Book Review: The Traitor’s Mark by D.K. Wilson

The Traitor’s Mark is the second book in the Thomas Treviot series by D.K. Wilson.

Summary (from Goodreads)

The Real Crime: Hans Holbein, King Henry VIII’s portrait painter, died in the autumn of 1543. A century later a chronicler reported that the artist had succumbed to plague, yet there is no contemporary evidence to support this. Suspicions have been raised over the centuries, but the mystery of what actually happened remains unsolved to this day.

Our Story: Young London goldsmith Thomas Treviot is awaiting a design for a very important jewelry commission from Hans Holbein. When the design fails to turn up, Thomas sends a servant to track Holbein down, only to discover that the painter has disappeared. In his hunt for Holbein and the lost design, Thomas is led into a morass of dangerous political intrigue, Spanish spies and courtiers that is more treacherous than he could ever have anticipated…

Favourite Quote

‘Dear God, the games these kings and great men play, using us for their cards and counters.’

Review

I find this series so interesting.  The idea of presenting a possible solution to a mystery or a crime approaching 500 years old is fascinating.  Having read the first book in the series, The First Horseman and the third, The Devil’s Chalice, I knew I would enjoy this one too.  And I did.

I like Thomas Treviot – he is a likeable main character.  He has enough status to get him the contact he needs with some of the greatest personalities in the land, but he is also happy – happier even – amongst those of lower-standing, meaning that he can move fairly easily between social groups.  Ned – a former monk who after the dissolution puts his knowledge of medicines to use as an apothecary – is also a great character.  Though I think my favourite is Lizzie: she’s strong, intelligent, sensible and compassionate.

The Traitor’s Mark is a enjoyable mystery that will take you on a journey through Tudor London and the surrounding counties, which come to life with ease.  The historical detail that is woven through the story is rich in depth though not heavy enough to weigh it down and slow its unfolding.  There’s plenty of action and drama, and twists and turns to keep the story moving at a good pace.  The political and religious turmoil of the times is clearly depicted and the story shows just how easy it was to get caught up in things, whether you wanted to be involved in them or not – a scary thought.

I really hope that there will be more books in this series, because all three of them have been excellent reads.  I can’t recommend them high enough.

Rating

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Book Review: The Iron Hand of Mars by Lindsey Davis

The Iron Hand of Mars is the fourth book in the Falco series by Lindsey Davis.

Summary (from back of book)

AD 71: Germania Libera: dark dripping forests, inhabited by bloodthirsty barbarians and legendary wild beasts, a furious prophetess who terrorises Rome, and the ghostly spirits of slaughtered Roman legionaries.

Enter Marcus Didius Falco, an Imperial agent on a special mission: to find the absconding commander of a legion whose loyalty is suspect.  Easier said than done, thinks Marcus, as he makes his uneasy way down the Rhenus, trying to forget that back in sunny Rome his girlfriend Helena Justina is being hotly pursued by Titus Caesar.  His mood is not improved when he discovers that his only allies are a woefully inadequate bunch of recruits, their embittered centurion, a rogue dog, and its innocent young master; just the right kind of support for an agent unwillingly trying to tame the Celtic hordes.

Favourite Quote

“Are foreign priestesses virgins, sir?”

“I believe it’s not obligatory.”  Only Rome equated chastity with holiness; and even Rome installed ten vestals at a time, in order to give latitude for mistakes.

Review

I have read this series from beginning to end a number of times, and my enjoyment of it only grows with each reading.  The witty style of the author combined with the historical detail and interesting mysteries is a winning formula, and as such this series is one of my absolute favourites.

The Iron Hand of Mars is quite different to the books that came before it in the series, whose focus tended to be more political rather than military.  However, this book is as much of a success as the others.  The story of Varus and the lost legions in the Teutoburg Forest is fascinating if haunting, and as “Rome’s greatest defeat” as it is often referred to, it is largely responsible for stopping the spread of Roman expansion into the northern reaches of Europe. And this is the back drop, many years after the event, to the story and Falco’s mission.

The story is cleverly-crafted and as Falco goes about the Emperor’s business, he finds himself in more danger than he has so far working for the Palatine.  Due to the nature of his task and the events of the past, the tone is darker and you can feel the oppressiveness of the Tuetoburg Forest as Falco travels through it.

