Book Review: The Hollow Crown by Dan Jones.

Hardcover: 480 pages
Publisher: Faber & Faber (4 Sep 2014)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0571288073
ISBN-13: 978-0571288076
http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Hollow-Crown-Roses-Tudors/dp/057128807351yFjy801UL

The name Hollow Crown is not an uncommon one, but then Shakespeare has a knack of repeating himself in modern life and Historians like to help him along.
I am coming to find that Faber & Faber can be relied upon to produce a good quality book, everything is here to make a reader feel satisfied long before he reads the first sentence. Yet again I happily report that there is none of the awful gold embossed lettering that rubs off as you read, the somber brooding cover is another typical theme found in medieval books. The harsh steel of the lettering and the sharp edge of the all evocative rose tells of hard violent times within.

There are 372 reading pages which gives a manageable chunk of reading, while still offering notes, index etc, and at the front there are 3 black and white maps and an introduction. The midway oasis of images take up 8 pages, with an average of 2-4 pictures per page, they include portraits and manuscripts that reinforce key characters and points found in the book.

The wars of the Roses are perhaps more easily understood by a secular society than some others. These were not like the later Religious wars that convulsed Europe as its head broke into the light of the renaissance from the Medieval Sea. These wars were motivated by emotions familiar to any regular soap opera watcher, power, greed and revenge playing principle parts, though they didn’t initially start that way.

Perhaps this is why this tumultuous series of conflicts, the biggest until the Civil Wars of the 17th century, have remained a conscious part of Britain’s history. There can be no doubt though that they were nation shaping events, as well as nation shaking times. Thanks to Shakespeare most of us think we know the broad strokes of the Wars of the Roses, yet do we really?

Author of Plantagenets Dan Jones shows that we don’t know it all. He shows that these wars were essentially born out of the end of the 100 years war, after the death of Henry V a guiding direction was lost, and the lacklustre reign of Henry VI, whose inablitly to rule effectivly in the wake of the collapse of te English Kingdom of France, caused a power struggle between the great lords vying to prop him up.

All the while the Tudors slowly step more and more into the limelight while the Plantagenets begin tearing each other apart, then finally take the stage. The road to the 1st Battle of St Albans is well told. Making clear a tortuous path of typically complex medieval manoeuvring, between the King, his wife Margaret, and the Dukes of Suffolk, Somerset and York. The seesaw nature of these protracted conflicts makes for exciting reading and all the big battles are there, their consequences to see.

Here we see that these wars of the roses, occurred not as a direct attempt to steal the crown, but it all began to hold together a crumbling kingdom that had once seemed the most secure in all the world. The steps taken by the emerging factions of York and Lancaster grew into a self perpetuating downward spiral of increasing hostility, that created a monstrous vendetta and suddenly the entire kingdom was drawn into a titanic struggle not to save the Kingdom, but for the crown itself, which cost many countless lives. Eventually destroyed them both and made way for the Tudors.

It would be a mistake to underestimate just how much the Tudor’s have influenced our view of this time. Let it not be forgot that Shakespeare was a Tudor bard and told his stories with that prejudice in mind. This is not so here.

The course of the Wars are vividly and excitingly told, and their results are often as poignant as they are glorious, the array of battles that mark their course fall into place in the tale, some might have heard of Towton or Bosworth but there aren’t many contemporary books that put them in their place amongst the others, thus book does this and it’s great to be able to be able to put it all together. I’m a little unsure how the author has decided that a poleaxe and a bill are the same weapon, though certainly part of the same polearm family, but that was the only thing that made me raise an eyebrow.

A modern history of the Wars of the Roses is a nice thing to see appear on bookshelves. The recent interest in Richard III fairly pleads for new popular scholarship and this book will answer many questions. It is a good overview, nicely spiced with detail and you don’t need to be an expert, or someone with much previous information to enjoy it or learn from it. The Hollow Crown is a great read for anyone interested in a real “Game of Thrones”.

Josh.

