Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Blog Interview with Author JAMES AITCHESON

James Aitcheson has been quietly achieving with his debut novel, Sworn Sword. A story of a Norman Knight, Tancred a Dinant, and his journeys in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest.  It is the first in a series and has garnered the series a steadily growing fan base since its release.
Now, a few years on, and there was a book two, The Splintered Kingdom, released in 2012 and a book three recently released called Knights of the Hawk. All of which have found favour amoung many readers around the world.

Sworn Sword may have been quietly achieving over the last few years, but now the momentum is building. The series that Sworn Sword kicked off has been creeping into International markets and if you ask any UK author about getting their books released into, specifically, the US market, you will find the tales are grim.
In a market where publishers have tight specifications and reject so many more than they accept, James Aitcheson's books are not only reaching the US readership via retail outlets, but they are also showing up in libraries across the country. Now that in itself is no small feat. When breaking into foreign markets you know you have made it when the American reader can find your books in their library, or get their library to request it from elsewhere.

I am not entirely sure that getting voted in as a Ancient & Medieval Historical Fiction Group book of the month can compare with the triumph of breaking into foreign markets, but Sworn Sword was voted in by readers of the historical fiction genre. If anything, this reflects a small piece of the market pie. A piece of pie that shows a receptiveness to not only the way the series is presented (ie cover, book blurb), but also to the historical setting the author has written in.

To help our readers enjoy their read of Sworn Sword throughout November, the author James Aitcheson gave up some of his valued research time, to sit down and do an interview with me.
I hope James' answers stir you all up to lose yourself for a while in 11th century Britain and the Norman invasion.

                                                                    *  *  *

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

Before I turned my attention to writing historical novels, I studied History at Cambridge, so I do feel a certain responsibility to keep my fiction as faithful as possible to what is known, so as not to misinform the reader or present a false picture of events.
The advantage of writing fiction set during the Middle Ages, however, is that the historical sources are very often fragmentary, and sometimes in conflict with one another. A lot of information we might like to know simply isn’t available or is disputed, which gives the novelist a large degree of freedom.
Part of the fun, for me, of writing historical novels lies in weaving my stories in and out of the historical framework, and so most of the time I see little reason to alter the facts as far as they’re known. When I do, it’s always with good reason and I own up to it in my Historical Note at the end of the book.

Tell us who was William the Conqueror in your mind?

William, we’re told by our sources, was a formidable figure, not just physically but also in terms of his strength of will. He was born into a warrior society, where the elite drew their power and influence largely from their martial prowess, their leadership and their ability to secure the loyalty of large numbers of armed knights.
What marked William out as that he was thrust into the violent, backstabbing world of Norman politics from a very young age. The illegitimate son of the previous duke, he was only around 7 or 8 years old when he succeeded, and his formative years were blighted by an extended period of civil war in Normandy, which no doubt hardened him and shaped his outlook on the world.
Above all, he was ambitious and unafraid of taking chances. That he was able to convince his nobles to commit vast resources to the invasion of England in 1066 – an enterprise that at the outset must have seemed enormously risky – is testament to his charisma and influence. While his enemies feared his ruthlessness, he was also remembered as a man of great generosity and piety, which in many eyes made him the very model of a medieval king.

You are standing on the battlefield in 1066. Where would you be standing? Which team? What kind of player? Eg. Knight, Housecarl.

I’d be standing as far from the battle-line as possible! I don’t think I’d be very good in a combat situation. As for which side you might find me on, that’s a difficult question. Some people might assume that because my protagonist, Tancred, is a Norman knight, that I would naturally ally myself with the Normans in the battle, but the truth is that I don’t identify especially strongly with either side.
Both King Harold and Duke William were men who had won their way to the top through uncompromising politics and their military accomplishments. Neither of them appears to me any more likeable as an individual than the other, and neither one would command my allegiance. The Battle of Hastings wasn’t a battle between nations so much as the final showdown between those two contenders seeking the ultimate prize: the English crown.

