Sunday, 28 July 2013

Blog Interview With Author GILES KRISTIAN

Giles Kristian is becoming a familiar name in historical fiction circles, and it is not only for the reasons you expect.  He writes of course. Is an author with a reputation as solid as any. Has written a three book Viking trilogy called the RAVEN Series, which is about to get the Prequel wand passed over it as Gods of Vengeance batters and carves its way from the authors mind onto paper.
He has also taken on the 1600's and a story set against the English Civil War in his new RIVERS Family Series of which Brothers' Fury is the latest release.

What else is he becoming familiar for then? Well, it is for his love of history! For Giles Kristian is one of those authors who lives and breathes his settings. He gets out of his chair, removes himself from his office, and really puts himself out there. He wants to not only draw inspiration from research, but from life experience as well.
Most recently, that urge to breathe and walk his historical eras saw him stalking the timbers of a replica Viking Long Ship in Norway with fellow esteemed historical fiction author Robert Low.

So not only was it my lucky day to have landed this interview with Giles Kristian and hear him talk about all those wonderful things that we love so much to read and learn about, but we are also able to hear first hand of Giles' experiences on a beautiful replica Long Ship. What was it like? How did it
feel? Was it what he expected?
He has answered all these questions and more in this months Author Interview.  Done to coincide with the August 2013 Group Read of RAVEN: Blood Eye in Ancient & Medieval Historical Fiction Group.
So grab yourself a horn of mead, stir your cauldron, stoke your fires, gather your children, shrug on your wolf pelts and settle in for some moments with Giles Kristian and Medieval Mayhem as we talk of books, histories and sagas and so much more.

Do you think it is important to be as historically accurate as possible in an historical fiction novel?

I think this is the question we historical novelists get asked the most, and yet I still never really know how to answer it. In the past I’ve found myself bristling ever so slightly at this one and feeling somewhat defensive, as if the question’s subtext goes something like this: So, don’t you feel bad about changing history to fit your make-believe story? How very dare you! Or something. Nevertheless, I can see why readers (myself included) want to know the author’s feelings about truth verses story - as though the two are mutually exclusive - in historical fiction. So, how to answer…?

Well, let’s start with this author’s ultimate aim when writing a novel. I am not an historian. I am not an academic. More than either of these two things I am an entertainer. I want my tales to transport people to another time and place after a hard day’s work. I want nothing more than for them to feel as though they are inside the story, for my writing to weave a spell that keeps them turning the pages. I believe the best way to do this, particularly in an historical novel, is to be meticulous when crafting the world my characters inhabit, to let the details conjure that sense of time and place which the reader can smell and all but reach out and touch. To do this I make sure I do my research. And to be frank it can be a huge pain in the arse. The research is at least 50% of the job and probably more. The secret is, of course, to sow these details carefully and lightly and not to be tempted to show the reader how very clever you are and how much you know about, say, the twenty-five or so separate procedures in loading and firing a matchlock musket. As the writer I need to know every one of them, but the reader does not. Not unless they’re having trouble sleeping. If they did want to know this kind of stuff they would be reading a non-fiction book.

I rarely if ever get things wrong intentionally. I might not be averse to conflating historical events slightly if I have no choice, shifting the date of a political incident or skirmish by a matter of days to fit the timescale of my story, but I won’t ‘change history’ as we understand it. But then there’s another issue here. What is the truth? The truth is more often than not simply one person’s very limited view of an event already coloured by their own bias and/or prejudice. The hard-working non-fiction writer piecing it all together (to whom I’m very grateful) for her book has probably chosen to write the book in the first place because of a passion for, and possible bias towards, her subject. For example, Charles Spencer’s Prince Rupert:The Last Cavalier, whilst a brilliant and entertaining study of King Charles I’s nephew and poster boy of the Royalist campaign, is clearly written by a man who respects and likes his subject. Another historian might despise the proud, reckless prince and his book might reflect that. In short there are many versions of history. As a fiction writer my job is not to explain the past but to help the reader to feel the past, to give them an understanding of what it was like to slide 'into another’s clothes until we find what it was to wear them,’ as my fellow author and friend Manda Scott put it recently.
Indeed, of History of Alexandre Dumas said something like;
It is the nail on which I can hang my novels.’ For me though it’s perhaps more than that, it is an intrinsic part of the tale.

So back to the question. Yes, I think it is important to be as historically accurate as possible in an historical fiction novel. But none of it matters at all if your novel is dry, academic and void of texture, and if no one has the inclination to turn the next page.


Who is your favourite historical figure and why? And do you think you will ever write about them, if you already haven't?

One of my favourite historical figures is Hannibal of Carthage.  But David Anthony Durham  (Pride of Carthage) and Ben Kane (Hannibal Series)  beat me to him. Another is Alexander the Great (everyone has beaten me to him) and another is Harald Sigurdsson by-named Hardrada (literally, hard counsel, although perhaps a better translation would be ruthless) who was the king of Norway and whose death at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 marks the end of what we call the Viking Age.