Book Review: San Juan 1898 by Angus Konstam.

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Paperback: 96 pages
Publisher: Osprey Publishing (16 Nov 1998)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1855327015
ISBN-13: 978-1855327016

Osprey books are some of the most invaluable references for military history available and I have always considered their campaign books to be some of their finest products. These slim little numbers offer concise yet detailed accounts of military actions, both large and small, famous and obscure from Ancient Egypt to the present day, and should be the first port of call for people wanting to get to know the nuts and bolts of any conflict.

All Osprey books have a similar appearance, but this appearance has changed over time, I picked up a 1997 edition of San Juan 1898 second hand. Back then the Campaign books were more individualistic and mostly black. Nowadays they still have the broad frontispiece picture on the front but the differing series’ are identified by colour bands, orange for campaign and so on.

Osprey Books are divided into sections. All these are present and correct and are helpful to break down the actions described. Classic examples, familiar to fans of the Osprey range are:

Origins of Campaign
Opposing Commanders
Opposing armies
Plans of Campaign
The Campaign
Aftermath
Battlefields today
Orders of Battle
Chronology

The author is Angus Konstam, one of the veteran Osprey writers and one of the finest in the pool. This is reflected in the lucid text, full of detail and verve, generously salted by first hand snippets. As anyone with basic knowledge will know, the San Juan Hill is more than the name suggests, and all the ancillary actions that made up the battle are included, as well as the skirmish at Las Gossimas and the Naval battle of Santiago, but the battle at Fort McCalla is only briefly mentioned. The Rough Riders feature prominently along with the 9th and 10th Cavalry and 71st US Infantry. The Spanish side, and the Cubans, also get a word in, not as big a word as the US, but that is to be expected. He makes a slight misjudgement when asserting the Spanish had not fought a regular army since the Napoleonic Wars, but on the whole slip ups like that are not to be found.

Osprey books are heavily illustrated, catering to the little kid still playing toy soldiers inside most of us, we like to see the pictures. Amongst the text and on 99.99 percent of all pages are scattered many images that accentuate the flow of the descriptions and help carry it along. This one has some very fine images, one of my favourites, besides the classic image of Teddy Roosevelt and his men on top of San Juan Hill, is the image of the 1st Marine Battalion raising the Stars and Stripes over Fort McCall at Guantanamo Bay just after landing, a pre Iwo Jima moment if you will.

The best part about Osprey books, and the Campaign series in general, is the large specially commissioned two page art and high detailed 3D maps that form the centrepieces of the books. The 2D and 3D maps contradict each other once, but as usual are very well done, if old fashioned, in this book. David Rickman illustrated this one with a colourful and energetic series of eye catching paintings that show the old Osprey habit of packing books full of commissioned images, the best are the Advance up the Camino Reale and the Defence of El Caney. They are not exceptional, not the level you get with Graham Turner, the late Angus McBride or Steeve Noon for example but their quantity is very refreshing.

This is a very good overview of the campaign and it has all that I require in an Osprey book, detailing how the campaign that set America on course to become a world power unfolded.

Happy Reading!

Josh.

Book Review: Empress Dowager Cixi by Jung Chang.

 

 

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Paperback: 464 pages
Publisher: Vintage (3 July 2014)
ISBN-10: 0099532395
ISBN-13: 978-0099532392
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Empress-Dowager-Cixi-Concubine-Launched/dp/0099532395/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=&qid=

If I hadn’t suddenly taken an interest in the Last Emperor of China I would probably have never read this book. I had seen it as an imposing hardback as I passed stacked book of the month tables, and had even picked it up, but I didn’t feel curious about late Imperial China at that moment & I had never heard of Empress Dowager Cixi, let alone Jung Chang.
Suffice to say things changed, and a combination of finishing Julia Lovell’s Opium War and stumbling onto the story of Puyi, I saw Chang’s book for half price and quickly decided that if I was to read about the Last Emperor, the story of Cixi would be invaluable to me. How right I was.

