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Review: Fortress of Spears

Fortress of Spears
Fortress of Spears by Anthony Riches
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

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Review: The Lost Symbol

The Lost Symbol
The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It would be a cliché to give Dan Brown a bad review. Like me proving my good-taste blog-writer credentials. Too easy as well. It must be pretty much expected to say a Dan Brown book is poor. Especially so if I was reviewing The Da Vinci Code. Which was actually excellent, if you read it early enough in its incredibly successful life, that is. A real spellbinding thriller – you know it. It was of course, one of the first of that kind of book, but because of all the similar, “me too!”, “we want to sell as many as Dan Brown so we’re gonna write one just like it,” “we’ve also got a Dan Brown on our author list and we’re gonna plaster ‘just like/better than Dan Brown!’ all over just about anything we’ve got…”, it got somewhat tainted by the hundreds of poor imitations. I know it’s true, ‘cause I bought half of them!

Even though I tried to like The Lost Symbol, because I liked ‘Da Vinci Code’ and didn’t need to, ‘cause I got it free from the ‘estate’, shall we say, of a friend of my father-in-law’s, it disappointed again and again until suddenly it was a disappointment all the way through.

How? Why?

Lets’s see. Well, first we’ve got a dysfunctional family producing flawed geniuses whose parents died young (And, the mother ‘murdered’? I think you’d have a hard time getting a conviction there, even in an American court). Which is meant to elicit our sympathy and make them believable. Wrong. Eyes shoot to top of head at that hoary old cliché. And gets me thinking; “He thinks that is gonna work? Oh dear, bad start.” Then there’s a fiendish criminal mastermind. Whose fiendish nastiness is supposedly made more fiendishly intolerable, due to his hyper refinement and what we are supposed to presume – not having had access to the amounts of cash he has and is required – is hyper refinement and therefore good taste. Good taste defined purely by the amount of cash things cost. Like footballers believe. And they play football why? Because they were good at football and nothing else. It’s not like it was a choice between Physics Professor at Oxford or playing football, now was it? You know the sort. “That Fabergé egg looks like shit!” “But it’s worth millions!” “That Fabergé egg looks stunningly lovely!” What it boils down to, is that what he thinks is character development, is actually a really exceptionally dull catalogue list and produces a character exactly the same as every other devilish fiend across the house brick-size thriller market.

And, all the way through, I can’t think of if Robert Langdon was actually described, physically. Clothes and age, yes, but not what he looks like. So, i’m supposed to think Tom Hanks? And his likeability is supposed to radiate out and have you to like the story. Nope, that didn’t help either. Langdon’s supposed be brilliant at codes and code solving…or is he? I can’t actually remember him solving anything in this book. All the codes are solved by others, or the right way has been directed by others and Langdon has just said ‘yes, that’s right!’ No plot turn is based upon his unique ability to solve codes. Even though he is chosen, by the pantomime villain, as the only person in the world who can solve the riddle. Clearly not true. As Langdon himself says; “You know I didn’t do anything, right?” Or, for the umpteenth time; “I’m not sure I entirely understand it myself.” As far as I could see, he didn’t understand anything of what was going on the whole way through. Lord only knows why his rabbit in the headlights character was in the book anyway. They could have managed just as well without him.

So, the daughter of dysfunctional family, with genius siblings, genius father, blah, blah, blah, becomes a scientist. A brilliant one, totally dedicated to science, of course; “Science had become her life partner, and her work had proven more fulfilling and exciting than any man could ever hope to be.”Any’ man? Oh get a life! American thriller writers, as I’ve noted so many times, seem to think it gives their characters more credibility, even believability, if they are 100%, black or white, full-on, no compromises, nowhere to go after saying it, totally, dedicated to something at the cost of everything else. Their social lives, their families – if they have one – everything. Grow up! So childish. “I hate you with all my heart!” How old was I when I last said something like that? 6? 7? As if this gives the character a fully-rounded completeness. For the love of God! “Katherine Solomon had read every word Albert Einstein had ever written…” See? All, or nothing. No where to go after saying that. Except for us. We go and question the validity of that statement. It’s meant to say a lot, but says nothing. Did she read the “milk, eggs, marge, jam…” Shopping note Einstein wrote once? I guarantee he did write something like that, and she read it? Or the “pick up dry cleaning, ring plumber” note? No. So she hasn’t read every word he had ever written. So why say she had? Why include a demonstrable lie? Face it Dan, it makes Katherine Solomon less believable. If that were even possible.

