Assassin’s Quest by Robin Hobb

Assassins Quest I’ve finished the Farseer Trilogy and now I feel bereft! After the cliffhanger ending of the previous book, Royal Assassin, I immediately moved on to the final instalment but now I wish I’d waited a while so that the whole experience wouldn’t have been over so quickly. This particular book wasn’t my favourite of the three – I had a few minor problems with this book that prevented me from enjoying it as much as the first two – but I can’t express how much I loved this trilogy as a whole.

It is almost impossible to discuss the final book of three without giving away things that happened in the previous two, so be aware that there will be spoilers throughout the rest of this post! If you’re new to Robin Hobb it wouldn’t be a good idea to start with this book anyway – Assassin’s Apprentice is where you need to begin.

Assassin’s Quest is slightly different from the first two Farseer novels because, while those two were centred around Buckkeep and its inhabitants, in this third book Fitz is on a mission that will take him across the Six Duchies and beyond. It feels more like a traditional fantasy adventure novel – and in fact, it does contain much stronger fantasy elements than the previous books. We learn more about the Wit and the Skill – and both of these types of magic are used in ways I hadn’t realised was possible – and we even meet some dragons (which isn’t surprising, as there’s one pictured on the book cover). While I thought the strengthening of the fantasy elements felt like a natural development as Fitz ventures further into the Realm of the Elderlings, I did prefer the more subtle fantasy atmosphere of Assassin’s Apprentice and Royal Assassin.

This novel picks up the story where Royal Assassin ended, with Fitz believed to have died at the hands of King Regal and his coterie. We, however, know that he has only left his body temporarily to join his wolf, Nighteyes, with whom he is Wit-bound. After a slow start in which Fitz returns to human form and has to come to terms with no longer being a wolf, he finally sets out on his quest. His aim is to hunt down Regal and kill him, but this proves to be more difficult than he expected and eventually he becomes aware that he has allowed himself to be distracted from what should have been his real purpose: finding Verity, his beloved uncle and rightful King of the Six Duchies.

Verity left Buckkeep halfway through the previous novel to go in search of the legendary Elderlings in the hope that they would help him to defeat the Red Ship Raiders. He has never been seen since, but Fitz is sure he’s still alive – he can sense Verity’s presence with his Skill and hear his command (“Come to me!”) in his mind. This certainty that his King is waiting for him is what keeps Fitz focused on his task, even when he wants nothing more than to return to Buck and look for Molly, the woman he loves, now only visible to him in Skill dreams.

As Fitz and Nighteyes travel across all of the Six Duchies and on into the Mountain Kingdom they are joined by some old friends, as well as making new ones such as Starling, a minstrel, and Kettle, an old woman who clearly knows a lot more about the Skill than she wants to admit to. That, by the way, was one of the little things that annoyed me about the book. It seemed that on a mission where everybody needed to pull together, every one of the party was keeping secrets from the others, making cryptic comments when a simple explanation could have saved so much trouble. Speaking of secrets and cryptic comments, we do learn quite a lot about the Fool in this book. However, the revelations that are made about the Fool just seem to raise more questions than they answer!

Unlike the first two books which I loved from the beginning, it took me a while to really get into Assassin’s Quest; the opening section with Fitz learning to be human again seemed to go on forever. After the journey got underway, I was quickly drawn into the story once again and became so absorbed in Fitz’s world I was dreading reaching the end of the book – especially as I was sure it wouldn’t end happily. This is a big, thick book (with over 800 pages in the edition I read) and there were a few points where I thought the story started to drag. I didn’t mind persevering through the slower parts, though, because there are some truly fantastic moments in this book, my favourites being the breathtaking scenes set inside Regal’s palace at Tradeford.

So, do Fitz and his friends find Verity and if so, has he succeeded in enlisting the help of the Elderlings? Will Fitz have another chance to kill Regal? Despite my spoiler warnings, I’m not going to answer those questions here. I will just say that I found the ending (the final two or three chapters, really) every bit as sad as I’d expected it to be, and yes, I cried. I’m not always a fan of happy, fairytale endings but after all the misery Fitz and the other characters had gone through in this trilogy I think I would have liked one here! As for the way everything was wrapped up in the last few pages in the style of an epilogue, I didn’t find that very satisfying either. I realise, though, that we’ll meet Fitz again later in the Tawny Man Trilogy and I’m looking forward to reading those books – but not until I’ve read the Liveship Traders first!

