1356 by Bernard Cornwell Harper (2013) €10 ****
No more Game of Thrones on the telly, and only the old gods and the new know when George RR Martin is going to produce the next tome in the series. I have a gra for historical/fantasy/medieval/epic narratives, and I reckoned I better find a new series to satisfy my need for a fix.
Cornwell is the Merlin or Gandalf of the genre, the one that the upcomers think they can knock off his perch, the one that the established writers will always regard with awe. Readers will find great satisfaction in his stories, and this is his latest instalment in the tale of Thomas of Hookton, by-blow of one of the legendary Dark Lords who had rebelled against the Church and hidden the Cathars' treasure after the holocaust of that religious sect. I fully recommend going back to the beginning – this is the fourth.
The battle of Poitiers is the political struggle, and the search for the sword of St Peter is the spiritual one. Both come together on a field in France and, while Edward the Black Prince may not have much to show for himself in the history books, he was at the helm of this decisive battle between England and France.
Hookton is an archer and commands a band of mercenaries, who are equally gifted with the weapon. The text borders on bow-and-arrow fetishism in parts, as Cornwell never hesitates to describe the wood, the string, and the fletching with an avid kind of attention. Apart from this, his characterisations are flawless, his battles scenes are exciting and detailed without getting bogged down in every stroke of a sword, and his ability to make history sing with the creativity of fiction is outstanding.
He is an industry standard, and his writing truly separates the knights from the squires ...
THE PLACE OF DEAD KINGS by Geoffrey Wilson, Hodder 2013 , €11.50 **
An alternative history/steam-punk/ fantasy-magical mash-up: what could possibly go wrong? India has conquered 19th-century England, yoga and meditation are dark arts, and creepy mechanical avatars have the power to kill men and strip them down to their very bones. Jack Casey is an Englishmen who unwittingly has mystical powers, and he is on a quest for the Holy Grail in aid of the rebel cause. Where it goes wrong is in the terrible female characterisation, poor dialogue, and a lack of deftness with the skirmishes. A pity, because again: great idea.
EMPEROR: THE BLOOD OF GODS by Conn Iggulden HarperCollins €14.99 ***
I have been with Iggulden from the start, with The Gates of Rome, which told the story of the young Julius Caeser. As the series has gone on, however, that verve of youth has given way to the corruption of age, and as such, has lost some of its energy. In this last, Caeser has been executed by Brutus, et al – oops, was that a spoiler? True history given a creative twist is the point of this exercise, and while this has the author's trademark excellence of tone and detail, it seems somewhat exhausted by its own bloodlust and rebellion.
Warlord by Angus Donald, Sphere (2013) €24.50, ***
Who doesn't love Robin Hood? This is a terrific reboot of the whole rob-from-the-rich crowd, and part four of The Outlaw Chronicles. Sure, you can take the boys out of the forest, but you can't take the cheeky lawlessness out of the usual suspects, Alan a Dale, Little John, and the rest. Set in Normandy, the English are fighting the French and the secondary narrative, that of Alan looking to avenge his father's death, is the thing that drags it down rather.
The Lion Rampant by Robert Low Harper Collins (2013) €18.60 *
Scottish National Pride is at stake in this the third outing in Low's Lion series. Those loyal to Robert the Bruce have put in long years of service in his battle against – you'll never guess, The English! Low writes in Scottish slang, and it makes for hard going. I've read more than my fair share of dialect, but something about this is impenetrable to the point of alienating. That may be the agenda of his characters, but it's a dangerous one for the author.
a classic for a reason
THE MISTS OF AVALON by Marion Zimmer Bradley Penguin 1993 €18.75 *****
A big criticism of the historical fantasy genre regards its terrible treatment of women. Here, Zimmer Bradley retells the story of Camelot from the perspective of the female characters. There's no shortage of tragedy, but at least we get the chance to see Gwynhefar and, most importantly, Morgaine, as well-rounded beings who make choices. That we know what the consequences of those choices are does not take away from the always enthralling tale of Arthur and his knights.