Book Review: ‘A Free Man of Color’ – Barbara Hambly

Left to my own devices, I probably wouldn’t have chosen to read a historical novel set in pre-Civil War New Orleans and especially not one set in the early 1830’s.  Benjamin January is a free black man returning to New Orleans after sixteen years in Paris.  The laws of New Orleans prevent him practising medicine, hence he earns his living as a musician and music teacher.  Hambly paints a detailed and absorbing picture of Creole society at a point of transition.  While the atmosphere and attitude of much of the city is still French, American influence is growing.  January knows that as a free man of colour, his word will still (mostly) be taken seriously by Creoles in New Orleans.  Outside the city though things are different.  Along the bayous plantations are springing up run by newcomers from Kentucky and Georgia – people for whom the concept of a free black man is a contradiction in terms.A Free Man of Color (Benjamin January)

A murder at a Mardi Gras ball drops January unwillingly into a world of glittering decadence, demi monde and deceit.  The last person known to have seen the murdered Angelique Crozat alive he must find her real killer before the New Orleans Creole elite pin the murder on him.  Hambly packs an immense amount of detail into the book – I personally enjoyed it but I could see less patient people growing weary with the scene-setting and skimming forward to get to the action.  My personal advice would be to stick with it – the story takes a while to get going but when it does  you will find it very hard indeed to put down.

Alternate History Book Review: Grant Comes East (Gingrich and Forstchen)

Cover of "Grant Comes East"

Cover of Grant Comes East

In all fairness I have to start this review with a spoiler alert.  If you haven’t read the preceeding book by these authors (‘Gettysburg‘) then I strongly urge you to so, since ‘Grant Comes East‘ picks up more or less where ‘Gettysburg’ stops.  Still here?  OK – my first comment on this book is how well the authors have managed the departure from ‘our’ timeline and the skill with which they use the best rules of counterfactual history to drive the plot.  In ‘Gettysburg’, Lee comments that the Army of Northern Virginia has one good fight left in it and I soon found myself wondering in the aftermath of the Battle of Union Mills if was all downhill from here on.  The Army of the Potomac is wrecked – only one corps of it has escaped more or less intact and the remainder has routed towards Washington.  Rioting in New York against the draft is spiralling out of control.  Despite all that, the Union hasn’t folded up – mostly because Lincoln has decided it isn’t going to.

General Grant, fresh from his capture of Vickburg, is bringing his army east.  Lincoln has put him in charge of ending the war and Grant, in his careful methodical fashion is determined to do exactly that.  Gingrich and Forstchen also make it clear exactly where the real strength of the Union lies – its economic power.  Within weeks of Union Mills, Union railroad boss Herman Haupt can have the equipment for a new army made and stockpiled.  Lee’s ragged veterans can’t access that sort of logistical muscle and deep down the leaders of the Confederacy know it.  The invasion of the North was a gamble, one which must now be played out to the bitter end.

What makes this book such an enthralling read is that the authors understand how to write good counterfactual history.  People make choices based on the range of options that were open to them at the time and this makes for realistic character development.  There is no deus ex machina to give the Confederacy a deadly new advantage and they remain on the back foot logistically, just as they did in reality.  In the end, Lee is faced with a difficult choice.  Confederate President Jefferson Davis has sent General Beauregard’s corps north to bolster Lee’s men.  Should Lee use them to capture lightly-defended Baltimore (thereby removing Maryland from the war)?  Or ought he to accept that that is simply putting off the inevitable end game – an assault on Washington?

Either way, time is running out.

Alternate History Book Review: Gettysburg (Gingrich and Forstchen)

Cover of "Gettysburg: A Novel of the Civi...

Cover of Gettysburg: A Novel of the Civil War

If any of you have watched the 1990’s film ‘Gettysburg‘ you may remember the part where (on the evening of 1 July 1863) General Longstreet tries to persuade General Lee to break off the direct assault at Gettysburg and instead try to get round the Union flank.  Lee of course says something to the effect of ‘the enemy is there General and that’s where I’m going to attack’.   The result of Lee’s belief that the Army of Northern Virginia could do anything is well documented enough for me to skip over it here.  Could it all have gone differently?  Alternate history writers have produced a range of responses – some good, others pretty mediocre.

