The Sugar Merchant by James Hutson-Wiley

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When Thomas’s family is annihilated in a raid, his life changes forever. Wandering for days, starving and hopeless, he is rescued by a monk and is taken to live at the abbey of Eynsham. There he receives a curious education, training to be a scholar, a merchant and a spy. His mission: to develop commerce in Muslim lands and dispatch vital information to the Holy See.
His perilous adventures during the 11th century’s commercial revolution will take him far from his cloistered life to the great trading cities of Almeria, Amalfi, Alexandria and Cairo.

But the world in which he lives is chaotic. Struggling with love and loss, faith and fortune, can Thomas carry out his secret mission before conflict overtakes him?

Spanning the tumultuous medieval worlds of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, The Sugar Merchant is a tale of clashing cultures, massive economic change and one man’s determination to fulfill his destiny.

The 11th century world through which Thomas Woodward travels is changing; marked by the emergence of a disruptive commercial revolution. In the Mediterranean, the great Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam meet, often in cooperation and peace but, at times, in bloody conflict. It is an era of migration, globalism and multiculturalism leading to a robust interchange of technology, ideas and the basic tools of international trade. But, the interests of the Christian west are on a collision course with those of the Muslim world. War is coming. The Church is rallying the nobles of Europe to embark on an ‘armed pilgrimage’ to reclaim the Holy Land. Now, Thomas and his Muslim and Jewish partners’ lucrative sugar trade is in jeopardy. Thomas’s own secret and dangerous mission, directed from Rome, will become filled with even greater peril.

REVIEW

An intriguing tale of the 11th century, one that takes in bits of history that are not usual fare for this reviewer. The world of commerce, the world of mingling religions, the world of manuscript preservation – all of these story lines blended into the adventures of one remarkable protagonist, Thomas Woodward. The author gives a finely detailed look at not only the intricacies of world trade, but also the climatic clashes of the three “peoples of the book”, and the magnitude of the changes wrought by that clash.  While the main focus is on the trading enterprise, the huge demand for the new sensation, sugar being the ingredient that brings success to Thomas and his partners, it is also a cloak and dagger (or in Thomas’ case, a staff) espionage tale that adds a nice element of entertainment to the narrative. An excellent weaving of history and story telling, the reader is drawn into the inner turmoil Thomas experiences as his business success threatens his mortal soul. I recommend The Sugar Merchant – a delightful, yet thought provoking tale.  4 stars

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The Druid by Steven A. McKay

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Northern Britain, AD430

A land in turmoil. A village ablaze. A king’s daughter abducted.

In the aftermath of a surprise attack Dun Buic lies in smoking ruins and many innocent villagers are dead. As the survivors try to make sense of the night’s events the giant warrior-druid, Bellicus, is tasked with hunting down the raiders and thwarting their dark purpose.

With years of training in the old ways, two war-dogs at his side, and unsurpassed skill with a longsword, Bellicus’s quest will take him on a perilous journey through lands still struggling to cope with the departure of the Roman legions.

Meanwhile, amongst her brutal captors the little princess Catia finds an unlikely ally, but even he may not be able to avert the terrible fate King Hengist has in store for her.

This, the first volume in a stunning new series from the bestselling author of Wolf’s Head, explores the rich folklore and culture of post-Roman Britain, where blood-sacrifice, superstition and warfare were as much a part of everyday life as love, laughter and song.

As Saxon invaders and the new Christian religion seek to mould the country for their own ends one man will change the course of Britain’s history forever. . .

. . . THE DRUID.

REVIEW

When an author embarks on a new journey, a new set of stories and characters, it is a somewhat risky proposition. Can the author carry over the same creativity, the same character development, the same blend of historical authenticity and believable fiction. In The Druid, Mr. McKay has successfully ticked all of those boxes. It is at once a thrilling adventure, a romp through a volatile period of Britain’s history, but it is also a character driven tale. Bellicus is a complex man; a warrior, a healer, a teacher, a bard, a spiritual leader in an age where his kind are on the decline. The task awaiting him tests all of his abilities and his emotions as events unfold. One of the features I enjoyed was the inclusion of Merlin (or, more correctly The Merlin), and Arthur as important bit characters. Stripped of the more mythical renderings, they are more down to earth, so to speak.

So, my dear readers, if you were wondering if The Druid would be a continuation of the excellence in McKay’s Forest Lord series, wonder no more. 5 stars

The Dane Law by Garth Pettersen

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After a peaceful year running their Frisian estate, Harald and Selia are called to Engla-lond.

