Historical Fiction


While it took me awhile to get through this book because of circumstances, Last of the Amazons was a book I couldn’t put down when I resumed reading it in the dead of night ’til the morning.

This is my second book as I make my way through my two challenges :  Once Upon A Time IV and Spring Reading Thing 2010.

Author :  Steven Pressfield

Publication Date – First Edition :  June 1, 2002 (Hardcover)

Publisher – First Edition :  Doubleday

Publication Date – This Edition :  July 2003 (Trade Paperback)

Publisher – This Edition :  Bantam Dell

ISBN :  0-553-38204-7

The Story :

It is about 1250 B.C., way before Troy or the Battle of Thermopylae, a time where stories have been regarded as myth or legend. It has been told that a nation of Amazons, a warrior race of only women, existed as an independent, self-sufficient society that stood as a testament to the strength, intelligence and hardiness of the supposedly weaker gender.  Steven Pressfield picks up on this tale from accounts of Plutarch and legends and carves his own marvelous what-if of an all-female society with its own culture, mores, lifestyle and government.

The story opens with a Greek family’s nanny, an Amazon slave named Selene, who escapes and unwittingly induces her eldest charge to follow her. A search party of some of the noblest Greeks follow the trail of their comrade’s daughter and Selene. While at sea, the men who had  previously encountered the Amazons with King Theseus tell their tales of these extraordinary warrior women.

When King Theseus of Athens accidentally discovers these legendary women, he sets off an irrevocable chain of events that seal the Amazons’ fate. Antiope, the Amazonian queen falls in love with Theseus, and elopes with him. The new queen Eleuthera tells her nation that the elopement was actually a kidnapping.  In their fury, the entire Amazon nation rounds up its allies and marches on a warpath to Athens to rescue their queen. The story that follows centers on the politics, logistics, and brilliant war tactics these Amazons employ in their war with Athens and continues on to when Antiope returns to them as a foe and heralds the Amazonian civilization’s diminishment into the twilight of their age.

The Review :

I have come out impressed by yet another of novel by Steven Pressfield. Last year, I had been floored by Gates of Fire, his gripping must-read version of the Spartans’ desperate stand against the Persian empire at the Battle of Thermopylae. While Last of the Amazons falls a little short of this novel, it, nevertheless, still is a dazzling read.

There is nothing exciting in the first few pages of the book with the plodding pace and a rather abstract ramble on Amazonian beliefs. But if you just hang in there, you’ll notice that the pace picks up in a while. Soon, you find yourself drawn into a fascinating legendary nation of wholly warrior women equal to men in physical stamina and battle skills. Pressfield tells of a civilization of true feminists, sufficient unto themselves and needing no man except for the serious business of procreation.

Although Pressfield has his doubts of the existence of the Amazons, he writes of them as if he himself had gone back in time and been intimate with their society, lifestyle, and psyche. Indeed, Pressfield’s real forte here is his ability to get readers involved with the story and  through his vivid writing, immersed  in the culture and mindset of the Amazonian civilization.

Without the author’s note at the end about the historical reality of the Amazons being largely based on Plutarch’s accounts and unsupported by archeological evidence, I would have thought this story based on historical fact and not simply on the author’s remarkable imagination. I am sure however that his renderings of the battle scenes are well researched accounts of how lance, shield, horse, etc. had been employed or how different ancient warrior nations conducted themselves in battle.

To Read Or Not To Read:

Ancient battle enthusiasts will be delighted with Pressfield’s meticulous and fascinating detailing. It all comes to life with his vivid accounts of battle strategy, politics, weapons, psychology , emotions, tactics and gore in living detail. For instance, it is quite fascinating to read about how the discus was employed as a weapon.

For the more sociologically inclined readers, Pressfield will not disappoint with his wonderful depiction of Amazonian culture and lifestyle.  In addition,  he handles the dynamics of human decisions and emotions very well.  There even is a marvelous debate between King Theseus and Eleuthera on the advantages or disadvantages of civilized society, the Athenian King arguing for the settlement of a civilization for its advancement while the upcoming Amazonian Queen rebutting a wandering society’s grounding for its loss of freedom and oneness with the natural earth.

Just a small caveat:  Some may be confused with the format of the book. The story is told from about four or five character viewpoints so it would be most helpful to take note of the narrator’s name before every chapter. Also, as I have said, this book needs a little more reading attention with the slew of names and the author’s wordy and somewhat old-fashioned prose (perhaps made to match the “ancient-ness” of the story(?) ).

