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Latest Reviews

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Burnt sugar / Avni Doshi.
Author: Doshi, Avni, author.
Publisher: London, UK Hamish Hamilton 2020. -- London : Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, 2020. -- ©2020
Review by: Loveday, Robert J. Mr.  on: 9/01/2021 2:54:51 PM
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This is a perceptive story about the relationship between an adult daughter and her middle-aged mother who is entering the early stages of dementia. However, do not be put off by this rather dark and sensitive theme. The story is not maudlin or onerous. Actually, this aspect is more of a vehicle used to explore their relationship and its history than it is the central theme.

Avni Doshi was born in USA and currently lives in Dubai, yet the novel is set in India. Curiously her year of birth is the same, as per my calculations, as that of the protagonist/storyteller in the novel. I wonder how autobiographical this novel is.

The story is told in the first person by the daughter Antara. It constantly shifts from the present to the past as, piece by piece, she reconstructs her life and that of her mother. Her mother's life was anything but conventional. The mother, Tara, rejected her middle-class heritage early in Antara's life to pursue an alternative lifestyle. Antara is dragged from pillar to post on this bumpy ride according to her mothers whims. No surprise that the relationship between the adult Antara and her mother is strained. Then again this is usually the case between adult children and their aging parents everywhere, even without the complications of a rocky childhood and a mother entering dementia.

Of course, there are a range of other characters that repeatedly come and go. The entire cast is vividly presented. An array of personalities possessing varying degrees of conventionality - all interesting to discover, all believable.

The Indian setting is not prominent. It is middle-class India that is much like the middle-class milieu in Western nations. There are few descriptive passages of scenery. But, occasionally, the flavour of India is invoked. There are subtle references through food, dialectic terms, transport, servants, etc. When this happened I saw, smelt, heard and tasted India.

This novel is a journey of discovery for Antara and for the reader. It is a story of relationships in flux, relationships not fully resolved. It is written in an easy, flowing style that propels the reader to seek greater understanding of Antara as she explores her past and tries to relate it to the person she has become. Is this the genre of novel you seek? It won the 2020 Man Booker prize. This, in itself, recommends it for a try.
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The new despotism / John Keane.
Author: Keane, John, 1949- author.
Publisher: Cambridge, Massachusetts : Harvard University Press, 2020.
Review by: Loveday, Robert J. Mr.  on: 9/01/2021 9:03:16 AM
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When Communism collapsed in the 1990s, many optimists predicted democracy, and its accompanying market capitalism, to reign triumphant. That was not to be the case. True, we have many versions of democracy ranging from the functional (e.g. Western Europe, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and, Trump aside, still USA) through the semi-functional (maybe India?) to the dysfunctional (as in many parts of Africa and Latin America). But what is the alternative? For there is an alternative that seems both emergent and entrenched in many parts of the world. The author contends it is a "new despotism". As examples, he draws upon Russia, Singapore, former USSR, central Asian republics, Hungry, Middle Eastern kingdoms, Vietnam, Turkey and, of course, that one-party communist residual, China.

Keane's task to define these new despotisms is not easy. They are not uniform, even though they share many characteristics. Not all are stable, yet some have been around for a while and seem resilient. In some aspects, they are experimental, willing to discover new ways to hoodwink the masses. Yet in other methods, they borrow tried and true strategies used by autocracies for millennia.

Keane uses a logical structural framework. He groups various aspects of these new despotisms into chapters providing copious examples to illustrate the ruling clique's tactics used and institutions of control.

Keane opens by defining what new despotisms are not. They are not the autocracies of old neither are they strictly dictatorships, totalitarian oligarchies, tyrannies or plutocracies although they may draw on characteristics of all of these. Similarly, they may sometimes draw on modern day democracies although these institutions and procedures are usually facades or pseudo-versions of truly democratic ones.

