Adventures in Bookland: Arms and Armour of Late Medieval Europe by Robert Woosnam-Savage

December 11th, 2017

There’s a lot of myths about the medieval world, from flat earthers to primae noctis, so not least among this slim volume’s many accomplishments is the way Woosnam-Savage definitively lays to rest that old canard that a knight had to be winched up on to his horse. Not only does he prove it’s not true but the author even tracks down where it was first mooted as well as who inserted the idea into the popular imagination. First, the proof. A little thought is enough to suggest how risible the idea is, for if it were true, an unhorsed knight on the battlefield would be as helpless as an upturned tortoise and just as easy to dispatch. But Woosnam-Savage then goes on to point out how well the weight of full armour, evenly spread over the body, compares to the kit that modern-day soldiers have to lug around, mostly on their backs. Indeed, a recent demonstration pitted two men, one dressed in armour, the other carrying battle kit, against each other over an assault course, which the modern-day knight won easily. Another of the book’s strengths is the author’s familiarity with the source material. So as further proof of the mobility of armour, he quotes from the chronicle of Jean Boucicaut, Marshall of France, who would vault on to his horse, somersault and dance, all while wearing full armour. To close his case, Woosnam-Savage cites a 15th-century chronicle that recorded a fully armoured man at arms who fell into the River Moselle yet still managed to reach the bank without drowning.

The emphasis of the book is on the practical aspects of medieval arms and armour. In that, it would make an excellent companion volume to another recent book I reviewed recently. How to Read European Armor, which focused on armour as an expression of power and the art of the armourer. Woosnam-Savage is much more concerned with arms and armour as they were used practically, in war, tournies and even hunting. As such, he follows the evolution of weapons and defence through the 14th and 15th centuries, as the knight reached his shining apotheosis, only to be rendered obsolete by the improvement in gunpowder weapons.

The study of medieval military technology, like all such specialised fields of inquiry, can be overpoweringly detailed and technical, as well as riven by scholarly disputes over what might seem trivial issues. Woosnam-Savage, writing for the newcomer to the field, has produced a clear, concise and, as near as possible in 96 pages, complete account of how medieval warriors, from knights through to bowmen, armed and protected themselves upon the battlefield, with just enough telling detail to bring the subject to vivid life. One knight, during the siege of Pontevedra (1397) fought on, though a crossbow had pierced his nostrils, and in the press of men it was hit with a shield and driven further into his head. Yet Don Pero Niño survived. Medieval knights were tough on the inside as well as the outside.

Oh, and it was Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film, Henry V, that popularised the idea of knights being winched onto their horses.


Adventures in Bookland: The Far Shore by Nick Brown

December 4th, 2017

This is number four in Nick Brown’s Agent of Rome series and it shows a continuing improvement and deepening in the author’s work. The key to the series is the complicated relationship between its three main protagonists: Cassius Corbulo, a young Roman patrician and agent of Imperial Security; Indavara, an ex-gladiator who has lost his memory of life before the arena but who is now his bodyguard; and Simo, Cassius’s slave. Their unfolding relationship, and the ramifications of the very unequal levels of power each man has, is played out against an exciting plot – but the plot is only exciting because the reader had become deeply invested in these three men, and wants to know how things turn out for them. Excellent.

Adventures in Bookland: City of Fortune by Roger Crowley

December 3rd, 2017

Most of the places where we live are obstinately, resolutely earth bound: think of maundering suburbs, the plate-glass high rises of financial centres, the re-gentrified areas of inner cities. None of these suggest anything other than themselves: places where people live, sealed off from heaven above and oblivious of hell below. But there are a few places where the places of this world are suggestive of and open to the worlds above and below. Most of these are natural places, thin places where the boundaries are ill defined, but there are a few that are man made, and none more so than the city that is the subject of this wonderful history: Venice.

