Adventures in Bookland: The Sandman by E.T.A. Hoffman

July 20th, 2018

Superbly creepy while, by modern sensibilities, occasionally hysterically overwrought story. Plus, being only 64 pages long, it’s a brilliant way to catch up on the Goodreads reading challenge if you’re falling behind schedule!


Adventures in Bookland: The Infinity Gauntlet by Jim Starlin

July 20th, 2018

Back in the now dim and distant days of the 1970s, I used to haunt the shelves of the local newsagents, searching for the newest batch of Marvel Comics to be slipped in between copies of the more common British comics such The Beano and The Dandy. It’s probably hard to believe now, in these days of instant availability, but it was really difficult then to find these comics. Among the many local newsagents – there were a lot more them then – only a few ever sold Marvel comics and even with these, it was a hit and miss affair, with copies of my favourite titles appearing some months and then nothing the next: which was particularly agonising if I was teetering on the edge of the usual comic-book cliff hanger. I started with the obvious ones: Spider-man, the Fantastic Four, the Mighty Thor. But then, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had a passing moment of brain madness and introduced the Silver Surfer. I was hooked (for on the written page, I was a complete fan of science fiction, so this blending of comics and SF was perfect for me). But while Lee and Kirby launched comics into space, it was Jim Starlin who made them cosmic. I clearly remember this cover:

Starlin reimagined Warlock, making him a cosmic messiah/schizophrenic, and wrote mind-bending stories about the nature of reality. Just up my star chart! So it was great to revisit Adam Warlock, in a set of stories that I had never read, to find him and his creator as brilliantly imaginative as ever. But what I think I particularly appreciated on this reading was the artwork. I’d forgotten how good it was: there’s something particularly appealing about the cosmic characters with which Starlin populates the story. Completely bonkers – in this version, Thanos murders half the Universe because he wants Death (a superbly disdainful beauty) to love him – but great fun.


Cover Reveal: Conrad Monk and the Great Heathen Army

July 20th, 2018

Here it is, the cover for my new book, Conrad Monk and the Great Heathen Army. What do you think?

It’s due out on 31 August but if you can’t wait until then advance copies are available on Net Galley here.

Adventures in Bookland: Viking Fire by Justin Hill

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!

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

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

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.

In Search of England’s Lost Wildernesses

June 21st, 2018

This article first appeared in The Great Outdoors magazine. I like it and, to save it from complete obscurity, here it is for my handful of faithful blog readers. I hope you enjoy it! I’ve included some of the photos I took for the article, but my camera failed for the first walk, to the Thames marshes near Fobbing, so I’ve included a couple of Wikipedia images in its place. As a writer who takes photos for articles, my only advice is to get there early to catch the dawn light and, possible in this digital age, take hundreds of shots. Some of them will turn out all right!

In search of England’s lost wildernesses

Confession time. I love mountains, the wild high places this magazine is dedicated to, but it’s the flatlands – marshes, fens, plains, steppes – that fascinate me, exerting a sort of appalled, rubbernecking attraction. There’s something about the way I can walk for hours and then stop and look around and realise that I haven’t got anywhere; how the sun pins the walker to the ground like a sadistic lepidopterist; the way the world itself seems to roll beneath your feet as if each stride is turning the globe.

I would have chalked this all up to personal peculiarity if it had not been for a series of discoveries while writing and researching my books. It turns out that, for almost all our history, the true wildernesses of England, the places people whispered of in fire-lit tales as the refuge of monsters and the haunt of bandits, were not mountains and moors, but marshes and meres. When Alfred the Great fled Guthrum’s surprise attack on Twelfth Night, he made his way through the winter landscape to the ‘fen-fastnesses’ of Athelney, the Isle of Princes, an island surrounded by the shifting waterways of the Somerset Levels. After William the Bastard had cut down Harold at Hastings and harrowed the north, the last defiance against the Normans came out of Fenland. Smugglers and bandits, radicals and revolutionaries have all emerged from or taken refuge in England’s shifting, uncertain wildernesses, disappearing into legend among the rushes and reeds. Today, those seeking escape from civilisation and its discontents head north and west, to where the geology of Britain has largely confined our hills and mountains. But, once, wildness was wet, not high.

So, I set out to explore what remains of England’s lost wildernesses. But, first, I had to find them.

I’m a Londoner: child of immigrants, born and raised in the Great Wen. The city is a creation of the river, the ‘strong brown god … unhonoured, unpropitiated … but waiting, watching, and waiting’, and the Thames marshes were the first lost wilderness I went in search of. The Romans built their bridge at the first bridgeable point of the Thames, joining the gravel pile of Ludgate Hill to the salt marshings of Southwark. Downriver, the river carved brown channels through a flood landscape, until generations of hydro engineers forced it, sullenly, into channels. The gateway to Empire, the Thames became the busiest, richest thoroughfare on earth, a honeypot of sail and steam, with settlements perched upon high, dry ground, all the way to the sea.

