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Review: Masaryk Station

Masaryk StationMasaryk Station by David Downing

My rating: of 5 stars

A superb end to a simply wonderful series. A marvellous end to the book. Happiness tinged with sadness. Tragedy and hope.  It didn’t really feel like a goodbye.’ An au revoir, hopefully. Though that’s probably me wishing it, rather than it actually being so. And yes, he saved the best for (the) last (two).

As the book begins, it is three years since the second war to end all wars ended. But the world feels for many just as unsafe as it was. Perhaps more so. The series’ ‘hero’ John Russell and his old espionage ‘friend’ and part-time Soviet controller, Shchepkin find themselves sinking deeper and deeper into the new world of spies and mistrust, as the two new world powers let paranoia about each other override any thoughts of justice and retribution for the people who suffered most. The ordinary man and woman in the street, wherever that street might once have been in Europe, are just as expendable in the new Cold War as they ever were in the ‘old’ war. Russell and Shchepkin reach the conclusion that there is probably no escape for them, or those they care for, not alive anyway. Unless, that is, they can find a secret about one side or the other, to use as blackmail. They know plenty of secrets, of course, but the people they know secrets about, also know secrets about them. It needs to be a big one, a huge one, a secret so potentially devastating, that it would be worth leaving them alone to pay for. If they survive long enough after disclosing it, to use it, that is.

I don’t think there’s been a deep message to be got from the Station series. David Downing hasn’t been on a cliched anti-war, anti-Nazi, anti-conflict, mission. That’s for us to read in maybe. The things I take from the series are maybe the triumph of spirit and that people, no matter where they come from, are fundamentally decent at heart. That war affects every side differently, but in the end the same. There are no winners, the human race loses. Masaryk Station, in summing up the series that has gone before it, is about betrayal. Of people, each other, of ideas. It’s about starting to build your own future, because no one else is going to do it for you. Certainly not the Big Powers, as here. They say they are, but they can’t be trusted with the future and certainly not with yours’. Universally relevant wherever you find yourself today, it’s about all sides being let down by their leaders, elected and unelected.

Despite (obviously) being written by an English (speaking) writer, the series has been remarkably even-handed and non-judgemental. You draw your own conclusions, if you want to. Obviously, the events and atrocities will speak for themselves, however, they can be open to interpretation, however you want to interpret them, depending on which side you were or are. There were no winners, nothing was solved by 5 years of war and 40-odd million dead.

It’s impossible to pick a best book of the six Stations and would be wrong to even think about trying. Could the series be returned to? Yes. Should it? That’s a whole other question.

Masaryk Station especially and the series as a whole leaves me with sadness, hope, tragedy, happiness, possibility. Leaves me with a smile on my face and hope in my heart and glad that I travelled with David Downing, John Russell and Effi Cohen.

Click on the cover for my reviews of the previous Station books. The covers are to the paperback versions I have. Yes, I got the wrong Zoo Station. Irritating.

Lehrter StationPotsdam StationDavid Downing Stettin StationSilesian StationZoo Station

 

 

 

 

 

You could and should, buy them here.

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Review: The Corners of the Globe

The Corners of the GlobeThe Corners of the Globe by Robert Goddard

My rating: of 5 stars

The Corners of the Globe is the second in Robert Goddard’s The Wide World trilogy and it definitely shows all the signs of a master of the genre at work.

I think I was perhaps fortunate to read this coming off the back of another mid-series masterwork (too many ‘master’s there – Grammar Ed), The Bone Tree, by Greg Iles. I’m actually not quite sure how that works or even if it matters, but it felt like a hell of a good period to be a reader while I was on the go with those two anyway. Like (the brilliant) The Bone Tree, this is so much more than just a mid-series book, with much more going for it, and with a development of character and unfolding of plot that you don’t always find in book two of threes. Though, it has got to be said, as with TBT this is so much a part of the series as a whole (you can see that even though both are ‘only’ mid-way as yet), that you really can’t and shouldn’t take them out of the series. What I mean is – if you haven’t read the first book, go do it now. Then read this. It must not be read on its own. Or in isolation, or before number one, or after number three. You’re not doing yourself, the series or Robert Goddard any favours otherwise.