Phineas Finn by Anthony Trollope

Phineas Finn The second of Trollope’s Palliser novels introduces us to Phineas Finn, a young Irishman who is elected to parliament at the age of twenty-five.

After supporting Phineas while he studied in London, his father, a country doctor, expects him to return home to Ireland to practise law there and to marry his childhood sweetheart, Mary Flood Jones. Phineas, though, has other ambitions and decides to stand for parliament. Unfortunately, members of parliament receive no payment for their work so when Phineas, against all expectations, is elected, he finds that he must persuade his father to support him for a while longer. Doctor Finn reluctantly agrees, but other friends – such as Phineas’s mentor, the barrister Mr Low – are quick to express their disapproval:

“Phineas, my dear fellow, as far as I have as yet been able to see the world, men don’t begin either very good or very bad. They have generally good aspirations with infirm purposes;—or, as we may say, strong bodies with weak legs to carry them…In nine cases out of ten it is some one small unfortunate event that puts a man astray at first. He sees some woman and loses himself with her — or he is taken to a racecourse and unluckily wins money — or some devil in the shape of a friend lures him to tobacco and brandy. Your temptation has come in the shape of this accursed seat in Parliament.”

Young, idealistic and enthusiastic about his new responsibilities, Phineas sets off for London where as well as finding his way in the corrupt and complex world of politics he also finds himself involved in romantic entanglements with three very different women.

Lady Laura Standish is the daughter of Phineas’s patron, the Earl of Brentford, and the first woman with whom he falls in love after leaving Ireland. Early in the novel, Laura turns down Phineas and marries another politician, Mr Kennedy, for all the wrong reasons. It’s not long before she realises her mistake and begins to desperately search for a way out of her unhappy marriage. Phineas then turns his attentions to Laura’s friend, Violet Effingham, an heiress who seems likely to marry Lord Chiltern, Laura’s brother. A friendship develops between Phineas and Chiltern, but soon they find themselves rivals for Violet’s love. And finally, there’s Madame Max Goesler, a rich and independent widow with a hint of scandal in her past.

Will Phineas marry one of these women or will he decide that his heart belongs in Killaloe with Mary Flood Jones after all? And will Phineas’s political career lead to success or will Dr Finn and Mr Low be proved right in the end?

I’m really enjoying the Palliser series so far, although I think the Barsetshire novels will always hold a special place in my heart through being my first introduction to Trollope. I think I liked the first Palliser novel, Can You Forgive Her?, a little bit more than this one, simply because there is more focus on politics in this book. I could follow some of it – I can remember a school history lesson dealing with the Reform Bill, the ballot and the ‘rotten boroughs’, things which are covered in a lot of detail in this book – but I have to confess to having very little interest in all the speeches, votes and debates that Trollope devotes so much time to.

Luckily, even while finding the politics boring I could still love the rest of the novel and as usual with Trollope I was pulled into the lives of the characters and the dilemmas in which they find themselves. Phineas, of course, is our hero and like most of Trollope’s ‘heroes’ is not always particularly heroic, but this is what makes him such an appealing character. I felt that things were falling into place for him too easily and success was coming too quickly before he really had time to grow into his new life and career, but although he does make mistakes, he learns from them and we can be confident that he’ll try to do the right thing in the end.

But the characters who interested me most were the women in Phineas’s life – Lady Laura, Violet Effingham and Madame Max Goesler. All three are portrayed as intelligent, complex people and I felt that Trollope truly understood and sympathised with the situations they found themselves in and the options that were open to them.

This wasn’t one of my favourite Trollope novels but I loved the characters and am already looking forward to meeting some of them again later in Phineas Redux – after I’ve read the third book in the series, The Eustace Diamonds.

The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson

The Testament of Gideon Mack One of my favourite books of last year was James Hogg’s weird and wonderful 1824 classic The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. The Testament of Gideon Mack is a contemporary novel but when I discovered that it was inspired by The Private Memoirs and Confessions I knew I would have to read it.

