These novels are millennia and continents apart but each brings a particular time and place to life. My personal favourite from this strong list is:
A Winter War by Tim Leach
I was expecting blood and guts and there’s plenty of battlefield realism and action here, but this is so much more than just a war story. A Winter War is literary, strong on character and rich in historical detail. It reflects on the motivation of Empire and the desire for freedom among the tribes on the borders. Leach is insightful and the world he creates feels credible.
Sarmatia, AD 173, the banks of the Danu, (the Danube, modern eastern Europe). The Sarmatian army is massed on the eastern bank of the river, now frozen in worst of winter. The Romans are amassing on the other bank. 6,000 Sarmatian heavy cavalry stand against the might of Rome. The warriors are quaking, settling feuds, joking or taking a last drink. The people of Sarmatia are ‘winter-starved’ while the Roman empire thrive on what it takes from the provinces and kingdoms under its yoke. The Sarmatians envy their gold and the iron to make weapons. Kai knows that the problem with defeating the Romans today is that they will come back in the future, their neighbours the Marcomanni found that out. After decades of war only the Sarmatians stand against the empire. Bahadur has been like a father to Kai, he tells him he should settle his dispute with Laimei. Laimei is the Sarmatian champion, as fearsome in battle with only one good eye as any warrior with two. As Kai approaches she mocks him, rebuffing any attempt as reconciliation. Kai returns to his position, stung by his sister’s scorn. There is no choice but to go into battle with the bad blood between them unresolved.
The battle commences, the carnage, confusion, chaos only made worse by the treacherous ice underfoot. Kai is soon scrapping for his life, but for a slip by a Roman soldier he would already be dead. He then falls to the ground, his horse lands on him, trapping him. The last thing he sees before blacking out is Bahadur fall as he returns to rescue him. Kai is lost under the dead bodies. By the time he comes round the battle is over, the Romans have won. What is left of the Sarmatian army has scattered. Kai finds Laimei’s horse alone, assuming the great warrior has succumbed too. The only thing he can do is head east, to his village, Iolas, and to his daughter Tomyris. He comes upon a small band of Sarmatian warriors, a ragged bunch of men and women scavenging the battlefield. Then Laimei staggers into their camp, her jaw broken, a wound to her shoulder that would have killed many, her life hangs in the balance. She would be the natural leader of the group but is too weak. Kai wants to take Laimei east to Iolas, the warriors would be a help but Gaevani, their leader is for heading south, so Kai challenges him.
Meanwhile, the emperor, Marcus Aurelius, who has been fighting barbarians on the frontier of empire for many years assembles his generals. They assume that the victory will be the end of the war for now. The surviving Sarmatians will starve on their side of the river but the emperor has other plans, Rome is not finished with Sarmatia and it’s straggling warriors yet.
A Winter War has strong characters, from the taciturn, angry Laimei and the self-doubting Kai to the cameos of Marcus Aurelius that glimpse his character. This novel is visceral but also intelligent, it’s about the pity of war, the cruelty of empire and the tenacity of people fighting for survival. Stylishly written, evocative and really had me gripped.
Head of Zeus, hardback, ISBN 9781800242869, out now.
Personal read 5* group 4*
A Corruption of Blood by Ambrose Parry
From the edge of the Roman empire to Victorian Edinburgh for the third Raven and Fisher mystery from husband and wife pairing Chris Brookmyre and Dr. Marisa Haetzman, aka Ambrose Parry. Another brilliant evocation of mid-nineteenth century Scotland, this series just gets better and better. The back story of the characters, loves, careers and ambitions, is as riveting as the mystery and it says a lot about the times and the people. A Corruption of Blood is a good mix of drama, romance and thriller.