The characters in this book are entertaining and varied:  Xanthus, a former imperial barber who wants to the see the world; Helvetius, a despairing centurion in command of untrainable new recruits; Veleda, the priestess – prophetess of the Bructeri who lives in a tower; Justinus, the younger of Helena’s brothers, stationed with the First Legion…However, it is always Helena and Falco who star in the story; they are both endearing, strong-willed, personable and funny, and you can’t help but root for them all the way.

The descriptions of the empire beyond Rome and into the more wild provinces vividly come to life as we follow Falco’s progress.  From boat trips down the Rhenus to Samian-ware ceramic factories in Lugdunum and everything else in between, we are given are unforgettable tour of this part of the empire as it was in the first century.

Action, adventure, comedy and even romance, this is historical crime fiction at its best (in my opinion, of course).  So, if you are looking for an entertaining read set in the ancient world to immerse yourself in, I would highly recommend you give this book a read.

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Book Review: The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M Auel

The Clan of the Cave Bear is the first book in the Earth’s Children series by Jean M. Auel.

Summary (from back of book)

The first novel in Jean M. Auel’s magnificent epic of life on the glacial continent of the last Ice Age, when two kinds of human beings, Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon, shared the earth.

Its heroine is Ayla, a courageous and indomitable young woman whose story beings when she is a five-year-old orphan adopted by the Clan, a group of Neanderthal.

Ayla inspires first surprise, then wariness and finally acceptance by the Clan.  She is cared for by its medicine woman Iza and its wise holy man Creb.  But she makes an implacable enemy of the group’s future leader. Broud does all he can to destroy her, but Ayla is a survivor.

Favourite Quote

“Accept her into the clan!  She’s not Clan, she was born to the Others.  Who said anything about accepting her into the clan?  It wouldn’t be allowed, Ursus won’t like it.  It’s never been done before!” Brun objected.  “I wasn’t thinking of making her one of us, I only wondered if the spirits would allow her to live with us until she gets older.”

“Iza saved her life, Brun, she carries part of the girl’s spirit now, that makes her part Clan.  She came close to walking in the next world, but she’s alive now.  That’s almost the same as being born again, born to the Clan.”

Review

I absolutely adore this series, and The Clan of the Cave Bear as the first book in it is simply magnificent.  I have read this book (and the subsequent instalments) so many times, and as soon as I open the covers I am transported back in time to the last ice age.  I find this period in time fascinating, and the amount of research that was carried out in order to make it as accurate as one can so many millennia later, is clear as soon as you begin reading.  From descriptions of the landscape and the processes involved in their evolution, to plants and their medicinal properties, this book is rich in, and overflowing with, information and detail.

The characters were engaging, and Ayla’s adopted family – Iza, the clan’s medicine woman, and her brother, Creb, the mog-ur or spiritual leader of the group – were wonderful, and are my favourite characters after Ayla herself. Brun, as the strong but fair leader who often finds himself torn between tradition (which to the Clan means security) and something new (which they fear), deals compassionately with the problems Ayla’s presence gives rise to.

This story is packed full of emotional drama that left me in tears on more than one occasion.  The storyline was captivating, and though you can work out how the book is going to end, it still comes as a bit of shock and is highly emotional.  Ayla is a strong young woman with a desire to learn anything and everything, so that she is always growing and developing, and it is this, rather than the fact that she looks different that sets her apart from those around her.

The Clan of the Cave Bear is imaginative and unique, and the storytelling abilities of the author are amazing.  We get to hear the story from the viewpoint of all the characters without it getting confusing, but we are also not in any doubt that the story is that of Ayla, a young orphaned girl taken in, raised and loved by a group of Neanderthals.

This book is one of my all-time favourite reads.  I would recommend it to those who enjoy historical fiction and are interested in the Palaeolithic. However, if you struggle reading great swathes of detailed description, this might not be the book for you.  Also, it is worth remembering that although Auel extensively researched the book, it is ultimately a work of fiction not a science text book.

Rating

 

Book Review: The Vault of Bones by Pip Vaughan-Hughes

The Vault of Bones is the second book in the Brother Petroc series by Pip Vaughan-Hughes.

Summary (from back of book)

In the darkness of 13th-century Europe, the most precious treasures of the Christian world lie in a small church in the great ruined city of Constantinople: the crown of thorns, the spear that pierced Jesus’ side, the shroud bearing the imprint of Christ.

On the other side of the globe, Petroc of Auneford has left his old monastic world for London alongside the enigmatic Captain de Montalhac, purveyor of fine relics and other exotic trinkets to anyone with sufficient money and desire.

