Adventures in Bookland: The Measure of Iron by Jamie Crisalli

Book 7 in the new Black Library Novella series and, I must say, the quality of these stories has remained consistently high throughout. Jamie Crisalli’s story of the Iron Golems maintains these high standards. I must admit that I am still a bit hazy about the new Warhammer: Age of Sigmar universe. With the old Warhammer universe having ended in a colossal Ragnarok during the few years when I took a break from reading and playinng the game, I’ve struggled to get a grasp on the new worlds that have opened up with the rebirth of the Warhammer universe in its new Age of Sigmar. The Measure of Iron doesn’t really help in that respect but what it does do is tell a solid tale of the Iron Golems. As far as I can remember, Iron Golems did not feature in the old Warhammer universe but from Crisalli’s story, they are an appropriate addition in its new iteration: basically armoured up weaponsmiths, human but preferring and relying on iron more than flesh and blood. As such, they’re not the jolliest of warbands, but they are very, very tough. On the tabletop in a battle I’d expect them to be very hard to kill without some insanely lucky die rolling, but slow to move around: sort of a crawling tabletop battering ram. In the story, they are rather similar, so Crisalli does an excellent job instilling life and interest into what creatures that are even more bombastically militant than Space Marines (and that’s saying something!). All round, an excellent introduction to the Iron Golems and their unforgiving world.

Adventures in Bookland: Paul by N.T. Wright

He doesn’t need a surnmame. Two thousand years after his death, the subject of this biography is still known by what would come to be called, in some large part because of his efforts, his Christian name. Paul. Paul. It is still enough to identify him. Paul, once of Tarsus, latterly Saul, but most of all Apostle – even though Paul was never one of the original 12.

In this book, Tom Wright, the leading New Testament historian alive today, attempts to tell Paul’s life through the refracting lenses of the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s own letters. Of course, the problem with both of these as source material for a life of Paul is that they were all written with entirely different purposes in mind: to tell the Good News that Paul spent his life in spreading. So a life of Paul is, in large part, an exercise in inference: a slightly hypothetical biography to be read alongside the Pauline epistles. And, indeed, this is largely what Wright does in this book, taking the epistles, and the circumstances and reasons for their writing, as the bones of his life of Paul. This is as well: Paul’s bones were made over into the Good News that he told.

So the book is best read as a companion to a rereading of Paul’s epistles, Wright’s efforts to situate each letter within the wider context of Paul’s life and the Roman world and the nascent Church, when the two will very usefully illuminate each other. Read on its own, as I did, I found it a little disappointing, although I find it hard to tell the reason for that disappointment. I have loved Wright’s previous books, in particular Jesus and the Victory of God and The Resurrection of the Son of God, so this came as a surprise. I suspect that the problem lay more with me: although I read the book fast, I seemed to have read it with little attention – having been caught up with other matters while reading it – and it has left surprisingly little mark in memory. As I say, I think the fault is mine. When time allows, I intend to reread Paul’s epistles but to do so in tandem with the relevant chapter’s in Wright’s book. Then, I think, it will truly come into its own.

Adventures in Bookland: Flashman and the Mountain of Light by George MacDonald Fraser

I’m rereading the Flashman novels in chronological order (the first time round I read them in writing order). So it’s interesting to read this one, dealing with Flashie’s misadventures in the First Anglo-Sikh War in 1845/46, as the fourth novel in the series whereas before I read it as the ninth.

I do think it doesn’t quite have the freshness and verve of the early Flashman novels, nor their capacity to surprise. In the first novels, Flashman really was a cad and a scoundrel but by the time Fraser wrote this one, there was a sense in which Flashman had become the hero; rhetorically he might argue that he did the right thing only through force of circumstance and the desire not to be found out, but in the adventures here, a true coward could have found a way to absent himself without too much difficulty, particularly since Flashman spends most of the book operating behind enemy lines as, in effect, a secret agent.

The research is, as ever, superb although naturally inclined towards the most salacious takes on the people involved – although Maharani Jind Kaur is one of those 19th century rulers that were too vivid to endure into the prosaic 20th century – and Flashie, of course, is pressed into service with her.

For 99 per cent of writers of historical fiction, this would be a novel at the absolute top of their game. For George MacDonald Fraser, it’s slightly down on his best Flashman work.

