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Revenger
Revenger
by Alastair Reynolds
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Decay and vengeance, 23 Aug. 2017
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This review is from: Revenger (Paperback)
This is a great science fiction thriller set in the distant future of our decayed Solar System where humans live in millions (fifty millions being mentioned) of towns and cities are clustered on space stations and asteroids but there is no explicit mention of any of the main planets being inhabited. Humans travel and trade with antique sailing vessels and small crews, with limited engine power and with these sails catching space winds.

Apart from trade, the main game in town – and a game that has been played for a couple of centuries - is to go on dangerous treasure hunts to explore “baubles.” These are smallish artificial planets scattered across the whole system whose origins and makers are lost in time and which contain whole vaults of highly advanced materials, equipment and technologies of unknown origins (whether human or alien) that nobody is able to replicate anymore.

One of the greatest features of the book is this mixture of decay and loss of knowledge that comes across most of it. Sedentary humans live a safe life but their economies are totally dominated, with alien races controlling their economies, and their financial systems in particular, with endemic crises disrupting then regularly. The nomadic ones, made up of the various sailing crews, live a dangerous life and survive through scavenging dangerous Baubles that they do not understand and know very little about, dreaming of making the great hit that will make them suddenly rich and allow them to quit.

Then there is the plot itself and the two main characters – two sisters who flee from home seeking adventure and cross the path of pirates and their cruel, feared and enigmatic leader in particular. It is also a story of retribution as the narrator of the story, once naïve and ignorant, becomes overtime as ruthless as necessary and ready to do whatever it takes to achieve the ultimate goal. A nice twist and feature is that of the familiar robot which turns out not to be not quite what it seems and have some rather interesting abilities to adapt and repair.

A superb five star read where the past and largely lost and forgotten history of human and alien species are only dimly remembered as “Occupations” with the story taking place during the Thirteenth of them.


Kings of Ruin (Kingdoms of Sand Book 1)
Kings of Ruin (Kingdoms of Sand Book 1)
Price: £1.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Fictional and wantonly cruel Roman Empire, 23 Aug. 2017
This book is pure fiction but loosely inspired by the beginnings of the Roman Empire, its conquest of the lands surrounding the Mediterranean and its crushing of Zohar –loosely inspired by the historical Kingdom of Judea.

A number of characters and events are also loosely based on history, in ways that are similar to what SJ Turney has done in his own tales derived from the Roman Empire. The Aelarian Emperor is one Marcus Octavius and, as his name suggests, he allies the military efficiency and brutality of the historical Mark Antony with the cunning and cruelty of Octavius, later to be known as Augustus. His defeated enemy is one ex-Senator Cassius – the name of one of the most prominent plotters and assassins of Julius Caesar. Marcus Octavius’ heirs are called, respectively Porcia for his bloodthirsty daughter (quite literally as you will see) who stands in stark contrast with the historical character that bore such a name, and his paranoid and half-crazy son Seneca who looks and behave more like a cross of Caligula and Nero that the stoic philosopher of the same name.

In a similar way, but perhaps a bit less obviously, some of the Zohar characters are also loosely based on historical ones, such as the two heirs to the throne who did indeed fight a cruel and destructive civil war to gain control of the kingdom. The former shepherd and young companion of one of the pretenders happen to have saved his life thanks to his skill with a sling and who is loosely modelled on a certain David. I was not quite sure who the Sela family were inspired from. The noble father and patriarch of the family was perhaps loosely inspired by a very sympathetic version of Herod the Great, while his progeny, or at least his two sons, seem to have rather taken from the Maccabees.

The place names have also been transposed. Aelar is the equivalent of Rome in this world, while Beth Eloth is a religious but also magical equivalent of Ancient Jerusalem. This is largely hinted at, in both cases, when the author describes both cities with forum, amphitheatre and Senate for the former, and Temple next to the fortified royal Palace for the other. I was not quite sure about what port inspired Gefen and hesitated between Acre (the former Ptolemais or Akro) or Caesarea of Palestine although hints could also point to one of the Phoenician city-ports such as Tyre and there is an allusion to a naval battle lost nearly two decades before this story begins of the coast of an island-city which could perhaps have been modelled on antic Arados.

