Thursday, 27 November 2014

Tricky Beginnings: THE EMPTY THRONE by Bernard Cornwell

The Empty Throne
I will never forget the day I turned those initial pages and started the very first book in the Warrior Chronicles (Saxon Stories in the US) for the very first time.  It was many years ago now and was the beginning of a wonderful journey for me. 
 I had always been an avid reader. Since I learned to read really, but I had never found my niche fiction genre. I dabbled in fantasy fiction, I dipped my toe in horror, absorbed myself in crime thrillers, but it was not until I forged my way through the historical pretenders quagmire to this series that I finally discovered what I wanted as a reader. I wanted history. Brutal, honest, raw historical tales that smacked of reality. And so, thanks to Bernard Cornwell, I found my love of the historical fiction genre.
I have never looked back. Cliche I know, but true none the less.

There have been eight books in this series (including this one) and while the Warrior Chronicles is one of my two favourite series' of all time, I had started to feel a little jaded with it. To me, the two books preceding The Empty Throne had little originality. They felt like the same story and the same formula done to death. 
The Empty Throne broke that monotony for me. It was completely unique to all the books that went before it. We delved new characters, got to know evolving characters, and observed relationships between certain characters like we never have before. 
We saw Uhtred, not as the brutish and diabolical warrior many of us know and love, but as the victim of that which felled him so bloodily in book seven, The Pagan Lord.

With possibly only one or two books left in this series (from the lips of the author) you know you have come to a milestone with this book as soon as you open it and start reading.
The first book in the series, The Last Kingdom, has one of the most memorable opening chapters of all the books I have ever read. I may not recall it word for word, but I will always remember that first line and the tone of what came after.
To save you getting out your copy of The Last Kingdom to reread it, I shall hand it to you on a platter:
The Last Kingdom (published 2004)

Prologue - Northumbria, AD 866-867
My name is Uhtred. I am the son of Uhtred, who was the son of Uhtred and his father was also called Uhtred. My father's clerk, a Priest called Beocca, spelt it Utred. I do not know if that is how my father would have written it, for he could neither read nor write, but I can do both and sometimes I take the old parchments from their wooden desk and I see the name spelled Uhtred or Utred or Ughtred or Ootred. I look at those parchments, which are deeds saying that Uhtred, son of Uhtred is the lawful and sole owner of the lands that are carefully marked by stones and by dykes, by oaks and by ash, by marsh and by sea, and I dream of those lands, wave beaten and wild beneath the wind driven sky. I dream, and know that I will take back the land from those who stole it from me.
I am an ealdorman, though I call myself Lord Uhtred, which is the same thing, and the fading parchments are proof of what I own.

The Empty Throne starts in a similar vein. Which brought back all those wonderfully nostalgic emotions that have stayed with me since that long ago day when I first began this series:

The Empty Throne (published 2014)

My Name is Uhtred. I am the son of Uhtred, who was the son of Uhtred, and his father was also called Uhtred. My father wrote his name thus. Uhtred, but I have seen the name written as Utred, Ughtred or even Ootred. Some of those names are on ancient parchments which declare that Uhtred, son of Uhtred and grandson of Uhtred, is the lawful, sole and eternal owner of the lands that are carefully marked by stones and by dykes, by oaks and by ash, by marsh and by sea. That land is in the north of the country we have learned to call Englaland. They are wave beaten lands beneath a wind driven sky. It is the land we call Bebbanburg.

But that is where the similarities between the two books start and finish. 

This book is nothing like those before it. The author did not stick to that time worn formula. This is a story more about the setting of chess pieces than the following of a well beaten path. 
It was not without its risks for the author no doubt. There will be a truck load of fans out there who will be disappointed by the lack of formula in this one. 
Many pick up these books thinking they are going to get the same thing each time and they take comfort from that. For me though, I wanted the strategic meanderings that weave in and out of this one's storyline. From the confusing beginnings (make sure you pay attention to the opening chapters, and that opening paragraph, or you will be completely lost for the first thirty I was) to the interesting ending, this book will not tread in the footsteps of others. 

