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Dark Asylum review and Q&A

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I am a devotee of novels set in the ancient world and much of my reading centres around that period, though over the past few years I have strayed more and more outside my comfort zone. I have found myself becoming increasingly fascinated with the darker side of the 18th and 19th centuries, and with that I’ve found a resurgence of my old love of mysteries and whodunnits. Action and adventure novels set in the Victorian era have to be truly exceptional to attract me, but I am becoming a sucker for a good 19th century mystery. D. E. Meredith, Essie Fox and Robin Blake are some recent highlights.

How nice to have discovered another author who knows how to weave an enthralling mystery in such a dark and fascinating world. Dark Asylum is actually Thomson’s second novel and, while I have not read the first, I will now have to remedy that. I’m sure I’m in for a treat.

Thomson conjures up a dark and chilling world full of vivid and memorable characters all bound up in a (in this case certainly) complex plot that kept me guessing right to the end. Actually, I thought I had it pinned down twice and was wrong both times, which is nice to experience. And despite the darkness of the setting and the subject matter, Thomson manages to interject just enough quirky humour to keep the book a hearty read that drew me back in every spare minute. In fact, while there are moments in the book that made me squirm a little, there were also moments that made me chuckle out loud and note down the page number to repeat a humorous passage to my wife.

Dark Asylum takes us on a voyage through the world of Victorian madness, its diagnosis and treatment, the institutions that dealt with it and the world from which it sprang. There are doctors here both likeable and dreadful, who are experimenting with phrenology, drugs, lobotomies, therapeutic treatments and so much more. It is a world of medical upheaval and change, and not all of that change is pleasant or tasteful. One thing worthy particularly of note is the characters. They are both vivid and interesting, and they are each memorable and individual, which is not always the case in such a genre.

It is not until about 1/4 of the way through the book that we begin the true mystery, though the lead up to this point, introducing the characters and their world, is made all the more relevant by a side-tale running throughout, telling the backstory of our villain. That information is slowly released throughout, and never too early. Best of all, the unveiling of the truth towards the end is another corkscrew of twists and surprises.

This is, quite simply, a cracking book and deserves to be read. Go get yourself a copy. And as an extra treat, I have been in contact with the publisher and E. S. Thomson agreed to answer a few questions for me, so if the review alone has not tempted you to delve into Jem Flockhart’s adventures, have a little peek into the mind behind them…

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Are the locations in Dark Asylum based on real buildings either extant or now-vanished? Do you visit buildings of the period to flesh out your vision in preparation for describing them?

In this case no, I didn’t. I made everything up or used books of the period that described places.  The apothecary, the asylum, the convict transport ship are all out of my own head but based on what I read. I have been in a Victorian asylum building – I used to work in one (Craighouse, in Edinburgh) – and very grand it was too.  But it was built in the 1870s, and Angel Meadow was an old asylum, from before the asylum building programmes of the 1870s and 1880s.  Most of these sorts of places – smaller asylums – no longer exist. 


Dark Asylum is set in a harsh and very dark world. The Victorian London of which you write is a Gothic masterpiece of gloom, misery and wickedness. Given both this and the grisly subject of which you were writing, how do you attempt (and clearly succeed) in lightening the tone with moments of humour? It must be something of a balancing act.

Actually, I find I do get tired of the gloom and darkness. And at those points, just when it seems too much, I put in some humour – mainly to give the reader a rest.  I think that people are often absurd, even when they try not to be.  Dr Mothersole and his curious ideas for treating the mad, or Mrs Roseplucker, the brothel-keeper who turned to writing Penny Dreadfuls, were very easy to do.  As you say, the difficult bit is knowing when do do it, for how long, and when to stop.  Did I succeed?  I’ll let others be the judge

I was interested to see how far you pushed the boundaries in this novel in places. Is there anything about the era or setting that you are tempted to write out, or are uneasy about describing?

I suppose it depends where you think those boundaries are. I’m  uneasy about describing child prostitution – which is probably why I had the child who was pimped by her mother leap out of the bed and beat her would-be rapist to death with a poker before he had chance to do anything to her.

You have some truly colourful characters in Dark Asylum, a number of which I loved. Do you find it difficult to create characters who stand out so when the setting of your books is an era of conformity and often drab uniformity?

