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Britannia: Part II: The Watchmen
Britannia: Part II: The Watchmen
by Richard Denham
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars More fiction than history and a bit disappointing, 18 Jan. 2015
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I read “Britannia: the Wall”, the episode taking place before this one, liked it, despite a few glitches, and reviewed it accordingly. I have just finished this one, which picks up the story more or less where the previous volume left it, but I was disappointed and had a number of problems with the authors’ choices, the plot and with some of the characters which I will try to explain.

I will, however, start with the strongpoints. These are largely similar to those that can be found in the first volume. The historical period chosen by the authors is once again original. The book is weaved around the rebellion of Magnus Maximus against Emperor Gratian, the reign of Maximus in the West from AD 383 to AD 388 and the demise of Maximus at the hands of Emperor Theodosius, the son of Count Theodosius the Elder whom readers came across in the first book.

Two relatively good features are to show the atmosphere of distrust and graft among the officials of Gratian, with one example illustrating the (historical) case of “phantom soldiers” whose names were kept on the rolls after their death so that their officers could pocket their pay. One problem here is that while we do know that this existed in some units, we do not know whether this was a widespread practice, as the authors seem to suggest, and whether, in particular, this was the case with the Schola Palatina of the Imperial Guard.

Moreover, the Schola Palatina was made up at the time some of twelve elite cavalry regiments, six in the West and six in the East, as opposed to the single regiment mentioned in the book. In fact, one of the issues that lead to the murder of Gratian – as opposed to his death sword in hand – was his attempt to replace his guards which were under the sway of Merobaudes, his chief general, by Alan mercenaries devoted to him. Contrary to what is shown in the book, most of Gratian’s army deserted him together with Merobaudes (this key character does not appear at all in the book) and sided with Magnus Maximus and his troops.

The other relative strongpoint is the battle descriptions. Among other things, these show that Roman armies of the late fourth century still had a significant edge, at least against the opponents that they face in the book, despite being outnumbered.

There are also additional problems with these strongpoints.

One of these are the circumstances surrounding the execution of Count Theodosius in Carthage, with the authors present as taking place at the orders of Emperor Gratian because the Count had, very implausibly, been accused of peculation. Again, the role of Merobaudes, for whom Theodosius could only have been a rival, is ignored, just as his role in proclaiming Valentinian II, Gratian’s very young half-brother, as Augustus, is also not mentioned. While the circumstances related in the book may have played a role in the Count’s demise, the fact that he was “purged” by the new regime just after the death of his master Valentinian I tends to show that his demise had other causes that those mentioned in the book. Also, contrary to what the authors mention, the younger Theodosius (the future Emperor) was not present in Carthage when his father was arrested and executed (and had not been present with him in Britannia either).

Another problem is that, contrary to what the authors mention, Gratian’s decision to make Theodosius the Younger into his co-Emperor in the East in AD 378 had very little – and even nothing - to do with concerns about Magnus Maximus who had not started his rebellion and usurpation at the time. It was a direct consequence of the military disaster of Adrianople and the death in battle of Valens against the Goths, none of which are mentioned, rather surprisingly.

The whole episode of Magnus Maximus’ rebellion, which makes up the background of this book, is told in a way that I found rather disappointing.

The authors insist on the building up of the rebellion and the sources of military manpower that he tapped in order to build up his little army. However, the book only includes his campaign in Wales against a large sample of Picts, Scots and “Hibernii” (Irish) happily raiding the countryside, while a Saxon war band and a coup against the “pro-Roman” lords of the Votadini also makes up a significant part of the plot and fighting. Their choice to show the tribes (and the Deceangli in particular) within Roman Britannia as capable of raising significant fighting forces and having essentially retained most of their identity is an unlikely one. It is perhaps even questionable since it ignores the effects of more than 300 years of “Romanisation”.

I also got the clear impression that the authors had spent so much time on the events in Britannia that they add very little left for describing the campaigns of Magnus Maximus in Gaul, his five-year reign as Emperor of the West, and his stand against Theodosius in AD 388. All of this is either not mentioned or crammed in as an afterthought within the last twenty to thirty pages, as if it was unimportant or if the authors were not really interested in it because it was not about Britannia.

Finally, I had problems with some of the plot’s twists and with some of the characters. I will only mention one of each in order to limit the risk of “spoilers”.

I did not quite see the need for one of the “Heroes of the Wall” to fake his death and run off to Augusta Treverorum. This did not seem plausible or even necessary. Besides, Augusta Treverorum seems to be the last place to hide for a fugitive. A similar comment can be made for another fugitive of the events in Carthage. More generally, having a number of the main characters shuttling back and forth between Britannia and the imperial
Court at Augusta Treverorum was also a bit odd at times.

Another problem is about the character and motivations of Magnus Maximus. While these are relatively well described in the first volume, you never quite understand in this volume why he seeks to become “Caesar” and overthrow the young Emperor Gratian. The only – and somewhat implausible – explanations are a mix of prophecies from an Egyptian priestess and the author’s use of Welsh legends about “Macsen Wledig”.

Three stars for a book which I found rather disappointing and not as good as the previous volume.

Fortress 71: The Walls of Rome (Fortress)
Fortress 71: The Walls of Rome (Fortress)
by Nic Fields
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good “primer” and introduction, 14 Jan. 2015
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This is a mostly good “primer” and introduction for anyone wanting to learn the essentials about “the Walls of Rome”.

Although it also has a few mostly minor glitches, it makes the main points. It is well supported by the illustrations, whether the photographs, the plates or the maps, with the two maps allowing the reader to follow the various stages in the building of Rome’s walls. It also includes a full page of references for those wanting to go further and explore some of the topics in more depth.

Unlike a number of other Fortress titles, the book is deliberately structured chronologically and, in this case, this works rather well because it also matches some of the traditional features of the series.

The introduction, the chronology, and the early defences (the so-called “Servian Wall”) set the scene. The context of the construction phase and the construction and layout of Aurelian’s walls come next. They are clearly one the book’s core pieces with consecutive chapters and are about 30 pages long, that is almost half of the whole book. The next chapter is about the major alterations introduced and the shift in the Walls’ function that they translate. The last chapter, from Honorius to Belisarius covers both the fifth and sixth centuries and happens to correspond to the main periods where the Walls saw put to use the three sieges of Rome by Alaric, the several sieges under Belisarius and the siege and storming of Rome when defended by Garibaldi.

One of the most interesting features, which is well presented and discussed by the author, is the real function of the Wall under Aurelian. It was to protect Rome from a sudden attack by “barbarians” lacking significant siege equipment and allow the city to hold out for long enough until a rescue army to reach it. In other words, the original purpose of Aurelian’s fortifications was not to allow the city to withstand a lengthy siege by a well-equipped besieging army. Drawing on some of the sources listed as references, Nic Fields also shows that this corresponded to the type of adversary that were at the time conducting large-scale raiding in Italy and all along the Rhine and Danube frontiers. It is also reflected in the hastiness of the construction and in the inclusion of numerous pre-existing houses and monuments in the circuit. While these and other measures allowed to speed up the construction and to limit its cost, it could also lead to weak points.

