Fire in the East by Harry Sidebottom

0718153294As far as historical fiction authors go, Harry Sidebottom has good credentials – DPhil in ancient history at Oxford, where he has continued on in a teaching role.  This knowledge definitely shows in this novel from 2008 (the first of a series called Warrior of Rome).  It is set in the 3rd century AD, not one of the most fashionable eras but a lively one nonetheless.  The empire is being (just about) ruled by a series of short-lived military emperors as pressure is put on it from both external and internal sources.  This story has an officer of barbarian/Angle origin in the Roman army, Ballista, sent east to defend a city against a huge Persian force.

The setting is very good, there’s a host of characters from various backgrounds and a ton of suitable classical references (Satyricon by Petronius is mentioned a lot).  Unfortunately for me, something doesn’t quite click – there’s plenty of plot but none of it really draws me in.  The barbarian background of Ballista feels a little unecessary.  The characters feel like they have a history, but you get the nagging feeling that that backstory might be more interesting.

Would I read more of the series?  Probably.  It did pick up as I got further into the book.  The setting and the detail that Sidebottom provides would allow be enough for me to give it another go.  One to check out from the library.

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Q by Luther Blissett

51x8b2znkvl-_sx324_bo1204203200_I first heard of this book around fifteen years ago on Channel 4’s Football Italia.  It had nothing to do with the former Watford and A.C Milan striker, but in the UK that connection did get it in the media as a bizarre “and finally” style story.  This Luther Blissett is (or was) a collective of Italian anarchist writers who used the name as a anonymous group nom de plume for their works (“Anyone can be Luther Blissett simply by adopting the name Luther Blissett”).

The premise of the book, however, did interest me.  The Reformation.  Revolting Peasants.  Prophetic Anabaptist preachers.  Scheming bankers.  The intrigue of the medieval catholic church.  Much of this is not fiction – the book follows a character through the German Peasants’ War, the Munster Rebellion, and fringe groups of the reformation in Antwerp and Venice.  He changes his name several times and, perhaps, becomes harder and more cynical.

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These changes do feel natural.  Although the chapters are short and the book skips quickly through its thirty year time span, the character and his path are shown, not told.  Life as a protestant radical is given the feeling of a left wing political movement, an anarchist protest, or occasionally a football crowd.  The atmosphere of the book throughout the Munster rebellion is fantastic with hope for a brighter future drifting into despair and terror as Jan Matthys finally arrives.

At times the blending of anti-capitalism and religion is a little heavy handed.  I felt that Imprimatur by Monaldi & Sorti (another Italian novel from the same time) featured the murky dealings of the church’s agents with more subtlety.  I wouldn’t hold that against it, it feels very suited to the radical hero of the book.  The final showdown with Q, a papal spy and the main antagonist, feels like a little bit of an anti-climax; but I suspect that was only because the journey to that point was so enjoyable.

The authors behind Luther Blissett have since changed their name to Wu Ming, and I look forward to reading more of their work!

Gospel of Loki by Joanne M Harris

61maar5m2bel-_sx327_bo1204203200_Just a quick post on this one:  It’s basically a fairly straight retelling of Norse myths, but with Loki as a cocky teenager.  The underlying myths are fun, so there is a certain amount of enjoyment in reading them again, but I can’t really get past Asgard as the “popular crowd” or Fenris as a stroppy teenage son.  It’s definitely a different take on it, and Harris does make the style just about fit, but it feels a bit half baked.

Compared to other modern takes on these myths and characters like AS Byatt’s Ragnarok or Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, the Gospel of Loki is very straightforward – it’s just the old narrative with a twist in perspective.  Seeing the various legends worked in is nice, but the characters around it are one dimensional and the style quickly grates.  It might work with more humour, but there isn’t much beyond Loki’s occasionally sarcasm.  For me, it isn’t really enough to make it work.

Post 66: Wolf Hall on tv

It’s not brilliant, is it?  There are some great actors with very good performances.  Mark Rylance and Damien Lewis are very good, and it’s nice to see Mark Gatiss in a serious role.  The story stays fairly tight to the book (possibly a good thing when dealing with history and such good source material).  The settings and costumes are impressive.  There are many positives, but it seems to lack direction – both in pacing and (for want of a better word) in direction.

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Post 62: Beginner’s Guide to Simon Scarrow

Or a Beginner’s Guide to his books anyway! He has been releasing historical novels for a decade and a half now, and it seemed like a better idea to do a general overview than review a specific book. First the background – if you’re unfamiliar with him, Simon Scarrow is an English author of historical fiction with a style not too dissimilar to Bernard Cornwell. Before the writing took off, Scarrow was a teacher and he still works with schools to encourage pupils in creative writing. Teaching english and history contributed to his initial topic of Rome, once he had decided that the Napoleonic era was a little too overpopulated with heroes for now1.

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Post 57: Corsair by Tim Severin

CoverTim Severin is perhaps best known for his attempts to recreate ancient voyages and journeys. He began in 1961 by following the path of Marco Polo on motorbike, before adding a slightly more traditional twist to later journeys by using authentic forms of transport. In 1976 he followed the alleged voyage of St Brendan and sailed from Ireland to North America in a replica of a currach (an old celtic craft made of a wooden frame covered in animal hides). There were others too: imitating Sinbad in an arabic Dhow, various Greek heroes in a Bronze Age galley. This sort of bold reenactment usually falls somewhere between serious history and stuff like the History Channel’s Deadliest Warrior, but it is interesting, entertaining and, more to the point, is not really what I’m going to talk about in this post.

Alongside all this, Tim Severin has begun to write historical fiction with a series on 11th century Vikings and one on 17th century barbary pirates. Corsair (the opening book in this latter series) works well enough as a stand alone tale, telling the story of 17 year old Hector Lynch from a small village in County Cork, Ireland. Lynch is the son of a minor Protestant* noble father and a Catholic spanish mother who is captured, along with his sister Elizabeth, by Barbary pirates in a raid on his village. As the corsairs leave the coast of Ireland their boats are scattered and the siblings are separated. The search for his sister then provides the great motivation for young Hector throughout the rest of the book.

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