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AD69: Emperors, Armies and Anarchy
AD69: Emperors, Armies and Anarchy
by Nic Fields
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £17.00

2.0 out of 5 stars Good materials, poor delivery…, 31 Oct 2014
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To a large extent, this book has the same limitations as “The Spartan Way”, a previous publication from the same author. In other words, the contents are (mostly) there, even if the author does tend to come up with some sweeping statements at times and fails to either explain or qualify them. However, I had major issues with the way in which the materials were delivered. I ended up by rating this book two stars only despite its numerous (eleven!) annexes simply because the topic that it should be covering is treated rather inadequately. Some of the annexes are indeed interesting, such as the lists and deployment of the Roman Legions. However, this volume is not meant to be a book on the Roman Army, although this is exactly how it reads at times, with the section on Roman legionary arms and equipment being only tenuously linked with the subject at hand.

One of my main issues is the author’s tendency to digress and insist on presenting his personal point of view on issues that have very little to do (and I am trying hard to be nice here!) with the topic that he is meant to cover. Accordingly, you get “treated” to the author’s views on the army and its relationship with society (and not only the Roman Army!) or his general considerations on monarchy and democracy, to mention just two examples. These somewhat spoilt the book for me and were at times quite annoying. They largely came across as truisms or even platitudes with moralising overtones.
In addition to being mostly beside the point, these personal views also come at the expense of some of the core topics that could and would have deserved to be discussed much more thoroughly.

One of these was what it meant to be a “good” or a “bad” Emperor and, in particular, who passed such (very biased) judgements as to whether a given Emperor was one or the other and why these judgements were passed. A related point here, which is mostly “tucked away” in one of the annexes (the one on the written sources, in the section on Tacitus), is that it is the Roman Senate, or more accurately authors representing views that were commonly held by its members who passed judgement on whether an Emperor had been a “good” or a “bad” one. Another related point which would have also deserved a better treatment is a thorough analysis of the respective biases in the Roman written sources. This is only really done for Tacitus and, once again, it is relegated to one of the annexes and mixed up with some of the author’s personnel (and largely unrelated) considerations.

Another major issue, and a major weakness of the Roman Empire, was the absence of any formal procedure for the transmission of power. This, again, would have deserved an extensive multi-chapter treatment and a thorough analysis of its implications instead of being mentioned in the annexes almost as an aside, especially since it stands at the heart of the “Year of the Four Emperors”.

Instead of this, what you get is a narrative of the events which is a rather succinct one once you remove all of the author’s asides and digressions. You get “treated” to some rather anachronistic, inaccurate and unoriginal comparisons, such as the existence of brothers fighting on either side of the war for the independence of Mozambique being compared with the Roman bouts of civil war during the “Year of the Four Emperors.” You also get treated to a whole lot of quotations and mentions (including from Napoleon, Mao, Clausewitz, Moltke, Engels), which, in my view at least, are only - and at best – very distantly related to the topic being covered.

To conclude, I clearly cannot recommend this book to anyone. Since the topic is anything but original and is covered in a number of other titles, I would even go as far as recommending potential readers to avoid this one and read either “Year of the Four Emperors” (from Kenneth Wellesley) or “The Year of the Four Emperors” (from Gwyn Morgan).

The Empty Throne (The Warrior Chronicles, Book 8)
The Empty Throne (The Warrior Chronicles, Book 8)
by Bernard Cornwell
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.00

5.0 out of 5 stars Another thundering good yarn, with a few differences…, 30 Oct 2014
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This is instalment eight of the Warrior Chronicles set in the time of King Alfred and his son and successor, Edward the Elder (reigned 899-924), with Uthred, the pagan warlord brought up by the Danes, still fighting on the side of the Saxons, and at the side of Alfred’s daughter, Aethelflaed ,“the Lady of the Mercians”, in particular.

This book picks up the story where the previous volume ended, although it is possible to read it in isolation. To be fair, however, it is preferable – but not absolutely necessary - to read the whole series sequentially. Just like the previous volume (and just about all the others as well!), this one is a thundering good yarn, and a hugely entertaining read. For me at least (and for many others, I suspect), it is the kind of book you would do well NOT to start reading in the evening when you have to get up next morning to go to work.

Again, Bernard Cornwell has been true to form and has delivered yet another first class swashbuckler adventure story. It has a fast-paced narrative with lots of “blood and thunder”, plots, battles and treason. It is also based on a well-researched historical context and a number of historical characters that the author has somewhat adapted (or even distorted at times) to allow Uthred the warlord to continue to play the leading role that he has had throughout the series.

The characterisation is perhaps the strongest point of the book, if only because this is where it could have gone badly wrong, with descriptions of Uthred, Finan and their usual antics becoming tiresome, improbable and “déjà vu”. In fact, we do have quite a bit of “more of the same” with the violent, though, cruel, grim, headstrong warlord and his Irish henchman, but you would expect this to a large extent and there is also more to it than this. Although I readily admit to being rather partial to Uthred, I did find that the author had added some depth to his main character who is past his prime, knows it, and largely compensates for his somewhat declining warrior skills with lots of cunning and play-acting.

