Sunday, 23 December 2018

Sir Edric and the Festive Discount

Hey, everyone.

It’s that magical time of year when everybody has something to feel happy about. Yes, I’m putting some books on sale.

From 23 December to 6 January, all three of Sir Edric’s published books are reduced to just 99p each.

Amidst the faff and brain-wracking to buy presents for others, you can get yourselves all three excellent comedies for under £3 (less than the usual price of a single volume). Ideal for fans of classic British comedy, with lashings of wit amidst battling monsters and drunken shenanigans.

“Spewed Coffee on the Screen I Laughed so Hard” - Jo Michaels, review of The Adventures of Sir Edric

“...this book is ideal for both fantasy fans and booklovers in general looking who are looking for something different...” - The Tattooed Book Geek, review of The Adventures of Sir Edric

A tiny selection of spoiler-free one-liners:
Very exciting. Not unlike having a scorpion dropped into your trousers.

How are you feeling, sir?”
Depressingly sober. And my leg’s burning like a phoenix with chlamydia.”

I don’t wish to alarm you, sir, but you appear to be dripping amniotic fluid,” Dog said.

You really should buy them. Santa would approve.

The Adventures of Sir Edric

Sir Edric’s Kingdom

Sir Edric and the Plague


Friday, 21 December 2018

TA Frost interview

Today I’m interviewing TA Frost about his forthcoming dark fantasy novel Up To The Throne, which came out on the 18th December.

Q: First things first: is it a stand-alone novel, or the first part in a series?

A: Up To The Throne is a stand-alone novel, but there will be two sequels, which will involve the same characters in further adventures. They'll also introduce the setting: I've got plans for a much longer set of related novels, but that's a very long-term objective at the moment.

Q: What’s the premise of Up To The Throne?

A: Several years ago, a petty criminal was left to die when a crime lord wiped out the stable of thieves of which she was a part. She was little more than a witness to be silenced - but she survived, and has returned to her home city to take her revenge. However, things have changed since she fled, and the man who ordered her death is now a respected member of society, whose killing will leave the city vulnerable to some very bad people indeed. Giulia, our heroine, must decide whether to take her revenge, even if doing so may bring the city down.

Q: Up To The Throne’s protagonist is Giulia Degarno. What can you tell us about her? What’s her background and aspirations?

A: Giulia is something of a renegade: once a pickpocket, she now fits into that grey area between enforcing the law and breaking it - and has considerable experience concerning theft. She's bitter and vengeful, but also intelligent, loyal and very skilled - not the best person in her world, but not the worst by a very long way. A useful person to know, and a bad one to cross!

Q: The blurb describes the story as taking place in a Renaissance city. Is it historical fiction, or a Renaissance-style city in a mythical world?

A: The setting of Up To The Throne is to the Renaissance what a lot of classic fantasy is to Medieval Europe: a magical, slightly condensed version of the present. Giulia's world has a lot of parallels with our own, but with one main difference: magic. Magic not just in terms of wizardry, but in enchantments that enable all sorts of bizarre contraptions to work, and in the magical creatures who occupy a perilous but important position in society.

Q: Again going by the blurb, it sounds strongly Italian (and perhaps Roman) influenced: what sort of technology is used? Do we have gunpowder, or are crossbows de rigueur? Is magic present in this world and, if so, how does it work?

A: We do have gunpowder, although (as with the real world back then) it's imperfect, expensive and not very reliable. There is magic, but this is a fairly low-magic setting, in that there are not many wizards who can throw fireballs around (probably fortunately, what with the gunpowder!). Magic is more often encountered in subtle forms, such as alchemy and enchantments. Timber soaked in the right alchemical reagents, for instance, is ideal for making flying machines...

Q: Recent years have seen some cracking grimdark books released, although the squeamish find them a bit much. How much sex and violence can we expect to enjoy in your new dark fantasy book?

A: The sex and violence is really hard to answer. It's not actually incredibly graphic, but there definitely is some violence. More interesting to me is a sense of murkiness and danger, like a film noir. One of my big non-SFF influences is Raymond Chandler, and while his books aren't wall-to-wall gore, there's a real feeling of corruption, intrigue and menace. So I don't mind if people want to describe Up To The Throne as grimdark, but I don't think it revels in carnage. Maybe a 15 rather than 18 rating?

Q: What sources, whether historical or fictional, helped inspire the setting and/or characters? Are there hints of Machiavelli and Borgia?

A: There were loads of inspirations! Definitely history, and the Borgias, Medicis and so on would certainly feature highly. You can find some fascinating bits and pieces in history that help you go beyond the stereotypes. Also, I looked at a lot of paintings from that time, which help to focus my mind on the setting. But I was also influenced by crime novels and other fantasy: the inspiration for Giulia came from a picture in an old D&D manual!

Q: Obviously, people know you (as Toby Frost) from writing the adventures of Space Captain Smith. Although you’ve written several entries in that sci-fi comedy series, this is your first foray into both ‘serious’ fantasy and self-publishing. What different challenges have those two things presented?

A: Writing fantasy and books without jokes doesn't feel like that much of a worry - in a way, it's quite nice not to have to be funny. There's the same sense of building a world that I've had with the Smith books, and populating it with interesting stories and strange people. Self-publishing is a bit scary, though: there's this real fear that, after all the hard work, your book just vanishes into the ether. And, of course, you've not got the support network that you usually have. So it's quite daunting, to be honest! In a way I'm seeing it as an experiment, but Up To The Throne is a story I've wanted to tell for a long time, and it's good to be able to tell it.

Q: After Up To The Throne is released, what are you immediate plans for writing and publishing? More dark fantasy, a return to comedy, or a bit of both?

