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.

My New Book!

The Perfect Sword: Forging the Dark Ages

On 3 November my new book, The Perfect Sword: Forging the Dark Ages, hits all good bookshops and online retailers.

I co-wrote the book with archaeologist Paul Gething and it tells the story of a very special sword, the Bamburgh Blade, and the men who found, forged and wielded it. We’re particularly delighted that Tom Holland (the historian, not Spider-man) read the book and said this about it:

‘Revelatory and fascinating … the kind of book that Wayland the Smith would have adored.’

This is what it says on the inside cover:

In 2000, archaeologist Paul Gething rediscovered a sword. An unprepossessing length of rusty metal, it had been left in a suitcase for thirty years. But Paul had a suspicion that the sword had more to tell than appeared, so he sent it for specialist tests. When the results came back, he realised that what he had in his possession was possibly the finest, and certainly the most complex, sword ever made, which had been forged in seventh-century Northumberland by an anonymous swordsmith.

This is the story of the Bamburgh Sword – of how and why it was made, who made it and what it meant to the warriors and kings who wielded it over three centuries. It is also the remarkable story of the archaeologists and swordsmiths who found, studied and attempted to recreate the weapon using only the materials and technologies available to the original smith. 

I hope you will enjoy it!

Adventures in Words: Gut by Giulia Enders

Gut by Giulia Enders

Did you know that there is a poo scale? No, neither did I, until I read Enders’ bright and breezy book. ‘Bright and breezy’ might seem odd adjectives for a book about defaecation, about Enders’ fascination with what happens to what goes in at our mouths and out of our bottoms is both charming and enlightening – and renders the whole subject much more palatable (sorry!).

So the poo scale, known as the Bristol Stool Scale and only developed in 1997, divides poo into seven categories, with number 1 being little, hard rabbit pellets and number 7 dirty brown liquid with no solid bits, and all the variations in between. Ideally, we should be producing type 3 (‘sausage-shaped but with cracks on surface’) or type 4 (‘sausage- or snake-like, smooth and soft’) poos. Not only did I learn about types of poo but that the best way of expelling them from one’s bottom is, in fact, to squat. Sitting on a toilet produces a kink in the bowels that the bowel muscles have to push past where squatting smoothes out the bowel interior and enlists gravity. So the squat toilets that are still found in some Asian countries are better for defaecating while also producing a helpful hip flexion.

Apart from poo, the book goes into the extraordinary gut flora that live inside us – we are all, it seems, an ecosystem as much as individuals – and the fundamental ways in which the guts affects our health. These connections are only just being teased out but it appears that all sorts of conditions are made better or worse by our insides. It appears that the old adage that you are what you eat is truer than we ever realised.

An entertaining and informative book – and what more could you ask of a book about poo.

Adventures in Words: In Search of the First Civilizations by Michael Wood

In Search of the First Civilizations by Michael Wood

I’m afraid this is the first book by Michael Wood that I have found disappointing.

Perhaps the main reason is that it doesn’t do what it says on the cover. I thought this would be an examination and exploration of the first civilizations – it does rather say that, doesn’t it? – but it wasn’t. While it begins with the ancient civilizations of the Near East, India, China, Egypt, the Americas, it then assumes that the founding ideas of these civilizations have been transmitted down through the ages and, with somewhat cherrypicked examples, follows these regional civilizations through the ages up to the modern age, attempting to show that each is the heir of its past.

While I have some sympathy with the idea, the brush strokes are too broad and the crucial explosions of new religions, which alone are capable of redefining the ruling myths of a civilization, are glossed over. That there are continuities between the Egypt of the Pharaohs and modern Muslim Egypt I don’t think anyone would disagree with. But the discontinuities are, if anything, even more profound.

So skip this book and read Wood’s brilliant In Search of the Dark Ages instead.

The Siege of Jerusalem in AD70

The Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by Francesco Hayez

In Jerusalem, even a pile of rocks is significant. Early in 2016, archaeologists working for the Israel Antiquities Authority found heaped up rocks and stones while investigating part of the Russian Compound in central Jerusalem. But, this being Jerusalem, these were stones that told a story of blood and terror, of the gods and God.

In 70AD, the Roman general, Titus, laid seige to Jerusalem. Under his command were four legions – 60,000 men. Inside the city were about half a million Jews, most of whom were families caught in what had become a death trap. Judea had long been a fractious part of the Roman Empire, the unhappiness of its subjects worsened by a series of inept governors. In the chaos that surrounded the final years of the Emperor Nero’s rule and the fighting following his death, the Jews rose in revolt, declaring an independent state with its capital in Jerusalem and its heart in the great Temple. But when Vespasian took control of the Empire he dispatched his son, Titus, to put down the Jewish revolt.

Despite having four years to prepare for the Roman attack, the new Jewish state had squandered energy and manpower in internal fighting. The gangs of three warlords fought through the streets of Jerusalem, even into the Temple itself. But worship and sacrifice nevertheless continued, with hundreds of thousands of pilgrims arriving in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover in April 70AD. And there they were trapped. Titus invested the city, trapping residents and pilgrims alike.

But the rebels were confident they could withstand the Romans. Jerusalem itself was ringed by walls and watchtowers and, at its centre, the Temple was as much citadel as place of worship. And the rebels had completed the Third Wall, begun by Herod Agrippa in 40, which protected the more vulnerable northern side of the city. We have a witness to what happened next in the appalled and self-exculpatory work of Josephus, one of the leaders of the Jewish revolt who, captured, defected to the Romans and became interpreter to Titus.

Standing beside his master outside Jerusalem, Josephus looked upon a city that held his own parents as well as many friends. It must have looked impregnable. “Many towers, 35 feet high and 35 feet broad, each surmounted with lofty chambers and with great tanks for rain water, guarded the whole circuit of the walls, 90 being in the first wall, 14 in the second, and 60 in the third.”

It was this Third Wall that Titus attacked first. And it’s the debris of this assault that Israeli archaeologists found in the Russian compound, scattered in front of the excavated line of the wall. They found more than 70 ballista stones right in front of the wall. The bombardment was intended to attack the sentries guarding the wall and to provide cover for the Roman forces so they could approach the wall with battering rams and thereby breach the city’s defenses.

They did. But the Jews fought on.

The Romans stormed the second wall, then had to retake it all over again when the Jews counterattacked. Titus invested the city, building a wall around Jerusalem’s walls to seal the inhabitants into their city tomb, and then settled down to let famine do his work. According to Josephus, people walked ‘like shadows, all swollen with famine, and fell down dead…a deep silence and a kind of deadly night seized the city.’  The Romans crucified anyone who attempted to escape, sometimes killing 500 people a day: the Mount of Olives was covered with crosses.

Finally, at the end of July, Titus ordered his legions to make the final attack on the Temple. The defenders fought over every stone, but they were overwhelmed and fire spread in the wake of the blood madness.

The Temple, the seat of God’s presence on earth, burned.