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Soldiers of Rome

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Interviewer: We’re joined today by two stalwarts of Rome. From the first century BC and the days of the glorious Republic, Marcus Falerius Fronto, Legate of the Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh legions and from the fourth century AD and the troublesome times of Late Antiquity, Numerius Vitellius Pavo, Tribunus of the XI Claudia legion.

* * *

Interviewer: So tell me about the places from which you have travelled.

Fronto: Eh? Er… Massilia. Sort of. And Tarraco. I’ve come hotfoot from Massilia, via Tarraco. The campaign season’s over and I’ve managed to slip away from dangerous lunatics and oppressive proconsuls long enough to actually be a father again for half an hour. Didn’t someone say there’d be wine?

Pavo: From Thracia. (frowns when interviewer seems nonplussed). You haven’t heard? The land is like an open grave. The Goths are running riot there: last summer we fought them near Adrianople. Thirty thousand men on either side, and the hairy bastards won the day. They killed Emperor Valens and nearly two-thirds of the Eastern Army. (grips sword hilt) And when I get back there, I’ve got some scores to settle.

Fronto: (laughs) Welcome to my world! (lifts jug of wine from table and swigs) Bastards the lot of them…

Pavo: (charges wine cup to Fronto) Bastard barbarians.

Fronto: (nonplussed) I meant officers. Never mind.

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Adrianople

Interviewer: Pavo, I hear you fourth century legionaries, especially limitanei, are the weak link of the later imperial army? Not like the all-conquering Republican legions.

Pavo: *Says nothing, gives interviewer burning stare*

Fronto: (chuckles and jabs thumb towards interviewer) And they wear trousers. Some say they don’t even wear armour.

Pavo, head swivelling to Fronto: Have you been listening to that arsehole, Vegetius? The vet who thinks he understands the necessities of war in the Fourth Century? Me and the Claudia lads trekked through the desert once, and in the hostile regions near the Persian frontier – even when it was so hot you could fry an egg on the sand – we’d have our mail and helmets on. Always – iron and shield. Vegetius should have stuck to shoving his hand up cows’ arses.

Fronto: Not like Marius’s Mules. Carrying everything you need, right down to the sudis stakes to make camp for the night. Not me, mind you. A legate has enough weight on his shoulders without that. And look at your sword. What happened to your gladius? That looks like a Gaul’s sword. Long as a German’s dick. Seems to me like you’re compensating for something.

Pavo: Well you’re the one who mentioned it. You should meet my Primus Pilus, Sura; he’s obsessed with the length of his cock too… (chuckles, takes draught of wine for himself)… and the thing is, it’s absolutely miniscule!

Fronto: You’ve been peeking? All a bit Greek for me, that! (Takes another swig of wine)

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The standard bearer of Caesar’s legions landing in Britannia

Interviewer:  But the way of war changed so much between each of your eras, did it not? Tell me about battle tactics…

Fronto: It’s all about discipline. Doesn’t matter how well armed you are or how clever your tactics. Rome wins the day when they have a general and an army that do not yield and will not break into melee and chase unless specifically instructed to do so. You could take a bunch of papyrus-pushing Aegyptian eunuchs and turn them into a fearful legion if you can instill discipline. Hades, they might even be better. After all, Pullo does spend way too much time playing with his balls. I think in my time we have the edge over Pavo’s lot. We still have Romanitas, albeit backed up with a Spanish sword, Gallic armour, Greek tactics and a Punic navy. But we took the best and made an unstoppable killing machine with it. Pavo’s lot took some close harmony choral stuff as their main influence.

Pavo: So your boys come steaming in, gladius in hand… but our lot are no barbarian rabble who’ll look for ‘glorious’ one-on-one combat. True, our Greek and Latin is sprinkled with Germanic words and phrases, and lots of the men of the ranks are sons of tribesmen, but when we stand together as a legion, we’re like a wall of iron. Have you seen us? Shields interlocked – sometimes two storeys of them – and a maw of spears – break into that if you can! And you’ll hear us long before you see us. The draco standards trill and moan and the barritus, another tribal influence, is a cry that you will hear once and never, ever forget. (stops and tuts at Fronto) Choral harmony indeed. More like Hades unleashed: tens of thousands of us, roaring in a crescendo, swords beating on shields and all manner of sharp pointy things flying out at you from behind our shield wall: lead-weighted darts, slingshot, arrows, javelins. Quadratus even threw a turd at a Gothic reiks once. Hit the bastard right in the mouth. He claims he found it on the ground. I suspect otherwise.

Fronto: Sounds like a phalanx. My forefathers gutted the Greeks when they tried to face us like that and we beat the Helvetii phalanx near Bibracte. A phalanx is not secure. Round the side, spill round the back, tear ’em to shreds!

Pavo: (grins) Then you weren’t paying attention to our cohorts positioned in the woods? The ones waiting to fall on your backs? Ah, of course, you wouldn’t have spotted them: faces and limbs smeared with dirt, bright shields armour left behind – tactically, in case Vegetius gets too excited. Great for surprising an enemy. A vicious bastard of a general by the name of Sebastianus taught me this.

Fronto: Now you’re putting me in mind of the Nervii. Bastards. Alright. I concede the point.

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Goths assailing the legions of Late Antiquity

Interviewer:  You both seem to be enjoying the wine. It’s a soldier thing, isn’t it?

Pavo: Numbs the mind. (eyes cup thoughtfully for a moment). My men indulge more than me these days, but still, after a long march or a bruising skirmish, you can’t beat a spicy wine or a foaming beer. Yes, beer. Now the Goths have a lot to answer for… but damn, they make good barley beer. We trade with them when we’re not fighting with them, you see. In the better times it’s all wine and beer, beer and wine.

Fronto: Common ground at last – excellent!… Actually, I’ve tried Gallic beer a number of times. It varies in taste from dirty baby water to armour polish. Never yet found a truly acceptable brew. That being said, I’ve had times when I will swear it is the sweetest nectar ever to pass my lips. But then we’ve all been there. Actually nothing ever will beat a good wine. I always thought I knew good wine, but it turns out I was all about quantity. Let me introduce you to Cathain. He will wean you off beer for life with his wine selections. And this from a land where they drink things that taste like feet.

Pavo: Feet-brew? Now I think we’ve been drinking in the same places – do they serve sweaty-ball bread to go with it? Perhaps a visit to this Cathain would be good.

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We drink like Satyrs…

Interviewer:  What about barrack-life: the soldiers there must be like a family of sorts?

Pavo: No of-sorts about it. I mentioned Sura. He’s my oldest friend in the legion. I trust him with my life. But, by Mithras, he doesn’t half talk out of his arse: winning a pole vaulting competition with his – miniscule – tackle instead of a pole has to be his most absurd claim yet. Still, I look forward to his stories, especially on a long march – anything to raise the spirits. And speaking of people talking out of their arse, there was Quadratus, and his arse was rarely quiet. He was built like an ox, and he smelt like one too. Seriously, three men of his contubernium were admitted to the fort valetudinarium for medical treatment after suffering “a foul fog of Quadratus’ gut-gas” every night. And the ones in neighbouring contubernia rooms were not spared; they had to suffer the sound effects – parp, parp, honk, quack, splatter… all night, every night! He blamed the barley beer. Told you the Goths had a lot to answer for.

