Adventures in Words: the Alex Verus series by Benedict Jacka

The Alex Verus series by Benedict Jacka

There’s 12 books in the Alex Verus series and I raced through them, so I must have loved them. Yes?

Well, yes, but with a couple of qualifications. First, let me tell you who Alex Verus is and why I ended up reading 12 books about him over the space of about three months. Alex Verus is a mage, that is to say a wizard. However, he can’t do everything: his particular ability is to be able to sight walk probable futures and to adjust his own actions in light of these probabilities. Basically, he tells the future. Within the context of the nearly non-stop action in the books, this manifests most often as him dodging blasts of magic from other mages, out to get him. Because it turns out that other mages have particular abilities too: elemental mages can manipulate earth, fire, water or air (usually one element per mage), time mages can see into the past, and so on.

The magical world is divided into the mages of Light and Dark, and independents, which does rather suggest that one side is good and the other bad. But it turns out that the Light mages aren’t that much better than the Dark mages but what they do have is a much more highly developed bureaucracy. Because, yes, being able to do magic doesn’t mean that the world becomes a place of wonder: turns out magical society is much like our own but with magic battles, examinations, bureaucrats and thoroughly expendable security men (and even greater isolation and loneliness).

Alex Verus starts off as an independent, trying to mind his own business and his magic shop in Camden. By the end of the series, he’s minded everyone’s business but his own and his shop in Camden has been variously exploded, bombed, attacked and burned down.

For books one to eight, my Alex Verus review runs so: Alex, while apparently minding his own business, is drawn into trying to foil a nefarious plot laid by one or another ruthless faction. Through great ingenuity, he seems on the point of succeeding, only for everything to go pear shaped. Alex and his small group of friends seem to be on the point of painful and terminal failure when another idea allows them to make good on the mission and escape with their lives.

Yes, Benedict Jacka is of the Raymond Chandler school of plotting: when in doubt, have someone come in through the ceiling with a lightning spell.

The last four books are basically one continuous story arc, bearing every sign of a series that the writer was rather surprised would get so far but who then decides to finish off by throwing everything into the plot, stirring it vigorously and seeing who survives.

It’s all tremendous fun although perhaps, if the pace wasn’t so wonderfully brisk, one might see a few holes opening up in the world building and the plot. But it all moves along so quickly that the reader is swept along in the magical tide of events, right through to the conclusion.

So if you like fast-paced storytelling with wands substituting for guns and a personable hero who tries not to kill people despite accumulating a body count to match Harold Shipman then this is the series for you.

The History of Lindisfarne part 5: the Vikings attack

Guests from Overseas by Nicholas Roerich (1901)

Sited on an island, with defences consisting of a ditch and bank, Lindisfarne must have seemed like a help-yourself buffet to the scouts for the first Viking attack. They duly helped themselves, reaping a harvest of the precious vessels and books (for the jewelled covers, they weren’t interested in the contents), and people, to sell at the Viking slave markets. It was 793 and the Viking Age had begun. The shock of the sacking of Lindisfarne, the most holy site in Britain, reverberated through Europe among the diaspora of scholarly Northumbrians who were spreading the fruits of a century of scholarship through the kingdoms of north-west Europe.

Alcuin, who was helping kickstart the Carolingian Renaissance at the court of Charlemagne, wrote of his shock and horror: “Pagans have desecrated God’s sanctuary, shed the blood of saints around the altar; laid waste the house of our hope and trampled the bodies of saints like dung in the streets.”

Further attacks led the monks to abandon Holy Island. They moved to Norham on the River Tweed around 830 before finally abandoning any thought of returning to Lindisfarne in 875. The monks of the community, carrying their holy relics – in particular the remains of St Cuthbert – settled first at Chester-le-Street before finally moving to Durham.

Still conscious of the link with their first foundation, the monks at Durham set about re-establishing themselves on Lindisfarne when it was safe, in the early 12th century. The church, whose remains we see today, was completed around 1150. Monks were seconded to Lindisfarne from Durham for two or three years but, with the outbreak of continuing, intermittent war between England and Scotland after 1296, the monastery had to be fortified, although the monks don’t seem to have held much of an armoury: just three lances, one helmet, one breastplate and one pair of iron gloves in 1362. With income from monastic estates declining because of the unrest, the monastery declined, so that just two or three monks lived there.

When Henry VIII declared himself head of the church in England, the cash-strapped monarch suppressed the country’s monasteries in a land grab only equalled, in English history, by William the Conqueror. Lindisfarne was closed in 1537. The building was not dismantled at once, but when the lead was taken from its roof around 1613, the church quickly fell into the romantic but ruinous state of today.

But stand there, when the daytrippers have crossed back over the causeway and the island is an island once more, and you will hear the silence of the centuries and the whisper of the sacred past.

The History of Lindisfarne part 4: After Aidan

King Ecgfrith attempting to persuade St Cuthbert to leave his hermitage and become a hermit.