Even now, living off its beauty, with most Venetians reduced to living on the mainland in Venezia Mestre, Venice is not like anywhere else on earth. It has always been so, as Crowley ably tells in this book. People, outsiders, have always looked at Venice and wondered, how could it exist? A city without land, without anything in the way of natural resources, and yet for centuries it was the node of the Mediterranean, the eye at the centre of a virtual empire that tied together with the invisible thread of trade and money a state that stretched over the shifting miles of sea and penetrated deep into the trade routes that linked Christendom, the Islamic world and beyond. Venice, built on water, lived on money and sold itself as a dream.

Today, the dream lingers, and the wanderer, turning a corner into a quiet piazza or a still canal, can never entirely escape the feeling that the next turn might take him over an invisible boundary and into another Venice, one that still draws to itself all the trades of the unseen worlds, and sends them out again into all the different realms. Ghosts walk quietly alongside the water, heard in the slap of wavelet on quay and the drift of wind over the lagoon. Walk here and you walk among multitudes unseen.

One day, I will go back. I’m not sure if I will return.


Adventures in Bookland: The Imperial Banner by Nick Brown

December 2nd, 2017

As authors, we have a tendency to stand in thrall to those mysterious creatures known as book designers, trotting out in the acknowledgements or emails to the publisher our thanks for the sterling work done by the design team. We do this, (a) because we have no choice, and if we don’t butter up the design department then they really might do something frightful next time round and (b) because if we were any good at coming up with front covers we’d be designers ourselves (and making much better money to boot). Of course, sometimes we are well served by our designers – as, I hasten to add, I have been with my Northumbrian Thrones covers – but sometimes designers do a book or a series no favours at all. In Nick Brown’s case, I think this is true. Look at the above, the cover for book number 2 in his Agent of Rome series. Tell me, seeing it, what it tells you? And then, let me show you the covers of books 1, 3 and 4 in the series:

These covers tell a story to me of some muscle bound centurion whose first recourse to any problem is to whip out his sword and cut people up – the most hackneyed hack and slash version of historical fiction and the male equivalent of the worst sort of chick lit, wish fulfilment in a toga. But the books aren’t like this at all. Cassius Corbulo, the hero, is notably incompetent with a sword, relying on his wits rather than his muscles: Nick Brown also mixes up the genres, stirring in elements of detective fiction, thrillers and chase stories into the mix. None of this you can tell from the above covers. He must have been so relieved when his publisher showed him the cover of book 5 in the series, and then did even better work on the new design with book 6.

These jackets tell far more accurately of the more subtle pleasures to be had beneath their covers. I’m sure Nick Brown was pleased – I certainly would be, with covers like these.

Adventures in Middle-earth: The Fellowship of the Ring by JRR Tolkien

November 26th, 2017

There are some books – most books actually – that pass under the eye as swiftly and with as little mark as the colours on a screen. There are other books, a small number in a lifetime, that mark you indelibly. For me, the book that has marked me probably more than any other is The Lord of the Rings. But it had been many years since I had revisited Middle-earth and I opened the oh-so-familiar book with some trepidation, the sort of fear that might attend meeting again the love of your life after long separation – would the enchantment remain unbroken?

It has. I remember, when I first read The Lord of the Rings, going to sleep each night for six months or more with the prayer that I might wake up in Middle-earth. Many years later, I would still wish to step out of this world and into Arda. If the theology of creation that Tolkien was feeling his way towards proves true, mayhap that shall indeed be possible. For if ever a work of heart and hand might be given the Secret Fire by Eru, and live, then surely it is Middle-earth. As for the Good Professor himself, I believe that, like Niggle the painter, he walks today by the willow meads of Tasarinan, looking towards the distant prospect of mountains towards which the road that goes ever on but that always leads home will take him.

On a more prosaic level, re-reading The Fellowship of the Ring, I was struck by the great part that geography played in the narrative. A modern-day writer would not spend so long telling of walking through landscapes – we have become an even hastier people – but for this reader, the word paintings of Middle-earth were as pure a pleasure as the surface narrative. For this is the tale of a world, in all its complexity, rather than just a telling of heroes.

