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Poseidon’s Spear (Long War 3)

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So where can Cameron take us? Arimnestos of Plataea is a grown man now, fully trained and experienced. He has fought in and won one of the greatest battles of the age. But after Marathon, the world has changed, and so has our hero. Life as he has known it has gone.

It is all too wasy for a writer with a series to fall into a rut. Too easy to just keep telling the same story over and over again with minor variations or just to continue to tell a saga in fairly repetitive chunks. A few authors will, once their series is settled, run off at a tangent to explore new ideas and new themes and styles. It can be a gamble, as some readers will always just want more of the same. But if it’s done right it can invigorate and frshen an ongoing series. Sort of like a sorbet palate cleanser between courses. With Poseidon’s Spear, Cameron has done just that.

This is not a tale of war or family. It is not a tale of Greeks and Persians. This is the very spirit of adventure. A series of events conspire to see Ari at sea once more, where he falls foul of the powerful and dangerous Carthaginians and finds himself a slave, tortured and tested to the limit of his endurance. Really, there is too much in terms of twists and turns, changes and stories in this tale to relate them individually, and that would just ruin the book for you. Essentially, once he is freed from the clutches of the unpleasant Carthaginian ‘Dagon’ he sets off on his greatest adventure, collecting new friends on the way, including other former slaves.

The Carthaginians control the trade in tin, which is needed by smiths and armourers across the Mediterranean world, and Ari and his friends soon form a plan to secure tin and make themselves rich. Not through trade with Massalia or Carthaginian Spain, but by going directly to the source: a misty, cold semi-mythical island far to the north that one day will be Britain. Of course, to get there by ship requires that a sailor pass the Pillars of Hercules and sail out into the great western ocean. In those days, with the ships of the Greek world, such a journey was all but impossible and only legendary sailors of myth had done so comfortably.

This begins a journey that will see Romans and Africans and Greeks and Gauls sharing ships, making and losing fortunes, finding and losing loves, all as they journey in search of the source of tin. In the process, Ari will pick up an Illyrian prince (whose own fate forms the last part of the book), become a hunted man and an enemy of Carthage, shed his preconceptions of the non-Greek world and open himself to the great wealth of experience that is the west.

For the reader, seeing the Pre-Roman west through the eyes of a wonder-filled Greek is a fascinating process, and it certainly made me wish I could go back and rewrite some of the Gallo-Roman work I have penned with one eye on this fascinating portrayal of the world.

As always, Cameron’s experiences with the military and reenactment inform his text and give everything a realism and accuracy that few could match. But what came across more in book 3 was the surprising level of knowledge the author seems to have concerning the world of ancient ships and sailing. I can only assume that among his talents and experience, Cameron has also sailed ships somewhat. And I am quite stunned by his portrayal of pre-Roman France, Spain and Britain, considering Cameron’s Canadian residence and American nationality. It feels accurate and immersive.

All in all, a departure for the series, a wonderful palate cleanser, and yet at the same time a great continuation of the saga of Arimnestos of Plataea. Oh, and the conclusion? Well Ari has now a new and great enemy out there somewhere we know will come up again, but also the end scenes come as something of a surprise, and set up the opening of book 4 beautifully. So drop by tomorrow for the review of The Great King

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The Queen’s Vow

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I’m delighted (and honoured) to have been asked to take part in the blog tour of C.W.Gortner, author of the newly-released ‘The Queen’s Vow’. I’ve recently finished reading the book (the first of the author’s I have tried) and was impressed and pleased with the work.

The Queen’s Vow is one of the smoothest, most emotive historical novels I have read in some time. I have not read Gortner’s earlier books, though one in particular has caught my eye from time to time as a ‘will read’. This one held a particular appeal to me when I discovered that its subject was Isabella of Castile, and so I dived in.