Fronto: It would be nice to say I knew what you were talking about. I’m a legate. We have our own tent and a veritable army of slaves to maintain it. ‘Course, I send most of the slaves away and my tent is often full of Galronus snoring or Antonius helping himself to my wine stock. That being the case, I would have to say that despite having lost some of my closest friends over the years – Priscus, Velius, Crispus, Palmatus and so on – my best friend is a man who, strictly speaking, is a barbarian. Galronus of the Remi. Always has my back. And sometimes my sister’s, but that’s a whole different story. It doesn’t matter whether you’re from Pavo’s time or mine, or whether you’re one of his ‘Goths’ or the Carthaginians or the Romans or the Gauls, you learn who your friends are when the iron is unsheathed. Seriously.

Pavo: By the God of the Light, I’ll drink to that.

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Roman fortresses are all rather similar

Interviewer:  You are both men of the legions, but what about the states you each serve: Fronto, you fight for the Republic, Pavo, you march under the banner of Empire.

Fronto: (turns to Pavo) So am I right in understanding that you have one man in complete control of Rome? An Emperor, you said.

Pavo: Not at the moment, the emperor is dead, as I said, (eyes Fronto’s cup) less drinking and more listening. But soon, I hope, someone will emerge to take the empty throne and steady the chaos.

Fronto: Isn’t that basically a king? We drove out the kings and instituted a new political system entirely to avoid having a king again.

Pavo: That system failed. Way before my time, but I’ve read the histories. The Republic was a fine thing in theory, but first necessity then greed turned it all back to how it had been. Princeps, augustus, imperator…. yes, they are like kings. Still, a king can be wise or wicked, just as a republic can be strong or weak.

Fronto: In my day we fought tooth and nail to stop that very thing. We drove out Crassus and Marius and their like. With Caesar we reconstituted the true value of the republic.

Pavo: Hmm, you’re from 49 BC, aren’t you? Are you perchance travelling close to the River Rubicon this year?

Fronto: (Taking a large swig of wine) ‘La la la la la… I’m not listening.’

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Valens

Interviewer:  What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?

Fronto: For me it’s Verginius. Simply: Verginius. Let me tell you a story of a brother who became the worst enemy imaginable…

Pavo: A brother? I watched my only brother, Dexion, die, and shed not a tear. That same day, Gallus – the leader of the Claudia Legion before me – died too. Plenty of tears then. We should talk.

Fronto: (after a long silence) Is there a tavern nearby? We could blow this place. Where are we? Hang on… Wall slogans. Brutus sucks donkey.... This is the Suburra. We’re round the corner from the Laughing Swordsman.

Pavo: Sounds like one of Sura’s nicknames. Well, what are you waiting for? How does it go in Latin again: Nunc est Bibendum – to the tavern!

tavern

The tavern! Image by Dave Slaney from the forthcoming Pirate Legion

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Written by SJAT

May 24, 2017 at 5:59 pm

Ruth Downie on the journey to Rome

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I am fortunate indeed today to play host to a guest post by the marvellous Ruth Downie as part of her Blog Tour, celebrating the release of her latest masterpiece ‘Vita Brevis’. As you may be aware, I’m currently reviewing the whole series of Ruth’s books, which will continue this week with Semper Fidelis, followed by Tabula Rasa and then the new book. But that can all wait for now while I let Ruth inform and entertain you in her own words. Over to you, Ruth…

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Travelling to Rome – the long way

Medicus, the first book in the series that features legionary medic Ruso and his British partner Tilla, has this printed at the front:

O diva…

serves iturum Caesarem

in ultimos orbis Britannos.

Which roughly means,

Oh Goddess…

safeguard Caesar as he sets off

for the remotest regions of the Earth—Britain.

(Horace)

Most of the stories in the series are set in those “remotest regions:” the Wild West of the Roman empire.

“Are Ruso and Tilla going to Rome?” the editor would ask from time to time, and I would keep very quiet. Anything was better than admitting, “I don’t dare, because other writers do Rome so well.” Besides, there was plenty to write about here.

What drives the first half-dozen books is the tension between Roman and Briton, occupier and occupied—all the clashes, compromises and misunderstandings that ensue when foreign boots land on native soil. All, in some way, connected to the attempts of Ruso and Tilla to forge a life together.

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We come in peace…

Even in times of relative peace, there was plenty of drama going on in Roman Britain without me having to make it up. The sale of people into the sex trade isn’t new – it’s something Hadrian tried to restrict. The use of religion to whip up violence goes back at least as far as the Druids.  The connection between power and greed comes out in a hundred subtle ways: the official traveller who bullies the innkeeper into giving him a horse he isn’t entitled to; the tax collector who demands that payments in wheat be delivered so far away that it’s impossible to avoid paying him exorbitant fees to transport them; the town councillor who tries to vote for a contract knowing one of his relatives will rake in the profit that follows. Then there’s the casual violence of soldier on civilian, and the use of false measures, loaded dice and fake coinage, some of which is on display in the British Museum.

Add in the splendid locations on offer—Chester, York, Verulamium, Hadrian’s Wall, Roman London and a brief trip to the South of France so Tilla could shock Ruso’s family—and there didn’t seem much reason to send anyone to Italy. Besides, how would the story work without the Roman-vs-Briton tension?  I’d already painted myself into enough of a corner by giving them a baby to look after.

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Ah, the family pile…

But… there are stories you can tell in cities that don’t work as well in a rural society. Stories about slum landlords with horrible agents (at last, revenge for that gruesome student flat!). Stories about arriving as an immigrant and an outsider. Stories about vast buildings that reach up to trap the sky. Stories about watching your fellow-countrymen offered up for auction in a slave market. In a city of a million people it’s quite possible that an abandoned body could remain anonymous, whereas in Britannia it’s hard not to believe that somebody would know somebody else who knew the dead person’s cousin. And then there’s Pliny’s assertion that doctors are “sharks using medical practice to prey on people” and that “only a doctor can kill a man with impunity.”

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There’s no shortage of material. So when Ruso’s former commanding officer invited him back to Rome at the end of book six, it felt as though it was time to take the plunge. Never mind what other writers had done. Rome was a massive city, and there would be plenty for Ruso and Tilla to get their teeth into in “Vita Brevis”. Provided, of course, they could find a babysitter.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Ruth Downie is the author of the New York Times bestselling Medicus, as well as Terra Incognita, Persona Non Grata, Caveat Emptor, Semper Fidelis, and Tabula Rasa. She is married with two sons and lives in Devon.

Follow her at ruthdownie.com and on Twitter @ruthsdownie.

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Vita BREVIS

A Gaius Ruso Mystery

By Ruth Downie

22nd September 2016
hardback – £16.99

Bringing both the majesty and depravity of ancient Rome to life, Ruth Downie concocts a delicious mix of crime novel, mystery, and history lesson in the latest novel in her bestselling Medicus series, VITA BREVIS.

 “Downie writes with her usual humor and depth . . . Perfect for fans of the Falco novels by Lindsey Davis, this entertaining New York Times best-selling series and its endearing characters deserve as long a run” —Booklist

“A deftly crafted and consistently compelling read from beginning to end, ‘Vita Brevis’ clearly establishes author Ruth Downie as a consummate and accomplished master of historical crime fiction” —Midwest Book Review

*****

Ruso and Tilla’s excitement at arriving in Rome with their baby daughter is soon dulled by their discovery that the grand facades of polished marble mask an underworld of corrupt landlords and vermin-infested tenements.

Ruso finds that his predecessor Doctor Kleitos has fled, leaving a dead man in a barrel on the doorstep with the warning, ‘Be careful who you trust’. Distracted, Ruso makes a grave mistake, causing him to question his own competence and integrity.

With Ruso’s reputation under threat, he and Tilla must protect their small family by tracking down the vanished doctor – and discovering the truth behind the man in the barrel.