No I don’t find it difficult. I think there were more eccentric people in this period than people realise.  What is difficult is finding roles for women that are not boring or completely anachronistic.  I got round this by having a cross-dressing main character.  But if you want feisty women in your novel (and I do), this is not as straightforward as it is when writing a novel set in the present.

Jem is an interesting character and I found myself often wondering how she gets by without accidentally revealing her true gender. Clearly there are moments in the book where people have an inkling, but presumably you are limited in the situations you can describe (for instance having to share a room/bathroom with someone?)

Jem is based on James Barry, who spent her life dressed as a man, and practiced medicine as such in the British Army for her whole working life.  Barry graduated in medicine from Edinburgh university some 40 or so years before women were permitted to study medicine. Clearly, if she could live her life disguised as a man in such a male environment then I can manage it for Jem in a novel.  She doesn’t share a room, so that’s never a problem.  Some people seem to guess than Jem is disguised – but no one ever comes out with it and says “you are a woman!” – so you never really know whether they have worked it out or not.

Your first Jem Flockfart novel was set in the same locale as this, and I note from the back matter of the book that your next is also set in London. Are you not tempted to set a novel somewhere more familiar to you (Lancashire or Lothian for example?) Edinburgh clearly has rich pickings in the Victorian era

I left Lancashire 30 years ago, so it is not familiar to me at all anymore.  As for Edinburgh, in fact, almost all of the medical history details in the books are Scottish – mainly because I know about it thanks to my PhD, and also because Scottish medicine and medical education were surprisingly dominant in this period. Scotland punches well above its weight in the history of medicine.  So in fact i am using a lot of Scottish detail.  However,  I set the books in London because I wanted a large anonymous city, much of which has been rebuilt since the 1850s, rather than the smaller more intimate locations of Edinburgh, where everyone knows everyone else’s business.  I based the location of the first Jem story on St Thomas’s hospital in London, which was indeed knocked down to make way for a railway in the late 1840s.  Yes, I know Edinburgh intimately – I’ve been here for 30 years, but I didn’t want so distinctive a place to have a central part in the novel.  London in this period was massive, stinking, sprawling – and undergoing great change.  I wanted all this in my novel. Besides, Edinburgh is currently very well represented by historical novelists.  As a result, I don’t think the pickings are as rich as you might think.

A frivolous one to finish: what do you like to read for leisure.

Crime fiction mostly – Sherlock Holmes is an old favouite.  At the moment I’m reading Chris Brookmyre.

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Thank you, Elaine, for your time. There you go, folks. Buy Dark Asylum and immerse yourself in a great read.

Written by SJAT

March 13, 2017 at 1:18 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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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

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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

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

May Author Interview: Paul Fraser Collard

with 2 comments

Starting  today, I will be interviewing an author on the 1st of each month, and I am absolutely delighted to say that my interviews begin this morning with Paul Fraser Collard, author of the excellent Jack Lark series.

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A lover of history and the military, Paul debuted as an author with the superb ‘The Scarlet Thief’ in May of last year, and followed quickly upon that with a  sequel ‘The Maharajah’s General’ in November. The Scarlet Thief made it into my top ten reads of 2013, and the sequel will probably do the same this year (read it in January.) Links of my reviews, purchase sites and more will follow at the end but for now it is my pleasure to pick Paul’s brain. Sit back and enjoy…

What inspired you to write historical fiction, and the eras you write in particular? Also what other authors’ works have influenced you?

I loved history as a child but it was not until I discovered the Sharpe novels by Bernard Cornwell that I really started to read historical fiction. The first one I read was Sharpe’s Honour and I simply devoured it. I cannot think of any other book that captured my imagination in the same way and from there I was inspired to find out more about these men who fought in the red coats. Around the same time I saw Zulu for first time and I was hooked.

I have read every book Bernard Cornwell has ever written and I still think he is head and shoulders above every other writer of historical fiction. The day when my agent, Dave Headley, told me that Bernard Cornwell had provided a quote for the cover of The Scarlet Thief is far and away the pinnacle of my writing career to date!

When I sat down to give writing a go there really was no other type of novel that I could even imagine starting. It just had to be redcoats. The Crimean War seemed to be rather an unknown series of events and it seemed ripe for a new writer and a character like Jack Lark to start their adventures.