Next, Keane tackles connections - the connections anyone needs to get anywhere. New despotisms are webs of patron-client relationships. Major connections are between politics and business although they are also important for the middle classes, and even the working class, if they want anything done. Loyalty, reward and mutual benefit cement the powerful and powerless into this despotic framework.

In chapter three, Keane analyses the players involved. The leaders, their propagandists, the masses and the role of vaudeville and pseudo-elections to keep everyone mesmerised and compliant.

Not to be forgotten is the role and place of the media, both the old fashioned mass media e.g. television and print, as well as the still-developing internet versions of social interaction.

In "Velvet Fists", we learn that these despotisms use force and violence with circumspection but, when necessary, with determination. They are aware of the role of public opinion and the need for support from the masses. Is there any place for the rule of law? An interesting concept in the chapter that follows is that of voluntary servitude where subjects willingly surrender their liberties to the ruling clique.

The final chapter is probably the most clearly presented. Why did I even bother to read all the rest? Aside from delineating new despotisms from present-day democracies, it proposes that they actually exist on the same continuum with the potential of each to slide towards the other. It also adduces the role of democracies as they aid and abet these despotisms through commercial deals, political alliances and other diplomatic interactions.

So far, so good. Keane provides a wealth of information, plenty of examples and plenty of ideas but they lack coherence. I feel he fails to bring them back to the themes suggested by his chapter headings and subheadings. He fails to crystallise the relevance of many of his examples and ideas. This was not helped by overlong sentences into which so many asides and tangential ideas are compressed that, by the time I arrived at the end of the sentence, I had forgotten its opening premise. This wandering content with lack of connection to centralising themes left me a little lost as to the nature of the new despotisms that he was trying to explain. Perhaps a summary at the end of each chapter or section would have made his message more cogent. None were provided.

So, yes, this book did provide a wealth of interesting information. If I were rating it on that quality alone, I would give it three or four stars. However, as for providing a framework of characteristics for these new despotisms - as for explaining this new category of governance and control - it was lacking. In this respect, I can only rate it two stars. Maybe no comprehensive explanation can be provided. Maybe these new despotisms are too individually idiosyncratic to do so. Maybe they defy being analytically boxed up. Maybe they are still works in progress. Maybe you need to read this book yourself to decide.
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The shadow king : a novel / Maaza Mengiste.
Author: Mengiste, Maaza, author.
Publisher: Edinburgh : Canongate, 2019. -- 2019.
Review by: Loveday, Robert J. Mr.  on: 5/01/2021 1:09:15 PM
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A word of warning at the outset: if you are used to straightforward narrative and that is all you wish to read, if you seek characters with whom you can develop an understanding or even empathy, then this is not a novel for you. On the other hand, if you are getting a little bored with the easy read and seek a challenge, then pick up this book. More on this later. First some background history and setting.

After Italy became a unified nation in the second half of the 19th century, it belatedly eyed the north of Africa to establish an overseas empire. It invaded Ethiopia in 1896 but was soundly defeated. Mussolini repeated the attempt in 1935 with partial and short-lived success. This is a story of that war.

One theme running through this book is the role of women in war. There are two Ethiopian heroines in this novel. They are not invincible Amazons but they do don battle fatigue, carry weapons and engage in battle. They also lead and inspire.

Another theme is the place of individuals and their humanity in a time of inhumanity. This novel has a cast of variegated and enigmatic characters. There are women guerrillas, an Italian photographer-soldier (who, to add complexity, is also a Jew), a battle-hardened colonel-commander, north-African troops fighting for the Italians but whose loyalty is primarily to their own commander, a high-class Ethiopian prostitute-cum-spy, an old cook who seems to crop up everywhere, plus a host of minor characters. However, due to the author's abstruse and abstract style, it was often difficult to understand just what was going on in the minds of some of these characters. In a parallel to the battle and mayhem going on around them, there seemed to be a battle and mayhem going on within their own souls. By the end of the novel, I was still not sure I had completely grasped their essence.

