Originally published in the Canberra Weekly on 15 August 2019.
Originally published in the Canberra Weekly on 15 August 2019.
Publisher: Orion (Trade Paperback – 11 June 2019)
Series: The Damned Emperors – Book 2
Length: 482 pages
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Acclaimed historical fiction author Simon Turney catalogues another infamous ruler of Rome in the second book of his The Damned Emperors series, Commodus.
Rome, 162 AD. The Roman Empire is in a rare period of peace and stability, with two brothers, Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, both ruling as Emperor. The future also looks bright, as for the first time in Rome’s history, two male heirs have been born to a ruling Emperor. However, only one of these children is destined to become Emperor and make his own mark on history. His name is Commodus.
Raised as Rome’s golden child, Commodus eventually succeeds his father as Emperor following a period of war, rebellion and disease. Beloved by the people and loathed by the Senate, Commodus styles himself as Hercules reborn, becoming a great patron and competitor of gladiatorial fights, chariot races and other feats of martial strength. However, behind the scenes, Commodus’s life has been filled with tragedy and despair, and he hides a darker side beneath his golden exterior.
As Commodus succumbs more and more to his inner demons, Rome is rocked by power struggles and plots, as his family and servants attempt to control or usurp the unpredictable Emperor. Only one woman, Marcia, truly understands Commodus and can keep his mind together. Born a simple palace servant, Marcia was the love of Commodus’s life and a skilled player of Roman politics. However, not even Marcia can contain Commodus’s self-destructive urges forever, and eventually she must decide whether she will die at the hands of her great love or make the ultimate betrayal.
Commodus is the second book in Turney’s The Damned Emperors series, which takes a look at some of the most tragic, infamous and self-destructive rulers of ancient Rome. After presenting an exciting tale of insanity and vengeance in Caligula, Turney now takes a look at one of the most intriguing emperors in Roman history, Commodus. The result is a powerful, well-written and captivating piece of historical fiction that I absolutely fell in love with and which easily earns a full five-star rating from me.
Commodus is truly one of the more fascinating figures in Roman history, which is saying a lot. While most would probably know him as the villain in the movie Gladiator, as portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, he actually had a long and controversial reign, with many events that are hard to believe. As a result, a book focusing on his life is bound to be interesting; however, Turney goes above and beyond, presenting a well-researched and deeply compelling novelisation of Commodus’s life. Not only does Turney explore some of the more extraordinary aspects of Commodus’s reign, such as his devotion to becoming the new Hercules, his exploits in the arena or the cult of personality he formed around himself, but Turney also attempts to explain why he may have done them. This results in a clever and thought-provoking look at the entirety of Commodus’s life, including several formative events that are known, or are likely to have happened, and which may have led to some of his more extreme actions later in life. I really enjoyed the potential scenarios that Turney came up with to explain Commodus’s personality, and his justifications featured towards the end of the book are really quite interesting and very compelling. There are also some interesting historical tweaks to some of Commodus’s actions, but I feel that these work in the wider aspect of the story and help to create a more believable narrative. The end result is an outstanding examination of this fascinating historical figure which will allow the reader to see Commodus in a whole new light.
Turney has done an amazing job telling this story, thanks in part to the use of an excellent point-of-view character. The story is told from the perspective of Marcia, the women in love with Commodus, and is set out as a personal chronicle of Marcia’s actions, which run parallel to the life of Commodus. Turney takes more historical liberties with this character and re-imagines Marcia as a close childhood friend of Commodus. The use of Marcia as the story’s narrator and the subsequent re-imagining of parts of her life story are done extremely well, allowing the author to have a single, consistent narrator who is constantly close to the main character. This was the best way to tell the complete story of Commodus’s life, and it was an amazing storytelling device from Turney which completely justifies historical variations in the character.
