Then this arrived today. Not what I was expecting.
Yes, I was expecting my hardback of The Bone Tree by Greg Iles to arrive, but I didn’t expect this.
I was fairly sure I’d ordered the UK version from The Book Depository, as it looked (that’s it on the left), though in hardback, very similar to the design of the paperback version of Natchez Burning I read last year (on the left). That was a super-looking cover and I thought, at least if I am going to break the sequence and get a hardback instead of waiting for the paperback, at least it’ll look similar.
Just me? OK then.
So then, today, this turns up:
At first, I’m a little disappointed that it wasn’t what I obviously thought I was ordering. Then, I saw this:
Those are some rough-cut edges alright.
I can’t imagine that that is how they should be. The Book Depository did seem to give the impression that the book was being sent out ahead of schedule, so maybe I got one that was – somehow – unfinished? I did rack my old designer brain for a – given that I do know something of the story so far – justification for it. Came up empty.
So, I’m thinking ‘do I have the enthusiasm for sending it back?’, when I get thinking ‘that there cover looks a bit strange’ and I have a closer look…
And…I’m sold! My previous ‘oh good lord, this isn’t what I wanted!’ is now ‘Wow!’
So, rather than the dinner of the dog, in an instant I really do think it looks the knees of the bee, the pyjamas of the cat.
It’s certainly a first edition,
can’t complain there.
So, a nice – delayed – surprise then. The UK version still seems available to order on The Book Depository there, with another version also available, but without the cover pictured. I still believe I ordered the UK version, but I’m well chuffed with this one now and looking forward to getting some eyes into it asap.
Even with the ‘A Novel’ nonsense on the front…
A crack squad of undercover Intelligence officials, on a desperate, life or death, race against time mission deep in enemy territory in the southern Arabian peninsula, against a backdrop of rising insurgency…
The situation now, in Yemen? The new ‘Bourne’? The new James Bond? A modern anti-terrorist thriller?
Nope, nope and maybe, partly-nope.
For this is a thrilling novel set in AD273 and the undercover mission is being carried out by a specially selected squad of Roman soldiers, under the command of Agent of Rome, Cassius Corbulo*
Corbulo has been delegated by his boss, who is doing something his boss wants done and as his boss is Emperor, it needs to be done, yesterday. Or earlier. Cassius’ mission he has no choice but to ‘choose’ to accept, is to travel through hostile territory, break into the enemy’s stronghold, re-capture a magical and mysterious black stone and get out again. Alive – if possible. The Emperor, Lucius Domitus Aurelianus, wants the black stone, largely because that’s what Roman Emperor’s do. Want things they don’t have. The problem is that Ilaha, who has set himself up as rebel leader and self-styled high priest of the Sun God religion, wants to use the black stone’s possibly other-worldly powers, to enrapture and enrage the desert peoples, raise a huge army and rise up and smash Rome’s rule in the region.
So, all to play for…
The Agent of Rome series has come a little out of left-field for me. Something told me I’d seen the jacket covers, but – obviously – not read the books before getting sent this one. It is also different to the Roman series’ I’ve been reading, in that it isn’t trying to imagine how actual, documented, historical events (might have) unfolded. Here, we’re in (the latter) stages of the Roman period, but the story is an imagining of the kind of thing which might have gone on, rather than what actually happened. A little outside history’s spotlight, I thought. As I understand it, over a fifty year period from AD235, some 26 Emperors were declared by the Senate. Documenting that mess would be a little difficult, not to say confusing, I’d say. Here, in 273, the current situation is that “for the first time in years we seem to have an Emperor who knows what he’s doing.” When it comes to mysterious black stones, anyway.
It isn’t the first of the series, which is where I otherwise prefer to start a series – for good or bad – even coming late to the party, as now. It is number four**, but I was advised that it was pretty well self-contained. It is. The story uses the devices many of the best do, to remind you that there is a ‘previously, on The Agent of Rome,’ dropping mostly the ‘that reminds me of the time’-type comments, without ever getting in the way and having me feel that I couldn’t possibly get the most out of it without having read the others. I could. You can. That’s probably at least partly due to its clear, open, even welcoming style. I knew next to nothing about the period and was therefore glad there were no feelings of “You haven’t done your homework, have you Jones?!” (H. Sidebottom). Or “You can’t read long Latin words? You can’t remember what happened two paragraphs back? Neither can I, so no problem.” (A. Riches). I felt treated like an adult, out for excitement. Which is why I read.
