Saturday, 25 April 2015

Review: Sallust: Catiline’s War, the Jugurthine War, Histories

Just finished this relatively short book (165 pages, discounting notes and the introduction). It’s cut into three pieces: Catiline’s War, the Jugurthine War, and the fragmentary Histories, with the Jugurthine War being considerably longer than the other two (which is fortunate, as it’s also the most interesting).

Sallust wrote of events in the late 2nd century and first half of the 1st century BC. At this time the Roman Republic had utterly destroyed their feared enemy Carthage, and, with it, had begun the process of dissolving Roman virtue in arrogance and prosperity excessive to the point of luxury.

Sallust’s writing has a fatalistic, doomed feeling to it (not unlike the general sentiment of Battlestar Galactica). He writes of a Rome that’s master of the world, but whose leading lights have become haughty with the people and susceptible to luxury (which makes them open to bribes and corruption, to the detriment of the commonwealth). At the same time, the masses have sunk into timid obedience, their tribunes shorn of power at the hands of Sulla.

Given what happened later that century, it has a prescient undertone.

I had some knowledge of the Jugurthine War beforehand, thanks to Gareth Sampson’s The Crisis of Rome, but none whatsoever of either Catiline’s War or the Histories.

Catiline’s War essentially casts Catilina as a conspirator villain, and Cicero [at this time consul] the heroic fellow who defeats him. It’s a fairly concise episode depicting Rome’s descent into vice. I had a little difficulty getting into it (lots of names, most of whom I’d never heard of and found it a bit tricky recalling who was who).

The Jugurthine War is a little longer, and tracks the remarkable career of Jugurtha, exemplary soldier, fratricidal war-monger, betrayer and king. This very enjoyable episode also includes important characters from Roman history, particularly Gaius Marius (who eventually defeated the Cimbri and was married to the aunt of Julius Caesar) and Sulla (who served as Marius’ deputy during the war, but later came into conflict with him). Jugurtha was notable for enjoying some success bribing the Roman Senate to ignore his fratricide and seizure of Numidia (not a Roman possession at this point, but a Roman ally).

The Histories are in fragments, several of them complete letters, others much shorter. It seems to cover a later period than Catiline’s War, with opposing sides addressing the Senate, and an interesting final letter, which was written by Mithridates to the King of Parthia.


Wednesday, 22 April 2015

The Self-Publishing Fantasy Blog-off

The self-publishing fantasy blog-off is a contest organised by fantasy author Mark Lawrence and known on Twitter as #SPFBO:

Self-published authors were asked to submit one story each, and these would then be divvied out to top bloggers/reviewers, who would cast their critical eye over the offerings.

As the link above indicates, there’s a whopping 96% chance of failing immediately. Each of 10 top bloggers/reviewers gets 25 (or slightly more, due to the competition’s popularity) self-published books to read. Each of the 10 can pick only one book to go through to the final. The deadline for naming the books chosen for the final is 1 September.

As a bare minimum, each blogger will review the book they forward to the final, although reviews for books that don’t make the grade may also be forthcoming.

The top 10 in the final will be reviewed by all the bloggers, and scored out of 10. Top score = the winner.

Whilst there’s no financial prize, getting ten reviews from ten top bloggers makes even reaching the final something that’ll do a lot of good for an author’s profile (although, as I mentioned, there’s a less than 5% chance of making the final). Winning overall won’t add any more reviews, but coming top from more than 250 entries would be a nice feeling.

The book I submitted was Journey to Altmortis, the second ‘serious’ fantasy I wrote (my work-in-progress, Kingdom Asunder, occurs in the same world). I do wonder what will be made of Roger the Goat.

My book’s been sent to Marc Aplin and co. at Fantasy-Faction.

Incidentally, I thought it’d be useful to list my reviews of self-published works, which you may not have come across:
Wyrd Worlds II (sci-fi anthology)
Keepers of Arden (fantasy)
House of Shadows (vampires)
Tales of Erana (fantasy anthology)
Thread Slivers (fantasy)

I also just finished the (very short) Tales of Erana: The Warrior’s Curse, by Alexandra Butcher. It’s very similar to Beowulf, and probably the best written story of hers I’ve read to date. Must stress it’s shorter than a gnome on his knees (print length 23 pages), but then the asking price is 99p [free on Kindle Unlimited].

So, if you like the idea of self-publishing but are uncertain if the stories are up to snuff, keep your eyes peeled for the #SPFBO hashtag.