Using Marcia as the point-of-view character also allowed Turney to tell an addictive historical tale of love, revenge, ambition and tragedy. Marcia is a tragic character in this book, and her storyline is really quite powerful. The daughter of a servant in the Imperial Palace, Marcia is allowed to grow close to Commodus, becoming his childhood friend and confidant before circumstances conspire to keep them apart. However, Marcia’s determination to be with Commodus results in a series of power plays, plots and other nefarious actions as she tries both to free herself and to deal with other people who wish to influence the Emperor. Despite some of the terrible actions she commits, Marcia comes across as a very sympathetic character in this book, and your heart goes out to her with some of the setbacks she encounters. Her romance with Commodus, while caring and filled with love, is also very dramatic, as Commodus’s moods and the influences of others in his circle often place strains and boundaries on them being together. The final, tragic result of this story is told extremely well, as the reader gets to see the highs of their love, swiftly followed by the swift, one-sided deterioration of their relationship. This results in a devastating conclusion to the book, and the reader is left reeling at how this romance comes to an end.
In addition to the story of Commodus and Marcia, Turney also does an excellent job exploring Roman history and events during the span of Commodus’s life in the second half of the second century. Some truly fascinating events occurred during this period of Roman history, including wars, plagues and the reign of proxy tyrants such as Cleander and Perennis. The author covers these events in some detail, and it is really interesting to see how some of the events unfolded, how long they lasted and what actions led up to them. Commodus is also filled with a number of intriguing depictions of Roman life, and the various ancient Roman settings proved to be an amazing background for this great story.
Commodus is a first-rate novel and easily one of my favourite pieces of historical fiction for 2019. Turney is an incredibly skilled author whose dedication to historical detail pairs well with his amazing ability to tell a dramatic and powerful story. Commodus comes highly recommended, and I cannot wait to see which flawed ruler of Rome Turney focuses on in his next instalment of The Damned Emperors series.
Publisher: HQ (Trade Paperback format – 18 March 2019)
Length: 416 pages
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Historical drama author Mary-Anne O’Connor once again presents the readers with a powerful and moving journey through a number of iconic moments in Australian history with her fourth book, In a Great Southern Land, which focuses on Australia’s colonial history and the chaos surrounding the infamous Eureka Stockade.
In 1851, the colonised but still mythical continent of Australia represents many things for many different people. For the Clancy family living in Ireland it represents freedom, as they seek their own land away from the British aristocracy that controls their country. For young Eve Richards it represents a harsh prison; she is unfairly transported as a convict after losing everything that she cares about.
Once in New South Wales, Eve briefly encounters the wild but kind Clancy brother, Kieran, who manages to save her from a harsh life in the Tasmanian colonies. Following a bad experience as he left Ireland, Kieran is wondering around Australia in search of a new purpose, while his family, including his brother, Liam, and his sister, Eileen, settle in Orange. Despite the love of his family, Kieran’s temper and thirst for adventure leads him down to the goldfields at Ballarat, close to where Eve is employed as a convict servant.
It does not take long for Kieran and Eve to find each other again, and the two are soon drawn together romantically. However, their plans for their future and a life together are imperilled by events occurring around the goldfields. The corrupt colonial regime is imposing harsh taxes on the miners attempting to scratch a living at the fields, and resentment and hostility is growing. When several shocking events become a catalyst for revolt among the miners, Kieran finds himself being forced to choose between supporting his friends or marrying Eve. Can Kieran and Eve’s relationship survive the chaos of the Eureka Stockade, or will tragedy once again strike them both?
This is the fourth book from Australian author Mary-Anne O’Connor, who specialises in historical dramas set in the backdrop of significant events in Australia’s history. Her 2015 debut, Gallipoli Street, features aspects of World Wars I and II as well as the Great Depression. Her second book, Worth Fighting For, is set in World War II, while her third book, War Flower, focuses on Australia in the 1960s, including the country’s involvement in the Vietnam War. In a Great Southern Land is the author’s first foray into a 19th century setting, and her love and dedication to recounting parts of Australia’s complex and chaotic history once again shines through.
At its heart, In a Great Southern Land is a dramatic story of several individuals who are searching for a new beginning, and find love, loss and upheaval in their new home. I have to admit that dramatic novels are not usually the sort of book that I am naturally drawn to, but something about this book really appealed to me and I had a great time reading it. The main characters are extremely sympathetic and realistic, and the reader can not help but get drawn into their story. A lot of bad stuff affects all of them, especially Kieran and Eve, and you are left hoping that they can hang on and find the happiness that they deserve. I quite enjoyed the romance angle between Kieran and Eve; it came about quite naturally and had quite a satisfying conclusion. I really got into this fantastic story and I was impressed by how this fantastic dramatic tale was woven so effectively into the book’s amazing historical elements.
