Saturday, 21 October 2017

Review: Complete Works of Tacitus

The edition I got is by The Modern Library, 1942.

The vast majority of the book is the Annals (which covers almost all of the reigns of Tiberius, Claudius and Nero) and the History (which covers 69-70AD, a very tumultuous time). At the back there are shorter sections, namely a biography of Gnaeus Julius Agricola (Tacitus’ father-in-law), a summary of Germanic tribes, and a discussion about oratory.

This is my second reading of the book. I was a little less than enthused by the first. I didn’t dislike it, just felt a bit apathetic.

Upon a second reading, I did enjoy it. That’s not to say it rivals my favourites. Tacitus, a little like Thucydides, is unafraid of an eight clause sentence and sometimes this can lead to the meaning being difficult to grasp at first glance. However, he does his best to be objective, sometimes relating two varying accounts of the same event when he’s heard both and doesn’t know which to be true. The author also often indicates what he believes and if he has a firm reason for believing a certain account to be true.

The period of which Tacitus writes is almost entirely one of bad emperors. The exceptions would be the misled and personally naive Claudius, and Vespasian, whose rise to power came amid much bloodshed in the Year of the Four Emperors (69AD). Accordingly, the Complete Works is brimming with tyranny, treachery and civil war.

It’s also very interesting for watching how the remaining vestiges of republican authority (Tiberius being only the second emperor, after Augustus) faded. Amidst the dark days there are also examples of nobility (one man accused by Tiberius of being a friend of a fallen associate of the emperor replied that he could hardly be expected to be a better judge of character than the emperor himself, an unusual stroke of boldness that saw him go unpunished, a rarity for the time).

The period covered is similar to much of Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars, but is written in greater depth, and with more accuracy. A broadsheet to the Suetonian tabloid, if you like. Sadly, time has robbed us of certain portions (such as the final years of Nero’s reign) but it is mostly intact.

The Agricola biography is perhaps rather less objective, but nevertheless of interest as it covers campaigning in Britain. I enjoyed the discussion of Germanic tribes, particularly the praise Tacitus had for their monogamy. The final section, on oratory, was my least favourite, it must be said.

For early imperial Rome, this is a good set of works, particularly for the Year of the Four Emperors which is covered in some detail. Perhaps not the best book for an introduction to classical history, but for those who have read a bit already, it’s a worthwhile addition.


Friday, 13 October 2017

Medieval Taxation

Death and taxes are life’s only certainties.

In the UK today there are many taxes, but the big three are income tax, VAT (a sales tax that is widely but not universally applied), and National Insurance (effectively extra income tax, but I think pensioners don’t pay it).

None of these existed in the medieval world. Income tax was only brought in by Pitt the Younger as a temporary measure (ahem) to ensure we had sufficient funds to fight Napoleon.

How did medieval monarchs get the money necessary just to fund the day-to-day expenses of the state, as well as the huge sums essential for castle-building, going on crusade or that age old expense of war with France?

The king was the greatest landowner in the country, which meant he had, on a personal level, a vast income from rents and the like. However, this was not enough to cover significant expenditure. There were a range of smaller taxes and tolls (not all going to him directly) which I’ll mention below, but the quickest way to raise cash was a general levy on wealth.

This might be levied at a rate of a tenth of a man’s total assets. So, if you had £100 of goods, it’d be £10. Needless to say, this was not a popular thing. In fact, it could often be very, very difficult to get such a levy approved by the nobility and clergy (the degree to which their consent was legally required varied over the medieval period, but given how many rebellions there were it was never a good thing to repeatedly piss off your own nobles).

One of the reasons King John was and is so reviled is the amount he taxed. John, when not starving prisoners to death, was a devious taxman and worked out he could make a lot of cash without needing to curry favour with the nobility simply by hiking the fines for various transgressions. He did this to punitive levels, and mulcted huge sums from his people. He got a lot of money, and resentment, this way.

Edward I, the grandson of John, had a rather clever idea which worked very well for a number of years. The big export of England was wool, and Edward arranged for the customs to be handled by Italian bankers who, in return, ensured the king always had access to credit. It was mutually beneficial, as the bankers got steady income from a guaranteed source and the king could get ready cash very quickly whenever he needed it (until the bankers over-stretched themselves elsewhere and the arrangement collapsed, but that was hardly Edward’s fault).

Knighthood could be a punishment. This sounds odd, but knights were sometimes defined by wealth (an order might go out commanding every man worth £40 or more to turn up at a given time and place to be knighted). As knights, they’d be expected to fight for the king when required, for a certain length of time, and perhaps furnish a few soldiers themselves. Needless to say, many men were not taken with this idea. Scutage was a way around this problem. From the Latin ‘scutum’ (shield), the term means cash given in lieu of fighting, enabling the king to hire mercenaries and enabling the reluctant knight to avoid going to war. Once again, John got quite a lot of money this way (and yet more resentment).

There were also a number of tolls applied to pay for various things. Pontage was a toll for the repair and maintenance of bridges, stallage was a toll for stallholders in the market, pavage for roads, murage for walls and wharfage for, er, wharves.

It’s interesting that the medieval form of taxes focused on assets and specific actions. There was no attempt to tax income, and it’d be hundreds of years before income tax, now the mainstay of the tax system, came into being. The overall tax burden on people was generally low, but their overall prosperity also wasn’t great, healthcare was often actively harmful, and a bad harvest would see thousands die.

Of the two certainties, taxes were lower than today, but death was eminently more commonplace.


Friday, 6 October 2017

Common historical mistakes in TV and film

I’m not picking out specific films, just commenting on some historical inaccuracies which are common. Some have a film-making excuse (such as the lighting one), others are just plain wrong.

I’ve never used a bow, but I know that the war bows used (most famously by the English at Agincourt) in the medieval period were immensely powerful. So powerful, in fact, that a huge amount of training was necessary not merely for the skill aspect, but to have the physical strength necessary to draw one back. If an average modern man tried it, their skeleton would give way before the bow did.

Even if you were very strong, you would draw back and either loose immediately (for a high arc, aiming for a mass of men type shot) or pause very briefly to target a specific individual. You most certainly would not hold it whilst your buffoon of a commanding officer had hundreds of archers in agonising exertion because he decided to leave a huge gap between the words ‘draw’ and ‘fire’ [more on that below]. It’d be physically impossible, as well as immensely stupid.

