Category Archives: Reading Challenge

January 1st 2015

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It seems to be sort-of customary for blog writers to set out a kind of manifesto at the start of the year – not quite a set of resolutions, since most people seem to be off resolutions this year, but more of a declaration of intent.

My own musings on this were partly triggered by getting my Goodreads stats sent through to me – seems that as regards GR I have reviewed 42 books (11495 pages). Now, I know there are a few HNS reviews still waiting to go through their system before I can post elsewhere, but it’s a fair reflection. I was also quite pleased to see that although most were published in the last few years, I have a scattering of 19th and early 20th century ones, and a couple going way back – The Elder Edda and the Kumarasambhava to be precise.

I took part in two “Reading Challenges” this year – for The Historical Tapestry I just failed to meet the target (25 books… I was one off), after family illness stopped progress for a while. But for The Mad Reviewer I was well in excess of my planned 26 books as the non-historical fiction titles boosted the total nicely. I’m still thinking about whether I want to participate in a similar challenge this year, or whether my activities with HNS and other review groups will be quite sufficient!

Next year on the blog I am planning to do a monthly interview, mostly with historical fiction authors but no doubt a few others thrown in as well. I’m also planning to up the frequency of the historical posts picking out some feature of the background to my own writing – or else just something that caught my eye historically. This probably means I will combine several reviews together in abbreviated form rather individually in full form, since after all there isn’t room or time for everything!

Cover - Scenes from a LifeAs regards my own writing, the CreateSpace version of Scenes from a Life went live a little while into 2014 (the kindle version being available in December 2013), and said book got through to the quarter finals of Amazon’s ABNA award.

Flame draft coverThis year the big event should be the release of The Flame Before Us – hopefully by March or so, all being well. There will be no shortage of news about that… Right now I am working on the last major incomplete section, then comes a few rounds of editorial work and such like before release.

So lots to look forward to in the coming year… not least the excitement of encountering new people and new books through the various routes we all use. Last year’s HNS conference here in London gave a good opportunity to actually meet with some of the many people I enjoy “meeting” online – but there are a great many other people who as yet I have not encountered in the non-virtual world. It would be a nice resolution to aim to meet a few of these, but time will tell if it is a realistic one!

Meanwhile, all the best for 2015 to readers of this blog.

Review – The Rise of Zenobia, by JD Smith

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The Rise of Zenobia is set in what is now called Syria, around 300AD, when the region was a Roman province facing apparently irrevocable decline. Although many local leaders remained loyal to the emperor, far to the west, military pressure from independent tribal groups as well as the Persians was almost intolerable. In consequence the trade routes which had brought wealth to the inhabitants had largely collapsed.

Buy The Rise of Zenobia from Amazon.co.uk
Buy The Rise of Zenobia from Amazon.com

Cover - The Rise of ZenobiaThis is the rather sombre setting, with its continual sense of impending doom, that JD Smith has chosen to write about. The cast of characters is a mixed group of individuals, mostly drawn from a single extended family and their retinue, who are striving to preserve the way of life that they know. The question which dominates the book is whether Rome will be either willing or able to help, or whether the region would be better served by cutting loose altogether.

The story is told in two threads – one in the “present day”, when the protagonist Zabdas is an old man, and a series of flashbacks describing his younger life and the key events in it. Zenobia, the woman of the title, is a key figure in the earlier events but missing from the later thread, and one is led to assume she came to a bad end somehow.

This brings me to a key difficulty – the book is only the first part in a longer series (“Overlord“). A great many issues are raised and put on hold, presumably to be revisited in a later volume. Personally I find this frustrating, and I was left with a sense that the work was unfinished. The specific break-off point did not seem particularly significant, as though it had been driven more by word count than plot.

On a technical level the Kindle copy I read had been nicely prepared. A noticeable number of errors had slipped through the editorial net, but not so many nor so serious as to be a real barrier to reading.

So, mixed feelings for me about the book. The setting is interesting and unusual, the characters are quite diverse, and the story is certainly worth telling. But on the other hand the lack of completion was a negative point for me, and I can’t say that I particularly warmed to any of the individual people. Perhaps too much narrative space was devoted to campaigning for me, or else to long and frustrating journeys, to get much feel for what was being safeguarded. I’m not sure I was led to really care what happened to the people or their culture; given the very obvious echoes in contemporary Syria this is a great shame.