A second strong feature of this title is to show how Maxentius, Honorius and Belisarius all strengthened the fortifications and attempted in various ways to make them more defensible and to allow Rome to withstand more lengthy sieges.

The efforts of Maxentius were perhaps the most impressive and, although they seem to have begun in AD 307, the alterations were completed after AD 312 during the reign of Constantine. Essentially, to make Rome more defensible, many gates, doors and posterns were either blocked or narrowed. Wall heights were increased and galleries added to them. Towers were enlarged and strengthened, especially those protecting gates. These changes are particularly well illustrated by the plates that show reconstructions of these changes in structural development over time.

The sections “From Honorius to Belisarius” and “Aurelian’s Legacy” essentially cover episodes when Rome was under siege. The point made by the author is that these altered fortifications seemed to have served their purpose because they allowed the city to withstand two out of the three sieges from Alaric. The also allowed Belisarius to withstand at least two sieges one of them lasting a year and even Garibaldi was able to withstand the first assaults although heavily outnumbered.

There are however also some glitches throughout. One of these is the choice to only include Garibaldi’s defence of Rome, mention the alterations and further strengthening of parts of the perimeter that took place during the Renaissance but purely and simply omit instances when Rome was taken by storm. The most glaring omission is the siege, storm and pillage of Rome in 1527 by the army of Charles Quint, although there are others as well (for instance the storming of Rome by the Normans in 1084).

A second limitation relates to a number of “glitches” throughout the book (although most of them are in the first half), with the author using approximate and inaccurate terms and simplifications as “shortcuts” in an effort to preserve valuable space. This is where you learn, for instance, that Ardeshir of the House of Sassan overthrew the Arsacid Kings and was part of a “nationalist” movement (an obvious anachronism) and that they “constantly” sought to alter the military status quo against the Romans in their favour. Both are over-simplifications to the point that the statements become incorrect. However, it is that the Sassanids turned out to be much more aggressive and more successful against the Romans than their predecessors were although even this might be a bit of a simplification. In a similar vein, you learn about Zenobia’s “formidable cavalry army” that Aurelian defeated comprehensively and twice. In fact, and at least at the first battle, this army contained large numbers of Roman infantry which were the eastern legions (or what was left of them) whose command Odenathus had taken over. There are some other similar glitches and unexplained statements, such as Gallienius’ “elite army” being “quite small”. In fact, it included detachments of at least a couple of thousand men each from more than half a dozen legions, at least one whole legion based at Alba, the praetorians cohorts, and all the cavalry that could be brought together and auxiliary troops as well. So “quite small” here means at least 30000 and more likely 40000 or even more, so perhaps not all that small after all. Another unexplained statement is the qualification of Aureolus as “capricious”.

Four strong stars

The King Without a Kingdom (The Accursed Kings, Book 7)
The King Without a Kingdom (The Accursed Kings, Book 7)
by Maurice Druon
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.88

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars When a King loses France, 11 Jan. 2015
This is the literal translation of the book’s original title in French, and it better conveys this book’s content. Published in the 1970s about a decade after the last of the six original tomes of the Accursed Kings, this one is written quite differently. It can also certainly be read separately from the others, even if it does contain allusions to many of the characters that you come across in the previous volumes.

The book pick up the story of the Kingdom of France more or less where the sixth tome left it (that is after the disastrous French defeat at Crecy) and tells the story of the last years of Philippe VI of Valois, including the Great Plague, before focusing upon the even more disastrous reign of his son John II the Good’s (Jean II le Bon) up to his defeat and capture at the battle of Poitiers by the Black Prince in 1356.

The main difference with the previous volumes is that the story is told in the first person by Helie, Cardinal of Talleyrand-Perigord (1301-1364), eldest son of the Count of Perigord, one of the major princes of the Church when it was established at Avignon. This historical character played a leading role in the election of four consecutive (French) popes and was once of their advisors and apostolic nonce, being send on numerous diplomatic missions, particularly in efforts to reconcile the Kings of France and England in order to bring them on a crusade to the rescue of the remnants of the Byzantine Empire. His presence on the battlefield of Poitiers and his last minute efforts to prevent the battle and find a peaceful solution were scornfully rejected by Jean le Bon. The latter, having caught up and trapped the Black Prince and his army with a vastly superior force (probably about three to four times than the 6000 or so Anglo-Gascon army), believed the battle was as a good as one. It turned out to be yet another French disaster, with the King himself being captured (hence the book’s title).

All these events, the years and campaigns leading to this catastrophic disaster and some of the desperate efforts and struggle that Charles the Dauphin (the future Charles the fifth) had to deploy and put up to cement his power, are superbly told by Maurice Druon through the voice of the Cardinal.

As usual, the author has taken a lot of care to get the historical context right. As usual also, the story he tells is a striking one, with Jean II le Bon appearing as one of the most incompetent, stupid, weak and unstable kings that France ever had. For those readers that might wonder whether the author has been biased and exaggerated, all the series of blunders leading up to the catastrophic defeat of Poitiers and to the king’s capture and that the Cardinal describes in his narrative while on the road to Metz to participate in a meeting with the Dauphin and the German Emperor are perfectly historical. Nothing is invented even if the author, through the Cardinal – his mouth-piece – clearly has little esteem and makes no excuses for King Jean “le Bon”. Even this earning of this nickname is somewhat ironical (it meant “the Brave” or “the Good”) because he earned by going quite berserk on the battlefield of Poitiers and fighting like he was possessed well after the battle had been lost and after doing just about everything he could have done to lose it and taking a stupendous series of poor decisions.

The book, however, contains much more than this although I will only focus on three main features in order to prevent this review from becoming overlong.

Contrasting with the King’s stupidity, and his heir’s inexperience, youthfulness and physical defects, is the devious, cruel, murderous and treacherous Charles, King of Navarre, but also Count of the rich county of Evreux and lord of many other places in Normandy. He fully deserves his nickname of “the Bad”. He was the King’s cousin and a rival who plotted against the King, largely because he also had a claim to the throne of France through his mother, the daughter of Louis X Le Hutin (the eldest son of Philip the Fair) and would even have had a better one but for the “invention” of “the Males’ law” by which only male heirs could claim the throne. Here again, and although Charles the Bad (“Le Mauvais” in French meaning both the “bad and “the wicked”) looks like the perfect “arch-villain” but here again, every action and every character trait that he bears are backed by the historical sources.

Also in contrast with both of the above is the flamboyant, handsome and brave Count of Foix (and quite a few other places) and Prince of Bearn, Gaston III who self-styled himself Gaston “Fébus” (or Phoebus – “the Sun”). Modesty and lack of self-confidence were clearly not among his major qualities and flaws, respectively, but he had quite a few other qualities and flaws, as the book shows so well. Then there are number of other well-known characters that are depicted, including Edward Prince of Wales, the so-called “Clack Prince” allegedly because of his armour, at a time when he was still the young (26) and dashing Prince of Aquitaine in overall command of the English army.