A: As for what happens next, there's loads of ways it could go. I'd like to return to Space Captain Smith's world, perhaps to write something at a bit of a tangent. But I've also got plans for more fantasy, and I'm working on a sequel to Up To The Throne right now. So there's a lot of potential - the difficult bit is in making it work!

Thanks to TA Frost for the interview, and if you want to buy the book or learn more, check out these links:


Thursday, 13 December 2018

Review: The Epic of Gilgamesh

The version I got was the Penguin Classics edition, translated by Andrew George.

This story is one of the oldest still extant, with the earliest versions pre-dating the great pyramids of Egypt. How well has it aged? Is it interesting?

The story of the epic revolves, unsurprisingly, around Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk who also happens to be a demi-god. He’s a bit of a pain in the arse until the arrival of his new best friend Enkidu, sent by the gods (essentially to stop Gilgamesh being a dick). They’re inseparable and have adventures together. But the heart of the story is about Gilgamesh’s fear of death. He travels the world seeking the only immortal man, trying to find the secret to eternal life.

That fear of death, and the sorrow of grief, is what makes the Epic of Gilgamesh resonate so well through the millennia since the story was first conceived and marked down on tablets. It’s rather fitting that perhaps our oldest story is about something that still vexes us today.

Naturally, the writing style is, ahem, old-fashioned but there’s a handy little preamble to each tablet translation outlining what happens, so you shouldn’t get lost.

In addition to the twelve tablets covering the Epic there are a number of others. Some of these are variants (occasionally inserted to fill gaps in the Epic, which is mostly taken from a single set of tablets), and some are additional stories about Gilgamesh (also known as Bilgames). Almost all have some consideration of death.

There are frequent gaps. Often these are small and can be filled easily with educated guesswork, but sometimes, especially in the additional stories, they’re pretty substantial.

On the whole, I enjoyed the Epic quite a lot, and the different stories were entertaining too. The variant tablets were less to my taste, though it is interesting to see the differing versions.


Monday, 26 November 2018

Why moving to digital only is a Bad Thing: part 2 – Money

In part 1, I outlined my fears about a potential drive to abandon physical videogames and looked at the ways in which this will be bad for gamers (essentially, loss of control, higher prices, and the destruction of the second hand market).

But the intoxication with New Things and technological possibilities also means that some people want to abolish physical money altogether. And that’s far more concerning.

Why does that matter? Why does it worry me? Is it just because I’m so old-fashioned I have a mechanical calculator that computes using cogs?

Well, I am an old-fashioned man. And that helps provide context for why money came about in the form it did, and why shifting entirely (I don’t oppose electronic money, I oppose it being the only form) into so-called digital is drunken madness.

First off, why did physical money evolve? In the earliest days, wealth was essentially cattle. But imagine going to the shops with fifty oxen because you wanted some dresses. It’s not exactly convenient. Gold, however, is pretty, lasts effectively forever, and scarce enough small quantities are very valuable. Gold, silver, and electrum (a silver-gold alloy) coins soon came into being in Lydia, home of the fabled Croesus. They were easy to move, and if you’re selling wedding dresses it’s a lot easier to slip some coins into a pouch than to store fifty oxen in your pants.

The Chinese first brought about paper money, and a few centuries ago cheques (akin to paper money) came into being.

It was about the convenience of carrying, storing and transferring wealth, and shifted the concept of wealth from sheer physical property (oxen etc) to a more nebulous concept. However, the move to online only is a step away from control as far as wealth goes.

There was a report in the UK a year or two ago from some chap who had an interesting idea of a third employment category between employed and self-employed to cover the gig economy, and an idiotic idea about abandoning real money altogether and shifting purely to electronic.

If you get hacked or your bank goes down, it’s a pain in the arse. If you get that problem when physical money doesn’t exist, how are you going to pay for little luxuries, like catching a bus/train to work, paying for petrol or food? You can’t spend twenty pound notes when paper money isn’t legal tender any more.

Then there’s the control aspect again. Every time you spend, it’ll be logged. The time and location will be known. Perhaps more importantly, tax can be automatically deducted at source (this would be VAT [sales tax] in the UK). But the individual and the state aren’t the only players. Spending money this way requires a third party, perhaps a bank or an online cash-handling firm. They’ll take a slice. Maybe 0.5%. Maybe 2%. After all, they need to make enough to keep in business. If all their prices go up, what’s your option? You can’t go to cash because it doesn’t exist any more.

As mentioned to me on Chrons by Vladd67, this article is well worth a look. It’s about what’s happening in Sweden right now:
Digital currency is far more profitable for banks, as they get to profit from the fees attached to debit cards, credit cards and Sweden’s bank-developed payment app, Swish.”

Sweden is also at the forefront of exciting new digital payment technologies, including microchips that have been implanted into 4000 peoples’ hands, enabling them to pay via high-five.”

Maybe you consider that ‘exciting’. I think it’s a dystopian nightmare.

Abolishing cash is a demented idea. People are sometimes so focused on what’s technologically possible they fail to consider the negative implications. Just because you could do something doesn’t mean you should do something, to paraphrase Jeff Goldblum.

Digital ‘goods’ and money are sold on convenience, but the cost is higher prices and loss of control. Don’t fall for the glib promises of a brave new world. It’s all about sucking the money out of your wallet, then burning your wallet so in the future you don’t even know how much they’ve gouged.


Saturday, 24 November 2018

Why moving to digital only is a Bad Thing: part 1 - Games

I’ve heard rumours on the interweb that Microsoft are thinking of having the next Xbox Random Number return to something that was slammed on the XBone: digital only media. As asserted by LoadingReadyRun’s Checkpoint, which reports such matters with a delightful mixture of competence, fairness, and humour and is well worth checking out, the world has moved on quite a bit. It’s entirely possible this approach will get little censure next time.

