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.
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.
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.
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
An odd start to a stunningly dynamic (Daily Mail) thriller series. Having Reacher holed up in a prison cell for the first few chapters and all. Strangely static, not really all that dynamic. Oh, well…
You can see what Lee Child wants to do here, with the book and the character. He wants to create an icon of ‘revenge porn,’ the physical kind, with fists and guns. But, he has to twist himself into knots – like Matt Hilton and his ‘Joe Hunter’ – so you’re thinking Tom Cruise and not Charles Bronson and Bernie Goetz. With this type of ‘hero’, there has to be a get-out clause, just in case we start getting all liberal about why he’s doing what he does. There was with Matt Hilton. One of several, is here on page 126: “No guilt, no remorse. None at all. I felt like I’d chased two roaches around that bathroom and stomped on them. But at least a roach is a rational, reasonable, evolved sort of a creature. Those Aryans in that bathroom had been worse than vermin.” You see what he did there? Not many going to argue that. Paragraphs are dropped in every so often, to ensure we know Reacher is staying on the right side of our moral law, if not always the law on the statute books. Child has to create a character whose actions we can’t, inside, argue with. Someone murders a member of your close family, you’d love to go out and ‘do something about it.’ And get away with it. How many times do we see families, in the aftermath of ’this sort of thing,’ being interviewed on TV saying they only want ‘justice,’ for their now departed ‘ray of sunshine’? Nope. Call it what it is; ‘revenge.’ Maybe I’d feel the same, I probaby would. And we’d really like to be like Jack Reacher in doing something about it.
The short. Sharp. Sometimes one word sentences. Especially at the start. Are a little wearing and unnecessary. Don’t do it people! Clearly, a ‘less is more’ feeling was prevalent when he began the Reacher series. In the right hands, yes, it can work, but only for a short while, not all the way through. However… So, Lee C has gone 100% after creating an American hero, that’ll sell by the shed-load to Americans. The style is American – it’s ‘a quarter of four’ and he ‘pops the hood,’ not the bonnet, for example. And, he goes out on a surveillance operation, in a Bentley?! Only a Yank…
Of course, it’s all about the money. He’s writing these to make money. Lots of it now, as he seems to be extremely popular. How can I say it’s a money-making exercise? He’s from Coventry and grew up in Birmingham (as all the best people do…). However, don’t they always tell young/just starting out witers, to write about what they know? So, a new, young Birmingham raised author writes about… a small town in the southern USA, obviously. And that too is a bit of a cliche. Everyone knows that small towns in the middle of nowhere, Deep South, USA, are run by crooked Police Sheriffs and Mayors and are ripe for long-coated strangers to drift in and clean up, falling in love with the local beauty while at it. OK, having his brother being coincidentally ‘involved’ was a neat touch, but otherwise, it idoes exactly what you expect it to do.
To be honest, while I haven’t seen anything to fully justify why he has become such a best-selling author, I did quite like it. It was an interesting experience. I can’t say I ‘enjoyed’ it enough to search out the next one anytime soon, but I didn’t dislike it enough to avoid reading it, should the opportunity arise.
AD 996. Norway. Ulfar Thormodsson and Audun Amgrimsson barely escaped the tumultuous, climactic battle at Stenvik at the end of Swords of Good Men with their lives.
Well, one of them did anyway.
I’m not giving it away! It’s there at the end of the previous book and it’s here on P1. “Audun had died on that wall.” So if you’d picked up the book in a bookshop, you’d have got it before you paid over your heard-earned. So there.
Norwegian King Olav has brought Christ’s message of peace and love to Stenvik – on the point of a sword and the pain of death. However, not all he converts seem to want to stay converted. The old gods still have some powers left, it would seem. The older gods still hold sway away from the march of the new God and confined to the shadows and the margins, they prove to still be strong and are gathering themselves, their strength and those who still believe.
Swords of Good Men was pretty much all centred in and around the town of Stenvik. Intense, concentrated and claustrophobic. This one folds out, spreads out. After the start, which picks up from the point Swords left off, the story splits pretty much in three and we follow Ulfar as he travels back to his home, to try and find safety in the old ways. Ulfar, is clever, quick-witted – maybe too much for his own good. Audun, is big, strong, slower through confusion about the situation he finds himself in and tries to cope with his fate and his anger. Then there’s King Olav. He’s a thug, a bully, a real bastard hiding behind a new religion he is able to interpret enough to let him go what he wants. He really doesn’t give a fuck, but does manage to realise the fight isn’t over yet. Odin and (I think) Loki put in an appearance, but nothing that hasn’t been alluded to as dreams in other books I’ve read that haven’t needed to be labelled as ‘Fantasy.’ A sixth sixth sense… makes me feel that maybe it’s only the dead Audun and Ulfar who can see them. See what I did there?
I was, as I’ve said elsewhere, surprised after reading the first book in Snorri’s ‘Valhalla’ series, Swords of Good Men, to find out that it was a ‘Fantasy’ series. For me and especially the way I read this, the fantasy elements play a small, mostly background part. I felt underway, that if this should be filed under ‘Fantasy,’ then so should Robert Low’s last Viking adventure, Crowbone. Just because people believed in magic at the time, doesn’t mean there was magic. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” as Arthur C. Clarke once said. There’s less fantasy and more honest-to-goodness, clear Viking story-telling here, than Robert ’No modern novelist knows more about the Vikings’ Low, that’s beyond discussion or argument. I have read a bit of this sort of fantasy in my time. I’d liken it to a toned-down, less ‘pulpy’ Robert E. Howard (look him up), the Conan of Cimmeria book (number 2?) in particular. Also reminded me of the first couple of Mythago Wood(s) (before they lost touch with reality and went totally bollocks), but never goes as far out in dreamland, as Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time ended up in. And a lot more concise than the late Mr Jordan, which is a blessing in itself.
