Category Archives: Book Review

Book Review of Divided Houses by Jonathan Sumption

Divided Houses Jonathan SumptionThe Hundred Years War, Volume 3: Divided Houses (The Middle Ages Series) by Jonathan Sumption

  • Paperback ISBN:9780571240128
  • Published:01.03.2012
  • No of pages:700

Order from: Amazon.com | Amazon.co.uk

Divided Houses is the third volume in Jonathan Sumption’s epic history of the Hundred Years War – the war that everyone knows didn’t really last a hundred years – more like 117. However, one could argue that with the various truces and peace efforts that’s not quite the case. Divided Houses at first glance looks like it might cover one of the less glamorous periods of the war – there’s no headline English victory to write about – no Crecy, Poitiers, or Agincourt. Despite this, or perhaps because of this lack of a landmark battle distracting from the rest of the narrative, what is recounted is completely compelling. The period from 1369 to 1399 was a period of conflict and strife not just between the main two participants – France and England, but also internally in both countries as well. This was the period of the decline of Edward III, the Peasant’s revolt, and the deposition of Richard II in England. While in France power politics amongst the King’s relatives and generals and a bout of madness that lasted most of Charles VI’s reign add to the intrigue.

The narrative is also compelling because it really shows how unrealistic the war with France was for England – they just couldn’t afford it. But even France, who at last got their taxation together and built up some massive armies and fleets to invade England, saw those plans crumble to dust in the face of political uncertainty and bad weather.

There are also the sideshows of the war in Spain and Portugal, where the feudal ambitions of John of Gaunt failed and the Portuguese won their landmark battle of nationhood – Aljubarrota. But for me one of the most interesting sections is on the situation in Gascony, where because of the war a state of chaos reigned. Knights and nobles indulged in what can only be described as gangster-like activities – forcing towns to pay them protection money – or patis – or suffer the consequences. Local counts and dukes used the very same robber barons to form armies to fight various causes – whether in the national wars between France and England, or to supposedly put an end to the problem of outlawry.

Sumption tells his story of these years with an admirable combination of narrative skill while never skimping on interesting detail and exhaustive research. Divided Houses is an essential history of one of the more overlooked periods of the Hundred Years War.

Some of my fiction related to the Hundred Years War

This is one of my favourite periods of history. In fact I have several stories written during the the 1370s. These are:

Stand and Fight

By the Sword’s Edge

Chivalry: A Jake Savage Adventure

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Spotted Another Historical Inaccuracy in Azincourt by Bernard Cornewell

Elevation at the final doxology of the Euchari...
Elevation at the final doxology of the Eucharistic Prayer in a Mass celebrated by a single priest (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Got to the end of Azincourt by Bernard Cornwell today. It was a good read, although I found that his efforts to explain certain things about this iconic battle in English history did obscure the storytelling – he seemed to be trying a bit too hard to show how certain things happen – i.e. this is how such a small English army beat such a big French one. A good read, but I wonder if it could have been better – a bit more naturally told somehow?

In my last post about Azincourt

I mentioned an historical inaccuracy regarding the Bishop of Oxford. Well right at the end I spotted another one – this time there is a priest who offers to say two masses in one day – however, a priest is only ever allowed to say one mass a day except in special circumstances.

I guess I shouldn’t be too picky though – I am sure my own work contains just as many mistakes, but these two did jump out at me!

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Bernard Cornwell Guilty of Historical Inaccuracy in Azincourt?

Azincourt (novel)
Azincourt (novel) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am currently reading Azincourt by Bernard Cornwell and absolutely loving it. Azincourt is a nice easy and pleasurable page-turner told in the usual style of Bernard Cornwell – the historical content is fairly light and the characters are very immediate, not to complex but with enough empathy to keep the reader interested in the story.

And of course its about the great battle of Agincourt (or Azincourt) during the Hundred Years War, a battle that I have read a fair bit about and one that I have some quite strong opinions on – i.e. that the contribution of our archers wasn’t as key as some people like to make out – the men-at-arms and the mud were the key players in my opinion. So I wanted to see how Bernard Cornwell treated the portrayal of the battle. At the moment I am reading his depiction of the siege of Harfleur, which he does very well – effectively a medieval siege was like trench warfare and that is well depicted in Azincourt.

There was one jarring moment of disappointment and surprise for me though earlier in the book. A priest is describing his time at Oxford University and how he used to visit a brothel there – all fine and accurate so far. In fact this priest visited the brothel so often that he became a regular acquaintance of the Bishop of Oxford, who was also a regular customer of the same brothel.