For Petroc, the trip is soon blighted by tragedy, but grief is no guard against greed.  The great powers of Christendom are gathering.  All covet the power of the most precious relics – and Petroc finds himself right in the eye of the storm.

Favourite Quote

But before I laid down my head I put my head out of the small window and craned to look up at the great walls of the city.  A little moonlight glanced off the cut stones and sank into the gashes and wounds of siege and time.  They had not kept out the robbers, these walls, and perhaps it was their penance to be reduced to a home for ivy and pigeons.

Review

This was an interesting story, if a slow read.  The pace did hamper my enjoyment of the book.  If the book had been perhaps 100 pages shorter, I think I would have found it more gripping, and more of a thriller.  Every place the characters stop in is accompanied by a detailed travel guide to the place as it would have looked and sounded like in the thirteen century, which on the one hand adds detail to what is going on, but also slows it down considerably.

That being said, it did have an entertaining storyline and the cast of characters were engaging.  Petroc has led a colourful life of late, something his monastic life hadn’t prepared him for.  The crew of the Cormaran are a diverse bunch, and their captain, Michel de Montalhac as a dealer of the finest relics, is interesting and likeable.

I hadn’t read the first book in the Brother Petroc series before reading this instalment, and I wonder if it would have allowed me to enjoy it more.  And yet, there was enough in it to keep me reading to the last page, hence my rating.

I would consider reading book one, and the later books in the series.

Rating

2.5 / 5

Book Review: Stonehenge by Bernard Cornwall

Summary (from Goodreads)

Four thousand years ago, a stranger’s death at the Old Temple of Ratharryn-and his ominous “gift” of gold-precipitates the building of what for centuries to come will be known as one of mankind’s most singular and remarkable achievements. Bernard Cornwell’s epic novel Stonehenge catapults us into a powerful and vibrant world of ritual and sacrifice at once timeless and wholly original-a tale of patricide, betrayal, and murder; of bloody brotherly rivalry: and of the never-ending quest for power, wealth, and spiritual fulfillment.

Three brothers-deadly rivals-are uneasily united in their quest to create a temple to their gods. There is Lengar, the eldest, a ruthless warrior intent on replacing his father as chief of the tribe of Ratharryn; Camaban, his bastard brother, a sorcerer whose religious fervor inspires the plan for Stonehenge; and Saban, the youngest, through whose expertise the temple will finally be completed. Divided by blood but united-precariously-by a shared vision, the brothers begin erecting their mighty ring of granite, aligning towering stones to the movement of the heavenly bodies, and raising arches to appease and unite their gods. Caught between the zealousness of his ambitious brothers, Saban becomes the true leader of his people, a peacemaker who will live to see the temple built in the name of salvation and regeneration.

Favourite Quote

The forest was all dark danger, which is why the woods were for ever being felled and why women were not allowed into it.  They could forage for herbs among the copses close to the settlement, or they could travel through the woods if they were accompanied by men, but they could not go alone into the trees that lay beyond the outermost fields for fear of being assaulted by ghouls and spirits, or of being captured by the outcasts.

Review

This tale tells the possible story of the construction of one of the most iconic symbols of prehistoric human achievement, Stonehenge.  Set in 2000 BC, the book sets out to give an explanation of what it was, why it was built and who built it.  Of course, much of this is speculation, and as Bernard Cornwall points out in his historical note at the end, all of the characters and deities mentioned in it are fictitious.  But, fiction is an interesting way of trying to answer history’s puzzles.  That being said, available archaeological evidence was also used where it was possible.

The stand out themes of the story were the detailed explanations of how the stone circle was constructed, phase by phase, and the bronze age religion and superstition.  Many of the characters were also fascinating.  The three brothers, Lengar, Camaban and Saban, couldn’t be more different.  Aurenna – the sun bride – and Derrewyn – the priestess / witch -were also interesting.

There is much drama, ritual, action and adventure to be found within these pages, and the rich historical detail is interwoven with the gripping storytelling .  I appreciate not everyone will like the attention to detail that the author has included in the story with regards to the building of the circle.  I have read reviews which have stated this information was boring and slowed the story right down.  I personally didn’t find that, but rather relished reading it because I found it added plausibility and authenticity to the story as well as the characters.

If I had to sum this book up in three words, I would say it was: fascinating, imaginative, captivating.