Got to say, I’m 100% against a shift to all-digital media. It’s part of changing games from being products to services, and in line with the madness of some who want to abolish physical money and only have it electronically.

Why Abandoning Physical Games is Bad for Gamers

I hang onto my old consoles. Planning on dusting off the PS2 and returning to some old favourites fairly soon, actually. With a physical copy, you can install or remove the increasingly large game download as much as you like, without worrying about it becoming defunct. You can give it to a friend, swap it with someone, or sell it second hand [NB I may be doing this with some books/games in the New Year so keep an eye out]. You cannot do this with a digital only copy.

But maybe that’s a small price to pay for the convenience of digital gaming. Assuming you don’t use your credit card only to have the details stolen, of course. Then it’s a large price to pay.

Browsing the Playstation store (I’ve got a PS4), it’s clear that the price of games there is higher than buying actual physical copies, possibly excepting pre-order periods and the first few weeks of a game’s release. There’s no gradual, natural decline as initial hype fades and shops want to get rid of their stock and reduce prices accordingly. The digital shop has zero physical space requirements and infinite stock. So the price stays high forever. Why would it decline?

And if everything goes digital, that will become industry-wide. Sure, you’ll be able to pirate games, as now, but those of us who don’t want to become criminals will be faced with the prospect of selling our kidneys to fund our increasingly expensive habit or going without Battle Royale: Money Gouger 3.

A related but different note is the move to microtransactions. I thought Fallout 4 was ok. It did make missteps. One of them was making settlement building so frequent. I liked the system itself but I didn’t need dozens of places. I also didn’t need basic items like a weapon rack hidden behind a paywall. If I’ve spent £40 on a videogame I don’t expect something basic like that to be ‘extra’ DLC.

Dead or Alive, the frisky fighting franchise, makes rather a lot from DLC of fruity outfits for characters, perhaps even more than from actual game sales. Similarly, there’s a push for microtransactions with lots of other videogames, whether that’s cosmetic silliness or pay-to-win Satanism. Sometimes this comes from games that seem to have no business having them at all (yes, Shadow of War, I’m looking at you, you greedy little grease princess).

There are great aspects to electronic cash and products. Delivery is faster than waiting for post. You don’t need shelf-space for countless games. But there are major downsides too. The price of games won’t ever fall. Spending physical money and electronic money feels different. It’s easier to get someone to spend numbers on a screen than it is to hand over pound coins (even the dreadful new pound coins that look atrocious). I’m not opposing digital versions of games, but I’m absolutely opposing the wholesale abandonment of physical games. Digital means you get convenience at a cost in money and control. If you’re happy to make that choice, cool. 

But if that’s your only option, it’s not a choice at all, just a mandatory move to line the pockets of companies at the expense of consumers.

In part 2, up in a few days, I’ll take a wider look at money and the desire of some to abolish physical currency in favour of a purely electronic system.


Thursday, 22 November 2018

Review: Sword of Destiny, by Andrzej Sapkowski

This is the second Witcher book I read (The Last Wish is reviewed here).

As with the first, it’s a collection of short stories revolving around Geralt of Rivia, whose job is hunting monsters and whose pastimes include boning sorceresses and being subjected to prejudice on account of the fact Witchers are mutants (which both makes them fearsome warriors and loathed by a large portion of society).

Major characters from the preceding book and The Witcher 3 make appearances, and there’s also a story involving a chap with a Witcher 3 cameo that fits nicely. The quality of the writing is high, and Geralt’s mixed character (he’s not evil but definitely not a knight in shining armour) coupled with the in-depth world-building helps to make the fictional setting feel like a real, immersive place.

This wasn’t a problem for me, but it’s worth noting the short stories shift in time and there’s no firm indicator of what happens when (you can work out some obvious sequencing but there are no dates/years). Unlike The Last Wish, there’s no underlying, unifying story that gets dipped into repeatedly. Every short story is complete, although some have links to others.

I enjoyed it rather a lot. If you liked The Last Wish, I think you’ll like this too.


Sunday, 18 November 2018

Seven Bohemian Rhapsodies

And now for something completely different.


Strings and Piano



42 styles


Fairground Organ - 


Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Snapshots Review 4: A New Review

Small aside, there are only five rather than six sample reviews this time. For reasons that perplex me, I wasn’t able to download a sample for Ken Warner’s Katana Shodan.

Free the Darkness (King’s Dark Tidings book 1), by Kel Kade

The sample follows Rezkin’s childhood and young adulthood as he’s trained in a sort of medieval/Renaissance type second world. The progression is similar to the way Fallout 3 handled the protagonist’s childhood. Stealth, combat, lockpicking, all that sort of stuff is covered. To be honest, I found the writing somewhat detached. On the plus side, the premise is interesting (I shan’t spoil the end of the sample because, though reasonably predictable, it’s still intriguing and well done). Rezkin’s odd view of the world, due to his martial education, is quite entertaining too.

Storm Glass (Harbinger book 1), by Jeff Wheeler

This was a bit of an odd duck. I’m not fond of child protagonists. Ghost stories aren’t an especial interest. And orphan stories are something I can take or leave. The sample (which is shorter than most, though the book appears full-sized) contains all of those, and I found it very engaging. It follows Cettie, a twelve year old girl, and an orphan. She’s passed from pillar to post, and ends up with Joses, a boy of similar age, looking after younger children in the ‘care’ of a penny-pinching harridan who doesn’t feed them enough. Soldiers arrive to consider whether or not to take the orphans away, the result being unknown by the end of the sample. I thought it was extremely well-written and well worth checking out.

