The news is out there! My next Black Library novel features the elite of the elite, the best fighting force of Cadia: the Kasrkin!

When Black Library asked me to write about the Kasrkin, I thought through what these soldiers would be like. They are the elite forces of a militarised society, bred and trained for war. The obvious parallel are our own special forces. I have been privileged to know some ex-special forces soldiers and they are extraordinary men. So I used them as my inspiration in writing this story of the Kasrkin, as well as my research on the very first special forces, the Long Range Desert Group.

I hope you will enjoy this story of the Kasrkin, dispatched into the heart of a pitiless desert to find and rescue an Imperial general. But there are others hunting the general too…

Book review: Ringworld by Larry Niven

Ringworld by Larry Niven

I first read Ringworld many years ago, not long after it was published. Returning to it now, I was curious as to how well it would hold up and how much of it I would remember.

First, the remembering. The answer was, a surprising amount. The Ringworld itself, obviously. For those who don’t know, the Ringworld is a slice of a Dyson Sphere, a ring around a star with miles high mountains on each rim to hold the atmosphere in place. It’s an extraordinary idea, expanding on scale in an exponential fashion: the Ringworld is big, really, really big.

However, I do remember being disappointed that we never find out anything about the Ringworld’s creators, nor what happened to them, and in that too my memory held up. I’ve not read the sequel but in many ways the book is a stand alone story and it leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

Then, the Puppeteers. They are one of Niven’s most enjoyable creations. A race of congenitally cowardly aliens who manipulate the other races of the galaxy to ensure their own survival.

Speaking of manipulated races, the Kzin, the warrior felines who send a representative along on the expedition to the Ringworld are great too. But it’s not just the Kzin: the Puppeteers have manipulated mankind too, breeding people for luck.

Which brings us to Teela Brown, the luckiest woman in the world. The product of generations of lucky winners in the lottery of life, she’s an interesting creation: so lucky that she’s untouched by pain and can follow her whims wherever they please. But Niven, wittingly or not, posits a higher purpose to Teela Brown’s luck than just fortune: it becomes a force that wants what is good for her, not in the utilitarian sense of the maximum of pleasure and the minimum of pain, but a good that points towards a Platonic idea of the best Teela Brown. A person who is properly human, the Platonic Form of Teela Brown. So her luck brings her to a place where she can become who she is supposed to be. I’m not sure if this was the point Niven was making but it is the consequence of the story’s logic.

Then, there are the sunflowers. Oh, boy, I remembered those. Unending fields of reflective sunflowers that focus the sun’s energy on any threats, burning it to a crisp, like holding the point focus of a magnifying glass over an ant. I think it was the sunflowers that I remember best.

As to how the story held up: surprisingly well. Of course, the attitudes are different, but it would be strange if they were not: fifty years have passed. Some reviewers would seem to prefer that nothing had changed – or that they are incapable of appreciating another time in its own timeframe.

Book review: Catholicism: A Very Short Introduction by Gerald O’Collins

Catholicism: A Very Short Introduction by Gerald O’Collins

It’s what it says: a very short introduction to the world’s oldest institution. The first two chapters cover two thousand years of history well considering the constraints of space and then it’s off into an exploration of the sacraments. While personally interesting, someone with no prior knowledge of the Faith might struggle a bit, and it is all written from the viewpoint of an ageing enthusiast for the Second Vatican Council. That generation is dying off, while finding it has little to say to young Catholics around the world, so I doubt it will remain relevant into the future.

The Strategy of Alfred the Great 3: the burhs

The warriors who would have defended Alfred’s burhs looked like this.

How Alfred defended the country and kickstarted the development of towns.

The army and navy provided offensive options, but the kingdom needed defence in depth. Places of safety where people could take shelter when the Vikings raided and bases from which to harry the enemy as he advanced and retreated. To that end, Alfred built fortresses, or burhs, across the kingdom, each carefully placed in a strategic location.

But a fortress without men to guard it would simply provide convenient strongholds for the Vikings themselves. They were adept at throwing up quick defences. The Vikings particularly liked to fortify the ‘Y’ at the junction of two rivers, building a palisade between the two waterways and mooring their boats there.

To make surethe Vikings did not use the burhs for their own defence, Alfred had to ensure manpower. So he created fortified towns, the first since Roman times, with each given sufficient land to ensure it was economically viable.

