Two historical novels I’ve enjoyed recently

I usually write quite long reviews because I have been asked to review a book by somebody or because I think that there is a lot that can sensibly be said about it, but this week I’m doing two very short reviews simply because I really enjoyed these books and would like to share them with you.

‘The Secret World of Christoval Alvarez’: Ann Swinfen

Elizabethan spies. Mary Queen of Scots. All those plots you read about at school (if you are old enough to have done history when Good Queen Bess was what you got taught about).

Absolutely gripping stuff in stunningly well-written novel by someone who certainly knows their Elizabethan history. Brilliant characters, (largely) convincing plot, loads of lovely period detail.

I wish I could write nearly as well as this. It’s a model of how to do it.

Buy on Amazon at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Secret-World-Christoval-Alvarez-Chronicles-ebook/dp/B00JC30J2A

‘Shadow on the Highway’: Deborah Swift

This has a YA feel to it and the story seems a little too fantastical, but the Historical Note suggests it’s not nearly as fantastical as it might be. Two strong female characters, a suitably chilling villain and a story that positively romps along, helped by fluid prose that’s a pleasure to read. I seem drawn to English Civil War stories almost despite myself. This one holds up well on the period detail. There’s the odd bit of military stuff I wasn’t entirely convinced of, though that could well be my ignorance showing. The life of a servant back in the 17th century seems suitably grim with lots of description of domestic chores, miserable accommodation and doubtful diet.

It’s a light read but served very well for a holiday break. It’s a lot of fun.

Buy on Amazon at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Shadow-Highway-Trilogy-Book-ebook/dp/B071Y47KLC

And one by me

A quick reminder that The White Rajah is available again on Amazon with a shiny new cover. Now seemed a good time to republish a novel based around James Brooke’s adventures in Borneo as a film on the man’s life (End of the World) is coming out on 21 June. It’s got pirates and battles and derring-do, but it’s mainly a reasonably thoughtful novel about colonialism and good and evil and suchlike. It’s not as easy to read as, say, Shadow on the Highway, but there is a lot of excitement as well as an exploration of what happens when Europeans take responsibility for the development of what we would now call Third World countries.

Buy on Amazon at https://mybook.to/WhiteRajah

Rivers of London: Ben Aaronovitch

Rivers of London: Ben Aaronovitch

I have only kept in touch with one person I was at school with. It turns out that he is an extraordinarily good copy editor, so now he has been raked in to read all my books before they are released on the public. Just remember that if you keep in touch with old school friends, one day this could happen to you!

When he read Something Wicked he asked me if I had read Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London. When I told him that I hadn’t, he said that Something Wicked reminded him of Aaronovitch’s book so I had a look at it on Amazon. What I saw made me very pleased I could honestly say I’d never read it, because there was definitely more than a passing similarity in the opening pages and I didn’t want people to say that I had copied his approach. It’s a humorous urban fantasy which combines a police procedural with things that you would never expect to see in Dixon of Dock Green. (Younger readers: ask your parents. Or Google it.)

Last week I got round to reading the rest of the book and it’s rather wonderful. And, yes, there are definite similarities to Something Wicked. Perhaps Aaronovitch’s familiarity with the supernatural (the story does suggest quite a lot of research) means that he read Something Wicked and then moved back through time to write Rivers of London. (Not an entirely original thought: I recommend Morley Roberts’ story The Anticipator.)

Like Something Wicked the story starts with the discovery of a body that has been the victim of an unusual murder. In this case it has been decapitated. There follows a lot of detail of police procedure but the appearance, fairly early on, of a ghost as a witness to the crime suggests that things are going to get very weird very quickly. While my detective finds himself working alongside Chief Inspector Pole, a vampire from the mysterious Section S, our hero here, Chief Inspector Nightingale, is a wizard working for Economic and Specialist Crime. Pole and Nightingale share a preference for working alone from their homes and both seem to take an unhealthy interest in mortuaries, but while Pole’s brief sticks to the vampiric, Nightingale covers all the ghosties and ghoulies London has to offer – and Aaronovitch’s research has turned up more strange things than Nightingale can shake his mysteriously powerful silver-topped cane at. To be honest I got a bit lost in the ghosts, the genii locorum, demons, revenants and assorted other phantasmagoria. It’s a complex plot (and the first of a long series) but it makes sense as you read along, though I must admit to waking up at 4.00 am worrying at some of the details. It doesn’t matter, really. Our narrator is a probationary constable whose natural curiosity and somewhat eclectic skill set was unappreciated by the Metropolitan Police generally but fits right in with Chief Inspector Nightingale. He’s a beautifully rounded character, whose constant amazement at the world he finds himself in massively helps us suspend our disbelief. “Of course he’s being possessed by a revenant,” I found myself saying. “Good heavens, man, isn’t it obvious?” And obvious it somehow became, however barking mad the characters, the plotline and the twisted logic. It’s helped by a wonderful sense of place, with lots of details of London geography that pin it firmly to reality (though how he managed to put Teddington Lock downstream of Richmond I have no idea – a careless copy editor, I suspect).

