“Sharpe’s Company,” by Bernard Cornwell

16 Feb

“Sharpe’s Company,” by Bernard Cornwell (332p)

Richard Sharpe and the Siege of Badajoz, January-April 1812

The third novel he had ever written, and originally published in 1982, Sharpe’s Company continues the story of British Rifleman Richard Sharpe during the Napoleonic Wars. It is a new year, 1812, the most tumultuous year of the Napoleonic wars, and Britain is finally ready to march into Spain itself. Standing in its way were the twin fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo and the monstrous, towering citadel of Badajoz, which the British must take if it were to drive France out of occupied Spain.

The story begins with the assault on Ciudad Rodrigo, which was the northern barrier into Spain. Sharpe and Harper lead an assault on the French and are apart of the party which successfully breaches into the city, overwhelming the French defenders and capturing Ciudad Rodrigo. Unfortunately, during the assault Sharpe’s commander and long-time friend Col. William Lawford is severely wounded when a mine is detonated, losing an arm and retires from his post as commander of the regiment. Sharpe, saddened by the lose of his friend, has new issues to worry about as Lawford’s departure meant a new colonel would arrive, and that also placed Sharpe’s captaincy (his gazette had yet to be confirmed) over the Light Company in severe jeopardy. It gets worse for Sharpe, though, when his old enemy, Obadiah Hakeswill makes his return. Hakeswill’s hatred of Sharpe and Sharpe’s of Hakeswill sees them soon feuding when Hakeswill makes his first attempts to wrap the Light Company around his fingers by attempting to rape Sharpe’s mistress and the mother of his child, Teresa Moreno.

Lawford’s replacement, Col. Windham, arrives into camp as Sharpe finished dealing with Hakeswill. With him is Sharpe’s replacement: Cap. Rymer. Sharpe is demoted back to lieutenant and placed in charge of the baggage train as the regiment digs trenches around Badajoz. While visiting the men the French attack but neither side is able to use its weapons due to the rain and it turns into a fight with shovels and spades, eventually seeing the French attackers run back to the city. But in Sharpe’s absence the baggage train had been ransacked – by Hakeswill – and the sergeant made his move against Harper, planting a prized possession of the colonel’s in Harper’s belongings. Harper is flogged sixty times as punishment and demoted to private, handing full control of the company to Hakeswill as Rymer is incapable of leadership.

As Britain prepares for its assault on Badajoz, Windham is charged with leading an expedition to blow up a section of the fortifications. Before the attack, Harper’s seven-barrelled gun, a gift from Sharpe, is taken from him by Hakeswill, as it is a non-regulation weapon. When the Light Company takes longer than expected Windham sends Sharpe to find out the cause of the delay. Sharpe arrives to see the Light Company doing nothing due to Rymer’s incompetence. Sharpe fires at a French sentry and decides to blow the wall himself. Riflemen give him cover fire as he attempts to light the fuse on the powder barrels and barrels explode, but the wall is too strong to be destroyed. As Sharpe falls back into the dam he is shot in the leg by Hakeswill, using Harper’s seven-barrelled gun, until being rescued by Harper.

Sharpe recovers from his wounds quickly enough but is dealt another blow by Windham – he is removed from the company all together under the pretence of allowing Rymer to gain control of the Light Company. Hakeswill continues to control the company, however, and soon sees to it that the Rifleman attached to the South Essex<sup>1</sup> are stripped of their honours, rifles and green jackets, and all returned to the level of redcoat privates. Sharpe intervenes and humiliates Hakeswill by pretending to shoot him with the discarded rifles, to which Hakeswill vows revenge by getting to Teresa, who is in Badajoz, before Sharpe does. Sharpe seemingly might not even be participating in the battle after Wellington picks his brain over the strength of the breach; the general refuses Sharpe’s request to lead the Forlorn Hope (called forlorn as it meant certain death, “somebody has to go first”) and instead will guide those men into position and falling back. Wellington explains his reason to Sharpe as he thinks Sharpe is too valuable otherwise sacrifice during an attack which will likely result in a heavy loss of life.

Sharpe nevertheless ignores Wellington’s order and finds his way back to the Light Company. Upon arrival he finds them devastated by cannon fire, Rymer dead and Windham attempting to lead the attack on the breach. Sharpe resumes leadership of the company and takes them over the breach. Captain Knowles, Sharpe’s old lieutenant, is the first into Badajoz and his men overrun the remaining French defenders and begin to break into homes, raping women and pillaging and destroying. Hakeswill had also managed to climb into Badajoz after conveniently disappearing during the siege, and armed with a bayonet and pistol he sets off in the direction of Teresa Moreno’s home. Knowles reached Teresa’s house first but Hakeswill, who had been following, climbed to the upstairs room where the baby Antonia is and as Knowles enters, Hakeswill shoots him. He then threatens to kill the baby unless Teresa has sex with him as Sharpe and Harper had fought their way across Badajoz. They meet Hakeswill face-to-face in Teresa’s bedroom, only wresting away the child and Teresa when Harper provokes Hakeswill’s madness, but the rogue sergeant escapes through a window, running off into the Spanish night as a deserter. Following the siege Harper is returned as a sergeant and the riflemen have their green jackets returned to them, and Sharpe is praised for his bravery and loyalty, now officially made a captain of his Light Company.

I liked Sharpe’s Company quite a lot. It is one of the Sharpe novels written before the series really took off, still in Cornwell’s infancy as a writer. Thus, like all the early Sharpe novels, it’s a simple story with an easy to follow plot. By no means is it a by the numbers adventure tale – which, unfortunately, some of the later Sharpe novels closer resemble – because in Sharpe’s Company, Cornwell began to properly expand the character and his world by introducing more side characters with their own backgrounds and roles to the story. Hakeswill represents this and would later become extended beyond just the one novel, becoming Cornwell’s favourite villain. Other developments to Sharpe’s character also include facing adversity from within the army, which I enjoyed as something different because at times Sharpe’s independence and free will of the norm is often taken to beyond believable lengths. In Sharpe’s Company he is often brought back down to earth and that’s an important aspect to any character’s development. So to is the emphasis on the bond Sharpe has with his men because such a bond is a crucial side to successful groups of men. Cornwell went to great lengths to explain how and why Sharpe has such a command of the Light Company, a change from the common mistrust and feelings of lack of support that he endured in the earlier novels.

