Monday 23 May 2016

REVIEW: Audiobook of Kingmaker: Winter Pilgrims by Toby Clements

Kingmaker: Winter Pilgrims (Kingmaker, #1)Kingmaker: Winter Pilgrims by Toby Clements
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have to confess to knowing next to nothing about the Wars of the Roses, and have never been overly interested in the period. I am always amazed that people can get so het up about whether Richard III was a good king, or a ruthless despot. So, despite having heard great things about this book, I had put off reading it for longer than I should have. In the end I picked up the audio book on Audible, and I cannot believe I waited this long to "read" it.


The blurb on the book is as follows:

February, 1460: in the bitter dawn of a winter's morning a young nun is caught outside her priory walls by a corrupt knight and his vicious retinue.

In the fight that follows, she is rescued by a young monk and the knight is defeated. But the consequences are far-reaching, and Thomas and Katherine are expelled from their religious Orders and forced to flee across a land caught in the throes of one of the most savage and bloody civil wars in history: the Wars of the Roses.

Their flight will take them across the Narrow Sea to Calais where Thomas picks up his warbow, and trains alongside the Yorkist forces. Katherine, now dressed as a man, hones her talents for observation and healing both on and off the fields of battle. And all around them, friends and enemies fight and die as the future Yorkist monarch, Edward, Earl of March, and his adviser the Earl of Warwick, later to become known as the Kingmaker, prepare to do bloody battle.

Encompassing the battles of Northampton, Mortimer's Cross and finally the great slaughter of Towton, this is war as experienced not by the highborn nobles of the land but by ordinary men and women who do their best just to stay alive. Filled with strong, sympathetic characters, this is a must-read series for all who like their fiction action-packed, heroic and utterly believable.


Following my admission that I was not interested in the period in which the story is set, the audio book got off to a shaky start with a rather clunky introduction that set the scene of who was fighting who, but it seemed very forced and there were too many names mentioned in a couple of paragraphs making it impossible to really follow, unless, of course, you already knew the history. But then why would you need the intro? I would much have preferred a historical note at the end of the book, but alas, there isn't one.

After the short introduction, the story started and to my dismay, it was in the present tense. But it happened hundreds of years ago, I said to myself! How can this be in present tense? I was all prepared to give up on the book then, almost before it had started, but of course I didn't. And you know what? As if some magic spell had been cast on me, the tense the prose is written in ceased to be an issue for me as, within minutes, the book leapt to glorious life. The immediacy of the writing, the rawness of the characters, the details of the historical context, the gory battles, the touching relationships, the jeopardy, the horrors of war... After those initial moments, the book was almost perfect.

I couldn't stop thinking about the story when I wasn't listening to the book. I felt that I knew the protagonists and I shared in their anguish as each terrible incident befell them. When I got to the end, I was desperate to know more and immediately bought the second in the series, Kingmaker: Broken Faith.

My verdict?

An astounding novel. A gripping, blood-soaked trek along the muddy tracks of fifteenth century Britain.


Jack Hawkins adds a near perfect narration to a near perfect book. I don't often think that a book benefits from being narrated, but in this case, I think it does. Hawkins hits just the right note of earthiness and solidity in his delivery. He manages to give each character a distinct voice and accent without overdoing it. The only slightly weak accent was for the Welsh characters, but they seemed to improve as the book progressed.

Overall rating: 5 stars

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Wednesday 4 May 2016

What Char Newcomb Learnt while writing Battle Scars I & II

Next in my series of "What I learnt.." guest posts from other historical fiction authors is from Char Newcomb. Not only does she write kick-ass novels set in the time of the third crusade, but she has also written official Star Wars stories and is an even bigger Star Wars fan than me, if that is possible! So, what other day could I publish Char's guest post apart from Star Wars Day?

May the Fourth be with you!

What Char Newcomb Learnt while writing Battle Scars I & II

Siege of Acre


I majored in U.S. history in college and had never studied medieval history in depth, but my interest in the Third Crusade was piqued by a BBC television series. I had to know more. The Internet can be a wonderful place. (When I was a kid, I was the one devouring articles in the old – print – World Book encyclopedias.) But thank you, Internet! I immediately found links to numerous reference resources, including digitized translations of primary source materials. Working in a university library has its perks, too. Our collection had many of the texts I could not find online and our interlibrary loan department borrowed many items for me. Translations of contemporary chroniclers provided a rich history, with many details about daily life on the march to Jerusalem.