Their return is marked by violence and intrigue. The king has vowed to Queen Emma that their son, Harthacnute, will inherit the throne, but the atheling is cruel and reckless. Many view Harald as the better choice, which makes him a target for the unseen supporters of his half-brother. King Cnute urges Harald to be prepared to assume the throne should Harthacnute prove inadequate. Harald resists being swept up by forces beyond his control, but doubts he will survive the reign of King Hartha.

And what of his older brother, Sweyn?

REVIEW

Oh, the lengths one will go to if one longs for the crown, either for them self or their progeny. The Dane Law, as the blurb indicates, is the story of King Cnute’s sons and the tough decision to choose his successor. Well, that’s the main plot.  The author has crafted a tale that is so much more than that. It is also a love story, a story of determination and survival, a story of the duplicitous nature that is a royal court.  And, oh what a duplicitous lot of characters we have, my peeps.  Mind you, not all of the main characters are shady, unscrupulous, and single minded, but they sure make for an interesting, enjoyable, entertaining read.  Of the many things that I have found over the years that I’ve been reading and reviewing books, is the utmost pleasure derived from well developed characters, and The Dane Law certainly fulfills that criteria.  Of course, I felt like punching out the evildoer or at least screaming at their evil deeds and intentions, a sure sign that the author has done their job. 🙂

Another aspect of The Dane Law that, as a historian, I really appreciated was the use of  contemporary spellings of names and places. To me that reinforces the whole idea that England has such a long and varied history, and how that place evolved over the centuries to become what is is today, and the many other cultures influenced by that evolution. I might not know how to pronounce some of the names and places, however, I enjoy reading them all the same.  So, my dear reader prepare for a far flung adventure that has one turning pages in anticipation of what comes next in this tale, a lead up event to the Godwinson/William confrontation.  5 stars

Glass Island by Gareth Griffith

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Dark Age Britain – the Romans have gone, the Saxons are coming, the native Britons are in trouble. An exhilarating, yet tragic tale awaits you, dear reader; one that has it’s basis in the thin historical record of the period and that is expertly applied in a fictional context that is as believable as to seem like the truth. The author has given such life to the characters and a view of the world they lived in that makes one think this is the way it might have been. I was especially intrigued by the strong female presence among the male dominated warrior society and that they made a huge difference in the lives of their people, either by healing, guidance or even in warfare. The pivotal battle against the marauding Saxon’s (without giving away too much) is an excellent example of the author’s ability to make the reader feel a part of the chaos and turmoil; an aching with every loss is felt through the written words.  It is also a tale of resilience in the face of tremendous loss and an uncertain future – a tale of an age that was brutal, where only the strong survive. 4 Stars

Rome: The Emperor’s Spy by M.C. Scott

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Well now, my faithful legion of readers, I am somewhat baffled. I actually started to read this novel about five years ago, but through the vicissitudes of life, I never finished it. I, as you may have guessed by now, have finished after finding it snugged up with my collection of Tom Clancy novels, and then re-reading the beginning chapters. The tale takes place during the reign of Nero and while there are many plots and subplots, the famous episode of the burning of Rome is the focal point of the narrative. Nero is often depicted as a spoiled narcissist caring nothing except for his own pleasure and power. The author does indeed include those elements of his character, but also shows a side that cares deeply, if a bit mercurial, about the well being of his people. As for the famous fire and who caused it, it has been speculated that Christians were the culprits. Here is where the author transcends the oft repeated cause and takes it further, having the fire played out as a Sibylline prophecy with some surprises as to who runs with that prophecy and seeks Rome’s downfall. Indeed, I was taken aback slightly with this particular look at what I was brought up to believe about God and Jesus…not that that is a bad thing, by the way. I hesitate to say more as to not be a spoiler. Hint – be sure to read the author’s notes at the end. So, my peeps and fellow travelers, I absolutely recommend this highly entertaining rendering of Nero and his fire. After all, not only do you get that aspect, but also a spy tale, a charioteer tale, and remnants of the Boudiccan revolt all wrapped up in a superbly written book guaranteed to keep you turning the pages. 5 stars

 

A Black Matter for the King by Matthew Willis & J.A. Ironside

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Blurb

TWO POWERFUL RIVALS — ONE DECISIVE BATTLE

Now a political hostage in Falaise, Ælfgifa forms an unlikely friendship with William, Duke of Normandy. William has been swift to recognize her skills and exploit them to his advantage. However, unbeknownst to the duke, Gifa is acting as a spy for her brother, Harold Godwinson, a possible rival for the English throne currently in the failing grip of Edward the Confessor. Homesick and alienated by the Norman court, Gifa is torn between the Duke’s trust and the duty she owes her family.

