Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Two books this Tuesday



Two very short reviews this week.

Legends of Persia by Jennifer Macaire

This is by way of a coda to my review of The Road to Alexander a couple of weeks ago. I finished that review by saying that later books in the series were likely to be a lot better than the first. Jennifer Macaire then very kindly sent me the second book to see if I thought I was right. I'm pleased to say that I was.

Legends of Persia has all the strengths of the first book and none of the weaknesses. Ashley is now a well established character. The change from the Ashley of the first book is clear from the very beginning where she is playing at snowball fights with Alexander's best friend. The Ashley of The Road to Alexander would never have indulged in anything as frivolous as a snowball fight. This Ashley is a warm, generous person who it is easy to sympathise with. Yes, she can still be  cold and harsh, but usually when there's a good reason, as when Alexander finds himself tricked into marriage with Roxanne. Generally she comes over as rather a nice girl and, unsurprisingly, in this book she wins the affection of Alexander's officers and soldiers in a way which she does not in the first.



Alexander, too, has become a much more three-dimensional character. He is beginning to feel his age and struggles to recover from battlefield injury. He is more emotionally mature, as well. He seems much more concerned to find Ashley's missing son than in the first story and the idea that the search for their child is a driving force for both of them gives the book a much stronger sense of direction. It is less a series of exciting but unrelated incidents than volume one. Not that the book is short of exciting incidents and it enthusiastically continues to describe the heroine's sex life in titillating detail. The sex, though, also seems better integrated in the story, at one point becoming central to the narrative. I'm not going to drop a spoiler here, but if you enjoy accounts that  capture both the erotic power of sex and it's essential ridiculousness, you are in for a treat. (If you don't like stories that feature the erotic power of sex you really ought to give this book a miss.)

It goes without saying that Macaire's prose continued to carry me along with its deceptively straightforward style. All in all, I can thoroughly recommend this story. It's part of a much longer saga, so the ending is not entirely satisfactory, but it is at least an ending and not one of these awful cliffhangers that some writers of series feel will encourage people to buy the next book. I certainly don't need that sort of encouragement. If Macaire doesn't send me a review copy of the next volume, I'm going to have to fork out and buy my own copy.

Betwixt by Evie Gaughan

Another short review, this time because it's a very short book – just a short story really. 

It's possible, I suppose, that you have never read a story in which a young woman arrives at an isolated cottage to find a mysterious figure who seems somehow out of time. If so, you'd better stop reading because this will contain spoilers.

For those of us who have read ghost stories like this before, this one brings no surprises. Given that most of us must have realised very early on that the mysterious figure is a ghost seeking his long lost love, the question is just how well or badly does Evie Gaughan tell this very traditional story. And the answer is that she tells it very well indeed.

You could argue that revisiting such well trodden territory is a waste of everybody's time, but it's a short story and it wastes very little time and storytellers have been revisiting old territory since time immemorial. You could argue that this what the best storytellers all do.

Ms Gaughan manages to pack a lot of detail and characterisation into not a lot of words. It's a beautifully written little tale and I'm glad to have read it. Recommended.

My own books

The contract with Endeavour is signed and they will soon be republishing the three books in the series about the real-life James Burke and the three featuring (the fictional) John Williamson. There will be more books about James Burke, too. Unfortunately, this is probably going to take about three months, during which my books are no longer available on Kindle. You can buy some of them in paperback, although this may be an expensive option. 

I keep blogging, because at the moment I'm getting around two thousand hits a month and it seems wrong to just abandon you all because I don't currently have any books to sell. I will let you know when they are coming back online and I hope that some of you will buy them then

Friday, 14 July 2017

Nana Sahib and the Cawnpore massacre



Tomorrow is the 160th anniversary of the massacre of the women and children who had survived the siege of General Wheeler's forces in Cawnpore. It was, from the British point of view, the worst incident of the Indian Mutiny, a war (for Indians are right to call it a war rather than a mutiny) notable for violent horror.

The massacre was blamed by the British on a local ruler called Nana Sahib.

I think that the idea that Nana Sahib was evil incarnate is wrong. (So is the modern Indian notion that he was a noble warrior for independence.) As with so much colonial history, the nuances of right and wrong were much more subtle than either old-school jingoists or modern revisionists seem to be able to accept. That's more or less the theme of my book, Cawnpore. So I welcomed the opportunity when Heather Campbell of The Maiden's Court invited me to contribute a piece justifying Nana Sahib's actions. It was also a great chance to write a first person justification of a war crime.

