When a writer chooses as their lead protagonist an actor and his main theme the theatre, possibilities abound. At first looking at Bernard Cornwell’s new novel “Fools and Mortals” you might dissapointedly think, oh, the creator of Sharpe has finally succumbed to the Tudor period eh? And oh look! He’s writing about Shakespeare, how original. Perhaps it was only a matter of time. But don’t be fooled, as we mortals often are, this is a story of layer and depth. Continue reading
Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: HarperCollins (8 Oct. 2015)
First off it’s confession time, I’ve never read a Bernard Cornwell book in my life. So it was a great surprise if not a privilege for Harper Collins to send his new book my way.
Nice job on the cover by the way guys. The whole production is just tops, and I always applaud a publisher that decides to match a cover picture to the era inside. I’m not naming names, but some people should really find the difference between a Napoleonic uniform and an early 18th century one, that’s all, and absolutely nothing to do with Warriors of the Storm. Having admitted my ignorance, I will now qualify that I have of course heard of Cornwell, I am familiar with what people have to say about his writings and know a few people that are fans. All say the best things about his books, and overall everyone seems impressed by his original idea to focus a series on Britain in early Saxon times. Including me.
Fans will know him first because his name is on the front and his photo is in the back, and also by the long and distinguished list of books forever attached to his name. The well known Sharpe series, the Grail Quest series, the Warlord Chronicles which is set at the time of King Arthur… Whenever that was, and not forgetting the Starbuck series which flies somewhat below the radar these days thanks to more popular series’. It’s the thrilling tale of how a barista travels back in time to the American Civil War. Alright no it’s not about that, it’s just about the American civil war.
Most recently though he’s been writing The Last Kingdom Series. Formerly known as the Warrior Chronicles. So far Warriors of the Storm is the 9th instalment of the adventures of Uhtred of Babbenburg (no it’s not the origin of the cake, that’s Battenberg), easily outnumbering his other stuff except for Sharpe.
So what can Cornwell fans look for in this? Strong characters? Yep! Pithy, action packed story lines? You betcha! Lots of men standing dressed in mail with beards under stormy skies in drizzling rain talking about their feelings? Well… sort of.
Seriously, Cornwell knows what he’s doing here, it’s well paced, fast moving and full of violent action, tough guys, bad guys, and backed up by the usual array of strong female enemies and allies most of whom are or where entranced with the hero at some point or another. Actually tough guys doesn’t quite describe most of the characters, who would make most other fictional tough guys dissolve into a sobbing jelly. We should bear in mind that this is an evolving story, and as such others will be better placed to see it in the larger picture, my take is that in long series’ some books focus on different things, this one is driven by the story, the hero and the enemy rather than exploring nitty gritty details and sub characters, allowing a developed character to flex his muscles a little and have some free rein. This is intelligent, unapologetic and gritty writing, yet the prose outside of the rough and tumble dialogue has the natural elegance of an expert storyteller, and there are echoes of the evocative Saxon poems that partly inspired the novel. Uhtred for a start lives in a brutal age were violence and cruelty is fairly normal. He’s a Pagan, but one who reluctantly seems to fight alongside Christians against whom he is supremely bigoted. This element in itself is interesting as old Pagan Britain collides with the ideas that will dominate her religious future until the present times. Uhtred and most of his cohorts are quite willing to kill prisoners, enslave children and take the women home for the lads, or if in a good mood cut off the sword hands of prisoners. Which is what one would expect of an experienced warlord of this time. It’s a characterisation well done, though in truth it raises the question is he any better than the Norsemen he’s fighting? Who is the bad guy really? Is there such a thing? It is all a far cry from the legends of King Arthur.
In this book, Arthur is just a legend and Alfred is dead, that’s King Alfred, and the Kingdom is faced by invasion. A great Norse warlord has gained an alliance with an Irish Chieftain and has come to carve out a kingdom for himself. Uhtred is the only man who can stop them, and must battle old personal enemies as well as the Norse, the enemies of his people to preserve the kingdom. For fans, all the Cornwell hallmarks are there to enjoy, for newcomers… Why are you starting with book nine?
Hardcover: 432 pages
Publisher: William Morrow (April 21, 2015)
The appearance of this book portends ominous events, a grainy, fiery dust cover of a royal coat of arms. No gold embossing for the title, well done Harper Collins, and quality a paper and printing. Usual hardback rule of thumb applies to reading and there’s a helpful map of 14th century London in the front.
It’s good to see Holsinger has found a groove to write in. The main two sided storytelling elements, reminiscent of a TV crime series, that were present in his first novel, A Burnable Book, are still there. On one side information broker and real life poet John Gower narrates his way around London, trying to solve the mystery of the murder of 16 men, found in a privy pit by Medieval sewer workers, killed by a powerful new weapon, the handgonne. The other side of coin reveals the string ends of a puppet master, the props of a powerful hand, who are the keys to the whole mystery yet separated from Gower’s investigations by a trail of silent witnesses, who the poet must track down before they are snuffed out. These two alternate narratives deliberately shield the third key element that ties it all together, and is slowly revealed, piece by piece, as the book progresses.
Holsinger has written another deep, psychological thriller full of threat, menace, violence, mystery, misery and pain, with grime, dirt, dark humour, introspective tangent, intrigue and historical detail with a deeply flawed cast replete with shade and some moments of light, but very few truly noble or heroic figures. This is a dark almost nightmarish world, safe only to those who had been born to it. A dirt of your fingers short lived place, were nothing is guaranteed, not the sight your eyes were birthed with, nor the crown on a King’s head.
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)
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.