Book Corner: Powers and Thrones by Dan Jones

Dan Jones’s epic new history tells nothing less than the story of how the world we know today came to be built. It is a thousand-year adventure that moves from the ruins of the once-mighty city of Rome, sacked by barbarians in AD 410, to the first contacts between the old and new worlds in the sixteenth century. It shows how, from a state of crisis and collapse, the West was rebuilt and came to dominate the entire globe. The book identifies three key themes that underpinned the success of the West: commerce, conquest and Christianity.

Across 16 chapters, blending Dan Jones’s trademark gripping narrative style with authoritative analysis, Powers and Thrones shows how, at each stage in this story, successive western powers thrived by attracting – or stealing – the most valuable resources, ideas and people from the rest of the world. It casts new light on iconic locations – Rome, Paris, Venice, Constantinople – and it features some of history’s most famous and notorious men and women.

This is a book written about – and for – an age of profound change, and it asks the biggest questions about the West both then and now. Where did we come from? What made us? Where do we go from here?

Well, isn’t this an epic undertaking. The history of the Middle Ages, across Europe and into the four corners of the world (except Australia because it still hadn’t been discovered) – in 16 chapters, 633 pages and about 25 hours of reading. And it is awesome!

I couldn’t read this book at a leisurely pace because I was actually scheduled to interview Dan Jones on 29 September, for Lindum Books in Lincoln and I desperately wanted to make sure I had read the whole thing beforehand. So, I had 10 days to read it and I am quite proud of myself that I managed it. I put all other books aside and concentrated on this, hoping it would keep my attention. I was a little worried. It is a long book and covers such a wide historical arena. Could it keep my interest? Well, the simple answer is YES!

Powers and Thrones by Dan Jones is a thoroughly enthralling read encompassing over a thousand years of history, from the Sack of Rome in 410AD to the sack of Rome in 1527. Writing the story of the entire medieval era was a massive undertaking that Dan said he wanted to do, both as his 10th book and to mark his 40th birthday. And it is, indeed, a magnum opus to be proud of. Powers and Thrones is a perfectly balanced book, giving just enough attention to each area of interest and geographical location, going from Rome, to Byzantium and on to the rise of Islam, Dan Jones manages to cover the significant events and influences that drove change and development through the entire Middle Ages.

Powers and Thrones demonstrates how climate change, disease, technology and ideology were often the forces behind change. For example, the Guttenberg Press was revolutionary in every way, allowing the mass production of books, pamphlets and the dissemination of knowledge to a far-wider audience. It was the medieval equivalent to our social media, both in its reach and influence, and Dan Jones highlights how significant it was in Europe’s emergence from the medieval era, with its impact on learning, communication and – perhaps above all – religion.

For those alert to signs hidden in the fabric of the world, the Roman Empire’s collapse in the west was announced by a series of omens. In Antioch, dogs howled like wolves, night-birds let out hideous shrieks and people muttered that the emperor should be burned alive. In Thrace, a dead man lay in the road and fixed passers-by with a unnerving, lifelike glare, until after a few days the corpse suddenly disappeared. And in the city of Rome itself, citizens persisted in going to the theatre: an egregious and insanely sinful pastime, which, according to one Christian writer, practically invited the wrath of the Almighty. Human beings have been superstitious in all ages and we are especially good at adducing portents when we have the benefit of hindsight. Hence the opinion of the historian Ammianus Marcellinus, who looked back on the end of the fourth century into which he was born and reflected that this was a time when fortune’s wheel, ‘which is perpetually alternating prosperity and adversity’, was turning fast.

In the 370s, when Rome’s fatal malady set in, the Roman state – monarchy, republic and empire – had existed for more than a millennium. Yet within little more than one hundred years, by the end of the fifth century AD, every province west of the Balkans had slipped from Roman control. In the ancient heartlands of empire, Roman institutions, tax systems and trade networks were falling apart. The physical signs of Roma elite culture – palatial villas, cheap imported consumer goods, hot running water – were fading from everyday life. The Eternal City had been sacked several times, the western crown had passed between a succession of dimwits, usurpers, tyrants and children, until eventually it had been abolished; and territory that formerly comprised the core of a powerful mega-state had been parcelled among peoples whom the proud-hearted citizens of Rome’s imperial heyday had previously scorned as savages and subhumans. These were the ‘barbarians’: a derogatory word which encompassed a huge range of people from itinerant nomadic tribes quite new to the west and ignorant or dismissive of Roman mores, through to longstanding near-neighbours, whose lives were heavily influenced by Roman-ness, but who had not been able to share in the fruits of citizenship.