VITA BREVIS is brimming with humor, clever plot twists, and evocative historical details, as Ruth Downie follows her beloved characters in their next adventure.

 *****

And check out the next stop on her blog tour: A Fantastical Librarian

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Louise’s Interview Café

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Louise E. Rule Author

Interview Cafe header

Today I would like to welcome author, Simon J. A. Turney, and illustrator, Dave Slaney, to my Interview Café.

Thank you both so much for dropping by for a chat about your up and coming book, Crocodile Legion: A Roman Adventure, it’s really lovely to see you both here.

You are my first victims… er… I mean, my first interviewees…EmoticonIconX

Welcome!

I thought I would start with the quote which can be found on amazon for, Crocodile Legion: A Roman Adventure, to give our readers some idea of what lies in store for, Marcus and Callie, the sibling protagonists.

The prefect of Egypt needs money. And the men of the 22nd Legion must brave mazes and tombs and curses and crocodile gods to get to it.

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Marcus and Callie, orphaned in ancient Alexandria and taken in by their uncle, the standard bearer in the legion, are about to travel…

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Written by SJAT

March 23, 2016 at 12:13 pm

Posted in Author Interview

Welcome to Roma Nova

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You might recall that I recently reviewed the excellent first novel in Alison Morton’s intriguing and genre-challenging Roma Nova series, ‘Inceptio’. If not, you’ll find that review HERE and I hope you’ll read it and be interested enough to go try it yourself. But aren’t you lucky? Because Alison’s first three Roma Nova books have been released in an e-book box set for a mere £3.99! Can you afford to pass up a great series for £1.33 a book? No, I don’t think so either. This fascinating series brings together all the action, technology and familiarity of the modern world of politics, espionage and military, along with the flavour, culture and social-facts of ancient Rome in a setting that is both at once, in a unique alternate history. And to celebrate the excellent deal, Alison agreed to answer a few questions for me, delving a little into the background and inspiration for the series. Before we begin, here’s a little something about Alison and her books:

Suppose a part of Ancient Rome survived?

Alison Morton explores just this. In her alternate thriller world, her 21st century Praetorian heroines survive kidnapping, betrayal and a vicious nemesis while using their Roman toughness and determination to save their beloved country. Unfortunately, their love lives don’t run so smoothly…

Alison has written four thrillers against this background – INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO and AURELIA. She’s working on the fifth, INSURRECTIO, out in spring 2016.

But this month, the Roma Nova box set is out and contains the first three books ­­– over a 1,000 pages of action adventure and alternative historical thrills in three books which have 140 five star reviews on Amazon between them.

INCEPTIO – the beginning: New Yorker Karen Brown is thrown into a new life in mysterious Roma Nova and fights to stay alive with a killer hunting her…

“Breathtaking action, suspense, political intrigue” – Russell Whitfield

Grips like a vice.  Excellent pace, great dialogue and concept.” – Adrian Magson

PERFIDITAS – betrayal: Six years on, where betrayal and rebellion are in the air, threatening to topple Roma Nova and ruin Carina’s life.

“Sassy, intriguing, page-turning … Roma Nova is a fascinating, exotic world” – Simon Scarrow

SUCCESSIO – the next generation: A mistake from the past threatens to destroy Roma Nova’s next generation.

“I thoroughly enjoyed this classy thriller, the third in Morton’s epic series set in Roma Nova.”
– Caroline Sanderson in The Bookseller

Historical Novel Society indie Editor’s Choice Autumn 2014

2D for blog

Even before she pulled on her first set of fatigues, Alison Morton was fascinated by the idea of women soldiers. Brought up by a feminist mother and an ex-military father, it never occurred to her that women couldn’t serve their country in the armed forces. Everybody in her family had done time in uniform and in theatre – regular and reserve ­– all over the globe. She even wrote her history masters’ dissertation on women military!

Alison joined a special communications regiment and left as a captain, having done all sorts of interesting and exciting things no civilian would ever know or see. Or that she can talk about, even now…

But something else fuels her writing… Fascinated by the mosaics at Ampurias (Spain), at their creation by the complex, power and value-driven Roman civilization, she started wondering what a modern Roman society would be like if run by strong women. Now, she lives in France with her husband and writes Roman-themed alternate history thrillers with tough heroines.

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Hi Alison, and welcome.

What settled you on the unusual – and potentially risky – direction of alternate history, rather than simply writing a novel set in either ancient Rome or the modern world?

When I first attAMM Ampurias 1_smacked the keyboard I’d never written anything longer than my history masters’ dissertation. I had no plan, no idea of genre or structure and no definite goal. Nor had I heard of ‘alternate history’ as such. But several years before, I’d read Robert Harris’s Fatherland which, rather cleverly, he’d written shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, so I knew that I could ‘turn’ history. And I’d read a lot of science fiction which opened doors to so many possible worlds.

Fascinated by all things Roman since the age of eleven, I’d clambered over Roman ruins, been entranced by mosaics in former Yugoslavia, Spain, France and Cyprus, walked the limes in Germany and absorbed the atmosphere in the arenas in Nimes, Rome and Caerleon. And studying Latin at school just reinforced it all! But I’d always wondered what Roman women did…

My six years in uniform gave me the idea of making the main character military. So far so Roman. But the story of a courageous heroine doing daring deeds and sorting out the world had been buzzing around in my head for years. Women serve in military units now as standard but this wouldn’t have been possible in ancient Rome, so remembering Robert Harris, I yanked the Roman setting forward into the 21st

Risky? Of course, but why do something straightforward? And there are so many talented Roman writers already…

 

Is there somewhere you’ve been that you use as a visual basis for your Roma Nova? Somewhere that helped create your mental image of it?

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Roma Nova is Alpine with a lower lying region to the south, so it may resemble scenery I’ve walked through in Austria on holiday. For climate and agriculture I use Slovenia as a model but see the city streetscapes to be similar to the ones in the older parts of current day Rome; Renaissance buildings perched on top of Roman foundations or incorporating ancient buildings in later ones. I’ve put a gallery together of ‘Roma Nova’ photos on my blogsite.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is your matriarchal society in Roma Nova a deliberate choice to pull away from the history of the patriarchal ancient Roman world?

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Very much so! I’ve nudged it away in several steps. Ancient Roman attitudes to women were repressive by today’s standards, but towards the later Imperial period women had gained much more freedom to act, own property and run businesses. Divorce was relatively easy and step and adopted families commonplace.

Next, Apulius, the leader of Roma Nova’s founders, had married tough daughter of a Celtic princeling in Noricum. She came from a society in which, although Romanised for several generations, women made decisions, fought in battles and managed inheritance and property. Their four daughters were amongst the first pioneers in AD 395 so necessarily had to act more decisively than they would have in a traditional urban Roman setting.

Lastly, given the unstable, dangerous times in Roma Nova’s first few hundred years, daughters as well as sons had to put on armour and carry weapons to defend their homeland and their way of life. Fighting danger side-by-side with brothers and fathers reinforced women’s status and roles. And they never allowed the incursion of monotheistic paternalistic religions. So I don’t think that it’s too far a stretch for women to have developed leadership roles in all parts of Roma Novan life over the following centuries.

 

I somehow picture your desk full of notes and maps of your fictional new world, like Tolkien’s notes on Middle Earth. Do you build the world you have created as you write, or is it fully constructed already?

