No matter how much I enjoy the ‘Empire’ books, I can’t get away from the fact that Anthony Riches’ Editor is still blind. Like the bat. It’s ok, publishing people, I have bought all the books (so far) in the series (twice, actually, as I have them all in hardback and on Audible) and a decent star count still manages to poke its head above the soup of irritants but…if I were his editor, I’d have (at least) pointed out this quick selection inside five pages, early on:
P 41. ’Scaurus raised an eyebrow in recognition of the younger man’s achievement.’
P.43. ’Scaurus raised an eyebrow.’
P45. ‘Marcus raised an eyebrow at Martos, who nodded in agreement.’
Then the unnecessary repetition habit again begins again:
P45. The Roman smiled quietly at the way in which the Selgovae giant had quietly and patiently become…’
You get the picture. In the main body of the book, eyebrows are raised in a startling, not to say stunning, variety of ways to signify a wide range of emotions. Often at times, like in the middle of a frenzied battle, where one might reasonably suspect a shouted indication of surprise, acquiescence or astonishment might have been a more logical, not to say speedily and easily interpreted, means of communicating the afore-mentioned emotion.
So, we have liberally sprinkled eyebrows that are ‘knowing,’ questioning, ‘imperious,’ ’sceptical,’ and/or ‘note’ things just by their raising. There are eyebrowS raised as the unspoken answer to questionS and characters that have one eyebrow raised while walking along, into forts. Then there are amazed, ‘pitying,’ ’sardonic,’ ‘wry’ eyebrows a-plenty.
But let’s go all the way to the end and take a closer look at Chapter 10.
P332. “‘What’s down there?’
Lupus started down into the shaft.”
Why not just leave the second ‘down’ out?
P333. “The other man raised a sceptical eyebrow.”
P.333. “Marcus nodded, conceding the point.
“We are the point of the spear…”
Why not ’the tip,’ for the second ‘point’ for example?
P335. “…jerking his head for Marcus to come forward past him. Pacing silently past his friend…” I give up.
P347. “Marcus lifted a wry eyebrow…” And that in the middle of a battle!
P353. “Scaurus raised an appreciative eyebrow at the woman before him.”
And in quick succession…
P354. “He (Scaurus again) raised a questioning eyebrow at her.”
P357. “With a sudden start she realised that there were men all around them, rising from the cover of the bushes and trees around the mine’s entrance.”
P359. “…holding it up to illuminate the narrow passageway. Two hundred paces up the dimly lit passage…” We’ve already got the idea there isn’t much light, hence the need for torches?
P365. “Scaurus raised an eyebrow.”
P366. “According to the miners the transfer was carried out at night, when most of Gerwulf’s cohort were asleep guarding the miners.” Why not just ’them’ for the second ‘miners’?
P368. “Albinus raised his eyebrows in reproach.”
P370. “…happy to see Appius clinging to the neck of his father’s tunic and working his gums vigorously on a heavy gold pendant that hung around her husband’s neck.”
P370. “She looked at her husband with a gently raised eyebrow.”
P370/1. “While the senator simply berated his son to take revenge, the Tribune’s ghost was at the same time both silent and yet gorily persistent in his demands, simply scrawling…”
My favourite of them all in this book and unfortunately I didn’t make a note of the page number, is this beauty:
“With a crack of breaking bone and he flopped bonelessly to the ground.” Surely, the noise of a breaking bone would immediately suggest he isn’t boneless?
The fact that there are enough of them to be noticeable, is irritating in that it distracts from the/my enjoyment of the book/story. Which is otherwise pretty reasonable. They’re still on mainland Europe and have to go sort out a Roman gold mine, discovering fraud on a monumental scale is being perpetrated by errant Roman soldiers. The actual bones of the story are really rather good, with some different variations on the last-minute rescues and unexpected turns of events we’ve come to expect from Mr Riches and his main character Marcus Aquila. I will have to dare to say again, that it is actually the more secondary characters, the supporting cast again, who make the difference. Sometimes, one might be forgiven for finding them a little more interesting, even appealing, in their nature, than the oftentimes straight down the line Marcus.