Blood Will Follow is perhaps not as wham!, bam!, in your face intense as Swords of Good Men, though it’s certainly more than just a transitional novel – moving the story from the start, to set up book three. The feeling of dread creeping behind you from Swords, is lessened, but that’s possibly and maybe inevitable, due to us now being familiar with the (remaining) characters and environment. The action is short, sharp, sporadic, but still visceral, bloody and intense. It is all turned down a little, there’s certainly less of it generally, but it is subtler for it in other ways and there’s plenty to be thinking on. The story is always clear and readable, but not everything is presented to you on a plate. There’s still some figuring-out to be done. And it’s not Fantasy.
All David Downing’s books have been excellent. Potsdam Station, book four (of six) in the Station series, continues that trend – and then some.
There did seem to be a bit of a leap between Stettin Station and Potsdam, some four years, in the story-timeline. It was a little unsettling at the start and I had to re-convince myself a few times that I hadn’t missed a book. I hadn’t, I eventually realised – and so relaxed. I couldn’t really make up my mind (totally) why he did that. Perhaps he felt that he’d concentrated so much of the previous three, that if he was to continue at that ‘speed’, he’d need too many books to take it to where he wanted the series to end, some years after the war. I do think he had six books planned from the start and therefore needed to build in a ‘break’ between Stettin and Potsdam. Also, it might be a little unbelievable if Russell got into life-threatening scrapes every couple of months for the whole of the war. And, as a ‘foreign’ journalist, other than going underground, the sensible solution for someone like him, would have been to get out, even if that meant leaving his ‘life’ behind. As he does.
Russell has been ‘forced’ to leave Germany – and leave his girlfriend Effi and son Paul behind to face The End. However, he soon realises he needs to go back – and quickly. He knows what the Red Army are capable of and have begun to do, in their headlong rush to reach the German capital. Partly because they want to, partly because Stalin wants them to and partly to beat the Americans to the big prize. They’re also intent on exacting their own special form for revenge, Russian-style. And it would, one has to admit, take the cheek-turning ability of the Saint of all Saints not to want to exact revenge on the Germans for what they did – and planned on doing – to the Russian people. So Russell’s past as a Russian spy comes in useful (for once) in getting himself on a Russian plane and parachuted in, hopefully ahead of the now rampant Red Army. His son Paul, is 19, and has been put in the firing-line on the eastern front and has had to grow up very quickly, mainly because life-expectancy on the eastern front, is very short. Russell’s girlfriend Effie has, as I say, also remained behind in Berlin and so we see the trials and hardships of the German people, as the rule of law is swept away, as they are abandoned by the Nazis, as they are bombed back to the dark ages and await their fate at the hands – and the women at the loins – of the Soviets.
Potsdam Station, is absolutely perfectly written to show how everything, every emotion, every seemingly ordinary situation, is magnified and changed in wartime. Good and evil, obviously, but the seemingly previously ordinary, suddenly seems suspicious. Why is it ordinary? Why is there no one there? Is there someone? Are they watching, waiting? Why? No one, nothing, is innocent, no remark without another meaning. “It often felt as if all normal life had been consumed by the war.” The book is about the truly desperate situation the people of Berlin found themselves in. If you want to read more about this period, I’ve put some titles at the bottom of this review. You could say ‘well, after what they were doing – still doing until the end – to their Jewish populations, they deseved it.’ But that isn’t the point here. Effi is involved in helping the Jewish people she finds along the way, she is doing something, not to ease her conscience, but just as one person helping another. As we all should do, in or out of wartime. Retribution is, as I know now, to be discussed in the next book in the series, Lehrter Station.
It is, I felt, Effi’s book. Not that she gets significantly more page-time than Russell, but it felt like she got more of the story this time than she has in the past. Previously, with her being an actress, once she’d gone off for the day acting, there wasnt really much of a way he could develop too many stories around her. She does feature, but I’ve felt, more as an accessory to the main story-driving character of John Russell. Here, with him being out of Germany and her having to survive on her wits and instincts in Berlin, she really comes to the fore and develops tremendously as a character. Downing shows how, as I thought Max Hastings did admirably in his (non-fiction history of the Second World War) ‘All Hell Let Loose,’ ordinary people were affected by the decisions taken by all sides in the conflict. We can then draw our own conclusions. The ‘problem’ of, as mentioned above, being understanding of the Russian’s demands for revenge, doesn’t mean we can condone the attacks on the ordinary German people, who weren’t neccessarily responsible for the actions of the Nazi party. But many were, so was it ok to kill and rape lots of them? Clearly not, so where do you draw the line? You can’t. And, why shouldn’t the German people feel the need for revenge for the actions both of the Russians, and the British, for bombing – for instance – civilians in Dresden? No one is right and no one has the right to be right in war. That’s what I take away from ‘Potsdam Station.’
Poignant and nuanced, I fell in love with the series all over again with Potsdam Station. Several times. I felt like this must be the best of the series and the others have been leading to it. The End, of course, was climactic, so it is appropriate enough that this should feel like the story reaching a crescendo. It is a non-judgemental look at how it all fell apart, on a human, ground-level, personal scale. It is on the surface a love story between John Russell and Effi, but also the German people’s love for a Germany that they deserved, the Nazi party smashed and the Russians bombed and raped flat. Was it all worth it?