There is obviously much historical fact embedded in this novel. The emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, went into exile in England when the Italians took his capital Addis Ababa. Although the Italians held most of the major cities, they still faced resistance in the countryside. At one point, our band of guerrillas find a doppelganger for the emperor. It is interesting how a people seem to need a leader in times of crisis, a leader that can symbolise the national spirit, a leader that can inspire. And this seemed to be the case with the Shadow Emperor. Once the people saw that their emperor hadn't deserted them, that he was still there to lead them, they flocked to support the guerrilla effort.

But now to the challenge that I mentioned in the opening paragraph. The author's style is abstract abstruse and cryptic. It is often difficult to grasp just what she is trying to indicate or say. Is Mengiste deliberately trying to confound the reader? The disadvantage of trying to comprehend such a style, to interpret the characters' thoughts and actions, to even follow the story, is that I found it hard to enter into the novel and share the story with its players. Instead, I felt like an eagle soaring miles above, observing yet not fully understanding.

There were short asides of two or three pages, variously called interlude, photo and chorus, whose relevance seemed so obscure that I started skimming and skipping a few. I felt I lost nothing of the main story by doing so.

I persisted with this novel to the end and was glad I did. It certainly was different. It certainly was a challenge. And that in itself is sufficient reward.
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Work : a history of how we spend our time / James Suzman.
Author: Suzman, James, author.
Publisher: London : Bloomsbury Circus, 2020. -- London : Bloomsbury Circus, 2020.
Review by: Loveday, Robert J. Mr.  on: 5/01/2021 1:08:02 PM
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I like books written by anthropologists. Anthropology is a multidisciplinary science. It includes, among other fields, archaeology, evolutionary science, genetics, ethnography, economics, history, biology, sociology and psychology. So any book written by an anthropologist is likely to have broad perspectives. So it is with this tome of information by James Suzman.

The title is Work. But this is only half the story. The subtitle, a history of how we spend our time, suggests that the flipside of work, that is leisure, is to be included as well. Sure, it is, although these days the two are becoming more and more conflated. It seems the distinction hinges on whether we are paid or not, rather than the nature of the activity per se. However, we still haven't covered the entire scope of all Suzman offers.

To expound, it is perhaps best to outline how Suzman organises his book. He divides it into four parts.

Part one is titled In the Beginning. Suzman certainly starts at the beginning. He goes right back to the beginning of the genus Homo about two to three million years ago. He even mentions the earlier genus Australopithecus and looks briefly at other primates to consider how they organise time and work. Working up through Homo Habilis and Homo erectus he eventually arrives at Homo sapiens about 200,000 years ago. For 95% of our history, we have been hunter-gatherers living in small bands. This has defined how we viewed work and what we did with the rest of our time. This hypothetical postulation is reinforced by modern studies of the few hunter-gatherer groups left in the world today.

In part two, Suzman investigates the first great game changer in how we managed our survival and exploited our environment viz. the mastery of fire. Use of fire greatly increased our harvesting of energy from our foods, increased our productivity, gave us more spare time to contemplate and cogitate, improved our security from predators and expanded the range of our habitats.

The next big game changer, the substance of part three, was the move from nomadic hunter-gatherer to sedentary agriculture and animal husbandry. It created another leap in productivity and the harvesting of energy. With the surpluses generated, humans could start to settle in larger groups, individuals could specialise their work, in fields other than food production, and human parasites could accumulate wealth and live off the fat taxes of others. The sociological and political transformations were profound.

In the last part, we move into the era of the city starting with ancient cities beginning in the Middle East around 6000 years ago. Again, the cultivation of energy-rich grains plays a decisive role. But Suzman moves quickly to the next energy revolution, the Industrial Revolution, when we harnessed fossil fuels (coal and oil). Getting the picture? Much of what determines how we organise our societies and time hinges on our sources of energy and how we utilise them.

