I’ve been waiting for this book since I read the first book in Stephenson’s Byzantium series back in 2018. And was it ever worth the wait. After setting the stage in The Porta Aurea, with the rise of the Emperor Isaac, Stephenson has events play out in dramatic fashion. It may seem odd to describe a historical fiction book as a political thriller, but at times that’s almost what this feels like. It’s that fast-paced and exciting.

Once again, the book is told from the perspective of Anna Dalassena, wife of John Comnenus, Emperor Isaac’s brother. The initial optimism they feel at Isaac donning the purple subsides quickly as they realize the extent of the mess he’s inherited. Misfortune follows misfortune, and soon Isaac is unable to serve, presenting John with an opportunity to reign.

This is a key episode in the book that I want to focus on, because John is presented with an opportunity to take power and turns it down. Anna resents this more than a little, not least because John’s refusal allows the contemptible Constantine Ducas to be installed as Emperor, with the help of the scheming bureaucrat Michael Psellus.

On the one hand, it’s hard to argue with John’s honest assessment that he would not be a very good emperor. He’s a decent, hard-working, well-meaning guy, but not ambitious or particularly suited to thinking on a grand scale. You’ve got to applaud him for knowing his own limits, and for not being easily goaded into taking power, which has well-known corrupting tendencies.

On the other hand, though… Anna makes the valid point that while John probably wouldn’t be a great emperor, it’s hard to imagine he could be worse than Constantine Ducas, a longtime enemy of Anna’s family as well as a generally horrible person. Given that John’s refusal to take his brother’s place results in Ducas taking the throne, there is a strong argument to be made that a sense of duty should have compelled John to take power, if only to prevent it from falling into the hands of someone even less suited to it.

Much has been written about the nobility of refusing power, and no doubt there is something to that; but there is also a sense in which taking power can be a sacrifice, which must be made to prevent worse abuses. After all, someone has to rule the Byzantine Empire. Is it better if it’s ruled by a stolid if unimaginative soldier, father, and husband, or a ruthless, abusive maniac? Something to ponder.

In any case, Ducas rules for a time, but eventually he dies and is replaced with his son, the Emperor Michael, who is only a teenager and in no way ready to assume the duties of Emperor. Thanks to Anna’s clever gamesmanship and political maneuvering, an extremely capable soldier named Romanus Diogenes rules as “co-emperor” and leads many successful campaigns against the Turks, who are continually harassing the edges of the Empire.

Romanus Diogenes is a brave and honest man who is, unfortunately, a bit too naive about the realities of politics. Once again, Psellus and another Ducas, (John, Constantine’s brother) conspire against him to reassert their power.

The whole book is a gripping tale of political intrigue, shifting alliances, backstabbing and maneuvering for power.  I’d call it Machiavellian, except Machiavelli wouldn’t be born for a few centuries yet, so that seems inappropriate. But I think that gives you a good idea of what I mean.

Through it all, Anna is a likable and interesting narrator. She, and other women, may not often have held direct power during this period, but they had all sorts of ways of influencing events behind the scenes.

I’m really impressed by how vivid Stephenson makes everything feel. Too often, when I read historical fiction, I feel like I’m just watching cardboard cutouts go through prearranged motions to arrive at a foregone conclusion.  Not with this book. It all felt immediate and real.

And one more word about that sneaky character Michael Psellus. He’s such an archetypal figure; the amoral administrator who somehow survives every regime change, largely because he knows where all the bodies are buried. He makes me think of Talleyrand, or, for fans of Brit-coms, Sir Humphrey Appleby. There’s no doubt he’s a snake, and yet I have a grudging sort of admiration for his persistence and resilience.

Psellus, by the way, was a real person and in fact wrote a book, from which comes much of our knowledge about the Byzantine empire during this period. I have not read his whole book. (Stephenson has, though, and she has written about Psellus on her blog, which you should read after you read her book.) But I have read the parts of it which correspond to the events in Imperial Passions.

Naturally, Psellus paints a very different picture of events than that described above. But then, he would, wouldn’t he?

