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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Book Review - The Uncivil Wars Series by M.J. Logue

Another "Missing in Action" post... Actually I have been travelling - nearly six weeks of 'research' in the UK and Europe. Museums, castles, cathedrals... so much information to absorb it is dribbling out of my ears! More on my travels in later posts.

One thing travel has afforded is long hours in planes and trains and an opportunity to catch up on reading and the books that have held me in a thrall is a new series, set in my favourite period, the English Civil War, by writer M.J. Logue - THE UNCIVIL WARS. 

I should declare that Logue (or her alter ego, Hannah Methwell) is a compadre of mine... sharing as we do a PASSION for the English Civil War. Unlike me, Hannah is able to indulge her passion as a proper re-enactor and as a consequence she lives and breathes the ECW in ways I can only fantasise about... and it shows in her writing.

It is too hard to separate out the Uncivil War stories,  because although they stand alone, they are at the same time entwined and episodic. Logue has done something really unusual... she has created a troop of Parliamentary cavalry under the command of an unusual hero, more an anti-hero, Holofernes Babbit (Hollie). To complement the three UCW books written to date, are 3 short novellas that delve into the backstory of the characters and I think it is important. to at least read KERSEN before embarking on the series as this story introduces us to the 16 year old Hollie adrift in Holland, having fled his brutal father to join the fighting in the 30 year wars.

Twenty years later (in THE RED HORSE) we meet a hardened and embittered mercenary who has returned to England to take the pay of king of parliament... whoever offers the most... and fight in the English Civil Wars. Tall, auburn haired, scarred emotionally and physically, like his horse, the vicious Tyburn, Hollie won't easily be broken to obey the commands of men he considers his military inferior. On and off the battlefield he is difficult, obstreporous, volatile and unpredictable. He has been given command of a raggle taggle troop of the sweepings of the street... so much for the perception of 'roundheads' as dour and godly crop heads.

Hollie's fire is tempered by the calm and poetic nature of the young man who is made his Cornet, a task Lucifer (Luce) Pettit initially baulks at. Unlike Hollie, Luce (a gentleman by birth and nephew to the Earl of Essex) genuinely believes in the cause for which he is fighting.

Logue's writing, like Hollie, defies convention. The story is told from any number of perspectives and sometimes all in the same scene, but it works. You get right under the characters' skins and come to care for all of them, even the horses, deeply! The dialogue is utterly true to period and to each character.

Now to the books... KERSEN (Hollie's story) I have mentioned. There are 2 other short prequels, A CLOAK OF ZEAL and UNBREAKABLE both of which centre on a young man, Thankful Russell (or Hapless as he comes to be called for good reason) who we meet briefly in Book 1 but by Book 3 is a member of Hollie's regiment.

BOOK 1: THE RED HORSE - in which we meet Captain Hollie Babbit and his reluctant new cornet, Luce Pettit. This book spans the early days of the war (August 1642 to December 1642), a time of battles that are fought and neither won nor lost, the reality of the battlefield and the uncertain politics surrounding the command of the Parliamentary forces. Through all of this Hollie rages, somewhat unsuccessfully. wounded at Edgehill and forced into the company of Luce, the two form a grudging respect bordering on friendship. Luce takes his shattered commander home to meet his Aunt Het ('the mendingest lady in Essex') and in Het's care, Hollie begins to heal not only physically but emotionally.

Book 2: COMMAND THE RAVEN - picks up in the early months of 1643 with Hollie back in
command of his uncommandable troop, while hankering after Het who has offered him a glimpse of what life with hearth and home could be like. In despair 'Uncle Essex' sends him north to support the Parliamentary cause being led by the Fairfaxes. Sir Thomas Fairfax is a particular favourite of mine and Logue's too, I suspect. He is drawn with great affection and respect but recognising his weaknesses too. In this book we meet Thankful Russell, on the staff of Essex. They are also joined by Hollie's father, the firey preacher, Elijah Babbit and the issues from his childhood which drove him away at 16 have to be confronted. Like the first book, the book ends with a return to Het's arms.

And here I must take a small issue with Logue.... rather than continue the series with what should be next book (1643/4),  by her own admission, she jumps to 1645. Yes it stands by itself, but we miss the arcs of the characters in the intervening 2 years... during which Hapless becomes one of the Babbit troop and a peculiar little trooper called Gray who may not be what he appears to be joins them as well. Without the intervening years, as a reader it made me hard to engage with a really important character who will die in A WILDERNESS OF SIN. The character's death is sad but if we had a better opportunity to get to know this character in greater depth, it would have been even more heartbreaking. A small point and it does not detract from reading A WILDERNESS OF SIN as a stand alone.

Book 3: A WILDERNESS OF SIN... begins in the aftermath of the battle of Naseby in June 1645 during which Hapless has been badly wounded in an altercation that has nothing to do with King and Parliament and everything to do with Trooper Gray. Once again the broken men return to Het for 'mending' but Hollie has to return to the war and a New Model Army which has no time or patience for men like him. As the Parliamentary forces start mopping up the last royalist resistance, the war has become a tedious routine of sieges and beaurocracy and Hollie does not react well to being curbed in this matter. In the aftermath of the death of one of the key characters ( a scene which had me reaching for tissues in the  middle of an airport), Hollie begins to question why he is doing what he is doing. His own sense of honour will see him complete the task but at the end of the book, like small desperate child, he asks Het 'Do I have to go back?'

Logue's writing is compelling, her voice utterly unique. I can't think of another author's writings to compare. Hollie Babbit is NOT a Richard Sharpe but in the eposidic nature of the stories and the well written cast of secondary characters (including animals), there are some slight similarities. This is pure historical fiction at its best. While there is romance, it is not romantic historical fiction. Logue's battles are brutal and bloody, no glossing over the horror that is a civil war. She has created sympathetic characters to espouse the 'unpopular' side (the Parliamentary cause) and she also captures the complex politics of the time in a way that makes it accessible and understandable to the reader.

This is such an important period of history and yet it is not a 'popular' subject for fiction. There are a few of us, hacking away at the corners in the hope that more readers will come to love this period as we do. Logue's books fill an important niche. 

I am hanging out for the next stories... hurry up, Hannah!  

(You can find out more about THE UNCIVIL WARS at and you will meet Hannah next month when she is my guest on Friday Fun Facts)