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Speesh Reads’ unique Historical Fiction Timeline!

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.’

Review: The Emperor’s Knives

The Emperor's Knives
The Emperor’s Knives by Anthony Riches
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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;

Roger-Moore 1“Scaurus raised an eyebrow at the younger man.”

“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).

Roger Moore 2“Sigilis raised an incredulous eyebrow.”

“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:

The Rock's The People's Eyebrow“His first spear raised a knowing eyebrow”

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.”

AncelottiScaurus 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.

GrebeCoupled 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:

The HoodOn 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.’
SpokAlbinus 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.

Larry-Grayson1Actually, 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 recentl). 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.”

Larry Grayson 2(A slight variation) “The accusing finger turned to point at the senator, who pouted back at him…” Pouted?!

“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!

Purse 1The 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.

Purse 2

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Review: A Colder War

A Colder War
A Colder War by Charles Cumming
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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.

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Review: The Eagle’s Vengeance

The Eagle's Vengeance
The Eagle’s Vengeance by Anthony Riches
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It is said the eyes are the windows to your soul. Anthony Riches seems to take that (a little too much) to heart in his ‘Empire‘ series. Any emotion can be expressed from surprise to anger and all points in between, by a narrowing of the eyes and/or a raising of the eyebrows. So, what does that make the brows then? The venetian blinds to the soul? It’s worth musing on, because, that’s what you do here. The story tries to pop up now and then, but stands no chance against the absolute blizzard of eyebrows shooting hither and yon, from every character in every situation. Mid-pitch battle, in blood-thirsty, backs against the wall, life or death situations, are my favourites. “Just a moment, seven foot tall screaming barbarian, I need to look at my comrade and raise an inquisitorial eyebrow. All done. Now, where were we…?” But, not so fast there – a new way of expressing all emotions is introduced in ‘Vengeance.’ The raising of both eyebrows! “Oh my good god! He’s raising both eyebrows at me – the absolute fiend!” And, it’s not just confined to the Legions in ‘Eagle,’ there has also been a rather virulent outbreak amongst the barbarians as well. Nothing can stand in the way of the power of the eyebrow!

Yeah, yeah, anyway, what’s it about, apart from rampant brow-raising?

It’s the sixth in the ‘Empire’ series and if you’ve read the others, you’ll know exactly where you are with this one. The good news is, that we’re back in Britannia, back up on Hadrian’s Wall. I felt that the previous one (‘Wolf’s Gold’) wasn’t as good for the shift in locale away from Britannia. All those bloody foreign barbarians raising their eyebrows – how dare they! Our favourite enemy, Calgus, is back, despite being mostly a cripple since his run-in with our hero, Marcus Aquila (though, shhh…he’s ‘Corvus’, to you) and (at least one of) his two swords in a previous book. This time, Calgus is attempting to control the barbarian forces from the shadows behind the throne, as I suppose it could be described. Then, there is more than a little chaos in the Roman forces, on both sides of the Wall and our Tungrian (not ‘Hungarian,’ as my spell-check tries to put) cohort is sent to clean up – as only they can. In fact, they’re sent into the wastes (if you were a Roman, ’home’ if you were a photo-Scot), beyond Hadrian’s Wall. They journey even beyond the Antonine wall, on an impossible mission to rescue the Sixth Legion’s Eagle – an important symbol of power for both the Legions and the barbarians. All good so far. But the name of the (until Marcus and pals get there, obviously) impregnable barbarian fortress where the Eagle is being held and worshipped? ’The Fang.’ Oh dear. There, right there, my eyes become the windows to my soul – and they’re laughing.

The first Empire book was good. No doubt about that. It was a blast of new, fresh interest in a scene I thought needed it. But as the series has gone on, I realise – that that was it. He shot his bolt early and the rest have been – so far – on reflection, a disappointment, an unfulfilled promise. Here, there’s some good stuff about a Roman soldier having been captured and tortured by the barbarians, but then having escaped and survived in hostile territory, hunted day and night by warriors who turn out to be women. He goes to the edge of madness, but is the only one who can get them to the entrance of the fortress, so has to be trusted. That and the passages following the Romans coming back from the fortress (I’m not giving anything away! You know he’s gonna get out with the Eagle, the trick is still making it put you on the edge of your seat), is good. Good enough to make up for the bad? They eyebrows? Not quite.

And don’t get me started on the repeating of words, from one sentence to another. Where another (see what I did there?) word could and should have been suggested by an editor who is clearly blind (and even that is to take the responsibility off Anthony Riches, who shouldn’t have written it in the first place). For goodness’ sake, I’ve seen Tweets where an author has apologised for repeating a word – and that’s inside 140 characters!

My star count has been reflecting my (waning) enthusiasm for the Empire series and going down as the ‘sequence’ has progressed. I’m afraid that this one struggles to make it the two, but I’ll be generous – for the marshes sections (and despite the eyebrow raising there in) and I’ll give it three.

Criticise my grammar and writing all you like, but I clean toilets in a hospital. Writing or editing isn’t my only job!

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Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book?

It is an unwritten law, that hardback covers must be worse than their paperback versions. That’s The Law. Not a lot you and I can do about it.