This first appeared in the Maiden's Court just over a year ago. It was an interesting exercise for me. I hope it's interesting for you as well.

Two Sides to Every Story: The Butcher of Cawnpore: Hero or Villain?

In 1857, British rule in India was challenged by an uprising across the north west of the country. Even today, opinions as to exactly what happened and how we should view it are polarised. To most British people who have any interest in it at all, it was the Indian Mutiny. To many Indians, it was the 1st War of Independence.

British India in 1856
The conflict was extremely brutal, with outrages committed by both sides. However, the most appalling single incident occurred at the end of the siege of Cawnpore.

Cawnpore was not a major military centre and in 1857 there were not that many troops based there. Many of those who were in the lines at Cawnpore were sick men recuperating away from their regiments. When the Indians rose against them, General Wheeler, commanding the British forces, took those troops he considered would be loyal (mainly European, as opposed to locally recruited Indians) together with the civilians in the station into what became known as the Entrenchment. This was a few buildings surrounded by a low earth wall, which offered only minimal protection to those inside.

At the start of the siege on 6 June 1857 the Entrenchment offered some sort of shelter to around 60 European artillerymen, 84 infantrymen, and about 200 unattached officers and civilians and 40 Indian military musicians. In addition there were 70 invalids who were convalescing in the barrack hospital and around 375 women and children. They were surrounded by thousands of Indians, who included cavalrymen and who were supported with significant amounts of artillery.

The British held out until 25 June when they were offered safe passage in return for their surrender. Wheeler considered that surrender was an honourable option, given the almost certain death of the women and children in the Entrenchment were the siege to continue.

The Indians agreed that the British should evacuate Cawnpore by water. The British therefore marched out of the camp to the nearby river, where a small fleet of boats was waiting for them. However, as the British started to board the boats, the Indians opened fire. Only four of the soldiers from the garrison escaped alive. Most of the women and children survived but were held captive until 15 July, when the decision was taken to kill them all. The killing was crudely and ineffectively carried out, with many apparently reliable accounts of women and children being still alive when they were thrown into the well which was used for the bodies.

When British troops arrived to lift the siege, they found the site of the massacre covered in blood. Their revenge was horrific. Indian prisoners were made to lick the blood from the floor before being executed. "Remember Cawnpore" became the battle cry of British troops engaged in putting down the uprising and in exacting retribution afterwards. Nobody is sure how many Indians were killed. In many villages that the British army marched through, any man who could not prove that he had not joined the uprising was hanged. I will not dwell on the details of what became known as 'TheDevil's Wind', not because I want to gloss over the horror of the behaviour of British troops, but because the details are so appalling. (In fairness, I have rather glossed over the details of the massacres as well.)

Cartoon by Tenniel showing Britannia avenging the deaths at Cawnpore

The leader of the Indians at Cawnpore was a man called Nana Sahib. The British hunted him for years, but never caught him. It is widely believed that he died peacefully in Nepal. He was, if you like, the Osama bin Laden of the 19th century, yet today he is widely hailed as a hero of the Indian independence movement and his face has appeared on Indian stamps. This is his side of the story.



Nana Sahib’s story


My father was the Peshwa of the Maratha Empire. He was a mighty lord who rose against the British who had come into his country and despoiled it. He fought valiantly against the invaders, but he was defeated and exiled from his own country to the miserable little village of Bithur, not far from Cawnpore. The British allowed him to retain his title and a small pension and he made his peace with them and lived alongside his enemy until he died in 1851.

I was an adopted son – a common practice in my country when a great lord has no sons of his own – but the British refused to recognise me as Peshwa and no longer paid the pension that they had paid to my father.

Despite the loss of my lands, my title and my pension, I tried to be a good friend to the British. They had ruled in India now for a hundred years and many Indians had accommodated to them. But their rule was becoming more harsh. Where once they had made honourable peace with men like my father, now they seized their lands, ignored their titles, and denied them the respect they were due in their own country. They began to send Christian missionaries who tried to tempt my people from their faith. They told us we must abandon our old customs.

Those Indians who served in their armies (for there is no disgrace in serving the army of any lord once he has proved himself a power in the land) were not accorded the respect they had been. Their officers, who had once loved this country, were replaced by arrogant fools who did not understand our ways. There were rumours that they might be sent overseas, where they would lose their caste. Then there was the terrible business of the new cartridges. The cartridges were greased with the fat of cattle and with the fat of pigs. This was an insult to all the Hindus in the Army and to their brothers who were Moslems.