Also interesting are the little human touches, such as his doubts about having been a good father, and his fears more generally, which contrast with the arrogant image he wants to give of himself. Perhaps one of the nicest touches is that Uthred appears vulnerable in a large part of his volume, partly because of the serious and badly healed wound that he received in the battle that ends the previous episode. Other nice touches were to have Uthred taking care of Athelstan’s education as a future King and instructing him on how to render justice or allowing his though daughter to seek her own retribution. Further little touches are used and added to some of the other characters, including his daughter Stiorra, his son Uthred, but also Osbert and Finn, and even Aethelflaed, whose jealousy helps to make into a more believable character and adds to the iconic “Lady of the Mercians”.

New characters also make their appearance. Two of them are particularly well designed and very interestingly seen through the eyes of Uthred. One is Dywel, the King of Dyfed, whom Uthred sees as a great King and a Welsh version of King Alfred. The other is Sigtryggr, the handsome, skilful, daring and flamboyant Hiberno-Norse warlord – everything that Uthred was when he was as young.

The second big strongpoint of this book (or rather the third, since the breathless story happens to be the first!), is the skilful ways that the author has used to fit his character in and give him the leading role.

The story includes two main historical events which the author has somewhat modified. The first was the death of Aethelred, the Lord of Mercia. The second was the failed Norse attack on Ceaster (Chester).

As the author mentions in his historical note, the very strained relations between Aethelred and Aethelflaed are fictional. Just as fictional is the rather unsympathetic (and belittling) picture of the Lord of Mercia that is drawn throughout the series. It also seems that he died after a long and protracted illness rather than as the result of a battle wound, and it is this illness, which may have lasted several years, which lead his wife to assume the leadership of his troops and become the Lady of the Mercians. The point here is that the author choose to somewhat “blacken” Aethelred in order to allow for Uthred to be the leading warlord in the fight against the Danes and Norse in Mercia. For similar reasons, Edward the Elder is shown as a somewhat “lazy” and womanising King of Wessex whereas the historical character seems to have been a rather fearsome warlord and warrior.

The second event largely took place as related in the book with the Norse being tricked into what they believed was a surprise attack. Also historical are what was pored over them (read the book to learn what it was!). However, it seems that Aethelflaed was present and may even have organised the stronghold’s defence, contrary to what is shown in the book. Anyway, these liberties, and a few others (Sigtryggr was probably not as dashing as shown, for instance, and Athelstan was not in danger of being adbucted) are taken in ways that do not create major distortions.

Finally, I definitely agree with Bernard Cornwell’s statement that the Lady of the Mercians’ “achievements deserve to be better remembered”. One could say as much for those of both those of her husband and her brother. There is little material publicly available on any of the three, apart from a set of scholarly studies on Edward the Elder and a novel (King Alfred’s daughter: the Lady of the Mercians”) which has an interesting and different perspective than what can be found in this book. Another interesting novel about the same events (the attack on Chester in particular) but told from a Hiberno-Norse perspective, is “Viking Voices: the Sword of Amleh.”

This one was easily worth five stars…

The Lost Stars - Imperfect Sword (Book 3) (Imperfect Sword 3)
The Lost Stars - Imperfect Sword (Book 3) (Imperfect Sword 3)
by Jack Campbell
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A miss, a filler or both?, 20 Oct 2014
This is only book 3 of the Lost Stars series (derived from the "Lost Fleet" universe, as the cover sees fit to remind us), but it already felt as if it was book ten or twelve. I very much liked the first two volumes but I have very mixed feelings about this one.

Perhaps the main things that did not work for me was that the book "dragged" at times, that it was utterly predictable and that there was essentially very little originality in it (except, perhaps, for a road bomb assassination attempt).

Regarding the first aspect, I started getting a bit tired of President Gwen Iceni's and General Artur Drakon's painfully obvious antics and rather trite dialogues about wanting to trust each other but nevertheless not quite managing to do so and never quite able to take the plunge. This has been dragging on for three volumes and their relationship was so predictable at times that I could not help wondering how many further volumes it will take before Jack Campbell makes them fall into each other arms. Another half dozen books perhaps?

I found the battle scenes, which were very much Jack Campbell's forte in previous volumes, to be also very predictable and, at times, hardly believable. This was the case for both the ones on the ground and the ones in space and this was all the more surprising and disappointing. Essentially, the Midway forces, despite being ex-Syndicate and fighting against Syndicate forces, can do no wrong whereas their opponents, despite their superiority in numbers and equipment both in space and on the ground, and despite a rather cunning plan based on treachery, seem to be doing everything they can to lose.

My last point is that there is very little that is original, new or even significant in this book. The complex relationships between Colonel Morgan, Colonel Malin and General Drakon remain essentially unchanged with a rather artificial suspense being created when the first is essentially "missing in action" (don't worry: it is pretty obvious she will make a comeback!). Even Admiral "Black Jack" Geary's fleeting appearance is that of a guest star that drops in, says "hi", and then rushes out of the star system on another errand with little said or done of substance. Meanwhile, the "friendly" aliens (the Dancers) are as enigmatic as usual when trying to help, whereas the "hostile" aliens (the Enigmas) also bear their names very well, and that is just about it. .

To conclude, I guess it is rather clear from this review that I was disappointed by this instalment. I was, as suggested by the title of this review, left with the impression that this one was both a miss and a filler and I can only hope that the next volume will be significantly better. Two stars.