This book (a collaboration between Newt Gingrich and William Fortschen) is probably one of the best.  As with all the best alternate history writing it looks at the courses of action actually open to the participants at the time.  Gingrich and Fortschen know their stuff – the characters of the main protagonists are well developed, as are those of individual soldiers.  What I especially liked about this book was how well the point of departure was handled.  In reality of course the Union reserve artillery didn’t make it on to the field until the second day – here we have their commander Henry Hunt pushing several batteries forward in time to completely shatter the Confederate attempt to take the cemetery on the afternoon of 1 July.  This, in conjunction with Ewell‘s failure to take Culp’s Hill. leaves Lee more susceptible to Longstreet’s counter-proposal than he was in reality.

At this point the authors show their skill – Lee was by nature a gambler and they paint his reaction to Longstreet’s proposal quite credibly.  Lee rejects Longstreet’s plan as too cautious and, to put it mildly, widens its scope.  The stage is set for a campaign of manoevre, one which allows Lee’s troops to do what they do best – outmarch and outsmart  the opposition.  Any further detail would give the game away – so I’m going to close by giving this book a full five stars and say that it’s the first of a trilogy, the remainder of which I’ll review in due course.

Book review – The Winter King by Thomas Penn

Arthur Prince of Wales c. 1500, 39.1 x 28 cm.,...

Arthur Prince of Wales c. 1500, 39.1 x 28 cm., oil on panel, in the Royal Collection (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When people think ‘Tudor’, it’s usually to do with Queen Elizabeth I, or more likely Henry VIII.  In this book, it’s the founder of the Tudor Dynasty that gets put under the spotlight.  And it’s true that Henry VII, sandwiched between two of the most famous English monarchs, often gets forgotten.  Penn sets out to redress the balance with an in depth look at the man, his world and his method of government.  Let’s get the negatives done with first.  The publisher’s blurb speaks of an easy to read and accessible book – one that reads more like a novel than a historical textbook.

Sorry, but that’s not what I picked up.  I sometimes found muself wondering if Penn was trying to cram the maximum amount of detail into the book, possibly worried that readers would accuse him of leaving something out.  For example, ten pages are devoted to the marriage of Catherine of Aragon and Prince Arthur and there is such a large cast of supporting characters that the novel-type approach to the book sometimess bogs down and lacks pace.

That said, there’s still a great deal to recommend this book.  Henry’s tenuous grip on power for the first ten years of his reign is well described and explained, as is his crafty use of the legal system to ensure that potential troublemakers were kept loyal, or at least behaving loyally.  Much of the early part of his reign was devoted to building the edifice that would be inherited by Prince Arthur and Penn gives us a good picture of the turmoil following Arthur’s death in 1502.  Going into more detail would add unecessary spoilers, so suffice it to say that Penn’s image of Henry VII is an absorbing and thoroughly believable one.  Well worth the effort and a good four out of five stars.

Writing – here goes…

Well, for some time now I’ve wanted to transfer an academic interest in the late 15th century plus my living history interests into a novel.

It’s a long journey and one that’s been on hold for at least five years.  Now I feel if it’s ever to see the light of day I need to get moving.

The following excerpt will give you some idea about how much work needs doing:

The oak trees along the edge of the road rustled gently in the breeze, their leaves yellowing early this autumn.  The same breeze ruffled the white hair of the old man sitting in the cushioned chair by the door to the smithy.  A table at his right elbow bore a plate of bread and cheese and a cup of watered wine – both untouched.  The man’s gaze remained fixed on the Skipton road as it curved eastwards from the village to the curve of Hellistone Hill.  He had sat thus every day for over a week since the news from the borderlands had filtered south.

Gervaise, 1st Baron Daubney, sometime Privy Councillor to King Richard III, sometime Master of the Horse to King Henry VIII and (until this August), Member of Parliament for Skipton, shifted uncomfortably, wracked by yet another coughing fit.  The factor he’d dispatched to York two weeks ago with six cartloads of wool had returned beside himself with excitement.  The Earl of Surrey’s army had routed the Scots at Branxton Green  in Northumberland.  King James was dead, and what sounded like the flower of Lowland Scots nobility with him.  No word on the English slain of course – it might take the gloss from the tidings now passing  across the sea to France along with the slashed and tattered surcoat soaked in the blood of a  king.  The slim, blue-veined hand on his left shoulder tightened briefly, as if its owner sensed his thoughts.  He sighed and turned round.