Dr. Will Raven is called to the bedside of a woman in childbirth near the docks, but by the time he reaches her home in Leith the baby has been born, unexpectedly the woman is having twins. So his trip is not entirely wasted, though the woman hardly looks pleased at the prospect of two mouths to feed. As he walks back towards Dr Simpson’s practice, where he is a junior doctor, Raven sees a crowd gathered at the waters edge. A man has hooked a bundle from the water, when opened the head and torso of an infant falls out. Raven makes a mental note to contact the police surgeon, Dr Struthers, this matter has intrigued him, he wants to witness the autopsy. Remembering the twins just delivered:
‘He had feared for their start in life, but this served to remind him that for some there was no start at all.’
The widow Sarah Fisher has become an ally for Raven in his work. He has contemplated marrying this remarkable woman and setting up his own practice but things have changed recently. While Sarah is away touring, first London, then Paris and now Grafenberg, searching for Dr Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree, Raven has become acquainted with Dr Todd’s daughter, Eugenie, a spirited young lady he much admires. At the autopsy of the baby it becomes clear the child was murdered, strangled. Then another killing shocks Edinburgh society. How are these tragic events linked? A decent mystery that intertwines real people and events, like Dr Simpson and the discovery of chloroform, and fiction. Exploring issues of privilege, misogyny, the treatment of prostitutes, class and power. The character arcs ring true, the women are strong and Sarah analysis of her relationship with raven is spot on but I can’t explain without a spoiler so you’ll have to read it to find out.
Canongate, hardback, ISBN 9781786899859, 19/8/21
Personal group read 4*
Medici Legacy by Matteo Strukul
Catherine de Medici is one of the most notorious characters in history. Rather than chomp on the legend and the gossip generated at the time by her enemies Strukul has taken a more rounded view of the woman. His version of Catherine is kinder to her, more rounded, less controversial. Yet, proving that a fiction can be more considered and less hammy and still present an intriguing and exciting portrait of someone we all think we know but probably don’t.
Moving forward in time from Medici Supremacy by forty years, the Medici family saga shifts from Florence and the reign of Lorenzo, known as the magnificent, to Paris and the machinations of the French court under Francis I. Catherine is taught what it means to be a Medici at an early age and that lesson will hold her in good stead. Even so it will take her time to establish her place in the French court as wife to Henry, the Duc of Orleans, second son to King Francis I. Fourteen when she married, Catherine is an outsider, the daughter of a ‘merchant’, and an Italian to boot. Perhaps her biggest problem is that Catherine is up against her husband’s much favoured mistress, Diane. When Catherine is seventeen the Francis, the Dauphin, heir to the throne, dies in mysterious circumstances. It may be natural causes but rumours of a poisoning soon take hold and so do rumours that the killer was an Italian nobleman, Di Montecuccoli. It’s not long before some are linking the supposed assassin to Catherine’s entourage and by association to her. With Francis dead her husband Henry is the new Dauphin, and so in the eyes of many Catherine has much to gain. The young duchess is able to convince King Francis that she was not involved in Francis’s death but Catherine will only properly secure her place at court by giving birth to an heir. The problem is that Henry is so obsessed by his mistress, Diane of Poitiers, he rarely visits his wife’s bed. Powerful forces at court array against Catherine, her fascination with Nostradamus adds fuel to the fire for the extremist Catholics who seek to control the court and purge France of heresy, anything from Protestantism and Judaism to alchemy. What follows is the story of the woman who becomes queen consort then queen mother. A tale of court intrigue, religious intolerance, war, misogyny, conspiracy, diplomacy and survival. Catherine’s enemies underestimate her at their peril but this is not a tale of revenge so much as a portrait of a woman of her times. Over several decades Strukul acquaints us with a credible woman; determined, resourceful, growing from young tentative girl, inchoate and part formed, to the height of her powers. This offers a flavour of late medieval life, the French court and the politics of the medieval world. Not big on fireworks but a strong tense, intriguing slow burn.
Translated by Richard Mckenna
Head of Zeus, hardback, ISBN 9781786692177, out now.