Aidan died on 31 August 651. With his death, the simmering controversy over when to celebrate Easter came to a head. Developing in relative isolation, the Irish church had come to calculate the date of Easter differently from the rest of the church, with the result that King Oswiu (Oswald’s brother, who reigned after him) might be fasting while his queen, who followed the Roman method, was celebrating.

Such disunity in the royal household could not continue and, at a synod held in Whitby in 664, Oswiu decided for Rome. Those monks at Lindisfarne who would not accept the changes returned to Iona. But to ease the Northumbrian church into these new ways, Oswiu installed Cuthbert as prior of Lindisfarne.

With the backing and protection of the kings of Northumbria, the monks of Lindisfarne seeded daughter monasteries through the north east: Whitby, Melrose, Jarrow and Wearmouth, Ripon. Although the political strength of Northumbria lessened in the 8th century, the Northumbrian church entered a cultural golden age, producing extraordinary works such as the Lindisfarne Gospels, the vernacular poetry of Cædmon, not to mention Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, without which our knowledge of the era would be bare indeed.

It was from Lindisfarne that Christianity spread. Faced with a choice between the religion of the people they had defeated and their own ancestral paganism, the Anglo-Saxons, through the 7th century, freely chose Christianity. The example and teaching of men like Aidan and Cuthbert, and women like Hild, abbess of Whitby, was crucial in this conversion.

The History of Lindisfarne part 3: Aidan

St Aidan of Lindisfarne

Christianity in Ireland had developed in a land never conquered by the Roman Empire, a country entirely without the towns that provided bases for bishops elsewhere. In response, Irish Christianity established itself around monasteries, with bishops often also acting as abbots. Aidan himself was both abbot and bishop, but he arrived in Northumbria with a significant disadvantage: he didn’t speak the language. While he learned it, Oswald acted as his interpreter. One imagines that, having the king act as translator, must have aided Aidan’s initial missionary effort considerably.

But an early Medieval king was peripatetic, travelling with his court to royal estates throughout his kingdom, doling out justice and consuming the food renders that were the chief forms of taxation. With Oswald so often away, it was down to Aidan to spread the new word.

He did this through a mixture of stringent self-discipline and humility, coupled with open-handed generosity. As a member of the nobility, Aidan was entitled to ride a horse – indeed, having a horse would have made his job much easier, enabling him to ride between the widely-scattered settlements of Northumbria. But, when he was given a fine and expensive horse by the king, he promptly gave it away to the first poor man he passed. When remonstrated with, Aidan pointed out that any son of Adam, however poor, was worth more than any son of a mare, no matter how valuable.

The self-discipline was evident in the monastery Aidan built on Lindisfarne. Surrounded by a ditch and bank, Aidan’s monastery constituted only those buildings strictly necessary for the daily round of prayer and labour that was the great work of monks. There was a church, made of wood and thatched, a cemetery, the most basic accommodation for the monks, and the workshops and sheds necessary for the other great work of early Medieval monasteries: book production. That was it. Even royal guests had to rough it.

The History of Lindisfarne part 2: End of Empire

The reconstruction of a currach: seaworthy but scary in high seas.

After the Romans left, Britain split into many small kingdoms as the native Britons (Christian, literate and heirs, in their minds at least, to Roman civilisation) slowly retreated before the advance of the incoming Anglo-Saxons (pagan, illiterate and never subject to the Empire). This was a slow-motion conquest, taking centuries, and Oswald’s ancestor, Ida, had launched the northern line of attack when he took the stronghold of Bamburgh in the middle of the 6th century.

Oswald’s father, King Æthelfrith, had hugely expanded the kingdom of Northumbria’s power at the start of the 7th century, only to be killed in battle. By his brother-in-law. Politics was a bloody family business then. With Oswald’s Uncle Edwin in charge, Oswald’s mother thought it better to go into exile to the sea-spanning kingdom of Dal Riada (present-day Argyll and County Antrim).

Oswald grew up amid the sea lochs and islands of the north west, becoming fluent in Old Irish. Most importantly, for the future of England, he sailed a currach (traditional boat with animal hides stetched over a wooden frame) to Iona. Here, Colm Cille had founded a monastery and it was here that Oswald embraced the religion of the people his ancestors had displaced: Christianity.

The History of Lindisfarne part 1: How the Irish came to England

Two castles in one photo: Lindisfarne and, on the horizon, Bamburgh.

Kneeling, a young man held the wooden cross upright while the armed men around him backfilled the earth around the cross and made it fast. The man was an exiled prince named Oswald and tomorrow he would fight for his kingdom. But on the eve of the battle, he called down God’s blessing on his small warband.

Oswald received it. The next day, at the Battle of Heavenfield (633/4), he defeated and killed Cadwallon of Gwynedd and reclaimed the realm his father had lost. The king had returned.

Now ruler, Oswald lost no time in sending back to Iona for priests and monks to bring his people to faith in the God who had brought him victory. But, first time round, it didn’t work out so well: Bishop Corman returned, disgruntled, to Iona, complaining that the English were ungovernable and of barbarous temperament.     