Four stars, on balance, and I’m still undecided if I want to buy into the rest of the series.

Review – Exodus, by Andreas Christensen

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Exodus is set in a near-future earth in which today’s threat of global terrorism has pushed America into virtual dictatorship. Although still nominally democratic, personal freedom has been almost entirely sacrificed to military and economic interests. But this is simply the stage for the book’s real plot – securing an escape route to another solar system for a small group to avoid the consequences of a late-detected asteroid strike. Like so many stories these days, Exodus is part of a trilogy, and the story is left on the verge of the next stage.

Buy Exodus from Amazon.co.uk
Buy Exodus from Amazon.com

Cover image - ExodusThe plot is quite diverse, dealing with political machinations in the US as well as the selection process for the passengers, a glimpse of the scientific advances needed for the journey, and a little about the shipboard life on the way. A striking feature of Andreas’ writing is that she is not afraid to skip over spans of time where nothing much happens, in order to focus on the next key event. So for example very little is said of the actual journey through space.

The characters are almost exclusively American, but of quite a limited range – Hispanic names are there, but I don’t recall any native American, Indian or far-east Asian names. Perhaps this was supposed to mirror the generally paranoid thinking of the society, but it felt rather unreal to me. As regards the rest of the world, Europe is largely there to provide scientific know-how for the project and then wave the ship goodbye, and no other countries get a look-in at all. One scientific goal of the journey was to secure genetic diversity on the new world, and I suspect that in this regard, one would have to class the mission a failure. But again, perhaps this is really saying that political agenda always trumps scientific ideals.

I felt there were some odd omissions. Interpersonal relationships are almost entirely platonic – in a bunch of about 1600 people who think they are the last representatives of humanity, about the closest we get to romance is one man musing to himself that one of the women “didn’t look too bad”. More seriously, having had a careful explanation before launch of the compelling need for exponential population growth from the start, nothing is then done about this. I feel sure that, especially in a centrally dominated society but for sound survival reasons as well, some fraction of the women would have been pregnant before landing. But so far as the plot of the book is concerned, only politics, seen as the pursuit of authority and dominance, is important.

Technically the Kindle version has been reasonably well produced. There were a number of typos, only a few of which interrupted reading. The prose style is very plain, and coming from a historical fiction background I prefer something richer. The main obstacle was the paragraph length which through most of the book was huge, often spanning multiple Kindle page turns I would strongly recommend that another edit trims this down into digestible chunks which fit better with an ereader page.

I thought a lot about a final rating and felt in the end that the interest value of the plot just about pushed this from three to four stars. I was never at serious risk of giving up and I did want to see the travellers through to their destination. But I would have liked Exodus much more if the issues mentioned had been tackled, and I did feel that parts of the story didn’t quite hang together as they should.

Review – Omphalos, by Mark Patton

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Omphalos is a beautiful book. Mark kindly provided me with a pre-publication proof copy which I eagerly devoured. I have enjoyed Mark’s writing since coming across Undreamed Shores a couple of years ago (see The Bookworm’s Fancy blog as well as Amazon and Goodreads). Omphalos is a more elaborately structured book, peeling layers of history back successively from the present day back to the time of Undreamed Shores, then returning layer by layer to the present day.

Cover image - OmphalosThe closest analogy I have read is The Source, by James Michener, but Mark achieves here something which in my view is more memorable and more human. The Source tended, despite the author’s efforts, to lose the personal dimension against the grand sweeps and calamities of history. Also it progressed linearly forwards through history rather than giving the sense of diving deep, and then slowly surfacing again. Mark, while still setting his various characters in times of flux and crisis, never allows these settings to obscure personal dramas and interpersonal relationships. Sometimes the links between the layers are obvious; other times there are only little clues in the narrative to spark the connection.

Omphalos explores one of the great themes of human life – what is it that unites us with past generations, and what is it that divides us? The divisions in term of social customs and attitudes are certainly present, but common threads abound. As well as individual emotions and actions, the theme of unity is externalised into aspects of nature, and most obviously into the centrality of the ancient sacred site on Jersey around which these many worlds pivot.