But (and ‘everything before the but, is bullshit,’ remember that) it’s not ‘just me’ who notices the eyebrows and the repetitions and eyebrows. Other readers have eyes, same as I do (I haven’t even got 20/20 vision, for chuff’s sake). OK, I was involved in what one could call – at a stretch – the ‘creative arts’ (advertising), down the 25 years or more (before moving to Denmark) I worked in the UK. Part of my job(s) down those very same years, was to spot exactly this sort of thing. So, maybe they do leap out a little more readily from the page than for a regular reader, I don’t know. But, you’ve got eyes, same as me, no matter what job you do or don’t do. Like it or not, I have noticed them – and you have too. I can’t un-notice. I can’t say if other reviewers have pointed it out, I haven’t read any, but what I do know is, is that if they haven’t pointed it out, they’re not doing their job (I can immediately think of one blogger (the one who seems never to have read a bad book) who certainly won’t have mentioned it for fear of not getting sent more publisher freebies). As I buy and pay for my books with my own (hard-earned) money, I can be both immune and more objective.
In the end, is it worth buying? Maybe. If you’ve read the others before it, yes. If you are looking forward to the troop returning to Britannia *raises hand* maybe. If you are becoming allergic to eyebrows shooting hither and thither more often than a James Bond film staring Roger Moore…maybe avoid.
Another one that reminds me of Mark Timlin‘s ‘Nick Sharman’ thrillers. And that’s (again) a very good thing. Gritty, clear, precise, nuanced.
The story proper starts in Manchester with the main character, Joe Hunter, warning off some local thugs who are terrorising his half-brother’s wife and child. His half brother meanwhile, has run off to Little Rock, Arizona (USA), with an ex-work colleague. The wife’s not impressed. But wants him back all the same. However, when Hunter gets to where his half-brother is, he isn’t. He’s run off, run away from…well, Hunter needs to find that out, in order to find his brother. Then there’s a serial killer on the loose. One ‘Tubal Caine.’ “Good name,” as Shakespeare would have said. He’s on a cross-country killing spree, quietly going about his business until a stranger stops him in the desert…
Joe Hunter is a vigilante. Not having read any of Lee Child’s books (as yet) who I understand also writes about a vigilante-like figure, I can’t say if he’s like ‘Jack Reacher’ or not. My problem at the start, in the setting-up phases of the book, was that when the first action took place, in Manchester, at night, I thought “ok, so he’s got a day job and sorts people out at night.” But no, Hunter seems to be a full-time vigilante. On finding out that his brother’s in trouble, in the USA, he immediately jumps on a plane to Miami, via New York. Unfortunately, lacking a workable explanation, and having experience of trying to book a plane ticket at short notice – and that’s just to go from Denmark to the UK – I’m unfortunately not thinking “Go Joe! Sort them problems out!” I’m thinking “That’s gonna cost! Where IS he getting his money from?!” From then on, I’m looking for some sort of explanation for where the – seemingly – unlimited funds come from, rather than romping along with the story. You see? There isn’t really much of any kind of explanation. Not put together as sentences and a paragraph of explanation. Only some hints and half hints of work as a security advisor and money (presumably) from glad previous recipients of his brand of problem solving. Personally, I can’t imagine his previous job, he is ex-Army Special Services, paid enough to, effectively, retire on and not worry about having to stay in eating beans the 4th week until the end of the month. I can go along with the idea of not sitting us down and explaining the whole thing to us, then ‘and now on with the story’, we’re not children. So the idea of drip-feeding us, with more to come (as this is clearly set out as the first in an on-going series from the start), is the way I would like it to be done. However, the information is more than a bit sparse and not full enough to drag my niggling penny-pinching mind away from the “where IS he getting the funds for that from?” Having said all that, once the book kicks off for real, the writing and the style and the rush of the action, made me forget all that until I was finished. That’s good.
The character of Joe Hunter is clearly written to be the big brother you sometimes must have wished you had. Likeable, protective, resource able, honest, trustworthy and ready to dispense justice with his fists or anything else to hand. More of a discussion of the moralistic aspect of all this, wouldn’t have gone amiss. Maybe that’s being saved for later. It did seem a little funny how it’s acceptable the violence perpetrated by the hero, but when it’s the serial killer, the book walks away whistling ‘Dixie.’
The passages/chapters written with the serial killer at the centre, are really well done. Chilling due to their matter of fact ordinariness, I suppose you could put it. How Steven Spielberg does it in ‘Jaws‘, remember the scenes of happy people, like you and me, enjoying a day at the beach? Only we know there’s a man-eating shark out in the water, the people on the beach don’t. So it is us doing the work, creating the tension in a way. You know he’s a serial killer, but he doesn’t act like one. ‘Doesn’t act like one?’ How do I know what a serial killer acts like?! I suppose you’re waiting for him to crack and do something dreadful. So the tension is created by your own foreboding. If anything elevates this above the run of the mill, that is it. Made me forget the ‘problems‘ of where Joe Hunter’s money is coming from anyway.
