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Posts Tagged ‘Legionary

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

Semper Fidelis

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Book 5 in my tour of the life of Ruso and Tilla. It’s a rollercoaster ride, for sure. I’ve followed Ruso and his slave/housekeeper/girlfriend/wife from Chester to Northumberland, to the south of France, then London, and now to York. It’s like a pit-stop tour of some of my favourite places guided by two of my favourite characters and penned by one of my favourite writers.

If you don’t know how much I love Ruth’s books by now then you’re clearly new to the blog. The Ruso mysteries are at the very top level of their genre – atmospheric, elegantly-plotted, immersively historical and delivered with rich prose. And yet also truly human tales, shot through with a sense of humour that never fails to make me smile and occasionally with deeper pathos. Ruso is not so much hapless as unlucky. He is skilled and clever and full of innovation, and yet regularly makes rather critical mistakes and finds himself in a mess. Tilla is practical and sensible and yet prone to headstrong decisions that show little forethought. Together they should be able to tackle any problem and yet more often than not they cause each other problems and worsen the situation exponentially. It makes for really engaging reading.

In Semper Fidelis (‘Always Faithful’, the motto of the US Marine Corps) we are brought to York as Ruso joins a small unit of the 20th legion who are there training recruits as they await the arrival of the 6th legion, who will be based there shortly. Ruso is back with the army now after his brief foray into the world of fiscal investigation, and the army is the focus of this book. For in York (Eboracum), the largely empty fortress has played host to native British legionary trainees, martinet centurions, beleaguered medics and desperate camp-followers. And a series of accidents and incidents that are believed to be a result of the curse on the unit point- to a clever investigator, anyway – to brutal and unacceptable behaviour on the part of the training officers.

Ruso and Tilla finds their selves delving into the incidents that have taken place and uncovering unpleasant truths within the army and landing their selves in deep trouble, which is only compounded all the more when the emperor Hadrian, his wife Sabina, and a unit of Praetorians arrive rather unexpectedly. Ruso knows Hadrian of old, since long before he came to power. You might think he could count on an old comrade to look after him. You might think that….

Semper Fidelis is yet again a beautiful offering from the pen of Ruth Downie and deserves to be read and enjoyed by all.

Oh, and the dog bite… Heh heh heh.

Go read it folks. It’s a treat.

Written by SJAT

October 6, 2016 at 8:51 am

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.]

helmet

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.

* * * * *

 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

Hannibal’s back

with 5 comments

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I’ve been a fan of Ben Kane’s books since the Forgotton Legion, and when last year I read Hannibal: Enemy of Rome, it shot up into my top Historical Fiction reads and came out as clear top of Ben’s books. Given the fact that my love of Rome tends towards the Principate era and that I’ve never really concentrated on the early Republic, it surprised me how much it gripped me. And then Ben disappeared off for a while to write his Spartacus series. Don’t get me wrong: the Spartacus books were excellent books and I thoroughly enjoyed them, but when Hannibal was my fave, it made me twitch having to wait so long for a second in the series.

And finally, as time allowed, I managed to get stuck into Fields of Blood.

Taking up where the first book finished, with Carthaginian forces firmly ensconced in Italy and threatening Rome, we knew this book was going to involve some of the most brutal fighting in the republic’s history. Most likely, it was going to involve Cannae – a name that despite my lack of in depth knowledge of this early era, I was well aware of. No one can give any level of study to the roman military without hearing the names of a few choice battles: Alesia, Adrianople, Actium, the Teutoborg forest… and of course Cannae.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. This book is still about people primarily, rather than powers or armies. It still centres on the Roman group of Aurelia, Quintus and Gaius and the Carthaginian family of Hanno, Sapho and Bostar.

And what this second book in the series does (and does very well) is to grow the characters beyond the bounds of the first book, and to deepen and expand the relationships between them, largely by testing those relationships to breaking point.

Quintus and Gaius and Fabricius are away at war, leaving the women at home, where Aurelia struggles against her apparent destiny in an arranged marriage while the man she really loves fights for the Carthaginian general intent on destroying Rome. While she does what she can to fight this fate, her mother struggles with family troubles and loan sharks intent on ruining her.

Quintus finds himself threatened with dismissal and being sent home, and decides on a drastic course of action that will see him beginning his military career over, from the bottom, where he will encounter dangers from within his own ranks as well as from the enemy.

