There were a couple of ‘bumps’ but they were very minor and absolutely nothing to get in the way of the enjoyment as a whole. I won’t pick them out as they may not be bumps for you.
The story proper starts in 1045, though there is an opening chapter that is well worth going back to, after you’ve finished. It works wonderfully well as both a scene-setter and a scene closer. Actually, is there any point in repeating the story? The bare bones you probably ‘know’ already. There are as many versions of what might have happened as there are people writing them. The story here is thusly; the relatively newly formed country of England is coming off the back of wins and defeat at the hands of Vikings and assorted other invaders, and hopefully coming into a period of calm and peace. What it actually gets is internal rivalries based on the pre-English country states – what are essentially birth-pangs and old rivalries that are hard to forget. What England really needs, is a strong king with a son ready to take over in the fullness of time. What it gets is a king they can support, but one that doesn’t, cannot, or at the very least is unable to, produce an heir who will be of age when he passes on. A vacuum of sorts is created almost by accident. There are various contenders and pretenders, with varying degrees of eligibility – depending on where you stand, of course. What is surprising to realise about this period – and I’m pretty sure it went on over here in Denmark at the time as well – is that the King was effectively elected. Of course, the son of the previous King stood the best chance, but in the case of no close heir, the vote went to the Witan, a pre-democratic periodic gathering of the good and the great. Those with the land and money and the armies to back it up, anyway. On the other side of the Channel, unable to understand how anyone but the King and his family could be King…is Duke William, head of a minor province, called Normandy. He’s not had it easy either, doubtful parentage, the constant threat of assassination while growing up and then having to hold on to power through sheer force of will. By being the biggest, baddest most ruthless of the whole pack. To say his claim to the throne of England, is doubtful, is actually to imbue it with more authority than it actually has. So, what then transpires, is the stuff of legend and has kept historians, writers and seamstresses in business pretty much ever since.
From there on – and based solely on the reading I have done – the book follows the events as they are known to us. And by ‘known’, I’d say it really should be read often as speculation, based on what is perhaps the least unlikely scenario. The ’true histories’ of the period are ’true’ to the facts as paid for by the person behind the writer of the history. It seems like a history was never written without an angle, an axe to grind, a point to make. ‘Facts’ were made to fit where they were wanted to be fitted. I get the idea that nowadays, we consider it a ‘fact’ if conclusions can be drawn from the repeated use of similar descriptions of events, that therefore they must have, most probably, happened – in some form of other. Or where archaeology, or probability based on archaeology, can maybe back them up. There you go. While ‘What Fates Impose’ is not meant to be an actual history of the period, I can imagine objections to it from any academics out there could perhaps hinge on the portrayal of how Harold came to pledge allegiance to William and thereby support William’s claim that Edward promised him the throne. You’re either going to like it or you’re not. But you cannot deny it works with the background of the characters and situations set up in the book. But I’ve no doubt that some – often self-proclaimed (I’ve come across them) – ‘experts’ will take exception and maybe overlook the book as a whole. They’d be doing themselves a great disfavour.
G.K., has created believable, realistic, human characters from some of history’s most iconic figures. It is good to have Godwin Sr., and Harold’s background filled out, for instance. Only ‘Shieldwall’ by Justin Hill (of the books I’ve read on 1066 so far) does something similar with the Godwin family. That Harold had plenty of children and two ‘wives’, for instance, was something I hadn’t realised. He’s drawn as a fairly normal young man, one we’d recognise and like, if we met him on the street today. For instance, he meets a pretty girl, falls in love, wants to spend the rest of his life with her. But because he becomes King, there are other demands, other priorities that cannot be avoided. Harold grows up and develops into a true king as the book progresses. From wild, though sensible and caring at heart, to be a proper statesman and envoy. HE has kingly qualities, that’s for sure. Oh, what we lost at Hastings…
William is very different. The way he portrayed in the book, reading between the lines, seems due to his trying to make amends, to compensate, for the feelings of inadequacy he must have felt because of the lowliness – and doubtful parentage – of his birth. He has something to prove and feels he can only do it by any means possible, fair or unfair, lawful or unlawful. He knows what he’s doing, can’t help himself and knows he’ll come to regret it.