The biography is of Empress Dowager Cixi, a concubine who became a regent, who ruled the largest population in the world for much of her life, and also the oldest empire in the world, needless to say, change came hard to China. By a quirk of fate Cixi would take responsibility for setting this ancient kingdom onto the road to becoming a modern state.

If Cixi had been a western monarch she would probably have been remembered as one of the greatest that ever lived. But being Chinese, a woman and being part of the imperial hegemony that ruled China for almost 300 years, she became a victim of communist revisionist historians, who painted her as either a tyrant or hopelessly inept.

Chang seeks to redress the balance. Convincingly showing how Cixi brought Medieval China out of the past and into the future. She herself was a medieval mind trying to find a way in a 19th century world. The author is clearly sympathetic to her subject, fearlessly defending Cixi to critics, yet boldly detailing her flaws, forcing you to look at the Empress Dowager as she was, liking her at first, recoiling from her near the end and finally finishing with a newfound respect for her, this book has an eloquent balance of light and shade and is a beguiling read.

The book offers a complete picture of her. A very detailed look into a lost wold, uneven chapters weave strong images in your mind, sometimes focusing on a small facet of her personality, then diving into one of the sweeping periods of her life, the little details bring her to life. The faint fragrance of greenwood and apples, fresh flowers in a Manchu coiffure and many other little treats make this a literary feast.

In the end I found it very easy to be impressed by Cixi. Despite her detractors she comes off no worse than some Roman Emperor’s or Elizabeth I for that matter, right now, revisionist historians are taking second looks at people like Caligula & Nero, so a fresh look at Cixi is more than overdue. I think she fascinated people when she was alive, and I think that by the end of this book, you will be fascinated by her too.

Happy Reading.

Josh

Book Review: The Opium War by Julia Lovell.

Hardcover: 480 pages
Publisher: Picador (2 Sep 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0330457470
ISBN-13: 978-0330457477
http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Opium-War-Dreams-Making/dp/0330457470/ref=tmm_hrd_title_0book cover

Appearance and handling:
The rich red dust-jacket fairly jumps from any shelf it is placed on. A delicate, significance laden, Poppy graces the front over a scene from the first war. The hardback is heavy and definitely a showy number but be careful how you hold it, because the publishers unwisely went with embossed guilt lettering, not only on the front but on the spine as well, which rubs off removing all but subtle traces of the writing. I’ve tried different hand postures but the only ones that work are very uncomfortable. Inside it’s got some nice illustrations in two sections, with the usual ratio of pictures to page, relatively generic maps of course, and a few black and white images scattered in between.

Review:
A more accurate name for this book would have been: “The Opium War, Causes & Consequences.” In that the main focus is not so much on the conduct of the wars, but the trigger mechanisms, socio-political ramifications and cultural significance of the conflicts.

Julia Lovell does a fine job of this and convincingly show’s how China was violently thrust into the modern world, and how, later, it took control of its past to secure its destiny. Initially the British and the Chinese face off as two nations, each imbued with its own sense of moral, cultural and racial superiority, both unwilling to understand or compromise with the other.

Triggered by the hot topic of the Opium trade, the ensuing clashes of arms leaves China with its moral superiority intact, but very little else, and a bruising road of rebellion, revolution and reform begins, which, due to the ideological hijack of the historical record by the Communist party, all leads back to the Opium War, which is at the root of Chinese attitudes to the world.

The book tries to encompass quite a large subject into a short space, 361 reading pages by my count, the rest is notes, index and maps. Not only does Lovell try to tell the tale of the Opium Wars but she also includes the Taiping & Boxer Rebellions, an interesting study of how “sinophobia” gripped the west in the late 19th century, and even a skim over the tumultuous events of the 20th century too.

This book therefore is perfectly good for a reader, new to the subject as I was, and wants an overview of the causes and of how they impact the world today. Despite its name though, the book is not a military history.

