Friday, 8 December 2017

Review: The Alexiad, by Anna Komnene

The edition I read was a Penguin Classics version, translated from Greek by ERA Sewter and revised with notes and an introduction by Peter Frankopan.

It’s a biography of the Alexius Komnenos, ruler of the Eastern Roman Empire and widely regarded as one of its best emperors. The history is written by his daughter Anna Komnene, and I think it’s the first history penned by a woman, certainly in Europe.

The biography doesn’t cover the entirety of Alexius’ life, beginning in the late 11th century with Alexius as a senior officer in the Roman army. From this point it describes him fighting rebels and himself rebelling (ostensibly to save his own life from potentially fatal court intrigues), becoming emperor and reigning for decades.

This was a particularly important shift for the Empire as it marked a (temporary) end to short-lived and rubbish emperors, with Alexius’ reign also coinciding with Robert Guiscard’s invasion of the Balkans and the First Crusade. Indeed, Alexius appears to have spent more time fighting with the Franks than the Turks.

I like the author’s writing style quite a lot. It’s more personal than most histories for obvious reasons (early on Anna Komnene refers to ‘her father’/‘my father’ an awful lot) but even when talking about others you get a sense of her character. At one point she refers to a man acting like a demi-god towards a demi-ass, and laments the decline in education thus:
‘Today it is the game of draughts that is all the rage – and other activities which contravene the law’

There is a defensive/apologetic note sometimes, with the author keen to stress that she is not biased and is being objective. There is some evidence to bear this out (she does not omit the fact that when Alexius took the throne his army looted much of Byzantium). The apologetic note slightly reminds me of the letter Machiavelli wrote to Lorenzo de Medici ahead of The Prince.

She does, however, have a penchant both for tangents and writing things out of order. Because of this, the notes are more useful in this history than perhaps any other, clarifying dates and suggesting when the author may be mistaken.

That personal aspect lends added poignancy to the description of her father’s demise which, dealing with a universal part of life, is as emotive today as it would have been when it was written nine centuries ago.

Things I dislike are relatively few. As always, endnotes are inferior to footnotes, and the translation includes a pet hate: the ‘firing’ of arrows. There are not many lacunas, save for the final few pages where they pepper the page and occasionally make it tricky to determine the meaning.

Probably clear at this point that I liked The Alexiad rather a lot. I’ve read a small number of other books that cover the period in less detail (John Julius Norwich’s excellent trilogy on Byzantium, and I’ve read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but can’t remember if he skipped Alexius [I think he covered the Komneni]). That extra context is useful but not essential for understanding the strategically difficult position the Empire was in, and the achievement of Alexius in restoring stability, prosperity and (mostly) victory to the ailing Empire.

The biography is strongly focused, as you would expect, upon the person and successes of Alexius, so other reading is not essential, and The Alexiad is well worth reading on its own.


Friday, 1 December 2017

Divisions in history

Right now, the UK is at an intriguing crossroads in its history, whereby whatever happens a very large proportion of the population will be quite cross (the middle ways of an associate membership of the EU or EFTA/EEA membership were not offered in Cameron’s renegotiation and were rejected by May, respectively).

However, whilst fringe lunatics on either side shriek and wail, and a great many in the middle would just like reason to prevail, it’s worth noting that this ideological polarisation is nothing new. And nor is it anywhere near as bad as it has been in the past.

If we go back about two and a half thousand years, there’s the Peloponnesian War. This was between democrats, led by Athens (ironic, given Athens had a maritime empire), and the oligarchs, led by Sparta. Perhaps because there aren’t overriding personalities like Hannibal and Scipio, the war is less well-known than some ancient conflicts. As well as inter-city rivalry (which is more serious than it sounds. In Greek xenos [root of xenophobia] referred to another Greek but who came from a different city [barbaros referred to a non-Greek]), there was the clash of ideals. Democracy inherently sounds better to us, but it’s worth noting the Athenians executed most of their best admirals after a successful naval battle.

Yes, you read that correctly. The admirals in question failed to retrieve Athenian bodies from the water (not an easy task) and were punished for this with death. Democracy and mob rule are not so very far apart.

Within other cities that weren’t as firmly rooted in either camp, rival factions of pro-oligarchy and pro-democracy thugs arose. Thucydides wrote of how nuance and being reasonable was seen as cowardice, and treacherous backstabbing, ambushing the enemy, was seen as the height of bravery. As well as the major battles and prolonged warfare, a huge amount of bitterness was kindled all across Greece. This was quite unusual as warfare generally is about seizing resources or trying to avenge a misfortune.

More recently, but still about a thousand years ago, Byzantium was in the throes of iconoclasm. There was a clash between traditionalist iconodules, who adored icons (sometimes too much), and iconoclasts, who wanted to smash them. Icons were venerated but sometimes to such an extent that one might be named a godparent. This reached such extremes that a backlash movement arose, intent upon destroying the icons, smashing the physical substance and restoring faith and worship to the intangible. Countless works of religious art were destroyed before, eventually, the furore died down and a sort of soft iconodule solution was reached.

Hundreds of years ago, in Italy/Germany, there was a religious and political clash between those who supported the Pope and those who supported the Holy Roman Emperor (arguably the least accurate title in history). The Guelphs supported the Pope, and the Ghibellines backed the Holy Roman Emperor.

The first so-called Holy Roman Emperor was Charlemagne, who was crowned by the Pope in Rome on Christmas Day 800AD. This was not a continuation of the (Western) Roman Empire, but in the same way that Latin was used by the Church long after the Empire fell and Russia once described Moscow as the Third Rome, the Roman Empire still loomed so large in the cultural memory that both the Pope and Charlemagne wanted to be associated with it.

Such closeness between emperor and pontiff was not always the case. Centuries later, sometimes for more political reasons than religious or philosophical ones, the Guelph and Ghibelline factions arose. Often, pro-imperial Ghibellines lived in places at risk of rising papal power, and pro-papacy Guelphs dwelt in areas at risk of waxing imperial authority (so they were frequently bound together not so much by love of the one they supported as fear of the one they did not).