As for the story itself, it is rather exciting and fast-paced – of the kind you find in a relatively good fictional novel for so-called “young adults”, but there is also a strong tendency to “overdo” the gore and sex scenes. While some of the horrific pieces introduced are historical, such as the crucifixions all along the main road back to the capital, as was done by Crassus after Pompey attempted to steal the credit of defeating Spartacus from him. However, the similar feature performed by Marcus Octavius and which can be found in this book is perfectly gratuitous and most “un-Roman” if only because it is gratuitous and not at all like something that an eminently practical Roman warlord – however vengeful he may have been - would come up with.

This is perhaps one the main problems I had in fact with this book and in fact the main difference between the historical characters and the fictional ones. The Romans, for instance, were indeed ruthless, harsh, cruel – and quite horrible by modern standards at least - but they rarely acted in such a wanton way. Grasping and avid Crassus in particular, despite all his riches, would never have wasted such a valuable resource as the lives of five thousand slaves and crucified them out of spite, unless he needed to make a point, which was precisely the reason he did it. In a similar way, both Seneca’s cruelty and – perhaps even more so – Porcia’s savagery are a bit over the top while just about all members of the Sela family (there are a couple of exceptions, however) seem to be mostly “sweetness and light”.

Another little issue was the presence of a few little glitches, which could perhaps have been avoided with a little bit more fine tuning and editing. The least important one is that trebuchets did not exist during most of the Roman Empire and only appeared towards the end of the six and beginning of the seventh century AD when they were first used by the Avars who had probably picked them up from Imperial China. This, and the fact that the legions of Aelar are shown without any auxiliary forces, does not matter too much given that the book is set in what is essentially a fictional world.

A related feature, and perhaps a more problematic one, however, has to do with the credibility of the story, and of the battle and siege descriptions in particular. I am not at all sure that heavily equipped legionaries, however well trained, would have fared as well as described when ambushed on a mountain road or fighting house to house when storming a city. There are in fact historical examples that tend to demonstrate the contrary. More generally, the author’s eagerness to describe the Aelarian legionaries as almost invincible leads to some exaggerations or contradictions at times. For instance, a contrast drawn between the grievous losses of the defenders of a beleaguered port compared to the negligible casualties of the legionaries comes just after scenes when dozens or even hundreds of the later perish in rather awful conditions.

To be entirely fair, however, and after having listed these limited reservations, the story itself was a good and entertaining read and, even if predictable at times, it certainly may me want to read the next instalment to see what happens. Four stars


Garro (The Horus Heresy)
Garro (The Horus Heresy)
by James Swallow
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.38

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Faith and Hope, 20 Aug. 2017
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This is a rather good collection of three short stories or more accurately novellas, each of which is about a hundred pages long, about Garro, the former Battle-Captain of the Death Guard who escaped the (first) massacre on Isstvan 3 and fled to Terra to warn the Emperor about Horus’ rebellion and treachery. As such, this book is a continuation of “the flight of the Eisenstein” by the same author. It is, however, also more than that in several respects.

First, it includes links to a number of other volumes of the Horus Heresy volumes, thereby filling in a number of holes and/or showing some characters that appeared in some of these volumes. This is the case of a certain Captain of the Luna Wolves, but also of a certain imperial assassin who was initially sent to kill Horus. There is also, through the character of one Harn, a secret operative working for the rebel Horus, an allusion to events that unfolded in Praetorian of Dorn but which chronologically take place after these three stories. There are at least two or three other allusions to previously published volumes which I will not mention in this review to avoid the risk of introducing spoilers. Despite all this, it is not necessary to have read the whole series to get a good grasp of the three plots although, of course, it might be preferable in order to understand some of the intricacies. There is however several other and more important features that make this volume a valuable addition to the Horus Heresy collection.

One is that the reader gets to learn more about Malcador the Sigilitte, the Emperor’s human Psyker Regent and right-hand, his preparations to defend Terra and the secret war he is waging against the rebels and their allies. In particular, you will learn (or find, for those who have already listened to the audio dramas) about the recruitment of what will become a special type of Space Marines in the future centuries of the Imperium and about the construction of their fortress on Titan. You will also learn more, in the third story, about the beginnings of the Imperial Cult through a couple of other characters already encountered in some of the first volumes of the series.