Which telling should we trust, Stephenson’s or Psellus’s? Ah, well, my friends; that’s the fun of history, isn’t it? There are names and dates that we can all study and memorize, but beyond that, it’s really all about interpretation to weave a compelling story out of all these dry facts.

One thing I can say with certainty is that Stephenson has woven a masterful tale in her latest book, and I heartily recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction.

[Audio version of this review available below.]

Before I actually review the book, I have to share the story of how I found out about it. Recently, Peter Martuneac introduced me to the book website Shepherd. While reading about Shepherd and its founder, Ben Fox, I came across this interview Fox did with Phil Halton, which led me to poking around Halton’s site, which is how I discovered this book.

I’m telling you this story to illustrate (1) that Shepherd is cool and you should use it and (2) how I find books, which is generally to read a lot of authors’ blogs and pick the ones I stumble across.

But okay, so what is the book about? It’s a novel set in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Soviet occupation. It follows a mullah who runs a madrassa in a remote and rural part of the country. The mullah struggles to instruct his students in Islam all while defending them, and the residents of the nearby village, from marauding bandits and brutal warlords who continually terrorize them.

The Mullah is a fascinating character: intelligent, wise, but also very harsh, and strictly adhering to the fundamental precepts of his religion. At times he seems quite sympathetic, at other times downright heartless; but no matter what, it’s hard to doubt his conviction.

Some of his students are dutiful and faithful, others are impulsive and reckless. But of course, one feels for all of them, growing up as they are in this brutal and war-torn environment.

This book is incredibly dark, and while it is a novel, there can be little doubt that events similar to those described took place, which makes it all the harder to read. It is gritty, unsparingly realistic, and disturbing. And at the same time, Halton’s prose is beautiful and haunting, which makes it all the more unsettling.

It’s not an easy or comfortable read, but it does give a westerner such as myself a great deal of insight into the recent history of Afghanistan, and how it came to be the way it is. Halton has also written a non-fiction history of the country, which I am considering reading as well.

This Shall Be a House of Peace is an unforgettable look at a region and a culture which, despite having been a focus of American geopolitical power for two decades, many of us know very little about.

[Audio version of this review available here.]

This was the first Burke book I heard of, but as it’s the second in the series, I had to read the first installment, Burke in the Land of Silver. I loved it, and eagerly anticipated reading this one.

A bit of background: Burke is like a Napoleonic-era James Bond. (I actually think he’s more like Patrick McGoohan’s “Danger Man,” but hardly anyone remembers that series.) A spy for the British who monitors and sabotages the activities of Britain’s main geopolitical enemy, France.

Unlike Land of Silver, which was based on the true story of the real James Burke, Burke and the Bedouin is a fictionalized account, though most of the major events, such as Napoleon’s army clashing with the Bedouin and the Mamelukes, and the climactic Battle of the Nile, are real, and it is no doubt true that Britain would have had men like Burke present in Egypt.

The book is a bit faster-paced than the first one, and it seemed like there were fewer characters. That’s not a negative, though; just a difference in style. This felt more like an old-fashioned desert adventure story, compared with the political intrigue and machinations of the previous entry. Fortunately, I love a good desert adventure, so that’s all to the good.

And like the previous book, there are definitely times when you have to question just who you should be rooting for. Burke is a very likable protagonist, with a clear sense of personal honor and bravery, so he seems like a straight-up hero… but then you get a scene of him torturing a young French surveyor for information, or spreading sensational lies about the French among the Bedouin. Of course, he’s not doing this randomly–he’s a soldier, in a war. Ugly stuff happens, and people just have to deal with it.

The book does a great job of conveying the sheer brutality of the era. It’s easy to romanticize the Napoleonic wars, especially if you learn it as the history of dashing, larger-than-life figures like Nelson, Wellington, and of course, the Corsican himself. The everyday reality of it was much nastier, and this book captures that well.

If you enjoyed the first one, this book is a worthy sequel. And while it is true this would work as a standalone book, I would strongly recommend reading them in order. Fans of historical fiction, spy thrillers, and adventure books alike should all check out the Burke series.