An obvious consequence of the layered structure is that we spend less time with any one person and context. There is a slight frustration here: I wanted longer with each of them. But that sense of Time’s Winged Chariot hurrying near is also a theme of the book – as new generations are cut free at birth from the navel of the world, their time is all too short.

Omphalos goes on sale very soon: December 5th, to be precise, and there is an online launch on that day. I can thoroughly recommend that you find out for yourself what this book is like. Five stars so far as I am concerned, without a doubt. Hopefully, like me, you will reach the end, lean back with a sigh, and think “ah, what a beautiful book this is.

Review – The Summer Queen, by Elizabeth Chadwick

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I have to confess to being disappointed by The Summer Queen, partly because it had had a big build-up from friends. This was a book club choice, and one which I struggled with: at the club discussion there was a lot of talk as to whether it fundamentally appealed to women rather than men. Some of the other club members assured me that they had very much enjoyed others of Elizabeth’s books, so perhaps this was not the best for me to start with.

Buy The Summer Queen from Amazon.co.uk
Buy The Summer Queen from Amazon.com

Cover - The Summer QueenThe Summer Queen follows the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine (Alienor here, a more accurate representation of the name) up to the point where she is about to arrive in England as the new queen of this land. She is already a highly travelled and shrewd ruler of her own territory and others, and the expectation is set in the reader that things are on the up, after some unpleasant experiences in the first part of her life.

However, I found it difficult to enjoy the book. Elizabeth’s research, from the limited quantity of material available, has been thorough, and I understand that where her reconstruction differs from others there are good reasons behind the choice. But I found the writing itself quite formulaic – I had the feeling I was reading more of a Wikipedia article, liberally laced with sex scenes to liven up the narrative.

Elizabeth provides considerable amounts of detailing, but in spite of that I had no real sense of immersion in any particular period. I found myself having to confirm from outside sources that I was actually reading about a time less than a century after the Battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest. I think this is because of the way in which the inner life of characters is portrayed: Eleanor herself often felt like a modern individual timeslipped into an older period. I found it very hard to have any sympathetic response for Eleanor, despite the several personal tragedies she faced, mainly because the difficulties of an extraordinarily rich and powerful woman don’t have a lot of resonance with me.

Had it not been for the book club I would probably have given up on it well before the end. My initial reaction was quite negative, but a few days reflecting on it has improved this somewhat, mainly because I have come away with more knowledge of the politics of the age. However, still a three star book for me, and I don’t think that I will be looking out for the other books to follow in the trilogy. Clearly many other folk rate it higher than I do, and if you enjoy this period of history it is worth a look. I trust the judgment of my fellow book club members and would happily try another of Elizabeth’s books, in one of her several other series.

Kumarasambhavam, or, what a pity ancient Egypt and ancient India never got together

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I was recommended Kumarasambhavam, “The Origin of the Young God“, by Kalidasa, by a friend who had noticed the reprint of the English translation by Hank Heifetz and alerted me to it. I have read a certain amount of modern Indian literature (in translation) so here was a chance to absorb a Sanskrit epic classic. Kalidasa is thought to have lived around 500AD, but most details of his life have long gone. His work, however, has proved to be enduring, and this is an exceptionally great poem which became part of the standard against which other works might be judged.

Buy Kumarasambhavam from Amazon.co.uk
Buy Kumarasambhavam from Amazon.com

Cover image - KumarasambhavamThe theme of the work is the courtship of Shiva and Parvati, as imagined through their personal interactions, the participation of other individuals, and the rich echoes of their emerging love in the natural world. The 8th section celebrates their sexual union after their wedding. In due course this will lead to the birth of the Young God of the title, who will liberate parts of the natural and divine world from oppression. Over the years, this final section has been sometimes been regarded as an improper subject for poetry, and has often been omitted from published versions. To me this immediately brought to mind the Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible, which has from time to time only gained acceptance by being read as allegory rather than literal delight.

For the curious, Heifetz explains the different kinds of metrical pattern used by Kalidasa, as well as highlighting other devices used, such as alliteration. He also speaks a little about his own choices in translation – when to be literal, when to add an explanatory phrase, when to try to imitate a pattern of sound. Sanskrit poetry was based on several patterns of long and short syllables, like classical Greek and Latin metres but unlike ancient near eastern or more recent European ones. This means that direct imitation of the variety of metrical forms, and their specific associations, is not possible in English, and Heifetz explores other ways of representing the differences.