Above all the book is funny – often laugh-out-loud funny. It’s a wonderful mix of horror and humour and glorious British eccentricity at its best. I do recommend it.

And when you’ve read it, do you think you might like to take a peek at Something Wicked? Proof, if proof were needed, that two authors can independently turn up with the same idea. Unless, of course, Aaronovitch has read The Anticipator and figured out how to work that trick in real life. Actually, given his familiarity with magic, perhaps he has.

Buy Links

I bought Rivers of London for Kindle: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B004K1EC1S

Something Wicked is available as an e-book or in paperback: https://mybook.to/Something_Wicked

Zombie Pharm: Larry Beinhart

Zombie Pharm: Larry Beinhart

I’ve just been reading Larry Beinhart’s latest. It’s a lot of fun.

I’m always interested to read how other writers approach things I’ve just written (or am writing) about. So I was fascinated to see Loren Estleman tackling the idea of anti-Napoleonic agents in Paris because that’s exactly what’s going on in the next Burke book. And now I can look at how a well-established author updates a traditional fantasy genre to make it work in the “real” world. In Something Wicked I took a new look at vampires so that we could imagine them living “normal” lives in London (and dancing a lot of tango, as it happens). Larry has created a thoroughly 21st century monster but one that behaves exactly like traditional zombies. I think he’s made it work.

There’s a not particularly subtle (not at all subtle really) sub-text that comes from a clearly left-field political perspective. It will put off some readers but I enjoyed it. Big business is bad and pharmaceutical companies are not to be trusted. Larry’s targets range across underfunded police departments, private military contractors, the war on drugs and dumping toxic waste in third world countries but they do all come together to create ‘the School of Tomorrow’. Here children are fed behaviour modifying drugs to produce perfect high-achieving pupils taught by staff who have been similarly pharmaceutically “Optimized”. All goes well until the drugs are polluted with poisonous run-off from a toxic waste dump (I told you it all fits together) to produce children with massive cravings for more drugs (I told you it wasn’t subtle). Once they’ve taken all the pills, they start trying to extract the drugs from the bodies of teachers and others who have them in their blood stream. Yes, these are now zombie children! All locked in a school!! With just a few drug-free individuals trying to save them!!!

It’s every zombie film you’ve ever seen. Bits are hilarious, much is gross. There’s zombie sex (not very good sex, but I guess that figures), spectacular amounts of violence, stupid policemen, clever stoners and evil businessmen trying to work out how to make money out of it all. The set-up is an enjoyable read and the climax had me so hooked I missed my Netflix fix. Personally I felt the middle act was perhaps a tiny bit over-extended, but then I’ve never been a huge zombie fan. There’s only so many shuffling creatures cornering people and ripping them apart that I can feel invested in, but lots of readers will love it. The fact that the evil zombies are often small children does give it a slight edge: they’re more likely to bite your calves than your neck and when people start retaliating it turns out you can throw a small child quite a distance. Definitely not a book for those of a sensitive or nervous disposition.

So does it work? Clearly I thought it did. Larry is self-publishing this, because despite his record as a best-selling author (Wag the Dog, No One Rides For Free) traditional publishers were unenthusiastic, so Larry has self-published this. I think it will do well: clearly reimagining traditional fantasy tropes is where this genre is at (he says, hoping to see a spike in sales of Something Wicked). Seriously, this book deserves to do well. It’s a great read and just £3.50 on Kindle.

 

Other Urban Fantasy novels are also available

Apparently this genre is called ‘Urban Fantasy’. Who knew? Certainly not me when I started writing it.

If you enjoy this sort of thing, can I point you at Something Wicked? I may have mentioned it once or twice already, but reviews suggest it is good. Vampires hanging out in the sort of tango clubs I hang out in, just trying to get by in a world they think might not be too happy if we all knew their lifestyle choices.

I’ve also written a novella, Dark Magic about a troupe of stage conjurors whose act is getting a little diabolic assistance. It does not end well but you will laugh. Surprisingly (and satisfyingly as far as I’m concerned) some people said it was genuinely scary as well as funny. No zombies, though – not even one.