And that has some relevance to the present day. Many in the UK both dislike the EU’s politics and drive to integrate, and dislike the thought of utterly going it alone. For some, it’s a question of what they dislike more, rather than what they strongly support.


Friday, 24 November 2017

Review: Game of Thrones series 5 (DVD)

Ahem, bit late this, but here’s my traditional review of the last Game of Thrones DVD set I watched. Finally got around to the fifth series. I’d heard mixed things about it, and coupled with a certain event at the end of series four (NB there will be spoilers for the fourth series after this) I was in two minds about it.

It’s also worth knowing that in some parts the TV series has now progressed beyond the books so if you want to read the plot before you watch it, you shouldn’t watch series five until you’ve read the next book.

Initially, the plot did feel a little slow. However, the unfolding of religious events in King’s Landing (which have a particular resonance now, I feel) was extremely well done, living up to the excellent storyline they formed in the books. Without the gradual build-up that plot line would not have had quite the same impact.

The increasing fatalism and horror in the North also had very good conclusions, although, again, it did start slowly.

Daenerys’ storyline remains trapped in Meereen, which is easily the most tedious part of the story. Happily, there are some bright spots which I shan’t spoil, but for the most part it’s all a bit bland.

Of all the plot lines, Arya's is the most isolated, with just one cross-over to the wider world. Fortunately, she's a charismatic character and helped by the return of an old 'friend'. Her sister, of course, continues to have a rough time of it (Game of Thrones could be subtitled "In Which Everything Goes Wrong For Sansa), but I am enjoying Sansa's very substantial character arc.

As is traditional with Game of Thrones, there is high stakes drama particularly at the end of the series, and this is no exception, with the series ending very strongly. Indeed, both episodes nine and ten have this quality, rather than (as has happened before) nine being full of bloodshed and ten mopping it up.

It might just be me, but after the fourth series (and the outcome of the Mountain bursting the Red Viper’s skull) the level of violence and sex does appear to have gone down a notch. Not for kids, of course, but not quite so harsh. I did miss Charles Dance as the menacingly magnificent Tywin Lannister.

As for extras, there are commentaries (often multiple for each episode), and other things. The commentaries, as always, vary quite a lot according to who’s chattering. In general, the later the episode the better the commentary.

The other extras include sections on new locations, as well as perhaps my favourite extra of any series so far: a look at historical inspirations for the characters and events of the programme.

Despite the prolonged gap, I’m glad I got this and rather liked it. Especially looking forward to seeing how future events unfold in the next series.


Friday, 17 November 2017

Some Art

As well as my many activities involving sitting in a chair, staring at a screen, I have a wildly different hobby of sitting in a chair, staring at a piece of paper. Not a great artist by any stretch, but I enjoy it, and I thought I’d have a crack at a few different types of drawing.

The process I use is to do a very faint pencil sketch, then go over with a darker pencil. Usually I put it through a BW filter to make it starker, although I chose to leave the first image just in pencil-and-paper form.

Some of these I previously posted on my Twitter account, MorrisF1.

Cat (and dog)

The cat mostly turned out well, although the legs are a little stumpy. It’s based on the guide in Mark Crilley’s Mastering Manga 3, which I can highly recommend. This was a lot easier than the more realistic dog tutorial in the same book, but, obviously, that took a lot longer, so swings and roundabouts. (Having mentioned it, I decided to add the dog as well).


This is based on a screenshot from the nocturnal desert region in Dragon Age: Inquisition. I wish I’d gone for a little more background detail, but am quite pleased with the sandy outline. So, not bad, but I should’ve added more stuff.


I was very much in two minds about including this. As I drew it, I liked this drawing of Triss Merigold from The Witcher 3 a lot. And then immediately afterwards I loathed it. Weirdly, I think the outline of the face (something I struggle with for ‘realistic’ faces quite a bit) looks ok, but the features just don’t seem to gel together.

France Map

Being into both history and fantasy, maps are an interesting thing to try and draw. Personally, I’m not fussed about them being included in books (details often get swallowed by the spine and the necessarily small size limits what you can show anyway) but as larger pictures I think they work well. Anyway, this is a pretty basic map. Coastline looks alright, not sure about the city symbols though. The larger collective forest in the south and the swamps in Brittany (NB I was just practising symbols, Brittany isn’t really a giant quagmire) turned out well, and were based on the WASD20 RPG map videos on Youtube. On the downside, this took quite a long time. Not as long as the reptile head with hundreds of scales, but quite a long time nevertheless.

Lion Crest

I was delighted with this. Based on William Marshal’s crest (deliberately low on detail beyond the outline), although I got the proportions a smidgen off and the paws/claws could be better, the basics worked very well. I was planning on doing another but mingling it with the style of the Lannister lion (from Game of Thrones) but then had a perhaps even more cunning plan for another lion. If that ends up working (I haven't started it yet) I'll put it up here and/or on Twitter.


Friday, 10 November 2017

Review: Angel’s Truth, by AJ Grimmelhaus

This took me a while to read, but that was due entirely to a rare bout of pestilence that lingered awhile.

Angel’s Truth is the first entry in the Angelwar series. Disclaimer: there is an ad for Kingdom Asunder (by me) in the back.

Tol Kraven is the chief protagonist, a youthful monk sent on an urgent mission to protect the Truth (hence the title) and deliver a message/warning to a convent. He’s quite likeable, when he isn’t falling off a mountain, trained to kill and capable of being decisive (although not necessarily wise).

The other main perspective is that of Katarina, the somewhat dubious daughter of a foreign ruler who may or may not be involved in nefarious business. She forms an odd couple with her terse bodyguard Stetch, a relationship which works well in a chalk-and-cheese sort of way.

Tol travels to try and shore up the church, which is under threat from mercenaries hired by a very dangerous puppetmaster. I always find assessing grimness quite difficult but this is not one for kids or the particularly squeamish, I would say, in terms of violence.

The writing style is easy-to-read and fast-paced which, coupled with the small chapter size, meant I often ended up reading more than intended. Protagonists are likeable and distinctive, and I like the world-building, which is extensive but gradually revealed so there isn’t a wall of info-dumping to leap over.