Adventures in Bookland: The Jamaica Station by Chris Durbin

The third instalment in Chris Durbin’s Carlisle and Holbroke naval adventures set during the Seven Years’ War, the global conflict that saw Britain vault up to the top-rank of world powers on the back of the superb seamanship and extraordinary, not to say reckless, courage of its Navy. The first novel in the series deals with the Menorca debacle that saw, extraordinarily, an Admiral of the Blue, Admiral Byng, court martialled and executed for desertion in the face of the enemy. The aftermath of that, naturally, was that British admirals were inclined to attack, whatever the odds, and the end result was British naval dominance. This book follows Captain Carlisle and Lieutenant Holbroke to the Caribbean and a series of well-drawn adventures there, based on excellent historical research and naval knowledge. While not quite in the top drawer in terms of writing (although not far off), Chris Durbin makes up for this in nautical nous – he really knows ships and the men who sailed them.

Adventures in Bookland: Labels by Evelyn Waugh

‘What I did in the holidays’ is, deservedly, a cliche for a tired English-writing class task but when the pen writing the account is that of Evelyn Waugh, it becomes something different even when the actual underlying structure remains the same. This really is the account of what Evelyn did in his holiday, in 1930 if I remember right, when he took ship from Portsmouth and fetched up in the Mediterranean. It’s the tale of people met, restaurants eaten in (a particular concern of Waugh’s) and the minutiae of travelling a well-worn road. Unlike his later travel books, Waugh was not bringing anywhere unknown to light but simply commenting on the familiar. He doesn’t even really shed any particularly new light on the familiar. But it’s the writing: the sheer, brilliant, crystalline precision of the writing that makes it all worthwhile. So while the skeleton is the same tired old English-writing task, it’s made somehow translucent, effervescent and slightly cruelly alive by Waugh’s prose. My goodness, the man could write.

Adventures in Bookland: The Last Battle by Nick Brown

Sometimes, one despairs of the fickle wiles of the gods of literary success. It applies in all genres (can anyone really explain how something as poor as 50 Shades of Grey became the most embarrassing literary phenomenon since, well, The Da Vinci Code) but a good example in historical fiction is Nick Brown’s Agent of Rome series. This has been, hands down, one of the best Roman-era series written through the last decade, a decade that has seen an explosion of stories set in the Empire. But where many others have gone on to big sales on the back of basically transplanting 21st-century people into the first couple of centuries AD but dressing them in togas, Nick Brown’s carefully crafted and wonderfully characterised series has, according to Nick, achieved only disappointing sales. So much so that his publisher declined to publish this, the seventh and final volume of the adventures of the Agent of Rome, Cassius Corbulo, and his bodyguard Indavara and his personal slave, Simo.

But while the series might not have gathered the sales it deserved so far, those of us who have discovered it have realised that in its portrayal of the relationship between these three individuals, Nick has imaginatively put us back into the third century, during the reign of the Emperor Aurelian. He examines the dynamics of this fundamentally unequal relationship between a young Roman nobleman, a hired bodyguard who has managed to escape the gladiatorial arenas with his life and the slave, born to slaves, who looks after them all. Brown has skillfully developed the relationships between Cassius, Indavara and Simo through the previous six books and int this final book, written for we faithful fans of the series and its characters, he brings their stories to a deeply satisfying conclusion, one that remains true to the motivations and characters of each of them.

Thank you, Nick, for finishing the story for we fans and I hope that your next work will reap the financial rewards that your literary talent deserves.

Adventures in Bookland: Orlando Furioso by Ariosto

In my prized hardback edition of The Lord of the Rings, on the inside dust jacket, there’s an encomium to the book by C.S. Lewis. When I first read The Lord of the Rings, I’d never read any of the Narnia books, nor did I have any idea who C.S. Lewis was, but for some reason, his review always stuck in my mind: “If Ariosto rivalled it in invention (in fact he does not) he would still lack its heroic seriousness.”

Who was this Ariosto bloke being compared to Tolkien? More years later than I care to remember, I decided to find out. Turned out, Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533) was an Italian, the court poet of the d’Este family, the dukes of Ferrara, and he had written Orlando Furioso for them. Well, I am half Italian, my family in Italy live near Ferrara, I have visited the city many times and the castle of the d’Este family still dominates the centre of the town, so I decided to read Ariosto’s most famous work.

It is a delight. A riotous, tumbling, weaving tapestry of interlocking stories, all more marvellous and epic than the last, with the characters’ tales threading through the narrative – enlivened by Ariosto’s wry voice – in a veritable cornucopia of wonders. There are flying horses, dragons, battles, maidens so beautiful they drive men mad, contening paladins, magicians, wizards, witches, oaths unwisely taken and, of course, love. The story is set in the time of Charlemagne, but in the story it bears as much relationship to the real Charlemagne and his knights as the medieval tales of Arthur do to a possible fifth century Brythonic war captain.