Whilst we’re on bows, they aren’t ‘fired’. They aren’t firearms, there is literally no fire involved (unlike guns). They’re loosed or shot. This is a pet hate of mine (although it’s very easy to do it by accident, so it’s a bit more forgiveable than the idiotic idea of having men’s shoulders torn apart by needlessly holding back a fully drawn bow for half a minute).

Scots and woad do not mix. Woad was applied by Picts (the word is from the Roman name for them, the same root as the word ‘picture’, because the Picts were painted). The Scotti were a Hibernian (Irish) tribe that migrated to Caledonia, killing and conquering the Picts. As an aside, woad was antiseptic, and may’ve helped slightly with preventing wounds becoming infected.

An understandable inaccuracy relates to plate armour. Plate armour (beneath which would be mail and a quilted jacket that was, by itself, strong enough to sometimes prevent an arrow piercing the body) was bloody fantastic. Medieval knights shifted from the sword and shield to the two-handed sword because the armour was so good a shield was pretty much superfluous. Curved metal plates with mail and gambeson underneath rendered a knight almost impervious to attack (the longbow was something of an exception to this, and one reason French knights detested English archers). At Agincourt, an awful lot of French knights either drowned in mud or were stabbed in the skull (either through eye holes in helmets, or after having their helmets wrenched off). Getting through plate is a devil of a job. Something like a crow’s beak works relatively well but in a duel a sword would outclass such a top-heavy weapon.

However, in films you do have to kill and wound characters. Having everyone wander about in surprising safety would rather kill dramatic tension, so this is the most understandable inaccuracy. That said, stabbing’s the way to go if you want to knock off a knight in armour. Slash at him with a sword and you may annoy him by scratching his favourite breastplate, but bruised pride is about as far as the wound will go.

Battles often degenerate into mêlées, but this was generally not accurate. Whilst the medieval period didn’t quite have the strategy of the Greek and Roman world, tactics and battlefield deployments were not haphazard, nor did warfare regress to pre-Roman Celtic mayhem. Being together in a unit is advantageous. If you’re spearmen, you get a bristling hedge of steel to face the enemy, and a shield wall to confront their attack. If you’re archers, you get a cloud of arrows which is rather harder to avoid than just the one. Not only that, foot soldiers who are spread out are a horseman’s dream to destroy. In formation, foot soldiers can fend off cavalry with relative ease. Routed, infantry are target practice for horsemen.

There are also a number of little everyday inaccuracies, some of which are understandable, others of which are odd. Maps were pretty uncommon (there are some famous examples, such as the old mappa mundi, but these were exceptions rather than the rule). They can be useful for storytelling purposes, but mostly they weren’t needed. A man from a village would know the way to the nearest town. If he needed to go on from then, he’d ask for directions. The absence of maps and understanding of geography beyond the immediate vicinity did have occasional perverse consequences, such as the horde of peasants that followed the First Crusade asking if they were nearly at Jerusalem after a few days of walking (they weren’t).

Clothes were not bland. They were often bright colours, sometimes of differing hues. Mud-stained peasant brown was not the extent of the 14th century colour chart for poor people. (Some believe Robin Hood was actually invented by dyers to advertise their wares).

Cartwheels have spokes. This is not high technology, it’s common sense. A solid wheel weighs a lot more, creating more work for your donkey and increasing the risk of the cart sinking into mud.

Thatch has to be thick. Several feet, at least. You can’t have a few layers of straw and call that thatch because it won’t actually work.

In the modern world, we’re used to constant and widespread light. But that just didn’t happen in the medieval world. Yes, there were light sources, including the hearth, candles, lamps and torches. But these things aren’t free. The hearth devours wood, candles cost money, lamp oil is expensive (which reminds me, boiling oil wasn’t used by those defending sieges so much as boiling water or sand [much cheaper]) and torches only last thirty minutes or so.

When an explorer enters an ancient ruin and torches are burning, or a medieval clerk has eight damned candles burning on his desk or scattered about for a visually pleasing shot, it’s just plain wrong. There’s often excessive lighting in films (in modern day settings, there are sometimes half a dozen lamps in a room, or more) but it makes no sense at all in a medieval setting.


Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Proofreading and formatting services

Bit of a break from my usual reviews and historical rambles to bring you some more serious business.

Having proofed and formatted numerous solo works, from short stories to full-blown novels, I’m now offering proofreading and formatting to others, on a professional basis.

Full information can be found at my new website:

Both services are intended for text that is complete from an editorial/creative perspective, and requires only the final (if time-consuming) touches of a proofread and formatting. Proofreading will be a line-by-line reading to find and correct/delete spelling and grammatical errors, whilst formatting gets text into a form that can be submitted to an electronic or hard copy self-publishing service.

Prices will vary somewhat according to word count, error frequency, and whether there’s anything finickity, but a rough guideline (not including discounts) would be £50-60 for e-book formatting and around £200-240 for proofreading.

A range of discounts are available, the best being 30% off for a limited time, to help encourage new clients. (Discounts are also available for returning clients and for those commissioning both services at once).

If you’ve got a finished story on your hands but would prefer someone else spend hours doing the donkey work, give me a bell at and we’ll discuss getting it into shape for submission.


Friday, 29 September 2017

Marcus Aurelius and Henry II: a comparison of incompetence

Two historical chaps seem to get a lot more praise than I think they deserve. To balance that, in a small measure, I wrote this about Marcus Aurelius and Henry II.

Marcus Aurelius was the last emperor of the Golden Age of Imperial Rome, and was succeeded by his son (possibly) Commodus. Both men will be relatively well-known as they feature in the entertaining film Gladiator. Marcus Aurelius also left a lasting impression on the Romans as a great emperor and a virtuous man.

However, he is dramatically overrated. Imperial Rome’s Golden Age happened because each emperor nominated an adopted, rather than actual, son to succeed him (or sons, Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius both succeeded Antoninus Pius). Marcus Aurelius chose otherwise, although there is doubt over whether Commodus was his son (possible this was fuelled by the latter’s horrendousness which made others want to disassociate the pair). Regardless, Marcus Aurelius, lauded as wise, left the empire in the hands of a murderous, bloodthirsty, incestuous mad bastard.

This did not have a positive impact on the Roman Empire.

