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The Emperor's Knives (Empire)
The Emperor's Knives (Empire)
by Anthony Riches
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 13.79

4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Riches does gladiators - three and a half stars, 4 Mar 2014
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This is volume seven of Anthony Riches "Empire" series, which have taken place under the reign of Emperor Commodus and will also extend to the reigns of his successors up to Septimius Severus included, according to the author. I have, up to this volume, very much appreciated all of the previous instalments. This one, however, while still quite good, came across as a bit of a disappointment because of two related reasons: the author's tendency to fall for the latest "fashionable topic" and a relative lack of originality that I had previously been unaccustomed to.

The fashionable topic is, of course, "to do" gladiators, following in the footsteps of "Gladiator", HBO, Simon Scarrow and a number of other "swords and sandals" novel writers. While this book, unlike other productions, is at least not another rehash of Spartacus, the author does seem to have fallen for the latest fashion in town.

A number of other features are also borrowed or inspired from other authors or from films. The comeback of the veteran and unvanquished gladiator reminded me of Gladiator (the film) and of one of David Gemmell's novels about the Rigante. The gang of street urchins used as spies is directly inspired by one of Manda Scott's novels which also takes place in Rome, but under a different (and just as unbalanced and monstrous) Emperor (Nero, as opposed to Commodus). The setting of the novel, in Rome as our young, tall and handsome (of course) hero and his companions are back from their mission in Dacia, reminded me of Simon Scarrow's Praetorians (under Emperor Claudius, this time) and so did the sinister and utterly ruthless character of Commodus' Chamberlain, the new power behind the throne, who bears a number of similarities with Narcissus, Claudius' freedman.

Despite being an enjoyable read, with the usual fast paced and action-packed style, the plot itself is mostly very predictable as our hero embarks on his personal little vendetta, with the exception of one feature right at the end. I am not quite sure to what extent it is believable, although, to be fair, the reader may not care too much about this to the extent that she/he is caught up with the action, and not given the time or the opportunity to reflect on the plausibility of the events. How plausible is it, for instance, for the imperial authorities to allow for two full cohorts of battle-hardened auxiliaries to be allowed to settle anywhere near the city?

Having mentioned the reasons for which this title did not work out for me as well as the others of the series had up to this volume, I should also add that something was missing. Anthony Riches main strength had been to describe the day-to-day life of Roman soldiers, and the Tungrian auxiliaries in particular. This includes their gruelling marches and battles, the "blood, sweat and tears" pieces, and the kind of profanity that you can expect from these tough veterans. You will get little of this in this volume, given that the story takes place in Rome and is about Marcus Aquila's personal vengeance, with some of the characters that were part of his youth and his upbringing thrown in.

One feature for which the author deserves to be commended without any restriction, however, is the care that he has taken to research his topic in general, and Rome at the end of the second century in particular. In addition, and even if not entirely original, the description of the bloodthirsty crowds and circus games are rather good.

Another final feature, which I did very much like without the slightest reservation this time, is the additional short story included at the end of this novel. The episode, the rather tragic demise of Avidius Cassius, is quite gripping and accurate. He was, at the time, Rome's best general. He did revolt and proclaim himself Emperor because it was widely believed that Marcus Aurelius had died of the plague. Avidius Cassius did lose most of his support and did met his fate as told in the short story.

Three and a half stars for a book that is a good and exciting but not one of the author's best or most original titles.
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Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallions (Hellenistic Culture and Society)
Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallions (Hellenistic Culture and Society)
by Frank L Holt
Edition: Paperback
Price: 19.03

5.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining history for all?, 19 Feb 2014
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Once again, Frank Holt has written a little entertaining piece (slightly over 170 pages, all told, with annexes and another fifteen pages of so for the bibliography) which can be read by the specialist but is also quite accessible for the so-called “general reader”.
The ploy used by the author to tell the story of these elephant medallions has been to present it as some kind of investigation, or even a detective story as the historian Peter Green has suggested in his own review of this book.

To some extent, and as some Amazon reviewers reviews have argued, portraying the elephant medallions as a “mystery” may be a bit excessive or even hyped up. However, this ploy, if it is one, does make the book more lively and interesting to read and if only because of that, it is therefore valuable. Nevertheless, the value of this little book goes well beyond an argument as to whether the origins and purposes of the medallions are “mysterious” or not. This is because the author has achieved very successfully four objectives when using what may be no more than a ploy.

The first and second objectives were to tell the story of how these medallions were discovered and how numismatic research related to them has evolved and progressed ever since. The third and fourth were to, respectively, identify the historical event that they seek to commemorate and the historical context that explains their minting. This book (and its author) largely succeeds in fulfilling all four of objectives, even if some of the discussion on numismatics can at times get a bit “overly technical” for the “general reader” that is supposed to be the “target audience”.