And while we’re on that sort of putting your back up-type of thing. A challenge: Have you ever told anyone, you feel, or have been, ‘nurtured’ by something/anything? Ever? So, why do it? All it does is stop me in my tracks. Stop me reading. Make the reading disjointed. Interrupt the flow that there should be because this is a thriller. It’s supposed to have flow. I suppose he thinks a character who professes to be ‘nurtured’ by something or someone, is more rounded. But unfortunately, it’s only in the way of him being both an idiot and quite probably a piss-head idiot. More one dimensional. Flat. Dull. Face it, if anyone told me they felt nurtured, to my face, I’d laugh and point. You would too. You know you would.

So, the baddie goes to sort the scientist woman out. But he doesn’t drive in his car to meet her, this fiendish madman, he is “pulled onward by destiny’s gravity.” Groan! What is surely supposed to strike terror into our hearts, comes out like a comedy parody of a horror film; because he is, wait for it, “The Hand of the Mysteries.” You can almost hear the “duh, duh, durrrrh!” in the background. And anyway, this one is surely Silas from Da Vinci Code? With money, without the religion? And darker eyes?

Then, the document they want to see the whole of, that they can only find a censored copy of on the net. They can’t identify the IP number. It doesn’t exist. And even the brilliant computer expert can’t trace it. So they overpay a hacker, who tries everything, but gets nowhere. “His best hacking tools were entirely ineffective at breaking into the document or unmasking Trish’s mysterious IP address.” Clearly, the people behind the document do not want to be identified. At all. Ever…But, wait, didn’t our people ‘Google’ the original document? But never mind that. Clearly they do NOT want to be found. Then, the phone rings. “This is systems security for the Central Intelligence Agency. We would like to know why you are attempting to hack one of our classified databases.” “Ah! So THAT’S who it belongs to, why did we bother paying someone to find out who it was, when THEY will ring US?!” “What?” Says CIA person; “D’oh!”

What’s the rest of it actually about? Don’t worry about that, it’s not worth it. And the end, the supposed denouement, face it, even if you think I’m wrong, we’ve been led to think there will be a big reveal – is a huge fudge. I’m not even sure what it was and I’m writing this after just having read it. The reveal, like the book and the book after the reveal, just went on and on. And on. Until, I think, well, it was, or at least it could have been…ah, fuck it, I don’t care any more. Muddled, mixed up, no punch.

It’s clear that DB wanted to write an epic, a worthy follow up to Da Vinci Code. So, ”’Epic’, eh? that means long! Excellent! And so, the story not only stops and starts, stretched thinner than a 50-year old’s comb-over, but comes to a grinding halt to be placed on life-support, padded out with all sorts of airy-fairy ‘scientific’ nonsense – that because it has appeared in the ‘real’ world and is mentioned in his foreword (or afterward, or wherever it was), attains some sort of credibility. ‘Noetics’? OK, it IS a thing, but if it needs to be explained at such length, by two ‘brilliant minds’ holding a conversation that isn’t actually a conversation, but is each lecturing the other, he knows it is a load of old fanny and my mind gores off to make a cup of coffee.

It’s tricky to see what Dan Brown wanted to do with The Lost Symbol. Apart from follow up a huge money spinner, with another (long) one. There is some commentary on the fundamental points of Christianity – all religion, in some cases – but a lot of it is buried away in what is a pointlessly over long book. The revelations (for those who hadn’t read Holy Blood, Holy Grail et al) in The Da Vinci Code, were much more up front and in your (especially if you were a Catholic) face. Here, the little nuggets – ‘Amen/Amun’ (though I can’t remember him mentioning Akhenaten for example), are much further below the surface. One does get the idea that Dan Brown may be an Atheist, he may be wanting to undermine religion(s) by showing their commonality – which would suggest he would welcome another controversy like Da Vici Code, partly to put his ideas over, partly to sell books of course. And is showing that you can pretty much find anything you want to look for in texts like the Bible. Either he’s very naive, or he’s very clever, slipping his ideas in under our radar. But does the average airport bookshopper care enough? About Freemasons, for example? Hasn’t all that been done enough already? While some of these ideas are pretty controversial, not least because they are logical, something religions never like, their below the radar buried-ness, suggests either he isn’t sure of the ideas, or doesn’t really know how to incorporate them into the suspense side of the story. As he did – admit it – to great effect with the Da Vinci Code. While that was a real page-turner, can’t put it down, runaway train – this decidedly is not. There were times when I had to keep reading, very, very occasionally because the story captured me, but mainly it was due to the short, choppy, chapter style. Which meant that I thought; “ok, I’ll give it one more chapter…oh, only two pages long, that’s not telling me anything – one more then…oh, three pages, well, the story might move on/go somewhere next time, so one more then…” etc.