Under the emperors from Nerva to Marcus Aurelius, men of high status and talent benefited. Emperors were unafraid of rivals and could promote the best men to the highest ranks, and such men were unafraid of tyranny or jealousy, and could make fortunes and achieve success without fearing their imminent execution. It was a great virtuous circle.

Commodus rather ruined this by his bad habit of killing those at the top. This meant that skilled men were lost and those who might have succeeded to their posts were reluctant to do so for fear of the same happening to them.

When Commodus was brought down, Pertinax succeeded him but was almost immediately murdered for trying to rein in the Praetorian Guard (despite the term being used today for politically loyal diehards, the Guard probably killed more emperors than it saved). Didius Julianus won the auction for the purple, only to be crushed by the ruthless Septimius Severus.

Severus, whilst not renowned as a bastion of morality, did restore some measure of stability after winning the civil war. But his eldest son was as bad as Commodus (Antoninus Caracalla, who discovered that repeatedly threatening to murder your own bodyguard and then unjustly killing his brother does not enhance one’s life expectancy). With the sad exception of Alexander Severus, the Empire underwent great tumult in the Crisis of the Third Century and never again [in the West] had the prosperity, stability, and power it had enjoyed in the Golden Age.

In short, Marcus Aurelius buggered it up by nominating as his successor a lunatic.

Henry II was an imperious king who ruled over England and substantial territories in what is today France. He also had the short-termist constitutional delinquency Blair had in meddling with lopsided devolution (which went from killing Scottish nationalism stone dead to an independence referendum in a couple of decades), and was thoroughly inept at running his own family.

Henry had two problems. He was a poor father and he had a weird feudal relationship with the king of France. Henry was king of England, but also held territories such as Normandy and Aquitaine. Problem was this meant he was, as lord of some of his territories, a tenant-in-chief who owed fealty to the king of France (in the same way the Earl of Norfolk owed fealty to the king of England).

This was a bugger’s muddle and no mistake, because if France and England went to war (which did, very occasionally, happen) the king of France could theoretically call on the king of England to serve him in the war against the king of England.

At the same time, the king of England was the full equal of the king of France, as sovereign of a kingdom.

Henry II fudged this in a masterstroke of ill-conceived ambiguity of which the EU would be proud. He swore fealty in vague terms only for the French lands, and parcelled the continental territories off to his sons (his eldest, also called Henry, got Normandy, Richard got Aquitaine, Geoffrey got Brittany, and John got nothing which earnt him the nickname Lackland. He later was so fearsome in war he got a second nickname: Softsword, possibly making him the only king in English history to have two epithets, both of which were mocking).

However, this is where the first problem, of weak fatherhood, comes in. All his sons were ambitious and he was neither able/willing to promise them what was their due, nor was he powerful enough to overwhelm them into submission. After Young King Henry (his son, who was given the title but not the authority of a king during the reign of Henry II) died, Richard, then eldest, wanted to be named heir.

You would’ve thought an eldest son in a feudal society being named heir would be straightforward. But Henry II refused. Ultimately, Richard did inherit (he became the Lionheart) but not before the brothers united to fight against their father. Philip Augustus, the wily French king, played this sort of game very well, exploiting familial rivalry to weaken Henry II and siding with the rebellious sons (this was repeated when Richard was away on Crusade/captured and John rebelled).

Henry II died relatively young, worn out by stress and exhaustion, most of it brought on himself. Richard inherited anyway, but the prime beneficiary of Henry’s foolishness was the French king. John later lost practically all the continental possessions (it turns out the nobles were unwilling to fight for a king whose prime achievements were extortion and cruelty).

By different turns, Marcus Aurelius and Henry II caused serious damage to their realms through failure of succession. Marcus Aurelius conferred the purple on a murderous maniac, and Henry II needlessly prevaricated with the simplest of acknowledgements, causing unnecessary war. Both in their power could have easily averted these crises, the former by sticking to the adoptive principle, the latter by taking the obvious step of naming his eldest son as his heir.

This does, however, highlight an important point. The family dramas of clashing personalities which can make a home fraught are not limited to those of humble station, and, in a time when monarchs exercised true power, these things could and did cause war within and between nations.


Friday, 22 September 2017

Sir Edric’s Kingdom – out now!

In excellent news, new fantasy-comedy Sir Edric’s Kingdom came out today, available both in electronic and paperback editions. It's a rollicking fantasy adventure for everyone, as cunningly explained below:

Progressive – marvel at the inclusivity of a book that contains multi-racial main characters, alternative sexual preferences (BDSM and gay), and repeatedly mocks the ridiculousness of inherited wealth and power, whilst the peasant sidekick outshines the noble protagonist at every turn.

Traditionalist – be enthralled by the witty escapades of a man unencumbered by nappy-wearing liberal guilt as he only takes a break from drinking for adultery and invasions. Enjoy the ride as the most cunning and most heroic men in fiction thwart conspiracy and regicide at every turn.

Trumptonian – I’ve written a book, people. So big, so many words, and I have the best words. Nobody words better than me. It’s true, folks, totally true. You’ll laugh so much you’ll grow tired of laughing. I’ve written a book, and the readers are gonna pay for it, and together we can make comedy great again.

Clintonite – you know what I call people who buy my book? My basket of adorables.

People who don’t care about the politics – the world’s a gloomy place nowadays. Cheer yourself up with some satirical British comedy.

Even better, the e-book version is just 99p until the 29th.


Friday, 15 September 2017

Review: Spies, Sadists and Sorcerers, by Dominic Selwood

Almost the moment I finished The Wonder Book of Aircraft and was contemplating which book to read next, Spies, Sadists and Sorcerers was delivered.

It’s a collection of little chapters (some only a few pages but most a bit longer) focusing on individuals or events through history which are either little-known, or well-known but the author believes a contrary view to that of the general perception.

Took me a little while to get the angle, which is of provocative polemic. On that score, the book works very well as it’s never dull. Some chapters I strongly agreed with (the Elgin Marbles), and some I strongly disagreed with (Richard the Lionheart). I read the book much more rapidly than I anticipated, testament to the writing quality, but also disagreed quite strongly with certain aspects.

