Adventures in Bookland: Robert the Bruce by Stephen Spinks

For most people in England, and not a few in Scotland, the name Robert the Bruce will evoke vague memories of Bannockburn, some even vaguer recollections of a story about a spider attempting to spin her web and, for those of a certain age, attempts to unpick the historical from the completely made up in the portrayal of Robert in Braveheart (no, he did not betray William Wallace and he probably did not fight against him). So the publication of this new biography of Robert by Stephen Spinks is a welcome chance to bring the man who ensured Scotland’s independence for 400 years out from the shadows of forgetting and Hollywood mythmaking.

Spinks has written a classic narrative history of Robert’s life, beginning with a necessary preamble into the historical situation leading up to his birth – during which the relations between Scottish and English crowns had been most amicable – and taking in the disaster that struck the Scottish succession in 1286 when Alexander III died, falling from a cliff, his sons having predeceased him, leaving as heir his three-year-old granddaughter, Margaret, the Maid of Norway. The crisis metastasized when Margaret herself died, aged seven, on her way back to Scotland. Into this vacuum, the Scots overmighty neighbour, Edward I, King of England, began to assert his own claim to be overlord of the Scots. This claim, which in Edward’s mind rapidly became his right, was based on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s medieval bestseller, the History of the Kings of Britain – a work of supposed history in which Geoffrey enthusiastically filled gaps with the products of his fertile imagination – that found the origin of the Scottish and English crowns in the sons of a refugee Trojan prince, Brutus. Edward based his claim on the wearer of the Scottish crown owing allegiance to the wearer of the English crown on account of the latter being descended from the eldest son of Brutus. Edward, one of the most formidable warriors of his time, set about claiming his birthright, inititiating the wars for Scottish independence that would continue for all of Robert’s adult life.

It was a vivid time of double crossing, battles and personalities who resound down the centuries and Spinks does an excellent job of bringing them all to life, from Edward’s bulldozer tenacity to Robert’s youthful ruthlessness and his maturing into a soldier, king and statesman of genius. By setting the scene carefully, Spinks makes the many changes of allegiance understandable within the context of the times, before leading up to the climactic Battle of Bannockburn, when Robert, seizing an opportunity gifted by new intelligence, switched from his preferred guerrilla tactics to a sudden, unexpected and devastating defeat for the English, now marching under the banner of Edward’s less gifted but still determined son, Edward II. The war did not end with Bannockburn, and Spinks maintains the narrative as he tells of Robert’s long, and eventually successful, struggle to have his claim as King of Scots recognised by the English and Christendom in general. Highly recommended.

Adventures in Bookland: Highest Duty by Chesley Sullenberger

If it wasn’t for just over two and a half minutes, no one outside his immediate circle of family and colleagues would ever have heard of Captain Chesley Sullenberger and he would certainly not have written – with some help from Jeffrey Zaslow – an autobiography. In some ways, Sullenberger’s life is an exemplar of the ordinary, a man who does his job, raises his family and, in the normal course of events, is barely noticed outside of the circles he moves in. So it was interesting to see if an ordinary life could also be extraordinary enough to sustain a 350-page book. It was. I’m both pleased and relieved to be able to say that, since most of us lead lives that are no more – but also no less – remarkable than Sullenberger’s. There is a beauty, an accomplishment, in a normal life lived well that comes across strongly in this book: a man doing his job and raising his family. Of course, a sizeable chunk of the book looks at the events and aftermath of Flight 1549 but reading the book you realise that what Sullenberger says is true: he was able to deal with this unimaginable emergency because of all the building blocks of experience and decision that had gone into his life up to that point. An ordinary life? The sort of ordinary life that saves worlds.

Adventures in Bookland: Tank Commander by Bill Close

These are the astonishingly laconic memoirs of Bill Close, who fought in the 3rd Tank Regiment from the fall of France in 1940 to the end of the Nazi regime in 1945, with stints in Greece, Crete, North Africa, Normandy, France and through Germany. I lost count of the number of times Close had his tank shot out from under him, with men in his crew either injured or killed, yet every time he got back into another tank and continued fighting. In our therapeutic times, he would have been invalided out of the army for stress but Close just kept on going, only stopping when he was physically incapacitated through injury. But once he recovered, he got back in his tank. There’s also an appreciation of another astonishing tank commander, Bob Crisp, Test cricketer and, according to his Wisden obituary, the most extraordinary man to ever play Test cricket. Read Crisp’s obituary and you will agree, but Bill Close was not far behind.

