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Then this happened…

Clearly too tough to be contained by a puny padded envelope, yesterday,
Agent of Rome: The Black Stone by Nick Brown landed in a welter of blood and corpses on my doormat.

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OK, Parcel Postie knocked politely on the door and gave it to me.

But once inside the house, the book fought its way out of the envelope and demanded, at the point of a Roman-type sword, I read it.

Now.

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Who am I to argue with a book as tough as that?

 

Buy yours at The Book Depository.

Unboxing fun

Look what Postie (now with a slipped disc) just delivered.

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Why! It’s my signed copy of Robert Fabbri‘s latest (number six) if I’m not very much mistaken, in his ‘best selling Vespasian series’. Just arrived from the very wonderful Goldsboro books and packed in enough bubble wrap that even a youthful Vespasian would have trouble fighting his way out of.

You should check out Goldsboro’s new website. It’s had the most amazing, buyer-friendly redesign you ever did see. Now it’s even easier you get all your signed book cravings sated.

Just don’t tell the wife, eh?

Review: Viking America. The Norse Crossings and their Legacy

Viking America

 

Viking America The Norse Crossings and their Legacy by Robert Enterline
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s only a short book, but that’s because there isn’t very much information about the Norse exploration of North America. There are some mentions in the Icelandic Sagas and, of course, there is a Viking settlements (or way-station) that has been discovered in northern Canada, at L’Anse aux Meadows, but very little else. Or is there?

From extensive work pouring over old maps, old texts and old legends, Robert Enterline worked out an interesting new theory, presented here in this book.

“First, that Leif Eiriksson’s successors in Greenland eventually vacated that land and spread throughout North America, as far as Alaska, meanwhile sending to Europe geographical information that sparked Columbus’ voyage. Second, that Leif Eiriksson’s North American “Vinland” of A.D. 1000 was not a land of grapes on the temperate eastern seaboard but a land of pastures in nearly arctic Canada.”

He does point out that his ideas that Norse exploration in America was a lot more extensive and long-lasting than the physical evidence so far might suggest, may well go against conventional thinking. “Such an idea is completely at variance with all hitherto accepted theories, which looked upon Leif’s contact with America as an isolated incident having no historical consequences.” Those theories also include the Greenland colony, from which the Norse Vinland explorers set out, died out somewhere around (if I read it right, 1400, give or take. His explanation, whie not necessarily ruling out the existing ideas, is different, logical and very interesting, leading as it does, to the first part of his theory.

The book also concentrates on Columbus and his voyage to rediscover the New World, as that tells us much about what he knew before he set out and where he knew it from. Where he got his idea that land was where he said it was, the book suggests, is those Norse explorations in northern America. It is perhaps worth saying here too, that you shouldn’t think ‘Vikings’ and have a picture from the story books (or the tv programme) in your mind. You should learn to call them ’Norse.’ And, when you see ‘America’ try not to think ‘USA’ but northern, up to the Arctic circle, Canada. In fact, attempting to remove preconceptions, is perhaps what the book tries to do. Saying we need to look at the evidence again, re-interpret, where it can be re-interpreted.

It is a little difficult sometimes, as he seems to have two competing ideas on what Columbus’ intentions (of finding) were and how he knew what he’d find and where. One is, I think, that Columbus knew there was land exactly where he found it. We think, or have built the legend that he was looking for Asia, but that knowledge of both the roundness and the size of the earth was sufficient at the time, to show that by sailing westward, with the supplies he had, there was no way he could have reached eastern Asia. Therefore, he must have known that there was something else where his supplies would run out and he only had that amount of supplies, because he knew something was there. And he knew that, thanks to the Norse explorations. “Detailed analysis of pre-Columbian maps, as well as other geographical ideas that were in the air just before the Columbian discovery of America, suggests strongly that such shadowy, frequently misunderstood information did exist, and was based on the dispersal of the Norse settlements in Greenland into America.”

The other idea is that the information coming back to Europe from the Norse explorations, was that what they had found, was the east coast of Asia. Though that that was never anything the Norse themselves claimed. This, if I read it right, would seem to be confirmed by Enterline’s stating that Columbus thought the world was actually pear shaped. The Norse themselves, thought they had discovered a new land, outside the (known) world and that if you travelled south along the coast of it long enough, you would come to Africa.

The book was published in 1972, and so I think while there is mention of the discoveries at L’Anse aux Meadows in the 1960’s, it seems like it was still ‘Breaking News.’ So, he doesn’t know about the nuts and the Jasper found at the site, which would seem, in essence, to compliment at the very least, his proposition.