Your protagonist in the first two novels, Jack Lark, is one of those loveable rogues, like Han Solo or Jack Sparrow, or Spike from Buffy. Those types of character are renowned as hard to write well, so that they are not dislikeable. How difficult was it keeping Jack in that narrow band between ‘safe’ and ‘dislikable’?

To be honest I didn’t worry too much about making Jack likeable or not. I had a firm idea of exactly who he was going to be and I was determined that he would be his own man. For better or worse, he was going to be Jack Lark and no one else!

I did know that if Jack was going to take centre stage in a long-running series of novels then he had to be an incredibly strong character. I spent an age working on him before I had even finalised the details of where he would start his adventures. I was certain that he had to capture my readers’ imagination enough to bring them back for more. I hope (I still hope!) that I can create each book in such a way that my readers can never be sure where Jack will turn up next and what challenges he will face when he gets there. As I am not tied to a regiment, a campaign or even to a single war, I can take Jack all over the Victorian world and, as he is a rogue, he can take on a role and a life that I could never have created if he was a more traditional fellow.

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

You are right that these are all viable routes and I am a strong believer that in writing there is no “right” way of doing things; there is just “your” way.

I am definitely an armchair writer and for my research I rely heavily on books and on the Internet. I start any research by reading some very general overviews of the period or the event that I am covering so that I can work out the sequence of events and the main players involved. From there I try to find as many primary sources as I can and this is where the Internet is so fantastic. I doubt I would ever be able to find as many old publications had not so many of them been digitised. There is a great thrill in searching online and discovering a first hand account of the events I am writing about. It is the experiences of the people who were there that really add the detail about what it was really like; from what the weather was like, to what people were talking and thinking about.

I start to write all of this information into a story plan so that I know exactly what goes where. It is only then that I start to weave Jack into these events, plotting his story against the backdrop of the actual things that happened. All of this research finishes up as a 30-40,000-word story plan that I break down into rough chapters and sequences. Then all I have to do is work my way through, fleshing this outline plan out into the full story. Simples!

Given that your main character relies heavily upon deceit and subterfuge to survive and is now a past master at assumed identities, how difficult is it to find a new angle to attack his particular traits and tendencies without seeming stale? I wondered how a second book for Jack could possibly be anything other than a broad repeat of the first, and yet it was thoroughly fresh and different.

I decided early on that Jack would be an imposter. I was fascinated by the tale of Percy Toplis, a rogue and a charlatan who spent a lot of time masquerading as an officer during the First World War. It seemed such a fabulous way of taking a character on a rollercoaster of a journey that I knew I had to make it central to the plot.

However, I am very aware that if the series became just a procession of new identities that happen to be left lying around easily to hand just when Jack needs them, then it would not last very long as I imagine any readers would be put off by such a trite approach. So I have plans for Jack that will see him pulled in all sorts of directions but which do not rely on him simply stealing identity after identity. I will not reveal how I plan to do that. You will need to keep reading the series to find out!

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?

I can think of a hundred periods that I would like to experience but only if I was rich! It seems to me that the best experiences in the past were only available to those born with a silver spoon in their mouths (something that the young Mr Lark finds so very frustrating too!) I know that my own ancestors were almost entirely farm labourers and as romantic as that occasionally sounds I am not sure I could handle working so hard!

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

I would have to say that Jack sits at the very heart my books. No matter how well I tell the history, no matter which fascinating backdrop I set the story against, my series will live or die on the success of Jack as a character. I like to think he is unique and although I am sure he shares traits with many other fine protagonists I will try incredibly hard to make sure he is always his own man.

The other key feature of the Jack Lark series is that each book will be set against new events. I will never plod through a single campaign but will flit from country to country, even from continent to continent! I want readers to wonder where the next Jack Lark novel will be set and to be intrigued when they find out that he makes it to Persia, or to India or even to America.

Oh and then there are the battle scenes! I love writing battle sequences and I want them to really grab a reader by the throat. I promise that every book will be full of them!

* For reference, my own thoughts on this are that Paul’s novels are the perfect mix of action, humour, danger, history and intrigue. They hit the spot on numerous levels at once, while being set in little-used milieu, so that they feel refreshing. *

Time for the obvious question, I guess. If your books were ever optioned as a movie or series, who would you like to see play Jack Lark? I’m sure a name must have crossed your mind at some point.