I knew I wanted to write a novel about the impact of war on two young knights. Men of the Cross (Battle Scars I) was my first venture into writing historical fiction. I had written many stories set in the Star Wars universe, and my knowledge of events, weapons, people, and politics in that galaxy far, far away was deep. Taking on a novel set during the Third Crusade meant learning a lot more than just the conflict itself or assuming I could pick up the nuances of life in medieval times from television and movies. Any writer of historical fiction will tell you of the hours of research and fact checking that accompany the writing process. For me it meant learning about the logistics of moving an army of approximately 20,000 over land and sea. Unlike European warfare, the crusaders could not live solely off the land. They would scavenge what they could, but Richard’s fleet paralleled the march along the coast, replenishing food and water, including fodder for the animals. I learned more than I ever expected about weapons and armor, battle tactics, terrain and the weather, about the politics of the time, and of course, about Richard the Lionheart. Then it was a matter of weaving the plot of my novel, Men of the Cross, into that tapestry, to have my main fictional characters present and witness to King Richard’s trials and tribulations.

Nottingham Castle


Book II of my series, For King and Country, takes the knights back to England in 1193 and ends following the Siege of Nottingham in March 1194. I visited Nottingham Castle in 2010, but that was almost 2 years before I knew I was going to write a novel, much less a series. I was there as a tourist and completely oblivious about the history of the Castle. I was so excited to see the gatehouse, but it wasn’t until I started researching Battle Scars II that I learned that structure was built in the 1250s, more than 50 years after the siege I would be writing. Sadly, there is very little left of what was an extremely impressive royal castle with 3 baileys and 2 stone curtain walls with a massive keep where the 17th century ducal mansion, now a museum and art gallery, sits.

Clifford Tower


York is one my favorite cities in England - magnificent Roman walls, The Shambles, and York Minster. As a tourist in 2010 I didn’t realize the significance of Clifford’s Tower to the late 12th century. Yes, I read the brochures and the signs, climbed the stairs for the great views of York, but like the gatehouse at Nottingham Castle, the keep on the motte in 1190 was a timber building that had been torched during riots against the Jewish community where 150 Jews died. When my fictional character Stephan visits York Castle in 1193, the keep has been rebuilt, but it is still wooden. The keep we call Clifford’s Tower is higher than the 12th century one and was built of stone in the mid-13th century by Henry III.  And York Castle itself – gone.

York Castle


It is all right to charge through the writing of a first draft. I ended up calling my first draft of For King and Country “rough” rather than “first.” It had holes and I knew that, but I did not stop to flesh things out and did not go back to fine tune or edit, just charged through to get the story down. It was exhilarating, but daunting.

Four-thirty A.M. writing sessions may have warped my brain. It wasn’t until after two thorough edits and my final read through that I discovered I had completely glossed over a little plot detail. *head-desk* Back to the keyboard I went…

Critiques from my writing group are invaluable. Whether it was a reminder to bring in multiple senses, to hold a moment longer and show a character’s reaction to a situation, or just to provide a pat on the back – I cannot thank them enough. But even with that feedback I still have doubts about my own writing.

Writers of historical fiction need to immerse their readers in time and place. It is thrilling to have all this historical background in your head, but far too easy to bowl over the reader with it.  Carefully weaving it into the fabric is what makes great storytelling.


Siege of Acre (public domain)

Nottingham gatehouse – author’s photo CC BY-SA 2.0

Clifford’s Tower – author’s photo CC BY-SA 2.0

York Castle – by Stephen Montgomery created the original, hchc2009 edited the background [CC BY-SA 2.0]


Charlene Newcomb is the author of Men of the Cross and For King and Country, two historical adventures set during the reign of King Richard I, the Lionheart, though her writing roots are in a galaxy far, far away. She has published 10 short stories in the Star Wars universe and written one contemporary novel. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society and a contributor and blog editor for English Historical Fiction Authors. Charlene lives, works, and writes in Kansas. She is an academic librarian by trade, a former U.S. Navy veteran, and has three grown children. When not working at the library, she is still surrounded by books and trying to fill her head with all things medieval. She loves to travel, and enjoys quiet places in the mountains or on rocky coasts. But even in Kansas she can let her imagination soar.

Connect with Char: Website | Facebook | Twitter | Amazon

Monday 2 May 2016

REVIEW: Black Dog: A Novella by Dean Hamilton

Black Dog: A NovellaBlack Dog: A Novella by Dean Hamilton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a quick read that still manages to satisfy with a violent showdown and a couple of twists.

The writing is very good with a real sense of authenticity that comes from the abundance of period terms. However, I have to say I found the addition of footnotes to these terms off-putting and they detracted somewhat from the fact the novella is trying to entertain, not teach. The list of terms in a glossary or a historical note would be better than the all-too-frequent footnotes that I found I could not ignore. On the Kindle, the temptation to click the footnote links was just too much, but of course, each time I clicked, the magic of the story was broken. In the end, I forced myself to ignore the footnotes, and enjoyed the last part of the story much more as a result.

One other thing that grated on me a little was the fact that the protagonist was called Tyburn and the Tyburn Tree gallows was mentioned frequently, but as far as I could see, there was never an explanation of the link in the names. Perhaps it is just a coincidence, but I would have liked at least one of the characters to mention it.

I am being overly picky and I don't want to give the impression I did not enjoy this novella. It is a richly detailed window into the rough and violent world of Elizabethan London and great introduction to Dean Hamilton's writing.

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