Saturday, 28 June 2014

Audiobook review - "Anarchy" - Stewart Binns

I was mildly amused to discover, partway through listening to the Audible audiobook of this, that I had an earlier book in the series on my unread pile. Only mildly amused, because, to be honest, by about halfway through, I was pretty much convinced I didn't want to read another!

What can I say? I love good historical fiction, the kind where the author does good research into the period, and then fleshes out history with plausible, well-written speculative insights into the characters and events that history presents. I was really hoping this would be on a par with Sharon Penman's superb 'When Christ and His Saints Slept' as an inspiration and insight into what's potentially a fascinating period to wargame in - a good historical novel is just as speculative as a good wargame.

Sadly, it wasn't. The hero is the fictitious 'Hal of Hereford', a descendant of Hereward the Wake and a bearer of the mystical 'Talisman of Truth', an implausible sounding pendant that links Hereward, the hero, Richard the Lionheart and lord alone knows who else. He feels like an implausibly heroic and self-indulgent "Marty Stu" - by less than halfway through the book he's become a knight of Venice and co-founder of the Knights Templar (which he then deserts), before we're 2/3 through he's met John Komnenos, survived the wrath of Henry I, and is busy stealing Empress Matilda's affections from Geoffrey of Anjou, and fathering a line of English kings...

As a pseudo-historical roll in the hay, it's sort of OK. Except that for a book titled "Anarchy", I find it a bit of a con, given that Henry I doesn't die until chapter 25 of 37, and the account of the ensuing decade and a half (i.e. the Anarchy of the title) skips from Wikipedia high spot to Wikipedia high spot (the Battle of Lincoln, Matilda's entry into London, and her escape from Oxford being pretty much it), and wraps up before Stephen dies, leaving the accession of Henry II to a postscript and entirely glossing over most of the last seven or eight years of Stephen's reign (in which our hero is living in blissful sin with Matilda in Aquitaine... and MAN does he overuse the word 'blissful'). Somewhere along the way (and I'm actually facepalming and shouting at the car stereo at this point) the hero also adopts the pseudonym 'Robin of Hode' (oh puhlease), gets made Earl of Huntington by Henry I (for massively implausible reasons to do with keeping the whiny Matilda happy after Henry finds out the hero's sleeping with his daughter), and awarded lands in Barnsedale and (oh, look) Sherwood Forest. Oh, and his loyal sidekick Eadmer (masquerading as, wait for it, William of Scarlett) makes up songs about Robin which become popular ballads...

Stephen of Blois, unlike Penman's take on him, is just obnoxiously arrogant and unlikeable. And then there's the whiny, lovesick, earthy, sexy, gorgeous Matilda, who has to go to 'Hal' to make any key decision in her life, and has some of the most awfully stilted dialogue - in fact, dialogue is not his strong point. This was not helped by an unfortunate quirk of the guy reading the audiobook, who actually did a decent job on switching voices up until the point that I realised one of his female voices sounded like K9 from Dr. Who, after which it was kind of hard to take them seriously.

I guess it must have something going for it, since I did manage to finish it (although some of that was just a degree of morbid curiosity). If you want a pseudo-historical romp, it's, like I said, not bad. But it doesn't hold a candle to Penman.


  1. I feel your pain, as I had similar a experience reading a couple of Garry (yes, two Rs) Douglas Killworth's Crimean War novels. Oh dear...

    The Anarchy is one of those periods I'm going to game, so thanks for the heads-up about this book. I won't bother getting it.

  2. I lost it at 'until the point that I realised one of his female voices sounded like K9 from Dr. Who'.
    It really was a terrible book.


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