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Compelling and unusual - a great read

The Tiger Queens - Stephanie  Thornton

Tiger Queens describes the lives of several of the women intimately involved with the early years of the Mongol empire, beginning with Borte Khatun, chief wife of Genghis Khan. It is a long book, but Stephanie has - wisely, in my view - chosen to keep it as a single volume rather than divide it into separate pieces. The historical background is provided by a near-contemporary written source, which Stephanie has followed closely but creatively.

 

There are four main sections to the book, each of which closely follows one of the women. This gives an effective way to see them all both from inside and outside. Relationships are at the heart of the book, and the culture, running the whole gamut of intimacy and distance. The main focus throughout is on the women, and the ways in which they upheld one another and fashioned a cohesive core to the empire at times when its rapid expansion, and the inherent violence of its men, threatened to split it apart. Mongol men are seen through their women's eyes rather than directly.

 

Three of the figures chosen are members of the Mongol clans by birth, while the fourth is introduced as a Moslem captive from Nishapur, from what is now called Iran. This should have given an interesting balance to the work, but in fact I enjoyed the other three sections more. The descriptions of their blend of domesticity and spirituality were compelling in a more sustained way. The biggest surprise of the Nishapur section was Stephanie's use of Fitzgerald's florid 19th century translation of Omar Khayyam. Through most of the book she is careful to keep culturally specific descriptions of places, artefacts, and so on, and so the sudden appearance of these ornate phrases was disorienting. Personally I would have preferred to see a more faithful and accurate translation, of which a number are available. Other readers will not mind this.

 

Stephanie writes very beautifully about loss, and the mutual support these women gave one another in difficult, often tragic, times. The scene in which Borte Khatun dies, also in the Nishapur section, is profoundly moving - "well-written" does not do justice to the quality here.

 

I can thoroughly recommend Tiger Queens, and have no hesitation in giving 5* to it. The book is unusual in subject matter and presentation, and longer than the average novel, but well worth investing the time.

A beautiful and poignant exploration of the sacredness of a place

Omphalos - Mark Patton

Omphalos is a beautiful book. Mark kindly provided me with a pre-publication proof copy which I eagerly devoured. I have enjoyed Mark’s writing since coming across Undreamed Shores a couple of years ago (reviewed on The Bookworm’s Fancy blog as well as Amazon and Goodreads). Omphalos is a more elaborately structured book, peeling layers of history back successively from the present day back to the time of Undreamed Shores, then returning layer by layer to the present day.

 

The closest analogy I have read is The Source, by James Michener, but Mark achieves here something which in my view is more memorable and more human.The Source tended, despite the author’s efforts, to lose the personal dimension against the grand sweeps and calamities of history. Also it progressed linearly forwards through history rather than giving the sense of diving deep, and then slowly surfacing again. Mark, while still setting his various characters in times of flux and crisis, never allows these settings to obscure personal dramas and interpersonal relationships. Sometimes the links between the layers are obvious; other times there are only little clues in the narrative to spark the connection.

 

Omphalos explores one of the great themes of human life – what is it that unites us with past generations, and what is it that divides us? The divisions in term of social customs and attitudes are certainly present, but common threads abound. As well as individual emotions and actions, the theme of unity is externalised into aspects of nature, and most obviously into the centrality of the ancient sacred site on Jersey around which these many worlds pivot.

 

An obvious consequence of the layered structure is that we spend less time with any one person and context. There is a slight frustration here: I wanted longer with each of them. But that sense of Time’s Winged Chariot hurrying near is also a theme of the book – as new generations are cut free at birth from the navel of the world, their time is all too short.

 

Omphalos goes on sale very soon from the time of writing: December 5th 2014, to be precise, and there is an online launch on that day. I can thoroughly recommend that you find out for yourself what this book is like. Five stars so far as I am concerned, without a doubt. Hopefully, like me, you will reach the end, lean back with a sigh, and think “ah, what a beautiful book this is.

What a pity ancient Egypt and ancient India never got together

The Origin of the Young God: Kalidasa's Kumarasambhava - Kālidāsa

I was recommended Kumarasambhavam, “The Origin of the Young God“, by Kalidasa, by a friend who had noticed the reprint of the English translation by Hank Heifetz and alerted me to it. I have read a certain amount of modern Indian literature (in translation) so here was a chance to absorb a Sanskrit epic classic. Kalidasa is thought to have lived around 500AD, but most details of his life have long gone. His work, however, has proved to be enduring, and this is an exceptionally great poem which became part of the standard against which other works might be judged.