Another fascinating character where the author may have taken some liberties is the Cardinal of Perigord himself. His narrative of the events is interlaced with his memories about his younger years and his concerns about his revenues and about the Church. The main point of interest with these memories and personal comments and which runs throughout the book is to depict one of these “Princes of the Church” who lived in the same king of sumptuous luxury than secular dukes and counts, and found it perfectly normal, and even necessary to do so. The descriptions of the richness of his clothing, his huge escort (two hundred lances, meaning perhaps four to five hundred horsemen altogether, including squires, pages and all sorts of servants) and his large baggage train show to what extent he travelled in style across France on his various missions. Also included in the book are some of the tensions and conflicts within the Church between those wanted the papacy to remain in Avignon and those wanting it to return to Rome, and between the aristocratic Cardinals, like Perigord who became bishop at twenty-three and cardinal before the was thirty, and the ones who had been raised from the commons or who came from the Friars or the Mendicant Orders. The allusion to the causes of the 16th century Reformation movements across Europe, but also to a number of other “heresies” (according to the Church of course) that would develop before is rather clear.

Finally, there is the author’s portrait of France in the early years of the second half of the fourteenth century, just after the great plague. As the author mentions in his introduction, the French monarchy had started off the century by being the richest, the most populated and the most powerful Christian kingdom in Europe. It reached one of its lowest points under the reign of Jean II le Bon, with Maurice Druon giving the impression that all that had made it great had somewhat decayed and was further decaying as each French King seemed to be that much worse than his predecessor. The author gives a number of examples of this throughout the book, from the burned sceneries discovered by the Cardinal through his travels, to the displays of vanity, arrogance and stupidity of (at least some) of the French chivalry, including the scheming and large-scale stealing of the King’s highest ranking officers, and especially his treasurer.

Another five star read which I cannot recommend enough.

In God's Path: The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire (Unabridged)
In God's Path: The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire (Unabridged)
Offered by Audible Ltd

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A mostly good but also a limited overview and starting point..., 11 Jan. 2015
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Book ordered in November from Amazon and received on 8 December 2014

This is a mostly good overview for anyone wanting to get started on the Arab Conquests and the Islamic Empire up to AD 750 and the rise of the Abbasid Caliphs. There are several reasons for buying and reading this book.

One is that it is relatively short and clearly and well-written. As such, it is well-suited for the so-called "general reader" with only general knowledge on the topic.

A second feature is that the author obviously knows his topic well but manages to strike a good balance between a clear and well-structured chronological approach and presentation and discussions of most of scholarly issues. A related feature is that the book includes in its bibliography just about all of the main references and resources, with an emphasis on the most recent works, or at least this is the impression I had based on my (arguably limited) knowledge of the period.

One of the book's strongest points is his presentation of the sources in general, and of the key limitations of the Muslim sources and the need to rely on non-Muslim - although not only Christian - sources in particular. Essentially, there are no contemporary Muslim sources for the Conquests, or, at least, none remain. The closest in time were written over a hundred years later and their purpose was clearly not to be historically accurate in relating such distant and already semi-mythical events. It is because of this that historians need to rely and use the contemporary non-Arab and non-Muslim sources, in addition to the more general need to make use of all historical sources because they may complete or, on the contrary, deviate from each other.

Many of the points that are made in this book are crucial ones, but some could have been perhaps further developed. Also, and while the author may have had to make some though choices, I could not help finding the limited treatment or even the absence of some other themes rather surprising.

One point that the author (and a number of other historians before him) have insisted upon is that the Muslim that conquered the Middle East, Africa and most of Central Asia did not do so as easily and quickly as they have been traditionally portrayed to have done.

A related point is that the Empire they set up was clearly not "created overnight". In both cases, there were evolutions and the initial rules, in the years and decades that followed the conquests made much use of the structures of government and of the existing populations, starting with the coinage. Three other related points were the mixed nature of the initial "Arab" armies, who do not seem to have all been Muslims at least initially, the fact that such "Arabs" were far from being all "half-savage" nomads straight out from their deserts and the fact that the settled populations and half-nomadic tribes that they first attacked along the borders of the Byzantine and Persian Empires were ethnically related to at least some of them.

Another key theme is to discuss the impact of religion on the Conquests and the extent to which these were successful because the conquerors were Muslim and "true believers". Some of them certainly were, but not all of them, as the author shows. Others, including some of the best leaders were relatively recent converts and some of these conversions may have run "skin-deep".

This is one of the areas that could have benefited from more discussion. In its absence, the author tends to minimise the religious factor and goes as far as to state that the main attraction for the warriors of these early armies was plunder. There may be a grain of truth insofar that both were certainly among the motivations and the causes of success. However, such a statement, while very likely and probable, is essentially unprovable other than through analogies with other conquests that were portrayed as religiously driven. In addition, there were numerous other factors, with Hugh Kennedy listing up to fourteen others in his own (and older) book on the same topic.

A number of these factors are discussed, such as the weakness of the Byzantine and Persian Empires which had fought each over to exhaustion and bankruptcy for a quarter of a century, but not all of them are discussed systematically. This is a bit of pity for it is their combination that ensured the successes of the conquerors, rather than a single element and whatever that element may be.

With regards to the catastrophic defeats suffered by the two Empires and the invasions that they suffered, quite a lot more could have been mentioned and discussed to the extent that the military side of these conquests is probably one of the significant weaknesses of this book. Ironically, and while making a statement that the Arab Conquests were neither as quick nor as smooth as they tend to be shown traditionally, Robert Hoyland mentions little of the campaigns themselves and even less about the various battles. Had he done so, this would have further demonstrated several of his points such as the fact that the two Empires were initially caught by surprise and had clearly underestimated their opponents and the scale of the problem they were faced with. Another point was that both the Byzantines and the Persians, after initial setbacks, counter-attacked and were not always defeated. However, they did lose the decisive battles, although these were much more heavily contested (and more balanced in terms on numbers and equipment) than they are often believed to be.

A related weakness of this book is it could have better shown the unintended consequences of the "fight to the death" between the two Empires and the impact this had on the multiples tribes that were squeezed in between the two colossi. While the author does show that the Arab peninsula was exposed to multiple cultural influences and including many religions and communities, there is not very much on the emergence of the Muslims themselves. Another limitation is that the author does not provide any real discussion explaining why endemic and mostly small scale raids against the borders of the two Empires, which had been going on for centuries, suddenly grew out of all proportions in the space of a few years and turned into invasions.

While this book's next chapter titles (from chapter three onwards) follow a chronological order and are focused on the Conquests that followed "the First Battles", they also contain much more than this. Also included are the politics and governance issues that shook the expanding Muslim community and lead to several spats of civil that were as many precious breathing spaces for the beleaguered Byzantine Empire.

Another feature is to discuss and present how the Muslim presence and (limited) government was initially organised in the conquered territories, with the army segregated from the conquered populations in large military camps which, over time, became cities. Initially, and for about a century, the purpose was clearly not to convert the subjugated populations to the "true faith" since they were the ones who, in exchange of being allowed to continue to practice their religions and of being essentially left alone would through their taxes, paid for the "Arab Junds" established in their city-garrisons and for the Arab ruling class more generally. Overtime, however, and little by little as more and more converted, including and perhaps even starting with enslaved prisoners, and wanted to share in the multiple advantages that being Muslim could bring, the system had to evolve because it became unsustainable.