Another strongpoint is the characterisation of Nathaniel Garro, his mixture of anguish and despair as most of what he believed in – his Legion, his brothers and his Primarch father – is shattered with these having betrayed him and turned against the Emperor. A related feature that author shows pretty well is how his personality evolves into a mixture of suspicion and defiance towards the Sigilitte, his secrets and his manipulative ways, and towards something that the secular Emperor had sought to abolish decades ago: Faith and the beginnings of the Imperial Cult as a way to keep hope and fight mentally as well as physically against despair and the forces of Chaos. The presence and attitudes of Macer Varren, also a former Captain, also from one of the Legions that turned against the Emperor and therefore also betrayed by his Primarch and former brothers, and his different reactions against treason and despair offers an interesting contrast with Garro’s emotions.

A further attraction, for readers that are particularly fond of Space Marine Legions, is that quite a few of them appear in these three stories. In addition to the Death Guard, you will come across Ultramarines, Word Bearers, World Eaters, Imperial Fists, Emperor’s Children and White Scars plus a particularly stubborn, rigid and obtuse Shield Captain of the Legio Custodes which I could not help finding a little hard to believe.

A rather good read worth a rather strong four stars.


Legionnaire: Volume 1 (Galaxy's Edge)
Legionnaire: Volume 1 (Galaxy's Edge)
by Jason Anspach
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.96

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great even if not original, 20 Aug. 2017
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This was a great read, even if a somewhat unoriginal one, with flavours from William Dietz and Jay Allen and some similar themes.
One is the existence of the Legion, an elite force of professionals devoted each other and their corps and fighting for a State and government that does not deserve them on “Galaxy’s Edge” against a coalition of enemy forces. Another related theme is the existence of a privileged and unaccountable class of politicians that seek to control the Legion through political – and worthless – appointees and bureaucratic rules that put them at risk and undermine their efficiency, in the best of cases.

There are however also significant differences. The Legionnaires are not made up of former criminals, as in Dietz’s Legion of the Damned and neither are they modelled on the French Foreign Legion. They are also somewhat different from Jay Allen’s Marines. They felt more like a science fiction equivalent of Roman Legionaries fighting on the Empire’s frontiers in conflicts that they do not necessarily understand.

The characters, while believable, are sometimes bordering stereotype, particularly in the case of Captain Denvers, the political appointee which the authors have deliberately tried to make as loathsome and stupid as possible. Also not exactly original as the – this time heroic - characters of the major, the lieutenant and the sergeant, who is also at times the narrator of the story.

The book clearly belongs to the military science fiction universe. It is one of the best samples of the genre and it is accordingly fast-paced. The Legionnaires are spread thing over the Galaxy’s Edge, and Victory Company fights as hard as it can for its survival against the overwhelming odds of a rebellion that was supposed to be impossible. So, in addition to speed, action and firefights, you can expect a lot of heroic actions and deaths in a story that does not exactly have a happy ending but a rather bitter one and which is to be continued in volume 2 of the series.

A great start and a strong four star read.


Lions of the Grail
Lions of the Grail
by Tim Hodkinson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.06

4.0 out of 5 stars Exciting and interesting read with some problems, 11 Aug. 2017
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This review is from: Lions of the Grail (Paperback)
This is an interesting and an exciting read although I took some time in writing a review about it. Essentially, I had somewhat mixed views and could not make up my mind up on whether to rate three stars, which would have been too harsh, or four, which felt a bit generous given my problems. I finally decided for the later after reading the book a second time and despite my problems.

The action is set in 1315 in England and Scotland at the beginning and at the end of the book, and, mostly, in Ireland. Edward III, King since 1307, has just been defeated by the ruthless Robert Bruce, self-styled King of Scotland, and his brother Edward Bruce. The latter, with his elder brother’s active support, is just about to invade and conquer Ireland and hopes for the support of a large part of the Irish Kings and chieftains and of some of the disaffected Anglo-Irish nobility.

Some of the historical characters – such as Richard de Burgh (the Red Earl of Ulster) – are rather well described. The Earl of Ulster was at the time in his mid-fifties’ and therefore well past his fighting prime, as shown in the book. The Earl’s hesitations in staying faithful to Edward II seem to be fictional although they are just about plausible since his daughter was indeed the second wife of Robert Bruce. The marriage had taken place years before and this had not prevented the Red Earl from fighting alongside his King and against his son in law in Scotland. Despite this, however, and although he did stay faithful to the English King and fight (and lose) a battle against Edward Bruce and his invading army, he may have hesitated and tried to make sure he was on the winning side, as described in the book. Edmund Butler was the King’s Chief Justiciar in the Pale, the part of Ireland that was under direct English control. He may, however, have been quite younger than depict in the book since he seems to have been knighted by Edward II in 1309 only.