I will state for the record that the book is not my usual fare. While I am a voracious reader of historical fiction, I tend towards the military, action-packed, blood-and-guts tales of Rome, the Civil War or Napoleonic campaigns. I rarely read tales of more court-based life or family sagas. The Queen’s Vow is very much a saga of a family in the court circles of Castile and Aragon, seen from the perspective of the young woman who will become one of Spain’s most famous historical figures. While there are murders and treachery, wars and sieges and violent unpleasant deaths, they are all seen from the perspective of the recipient of their report rather than seen first hand. This is not meant in any way as a condemnation, just a reporting of the style of the work – the tale, after all, is focused on the great Queen and her struggles in the court.

Where this story wins out for me is its style. The tale is evocative of the great dusty, dry world of medieval central Spain, draws the reader into the mindset of an innocent in such a twisted, dangerous world as the Castilian court, and delivers a flavour of the era so clear that the reader can almost taste and smell the world Isabella experiences.

There are elements in there that brought scenes and flashes of great movies to mind for me. The scenery and lands in the timeless ‘El Cid’, the loss of girlish innocence in a world of intrigues and plots seen in ‘Elizabeth’ (a plot with many similar elements), the twisted religious fervour of ‘Name of the Rose’. Many others. But if you can picture some of those things it might help give you a flavour of how the Queen’s Vow reads.

The tale follows the life of Isabella (most famously remembered in the company of her later husband Ferdinand) from her youth as an exiled royal scion, through all the twists and turns of a royal succession that should be hers, to the final seat of power and consolidation of her throne that comes with an almost unacceptable price. Isabella begins the tale as a quiet, almost demure and submissive girl, but through a series of dangers and difficult situations and over the years of betrayal and fear, her young, naïve, innocence is hardened like diamond into a powerful vision of her future and belief in herself. With her beloved Fernando (Ferdinand of Aragon) by her side she begins to forge a single realm from the fractured states of Spain and a catholic land from a mixed world of Christian, Jew and Moor.

During this era, so many astounding events that have affected the world as a whole took place, and they all have a place in this story: The Reconquista and the fall of Granada – the final expulsion of the Moors from Spain, the patronage of Christopher Columbus and his plan to find a new route to the Indies, the combining of the two great Kingdoms of Aragon and Castile to forge the future nation of Spain, the foundation and growing power of the Holy Inquisition under the dangerous priest Tomas de Torquemada, and the edicts that led to the expulsion of the Jews from the land. A time of momentous change that saw more upheaval in Spain than any other era, and created the Spain that we know today.

The Queen’s Vow will transport you to that world and bring it to every sense, not just your eyes. You will hear, see, smell, taste and even feel the dry and dangerous world of Isabella, and perhaps even come to understand the hardships that turned the shy Infanta Isabella into the great Queen of history.

On a last word, as an English reader, I sometimes find it jarring when I read historical works by an American writer, as the idioms and common expressions – not to mention spellings – can make the English reader pause and have to make sure of the intended meaning of the sentence. I expect American readers of English writers have the same issue. One thing that really astounded me about Gortner’s prose is that, despite the national differences in language, it read as easily and smoothly as a native English work and I noticed nothing that caught me off guard.

All in all, this is not a work to rush through, as much historical fiction is. You could read it fast, but you would probably not enjoy it as much. Most of the value of this work to me was its flavour and feel, and that is powerfully conveyed if you devote enough time to savouring the book.

I will, for sure, be reading the Last Queen, which, though written earlier, details the next phase of Spain’s historical development.

So there’s my review. However, as an added treat, I had the opportunity last week to pose a few questions for the author, who has kindly answered them for my (and your) edification:

1. I found the feminine perspective in the book thoroughly engrossing. How difficult do you find it to write from that perspective, as a male author? Writing from the perspective of another gender cannot be easy, especially when also taking into account the medieval mindset.