Comment on the lack of the sort of detail in the battle’s and campaigns military historians would prefer I will omit, I have already said this is not actually a military history. Suffice to say that “Breech loading percussion muskets” were not used against the Chinese by the British army in the 1840’s and it was not a company of the 37th Foot that got surrounded during the Sanyuanli Incident, it was one from the 37th Madras Native Infantry.

The main bulk of the text is taken up with what I have called causes and consequences, and the 1st war, the second getting but a chapter, but this is because the 2nd War was not directly caused by Opium, not in the same way the first was, and hardly merits the name, note the name of this book is not pluralised.

I believe this book will give a reader a good comprehension of the effects of European interference in China, and of the many varying factors that affected the decisions and actions of the participants involved, it will also show you how China’s modern journey began.

Josh.

My Beloved Brontosaurus by Brian Switek book review.

Hardcover: 272 pages
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (7 May 2013)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0374135061
ISBN-13: 978-0374135065
http://www.amazon.co.uk/My-Beloved-Brontosaurus-Favorite-Dinosaurs/dp/0374135061

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I have now come to the conclusion that most if not all of those Dinosaur Encyclopaedias that I got when I was a kid were outdated by the time they even got on the shelves. This is just one of the realisations I have come to after reading “My Beloved Brontosaurus” by Brian Switek.

It’s a slim volume with dazzling cover art that realises every Dino fan’s most nurtured dream, the author crouching in the benign posture, with a bouquet of lush swamp flowers in his hand, and looking up with curiosity and affection at the giant head of an appreciative Brontosaurus that is gently taking the popular palaeontologists offering with the grateful sincerity I have often seen in doting horses.

If you get the hardback edition then this touching cover folds out into a poster, that is double sided and shows the reality of the scene, as Brian looks on at a museum display in a vast grey hall, imagining the other side.
It is lightly illustrated with some quirky black and whites, and each chapter has a nice National Geographic feature piece feel to it.

You shouldn’t feel too sad about the duality of the cover though, because this is a wonderful book, and you will probably enjoy every page you turn to. The more modern history of the human race distracted me from my own Dino Mania sometime after 2005, (a subject I might well write about some time now I’ve read this), but re-caught the Mesozoic-palaeo bug (some of which you will literally encounter in these pages) sometime last year, after my latent Dinosaur interests slowly rebuilt itself.

This book therefore is excellent for those of you who lost track of our scaly (and now not so scaly) friends and want to sit down and ask “So, what’s new?”. I must say I enjoyed catching up with my old compadres and meeting some new ones, through this book. Even though I was never a fan of Brontosaurus; I am much more of an Iguanodon man, and have been before they were movie stars in Disney’s Dinosaur. My own prejudice aside this is also a great book if you want a concise overview of how our view of Dinosaurs have changed from the 80’s (and sometimes a little further back) to 2012. That’s right, buy it fast, before this book, like all those sometimes poorly illustrated discount “Big Book” of Dino’s, too becomes outdated. What else is it? It’s a real Palaeontologist talking about his job, and his own personal journey from his first encounter with the late lamented “Brontosaurus” to now, along the way, Dinosaur enthusiasts will not fail to connect with his many stories of growing up with Dino culture, and seeing how both creature and human changed and grew alongside each other as ideas and conceptions changed.

For those of us in Britain, this book, unlike the only other work of popular Palaeontology that I have ever seen in this country, (Dino Gangs), this little jaunt through time is going to have to be another dent in the mainstream book store market, as it is only available offline (that I have seen) in the US, for about $26, nevertheless I highly recommend it for those of you who now want a little bit more from your Dinos than the standard bargain, top trumps stat titles offer.

You will not regret going “On the road with old bones, new science, and our favourite Dinosaurs” (I’m just happy he mentioned Iggy a few times)

Josh.