Throughout the book, there builds a feeling of a far greater loss being imminent. Greater than ‘just’ the English warriors being beaten on that October day at Senlac Hill. Again, like Marc Morris does at the start of ’The Norman Conquest’, G.K., hits us with a couple of very telling facts. Here, they are about the situation before and after the invasion. In 1066, England had a population of about two million. One hundred years later, the population was halved. No famine, no plague. Just William and “Norman civilisation.” Many times during the reading of the book, I got the strong sense – intentional or unintentional – that he feels a way of life, a tradition, a history and a bright future, was about to be wiped out. Not just half the population, something more.
Events unfold, bridges are crossed and then burned behind them and an unstoppable historical ball is set rolling. There are times when it seems like the least worst option, for William at least, is to press on with the whole sorry mess. So we move inexorably towards 1066 and October 14th and the battle. Even though I’ve read many books now, which detail the weeks and days leading up to and including the battle, even though we wouldn’t be who we are today without having been the Normans first – I’ve never had a feeling of encroaching dread like I did while reading the final third of this book. I think it says so much about the quality of the preceding passages and the quality of the writing and presentation of those last few days and hours, that it’s like while I know what happened and it can’t (obviously) be any other way, I still hoped, I still thought ‘we’ and Harold might just do it. The victory was there. The victory was there for us to lose. And we did. Our luck just wasn’t in that day. It could have been so different. The tension, is stomach clenching. I’m reading the words and another part of my brain is shouting to the English characters “go on, GO ON!” I know it can’t be any other way, but still…might it? He dangles victory in front of Harold, it’s there for him to take, if only…And it’s gone. As it surely must have been. It really held me tight in its spell and have me hoping that this time Harold would win. That William would get the humiliation – and horrendously painful – death he’s got coming. Harold seems to have done everything right, except be finally lucky. I didn’t want to read on. I wanted to stop there and imagine what could have been…
‘What Fates Impose’ really is Historical Fiction par excellence. It’s going take a good book, a very good book indeed, to beat this re-telling of the 1066 story. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book and I recommend it without hesitation.
*I should make it clear that I was contacted by G.K. Holloway, who had visited my blog and thought I might enjoy his book and would I like a copy in return for an honest review. The above is my honest opinion.
Arriving faster than a spaceship landing on a comet (a shade under two weeks from London to Denmark – that’s about a week less than ‘usual’), yesterday this little beauty arrived.
Thanks again to the very wonderful folks at Goldsboro Books, that’s a signed, first edition of Bernard Cornwell‘s latest, number eight in The Warrior Chronicles series. I can’t say yet if there’ll be a number nine, but I wouldn’t bet against it.
The cover follows the previous design and looks absolutely fab-tastic. If I can say that? Anyway, a whole lot better than the up-dated paperback versions have been. Maybe I’ll put something together on that at a future date.
As I remember, I did find the previous one, The Pagan Lord, a little bit on autopilot, so here’s hoping this is better.
Goldsboro have sold out of the signed ones, but you can (and should) buy a copy at The Book Depository, here.
I thought it’d got lost in the post, as it took well over a month from Goldsboro to here. Nobody’s fault, it seems, just ‘one of those things.’ It did have a sticker on the box suggesting it had come here via Copenhagen, but then they usually do, but usually a lot quicker.
Never mind, all’s well that ends well.
And yes, I did take the precaution of ordering another copy, so I now have two. Until Christmas, that is…
Wow! What a great book that was! 800-odd pages and I’m still annoyed to have come to the end. Not often you can say that. But wait! Luckily for me (and you), it’s only the start – of a trilogy.