A similar technique blending together these four types of elements can also be found in a number of Frank Holt’s other books, in particular those relating to the conquest of Bactria by Alexander and its administration and history during the subsequent Hellenistic period. They all share some common features. In this book like in the others, they allow the author to deploy his scholarship and knowledge of numismatics and use these as building blocks to discuss the historical context in which specific types of coins were minted and what kind of “messages” these coins were expected to convey.

To a large extent, the blending of these four elements has largely become Frank Holt’s trademark. This does not imply that all of his analysis is flawless neither does it necessarily mean that all of his interpretations are correct. What it does, however, is to allow the author to present a convincing case that takes stock of all known elements and proposes a plausible interpretation and explanation of what purposes were fulfilled by these coins. They can also inform us, at least to some extent, on what happened at the time these coins or medallions were minted, therefore providing a valuable additional source of information that often completes other sources, including written ones and, at times, may even be our main source of information, especially when the so-called written primary sources and the epigraphic evidence are lacking or non-existent.

So yes, maybe the author has "hyped up" the so-called "mystery", but, in doing so, he has provided a very valuable account. He has addressed the four points mentioned above in a way that is very readable for the so-called "general reader" interested in history while still being both rigorous and scholarly, at least as far as I can tell. Because of this, I found that this book was well worth five stars.

The Walls of Byzantium (The Mistra Chronicles)
The Walls of Byzantium (The Mistra Chronicles)
Price: 1.19

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Didn't quite work for me..., 19 Feb 2014
I hate to "spoil the party" but, unlike the other reviews, this one will not be entirely favourable. This is because I had problems with the way the author presented the historical context, with the plot and with some of the characters in this novel.

To start with the positive elements, the topic is somewhat original. There are already a number of novels on the final siege and fall of Constantinople. However, this seems to be the first series covering the last years of the 14th and first years of the 15th century, or at least the first one that I have come across. The Crusade that was destroyed by the Turks at the battle of Nicopolis (in 1396) and the crushing defeat of the same Ottomans at the hand of Tamerlane (Ankara in 1402) essentially offered the moribund Byzantine Empire a lease of another half century, especially since the Ottoman Empire was raked by civil war after the disaster of Ankara.

This book focuses on the declining Byzantine Empire which was a shadow of its former self. The term "Empire" had largely become a misnomer for what had become a state paying tribute to the expanding Ottomans. This "decline and fall" from former splendour and glory is something that the author shows rather well, with the Emperor and the scattered remains of the Empire, including the Despotate of Mistra, remaining precariously autonomous.
In his historical note, the author explains that Sultan Bayezid "had to conquer the Byzantine Empire and, in particular, the city of Constantinople" allegedly because "the Gates of Byzantium were the Gates into Europe." This rather lyrical presentation does not, unfortunately, present the real reasons for taking control of Constantinople. First of all, by the time of the battle of Nicopolis, the Ottomans had been in Europe for almost half a century during which they had conquered most of actual Bulgaria, Northern Greece and modern Macedonia and Serbia. None of these conquests had been easy. Some were very recent and the result of the battle of Kossovo (1389) and many of the new vassals were restless. The point here is that the Ottomans hold on the Balkans was relatively recent and much more precarious than the book makes it out to be. A similar comment can be made for their hold on Asia Minor, where a similar situation prevailed and where the subjection of other powerful Turcoman tribes and warlords was either recent or incomplete (as shown in the book).

Second, the Ottoman Sultanate straddled the Balkans and Asia Minor, and had been expanding towards both the west AND the east, something that is also shown rather well in the book when the various Ottoman commanders and Princes enter into disputes about strategy. This, by the way, was the same kind of typical dilemma that the Eastern Roman Empire and then the Byzantine Empire had been confronted with: the need to decide on which front they were going to fight, since they could not campaign on both fronts simultaneously. Control of Constantinople would ease communications between the two halves of the growing Ottoman Empire, so that the city was perhaps the "Gates of Europe" but it was also "the Gates to Asia Minor". Moreover, it was held by a Christian State that had formerly ruled over all of the territories currently under Ottoman control, was the successor of the Roman Empire and which could hope to obtain the military and religious help of Christian States, possibly even massive help through a Crusade.

Third, Christian help could come both by land, as happened with the Crusading forces that were crushed at Nicopolis, but also by sea, and this is where control of seaports in general (including Momemvasia) and of Constantinople in particular, could become important. Ottoman dominance was also threatened by the string of victories of Timur Leng (whom we know as Tamerlane) and the destabilising potential that this could have on the Ottoman vassals in Asia Minor.

