Friday, August 30, 2013

Pewtory the Lesser Bard part 4: The Performance begins

To celebrate the release of “Ritual of the Stones,” I am releasing a free serialised story set in the same world of Frindoth. The story will follow the journey of Pewtory the Lesser bard as he travels to Lilyon to witness the Ritual. I hope you enjoy.

Chapter 4 – The Performance begins
Pewtory looked in the mirror for a final time and took a deep breath. He held it for a few seconds and then exhaled. He looked good. He wore a purple feather in his ear and had applied a similar shade of make-up under his eyes. His stomach churned. He had slept for an hour and then taken a nice hot bath allowing the steaming water to relax his muscles and wash the tension of days on the road away.
Over the last few hours he was conscious of more and more people entering the inn downstairs. The excited chatter from the bar below filtered up through the floorboards, so that it felt like he stood on a hive of bees. The green and blue moon had ascended in the sky. The red moon had yet to make an appearance.
One or two of the revellers took it upon themselves to regale the inn with their own drunken songs. They sounded abysmal which suited Pewtory fine. He would shine like silver next to rust when he opened his mouth.
He checked the mirror a final time and smiled. He winked at himself and turned away with a spring in his step.
“Ready gents?” he said to Willow and Wisp.
The two fish shot to the surface sending a stream of bubbles across the water. Wisp looked very much alive now and showed no effects of the whiskey he had consumed earlier. He picked up the bowl and Beth and left his room.
As he approached the stairs the clamour below grew louder. He was surprised to see people sat on the staircase as he descended. The first five or six steps were occupied by six people. Three rows of pairs seated side by side. The closest couple a man and a woman looked up upon hearing him. The man was bald with ugly looking warts on his scalp, where as the woman had a short bob of dyed red hair at the base. They turned in unison, a broad grin spread across both their faces.
The woman hooted in delight and clapped her hands and the man announced Pewtory’s presence to the rest of the room. The bard acknowledged the welcome and stepped through them as they scuttled over to let him past. He stopped as he looked at the sight before him.
Every part of the floor was taken up with chairs. People overspilled from the bar and swamped those that seated so that the seats were pretty much a waste of time. In the centre of the common room the innkeeper had erected several crates for Pewtory to stand on.
The crowd erupted into a huge cheer and spontaneous applause. Pewtory hesitated for just a moment before adrenaline took over. He beamed at his audience and skipped through the throng of people and jumped onto the stage.
With one hand grasping the bowl under his arm, he raised the other to quieten the crowd. They obliged immediately. When there was complete silence he spoke.
“Can I help you at all?” Pewtory said and received a small ripple of laughter.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I am Pewtory the Lesser bard. Not yet as famous as my namesake but twice as witty and thrice as handsome.” He winked at a large lady in the front row who blushed in response.
“Yes I’m Pewtory the Lesser but I am so much more, with a voice of a nightingale and a library of stories to rival the archives of Mantini. Ladies and gentlemen, settle in and enjoy a night you’ll never forget.”
With that, Pewtory placed the fish by his side and unveiled his mandolin. He strummed it once and then burst into “The frog and the newt,” a song that was universally known and elicited a strong response due to its catchy chorus. He was delighted when everyone in the room joined in immediately in all the right places.
Whilst he sang he danced over the bowl. Both fish responded to the music by jumping out of the water and splashing down into the water. Their movements seemed rehearsed, as they co-ordinated their jumps so that one splashed down as the other took off. When Pewtory’s right leg passed over the bowl, Wisp would jump out of the water and Willow would respond to the left leg in the same way.
It took a while for the audience to notice the trick but they soon became captivated in the performance and hooted with delight whenever the fish performed a trick.
When the song was complete, Pewtory followed it with, “The travelling man,” “The sorrow of the Spirit saga” and “Gregorian, Gregorian what will you build next?” All three songs went down a storm and the crowd was raucous.
By the time he recited the epic poem of “the last Firelion,” he was parched. He signalled for a drink as the crowd discussed the performance.
“Happy?” he said to the innkeeper as a mug of ale was thrust into his hand. The man stank of cooking oil.
“Reasonably. What’s next?”
“Next is story time. I ask for any request from your patrons and then regale them with the version that they have never heard before.”
The innkeeper grunted and made his way through the crowd back to the bar. Pewtory gulped the rest of his drink and climbed back on the makeshift stage. He saw Archie sitting on a stool speaking cosily to a young blond lady, who couldn’t look less interested. The peddler looked up and toasted the bard, slurping his drink in the process over the young girl. She stood abruptly and marched away. Archie shrugged and smiled at Pewtory in a ‘what can you do’ fashion.
Pewtory plucked a few chords on the mandolin to signal for the inn to be silent.
“I have sojourned many regions and hundreds of towns where I have performed in front of countless numbers. Yet I can honestly say the “Falconer’s stump” is the best audience I have ever played in front of.
A drunken cheer went up.
“To Pewtory the Lesser,” a large bearded man toasted and everyone echoed.
“To Pewtory the exaggerator,” a voice called from the back, and received affectionate laughter.
Pewtory laughed along with the banter. “Who wants a story?” Another cheer erupted. “What story would you like?”
Several suggestions were hurled at him. Most he knew, some he did not, although he would never let on to this fact. He closed his eyes and held out his arm, pointing to the audience. He then span on the spot three times. When he stopped he opened his eyes to discover he was pointing at a young boy, who could not have been more than ten summers old.
The boy had wet hair brushed in a side parting and held his father’s hand: a man sporting a similar hair style. Pewtory smiled at the pair before crouching down to be closer to the boy.
“It appears young man that tonight you have the honour of selecting the story I tell. What will it be?”
The boy stared wide eyed at the bard before his father squeezed his hand and motioned for him to answer.
“I would like to hear about King Jacquard the half-hearted,” the boy said. The suggestion was met with a collection of groans. Of all the stories the boy could have requested, a story about their present King was hardly new information to many in the tavern.
“A fantastic choice,” Pewtory said quietly to the boy. He then stood a projected his voice more loudly. “Tonight’s story will be about our good King Jacquard.”
More groans greeted the announcement. “What is this I hear? Disapproval? Reluctance? Surely this cannot be true?” Pewtory said.
“We know all about our King. Tell us an exciting story,” someone said.
“I beg to differ my dear fellow. For if you knew all about our King then you would be eager to hear the story. For the tale I know is one full of bravery, tragedy and courage. Strap yourselves in my dear friends whilst I tell you the story of “Jacquard the half-hearted...”