Lady Phillipa Daubney smiled gently at her husband.  His eyes were still as blue as they had ever been, though worryingly sunken of late with fatigue and worry.  Well, we both have our threescore and ten and are in God’s hands together – as are our sons.

‘It’s growing late my love – if you must watch further at least let me send for a warmer gown.’    Silence.  Watching here until the last dregs of day are sucked from the sky won’t bring our boys home sooner.  Broad shouldered and athletic Thomas, whose ready wit and charming manner had already caught the eye of the young king and taken him away to the wars in France.  Leaving small, slender and serious Richard to lead a thin line of two score billmen – all that could be spared from Hellistone Hundred – to the muster at Durham.

Yes, she thought sadly, it’s not for Thomas we keep vigil.  For Thomas is in every way the soldier – in every aspect the boy my father never had.  But Richard, whose hands seem better suited to the quill than the sword – Richard, whose sober seriousness is such an uncanny echo of another Richard dead for almost thirty summers – Richard is very much his father’s son. 

They had bidden him godspeed in the Hall one hot August afternoon.  Gervaise’s eyes had been bright with unshed tears as Richard knelt before him for his blessing.  Afterwards he had struggled painfully to the solar window and stood there clutching at the sill, watching until the last tiny figures had rounded the edge of Hellistone Hill and were gone from sight.  That night he had clung to her like a child and poured  out his misery until her fingers had lulled him to sleep.

Book review: ‘Ruled Britannia’ by Harry Turtledove.

English: The "Darnley Portrait" of E...

English: The “Darnley Portrait” of Elizabeth I of England, oil on panel, 113 x 78.7 cm, National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG 2082). Probably painted from life, this portrait is the source of the face pattern called “The Mask of Youth” which would be used for authorized portraits of Elizabeth for decades to come (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One thing I’ve noticed about Harry Turtledove is that his mind-blowingly brilliant ideas and concepts are often let down by clunky delivery and wooden dialogue.  Not so in this case.  However, my one real gripe does concern Turtledove’s attempt to weave Shakespearean style language into the book.  The problem here is that he isn’t always consistent and that jars somewhat.  With that proviso, this is an exciting and absorbing story and one full of indications that Turtledove has done his background research on Elizabethan England in general and the atmosphere of late sixteenth century London in particular.

The action opens in 1598, ten years after the Duke of Parma‘s army successfully landed on the English coast and advanced on London.  England has been brought forcibly back into the papal fold and the forces of the Inquisition are freely used against dissenters both religious and political.  In fact in practice there is no difference between the two.  Queen Elizabeth languishes in the Tower of London and Warwickshire playwright Will Shakespeare finds himself caught on the horns of the mother of all dilemmas.  On the one hand the Spanish authorities want him to write a play that will reconcile the English to Spanish rule, on the other the English Resistance want him to write a play that will inspire rebellion.

It will take all of Will Shakespeare’s writing skill to do both things with the same piece of writing.  A good solid four out of five stars…

(Audio) Book Review: I, Davros Part 4 (Guilt)

I, Davros: Guilt

I, Davros: Guilt (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, it’s made by Big Finish Productions and this final episode definitely lives up to the name. The last vestiges of humanity are slowly peeled away and the crippled psycopathic genius is revealed in all his dark glory. Amongst several sterling performances, special mention has to go to Peter Miles as Lieutenant Nyder. His portrayal of the coldly sociopathic Security Commander Nyder in ‘Genesis of the Daleks‘ scared the hell out of me more than the icky embryo Daleks did. Ok – that was 1975 and I was only nine. Amazingly, the guy’s voice is just as creepily effective as he introduces us to a younger but no less ruthless Nyder. Other highlights include Davros‘ ‘removal’ of the Kaled Ruling Council and the compulsory ‘nursery’ care ordered by him for all new born Kaled children. One of these is Tech-Ops Ludella’s baby boy Kento. The following is a sample of the dialogue. However, the degree to which hearing it works on the imagination can’t be replicated here.

‘Nyder, please see that Ludella is – introduced – to our nursery.’

‘Davros, I have found Tech-Op Ludella unconscious outside. What should I do with her?’

‘Bring her inside. The children of Davros are – hungry. Who knows, when she wakens to see how pleased her son is to see his mother she may have a change of heart…’