One of the things I quite liked about this book was O’Connor’s ability to examine and bring several aspects of Australia’s colonial history to life. Several iconic parts of the mid-19th century Australian experience are explored by the author, including the transportation of convicted criminals from England to Australia, the often terrible convict lifestyle, the resettlement of Irish settlers to various parts of Australia and the trials and tribulations of those seeking their fortunes in the goldfields. On top of that, O’Connor also explores various Australian locations, including historical Sydney, Melbourne, Orange and Ballarat. All of these examinations of history are deeply fascinating, and I really enjoyed reading about them. The author has obvious skill at portraying all the historical aspects, and the reader gets a real sense of what it would have been like to experience these historical events, ordeals and locations.
The most significant historical event that occurs within this book is the Eureka Stockade, which plays a huge role in the overall story. O’Connor does an amazing job examining this interesting and often venerated piece of Australia’s colonial history and explores so many of the key elements surrounding the event. As such, the reader gets an excellent idea of what events led up to the Eureka Stockade, and why the participants thought it was necessary to organise as they did. The actual battle at the Eureka Stockade is pretty brutal and tragic for the reader and becomes one of the major parts within the book. I quite liked the examination of the aftermath of the event, especially the rather entertaining, but apparently accurate, courtroom sequence, which I was not as familiar with. O’Connor does a fantastic job brining the Eureka Stockade to life, and I was quite impressed with how it was utilised in the telling of the book’s dramatic storylines.
I really enjoyed the author’s underlying examination of freedom and control that seemed to permeate a large amount of In a Great Southern Land’s plot. Throughout the story, the main characters experience high amounts of oppression or prejudice, often from upper-class English characters, due to a wide range of social factors. For example, before the Clancy family leave for Australia, they are oppressed by the rich, English family who controls their land and whose greed takes something precious from Kieran. Eve is taken advantage of by the son of the household she works for and is then cast out when the affair is discovered without the son standing up for her. Even when they reach the promised land of Australia, the characters are still oppressed. The Clancy family still face discrimination for being Irish, with the police targeting Kieran, and one particularly dislikeable doctor refusing to leave a party to treat someone from Ireland. Eve, on the other hand, is treated poorly as a convict, and even after she finds work with a nice, wealthy family, she and Kieran are forced to act a certain way with Eve’s employers in order to gain permission to marry. This underlying oppression and the resentment and anger that these characters felt plays wonderfully into the events that led up to the Eureka Stockade, and it was intriguing to see how these events affected the characters’ decisions in relation to these events.
In this book, Mary-Anne O’Connor has produced another outstanding historical drama that the reader really gets drawn into. The main story is deep and emotive and ties in well with O’Connor’s rich and detailed depictions of historical events that represent key points in Australia’s colonial history. In a Great Southern Land is an amazing and powerful read that I was quite happy to find myself really enjoying. I ranked this book 4.5 stars, and I will be quite interested to see what period of Australian history O’Connor decides to explore next.
From acclaimed Australian author Fiona McIntosh comes a deep and powerful tale of loss, revenge and the traumatic shadows of World War II.
Severine Kassel is one of the Louvre’s top curators of antique jewellery and specialises in identifying pieces plundered by the Nazis during World War II. Seconded to the British Museum in 1963, Severine maintains a careful image of mystery, distance, French elegance and control. However, that image is shattered completely the moment Severine sets eyes on the Byzantine pearls, an incredible artefact of mysterious providence on loan to the museum. Severine knows exactly what the pearls are and may be the only person in the world who knows their full history. She also remembers the last time she saw them: in 1941 in the hands of the man who murdered her family, the brutal Nazi Ruda Mayek.
As she recovers from the shock of seeing the pearls again, Severine reveals to the world that she is actually Katerina Kassowicz, and her story is one of sorrow and torture. Katerina was the daughter of a prominent Jewish family in Prague during the war. Her family attempted to flee the Nazi purge but was betrayed by a man they considered a friend, Mayek, and only Katerina survived, although her life was never the same.