The characters are good, solid, well-drawn and totally believable. The main man Cassius is an honest, positive character. Resourceful, adaptable and intelligent, with an eye for the small details, though not entirely convinced of his (obvious to others) abilities. A little like us all, then. And an ideal spy. He is from northern Italy, so maybe not being Roman, as in from Rome, and influenced by the power for power’s sake political turbulence of Rome, allows for his more worldly objectivity and practicality. He has an ex-gladiator bodyguard called Indavara, who is clearly the kind of friend you’d want at your side, or to have your back in a fight. But who has, thanks to memory loss, an intreguing (not least to him) unknown past, pre-Gladiator that is. Makes him kind of stateless, rootless, living for the here and now. It was interesting, that the story trusted him to go off on his own a few times. Such that he is at least as ‘main’ a character, as the story’s figurehead Cassius. The black sheep in a Roman-kind of way, is Cassius’ newly converted to Christianity slave Simo. Who finds that believing in a religion promoting non-violence isn’t going to go down all that well with your Roman gods-believing boss when his back is against the wall.
There is some great, enjoyable interplay between the main characters. Realistic, understandable dialogue – as in, you understand where they’re coming from. “’Indavara really likes that mule.’ ‘What can I tell you. Similar level of intellect.’” He also embellished the main story with many smaller interesting incidents and brushes with danger along the way, that further expanded on the period feel, placing you and the characters comfortably in their time and surroundings. With the area seeming to be as unstable then as it is now and what looks like the early use and sale of what would later become oil, it seems very little has changed in 1800-odd years.
I’m not going to compare it with other Roman period novels I’ve read recently. What if, as it is a spy novel after all, I compare it with 1960’s spy stories? Which was old-school spying before ‘technology’ and this is after all, spying a long, long time before (any) technology! Yeah, well, I just think that sometimes, Historical Fiction as good as this, needs to be looked at a little differently, to take it out of the box it’s dumped in and set out against the wider fiction world.
I always think the mark of a good book is that you forget you’re actually holding paper and reading words on a page, you’re watching the video it’s set playing in your head. The Black Stone passed that test with flying colours. In fact, it had a filmic feel all through. The start, assembling the team to go on the mission, reminded me of The Dirty Dozen, parts of the rest, was a kind of Die Hard in the Desert. The whole, feels like it wouldn’t take much to convert to a film script.
I couldnt have enjoyed The Black Stone any more if I’d tried. It’s a world I want to come back to again. Soon. And you know what’s sad? I slowed down reading the last third. Because I didn’t want to it to finish. But what’s happy? I’ve got the others in the series ready to read.
*If you’ve read any of my recent Roman (novel) reviews, you’ll recognise the name ‘Corbulo’ (you were taking notes?) He is related to the General Gnaeus Domitus Corbulo from the Douglas Jackson ‘…of Rome’ series.
Now this one I have been looking forward to. It will be breaking into the schedule so I can indeed be ‘one of the first.’ Though as it’s on it’s way from wherever, to me here in Denmark, ‘the first’ is probably going to mean a lot larger number than they’re maybe thinking.
Natchez Burning was fantastic and only the start of a trilogy of which The Bone Tree is number two.
I think it may be the US version, I can’t remember, but I just hope they haven’t put ‘A Novel‘ on the cover. I know what the bloody thing is, I’m not gonna put it in the toaster and butter it, credit me with some intelligence.
If your knowledge of the history of British Isles stops sometime around at the departure of Rome’s legions and starts again at with the arrival of the Vikings, The Serpent Sword is for you. If you’d like light shone into your own particular historical Dark Ages, with its history brought to full-blooded, exciting, pulse-pounding life, then The Serpent Sword is definitely for you. This is the historical period when legends, gods and language were brought across the North Sea by the resettlement of the Jutes, the Angles and of course, the Saxons. This is the period when many purely English legends began. This is the period when Beowulf was created (‘A great man who had killed a demon,’ as the book says – I spotted it!), when the Sutton Hoo burial took place and even, I would suggest, where the legend of Robin Hood has its origins.
This is where Matthew Harffy is looking to create his own legend; that of Beobrand and the Kingdom of Bernicia.