The story starts (or continues from book one – you choose) in 1919. Former WWI flying ace, James ‘Max’ Maxted, the son of Sir Henry Maxted, whose murder in Paris while attending the negotiations after the conclusion of World War One, starts the whole story rolling in book one. It was Max’s refusal to take the ‘accident’ at face value that got him into trouble with the authorities, German spy rings and his family, in the first place. Here, his troubles are largely his own work. Max seems to be working for the feared German spy-master Fritz Lemmer, a man who has his fingers in more pies than he has fingers alright. He has something on everyone, he’s everywhere and there when you least expect him. As Max finds out, almost to his cost several times. Max thinks Lemmer is the key to finding out the truth about not just his father’s death, but about his father and is sent up to Scotland to the Orkney’s to where the German High Fleet are interred. His mission is to recover a document containing secrets Lemmer is desperate should not fall into his enemy’s hands. Who, Lemmer decides, is now Max. From this point, it’s desperate and dangerous and ‘look behind you!’ stuff, which if you’ve seen or read The Thirty-Nine Steps, will have you go all misty eyed at the sheer unpredictable, nail-biting, gotta read on brilliance of the whole thing. That is, if you can tear your eyes away to wipe them.

Each new piece of information Max discovers, only seems to reveal that there are many more pieces to find. And they don’t know what the final picture should look like, but there’s something there, something in the background, something casting shadow over the whole that is just tantalisingly out of reach. Everybody seems to know more than they’re letting on. Especially the dead.

Max was a good character to start, here he is developed perfectly. Thoughtful, resourceful and – fittingly – often flies by the seat of his pants. As in book one, there is a strong supporting cast. Sometimes, Max seemed more of a link, the catalyst, than the main character, even if it all in the end, revolves around him and his father. He sometimes feels like he should know the whole, if he can just see the link asometimes while being the centre, seems to know less than those around him.

Ends that were loose from the first book, are tied up here and other ends are loosened in preparation for book three. Perhaps it is not as complicated or viscerally shocking as The Bone Tree. Perhaps more subtle and understated, though absolutely no less exciting and gripping.

An indecently good book. I can’t wait for the final instalment, neither should you.

 

Buy The Corners of the Globe at The Book Depository

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Review: Lehrter Station

 

Lehrter Station by David DowningLehrter Station
My rating: of 5 stars

It goes without saying that this is (another) beautifully written paced and structured, evocative, sometimes provocative, story from David Downing. All his books in the Station series have been. I’m not quite sure how he’s done it – maintain such a high standard of writing and story-telling over six novels (yes, I’ve finished the sixth now, though this is number five). Maybe he wrote them all at one sitting and then divided it all into six parts. Who knows how he’s done it, they’re all uniformly superb and this is (obviously, after all that) no different.

Lehrter Station begins at the end of 1945. The war has ended and John Russell, Effi and John’s son, are holed up in London. Naturally, Effi misses Berlin, but so does John. Then, the bleak, post-war London woodwork squeaks and out comes Russell’s old Soviet contact Shchepkin, with an offer Russell, after some consideration, finds he can’t, or would be stupid to – as in he wouldn’t live very long if he did so – refuse. So, Russell returns to Berlin to work for the Russians. And the Americans. He finds himself essentially, walking a tightrope at the cusp of the old war and the new, cold war. Clearly, as soon as the war was over, peace declared and celebrated, even before that, the parties were working behind the scenes on the next one.

At the heart of it, there’s uncertainty. “I’m beginning to think certainty died with the Nazis” as a Jewish activist puts it. The new future is in many ways more uncertain than it was under the Nazis. Even at the end of the war, even not knowing where the next bomb was going to fall. Before the end, you knew who to avoid, who was the enemy. Now, even though the ‘enemy’ have been defeated, things are more unclear than they were. It’s about the future obviously, but also the past. How to think about it, how to revenge it. Should it be revenged? Is not revenging it, letting those who died, down? Is it revenge, or is it ‘justice’? Even when the Jews do it? Do two wrongs make it alright?  About people paying for their past sins. Should they? Should sins be passed down to their children? Should whole nations be held responsible for the actions of their countrymen, when the actual perpetrators can’t be identified? When is enough? Do we turn a blind eye, because they’ve been wronged? No one won. We all lost. No one is behaving properly. Maybe the losers were, of course the Jews. And the Russians sent to their slaughter by Stalin. And the German people, sent to their slaughter, by the Nazis. And the German people, who saw their future destroyed. Twice. And the Jews. Though, basically, everyone thought they had it worse than everyone else (read Max Hastings’ All Hell Let Loose, you’ll know what I mean).