Are we headed for another revolution - the information revolution? If so, how will it change how we organise our communities? How big, how small will they be? Will there be a new meaning for work, for leisure, for time? What role automation? This is all still open to speculation but Suzman gives us some starting points.

Very early in this book, Suzman says we work to live and live to work and are capable of finding meaning, satisfaction and pride in almost any job. The work we do defines who we are, determines our future prospects, dictates where, and with whom, we spend most of our time, mediates our sense of self-worth, moulds many of our values and orients our political loyalties. He points out that despite our technological advances, despite the promise of AI, we seem to be working longer, if not physically harder, than ever. He contends that boredom, not necessity, is the mother of invention. It seems that work in one form or another is here to stay.

You may not fully agree with all his hypotheses. I took issue with his claim that hunter-gatherers only thought in terms of the present and immediate future whereas agriculturists had to consider lessons from the past and plan for the long term. I felt hunter-gatherers actually had a longer vision of the past, tracking the seasons, plants and animal behaviour in myths and legends. By so doing, they could plan their moves quite some distance into the future. But this is the beauty of his work - to stimulate thought and challenge.

As I indicated earlier, this book has a wide scope - an encyclopaedia of information. Work and leisure is only the central organisational theme from which numerous tangents fly. Read and be informed.
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Moloka'i / Alan Brennert.
Author: Brennert, Alan, author.
Publisher: New York : St. Martin's Griffin, [2004] -- �2003.
Review by: Loveday, Robert J. Mr.  on: 18/12/2020 2:44:37 PM
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Despite its scare-mongering biblical connotations, leprosy is a low-transmissible, slowly-progressing disease. Most suffers die not from the disease per se, but from other ailments or accidents incurred because of the effects of the disease. This is a logical evolutional strategy for a bacterium. Why would a bacterium want to kill its host quickly if it had difficulty jumping to another host? Best to let that host linger for as long as possible to support that bacterium. Scientists are still unsure of exactly how leprosy is transmitted. All this is attested by the longevity of the protagonist in this novel.

Rachael Aouli Kalama is seven years old in 1893 when she is diagnosed with leprosy. Within a year, she is taken from her family and her home on O'ahu (Main Island Hawaii) and quarantined on Moloka'i, the leprosium where sufferers are isolated to protect the rest of the population from infection. She spends the next 53 years of her life there.

Queensland had a couple of such islands. There was one in Moreton Bay. Another was in the Palm Island group off north Queensland. This was for Aboriginal lepers. It seems indigenous people were especially vulnerable to this disease.

This novel is a snapshot into that part of Hawaiian history ,of what would arguably be the greatest scourge of the Age of European Imperialism. Sure this age effected the dispossession of native people's land and livelihood. Yes, European arrogance destroyed native cultures. True, there was a reduction in the socio-economic status of indigenous people to, at best, the lowest class of non-citizen; at worst, to virtual slave labour. But what most directly decimated indigenous people was the European diseases colonists brought with them. Leprosy is only one of these diseases.

Early in the novel there is evidence of a clash of cultures. The Christian church vis-a-vis traditional religious beliefs. Western cultural values vis-a-vis Hawaiin values. There was also a cruel irony towards the end of the novel. A sufferer could die from the very side-effects of the drugs used to alleviate the symptoms of leprosy.

For me, this story was an eye-opener. I always imagined leper colonies as being dismal and depressing places of decay and death. But Moloka'i, apart from being a prison from which sufferers were not allowed to leave, was also a vibrant community. It possessed all the facilities, services, activities and productivity of a normal community. There was the church, shops, sport, entertainment, small-scale farming and all the recreational activities one encounters in everyday life. Follow Rachael and her friends and acquaintances on their life journeys. Share their loves, hopes, aspirations and, at times, despair. There is sadness - divided families, loss, the stigma of leprosy - but there is also hope, inspiration and reunion.

One shortcoming is the lack of an explanatory glossary. The author often inserts Hawaiian words and references. While most times the reader should be able to interpret the meaning from the context, sometimes this was hard. In addition, a glossary that also gave a short explanation of the cultural significance of these words would have been enlightening.

