Book Review: Dynasty the rise and fall of the house of Caesar by Tom Holland.

Hardcover: 512 pages
Publisher: Little, Brown (3 Sept. 2015)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1408703378


What a fine job Little Brown Books have done. A dramatic dust jacket featuring the work of Gareth Blayney graces Dynasty. A production with something of an American gloss to it, fire seems to be the colour scheme, perhaps mirroring the actions of Nero and yay! No gold embossed writing. Instead they have used a silver depressed version which though worried me at first proved resistant to touch and handling. Inside we find 418 reading pages with a multitude of maps and graphs showing the family trees of the Dynasty as it progressed. To the rear is a timeline, dramatis personae, notes, bibliography and index. Two blocks of colour pictures liven things up and give faces and places to names. The photography of Holland himself, Wikipedia and Sophie Hay feature prominently including one more illustration from the cover artist. It’s a weighty book, but it feels as a book should, tough on the outside and crisp on the inside.

Dynasty, the rise and fall of the house of Caesar “Is the portrait of a family that transformed Rome”. It is a feast for the senses, and an assault upon them. A book that could only have been written by an author steeped in the subject at hand, there are very few facets of Roman culture, religion and history that Tom Holland cannot link in symbolism to another. In so doing Holland is firing masses of information at the reader per page, often with the inexhaustible and consistent quality of a merciless bombardment a Roman army might have aimed at a hostile city. You don’t always have foreknowledge of what weapon threw the boulder that demolishes your house, but from the arc of its fall you know where it comes from. This is a torrent however that has the attribute of an fluid and honestly delightful prose, enviable in its near seamless advance from beginning to end, blending a coherent and meaningful narrative in which the centuries fall away and yet, we can still feel their weight.
In replying to a tweet on Twitter, Holland explained that the book was ruder than Rubicon. It is so. He does not shy away from much. He has the ability to discuss the merits of the Roman’s more arcane obsession with ribald frankness, and then explain with no less assertiveness that the sordid proclivities of some of the Caesar’s and their family members was an affront to old fashioned Republican morals. And that the abrogation of the natural way of things rather depends of how the Romans perceived the “natural way”. It is in itself very Roman.
This is in that sense a very Roman book, told from a Roman point of view. I have no doubt that Augustus would have praised the author for it, but secretly made sure his readers lost faith in him, that Tiberius would have banned it, that Caligula would have laughed at it and then invited Holland to court so he could have invented some cruel mind game at his expense for it, Claudius would have tried to do something very low key about it, and Nero would have had to ponder on whether it truly reflected his artistic greatness and depending on the answer had him murdered or given a position at court.
In the author’s estimation the modern love of drama on TV and characters that are loved for hate come directly down to us from this line of infamous rulers, who’s story is told in Dynasty. Much is devoted to the rise, Caesar, and Augustus then levels off with Tiberius before going into the downward spiral of the first ruling family of Rome. In his last Roman foray Holland told the tale of the destruction of the Roman Republic, and this ground is briefly recovered here, and then picks up were he left off, with the ascension of Augustus. A man whose brilliance is evident in, not only how he brought order out of chaos and founded a dynasty, but how well and effectively he hid the bodies. As opposed to his descendants, who rather than rule with subtlety became increasingly public in their manoeuvres. From the grim and taciturn Tiberius, who went from a colourless but dignified soldier trying to play the role left to him by Augustus, keeping a firm hand on the tiller to a paranoid and reactionary recluse, at prey to his own vices, to Caligula, a man who brought a breath of fresh air to the empire, but was seemingly bent on playing out a depraved mind game, perhaps in a warped form of revenge for the treatment of his family, to test how much power he wielded, and inevitably paid the consequences. Claudius, who survived to take power by shielding his ambition and intellect behind the dribbling and shuffling curtain of disability, suddenly torn away by a murderous Praetorian after the death of Caligula. And Nero, who Holland identified as the most fun to write about; the actor, to whom all the world was indeed a stage, whose performance carried worrying echoes of Caligula, though Nero enacted crimes for art’s sake than for personal pleasure. It is not by coincidence that it is the later of the two Caesar’s account for the majority of the asterisks in Dynasty.
This is a new and open look at the Julio Claudians. A look that is not quite revisionary, nor particularly accusatory, but most definitely necessary in light of recent scholarship that reexamines the notorious reputations of men like Nero and Caligula. Of note is the premise that each emperor was a product of the world left behind by their predecessor, a passage marked of all things by a row of trees and some miraculous white chickens. Each reflected elements of the times they emerged from. If they were sick, so too was the Rome that created them.
Most of the classicists I’ve come across have a sort of quirky irreverence about their subject matter. No sooner have they outlined how deeply Roman and Greek history are imbedded in modern culture than they have lapsed into fits of giggles at some bit of naughty classical literature. Often archness and speaking with the tongue firmly jammed into the cheek are hallmarks, and more often than not downright alien nature of their fields lends itself immeasurably to “in jokes”. They delight in reducing the grandest and most forbidding figures to items of fun, that while at first is seemingly the stuff of playground high jinks is to be honest often exactly what the ancients themselves did. Despite its cruder passages, designed to shock and awe, and make no mistake this is a tale as weird and strange as it is compelling, the tale is told with as much wit as grit and bald faced matter of factness. Holland manages to infuse what can only described as a majestic subject with moments akin to Woodhousian humour, such as when using one of his echoing, semi rhetorical sentences to describe the Moors. He tells us where they lived then goes on to describe their prowess in war and in the same breath explains that their prowess at horsemanship was only matched by their “high standards of dental hygiene”.
Those fortunate enough to have some basis in Roman history will enjoy the nuances to their full extent, thus heightening the appeal of this book, but it should by no means be either flat, boring or dull to those who are oblivious of the early Principate. Indeed as the classically educated Mayor of London has already pointed out, it is a universally attractive book that should appeal to a wide base of people due to its almost novelistic approach and use of short quotations. In my estimation it would be hard for Holland to top his; Persian Fire, which remains my favourite, however this “sequel ” to Rubicon maintains the high standard expected of him and once more confirms Holland as not just an “#EliteSportsman” as he likes to put it on Twitter, but and “Elite Writer” too.