‘So much taller and stronger than most men, and so shrewd that he won the victory wherever he fought, and so rich in gold that no-one had ever seen the like of it.’
Snorri Sturluson– Harald’s saga.

Hardrada is remembered for his ill-fated invasion of England and his last stand at Stamford Bridge, but these events simply mark the end of an incredible life, a great journeying arc of warfare spanning thirty-five years and which must have made Harald Sigurdsson one of the most widely travelled men of his age. What I like about Harald, other than him being some sort of uber Viking (albeit a Christian one) in terms of his wander-lust, his martial prowess and his obvious charisma, is that he had an ambition and never let go of it. 17 years after his first battle, Stiklestad, he became sole ruler of Norway, a prize he had had his eye on for so many years.

I have not written about Hardrada in my novels but many of his exploits inspired my own RAVEN saga. I did though write some lines dedicated to the great man. I wanted these to have the feel of the old sagas and so filled the piece with kennings, which is the old Norse and Anglo Saxon convention of figuratively mentioning something without using the obvious word – a bit like a riddle. For example, some kennings for blood are: battle-sweat, slaughter’s dew, wound-sea. A ship might be a wave-steed or fjord-elk and the sun a sky candle. Pretty evocative aren’t they? If you’re interested, you can read my poem about Harald’s life here:


If you could go back in time where would it be to and who or what would you most like to see in the flesh when you get there and why?
As brutal as it sounds, I’d go back to Senlac Hill on that fateful day of October 14th 1066. On that day England was changed for ever, the old order swept aside to be replaced by a new ruling elite. England’s orientation was turned from a formally Scandinavian one towards one with mainland Europe, affecting our culture and language and establishing this island nation as a player on the European stage. It gave rise to a hybrid English and Norse culture which had an enormous and lasting affect on our language, literature, architecture and law. Perhaps this has always resonated with me partly because I am a half blood myself, having a Norwegian mother and an English father.
The Battle of Hastings itself was the culmination of events in which three great men had played their parts; The English king Harold Godwinson, Duke William II of Normandy and Harald (Hardrada) Sigurdsson (my favourite!). That October saw three great forces collide, Hardrada and Godwinson in turn suffering extraordinary misfortunes which left the Conqueror standing. There are so many ‘what ifs’ about those three weeks leading up to and including the great battle and they are questions I love to ponder over a cold beer. Somewhat more gruesomely, I’d like to witness the battle with my own eyes to know what really happened that day. There is something about a band of huscarls standing with their lord in that shield wall atop that hill, huge Dane Axes in their hands, that I find impossibly alluring. Brave, hard, loyal men doing their duty to the last. Just as Hardrada’s Norsemen had done three weeks earlier at Stamford Bridge. I’d love to meet these three men, though I think all three around one dinner table could spell trouble. But what a night that would be!

You recently did a trip to Norway where you and fellow historical fiction author Robert Low manned the oars of a replica Long Ship.
Did you come away with any new knowledge on travelling by Long Ship and do you think travel that way was faster or slower than expected?

It was the seaworthiness of the Viking ships, together with the Norsemen’s knowledge of navigation and seamanship, which made it possible for them to conquer the ocean. The Vikings’ relationship and understanding of the sea is reflected in the Old Norse language that has about 150 words for waves. Thousands of ships were built in the Viking Age and yet few have been found. In fact only 13 ship burials have been discovered in Northern Europe and these were found in pieces, often with large parts missing. Clearly, this sample is hardly representative of what the Vikings achieved in terms of shipbuilding expression and technology, and we must admit that we still don't know much about how the Viking ships were built, how they were sailed, how they were rowed or how they were navigated.

When we try to reconstruct a Viking ship today, we must rely on different interpretations. We look at archaeological material and examine what has been found (and what has not always been put back together as it would have been!) We can look at the Saga literature and other sources from Old Norse literature. We can pore over foreign contemporary sources from the Viking Age and we can study visual representations of Viking ships. One invaluable resource is traditional boat builders working today and, of course, sailors themselves. Though I believe there are only a handful of sailors in the world today with square sail experience.

The Draken Harald Hårfagre.
This is how I got involved with Draken Harald Hårfagre. Named after the king who is credited with uniting Norway, the Dragon Harald Fairhair is the largest Viking ship reconstruction of modern times. What the Sagas call a ‘25-sesse’ (a ship with 25 sections), meaning it has 50 oars, it comprises a hundred and fourteen feet of crafted oak. It is twenty-seven feet on the beam and displaces seventy tons. The great sail is thirty-two hundred square feet of pure silk. With two people on each oar it takes a crew of 100 to row it, but it can be sailed by only twelve.

But how is a ship of this enormous size rowed and sailed? Is having two people on each oar significantly more beneficial (faster), or would it make more sense to have two shifts, one lot rowing while the other lot rested? How well does the ship turn with only having a side steering oar rather than a central rudder?

