Book review: Tales From the Perilous Realm by JRR Tolkien

Tales from the Perilous Realm by JRR Tolkien

The mark of a great story is returning to it at different stages of one’s life and finding it fresh each time, as if seeing a fresh vista on the same image with each reading. That is true for the stories contained in Tales From the Perilous Realm and, in particular, Leaf by Niggle. Anyone working to fashion meaning and story out of the raw material of words, or paint, or sound, could find enough in here to ponder over a lifetime – and I have! If you are a sub-creator, labouring in the fields of Arda, read it and know that your efforts are not in vain, so long as you labour truly for the work itself and not the glory or honour or wealth or renown it might bring you.

Book review: Storm Front by Jim Butcher

Storm Front by Jim Butcher

I have a theory that the genres writers write in has nothing to do with their particular skills but everything to do with the name they were given by their parents. Jane Austen was always going to be the well spring of domestic, detailed fiction with women in the key roles: Austen has both the necessary toughness (austenite is a form of iron) while Jane introduces the plain spoken femininity. H. P. Lovecraft – what else but grandiloquent horror. Edgar Allan Poe: grand guignol fiction.

By my theory, there was no possibility of a boy baptised James Butcher growing up to write sensitive literary fiction set in small-town America and, sure enough, the adult Jim Butcher writes tought supernatural fiction featuring a trouble-worn warlock operating out of Chicago – basically Philip Marlow with a magic staff.

Is Harry Dresden as good as Philip Marlow? No, but then hardly anyone else is. The story is nevertheless a solid opener to what has become a highly successful series. I enjoyed it but not sufficiently to rush out and read the second. On the other hand, should I find the next volume lying on a shelf when I am taking a railway journey and have forgotten to bring something to read, I would pick it up as a gift from generous providence.

Book review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Sometimes, there was a tree.

Near where two footpaths met in the park, an unassuming tree, more than a sapling but not yet mature. The sort of tree you would not remark when you walked past it. The sort of tree you would not remark when you did not walk past it.

The world is a strange place. Under the cover of everyday mundanity, things shift and change. For Piranesi, in the House, things change too: the tide rolls in through its endless rooms, he waits upon visits of the Other, the only other living man he knows, and the seagulls nest. It is the only world he knows.

“The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.”

It is quiet too, with the quiet of another liminal place: the Wood Between the Worlds in The Magician’s Nephew. Like that Wood, it is a junction between different worlds while being itself a place of forgetting.

Piranesi is the story of one who gets lost, for a while in the Wood Between the Worlds, in one of those liminal places where worlds meet. It is a marvellous story and, like all the best stories, it carries the stamp of Truth.

Sometimes, there was a tree.

Book review: Cold Fire by Dean Koontz

Cold Fire by Dean Koontz

What sets Dean Koontz apart from other bestselling authors is his ability to generate an extraordinary number of fascinating ‘What if?’ premises for his stories. His writing can be uneven, particularly when developing a character over a series of books – the Odd Thomas series is a great example – but his one-off books based upon a singular idea are almost always worth reading.

That’s true of Cold Fire. Another brilliant what if. What if you were a reporter on a small-town paper and you discovered a story about a man who appeared from nowhere, saved people from certain death, and then disappeared again – a sort of anonymous Superman. That’s the premise here, although we follow both the reporter and the anonymous Superman, as they first meet and then try to work out the source of his strange precognitory paper.

The twist as to the nature of Jim Ironheart’s power is interesting and adds some unexpected nuance to the story without necessarily being the sort of blockbuster reveal that leaves the reader going, “Wow!” Nevertheless, an excellent thriller.

Book review: Unwinding Anxiety by Judson Brewer

Unwinding Anxiety by Judson Brewer

I am not an anxious person but, like most writers, I do suffer from procrastination. The empty page and the blank screen can too often be a cue to do that long-delayed DIY task rather being a signal that it’s time to actually write the story that’s been buzzing around at the back of my mind.

So I’m pleased to say that there was a lot in this book about overcoming procrastination, which is a facet of anxiety, as well as much on actual anxiety. And, when I want it to be, it’s actually quite effective – it’s all to do with stopping the feedback loops that allow you to focus on immediate relief of mild anxiety rather than the far greater, but somewhat delayed, relief that comes from what you actually need to do.

Brewer is also rather good on the evolutionary origins of these anxiety feedback loops and how they have deep roots in our basic brain biology. So, overall, an interesting and helpful book.

Book review: The Dagger and the Flame by Malcolm Saville

The Dagger and the Flame by Malcolm Saville

I loved Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine series when I was growing up. For the child of immigrants growing up in London, it opened up vistas on an England that I would never have known otherwise: Romney Marsh, the Yorkshire Moors and, most especially, the vast ridge of the Long Mynd and the sharp teeth of the Stiperstones in Shropshire. These became the landscapes of my imagination, grounding me in this country which wasn’t, quite, mine, but making it so.

So it was with some excitement that I learned Saville had written another series, intended for somewhat older readers, featuring British secret agent, Marston Baines. My wife kindly bought me The Dagger and the Flame, now reprinted by Girls Gone By, and I settled down to read it. Unlike the Lone Pine books, it’s set in Italy and, since I’m half Italian, this was actually a point in its favour.

Sadly, the story itself is a disappointment. Although I probably share most of Saville’s views, his dismay at the 1960s counterculture spills over into preaching – never good even when I agree with the views being preached – and Marston Baines barely even appears himself, the spy work being done by his nephew, Simon. There’s the bones of a good story there, but Saville was writing to make a point rather than tell a story, and the story suffers. Not one I will revisit.



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.