Gideon Mack is the name of a Church of Scotland minister who disappears from his home in the small Scottish town of Monimaskit never to be seen again. Following his disappearance, a manuscript is found and given to a publisher; this document, which was apparently written by Gideon Mack himself, is an account of his entire life, from his childhood to the moment he sets off to climb the mountain Ben Alder – a journey from which he never returns.

As Gideon’s last testament unfolds, we are given a detailed portrait of a flawed, complex but very human character – a man who, despite not believing in God, becomes a minister like his father; a married man who would rather be married to his best friend’s wife; a man who is never happier than when he is out running alone in the woods. But when he falls into a ravine called the Black Jaws, is swept away by the river and emerges several days later claiming to have met the Devil, it seems that Gideon has lost his mind. Or has he?

Books that are a little bit unusual and quirky always appeal to me and The Testament of Gideon Mack was certainly both of those things! I found it a fascinating and imaginative story, but in the end I was slightly disappointed as it was not quite what I’d hoped it would be. Apart from a storyline involving a standing stone that mysteriously appears in the woods, and the inclusion of an eerie Scottish folktale, there was little of the gothic atmosphere the blurb and quotes on the book cover had hinted at. Gideon’s encounter with the Devil, which I’d thought would form a significant part of the plot, doesn’t take place until near the end of the book (over 250 pages in) and when it finally happened it felt like an anticlimax.

This wasn’t the dark, supernatural story I was expecting, then – and definitely not as good as Hogg’s fantastic novel, despite sharing a few plot elements – but once I’d realised that, I was able to accept it for what it was. Gideon, as I’ve already mentioned, is an intriguing character and I enjoyed watching his story unfold. The chapters in which he describes his early life, growing up as the son of a strict church minister, were my favourites. I particularly loved his account of how a television first arrived in the manse and how he would always watch the first part of Batman on a Saturday but never knew how the story ended because his father had banned television on Sundays. And as a book lover myself, it was good to see the young Gideon discover the joys of reading as he worked through the novels of Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott.

Although The Testament of Gideon Mack is a modern novel, published in 2006 and set in the very recent past (with contemporary references to things like the Gulf War and Scottish devolution) the writing style and the way it is structured make it feel more like a 19th century one. It’s a very similar structure to The Private Memoirs and Confessions: Gideon’s testament is presented as a long manuscript with editor’s footnotes, a publisher’s prologue describing how the document came into his possession, and an epilogue written by an investigative journalist. I couldn’t help thinking a more historical setting would have been better suited to the style of the novel – although I tend to think all novels would be better with historical settings, so other readers will probably disagree with me on that point!

So, did Gideon Mack really meet the Devil? Was he telling lies? Did he just imagine it all? And what happened when he arrived at Ben Alder? Those questions are never really answered but using the information given in Gideon’s own testament together with the statements of witnesses and people who knew him well, we are left to decide for ourselves.

The Classics Club 50 Question Survey

The Classics Club

I can never resist a survey and The Classics Club posted this tempting 50 Question one last week. After spending a few days musing over my answers I think I’m ready!

1. Share a link to your club list.
My list

2. When did you join The Classics Club? How many titles have you read for the club?
I joined in March 2012 and have read 42/100 books so far.

3. What are you currently reading?
For the Classics Club: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. This has been my long-term reading project for 2014 – I started in January and hope to be finished before Christmas.
Non-club related: Assassin’s Quest by Robin Hobb (which I’m loving; I think I’ve found a new favourite author) and The Hollow Crown by Dan Jones, a non-fiction book on the Wars of the Roses.

4. What did you just finish reading and what did you think of it?
Phineas Finn, the second of Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels. I loved it, though maybe not quite as much as the first in the series, Can You Forgive Her?

5. What are you reading next? Why?
I’ll be starting Bellarion by Rafael Sabatini soon as it’s my Classics Spin book.

6. Best book you’ve read so far with the club, and why?
I enjoyed my re-read of The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas and my first read of its sequel, Twenty Years After, but I also loved A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Oh, and Scaramouche by Sabatini. And The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. You didn’t expect me just to pick one, did you?