And it ends with a “oh good lord, must take a sneak peak, see how many pages there are left, because I don’t think my shredded nerves will shred any more,” spine-tingling climax that does justice to the story and the book – and got me on the internet straight away to track down a (hardback) copy of Joe Hunter #2. If it’s missing anything, it’s a real twist. I thought we were getting one at the end, but while it was a neat solution to the problem, it wasn’t a jaw hits floor moment, that would have finished it off properly and elevated it up to the next thriller level. Having said that, there is enough evidence here, in his style and general level of writing – some weak, even cliched one-liners or responses to other ‘villains’ aside – to suggest he is on his way there.
All in all, many good starts and an extra 1/2 star for Joe Hunter being a fan of Robert E. Howard. On p129 Hunter says: “Poe, Lovecraft, and R.R. Howard were my favourites.” Whilst I haven’t read anything by Edgar, Al and/or Poe – I have read some H.P. Lovecraft and, by Crom and Mitra, any fan of Robert E. Howard is quite clearly one of the select few and destined to be a good friend of mine.
Once again, be warned – if you’re looking for Jane Austin set in 183AD, you better go find some Jane Austen, or Phillipa Gregory, or…or… You know, the stuff that is basically ‘Mills and Boon’ masquerading as Historical Fiction. For girls. Chick Hist Fic. Lit. Etc.
This is the fourth of Anthony Riches’ ‘Empire’ series and the first one to leave Britannia. As the series was clearly originally planned, or commissioned as a trilogy (you read the last chapters of #3 and disagree), I guess it’s natural that he should sell further volumes to the publishers, beginning with a change of scenery. Our Tungrian auxiliaries have left Britannia with the revolting natives seemingly subdued. Or at least the tribes have been put in their place for a while. They are back in what seems to be their original stamping ground in northern Gaul (though I was a little disappointed that more was not made of this being back on home territory). Whilst it is trumpeted as a ‘different world’ in the book blurb, it isn’t really. They’ve basically just swapped one hostile country with another and the antagonists wherever they are, want them gone, dead, preferably both. The Ardennes forest is puffed up to be perhaps a more forbidding place, than the forests of (what is now) Scotland and some of the passages set in the forest are really very excitingly tense. The main difference here, is the nature of their opponent. A bandit, freedom fighter, soldier, chieftain known as ‘Obduro.’ His schtick is that no one (apart from the few close confidants he has) know what he looks like. And those who do know what he looks like, don’t know for long, if you get my meaning? This is because he wears a mask of an iron cavalry helmet at all times he is seen in public. Oh, and has a ‘Leopard Sword.’ Again, that was an interesting development that, despite it being the title of the book, wasn’t really picked up and run with as much as I’d have liked.
For all the action has moved, some things remain the same. There is still a rather unhealthy preoccupation with testicles, their own and each other’s. Eyebrows, rising minutely, imperceptibly, quizzically, or noticeably, questioning, are clearly still a Roman soldiers best way of communicating emotion. And Anthony Riches still doesn’t seem to have found an editor with 20/20 vision. Oh, and in the Audible version I listened to, obviously aristocratic Romans have speech impediments and/or are effeminate. The more aristocratic, the worse the impediment, you get the idea.
If you liked and enjoyed (as I did/have) the previous trilogy, you’ll find nothing not to enjoy here. It is more of the same, with a few extra dimensions added. A more complex plot, maybe as well. Not exactly complicated, but compared with previous outings, more varied, even nuanced. There are still fights, raids and battles, often to the death, but with a more developed undertone – if I can describe it that way. I’m not going to say it’s better (or worse) for that, compared to what I found most appealing in the first three books, which was their rather more straight-ahead story-telling. The only subterfuge there was the fact that one of their number was (and still is actually) not who he wants it to be known he is. Marcus Valerius Aquilais is, in essence, still in hiding, just hiding in plain sight, with the Tungrian Auxiliaries and now doing it in Tungria. His enemies back in Rome have tried a couple of times to find him, but have been unsuccessful. Not because he has tried to lay low and merge in with the background, quite the opposite. But because his friends have had his back for him, while he constantly throws caution out with the bathwater. None of that gets in the way too much here either. The mystery man ‘Obduro’, knows who he is really and knows the consequences for him of the knowledge getting out, but nothing really comes of it apart from some taunting.
The idea of the mystery rebel in the face mask, whom no one knows the identity of, even his own fellow rebels, is an intriguing one and is handled pretty well here. However, it could have been better and had perhaps more weight, more punch and been a bigger shock when revealed (who it was) if it hadn’t all been contained within the book. By that I mean, if the masked person had been related to someone or something from the preceding books (hope I’m not giving too much away here), instead of being someone we meet in ‘The Leopard Sword’ and leave in ‘The Leopard Sword’ (I am nearly through the next book, and there has been no mention, or hint, of anything to do with the masked person in that.