Monday, 13 April 2015

Formation Failures

Certain military formations are pretty well-known. The Roman three line approach, the bristling spear points of a Greek phalanx and so on. But what happened when daring chaps shunned military practice and adapted their formation to face a specific enemy? Often, they got completely buggered.

Cannae is one of the most famous battles in the world, and is still studied today, such was the absolute thrashing Hannibal gave a massive Roman army. However, a significant benefit he enjoyed was that Varro, his opposite number, was a bit over-confident due to numerical advantage. Romans normally adopted a so-called checkerboard formation between maniples (literally ‘handfuls’, in practice two centuries paired up) which gave great flexibility.

Varro decided to make best use of his substantial manpower by getting rid of the gaps and cramming the soldiers more closely together. We don’t know how Cannae would’ve gone if he hadn’t done this, and whilst keeping the checkerboard formation might not have saved the day it might’ve made the defeat less crushing. Hannibal surrounded the Roman army (an impressive feat, given he had fewer men) and slaughtered the vast majority.

The Battle of Magnesia was fought a couple of decades later, in 190BC. The Romans, and their allies from Pergamum, faced off against Antiochus III, master of the Seleucid Empire.

Antiochus had a large phalanx, as you might expect, but broke it up with lots of little intervals. Into each of these intervals he put a couple of war elephants (worth nothing here that the Romans had first encountered war elephants long ago when they faced Pyrrhus).

Antiochus was about to discover that there was a very good reason why the Macedonians hadn’t shoved elephants in the middle of tightly clustered and not very manoeuvrable foot soldiers.

The battle did not go well for the Seleucids, and (as often happened, such as the Battle of Beneventum which saw Pyrrhus suffer final defeat by the Romans) the elephants panicked. Naturally, this made an orderly withdrawal for the phalanx all but impossible. Fighting Romans was never easy at this period in history, and trying to do so when a large number of berserk elephants are trampling all over you is even harder.

It’s the 600th anniversary of Agincourt this year. Henry V deserves great credit for the fantastic triumph, but it’s also worth noting the very helpful role the French nobility played. As well as enjoying a substantial numerical advantage over the English, Henry V had dug the army in defensively, so the initiative lay entirely with the French.

The English had several problems, not least of which was lack of supplies and being a bit diseased. The French had been pursuing Henry for a while, and finally catching him saw their morale very high. Unfortunately, they assumed victory was a foregone conclusion.

The longbows at Agincourt did great work, but it’s worth knowing that the French actually had thousands of crossbowmen at their disposal. But they didn’t let them fire. The crossbowmen and French archers were deployed behind the men-at-arms, and appear not to have done very much. Instead, the French charged (on horse and on foot) the English lines. Fierce hand-to-hand combat was had, but the English longbows and Henry’s perfect choice of battlefield (narrow ground, with mud so thick a man in armour would struggle to get to his feet if he fell) gave the victory to the outnumbered English.

The three battles have a few things in common. The side that changed formation had a substantial numerical advantage (NB at Magnesia ancient sources reckon Antiochus had 40,000 more men, but modern historians reckon it was closer to 50,000 each). The side that changed formation took the offensive (most especially at Agincourt), and lost.

There are several reasons why sticking in formation is almost always the best thing to do. Not only is it proven to work, the men know what they’re doing. If you’re in a phalanx and an elephant ten feet away suddenly goes berserk and you’ve never been in that situation before, it’s not ideal when several thousand Romans are trying to kill you at the same time.

Clever moves can be made with formations (also at Cannae, Hannibal deliberately deployed his centre in a weak, convex formation to deliberately tempt the Romans into attacking. This then [as planned] became concave and proved critical to surrounding the Romans). But unless you’re a military genius, it may well ruin your prospects.


Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Review: The Greatest Traitor: The Life of Sir Roger Mortimer, by Ian Mortimer

Sir Roger Mortimer is not a name that necessarily leaps to the lips when thinking of English history. However, he was a very interesting character, and Ian Mortimer’s biography (the only one, it seems, of the subject) paints an intriguing picture.

During his life Roger Mortimer made war in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, and played a critical role wresting Ireland from Edward Bruce (the younger brother of Robert Bruce), the only Scottish King of Ireland in history.

He was a capable warrior and leader of men, perhaps the most successful soldier in England during his prime, and a skilled user of spies and political manipulation.

Roger was one of King Edward II’s companions and was loyal for much of his life, until Hugh Despenser gained ascendency and favour. Despenser’s tyranny and Edward’s blind allegiance to him led to wars hot and cold until, finally, Despenser was killed and Edward imprisoned. A lot of what might sound inherently wicked (when Roger rebelled, for example) is actually not only explicable when placed in context, but can even be sympathised with.