Brothers in Blood (Roman Legion 13)
Brothers in Blood (Roman Legion 13)
by Simon Scarrow
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.00

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not quite "more of the same"..., 19 Oct 2014
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I almost titled this review “more of the same” but this would have been somewhat unfair and not quite true.

Granted, this is volume 13 of Simon Scarrow’s series on Cato and Macro, the two Roman soldiers who seem to survive the most impossible situations. For the second episode in a row, there are yet again back in Britain and yet again fighting against Caratacus, the Briton King who fought for so long against the Roman invaders. You also get some of the “usual” Roman spy pieces, here as two of the freedmen who had been running the Empire on the behalf of Emperor Claudius take opposite sides and fight it out with the ageing Emperor’s succession in mind. Of course, our two heroes will, as usual, be in the thick of it all, and once again, get out of it alive, well and ready for the next episode.

If this was all there is to it, it would make up a somewhat “ok” book, to use Amazon’s terminology, but perhaps no more than that. The book would lack originality. It would be just another “swords and sandals” romp, and perhaps not a very original one. I would therefore somewhat share the opinion of another reviewer about this series becoming “very tired” although I would feel that the book was still worth more than two stars. There is, however, quite a bit more to it than just that.

One interesting piece was the way the author told the story of the last campaign and battle against Caratacus. The geographical settings of the battle and its outcome are historically accurate. The Romans did manage to force Caratacus to offer battle. He did select a very favourable position, as depicted in the book, and the Romans did prevail despite this advantage, although we do not exactly know how. The roles played by Cato and Macro in the victory are, of course, fictitious, although the Romans very probably won the battle thanks to a similar attack that took the Briton warriors by surprise. The capture and subsequent escape of the Briton leader also seems to be invented because it is necessary to the plot (you will see why when you read the book!), although his wife, children and brothers were indeed captured.

Another interesting feature is the events that lead to the final capture of Caratacus. Here again, Simon Scarrow has (quite skilfully in my not so humble opinion!) adapted what is found in the sources to fit his plot.

There were two factions among the Brigantes, which where the most powerful confederation of tribes once the Romans had broken the power of Caratacus. Cartimandua, the Queen, was “pro-Roman”, although this was at least initially meant to offset the power of Caratacus and his brother when the Romans first landed. She did handover Caratacus who had sought refuge among the Brigantes to the Romans. She was opposed by her consort Venutius, who would renew the war against the Romans. He would replace Caratacus as the leader of the Britons. She would win her power struggle against him, exile him and marry Vellocatus the shield-bearer, although Venutius would take many of the warriors with him to continue the fight. There was also a rebellion among the Brigantes that had to be put down somewhere around the time when Caratacus was handed over to the Romans, and there would be quite a few others over the next seventeen years or so, up to the end of the reign of Cartimandua.

What the author has done in his book to fit the plot is to reinterpret and remix some of the events together and, in particular, the handing over of Caratacus to the Romans and the rebellion, which may not have happened at the same time. This also allowed Simon Scarrow to present Caratacus as the heroic and ever defiant Briton leader although after his last defeat and his flight to the Brigantes he seems to have been a spent force. Another skilful reinterpretation (and piece of fiction) is about the origin of the large sum of money that the Romans reputedly handed over to Cartimandua at the time they took custody of Caratacus.

Then there are some additional features that introduce some original streaks and valuable bits and pieces into the plot, although some may always work very well. I found the character of the young tribune Otho (the future short-lived Emperor, one of Nero’s successors during the year of the Four Emperors) rather interesting, although having him bring his wife (Nero’s future mistress) along with him to Britannia was a bit hard to believe. Another interesting historical character was that of Governor Ostorius Scapula, who was ill, did in fact die at the end of the campaign, and was an old, good and tough general. I did however have a bit of trouble with Scarrow’s persistence in calling him “Ostorius” instead of Scapula (would you call Caius Julius Caesar “Julius”?).

Also interesting are the “cloak and dagger” bits, and the way in which the author has inserted them in the narrative. As mentioned previously, these pieces were somewhat less original and the origins and backgrounds of the spies were not entirely plausible in my view. What was however interesting is the author’s take on the last years of the Claudius’ reign, with the declining influence of Narcissus and the growing power of Pallas allied to Agrippina (Nero’s mother).

Four strong stars.

The Talon of Horus (Warhammer 40000)
The Talon of Horus (Warhammer 40000)
by Aaron Dembski-Bowden
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.59

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How good?, 19 Oct 2014
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I will largely agree with the previous reviewer: this book is a good one. It is also very original in many respects. The problem I had when finishing it was to assess how good it was. It took me a few days to make up my mind, compare it with the Night Lords’ trilogy (the author’s best in my opinion) and decide whether it was “as good as” and whether it deserved five stars. I believe it is and it certainly does, and I will attempt to explain how I reached this conclusion in the rest of this review.

The first element of originality is the period covered and the way the story if told. The story is that of Iskandar Khayon, a captain of the Thousand Sons Legion, and therefore another of the “Traitor Space Marines”, as the Imperials would put it. The narrative is told at the very end of year 41999. The Thousand Sons mage tells his own story when a prisoner at the headquarters of the Inquisition. The background to the story is the centuries that followed the Horus Heresy and more precisely the unrelenting wars between the remnants of the “Traitor Legions” who have found refuge in the Eye after their failure to take Terra. It is also the story of the rise of the Black Legion and of Ezekyle Abbadon, once First Captain of the Luna Wolves (renamed as the Sons of Horus), once the right-hand man of Horus the Warmaster, and now the new Warmaster who will try to succeed where his predecessor failed. Finally, it is also the story of Iskandar himself, of his beliefs, of his many past losses and sorrows and of his hopes for the future.