Don’t get me wrong, this is an enjoyable thundering bull in a china shop of book. Neither Anthony Riches nor his Tungrians take any prisoners with the style of writing or fighting. I’d say you’re either going to like it or not. I can see opinions being divided quite sharply on this. How many would begin by reading this one, I can’t say. The shift in scenery for the Tungrians would at least give new readers a chance to begin here, as do many of the characters. Long-term readers, will again find themselves on the same familiar ground as the characters are (the Tungrians are back where they came from – you see what I did there?). The question of who will read this book, is easy to answer. Men. I can’t for the life of me think a woman would read this, or if she did so by accident, stick around after the first barrack room exchange or the first description of the preferred interrogation practices of either the barbarians or Romans.
It would have had four stars, if the expressing of every conceivable emotion by eyebrows shooting hither and thither around a character’s head, were reduced. Also, strangely for the start of the rest of the series, after the #3 was clearly written to end a trilogy, everything here does all end rather completely and with even less dangling ends, than even ‘Fortress of Spears.’ Which ended like a trilogy might end, but where the author got the nod from the publisher for more while he was doing the edits. With this ending, I imagined the camera pulling back from the final scene, an unseen, off-camera hand slowly closing the door (you’ve seen it done), voices inside to fade, and we are left to imagine how the characters’ lives continue without us. If I hadn’t already bought #5, 6 and 7, with #8 on order, I might go along with the above scenario. But as I have them (apart from #8) sat on the shelf over there, I do find the ending a little more than mystifying. Unless he finished up without knowing if the option for more was going to be taken up. Never mind, go read it, see what you think.
Well, two of the more note-worthy ones I acquired in August anyway.
I buy all my books, all the books I review here. Apart from three, so far.
It’s not that I wouldn’t like to get stuff sent to me for free by publishers, but more because I don’t/haven’t chased them for copies. I’d also maybe have to have a bit more of a high-profile website to be interesting to more publishers, and get free stuff sent, I guess.
The problem as far as I think, is that if I were on a lot of these here lists where bloggers get sent stuff before publication date, for free, for review, is that I’d feel under a certain amount of pressure to give the book a good review. Well, you would, wouldn’t you? I can think of (at least) one other blogger who does get a load of the same sort of thing that I read, sent for free from publishers. And doesn’t waste time letting us know about it. Judging by the pre-publication ‘progress-reports’ the authors concerned re-Tweet. Fair enough that the author wants the publicity and re-Tweeting a “really enjoying the start of a new series/the latest from (name of author here)” is gonna help on the self-publicity front. However, having seen these things re-Tweeted constantly, with every book released, leads me to wonder if she (maybe you know who I’m on about) has ever read a bad book? Ever. Doesn’t seem like it to me. I read plenty of bad books. And I like to think I say so. But not her, as far as I can see. I wonder, sometimes, if the authors don’t feel a little awkward about covering their noses at the smell of rat and re-Tweeting (yet another) glowing report from the reading front-line? I do and I’m only an irritated, keeping it real, part-time, bollocks blogger. Obviously a glowing review is a glowing review, close your eyes and press ‘re-Tweet.’
So, how much of it is a real, honest review and how much is ‘“Wow! Look at me, I got this for free, i read it before you! Oh, and thanks so much for sending me the book, please send me more”? I know what I think. And that’s (partly) why I have avoided trying to get hold of stuff from publishers. The three books I have had sent, I didn’t think they would send. Mainly because I live in Denmark, for a start. Amazon, for example, will have about £8 for posting a book here. The actual cost is probably a bit less, but for a publisher, it’d surely be easier to say ‘”no” to me and miss out on my small audience, than add that cost to their promo budget. The three I have been fortunate enough to be sent, I was contacted directly on Twitter, by the author(s) concerned. One where his publisher had asked him to see if I’d review it and another where he’d visited this site and thought my reviews were half-way decent and that I might be interested in the subject matter of his new book. With the latter, I was asked to send an email to the promo person and see if they were ok with sending the book to Denmark. They were. I get the feeling, from following them on Twitter, that if I were to ask, they’d send others. I don’t, for three reasons.
- I have an enormous back-log of books to read, that I’ve bought with my own money, I really don’t need to add to it with free stuff.
- I want to feel that I can review a book on its merits and not as a ‘thank you’ to the nice people for sending it to me and as a ‘please send me more ’cause I’ll guarantee a good review!’