But … there was no Bishop of Oxford. No bishop existed in Oxford until the reign of Henry VIII in the sixteenth century. Oxford was part of the huge diocese of Lincoln at the time. When I read this passage in Azincourt it was one of those moments where I simply had to put down the book and do a fact check. Having done a fair bit of research on the University of Oxford for my novel Hell has its Demons, I thought it odd that I hadn’t come across a Bishop of Oxford – such a figure would have held great sway over the interaction of the town and the University I thought – instead the Chancellor of the University was probably the most important clerk around time at this point.

Lessons to be learnt? Even the best novelists make mistakes, and always check your facts even if they seem self-evident – i.e. that a place as prominent as Oxford would be assured to have a Bishop.

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New Medieval History Book: Elizabeth of York (Queenship and Power) by Arlene Naylor Okerlund

Elizabeth of York (Queenship and Power) by Arlene Naylor Okerlund

In my recent posts about the best and worst Medieval people I have been remiss in not mentioning any women. So to balance that out only slightly, here’s some information about an upcoming biography of a powerful Medieval lady: Elizabeth of York, mother of Henry VIII and grandmother of Elizabeth I.

Available from Amazon.com

Available from Amazon.co.uk

Information from Amazon:

Review

‘Arlene Okerlund’s lucid biography of Elizabeth of York draws on detailed research to provide a long overdue account of the tumultuous life of one of England’s best loved queens. It is a compelling tale of Renaissance culture and ritual, intrigue and tragedy.’ – J. L.Laynesmith, Author of The Last Medieval Queens

‘This work aims to rescue the queen from the perception that she was a merely marginal player in the establishment of the Tudor dynasty. Forced to negotiate complex family relationships while maintaining a loving relationship with her husband and king, Okerlund’s Elizabeth emerges as a figure central to the accomplishments of the first Tudor court, so much so that her early death produced a catastrophe from which Henry never recovered. Okerlund’s biography produces a lively narrative and a credible portrait of the queen’s character together with a meticulous reassessment of the available evidence.’ – Gordon Kipling, Professor of English, University of California, Los Angeles

‘This book is a welcome addition to the sparse literature about one of England’s more dynastically important queens. Illuminating and fascinating.’ –Renaissance Quarterly

Product Description

This book tells the story of the queen whose marriage to King Henry VII ended England’s Wars of the Roses and inaugurated the 118-year Tudor dynasty. Best known as the mother of Henry VIII and grandmother of Elizabeth I, this Queen Elizabeth contributed far beyond the act of giving birth to future monarchs. Her marriage to Henry VII unified the feuding houses of Lancaster and York, and her popularity with the people helped her husband survive rebellions that plagued his first decade of rule. Queen Elizabeth’s gracious manners and large family created a warm, convivial Court marked by a rather exceptional fondness between the royal couple. Her love for music, literature, and architecture also helped inspire England’s Renaissance.

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Zio the Hero by Marc Grimston – Medieval Adventure for Kids of All Ages

Zio the Hero by Marc Grimston

I came across this medieval adventure story for children over Twitter. It’s by a UK author and seems to be doing very well. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but I’m planning to soon. I would recommend that you take a look at the video – Marc’s tour of Framlingham Castle, one of the locations used in the book, gives a great introduction to the setting of the story.

Here’s some more information about the book from the official press release:

Travel back in time to 14th Century England and to an adventure with dragons, castles, intrigue and murder.

Robert and his twin brothers Timothy and Michael accidentally find themselves transported into medieval England.  They arrive in a forest cottage, where they are expected to recover the missing crown of England.  Has it been lost, or stolen?  With the help of the clumsy but loyal dragon, Zio, their quest takes the boys across the centuries, where they make new friends, and enemies. Will they return home triumphant? Or die trying?  The only way to know is to read Zio The Hero.

Marc Grimston has delivered a children’s adventure story which is already enthralling children, ages 7 to 107.  In an age where many children lack stories with a moral battle between good and evil, Marc is reversing this trend with this exciting story. Marc takes you to Framlingham and Orford castles; both in the 14th and 21st centuries, where the children learn loyalty and honour can overcome all adversities that life can throw at them.  Together with new friends, they experience the power of forgiveness, true friendship and sacrifice.  Their father’s words of wisdom also being at the forefront of their minds, helping them to make the right, but not always the easiest of decisions.

Zio the Hero is a book which encourages children to stand up for truth and respect, even when all around them appears darkness and gloom.