Furthermore, Alfred placed the burhs so that nowhere in Wessex was more than 20 miles – a day’s march – from the refuge they provided. In particular, Alfred guarded rivers – building burhs in Southwark, Sashes, Wallingford and Cricklade to guard the Thames – and along the coast to guard the mouths of rivers and the best harbours. Inland burhs were sited to guard the Roman road system and Britain’s ancient trackways.

Now, when the Vikings raided, they found the local populace sheltering behind high earth ramparts surmounted with wooden palisades. Should they choose to bypass the burh, they left themselves vulnerable to attack from the rear or an assault on their moored boats.

By slowing down the enemy, the burhs also allowed Alfred to get to the Vikings with his own army and force them to battle or to flee. This was a classic example of area denial, a key military concept that is still practised today.

Also, by founding these fortified towns, Alfred provided a major impetus to local economies, providing centres of population that began to grown organically. It was an extraordinary achievement.

Book review: Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

To hell and back. That’s exactly what the hero of Sandman Slim, James Stark, has done. He spent eleven years in hell, the literal realm of the prince of darkness, and then returned to earth. Unfortunately, the main thing Stark seems to have learned from his time in hell is, when in doubt, hit someone.

To say Sandman Slim is fast paced is to undersell it: barely half a chapter goes past without a gun, a demon, or some other device intruding into the story to put our hero in peril. And if that doesn’t work, then our hero will go and do something stupidly dangerous because that’s just the sort of thing someone who has spent eleven years in hell would do. Particularly someone whose first response to a problem is to punch something.

It’s fast, action packed and entirely implausible, with a hero I found too bone headed to want to follow in further adventures.

Book review: C.S. Lewis: A Life by Alister McGrath

C.S. Lewis: A Life by Alister McGrath

I read Alister McGrath’s biography of C.S. Lewis a few months ago but did not get around to writing a review at the time. Knuckling down to it now, I must confess I remember almost nothing about the book – except this: McGrath spends a great deal of time and effort on proving that Lewis got the dates of his conversion to Christianity wrong in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy. He makes a good case but spends an inordinate amount of words and pages on it. Within the context of wider scholarship about Lewis, it is no doubt of some importance; set into a one-volume biography of the man, it distorts everything else, pulling it all towards a central point that is of vital importance to the writer but zero relevance to Lewis himself.

Not wishing to leave the reader of my reviews short-changed, however, I’ve had a look at other reviews to refresh my memory and now I do recall that McGrath also sets out a case that Joy Davidman basically set out to entrap Lewis into marriage, tempting him the bait of her correspondence and then hooking him with the feminine double whammy of wit and wiles. As many others have remarked, Lewis was indeed surprised by Joy. McGrath is also good on Lewis’s enduring influence.

In summary, a book best suited for those with a deep and scholarly interest in Lewis, rather than the general reader.

Book review: Rome: Strategy of Empire by James Lacey

Rome by James Lacey

In 1976, Edward Luttwak published The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire in which he argued that the Romans did indeed have a grand strategy. The book caused a sensation, not least for the fact that Luttwak was not a historian but rather an American military strategist and, for a time, a consultant to Ronald Reagan’s administration. While admitting its historical sweep, professional historians rushed to debunk the book and, in general, they seem to have succeeded. The consensus among Roman historians today is that Rome worked on an ad hoc basis, with individual emperors responding to crises as they arose. The view is that the Empire lacked the ongoing central command necessary for a grand strategy, as well as not having a clear view of frontiers nor any way to map them in order to conduct an overall strategy.

James Lacey, another working military strategist, enters the debate with Rome: Strategy of Empire and makes a robust case for Luttwak’s overall thesis: the Romans did indeed have a grand strategy and they were more than able to adapt their policies accordingly. Lacey answers the critics, who point out that there is a dearth of Roman historical sources detailing strategic thinking, by looking at the facts on the ground: in particular, the Empire’s unparalleled ability to field, feed and focus huge armies throughout the breadth of the Empire. Lacey also argues that for the emperor, maps were unimportant because what he needed to know was where a crisis was, which was the nearest legion and how long it would take the legion to get there. Roman itineraries, which allowed generals to estimate accurately how long it would take them to get to crisis points, would, Lacey says, have furnished the required information better than any map. What was more, the Mediterranean and the key frontier rivers, the Rhine and the Danube, allowed the Romans to deploy armies far more quickly than their enemies through their use of maritime or riverine resupply.