I was lucky enough to be part of the crew invited to Norway to help the team behind the project figure all this out. For me, rowing a Viking ship in the same waters my ancestors rowed and sailed (my mother is Norwegian) was breathtaking. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life and it’s bound to colour future descriptions in my novels.

You can listen to me talking about the adventure here:


You have a new book in the RAVEN Series, Gods of Vengeance, that you are currently working on. It will be a prequel.
 What made you decide to do a prequel and without giving too much away, can you tell us anything about it?
Other than I receive an enormous number of emails asking when the next Viking book is coming, when writing the RAVEN saga I came to realize that I had a thing for Sigurd, the Wolfpack’s jarl. He seemed to become a favourite of the readers as well, which was great. I always intended to go back and finish the saga but I suddenly thought what would be enormous fun to write (and to read, hopefully) was the tale of Sigurd as a young hot blood in his first hall-burning days. I wanted to tell the story of how Sigurd becomes the man we see in the RAVEN novels, how he becomes someone who others will follow to the end of the sea road. The story is set in Norway around the islands where I rowed Draken Harald Hårfagre. It’s enormous fun bringing back from the dead characters I had killed off in Odin’s Wolves, the third in the RAVEN trilogy. They are old friends and I have missed them.

Your newest series which saw book two, Brothers' Fury, released in May this year, is set during the English Civil War.
 That is quite the leap forward from the RAVEN Viking setting.

What stirred you to write in this era and do you envision it to be an ongoing series? 

Bernard Cornwell hadn’t done it! Seriously though, it seemed to me to be under represented in fiction, at least in the kind of action adventure fiction that I write. I’ve always had a thing for the English Civil War, ever since I used to fence at a child. I think I saw myself as a dashing Cavalier, flashing my foil around and taking on all comers. So I started researching the subject and came across some wonderful anecdotal stuff that convinced me that the ECW would lend itself to fiction wonderfully well. Here are just four stories that inspired me:
Just before the battle of Edgehill, before all the carnage and death, the devout Royalist officer Sir Jacob Astley uttered the following prayer. 'O Lord, thou knowest how busy I must be this day. If I forget thee, do not thou forget me'.

Upon the outbreak of the war, knight marshal and hereditary bearer of the royal standard Sir Edmund Verney was a somewhat reluctant Royalist. ‘I do not like the quarrel,’ he remarked, yet nevertheless he remained true to his master and friend, King Charles. His eldest son Ralph joined the Parliamentary forces. For reasons we’ll never know, at the battle of Edgehill Verney refused to wear armour and his only weapon was the spear point of the ensign he carried. Perhaps the thought of fighting against his own son was too much to for him but either way it seems he was intent to lay down his life in the King’s service, (you’re always going to receive a certain amount of attention if you’re waving the king’s banner) and in the event his party was whittled away in frenzied fighting. Verney himself fought until the last breath, killing four men with his make-do spear. Legend has it that his grip on the ensign’s haft was so tight that the rebel who captured it had to hack off his hand to carry off the prize.

In 1643 Prince Rupert was besieging the Cathedral Close at Lichfield. After a failed assault with ladders the rebels captured several Royalist soldiers. They paraded one of these prisoners, attached by a noose around his neck, goading Prince Rupert to rescue the man, if he could, by shooting through the rope. Needless to say the poor man died hanging from the walls.

1649, the storming of Drogheda and one of the most vicious episodes of the ECW during which the garrison and many civilians were massacred. The Royalist commander Sir Arthur Aston, after agreeing to surrender, was bludgeoned to death with his own wooden leg. It is believed that Cromwell’s troops thought the Aston’s wooden leg concealed gold coins.
You just couldn’t make this stuff up! The 17th century was a time of pirates, highwaymen, witch-hunters and Cavaliers. It was a time of regicide and revolution. If I as an historical novelist couldn’t find excitement and inspiration in this extraordinary period, and in the 17th Century generally, then I might as well get a real job with a real salary.

However, my books are not about the English Civil War. Rather the war is the backcloth against which I tell my story. I found my tale, the heart and soul of it, wrapped up in one family, the Rivers, a family of Lancashire landed gentry who find themselves caught up in, and ripped apart by, civil war. Rather than deal with the political and religious struggles of the time I wanted to indulge in the personal struggles of Tom and Mun Rivers and their sister Bess, and my story is told through them. I wanted to explore the complexities of familial duty (and love) set against the pull of ideology, social pressures, or darker motives such as revenge. How far would my characters be prepared to go for a cause, for each other, for survival itself? How strong are bonds of blood amidst what must seem like the chaotic collapse of civilization, or even, as some believed at the time, the end of days as brought about by Man’s sin. I also based the family set up on my own immediate family so that I might try to imagine how we would deal with the situation. It made the writing really very emotional at times.

The books are very different from my Viking series, as you may discover if you decide to saddle up and ride with me. The Bleeding Land and Brothers' Fury have both been published and there is one more book to come.

What authors and books inspired you growing up to love history and want to write about it? And what books and authors inspire you now as an adult and an accomplished author? 