One final thing that really irritated me, was a really shocking disregard for the First Nation peoples. The people who were in America before Washington and the other slave-owners decided they wanted a new land in which to own their slaves…He explains that The Library of Congress was “One of the first buildings in Washington to have electric lights, it literally shone like a beacon in the darkness of the New World.” ‘Darkness of the New World’? I bet the Native Americans would beg to differ there. “The founding fathers had envisioned America as a blank canvas, a fertile field on which the seeds of the mysteries could be sown” ‘Hello! We were here! It wasn’t a blank fucking canvas! There was already a very developed, well functioning civilisation here! We got crushed by the founding fucking fathers!’ As someone much later would say; “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, my brothers and sisters, Plymouth Rock landed on us!”

And why three stars if it’s so bad? One star because I managed to go all the way through. One star carried over from ‘Da Vinci Code.’ And it gets a full, whole star for having, on P27:
”Awesome!” Someone shouted.
Langdon rolled his eyes, wishing someone would ban that word.”
Quite right, as any sane, sentient being realises. The last fall-back of those unable to express themselves properly. And the only reason why it gets three and not two.

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Review: Defender of Rome

Defender of Rome
Defender of Rome by Douglas Jackson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Defender of Rome, the second in Douglas Jackson’s ‘…of Rome’ series, was an absolute pleasure to read, from start to finish.

The calm, assured, precise and evocative prose is dotted with little hints of Rome’s history – and continuing relevance. In fact, there is clearly such a deep knowledge of the Rome of AD63, the period in which the book is set, that it sometimes seems like it could only come, as the book says about Valerius himself on more than one occasion, from someone from born and bred in Rome. But Douglas Jackson is, I know, a proud Scotsman. And lives now. So the level of thoroughly assimilated background research of what Rome was looked, smelled and felt like for a Roman in AD63 is something to be marvelled at.

At first glance, it seems like less out and out action than previous one. Certainly, a move from the turbulence of Britannia on the edge of the Roman Empire, to the Empire’s heart, would seem to herald a calmer life for Valerius. Wrong. After returning, or rather being returned, to Rome, as a ‘Hero of Rome’, Valerius is finding life as a lawyer, the politicking, wheeling and dealing in the city where the scandal never sleeps, not entirely to his taste. He has to work for Nero, not an easy job at the best of times, but at this time, it’s even more tricky. The new fledgling religion of Christianity is making its way into Roman circles. And it and its practitioners must be stopped. Well, actually, Nero wants Valerius to root out Christians and for ’stopped,’ read ‘killed.’ So he’s to defend Rome against this new threat (now you see where the title comes from).

So, if you were a true believer of the Roman gods, believing Nero is your Emperor appointed by those gods, like Valerius, surely no problem? Wrong. As you may have guessed, it’s not quite that simple. Valerius’ sister is gravely ill. He is recommended to go look in the seedier side of town for a Judean healer. He finds this healer. The healer turns out to be a Christian. So the person he desperately needs to save his sister, is the person he needs to bring to Nero’s justice. To be objective for a moment, Nero is right. The new Christians are a threat to his power. That is, his power as Emperor as he’d like to wield it. Think about it; Christianity was a threat to Rome. A threat to the way Rome has been for the last several hundred years. A threat to the way of life of ordinary Romans brought up in and functioning in the Roman system as it has been for hundreds of years and as they believe it will be for hundreds of years more. So, as not all Romans who live and work within the system, would be power-crazed, megalomaniacs, like the monkey at the top of the tree, even ordinary, honest, hard-working, decent Romans might also find themselves on the same side as Nero and see Christians as a threat to the certainty of their lives and Rome as it is. And see that as something worth defending. Slaves and the downtrodden might take issue and see it another way and that would explain Christianity’s attraction to the powerless and dispossessed. However, in Defender of Rome, Valerius quickly finds out, it isn’t just the poor who have fallen for the new religions promises of better times to come.

But then, when it looks like it’s settling down to be a really quite intriguing tale of juicy intrigue and the conundrums for Valerius of rooting out early Christians – the story quite literally moves away from the political cesspit Rome is, to the plains of Dacia and it becomes something else entirely. A trilling, white knuckle ride, a just one more page, one more chapter then, read through the night action thriller. By turns tense and exciting, nervous and explosive with some heart-stopping action sequences, though I guarantee, not of the type you’re thinking.