I had a bit of a problem with one of the opening scenes, however, where the hero, after spending five years in a dungeon in appalling conditions, is confronted by the King Edward II, the Earl of Lancaster, and Roger Mortimer who seem to have put aside their bitter rivalries for the occasion. The scene is somewhat surreal. Mortimer, in 1315, was unlikely to have been the Queen’s lover at the time. In addition, the King’s real rival was in fact his cousin Lancaster rather than Mortimer.

The character of Richard Savage – the book’s hero with his gleaming green eyes is, of course, a fictional one and so is that of Alys de Logan. Both, however, are rather good examples of the lower rankings of the Anglo-Norman nobility whose held land in the Pale and which, by the early fourteenth century, may have been struggling to make ends meet and hold their rank. Also great are the characters of MacHuylin the mercenary Gallowglass who pledged his service and that of his whole clan to their lord, his cousin the Norse-Scot war lord from the Hebrides and the Irish warriors. The type of warfare, the equipment and the reasons explaining the absence of plate armour among Anglo-Norman knights are also well described and perfectly accurate, even if I am not quite sure that the Scottish claymore long sword inspired and was at the origin of other similar weapons across Europe in general, and of the German long sword in particular, as the book seems to claim.

Another of the book’s strongpoint is the description of the Anglo-Norman society and populations in Ireland at the time. These retained a distinct and separate identity. They still spoke English and (for the knightly class at least) French although at least some of them by that time were also probably speaking Irish. They were nevertheless still resented by the Irish as invaders although the feudal lords fought among themselves, allied with and against Irish clans and war lords and took part in their fights and wars with and against them, with a number of examples of such rivalries being shown in the book.

A number of features in the plot, some of which are mere details, are nevertheless a bit hard to believe or remain unexplained. The reader never gets to understand, for instance, how a couple of Assassins made it from the Middle East to Ireland and it is somewhat unlikely, to put it mildly, that any member of a Military Order, whether a Templar or a member of the Order of the Hospital of Saint John would have managed to entice them to do so. Who the ageing and crippled knight who has the hero rescued and nursed to recovery happens to be is also unexplained and it is also somewhat unlikely that he would have access to dates and figs in Scotland, regardless of how long he may have spent in the East.

Finally, the plot itself has some great features but also others that are harder to believe. Among the former are vivid scenes of the tournament and the (fictional) assault on Carrickfergus castle. Among the later are the somewhat miraculous escapes from encirclement and siege thanks to a herd of cows and from a rather awful (and quite realistic) storm when crossing the straits between Ireland and Scotland. Here also, and whatever one makes out of the Holy Grail and whether people would really believe that it was genuine, I found it a bit difficult to believe that our hero would just drop everything in Ireland and go on a bit of a wild goose chase after it. Even harder to believe was that some of the other characters would go to his rescue on learning that he was shipwrecked.

Four stars all the same, and I look forward to (and have ordered) the sequel, even if the rather poor editing could also do with some improvements.


Darien: Empire of Salt (Empire of Salt Trilogy 1)
Darien: Empire of Salt (Empire of Salt Trilogy 1)
by C. F. Iggulden
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £6.49

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Civil war for supremacy, 11 Aug. 2017
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This book is the first of a new fantasy series by Conn Iggulden, better known for his Emperor, Conqueror and War of the Roses Series. The book is set in an entirely fictional universe, even if there are various hints that allow the reader to equate the city of Darien to one of the capitals of the Roman Empire.

The city of Darien is still huge, but the Empire of Salt to which it belonged is no more. The city is controlled by twelve prominent Families with one of them - the Sallett House – dominated the others and nominating the King from its ranks. The book reads like an exciting adventure story, with the six main characters either present in or converging on Darien to take part in an attempt to kill the King and wrest power from the Twelve Families. All of them will be changed as a result and some will even survive the upheaval.

While the plot may not be entirely original – readers of Stella Gemmell’s “The City” or of other similar stories may find a few parallels – some of the characterisation and the features and the action are rather superb. The artefacts and relics of a more glorious past that survive as treasured possessions of some of the Twelve Families are quite impressive, in particular the powerful “Sallett Greens”. So is the remaining magic in the land, with one of the characters discovering unknown but lethal talents and two others possessing - but hiding - such talents.