To take the Lionheart example, he’s largely condemned (with lip service to positives) and the reverse approach taken with Saladin. Both were men of their time. Richard spent most of his time warring in France, for which he was criticised, because we were at war with France. The only reason John didn’t spend more time there was because he couldn’t persuade the English to follow him very often. Likewise, Richard did kill 3,000 or so prisoners at Acre. But that does neglect the context of Saladin stringing out negotiations so Richard would struggle with food, water and guarding so many men. Not to mention Saladin killing Templar prisoners was mentioned but not that Saladin had only received their surrender after promising not to kill them. I’m not condemning Saladin for that, merely pointing out 12th century warfare wasn’t renowned for its loveliness, and mostly criticising Richard whilst praising Saladin is not consistent.

There was also a factual error in the statement Arthur of Brittany was 12 at the time of his murder, whereas he was 15 or 16.

Similarly, the Magna Carta section, whilst accurately stating the barons’ interests were first and foremost, does neglect some important provisions that applied to everyone. Clause 40, for example, reads “To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice.” [From the version at the back of Marc Morris’ biography of King John].

Likewise, the religious persecution/executions under Henry VIII and Elizabeth I are laboured at length, yet the comparable acts of Mary are glossed over quickly.

However, I did find some of the chapters very interesting, particularly around the World Wars (not an era with which I’m overly familiar).

I think it’s the first history of this nature I’ve read, but I did enjoy it quite a lot. Some chapters were interesting and new, and I must admit to rather liking argument over history (would you believe some jesters insist Julius Caesar was a better general than Hannibal Barca?) so I didn’t mind disagreeing with the author’s perspective. There does seem to have been finger trouble here and there, not only with Arthur of Brittany’s age but also that of Ada Lovelace (it confused me at first because the dates given indicated she was 67 at her death, but it’s actually 37).

Assessing this is quite difficult, and makes me glad I don’t habitually score/rate the books I review here. I found it interesting throughout and read it far faster than I expected, given my limited reading time. On the other hand, the more I knew of a period of history the likelier I was to disagree with the author.

It’s definitely interesting and provocative.

For those after books related to the sections I’ve highlighted, I’ve reviewed the following:


Saturday, 9 September 2017

Spotlight: More Than Human Boxset

A promotion of The More than Human Bundle, a collection of 11 fantasy books for under a fiver.

To save. To guard. To heal.

Beloved people, precious things, and sacred spaces move our hearts and inspire us to defend them.
In these tales of redemption and rescue, more-than-human heroes stand forth as champions to protect all that is worthy of protection.

Walk with these elves, imps, wizards, dryads, gods, and guardians as they subdue demons, free the enslaved, preserve the world, comfort the exiled, and cross swords with the dark. Read and revel in their triumphs and tribulations.

The Shining Citadel – A. L. Butcher
Technological Angel – Barbara G. Tarn
Needle-Green – Debbie Mumford
The Cartographer's Daughter – Karen L. Abrahamson
Serpent’s Foe – J.M. Ney-Grimm
The Crystal Courtesan – Karen L. Abrahamson
The First Book of Old Mermaids Tales – Kim Antieau
The Guardians - Book 1 – Don Viecelli
Love Apidae (A Recumon Story) – Michael R. E. Adams
The Flat Above the Wynd – Alexandra Brandt
The Kitchen Imps and Other Dark Tales – A. L. Butcher

It’s an 11 book boxset for £4.49, which equates to just over 40p per book (over 2,000 pages print length). Not too shabby.


Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Pillars of Eternity (PS4): First Impressions

This game first came out a while ago for the PC, and I’ve got to admit my gast was flabbered when I saw it had a console release, as it seemed the most PCish of games. I’ve been playing it for a few days, and here are my early impressions.

Character Creation

Although the system’s completely different, the vast array of customisation available reminds me a bit of Dragon’s Dogma. But whereas Dragon’s Dogma focused on physical changes (although some did have gameplay aspects), Pillars of Eternity’s customisation is almost all about the gameplay impact and personal backstory. You have both genders, six races (human, elf, dwarf and original races aumaua, orlan and godlike), and thirteen classes. Each race have different bonuses or special abilities, and each class has different starting attributes (hitpoints, here called endurance, and so on). After this you pick a background and culture, then fiddle with your stats (these are modified somewhat by your race, class, background and culture).

A nice part of the voice options is that you’ve got about eight or so for each gender, but can go for no voice, or one from the opposite gender (this isn’t critical as this seems to take the Dragon Age: Origins approach of having grunts and exclamations but no actual dialogue beyond the odd battle cry). You can also alter your two armour colours (currently, my chanter Pengel has opted for green, which makes his cloak look rather snazzy). The physical appearance, including armour colours, can be altered in-game at any time, right from the start.


After creating your player-character, you’re thrust into the first scene, which introduces some gameplay mechanics in a smooth way and explains a bit about the world. As you might expect, disaster strikes, and then …

It’s a lore-rich original world. I’ve got to say that whilst I personally love lore, for some people it may be a bit text-heavy early on.

One thing I really like is that quest lines do have genuine choice. As is usual for a first playthrough, Pengel the Chanter is a heroic and noble sort, so I’m being very good. But there have been options to be much less good. You’re not shoe-horned into being heroic, so if you want to be selfish and a bit of a git, that’s eminently possible.


Having the swift reflexes of a jam sandwich, I was somewhat wary of the real time strategy in combat. That, as well as the suggestion at the start, had me begin on the default setting of Easy.

So far, it’s living up to its name, but it’s clear to see how certain tactics are helpful and would be critical at higher difficulty. The real time combat can be easily paused/resumed at the click of a button and has a nice pace.

I’ve not had to pause too much but I suspect that’s just because I’m playing on Easy.

Combat tip: intellect increases the area of effect (AoE) for spells etc. The base area is shown in a different shade to the expanded circle. However, negative effects only affect allies within the base circle, not the expanded one.

A nice little feature is that jewels and plants (ingredients) are stored collectively but don’t consume any inventory space, preventing frustration when trying to create something [not tried this yet] and avoiding the ridiculous inventory slot dilemma of taking a broadsword or a rare flower. Because you only have room for one.

You get penalties when you go without rest for a long time (as well as time on-screen, it takes X hours to travel between locations). These fatigue penalties are easily remedied, either by camping (you need camping gear for this, which is consumed upon rest) or staying at an inn. The latter can cost cash but also confers a bonus for the whole party which can last a pretty long time.