Finally, the people of India rose up against these injustices. I was not sure what to do. I had been friends with the British and I hoped that things could be settled without violence, but it was soon apparent that there must be a war and that the British would finally be driven from our country. My people looked to me, for they still called me “Peshwa” and acknowledged me as their leader. Now that it had come to war, it was my duty to lead my people against the British in Cawnpore.

The British fought bravely: I will give them that. Hundreds of my troops died as we attacked their fort again and again. In the end, I agreed to lift the siege if they would go. They said they would and asked for boats to sail down the Ganges to rejoin their people. But this had to be a trick. The British were being defeated everywhere. Where could they hope to go? No, once they were on the boats they could set up a fort somewhere else and attack us from there. My generals told me I would be stupid to let this happen.

What was I to do? They had surrendered, but there was nowhere they could go. We had an army in our midst that could turn on us at any time. The British, we Indians had learned over the past hundred years, were liars. They had promised my father he could keep his title and then took it from me because I was adopted: a cheap trick. They had stolen the Kingdom of Oudh on the same pretence – that the new King was adopted, and therefore could not inherit. We could not trust them.


My general, Tatya Tope, told me what to do. He arranged to have artillery hidden across the river from the boats and for his men to conceal themselves along the banks. When the British came to the boats, we opened fire. They still had their muskets. It was war: these things happen. We tried not to kill the women and children, but we took them captive and kept them safe. 


Then news came that a British force was on its way to relieve the siege. Everybody was terrified. The British were killing people who they thought might have ever harmed any of their troops and they would kill us all if they heard what had happened by the river. It was essential that any of the British who might speak against my sad, but necessary, actions should be silenced. I had no choice: the women and children would speak against me. They had to die. So many Indians had died under British rule and the British always said that sometimes these things were necessary or that sometimes these things just happened. But would they have happened if the British had not stolen our country? Had we asked these women and children to come and live amongst us, ordering their Indian servants to do this and to do that as if they were slaves? Bringing their foreign ways, their terrible food, their arrogance and their ignorance? They looked down on us as savages and sneered at our ways. Well, they’re not sneering now.


The British beat us in 1857. I was driven into exile and watched as the white men tightened their grip on my country. But I know that our time will come. It is not right that the Indians should live under the rule of the British and one day we will rise up and we will defeat them and I will not be hated by the rulers of India, but loved by them as one of those who showed the way to regaining our own country.

'Cawnpore'

The story of Cawnpore and the clash of cultures that led to the massacre is the subject of my book, Cawnpore. The narrator is English, but in love with an Indian. Caught between the two camps, he sees the tragedy developing around him, but is powerless to stop it. Can he survive the massacre and, if he does, can he save anyone else from the horror?

Cawnpore is shortly to be re-published by Endeavour and will be available on Kindle and in paperback. I'll be letting everyone know about the re-launch here on my blog, on my Facebook author page and on Twitter. Cawnpore has had fabulous reviews and I hope you'll all be rushing to buy it once it's available again!

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Tuesday Book Blog: The Traitor's Wife

Still catching up on book reviews, this week is a tale from the 17th century. It's not my period and anything with a title like that suggests the sort of romance I would normally shy away from, but it was a gift and eventually I read it. I am very glad I did.

The Traitor's Wife by Kathleen Kent

I'm not generally a fan of stories featuring women of the 17th century who are too self-willed to find husbands. It's difficult for people today to understand the cruel realities of a woman's life then or the simple difficulties of day-to-day life for anyone, not least a single maid. Kent's book, though, confronts those realities head-on. Her single woman is living in the American colonies and the harshness of existence in a world of disease, Indian raids, vicious weather and minimal comfort is convincingly portrayed.
This isn't just a story about life in the American wilderness, though. The tale centres on Thomas, the one man Martha feels for and who reciprocates her love. But Thomas has a secret: he is one of the men who slew King Charles I and the second Charles has sent hired killers to bring him back to England. The story then moves between London and the New World with flashbacks to the Civil War. It makes for a sometimes disjointed but always gripping tale which imposes modern judgements on the characters much less than most writers do. Their moral qualms and the compromises they make to stay alive are viewed sympathetically, though Charles II is somewhat harshly drawn - but, then again, he was probably not a particularly nice man.

