Tag Archives: England

“Azincourt,” by Bernard Cornwell

3 Mar

“Azincourt,” by Bernard Cornwell (453p)

Azincourt is a stand-alone novel by British author Bernard Cornwell. Published in 2009, Azincourt depicts the infamous Battle of Agincourt in 1415 of the Lancastrian Hundred Years War and the story of archer Nicholas Hook, a commoner with a dark past.

(plot summary from BernardCornwell.net)
Agincourt (Azincourt in French) is one of the most famous battles ever fought; the victory of a small, despised, sick and hungry army over an enemy that massively outnumbered it. Azincourt, the novel coming soon, tells the story of that small army; how it embarked from England confident of victory, but was beaten down and horribly weakened by the stubborn French defence of Harfleur. By the end of that siege common-sense dictated that the army sail for home, but Henry V was stubbornly convinced that God was on his side and insisted on marching from Harfleur to Calais to prove that he could defy the great French army that was gathering to crush him. He believed he could evade that army, but the march, like the siege, went disastrously wrong and the English were trapped and so forced to fight against an enemy that outnumbered them six to one. Azincourt is the tale of Nicholas Hook, an archer, who begins the novel by joining the garrison of Soissons, a city whose patron saints were Crispin and Crispinian. What happened at Soissons shocked all Christendom, but in the following year, on the feast day of Crispin and Crispinian, Hook finds himself in that small army trapped at Azincourt. The novel is the story of the archers who helped win a battle that has entered legend, but in truth is a tale, as Sir John Keegan says, ‘of slaughter-yard behaviour and outright atrocity’.

The story of Agincourt and Henry V’s army in northern France is told primarily through Nicholas Hook, an archer who escapes his enemies and a certain death sentence in England to seek his fortune and safety abroad. Hook is an interesting character, but not unlike most of Cornwell’s other heroes. You can clearly see the similarities between Hook and Sharpe, Uhtred, Derfel, and so forth. He has the same confidence, savagery in a fight, natural leadership, luck, and dare I say it, sex appeal as those characters have. But Hook is more than just a seemingly stock Cornwell character, and is his own man and stands alone as a protagonist. He is a complicated man and portrayed as a man struggling with his conscience, he tries to do the right and live life in the virtuous way seemingly expected of medieval men as followers of the church. Hook is also a violent, stuck in a long-lasting family feud with the Perrill family, and relishes the opportunities to exact his family’s revenge. He seemingly has no problem killing; and killing outside of battle, murdering. Parts of this generational feud shape Hook as the story goes on as well, indeed it was the conflict with the Perrill family and their ally, Sir Martin, which sends Hook to France in the first place.

As a character, I enjoyed Hook, and did not find too similar to Cornwell’s other heroes to become bothered by it and rather took in him for what he was. I found his personal battle with his conscience, something that is a theme of the story, to be quite interesting. Like I said, he was a man seemingly intent on doing good, but he enjoyed doing bad when he had to. I have no doubts if he was able to Hook would have murdered and destroyed the entire Perrill clan. On the other hand, he is a deeply religious man, yet seemed at odds with his faith, unable to make sense of the needless slaughter surrounding him and if his King’s cause was just. Hook allows the dead saints – fittingly Crispin and Crispinian – to speak to him and play a part in his battle with his conscience.

As is usually the case with Cornwell, the side characters are strong in their support of Hook. Cornwell writes Melisande as another complicated person with a dark past, and she is a fitting companion for Hook as the two mesh well. It’s a believable man/woman relationship. And of course, Cornwell laces the story with depictions of historical figures. Sir John Cornewaille, the famous knight, is a key part of the story and his prominence not only gives the story a consistent authority figure Hook can defer to, but also its light heartedness. Cornewaille is depicted as a brash knight unafraid to speak his mind and his rants and bouts of anger are actually rather comical than overly serious. There is also of course the King: Henry V. Henry, from what I know about him, is fairly accurately portrayed, and like Hook and the other side characters, is a pretty complicated man. Deeply religious and bound by his God, Henry is also a soldier’s king, known for willingly throwing himself into the fray and taking on all comers in battle. That aspect of Henry’s personality is never lost in the story. I think a lot of Henry’s dialogue and “screen time” is adapted from Shakespeare as well, and readers will be delighted to read the recounting of Henry’s pre-battle speech from Shakespeare ahead of the final battle.