I would recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in prehistoric peoples and / or Stonehenge.  However, there are lengthy descriptions of so if you don’t enjoy that kind of detail, you might not enjoy this.  I do like it, and I enjoyed it.

Rating

 

Book Review: Ruso and the Root of all Evils by R.S. Downie

Ruso and the Root of all Evils is the third book in this Roman mystery series by R.S.Downie.

Summary (from Goodreads)

At long last, Gaius Petreius Ruso and his companion, Tilla, are headed home—to Gaul. Having received a note consisting only of the words “COME HOME!” Ruso has (reluctantly, of course) pulled up stakes and brought Tilla to meet his family.

But the reception there is not what Ruso has hoped for: no one will admit to sending for him, and his brother Lucius is hoping he’ll leave. With Tilla getting icy greetings from his relatives, Lucius’s brother-in-law mysteriously drowned at sea, and the whole Ruso family teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, it’s hard to imagine an unhappier reunion. That is, until Severus, the family’s chief creditor, winds up dead, and the real trouble begins…

Engrossing, intricate, and—as always—wonderfully comic, Ruth Downie’s latest is a brilliant new instalment in this irresistible series. This is everything we’ve come to expect from our charming, luckless hero.

Favourite Quote

“Anyway,” continued Cass, “I can’t pray to Christos.  You’ll have to do it.  You’re not married.”

“Does that matter?”

“Christos’ followers are supposed to obey their husbands.”

Review

This book was enjoyable to read and well-written, full of engaging characters and entertaining storylines.  My favourite character has to be Tilla.  She is simply fantastic: brave, unrepentant, compassionate, and independent. And poor Ruso – he has so much to put up with, and things just keep getting worse for him.

I guessed the culprit but not the ending.  Indeed, towards the latter part of the book, I was driven to keep reading by a need to find out just how the story would conclude.

I liked the author’s style of writing; fairly short chapters that mostly end with a new twist or turn in the plot.  This gave the story a good pace and instilled in me an insatiable desire to read just one more chapter, then another, then another…more or less until I finished the book.

I would recommend this book to those who enjoy their historical fiction set in the ancient Roman world, and, if you love Lindsey Davis’ Falco series, I think you will love this one too.

Rating

Book Review: A Dreadful Penance by Jason Vail

A Dreadful Penance is the third book in the Stephen Attebrook Mysteries by Jason vail

Summary (from back of book)

November 1262 is an unlikely season for war.  But war nonetheless is coming to the March, the wild borderland between England and Wales.  Not the war that most fear between the supporters of the King and the rebellious barons uniting around Simon de Montfort, but with Llewelyn ap Gruffydd, the Welsh warlord who styles himself Prince of Wales and who has united the fractious tribes of his land against the English.

The English are uncertain, however, where and when the blow will fall.  So, Sir Geoffrey Randall, coroner of Herefordshire, dispatches his deputy, the impoverished knight Stephen Attebrook, to the border town of Clun to make contact with a spy in order to learn Llewelyn’s plans.

At the same time, Randall directs Attebrook to investigate the murder of a monk found dead in his bed at the Augustine priory of St. George at Clun.

The assignment casts Attebrook into the middle of a desperate feud between the priory and the lord of Clun and reveals a forbidden love that can only result in suffering and death.

Favourite Quote

Although he could not help looking clownish – a little round man with his head wrapped in linen who could barely keep his place upon his mule – any fool was dangerous with a sword.

Review

This is the first book I have read in the Stephen Attebrook Mysteries and I loved it.  I have added the other books to my TBR list, but this novel works well as a standalone.  The author provides enough information on what has gone before to ensure the reader can, not only keep up with the storyline, but enjoy it also without feeling like they needed to have read the first two books before this one.

Stephen Attebrook is an interesting character.  I like his fairly abrasive personality and the antagonistic camaraderie he shared with Gilbert Wistwode,a clerk also in the employ of Sir Geoffrey Randall.

I thought the story was a little slow to get going at first, but a couple of chapters in and the pace and the drama suddenly picked up.  What followed was an entertaining, gripping read, that I struggled to put down.  The historical detail was fascinating, with sufficient depth to bring the time and place to life.  The only thing I didn’t like was that I felt the ending was too abrupt.

I am eager to read more of this series, and would recommend this books to anyone who has an interest in the Marches during the medieval period and to those who enjoy historical fiction in general.

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