This is, at heart, a love story, but one where kisses and lingering looks are usually secondary to violence and betrayal and sudden death. You cannot be sure, right to the end, if all will work out well and the historical note suggests another bitter twist after the story in the book is over.

It's not a perfect book. One section, in particular, is told in the first person and the voice, for me, lacked conviction. The rambling nature of the plot can leave the reader out of joint as people once thought dead turn up alive and others reveal themselves as not at all what you might have expected. An apparently irrelevant prologue only turns out to be a vital clue to one character's motivation in the closing chapters. Kent has, however, created a convincing world of real people. It's a world well worth a visit.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Battle for Fort Belan!



Last week’s blog post was about Fort Belan. I was there to see a display by the Anglesey Hussars and friends – people who spend their weekends re-enacting the Napoleonic wars.

I've met re-enactors through my writing. If you want to describe a Napoleonic battle, you need to talk to a re-enactor. The historian will tell you what the general was planning and why the battle took place where it did, but it's a re-enactor who will give you the best idea of the experience of the man on the ground. (Contemporary accounts like The Recollections of Rifleman Harris are also invaluable.) So I was really excited at the prospect of seeing some of these guys in action.


Besides talking through their uniforms and equipment (I never realised that the braiding on cavalry uniforms could actually protect against a sabre), we were treated to a display of musket drill. Actually, as you can see, there was a range of weapons, including a rifle and a carbine, but the men (and women) performed creditably – though their rate of fire might not have had the French quaking in their boots.


We were shown rather bigger guns, too. Here they are ramming wadding down into one of the cannon that marked off the hours during the afternoon. Sadly, there was no actual cannonball – although ammunition was displayed in the Fort.


                                     

Even without an actual cannonball, the amount of wadding that can be discharged is quite impressive. When this 24-pounder was fired, it had to be pointed out to sea.



The muskets and cannon fire black powder. According to their supplier, these re-enactors use more black powder than anybody else in Wales except for quarrymen.

I really like horses, so the chance to get up close with these gorgeous animals and their beautifully turned out riders was a lot of fun.


The horses were not typical of the rather heavier animals that would have been used in Napoleonic warfare, but don't they look lovely? [Since I posted this, someone has picked me up on it, suggesting that they are by no means under-sized. I'm not an expert on horses and I'm not suggesting they're too small - they're probably rather on the big side, but they are unlikely to have the strength of horses back then. To take one example, you can't use even blunt (ball) spurs with them, because their skin damages much more easily than a Napoleonic mount. Horses like this are built for speed more than hard use. But it really isn't my area of expertise and I'd welcome comment from people who know more about it than me.]

I did enjoy watching the riders showing off their skill with sabres.


Take that, Monsieur Frog!


The climax of the day was a skirmish where our brave lads drove the French out of the fort. Artillery covered the infantry as they charged forward.


Presumably Wellington was in command. His views on the cavalry were less than favourable and the horses are being held well back here, while the Navy lead the way into the fort.


It was all great fun. If you are interested in Napoleonic warfare or just want a good afternoon out, I can really recommend a day with the re-enactors.

A word from our sponsor

I'm not urging you to buy any of my books this week (unless you want a paperback). My books are temporarily unavailable on Kindle while I move between publishers. I'll let you know as soon as they are available again.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

If it's Tuesday, it must be time for another book blog

I'm still catching up on all the book reviews I've been meaning to post. This week's offering is:

The Road to Alexander: Jennifer Macaire

Ashley comes from the future where they have time travel. She has the chance to travel back in time to meet one famous character and interview him. She has always had a crush on Alexander the Great so she chooses to go back to meet her hero. She is supposed to spend just twenty hours in the past but something goes wrong and she finds herself trapped in 333 BC. Fortunately Alexander has taken a shine to her and she finds herself travelling with his army, first as his concubine and later as one of his several wives.


I found this one of those books that was easy to read, but easy to put down for quite long periods. In part, this is because the story, though full of incident, is pretty much summed up in the first paragraph of this review. Alexander and Ashley have explicit and amazing sex, she travels with the army, something happens, Alexander and Ashley have explicit and amazing sex, they travel on, something happens… You get the picture.


