“Agincourt” by Bernard Cornwell (Harpercollins, 2009)


There are few battles in the history of the world that are most remembered by name, even by those who know or recall little from their high school history classes.  The Battle of Hastings is one; the Battle of Trafalgar is another; the Battle of Thermopylae is perhaps another, known to a lesser extent.  Then there is the Battle of Agincourt (or Azincourt, as it is known in French), which took place on October 25th, 1415.  For many, William Shakespeare springs to mind with his immortal play, Henry V, and “we few, we happy few.”  Or perhaps the image of Kenneth Branagh making a memorable performance as the king who battled unbeatable odds.  Ultimately it is the battle of the few triumphing over the many.  And now Bernard Cornwell has finally written his take to put our questions and qualms to rest in his classic, skillful style.

It was a stunning and in some ways incomprehensible victory of the British over the French in the midst of the Hundred Years War.  And what was the key advantage?  The British longbow.  Cornwell has already explored the beauty and importance of this historical weapon in the Grail Quest Series, and returns with one of his strongest characters yet in Nicholas Hook.  The name is real, taken from a list of archers of the time, along with most of the other characters in the book.  But Cornwell is not simply spinning a great, adventurous yarn from a relatively unknown piece of history.  The Hundred Years War, and in particular the Battle of Agincourt, is well documented.  In Agincourt, we do not see the familiar heroes who defy the odds; many die, many suffer.  It is a bloody, harsh reality, this war, that in some cases will leave the reader stunned with the graphic description.

In Cornwell’s best piece of writing to date, he doesn’t hold back, giving many gritty details and revealing a tough and sad world.  But ultimately we all know the British eventually triumphed; it makes for a much needed and happy conclusion to this ugly battle that left so many dead.  Agincourt is a special book that deserves a place on any medieval historian’s or medieval fan’s shelf, as well as an important spot for any Cornwell fan.  It is a book that will provide many answers, as well as both entertain and delight, and terrify and repulse.  Cornwell tells it the way it really was: cold, exhausting, painful, and very bloody.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on March 10th, 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.

For an interview with Bernard Cornwell check out BookBanter Episode 5.

“Drood” by Dan Simmons (Little, Brown and Company, 2009)


Our Mutual Friend was the last book that Charles Dickens wrote “THE END” to and published.  On June 9th, 1865, Dickens was on a train journey with his mistress.  A section of track over an upcoming bridge was missing, but the warning to stop the train hadn’t been set far enough away, and at this time for a train to make an emergency stop it was required to pull the emergency break on each car.  It was a catastrophic and devastating accident, like that of a horrific plane crash.  Most of the cars were destroyed, almost all the passengers killed or horribly injured.  The only first class car to make it in one piece was Dickens’ car.  He survived, going back into the train that was hanging off a the edge of the bridge to get his coat which contained his latest chapters for Our Mutual Friend.  Almost five years later, to the day, Charles Dickens died.  It was after this incident, known as the “Staplehurst disaster” – where Dickens could never travel comfortably again, fearing for his life – that the author began his obsession with death, the mysterious, the macabre, and the paranormal.  He began the most strenuous and exhausting series of readings of his life, which almost killed him.  He also began work on The Mystery of Edwin Drood, his last book which he never completed, but remains to this day one of the few mysteries which has never been solved.

Wilkie Collins, a fellow writer and good friend to Dickens in the last years of his life, is the unreliable narrator in Drood.  On the outside, Collins reveals himself as a caring and dutiful friend to Dickens, but he hides many secrets: his addiction to laudanum, consuming glasses of it each day while others take only drops; as well as to morphine and opium.  He suffers from rheumatic gout, which affects most in a specific area, but in Collins’ case he suffers the agony throughout his body and especially in his head, often rendering him helpless with pain.  It is through this drug-addled mind that we see Victorian England and the last years of Dickens’ life.  Collins has also been visited throughout his life by another version of himself who he communicates with and when unable to write, hands over his pen to this doppelganger; as well as a tusked creature that he fears.  Wilkie Collins is clearly not of sound mind.

Then there is the character Drood, dressed in black hat and black opera cape.  First seen by Dickens while searching for survivors at the Staplehurst disaster; yet each person that Drood attends to mysteriously dies.  He lives within the deepest bowels of London, in the Undertown.  Beneath the stench and horrors of Dickensian London exist nightmares never dreamed of, and it is here that Dickens goes to visit Drood, joined by Collins.  Simmons doesn’t hold back with the vivid detail of this world, shocking and disgusting the reader, but forcing them to unstoppably turn the page and keep reading.