It’s an analytic study of the actual evidence and his reasons for his theory, using both probability and possibility to construct some very convincing and intreguing arguments. So it doesnt read like a Giles Kristian or a Robert Low. It read to me, like a book trying to present a new theory, knowing there was going to be resistance from the established Archaeological and Historical community, but that Historical romantics with perhaps more open minds *raises hand* would appreciate the theory being presented. So, the tone is one in the middle of dry factual study and more appealing easy reading for Historical Fiction aficionados. You’re not going to race through it, not being able to put it down, but give it a go and see what you think. If you know something of the background, you’ll be intrigued, if you know nothing, it might just set you off on further explorations of your own.

I’m giving it 5 stars because it is so darned interesting and is a positive, up-beat alternative to Erik Wahlgren’s ‘Im right, you’re wrong’ ‘The Vikings and America.’

Click on the book cover at the top and you’ll go to a search page for the title on Abe Books. That’s where I got my copy.

Me, on Goodreads

Review: Avenger of Rome

Avenger of Rome
Avenger of Rome by Douglas Jackson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I finished Avenger of Rome, or it finished me. Hard to decide. One hell of a thrilling ride. Four books into what was originally described as a trilogy and no sign of slacking, just getting better and better. There is no doubt for me that, at the moment, when we’re talking Roman-period Historical Fiction, it’s Douglas Jackson, Robert Fabbri – and then the rest.

The story has now moved into quite a recognisable and well-trodden period of Roman history. We’re in AD66 and Nero is persuaded to rid himself of the leading Roman General of the time, Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo. Not because Corbulo is incompetent, disloyal or even a threat to Nero, but because he is too good and as such, seen as a threat. An increasingly mentally fragile Nero sends his ‘Hero of Rome, Gaius Valerius Verrens to the east, to Antioch, to spy on Corbulo. Problem is, Corbulo knows Valerius is a spy and Valerius knows he knows and so do the soldiers loyal to Corbulo and…well, it gets complicated from there. The Roman forces in what is now the Middle East, are trying to hold off the expansionist ambitions of the Parthian King (probably ‘of Kings’) Vologases. Though, Rome’s definition of ‘expansionist’ would probably also cover sitting there, minding your own business, doing none any harm, of course. But Vologases has dared to raise an army of simply stupendous size and has decided to take on Rome in what Rome obviously considers, their backyard. The Roman forces are surrounded and not just death, but annihilation seems inevitable. Amongst all this, Valerius he falls both for Corbulo’s daughter – and her father’s brilliance as a leader. Corbulo’s mistake, is then two-fold – to remain loyal to Nero and to think for himself as to what the best solution to the Parthian problem might be. He is old-fashioned enough to still believe in honour and duty and Rome.

Can they rescue the situation? There’s the problem with writing a series and people reading the series knowing it is a series and that there are more to come – how to build up sufficient tension and doubt, when readers know there is another book after this one? I have no idea how he does it, but Douglas Jackson does it wonderfully well. Valerius seems to have become harsher. He’s certainly more on edge and there is also an edge to his personality that has developed from the previous book, ‘Defender of Rome.’ He seems less at peace with himself and his situation and though he still enjoys his soldiering he may well be beginning to see he can’t hide behind the ’simple soldier’ epithet much longer. What it is, I think, is that Valerius is realising his devotion to Rome is devotion to an ideal of Rome, that isn’t quite reflected in the reality. I wouldn’t say he’s become or becoming, cynical, as he still believes it can be changed. Maybe he is realistic enough to realise it can’t be changed ‘back,’ as it has never quite lived up to the ideals that were perhaps originally set. But, that it could be changed to something that is better able to strive after those ideals, if never quite achieve them. Soldiers like Valerius and Corbulo realise they need to be loyal to ‘Rome’ and therefore their Emperor, but, in this case, not necessarily to Nero. And where does that leave their (different ideas of) honour? Valerius has had to struggle with this before, but during ‘Avenger’, he seems to be beginning to break ‘free’ of his mental chains. The question is, would a change of Emperor help him, or weaken his loyalty to Rome further?

Douglas Jackson must be our leading writer of this type of Roman Historical Fiction, the real sort, the exciting, stirring, solidly rooted in the facts and actual events sort. It is superbly well put together, deftly paced and rewarding on a variety of levels. Powerful at times, harsh at others, soft, reflective and thoughtful at others. There is all the stomach-clenching tension, heart-breaking sadness you need to put yourself through the mangle, get your pulse pounding and give your brain some useful exercise. As previously, he scatters interesting tidbits of Roman information throughout the book. Not IN YOUR FACE, like I find Harry Sidebottom, not getting in the way of the story as his most often are, but complimentary, whilst always retaining the flow. There are of course the requisite signs of the Roman Writer’s Club, with some eyebrow-raising, though they are mercifully few and, interestingly, on one occasion even without eyebrows. That’s never easy.