This is a re-telling of the Ancient Greek myth of Perseus, son of the God Zeus, and his quest to slay Medusa. It’s told in a light, witty style, which readers of Pastore’s first novel, The Devil and the Wolfwill certainly enjoy.

Along the way, Perseus meets with various other of the Ancient Greek gods, including Hermes and Athena, and more than a few monsters. And as befits a hero’s journey, he grows from an unsure, often impulsive boy into a brave and wise hero.

I knew next to nothing about the myth of Perseus when I read this book. After finishing it, I looked it up, and in fact, Pastore has hewed fairly closely to the myth. He explains in his afterword that, while many modern re-tellings change things up, i.e. making the confrontations with the monsters more “Hollywood,” (my word, not his) he wanted to be faithful to the source material.

But while he does a fine job at following the ancient story’s plot, there’s still no question it’s a Pastore book, through and through. Fans of The Devil and the Wolf will hear the echoes of Meph and JR in Perseus’s banter with the gods, and the ending, while true to the original myth, has a poetic irony to it that is perfectly in keeping with the overall tone of the book. If you don’t already know the myth of Perseus, then please don’t look it up before reading this. My ignorance of it made the ending that much better.

But even if you are an expert on Greek mythology, you should still read this. Pastore’s treatment of the story is witty and humorous. It fits perfectly with the overall sensibility of the myth.

I picked this book up because it is set during the Boer War. How many books do you hear about set during the Boer War? I mean, of course, this isn’t the only one, but compared to the seemingly-endless army of books set during, say, World War II, it’s a relatively exclusive club. Come to that, how many people today even know what the Boer War was? It’s not something that gets a lot of attention. Maybe people find it, as one of my history teachers never tired of saying, “Boer-ing”?

Well, it was anything but! People lived and died and enjoyed triumphs and tragedies even before 1939, you know. Forgiven is concerned with telling the story of a young man’s experiences of all these. Richard Wilson is his name, a New Zealander who falls in love with the lovely Rachel Purdue. Rachel is a lovely girl who has had her reputation unfairly tarnished by gossip, which has left her without suitors in her hometown. She and Richard soon become engaged, but are forbidden by her family to marry immediately.

While waiting, Richard gets the not-so-bright idea to join up in the British Empire’s fight against the Boers in South Africa. Rachel, who is a bit sensitive and fearful of betrayal, is furious with him, as well she should be, for making this huge decision without consulting her. But, Richard has given his word, and has no choice but to keep it. And so he ships off to the Cape Colony.

In addition to fighting the Boers, he encounters a ruthless Prussian spy and a haughty English aristocrat, Lady Sarah. Initially, he and she despise one another–he sees her as a stuck-up noblewoman, she sees him as an uncouth commoner–but over the course of their time together, they come to have a mutual respect. I really enjoyed the way their relationship evolves.

That said, one aspect of it that did surprise me was the anachronistic language. I just can’t believe that a man of the 19th century, even one as admittedly rough-around-the-edges as Richard is, would refer to a woman the way he does. Oh, he might not like her, to be sure; he might very well resent being ordered about by such a pampered princess; but he wouldn’t express it the way modern folks do. At least, everything I’ve ever read of 19th century literature indicates to me he wouldn’t.

Now, using modern dialogue in historical fiction is a common stylistic choice, and it can work. But at times, the language did seem to be period-correct. And then something modern-sounding would pop-up. It was a bit jarring.

That said, much of the history feels authentic. The author is an expert on the firearms of the era, and gives the lengthy descriptions of the weaponry, which was quite interesting. Numerous historical figures of the period, including Walter Kitchener, Koos de la Rey, and a young Winston Churchill are all referenced throughout the tale.

Overall, it’s a very well-paced story of adventure and romance, and while the author keeps the pace moving briskly, he stops to indulge every now and again in some very evocative imagery. What I like best of all was how well fleshed-out even minor characters are; it made the whole thing feel very immediate and real.