Some books, however, do skip the trend, sneak past the Book Law Enforcement patrols and make sure their hardback versions have halfway decent covers. I’m thinking of the last two Bernard Cornwell titles here. Both of which, in their muted, autumnal tones in hardback, are still better than the technicolour paperback versions.

Check them out (top two, hardback. Bottom two, paperback):

The Pagan LordBernard Cornwell The Empty Throne

The Lords of the North 2The Last Kingdom 2



















Now comes Giles Kristian’s latest in paperback. With a cover that simply slaughters the hardback version, stone dead.

Here’s the hardback version.             Here’s the paperback version.

God of Vengeance

Giles Kristian God of Vengeance PB (small)










Now, you tell me, were the two side by side on the shelf, price not an issue, which you’d go for…Exactly.

“Read me, or I’ll kill you.”

I do feel Giles plays the whole Viking genre a bit too much for laughs sometimes, but there’s no doubt he does write a decent, tight, interesting story. I haven’t got onto God of Vengeance (in either form) as yet, but I speak from having read the Raven saga series proper and the first of his English Civil War saga.

There does seem to be a move towards having actual people on the covers of the kind of historical fiction I like. Not the Mills & Boon-like crap, books with the words ‘Queen’ or ‘Lady’ in their title, or ‘passion’ or ‘emotions’ in their back-blurb. You know, the proper stuff.

Ben Kane (as mentioned previously) for example.

Ben Kane - Hannibal Fields of BloodHannibal Fields of Blood PaperbackHannibal Clouds of War

Ben Kane Clouds of War PB



















The first Hannibal, is the hardback, the next is the paperback version. Much better. Now, it seems they’ve learned their lesson and for Clouds of War, both the hardback and paperback have the same, powerful, figure-based cover. I have said ‘trend‘ so I better come with other examples. Well, Anthony Riches has been there for a long time with his covers (the first few were clearly illustrations, but the recent ones are obviously done in a photo studio), Douglas Jackson and Angus Donald. How’s that?

I’m not saying that covers should be so good you wanna frame them…though that might be an interesting revenue stream for authors to consider…but when you shell out over £25-odd notes for them to be sent to Denmark, you wanna feel like they put the same amount of effort into designing the cover, as you have into the earning of the money to buy the book. No?

Click on a book cover and you link to The Book Depository for buying.
Don’t buy from Amazon unless you really, really have to.

Review: Rome’s Executioner

Rome's Executioner
Rome’s Executioner by Robert Fabbri
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s action a-plenty in Rome’s Executioner (Vespasian II), on and off the pitch. Ranging from the outskirts of the Roman empire in Dacia in AD 30, to the very centre of power and those who hold it or want it, in the eternal city itself. From full-on combat at the point of a sword to daggers in the back in the dark of Roman side-streets and back alleys. All in all, just what you want to find in a book set in Roman times. However (the good sort) what elevates this one above – the most of – its competition, is the sparkle, invention and wit Robert Fabbri imbues his characters and their stories with. It manages to hold my interest and rapt attention, even in the (totally necessary) political skullduggery set-pieces back in Rome. No mean achievement that. Robert Fabbri really does seem to hit the right balance between intrigue, politicking and action in this series and Vespasian himself, is developing into a very interesting character indeed.

Along with the battles and brawls, intrigue and dirty-dickery, there are also interesting comments on the state of Roman ‘civilisation’ and the intricacy of its politics woven subtly all the way through. As well as thoughts on those pre-Christian festivals that just so happened to take place at the end of a year, involve the giving of gifts and celebrating the birth of a god…To compare it with another long-running Roman series, the ‘Empire’ books of Anthony Riches (of which I’ve just passed #7), I’d have to say it comes out easily on top. Better written and plotted, even after only having read two of them, that’s clear (though to be fair The Emperor’s Knives does show a lot more ambition on Riches’ side than has previously been evident). However, some things are clearly taken as read, by writers of books set in the Roman period – Greeks are obviously all homosexual. Here, as a character called Magnus says, “And it’ll be sometime before he can chew on a decent Roman sausage again; being Greek, he’s partial to sausage, if you take my meaning?” Seems Robert Fabbri’s Romans share much the same opinions of Greeks as Anthony Riches’ boys over in Britannia.

And, though in a different way to the Empire series, you’re going to need a strong stomach while reading Rome’s Executioner. There, it’s mostly about what happens on the battlefield, but Rome’s Executioner is warts and all Roman depravity. Prepare to have your mind – and stomach – tied up in knots trying to follow all the ins and outs of who is trying to stab who in the back trying to out – or second – guess an aged Emperor who has clearly gone stark staring, raving, yip-yip, barking at the moon mad and can – and does – do whatever his skittish mind takes a fancy to. As you would.

As with a lot of the series these days (does no one ever write one-offs any more?), I find myself asking: “do I need to have read #1, Steve?” Here, I’d say maybe not really, but it will help increase the enjoyment. All I thought was that the relationship between Vespasian and his brother Sabinus, does perhaps need a glance at #1, otherwise, you can certainly begin here, no problem.