The conflicts involved by the establishment of the first Empire - that of the Omayyad dynasty - after the first conquests (roughly after AD 640), and the economic and political issues that they had to deal with are among the better sections of this book. Also rather good are the sections dealing with the mounting problems faced by the latter Caliphs of this dynasty and the increasing challenges coming from the east in general and often from Islamised Persians, in particular. Another well-made point is to show how increasingly difficult it was becoming to rule over the whole Empire, with this announcing what would start to happen a few years after the rise of the Abbasids: the growing fragmentation of the Empire.

The sections about the continuing struggles against the Byzantine Empire are perhaps not as good however. The focus is very much on the conquerors and, once again, on politics and strategy. The problems with such an approach is that the military events, the Byzantine perspective and the reasons for the ultimate failure for the Caliphate to conquer Constantinople desperate several protracted sieges all tend to take a back seat or are left somewhat unexplained at times, or, perhaps more accurately, insufficiently explained.

The last chapter of the book - titled "The Making of Islamic Civilisation" - is an enlarged conclusion. It describes the ingredients of the Islamic Civilisation, how it emerged and came to encompass much more than only "the Arabs" and how it also evolved to become a commonwealth and not only the civilisation of the conquerors. Four stars.

Child Emperor Rule in the Late Roman West, AD 367-455 (Oxford Classical Monographs)
Child Emperor Rule in the Late Roman West, AD 367-455 (Oxford Classical Monographs)
by Meaghan A. McEvoy
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £79.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating narrative, interesting thesis but poorly and unconvincingly delivered, 10 Jan. 2015
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At the outset, I need to mention that I will have to partly disagree with at least some of the contents of the previous review posted on I also need to make clear and perhaps apologise for the fact that this will be a very long review because the book contains so much of value mixed up with problematic elements and unconvincingly delivered.

Contrary to the assertion of this reviewer, I am afraid that this monograph is very much “a hard slog for the scholarly and the non-scholarly reader” and it is neither “excitingly paced” nor even “well-written” in my view. It is also a slow slog, with the author belabouring each and every point she makes and coming back to it again and again across the book “to flog the issues to death” yet again. In other words, the “readability” of this book could have been significantly improved, and its size reduced significantly, if the author had managed to cut out the multiple repetitions that are contained in it.

The origin of the problem here is that the author, by deliberately structuring her book chronologically to come up with a narrative of the various reigns, ends up by repeating the same points as similar issues arising in largely similar (but also at times somewhat different) circumstances, lead to similar “solutions”, that is the reigns of child-emperors. In other words, the author attempted to “build her case” and demonstrate her thesis through a narrative of the period and her interpretations of it. The problem with this approach is that the themes (for instance the shifting image of the Emperor) get repeated throughout the narrative, chapter after chapter, as child-emperor reigns have to deal with similar issues.
In fact, I would even recommend for those who pick up the book to start by reading the twenty plus pages of the conclusion where the author summarises the points she has tried to make but has much less room for repetition.

This is a pity because it is likely to put off quite a few potential readers. It is also a shame because the period and the author’s thesis are, respectively, fascinating and interesting, even if not entirely convincing. The contents of this book are certainly valuable and well-worth reading and worth the (significant) effort and patience that you might have to invest when doing so.

The period under review is the end of the fourth century AD and the first half of the fifth century in the Late Roman West or, to be more precise the period between AD 367 and AD 455 from the accession of Gratian, the young son of Emperor Valentinian and the first of the child Emperors, up to the assassination of Valentinian III, the last of the House of Theodosius to reign in the West. It is, in and of itself, a fascinating one because it is so closely related to the “Fall of the Roman Empire”, a topic which are always attracted a lot of interest from scholars (as far back as Gibbon and even before) and from the general public and it still (and perhaps increasingly) does nowadays.

One of the interest points, and one of the reasons that explain why the fifth century has often (but not always) received comparatively less attention from historians in the West, is that the literary sources, on which they used to rely almost exclusively, are more incomplete and even less untrustworthy than for almost any other period of the Roman world, with, perhaps, the exception of the so-called “Third century crisis”.
There are two related reasons for this. The first one is accidental. Unlike what exists for the fourth century and the sixth century (or for previous centuries of the Roman Empire), there is no longer a single complete work covering more than a few episodes and events for the period. There were several for both the Eastern and the Western halves of the Empire, but only fragments of them have survived. The second reason is that among the surviving sources are a number of panegyrics (praising a number of Emperors and generalissimos), hagiographies (Lives of Saints) and other Christian writings which, because of their very nature, are even more biased than what can usually be expected from historical written sources. The consequence here is that it was (and still is, to some extent) more difficult to piece together a comprehensive narrative of the period and interpret the various events and their implications than for other periods of the Empire when only relying on such information.

Fortunately, scientific progress and increased reliance on what used to be called (somewhat disparagingly and very unfairly) “the ancillary sciences” have helped considerably and largely changed our vision of the fifth century over the last forty or even fifty years. So interest in and increasing light being shown upon the fifth century is not something that has been happening “only recently” as reading the still seminal two volume book on the Late Roman Empire from A.H.M. Jones going back to 1964 would show, for instance. These “ancillary sciences” include archaeology, numismatics (the study of coins), epigraphy (the study of inscriptions carved in stone) and in-depth analysis of legal and administrative documents (such as the Theodosian Code), among others. Meaghan McEvoy, like other contemporary historians, has largely used the findings coming from this sources of information to supplement the written sources and to some extent make up for their insufficiencies and has done a good job (and at times even an excellent) job in doing so in this book.

It is essentially by using all of these sources from multiple fields that she has managed to piece together a fascinating narrative and this is certainly one of her main achievements. Needless to say, the narrative of the period under review has simply nothing to do with “a real life Game of Thrones”.

Arguably, some sections of the narrative may be more original than others but even for these, the author, like any historian, builds on previous works. One of the sections that I preferred was the chapter titled “The Interregnum and the Rise of Flavius Constantius” which covers the period immediately after the fall and execution of Stilicho (AD 408) up to the death of Flavius Constantius a bit less than fifteen years later. Again, there are several reasons for this. One of because it is comparatively less well known and there is no monograph in English on Constantius III to my knowledge (although there is at least one in German). Another is because it clearly shows that despite all its problems and the crises it had went through, the Western Empire was still resilient and able to make “a come-back” when lead by a strong and competent leader and however limited the “come-back” ultimately turned out to be.

Another strong section is chapter four showing how the imperial image was adapted (Adapting the Imperial Image”) and further “sacralised” from the reigns of Gratian and Valentinian II onwards (that is between AD 367 and AD 392) to fit the circumstances of child-emperors who could no longer be “imperators” and command in the field as their predecessors had for so long. This was, for me at least, perhaps one of the most fascinating sections of the whole book because it showed how the Courts manipulated the Emperor’s image and slanted the official propaganda machine to fit the circumstances and their own interests. The problem I had is that the imperial image was not adapted once and for all. This was a dynamic process and the image continued to evolve over time under the reigns of Honorius and Valentinian III.