The attack of the royal palace and the fighting in the streets of Darien is among the best parts, even if some features, such as the old swordsman ability to stand in the front line and to survive the fight despite his age and his lack of armour, tend to stretch belief a bit. The personality of the old soldiers and swordsman, well past his prime, and his attachment to his gang of followers, make him into a rather sympathetic character, just like the Hunter’s devotion to his family which makes him capable of doing just about anything to protect them.

Three of the most interesting characters, however, are not among the six main ones. Two of them are the main protagonists in the civil war and bitter fight for supremacy in Darien. One is the general commanding the Legion of Immortals. He is a member of the Twelve Families but from of the minor Families and commands the five thousand strong elite professional force of Darien, a force that is increasingly starved of resources. The other protagonist is an ageing lady, the ruthless and determined head of the Sallett House and the real power behind the throne of her young and fearful nephew. The third character, perhaps one of the most sympathetic in the book, is the fat, unwarlike, middle aged but brave Head of one of the other minor Families who answers the Sallett’s call to defend Darien.

There were perhaps a couple of shortcomings, however, which essentially means that I would appreciated a bit more context and world building.

One is that you learn hardly anything about the Empire of Salt in particular, and Darien’s past more generally, although this is the book’s title. Another and related point is that only four representatives of the Twelve Families make an appearance in this book. Although future volumes of the Series will very likely shed more light on both aspects, I could not help finding this book somewhat incomplete, which, when seen in a positive light, essentially means that I wanted more of it…

Four strong stars and I look very much forward to reading the next instalment.


The City (City 1)
The City (City 1)
by Stella Gemmell
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Good but not quite the same, 11 Aug. 2017
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This review is from: The City (City 1) (Paperback)
This is Stella Gemmell's first book written entirely on her own, and it is a good one. There are a number of features that are similar to those that can be found in some of her late husband's books but also some differences, and perhaps some problems.

As in David Gemmell's books, this one is loosely built around history. Although the plot is set in an entirely fictional world, the City and the Empire around seemed (to me at least) to be largely derived from the City of Byzantium and the Byzantine Empire. Several other themes and types of characters which are present in previous books are also used.

One theme is the decline and decay of a once great Empire that is ruled by the remnants of an alien race - think of Echoes of the Great Song. Similar character types include the old general, past his prime and his glory, who makes a final comeback to save the sum of things, and several types of swordsman and swordswomen, noble by their deeds and, sometimes, their origins. Also included is the enduring and fiercely loyal giant (here a "northerner" which made me think of Varangian warriors) and the courtesan, among others.

The plot and the characters are however also quite different, and so is the book's tone. I will not mention much about the plot, to avoid spoilers, and will just mention that the Empire is locked into an endless war with most of its neighbours, a war that it is slowly losing, which its Emperor, who is called the Immortal, is determined to win just like all of the previous wars. Add to this is a whole atmosphere of treason, intrigues and political assassinations and you get a rather powerful, thrilling and action-packed cocktail which you will have trouble in putting down until you have finished the last page.

The book's tone and ending are generally rather sombre and somewhat pessimistic. The descriptions and sections about the City's underground life and environment are particularly horrific and griping. The characters are often not what and who they seem to be. Overall, I very much enjoyed this book and spent most of the week-end reading it non-stop. I do have a couple of reservations, however, with regards to the plot. At times, I found it unnecessarily complicated. I also was not entirely convinced with some of the "evil" characters' regrets. Unlike "Echoes of the Great Song", for instance, the disasters that occurr in the book are entirely the responsibility of the City's rulers. These appear as rather unsympathetic, cruel and inhuman, to put it mildly. They are driven by their own ambitions and seem to cara little for what can happen to their subjects.

I would certainly recommend this interesting book, especially for Gemmell fans, and I would rate it a solid four stars, but not quite five.


A Day of Fire: a novel of Pompeii
A Day of Fire: a novel of Pompeii
by E Knight
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.24

5.0 out of 5 stars Splendid and apocalyptic, 11 Aug. 2017
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This is a splendid novel – in fact a collection of six inter-related stories of six different characters by six different authors and their perspectives during the catastrophic destruction of Pompeii in AD 79. All of the stories are superb, largely because the characterisation is excellent. I do happen to have my favourites, although this is because I liked and sympathised with some characters more than with others, not because some stories are weaker than others. Some of the characters are historical. Others are fictional. In both cases, however, the authors have been extremely careful and worked hard to make them historically plausible. Unsurprisingly then, I am also going to give this book a highly deserved five stars.