Book Review - The mists of Avalon (JS)

The Mists of Avalon- by Marion Zimmer Bradley
Review by Jacqui Slaney
I have always  been interested in the various Arthurian legends, probably helped by the school I attended where the pupils were split into various houses all named after the Knights of the Round Table. I first came across this story years ago and must admit that when I first read it, I did struggle with the book which is surprising as it is an interesting take on the story and ending up giving on the whole thing. I do not like doing that with books, so recently revisited it to see if I felt different towards it.
This is the description:
Here is the tragic tale of the rise and fall of Camelot - but seen through the eyes of Camelot's women: The devout Gwenhwyfar, Arthur's Queen; Vivane, High priestess of Avalon and the Lady of the Lake; above all, Morgaine, possessor of the sight, the wise, the wise-woman fated to bring ruin on them all...
As the description says the story is told through the eyes of the women around Arthur – The main character is Morgaine or Morgan le fey as she is normally called; she talks of Arthur before he becomes King and after and shows how their relationship following the trickery of Vivane helped to cause the destruction of Camelot by Mordred
I really liked Morgan the most, she is strong and humorous, and you can see as the book goes on and life changes her to a dark and powerful woman why she does what she does.
Gwenhwyfar or Guinevere, I found annoying even on the second reading - at one stage I found myself wanting her to be real so I could slap her, as she was weak and annoying at all times and always seems to be complaining about something
The male characters are also little one dimensional, which I suppose is understandable as this is a tale from the womens point of view, even Arthur himself comes across as a little weak
This is a long book, and I am afraid that it does drag at times, with little action and a lot of the emphasis of the plot being on the struggle between paganism and Christianity.
A lot of reviews I have read on this book say that this is the best book that they have ever read on this subject and only a very few go against this and go to the opposite extreme and say it’s awful.
I would say that though I do not hate this book, I do not love it either. It did take me two attempts to read it, but once I had, I was pleased I had persevered.
I have read better (Bernard Cornwell’s The Warlord Chronicles for a start) but this is still a good book. Getting the womens point of view does give it an interesting twist, if you can get past Guinevere that is!
Therefore, if you are interested in tales of Britain and King Arthur, then I would say give this book a go, and I hope that you enjoy it.
7 out of 10 

Monday, August 26, 2013

Book Review - The Wander in Unknown Realms

The Wanderer in Unknown Realms – John Connolly

Apart from loving the Charlie Parker series, I am huge fan of John Connolly’s other books especially his short story collection, Nocturnes. When he announced he was releasing a digital only  novella I was very excited. His short stories tend to have a stronger element of the supernatural which I think he does extremely well.

The blurb:

Lionel Maulding, a rare-book collector, has gone missing from his country home in Norfolk. When his nephew approaches Mr Maulding’s solicitor, Mr Quayle, to look into the matter, the investigation is passed on to Soter, a WWI veteran, who has done similar detective work for Quayle.

From the nature of books in Lionel Maulding’s impressive library at Bromdum Hall, it is clear that he was greatly interested in the occult. But how far did that take him? There is evidence of the withdrawal of £10,000, an extraordinary sum of money for the purchase of a single book.

As Soter delves deeper into the connection between Lionel Maulding’s disappearance and the possible existence of the rare book Atlas of Unknown Realms, he starts to question his own sanity. Did Lionel Maulding release evil into the world, or is Soter suffering from post traumatic stress?

As we follow Soter from the slowly decaying Bromdum Hall to the sinister bookseller in Chelsea and the book scout in Whitechapel, we enter his nightmare world where his horrific experiences in the trenches echo the fearful reality unleashed by his search.
From the opening paragraph of this story, Connolly sets the scene well. The language he uses (always one of his strong points) helps convey the time period. Normally I find this off putting but with Connolly you know you are in safe hands. Within paragraphs you are immersed in the story and the language feels like you have been reading it all your life.

Soter is a good character. He is no nonsense, straightforward guy who is willing to do what it takes. In short, he is the kind of guy you want to read about.  The book focuses on him uncovering the mystery of the disappearance of Lionel Maulding.

As Soter investigates the circumstances become more mysterious and Soter discovers more questions or answers. The success of this novel hinges on the mystery and whilst it is nothing new, the characters Soter interacts with makes it feel fresh.
There is a higher power involved here, but one than Soter struggles to understand.  Connolly takes the reader along for the ride and fully immerses them into the investigation and so when it is suggested Soter might be going crazy, it is the first time the reader is aware of it. It is nicely done, as I found myself questioning what was the reality and what was false.

The technique automatically makes the reader uneasy and the writing feels dirty, as if you shouldn’t be uncovering the truth but like Soter you just can’t stop. This sense of the uncomfortable is aided by the crustaceans Soter keeps on seeing, truly creepy creatures that add to the intrigue and tension.

The secondary characters are good and serve their purpose well. Obviously with a short story you are not going to get layer upon layer of background detail, but they are interesting enough to stand out from the background.

The ending is somewhat predictable. It feels like I have read the ending a thousand times before which is a little disappointing. There is nothing wrong with it, but with the quality of writing and John’s usual high standards I was just hoping for something more original.

Overall, this is a great demonstration of how to create a brooding, uneasy tale with a gloomy atmosphere. Connolly’s writing is a superb as ever, it is just as shame that the ending is too familiar.