The story continues, balancing the literary world as Collins writes and publishes his books, while Dickens performs his exhausting readings; then there is the growing mystery of Drood and his recently acquired acolytes who bare the same haunting, macabre visage which terrifies Collins.  And yet to satisfy his opium addiction, Collins must travel each week into the Undertown to receive the necessary drug.

Simmons does another incredible job with his new book, after the success of The Terror, creating a complete and detail-filled world as seen through the eyes and addled mind of this unique character.  Weighing in at over 777 pages, it is a heavy tome that could continue on and never end.  Drood is a special book that will stay long in the mind and thoughts of the reader, long after the last page has been turned, as he or she contemplates the meaning of Drood and what Dickens was really trying to do with The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on February 23rd 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.

For an interview with Dan Simmons check out BookBanter Episode 4.

2/18 On the Bookshelf . . .

History of the Medieval World

Received a welcome tome on my doorstep yesterday: The History of the Medieval World by Susan Wise Bauer.  After enjoying The History of the Ancient World, I knew it was going to be  a long wait for Bauer’s next volume to come out in her history of the world series, but it has now arrived and will certainly take me a while to get through; but since it’s my favorite period in history, I will somehow have to manage.

“Death’s Daughter” by Amber Benson (Ace, 2009)

Death's Daughterstarstarstar

Calliope Reaper-Jones has a simple life in New York, a city she loves.  She cares little for her boss and job, but enjoys the fashions and the stores, and is on the lookout for the perfect hunk to marry and spend the rest of her life with.  And Calliope thinks she might’ve found him, when she’s all set to go on a first date and finds a monster standing outside her door.  The monster isn’t in her imagination either, but the first in a series of events, including the meeting of a little faun, that eventually breaks the “forgetting spell” Calliope had cast.  It is then that she faces the stark realization and forgotten fact that she is Death’s daughter.

The reason her perfect little life has been dramatically changed is because her father, CEO of death, as well as the “members of the board” and Calliope’s sister who is an assistant to her father, have all been kidnapped.  Which mean’s there’s no death,  the life and wealth and immortality afforded the family of death will be voided and they will lose everything.  So it’s all up to Calliope; she must become Death to save the family.  Only this was the one thing she never wanted.  She will also have to complete three trials to prove herself to the gods that she can do the job.  She meets Woden, Persephone, and Kali who just really has it in for her.  And the first of the trials is merely to capture one of Cerberus’s puppies, the veritable hellhound of hell.

Amber Benson, author of the Albion series with Christopher Golden, and the actress who played the character of Tara on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, does a great job creating some compelling and interesting characters in this original story.  Calliope is a strong protagonist that you don’t want to mess with, while Kali is a goddess you never want to get on the bad side of.  Then there’s the Devil’s protégé who just turns Calliope to horny mush whenever she sees him.  Death’s Daughter is a funny, entertaining story that gives you a healthy dose of mythology mixed with some great characters and thrilling plot.  A recipe that leaves readers anxiously waiting for the next book of the trilogy due out next year.

CLICK HERE to purchase your copy from Bookshop Santa Cruz and help support BookBanter.

Originally written on February 22nd 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.

For an interview with Amber Benson check out BookBanter Episode 6.

“The Somnambulist” by Jonathan Barnes (William Morrow, 2008)


Welcome to a Victorian England where a little bit of magic still exists, as well as some possible time traveling, and some of the strangest and most unusual characters you’ll ever meet.  There is the title character, the Somnambulist as he is known: an outlandishly tall giant who never says a word and is a strange looking creature who attracts the interest and eyes of everyone he passes, and has an addiction to milk; as a matter of fact milk appears to be the only thing he ever consumes.  He also possesses a unique condition whereby he can be stabbed and skewered by any object through any part of his body, any number of times, and not suffer any pain, blood loss, or apparent harm.  He is a science-defying freak who is never thoroughly explored in the book.  Then there is Edward Moon, the other member of the magic duo, who has a penchant for sleeping with freakish looking women with the more disfigurements the better; the bearded girl is his favorite!  Moon fancies himself a skilled detective with a successful history except for one case that went terribly wrong.  Alas, this is also not fully explained in The Somnambulist.  The story begins with the bizarre death of an actor and builds to a complicated and stupefying conclusion that will leave the reader trying to wrap his or her mind around it.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on February 21st 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.