Stephen King says on the cover of the version I have; “Amazing. I defy you to put it down.” First, note an American that used ‘amazing’ instead of ‘awesome.’ Then, yes, he is absolutely spot on. It wasn’t Steven King’s recommendation that got me to buy it, admittedly, that was a blog post from the New York Times or some such a while back. Greg Iles’ background to the story, the premise and the seeming intermingling of fact and fiction, all sounded not just intriguing, but absolutely ‘me.’ And I was right. So, Stephen King and I have something in common at least. Then, the fact that it was in a 2 for £7.00 offer at a UK supermarket and it being the size of a house-brick, pushed me over the edge. And…I did indeed find it very, very hard to put down.
It’s not a simple story, despite the ‘A father accused of murder. A son who must face the truth,’ on the front. That dilemma, is just one of the many themes running through the book and whilst it maybe pertinent for the character of Penn Cage (the son), it isn’t what drives or influences the story in the largest way. In fact, there isn’t an easy way to sum it up. So I’m not going to try. There isn’t the space – despite the size of some of my recent reviews – to do the complexity, the nuance, the history, the scope of the book anything like full justice. A bare bones then.
It is fiction, though it is set in and around the real American town of Natchez. Which is where author Greg Iles lives and many of the places, institutions and some of the historical cases, are, he says, real enough. It is a very skilfully woven tale, in and out of reality and I did find it took a while to let go of the feeling that he is writing about real incidents, relating a true, his own possibly, story. That’s good. So the story and its themes are supposed, in a fictional setting, to light up and explain, as far as they can be ‘explained’ in the Ku Klux Klan’s case, the whys and wherefores, the feelings and motives that a purely non-fiction telling probably could not. If I say ‘deep south of USA, 1960’s, into early ’70’s then up to ’now,’ you’ll maybe begin to place the events of the period that the book is dealing with. Penn Cage is a lawyer, an author and Mayor of Natchez. But it is about his father, Tom Cage, that he gets a worrying phone call right at the start of the book. His father is very likely about to be accused of deliberately killing an elderly black lady. A murder. Penn Cage, being a lawyer, a good one and sure of his father’s innocence, should make it just a misunderstanding and make it go away. However, problems there soon are. He finds that his father won’t tell him anything about the incident he stands accused of. Won’t tell him if he did it. Of if he didn’t do it. Even if he might or might not have done it. Nothing. Penn Cage discovers that the dead lady, was his father’s nurse back in the 60’s. Also, that she knew and/or was related to, several people who died at the hands of a particularly nasty local off-shoot of the Ku Klux Klan. And these men, while elderly nowadays, have family who aren’t, but are highly – and securely – placed in the local community. Including law enforcement. Problem is, as characters find out to their cost, the law they are enforcing, is very often their very own. As it was back in the early ’60’s as well. As you soon found out, if you lived in the US south and were black. Penn and his father aren’t the only characters who feature. There is a full and complex supporting cast of interesting people, who are caught up to varying degrees, in the maelstrom of emotions, events and incidents, which soon turn out to be equally as destructive, as hurricane Katrina which blew through the area a few months before the story’s ‘present’ starts. Got that?
There’s so much interest and incident, it really is hard to keep it short. But all of it, slowly, painstakingly revealed, fits well, is logical and entirely plausible – given the logic and plausibility of some of the characters – and always believable. The story wheels through many people’s lives, linking them to the story and building up a thoroughly compelling account of how the past is reaching out and taking hold of all their presents. For me, it is a book full of passion, anger, hope, regret, sadness, peace and longing. Personally, I read a real sense of longing for the past, sometimes to re-live those times, or maybe to alter them, or maybe even to just to understand them, put them finally in their place. The future seems on hold until the past is dealt with. That kind of thing.