But the poem itself can be read and enjoyed without troubling with any of this, so that the reader can immerse him or herself in Parvati’s determined efforts to win Shiva over, followed by Shiva’s gentle and sensitive arousal of Parvati’s desire. One of the outstanding features of the work is the extended use of imagery from the natural world – flowers, birds, animals, mountains, and the cycle of the seasons are all invoked and drawn up into the relationships of the divine couple.

At the end of the book I found myself filled with a great regret that the ancient Egyptians never had the opportunity to interact and cross-fertilise with ancient India. The ways in which both human and natural worlds participate seamlessly and shamelessly with the universe of gods became alien to Europe, but would have found a resonance in Pharaonic Egypt. Conversely, there is a haunting sense in some Egyptian literature that Egypt never really found another deep culture to relate to. I feel that there was a loneliness there that longed for, but never fulfilled, the possibility of being united with another. Perhaps Shiva and Parvati succeeded in marriage, where Egypt and India failed even to meet. But you have to wonder what kind of young god would have been the fruit of their union.

I have to give a star rating to post this review on some sites, even though that feels bizarre for an acknowledged literary pinnacle of its culture. Five stars, of course. The book will not appeal to everybody, but deserves to be better known and more widely read by those many people who cannot do so in Sanskrit.

Review – The Mirror and the Mage, by David Frauenfelder

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The Mirror and the Mage is a young adult book – not my usual fodder – but is also a historical fantasy, which is more familiar territory. The story is set in the very early days of the Roman Republic, when the Etruscans were the most significant challengers to the growth of Rome. We follow a youth, Lucius, who wants to serve his king but whose real talents are intellectual. In other cultures he would be a scribe, but his society values Mars more than Mercury. It is a familiar situation for many. Basically, he is a geek trying to survive in the middle of the gang war which was early Roman political life.

Buy The Mirror and the Mage from Amazon.co.uk
Buy The Mirror and the Mage from Amazon.com

Cover image - The Mirror and the MageLucius finds a resolution for his dilemma by becoming an apprentice to an old magician, Publius Litterarius. The basis of magic here is partly verbal – you have to get the words correct in both meaning and grammar – and partly resource-based, requiring particular crystals to become effective. Lucius goes through a sense of progressively more complex and dangerous situations as he learns his art. He also, appropriately for a YA book, grapples with personal responsibility and a growing awareness of the other sex.

The book is not just an entertaining story, but aims to be a tool for learning Latin as well. If you want to be like Lucius, you have to learn your grammar! I have to say that I wish I had been taught Latin like this many years ago – like a lot of other people I was simply exposed to lists of word patterns identified by strange names I did not at that stage know from English – accusative, dative, ablative, pluperfect and so on. Nowadays I have a better sense of what these mean, but at the time they were so much phlogiston (and much less fun). I am fairly sure that if I had had the kind of imaginative presentation used in this book, I would have learned to like languages a whole lot earlier.

So The Mirror and the Mage can be read both as a fun story of magical apprenticeship, and a creative teaching aid. Either way I would recommend it if you like YA books, or are contemplating buying one for somebody else.

Two reviews for the HNS

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As many of you know, I review books for the Historical Novel Society (HNS) and part of the deal is that they appear first on the HNS web site. So here are two reviews from the last batch: they can be found online at:

The Wessex Turncoat (http://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/the-wessex-turncoat/)
and
Do Not Forget Me Quite (http://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/do-not-forget-me-quite/)

Now for the reviews themselves…

The Wessex Turncoat
Cover image - The Wessex TurncoatThe Wessex Turncoat follows apprentice blacksmith Aaron Mews, from his home near Fordingbridge, Hampshire, through forced entry into George III’s army, over to Canada. The second half of the book describes his part in the disastrous 1777 campaign against the rebellious American colonies.

The period and setting were new to me, and it was an interesting narrative choice to follow – a failed campaign rather than a victorious one. This threw the focus on Aaron himself, who comes over as a passive character, though loyal and very much a survivor. Many of the characters are stereotyped – the nice corporal, the nasty sergeant who is actually well-meaning, etc – and the main strengths are the descriptions of the age. Aaron is propelled here and there by his superiors, and by the social structures of his time, and only near the end does he start to make decisions for himself. Appropriately, his dominant experiences are of loss and difficulty.