Rather than give up – these Irish monks, given to mortifying penances and setting off to sea with neither sails nor oars, didn’t give up easily – Iona sent a new man, Aidan, to Oswald, and the king gave Aidan a base for his mission: Lindisfarne.

The Lindisfarne Gospels

The incipit of the Gospel of Matthew from the Lindisfarne Gospels

The Lindisfarne Gospels were written at the end of the 7th century. Their 258 pages (which would have required the unblemished skin of 150 calves) contain the four Gospels, introductory material and a line-by-line translation of the original Latin into Old English, added in the mid-10th century. The translator, Aldred, added a colophon saying who had done what in producing the Gospels. Almost unbelievably, one monk, Eadfrith (later bishop of Lindisfarne) had written and drawn it all. Most early medieval manuscripts were made by teams of monks, so could one man really have done this all? Recent work has confirmed what Aldred said: the Gospels really are the work of one man, although other, named, monks bound the book and covered it.

The Gospels were written “for God and St Cuthbert and for all the saints whose relics are in the island”. They are on display at the British Library; the heritage centre on Lindisfarne has an electronic fascimile.

Adventures in Words: Maxie’s Demon by Michael Scott Rohan

Maxie’s Demon by Michael Scott Rohan

I finished Maxie’s Demon a while ago and coming, belatedly, to reviewing it I find that I can remember very little of the story. This does, I’m afraid, rather confirm the feeling of disappointment I had in reading it. Maxie’s Demon is the fourth in Rohan’s Spiral series, a sort of spin off sequel, and it doesn’t really add anything to the first three books. The premise – the Spiral that connects, envelops and transcends mundane reality with intermingled worlds of history and myth – is as compelling as ever but the story, and Maxie the protagonist in particular, don’t really carry the premise anywhere further.

An enjoyable enough read in its own right but a disappointment after the previous books.

Adventures in Words: The Charioteer by Jemahl Evans

The Charioteer by Jemahl Evans

Silk. Even today the word carries connotations of luxury, elegance and cool sophistication. How much more was that the case in the 7th century when the only silk available in Europe, and in particular the still glorious Roman Empire based in Constantinople, had to be imported all the way from India. Wealthy Romans – and wealthy Romans were very wealthy – loved to flaunt their money by sponsoring Games (the old gladiatorial games had been outlawed when the Empire became Christian but the new Christian Empire became fanatically addicted to chariot racing) and wearing rich silk clothing. As the silk had to be transported through the territory of Rome’s long-standing enemy, the Sassanids, this left the Emperor beholden to his foes for supplying his magnates with their clothing.

In his history of the Emperor Justinian, Procopius mentions, in a small aside, how the secret of silk, silk worms breeding and feeding on mulberry bushes, was smuggled out of India and to Constantinople. From this short aside, Evans fashions a marvellously picaresque adventure novel where his protagonists, a retired charioteer, a disgraced aristocratic soldier looking to redeem his reputation and a general fixer who is convinced the world is flat, have to travel to India, retrieve the secret and get back to New Rome, all while being dogged by Sassanid secret agents.

It’s a marvellous romp across a world and a time that is little known, and that, unbeknownst to itself, would not last much longer. The Sassanids themselves would be overthrown in the next century when the conquering armies of Islam swept them aside. The Byzantines were shaken but rallied, but the central Asian world that our trio of adventurers cross was irrevocably changed.

Evans does a stirling job of bringing the time and its people to life, infusing the people with humanity while not downplaying the cultural strangeness of the time to modern people. The Charioteer is the first in a new series and I look forward to reading more adventures from Cal, Theo and Cosmas, and hope the book gets the readership it deserves. One word of warning though: don’t get too attached to the subsidiary characters. Not many of them make it through.

Adventures in Words: Blackstone Fortress: Ascension by Darius Hinks

Blackstone Fortress: Ascension by Darius Hinks

There’s not much hope in the grim darkness of the far future. In the 41st millennium, mankind is trapped into a decaying regime that manages to combine the worst aspects of late period Soviet communism (which was real) with medieval theocratic fascism (an entirely modern imagining) while being beset from all quadrants by enemies that really are worse than your worst nightmares. To navigate this universe, some people dive deep into nihilism – and there are 40k writers who will serve that up with complimentary bolters. But for myself I prefer something a little different, a little lighter, a little more, well… hopeful? Hopeful might be stretching the point so perhaps humane would be a better term.

A more humane take on the 41st millennium? It might seem a contradiction in terms, but it is possible. For that, there are few better 40k writers than Darius Hinks. A writer who manifestly cares about the people he puts on the page, he creates characters that are both believable and humane (even when they’re aliens) and rather than the endless carnage of eternal warfare looks, in this book, at one of the places where humans and xenos exist in uneasy truce in the face of something greater and more inexplicable than all of them: the Blackstone Fortress. Ascension brings the two-volume saga to an end but if Darius could ever find some way of bringing Janus Draik and his crew back from the places they end up at the finish of the story, I for one would be delighted to read more of their adventures.