The author also mentions four Empires - Byzantine, Venetian, Ottoman and "Mongol" (more accurately the Turco-Mongol Empire of Tamerlane). Apart from the fact that there were a number of other rather significant players (the Kingdom of Hungary and the Golden Horde on the Ukrainian steppes, for instance), neither the Byzantines nor the Venetians could even hope to match the Ottomans on their own. The former were rather well aware of it after being beaten just about each time they had tried to face the Ottomans in the field from the beginning of the 1'th century onwards (and with the exception of the Catalan Company episode). The later were more concerned with their secular rivalry against Genoa, where they were gaining the upper hand, and tended to believe, in a perhaps rather delusional way, that they could strike mutually beneficial deals with the Ottomans. So, in reality, there were only two empires that really mattered, not four.

Then there are some issues with the plot and the characters. The story begins in 1204 with a handful of Varangian Guards, including their leader, being tasked by the last Emperor of Constantinople with a crucial and very secret mission of preserving some precious item and hiding it overseas for future use. Needless to say, this item, which you never get to know about, can change the world. Almost two centuries later, their four descendants (and their four sons) are still styling themselves as Varangians and living in Momemvasia (why they are living in Momemvasia and serving its lord and not in Mistra, the capital of the Despotate is not explained). It is rather difficult to believe that these "Varangian traditions" (which are also left unexplained) would have been kept intact for so long, to put it mildly. This is especially the case since the Varangian Guards in Constantinople are only mentioned a handful of times during the 14th century and seem to have been replaced by other newly formed Guard units, especially from the mid-fourteenth century onwards.

One of these four sons - Luke Magoris (who seems to bear Greek names and neither Anglo-Saxon nor Scandinavian names, despite his alleged heritage) - is our hero, but a somewhat ineffective and feeble one with whom I did not manage to empathise. He keeps getting captured (three times) and bashed about every time he sets of to do something. He also keeps getting used and manipulated by others, both "goodies" and "baddies" alike. Then there are two noble born young Byzantine ladies. One is Anna Lascaris, the last descendant of an old Byzantine family and the relatively strong-willed sweetheart of our feeble hero. The second is Zoe Mamonas, the daughter of the scheming lord of Monemvasia, who is just as scheming as her father, at least as intelligent and deceptive as he is, but can never hope to be his heir and inherit from him because she is a girl. Finally, there is the historical character of Prince Sulayman, Sultan Bayezit's eldest son, who is cast as the arch-villain of the novel in a way that makes him into a bit of a caricature, at times.

Some of the secondary characters are perhaps more interesting, especially the historical ones, such as Plethon, a philosopher who is here also a diplomat and something of a (not so) secret agent.

I was not very much impressed by the "Holy Quest" piece whereby our hero seeks to find the mysterious and very secret treasure that everyone - starting with the Ottomans and the Venetians - seems to have heard about. However, the descriptions of "colonial" Genoese rule and economic exploitation of Chios and their trade in mastic and alum were rather interesting.

Perhaps the best part of the book was the section dealing with the battle of Nicopolis, which is reconstructing faithfully from the sources, apart, perhaps, from the vexed question of numbers of both sides where the accounts somewhat conflict. Heneage clearly shows that the behaviour of the Franco-Burgundians with regards to what we would now call "civilians" was rather appalling, just like it had been during previous Crusades (starting with the First one) with a level of arrogance that bordered stupidity. He also shows to what extent they lost the battle, as opposed to the Ottomans winning it. Despite not waiting for the Hungarians to engage the enemy and falling into just about all the traps that the Turks had laid out for them, the casualties that they inflicted on the Ottomans were nevertheless grievous. Further casualties were inflicted on them when they attacked the Hungarians who fought desperately and held out as long as they could on their own. So while the battle was indeed a huge and utterly avoidable disaster for the Christians, it also resulted in large and often unmentioned losses for the Ottomans, with these losses largely explaining why they decided not to resume the siege of Constantinople afterwards.

Three stars.

The Fell Sword
The Fell Sword
by Miles Cameron
Edition: Paperback
Price: 15.46

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An author has fun (again), 17 Feb 2014
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This review is from: The Fell Sword (Paperback)
Just like in the Red Knight, the first volume, reading this one gives the impression that the author essentially has fun writing a piece that takes place in a fantasy world that borrows from European 14th century. It also makes "the Albin" into some kind of cross between Britain and North America, with the North West part of the continent full of monsters (Trolls and Giants, in particular, but no dragons in this episode, except "in disguise") but also elf-like creatures and various types of Indians (with some suggestive tribe names and place names such as the Abenakis or Ticondanga for Fort Ticonderoga).

The eastern part of the continent is called "Morea" and is the seat of a fictional and much reduced Empire modelled on the Fourteenth Century Byzantine Empire, with the capital city called Livianopolis (instead of Contantinopolis) and the second largest city called "Lonica" (instead of Thessalonika). Also very much present are the "Etruscan" merchants, with their respective city-states and colonies inspired from Venice, Genoa and Pisa. The southern part are the lands of Jarsay (would this be inspired from Jersey by any chance?) and Occitan (Languedoc?) while south of the North Cross Ocean lie the lands of Galle, Iberia and, to the south west, Ifrikiya.