There are several plot lines which are raised but never resolved. This probably reflects Aaron’s own inability to pursue them, but in the context of a novel they are frustrating. Similarly, the ending was left unclear, and I would have preferred to know more about the choice Aaron is making: is this perhaps when he becomes a turncoat? The later chapters are rushed in comparison to the gradual unfolding of earlier ones.

The book is well presented and proofread and reads as gentle in content – war, hardship, sex and violence are constant parts of Aaron’s life, but are described in very mild terms, which would make this suitable for younger readers as well as adults. The story will appeal to those wanting to immerse themselves in depth into lower-class, seventeenth-century rural and military life. It also delves a little into the cultural mix of the emerging United States.

Do Not Forget Me Quite
Cover image - Do Not Forget Me QuiteDo Not Forget Me Quite spans nearly twenty years of a family’s life, starting on the eve of WWI. The main focus is on the father, John, who feels morally obliged to enlist in the medical corps as hostilities commence. His wife Emma resents this, and in part the book explores the ensuing personal and family distress that follows for the couple and their children. The most evocative section is when John is invalided home before the end of the war, and John and Emma are forced to confront the consequences of their choices. Towards the end of the book Emma fades out, and their eldest daughter replaces her as a female protagonist.

Readers should be aware that the book is, and feels, very long. The focus shifts between several family members, and intersects with the life of Ivor Gurney, a significant musician and poet of the time. I found myself wondering whether it would have been more effective for Richard to split the ideas between two or more books? The apparent coincidences bridging the different scenes were not easy to follow, and did feel very contrived.

Technically the book has been well proofread and presented, with chapter and section breaks clearly signalled with year indicators where appropriate. Cream paper rather than the white used is more relaxing for the eye, however. I wondered about occasional turns of phrase which seemed too modern, but mostly Richard uses variations of dialect to suggest the home areas in England of characters.

The book will be enjoyed by readers who like exploring the land battles of WWI from the perspective of comparatively unimportant participants who have no possibility of making significant change to the setting or the system.

Review – Spiral, by Judith Schara

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Spiral, by Judith Schara, is a book which slightly defies categorisation – part historical fiction, part timeslip, part fantasy, and illuminated throughout by Judith’s evident enthusiasm for her subject. Regardless of the other facets, however, it is as historical fiction that it stands out most clearly to me.

Spiral - cover image
Buy Spiral from Amazon.co.uk
Buy Spiral from Amazon.com

Spiral opens in the modern day, following an archaeologist, Germaine, as she becomes involved with a new dig at Iron Age levels at Maiden Castle, in Dorset. Now this is a place I know well, having lived near there some time ago, and finding it in a book brought back happy memories of exploring its steep banks and ditches. I don’t have a handy picture of Maiden Castle, so here is another hill fort in Dorset, Hambledon Hill.
Hambledon Hill, Dorset
In the story, however, modern Maiden Castle is not just a fun place to roam around, but the focal point of competing ambitions – academic, political, religious, reputational, and monetary. Germaine finds herself caught up in this vortex, but is only dimly aware of it. Driven by her own need for recognition, she puts herself in life-threatening danger – and we are plunged into the world of Iron Age Britain, and the life of a girl called Sabrann.

From here on the story follows dual tracks – for the most part we follow Sabrann and an assortment of companions out of Britain, into northern France and finally to Carthage. There is a lot of voyaging, and neither the travellers nor the reader can spend long at any of the fascinating locations visited. Sabrann is under constant threat, both physical and spiritual, and has to learn how to recognise and trust friends amongst a crowd of enemies. Meanwhile from time to time we return to glimpses of Germaine’s modern world.

Spiral is simply the first book in a series (“Book One of the Spiral in Time“), and so it ends with a great many issues unresolved. Sabrann and her friends have survived great peril, but are separated and do not know what the future will bring. Germaine is recovering, but unsure what to do next. As readers, we have been introduced to some of the deep connections between people of the two time periods, but a great deal remains unknown. One assumes that further revelations will follow in later books.