I particularly enjoyed the first half, when the protagonists were largely separate and much of the plot was deliberately shrouded in uncertainty as to who was trustworthy and who wanted what. Although these separate threads were tied together neatly, the mystery was enjoyable.

On the downside, a little more editing to make certain parts slightly more concise would’ve been beneficial (nothing atrocious, just some cases where two lines were used but one would do).

All in all, an enjoyable, fast-paced fantasy adventure with spies, treachery, and the odd angelic intervention. Well worth a look.


Saturday, 4 November 2017

Review: Ancient Egypt on Five Deben a Day, by Donald P. Ryan

This small book, around 140 pages or so, takes the reader on a voyage through the Egypt of Ramesses II, around 1250 BC.

The approach taken is literally in the form of a journey, with some general chapters about Egyptian attitudes to foreigners (they’re quite xenophobic) naturally flowing to the religious reasoning (they think they’re especially blessed by the gods) and social observations. From there, the book takes the reader from entry to Egypt on the likeliest route (up the Nile), which has the happy coincidence of working both as a tour guide and summary of recent history due to the grand temples and burial sites (some maintained, others very deliberately abandoned) that dot the landscape.

Despite its quite small size, the book is crammed with interesting information written in an intelligent but light-hearted tone (those who have read any of the Unofficial Manuals will find it pleasantly familiar).

Ancient Egypt is not my usual fare, and this is my first history of the place. As such, it was filled with mostly unfamiliar terms (Hyksos, Nubians) although fellow watchers of Stargate: SG-1 will find many of the god names familiar. The book works very well for a complete novice of the period, and I never felt lost historically or geographically. Indeed, the author did a really good job effortlessly mingling historical snippets with the journey south along the Nile.

There are numerous small illustrations throughout, as well as two sets of glossy colour pictures including Egyptian art and impressive temple scenes. A couple of maps are at the back, along with some handy Egyptian phrases (such as “Egypt is much better than my wretched homeland”) and a concise list of the most important gods and their characters.

All in all, an entertaining, informative and interesting book that serves perfectly as an introduction to Ancient Egypt.


Monday, 30 October 2017

Review: Pillars of Eternity (PS4)

I recently finished my first playthrough of Pillars of Eternity. I played on Easy (default difficulty), did some side-quests, completed the Caed Nua (fort/home sub-storyline) but this was not a completionist playthrough. Obviously there are some spoilers within but I’ve kept them as light and possible and don’t believe they compromise the story significantly.

Character Creation

There’s a huge degree of choice here, which affects both combat and roleplaying. As well as both genders, there are six races, each with at least one subtype, eleven classes (I erroneously said thirteen in my early impressions blog), customisable attribute stats and numerous background options.

Of the races, there are the fantasy staples of men, elves and dwarves, along with the unique aumaua (reptilian beefcakes), orlans (pointy-eared midgets), and godlikes (who look a bit freaky). The classes include standard fare (rangers, fighters, rogues etc) and some more unusual options (ciphers, chanters etc).

The only real downside to character creation is that there are so many options it can be hard to pick what to go for.


The protagonist begins as part of a caravan headed for Gilded Vale, where the local lord has offered a good deal for new settlers. However, the protagonist has fallen ill, and so camp is made beside some ruins. What could possibly go wrong?

After the wrongdoing occurs, the player learns their character has become a Watcher, able to see into people’s past lives. It’s a bit freaky, and you continue on your journey to find out more…

The game is text- and lore-heavy. Personally, that’s not a problem (although it is a little overdone early on) but for some people this will be off-putting. One thing that did irk me was that there’s a lot of voice-over but sometimes (in the same conversation) the voice will be absent entirely and it’ll be just text, which is a little jarring.

I found five (there are more, it seems) companions on my playthrough, and each was distinctive both in combat and story terms. They’d have banter together, interject into my own conversations, and sometimes you can take them aside for a chat. They’re a good little crew, each with their own motivations and character.

World-building is extensive, and if you want to delve into it there is extra information (both lore and gameplay relevant) in the bestiary, as well as an encyclopaedia of information about gods and so forth.

As for the central plot, it hangs together well whilst allowing plenty of scope for side-questing. I don’t want to say too much. I did enjoy it, though here and there the twists were a little easy to see coming.


Combat is real time but can be paused easily and commands given to each party member (including animals following rangers, or summoned beasts). There’s a nice array of interesting commands that enable magical or physical effects and make, as usual, a balanced party more than the sum of its parts.

One thing that was absent which would’ve improved things was tactics. You can set a basic disposition for companions but you can’t pre-set tactical commands (as per FFXII or Dragon Age: Origins). On the upside, you can determine one or two customised formations, putting your beefcakes on the front row and having the weedy wizards at the back.

Combat isn’t scaled, so enemies have a certain toughness. If you wander into an area that’s beyond you, you will know, as the enemy sets about transforming your party of adventurers into worm food. There also isn’t random combat (you can sneak past enemies sometimes, if you like) and once you kill all enemies in an area, that’s usually it and they’ll be gone forever.

Experience is granted both for combat victories and advancing quests, and proceeds on an increasing basis (so, 1,000 xp for one level, then 2,000, then 3,000 etc) so the rate of levelling declines over time. I was level 10 when I finished the game, but I suspect it would’ve been possible to get significantly higher.

There is crafting of potions, cooking of food and enchanting of weapons and armour but this isn’t given a particular introduction (check the bottom of the inventory menu) and I missed it for some time. Good incentive to collect shiny rocks and magic weeds, which take up no inventory space.

If party members are knocked out (and they can be killed permanently but this is easy to head off) they acquire injuries that damage their stats, and if they’re tired much the same occurs. Both fatigue and wounds can be removed by resting either at a camp (camping supplies are limited, you can’t lug around 20 odd) or an inn. These rests can also confer bonuses, so paying for the swankiest room at the inn can be well worth it.

As well as a number of fleshed out party members, you can also make your own at any inn. Especially useful for higher levels when getting the balance just right will matter more.

Whether you fix up the fort of Caed Nua or not is up to you. There is a related quest line, and certain features offer resting bonuses or other advantages (I particularly enjoy the bounty tasks).

