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Strategos: Island in the Storm

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Three years ago I reviewed the second book in Gordon’s Strategos trilogy, which I loved as much as the first. It goes to show how busy I am and how many books there are in my reading pile that it’s taken me 3 years to get to the final volume in a series I love. But here we are. I’ve been back with Mr Doherty’s golden prose once more and loving it.

For me, Strategos III (Island in the Storm) is a win on two levels.

Firstly, I have come to love the setting and characters. I am fascinated by late Rome and Byzantium but am less familiar with the medieval era of that world than the classical. Yet the first Strategos book opened my eyes to it and I drank it in. It’s a testament to a good series and excellent characters when you can step out for 3 years then pick up again and the whole thing is instantly familiar and all the personalities in it come flooding straight back. That’s what happened for me. The tale of Apion’s life is at the same time heroic and glorious and makes the blood surge, but also sad and heartbreaking and thought-provoking. It is a rich tale with depth and a great deal of care put into every detail. And the fact that I knew this was the last book in the trilogy meant that I knew everything had to be tied up and come to an end. This was a masterful drawing together of threads, particularly given that anyone familiar with the events covered in the book knows that things cannot end well. That being the case, reaching an end that satisfies the reader is impressive.

Secondly, the book revolves largely around the Battle of Manzikert. Even not being overly-familiar with the era, I know of that battle. It’s one of those that should go down in history with Alesia, Adrianople, Hastings, Agincourt, Waterloo etc. A world-changing battle. But while I knew the basics (the sides in the battle, the outcome and the rough location) that was all. So this book was educational as well as entertaining. Because I have since finishing it read up a little on Manzikert, and Doherty had clearly done his research. And while reading a non-fiction account of a battle is educational, for me it can’t quite beat an ‘author’s eye view’. Because a good historical author does adequate research to produce as accurate a portrayal of the fight as it is possible to create, and in putting the reader into the action, seeing it through the eyes of those present, the writer makes the reader experience the battle rather than just learning about it. That is the second value to me of this. It made me understand Manzikert and just how important it was.

Doherty is one of the finest historical writers out there at the moment and for me pretty much leads the pack in the Indie book world (myself included.) Don’t read this book if you don’t know the series. Read them all. Buy the Strategos trilogy. You can get the lot on kindle for £10. That’s the price of a pub meal which will last you 15 minutes, while these will give you many hours of pleasure. Surely that’s a no-brainer?

Written by SJAT

December 15, 2016 at 10:30 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.]

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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

Strategos – Apion does it again.

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It’s been a while since I’ve read one of Gordon’s books (the last one being the first in the Strategos series.) And once again I find myself not only impressed with the quality of his writing, but even a little jealous.

Again, for the record I have, since we started writing, become a friend of Gordon’s, and consequently, feel free to ignore this review, but the review is genuine for all our acquaintance.

Strategos 1 was largely a tale of personal growth for the youthful Apion, battling physical disability, personal demons and the harshness of a land torn by war and distrust. I was therefore surprised when I picked up book 2 to discover that the story has moved on a number of years and Apion is now a grown man, battle-hardened, jaded and fatalistic, watching his Empire falling apart and fighting to maintain his corner of it.

This book really does take us in a different direction to book 1, which in retrospect is only natural. No follow up to book 1 could have seamlessly continued from where it left off. Rise of the Golden Heart concerns itself largely with the power struggles in Byzantium, corruption in the Imperial Court and the rise of Romanos Diogenes. In this installment, Apion is drawn into the horror of court life as well as that of border warfare. The story takes us from the Turkish border wars to Constantinople, across Byzantine Europe and then back to the plains of Syria by way of intrigue, betrayal, vendetta and, of course – as readers of Gordon’s work have come to expect and love – WAR!

Short of what I’ve noted above, I’ll not delve deeply into the plot for fear of spoilers, but suffice it to say there is an ongoing theme of betrayal and treachery throughout, whether the background be the tinkling fountains of the Constantinople palace or the arid, deadly mountains of southern Anatolia.

As usual with Gordon’s writing there are certain high points and factors that stand out for me. One is the thoroughness of his plotting and research. The story is perfectly formed and runs in an undeniably smooth arc, while threading itself around the known historical fact and not twisting, altering or guessing anything.

Second is the quality of the language itself. Gordon is fast becoming a master of the historical genre with his elegant turns of phrase and sensory, tactile descriptions which bring the locations to life in the text.

Thirdly, the characters are realistic and sympathetic. There is nothing 2-dimensional or bland about them. In particular, I loved the gradual shifts in the general attitude of Apion as the world turns around him, affecting his life.

I understand that there will be a third volume in the series, and I cannot wait to see what he does with a – presumable older again – Apion, probably at the dreadful battle of Manzikert.

If you’ve read Strategos, why are you reading this. Click the ‘Buy’ button and read the book instead. If you’ve not, boy have you got some engrossing hours ahead.

Next up for me on the Gordonologue: Legionary II.

🙂

Written by SJAT

December 15, 2013 at 1:20 am