Book Review: Raffles and the Golden Opportunity by Victoria Glendenning

Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: Profile Books (1 Aug 2013)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1846686040
ISBN-13: 978-1846686047
http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1846686040/ref=pd_lpo_k2_dp_sr_1?pf_rd_p=103612307&pf_rd_s=lpo-top-stripe&pf_rd_t=201&pf_rd_i=1846686032&pf_rd_m=A3P5ROKL5A1OLE&pf_rd_r=0F0ERBGY7B156YSZJ1GP

Appearance and Handling.
The book is good quality, with an attractive cover, showing Raffles’ portrait, over a view of Singapore surrounded by lovely drawings of plants and birds, the title is written in red Victorian letters.

One of the founders of the British Empire gets put back in the forefront in Victoria Glendenning’s new biography of Sir Stamford Raffles. For those of you who don’t know, Raffles was the founder of Singapore, but he was also a naturalist, collector, writer and governor of Java. Essentially he was one of those early Imperialists who did a bit of everything, defying simple definition. He didn’t come from anywhere special, he was the estranged son of a sea captain who was sent to work as a young man with the East India Company and from these humble beginnings he rose to do great things.
Glendenning writes about Raffles with even handed affection, she obviously feels great sympathy for him, and indeed as she says his story is shot through with tragedy, though his end is hardly as tragic as one expects it to be. Everything his gone in to very nicely, the level of detail is good allowing you to reconstruct a picture of his life, see his enemies, friends, family and even servants in living colour. The insights into the workings of the East India Company are wonderful and were some of my favourite bits in the book, and seeing how small colonial towns were run was a great addition. The book also sheds light on a overlooked part of the Napoleonic wars, that being the “Eastern theatre” where the British were not only facing the French and their agents, but the Dutch and the native people’s who supported them. It covers the little known invasion of Java and introduces many fascinating characters, connecting the dots between the Maratha Wars in India and the further British conflicts out of India against the French and Dutch. The writing style is evocative and rich, it is essentially a tale well told and takes you like any food adventure book, to places you have never seen and shows you things you have never heard of.
Sadly it is rather vague about the military operations, much like Julia Lovell in the Opium War, she has paid little attention to it, and as such the book suffers, now it’s a biography not a military history but since some incidents such as the invasion of Java (in 1811) is central to the story, it could have been a little more thorough. During the description of the invasion, for instance Glendinning mentions a fleet of 200 ships and an army of 12,000 men most of which were India, vague but not inexcusable, it is when she refers to Battleships instead of Ships of the Line, and East India Company Cruisers, which I cannot connect to any one class of ship then afloat, that I begin to start asking questions. 
Also, in this book, soldiers suffer, non more so perhaps than Colonel Rollo Gillespie, once called the bravest man in the British Army, is called a borderline psychopath by Glendenning, not knowing enough about Gillespie to comment on whether he was mentally ill, I will only say that I feel this to be a bit of a harsh and inaccurate appraisal of a talented, courageous officer who from my understanding showed no more cruelty in war than any other European did in the east. This also highlights a tendency with Glendenning to put her personal opinions forwards without necessarily telling us why. Gaps of information are also covered in that way obscure biographies do, by drawing on similar experiences of other unrelated people.

So now on to factual errors, and yes I’m afraid there are some. I have written to the publishers in the hope of alerting them to the problem, or getting them to discuss them with me, but as of yet they have not responded.
It was while describing one of Gillespie’s feats of bravery, many of which she finds far fetched, that the first factual error occurs. During the mutiny of Vellore in 1806 Glendinning explains that the sepoy’s of the garrison were stirred up by none other than Tipu Sultan of Mysore, who she says was a prisoner nearby. Unfortunately there is no doubt who she is talking about. Not to dwell too long on the subject of error, I feel it is my painful duty to inform other readers that Tipu, was not alive in 1806. The Tipu she is talking about was killed by the British during the final assault on his Capitol, Seringapatam, during the 4th Anglo Mysore War in 1799. It was Tipu’s children who were actually prisoners nearby and they are credited with stirring the pot.
Other trivial things follow, little bugbears of mine that are almost shameful to write about for fear of being hopelessly picky, and they shouldn’t put you off. Things like describing Gillespie leading the remaining officers of Vellore in a Bayonet charge, the terminology is flawed, as there was actually a small command holding out under a sergeant until help arrived. Then there is the description of British soldiers clanking around in red coats and feathered helmets with naked sabres. Unless they are Heavy Dragoons or Life Guards, who were not serving in the east, no such Soldiers with that uniform existed in the British army of the period, either way she doesn’t explain.
Had some more thorough research been done, perhaps with the help of a military historian, than these inaccuracies could have been avoided.