Personal/group read 4*
Wuhan by John Fletcher
Finally, an epic set in China in 1937, an ambitious debut that is clearly a labour of love, years in the making. Wuhan has a long set up as befits an epic on this scale, but this incredibly detailed story perhaps overdoes it. Fletcher is painstaking in familiarising us with the setting and the huge cast of characters while easing us into a sweeping saga. A tale of war and politics and the making of a modern nation. Wuhan is a tough read, the depth of human misery is truly plumbed here. That, of course, reveals the will to survive and the determination and perseverance of people against terrible odds. For some this novel will be too long, too obsessed with research and knowledge, Fletcher wants readers to understand the Chinese character, the culture and religion. People are people and we share the same concerns but there’s a mind-set and stoicis about the Chinese that we need to fathom to fully appreciate the depth of the story. So for the most part this is an interesting blend of fact and fiction, and it’s topic, important as it is, has rarely been covered in western fiction.
North China Plain, autumn, 1937. As he works the field Wei looks up at the thick plumes of black smoke in the distance, they make no sense to him, still it’s clear something is very wrong. Wei is a farmer, it’s back breaking work and it’s reward is no more than survival. Wei’s wife is pregnant again and they already have six surviving children to feed. Even though his ancestors have worked this land for centuries it always comes down to whether the grain will last the winter or some will starve. The girls will be sacrificed for the boys, the eldest is the most important. Wei’s number one daughter, known as Spider Girl, barely survived to reach the age of sixteen. Her nickname comes from the effects of rickets, leaving her bow legged, she is sickly looking, as thin as a pole, but with the heart of a fighter. Spider Girl is the first to realise what the black clouds mean. At the village she has read old man Chen’s newspaper. The Japanese are coming, she rushes home with the news.
Spider Girl tells her father they must flee to survive, she reads him the account of the massacre at Nanking and talks of enslavement. The Japanese think they are a superior race, they believe in western science, Darwinism, the survival of the strongest. Her mother is not so easily convinced by Spider Girl’s words, she is resentful of the sway the girl has over her father. Wei’s wife calls Spider Girl a liar but she loses the argument. She thinks they’ve known war before, so what could make this so different? All the while the war is creeping closer:
‘Beneath his feet it was as though the whole earth was in revolt.’
Eventually, having said goodbye to their ancestors, the family grab everything they can carry, load the cart with the pregnant wife and confused grandfather and hit the road. They, like millions of others, are heading south to a province called Wuhan. The family have a very limited understanding of the wider world, Spider Girl has to explain what an aeroplane is as a Japanese scout buzzes the trail of evacuees. They will come back with bombs later. The journey is fraught with danger, desperate refugees, bandits and the Japanese in pursuit. When Wei’s wife gives birth on the road they have to consider what to do with the child for the good of the family.
At the campus in Jinan academic and writer Lao She considers his position, on one hand he is happy in this city but the Japanese are close. These past decades have been turbulent for China; the Boxer Rebellion, the foreign invaders, the fall of the Manchu dynasty, civil war, famine, warlords and the corruption of the ruling elites. Lao She is a liberal and a Christian, he hates the Japanese imperialists, they are at the Great Yellow River just outside the city. Their shells already targeting the university accommodation. Lao She knows that Beijing, Shanghai and Nanking have already fallen. His friend general Feng Yuxiang is to join Chiang Kai-shek in Wuhan, he extends an invitation to Lao She to become a propagandist for the Chinese cause. Lao She believes in China but he considers himself a socialist. There are other forces in the nation besides the nationalists and the Japanese.
Wuhan is a chronicle of the Chinese war with Japan. Fletcher manages to capture some of the thinking of the time, the great movements and hardship of the people and the chaos and terror of the times. For me this novel is interesting, full of information and ideas but it falls short on among the material come to life. Interesting, impressive in scale and scope but ultimately over ambitious.
Head of Zeus, hardback, ISBN , out now.
Also recommended this month:
Personal read 3* group – I doubt many would take this on.