This is a(nother) wonderful book from Douglas and as I say, reads like it’s written by one who also trod those very Roman streets Valerius knows so well. With first ‘Hero-‘ and now ‘Defender of Rome,’ the series has got off to a flying start, and if they aren’t on your shelves already, they really should be. Very soon. Do it now, in fact.

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Review: Of Merchants and Heroes

Of Merchants and Heroes
Of Merchants and Heroes by Paul Waters
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one, I thought after I’d finished it, that perhaps would have benefited by having its ‘Historical Note’ at the start. I certainly found it to be a better book looking back at it after having read the Historical Note, than I did while I was actually ploughing through it. Though, I can maybe see why note was placed at the end, not least because some readers may be put off by the information about homosexuality in the ancient Greek and Roman world. Not an easy one to know how to feel about. Because while homosexuality was accepted – hell, even the Spartans encouraged it to build up comradeship – it hasn’t featured at all in any of the Roman epics I’ve read. Ever. Even ones with Greek people in them. The only mention of it I can think of, off the top of my head, is in an Anthony Riches book recently, where a prostitute is described by one of the Centurians as being able to ‘suck cock like a Greek sailor after a week at sea.’ Only a week? And see, it was something the Greeks did. Funny people, the Greeks. Well, never mind…

Of Merchants and Heroes is set at the end of the Third Century B.C., towards the end of Rome’s war with Hannibal and Carthage. A young lad called Marcus, goes on a trip to Greece with his father. Their boat, them and the other passengers, is captured by pirates. The boy’s father is killed and a young girl on the boat, decides to kill herself before the pirates can think of other ‘treatments’ for her. This seems to have a profound effect upon the young boy. Father dying, hatred of the man who caused it, I can understand. The girl, less so, but there you go. He vows to all sorts of gods, to avenge his father’s death. He then finds his way back to Italy and is taken in by his uncle, a minor business man, who proceeds to marry the boy’s mother, becoming of course, his new father. Marcus is not impressed by his uncle in any way and trains as a soldier. They move to Tarentum in the south where he makes friends with the Praetor’s son, Titus. Praetor dies, son largely takes over. Then, he becomes friends – I forget how – with a vision of Greek perfection, called Menexenos.The story thus far, has essentially been a series of small incidents, chance meetings, accidental observations, potential intrigues, dinner parties and nothing of any real substance after the killing of his father in the early pages.

I could go on with all the to-ing and fro-ing between Italy and Greece, mixing business, with pleasure, with being urged to social climb by his father, to training in the gym and walking in the gardens, fields and woods with this Menexenos lad. But I won’t. That’s about all that happens from there on in, until they finally get Philip of Greece (no, not even THAT one) to come out and fight. Let’s face it, what we have here is the long drawn out tale of a love-struck, love-sick, 17-odd-year old, drippy Roman, wandering aimlessly around Italy and Greece mooning after some athletic, god-like Greek boy.

It isn’t what I expected, but it isn’t because of that that I found it dull. It isn’t because of the homosexuality not fitting in with my (ancient) world view either. I know it went on, just as it does today, so what? It is dull, because absolutely nothing at all happens in a very, very, v e r y long time. You start off well meaning enough with “OK, this looks like it could be interesting.” Then, “Right, it’s clearly one that takes its time warming up.” To, ”So, what IS this about then? A gay love story, set in ancient Rome and Greece….why? Why set it back then, why not set it now? Ah, yes, ‘Brideshead Revisited’ has already been written.” Through, “Have I missed something? No, I haven’t. It’ll really have to pull it out of the fire in the last 100 pages…actually, even if it does, it’s wasted my time with the first 300! Oh well, only another 100 pages to go…” Finally you finish it off with a thump down on the coffee table and a “Oh, well, at least I got it cheap.” Nothing more.

Several times, it seems like he tries to put in something to suggest it is, in case you didn’t notice, something more than it actually is. Late on, when setting off after the pirate who has captured his step-father, he says; “it was the dark anger that had fashioned my life and made me different from other men.” Well, no. From having read the whole thing, there’s very little evidence, apart from a couple of chance meetings or sightings of the pirate that had very little effect on him once they were over, that this pirate has had any effect on him whatsoever. Unless, the pirate DID make him ‘different to other men’? Can’t see it. The incident with the pirate, the girl jumping to her death and the killing of his father, apart from neatly, too neatly, book-ending the story, have had little, to no bearing on the story or his character. The addition of this phrase at the end, smacks of desperation to me. Of the writer admitting he has failed to convey this theme through the story and character development during the book and falling back on realising he’s going to have to come out and state it. So we add importance to the story, that really isn’t found there.