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Flattered to be mentioned in the same sentence as Tolkien! My world is built in my head, although I do have a sketch map pinned above my desk! If you haven’t hammered out a complete framework before starting, you risk tripping up later, as with the Klingons in Star Trek. Smaller details develop as I go along. I included more food details in my third book as one fan, who admitted to being a chef, pointed out he couldn’t work out what the Roma Novans ate. (Normal European diet, but including a lot of honey, olive oil and beans.)

green fields_smAnd history continues even in an imagined world. INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS and SUCCESSIO are set in the early 21st century, but the fourth book, AURELIA, featuring an older secondary character from the first three, starts in the late 1960s when she was a young woman. Then, two-way traffic stops and starts as it putters along the Decumanus Max, which often leaves Aurelia fuming in her car. When her granddaughter, Carina, drives along the Dec Max in 2010, it’s become one-way. Corded landlines have given way to smartphones in the new century and minor corporal punishment within households has disappeared by Carina’s time.

 

How much do you balance the drawing of inspiration and research from the modern world and sources on ancient Rome?

AMM_PDeG_smI use a layering approach. First of all, Roma Nova is an intrinsically Roman society where citizen service to the state is valued higher than personal advantage, a collective strategy which helped them to survive through the ages. The Roman mind-set is uncompromising, adaptable and ingenious, especially when faced with extinction. Modern Roma Novans exercise the same robust response as their ancestors did to any challenge.

Next, I mine details from the Roman Empire at the end of the 4th century, when the timeline from the real world diverged to form the Roma Novan one. For instance, the monetary unit in AD 395 was the solidus; Roma Novans have retained the name but today use debit cards, currency notes as well as coins, and internet banking.

The third layer is to anchor their modern society with links to and symbols from the past. Praetorians have become a special forces unit with the traditional task of protecting the ruler, but also the state. Unsurprisingly, they are arrogant and elitist, but efficient, with a fearsome reputation. The military train not only with state-of-the-art modern weaponry, on the range and in the field, but also with a gladius in order to enhance reflexes and increase close quarter battle skills and confidence.

Ancient Romans were superb technologists and engineers as well as skilled strategists. So in the modern era Roma Novans are at the forefront of the digital revolution. All my Roma Novan characters use advanced communications and security systems for their period. Sadly, although they continue to eat honey cake and enjoy the (non-lethal) games, there are still poetry evenings, bureaucratic Senate committee meetings, and long, boring lawyers’ speeches to endure when in court.
Do you have a deliberate over-all story arc in mind, or are you taking the series one book at a time?

AMM_forum_smEach book stands alone and dips into an episode in the character’s lives. In the first three, INCEPTIO is the beginning of the story, where we meet the characters whose lives will develop in the next two books. We revisit the heroine’s life several years later in PERFIDITAS when she is established in her new life. At that stage, I realised I needed to complete this cycle so SUCCESSIO looks eight years later at the next generation and is a story of change. So yes, they are connected, and span a fifteen year period.
The AURELIA cycle of three books which I’m writing now, now is planned as a complete arc, but again, each is a standalone story. One of my pet peeves is a cliff-hanger ending, so I’m not inflicting that on my readers!

 

 

Thank you so much for inviting me to be your guest, Simon. Tibi maximas gratias!

And thank you, Alison.

You can find out more on Alison’s box-set at her website here

You can buy it on Amazon here, iTunes here, and Kobo here

Connect with Alison on her Roma Nova blog

Facebook author page

Twitter @alison-morton

and last but not least, on Goodreads

Written by SJAT

November 12, 2015 at 2:28 pm

Maid of Orleans

with 13 comments

Something slightly different for you today.

I am currently engrossed in Manda Scott’s latest opus – Into The Fire – and will be posting my review of it on Thursday in my usual scheduled slot, so look out for that. But in the meantime, I have been so utterly enthralled by the book that I felt perhaps it was time for another non-review post in between, about the character who is central to Manda’s new book: Jehanne d’Arc – a.k.a. Joan of Arc.

Furthermore, the lady herself (Manda, not Jehanne) has kindly answered a few questions I put to her and offered a signed copy of Into The Fire as a giveaway. So, when you’ve finished reading, please do comment on the post, and on Thursday when I release my review, I will randomly select one of those folk who commented on this and they will receive a signed copy of Into The Fire from Manda. And trust me, this is a giveaway you want to win, and a book you want to read. I am three quarters of the way through it myself, and it’s clearly going to be one my absolute top books of the year and, let’s face it, probably in the #1 spot.

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(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

So who was Jehanne d’Arc? Well I’m going to give you the sanitised potted historical version. If you really want to explore this question in depth, you need to read Manda’s book. As the legend goes, Jehanne was born in a village called Domremy, loyal French surrounded by Burgundian lands (who at the time sided with England rather than with France.) As a young girl she experienced a vision, in her father’s orchard, of the archangel Michael who told her it was her task to drive the English from France and see that the young Dauphin was crowned King. That was in 1425 when she was just twelve or thirteen years old. A few years passed and she begged to be allowed to visit the Dauphin’s court, but no one would believe her until she had a vision and detailed a French defeat before it had happened. That was in 1429, and consequently she was taken seriously and allowed to visit Chinon. The rest is history. In no time, this simple French maid was clad in plate, riding a charger and leading the French army into battle, beginning with the siege of Orleans.

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(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

As I said, if you want to dig a little deeper into who the Maid of Orleans really was, then Into The Fire is the book for you.

So what was happening between France, England and Burgundy, then? Well, it’s important to remember that at this time France as the nation we understand did not exist. Much of it was either subject to the English crown and had been since William the Bastard had come over from Normandy, or was part of one independent duchy or another. In fact the lands that the French king could call his own were at best half of what we now think of as France, mostly south central and southeast. The English crown had laid claim to all French lands for as long as anyone could remember and by 1429 had spent almost a century trying to conquer them. The French house of Valois was rather beleaguered, for the powerful Duchy of Burgundy, who were a branch of that same family, were at loggerheads with the French Dauphin over succession and therefore sided with England. Moreover, other powerful duchies in the north, such as Hainault and Flanders, had joined the English against France. Despite Scottish alliance and various other foreign supporters, France was in 1429 looking down the barrel of the gun, so to speak. And into the mess steps the maid from Domremy, with God on her side and a vision of a victorious France ruled by a king anointed in the ancient manner.

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Photo courtesy of me, in Rheims 2012

And how did it end? Well again, I’m not going to throw any spoilers at those of you who don’t know the history. But it is a tale of ignominious capture, heroic resistance, political manoeuvering and religious trial. Bear in mind that this is the same era of history that saw the Knights Templar under de Molay tortured and executed for heresy. You can imagine how the misogynistic authorities in the 15th century might view a girl who led armies and defied kings. But like so many larger-than-life figures throughout history, while Jehanne’s death may have signalled the end of that particularly glorious summer for France, it guaranteed her a place in world history. For who can forget Joan of Arc, the maid of Orleans? And Jehanne forms the core of Into The Fire, which is a novel written in dual timelines, set in France in 1429 and in Orleans specifically in 2014. Investigation, arson, murder and political shenanigans form a modern tale that interweaves with the story of the Maid.

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(Photo of Rouen’s Tour Jeanne d’Arc courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

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So, bearing in mind that I have not yet quite finished the book when I posed these questions to Manda, there follows a short Q&A with the talented lady herself.

