Frenzy in the French killing fields

Frenzy in the French killing fields as raggle-taggle, rough-and-ready bunch of ten mavericks join an invading English force

Essex Dogs

by Dan Jones (Head of Zeus £16.99, 464 pp)

Historian Jones’s first foray into fiction is battle-bloody, brutal and perfectly pitched.

The book opens in 1346, on the beaches of Normandy, as The Essex Dogs — a raggle-taggle, rough-and-ready bunch of ten mavericks, led by scarred, war-weary Loveday FitzTalbot — join an invading English force.

It’s nine years into the Hundred Years’ War. Loveday’s motley crew, including young Romford, nursing a drug addiction and on the run from his past, and Father, a ruined and dangerously unpredictable priest, are caught up in the increasingly violent conflict as they head to the hellish killing fields of Crecy.

Meticulously researched and vibrantly told, Jones captures the fear and frenzy of the fight and the loyalty and kinship of the Dogs.

It’s a slaughterous, sweary, swaggering debut.

The Essex Dogs — a raggle-taggle, rough-and-ready bunch of ten mavericks were led by scarred, war-weary Loveday FitzTalbo 

Babel

by R. F. Kuang (Harper Voyager £16.99, 560 pp)

Magical silver, the tricky art of translation, a secret society and the corrupting, insatiable greed of Western Imperialism collide in this wonderfully immersive, decidedly smart fourth novel from Kuang.

At the centre of this heart-quickening, heart-breaking historical fantasy is Robin Swift, a Chinese orphan who is whisked away to England in 1829 by the mysterious, merciless Professor Richard Lovell. Linguistically gifted, Robin heads to the Royal Institution of Translation at Oxford University, at Lovell’s behest.

Robin and his three close friends are entranced by their enchanting work in the elite world of Oxford’s dreaming spires, but it’s this precious work that underpins the nightmarish ambitions of The Establishment. Swift finds his loyalty tested in this dazzling drama of dark academia.

What makes a monster is the central question in Natalie Haynes’ wry, spry feminist take on the Medusa myth.

With a cast of pernickety immortals, intemperate, rapacious gods, jealous, unreasonable goddesses, a chorus of olives from a Greek grove and the commentary of the bickering snakes’ heads that make up Medusa’s serpentine tresses, Haynes’ story is an earthy, playful yet rage-filled upending of the Greek hero trope.

Haynes is gunning for problematic Perseus from the start. Here realistically cast as a petulant, arrogant, fearful teenager, rather than an all-conquering champion — and the painfully self-aware, all-too-human Medusa — cursed by Athena who is ‘vengeful and cruel, always blaming women for what men do to them’ — is his innocent victim.

Stone Blind is brilliantly brimful of these very neat reversals. 

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