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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

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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

Review: Killing Floor

Killing Floor

Killing Floor by Lee Child
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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.

Buy Killing Floor

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Review: Blood Will Follow

Blood Will Follow

Blood Will Follow by Snorri Kristjansson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

Buy Swords of Good Men

Buy Blood Will Follow

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Review: Potsdam Station

Potsdam Station

Potsdam Station by David Downing
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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?

Also worth investigating:
Antony Beevor : Berlin, The Downfall 1945.  BUY
Richard Overy : Russia’s War.  BUY
Ian Kershaw : The End.  My review. BUY

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Review: The Bone Tree

The Bone Tree

The Bone Tree by Greg Iles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s almost a waste of time trying to describe this book. But I’ll waste – hopefully – a little of your time, then you can go out and get stuck into it and/or, if you haven’t read Natchez Burning already, read that. Then this. The best book I’ll read all year, by a Mississippi mile.

It is, as they say, a stunning achievement. Mainly for being 800 utterly gripping pages long, that held me spellbound from start to finish. I shit you not; my face was set to stun, my jaw on the floor the whole time. Not just with shocks, twists and ‘…the FUCK?!!” the whole time, but at the truly awesome scale of the achievement Greg Iles is in the middle of with this series. How on earth he’s done/doing it, I don’t know. He’ll need to take a few years off writing after this, no doubt. His brain must be full. And saying that, if you’re a writer writing in the same genre as Mr Iles; give up, stop now and find another job. You’ll never, ever (ever) do better than the Natchez series (I’m not actually sure if it has a title).

What’s it about? So much. You do need to have read book one, Natchez Burning, that is essential. The background knowlege from that, will allow this to hit you like a runaway truck. I can’t sum it up. The action is compressed, like a pressure-cooker of emotions and shocks, into just a few hours. The Bone Tree, overlaps slightly, by and hour or two, with the end of Natchez Burning, there is a quite lengthy ‘explaination’ built in, to get you familiar with the events, but you’re going to wish you had read it and kick yourself if you haven’t.

The Natchez town doctor, Tom Cage, stands accused of killing his ex-nurse, a black lady, his son the mayor, gets involved, his father goes ‘missing,’ investigations begin to reveal all sorts of links – to a vicious off-shoot of the KKK, to the murders and ‘dissappearances’ of black people in the early 1960’s, to the deaths of JFK, MLK and RFK. Read the book, and you’ll know why I’ve written it like that. It is clear that the doctor, Penn Cage’s father holds the key to it all. Why he is hiding the truth, we don’t know. To protect himself, maybe. To protect his former nurse, maybe. To protect the KKK, the mafia or what he knows about them – maybe. Natchez Burning set out the stall, The Bone Tree puts everything in its place on the stall, the next one, possibly called Unwritten Laws will, well, who knows? Maybe that’ll sweep everything off the board – again. It’ll be an almost impossible feat to beat this, but if ayone can, on the evidence so far, it’s Greg Iles. Incredible work, just stunning and at the end, I wanted to ring someone up, anyone, if I knew them or not, and rant about how good this book was. Could not be more impressed if it had fallen off the bookshelf on my head.

For the sheer level of shock and awe on just about every page and at the level of penmanship it shows to maintain that over 800 pages, I can’t see The Bone Tree in my reading experience, ever being beaten. Quite where Greg Iles goes with the story after this monumental work, I don’t know. But, that’s the point. It’ll be a shock and it’ll be awesome. My recommendation? Wait until book three comes out and you can go through the whole lot in one go. You’re going to want to. Me, I gotta wait a year until book three. Aaaaargh!

My review of Natchez Burning

Buy Natchez Burning at The Book Depository

Buy The Bone Tree at The Book Depository

Me on Goodreads

Review: The Confessor

The Confessor
The Confessor by Daniel Silva
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I will admit that I’d not come across Daniel Silva’s books before, despite having ‘aquired’ a few along the way. I don’t know what his reputation is, if I’m supposed not to like his stuff, or if I’m supposed to think he’s the best in his field.

So…I will admit that this gripped me from the off, only loosening its grip a couple of times along the way. It is, or at least started off being, right up my street – with an old, Jewish, veteran of World War II being killed and the killing made to look like it was the work of Neo-Nazis. There’s an art restorer in Venice, I think it was, who is contacted, re-activated I suppose it should be, and sent by Israeli security to find the killer(s).

I find out later, that the main man, this art-restorer agent, is actually one of Silva’s heroes and that this is book three, featuring him. I didn’t know that at the time and it didn’t seem like I was made to feel like I was missing anything, by not having read the previous books – and that’s a good thing. He does go uncomfortably near Dan Brown territory sometimes, but I guess that’s almost unavoidable in this sort of thriller. Fortunately it wasnt too many times, but eyes do go – appropriately enough – heavenward, at the mention of secret Catholic, Italian, behind the scenes, secretly controlling everything Brotherhoods. They’re never sisterhoods, these things. Why is that? Maybe women writers have sisterhoods in their books, I don’t know.

He’s a good writer, it was appropriately well woven. The grip did lessen somewhat, when I felt the novel moved from The Arms Maker of Berlin territory, to James Bond. With the assassin for hire, living as recluse in valley in Switzerland with expensive but ‘perfect’ taste, expert skier etc, etc, plastic surgeon altering his face periodically (!). It got a little predictable, falling neatly into the trap all American thriller writers fall into, by equating money with taste and expensive things showing sophistication, the more expensive the ’taste’ the more sophisticated the villain is. And of course, the more sophisticated a person is, the more evil they must be. However, it finally came back strongly, to go Day of The Jackally. The good parts are the more believable sections, relating to WWII and the whole (possibly) centres around The Wannsee Conference of 20 January, 1942: “The most despicable luncheon in history” as he neatly describes it here.

Yes, it was sometimes a little formulaic, but it’s a formula I like, so that’s ok and it feels generally a cut-above the average. I think it would have succeeded better, especially in the believability stakes, if he had aimed a little lower and not at “the epicenter of the Roman Catholic Church” as Dan Brown et al, always feel they need to. I think, seen stepping back, it was my kind of espionage, thriller, one that will just about keep you guessing, keep you looking for possible clues to the end. Nothing world-shattering, but a decent enough waste of my time. I’ll have to get on to the previous ones in the series. So I suppose it’s done its job there.

Buy The Confessor at The Book Depository

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