7. Book you most anticipate (or, anticipated) on your club list?
Probably The Vicomte de Bragelonne by Alexandre Dumas and Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne du Maurier, given how much I’ve enjoyed everything else I’ve read by those two authors.

8. Book on your club list you’ve been avoiding, if any? Why?
East of Eden by John Steinbeck, though I’m not sure why I’ve been avoiding it. I know a lot of other bloggers have read it and loved it, but I seem to have convinced myself I probably won’t like it.

9. First classic you ever read?
I read lots of classics as a child and can’t remember which was first, but it could have been something like The Secret Garden, Black Beauty, The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

10. Toughest classic you ever read?
Clarissa by Samuel Richardson! It was not necessarily a difficult book to read, but I struggled with the slow pace and the repetitiveness. There were parts of the book that I loved, but there were also times when I just didn’t think I could go on!

11. Classic that inspired you? or scared you? made you cry?
Inspired me: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Scared me: Ligeia by Edgar Allan Poe. Made me cry: Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy.

12. Longest classic you’ve read? Longest classic left on your club list?
The longest I’ve read is probably Clarissa – I think it’s slightly longer than War and Peace, which I’ve also read. The longest book left on my list (after I’ve finished Don Quixote) is Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset.

13. Oldest classic you’ve read? Oldest classic left on your club list?
The Epic of Gilgamesh must surely be the oldest I’ve read. It’s believed to be 4,000 years old! Most of the classics left on my club list are from the 19th and 20th centuries, but The Romance of the Forest by Ann Radcliffe is from 1791.

14. Favorite biography about a classic author you’ve read — or, the biography on a classic author you most want to read, if any?
I don’t read a lot of biographies but I did enjoy Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life. I want to read her biographies of Thomas Hardy and Jane Austen at some point too.

15. Which classic do you think EVERYONE should read? Why?
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas as it’s my favourite classic and I would like everyone to love it as much as I do!

16. Favorite edition of a classic you own, if any?
The beautiful hardback copy of A Christmas Carol with colour illustrations which I was given for Christmas as a child.

17. Favorite movie adaption of a classic?
I have a few: To Kill a Mockingbird, Rebecca and Gone with the Wind.

18. Classic which hasn’t been adapted yet (that you know of) which you very much wish would be adapted to film.
Something by Wilkie Collins. The Moonstone and The Woman in White have been adapted before (though not recently) but I think both No Name and Armadale would make great films!

19. Least favorite classic? Why?
I’m not sure I really have a least favourite classic, though I didn’t like either The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger or Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. I know most people love them, but neither of them was my type of book.

20. Name five authors you haven’t read yet whom you cannot wait to read.
Sticking with unread authors on my Classics Club list: Charles Reade, Samuel Shellabarger, Jules Verne, Charlotte M. Yonge, William Makepeace Thackeray

21. Which title by one of the five you’ve listed above most excites you and why?
Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger as it’s a classic historical fiction novel (my favourite genre) and I’ve read some wonderful reviews.

22. Have you read a classic you disliked on first read that you tried again and respected, appreciated, or even ended up loving? (This could be with the club or before it.)
Emma by Jane Austen. The first time I read it I just didn’t like the character of Emma herself and struggled to see past her superior attitude and the way she treated Harriet Smith. On a second read several years later I found I was much more tolerant of Emma and her faults. By the end of the book I really liked Emma – both the character and the novel – and was so pleased I’d tried again.

23. Which classic character can’t you get out of your head?
Edmond Dantes from The Count of Monte Cristo.

24. Which classic character most reminds you of yourself?
I’m not sure…maybe Elinor Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility.

25. Which classic character do you most wish you could be like?
Melanie Wilkes from Gone with the Wind. I’ve always admired her quiet strength.

26. Which classic character reminds you of your best friend?
It’s not something I’ve ever thought about!

27. If a sudden announcement was made that 500 more pages had been discovered after the original “THE END” on a classic title you read and loved, which title would you most want to keep reading? Or, would you avoid the augmented manuscript in favor of the original? Why?
I would prefer to stick with the original ending but probably wouldn’t be able to resist reading the newly discovered pages! I remember reading Scarlett, the sequel to Gone with the Wind, and while it was nice to get a more satisfying conclusion to the story I did sort of wish I hadn’t read it because, really, the ending was already perfect the way it was.