I have recently answered this one (in the back of Brothers’ Fury maybe?) so will borrow from there if I may. Although I hate to admit it, I wasn’t much of a reader as a child. Perverse, right? I played a lot of sport; rugby, soccer, fencing, swimming, and as for reading, well, I just wasn’t into it. In fact, I was made to repeat a year at school because I was always out of my chair and messing around distracting my classmates.

Then, when I was thirteen or fourteen, I suffered a bout of glandular fever and spent several weeks away from school. It turned out to be an auspicious event. I was home all day every day and bored out of my mind, so my mother bought me a book. There were warriors with axes on the cover and she knew me pretty well. That book was The Crystal Shard by R.A. Salvatore and it changed my life. There, in my hands, was the key to another world. This story of Bruenor the dwarf, Wulfgar the barbarian, Regis the halfling, and Drizzt the displaced dark elf, captivated me absolutely. It wasn’t just the fighting, the monsters and the magic that enthralled me. I think even then I was drawn in by the author’s skill at getting under the skin of the human condition. I found that I cared for the characters and lived every moment with them. Ok, it was the fighting, the monsters and the magic.

I went on to read Terry Brooks’ Shannara series: TheSword of Shannara, The Elfstones of Shannara and The Wishsong of Shannara, and I loved them. Eventually, of course, I got to The Lord of The Rings and I realized how much the Shannara books (though brilliant on their own terms) and other fantasy novels had drawn on Tolkien’s world. Of course, Tolkien drew on the old Norse sagas and the likes of Beowulf, but if you read the blurb for The Sword of Shannara it sounds like The Lord of The Rings just with different names…and a sword instead of a ring.

The Amazon blurb reads: Long ago, the world of the Four Lands was torn apart by the wars of ancient Evil. But in the Vale, the half-human, half- elfin Shea Ohmsford now lives in peace - until the mysterious, forbidding figure of the druid Allanon appears, to reveal that the supposedly long dead Warlock Lord lives again. Shea must embark upon the elemental quest to find the only weapon powerful enough to keep the creatures of darkness at bay.
The thing is that it doesn’t matter. Terry Brooks is brilliant and I have such fond memories of those stories and can still remember where I was when I read certain passages.

Then one day I picked up a Bernard Cornwell novel, one of his Sharpe books, and from that day on I’ve tended to read more historical fiction than fantasy. I’ve always been drawn to conflict. To make war is all wrapped up in what it is to be human and will always be. Unfortunately. I’m fascinated by conflict, horrified by it, and utterly compelled by it. In historical terms, I’m intrigued by warriors and great leaders, men who inspired thousands to fight and die for their cause; men like Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Napoleon, Nelson. These men must have had such force of personality. I imagine you would have felt the charisma coming off them. These characters also make great subjects for historical fiction authors. Valerio Massimo Manfredi’s trilogy on Alexander the Great is superb. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to read him since he changed his translator, which just shows how important your translator is.

I loved David Anthony Durham’s Hannibal: Pride of Carthage. It’s a weighty tome but drew me in completely and I’ve always admired Hannibal Barca. Anyone who could unite disparate peoples and give Rome a run for its money must have been something special. Stephen Pressfield (Gates of Fire, The Afghan Campaign, Tides of War) is another author who writes conflict brilliantly. He knows how warriors think. He has the knack of showing how, although the way in which wars are fought has changed beyond recognition, the mind of the fighting man has not. Perhaps somewhat predictably though, my favourite author is Bernard Cornwell (and not just because he was kind enough to read Blood Eye and Odin’s Wolves and say good things about them) because in my opinion he is a craftsman who has mastered his art. His stories flow effortlessly and he weaves in rich historical detail with the lightest of touches. There are a great many wonderful historical novelists around these days, and largely thanks to the HWA (Historical Writers Society) I am lucky enough to call them friends. If you’re reading this, you know who you are.

Do you prefer ebook or paper?

Paper. No contest. I have books waiting to be read on my Kindle and I have a pile of real books three foot high and I always fetch one off there rather than picking up the Kindle. Of course there’s a place for ebooks, long holidays being one, but a paper book, particularly a first edition hardback, is to me a precious object. I love everything about them. Over a pint or two not long ago I told fellow historical author Anthony Riches that I’m not sure I’d want to spend years of my life writing novels if they were only going to be ebooks and never physically manifested. I think he was appalled, and maybe it does sound terribly snobby and old-fashioned of me. But for so many years I dreamt of being published and that meant seeing my stories become real books on real shelves in real bookshops. Those shelves and those bookshops may be fast disappearing but I’ll hold on to my ‘real’ books as long as I can. 

Thankyou to Giles Kristian for a wonderfully entertaining interview.
Giles on Twitter:
Giles on Facebook:

I would also like to thank Random House UK and Transworld Books for helping to promote this great interview.