Book Review: Catalaunian Fields AD 451 By Simon Macdowall.


Paperback: 96 pages
Publisher: Osprey Publishing (UK) (22 Sept. 2015)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 147280743X
ISBN-13: 978-1472807434


At first glance one might be forgiven for thinking this battle took place in Spain, the name Catalaunian doesn’t lend itself to imagining the plains of central France after all.
But then the battle of what is more popularly known as Chalôns defies simplicity. If there is one thing Osprey does well it is campaign books about ancient battles, and author Simon Macdowall, who has written several other late Roman titles for Osprey including Adrianople AD 378, is well placed to give us the rundown on what Sir Edward Creasy considered one of the 15 most decisive battles ever fought, in which as Gibbon said “All the nations from the Volga to the Atlantic took part”.
Because only 3 main things are known about the course of this battle, and the the account of this first “Battle of Nations” is necessarily partly conjectural, underpinned by solid facts and convincing logic, although in some places was no more persuasive than the premise it was tackling.
Everyone knows that in the twilight of the Roman Empire a terrifying barbarian warlord named Attila the Hun, by most accounts a Christian killing, city burning, empire wrecking baby roasting incarnation of the devil and all around bad guy who once proclaimed himself the scourge of God, decided to beat up some Romans during the Dark Ages. But like most legends the nuts and bolts of the story is often forgotten.
Aided by numerous informative images, the vivid and action packed artwork of Peter Dennis (who must account for almost a quarter of all Osprey illustrations nowadays) and detailed maps, Macdowall sheds light on the story behind part of the legend. For all the accompanying images one gets with the mention of Attila’s name, there is a real military campaign to examine which highlights the weakened state of the once mighty empire. Unable to secure her borders the Romans were forced to depend on barbarian nations to do their fighting. One of the most dependable had been the Huns and their various allies, but their new king Attila was thirsty for land and invaded Gaul, forcing the Roman supreme commander Aetius to cobble together a hasty alliance with a number of satellite states and bury the hatchet with his former foes the Visigoths to defeat him.
This book pieces together a convincing series of events from various ancient sources to create a highly plausible scenario for what is a very complex campaign and a very poorly understood battle. He takes great care in outlining the motives of the commanders and the capability of their troops, before investigating where the battle was fought, placing it at Montgueux in Champagne between Chalôns and Troyes.
There is much to find interesting in this book for the causal and the academic reader, those unfamiliar with the true story of Attila’s campaigns will be enlightened, and those enthusiasts and students of the late Roman military will be glad to get their hands on such a thought provoking and erudite book.