The marshes of the Thames

By the village of Fobbing, near the candy-coloured delights of Canvey Island, the land steeps down to a flat, ridged plain, scored with creeks and channels; a five-thousand-acre remnant of the great Thames marshes that walked along the river to the sea. Arriving at dawn just after the longest day of the year, I was greeted with a sight that was slightly less apocalyptic than I’d hoped for. Yes, the sun in its rising stained the river a pleasing shade of crimson, but where were the columns of fire? Last time I’d been this way, the oil refineries by the river were sending up great gouts of flame from ranks of flare stacks, as if greeting the sun in kind. But today, the refineries were cold, lifeless. I learned later that they had gone into receivership; the last shut down in 2013 – apparently even oil mega corporations can go belly up.

Fifteen minutes later I was thoroughly lost. This, I decided, staring at a hugely unhelpful OS map, was ridiculous. I was only just outside the M25, smack in the middle of the most densely populated area of the most densely populated country in Europe (England having overtaken the Low Countries), and I was lost. But lost I was, and as morning mist rose up to cover my legs, and drown any appreciable landmarks in shifting grey, I caught a first, halting sense of the shifting, subtle nature of these places, which are neither land nor water, but phase from one state to the other; as shapes swirled thickly in the mist, I began to catch some of the fear that stalks the accounts of fens and marshes in English tales and legends. But then the shapes resolved into cattle, as surprised to see me as I was to see them, and the rising sun began to burn off the mist.

By Glyn Baker, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9150043

After so long walking on level ground, the climb back up to Fobbing proved surprisingly difficult for muscles trained into the horizontal. In the village, outside the White Lion pub, I saw a sign commemorating the villagers who had risen in revolt against the imposition of a swingeing poll tax – but this revolt took place in the 1380s, not the 1980s. The people of Fobbing lit the match that set off the Peasants’ Revolt; John Ball, the hedge priest whose sermons (‘when Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’) on the injustices of the feudal system provided the spiritual justification for the revolt lived in Norfolk and Essex before moving to Kent; John Wrawe raised the men of Essex and stirred revolution in Cambridgeshire.

By ClemRutter – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2104727

As I walked the flatlands and marshlands of England, I found myself also following a trail of religious and political radicalism – it almost seemed that the flatter the landscape the more revolutionary the ideas it spawned.

The island of the marshes

There are few areas flatter than Lincolnshire. This was once the marsh kingdom of Lindsey, one of the small realms that grew up in the post-Roman splintering of Britain, a domain created by its geography for the great fenlands of Cambridgeshire formed its southern limit, and the Humber estuary its northern edge, while the rivers Witham and Trent all but cut it off from the country to the west. Lindsey, ‘the island of Lincoln’, has the cathedral as its peak, but other islands rose from the surrounding seas of marsh and reed, notably the Isle of Axholme. That was where I went next in my search for England’s lost wildernesses.

Trent, the name of one of the two great rivers that drain into the Humber Estuary, comes from the Brythonic word ‘Trisanton’, which means ‘trespasser’. A better description for the river could scarce be found, for it is a wilful, unpredictable water, forever flooding the flatlands around its mouth. The Isle of Axholme was an isolated area of raised ground above the surrounding marshland, and the site of the first great battle over the use and reclamation of fenland. In 1626, King Charles I sold Hatfield Chase, a huge area of peat bog just west of the Isle of Axholme, to a Dutch drainage engineer named Cornelius Vermuyden, who would get to keep for himself one third of the drained land. Only, the king had no authority to sign over the rights of common grazing, which local people depended upon. For where outsiders looked upon Hatfield Chase and saw it as ‘evil in winter, grievous in summer and never good’, the people who made their living around and upon the marshlands understood them well, exploiting them for lush pasture in high summer when other fields were bare, fishing and fowling, harvesting hemp for sails and rope, and cutting peat. But the marshmen were viewed with no less suspicion than their land: ‘Fenmen, disgusting representations of ignorance and indecency!’ They may not have been educated, but the people of Axholme could work out what the drainage ditches Vermuyden was digging through Hatfield Chase meant and they ‘came unto the workmen and beat and terrified them, threatening to kill them, if they would not leave their work’. The Battle for the Bogs had begun.

It continued for the best part of the next three centuries, the rich and powerful gradually nibbling away at the marshland and taking it under their control, until the original 880 square miles of marsh in the Humberhead Levels was reduced to the peat bogs of Thorne Waste and Hatfield Moor, which Fisons continued to strip mine. It was only in 2002 that the remaining peat bogs were saved.

Arriving at dawn, and pausing to take photos, a cloud of insects descended and I was immediately reminded that the first, and greatest, defender of the marsh was the mosquito and the diseases it carried. Ague – malaria – the sweating sickness of marsh and fen had done much to create the miasma of fear that surrounded England’s wildernesses – for after all, a true wilderness must have the potential to kill the visitor.

‘Beware of adders.’ The signs, helpfully posted at intervals, showed there were other possibly lethal inhabitants of the Moor. Sadly, any snake sunning itself in the early morning light heard me long before I saw it, and slid quietly away, but the birds were not nearly so bashful, serenading me throughout in the most full-throated manner I’ve heard outside a rainforest. The patchwork of ponds, bogs, lakes, woods, scrub and stripped clear peat make for as varied a series of habitats as can be found in Britain today.