For example, some of Uhtred's children play a large part in this book. And I found that delightful. To have treasured this Uhtred character for so many years, and now to see how much like their father these children have become. I was reminded of Gisella and how she really was his one great love, even though I spent a few books thinking that title belonged to another. I think as this series comes to a close, it was important for Uhtred's relationship with Gisella to be dug up and clarified. To remind us who this woman was that Uhtred fathered such headstrong and beautiful children with.

If you look for them, this book holds codes to unlocking what will happen in the last book/s as this unforgettable and unique series finally winds up the cliffs of Bebbanburg to its unavoidable swan dive..

Five stars out of five.

- MM

Thursday, 20 November 2014

A Rare Masterpiece: THE RELIGION by Tim Willocks

The Religion by Tim Willocks
There are a lot of rare things in this world that I would like to get my hands on. Pink diamonds. Vintage John Paul Gaultier Corset Dresses. Black Limited Edition Burberry Trenchcoats. An Aston Martin Vantage (V8 or V12, I am not fussy) and.... lengthy books that stay consistent in pace and quality from front cover to back cover. 

Obviously, for me, only one of these was ever going to be attainable. And it wasn't the Aston Martin Vantage. It was, of course, a lengthy book with pace and quality finish to end.

 An enigma. A myth. Often whispered about, never actually seen. I have tried one or two, been tempted by a promise of cover to cover bounty many times. Was once wrongly directed down the Count of Monte Cristo path. A book that I felt suffered from much the same problem as many lengthy books. Too much waffle and could benefit from being a couple hundred pages shorter. Okay, so editors were less keen on cutting back then, but they should not be too scared of it now. And yet they seem to be.

I will concede that The Religion could have been shorter. Only nothing drastic. 50 pages at the most. But a few too many pages was kind of a small price to pay for a book that did not run out of prose in the first few chapters. It went on. On and on. On and on and on. Beefed up with excellent landscape and character creation, anchored by vivid portals into extraordinary battle scenes. 
I could not put it down. 
It was a gem as rare as any pink diamond, with as much pace at times as any V12 Aston Martin. As tight at the top as at the waist as at the bottom, as any Gaultier corset and with more movement than any Burberry jacket.
It was quite a find.
A rare find that you will notice from the outset. With passages that wash across the page in fresh, vernal literary splashes.

Page 12
The Fagaras Mountains, East Hungarian Marches. Spring AD1540

The yard was empty. The heavens at the rimrock's edge were reefed in vermilion cloud. From the village pillars of smoke quavered skyward and with them cries of anguish and crackles of flame.  
He walked across the cobbles, sick with fear. Fear of whatever vileness afflicted his mother. Fear of shame. Of cowardice. Of the knowledge that he couldn't save her. Of the darkness that had housed itself inside his spirit. Yet the darkness spoke with a feral power that brooked no refusal nor hesitation.
Plunge in, the darkness said.
Mattias turned and looked back at the forge...
Like the blade in the quench.
Plunge in.

Through to the middle they surged on. The tautness of a well trained writer carving his skill in inked words.

Page 348
The Gauntlet – The Bailey – The Causeway 11 June 1565

Straighten up, breathe and blow, shake the sweat. He wheezed. His chest was tight, his gorge scorched. He felt nauseous and weak. He was too far forward. Get back.

The horde shouldered each other in their frenzy to get through the choke point, their weapons constricted, one shield obstructing another. Spot the openings. Swallow the scalding bile. Kill him, kill them, kill them all. A blow glanced off his helm and hammered into his pauldron. Spike him in the privities, stab him in the neck. The fellow fought on from his knees, blinded by the fountain from his arteries, still scrabbling with his blade for the joints in Tannhauser's plate.

Tannhauser drove the finial through his temple and stepped back. Now backstep again. Keep them at bay. He threw and upward swordcut to the thighs and backstroke to the guts and a thrust to the chest, in deep and twist. Don't look in his eyes. He's done. And breathe, you fool, keep the knees loose, ignore the battle cries. Get back.

It goes on. On and on and on. But I think I have shown you enough.

Don't be dissuaded from trying this for fear it is too masculine. It is masculine, without a doubt, but there is beauty too. Beauty of the heart and of the lovelorn. The author has not forgotten you. You, the reader of the heart.
While I did not think there was much romance in this book, it is there. A tugging undertow that a reader like me - who does not read with the heart but reads with the mind - can easily ignore. I hardly even noticed the female characters most of the time. They did not take up much room in my mental landscape.