Part of the problem, for me, was Ashley's character. She is, by her own account, an ice maiden. Apart from her ability to fall madly in love with Alexander (did I mention the explicit and amazing sex?), and, later, Alexander’s best friend/lover, Ashley finds human relationships difficult. She is hampered, too, by the fact that she can't open up honestly to anybody as no one must ever know that she is from the future. It is only when she finally admits the truth to Alexander and lets her emotions show in a tearful outburst that I begin to warm to her as a character, but unfortunately this is the climax of the book. It does bode well for the second novel in what is set to be quite a long series.


While Ashley is cold and aloof, Alexander is very emotional and very open (cue lots of explicit and amazing etc etc). He is also spectacularly good at everything and almost godlike. In fairness, Macaire does make him a spectacularly bad singer, which we are reminded of from time to time to give him his single human frailty. On the other hand, at one point the book compares him explicitly to Jesus Christ, which makes him a difficult figure to identify with, even if he’s not about to win Pop Idol any time soon.


The fact that the two main characters are respectively detached and godlike makes for an absence of humanity at the core of the book which is what makes it so easy to put down. At one point Ashley is captured by somebody (it says something that I can't remember who) and held in complete silence in a temple where she discovers that she is pregnant and has a baby which is taken away from her. This material, which some authors would spin out into a book all by itself, is covered in just four pages. The driving force for much of the rest of the story is her attempts, having escaped and rejoined Alexander, thanks to a convenient earthquake, to track down and rescue the child. This mission keeps being interrupted by the odd conquest, battle, betrayal and all the other incidents of Alexander’s rather spectacular life. Thanks to this, for whole chapters at a time the reader can forget about the baby, as, it seems, can Ashley.


The thing is, this isn't really a story about Ashley at all. It's a story about Alexander the Great and his astonishing achievements. Like Ashley, Macaire seems more than a little in love with Alexander and she certainly knows a lot about him. She claims, in an end-note, not to be a historian, but she's the only blogger I know who can post in Ancient Greek and it's clear that she knows her stuff. Sometimes her research gets a little intrusive (as early on, when Ashley detours into a local village for, it seems, the sole purpose of describing daily life in a small village at the time) but enormous quantities of historical detail are incorporated in a thoroughly readable way. Everything from military tactics to medicine to diet to feminine hygiene products is covered in an easy prose style. Macaire’s prose does carry you along, free from any jarring notes. I am old-fashioned enough to think that the quality of writing is an important element in any book and it is one of the things that kept me coming back to this, even when a lack of sympathy with Ashley might have made it easy not to bother.


The time and effort that has not been spent on making the principal characters warm and human has instead gone into making the period vibrant and alive. If you are interested in Alexander the Great, you will find much to interest you in this book. If you like historical fiction because you enjoy learning about daily life in the past, this is definitely a rewarding read. There is also no doubt that if Macaire ever wants to branch out into erotic fiction, she will be up there with the best of them, so that’s another potential attraction.


Overall, it's clear that I have mixed feelings about The Road to Alexander but I did enjoy it. If you're into well researched historical novels, you'll probably enjoy it too. I suspect that now that the characters are established and Ashley has begun to open up as a human being (and even Alexander is becoming a more rounded character), the second book in the series will be even better than this one.


A quick word about my own books


If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will know that I am just in the process of changing publisher. This means that my books are temporarily unavailable on Kindle until my new publisher (Endeavour) is ready to put them into production. Meanwhile, most of them are still available in paperback. I'll let you know as soon as the existing e-book's are back online. For Burke fans there's a special treat as Endeavour are to publish the latest (fourth) of Burke's adventures – this time during the Peninsular War

Monday, 3 July 2017

My best endeavours ...

As of this morning, I am no longer published by Accent Press.
I am really grateful to Accent for publishing the James Burke books. They took on "Burke in the Land of Silver" and encouraged me to write two more volumes in the series. Unfortunately, Accent are undergoing a process of consolidation at the moment and are not in a position to publish the next book, which will be about Burke's adventures in Spain during the Peninsular War.
Fortunately, Endeavour, who publish quite a few historical authors, have said that they will publish the next Burke book and are taking over the existing three. As soon as the contracts are signed, I should therefore be an Endeavour author. Endeavour will also be taking over the John Williamson books..
All this means that, for a short while, my books will not be available on Kindle. (They were there when I checked a few minutes ago, if you want to grab a copy while you still can.) I will let you know as soon as they are back.
I have heard great things about Endeavour and I am looking forward to working with them. I'll let you know as soon as the next Burke book is available. Trust me it is – in every sense – a blast!