- I get the idea that stuff sent pre-publication date, for review purposes, is most often not the version that later appears as a First Edition. Not saying there’s anything fundamentally wrong with that, in itself, but I’ve begun collecting hardbacks and First Editions, and First Editions signed, wherever I can.
The books I’m on about above, the reviews that are reviews of freebies i’ve been sent are as follows:
1. The Splintered Kingdom – James Aitcheson
James suddenly followed me on Twitter, then sent a message saying that his publisher had suggested he see if I would review the book. Maybe they’d seen my glowing review of the first in the series, Sworn Sword (which I’d actually bought from iTunes as an e-book and read on my iPhone). I didn’t tell James that I’d already ordered the book from Amazon when he contacted me – free stuff is free stuff, I say. I did warn them I lived in Denmark, but they weren’t put off and the book duly arrived. I loved it, as I had done Sworn Sword. I think this was a post-printing, pre-publication hardback copy.
Click on the book title or image above to read my review.
2. Knights of The Hawk – James Aitcheson
I had, once again already pre-ordered this one, though I admit I’d got ‘em crossed the publisher would just send me a copy, me already being on their list (as I hoped it was how these things worked). Anyway, James again contacted me and asked if I’d like a review copy? Who am I to say ‘no’ eh? This one absolutely blew my little cotton socks off. From the way it was written, more for the way it was structured and finally for the way it suddenly threw the whole story out into a world filled with possibilities for the future of the character. It is indeed a thing of joy and beauty to behold. I think I read it all in one go sat on the sofa in the spare room, one rainy Sunday. I only had two weeks, I think, before publication date, and I was unsure as to when they’d want the review put up. I said to James that is was ready and posted it. Seemed to go down ok. I even made it my book of the year for last year – can’t say fairer than that.
Click on the book title or image above to read my review.
3. The Whitehall Mandarin – Edward Wilson
Edward sent me a message on Twitter saying something like he’d visited the site, thought the reviews were pretty good and that the subject matter for his new book, might appeal. He thought if I contacted his publisher person, they’d be pretty sure to send me a review copy. So, with a ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’ hat on, I sent an email off to the (very nice) person at Arcadia Books. She said they’d be delighted to send me a copy. Edward was right, the book was so ‘me’, it was untrue. I thought it was not just one of the best books I’ve read this year, but…well, if I could have given it 6 stars, it would have got 7. I thought I’d heard the name Edward Wilson before and took a look through my Amazon Wish List (kept for reference purposes now, you understand, as I’ve stopped buying from Amazon) and found several of Edward Wilson’s previous books there. So, I felt fully ok about giving it a good review, as I was highly likely to have bought, read and thoroughly enjoyed it of my own volition even if I hadn’t been sent a copy. The only ‘but..’ is, that this looks like what reviewers normally get sent, a ‘trade paperback.’ If I’d have bought a copy myself, I’d have got a hardback, First Edition (if I could).
Click on the book title or image above to read my review.
As I say, for me as a not very serious collector, this is one of the things that is stopping me from trying to get on more publishers’ lists. I want hardback, First Edition wherever possible. I haven’t re-bought The Whitehall Mandarin, because I already have it. I don’t mind paying for books. I don’t mind one bit paying full-whack for them – if I feel that this keeps authors, publishers and bricks and mortar bookstores going, then I get a nice warm glow inside. I take a chance sometimes, and sometimes I’m lucky, sometimes not. That’s the way it goes. It keeps my reviews honest, I feel. I hope you feel the same way.
So, back to where I started:
First Hereward. Wolves of New Rome, by James Wilde. Or Hereward IV. Obviously, Hereward, Hereward The Devil’s Army and Hereward End of Days were enough of a success for there to be more Herewards. I haven’t read this one as yet, so I can’t say if there’s an opening for even more Herwards, but I sure do hope so. This is as brilliantly thought out and executed a series as I’ve come across. From the cover(s) to the writing and the story presentation.
I, as I do with a lot of my books these days, got this from the good people at Goldsboro. Specialists in signed First Editions, they say – and they are. And this one is not only signed, but publication dated as well. That’s as far as I can see. And that’s pretty good, should this sort of thing ever attract the interest of other collectors.
Check it out. That’s signed, first lined (where they write the first line of the story (!)) and publication day dated. One better would be if it was dated pre-publication date, I think. But otherwise – and I stand to be corrected, as the man in the orthopaedic shoes once said – that’s about as good as it gets.
