The Burning Land

Oh hai Uhtred. The Burning Land is the fifth in the Bernard Cornwall’s Saxon Chronicles. Regular readers will know I’m a fan and I enjoyed this one just as much as the others.

Wessex is once again plagued by Danes and Alfred still relies on Uhtred to fight his battles for him. The leader of the Danes has a woman, Skade, with him who is considered to be a sorceress. Uhtred captures her and uses her to lure Harald into an unwise attack. Skade curses Uhtred and although he wins the battles, he loses Gisela, his wife.

At Arthur’s court, a simpleton priest has a vision in which he says Skade and Gisela are the same. Alfred demands Skade is killed and Uhtred, humiliated, leaves Wessex. He goes to Durham where Ragnar is lord and finds him planning to attack Wessex, largely on the basis that Wessex will eventually attack them. Alfred is now calling himself King of the English.

Uhtred’s ultimate goal is Bebbanburg but for that he needs money and lots of it. He sails to Denmark where Skade’s first husband is said to sit on vast wealth. With few men and a cunning plan he takes the Danish stronghold but finds that the treasure is much smaller than it was said to be.  They return to join Ragnar but just before they march Uhtred finds himself ensnared again. He made an oath to Alfred’s daughter, Aethelflaed, and she has asked for his help. Her husband is trying to divorce her and she is holed up in a nunnery.

So, off he goes, because the love affair between Uhtred and Aethelflaed has been signposted since book one. Ragnar attacks Wessex and Haesten (the devious Dane ruling East Anglia) attacks Mercia. Uhtred is bound by his oath to defend Mercia. Naturally, he pulls it off with aplomb and a certain amount of work. And by the end, he’s as firmly tied to Wessex as ever and no nearer Bebbanburg.

I love these. Cornwell is a great storyteller. His characters are fantastic, the action is completely engaging and the pace is good. This was a nice change of rhythm from the last book which focussed on a single battle. It is no mean feat to have the fifth book in a series as entertaining and enjoyable as the first – and to have me looking forward to the sixth. And it’s not just because it’s got vikings in it, honest.

Last time I reviewed a Cornwell novel, The Fort, I noticed a heavy-handed use of dialogue tags. I did look out for them in this one, and they’re there, more than might be desirable, but not nearly as intrusive as in The Fort.

The Fort

The Fort is a rare standalone novel from Bernard Cornwell.

It tells the story of an early engagement in the American War of Independence. On paper the battle should easily have been won by the Americans but it turned out to be a victory for the British.

It is very closely based on fact and Cornwell manages to bring alive the cast of characters and show how personality can make a huge difference to the outcome of a fight like this.

It’s not his best work. Of course, it’s not bad by any standard, but I’ve come to expect more from Cornwell. I think it would have benefitted from another editorial pass. There were a lot of dialogue tags which I haven’t noticed in his writing before and I feel that had it had one more rewrite these would have come out. Because of that it feels rushed.

Otherwise, this is an episode of history I knew nothing about and I enjoyed the telling of it. Cornwell is very balanced in his presentation of what happened and it is hard to pick a side. There are sympathetic characters amongst the British and the Americans. I liked it, but it’s probably one for the fans.

The Shelters of Stone

The Shelters of Stone is the fifth in the Earth’s Children series by Jean M. Auel. I read the first book, The Clan of the Cave Bear, when I was eleven and I loved it. I read it many times and it remains one of my favourite books. I’d also read the other three, with declining attachment, and the last of those hadn’t been very engaging at all.

In this instalment, Ayla comes to Jondalar’s home and learns whether she will be accepted or not.

I got about halfway through and it was a hard decision to stop reading. When I was actually reading it I found it enjoyable and it was quite an easy read. I found Ayla a little too perfect, the characters were simplistic, and the dialogue a little stilted and formal. These weren’t insurmountable issues though. This is essentially a lecture on prehistory in the form of a novel and parts of it are fascinating.

I think what really killed it for me was the lack of conflict. There’s never any real doubt that everyone will love Ayla and welcome her in, no doubt that she will teach her new family how to tame animals, no doubt that she and Jondalar will come up with lots of new inventions. But given the choice of spending an hour on the train reading this or doing something else I found I was quite keen to do anything else.

The Memoirs of Cleopatra

I love a big book – it’s very satisfying. There is a depth of immersion that just can’t be achieved in anything less than 500 pages. The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George is a big book at 960 pages and it is well worth the effort.

The memoirs tell the story of the whole life of Cleopatra; from growing up in Alexandria to her death by suicide at the age of forty. It covers her relationship with Caesar, her part in the chaos after his death and the side she eventually chose. That was the side of Marc Anthony and the book details their unsuccessful war with Octavian.

Margaret George derives a lot of the events from the historical record – relying on a broad range of sources and stripping away the exaggerations and defamations of Cleopatra’s enemies. Some things are fictionalised but as much as possible is derived from the historical clues available.

It is an interesting story in that it is essentially the story of defeat all the way through. Cleopatra snatches her country from the machinations of her siblings and aligns herself with Caesar to preserve her throne. Which fateful decision sets her up for a lifetime of trying to prevent Egypt from becoming a Roman province. She fails at that, and ironically, it is a far richer prize at the end than it would have been if she had not saved it in the first place.