Ian Mortimer claims Edward II survived his alleged murder, and that this was used by Roger to blackmail Edward III into compliance. The author makes a strong case for Edward II’s survival past his supposed murder, and, though I’m not a historian myself, I found it quite convincing.

The book is well-written and little to no prior knowledge is necessary to understand the political situation.

Whilst it is a biography of Sir Roger Mortimer, his story is necessarily intertwined with that of Edward II, the king who was not only his contemporary, but who imprisoned Roger and was subsequently overthrown by him.

Incidentally, I can strongly recommend buying this book as a set along with Marc Morris’ biography of Edward I and Ian Mortimer’s biography of Edward III.


Saturday, 4 April 2015

Review: Tomb Raider, Definitive Edition (PS4)

I recently acquired a PS4, and the first game I got for it was Tomb Raider. This was originally out for the previous console generation but (as seems the fashion nowadays) it was remastered for the PS4.


Lara, her mentor Roth, a few friends and a TV dick called Whitman are sailing to find Yamatai for archaeological/television purposes. Lara suggests going into Not The Bermuda Triangle, which naturally causes the ship to sink in a massive storm and the crew to wash up on a dreaded island.

After spending her first evening on the island suffering bondage and puncture wounds, Lara sets out to find her crew and a way off the island. Unfortunately, the island is inhabited by an assortment of murderous lunatics.

The premise is nice and simple. Characters and their relationship with Lara are revealed naturally as the game progresses. The way the story goes won’t be a shock, particularly to gamers familiar with this sort of thing, but it’s perfectly sound.

There’s a mid-point which is so involved, lengthy and thrilling I thought it might actually be the climax of the game, and was a bit surprised it wasn’t (feels almost like the end of the first half of a play, which plenty of excitement prior to the interval).

Upon completion, you can return to the island to collect things.


The controls are very intuitive, and the initial section teaches you the basics without the dreaded tedium of a typical tutorial. Most players will have the gist from older Tomb Raider (or Uncharted) games, but for those new to this genre it’s a good introduction.

I played the game on Normal. Discounting occasions when I tried making impossible jumps, I got killed perhaps half a dozen times during the playthrough. Here and there you’ll be forced into a proper gunfight, in many areas you’ll have the option of taking a stealth approach (which I usually went for). Combat in this genre isn’t my favourite aspect, but I thought it worked pretty well.

Tombs are smaller areas you stumble across (there aren’t a huge number) within which you find treasures/upgrades. The puzzles, such as they are, tend to be pretty straightforward. If you’re stuck for a little while you’ll have the option to press L1, and Lara will offer a hint.

On the downside, there’s too much in the way of QTEs (quick-time events, the work of Satan) early on, and occasionally later in the game. Apart from the first hour, there’s not really a glut of them, but I’m not a fan of that approach.


The graphics generally look very nice, as the screenshots I’ve included in this review show. Sometimes water effects look outdated compared to the rest. Likewise, flames can sometimes look a little bit dated.

The sea itself looks very nice, though, and there are some great vistas in a reasonable variety of settings.

A nice touch is that Lara’s default outfit undergoes the John McClane process, getting dirtier and slightly torn as the game progresses. Unfortunately, this doesn’t occur with the six extra outfits. She also gets some small scars, which makes sense given she spends several hours getting battered [but these magically disappears if she changes outfit].


I’ve bought a few Tomb Raider games, and really liked Keeley Hawes’ past performances. The reboot, unsurprisingly, went for a new actress, Camilla Luddington [who also, as is becoming commonplace, did the motion capture for the character].

A good choice, I think. She does sound pretty young, which fits, as this is basically an origin story for how Lara Croft became female Indiana Jones.

The rest of the cast do a solid job, and I like the dynamic of slightly bickering shipmates.

Sound effects are nice, from zip-lining to forcing open metal crates with a pick. By default, you also get sound via the mini-speaker in the controller. As I usually play with earphones in, I disabled this.

The music fits the game well, and is enjoyable without being overpowering.

Bugs and other issues

In my entire playthrough I encountered one bug. Lara froze at the end of an animation, and was stuck in an ice-skater type pose. She kept on gliding forward too, which was weird. I got out of it by changing my weapon. No freezes, lags, excessive screen-tearing, prolonged loading times or any other issue occurred, so that was pretty good.


I enjoyed it a lot. The game’s been out a while, which means you should be able to get it for a low price and I probably spent 20-30 hours on the main storyline (I did some exploration on the side, but not much).