The stronghold, acquired quite early on, seems to work well although I’ve not developed it enough to say a lot. Essentially, it’s a ruin you renovate and rebuild to grant yourself bonuses. From what I gather it’s completely optional and you can leave it as a heap of broken stone if you like, but I quite enjoy having my own fort and it doesn’t seem especially expensive.

A nice touch is that class, race, and skills can be checked in conversations, so if your character knows a lot of Lore, for example, they might have extra dialogue options available.


The graphics won’t be troubling The Witcher 3 anytime soon, although it’s worth noting the game didn’t make my fat PS4 scream like a jet engine either, so maybe that’s a good thing. They’ve got old school charm in the world, and I like the fitting menus which look like ye olde parchment (the bestiary even has rather cool drawings).


I love the music. It’s evocative of Lord of the Rings, Final Fantasy and The Witcher 3, and is a great addition both to the world and during the parchment scenes. These are not-cutscenes which have text descriptions beside drawings on parchment. It sounds a bit rubbish but actually works well, possibly even better than showing the scenes in-game would because of the isometric approach.

Sound effects and voices are generally good although there are jarring moments in long conversations where 90% of lines might be spoken and a few are just text.

Bugs and other issues

Load screens are frequent (think Skyrim) and whilst they’re not so bad crossing from one area to another it’s mildly irksome waiting a while for the upper floor of a house to load.

Stealth appears less useful than it could be because it’s a party-wide on/off toggle rather than being specific to a sneaky character in combat.

Longevity and Replayability

Difficult to comment on length, was a bit surprised to finish the first act as quickly as I did. However, the wide variety of character creation, difficulty and quest options does make me confident I’ll play a second time, and perhaps a third.


Sunday, 3 September 2017

Sir Edric’s Kingdom – out 22 September

Sir Edric Greenlock, the Hero of Hornska, returns in new fantasy novel Sir Edric’s Kingdom.

When King Lawrence is poisoned and consigned to his sickbed, the eponymous knight is surprised to find himself appointed lord steward. But he soon discovers the throne is the most uncomfortable seat in the kingdom, as he struggles to fend off assassins and invasions, all whilst juggling the claims of rivals competing to be named Lawrence’s heir.

Aided by his trusty manservant Dog, Orff No-Balsac the man-eating slaver, his feisty paramour Corkwell, and the elven enchantress Lysandra, Sir Edric will find himself in a battle to keep the kingdom, and himself, in one piece.

For the pre-order period and first week of release, Sir Edric’s Kingdom will be at the criminally low price of $0.99, so snap it up pronto. Or wait, and give me some more money. Either’s fine, really.

I have also helpfully compiled an explanation for why this delightful fantasy-comedy is the perfect book for everyone:

Progressive – marvel at the inclusivity of a book that contains multi-racial main characters, alternative sexual preferences (BDSM and gay), and repeatedly mocks the ridiculousness of inherited wealth and power, whilst the peasant sidekick outshines the noble protagonist at every turn.

Traditionalist – be enthralled by the witty escapades of a man unencumbered by nappy-wearing liberal guilt as he only takes a break from drinking for adultery and invasions. Enjoy the ride as the most cunning and most heroic men in fiction thwart conspiracy and regicide at every turn.

Trumptonian – I’ve written a book, people. So big, so many words, and I have the best words. Nobody words better than me. It’s true, folks, totally true. You’ll laugh so much you’ll grow tired of laughing. I’ve written a book, and the readers are gonna pay for it, and together we can make comedy great again.

Clintonite – you know what I call people who buy my book? My basket of adorables.

People who don’t care about the politics – the world’s a gloomy place nowadays. Cheer yourself up with some satirical British comedy.


Friday, 1 September 2017

Review: The Emperor’s Edge by Lindsay Buroker

To find new writers, I decided to cunningly download several free books by people whose books had been downloaded by readers who also had a look the first episode of Wandering Phoenix and Roaming Tiger. One of these was The Emperor’s Edge, by Lindsay Buroker.

It’s a steampunk novel, the first in a series. Steampunk isn’t my usual fare but I’m not averse so I thought I’d give it a crack.

Having recently finished, I’m glad I did. The characters are engaging, the plot well-paced, and the writing style as relaxing as listening to Beethoven in the bath.

The protagonist is Amaranthe Lokdon, one of few female enforcers (policemen) in the Turgonian capital, nicknamed Stumps. When the notorious assassin Sicarius* returns to the capital, Amaranthe is a bit perturbed to find herself tasked with bringing him down. But all is not as it seems…

The other, secondary, POV character is the youthful and academically minded emperor, Sespian. At odds with his militant commander (and regent in all but name) Hollowcrest, Sespian struggles to steer the empire away from a military mindset and towards a more peaceful, scholarly path. Naturally, this sets him on a collision course with Hollowcrest.

The meat of the story is Amaranthe’s efforts, together with a small band of rogues, to uncover conspiracy at the heart of the empire and keep Sespian safe. One thing I enjoyed a lot was the characterisation. The cast’s fairly small which gives each character space to develop a little, which works very well as the author has done a very good job making the dialogue and character interactions feel realistic. In short, they have charm and that, mingled with the easy writing style, makes the book effortlessly enjoyable to read.

I’ve taken to reading a physical book during the day and a chapter or two of an e-book at night and, even when I was feeling slightly tired or cantankerous, The Emperor’s Edge always had me immersed.

Annoyingly, I have a brilliant one line description for the conclusion, but it’s necessarily spoilerific, so I’ll use it if/when (probably when) I buy the sequel.

Downsides? It’s a little lighter than my usual fare, which is fine except that sometimes bloody doings seem a little lacking in emotional impact.


*This probably won’t be interesting to most people, but I was intrigued that his name seems derived from the same root (dagger) as the Sicarii, a violent sect of Jewish religious extremists in the 1st century AD, who clashed with the Zealots during The Jewish War.

Monday, 28 August 2017

Fallout 4 – Diary of a Deceiver, Part 2

The first part of Pang Li’s cynical adventures in post-apocalypse America can be found here. And now, the adventure continues:

Date: 2287 October 24th [Afternoon]

I’ve found an intelligent and helpful friend. Admittedly, he’s an Alsatian, but it’s still a nice surprise.