My rating: 8.1

Friday, August 23, 2013

Book Review - Hereward (JS)

Hereward by James Wilde
Review by Jacqui Slaney
I will admit that this book has been sitting waiting to be read for quite a while. Every time I went to pick it up, I got distracted and down the reading list, it would go. There was no particular reason, there just always seemed to be a book that I wanted to read more. Lately though I have started to make a impact on my books and decided that I would finally read this one.
The Blurb:
1062, a time many fear is the End of Days. With the English King Edward heirless and ailing, across the grey seas in Normandy the brutal William the Bastard waits for the moment when he can drown England in a tide of blood. The ravens of war are gathering. But as the king's closest advisors scheme and squabble amongst themselves, hopes of resisting the naked ambition of the Norman duke come to rest with just one man: Hereward... To some a ruthless warrior and master tactician, to others a devil in human form, Hereward is as adept in the art of slaughter as the foes that gather to claim England's throne. But in his country's hour of greatest need, his enemies at Court have made him outlaw. To stay alive - and a freeman - he must carve a bloody swathe from the frozen hills of Northumbria to Flanders' fields and the fenlands of East Anglia. The tale of a man whose deeds will become the stuff of legend, this is also the story of two mismatched allies: Hereward the man of war, and Alric, a man of peace, a monk. One will risk everything to save the land he loves, the other to save his friend's soul...

I will admit that my knowledge of history of this time used to be quite sketchy though having studied both O and A level history, our class was given the industrial revolution to study. This though interesting and obviously vital, does not really have the same impact of men fighting for the English throne. However, thanks to books thrown at me by an older brother and sister, my knowledge was expanded.  
From the very start, this is a bloody book, so it is not for the faint hearted. However, the violence is not gratuitous at all, it fits in with the time and the peoples involved. As in those days if you wanted to show that you were peeved at someone you would show up with a knife or axe in hand to show your displeasure.

Hereward is a strong character; obviously, he is the hero so he should be. However, he is well written, you understand his actions as his past is described well so the reader is sympathetic towards him. The change in him as the book goes on is well portrayed and shows his growing maturity after his forced expulsion from England by claims for murder. 
He makes friends, there is good description of the battle fair that he takes part in and falls in love. The monk Alric is a bit whiney especially at the start of the book, but that is part of his charm, trying to keep a character such as Hereward on the straight and narrow would be hard for anyone. I liked Acha the servant who catches Hereward eye and Vadir who tried to teach him the bow and arrow.

There are twists and turns in the story line with the reader wondering who actually killed the woman that Hereward loved, and would his adopted brother Redwald take revenge for him.  
There are some obvious nasty characters with Harald Redteeth who keeps cropping up when he is least wanted and Harold Godwinson who wants the throne, is willing, and does do anything to get it, and some sneaky ones, but I wont mention who it don’t want to spoil it for you.
This is a good fun read which I recommend and I am now looking forward to reading the next in the series.
9 OUT OF 10

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Pewtory the Lesser Bard - Part 3: The Falconer's Stump

To celebrate the release of “Ritual of the Stones,” I am releasing a free serialised story set in the same world of Frindoth. The story will follow the journey of Pewtory the Lesser bard as he travels to Lilyon to witness the Ritual. I hope you enjoy.

Chapter 3 – The Falconer’s Stump

The Falconer’s Stump was deceptively large inside. It was set just off the main road between a blacksmith’s and tanners. It looked small and cozy from the outside, more like a cottage than an inn. When Pewtory stepped inside he wondered if the boy had been mocking him. A long bar occupied the length of a narrow room. A couple of men were seated at the bar but there was only space enough for a few more men to stand next to them before they were pressed against the wall.

As he approached however, he saw that the bar merely served as a corridor to a much larger space. Here the corridor opened up to a large room with mahogany tables and a roaring fire. More rooms sprawled off at the corners and a large wooden staircase was positioned next to the bar.

A large moose’s head hung from one of the walls and a bronze skillet above another. This room was packed full of people dining and drinking. Some looked up and upon seeing Pewtory stopped their conversation and nudged their neighbour.

In Gandara it seemed, Bards were a rare and exciting thing. Pewtory felt his stomach tense at the prospect of such an eager audience. The room quietened to a hush, but the townsfolk were polite enough to return to their conversations and not merely stop and stare at the flamboyant bard before him.

Pewtory smiled at the audience and turned back to the bar looking for the inn keeper. The space behind the counter however, was vacant so he approached two surly looking men nursing mugs of ale. Their faces were covered in grime and soot as were their shabby looking clothes. Miners no doubt, although Pewtory was unaware of any mine nearby.

“Excuse me dear fellows, where might I find the proprietor of this establishment?”

The two men looked up at him with blank expressions.

“Come again?” the taller of the two asked. He had bright azure eyes which stood out against his dirty face.

“The innkeeper?” Pewtory sighed. Extensive vocabulary would be lost on the people of Gandara, he would have to keep his stories simple tonight.

“He’s the fat man in the kitchen.”

The man pointed to another doorway off to the side of the bar. Pewtory could not see inside for the steam but he heard the clattering of pots and pans.

“When are innkeepers ever not fat?” Pewtory said, “it is part of the job description I think.”

The two men laughed at that.

“Fatness and being tighter than a sailor’s knot,” the man who hadn’t spoken said.

“Unless it was a Roran sailor!” Blue eyes said which sent the two men guffawing. Pewtory laughed along politely. He was a man of the people after all.

At that point an obese man emerged from the steam carrying four plates of rather appetising food. Despite the pear he had just consumed, Pewtory’s stomach rumbled.
The innkeeper’s eyes widened as he saw the bard and then a broad smile spread over his face.

“Sheila!” he shouted across the bar to a young serving wench, who sulkily peeled herself away from a well dressed merchant. The girl sauntered over smiling coquettishly to the other patrons in the bar. Her clothes left little to the imagination but she was clearly younger than she pretended to be. Her breasts were elevated to deceive and her make-up applied with an inexperienced hand.

“Tables 4 and 5,” the inn-keeper said and handed her the plates. She took them effortlessly, which surprised the bard as he thought he might struggle to carry more than two. “It’s been a while since we’ve had a bard in Gandara. The names Melvin.” The inn-keeper said and wiped his hands on his apron and thrust out his hand.

“So it seems,” Pewtory said and introduced himself as he shook the man’s hand. “Although I am told that Gandara is very welcoming of my kind.”

