Book Review: Spartacus: Swords and Ashes by J.M. Clements

Hi there!

Swords and sandals. Political intrigue. Betrayal. Each of these describes some quality of the common perception of the Roman Empire. Whether you buy into this popular perception or prefer the drier, more factual approach to nearly a millennium of history, Rome’s influence can be felt to the present day. Just ask the producers at Starz. Spartacus: Blood and Sand started in January 2010 on their pay cable network and was watched by an estimated 3 million viewers its premiere weekend. Since then it has aired two more seasons – a prequel Spartacus: Gods of the Arena in 2011, and Spartacus: Vengeance in 2012.

The success of the Spartacus series has spawned a new series of novels based in the hero’s world of Rome – Spartacus: Swords and Ashes by J.M. Clements is the first – which brings Spartacus to the funereal games in Neapolis for a friend of Batiatus named Pelorus. Pelorus was murdered by a slave in his own house, the tattooed Getae witch named Medea who must pay for her crimes. Batiatus soon finds himself in the middle of a political bout between Gaius Verres, the soon-to-be governor of Sicily and a young Cicero from home hot on the trail of new prophecies of Rome.

Honestly I wasn’t sure what to think of the book at first. I watched the first episode of Spartacus: Blood and Sand and quickly decided that the stylized blood and combat was not my cup of tea back in 2010. I was sad to hear of star Andy Whitfield‘s battle with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and the fact that he eventually lost the battle. The series has lived on however with Liam McIntyre in the lead role along with the rest of the cast – John Hannah (The Mummy) as Quintus Lentulus Batiatus, Lucy Lawless (TV’s Xena: Warrior Princess) as Lucretia his wife, Viva Bianca as Ilithyia, and many more.

Swords and Ashes captures some of the backhanded double-dealing I would expect in the Rome of “Et tu, Brute?” of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, as well as the foul treatment of slaves and the quickly-changing-fortunes of competitors in the arena. And once the second half of the book took off, it was a sprint to the finish. The first half was a bit of a slog for me, considering my lack of experience with the TV series itself, but Clements manages to keep things moving enough that even non-fans like myself can enjoy the book.

And it was really Clements’ imagery that kept me reading throughout… “The snow-covered ground became a clash of pinks and crimsons, darkening with the death of the day, not from the sunset, but from life-blood splashed in torrents. Warm steam rose from the ground, creating an unearthly mist, as if the surviving warriors were surrounded by the departed souls of their fellows.”

If you are a fan of Spartacus, the series, or simply looking to add a bit more swords-and-sandals to your reading pile, Spartacus: Swords and Ashes manages to capture a bit of the glory of Rome and the spectacle of the arena with words!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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Book Review: The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe

Hi all!

It’s been a while since I was motivated by a new author to read an entire book in the space of only a few hours over a couple of days. But it’s always an unexpected joy when it happens. The magic of being transported not only to new places or times, but new ways of thinking, is impossible to ignore.

Let me start at the beginning, but from a different direction than you might expect. Thankfully I was born into a family that not only appreciates music, but likes to play and sing together or apart. My mother played piano before her hands were twisted by rheumatoid arthritis. My father still plays guitar – a twelve-string Fender acoustic – with an ability to pick rich melodies from those taut skinny wires. And my sister and I played saxophones, guitars, and piano (she more than I). Between the occasional rag on piano, jazz or concert band practice, and a million folk songs on guitar, there was live music at my house pretty much every day.

That childhood of music has served me well long into my adult years and I still play my guitar occasionally and sing with my daughters, my wife, and the rest of my family at the occasional gathering. More than that, I’m always listening to music new and old. And over time I’ve gained a perpetual soundtrack running through my head with a mix of tunes from musicals, bluegrass melodies, folks songs, rock bands, a cappella voices, jazz licks, movie soundtracks, and much much more.

