25 March, 2012

The White Raven, by Robert Low. Book review.

Harper, 2009, ISBN 978-0-00-728798-7. 352 pages.

Third in the Oathsworn series, following The Whale Road (reviewed here earlier) and The Wolf Sea (reviewed here earlier), The White Raven is set in the winter of 972-3 AD, mainly in what is now Russia and the Ukraine. Olaf Tryggvason (later King of Norway), his uncle Sigurd, Vladimir Prince of Novgorod and his uncle Dobrynya are historical figures. All the main characters are fictional.

Orm and the remaining Oathsworn are living on a farmstead in Scandinavia granted them by Jarl Brand, and one of them, Kvasir, has married a capable wife, Thorgunna from the neighbouring farmstead. Orm would like to settle down and earn a reliable living by horse-breeding, but the rest of the Oathsworn are obsessed with returning to Attila’s tomb, deep in the steppes, in search of the hoard of cursed silver that cost many of their comrades their lives (recounted in The Whale Road). When a raid captures Thorgunna’s sister Thordis, the Oathsworn take to the seas again, sailing to Novgorod and trekking across the winter steppes in search of revenge and riches. But they are not the only ones out on the steppe in this bitter winter. Young Prince Vladimir of the Rus wants the treasure to finance his wars against his rival brothers; Brondolf Lambisson wants it to rebuild his dying town of Birka; and the fearsome Amazons, woman warriors of the steppe, are oathsworn to protect the hoard to the death against all comers.

Like its two predecessors, The Whale Road and The Wolf Sea, The White Raven is a larger-than-life adventure, a “saga to be told around the fire”, as the author puts it. On their quest for a hoard of cursed treasure, the Oathsworn encounter monsters (given a poignant modern twist), impossible battles against the odds, the treachery and friendship of princes, and legendary female warriors.

Olaf Tryggvason, nicknamed Crowbone, was the outstanding character for me. A couple of decades later, he was to become a notable king of Norway; here he is an enigma in the shape of a nine-year-old boy with an uncanny wisdom beyond his years, clearly destined for great things. An inspired touch was to make him a gifted storyteller, always ready with a tale to illuminate – often uncomfortably – the current situation. According to the Historical Note, this ability of Olaf’s is fictional, but the rest of the events involving him are documented (minus Orm and the Oathsworn, of course) in the Saga of Olaf Tryggvason. Whether the saga was itself recounting sober historical facts or adding its own embellishments is a different question.

The characters of Thorgunna and Thordis were also strong aspects of the novel for me. In the previous two instalments, women have been either disposable slaves or witches with hints of dark supernatural powers. In Thorgunna and Thordis we meet the capable, forthright, down-to-earth Norse women so familiar from the Icelandic sagas, women who are strong-minded and courageous without the need for swords or sorcery. The Amazons of the steppe are based in part on archaeological excavations of tombs of women armed as warriors in the Ukraine, southern Russia and Kazakhstan. A sort of female counterpart to the Oathsworn themselves, they are a warrior band sworn to their leader and each other, dedicated to protecting the memory of the long-dead Attila.

The plot rattles along at a dizzying pace as the Oathsworn encounter one adventure after another on their quest first to rescue Thordis and then to return to Attila’s tomb and its hoard of unimaginable riches. This instalment completes the Attila plot that was begun in The Whale Road, and resolves the plot threads that were left hanging at the end of that book. The story of Attila’s tomb seems to be at an end now (or at least, I cannot see how it could reappear), but the same is not necessarily true of the Oathsworn, who will return for at least one further adventure in Book 4, The Prow Beast.

The political and military rivalries between the Rus princes (Vladimir is a major secondary character) make for a suitably dramatic backdrop as the Norse colonies up and down the great rivers are starting to form the beginnings of a state, which will be the forerunner of Russia and the origin of its name. A helpful Historical Note outlines some of the underlying history, which, as so often, is stranger than fiction (assuming one counts the Saga of Olaf Tryggvason as history), and a map at the front helps to follow the far-faring Oathsworn on their journeys.

Larger-than-life adventure saga following a band of tenth-century Norse warriors on their quest for the cursed treasure of Attila the Hun, through the biting cold of the winter steppe, battles with monsters and Amazons, and the shifting politics of the emerging Rus kingdoms.

23 March, 2012

March recipe: Cherry cake

This is a simple and delicious cake. It’s one of the many variations of pound cake, so called because it was traditionally made with one pound each of flour, sugar, butter and eggs. That sort of quantity is rather large for most households (unless you’re feeding a family gathering or a church fete), so this version uses a quarter-pound of each of the basic ingredients. It uses glace cherries, so can be made at any time of year. I think it suits the spring, when lengthening days and rising temperatures call for something slightly lighter than the dense fruit cakes that suit winter.

Here’s the recipe.

Cherry cake

4 oz (approx 100 g) butter
4 oz (approx 100 g) sugar. I use golden caster sugar or light brown soft sugar
2 eggs
4 oz (approx 100 g) self-raising flour
2 oz (approx 50 g) glace cherries

Halve the glace cherries.

Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.

Beat the eggs and stir into the creamed mixture.

Stir in the flour.

Stir in the chopped cherries and mix thoroughly.

Spread in a greased shallow baking tin, about 7” (approx 18 cm) square, and level the top.

Bake in a moderate oven, about 170 C, for about 30 minutes. It’s done when the sponge springs back if pressed lightly with a finger, and has shrunk slightly away from the edges of the tin.

Cut into pieces, lift the pieces out of the tin and cool on a wire rack. I usually cut 12 pieces.