But, wait – let’s now read that ‘Historical Note’…

The Historical Note talks of the book’s lofty aims and as though they have been achieved. No. But it does help explain some of the waffle I’ve read. So, say we give it a chance, say we read all the way through thinking “what the f@ck?!” Then read the historical note and think “OK, maybe…”

There is an interesting air of melancholy, as the Historical Note, erm, notes. Let’s say it’s a look at the Greek and Roman worlds on the cusp of change. He is, from the title onwards, comparing the new Roman, with the older Greek, civilisations, the ancient world changing to Merchants, from Heroes. And when contrasted with the Greek, the book finds Roman civilisation distinctly lacking. So, maybe it is showing the end of the simple, but noble – and what we would nowadays almost dismissively call ‘lofty’ – ideals of the Greeks, being given the elbow by the Romans. Rome seems on the edge of its aspirations of Empire, Greece and the Greek ideal, is on the wane. That’s where he’s at, fairly and squarely. For him, the Greeks are philosophers and poets, athletes and warrior heroes, educated by, and the latest in a long line of, philosophers, poets, heroes and athletes. Romans are grubby, dull, penny-pinching merchants and career soldiers. Further more, it does seem to suggest that Rome’s empire building began, or rather gained pace, through a desire to keep any possible enemies at as long an arm’s length from Rome as possible. Sensible enough. The Greek influence, or at least its philosophers and poets (if not its athletic homosexuals), were beginning to find their way to the region’s new centre of power and change Rome’s dour brick buildings to something more artistic that the book can live with. What it can’t live with, is the loss of – what seem to be – Greek ideals of, for instance, art for art’s sake, sport for the love of sport and the pursuit of physical perfection that it both needs and develops. But, like it or not, and the prevailing mood of the book is not to like it overly much, Rome is on the rise. Its message is being spread far and wide through its tradesmen, rather than its artisans. Through merchants and merchandise, rather than ideals and heroes. Roman values you can touch and buy, Greek you can’t. All that.

Why the homosexual love story, when a hetrosexual one could well have achieved the above aims just as well? Yeah, he’s in love with this Greek perfection. I get that. Maybe it’s by showing – and it’s most certainly not the ‘bisexuality (that was) ubiquitous in the ancient world,’ our lad Marcus is no way bisexual. He never even looks at a girl after the first few pages. He is full-on gay. Which kind of negates the premise, but never mind – love for love’s sake. That could/does reach across the ‘borders’ subsequently imposed on it at “the end of the classical period.” Maybe that was what he was thinking about while writing all the melancholic meandering.

Looked back on in this light, it is indeed possible it did achieve some of its purpose. It’s a pity that you have to wait until the story’s finished to get it. I’m not gonna say it justifies the previous hundreds of pages of Fotherington-Thomas-like ‘Hello clouds, hello sky,’ drifting aimlessly backwards and forwards across the Aegean, but when you have read the Historical Note, it does at least give a little perspective to all the flannel. Some of it, anyway. You can see perhaps why he wanted to write the book. Though not why he forgot to put a story in it. But, take out the homosexual love story – and you’ve got nothing left.

I’m going to have to differ with Manda Scott quoted on the cover of my copy, here and say that far from being “A masterpiece that deserves to become one of the classics of historical fiction” this is a monumentally dull, very slight tale, that only gains some measure of respectability, by looking at it in the rearview mirror. I came close to giving up many times, kept hanging on in the hope it was going to get better, but it didn’t. I’m still thinking, despite the oft-stated physical stature and presence and the many descriptions of their stamina and ability with all forms of weaponry – they wouldn’t have lasted five minutes with Anthony Riches’ motley crew of barely house-trained, roughneck, Tungrian assault troops, freezing their knackers off out there on Hadrian’s Wall. Not even four minutes if you started referring to your mate’s body as ‘perfection’, ‘god-like’ or ‘beautiful.’ No firm handshakes, beers all round here, that’s for sure.