The second element of originality is the narrator’s perspective, which largely mirrors that of his Primarch Magnus and that of Ahriman, but without the huge arrogance displayed by both of them, and the catastrophic consequences that this arrogance has had on their sons and brothers. This perspective includes a very human-centred view of what the Warp really is and what all of the daemonic creatures that “live” in the “Sea of Souls” are really made of. The Ragged Knight, a powerful but barely controllable Daemon bound to Iskandar and coming straight from the Crusade against the Albigeois and the sac and burning of Beziers in 1209 was a particularly nice touch.

A third original element is the fight around Horus’ body, the demise of his Legion, once the most powerful of all. The attempt of the Emperor’s Children to gain supremacy and resurrect him, thanks to the skills of the infamous Fabius, makes up the core of the narrative of this first volume of the trilogy.

Another interesting element is the psychology of Iskandar, and its evolution over time. This is where there is a quite notable difference with Talos of the Night Lords and the author’s previous trilogy. While the latter is driven by sorrow, despair and survival, Iskandar share the same feelings, but is increasingly driven by hope in two respects as the book proceeds. The first is the concept of brotherhood but it is a concept than transcends the old Legions and replaces the old adherence to their Primarch fathers who have failed. The second is the hope and the conviction that, this time round and ten thousand years after the first attempt, those among the survivors of the exiled Legions that have become the Black Legion are poised to win and conquer the decaying Empire.

The characters, including the secondary ones, formed a fifth area of major interest. I particularly liked Iskandar’s familiars, most of which owe their survival to him. I particularly enjoyed the lethal Gyre, a female Daemon born from the Sea of Souls, and cruel Nefertari, a Black Eldar huntress. I also liked the other characters, especially the World Eaters and their efforts to dominate their affliction and retain some humanity, but also Ceraxia, the Mechanicum Governess of Gallium.

Another topic of interest is Abbadon himself, and the ways in which Aaron Dembski-Bowden (ADB) makes him into a charismatic leader and an almost (I should stress the “almost”) sympathetic character. This can seem rather at odds with the ways in which he is usually represented in the Horus Heresy or mentioned in other Warhammer 40K volumes. I nevertheless believe that the author managed to mostly “get away with it”, largely because he is portraying Abbadon from Iskandar’s perspective, rather than coming from a hostile view, or at least a view from someone who either does not know or dislikes the former first Captain.

Within this volume, you will also find some interesting and original interpretations on some of the events of the Horus Heresy – the causes of the destruction of Prospero and of the failure to conquer the Imperial Palace being two of the main examples. Also included are a number of “teasers”. One relates to the next volumes of ADB’s trilogy. Iskandar is a prisoner of the Inquisition somewhere near Saturn, but a prisoner who surrendered voluntarily and who presents himself as messenger. Other “teasers” allude to past climatic events when mentioning the Talon of Horus, in particular Horus’ duels against his brother and then against his father, which we might hopefully be able to read about in the Horus Heresy series in the not too distant future.

There would be quite a few other elements to mention although by now you certainly get the gist of it: I loved it and found that this was a particularly rich book. I particularly enjoyed the author’s rather creative take on certain events and characters, even when this can lead to tensions with narratives of other volumes. I therefore found that this one was very much worth five stars (or perhaps even more) and can only hope that the next one is as successful.

Antigonus The One-Eyed: Greatest of the Successors
Antigonus The One-Eyed: Greatest of the Successors
by Jeff Champion
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.58

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Tough Old Cyclops, 13 Oct 2014
Telling the story of the life and career of Antigonos the One-Eyed is perhaps one of the best ways to present the rather complicated, long and very tumultuous Wars between the Successors following the death of Alexander.

He was presented by Plutarch as “the oldest and greatest of Alexander's successors”. To a large extent, his career fully justified Plutarch’s assessment. Contrary to the other Successors after 319 and the death of Antipater, he was of the generation of Philip II, not of Alexander. He is also the first to have come close to reunifying Alexander’s Empire, although he ultimately failed and was killed at over eighty in a huge battle. He was clearly a rather formidable individual. As the nickname Cyclops shows, he was a giant of a man (certainly well over six feet tall), even among the Macedonians who often tended to be taller than other Greeks. He was also One-Eyed. However, contrary to what the nickname given to him by his enemies might also suggest, he was far from being silly or gullible.

The great merit of this rather excellent overview by Jeff Champion is to present the “life and times” of this largely unknown giant (in all senses of the term) among the Successors in a way that is accessible to all. Given the complexity of the multiple wars among the Successors, some of which were fought on several fronts, coming up with a clear presentation of these wars in which Antigonos played such a central role is no mean feat.

The two first chapters are also particularly valuable. In just about twenty pages, Jeff Champion manages to provide succinct but nevertheless sufficient context on Macedonia, its geography and its history, and the reigns of both Philip II and Alexander III. The clarity of the presentation and the amount of ground covered in so little space while making all of the main points are simply remarkable.

