Review of The Ruin by John Sawney

The Ruin by John SawneyThe Ruin by John Sawney

Reviewed by Séamus Sweeney

  • Paperback: 358 pages
  • Publisher: Fireship Press (25 Mar 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1611792576
  • ISBN-13: 978-1611792577

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The exact date of transition between Roman Britain and post-Roman Britain has proven controversial, as different levels of disengagement occurred at different times in different places, and the documentary evidence that exists is open to interpretation. This uncertainty is reflected in the post-Roman period, replete with characters who inhabit the shadowlands between legend or history; Vortigern, Amborisius Aurelianus, Hengist and Horsa, these are typical figures of the time. Even the spellings of their names vary wildly, symbolising their uncertain status and the different cultures that praised or damned them. This morass for the academic historian has always been fertile ground for the mythmaker and the novelist; this is the time of the Arthurian mythos, and it is also one which allows the historical novelist a certain leeway.

John Sawney’s The Ruin is an exciting, accessible tale of fifth century Britannia. He has chosen as his protagonist Eiteol, newly installed magistrate of Glevon,  a gigantic illiterate whose sole qualification for the post is that his father held the position. Eiteol is supposed to be a mere adornment, a figurehead for the real power held by his bishop brother. Eiteol’s cluelessness and lack of knowledge about high politics are clever devices for Sawney to engage the reader in this world.

One of Eiteol’s new duties – in fact the only one even a little more than ceremonial, and that not much – is to attend the Consilium in Lundenium, presided over by the dictator Vertigern, who adopts the Consilium as a threadbare cloak of Romanish legitimacy. At this he, along with the reader, learns a little more about the political background, and we are also introduced to the bloody violence of the time, with a Jutish thane and the bodyguards who had accompanied him butchered over a misunderstanding. This sets the tone of a work in which a gritty, visceral violence is never far away.

Eiteol – and some other consiliars – accompany Vertigern to a secret meeting with the Jutes, led by Vertigern’s father-in-law Hengest. Nearly all the consiliars are massacred, except for Eiteol and Vertigern himself. The illiterate, self-deprecating, consistently mocked and underestimated Eiteol rescues the dictator, and they embark on a desperate journey of survival through a land racked by violent upheaval and religious factionalism.

At its best, John Sawney’s novel reminded me of the work of Alfred Duggan, particularly Winter Quarters. This is not history-from-below, but history from a few steps below the top. The befuddled main character allows both a subtle vehicle for explication (and a convincing one, for at any time in history how many of the population have been intimately fascinated with high politics?) and a distancing from the strangeness and savagery of the action. We can see ourselves like  Eiteol, simultaneously unaware of the tides of power politics and savagely at their mercy.

Sawney’s book  wears its research lightly, but the depiction of post Roman Britannia is all the more convincing. Of course, in such an undocumented period, with some main characters who may or may not have actually existed, there is a lot of leeway. However the focus is rightfully on plot and characterisation. Towards the end, there is a sudden outburst of explication which seems out of place (perhaps better left to an Afterword)

Characterisation is almost always impressive. Eiteol is a likeable, imperfect character that allows the reader some empathy at least with a time twenty-first century readers of liberal sympathies may not find all that empathetic. One of the recurrent themes is Vertigern’s strange charisma; Eiteol knows full well that Vertigern is a monstrous, murderous figure, and occasionally considers abandoning him, but keeps on. Vertigern reminded me at times of Giles Smith’s portrait of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland – undoubtedly vicious, but at the start at least with enough strange charm to keep the protagonist engaged despite their better judgement.

While no character is unambiguously good,  Bishop Germanus, who represents the authority of the Roman Church, is an outright psychopath, nakedly using his religious authority for political ends. While for some readers this may chime exactly with what they think of religion, this felt to me a somewhat anachronistic approach with our contemporary views projected onto the past. Occasionally this motif grated slightly, and there was the aforementioned explosion of exposition later in the book, but overall  The Ruin is a highly enjoyable story which engages the reader from beginning to end.

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New Historical Fiction Book – The Dovekeepers: A Novel by Alice Hoffman

The Dovekeepers: A Novel by Alice Hoffman

Hardcover: 512 pages
Publisher: Scribner (October 4, 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 145161747X
ISBN-13: 978-1451617474
Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.5 x 1.5 inches

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View the Book Trailer:

From the Publishers Website:

Over five years in the writing,

The Dovekeepers is Alice Hoffman’s most ambitious and mesmerizing novel, a tour de force of imagination and research, set in ancient Israel.

In 70 C.E., nine hundred Jews held out for months against armies of Romans on Masada, a mountain in the Judean desert. According to the ancient historian Josephus, two women and five children survived. Based on this tragic and iconic event, Hoffman’s novel is a spellbinding tale of four extraordinarily bold, resourceful, and sensuous women, each of whom has come to Masada by a different path. Yael’s mother died in childbirth, and her father, an expert assassin, never forgave her for that death. Revka, a village baker’s wife, watched the horrifically brutal murder of her daughter by Roman soldiers; she brings to Masada her young grandsons, rendered mute by what they have witnessed. Aziza is a warrior’s daughter, raised as a boy, a fearless rider and an expert marksman who finds passion with a fellow soldier. Shirah, born in Alexandria, is wise in the ways of ancient magic and medicine, a woman with uncanny insight and power.