Away from combat the gameplay focuses upon the numerous decisions the protagonist makes. These vary a lot by choice (being nice or nasty etc), and by unique opportunities your particular race, class, background might afford. This gives a real sense of your adventure being a unique one rather than running through the exact same routine every time you play. In most RPGs nowadays, decisions that change things are actually pretty rare. Here, they seem to happen in pretty much every quest.


The isometric view can’t be rotated but you can zoom in or out and the camera is rarely problematic. The nature of the game doesn’t place the emphasis on graphics, but they’re clean enough, and I like the style of art used in the rare ‘cut-scenes’ (parchment with ink drawings and options to do this or that) and bestiary. Functional and fine would be the way I’d put it.


The music practically oozes fantasy, sometimes reminiscent of Lord of the Rings, sometimes Final Fantasy or The Witcher 3. Sound effects are pretty good and voice-acting is generally strong. One quibble I’d have (and this might just be me, because I’m quite into voice-acting) is that sometimes you can tell when two characters have the same actor/actress and it makes my VA senses tingle (although it’s a long way from Oblivion…).


The game advertises itself as 70 hours. Not sure how long I spent, but I can easily imagine exceeding that amount. Varying difficulty settings, roleplaying opportunities, and some extra settings (like having your save file auto-delete if you die) certainly open up the possibility of multiple replays.

Bugs and Other Issues

I’ve mentioned a few things above and shan’t repeat them, but one I’d add would be that load screens are both frequent and long. Usually this sort of thing doesn’t bother me (Dragon Age Inquisition/Skyrim never made me gripe) but they are excessively long/frequent.

I only had the one freeze throughout, during a load screen, which isn’t too bad. So, loading aside, not much to complain about.


Some rough edges to sand off and polish, and if you dislike lore/text-heavy games then avoid this one, but if you like an in-depth story world with a great range of roleplaying opportunities then this is very much a game you should seriously consider buying.


Saturday, 21 October 2017

Review: Complete Works of Tacitus

The edition I got is by The Modern Library, 1942.

The vast majority of the book is the Annals (which covers almost all of the reigns of Tiberius, Claudius and Nero) and the History (which covers 69-70AD, a very tumultuous time). At the back there are shorter sections, namely a biography of Gnaeus Julius Agricola (Tacitus’ father-in-law), a summary of Germanic tribes, and a discussion about oratory.

This is my second reading of the book. I was a little less than enthused by the first. I didn’t dislike it, just felt a bit apathetic.

Upon a second reading, I did enjoy it. That’s not to say it rivals my favourites. Tacitus, a little like Thucydides, is unafraid of an eight clause sentence and sometimes this can lead to the meaning being difficult to grasp at first glance. However, he does his best to be objective, sometimes relating two varying accounts of the same event when he’s heard both and doesn’t know which to be true. The author also often indicates what he believes and if he has a firm reason for believing a certain account to be true.

The period of which Tacitus writes is almost entirely one of bad emperors. The exceptions would be the misled and personally naive Claudius, and Vespasian, whose rise to power came amid much bloodshed in the Year of the Four Emperors (69AD). Accordingly, the Complete Works is brimming with tyranny, treachery and civil war.

It’s also very interesting for watching how the remaining vestiges of republican authority (Tiberius being only the second emperor, after Augustus) faded. Amidst the dark days there are also examples of nobility (one man accused by Tiberius of being a friend of a fallen associate of the emperor replied that he could hardly be expected to be a better judge of character than the emperor himself, an unusual stroke of boldness that saw him go unpunished, a rarity for the time).

The period covered is similar to much of Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars, but is written in greater depth, and with more accuracy. A broadsheet to the Suetonian tabloid, if you like. Sadly, time has robbed us of certain portions (such as the final years of Nero’s reign) but it is mostly intact.

The Agricola biography is perhaps rather less objective, but nevertheless of interest as it covers campaigning in Britain. I enjoyed the discussion of Germanic tribes, particularly the praise Tacitus had for their monogamy. The final section, on oratory, was my least favourite, it must be said.

For early imperial Rome, this is a good set of works, particularly for the Year of the Four Emperors which is covered in some detail. Perhaps not the best book for an introduction to classical history, but for those who have read a bit already, it’s a worthwhile addition.


Friday, 13 October 2017

Medieval Taxation

Death and taxes are life’s only certainties.

In the UK today there are many taxes, but the big three are income tax, VAT (a sales tax that is widely but not universally applied), and National Insurance (effectively extra income tax, but I think pensioners don’t pay it).

None of these existed in the medieval world. Income tax was only brought in by Pitt the Younger as a temporary measure (ahem) to ensure we had sufficient funds to fight Napoleon.

How did medieval monarchs get the money necessary just to fund the day-to-day expenses of the state, as well as the huge sums essential for castle-building, going on crusade or that age old expense of war with France?

The king was the greatest landowner in the country, which meant he had, on a personal level, a vast income from rents and the like. However, this was not enough to cover significant expenditure. There were a range of smaller taxes and tolls (not all going to him directly) which I’ll mention below, but the quickest way to raise cash was a general levy on wealth.

This might be levied at a rate of a tenth of a man’s total assets. So, if you had £100 of goods, it’d be £10. Needless to say, this was not a popular thing. In fact, it could often be very, very difficult to get such a levy approved by the nobility and clergy (the degree to which their consent was legally required varied over the medieval period, but given how many rebellions there were it was never a good thing to repeatedly piss off your own nobles).

One of the reasons King John was and is so reviled is the amount he taxed. John, when not starving prisoners to death, was a devious taxman and worked out he could make a lot of cash without needing to curry favour with the nobility simply by hiking the fines for various transgressions. He did this to punitive levels, and mulcted huge sums from his people. He got a lot of money, and resentment, this way.

Edward I, the grandson of John, had a rather clever idea which worked very well for a number of years. The big export of England was wool, and Edward arranged for the customs to be handled by Italian bankers who, in return, ensured the king always had access to credit. It was mutually beneficial, as the bankers got steady income from a guaranteed source and the king could get ready cash very quickly whenever he needed it (until the bankers over-stretched themselves elsewhere and the arrangement collapsed, but that was hardly Edward’s fault).