There is much written - from both a positive and negative view - on the impact William and his Normans had on Britain. What are your thoughts on the positives and negatives post invasion?
There’s a widespread assumption, in the UK at least, that the Norman Conquest was a Bad Thing as far as the English people were concerned, and that it heralded a harsh regime of bitter oppression. There is no denying that William was responsible for some shocking atrocities, the most infamous of all being the winter campaign known as the Harrying of the North, which is mentioned in The Splintered Kingdom and which saw a vast region of northern England laid waste. We also know that the native aristocracy was almost entirely usurped by 1086, the year of Domesday Book, with only a very few English thegns remaining in possession of their estates, and the vast majority of the land being held by Norman barons.

But the jury is still out as to how much the Conquest really affected the lot of most common folk in England. Their lives were typically conducted on a much more local level, and while the arrival of these foreign overlords must have been frightening, of more immediate concern was whether they could put enough food on the table to last them through each winter. They still had to till the fields and reap the harvest and pay their rents, just as they had done in the days of Edward the Confessor(1042–66) and earlier kings, and probably cared little for the wider struggles for power.
Because no one can say how England would have turned out in an alternative, Conquest-less timeline, it’s almost impossible to make a value-judgement as to whether, on the whole, the Norman impact was positive or negative. What’s clear is that it left a lasting impression on the country, helping to shape its institutions, language and law, and also making a mark on the landscape itself in the form of the great castles and cathedrals. England today is a product as much of the Normans as of the Anglo-Saxons.

With the third book in your 1066 series released late October, where to now for Tancred? Is it a trilogy or a series? If a series, how many books are planned?

The third book, Knights of the Hawk, brings to a close one particular arc of Tancred’s saga, but it’s not the end of his story by any means. I’ve got plenty more ideas for where his travels will take him in future, but exactly how many books the series is likely to comprise, I’m not yet sure. The Normans sought adventure all across Europe in this period, including in Italy and in the Byzantine Empire, so the next instalment could well see him seeking his fortune beyond Britain. In the long term I’d like to take Tancred on the First Crusade, although that’s still some way off yet. By that point he’d be in his mid-fifties, so perhaps a little bit old for front-line fighting!

Would you like to write in any other historical settings, and why?

At the moment I’m thoroughly enjoying writing about the Norman Conquest, which is such an interesting subject, with so many facets that I’ve still to explore in detail. Having said that, I do have ideas in mind for books set in other periods, as well as for contemporary fiction too. If I was to turn my attention to a different historical setting, it would probably be Anglo-Saxon England, which is a period that has always fascinated me, and which I specialised in while at university.

Has any author, book or person had a hand in inspiring you to be a writer?

Writing is something I’ve always wanted to do since I was very young, and I never required any particular inspiration to write: I just got on and did it! During the course of 2006–7, however, when I was in the process of penning the initial stages of Sworn Sword, I was fortunate to read a number of great historical novels: Imperium by Robert Harris; Dissolution by C. J. Sansom; The Ruby in Her Navel by Barry Unsworth; and The Religion by Tim Willocks. Each of those authors has a very different style and voice, but they all equally grabbed me and showed me the potential of historical fiction to bring the past to life.

You are currently on a research trip. Can you tell us about that? What are you seeing and after all your research trips what has been your favourite place so far? And why?

I’ve actually just returned from spending a few days in the University Library in Cambridge, where I’ve been researching my next book. As a Cambridge alumnus, I’m fortunate in that I’m still entitled to access to the library, which receives a copy of every single book that’s published in Britain. So if there’s a particular subject that I need to know more about, I know the UL will have it. It’s a fantastic and invaluable resource for a historical novelist to have. 