The book's clarity is achieved while making use of all the main references on the Successors, and on Antogonos in particular. These are either listed in the bibliography or in the various notes. Six maps and four sets of schematics help the reader in following the main campaigns and battles, while five appendices deal with specific issues that have led to lengthy debates among scholars, such as the literary sources, thorny issues related to chronology, but also the meaning of Antigonos’ policy of “Freedom” for the Greek cities that would be frequently – and just as cynically – be used after him as a political ploy, including by Rome.

Another interesting annex which usefully completes the narrative is titled “The Cost of War”. This annex, by listing the pay rates of various types of soldiers, the costs involved in building and fitting out a fleet and the financial resources that were available to Antigonos and his son Demetrios, is a particularly valuable one. This is because it helps explain how they managed to more than hold their own against the three and then four other main Successors for so long, and also why they all “ganged up” against the Antigonids who were more powerful than each of them separately. Incidentally, this annex, and additional information contained in the book, may also be useful for those wanting to conduct wargames based on the Successors.

This book has plenty of other qualities and while I will refrain from listing all of them, if only to keep this review to a manageable size, some need to be emphasised.

One is them is that the narrative also includes what little is known about the career of Antigonos before the death of Alexander. In particular, the book, drawing on pre-existing scholarship, shows that he did not “come out of the blue” but was close to Philip and a tried and tested commander with lots of experience by the time Alexander came to the throne. It also shows that although very little is heard of him during Alexander’s conquest, the role assigned to Antigonos was vital. He had his work cut out for him and he managed to fulfil his role which was to keep Alexander’s lines of communications with Greece and Macedonia open despite a little known major Persian attempt to reconquer Asia Minor.

Another strongpoint of this book is a largely successful attempt to present the personality and character of the old but very energetic warlord, while remaining largely unbiased. An interesting piece is the contrast drawn between the ageing and no nonsense commander, who seems to have had “the common touch” and been genuinely popular with both his troops and his subjects, and his dashing, very talented but supremely arrogant favourite son Demetrios.

A further and related merit is a comparison of the generalship of both father and son and their shared responsibilities in the crushing defeat of Ipsos where Antigonos was killed. An interesting feature of this book is that Jeff Champion lays – quite rightly in my opinion – part of the blame at the feet of the old warrior, contrary to Billows who, in his book on Antigonos, is at times rather biased and tends, like Plutarch, to blame Demetrios and his hubris for just about everything that went wrong.

There are however a few, relatively minor, setbacks as well. The least important is the existence of some typos and few repetitions, with both seeming to become more frequent in the second half of the book.

A second limitation, and a more important one, is that Jeff Champion has indeed come up with a very successful narrative of this titanic figure but he has almost exclusively focused on the political and military aspects and on the various campaigns and wars in particular. There is just a mention towards the end about Antigonos being an effective administrator and ruler but this very much feels like an afterthought. Largely missing from this narrative is the role played by Antigonos in the creation of the Hellenistic State and the example he set, and which other Successors were quick to emulate. This can be found in Billows’ book (Antigonos the One-Eyed and the creation of the Hellenistic State (1990).

Four very strong stars.

The Iron King (The Accursed Kings, Book 1)
The Iron King (The Accursed Kings, Book 1)
by Maurice Druon
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

5.0 out of 5 stars Setting the tone, 12 Oct 2014
The Iron King is the first of a series of six volumes that make up the original “Accursed Kings” and which were published in French by Maurice Druon between 1955 and 1960. A seventh volume, but a quite different one in its construction, was added in 1970.
At the outset, I should perhaps acknowledge how biased I am. I read this series in French more than thirty years ago – I am not sure it had even been translated in English at the time. I “loved it”, to use Amazon’s terminology for a five star rating, read it again a couple of times in French, and I have read it yet again for a fourth time in English. So I guess you could say I am “a fan”, not exactly objective and therefore unlikely to be very critical and you would probably score a point on each count.

Having mentioned all this which you can call disclaimers if you will, I would like to explain not only this book’s contents but also why I found it so special at the tile, and still find it so over thirty years later.

The first reason is that this book sets the tone for the whole series. This volume is centred on Philippe IV the Fair’s reign (Philippe IV le Bel) who was King of France between 1285 and 1314. His long reign is often little-known, including in France, with the exception of the destruction of the Templars. He was a hard King who did much to assert royal authority at the expense of just about everybody else: the great feudal lords, but also the King of England, Flanders, the Templars. Even the pope was manhandled rather roughly (and quite literally) by the King’s men, with the seat of the papacy being then transferred to Avignon, under French control, and the King having a series of French popes elected.

One of the numerous merits of this book is to show to what extent this came at a heavy price, with the King’s ambitions leading to chronically empty royal coffers that had to be filled by any means, fair or (mostly) foul as expenditures almost constantly outstripped revenues. These included heavy taxes, but also various exactions and confiscations suffered by Jews and Lombards, but also by the Templars. The book also shows rather well how the monarchy sought to address these issues as the traditional feudal system became increasingly inadequate in providing the King with the increased revenues that the State needed. To a large extent, this evolution was not specific to the Kingdom of France. Kings of England were confronted to similar issues at the time and Edward the First, for instance, who was the contemporary of Philippe IV the Fair, who was also a strong King, was also struggling to increase royal income to make it match his growing expenses and ambitions.