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Simon: Every nation seems to have its one folk hero. In England it is Robin Hood, in Scotland The Bruce, Romania has Vlad Dracula, while Germany has Arminius. The USA has Washington and Spain has Rodrigo Diaz (El Cid). France, interestingly, could easily claim at least two equally notable and equally romantic figures in that role. Most notably, given the general misogynistic tendencies of the ancient world right through to the 20th century, do you think it is Jehanne d’Arc’s gender that sets her apart and has made her more noticeable and more beloved than, perhaps, Vercingetorix, who had struggled with a very similar fight to throw out an invader some fifteen centuries earlier?

Manda: That’s a really interesting duo.  Because I’m currently immersed in WWII,I’d be inclined to add Jean Moulin and Pierre Brossolette to the list – and definitely Violet Szabo, she was extraordinary and the recent newspaper reports of her medals being sold gave the highly sanitised version of her death.  But that’s a whole separate discussion. 

I think Jehanne was set apart for a number of reasons and definitely the kind of ingrained misogyny that says a woman can’t be a knight, and can’t fight, can’t lead men, can’t be a warrior… this definitely contributed both to her failure at the time to win over the French Court (she had her ardent admirers, but those closest to the man she made king loathed her and contributed materially to her downfall) and then to the shaping of the narrative afterwards.  Because she was a woman, she had to be tried as a heretic, not as an enemy combatant.  Because the rules for detecting heresy were remarkably well described, not to say proscribed, they had to question her endlessly on the nature of her ‘counsel’ and not on her martial skills.  They also had regularly to verify her virginity because  it was a well known ‘fact’ that the devil could not consort with a virgin and this closed off one of their avenues of legal attack.  The whole thing was a pantomime, edging around the fact that she was a woman doing things that their narrative of the world said were impossible: none of it would have happened if she were a man.  
And so the myth was set – aided and abetted by those around the French court who had no greater reason to like her than did the English – and it has carried on down half a millennium to the 1920s when she was canonised, not for her martial skill or her rescue of France, but for her (imagined) piety – a detail which doesn’t stand up to the facts on the ground – and her ‘martyrdom’ which is one of those ghastly tropes that says if you die horribly, we’ll all love you for it afterwards.  And now, in the twenty first century, she’s a repository for the projections of the extreme right (perfect woman: virginal, pious, republican) and the extreme left for whom she’s a gender-bending feminist anti-christian shaman, none of which is true either (tho’ she did wear boy’s clothes and really didn’t want to give them up, which in those days, was a form of transvestitism that saw her burned, so perhaps the first of these might be true. I don’t think she was making political points, though. She was being practical). 
So: she was successful, where Vercingetorix wasn’t. She was fighting the English, who are still a fairly unpopular group in parts of France, whereas the Romans are universally admired… and the early spin means that people can project all they want on to her – and do – which is harder with a tribal chieftain who was kept seven years in a pit and then strangled in public on the orders of Julius Caesar.  All of which makes her an easy target for people who want to create saints. 
Simon: I know that you visited sites in France connected with the Maid of Orleans in research for this novel. I remember myself standing in Rouen where she met her end, as well as various other sites – the old market of Troyes, the church at Chablis, where one of her horseshoes is reputedly nailed to the door, and so on. And even now, many years on, I can remember the atmosphere redolent in such places. I remember being entranced by it even as a young man. Into The Fire is almost flooded with atmosphere, and puts me in mid of those sites even as I read. How much has visiting the appropriate places coloured your impress and descriptions of them in the book?
Manda: Definitely visiting Orléans made a huge impression on me – in fact, the whole of the Loire valley Jargeau, Meung-sur-Loire, Chinon, Blois… they’re all fascinating places. They’ve changed, obviously but the whole geography of the place and the relationship of the towns to the river is central to understanding the brilliance of her brief military campaign there.  And then the basilica at Cléray-Saint-André was very central to the contemporary thread of the narrative, so seeing that helped me to shape the parts of the action that needed to be there.  I never went to Rouen, I couldn’t face it.  – Rank cowardice on my part, but I studied the pictures and watched some videos and that was quite enough.  In a broader sense, though, seeing the remnants of the old town in Orléans, being places that are at least broadly similar did make a huge difference to gaining a feel of who she was. 

Simon: Jehanne has been the subject of a number of works of literature and cinema – those connected with William Shakespeare, Milla Jovovich, Ingrid Bergman and Mark Twain are just the more memorable. Given how unlikely it is that you have never read or seen such works, and given how iconic the Maid’s chastity and piety are, how hard was it to break the chains of common conception and build your own Joan in defiance of such works?

Manda: George Bernard Shaw, Vita Sackville West, Mark Twain… and yes, all the rest.  The amazing thing is, that until I read VSW’s biography, I’d never read anything more detailed than the Ladybird Book of Joan of Arc that I had in my collection when I was a kid (embarrassingly, my only real knowledge of Richard I comes from the same source – a Ladybird book. I really need to expand my reading).  What I gleaned from that was a story of a young woman so devoted to her imaginary friend in the sky that she was set as a figure head at the front of the troops while the men got on with the real work and was then burned for her trouble, and oddly enough (or not, if you’ve read anything else I’ve written), that held no interest for me at all.  I didn’t want to read anything else, watch any of the films, or see any of the plays.   It was only when I read an article that began to point me to the great gaping gaps in the accepted narrative that she became interesting as a person and then I didn’t want to read anyone else’s fictional account because I wanted to find her for myself.  So breaking the chains of common conception is the point of a lot of what I write – the world is no always how we’ve been told and I want at least to hold up the known detail and stare at it and let people see the gaps. If they work a different ‘best fit’ to fill them, that’s fine, but at least we don’t have to keep swallowing the nonsense that suited – and still suits – those who’d rather we didn’t question reality too closely. 
Simon: Into The Fire is written in two separate, yet concurrent timelines, which must be mind-numbing to keep together in terms of continuity and plot. Moreover, they are both set in France in different eras, requiring the novel to be written from a point of view that is truly Gallocentric. Was it difficult to cast aside your Britishness and look at the English as both a militaristic invader and a modern foreign nation, depending upon the timeframe? I note with interest, given your Scottish roots, the ready inclusion of the Auld Alliance in the earlier timeframe, which is historical record, but also feeds your plot perfectly.
Manda: You hit this one on the head. I am a Scot and unless you’ve been raised in Scotland, it’s hard to explain exactly the degree to which England is still the enemy. My father was a true blue Thatcher-loving Tory, but still, every single day as he drove us the 45 minutes from our tiny rural village into school in Glasgow, he told us the stories of our ancestors – the men who had fought and died at Flooded, at Bannockburn, at all the other hundreds of times when the Scotts were (notionally) on the Scottish side and the English were the bad guys. There was a Covenanter’s hill above the village I grew up in and we knew its history, and that of Glasgow when we knew nothing else.   I could sing Flower of Scotland (and still can, tho’ you wouldn’t want to hear it: I’m the world’s worst singer) and have never yet learned the words to the UK National Anthem. It’s an odd kind of double think because we know that England isn’t really the enemy. But equally we know that for a long time it was, that it could not be trusted and that France was our friend. And if I ever forgot, one of the first big historical series I ever read was Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond series which is all Scotland and France. And then her amazing, glorious, much-overlooked King Hereafter, which is the true story of MacBeth as a Viking, and easily the best viking book ever written. 
So putting myself in the head of the French who had just lost Agincourt was easy after a childhood filled with moments when in my childhood imagination,  I had stood as a lone survivor after the defeat of Flodden or the victory of Bannockburn. And understanding civil war was easy after the many, many retellings of the treachery of the Campbells against the MacDonalds at the Massacre of Glencoe and the whole dreadful treachery that made James VI into James I and lost Scotland’s sovereignty.   The discovery of the plaque to the ‘Auld Alliance’ with the names of the Scots who fought for the freedom of Orléans was an immensely moving moment and helped to craft a substantial arm of the historical narrative. 