After shooting a few ruffians with a gas mask fetish, I encountered some people who aren’t violent thugs. Problem is, they’re a junkie, a loser, a bitch and a hick, led by some sort of weird LARP enthusiast. He’s called Preston Garvey, and has a laser-powered musket, for pity’s sake. And you know what they called the Alsatian? Dogmeat.


Might as well have called him Hors d’Oeuvres.

And just compare the LARPers to Dogmeat’s attitude. He came out of nowhere and we worked together. Gravyboat and his chums (five of them, total) were hiding in a room whilst me and the Dogmeister took out every one of the thuggish gang attacking them. No wonder people say dogs are man’s best friend. At least that hasn’t changed.

That said, they did have some useful information. Seems there is a city built around the old football stadium. It’s got to have someone who has basic technological expertise. That’s the good news. The bad news is the quintet of fools have decided they want to make their new home at Sanctuary Hills. As long as they don’t bother me, I’m sure I’ll be able to tolerate them. Besides, having someone armed and on patrol whilst I’m gone might be useful.

Late addition: Preston’s quite an attractive man, but if he tries telling me about a settlement in trouble one more time I’m going to introduce his nuts to my baseball bat.

Date: 2287 October 25th

I was heading south to Diamond City when I caught some radio chatter (and not the whiny weasel on Diamond City Radio). It was a cry for help from some militant group holed up in a police station. Got there in time to save a librarian, an invalid, and a tin hat uniform called Danse. They were being attacked by the irradiated, degraded, mindless residents of Boston (now referred to as ‘ghouls’).

Danse wouldn’t give me any info on his group, but I, and my charming bathrobe ensemble, did manage to persuade him to hire me. It’s perfect. The mission is retrieving some hi-tech gear to boost their radio. With any luck, I’ll be able to use that to contact Beijing directly. If not, I’ll see if I can get in touch with whatever’s left of Chinese intelligence over here.

Found some good supplies in the police station. Might use the handcuffs on Preston if he keeps blathering about settlements (he says he can’t help them because his ‘hands are full’ in Sanctuary, but all he ever does is walk up and down the street, whistling. In the old world, he would’ve been a standard issue desk jockey, handing out orders and doing nothing himself). Also found a holotape diary from the librarian. The group’s called the Brotherhood of Steel. Sound very aggressive, an army focused on guns with a serious lack of interest in intelligence. Weird that there’s no mention of the US Government. Does it even exist? Was our victory absolute? Anyway, the Brotherhood’s lax with cybersecurity, not even a password on their computer. They’re a long range recon team. Danse seems skilled at getting his soldiers killed. Good to learn right before we head out together.

I think Danse might be a shade socialist. We arrived at ArcJet Systems and he started ranting about corporations and technology being abused. Maybe this Brotherhood is more compatible with Chinese than American thinking. He also mentioned something called the Institute, descendants of scientists. If this transmitter doesn’t come off, they sound like a good lead.

Got attacked by androids called synths. I think Danse’s balls are bigger than his brain. I fired up a rocket engine to incinerate them (he survived, although, to be frank, that wasn’t really a factor in my decision) and he congratulated me on the tactic, despite almost cooking him alive. Unsure if he’s dumb as a post or hard as nails. Either way, he invited me to join his merry band of militants. I said I was unsure. Don’t want to get tied down, for all I know the Brotherhood’s got more enemies than friends.

That’s the good news. The bad is that the transmitter was too weak to contact Beijing, and nobody responded to my old call-signs to local intelligence HQ. I’ll have to look elsewhere, and the only place to go is Diamond City.


Friday, 25 August 2017

Review: The Wonder Book of Aircraft

The Wonder Book of Aircraft is one of several older books that have been piled up, awaiting attention for some time. It was written in 1919, just over a decade and a half after the first powered flight, and a year after World War One came to an end.

It’s a book for children but easily the most adult (purely in the sense of maturity) children’s book I’ve ever read.

The writing style is completely grown-up, to the extent that if it hadn’t been specifically indicated as written for children I would never have guessed. It is also very of its time, both in assumed knowledge (parabola – a word every schoolboy knows) and general sentiment (there’s a picture of a German airship going down in flames with the caption “Just retribution”).

Mostly, this is rather engaging. It’s a charming, confident book filled with fairly simple but useful explanations of flight (there’s a strong leaning towards war machines which is natural given it came out right after the Great War), optimistic predictions for the future, the basics of aerodynamics, and a few daring stories of heroic deeds (some real, a few fiction stories). Also covered is a brief look at the history of attempted flight, airships, balloons, and how to make your own model planes.

The only bit that took me aback was the single instance, used in a story, of a term that today would definitely not be included in a children’s book (a six letter racial epithet).

The book is festooned with photographs, many from the air, and illustrations. Although the quality is naturally far less than that of cameras we have today, some photographs are nevertheless fantastic (I particularly enjoyed one showing a giant airship’s shadow alongside a steam engine). Whilst most images are of planes there are plenty of airships and balloons, as well as some other subjects (such as anti-aircraft guns).

Regular readers will be aware that this is not my usual sort of book, but I did find it fascinating nevertheless. With the exception of the model plane instruction (not my area at all) and the ‘old-fashioned’ language used on one occasion, it was thoroughly engaging and intelligently written. I tend not to write of F1 here, but the part on aerodynamics neatly applies (upside down, of course) to that motorsport, which was a nice bonus.

My own copy (a Christmas present to Ernest Wright in 1919 according to the handwritten note at the front) is in slightly tatty repair, but that didn’t stop me enjoying it a lot.


Sunday, 20 August 2017

Fallout 4 – Diary of a Deceiver, Part 1

Note, I’ve deliberately taken some liberties with the storyline, so there will be some spoilers and me making some stuff up. This is a little bit of comedy intended to be read by people who have finished the game (just so they get the references, as well as not suffering spoilers).

This is the first time I’ve written something like this (well, apart from a Metal Gear Solid story I wrote about 15 years ago) so do let me know if you like it and I’ll write more of this and/or other games.

Date: 2077 October 23rd

I’m growing really tired of this suburban hell. Being married to the most stupid man alive doesn’t make it any easier. Nate’s idiocy does mean I’ve gotten away with a few close calls when anyone with half a brain would’ve noticed something amiss (my bosses back in Beijing really did pick out a prize-winning sucker for me), but this latest episode is just something else.