Book Review: Bolivar by Marie Arana.

Bolivar by Marie Arana.


Paperback: 512 pages
Publisher: W&N (12 Jun. 2014)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1780226179
ISBN-13: 978-1780226170

The life of Simon Bolivar was like a comet or a shooting star, a brilliant flash of light that suddenly whipped across the vastness of the sky and had no sooner shone than disappeared. Had I grown up being told tales of this man, I have no doubts he would have become one of my heroes, and indeed thanks to Marie Arana, he may well yet become one.
To be honest I bought this book on a whim. Apart from knowing that some out of work British soldiers travelled to South America to fight against Spain, I knew nothing very detailed about the Wars of Latin American Independence. It was in truth for this reason that I decided to learn more about Simon Bolívar. As I inspected the shelves of the bookstore for South American History, my eye fell on the emerald and gold spine with the bold red and gold words reading Bolivar on it. There is no doubt that the book in itself is a fine production, a sleepy eyed liberator stares out confidently from the glorious riot of colour, which approximates the yellow, blue and red Columbian Flag with emerald, red and gold and at once I felt that I wished to read it.
It is fairly chunky at over 460 reading pages not including notes, bibliography, index and acknowledgements, with a block of full colour images inside with roughly 2-3 per page, however some of the images themselves are of a surprisingly poor quality and are fairly pixelated. In the front there are some very good maps, which while not showing any military movements are useful for those who are not familiar with South American Geography.
Though the author now and again seems to imply that Napoleon was personally present in Spain during the later stages of the Peninsular War, and indeed at one point seems to confuse the retreat from Moscow with the French withdrawal from Spain, I found the book completely addictive, as compelling as a novel but better as a work of history. I almost had to keep reminding myself that the man I was reading about actually breathed air. It occur’s to me that had this been invented as a work of fiction, it would either have become one of the most ingenious stories ever conjured by the human mind, or decried as the most unbelievable fantasy ever dreamed up.
In this book Bolivar is in the hands of a master storyteller, and in Bolivar it seems that Marie Arana has found her perfect subject, though undoubtedly lesser authors would have chosen a lesser subject to cut their historical teeth on, Mrs. Arana (more properly Yardley) has risen to the challenge no less admirably than Bolivar himslef when he contemplated crossing the Andes. The language is rich, and well suited to the subject at hand, heroic and soaring, with a sublime level of pacing and real scholarly dedication to setting a scene and building a picture without slowing things down.
This is without doubt an unapologetically positive biography, one which focuses primarily on his attributes, painting him as the idealist and the genius, and this will affect a reader’s enjoyment depending on whether they have any preconceptions of the Liberator of South America. I had none when I started and though I confess to some cynicism regarding his later years, I wholeheartedly prefer a positive biography to an overtly critical one. This is not to say that Bolivar’s detractors are not included, nor his frailties and mistakes overlooked but they are not so much dwelled upon as his successes, and whenever they appear they are always outshone by his greatness. Bolivar here was a man who had a goal and dedicated his life to it, and was single minded about achieving it, in doing so he was quite willing to trample those who refused to get out of the way. The book tells a story to the reader rather than explaining to them. Successes and failures are shown and the reader is left to determine for themselves how to interpret their affect on the subject’s life. To that end this cannot be said to be the last word on Bolivar but perhaps more a celebration of a legend, albeit on close inspection a very human one.
Bolivar’s forceful, sometimes mercurial and semi mythical personality comes across very well. His exuberance and passion for his cause, his love of women, his seeming addiction to surmounting challenges and danger through sheer force of will and daring, each of which brought out the best in him. The scale of the challenges he faced are well reconstructed, and when one is appraised of them it becomes all the more clear that though with each the toppling of each obstacle his star seemingly shone brighter, in fact it’s vibrant glow was actually the consumption of another piece of precious energy glowing from deep within like a star, long burnt out but shining on. The mysterious force that drove him, a naturally slight, perhaps even frail and indeed increasingly ill man, to become first a dynamic thinker, then a youthful revolutionary, then an intuitively victorious general and ultimately a flawed dictator, drew even men who disagreed and indeed hated him, to his side.
It is a sweeping story told on a heroic scale of one man’s quest to fulfil a dream, set in dramatic and beautiful landscapes which the author recreates with great skill. It is fast paced and engaging, well researched and authoritative, told effortlessly. There hasn’t been a biography I’ve enjoyed as much since reading Elizabeth Longford’s Wellington and I cannot tell you quite how much I enjoyed Bolivar. I feel certain that people wishing to get a picture in their mind of this man will do no better than to turn first to this book.