My favourite character is one of the historical ones – that of old admiral Pliny the Elder who, on learning of the disaster, set out with his ships and died when attempting to rescue the population, with the story being told by his nephew and adopted son, Pliny the Younger (“the Son”). The sober style, with plenty of suppressed emotion, with which his nephew tells the story makes all the more moving.

One of my favourite stories, the saddest of all in my view, is “the Mother”. This is partly because it is based on some of the archaeological findings in one of the houses of Pompeii and on the remains of thirteen human bodies found in this villa in particular. It is also because the narrative shows some of the characters exhibiting “Roman behaviours” and in particularly desperately clicking on to the shreds of their dignity during their last moments. Finally, it is because it shows (and so does a couple of the other stories) why so many got trapped and failed to flee early enough, believing that it was just another earthquake that they could ride out.

Two of my other favourite characters were the fictional Senator Norbanus and the no less fictional Diana, the eccentric scion of the Cornelii, both of which appear in several stories (and I other stories written by the author) but are mainly displayed here in “The Senator”. Another great story is Ben Kane’s “The Soldier” which focuses on a retired legionary and his maimed comrade in arms and gives a rather grim idea of what could happen to these once their service days were over. Also grim is “the Whore”, with the main characters – two sisters – illustrating “sexploitation” but also how laws could be abused and ignored unless you had a powerful protector or relations to help you.

Perhaps the most valuable thing about this book is the rather superb and vivid image of Roman society during the Early Roman Empire that it conveys. It was a deeply unequal society where the poor suffered and were exploited and where the rich and/or powerful could - and often did - abuse their power and get away with it. A remarkable piece of collective team writing that I cannot recommend enough. A MUST read.


The Bulgarian-Byzantine Wars for Early Medieval Balkan Hegemony: Silver-Lined Skulls and Blinded Armies
The Bulgarian-Byzantine Wars for Early Medieval Balkan Hegemony: Silver-Lined Skulls and Blinded Armies
by Dennis P. Hupchick
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £86.00

4.0 out of 5 stars Incumbent and competitor, 11 Aug. 2017
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This is a great and valuable book about the relations – and more accurately the wars – between the Bulgarians and the Byzantine (or East Roman) Empire from the eighth to the eleventh century.

The story – or large parts of it at least - has been told before, in particular by Steven Runciman in his History of the First Bulgarian Empire (1930) and Paul Stephenson’s more recent (2000) Byzantium’s Balkan frontier: A Political Study of the Northern Balkans (900-1204), to mention just two of them.

This book, however, is different in a number of ways. It is essentially a military history focused on the wars between the Bulgarian incumbents and the kingdoms they created and the old Byzantine Empire, inheritor of the East Roman one and initially struggling against invasions. A related point is that the story is essentially told from a Bulgarian rather than from the traditional Byzantine perspective. It accordingly starts with the Bulgarians’ arrival on the Danube towards the end of the seventh century (about 680 AD) and ends with the conquest of the last Bulgarian state by Emperor Basil II in 1018.

A key proposal of this book is to present the struggle between the existing Empire and its increasingly threatening Bulgarian competitor as one about gaining “hegemony” and supremacy in the Balkans. While there is a lot going for such an interpretation, the author does, at times, give the impression of being slightly biased when attempting to present the Bulgarian state and its military capabilities on an equal footing with those of the Empire.

The author does show rather well and convincingly to what extent the Bulgarians were “fighting for survival” during the second half of the eight century, when Emperor Constantine V almost destroyed their kingdom. Even during the early years of the ninth century, Emperor Nicephoros captured and destroyed Pliska, the Bulgarian capital before being killed and his army destroyed in an ambush and surprise attack by Khan Krum and the rest of the Bulgarian army. Dennis Hupchick goes on to present the next century of warfare, up to the death of tsar Symeon, as being mostly in favour of the Bulgarians, with the Byzantine forces suffering a number of crushing defeats in battle and often despite initial advantages.