I’m often asked this question and I can’t say it’s easy simply because I think that whenever a writer chooses to inhabit a character in the first person— whether that character is a medieval queen or a serial killer or indeed anyone who is not the writer— we must first slough off the preconceptions, judgments, opinions and preferences that comprise who we are. Otherwise, we cannot become the person who is telling the story; we cannot convince our audience of our character’s sincerity. However, emotion is not defined by gender. We all know longing, desire, hatred, love, fear, ambition, and sorrow. It is our culture which dictates how we may express ourselves, according to our gender. When I write, I engage in preparatory work that helps me strip aside the layers of societal expectation and experiences that make up who I am, so I can discover how my character will experience her world. It probably helps as well that I grew up in a family of strong women; I often sat mesmerized as a boy, listening to my aunts tell stories, exchange secrets and private sorrows. Perhaps I absorbed something of the language that women employ. Whatever the case, I find it comes naturally to me. The only time I’ve had to resort to outside consultation was learning how it felt to give birth.

2. Your descriptive of locations and structures is presented with particular clarity and atmosphere. Have you visited the locations of which you write? It feels as though you have personal experience of them and a solid image in your mind’s eye.

I consider travel an essential component of my research. For me, the experience of seeing the landscape and the places where my characters lived, regardless of how much these may have changed, is invaluable. There are sensory details that books and the internet cannot convey: the color of a sky, the sound of the wind, the shape of a castle as dusk falls. These are the moments that make a story leap to life and I always discover something new and unexpected when I travel, no matter how familiar the country may be to me, as, for example, Spain is. In Seville, while visiting the alcazar, I had a conversation with a curator about Isabella’s stay there that shifted my entire perception of that time in her life. I hadn’t planned to have her flee to Seville to escape her own pain, but after the conversation it became apparent she may have gone to Andalucia for precisely that reason. This is the kind of on-the-ground research I live for!

3. Given the written histories, how far were you obliged to bridge the gap between recorded events and unknown motivations of the people involved?

It’s always a fine line, treading the balance between facts and the emotional motivations of those who lived them. Few people of the medieval and Renaissance eras have left personal memoirs, yet a novelist does not have the luxury of saying, “Well, she did this but we don’t know why.” That is the crucial difference between fiction and non-fiction: for the fiction writer, the why is everything. Without it, there is no story. And so we must piece together what we can from extant documentation, chronicles, ambassadorial dispatches, letters and proclamations, as well as the records of council meetings and such. It’s painstaking work, because we end up shifting through paper in search of an oft-elusive kernel of emotional truth. I like to say that being a historical novelist is like being part psychologist, part sleuth, part forensic investigator, and part game show host. We have to employ all these different skill sets based on relatively few facts, and figure out what our character was feeling. Sometimes we hit on it, and sometimes we have to guess. I try to be as scientific as possible; I work up a detailed psychological and emotional portrait of my character and do my utmost to discover who she may have been in order to determine how she may have felt about key events. But in the end, I do bridge that historical divide with some degree of educated assumption, grounded in as much factual evidence as I can uncover. I think I get close but who knows? I could be dead wrong. That’s part of the challenge and the joy of writing in this genre; you’re never 100% sure.

4. While the story is complete and has a definitive arc, I wondered why you decided to end it with the Jews and Columbus in 1492, when there was a further decade of Isabella’s life with Inquisition troubles and Moorish revolts and in fact the death of their only male heir?

For this particular novel, I wanted to narrow the focus to how a neglected princess became queen. I had already covered Isabella’s later life and death in my first novel The Last Queen, albeit as seen through her daughter Juana’s eyes. Indeed, 1492 is precisely when that book starts. Thus, it seemed like the perfect ending for The Queen’s Vow: that moment of Isabella’s greatest triumph, when she’s become the monarch she was meant to be. I feel for now that my time with her is complete but perhaps I’ll return to her in the future and finish the story of her life in her own words.

6. While the architect of the Inquisition (Torquemada) is portrayed in a dangerous, negative manner (increasingly so during the second half of the book), were you not tempted to make him an outright villain from the outset, given that it would be almost impossible to portray him favourably?

Of course, that is the seduction of the truly malignant in history:  they almost demand that we turn them into caricatures. But even Torquemada had his reasons, unfathomable as they are to us. He was a human being with all of our complexity and contradictions, and I wanted to retain this core part of him. I wanted to depict a man of terrifying convictions, who exerted immense persuasion over an impressionable girl who desperately needed to hear that God had a purpose for her, without turning him into a Svengali. Torquemada is a terrible figure in history with a horrible legacy, but if we forget his ultimate humanity, then we accord him a power he does not deserve. In this novel, he is the voice of thousands throughout Europe, who hated and feared those who were different from them. He is the voice of our past and our present:  to this very day, there are those among us who preach similar paths of destruction in the name of faith. That is his lesson to us.