28. Favorite children’s classic?
Watership Down by Richard Adams, though I don’t consider it specifically a children’s book as it has so much to offer an adult reader too.

29. Who recommended your first classic?
That’s difficult to answer as I can’t actually remember what my first classic was, but it was probably my mother who loves reading as much as I do.

30. Whose advice do you always take when it comes to literature. (Recommends the right editions, suggests great titles, etc.)
I don’t know many people who share my taste in books, so I rely on my favourite book blogs for recommendations!

31. Favorite memory with a classic?
Reading Watership Down for the first time at the age of ten. I started reading it on a Sunday evening when I was feeling miserable about having to go to school the next day and it really cheered me up.

32. Classic author you’ve read the most works by?
I’ve been working my way through Daphne du Maurier’s books over the last few years and have now read sixteen of them.

33. Classic author who has the most works on your club list?
I tried not to include too many books by the same author, but couldn’t resist listing seven by Alexandre Dumas!

34. Classic author you own the most books by?
Wilkie Collins.

35. Classic title(s) that didn’t make it to your club list that you wish you’d included? (Or, since many people edit their lists as they go, which titles have you added since initially posting your club list?)
I’ve edited my list so many times I can’t remember all the changes! There are some books I put on my original list that I just have no desire to read anymore so there was no point in leaving them on there.

36. If you could explore one author’s literary career from first publication to last — meaning you have never read this author and want to explore him or her by reading what s/he wrote in order of publication — who would you explore? Obviously this should be an author you haven’t yet read, since you can’t do this experiment on an author you’re already familiar with. :) Or, which author’s work you are familiar with might it have been fun to approach this way?
That’s an intriguing question but without having already sampled an author’s work I wouldn’t want to commit to reading everything they had written! Of the authors I’m already familiar with, there are a few that I would have liked to approach this way – for example, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy or Daphne du Maurier – but as I’ve been reading their books out of order it’s too late for that now!

37. How many rereads are on your club list? If none, why? If some, which are you most looking forward to, or did you most enjoy?
I have five re-reads on my list (plus another two which I’ve already re-read for the club). I’m particularly looking forward to re-reading The Count of Monte Cristo and Rebecca, as they’re two of my favourite books, and also Wuthering Heights to see if I still love it as much as I did when I was younger.

38. Has there been a classic title you simply could not finish?
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I’ve tried twice and couldn’t get past the first few chapters either time. It’s on my Classics Club list as I do want to try it again and I feel more positive about it after reading one of Dostoyevsky’s other books, The Idiot, earlier this year and enjoying it.

39. Has there been a classic title you expected to dislike and ended up loving?
The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham. For some reason I think I’d formed a preconceived idea that I wouldn’t like it, yet it ended up as one of my favourite books of last year!

40. Five things you’re looking forward to next year in classic literature?
I haven’t started planning for next year yet, but I do want to find time for some of the re-reads on my list and I’m also looking forward to trying some of the authors I’ve never read before.

41. Classic you are DEFINITELY GOING TO MAKE HAPPEN next year?
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray, which I do really want to read but keep putting off.

42. Classic you are NOT GOING TO MAKE HAPPEN next year?
None – I don’t want to rule anything out.

43. Favorite thing about being a member of the Classics Club?
The sense of community and being able to easily find other readers who love classic literature. And of course, the classics spin, monthly memes and surveys like this one…

44. List five fellow clubbers whose blogs you frequent. What makes you love their blogs?
The Bookworm Chronicles
Fleur in her World
Lakeside Musing
Heavenali
Tell Me a Story

45. Favorite post you’ve read by a fellow clubber?
I’ve enjoyed lots of my fellow clubbers’ posts and couldn’t pick just one!

46. If you’ve ever participated in a readalong on a classic, tell about the experience? If you’ve participated in more than one, what’s the very best experience? the best title you’ve completed? a fond memory? a good friend made?
I participated in year-long readalongs for both Clarissa (in 2012) and War and Peace (in 2013) and would probably never have made it to the end of either of those books on my own. I’ve taken part in other classic readalongs too and enjoyed them all, but they are the two I’ll never forget as they lasted a whole year!