The baby’s black, Nate. And you’re not. Did you think he was born with a suntan?

It’s bloody annoying, but if this jester really is the calibre of a career soldier in the US then at least we’re going to win this war, and probably soon.

HQ sent over a muppet with a clipboard to get me signed into the local vault (a private enterprise shelter in case of nuclear devastation). Seems a little unnecessary, but does help me blend in with the local paranoid bed-wetters.

Halloween’s close. It’s this Western holiday which involves socially-sanctioned vandalism, harassing people in their own home for sweets, and dressing up like fools (or skanks. You wouldn’t believe the kind of thing Nate wanted me to wear). The sooner we crush these capitalist pigdogs the better.

Although I do like their sweet rolls.

Late addition: we’ve nuked most of the US! Got to run to the shelter, but we’ve won!

Late late addition: you know, some warning from Beijing would’ve been nice. I almost got swallowed by a nuclear storm. The shelter seems functional enough, although I think in the confined conditions I may end up murdering Nate. And the social etiquette is really intrusive. I had to strip down to my underwear and put on this blue catsuit in front of some pervy doctor. Just as soon as I’ve gone through decontamination and everything checks out I’m going to lay down the law to him.

Date: 2287 October 23rd

Decontamination was a con. I should’ve known better than to trust a dodgy Western corporation. I got frozen cryogenically. Briefly got thawed out to see some slaphead shoot Nate and steal the kid. When I woke up properly, everybody else was dead. A dozen cryo-chambers and every single one failed except mine (Nate’s seemed to be working but given he had a gaping hole in his skull it didn’t do him much good).

Found myself a new catsuit and a truncheon. Everything’s dead here except for some giant cockroaches. I must have been out for a while. Got hold of a gun and some glasses (I always did my best work as ‘sexy secretary’) and found a handy PipBoy. Time to go home, dig out the transmitter, and get in touch with Beijing.

Late addition: more roaches at home. Codsworth (damned silly name. Serves me right for letting the moron pick it) was the only thing still functioning but I think he’s suffered some sort of corrosion. Gave me a holotape of Nate being soppy.

Oh, and the war ended just over 200 years ago.

Everyone I know is dead. On the other hand, my backpay is going to be billions of yen, so swings and roundabouts.

Date: 2287 October 24th [Morning]

All the houses were absolutely ruined. Took a while, but I managed to salvage enough junk to build a half-decent home, and used my stash of weaponry (still serviceable) to create some machine-gun turrets. That’s the good news. The bad is that my radio transmitter was busted. Seems like vandals broke in, missed the guns but had a shooting match and turned the comms gear into Swiss cheese.

The US is an absolute mess of lawless decadence and social breakdown. And now it’s irradiated too. Still no idea how things are back home. Starting to worry Uncle Sam might have sent a missile or two Beijing’s way. But we’re resilient, I’m sure everything’s ok. That does leave the problem of contact, though. Only option is to wander into this apocalyptic mess and try to find someone who knows one end of a diode from another. What fun.

Oh, and Codsworth kept rambling on about Shaun (that’s the kid). Annoyed me at first, but “I’m looking for my son” is a much better excuse for wandering about than “I’m a Chinese spy. Any idea how to get in touch with Beijing?”, not least because I can’t imagine the locals (if there are any) will be fans of China given we nuked their country back to the Stone Age.

Part 2 is here.


Friday, 18 August 2017

Marching Speeds

A man can walk four miles in an hour relatively easily. And yet, an army of foot soldiers marching (in the ancient world) would cover perhaps six miles in a whole day. Even horsemen would only go twelve.

There are exceptions, but the above are averages taken from Theodore Dodge’s excellent histories (check out his Hannibal, Alexander and Caesar biographies if you haven’t yet).

Why does it take so long to move an army, when a single man with staging posts (for fresh horses) could cover, theoretically at least, well over a hundred miles in a single day? Even a chap out for a walk could easily make 10-20 miles over the course of a day.

Various changeable circumstances can affect how fast an army can move. Weather, terrain, and supplies all have a serious impact (more on those below). But even when it’s nice and warm, the ground’s flat and roads are good, and there’s plenty of food and beer, armies are still, usually, horrendously slow.

Moving one person is easy. They get up on time, and wander off. If they reach a bridge, that’s fine. If they need to climb a little, that’s usually no problem.

An army is different. The whole army can’t set off at once, because a road might only be wide enough for six, or fewer, to march abreast. Even as the vanguard strolls off, most of the rest of the army will be taking down last night’s camp and eating the last of the cheese. The sheer volume of people slows the army’s progress.

The number of men and beasts (not just war horses, but donkeys and oxen and mules to carry supplies or pull wagons) can also ruin roads. What might be a nice journey for the vanguard could be a squelching quagmire for the middle or rearguard. Similarly, if the vanguard reaches difficulties (say a flood washes away the only bridge for miles and it needs repairing) that then slows everyone else as a queue forms.

Narrow passes in mountains or slender footbridges are no problem for one man, but they’re bottlenecks when you’ve got thousands. Not only that, they may well be impassable for wagons and difficult/impossible for horses. A route one man can take is not necessarily a route an army can take.

Then there’s pestilence. Leave aside that a small army of whores will be prising coin from men who could die tomorrow (pox was spread thus although certain diseases were different. Syphilis didn’t exist in medieval England, arriving in the Tudor period and only mutating in Elizabeth I’s reign into the disease it is today). Medieval hygiene could include eating in close proximity to latrines. The camp disease of dysentery would usually break out. Fouled wells or even just drinking uncontaminated water could lead to typhoid. Having so many men together (and a medieval army could outnumber most medieval cities’ populations) in such close proximity massively increased the chances of disease breaking out, and then spreading rapidly. For this reason, armies besieging a castle/city could suffer as much as those trapped on the inside.

Supplies were often problematic. Gathering sufficient before you start depended on a good harvest and organisational abilities. If your adversary knows you’re coming he’ll foul wells and ensure harvested crops are safe inside castle walls so you struggle to feed your army off the land. This means the foraging parties have to roam further afield (and they need protection so you need to send more men), again slowing an army down. One man can swipe a few apples and blackberries, but an army takes a lot of feeding (and the animals need food too).

