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A couple of novels

Another entry about books, but this time I would like to recommend a couple of novels set in the ancient world. As people will know from an earlier entry, a find a lot of these hard to take. Too many little things tend to be wrong from the very start, and that makes it hard for me to buy into the story and enjoy it. However, a few authors manage to create a convincing world that just feels right. One of these is Christian Cameron. I have just finished his latest novel, Killer of Men, which starts a new series set during the Persian Wars. Once again I reckon he has created a vivid picture of Greek society and attitudes, with the culture of public exercise and competition fostered by the gymnasia. I also like the strong differences between Greeks from different cities and regions. The battles are vivid, and - this admittedly is a personal point of view - his views on phalanxes and hoplites very sound. The same could be said of Tyrant: Funeral Games, the most recent installment in the Tyrant Series, set in the era of Alexander the Great and his Successors. I read that months ago, but have not got around to posting an entry on it. Christian's website.

For a Roman series, the third instalment of Harry Sidebottom's third century AD Warrior of Rome Series more than lives up to the promise of the earlier stories. Lion of the Sun begins with the capture of the Emperor Valerian by the Persian King Shapur I. The series has its tongue in cheek moments - our three main characters happen to be an Englishmen, an Irishman, and a Scotsman for instance. Having said that, this one is a bit darker than the earlier stories, so you may need to be in the right mood, but once again you can tell throughout that the author knows his stuff. It's because it is generally so convincing that it can also make you think. Personally I'd quibble about some of the formations adopted in one or two of the battles. I also have to wonder how far people consciously thought in literary stereotypes - for instance on the behvaiour of barbarians. Suspect that I am in a minority amongst Classicists in doubting the extent of this. The simple fact that a rattling good adventure story can make you think like that in the first place is tribute to its quality. Harry's website.

Zulu Rising

I have just finished reading Ian Knight's new book Zulu Rising: The epic story of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift. The 1879 Anglo-Zulu War may still be best known to many from the Stanley Baker and Michael Caine movie Zulu and the less famous Zulu Dawn. The first is by far the better film, although the second probably made more effort to be accurate. I also have a soft spot for it as I was old enough to see it in the cinema on its release in the eighties.

This book is about the history rather than the movie versions, and as always, the truth is far more interesting. A lot is written about this brief - and in many respects minor - conflict. One of the reasons is because of the inherent drama of a clash between Queen Victoria's redcoats and a strongly indepedent and vibrant African kingdom. On top of that the Zulu army, its men disciplined, but equipped with antiquated firearms or old-fashioned shields and spears, overcame and destroyed a British force camped at the foot of the hill of Isandlwana. Then, later that same day and into the night, a tiny, and heavily outnumbered British force entrenched at the mission station at Rorke's Drift held off a strong attacking force and won eleven VCs in the process.

Anyone who has already delved into the period will already know Ian's name. He has written a lot and it is always worth reading. In many ways I think this is best thing he has ever done - and I do not say that lightly. What makes it special is the sheer depth of knowledge behind his account. Its the product of decades of study, but also of a life spent walking the ground and listening to local oral history. When he started out there were still old folk alive who had been children during the war, and plenty whose parents had spoken of being caught up in it. Back in 2008 I went on a tour of the battlefields organised by Holt's Tours and with Ian as the guide. It was excellent, because he is a terrific speaker with not simply the knowledge, but a passion for the subject. Here is a picture of Ian Knight talking to the group. In the background is Isandlwana itself, and we were standing just about where the Zulu commanders were on the day of the battle. There view was tremendous, unlike the British CO, Lt. Col. Pulleine, who would have had a very restricted view wherever he moved in and around the camp.

The great strength of the book is that it tells both sides of the story well and with sympathy. Part of that is looking at things from the Zulu perspective. Almost as important is the inclusion of the many allied troops forming part of the British forces. Some were drawn from the settler communities. Many more were from the various African peoples, who had their own reasons for fighting. Some were Zulus, others exiles or fugitives from the Zulu kingdom. Hundreds of these men fought - and at Isandlwana died - alongside the redcoats. Throughout the book there is also a strong sense of trajedy. Both sides suffered dreadful losses, and in spite of the victory at Isnadlwana the Zulus could not hope to win in the long run. The war resulted in the dismemberment of the kingdom, carved up into chiefdoms and then left to fend for itself.

On Hannibal's Trail Series on BBC
Have just been sent an e-mail about a series showing in the UK on BBC4. Called On Hannibal's Trail it follows the three Wood Brothers as they cycle from Spain to Italy. On the way they see the sights and tell the story of Hannibal's march in 218 BC. I must confess I had not noticed this was on, so have so far only watched a bit on the BBC i-player here. It looks a lot of fun, and a good way of reminding us just how far Hannibal's men marched before they even began the main struggle with the Romans.
Knights and Caesar

Last week I was in Bath, popping in at the Roman Baths and then attending a book launch for Robert Jones' Bloodied Banners: Martial display on the Medieval Battlefield (Boydell Press). Have not yet had a chance to do more than dip into it, but am really looking forward to reading it properly. The idea is a very interesting one, looking at the visual displays and rituals of medieval armies from a range of perspectives - not simply the practical value, such as intimidating the enemy and building up your own confidence, but also the reasons why these things were done in that specific way. I suspect that there may be quite a few parallels with the ancient world, so it's well worth a look if you have an interest in how armies worked.

Also thought that I would mention that Caesar's two thousand and one hundredth birthday will fall this coming Tuesday. Am planning a good lunch in excellent company to toast the old boy!

Antony and Cleopatra
Antony and Cleopatra is due out soon - the 15th July in the UK and the 28th September in the USA. Orion have put the Introduction up on their website for people to read at this link

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