If your fingers aren’t pounding out ’S.W.O.R.D. O.F. R.O.M.E’ on your keyboard on whatever on-line shop you get your books from, or banging on the door of your local bookshop, check your pulse – you may have died.

PS : If you’re wondering where this fits with the other Roman Epic series there are around at the moment – it’s the same period as Robert Fabbri’s Vespasian and Henry Venmore-Rowland’s two books. Anthony Riches has his Legions – and their eyebrows – in Rome at about the same time just now as well.

Buy Avenger of Rome.

Speesh @ Goodreads

Meet the new god, not the same as the old god

I thought, after this post the other day, I’d also have a look at some books where their cover changed dramatically, between hardback and paperback versions. And make some completely uninformed speculation as to why that may be.

First up is Giles Kristian‘s God of Vengeance.

On the left, is the hardback version, the right is the paperback version.

God of Vengeance   Giles Kristian God of Vengeance PB (small)

Despite professing his love for the new (as it was then) hardback cover design for his return to the world of the Vikings, Giles Kristian’s publishers obviously didn’t feel the same love when it came to the paperback.

Neither did I at the time. I remember seeing the cover announced and thinking

”         ”

Nothing.

It did absolutely nothing for me. It did nothing for the book, the story or the series.

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Above, is a picture of ‘my’ Raven series in hardback (bottom). And paperback (top).

As you can see, the hardback of God of Vengeance will fit right in…

Let’s check…

Raven series 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yup! Job’s a good un.

Right. Well, of course, to look at it another way, maybe you could argue God of Vengeance should be a little different, as it is a prequel to the Raven series proper. But…a little toy ship at the top there, on what looks like a slab of black, rune-inscribed granit. That just screams “BUY ME!!!” to the casual reader, eh? Clearly not. You could argue that the paperback jacket has to do a different job to the hardback, it’s in a different market. “But!”, you cry, “the paperback versions of the first three, are absolutely the same as the hardback versions!” So why did/does God of Vengeance have to be different? Why spend more money on an already done project and commission a new cover for the paperback? Because they knew the hardback cover was crap? That it wouldn’t work for the paperback? I know absolutely nothing about the sales figures here, but I would have guessed that people who would buy a Giles Kristian paperback Raven book, aren’t the same who would fork out twice as much for the hardback version, six months earlier. So, a change of cover. To bring it into line with the rest of the paperback series? Well, yes…but, not quite. Times (and typefaces) have clearly changed since the publication of the first book(s), as have designs. So the paperback has been given what we in the trade are calling a Ben Kane-over.

Giles Kristian God of Vengeance PB (small)Ben Kane Clouds of War PBEagles at WarIron & RustWhoops! A stray Harry Sidebottom seems to have snuck its way in at the end there.

They do tend to appear on each others’ books claiming they are all better than anything else they’ve ever read, but the same deigns? Too far.

Clearly, as it’s been a while since Giles K wrote a Raven book and people who bought the paperbacks of the first three might be thought to have forgotten that he is about – given that the sales of his Civil War series clearly weren’t what were hoped for (hence the return to Raven and the very belated release of the paperback version of Brothers’ Fury, obviously only now out in paperback in an attempt to ride on the coattails of the hoped for success of God of Vengeance), so the paperback GoV has to work hard. Harder than was anticipated, after the design of the hardback. Bottom line, the hardback cover is a hardback cover, the paperback cover is more of a paperback cover. Quite why it was felt it should look like a book set in Roman times, I can’t tell you. I haven’t yet got on to reading it. Partly because of the dreadful cover, partly because I’m tired of Giles K’s ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ attitude towards Viking history and culture. He seems to think he and his books are in a comic book-world sometimes. Make that all the time, actually (there IS going to be a comic book of the Raven series at some point, or at least he has set some drawings going anyway. So look out for a very square-jawed, very clean, Hollywood matinee idol version of Raven, only putting his Mead horn down to go pillaging, very soon). I’ll get on it as after I’m done with the half dozen more serious Vikings books I’ve got.

