on 16 August 2014
I am a big of Simon Scarrow's Cato and Macro and Welington and Bonaparte series so this was a must-read for me. However, this was, for a me, a disappointment. Scarrow's main strength in his novels has always been his description of battles and conflict and in this book he does not disappoint. The violence is suitably detailed and bloodthirsty, there is a ring of authenticity of the horrors of mortal combat.
However, the fighting aside, the book was a bit dull and I found it a struggle to maintain the enthusiasm to continue reading. Against the backdrop of the siege of Malta we have Sir Thomas Barrett being sent to recover a document of high significance to Elizabeth I, Francis Walsingham and Robert Cecil, which if it came to light, would cause untold damage to England. Despite this, the document plays only a minor part in the plot. We also have the destroyed friendship of Barrett and Oliver Stokely over a woman they both love (Maria). This is mixed in with the love story between Barrett and Maria. And then there is Richard, Barrett's young co-spy to retrieve the said document and whose origins become apparent early on. Despite all this, I did find the book a tad slow. I am also sure Robert Cecil should have been his father William Cecil as Robert Cecil would have been a toddler at the time of the siege, unless there was a another historical Robert Cecil. The secret document itself, once we know it's contents, is a little underwhelming. With what we know of Henry VIII it is unlikely he would have written such a thing.
Finally, I found Sir Thomas Barrett to be an unlikeable character. Given what had happened to him before the siege and during it, I suppose he has cause to be a short-tempered prig. He also appears to have been living in the wrong century. As the novel progresses he loses his faith and becomes an anti-war, anti-extremism, anti-religion spokesman. This eventually become grating and anachronistic. Of course I'm sure there were some atheists or skeptics in the 16th century but Barrett come across more as a Hitchens or Dawkins than a man of the 16th century. He even quotes Epicurius's 'then why call him God?'.
on 3 January 2014
This is a standalone novel about the 1565 Great Siege of Malta - when the island fortress of the Knights of St John was besieged by the Ottoman Turks. At stake was the future not just of Malta - then as in the Second World War, a key strategic position in the Mediterranean - but of Christian Europe. Quite frankly, this is a key event in European history that should be more widely known about than it is.
Even so, there is of course more to Sword & Scimitar than the defence of what would become The West. The novel's protagonist, an English knight called Sir Thomas Barrett, is a disgraced former member of the Order of St John who is summoned from rural Hertfordshire to return to help defend Malta. In addition to risking life and limb for a cause he has tried to forget about, he is given a secret mission to carry out on Malta by Sir Francis Walsingham, spymaster-in-chief to Queen Elizabeth I (and playing much the same role that M does in the James Bond books in this instance). There's a certain document in the Order's archive on Malta that needs to be recovered at all costs, and to help with this task Sir Thomas is given an assistant who has a few secrets of his own.
In a sense, then, this is a spy novel that happens to be set against the backdrop of one of the most significant battles of the sixteenth century. There are dire consequences for England if the document falls into the wrong hands (far be it from me to spoil things by saying what the document is, as Sir Thomas is as much in the dark as the reader for the best part of the novel), although for much of the novel this is of secondary importance to the battle for control of the island - and should the Turks win, the consequences for all of Europe would in themselves be catastrophic.
Thanks to his `Eagle' series of Roman-era novels, Simon Scarrow has a proven track record when it comes to describing historical fight scenes and he's clearly in his element as the Knights' situation becomes ever more dire in the face of unrelenting attacks by the numerically superior Turks.
This being a modern novel, blind faith is treated with some degree of scepticism by the main protagonist who, having seen at first hand the destructive power of religion - both in terms of the all-out war between Christianity and Islam and the persecution of Catholics in England - has lost his faith, something which enables the modern reader to identify with him.
This novel has themes running through them that are as valid today as they were in the sixteenth century: The uses and abuses of power, clashes between civilisations and religious conflict all feature. It also pose some very modern questions. Can the state be trusted? Does the end really justify the means? And finally, if you have information that will probably plunge a country into chaos if it's released, what do you do with it?
