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Ever wanted to hear why I write what I write? How it came about? My inspiration for certain things? Ever want to ask questions or just chat or perhaps buy books or get them signed? Well there’s a few opportunities coming up this year, and I thought I’d blog just to keep you all up to date.

The first one’s coming up in March.

Simon Turney poster

So it costs £15 to become a Friend, which you can do HERE. For your 15 pounds you not only get to help support a volunteer run library, which is worthy on its own, but you get to come to this and other events, and at this one you get all this:

  • Beer from the keg, with the first drink free
  • Sausages from a local excellent manufacturer
  • A talk from yours truly, in costume, as well as a Q&A
  • A short dramatization of part of Caligula, performed by local actors
  • Music
  • A raffle with some great prizes
  • A Roman fun quiz
  • Signed books
  • The opportunity to pop out for a beer with me afterwards and talk books and history

I highly recommend becoming a friends, as other events are worthwhile too. Last year they had the wonderful Imogen Robertson. Bedale, North Yorkshire, just off the A1 on Weds 6th March. Hope to see you there. It’ll be a great night.

Then after Bedale, there’s Selby Library in May, in which I’m doing an evening alongside Sharon Bennett Connolly.

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Just £5 for two talks, refreshments and a book signing. And perhaps Sharon and I can answer a few questions for you too.

And then thirdly, in June there is Eboracum festival

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That’s in York, from Friday 31st May to Sunday 2nd June. A weekend of Roman reenacment and parades, events and more, which will include a number of authors including yours truly in an author marquee to sell and sign books and talk the hind leg off a donkey. If you want to stay in York for the weekend’s festivities, get onto booking accommodation early, as it fills up and gets expensive really quickly.

So there you go. Three different events to come see  me at, and I’d love to see you at them all.

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Written by SJAT

February 18, 2019 at 10:49 pm

Gordon Doherty – July Author Interview

with 3 comments

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

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

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And now, on with the interview.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are you reading at present?

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

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

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

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

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

Gordon’s website

Gordon on Facebook

Gordon on Twitter

Gordon on Amazon

Next blog up: Angus Donald’s Iron Castle

Written by SJAT

July 9, 2014 at 9:00 am

May Author Interview: Paul Fraser Collard

with 2 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are you reading at present?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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