In A Nutshell:

Steven Pressfield is my go-to for ancient war books.  I have not yet read any author who can match his breathtaking battle scenes laid out in all its  glory, page after riveting page.   If you have, I would appreciate the info for my comparison.  Moreover, this book exemplifies Pressfield’s  exceptional talent in handling  intricate layers in a story.

On the whole, Last of the Amazons is a very well written novel, mesmerizing on all accounts.

My Mark :  Outstanding


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Author :  Tom Rob Smith

Publication Date :  April 29, 2008  (Hardcover)

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

ISBN-10: 0446402389

ISBN-13: 978-0446402385

No. of pages : 448

The Story :

It is 1953.  Stalinist Russia is adamant at being a utopian state  where equality and  contentment are the core of its existence.  For where contentment thrives, there could be no crime or evil, the spawns of Western capitalism.

Leo Demidov is an officer of the MGB, the state secret police and guardian of these ideals.  Leo believes in the system and sees the necessity of arresting anyone that is remotely suspected of undermining those very goals.  Unfortunately in an environment that breeds mistrust, Leo falls victim to suspicion as well.

With a humiliating demotion in which he and his wife, Raisa, are shipped to a small town and his parents sent to live in squalor, Leo comes to terms with finally realizing the futility and wrongness of the communist system.

Meanwhile, the impossible has been happening.   Children are being murdered across one side of the country and all murders are brutally done in the same fashion.  A serial killer is on the loose,  but authorities refuse to consider the possibility of a Western style criminal in their midst.

To survive emotionally, Leo must have a purpose.  With a strong patriotic sense despite his disappointment in the government, Leo with his wife, Raisa, make it their personal missions to stop the murders and prove the existence of an insane killer,  one no one wants to admit to.

The Review

If I were to list books that have made an impression on me, Child 44 would definitely make that list.  It opens with a gripping first chapter which promises to keep you glued to the book ’til its end.

Tom Rob Smith does an admirable job of depicting the Soviet Union under the dangerous and repressive regime of Stalin with vivid descriptions of a dystopian society (only this was real) blanketed in fear, mistrust, and poverty.  His well-reasearched background aptly describes  Stalinist Russia where  its control-paranoid government assumed guilt until innocence was proven so that most of those arrested were summarily sentenced without adequate trial.  Moreover, in the pursuit of contentment and equality,  ideals of a communist society, it  was inconceivable for the system to admit to the existence of crime outside the political sphere;  hence criminal acts such as serial killing was an aberrant phenomenon maintained to be strictly a by-product of Western freedom and capitalism and therefore cannot exist logically in a communist state.

It is in this environment that his character, Leo, must root out a serial killer, defying official state denials of the existence of such a criminal.  Leo,  is an ardent believer of the Soviet system.  Everything Leo works for is for the collective  good.  As a ranking officer of the KGB’s predecessor, the MGB, he flushes out dissident citizens or those deemed to be dangerous to the state’s equilibrium and ideals.    But when Leo suddenly realizes that his latest prisoner was undoubtedly innocent,  his purpose of helping maintain the perfect state crashes to meaninglessness.   A real patriot at heart and despite a humiliating demotion, he decides to still have faith in his country , just not in his government, and sets about making a personal mission of rooting out a serial child killer, despite the dangers of incurring the disapproval of the MGB.

Smith injects great realism in this book.  His very much flawed hero deals with events that rarely reward his efforts,  believably true in such a milieu.   Moreover, he draws from genuine events in Russian history such as the Holodomor, the horrendous famine between 1932-1933 where millions, especially in the Ukraine, perished of starvation.  Accounts have mentioned numerous cases of cannibalism at this time.  These, the Gulags,  the excesses of  party leaders, the general misery and hopelessness  were hushed behind an Iron Curtain which trapped all that did not conform to the Communist ideals of a utopia.    The angle of the serial killer is patterned after a true-to-life Soviet child murderer,  Andrei Chikatilo, nicknamed The Butcher of Rostov or The Red Ripper, who sexually abused, tortured, and murdered women and children,  from 1978-1990.  The author simply borrows his story and places it within the timeframe of 1953.

The writing is predominantly narrative;  characters’ spoken lines aren’t many and are all in italics, a rather uncommon lay-out which veers from the traditional presentation of a dialogue.   It’s refreshingly different but it works quite well.