Simon: It’s an old favourite, I know, but I’m unapologetic. Given the sheer variety of eras and milieus that you take on in your writing, and that this seems to be a standalone novel, what’s next?

Manda: It *isn’t* a standalone novel!  I’m writing ACCIDENTAL GODS  – just passed the 110k mark of what will, I think, be around 180k – it continues the stories of the surviving key characters from the 2014 thread of INTO THE FIRE and the historical thread is supplied by their grandparents’ generation in WWII and beyond (I’m in 1956 now, briefly, having cruised through 1941 – 44 in England and France).  This is a completely fascinating period and one thing that rose to the top in all my reading was the difference between the Maquis and the Resistance, and the differing roles of the SOE in the rural areas rather than the cities where they have so often been depicted.  And then the Jedburghs fell from the sky: three man teams with two officers and a radio operative who dropped in uniform after D-Day and helped to co-ordinate the rural Maquis groups and make sure they were fighting the right war in the right place at the right time.  Eisenhower said afterwards they were the worth of 3 extra divisions and although there were some terrible mistakes (Vercours, for instance), there was some outstanding work done. More to the point, the US parts of these went on to form the nucleus of the newly formed CIA and spent the rest of their lives trying to do the same again in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq – and they’re doing it now in Syria, trying to arm the Kurds and train up local militias and they haven’t worked out that this was viable in France were the locals were white westerners living in a liberal (ish) democracy and it doesn’t necessarily work in the rest of the world. 
What I really want to look at is how we got from there – 1945 with Bletchley Park and all that it undoubtedly achieved – to 2015 and GCHQ/NSA and their avowed intention to collect everything about everyone and keep it forever. Particularly I want to look at the creation of STUXNET virus, and the blocking of the last round of the climate talks in Denmark.   The nature of democracy is changing. Accountability is growing more tenuous. It’s a very, very fertile area for a fiction writer to look at the way things are. 
All that’s left to say, then, is thank you to Manda for her generosity and time in answering my questions and in offering such a wonderful prize for one lucky reader. Get commenting for your chance to receive a signed copy of this most enthralling book, you lucky people.

Gordon Doherty – July Author Interview

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This month’s author interview is my good friend and comrade in fictitious gore, Gordon Doherty, the man behind the acclaimed Legionary and Strategos series. Gordon’s work is renowned and has been well-received in many countries, and if you’re a fan of late Rome or Byzantium, you cannot do better than delve into his work. Just have a look and judge the books by their covers! 😉

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And just to add to the joy of that, yesterday saw the release of the final tome in the Strategos trilogy, Island in the Storm. Get it HERE

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And now, on with the interview.

Your two series that have hit the shelves thus far (Legionary and Strategos) are both based in the Late Roman/Byzantine world, for all they are many centuries apart. What has drawn you so strongly to that eastern region and that complex time that it has dominated two series?

In a word; mystique. There is a certain something about the Eastern Empire and Byzantium that feels unattainable. Some buried knowledge that, no matter how many layers I sift through and peel away, will always elude me. It is a perpetual source of intrigue.
Militarily, I am fascinated by the gradual decline of the legions of old and the subsequent rise of the armies of Byzantium – the tagmata and the themata (ironically, the latter played a similar role to that performed by the early republican legions, both being soldier-farmers raised to fight in times of peril).
Culturally and politically, the empire changed drastically too, becoming an amalgam of ages recent and long past: the populace shunned Latin and spoke Greek, the Byzantine Emperors adopted the attire of and behaved in many respects like ancient Persian Kings, and the old pantheon was consigned to history as the Christian God became the empire’s new patron.
From the time of Legionary, in the 4th century AD, to the era of Strategos in the 11th century AD, the empire was compelled to adjust and adapt as the world changed around it. This, of course, could be said of the earlier Western Empire, but in that era, Rome was a burgeoning force, a rapidly expanding power, whereas the Eastern Empire of late antiquity onwards embraced change more often than not purely to survive. And it is that visceral concept of survival that inspired me to write the tales of Pavo and Apion.

How do you research your books? I know people who make heavy use of reenactment, people who walk every inch of their locations, people who research deeper than any mainstream academic, and, of course, there are people who rely heavily on imagination, it all being fiction after all. All of these seem viable routes in their own way and for their own types of work.

I’m not a reenactor, though I do have a few bits and bobs of kit, including the rather magnificent 4th century intercisa helmet, below, that has become the talisman (I tried really hard not to say ‘brand’ there) of the Legionary series. On a tough writing day, it’s nice to glance across the room and see the kit, imagine the legionaries marching to war in it . . . then try it on and pretend you’re one of them. [Gordon’s Top Tip #237: always remember to check your neighbours are not in their garden and in full view of your living room window when you’re strutting about in just your underpants and this helmet.]

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I wouldn’t say I’m an avid explorer, but I do get out and about. It particularly helps that I love the region I write about, so my regular trips abroad to Turkey and Greece are great fun and highly informative. Waking up to an Anatolian sunrise, eating fresh bread and local honey then going for a run or a walk through the burnt-gold countryside is inspirational stuff.

Overall though, I would say that the bulk of my research centres on reading the primary and secondary sources. They also usually serve as the spark for new novel ideas, prosaically (amusingly so, sometimes) unveiling some savage twist in history that sets my imagination aflame. However, I think that a novel spawned purely from historical texts could be pretty dry. So a combination of the previously mentioned factors – the first-hand experience of handling kit or travelling to historical sites – really help to breathe life into a work of fiction. For me though the ‘magic’ really comes when you add imagination to the mix.

Despite being strong, controlled and martial characters, both of your protagonists – Pavo and Apion – did not start their lives as military heroes, but as rather innocents thrown into a world for which they are perhaps not initially suited and finding a path regardless. Do you find this aspect makes the character stronger? And consequently was it a very different concept when you came to write the sequels and the characters had grown into their military roles?

Stronger? I’ll let the readers be the judge of that . I’d say that their difficult beginnings make them easier to write about. This might sound like the strapline for the latest novel from the Twilight Universe (“A teenager who didn’t fit in . . . ”) but I can empathise with the feeling of being swept along by life, finding yourself in awkward places and rather crap circumstances. It’s not a unique concept, but both Pavo and Apion face some pretty brutal episodes early on, and from there, it’s up to them as to how they handle it: their choices make them who they are.
Once a character has ‘come of age’ and found their place in martial life, it certainly is a different prospect to write of them again. Apion, for example, is a very different man between books 1 and 2 in the Strategos series. By the time of ‘Rise of the Golden Heart’, twelve years have passed and he has little of the emotional fragility he suffered as a boy. No longer could I have him frozen by acute fear or doubt – or at least I certainly couldn’t have him letting the armies he led see this. I really had to work hard to change my perception of him for that book.

Your books are solidly rooted in the physical world, and yet there is a necessary leaning toward the religious, given that both of your series revolve around a Christianised Empire fighting strange, pagan enemies with old Gods and beliefs. Strategos even dips heavily into mystical overtones. Do you feel that a little religious context and mysticism adds something to a peek into past times?