- MM


Thursday, 25 July 2013

Get Your Cannae On: HANNIBAL: FIELDS OF BLOOD by Ben Kane

Hannibal: Fields of Blood by Ben Kane
I had a decision to make when I received my copy of Hannibal: Fields of Blood for review. I had not read the first book, Hannibal: Enemy of Rome, although it had been on my hitlist for reading maybe this year, but I had been putting it off. I admit it. I had so many other books to get to, that sometimes it takes a publisher to send you a book for review, or a friend to force a copy on you, before you finally run out of excuses.

Being sent book two was the incentive I needed to get to this series and give it a try, only what was I supposed to do about book one? To get to Fields of Blood, I told myself, I should be reading Enemy of Rome first. Except life doesn't always deal you books in order does it? And after much deliberation I decided to skip book one and head straight into book two.

My plan was to review it through the eyes of the casual reader. The reader who picks up book two in the airport or bookshop 'because it sounds good and has a nice cover'. That person does not realise it is not the first in a series until they have been parted from their money. I wanted to review through that person's eyes. To give people feedback on how relatable this book is if you haven't read Enemy of Rome first. After all, it should be standard for an author these days to write each book in a series so that they can stand alone. To do otherwise is foolish indeed and it will lose you readers.

So, how relatable was it? I give it a ten out of ten on that. I did not need the first book to understand or get into the Fields of Blood story. The only place I perhaps felt a little let down on that score was in the physical appearance of Hanno, the Carthaginian.
There are three main characters in this series, Hanno – the Carthaginian, and Quintus and Aurelia – the Romans.
Naturally, being Roman, Quintus and Aurelia were easy to visualise, but Hanno was a complete mystery to me. Since Carthaginians can be of many shades of skin colour and ethnic appearance, I had no idea what he should look like and had to ask people who had read book one what I should be visualising.

What added to the confusion was the fact that, and this was a flaw I found in the book, most male characters came across as practically the same. Especially Hanno and Quintus. They read like the same person and since there was very little cultural imprint on the Carthaginians, they all sounded like the Romans and the Romans sounded like the Carthaginians.
While I had other smaller issues such as modern sounding dialogue from time to time (not all the time though) it was the cultural void that was my big issue with the book. A big black hole where the Carthaginians should be, but were present in name only.

I expect every individual has their own favourites amoung the three main characters. These were mine.
Hanno was my favourite of the triumvirate. I always enjoyed getting back to his chapters. I had no interest at all in Quintus and felt nothing for him throughout the book.
The girl character Aurelia for the first half of the book was irritating me and her scenes were my least favourite. However, into the second half of the book as she started acting more like a woman and less like an annoying child, she became a character I could relate to more. I began to look forward to her scenes since they paid to break up the Hanno and the Quintus chapters. And since Hanno and Quintus sounded the same to me, I needed their scenes to be split up by the Aurelia chapters. Otherwise I would have lost interest.
Other than that though, this was an interesting and easy flowing story that rolled along under my eyes. I sat up late at night reading it and not many books can make me do that.

For the casual reader who has picked this book up and did not realise there was one before it, this is my feedback. Don't be concerned. It will all make sense and you will not lose anything by not having read the first book.

As for me, well, I felt it was not a bad book at all and I would genuinely consider reading the next one when it comes out. I think it stands alone perfectly well and the author has done a great job with that.

I liked the book and give the book 3 stars out of 5.

- MM

Thankyou to Random House Australia for sending me this book to read and review.

NB* Earlier this year I interviewed Ben Kane on this blog and he spoke a little about this book and the series:


Wednesday, 17 July 2013

The Wind Thrums The Ropes Once More - CROWBONE by Robert Low

Crowbone by Robert Low
I won't pretend Robert Low did not throw me when I first found out #5 in the series was not going to be in the voice of his creation Orm Bearslayer. In fact thrown is an understatement. I had spent four previous books of this series inside his head - Orm's, not Robert Low's - and naturally there was some disappointment to discover Orm was not narrating Crowbone.
All was not lost though. There came a little thrill the closer I got to reading the latest instalment in the Oathsworn Series. Here would be a book that may spice the series up. Give the reader something new to chew on for a few years. A literary version of being slapped then kissed.
I am not averse to spicing things up in a series and I believe it worked with Crowbone.

Having now read it I have to admit that I can see exactly why Low did it. I can see that the author could have easily stopped writing the Oathsworn Series and gone off and started a whole new series. An author must go where his inspiration and creativity leads him, but there are the readers and fans to consider aren't there?
With Crowbone, Low found the middle ground. He found a way to please the fans and please himself at the same time. Another Oathsworn series that included Orm, but not in the first person. A book based on a character, but also not in the first person, that we met in child form in the previous books. I am of course speaking of Olaf Tryggvasson. To those who know him, Crowbone.

And here we find ourselves well placed to deliberate on Little Crowbone. Our protaganist. Our impudent scamp who sat on our purview in the first 4 books entertaining us from time to time with his stories and his distinctly cryptic and watchful bicoloured gaze.
In this instalment Crowbone is no longer the peculiar boy with a penchant for an axe kill. He has grown in attitude as well as stature and has become more unpredictable and erratic in his choices. But what more should you expect from an Orm and Finn child prodigy.
We all knew it was coming didn't we?