Actually, I think the paperback cover of God of Vengeance is absolutely stunning. If my version had that cover, I’d be reading it right now. Or be already finished. So, it’s done its job, then. One day – if I get any Skat back from the Danish tax people, I may even invest a few unnecessary Kroner*, just to have its magnificence sitting on the shelves there. But as I’ve got a (signed) hardback…not yet.

As ever, click on the book covers at the top to go to the relevant book pages at The Book Depository.

*I am now due some 1500Kr, so I may well have to put some money where my mouth is when I get the dosh, start of April.

Whoops!

Iron & RustEagles at War

Now that’s embarrassing.

Fortunately for Ben Kane and Harry Sidebottom, one is a paperback, the other hardback and so, hardly likely to be seen on the same shop book shelf at the same time. But still…

Harry Sidebottom’s paperback is out from Harper Collins as of now, but Ben’s hardback is first released by Preface Publishing in April (23)…so you draw your own conclusions there.

Which is the more realistic, I couldn’t say. Harry’s is looking right, as I imagine most people would imagine a Roman standard eagle to do, Ben’s is looking straight on. There also seems to be something else going on under the ‘War’ and Ben’s name as well, but it’s hard to see if that’s a hand or what just now. As Ben’s title includes a reference to the Roman Eagle of the Roman Standard, his is the more logical cover. Harry’s is also a paperback and a huge, huge change from the hardback cover, so I’d have said his team need to be looking for the larger amount of arse-covering there. However, Harry’s is out first and that’s often the defining factor.

As the world of Roman book publishing is relatively small, especially at the top, I’d have expected a little more research going on to avoid this sort of thing.

Click on the book cover if you’re interested in buying one or the other.

Review: The Iron Castle – Angus Donald

The Iron CastleThe Iron Castle by Angus Donald

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Angus Donald’s ‘Outlaw Chronicles’ books have all been great reads. Well-written, exciting, action-packed and exactly what I want from my Historical Fiction.

There is a problem, however. They’re NOT about Robin Hood. Not even half about Robin Hood. Robin Hood is in the books, but in the background. We don’t follow him, we follow Alan. It’s Alan’s thought’s we are party too, not Robin’s. And Robin would probably have been the more interesting character, even going by the walk-on parts he has had. It is Robin’s thoughts and (perhaps) inner turmoils that I think would have been more interesting. Not just to me, but to your ordinary book-buying reader. If you’re going to sell it as a re-imagining of the Robin Hood legend, you really should feature Robin Hood a bit more. He has got a life away from Alan, of that there is little doubt, it’s just that we learn precious little about it. Obviously that is because it enables Angus’ Robin to move, unseen behind the scenes and pop up just when he is (or isn’t, dependant on what sort of scrape Alan has got himself in to) wanted. So, I ask some people what they think of when they think of Robin Hood. As I live in Denmark, those people are Danes. Even less knowledge of Robin Hood of legend, or with an outsider’s, objective view, you take your pick. Robin Hood? “Something about a forest in England and taking from the rich, giving to the poor” (I’m translating here) was the general consensus here at work the other day. One of the nurses who had lived over in England, could remember him having lived in Nottingham. “France?” “Eh?”

Angus promised much with the first book Outlaw and Nelson DeMille was right with his quote on the cover of the paperback version I have here: “Angus Donald has made everyone’s favourite outlaw a lot more interesting…” He was, in Outlaw. He isn’t, in the majority of the books after that. He can’t be, he isn’t in them enough. What Angus created in Outlaw I thought, was a really different, reconstructed, Green Man Robin. Caustic, earthy, as in of the earth, harsh though fair (of course) and interesting. He is a hero for people who needed one. A direct descendant of the King Arthur tales, a pre-Saxon hero, a summation of hopes, and pagan folk legends made flesh. Now, six books in, he’s swearing his allegiance to the King – by his faith in God, for goodness’ sake. It was a great start. But I would venture that many a reader has rushed through Outlaw, then bought book two Holy Warrior and thought “Hang on, this is supposed to be about Robin Hood! And he isn’t in it!” Well, he is, but more in name, than deed. And Alan and Robin aren’t in Sherwood either, not even in England much after Outlaw. Maybe Angus worked on the ‘you can take the boy out of Sherwood, but you can’t take Sherwood out of the boy’ principle. On that level, it would have worked a treat, kind of. If it had have been the two (or three or four, as it was at that point) outlaws taking their Sherwood nous to fight in the Holy Land – that would have been an interesting project to have explored. But by the time they embark, they are no longer outlaws, no longer forest-dwellers, but are gentry, Knights, with lands, castles, retainers and are on first name terms with Kings. And French in all but name. And remember, Robin Hood was a hero to the Saxons, fighting the Norman French. In Angus’ version, after Outlaw he is Norman French. They both speak fluent French, Alan is French, just with a name change and their King, Richard I, Richard the Lionheart, Richard Coeur de Lion, was French. It is estimated Richard spent as little as six months, in total, in England. Book three, King’s Man is also set in Europe, or France. Book four, Warlord pretty much all France, a brief dalliance in England, but nothing to get worked up about. Five, Grail Knight France again. Six’s The Iron Castle is ‘Chateau Gaillard’ – so you tell me where that is set. The King’s Assassin, book seven, will continue in much the same vein, it seems: “As rebellion brews across the country and Robin Hood and his men are dragged into the war against the French in Flanders…” Not Sherwood, where even Danes know Robin Hood lives. But Flanders where…no one ever thinks Robin Hood has been, let alone lived. That’s the problem that has developed for me and I’ll wager for a lot of casual readers, it isn’t about Robin of Sherwood. It’s not about Robin and there’s very, very little set in Sherwood.