Why the long reveal about my musical childhood? The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe shows an appreciation for a life of music I’ve rarely seen in fiction, let alone urban fantasy from a new author. And Bledsoe’s tale weaves the magic of ancient songs and lyrics seamlessly into a world both touched and untouched by modern sensibilities and dangers. Most of those involved in the story are from a group of folks known as “The Tufa” – a secretive group living in the Appalachians. Though the question “Who are the Tufa?” is asked multiple times and eventually answered, how the reader gets to the answer is more important than the destination…

The story is about Private Bronwyn Hyatt, her immediate family, and their extended relatives in Needsville, Tennessee. Bronwyn returns from Iraq after surviving a horrific attack and heroic rescue, but her wounds need healing both outside and in. And as she returns to some sense of normal as muscle and flesh knit in the home she grew up in, she realizes there’s more going on she’s going to have to deal with. Can she figure out what the “haint” (ghost) wants her to do so she can avoid its ill portents of a death in her family? Can she find her song and learn to play her mandolin again so she can learn her mother’s song? Can she rediscover herself in the context of Tufa ways?

And tied into all of this are other characters. Craig Chess, a Methodist preacher, is trying to make inroads into Bronwyn’s community instead finding a solid resistance to outsiders. Dwayne Glitterman, Bronwyn’s former flame and bad-boy on a path to ruin. And newspaper reporter Don Swayback, asked to get an interview with Bronwyn the war hero, who starts to discover deep personal connections to the people of the town of Needsville he never knew existed…

Alex Bledsoe’s rich, nearly poetic prose in The Hum and the Shiver captured me at page one and didn’t let me go to the end. If you are a fan of urban fantasy, this is a book you need to add to your list today. There are secrets ancient and wild waiting for you to discover, and I enjoyed every moment.

The Hum and the Shiver hits shelves September 27, 2011, and I can hardly wait to see what’s next in the series from Bledsoe. For more about Bledsoe, check out his website.

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org. here.

–Fitz

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Book Review: Wildcase: A Rail Black Novel by Neil Russell

Hi again!

A little over a year ago I read a novel from a first time novelist, Neil Russell. City of War was a well-written thriller in the vein of Robert Ludlum and Clive Cussler with a bit of the pulp of Elmore Leonard. It pulled together an appreciation for Hollywood, art, history, and intrigue that blew me away.

So when Russell asked if I’d review Wildcase, his follow-up to City of War, how could I possibly refuse? Especially when the new book ratchets up the intensity of City of War to eleven.

Where City of War focused mostly on the present day, with a bit of history thrown in, Wildcase relies much more on political intrigue and mystery in the present with a whole plot woven through it based in the events of the past. But don’t worry, Rail Black still kicks some serious ass with a bombshell at his side.

Where Hollywood and the California coast were central to the first book, Wildcase offers an interesting view of Las Vegas. Though I’ve been to Vegas personally a couple of times, even if I’m on a casino floor I’m as far from the high roller tables as I am from the moon. Rail Black knows people in high places and gets more than a touch of preferential treatment. And he knows how to handle those high rollers.

But more than that, Wildcase is a thriller with strong social commentary woven throughout. Sometimes the United States seems to pay lip service to a number of injustices around the world, from hunger, animals hunted to extinction, and war to entire generations murdered or sold into slavery. Individuals and particular organizations do what they can to save those they can, but there’s only so much they can do. When the authorities turn a blind eye to inhumanity it’s a bad thing for everybody.

In Wildcase, Russell introduces us to a group of characters who did what was right during World War II and saw it spiral wildly out of control over the next 60 years. It’s much more than a cautionary tale about good intentions however…

Even with the social commentary, this book has the same tight writing, great story, and pacing that keep you guessing at how the pieces fit together. It kept me turning pages more than a few nights wondering how everything would come together at the end. And it does come together in a spectacular ending.

If you like thrillers, give Wildcase from Neil Russell a shot. And if you haven’t read City of War yet, I’d encourage you to pick it up as well. Both are available in paperback or for the Kindle at Amazon.

I can hardly wait to see what’s next from Russell!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.
–Fitz

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