I had a borderline profound moment while reading the book. In the beginning Orm steps from the shadow, no longer the narrator, but for the first time ever, only a figure in the scene.
Seeing Orm through Crowbone's eyes was quite the experience for a fan of the series. Scarred, haggard, neither a youth nor a young man (by Medieval standards). I don't think that I would have seen Orm like that if it were not for Robert Low's change of tack from first person.

I will not reveal any of the story. I feel you must seek that out yourself through the pages of the book. Besides, the back of the book can give you the base if you want it. The rest will be better enjoyed if you unravel it slowly on your own.

Since this book, Crowbone, is such a change in style to the previous books, it is possible to read it without reading the first four books. But I would not recommend it. In my honest opinion the road that has been laid behind it is best journeyed first. You will surely enjoy Crowbone more and understand the characters more if you start with book one, The Whale Road.

- MM

Please NB* I read Crowbone when it first came out and seeing as I did not have this blog then, I felt this is a review that I would want to share as Medieval Mayhem now. I hope you enjoy it. Even if it took a while to get here.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

I'll Have What She's Having! Why You Never Agree On Books And How To Fix It

I have been around the block. Done my time in the world of the reader and reviewer. Observed and expressed and defended opinions on books. Moderated arguments, debates and tantrums between readers, and between readers and authors, and between authors and authors.
Had a couple altercations myself over the years.
Thinking about it lately, it makes me want to talk about it on my blog. And so I blog...
I have been a member of the book review site Goodreads for over four and a half years (as of July 2013). That is a lot of time with thousands of people, looking at thousands of books, being involved in or reading thousands of discussions, seeing thousands of reviews and their thousands of responses, and along the way I have witnessed a plethora of attitudes, but what I always note with interest is the evolution of attitude changes. These are the most interesting to me and, as a head moderator of a growing Historical Fiction book group on the site, if I can help with attitude shifts and changes in that genre I feel I, and my fellow moderators, have helped the historical fiction book community - readers and authors - in a positive way.

You speaketh lies! Now take it back!
Over the years I have observed some pretty rotten and churlish behaviour by people who have an opinion on a book or an author and can not cope with the idea of another person not agreeing or seeing what they see.
For example, picture this scenario: One person will give a book 5 stars (out of 5) and rave about the book and then someone they know will give the book 1 star (out of 5) and leave a negative review.

The person then takes a defensive posture. Exhibiting some kind of learned instinct to accuse the other person of not 'getting' the book. Or being 'a snob'. Or just 'being picky'. And using disdain or a sneering tone to make the other person feel like the blame for not liking the book lays with the person and not with the book.

In the circles I move through in the online reviewer culture, this can be a fairly common attitude and in certain genres there really are some hot headed and aggressive displays going on on a daily basis. I steer clear of that scene. Which is made easier by the fact that they are genres I am not involved with and do not read. It has always mortified me though and for a long time have taken the stance that nobody is wrong, everybody is right.

It is just not possible that everyone will read the book the same way. No reader is at fault for not liking a popular book. No author is at fault for not appealing to every reader. The fact is, and I will only speak here of the genre I specialise in, that people read differently, have different attitudes, different educations, different emotions and, yes, even different hormone levels. Different life experiences, senses of humour or lack there of, varying degrees of intelligence, varying abilities to deconstruct and use a critical eye. Different wants or needs. Different interests in history and historical settings. And we all, day by day, week by week, month by month, experience a rollercoaster of moods.

The voices of narratives and characters are different in everyone's heads. We read in our own voices and that alone changes the 'sound' of a book and the way it is read. Some stop for punctuation, some do not. This can play a much underrated role in the way a person evaluates the way a book reads.

For the record, I include them all when I read. I yell dialogue (in my head of course) if it has an exclamation mark, and if an exclamation mark comes at the end of dialogue unexpectedly, then I will go back and read the line again with the proper emphasis.
I stop for fullstops, pause for commas. Pause to change pace for dialogue. It makes me a slower reader, but I think it makes me a more refined reader. It is easier to pick up flaws in an author's writing when you are using all the author's own directions on pausing, stopping and expressing.
In my book group, (which many of you know since it is stated in my Blog profile) Ancient & Medieval Historical Fiction Group , myself and my assistant moderators are never shy to mention to people that all viewpoints are welcome. That members should not be shy to say what they feel about a book and that we will defend their right to do so. It is so important that a reader should never feel bad for not liking a book and in turn, a reader who then goes on to review should never feel bad or be made to feel bad for leaving a negative review.
Allowing for diversity of opinion and not oppressing it makes for a better environment for reader and
The reader gets to be open and unafraid that their honest views will put them at risk of rebuffs and insults.

