Monday, 23 September 2013

The Day Medieval Mayhem Interviewed Bernard Cornwell

I was lucky enough recently to be asked by Richard Lee over at the Historical Novel Society,  to interview Bernard Cornwell for the September/October releases of the latest book in the Warrior Chronicles/Saxon Stories - The Pagan Lord.

This historical fiction series is right up there in equal first position on my favourite series' of all time list (a list I only keep in my head) next to Robert Low's Oathsworn series.
So you can imagine how honoured I was to have been asked to do this interview with Uhtred's Dad,
Bernard Cornwell.

I did not realise, until it came to organising the ten questions on paper, that I already had some questions rattling around in my coconut. Things I must have pondered on many occasions as I read the series over the years, because when I sat down to compile the interview, most of the questions tumbled out effortlessly.

This was the final result.

Thankyou to Richard Lee at the Historical Novel Society and to Bernard Cornwell for this opportunity.

Snarling back to life: Bernard Cornwell on Pagan Lord, Uhtred’s latest blood-drenched outing

- MM

Thursday, 19 September 2013

How Much is Too Much? - Child Characters in Historical Fiction

This opinion is an extremely personal one, since I know that the opinions on child characters in adult historical fiction are as broad and as varied as the shifting sands of the wondrous Thar Desert. So if your opinions are vastly different to mine please share, or at least, don't be offended, I respect that everyone has unique takes on what they like or dislike in books and what they notice or do not notice in books.

Child characters. How much time is too much time for an author to spend on them? How much of a book should childhood take up? I have always had a personal opinion that a character's childhood should not take up more than approximately a third of a book. It doesn't matter if it is a trilogy or a series or a one off. To me, if it is adult fiction, an author needs to not wallow too long in the childhood. Use a critical eye. Is every scene really that important in developing who a character will become when grown up? Or are you enjoying reliving childhood on your pages and forgetting the adult who will come to read it?
It is, after all, much easier to write like a child about a child than it is to write like an adult about a child.

Only grown ups have swords!
I have an exception to my 'third of a book' rule. If an adult is narrating I find it all right to hang about in the childhood of characters for longer. Example; the Saxon books by Bernard Cornwell, or the book I am reading now, The Ill-Made Knight by Christian Cameron.
In these examples the narrator is an old man and he is telling the story of his youth. When this is done well, the reader feels the adult in the story. Feels the story is an adults version of events. The subject matter does not feel as juvenile with this technique and us, the readers, do not feel like we are being forced to get inside a teen boy or teen girl's head. Goodness, I did not like teenagers when I was one. I certainly do not enjoy them in my books...for too long that is. Note: third of a book. I have my tolerances.

Take out the 'old man narrating' device and there is the danger that the author is writing a child's story, a Young Adult book. The author may not like that kind of feedback, but it is a very real danger and there should be some understanding when an adult says “it read like a Young Adult book”.
This is not always meant as an insult, although I am sure some mean it to be. When it is not an insult but an observation, it is due to a book actually reading like it was written for late teen to early twenties, or the adult reader who likes to sometimes read with their inner child and chooses Young Adult books to explore that sensation.

Strangely, I find majority of authors write in a simplistic and juvenile way when they are writing
child characters. This is the only way they know how to attach a sense of child to the story of childhood. Only it comes off as childishness instead. Some kids playing with wooden swords should not read like Elmo is telling us about pool noodle fight night at Sesame Street.

Oh, and before I go on, I would like to add that including some graphic violence or a sex scene into a childhood story does not help to attach an adult feel to the story. It is the voice being used that attaches an adult feel and not the events being told on the page.

I do not read Young Adult books. I have nothing against them, there are some wonderful young adult books in the world that delight a plethora of readers. Readers through a full spectrum of ages and occupations.
I, however, have no interest in them. I will never like reading for long periods about teens or children. I want to read about adults doing adult things. I guess it is because I want to picture myself in these books sometimes, as I devine the wonders of escapism. I guess also, that it is because I am an adult who left her childhood behind her.

I am not alone. I know that. While there are many people who like a book that is dominated by the childhood of an adult character there are just as many who do not like it and I think an author needs to work out how to make both sides happy. Writing is a profession after all and the readers are your customers. A writer needs to understand the intricacies of blending childhood and adulthood in one book, even if that book is the first in a trilogy or series.

Find a way to plant your literary feet on both sides of the issue. Create childhoods that read in a mature, adult way and then know when to get out of them, or you may as well be writing a book for teenagers.

- MM

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

The Bruce Take Two: RENEGADE by Robyn Young

Renegade by Robyn Young
Renegade (book two in the Insurrection Trilogy) was another solid offering from bestselling historical fiction author Robyn Young.
It detailed many of the more interesting events that took place during the lifetime of Robert Bruce and I am sure you will be moved by the way the author has presented them.

While I thought the book was a good read, I have to admit it read differently to the first one, Insurrection. I would even go so far as to say it was dramatically different. So dramatically different that I believe many of the people I know who did not like Insurrection may find Renegade better suited to them.

