Book Review – Death’s Bright Angel

One of the best things about the recent Historical Novel Society Conference was the Bookstall and the opportunity to buy a book and get it signed by the author.

I bought a few books, not too many – at least I could still lift my suitcase when I departed. Since the conference coincided with the 350th Anniversary of the Great Fire of London, I bought two books on that theme. I might buy a third; the reading by C. C. Humphreys at the Gala Dinner whetted my appetite.

I will write reviews of them all, but I start with Death’s Bright Angel by J. D. Davies. I didn’t actually buy this at the Conference. I had ordered it and intended to meet the author to get it signed. The book was released on 30th August but it didn’t arrive until after I had left home – thank you Amazon! I understand that copies arrived at the conference bookstall eventually.

Part of my haul from HNSOxford16

Part of my haul from HNSOxford16

Death’s Bright Angel is the sixth in the Quinton Journals series by J D Davies and Matthew Quinton has learned a few things. In the first of this series this Gentleman Captain knew nothing about sailing a ship – now he does. The book opens with a battle, a duel rather, between two ships. England is at war with both Holland and France and Matthew is searching the North Sea for their fleets. The ship he finds is French and they fight it out, cannons blazing and blood staining the decks, until one surrenders. Matthew wins, but his ship is damaged.

This theme continues. Success, but at a cost. He enthusiastically helps to burn the Dutch merchant fleet, an action to hit the economy of Holland and perhaps provoke rebellion. The destruction of a nearby, innocent village causes him to think again.

He is summoned back to England by the King and tasked with investigating a possible Dutch plot against the country. His pregnant wife is angry. She is Dutch and Matthew has bankrupted her father – his ships were among those burned. She has more to worry about when she discovers that her husband is working with the beautiful and enticing Aphra Behn, writer and secret agent. As the heat rises in early September 1666, Matthew Quinton, racked with guilt, must find the conspirators. What do they plan?

A fire starts in London, the East wind blows, the fire spreads. Should Matthew help to fight the fire or save his wife? Did the Dutch start the fire, or do they plan something worse?

This book is a thrilling race against time, combining action with a vast knowledge about the period. Historical characters make their appearances, King Charles II and his brother James, Samuel Pepys buries his cheese. The reader is there, in London during the Great Fire, walking, or rather running, through the streets, dodging the flames, pulling down houses and rescuing innocent people from xenophobic mobs.

There is more to this book, though, than a good read. Instead of the usual historical notes at the end, there is an essay, raising new theories about the causes of the Great Fire of London. The author is an expert on the period and has looked into original documents. When you consider that the burning of the Dutch ships occurred only two weeks before London’s fire, it would be difficult to conclude that there was no connection. Or perhaps it was just an out of control baker’s fire.

Two books for the price of one – what more could you want?

My next review will be The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor

Book Review – Sorrow Hill

Today I am taking a look at Beowulf. Not the television series that has been aired recently – I quickly gave up noting the errors and accepted it as a fantasy, using some of the names from the original poem. Although since the original was a story loosely based on historical figures, I suppose any interpretation is valid.

I have found that it is uncomfortable to review books set in my own period, so this time I have gone back to the sixth century.

Sorrow Hill, coverSorrow Hill is the first book in the Sword of Woden series by C R May. I soon started getting echoes of my own book. Take a hero from a famous Anglo-Saxon poem, whose name begins with B and imagine his early life from about the age of 6 or 7 until he becomes a man. I must confess that reading this book almost made me want to put down my pen (or shut down the computer) and give up.

It is difficult to believe that this is the first novel by this author. From the first scene when a young boy climbs a tall tree to catch an eagle chick, it is a beautifully written account of life in the early sixth century. Beowulf is the grandson of the king and shortly after his adventure with the eagle, and a meeting with an old, one-eyed man in the forest (it takes him some time to realise exactly who that was!) he visits the Royal Court. He is sent to be fostered by his uncle, Hygelac. The Kingdom of the Geats is at peace under King Hrethel, but there are hints that all is not well in the rest of the world. Nations are on the move and attention is turning to the rich lands of Britain across the sea – I liked the brief mention, that King Arthur is getting old.

Beowulf grows up within a happy family and trains to become a warrior. This first half of the book could become boring, dealing as it does with the events of daily life. However the perfect combination of character development, the gentle drip of historical information and the lyrical description of the countryside of southern Sweden make it an easy and interesting read.

The only fly in the ointment is another uncle, Hythcyn. Beowulf cannot understand why he is not as friendly and supportive as the rest of the family. After Beowulf is accepted as a full warrior, (a strange and disturbing ceremony), everything changes. King Hrethel is dead, an accident or murder? Hythcyn is now king. Should Beowulf support him or act on his suspicions? The kingdom starts to fall apart and the neighbouring Swedes invade and Beowulf is sent to hold them back. To find out what happens, you will have to read the book, but the scenes of battle are excellent.