Northern Britain, AD633. When Britain, was Albion and Britons were Waelisc and England was a series of kingdoms and England didn’t exist… Exciting times to set a novel in, eh? Most definitely.
The Serpent Sword opens with a murder. In the dead of night, an un-named warrior takes dreadful revenge for wrongs and slights, real and imagined. He slays Octa, his woman, Elda and steals the Serpent Sword. Some while later, Octa’s younger brother Beobrand, arrives from his home in the south looking for his brother, unaware he is already dead. There is no time to mourn and Beobrand has to let any plans for avenging his brother’s death simmer, as almost immediately – almost before the echo of his pledge of loyalty to the king has died away – he finds himself fighting for his – and the kingdom’s – very existence in The Battle of Hatfield Chase. Not that there were signs Battle of Hatfield Chase this way of course, but that’s what the ‘disasterous’ battle has come to be known as by us Dark Ages scholars. Those of us who have read Wikipedia, anyway. The Waelisc (which meant ‘foreigners’ to the Anglo-Saxons – but who were actually the original peoples of the lands the Anglo-Saxons were originally foreigners in) under Cadwallon, are victors. Northumberland (a much larger area than in modern times) is effectively divided in two, Cadwallon taking control of the southern half, Deira, leaving King Eanfrith to rule the northern Kingdom of Bernicia.
Luckily for young Beobrand – and the continuation of our story – he survives the battle, though he is sorely wounded. He is nursed back to health by a young Monk called Coenred (clearly a character for development in future books) and in a process that involves treachery from warriors thought loyal, unspeakable atrocities and the making of unlikely friendships and mortal enemies alike, is forged into a warrior worthy of this time of legends. One upon whose shoulders the future of both the kingdom and the hopes of his people rest.
The character of Beobrand is of course central to the book – trouble not so much follows him around, as gets there before him. It is his fortunes we follow as a personification of the troubles of the kingdom. I did feel he started a little shakily, for instance; he seemed battle-ready very quickly and gained acceptance as a warrior a little too easily and some of his outbursts and decisions didn’t quite seem justified by what had happened in the story around them. More description of the opposing forces at the first battle would also have been a good idea. Might have helped with the sense of dread he clearly hoped we’d understand Beobrand to have had. Then there’s ‘the battle calm.’ It did seem to be summoned rather quickly for an inexperienced warrior. Almost like Luke summoning The Force. I do generally need more convincing The Battle Calm actually exists outside of Historical Fiction novels. It’s been used so often in situations when a warrior needs a Get Out of Jail Free card, it can seem a little cliched. However, as the novel progresses Beobrand seemed to grow into the role of warrior hero and it begins to fit him very well.
I also took a step back and mused if his character development wasn’t just a mirror for the uncertain, stumbling from one crisis to another, death of one, birth pangs of another kingdom? Whether or not Matthew H intended it to be so, that’s what I took from it all.
The style at the start I did find a little awkward. There were too many short, choppy sentences that were preventing a decent flow. On reflection, I thought maybe he’s trying the Bernard Cornwell, matter-of-fact, fatalistic style. I wondered if it was because – and clearly I have no experience in these matters, your Honour – the short, choppy sentence style were to convey the tension-causing shortage of breath, quick, darting thoughts that would be how you would be, if you were trying to murder someone? Quite probably. But to work properly, to notice them rather than be irritated by them, they need to be set against longer, perhaps more descriptive passages, otherwise, they lose their power. Feel like notes. That will be expanded upon at a later date. And the style continued into the first section of the book, taking a little of the edge off – for me – the opening first third, where I found myself having to step back (again), to be able to ‘see‘ the story Matthew was intending to put over. Oh and please, never use ‘all of a sudden.’ Anywhere.
Then. Pow! There’s a dramatic improvement somewhere around the one-third mark. Astounding even. A rush of “NOW we’re talking!” as the story, the writing, the whole took wings and flew. Beobrand makes sense, events gell properly and I find myself trying to read whilst gripping both arms of my chair. Not easy when reading on an iPad.
The prose style is strong and clear, sometimes too much so, but then you don’t want to get bogged down in the sodden wastes, wading up to your knees in sludge and cliche of the last Robert Low I read. There are also some interesting, strongly-written, minor characters, many of which are clearly in it for the long run. And of course, ’the love interest.’ She’s a little identikit just now, but from the description of her background, I can well imagine she’ll come more into her own in future books. She might take exception to the clear case of ‘bromance’ going on between Beobrand and Coenred, but then each to his own, I say. There’s also a very interesting point made with reference to the title, one that is not thought about – but then, that’s why I read, and don’t write, books.