It is no secret amoung my fellow bookworms. I fell in love with Insurrection. I cherished the power of the detail and the way I could feel Scotland on every page. While on the flip side, friends were finding fault in the same book. Saying that they think it lacked female characters and that the more personal drama of Robert's life was skipped over.

In this book I trust they will find what they had missed in book one, for the women have a strong presence and are explored to much greater length. While the connections between the men and the women are delved and kept relevant throughout.

To those who have inquired after my opinion of the book as I read it, I have tried to define what it is that I found so different about Renegade compared to Insurrection and this is what I came up with.
I feel Renegade was written more for those who read with their feminine side. Although I am a woman myself I read with my masculine side and, therefore, love-stories, melodrama and personal interactions between characters are not important to me when I read. It is not that I love battles, because I don't. I enjoy a good battle scene if it matches the book, but I hate battle-centric or gore-centric historical fiction.

Whether Robyn Young realised she had written Renegade differently to Insurrection, or whether it was planned based on feedback after Insurrection came out, or whether it happened of its own accord and the author wasn't aware, it doesn't matter. It was still a good book. The story is still done well and there are plenty of scenes that got my blood pumping.

I will recommend - to those who read book one and noticed a lack of female influence and missed a more up close and personal relationship with the characters - that they go on and read this one. It is the book I think they wanted Insurrection to be, or, in the very least, it is the book that includes some of those elements that they thought lacking in the first.

I must express though, that I did not find the first one lacking in any way. It became one of my favourite historical fictions and I will always treasure my copy of Insurrection.

As for me and the trilogy. I will await book three in 2014 with anticipation. I look forward to seeing what Robyn Young does with the finale of the Robert Bruce story. I am sure, even reading with my masculine side as I do, I will still perhaps shed a tear to see this trilogy come to an end.

- MM

Monday, 9 September 2013

Bordering on Personal Taste: STRATEGOS: BORN IN THE BORDERLANDS by Gordon Doherty

Strategos: Born in the Borderlands
The norm for reviews is to speak about the book, but I am going to break from that norm and open this review with a brief word about the author. I promise it will all tie together as integral to my evaluation of the book.

As an active reviewer of historical fiction books I do from time to time receive free copies of books to review and this book Strategos was one of them. I got to deal with the author personally on this occasion and as well as being acquainted with him that way, I also interviewed him on this blog and interacted with him in one of my groups (since this book, Strategos: Born in the Borderlands, was a monthly group read in Ancient & Medieval Historical Fiction Group).
Sometimes, even though you really want to give the author a high rating for knowing them, or out of guilt because you got the book free or out of misguided loyalties, you should not (if you value your integrity) give their book five stars when you don't regard it as a five star book.
I try to be an honest reviewer. I have a firm philosophy of  not reviewing for authors or publishers and only ever writing reviews for readers. By that I mean, while I will write reviews when an author or publisher gives me a book, the words in that review are personalised for my fellow readers.
 To put it bluntly, I don't do cash for comment.
A review in my opinion needs to reflect how a book made you feel. It is a chance to tell other readers what you did and did not like about a book.

So, since I cannot in all honesty give the book five stars, I wanted to open my review by saying what a pleasure it was to deal with the author of this book. He took my negative feedback with decorum and embraced discussions on his book with professionalism. Any author who interacts with readers like that should be valued and applauded.

Therefore, to the author I give applause, but to the book I give three stars.

When it came down to it, I have to confess that Strategos: Born in the Borderlands was a mixed bag for me. A book that made me pause as I read it. And I mean that literally (more on that in a moment).
Whilst I enjoyed the setting and some of the characters, I had some personal taste issues with the book and they put a creative block in my way.
What I liked about the book was the research the author had done and the gamble he had taken in writing in a little known era of Byzantine history. With so many authors jumping on era bandwagons, Gordon Doherty selected a thoroughly unique and fascinating story setting and went ahead to do a damn fine job of bringing it to the reader.

What I didn't like about the book. Well, this is where personal taste comes to the fore. The book has a lot of appeal and has gained a lot of fans who don't have the same personal taste issues as I do.
I have to give a small mention to formatting. In the edition to date there is double spacing between each paragraph (which includes after each line of dialogue). I have spent a lifetime, from learning to read as a child to adult, with large spaces after paragraphs in novels meaning scene breaks and it really messed with my reading flow to have such large spacing format applied to this book. It did affect my ability to get into the book more, so I have to mention it.

The other two things that I did not like that come down once again to personal taste are that this book technically is a historical fantasy. With visions of one person being shared by multiple characters. If books include fantasy, for my taste, it should be able to be rationalised to keep it straight historical fiction. And if it can't be rationalised then I believe a book should be proudly fantasy and go full blown.

But not everyone shares this opinion and that is why it is a matter of personal taste.