Seasoned readers of Cornwell’s work will be accustomed to how his stories tend to go, and of course Azincourt follows all those which came before it. The fighting is savage and violent, told in near blood thirsty detail, and you are thrown into the Battle of Agincourt as if you were really there in 1415. The story of the archers’ plight and the hopelessness of the task they faced is never dumbed down or overlooked, he stresses just how monumental their task was: 5,000 archers and 1,000 men-at-arms and their king against the might of France and its 36,000 strong army. Not for a second is the difficulty and scope of their achievement not presented to the reader in a way that will make them not understand what happened, and appreciate it all the more. You get a great sense for what the men who drew these bows were like –ordinary people, tradesmen and journeymen the French held in contempt and fear. As for the rest of the novel, it is similar to most Cornwell work, but is still immensely enjoyable, and doubtlessly readers will find that same enjoyment I found taking in Nicholas Hook’s journey across France and redemption in England.

Azincourt is certainly recommendable. As a stand-alone novel it is great, and not encumbered by being a part of a long-running series, you can pick it up at any time. If you have read Cornwell in the past and enjoyed his stuff, but erred away from the long-running series then I think this is a novel you may enjoy. I certainly did, and found it to be one of his best for some time. It’s the perfect story for fans of action, adventure, violence, a little bit of romance and their heroes leading the way.

8.5/10.

“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” by J.K. Rowling

17 Jul

“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” by J.K. Rowling (607p)

In 2007, the most eagerly anticipated novel was released to enormous global sales. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was the culmination to J.K. Rowling’s world changing Harry Potter series, with the seven books in total reaching something like half a billion sales around the world. The finale sees Harry, united with his best friends, Ron and Hermione, searching out the magical elements keeping Voldemort alive to destroy and kill him.

CLICK FOR PLOT SUMMARY.

So … first of all, apologies for the epic plot summary (since changed – ed.). But for mine, this is probably the most anticipated novel of all-time and one I had been waiting for since I was 10-years-old, when I first read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I wouldn’t have said my anticipation was as high as some others – I didn’t line up for hours to get it at midnight, in fact I strolled into an empty bookstore at about 4pm and got mine! – but I was still keen to know what happened and how this epic series ended. I had my own theories, of course, but I was utterly wrong. For one, I wanted Harry to be killed by Voldemort, simply because nobody else would have wanted to see that and it would have shocked millions. Sadly, it didn’t, and the epilogue was cringe-worthy. Which brings me to the Deathly Hallows …

There is no way J.K. Rowling could have written this novel without disappointing some people. The amount of build up and excitement for it is impossible to put into words – it was mad. And I have to say, I did enjoy it a lot. Like all the other novels I read it in one hit. Very few can make me do that but there has always been something about Harry Potter that let me read it so quickly, but I have only read it the once. Being perfectly honest I don’t think the Deathly Hallows was as good as some of the others for one reason: there was no Hogwarts. I’ve always thought Rowling struggled without the structure and confinement the school year provided, and sometimes it felt like the Deathly Hallows was a series of events loosely pieced together. Sometimes it does feel like “and this happened”, “then they did this,” and “then they went here and this is what happened.” Obviously, it all connects back to the main story, but some of it is a bit pointless and meandering. I don’t know, I guess expectations did play a part in this after all.

That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the Deathly Hallows. Far from it! I flew through it and very much enjoyed the story, and I liked seeing all the little things from the other six books finally answered after years of waiting. Much of the old magic, for lack of a better term, was still there in this one, and everyone enjoys the camaraderie between Harry, Ron and Hermione as they piece together the puzzle for the last time. And it was the last time, too, and I guess Harry ultimately defeating Voldemort is the way the Harry Potter series had to end. All in all, an enjoyable read, and a must read if only for its literary importance in popular culture.

7.5.10

“The Burning Land,” by Bernard Cornwell

14 Jun

“The Burning Land,” by Bernard Cornwell (378p)

In the fifth installment of British author Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon stories, The Burning Land, Lord Uhtred of Bebbanburg continues his fight for Alfred of Wessex, bound by oath. It is 893 and the Danes are massing again, planning yet another invasion of the Saxon lands in their never ending dream of conquering England for themselves.