This, again, points to one of the book’s main limitations. Unfortunately, and as already alluded to, the absence of any real thematic sections alongside the chronological narrative leads to multiple repetitions which somewhat undermine the case that the author tries to make and lead to tensions in the thesis.

A case in point is the author’s discussion about whether “child-emperors” were “An Accident of Power” (chapter 5) or not. At times, and throughout her book, the author almost tends to believe so, because she shows that the apparently sudden deaths of Valentinian I, Theodosius I and Constantius III, three middle aged emperors and commanders in chief that fitted the traditional definition of a Roman Emperor, were accidental and unpredictable. Then she tends to identify a pattern whereby these apparently similar succession crises were dealt with in similar ways by senior civil and (increasingly) military officials who preferred to “rule behind the scenes”, keep the emperor as a mere puppet and figure head and monopolise the substance of power for themselves without trying to usurp its form and became emperors in name.

This theme is also a rather fascinating one but the author, at times, seems almost guilty of ignoring how different the circumstances surrounding each crises happened to be while in other sections on the book, she acknowledges these differences when making slightly different points. When Valentinian I died, his heir and eldest son, Gratian was already sixteen, almost of age to command armies in his right and hardly a child-emperor anymore. The motivations behind the proclamation of the Valentinian II, his younger brother who was a child emperor, by Merobaudes and other officials surrounding his father when he died seems to have been what we would nowadays qualify as “job preservation” and “physical survival” since regime changes at the time tended to include brutal purges as a way for the new regime to cement its power. This proclamation prevented Gratian from doing so, since he could hardly have his own brother murdered, and he probably did not have the necessary power to conduct such a purge anyway. While the author does make these points rather skilfully, she then goes on and tries to portray Gratian as seeking to escape from their influence as if he was a child emperor through military achievements. In fact, there seems to have been a rivalry between Gratian and Merobaudes as both sought to bring the army under their sole control. It is in this light, for instance, that Gratian’s build-up of an Alan force (for which he was subsequently blamed), and Merodaubes’ treason in favour of Magnus Maximus should probably be seen. The first was trying to undermine his senior general’s control over the army while building up his own power base, but failed to do so in time. The second abandoned his emperor in the field, bringing most of the army over with him, and siding with the usurper, therefore sealing Gratian’s fate.

The succession of Theodosius I was a somewhat different story. There were two fully acknowledged child emperor to succeed him and only one senior general (Stilicho) with no military rival because, by AD 395, these had been eliminated and a good part of the army of the East was still in the West. However, the rivalry and competition for power was between Stilicho and the Eastern Court surrounding Arcadius, the Eastern child-emperor, and Theodosius I has spent most of his reign in asserting himself as the senior emperor. As the author shows well, Stilicho claim to rule on behalf on the western child-emperor was at best tenuous and had little legitimacy apart from his control of the army and the alleged wish of a dying emperor. What she does not show as well, however, is that this was also the case in the East.

This element points to one of the book’s weaknesses since the parallels made between the Western and the Eastern half of the Empire become selective because the author has limited the scope of her book to the Western half of the Empire only. There were also at least two cases of child-emperor reigns in the East – Arcadius and the early years of Theodosius II – but these did not take the same proportions as in the West. Investigating why child-emperor rule became entrenched in the West but not in the East would have been a valuable component of the author’s thesis, but it could also have somewhat undermined it by showing that the main reasons could have been circumstantial if not purely “accidental”.
The third succession that of Constantius III, was also different but also accidental. His death was shortly followed by that of Honorius. This time, however, a usurper (John, a palace official) stepped in to fill the power vacuum. This time also (as it had done after the death of Valentinian II), it was the East who overthrew the usurper in a more “traditional” way through an armed expedition and civil war.

Here again, the author introduces a valuable point which gets repeated afterwards about the influence of the Eastern Empire on the Western half, although she again somewhat fails to explain it. Simply put, the Eastern half was richer and stronger, as shown in “The Rome that Did Not Fall”. It also benefited from different circumstances. Unlike the western half, it would not fall prey for long periods of time to ambitious generalissimos because these would be successfully side lined and destroyed (Gainas and Aspar, in particular). However, the suggestion that the Eastern Court, through the pressure that it exercised, was able to restrain the power of Aetius, curtail it and prevent him from overthrowing Valentinian III is a very interesting and plausible one.

Also fascinating is the author’s discussion about the inherently instable nature of child-emperor rule even if a more appropriate term might have been “reign” since the whole purpose was to have them reign but not in effect rule. The fact that it could only endure as long as the titular emperor accepted to remain a figure head is well made. What is also well shown is that all of the child-emperors in the West, with the exception of Honorius, precisely did not accept this when they grew up, and this is why Gratian (who had never accepted it and does not exactly qualify as a child-emperor by the time his father died), Valentinian II and Valentinian III ended up by being murdered.

In fact, one of the main paradoxes of this book is to show that only one out of the “child-emperors” (Honorius) really meet the expectations of child emperor rule. The three others (and not only Valentinian III) tried to reject it when the “child-turned-adult Emperor” to quote the title of one of the author’s chapters. This, in itself, also undermines part of the author’s thesis, however interesting it happens to be, by showing that there was no long-term shift in favour of child-emperors.

Reinforcing this are two points also made by the previous reviewer on Several of the successors of Valentinian III were both adults and soldiers (as opposed to child-emperors) whose significant military experience would lead to clashes with the prevailing generalissimo of the time (Ricimer). In fact the only child-emperor in the West after the death of Valentinian III seems to have being the very last one to hold this title, with his father ruling though him. The second point is that Meaghan McEnvoy’s contention that child-emperors were "to become common in the following centuries'' in the Byzantine Empire is amazing and factually incorrect.

Despite its limits, I will nevertheless rate this book a perhaps generous four stars. I hesitated between three and four stars but finally went for the latter because of the book’s fascinating narrative and its interesting thesis, however flawed it may be, partly because the author tries to make too much out of it.

The Last of the Romans
The Last of the Romans
by Jeroen W. P. Wijnendaele
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £50.00

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars “Last of the Romans”, “First of the Warlords”, maligned and little known, 7 Jan. 2015
This review is from: The Last of the Romans (Hardcover)
Comte Bonifatius, who, according to Procopius, shared with Aetius the title of “Last of the Romans” is a little known Roman general of the early Fifth century in the West who was Comes Africae and played a rather important role on several occasion.

This short, scholarly but comprehensive and eminently readable book is a biography of the little known character and, just as importantly, a history of what was a key period between AD 375 and AD 442 and made up what the author qualifies as the “World of Bonifatius, and that of his potential successor, Sebastian.

This book includes many valuable components which, together, make it well worth five stars.

