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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Vagabond - Bernard Cornwell

Vagabond is the second book on the Grail Quest series by Bernard Cornwell, author of historical fiction.

My last review (The Archer's Tale) was a little harsh on his accounting of the rampant violence in the Middle Ages, but more than that, less of a plot. Vagabond is much better in that respect. The hideous violence is still present but in less quantities and character development is very good in this novel.

The story continues very soon after The Archer's Tale ends. The Scottish armies are now involved in the Hundred Years War, allied with the French, but the English are showing to be tough to defeat on the battlefield, mainly due to the English bows, later called longbows by historians. England is the only country to have developed significant skill with the longbow and therefore had an edge in many battles during this time.

Our protagonist, Thomas of Hookton, is now on fire with his search for information about the Holy Grail, but not yet the Grail itself. But he soon finds out that there are others who even more zealous for the whereabouts of the Grail. His travels take him back to France where he hopes that he has shaken those who would capture and interrogate him about the Grail, but he finds himself right back "into the fire." One of his chasers is a Dominican priest, but more specifically an Inquisitor of the famed Inquisition. Thomas has to endure a gruesome torture session from the Inquisitor. Meanwhile, the Duke, Charles of Blois of France, is attempting to take back some of the land the English had taken in the previous book. This leads to the battle climax when all the characters come together.

Stories about the Holy Grail are numerous. Some are even silly. Even though the topic is overdone in writing and literature, Cornwell does a great job with the legend. My guess is that is will remain a mystery. That would be in line with his style writing when dealing with mystical and religious acts and relics. I look forward to the final book in the series, Heretic.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Archer's Tale - Bernard Cornwell

The Archer's Tale is the first book in the Grail Quest series by historical fiction writer, Bernard Cornwell. It is set toward the beginning of the Hundred Years War in France, in the 14th century. As per his obligatory historical note at the end of the book, all of the major battles are mostly historically accurate with the characters and the places.

The story is mostly told from the point of view of Thomas of Hookton, a bastard child of a priest from southern England. Following a raid on Hookton, Thomas, already excelling with the bow, flees and joins a unit of arms that serves the king of England. The underlying tale, behind the invasions and battles, is of a Christian relic, a lance that is old ash and warped but is said to possess power, a la Gabriel's feather, or the leg bone of the donkey that Jesus Christ rode on into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. This was the prevailing mystical belief of relics in those days. Thomas soon finds out that he may not be English at all. And this all revolves around the lance and possibly other holy the famed Holy Grail.

Thomas also has a few love interests throughout the story but those plot lines don't seem to get off the ground. In fact, the historical battles seem to oppress any dynamic plot, although there is character development with Thomas and a couple other major characters. I found that there were large chunks of pages devoted to retelling of history, specifically the battles. I came away wanting a little more plot and less history.

This war is a bloody time in European history. The battles are describes in gory detail; swords into the gut, axes to the head, hamstringing horses, raping and pillaging after the battles, etc. I enjoyed Mr. Cornwell's writing as always. I just wanted more education on a breadth of topics and not just how bloody the battles were. I tend to push through battle scenes rather quickly. While necessary, they can be overdone. I can't help but compare this book to the Warlord Trilogy and the Saxon Tales, both of which are wonderfully balanced with the barbarism of the Middle Ages and the humanity of love and brotherhood.

Overall, though, I enjoyed this book and will continue the series. I look forward to see where Thomas goes after his first major battle.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Goetia (Hellgate: London) - Mel Odom

The struggle to rid London - and the world - of the demons released from the Hellgate continues in this second novel, in which ex-Templar Simon Cross continues with the struggle of finding citizens lost in the remains of London and growing an army of fighters to battle the Darkness.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the city, Cabalist Warren Schimmer has become the underling of the powerful demon Merihim, who wishes to take his place in the higher demon hierarchy. To do this, Warren must, with direction from the demon and a "bound" voice, knock their opposition from their thrones so his master can rise in the ranks.

But a new weapon to battle the demons has been discovered - the Lesser Key of Solomon, or 'Goetia', a book containing the true names - a tool controlling the demons' vulnerability - of the higher demons stalking the streets of the city. Will Simon and his rogue group of warriors be able to find Goetia and save the world from the demons oozing from the Hellgate?

Odom has a great way to packing this good-versus-evil plot with enough suspense and mystery to allow it to stand out among similar stories. His clever wording throws powerful punches into tame situations and helps to clarify the happenings of a high-energy situation. This series, ending with the late August release of Covenant, is one not to miss.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Lords of the North by Bernard Cornwell

Lords of the North is the third book in the Saxon series by Bernard Cornwell, writer of historical fiction.

This is a continuing saga of Uhtred, a warlord and ousted lord of a piece of land in northern Saxon England in the 9th century, during the reign of Alfred the Great. Uhtred has helped King Alfred defeat the Danes in parts of England and is now on a quest to reclaim his land, but many things stand in his way.

He has a blood feud with a Dane named Kjartan, who resides in Dunholm, between Uhtred and Bebbanburg, his land. Also in his way is Ivarr, nephew of a Danish warlord that Uhtred has already killed.

Uhtred is also hindered from his quest by slavery and then being coerced into oaths to King Alfred, whom he doesn't like due to his pious Christian ways, but their fates seem to be tied to each other. "Fate is inexorable" is the theme that seems to resonate through Uhtred throughout the story.

The fourth book in the series is called Sword Song.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Pale Horseman by Bernard Cornwell

The Pale Horseman begins immediately after the events in the previous book, The Last Kingdom. Uhtred has helped defeat part of the Danish invaders.