Thank you for having me. I’m honored to be here. To learn more about me and my work, please visit me at my website at www.cwgortner.com.

For more reviews and interviews and more, check out the rest of Christopher Gortner’s blog tour:

THE QUEEN'S VOW blog tour poster

Written by SJAT

January 7, 2013 at 11:09 am

Interesting People

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Today I have little to report, so I have instead decided to name 10 people in history that fascinate me. The interesting thing is that none of these people are figures that I knew all about because they were famous, but rather are people that I’ve found out about accidentally and become fascinated as a result.

Philip II of Macedon.

You see everyone knows about Alexander the Great, but fewer know much about his father. And yet, in reading a book a long time ago on Alexander, I came to the conclusion that I prefer his father and find him much more interesting. Philip was a third son of the King of Macedon and spent his entire youth in captivity in Greece. Yet at 22, he returned home, turned the almost collapsed heap that was Macedon once more into a powerful Kingdom, fought back the enemies that threatened it, reorganised the army such that it became the most powerful military machine in the world at that time, and conquered the whole of Greece. If he had not been assassinated by a bodyguard, what could he have achieved. Alexander may be more famous, but without Philip’s groundwork, he’d never have achieved what he did.

William Plunkett

In the belief that the story is true, Plunkett was a highwayman in the early 18th century (see him played by Robert Carlyle in the movie .Plunkett & MacLeane’. The thing about him that fascinates me though, is that he survived, emigrated to America and, according to at least one account, ended up as a colonel fighting for independence against England in 1776. That’s quite a fascinating end for a poor English criminal, eh?

Guzman the Good

Alonso de Guzman. First ever heard of him when I visited Tarifa in Spain many years ago. He is remembered there as a great hero in the mould of El Cid. Guzman was charged by the King with defending Tarifa castle against the moors. His son was held captive by the King’s brother who sided with the Moors and the Prince threatened to kill Guzman’s son unless he surrendered the castle. Guzman said that he would not allow himself to betray his country and that if the Prince killed the boy, he would just damn himself and heap honour on both of them. He even threw his own knife down to them to do it with because it was an untarnished Christian blade. This is a man who put honour above everything. Such people are rare.

Harald Hardrada

Heard of him? Probably not. He was a viking in the 11th century. However (and I think I’ve talked about him before) he lived the most amazing life before dying in battle only 30 miles from where I sit. Though you probably think of vikings as hairy barbarians who lived in the icy north, Harald fought all across eastern europe, making a name for himself, served as an officer in the Varangian bodyguard of the Byzantine Emperor in Constantinople, was imprisoned and escaped, fled to Russia where he married a Russian/Swedish princess, became King Harald III of Norway, conquered Denmark for a time, founded the city of Oslo, and invaded England, dying at the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 where he was defeated by Harold II of England, who then had to rush south to fight the battle of Hastings against William the Bastard less than 3 weeks later. Had the battle gone the other way, we would have grown as a Scandinavian country rather than a middle European one. Harald is widely regarded as the last great Viking and with him, the Viking age passes.

Robert de Brus

The one I’m talking about isn’t the famous Bruce who was King of Scotland and featured in Braveheart, but his dad. The de Brus (or Bruce) family are good Yorkshire folk from near me. They founded the priory at Guisborough and only became involved in Scotland when one of them was made Lord of Annandale. The 6th Lord (the one I’m talking of) fought in the Holy Land during the 9th Crusade, helped the English King Edward I crush Wales, and finally took part in the first war of Scottish Independence, on the side of the English! Yes, the father of the man who became King Robert the Bruce and the greatest symbol of Scottish independence, fought against Saracens, Welshmen and Scots all on behalf of the English, and was from a Norman-French family who settled in northern England.