Quotes from reviews:

“Amazing…. What a revelation.”      “This gets kids reading!”                “This is a wonderful book”

Marc Grimston has always been a story teller, writing poetry and short stories throughout his adult life. When challenged to write a children’s novel, Marc reluctantly agreed.  Although comfortable making-up stories for his children at bed time, creating an adventure for them to read for themselves, seemed a big step.  However, drawing on his experiences as a father and medieval re-enactor, Marc rose to the task of bringing his love of history, and his sense of fun and excitement together in an adventure story all children love to read.

Marc believes in the value of self-worth.  With dedication and determination, you can achieve anything.  Through his writing, Marc wants to empower and encourage all children to reach and achieve their goals.

Marc is in contact with several UK schools to work with them to encourage literacy, story-telling and the belief that all things are possible.

Marc takes walks along the beach, when not writing more thrilling adventures in his home town of Southend-on-Sea in Essex.

Zio The Hero (ISBN: 978 1780350479 published by FastPrint, RRP £10.99) is available at www.amazon.co.uk, and can be ordered from all good book retailers.  For more information please visit: http://marcgrimston.co.uk or www.facebook.com/ZioTheHero

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Left Hand of God and Agincourt – not sure about this one?

SPOILER ALERT:

20110909-132247.jpg
You’ll need to have read Paul Hoffman’s Left Hand of God to appreciate this, so that’s why I’ve flagged this up as potentially a spoiler.

If you’ve read the book you’ll know that nest the end of the book there is a big battle between the Materazzi and the Redeemers. What I found unusual about this is that the battle pretty much exactly mirrors the historical battle of Agincourt of 1415. So the redeemers are the English, lots of archers, smaller numbers, and the Materazzi are the heavily armoured and over confident French. The battlefield is a narrow muddy field flanked by woods, the Redeemers use stakes to protect themselves from the Materazzi, etc etc. The only detail I think that is different is that there’s no equivalent of the French attack on the English camp that prompted the English execution of prisoners.

20110909-132439.jpgAs a description of Agincourt it’s all very good. But for me it doesn’t feel quite right in a fantasy novel. I enjoy the way that Hoffman plays with historical events in this book, so we have a pseudo Christian religion, we have a sort of WW2 eastern front allusions, we have place names such as York, Memphis, and Norway used, but not in their historical and geographical contexts. All well and good and nicely thought provoking, but somehow the dumping of Agincourt into the book didn’t work for me.

What do you think?

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The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie Audiobook

The HeroesI’m really enjoying listening to the audiobook version of Joe Abercrombie‘s The Heroes at the moment. I actually signed up for an Audible subscription as I tend to walk about an hour a day to and from work and I thought that it would be a good use of my time – that way I can probably listen to another book or two every month as well as the physical copy that I’m reading.

Seems to be working out quite well. The Heroes is about 21 hours long so quite long for an audiobook, but it’s really well narrated by Michael Page – some really good character voices really bring the story alive, although I’m sure reading it would as well, but you can’t always tell how different the experience would be.

Enough said about that, now about the book itself and why I’m liking it. Well I think partly its the humour – I have actually laughed out loud a few times while listening to it, so probably looked like a complete idiot as I was walking through the streets of London. Also it’s a great subject and probably one that Abercrombie was dying to write about I imagine as I think a lot of men do – basically here we have in great detail the story about a battle – the lead-up, the characters who will take part etc. So far I have only listened to a few hours, and it looks like we’re about to have an initial skirmish between two scouting parties. I think this is a really interesting representation of what war and battle is like – random events escalating to lead to other events, not really in the control of the opposing commanders – see War and Peace for another really good interpretation of this.

I guess this is a boy’s own book in a way – most boy’s being interested in battles after all. And for that it’s great fun and the kind of book that I’m sure a lot of boys/men would love to read or write. Me included.

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Tangent Online Review of Nov/Dec 2010 Issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine

My review of the Nov/Dec 2010 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine recently got published on the Tangent Online website if anyone’s interested in reading it.

I signed up to start reviewing for Tangent Online a couple of months ago and this is my first review for them. I enjoyed the challenge of doing this as it’s quite a different skill-set from say editing your own work or participating in a critique group. As well as expressing your opinion you also have to communicate that in a polished manner, and you can’t ignore certain stories just because you don’t like them.

Another interesting aspect is that doing a review of a whole issue also makes you think seriously about the current state of the genre. What type of stories are being published and why for instance. Sometimes you can read issues of current short story publications and in your own mind you get a sense of what you think of each stories, but sometimes you don’t really analyse your own thoughts until challenged to express them.

I am hoping to continue reviewing for Tangent in the future, perhaps having a look at Asimov’s or Analog next.