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Thursday, August 3, 2017

King John. England, Magna Carta and the Making of a Tyrant. Stephen Church. Macmillian (2015)

There are three versions of King John, the villainous prince in Robin Hood, the tyrant forced to sign the Magna Carta and the historical king. Stephen Church is interested in the historical King John, his life and context and this very engaging book gives King John his due.
John was the youngest son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine and was first called John Lackland as he really had no place in the succession to huge inheritance that Henry had assembled. This changed steadily as he came closer to to being a potential heir and so he joined his brothers in fighting his father. When Richard the Lionheart  became king John had a strained relationship with him as well, finally after Richard's death John became king.
It was at this point that John's great weakness, that he was a truly terrible politician aligned with the unfortunate fact that he was faced with a fiercely determined enemy in Phillip Augustus, King of France who was determined to establish French control of Normandy and Brittany which were part of John's kingdom. It was John's losses in France that shaped most of the actions of his reign as he had to raise huge sums of money to carry out a war to recover his lost lands.
A great deal of the trouble he had in England arose from his efforts to get the money for his wars, made much harder by his lack of success in France. John was faced with a hugely determined opponent who had a home field advantage. John was an effective military commander, his expeditions in Ireland and Scotland and the various battles he had in England demonstrate this. The problem he had was that he could win a battle and fail to win the peace. In England, Ireland and France John never displayed any ability to created and nurture lasting and effective alliances with the major barons. He was unable and unwilling to court them and his innovative tax collections cut direct against their privileges.John also managed to have a serious fight with the Pope over the right to appoint the Archbishop of Canterbury, the leading churchman in the country. John was unfortunate in that Pope Innocent III was determined to actively assert papal privilege, John choose confrontation over finesse and he lost the struggle.
 John inherited a wide ranging kingdom in England, Ireland, and France and manage to essentially lose everything and in the process alienate the two significant power structures of the society, the aristocracy and the Church. He lost his kingdom to the Pope and his political freedom to his barons with the Magna Carta. Stephen Church has written a book that rescues King John from myth and with telling detail and a sympathetic assessment of his character. John has been overshadowed by his father, mother, brother and son and deserves better. Stephen Church has done King John a great service and given the man a chance to stand beside the legend.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Ninth Grave. Stefan Ahnhem . Paul Norlen (Translation). Head of Zeus Ltd (2017)

A very enjoyable and entertaining Swedish crime thriller. In Sweden the Minister of Justice steps out of the Parliament House and disappears. In Denmark a woman is attacked in her home. In Sweden the disappearance of the Justice Minister is secretly assigned to Fabian Risk, In Denmark the murder is assigned to Dunja Hougaard to the fury of some of her fellow detectives. Further murders in both cities put pressure on both investigations. When it appears that suspects have been identified  in each investigation the investigations are pushed into a new direction that leads to a very dark conclusion.
This is a big story and it takes a little time for the momentum to build sufficiently to really compel the reader. There is a huge cast and a constantly shifting narrative which means that the reader is getting a lot of new information before the rhythm of the story clearly emerges.When it does the superb plot mechanics and the deeply engaging cast are very compelling.
The plot mechanics are constantly unexpected, setting up reader expectations and defying them in a very smart and considered way. The structures of the story reveal themselves steadily, the major and minor reveals are superbly staged and the deeply laid connections emerge to complicate everything just as they should.
The cast are great, Fabian Risk, Malin Rehnberg and Dunja Hougaard are given the chance to emerge as fully developed personalities as well as competent, committed police officers. Their personal lives are not just tacked on to their work, they extend and develop who they are in meaningful way. Malin Rehnberg's pregnancy is both realistic and is never used to undermine her position, competence or authority. The supporting cast, including the victims are all given time to register as much more than plot devices, they have time and opportunity to make themselves heard. Stefan Ahnhem has solved the problem presented by a fabulously effective super-villain, the motive is forceful and weighty and he solves the how with economy and credible detail.
There is a event in the story that takes place at a critical time that did not ring true, one of the leading cast members finds themselves in a very difficult position, their response was deeply unsatisfactory, not from a story point of view but as a character. Either the response was wildly uncharacteristic and needed further explanation or the needs of the plot forced the writer to shortchange the character.  In such a carefully constructed book it stands out more that it might in another.
Paul Norlen's translation is transparent, the story and cast are all naturally and completely Swedish and Danish, the cultural differences between both being a thread in the story, the English flows without ever being less than natural. Excellent crime fiction.