Knighthood could be a punishment. This sounds odd, but knights were sometimes defined by wealth (an order might go out commanding every man worth £40 or more to turn up at a given time and place to be knighted). As knights, they’d be expected to fight for the king when required, for a certain length of time, and perhaps furnish a few soldiers themselves. Needless to say, many men were not taken with this idea. Scutage was a way around this problem. From the Latin ‘scutum’ (shield), the term means cash given in lieu of fighting, enabling the king to hire mercenaries and enabling the reluctant knight to avoid going to war. Once again, John got quite a lot of money this way (and yet more resentment).

There were also a number of tolls applied to pay for various things. Pontage was a toll for the repair and maintenance of bridges, stallage was a toll for stallholders in the market, pavage for roads, murage for walls and wharfage for, er, wharves.

It’s interesting that the medieval form of taxes focused on assets and specific actions. There was no attempt to tax income, and it’d be hundreds of years before income tax, now the mainstay of the tax system, came into being. The overall tax burden on people was generally low, but their overall prosperity also wasn’t great, healthcare was often actively harmful, and a bad harvest would see thousands die.

Of the two certainties, taxes were lower than today, but death was eminently more commonplace.


Friday, 6 October 2017

Common historical mistakes in TV and film

I’m not picking out specific films, just commenting on some historical inaccuracies which are common. Some have a film-making excuse (such as the lighting one), others are just plain wrong.

I’ve never used a bow, but I know that the war bows used (most famously by the English at Agincourt) in the medieval period were immensely powerful. So powerful, in fact, that a huge amount of training was necessary not merely for the skill aspect, but to have the physical strength necessary to draw one back. If an average modern man tried it, their skeleton would give way before the bow did.

Even if you were very strong, you would draw back and either loose immediately (for a high arc, aiming for a mass of men type shot) or pause very briefly to target a specific individual. You most certainly would not hold it whilst your buffoon of a commanding officer had hundreds of archers in agonising exertion because he decided to leave a huge gap between the words ‘draw’ and ‘fire’ [more on that below]. It’d be physically impossible, as well as immensely stupid.

Whilst we’re on bows, they aren’t ‘fired’. They aren’t firearms, there is literally no fire involved (unlike guns). They’re loosed or shot. This is a pet hate of mine (although it’s very easy to do it by accident, so it’s a bit more forgiveable than the idiotic idea of having men’s shoulders torn apart by needlessly holding back a fully drawn bow for half a minute).

Scots and woad do not mix. Woad was applied by Picts (the word is from the Roman name for them, the same root as the word ‘picture’, because the Picts were painted). The Scotti were a Hibernian (Irish) tribe that migrated to Caledonia, killing and conquering the Picts. As an aside, woad was antiseptic, and may’ve helped slightly with preventing wounds becoming infected.

An understandable inaccuracy relates to plate armour. Plate armour (beneath which would be mail and a quilted jacket that was, by itself, strong enough to sometimes prevent an arrow piercing the body) was bloody fantastic. Medieval knights shifted from the sword and shield to the two-handed sword because the armour was so good a shield was pretty much superfluous. Curved metal plates with mail and gambeson underneath rendered a knight almost impervious to attack (the longbow was something of an exception to this, and one reason French knights detested English archers). At Agincourt, an awful lot of French knights either drowned in mud or were stabbed in the skull (either through eye holes in helmets, or after having their helmets wrenched off). Getting through plate is a devil of a job. Something like a crow’s beak works relatively well but in a duel a sword would outclass such a top-heavy weapon.

However, in films you do have to kill and wound characters. Having everyone wander about in surprising safety would rather kill dramatic tension, so this is the most understandable inaccuracy. That said, stabbing’s the way to go if you want to knock off a knight in armour. Slash at him with a sword and you may annoy him by scratching his favourite breastplate, but bruised pride is about as far as the wound will go.

Battles often degenerate into mêlées, but this was generally not accurate. Whilst the medieval period didn’t quite have the strategy of the Greek and Roman world, tactics and battlefield deployments were not haphazard, nor did warfare regress to pre-Roman Celtic mayhem. Being together in a unit is advantageous. If you’re spearmen, you get a bristling hedge of steel to face the enemy, and a shield wall to confront their attack. If you’re archers, you get a cloud of arrows which is rather harder to avoid than just the one. Not only that, foot soldiers who are spread out are a horseman’s dream to destroy. In formation, foot soldiers can fend off cavalry with relative ease. Routed, infantry are target practice for horsemen.

There are also a number of little everyday inaccuracies, some of which are understandable, others of which are odd. Maps were pretty uncommon (there are some famous examples, such as the old mappa mundi, but these were exceptions rather than the rule). They can be useful for storytelling purposes, but mostly they weren’t needed. A man from a village would know the way to the nearest town. If he needed to go on from then, he’d ask for directions. The absence of maps and understanding of geography beyond the immediate vicinity did have occasional perverse consequences, such as the horde of peasants that followed the First Crusade asking if they were nearly at Jerusalem after a few days of walking (they weren’t).

Clothes were not bland. They were often bright colours, sometimes of differing hues. Mud-stained peasant brown was not the extent of the 14th century colour chart for poor people. (Some believe Robin Hood was actually invented by dyers to advertise their wares).

Cartwheels have spokes. This is not high technology, it’s common sense. A solid wheel weighs a lot more, creating more work for your donkey and increasing the risk of the cart sinking into mud.

Thatch has to be thick. Several feet, at least. You can’t have a few layers of straw and call that thatch because it won’t actually work.

In the modern world, we’re used to constant and widespread light. But that just didn’t happen in the medieval world. Yes, there were light sources, including the hearth, candles, lamps and torches. But these things aren’t free. The hearth devours wood, candles cost money, lamp oil is expensive (which reminds me, boiling oil wasn’t used by those defending sieges so much as boiling water or sand [much cheaper]) and torches only last thirty minutes or so.

When an explorer enters an ancient ruin and torches are burning, or a medieval clerk has eight damned candles burning on his desk or scattered about for a visually pleasing shot, it’s just plain wrong. There’s often excessive lighting in films (in modern day settings, there are sometimes half a dozen lamps in a room, or more) but it makes no sense at all in a medieval setting.


Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Proofreading and formatting services

Bit of a break from my usual reviews and historical rambles to bring you some more serious business.

Having proofed and formatted numerous solo works, from short stories to full-blown novels, I’m now offering proofreading and formatting to others, on a professional basis.

Full information can be found at my new website:

Both services are intended for text that is complete from an editorial/creative perspective, and requires only the final (if time-consuming) touches of a proofread and formatting. Proofreading will be a line-by-line reading to find and correct/delete spelling and grammatical errors, whilst formatting gets text into a form that can be submitted to an electronic or hard copy self-publishing service.

Prices will vary somewhat according to word count, error frequency, and whether there’s anything finickity, but a rough guideline (not including discounts) would be £50-60 for e-book formatting and around £200-240 for proofreading.

A range of discounts are available, the best being 30% off for a limited time, to help encourage new clients. (Discounts are also available for returning clients and for those commissioning both services at once).

If you’ve got a finished story on your hands but would prefer someone else spend hours doing the donkey work, give me a bell at and we’ll discuss getting it into shape for submission.


Friday, 29 September 2017

Marcus Aurelius and Henry II: a comparison of incompetence

Two historical chaps seem to get a lot more praise than I think they deserve. To balance that, in a small measure, I wrote this about Marcus Aurelius and Henry II.

Marcus Aurelius was the last emperor of the Golden Age of Imperial Rome, and was succeeded by his son (possibly) Commodus. Both men will be relatively well-known as they feature in the entertaining film Gladiator. Marcus Aurelius also left a lasting impression on the Romans as a great emperor and a virtuous man.

However, he is dramatically overrated. Imperial Rome’s Golden Age happened because each emperor nominated an adopted, rather than actual, son to succeed him (or sons, Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius both succeeded Antoninus Pius). Marcus Aurelius chose otherwise, although there is doubt over whether Commodus was his son (possible this was fuelled by the latter’s horrendousness which made others want to disassociate the pair). Regardless, Marcus Aurelius, lauded as wise, left the empire in the hands of a murderous, bloodthirsty, incestuous mad bastard.

This did not have a positive impact on the Roman Empire.

Under the emperors from Nerva to Marcus Aurelius, men of high status and talent benefited. Emperors were unafraid of rivals and could promote the best men to the highest ranks, and such men were unafraid of tyranny or jealousy, and could make fortunes and achieve success without fearing their imminent execution. It was a great virtuous circle.

Commodus rather ruined this by his bad habit of killing those at the top. This meant that skilled men were lost and those who might have succeeded to their posts were reluctant to do so for fear of the same happening to them.

When Commodus was brought down, Pertinax succeeded him but was almost immediately murdered for trying to rein in the Praetorian Guard (despite the term being used today for politically loyal diehards, the Guard probably killed more emperors than it saved). Didius Julianus won the auction for the purple, only to be crushed by the ruthless Septimius Severus.

Severus, whilst not renowned as a bastion of morality, did restore some measure of stability after winning the civil war. But his eldest son was as bad as Commodus (Antoninus Caracalla, who discovered that repeatedly threatening to murder your own bodyguard and then unjustly killing his brother does not enhance one’s life expectancy). With the sad exception of Alexander Severus, the Empire underwent great tumult in the Crisis of the Third Century and never again [in the West] had the prosperity, stability, and power it had enjoyed in the Golden Age.

In short, Marcus Aurelius buggered it up by nominating as his successor a lunatic.

Henry II was an imperious king who ruled over England and substantial territories in what is today France. He also had the short-termist constitutional delinquency Blair had in meddling with lopsided devolution (which went from killing Scottish nationalism stone dead to an independence referendum in a couple of decades), and was thoroughly inept at running his own family.

Henry had two problems. He was a poor father and he had a weird feudal relationship with the king of France. Henry was king of England, but also held territories such as Normandy and Aquitaine. Problem was this meant he was, as lord of some of his territories, a tenant-in-chief who owed fealty to the king of France (in the same way the Earl of Norfolk owed fealty to the king of England).

This was a bugger’s muddle and no mistake, because if France and England went to war (which did, very occasionally, happen) the king of France could theoretically call on the king of England to serve him in the war against the king of England.

At the same time, the king of England was the full equal of the king of France, as sovereign of a kingdom.

Henry II fudged this in a masterstroke of ill-conceived ambiguity of which the EU would be proud. He swore fealty in vague terms only for the French lands, and parcelled the continental territories off to his sons (his eldest, also called Henry, got Normandy, Richard got Aquitaine, Geoffrey got Brittany, and John got nothing which earnt him the nickname Lackland. He later was so fearsome in war he got a second nickname: Softsword, possibly making him the only king in English history to have two epithets, both of which were mocking).

However, this is where the first problem, of weak fatherhood, comes in. All his sons were ambitious and he was neither able/willing to promise them what was their due, nor was he powerful enough to overwhelm them into submission. After Young King Henry (his son, who was given the title but not the authority of a king during the reign of Henry II) died, Richard, then eldest, wanted to be named heir.

You would’ve thought an eldest son in a feudal society being named heir would be straightforward. But Henry II refused. Ultimately, Richard did inherit (he became the Lionheart) but not before the brothers united to fight against their father. Philip Augustus, the wily French king, played this sort of game very well, exploiting familial rivalry to weaken Henry II and siding with the rebellious sons (this was repeated when Richard was away on Crusade/captured and John rebelled).

Henry II died relatively young, worn out by stress and exhaustion, most of it brought on himself. Richard inherited anyway, but the prime beneficiary of Henry’s foolishness was the French king. John later lost practically all the continental possessions (it turns out the nobles were unwilling to fight for a king whose prime achievements were extortion and cruelty).

By different turns, Marcus Aurelius and Henry II caused serious damage to their realms through failure of succession. Marcus Aurelius conferred the purple on a murderous maniac, and Henry II needlessly prevaricated with the simplest of acknowledgements, causing unnecessary war. Both in their power could have easily averted these crises, the former by sticking to the adoptive principle, the latter by taking the obvious step of naming his eldest son as his heir.