So where are we in relation to other writers in similar historical fields just now? Matthew is a new writer and this is his first book. However, the buying public dont know that and won’t cut him any slack because of it. So it has to stand and fall on the merits of what’s on the paper before us. The start did remind me of the beginning of the Hereward books by James Wilde. While it isn’t the main man who explodes on the scene here, it is a formative event and our first encounter with the Serpent Sword of the title (though I did think as such more could have been made of that first meeting). The story includes setting at Bebbanburg castle, currently in Northumberland and Bernard Cornwell’s Warrior Chronicles, though some three hundred years earlier. The Serpent Sword also mentions the island of ‘Hii’ several times, as does Robert Low in his latest Viking story, Crowbone. Though Low calls it ‘Hy’ – we now call it Iona.
The Serpent Sword is just the first instalment in Matthew’s plan for The Bernicia Chronicles. I can easily see how it could be developed much further. Think Bernard Cornwell’s Warrior Chronicles, – however many Cornwell planned originally, success seems to have made it open-ended. Matthew sticks, as far as I can see – and read in his Historical Note at the end – pretty close to what we know of the actual historical events, but there are so many interesting side-references, to Britain, to the beliefs and social situations, that will set you thinking about early Britain and how this fits in with the following Viking era – well, we clearly have many more hours of Bernician reading pleasure ahead of us. And that’s quite apart from figuring out who exactly the ‘foreigners’ were here!
Early misgivings aside, as Beobrand matures physically, mentally and as a character to carry the story, the book improves in every way, becoming a thoroughly satisfying, well-wrought first book from an exciting new talent. Reading surely comes down to enjoyment. It’s something you do because the stories give you enjoyment and pleasure and The Serpent Sword, puts huge red ticks in all those boxes. There’s a whole lot more clarity, sense of purpose and not least potential than many others you’ll come up against and The Serpent Sword finishes well, ties up ends that needed tying, while leaving enough unresolved to have me already looking forward to part two. Matthew Harffy is clearly one to watch for the future and Beobrand and the Serpent Sword is a legend in the making from a time when legends were made. Get in now, so you too can say “I told you so!”
I have found out – mainly because Matthew told me – that the Bernicia Chronicles will be a multi-book series and that book two, to be called The Cross and the Curse is in the bag, ready to go. So that’s good news.
Me on Goodreads
Set in same period – AD68/69 – as Henry Venmore-Rowland’s The Sword and the Throne and Robert Fabbri’s Vespasian series, Sword of Rome might be the fourth installment in Douglas Jackson’s series about Gaius Valerius Verrens, but it shows no sign of slacking in pace or quality. Avenger of Rome was an exceptional book, this is equally so.
It is set in the period known as ’the year of the four Emperors.’ Though as Douglas points out at the end, it’s actually five Emperors and 18 months. Valerius Verrens has snuck into Rome to try and get the Praetorian guard to declare for Galba and do the necessary with Nero. Valerius is only wanting to do what is best for Rome and eventually has to take matters into his own hands, so Galba can take the Purple. But, waiting in the wings, frustrated both at Galba’s inflexibility once in power and his own lack of subsequent advancement, is Valerius’ old companion, Otho. Who, it now turns out, has designs on doing HIS best for his idea of ‘Rome.’ The rise of Otho doesn’t – obviously, as this IS Rome after all – please everyone. Especially not the veterans in Rhine Legions. With each side promising power and riches beyond compare – and the Empire’s finances – to all and everyone, things get complicated. Not least for Valerius. Though, it has to be said, not for us. As while Douglas Jackson has a little bit more of a difficult job to do, steering Valerius’ path through surely the most complicated period in Romes already complicated history, his sure historical hand and clear, accessible writing style never falters. Valerius has some important decisions to make. Which is tricky, as the situation in Rome – and further afield – is getting more and more chaotic, not to say bloody, by the day.