At least some of the main characters seem to be loosely inspired from historical figures, although several of the historical figures are often blended together to make up one of the book's characters. For instance, the Imperial Princess Irene seems to be a cross between the Byzantine empress of the same name and the Princess Anna Komnene, although she appears both younger and much less ruthless that the two historical characters. The King of Galle (France) somewhat reminded me of a petulant and younger version of the French King Louis XI. The Red Knight himself reminded me of a rather youthful and sympathetic cross between John Hawkwood, the English mercenary to made a career for himself in Italy and Roger de Flor (whose real name was Rutger von Blum), a rather infamous ex-Templar sergeant and leader of the Catalan Company of mercenaries. He and his men did serve the Byzantine Emperor Andronikos II for a few years at the beginning of the 14th century before being murdered by his employer.
Then there is the story itself, which I will not discuss and let you discover. As in the previous volume, you can expect plenty of physical and magical fights, including a few battles. There are however a number of differences with this book.

First, there are many more stories being told in bits and pieces and in parallel, sometimes more than half a dozen, with events taking place in Morea, Galle, at sea, in the Albin Kingdom (whether at Court, in the South or in the North) and in "the Wild". Depending on preferences, some will like this and find that the device is useful in showing the events taking place simultaneously and in creating some additional suspense, a bit like R.R. Martin has tended to go in his Game of Thrones, while others might find that it complicates the story and spoils the flow.

While I tend to incline towards the former, and very much liked the book, I must also admit that the plot itself was not exactly a surprise, although the story remained rather exciting and I leafed through the whole 600 pages in a couple of days. Note, however, that despite the device of having multiple stories unfolding within each chapter, the real action takes place in Morea with the Red Knight and his Company. Despite some desultory warfare in the North, and the increasing trouble raised by the Galle knights and their insufferable leader at the Albin Court, I could not help feeling that these were all sideshows and "holding actions".

Second, there are the military elements: the respective armies, their equipment and the battles. The Morean forces, irrespective of which side they are fighting on, are a collection of units mixing up regiments and forces that really existed between the 11th (for instance the Scholae) and the 12th and 13th century (for instance the Vardariots and the Latinikon), even if some names have sometimes been modified (the Varangians been perhaps the most obvious example). The Company is a rather typical English force of the mid and second half of the 14th century, with a mix of men-at-arms and squires, on the one hand, and long bowmen on the other hand.

The outcomes of the confrontations between the two types of forces tend to be somewhat predictable and one-sided, however much the author conveys the impression of hard fighting and hotly contested battles, as the long bowmen are shown shooting their opponents to pieces time and again. One exception to this is the merciless contest opposing the simili-Varangians to the mercenary knights serving with the rebels. This is inspired from the battle of Dyrrakhion in 1081 when the Varangians (largely made up of Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Dane exiles at the time) faced Normano-Lombard heavy cavalry and were largely wiped out after inflicting heavy casualties on their opponents.

Anyway, I started this review by suggesting that the author may have had fun in writing this book, which does not preclude some hard work also. I do not know whether this is true or not, although I hope it is. What I do know for sure, however, is that I had a lot of fun reading it and very much enjoyed it...

Four stars and highly recommended. One thing to note however: it is also recommended to read the first volume before this one.

The Unremembered Empire (The Horus Heresy)
The Unremembered Empire (The Horus Heresy)
by Dan Abnett
Edition: Paperback
Price: 9.09

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Half a pace forward…, 17 Feb 2014
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At last, some seven books after “Know No Fear”, the Horus Heresy saga seems to be moving forward, but only by half a pace, with this book being centred on the “Five Hundred Worlds of Ultramar” and their Primarch Roboute Guilliman.

Unfortunately, Dan Abnett’s attempt to bring together a number of loose ends is not, in my view, entirely successful. More generally, there are a number of inconsistencies or tensions across the book, although there are also a number of good pieces and nice touches as well, and I will begin with these.

One nice and amusing touch right at the beginning are the apparitions, with references to and a quotation from “Amulet, Prince Demark”, authored by the dramaturge Shakespire. Another nice bit of context is “Magna Macragge Civitas”, the huge capital city of the planet of the same name, and of Ultramar more generally. Both the text and the map of the city show that Abnett has largely drawn his inspiration from Constantinople and the Late Roman and Early Byzantine Empire.

A third interesting idea was that of a mysterious alien device that acts as an alternative beacon to the Astronomican and manages to pierce through the Chaos storms and draws all sorts of refugees and loyalists to Macragge. It is in part through this device that Abnett manages to bring together a number of the loose ends that I mentioned.