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Review: Conquest

Conquest by Stewart Binns
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is probably going to be seen as a guilty pleasure and I have glanced at reviews which would suggest it is quite possibly not all that cool to say (a bit like admitting to thinking The Da Vinci Code was one hell of a rattling good and enjoyable read, which is was, you know it), but … I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Yes, I can see what is wrong with it, but as a whole, it holds together nicely, and with a relatively unobtrusive style and is an all round rattling good tale.

Of course, I’ve come across Hereward several times. Several recent book series have featured the 11th Century Fenland Terror. James Aitcheson has had him in his tale. James Wilde has written three, soon to be four, excellent novels based on him and his exploits, real or imagined. The brilliant Marc Morris, in his The Norman Conquest non-fiction look at the people who brought you 1066 and all that, mentions Hereward several times and provides a good look at all the facts, the few there are, about him, as well as mentioning some of the more speculative stories. Whether you come from other books to Marc’s book, or go from there to other Herward stories, you can see that (amongst others) the two James’ do at least touch base with what is ‘known.’ As does Stewart Binns here. However, and perhaps even more than James Wilde (at least until I’ve slapped some peepers on #4 ‘The Wolves of New Rome’), he picks up the Hereward ball and runs more than a little further with it. Wilde and Binns both seem to agree on Hereward’s struggle with his anger issues, but they solve them in different ways. I don’t think James Wilde has his Hereward at Senlac Hill, nor does James Aitcheson. Their Herewards only really come front of stage in the period after Hastings. I think both Binns and Wilde are also implying that Hereward, real person or not, is possibly the source for the later development of the Robin Hood myth. Something that possibly Robert Holdstock might like to comment on (if he hasn’t already done so and quite honestly, after struggling through the stream of consciousness nonsense that was most of Gate of Horn, Gate of Ivory, I finally let him go his own way) in a ‘Mythago Wood’ novel. I don’t know.

The story begins, perhaps surprisingly, in the mountains of Greece. To where the heir to the Eastern Roman Empire, travels in search of enlightenment from a legendary old warrior, now turned hermit. Turns out, the old warrior knew the Prince’s father, fought for him in the Varangian Guard. The warrior is now 82, but instead of giving the Prince the One to Ten of what to do, tells him a story, from which he can draw his own lessons from. It is the warrior’s life story.

You’ve guessed by this point, that the old hermit, is Hereward, though he does seem to have the name Godwin for some reason. He begins telling his story from his wild childhood days, through his rebellious youth, to adulthood and maturity, through many of the period’s historic milestones his lifespan has encompassed. He was, of course, at Hastings and tried to rally the English forces thereafter, but had to, in the end, leave and travel abroad.

There are several nice touches. Here, Hereward has to persuade a reluctant Harold to take the throne. Where Harold actually sympathises with Edward’s position and therefore, William’s claims. You can see, with some of the incidents that go on in Harold and Hereward’s time in Normandy, where some of the tactics they would later use against William, come from, for instance. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence for any of the above, though if I remember rightly, James Wilde does have Hereward on the continent before Hastings. Here, Edward, on his deathbed, makes Harold his successor. Again found in other books and history. After the rebellion dies out, Hereward agrees to go abroad (James Wilde has his Hereward meeting William, but only after the battle, Morris says there is a legend that they met), to save England from further turmoil and anguish at William’s hands, but that could be blamed on Hereward.

As a whirlwind tour of the period’s hotspots and big names, in Britain and (the rest of) Europe, it is undoubtably a great read. Some of the people he meets, may be stretching it a little, but then I don’t know enough about (for instance) Spanish folk-law to comment with any certainty. In that respect, it read a little like Tim Severin’s Viking trilogy, just crammed into one book. Severin has one Viking journeying to all the places associated with the Vikings’ history, meeting most of the big players and generally living the fullest life imaginable (another excellent read/guilty pleasure if you’re one of the costumes and corset Ancient and Medieval Historical Fiction lilly-livers elsewhere on Goodreads). Maybe this is like that but on steroids, having to pack it all into one book and all. And it can feel a bit mechanical for that. Like he had to check all the names and places of his list and he was damned if he wasn’t going to get them all in! The stuff about a mystical talisman too, I could have done without. Never liked fantasy elements creeping in to what essentially wants to be read like a true story. Takes it all on a bit of a seers and sages trip. It’s better when it has even its tenuous grip on reality. But, people of the time believed in all that and the One God to rule them all hadn’t replaced the touching of wood to ask for the help of the spirit who lived in that wood … still hasn’t really, has it?

