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.