It’s about expediency and realpolitik – our new enemy’s enemy is now our friend. Even if that means our enemy of five minutes ago, now has to be our friend. It’s about how complicated it was for the ordinary person, not involved in the new Great Game, just to survive. And about mothers and families. Ordinary people doing what they have to do to survive. People looking in from the outside seem to be able to judge and tell those they’re looking at, what is right or wrong. The people doing it think they’re right, that it was right to go to war and what they’re doing now, after that, justifies whatever they do – they must be right, because they ‘won.’

“You end up asking yourself – how much better off are we? Enough to justify 40 million dead?”

David Downing has built up a totally immersive picture and puts you in it. I have not so much feeling I’m reading about it – I’m there. Right there. Finest kind.

Buy Lehrer Station at The Book Depository

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Review: Wulfsuna

Wulfsuna by E.S. Moxon
My rating: of 5 stars

Lighting up a previously dark age in my personal historical knowledge, Wulfsuna is a convincing and compulsive tale that starts with a bang of betrayal, battle and blood – and builds from there.

Wulfsuna, is the start of a series of books featuring the characters and begins in AD433 on the south-eastern coasts of what will later become England. The ‘later become…’ is hard to get away from when describing events of this period. That’s because – as I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you – they weren’t of course Anglo-Saxons at the time, we now call them. Saxons or Angles, though what they actually called themselves – apart from ‘Wolf Sons,’ I’m not sure. ‘E.S.’ goes for ‘Seaxon,’ deriving from the Seax, a dagger and ‘symbol of freedom’ (Seax, you’ll see features as a weapon in many Hist Fic stories) but doesn’t, in my mind, sit all that easily with them being from ‘Sachsen,’ in Germania. See, you really do struggle to describe the period in period terms, though I didn’t really feel it would do justice to the book’s depth, to reduce it simply to ‘Germans coming to England.’ Both terms belonging obviously to a much later date. As the book works hard to put over, these were very ‘fluid’ times and there was a lot of too-ing and fro-ing of peoples across the English Channel and the North Sea. Those terms again being later inventions of course. Oh bugger…

Anyway, what happens? Well, there is a lot of confusion. The Romans have departed, well, their systems have, as how many were actual ‘Romans’ and not Roman-icised Britons in the later stages – and therefore how far they would actually have had to travel, to return ‘home’, is perhaps open to discussion. The Legions have gone anyway, but many of the the mercenaries the Romans padded out their forces with, from many lands other than Britain and not just Angles and Saxons, are still there. After being away for 20 years, the Wulfsuna are returning to the islands of the ‘Brytons’ from the mainland. Some are returning to where they were actually born, as I read it, some coming over for the first time. Some have good intentions, want to settle and live a good life, others have different ideas and have brought old rivalries that were thought to been settled back ‘home,’ with them. They’ve been fighting for the Romans, generally against the ‘original’ inhabitants of Britain. But when more Angles started coming over – often to finish the job – some turned round and fought against the new ‘invaders,’ while some couldn’t see why they should fight against their own kind. The real losers, the ones who could genuinely say “Oi! We were here first!” are those we now call Celts, but whom the Angles and Saxons called ‘Wealisc,’ or foreigners. Interesting, eh? The foreigners calling the inhabitants foreigners. Having my whole family living in Wales and half now actually being Welsh on their passports, it gives me even more reason to tell them I spit (after winding down the car window first, of course) when I drive over the border from England.