Easy to read, Sharpe’s Company is certainly up there among my favourites in the Sharpe series. There is a certain rawness to the story and the feel of the novel itself that, I think, many fans of this genre and novels like this will find appealing. Obviously, if you had read the previous Sharpe’s there is no reason for you to stop as the remaining novels – the “original series” – are all fantastic. As I always say when reviewing Sharpe novels is if this review has interested you into reading the Sharpe series than go back to the start and read from there. While this novel would actually be great as a stand-alone anyway you would be really missing out on what is a truly fantastic historical fiction series by one of this generation’s great storytellers.

8.5/10.

“The Winter King,” by Bernard Cornwell

20 Jul

“The Winter King,” by Bernard Cornwell (512p)

The Winter King is the first in a trilogy of Bernard Cornwell’s take on the King Arthur legend. Cornwell’s telling of the King Arthur legend is a “historical” version, meaning he has placed it in the real world setting of post-Roman Britain in the second half of the fifth century. The Winter King is tells the story of Arthur’s return to Britain from exile and the brewing civil war between the petty kingdoms in the face of the impending Saxon invasion.

The lord Derfel is now old and serves the rest of his life as a monk, but once he was a captain and champion of Arthur’s Britain. He has been tasked by the Queen of Powys, Igraine, to write Arthur’s life story (under the guise of a translated gospel for the Saxons to trick the tyrannical Bishop Sansum, who despised Arthur and his paganism) for her and for the Britons as the invading Saxons creep ever closer. But the story begins years before that, when Derfel is a young lad training to be a warrior, while Arthur himself is living in exile in Armorica (modern Brittany). The High King Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s father and King of Dumnonia in his own right, had banished him there when the Crown Prince and heir Mordred was slain in battle against the Saxons and Uther held Arthur, his illegitimate son, responsible. The hopes of Dumnonia’s future fell to Mordred’s widow Norwenna, pregnant. She would give birth to a son but not the picture of strength and nobility Uther had been hoping for, but rather she gives birth to a disfigured crippled boy with a clubbed foot, named Mordred after his father. The child and mother were fostered at Merlin’s home Ynys Wydryn (Glastonbury) under the care of Morgan, Arthur’s sister, where the young Derfel resides with Nimue. Merlin himself has not been seen in Britain for years.

Uther convenes the kings of Britain for a high council to establish the Dumnonian succession. The King of Powys does not attend and the King of Siluria arrives late. Uther makes it clear Mordred will succeed him and until he comes of age, three men (King Tewdric of Gwent, Owain the champion of Dumnonia, and Merlin) shall act as guardians. Morgan, acting for Merlin, declares he would only accept such a role of Arthur is also made a guardian, but Uther refuses and publically disowns Arthur. Soon after Uther dies and Mordred becomes King of Dumnonia, but the Britons quickly descend into civil war when Gorfyddyd of Powys attacks Gwent and the King of Siluria betrays his pledge to Uther and attacks Ynys Wydren in a bid to become High King. Arthur, however, returns to Britain and saves the besieged Dumnonians and defeats Gundleus, the Silurian king, taking him prisoner. Arthur wishes to unite the British kingdoms against the Saxons and agrees a peace treaty with Powys, frees Gundleus to his throne and agrees to marry Ceinwyn, Gorfyddyd’s beautiful daughter. But Arthur shatters the peace when he falls in love with Guinevere, secretly marrying her and rejecting Ceinwyn, plunging Britain back into a war with itself.

In the mean time, Derfel had grown into a man and a warrior in Arthur’s service, being given the name “Cadarn”, which meant the mighty. He is sent across the channel to Armorica to assist King Ban of Benoic in his war against the Franks. Linking up with Arthur’s cousin Culhwch, he is taken to Ynys Trebes (modern Mont. St-Michel) to meet King Ban and his heir, Lancelot, to whom Derfel takes an immediate dislike to. Lancelot is rude, arrogant and cowardly, and Derfel almost kills him following an insult. Lancelot and Derfel would be enemies for life. Escorted out of Ynys Trebes, he gains a friend and ally in Galahad (Lancelot’s illegitimate half-brother) who joins Derfel’s small army. Derfel spends three years defending Ban’s lands from the Franks and, while often successful, it is ultimately useless as the sheer number of Franks overwhelms them, and pushes them right back to Ynys Trebes itself. After eight months under siege Ynys Trebes eventually falls to the Franks. In the destruction of the city, to which the cowardly Lancelot is the first to escape, Derfel uncovers the true identity of the embittered priest that lived in the city: Merlin. Merlin escapes with Galahad and Derfel and he returns to Britain, before quickly disappearing again. Lancelot had arrived back in Britain first, however, and intended to disgrace Derfel by holding him responsible for the fall of Ynys Trebes and the death of Ban, but Derfel challenges Lancelot to a duel. It is only Arthur’s intervention and stubborn faith in the good of people that prevents a full scale fight between the two.

While Derfel was absent Nimue, to whom he had been linked together by a blood-oath, had been declared mad and banished to the Isle of the Dead. Derfel rescues her and the two becomes lovers for a short time. Arthur’s war against Powys had continued to rage in Derfel’s absence and was bleeding the Britons dry, so Arthur planned to end it for good. He had to also ensure a peace with the Saxons and so taxes the Christian monasteries and pagan temples heavily, an act the Christians never forgave him for. He manages to buy a season of peace from Ælle, the self-styled Bretwalda and information on how to capture the Powys stronghold of Ratae (modern Leicester). To learn of Gorfyddyd’s intentions Arthur sends Galahad and Derfel to meet with him under a flag of truce, and there Derfel himself falls utterly in love with Ceinwyn – however, his beloved had been betrothed to Gundleus by Gorfyddyd to secure an alliance while Arthur wanted her to marry Lancelot. Ceinwyn wanted neither and just wanted to be left alone, and softly rejects Derfel’s pledge of love, but accepts his oath to protect her freedom. Arthur is left to attack Gorfyddyd and Gundleus alone when Tewdric of Gwent refuses to commit to an alliance and remains neutral, claiming his only responsibility is to perverse the life of Mordred and not to wage war against the other kingdoms. Arthur is left with the only option of fighting Gorfyddyd and Gundleus alone.