47. If you could appeal for a readalong with others for any classic title, which title would you name? Why?
Any of the titles on my list that I haven’t read yet.

48. How long have you been reading classic literature?
As long as I can remember!

49. Share up to five posts you’ve written that tell a bit about your reading story. Reviews, journal entries, posts on novels you loved or didn’t love, lists, etc.
Top Ten Tuesday: Needing to read more
Classics Club March Meme: Literary Periods
Best Books of 2013
Classics Club August Meme: A Favourite Classic
Turn of the Century Salon: Introduction

50. Question you wish was on this questionnaire? (Ask and answer it!)
I’m already exhausted after answering so many questions, so let’s just leave it at 49!

The King’s Sister by Anne O’Brien

The Kings Sister The King’s Sister is a light but enjoyable historical novel set in the 14th century and telling the story of Elizabeth of Lancaster. As the daughter of John of Gaunt, uncle to the young King Richard II, Elizabeth does not have the freedom to marry as she chooses. At seventeen, an age when she is hoping for romantic love, she is forced into marriage with the eight-year-old Earl of Pembroke who is more interested in parrots and dogs than in his new wife.

As she waits impatiently for her husband to grow up, Elizabeth meets the King’s half-brother, John Holland. Holland is charming and charismatic, a man where Pembroke is a boy, and despite the warnings of her friends and family, Elizabeth soon finds herself breaking her marriage vows. An annulment follows and Elizabeth weds again, this time to the man she loves. But when King Richard is deposed and replaced on the throne by Elizabeth’s own brother, now Henry IV, she finds herself in an impossible position. With her husband still loyal to his half-brother, the former king, Elizabeth must decide where her own loyalties lie: with John Holland or with Henry?

I’ve read other novels set in this time period but I’ve never read one that focuses on Elizabeth of Lancaster as a main character. The King’s Sister is narrated by Elizabeth herself so we are able to get very close to her, accompanying her through all the ups and downs of her life, sharing her agony as she is forced to make a decision nobody should ever have to make. She is portrayed as a headstrong, defiant young woman used to getting her own way, who gives little thought to the consequences of her actions. While I understood Elizabeth’s disappointment with her first marriage, I did feel sorry for the little Earl of Pembroke who couldn’t help being young, after all – and I often felt frustrated with her for refusing to heed anyone’s advice and ignoring the warnings she was given against John Holland. However, Elizabeth is aware that she has flaws and that she can be selfish, and she does develop as a person over the course of the novel, which made it possible for me to have some sympathy for her.

Although I didn’t like Elizabeth very much (or John Holland either – I agreed with the general opinion of Elizabeth’s friends that he was untrustworthy and self-centred) there were some great secondary characters. I particularly liked Joan of Kent, mother of both John Holland and Richard II, and Katherine Swynford, the Duke of Lancaster’s wife. These are both women I have read about before, Joan in A Triple Knot by Emma Campion and Katherine in the wonderful Katherine by Anya Seton, and Anne O’Brien draws parallels between their stories and Elizabeth’s. All three are women who had to fight to be with the man they loved, despite the disapproval of everyone around them.

Like the other Anne O’Brien book I’ve read (The Forbidden Queen), this is a novel which concentrates on love and romance, feelings and emotions rather than on politics or battles. However, the author still manages to make the 14th century come alive with descriptions of jousts and tournaments, balls and court gatherings. We are given just enough information on the historical background, the political situation and the ever-changing alliances at court that I came away from this novel with a better understanding of the time period and a feeling that I’d learned something new. With over 500 pages The King’s Sister is a long book and really felt like a long book – even while I was absorbed in the story – but I did enjoy it and look forward to exploring O’Brien’s earlier novels which I haven’t read yet.

Vlad: The Last Confession by C.C. Humphreys

Vlad the Last Confession I discovered C.C Humphreys in July when I read Plague, a novel about, unsurprisingly, the plague. Looking at the other books he had written, I came across one called Vlad: The Last Confession and thought it might be a good choice for this year’s R.I.P. challenge. Despite my best intentions I didn’t manage to start it in time for R.I.P. but decided to read it anyway.

