Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Invictus by Simon Scarrow: A Review - A Stunning Read

Invictus (Eagle, #15)Invictus by Simon Scarrow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow. Scarrow is a reliable author but this is certainly one of his better books. It's been a while since I read a good page-turner and I managed to read this in a couple of days. It has everything in a book for a historical fiction (and most fantasy fans). There is political intrigue, numerous hard-case villains, battles and a great plot. Set in Spain ad with a silver mine at risk there is the hallmarks of a good tale. Not only does Scarrow deliver but there is a twist to the plot and the underlying politics wins out.

Spoiler - Julia's betrayal was hard to accept but I sense a carry on on this tale in a follow up novel. I bet she's not the villain she is made out to be.

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Thursday, 15 June 2017

Defiant Unto Death by David Gilman: A Review

Master of War: Defiant Unto Death (Master of War, #2)Master of War: Defiant Unto Death by David Gilman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you want to read about men clashing in heavy armour this is a good read. It does drop off after a great start and the tale fixates on domestic life. It is still readable but a bit slow. When it gets going again there is some great action. Set some years after the battle of Crecy it follows Thomas Blackstone's adventures. He was an archer at Crecy and for his actions, becomes a knight. The tale has its bitter sweet moments which make it all the better. However, I often heard myself saying foolish woman to one of the main characters as once again she puts herself in harms way. I will be reading the next installment.

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Writing Believable Stories, from a Reader's Perspective

It is harder than it seems to make a tale believable and hats off to fantasy writers who manage to achieve this despite fanciful creatures such as dragons, demons, elves etc. But, strangely, authors in other genres also sometimes fail to make their world believable. I have given up on several historical fiction books, because they simply don't feel right. A recent novel about Rome was written in a modern style and perhaps that was what the author intended, but for me that failed utterly. An Egyptian novel I read focused on a few main characters and didn't mention anyone else. It felt lifeless whereas a Wilbur Smith tales, set in the same period, had a cast of thousands and felt more believable for it. This was achieved in a few sentences, adding to the clamour of life.

In all writing, I feel that you should be able to see, smell and even taste the world that you are in. The author needs to translate their knowledge of, say, ancient Rome to the reader and that means following their characters through crowded streets, filled with everyday folk and with ex-gladiator guards  forcing passage for some high ranking noble, vendors screeching out their wares of Garum, pots and pans etc. and the smell of open sewers competing with that of roasted dormouse. The clothing, the food, the sights and again the smells are ways of convincing a reader that the tale is real. 

In the most challenging genre, fantasy, how then do authors achieve believable tails? In my view it is characterisation that often achieves this. Also, no tale should have an easy and obvious solution, like a wizard destroying everything in his path. Characters need to be vulnerable in some way. Gandalf in Lord of the Rings is a great example. He is a key character and yet he is flawed in so many ways, e.g. blind to Saruman's deceits and facing a balrog, his best defence being a spell to block a door; a simple and yet effective use of magic. There is never a fiery blast that destroys thousands.

Fantasy and Sci-Fi tales must have bounds and rules. Star Trek was awesome and the rules there were not too far fetched and some even have become common place in modern society. For example, communication devices that fit in the palm or lapel. The more extreme deviation from modern life were energy shields, Warp engines and matter transporters. Their description and manner of employment, however, made them convincing. Each technology had believable faults that we could relate to e.g. a planet's atmosphere interfering with comms, energy shields that could withstand only so many hits and drained power, and matter transporters that simply failed (as in being spliced - Harry Potter books).

In fantasy the same issues of vulnerability help to make the tale believable. In Lord of the Rings Smaug has a displaced scale, making him vulnerable while his insufferable ego and greed add to his character.

Having a well thought through history of your world also makes fantasy and Sci-Fi believable in the same way as historical fiction needs a background setting. For example, readers need to know why a battle is about to happen, or the politics of races that set them apart. Why, for example, did some races embrace Rome and yet some defy her?

Making tales believable is key to being a good author. I do hope that in my tale, the Prophecy of the Kings, I achieve that despite such strange creatures and settings.