Adventures in Bookland: Severed by Nate Crowley

The fourth in Black Library’s novella series and my favourite thus far, in particular for its gonzo take on the Necrons. Who would have thought you could successfully transplant Jeeves and Wooster onto a bunch of sentient robots? But with his class clash twosome of aristocratic but barking mad Zahndrekh and devoted but doubting servant Obyron, Nate Crowley does exactly that – well, insofar as is possible in a galaxy of constant warfare and thoroughly unpleasant monsters. And as is the way with the best comedy, the end becomes surprisingly moving. Highly recommended for the quality of the writing, conception and characters, and a thoroughly individual take on the 40k universe.

Adventures in Bookland: Inferno! Volume 4

Some great Warhammer and Age of Sigmar short stories in here, with a particular highlight for me being Denny Flowers’ The Hand of Harrow, which manages to inject a little humour into a universe not notably blessed with laughter. The volume also has a particularly good story, ‘Green and Grey’, about a tank loader trapped in a wrecked Leman Russ who starts to hear the approaching roar of a raiding, and looting, party of Orcs. It’s by some chap called Edoardo Albert.

Adventures in Bookland: Genghis Khan by Frank McLynn

Having read Lionheart and Lackland, Frank McLynn’s enthralling twin biography of Richard the Lionheart and his younger brother John, I was looking forward to his life of the world’s greatest ever conqueror, Genghis Khan. But while McLynn brought Richard and John and a cast of other characters (particularly the psychotic troubadour Bertran de Born) vividly to life in Lionheart and Lackland, he never achieves the same synthesis of historical scholarship and storytelling verve in this book. Genghis Khan and his band of generals remain obstinately stuck on the page rather than entering the reader’s imagination: ciphers with an astonishing propensity to slaughter vast numbers of people. Maybe the problem is the one Hannah Arendt identified: evil tends to banality, and after slaughtering the inhabitants of yet another city for having the temerity to resist the Mongol onslaught, it all becomes, for the reader, a little tedious. Also, given the vast areas conquered and the part that rapid rides across difficult geographies played in the Mongol conquest, the book’s allergy to maps is really rather puzzling. Many a page describing how the horde rode here, there and on could have been rendered superfluous and more understandable with a map. Still, the book is a solid overview of the conquests of the Khan and his immediate descendants.

Adventures in Bookland: Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian

This is my first re-read of Master and Commander (I read it first about 15 years ago) and, if anything, it’s even better second time around. What sets O’Brian apart from the run of historical novelists, and that sub-set that write about the Napoleonic wars, is his use of the language of the era in a way that remains true to the early 19th century while being appropriate for modern readers. Couple this with, in Jack Aubrey and Steven Maturin, two of the most vivid characters ever written and you have the start of what is the best series of historical fiction novels ever written. All that’s left to say is, time to start rereading Post Captain!

Adventures in Bookland: Candide by Voltaire

There aren’t many books that are still funny, as the saying goes, laugh-out-loud funny, in translation almost three hundred years after they were written. Candide is one of that extremely select group. The sheer fact that the Church somehow survived the, often deserved, ridicule heaped on her by Voltaire, and the the subsequent attentions of the revolutionaries, does tend to support her view of herself as a divinely instituted and protected institution – just as well, really, since if she was a wholly human institution the incompetence and cupidity of her ministers would have seen her consigned to history not long after the Enlightenment assault upon her. There is no better instrument in dealing with the particular weaknesses of the religious psychology than ridicule, and Voltaire’s application of that to the church is salutary and, probably, necessary.

Adventures in Bookland: Isha’s Lament by Thomas Parrott

Number 3 in the second Black Library Novella series and the standard hasn’t dropped at all – if anything, it’s improving. Brakus Andradus, the ex-Imperial Guard sniper with a mordant tongue and a death wish, makes for a suitably driven 40k hero, but Parrott skillfully blends him with a varied cast of Aeldar, Dark Aeldar and the other ne’er do wells that skulk around the Blackstone Fortress, hoping to make their fortunes or find their souls. It’s a great setting, and Parrott does it justice, with something of the deep weirdness of the Fortress itself coming across in the denouement. A fine novella and hopefully notice of a major new 40k writer. Get it here.