Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Book Review: The Formless Empire by Christopher Mott

Another review in my series of books relating to the Mongols from Pen and Sword Books.

The Formless Empire: A Short History of Diplomacy and Warfare in Central Asia by Christopher Mott.

I have read plenty of books that focus on the Mongols and I was looking forward to this book in the hope that it would give me a broader idea of the history of Central Asia and how the Mongols fit into it.

In many ways, the book was successful at that. The history is interesting and covers everything that I was looking for. It expands on a region that has a long and often tumultuous story with colourful characters and powerful empires vying for control, with varying levels of success. Starting before the Mongols and coming right through to the present, the book gives a thorough grounding in the  development of various empires as they rose and fell in the Central Asian area. There is a lot of important history in here that, certainly a western reader, will find new and fascinating.

Unfortunately, I also have a lot of problems with the book. The author strongly posits his theories of the development of the various empires and appears to be trying to instil a new description into history academia, that of "Formless Empire"! His description of the aforesaid Formless Empire is in my opinion, nothing more than that of a Nomadic Empire, or at most a Post-Nomadic Empire. I don't feel that the term Formless Empire needs any stronger position than that of the book's title, in which it feels like a generic term that in many ways capture the nature of the empires that came and went throughout the Central Asian area.

The book is also written in a very academic style. In fact, I would suggest that it was written as an academic paper that has then evolved into what should be a popular history book but falls short due to the overly complex language that the author seems to favour.

The author seems to favour certain terms, now clearly they have relevance to the subject of the book, however, when he uses the term HEGEMONY on virtually every page of the book it soon goes down the road of becoming a drinking game - how far down the page will I get before he mentions hegemony! Also terms like "rump state" crop up regularly. I assume that the language is standard in university history departments, but they need a little more explanation in popular history books.

The Conclusion of the book is also difficult. Most of the chapter is spent going over the history already covered in the main body of the book, although it does finish up with a look to the future, and the possible directions that Central Asian diplomacy could take.

I did get a lot out of the book and it is certainly a valuable addition to my library of books about this region, however, I would only recommend it if you are prepared to struggle through the overly complex language.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Book Review: The Mongol Art of War by Timothy May

I have recently received five books for review, from Pen and Sword Books.

I have been fascinated by the rise of Chinggis Khan  (Genghis Khan) and the Mongol Empire for many years. I have watched many documentaries, read at least a couple of dozen books, and of course watched the few movies that have been made on the subject.

So when Pen and Sword asked me if I would consider reviewing some of their books I had a look through their website and noticed that they had several books relating to the Mongols and some of the other nomadic, steppe peoples. I found five in particular that interested me and asked them if I could possibly review one or two of those titles.

They very kindly sent me all five! So I have my work cut out. Over the next few months, I will be reading and then posting reviews of these five titles.

First up we have The Mongol Art of War by Timothy May. Currently available as an ebook, but soon to be published in paperback as well.

The book is subtitled Chinggis Khan and the Mongol Military System, and this sums up the book very well. For anyone who is interested, especially a wargamer, this book is an ideal introduction to the military side of the Mongol Empire. The first chapter gives a concise history of the rise and eventual fall of the Mongol empire, with examinations of the major campaigns and important battles.

After that, it moves on to a closer look at specific aspects of the Mongol war machine. Recruitment and Organisation, Training and Equipment, Logistics, Espionage, Tactics and Strategy etc. Finally, the book looks at the opposing forces and their strategies.

I found the book to be very well-written, easy to read and understand and very thorough in its scope and coverage. The book is not lavishly illustrated, having only a few black and white photos and then some line drawings showing battle strategies.
In the ebook format, this is more than adequate as Kindles are not great at showing images anyway (or at least, black and white ones like mine aren't).

Beyond my personal interest in the subject, I feel that this book would be an excellent reference for a wargamer wishing to start Mongol army. It covers the structure of the forces at some depth and also goes into detail about the relevant battlefield strategies.

I found the book so useful that I plan to buy the paperback edition to use for reference, to go along with the ebook that I have at present...

Monday, 11 January 2016

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Book Review: The City by Stella Gemmell

David Gemmell has been my favourite fantasy author since the early 1980s when I picked up his first book, Legend. When David Gemmell died a few years back I more or less gave up reading fantasy and have concentrated on Science Fiction, Steampunk and Spy thrillers since then. However I occasionally get the urge to dip my toe back into the fantasy genre and I am often disappointed when I do. So I had mixed feelings when I spotted The City by Stella Gemmell. The author is David Gemmell's widow and had worked with DG on several of his books, completing his last book after he died. So the connection was made, and I felt I wanted to see if there was anything of the quality of Mr Gemmell's writing in his wife's work.