Book Review: Waterloo by Alan Forrest.

Many books will come out this year and try to explain the tactics and strategy of the Battle 613nhzxJNMLof Waterloo. Others will try to tell the soldiers story, some might even concentrate on the political ramifications. However there will not be many that try to understand the significance of the battle from a historiographical perspective.

Alan Forrest sets out to put the Battle in perspective, to set it in the context of the immediate aftermath of Napoleon’s fall, and the collective memory of the nations involved. So many historians over the last 20 years have tried to lay claim to the battle, this book goes a long way to explaining why the debate is so complex.

It begins with a slightly bumpy but conventional description of the battle. In which we see a brief, mostly critical appreciation of all the commanders. Elementary passages of the well known fight, familiar to many enthusiasts account for much of the rest of the first part. Nevertheless there is a deal of interest to be found here, not last that Forrest appears to agree with Huw Davies’s theory that the battle as a needless occurrence, and a diplomatically driven gesture by Wellington, who sacrificed the lives of his troops for later political gain and that Napoleon was doomed from the beginning.
However as the author apologieticaly notes at the start, he is not an a military historian and the book is not strictly military history. I found there to be a few glitches which the author assures me will be ironed out in paperback and e-book editions. I will simply say here for the uninitiated that the Duke of Wellington and Blucher did not meet on the evening of the 17th of June at La Belle Alliance.

Nevertheless do not dismiss this book. Once the guns fall silent the road smooths out and the pace picks up. The main point of the book is to show the impact of the battle at the time, attempting to explain why we think about Waterloo the way we do today. In this sense it is the legacy of the Battle that is the driving force of this book. A subject, the waters of which, are darkly muddied by many national agendas, and which is excellently illuminated here
One of the biggest questions is why Britain remained the central figure in the play? As Forrest astutely notes, it is not so much that Britain hijacked the battle, but that the other countries let it fall from their memory so that by WW1, it was almost utterly obliterated from their national consciousness’ leaving only the British story intact. He shows how the battle was soon made the property of politicians, authors and others who had not fought there, and who can be principally blamed for the proliferation of the “British” myth. How in France defeat was built up into a giant monument to former glory, how Napoleon was not defeated by Wellington or Blucher but by God. This monument which promptly fell on them in 1871 and likewise ignored Much of the real record. How the Prussian and German States, ignored it in preference to Leipzig, the Dutch polarised its memory around the Prince of Orange and the Belgians were so busy staving off Dutch overlordship that first the Napoleonic regime seemed more attractive to remember.
In essence it is a book whose subject appeals to me as a small but valuable addition to a Waterloo library, a vital post script for those emerging from the avalanche of heavier tomes concentrating on the main battle and its political ramifications.


Book Review: White Mughals by William Dalrymple.

White Mughals.