While the author uses these victories to show the Bulgarian forces as highly organised and well disciplined, his narratives show the Byzantine command as divided, overconfident or even incompetent, with such flaws translating into poor morale and discipline at troop level, and ending with military (and rather avoidable) disasters. The point here, which the author does not make explicitly, is that the impressive Bulgarian victories were achieved at least as much, if not more, thanks to the blunders of their adversaries, and the flaws of their commanders and command structure in particular. A related point is that whatever the qualities of the respective armies, the Bulgarian successes and triumphs point perhaps much more to the rather exceptional personalities of some of the Bulgarian sovereigns (at the very least Krum, Symeon and Samuel), and their military and political skills in particular.

Bulgarian sovereigns did indeed seek recognition from Byzantine Emperors and did model their state, their title, their church and their prerogatives on those of the Medieval Greek Orthodox Empire. They may indeed have wanted to achieve parity or even supremacy over the latter. However, despite their successes and despite, at times, overrunning most of the Balkans to the extent that Byzantine dominions were reduced to a few footholds and coastal cities, they never really managed to do so for more than a few decades.

This generally happened when the Byzantine Empire was either weak and/or prioritised fighting on its eastern front. Whatever concessions were extracted from grudging Byzantine regimes, whether territory, titles or tribute, these could only be temporary and meant to buy the Byzantine Empire time. An illustration of this ambiguity and of Imperial Byzantine ideology at play is the title of “Tsar” – derived from Caesar - that the Bulgarian monarchs took for themselves. Byzantines granted the title of Caesar to the Emperor’s heir and number two of the Byzantine Empire, meaning that the Caesar was the Emperor’s subordinate, not his equal.

In addition, the author’s treatment of Byzantine tribute to the Bulgarian khans and tsars is somewhat incomplete. He does show the political but also the economic importance of these tributes for the Bulgarian monarchs, especially since their economy was not monetised, but he does not mention its importance for the Byzantine Empire, which could easily afford such tributes. The related point here is that the Byzantine State was financially much richer than its Bulgarian competitor because its economy was also richer and more developed. In military terms, this also meant that the two rivals were not on an equal footing. The Byzantine Empire’s heartlands and richest provinces at the time was Anatolia (modern Turkey) rather than the Balkans. It therefore had more staying power, could bear grievous losses in the Balkans and try again to reconquer lost Balkan territory at a later date and under a stronger and more competent Emperor.

The third reason for the ultimate destruction of the Bulgarian Empire was its inability to take Constantinople. The Bulgarian monarchs, and Symeon and Samuel (or Samouil) in particular, were well aware of their inability to take the city in the absence of a fleet to blockade it by sea, as well shown by the author. What he does not explicitly show and mention, however, is that the Bulgarian forces may not have had sufficient forces to carry out the lengthy and hard siege necessary to either breach Constantinople’s Land Walls or starve out the city, even if they had had such a fleet at their disposal.

A further point relates to numbers, and here again the author tends to pick those that support his thesis about Bulgarian-Byzantine parity and makes, at times, some questionable and unsubstantiated statements of his (even if he quite rightly identifies such statements when made by other authors). Bulgarian, but also Byzantine forces were medieval armies, just as those of Charlemagne, and subject to the same logistical and resource limitations. Moreover, Charlemagne, but also his father and his son, controlled a territory that was larger at the time than the Byzantine Empire itself. There is therefore little evidence to support the statement that Frankish armies were on average half or even a quarter of the size (8000 being the numbered suggested) than those that either the Bulgarians or the Byzantines could field during their wars.

It is also highly unlikely that the Byzantine Tagmata (permanent elite cavalry regiments) ever numbered 4000 each, with the grand total of 24000, of which 16000 were heavily armoured cavalry, during the ninth and early tenth century borrowed by the author from Warren Treadgold. While it was the richest Christian state at the time, the cost of maintaining such an expensive and numerous force on a permanent basis would have been overwhelming and beyond the Empire’s means. A related point is that the army fielded by John I Tzimiskes against the Russ and their Bulgarian allies in 971 is unlikely to have exceeded some 30000 (as claimed by Haldon) as opposed to the 40000 claimed by the author, if only because troops had to be left in the East.