The lives of these four complex and fiercely independent women intersect in the desperate days of the siege. All are dovekeepers, and all are also keeping secrets—about who they are, where they come from, who fathered them, and whom they love. The Dovekeepers is Alice Hoffman’s masterpiece.

Read the first chapter

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Interview with Jessica Wilson, author of ‘Death in Theatre’

We’re going to be running a series of interviews with the authors from our second issue. First up is Jessica Wilson, author of ‘Death in Theatre’.

Tell us a little bit about yourself:

I’m a recent graduate of the University of Maryland’s Elementary Education program. I’ve loved writing since the third grade, and I’ve been an aspiring novelist since middle school when my friends and I would exchange writing on the bus. I’m 23, recently engaged, and currently working on what I hope will be my first novel. I write largely fantasy; I’ve actually earned Honorable Mention in the Writers of the Future contest twice.

What attracts you to historical fiction?

“Death in Theatre” was actually a happy accident. I do not typically write historical fiction, and I only rarely read it. When I do read it, my favorite part is being immersed in the world as it was back then. It’s one thing to think about how different life was in historic times, but quite another to view it through the eyes of someone (real or fictional) who lived it.

How did you get the idea for the story?

I wrote “Death in Theatre” for a challenge on my writing website. It was a genre challenge, and that round was Historic Fiction. At first I wanted to go with something closer to my usual comfort range, like something medieval, Roman, or feudal Japanese. But eventually I decided that focusing on an individual would be best, and that a traitor or assassin would be the most intriguing. When I thought of John Wilkes Booth, I was uncertain at first because it’s not my usual fare, but I decided to challenge myself. What kind of man must Booth have been to assassinate President Lincoln?

Union or Confederacy?

Union. My family is actually from the south, but my dad was in the Army when I grew up and I lived all over. When I came back to the family home for my tenth grade year, seeing the Confederate pride down there disturbed me on a number of levels. The Confederacy wasn’t all about slave-holding, of course, though that was one reason I was put off by all the Confederate pride. But the simple fact that the Confederacy wanted to split from the Union makes all that pride seem unpatriotic to me. Maybe they view it differently, but that’s why I found (and still find) it hard to understand.

What are you currently working on?

A young adult fantasy novel. I actually have a lot of ideas floating around, but I’m trying to stick to this one. I have a long history of getting very far in a story and then abandoning it, taking a break for another idea. By the time I get back to the old story, I hate it and want to rewrite. My goal is to get all the way through this one this time, because what’s the use in being a writer if you never finish anything?

Don’t forget to read a free sample of Jessica’s ‘Death in Theatre’ from the second issue of Alt Hist. We think you’ll like it.

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New Novel Explores the Dark Ages: Review Copy Available

I was recently contacted about a new book coming out about the Dark Ages. The publisher is offering a review copy of the book. If you are interested in getting hold of the review copy and writing a review of it for Alt Hist then please contact the publisher at the address below, and also let me know that you intend to review for Alt Hist at You will need to submit your review through our Submissions website. Please note that your review will be subject to editorial approval: i.e. I don’t care if you like the book or not, but your review must be well written!

Here are some details about the book:

Discovering Roman ruins in his field led Cheshire author R.W. Hughes, to write his first novel, Aurthora

Cheshire-based author, R. W. Hughes, was inspired to write his first novel Aurthora  after discovering the remains of a Roman checkpoint in the corner of his field! The checkpoint was alongside the old salt road that ran from the mines in Borthwich and over the Pennines to the rest of Britain.

”It was at the checkpoint in our field that Roman soldiers would inspect that all the loads of salt has been stamped and approved by the local Governor to show they had paid their taxes,”  says Rod.  ”Imagining the Romans who had used the route set me thinking about what happened to Britain, and specifically this area, after they left. After doing lots of research, my first novel was born! ”

Hughes  novel, Aurthora, is based on the legendary British warrior. It takes place in the years immediately after the Romans leave Britain and describes a land undergoing massive change – with no leader and no army to defend its shores. It’s a time of fragile alliances between Chiefs and tribal Leaders, held together by the personality and fading power of a sick King. It’s a time when the people must fight for their very existence.

This carefully researched book brings England during the Dark Ages vividly to life.

ISBN: 9781848765542
Price: £7.99

If you’d like more information or a review copy please get in touch with the publisher:

Jane Rowland
Troubador Publishing Ltd
5 Weir Road
Kibworth Beauchamp

Tel: 0116 2792299
Fax: 0116 279 2277

Follow us on Twitter @matadorbooks!

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