When I picked this book up it was on a whim…best whim ever! This is a historical book but I recommend it to anyone running a fantasy RPG campaign. The book connected with me on a lot of different levels and I was deeply impressed with not only the biography of William Marshal but the masterful way that the author provides the context for the story, without miring the reader down with pointless details. As an author, I am going to use this book as a guide for my own future writing of non-fiction.
William Marshal served five kings during the medieval era, including Richard the Lionhearted. He had a role in the Magna Carta and was a behind-the-scenes character throughout that era. No, that isn’t right. He was often at the forefront of many changes of power in England and France, but somehow has remained hidden in history.
The opening of the book reminded me of Flashman, starting with an obscure manuscript surfacing at an auction that led to the telling of his tale. I was hooked in the first three pages! Marshal is the antithesis of Flashman though, a truly honorable man. He is the perfect template for a Paladin in D&D. He moves through history with the ease of Forrest Gump in some respects, having a knack for being at the right place at the right time. The political waters he somehow managed to navigate were deadly and ever changing, yet he managed to do so with honor and a certain dignity that comes through in the book.
In some respects, it reminded me of Katherine Kurtz’s Camber of Culdi series, which has become the metaphorical basis for my own D&D campaign. I consider this series of books some of the best fantasy I have read over the years, and The Greatest Knight reminded me to go back and re-read those books.
I found the book captivating because the author did such a great job of giving you the foundation for events in Marshal’s life. The section on tournaments, for example, really debunks the myth of jousting and is something I could see being incorporated into fantasy RPG’s with ease. This book has forced me to purchase other books on the historical figures mentioned in it, a testimony as to well it is written. In other words, The Greatest Knight is a gateway drug to an addition to non-fiction history.
I give this five out of five stars. It is an outstanding piece of literature that has saved Marshal from the dustbin of history!
When I was a kid my mom took me to see the movie Nicholas and Alexandra at the Bijou Theater in Battle Creek, MI. She knew my love of history and the story fascinated her, especially Rasputin and Anastasia. At the end of the movie she covered my eyes when the royal family was shot. For some reason that has always stuck in my head.
Robert Massie is, well, a giant in terms of historical writers. I actually wore out my copy of Castles of Steel, it is that good. This book falls somewhere between a history book and a true crime saga. After all, the Romanov family was never tried for crimes, they were brutally murdered. When I saw this book on my Amazon feed, I knew I had to pick it up.
It starts with the crime itself, which pulls you in. The strange, if not bizarre treatment of the bodies was compelling as well. Massie is masterful at giving you the historical context that is do desperately needed to understand the events.
Slowly what emerges is how the bodies were eventually found and recovered, and the impact of the Cold War and petty academics that played a part in identifying the remains. This was a story that the public knew very little about.
Suddenly the book takes a hard turn into the rumors of the survivors, namely Anastasia. I was surprised to learn that one woman claiming to be the princess lived out her years near me, in Charlottesville, Virginia. The courtroom battles over her DNA were long, but entirely necessary. Having read Massie’s other books, I knew that he was taking me as a reader on a long journey – and that parts of it were convoluted. I was surprised that there were so many members of the Romanov family that were spared the violence of the Red Revolution.
As a true crime book, this is pretty intriguing to read but you may find the parts on “Anastasia” lacking, since it feels her only crime was lying about who she was. As a history book, it is outstanding. This book is solidly researched and well worth picking up. Five out of five stars.
Now I need to go to the Netflix series, The Last Czars. Curse you Robert Massie – you are making me explore this more.
Having been born in 1962, the American space program was an important series of events in my life. In the summer of 1969, we saw the culmination of a great event, man’s landing on the moon and returning to Earth. It was something that had been ingrained in us as a people. Every launch was a special event on TV. Walter Cronkite (and Wally Schirra) took complicated information and fed it to us in a way that every person could understand. We all came to understand the complexities of docking, heat shields, communications lags, etc, as if we were part of the team going to the lunar surface. Classes were interrupted when Saturn V’s lifted off and when the capsules returned to our planet. There was a sense, even with us as kids, that this was important and that somehow, we were all a part of it.
There was a whole lot of negative stuff happening around us…Vietnam, peace protests, civil rights marches, a hotly contested Presidential election, hippies, Charles Manson – but cutting through all of that was the space race against the Russians. America was behind something big, and it was a matter of pride and prestige. There were detractors who claimed that the money could be better spent elsewhere, but in July of 1969 with the launch of Apollo 11, we rallied as a nation to wish the astronauts well on their perilous journey.
My parents bought Tang, because that was what the astronauts drank. We sipped it in glasses from the Marathon station that were red-white-and-blue with images of the Apollo missions on them. My toys included Major Matt Mason, a heroic astronaut action figure. The space race was everywhere.