What’s particularly striking is Ariosto’s sympathy for and treatment of women – these are no virginal stereotypes but run the full range of women, with the two standouts being Angelica, who weaponises her beauty and drives Orlando to madness, and Bradamante, the slightly dim warrior maiden who can outmatch any man in tourney.

It’s a wonderful series of tales and I’ve only got half way: this volume contains the first half of Barbara Reynolds’ delightful translation from the Italian. Once, every eductated person knew the tale of the madness of Orlando: would that they would again.

Adventures in Bookland: Schalken the Painter by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Many years ago, so long ago in fact that there were only three television stations and computer games had just about reached the level of lines playing ping pong, I watched a programme on one of those TV channels (BBC2 actually) that remained with me ever since. In it, a young man becomes the apprentice to a master painter in 17th century Holland. His name is Schalken and he is ambitious and avaricious. He falls in love with his master’s daughter but, being penniless, he can offer little in the way of prospects. Despite his penury, the girl still looks kindly on young Schalken but then his hopes are dashed when a suitor, a strange, stiff-faced but obviously rich man comes calling, offering his master a huge sum if he will agree to his daughter’s marriage. Schalken, faced with a choice between a mad dash for love and a long lifetime of shared poverty, does nothing to stop the match and the girl goes, reluctantly, with her bridegroom to be – and is not heard of for a number of years.

But then, she appears at the door, in a fever of panic and fear. She has escaped, but she is sure her husband is after her. She asks for a priest and begs never to be left alone. But, as is the way, for a moment she is left alone in her room, the wind blows the door shut, it jams and when they finally open it, she has gone.

Schalken, many years later, now a successful painter himself, attends the funeral of his old master and remains in the church for a while after all the mourners leave. Then, as he is about to leave. He sees – her. The young woman he had loved, the daughter of his old master. She leads him down into the crypt and there the horrified Schalken sees the marriage bed that she has been condemned to, the bride of a dead man. In horror, he flees.

See – it stuck. So, many years later, seeing the original story, I thought I would read it. The BBC film stuck close to the Le Fanu’s original story, and the text is as unsettling as the film but without the rich, painterly light that the film makers lavished on their project. Hard to imagine the BBC making anything like that today: too slow, too wordy, too weird. But two stories, on film and page, that have lingered long in the morbid mind.

This Generation’s Challenge

Every generation faces a crisis.

Our grandparents had to deal with World War II, which they won through courage and sacrifice.

Our parents had to face the Cold War, which they won by patience and perseverance.

Now we face the coronavirus, which we can defeat by sitting in front of the telly.

We can do this.

Adventures in Bookland: An Astronomer’s Tale by Gary Fildes

I can still remember it. Sometime round about when I was 10, some quirk of meteorology and atmosphere rendered London’s night time sky, for one evening, clear enough to see the stars. Not the handful of stars that fight their way through the pollution murk and the splurging of neon, but some fraction of the thousands of stars that had enthralled the sky-turned eyes of our ancestors when they coined phrases like, “As many as the stars in the sky.” Growing up in London, that did not seem like that many. But for that one night – maybe it coincided with one of the electricity blackouts when the power workers went on strike in the early 1970s – I could see the stars.

We have sealed ourselves off with light. The artificial light with which we banish darkness has made of the stars a sight that many children might never know. I would not be surprised if most of this generation has never seen a night sky in all its wonder. As such, we have made the world a hunched, closed-in space. I wonder if part of the sense of contemporary hopelessness is down to this closing off of the daily wonder of a sky full of stars and the sense of mystery and infinite depth that it conveys: it’s a shrunken, lidded-over world we now inhabit.

Gary Fildes, a proper Sunderland lad growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, was fortunate in living where truly dark skies were not far away – and they saved him. A passion, a genuine, lifelong passion for a subject or interest can be the making of a man and it proved to be so for Fildes: destined for a life of labour as a bricklayer, married and a young father, he combined this with a secret love of astronomy. The book is a series of anecdotes about growing up within the world and within the astronomical community, telling how Fildes ended up, to his own surprise more than anyone else’s, as the director of the Kielder Observatory set in the largest Dark Skies Park in Britain, combined with an astronomer’s guide to the changing night sky through the year. It’s a lovely book – just a shame that, barring another series of power cuts, the night sky here in London remains as unpopulated as Rome during the coronavirus outbreak.