With Dan Jones at The Collection, Lincoln

What makes this book special is the way Dan Jones manages to make Powers and Thrones relevant to today. Writing it in the midst of a pandemic certainly must have helped to give Dan a sense of history all around him and he alludes to this in the book. When interviewing him, Dan told me that living through Covid gave him a better understanding of the plague years of 14th century Europe, of the fear and panic that must have consumed people. And by referring to modern-day equivalents, such as world leaders, the pandemic and the rise of social media, Dan is able to draw the reader in and make medieval history relevant in the modern age.

Dan Jones does not shy away from the harsh questions, either, examining the development and morals of slavery, the reasoning behind the crusades and the rise of Protestantism. What may surprise readers is the facts this book is essentially Euro-centric – it made me realise how Anglo-centric my study of history has been over the years. By focusing on change and development in mainland Europe, whilst encompassing England and the British Isles in various guises where appropriate, it gives the reader a whole new outlook on the medieval era, whilst also demonstrates how events in Europe – even back then – could influence events in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Powers and Thrones highlights the driving forces of change, whether it was people, ideas or technology, and demonstrates how such change effected Europe in general and individuals in particular, whether it was the empire of Charlemagne, the rise of monasticism, or even the development of the humble stirrup that led to the emergence of the knightly class.

In Powers and Thrones, Dan Jones combines a narrative of international events with case studies that focus on individual people, organisations and movements. By highlighting such diverse subjects as Empress Theodora, the rise of Islam, El Cid and the magnificent Lincoln Cathedral, the author manages to personalise what might otherwise have been a wide, sweeping narrative. The Warennes also get a mention in the involvement of William de Warenne, the 1st Earl, and his wife, Gundrada, in founding the first Cluniac priory in England, St Pancras Priory in Lewes, Sussex. From my personal point of view, it is fabulous that Dan Jones chose to include Empress Theodora so prominently – a woman who rose from extremely humble roots to become Empress of Byzantium and a woman who was influential in holding that empire together, especially in adroitly soothing religious dissension. It is impossible to get everything from 1,000 years of history in one book, but by showing the big picture, whilst highlighting particular events, ideas, buildings or people, Dan Jones manages to provide a fascinating narrative that is fast-paced and engaging without being overwhelming.

Powers and Thrones is, quite simply, an amazing book. It is chock full of little snippets of information that you may never have known, it relates medieval events to our modern day equivalents, such as the Black Death to Covid. Such references to the modern era could easily have backfired, but they serve to make the book more accessible and entertaining and not a little amusing. The moments of light-heartedness often provide an extra depth to the reading experience and make the book accessible to every reader.

Powers and Thrones was certainly an ambitious project, but in the hour-long interview I had with Dan Jones, he spoke about every aspect of it with passion and enthusiasm an that same passion and enthusiasm comes across throughout the book. The book is a pleasure to read and would be a welcome addition to any bookshelf.

Powers and Thrones by Dan Jones is available from Amazon and

My Books

Signed, dedicated copies of all my books are available, please get in touch by completing the contact me form.

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III. Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available in paperback and hardback from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.


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©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: The Last Berserker by Angus Donald

The greatest warriors are forged in the flames

Two pagan fighters

771AD, Northern Europe. Bjarki Bloodhand and Tor Hildarsdottir are journeying south into Saxony. Their destination is the Irminsul, the One Tree that links the Nine Worlds of the Middle-Realm. In this most holy place, they hope to learn how to summon their animal spirits so they can enter the ranks of the legendary berserkir: the elite frenzied fighters of the North.

One Christian king

Karolus, newly crowned King of the Franks, has a thorn in his side: the warlike Saxon tribes on his northern borders who shun the teachings of the Church, blasphemously continuing to worship their pagan gods.

An epic battle for the soul of the North

The West’s greatest warlord vows to stamp out his neighbours’ superstitions and bring the light of the True Faith to the Northmen – at the point of a sword. It will fall to Bjarki, Tor and the men and women of Saxony to resist him in a struggle for the fate of all Europe.

I have read Angus Donald’s books since the first of his Robin Hood series, Outlaw, came out many moons ago. And I absolutely adored his series set around the 1688 Glorious Revolution with unlikely hero Holcroft Blood. But there is always a risk when an author starts a new series; will it live up to previous stories?

Well, with The Last Berserker there is no need to worry. From the first few lines you are reassured that Angus Donald starts as he means to go on; with an action-filled storyline that will take the reader on a breathtaking journey through the turbulent years of the 8th century. It is quite the adventure!