Other interesting, somewhat controversial and not entirely convincing points are made by the author. One is that the Bulgarian nobles – the boyards – showed remarkable loyalty to the Bulgarian reigning dynasties. However, while the author does show these nobles and their respective followers as supporting their victorious and strong monarchs, his narrative also shows defections and rebellions when these were weaker, less decisive or defeated. Another point is whether the long reign of Peter (927-967) saw the decline of the Bulgarian Empire, and the author’s contribution here is a valuable one because it questions the consensus according to which he was a weak ruler. If anything, the fact that he managed to stay on his throne for so long would tend to demonstrate the contrary. Weak rulers very rarely remained in power for four decades during the Middle Ages, especially when their kingdom was surrounded by enemies. By the time he was forced to abdicate and retired to a monastery, he had been defeated by the Russ allied to the Petchenegs, had suffered a stroke and was very probably old.

One point which the author does not emphasise is that Samuel and his brothers never restored the whole of the Bulgarian realm but only the western, poorest, most mountainous and most defensible part of it. A related point is that as soon as the Byzantine Empire was able to concentrate on addressing the “Bulgarian problem” because it had gained the ascendency in the East, and when such a problem was addressed by a competent and relentless Emperor such as Basil II, the Bulgarian challenger appeared clearly at a disadvantage. In fact, the more than twenty years of warfare that followed Symeon’s crushing defeat at the Sperchios in 997 show the Bulgarian Tsar fighting a defensive war and being increasingly hemmed in the mountains.

Interestingly, the author, following Stephenson, also shows that Basil II, the Byzantine Emperor, was unlikely to have initially wanted to destroy the Bulgarian challenger contrary to what the Comnenian propaganda of Skylitzes would make out a century later. Reducing the Bulgarian realm to a rump and vassal mountainous state cut off from the sea and hemmed in by Byzantine fortresses controlling all accesses to the plains would have been perfectly satisfactory for the Emperor. That the story ended with the conquest of the whole kingdom owes largely to circumstances, that is not only to the death of Samuel but also to the conflicts among his heirs and the shrewd and efficient way in which Basil subdued the remaining war lords and integrated them into the Empire.

Four strong stars for an interesting and at times fascinating narrative seen largely from “the other side”, despite the lack of Bulgarian written sources.


Resurrection (The Horusian Wars)
Resurrection (The Horusian Wars)
by John French
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £18.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Armed conflicts among Inquisitors, 6 Aug. 2017
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This is the first volume of what may be another trilogy of “civil wars” (because I am not quite sure these conflicts would qualify as wars) among Inquisitors, following that of Ian Watson some years ago. Although not my favourite theme and despite not having liked Ian Watson’s trilogy at the time, this one has something going for it, even if it does perhaps not match up with Dan Abnett’s Eisenhorn and Ravenor trilogies.

The plot, which is basically and yet again about a faction of Inquisitors believing that they can harness the powers of the warp in the service of mankind - and perhaps also in their to begin with – is not exactly original. It may also not be entirely convincing to the extent that both sides up psychic and warp tainted abilities to fight each other, starting with Inquisitor Covenant, the handsome hero and expert swordsman.

The action scenes make up what is perhaps the better part of the book, with an Inquisitor conclave turning out into a major ambush and an attempt to massacre most of the galactic region’s Inquisitors. The origin of the perpetrators of this massacre, a variation of zombies arising from a heretical cult, are rather interesting. The book’s last action scene will also interest readers that are fond of warp monsters with a whole collection of them appearing and attacking Inquisitor Covenant, his retainers and his allies.

Some of the characters are also worth noting. One is the old Inquisitor and Daemon hunter Vult in his Terminator armour. Another is the former Battle Sister Severita, now one of Covenant’s followers, who exhibits guilt at having left her Sisters to follow her new calling. However, one of my favourites is probably Cleander von Castellan, the scared heir of a rogue trader dynasty and who plays the deceptive role of a charismatic, bantering and careless dandy. Another favourite was Mylasa, a psyker and also one of Covenant’s followers. A couple of other interesting features are trips made by Covenant and his followers when inquiring about the circumstances surrounding the conclave’s ambush. The deformed and deceptive Navigator character and the old judge struggling to keep planetary order are both interesting.

However, the weakest point lays with the plot. Despite several allusions to past events, you never get told exactly about what happened to Covenant’s and to Idriss’ (a female Inquisitor) common master, except that he became a heretic and had to be put down. I also failed to understand (and was not really told) why and who one of the main Inquisitor characters became a heretic and what exactly this character and its allies aim to achieve.

A somewhat generous four stars (three and a half rounded up to four).


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