 

The theme of the work is the courtship of Shiva and Parvati, as imagined through their personal interactions, the participation of other individuals, and the rich echoes of their emerging love in the natural world. The 8th section celebrates their sexual union after their wedding. In due course this will lead to the birth of the Young God of the title, who will liberate parts of the natural and divine world from oppression. Over the years, this final section has been sometimes been regarded as an improper subject for poetry, and has often been omitted from published versions. To me this immediately brought to mind the Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible, which has from time to time only gained acceptance by being read as allegory rather than literal delight.

 

For the curious, Heifetz explains the different kinds of metrical pattern used by Kalidasa, as well as highlighting other devices used, such as alliteration. He also speaks a little about his own choices in translation – when to be literal, when to add an explanatory phrase, when to try to imitate a pattern of sound. Sanskrit poetry was based on several patterns of long and short syllables, like classical Greek and Latin metres but unlike ancient near eastern or more recent European ones. This means that direct imitation of the variety of metrical forms, and their specific associations, is not possible in English, and Heifetz explores other ways of representing the differences.

 

But the poem itself can be read and enjoyed without troubling with any of this, so that the reader can immerse him or herself in Parvati’s determined efforts to win Shiva over, followed by Shiva’s gentle and sensitive arousal of Parvati’s desire. One of the outstanding features of the work is the extended use of imagery from the natural world – flowers, birds, animals, mountains, and the cycle of the seasons are all invoked and drawn up into the relationships of the divine couple.

 

At the end of the book I found myself filled with a great regret that the ancient Egyptians never had the opportunity to interact and cross-fertilise with ancient India. The ways in which both human and natural worlds participate seamlessly and shamelessly with the universe of gods became alien to Europe, but would have found a resonance in Pharaonic Egypt. Conversely, there is a haunting sense in some Egyptian literature that Egypt never really found another deep culture to relate to. I feel that there was a loneliness there that longed for, but never fulfilled, the possibility of being united with another. Perhaps Shiva and Parvati succeeded in marriage, where Egypt and India failed even to meet. But you have to wonder what kind of young god would have been the fruit of their union.

 

I have to give a star rating to post this review on some sites, even though that feels bizarre for an acknowledged literary pinnacle of its culture. Five stars, of course. The book will not appeal to everybody, but deserves to be better known and more widely read by those many people who cannot do so in Sanskrit.

YA historical fantasy book or Latin teaching tool?

The Mirror and the Mage: A novel of Ancient Rome (Master Mage of Rome Book 1) - D.W. Frauenfelder

The Mirror and the Mage is a young adult book – not my usual fodder – but is also a historical fantasy, which is more familiar territory. The story is set in the very early days of the Roman Republic, when the Etruscans were the most significant challengers to the growth of Rome. We follow a youth, Lucius, who wants to serve his king but whose real talents are intellectual. In other cultures he would be a scribe, but his society values Mars more than Mercury. It is a familiar situation for many. Basically, he is a geek trying to survive in the middle of the gang war which was early Roman political life.

Lucius finds a resolution for his dilemma by becoming an apprentice to an old magician, Publius Litterarius. The basis of magic here is partly verbal – you have to get the words correct in both meaning and grammar – and partly resource-based, requiring particular crystals to become effective. Lucius goes through a sense of progressively more complex and dangerous situations as he learns his art. He also, appropriately for a YA book, grapples with personal responsibility and a growing awareness of the other sex.

The book is not just an entertaining story, but aims to be a tool for learning Latin as well. If you want to be likeLucius, you have to learn your grammar! I have to say that I wish I had been taught Latin like this many years ago – like a lot of other people I was simply exposed to lists of word patterns identified by strange names I did not at that stage know from English – accusative, dative, ablative, pluperfect and so on. Nowadays I have a better sense of what these mean, but at the time they were so much phlogiston (and much less fun). I am fairly sure that if I had had the kind of imaginative presentation used in this book, I would have learned to like languages a whole lot earlier.

So The Mirror and the Mage can be read both as a fun story of magical apprenticeship, and a creative teaching aid. Either way I would recommend it if you like YA books, or are contemplating buying one for somebody else.

Memorable characters from Britain of today and the Iron Age

Spiral: Book One of the Spiral in Time - Judith Schara

Spiral is a book which slightly defies categorisation – part historical fiction, part timeslip, part fantasy, and illuminated throughout by Judith’s evident enthusiasm for her subject. Regardless of the other facets, however, it is as historical fiction that it stands out most clearly to me.

 

Spiral opens in the modern day, following an archaeologist, Germaine, as she becomes involved with a new dig at Iron Age levels at Maiden Castle, in Dorset. Now this is a place I know well, having lived near there some time ago, and finding it in a book brought back happy memories of exploring its steep banks and ditches.

 

In the story, however, modern Maiden Castle is not just a fun place to roam around, but the focal point of competing ambitions – academic, political, religious, reputational, and monetary. Germaine finds herself caught up in this vortex, but is only dimly aware of it. Driven by her own need for recognition, she puts herself in life-threatening danger – and we are plunged into the world of Iron Age Britain, and the life of a girl called Sabrann.