Marching in the night, Derfel and the main army arrive at Lugg Vale while Arthur’s horsemen destroy the vanguard. Arthur switches armour with Derfel as well in a ploy to trick the Powysian army. Despite having the high ground the Dumnonians are out-numbered and forced uphill, and Arthur’s plans to out manoeuvre the Powys army with a sudden cavalry charge fails, leaving things at a loss. But the face of the battle changes dramatically when the Irish, paid off by Gorfyddyd, switch sides, and smash the Powsyian army, saving Arthur and killing Gorfyddyd. His son, the far more pragmatic and sensible, Cuneglas, is now King of Powys and immediately calls for a halt in he fighting and offers Arthur the promise of peace and an alliance against the next Saxon invasion, bringing an end to the destructive civil war and establishing Arthur as the preeminent lord in Britain. The story is continued in Enemy of God.

If the number of reviews wasn’t obvious, I am a massive Bernard Cornwell fan. I have loved almost everything he has written, but the Warlord Chronicles are easily my favourite of all his novels after originally reading them in 2007. The Winter King is an engrossing and gripping read that will pull the reader right in. Post-Roman Britain is a complex world with much of the raw facts lost to history, yet nothing in this feels as though it doesn’t belong. He has properly depicted what life in post-Roman Britain would have been like. It is a largely lawless society with no proper order and a handful of noble lords from small petty kingdoms vying to be the High King and succeed the Romans, all the while in a society facing imminent destruction from the Saxons while also witnessing the beginning of the slow transformation from paganism to Christianity. If Arthur ever existed (and I believe he did), I have always been one of the people that believed this is the Britain he lived in. And so, with very few refutable facts to go by, Cornwell probably made most of it up, but the end product is a completely believable world that, from what I understand, is pretty much exactly how we know post-Roman Britain to be.

All the known favourites from the Arthurian story are included in the story. But what I like most is the way he has tweaked it, to give his version of Arthur an original voice and depiction. Arthur is as you would expect him to be but his supporting cast is excellent, particularly in the latter two books, and rather quite original. Lancelot, usually cast as Arthur’s greatest knight and most loyal subject, is completely transformed into a snivelling little shit of a man that everyone can see but Arthur, and Cornwell’s skill as a writer makes you dislike him. This is pretty rare from me as I usually end up loving the villains (I wanted Voldemort to “win” and kill Harry Potter), but the way he made Lancelot such an unappealing character turned out to be one of the best parts. Characterisation is important and this novels delivers on that front superbly, and I think most will enjoy the somewhat newer depictions of a number of old favourites.

On the whole, The Winter King is a bit unlike the rest of Cornwell’s novels, which are much more precise and less sprawling in their nature. Rather, The Winter King adds a lot more politics and intrigue to its story and attempts to explain the power struggles by the many kings and wannabe kings of the land. It is nothing like Sharpe either, which tend to be more “episodic” whereas this is just one long story. You would have to read The Winter King before moving on to the next two parts of the trilogy, but I think that would be a wise thing to do anyway. It is a great story to begin with – who doesn’t like King Arthur? – but this really is an original telling, written by one of the great action writers of the last thirty years. It is not simply a novel of war, but a novel of a lost society still trying to find its way and survive, combining the real and the imagined to be told by a man who saw it all. Highly recommended.

9.5/10.

“Bones of the Hills,” by Conn Iggulden

3 Jul

“Bones of the Hills,” by Conn Iggulden (540p)

Bones of the Hills is the third and final novel in Conn Iggulden’s trilogy of the life of Genghis Khan and the formation of the Mongol Empire. Depicting the conquest of Central Asia and the war against the Khwarezm-Shah Empire, it also tells the story of Genghis’ later life as Great Khan and the looming succession crisis facing the Mongols once Genghis is gone between his three ambitious sons.

After the conquest of Yenking (see Lords of the Bow here), Genghis Khan had sent his three eldest sons Jochi, Chagatai and Ogedai on scouting and conquering missions to lands far from the ancestral Mongol homeland to practice and hone their skills. Jochi had travelled to Russia under the tutelage of Tsubodai, Ogedai had ventured south in pursuit of the Chinese Emperor to Kaifeng with his uncle Khasar, while Chagati had accompanied Jelme to Goryeo (modern Korea) in search of spoils, tribute and submission from the ruling Wang Dynasty. But now Genghis was calling them back to the fold of his Mongol nation, the great horde, for a coming war.

The Arab lands to the south had greatly affronted Genghis by refusing his envoys and offers of trade, brutally killing his ambassadors and scouts and returning their heads. Genghis, taking great offence and hurt to seeing his wishes challenged, declares war on the leader of these unknown people, Shah Muhammad II of Khwarezm and plans to take almost his entire nation south-west to the desert and mountains with a force 200,000 strong. In rapid succession Genghis, his brothers and sons, and generals destroy Shah Muhammad’s armies and cities with a great victory outside Otrar, reducing the Khwarezm army to ruins. Genghis turns his vengeance on Otrar itself, destroying the city and forever reducing it to ruin. He sacked and destroyed Merv and Urgench and conquered Burhkara and the great city of Samarkand with ease. Only the exiled princes of the deceased Shah, chased beyond the Caspian Sea, remained to challenge Genghis’ control over the Khwarezm Empire. He also had to deal with threats on his life by fanatical Shia Muslim assassins and rode to batter their secret fortresses deep in the Persian mountains, destroying their order for good. Returning to Samarkand, Genghis sat idle with his people and began to contemplate the final years of his life. Did he turn to civilisation and cities and keep his people in one place or return to the nomadic existence they had known all their lives? Genghis was also faced with the succession as he grew older. He had groomed Chagatai for the role all his life and spurned Jochi, the eldest son, but their continued rivalry and fighting amongst the nation humiliated Genghis and his reputation, and so he named Ogedai as his successor and swore his family and people to follow Ogedai once Genghis was gone.