Every new project begins with a trip to the UL, where I immerse myself in the latest academic studies. It’s one of the parts of the job that I love the most. Only once I’ve laid down the groundwork do I feel equipped to actually start writing. Even while the novel is in progress, I often need to make trips back to Cambridge to look up specific topics that I didn’t necessarily realise I’d have to know about at the outset.
Research for me also means going to visit some of the key locations that are going to feature in the novel. I like to tread the same ground that my characters would have walked. My travels have taken me to Durham, York, the Welsh Marches, the Fens around Ely, and the site of the Battle of Hastings. Of all of them probably my favourite has been the Welsh Marches, where Tancred has his manor and where I’ve spent some time walking Offa’s Dyke Path. It’s a beautiful part of Britain that oozes history at every turn, and the landscape hasn’t altered much over the centuries, so it’s easy to imagine how it would have looked to Tancred.

Which do you prefer ebook or paper?

Paper. I don’t have anything against ebooks; it’s just that I’ve grown up with traditional books, and haven’t yet heard any compelling reason to change my habits by investing in an e-reader. But the electronic format is still in its infancy and I think we’re likely to see lots of exciting developments in the next ten years that we’ve barely even begun to consider, so perhaps my opinion will change in time!


More details can be found on James and his books on the author's website:  

If you would like to follow James on social media you can check him out and even say hi via his Twitter Page: or his Facebook Page:

- MM

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Family Matters: THE BLEEDING LAND by Giles Kristian

The Bleeding Land by Giles Kristian
I confess, I prefer to read historical fiction set in what I call 'pre gun'. I am a swords, daggers and spears kind of person (there may be something Freudian in that) and historical fiction set after the advent of guns feels modern history to me. The guns taint my attempts to escape into history and so I stay away. Escapism through books is important to my daily grind.
In saying that I have been dabbling in the waters of some post gun historical settings lately. And when I say dabbling, I mean only dabbling. I am not reading reams of gun strewn historical settings, only a select few which are set during the English Civil War. Those books were Andrew Swanston's The King's Spy, Michael Arnold's Traitor's Blood and now, Giles Kristian's The Bleeding Land.

All three books are so different to each other and share only two similarities. All three are set to the backdrop of the English Civil War and all three are the first in a series. There the similarities stop. They have nothing in common as regards story, plot and characters.

I won't go on about my ratings or feelings towards the former of those two authors as this review is supposed to be about Giles Kristian's book, but I will say that I was pleasantly surprised by all three author's offerings. They taught me that even though my interests in history lay elsewhere, I should be getting out of my comfort zone more often. Because there are some gems out there that I have been missing out on.

So, while I will not exactly be ferreting through library shelves for more and more 'gunpowder' historical fiction, I will be sticking with the three series' I mention here, and will select others from time to time from other settings.. ie Crimean War. I will no longer stay within my pre gun comfort zone.

The Bleeding Land is a family saga through and through and reminded me a lot of the 'other Civil War'. The Civil War that took place on an entirely different continent. Change a few things in the book, such as place names, and The Bleeding Land story could have easily been set in the deep south of America. In fact, my mind kept blending scenery on me. It was involuntary, but I sometimes caught myself visualising an American plantation house and not an English manor house.
But then they are both brutal Civil Wars aren't they? Not so hard to have them blend in the mind.

Fought within the bosom of community, in cattle paddocks and in towns and villages, across the country. In such homeland style warfare you do have the common thread of brothers fighting shoulder to shoulder, or family fighting against family as beliefs and loyalties are stretched. And you have the women, the young and elderly left behind to protect farms and homes, falling victim to not only the enemy, but also to men fighting for your own side.

Civil War truly is a mess, no matter the country, and Giles Kristian has captured that well here in the first book in his Rivers' Family series, The Bleeding Land.

It promises to be an epic series or trilogy (can't recall which it is going to be) and I believe readers with an interest in the English Civil War will love it. I have not read the next in the series (although I do own it and I will read it this year), but in regards to this first book, I would say ignore the vibe of the cover. It is not one of those battle and gore-centric kinds of books. It is a true unisex book. A book for women as much as men and involves nearly as many female characters as male characters.

Hard to say though, who will take to this book and who won't as my impressions are marred a little by my lack of interest in the English Civil War. It affects my feelings in a way it wouldn't affect others.
 All I can say is that you will have to read it and see for yourself. If you are 'pre gun' like me then step out of your comfort zone and see what you think.