The first of these is to paint a brief but nevertheless illuminating picture of how the Roman world, and the Western part of the Empire in particular, had evolved since the death of Valentinian I, the last strong emperor who died suddenly in AD 375. One of the key features included is to present the changes in the imperial function that followed and in particular the emergence of what another author has recently termed the “child-emperor rule”, with the Emperor in the West losing his military role and this role being exercised by a series of strongmen who increasingly competed against each other. Bonifatius was one of them.

A second merit of this book is to present a well-balanced account of the Count’s rise to power. Although we know nothing of his early years, it does show how a young and promising officer (probably a tribune in command of a vexillatio – a cavalry regiment) could rise and become an important military commander at the time. This could be done through a mixture of conspicuous bravery (by wounding the King of the Goths in battle), usurpation, and seizure of a strategic command - the rich province of Roman Africa and its strategic wheat supply, and ability to resist multiple efforts to dislodge him.

Another merit is to analyse what were the roots of his power. This is where Bonifatius can again be compared to Aetius. Unlike both Stilicho and Constantius, who were still essentially Roman generals, both were also essentially warlords and their power derived largely from their buccellari or “household troops” made up, respectively, of several hundred of crack Gothic and Hunnic cavalry. In fact, Bonifatius seems to have constituted his own following prior to that of Aetius who would only get his during the usurpation of John in 422-423, by marrying a Gothic princess a few years before and “inheriting” her bodyguard of armed retainers. It seems to be thanks to these buccellari that he was able to seize and keep control of Carthage and Roman Africa shortly after 417. The author also clearly shows the growing importance of these retinues and illustrates this point by telling the story of how Aetius in turn “inherited” Bonifatius’ buccellarii by marrying his widow. One may however doubt whether this was really done with the consent of the dying Count, as the sources state and as the author seems inclined to believe.

A fourth merit of this book is a reassessment of Count Bonifatius’ career in two major respects.

One aspect shows the key role that he played in the restoration of Valentinian III as Emperor of the West. The author also shows rather well the support that he provided to Galla Placidia and which brought both her and her infant son back in power at Ravenna. This support somehow forced the hand of the Eastern Emperor Theodose II whose troops overthrew the usurper John but who seems to have been less than very keen to restore his nephew and leave him under his mother’s control.

The second aspect is to discuss the Vandal invasion of North Africa and reassess Bonifatius’ role. Here again, the author convincingly demonstrates that he was not the traitor who invited them, contrary to what East Roman sources and propaganda have pretended. Instead, he shows the Count’s dogged resistance against the more powerful Vandals with only a limited number of mostly second-class frontier troops and his ability to do so in particular through his successful defence of Hippo during a long siege, despite having previously been defeated in pitched battle by the Vandals. Two related aspects show that he collaborated with the forces sent by the Eastern Roman Emperor to Africa to push back the Vandals between 430 and 432 but also illustrate to what extent tensions and rivalries between Roman generals in the West could lead to fratricide fighting even when the Vandals were at the door.
In addition to several attempts and military expeditions to remove him from Africa prior to AD 429, his final armed conflict against Aetius in AD 432-33 is yet another illustration of Roman generals’ tendency to privilege civil warfare and target Roman rivals first before targeting any invading barbarian forces. Despite winning the engagement against Aetius, with the clash opposing the household troops of both warlords rather than whole armies, Count Bonifatius died a few weeks afterwards of his wounds, leaving Aetius as the sole surviving warlord in a position to become the supreme generalissimo in the West for the next twenty years.

The book also includes two more valuable and little known features, although, given its limited size, discussion of these features is a bit limited. One is the interesting and complex relationship that Bonifatius developed with Augustine of Hippo and the influence that the latter exercised upon him at least for a period. The other is the fate of his successor Sebastian who seems to have managed to keep control of some of Bonifatius’ buccellarii, took refuge at the East Roman Court for a short period and then travelled back to Sicily and Spain before launching a surprise attack on Africa in a daring but perhaps also reckless attempt to rest Carthage from King Genseric the Vandal in AD 442. This is the second are where I had some doubts because the author may have somewhat exaggerated the threat that Sebastian and his smallish band of followers were able to pose to the Vandals. The later were not caught unprepared and cut Sabastian and his followers to pieces.

Five stars all the same for a concise, clear and illuminating little book that sheds some much needed light on this often poorly known period in general, and on the fall of Roman Africa and the infighting between Roman generals and warlords in particular.

War at the Edge of the World (Twilight of Empire)
War at the Edge of the World (Twilight of Empire)
by Ian Ross
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.09

23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars New competitor, 7 Jan. 2015
This historical novel – the author’s first – sets up Ian Ross as a new competitor able to challenge the existing “masters” of the “swords and sandals” genre, including Harry Sidebottom Simon Scarrow, Anthony Riches and a number of others as well. Simply put, the book makes for a superb read. It is easily worth five stars and I can only recommend it.

As another reviewer has already mentioned on the UK site, there are some similarities between Ian Ross’ main character and hero, the Pannonian centurion Aurelius Castus, and Scarrow’s Centurion Macro. Both are tough, dedicated, hard-bitten and no nonsense veterans who have reached their position by rising through the ranks. As also mentioned, Nigrinus the scheming notary will remind some of Narcissus, Emperor Claudius’ freedman. The action, which mainly takes place up in the northern part of Britain and beyond Hadrian’s Wall reminded me of some of Anthony Riches’ books, and so did the author’s talent in depicting the horror, terror and blood surrounding close combat. Finally, the author’s efforts to be as historically accurate as possible made me think of Harry Sidebottom and they are all the more impressive since Ian Ross, unlike Harry, is not a professional historian.

All of this, and a rather gripping story, would already be enough for this book to deserve at least four stars. However, there is much more to it than that. Essentially, two main sets of features stand out. One is that the book has a significant number of differences that makes it different although I am not suggesting that it is necessarily “better” than those of the authors mentioned above. The other feature is the rather extraordinary care that the author seems to have taken in making this story both believable and realistic, down to the slightest details.

It is on these two sets of features that I would like to focus upon for the rest of this review.

First, there are a number of elements that make this book different.

One is the setting of the story during the early years of the fourth century AD (with a prologue in AD 298) and more precisely in AD 305 and 306 when Constantius Chlorus came to Britain and successfully campaigned against the Picts before dying of illness at Eboracum. As another reviewer has mentioned, this period, and the rise to power (or the usurpation, to be more accurate) of Constantine in particular, is one of the new episodes and periods of the Roman Empire that have not been recently covered by the growing crowd of authors publishing Roman historical fiction.

Another feature - perhaps more important - is the care taken in characterising the Pannonian Centurion Aurelius Castus. He is strong as a bull but not handsome, loyal, but does not look particularly bright and knows neither how to read or write. He comes from a humble background. He rose through the ranks because of his stubbornness, his bravery and his strength although the feats accomplished look more like self-preservation of the “kill or be killed” variety. He also speaks Latin with a thick Pannonian accent that his fellow centurions make fun off and, despite professing to not care, he is eager to integrate and has his sole family are his own fellow soldiers (or “brothers”). The net effect is to make the character plausible and even believable because he “sounds and feel” real and almost ordinary to such an extent that you can easily imagine dozens like him within the Danubian legions.

