“North Water” by Ian McGuire (Henry Holt & Co., 2016)


North Water is a nineteenth century whaling story by British author Ian McGuire. It is not for the faint of heart or a weak stomach, but it also smacks of a stereotypical “man’s novel” with over the top violence, graphic description and cruelty. While it is well written, it is ultimately about men wanting to hurt each other in despicable ways, and you have to really ask yourself: why would anyone want to read about that?

The book opens with Henry Drax, a harpooner, who is broke and down and out again, and proceeds to knock a black child unconscious and then rape him; it is done to show his depravity; all it did for me was make me hate this book. He joins the crew of the Volunteer and faces off against an ex-army surgeon named Patrick Sumner who has been through his own trials and tribulations. The two pit against each other on a seemingly doomed voyage.

For those who enjoy the over-description of this harsh world in this harsh time on an old whaling ship, as men are being men in extreme conditions and a harsh arctic winter, then this is the book for you. For those looking for something more engaging and actually worth reading, move along to the next title.

Originally written on July 12, 2016 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Warriors of the Storm” by Bernard Cornwell (HarperCollins, 2016)


The ninth installment of the Saxon Tales doles more riveting historical fiction that gives Martin’s Game of Thrones a run for its money, plus a lot of the events in this series actually occurred.

King Alfred’s dying wish was to unite the kingdoms of his lands into a single nation that would one day be known as England, but things seem more dire then ever as the Norsemen continue to chip away and gain more ground. One important man stands in their way: Uhtred of Bebbanburg controlling the fortified city of Chester in the great kingdom of Mercia. He has fought long and hard to help and protect Alfred’s children, Edward and Athelflaed, and keep their lands intact. Kidnapped at a young age by Norsemen, he is seen as a traitor by them and a heathen by the Christian Britons, but without him Alfred’s children wouldn’t be alive.

Now he must turn his sights to Ragnall Ivarson, a formidable Norseman who possesses a mighty army, soon joined by the Northumbrians to bolster their numbers, as well as being allied with the Irish. There is also the detail that makes it a lot more personal for Uhtred: his daughter is married to Ivarson’s brother. Uhtred will have to do what he does best – made the hard decisions and ignore what everyone else wants – if he is to make it through alive and unscathed.

Originally written on March 4, 2016 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Warriors of the Storm from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons (Little, Brown and Company, 2015)

Fifth Heart
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One thing you can never do with Dan Simmons is pigeon hole him under a specific genre. He’s published in most, from epic science fiction to mysteries to horror to thrilling historical fiction. Other than his Blade Runneresque novel Flashback from 2011, his previous four novels have been works of historical fiction; a couple of them have been fantastic, engrossing books — The Terror and Drood — and the other two — Black Hills and The Abominable — were lacking in something. His latest novel, The Fifth Heart, is a return to those earlier, thrilling works as he takes an idea that would hook any literary fan and takes you on one wild ride. The premise is a relatively simple one: what if Sherlock Holmes and Henry James teamed up together to solve a murder?

Sherlock Holmes is in Paris on a foggy night and finds Henry James by the Seine about to commit suicide. Instead, Holmes tells him he will join him on a ship in the morning to cross the Atlantic for James’s native United States to solve a murder that was thought and assumed to be a suicide. Clover Adams was a close friend of Henry James who committed suicide in 1885 under somewhat unusual circumstances. She was a member, along with James, of the Five of Hearts salon. And yet an enigmatic message is sent to the remaining members each year indicating nothing is as simple and clear cut as it seems.

Holmes begins his painstaking investigation, interviewing many and traveling all around Washington DC. James unwittingly becomes his Watson, as he also learns that Holmes is unsure if he is a real person or a fictional character, and that the stories Watson has penned about him with the help of literary agent Arthur Conan Doyle have distorted the facts of his past cases to make them all the more adventurous and grandiose. Holmes takes on many disguises and does what he does best.

Along the way readers will get to meet some fun characters, like Mark Twain and a young Teddy Roosevelt. They will also get to meet some familiar people from Holmes’s world, including Irene Adler and the infamous Professor Moriarty. The mystery will take James and Holmes away from DC to New York and then up to the Chicago to the White City and the World’s Fair where they will attempt to thwart a plot to assassinate the President of the United States.

Simmons clearly had a lot of fun with this novel, throwing as much literary subject matter as history. It is a lengthy novel and he enjoys taking the reader on interesting tangents, which all help to keep the reader enthralled as they have no idea where the story is going to go next. As with The Terror, the language makes it feel like one is reading something penned by Arthur Conan Doyle, with the use of particular language, diction and detail. Simmons fans will not be disappointed, while Holmesian ones will be delighted.

Originally written on August 1st, 2015 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of The Fifth Heart from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

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Hyperion  Drood  The Terror

“Desert God” by Wilbur Smith (William Morrow, 2014)

Desert God
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Taita the eunuch slave returns and is now a man of nobility and seen as a brilliant god by many in the fourth novel involving his character, after he took the stage and gained many fans in his debut, River God. In Desert God, Taita begins the work of removing the terrible Hyksos who have controlled so much of Egypt for so long, bringing the country closer to becoming independent and Egyptian once again.