“We are indeed. We just don’t see enough of you as we would like. I assume you would like dinner and a room in exchange for performing tonight?”

“It is like you can read minds.”

Melvin chuckled. “If only. Can I get you a drink?”

“Two whiskys please: One in a short glass and another in a shot glass,”

Melvin frowned momentarily but the smile returned as quick as it had gone. He turned to a brown bottle behind him and began pouring out the measures. Pewtory unhooked the bowl from his staff and placed it on the counter. A few people stopped and stared at the unusual sight of the fish but said nothing.

Melvin placed the drinks on the counter next to the bowl.

“Pets?” he nodded at the fish.

“Companions. They travel with me everywhere.”

“They have special meaning to you?”

“You could say that. I performed at the Palace of Manistor a few years ago. The princess there liked my songs so much she gave them to me as a gift.”

“Never heard of it. But you must have been good, they look exotic.”

Pewtory laughed, “You hear that Willow, Melvin here thinks you look exotic?” The bug-eyed fish stared blankly back at the bard. Wisp by contrast seemed to swish her fins about more so they flowed elegantly from side to side.

“To exotic,” Pewtory chuckled as he toasted the inn-keeper and downed the short glass. He had not noticed that half the people in the inn had ceased their conversations and were watching him. The bard then picked up the shot glass and poured the whisky into the bowl of water.

A few people gasped as the fish responded by shooting round the bowl and spinning upside down. “That’s right my friends you enjoy it. It is the only one you are getting today,”

After a few minutes, Wisp jerked and then turned upside down and floated to the surface of the water.

“I think your fish is dead,” a woman from a nearby table said.

Pewtory turned and smiled. “Nah, he is just showing off as he knows he has an audience.” 

The bard tapped the bowl hard enough to slurp water over the side of the bowl. “Hey Wisp, cut it out you ugly fool. You are alarming our audience.”

The red fish did not move but gentle rocked side to side with the water’s motion. His golden belly swollen.

“That will be eight bronze.”

Pewtory turned and was surprised to see Melvin holding his hand out.

“Eight bronze for two drinks?”

“Tri-moons no. Eight bronze covers the drinks, the meal, the room and a bath.”

“What happened to performing for those things?”

“Consider it a deposit. If you are as good as you say you are and treble my income tonight you’ll get it back. If not I’ll keep it.” The innkeeper smiled as if he had just played the biggest trick in the world.

“Fat and tight,” blue eyes muttered behind him as Pewtory reluctantly rummaged around in his pockets.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Book Review - The High Lord

The High Lord – Trudi Canavan.

This is the final book in Trudi Canavan’s opening “Black Magician” trilogy. I enjoyed the first two in the series, although I can’t say I raved about them. I read book two back in 2007 which might give you an indication of how enthusiastic I was about reading the concluding volume.

Recently however, I figured I was doing the series a disservice. Despite having read the last book six years ago, I still remembered quite a lot about it, which is unusual as sometimes I struggle to remember a book I read last year.

The blurb:

"You want to know the truth."

Sonea has learned much since she was but a penniless urchin possessing an awesome untapped ability. She has earned the grudging respect of her fellow novices and a place in the Magicians' Guild. But there is much she wishes she had never learned -- what she witnessed, for example, in the underground chamber of the mysterious High Lord Akkarin . . . and the knowledge that the Guild is being observed closely by an ancient fearsome enemy.

Still, she dares not ignore the terrifying truths the High Lord would share with her, even though she fears it may be base trickery, a scheme to use her astonishing powers to accomplish his dark aims. For Sonea knows her future is in his hands -- and that only in the shadows will she achieve true greatness . . . if she survives.

I was initially worried that I could not remember all of what had occurred so far but Trudi Canavan does a fantastic job of bringing the reader up to speed on the past events. This is done organically and doesn’t feel contrived in any way.

Sonea is now a “prisoner” of Akkarin, the High Lord she accidentally witnessed using black magic in the last novel. At the start of the book this means we find her as an introvert, wallowing in her own self-pity. It is a little annoying, but Trudi Canavan creates enough intrigue to ensure the mystery surrounding the High Lord takes over her thoughts.

Sonea quickly adapts into a more self-assured apprentice. She starts to stand up for herself and takes control of her destiny. There are still times when she doubts herself and can be a little naive and these can be frustrating, but for the most part, Sonea is enjoyable to read about.

The real star of the book is Akkarin. The confusion over whether he is evil or misunderstood drives the early part of the novel. He develops from a proud, loner obsessed with his personal crusade to a man realising that he may need to change his outlook in an effort to survive. He begins to see the potential in working in a different way and the potential of others (particularly Sonea).

This change of attitude is contrasted nicely to the rigid and uncompromising beliefs of the Guild. Set in their arrogant ways and bound by a strict code they are unable to demonstrate the flexibility needed. The result means that Trudi Canavan cleverly engineers the alliance of the reader to the characters she wants.

Administrator Loren also deserves a mention. His friendship with Akkarin is a complex one and the sense of betrayal he feels is honest. Cery too is a good character who has risen amongst the rank of Thieves, although the relationship he has with a random Sachakan feels unnecessary as does the storyline involving Danyl and another potential magician.
Other characters are less developed. Lord Rothen remains the same pining mentor we see throughout the trilogy whilst Balkan, Lady Vinara and the King are only distinguished by their roles in society.

The main threats of the novel are the Sachakan. These magicians feel menacing and there are several good scenes they are involved in that demonstrate their superior abilities.
As all series of the genre seem to do, the final book sees the characters leave the confines of the established world that has been built up in the early books. In the “Black Magician” that place is the Guild. Canavan does an excellent job of portraying life outside the Guild. In fact many of the books best moments come when Sonea is fending for herself in the wild.

There are flaws. Sometimes Canavan labours the plot too much. Every so often the point of view character pauses and then recaps the events of the last chapter to explain them in simplified form. Sometimes this is welcome but other times it is tedious. It is a shame that the correct balance was not struck.