 

From here on the story follows dual tracks – for the most part we follow Sabrann and an assortment of companions out of Britain, into northern France and finally to Carthage. There is a lot of voyaging, and neither the travellers nor the reader can spend long at any of the fascinating locations visited. Sabrann is under constant threat, both physical and spiritual, and has to learn how to recognise and trust friends amongst a crowd of enemies. Meanwhile from time to time we return to glimpses of Germaine’s modern world.

 

Spiral is simply the first book in a series (“Book One of the Spiral in Time“), and so it ends with a great many issues unresolved. Sabrann and her friends have survived great peril, but are separated and do not know what the future will bring. Germaine is recovering, but unsure what to do next. As readers, we have been introduced to some of the deep connections between people of the two time periods, but a great deal remains unknown. One assumes that further revelations will follow in later books.

 

Now, I must admit that I prefer books which are self-contained, and there is a certain frustration in getting to the end and finding major plot themes not tied up. I can, and do, enjoy, a connected series of books, but not so much a multi-volume work of this kind. Other readers will perhaps appreciate this style of presentation more than I, and Judith makes it quite clear that you only have Book One in your hands.

 

The fantasy elements enter in a couple of ways. First, there are very occasional overt demonstrations of magical or spiritual power. More commonly though, fantasy enters through the constant level of imminent danger, and Judith’s chosen styles of characterisation. The book’s central characters are quite nicely rounded, but some people that they encounter, especially in Carthage, have the slightly larger than life, archetypal quality of fantasy rather than “straight” historical fiction. In Carthage the standard fantasy trope of “organised religion = bad, personal spirituality = good” is very prominent. Again, readers may differ in their response to this.

 

I mentioned timeslip, but Judith’s handling of this is innovative. Germaine and Sabrann are connected in a profound way, but it is not altogether clear (at the end of Book One) how much they recognise each other’s reality, or whether they will ever be able to. What we have is a pattern of recapitulation and discovery rather than time travel, and it will be interesting to see how the pattern is further developed.

 

Technically the Kindle edition I read was well produced and edited, and a pleasure to read.

 

For me, a strong 4* book. I would have enjoyed longer spells of time at the places visited, especially as Judith has a clear knowledge of and delight in her subject. The continual focus on danger and probable death from any of multiple causes distracted me from simply enjoying and immersing myself in ordinary life. I realised that as a reader (and writer) I tend to enjoy everyday life scenarios more than high profile crises! And, as mentioned, I found the lack of closure within the book a little frustrating. However, I very much appreciated the focus on Iron Age culture outside the Roman experience, along with the multicultural issues faced by the characters. Sabrann herself was a memorable character – more so than Germaine, who has been given less narrative space so far.

I will certainly be looking out for other books in the series.

Medicine, politics and history in England around the time of King Alfred

The Devil's Monk - J R Russell

The Devil’s Monk is set in the turbulent days after the reign of Alfred. The background, then, is a time of enormous transition for Britain. There was political and military struggle, as Angles, Saxons, and Danes contended for mastery of the land and the older British tribes were squeezed out. There was religious change, as Christianity gradually lured people away from the older gods. And, at least for the central character of this book, Bald, there is personal transformation, as he decides over a period of years what he can contend with and what must simply be accepted.

Bald, through whom we witness the events and people of the age, is a herbalist. He is known to the modern age through the pages of an old medical text, The Leechbook of Bald, now in the British LIbrary. Jack has done a good job of filling in a hypothetical biography for Bald. It is never altogether clear whether Bald’s medical successes are due to the remedies he prepares, or the result of sympathetic attention to the real causes of malaise. Even today, cures and healings sometimes defy explanation, and Bald’s world view is well suited to his role, being deeply rooted in the old ways, with a weak grasp of the healing role of Christ as sufferer overlaid on top.

On a storytelling level, it took me a while to settle in to this book, since the first part seemed rather disjointed. As the dichotomy of Bald’s simultaneous power and impotence came to the fore, the tale held me more. Secondary characters also get more development in the later stages. It is not a fast paced book, but the subject matter does not require it to be, and the story is better suited to the slow unravelling of hearts, lives, and nations that we find in the pages. There are frequent citations from the herbal manual woven into the plot, together with a few extracts from the poetry of the age; these add to the atmosphere, though the translation used from the Old English is sometimes heavy going.

Overall for me this was a four star book. I enjoyed reading about the history of places which I know in contemporary England – Eashing, Winchester, London, York and Glastonbury among others. The historical research which has gone into the book seems solid. However, it was a book which interested me intellectually rather than engaged me emotionally. I would have enjoyed it more if the emotional dimension had been more accessible.

A near-future crime set in London

The London Project - Mark J. Maxwell

The London Project, by Mark Maxwell, is set in a near future London dominated by a highly successful integration of a massive social media experiment (“The Portal“) into every area of life. By and large this is regarded as highly successful, leading to huge increases in prosperity and safety, at the cost of sacrificing almost all personal privacy. The debate is very familiar, though current technology is a pale shadow of the capabilities described.


Inevitably there are problems, which the main character, a police woman juggling a demanding job with single motherhood, has to tackle. Parts of the book read more like a crime mystery, with mysterious acronyms and police procedures needing to be spelled out for the uninitiated reader. I do not usually read crime fiction of this kind, and tended to glaze over in these sections. They were redeemed to some extent by exploring how they would be implemented in such a massively interconnected world.

 

Technically the book was well produced and edited. However, for me it would have profited from softening some of the technobabble about how The Portal worked. I work in IT, so was not intimidated by these descriptions: I just felt they added little to the plot and were too intrusive. The plot itself had a single focus, but a long series of complications and revelations.

 

As a Londoner, the interest value of visiting future versions of places I know just pushed this into four stars. I might have felt differently if it had been set elsewhere. Readers who enjoy the crossover between crime writing and science fiction would probably be enthusiastic about this. Certainly the issues tackled – including driverless cars, online privacy, and wearable technology allowing instant upload of personal experience – are important contemporary challenges.

An imaginative concept linking two worlds

The Songs Of Chaos (The First Ones Book 1) - Morgan Alreth

The Songs of Chaos is a science fiction book which straddles two worlds – “The First World” on the one hand – contemporary America – and “The Second World” on the other. This second world is technologically considerably behind our own, but has retained a human capacity for directly accessing forces in the realm of nuclear or sub-nuclear physics. At one stage, very long ago, traffic between the worlds was relatively common through “portals“, but now it is essentially unknown on our side and extremely rare on the other.

 

The Second World is peopled by a considerable range of human subspecies, as though the early days here when we shared the planet with Neanderthals and other hominids had persisted through into historical times. These different subspecies live together in an uneasy truce, regularly punctuated by skirmishes and small scale raids. The story largely follows two groups from our world who cross over into the other, intersecting with various individuals on that side. For a British reader, the casual references into American culture are sometimes obscure, and I soon felt that The Second World was a more familiar place than the First.

 

The basic framework is imaginative, and by and large interactions between inhabitants of the two worlds make sense as the crossover situations gradually become clear to each of them. Enough happens in this book to make it a story in its own right. However, it is the first novel in a series, so appropriately (though frustratingly) there are plenty of loose ends and glimpses into deeper and mostly darker matters. I was not wholly convinced by some of the revelations near the end of this book, but they have certainly set up problems for the next one to address.

 

A disappointment with the book is the considerable number of proofreading errors still remaining, chiefly substitution of one word for another (flash instead of flesh, for example), or the common misuse of apostrophes. I can easily overlook a few of these, but the frequency was quite obtrusive. A thorough proof read or external edit would have caught almost all of these, and the result could be uploaded to give a clean copy.

 

A few world-building issues stood out as odd to me. We are told early on in the book that time flows faster on this side than the other. However, the pattern seemed erratic, and I felt that it varied according to the needs of the plot rather than being consistent. Similarly, one of the subspecies in The Second World seems to know a great deal about contemporary First World politics, which seemed odd considering the portals were not actively used any more (as well as the time rate variation). These may well be explained in subsequent books. Morgan also jumps viewpoint radically from time to time, in order to supply background information, and this feels slightly dislocating.

 

All in all a strong four star book for the imaginative concept at the core of the book. The production problems can be readily fixed, and some readers will not mind these anyway. The book is worth looking into by science fiction enthusiasts for an unusual setting and plot that avoids futuristic gadgetry.

 

Disclaimer: I was a beta reader for an early version of this book. This review applies to the published version. I received a free copy of the book in exchange for a fair review.

Interesting, but a bit disjointed

After Flodden - Rosemary Goring

Unsurprisingly, After Flodden is set in the aftermath of the 1513 Battle of Flodden, which was a major disaster for the Scottish cause. The battle itself, and some other background information, is described in flashback scenes, with the main narrative occurring after the event during the closing months of 1513. Each chapter is marked with a date, and since they do not always happen in chronological order it can be important to take note of this.


Rosemary deals with the wider political stage only in passing, and for the most part we follow particular individuals as they try to come to terms with the battle and its aftermath. These individuals each have personal reasons for wanting to know more, ranging from a desperate quest for a family member to the desire to find a scapegoat for the failure. The various threads interact with one another from an early stage of the book, so you are not left wondering how the pieces join up. However, some aspects of motive and personal history are deliberately withheld until near the end.