- MM


Thursday, 10 October 2013

Holy Theological Coma: THE NAME OF THE ROSE by Umberto Eco

Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
I don't know why I should feel embarrased that I did not like nor appreciate this book. I am confident in my intelligence. I don't claim to be sporting the latest in super intelligence, but I am comfortable with the fact that the reason I did not like this book has nothing to do with it being 'beyond my intellectual reach'.

Still, when a book is regarded as a Classic. A work of genius. A “novel of stunning intelligence, linguistic richness, thematic complexity”(that's off the back of the book). And is as admired as this one, even the most confident reader can feel a little shy about coming forwards with a negative review. Shy because if the book is of “stunning intelligence”, what does that say about the intelligence of a reader who does not appreciate the book?

With such pressure to avoid looking like the village idiot, it would interest me to know how many people rate this book favourably (such as giving the book 3 stars when they feel it should be 2) and what they really want to say is “as a work of fiction, it, really, was not that great” (that's not off the back of the book, but will be off the bottom of my review..when I get there).

Let's break it down. Briefly (unlike Eco, I know how to keep it short) dissect the sum of its parts.
And there were really only two parts. Two roads. Two roads travelling paralell to each other through this novel of stunning intelligence, linguistic richness and thematic complexity.
One road is a medieval mystery set in a monastery, and as a medieval mystery set in a monastery, it was simplistic and on its own, could not stand alone.
The other road is a journey of over intellectualising and I loathe over intellectualising. Most of the time it is just included in a book because the author is carrying all this knowledge in their head and they want to flex their brain muscle and flash readers of the world their guns of knowledge.
It is the equivalent of the author who does all the clever research for their book and then needs to include all that research in their book so it does not go to waste.

So, as I travel the roads of simplistic medieval mystery and self indulgent brain flexing I walk, quite unsuspecting, into an unwelcome glut of theology. Like a fat boy devouring a buffet of cheese, Eco's ramblings about theology and philosophy dominates the offering and fills the room with an odorous fug. And for me, a person who cannot stand theological or philosophical discussion, it was a story killer.

I was suffocated and stifled. Unable to breath under the avalanche of manifest Catholicism.

It may seem strange then when I admit there was a time where I loved the book and found it both stylish and classy. Not so strange though when I admit that I only felt that way for the first 50 pages or so. Everything beyond Brunellus' horse was a tribulation for me and it went from love, to kind of still enjoy, to loathe and with about 100 pages to go I actually felt a knot in my gut at the idea of forcing myself to finish it. Mouldy old cheese will do that to you. Bind you up inside.

I understand that not everyone is going to feel this way about the book as there were personal taste issues thrown into the pot.
For me, this was, as you can tell from this review, not a marriage made in heaven. It has fortified my resolve to stay clear of historical fiction themed around monks and nuns.
Religion is not a part of my life by choice (nor is philosophical meanderings either, mind you), but for me, if you cut out the fat, cut out the ramblings, the theology and philosophy and the bla bla, as a work of fiction, it still was not that great.

- MM

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Uhtred Strikes Again: THE PAGAN LORD by Bernard Cornwell

The Pagan Lord by Bernard Cornwell
This may sound odd coming from a woman, but I identify with the main character of this series in many ways and as long as Bernard Cornwell doesn't mess with that character too much then he will always hit true with me as each new book in the Warrior Chronicles (officially known as the Saxon Stories in the US, France and some other countries) is released.

The lowest I have ever rated a book in this series is 3 stars (out of 5) and I believe, of all seven books so far in this series, I have only done that once. With Sword Song. Book Four.

The Pagan Lord, number seven in the Warrior Chronicles, was one I had been practically foaming at the mouth to read. The name alone got my guts churning. The Pagan Lord. A violent kiss of a title that had most Uhtred of Bebbanburg fans clamouring to pre order.

