Monday 26 June 2017

An Excellent Read: Conn Iggulden's Stormbird: The War of the Roses.

Stormbird (Wars of the Roses, #1)Stormbird by Conn Iggulden
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An excellent tale which brings to life how the War of the Roses started. It is clearly a complex time and the prologue nicely sets the scene: Edward the third's death bed and several of his sons hovering in background, already plotting who will rule. Iggulden does a great job of bringing clarity to what is a confusing time. History books can be very dry but a well written historical fiction can add a huge extra dimension, making the period come alive. The historical note at the end provides a glimpse into fact versus fiction and I think Iggulden does a great job of steering between fact with intriguing fiction. This is a great period of history that Game of Thrones can only emulate. It has the same sense of betrayal, political motivated murder and great characters determined to succeed. There are epic battles seen from the point of view of either Lords or lowly archers. A great tale.

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Tuesday 20 June 2017

Invictus by Simon Scarrow: A Review - A Stunning Read

Invictus (Eagle, #15)Invictus by Simon Scarrow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow. Scarrow is a reliable author but this is certainly one of his better books. It's been a while since I read a good page-turner and I managed to read this in a couple of days. It has everything in a book for a historical fiction (and most fantasy fans). There is political intrigue, numerous hard-case villains, battles and a great plot. Set in Spain ad with a silver mine at risk there is the hallmarks of a good tale. Not only does Scarrow deliver but there is a twist to the plot and the underlying politics wins out.

Spoiler - Julia's betrayal was hard to accept but I sense a carry on on this tale in a follow up novel. I bet she's not the villain she is made out to be.

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Thursday 15 June 2017

Defiant Unto Death by David Gilman: A Review

Master of War: Defiant Unto Death (Master of War, #2)Master of War: Defiant Unto Death by David Gilman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you want to read about men clashing in heavy armour this is a good read. It does drop off after a great start and the tale fixates on domestic life. It is still readable but a bit slow. When it gets going again there is some great action. Set some years after the battle of Crecy it follows Thomas Blackstone's adventures. He was an archer at Crecy and for his actions, becomes a knight. The tale has its bitter sweet moments which make it all the better. However, I often heard myself saying foolish woman to one of the main characters as once again she puts herself in harms way. I will be reading the next installment.

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Writing Believable Stories, from a Reader's Perspective

It is harder than it seems to make a tale believable and hats off to fantasy writers who manage to achieve this despite fanciful creatures such as dragons, demons, elves etc. But, strangely, authors in other genres also sometimes fail to make their world believable. I have given up on several historical fiction books, because they simply don't feel right. A recent novel about Rome was written in a modern style and perhaps that was what the author intended, but for me that failed utterly. An Egyptian novel I read focused on a few main characters and didn't mention anyone else. It felt lifeless whereas a Wilbur Smith tales, set in the same period, had a cast of thousands and felt more believable for it. This was achieved in a few sentences, adding to the clamour of life.

In all writing, I feel that you should be able to see, smell and even taste the world that you are in. The author needs to translate their knowledge of, say, ancient Rome to the reader and that means following their characters through crowded streets, filled with everyday folk and with ex-gladiator guards  forcing passage for some high ranking noble, vendors screeching out their wares of Garum, pots and pans etc. and the smell of open sewers competing with that of roasted dormouse. The clothing, the food, the sights and again the smells are ways of convincing a reader that the tale is real. 

In the most challenging genre, fantasy, how then do authors achieve believable tails? In my view it is characterisation that often achieves this. Also, no tale should have an easy and obvious solution, like a wizard destroying everything in his path. Characters need to be vulnerable in some way. Gandalf in Lord of the Rings is a great example. He is a key character and yet he is flawed in so many ways, e.g. blind to Saruman's deceits and facing a balrog, his best defence being a spell to block a door; a simple and yet effective use of magic. There is never a fiery blast that destroys thousands.

Fantasy and Sci-Fi tales must have bounds and rules. Star Trek was awesome and the rules there were not too far fetched and some even have become common place in modern society. For example, communication devices that fit in the palm or lapel. The more extreme deviation from modern life were energy shields, Warp engines and matter transporters. Their description and manner of employment, however, made them convincing. Each technology had believable faults that we could relate to e.g. a planet's atmosphere interfering with comms, energy shields that could withstand only so many hits and drained power, and matter transporters that simply failed (as in being spliced - Harry Potter books).

In fantasy the same issues of vulnerability help to make the tale believable. In Lord of the Rings Smaug has a displaced scale, making him vulnerable while his insufferable ego and greed add to his character.

Having a well thought through history of your world also makes fantasy and Sci-Fi believable in the same way as historical fiction needs a background setting. For example, readers need to know why a battle is about to happen, or the politics of races that set them apart. Why, for example, did some races embrace Rome and yet some defy her?

Making tales believable is key to being a good author. I do hope that in my tale, the Prophecy of the Kings, I achieve that despite such strange creatures and settings.

Rome: A Fantasy Fan's Dream City

I went to Rome recently and loved it (apart from all the walking!!). Ancient Rome is everywhere and for me that has strong links to fantasy writing. With all their gods and superstition, Romans did nothing without consulting an oracle. (Not a job I would like: examining entrails for signs of a diseased liver.) Their gods were a dangerous and self-serving lot, demanding the best sacrifice and huge temples with columns that dwarfed any building that had gone before. 

Man finally lost himself in Rome's grandeur and emperors declared themselves gods, perhaps following Egypt's millennium-old example. Nero built a huge statue of himself and unfortunately the Colosseum replaced that. For all their mortal failings, declaring yourself as a god must be the height of power. And folly.

In my books I tried to capture ancient Rome's grandeur and more importantly mystery. In Britain, long after the Roman's departed, people must have looked on in wonder at the ancient remains of amphitheaters, temples and other grand structures. In an age of wooden buildings, Roman ruins must have seemed god-like and may have fired people's imagination. In ancient times, superstition was rife, and the embers of people's fear were likely to be fanned by ancient places dedicated to lost gods.

The Eldric are a race in my books who mysteriously disappeared, leaving behind the ruins of once proud cites. Their civilisation was like Rome's, far above that of the indigenous population. In my books the threat of demons adds to people's superstition and the fear of a demon materialising from the underworld, to seek souls for eternal damnation, is too great to be voiced and like Roman remains, gargoyles and symbols decorate the ruins as wards against evil.

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A view across the Tiber: Nero's mausoleum.
One of the many paintings decorating a church ceiling, Staggering.