Rebellion soon surfaced. The son of the dead Shah, Jelaudin, had returned with an army travelling north from the southern reaches of the Khwarezm Empire and beyond, from India and the Afghan lands. Despite sending Kachiun and Jelme, Jelaudin inflicted the first crushing defeat on Genghis Khan’s Mongols in history, forcing Genghis to take the field himself. Genghis was without Tsubodai, though, as the legendary general had been sent north (to somewhere in Siberia) to retrieve Jochi after the khan’s son had refused to return to camp following a scouting mission, disobeying Genghis and forcing Tsubodai into the heart wrenching (at least for him) decision to execute him. Despite Tsubodai’s absence Genghis routed the last Arab army on the banks of the Indus, destroying the force completely even if Jelaudin escaped. His last tasks in the Arab lands was to exact revenge on the rebellious cities that had gone against him and he turned Herat and Balkh into virtual ghost towns.

With Samarkand and Bukhara already in his power he turned east and headed for home with one more war to fight as the Xi Xia kingdom had rebelled against the Mongols, thinking them to be too far stretched to keep power. Genghis headed east but did not make it – he fell from his horse and soon died, leaving the Mongol nation to his son Ogedai with brothers Khasar and Kachiun and Tsubodai, Jebe and Jelme to rule. Genghis’ final wish was fulfilled as his family exacted revenge on the Xi Xia kingdoms, utterly destroying them with Ogedai at the head of a new Mongol nation.

You know when you are really looking forward to something and when you finally get it, it wasn’t quite as good as you were hoping? That’s sort of how I feel about Bones of the Hills. Don’t get me wrong, it was quite a good novel. Very good, in fact. I had been eagerly anticipating the mass market paperback release since the gripping finish of Lords of the Bow last year and perhaps that had something to do with it, but I just felt it wasn’t nearly as good as I hoping it to be. This is mainly because certain parts of it dragged, particularly in a lot of the sections devoted to Jelaudin and the dying Shah on the run from the Mongols. Too often I felt Iggulden switched point of view to them for an irrelevant passage that did not need to be there, and I felt that could have been done without. The middle parts of the novel rather lacked some direction as well and it was a bit of a situation where I thought the characters were all standing around waiting to get into the next part, and a lot of useless passages could have probably been done without to keep the pace moving at the sort of speed I have grown used to when reading Iggulden. It is more or less the only section of the trilogy I have actually disliked.

The dynamics of the novel changed quite a lot as well. Previously, Genghis’ brothers Kachiun and Khasar were integral to the story, but they were largely anonymous for the most part in Bones of the Hills, only forming peripheries to the story and then only becoming important again right towards the end. This was something I didn’t like because I always enjoyed Khasar as a character, Iggulden depicted him quite differently from his infinitely more serious brothers. He lightened the mood and allowed the reader a respite from the brutality and ruthlessness of Genghis, and I felt the novel suffered with him absent. Genghis himself dominates most of the narrative, as expected, and Iggulden has certainly captured the many contradictions of this man to create the image of a truly ruthless military mastermind but also genial family man true to his roots as a Mongol. The shift away from his brothers to the others in the nation in the narrative continued with Jochi being such a focal point for most of the novel. Iggulden is favourable to Jochi, presenting him as a brilliant military mind and charismatic general, and again went to great lengths to create the intolerable way Genghis treated his first son. Their relationship is quite interesting and develops a lot early, first going from grudging tolerance and then to open hostility when Jochi finally rebelled. Jochi is such an interesting character and is one of the most developed in the trilogy and while I missed Khasar I enjoyed Jochi’s presence, and I don’t think there are many people who couldn’t feel sympathy for Jochi with the way Genghis treated him throughout his life.

I have enjoyed this trilogy a lot. Iggulden’s style is easy to appreciate and follow – he moves at a fast pace, going from battle to battle and creating his world in effortless strides that produces a proper page turner. It is easy to get lost in this series and demolish several dozen pages in one sitting. I didn’t think he ended it right, though, and don’t think Bones of the Hills is the best of the three, but on the whole it would be hard to say I was overly disappointed because it was a good novel, just not as a good as the one that came before it because of that rather dreary middle section. To complete the trilogy it is a must read and caps off the life of Genghis Khan perfectly. At no point do you ever lose sight that this man was the scared little boy left alone by the tribes when his father was murdered, even if he was then the most powerful man in the world. Iggulden has captured the life and spirit and personality of one of history’s most complex and interesting figures superbly and done so in a way that makes you fly through the pages and want to read more, and for that I recommend it to anyone if they are captivated by military adventure historical novels. I am, that’s why I can’t wait for the second trilogy and the rest of the life of Ogedai Khan.

7.5/10.

“A Game of Thrones,” by George R.R. Martin

2 Jun

“A Game of Thrones,” by George R.R. Martin (807p)

A Game of Thrones is the first novel in an as yet unfinished planned seven part series by American fantasy author George R.R. Martin. Set in the fictional world of Westeros, a realm resembling medieval Europe, it tells three stories roughly connected from the viewpoint of several main characters. The first story is told by Daenerys Targaryen, the exiled princess of the overthrown king living in the mysterious eastern land with her brother Viserys. The second story is told by Jon Snow, bastard son of Eddard Stark sent north to serve his life as a guardian of the wall that protects the lands of Westeros from the evil that lurks beyond. The third story is the main story told by most of the character viewpoints, and concerns the eventual civil war between the competing houses Stark and Lannister following the suspicious death of the king’s right-hand man. This story is told by Eddard Stark, the new Hand of the King; Catelyn Stark, wife of Eddard; Sansa, Arya and Bran, their children; and Tyrion Lannister, the brother of the ambitious queen Cersei and son of the most powerful lord in the realm.

In the east, Daenerys Targaryen travels with her brother Viserys in the search of a political marriage match with a powerful lord in return for an army to win back his birth-right, the kingship of the Seven Kingdom. The ruling Targaryen’s were overthrown in a rebellion led by Robert Baratheon (now king), and every member of the royal family either died in battle or were summarily executed, leaving just Viserys and Daenerys to live in exile. Viserys is far from a loving brother, however, and regularly beats and terrorises his younger sister. As Daenerys embraces the life and culture of her new people, her brother grows continuously discontent and impatient waiting for his promised army. His increasingly boorish and disrespectful behaviour leads to tragedy, and Daenerys is eventually left with nothing in a strange hostile foreign world following the death of Khal Drogo, her husband. As she takes her own revenge on those who took everything away from her and buries her loved one, a stunning transformation occurs with the ornamental dragons eggs Daenerys carried with her as a symbol of the lost Targaryen might. Daenerys Targaryen had re-awoken the dragon.