As adviser to the pharaoh, Taita knows what must be done and begins the long journey first to Mesopotamia and the wondrous hanging gardens of Babylon to forge friendships in this distant land, then it is on to the great island of Crete where he will escort the pharaoh’s sisters to form an alliance and forge a mighty army and navy to take out the Hyksos once and for all. But fate has something great and dooming in store for him.

Fans of Wilbur Smith will be delighted with Desert God, while those trying him for the first time will do just fine, as little back story is needed. This book shows that Smith should really just stick to writing about his favorite character who grows older and wiser with each tale.

Originally written on November 14, 2014 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Desert God from Bookshop Santa Cruz, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

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“The Empty Throne” by Bernard Cornwell (HarperCollins, 2015)

The Empty Throne
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In the eighth installment of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Tales, with King Alfred now gone and buried, readers might think the series would be winding down, but it is quite the opposite. Æthelred, the current ruler of Mercia, lies on his deathbed with no legitimate heir, and an empty throne sits awaiting a new ruler.

Uhtred of Bebbanburg was thought mortally wounded at the end of The Pagan Lord, and now he is still alive, but not necessarily well. His grievous wound is very slowly healing, meanwhile he has to work with his son and men to make sure the church and those in power don’t elect who they want to rule. Uhtred has a powerful leader, Æthelflaed, in mind not just because she is a lover, but also because she is well liked by Mercia and is sister to King Edward of Wessex.

In addition to elect new rulers, Uhtred is also on the hunt for his sword that was taken from him and is purported to be in the hands of Bishop Asser who is somewhere deep in the heart of Wales. And then at some point he’s going to end up in a big battle with some Vikings.

In true Cornwell fashion, The Empty Throne has it all for a gripping historical fiction novel and fans will rejoice while new readers will have no problem getting hooked as the author keeps them clued in to everything going on.

Originally written on January 28, 2015 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of The Empty Throne from Bookshop Santa Cruz, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

You might also like . . .

The Pagan Lord  1356  Excalibur  Death of Kings  The Winter King  The Fort

“Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary” by J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014)

Beowulf
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In addition to creating the first fantasy epic, inventing a complete and insanely, thoroughly detailed world, and even making up its own language and alphabet, as well as teaching for decades, the great J. R. R. Tolkien also wrote a translation to the famous epic Old English poem “Beowulf.” Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary edited by his son, Christopher Tolkien, reveals this translation in its entirety for the first time, and so much more.

Tolkien completed his first translation of “Beowulf” in 1926, but he was by no means done with the poem. Over the ensuing years and decades he continued to make changes and updates and lectured greatly on the epic alliterative poem. Christopher Tolkien presents this ideal translation from Tolkien, and then includes his father’s vast commentary painstakingly collected and organized. The book features notes on how Tolkien translated specific words and stanzas with plenty of additional notes. Included are also lectures and lecture notes Tolkien gave on the epic poem. Finally, the great author even penned his own poem (in both modern and Old English) that acts as a precursor to “Beowulf” as a sort of fairytale written in the same style, but not within the history.

Compared to Seamus Heaney’s very well known and popular translation of the same poem, Tolkien goes for a much more literal adaptation, where some of the moving alliteration is perhaps lost, but the true sense of the poem and the meaning the author or authors were intending is possibly better comprehended. With the description and vocabulary, Tolkien does a great job of making the reader feel as if they are there at Heorot with Beowulf and Hrothgar and the comitatus. He uses an older language of “doths” and “thines” because of the time he is writing in, but also to give a sense of age to the poem, which can be a helping or a hindrance for the reader. Nevertheless, Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf is a very welcome one that will be enjoyed by many and likely taught and studied in future medieval and Old English classes to come.

Originally written on November 18, 2014 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary from Bookshop Santa Cruz, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

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Beowulf

“Hild” by Nicola Griffith (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013)

Hild
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The beauty of the medieval historical novel Hild, by bestselling science fiction author Nicola Griffith is that it is a story about a woman who becomes a powerful and inspirational figure during the Middle Ages. The reason this is special is because most historical fiction novels of this nature, from the likes of Bernard Cornwell, Jack Whyte, and Ken Follett to name a few, feature leading male characters in all their books, with female characters playing a secondary, minor role.

Such is not the case with Hild, telling the story of a young girl who is full of life and determination, along with a certain special ability to predict what may happen and soon gains the ear and respect of Edwin of Northumbria in his effort to overthrow the Angles. The book follows her life, growing to become a powerful woman and eventually one of the pivotal figures of the period: Saint Hilda of Whitby.

Hild is a beautifully written novel that takes a little while to get going, but once the reader is fully engrossed in the character, Griffith doesn’t look to tell your average medieval historical novel of back to back action scenes and historic battles, but a moving story of people interacting and living through this tumultuous time and what they did to make a difference. And then of course, there is the captivating cover to draw any reader in.

Originally written on February 12, 2014 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Hild from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.