This was utterly engaging. The worldbuilding is very good and Rome and Egypt are fully realised. The staggering wealth of Cleopatra is effectively conveyed. I really enjoyed this.

100 Books in 2011: Sword Song

Book 4 in Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories is Sword Song. Cornwell is one of my favourite authors and I am really enjoying the Saxon Stories.

Uhtred is nowhere nearer Bebbanburg. He’s busy building forts to protect Wessex from the Danes and raising a family. Then some Danes invade London, try to convince Uhtred to join them by promising to make him King of Mercia so that he will bring Ragnar to join the cause.

At the same time, Uhtred’s cousin Aethelred, is married to Alfred’s daughter, Aethelflaed and becomes the Lord of Mercia. Not king though; Alfred doesn’t want a King in Mercia. Alfred commands Uhtred to drive the Danes from London. He gives Aethelred the nominal command of the mission.

They win the battle for London and the Danes take refuge in the Kingdom of East Anglia from where they raid Wessex. On one of these raids, Aethelflaed is taken hostage and an enormous ransom is demanded. If it is paid, the Danes will have enough money to raise an army capable of overrunning Wessex. Uhtred is sent to negotiate and discovers that Aethelflaed has fallen in love with one of the Danes and they want to run away together. Uhtred is fond of Alfred’s daughter and knows that her husband is violent and jealous, and if she goes with her lover then the ransom won’t have to be paid and Wessex will be safe. So he agrees to help them escape.

I think I was grinning from the minute I opened this book. I like the character of Uhtred. It’s told in first person but from the point of view of the elderly Uhtred looking back on his life, so the character can be presented as arrogant and impulsive, but with the self-deprecating awareness of experience. It’s extremely likeable. Uhtred is a torn man. He’s bound by oaths he doesn’t want to keep and which prevent him following his dream. I can certainly identify with that.

A good third of the book is taken up by a detailed description of the battle for London, which is very exciting, but the consequence is that the plot feels quite thin in this book. I don’t remember thinking that for the previous three. However, it is gripping and the Saxon Britain is fully brought to life. As always, Cornwell’s skill is evident and the writing is excellent. I thoroughly enjoyed it and am looking forward to book five.

100 Books in 2011 Challenge: The Auschwitz Violin

This one raises an interesting question: is it ok to not like a book on this subject? The Auschwitz Violin by Maria Àngels Anglada, trans. Martha Tennent, is the story of a violin maker interned in Auschwitz who is ordered to make a violin for the camp Commander. He does this amid the starvation and terror of life in the concentration camps.

This is a novella, or at around 25,000 words, a long short story. Looking at it as a short story makes the structure make a bit more sense. What I missed in this book was depth. Life in the concentration camps was horrific and I’ve read a few thing dealing with that subject. Yet it doesn’t come across here. I get the sense that the horror is being skated over. Maybe that’s a matter of taste – I do, after all, like visceral writing. Or maybe it’s an issue of courage. Perhaps the author didn’t want to commit to describing the conditions in Auschwitz in gory detail. I can see how that can seem gratuitous. Unfortunately, for me, that made it hard to connect to the fortitude of the protagonist. It didn’t seem like that much of an heroic struggle because the impact of the environment wasn’t fully brought out.

The writing itself is good and the story has great potential. I just found myself questioning the choices of the author about the structure of the story and what she chose to show. All the way through, I was thinking that I might have done it differently.

So, this book didn’t really do it for me. I felt distanced from the story by the technique. I’d read this story if it was re-written by someone else. And yet I feel a bit uncomfortable saying that I didn’t like the book because of the subject matter. If you like literary fiction, and don’t like horror, then this may be for you. It was a bit too sanitised for my taste.

100 Books in 2011 Challenge: The Captive Queen

I was so looking forward to The Captive Queen by Alison Weir. Although I haven’t read any of her novels before, I have read several of her historical biographies. I think Alison Weir writes non-fiction really well and I especially enjoyed her biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine. That book was one I found particularly influential and I loved the character of Eleanor that she created from the patchy historical sources. So, a novel about that woman and informed by extensive research? Should be great, right?

Something went wrong. Partly it was in my expectations. Weir says in a note at the end of the book that what she was trying to do was portray the marriage of Eleanor and Henry II, one that was supposed to be an intense, passionate relationship and was very eventful. That’s not really the book I wanted to read. I wanted to read about Eleanor in full. Her marriage is important in her story but she spent a lot of time apart from Henry and there were many other significant relationships in her life. I wanted to see her as a stateswoman and those parts were glossed over. Frustrating, but not what it was intended to be about, so it’s not fair to criticise the lack of it.

The question thus becomes, did Weir do what she says she set out to do? I think that the writing is quite flawed. The balance of interior monologue to dialogue and action is tipped too far in favour of monologue. The interior voice isn’t that compelling and there were a number of times when I wondered if I was reading a Mills & Boon. Characterization is light and the relationships are not convincing. Dialogue is lacking and not that well done.

I have always held that a good non-fiction writer can write good fiction but this book proves it is not always true. It is a shame, because Weir is a great writer. I’d recommend you read all her non-fiction, but steer clear of the novels.