Jon Snow is the bastard son of Lord Eddard Stark, Warden of the North and Lord of Winterfell. He seeks to join the Night’s Watch, the black covered men sworn to man the wall separating Westeros and the evil beyond. After travelling north with his uncle Benjen Stark, who disappears one day while on patrol beyond the wall. Jon settles into his training and soon progresses quickly, his earlier knights training at Winterfell serving him well. Upon his swearing of the oath that would bound him to the brotherhood for life, Jon is dismayed when he is assigned to a lesser role than he thought he would receive but endeavours to make the best of it. He is convinced his true calling is to command and makes his full commitment to the Night’s Watch, proving himself to himself, as the King-beyond-the-Wall begins his first march south bringing all his evil with him. Jon Snow knows his place is with the wall.

The main story, though, concerns the story of the Seven Kingdoms. In the prologue Eddard Stark, called Ned, executes a man for deserting the Night’s Watch and on his return to Winterfell, comes across a fallen direwolf (the herald of the House Stark) killed by the antler of a stag (the herald of the royal House Baratheon), leaving behind it six pups – five for the natural born legitimate Stark children and one albino pup, given to the bastard Jon Snow. They return to Winterfell shortly before King Robert, his family and all his retinue arrive for a royal visit, rare to the northern lands. Robert’s visit is really just a guise to ask Ned to become the new Hand of the King following the death of Jon Arryn. He also promises to wed Sansa, Ned’s daughter, to his son and heir, Prince Joffrey. Reluctantly Ned agrees because he wishes to find the truth of Jon Arryn’s death, suspecting the Lannister family. Preparations are made to journey south to King’s Landing, the capital, leaving behind his wife Catelyn to rule with his eldest son and heir, Robb. But Bran, the middle son, accidentally stumbles upon a terrible secret shared between the twins Jaime Lannister and Cersei, the queen, and befalls a tragedy himself. Ned still decides to depart and takes his daughters Sansa and Arya with him, and shortly after his departure an attempt is made on the life of Bran and Catelyn. Her discovery of the knife that tried to kill her and her son forces her to also take leave of Winterfell and head south to seek out her husband.

In King’s Landing Ned chafes under the horrors of court life. The intrigue, backstabbing, lying and untrustworthiness of every man and woman causes him much grief. His investigations into the murder of Jon Arryn continue and he frequently clashes with the unsavoury members of court over it – Varys, the eunuch with all the eyes and ears in the city; Littlefinger, a man who had once loved his wife and is now an influential councillor; Robert, the king who hates being king; and the Lannisters, the worst of them all. Catelyn arrives in King’s Landing and discovers the owner of the knife used in the attempt on her life belonged to Tyrion Lannister. Travelling north again, Catelyn and her company stumble upon Tyrion by chance in an inn and take him prisoner and head east, not north, and the lands of the Eyrie and the Vale of Arryn, which is being ruled by Catelyn’s sister Lysa following the death of Jon Arryn. This act, taking a son of the most powerful family in the kingdom prisoner, stirs the Lord of Lannister into action, and be begins to mobilise his forces – war is coming.

Ned Stark pieces together the mystery of Jon Arryn’s death and eventually discovers the truth, the same truth his son Bran discovered at Winterfell. Queen Cersei’s plan to have her son Joffrey become king succeeds when King Robert is slain while hunting, and Ned is betrayed and captured by the Lannisters. Offering himself to Joffrey to free Sansa and Arya, he is brutally executed by Joffrey and Sansa is captured again, her sister Arya had stolen away in the night. The Lannisters had made their bid for absolute power and now reigned supreme over the Seven Kingdoms. Civil war erupts as the noble houses declare for either Stark or Lannister. The Tully’s obligingly side with the Starks and join forces with Robb Stark, now Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North, as he leads an army south to face the Lannister army. The Frey’s declare for Stark as well as Catelyn negotiates a series of dynastic marriages tying the two houses together. As a series of decisive battles are fought and won, with the Stark army defeating Jaime Lannister’s forces, the younger brother of the deceased Robert heads south and proclaims himself king with the support of House Tyrell. Robb Stark is also proclaimed King in the North and supported by the Tully and Stark banner-houses, while the Lannister’s hole up in King’s Landing, Tyrion Lannister ruling as the new Hand of the King. The story continues in A Clash of Kings.

A Game of Thrones is an epic novel. It is epic in scope and depth with a full cavalcade of different characters, each of whom have their own personalities and fleshed out story. It is obvious Martin has put a hell of a lot of effort into this, you can see it in the writing the way everything connects and there are no holes in the story. His skill as a writer is also exemplary, for his style of multiple points of view told by a series of character is challenging, and easy to make a meal of. But Martin manages to seamlessly switch between characters and give them all their own distinguishable voice and personality, perfectly switching from noble lord to whimsical little girl to mischievous and cunning dwarf. Even the characters that do have their own point of view chapters are suitably personalised and distinct, so the full cast of characters is wonderfully put together.

The dialogue flows easily and fluently, nowhere does it seem forced or contrived, which is important in a story where the majority is told through the dialogue rather than the narrative. His style is actually quite similar to Sharon Kay Penman. That also makes it eminently readable and a real page turner, I found myself ploughing through chapter after chapter and went through more than a hundred pages in one sitting (and I’m a notoriously slow reader). For such a complex story with so many things going on at the same time for the reader to digest, this is a real accomplishment by the author.

While this does fall into the genre of fantasy, it’s not really the stereotypical fantasy novel. For one thing, magic plays almost no role in A Game of Thrones, and the supernatural elements are confined to the usual superstition and mysticism found in the past. The series is essentially written to resemble the Late Middle Ages in Europe (and the story is based on the War of the Roses), so I would think of it more as historical fantasy rather than clear cut fantasy. The setting and images created in the narrative immediately resemble any description I have read of medieval Europe. This is quite an adult novel as well with all of the politics involved a lot to digest and make sense of, but seasoned readers will grasp the political manoeuvrings of Cersei Lannister and Ned Stark easily. Anyone interested in trying a book in this genre would be wise to consider A Game of Thrones because it is an enrapturing and engrossing read that will pull anyone right into this ruthless, complex and intriguing world the author has intricately created. Do not be put off by the fantastical setting or classification because this novel and series is so much more than that, it’s many things, and a very worthy read.

10/10.