The City is not your straightforward fantasy novel, in fact for much of the story their are very few hints of anything supernatural or indeed fantastic, about it... It reads more as a standard historical novel. Don't let that fool you, the fantastical elements are certainly there and they do have a pivotal role in the story, however many of the characters within the story, are not even aware of these elements. Quite a lot of the story takes place in the "under-city" a world of sewers, lost chambers, death and decay. Although the people that populate the underworld are the lost souls of the city, either hiding from the authorities or simply scrabbling to maintain an existence. It soon becomes clear that there is some twisted kind of comfort and safety to be found down there for many of the inhabitants. When the story switches to view the battle fields of the the many wars that the city is fighting, we soon miss the life in the under-city.

Through all of this colourful travelogue,  it soon becomes apparent that there are plots hatching, both from within the City walls and from those nations that are at war with it.

At times this is not an easy book to read. The tendency to jump from one story to another with very little warning, sometimes years later is disconcerting and can be quite jarring. However, in some ways it actually adds something to the book.

I am not certain I will follow Stella Gemmell's career the way I followed her husband, but I must say, this is an excellent first solo novel.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Book Review: The Iron Wolves by Andy Remic

Andy Remic's last fantasy trilogy was often touted as an homage to David Gemmell and it is fair to say, the comparisons were easily drawn. However, with The Iron Wolves he has taken it to the next level.

The story revolves around a group of veteran warriors (all heroes from wars fought over twenty years ago) who are drawn out of retirement to face a new evil that has arisen. Now if that doesn't sound like Gemmell, add in the fact that all of these warriors are flawed physiologically and have led less that saintly lives since their former glory has faded from memory and I think you will see that the comparisons are easily drawn. To top it all off an important part of the evil that has arisen is the use of creatures called the Splice, which are a magically fused combination of men and either horses, wolves or occasionally lions. Now if that isn't reminicent of Gemmell's Joinings, nothing is...

Ok, so from the tone of this so far it may sound like I am about to completely rip the book to shreds, but I'm not. It is well known that Gemmell was a big influence on Remic. So it is only natural that his fantasy novels fit in to a similar sub-genre of writing  (could this be a modern take on Sword and Sorcery, rather than the bland high fantasy that has been turned out in recent years). Obviously now that David Gemmell is no longer with us, fans of his work have to seek their fix elsewhere and with this new series Remic has made a worthy attempt to pick up the baton.

Around three quarters of the way through the book I did have a bit of trouble empathizing with any of the main characters, and in places it did feel a bit like Gemmell written while inhaling some rather dubious substances, but generally speaking, as we can't get any more David Gemmell fiction this is a worthy substitute.

I must say I am looking forward to the second book!

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

I didn't know what to expect from this book when I started reading it, it seemed like something that might catch the attention of fans of the movie Gravity (not having seen it so I can't really compare them). However, it turned out to be the most compelling book I have read in several years. I literally could not put it down, and on the odd occasion I did have to do something else, I couldn't wait to get back to the story and find out the latest catastrophe that had befallen the main character, astronaut Mark Watney, and how he dealt with and over came it.

On the third manned mission to Mars, a dust storm forces the astronauts to abandon the mission and escape into space, ready to return to Earth. Unfortunately Mark Watney is left behind, presumed dead. He is however, very much alive and well aware that he is on his own... The only opportunity for rescue will be the next scheduled mission, due to arrive on Mars in four years time.

The story is rousing one where no-one gives up even though the odds seem completely insurmountable.

There is quite a lot of luck involved in the the story, that quite frankly is completely skimmed over, it is lucky that the astronaut left behind is both the engineer and the botanist on the crew. Several times is extremely lucky that plans work perfectly first time and that no major obstacles are encountered. However, it is easy to forgive these points and to just go with the flow of this heart pounding ride of a story.

I read and advance ebook copy of the book, and I must admit that the moment I finished reading it I got straight online and ordered a hardbacked copy, as I really want to own this book and read it again at some point in the near future!

Monday, 16 December 2013

Book Review: Robin Hood from Osprey Publishing

This book covers just about everything you could need when researching Robin Hood. It gives a  good general overview of most of the common legends and tales surrounding the Lincoln Green clad outlaw and his band of Merry Men. It also looks at the evolution of the legend, from it's earliest beginnings right through to the latest incarnations as seen in film and on TV.
The book is well written and easily consumed. To be honest there is not a lot more to say about it! If you are interested in learning a little more about Robin Hood, whether it be the original legends, the locations they took place in, or the recent TV appearances this book is a great place to start.
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