Year of a Hundred books – #31 The Silver Branch

The Silver BranchThe Silver Branch, by Rosemary Sutcliff


Back to the Lost Legion again. Except this time, although the book is a sequel to the Eagle of the Ninth, it takes place 200 years later, during a series of rebellions by the Romano-Britons against the empire.

The Silver Branch definitely isn’t as good as its prequel. It’s a little convoluted and hard to follow in places, but on the whole it’s still a really good children’s story, that has all the strengths I mentioned in my previous review.

Like Eagle, the Silver Branch is a story of family honour and loyalty to the eternal Rome, though the form this vision takes has changed drastically in the past two centuries. No longer are the army inherently strong and noble (though the beginnings of this were seen at the end of Eagle) Nor is the authority of the Empire still ordered and perfect. The empire has declined, and Britain is going down with it,  and that is the world The Silver Branch takes place in.

Part of the reason I didn’t like it as much as the first book is that I knew nothing of the history, and since the preface states that most of what is told is based in truth, I was as much concerned with working out the history as I was with the story itself. Which is never a good way to read a book. In any case, despite my glowing recommendation for The Eagle of the Ninth, I’ll temper it back a bit for the sequel. If you happen to buy the combined copy of the first three books in the series, then there’s no reason not to read the second (I’ll maybe get back to you on the third), but I wouldn’t go so far as to say you should hunt it out.

Year of a Hundred books – #30 Ten Little Aliens

Ten Little AliensTen Little Aliens, by Stephen Cole


This year is the 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who, and as you’d expect, the BBC is going a little overboard on the tie-in products. One of the better ranges are a newly (re-)published series of books, one for each of the eleven Doctors. The First Doctor is one of my favourites, so after two hours spent wandering round Waterstone’s flagship branch in Piccadilly on a recent trip to London, this was the one I decided to start with.

The author, in his introduction, describes the book as “Agatha Christie combined with Starship Troopers”, and the plotline is at its essence the locked room mystery along the lines of And Then There Were None… (original title Ten Little Indians, you see!). There are a lot of extra sci-fi like bits and pieces added on, including a frankly baffling “Choose Your Own Adventure” sequence that pretty much puts a damper on the last third of the book, but really, it’s the mystery that’s fuelling the plot, not the trappings.

It is an enjoyable story (aside from the experiment mentioned above), and the author has managed to get the character of the Doctor right (not always easy), but almost all the other characters are forgettably generic and clichéd Space Marine archetypes. Fine while you’re reading, but with no lasting impact beyond the plotline. They all have their gimmicks, (including some frankly bizarre twists), but only one or two of them are really well-rounded characters. Which leads me onto my other main complaint. I was disappointed with the portrayal of the companions. The two chosen aren’t ones I’m particularly keen on, and to be fair, they were never particularly well-developed in the original episodes, but Cole seems to focus in one part of their personality and forget about all the other aspects that are needed to make an engaging character.

Ten Little Aliens, would easily have fit into the original show as an above-average serial, though it’s quite distinct from anything the First Doctor ever did. (Sorry, I’m being a little too geeky here, I know!) It’s not a great book in and of itself however, and wouldn’t work as an introduction to the universe, but I enjoyed it and if you’re familiar with the show, but have never experienced the First Doctor, it’s far from the worst introduction you could choose.


Year of a Hundred books – #29 The Eagle of the Ninth

The Eagle of the NinthThe Eagle of the Ninth, by Rosemary Sutcliff


Guess why I read this? Go on. Guess. To be fair, I have been meaning to read this for a long time (ever since the film version came out in 2011 in fact, and I’ve had it on my Kindle since Christmas), but it was after reading The Shadowy Horses and not getting a resolution on the search for the legion that made me finally pick up Rosemary Sutcliff’s take on the mystery of the Ninth Legion.

For a children’s story, The Eagle of the Ninth is a really good story. I feel bad using that qualifier, because it implies that most children’s stories are bad, which is blatantly not true. I think what I mean is that there is clearly a lot of research gone into it, and it has a no holds barred depiction of the Roman occupation of Britain that doesn’t shy away from violence where necessary. I think this is best exhibited in the fact that the main character is referred to several times as a follower of Mithras, when most fiction aimed at adults wouldn’t touch on that.

I did know what I was getting with the story, as as I said, I have already seen the film (which is definitely worth watching, despite the interesting linguistic choice of having the Pictish characters speaking Gaelic!), and any cuts made between the two are fairly insubstantial, (aside from the climax, which swaps a covert flight for a full on battle, as per usual!) though it was nice that the whole time I was picturing Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell as the two main characters the whole time I was reading.

I can’t think of anything really to complain about this book, or any detractions to level against it at all, which is in itself, fairly high praise. It’s short, it’s incredibly well written, there’s no reason for you not to read it!

Year of a Hundred books – #28 The Shadowy Horses

The Shadowy HorsesThe Shadowy Horses by Susanna Kearsley


I really wasn’t expecting to like this, but, in spite of myself, I did. My girlfriend’s gran, who knows the author and is even mentioned in passing, leant it to me a couple of summers ago, and it’s sat on my bookshelf ever since. Finally caving in (I needed something a bit lighter after HHhH!), once I got over my initial lack of enthusiasm, it turned out to be quite enjoyable.