The story derives from the many tales of the berserkers, men who went wild in battle, killing dozens at a time. Angus Donald has created a world in which the berserkers were not just mad men, but legendary fighters who honed their skills through belief, training and discipline. They were heroes who used their unique talents to lead men into battle and deliver victory after victory. Set in the time when the great Charlemagne was waging his campaign of conquest against the German tribes, The Last Berserker tells the story of Bjarki Bloodhand, who joins the fight to defend his homelands.

‘How about you, son? You look like a strapping fellow. Care to try your strength? Bjarki realised the tall blond man was speaking to him.

He shook his head.

‘No need to be afraid. I’ll tell Black Svein to go easy on you.’

‘I’m not afraid,’ Bjarki said.

‘Then come inside the hazel square and prove it.’

Bjarki shook his head. He smiled.

The straw-haired man turned away. ‘There must be one or two here today who are not snivelling cowards,’ he said, his back turned to Bjarki.

Bjarki stopped smiling. He felt suddenly cold. He took a step forward.

‘He’s not a coward,’ said a voice at his elbow, a cool hand there, too, restraining him. ‘He just doesn’t want to fight your friend today. And calling him one won’t change his mind.’

The straw-haired man turned back and looked at Bjarki – and Tor, who was now standing beside him.

‘You his girl then?’ he said. Then to Bjarki: ‘Aren’t you a one – getting your little girlie to speak for you. I see now why you won’t fight.’

‘He won’t fight your friend,’ said Tor, ‘but I will. You said you had quarterstaffs? Yes? All right then, I accept your challenge.’

The straw-haired man was nonplussed. This scrawny young woman, with arms like kindling sticks, was about half of the weight of Black Svein – and a head shorter than him too. It was a ridiculous match.

‘You can’t fight him,’ he said.

‘Oh yes? Why is that? Is he afraid of me?’

That started a howl of laughter from the crowd, which had thickened considerably by now. The straw-haired man flushed pink with irritation.

‘You cannot fight him, girlie. It would not be a fair contest.’

‘What if I go really easy on him?’ said Tor. ‘I promise I won’t hurt him all that much – hardly at all. I’ll be as gentle as a lamb with the poor idiot.’

Angus Donald weaves together, myth, legend and history to recreate a world where the berserker not only flourished, but was revered as a great warrior.

As an author, Donald is very adept at creating unique, interesting protagonists. Holcroft Blood was an autistic officer who had a knack for uncovering spies and a skill in artillery that was unrivalled. Robin Hood was a vicious killer, not the cuddly Robin Hood from legend. And with Bjarki Bloodhand, we have another individual who is not, at first sight, your typical hero. He is a rather dull, awkward boy; quite unassuming in fact. He comes across as naive, a little too trusting and not overly ambitious. He is, however, loyal to ahis friends, a good fighter and as brave as they come. He doesn’t shirk from a fight, but doesn’t necessarily seek it out. And he is incredibly likeable.

Bjarki’s sidekick, for want of a better word, is Tor, a slip of a girl with an attitude that belies her size. A born fighter, she is always looking to prove herself. Tor is a fascinating character who has secrets of her own to hide and ‘issues’ to work through. The two make an unlikely pairing but a firm friendship that helps them through their many trials.

Angus Donald wonderfully recreates the world of 8th century central Europe, from the landscape and the natural borders that separate the various nations, to the contrasting religious beliefs – both Christian and pagan – that lie at the centre of the conflict. A natural storyteller when it comes to warfare, Donald vividly evokes the song of battle, with seax, sword, axe and shield. The frenetic energy of the battle scenes leave the reader breathless and eager for more. The intricacies of the story, with its various twists and turns, some rather surprising, keep the reader on the edge of their seat throughout.

The Last Berserker is a truly enthralling story, not easy to put down – and a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience. It is one book that is not to be missed!

The Last Berserker by Angus Donald is available in paperback and ebook from Amazon.


About the Author:

Angus Donald is the author of the bestselling Outlaw Chronicles, a series of ten novels set in the 12th/13th centuries and featuring a gangster-ish Robin Hood. Angus has also published the Holcroft Blood trilogy about a mildly autistic 17th-century English artillery officer, son of notorious Crown Jewels thief Colonel Thomas Blood. Before becoming an author, Angus worked as a fruit-picker in Greece, a waiter in New York City and as an anthropologist studying magic and witchcraft in Indonesia. For fifteen years he was a journalist working in Hong Kong, India, Afghanistan and London. He now writes full time from a medieval farmhouse in Kent.


My books

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.


You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly.