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Wraecca: Volume 2 (Sword of Woden)
Wraecca: Volume 2 (Sword of Woden)
by C. R. May
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.50

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Jutes, Geats, Swedes, Angles, Danes, Trolls and more…, 5 Mar. 2016
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This is book 2 of the author’s trilogy based on the poem of Beowulf. I had a couple of apprehensions when ordering it because second books in trilogies can tend to the weakest of the lot. This can be partly because the reader gets the impression of being treated to “more of the same” and partly because second books can sometimes be “fillers” where little of real substance happens as the main events are saved for the third and last volume.

To be perfectly clear, this is not at all what happened to me when reading this book. It certainly is the continuation of the previous volume and, even if the author has been thoughtful enough to include some explanations summarising what happened in “Sorrow Hill”, he is certainly preferable to read the later book first. However, the author has made sure to have plenty of events happening in this volume to retain the reader’s full and undivided interest (or, at least, this reader’s interest!).

In fact, this book marks the end of the war between the Swedes and the Geats but after numerous event including the hero's exile and outlawing. The author presents the Geats as the remnants of the original Goths and the “cousins” of those that moved to the Danube probably between the end of the second and the beginning of the third century AD, and then into the Roman Empire. Complicating this war is a succession war pitting the new King of the Geats and the rest of his family that he is busy betraying and trying to murder. Anyone liking “Dark Age Warrior” stories full of shield wall struggles, battles, warrior ethos of the “death and glory” sort will love this book since it includes plenty of all that. You even get a bit of a romance of sorts, with Beowulf meeting his “fiancé”, a King’s beautiful daughter and grand-daughter, of course, and you will also get a touch of the Gods, or of Wodin at least, since our hero Beowulf is and has been his protégé since he was a child.

Another interesting set of features are those showing elements of everyday life among the various tribes that inhabited Northern Europe, beyond the limits of the now dead Roman Empire. This includes the religious festivals and ceremonies of the Swedes, and in particular a certain one that took place once every nine years and which included numerous sacrifices, including human ones, to garner the favour of the Gods for a fertile year. Other features are the commercial connections liking up southern Sweden (and Stock Holm in particular) to the far North, the Finns to the East and the Norse to the West. The description of early Sixth century “Trondelag” (modern Tronheim in Norway, although Trondelag is still the name of the region) and of its smith is rather well done.

Associated with this is their migration of at least some of the people to the west and/or south, probably in search of land and better living conditions, with their neighbours also expanding by moving into the lands that had just been abandoned. I also wondered at some point whether it was realistic to have all of these various people speak what seems to have been basically the same language. This looked like the least probable feature of the book until I remembered that the languages of all of these people seem to have had common (Germanic) roots. So it may be barely possible, although somewhat unlikely, that all of these people understood each other without needing interpreters,

Also included is a particularly interesting episode where Beowulf and the grandson of the Swedish King go off on an expedition to hunt a couple of rampaging Trolls right up in the North of the Kingdom. One of the most interesting features (there are many others) is precisely the Troll episode and who the author makes them out to be, a choice that he explains in his author’s note at the end of the book. At the very least, the choice is a very interesting one and maybe even a plausible one.

Five stars.


Space Marine Battles: Flesh Tearers
Space Marine Battles: Flesh Tearers
by Andy Smillie
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

4.0 out of 5 stars Bloodthirsty monsters?, 5 Mar. 2016
This volume of the Space Marine Battles series is made up of three stories titled Flesh of Cretacia, Sons of Wrath, and Trial by Blood. All are about the Flesh Tearers, a Second Foundation Successor Chapter derived from the Blood Angels following the Horus Heresy which has inherited their genetic curses and is one of the most afflicted of all the Blood Angel related Chapters.

Oddly enough, and unlike another reviewer, my preferences are exactly the opposite of his/hers. I preferred the third story (Trial by Blood) where Gabriel Seth faces trial by his peers – the other Chapter Masters who share in the blood of the Angel and its curse – to the two others which I found weaker. The three stories are related, with the first two largely explaining the third, even if they can be read separately.

The first story takes place just after the end of the Horus Heresy. The central character (as in Sons of Wrath) is the former Blood Angels Captain Amit who has become the first Chapter Master of the newly created Flesh Tearers. He pursues the war against the Greenskins, comes across Cretacia – a death world – almost by accident and will make it into the Chapter’s new home world amid quite a number of atrocities, many of which being the result of their affliction. The second story, set some decades later, sees the same Chapter Master Amit and the full strength of his Chapter rather losing it on a big scale.

For those who read this, have not read the book, and might believe that I have included spoilers just above, you are in for a number of surprises. The third story is the consequence of the Flesh Tearers’ erratic behaviours, with the first two stories being used as illustrations of what exactly they are being accused of. This story is perhaps the most interesting in a couple of respects. It is also the most original of the three.

The first element of interest is the ambiguity of the accusations levelled against the Flesh Tearers, with the main reproach being that they have drawn lots of unwanted attention to the Blood Angels and all their related Chapters through their excesses, rather than the excesses themselves for which the various Chapter Masters seem not to care very much. The second element of interest lays in the interventions of the various Chapter Masters (and a few other prominent characters) and what these interventions reveal of their respective interests, personalities and characters. The third element which makes this story into a rather original one is that it is the first time I have come across the case of a (very defiant) Chapter Master (and his Chapter) standing trial in front of his peers and (almost literally) fighting for the survival of his Chapter, rather than his own.

Flesh of Cretacia also includes some unrefined gems. Some of these include Amit’s memories and vengefulness related to the Horus Heresy, the Battle for Terra and the death of his Father, and the savage retribution that he exacts on Traitor Marines. Others are even more interesting since they include a mixture of bitterness and perhaps jealousy with regards to Roboute Guilliman, the Ultramarines and their Successor Chapters because of the break-up of the Legions into Chapters that was imposed by the surviving Primarch. Unfortunately, I also at times got the impression that description filled with blood and gore tended to substitute for a half-decent plot. While this tendency can also be found, but to a lesser extent, in the second story, this one also has some gems. One of these is a rather interesting confrontation with the Inquisition, which is not exactly welcome when seeking to uncover the Flesh Tearers secrets.

Four (somewhat generous) stars for the whole book, with the first stories being worth three to three and a half stars each and the third one being rated four or five stars. The total adds up to eleven divided by three, so four stars after rounding up.


Dayraven (Sword of Woden Book 4)
Dayraven (Sword of Woden Book 4)
Price: £1.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Failed raid, 2 Mar. 2016
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This novella (167 pages) is a follow-up to the author’s Beowulf trilogy that takes place some three years after the last book of the author’s trilogy. It is about a historical event which was a major naval raid on Dorestad by King Hygelac (Beowulf’s uncle) and against the coasts of the Frisians which had become vassals of the Franks by the early sixth century. The raid failed because, after initial successes, the King and part of his army were caught by the Frankish army led by Theudobert, the son of Theodoric King of the Franks (himself one of the four sons of Clovis) before they managed to get to their ships and re-embark. Hygelac was therefore trapped and killed with at least part of his army being destroyed.

Hygelac was King of the Geats which were established in a region that corresponds to South-Central Sweden nowadays. They seem to have been neither Swedes nor Danes, although it is probable that the former ended up by absorbing them. One theory presents them as Goths, or rather the part of the Goths that did not emigrate towards the South and end up by founding kingdoms within the borders of the former Roman Empire.

Then there is the character of Beowulf himself. As you will see when reading this novella, the author has him take part in the expedition but not in its disastrous outcome. Beowulf’s meeting with the Saxons remaining in Germany in interesting in itself and in at least a couple of respects. One is to show that, at the time, and contrary to the Franks in particular, the Saxons were organised as a collection of tribes or clans, each led by an eldorman. This fragmented leadership, which would still be in place at the time of Charlemagne’s wars against and conquest of the Saxons, did nevertheless not prevent them from uniting against common foes.

Another good feature is to show through Beowulf’s encounter and discussion with a young guard that many among the various inhabitants could be the remnants of other tribes whose lands had been overrun and who were absorbed by the newcomers. A third feature is a description of what might have been one of the causes of the emigrations towards and conquest of Britannia, and this was a rise in the sea level that would make large swaths of land unfertile in what is now still called “the lowlands”. Another feature that I found interesting and which the author has been also keen on displaying throughout his trilogy are the pagan religious practices of the time. Here the reader is presented with those of the Saxons, and I will let you guess at some of the practices what they included…

As the author mentions in his historical note, the failed raid is well attested through four sources, two Frankish and two Anglo-Saxon (one of which is the poem of Beowulf itself). What may however be not so historical is the character of Dayraven – a Frisian warlord who returns from England when he learns that the homeland is under attack. It is however quite plausible and it illustrates, once again, the close links that the various invaders of Britannia (Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians, among others) are very likely to have maintained with their homelands during at least a few generations after their arrival and during part of the Fifth and Sixth centuries.

The story-telling is of course suitably grim and heroic, with Hygelac and his companions – many of which are in fact Beowulf’s friends – selling their lives dearly and being (partly) avenged by the hero. The shield wall clashes are quite superb. However, the apparition of a contingent of Hun horse archers may be a little bit over the top, although just about possible. This is because the event takes place in AD 523, at a time when the Hun confederation had been destroyed for nearly seventy years. The remnants of the Huns had been expelled from what is now Hungary and pushed back towards the Danube delta and the Black Sea coast and while they still raided the Eastern Roman Empire and many of them served as mercenaries in its armies, it is less likely that they were also serving the Franks at the time. The performances of their unique type of composite bow and the penetration power of its arrows in particular may also have been somewhat exaggerated. Despite this, however, their introduction adds a nice dramatic touch which was – I guess – precisely the object of the exercise.

Five stars for a superb read, despite my little rant about the Huns. I am very hoping for a second trilogy where Beowulf will lead his people overseas and found a new kingdom somewhere in Britannia, perhaps in what will become East Anglia.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 2, 2016 11:36 PM GMT


Roman Military Disasters: Dark Days and Lost Legions
Roman Military Disasters: Dark Days and Lost Legions
by Paul Chrystal
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £19.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Roman military "disasters" and defeats, 29 Feb. 2016
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This is an interesting and valuable book that lists and presents under the title “Roman military disasters” “sixty or so decisive and significant defeats” ranging from the Gallic invasion in the early fourth century BC and the first sac of Rome to the second sac of Rome in 410 AD by Alaric. Alongside the better known disasters, such as Cannae, Carrhae, Teutoburg Forest or Adrianople, there are also a number of lesser known ones, including some – such as Arausio against the Cimbri and Teutones – were the Romans suffered horrendous losses that exceeded some of the better known events. I had however three sets of reservations with this book, hence the three star rating.

A first set of problems is about the book’s scope. While the author quotes the Oxford Concise Dictionary definition of a disaster as “a great or sudden misfortune, a complete failure, a person or enterprise ending in failure”, some of the events selected are in fact not military disasters in the strict sense of the term.

For instance, the Roman failure to force a river crossing in 171 BC against the Macedonians of King Perseus was certainly a defeat, and a rather bloody one since the Romans lost some 3000 men against (allegedly) a few dozen. However, it was certainly not “a disaster of the first magnitude for the Romans”, contrary to the author’s assertion. Also questionable is the author’s choice of the Boudica’s revolt among the military disasters. The revolt ended with the Romans crushing of the insurrection in a decisive battle. Moreover, the IX Hispana which had attempted to rescue the Roman colony of modern Colchester was defeated, but the legion was not wiped out and the (nevertheless huge) destructions and loss of human life mainly affected civilians, whether Romans or the (numerous) Britons from other tribes that were living in or around the destroyed cities. Also a bit odd is the listing of the sac of Rome by Alaric as a “military disaster”. It certainly was a political and human disaster, but for both the Romans, because of the symbol and because they were on “the receiving end”, and for Alaric and his Goths, because there was no chance they would get what they wanted once they had used (and lost) their bargaining counter.

Some choices of military disasters are even more curious. This is the case of the chapter titled “Doom monster – Cleopatra VII”. A first problem here is that the civil wars opposing the Roman warlords were not caused by Cleopatra. To be more precise, the opposition between Mark Antony and Octavius, just like the opposition between Caesar and the so-called Republicans (the high-born Senators who were in fact defending their “right” to share power) pre-existed Cleopatra and the Civil Wars would have taken place without her. A second problem is that only these Civil Wars have been selected as “military disasters” and rate a special chapter, and no others, although all of them were rather “disastrous” in terms of military losses if only because every casualty would be a Roman soldier and because, given the losses and disruptions, they clearly weakened the Empire.

Another curious choice is the selection of the Theban Legion Massacre that took in AD 286 as a “military disaster”. This little known episode was about a Legion initially recruited in Egypt and made up of Christians. The Legion was purged when in Gaul by Emperor Maximian for refusing “to comply with Emperor worship” which was both insubordination (refusal to obey orders) and treason. While the story is certainly an interesting one, I am not sure that this qualifies as a “military disaster”. Finally, there is at least one campaign, that of Julian in 363 AD, which could have rated as a military disaster. It is not included, despite the loss of about a third of the Roman expeditionary force, the death of the Emperor in battle and a rather disastrous peace that his successor had to agree too in order to save the remaining two-thirds of the force.

In fact, rather than just “military disasters”, it seems that the author has selected just about any significant reverse and defeat that he could find, although by only choosing some civil wars without singling out others, he may have been somewhat selective and perhaps not entirely consistent.

A second - and related – issue is that the author seems to have in fact tried to summarise the military history of Roman and its Empire through its military reverses, defeats and disasters. This is an interesting and a somewhat original approach even if another book on military disasters during the Roman Republic has already been published. It does however raise a couple of issues. One is that the author does not have enough space to cover the subject. Another consequence is that while the selected events are generally well or at least adequately described, the summaries between these events tend to be short, sometimes superficial and may even contain inaccuracies or simplifications as the author tries to “cut corners”.

The third issue is the number of incorrect statements that are included, probably because the book has been poorly edited. It is, for instance, quite incorrect to state that the First Punic War was only the second time that Rome had to fight against a non-Italian enemy, with the Gauls being the first. This is clearly a slip in editing, since the author also describes the wars against Pyrrhus, the Hellenistic King of Epirus. It is also incorrect to state that Crete or Marseilles were part of the Carthaginian Empire. Both were Greek and rivals/enemies of Carthage. There are quite a few more statements such as these, together with a few repetitions and typos which tend to show that, unfortunately for the author, the editing of this book is not among its strongest points.


Sorrow Hill: Volume 1 (Sword of Woden)
Sorrow Hill: Volume 1 (Sword of Woden)
by C. R. May
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.50

5.0 out of 5 stars Remarkable early years of the Hero, 29 Feb. 2016
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This is book one of a trilogy based on the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf. As others, I was rather intrigued and curious to see how the author was going to deal with the epic legend and poem and how he was going to make this into a historical novel. The result is rather good and even at times quite superb. As others have mentioned, this book is an easy and entertaining read even if there are a few typos scattered across the book. The early years of the young Beowulf, including his daring hunting expedition at age six followed by his embassy to the King of the Danes set the scene. It is quite clear that he is favoured by the Gods, and the most powerful of them all in particular.

A nice touch is to have added a few bits about North European (and not only Scandinavian) religion at the time with the appearance of an ageing one-eyed traveller, in particular, but also with the volva – priestesses of the heathen North that were devoted to the Gods (a northern and fiercer version of the Roman Vestal virgins if you like). The exploits of the six and seven year old are just about believable, and, even if you were to be sceptical, they make for a rather good story and are meant to show up the very promising young boy who is to become the greatest warrior of the North.

Another good feature is the description of everyday life among the noble warriors of the Geats in what is now the southern part of Sweden. High born children are fostered to allied families and nobles clans of allied people. This seems to have been a practice that was taking place across both Gallic and Germanic warrior elites before the Roman conquests. There are indications that it continued both during and after the end of the Western Roman Empire. It would also continue to take place during the Middle Ages with young future warriors learning to become knights at the court and castle of their father’s overlord or with one of their father’s allies. Elements of the poem are also skilfully integrated into the story and translated into something much more realistic, such as Beowulf’s fight under sea monsters during a swimming race against Breca, the “English” (Angle) foster son of his uncle Hythcyn.

Fostering and marriage alliances were used as strategies to protect or expand the clan or the King’s power and this well shown in the book. The fostering of Beowulf with his uncle Hygelac, brother of the King of the Geats, but also the Angle/English foster-child of Hygelac’s brother or the marriage of Beowulf’s sister to the son of a lord in Britannia are illustrations. They also show that, at the time when many from Frisia and actual Denmark and Norway were leaving their homelands for new and more fertile lands to conquer in Britannia, there were still close contacts between the two, if only because only part of the populations emigrated and such emigration took place progressively during decades.

The book contains also numerous other interesting items of daily warrior life, showing to what extent the author has researched his topic. There is the feasting and drinking (lots of it). The ribbing, teasing, joking and blustering among warriors is also well displayed. The making of weaponry and of mail armour in particular, is also shown. Ship building and the performances of what the author calls “draca” – warships similar to although smaller than those that the Viking would have some three hundred years later – are also displayed rather superbly through a race, as Beowulf’s ship is hunted down during his embassy to the Kind of Dane Land.

The story itself picks up pace with the suspicious death of the heir (Beowulf’s uncle) and then of the old King of the Geats (his grandfather). His second – rather unpleasant and very scheming - uncle Hythcyn becomes the new King of the Geats with the help of mercenaries from a neighbouring land and Beowulf’s loyalties are somewhat torn. Another consequence of the turmoil is a major raid and invasion from the Swedes which will result in a couple of bloody battles that will do a lot to start establishing the reputation of young Beowulf. This is where you get some rather superb and grim shield wall fighting, among the best that I have read up to now. Five stars.


Night Lords
Night Lords
by Aaron Dembski-Bowden
Edition: Paperback
Price: £13.49

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Murderers first, last, and always", and then something else, 24 Feb. 2016
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This review is from: Night Lords (Paperback)
I wanted to use this quote from one of the Night Lords to describe who they are and how they see themselves before discovering that another reviewer had already had the same idea. I used it all the same because it illustrates what are perhaps the main themes of the Night Lords trilogy (Soul Hunter, Blood Reaver and Void Stalker and the three associated short stories): a desperate quest for identity, for redemption and for vengeance.

The Legion of the Night Lords is made of murderers mostly recruited from the hive gangs of Nostromo by Konrad Kurze, their Primarch who used murder and torture as instruments of imperial compliance. It is also one of the “Traitor Legions” which sided with Horus, betrayed and massacred the Legions that had remained faithful to the Emperor and sought to overthrow him. Some 10000 years later, when this story begins, what is left of the Legion has broken up into multiple war bands who survive through hit and run tactics and surprise attacks, murdering and destroying its way through the Empire, and fleeing when confronted with a strong defence. The hero, Talos, once an Apothecary of the Night Lords, belongs to one of these war bands, along with the few that remain from his squad.

One of the most interesting features of this book is Talos’ vivid memories and flashbacks of the times when the Legion was still united and it’s Primarch still alive. These allow the author to display Talos’ powerful emotions, a mixture of nostalgia and despair with, somewhere, a tiny glimmer of hope. They also allow for some interesting and fascinating contrasts between what the Night Lords could have been, what they were and what they became.

Another strong point that is present throughout this trilogy is the depth of the characterisation. This is particularly true of Talos, but it also applies, perhaps to a lesser degree, to many of the other Night Lords, starting with the members of his squad. It also applies to the Exalted, the sergeant once called Vanbred and who used to command this squad, who has become warped (in more senses than one) and who has seized control of a strike cruiser and what is left of its crew and of its Night Lords Company.

A further point that is superbly made throughout the three books is the ambivalence of the Night Lords. None of them, not even Talos, are sympathetic. At times, they are atrocious, sadists, monstrous and despicable torturers, murderers and psychopaths. However, they are also “something else” at other times. Talos is no idealist and no romantic. However, he still believes in a cause that goes beyond ensuring his own survival. He also shares the foresight of his father the Primarch and all of the suffering and nightmares that such a talent can bring. His loyalty to their dead leader and to his dreams is also unquestioned. All of his brothers know this it and this is one of the main reasons why they follow him and want him as a leader. As the book shows in a rather superb way, many of his Night Lord Brothers, however flawed and horrible they may have become, still believe in something, if only some twisted sense of brotherhood that surfaces from time to time.

An additional point is the talent with which the author shifts the atmosphere through the books. The first one is very much dominated by feelings of bitterness, despair, decadence, self-loathing and self-preservation. The Night Lords have fallen. They are no longer the proud and invincible warriors of old. The Legion has been broken apart. They have been fighting and running for centuries. The war band to which Talos belongs is made of the remnants of two whole companies but the surviving Night Lords are only around eighty or so. They are running out of supplies and face extinction. By the end of the third book, emotions and feelings have changed. The pride of the Night Lords' war band and its self-belief has been largely restored. They no longer run. Instead, they decide to fight, and to fight for each other, even against desperate odds.

Yet another point is Talos’ ambivalence towards his human slaves, the evolution of his emotions over time and the complexity of their relationships. They too, just like another Apothecary who is a former Red Corsair Space Marine, develop a sense of belonging and become part of the brotherhood, of this dwindling band of survivors.

Then there are the multiple battles and assaults, all of which are quite superb and quite different from one another. Easily worth five stars (and perhaps even ten!) and certainly among the very best books that have been published by Black Library.


Swordland
Swordland
Price: £1.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The first Norman invader, 23 Feb. 2016
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This review is from: Swordland (Kindle Edition)
This historical novel tells the story and career of Robert FitzStephen, the first of the Anglo-Norman warlord (or, more accurately in his case, Norman-Welsh) to land in Ireland, before the more powerful and better known Richard de Clare (or Richard Strongbow). The book has numerous qualities and a couple of little glitches.

To being with, and as others have mentioned, the author has definitely “done his homework” and well-researched his subject. He also lists in his historical note just about all the areas where he has taken a few liberties with the historical record, which is also worth mentioning and not so frequent. For instance, he does mention that the historical Robert FitzStephen may have been some fifteen years older than the character portrayed by the author. Also well shown is the bitterness of what was essentially a type of guerrilla warfare in Wales. While the exact circumstances that led to FitzStephen’s capture and imprisonment may be invented, they are nevertheless plausible and build around a “hard core”: the Norman constable was besieged for months in his fortress without being rescued and had to finally surrender to his Welsh cousin.

One example of the author’s efforts in “getting it right” is the role played by castles to ensure Norman conquests, whether in England or Wales, more or less under the control of the Norman Duke-Kings, or in Southern Italy, in a more anarchic way, at least at the beginning. Another example, perhaps even more important, is to show to what extent Robert FitzStephen was connected, and how important these family connections and networks were at the time. Here again, there are parallels between the conquest of southern Italy, with at least five brothers having preceded and followed Robert Guiscard a century earlier, and the Geraldines of Wales, of which Robert FitzStephen was one. Another perfectly accurate feature is to show the ambivalence of Henry II towards his Welsh Marcher Lords and his “lack of enthusiasm” is seeing them set of to conquer land for themselves overseas.

Perhaps one of the most well rendered features was the politic state of Ireland during the mid-twelfth century. Particularly well shown are the relative fragility of each King’s power, the complex web of ever shifting alliances, and the bitter and ever-lasting feud and hate between Dermot McMurrough, King of Leinster, and his northern rival Tiernan. The portrait of the ageing King of Leinster follows closely what is known of him with his vengefulness and his cruelty being well documented, including the mass execution of his enemies after surrendering. I initially had some doubts about the character of the High King which could have appeared to be a bit of a wimp. He is not, although he I shown as overconfident and also out of his depth when confronting with a new adversary and a different type of warfare waged by a ruthlessly efficient enemy.

This is where I had my two little quibbles. The first is that it is highly unlikely that the High King raised an army as large as the book seems to imply, even if “tens of thousands” may add some dramatic intensity. Given logistic and transport constraints – there were for instance no paved roads in Ireland – ten thousand would probably have been both a maximum and a huge enough army to face a few hundred Normans and less than a thousand men from Leinster.

The second quibble is based on the fact that the climatic battle described in the topic is in fact fictitious, as the author has to honesty to mention in his historical note. In reality, the High King, his allies and his vast army backed down and preferred to avoid taking the entrenched Normans on and wisely refrained from fighting them on their own terms. The real quibble, however, is not that the battle is fiction but that it is made to look almost too “easy”, with the Irish coalition and their Dubliner Norse allies committing just about every mistake they could come up with. Note however that this does entirely manage to stop the battle from being just as gripping as all the others that are scattered across the book.

Four strong stars for a well-told, exciting and well-written story. I am very much looking forward to reading the second volume.


Glendalough Fair: A Novel of Viking Age Ireland: Volume 4 (The Norsemen Saga)
Glendalough Fair: A Novel of Viking Age Ireland: Volume 4 (The Norsemen Saga)
by James L. Nelson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.74

4.0 out of 5 stars Thorgrim Night Wolf loses badly, 23 Feb. 2016
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This is the fourth instalment of the Norse adventurer who has just become the Lord of Vik-lo. As another reviewer has already cautioned, it is preferable to read the books in the series in sequential order. It is however just about possible to read this one on a standalone basis, although you will miss some of the references to past episodes and events.

After a harsh winter, he, his companions and the three hundred or so warriors go off a Viking to attack and pillage the rich monastery and town of Glendalough, just as it is preparing to hold it’s fair. From then on, however, things start going badly wrong, and then they get worse…

This book has both familiar elements and a few new strands as well. The familiar elements include the rather divided, somewhat traitorous and often grasping and power hungry Irish nobles, either ready to use the invaders for their own purposes and advantage or ready to flee and abandon their men in the field to safeguard their silver. They also include some somewhat mysterious monks and one in particular, who has set up a spy network from which he is informed of the Vikings every move in time to check them time and again. You also get your fill of (rather gritty, visceral and bloody!) battles with shield walls crashing against each other and there is also a bit of romance, if it can be called that. Finally, there is also rivalry and treachery among Norse warlords, with this undermining the expedition against Glendalough and seriously compromising (this is a British understatement!) our hero’s and his companions chances to survive the outcome. Another feature that is getting to be a bit familiar is that the Vikings certainly do not have it all their way, especially in this episode.

Then there are a few new twists. One is the rather limited role played by Starri Deathless, the colourful and amazing berserker and faithful companion of Thorgrim, for reasons that will appear clearly when reading the book. Another is that Thorgrim’s own “special” and fearful talents, and the reason for his nickname, are not so much on display in this episode. A third is the role played by a young Frankish noble in precarious exile but with lots of experience in successfully fighting the Vikings. There are a few others that I will not mention and let you discover, in order to avoid spoilers.

One of the novelties here is the use of heavy cavalry charges against the Norse. While I am not quite sure that this happened in Ireland where light cavalry mounted on poneys seemed to be more common, it certainly did in the Frankish realms. Anyway, it definitely makes for some very exciting pieces and bitterly contested fights when this cavalry attacks Norse shield walls. Another interesting feature is the (very) historic description of Glendalough monastery and town and the important spiritual but also economic role that it played at the time.

One little gripe, however, is the rather abrupt “cliff-hander” ending of the book, but this essentially means that I wanted more… Four strong stars.


The Cross and the Curse: Volume 2 (Bernicia Chronicles)
The Cross and the Curse: Volume 2 (Bernicia Chronicles)
by Matthew Harffy
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The young and unsecure thegn, 22 Feb. 2016
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This is the second volume of the Bernicia Chronicles, set in seventh century Britain, at the time when Kings, and in particular Oswald of Northumbria, Penda of Mercia and Cadwallon of Gwynedd where vying for supremacy. In this episode, the action mostly takes place in Northumbria which included at least part of the Lowlands at the time. However, Beobrand (the hero) also gets sent on a mission to Iona and accompanies his King on a parley in the extreme south of his kingdom.

Just like the first book, the author has carefully researched his topic. Again, his historical note is both interesting and meticulous in listing where he had deviated from what little is known of the historical events. Also like the first book, the hero, despite his fighting prowess and his valorous deeds, is no “superhuman”. He is both superstitious and quite unsecure. In fact, one of the main themes running through the book and explaining part of its title is his belief that he is cursed. The other characters are also believable.

Another interesting feature is the role played by the monastery of Iona in re-Christianising Northumbria, and the influence that its bishop had on the very religious Oswald. The circumstances of the foundation of Lindisfarne are historical. So is the fact that King Oswald seems to have got rid rather quickly of the first candidate that was sent to him, although probably not for the reasons shown in the book, as the author freely admits. Here again, however, and even if fictional, these reasons (which I will just about manage to not mention) make the religious characters that much more human and credible.

The circumstances surrounding the defeat of Cadwallon may have been largely invented by the author although we know little about the battle itself, except that it took place somewhere near Hadrian’s Wall, that Oswald won supposedly against the odds and that the enemy King was heavily defeated and killed. King Oswald might have been outnumbered and won thanks to the unusual tactics shown in the book. Anyway, regardless of whether this was the case or not, the author’s choices and the description of the battle itself are rather superb, exciting, griping and plausible, with the hero – of course - playing a sufficiently critical role to earn a very significant reward from his Lord and King.

The political context is also well shown. The defeat of Cadwallon was certainly not easy and King Oswald’s forces, even after uniting Deira with Bernicia, must have been weakened by both these losses and those sustained by Northumbrian warriors during previous defeats under both Oswald’s brother and King Edwin before him. Even if the meeting that produced the truce described in the book never took place, there does seem to have been such an agreement with Penda and this suited both leaders because both needed time to consolidate their rule.

A related point is the character and ambitions of King Oswald and his brother Oswiu. The later was a warrior’s warrior. The former, although pious and perhaps more of a statesman than his younger brother and successor, seems to have been no mean warrior himself. This is perhaps something that the book does not show sufficiently. What it does show rather well, however, is Oswald’s ambition to become the Bretwalda and be recognised as supreme. It also shows how one of the ways to achieve this was to strike alliances with the somewhat weaker Kingdoms of East Anglia, Kent and Wessex in order to contain Mercia, the remaining rival after Cadwallon’s death.

I could go on and on but by now it should be rather clear that I “loved” this book, to use Amazon’s terminology. I will therefore recommend this one just as much as I did for volume 1, and rate it accordingly. Also, and for those wanting to read more about this period, but something non-fictional, I can also warmly recommend “King of the North” by Max Adams, which is very readable and covers the whole period.