If you think you know about leprosy, read this novel. You will discover your unknown unknowns.
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Lowitja : the authorised biography of Lowitja O'Donoghue / Stuart Rintoul.
Author: Rintoul, Stuart, author.
Publisher: Crows Nest, NSW Allen & Unwin 2020. -- Crows Nest, NSW : Allen & Unwin, 2020. -- ©2020
Review by: Jilly White  on: 3/12/2020 6:31:24 AM
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An important addition to Australian history and biography. Very interesting although harrowing at times. Thought provoking. Highly recommend this life story of a great Australian who showed the way.
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The strangled queen / Maurice Druon ; translated from the French by Humphrey Hare.
Author: Druon, Maurice, 1918-2009. -- Hare, Humphrey.
Publisher: London : HarperCollins, 2013.
Review by: Loveday, Robert J. Mr.  on: 1/12/2020 1:01:44 PM
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This is the second book in a septet called The Accursed Kings. This series follows French history in the 14th century closely and faithfully. I therefore recommend you read the books in order so that you can follow the fate of the characters chronologically. The full series is as follows
The Iron King
The Strangled Queen
The Poisoned Crown
The Royal Succession
The She-Wolf
The Lily and the Lion
The King without a Kingdom

The first book kicked off towards the end of the reign of Philip IV, Philip the Fair. In 1306, he begins a vendetta against the Knights Templar from which incidentally he had borrowed a lot of money. After seven years and the massacre of hundreds of knights, he finally burns their Grand Master at the stake. As his body incinerates, the Grand Master curses Philip and his descendants for the next 13 generations. Hence, the name of this series. Philip dies within six months.

In this second novel, The Strangled Queen, Philip's eldest son Louis comes to the throne in the wake of his father's death. There are three main strands to the plot.

First, Philip's wife Marguerite is imprisoned due to her adultery - this occupied a significant part of the first novel, The Iron King. Philip wants a male heir but is unwilling to pardon Marguerite. He desires to take another wife. But how can he do this while he is still married to Marguerite? Can he get the Pope to annul his first marriage? But a new Pope to replace the previous Pope, who also died under the curse of the Knights Templar's Grand Master, has not been elected yet. That conclave of cardinals is procrastinating! Can they be hurried along? Is there another solution? Is there a hint in the novel's title? Shades of English King Henry VIII two centuries later.

A second strand involves a power play between the late King Philip's chief advisor and bureaucrat, Enguerrand Marginy, and his younger brother Charles. Marginy is not of noble birth but like his counterpart Thomas Cromwell, in Henry VIII's court two centuries later, he wields a power unchallengeable much to the envy of the noble born. Both Marginy and Charles are keen politicians and manipulators. There are betrayals galore in this rivalry. Fortunes wax and wane. Who will prevail in this battle of the powers behind the throne? I became so engrossed in this novel that, after having chosen my favourite, when he lost, my outrage surprised me.

The third strand of the plotline involves the curse of the Knights Templar. Will all Philip's successors be forever dogged by it during their reigns? It is worth noting that Louis' reign only lasted two years. What then was his fate? What legacy and what loose ends will be left when his younger brother Philippe V, Philippe the Tall, takes the throne after his death? It might only be two years but it provides plenty of fuel for an intriguing novel.

A well-written novel with plenty of characters to make otherwise bland history into an entertaining story. And there is plenty to come in future novels. The Strangled Queen ends in 1316. We are yet to get to The Hundred Years War with England. This doesn't start until 1337. There is much to happen to get to this point in future novels, also much to happen thereafter. So sit back and relax. You have plenty to keep your mind occupied if you tackle this series.
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Chaucer's people : everyday lives in Medieval England / Liza Picard.
Author: Picard, Liza, 1927-, author. -- Gilkes, John, illustrator.
Publisher: London Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2017. -- ©2017.
Review by: Loveday, Robert J. Mr.  on: 29/11/2020 1:09:46 PM
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Most history is big-picture history - history about nations and empires, monarchs and generals, famous scientists, artists and musicians. This book is about everyday people, well, perhaps not the lowest of the low - the serfs and starving peasants in their muck, the slum-dwelling townsfolk. But given that the characters on show could find time and money to go on pilgrimage, the focus is on what we would probably call middle class today.