The story is written in the first person when featuring Penn Cage (a name that still sounds like a thing, rather than a person to me, but there you go), third person for when other characters are involved. It is really well structured and well written, but subtle with it. It’s like it’s describing real events in real time, then and now (if that’s even possible) and we find our way forwards, together with the characters as they try to find out what is going on and how it all fits together. By not telling us (the reader) more than the characters know, Iles keeps us on the edge, of our seats and nerves (well, in my case anyway). An especially admirable feat when done over 800-odd pages. The story moves backwards and forwards in time seamlessly, as each character contemplates their part in how the story came to be and as it unfolds in the present. It seems to be done depending on whether what is happening now needs explaining with what happened in the past and I’ll admit I was a little thrown off balance a couple of times. Makes you pay attention though. It’s like the characters are daydreaming sometimes, transported by something they see or hear, back to a time when a relevant incident happened. However, it all hangs together and works extremely well. The Hurricane Katrina disaster that hit the area for real in 2005, is – I think – used as a way of explaining the storm of feelings that were caused by the racial tensions and conflict of the 1960’s, with the book charting the kind of clear-up operation from that emotional hurricane, still going on today. The characters find that what they did back then, they can’t escape from now. Their past, their past actions, is still the present, though they have tried to run and hide. Like the hurricane, as the books says; “The problem is, the past has crashed into the present.” The past has also left a trail of devastation into the present and the unravelling is what the book is all about.
There is no way I could give this anything other than the big five stars. I’m very much looking forward to the second volume. If you haven’t already – go investigate ’Natchez Burning’ for yourself.
The specially observant of you may have noticed up top there a new Menu item ‘Historical Fiction – The Timeline!‘
It’s an idea I had the other day, being a trainspotter-type, of putting all the books I’ve read (and got, but not read yet) that could be called (loosely and tightly) ‘Historical Fiction,’ into a chronological timeline. That is to say, put them in order of the dates that they are written about.
I explain at the top of the page how it is ordered, but quickly now - it is a list of books ordered by the dates on which they start.
If I was wanting to give it an importance that clearly isn’t due…I would say that you could think “The 10th Century looks like it was an interesting one, I wonder what books there are that are set back then.” Well, though my list isn’t of course by any means comprehensive, you can now see which books I have read, reviewed or got, that are set in that century. Or another, should your liking be elsewhere.
I’m including as ‘Historical Fiction’ all my books that were written about the past when they were published. If I read a book that was an up-to-date thriller in 1969 (set in 1969) then it isn’t there. If I read a book ‘now’ that is set in 1969, it’s there. Get the picture? Same with George Orwell’s ’1984.’ When it was written, it was set in the future, Science Fiction, even, now it’s in the past, but isn’t ‘Historical Fiction’ for me.
As ever, they are my interpretations of what is Historical and/or Fiction and it’s me who has combed through the books trying to find evidence of when the book is set. Certain books have missed this info out – some of the Bernard Cornwell ‘Warrior Chronicles’ for example – I’ve no idea why he leaves dates out on some but puts it in on others, with ones like that, it’s my best guess. If you have other ideas, other dates, I stand to be corrected, as the man in the orthopaedic shoes said. And you’re very welcome to tell me differently.
Hope you find it interesting and/or mildly diverting. I haven’t seen it done else where – as yet – so that’s why I’m daring to use ‘unique.’
There should be some sort of drinking game, the sort of thing I’m sure Anthony Riches would approve of, based on all the eyebrow raising going on in his books, Especially The Emperor’s Knives. You take a drink every time a character raises his eyebrows (I say ‘his,’ because the affliction does seem to be limited to the male characters in the books. Not that there are many female characters here or in any of the books so far. Offhand, I can think of four. Marcus’s wife, the other wife who used to be a brothel owner, the sister of a character in The Wolf’s Gold and assorted prostitutes who are not featured long enough to be named). The trouble with the game would be – you be pissed before you got out of the prologue. Okay, maybe that’s being a little harsh – Chapter 1 then.