Also the main love story feels a little clumsy and school girl like. There are times when Sonea swoons too much and everything feels fluffy and adorable.

The climatic battle is excellent. It feels epic and is well handled. The set pieces all feel impressive and the losses heartfelt. I would go as far to say it is one of the best final battles I have read. Yes, it is long but Canavan does an excellent job of maintaining the reader’s interest throughout in the form of an elaborate game of Hide and Seek.

Overall then, I really enjoyed this concluding volume. I was secretly thinking that once I read it, I would be able to put Trudi Canavan to one side having tried her and merely “liked” her rather than loved her. This novel has convinced to come back for more.

My rating: 8.2

Friday, August 16, 2013

Book Review - The False God - Vespasian III (JS)

False God of Rome- Vespasian III by Robert Fabbri
Review by Jacqui Slaney
I did not intent to read this instalment in the series so quickly. However, after enjoying the second and not wanting to read a fantasy book quite so soon after thoroughly enjoying the last one I read (author of which kindly lets me review books on his site- it’s a brilliant book by the way and I thoroughly recommend it!).  I thought I would just give in and read this one.
Vespasian is serving as a military officer on the outskirts of the Roman Empire, suppressing local troubles and defending the Roman way. However, political events in Rome - Tiberius' increasingly insane debauchery, the escalating grain crisis - draw him back to the city. When Caligula becomes Emperor, Vespasian believes that things will improve. Instead, he watches his leader deteriorate from Rome's shining star to a blood-crazed, profligate madman. Lavish building projects, endless games, public displays of his incestuous relationship with his sister, Drusilla, and a terrified senate are as nothing to Caligula's most ambitious plan: to bridge the bay of Neapolis and ride over it wearing Alexander's breastplate. And it falls to Vespasian to make the long journey to Alexandria to steal the legendary armour. Vespasian's mission will lead to violence, mayhem and murder - and in the end, to a betrayal so great it will echo through the ages...
This book right from the start is excellent, Vespasian is now a junior senator serving in the dusty outskirts of the empire when he is asked to go out to rescue a Roman citizen who it appears has vanished into the desert and captured by slavers. The request is from an attractive woman, so Vespasian agrees with the idea that this woman may end up extremely grateful to him. There is violence and bloodshed as Vespasian battles tribes, sandstorms and wild animals.
Later he returns to Rome, where Tiberius dies and Caligula becomes emperor. Vespasian quickly sees what Caligula has become in the six years since he last saw him and over the coming days sees this madness become even worse. There is a great bit when Caligula recovering from an illness confronts a senator who promised the gods his life in return for the emperors’ – I will leave it to you to imagine what the outcome was! 
The author has really now got into his stride with his writing. The dialogue between the characters works well, especially between Magnus and Vespasian and the plot is fast paced with plenty of action. As you can imagine some of the scenes regarding Caligula and his actions are not for the faint hearted, but anything about this emperor is going to be bloody so it is to be expected.
Vespasian in this book is shown to be a real character that has dropped many of his lofty ideals, as he now knows the reality of living in this world. At times he is not proud of his actions- especially when he realises  that he caused men to die just on the possibility of bedding a woman. He takes bribes and though appalled by Caligula, he and his family become sycophantic towards him just so they can survive.
To me this book is the best so far in the series, in the first two books there was always something that could have been improved, with stilted characters or just a slow start to the book. Here though these faults have been corrected I am pleased to say and the reader now has an engrossing book to enjoy
9 out of 10

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Pewtory the Lesser Bard pt 2

Pewtory the Lesser Bard part 2 – Approaching Gandara

To celebrate the release of “Ritual of the Stones,” I am releasing a free serialised story set in the same world of Frindoth. The story will follow the journey of Pewtory the Lesser bard as he travels to Lilyon to witness the Ritual. I hope you enjoy.

In hindsight travelling the last leg of the journey with Archie had not been the most intelligent of ideas. As they approached Gandara both men shouted to advertise their arrival. The result was a muddled confusion that was reflected on the townsfolk’s expressions.

Still, one by one, people emerged from their shops and homes to see who the new arrivals were.

“This is silly,” Pewtory said. “There is little point in us both shouting over each other. You go and then I’ll go.”

“If you go second then people will remember what you have to offer and not remember me,” Archie replied as they approached the outer wall.

Two guards dressed in shabby looking padded armour and battered helmets stood to attention either side of the open door. They stood ramrod straight, and held clean spears, which suggested they took their job seriously.

As the cart neared however, they only carried out the briefest of inspections of the cart before waving Archie forward into the town.

“I really think the people of Gandara will be able to remember two different professions.”

“You go first then.” Archie said with a grin and deliberately slowed his horse down.

Pewtory made a show of rolling his eyes but inwardly cursed. It was true the townsfolk were more likely to remember what the second man said.

Gandara it appeared was one long, muddy road to accommodate all of the shops and stalls. Off of this sprawled people’s homes in a haphazard network of ill considered planning. 

The first part of town seemed to be the richer end. The buildings here were well maintained with painted eaves and solid roofs. Some of them even had glass windows rather than shutters. Further down the main road though, Pewtory could see the quality in the buildings and materials used to construct them diminished. He wondered how there could be such a contrast in class within one road.
Occasionally a sellar would bellow out what he had to sell but the town was unusually quiet of boastful advertising for one its size. Pewtory guessed the residents must know the shops by now so the shopkeepers seemed little point in advertising.  The loud clang of metal hammering against metal, of livestock bleating and snorting and the drone of laughter and gossip was omnipresent though.

The smells of the town wafted over to him. He always liked the moment he entered the town walls. In contrast to the smell of shit and waste that consumed him whenever he approached from the outer perimeter, new smells dominated the foul: Pollen from bunches of flowers, all manner of freshly cooked, baked, roasted food and perfumes that promised to be from far off exotic locations no one had heard of all combined to make a unique but pleasant aroma.

When there were a sufficient number of people gathered round the cart Pewtory caught the attention of a young boy spying the fruit next to him.

“Good fellow, what is the name of the biggest and most popular inn in town?”