Once again, Uhtred is caught between loyalties. On one hand, he is Saxon, born and bred. Even though he does not embrace the Saxon Christianity, but believes in the Norse battle gods, he longs to recapture his father's land in northern England. But, Uhtred was taught to fight by the Danes and he loves them more than he does his own countrymen. He has made oaths to both Saxon and Dane.

While Uhtred is the main (fictitious) character in the story, the history is based on much information on Alfred the Great's reign as king of Wessex in England. Alfred is a pious Christian that is reluctant in battle and suffers from gastrointestinal problems. Uhtred hates Alfred but has an oath to him so he fights for him.

The story winds to a pivotal battle between Saxon and Dane armies. Loss of life is high in the shield wall. Uhtred's character, now in his early 20's, is being developed into an adult, a warlord and landholder. He is writing about himself, as an older man looking back on his stupidity of youth.

The Pale Horseman is the second in Cornwell's Saxon Tales. The next book, which I will be starting on very shortly, is The Lords of the North. These are excellent!

Breaking A Sunbeam - Geoff Hunter

Just how far would you go for the person you loved? Jake proves hard to beat with his steadfast love for Kay in this action-packed, horror-tinged thriller.

In response to his wife's ransom kidnapping following a robbery-gone-awry, Jake agrees to assist a trio of law-evading gun-wielders in their leader Juel's quest to seek revenge on the enemies of her past. But what seems like a simple house-burning leads straight into a chain of shoot-outs and murders that even CSI would be puzzled by. And while the plot seems relatively straight-forward, the inner turmoil of each character is anything but.

The book starts off a bit slow, but much like a rollercoaster ride, once it reaches the top and starts speeding downward, the speed picks up and it will be hard to put down. The details of each person's past tribulations make for gruesome, Krueger-ready altercations, including a medieval approach to beheading. Those particular parts may not mix well with your lunch.

That aside, Hunter's twisted tale of tested love is worth a read. Those who favor Tom Clancy's writing will love the minute-by-minute gun-shooting action, while those who favor a unbreakable love story will enjoy the story's underlying drive. A great novel, just begging for a sequel.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Tairen Soul by C.L. Wilson

Tairen Soul
C.L. Wilson

These books were originally one very long book that were published as two. Lord of the Fading Lands is Wilson's first published novel and she spins a tale so engrossing and intricate that you soon lose yourself in a world full of magic, both light and dark, honor, betrayal, and truemates Rain and Elly. Lady of Light and Shadows is the continuation of their intriguing story.

Rainier vel’En Daris (Rain Tairen Soul) is the Fey King who is called from the sky while in his Tairen form (a large panther-like creature with wings who can breath fire) by Ellysetta Baristani, a mere woodcarver's daughter with a secret past that may destroy both their worlds.

Wilson has now moved to the top of my favorite author's list. Her next book in the series, King of Sword and Sky, will be out in October 2008 (I am definitely pre-ordering) and Queen of Song and Souls will be released in early 2009.

I was reminded of Lord of the Rings while reading these books. It's the closest thing I can give you to describe the world that she has created. I would be willing to bet that these books will be made into a movie/movies. They are FABULOUS!

Check out C.L. Wilson's site, the link is on the right of my blog.
Look out JK Rowling, CL Wilson is ready to join your ranks!
Thanks for the invite Ron, I'll try not to use my potty mouth!

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

The Last Kingdom is the first book in a new series called The Saxon Tales by Bernard Cornwell, an excellent historical fiction author.

The setting is 9th century England. Most of England is Saxon now with western pockets of old British (alluding to Cornwell's previous Warlord Trilogy dealing with Arthur in the 5th century) and now the Danes (sometimes called Vikings, Northmen or just pagans) are invading and pillaging England.

The story centers around a boy named Uhtred, the son of an ealdorman, or landowner, in northern England. While his people are of the medieval Christian ilk, Uhtred finds that he favors the pagan gods that circulate through Europe. This, again, is the main dynamic engine that drives Cornwell's ancient stories, Christian God vs. pagan gods. Uhtred is captured early in the story by the Danes, but his captivity becomes more of an adoption into a better family, in that Uhtred, instead of studying his letters and reading the Holy Scriptures like the priests want him to do, he wants to become a warrior, like his father. Being captured by the Danes offers him that opportunity. He also becomes very tied to the Danish gods of war, Thor and Odin.

Following his "captivity", Uhtred spends several years and the rest of the story trying to discover his true identity, being pushed to and fro by his circumstances. He loves many of the Danes as family and loves the Danish warrior ways, but his homeland of Bebbanburg in northern England is the land he wants to retake from his uncle, who has usurped the land after Uhtred's father's death.

Uhtred is also growing as a strong warrior in this story. He looks forward to fighting in the shield wall, a groaning and ugly nexus of blood and death. The shield wall is how the ancients fought. Shields overlapped. Men pushing the frontlinesmen into the opposing wall. Swords and axes and spears taking lives at every moment. This is what Uhtred craved and feared. Would he be a strong enough warrior?

As with the other few of Cornwell's books I've read so far, he gives historical notes on the facts and speculations of the historical record. He also gives his reasoning for the path of his story, especially if the history is not clear or if his story deviates from the record. I find that I really look forward to his notes after the last line of the story in that his interest and scholarship is obviously good. Although the story is centered around fictional Uhtred, the swath of the tale is about Alfred the Great, about whom much has been written and cataloged.

Once again, Bernard Cornwell amazes with his skill at bringing his coloring of ancient historical events to life. I cannot recommend him enough to those who have a longing for historical fiction.