I’m not going to give you any much more, because as it starts the development of the – for me anyway – pivotal elements, very nearly from the start. I don’t want to spoil the enjoyment – or shock – for you. I did think the situation and the dilemma(s) facing Wulfgar, as he tries to step into the leadership of the Wulfsuna, is very neatly summed up on page 32: “Now he was a Lord over a divided tribe in a strange land.” He needs help, but the tribal members who stayed in Bryton, only seem to raise suspicions, there are potential, blue-painted enemies everywhere (at least they’d be easy to spot, I suppose) and then they come across a young girl by the roadside. She may be good news, may be bad news. But it’s clear she’s destined to travel with them. Coincidences never happened back then, everything was either pre-ordained or the will of the old gods, or the new one. So, she is there for a reason but what it is, what it means and how their fates are entwined is one of the main threads of the story from then on.

Wulfsuna is full of convincingly developed main characters along with some interesting bit players. Wulfgar, especially Sieghild (to whom I warmed immediately) Acgarat, and many more. The young girl Morwyneth’s presence, as a young reluctant ‘seer’ woman, run out of town for having visions she cannot control, etc, is obviously a gigantic cliché. ’She’ features in many books of this kind and I did fear for the worst when she was introduced. You see, I don’t go with the “It seemed she had two choices: to deny herself the seer’s sight for the comfort of community, or accept her powers and spend a life in solitude.” (p71). That’s the cliché, that it’s a ‘burden.’ Nonsense. What a gift! Punch the air with a “Woo-hoo! I can see the future!” Keep quiet about it, improve your life with it, have a good time and use it to your advantage. But, really, no-one can do what she does. No one can see the future, either when they want to, or when, as pretty much here, when they don’t want to and least suspect it. Not before then, not then, not after. Proof? When did you last read ‘Clairvoyant wins Lottery?’ eh? Try never. Interestingly, I have seen the theory that deja vu, is actually the result of time travel. You think you’ve been in that situation before, because you have. Through stepping into a time ‘bubble’ of some sort at some point. Erm, however, to be fair to the good Ms Moxon, I thought Morwyneth’s subsequent development as the tale progressed, was very deftly handled and she could well turn into one of the series’ most interesting characters. It did though raise the question of the genre of the book – should it be filed under Fantasy? If she’s going to continue calling it ‘Historical Fiction,’ it maybe needs the visions and the being stalked by dead mothers toning down a bit in future volumes. It’s one thing having your characters believe ‘magic’ is the cause of things they cannot explain, it’s another thing to have magic actually happen in the story. Then, it’s fantasy. Morwyneth is built up as being ‘one with nature.’ In the absence of any meaningful technology in the period, it is nature which holds the (balance of) power. And those who can read the natural signs, are to be admired or suspected, or, as here, both at the same time. What is good is Morwyneth is used as an outsider to the Wulfsuna, to look at their culture and habits and compare, both to her own, Briton ways – and us and ours’ now. That alone would justify her presence for me. Quite apart from any potential Lotto-winning abilities.

The first two or three chapters I did find something of a rocky road – some of the dialogue felt like it was written in the way you would tell someone else what happened, rather than the character describing whist IS happening. The first chapter or so did feel a bit rushed as well, too much information and character swings too early. As it was the start of a series, there wasn’t the need to bring us up to speed so quickly and it felt a little forced. I also wondered if she hadn’t gone through multiple alterations before publishing and actually forgotten to put it back in some of the neccessary parts. Like this one: ‘“Wulfgar leaned on the side of the boat, his iron-splinted vambraces winking in the sunlight.” ‘Vambraces’? What are they? Where are they, are they on Wulfgar, alongside him, where, what? Clearly they’re open to the air, glinting in the sun, but there is absolutely nothing in the preceding or following passages to give a clue as to what they might be. We find out later, but at the time of first reading they just stop the reading flow. Stop it like someone suddenly slapping you. I have seen a review which mentioned something about (they thought) the innappropriate use of some words in the story. They flagged something about the girl making a ‘deal with herself’ as being wrong for the time. ‘Deal’ being a much later word, or similar. I’m no expert, so I couldn’t say. However…the words that worried me and the reason, wasn’t so much for them being wrong for the time period, more for them being wrong for the situation being described at the time, standing out unneccessarily and thereby interrupting my flow. Like cycling along a nice smooth cycle path and suddenly being jolted by hitting a rock you didn’t see coming. It happened a few times over the first couple of chapters. The one I’m thinking about right now, was this (P59):  “Safe at last, she clutched her abdomen where the ache…” When writing about a lowly, uneducated, lonely girl in a middle of nowhere life in a village in the middle of nowhere, 433AD, ‘abdomen’? No. Stomach, yes. Fits her, fits the passage. She’s not a doctor in the 21st Century, she is the afore-mentioned lowly farm girl. Yes, it’s from Latin, but first began to be used in the mid 16th Century – were I to get all pedantic on your asses. My point is that it stopped me and that was irritating and it made me wonder about the word, instead of being concerned about her. However, from about Chapter Three and onwards, I realised it wasn’t happening any more and it all got a considerably smoother, with a much more satisfying flow thereafter.