A related feature is the care taken to present the other secondary characters – Castus’ Centurion in Armenia with his “face of command” being a prime example – and the historical characters, in particular the Emperors Galerius and Constantius and the young and dashing Constantine. Here again, everything is done to make them credible and believable.

Yet another feature is the skilful insertion of the (fictitious but plausible) plot into the (real) historical context. The story about Constantine being held as a “quasi-hostage” by Galerius to ensure Constantius’ “good behaviour” is authentic and so is his rather hard to believe escape across more than half the Roman world to join his father just before he embarked for Britain. The (historical) tensions between the senior Augustus (Galerius) and his rival (Constantius) that this reveals are used by the author to strongly suggest his own plot and make it credible, although it is only a possibility that none of the historical sources confirms - and when you discover what the plot happens to be, you will easily understand why this is the case! Suffice is to say is that you will get more than your fill of treason, intrigue, murky politics and double-dealing.

The second set of features is about the meticulous care that the author has taken to get everything “right”, including the smallest details.

As Ian Ross’ mentions in his author’s note, this has implied significant research work (and a lot of time spent doing so). Such details include the changes in Roman arms, armour and equipment that had taken place throughout the third century when comparing the Roman legionary of Trajan and Hadrian to that of the Tetrarchy with these including helmets, shields, dropping segmented armour, adopting longer swords but also spears, throwing darts and a couple of javelins to replace the gladius and the pilum. Those wanting to verify how accurate the author has been can check each and every item by reading “Legions in Crisis: Transformation of the Roman Soldier AD 192-284 (Paul Elliot, 2014).” The list and description of all the units mentioned as attached to the two Emperors (respectively Galerius and Constantius) on their campaigns and which were part of their field armies (their comitatus) are also just as accurate. The numbers of the respective crack forces are quite plausible. The author has also hinted at the growing distinction and difference in quality between frontier garrison troops (here illustrated by the 6th Legion based at Eboracum) and the crack troops of the field armies, a distinction that started to appear by the end of the Third century and which would grow all through the fourth and fifth century. Even the food (biscuit, cheese etc…), drink (posca – the sour wine mixed with water) and other military features (pack mules and military slaves, for instance) are accurate.

The same care is shown when describing battles and fights. This starts right from the beginning of the book, with Galerius’ crushing victory over the Sassanid Persians whose army he managed to skilfully catch, trap, corner and comprehensively destroy. The terrifying charge of the Persian cataphracts (super-heavy armoured cavalry), the discipline displayed by the legionaries in standing their ground and repulsing it and the sheer horror and brutality of the shock are particularly impressive and set the tone for the rest of the book. There is perhaps just one doubtful element in this scene and this is the decapitation of the leading Persian officer which seems a bit unlikely given how heavily armoured the cataphracts happened to be.

The counterpoint of this frightening scene is the battle against the Picts, who also get trapped and slaughtered, and the assault on their last stronghold, which sees yet another tough fight that comes. Prior to that, the siege of Castus’ century retrenched at the top of a hill behind rudimentary fortifications is also a rather intense and realistic piece.

Then there is the author’s note and the list of references which he has included. To cut a long story short, the author has read just about all the main references and lists them. One of these is Nicasie’s remarkable “Twilight of empire: The Roman army from the reign of Diocletian until the Battle of Adrianople”, from which Ian Ross has borrowed part of the title of his novel. Another is Hugh Elton’s “Warfare in Roman Europe: AD 350-425”. Both show, among other things, that although the Empire might have been somewhat past its peak, it adapted to the changing threats and its army remained more than able to face down multiple attacks across the Empire for much longer than it has traditionally been credited for.

This, incidentally, is also something that this excellent book helps to show.
Comment Comments (8) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 18, 2015 12:43 AM BST

Pandorax (Space Marine Battles)
Pandorax (Space Marine Battles)
by C. Z. Dunn
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Mostly bland and at times implausible, 23 Dec. 2014
This is mostly a bland Space Marine Battles title. Although not exactly a “bad” one, the author attempts to bring in too many types of characters, the plots had holes in it and the story is, as a result, not as convincing and compelling as it could have been.
One interesting feature is that the story takes place in the Pandorax system and, mostly, on Pythos even if the – very useful - map provided calls it “Pandorax world for some unknown reason. The story takes place at the very end of the 41st millennium, some ten thousand years after the Damnation of Pythos.

This could have provided for some interesting (and original) story-telling showing, in particular, how this death world had evolved and how, in particular, the Daemon Prince that was triumphant at the end of the Horus Heresy novel had been neutralised. Unfortunately, there is very little of that. All you get are a few hints here and there, with the main (smallish) hive built on top of where most of the action took place. Even this, however, goes unexplained. Also unexplained is the very name of the hive – Attika – named after the Iron Hands captain of the Horus Heresy title - or the value that the planet has for the Imperium and the exact use of the “red rubies” that are mined from its depths.

The beginning of the novel, with a regiment of Catachans stranded on the planet, leads to some interesting encounters with the local fauna except that, here again, it is somewhat unclear and unexplained as to why they would have been “dumped” on such a backwater while “en route” to the front lines.

Then the “arch-enemy” fleet – or rather three fleets - arrive and invade and the Catachans barely manage to send out a call for help. This is where the book reaches one of its best parts with an imperial battle fleet arriving on scene and a protracted space battle taking place complete with fighter wings, destroyers, cruisers and ships of the line. It even gets better as a second fleet of Imperial Space Marines (Dark Angels and Grey Knights, no less!) arrives – somewhat implausibly – just in the nick of time to save the day before landing on the planet to fight it out against a wide range of Warp monsters and Chaos Marines, including Abbadon and his Black Legion.

One of the problems I had here, however, was that the author seems to have “pilled it on a bit thick”. The only missing characters are those of the Mechanicum. Even a few Titan Warlords make an appearance, although it is no more than that. With regards to characters, you get the whole Dark Angel Chapter, including their Grand Master the haughty Azrael and all his top officers, who manage to board and conquer a Chaos Marine battleship with virtually no casualties at all, a whole Chapter of Grey Knights with the Supreme Grand Master.

On the “baddies” side, and in addition to Abbadon the Despoiler who seems to be becoming a popular figure now that Demski-Bowden has started a trilogy on him, you get Huron Blackheart, suitably treacherous of course. There are also a couple of other Chaos Marine Lords. There is one Lord Irongrasp and his fleet who at one point just disappears from the book after having been abandoned by Huron when the battle is lost. There is also one Lord Corpulax, a Plague Marine that Abbadon is trying to enlist on his side and who seeks to enlist the hidden evil power that lurks in the depths of the planet.

Then there is the “deus ex machina” – a mysterious Grey Knight who is ten thousand years old and was left as a guardian on the planet. Here again, the story felt a bit contrived, with heavy hints about his importance and the fact that he was one of the Grey Knights “founding fathers”, but no real disclosure about the need for his presence, the exact nature of the “colossal” threat he was supposed to protect against and which could, of course, threaten the whole Imperium or his real identity. Both Abbadon and Supreme Grand Master Draigo of the Grey Knights get to know who he is but, unfortunately, neither of them has the courtesy to share this information with the reader.