“Falconer’s stump, over there,” the boy said pointing a little way down the road.

“Good man,” the bard said and then tossed the boy a pear when he saw Archie’s attention was elsewhere. The boy caught it and disappeared in the crowd.

Pewtory moved a tray of pears to one side and hopped up on the crate underneath so that he could be seen by everyone.

“Gather round good men and women alike. Gather round and gaze upon Archibald’s trailer of quality. You will find: blankets, pots, fruit and much more in this cart of delight. Archibald’s goods are fast becoming known throughout Frindoth as the finest items you can buy on your doorstep.”

The bard risked a look down at Archie. The peddler’s face was red with anger. He clenched the reins in his hands until his knuckles were white. Pewtory went on quickly.

“Feast your eyes on what is on offer, salivate at the bargains to be had. The last town nearly robbed Archie of all his stock, don’t make the mistake of missing out.”

The words had the desired effect as the crowd swelled and pressed in closer to the cart.

“But first, allow me to introduce myself. I am Pewtory the Lesser bard, well travelled and well versed in Frindoth’s storied history. There is not a tale I do not know, there is not a song I have not heard and I am one bard whose act you definitely haven’t seen. You might have heard of the legend that is my namesake but you definitely won’t forget me.

Come visit me tonight at the Falconer’s Stump and I will tell you any tale of your choosing.”

He finished speaking with an exaggerated bow that sent one arm out for poise and crossed his legs. A ripple of applause greeted his soliloquy and there were a few excited murmurs among the crowd which made him smile.

He hopped off the trailer and landed next to Archie who had now dismounted and was uncovering the rest of his wares.

“You tricked me, you said you would introduce yourself first,” Archie said without looking his way.

“That I did. But let’s be honest, you couldn’t have done a better job of advertising yourself.”

Archie grunted as he looked at the people straining to see what he uncovered next.

“You appear to have a silver-tongue. One day that will land you in trouble.”

“That day has come and gone many times.” Pewtory said as he leaned over and carefully gathered his staff. “Will we see you tonight?”

Archie eyed the bowl and the fish warily. “Aye you will see me tonight.” He tossed Pewtory a pear which the bard caught easily. “Have two pears for your advertising skill.”

Pewtory glanced at the pear in his hand, “two pears?”

“Yep, don’t think I didn’t notice that you gave the boy one before your little speech.”

Pewtory grinned. He bit into the pear and raised it in salute to Archie before heading in the direction the boy had indicated.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Book Review - The Last Kingdom

The Last Kingdom – Bernard Cornwell

This series began in 2004 when I just becoming a fan of Bernard Cornwell. Despite the high praise it has received I have resolutely refused to start it until I completed the other series I had started by him (Sharpe aside of course – there are dozens of them).

The blurb:

The Last Kingdom is set in the England of the ninth and tenth centuries. These were the years when the Danish Vikings had invaded and occupied three of England's four kingdoms, and when King Alfred, his son and grandson fought back and won the freedom of the country again. The story is seen through the eyes of Uhtred, a dispossessed English nobleman. Captured as a child and raised by the Danes, he now finds his allegiances divided. But the one thing he knows is that he wants to recover his father's land, the fort by the wild northern sea that we now know as Bamburgh.

I found: the Warlord Chronicles virtually flawless, the Sharpe novels great fun if a little formulaic and the Grail Quest series very good although did have its problems in the way that Cornwell focused a little too hard on historical accuracy and the battle descriptions at the expense of his story and characters. I was looking forward to see how this series compares to the others.

After an engrossing opening where we meet Uthred and his world is turned upside down, Cornwell focuses on setting the scene. In fact, as the “Last Kingdom” began I was worried that it too would suffer from the same issue as the “Grail Quest” series.

Cornwell works hard to firmly entrench us into the time period of invading Danes and Christianity. The result of which is a very episodic feel to the opening of the novel as Uthred travels from town to town involved on the periphery of small skirmishes.  Whilst this is happening, the reader is force fed the Danish terms for various items etc in an effort to set the background and claim authenticity.

This is all very interesting but it does feel a little “too in your face”. Thankfully, this does not last long. As Uthred grows, he learns about the world and the Danes’ way of life. The information is filtered far more organically as the characters and story shine through.

Uthred himself is an interesting character. He gravitates towards strong ruthless men, who lead a simple life and don’t have to over think things. Uthred himself has a simple outlook on life. It is one that makes him arrogant and unfriendly to those that do not share his principles. I’ve read some reviews that state they did not warm to his character and it spoilt their enjoyment of the book. I have to say I did not share this opinion. I found these uncompromising qualities and flawed outlook made for a compelling character.

Uthred is heavily influenced by the last bit of advice he receives whoever imparts it at the time, something I can identify with certainly. It means his opinion changes a lot. At the same time he is hard working and has a strong sense of moral purpose – what is not to like?
The secondary characters here are all strong as well. Ragnar the man that captures Uthred and then treats him like a son is a great fatherly figure whilst Alfred (the most famous man in this series) is a boy that Bernard Cornwell makes it hard for you to like, but at the same time had several redeeming qualities also.

The plot is cleverly constructed, covering all of the historical battles with an authenticity that only Cornwell can achieve. His descriptions of the shield wall and how vital they were at the time period in question is fascinating. Unlike the start of the novel, Cornwell soon establishes the correct balance between story-telling and recalling historical terms and place names.

All the crucial elements to a good story are included from the protagonist’s journey to a potentially great antagonist. The ending is engrossing with a firm resolution in regards to Uthred’s journey to being a man.

Overall, I think the “Last Kingdom” is a very good platform to a new series. It introduces a new era to us and launches several great characters. I can’t wait to see where it goes next.