Another interesting feature is that this book allows for a number of insights into Guilliman’s personality which were simply not possible (and not done) in “Know No Fear”, given the battle report format that the author had chosen for that book. So we get some idea as to how Guilliman was trained to be a ruler and a warlord by his human predecessor and by a very interesting character who plays the role of a foster mother. If the point was to show Guilliman as essentially human, and attempting to overcome “human weaknesses” (his emotions) through self-control, then I will admit that Abnett has been quite successful here, even if this is perhaps not quite what readers have become to expect from a “super-human” Primarch.

Unfortunately, this is perhaps where problems started to arise. As noted by another reviewer, the fact that a whole hit-squad of barely disguised enemy Space Marines manages to enter Guilliman’s without being challenged beggars belief. It also is somewhat at odds with the portrait of Guilliman as the ultimate tactician and strategist. Maybe this extraordinary lapse of elementary security can be explained away to some extent by one of Guilliman’s “breakdowns” since it is he who allows them in and expressly prevents his own security from doing its job. Maybe his “semi-godly” status explains why his security does not insist in running even the most elementary checks on his “visitors”, although this is not very credible.

Anyway, as a result, you are treated to a quite superb fight in a confined room between a Primarch and ten Space Marines. In fact, the book contains a somewhat “symmetrical” scene further on when another Primarch gets to fight another squad of Space Marines from another Legion. I could not help having the impression that Dan Abnett rather liked this feature and therefore decided on a repeat. One problem, however, is that this second feature, and the roaming of this second Primarch across the locked-down fortress and palace more generally, puts the Ultramarines in a rather bad light once again. Their security measures look rather inept, given the easiness with which the intruding Primarch avoids them.

Another point is that this books has a concentration of Primarchs – five of which only one is among the “Traitors” and, to some extent, it also tends to concentrate on them. The pieces showing the rather ambivalent relationship between Lion of the Dark Angels and Roboute of the Ultramarines are possibly among the better sections of this volume. However, “Vulkan’s comeback” is not fully convincing. A bit like in the previous volume of the HH series, Dan Abnett seems to have trouble in deciding – once and for all – whether “Vulkan Lives” or not.

The last scenes of the book, with a third “loyalist” Legion and its Primarch arriving, are suitably impressive and grandiose, just like the arrival of the Dark Angels. Here again, Dan Abnett tends to double up his effects.

So I liked a number of features in this volume, and I liked the way in which Dan Abnett managed to bring a number of loose ends together. Thanks to this book, we essentially end up with having three “loyalist” Legions plus elements of most other “loyalist” Legions all gathered at Macragge, all more or less ready to move to Terra’s rescue. However, it was a bit of a pity that all of these Space Marines (a thousand according to the book) never really take centre stage, with the exception of the leader of a group of Scars, whose reason for being on Macragge is somewhat unclear, and a pack of Space Wolves whose role seems to be to prevent Guilliman into becoming a second Horus.

Nevertheless, and as a number of other reviewers, I did not find the plot entirely plausible. The fact that Terra was inaccessible and the Astronomican cannot be seen anymore creates uncertainty. It does not imply that the planet has fallen and the Emperor is dead, neither does it imply the need for a new Regent of the Empire or even a “Second” Empire. More specifically, there were a number of instances (mentioned above) which stretched credulity and goodwill to breaking point.

Three stars for a book that was a bit of a “mixed bag” for me.

There is Only War (Warhammer 40000)
There is Only War (Warhammer 40000)
by Jonathan Green
Edition: Paperback
Price: 10.50

4.0 out of 5 stars Over 40 Warhammer 40K short stories, 16 Feb 2014
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They are exactly forty one of them. Many of them, if not all, have already been published elsewhere, and I certainly remembered reading a handful of them when I came across them in this anthology of short stories. For me at least, this did not really matter, partly because I had read them a while ago and did not remember all the details, and partly because even when I did remember them, I enjoyed reading them again.

It seems that this volume has allowed Black Library to publish short stories from just about all of its Warhammer 40K authors (there are about thirty in this volume). The most successful among them have up to three stories each in this volume, such as Aaron Dembski-Bowden, Dan Abnett or Graham McNeill. Others have a couple of stories each (Nick Kyme and Andy Chambers, in particular).

As you would except with over forty short stories, you will like some more than others. I did not find any that I really disliked or found poor. Many of these short stories are episodes involving some of the characters that are the subject of full novels, such as Talos of the Night Lords for Dembski-Bowden, Patience for Dan Abnett or the Dark Apostle Marduk foir Anthony Reynolds, to mention just these three.

Perhaps one of the main advantages of this collection is that these short-stories are exactly that: short, and all less than forty pages. This makes them rather ideal to read when commuting to and from work, for instance. It also allows you to read them one or a couple at the time from beginning to end and picking up the book again a few days later, without having to go back and read the previous pages because you may have forgotten exactly what had happened before.

Note, however, that if you are going to read this 980 pages plus collection of short stories while commuting, I would very much recommend going for the Kindle version, unless you have a carrier bag with you. The” sheer thickness of the paper version will simply not allow you to fit the book into a pocket!