Nemesis (Brennus ~ Conqueror of Rome Book 2)
Nemesis (Brennus ~ Conqueror of Rome Book 2)
Price: £2.49

4.0 out of 5 stars Mostly the disaster and very little on the recovery, 19 Feb. 2016
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This is the second, and - it seems - the last, volume on Brennus’ invasion of Italy and sack of Rome. It essentially picks up from where the first volume finishes and you would do well to read them sequentially. It also displays many of the features that I had appreciated in this first title. There are however a few little glitches and I had one problem as well.

The first piece of interest is the originality of the topic. Rome’s defeat and the sack of the city by the Gallic tribe of the Senons is a rather original topic to pick. This is the first time I have read a historical novel on it. It is also a nice contrast from the vast majority of more “usual” (but nevertheless exciting) stories on Roman triumphs, although they have been a number of exceptions here with novels dealing with Roman military disasters inflicted by Hannibal, the Parthians or the Germans (Teutoburg and Adrianople). This book, however, is about the very first Roman disaster and the sack of Rome that followed. The choc this created and the recovery that the Romans were able to stage were allegedly such that it set them firmly on the road to conquering their Empire.

One of the problems here is that we know little about what really happened, and only have the Roman (or pro-Roman) versions of the events. The author has obviously well-researched his subject, even if one may wonder whether some of the semi-legendary events that tend to paint the Romans in ways they would have liked to remember really happened. This is for instance the case of the old “paterfamilias” of the patrician clans who refused to leave their homes and flee before the invaders. One may also wonder whether the scene where Brennus heaps humiliations onto the defeated Romans when extorting tribute from them really happened as the Romans chose to recall it in writing. Whether it did or not does not really matter. What does matter is that this is how the Romans chose to recall this disaster and the subtext underpinning this presentation reads like “never again” or words to that effect.

The author’s interpretation explaining the disastrous defeat at the Allia is also particularly interesting. There does not seem to be anything in the “historical” sources confirming the Gallic tricks and stratagems used in the book, but these would go a long way towards explaining why the Romans are presented as being heavily outnumbered. Alternatively, they may have been outnumbered because the Senons invaded before Rome’s allies had time to muster and come to its help. I will not discuss the battle itself, if only to avoid spoilers. Suffice is to mention that the Roman army was badly defeated and fled but it was not utterly destroyed, and a number of troops did manage take refuge in the ruins of the recently destroyed Etruscan city of Veii, as shown in the book.

The plot is exciting and the story fast-paced. The main characters are essentially the same as in the first book and the mystic, religious and supernatural dimensions are still there, particularly with regards to the druidess Catumanda. Also included are the various types of (human) sacrifices that the Celts practised at the time

I did however have two sets of problems. One, the least important, is that there a number of little glitches throughout the book. These seem to result from the paucity of the sources, and the fact that they are one-sided. Rome, for instance, probably did not have “insulae” during the fourth century BC and these may have only appeared more than a century later as the city became a magnet attracting population from all over Italy. Other glitches reflect uncertainties and issues with the sources. For instance, there seems to have been military tribunes at the time, but there were no cohorts and it is unclear as to what the role of these tribunes was and what their command encompassed exactly. The consequence is to have the three military tribunes of the Fabii each commanding a mere century alongside a centurion at the battle of the Allia. Another type of glitch is that the author at times uses Latin terms (such as oppidum) or derived from Latin (such as “castro”) when describing Celtic fortresses, and particularly that of Numantia in Spain.

The second problem, perhaps more important, relates to the plot and the book’s size, which is perhaps a hundred pages or so shorter than it could have been. I really had the impression that the end of the story was somewhat rushed with a number of crucial events which could have deserved to be treated in much more detail crammed into the last thirty pages or so. I was also a bit surprised that Brennus, the war leader of the Senons, plays a relatively small role in this book and drops out for mysterious reasons – things to do in the place he originally came from, apparently. A related issue is that while the military disaster and the sack of Rome are well shown, there is very little on the recovery and how this was achieved. However, the book’s last scene is quite superb and explains in itself the book’s title.

Put differently, and to conclude this review, I am somewhat “complaining” because I wanted “more of it”. I can only hope that the author will come up with a third book precisely on the period of twenty years or so that followed the disaster of the Allia and during which Camillus (a historical character) and his rivals of the Fabii (also historical) managed to put aside their antagonism and do seem to have reformed the Roman army and may have introduced the manipular system.

Four strong stars.


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