This epic tale starts with a sea battle in the Mediterranean between the Christian Knights of St. John and the Muslims of the Ottoman Empire, this sets the scene for what is to come later. On one of the captured ships, Sir Thomas Barrett discovers a woman who has been kidnapped and thus begins his downfall as they start a doomed affair which goes against everything the Knights stand for.
When they are discovered Sir Thomas is banished from Malta and so begins 20 years of fighting as a mercenary in Europe not knowing what has happened to the love of his life Maria.
When he is summoned back to Malta to help the Knights defend Christendom and Malta against Sultan Suleiman and the Turks he is determined to find out what has happened to Maria once and for all.
With the added mystery of being told to retrieve a lost document in Malta that if made public could tear England apart, an accompanying squire who is not what he seems, bloody battle scenes, being outnumbered 7 to 1 by the Turks, romance, treachery, revenge.....this is not a book for the faint-hearted though it is a very good read!
Sir Thomas is the kind of man who you would want at your side in a battle, he's strong, courageous and skilled at arms. He's also a good person who is utterly trustworthy and I was really rooting for him.
This is a historical tale of the Great Siege of Malta, something of which I knew nothing about, and the author really brings to life how brave the citizens of Malta, together with the Knights of St John, were in their fight against the might of the Ottoman Empire. Fascinating stuff.
on 10 June 2013
This book was such fun to read! I had never read anything by Simon Scarrow but without doubt, I will now be looking out for more work by him, he certainly knows how to write historical fiction.
I'll kick off with my only criticism;, I will be brutally honest - the cover was dreadful, it looked schmaltzy and really not the sort of thing I would enjoy; it looked like a 3 for 2 at Waterstones, which I usually walk past! However, once you get into the story you are left with little doubt - he writes so well and for once, I think the word `compelling' would be appropriate to describe his fiction; he has an excellent ability to paint vivid scenes using words so cleverly that you can picture exactly in your mind what he is writing about. And on occasion, this is so unbelievably gory that it's not such a good thing!
The story starts with a brilliantly well-described battle at sea. This isn't a genre that I have ever really read, but Scarrow's narrative brought it to life and I could picture the fights, the fear, the excitement, extremely well. He really is talented! He tells the story of Sir Thomas Barrett, a Knight of the Order of St John who is brought in to fight against the Ottoman army in the Great Siege of Malta in 1565. Sir Thomas is completely in love with a woman he meets when they are both very young, Maria, and this is a major storyline throughout the book alongside the strategy and fighting that Scarrow depicts. I really don't `do' romances but admit that I was utterly engrossed in their story and found it a perfect foil to the more brutal fight scenes.
We are taken through the machinations, politicking and fighting that was involved in the Great Siege and much of what was going on behind the throne in England at that time; we learn about how people fight for themselves and family when backed into a corner, we get to know characters, see them lost in battle, find huge sympathy and understanding for their motives - and ultimately - certainly for myself I was mulling over some of the threads from the story a fair few weeks later on! That speaks for itself, to be honest. This is not only perfect holiday fiction for the summer, it's a great historical read, it's a believable love story and above all, a great page turner! I would thoroughly recommend this book to anybody - and best of all - I got to see Scarrow at the Hay Festival, which was just a brilliant way to round it off! Lovely book, don't hesitate to buy it for yourself or as a gift for somebody - it's a knock out!
Sword and Scimitar begins July 1545 in the Mediterranean. Young Knight Thomas Barrett has been left in charge of the galley, Swift Hind, while the Captain and four soldiers are checking out the Turk merchant ship anchored at the other side of the bay. We find out about the Order of St John and the protection that offers them from corsairs. There is friction between Thomas and Knight Oliver Stokely which is a theme throughout the story.
It's not long until we're into the action with an exciting fight with two corsairs as well as the Turk merchant ship. Thomas has been left to clear up the ship and take it back to their base at Malta. It's whilst clearing up that Oliver and Thomas find something that determines the course of their rivalry and Thomas' exile from the Order.
19 years later, Thomas is at Barrett Hall in Hertfordshire. We find out what has happened during the intervening years, his family background and their demise. Thomas receives a message from the Order to return for what was to become known as the Great Siege of Malta. The next day another messenger arrives from Sir William Cecil and we find out that Thomas has a mission as well as re-joining his Order to fight. Accompanying him will be one of Sir William Cecil's men who to all intents and purposes will act as his Squire.
What follows is Thomas' journey back to Malta and the ensuing siege.
I enjoyed the historical aspect of Sword and Scimitar. I always love `watching' history come to life which it certainly does here! Thomas is a character who is easy to identify with. Life's experiences have given him a balanced and practical view so he isn't as zealous as others in the Order. He is solid and dependable and someone you'd want by your side, no matter his maturity. Love is another thread running through this story, both romance and familial love. Conflict comes from Oliver as well as the conflict of sword against scimitar.
There is a lot of tenseness and excitement from the fighting which is descriptive. You really feel as if you are there. I actually enjoyed the blood and gore. The only downside for me was the repetition of the fighting and yes, I know that is what happens when there is a siege but I did lose interest at one point.
In the Author's Note at the end, we find out there is a museum in the Grand Master's palace which has gone on my list of places to visit - I would love to sail into Valetta harbour and imagine how it was. Finally, there is an interesting Q & A with the author.
I read Sword and Scimitar as part of the Real Readers programme.
on 16 May 2013
This book has something for everyone. Romance, history, faith or lack of and war.
It tells the story of a Knight of St John, Thomas who is banished from Malta after breaking the rules of the order. When twenty years later he is asked to return and help the fight against the threat of invasion by a Muslim army he immediately answers the call. His squire thouh has another seperate agenda which could well get in the way of Sir Thomas.
This siege of Malta was a period in history which I knew nothing about so this book although fiction goes a long way to address that.
I really enjoyed learning about this period and how polarised religion was in those times. Muslims were very much seen as something to be totally wiped out by any means and they felt the same about Christians. Sir Thomas himself struggles with his faith and this clearly comes across.
The characterisation is very well done and it's hard to differentiate between those people who are real versus those who have been invented for the book making the story flow seamlessly.
The battle scenes are not overly gratuitous while telling how violent it really must have been and totally terrifying for all whether directly involved in the battle.
Weaved within is a romance which never feels out of place is filled with many moments of deep pathos as we don't know if anyone involved will even survive.
With many twists and turns this book never fails to keep the reader wondering what will happen next right up to the dramatic finish.
on 16 May 2013
I'll be honest, I would not ordinarily have picked up this book. Although I like historical fiction (in small doses), I don't usually choose 'sword and sandals' epics; 'crusades and crosses' in this instance.
The story opens dramatically in 1545, on board The Swift Hind, as a battle starts to defeat an invasion at sea from the Muslim Turks, led by Sultan Suleiman. Our hero - Sir Thomas Barrett - is a young knight, sworn into the Order of St John to protect Christendom against 'the infidels'. He is brave, skilful, wealthy and handsome. Just as a battle is waging against the enemy, both sides proclaiming God's truth and protection, so there are subtle battles within the Order; for power, recognition and love.
Sir Thomas falls in love with a captive from the galley they 'liberate'. As to be expected, Thomas and Maria's affair is forbidden and they are forcibly separated. He is exiled from the order and spends the next twenty years looking after his Herefordshire estate. Although he never recovers from this separation, he keeps himself physically in shape, ready for action.
Thus, in 1565, Sir Thomas is summonsed to London to meet Queen Elizabeth's principal secretary, Walsingham. The ageing knight is to be welcomed back into the Order to rejoin the holy war. Why has Elizabeth's 'Spymaster' recruited Sir Thomas? Why has he specifically appointed a new squire to accompany the knight on his quest to the island of Malta. Who is this talented youth? Why is he, Richard, so elusive?
The bulk of the novel details the Siege of Malta of 1565 (no, I hadn't heard of it); the passions and pain felt by both sides in this bloody siege.
From the dramatic opening on board ship to battles on land and sea, this is a romp of a historical novel; you can see, smell and taste the hand-to-hand combat. I confess, I started to skip some of the battle scenes after about half-way through, but was interested enough to read to the end.
The prose is rich in detail; just enough to help you visualise the action and context. The main characters are well rounded and (just) avoid becoming cliches. Familiar tropes are used: brave, handsome young knight falls in love, they are separated, he always loves her, tries to find her, continues to battle against the enemy (both within and without the Order), reassesses his attitude to the enemy, finds both truth and love by the end.
To my surprise, I enjoyed this 'males in mail' romp. It was less cliche-ridden than I had anticipated; there was a balance between the action scenes and the more thoughtful, slower paced conversations and reflective scenes. There was some romance amongst the slaughter; a thread that held my interest, along with the slight mystery surrounding Richard the 'squire'.
If you like Ken Follet; you'll love this; if you like Phillipa Gregory, give this a try. It was interesting to read a novel such as this from a male perspective, with more action on the battlefield than in the bedroom.
A good choice for a holiday read, particularly somewhere like Malta, where most of this is set, or as an antidote against the vagaries of the British weather, curling up against the elements; pure escapist enjoyment.
on 7 May 2013
It's 1545. Sir Thomas Barrett is a young knight serving the Order of St John, based on the island of Malta. They are Christian knights who wage war at sea against the Ottoman Empire and their Islamic faith. In one successful battle they capture a galley with a female prisoner aboard, Maria de Venici. She is taken back to their fort on Malta and held until her family pay the ransom but in the meantime her and Thomas have a secret love affair. When they are discovered, Maria is left abandoned in disgrace by her family and Thomas is exiled from the island and the Order.
Twenty years later at his home in Hertfordshire he is summoned back to the Order. The Sultan Suleiman is massing an army to destroy all the Christian kingdoms in Europe, ultimately Rome, and the Order on the island of Malta are under serious threat of being wiped out.
He is also ordered to attend a meeting with Sir William Cecil and Sir Francis Walsingham in London. They commission Thomas to travel with an agent, Richard Hughes, in the guise of his squire, whom is to discover the whereabouts of a secret document that King Henry entrusted to a knight in Malta. All Thomas knows is the document, in the wrong hands, could bring about a war of faiths between the British people and up-end the protestant Queen Elizabeth of England's reign.
Upon arriving in Malta, Thomas finds his old captain, La Valette, is now Grand Master of the Order. Thomas is elected as one of the select few on the war council but an old friend, Oliver Stokely, who also fell in love with Maria, still harbours bitter feelings towards Thomas and informs Thomas that Maria is dead and that she had bore Thomas a son whom also died. As Richard begins to investigate the possible location of the document the Turks surround the Grand Harbour. When the citizens of Malta descend on the Fort for protection Thomas discovers Maria is among them. She disappears before they have a chance to meet again. Thomas's love for Maria is re-ignited. Richard makes a pact, in return for Thomas's help in finding the document, he will help Thomas find Maria.
As the Turks bombard one of the main forts, a religious ceremony is held. As most of the town is distracted Thomas and Richard break into the dungeons and find the hidden document. Afterwards Thomas secretly follows Maria to her home only to discover she is married to Oliver Stokely. Fort St Elmo is soon to be taken by the Turks and Thomas volunteers as part of the reinforcements, knowing he will be fighting to the death. With one last chance he visits Maria. She informs him their son is still alive and was sent to England for protection. A picture reveals their son to be none other than Richard Hughes. Thomas confronts Richard, who believes he was abandoned by his parents and is still bitter towards Thomas. When Richard discovers the document has been taken from his hiding place he knows he is now in danger and demands to join Thomas in the battle at St Elmo.
With only a day or so before Fort St Elmo is taken by the Turks, Oliver Stokely arrives with the last of the reinforcements. As a man about to face certain death he admits to Thomas that he is resigned to the fact Maria still loves Thomas. He admits he stole the precious document from Richard, as he was aware of the content. The document is the last will of King Henry V111. Towards the end of his life it states Henry's decision to revoke the dissolution of the monasteries and return all the property and lands to the Church of Rome at the insistence of the Vatican in return for his absolution. The will has the power to incite a civil war against the throne and Oliver has once again placed the document in safe-keeping prior to his imminent death.