The book includes occasional touches of the supernatural, but not as much to make it unbelievable.

I had a slight problem with the names, distinguishing Hygelac from Hythcyn etc, but there is a running joke about the number of people called Harald.

This is the first of four books in the Sword of Woden series and I have already bought the second, Wraecca. I look forward to finding out what happens to Beowulf and how the author deals with turning a legend into a story of living, breathing people. (And monsters?)

Book Review – Alvar the Kingmaker

Writers often say you shouldn’t read other writer’s books about “your” period, as it will influence your own writing. Perhaps I’m not a proper writer yet, but when this book came out, I had to read it.

I had already bought the first book by Annie Whitehead, “To Be A Queen” about Aethelflaed, the daughter of Alfred the Great, but haven’t yet got around to reading it. My list of books to read gets longer as every day passes.

Alvar the Kingmaker, coverThis book though, “Alvar the Kingmaker”, was about people I am writing about. Alvar, or Elfhere as I know him (Ælfhere as he should be), was Ealdorman (or Earl) of Mercia. He was a contemporary of “my” Byrhtnoth. I was interested to find out how Byrhtnoth was seen by another writer. To my disappointment (or perhaps relief) Byrhtnoth wasn’t mentioned at all. Perhaps he was not needed to tell this story.

The author has made an interesting decision about names, using more modern alternatives, nicknames or titles.  I can understand why. If you are new to the Anglo-Saxon period, names can get a bit confusing. For example the Half-king and his sons, Elwood, Brandon and Thetford are easier to keep track of than Æthelstan, Æthelwold, Æthelwine, and Ælfwold (another son Æthelsige is omitted from the story!). If you already know the names, it becomes more complicated. Not that I’m familiar with these names, but I might be if I get to a second book about Byrhtnoth – I’ve only got to the year 946 so far. It’s something I’ll have to think about.

The book starts in 956, at the coronation of King Edwy, called Fairchild. Alvar is awarded his earldom by the king, but changes his allegiance to Edwy’s brother, Edgar. This betrayal, as he sees it, changes Alvar’s life forever. He will serve his country, whoever is King, for the rest of his life.

Alvar is so busy defending Mercia that he can never find the time to marry, or perhaps it is because he loves two different women. Both are unavailable to him. One is powerful, dark and sexy, the other provincial, fair and shy. Will he ever find happiness with either of them?

Alvar was a powerful man, politically and militarily, but in this book he is rarely seen doing anything. The book shows him arriving home from some fight in the North or Wales, or having to rush off to deal with a crisis. The King never listens to him and most of the time Alver is outmanoeuvred by (Saint) Dunstan and other churchmen. Probably this is true historically, but it doesn’t make for an exciting read.

If you want a well written, well researched book about life in the second half of the 10th century, this is the book for you. I learned a lot from reading it.

I’m afraid I prefer something with a bit more action. Something that keeps you up in the early hours, turning the pages, to find out what happens.

Finally: I noticed one minor error. At one point Alvar is returning from the Vale of York to his home.
” The route would eventually take them down the old Foss Way, bearing south until Alvar could link up with another great road cut by the Romans, following Watling Street to the west to get back to his own house in Gloucestershire.”
I usually take the Foss Way south to the Cotswolds – if Alvar went north on Watling Street, he was taking a (very) long way home!

Book Review – The Cross and the Curse

Last Thursday I gave a talk to a local WI group. I told them much more than they probably wanted to know about the history of the area – I probably mentioned the Anglo Saxons, once or twice. The next day I had a slight sore throat. I had obviously talked too much. By Saturday morning I knew – I had caught the virus/whatever that seemed to have had infected so many since Christmas. I lost my appetite (a real sign of illness) and hunkered down for the duration.

I didn’t feel so bad that I needed to spend all day in bed. What could I do? Read and write, of course.

I had homework to do for my writing group and plenty of time to get on with my book. 5000 words in four days may not sound much, but for me it’s a lot. An additional bonus, my protagonist was wounded and with a fever – we suffered together. Whether it will be readable when I come to check it is another matter.

The book I read was The Cross and The Curse, Book 2 of the Bernicia Chronicles by Matthew Harffy. I have promised a review. Here it is.

When I read the first book in the series, The Serpent Sword, last year, I was very impressed. So much so that I immediately looked for a sequel – there wasn’t one, at least not then. The next book came out last week on 22nd January. It arrived on my Kindle that morning. I was excited. I had read some of the previews, but I was also apprehensive. Would it be as good as I hoped? I can tell you now – It is better.