(plot summary from Wikipedia)
At Alfred’s behest, Uhtred delivers a message to Haesten that Wessex would pay a ransom for Haesten to leave. Alfred cannot attack Haesten, because another Dane, Harald Bloodhair, has attacked at Cent. Haesten and Alfred reach an accord, and Haesten leaves hostages and accepts missionaries. The Jarl even undergoes baptism. However, Uhtred knows that the hostages are fake and that if Harald defeats Alfred, Haesten will attack London. While travelling to meet Alfred, now free to lead an army against Harald, Uhtred captures Skade, Harald’s woman. Skade is a formidable fighter in her own right, and leads one of Harald’s war parties. She and her party are captured while raiding a Mercian village. However, Harald approaches Uhtred leading a line of Saxon captive women, and threatens to kill all of them if Skade is not returned to him. After he butchers one woman in front of her child, Uhtred releases Skade to him. Skade intones an ominous curse against Uhtred as she and Harold make their escape. Uhtred and his men, however, defeat Harald’s forces at Farnham, and again take Skade prisoner. Harald is severely wounded, but escapes to Torneie Island (Thorney Island). There, with few followers, he is able to use the island’s natural defences, and a palisade he builds to repel later attempts to defeat him. However, he is trapped there.

While celebrating the Saxon victory at Farnham, Uhtred is devastated by news that his beloved wife, Gisela, has died in childbirth, along with the child she bore. When Uhtred and Skade return to London, Alfred’s advisor, Brother Asser (whose dislike of Uhtred long predates this story) uses the mad brother Godwin to denounce Gisela’s name, ranting that Gisela was the devil’s whore, and has come back from the dead as Skade. Uhtred flies into a rage and kills Godwin, though he says that he only meant to silence him. Retreating back to his house, Uhtred’s old mentor, Father Boecca, tells him that Alfred has ordered Uhtred to pay a huge fine and swear an oath to Alfred’s son Edward the Æthling. Alfred holds Uhtred’s children as hostage to his terms, and places them in the custody of Æthelflaed, Alfred’s daughter and wife of Aelthelred, the ealdorman of Mercia. Furious, Uhtred reneges on his oath to Alfred and sails, with Skade, to his old friend Ragnar. Uhtred trusts Æthelflaed to protect his children.

Eager to use his newfound freedom and encouraged by Skade, Uhtred goes Viking. He sails to loot, kill and plunder Skirnir, Skade’s husband, and on the journey, he and Skade become lovers. After he defeats and kills Skirnir, however, he is disappointed when Skirnir’s treasure horde fails to meet his expectations. When Skade demands half of the horde as her share, Uhtred denies it to her. From that point on Skade becomes enemy to Uhtred. Sailing back to Ragnar’s fortress, Uhtred winters there. During that winter, Brida, Uhtred’s former lover who is now Ragnar’s wife, convinces Ragnar to attack Wessex alongside the other Northumbrian lords, Cnut and Sigrid. During the meeting, Haesten arrives and declares that he will attack Mercia. Haesten and Skade become infatuated with each other, and when Haesten leaves, Skade goes with him. Uhtred is caught in a conflict of loyalties, between the Danes with whom he was raised, and his oaths to Alfred and Æthelflaed. He also fears for his children’s safety, as they are in Mercia, in Æthelflaed’s custody. His indecision is broken when his friend, the Welshman Father Pyrlig arrives. Pyrlig reminds Uhtred that he has given his oath to serve Æthelflaed. Uhtred is reluctant at first, until Father Pyrlig tells him that “oaths made in love cannot be broken”.

Uhtred goes to serve Æthelflaed. He first has to rescue her from Lord Aldhem. Æthelred, Æthelflaed’s husband, wishes to divorce her, to break free of Alfred’s influence over Mercia. He directs Aldhem to have sex with Æthelflaed, either by seduction, or failing that, by force. Either act would make her an adulterer, allowing Æthelred to divorce her. Uhtred kills Aldhem, liberates Æthelflaed, and reunites with his children. He and Æthelflaed then go to Æthelred’s council, surprising him before the assembled Mercian lords. Warning of Haesten’s advance, Æthelflaed tries to win the Mercian lords to her side. She and Uhtred then wait at London for support. However, because Æthelred holds their purse-strings, none of the lords come, except for Lord Ælfwold. During this wait, Uhtred and Æthelflaed become lovers. Uhtred also learns that Alfred had advised Æthelflaed to use Uhtred’s oath to her to bring him back. Eventually, Edward Ætheling arrives, along with Alfred’s retainer and Uhtred’s friend Steapa, and an army of twelve hundred of Alfred’s best house troops. They also bear a message that Uhtred is to give his oath to Edward. Uhtred promptly refuses.