Rome: A Fantasy Fan's Dream City

I went to Rome recently and loved it (apart from all the walking!!). Ancient Rome is everywhere and for me that has strong links to fantasy writing. With all their gods and superstition, Romans did nothing without consulting an oracle. (Not a job I would like: examining entrails for signs of a diseased liver.) Their gods were a dangerous and self-serving lot, demanding the best sacrifice and huge temples with columns that dwarfed any building that had gone before. 

Man finally lost himself in Rome's grandeur and emperors declared themselves gods, perhaps following Egypt's millennium-old example. Nero built a huge statue of himself and unfortunately the Colosseum replaced that. For all their mortal failings, declaring yourself as a god must be the height of power. And folly.

In my books I tried to capture ancient Rome's grandeur and more importantly mystery. In Britain, long after the Roman's departed, people must have looked on in wonder at the ancient remains of amphitheaters, temples and other grand structures. In an age of wooden buildings, Roman ruins must have seemed god-like and may have fired people's imagination. In ancient times, superstition was rife, and the embers of people's fear were likely to be fanned by ancient places dedicated to lost gods.

The Eldric are a race in my books who mysteriously disappeared, leaving behind the ruins of once proud cites. Their civilisation was like Rome's, far above that of the indigenous population. In my books the threat of demons adds to people's superstition and the fear of a demon materialising from the underworld, to seek souls for eternal damnation, is too great to be voiced and like Roman remains, gargoyles and symbols decorate the ruins as wards against evil.

Check out my novels at http://davidburrows.org.uk/

A view across the Tiber: Nero's mausoleum.
One of the many paintings decorating a church ceiling, Staggering.  

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Writing. Getting Comfortable.

When writing my books I enjoyed getting in the mood, or being in the mood. When reading Lord of the Rings in my late teens, I loved listening to mood music. My favorites were Mike Oldfield's Ommadawn, Tubular Bells and Hergest Ridge. For some reason these captured Tolkien's tales beautifully and even today, when I hear these albums, I remember scenes from Lord of the Rings.

Writing was the same, and listening to Enjya, as example, sent me into the world I had created. It was like slipping on a comfortable jumper, my mood immediately turned to inhospitable lands, tall tales and heroism.

I also wrote on journeys and mainly trains. Something about a train helped me slip into other worlds. Whether it was the rocking of the train, the rhythm of the wheels or escaping the boredom of the journey, I am not sure. But again I found it very easy to write in these conditions. Unfortunately, I wrote on paper and when my manuscripts were completed my poor wife had to transfer this work onto a PC. My most creative moments came when driving. Not having a pencil and paper forced me to consider plots at great length. My Eureka moments often came in cars.

It is so important being able to slip into the mood for both writing and being in your own plot line. Make sure your PC/laptop is in a comfortable spot. The lighting needs to be good. The chair comfortable and a fresh cup of tea or coffee at your side. Go light on cake and biscuits though as sitting still doesn't help to burn calories. Music is a great help, but softly and in the background.

Once set, let free the brakes of life's drudgery and let slip the launch of your imagination. Great stuff.

Friday, 28 April 2017

So, How Would You Feel if Someone Shot at You?

About ten years ago, I was out at for the evening in a pub at Rochester. I left at about nine-thirty (not the morning!! No, I don't have a problem) and was walking towards the car which was parked on the esplanade. It was a dark winter's night, which was a lucky thing as I was wearing a thick winter coat. Crossing the road, the castle, an impressive Norman castle built in the 12 C overshadowed me; it was quite creepy at that time of night and it felt like eyes of long dead Normans watched my every move. The castle had been very active and had suffered under many a siege.

Perhaps it was my gloomy thoughts, but then I felt a thud against my jacket and a pain in my right shoulder. My first thought was air rifle. I turned, as the shot had clearly come from behind me. My blood was up. How dare someone take a potshot at me! My rage overcame commonsense, as facing the shooter, even an air rifle, was pretty stupid; a pellet in the eye would permanently blind me.