Firewalker (the Saga of Java Mountainstand book 1), by Loren J. Kones

This one wasn’t for me. I suspect I’m not the target audience (I’d guess YA female readers would be) and, whilst it’s not badly written, it didn’t grab me. Java is a servant girl who ends up betrothed to someone she doesn’t like. So she runs off to join an all-female mercenary company. It’s fantasyesque (no magic that I saw) but the mercenary group and dialogue is very modern (there’s a Hell Week). There’s nothing broken about the plot but also no hook that made me want to read more.

Sister Sable (volume 1, The Mad Queen), by T. Mountebank

This is really intriguing. It’s set in a second world but with a seemingly identical tech level to the modern day. A long missing, and long sought, woman is suddenly rediscovered, and the hunt is on to rescue, capture, or kill her, depending on which group is doing the hunting. She plays a vital role in a sinister prophecy. There are magical elements, but it’s of a more psychic, manipulative nature (it seems) than hurling fireballs. The story dances back and forward in time, sometimes back a few hours from the woman’s rediscovery, sometimes years back to show what the wider importance of her is, and sometimes forwards as the net closes. Time jumps can be iffy, but I thought these worked very well. If somebody outlined the book to me I’d perhaps be wary (between the time shifts and modern tech level) but I really enjoyed the sample.

Note: this is translated to English, so I was somewhat worried it’d be clunky, but if I hadn’t flicked back (I always do that to check on any world-building notes, maps etc) I would never have guessed.

Uncommon World: The Complete Epic Quartet, by Alisha Klapheke

The sample for this is pretty large, and follows Kinneret, a low caste sailor in a highly hierarchical society. Trying to provide for herself and her young sister Avi, whilst having mutual teen lusty thoughts about high caste friend (soon to be forbidden when they formally become adults) Calev, she ends up sailing into dangerous waters and a terrible thing occurs. The world is quite interesting and the premise (struggling low class sailor) more original than most. That said, it wasn’t for me. The writing isn’t bad or anything like that. It’s akin to perfectly fried egg. I can appreciate the competence of the creator, but the creation just isn’t to my taste. However, if it is your cup of tea the e-book has a price tag of just 99p, which is rather good value.

And so endeth this Snapshots post. There’s one more planned for the near future, after which I’ll probably pick a few to read. If I have time/money/remember.


Sunday, 4 November 2018

Review: Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Wasn’t quite sure what to expect with this, as I knew the very basic outline of Stalin’s life but few details. Initially (the book has a loose opening focus centring on a key event some time before WWII) I found it a little difficult to get into. Stalin’s obviously the overarching figure but many others (Molotov, Beria etc) feature prominently.

After this opening, the biography falls into a more traditional, chronological, account of Stalin, from difficult childhood through early adulthood, eventually ending with his death some time after the conclusion of the Second World War. The author has clearly drawn on existing histories, testimonies (which he frequently acknowledges may be somewhat biased by those seeking to protect the reputation of themselves or their relatives), and diaries and other papers.

The result is a 600 page or so account of one of the critical men of the 20th century, which sheds new light in many areas due to the opening up of archives that were inaccessible previously, and personal interviews with the individuals (and relatives of those) who were present at the time.

The monstrous capriciousness of Stalin, toying with victims sadistically whilst feigning ignorance, and his bizarrely double-faced nature, ordering executions by quota yet helping a colleague’s daughter with her maths homework when she rang up and her father was absent, paints a picture of a chaotic, lethal maelstrom. The only constant was the rise and then supremacy of Stalin.

Those of you who have read 1984 or, perhaps even better, Animal Farm will recognise much of the horror: the religious, zealous devotion to the ideal of the Party, the blind, trusting devotion of many (reminiscent of Boxer the horse), and dissolving individuality in the acid of socialism.

The title itself is a signpost, with Stalin every bit the monarch a tsar, or king, or emperor, might be.

Although post-war there was a Terror against the Jews, before it the Soviet approach to massacre was completely different to the Nazi way. The Third Reich, of course, aimed for the extermination of the Jews. Stalin wanted to get rid of the inconvenient, cared little for human life, and created quotas for genocide. His underlings executed tens of thousands quite literally to make up the numbers. One might say he was, at that stage, an equal opportunities genocidal maniac.

The intelligence of Stalin, particularly as a master manipulator of those who were his colleagues and became his subordinates, is compelling, as is the wilful blindness he displayed towards Hitler’s betrayal and invasion of the USSR.

Beneath Stalin is a cast of characters that occasionally match his wickedness, and others who seem a little less brutal (it’s a difficult thing to try and assess people who would’ve destroyed themselves and their families if their words or actions had sought to save the persecuted innocent). Voroshilov, the personally brave and politically wimpish soldier; Budyonny, the likeable cavalryman with no appreciation of how tanks might be better than horses; Beria, the sadist, the rapist, the schemer.

This isn’t my period of history, but I still felt displeased by my own ignorance about someone so significant to recent events. Similar to the first time I learnt something about the Eastern Roman Empire, albeit with less ignorance and more recency.

However, having recently finished it, I’ve got to say I enjoyed the book a lot. It’s grim in many places, but engaging and enlightening. As I posted elsewhere, it’s baffling that a man who died within living memory and was responsible for the deaths of 20 million people (and the enslavement of a similar number) isn’t better understood. Even today, some idiots in the UK happily march under banners of a man every bit as evil as Hitler.

I strongly recommend this book.