So, it gets a solid three stars from me. However, it gets a fourth star solely for mentioning, on several occasions (starting on page 385) the Bishop of Aarhus. Why? Well, that’s the town in Denmark where I now live! Cool, eh? It is Scandinavian’s oldest town, I read today, though in Viking times, was called ‘Aros.’ However, I haven’t checked when the name changed, so I can’t call young Stewart B. on it. Not that anyone would know where a town called ‘Aros’ was…hmm…not that namy people know where Aarhus is, so much of a muchness.

Leave your ego at the front cover and enjoy a good romping read. I for one will certainly be getting hold of the next in what I think is a trilogy. These sort of things usually are.

Oh yeah, read the dedication at the start. A very interesting, quite possibly unique, sentiment. I’ve not come across its like before. Proves his heart’s in the right place, whatever you think of the rest of the book.

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Review: Out Of Exile

Out Of Exile
Out Of Exile by Luke Preston
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Luke Preston’s first Tom Bishop book, Dark City Blue, was excellent. Out of Exile is (in my view) better, much better. Dark City Blue was like reading the Quick Start Guide to a killing machine. Lots of bullet point passages. Often literally. The bullets, that is. Out Of Exile is more like the Tom Bishop Owners Manual. Dark City Blue was full-out, full-on, no stopping for passengers, no prisoners taken-style novel writing. Make no mistake, this is still a book that shoots first and says ‘oh, shit!’ later, but it’s more. More nuanced, more developed, more subtle (!) and more exciting and satisfying for it.

We know now that we’re in Australia. I could figure that in DCB, but here it’s named. Melbourne, Australia and we’re in the company of the Victoria Police Department. Or some of it anyway. When the book starts, Tom Bishop is in prison. He has been for a while. Not surprising – from the authorities’ point of view, that is – after the trail of death and chaos he left behind at the end of ‘Dark City Blue.’ However, even at this early stage, warning lights should go off for the reader who has read Dark City Blue. We were with Bishop on his ‘rampage,’ remember? From our point of view, what he was doing, wasn’t a ‘killing spree’ for the sake of going on a ‘killing spree’. It was Bishop trying to protect his family and himself and sorting out some people before they sorted him out. Getting his revenge in first. So, that he is in prison for it, still in prison for what happened, should tell you a little of what and who he is obviously up against here.

Then, in the dead – again quite literally – of night, someone, somewhere, wants him out of jail and back on the right side of THEIR law. Except, the right side of the law isn’t easy to tell from the wrong side. In Out of Exile, the lines are, as ever, more than a little ‘blurred’ – especially when Tom Bishop is around. Someone wants Bishop back on the street, right or wrong side of the law, but would rather not have too many other people know about it. Rogue Cops want ‘justice’, want to be left in peace to continue their corrupt ways and not have to be bothered by trifling matters like Internal Affairs investigations. So it all goes just that little bit wrong and both the ramifications and body counts, mount up. To the top. Of the Police force. But the Police’s top brass are, unfortunately for Bishop, more concerned with their image than his justice. Too bad. But then, Bishop isn’t the only one making the wrong assumptions here. He, like us, thought ‘Justice’ the criminal mastermind, who was actually a Police mastermind from Dark City Blue was no more. Mainly because Bishop had killed him. Boy, was he wrong. ‘Justice’ seems to be sill at large. ‘Large’ being an appropriate description for the amount of money that is being skimmed off the top (bottom and sides) of the Victoria Police budget.

It is an ingenious plot, it must be said. Our Luke does like dumping his Tom Bishop character in the soft and smelly. From a great height and up to his ear-balls. Then saying “OK, get out of that!” I’m sure he sets up situations for, the long-suffering (and I do mean ’suffering’ and ‘long’), Tom Bishop, where he doesn’t know how he’s going to get Bishop off the hook. In fact, I’m surprised Bishop hasn’t turned round to Luke and said “Enough is ENOUGH!” and stuck one on him. Maybe he has. Maybe the rest of the book is Luke’s revenge. But it’s what makes Bishop such an interesting character. He is put upon, but he doesn’t ask for or want our sympathy. He wants to get on with his life. He wouldn’t bother anyone, if they didn’t bother him. I’d have to hold back from calling Bishop a ‘hero’, or even an ‘anti-hero’, he’d probably beat me to a pulp – if I was lucky. Bishop is actually a pragmatic realist. He sees things how they are, says what needs to be said then does – what he can – that needs to be done. Often, it’s the right thing, but occasionally…

So, that’s clear, then: Bishop is dead, but he isn’t. Justice was dead, but isn’t. The Police are on our side, but maybe they aren’t. And then…just when you know where the plot is – it disappears. With a turn you probably won’t see coming, but one that fits and works and elevates the book further above its predecessor and the majority of others in its class.