Keeps about a week in an airtight tin, or can be frozen.

11 March, 2012

The Boy with Two Heads, by Julia Newsome

Trifolium Books UK, publishers of Kathleen Herbert's fourth novel Moon In Leo (reviewed here) and my own Paths of Exile, have now published a third title.

The Boy With Two Heads, by Julia Newsome (ISBN: 978-0-8568104-4-1), is a time-slip young adult novel about the ancient Olympics in Classical Greece.

Here's the cover copy:

It all starts in Athens.
In 432 BC, they think Themis is dead. Suzanne, who is on a school trip in 2010, is drawn through thousands of years to keep him alive. Will Themis’ destiny be death or glory in the Games of the 87th Olympiad? Will Suzanne regain control of her life, or will her mind be occupied forever by the past, while her body lies in hospital in present-day Cumbria?

“This book transported me effortlessly back to ancient Greece, vividly evoking its sights, sounds and even smells. And I found that young people’s issues have hardly changed in 2,400 years!”
Marion Clarke, fiction editor

“A wonderful story which brings the ancient Olympics to vibrant life and links them to contemporary young people. You can almost smell Greece, and there is a lovely equivalence of teenage feelings and humour, then and now. I couldn’t put it down and didn’t realize how much I had learnt until after the enthralling climax.”
Philippa Harrison, former Managing Director of Macmillan and Little Brown UK

More information on the Trifolium Books blog. Available to order now from bookshops (including Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk), or direct from the publisher (contact details via the Trifolium website, here).

I think an e-book version is planned in due course.

More about the book and the author on the author's blog, here.

02 March, 2012

Empire of the Moghul: Raiders from the North, by Alex Rutherford. Book review.

Headline 2010. ISBN 0-7553-5654-6. 496 pages. Review copy supplied by publisher.

Raiders from the North is set in what is now Central Asia and northern India in 1494-1530, and follows the career of Babur, first of the Moghul Emperors. Most of the main characters are historical figures, including Babur, his mother Kutlugh Nigar, grandmother Esan Dawlat, sister Khanzada and son Humayun, Shaibani Khan of the Uzbeks and Shah Ismail of Persia. Babur’s military commander Wazir Khan, adviser Baisanghar and friend Baburi are based on historical figures.

Babur is only twelve years old when his father, ruler of the small mountainous kingdom of Ferghana in Central Asia, is killed in a freak accident. With the help of his wily grandmother Esan Dawlat and loyal commander Wazir Khan, Babur is able to claim his inheritance and is fired with ambition to build an empire to equal or exceed that of his mighty ancestor Timur (Tamburlaine). But the plots by ambitious relatives and grasping viziers start almost immediately, not to mention external threats from the ruthless Uzbek warlord Shaibani Khan and the powerful Shah Ismail of Persia, both of whom have territorial ambitions in central Asia. If Babur is even to survive, let alone found an empire, he will need all the cunning and military skill he can muster.

Raiders from the North is the first in a planned series of five novels about the six Moghul emperors, who ruled a vast empire based in what is now northern India in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. The Moghul dynasty has become a byword for luxury, power and unimaginable riches, and has given rise to modern phrases such as ‘movie mogul’. Babur’s rise from precarious ruler of a small mountain kingdom to founder of a great empire, via battle, treachery and a spell as a landless bandit, is the stuff of legend. One could hardly ask for a more dramatic or exotic setting for historical fiction.

So I was surprised to find that Raiders of the North seemed somewhat ‘flat’. Perhaps I had set my expectations too high given the drama of the underlying history. The novel is apparently based largely on Babur’s autobiography, the Baburnama, and that may be part of the explanation, as I felt the novel read like a mildly fictionalised biography. Babur was a pleasant enough central character, but he always seemed distant. I always felt I was reading about him, rather than being drawn into his story. Part of this may be the episodic structure, which can feel rather repetitive – battle, victory, treachery, battle, defeat, battle – as poor Babur slides up and down the snakes and ladders of ambition, frequently ending up almost back at square one. No doubt this reflects the history; the career of a successful warlord attempting to conquer a region of fractious independent tribes is likely to feature a lot of battle, victory, defeat and treachery in a series of successes and setbacks. Sometimes a pattern like this can capture my imagination (Nigel Tranter’s Robert Bruce trilogy comes to mind), but not so much in this case. Another contributory factor may be the clumsy dialogue. When characters in the middle of a desperate winter campaign say things like,

“Let’s pause under cover of these trees and eat some of the dried meat we still have in our saddlebags while we send some scouts ahead”
it doesn’t do a lot for creating a sense of tension and urgency, at least not for me. Overall, the style reminded me of Tim Severin’s Viking novel and Alison Weir’s novel about Lady Jane Grey, Innocent Traitor. It’s interesting that both of these were novels written by established authors of non-fiction, and it turns out that ‘Alex Rutherford’ is the pen name for a husband-and-wife team of established non-fiction authors. Luckily, the historical setting of the Moghul Empire is interesting in its own right, so the flat style matters less than it might have done with less exotic subject matter. A straight biography of Babur would probably be a good read; I may see if I can find one.

A map at the front is invaluable for following Babur’s progress through his far-flung territories. A useful Historical Note at the back of the book summarises the underlying history and historical characters, and a list of endnotes organised by page number gives the historical background to specific incidents. Ironically, the Historical Note, where the author(s?) describe travelling in Central Asia to research the novel, comes to life more vividly than much of the text.

Mildly fictionalised biography of Babur, first of the Moghul emperors in fifteenth/sixteenth-century India and Central Asia.