With the discovery of the pearls, it becomes apparent that Mayek may still be alive. Desperate to hunt down the man who took everything from her, Katerina begins a desperate investigation to find him and get her revenge. Assisted by the mysterious Daniel, a Mossad agent, Katerina’s only clue is the lawyer handling the transaction of the pearls. As Katerina’s search intensifies, old wounds are opened and life-changing secrets are revealed. But as she gets closer to the truth, she begins to wonder who is actually hunting who.
Australian Fiona McIntosh is a fantastic author with a diverse and intriguing bibliography to her name. She has been writing since 2001 and initially focused on the fantasy genre with her debut book Betrayal, which formed the first book in the Trinity series. She wrote several fantasy books over the next nine years, including The Quickening trilogy, the Percheron series and the Valisar trilogy. During this time she also wrote several pieces of children’s fiction, including the Shapeshifter series, as well as the adult crime Jack Hawksworth series under the pen-name Lauren Crow. In 2010, McIntosh switched to historical dramas and has written a number of these books, mostly featuring female protagonists. Examples include the 2012 release The Lavender Keeper and last year’s epic The Tea Gardens.
The Pearl Thief is the latest piece of historical drama from McIntosh. It plunges the reader right into the heart of occupied Czechoslovakia and explores the horrific impacts that World War II had on the book’s main character while also providing the reader with an intense thriller in the 1960s. Told from the point of view of several characters, the book follows an interesting format. This first part of the book mostly follows Katerina and Daniel in Paris, and is set around Katerina telling her life story to Daniel and recounting what happened to her and her family during the war. These flashbacks are different in style, being told from the first person perspective to highlight that Katerina is telling the story, rather than the third person perspective utilised during the rest of the book. These flashback chapters are also visually distinctive due to the use of italicised font. The second half of the book follows the protagonist’s hunt for Mayek, and features a different style to the first half of the book. This different style includes the uses several more point-of-view characters, in particular the lawyer Edward, and the focus on more individualised storylines fitting into one overarching narrative.
The way that McIntosh chooses to tell this story is not only distinctive, but it is a great way to tell this dark and complex narrative. By presenting the main character’s World War II storyline first, the author sets up just how evil the book’s antagonist is, which ups the stakes for the second half of the book as the reader is desperate to see Mayek receive the justice he deserves. This dislike for the antagonist helps the reader stay focused on the story and makes them more eager to quickly get to the conclusion of the book to see if the protagonists succeed in catching him. This early storyline also highlights just how damaged Katerina, and in some regards side character Daniel, really are and what impacts the war had on them. As a result, the reader is a lot more attached to them and is keen to see how they reconcile their hatred and grief while also attempting to move past these events nearly 20 years after the end of the war. Both parts of this book are very captivating and do a fantastic job of drawing the reader in to this deep and dramatic story.
This is a fairly grim tale and McIntosh does not pull any punches, especially when it comes to showcasing the horrors the Jewish community experienced during World War II in countries such as Czechoslovakia. There are some very disturbing sequences throughout these flashbacks, especially when Katerina describes the final fate of her family, and the reader cannot help but feel sorrow and anger at the horror these characters and their real life historical equivalents suffered. McIntosh focuses on the physical impacts and the persecution that these people suffered and the mental stresses and long-term emotional damage that these actions inflict both during the war and well into the 1963 storyline for the survivors. These emotional scenes start right from the front of the book, with the first chapter showing the Kindertransport, mercy trains that got Jewish children out of Czechoslovakia and forced a permanent separation between parents and their children. This opening scene is very emotional, and the readers are left wondering what they may have done in a similar situation. There are also some quite dark scenes in the second half of the book, as the main characters are forced to relive the horrors they experienced and deal with the emotional fallout and the darkness they feel when it comes to Mayek. McIntosh’s frank and grim depictions of these events turn this book into an incredible drama, and readers will be left with a memorable and emotional vision of these events.
The Pearl Thief is a deep and captivating historical drama from exceptional Australian author Fiona McIntosh. Featuring some highly detailed and realistically dark flashback story to World War II as well as a thrilling hunt for a despicable war criminal in the 60s, this is a highly emotional and dramatic piece of literature that is well worth checking out.