Second new book in August, is Robert Fabbri’s Masters of Rome. This is also in a series, the Vespasian series, this one being Vespasian 5. I’ve read the first one, not unsurprisingly called Vespasian Tribune of Rome, so far and thoroughly enjoyed it. I then gave myself the mission of tracking down the intervening ones in hardback – and succeeded at not too horrendous a cost. At a very reasonable cost, I think. Some are second hand, but are in good condition, so there ya go.
This one, is signed and dated. As far as I can tell, as the publication date was the 7th of August, this one is pre-publication dated! Sweet. As Robert lives in Berlin, I’m guessing he and Goldsboro had to work in a visit to the shop around both their schedules. I did notice, after I’d ordered my copy, a second possibility for order on Goldsboro. I think they offered version that was also first lined. But as that was put up on their website after I’d already ordered this version, I couldn’t be bothered going through all the rigmarole of cancelling and re-ordering. Plus it was more expensive. This one’ll do (very) nicely. It’s the first of his I’ve got that is signed.
I have bought a couple of others this month, but they were a second-hand (1972 paperback copy!) non-fiction book about the Viking voyages to North America and a comic book of the Pathfinder film – about Viking voyages to North America…they’ll have to wait for a Viking voyages to North America-type post.
A grisly murder. A Russian Detective in Moscow handed a hot potato of a case he knows he shouldn’t take. Especially as it’s 1936, you’re 42, your boss is Stalin, and he’s getting twitchy… But what are you gonna do? A nice new flat, is a nice new flat, no matter where it is, who you have to share it with and who might have just been kicked out of it to make way for you. When you’re in favour, you learn to take what you can get, ask questions later and hope the answers are what your bosses want to hear.
There’s been a murder. A horrible one (you’re going to need some steely nerves, to read about the murders and murderer here), a ritualistic-looking murder in a deconsecrated church. In Moscow, of all places. Where religion isn’t supposed to exist. Or is frowned upon at the best, can be bad for your career as well. Not something you shout about, or cross yourself while others are looking. But Korolev is a patient, careful, diligent and methodical man. A model Soviet citizen, by the looks of it (“The highest conviction rate in the division and you didn’t even beat the convictions out of them”). However, he prays to the God the Soviets say doesn’t exist. Just to be on the safe side, as it were. So, a mutilated woman is the case facing our Alexei Dimitrevich Korolev of the Criminal Investigation Division of the Moscow Militia. A case he knows is going to lead to problems and him into trouble. A case he knows he should run away screaming from. What could possibly go wrong? Oh yeah, the woman turns out to be an American. And the NKVD, the most feared of the most feared services in the new worker’s paradise that is the early Soviet Union, are involved. But don’t want any one to know. Unless they are crossed. But they’re not going to tell you when that is.
The story builds slowly, the investigation takes time to get going. This is both because an investigation like that, at that time, would have taken time to get going, but also because William Ryan is (in case you didn’t know it) getting started on a series of books about the investigative skills of Captain Korolev. So there’s a lot of background work to be put in. About him and about the Russia he was working in. This is done very well indeed. It did remind me of Sam Eastman’s ‘Red…’ series I’ve read a couple of. They are perhaps even more bleak than these and his Inspector Pekala has been a favourite of the Tzar’s before becoming involved under Stalin. Korolev is further down the revolutionary pecking order, isn’t working so closely with Stalin as Pekala, for example, and I don’t remember if William Ryan described his pre-Revolution background. Maybe that’s to come. Both are detectives and both are determined to solve the crime from the point of view that a murder has been committed, someone is responsible and they have been tasked with finding the perpetrator. They want to solve the crime without it spilling over into political recriminations. Though of course, in Soviet Russia of the 1930’s, that is largely out of their hands.
Korolev is totally a product of the Revolution. He supports it, enthusiastically, not in the ways you’re thinking, but perhaps more in its original principles and aims. Though I get the feeling, that William Ryan has intended that Korolev is behind the Revolution for what he, Korolev, thought it was for and would lead to. He hasn’t quite got to grips with what it became under Stalin. He is realistic and he sees signs of course (“The hotel might be owned by the People, but that didn’t mean the People were crazy enough to visit it”), he’s not an idiot and not blind, but seems still to be operating in something of a Revolutionary ‘glow.’ That’s the impression I got from his character anyway. It’s one I look forward to seeing develop in future Korolev stories. Other comparisons, in terms of the level of assimilation into Russian/Moscovian life in the 1930’s under Stalin can and should be made with the masterly work of David Downing. While Downing is of course in Germany before and during (so far for me) the Second World War, that is only a couple of years later than when this book is set, don’t forget. While I don’t think William Ryan is up to David Downing levels just yet, but he shows all the signs of getting there, quickly. I can’t praise the book higher than that.