As a debut novel, Child 44 is superb.  The strongest asset of this book  is it’s well developed atmosphere.  The setting is palpable, the characters and events seem so real that I could not stop turning the pages until I reached the end at 3:30 a.m.  However, it isn’t perfect and sadly, events toward the ending came out a bit contrived and questionable which tarnished the reading experience a bit.   It is just a teeny blight, however, not enough to render the book a disappointment.    In fact, other readers may be perfectly happy with its conclusion.   Overall, a marvelous, marvelous read!


My Mark :  Outstanding!   (Would have merited Excellence, if not for that little smudge)

Author :  M. J. Rose

First Published :  September 1, 2007

This Edition’s Publication Date :  October 1, 2008  (reprint edition)

Publisher :  Mira

ISBN-10: 0778325768

ISBN-13: 978-0778325765

No. of pages : 464

The Story :

Josh Ryder barely survives a terrorist’s bomb and wakes up, changed forever. He begins having flashbacks of being Julius, a pagan running from Christian persecution in ancient Rome and entrusted with a secret treasure with the power to unlock one’s past lives. That and a forbidden love with a Vestal Virgin brings about an ill-fated destiny that begs for correction in his modern life as Joshua.

Confused and determined to know more about his reincarnated condition, Josh turns to the Phoenix Foundation, a facility which studies past life regression in children. He is led to an important archeological find,  discovered by Professor Gabriela Chase.  The dig holds the  entrusted treasure, the Memory Stones, kept hidden for over two thousand years.  Josh and Gabriela must decipher its secret to solve Josh’s reincarnated questions and rescue Gabriela’s child.

The Review :

Despite the alluring title, The Reincarnationist is anything but. The bland writing style doesn’t do justice to its genre (adventure-thriller).  Surprisingly, even with a recommended reading list that seems to project the book as a well-researched material, the novel just doesn’t grab one by their lapels to be properly thrilling. Rather, it generally just plods along in spite of some occasional frissons of excitement in it.

Blah characterization may have to do a lot with the “ho-humness” of it all as well. Readers may not develop enough empathy for Josh’s character nor for the other characters until a really major thing happens to Gabriella Chase that makes her more palpable.  Other than that, you may not really care much for them.

An unsatisfying conclusion may provoke complaints too.  Perhaps The Reincarnationist’s inconclusiveness prepares for the book’s touted sequels, The Memorist (Book 2) and The Hypnotist (Book 3).   But if you were to read their synopses, you wouldn’t really find them as continuations.  (Shrug.)  Having not read the sequels, though, I may be wrong.

However, this book is not an all-out loser. It isn’t that bad; it just does not thrill as much as it should have. To think, reincarnation is a very interesting subject; and yet the book just does not entice the reader enough to delve more into it. You finish it, think ok, then promptly forget about it.

To Read Or Not To Read :

Read if you have nothing else more interesting on hand.  But I wonder if you’ll still want to tackle a rather average read after knowing it is  part of a series.

My Mark : Mediocre




Author :  Naomi Novik

Date of Publication :  May 19, 2009

Publisher :  Del Rey

ISBN-10: 0345512251

ISBN-13: 978-0345512253

No. of pages :  384

The Review :

I have dispensed with the summary for this book to avoid spilling the beans on Empire of Ivory (Book 4).

This is a darker piece,  with Laurence and Temeraire forced to make difficult decisions on their own. Both go through a character building process, while trying to defend England from France’s invasion.

Temeraire is forced to deal  with  the  complexity and irrationality that often plague human psychology as he learns human politics and negotiation.  With  straightforward and simplified draconic ways of thought, Temeraire is often frustrated at how difficult humans can make life be when things seem to be plain as day.

On the other hand,  Laurence must temper his ideals and his inherent insistence on righteousness, sometimes misplaced, which earns him more harm than good.  He is faced with the need to reassess his values when they  prove to be impractical nor right  anymore.  For instance, Laurence is challenged with  situations where authority isn’t always right and can be in serious conflict with his personal sense of right and wrong.

The action does not let up in this one as well.   Novik perhaps intends to let her duo travel the world as the next destination for them is Australia.  Books two to four see them through China, the Middle East, Germany, Russia, and Africa.

I can’t wait for the sixth book, Tongues of Serpents due in the middle of this year.   One caveat though:  if you plan to read the Temeraire series, you must start with  Her Majesty’s Dragon (Book One).  You would not appreciate this series should your first book be other than the first.  Novik hardly takes the meticulous pain of backtracking and if she does, it is rather cursory as this is the type of series that must be read chronologically.

My Mark  :  Outstanding!