I’m not very good at answering this question, as I cannot think of anyone who matches my mental picture of Jack. I do know I would like to find out! So if anyone reading this wants to make my books into a film or TV series then I will be ready to come to the casting to see who gets the part!

How would you describe your process as a writer? I know people who have every last crease in a supporting character’s face documented and his entire family back four generations to make sure they don’t miss anything. I know people who are intuitive writers and don’t truly know how the book will end until they get there. I know people who write carefully with lovely fountain pens on pads and then later transcribe and I know others, who hammer at the keyboard whenever their distractions leave them alone for a minute. How do you work?

Well, either fortunately, or unfortunately, I am still just a part-time writer. Working 50-60 hour weeks really cramps my writing time! So I have to work where and when I can and the vast majority of my writing is done on the train to and from work. Writing novels on a train can be a little challenging but it does make me very disciplined at simply sitting down and getting on with it and making the most of every single minute that I can find. I simply don’t have time to plan each session in great detail or to agonise over what I am going to write. I find a seat (not always easy!) and then hammer away. On a good day the writing gushes out of me but even on the days when every word feels like it is being ground out I still plough on knowing that I can always re-work and improve it later.

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!)

This is definitely something that I refuse to let myself think about. I find it difficult to go back and read either The Scarlet Thief or The Maharajah’s General as I always see bits that I would now do differently. I try to accept that my writing ability and taste is changing as I go along and so I try to be proud of what I have done without agonising about how I could now do it so much better.

I would say there are bits from The Scarlet Thief that I wish hadn’t been cut! There are a few scenes still sitting quietly on my hard drive that I may just recycle at some point!

What are you reading at present?

I am currently reading all sorts of books about World War Two, from fiction to non-fiction. I love Ospreys (from any period) and have half-a-dozen on my desk at home waiting for me to dip in and out of in the coming weeks. I am also completely fascinated by the Forgotten Voices series that was put together by the Imperial War Museum and which record the stories of the men and women who fought in the Second World War. I think that these are utterly compelling reading and I find them nearly impossible to put down.

One of the downsides of being a writer is that I now don’t have a lot of time to read fiction. My to-be-read pile is now huge and I cannot wait for my next holiday so I can start to make a dent in it. I am also quite obsessed with apocalyptic fiction and my son and I are working our way through the entire series of The Walking Dead graphic novels. There is nothing better than a zombie apocalypse for a last thing at night read!

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?

I have so much that I want to do; there are just not enough hours in the day! I am working on more Jack Lark novels alongside some short stories set before The Scarlet Thief. I don’t want to jinx anything so I won’t reveal more about any of these for the moment but I hope to be able to soon! All I will say is that there are plenty more Jack Lark adventures to come.

I have also embarked on another series, this time one set in World War Two. The first novel is now on its second draft and the project has my agent’s backing which is incredibly exciting. I have quite a lot to do, including working through some fantastic suggestions from the brave souls happy to help me out by reading my work at the first draft stage (thank you Robin and Jamie!) I am having a blast writing it and I am really looking forward to seeing if this one will make it anywhere.

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My huge thanks to Paul for taking the time to answer my questions and enlighten us as to what makes him tick as a writer. I cannot think of a better author to have kicked off the interviews. If you have not read his novels, I seriously urge you to go pick one up and get started. Shuffle it to the top of your list.

Visit Paul’s website here, follow him on Twitter, and like his Facebook page. Then check these out:

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The Scarlet Thief (Jack Lark 1) available at Amazon and all good stores, and read my review here.

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The Maharajah’s General (Jack Lark 2) available at Amazon and all good stores, and read my review here.

All that remains is to say once more a huge thank you to Paul Fraser Collard and to look forward to his next work. In the meantime, go buy, catch up and enjoy the adventures of Jack Lark.

Anthony Riches’ Empire Series

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You may have missed my review of Anthony Riches’ latest epic a week or two back, but if you did, here’s a little treat for you. I’ve been treated to a nice little Q&A session with the author himself. Hopefully if you’ve not read my reviews or possibly even his books, this interesting and enlightening little interview will push you to doing so. After all, the Empire series continues to ride at the crest of the wave of current Historical Fiction.

