Monday, January 16, 2017

Powder of Death: A Great Adventure

Book Review: Powder of Death by Julian Stockwin
Version: hard cover, personal purchase

Historical novels can be a fun retelling of historic events fictionalized to fill in details when we don't know the whole story. Author Julian Stockwin has become a master at this craft, no more so than in Powder of Death (2016), the story of how gunpowder came to thirteenth century England through the Crusades and Europe to bring King Edward III victory against the brutal Scots.

Powder of Death is more than a simple retelling of the story, however. It's really a travel adventure, kind of a story of discovery in the exploration of strange new lands, which begins as an attempt at personal redemption but turns into a seeking of wealth wielding a seemingly magical concoction. Stockwin writes brilliantly, bringing wonderful characters to life in a wholly realistic setting exploring history and times in thoroughly researched detail, which is his habit.

The book can be perceived into two parts.

The first part is almost Tolkien-like, Fellowship of the Rings in tone, as the main character, Jared, sets off for the Crusades on a pilgrimage seeking redemption for a terrible deed. Perkyn, a sidekick and protector from Jared's small English village, joins him as they set off for parts unknown, wide eyed and innocent to the world. They fail to reach their goal, but they succeed in participating in the Crusades, where Jared uses his skills as a blacksmith to aid gallant knights in defending a Crusader stronghold far from Jerusalem against a devastating Muslim attack. In the end, Jared and Perkyn are captured and enslaved, but with his blacksmithing skills, he is retained to help the Muslims take the stronghold. It is here that Jared learns of a strange and magical powder that can take down mighty fortresses.

The second part brings Jared and Perkyn back to England. He has the secret of the powder, although not the details of its making, and his goal is to avenge the reason for his seeking redemption, using the powder. It becomes his mission in life, his obsession, and over the ensuing chapters Jared, with Perkyn's aid, tries to work out how to use this mysterious powder to bring down the high and mighty. It brings Jared back to his village, only to discover he has changed as has his village, and it isn't really where he wants to be. He moves to Coventry seeking to set up a business, but the guilds there won't allow him. So he seeks other avenues and meets up with the wife of his late cousin, who likes his vision for using the powder. Over months and years he tests the powder in various ways to use it as a weapon against a host of foes. Powers in Italy and Belgium show interest. But there is always an impediment to Jared's experiments. Ultimately, his quest brings him back to England and the Court of young Edward III.

The chapters are short but the story is long and captivating. The plan is cunning and the struggle is compelling. Your payoff is the life-changing journey.

I'm a big fan of Julian Stockwin novels. He doesn't disappoint. Powder of Death is a good example. Like The Silk Tree before it and his long-running Kydd Series novels that continue as I write, Stockwin is a master teller of grand historical fiction tales. Pick one, any one, and you will be highly entertained. Today, I suggest you read Powder of Death. It's a great adventure.

Update: Available April 20, 2017, in paperback (or now worldwide at

Friday, January 13, 2017

The Dying Art of Book Repair

Recommended Read: "He Fixes the Cracked Spines of Books..."

From The New York Times, by Kirk Johnson, an article about Donald Vass of Seattle, "who has spent the last 26 years mending and tending to books for the King County Public Library system" in the Seattle, Washington, area. "He believes he will be the last full-time traditional bookbinder ever to take up shears, brushes and needles here." Great article on a man dedicated to the love of books and the art of repairing them, both for the public library system and even some patrons who track him down and ask him to save a treasured volume.

What happens to worn out old books? Many, perhaps most, get tossed into the trash bin. Some are shelved in an archive or on a dusty old shelf. But some get mended to live a longer life, to be read another "day." With the surge in ebooks and the ease of finding used books on the Internet, there is less "need" to repair the old and worn out. Still, in some places with the right finances, the will remains to repair and maintain what may be saved.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Command Authority: Third Great Book Out of Three

Book Review: Command Authority by Tom Clancy with Mark Greaney
Version: Public Library

Command Authority is another great read and in times with today's headlines, published in 2014.

This is the third Jack Ryan character-driven book I've read, which dates before Full Force and Effect  (2015) and Commander in Chief (2016). The latter two were written by Mark Greany after the passing of Tom Clancy (2013). Command Authority was written by Tom Clancy with the assistance of Mark Greany.

This story takes place during a Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Crimea, with Valerie Volodin as the prop character representing Vladimir Putin. It is as real as fiction gets, shadowing the actual Ukraine conflict of 2014. The Russian espionage set up in the story is totally believable when you consider the recent Russian hacking of U.S. political resources and disinformation campaign and a purported attempted Russian hacking of the U.S. electrical grid through a portal in Vermont. Tom Clancy and Mark Greany write with great authenticity, using everyday detail and current events to bring vivid clarity to their plot and settings.

Command Authority also takes us back to events during the Cold War and the break up of the Soviet Union, and how it led up to the creation of the Russian Oligarchs, who ostensibly run Russia now.

Along with accurate historical and current event details, Clancy creates likable characters in Jack Ryan, president in this and the other two books, and Ryan's son, Jack, Jr., and others with whom these main characters work. These all meld together to make the story readable and enjoyable, and propel the reader into a story line that is hard to put down once you become engaged. So it is with Command Authority. As with any story of substance, these characters face dangers and conflicts you can see vividly in your mind as you read, and you care that they succeed or whether they fail, taking you along their journey through to the end of the book not daring to leave the story lest you leave them hanging. It's well written and time well spent traveling along with the characters on their adventure.

Tom Clancy is a dominant writer in this field of suspense and thriller spy writers, and in this series of books you can see why. Mark Greaney ably picks up Clancy's baton and runs well with it, continuing the saga of these well-established characters. Well done, Greaney!

I would rate this and the other two novels five spy daggers out of five.

The next Tom Clancy novel by Mark Greaney is True Faith and Allegiance, out now.