Make sure you are holding ground for all the right reasons
And the author? If the discussion on their book is diverse and open and honest then they are put in a unique position that authors rarely get to be in. Like a fly on the wall, only they are allowed to contribute and see, first hand, readers' spontaneous reactions to their books.

They get to see how readers, all from such varied walks of life and interests, discuss their books. Outside of the Goodreads website. Whether their books are being read amoung friends and discussed in a coffee shop, or in a library book club, or between a father/mother and son/daughter as the book is handed around, what the author can be assured of is that through the eyes of a group of few in an online Goodreads book club, the author will be able to see samples of what all those private conversations might be like. Not every one of those people in a coffee shop or library is going to be positive about the book. And nor should they be in an online book club.

It is a terrific opportunity for authors to see total disclosure by readers and in turn, it is a good atmosphere for the readers to be involved in.
Otherwise, if everyone is saying yes, yes, other readers who want to say no, no, never will. This leads authors to think they do not have to improve their writing process and leads readers to read books based on popularity and when they decide they don't like it, are too timid to admit it.
So, if you have never assessed how you react to others not liking the same books or authors as you, or ever scoffed at someone for not liking a book that is very popular or if you have used the old "well everyone else likes it" type comments to some poor unsuspecting soul who didn't like it, or perhaps you are an author unused to seeing negative feedback in the public arena, then please remember this. Stow it away in your mental folders. A quote of George S. Patton, which also happens to be our book groups motto:

"If everybody is thinking alike, then somebody isn't thinking"

Makes sense doesn't it?

- MM

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Rank and File Romans: WOUNDS of HONOUR by Anthony Riches

Wounds of Honour by Anthony Riches
Please excuse my foul mouth as I make my point.
If I was to define Wounds of Honour? Like Andy McNab meets the Second Century AD only with twice the cumstains and a cock jockey or two.
Yes. You read right. It is what I said. Cumstains and cock jockeys. Two words that appeared in the book and that I feel should not have appeared in the book. And  yet they help me make my point, because it is from within those cumstains and cock jockeys that springs my compatibility issue with this book. The modernity of the dialogue. The slang, the swearing, the modern colloquialisms and the pressure of a modern military setting compressed into an historical one.

I appreciate that there are readers who enjoy this series and this book in particular. That is fine. We all have different likes and dislikes. Some of my dislikes in historical fiction happen to be the prevalence of our modern slang words, swearwords and mannerisms.
I can deal with one every now and then, but when it is too often and too much it sounds modern and I don't read historical fiction to feel like I am down the Angler's Arms Pub pulling kegs on a Darts Premier League finals night.

The other dislike I have with historical fiction is when the author forces our modern military culture into the book. Where you feel at any stage you will turn the page and a Roman soldier will be humping to an overwatch position, or asking for a Sit Rep or pulling out a bag of nuts and calling it an MRE.
If I wanted that feel in my books I would read an Andy McNab type modern military or thriller novel, although I have only read one McNab novel  and it didn't have as much British squaddie in it as Wounds of Honour does.

For all my dislikes, I concede that people read books for different reasons. I am not a fan of this style of historical fiction, but so many others are and apart from criticisms about modernity and giving an ancient culture the loud scarlet wash of our modern culture, there is still plenty the book has to offer readers.
The writing is not awful, except for the dense use of modern words and mannerisms, I thought it was pretty good. The plot is not too deep and presents as fun to most no doubt, even I was enjoying the story for the first 80 pages or so and was able to overcome my aversions.

The book is far from being pulp fiction rubbish. There is plenty of skill and research within it. The author has put a lot of effort into this book and for that reason I would never condemn it to anyone. If anyone were to ask me, I would explain that it is a just a case of being incompatible.
Then I would recommend the book to them because in my experience the majority are going to like it. I have seen this first hand as I read the book with others and I know others who rave about the series all the time.

I will always be honest if I think a book is awful and have given it two stars because of it. However, in the case of Wounds of Honour I am not giving it two stars for that reason. I am giving it two stars because it is not my kind of book. Simple as that.

- MM

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Byzantium Booty in Sakarya

In recent weeks pre-excavations have begun in Turkey's Kaynarca District, near the village of Uzunalan where a 2000 year old Roman statue was discovered. This lovely find of a sculpted torso – with no head or legs and missing one arm – was most likely carved in the image of a Roman aristocrat or a Roman person of some import.

During the time of the sculptures creation this province of Turkey, Sakarya Province (Anatolia) was part of the Byzantine Empire. Located on the Black Sea coastline, and criss crossed by the Sakarya River and its many estuaries, the province is also the home of the remains of the Sangarius Bridge (also known as the Justinian Bridge) which was built during the reign of the Emperor Justinian in 553BC.
The bridge was put in this place over the Sakarya River to service the routes between Constantinople and Emperor Justinian's Eastern Provinces.