As the battle for the fort nears its end, Thomas takes a hit from an incendiary and Oliver is mortally wounded. Richard helps his father to the chapel where they mean to make their escape. Oliver gives Richard the key to the hiding place of Henry's will and pleads that Richard destroys it. Thomas and Richard make it to Fort Angelo and after Maria nurses Thomas back to health he moves in with her. The remaining knights of the Order and islanders then band together to make one last heroic stand against the enemy................
I had not had the pleasure of reading a Simon Scarrow novel before. This was a truly excellent read which takes you straight to the heart of the battle. As well as a great story line for the main character there is plenty of action and suspense. A must read for fans of Sean Thomas Russell and Bernard Cornwell.
on 4 May 2013
I'm new to Simon Scarrow's work, although now I've read Sword and Scimitar, a novel that covers the siege of Malta in the 16th century, I will be taking a look at his Roman series.
With all the kingdoms of Europe in his sights, the full might of Sultan Suleiman's Ottoman Empire is focused on taking the strategically critical island of Malta from the Christian defenders. Determined to fight to the last, the Knights of St John, together with a band of mercenaries and the Maltese islanders themselves, they prepare to withstand overwhelming odds. Scarrow deftly immerses the fictional adventures of Sir Thomas Barrett and his newly appointed squire, Richard, within the historical facts of the siege.
Sir Thomas and Richard are both travelling to Malta from London to answer the call to arms, but with very different, hidden, agendas. Sir Thomas seeks answers to a love lost a lifetime ago, whilst Richard is driven by the political machinations of the Elizabethan age, with Elizabeth's spymaster, Walsingham setting Sir Thomas and Richard at odds with each other.
However, it is the description of the daily lives of the combatants as the siege begins and gradually intensifies, where Scarrow excels. The tactics of medieval battle, the sheer horror of the close quarter fighting with edged weapons and the deprivations that the besiegers and besieged face are all vividly portrayed.
I enjoyed reading Sword and Scimitar. I think it must be difficult for a writer to portray a way of life that is so very different from that experienced in the early 21st century, but in my opinion Simon Scarrow does it well.
on 29 April 2013
Sword and Scimitar by Simon Scarrow.
I was sent this book to review by Real Readers, and a copy of this review also appears there.
When this book arrived for review a little over a week ago, I admit I was a bit sceptical, as it was a new venture for me. I've read quite a bit of historical fiction, and many books about the First World War, but nothing really about historical warfare. It's quite a substantial tome, amounting to a little over 570 pages, but I would certainly agree with the soundbite from the Sunday times on the back cover that it is 'Lively, absorbing'
The tale is set in 1565, when Sir Thomas Barrett is recalled to Malta many years after being exiled for what in the present day would, perhaps, be considered a less than dreadful misdemeanour. His life back in England appears to have been quiet and uneventful, but the Grand Master of the Order of St John Hospitallers sends a messenger with a summons to return to Malta, 'as expeditiously as possible or suffer pain of disgrace in the eyes of your peers and before God.' Needless to say, the knight does end up back in Malta, along with a squire appointed by Secretary of State, Sir William Cecil.
What then takes up the bulk of the book is a retelling of the Great Seige of Malta. There is considerable detail about the skirmishes, and sea battles, which I sometimes found a little trying, but the author cannot be faulted on his attention to detail. Alongside the battle stories, there is a lot of interesting background information about the principles and ethics of the Knights of the Order, which make somewhat uncomfortable reading for the contemporary reader.
The background story, bound up with the reason for Sir Thomas' exile, really brings the narrative to life. Sir Thomas' downfall within the Order was brought about through an ilicit relationship being found out, and he is keen to discover whether the object of his affections is still in Malta, or even still alive. Sir Thomas is bound to take along Richard Hughes as his squire; Richard has a different agenda, imposed upon him by Sir Francis Walsingham, which he reveals only slowly as he learns more about the knight he is to support.
The intricacies of the background story are quite fascinating, and make it into a real page turner. My only small gripe would be the amount of detail with the battle scenes, but this would probably be a bonus for other readers.
The book concludes with a brief, but useful section of author's notes, and a Q & A article with Simon Scarrow.
All in all, I really enjoyed this book, and look forward to reading others by the same author.