A related merit of this book is to show to what extent these ambitious policies heavily depended upon the existence of a strong and capable King, who, in the case of Philip the Fair, was more feared than loved, partly because of his appearance. When this was no longer the case, the Kingdom of France struggled to cope with one crisis after another. This is what is also shown in each of the next five volumes of the series.

This volume also shows to what extent the rot had already set in, and had been to some extent always present. The fictional example of the provost of Neauphle taking advantage of his tax-gathering role to make his fortune and the (real) example of the fortune made by the Marigny brothers in the service of the King provide striking examples of some of the excesses of the time. The tensions and infighting at Court are also very well shown, particularly those opposing the King’s brother (Charles of Valois), and the feudal magnates more generally, to the high ranking civil servants of the Crown who owed everything to the King. This opposition between the old order and the new and emerging order is well captured in this book.

There are additional qualities. One of these is the care taken in characterising both the main and the secondary characters of the plot. Another very much intertwined is the attention to detail and the careful use of historical sources. This is a work of fiction and a historical novel. However, it is so carefully crafted that it is often hard to disentangle the fiction from the historical facts on which they had been based. Even characters that appear fictitious, such as Guccio Baglioni or Beatrice d’Hirson, have a historical basis and very existed, although some of their deeds may have been invented. The two central characters – Robert d’Artois and his aunt Mahaut – whose family feud form the basis and the background of the plot for the whole series – were also very real characters, and so was their two-decade lasting feud to control the very rich and very strategic County of Artois in Northern France.

To make up this novel, and the subsequent ones, Maurice Druon has immersed himself in the period, the first half of the fourteenth century and made extensive use of historical documents of the time. While this is certainly a work of fiction, this is mostly because it contains a number of interpretations that may, or may not, be true but which were nevertheless believed to be credible at a time when people, up to and including Kings themselves, were both ruthless and very superstitious. The curse of the Templars and the subsequent deaths within the same year of the pope, chief justice and King of France who had destroyed and condemned them, were believed at the time (at least by some) to be related and are a case in point.

It is with these very dramatic but genuine events that the Iron King is concerned, and none of them is made up. Finally, and contrary to another review, I found that the English translator had done a rather good job. There may be a few glitches here and there but the translation is very much the mirror image of the original. It also manages to reflect the same tense atmosphere and the various impressions of decay, at times, and of looming crises at others. Finally, this book (and the next ones), allow the reader to learn about a fascinating period of French history which makes the entirely fictitious events of Games of Throne look almost tame, at times. Five stars.

Caesar's Sword (II): Siege of Rome: 2
Caesar's Sword (II): Siege of Rome: 2
by David Pilling
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.92

3.0 out of 5 stars Somewhat better, 11 Oct 2014
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This is the second volume of the Caesar’s sword series and it picks up the story of Coel, grandson of a certain warlord called Artorius. Coel ended up as a refugee and slave in Constantinople, where he grew up. After many adventures that are part of the first volume, including his participation in the Nika riots and in the reconquest of Roman North Africa over the Vandals, he is enrolled in Belisarius’ guards and accompanies the general as he sets out to reconquer Italy for his master the Emperor Justinian.
At the outset of this review, I must admit that I did not like the first volume so that I had a bit of a negative bias when I started this one and was largely expecting “more of the same”. Instead, I found it better that what I feared and certainly better than the previous instalment. I still had problems with it, however, although I also liked some of the features introduced by the author.

My first problem is similar to the one I had with the previous title: there are bits and pieces of the story that are difficult to believe and far-fetched, at best, or even rather incredible, at worst. I will not repeat my previous review about how implausible it is for Caesar’s sword, a glades, to be preserved intact for half a millennium. However, since Coel, the hero of this story, keeps using it, I can only mention how incredible it is for a short trusted sword that was essentially an infantry man’s weapon to be used on horseback by a cavalryman. What is even more extraordinary is that said cavalryman not only survives but even wins most of his various encounters despite being so inadequately equipped. A second problem is also one encountered in the first volume with the Vandals. The Ostrogoths did not have horse archers so that this “invention” from the author is simply historically wrong.

This leads me to a more general issue that comes in various guises and can be found across this book. Both the characters and some of the fictional features of the story simply lacked credibility. One possible reason for this may be because the author has taken the works of Procopius, the main source for Belisarius’ campaigns, a bit too literally.

Whatever the reason, the end result is that some of the characters are rather hard to believe. This is still the case with the Empress Theodora, depicted in a rather unsubtle way as some vindictive and depraved monster who seeks the hero’s demise quite persistently because he refused her favours a couple of decades ago when he was a mere slave. Another is that of Justinian himself, who is still depicted as a weak, a bit of a fool and largely manipulated by his wife. A similar vaudeville-style scenario - the powerful but gullible husband manipulated by the beautiful and very unscrupulous wife – is applied to the relationship between Belisarius and Antonina. Another implausible character is that of Photius, presented as Antonina’s son. He also “hates” our hero and seeks to harm him as much as possible, but the reason for this is rather lame, to put it mildly (Photius is lead to believe that Coel tried to “rape” his mother, the wife of his general!).