I watched the Apollo 11 liftoff from a black and white TV set in my parents non-airconditioned house in Battle Creek, Michigan. There were only two networks for us, we didn’t get ABC until a year or two later – and you could only get PBS out of Lansing if the weather was right. You had to adjust the rabbit-ear antenna just right to get a good picture. I was the family remote control for the TV. That’s how we rolled.
I remember the landing on the moon and the relief that washed over us and over Walter Cronkite when we heard, “Tranquility Base here…the Eagle has landed.”
I, like millions of others, saw the grainy images of man setting foot on the moon. The entire world watched. Factories stopped production so workers could see it happen live. Humanity had a singular positive focus for one of the few times in my life. It was incredible to experience.
When that flag was planted on the moon we knew that we had beat the Russians. This was a triumph for all Americans.
I remember wanting to be an astronaut when I grew up. That was what the space program did – it inspired people. As I grew older I realized with my eyesight and lack of other qualifications, I would never get a chance to fly in space. I didn’t have the right stuff. I accepted that and owned it. As the years passed I found my own way to get into space, by writing science fiction. With my words, I traveled to hundreds of planets. Determination always wins out. While I will never wear a NASA patch (or StarFleet) on my sleeve, I have gone far as a writer because of our space program. I have never forgotten what drove me.
Looking back I know that the landing on the moon was not just about beating the Soviets – it was about having a single purpose as a nation. It wasn’t about moon rocks, but about retooling of our nation to be a technological powerhouse. It provided countless jobs in new and exciting fields. It was America at its best when we were coping sociologically with incredible problems and turmoil.
Now that we look back at five decades past and the accomplishment there, that sense of pride has surged forward. Space has brought us many triumphs and some gut-wrenching tragedies. We let the momentum of our landing on the moon slip through our fingers. Mars seems further away than ever.
In my later years, when I wrote, Terror of the Autumn Skies, I wrote Neil Armstrong. In one biography he said that in his youth, he admired the subject of my book, Frank Luke Jr. I was hoping to get a quote from him about Luke. His secretary wrote me a nice letter back saying that Mr. Armstrong did not give quotes but appreciated my request and looked forward to my book. He was a class act. It was a rejection that makes me smile in memory, even to this day.
When my kids got older, we watched HBO’s, From the Earth to the Moon. My daughter Victoria loved the Apollo 12 episode. I reached out to astronaut Al Bean and he sent her an autographed photo. She still has it framed. Even decades after their missions, these men continued to inspire future generations to look into the blackness of space and wonder what is out there, and when will we go and find out.
Today that feeling of pride in our country we all had then would be labeled as, “dangerous nationalism.” There would be factions in our society that would be upset that we didn’t have a diverse enough crew on the flight or in mission control. The planting of the American flag couldn’t be allowed in our present-day culture. They would even ban the ticker-tape parades because they are not very environmentally conscious. We couldn’t spend the money on the program because our elected representatives would want to spend it elsewhere. Can you imagine Congress aligning to a single goal for a decade?
Some would say that this new thinking is progressive, that it is better. As someone who experienced the landing on the moon from a tiny, hot living room in Michigan, I can tell you that such thinking is wrong. There is something to be said about being proud about your country and what it can accomplish when we work together towards a common goal. Those that claim that having pride in your nation is inherently wrong or evil; they cannot take from me what I experienced and felt in that summer of 1969. A part of me wishes to feel that again in my lifetime, but as the years pass I feel it, like our voyages to space, becoming rare, commercialized, and ploddingly slow. For those of you that were not able to experience the moon landing, I feel for what you have been denied.
Finally, thank you Neil, Mike and Buzz. You, and the tens of thousands of men and women involved in flight successful brought us together for something positive, challenging, and inspirational. We will never forget the great risks you took and the indelible ink you wrote on the pages of mankind’s history.
When I heard this miniseries was coming from HBO I wondered how they would walk the tightrope between realism/documentary and thriller. As it turns out, they did it masterfully. HBO sucks you into this horrible event, taking you on twisty and deadly twists and turns along the way. In the wastelands of the post-Game of Thrones era, Chernobyl is nail-biting, tense, and sad.
Chernobyl is the story of the most horrific nuclear disaster in mankind’s history. I’ve read two books on the subject so I wondered how close HBO would stick to the real story. As it turns out, they do adhere to the events…with some added drama. Some of the characters are quite real, where others are composites. Some of the events, like the helicopter crashing because of the radiation…well, I don’t remember that instance. It is okay, HBO doesn’t wander far from the grim truth here. I can suspend reality for an hour dose at a time.