Essentially the author has written a good biography of Raffles, with many sideline attractions that many will enjoy. A biography that shows him as a likeable, ambitious man that can relate to many people, a man who had a hard life with many ups and downs, who made a fare share of mistakes yet whose life was unquestionably important to the generations that followed.

Josh.

Book Review: Persian Fire by Tom Holland.

Persian Fire: Tom Holland : The first global empire and the battle for the west
Hardback edition published 2005 Little Brown Books.
372 pages
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Persian-Fire-First-Empire-Battle/dp/0316726648/ref=tmm_hrd_title_0
ISBN-10: 0316726648
ISBN-13: 978-0316726641
16 Pages of Colour photos average of 2-3 pictures per page, all good quality and interesting that accompanies the text nicely.

Appearance and Handling: The discover shows the Chigi Vase painting, which shows opposing Archaic Hoplite phalanxes advancing into battle, underneath a Persian Faravahar Fravshi. The background is a rich aged turquoise field with flaked gold edging. A very attractive looking book, that is quite tough and able to take some abuse. Prone to usual atmospheric problems, overly cold and or warm rooms with affect the paper and make it wavy or bleached, especially true if left near a window on a cold day, so position your bookcases strategically! It took me about a week or just over that to cover this one volume, hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

The epic battle between East and West goes back to its roots in Tom Holland’s brilliant narrative history of the Greek and Persian Wars. This book works on roughly three levels. One it tells the story of The Persian Empire, something that many will not have been very beefed up on, the Greek City States, and the course of the war, the more famous battles of Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis and Platea are all there. Level two works by outlining the differences between the two cultures and how they related to one another it attempts to reveal (rather than fully answer) the origins of the question Herodotus asked in his Histories, that essentially “Why can’t we get along?”. And on its third level it’s just whackingly good. Its humorous, refreshingly honest in some parts, and good read about lost civilisations that did so much to shape the world we know today. You’ve got allot of nice stylish writing, smashingly evocative imagery to conjure up the richness of the subject, a pace and timing I would suggest should be put into epic movie form about the whole thing, and exactly what you should be looking for if you want a book that tells you what you want to know without delving through a whole lot of things you don’t, read it as a precursor to attacking Herodotus if you like, as inevitably everything leads back to him. Without a doubt Holland knows his subject from the bottom up and back down again. With a broad and complex subject the best way to write is as simply as possible, and the author has succeeded here, don’t worry, it’s not so novelistic that you don’t trust a word he says but it’s not stiff with academic dissertations either, and he makes everything quite plain and understandable, he doesn’t muddy the waters without explaining why their getting that way, all in all he has hit upon a good mix.
The author is a natural with an epic story like this and handles it with the dexterity of a Persian Cavalryman, or an Athenian helmsman, his points are well constructed and I’m sure would have pleased many Dorian Greek public speakers, yet straight forwards enough to pease the Spartans, meanwhile grandiosely describing the wonders of the Persian Empire with a prose to please the Great King, on most counts if he and his book where to be transported back in time he would surely keep his head (what Roman politicians and dictators would have decided based on his other Ancient history, Rubicon, we won’t go in to) this book is highly recommended and will delight all enthusiasts of Ancient History.

Josh.

The Brendan Voyage Review.