Originally published in the Sacramento Book Review.

“Daemon” by Daniel Suarez (Dutton, 2009)


Daniel Suarez has designed and developed enterprise software for the defense, finance, and entertainment industries, as well as being an independent systems consultant; he’s also an avid gamer.  So it’s no surprise that in Daemon he has created a world and plot that involves all these facets, resulting in a fast-paced, riveting, exciting novel that is a combination of classic Michael Crichton and The Matrix.

Daemon begins with Matthew Sobol, a renowned computer programmer and video game designer, dead from cancer.  It is upon his death, when the obituary is posted online, that the dormant daemon is unleashed upon the world.  In this world – just like our own – everything is automated and computerized: banking, transportation, defense, government, patient records; there are few things remaining “off the grid.”  The daemon works fast and incredibly efficient, beginning a systematic takedown of technology and world systems, causing deaths and the collapse of companies, and a financial meltdown that is scarily similar to the current economic climate.

It’s up to Detective Sebeck and computer genius Jon Ross to try and stop the daemon somehow from destroying everything.  Then there is The Grid, the Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game – in the style of World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online – created by Sobol, where the daemon secretly begins recruiting the disaffected but brilliant youth who play the game as part of its efforts to bring down technology and society.

Whether you’re a gamer, a computer person, a network specialist, an Internet aficionado, or just someone who likes books about technology and possibly the end of the civilized world, Daemon is the book for you.  Expertly written by Daniel Suarez, who knows exactly what he’s talking about, Daemon is a book that will have you on the edge of your seat from page one to the very end, and waiting for the sequel, Freedom, due out in 2010.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on February 8th 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.

For an interview with Daniel Suarez check out BookBanter Episode 8.

“The Canterbury Tales” Translated by Burton Raffel (Modern Library, 2008)

The Canterbury Talesstarstarstarstar

The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories written by one of the greatest writers in history, up there with William Shakespeare himself.  Originally published in the late fifteenth century, it has appeared on high school reading lists, and serves as one of the most important medieval texts – if not the most important – ever written and published.

Chaucer tells the story of 29 pilgrims who set out on pilgrimage from London to Canterbury.  Pilgrimage was a common event in many people’s lives in the medieval world, especially if they were looking to be pious and guarantee their ascent into heaven; it was also a good way for those who had committed sins to be absolved of their actions.  The Host of this pilgrimage sets the stage in the “General Prologue” by asking each of the pilgrims to tell four stories; two on the way to Canterbury, and two on the way back to London.  The storytelling will help pass the time, but will also serve to enlighten the group about the lives and actions of the pilgrims.

While Chaucer never fully completed his 124 stories, ending at 22,, there is nevertheless a wide selection of stories from most of its main characters.  “The Knight’s Tale” is the story about two royal Theban cousins who love the same woman.  There’s “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” as she discusses her life of five husbands and the importance and sacrifice she has made in marriage and being a wife.  “The Miller’s Tale” mocks the life of a carpenter who is fooled into believing a flood is coming, while the clerk sleeps with his wife.  In the final story, “The Parson’s Tale,” the Parson talks for a long time about the importance of being just and pious and faithful to God.

The Canterbury Tales is not just a collection of entertaining stories from the fifteenth century, but is a most fascinating insight into the way of life of these people, what they considered funny or sad, what they wore and ate, and what sort of a role the church truly played in their lives.  Chaucer even inserts himself into his book, arguing back and forth with the Host, as he is challenged to tell a superior story.

In this new translation from Burton Raffel, much of the original text is preserved, even though Raffel admits that in any translation, it is ultimately going to be different as it is that, a translation.  Nevertheless, where possible, Raffel keeps and maintains the rhyming scheme, giving life to the stories and making the old oral tradition of storytelling come alive off the page.  This new translation of The Canterbury Tales is perfect for anyone who enjoys these old texts, or for a student having trouble reading the early Middle English; it is even ideal for families to learn through reciting the stories aloud and hearing these classics come to life through voice, as they were originally meant to.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on January 18th 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.