A couple other minor things that didn’t quite work for me: there’s a sub-plot involving Rachel’s ne’er-do-well brother, which not only seemed unnecessary, but was especially jarring because it was told in the third person, when the majority of the book is in the first-person, from Richard’s perspective.

Also, there was at least one thing that seemed to be a stone-cold anachronism: at one point, there is a reference to a Zane Grey novel. As near as I can tell, the earliest of Zane Grey’s work was published in 1903, and the action in Forgiven ends in 1900. It’s hardly a central plot point, but it I noticed it all the same. Given how accurate the novel is in other respects, this was very strange, and made me wonder if I was missing something. If there are any experts on the period–or Zane Grey, for that matter–who can explain what’s going on here, I’d be very grateful.

Despite these minor reservations, I definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good adventure/romance, and wants something in an uncommon setting. Give it a try.

This is a Regency romance. Regency romance is a super-popular genre, which is why I made it my business to find a lesser-known indie Regency romance with only a few reviews. Because that’s how we do things here at Ruined Chapel.

To be clear, this book is more in the Regency Historical sub-category, in that the characters use many modern expressions and tend to behave more in accordance with present-day attitudes, without much care for the mores of the actual Regency period.

In other words, this book has sex scenes. Don’t go in expecting Jane Austen. It’s raunchy and fast-paced. Maybe it’s more accurate to call it a Regency sex comedy. 

And that’s not all. Penelope, the impulsive, stubborn heroine, moonlights as a highwayman when she’s not flirting with Lord Westfield, Duke of Burwick. There’s a subplot with smugglers and kidnappers that culminates in a violent showdown.

The book is fast-paced. Sometimes, it was so fast-paced I found It difficult to keep track of all the characters were and their motivations. It’s probably a good idea to keep notes on characters as they are introduced. Also, it has a trope that’s common in romance novels: two characters who are obviously going to end up together refusing to just admit they’re in love for no particular reason. This drives me nuts; but it’s so frequently used I guess romance readers don’t mind it. I wouldn’t want to marry somebody whose attitude towards me seemed to vary by the hour, but hey; that’s just me. 

Despite this criticism, the book is enjoyable. I think I’m right in saying the author doesn’t mean for it to be taken too seriously; hence the “funny” in the subtitle. There are some over-the-top scenes of bawdy, farcical humor that are quite enjoyable. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s still an entertaining tale with a bit of naughtiness to it.

On a technical note: there are a few typos throughout the book. It didn’t really bother me that much, but some readers are more sensitive to this sort of thing than others.

And it has to be said: I’m not normally one to read Regency romances. I’m nowhere near the target market for this book. And even I enjoyed it, despite its flaws.  Regency romance fans who like their tales to err on the silly side are sure to find it a treat.

This is a historical fiction novel set in the Napoleonic era. It follows British lieutenant James Burke, who is in Argentina as a “confidential agent.” A spy, in other words. While there, he assumes different identities of varying nationalities to worm his way into a position where he can learn the latest news.

With Napoleon’s power growing, the British are trying everything they can to undermine him, which includes taking an interest in Spanish-controlled Argentina. Burke allies with some freedom fighters to scout the land for a potential invasion by His Majesty’s forces.

Of course, this is a spy thriller, and Burke, like another famous literary spy with the initials J.B., is a ladies’ man, and soon is sleeping with Ana, the beautiful wife of a local merchant. Ana has all sorts of connections with major players in Argentinian politics, and in addition to their romance, provides Burke with useful information for plotting a British invasion.

But Burke also makes powerful enemies, including one who soon proves to be critical to the future of the nation. Amidst political machinations and the occasional bumbling of his own country’s military commanders, Burke finds himself having to improvise one plan after another to keep himself alive.

The book is engaging and fun. I know next to nothing about 19th-century South American politics, but the story and characters are so vivid it was easy to follow along with the plot. Williams’ descriptions of the terrain are excellent, making it easy to picture the caravans, troop movements, and other maneuvers in which Burke is involved.

