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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“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.

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“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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“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.

“The Pagan Lord” by Bernard Cornwell (HarperCollins, 2014)

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Medieval historical fiction extraordinaire, Bernard Cornwell, is back with the next installment of the Saxon Tales. The Pagan Lord is the seventh in the series, with King Alfred gone and the land is on the eve of war between the Saxons ruled by Alfred’s son, Edward and Wessex; while in the north, the Danes led by the Viking Cnut Longsword looks to take more land.

Our hero, Uhtred, has had his ups and downs in the series, but now wishes to bring what men he can together and take back his inheritance in the distant north land of Bebbanburg, but he will have to fight his uncle and progeny to do that. The Christian faith is also growing in this place that will one day be called “Angeland,” and when Uhtred kills an important bishop, he finds those of the faith also warring against him.

The Pagan Lord pushes Uhtred to the very edge and beyond, bringing the reader along with him. It shows Cornwell doing what he does best, moving his characters around and pitting them against each other in magnificent battle scenes. No one Cornwell book is like the other, which is what makes him such a great writer.

Originally written on January 27, 2014 ©Alex C. Telander.

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

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“The Blood Gospel: The Order of the Sanguines Series” by James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell (William Morrow, 2013)

Blood Gospel
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Many readers are familiar with James Rollins, known for his bestselling Sigma Force novels, as well as his standalone thrillers like Sandstorm and Amazonia.  Not as many people may know the author James Clemens, who is in fact a pseudonym for James Rollins.  Under this name, he has published seven fantasy novels.  The Blood Gospel, a new novel from Rollins collaborating with Rebecca Cantrell, author of thrillers like A Trace of Smoke and A City of Broken Glass, is the first in a new series known as The Order of the Sanguines, and marks Rollins’ return to the world of the supernatural and the fantastic.

In this gothic tale, a strange trio is on the hunt for a sacred text out of ancient history that must be recovered, known as the Blood Gospel.  The story begins with a devastating earthquake in Masada, Israel, killing many, but also revealing the hidden location of a sacred tomb.  The trio is assembled: Sergeant Jordan Stone, a forensic expert working for the military; Father Rhun Korza, a strange priest sent by the Vatican; and Dr. Erin Granger, a brilliant archaeologist who had been working nearby at the time.  Within the tomb they find the strange crucified body of a young, mummified girl.

Before they know it, the trio finds themselves under attack by some very strange characters, some of which don’t appear to be human, but they survive.  This begins the chase to track down the secret location of the Blood Gospel.  The enigmatic Father Korza reveals some important details about this sacred text and why it is important, and perhaps who some of these unusual characters they’ve been running into are.  As they follow clues, using their individual skills as well as plenty of intuition, the search leads them deep into the heart of Europe, within an ancient German castle.

As the story continues to open and reveal itself, like a beautiful, sacred tapestry, the authors do a great job of ratcheting up the suspense and action, making things tougher for their characters, as well as showing more of the back story, which has a history reaching back thousands of years.  Back to a time and origin of some strange beasts, which bear an uncanny resemblance to their current enemies.

The Blood Gospel is an impressive collaboration between Rollins and Cantrell, revealing a complex and fascinating tale, as well as an intriguing world that sucks the reader in from the start.  Each main character has his or her own point of view, adding a depth and intricacy to them that is not usually common in these types of thrillers.  Unique answers that fit the story are presented to questions like: Why are Catholic priests sworn to celibacy?  Why do they ware pectoral crosses?  Why is wine consecrated and transformed into Christ’s blood during Mass?  And what is the real story behind the raising of Lazarus?  Whether you’ve tried Rollins or Cantrell before, The Blood Gospel will be the ride of your life.

Originally written on February 6, 2013 ©Alex C. Telander.

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

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