Fly or Fall: Gilli Allan

Fly or Fall: Gilli Allan

It’s 2007 and Nell, stay-at-home mum to two teenagers, is still stuck in the 1980s with her shapeless Oxfam clothes and her CND pendant and her slightly other-worldly approach to material goods. Husband Trevor is rather more in tune with the times. When Nell inherits her mother’s house Trevor pushes for them to sell up and buy a place in the Home Counties which he proceeds to modernise and extend and to fill with all the 21st century gadgets that Nell has been happily living without.

Poor Nell is a fish out of water, suddenly thrown into a world of interior design, posh friends, sports clubs and casual adultery. Prodded by her new friends she upgrades her wardrobe, cuts her hippy waist length hair and develops a passionate interest in soft furnishings. She even finds herself wondering (and, dear reader, we are wondering too) if Trevor really deserves to be the only man in her life. Perhaps she could get closer to the sexy rich guy who so blatantly propositions her. Or should she stray with the bit of rough who is building her utility room and double garage. (Look, it’s 2007: utility rooms and double garages were still considered cool back then.)

Come the financial crash, the comfortable lifestyle of her new friends is threatened and their sexual peccadillos, alcoholism and eating disorders are suddenly exposed. Will Nell cope? Can she build a new life for herself? Will she find true love? Will she fly or fall?

This is far from your conventional love story. In fact, it’s barely a love story at all. It’s more like Jane Austen for the 21st century. Austen was a social commentator with a sharp and satirical eye, whose love stories conceal a lot of wicked little barbs on the state of the Regency world she lived in. (If you don’t believe me, read them again.) So Gilli Allan’s book is really about Home Counties life and the veneer of glossy success that is pasted over the misery of the relationships that struggle on behind those constantly titivated facades.

I generally hate books like this and at first I did sort of resent the time I was spending on it. Allan’s style, though, draws you in very quickly. Like Nell, I recognised the characters are superficial and unworthy of any emotional effort but, like her, I got sucked in. I had to know what happened. And you, dear reader, will find yourself desperate to know what happened too, so no spoilers. Enjoy the ride.

Highlights include the middle class house party from hell (probably my favourite bit of the book and a reminder that thanks to covid we’ve all been excused some ghastly evenings) and the detailed descriptions of décor. Each of the main characters lives in a very different kind of house. All of them are dripping with money but all are in a diverse style. Just reading about their furnishings immediately places the characters. “Oh yes,” says my beloved of one of them, “That’s the house I’d live in if I had the money.” She’s right of course: it belongs to the most sympathetic character in the book.

Strangely, although most of the characters are in many ways quite ghastly, all have at least some saving graces. Allan’s sharpness skewers but doesn’t then twist the skewer in the wound. The eating disorders, the alcoholism, the eternal lies from almost everybody – they are all the result of deep unhappiness and human weakness. It’s only because I had some sympathy for all of them that I was able to get to the end.

Will Nell navigate this mess with any of her principles intact? Will her marriage survive? Will the kids cope or will they go to the bad? And should she go for a modern fitted kitchen or a more eclectic vintage look? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

Fly or Fall is available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Fly-Fall-Gilli-Allan-ebook/dp/B07ZR9VFFK

The Dardanelles Conspiracy: Alan Bardos

The Dardanelles Conspiracy: Alan Bardos

This is a sequel to The Assassins and you really ought to read that book first.

There is quite a lot happens in The Dardanelles Conspiracy, all of it based on the historical facts that led up to the horror of the Gallipoli landings. If, like me, you are vaguely aware of that campaign but have never been quite sure how it came about, then this book will give you a lot of context. It falls into two parts, the first about the doomed attempts to bribe Turkey to allow the passage of the Dardanelles without the British having to take military action, and the second a description of the opening of the campaign when the negotiations fail. The failure, according to this book, was pretty well inevitable as the British did not negotiate in good faith.

The details of opaque diplomatic negotiations are, inevitably, on the dry side. What kept me reading (and, I imagine, anyone else who loved The Assassins) was following the continuing escapades of Johnny Swift, the anti-hero of Bardos’s previous book. Johnny continues to duck and dive, a cad and a bounder but someone we somehow want to win through, whether he is collaborating with the enemy, faking illness to extend his sick leave or seducing his superior’s wives. Several of the people from the first book also make welcome returns alongside some wonderful new fictional characters – in particular a couple of German officers whose almost constant drunkenness conceals a strong commitment to their military duty.

There is a good cast of non-fictional figures too. A young Churchill reminds us that Winston was a terrible military leader in World War I, though fortunately rather better a quarter of a century later. I never knew he had a brother in the Dardanelles and Jack Churchill was just one of the interesting historical figures to pass through the story.