My rating: 8.6

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Book Review - Inferno (JS)

Inferno by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle
Review by Jacqui Slaney
This is a book that I found years ago in a second hand book shop, you know the type of shop, narrow passages that seem to go on for ever and high shelves rammed full of books. It was not a thick book but looked interesting and was so cheap how could I resist.
The blurb:
Science fiction writer Allen Carpentier finds adventure beyond his wildest fantasies when his soul is transported to Hell.
I started glancing through the pages and then ended up reading this book really quickly as it’s one of those story’s that once you start, you seriously cannot put down, and ever since then I have read it fairly regularly over the years as I do not get tired of it.
The idea behind the book is obviously Dante’s Inferno, which is part of the Divine comedy. Instead of Virgil though being the guide through the circles of hell; here you have a fat man called Benito or Benny, as he wants to be called, guiding a science fiction writer down to the centre of Hell where he says the exit is.
The writer Allen Carpentier at first does not accept he is in Hell, how could such a thing be possible after all? Therefore, he make believes that he is in some kind of theme park, an Inferno Land that is just based on Dante’s book. However, as Allen and Benito (now who do you think that could be?) make their way down through the various circles, he slowly comes to accept the truth of what he sees.
There are some vivid descriptions of the various punishments meted out to the sinners; wading through boiling blood, being mowed down by cars with a mind of their own and frozen in ice are just a few. Being a civil servant myself, I liked the idea of the admin offices! You also come across familiar names as well on the journey, Billy the Kid and Jesse James are just a couple.
The book can be read and enjoyed on different levels; it is a fast-paced adventure story with a fair amount of humours which considering the topic will surprise you. It also raises questions about religion and what Hell may be being used for. You can also end up questioning actually how many of these circles could a normal person end up in. 
However you read this book, it is great science fiction, though not an easy book to find these days  I am afraid. For those who are lucky enough to find a copy, definitely buy it as it is definitely worth a read and you will not be disappointed.
10 out of 10

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Pewtory the Lesser Bard part 1

To celebrate the release of “Ritual of the Stones,” I am releasing a free serialised story set in the same world of Frindoth. The story will follow the journey of Pewtory the Lesser bard as he travels to Lilyon to witness the Ritual. I hope you enjoy.

Introducing Pewtory the Lesser Bard
It was late afternoon by the time Pewtory the Lesser bard spied the first tendrils of smoke swirling above the trees. The lazy grey spirals confirmed that he neared Gandara. He had never been to the town before but the other bards had spoken of the generosity of its people and their love for a good tale.
With any luck he would be there within the hour, which would give him enough time to find the main tavern and drum up some interest in a performance tonight. He never expected to be paid for his performances other than a good meal and a roof over his head, but tonight he secretly hoped for a little coin.
The Ritual was just over a month away and as he got closer to Lilyon the inns would be filling up. Busier inns meant more coin but less chance of free rooms. He would have to pay his way if he was to witness his first Ritual.
He removed the staff from over his shoulder and carefully laid it on the floor. Tied to the end of the staff were two bags. One contained a change of clothes, some food, and a thick blanket. The other bag was made from linen that was so fine you could almost see through it. It was a strong and durable material however, for it contained a glass bowl the size of his head. In said bowl swam two disc fish, one red and one blue. They were Willow and Wisp his travelling companions. Willow (the red fish) was an ugly creature with bulbous eyes, whilst, by contrast, the blue Wisp was elegant, possessing long fluttering fins. 
He pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed his brow. The fish peered through the bowl at him as if enquiring why he had stopped but he ignored their blank stares. He stretched and sat himself down on a rock by the roadside.
He allowed himself to stare at the smoke for a few moments and pictured the tavern it emanated from. His body yearned for the comfort of a straw mattress. He had slept out beneath the stars for three nights now and his back was beginning to protest.
 “Better make sure old Beth is up for performing tonight,” he said to the fish who now poked the floor of the bowl with their mouths. “Nothing to say to me? No? Well when you are ready to open up you let me know.”
He chuckled to himself as he always did when he made the same joke and reached behind him for his mandolin.
“Ah Beth, you don’t talk to me either but you sure sing a glorious tune.”
He caressed the mandolin lovingly. It was a beautiful instrument given to him by his old tutor. The flamed wood made the body look like the pelt of a tiger with its dark stripes and the bronze strings shone golden in the sun.
One by one he plucked the strings and smiled at the sound they made. He winced as one snapped causing him to jump slightly. He was a nervous man, one who hid behind the tales he weaved rather than live them himself.
“Gloom have you,” he said staring at the broken string as it curled up at the end of the instrument. He continued to curse as he fished out his knife and cut the string away before retrieving a replacement from his pocket. He placed it in the vacant groove and then wound it into place. For good measure he coated the instrument in lemon oil. 
When he was done he tested the new string and trimmed off the excess wire. This time when he strummed the instrument it sounded perfect. He played the opening melody of the “the horse with no rider” and watched as Willow and Wisp sped swiftly round and round the bowl in response to the song.
It was then that the cart rattled up the hill. Pewtory ceased his song and laid Beth across his knees and waited for the stranger to appear.
A huge pointy hat was the first thing visible, royal blue in colour and crooked at the mid-point. This was quickly followed by a rugged, florid face which was concealed behind a long grey pointed beard. The man rode on top of a strong looking mare that seemed to have little difficulty in bearing both the man’s weight and the cart it pulled up the hill.
The man smiled when he saw the bard and raised a hand in greeting. Pewtory the Lesser raised his own hand in response and forced a smile.
The man was clearly a wanderer like himself. He wore a faded green waist jacket and patched up trousers. Depending on what the cart contained would dictate how civil Pewtory would be. The Bard could do without competing against another entertainer.
Pewtory stood as the man pulled up alongside him and dismounted with a groan. Pewtory should have guessed from the man’s attire, but a quick glance to the back of the cart revealed the man was a simple peddler. Every inch of the trailer was occupied with all sorts of goods. Clay pots and vases were mixed with blankets, cloaks and wool. There were even trays of fruit and vegetables as if the peddler could not decide on which area to specialise in.
“Heading for Gandara I assume?” the man said. He had a gruff voice as if years on the road had coated his lungs with dust.
“That’s the plan. Was just tuning the instrument,” Pewtory replied.
“Good, I could do with some lively music. Everyone is too anxious about this dam Ritual.”
Pewtory shrugged. “I go where the crowds go.”
The peddler nodded to show he completely understood.
“Want a lift?”
“Is there room?”
The man grinned and lifted off a tray off apples. Underneath were several more empty trays. Pewtory raised his eyebrows and the man laughed.
“Tricks of the trade. Always look like you have a lots to sell and then push the price up when the villagers realise you are almost out of stock. I’m Archibald Freestone, Archie,” the man said and thrust out his hand.
“Pewtory the Lesser bard.”
“The Lesser?” I’ve heard of Pewtory the Bard. But then again who hasn’t?”
It was true, everyone in Frindoth had heard of the famous Pewtory the Bard. A legend from long ago whose stories and songs were sung in taverns and inns all over the land. So much so that people often gave him credit for material that he did not make up.
“Well I ain’t him, hence ‘the Lesser’ part of my name.” Pewtory said.
“Oh, I see” Archie said although his expression suggested he didn’t.
Pewtory did not wait for the peddler to question him any further. He turned to gather his belongings.
“Archie here has offered to give us a lift the rest of the way. I want no funny business whilst we are on the wagon and keep your comments to yourself,” the bard said as he picked up his staff.
“Who are you talking too?” Archie said. He was in the process of mounting his horse and now looked around warily.
“My apologies. Please forgive my manners,” Pewtory said. He swung the staff round in front of him slowly so Archie could see the bowl. “Allow me to introduce my two travelling companions Willow and Wisp. Willow is the bug-eyed, red rascal and Wisp is the blue angel.”
“You’re talking about the fish?” Archie said looking up incredulously. The bard nodded. “You talk to your fish?”
Pewtory nodded again and then placed the staff onto the cart. Inside the bowl the water and the fish slurped from side to side.
“Do they talk back?” Archie asked. A note of caution was now in his voice. He still had one foot in his stirrup and one on the floor.
“Of course not. They are fish.” Pewtory and then hoisted himself onto the cart.
Archie stared at the strange bard for a moment and then shrugged and mounted his horse.  