“Fever Pitch,” by Nick Hornby

28 May

“Fever Pitch,” by Nick Hornby (239p)

Fever Pitch is self-confessed football (soccer) tragic Nick Hornby’s semi-autobiography and memoir of his life built around supporting Arsenal FC. Originally written in 1992, Hornby chronicles his youth and teenage years growing up as a divorced child, his years at university, and first forays into adulthood while connecting everything to his obsession of the Arsenal, fan worship and the way obsessions find a way to rule a man’s life. The memoir is told in the format of each chapter being a short essay on the lead-up and goings on in his life preceding a particular match.

The story begins when Hornby is still quite young with his parents divorced and living separately, a uniqueness to a middle England that made him one of the only boys with an absentee parent at his school. His father had attempted many failed ways of reaching out to his son to spend time with him when he could – nothing worked much, and days at the zoo were enjoyed by neither father nor son. Eventually, his father talked Nick into taking him to a football match, despite Nick protesting he had no interest in football. This was soon to change. His first match was in 1968, Arsenal versus Stoke, at Highbury in London. Young Nick became enraptured by the game and developed an admitted unhealthy obsession with the Arsenal, and soon his relationship with his absentee father became shaped around the club – he would make sure his father could come over to spend the day with him whenever Arsenal had a home match, and that was their father-son relationship for several years. Football, Arsenal and Highbury.

Eventually, the football became their only reason to spend time together, and as Nick began to reach his teenage years he soon branched out into supporting his obsession on his own when he no longer needed the company his father to attend matches with, and could go on his own. To the teenaged Nick Hornby, football and Arsenal was a matter of life and death, and he cites this as the true height of his obsession. He likens attending a match to growing up into adulthood – first, you’re young and therefore have to sit in the safe seats with the rest of the older men, but as you grow up and start becoming your own man, you finally get to stand in the big, swaying and over-populated home terrace behind the goals with the rest of the big boys. Football never really suffered at first when he became interested in girls, either, combining the two in an uneasy juggling act until he hit his late teens.

In his late teens, Nick Hornby’s obsession waned. He stopped attending matches – and by his own admission, that includes the Wednesday night matches in the middle of god-knows-where in the north in winter – regularly and eventually not at all for several years, as he found a replacement for his Arsenal obsession. Girls, music, drinking, drugs and literature filled his time instead and he regarded Arsenal and football as behind him.

That changed when he hit university at Cambridge, however, as the obsession came back when he started attending local Cambridge United matches, and then eventually travelling back into London for every Arsenal home match. Hornby embraced the return of his obsession and became comfortable with it, feeling a different man from the teenager whose very existence seemingly depended on an Arsenal home win, he grew to accept the tyranny that football still held over him and learned to not drag down his friends and family with him as he once did. Now in his full adulthood, Hornby likens his dream of seeing Arsenal finally win the league (Arsenal did not win it from 1971 to 1989, during which most of Fever Pitch takes place) to the realisation of his dream in being able to write for a living. According to Hornby, for the obsessive, football’s high and lows matched his own life’s highs and lows, because what goes around comes around.

I am a football fan and I am also an Arsenal fan, and I have read Fever Pitch at least four times. I, naturally, love it. It is one of my all-time favourite reads. I realise that the subject matter will probably be unappealing to most people, particular people who don’t have the first clue about football or any interest in it. But the funny thing about this book is that even if you aren’t football fan it is still bound to resonate with you, because we all have something we obsess over and involve ourselves in so deeply it becomes the main part of our life. It doesn’t necessarily have to be football and this is not a football book in itself. I get this book, because I get football and I get why that club and why that sport became so important to him. I have spent the majority of my life feeling much the same as Hornby as I have supported Arsenal since 1992 in my own right.

But this is a book that any person can read and understand; we all have our obsessions and whatever it is – music, film, reading – it all ends up the same. Hornby’s writing style and humour makes it a funny read as he unabashedly shares some of the more unfortunate stories of his life and times supporting the Arsenal with self-depracating humour and brutal honesty. He also writes about many themes that a lot of men can relate to, as I think we all went through the same thing growing up, so his thoughts on masculinity and what’s proper for a young man and the way we ought to be is interesting and reflective. In many ways it is a social critique and his discussion of the way we live and obsess over something that should be unimportant shapes our lives is quite interesting. I think any person will understand this as they read Fever Pitch and in the end, they will get what this book is actually about. I highly recommend it.

8.5/10.

“Flashman at the Charge,” by George MacDonald Fraser

23 May

“Flashman at the Charge,” by George MacDonald Fraser (321p)

1854-1855: Crimean War and the Charge of the Light Brigade, and the Conquest of Central Asia

Flashman at the Charge is the fourth in the late George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series of a false-memoir detailing the life and times of the heroic but cowardly Harry Flashman. Written in 1973, Flashman at the Charge takes Flashman to the front of the Crimean War and details his involvement in not only the suicidal Charge of the Light Brigade but also his exploits on the wild steppe frontier of Central Asia.

Britain and her continental allies were hurtling toward war with Russia, with disputes over sovereign authority of the Holy Land at the heart of it (for more, go here). Flashman, meanwhile, is kicking about on half-pay while scheming to prepare his way out of the inevitable conflict by taking up a position with the Ordnance Board. All seems to be going well until Flashman’s reputation as a gallant and valiant officer comes to the attention of Prince Albert, where Flashman is tasked by the prince consort to be the guardian and mentor of one of Victoria’s cousins, Prince William of Celle. Despite his every attempt to avoid it Flashman and Prince William are soon packed off to the war front so the young prince can experience what war is all about. Prince William is soon killed at the Alma and Flashman himself falls desperately ill with cholera, recovering only in time to rejoin his aide-de-camp duties on the 25th of October; the day of Balaclava and the day of the most infamous cavalry charge in history.

Flashy’s day starts off in the usual fashion as disaster quickly befalls him. While carrying messages across the battlefields he finds himself trapped with Colin Campbell’s 93rd Highlanders as the Russian cavalry attacked, and then with Scarlett’s heavy brigade as they chased the Russian cavalry uphill in a daring charge. All the while Flashman just wants to go and have a lie down with his stomach still ailing him terribly. He almost manages to get away from further duty after Raglan sends an order to Cardigan in the care of Louis Nolan until needing to add further instruction to his order, so he sends Flashman after Nolan to catch him. Unknowingly, Flashman was about to see himself thrown into the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade. He survives, somehow, but is taken prisoner by the Russians. Flashman is at first bundled off to a makeshift prisoner of war camp away from the battlefield, but as an officer he is then transferred to be a hostage (more like a guest) at the home of a trusted landowner in the Ukrainian countryside.