The central plot of the book revolves around an archaeological dig in search of the semi-legendary Ninth Legion, part of the Roman army that disappears from the historical record after reports of them marching into the north of Britain). However, rather than being sited somewhere up in the Scottish Highlands, the dig (and the book itself) takes places just outside the town of Eyemouth just north of the border. Mostly this is irrelevant for the story, apart from being a further fuel for the cynicism cast by respected academia on the slightly loopy old man funding the dig, but it does present a problem. The first few chapters of the book felt like the author (who isn’t a local) was shouting “Look at all this local cultural and geographical research I’ve done. Appreciate it!” Once the plot starts to pick up however, this becomes less of a problem, and there are a number of sequences later in the book that are quite good explanations of the local history. I was also a bit disappointed that there was no true resolution to the mystery of the Legion, but I suppose I can’t necessarily complain about that.

The bare bones of the plot are fairly generic. Girl falls in love with boy who is mysterious while trying to ignore her ex, who is inconveniently around. Mysterious old man with family issues. Vaguely supernatural young child with a heart of gold and family issues. The old woman full of wonderful local knowledge but with a secret and a heart condition. In spite of this, somehow the combination turns out to be surprisingly compelling. You do begin to feel interested in the characters, even though you’ve read them in tens of different combinations already.

Does the interest come from the fact that it’s based around the timeless mystery of the Lost Legion? Or from the fact it’s set in a place I know fairly well? Maybe, but that doesn’t make it any less of a good, or well written story.

Year of a Hundred books – #27 HHhH

HHhHHHhH, by Laurent Binet


Wow. I absolutely loved this book. It’s also caused me to fundamentally rethink a number of key philosophies about historical novels.

Because HHhH is most emphatically not historical fiction. In fact, it’s not fiction at all. Binet explicitly states that he finds the concept of creating fictional characters, dialogue and situations excessively vulgar (Here taking a cue from another author whose work I’ve loved; Milan Kundera), and thus in his depiction of the assasination of the SS second in command Reinhard Heydrich, Binet includes nothing that isn’t historically verifiable. (That said, the historian in me notices he rarely cites his sources academically!)

This leads to an interesting novel that is at times more concerned with the authorial process of research, editing, and at times, obsession over the topic, than it is with the topic itself.

It’ll be interesting to see how Binet follows this up, and indeed whether the book is sincere, or if the ‘author’ we read about in the book, is actually a constructed persona instead of reflecting Binet’s actual beliefs.

Either way, I cannot recommend this enough!

Year of a Hundred books – #26 The Blade Itself

>The Blade ItselfThe Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie


Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy often features on lists of the best current fantasy you really absolutely should be reading, but thus far I’ve given it a miss. When stranded in Derby with an hour to wait for my train and no book to read, it was the only thing I could find on the Kindle store that appealed, so I decided to give it a shot. It didn’t take long for me to get absolutely hooked. Apart from having to get onto the train, and then to hand over my ticket to the conductor, I don’t think I looked up from the book until the train arrived in Edinburgh. I then didn’t move off the sofa the next morning until I’d finished it.

There are a number of sub plots within the book, each following specific characters, all of which collide into a glorious mess right at the end setting up a cliffhanger for the next novel. As fantasy worlds go, it’s quite typical, but also quite enjoyable. It has a mysterious history, a not entirely explained magic system, a foppish nobility, barbaric frozen north and a desert-like south, a corrupt political establishment, and a threat to the very safety of the world that nobody is paying attention to because they’re all too concerned with their politics.

But all’s well, because the Night’s Watch are poised to protect Westeros from the Trollocs coming out of the Blight.

Wait… What?

So we come to the main problem with The Blade Itself, which is that no matter how enjoyable it is to read, or how well written the prose is, the plot and characterisation feels much more like a collection of all the most common tropes of modern fantasy, rather than anything particularly new. I’m not saying this ruins the book; as I say, I loved reading it, and at the end there are hints that things are going to take a different direction in the next book. I just wish that this had come a bit earlier in the book.

Year of a Hundred books – #25 Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang

Where Late The Sweet Birds SangWhere Late The Sweet Birds Sang, by Kate Wilhelm


As with The Teleportation Accident, I picked up this books because it was featured on a display table in my local Blackwells’. This time, it was a collection of the SF Masterworks series. What stuck out most about the book was the fact it was written by a female author, something that I’ve found disappointingly lacking in Science Fiction.

At the start of the book, global society is collapsing, and humanity is on the brink of extinction, and only one (inexplicably) wealthy and scientifically knowledgeable family have the foresight to see a possibility for survival. Now, if it wasn’t for the fact the blurb and the cover gave away the twist, I don’t know how long it would have taken me to work out that it was Cloning, because they’re already quite far through the scheme before it become evident what they’re doing. It’s never referred to openly, and is introduced first as simply a way of providing food in a world where everything is becoming sterile; it could technically just be a form of IVF or any number of other things. There is a little but of moralising, but in comparison to what you might expect, it’s actually treated as being a necessity that isn’t up for debate.

What’s most exciting about the story however is the fact that the second section takes place long after the “real humans” have all died, and instead focuses on the society the clones have set up, and their own attempts at surviving. There’s a lot of outright rejection of the past, and a bit of murkiness in regard to those few people who are still “born”, but at the heart, it’s frighteningly similar to societies constructed in many other dystopian novels: no real independent thought, community over the individual, and many similar tropes.

There’s plenty more I could say about it, but I’d rather leave it at that and let people decide from themselves. What I will say is that I found the end rather disheartening. It was quite predictable, and while the specifics were interesting, it did feel much like an outright rejection of transhumanism and embracing of human nature. Is that worth criticising? Probably not, but I still felt let down, considering how much I liked the rest of the book.