My blog reviews of the last four books can be found here:

and my goodreads reviews of the previous three here:

So without further ado (ron ron ron, ado ron ron), here’s a little peek into the mind of the man behind this fantastic series:

Q. In ‘The Emperor’s Knives’ you take significant steps towards dealing with some of the background plot that has underlay the entire series so far. Did you consciously decide to bring the series over the last few books to a position where that could happen, or did the progress of the series serendipitously put you in a position to deal with it?

A. I have a masterplan…*smiles smugly*…*then looks shifty*…oh alright, no I don’t, not really. What I do have is a load of history books and an overactive subconscious. The way it works is that I read the histories, find a relevant fact, and then off we go. So, for example:

**spoiler alert** (don’t read this if you’ve not read book 6 yet!)

it’s recorded that a consignment of coins stamped with a head that wasn’t the emperor’s was at the root of the death of a certain praetorian prefect in about AD185 – and so it wasn’t rocket science to draw a line from Dacia (where the gold came from), through Britannia (where it was intended to be used in the purchase of legionary loyalty) to Rome (where the Tungrians take it to see justice done)

 **spoiler over, (bet you wish you hadn’t read it now, don’t you!)

Picture me in the Henhouse (writing hidey hole) grinning with smug pleasure as my “cunning plan” came together without conscious volition.

And you thought it was all cleverly planned, eh? What do you mean, ‘no, I didn’t’? Harrumph.

Q. In book 7, your locations are more vivid and intricate than ever before. How important to you is it to visit a place that you are going to write about first?

Hugely. I’ve been to all of the locations. All over northern England and southern Scotland, Belgium (Tungria), Rome several times…the only place I’ve not been is Romania (Dacia), just because I ran out of time – did it show, I wonder? And of course I’ve not yet been to…ah, but you don’t want to know where book 8’s set, now do you?

Q. Was it a whole new experience after 6 books which revolved strongly around military campaigning on the empire’s borders to instead work on something more intrigue based in the great city? And given a choice, which do you prefer?

A. Both (**copout alert**). It was a huge change, and I loved it, but it gives me big problems in book 8 from a ‘getting back to basics’ perspective. I’m like a farm boy who’s seen the big city and then has to go back to his plough… Although it’s nice to get the Tungrians back on stage, especially my latest soldier character, ‘Jesus’. You’ll know why they call him that when you meet him!

Q. Your books contain a few historical characters as well as your fictional ones, such as Commodus, Cleander and Clodius Albinus. How do you go about deconstructing the myths about those people and then assembling them to portray within your story?

A. What I actually do is a mixture of debunking as much myth as I can (for example, the revisionist view of Perennis is that he was probably doing a decent job of being emperor in the absence of Commodus showing any interest) with the reality of needing characters who can fit into my version of the late second century (which mean that he is also the man commanding the loyalty of the Knives). I think the two approaches can co-exist pretty well. Clodius Albinus was reputed to be ‘the best of men’, but who can say what was motivating the writer, in an age where you had to get paid to be able to afford to write, and there were no pubic institutions to do the paying, which only left individuals – like Clodius Albinus! And after all, this is fiction!

Q. Although the bulk of the Roman military was made up of auxiliary forces and native units, the most famous fighting force was the legions and it is with them that 90% of the public will immediately identify when they think of Rome. What prompted you to write about the less famous auxilia than the legions?

A. I just felt it was time someone had a try at them, and it was great fun. After all, it was the auxiliaries who did the lion’s share of the fighting by the time of this series, so the first time one of my characters called the legions ‘roadmenders’ there was a real snigger in it for me. Mind you, that might rebound on the Tungrians at some point. They may not be auxiliaries for ever, you know!

Q. Book 8 looks to be set in the east. Beyond that, what does the future hold for ‘Two Knives’ and his companions?

A. Another 25 years of war on every frontier, civil war, the biggest battle of the second century which lasted two days (TWO DAYS!!!), a military strongman, treachery, honour and blood. Lots of blood!

So thank you to Tony for that and a reminder that book 7 (The Emperor’s Knives) is out now in hardback and book 6 (The Eagle’s Vengeance) is released in paperback tomorrow.

Go buy!

Written by SJAT

February 26, 2014 at 8:00 am