Thursday, 1 November 2018

Through the Looking Glass

A while ago, there was some ‘controversy’ when Warhorse Studios, the chaps behind the game Kingdom Come Deliverance (set in Bohemia [roughly the Czech Republic] in 1403), were criticised because everyone in it was white. The game’s set in a small geographical area, and everyone being white then is realistic, which is the angle that’s strongly pushed at every level in KCD. Larger cities were more cosmopolitan, but there’s no equivalent of Prague or Vienna in the game. In my view, those wanting diversity were simply trying to impose modern standards on historical reality (which isn’t necessarily unreasonable if you have a fast and loose approach to history, but the whole KCD game was focused on being realistic).

But it did get me thinking. Sometimes, people want to impose modern social, moral norms on historical works of media, whether videogames, film, TV etc. But what if it happened in reverse? What if we had a roughly medieval mindset, and assessed modern works by that standard?

In Stargate: Atlantis, female cast members often have bare arms. That would be frowned upon. (Plunging cleavage, not a problem, but biceps? Titillating beyond acceptability). There’s also a lot of loose hair. Again, at some periods in history this was rather indicative of, er, prostitution (as were the bare arms). A medieval person, once having gotten over the witchcraft of television, would be bemused to see this.

In the West, there’s generally been a decrease in formality between higher and lower status people (thinking primarily of working relationships, but also in those wonderful countries that still benefit from the splendidness of monarchy). This lack of formality would seem quite odd to those of a medieval mindset, where one’s social superior (local lord, say) could be the man sitting in judgement on you one day, and it paid to show due deference.

Medieval attitudes to vegans would be interesting to observe. Animal cruelty was pretty widespread, yet meat wasn’t eaten on around half the days of the year (it was permanently banned on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, as well as being forbidden on certain holy days). Voluntarily not eating meat might be seen as indicative of religious devotion.

Sticking with food, being fat was seen as a sign of prosperity. In a world where one bad harvest can kill the frail and two bad harvests can destroy peasant villages, having sufficient food to not merely meet but exceed needs was proof of wealth. Paler skin was also indicative of high status, as more time was spent indoors rather than working the fields. Thinner people (generally but not always considered more attractive these days) were seen as less attractive because it was down to lack of food, rather than an aesthetic choice.

Despite certain glass-ceiling smashing memes, women have had leading roles in sci-fi for quite some time (Ripley, Janeway, Samantha Carter, etc). In a world where petty treason makes it a criminal offence for a wife to disobey her husband, and which could be successfully used by a woman ordered to commit a crime to escape legal punishment, this would probably be seen as really rather odd. That said, there were exceptions in medieval times (Black Agnes commanded a Scottish castle when her husband was away, defying English attempts to capture it, for example) but it’d still seem rather peculiar in medieval eyes.

The absence of references to God would be utterly perplexing. Excepting the odd expression (“Thank God for that” etc), most people hardly ever refer to God in day to day conversation. Obviously religious people do more often, but even that would be dramatically less than was usual for medieval England, which was steeped in Christianity.

Which brings us to an ugly aspect of medieval thinking: widespread dislike of the Jews. Jews came over with William the Conqueror in 1066, and suffered particularly during the reigns of John and Edward I. They were generally concentrated in a small number of urban centres, mostly London, and were pretty well-off due to usury (the forerunner of modern banking). However, this was against Christian teaching at the time, so, whilst economically beneficial for the Jews, and also more widely, the wealth was achieved through acts against Christian doctrine, by a minority. Sadly, the average medieval fellow watching TV showing anti-Jewish behaviour might be more likely to side with the bigot than the victim.

It’s almost as if imposing the moral and social attitudes of one time period on another, far removed, is a daft thing to do…


Tuesday, 30 October 2018

The Soviet Vacuum

I’m about two-thirds into Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar. It’s not my usual time period, as regular readers will have noticed, but I’m finding it engaging, and grimly enthralling in parts.

And yet, there’s a nagging irritation. Not with the book. It’s well-written and well worth reading, but with my own vast ignorance. Consider Yezhov and Beria. I’d venture to guess most of you have never heard of them, yet have heard of Himmler, Eichmann and/or Heydrich, the architects of the Holocaust.

It’s entirely right and proper that we remember and continue to teach younger generations about the Holocaust. That only makes it more bizarre and inexplicable that, beside the vast ocean of Nazi, Hitler, and Holocaust dramas and histories, there is very, very little about the Terrors under Stalin.

We’re not talking small numbers of casualties. In total, millions were shot, or consigned to slave labour in gulags. In stark contrast to the Nazi approach of deliberately targeting Jews (and some other groups), the Stalinist way was simply to have a quota for executions and enslavement, and then for desperately enthusiastic underlings to exceed said quotas. People weren’t killed because of a racial hatred, but to make up the numbers.

Why isn’t more said about this? Why isn’t more of it taught in schools, or portrayed in dramas and histories?

There could be an element of embarrassment. After all, the West (most obviously the UK and US) were allied to Stalin’s Soviet Union in the latter half of the war. That was necessary, but it’s never comfortable allying with a genocidal tyrant. Yet, the USSR was an enemy at the war’s start, and afterwards, so I’m not sure that argument holds water.

I asked the question on Twitter (, specifically about dramas, and received a number of interesting answers, including one that the US (when the atrocities became known) didn’t want to see another McCarthy to arise and didn’t comment much on them. (For those interested, a couple of interesting suggestions were made, including Burnt By The Sun and Stalin (Robert Duvall), and the book All Stalin’s Men by Medvedev Roy Aleksandrovich).

Might it be because we never had a conclusive climax to a hot war? The Nazis were smashed, ultimately, in a decisive defeat against the Allied powers. The USSR collapsed in the latter years of the 20th century. It wasn’t conquered by external armies, and it didn’t surrender to the Allies.

