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Blood of Kings - Andrew James

posted Mar 23, 2016, 7:09 AM by Gordon Doherty   [ updated Jan 10, 2019, 6:53 AM ]

"It is 530 BC and Cyrus the Great has carved out the largest Empire the world had ever seen, making Persia the undisputed superpower of the ancient world. But there is treachery afoot, and Cyrus's life is in danger. 
In a fast paced tale of love, war, betrayal and revenge, Blood of Kings sweeps the reader up on an epic journey from the mud brick cities of Ancient Persia to the burning heart of Pharaoh's Egypt. Packed full of dramatic and authentic battle scenes, it recreates the sweat, blood and fear of ancient warfare, as Persia smashes Egypt's army and brings the reign of the Pharaohs to a violent end.
But it is also a book that will delight Herodotus fans, bringing the ancient Greek historian's characters to life like never before, as it follows the doomed 'lost army of Cambyses' into the Libyan Desert, marching towards a fate that would baffle archaeologists for millennia to come."


Blood of Kings was an impulse buy and a holiday read for me. I picked this volume from the many in the Kindle store because it promised everything I fancied at that moment in time: a desert tale of ancient empires and grand-scale war. It was the same impulse that drove me to write Legionary: Land of the Sacred Fire - I wanted to travel into the deep, unforgiving sands and imagine that I was trekking through the fiery wastes, short of water, armour grating on my skin, knowing a hidden enemy might sweep over the dunes at any moment. James' novel delivers just such atmosphere in buckets: in the Egyptian desert and the leafy, cool relief of the oases, and in the icy, rocky mountains of northern Persia too - he put me right there. 

The premise - following King Darius' rise to power and charting his part in the campaign which saw an army of tens of thousands of Persians vanish mid-desert - has not been tackled in historical fiction before (at least, not that I am aware of), and this only lends more kudos to James for crafting such a detailed, vivid and immersive account of this virgin territory. 

The historical detail is well observed and subtly conveyed in the narrative in a way that informs but does not distract. The Persian kings, armies, people and their customs and everyday life are richly characterised, with tiny observations like the Persian Shahanshah (King of Kings) being given "a magnificent war bow, its belly chased with electrum, elaborately carved griffins at each end, eyes and beaks picked out in gold", causing me to arch an envious eyebrow more than once.

In terms of setting, the author's attention to detail has been honed by virtue of living in the desert for a number of years, walking the paths he writes about. The maps included in the book are a testament to his intimate knowledge of the land. As stated before, the descriptives are generally first class, but there were a few that I found overused - or that made themselves conspicuous by their frequency - such as Darius' observation of the date palms and the ripeness or otherwise of the fruits on them. Not a massive issue, but it was a little 'bump' in the read (and made me crave syrupy dates!).

I chuckled when I read a review of this novel on Amazon which complained about 'too much gore'. Those who are familiar with my books will know that I'm not squeamish and neither is Andrew James - if his torture scenes are anything to go by. Wonderfully done: I won't give anything away but I was wincing/peering through one eye as I read some of the horrific ends and near-ends a few of the characters come to. In terms of battle scenes, I have a healthy appetite for clashing swords, and I found James' fight scenes fell into one of two camps: some, like the clash at the Spring of Shade, were succinct, powerful and memorable; others, such as the ambush at the icy pass near the beginning, were rendered somewhat punchless due to a degree of overdescription (in my opinion anyway). Without giving too much away, one character is tossed from his horse as enemies shoot arrows at him from up on the pass sides, but the descriptive of him being thrown is 2 pages long, and I found that this sucked the pace and peril out of what could have been a thrilling moment. 

The tale takes us from Persia to Egypt and back again, and there are a fair few bends along the way. I say bends rather than twists, as I feel they could have been more devious. For example, a lingering doubt resides in Darius' mind throughout most of the book regarding the seeming reappearance of a character he thought was dead. Now the author resolves this in a reasonably satisfying way, but I reckon he could have gone a few steps further to make it more of a jaw-dropper. Easy for me to say, but I just had that nagging feeling that the potential wasn't fully realised with that otherwise impressive plot strand.

Blood of Kings is a lengthy saga, and I did wonder if the author had missed a trick in not breaking it into two or maybe even three volumes. Certainly, the scope of the tale would have allowed for it and if I recall correctly I only paid a few pounds for this book (in late 2015) - great value but probably not quite the reward the author deserves.

Overall, Blood of Kings enthralled, engrossed and delivered my desert adventure fix with aplomb. Recommended.