Author :  Naomi Novik

Date of Publication : May 30, 2006

Publisher :  Del Rey

ISBN-10: 0345481305

ISBN-13: 978-0345481306

No. of pages : 400

The Story :

China’s Emperor allows William Laurence and Temeraire to go back to England.  As they were about to do so, an urgent missive instructs them in no uncertain terms to bring back three dragon eggs from the Ottoman Empire or suffer the consequences.  Laurence, Temeraire and his crew embark on a dangerous crossing across desert and mountains.

On the way, they meet feral dragons which they end up befriending.  Temeraire, having experienced the more exalted treatment of dragons in China, speak to the ferals about a better way of life — better accomodations, food, etc.  His Chinese exposure, his witness of the slave trade, and his voracious reading have also made him  question the order of dragon treatment  in England where he perceives his kind to have limited choices and freedoms.  Temeraire is growing a sense of social justice for dragons in general and is determined to spearhead changes for the dragons’ lot, starting with the English Parliament.

With the uncontrollable,  undeducated ferals breaching etiquette, Laurence and his company make a bad start with relations at the Turkish border.  The mission becomes more and more disastrous at the Turks’ refusal to hand over the paid eggs and at the machinations of an albino dragon, Lien, who had become Temeraire and Laurence’s vengeful enemy in China.

The situation forces Laurence’s party to take drastic measures and to flee to the Prussian side where they fight as allies against the vast, encroaching army of Napoleon.

Author :  Naomi Novik     

Date of Publication :  September 25, 2007

Publisher :  Del Rey

ISBN-10: 0345496876

ISBN-13: 978-0345496874

No. of Pages :  416

The Story :

Laurence and Temeraire finally fly home to England only to find a new threat—a plague of the common cold, fatal to dragons with no known cure.  With the threat of decimation hanging upon England’s aerial corps and the proximity of Bonaparte’s armies,  Laurence,  Temeraire and a bedraggled section of the aerial corps journey to Africa to find a cure.

In their desperate search, they are forced to discover a secret kingdom deep within the continent’s interior protected by African dragons who had forged a unique bond with its people.  These Africans have engaged in their own war against the colonial slave trade.

Danger harasses them throughout the tale and culminates with Laurence having to make a difficult life-changing decision.

The Review :

What keeps one riveted on these books?  It is first and foremost, its dragons.  They are the crux of the series; hence, Novik takes great pains in constructing her dragon world,  building on  different breeds and personalities, dacronian habits, likes and dislikes, their sexuality, intellectual capacities, etc.   She then melds her draconian world to a page in history, selecting the Napoleonic War. Taking care to stick well to factual historical events, she allows us to escape to an alternate reality.

To keep us further immersed,  Novik continues to develop her principal characters, Laurence and Temeraire, albeit almost exclusively which simplifies the story  in a way that the reader is focused on these two characters.  One begins to know them closely  so much so that he is caught in their intimate bond and the reby, the story’s spell.

As she develops Laurence and Temeraire,  she makes them gradually aware of life’s truths, shattering notions and shedding innocence.  From a hatchling to a young adult dragon, Temeraire goes through gradual knowledge of life’s complexities, injustice and  double-sidedness throughout the series.  He increasingly develops a sense of social justice.  With Temeraire’s progressing questions and some uncontrollable events,  Laurence , too, is forced to shift his paradigms to break  previous staunch beliefs especially in the area of England’s superiority and political system.

So far each book, after the first, satisfyingly segues into action-packed continuations, the author cleverly introducing  new, interesting dragon and human characters, pumping new life with new events and making one want to read more and more.

With all these, Novik is certainly going down the right path toward creating a marvelously enjoyable series.  I have enjoyed them, reading much well into the night , caught up in finding out what’s next.  I am certainly out to get the fifth book, Victory of Eagles, the latest published to date .

So far, so very good!  Not to mention that from premiering only in 2006, the books have come in pretty rapidly compared to the usual plodding rate of releases in most series writing.  This year, Tongues of Serpents is scheduled to be released on the thirteenth of July (as per the official website’s announcement on http://www.temeraire.org/).  

My Mark : Outstanding!  — Fantastically Entertaining

Author :  Naomi Novik

Date of Publication: April 25, 2006

Publisher :  Del Rey Books

ISBN-10: 0345481291

ISBN-13: 978-0345481290

No. of pages :  432


The Story :

China gets wind of where the prized dragon egg, their  lost gift for Napoleon, is.  An  angry Chinese Prince Yongxing and his delegation  arrive in Britain and demand the return of their dragon.

Temeraire is discovered to be a Celestial dragon, the rarest of Chinese breeds.   Venerated like royalty, the Chinese believe that only those of royal blood are worthy companions to these Celestials.  To their utter mortification, they discover their dragon would take no other companion but a common aviator, Capt. Laurence.

Pressured by China with the gloomy spectre of a Chinese alliance with France,  Laurence’s superiors force him and Temeraire to go with the delegation back to China.

Through the perils of a long voyage, Temeraire finally arrives in a country where dragons are treated like humans, with rights to education, property, and remuneration.  Chinese dragons also have a social stratification according to breed and have the chances of gaining wealth or falling into poverty as much as any human.

For Temeraire, his life in China as a Celestial is every dragon’s dream; but, China is not all that ideal after all, for diabolical plans are afoot.

The Review :

Throne of Jade sees much more action. The story takes a on a faster pace than the first book as  Novik throws in a lot more danger for all characters involved.

She injects a lot of humor, too, about 19th century British exposure to the Orient, making her characters have a lot of droll moments coming to terms with unfamiliar things like chopsticks and century eggs.

Novik successfully mimics the dry, genteel British verbal and writing style of the early 19th century which has a tendency to downplay or understate everything, even such incidents as death, danger, etc.  so that the full emotional impact is not felt and comes across as trivialized.  Injury to a crew member, for instance doesn’t seem to be of importance; however, emotional emphasis is given when the principal characters, Temeraire and Capt. Laurence are at stake.

Throne of Jade makes one immediately reach for Black Powder War, the third book of what promises to be an exciting series.

My Mark :  Very Good

I’ve missed out a lot on YA books last year so I decided to start on a genre that had been my reading preference in highschool — elves, dwarves, genies, dragons, magi— anything that smacks of high fantasy.

This is a series of which I only have four books. As to why I started on a series novel again (I had developed a wariness to unfinished series books), the pull was just there as the books have been staring at me from their shelves for two years now. The author promises nine books, five of which are published. The fifth book, Victory of Eagles has just been released in 2008.

The novels are all set in an alternate history during the Napoleonic wars,  concentrating on the French invasion of England.  In this alternate world, dragons are very much a part of life, indispensable in the military for they are the century’s air force along with their  human “pilots” or aviators.

What is central to this series is Novik’s world of dragons which she goes into detail, expounding on the different breeds, their weight, class, physical and mental abilities, preferences, etc.  Novik’s dragons are, like humans, varied in breed, intelligence, and ability.  The more intelligent ones have highly developed linguistic and analytical capacities.    She also imbues them with very human emotions so that we get to know them and identify with her dragon characters on a  personal level.   Her dragons are what caught my interest and made me stick to her series.

So, I’m settling down to review the series which Peter Jackson (best known as director of Lord of the Rings) is planning to do a miniseries on.

His Majesty’s Dragon (Book 1)

Author :  Naomi Novik

Date of Publication :  2006

Publisher :  Del Rey Books

No. of Pages : 384

ISBN-10: 0345481283

ISBN-13 : 978-0-345-48128-3

The Story :

The English make an immense discovery of a Chinese dragon egg aboard a French ship they had taken in battle. As the shell is hardening and land far away, English Captain James Laurence, has no choice but to await the hatching and be ready for the loss of any crew member the hatchling would take to.  As soon as the little dragon allows a harness to be donned by someone,  it is an inviolable law that the chosen person be duty-bound to leave his naval career, ambitions, and plans of future wife and family for a life of an aviator, a career demanding a lifelong bond with his dragon.

The egg hatches and the first person the baby dragon takes to is Captain Laurence.   With a deeply imbued sense of duty to country, Laurence bravely accepts the choice, names the dragon Temeraire and divests himself of naval rank and accoutrements to prepare himself  for aviator life.

As Captain Laurence begins his association with Temeraire, both start a deep love that would strengthen through their training and battles as each discovers himself and the other.

The Review :

Novik charmingly evokes the feel of the Napoleonic era with her characters’ genteel prudish language, cultural notions, dress and code of conduct of that bygone era.

Book One displays how interesting and endearing Novik’s dragons are so that readers get excited about reading Book Two  : The Throne of Jade.  While intimidating, her dragons are lovable, intelligent and excellent companions.  You’d wish they really existed.  As an added bonus, her dragons and their aviators form filial-like bonds that add to the escapist’s pleasure of identifying with the aviator.

His Majesty’s Dragon is a good first book that entices one to immerse in the series.  Novik’s world is so elegantly well-detailed that I really don’t mind spending my time immersed in it.

My Mark :  Very Good

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