A Search for the King: Gore Vidal

★★½

Some years ago, I read and enjoyed Gore Vidal’s Julian, which tells the story of the young pagan who becomes Emperor in a post-Constantine, Christian world. Since then, I’ve been keen to try more of his historical fiction and this book was the first to come into my hands. I had high hopes for it, as I’ve always been fascinated by Richard the Lionheart – probably due to my childhood fondness for Robin Hood stories: Richard’s own record as an indifferent King of England certainly doesn’t do him any favours. Vidal focuses on a particular episode from Richard’s life: the King’s famous capture in Austria on his return from the Crusades, and the faithful (and probably fictional) quest of Richard’s troubadour Blondel, who sets out to find his master’s prison, armed only with his viol, his voice and a good deal of faith.

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Holy Fools: Joanne Harris

★★★½

For five years, Juliette has lived in peaceful isolation at the convent of Sainte Marie-de-la-Mer, on the island of Noirs Moustiers (modern Noirmoutier) in eastern France. Within the abbey walls, she has reinvented herself as Soeur Auguste, a young widow who has sought sanctuary with her little girl Fleur. None of her sisters knows her true identity. But others do, and Fate – or God – works in mysterious ways. When the old Abbess dies, her replacement arrives with a confessor in tow: a glamorous, silver-tongued, charismatic man who Juliette knows, only too well. Against her will, she finds herself being drawn back into a dangerous game she thought she’d escaped long ago… for her dark nemesis is a gambler and this time he is prepared to play with sanity, faith and even lives at stake.

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Eaters of the Dead: Michael Crichton

★★★★

We all know not to judge books by their covers (even if we still do it), and this is a very good example of why it can be dangerous to do so. Both title and cover suggest this is a gruesome horror story. A quick glance at online reviews shows that some readers have been (legitimately) baffled to find themselves, instead, reading a pastiche of an academic text edition, complete with introduction, footnotes and bibliography. They’ve responded with low ratings and that’s a shame, because this novel is a daring blend of fact and fiction: a pseudo-intellectual sleight of hand which playfully offers a historical ‘source’ for the greatest of Western medieval legends: Beowulf.

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Honour and the Sword: A.L. Berridge

★★★★★

Chevalier: Book I

Very occasionally, as a reader, you have the wonderful sensation of finding a book that might have been written especially for you. It feels as though the author has looked into your head, seen all your favourite things and put pen to paper with an indulgent sigh of, ‘Oh, go on then’. And this book did that for me. It’s a rip-roaring old-fashioned adventure story set in France in the early 17th century, full of courage, loyalty, duels, romance, dastardly Spaniards, impossible odds, hair’s-breadth escapes, skirmishes, secrets and, of course, honour. And, at its heart, there’s an irresistible young hero: a fierce little firebrand with his head full of chivalry, a sword at his side and vengeance in his heart. Even better, it’s the first of a projected series. I want more. Right now.

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Lion of Macedon: David Gemmell

★★

Parmenion: Book I

I’ve read fantasy for as long as I can remember, but this is the first time I’ve managed to finish a book by David Gemmell, one of the dominant British authors of speculative fiction in the 1980s and the 1990s. I tried his Lord of the Silver Bow a few years back, being unable to resist anything to do with the Trojan War, but I confess it just didn’t do it for me. I hoped that this – essentially a historical novel with added demons – might be slightly more to my taste, but I’ve finished it in a state of slight bafflement. There’s a good idea behind it and some clever twists, but once again it just hasn’t engaged me. Join me, as I try to figure out exactly why that is.

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Giulio Cesare: George Frideric Handel (1724)

Handel: Giulio Cesare

★★★★

(English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire, 7 October 2017)

2018 is shaping up to be the Year of Cesare. Three different productions of Handel’s Giulio Cesare are on my radar, each within a manageable distance of London. With this in mind, I wanted to belatedly post my thoughts on the forerunner to this embarrassment of riches: English Touring Opera’s ambitious two-part production, which descended on the Hackney Empire back in October for a weekend of intrigue, desire, conquest and general skulduggery. Visually splendid, with a dazzling Cleopatra, it was weakened only by the eccentric splitting of the opera. But I’ll come back to that in a moment. For now, rally your legions, let the sand sink into your sandals, and imagine yourself back in Alexandria in 48 BC…

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The Battle of Salamis: Barry Strauss

★★★★

The Naval Encounter That Saved Greece – and Western Civilization

Just before dawn on 25 September 480 BC, a Persian armada sailed out of the harbour at Phaleron, just along the coast from Athens. The ships took up position at the entrance to some narrow straits between the Greek mainland and an island called Salamis, where the Greeks had taken refuge. Their fragile alliance, so the Persians had been told, was on the brink of collapse. All they needed was to provoke panic: the Greeks would crumble. And… well, it didn’t quite happen as planned. What unfolded over the next twelve hours was one of the greatest sea-battles of antiquity, and Barry Strauss’s book brings it to pulsing, vivid life. This isn’t a story of nautical jargon and dry-as-dust tactics: it’s swashbuckling of the first order, set against a mighty clash of civilisations, and populated by a cast of characters so colourful that it’s easy to forget it all actually happened.

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The Return of Martin Guerre: Natalie Zemon Davis

★★★★

In 1560 Jean de Coras, judge of the Parlement of Toulouse, found himself faced with an extraordinary case which had come up on appeal from the court at Rieux. A woman, Bertrande de Rols, claimed that the man with whom she had lived for four years was not, in fact her husband Martin Guerre, but an impostor. The husband himself denied the charges and claimed that his wife was being unwillingly coerced by his avaricious uncle, who hoped to get his hands on the family inheritance. This alone would have offered de Coras an intriguing case, but the complex tale of Martin Guerre presently developed an unexpected twist that elevated it into one of the most fascinating courtroom dramas in history. Natalie Zemon Davis’s reconstruction is a classic of modern historical writing, offering an irresistible glimpse of the social and sexual mores of the Renaissance.

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The Spirit Lens: Carol Berg

★★★

A Novel of the Collegia Magica: Book I

Portier de Savin-Duplais used to dream of being a great sorcerer, but reality has an unfortunate habit of failing to meet expectation. Instead, he has become the librarian of the great magical college that teaches other, more successful mages: a sober, scholarly, slightly unfulfilled man past thirty and wondering what more life has to offer. And then, one day, he receives a message from his distant cousin, the King of Sabria, asking for help. Someone has attempted to assassinate the king, leaving behind terrifying proof of a power that breaches the bounds of magical heresy. The King fears a second attempt and needs an agent: someone who understands magic; and someone he can trust. So, Portier finds himself thrust into a web of intrigue, danger and sorcery of the darkest kind.

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Madonna of the Seven Hills: Jean Plaidy

★★

Lucrezia Borgia: Book I

I’ve always felt I should read Jean Plaidy’s books. She’s ubiquitous in the historical fiction sections of bookshops and libraries, and she writes about periods that I find interesting. It was only a matter of time. Last winter, I went slightly wild at the Book Barn and came away with a pile of her novels, which I’m only now starting to tackle. I chose to begin with the first of her two novels about Lucrezia Borgia, which may have been a mistake, as it hasn’t done much to win me over. Over-seasoned, two-dimensional and extremely dated, it feels like stepping back in time for all the wrong reasons.

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