So, and despite a(n interesting) new twist on the eyebrow raising device, so beloved of Roman period writers, here we have Secundus raising a ‘monobrow,’ I really enjoyed the book and rate it very highly indeed. In my view, the Vespasian series along with Douglas Jackson’s …of Rome series are the best of the many Roman series I’ve read. Vespasian II is up on the podium of the top three Roman novels I’ve read so far. In fact, it will have to be the best, most convincing, most captivating Roman-period book I’ve read since The Lion and the Lamb. I’ll admit, I actually found myself holding my breath at one point. (P117) and I’ll go along with another of the book’s characters’ comments that “This is more fun than arse-licking back in Rome…” Then, as now, I guess. Go away and start this series now, if you haven’t already, I’m sure you’ll agree.

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Review: Book Of Souls

Book Of Souls
Book Of Souls by Glenn Cooper
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Well, there’s a thing. I’m wondering if I haven’t read Library of The Dead by Mr Cooper and thinking not. I know I have read Secret of The Seventh Son, when it turned out ‘Library’ and ’Seventh Son’ are one and the same. Somewhere along the line, the title got changed. In which direction, I can’t say. Though a guess would be that Library of The Dead is the up-dated title, as it were. Anyway, that wasn’t half bad and introduced us to Cooper’s hero, one Will Piper. Book of Souls finds us again in Mr Piper’s company, in what is a really rather splendid sequel to the aforementioned ’Seventh Son’ (or ‘Library’).

He has to spend a fair bit of space at the start explaining the set-up, for those who may not have read the first one. A fair bit of space because there’s both a fair bit that needs explaining, but maybe he also needs a fair bit of space, because he needs to go into some detail, as the set-up, on the surface, is rather unbelievable. It will help if you’ve read what we experts are calling ‘Will Piper 1,’ but I should think you’d manage alright without having done so.

So, that set-up, then? Look away if it begins to get a little like shit from China – far-fetched: Some time, way back in the mists of history, the seventh son, of a seventh son, on the seventh day…in the year 777, etc, was born. Was seen as being a little what some nowadays might euphemistically call ’special.’ He began writing dates, lots of them, non-stop, in many different languages. These dates turn out to be births and deaths from that date onwards. Somehow or other, he impregnates a girl, has another son, who also starts writing, monks take over, years pass, more boys, more dates, hundreds of books filled, huge library built underground at abbey on Isle of Wight. Suddenly stop at a date in the future, forgotten when, but soon-ish, no idea why. During Second World War, books discovered, over to USA, stored in Area 51 (is it?) Catalogued, used for guessing when USA can take advantage of catastrophe (etc). Men turn up at Piper’s door, as he used to work at hush-hush establishment and they suspect, rightly, he has stolen a copy of the database. The very rich (very rich) one of the men, is on the list, with a death date in a couple of days. Wants to find out something or other, has discovered one book is missing from library, is for sale at auction house in London. They want to buy it. As does CIA, or NSA, or super secret intelligence agency. Chaos ensues.

For all that, it fairly races along in the early stages and is proves quite a gripping read. That is even despite the fact that the bad guy – even though the bad guys/ruthless agent is in-situ, front row of the auction, presumably with more than enough funds available to out-bid on the book, thanks to the imperative nature of the Govt’s desire to get the book back – gets out bid by our good guys. On the phone. From Piper’s home in New York. How did THAT happen?! Ok, so the bad boys lose the auction. Then play nice guys, letting some young office boy take the book they wanted so bad, over to New York. Why didn’t they just steal it off him, in London – or New York? No, they wanted to ‘see who is behind it’, who out-bid them. A bit thin as they’ve got evidence it is Piper and have bugged his phone, etc. But they wouldn’t have needed to do that if they had just taken the book. But then they wouldn’t have been able to get the link to Will Piper, you see. The ‘office boy’ turns out to be a British Intelligence operative, but not a very good one as he is soon overpowered on his arrival in New York. But not like you and I would have planned it, i.e. BEFORE he delivered the book, no, they wait until after.

From this uncertain start, it turns towards being a treasure hunt. After clues to something or other are found in the back page of the ‘missing’ volume. This of course means he can incorporate flashbacks in a slightly different way to most books’ (of this kind) flashbacks. Not badly done at all. And, of course, it allows him to set the action not only in the country of my birth, but the county, Worcestershire. And not far from where I was born as well. All good.

Well, despite having veered close to preposterous, its preposterousness actually reads a lot more convincingly preposterous, than several others I’ve read of this ilk, of which, a few spring immediately to mind – ‘The Rule of Four,’ for example.

Nevermind. It is written in a good, flowing, energetic way, so that my brain can forgive him (nearly) all the above, while my eyeballs rush headlong into the next, on later reflection, unlikely situation. It is actually really rather difficult to put down, as they say. It kind of loses its way a little towards the end, several things happening and it doesn’t feel like the same sense of purpose there was at the start or in the middle. The end does have several ends, as I suppose it has to, given the premise. But my explanation for why…well, you know, is the more obvious one, easily figure outable if you think logically about it.

Actually, if you don’t try thinking too much about the plot, you’ll probably enjoy the book just fine.

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