Absolutely. The transition to Christianity and the slow death of the old pagan gods presents an irresistible crucible for tension all across the Roman world. In Legionary, Pavo and the men of the XI Claudia are stationed on the empire’s borders, where they practice Mithraism (a cult thought to be loosely based on a Zoroastrian deity, Mithra). Mithraism was the cult of the border legions for many years – well into the 5th century – after the inner empire and the major population centres had long eschewed pagan worship in favour of Christianity. I can only imagine how they felt, standing on the edge of the Roman world, facing barbarian hordes, defending an empire that had shunned their faith.
Then, as the Eastern Roman Empire morphed into what we now call the Byzantine Empire, the pagan gods were left behind for good. It became God’s realm, and the people saw it as God’s vision of Heaven recreated on Earth. There was no concept of a holy war, only because there was no other type of war to require the definition. Soldiers marched to battle only if they believed it was to protect God’s Empire. This absolute mindset might seem foreign to us in the present day, but it was the cornerstone of Byzantine life. In fact I’d readily admit that I have kept the religious aspect of my books relatively light simply because I think it would be almost impossible to authentically convey the dominance of religious thought in those times.
Mysticism really comes to the fore in the Strategos series, and has a vital part to play when Apion, a staunch Christian at the outset of the trilogy, loses his faith. One can only wonder what kind of crutch a man might fall back on in a world where, unlike today, there was no alternative to religion.

If a reader asked me ‘Why should I buy Gordon’s books? What’s different about them? What’s the hook?’ I know what I’d say. What would you say to that?

Because they are ace! Better than a crème egg that is unexpectedly chocolate the whole way through!
Seriously though, I won’t claim there is one ‘silver bullet’ factor that makes my books different. I think it’s all in the blend: my style of writing, my (at times unhealthy) fascination with the underdog and my overactive imagination.
I aim to tell stories that will hook you from the off, whisk you into the past, thrill you throughout, neither bore you with too much history nor neglect it. I target adventure, action and intrigue in equal measure. And you’ll get some rather mucky dying as well (Quote from GoodReads on one character’s demise: “Urgh – that was rank. It put me off my tea!”).
But most of all, I try to take you to my character’s side. Long after you’ve finished reading, I want you to remember Pavo and Apion, their comrades and the choices that made them who they were. I want you to remember the march to war, the campfire where the legionaries were bantering on the eve of a battle in which they knew most would fall, the front line where they stood side by side with you, moments from clashing blades with the onrushing enemy. That, in a nutshell, is why I started writing: so I could commit my imagination to paper, live out the adventure, bring together and build upon the flashing thoughts and ideas and create a world in which they could thrive.

Simon says: My two penneth, incidentally, is that Gordon’s books are unrelenting, action packed and breackneck in pace. You will never experience a lull or ennui in the process.

Both of your protagonists so far are very much a ‘civilized force’ in a world of chaos and barbarism. Given that you have become somewhat noted for the brutality and savagery of your bad guys and the scenes of violence they instigate, are you not tempted to write a tale from that point of view? An antihero series in which civilization is the enemy?

Tempted? Yes, definitely. It would make perfect sense for me to do this, given my aforementioned love of the underdog. In fact there might well be a project coming up where the protagonist’s roots are firmly planted outside of the ‘civilized’ world. It would require a huge shift in perspective, but yes, I would wager that this will happen at some point.
Regardless of the protagonist’s origins in any such tale, I can guarantee you this: there will be brutal, violent savagery on both sides

In movies, the creator often gets to release a director’s cut and tweak things after release. Authors get no such option. Have you ever written a scene that you wish you’d done another way? That you think was too violent, or too tense, or too languid (or of course not violent enough!)

I always re-read the previous books in a series before working on the next volume, and the pattern is usually the same: I scan a certain line or scene a couple of times, scratch my head and wonder something like: ‘Why on Earth didn’t I make that guy fall into a ravine and have his eyes pecked out by vultures?’
I think it’s natural as I develop as a writer to consider things I wrote last week, last month or last year and wish I had written them differently, but I could drive myself mad if I thought about it too much. If you ever write the perfect novel, then, effectively . . . you’re done. Where do you go from there? How can you top perfection? Also, there’s no guarantee that a seemingly ‘perfect’ tweak will actually improve things: I always remember in English class at high school when I got an A for a short story (a low key tale involving a time machine and Armageddon if I recall correctly). The teacher said I was a hair’s breadth from an A+, so I went off and rewrote parts of it, tried to vamp it up, resubmitted it . . . and got a B!
So when I look back on my existing books and have thoughts on how I could have made an emotional scene more poignant, a battle scene more frantic, or a villain’s end more gruesome, I just smile and store those ideas for the future. When they have had a chance to mature, I’m sure they’ll stand me in good stead for some new project (so the bloke about to stop for the night and have his dinner by the nice, friendly-looking ravine had better beware!).

I have noted that in the Strategos series, there is a great deal of ‘blurring of the lines’ between good guys and bad guys. It would obviously be easy to label the Byzantines as good and the Seljuks as bad from the protagonist’s point of view (something that might be applied to the Legionary series), and yet you have created a complex background in which it is at least as easy to sympathise with the Seljuks as the ‘Roman west’. Do you deliberately try to show the humanity (and lack thereof) on both sides?

Strategos started as a look at the lives of ordinary people caught between two great, warring empires. I always envisioned some of the core characters, particularly in the first volume ‘Born in the Borderlands’ to be non-partisan. Indeed, Mansur – Apion’s Seljuk mentor – is the epitome of this: a Seljuk living in Byzantine lands, a man who has shunned his faith, a man who tries to lead the life of a pacifist despite the brutality going on all around him. I did have a notion of the Seljuk Sultans being something of the enemies/villains of the piece, but not far from the outset, I realised I couldn’t bring myself to represent them as such without the tale becoming both trite and unfaithful to history. Yes, there were some grim individuals in the Seljuk armies and courts, but also many noble men. Equally, Byzantium’s courts and lands had a delicate balance of good and foul people. Thus, the notion of blurring the lines blossomed naturally to cover not just the core characters, but the entire world of Strategos. It’s a tale of people, some bad, few good, and many somewhere in between.

What are you reading at present?

I’ve just finished David Drake’s ‘Belisarius: Thunder at Dawn’. It’s a fascinating alternative history of the Byzantine general’s adventures. It is more than a tad overwritten, but beautifully so (if that makes sense). So, to counterbalance that with something more pacy, I’ve just started ‘The Lost Ark’ by J.R. Rain, an adventure novel about a quest to find Noah’s Ark. The reviews said it was hugely cheesy and a bit ‘Indiana Jones’. It is both. And it is cracking fun too!

And finally, can you give us any clues or hints as to what your next project is? Strategos III is your current new release, and I gather it is to be the final part of the series, so what we can hope to see on the shelves in the next few years? (note for G: I think it would be best to look further ahead than our joint project and gloss over that)

‘Strategos: Island in the Storm’ is indeed the end to the trilogy. The likelihood is that the next two years will see me working on Legionary 4 & 5, and a covert joint project with a certain Mr Turney.
After that, I have a shortlist of what to tackle next. I have taken advice from my agent over what would be ‘box office’ and from friendly readers who have pitched ideas to me. I also have my own personal cravings as to what part of history I should immerse myself in next*.
There’s a chance I might be staying in the late Roman Empire, a possibility that I’ll be moving west from my beloved Byzantium and there’s a prospect that I’ll be shooting back through time into the Bronze Age. There’s also a slim chance that I might try my hand outside historical fiction too.
Having spent the last three or four years writing for a living, I know how much time and emotional investment goes into creating a novel and the world and characters that go with it. I’d hate to spend either unwisely, so my choice will be crucial.