 

Rosemary uses dialect a great deal in the book, to distinguish both social class and geographic origin. In particular, characters from Scotland itself speak differently from those on the borders in what is now Northumberland. I am very fond of that county, and it was good to see it being explored in this way. The most likeable characters, and the ones treated most sympathetically, are precisely those from along this turbulent strip of constantly debated land. I cannot say how accurate the dialect is, but it certainly works to help place the characters.

 

However, I found the story as a whole slightly perplexing. The “whodunit” thread trying to account for the military disaster did not sit very comfortably, to my eyes, with the exploration of personal loyalty and love, and it felt as though too much importance was being put on the shoulders of one rather insignificant family. The fact that the chapters following the main events (ie not the flashback moments) were almost, but not quite, in temporal order did not help here.

 

A retreat into catatonia is used quite often in the book to basically get a character out of the way. In some cases it is a consequence of battle trauma, in others there is a hereditary factor, and in others it seems to be simply a response to the failure of plans and intentions. I found this repeated refrain, mixed with the diversity of causes, to be rather frustrating. Perhaps Rosemary was trying to mirror something of the condition of Scotland in this, where national trauma and the failure of grand schemes backfired into a turmoil of internal violence and insanity. Since she does not foreground the national dimensions of life, it is hard to tell.

 

For me, another 4* book. The place and time of After Flodden were interesting, and the use of dialect added considerably to the characters, but I found the story itself a little disjointed. I would have liked some exploration of the national narratives as well as personal. After all, it would be less than 100 years from this point of violent incompatibility between England and Scotland, up until the act of union in which a joint ruler was acknowledged. It is very hard from within the book to see how this would be at all feasible.

A geeky triumph

The Martian - Andy Weir

I was recommended The Martian by a friend a little while ago, and finished it as a holiday book. A lot of readers find it almost impossible to put down: this was not quite my experience, though I have enjoyed reading it a great deal.


The basic setting is that one member (Mark Watney) of a near-future manned Martian expedition is accidentally left on the planet when the crew have to abruptly abandon the mission. The story then follows Mark’s struggle for survival until the point where a rescue becomes possible. There is a long succession of crises that have to be faced and overcome by a mixture of hard work and inventiveness. Some of the time Mark is able to validate his plans with expert advice from NASA, but at other times he is purely on his own.

 

The science and engineering aspects have been exceptionally well thought through, so far as I can tell. Mark is able to make creative and credible use of the materials at his disposal, which themselves are plausible for his original mission. To a very large extent the repeated crises drive the plot, and other issues such as character are largely in the background. We do get to learn quite a lot about Mark’s current frame of mind, but much less about his back story, or indeed that of any of the other peripheral characters. It is basically a “geek triumphs over adversity” story, and a splendid example of this.

 

To a degree the story tails off towards the end. This is largely because the presenting issues are so large that the outcome is either total success or total failure (and hence death). The stakes keep growing, and the possibilities for successfully finding a way out get narrower.

 

For me, another 4* book. It was very well planned out and executed, and a highly believable near-future scenario. Personally I prefer books with more character interaction, which by definition is not going to happen here. But many people will appreciate The Martian for its technical detail and long series of survival challenges.

An absorbing retelling of the Arthurian stories

A Champion's Duty  - Lavinia Collins

A Champion’s Duty, by Lavinia Collins, is the middle section of a trilogy following the Arthurian story cycle, as seen through the eyes of Guinevere. I have not yet read the first book – I downloaded this instalment as a promotional copy from Amazon – and in part was curious as to how far the book made sense on its own.

On this count I am very happy to say that it made perfect sense – of course there were places where previous events were referenced, but never in a way that left you lost. As befits the middle of a trilogy, the story ends with the central characters stranded in a seemingly desperate situation.

Lavinia has followed the rather ambiguous information in her source materials in order to place the story. Clear late Medieval signals such as plate armour and Saracen champions sit in a much older context in which England – and Europe – was still split into a myriad tiny principalities, and Rome was a powerful force within living memory. Superior kings such as Arthur attract lesser local lords into their retinue, knowing that if their might or reputation slips, their following will vanish again, or turn hostile. Real places and events live alongside Christian and pre-Christian symbolic ones. The story is not quite historical fiction, not quite fantasy, but something in between.

The main focus of this book is the conflicted feelings that Guinevere has for both Arthur and Lancelot. A queen’s life in this martial society was both lonely and dangerous, but Lavinia compellingly portrays Guinevere as driven by overwhelming attraction for both men. She is neither simply looking for a bored-housewife style diversion nor passively exploited by those around her. Guinevere’s perspective, as an independently minded, passionate and determined woman in a world governed by warlike men, provides a refreshing view on the expected world of battles and jousts.

The book was let down by some careless editing and proofreading, including some apparently random nonsense sequences of letters which had slipped through the editorial net. This was particularly surprising given the overall quality of the imagination and characterisation.

The other main difficulty – which Lavinia grapples with throughout the book – is how to retell a story which has so many well known episodes in it. She successfully threads a way between a straight historicised version on the one hand, and magical mysticism on the other, but it is a hard task that she has set herself.

On balance for me this was another 4* book. I am very glad to have taken advantage of the promotion, and am curious to see how Lavinia tackles the story’s end, but will have a pause before purchasing #3 to let this one sink in a little more.

An immersive trip into seventh century northern England

I have previously read and reviewed A Swarming of Bees by Theresa Tomlinson. so I was thrilled to be given a copy of her latest book.

The Tribute Bride is set a little earlier in time, almost entirely within the two kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia, which together made up the old kingdom of Northumbria – basically the area from modern Hull up to Edinburgh, so a rather larger region than modern Northumberland. The book traces the fortunes of Acha, a princess of Deira (the southern half) from her marriage as a secondary wife to Aethelfrith, king of Bernicia. The marriage is a political necessity for Deira, and an opportunity for male heirs for Bernicia. Acha is caught in the middle of the royal male political games being played out north of the Humber. However, she proves herself well able to manage the situation, forging alliances and friendships with key women – including Aethelfrith’s principal wife Bebba – and men – including senior priests of Woden and Christ. It is a difficult path to tread, and Acha faces considerable suffering and disappointment over the years before finally achieving a form of resolution.

The period Theresa has chosen to write about here is one that I find fascinating, and as synchronicity would have it I have had a lot to do with key locations in the book this year. Northumberland is a county I have loved for many years, and I have recently returned from visiting there. In the time that Theresa writes about, however, the old names such as Metcalfe (Medcaut) and Dun Guardi were being used rather than Lindisfarne or Bamburgh. At that time already, Lindisfarne was recognised as a sacred, liminal space, alternately joined to and separated from the mainland. Earlier in the year, I saw Radwald’s former home at Sutton Hoo, as well as the associated exhibits at the British Museum. Radwald makes a brief but significant appearance towards the end of The Tribute Bride.

Theresa successfully blends detailed characterisation of the main characters with a credible retelling of the social and political context they move in. An additional ingredient in the mix is the vivid flow of religious activity as the newcomer Christianity starts to displace the older religions. Aethelfrith himself is memorable, along with both of his official wives as well as the bed partner he takes campaigning. The remnant of the royal house of Deira is present, and the cast is rounded off with a fair number of supporting characters up and down the land. That list sounds as though the book could be confusing, but in fact the near-consistency of focus through Acha’s eyes resolves the world into a comprehensible – if painful – whole.

The documentary sources recounting this era are few, and typically, because of the interests of the chroniclers, scanty on details other than battles and the rise of Christianity. Theresa is clearly familiar with these sources, as well as the growing store of archaeological material which is slowly filling out a more rounded picture of the age.

A few minor comments which do not detract from the quality of the book as a whole. As mentioned, most of the book is from Acha’s viewpoint. However, there are occasional interjections where we jump to another viewpoint – for example we suddenly switch at one point to Aethelfrith musing on his future cunning plans – and for me these were rather intrusive into the main flow. On occasion, these also served to defuse narrative tension by giving away too much information about a coming crisis.

These, however, are very minor points, and I have no hesitation in seeing this as a five-star book. The technical production of the soft-back book is good, the storyline and the people that populate it are credible and fascinating, and for a time you can feel yourself thoroughly immersed in northern England around the start of the seventh century. HIghly recommended if you like this setting.

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.

A potentially good story spoiled by insufficient research

The Serpent and the Staff - Barbara Wood

I really wanted to like The Serpent and the Staff, by Barbara Wood. Here was a historical fiction book claiming to address a place and time close to my own heart – the city of Ugarit(on the coast of modern Syria), in the time of the early New Kingdom Egyptian pharaohsHatshepsut and Thutmose III. Sadly, however, I struggled to finish it, and cannot give more than three stars to it. 

 

First, the good stuff. As already mentioned, full marks for Barbara’s choice of place and time. The characters were (for the most part) interesting and well-crafted. The recurrent theme of herbal medicine and healing was a convincing thread around which to hang the story. The technical production of the Kindle copy was good, with a mere handful of very minor slips in a long book.

 

Where I struggled, however, was with the intended historical rooting of the people and plot. Barbara has apparently done far too little background research into the period to be able to write persuasively about it. And I am not talking about research taking several years and a PhD, but a very ordinary level of background reading from reliable sources readily available on the Internet.

 

I abandoned the whole book for several weeks at the point where a long passage digresses to celebrate one of the protagonists inventing the alphabet. If you want to enjoy a fictional presentation of this, you would go a long way to beat The TwentyTwo Letters by Clive King. But there is plenty of readily accessed technical material about the relative roles of the different competing scripts of this age, and the sheer uphill struggle alphabetic scripts had in gaining acceptance. The naivety of the description here, on top of the difficulties I was already finding in the book with iron weapons factories being set up (way way way too early), fictitious kinglists (when we have real ones), Egyptian chariots with four horses (like everyone else’s they had two), and a rather cavalier approach to geography, led me to close the book and give up on it.

 

However, I returned after a couple of months, partly out of a sense of duty and partly through stubbornness. I decided that the best way to read the book was as a kind of fantasy story without any actual real-world context. Taken on that level, and pretending to myself that the storyline had nothing to do with the start of the Late Bronze Age in the Levant, it was quite a fun romp. The outcome was never really a surprise – my main uncertainty was when and how a particularly brutal individual was going to reappear and unintentionally advance the fortunes of the protagonists.

 

In summary then – as fantasy I might well consider giving it four stars, though it could easily have been somewhat shorter without losing anything much. But as an intended work of historical fiction, and with all of the historical flaws and anachronisms, I cannot give it more than three. I do hope that Barbara will consider returning to this period – which has a great deal of intrinsic interest – but for my part it would need considerably more investment in background research.

Imaginative, with a few glitches

Athame - Morgan Alreth Wrath (The Unfortunate Woods) - Morgan Alreth

This review covers the first two books in Morgan Alreth’s The Unfortunate Woods series – Athame and Wrath. The series continues in a third book which at the time of writing has not yet been released.

 

These are fantasy books, set in a world where humans are the most numerous species, but share the land (and especially the forest) with several other natural and supernatural life forms. Relationships between the species tend to drift from neutral towards hostile, with occasional times of cooperation for specific shared goals.

 

Magic is, as you might expect, a vital part of the setting. The magic system is based around the four classical elements (fire, water, earth, air), with connections to the four seasons as well as other binary or four-fold natural or human divisions. Each element is linked to a deity with suitable qualities. It seems to me to be fundamentally well thought-out, particularly in Wrath where there is more development of the interconnections. An important plot theme is that pretty much any serious use of magic tends to have unpredictable side-effects, small compared to the original purpose but needing to be taken into account.

 

Athame opens in a wild and dangerous forest. A woman living here, Jess, chooses to help a man, Pete, who is lost, saving his life from any number of potential threats. He turns out to be a significant player in the royal succession drama unfolding in the country. Unsurprisingly, but credibly, the two eventually become lovers.

 

The plot continues with Jess and Pete venturing out of the forest and back to the capital city. This turns out to be every bit as dangerous as the wild forest, but with human rather than exotic enemies. There are definite echoes of Crocodile Dundee here, though the gender roles are switched, and the couple here is much more equally matched in talent and ability.

 

Athame ends with them having resolved a serious external threat, but separating for what appear to be perfectly sensible and necessary reasons. However, this is a source of grief to both.

 

Wrath – over twice as long according to my kindle – tracks subsequent events. They start separately, in different regions of the world, as they try to resolve their individual destinies; both have to face different but significant threats. Eventually they reunite, but tact and spoiler avoidance forbids me saying how this turns out. Suffice it to say that their quest returns them to their country of origin, which by now has fallen into serious civil unrest.

 

The hints and clues you get about the third book indicate that the overall problems of succession and disunity will be resolved, perhaps with a level of reconciliation between the various non-human species as well.

 

So, the books are interesting, and many aspects of the world seem credible to me. What are the down sides? Firstly, there is a theme I have also encountered in some of Morgan’s other writing. Rural settings may well be dangerous, but are basically clean and honourable; rural individuals are poor and bluntly spoken but honest. In contrast, cities and towns – anything bigger than a handful of houses together – are filthy, disease-ridden, and full of cruel and wickedly motivated individuals. Countryside is good: towns are bad. I am not really convinced by this.

 

In Athame, another rather simple binary opposition is between organised religion (largely in the hands of men and fundamentally corrupt) and personal spirituality (largely in the hands of women and basically uplifting and respectable). Wrath is more nuanced about this, and smooths out the earlier stark contrast into lots of intermediate shades of a spectrum.

 

Another difficulty is with the opponents. I guess it is par for the course for fantasy heroes to get increasingly more powerful themselves, and have a coterie of increasingly powerful followers. But how do you then find worthy adversaries? Somehow, the filthy, disease-ridden cities and their temples manage to turn out a whole collection of fearsome, top-of-the range fighting men and magician-priests.