Rome: Strategy of Empire begins with the reign of Augustus and ends with the fall of the Western Empire, providing an overview of the interplay between the Roman economy and Roman strategy. However, it suffers, as does Luttwak’s original, from not considering in any detail the strategy of the Roman Republic, which actually conquered most of the territory that the later Empire sought to protect and consolidate.

Lacey had the experience of decades in the military before becoming an academic military strategist and this allows him to apply practical knowledge to all aspects of military operations but in particular the crucial importance of logistics. When we compare the huge armies – in the tens of thousands – regularly fielded by the Romans to the armies of the early Medieval period which, in Britain, could number as few as 35 men, we can clearly see the strength of Roman logistical efforts.

In Rome: Strategy of Empire Lacey seeks to overturn the established academic consensus. With battle rejoined, it will be fascinating to read their response. But one thing is sure: once this book is published the strategy of the Roman Empire will once again be a hot topic among historians.

Book review: The House of Godwin by Michael John Key

The House of Godwin by Michael John Key

It was so nearly so different. Having risen from relative obscurity, Earl Godwin had married his eldest daughter to Edward, the king of England, and raised his sons to the most important earldoms in the country. When Godwin died, his surviving sons, Harold and Tostig, slipped smoothly into the positions of command and influence that Godwin had earned during his life, becoming the effective rulers of the kingdom as Edward slowly released the reins of power.

With Edward childless, the question of the succession increasingly dominated the last years of his reign. Tostig, who Key argues might have been Edward’s favourite among the four Godwinson earls, was banished in 1065 following a revolt by the northern nobility, with Harold’s connivance. A furious Tostig, nursing his sense of betrayal, went looking for foreign backers to help him reclaim his inheritance and found a backer in Harald Hardrada, the king of Norway and the most famous warrior of the age.

Harold, who by this time had been crowned king following Edward’s death, was concentrating on the threat from Normandy: Duke William claimed that Edward had promised the crown to him. Hearing of his brother’s invasion, Harold rushed north, killed Tostig and Harald at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, only to hear that William had landed in Sussex…

In this fascinating book, Michael John Key recounts the extraordinary rise and the even more dramatic fall of the House of Godwin and successfully argues that, if Harold had prevailed at Hastings (and it was a very close-run thing) he would have gone on to be regarded as one of the great kings of English history, and Earl Godwin as the founder of one of the great royal dynasties. But Harold’s exhausted men, having fought one battle 19 days earlier, were unable to hold out to nightfall in the second. William won, and history took one of its sharpest turns.

The Strategy of Alfred the Great 2: the navy

Foto : Runar Storeide

How Alfred founded the Royal Navy.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions four naval actions in the whole 9th century: Alfred took part in three of them. Alfred was all too aware of the importance of sea power and even more conscious of how the Anglo-Saxons had ceded the advantage to the Vikings.

In his analysis of the Vikings’ strategic advantage Alfred had realised the importance of sea power. The freedom of the sea allowed the Danes to choose when and where to attack, as well as providing them with a means to retreat should the Alfred’s men catch up with them.

So Alfred set about trying to counter this. The Chronicle records that Alfred ordered ships to be built, twice the length of Viking longships, with sixty oars or more. Alfred personally designed them to be faster and steadier than the enemy ships. His plan was to engage the Danes at sea or soon after landing.

With bigger ships, Alfred aimed to bring superior numbers to bear in a battle whose outcome would be largely determined by strength of numbers. In a battle in AD 897, Alfred’s navy was blooded for the first time, blockading a Danish fleet of six ships in the mouth of a river. The fighting was vicious, with losses on both sides, but the Danish fleet was crippled. Only three ships managed to escape, and two of these were driven ashore by storms and their crews captured and taken before Alfred. He ordered them to be hung. Of the six Viking ships, only one escaped.

So among Alfred’s many achievements was the foundation of the English navy.

The Strategy of Alfred the Great 1: the army

How Alfred re-organised the army, founded the navy and re-built the country.

The success of the Vikings was down to two key strategic advantages: mobility and surprise. If they encountered a substantial enemy force, the Northmen preferred to retire behind their defences and wait them out, knowing full well that the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms could not keep an army in the field for long: after a few months, men would start drifting back to their homes and fields.

To counter this, Alfred realised he needed a standing army, and a mounted one at that, to match the Vikings’ mobility. So, he set about creating one: ‘the king’s reforms kept half the warriors on duty and half in reserve’. The horses were not the great war beasts of the high medieval period, but smaller animals, ideally suited for carrying the relatively lightly armoured warriors of the time. Now, they could get to the Vikings before they could get away.