Hanno is still recovering from having let Hannibal down and has narrowly escape brutal punishment. Now he is doing all he can with his phalanx of men to regain the favour of his general while at the same time trying to decide whether his brother Sapho is really mad enough to want him out of the way.

The scene is set. Hanno and his army are worryingly close to the farm where he had first got to know Aurelia, and she is almost all he can think of – her and a Roman officer who has become the focus of his vengeance.

Parallels can be found between the two young men’s journey throughout the book, the main of which is watching their progress and growth as military men while having to keep out a wary eye for the dangers that hover about them waiting to put a knife in their spine.

As usual with Ben’s books, the level of historical detail included within is stunning, with close attention paid right down to sentence level, and the authentic feel that lends the book is intense.

And on to the battle. I won’t ruin it for anyone. There will be people who do not know how great and important Cannae was to Rome. There will be people who do not know which side won. And therefore I’m not going to tell you. Read the book and find out. But suffice it to say Cannae was immense. In fact, Ben described it just today as ‘the bloodiest battle on Italian soil for 2000 years’, so that gives you some idea. And the level of attention Ben has lavished even on the battle means that it occupies a sizable chunk of the book.

Given that the entire battle is seen through the eyes of Quintus and Hanno, it is quite impressive how the epic scale is made plain to the reader while maintaining a personal point of view of the close action encountered by the characters. It is hard not to be swept up in the action, rejoicing and cheering for both sides when things are going their way and panicking and fretting for them all when they’re not. And if you’re not familiar with the battle already, you will be kept guessing about the outcome for a while.

But despite all of this, and the power of the battle itself, the thing that the book actually left me with more than anything is something I encountered with Giles Kristian’s Bleeding Land. It was the aftermath of the battle. Just as with that other book, where we experienced the dead freezing on the field below Edgehill while ghouls snapped off their fingers for the ring they bore, in Fields of Blood we get to experience all the horror of the battlefield in high summer, full of the most unimaginable sights, to witness the relief of the victors as soldiers seek out their family among the survivors or the dead, to see the surviving losers running scared, hiding in groups and experiencing utter despair. To see what happens to the people as they hear the news.

The story of Hannibal is far from over and Ben Kane has many more books in the series before he writes of Zama and the fall of Carthage, but this is a significant step in the tale both on the scale of the nations themselves, and of the characters that go through it all.

With some series, I find myself beginning to get irritated with characters in the second book because they are not changing or growing, or just become stagnant. Such is not the case in Fields of Blood. I just want to see more of them and am now going to have to impatiently anticipate ‘Clouds of War’.

Bravo once again, Ben. For you to produce a book that actually manages to get me behind Rome’s enemies is quite a feat!

Kane’s top series and it looks to be going from strength to strength, people. Buy and enjoy.

Written by SJAT

September 2, 2013 at 2:13 pm

Legionary

with 13 comments

So I promised a review of a book I was reading, and here it is:

Legionary. Well, let’s just say I gave it 5 stars on Amazon. Here’s snippets of what I said there and in a mail to the author too:

I have no hesitation in recommending this to lovers of Roman military fiction, and indeed anyone else who enjoys a great tale. The book actually interested me a lot more than I expected, particularly due to the setting. I am a fan of Roman history and have a good grounding in the subject, but mostly in the late Republic and Principate era.

This book, however, is set during the dusk of traditional Rome, in the late 4th century, with the Emperor Valens, Comitatensis troops, bishops, Goths, Constantinople and the Black Sea region. I recently became interested in this era after visiting Istanbul and ‘Legionary’ just expanded on that, dragging me in.

The plot is complex and extremely well-constructed, far more neatly than I realised at first, with twists and cliffhangers. The settings are beautifully described and leave the reader with a well-presented view. The characters are believable, interesting and appropriately sympathetic or loatheful. Strong, readable characters, fantastic place descriptive and a plot that rivals any hist fic I’ve read and surpasses many.

I’m so impressed with his handling of the different ethnic groups. The huns, the goths in their various varieties, greek and egyptian types and Romans. Names, customs, descriptions, all so good. The Hun punishments, so graphic they made me shudder.

Buy it. If you’ve a Kindle, or anything you can view kindle books on (such as a PC or iPhone), buy it now. If not, or you’re more attuned to the feel of whispery paper between your fingers (like me) I believe Gordon’s in the process of releasing a paperback version, so keep your eyes open and get it when it’s out. You really won’t be disappointed (especially you, Jules!)

So there you go:

Written by SJAT

May 6, 2011 at 1:35 pm