It was a dislocating place, caught between different places and times, and I, more suspended than most, was held in remembrance of King Edwin of Northumbria, High King of Britain, who fought his final battle here, amid the meres. Thinking of the men slain thirteen hundred years before, I emerged on to the stripped slabs of the Moor, where the industrial scrapers of Fisons and others pared the peat from the land, leaving a landscape that’s as near to the Western Front as anything I’ve seen. Walking out into the wastes, water lying in sheet silver either side of the ridges, I was in as lonely a place as there is in England.

Perhaps the inmates of HMP Lindholme, the double wire, razor-topped fences of which run alongside the western edge of Hatfield Moor, take some solace in the grey green banks of alder and willow that wave beyond the prison’s confines. Walking the perimeter fence is a chastening experience, the metallic clangs from the prison works interpsersing with the occasional siren. But a turn into a glimpsed opening, and I was bathed in green, leaf-filtered light, the skeletal finger of a bog-drowned tree pointing from water to sky. Leaving the moor – in Old English, the word derives from ‘morass’, again showing how our wilderness derives from the wet – I returned to the Isle of Axholme and found that here too, the flatlands had produced a radical re-evaluation of society; for Epworth, a village of the Isle, was the birthplace and early home to John and Charles Wesley, the founders of Methodism. Again, the flatlands were the cradle of radicalism. What would the Fens, greatest of them all, produce?

The Great Level

Driven from Hatfield Chase, bankrupted and imprisoned, Cornelius Vermuyden bounced back. The Fens were the great prize for the land reclaimers, and Vermuyden, with his Dutch expertise, was their chosen champion. But the locals fought back, destroying sluices and breaking dams. Insurrection was in the air, and the commoners found a champion in a local farmer, a ‘Mr Cromwll of Ely’. This farmer ensured that their complaints against the commandeering of the commons was included in the Grand Remonstrance presented to King Charles I in 1641.

But in a betrayal that seems as great as the remonstrance, once the king was beheaded and the farmer had become Lord Protector, Cromwell instigated the draining of the Great Level, engaging the men of his own New Model Army to guard the work parties. Battle continued through the next two centuries, but it was a one-way process. Charles Kingsley, writing in the 19th century, remembered how ‘dark-green alders, and pale-green reeds, stretched for miles round the broad lagoon … high overhead hung, motionless, hawk beyond hawk, buzzard beyond buzzard, kite beyond kite, as far as eye could see … They are all gone now.’

The largest of all England’s wildernesses, the Great Level, which brought down a king and defied a conqueror, was finally bisected and dissected, its life-giving waters drained, in the 19th and 20th centuries. ‘Ah, well, at least … children will live and not die. For it was a hard place to live in, the old Fen.’

It’s not quite all gone. Wicken Fen is the oldest site in the care of the National Trust, some 900 acres of fen, part of which has never been drained. The Trust plans to extend this to 10,000 acres, stretching as far as Cambridge, by the end of the century. I set off to walk from Wicken to the Isle of Ely, Cromwell’s home, following the River Great Ouse. Wicken Fen is a bird watchers’ – and song listeners’ – delight; it resounded with liquid chimmers and churrs. The channels that bisect it would have been easy for the shallow-drafted vessels of the Angles, the Saxons and the Vikings to navigate, enabling them to strike inland, far from the sea.

The river ran north, between over-engineered banks, towards the distant, looming tower of Ely Cathedral. I’d been walking for a while before I realised that the Ouse ran at a higher level than the surrounding fields of carrots and cabbages; it flows between raised embankments for now but should the levee break, the flood would be catastrophic; for the peat of the levels, once drained, has shrunk, lowering the ground surface below river level, below sea level. It was with fantasies of flood running through my imagination that I arrived in Ely and plodded upwards to the exquisite cathedral – our medieval forbears knew better than us how to create an architecture that enhanced a landscape. Cromwell’s old house is now, ignominiously, a tourist office and small museum.

Returning, as twilight fell, along an almost enclosed green lane, a hunting barn owl swooping below the branches nearly flew into me and two playing hares ground to an abrupt halt before making off into the fields.

The Fen was dark when I returned. I, as do we all, enjoy the benefits of modern civilisation but listening to the creak of willow I dreamed of flood, and the return of the waters to the Great Level. In Beowulf, the great Anglo-Saxon epic, the monster Grendel stalks Hrothgar’s hall from his lair in the fens. In England’s national poem, the monster comes from the marsh. I listened, but all I heard was silence.

The writer, George Monbiot, has called for the rewilding of Britain, but he has largely confined this to the hills and jeremiads against sheep, to places far from where we live today. How much more worthwhile would it be to reclaim England’s true lost wildernesses, that mostly lie around and about our centres of population, that we might, once again, have at our doorsteps the great, stinking, shifting levels.

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wilderness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.


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

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

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.