Would this be the book in which he won back his ancestral right? His beloved Bebbanburg? Would he be able to usurp his Christian uncle, Aelfric, and take back his home? We know it happens eventually. After all, from book one he is narrating as a very old man happily ensconced in his Northumberland fastness. Safeguarded from the judgements of Christians Kings and their nobility. A pagan lord of Northumberland in his twilight years. Only, what age he gains it all back has been a secret the author has been reluctant to share. Maybe Cornwell did not know himself when it should happen. Who knows. But it is an act of revenge the fans have longed for since the very first book, The Last Kingdom.

If he takes Bebbanburg or not, is up to you to discover. If you are a fan of this series then you would know it is the greatest of prizes and the surprise should be yours to stumble upon. I hate ruining surprises so I will only speak of  how this book made me feel, and of the non spoiler elements. The plot itself, it is all yours. So go get it when you are ready.

Considering the churning guts and the clamouring to preorder, it seems wrong to give the book less than a perfect score, but I had to give it 4 stars out of 5.

It is a great story and Uhtred is back in force. Age has not overwelmed him yet. He is as strong and as forthright as he has ever been, only he is probably a lot grumpier.
 He was always a grumpy and condescending sod of course, only now his grumpy is erring to the side of old man grumpy. You know the sort.  Bullish, quick to temper, short of tongue, a form of irascible that only age or pain can make you. And, if that were not enough, he is a father to boot. Of adult sons. What a treat that was. To see Uhtred in a whole new light. Portrayed in a way we have not seen before.

Giving Uhtred some age and some grown sons gave the book a freshness that I appreciated. I did not neccesarily like every plot turn and perhaps I did wish for more originality out of the plot turns I did get. There was also some odd repetition. Events described or relayed in the narration that were repeated nearly word for word a few chapters on (was that always the case? Did I just not notice this happening in previous books in the series?).

I also felt that Cornwell may have blown a perfectly good chance to hit the market with a crisp and shiny new formula that would excite fans for the books still to come. There was some newness to the formula in the form of, as expressed, an older main character with adult children, but it wasn't entirely what I was after in this book.

All that aside, it was terrific to be back in Uhtred of Bebbanburg's head and while the plot had it's flaws for this rabid fan, I was positively glowing as I joined my old kindred spirit once more on his life journey.
There is no character like Uhtred of Bebbanburg and for that alone I am grateful. The formula may follow the same lines in a way and the books are always too short, but my gratitude translates to unashamed joy and I will line up in a couple years, frantically foaming at the mouth once more, to feed my unhealthy Uhtred addiction.

*NB: I got to interview the author, Bernard Cornwell, about The Pagan Lord and the series in September for the Historical Novel Society. To read the interview, go here:

- MM

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Unlucky in Life: THE ILL-MADE KNIGHT by Christian Cameron

The Ill-Made Knight by Christian Cameron
This was (to date) the most enjoyable book I have read this year. Not the best, no, that is a title that belongs to another book by a different author, but it was the most enjoyable and to me there can be a difference between most enjoyable and 'the best'. I hope to expound on that as this review progresses.

The Ill-Made Knight is unique in that it blankets the world of knights and chivalry like none other that I have read. If any comes close, maybe it was Men of Iron by Howard Pyle, but then the study of armour and armoury has come a long way since that was written and it has been so long since I read it. I could be wrong.
Part of the reason it does unique so successfully has to have more than a little to do with the author's love of re-enactment and living history. Playing with swords and armour and doing it all on horse back is Christian Cameron's hobby and the book benefits from that immensely. There is no better research an author can partake in than a living history experience.

I say the book is unique, however it was not wholly unique, and I hate it when I find myself comparing books, but I cannot help myself, I have to make a comparison. To me, while the subject matter – the chivalry, the emphasis on the culture of chivalry, the details of armour and weaponry – have been done in a unique way, the story and the main character reminded me over and over, of Thomas of Hookton and the Bernard Cornwell series, Grail Quest. Sometimes I felt William Gold and Thomas of Hookton, whilst borne from the minds of different authors, were blending. So many authors glean their inspiration from Bernard Cornwell's writing, that even though their own writing is not meant to mimic, sometimes it can. I don't know if that was the case here. If Christian Cameron was/is a fan of Bernard Cornwell. Maybe the character similarities are purely coincidence. Maybe to others there is no similarity and it is just me.