It was good to have my analysis of Valerius’ situation right now, from Avenger of Rome, proved right here in Sword. Vitellius says “If you have a failing, Valerius, it is that you are too honest and too loyal. You will act in the best interests of Aulus Vitellis? No, Gaius Valerius Verrens will act in the best interests of Rome, because Gaius Valerius Verrens is wedded to a sugar-dusted image of Rome that has nothing to do with the sewer-breathed reality…” Valerius’ loyalty was, still is, to Rome, not necessarily the Emperor – if the Emperor proves himself unworthy of that/his loyalty. In the hands of another man, perhaps less pricipled than Valerius, that would be like giving him carte blanch to do whatever he likes and calling it ‘loyalty’ to whoever he likes. Valerius is made of sterner stuff, however snd keeps his eyes on the prize, which is a Rome he can feel comfortable supporting, not to say killing and possibly dying for. It’s a fine distinction, one that could prove his undoing, but one that is essential to Valerius’ future. The immediate and /or otherwise.
Valerius’ motivations and reasons for doing what he does, are always satisfyingly in keeping with his previous – and developing – character. There are no decisions that cause you to think “Ahhh…the Valerius I’ve got to know wouldn’t have done that!” Or “Woah! Where did THAT come from?!” The reading joy and satisfaction comes from trying to think ahead for Valerius, trying to figure out how Valerius might react if such a situation happened, or maybe that, or maybe that. And being proved wrong. The shocks and surprises come in the form of the events Valerius must try and negotiate his way safely through. They can’t be anticipated, often either by us or Valerius. It is Valerius’ reaction to these shocks, that may be surprising, but always on reflection, that fit his character. He has matured, that was clear from Avenger. He is older and wiser, and as the tumultuous events swirl around him, a figure – almost the only – of calm and common sense. A rock on which other characters crash, or realise they can cling to. Even he would admit the ‘simple soldier’ is long gone. What he is now, is a survivor. Living day to day, though that is partly because long-term plans are nigh on impossible to make – a ‘long-term plan’ in AD69 Rome, is one that sees out the day.
Valerius aside, the character that comes more to the fore for me here, is his faithful, ex-Gladiator friend Serpentius. He’s been more than a bit part previously, but here I felt he really gets some serious page-time development. He’s a threat, a friend, a companion a sparring partner. He’s become indispensible to Valerius – after all, who else is going to ‘kill’ him?
What was interesting for me, having just finished Henry Venmore-Rowland’s very wonderful The Sword and the Throne, which is set at exactly the same time, but on the opposite side to Valerius, was that Sword of Rome features several of the attacks and the final set battle from The Sword and the Throne. Whereas in that one, my sympathies were undoubtedly, 100% with Caecina, here, he’s clearly a cowardly, arrogant upstart, and I’m convinced he’s just seizing the best chance, siding with Vitellius, while attacking Otho’s brave, loyal Legions. How good writing is that? On both sides.
There are just a couple of problems. The predilection of having (a minimum of) two emotions expressed on someone’s face, at the same time will, I guarantee, have you trying to replicate such a thing yourself and looking like you’re a participant in a gurning competition. The times when three competing emotions are present, sometimes all three named, sometimes two with ‘…something else,’ will probably necessitate being driven to hospital. Doesn’t happen in real life. I’ve tried.
Another thing I think that could be worked on for future installments is the repeated references to ‘bright/glittering/gleaming/shining (etc) iron’ used to describe either the first glimpse of an opposing force, where the actual soldiers can’t be made out, or as generally a kind of lazy shorthand, instead of describing the weapon(s) as sword, knife/dagger or spear. Oh, and he does also seem to catch a mild dose of what we Doctors are calling ‘Anthonyrichesitis’ during Sword. It is most often characterised by the pursing of the lips (to show internal conflict, emotion (of any shade) or an impending decision). Think of how your face is watching a video on YouTube where a naked guy runs into a plate glass door he hasn’t seen. That’s the one. Luckily, it’s only a mild case here, not the full-on epidemic from the dreadful ‘The Emperor’s Knives’ outbreak of 2014.
Otherwise, this is a continuation of the absolutely exellent work that has defined the ‘~ of Rome’ series as a whole. It is frustrating, that this kind of HistFic doesnt get the recognition it deserves. In the press, TV, film. If he was a woman and there was less fightin’ more lovin’ more internal conflict, less external conflict-solving, Douglas Jackson would be a household name. I’m just glad his name in my household. On the shelves. Over there >>