Paperback: 640 pages41F2TQJ604L
Publisher: Harper Perennial; New Ed edition (19 April 2004)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0006550967
ISBN-13: 978-0006550969

The appearance of the hardback that I picked up second hand, is dark and mysterious. The celebrated portrait of the Palmer family on the cover, which though admirable, does not quite suit the actual story, more fitting is the latest paperback production of the book that shows the lovely portrait of  Khair un Nissen on a white background. Credit is due to the publishers for using the gilt lettering but without embossing the text, thus you can read it without taking off the dust jacket for fear of rubbing off the gilt.
Amusingly this used book showed the usual signs of a volume well read, at least twice. The usually crisp white block of pages striped with muddy grey lines deriving from a close hold and much finger flicking, the deepest stain indicated that the previous owner, whose dedication adorns the primary pages, often turned for help to glossary, when the many Indian terms became too much.
Here you are dealing with about 501 reading pages, so its a hefty number, with three sections of very fascinating pictures and beautiful, with between 1-4 pictures per page

This is now a famous book, there is a fan club and an intense almost cult following of Dalrymple’s works and it has taken a great deal of time for me to find out why. The author has all the ingredients a successful writer of History needs to attain international acclaim, and White Mughal’s succinctly encompasses them all.
An unknown subject, built upon by utterly new and fresh personal research that brings not only new light but compleltey new evidence and sources to a given field. This is indeed rare.
A solid and lucid narrative style inspired not so much by the subject but by the author’s personal experience of living in the country the work is set.
A deep knowledge of the literature and culture aside from the work at hand that props up the narrative and adds depth.
And last but not least the author is utterly sympathetic with to his subject and admiring and perhaps enamoured, as many writers often become when dealing with personal discoveries, of the characters involved.

The book purports to tell the story of a romance, or an affair, whichever, between British resident in Hyderabad James Kirkpatrick and the highborn “Begum” Khair un Nissen.
However due to the fact that “Khair’s” voice in the relationship is largely missing, it actually tells a much wider and richly embroidered story of a once cosmopolitan and cross cultural 18th century British India, full of open exchanges of ideas, religion and culture, changing into the Imperial, racially superior model it became reviled for.
It is the failing of new evidence that it usually needs an awful lot of beefing out to make a half decent book, and this is partially true here, but in this case the new evidence beefs out the already written record, usually dominated by Governor General Lord Mornington and his younger brother Arthur Wellesley.
Those like me, familiar with the Duke of Wellington’s India time, will own that it is entirely one dimensional, and largely concentrates on his service in carrying out his brother’s expansionist aims, and sheds only fragmentary light on the India either was dealing with. Little did I know when I picked up this book that this provides exactly that.
Here, through the story of William and James Kirkpatrick, Khair un Nissen and the Court of the Nizam of Hyderabad, we see the decaying grandeur of Mughal India, the politics concerning this vital princely state, usually relegated to a paragraph or two in most history books not specifically academic, the power struggle of Mornington’s uncompromising imperialism against the still proud yet pressured State of Mysore ultimately doomed to destruction. Similarly the last of Mornington’s achievements, the breaking of the Maratha Confederacy and the change in direction of British India.
Not only does it weave these rich threads, Dalrymple’s loom creates a vignette of Anglo Indian relationships during the early Raj, the motives an Indian woman would have to becoming a White Mughal’s wife, the trials of a bibi, or the longer term harem mistress and the bleak fate that ultimately faced the vast majority. One of the many interesting background stories I found was the French interest in India, represented by several mercenary officers, who seemed to carry over their royalist and revolutionary ideals to India, this is just one of the fascinating sidelines this book investigates.

Even though I find it a little amusing that any cavalry regiment of the line at this time should be compared to the SAS, this is without doubt a vital piece of reading for students of British Indian History and one I heartily recommend.


Book Review: Peace on Earth by David Boyle.

Peace on Earth: The Christmas Truce of 1914.

  • Format: Kindle Editionxmastruce
  • File Size: 511 KB
  • Print Length: 71 pages
  • Publisher: Endeavour Press (30 Nov 2014)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00QFN18Z2