Gnaeus Julius Agricola

Agricola is a well-known name among Roman historians, though many of you will never have heard of him. He was a general under the Emperors Nero, Vespasian, Titus and Domitian. He was the uncle of the great writer Tacitus, who wrote his biography. Agricola was governor of Britain for a time, is responsible for some of the great roads of the province, built the Stanegate line, the precursor for Hadrian’s Wall, conquered the rebellious north, actually beat the Scots and pacified Scotland (though it was subsequently abandoned) and may indeed have even briefly invaded Ireland. His success and reputation were so great that the Emperor eventually had him recalled and shuffled into retirement, Tacitus suggests because his achievements were outshining the Emperor’s. And yet despite a life of military campaigns, involvment with the Boudiccan revolt, the civil war in Rome in 69, and irritating an Emperor not known for his patience, he died peacefully on his estate in the end.

John Lilburne

Freeborn John. He’s actually very important and deserves to be more famous than he is. I’d never heard of him until wifey and I went to see a ‘folk opera’ called Freeborn John in 2008, starring New Model Army, the Levellers, Maddy Prior and Rev Hammer. Since then I have read much of him, and seen him in ‘The Devil’s Whore’ on BBC TV. Lilburne was a radical during the English Civil War. Even back in the 17th century, John espoused the ‘freeborn rights’ of man. He was repeatedly jailed, punished and tried for illegal pamphleting and causing disturbances. He fought for Parliament in the civil war, but resigned his commission in 1645 because he claimed the army was trying to curb his free rights. He may be considered a member of the ‘Levellers’ movement, though he claimed not.  He drafted three constitutions that were never ratified but have been used as the basis for many great documents since. Finally, he was exiled to the Netherlands, though he returned eventually and was subsequently imprisoned yet again. Finally, his health declined in prison and he died while visiting his pregnant wife. He is remembered as one of the earliest proponents of the rights of man.

Colonel Thomas Blood

You may know that name, but probably not. I had heard of him. Blood is infamous in England as the Irishman who, in the late 17th century, attempted to steal the crown jewels of England. He had been a royalist during the civil war, but had switched sides halfway through to support Cromwell. After the royal restoration, he attempted to kidnap the Duke of Ormonde in Ireland and escaped to the Netherlands when his co-conspirators were caught and executed. He returned as a wanted man and attempted to kill the Duke this time, being foiled once again. Then, in 1671, he, in disguise, ingratiated himself with the keeper of the Tower of London’s crown jewels and as a result, managed to steal them, hammering a crown flat and sawing a sceptre in half for transport! However, he was capture while leaving the castle and the crown jewels retained. Blood was taken before the King where, and this is where he becomes a legend in my eyes, the colonel was cheeky and so engaging that the King discovered he liked the man, pardoned him and gave him land! A familiar figure at court afterwards, he continued to be the same audatious man until he eventually fell ill and passed away a free man, never having served punishment for treason, kidnapping or attempted murder.

Alcibiades

Greek statesman from the 5th century BC. Alcibiades is another of those rogues and scoundrels that I like. He was an Athenian that advocated war against Sparta. However, after he was accused of sacrilege and brought to trial in Athens, he fled to Sparta. In Sparta, he advocated war against Athens and became a general. However, he pissed off important people in Sparta and ended up having to run away again, this time to Persia, enemy of all the Greek states. Here, he became a military advisor to Persia until Athens cleared his name and invited him back (not sure why!) He served once again as an Athenian general before being exiled. He was once more on his way to seek refuge with Persia when he died, possibly at the hands of Spartans. Alcibiades is the ancient Greek pinball.

Charles Piazzi Smyth

My final choice is local for me. He is buried in a churchyard in a village on the edge of Ripon, my hometown. Smyth is an interesting 19th century man. Born in Naples, he became Astronomer Royal of Scotland, designed a tent with an attached groundsheet, wrote a book about his travels to Tenerife, travelled to Egypt and became a ‘pyramidologist’ and is buried beneath a small pyramid with a cross on top.

I bet you’ve all got favourite interesting people too eh?

Go on… who are they?