Wulfsuna oozes with passion, not just from its characters, but from its author. Clearly, ‘E.S.’ is passionate about this formative period of English history and that comes over very strongly. As does her enjoyment of the tale she is writing. If anything, the book, the series, seems like her attempt at time travel. It all feels right and is – eventually – convincing in its portrayal of life, fashions, thinking, warfare and not least, the landscape. The descriptive passages I found most enjoyable of all, I think. The after-impression I take away from Wulfsuna is that it is a tale full of yearning for a time, attitude, honesty, we have little idea of, nor really total understanding for. To read and fully appreciate a book like this, you need to take your 21st Century head off. To do that and fully immerse yourself into the period, it obviously takes a strong and well-written tale…like Wulfsuna then! After, as I say, the bumpy start, I began to forget myself, forget I needed to go online and book a new travel card, up-date computer software, get the shopping in, ring my Mum and Dad in another time zone…and begin to worry about how they’re going to pitch camp tonight, where they’re going to find enough to eat, why is he riding to tell them all that, is she really in touch with the spirits… And when you get to the end, while the bad news is you’ve finished the book, the good news is, there’s a second and maybe more books on the way.

The above was what I posted last week on my Goodreads review. This is extra.

I, perhaps like many, was always under the impression that the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, etc came over to the British Isles, after the Romans left, in pretty much a single wave of conquest. However, If you want a clearer idea of idea of what the latest (well, up to when the book was written a few years ago) thinking based on archaeology, is, I can thoroughly recommend Britain A.D. by Francis Pryor. In fact, that book would be a lovely primer, for this one. As would Matthew Harffy’s The Serpent Sword. They might put a few things in place before you dive in. Wulfsuna also does a very good job – from the cover and inwards – of showing how the Anglo-Saxons moving into the British Isles, were both the fore-runners of and sprang from, pretty much the same source as, the Viking peoples. Unless you keep that in mind, you could become a little confused and have trouble perhaps pinning the period down in your mind, with the talk of gods that have similar names to the ones you know from the Vikings, but clearly aren’t the same – and are a couple of hundred years before Vikings came to prominence. Remember, they – like the languages – sprang from the same Germanic source and, just as the peoples moved away from each other, their beliefs, while similar, developed nuances of their own. Luckily, we have people like young Miss Moxon on hand to help.

Buy Wulfsuna at The Book Depository

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Review: An Officer and A Spy

An Officer and a Spy

An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Even before the book proper has begun, Robert Harris states that his subject, The Dreyfus Affair, was “perhaps the greatest political scandal and miscarriage of justice in history.” Not just the 19th and 20th Century, not just in France, French history, in all history. That’s an incredibly big sell the book has to live up to and could, given that you or I could go out on the street right now and spend a couple of hours (or more), stopping every single person we met, before we find someone who thinks they, might, possibly, maybe, think they know someone who (etc) has heard of Alfred Dreyfus, or ’The Affair.’ However, when the author doing the selling, is Robert Harris and the affair’s place in European history become apparent, you may well be more than inclined to go with him this once. Personally, I knew a little about the Dreyfus Affair, well, make that a very little. OK, I knew next to nothing. But I had heard of it and I did know it was quite a big deal to the French.