Four stars for a rather good selection of stories.

The Normans (Elite)
The Normans (Elite)
by David Nicolle
Edition: Paperback
Price: 10.56

3.0 out of 5 stars Superb plates, uneven and sometimes outdated text, 16 Feb 2014
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This review is from: The Normans (Elite) (Paperback)
This title was first published in 1987 and while it remains mostly good as an overview and a general introduction to the Normans, it shows its age and contains a number of inaccuracies and questionable statements. However, most of the main points are nevertheless made and the largely superb plates from Angus McBride help mitigate at least some of these limitations.

First, David Nicolle’s text is at times outdated. This is particularly the case at the beginning of the book, in the first section dealing with “the Norman Legacy” where the simplistic opposition between “tamed Vikings” or “provincial Frenchmen” is almost a caricature. They also reflect debates that are over thirty years old and these are somewhat obsolete given the numerous publications that have taken place on Norman identity.

A similar point can be made about the importance of the Normans in British and European history, with the author stating that it “is denigrated or at least accepted only grudgingly, be the English-speaking world.” This was true up to the early eighties and reflected “pro-Saxon” views going back to Victorian times, but historians’ perspectives have largely changed since then, including those of British historians (see the works of Marjorie Chibnall or David Bates, just to mention these two, among many others).
Then there are some inaccuracies, omissions and questionable statements. I was very surprised to learn that, according to the author, the first Normans “arrived probably as armoured infantry” in Ireland. On the contrary, they arrived with their horses and it is this heavy cavalry that allowed them to gain the upper hand despite their small numbers.

Also, the statement that the majority of the population of the Byzantine province of Langobardia (roughly modern Apulia in Southern Italy) was “Italian” with the exception of Greek-speaking inhabitants around Otranto is simply anachronistic. There was no such thing as an “Italian” during the 11th century. Instead, they seem to have been mostly Lombards, with a number of other minorities settled in the major ports during Byzantine rule (such as an Armenian community in Bari, for instance).

There are about a dozen other strange and questionable statements across the book. One of these states that “the principality of Antioch was never able to fully establish itself in the mosaic of Middle Eastern states”. The exact meaning of this statement is unclear. A similar statement could also be made for any of the other Crusader States to the extent that their existence was threatened and depended upon the links and reinforcements coming from the West. In the case of Antioch, it also depended upon keeping good relations with the large Armenian populations within the principality and to the North of it, and, up to 1180, on avoiding antagonising the Byzantine Empire.

In a second, even stranger, statement, David Nicolle comments that the Norman military elite were not “able to integrate themselves into Syrian society.” This, however, largely misses the point. First, one could wonder whether there was such a thing as a “Syrian society”, with this expression implying some sort of unity or common culture that is at odds with the previously mentioned “mosaic of Middle Eastern States”, some of which were Latin, while others were Arminian, Byzantine, Sunnite or Shiites (the Assassins). Second, the “Franks” were always a minority in all of the Crusader States, an d they remained so, even in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, throughout the existence of Outremer. Third, there is hardly any mention of “Normans”, whether knights or not, after the middle of the 12th century in the sources, simply because they did “integrate” and became largely indistinguishable from other Franks. Fourth, the fact that five more Princes of Antioch were names Bohemond after the death of Count Bohemond’s son in 1130 (Bohemond II) shows a sense of dynastic continuity but this does not allow the author to conclude that “feelings of Normanitas nevertheless remained strong in Antioch.”

Having mentioned these flaws and illustrated them through a few examples, it is also fair to mention that David Nicolle does make most of the main points.

One of these is the Normans’ adaptability, although, contrary to the author, I am not at all sure that it is this that “set them apart from the Vikings” since these exhibited something similar whether in Russia, in the Hebrides or in Ireland. Another point, related to the previous one, but that the author could have emphasised more is that virtually all of the so-called “Norman armies” were in fact heterogeneous forces, with Normans from Normandy only making up a portion of the total force. Even at the battle of Hastings, the “Normans” could have made up no more than half the army, alongside numerous Flemish and Bretons, but also warriors (both cavalry and infantry) from Maine, Anjou and even as far away as Burgundy. This was even more the case for the Normans in South Italy and Sicily where Lombards, Greeks and other Frankish knights (plus Muslims in Sicily) made up most of their forces.

Then there are the rather gorgeous plates. One, is particular (plate I describing the Normans in the East), is perhaps my personal favourites. It shows two Normans, one as an ex-byzantine mercenary and the other as an Italo-Norman Crusader, with the third character being Oshin the Hethoumian, one of several Armenian officers serving in the Byzantine Army who continued to hold against the Turks the provinces and fortresses where they had been stationed well after most of Asia Minor had been lost to the Byzantines. One of the most interesting is the armours of the two milites as they tend to complement their mail shirts with borrowed bits and pieces, whether the (byzantine) scale leather armour or lamellar armour. Both are worn on top of the mail shirt, probably to offer better protection against arrows from horse archers. The illustration of the two knights is derived from the carvings of a Church in Southern Italy.