Then, the ’friendship’ between Alan and Robin is largely one-way a lot of the time and in the most of the books, very little is returned. On either side. Often, though Alan professes his love for his Lord and ‘old friend’, it’s hard to see why he should feel that way. Clearly, we are to feel that the love that was generated in Outlaw sees Alan through the subsequent books. To be honest, were I Alan, I’d have told Robin to piss off a long time ago. Robin takes him away from where he wants to be, puts him in danger at every turn, talks to him like he is an errant, ignorant child and generally doesn’t do anything much – apart from lending him money – to deserve Alan’s professed devotion. Alan too, isn’t the outlaw band member. He’s mostly French (though in some of the books I’ve listened to on Audible, he’s had a strong Yorkshire accent) and thanks to Robin and King Richard, he’s a land-owning Knight and Lord. So, if you read what he says and think ‘English,’ think again. It is perhaps, or would have been, historically accurate, but it’s not what one thinks when one wants to hear in tales of Robin Hood. OK, maybe Angus thought that Robin and friends, in Sherwood, fighting the Sheriff, stealing/rich, giving/poor, was too limiting and that all that could be said, had been written. But I beg to differ. And that is partly based on the fantastic Robin (and Alan) he created in Outlaw and partly based on delivering on the ‘Meet the Godfather of Sherwood Forest’ tag-line of the first book.

By taking the two friends out of England, I’m afraid Angus has ‘ordinarified’ them. Alan is just another, often down-at-heel, wannabe Knight and Robin is a pretty ordinary schemer, charlatan, liar, cheat and Lord. Not even a rogue, loveable or otherwise. He has a lot of connections that pop up here and there, but his actual dealing with those connections, we don’t see. He does want to get back to England, back to his home, with his wife Mary-Ann (you see what he’s done there?) and live happily ever after, but…that home is in Yorkshire and his wife lives with their sons in France, has done for several books now and, if it were possible, seems to have even fewer links with England, than Robin.

However, (it’s not all bad) take the book(s) on face value, and you have a really excellent, action-packed, riveting read. Each story is superbly well-planned and executed, contains all the highs and lows you’re looking for in your fighting historical fiction and, in my humble opinion, contains some of the most poignant, thoughtful, though-provoking writing on friendship, longing, regret and hope, it has ever been my pleasure to come across. The Alan that we meet at the start and finish (and sometimes in between) of the books, is a magnificent creation and should have a book or two of his own. No doubts about it. The Iron Castle doesn’t disappoint either (unless you’re looking for Robin, in Sherwood, as above). It begins in 1203, at the end of the time of England’s possession of the territories in France that became the English King’s after The Norman Conquest (there is an absolutely superb Historical Note at the end that you really should stay on for. Angus could easily write (a) wonderful Non-Fiction history book(s) in the future). The majority of the action, takes place in and around the siege of the Iron Castle of Chateau Galliard as Alan and Robin are there to help save the castle from being captured by the French and thereby help King John save Normandy (Interestingly, only King John is the same as the character we know from the Robin Hood books and films). It is a tense struggle, full of incident and really well and effectively written for the action taking place in relatively confined spaces. It is also book looking at the concept of a man’s honour and the dependancy on it to the extent that someone hides behind their honour to cover their own shortcomings or wrong-doings. Robin might say “A man’s honour is the most important of his possessions” but Alan (standing in for us) experiences it in quite a different, more realistic way. Buy this book, enjoy it for what it is. Just don’t go thinking it’s about the Robin Hood you’re thinking of.

Me. On Goodreads.

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