The book begins in 1894 and we are led through the Dreyfus affair, chronologically, by Georges Picquart. He is a Major as the book opens and is present at Dreyfus’ Court Marshal and ‘degradation.’ You’ll have seen similar in cowboy films, where the army person has his epaulettes ripped off, his sword broken in two over the knee, etc. Dreyfus is accused and is quickly found guilty of, passing secrets to the Germans in Paris. He is imprisoned on the welcomingly named, ‘Devil’s Island.’ His island, one of three that go under the name ‘Devil’s Island’ was off the coast of French Guyana (off the north coast of South America), was roughly 35 acres in size, but even that wasn’t small enough forthe Army and consequently Dreyfus. He was guarded and watched night and day, kept in solitary confinement, often in total silence, in a small hut, often chained to his ‘bed.’ His correspondence, in and out, was read and censored and his health deteriorated accordingly. He was clearly guarded so closely, even on his tiny rock of nothing in the middle of nowhere, so the French Army could keep him from convincing anyone of his innocence and thereby, their guilt. They hoped the French people and then they, could forget he ever existed. Which makes you wonder why they arrested him in the first place, however logic doesn’t infringe on the Army’s thinking too often in this story.

Back in Paris, Picquart, an conscientious, likeable character according to Harris’ depiction, is promoted and put in charge of the ’Statistical Department.’ Really, the counter-espionage department. He wasn’t told to keep his hands off the Dreyfus case, because they didn’t see why anyone should have any problems with a German spy being convicted of treason and punished appropriately. Especially a Jewish one. And especially as Picquart was a good Army man and knew how to behave as such. As the months wear on, reports coalesce of another French Army officer spying for the Germans, one Ferdinand Esterhazy. Picquart just does his job, gathers information, and comes to the inescapable conclusion that Esterhazy was/is the real spy and that Dreyfus is/was a scapegoat. When he makes his theories clear to those above him – his problems start.

I’ll leave that set up there, because you really should read the book. There is a lot about the affair on Wikipedia, but if you can keep yourself away from that and maybe wait until you’ve read this, you can fill in any background knowledge and get even more of a feeling of what the whole affair meant to France and so later European history.

Having read a lot about the affair after finishing, I can safely say that even this superb book can’t fully do justice to the impact it seems The Dreyfus Affair had on the French consciousness. As the 100 year anniversary of the final judgement was marked by a ceremony led by French President Chirac in 2006, clearly its effects are still felt strongly today. Obviously, as the reluctant driving force behind the Army investigation and exoneration of Dreyfus, Picquart comes out of it quite well. He is a likeable man, maybe a bit old-fashiond, even for the time and is the book’s main character. He wants to believe the Army’s reasons for putting Dreyfus away, but can’t once he sees the evidence. He can’t un-see it. He abides by the Army code of not rocking the boat, with regards to communicating the ‘problems’ to people outside the Army, until he is fired and the attacks on him – physical as well as his character – begin for real. Then, in a moment that reminded me of The Count of Monte Cristo, the gloves come off.

The Army top brass, of course, come out of it all very badly. They were rabidly anti-Semitic (though in that, only mirrored the attitude French public at large), old-fashioned in a bad way and they disobeyed the First Commandment of When Finding Yourself in a Hole: “(Thou Shalt) Stop digging.” A lie to cover a lie, to cover two lies, then loses touch with the first lie and is easily uncovered. So more lies are needed and invented. People higher up the chain, made it clear that those down the chain, should toe the line. Some of those lower down, realising it is in their best interests to do so and may even advance their careers, did the inventing of lies they hoped would please their bosses. Clearly, as is hinted at several times here, the Army’s position was that they didn’t need, shouldn’t need to, explain their actions. Or the reasoning behind those actions, to anyone. Least of all the French People. The Army’s position was that they were Gentlemen and a Gentleman’s word is enough evidence, even for a Court of Law. They were naive, but not in a cute way and didn’t learn from the ‘humiliating’ 1870 defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. They didn’t see which way the world – and Prussia/Germany – was going. Picquet didn’t either, to be fair, but he was at least just doing his job and flexible enough in attitude, to move with the times. Everyone higher up than Picquart at the start, either knew is was/would be a miscarriage of justice before Dreyfus was convicted and/or wouldn’t/didn’t want to do anything after the actual facts were known. Because it would show them, the army, the justice system, the government, France itself, in a bad light. Better to sweep it under the carpet, forget about Alfred Dreyfus and show that the system worked.