Sometimes, all that is possible by way of review is gratitude. JRR Tolkien poured heart and soul and mind into Middle-earth. Now, 44 years after his death, we can still visit Middle-earth in heart and soul and mind.

Adventures in Bookland: The Siege by Nick Brown

November 24th, 2017

Having started with number 6 in the Agent of Rome series I’ve gone back to the beginning and the first posting for a young and callow Cassius Corbulo. Two thirds of the elements that will make this a great series are already there: Cassius himself and his slave Simo, ever punctilious for his master yet careful to conserve the small dignity afforded to him as a slave in Imperial Rome. What’s missing in this first book is the third member of the team, the bodyguard Indavara, who makes his debut in the next novel. However, even without him, this book serves to introduce an unusual, for historical fiction, hero and his even more unusual slave. Cassius is not much good with a sword, relying on his brain rather than muscles, although he does match up with the male wish fulfillment element of historical fiction in that he is unfeasibly handsome and attractive to women. Simo is, potentially, an even more interesting character; I hope Brown will look more deeply into how a slave might attempt dignity when he is, literally, property. The story itself rips along. As soon as I’d finished The Siege I started on The Imperial Banner, the next in the series.

Adventures in Bookland: Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

November 24th, 2017

A husband loses his wife, two boys lose their mother – and they get crow in return. No, really. Crow. With a capital C. Crow moves in with them, the feathered, cawing, butcher-beaked bird of scavenge, the haunter of battlefields and rubbish tips and, in this brief but memorable prose poem, Crow puts them back together again. As the boys say, in the most moving of many moving lines in the book:

We miss our Mum, we love our Dad, we wave at crows.

It’s not that weird.


In Book With Bradbury

November 16th, 2017

How cool is this – I’m in a book with Ray Bradbury! The book is Ex Libris: Stories of Librarians, Libraries & Lore, and my contribution is called ‘The Last Librarian: Or A Short Account of the End of the World. Ray – we’re on first-name terms now we’ve shared a book – Ray’s contribution is called ‘Exchange’ and there, he’s already shown why he’s a better writer than me: economy. A one-word title as opposed to 12 words. If you want to read the stories, the book is available on Amazon and through all good book sellers.

Sons Grow, Fathers Don’t (except in circumference)

November 9th, 2017

He must increase but I must decrease.

That moment of realisation that things really have changed: when your son passes on his out-grown clothes – to you! My sock drawer has now been filled with all the socks my 16-year-old son, Theo, has got too big to wear.

Adventures in Bookland: A Treasury of Ghazali by Mustafa Abu Sway

November 3rd, 2017

The problem with the thought of Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ghazali (to give him his full name) is that it is too deep and too broad for our shallow times. In the age of Twitter, the work of the greatest thinker in Islamic history is almost unknown outside the small band of scholars devoted to him: many Muslims have never even heard of him. But Al-Ghazali lived at a time when the Muslim world faced challenges which bear comparison with the problems the Muslim world face today: it was a fractured world, the early Muslim unity having shattered into a small number of competing power centres, and Islamic culture was struggling to respond to and assimilate the products of Greek learning that its military expansion had brought into its orbit. It was Ghazali, through his life and thought, who formulated the Muslim response to Greek learning, and helped to establish the social solidarity in the face of rulers of varying degrees of worthiness that went on to characterise Muslim populations throughout the world. And yet, ask an ordinary Muslim about him, and most will respond with blank faces.

So Kube’s new book is a welcome attempt to redress this situation. Accepting that Ghazali’s vast corpus of work is too much for most people to engage with, they have published a lovingly presented, slim volume of Ghazali’s thought, taking short extracts from his work ranging from raising children in a faith to the encounter with God, with explanatory commentary by Professor Abu Sway of Al-Quds University. The real meat, though, are in these limpid extracts from Ghazali: there is more in a sentence by him than in most books published today about Islam. So, it is to be hoped that this little book will help provoke a revival in the knowledge and study of Al-Ghazali among today’s Muslims, for his wisdom is required today more than ever.