Nevertheless, the lack of media programming is still a void, a gaping chasm that should be filled with histories and dramas. There are some fools in the UK today who actually march quite happily under banners of Lenin and Stalin, the hammer and sickle flying on red flags above them.

We would not see this without excoriation it if those on the right marched beneath swastikas and Hitler banners. And those comparisons are very apt. The atrocities were, to a large extent, concurrent (1930s and 1940s), and the numbers involved were comparable.

It’s a little depressing when people know nothing of the Western or Eastern Roman Empires, or are unfamiliar with even basic dates like 1066. But when they’re totally unaware of atrocities carried out within living memory it’s alarming. Our best hope of avoiding a repetition of the tragedies of the past is if we’re aware of them.


Friday, 26 October 2018

Advantages for Women in the Middle Ages

As a rule, life in the Middle Ages was rubbish. It was especially rubbish if you were poor, and even more rubbish if you were a poor woman. Often there was overt sexism (you were expected to obey your father, then your husband) and sometimes it was a bit more subtle (sometimes a guild would allow a woman to own a business but not be self-employed).

However, there were some upsides for women.

Petty treason had a few definitions, one of which was a woman refusing to obey her husband. That’s bad. But there’s a flip side. If a man and wife are found guilty of committing crime, the wife can say she was ordered by her husband to do bad things. What’s she expected to do? Disobedience would be treason. The man will hang, the wife will not.

Sticking with crime, there were a couple of special pleas available. One was to plead clergy, meaning one had to demonstrate the ability to read, and get shunted to a softer clerical court. The other was to plead pregnancy. A woman would be examined and, if considered to be pregnant, any sentence of death would be delayed until after the birth. There was always a chance that the sentence might just be dropped entirely.

There was quite a lot of war in the Middle Ages, including the Hundred Years’ War. Edward III (and others) called up huge armies to cross the Channel and introduce the French to the excitement of English archery. But those armies, risking death and injury in war, and pestilence in camp, were almost entirely men. Woman weren’t dragged on pain of hanging across the sea to wage war.

Domestic violence is not a good thing, yet it was broadly accepted in the Middle Ages. A man beating his wife was not unusual. But if he went too far neighbours and family might put a stop to it. A woman kicking the crap out of her husband, however, would lead not to sympathy and sorrow for him, but mockery and contempt.

Despite the low life expectancy, many kings lived long lives (Henry III, Edward I, and Edward III collectively reigned for 141 years). But there was a problem for them in particular, and men in general. Men were meant to be strong and vigorous, able to defend their home and kingdom (the king, of course, leading this). An old man was worn out and feeble, weak and decrepit, lingering with the mantle of power but lacking the frame to fill it. Old age was not good for men. It was good for women. Longevity gave them the reputation of wisdom, (hence ‘wise women’) as women did most of the healing and nursing, and older women had a great store of knowledge.

I certainly wouldn’t claim life was better for women than for men in the Middle Ages. Property law, inheritance, petty treason, risk of death in childbirth, all made things rather horrid, even without delving into general problems men faced too (high mortality, risk of famine every bad harvest etc). But, as with almost everything, it’s not entirely black and white, and it’s interesting to consider the nuances.


Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Snapshots Review 3: The Reviewening

For the uninitiated, snapshot reviews are when I take 4-6 samples (usually fantasy) and, er, review them. Hopefully it’s helpful for readers to find new books and authors.

Quite a mix amongst this half dozen, with sci-fi and fantasy, comedy and serious stuff.

The Copper Promise (Copper Cat Trilogy), by Jen Williams

The sample includes multiple perspectives, but manages to start tying them together before it ends (which is helpful for trying to assess how the plot might go forward). The opening chapter features a nobleman being surprisingly stoic under torture (nothing too graphic), as his jailers seek to prise from his lips information about his family’s wealth. Following on, there are chapters about separate but linked mercenaries delving into an ancient, haunted, subterranean place, with the latter pair of mercenaries hired by the previously mentioned nobleman (now in a state of some injury, following the torture). The sample ends as they approach the ruin. I enjoyed the writing style, and really liked the very different voices that the differing POVs had. A good test of this is to imagine dialogue without any tags, so the spoken words alone indicate the speaker, and this passes with flying colours. It’s an intriguing beginning.

The Gorgon Bride, by Galen Surlark-Ramsey

An interesting change of pace here. I must admit, fantasy set in the real world tends not to my cup of tea, so when the sample opened with a real life setting hopes were not high. However, I do like Greek mythology, and that’s mingled with the modern world in this comedy-fantasy. The sample’s storyline follows the antics of Alexander Weiss, pianist, and Athena, goddess and taunter of Ares. The mortal soon meets his mortality and is destined to try and find love for Euryale, one of Medusa’s sisters and fellow gorgon. One nice aspect of comedy is that you can tell very quickly whether the style of the humour is to your taste which determines in large part whether you’ll like the book or not. I found it to be a light-hearted and entertaining read. Perhaps as helpfully (for me) it’s a stand alone, rather than part 1 of the Mega Long Fantastical Series.

Paternus: Rise of the Gods (the Paternus Trilogy book 1), by Dyrk Ashton

This is a weird one to review, because it has several things I dislike but it’s also very competently done (particularly the first chapter, of 4-5 or so complete in the sample) which is excellent. It’s set in the modern day real world, with a thrillerish writing style. Could be a blend of magic and technology, not quite clear. The story looks at various POVs, mostly from the perspective of Firstborn. They’re ancient godlike figures, often taken from historical myths. There seems to be some sort war brewing between Asuras (rebels against the ‘Father’ that created them) and Devas (Father loyalists) but how is not clear. I do think it’s interesting and well done, but, like celery, it’s just not for me.