There is also just the faintest element of the supernatural to the tale. At the very beginning and the very end, Burke has an unusual experience which makes him feel like a man guided by the hand of Fate. It’s very subtle, as is appropriate, but I liked the touch.

Burke is a supremely capable man, pragmatic and sometimes cold, though he can be swayed by feminine wiles. He occasionally pauses to reflect on the grim amorality of his work, as he manipulates events and people to further the aims of the British Empire.

In fact, if you read between the lines, while Burke may tell himself he is doing this to defeat the evil Corsican, in actual fact it’s hard not to see it as simply one more conquest by Britain. As best I can tell, l’Empereur was interested in South America solely to the extent it was a possession of Spain, with which he was allied. British foreign policy in the early 19th-century was that Bonaparte’s empire had to be destroyed, and the best way of doing that was to establish an even bigger empire, that happened to be owned by London. Convenient, eh?

But I don’t expect you to trust me on this point, dear reader. After all, I have been accused of harboring Bonapartist sentiments in the past. (I swear, the bust of him on my bookshelf is only there for aesthetic reasons!)

Read the book for yourself, and make your own judgments. Because, while Williams may take literary license now and then, the events are firmly rooted in historical fact. Like, James Burke was a real person. So was Ana, and so was the main antagonist of the book, whose name I’ll not reveal since it could be something of a spoiler.

As I read it, I kept thinking what a good film or TV series this book would make. I was picturing Patrick McGoohan in the role of Burke. Of course, even if we could use a time machine to offer the role to the late Mr. McGoohan, he would probably turn it down for much the same reason he did the role of 007. Alternatively, one could imagine Rowan Atkinson as Burke and Tony Robinson as his servant, William Brown, but that’s not quite the right tone…

But enough of this idle silliness! Read this highly entertaining book, and whatever conclusions you draw about Burke or the nation he serves, appreciate British military intelligence for all the amazing tales of espionage they’ve given us over the centuries.

51s-eBLPWELThis is a collection of four short stories, each set in rugged western landscapes, and each with an ironic twist to them. I learned about it from Pat Prescott and had to check it out. I love weird westerns, and these tales fit the bill perfectly. Each one is a short but memorable concept: An impatient mountain man becomes obsessed with a sinister crow. A would-be stagecoach robber experiences a stunning change in his fortunes. A hike in the mountains turns deadly. 

All these stories are good, but my favorite is “Hangin’ Tree’s Revenge.” This is the story with the strongest supernatural element, and the one that most clearly conveys the mood of a weird western. Frontier justice is never far off from outright revenge, and one feels that the desert is governed by mysterious forces that make little distinction between the two.

Anyone who likes supernatural stories with dark twists will enjoy these tales, and that goes double for people like me, fascinated with bleak desert landscapes. The landscape is very much a character in these tales, as in Bruce’s environmentalist novel Oblivion, and it’s a good way to get lost in the eerie desolation.

A Feast for SightThis is a short story set in Painter’s world of Osteria. Osteria is a sort of post-apocalyptic setting in which many of the Ancient Greek and Roman traditions and beliefs have been revived.

A Feast for Sight is a story that fits this setting well. It deals with three oracles, who tell their clients the future–for a price. What the price is, I won’t describe, but the sensitive reader should be warned that it is quite macabre; and increasingly so as the story unfolds. I have only a little knowledge of Greek drama, but this seems entirely in line with the usual tone of the classic stories. The Greek tragedies are full of gruesome and unsettling elements, and this story is full of the same.

It’s also rather funny, in a very dark way, obviously. Fans of twisted humor will certainly enjoy the ironic ending. It has a very Ambrose Bierce-esque approach to humor in that regard.

The book is available for free through Painter’s website by subscribing to her newsletter. It certainly is effective as a promotional device, because after reading it, I was quite eager to learn more about the world of Osteria. And as a rule, I am not someone who enjoys stories as dark as this, but I have to give credit where due–the premise is interesting enough that it made me want to read more. A Feast for Sight probably won’t be for everyone, but for those who enjoy classic literature and dark humor, it will be a treat.