Chaucer's Canterbury Tales presents a group of pilgrims in 14th century England who, on their travels, told tales relating to their lives, encounters and experiences. There were 33 pilgrims from all walks of life. The original plan was for each to tell two tales - one on their way to their destination and one on their return home. I don't know their actual destination but they had a choice of many. Pilgrimages were the medieval equivalent of today's booming tourist spots. It seems Chaucer was a little over-ambitious in this initial intention for although he did not edit it out of his introduction, not all pilgrims got to tell a tale and those that did, only told one.

Regardless of the lack of exposure of some of the pilgrims in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Picard gives us a window into all their lives and the institutions to which they belonged. Using Chaucer's tales as a starting point, then adding copious quantities of her own research, she tells us of their dress; their behaviour and lifestyles; their beliefs, values and aspirations; the industries that support them; and the institutions with which they have to deal. This is 14th century England laid to bare on an everyday scale.

Picard presents her cases under four broad categories - country life, city life, religious life and the armed services. We meet the ploughman, miller, reeve and franklin; the merchant, guildsmen, law men and doctors; a monk, a prioress, a pardoner and ecclesiastic clerks; a knight, his squire, the yeoman and the shipman (among others). There is a wealth of information. You will come away feeling you have truly visited the Middle Ages.

There are three appendices at the back of the book. I found the one on the currency, with numerous examples of the cost of things and levels of income, especially helpful.

Picard's strategy is refreshing, her writing clear and simple, the presentation of information logical and comprehensible. A well-researched and informative book. A pleasure to read. Well worth four stars.
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Fortress of fury / Matthew Harffy.
Author: Harffy, Matthew, author.
Publisher: London, UK Head of Zeus 2020. -- London : Head of Zeus, an Aries Book, 2020. -- ©2020
Review by: Loveday, Robert J. Mr.  on: 23/11/2020 5:59:32 PM
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Anglo-Saxon action continues in this, the seventh novel in The Bernicia Chronicles series. If you have been following this series thus far and enjoyed what you have read, you will not be disappointed with this latest. If you havent read the earlier novels, I recommend you read the first novel, The Serpent Sword, first, just to familiarise yourself with the setting and major characters. After that you can choose any which way.

For the record, the novels in order from first to last are
The Serpent Sword
The Cross and the Curse
Blood and Blade
Killer of Kings
Warrior of Woden
Storm of Steel
Fortress of Fury

The series begins around 632 AD in northern England. This latest is set in 647 AD. During this period we have seen some characters come and go while the protagonist and hero Beobrand has aged. Whether he has matured will be up to you to judge.

I mention maturity as early in the novel he is caught in a dangerous and forbidden attraction to his Queen Eanflæd. Is he acting like a love-sick teenager instead of the lord of warriors he is supposed to be. To cap it off, he has never been the flavour of the month with his current king Oswiu. He was with the previous one but that was in earlier novels. Actually, the love issue dominated a couple of chapters early in the novel. I became a little impatient. The story seemed to bog down in relationship guff. I was chaffing at the bit to get into the politics, action and intrigue. But I urge the reader to persist as Eanflæd-Beobrand attraction is woven back into the main plotline later in the novel. She also plays a not-insignificant role in the action to come.

Anglo-Saxon England in the 8th century was divided into half-a-dozen-or-so kingdoms, sometimes allies, sometimes bitter rivals and enemies. And then there were also those unsubdued Welsh to the west and troublesome Picts to the north. Penda was the ambitious king of Mercia, a real historical figure with a fierce reputation for war. Although Beobrand is a fictional character, his king Oswiu is also historically real.