Comparisons, uniqueness and criticisms aside (and there are criticism - they are yet to come in this review), this was a fantastic book and promises to be a brilliant series. It will find fertile ground with a whole new fan base that the author has not yet tapped into since so far his books (not including his novella ebook only things, because I don't regard them as books) have all been set in Ancient eras. This is the book, and the series, that will get him the attention of the Medieval reader.

I gave the book 4 stars out of 5 and, suffice it to say, I do have my criticisms.
  Firstly, let's get the most offensive one out of the way. I do not ever think there is any reason why an author need go into too much description when writing a child rape scene. The child rape is briefly described and yet so vividly described.   Readers are a smart enough bunch. Authors do not need to describe it that much.
So that's that. I mention it in my review because I know many readers who would like the warning. I understand that the author may be offended that I have brought this up, but then I am offended as a reader, so I suppose that makes us even.
An editor should have shaved those scenes of the excessive description. I cannot imagine why they did not.

Speaking of editors. This book was riddled with errors. The wrong spelling of words eg though instead of thought and typos galore eg pregnat instead of pregnant.
The book was especially rife with them in the back half.
And "like a passion play"'. The author used variations of  "like a passion play" at least five times. The use of the term is something one notices as it is not common, so when it keeps appearing, it becomes a flaw.
 It was as if it had not actually been spell checked thoroughly (which clearly it hadn't) or even put under the eyes of a professional editor. Which is a shame as so much else about the book, like cover and in fact the writing itself, was very professional.

Also, a small matter. There was a glossary that I found lacking. A glossary that detailed armour and armoury and yet there were many missing off it like buckler and some kind of dart or little arrow (I know the name, but the name escapes me now). There were others, but those were the two I remember because I would have liked to see a description in the glossary.

These errors made me question whether I should be giving the most enjoyable book of the year a full five stars. I think a half star should come off my rating for them. But when it came down to it, it was the contrived feeling of the William Gold hard luck story that really wore on me and stripped that star down to make my rating four out of five. I was having a blast with the book for the first half. Only that everything that could go wrong did go wrong and I found myself thinking more and more that it was too much. That surely something has to go right. That it would have been to the betterment of the story to have a few little rays of sunshine.

One wee thing before moving on, which isn't such a negative, just a note of interest. The book has no chapters. It has about three Parts and there are scene breaks. But no chapters. I like chapters, they are good places to rest up. Still, it wasn't too much of a pain and I hardly noticed until about halfway.

William Gold truly is the most unlucky bastard that ever lived.
An elaborate sketch if I may...
Picture this. A man walks across a cobbled road and trips over a stone and falls, he gets up, straightens his clothes, walks in the door of a pub and hits himself on the door frame. Rubs his head, walks inside, then gets hit in the face by a wayward punch in someone else's bar fight. Picks himself up, orders a beer, walks to a table sits down and a chair leg breaks and he goes down. Gets another chair, goes to drink his ale and the handle comes off and the ale goes into his lap. Poor unlucky bastard gives up, walks back into the street. Cart goes passed and splashes muddy water all over him. See's a whore, tries to procure her services only to find a hole in his pocket where his money fell out. Gets stabbed by the whore's pimp.

The entire book was like this. Only take out the tripping and broken furniture and passing cart and add in all the events that befall William Gold.
Aye, he truly is the most unlucky bastard that ever lived and as the story goes on it did not feel at all natural.
It was not a deal breaker though. I could still really enjoy the book despite it. It's just that I could have enjoyed it more.

Taking into account typos, errors, repeating of phrases and the downer of nothing going right for the main character, I give the book four stars out of five (as mentioned). But that is not the entire story. The book is still a lot of fun in parts. Was well written. Imaginative. And captured the era well, in my opinion. I am eager for there to be a book two. This series will no doubt go from strength to strength.

- MM