Most people seem to have some opinion about the “Christmas Truce”, from conspiracy theorists to idealists, it’s not a subject that has gone unnoticed in the 100 years since it happened.
In fact for those of us with only a basic knowledge of the “Great War” this event has attained such an, almost mythical status that many of us must have wondered “So what’s the deal with that then?”.
David Boyle has written a delightful little “Kindle Single” about the Christmas Truce of 1914. It is short, I read it easily within one day in two sittings, but it’s good stuff and if you’ve been mulling over what your opinion is on those controversial centenary TV ads then I think I’ve found a good Wikipedia alternate.
Boyle presents us with a fluid narrative heavily salted with good first hand account backup that is necessary for the telling of this story. Yet the author isn’t trying to put a spin on the legendary tale, or framing a personal opinion, he’s presenting what is generally known about the truce basically in the way people saw it back then. He doesn’t question sources, he doesn’t dig too deeply beyond what they say, it’s certainly not a myth busting job, once or twice he hints at odd coincidences but never over indulges in deep analysis.
The truce is shown here coming not out of a mad spontaneous rush of goodwill all along the line, but as an sporadic, semi predictable series of random events over the period from 24th to about the 30th and the New Year, that were something of a natural progression of the behaviour of many front line units on both sides during the winter of 1914.
In a short space of time Boyle gives us the “Deal” about what happened, what it meant to people, from rank and file to the high command and, what effect the spirit that sparked it affected the next few years of the war.
Don’t get the impression that it’s a syrupy waffle of sentiment, the poignancy of the thing is that for the men in many sectors it was business and usual, it is a brief attempt to show the truce in the way people saw it, leaving the reader to achieve their own opinion about it and about how to proceed from here. For those interested in finding out more there’s a helpful sources page at the back.

I found this one of the best E-reads I’ve ever read, well researched, thoughtfully written and convincingly told. It’s a great light Christmas read for military history fans, and would make an equally nice gift, and I highly recommend it for people wanting a little background and perspective.

Merry Christmas.

Book Review: The Bitter Trade by Piers Alexander.

The Bitter Trade “A scurrilous tale, one which warns rather than elevates, of title without value and no noblesse”




Paperback: 432 pages

Publisher: Tenderfoot (12 Jun 2014)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 099286450X
ISBN-13: 978-0992864507

Calumny Spinks. A crass, grimy unholy no-good, who by all rights should have ended up in a red coat or at the end of a noose, but by stint of his unfortunate luck, unfortunate breeding and unfortunate parentage ends up saddled as the hero of Piers Alexander’s debut novel Bitter Trade.

To say the hero is an anti-hero is to achieve high levels of understatement, if his life had not so far been a succession of cruel disappointments and calamities, so much so that he must be pitied, he would be the sort of guttersnipe true villains are made of. However I was pleased to see that the hero is accurately portrayed with some religious belief and prejudice common to the time, he’s not going to please many Catholic readers but I doubt Protestants are overjoyed with Perez Reverte’s brilliant Alatriste novels.

But as it is, his predicament is not his own doing, and it is because of this that one identifies with, him by commiserating with him. He inherits the sins of his father, whose secrets trap him as a nobody with no future, and so, angry at the world and eager to use anyone he can to become someone, he uses his smart mouth and striking looks (yes he’s irresistible to women) to cheat debt, death and ignominy. Alexander paints this likeable and unlikeable boy well, at war with the world and a mass of contradictions, he is a character well created.

The story is set against the “Glorious Revolution of 1688” and anyone who decides to set a novel in these usually overlooked times deserves a clap. Calumny and his associates are entangled in a mysterious web of intrigue and treason, the heart of which is artfully concealed, allowing for many twists and turns to keep you wondering what will happen next.

The book is a pseudo memoir, giving it immediacy, thus the language is deliberately archaic, but it is un-honeyed, threatening and hard in tone, and you shouldn’t get lost, and there are also modern plot devices to act as direction markers if you do. Coffee as you’d expect plays a central role, but its more the people who sell the bean rather than the drink itself that the book centres on.

It’s very well paced, flowing with the smoothness of java, even when things get complicated. It’s slow at first, then picks up speed and clarity, its chapter structure made it able for me to slice through chapters at a fast rate. It’s got a solid niche story, mostly rooted in history with bags of plot,  (enough to fill a coffee warehouse), lots of intrigue, grime and general sordid doings, vivid characters, and minute detail.

I think I could give a very precise guess at where one would look to find Calumny in 15 years, but I shall follow the example of so many of the shadowy characters in this book and keep it to myself. I shall look at you over my shoulder with a knowing smile and tap my nose secretively, then disappear into the shadows.

Happy reading.


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

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”.


Book Review: San Juan 1898 by Angus Konstam.



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
Battlefields today
Orders of Battle

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!