At the home of Count Pencherjevsky Flashman is reunited with Harry “Scud” East (from Tom Brown’s Schooldays), also taken prisoner, and spends many weeks in the company of the Cossack Count Pencherjevsky and his family, including his daughter Valentina, who Flashman is unable to resist spending a few late night’s with in the bedroom. One such late night sees Flashman and the curious Scud East, curious of the constant arrivals of other guests to the Pencherjevsky house, chance upon a meeting of several Russian military and government officials planning an invasion of British-held India. When the opportunity arises Flashman and East escape, taking Valentina with them, and head off for the Crimea and the safety of the British army. They almost make it but Flashman is re-captured by Count Pavel Ignatiev and quickly locked up again, before taken across southern Russia and deep into Central Asia, blackmailed into acting as a double agent in Ignatiev’s scheme to end British rule in India.

While imprisoned at a fort on the Aral Sea coast Flashman meets Yakub Beg and Izzet Kutebar, two Tajik warlords and befriends them. They are soon rescued by Beg’s men and whisked off to the wild steppe (modern Uzbekistan) by Beg’s lover, a Chinese castout woman. There, Beg and his followers hatch a plan to halt the Russian advance over their own lands by performing a near-suicidal attack on the arriving magazine ships, thus destroying any hope of an immediate attack on the Central Asian khanates and eventually British India. Flashman, drugged with hashish, leads the attack and they are successful, allowing him to steal away from Ignatiev and flee into British India. The story is continued in Flashman and the Great Game.

I have always said this is my favourite Flashman novel and, having just re-read it for the third time, my opinion on that front has definitely not changed. I loved it again just as I did the first time. It is, as the endorsement on the front cover suggests, vintage Flashman. That means it is wildly entertaining, superbly written, historically accurate, engaging and engrossing, amusing and with perfect characterisation. Flashman himself is on the top of his game as Fraser presents the anti-hero in his usual swagger – cowardly, perpetually horny, deceptive, lecherous and resourceful. The way he paints the picture of Flashman trying to get his way out of doing anything remotely dangerous while maintaining his public face of a gallant hero, with Flashman’s own running commentary, makes for tremendously amusing reading and a number of laughs. The history is very strong as well and Fraser provides a first class account of the ineptitude of the Crimean War and the events that led to a cavalry charge headlong into artillery, this is bound to make for interesting reading for any history buff as it actually reads, as it always does, that Flashman was actually there and you can essentially take his word as gospel (why not? These books are so meticulously researched you wouldn’t be wrong to quote him).

As seems to be the case with the Flashman novels, Flashman at the Charge doubles as a social commentary of the nineteenth century as well. Flashman’s travels across southern Russia should give a unique insight into the life of a common Russian peasant and their pitiful existence of subversion and submission. In addition, there is a nice social commentary on the state of the officer corps within the British army at the time (which was soon to change following the disastrous Crimean War) and the spirit of the steppe people, which is a welcome change to the present bad press people from that part of the world receive in the modern age.

A first class and immensely enjoyable read. This is the very best of a brilliant series by an exceptionally talented author and one not to be missed.

10/10.

“Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” by J.K. Rowling

8 Feb

“Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” (607p)

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was certainly 2005’s most eagerly awaited release. On its first day alone it sold more than nine million copies worldwide. In Harry’s sixth year of school the wizarding world is in turmoil as Lord Voldemort’s return reverberates, meaning Harry must prepare for his coming showdown in the war against Voldemort and his followers by getting to know just who Lord Voldemort really is.

Minister for Magic Cornelius Fudge has been forced into resignation and disgrace after allowing Voldemort to return to power, and his final act is to report to the Muggle Prime Minister1 for a talk about Voldemort and the problems facing both the magical and non-magical worlds. Rufus Scrimgeour is named Fudge’s successor. Meanwhile, Severus Snape is sworn to an unbreakable vow by Narcissa Malfoy to protect her son, Draco Malfoy, in his task set by Voldemort. The outlaw Bellatrix Lestrange, though, distrusts Snape and believes him to still be loyal to Dumbledore and forces him to further vow to fulfil the task if Draco fails.

During the summer, Albus Dumbledore enlists Harry Potter’s unwitting help to persuade retired professor Horace Slughorn to return to his old Hogwarts post. When Dumbledore comes to collect Harry, an unsuspecting Harry is told that he has inherited all of Sirius Black’s possessions, including the house used by the Order of the Phoenix as headquarters. Harry then spends the remaining holiday at The Burrow with the Weasleys and Hermione, where he receives his OWL results, but sees his dream of becoming an auror over when he fails to receive high enough marks in Potions class to qualify.

He spends a relatively relaxed and care free summer until a day out in Diagon Alley sees him run into Draco Malfoy again, and Malfoy’s suspicious behaviour at a known Voldemort sympathiser’s haunt makes him weary of Malfoy’s own involvement with the Death Eaters, resolving Harry to watch Malfoy throughout the coming school year. As school begins, Snape is unexpectedly announced as the new Defence Against the Dark Arts instructor while Slughorn replaces him as the Potions teacher, and his pre-requisites for that class allows Harry and Ron to take it at NEWT level. On the first day of class, Slughorn lends them old Potions textbooks and potions ingredients to use. The previous owner of Harry’s copy of Advanced Potion Making has scribbled notes all over the pages, making corrections on and little annotations in the margins. Initially annoyed at the previous owner, Harry changes his mind when he discovers that the unknown owner’s corrections yield better results than the instructions and Harry is able to excel at the potion Slughorn has set them.

Ominous Death Eater attacks continue throughout the year. On the first Hogsmeade visit, Katie Bell, a Gryffindor student, is seriously injured while carrying a cursed necklace through Hogsmeade, apparently while under the Imperius Curse. In another incident, Ron accidentally drinks poisoned mead intended for Dumbledore. Harry reacts by administering the Bezoar he had submitted previously as an assignment to Slughorn. Hermione is so distraught over this that she and Ron, who were feuding mostly over Ron dating Lavender Brown and Hermione’s relationship with Viktor Krum, reconcile; Ron soon breaks it off with Lavender. Meanwhile, Harry realises that he has feelings for Ginny, although she is now dating Dean Thomas.