Perhaps it was just me, but the book seemed to start slowly. If you can call a battle between thousands of men, in the dark, in a torrential thunder storm, slow. And a marathon gallop on a powerful black stallion. I know that stallion well – I spent many hours on his back when I was young (in my mind!) I now know his name, Sceadugenga.

In the first book we got to know Beobrand as he tried to find his way in a strange land, far from his home. In this book, as a reward for his part in the battle he becomes a thegn of Bernicia and is given a home (as well as the horse.) He soon finds that with power comes responsibility. Arriving in his new home, blood is spilt causing a feud with his new neighbours. The story appears to pause as he explores his new position, but underneath, the tension rises. Even the annual Blotmonath sacrifice is fraught – will the gods accept the sacrifice or is Beobrand’s family doomed? Just as he is needed at home, he is called by the King. However much he wants to stay, he must obey. A warrior must always serve his Lord.

I must admit that I find Sunniva, by now Beoband’s wife, a bit annoying, always hanging round his neck in tears when he has to leave. I feel like giving her a good shake, he has enough to deal with without all that. I was near tears myself though, later in the book. Beoband has always felt cursed. On the long journey across the winter mountains, he meets a witch, who knows more about him than he expects, and curses him properly. If you want to find out how to rack up the tension, just read the journey to the witch’s cave.

By this point I was caught. I had to read on. Through the blood and fire, death and betrayals. At one point I had to unpeel my fingers from my Kindle, I was gripping it so hard my knuckles were white. By the end Beobrand must make a decision. Does he kill the man he has vowed to kill or does he hold back to preserve the peace? Is he a mindless killing machine or can he become a proper lord to his own men?

This is not just Beobrand’s story, but that of other men, character’s as vividly realised as him. It is the story of the battle between the old gods and the new Christ God. Of the new king, Oswald trying to control the mixed population of his kingdom. It is also the story of the ordinary man and woman, trying to survive in this violent time.

Now. How long do I have to wait for the next book?

The Last Kingdom, the last episode

WARNING: Discusses aspects of the plot, so don’t continue if you haven’t seen the final episode.

Last night I sat down and watched the final episode of The Last Kingdom.

Has my opinion changed from when I wrote about the television series a few weeks ago?

First I should say that I enjoyed the series. I would have probably enjoyed it more if I hadn’t already read the books, but most of the time I sat back and enjoyed the action. The acting was good and there was enough humour to counteract the violence. Money had been spent, so that the final battle of Ethandun was suitably spectacular.

Pale Horseman cover

The later half of the series was based on the second book by Bernard Cornwell, The Pale Horseman. It is some time since I read it – I see it was published in 2005 – so ten years ago. I had to dash off to the library to borrow a copy. It was interesting reading the book and watching the programme in tandem. I have leant a lot about merging characters and the problems that might cause.

A good example was the fight between Uhtred and Leofric. I was confused about it, why had Leofric turned against Uhtred? It just didn’t ring true. A good cliff hanger and you think – Oh they’ve got a plan to get out of it next week. No, they fought, were interrupted by the Danish attack and rode off best of friends.

When I read the book, I understood what had been done. Uhtred had to fight Steapa Snotor, henchman of Odda the Younger. This wonderfully named warrior (no, Snotor isn’t what you think, it means “the wise” – because the character is very stupid!) has been cut from the TV version of the story altogether. Therefore:

On the journey to meet Odda the Younger they stop at Uhtred’s Hall – not Steapa’s village which has been burnt and makes him angry.

When they do meet Odda the Younger, it made sense in the book that Odda would tell Steapa to continue the fight, to kill Uhtred, but he turns and kills his former master. In the filmed version it is obvious that Leofric wouldn’t kill his friend, so Odda the Elder has to kill his own son.

Another change  is that for this journey in the book, Alfred stays behind, as does Iseult. Uhtred is told she will be killed if he doesn’t return, which puts Uhtred under pressure.

So, why is Alfred creeping around in the background in disguise? Because they have merged this scene with another – a trip to the Danish camp at Chippenham. In the book Alfred pretends to be a harpist to spy on the Danes and Uhtred has to rescue him, along with Aethelwold and a raped nun (Hild – another two characters merged into one.) This, in its turn, is based on the original story of Alfred singing for Guthrum and the Danes.

The more I think about it, the more I realise the amount of effort that has been put in to tell the same story (much of the dialogue is identical) while slimming down the cast and venues. It is something to think about in my own book. Should I consider merging several characters into one? Or shall I leave that to the script writers when they film it? Perhaps the market for Anglo-Saxon television series has now closed?