This does, however, highlight an important point. The family dramas of clashing personalities which can make a home fraught are not limited to those of humble station, and, in a time when monarchs exercised true power, these things could and did cause war within and between nations.


Friday, 22 September 2017

Sir Edric’s Kingdom – out now!

In excellent news, new fantasy-comedy Sir Edric’s Kingdom came out today, available both in electronic and paperback editions. It's a rollicking fantasy adventure for everyone, as cunningly explained below:

Progressive – marvel at the inclusivity of a book that contains multi-racial main characters, alternative sexual preferences (BDSM and gay), and repeatedly mocks the ridiculousness of inherited wealth and power, whilst the peasant sidekick outshines the noble protagonist at every turn.

Traditionalist – be enthralled by the witty escapades of a man unencumbered by nappy-wearing liberal guilt as he only takes a break from drinking for adultery and invasions. Enjoy the ride as the most cunning and most heroic men in fiction thwart conspiracy and regicide at every turn.

Trumptonian – I’ve written a book, people. So big, so many words, and I have the best words. Nobody words better than me. It’s true, folks, totally true. You’ll laugh so much you’ll grow tired of laughing. I’ve written a book, and the readers are gonna pay for it, and together we can make comedy great again.

Clintonite – you know what I call people who buy my book? My basket of adorables.

People who don’t care about the politics – the world’s a gloomy place nowadays. Cheer yourself up with some satirical British comedy.

Even better, the e-book version is just 99p until the 29th.


Friday, 15 September 2017

Review: Spies, Sadists and Sorcerers, by Dominic Selwood

Almost the moment I finished The Wonder Book of Aircraft and was contemplating which book to read next, Spies, Sadists and Sorcerers was delivered.

It’s a collection of little chapters (some only a few pages but most a bit longer) focusing on individuals or events through history which are either little-known, or well-known but the author believes a contrary view to that of the general perception.

Took me a little while to get the angle, which is of provocative polemic. On that score, the book works very well as it’s never dull. Some chapters I strongly agreed with (the Elgin Marbles), and some I strongly disagreed with (Richard the Lionheart). I read the book much more rapidly than I anticipated, testament to the writing quality, but also disagreed quite strongly with certain aspects.

To take the Lionheart example, he’s largely condemned (with lip service to positives) and the reverse approach taken with Saladin. Both were men of their time. Richard spent most of his time warring in France, for which he was criticised, because we were at war with France. The only reason John didn’t spend more time there was because he couldn’t persuade the English to follow him very often. Likewise, Richard did kill 3,000 or so prisoners at Acre. But that does neglect the context of Saladin stringing out negotiations so Richard would struggle with food, water and guarding so many men. Not to mention Saladin killing Templar prisoners was mentioned but not that Saladin had only received their surrender after promising not to kill them. I’m not condemning Saladin for that, merely pointing out 12th century warfare wasn’t renowned for its loveliness, and mostly criticising Richard whilst praising Saladin is not consistent.

There was also a factual error in the statement Arthur of Brittany was 12 at the time of his murder, whereas he was 15 or 16.

Similarly, the Magna Carta section, whilst accurately stating the barons’ interests were first and foremost, does neglect some important provisions that applied to everyone. Clause 40, for example, reads “To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice.” [From the version at the back of Marc Morris’ biography of King John].

Likewise, the religious persecution/executions under Henry VIII and Elizabeth I are laboured at length, yet the comparable acts of Mary are glossed over quickly.

However, I did find some of the chapters very interesting, particularly around the World Wars (not an era with which I’m overly familiar).

I think it’s the first history of this nature I’ve read, but I did enjoy it quite a lot. Some chapters were interesting and new, and I must admit to rather liking argument over history (would you believe some jesters insist Julius Caesar was a better general than Hannibal Barca?) so I didn’t mind disagreeing with the author’s perspective. There does seem to have been finger trouble here and there, not only with Arthur of Brittany’s age but also that of Ada Lovelace (it confused me at first because the dates given indicated she was 67 at her death, but it’s actually 37).

Assessing this is quite difficult, and makes me glad I don’t habitually score/rate the books I review here. I found it interesting throughout and read it far faster than I expected, given my limited reading time. On the other hand, the more I knew of a period of history the likelier I was to disagree with the author.

It’s definitely interesting and provocative.

For those after books related to the sections I’ve highlighted, I’ve reviewed the following:


Saturday, 9 September 2017

Spotlight: More Than Human Boxset

A promotion of The More than Human Bundle, a collection of 11 fantasy books for under a fiver.

To save. To guard. To heal.

Beloved people, precious things, and sacred spaces move our hearts and inspire us to defend them.
In these tales of redemption and rescue, more-than-human heroes stand forth as champions to protect all that is worthy of protection.

Walk with these elves, imps, wizards, dryads, gods, and guardians as they subdue demons, free the enslaved, preserve the world, comfort the exiled, and cross swords with the dark. Read and revel in their triumphs and tribulations.

The Shining Citadel – A. L. Butcher
Technological Angel – Barbara G. Tarn
Needle-Green – Debbie Mumford
The Cartographer's Daughter – Karen L. Abrahamson
Serpent’s Foe – J.M. Ney-Grimm
The Crystal Courtesan – Karen L. Abrahamson
The First Book of Old Mermaids Tales – Kim Antieau
The Guardians - Book 1 – Don Viecelli
Love Apidae (A Recumon Story) – Michael R. E. Adams
The Flat Above the Wynd – Alexandra Brandt
The Kitchen Imps and Other Dark Tales – A. L. Butcher

It’s an 11 book boxset for £4.49, which equates to just over 40p per book (over 2,000 pages print length). Not too shabby.


Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Pillars of Eternity (PS4): First Impressions

This game first came out a while ago for the PC, and I’ve got to admit my gast was flabbered when I saw it had a console release, as it seemed the most PCish of games. I’ve been playing it for a few days, and here are my early impressions.