The Sons of Thestian (the Harmatia Cycle book 1), by ME Vaughan

Much more my usual fare than the previous two samples, but I must admit it didn’t grab me. The prologue opens with Jionathan, a prince and would-be escapee from his own city, attempting to evade a nocturnal patrol of bloodthirsty and transmogrified mages, ‘aided’ by the mage Rufus (who appears to be in a stupor). Rufus gets hidden and the prince, as you might expect early on, gets caught and ends up back in his castle. Over the ensuing few chapters we learn the prince’s father is ill, and the Night Patrol is a new and odd addition to the city. Rufus has more POV time early on, but there’s a bit too much telling rather than showing. It’s not badly written, indeed, I found it very easy to read, but it just didn’t grab me.

Kingshold (Wildfire Cycle book 1), by DP Woolliscroft

Have to say I was almost immediately taken by this. It’s the story, seemingly, of a power transition from a terrible king and queen (who end up leaving their positions sooner than they expect, at the hands of a vengeful but probably righteous wizard) and the shift of a kingdom towards a republic/democracy. There are many POVs, indeed, it wasn’t until the last chapter in the sample that one recurred (I did wonder if the author might try, heroically/foolishly, to tell a whole story without repeating a single POV). Every one was engaging, the writing was effortless to read, and, at this early stage, I enjoyed the way the story was going. There’s a drunken minstrel, a precocious maid, a hardbitten mage, and so on. It’s an intriguing start.

Space Team (Volume 1), by Barry J Hutchison

Another comedy that begins in the real world, but this one is sci-fi. The sample’s a little shorter and doesn’t quite have time to set out the premise. It follows Cal Carver, who ends up in the wrong prison due to a bureaucratic error, just as all hell seems to break loose. He wakes up in space for reasons about to be revealed, when the sample ends. It’s very engaging and amusing, although the bodily fluid stuff isn’t my cup of tea. An advantage of comedy over other genres is that it’s very easy to tell early on if it’ll tickle your fancy, and, fluids aside, I found the sample of this quite entertaining.


Friday, 5 October 2018

Review: Silent Heroes, by Evelyn le Chene

Animals have a long history in warfare, and this book explores a number of contributions from our furry and feathered friends in more recent wars (I think the oldest mentioned is the Crimean). A plus side of the relatively modern scope is that there’s more evidence and less anecdote, and there are usually some nice photos (although I do now feel a bit inferior, given there was a collie who received multiple medals and completed various missions and parachute jumps with the SAS).

There are many wars featured, from Crimea to the Worlds Wars, and others around the world, and various different types of animal. Dogs feature heavily, as do pigeons, with the occasional cat and mule, and, perhaps most famous of modern soldier animals, Voytek the bear.

The book’s long enough to provide significant variety, with each chapter (usually focusing on one or two animals) sufficient to put the story in context without padding. I found the writing style to be easy to read, and the subject matter to be charming, if sometimes sad (to be expected, really).

I found it to be a very engaging book, and enjoyed it rather a lot.


Friday, 28 September 2018

Review: A History of the Second World War, by BH Liddell Hart

Yes, another shockingly modern ‘history’ (more current events, really). I reviewed a book about the First World War, by the same author, here.

The book begins a little prior to war breaking out and ends with a nice little epilogue that summarises the context and events of the war. The political matters during the war itself are only referenced insofar as they affect the military situation (such as German generals being unwilling to argue against Hitler, particularly in the latter stages). Similarly, things such as the impact of shortages due to wartime (both military priority and attempted strangleholds on supplies) are only considered in the light of logistical problems for the armed forces and, in extremis, a population becoming so demoralised it might have a material impact upon the body politic.

Necessarily, given the scope of the book, there can sometimes be a little less detail in certain areas (although there’s no shortage of books on the subject if anyone wants to delve more deeply into particular topics), but the general overview does convey things well, although the writing can sometimes be a little dry.

It is rather easier for a history of WWII to be more interesting than one for WWI, given the greater variety of theatres of war, and the fact the war itself was altogether more dynamic, being characterised by fast-paced tank actions rather than trench warfare. I particularly found the to and fro in North Africa interesting (it was also worth noting how often both leaders and army officers had their assumptions confounded by reality, and how some excellent officers were prevented from achieving more due to either their military or political superiors).

As with the author’s history of WWI, there are many maps, which is very useful given the widespread nature of the war.

I particularly enjoyed little insights from personal interviews with soldiers of either side, including one German officer whose spearhead attack had a pause when he was bewitched by a pretty blonde American nurse.

Overall, given it’s not my area, I’d say it’s a solid overview of the entire war, from a purely military perspective. If you’re after a military overview of the whole of World War Two, this book’s worth considering. If you want a social or political look at the Second World War, then you’d be better off looking elsewhere.


Thursday, 20 September 2018

Snapshots Review 2: Review Harder

The Snapshots Reviews are posts in which I review the samples of a small number (4-6) of books. Reviews are just of the samples, I haven’t read the full books of any of them, at the time of posting this. The first Snapshots Review was elsewhere, and can be found here. The books I’ve reviewed are all in the fantasy genre.

Dangerous to Know (Chronicles of Breed, book 1), by KT Davies

The first sample I read in this batch, and I have to admit, things really hit the ground running. The writing style was immersive and easy to read, the world is well-realised and portrayed without info-dumping (I never felt there was a slab of text outlining society etc, but by the end of the sample I knew a reasonable amount about the world), and there are even some light, humorous touches. The sample follows a half-breed mercenary, half-human, half-thoasa (a sort of war creature). She starts off in a bad situation (page one features being chased by a dragon) and it soon gets worse when Breed finds herself in an icy ruin with a demon her only hope for discovering the way out. Really good start to things.