It really felt a little like the start of a series, where there’s a lot of background and character work to be done and the story, or the danger/excitement/tension levels suffer a little as a result. Having said that, the scenes in the Lubyanka prison and some of the various confrontations were extremely tense and very well done. If anything, it showed that in Stalin’s Russia, at that time anyway, the criminals were a lot more dependable, predictable and honest in a way, than those working for a better future for the proletariat.
The third of Anthony Riches’ Empire series, Fortress of Spears was quite clearly written as the ending to a trilogy. Maybe it was submitted, they read it, got back to him and said “we’ll have some more of that, thanks.” “D’oh!”
If you’ve come across the first two in the series, you’ll be on (very) familiar ground here. However, whilst again being set on and around the Roman Wall in the north of Britannia province, this one does actually start off back in Rome, with the murder of a Senator by a Corn Officer and a member of the Praetorian Guard. They will then proceed to kill his whole family. As you did back then. The Senator has gossiped and given away the first two books’ hero, the fugitive Marcus’ new identity and location. Their pursuit of ’truth and justice’, then runs through the book, leading from Rome, to a bloody climax of revenge and retribution in the far north of Britain. Luckily, while Marcus has enemies in high places, he also has the necessary number of friends in low places and when the supposedly friendly foes – unbeknown to him – snatch his bride to be, they aren’t slow to do what(ever) has to be done. That is a sub-plot, however, as the main thrust of the action, front and centre, involves the continuing campaign against the northern Britons, on both sides of the wall. And it can get messy. In fact, you’re going to need a strong stomach for parts of this. Riches, presumably (one would hope, for his sanity’s sake) has based it all on assiduous research, because several characters go through ’the mill’ in many sections of the story.
The action again takes place in a relatively small area, the harsh, largely barren, wild and dangerous – if you spoke Latin and had a long nose – landscape, north of Hadrian’s Wall. If you go there today, you’ll get the idea of how it might have been. Beautiful now, but probably not back then, if you were Roman. It is only ever referred to as ‘the wall’ or ‘frontier’ in these books. As this area was, again if you were a Roman soldier, effectively unknown territory, you can perhaps imagine the fear and trepidation the soldiers and auxiliary troops must have felt when venturing – told to venture – out there. “You are now leaving the Roman Empire, just don’t count on coming back,” as the sign probably didn’t say. The Antonine Wall, further north than Hadrian’s Wall, was built in the years after 142, before being abandoned in the 160s. As these books take place in the 180s, I’m guessing the soldiers are at least travelling to places they have heard of, if not visited, recently. Having the action take place in a relatively small area, works well. It almost puts the action in a vice, squeezed, as it were, into a pressure cooker-like intensity. Simple, effective. This story again has threats both from in front of the Wall, in the form of them there Celts and their never ceasing campaign to rid their country of the invaders, but also behind it, in the form of the afore-mentioned Praetorian Guards. So our hero Marcus Aquila, finds that the danger this time out, isn’t always covered in tattoos, stripped naked, painted blue and screaming in a language that sounds like a cat coughing up a fur ball. It is also dressed in smart black armour, is sent from Rome on the Emperor’s business and is sneaking around behind him.
The book delivers in all the ways the first two have. There isn’t a lot of development in terms of character and/or story complexity, it’s all very similar to one and two. Presumably with ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ type feeling from Mr. Riches and publisher. And why not? You get exactly what you came for in Fortress of Spears and if you came for what the book delivers, you’re going to go away happy and I’ll admit that I’m liking these books very much indeed. However, I do feel duty bound to say that it can’t be fulsome praise the whole way. Especially as we’re now into book three. The main characters could do with a bit more development, the minor, bit-part players have been the more interesting. I’m thinking here Dubnus and the Prefect Scaurus in particular. Amongst the Roman soldiers, there are basically just several versions of the same character. Bluff, honest, blunt, battle-weary, suspicious of barbarians and officers alike, with no time for polite niceties and a liking for regularly roughing up Quartermasters.