Character Creation

Although the system’s completely different, the vast array of customisation available reminds me a bit of Dragon’s Dogma. But whereas Dragon’s Dogma focused on physical changes (although some did have gameplay aspects), Pillars of Eternity’s customisation is almost all about the gameplay impact and personal backstory. You have both genders, six races (human, elf, dwarf and original races aumaua, orlan and godlike), and thirteen classes. Each race have different bonuses or special abilities, and each class has different starting attributes (hitpoints, here called endurance, and so on). After this you pick a background and culture, then fiddle with your stats (these are modified somewhat by your race, class, background and culture).

A nice part of the voice options is that you’ve got about eight or so for each gender, but can go for no voice, or one from the opposite gender (this isn’t critical as this seems to take the Dragon Age: Origins approach of having grunts and exclamations but no actual dialogue beyond the odd battle cry). You can also alter your two armour colours (currently, my chanter Pengel has opted for green, which makes his cloak look rather snazzy). The physical appearance, including armour colours, can be altered in-game at any time, right from the start.


After creating your player-character, you’re thrust into the first scene, which introduces some gameplay mechanics in a smooth way and explains a bit about the world. As you might expect, disaster strikes, and then …

It’s a lore-rich original world. I’ve got to say that whilst I personally love lore, for some people it may be a bit text-heavy early on.

One thing I really like is that quest lines do have genuine choice. As is usual for a first playthrough, Pengel the Chanter is a heroic and noble sort, so I’m being very good. But there have been options to be much less good. You’re not shoe-horned into being heroic, so if you want to be selfish and a bit of a git, that’s eminently possible.


Having the swift reflexes of a jam sandwich, I was somewhat wary of the real time strategy in combat. That, as well as the suggestion at the start, had me begin on the default setting of Easy.

So far, it’s living up to its name, but it’s clear to see how certain tactics are helpful and would be critical at higher difficulty. The real time combat can be easily paused/resumed at the click of a button and has a nice pace.

I’ve not had to pause too much but I suspect that’s just because I’m playing on Easy.

Combat tip: intellect increases the area of effect (AoE) for spells etc. The base area is shown in a different shade to the expanded circle. However, negative effects only affect allies within the base circle, not the expanded one.

A nice little feature is that jewels and plants (ingredients) are stored collectively but don’t consume any inventory space, preventing frustration when trying to create something [not tried this yet] and avoiding the ridiculous inventory slot dilemma of taking a broadsword or a rare flower. Because you only have room for one.

You get penalties when you go without rest for a long time (as well as time on-screen, it takes X hours to travel between locations). These fatigue penalties are easily remedied, either by camping (you need camping gear for this, which is consumed upon rest) or staying at an inn. The latter can cost cash but also confers a bonus for the whole party which can last a pretty long time.

The stronghold, acquired quite early on, seems to work well although I’ve not developed it enough to say a lot. Essentially, it’s a ruin you renovate and rebuild to grant yourself bonuses. From what I gather it’s completely optional and you can leave it as a heap of broken stone if you like, but I quite enjoy having my own fort and it doesn’t seem especially expensive.

A nice touch is that class, race, and skills can be checked in conversations, so if your character knows a lot of Lore, for example, they might have extra dialogue options available.


The graphics won’t be troubling The Witcher 3 anytime soon, although it’s worth noting the game didn’t make my fat PS4 scream like a jet engine either, so maybe that’s a good thing. They’ve got old school charm in the world, and I like the fitting menus which look like ye olde parchment (the bestiary even has rather cool drawings).


I love the music. It’s evocative of Lord of the Rings, Final Fantasy and The Witcher 3, and is a great addition both to the world and during the parchment scenes. These are not-cutscenes which have text descriptions beside drawings on parchment. It sounds a bit rubbish but actually works well, possibly even better than showing the scenes in-game would because of the isometric approach.

Sound effects and voices are generally good although there are jarring moments in long conversations where 90% of lines might be spoken and a few are just text.

Bugs and other issues

Load screens are frequent (think Skyrim) and whilst they’re not so bad crossing from one area to another it’s mildly irksome waiting a while for the upper floor of a house to load.

Stealth appears less useful than it could be because it’s a party-wide on/off toggle rather than being specific to a sneaky character in combat.

Longevity and Replayability

Difficult to comment on length, was a bit surprised to finish the first act as quickly as I did. However, the wide variety of character creation, difficulty and quest options does make me confident I’ll play a second time, and perhaps a third.


Sunday, 3 September 2017

Sir Edric’s Kingdom – out 22 September

Sir Edric Greenlock, the Hero of Hornska, returns in new fantasy novel Sir Edric’s Kingdom.

When King Lawrence is poisoned and consigned to his sickbed, the eponymous knight is surprised to find himself appointed lord steward. But he soon discovers the throne is the most uncomfortable seat in the kingdom, as he struggles to fend off assassins and invasions, all whilst juggling the claims of rivals competing to be named Lawrence’s heir.

Aided by his trusty manservant Dog, Orff No-Balsac the man-eating slaver, his feisty paramour Corkwell, and the elven enchantress Lysandra, Sir Edric will find himself in a battle to keep the kingdom, and himself, in one piece.

For the pre-order period and first week of release, Sir Edric’s Kingdom will be at the criminally low price of $0.99, so snap it up pronto. Or wait, and give me some more money. Either’s fine, really.

I have also helpfully compiled an explanation for why this delightful fantasy-comedy is the perfect book for everyone:

Progressive – marvel at the inclusivity of a book that contains multi-racial main characters, alternative sexual preferences (BDSM and gay), and repeatedly mocks the ridiculousness of inherited wealth and power, whilst the peasant sidekick outshines the noble protagonist at every turn.

Traditionalist – be enthralled by the witty escapades of a man unencumbered by nappy-wearing liberal guilt as he only takes a break from drinking for adultery and invasions. Enjoy the ride as the most cunning and most heroic men in fiction thwart conspiracy and regicide at every turn.

Trumptonian – I’ve written a book, people. So big, so many words, and I have the best words. Nobody words better than me. It’s true, folks, totally true. You’ll laugh so much you’ll grow tired of laughing. I’ve written a book, and the readers are gonna pay for it, and together we can make comedy great again.

Clintonite – you know what I call people who buy my book? My basket of adorables.

People who don’t care about the politics – the world’s a gloomy place nowadays. Cheer yourself up with some satirical British comedy.