Monday, August 5, 2013

First author interview

This morning sees me interviewed over at Drew Avery’s blog:

Drew Avery is a fellow self-published author of “Dead Planet Book 1 Exodus.”

He is doing his bit to raise the profiles of other self-published authors by conducting a series of interviews with them about their books and writing habits. Below is an extract:

Who, or what, inspired you to start writing?
I’ve read so many interviews where the standard response from the author has been, “I’ve always written for as long as I can remember,” the same is almost true for me. Since a very young age I used to write scenes rather than actual stories. When I was 14 I wrote a short novel called, the “Scarecrow,” it was inspired by the “Point Horror” books I was devouring at the time. My aim was to set up a rival company called “Sheer Terror.” I got it made into a book by a friend of the family, with a promotional poster and everything and then somehow passed it off as my technology coursework to get an A.
The real inspiration came from a combination of authors and sleepless nights. In the space of a few weeks I read “Speaks the Nightbird” by Robert McCammon, “Wolves of Calla” by Stephen King and “Game of Thrones,” by George R R Martin. These three are my favourite authors and all of these books made me want to write something even remotely as good as them. All three also had elements that I loved but wished the author had taken in a different direction.
My first son had just been born and my wife was extremely ill, so I was doing most of the night feeds. It was whilst feeding my boy at 3am that a scene popped into my head. On a whim I wrote it down. The next night I took it further and soon when my son woke up in the night, every time it was later than 4am, I did not bother going back to sleep but stayed up writing.
I was a zombie, but I had the writing bug.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

One month on - Introducing Pewtory the Lesser Bard

Wow what a month it has been! Ritual of the Stones was published almost a month ago exactly (have I mentioned that at all) and so far it has sold as well as I hoped. I am very conscious that 80% of the sales are from people I know on social networking sites etc – but one has to start somewhere.


The feedback so far has been positive and I now have four nice reviews spread over the UK and US amazon sites and on Hopefully word of mouth will start to have an effect and I will see more downloads. 

I have been interviewed twice since the book was published. One will be appearing on Monday (again I will post a link) and the other by a magazine at work. This one in particular was rather unexpected and a nice bonus as it is circulated to over 14,000 staff.  I am hoping for at least a couple of sales out of that one. 

So what is the big idea you’ve had in marketing the book Rob? One of the biggest decisions I made when publishing the book was the price I set the book at. With so many new authors giving away their books for free in terms to reach an audience, it seemed like this was the done thing to do.

 I was never comfortable with the idea though. Not because I am not generous, but I wanted to see how well my book would sell on its own. Anyone would download a book if it was free, it doesn’t mean they would read it though. If they paid money for the book, they are more than likely to read it having parted with their cash. Besides, I also put a lot of effort into Ritual of the Stones, I figure it is worth something to someone – right? Right?

 I wanted to do something nice to mark the occasion though and to let people experience my style of writing. This lead to the invention of, “Pewtory the Lesser bard.”

Over the next few weeks (every Wednesday starting this Wednesday) I will write about 1,000 words each time following a character called (you guessed it), “Pewtory the Lesser bard.” Although Pewtory the Lesser does not feature in “Ritual of the Stones,” he will be making his was to Lilyon where the Ritual of the Stones is due to take place.

On the way he will either tell tales of or meet the main characters in “Ritual of the Stones” before the main story takes place. The way things are shaping up, he may even influence events in the future.

I figure this will be a great way to introduce you to Frindoth and if you like what you read and haven’t purchased the book, it may encourage you to do so.

Do I need the added pressure of committing to 1,000 words a week, when I am holding down a full time job, have two children under four, dedicated to this blog and am trying to find time to write the sequel as it is? Probably not, but I am having great fun doing it.

Look out for the first chapter on Wednesday. Let me know what you think.

Regarding book 2:

 Still no title but another chapter done. I had a minor heartache on Friday where for an hour or so it looked like I had lost 50,000 words. I managed to recover all except 500 of them in the end and so my heart is fine thanks for asking.  Horrible waste of time though.

That’s it for the update. I hope you enjoy the interview and Pewtory the Lesser bard, I would love to hear your thoughts, so please feel free to comment you shy cats.

Kind regards