All in all, fantastically addictive. I read it so quickly, I was more or less held spellbound. I forgot to take notes and had to read it again, just to make sure. I’ve not done that before.

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Review: The Rule Of Four

The Rule Of Four The Rule Of Four by Ian Caldwell

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is gonna be easy: Bollocks.

Long-winded, convoluted, meandering, unnecessary, “me-too” bollocks at that. I can only surmise that the people quoted at length on the back cover, who really ought to know better, have been blinded by the dazzling array of ancient scholars poets and painters mentioned inside. As usual, they seem to be describing a book they may well have read, but that, with the best will in the world, isn’t this one. It certainly isn’t “one part The Da Vinci Code’, one part ’The Name of the Rose.” That’s up the top on the back there to say “you’ve heard of Da Vinci Code’, but are too intellectual to read it? Well it’s ok to read this, cause we’ve put ‘The Name of the Rose’ at the top as well!” !t isn’t. It wants to be, but isn’t in the same ball-park, however your opinion of the two other books is.

It is a very dull book about another very dull book. A ‘real’ book it seems, with a very nearly unpronounceable title. One I can’t be bothered going all the way over there to find. One that some Princeton students have decided they can decipher. Not that I could find any reference to anyone ever deciding it actually needed deciphering. Maybe I didn’t look hard enough. It’s perfectly possible. But what’s Wikipedia for, if not to save you the trouble of deciding if anyone has ever felt it needed deciphering and wasn’t actually just a load of dull old crepe?

Can I be bothered reciting the plot? Well, if there is one, it tries to maybe be about obsession. But I really got beyond caring. It really doesn’t connect. Tries to, obsessively, but misses. The obsession caused by at least two of them going them very nearly going doo-lally trying to decipher the book, sliding around Princeton in the snow, missing deadlines, fumbling relationships, setting fire to the college library and all that student-type jazz. As with all American novels, of what ever genre, involving four students, each is a unique, borderline genius in his own way (of course). Though (of course) with troubled backgrounds. But they’re, navel-staring, indecisive characters that really aren’t all that interesting, no matter how many scarves they wear.

(And why can’t there be a normal, struggling through, only ever understanding their college years, years later, average intelligence, bloke, in any of these things? US authors always seem to think it’s more convincing if they have characters who are absolutely, exceptionally, brilliantly talented at something – or many things – and then try to suggest they are also ordinary, because they stay up all night researching, wear tatty clothes and forget to eat for days. I wore tatty clothes because I hadn’t two brass farthings (Hey, I remember Farthings!) to rub together. Mainly because I’d spent the rest on BEER, but that’s another story).

Back to the name of the book inside the book. What a mistake that was! There can’t be anyone who has read the Da Vinci Code bit on the back and then The Rule of Four who hasn’t tried to pronounce the ancient book’s title a couple of times, given up, then skipped over every mention thereafter. It means you at no time connect with their obsession. You should be able to understand their obsession, by connecting with it. But if you glaze over at the mention of the book’s name, how can you come past that to connect with their problems? Can’t be done. Nope.

In its early stages, it doesn’t know what it wants to be. Where it wants to go. Actually, I never felt it came to a proper decision there. A quest to decipher a code becomes an in-depth look at rich kids’ student life at Princeton. Clearly, their editor nudged one of them and points to the supposed premise of the story and yells “get on with it!” No surprise it’s written by two of them. One must have gone on holiday at points during the writing, then couldn’t be bothered reading what the other had written when he got back and just carried on with his section where the other left off. And no, the Princeton stuff isn’t good background setting, it’s padding. It’s there to say to US readers: “Hey! We’ve got somewhere equally as snooty as Oxford and Cambridge!” That’s all. Then, towards the end, realising one of them has written too much about staying up late at Princeton, the other decides to finish it (and you) off with page after page (after page) of explanation of what the unpronounceable book supposedly leads to. And where. Always a bad sign, as I’ve noted elsewhere. Shows they haven’t done their job well enough earlier on. And it does go on and on. A couple of pages would have been more than enough. Once it’s clear what it is the book leads to, whilst hiding it from ‘the unworthy’, I’ve lost interest. As, I suspect, the ending shows the authors had too.

A waste of time. Mostly mine. At least they got paid for it. View all my reviews


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