William has subdued his dissenting nobles, and a united Normandy is within his grasp. But the tides of power and influence are rarely still. As William’s stature grows, the circle of those he can trust shrinks. Beyond the English Channel, William has received news of Edward’s astonishing decree regarding the succession. Ælfgifa returns to an England where an undercurrent of discontent bubbles beneath the surface. An England that may soon erupt in conflict as one king dies and another is chosen.

The ambitions of two powerful men will decide the fates of rival cultures in a single battle at Hastings that will change England, Europe, and the world in this compelling conclusion to the Oath & Crown series on the life and battles of William the Conqueror.

My Review

Let me start out by saying that Aelfgifa is probably the character in fiction I’ve found who is closest to me in terms of biting wit, though I will admit freely that I’ve never gone one on one with powerful individuals such as Duke William of Normandy, or her brother, Harold Godwinson. To me, those conversations were the highlight of this tale. That’s not to imply the other facets of the book aren’t worthy, indeed I was thoroughly entertained by this telling of the monumental events leading up to and including 1066. It is the kind of writing that draws the reader into the settings, you are sitting in the herb garden eavesdropping on William and Aelfgifa; thundering alongside William and Gallet as they spur their coursers into the enemy; commiserating with Aelfgifa as she struggles to convince Harold of a better course of action. Intense drama, creative working of the sparse historical record, and a detailed look into what made William and Harold tick. William’s volatile temperament, Harold’s miscalculated duplicity are a couple examples of the genesis that became the Norman invasion of Saxon England. A rousing, page turning tale awaits you my fellow readers. 5 stars

About the Authors

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J.A. Ironside (Jules) grew up in rural Dorset, surrounded by books – which pretty much set he up for life as a complete bibliophile. She loves speculative fiction of all stripes, especially fantasy and science fiction, although when it comes to the written word, she’s not choosy and will read almost anything. Actually it would be fair to say she starts to go a bit peculiar if she doesn’t get through at least three books a week. She writes across various genres, both adult and YA fiction, and it’s a rare story if there isn’t a fantastical or speculative element in there somewhere.

Jules has had several short stories published in magazines and anthologies, as well as recorded for literature podcasts. Books 1 and 2 of her popular Unveiled series are currently available with the 3rd and 4th books due for release Autumn/ Winter 2017.

She also co-authored the sweeping epic historical Oath and Crown Duology with Matthew Willis, released June 2017 from Penmore Press.

Jules now lives on the edge of the Cotswold way with her boyfriend creature and a small black and white cat, both of whom share a god-complex.

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Matthew Willis is an author of historical fiction, SF, fantasy and non-fiction. In June 2017 An Argument of Blood, the first of two historical novels about the Norman Conquest co-written with J.A. Ironside, was published. In 2015 his story Energy was shortlisted for the Bridport short story award.

Matthew studied Literature and History of Science at the University of Kent, where he wrote an MA thesis on Joseph Conrad and sailed for the University in national competitions. He subsequently worked as a journalist for Autosport and F1 Racing magazines, before switching to a career with the National Health Service.

His first non-fiction book, a history of the Blackburn Skua WW2 naval dive bomber, was published in 2007. He now has four non fiction books published with a fifth, a biography of test pilot Duncan Menzies, due later in 2017. He currently lives in Southampton and writes both fiction and non-fiction for a living.

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The Lady of the Tower by Elizabeth St.John

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I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book.  A fascinating tale of the period when England said goodbye to the Tudors and hello to the Stuarts. The protagonist, Lucy, grows up in a household where she is treated with contempt by her guardian and by her scheming sister Barbara. In a time when women had very little say in their futures and where the intricate, backstabbing antics of the Royal Court, Lucy struggles to survive.  Married to an important member of the King’s retinue of courtiers, she finds herself living in the infamous Tower of London, the wife of the Tower Gaoler.

The author paints a vivid picture of life in the early 17th century. I was drawn in by the descriptive, and indeed the educative nature that arises from the pages. Lucy, a woman, dares to formulate and even more daring, lets her opinions known. It was indeed a world dominated by men of noble birth, not very unlike the world we live in now(substitute rich for noble). In Lucy’s words, “I so tire of these court behaviors, where the men who rule think only of their own affairs and not of those of the citizens of this land.” Words that I utter every day.

I chose to read this book not knowing much of the period, at least not from the perspective of the court of King James and his son Charles. I now know a lot more, and if there is one thing I love to do is to learn history. If I can do that and be entertained along the way, then so much the better. The author has done those things while at the same time preparing the way for a sequel. After all of the pain, anguish, fear, and even the joys of her life, Lucy emerges as one of the more interesting characters I have come across in my historical-fiction reading. 5 stars