*And I have midlife crisis notions of buying a campervan and going off to explore the world for a few years, but that’s not what readers want to hear 😉

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So all that remains is for me to send you off to buy Gordon’s books, which you should so clearly already have done, and to say thank you to him for his time and insight in this interview.

Gordon’s website

Gordon on Facebook

Gordon on Twitter

Gordon on Amazon

Next blog up: Angus Donald’s Iron Castle

Written by SJAT

July 9, 2014 at 9:00 am

June Author Interview: Nick Brown

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A few years ago now, a new name popped up among the extant heavyweights of Roman fiction. Friends mentioned his first book: Agent of Rome – The Siege favourably, and I decided that I ought to add it to my towering ‘to be read’ pile. At the time, I was trying to catch up with a few series I’d fallen way behind on, and wasn’t sure whether I really needed to commit another Roman author to my busy reading list, and in the end, reading it kept getting put back again and again. Clever me. You see, Nick was about to release his second book when I finally got round to reading the first.

The Siege surpassed my expectations by many a mile and gripped me. Nick rocketed straight up to take his place among those heavyweights I’d mentioned. And because I’d been so lax, joy of joys, I had a sequel to read pretty much straight away! Well, we’re now four books down Nick’s road and I’m a firm fan, waiting along with plenty of others for the next installment with boyish eagerness. And his fourth opus is almost here.

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6th of June is D-Day, when we commemorate the Normandy Landings. But 5th of June is N-Day, when we celebrate the release of Agent of Rome – The Black Stone. A review will be posted here in a few days, so keep an eye out, but in the meantime, with propitious timing, my author interview for June is with the man himself. Well I’ve bigged him up enough for now, so let’s see what he has to say about his work…

Introducing Nick Brown:

Cassius Corbulo is something of a unique character in the field of Roman fiction (and even in Historical fiction in general.) A dissolute, privileged background, his enforced military experience and his career unravelling plots and mysteries for the authorities of Rome make Corbulo truly individual. What made you decide upon your unusual protagonist?

There are two aspects to that really. In terms of the ‘grain men’ – often called Rome’s secret service- they were involved in so many fields (espionage, policing, assassination to name a few) – that the dramatic opportunities seemed huge. In terms of Cassius himself, that dates back to ‘The Siege’ – I wanted a character who was young, inexperienced, certainly not a warrior but someone with the intelligence to organise the threatened garrison of Alauran. That just seemed a bit more interesting than a more typical sword-wielding, inspirational type.

How do you research your books? I know people who make heavy use of reenactment, people who walk every inch of their locations, people who research deeper than any mainstream academic, and, of course, there are people who rely heavily on imagination, it all being fiction after all. All of these seem viable routes in their own way and for their own types of work.

I agree that all are viable and I’m sure most of us employ a healthy mix. I’ve never gone down the re-enactment route though, nor have I been able to visit any of the locations. So I suppose I do rely heavily on research and a healthy dose of imagination. Having read so many great texts on the Roman period (examining everything from sailing techniques to intelligence-gathering; mosaic design to types of bread) I’m always conscious of how indebted we novelists are to historians.

Is there anything you’ve come across based in Corbulo’s time that you are itching to write about? Anything that’s dragging you in and demanding you include it in a plot?

Yes, a few things actually. Usually I will try and include them; if not as a story point then at least as a reference. In ‘The Black Stone’, for example, Cassius speaks to a Saracen ally about a distant island protected by mysterious flying creatures. Cassius knows only the Latin word for them which comes from the northern provinces – dragon!

If you could live in any time period and location, which would you choose. And as a counterpart to that, what historical character would you most like to meet and talk to?

As long as I could take a well-equipped doctor back with me I would be straight off to the third century – just to compare reality with what I have read and imagined. It would be beyond incredible to have a chat with Emperor Aurelian or maybe Queen Zenobia. Then I might jump back in my time machine and head off to see the dinosaurs, followed by a sojourn in medieval England!

You have travelled widely in your career, working in Nepal and Poland. Neither of these fascinating places – which must have had a profound impact on your life – comes close to being within Rome’s sphere of influence, so what made you choose Rome over them for your tales? And consequently, do you feel to any extent limited by the era you have chosen? Admittedly, third century Rome is quite a deep, rich time, but have you ever felt like writing in another era and location too?

Both fascinating places it’s true but it never occurred to me to write about them. I suppose like many people, including yourself, I just caught the Roman bug. The third century appealed because though the Empire was in decline, Aurelian was a very successful emperor. In general, whatever the period, I think there are always more opportunities than limitations. I have thought about many different eras, ancient and modern – it’s just a case of finding the right project, I suppose.

If a reader asked me ‘Why should I buy Nick’s books? What’s different about them? What’s the hook?’ I know what I’d say. What would you say to that?

Er …. well it’s hard to judge your own work but I certainly try to mix dynamic plots with compelling characters and a dash of humour. Within the genre I think the ‘agent angle’ is something fresh, allowing Cassius, Indavara et al to get mixed up with everything from protecting princes to hunting stolen artefacts and investigating murders.

(For the record, for me there are three specific draws for Nick’s books. They are always innovative, intelligent and very well constructed plots. The character and his situations are different from anything else out there in the Roman fiction world at the moment. And finally, they are a very pleasant, comfortable and engrossing read. There is no struggle. Pick up the book for 5 minutes and next thing you know it’s got dark and you’re 200 pages through it!)

Given that your books are something of a mix between mystery, combat, investigation, adventure, historical travelogue, and even humorous character-interaction, it must be very difficult getting that mix just right to keep the reader hooked. How do you go about that and do you ever worry if you have imbalance in these aspects? For the record, they have been the perfect mix for me, by the way…

You’re very kind! I think that all begins with the plotting, though it’s also crucial to make sure that the story is balanced in terms of character. It gets easier after four or five books, especially as the tone/style is quite well established now. Having said that, I am always looking for ways to mix things up. Books five and six will include the most dramatic and challenging situation the trio have faced yet.

In movies, the creator often gets to release a director’s cut and tweak things after release. Authors get no such option. Have you ever written a scene that you wish you’d done another way? That you think was too violent, or too tense, or too languid (or of course not violent enough!)

There are some little things but nothing major – yet. It may well be that I look back in a few years and cringe!

Are you taking each plot as it comes, throwing Corbulo in new directions as the mood takes you, or do you have a finite arc for the series? Where do you see the whole tale taking him in the end?

I do have a basic arc established, yes, though I’m not sure how long it will take to get to get there. As for where Cassius (and Indavara/ Simo) end up that’s one I keep quiet about!

What are you reading at present?

Lots of non-fiction at the moment. The last book I read was ‘A House in the Sky’, a brilliantly written and very moving memoir by American reporter Amanda Lindhout – she was captured in Somalia by Islamic militants and survived a terrible 460 day ordeal. On a lighter note, I also came across a book called ‘The Far Arena’ – it was written in 1979 and is about a Roman gladiator frozen in ice who is reanimated in the modern world!

And finally, can you give us any clues or hints as to what your next project is? What we can hope to see on the shelves in the next few years?

Well, hopefully a few more Cassius books but at some point I would like to move onto different eras and types of stories. I like reading and writing both fantasy and sci-fi so basically it could be anything.

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 Thank you, Nick for taking the time to answer my questions and help enlighten new readers out there. Look out for Book 4 on the 5th, as it’s a stunner once again. For those of you who’ve not had a chance to speak to Nick, I would say that you’re missing out. If you’re on twitter, follow him here.

Also, don’t forget to browse his website here, his facebook page here, and peruse (and buy) his books on Amazon.

Written by SJAT

June 1, 2014 at 8:00 am