I found some of the other characters more plausible. This was largely the case with Mundus, the Gepid general serving Justinian, although his “barbaric” appearance may be a bit overdone. I also liked Procopius, and the author’s decision to make him into much more than Belisarius’ mere secretary is a very plausible one, if only because it explains how he could have access to all the materials and information that can be found in his works.

The main strongpoint of this book is the retelling of the conquest of Sicily and South Italy, and the first part of the first siege of Rome. The various military events are directly taken from Procopius. This is particularly the case for the fighting retreat and the series of engagements that turned out rather badly as Belisarius and his cavalry were pushed back against the (closed) gates of Rome. Also taken directly from Procopius is the clamouring from the Romans to participate in the fighting, sally and fight a pitched battle against a host which is allegedly hundred and fifty thousand strong. Although the Ostrogoths certainly outnumbered the East Romans, the total number of fighting men in their forces is very unlikely to have exceeded a third of this number, and was probably considerably lower. If they really had been this numerous, they would have had little problem in blockading Rome and its twelve miles of walls completely. In addition, Belisarius would never have accepted a pitch battle against them, even under pressure from certain Roman senators and some firebrands among the Roman population. In fact the whole notion that Belisarius “gave in” and allowed himself to be convinced against his better knowledge to fight this battle is somewhat suspicious. It looks like Belisarius’ secretary coming up with a convenient but not very credible excuse for deflecting, or at least reducing the blame that would otherwise be concentrated on his boss.

Finally, there are two sets “little glitches”. Taken in isolation, these are details and they are hardly worth mentioning. Taken together, however, they can be annoying and give “bad” impressions. The first set of glitches is made up of the typos. These are mostly missing words, generally articles. There are however a sufficient number of these to give the disagreeable impression that the book has not been subject to adequate proof-reading.

The second set includes what I would term the “technical glitches”. One of these is a mention of Justinian being surrounded by six hundred guards. Unfortunately, his Excubitores bodyguard only numbered three hundred at the time. Here again, the impression create by this “glitch” (and a few other similar ones) is a bit unpleasant. It feels like either the research that went into this book was somewhat superficial or that there has been insufficient proof-reading to “iron out” these glitches.

Three stars, although this may be a bit generous especially since the author has written a number of other titles which are better conceived and which do not give the impression of having been rushed into publication.

Les Rois maudits - L'intégrale
Les Rois maudits - L'intégrale
Dvd ~ Gilles Béhat
Offered by Prestivo2
Price: £37.95

4.0 out of 5 stars Old-fashioned, no subtitles but with superb actors and topic, 10 Oct 2014
There are been two French TV series derived from the Accursed Kings, a six volume series first published in French between 1955 and 1960 (a seventh volume was added a decade latter). Both are good, although they also have drawbacks. At least one of these is common to both productions. This one is the oldest. It is often also felt to be the best of the two and it was first presented in 1972.
I will begin with the limitations of this series, before detailed the more numerous and considerable qualities of this series.

The main limitation, and for perhaps most non-French speakers, the main flaw of this series is that it is not dubbed and has no subtitles, not even in French. Contrary to another reviewer’s assertions, this has nothing to do with any form of Gallic “arrogance”. The explanation is a much simpler one. This production was never intended to be exported. It was done for French TV, at a time when all French TV channels were part of the public sector (State-owned, in other words). There was therefore just about zero incentive to have the series translated in any other language.

It is also for the same reasons that the series is somewhat old fashioned, with the story being partly told by a narrator. You get the impression that it is a bit of mix between a historical series, a historical documentary and a theatre play. In fact, many of the actors
This is a pity because both the topic covered by the series, and many of the actors performing in it are quite remarkable and would certainly deserve a wider audience. The topic is a little known period of French history – the reigns of Philippe IV the Fair, of his three sons and of the first Valois Kings under which the Hundred Years War against the Kingdom of England begun.

From the mid thirteenth to the mid fourteenth century, the Kingdom of France became the most powerful in Europe. Compared to the Kingdom of England in the 1330s, on the eve of the Hundred Years War, it was about three times richer and three times more populated. It is this power and how it was largely wasted as France lurched from one crisis to another that is retraced in the six books and episodes of the Accursed Kings series.

The story starts in 1314, the last year of the reign of the implacable “Iron King”, Philippe IV the Fair (or Philippe le Bel), and the year where he had the last Great Master of the Templars burned burnt at the stake and was cursed by him, together with his descendants. From then on, it is mostly downhill all the way, with Robert III of Artois and his aunt Mahaut playing a key role in the turmoil as both stop at nothing to gain advantage over the other in their two decades long quarrel.

Perhaps the most outstanding feature of this series is the actors. Some are better than others, although none are less than good. Two of the main actors – Jean Piat and Helene Duc, playing respectively the roles of the two key characters Robert III of Artois and his aunt Mahaut – are very well chosen and reflect the characters described in the book in a rather outstanding way. They are (and were) “larger than life”, physically, through their presence onscreen, and through they totally unscrupulous, murderous and very cunning minds. Also remarkable, even if perhaps less outstanding, are the actors playing the roles of Philippe le Bel (Georges Marchal) and his daughter Isabelle (Genevieve Casile), “the she-wolf of France”, Queen of England and the unhappy wife of Edward II. She was the one who most closely resembled her father and had his brains, although his second son Philippe, who would become King under the name of Philippe the Fifth, came in a close second.

Finally, and just like the books, the series are superbly documented and there is very little in the story that is “made up”. All of the main events are either entirely accurate or are interpreted in plausible ways, some of which were already voiced shortly after the events happened. In particular, the poisoning of various members of the extended French royal family, and why and how these events took place, does indeed remind of some of the deeds that George R.R. Martin has picked up for his Game of Thrones, even if these are also mixed up with features drawn from the War of the Roses.

Three last comments to finish this review, which has been made by a previous reviewer, and which I can only agree with. One is that each episode follows very closely the book, including the dialogues. Another is that it is therefore possible, despite the absence of subtitles, to follow the various episodes even if your understanding of French is “school level” (to paraphrase this previous reviewer). However, it does require you to read all six books beforehand. It also, to be fair, requires a sustained effort and quite a bit of concentration. I believe it is certainty worth it, but the investment is a very significant one and may put off some.

Four stars, which would have easily been five if only they had been at least some subtitles.

Leader of Battles (II): Artorius: 2
Leader of Battles (II): Artorius: 2
by David Pilling
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.40

4.0 out of 5 stars A good read with original features, 7 Oct 2014
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I finished volume I of “Leader of Battles” a few weeks ago and very much enjoyed it despite some initial apprehensions related to the very unoriginal topic covered (Sub-Roman Britain and the inevitable “Arthur”). I have just finished volume II which focuses on Artorius, the warlord and cavalry commander, and I am as satisfied as I was with the first one, despite a couple of quibbles. There are several sets of reasons for this.

Essentially, the author has managed to introduce a number of original features in both character descriptions and events when telling his version of what is anything but an original tale. Having read literally dozens of books and novels on Arthur, I was somehow probably expecting “more of the same”. A few elements are a bit similar to features that I have come across before in other books, with one example being the arrival of Artorius at the eleventh hour to smash the Saxon invasion army at Mont Badon (there is something similar in Bernard Cornwell’s trilogy, for instance), but this is mostly it.

A first original feature which is also present in the first volume is the treatment of Morganna, who is not at all a “villain”. She works in favour of her “brother” Artorius, the quasi-adopted son and successor of Ambrosius Aurelianus, and for the good of Britannia. Despite being blind, she has the Sight, with this magic bringing a nice touch of fantasy to the novel, but no more than that. A related feature, which makes this version of the Arthurian tale rather different from many others, is that there is no Merlin and no Lancelot either. The author has deliberately chosen not to include these two characters, possibly because they were later additions to the Arthurian cycle (Lancelot certainly was) and because part of the role played by Merlin is here held by Morganna, a sad, powerful and somewhat tragic character which come across as rather sympathetic.

Another original feature which the author mentions in his historical note has been to draw from Welsh stories and legends. He has included the character of Gwrgi Wyllt as a rather repulsive “arch-villain”, psychopath and monster. However, the book’s prologue, which somewhat explains his behaviour, and the care taken in showing this young man as savage but cunning and intelligent, make him into a very credible and (almost!) human character, rather than the caricature that he could easily have been had the author not been more careful.

Artorius himself is perhaps less original although, here also, David Pillings has drawn a picture of a warlord and a killer who is more "believable" than in some other versions. He is quite capable of savagery when he loses control of himself and is far from being a paragon of virtue and noble behaviour. Arthurian fans can usefully compare this version of Arthur with that found in Bernard Cornwell’s or M.K. Hume’s trilogies, to name but these two authors, and see which one they prefer: they are all somewhat different. The nuances introduced here by Pillings make Artorius into a not entirely sympathetic character, one that is rather insensitive and careless of his children and of his concubine (to put it mildly), and therefore perhaps also into a more believable one.

Another somewhat original feature has been to gratify Hengist the Saxon with an expanded family – three sons, a warrior daughter and a nephew (Aelle) who is just as gigantic and powerful as his father Horsa was in the previous volume.

The author has also introduced some original twists in the events. The historical figure of the Breton warlord Rigotomos (or Riothamus) who campaigned against the Wisigoths in Gaul and was overwhelmed by their superior numbers is presented alongside Artorius who is sent to help him, and not confused with him, as some authors have tended to do. I had however three issues here, although they may be no more than quibbles.

First, contrary to what is described during the battle against the Wisigoths, these never seem to have had horse archers, although they certainly did have archers on foot.

Second, I did not find the character of Riothamus or of the other Breton officers convincing. I even got the impression that the author felt compelled to make them into incompetent and arrogant fools to explain the magnitude of the disaster while ensuring that no blame could stick to Artorius.

Finally, I was a bit confused by the description of the battle itself and its aftermath, with the dispositions of the allies being somewhat unclear and the author giving the impression that the survivors fled back to Britany while also mentioning that they went to Avallon in the lands of the Burgundians (in other words towards the East).

Apart from this, I liked the other “battles” - which, as the author seems to suggest, may have been just skirmishes against “largish” war bands in some cases, are well told, exciting, imaginative and “look and feel” real. I particularly liked the cavalry assault in the Fens and the fog. There are traditionally twelve altogether with the last one being Mount Badon. One last feature that gives a touch of “realism” is to make some of these victories, including Mount Badon, into close run and hard fought battles where Artorius took huge risks and was lucky enough to win and avoid disaster. Four strong stars for a highly recommended book.

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