The other issue was that the book was mostly childhood. Half being about young children. The rest was predominantly late teen and I personally found that it read like a Young Adult book and since my personal taste is for adult books and adult issues I could not get an adult connection with the story. Some people may say that it doesn't read like YA because it has graphic violence in it, but YA does sometimes have graphic violence in it.
I accept that most series openers will have children in the start of the book. It is a common device when it comes to a Series or an Epic Fiction. But I don't like it to take up too much of the story. I like to be into the adult part of the character well before halfway.

I suspect book two Strategos: Rise of the Golden Heart would suit me more....if only I could be guaranteed that it did not include fantasy.

- MM

*Please NB: I interviewed Gordon Doherty on my blog if you would like to know more about him and his books:

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Two Reviews, Oceans Apart: RAVEN: BLOOD EYE by Giles Kristian

Raven: Blood Eye by Giles Kristian
I decided my review of Raven: Blood Eye by Giles Kristian, would not be complete unless my review of it in 2011 was brought to the table too.
So, this is a review of two parts. Two reviews of one book, but years apart. In the name of equivalence.

I have a confession. I rarely reread. I know many people that love rereading old favourites, or books they have not read for a long time or books they want to try again to see if they feel differently about them, but I hardly ever do. Then if I do, it is usually for a good reason such as joining in with others in a book club read.
From time to time (and by time to time I really mean once every other year) there are books that I feel deserve a reread for one of two reasons. One, wanting to revisit a favourite book or series, or two, because I feel that when I first read a particular book my mood was not well matched to it at the time.
These 'poor mood matches' stay on my mind for a long time after and then, given the right push, I give them a second chance and reread.

One of those 'poor mood matches' for me was Giles Kristian's Raven: Blood Eye. I always felt that when I read this book in October 2011 it was a case of wrong time, wrong place.
On paper, it should have been a perfect fit. I love classy, intelligently written historical fiction. I love classy, intelligently written adventure and journey historical fiction. But most of all, I love classsy, intelligently written Viking or Norse historical fiction.
And Raven: Blood Eye checked every one of those boxes.
So why did it not click with me in 2011?
It is, after all, a well written book. The writing surprisingly skilful for a debut. I liked the setting, the characters, the era and yet my lasting memory of the book was that it was chapter after chapter of 'walking and thinking' or 'walking and talking' or 'sitting and thinking' or 'sitting and talking'. And not much else. Not exactly a blast, according to my 2011 self.

Boy, was I wrong. Because here I am August/September 2013. nearly two years on (See. Every other year. Didn't I say so?) and I felt like I just read a totally different book to the one I read back in 2011.

The Raven: Blood Eye I read this time had so much more going for it than I first assumed. It has adventure, (not only journey) and that surprised me. I have no idea why I did not notice it the first time around.

The book is rich in historical detail and rounded out with a robust norse culture and character.
I once compared it to Bernard Cornwell's and Robert Low's Viking offerings, but in actuality, it is nothing at all like Bernard Cornwell's Saxon books and shares more commonalities with Robert Low's Oathsworn books. That is a good thing, I should mention, since I think Robert Low's Oathsworn series is better than Cornwell's Saxon series.

For all these reasons I now think the book deserves 4 stars out of 5. There was still room for improvement in regards to plot and characters, but I have bought the next two books in the trilogy and we will see what Giles Kristian does with those. That 5 stars for a Kristian Raven trilogy book may still be on the horizon. Since the debut was so good I kind of expect the next books to be even better.

I also wrote a review of it when I read it in 2011 and now that I have shared my newfound affection for the book in 2013, let me pull you into my time machine and whisk you back to October 2011. To set the scene..I had just read a book called Raven: Blood Eye and I had just given it a weak 3 star out of 5 rating.

Please note firstly that I was not as wordy back in 2011 and perhaps you will think I should take a lesson from that. But in 2013 verbosity is so much more fun for me.

Goodreads Review - October, 2013;
This book was a bit of a disappointment for me. It looks the goods. Seemed promising out of the gate, but overall, it simply felt a bit flat.
The author can write well enough. There was no amateur writing to be had here, but the story, for me, was just words on a page. Nothing of note happens in a hurry through the meat of the book. Seemed to be a lot of standing or sitting around doing not much of anything.
I will still go on with the series at some stage. I figure that when the main character Raven becomes a man, and therefore makes for a much more interesting character to me, the story may hold more promise than this one.
I think here in the first of this series the author is trying to build a character for the other books leaving this one as a 'how the boy became a man' kind of read, which is important sure. I just wish he'd done it quicker and not made a whole book on it.
But I'll forgive him for now and let me see first what he does in book 2.

Where on earth was my head at back then? Irrespective, there you have it. Two reviews of the same book. One for 3 stars in 2011 and one for 4 stars in 2013.

Two reviews, oceans apart.

- MM

*By the by. If you are interested in knowing a little about the author, I interviewed Mr Kristian here on the Ancient & Medieval Mayhem Blog.