Once we move to the actual assault on the Turkish positions, there is nothing dry at all about the story-telling. Bardos gives a good outline of how the battle started. It’s clear how much of British strategy was based on straightforwardly racist contempt for the Turks. A few snowflakes reading Guardian articles on the commitment of Turkish soldiery to defend their homeland could have saved an awful lot of British lives. ANZAC lives too, though Bardos makes little mention of them. He would be well advised not to agree to any book tours in Australia where the sacrifice of “colonial” troops at Gallipoli remains a source of bitterness to this day.

Bardos catches the horror and the chaos of this sort of warfare really well: the chaos, perhaps, rather too well. The initial plan of attack was insanely complicated (the sort of thing that a junior officer nowadays would be taught could never survive contact with the enemy). Without a map the reader will struggle to keep track of the relative positions of the troops on Beaches V, X and Z, let alone the strategic importance of Hill 138 or Hill 114. Mind you, the reader’s confusion will reflect that of the men on the ground. The commanders, safe offshore in their battleships, did have maps but, with no efficient means of communication, they lost direction of their forces. The result was a bloodbath and Bardos captures that very well.

The book takes a very Reithian approach to combining fact and fiction. (Like Reith’s BBC, it entertains, educates and informs.) If The Dardanelles Conspiracy doesn’t combine fact and fiction as seamlessly as The Assassins, that reflects just how good The Assassins was. If you enjoyed The Assassins, you will enjoy the further adventures of Johnny Swift and Bardos’s insights into a campaign which is too easily forgotten about in Britain.

The Eagle and the Viper: Loren Estleman

The Eagle and the Viper: Loren Estleman

Readership of my blog fluctuates wildly at the moment and I can’t see any particular pattern to it. Some things obviously interest more people than others: do let me know what interests you and I’m then much more likely to write about it.

I was cutting back on book reviews, partly because fewer people tended to read them, but lately they’ve been proving more popular when I do carry them, so I’ve decided to offer a book review for my Good Friday blog.

Loren Estleman’s latest, The Eagle and the Viper, is the story of an attempt to assassinate Napoleon. In fact, it’s the story of two attempts to assassinate Napoleon: the first the real-life attempt in 1800 which is often cited as the first-ever use of a vehicular IED, the second a fictional effort the following year. Spoiler: Napoleon survives.

I’m currently working on the next a Janes Burke book, which is set in Paris in 1809, not that long after the events of The Eagle and the Viper, so I was fascinated to see how another author tackles the problem of writing about spies and assassins in that world. And, given that Loren Estleman is a massively more successful author than me, I hoped I might pick up some clues.

There’s a lot of research gone into this book, especially the account of the 1800 attempt which is more dramatised documentary than fiction. And Estleman can write (sadly not a given these days). His prose flows and his pacing is good too, bursts of violent action alternating with more descriptive narrative. His characters are rounded and credible – in part because he is happy to invent details that make them more relatable, though much of the personality of people like Napoleon fits well with what we know of him. With his fictitious characters he has full scope for invention and his villain is given an interesting sexual life which means that I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book to the vicar.

Overall, The Eagle and the Viper is an exciting book with a convincing historical background. It has an awful lot in common with Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal although Forsyth’s murder attempt is covered up so that the story does not contradict the historical record. The Viper’s attempt is very public and definitely parts company with the historical record, which always seems to me to be an issue with historical fiction, though it doesn’t worry some readers. Many writers of historical fiction are happy to ignore the facts if they get in the way of a good story. Even Bernard Cornwell has Sharpe winning a crucial battle by exploiting a weakness in an enemy fortress where this weakness simply didn’t exist in real life. Personally, I like to try to fudge historical anomalies, for example by explaining that some events were covered up at the time, but that’s not always possible if you want to keep your plot moving. Every writer (and reader) has to draw their own boundaries. I am probably more worried by the fact that after all the cunning and the meticulous planning that carries the Viper to Paris, the attempt itself is crude and the escape plan relies heavily on luck and a following wind. Plotting the mechanics of villainy is surely part of the fun of writing a thriller of this sort.

Despite the untidy ending, I did enjoy the read and I’m happy to recommend it to Burke fans.

Other Napoleonic fiction is also available

Clearly there is a fair amount of overlap between the Viper’s fictional world and that of James Burke and I’m obviously going to be biased in favour of my creation. Burke doesn’t take himself quite as seriously as the Viper but his cunning plans are maybe rather better thought through. Burke has no desire to be a dead hero and will often plan his escape route before he plans anything else. He’s also an incomparably more considerate lover than the Viper, which I think makes him just a better hero.

Burke’s adventures have seen him spying in Argentina, Egypt, Paris, Brussels, Spain and Ireland. For more about any of the books, click on the images below.