Dumbledore privately tutors Harry using his Pensieve to view collected memories about Voldemort’s past. Dumbledore speculates that Voldemort splintered his soul into six fragments called Horcruxes to attain immortality, while leaving a seventh piece in his body. Two Horcruxes have been destroyed (Tom Riddle’s diary by Harry and Marvolo Gaunt’s ring by Dumbledore). When Harry finds Malfoy sobbing in a boys bathroom on the sixth floor, accompanied by Moaning Myrtle, they hurl curses at each other. Harry casts “Sectumsempra” inflicting huge gashes across Malfoy’s body. Snape arrives and saves Malfoy. He attempts to re-possess the Half-Blood Prince’s Potions book, but Harry hands him “Roonil Wazlib’s” copy. Harry receives detention, causing him to miss the Quidditch finals. Nonetheless, Gryffindor wins the Cup, and during the victory celebration, Harry’s suppressed feelings for Ginny are revealed when he spontaneously kisses her; Ginny has just broken up with Dean Thomas, and she and Harry begin dating.

Harry reports Malfoy’s suspicious behaviour to a seemingly unconcerned Dumbledore. He reassures Harry that he trusts Severus in keeping a lookout. Soon after, Harry learns from Professor Trelawney that it was Snape who passed a prophecy to Voldemort that ultimately led to James and Lily Potter’s deaths. Enraged, Harry confronts Dumbledore, but the Professor affirms Snape’s loyalty. Dumbledore, meanwhile, has located another Horcrux and asks Harry to accompany him in retrieving it. Distrusting Malfoy and Snape, Harry asks Ron, Hermione, Luna Lovegood, Neville Longbottom and Ginny to patrol the halls while he and Dumbledore are gone and gives them the remaining Felix Felicis potion for luck. Harry and Dumbledore apparate to a secret cave. They aim to retrieve the Horcrux (Salazar Slytherin’s locket), by advancing past Voldemort’s defences. Dumbledore, however, has been greatly weakened due to the mysterious liquid he had to drink in order to acquire the locket. Returning to Hogsmeade, Harry and Dumbledore see Lord Voldemort’s Dark Mark hovering over Hogwarts. They fly to the Astronomy Tower on borrowed broomsticks and are ambushed by Draco Malfoy. Dumbledore paralyses Harry, who is under his Invisibility Cloak, just before Draco disarms Dumbledore. Draco admits he was behind the school attacks and has helped Death Eaters secretly enter Hogwarts via the pair of Vanishing Cabinets, although Dumbledore discerns that Voldemort has cursed the obviously frightened boy. As members of the Order and the few from Dumbledore’s Army battle Voldemort’s followers in the castle below, Death Eaters appear in the tower and urge Draco to fulfil his mission — killing Dumbledore — but Draco hesitates. Snape arrives and a weakened Dumbledore entreats him with an ambiguous plea; Snape casts Avada Kedavra which hits Dumbledore squarely in the chest. The impact hurls his body over the tower wall.

Upon Dumbledore’s death, Harry is released from the paralysing spell. Harry pursues Snape and Malfoy, as their only way of escape would be to disapparate outside the boundaries of Hogwarts. Malfoy escapes as Snape duels Harry. During the duel, Snape reveals that he is the Half-Blood Prince. Harry appears to have been defeated, but suddenly Buckbeak’s intervention causes Snape to start running away. Snape disapparates outside the school gates and escapes. Harry recovers the locket from Dumbledore’s body, only to discover it is a fake. Inside is a note from someone with the initials “R. A. B.”, who has apparently stolen the real Horcrux and left the fake one in its place. The school year ends abruptly with Dumbledore’s funeral. Professor McGonagall is appointed Hogwarts’s interim headmistress and Professor Slughorn replaces Snape as the head of Slytherin House. Hogwarts is rumoured to close down due to the murder of Dumbledore. Harry decides to leave school in search for the remaining Horcruxes. Ron and Hermione vow to accompany him, while Harry seemingly ends his relationship with Ginny to protect her from Voldemort.

I found Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince infinitely more enjoyable than its predecessor, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, because there is a lot to this novel. It has a very simple and uncomplicated plot to it, the whole basis is to prepare Harry for what’s to come against Voldemort. Unlike other novels in the Harry Potter series the sub-plot – each book has one; the hunt for the philosopher’s stone, the whereabouts of Sirius Black, etc. – is so minor that it plays almost no real role in the book itself and tends to happen off page, leaving many a page instead to be filled with Harry’s interaction and time spent with Dumbledore. The other stuff, such as Harry being named as Gryffindor House Quidditch captain and the lovers tiff between Ron and Hermione, is just nice filler to keep the story ticking over and to give him something to do in between his fun with Dumbledore. All of this is highly enjoyable as well.

But what is most enjoyable is the full development of Harry-Dumbledore relationship as it takes on a different shape in this book. Previously Dumbledore very much treated Harry as a child but as the novel progresses you can visibly see the change because Harry is now a man, and so Dumbledore treats him as an adult. All those little things he would say in the past about “tell you when you are older” is revealed, too, and a number of gaps in the whole story are filled. The dialogue is quite fun as well and I appreciated the change in Harry. He acts more mature and has a lot more steal to his personality; in essence you can see him grow up. I really enjoyed these parts and the novel as a whole. It is quite a lot of fun throughout with the right amounts of humour thrown in and the little things that drag you into their world.

As I always say with the Harry Potter reviews, it is apart of a series and as such should be read in series order. Where Harry Potter and Order of the Phoenix was in effect a pointless doorstop full of irrelevant rubbish, this one is chock full of information that Harry Potter fans had been yearning to know for several years. That also means a first time reader – as in, someone who had not read the previous five – is probably going to be lost if they just picked this up off the shelf and began reading. Absolutely, read it, because it is a top notch novel, but not if you have not read the previous editions because I imagine there being so many things that would just fly over heads that it would, in all likelihood, ruin the reading experience.

9/10.

1 in the narrative it is not stated or made distinguishable whether or not this is Tony Blair, then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, or a likeness. I read and imagined this person to be him, however.