The Rage of Dragons, by Evan Winter 

This sample is in two halves, with the first half being a sort of prologue, and the latter half (starting with Chapter One) occurring a century and a half-ish later. The prologue has a slightly unusual premise, which I like, of a queen leading her people on a sort of watery exodus, landing her ships on land to escape some unknown danger. However, the locals aren’t too happy and a bit of a war ensues. The latter part is on the claimed land but some time later, following Tau, a young chap aspiring to become a warrior. Unfortunately there is a lot of info-dumping and jargon, which gets in the way of both pace and clarity.

[A note on this: I couldn’t believe it got such a high rating on Amazon. One review I checked explained why. Apparently the start is pretty iffy but the latter half is fantastic, a bit like the Lies of Locke Lamora. Obviously, I’m just reviewing samples, and things can improve or worsen. Just thought I’d mention that].

Tree of Ages (the Tree of Ages series book 1), by Sara C Roethle

This one had an unusual premise. A tree stops being a tree, and becomes a young woman. Finn doesn’t know how, or why, and wants to return to being a tree. With the help of a kindly cottager, Finn sets out to reverse the transformation. I like a different premise, and enjoyed this sample a lot. Easy to read, low on action (there’s none) but highly engaging, as samples go it’s very good. The foundation of the story is laid, main characters introduced, and I found it very interesting.

The Thief Who Pulled On Trouble’s Braids (Amra Thetys Series book 1), by Michael McClung 

By chance, I happened to pick this and another winner of the excellent SPFBO contest. So, hopes were high as I began the sample. And met. The story follows Amra, a thief not quite world class but definitely a cut above the average, as her friend Corbin is trying to sort out a deal gone wrong. He leaves her a golden statuette and extricates a promise to look after his dog if anything goes wrong. And it does, of course. The writing style’s easy to read and and the world is effortlessly revealed through natural storytelling. It’s a charming book, which I suspect will be quite gritty.

The Grey Bastards (the Lot Lands), by Jonathan French

By weird coincidence, this is also an SPFBO contest winner. The sample follows Jackal, a half-orc, and his friends Oats and Fetching (also half-orcs) as they have something of a tangle with a group of human soldiers outside a brothel. The trio return to the Kiln, their headquarters, and their boss, Claymaster, holds a meeting which probably unveils the wider premise of the story (which may be hinted at in the brothel fight). Enjoyable to read, with grim humour and a plot/world that unfolds naturally, it’s yet another sample that could easily lead to me buying the book (this half-dozen of samples is something of an embarrassment of riches).

Darkmage (the Rhenwars Saga Volume 1), by ML Spencer

Darkmage’s sample largely follows Darien, a soldier returning from a front line in a classic high fantasy world, where the enemy are pressing strongly and he wants his mother (effectively head of state) to allow a pacific oath to be broken to win the war. Naturally, there’s quite a bit of tension there, not least because he’s returning to inherit arcane power and is expected to take the oath himself. But the enemy are closer than either of them think. The story’s premise works, but I did find the writing style to be a little more tell than show (for example, Darien courted a lady mage, against the rules, and that’s why he was away in the first place. Why not show that?). It’s not bad, but didn’t grab me.

I had planned to nominate just one as a recommendation, as per the first time, but there are a number of great samples well worth a look.


Friday, 7 September 2018

Review: Blood and Sand Trilogy, by Jon Kiln

Some time ago on The Wayfarer’s Rest* I had a little experiment, reading half a dozen or so samples from Kindle books. It was quite interesting, with some laden with info-dumping, others insufficient to let the premise unfold. Easily the best was the sample of the Blood and Sand Trilogy, by Jon Kiln, which I just finished reading.

The story follows Vekal, a Sin Eater (confessor meets martial artist), and opens as his city is being sacked by barbarians. After the engaging spot of initial action dies down, we encounter the central premise of the plot. Vekal’s forced to try and help the barbarian warlord’s daughter, who has a peculiar sickness, and finds himself possessed by a demonic spirit. But because he’s a Sin Eater, the devil is unable to totally control him, and the pair find themselves bickering and co-operating, sometimes doing what Vekal wants, sometimes doing what Ikrit wants.

The plot holds together well, and one aspect I liked was that whilst Ikrit is clearly not a good chap, he’s also not just a moustache-twirling blacker than black villain. That would’ve made things a bit flatter, and less interesting. By humanising him, to a degree at least, he’s somewhat sympathetic (whilst still more than happy to kill people in the way). The relationship between Vekal and Ikrit varies from antagonistic to co-operative, as their goals coincide or diverge. It’s a nice take on things.

Besides Vekal/Ikrit, clearly the main character(s), there are a number of others who get some POV time. Naturally, they aren’t fleshed out quite so much, but I liked that many secondary characters had some depth to them.

The world is well-realised, and there’s a pleasant absence of info-dumping. It hangs in the background, as it should, whilst the characters get on with their adventuring. The low magic (hardly any is used) works very well, as possession or fear thereof provides the main arcane aspect of the story and world.

I do think the book could’ve been slightly better proofread. Should stress it’s not riddled with errors, and I do expect some in a novel-sized book, but there are perhaps a few too many (and sometimes phrasing’s repeated in short order).

In terms of sex, violence etc, there’s no frisky time and quite a lot of bloodshed, but it’s not as grim as many books.

Overall, I found Blood and Sand to be an enjoyable read.


*For those wondering, I liked posting more frequently but just lacked the time to do so. I may resurrect TWR one of these days, but the irregular rambles and reviews on Thaddeus the Sixth won’t be going anywhere. Unless I get decapitated by a low-flying flamingo, obviously. Then my blogging will decline dramatically.