What I like the most is that the series mirrors the real world events. For months the Soviet Union did not know what had caused the explosion of the reactor. I am four episodes in and they are only beginning to piece it all together.
You get a feel for the Soviet Union I remember from my younger years. This was a place where even the KGB head is followed by the KGB – where the phrase, “bullet to your head,” is tossed around like a casual threat. It is easy and comforting to forget how oppressive the Soviet Union was – and how their air of secrecy actually contributes to the disaster.
The series has music that makes you edgy. The effects of radiation on the victims makes you cringe. It is strange that all of the cast have accents other than Russian, but oddly, it makes it passable.
Episode Four is hard to watch because it involves shooting pets. It really was gut-wrenching.
Like Game of Thrones, you shouldn’t expect a good ending to this series either. The fact that it really happened should resonate even more with people. If you are not watching Chernobyl, get started now! You will come away with sleepless nights and an appreciation of disasters caused by man’s folly and arrogance.
I have to admit a fondness for Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators. Oppressed, they sought to change the course of history. There is a bit of a rebel in all of us and in some ways Fawkes and his fellow conspirator’s appeals to those feelings on their most base level. Of course, in reality, the suppressed Catholics became even larger targets of oppressions as a result of the infamous Gunpowder plot’s horrific failure.
I would say that this review of spoiler-free, but I can assure you, it is not. Series based on history cannot be spoiler free.
When I saw HBO was doing a series on this, starring Kit Harrington from Game of Thrones, I was pretty excited. Americans only know Guy Fawkes from the movie “V for Vendetta” so I thought that this was going to be a great docudrama that was both entertaining and educational.
It is a dark series, both story-wise and visually. There are a number of characters introduced that we never really get to know and invest ourselves in. As such, their fates do not mean much to us as viewers – which is a lost opportunity. That isn’t to say that this is a bad series – in fact is very captivating and stimulating, with a bit of a let-down at the end.
The story of English Catholics during King James reign is played out in dramatic fashion in the opening episode. The scenes of the crushing death of a Catholic resistor was disturbing and unfortunately historically accurate.
Guy Fawkes emerges in the second episode as a bit of a bad-ass. When push came to shove, the plan is hatched to blow up Parliament and the King. The second episode does a great job of building up for a confrontation and conflagration.
The third episode is a cascade on many levels. One, the bombing plan unravels. The explanation of the Spanish as the exposers of the assassination is far-fetched (and likely inaccurate) but adds to the intrigue of the story. Guy Fawkes, who was such a larger-than-life figure in the second episode is quickly subdued and the explosives diffused. Harrington’s character Robert Catesby, digs in for a fight to the finish, a battle he does not win. (Sidebar: I understand that Harrington is related to Catesby, which is incredibly cool.)
I had to research this period for my book on the cannibal clan of Sawney Bean, which certainly helped my personal enjoyment. I will say that the end of the series was disappointing. The characters you embrace are dead (not Game of Thrones style either) and you don’t know what happened after their demise. Even the contemporary impact of the Gunpowder plot is ignored. The viewer is left wanting more – even some closure. I anticipated the poem above to be read, or images of Guy Fawkes Night in modern times. We don’t get these.
Despite the depressing ending, which mirrored real life, the series has a grittiness and realistic feel about it that is entertaining and chilling. It is well worth the three hours of your time to watch.
When I was just a kid (about nine years old) my mother took me to see the film Nicholas and Alexandra. Mom was the person that got me into true crime. She tried to cover my eyes when they executed the royal family. She failed. It was not anywhere near as shocking as the stuff we see on TV now, but at the time, it was pretty violent. In that respect, I miss the 1970’s.
That film was my first introduction to the story of Rasputin, the “Mad Monk.” I’ve read about the fate of the Czar and his family and Rasputin is hopelessly intertwined into their saga. We’ve all heard the legend. Rasputin was stabbed, poisoned, shot, choked, and drowned – all on the same night – and seemed to defy death at each attempt.
Margarita Nelipa has tackled the Rasputin murder with the keen eyes of both a historian and a true crime author. This is not your typical true crime fare, nor could it be. To unravel what happened to Rasputin you have to understand the inner court politics and the myriad of figures and gadflies that ensnared the royal family.
Having written a historical true crime myself, (Sawney Bean) I understand the daunting challenge she had to face as a historian. This book is more like an academic study of the murder of the monk, rather than a standard true crime story. In that respect I liked it. It is the kind of book you might expect from a university press, burrowing deep in the details necessary to set the stage for the events that led to Rasputin’s demise.
