Powers and Thrones by Dan Jones

I actually started Dan Jones’ Powers and Thrones for last year’s Nonfiction November but found it so long and intensely detailed I could only read it in small doses. Although it’s a fascinating book and I’ve been learning a lot from it, 736 pages covering more than a thousand years of history is not something I could read quickly. I confess that I kept putting it aside and getting distracted by other books…so here I am, finishing it a year after I began and conveniently just in time for Nonfiction November again!

In Powers and Thrones, Jones explores the long period of history known as the Middle Ages. Starting in 410 AD, just before the fall of the Roman Empire, and ending in 1527 during the Renaissance, he looks at some of the ‘powers’ that helped to build the world we know today – not just ‘thrones’, but also powers such as money, trade, religion and exploration. He moves forward chronologically throughout the book while choosing a different topic to focus on in each chapter; Monks, Knights, Scholars, Crusaders, Merchants and Builders are just a few of the chapter titles.

As well as putting key events into the context of their own time, Jones also draws lots of parallels with modern life. It’s impossible to read about the first recorded global pandemic – a form of bubonic plague thought to have killed millions of people worldwide during the middle of the 6th century – without thinking of the similarities and differences with our own recent Covid-19 pandemic. Again, when he discusses the later outbreak of plague in the 14th century known as the Black Death, he looks at the economic impact on prices and wages, something as relevant now as it was then. It was also interesting to read about the effects of climate change and extreme weather such as droughts on the mass migration of people in the 4th and 5th centuries that led to ‘barbarian’ tribes pushing across the Roman frontiers and contributing to the fall of Rome.

Although the book concentrates on broad themes like these, Jones does pick out individual historical figures to write about in more detail. These range from ancient leaders such as Attila the Hun and Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths to Henry the Navigator, Marco Polo, and Dick Whittington – a real-life merchant and politician before he became a British pantomime character! The book is quite Eurocentric, but Jones doesn’t ignore things that were taking place in other parts of the world, particularly where they affect European life and culture. For example, he includes sections on Genghis Khan and the Mongols and on the caliphates of the Arab world.

The problem with Powers and Thrones is that there’s just too much information here for one book. Any of the chapters could have been expanded into an entire book in itself; trying to condense it all into one volume was a bit overwhelming. I’m still glad I read it, though, and am pleased I made it all the way through to the end – I finished it with a real sense of achievement!

Thanks to Head of Zeus for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

19 thoughts on “Powers and Thrones by Dan Jones

  1. Lory says:

    That is a great achievement! Lately I am happy if I can finish a 300 page book. There is so much to learn from reading about the past, and I so value the authors who can put into context and illuminate the bigger picture for me. Some subjects are so immense they are really hard to fit into one book.

    • Helen says:

      I used to love long books, but I’ve been struggling with them lately too. This one was interesting and I did learn a lot from it, but I think it would really have been better as a series of two or three shorter books.

  2. mallikabooks15 says:

    Congratulations on making it through what does sound a very interesting but dense read. I finished one of Nonfic November picks this year as well, but for 10booksofsummer rather than Nonfic November. Like Lory, this year, I haven’t been able to manage very long reads so 300 to 400 pages is about all that’s working for me. I will keep this on my radar thought, for a time when I am able to pick up larger books again.

  3. Shellie says:

    I love his books and need to write a review of The Plantagenets. This book does seem daunting!! Congrats for making it all the way through. I thought you did a nice, concise summary of its contents. It might be one I just skim for parts that interest me 🙂

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you love Dan Jones’ books too! I’ve read The Plantagenets and also The Hollow Crown, his book on the Wars of the Roses, and enjoyed both. This one is fascinating, but I think skimming is probably a good idea!

  4. Cyberkitten says:

    A little over ambitious I think to cover the WHOLE Middle Ages in a single volume – even one this chunky! Sounds like a very interesting read though…

  5. FictionFan says:

    Sounds like it would be a good “starter” book for people who know nothing about that period and don’t know where to begin. But I can quite see why trying to pack so much into one book could feel like information overload!

  6. whatmeread says:

    Hmm, I don’t remember his book about the Templars being crammed with detail. I always think that’s the sign of someone who doesn’t know how to cull down his research to the essentials. However, it does seem to be fairly common in history books.

  7. GoAnnelies - In Another Era says:

    I still need to read Jones’ nonfic works, and I’m happy that his first historical fiction book (Essex Dogs) didn’t had the same amount of detail and was really a good story with a historical setting. It’s not always easy for a non fiction writer to write a good fiction work.

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