Tag Archives: Review

REVIEW – The Midnight Queen

This review first appeared on the Historical Novel Society’s website.

The Midnight Queen

By

I’m not at all sure that this is conventional historical fiction – I think it’ll live on my Science Fantasy shelves! However, the world is a fascinating and complex one; magic exists, through spoken spells in arcane languages. The Kingdom of Britain includes the Duchies of Normandie, Maine, and Breizh, and excludes Eire and Alba (Scotland); Henry XII sits on the throne. There is firm, widespread belief in a slew of ancient gods – I recognised both Greek and Celtic ones – who have real powers. There is a plot against the life of the King, whose only daughter has been spirited away as a baby. The heroine is a feisty protagonist, and her character arc takes her from country bumpkin, ignorant of her magic, to a powerful mage, in the end accepting that she is indeed a Princess, with all that entails. Along the way, she meets and falls in love with her wicked stepfather’s student, who turns out to be almost her match as a mage. He returns her love, whilst developing from a callow youth with a stutter, to being a man who can defend his wife’s honour against an attack from her father the King. There’s plenty of action to keep you turning pages, and the magic is a necessary (and very interesting) part.

Overall, I enjoyed this book – it was a quick, easy read; and it’s certainly something I could see my teenage daughters devouring whole. It’s the first in a trilogy, so plenty more to look forward to.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

REVIEW – Empires of the Sun

This review first appeared on the Historical Novel Society’s website.

Empires in the Sun: The Struggle for the Mastery of Africa

By

Starting with the shelling of Algiers by a French battle fleet in 1830, Lawrence James paints a deep and nuanced picture of the relationship between Europe and Africa. The book is split into four parts: 1830-1881 covers the Arab legacy and the early colonial period; 1882-1918, the height of the European colonization; then 1919-1945, and the growing national movements; and finally, 1945-1990 and the end of the European colonies. The last piece of the puzzle, the birth of Mandela’s South Africa, took place in 1993.

I was born a colonial and grew up in Africa, and the continent has always drawn me. I found this book revelatory in its treatment of the early history: it fleshed out wonderfully what was taught in school in Kenya, and painted a vivid picture of events and people. I was equally impressed by the last section, the last 30 years or so of which I lived through; it was fascinating to see a multifaceted view of events. If you’re interested in the history of Africa, you’ll love this book.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

REVIEW – Incendium

This review first appeared on the Historical Novel Society’s website.

Incendium

By

Fire, fear, and rebellion—first in France, then in England, aimed at the deposition of Queen Elizabeth, and the restoration of Catholic Queen Mary. Ex-teacher and lawyer Dr Christopher Radcliff, in the employ of the Earl of Leicester, is charged with finding the plotters and dismantling the plot.

The setting of this book is beautifully done. All the sights, sounds and smells of Elizabethan England are there, along with an intriguing range of characters, from whores and sodomites to Jewish goldsmiths and Guild Masters. Some scenes are not for the squeamish, but the violence is entirely consistent with 16th-century London. Only one event caused me to raise my eyebrows, and that was when the protagonist tossed a groat to a beggar, on the occasion we first meet him. Later in the book, he’s dispensing far more realistic farthings! Uncommon generosity aside, I quickly grew to like Christopher, who remains undefeated by his crusty and overbearing employer, a suspicious ladylove, and a series of mishaps and misdirections that bring his continued employment as an intelligencer into severe doubt until the very end.

The plot has plenty of believable twists and turns, and the pace is nicely varied; it’s an enjoyable and fast-paced read. Christopher Radcliff is clearly destined to appear in future books, and I think he’s likely to gain some loyal fans.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Review – WHERE THE RIVER PARTS

This review first appeared on the Historical Novel Society’s website.
Radhika Swarup, Sandstone Press, 2016, £8.99, pb, 307pp, 9781910124765

It’s 1947. Teenagers Asha and her friend Nargis are oblivious to the upheavals taking place on the wider stage, as India draws closer to Independence, and the creation of Pakistan. Radhika Swarup vividly paints life in Asha’s Hindu, and Nargis’ Muslim, households, and the mutual respect and friendship between the families. The girls walk to school hand in hand, and dream of their future husbands. Asha has given her heart to Nargis’ brother Firoze, who is learning law from Asha’s father; they had stolen a march on their relationship, and started a baby, when their world collapses.