Robert Harris doesn’t seem to have had any particular kind of axe to grind here. He doesn’t seem to have had a pre-writing agenda. It’s a fascinating and absurd case, with built-in twists and turns, ups and downs – not to mention downright bare-faced lying, that must be the envy of many a modrn novelist. He may well just have thought he’d put together a clear narrative for the modern reader, letting the natural excitement, background and repercussions speak for themselves.

Buy An Officer and a Spy

My review of Fatherland by Robert Harris

Me on Goodreads

Review: Vespasian False God of Rome (Vespasian III)

False God of Rome

False God of Rome by Robert Fabbri
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Robert Fabbri seems to be documenting, pretty much minute by minute, the career of Vespasian. Vespasian is a pretty well-known historical character and that is the problem, I guess, with writing about a historical figures – how to keep the excitement up, given that your readers most probably know how their ‘story’ ends, or when the person died. So this incident here, in book x of x, clearly isn’t gonna kill him. So how to keep me on the edge of my seat knowing that? Robert Fabbri has done a really excellent job so far, doing just that, keeping the excitement and interest and generally here, he continues the good work.

We’re on book three (of nine, I think I’ve seen him say), it is AD33 and Vespasian’s brother Sabinus is out in the province of Judea. And you know what happened in AD33/34 in Judea? Yes, that. There is a fair bit about the ’new’ religion of Christianity, with some very good points made, however, the arrest, trial and execution of ‘Yeshua’ feel more than a little awkward. Trying to shoehorn Gospel references into the narrative as Vespasian’s older brother turns out to be the one who, by demanding his death on behalf of the Senate, caused Jesus’ crucifixion, doesn’t really work. Especially in the context of what I’ve read in the uniformly excellently planned and written previous two books. There is also a look at – in my interpretation of it, and thinking about the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten – the origins of belief in one single god, over the Romans’ many. I’d say young Robert has read The Holy Blood, The Holy Grail at some point.

So, Vespasian, after an adventure or two in the Libyan desert, returns to Rome with what he found there and has to turn to his aunt for guidance. She, you’ll remember from the previous books, is a Roman matron of the old school, with more fingers in more pies than she has fingers. She’s soon plotting to help steer Vespasian through the minefields (I know, I know) and quicksands that passed for Roman politics. Tiberius is soon ‘replaced’ by Caligula and a brave new dawn, full of hope and…well, you (probably) know how quickly Caligula’s reign deteriorated. Caligula, was, coincidentally, reasonably sane, in his pre-Emperor days, but absolute power soon corrupts absolutely, though unluckily for Vespasian, Caligula still considers him to be his friend. And Vespasian finds out all too quickly, that he doesn’t need enemies when he’s got a friend like Caligula. Caligula has had the great idea of building a bridge over the bay at Naples and of riding across it, wearing the breastplate of Alexander The Great. As you would. So, Vespasian is sent to get it. Well, steal it, as the Egyptians aren’t all that keen on lending it to a madder than a barrel-load of monkeys Emperor.

Again, as Robert says in the Historical Note at the end, he has followed pretty much what is/was known about Caligula’s excesses. If he hadn’t said that, I’d have recommended psychiatric help after reading some of the stuff here, I must say. However, the interesting theme that Robert at least partly follows, is how Vespasian realises that Caligula is – as Caligula himself says in a rare moment of relative lucidity – a mirror for human behaviour. Including Vespasian’s own. If he had unlimited power. People treat Caligula like a god, so he begins to think he is one. And if a god says something is so, it is. The word of (a) god cannot be faulted, discussed or argued against. Democracy goes against that and is therefore against the word of God, as God isn’t a democracy (hello, IS!). And, raises the question as to just who is the ‘False God’ of the book’s title, eh? Vespasian does, as I say, begin to wake up towards the end and begins to realise that divine right or not, Caligula may have to ‘make way’ for another, for the good of Rome’s – and everyone else’s – future.

It did feel like it got very bogged down in political affairs when it moved back to Rome. Not sure what it was all supposed to signify. His thorough understanding of the situation at the time? Historical accuracy? I don’t know. And I couldn’t tell you much about all the ins and outs now. It switched me off and didn’t really seem relevant or anything that couldn’t have been effectively condensed without losing, maybe even gaining, impact. To be fair, you do get a very good idea of how rigid Roman society was at the very top end. Sometimes, even the slaves seem to have more ‘freedom.’

Like I say, I wasn’t all that convinced at the start and in periods in the middle, but it sure sneaked in under my skin by the end. If you know anything of the history of how Vespasian’s life progressed, you’ll find clues, or at least incidents, here that will surely be used later as explanation to how he got the ideas for his future plans.

Buy Vespasian False God of Rome

My review Vespasian Tribune of Rome

My review Vespasian Rome’s Executioner

Me on Goodreads

Review: Hereward Wolves of New Rome

Hereward Wolves of New Rome

Hereward Wolves of New Rome by James Wilde
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was very pleased about this one. About how good it was and how it developed and, I felt, totally refreshed the series I have loved from the start, from the opening chapter, in fact.

Fast-paced and urgent, streamlined and effective, it is tightly-written, yet still felt like James was enjoying (tremendously) having set his character free from the historical straight-jacket. Of having to fit into the period of English history Hereward began in and what is known about him occurs. As with James Aitcheson’s final book in the ‘Bloody Aftermath’ series, this really is a great leap forward for the character, the series and not the least, for us.

As far as I can see, what little there is known about the ‘historical’ Hereford, stops a short while after the Battle of Hastings in 1066. It seems there was sporadic English ‘resistance’ in the period following and Historical Fiction writers (those I’ve read, anyway) have decided it was Hereward doing the leading of the resistance. Until it all stopped. As the population dropped from 2,000,000 before the invasion, to 1,000,000 in the years afterwards, thanks to King William’s bringing of Norman ‘civilisation,’ it’s clear that the/any resistance stopped primarily because there were very few English people left to do the resisting. Hist Fic writers have decided that Hereward survived and, for one reason or other, left England, with a band of followers. He travelled east to Constantinople, to seek his fortune – and work off his frustrations – with the Emperor’s Varangian Guard.

In End of Days (the one before this) Hereward comes to an agreement with William, to leave England. Hereward is ‘convinced,’ shall we say, by William, of the health benefits both to the (remaining) English people and to himself, if he does so. So, he leaves. Luckily for us, James’ Hereward leaves with several of the more interesting characters from the previous stories. He can’t leave with his love interests (as Stewart Binns has ‘his’ Hereward do in ‘Conquest’), but here he has Kraki, the ex-Viking and Alric, the monk – and Hereward’s conscience – who has been with Hereward from the start. They are now much more than just supporting characters and I really liked their development here. Hereward ihimself, is still plagued, unusually for a man who generally lets his axe talk first and asks questions later, by regrets and remorse, guilt and a sometimes irritating level of uncertainty about the rights or wrongs of his actions. That’s how we would be, I guess, but would a 11th Century warrior have those same doubts? To that level? I’m not so sure. It’s not James’ fault, writers generally seem to think that by adding in that sort of thing, it gives their character depth and we’d understand it. We can’t, no matter how much archaeology advances, look inside someone from the period’s head and understand their feelings, but you do sometimes wish, they were a bit more convinced of themselves, feel justified in doing what they do, from the off. A Jack Reacher set in the 11th Century maybe (to my credit, I have subsequently learned that James sold his Hereward books to his publishers as ‘a Jack Bauer (24) for the 11th Century.’ Glad I got roughly in the same ball-park first!). Anyway, fortunately for us, Hereward has a tough time controlling his demons and often just gets on with the slaying of enemies.

Clearly, to continue the Hereward series, James had to take Hereward out of England, it couldn’t have continued on otherwise. I must admit, I wasn’t all that hopeful of the success of the series after book three, which while good, did, on reflection, feel like it was a bit forced. Here, in Wolves, James’ Hereward has broken his historical shackles, there is a real sense of purpose – from James as well as Hereward – and a really great flow to the story. Hereward grows and the series will continue, that I know. And I’m really looking forward to it doing so, on the reading of this.

Buy Hereward Wolves of New Rome

See also

Hereward

Hereward. The Devil’s Army

Hereward. End of Days

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