Harry Sidebottom: Throne of the Caesars – Iron and Rust

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The Emperor Alexander is on campaign in the northern part of the Empire when he and his mother are assassinated by supporters of Maximinus Thrax. Maximinus is not part of the noble society,his origins are to the East of the the Empire and he has rose through the ranks of the army. As he is proclaimed Emperor, other factions are plotting his downfall in Rome, Africa and the far Eastern provinces. Meanwhile Maximinus is committed to defeating the massed forces of barbarians before he returns to Rome.

It is clear from this story that the book is intended to be the first in a series and it suffered from that. A lot of time is spent introducing various characters and explaining their relationships, without giving details of the various plotlines to follow. This makes it quite hard to follow the different stories and to pull a coherent narrative together. There is no doubt that Sidebottom is a learned writer who has deep understanding of the Roman military machine as well as the everyday life of the citizens, his descriptions of battle are excellent. However I found it hard to follow the plot and therefore to engage with the characters.

Edoardo Albert: Oswald – Return of the King

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After the death of the High King, Edwin, the North of Britain suffers through the looting and dominion of Cadwallon of Gwynedd and Penda of Mercia.  There are claimants to the Throne of Northumbria but one by one these die.  The great hope is Oswald, eldest son of Aethelfrith but living the life of a monk on Iona.  Supported by his Christian brethren and his brother Oswiu, Oswald kills Cadwallon and banishes Penda, but his personal life is more complicated and Kings of Britain do not have a long life expectancy.

The tale of Oswald is interesting, a boy who saw his father killed in battle but grows up to be a devout Christian who would rather be a monk than a king.  Again Albert spins a fictional tale around the few facts that are known.  Here the conflict between the old religion and the newer Christianity are explored further but the violence and the uncertainty of power and blood ties makes for a more exciting narrative.

Edoardo Albert: Edwin – High King of Britain

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After the Romans left Britain, waves of incomers travelled from Europe and conquered the native Britons in many parts of the country. The history of the times is little known, the main source being Bede. During these ‘dark ages’ Christianity was also becoming and established religion. One of the Kings whose story is told is King Edwin, one of the first High kings who brought different tribes together. Edwin was of the noble family who ruled Bernicia (North Yorkshire and Northumbria) but had been in exile for many years after the death of his father. Living with hosts and always in fear of his life Edwin makes an important alliance and regains his throne but in the political machinations of Britain few Kings live to see old age.

Albert is a new writer to the historical fiction genre and the setting of this series of novels is unusual in that little historical fact is known which gives the opportunity for a large amount of licence. Anglo-Saxon terms are used throughout and are explained within context. The approach is fairly lightweight, this book is enjoyable and pleasant rather than gripping, but that is probably no bad thing considering the level of linguistic content. Albert is definitely knowledgable about the period and wears that learning lightly but the literary content leaves room for improvement.

Antonia Hodgson: The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins

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Many thanks to Lovereading for this advance copy

Thomas Hawkins is about to be hanged for murder. He says he didn’t commit the crime but the mob don’t believe him. Thomas is a gentleman but he is a gambler who lives in sin with a woman of property. Linked to a gang leader, Thomas becomes involved in a plot to try to help the King’s mistress but who can he trust – right to the end.

Hawkins is the anti-hero of Hodgson’s first novel, The Devil In The Marshalsea, and he makes a return here. Set a few months later this book picks up the story as Tom finds it difficult to settle down and therefore gets involved in more plots and machinations. This can be read as a standalone book as well as a sequel. Hawkins is a well-written character and the cast around him are as believable as many of them are grotesque.

Hodgson has a rare talent of being able to truly immerse the reader in time and place, her research and application of the knowledge she has gained about 18th Century London is superb. The story is clever, twisty and with enough set-pieces to excite without going over the top. In fact many events are based on true fact and Hodgson has used these to weave a fictional narrative. The first novel was excellent, this one is brilliant and I eagerly await the next.

S D Sykes: Plague Land

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1350 and England is a country recovering slowly from the effects the Plague. In Kent Oswald de Lacy is recalled from his life of contemplation in a monastery to become Lord Somershill – his father and two elder brothers having been killed by the terrible disease. He returns to find trouble, there are few people to work his land and his sister is hostile, but then the body of young girl is found. She has been murdered and the local priest claims it is the work of the ‘Dogheads’, a group of demons who need to be purged from the land. Beset by enemies among his neighbours and even within his own household Oswald is compelled to investigate the escalating numbers of deaths.

The setting of this book just after the Black Death is quite unusual and the sense of misery and superstition is very well created. Oswald is a young, inexperienced and naïve protagonist which adds a further dimension to the tale as he makes untold number of ‘mistakes’. The gentry are shown to be little better than their villeins, just able to wield more power, and the motivations of the key characters are realistic. The twist in the tale, when it comes, is a good one and, although hinted and alluded, is quite surprising. All told, this is an entertaining read.

Tim Willocks: The Religion

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Mattias Tannhauser is a soldier of fortune, joining the elite Janissary of the Ottomans as a boy he rose through their ranks before leaving. He makes his way through life buying and selling but reserves a hatred for the Inquisition who killed his mentor. Carla is a noblewomen, rich and beautiful, who wants to return to her homeland of Malta to find her illegitimate son. Malta is an island about to be besieged by the full might of the Turkish forces and the Knights of Malta, the Religion, need all the help they can get and Matthias is the man they want. Set during the Siege of Malta in 1565, this book explores religion, loyalty and love.

I actually really enjoyed this book but found it a little too long. There are many sections devoted to battle and these are florid and gruesome but after a while they become repetitious – there is only so much ‘gore’ or descriptions of ‘gobbets of flesh’ that one can take. Having said that it is an exciting story and Tannhauser is a likeable anti-hero. In the same way the anti-villain has clear motives for his actions and the lesser cast of characters are quite well-drawn.

Peter May: The Blackhouse

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Finlay MacLeod was born and bred on the Isle of Lewis but after leaving as a teenager he has made a career in the police force in Edinburgh. Shortly after a family tragedy Fin is asked to go back to Lewis as a body has been found in similar circumstances to that in a murder he has been investigating. Is this the work of serial killer or is it more than that? In returning to Lewis, Fin is asked to confront a series of demons from his past.

I actually read the second in the series (The Lewis Man) before reading this book. Whilst I enjoyed that novel, I loved this one. The insular nature of the community on Lewis is very well-described, families who have lived in the same area for generations, their customs and habits and the fact that everyone knows everyone. Fin is an interesting character and his backstory is revealed slowly, ending in a revelation kept buried for many years. May has obviously researched well as his descriptions of the lives and the traditions of Lewis are clear and believable, and that makes the plot work so well.