Sunday, August 22, 2021

God of Vengeance (The Rise of Sigurd #1) by Giles Kristian

I've been meaning to get back into Giles Kristian's writing for a long, long time, and picked up God of Vengeance (The Rise of Sigurd #1) when it was on sale not so long ago. Perhaps it's because I've really enjoyed The Last Kingdom as well as the source material (Bernard Cornwell's books), and just a general fuzz for anything Viking Age related – so God of Vengeance really just pushes all the right buttons for me currently.

First off, Kristian writes combat sequences well, and with a ring of authenticity that is hard to find in the historical fiction or even epic fantasy genres. He really makes you feel like you're present, as a reader, and the cast of characters he brings to life is diverse and complex.

We start the journey with young Sigurd, son of the jarl Harald. And the worst happens to a young man – his entire family is killed in a plot by a crooked king, and unsurprisingly, our enterprising lad vows vengeance. The only problem is he's got no boat, no resources, and no warband – to go up against a bunch of back-stabbing wolves who hold all the power. And not only that, they've taken his sister, Runa, to be married against her will to a man she doesn't love.

So, yeah, Sigurd's got a huge axe to grind, and this story is all about how he gets his stuff together, against all odds, to rescue Runa and spill his enemies' blood. And a lot of warning: so. Much. Blood. Kristian also skirts around the edges in terms of the supernatural. We never know if the gods are real or whether Odin really does favour Sigurd, but enough happens to show how the gods' actions are all too real to their believers. While Sigurd claims to be favoured by Odin, a boast that will make most god-fearing folks reconsider whether they want to cross him, we must remember that Odin is not exactly a kind nor gentle god, and for all victories claimed in Odin's name, a terrible blood price must be paid. 

This action-packed revenge-epic is just right. Now excuse me while I toddle off to pick up book 2.

Monday, August 2, 2021

Peacocks & Picathartes – Reflections on Africa's Birdlife by Rupert Watson

When I was 12, most kids my age were into ... well, whatever it was that they were into. Me, on the other hand, I was into birdwatching. Armed with a brand-spanking new copy of the Roberts Birds of Southern Africa, I set about figuring out the names of the birds around me. It was something of an obsession. And while today I have the trusty Sasol eBirds of Southern Africa app, not much has changed. Friends and family still look at me like I'm a little sad and strange when I interrupt the discussion to go, "Oh, look, a Southern Boubou."

So it goes without saying that I was overjoyed when Rupert Watson's Peacocks & Picathartes: Reflections on Africa's Birdlife arrived on my doorstep. Although he was born in England, Watson has lived in Kenya for a large portion of his life, and his love for, nay fascination with, our beautiful continent's birdlife shines through in every word. I must also give a shout out to illustrator Peter Blackwell, whose characterful graphite drawings of various birds are used as chapter headers, and add much joy to the book.

There is no denying how special Africa and its natural heritage is, and there are many species found here and nowhere else. Climate change and the impact of human activities on the environment, be it encroaching agriculture, urbanisation, and forestry – these all are massive threats to our natural biodiversity. By highlighting birds, their habitats and distribution, Watson reminds us of the fragile balance in nature.

Watson maintains a factual account of the birds' habits and characteristics, peppered with often amusing anecdotes of his own adventures in seeing some of the rarer species, particularly the occasions he sought out the Congo Peacocks and Picathartes that lend their names to the book's title. He divides the book into sections that focus on birds that are found only in Africa, those that are mainly in Africa, and then six species that are iconic, such as the Egyptian Goose many of us love to hate; the Udzungwa Forest Partridge; the Congo Peacock; the Bateleur; and not to be outdone, the Hadada Ibis whose raucous calls many of us know all too well at 5am on a Sunday when we'd rather be sleeping in.

If birdwatching and conservation are your passions, then don't miss out on this book.