A Year in Books – December

Eagle in the Snow – Wallace Breem
Hero of Dreams – Brian Lumley
The Duel – Joseph Conrad
Jerusalem – Cecelia Holland

 

EAGLE IN THE SNOW – WALLACE BREEM
A sweeping, stirring story of the last days of Rome, Eagle in the Snow focuses on Paulinus Gaius Maximus, an ageing but brilliant soldier charged with defending the Empire’s borders against Germanic ‘barbarians’.

Given just a single legion, and battling corruption, indifference and the hostility of the very people he has been sent to protect, Maximus finds himself in an impossible situation, one which through force of will he manages to turn to his own advantage – for a little while at least – until winter comes and the Rhine freezes over.

On the one hand, Eagle in the Snow works as a straightforward adventure tale, there are battles and betrayals aplenty – from the crumbling Hadrian’s Wall to the shores of the Rhine, and Maximus himself is a sympathetic hero, a pagan in a world where Christianity is beginning to replace the old gods and the old ways. On the other, Breem gives this world a twilight resonance, filled with passion and real emotion, bringing his characters to life with spare yet elegant prose and never allowing the story to fall into the simple trap of ‘Romans good, barbarians bad’ (or vice versa).

Maximus, both as narrator and central figure of the novel, is a tragic figure, a pagan who still believes in the old gods, fiercely loyal to a city he has never seen and to his own ideals of honour and duty. The supporting cast are no less well rendered, from the bitter Roman outcast Julian to the leaders of the ‘barbarians’ whose desire is not for conquest but for the safety and security of their people.

Epic in scope, yet human in detail, Eagle in the Snow is a wonderful piece of historical fiction.

 

HERO OF DREAMS – BRIAN LUMLEY
Taking Lovecraft’s Dreamlands as his playground, Brian Lumley’s Hero of Dreams is the first in a series of novels and short stories featuring David Hero and Eldin the Wanderer, two sword-swinging adventurers who ply their trade in the world beyond sleep.

Commissioned to steal a powerful wand, their quest leads to evil sorcerers, dark gods, beautiful women, a sentient and worldy-wise tree and, of course, swordfights in abundance.

Cast in the mould of Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (or more accurately, as Brian Lumley has said elsewhere, Hope and Crosby) Hero of Dreams is a fun slice of sword and sorcery and Hero and Eldin are amiable, entertaining companions for the book’s short length.

 

THE DUEL – JOSEPH CONRAD

 

A novella rather than a novel, The Duel (aka Point of Honour) is the story of two French officers – Feraud and D’Hubert – and the series of duels they fight both during and after the Napoleonic Wars.

The origin of their feud is a petty one, but attains an almost mythic significance both for the characters and in the narrative, echoing the notion that a fanatic is ‘one who redoubles his effort when he has forgotten his aim.

Ranging from Spain to Russia to France to the fateful battle of Waterloo and beyond, The Duel is a psychological masterpiece, delving into the folly of mankind and dissecting twisted notions of honour and loyalty.

 
JERUSALEM – CECELIA HOLLAND
My last novel of 2015 is another work of historical fiction. Jerusalem, as might be implied by the title, is a novel of the crusades, set just prior to the launch of the Third Crusade and culminating in the battle of Hattin.

I’ve been aware of Cecelia Holland’s work and reputation for a while now, but Jerusalem is the first of her novels I’ve read. It won’t be the last.

Powerfully written, with vibrant characterisation and an evocative sense of place, it is a immersive read filled with bloody battles, intrigue and doomed love.

The central character, Rannulf Fitzwilliam – a Templar Knight also known as Saint – is a tragic hero fit to stand with the best of them. Driven by lust and rage but striving to keep his vows to God (poverty, chastity and obedience) he is the engine that drives the story. But at the same time the other major characters – in particular the Leper King Baudouin, his ambitious sister Sibylla, the Templar Grand Master de Ridford and the Templar knights Mouse, Bear and Felx – are equally as skilfully realized.

Grim and violent in parts, tender and romantic in others, and with a heart-wrenching climax, Jerusalem is violent, bloody and brilliant.

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