However, and contrary to David Nicolle’s assertion, it is somewhat unlikely that the lamellar armour comes from Sicily. It certainly does reflect Moslem influence, but this is much more likely to the Turkish since lamellar armour reflected Turkish-Iranian influences. The point here is that rather reflecting the kind of equipment with which these knights might have left Southern Italy for the East, the carvings, done to commemorate their deeds, are much more likely to reflect the kind of armour they might have been wearing on their return.

Three and a half stars, rounded down to three stars.

Gallow: The Last Bastion
Gallow: The Last Bastion
by Nathan Hawke
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.24

4.0 out of 5 stars The last episode with more of everything, 12 Feb 2014
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This is the last volume of the Gallow trilogy, and while it is just about possible to read it on its own, it is much preferable to read all three books sequentially (the two first ones being the Crimson Shield and Cold Redemption).

To a large extent, this one is about MUCH more of the same, with Gallow, the renegade Lhosir (loosely inspired by the Vikings), siding with the Marroc (which made me think of 9th century Anglo-Saxons against his own conquering people. More particularly, he fights against what they have become and against their leader, their new sadistic King who wants him dead and is allied to a supernatural dark power.

The King is bent on revenge against the nomad Vathen, who have conquered the eastern most part of his new kingdom, against the rebellious Marroc of the Varyxhun Valley, and against Gallow himself, who cut of his hand, stole a magical sword and is one of the last of the hero-warriors who initially conquered the Marroc.

In this book, you will find more of everything contained in the first two volumes. First, there is a new episode of the war of the Lhosirs against the Vathen, as the former strike back. Then the King move against the Marroc rebellion with the whole of the Fateguard and his evil, deadly, inhuman and mysterious ally. Finally, there is the siege of the mighty Varyxhun fortress, with its six gates (inspired from Gemmell’s Dross Delnoch) and built by the once-mighty Aulans,

Just like the previous volumes, the story is exciting, violent, gory and rather fast-paced. The climax and the end are mostly good, although not exactly unpredictable.

There were however some of features which made me wonder whether the author is not preparing a few follow-up volumes. We never get any real explanation as to who the master of the Fateguard, the inhuman and mysterious ally of the Lhosir King happens to be, even if we do learn as to who the Fateguard are. Neither does the author explain the sudden demise of the once-so powerful Aulian Empire, although he seems to drop a few heavy hints.

Moreover, this monster is not defeated by the end of the book, although our hero ends up with the means to do so thanks to his scholar/wizard Aulian friend. The last scene, as the scholar discovers the secret of his ancestors half-buried in legend and saves it all is rather interesting, even if perhaps not entirely original.

So, while a good read which I certainly enjoyed, I was a bit put off by the various “lose ends” at the end of the story. Four stars, but not five.

Gallow: Cold Redemption
Gallow: Cold Redemption
by Nathan Hawke
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

4.0 out of 5 stars Not quite the same, 12 Feb 2014
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Volume 1, the Crimson Shield, reminded many reviewers of some of David Gemmell’s works. This is not so much the case with this book, the follow up that takes place some three years later. In fact, this book is somewhat different from the first one.
This is partly because Corvin Scream Breaker, the ageing general and fighter that reminded me (and others) of Druss the Axeman, is no longer one of the main characters. Contrary to what I was expecting when I finished the Crimson Shield, we see no more of him. He gets mentioned a number of times but the author seem to have “evacuated” him from the story, just like we never get to meet the old King of the Lhosir whom Scream Breaker served so faithfully. Initially, I was a bit disappointed by this.

Instead, the story begins with Gallow’s return from what is left of the Aulian Empire, as he struggles with his Aulian companion in the middle of winter on a snowy and icy road in the mountains in his attempt to get back to his family. It will, of course, not be so simple, and his first encounter with a group of Lhosir warriors is anything but friendly.

From then on, the whole story focuses on three main aspects. One is a much more important emphasis on fantastic and fantasy, with the Fateguard and the Shadowalkers almost taking centre stage. Another aspect is about the growing resistance and rebellion of the Marroc against their Lhosir conquerors, with a number of Marroc characters that the reader has come across in the first book appearing again here, together with other new characters. A third aspect is about Garrow’s complex relations, with both his past coming back to haunt him, and his present, his duty towards his friends (and the Aulian scholar in particular), preventing him from being reunited with his family.

Another interesting aspect is that we get glimpses of the Aulian Empire's (loosely inspired from the Roman one) achievements (roads, bridges, castles) before its mysterious demise.