Partition wrenches the lovers apart. Asha loses her baby, her husband-to-be, and her parents within 24 hours of Independence, as the new countries come bloodily into being. She must find a way to survive; to try and love the man whom fate throws at her, and to bring up their daughter, in the new Hindu India.

Finally, Asha’s Americanised daughter persuades her widowed mother to fly over for a visit. Fate turns the wheel again, and brings Firoze back into Asha’s life – their grandchildren have fallen in love! All the old attraction is still there…

This is a beautifully written book, immersing you in the detail and mores of each of the very different settings and periods. I wish it had ended differently, but I loved it, right up until the final plot twist.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Review – CULLODEN

This review first appeared on the Historical Novel Society’s webpage.
Trevor Royle, Little, Brown, 2016, £25, hb, 409pp, 9781408704011

My brother-in-law is a mild-mannered man, who wore a grey suit every day to work. We’d go on weekend outings around lowland Scotland, ending in a cosy pub. At Culloden Moor, though, he was suffused with anger, striding up and down gesticulating wildly as he relived every turn of the battle. It was easy to imagine him in clan tartan, claymore high, screaming defiance as he charged into the wall of lead from Cumberland’s muskets.

The battle that ended Bonnie Prince Charlie’s hopes in 1746 had consequences that exploded like a firework across Europe, North America, and India. Trevor Royle paints a fascinating picture, tracing the effects of the Jacobite defeat and the careers of the men on both sides of the battle lines across the next 50 years. He clearly shows how that battle set forces loose which shaped the British Empire, made the French defeat in the Seven Years War inevitable, and so set up the necessary conditions for the American Revolution to succeed. It changed the world.

In parts, the book is not an easy read. Cumberland’s sobriquet as the Butcher of Culloden was earned after the battle, with the brutal suppression of the clan system in the Scottish Highlands – his soldiers had orders “to drive the cattle, burn the ploughs, and destroy what you can”. There are parallels with the way Native Americans were treated whilst the British and French forces were jockeying for ownership of North America, and of course their retaliation isn’t for the faint-hearted either.

My brother-in-law’s ire at a battle lost three centuries ago sparked my curiosity enough to ask for this book. I expected a blow-by-blow account of the battle. I got much, much more than I bargained for – a much broader appreciation of a formative period in world history. I shall have to buy my brother-in-law a copy; I’m keeping mine!

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Review – THE GREEN COUNT

This review first appeared on the Historical Novel Society’s website.

Christian Cameron, Orion Books, 2017,, pb, 475pp, 9781409172796
This book continues the tale of William Gold, whom we first meet in The Ill-made Knight and The Long Sword. To date, Will’s career has taken him from impoverished squire, to being knighted on the field of battle; this story picks up in Cyprus in 1365.

I love historical fiction most when it’s nuanced – when the author assumes I know enough about the period to catch allusions to contemporary politics; when you are immersed in the landscape; and when the characters are rounded human beings with faults as well as virtues. It also helps – at least in an action story – when weapons are accurate and used correctly.

Christian Cameron has achieved all of this and more. I know the English 14thC, but this book ranges widely across the Mediterranean, taking us from Jerusalem to the Greek Islands, in the company of Knights of St John, priests, Mongols, slaves, noblemen, Islamic scholars, and more; the entire riotous spectrum of mediaeval life, portrayed in  technicolour and smellovision. I also learnt one or two new sword fighting techniques!

Sir William Gold is a thoroughly likeable man, who grows from an impoverished lone knight to the leader of a powerful company of men (not to mention gaining a wife and step-family), without losing the self-deprecating charm that makes him such a pleasure to spend time with.

Whether you’re after a roistering action book, a masterly portrayal of 14thC European and Asian realpolitik, or to admire a storyteller at the height of their powers – you will enjoy this book.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Review – THE TRAITOR’S NICHE

This review first appeared on the Historical Novel Society’s website.

Ismail Kadare (Translator, John Hodgson), Harvill Secker, 2017, hb, 199pp, 9781846558450

Well. I got the distinct impression that this book went woosh! over my head. I have the nasty suspicion that, in the best tradition of European literary satire, I am missing whole realms of political commentary; but it was intriguing as a story.

The book opens at the height of the Ottoman Empire. We are in a square in the ancient Imperial capital; and in this square, in the stonework of the Cannon Gate, has been carved a niche. In this niche is a severed head. The book revolves around the inhabitants of the niche – the current, historical, and potential occupants, plus Abdullah and the Doctor, the civil servants charged with maintaining the integrity of the grisly relics, and the corrupt courier whose job it is to speed newly decapitated heads to their care.

Each of the vignettes are sympathetically done. The baroque madness of the Ottoman bureaucracy is beautifully drawn, and the characters are sketched well. Each time you find yourself hoping against hope that you aren’t meeting the next occupant of the niche. But I missed a narrative thread; the niche itself wasn’t enough of a unifying theme. I wanted something more – to know what brought each person to the point where the threat of the niche, or the consequences of a beheading, transformed their stories. As I say, though; I felt throughout that I was missing something, so don’t take my word for it!

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Review – For The Most Beautiful

For The Most Beautiful

by Emily Hauser

This review first appeared on the Historical Novel Society’s review pages.

Think of the tale of Troy. What names can you remember? Active men; Achilles. Paris. Passive women – Helen, only remembered for being beautiful; Cassandra being laughed at for her unbelievable prophesies. In “For The Most Beautiful”, Emily Hauser has told the story of two unlikely heroes, women whose voices have been lost. Krisayis, daughter of the Trojans’ High Priest, and Briseis, princess of Pedasus, start off near the top of the hierarchy, but both are enslaved by the Greeks. Their struggles in the face of that disaster, and the need to preserve the essence of Troy, form the core of the book. Looking down from the clouds is the panoply of gods – with their own desires and agendas, and with two of the female gods NOT chosen as “most beautiful”…

If I hadn’t been reading a review copy, I might have abandoned it. The early vacuousness of its protagonists, and shallowness of the gods, really irritated me. But I persevered, and gradually grew to like, and then admire, the girls – very much. I got to the end of the book, and immediately read it again, this time appreciating the superb character arcs that Ms Hauser has drawn. The gods hadn’t changed, but then that is the nature of gods.

This is a fascinating picture of life in Bronze Age Troy, from the point of view of women at both the top and bottom of society. Ms Hauser’s knowledge of, and respect for, the period shines through. Read it twice. You won’t regret it.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Review – STITCHES IN TIME

STITCHES IN TIME – The Story of the Clothes We Wear

Lucy Adlington, Random House, 2015, £16.99, hb, 410pp, 9781847947260

This review first appeared on the Historical Novel Society’s review pages

The author’s deep scholarship is very evident, as is her joy in clothing. A collection of anecdotes talking about an item of apparel per chapter, this book could have been entertaining froth; but it’s much, much more.

She focusses on the last 200 years, but ranges from prehistory onwards, describing the evolution of items in a very engaging manner. The book is illustrated with black and white sketches and photos, and has a colour centerfold.

From knicker elastic to hats, topics are covered in detail. My favourite timeline takes the pocket from a fold in a Roman toga to today’s handbag, covering chatelaines, a man’s “posturing pocket” (not what you might think), and the 18thC “indispensable” on the way; each journey has similar intriguing details.

I learned something new from every chapter, and was thoroughly entertained whilst doing so; there’s articles of interest here for everyone. The book has an extensive bibliography and source reference material, making it a good springboard for research. An excellent book for either the fashionista or the historical novelist in you…

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Review – Irvine Stone’s “The Agony and the Ecstacy”

The Agony and the EcstasyThe Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book starts off slow, and the plot continues at this pace – it’s a pretty straightforward recounting of the major events in Michelangelo’s life, with some occasionally wooden reactions to them.
What makes this book shine – in fact, what makes it unmissably stellar – is the lyrical, beautiful descriptions of both the process of sculpting, and Michelangelo’s sculptures and paintings themselves. You learn how difficult it is to mine marble, how to transport it, how to choose a piece without inclusions by watching the sunrise through it. Then Michelangelo picks up his hammers and chisels – made afresh for each sculpture – and Irving Stone takes you inside the mind of the master, so that you feel you understand the exact places to carve away the snowy grain of the marble to achieve the desired effect, and you taste the marble dust at the back of your own throat.
Stone’s bibliography leaves you in no doubt that he knew what he was talking about, and there is a surprising body of Michelangelo’s writings in existence. I think that reading this book is about as close as you’re likely to get to one of the greatest creative minds who ever lived, and this book will be coming with me when I go to Florence. It has made me yearn to see these great sculptures and frescos, which Stone describes with such authority and conviction.

View all my reviews

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized