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Archive for the ‘Book review’ Category

Adventures in Bookland: Viking Fire by Justin Hill

Sunday, July 8th, 2018

When I read Shieldwall I suspected it. Now, having finished Viking Fire, the second in Justin Hill’s Conquest trilogy, I know it: he’s the best of us. Darn it. In Viking Fire, it’s not just that he reveals a complete mastery of narrative devices (Shieldwall is third person with multiple points of view), for Viking Fire is, mostly, told in the first-person of Harald Hardrada, nor that he tells an extraordinarily rich and involving story (Harald’s life is such that it would require incompetence on the level of genius to make it uninteresting). No, the key facet of Hill’s writing that sets him over and above the usual hack-n-slash merchant of Dark Age historical fiction is his mastery of language. I took four months over the reading of this story not because it was uninvolving and uninteresting, but because I wanted to linger over it.

Shieldwall, set in England during the reign of Aethelred the Unready, is written with the beat of Old English poetry running through its rhythms: the lines lengthening and shortening in keeping with the pace of the story, but all held to together by the alliterative beat and the four-stress pattern of Old English verse. Not only that, but the word choice is careful and precise, eschewing later imported loan words for those words in modern English that can be traced back to Old English. So, unlike most historical fiction, the language Hill used in Shieldwall underscores, underlies and deepens the story, rather than being, albeit unconsciously, at odds with it (as often happens with writers less sensitive to these linguistic echoes).

Now, with Viking Fire, Hill’s hero is a Viking, a Norwegian, whose life takes him from the fjords of the north, through Rus, to the great city, Constantinople, and the warm sea at the world’s heart. In keeping with the protagonist and the time and places in which he lives, the language Hill uses has changed: the rhythm is different, matching that of the prose sagas that have come down to us from the northlands, and with echoes of the hugely complex, percussive rhythms of the skalds, the court poets and PR men of the Viking kingdoms. But when Harald takes employment under the Emperors and sails, with his crew of Northmen, the Mediterranean, then there enters the story hints of the rhythmic phrasing of Homer and even, in the more languorous passages where these northern warriors settle down under the southern sun with wine and good food and women, something of the ease and flow of Ovid. There’s not many writers who can manage this precision of language, and no one else working in this genre today.

Darn it, he really is the best of us.

Adventures in Bookland: Gauntathon!

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2018


I’ve been writing hard these past couple of months and nothing goes better with nose to the keyboard red eye than a good dose of blood and carnage in the 40th millennium. And no one does this better than Dan the Man. How he manages to spin the variations on death in the way he does I regard as nothing less than miraculous – which is also a theme to Sabbat Martyr in particular. It’s an aspect of the Warhammer 40k universe that I particularly enjoy: who would expect a tabletop battlegame to take seriously mankind’s oldest and deepest impulses in a way that few other explorers of the future do (Star Trek and Dr Who, I’m looking at you). Marvellous. Thank you, Mr Abnett – and would you mind finishing off the Bequin trilogy and completing the Sabbat Worlds crusade? Please don’t go George R.R. Martin on us!

Adventures in Bookland: The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag by Robert A. Heinlein

Saturday, June 23rd, 2018

I grew up reading Heinlein’s juveniles and I’m grateful for that as both a reader and, now, a writer. As a reader, and a young reader at that, they were fast, convincing and did not condescend at all: I really thought that, under the right circumstances and with enough application and smarts on my part, I too should be able to:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

Of course, the problem with that quote, which is the underlying philosophy of all the characters in his juveniles, is that it comes from his book Time Enough For Love, when, frankly, Heinlein had completely fallen off his typewriter and disappeared up his own verbiage as some sort of free-love guru who liked big guns and springy nipples. The later books, when Heinlein’s fame and an overly permissive editor allowed him to write for as long as he wanted, are, quite simply, embarrassingly bad. Imagine the bloat of the later Harry Potter novels but with bad sex and women who only ever say, ‘Yes.’ But then… there are the early novels, the juveniles such as Have Space Suit, Will Travel, Starman Jones and Space Cadet, not to mention The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and I remember just how good he was. If only, if only, if only Stranger in a Strange Land hadn’t been such a success. But with the sex and philosophising pulling in the punters, Heinlein could abandon the discipline of telling a story for a soapbox.

The stories in The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag are certainly not juveniles, but they belong to the most brilliantly productive and imaginative phase of his career, although All You Zombies does foreshadow Heinlein’s later bizarre mother fixation, even if you can argue that he’s here working through the logical possibilities of time travel and, in his marvellous phrase, paradoctoring a paradox. The titular story has remained with me for many many years: the final images of a world apparently real but actually simply fog, and of not knowing whether you are a creature of that fog, lodged themselve so deeply into my teenage brain that, rereading the book now, they still freeze me. Highly recommended.

Adventures in Bookland: Instant Expert: Jesus by Nick Page

Saturday, June 23rd, 2018

It’s not easy being an instant expert on the most written about – indeed, the single most influential – person in history. Nick Page does sterling work towards the aim, and does go some way towards conveying just what a revolutionary figure Jesus was, but there are of course limits to what can be accomplished in 96 pages. Within these limitations, and from a somewhat Protestant perspective, this succeeds really rather well. Good for people who think they know something about Jesus through growing up in an ostensibly Christian society, but really don’t.

Adventures in Bookland: Go In and Sink! by Douglas Reeman

Tuesday, June 19th, 2018


It is a truth universally acknowledged that convalescence reading should flow as smoothly past the eye and into the imagination as sunrise: no literary tricks and only the easiest classics, but more probably a good dose of your favourite guilty-pleasure genre. In my case, that would usually be military science fiction but, on this occasion, recovering from a bad bout of flu, I couldn’t find the requisite book cover featuring big blokes with blasters blasting bug-eyed aliens, so I thought I’d try out the World War II equivalent. I’m glad I did. I hadn’t got far into the book before I knew that I was in safe hands with Douglas Reeman. His hero was suitably heroic, with sufficient complexity to make him interesting but not so much complexity that he became demanding, the action was taut, well written and with just enough tension, the minor characters sufficiently well drawn to command passing regret when they met their end in service of the story. All in all, the perfect recuperation reading for fans of military fiction.

 

Adventures in Bookland: Collected Ghost Stories by M.R. James

Monday, June 18th, 2018

Not so long ago, I finished Night Terrors by E.F. Benson so M.R. James’s Collected Ghost Stories makes for an interesting comparison and one, if I’m honest and take off my cap labelled ‘literary snob’, for my part comes down in favour of E.F. Benson. Now, I know James’s stories are seminal, the fountainhead of 20th-century literature’s take on the supernatural, and they are, it’s true, very good. But I must admit a preference for Benson, despite the well-worn framework into which Benson fits most of his stories. There’s a smell of autumn, of the fading of things and places, to Benson’s work that is less present in James’s stories, where it is still summer, although even there, the glories of May and June are past and the prospect is only of decline. But the decline has not yet begun, whereas in Benson’s tales, the leaves have turned and some trees are already bare. Best of all, read both books, one after the other, and compare their differing moods.

Adventures in Bookland: The King of Athelney by Alfred Duggan

Thursday, May 31st, 2018

Oh, goodie, I thought: a book about my favourite king by one of my favourite writers of historical fiction. At long last, I’ll get to read Alfred done right. It’s been my misfortune, and ours as a nation, that our greatest king has been ill-served by writers, film makers, indeed everyone who has tried to deal with his story as art. Perhaps the most thorough going attempt in recent times, is Bernard Cornwell’s series about Uhtred, and the spin-off BBC series The Last Kingdom, but much as I love Cornwell’s writing, I must admit I can’t stand his portrayal of Alfred. Reading it, you’re hard put to see why anyone would have followed such a pusillaminous, pious hypochondriac. So, turning to Duggan, I had high hopes. Unfortunately, they were dashed. It’s true, his Alfred is not timid or hypochondriac, but I think I can confidently say that the country was not brought back from the brink of extinction by the captain of the sixth form first XI. That is how Duggan portrays Alfred. Indeed, I could imagine his Alfred slaying Danes while singing the hymn of a minor public school; something like this.

On boys on, we’re in the game of life boys,
We’ll fight it with the heartiest good will.
We’ll fight for every inch,
Not a thing will make us flinch
And we’ll play up for the honour of the school.

So, I’ve still yet to read an adequate, let alone a good, portrayal of Alfred, our greatest king. If you know of one, please tell, I’d love to read it.