As usual, the fights are of the “up close and personal” variety and end with a rather climatic siege when Gallow fights it out to the finish with a former friend, as good, if not better, than he is. Unlike the previous title, however, the rather malevolent “Six Fingers” – the young King of the Lhosir whose hand was cut off by our hero in the first book, does not make an appearance either. However, his wicked influence can be seen behind most events and his cruelty and sadistic streak – he has a “fondness” for torturing prisoners with what the Vikings termed the “blood-eagle” – is once again in display through his subordinates.

This is more good stuff for those who like this kind of grim heroic fantasy (starting with myself), but not quite more of the same. Another strong four stars read.

The Back Gate to Hell: A Novel of the Late Roman Empire: 3 (The Embers of Empire)
The Back Gate to Hell: A Novel of the Late Roman Empire: 3 (The Embers of Empire)
by Q. V. Hunter
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.13

4.0 out of 5 stars The best of the three?, 7 Feb 2014
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This is volume 3 of the “Embers of Empire” trilogy which takes place during the fourth century Roman Empire under the little-known reign of Constantius II (AD 337 to 361). Again, and like the second instalment, this book can be read on its own because there are enough “reminders” over the first few dozens of pages to make this possible, without making it into a summary of the two previous episodes, something that could be tedious for someone who has already read the first two book. It is, however, preferable to read the trilogy in its logical order.

This book was, in my view, perhaps the best of the three. Apart from the first section, which is mostly about the aftermath of Magnentius’ usurpation, and the rather pitiful state in which this left the Western half of the Empire, with the Germanic frontier supposedly exposed to devastating raids from the Alemmani, this volume essentially concentrates on the little-known short, bloody, tyrannical and tragic reign of Caesar Gallus in the East.

What also makes it original is that it is not about battles and campaigns about the Empire’s enemies, but about intrigues and deadly power plays between the Empire’s highest civil servants and about the ambitions, whether real or perceived, of its top generals. It is also about the dilemma and huge difficulties that confronted Constantius II as he struggled to run the Empire on his own and tried, twice, to find a reliable right-hand man among the surviving male members of his family.

This book is about his first failed attempt in AD 354-355, as Caesar Gallus, Constantius’s cousin, has married Constantia, the Emperor’s scheming, sadistic, fearful and vengeful widowed sister whose husband was murdered on her brother’s orders. The second attempt took place straight afterwards with the last of his living cousins – Julian, later known as the Apostat - being also nominated Caesar, but this time in the West. Essentially, with war on the Persian front against the aggressive Sassanians and the Germanic tribes launching attacks almost simultaneously, Constantius II needed a colleague to take care of one of two fronts when he was fighting on the other one. He also needed this colleague to be a mere puppet, for his own safety and because he was paranoid (and quite rightly so). The problem was that both his colleague, in somewhat different ways, would struggle to exercise the reality of power, as opposed to only its appearances.

This dilemma, and its consequences, underpins the book’s whole intrigue, with our hero Marcus sent to Antioch to investigate whether the unfavourable reports and allegations trickling out from Antioch to Constantius and his Court in the West were slanderous or grounded.

I will not mention anything more about the plot except to mention that, once again, the author has chosen to closely follow Amminianus Marcellinus who, because he had very little to say in favour of Constantine’s heirs, shows very little sympathy for any of them and may have blackened most of them. So Gallus gets portrayed as some half crazed bloodthirsty fourth century version of Caligula, while Constantia is just as decadent and unbalanced. Constantius II is shown as some cold, utterly ruthless and insecure murderous monster. However, at times, he is also depicted as having the Empire’s best interests at heart. This is something that made me (and a number of historians) wonder whether he was as bad as Ammanianus Marcellinus made him out to be, and the author also seems to have been somewhat ambivalent when showing his actions.

A number of characters appear once again in this volume. As in the previous ones, some are less credible than others, notably Roxane the female Agens in Rebus or Eusebius, the unctuous, grasping, awful and vicious eunuch and Chamberlain, who is both our hero’s and Apotemus’ (the Magister and chief of the Agents) main enemy. Other characters “feel and sound” much more realistic, including almost all of the historical top civil servants at Antioch (Thalassius and Honoratus, in particular), caught as they were between their need for self-preservation and their duty to report the crimes and increasingly erratic behaviours taking place under their watch.

The author has, of course, introduced quite a few fictional events (some of the poisoning for instance), but the horrific situation in Antioch including a mix of terror, mismanagement and rampant famine are mentioned (and described at length) by Amminianus Marcellinus who originated from that city. As with the two previous volumes, some point of detail may be somewhat questionable, such as the relatively high figure given for the city’s population (half a million). Antioch was still one of the Empire’s main cities and it would remain so for at least another couple of centuries. However, its population may have been half that number by the mid fourth century, and it seems to have been smaller than that of Alexandria as it was exposed to Sassanian offensive and to earthquakes.

Anyway, despite what are no more than quibbles (there are a number of others as well); this book was worth four solid stars for me.

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