My only struggle with the prose was navigating the often confusing names of the characters. There were a few times I confused some characters because their names were so similar. This is not a complaint but more of a warning for readers. If you are looking for a simplified account of Rasputin’s death, this is not the book for you. This books bridges the gap between the rigor of a historian’s keen eye and the tantalizing lure of a sordid murder.
Ms. Nelipa’s research seems three-steps beyond solid. I found a swelling pang of envy in the depth of her digging. She has most likely broken new ground in the murder of Rasputin, though I confess this is not my field of study. I will say this, she has given me a as a reader, a much more in-depth understanding of the man as both a historical figure and the victim of a heinous murder.
Overall, I found it a nice break from the usual menu choices for true crime. If you enjoy in-depth historical research intertwined with a murderous saga that had a mark on history, then this is a book for you.
This year, 2017, marks the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Midway (June 4-6). While often referred to as “the turning point of the war in the Pacific,” Midway was more than that. It solidified a change of military doctrine on the high seas. Gone was the era of the battleship. Carrier warfare was what would determine the fate of the Pacific and would reshape our navy into the modern era.
Midway was one of those battles that could have, and possibly should have, gone horribly wrong for the United States. Six months after Pearl Harbor and our only real victory against the Japanese was Doolittle’s Raid. We were outnumbered in carriers and experience by the Japanese. Coming out of the Battle of Coral Sea, the USS Yorktown was badly damaged. The thinking then was that she was going to take several months in drydock in the US to become operational. The navy got her ready for battle in 72 hours, with some repair crews remaining on the ship and fixing her while at sea.
One of our best admirals, Bull Halsey, was ill. In his place was Admiral Raymond Spruance. Fuzzy historians (my phrase – copyright pending) like to say that he was a cruiser commander, but Spruance was well versed in carrier tactics.
The US knew the essence of the Japanese plan. Naval intelligence had broken the Japanese code and learned the basics of the plan. Admiral Yamamoto’s Plan MI was to strike at the Aleutian Islands to lure away the Americans with a diversion there, then to attack and land troops on Midway. Doing so would lure the understrength American fleet (which he believed only consisted of two carriers, the Hornet and the Enterprise) into a battle they could not win.
Knowing the plan and achieving victory were two different things. The Americans scouted the Japanese approaches from the air. Midway dug in like a tick on exposed skin. The Japanese did not fully expect the US fleet to engage them, they were expecting them to be lured off towards their diversion.
Initially the battle went badly for the American navy. The Japanese struck at Midway, pulverizing their air defenders and bombing the island hard. The Imperial Navy scouts spotted the American ships and the Japanese began to swap out contact bombs intended for Midway, to torpedoes to deal with the new threat. That was when they were pounced upon. While the Americans failed to do significant damage and suffered heavy losses, the attack threw off the Japanese plans. As they tried to regroup, another American force, three squadrons from the Yorktown and the Enterprise, hit them again. The battle was furious and fast, ultimately ending the day with three of the four Japanese carriers crippled or sunk. The infamous line was broadcast back to the carriers by Lieutenant Commander Robert Dixon after sinking the Shosho, “Scratch one flattop!”
The Japanese struck back, catching the Yorktown and hitting her hard – with an over 20 degree list and no working propulsion. The Japanese thought they had sunk her. They were wrong though. The Yorktown was salvaged for another day of battle, though it was destined to be her last.
The next day brought about another strike by the Japanese, this time all but sinking the Yorktown (it would fall prey to a Japanese submarine after the battle. Believing they had already sunk one of the two American carriers the day before, they surmised they had taken out the last American carrier. US Navy dive bombers took out the last Japanese carrier, forcing the invasion force to retreat.
The US had traded one carrier for four and had, in one battle, tipped the scales of the war in the Pacific. Pearl Harbor had truly been avenged.
I first learned of this battle from Walter Lord’s book Incredible Victory. Alan Andrews, a veteran of Vietnam on my paper route loaned me his dog-eared copy and I devoured it.
There are myths around the battle that survive to this day. One is that the Navy War College wargamed the Battle of Midway many times over the years but was never able to duplicate the US victory. While accepted as truth, I have not found any credible source for this story. At the same time, it is hard to doubt it. Midway was a rare combination of strategy, tactics, and blind luck that would be difficult to properly simulate.
To commemorate the anniversary of the battle I re-watched the 1976 movie Midway. I wished I hadn’t. First off, they reused (poorly) a lot of footage from Tora Tora Tora. Then they intermixed real-life combat footage that made the battle hard to watch from a historian’s perspective. All of the additional plot lines were unnecessary. The only fun I had was watching Tom Selleck and Erik Estrada in early career roles in the film. It left me wondering when they would make a good version of this film, one that tells the true story, not the Hollywood dribble.