Now that the shock of the new has worn off, it’s clear that by now, book 7, the writing is really quite dreadful. Toe-curlingly, amateurishly bad in (many) places. Now that they’re in Rome, it’s not possible to have quite so many set-piece, pitched battles. So we’re getting into the seamier side of Roman double-dealing. Words. Don’t mean what they say, don’t say what they mean. So, instead of swords and spears having the cutting edge, it’s words and meanings. Or, it would have been in the hands of a better writer. I’m maybe being a little harsh on poor Anthony, having come to TEK off the back of a couple of almost exquisitely well written books (‘A Colder War’ and ‘Natchez Burning’), but even compared to some of the recent books I’ve read recently from his own genre (Vespasian II or The Lion & The Lamb), then this really isn’t up to it. Nowhere near.
And, I don’t do the whole Marcus haunted by his ancestors appearing several times a night, every night, in his dreams. And speaking to him. Not at his will, but theirs’. Doesn’t happen. Outside of books.
But, on with the bit I enjoy. The piss-taking.
The raised eyebrow-count has, by book 7, reached epidemic levels. The characters in The Emperor’s Knives Strike Back, haven’t progressed to the rolling of eyes, yet. That’s surely the province of the reader as he/she comes across YET another one, either as part of a cluster, or merely an isolated, inappropriate example, standing out like the balls on a bulldog.
Eyebrows this time out, include such beauties as;
“Sigilis raised an eyebrow.”
“He pondered Scaurus’ turned head and raised eyebrow for a moment before speaking again.”
“He raised an eyebrow and waited, keeping his face utterly immobile…” (You try that).
“He shot Marcus a knowing glance and then raised a questioning eyebrow at Scaurus…”
“Albinus raised his eyebrows in mock terror.”
And those are just in the first chapter.
Best of the rest:
Even the kids are at it by Chapter 4. “The child raised an expectant eyebrow.”
“Dubnus raised an amused eyebrow…”
“His counterpart raised a disbelieving eyebrow.”
“Cleander raised a conspiratorial eyebrow.”
“…his eyebrows raised for emphasis.”
Scaurus is still the one with the most raised eyebrows in the series, in fact, his eyebrows are rarely NOT raised. But he outdoes even his previous best, with, while pausing, “raising an interrogatory eyebrow.”
“Mortiferum raising an amused eyebrow as he slid his feet across the sand…” He’s not dancing, he’s making sure he doesn’t fall over anything in the arena.
Coupled with characters constantly inclining, bobbing and shaking their heads, often in recognition of each other’s ‘points’, sometimes inside the same conversation, it reads like watching the mating dance of the Great Crested bleedin’ Grebe at times.
“He raised an eyebrow Saurus, who acknowledged the point with a nod.”
“Cleander inclined his head in recognition of the point.”
Then, it just gets ridiculous:
On page 133: “Exingus waited for a moment, allowing Albinus to speak again if he so wished, but the other man simply fixed him with a hard stare and raised his eyebrows.
‘As I said, this was no suicide. Aquila and that brute of a centurion who accompanies him everywhere, jumped Centurion Dorso and his men on the street, killed the bodyguards, and dragged Dorso into his private residence. They murdered him in a most gruesome way, dousing him with oil before setting light to him.’
Albinus raised his eyebrows in horror, staring up at the trees above them.”
He was probably looking for wherever it was his eyebrows had flown off to, as there’s no indication that they had come down from the previous time they shot up, just a shade over 18 seconds previously as I read it. And the trees? Where else would they be, if not above them, given Albinus has stared upwards? But, that’s TWO times a character raises his eyebrows inside 9 lines! Not 9 chapters, pages, or even 9 paragraphs. 9 lines. Tell me, in all honesty, that that doesn’t stand out like a turd in a swimming pool? Tell me you don’t think his Editor is missing something. Like their sight.
Actually, struggling to play catch up on the faces of Romans everywhere in Anthony Riches’ Rome, is now the ‘pursing’ of lips. They’re all at it as a sign of everything from deep thought, to inner turmoil, to estimation of how expensive that repair work is going to be (oh, wait, that was the plumber we had round recently). Pursing of the lips is obviously Anthony Riches’ new black.