While large parts of the bridge have not survived, many of its details have survived in writings, including an inscription that had once graced the limestone. The epigram by Agathia lives on today in the writings of Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus:

“Thou too, along with proud Hesperia and the Median peoples and all barbarian hordes, Sangarios, whose tempestuous course is broken by these arches, thus by the sovereign's hand hast been enslaved. Once impassable by ships, once untamed, dost thou now lie in shackles of unbending stone”

While the recent discovery of a Roman sculpture is not connected to the Sangarius Bridge and is in fact about 50 kilometres away from the bridge remains, it does give an example to those unfamiliar with the Sakarya Province, of how rich in Roman footprint this area of the former Byzantine Empire is.

At the location of the find, experts from the Sakarya Museum and the Kaynarca Province have begun their pre excavations and are convinced that the sculpture is a sign that an important ancient settlement must be located somewhere in the vicinity of the village Uzunalan.

The Director of the Sakarya Museum has said in a statement that “We are conducting pre studies because we think that the sculpture cannot be alone, we are looking for a settled area. This is not an archaeological excavation yet. After the studies, we are going to make a decision.”

As these are early days in the discovery and pre-excavations are only beginning to take place, information is limited. I hope they find a site to match the grandness of that sculpture.

- MM

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Earning One's Stars: THE OATH by Michael Jecks

The Oath by Michael Jecks
It is not easy to compose this review of The Oath by Michael Jecks. It is #29 in a 32 book series and I have three more in the series to read after this one. So how does a reviewer keep it fresh and not find her or himself just saying the same things about the same characters over and over? I have three more to review and I don't want them to blend into one.
It was stewing on this that helped me decide how I should write this review. I needed to write a review for the reader who has not read all the Knights Templar Mysteries. The reader who, like me, may have read the first book, but has not been able to source all the Mysteries and therefore chose to reboot in the most recent releases.
Or the other reader. The one who has never read a Michael Jecks and is happy to come in anywhere as long as he or she can be assured that the books are stand alone.

That is what I want to touch on most in this review. How stand alone is it? Can a reader come into the series at this book if they have not read the preceding books?
As far as plot and setting are concerned, they are this. It is 1326. England is in turmoil as Edward II is at war with his Queen, Isabella. As armies approach and towns fortify, preparing for seige, the countryside is plagued by gangs of roving thieves and deserters.

There are the kind of events you would expect from a mystery series. Without giving too much away. You can expect a death. Maybe more. Killers on the loose. An investigation or two.
You will also get what you expect from a Michael Jecks Knights Templar Mystery, and that is the Bailiff Simon Puttock and the retired Templar, Sir Baldwin de Furnshill.

Now to the crux of it. As mentioned above, I came to this 32 book series having only read the first book, The Last Templar. I could not source all the books - nor could I source them in order – and so I always put off rediscovering more books by the author.
Many series' are so tightly locked together that it is a waste of time picking up books from anywhere in the series as they will not make sense.
I was delighted to discover that my concerns regarding this series were mostly unfounded. They can stand alone. Well, at least this one does. I have the next three books in the series to read and I will be judging them on their ability to stand alone too as I get to them.

Now, I don't want to foreshadow my positive remarks regarding 'stand alone' with a few words of a contradictory nature, but I have to admit this. For the reader who has not read many of the books in the series there are going to be certain levels of enjoyment missing from the book. It has been a long journey for the main characters between The Last Templar and The Oath and I did find myself detached from them. Like the characters were never properly introduced and as a result, were always strangers that I would never get to know.
I found myself not caring all that much for Simon and the characters closest to him as there seemed too much water under the bridge since book #1. I had better luck with Sir Baldwin. I remember him more robustly from book one and so I found myself enjoying his sections in The Oath. I also enjoyed the 'walk on' character Robert, who you will get to know if you choose to read this book. I do think he was my favourite character in the story.

I would recommend that anybody approaching this series for the first time - or if you have only read one or two – brace yourself for the potential disconnect from the main characters.
I kind of expected to know them better than I did and so I stumbled about on this book. A little perplexed, slightly disaffected and trying to work out why I could not reattach myself to Simon and Sir Baldwin. For this reason I have to give the book 3 1/2 stars out of 5. But every part of those three and a half stars is positive. It earned them and they are well deserved.
I did like the story, the setting, and the elegant writing. I wanted so badly to give the book 4 stars, but I have to be honest with myself. I think if I had read more books in the series and not lost touch with the main characters then it would be a solid 4 star book for me. I expect to find 4 or even 5 star books in the series to come.

On a positive finish. I have a gut feeling that following this baptism of fire with The Oath, my foot may be more solidly placed back inside the world of Simon and Sir Baldwin. I am hoping that I have been re-acclimated and that when I meet the characters again in the next book, King's Gold, we will be a better fit..

I received The Oath from publishers Simon & Schuster for reading and reviewing. Thank you to them.

- MM

The Absent Minded Blogger

Apologies for the lack of posts since June 24. Something fried in the Medieval Mayhem side of my brain and I forgot my password for many days. I also temporarily misplaced the notebook where I had the password written down.  I am back on track now.  What was fried has been unfried.

- MM