To me the book is perfect. Perfectly written that is. Fast paced from start to finish. The story, however, had some personal taste flaws. They are not going to be flaws for everyone. Some of what I call a flaw, will be the things you will most likely value about the story.
It was the sex. 
Some may say it had to be there as sex is a natural part of life. In part this is true (although many live without sex in their lives and I would never claim their lives to be unnaturally led), but the sex in this book is quite often odd. Poorly located. Unnecessary. Forced into the story.
There isn't a lot of it. If you blink - or skim read - you may even miss it. 
When it does come (no pun intended) it is oddly placed, like an afterthought, or to please the authors own building sexual tension. If an author wants sex in a book it needs to feel naturally placed. Not just plopped down because the author was randy or the editor told him it needed more sex.

It was a great ride while it lasted (the book, not the sex) and I was disappointed it came to an end. My forlorn need not last forever though, for there is a book to follow it called Twelve Children of Paris. I have bought it already and cannot wait to read it. 
With any luck, it will be as well done as this rare gem, The Religion. As this kind of  writing skill is not something an author loses down a bottle of whiskey while he tries to outdrink his writer's block. No, he clearly has command of his writing talent.
The only place I feel he can fall down will be story. Lets hope he gets that right again too.

- MM

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

The Long, Lost Review: TRAITOR'S BLOOD by Michael Arnold

Traitor's Blood by Michael Arnold
I read this book back in 2012 and I really thought I had posted this review to the blog before. After a search I discovered that I hadn't. It should be here. It was a great read!

So, here you have it, my 2012 review of Traitor's Blood by Michael Arnold. (which reminds me, I need to get back to this series and try book three) 

* * *

I don't believe during my history with doing reviews, that I have ever used the term 'rollicking good read'. Nor have I in fact used the word rollicking in any form. I think that is fair excuse for using the term now, for Traitor's Blood was a bloody rollicking good read and the author has won a fan...of at least the first book in his series.

Kicking off in 1642, it is primarily set against the microcosm that was Hampshire during the English Civil War and also includes the Battle of Brentford as a feature.

The book is an action adventure in every sense. The writing while not of vast scope was skilful in the way it strung the very fluid of the story together. Brimming with plots and plots twists. Addictive characters at every turn. A female spy character that I appreciated for her rareness (eg an independent female character that has plenty going on in her life and doesn't count marriage and children as a life goal). And a male protagonist, in the form of Captain Stryker, who was buckets of fun to read about.

On the cover of the book the publisher has a note saying this is 'The Sharpe of the Civil war'. Initially, this was a put off for me as every book that has ever tried to cash in on Bernard Cornwell's fame has failed dismally to live up to the hype. In the case of Traitor's Blood, I think finally there may be one that can.

I am excited to have found this series and, despite my aversion to more modern histories, have already bought the next in the Civil War Chronicles. Looking forward to reading more in this series.

- MM

On my Desk: THE TWELVE CHILDREN OF PARIS by Tim Willocks

I purchased The Twelve Children of Paris even before I was halfway through the first book in this series (trilogy?), The Religion. I was so moved by the skill and beautiful writing in The Religion, that I had to buy the follow up book as soon as possible.
Hard to come by authors who write so well and in so epic a manner.  I always grab onto them tight when I do.
Another that caught my interest with The Religion was the fact I hardly ever got bored. Not easy for a 774 page book. I have read many doorstoppers and so many of them frustrate me because they should have been edited harder and made a shorter read.
The Twelve Children of Paris is an equally long book. Hope the author can do the same here.

To my utter delight, there is a map in this second book! Huzzah!! A great map of Paris. Again and again I found myself bemoaning the lack of any form of map in The Religion. It desperately needed one too. The locations of battles that took place in the book, which were based on real battles that took place on Malta of course, were confusing the heck out of me. A map would have given an
extra layer to that first book. To help the reader not familiar with the layout of land and fortifications on Malta in that period, to wrap their head around where everything was taking place.

That's why I actually made outward noises of satisfaction (some huzzahs and some oh hurrahs) when The Twelve Children of Paris arrived in my mailbox and I opened the parcel, opened the book, to discover a double page map of Paris to go with the story.

Hoping to get to this book by the end of 2014. If not, then definitely January 2015.

- MM