Returning to the final episode. Leofric is now dead. What will happen to Steapa? This character appears in the later books.

Over the final scene, where they ride off into the sunset (a bit of a cliché, but it’s what you expect) we were told that the series will continue. I look forward to it.

But, who was riding into the future?

Uhtred, obviously.
I think I have got used to him, now he has got a bit rougher round the edges. In fact, while reading The Pale Horseman my vision of him swung between Sean Bean and Alexander Dreymon.

Hild.
Not so obvious from the TV version (or the book) but she is a main character later on. And Uhtred needs a girl to hump!

Who was the third?
It looked like the boy who appeared in the final episode.
According to the cast list he is called Halig – not a name that appears in the books (as far as I know). I think I heard it as Pyrlig and thought “Father Pyrlig has changed a lot!”.Warriors of the Storm cover

If you want to find out about Father Pyrlig who, according to the book, was at the battle (I suspect Beocca must have been merged with that character) why not read the book(s)?

 

There are now nine in the series. In the most recent, Warriors of the Storm, published only a few months ago. Uhtred is a grandfather (perhaps there’s hope for Sean Bean yet.) and Brida reappears. I’ll say no more.

 

Except… Please, in the next series, give them the right shields and sort out the clothes.

The Last Kingdom, Book v Television

I have now watched the first four episodes of the BBC2 series of The Last Kingdom. Halfway through the series and it’s about time to voice my opinion. How does it compare with the books by Bernard Cornwell?

I started reading the Sharpe novels long before they were televised. I knew what Richard Sharpe looked like – he was tall and dark.
Then he appeared on TV in the shape of Sean Bean – this was not right. But after a while I got used to him, I saw the character in that form in the later books.

Sean Bean. Put him in a saxon tunic, change the sword and he’s Uhtred

Now, exciting as Mr Cornwell’s books are, the same characters turn up with different names. In the Grail Quest series, Thomas of Hookton is Sharpe with a bow. When Uhtred appeared in The Last Kingdon, the first of The Warrior Chronicles, he was Sharpe with a sword – and looked like Sean Bean! When I first heard that the book was to be made into a TV series I have been looking forward to it. I realise that Uhtred would be played by a different actor – Sean Bean is too old now (at least for the young Uhtred) and has become known as a character in another, slightly similar, series.

When Alexander Dreymon appeared, he was all wrong. Too dark, too pretty and as for that silly goatee beard and moustache, words fail me.

Alexander Dreymon. Stand well back Brida or he#ll have your eye out

Alexander Dreymon. Stand well back Brida or he’ll have your eye out.

One of the most distinctive characters in the books was Father Beocca – very ugly, with red hair, a squint, palsied hand and a club foot. Couldn’t they have given Ian Hart a limp in the TV version? I will probably get used to him, but he’s not “my” Father Beocca”.

That brings me on to the costumes. What on earth are they wearing? What is that strange tunic with the toggles on the shoulder. Once I spotted it on Beocca, it was everywhere. King Alfred’s dressing gown (well it looks like a dressing gown!) Oda, senior & junior, even Uhtred’s father. All slightly different. There are a couple of monks that appeared in several scenes – I am waiting for them to be joined by Rasputin. Are the costumes based on Russian jackets? Chinese? All I know is that they are not Saxon. Do the producers think we won’t be able to tell one character for another unless they are all dressed differently? Unfortunately that is probably true.

Typical Anglo-Saxon warrior

Typical Anglo-Saxon warrior

I don’t think I have seen one genuine Saxon tunic and as for winingas (leg windings – described here as “almost ubiquitous on manuscript depictions of men during the Anglo-Saxon period”) not a sign.

Then there is the equipment. I am waiting for the moment when Uhtred turns round suddenly and knocks someone out with that lump of amber on the end.
And the shields. I suppose they decided no-one would be able to tell the Danes from the Anglo-Saxons if they all had the same round shields (Hint – that’s why they painted them with different designs.). The unwieldy rectangular shields, described somewhere as redundant picnic tables, must have been left lying around by the Romans when they left 400 years earlier – together with instructions for the testudo or tortoise formation.

They can’t even get the basic facts right. In the fourth instalment, Uhtred is given some land. Wife and debt come attached – I’m OK with that. But that now makes him a Thegn, not an Ealdorman.

I could go on, but I’ll leave it there. After all the whole point of a book, or a film, is the story. The original books were (are) exciting and entertaining. The TV series has, thank goodness, stuck fairly close to them. By the end of the series I will probably come around and enjoy watching it.

After all I watched The Tudors for the pleasure of shouting at the screen
“He didn’t look like that.”
“She wouldn’t have done that.”
or “that didn’t happen there, and where did that wisteria come from?” or was that Wolf Hall?