Thus reinforced, Uhtred marches ahead to Haesten’s two forts at Baemfleot (Benfleet), although Haesten is not there. Uhtred encounters and attacks a larger Danish force and is surrounded. He nearly loses the battle and his life, but is saved and the battle won by the timely arrival of Steapa and the rest of Alfred’s troops. They proceed to capture the first of the forts. Uhtred makes preparations for the next battle and begins teaching Edward how to lead from the front. Uhtred assaults the fort and scales the ditch, using sails with ropes sown into them to provide sure footing on the slippery ditch. He tries to use ladders to get up the wall, but the first assault fails. His second assault ultimately succeeds after Father Pyrlig throws specially prepared beehives onto the walls. The bees distract the defenders so that Uhtred’s force can scale the walls and capture the fort. In the hall Uhtred finds Skade and a horde of gold. Harald Bloodhair, crippled and vengeful over Skade’s betrayal with Haesten, suddenly appears, embraces Skade, and kills her at the same time. He then asks Uhtred to kill him. Uhtred does, then meets with Edward who says that he doesn’t need Uhtred’s oath as long as his sister has it. Uhtred and Æthelflaed then sail away from Baemfleot on the Thames.

I had been waiting for The Burning Land for some time, for this is one of my favourite series I have ever read. Partially because one of my relatives spent most of her retirement researching my family’s history and she researched that my family was one of the Danes that conquered northern England at this time, and I have ploughed through the first four in the series. So the excitement to read it was certainly high and I couldn’t wait for the paperback release in May. The Burning Land did not disappoint either – another fantastic addition to a great series of books by the prolific Cornwall. Uhtred’s story continues to weave its way across the turbulent early history of the land that would be England in its own special way. Uhtred is a much different man than the one from the first few novels. Now, as an adulthood, he is a shrewd calculated leader that commands Alfred’s war efforts against the Danes. As a character it has been a joy to see him grow – he is no longer reckless, or as reckless as he used to be, and his strategic moves involve a lot more thinking, planning and stealth. That’s fun to read, meaning that there is more to the action side of things in these books than merely a crash, bam, stab and slash Uhtred’s earlier fights where he used little-to-no finesse and deception.

Of course, I thoroughly enjoyed The Burning Land. Alfred of Wessex had two goals in life – the Christianisation of England and the unification of the petty English kingdoms1 under one king in a land free of pagans and Danes. That story was firmly continued in this novel as the Saxons went on the offensive against two huge Danish armies, once again destroying their power bases in the south and staving off any possibility of defeat. As a read, this is superb, and follows the (admittedly somewhat standard) Cornwell style of a cracking action-adventure tale with strong characters and story, ferocious enemies, newfound love and loss. The action is well told and helps to complete the tale of England’s oft forgotten past (why do people think English history begins in 1066?) by painting the picture of two of the most important battles in the Saxon-Danish war. But it’s also enjoyable for the evolution of Uhtred’s own story and his quest to capture the lands that belong to him by birth, and I think readers of the series will find that particularly enjoyable. As I have said before, I heartily recommend this series for anyone a fan of Cornwell, action-adventure and war-based historical fiction, pre-Norman English history and the Vikings. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it as much as I have.

And so the wait for book six begins …

8.5/10.

1 these were Wessex (England’s south and south-west), Mercia (England’s midlands, west and London), East Anglia (England’s east) and Northumbria (the north to Scotland). Originally, Wessex (which eventually absorbed Sussex and Essex) was the land of Saxons, while Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria comprised of Angles and Jutes that joined the Saxons during the Anglo-Saxon conquest of Britain centuries before. At the time of The Burning Land Wessex was the only wholly Saxon kingdom, Mercia was divided by the Danes and Saxons and under Alfred’s control, while East Anglia and Northumbria were firmly Danish territories. The modern town of York evolved from the Danish Jorvik.

“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.

“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.

“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.

“On The Edge,” by Richard Hammond

6 Jan

“On the Edge,” by Richard Hammond (309p)

On the Edge is the autobiography-come-diary of British television presenter and journalist Richard Hammond, of Top Gear fame. Co-written with wife Amanda (nicknamed Mindy), the book covers Hammond’s early life and start in television that led to his job on one of the most popular shows in the world but mainly focuses on his near fatal accident in a jet-powered dragster in September 2006 and the subsequent months after that leading to his recovery and return to television in 2007.