Weather can have a substantial impact. Ordinary drizzle (almost the default setting of Britain) can soften roads which turn to sludge beneath a thousand marching feet. Heavier rain can destroy roads or bridges, or flood camps and drown people and horses. But hot weather has dangers too. Finding sufficient water becomes even harder, and may slow the pace of men and animals. Even worse, forest fires (as now) can spring up out of nowhere.

Most travelling in the ancient and medieval world, as you’d expect, was by land. However, sea journeys also could be delayed on account of an army. If you don’t have enough ships because they’re delayed due to bad weather or simply take time to arrive, then either you split an army in two and risk it being defeated in detail, or you have to wait. One man needs just one ship.

In books, both historical and fictional, it’s entirely legitimate to have individuals travel a lot faster than armies, for all sorts of reasons (not to mention the possibility of messages being sent by bird).

As an aside, the Persians had an interesting measure called the parasang. Unlike a mile, the parasang was a unit of distance measured not in length but time. One parasang was one day’s march. That’s quite a clever way of doing things, as two roads leading to the same place might have a very large number of miles to the north compared to the south, but if the south road leads through mountains the northern road might still be a quicker route.


PS the next few blogs will likely be book reviews of The Wonder Book of Aircraft, The Emperor’s Edge, and Spies, Sadists and Sorcerers.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Review: King John, by Marc Morris

King John does not have the finest of reputations in English history, but is the opprobrium deserved or unkind?

This biography recounts the life (with a strong focus on adulthood) of perhaps the most persistently disliked of English kings.

The structure for the first 2/3 or so is unorthodox, in that it has alternating timelines, leading up to and after 1203 (the former, of course, comes to an end from which point the later timeline continues until John’s death). Although the cut-off points are chosen well and skilfully lead to some interesting juxtapositions, I probably would’ve preferred a more straightforward single timeline account.

John was one of four sons of Henry II (Henry, Richard and Geoffrey being the others) who embarked upon a great many squabbles, rebellions, and wars with/against Philip Augustus (the king of France, a wily fellow who benefited greatly from Henry II’s rank incompetence when it came to keeping his family singing from the same hymn sheet).

John was an interesting, and wretched, character. I found him despicable in personality, but less incompetent than imagined (indeed, he did have a few strokes of bad luck that substantially altered the course of events. That said, it’s possible to imagine Richard [his elder brother] reversing such misfortunes, and John was never accused of a surfeit of courage). His greatest skills were extortion and low cunning.

But it was this very wretchedness that brought about Magna Carta, which became touchstone against tyranny for centuries to come.

The writing style is easy to read, and there aren’t many difficult terms (where these occur, such as ‘prise’, they’re explained). If you don’t read much history I don’t think you’d have any problems with this as an introduction to 12th/13th century history.

This biography of King John is the second book I’ve read by Marc Morris, (the first, an Edward I biography, is reviewed here).

Those interested in the period may also find Thomas Asbridge’s biography of William Marshal (reviewed here) of interest.


Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Julius Caesar and Genocide

Yes, it’s one of those cheerful blogs.

I was twittering away, conversing with a friend, when I happened to mention Julius Caesar once massacred almost half a million Germanian tribesmen.

And so the idea for this blog was born. Unlike almost every other figure from classical history, people do generally know a bit about Julius Caesar. Some of it is tosh. The ‘veni, vidi, vici’ quote isn’t from when he invaded Britain (and failed), it’s from when he crushed Pharnaces II, the ruler of Pontus. Similarly, he wasn’t born by Caesarian section (we know this because although Romans could practice it, the procedure always killed the mother and we know that Caesar’s mum survived birthing him).

Other bits of common knowledge are true. He did conquer Gaul (mostly. Gallia Narbonensis had been conquered some time earlier). He did cross the Rubicon and cause a cold war to become a hot one. And he was murdered in the Senate by some of his former friends.

Part of this history is written by Caesar himself. The Gallic War entirely, and the first quarter or so of The Civil War (the rest being written by a few contemporary authors). His adopted son, who took the name Augustus, also had reasons to embellish the propaganda around Julius Caesar’s conduct. After all, nobody wants to say their adoptive dad was a lunatic, do they?

But there are certain things about Caesar which are not common knowledge today. In his lifetime he acquired (and detested) the nickname the Queen of Bithynia. This was because he was sent on a diplomatic mission to Bithynia (small kingdom in Asia Minor, if memory serves) and was so fond of the king he stayed on longer than planned.

A loathed nickname being expunged, mostly, from history is understandable when you become dictator for life and your adopted son becomes the first emperor of Rome. There is a more troubling act of Caesar’s that remains obscured from general knowledge, though.

He murdered tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of innocent people.

A Germanian tribe, reportedly 430,000 strong (even allowing for exaggeration, the number will be vast), was negotiating peacefully with the Romans, led by Caesar. Or so they thought. In the middle of negotiation, Caesar had them all slaughtered.

This was not an army, it was a tribe of men, women and children. And he butchered them, citing duplicity on their part as the justification. In his biography (simply entitled Caesar), TA Dodge used the term ‘holocaust’ to describe the act (the history pre-dates WWII by some decades).

This was not the first time such an action was attempted. Decades earlier, the Cimbri (a tribe seeking to settle peacefully on Roman territory if possible, and to migrate west by passing through Roman territory if not) was similarly attacked. Unfortunately for the Romans, who initiated the battle, the Cimbri won. This was repeated, farcically, several times. In one such battle, Arausio, partly due to mutual loathing of Roman leaders Caepio and Maximus, the Romans suffered a defeat to rank alongside Cannae. Eventually the Cimbri were defeated by Marius, Julius Caesar’s uncle.

Roman belligerence towards barbarian tribes, therefore, was nothing new. Indeed, in Rome and Italy (by Livy), there’s an approving passage written of Roman action to kill a huge number of fighting age men of the enemy.

And yet this genocide of Caesar is little known. I do wonder whether, at the time, the reason was very different to that of his nickname becoming little known. It might just be that in the 1st century BC, wiping out a tribe of barbarians was seen as a good thing, but not significant enough to be worth remembering.

It’s tempting to think of the Romans only in terms of civilising influence (roads, rule of law, the Pax Romana, what have the Romans ever done for us? Etc). They weren’t above exterminating tribes of people who wanted peace. But it was deemed ok. Because the hundreds of thousands they murdered were savages.