In this story, Penda and the Welsh threaten the kingdom of Bernicia. In the absence of his king, Beobrand has to help defend Bernicia's capital held under siege by Penda. His king Oswiu, on his return to his capital after the end of the siege, then spoils to confront his former ally Oswald, king of Deira to the south. No sooner is one war at an end then another may be portending. But this will be a story for other books.

As the novel approaches its close, Beobrand is set a task that tears him between two oaths, a seemingly impossible task. He is caught in the jaws of a dilemma. How he attempts to solve it leaves plenty of ammunition for future novels too.

There are battle scenes and sword play aplenty in this novel. I must say that by this the seventh novel, the characters are becoming a bit predictable, a bit stereotyped. Also, in the heat of a sword fight to the death, I wonder where the combatants get the energy to sling cliched taunts and insults at each other. But hey, this is a novel. It's entertainment, so a little literary licence is allowed.

This may not be award-winning literature but for its genre, viz. historical action, it ticks all the boxes. If this is your genre, read and enjoy.
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The iron king / Maurice Druon.
Author: Druon, Maurice, 1918-2009. -- Hare, Humphrey.
Publisher: London : Harper Voyager, 2013.
Review by: Loveday, Robert J. Mr.  on: 16/11/2020 4:12:55 PM
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This looks promising. What do you know about Medieval French history? The Iron King is the first book in a septet set in France during the 14th century. This is also the era of The Hundred Years War so expect a bit of English history (the reigns of Edward II & III) as well.

This novel has it all. Political intrigue and rivalries; love, betrayal and infidelity in the royal house; death both "legal" and illegal; and of course corruption and venality. Well, not quite all. There are no battle scenes yet but these may come in later novels as war heats up. The hoi polloi are notably absent too. Will they get a gong in later books? Or is this big-picture history, the history of kings, nobles and ecclesiastic prelates

The Iron King opens in 1312. King Philip IV, Philip the Fair because he was considered the most handsome man in the kingdom, is on the throne. He is still pursuing his persecution of the Knights Templar, a project now seven years in the making. But he will have his way. After a surprise hiatus, he finally succeeds in burning the Grand Master and his chief lieutenants at the stake. But in his final words, the Grand Master curses the Pope, the King's chief courtier and the King himself plus the next 13 generations to follow. Within two years, all three are dead. And the curse continues, I assume, in subsequent novels.

A list of characters and family tree at the beginning of the novel helps. I notice the family tree only extends to Philip's three sons, all of whom succeeded him. After the death of his third son in 1328, the Capet dynasty ends. Yet the seventh novel features the English Edward, the Black Prince, who died in 1376. I therefore assume the novels venture into the Valois dynasty, a branch of cousins who succeeded the Capetians. Historical notes at the back of the book aid those who may wish to dig a bit deeper into French history.

Early in the novel, there appears what seems to be an irrelevant subplot involving the Lombards, wealthy money lenders of the times. But this diversion is later woven into the main story, as it was in history. After having persecuted the Jews and Knights Templar, looted and wasted their assets, the King looks elsewhere for funds. The Lombards are the only lender of worth left. However, a key Lombard has an ace card up his sleeve. He plays it deftly and saves himself and his compatriots.

Description of the gruesome execution of the Knights Templar exposes the official sadism of the times. You need a strong stomach.

The story is character driven. There are no lengthy or vivid descriptions of scenery. But little is needed to create a truly Medieval atmosphere.

A full list of the novels in The Accursed Kings series is as follows
The Iron King
The Strangled Queen
The Poisoned Crown
The Royal Succession
The She-Wolf of France
The Lily and the Lion
The King without a Kingdom

If you like to learn your history through the relaxation and appreciation of novels, this series shows great promise. I enjoyed the first in the series and have every intention to read the next six.
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