The Brendan Voyage by Tim Severin

The Brendan voyage by Tim Severin E-book Review.
Published by Endeavour Press $4:79
http://www.amazon.com/The-Brendan-Voyage-ebook/dp/B00B4XLT4I/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1375089193&sr=8-1&keywords=the+brendan+voyage+endeavour+press

The Brendan Voyage by Tim Severin

Few books can claim to tell the story of a true Adventure in Historyland like the Brendan Voyage. Tim Severin’s record of his epic 1976-1977 crossing of the Atlantic in a small leather boat, to recreate the fabled voyage of St Brendan the Navigator, who was supposed to have landed in America before the Vikings.

The subject is a great mix of adventure and history that will appeal to Traveler’s , historians, adventurers, archeologists and people who enjoy a story well told. It’s a modest size single volume of 234 pages with some helpful appendixes at the back, illustrated by seven interesting pictures. The cover is nice and grabbing, with a great picture of the leather boat Brendan, crossing a troubled sea.

Severin’s quest to research and build the Brendan will be familiar to those of us who are obsessed with trying to tease out the mysteries of History from their long established hiding places. It starts with a quick dive into the adventure, then slams on the brakes and builds back up, but there is no vile tedium, just the loving detail of someone who is telling the story of something he has gone through. The part about the building of the Brendan is fascinating, and the whole book is pervaded with Severin’s deep knowledge of his subject.

His prose is crisp and clear with a lively imagery and turn of phrase that is not at all pretentious, rather the whole takes on the spirit of a modern saga , rattling along with the enthusiasm and attention to detail of a natural story teller, mixed with a quasi romantic flair and sense of timing which betrays Severin’s talents as a novelist. It is an uncomplicated and largely uncluttered formula, which first and foremost tells the story by showing you what happened instead to trying to explain it, giving the whole an immediacy, and fast flowing narrative that is most attractive.

One of the best parts of the tale is the description of the Brendan’s crew. Each individual is set apart from the other to be as instantly identifiable as a character from Robin Hood or King Arthur. They take on a wonderful reality that is at the same time almost too good to be true, making you wonder from time to time whether you are reading about real life people or something from an ancient legend. If this book had been a work of fiction then it would have been a testament to the imagination and skill of the writer, but any writer would have been hard pressed to imagine the tale, of luck, courage, comradeship, skill, bravery, considerable privation and at times just down right insanity that plays out across the book.

Severin is an experienced seaman, but don’t be afraid that you’re going to get lost in allot of technical jargon, it’s very likely you won’t get everything, but even the most confirmed land lubbers will be able to gather what is going on.

Their encounters with birds and Wales are breathtaking and unreal. The welcoming nature of the islanders they encountered is warm and comforting and the terror of the Greenland ice flows brings home just how dangerous the expedition was, it’s all here. Honestly I expected to find monotony, but though when becalmed Brendan’s crew suffered as much as any sailor does from boredom, the nature of the boat in question inclined to craft a story, more of constant activity and watchfulness than drudgery. Were in instances that to any other modern ship would have been crushingly boring to read about, when transposed to the leather hull of the boat that, by the end of the book even I had come to love, makes you feel that there weren’t many dull moments on the Brendan Voyage.

This book will be an eye opener for those people not acquainted with the tales of the Irish monks that Christianised Britain. For it shows what type of men they were. Men of great faith, learning and piety, but also men of great skill, determination and bravery, whose scholarly and spiritual legacy often overshadows their tales of physical endurance and strength. I was struck by the great amount of luck “Brendan Luck” as Severin calls it, that accompanied the mission. Tough scrapes were turned into triumphs by sudden twists of fate, mistakes salvaged by the miraculous appearance of fishing boats and navy patrols, which needless to say the Irish monks could not have benefitted from, making the original premise of the voyage, just that much more amazing.

This book is a testament to the bravery and skill of the crew of the modern Brendan who went into the unknown of long lost endeavours, and also to the mysterious monks who braved the forbidden seas and treacherous shores who distantly call back to us to believe their story, through their manuscripts and illuminated chronicles. In a way this book is a modern echo of their voices, carried far across time and sea, in a small leather boat called Brendan.

Josh.