Hammond’s early love of danger, performing and cars dominate the early chapters of the book. Through his childhood and family background – one of his grandfathers was in the RAF while the other one searched for unexploded German bombs – he explains how he came to love the thrill and excitement of danger and high speed, an allusion to his reasons for wanting to drive a 10,000bhp jet-powered car in the first place. As a child Hammond would have been described as the class clown and loved to entertain his school mates by jumping over things on his bicycle. He also loved to tinker and fix machines as a child. As Hammond grew up he found himself criss-crossing the countryside working for various local radio stations with little to no success financially, not helped by a love of cars that transcended into his adulthood. He recalls stories of every new car purchase with great excitement that only he understands, including the purchase of his prized 1981 930 Porsche 911 with left-hand drive. When it became obvious that the life of a local radio presenter was not the high-life he had expected, Hammond ditched for a “normal” job, which is where he met his wife Mindy.

The two forged a life together until Hammond’s true calling came back and he returned to broadcast journalism, successfully auditioning for the series return of Top Gear. A chapter is spent about Hammond’s career on Top Gear, the action packed high entertainment car show that has achieved mass global success, described simply as “what a job!” Then it moves onto why Hammond wanted to go as fast as he did in the jet-powered dragster and the day of the accident itself. He was scheduled to film a piece on the sensation of driving at speeds rarely achieved – 314m/ph (505k/ph) was his fastest – at Elvington Airfield, near York, and wrote all about the day itself, including his bond with Top Gear Dog. He describes his nervousness while giving an explanation of a typical day of shooting for a film on Top Gear, the intricacies and simplicities of the jet-powered dragster and the immense power it could generate, and then his first through fourth runs. But then on the fifth run came the accident as the front-right tyre delaminated and exploded, sending the car careening off the runway at around 281m/ph. The resultant crash, which saw him comatose for around two days, left Hammond with severe brain injuries from swelling and post-traumatic amnesia.

The bulk of the book deals with Hammond’s injury and recovery. His wife Mindy takes over for the middle part when Hammond was at his worst and so those chapters are told from her rather heartbreaking viewpoint. She really hammers home what it is like to be with someone with a severe brain injury once they have regained consciousness – in essence, they’re them but they’re not. They know some things, they can fix on to it with great fervour, but a lot of the time they draw a blank. Conversations are driven in circles as short-term memory is almost non-existent and hours can be spent answering the same question over and over. Hammond would constantly want cigarettes and a beer or he would ask where his daughters were despite Mindy telling him not a minute before. Mindy tells a stirring story as she battled through immense frustration and exhaustion dealing with Hammond when he was at his worst, but slowly ‘The Hamster’ began to make his recovery. Memories would eventually start coming back and he soon began returning to a normal life, or as normal as possible considering the circumstances. To show how difficult dealing with someone with brain injury is, Mindy explains the need for repetitive routine in almost everything they did. Sudden surprise and confusion, which included people he did not know, had the possibility of launching him into a high state of paranoia and anxiety that could have quite easily seen him have a possibly fatal seizure. Luckily, that did not happen. By book’s end, following a recuperation period in Scotland, he had more or less returned to being himself before the accident with none of the noticeable possible side-effects of a brain injury, like personality change, evident. On January 28 he returned to television for series 9 of Top Gear.

In many ways, On the Edge is quite a sad story. It was never intended to be (in the afterward Hammond says he never wanted to do that and rather calls it sort of a love story) but reading this your heart really goes out to Amanda Hammond. What this woman went through is pretty hard to imagine yourself, but you get a very good idea reading this book. To juggle two young daughters, a severely injured husband who would often get worse without her around to comfort him, an inquisitive and intrusive media as well as the rest of the family, often on very little sleep, is remarkable. In her words you get a birds-eye view on dealing with something like this and her feelings throughout is what makes it quite sad. She makes it possible to understand what it is like to go as close as you can probably get to losing your husband (or wife) without actually experiencing it yourself, so it is very moving.

It reads very quickly, however, and the diary and memoir-like approach to it makes it easy to digest. Stories and memories are woven together throughout and form the basis of the chapters before the accident and when Hammond is describing how he began to regain control of his brain in Scotland. I would recommend this as a read for anyone due to its ease of read and quick pace, but Top Gear fans looking for behind the scenes stories are better off reading one of Hammond’s other books.

8.5/10.