The woman character is/was clearly currently an afterthought. I can’t imagine she was brought in to appeal to female readers, as this series is fundamentally about life in ‘the Army.’ Plus, the story does point out that soldiers weren’t allowed to marry while in the army, doesn’t it? Anyway, there’s what you would expect army types to be concerned with and how they would express it. It’s not subtle. It’s blunt and above all, like it or not Ancient and Medieval History knitting circle – it’s obviously authentic. There is though, an unhealthy male genitalia fixation here. I’m not sure how much the historical records and writings of Roman period historians/things written in Latin on statues would back him up on this front, but I guess AR would say it’s based on solid historical evidence – and is anyway how soldiers have always talked. Which would, presumably, cover the swearing as well, (which I’ve mentioned before). It seems that in the ‘Empire’ books (so far), your ability to do your job, or your ability to take on a certain, usually dangerous, task, is dependent on the size of your genitalia. The more hazardous the task, the larger said genitalia need to be to accomplish said task successfully. Or must have been, once said task is completed, to have enabled said hazardous task’s completion. Of course, never having been a soldier or part of any all-male combative fraternity, I can neither confirm or deny that this is or isn’t true. From my rugby-playing days I can attest that continued, detailed discussion of your or your mates’ ‘crown jewels,’ their size, or lack thereof, would have seen you instantly and permanently branded a ‘woofter.’ Or worse. It presumably did/does go on, but it can be a little wearisome with repetition. Once, twice, yes, we get the idea. Prolonged, repeated use, adds nothing, just creates a wearying effect when (many) other means of expressing the same, could surely be used to similar, if not better, effect. Soldiers are nothing if not creative in their abuse, as my father’s tales of his uncle, a Regimental Sergeant Major during WWII, will confirm, so more linguistic creativity from AR’s characters wouldn’t go amiss.
Another problem could (I’m guessing here as I have absolutely no professional experience to base my opinions on), possibly be the fault of Riches’ editor, or whoever it is that gives the (nearly) final version a through read-through. I’m guessing that’s how these things are done. Mainly, as it’s how I would do them. It is the irritating repeating, within a sentence or two, or the same sentence sometimes, of the same word. Example? P154 “…and you’re going to provide us with the means of making sure he comes to justice quietly. Your Marcus Valerius Aquila has been evading justice with his barbarian friends up here for long enough…” Too subtle? Try this on P157 “Putting his hands to his mouth, he bellowed a greeting to the Romans. ‘Greetings, Romans.’” Giving the benefit of the doubt, the second there could be done for a laugh, but, first is typical of many others. If the second isn’t a joke, is a mistake like the others; why hasn’t the Editor said something? Easy enough to change. I could come with at least a dozen alternatives (so could the Dictionary app on my computer), as I could with the other half dozen I found in only 30 randomly selected pages (I listened to this one on Audible, but I have a hardback version, so that’s why I selected some pages at random, and how I can quote page numbers, despite having listened to the book on Audible…in case you’re wondering). There’s no denying it is irritating and any reviewer that doesn’t mention it isn’t doing his – or, I can think of at least one, ‘her’, job. Just like the editor isn’t. It has happened all the way through the series so far. Can we say that the first three books were submitted in a blaze of euphoria at finding a brave new Roman story writer and not looked at too closely? Possibly. So, from here on, things would be looked at a little more closely? We’ll see…
The final thing? Eyebrows. Eyebrows to convey any kind of emotion, in any kind of situation, from the office, to the battlefield. Eyebrows raised by, especially, Scaurus. P151: “Scaurus shrugged, raising an eyebrow.” (That’s not easy to do, try it). P161: “Scaurus raised an eyebrow…” The tame barbarian gets in on the fun on P170: “Arminius raised an eyebrow…” Or both eyebrows on P175: “Paulus paused again, his eyebrows raised in an incredulous stare.” P181: “The Roman raised an eyebrow.” P187: “He shook his head, raising an eyebrow at his auxiliary colleague…” That’s 6 times, in 36 pages, 340 pages in the book at that average, that’s a shade over 56 eyebrows, or pairs thereof, raised in the course of one not all that long book. Something else to convey incredulity, surprise, doubt, suspicion, anything else, next time out perhaps? Were I the editor. But were I the editor, they wouldn’t have made the print copy. Not more than a couple and well spaced, anyway. I’d have told him “good, but loose the eyebrows, it’s lazy.”
As I said at the start, this is the third in the Empire series. It has felt like he’d maybe written a huge long story and chopped it up into three parts. This clearly is the final part. There is a distinct tie-ing up of loose strings. There’s a Star Trek ending of sorts. You know, in the tv series, where the main story was done, fade out, fade up again to ship’s deck, all participants (still with us) present, sit about discussing what they’ve learnt, finish with crew laughing…Fade to black. You know the sort of thing. While this doesn’t finish with a laugh, it does finish. But then…”hey! I’ve been commissioned to do more!” So, sprinkle a few quick loose ends to take us into the next book(s). To be fair, as the next book does see the action move away from Britain, there should be a feeling of something coming to an end with this one I’ll grant, but not as door-slammingly final as this.
Otherwise, just dandy. It gets four as a carry over from the first two. I’ll be expecting a marked improvement though, in number four.