The castle wall, at least what remains, is atop a steep embankment. Black on black greeted my gaze. The streetlights didn't help that high up. I scanned the cars in case the shooter was behind one of these when another crack suggested another shot. A miss.

"Come down, if you are brave enough," I shouted, looking up and scanning the wall. Nothing. Just silence. "Cowards!" I fairly screamed.

I didn't have a mobile phone, so I ran to a phone box and called the police. "Stay there," said the officer. About 10 minutes later I heard a siren, a long way from where I was. I was confused as to whether to wait at the phone box or not, but the siren didn't seem to be coming my way. I raced back to the esplanade to see a police care someway ahead and I chased it. Whether the officer saw me in the rear-view mirror or stopped to try and negotiate a busy main road, I do not know.

Panting I came alongside and tapped on the window. "You here about the air-rifle?" I asked. and the passenger cop nodded.

"I think they are in the castle grounds," I said, pointing.

"We'll drive around and see what we can find," he replied. It was much warmer in the car than out, given the time of year.

"That's no good," I said. "They are in the grounds. I can show you where to get in and I'll help," I offered.

Unfortunately they insisted on driving around in comfort rather than getting into the castle grounds. A feat that is possible, as clearly the shooter had managed it and the walls around the other side are much lower.

That was it. All the way home I was in a rage, cursing the gits who had shot at me. The next day I phoned the police but the desk sergeant was very blase. "We get a lot of air-rifle incidents, usually against animals." (That's not what you want to hear). "I tasked a dog and handler to search for the firing point and they couldn't find one, so there's nothing we can do."

I had already worked that out. Looking for a firing point wouldn't result in finger prints or the perpetrator - they had long gone. I was annoyed that the officers the night before hadn't found anyone, and had been so reluctant to get into the castle grounds. I was also peeved that air-rifle incidents seemed so common. What sort of world are we living in? I suppose the same one as idiots who think it's fun to shine lasers at incoming aircraft to blind the pilot!

A week later I was in the caste grounds and I went to the supposed firing point. The ground was strewn with BB pellets, so not an air-rifle but a BB gun. Still potentially nasty. So much for the police dog and handler not being able to find the firing point, I thought.

The shooter had probably become bored of shooting cats/dogs and had progressed to wanting to shoot at people. I wonder how far this trend has continued. Did he/they progress to real weapons? And why did they do this? Boredom? Fortunately the incident is in the past and I have managed to calm down. I wonder, though, how common this type of event is and why people do it?

Friday, 21 April 2017

That's the sort of luck you don't need. God rest his sole.

I had to re-dig the garden pond recently and I was not sure about what to do with the fish. One of them, a mirror carp, had grown ginormously (for a pond: probably a couple of pounds). He was a lucky fish and had survived the local heron, George. At one point I didn't even know I had this fish as my pond had been emptied by said heron.

After George's last foray, I didn't bother with fish for a while and then had a change of heart. After all, it's nice to wander down the garden and watch the fish. I gave up with carp though and bought goldfish. Each evening, I would feed them and was surprised by a great swirl of water on occasions. After a few months I realised I was seeing a fish' mouth and a big fish at that.

The mirror carp must have survived George's dinner party and it had become very shy. Also, being in an empty pond he had grown to epic proportions. I was very pleased and it was great to watch his occasional forays to the surface for food. However, when I re-dug the pond I didn't know where to put the fish. Then I realised I had a water butt, full of rainwater. That gets around the problem of chlorine n the water and when you fill a pond, it is best to let it stand for a few days and sunlight and time sorts out the chlorine.

So, in the water butt went the fish. Only one night later and the mirror carp was no more. Belly up and in the immortal words of Monty Python, this parrot, I mean mirror carp, was dead. My kids have never let me forget this and quite often quote, "Dad killed the fish."

More ignominiously, I buried the fish in the garden and must have buried it too shallow, as the next day and yes you guessed it, the local fox dug it up and ate it. God rest his sole; pardon the pun :)

A picture of my new stream: Ponds are great fun and harbour lost of wildlife and I'm certain fairies and hobbits often visit :)