Finally, there are also some scenes which are almost ridiculous when showing the mutual lack of trust and rivalry between Grand Master Azrael and Supreme (he very much insists on it!) Grand Master Draigo. Both are, of course, supreme warriors. However, both very implausibly behave as spoilt little brats with one even going so far as to punch the other in the nose! At this point, I confess that I burst out laughing. Three stars.

Fortress 76: Saracen Strongholds AD 630-1000: The Middle East (Fortress)
Fortress 76: Saracen Strongholds AD 630-1000: The Middle East (Fortress)
by David Nicolle
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.99

3.0 out of 5 stars A limited and superficial overview, 23 Dec. 2014
This is a limited overview of some four centuries of military architecture across the Middle East and Central East. Unsurprisingly, it is rather superficial with the author having no more than a couple of paragraphs at most to devote to each main type of fortification.
It does however have the potential of being used as a starting point for those wanting to “go further” since it includes a fairly decent (although, here again, not comprehensive) bibliography that takes up more than a page. It has a related quality, almost by default. It is, to my limited knowledge, the only such overview although, somewhat strangely, it does not cover all of areas that were once part of the Muslim Caliphates: there is nothing on North Africa west of Libya, in particular.

Particularly useful are the various diagrams of fortifications. However, it is somewhat of a pity that more used has not been made of them. This includes the plates where, for instance, a reconstruction of Bagdad’s fortifications (as opposed to just one of the gates) could have been attempted, even if this had to be done on a double page.

A final reason to make do with what we have is that many of the regions covered are largely inaccessible, whatever the author has to say about them – there would, for instance, be few candidates perfectly comfortable with travelling to Iran - and some countries have become even more inaccessible than they were in 2008 when the author first published this title (Syria, Irak and large parts of Lebanon obviously comes to mind).

Having mentioned these qualifications, there is however also a need to acknowledge that the title’s inherent limitations have been unfortunately increased by the way the topic had been dealt with by the author. While using about a page and a half to produce a little gazette of the main sites today and their state of preservation is helpful, the author’s insistence to “spend” a full page of his limited space to come up with a glossary of Arabic and farsi terms is much less so.

Another problem is the rather slap-dash and, at times, unclear way in which the author has presented the various periods and the various types of fortifications. One example is that the book could have emphasised the differences (if any) between fortifications during the Omayyad and during the Abbasid period. He does emphasise that fortifications were mostly limited to frontier cities that acted as advanced bases under both the Omayyad and the Abbasid dynasties, because the Empire’s unity did not warrant them elsewhere. While there is some validity in the claim, there would have been merit for more discussion and qualifications if only because both Omayyad and Abbasid dynasties were periodically racked by civil wars and both were quickly confronted with rebellions, separatism and fragmentation.

I was particularly disappointed with the section on siege warfare where, instead of developing a couple of well-chosen examples (the Great siege of Bagdad in 812-813 comes to mind), the author choses (and fails) to cover as much ground as possible in the limited space available. Such examples, which could have been backed by specific plates, would also have been nice illustrations of Muslim siege techniques showing to what extent the Caliphates were the heirs to both Roman and Sassanian siege warfare, and developed their own devices in addition. Instead, the author preferred, as he tends to do sometimes, to pick extracts from Muslim sources and duplicate them, something which, for me at least, had much less added value and leads to yet another poor use of “rare resources” (i.e. limited space).

So, while this title is not exactly “bad” and I will give it a pass, if only because there is nothing better covering all the Muslim Empire to use as an introduction, I was somewhat disappointed and will only give it three stars.

The Damnation of Pythos [Premium Paperback Edition] (Horus Heresy)
The Damnation of Pythos [Premium Paperback Edition] (Horus Heresy)
by David Annandale
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.39

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Tedious slapdash HH novel where "Jurassic Park" meets Chaos daemons and Space Marines?, 22 Dec. 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
While some reviewers may have been not as harsh as others and found that this was not the worst of the series, this is hardly a compliment. The book does have a few interesting ideas and some nice parts, even when they might be unoriginal. However, these are simply not enough of them to make up for its multiple shortcomings.

Among the rare positives is a space battle opposing an Iron Hands strike cruiser full of survivors from the Istvaan V Dropsite massacre (Yes, again!) including a few Raven Guard and Salamander squads and an Emperor's Children squadron made up of a couple of destroyers and a battle barge. While not exactly original and barely plausible, with the damaged strike cruiser and its depleted complement of Space Marines winning comprehensively and very much against the odds, this was one of the few good parts.

Then begin the problems with what seems to be holes in the plot, as if a series of bits and pieces had been assembled together but somebody had not bothered to make sure that they all fitted. One of these is a conversation between Durun Atticus, Company Captain of the Iron Hands and commander of the strike cruiser Veritas Ferrum with two other Iron Hands captains aboard their respective ships, but then nothing more is ever heard of these and they simply disappear from the book.

Another is the anomaly on Pythos that draws the Veritas Ferrum towards the planet to investigate. Why the strike cruiser would even bother with such an investigation when shortly before the loyal Space Marines were hell bent on vengeance and keeping up the fight against the rebels is never really explained. To put it mildly, this did it not make much sense to me.

Then we get treated to a collection of predators populating Pythos, with a number of creatures that look straight out of Jurassic Park. Here, however, a number of interesting ideas - such as a blood consuming moss - are included. A while later our favourite bunch of Space Marines, guided by their astropath, and all subject to increasing mental pressures and nightmares, start to unearth a xenos construct that looks like some kind of temple. The problem, here again, is that you never get to know who these xenos are (or were?) and what exactly is the building's purpose.

Instead, you get a horde of refugees (or pilgrims?) landing on the planet. These are not exactly what they pretend to be and pressure mounts on our Space Marines who, in addition to their own tensions, have to fight it out to the finish against just about everything and everyone else. This includes saurian monsters of various sizes, a good lot of daemons, together with their daemon prince and thousands of Chaos faithful including a priest who seems to have an athame dagger with him, although this is never explicitly stated. This is where the gory descriptions tended to get a bit tedious and boring. They also failed to make up for a rather weak plot.

This is just about it, with the novel ending on the last (heroic, of course) effort to send out a (futile) warning to the rest of the galaxy about the terrible menace that is just about to engulf the last Imperials but which is never quite explained.

An additional point is that even the characterisation is a bit lame and stereotypical, with Atticus in the role of the fanatical and inhuman rationalist, his sergeant Galba full of self-doubt while the Salamander sergeant expresses a "compassionate" streak that it could not help finding somewhat phoney.

One final point on which other reviewers have already commented upon: this book does NOTHING at all to advance the story of the Horus Heresy. At best, it is another filler that tells the story and the fate of a band of survivors, mostly Iron Hands, and which gives the reader a few additional but not always original glimpses into that Legion. Two stars, because of a few good ideas and a good space battle.

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