Now, I must admit that I prefer books which are self-contained, and there is a certain frustration in getting to the end and finding major plot themes not tied up. I can, and do, enjoy, a connected series of books, but not so much a multi-volume work of this kind. Other readers will perhaps appreciate this style of presentation more than I, and Judith makes it quite clear that you only have Book One in your hands.

The fantasy elements enter in a couple of ways. First, there are very occasional overt demonstrations of magical or spiritual power. More commonly though, fantasy enters through the constant level of imminent danger, and Judith’s chosen styles of characterisation. The book’s central characters are quite nicely rounded, but some people that they encounter, especially in Carthage, have the slightly larger than life, archetypal quality of fantasy rather than “straight” historical fiction. In Carthage the standard fantasy trope of “organised religion = bad, personal spirituality = good” is very prominent. Again, readers may differ in their response to this.

I mentioned timeslip, but Judith’s handling of this is innovative. Germaine and Sabrann are connected in a profound way, but it is not altogether clear (at the end of Book One) how much they recognise each other’s reality, or whether they will ever be able to. What we have is a pattern of recapitulation and discovery rather than time travel, and it will be interesting to see how the pattern is further developed.

Technically the Kindle edition I read was well produced and edited, and a pleasure to read.

For me, a strong 4* book. I would have enjoyed longer spells of time at the places visited, especially as Judith has a clear knowledge of and delight in her subject. The continual focus on danger and probable death from any of multiple causes distracted me from simply enjoying and immersing myself in ordinary life. I realised that as a reader (and writer) I tend to enjoy everyday life scenarios more than high profile crises! And, as mentioned, I found the lack of closure within the book a little frustrating. However, I very much appreciated the focus on Iron Age culture outside the Roman experience, along with the multicultural issues faced by the characters. Sabrann herself was a memorable character – more so than Germaine, who has been given less narrative space so far.

I will certainly be looking out for other books in the series.

Review – The Devil’s Monk, by J.R. (Jack) Russell

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The Devil’s Monk is set in the turbulent days after the reign of Alfred. The background, then, is a time of enormous transition for Britain. There was political and military struggle, as Angles, Saxons, and Danes contended for mastery of the land and the older British tribes were squeezed out. There was religious change, as Christianity gradually lured people away from the older gods. And, at least for the central character of this book, Bald, there is personal transformation, as he decides over a period of years what he can contend with and what must simply be accepted.

Buy The Devil’s Monk from Amazon.co.uk
Buy The Devil’s Monk from Amazon.com
Cover image - The Devil's Monk
Bald, through whom we witness the events and people of the age, is a herbalist. He is known to the modern age through the pages of an old medical text, The Leechbook of Bald, now in the British LIbrary. Jack has done a good job of filling in a hypothetical biography for Bald. It is never altogether clear whether Bald’s medical successes are due to the remedies he prepares, or the result of sympathetic attention to the real causes of malaise. Even today, cures and healings sometimes defy explanation, and Bald’s world view is well suited to his role, being deeply rooted in the old ways, with a weak grasp of the healing role of Christ as sufferer overlaid on top.

On a storytelling level, it took me a while to settle in to this book, since the first part seemed rather disjointed. As the dichotomy of Bald’s simultaneous power and impotence came to the fore, the tale held me more. Secondary characters also get more development in the later stages. It is not a fast paced book, but the subject matter does not require it to be, and the story is better suited to the slow unravelling of hearts, lives, and nations that we find in the pages. There are frequent citations from the herbal manual woven into the plot, together with a few extracts from the poetry of the age; these add to the atmosphere, though the translation used from the Old English is sometimes heavy going.

Overall for me this was a four star book. I enjoyed reading about the history of places which I know in contemporary England – Eashing, Winchester, London, York and Glastonbury among others. The historical research which has gone into the book seems solid. However, it was a book which interested me intellectually rather than engaged me emotionally. I would have enjoyed it more if the emotional dimension had been more accessible.

At about the same time I also read A Twisted Cross by the same author, an exploration of one of the crusades. Here I felt that Jack had not given himself enough narrative space to do his subject justice. Social differences and prejudices are well handled, but religious views less so, and in a way which to me spoke more of modern habits of thought than medieval ones. The short format left too much unexplored about a potentially fascinating period and range of characters. This book would have gained a lot by having the same systematic exploration of the main character as was done for Bald in The Devil’s Monk.