Adventures in Bookland: St Patrick: His Confession and Other Works translated by Neil O’Donoghue

Thursday, May 31st, 2018

For the whole of the fifth century in Britain and Ireland, we have precisely one contemporary writer: Patricius. From the historian’s point of view, it’s therefore a shame that he didn’t write a detailed history of his times, this most momentous century when Britain went from being divided between Empire and Caledonians, to a congerie of competing kingdoms of Britons, Romano-Britons, Gaels, Picts, Angles, Saxons, Jutes and no doubt more besides. But from Patrick’s point of view, as he makes clear in his Confessions, he had more important work to do. Born in Britain, Patricius was taken by the slave traders as a boy and sold to Ireland, where he lived as a shepherd. It was a hard life, but one that forged his extraordinarily intimate life in God. Prayer, in sun and rain, in wind and calm, under cloud and under stars, formed him, and God called him forth. These are Patrick’s memories, written forth in answer to an attempt to discredit him and his work. For having brought him from Ireland, God sent him back again: the first man, at least in the west, to break the mental and cultural boundary between Rome and beyond, between civilisation and barbarian, beyond the world and what lay beyond the end of the world. Because Patrick did that: he went beyond the world’s ending and found a world there and made it anew. This is the most personal and moving of testimonies, by a man who placed his entire life at the service of the people of Ireland. For a thousand years and more, that sacrifice held good. Would that it will again.

Adventures in Bookland: War at the Edge of the World by Ian James Ross

Friday, May 18th, 2018

Oh, goodie, I thought: a historical novel set in the twilight of empire, just at the cusp of the adoption of Christianity as the state religion, and the series starts on the Wall and heads north. If you’re reading this review, you probably already know that I have a particular interest in this part of the world, having written novels and non-fiction about Northumbria. This is set three centuries earlier, but it’s a landscape and place I love. What’s more, it’s the first in a series, following a Roman centurion, Aurelius Castus, as he makes his way in this changing world, caught up in the wake of Constantine, who will be emperor but at this point is the up-and-coming son of Constantius Chlorus, Augustus of the Western Empire in the tetrarchic system set up by Diocletian. Just up my street.

Not really, I’m afraid. The book is well written, the story takes many turns, most unexpected, but the thought of ploughing through any more books in the dour company of Aurelius Castus is just too much to bear. I know there’s a tendency in male historical fiction for protagonists to be dark and brooding, but it does get a bit wearing on the reader. I could, maybe, have put up with more of Aurelius’ stoic indifference to pretty well everything if he hadn’t actually been so rubbish at what he’s supposed to do (spoilers ahead): when I read what is basically male wish-fulfillment fantasy (big bloke with sword who does the right thing, gets the woman, gets injured but stoically shoulders on through), and given that this is wish-fulfillment fantasy, I require at base a hero who actually achieves the quest by the end of the book. OK, there will be setbacks, a sidekick or two might be killed along the way, maybe even his lady love murdered despite his best efforts (this providing an efficient character engine for the rest of the book and series), but the hero has got to be basically competent. Aurelius Castus, though, loses his command, in its entirety, fails to save the man he’d sworn to save and basically makes a pig’s ear of things for most of the book. Now, I grant that this sets the book apart from the usual run of ridiculous historical fiction, where the hero mows down legions with just a few decorative injuries along the way, but Aurelius is, for me, just too damn dull to persevere with. A pity, as the writing is good, and the period interesting. If you’re thinking of reading it, I would say give it a go: this is a particularly subjective review. Some characters I simply don’t engage with, through no fault of the author, and Aurelius is one of them.

Adventures in Bookland: The Guns of Tanith by Dan Abnett

Monday, April 30th, 2018


Number five in the Gaunt’s Ghosts series of Warhammer 40k military sci-fi – and they start dying. Darn it, Dan. Why do you have to be such a good writer that when you start killing off the characters we’ve followed for the previous four books, it really hurts? I suppose it wouldn’t really count as military sci-fi if people didn’t get killed, and I reluctantly admit that the people killed will sometimes include main characters but I’ll be gosh darned if I agree to Abnett killing off the ones I like.

Right, it’s time for some reader empowerment. Are you with me? I say that writers of military sci-fi, at least the really good ones like Dan Abnett, agree to subscribe to the new code of conduct to safeguard their readers: they are only allowed to kill off main characters after putting the death to a plurality of their readers. Death is only allowed when the readers okay it.

There, that solves it. Over to you now, Dan. Will you sign up?