“Sigilis pursed his lips.”
“He looked up at the four men around the table, pursing his lips in amusement…”
“Sigilis pursed his lips.”
“The informer shrugged again and pursed his lips…”
“…and Scaurus pursed his lips as…”
“He pursed his lips and stared at Marcus for a moment.”
Most of those were also in the first chapter!
The constant eyebrow raising and pursing of lips (though to be fair, I can’t actually recall a character doing both at the same time, maybe I should give it an extra half-star for that?) is like the Roger Moore Fan Club, on a drunken night out, just wandered into a Larry fucking Grayson convention (you maybe need to be British to get that one). The rest of you, look at the pictures.
And what do I mean by ‘the repeats’, the repeats. Well, try this little gem (from the Arena announcer) on for size:
“We are watching a scene from the divine Emperor Trajan’s war against the Dacians, a piece of history well known to any man who fought in that bitterly fought campaign”.
Or; “Julianus allowed his breath to hiss slowly and almost imperceptibly from between his teeth, the tension slowly ebbing from his body as he realised…”
Oh, for FUCK’S sake!
Maybe the worst. Ever. The worst ever combination. Page 258, at the end of one scene, the start of another (hence the gap in the quote below):
“Come on, we can eat these as we go. Follow me and I’ll show you a place you only want to visit once.
Once outside the domus’s sprawling property, Scaurus raised an eyebrow at his first spear.”
The ultimate unholy alliance, the perfect storm. An eyebrow following a crazy, avoidable repeat.
But…even that George Clooney of a storm of inanity is bested by this:
P320: “…the champion threw himself into one last frenzied attack…”
Followed straight on with:
“His swords swinging almost incoherently as he stepped forward.”
Wait a moment! ‘Incoherently’?! Incoherently?!; “incoherent |ˌinkōˈhi(ə)rənt, ˌiNG-, -ˈher-| adjective1 (of spoken or written language) expressed in an incomprehensible or confusing way; unclear: he screamed some incoherent threat.• (of a person) unable to speak intelligibly:I splutter several more times before becoming incoherent.• (of an ideology, policy, or system) internally inconsistent; illogical: the film is ideologically incoherent.2 Physics (of waves) having no definite or stable phase relationship.DERIVATIVES incoherence noun.incoherency noun (pl. incoherencies) .incoherently adverb.” How ironic).
Ahem… on with the show:
P320 (FOUR lines later): “…in what was left of Flamma in one last glorious, fleeting display…”
P320 (SEVEN lines later): “Parrying one last desperate lunge inside…”
P320 (SEVEN lines later): “…smashing one last titanic back-fisted blow…”
P321 (32 lines later): “…agreed to give Cleander one last fatal day in the arena.”
Thats FIVE inside 47 lines.
How on God’s green earth is someone writing that, someone checking that and letting it go and then someone else not noticing it whilst reading the whole sorry mess? And keeping their job? Well, blogging isn’t actually a job, I know, but the rest of you?!!
Quite apart from the fact that Anthony Riches should notice, or at least get a slight tingle of déjà vu as he writes “*Insert character name, usually Scaurus, here* raised an eyebrow” (with or without a description of what kind – though ‘jaundiced’ is becoming increasingly popular if the last two volumes are anything to go by), what about his editor at the publishing people? I have mused before about how I’ve read enough authors’ Tweets and Facebook poses stating (something like) “book written, sending it off to editor.” Then there come posts describing how they’re now working through the list of suggestions changes and what even an author will more often than not describe as ‘improvements.’ So, why doesn’t Anthony Riches’ editor at Hodder and Whathaveyou, notice and pick him up on – at least – some of the eyebrows and repeats? Looking at Anthony Riches’ not exactly welcoming profile picture on the book jacket, maybe he/she’s too frightened of him to say anything. Or blind. There is no way they couldn’t have noticed (there’s probably even a Braille version). I did and I work in a hospital. Cleaning (amongst other things, I hasten to add) cancer patients’ toilets. Writing or reading books isn’t my one job. But, what about other reviewers? The Sunday Times has reviewed it (I think I saw), why didn’t they mention something that stands out like a pimple on your backside? Do they notice them? Not in any of the reviews I searched just now. But the things are on just about every bloody page. You’d have to be blind (or Anthony Riches’ Editor) not to notice them. Are they reading the books carefully enough? Are they reading the books? Or are they just re-typing out the press release that comes along with their review copy? I know what I think.
So, is it ‘just me’? No.
They are there, on the page, in black on white, in the book in front of us. Those I’m quoting are quotes from the book in front of me, I’m not making them up, they won’t go away. They are partly noticeable because they are not found in other books. I’m nearly finished with ’Natchez Burning’ and in 800-odd pages, only three sets of raised eyebrows. none in Charles Cumming’s A Colder War. That’s three in over 1200-odd pages. Here, we’ve sometimes got three a page. It isn’t ‘just me,’ you know it. Sure, I do notice ’this sort of thing.’ To do so was a large part of my job back in Advertising. I had to – amongst other things – write copy, check copy, edit copy, check addresses, phone numbers and repeated words. They should not go through. Not if we wanted to get paid, that is. So, I notice them. But no more than you do, admit it. Read the book, open a page at random, tell me I’m wrong.
They do matter. They do tear attention away from an otherwise reasonably interesting story. Let’s get this straight. The idea and aims behind the story are good and well founded enough. It is in many ways a more developed, even intricate (well, intricate for the ‘Empire’ novels) story. It’s just that the execution, if you’ll forgive the pun, is so poor, that it serves to obscure, in a storm of eyebrows shooting here and there, a veritable Mexican wave of spreading arms (indicating supplication, apology and sometimes something else), a lemon-growers tasting-party of pursed lips and a Great Crested Grebe’s mating dance of inclining and nodding of heads, that it’s hard to take seriously. Despite the otherwise solid foundation.
From a possible five stars. Minus one for the eyebrows. Minus one for the pursed lips. Minus one star for the constant spreading of arms and hands. Minus one star for all the stupid repeats. Minus one star because the editor let them all go. Minus one star for falling back into the noble Gladiator, the ‘sheep.’ bastards,’ ‘rabble’ in the arena who watch them. Plus one star for the solid story foundations and one star for me, because I’ve made it all the way to book seven. One star for you if you read all this way. That’s 2 stars.
Look. What does he care? I bought this in hardback then listened to it on Audible. So I’ve paid twice. I’m fully entitled to my opinions. They’re based on owning the bloody thing twice – and my eyes.
As I say, there does seem to be a decent semblance of a story and signs of an increase in confidence and ambition to the book, but it’s struggling to come to the surface. However, the inanity and laziness means it’s drowning, not waving.
I couldn’t have enjoyed this book any more if I’d tried. Believe me. If you’ve ever been a fan of, or even ever heard someone say they’ve been a fan of the classic Spy Fiction writers, then this is for you – and them.
I’ll admit I wasn’t totally taken by A Spy By Nature, though I thought A Foreign Country was much more like it, if not entirely there. However, with A Colder War, in my Charles Cumming experiences so far, the cover blurb does actually seem to have been written about the book contained within the dust jacket. This is bang up to date in themes and story line, but is clearly rooted in the proud tradition of the old spy-school of writing. I don’t think I’m doing CC a disfavour there, as this stands up to the comparisons incredibly well and takes his writing – for me at least – into exciting, new can’t put it down, can’t get over how good it is compared to the previous ones, can’t wait for the next one, territory. I can see now, that they were leading up to this tour de force. CC has taken the best bits from the previous Thomas Kell outings, pulled the strings taut, cut out the fat and flannel, added in ‘Moscow Rules’ and shaken it all up with modern technology and a healthy dose of ’now.’ And out comes A Colder War. Maybe the title is a reflection of his self-confidence, in calling it ‘Colder’ as to what his aims for the book are/were? To out-do the Cold War classic novels of le Carré and such like? It’s probably more an indication of the re-shaped spy landscape there is out there, modern terrorists are not playing nice, like the old-school fellows of the past…but, as here, the protagonators in the background, are still the old school – UK, USA, Russia. But this is worse. Maybe.
I don’t know about that, but I do know it stands shoulder to shoulder with the best of them and head and shoulders above the trashy, flashy American versions of spy novels there are so many of. Only Edward Wilson’s ’The Whitehall Mandarin’ is in the same ball-park at the moment for me this year. Oh yeah, I thought Tim Steven’s excellent ‘Ratcatcher’ and central figure of John Purkiss, was operating in something of the same area as Cumming’s Thomas Kell. Look, I seriously doubt I’ll read a better, more entertaining, more tense, more satisfying spy novel/thriller, in a long, long time.
As mentioned above, A Colder War reunites us with Thomas Kell, the hero of the previous Charles Cummings novel I read: Another Country. He is a ‘disgraced ex-agent’ he’s been “cold shouldered by the Secret Intelligence Service eighteen months earlier, (and) been in a state of suspended animation ever since.” With a foot in two camps (in and out) kind of, this gives Kell an amount of outsider perspective to the fun and games going on inside British Intelligence. However, Kell does desperately wants to be back ‘in.’ In favour, back in the ‘game,’ in from The Cold. His wife has become his ex-wife and his local boozer is becoming his home, when a call from his ex-boss Amelia Levine, brings him crashing back into The Warm. Again. As it was Kell she called on previously, when she was having a little trouble on the family front, you may recall, in A Foreign Country. There is a cynicism, or a realism, despite Kell’s longing to be back and while he tells himself: “You’re back in the game…This is what you wanted. But the buzz had gone.” The ‘buzz’ soon comes back as well. Wallinger, the British Head of Station in Turkey, has died in a plane crash and Levine wants it investigated – the (possible) catastrophe explained and contained. Kell is sent to Turkey, uncovers doubts surrounding the crash, with tentacles reaching out into the whole of MI6’s operations in the region. Then suspicions arise (‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’-like, given there are four candidates in the frame), that there is a leak. But, is it a British or American mole? That’s the question Kell and colleagues need answering fast, before the Russians come in and clear up. People aren’t who they say they are, don’t do what they say, don’t say what they do or who they work for. Ah yes, it’s just like the old days, hoorah! Haven’t said: “Oops! You shouldn’t have told them that!” out loud in a long time.
Thomas Kell has developed into a thoroughly believable lead character. I’m not going to say admirable, or likeable or sympathetic even, but he is believable. His background, his reasons and reasoning, his actions and his thoughts, all are rock-solid believable. Nothing stretches the imagination, nothing makes you think ‘ok, I’m not gonna go along with that being his motive, but let’s see where it goes before we pass the salt around.’ Nope, he is refreshingly and objectively jaundiced, if that’s even possible. He’s been right royally shafted by the The Service in the past, but still desperately wants to be back inside, though that doesn’t mean he has to like himself, or them, for it.
From there on, the story goes every place you would wish it to, though without ever being predictable. The writing is economical and effective and I was held hanging the whole time – constantly trying to guess what was next. I was (nearly) always wrong. It’s a read it a little bit more, read it propped open with the jam jar at breakfast, read it on the bus and miss your stop, think about it all day, try to explain your theories underway, in Danish, to your Danish colleagues, good. Really. This is gonna be a hard act to follow and no mistake. But I think, on the evidence of this (and I have my own idea of how he can do it), Charles Cummings is the man to do it.
Anything else of this genre I read from now on, will have to stand comparison to A Colder War.