Vlad, of course, is Vlad Dracula (also known as Vlad Tepes or Vlad the Impaler due to the particularly brutal method of punishment he used to torture his victims) but apart from the name, there are very few similarities with Bram Stoker’s famous vampire. I think it’s important to know, before you decide whether to read Vlad: The Last Confession, that this is not a vampire novel and not a retelling of Dracula. It’s a fascinating and thoroughly researched novel about a fifteenth century Prince of Wallachia (a region of Romania) who devoted most of his life to trying to secure his throne against rival claimants and fighting off the threat of the Ottoman Empire.

Born in 1431 in Transylvania, Vlad is the son of Vlad II, voivode of Wallachia and a member of the Order of the Dragon, hence the name Dracula (son of Dracul, the dragon). Vlad’s hatred of the Ottoman Turks begins at an early age when he and his younger brother, Radu, are held hostage in Edirne for several years. During their time in captivity they are educated in the Turkish language, religion and culture, but while Radu eventually converts to Islam and joins the household of the Sultan Mehmet II, Vlad remains resentful and defiant. Following the murder of his father, he returns to Wallachia to reclaim the throne.

Vlad’s story is told through the recollections of the three people who knew him best: his closest friend, his mistress and his confessor. These three are brought together after Vlad’s death and give evidence to help a jury – and the reader – to make up their minds about Vlad. So who was he, really? A brave leader who fought for what he believed in or a cruel, sadistic tyrant? I think the answer was probably both.

Vlad the Impaler

Vlad the Impaler

One of the things I liked about this novel was the fact that C.C. Humphreys’ depiction of Vlad is fair and unbiased; he doesn’t try to make excuses for his behaviour but at the same time he helps us to understand how and why Vlad came to commit some of the appalling acts he is known for. For example, during Vlad’s time as a Turkish hostage he is taken to a torture chamber and forced to learn some horrific medieval torture techniques. Although he resists at first, he soon adapts and tells himself that “we torture others so they cannot torture us”. While this certainly doesn’t justify any of his later actions, at least we can see some of the early experiences and influences that shaped the man he would become.

I’ve mentioned the torture scenes; I should warn you that there are also a lot of impaling scenes (and they are described in graphic detail) but I think this was necessary to illustrate the darker side of Vlad’s character in a way that makes a real impact. There are a lot of battle scenes too – and fights, jousts and descriptions of falconry. This is quite an action-packed novel, but Humphreys also explores Vlad’s relationships with his childhood friend, Ion Tremblac and his lover, Ilona Ferenc, as well as with enemies such as Mehmet. I have to admit, I would much rather have had more time spent on the personal storylines and less on the fighting and brutality, which I thought started to become very repetitive.

I found some of the history difficult to follow because of my complete lack of knowledge of what was happening in Eastern Europe during this period, but by the time I finished the book I felt I’d learned a lot. And even though my interest started to wane towards the end, I was glad I’d persevered. Vlad III is apparently considered to be a national hero in Romania and although a lot of the shocking things described in Humphreys’ novel are based on fact – he lists them in his author’s note at the end – I was left wondering whether Vlad may in some ways have been unfairly treated by history. As one of the characters in the novel remarks, “What the world knows is the story his conquerors told. And since they controlled so many printing presses, it was their stories that were widely spread”.

And the Classics Spin number is…

The Classics Club

Number 13

Last week I decided to take part in the Classics Club Spin. The rules were simple – list twenty books from your Classics Club list, number them 1 to 20, and the number announced today (Monday) represents the book you have to read before 5th January 2015.

The number that has been selected this time is 13, which means the book I’ll be reading is:

Bellarion

Bellarion by Rafael Sabatini

Bellarion is a historical adventure novel published in 1926 and set in 15th century Italy. This is the synopsis:

Bellarion, a young man set on joining the priesthood, is diverted from his calling to serve the Princess Valeria. He remains with her for five years, serving her faithfully despite her cold response. Yet when the time comes for him to leave, they both find that the passion and romance of Italy has left its mark…

I loved the other two Sabatini novels I’ve read (Scaramouche and Captain Blood) so I couldn’t be happier with this result!

Did you take part in the spin? What will you be reading?