 

The production of the kindle copy is mixed. My copies were downloaded from Smashwords, and the rather patchy navigation may be a consequence of that site’s conversion software. However, there are a surprising number of spelling errors, format problems, and other minor issues which should have been caught during rounds of proof reading.

 

In summary, these two books still come out as four star books for me. Certainly worth the read if you like fantasy books, and the series develops some interesting ideas. The gradual build-up of the plot is credible. Speaking as a Brit, some of the dialogue rather grates, but US readers might appreciate it more. However, the flaws which I have mentioned diminished my enjoyment of the whole, and made me feel that Morgan could have lavished a little more care on the production of the books as well as the imaginative aspects. I do intend to catch up on the conclusion of the series in time, so these flaws have not deterred me from carrying on.

 

These books were made available to me without charge but with no expectation of a review.

Good, but I would have preferred more depth

No Man's Land - Nilesh Shrivastava

No Man’s Land, by Nilesh Shrivastava, was a book I bought as part of a long-term plan to get to know Indian authors and writing. So unlike many of my choices it is set pretty much in the present day – the main action occurs in the late 1990s, with some flashback events set about twenty years earlier than that. Not everyone will like this book: it deals with the inter-personal relationships and conflicts in a small family rather than having grand political or military scope.

The crux of the story is a stretch of land between Delhi and one of the new technology cities which have sprung up nearby (Gurgaon, to the south-west). The land has traditionally been farmed and can provide an adequate though not lavish income: with the explosive demand for building work it now has the potential to be worth a considerable fortune. As such, it becomes the focus of a family feud.

Now, it is clear from occasional comments in the book that the plot draws from traditional Indian literature, in particular the Mahabharata. My knowledge of this is quite scanty, but fortunately I was able to get some pointers from Indian friends. I suspect that a greater familiarity with both the history and myth of India would open up other dimensions of this book which remained largely opaque to me. Even without that, though, there is enough here of humanity’s common sources of comfort and conflict that the story hangs together well.

For me, this was a four star book. I would have liked there to be more times when Nilesh’s obvious skills of lyrical writing came to the fore. One character, Shashwat, a family advisor and confidant, is well placed to offer words at a deeper level, but all too rarely does so. I found myself longing for more times when he was given the opportunity to speak. However, like the others he is to a great degree caught up in his particular fate – this is part of the tragedy of the situation that each character tries without real success to surmount.

This book worked for me in part because I am strongly motivated to read about north India, and especially the area around Delhi. I do feel that it would have been more powerful if the deeper background such as that of the Mahabharata had been brought into sharper focus. That would not only have satisfied my regular desire for historical fiction, but would also moved the characters onto a wider stage than they reached in No Man’s Land. All in all a good read, but one which could have done more with the material to hand.

Dreary like a bombing raid

City of Women - David R. Gillham

City of Women, by David Gillham, was another three star book for me. It is a second world war book, but set rather unusually in 1943 Berlin.

 

The title comes from the fact that most men of military age were away serving in the armed forces, mostly out east in the Soviet Union. Despite this, there seem to be enough men around to provide the main character (a woman who works as a typist in a minor government agency) with plentiful bed partners. The return from the eastern front of her wounded husband does little to interfere with her sex life, since their marriage was already in a precarious state when war broke out. Nobody seems especially bothered, or even surprised, by the state of affairs.

 

I found the book immensely dreary, I’m afraid. I suspect that in part this was a deliberate stylistic choice of the author, to convey to the reader how dreary wartime life in Berlin was. If so, it was all too successful.

 

On top of the daily grind of boring work, inadequate food and regular bombings, with only a cinema to provide official entertainment – and sporadic and rather mechanical sex as a diversion – there is a steadily developing plot of helping Jews to escape the city and the country. It is hard to decide if this is really an act of courage, or just one more way to escape boredom. For a few of the people involved, the actions are part of a moral stand, but for many, there is no real basis other than a rather unfocused sense of anger.

 

Personally I didn’t find that this theme integrated very well with the personality of the central woman, though perhaps the author feels that once again this is the point he is trying to make – in such a situation, unlikely responses are drawn out of ordinary people. The slightly dreamlike lack of volition, of just following along to see what would happen next, pervades the book.

 

For me this mix did not work. I found the combination of dull routine and improbable coincidence unconvincing, and was filled with a sense of unreality as I persevered through the book. I cannot give this book more than three stars – perhaps some people will find it more engaging than I, but other than the feeling of dogged endurance, I have not come away from the book with any deeper insight into this period of history, or the human condition in general.

 

On a purely technical note, the kindle version does not make proper use of the kindle navigation features, and there were a number of editorial and proof-reading slips. Since this is a Penguin book, and not self-published or small press, this highlights the issue that finding a major publisher does not at all guarantee a quality finished product.