WHAT THREE THINGS?

By Helen Hollick

Hello Marian, thank you for inviting me onto your blog. You asked me to tell you and your readers about the books I write. Where to start!

I used to write straight historical fiction: my first Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy was about King Arthur with a setting in Roman Britain in the 5th to 6th centuries. These were originally published back in the early 1990s – so I’ve been writing for a lo-o-ong while now! My intention for the trilogy was to strip away all the myth and magic of then Medieval Christian-based tales and write the books as ‘what might have happened’. Not for me the familiar ‘love triangle’, there is no Lancelot in my story, no Holy Grail, no Merlin either. I saw Arthur as an ambitious but capable war lord, Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere) as an equally capable woman. They love each other but are two people with intelligent minds – and firm ideas which often clash. I used the earlier Welsh legends, which are far more interesting and very different from the later Medieval tales.

Following these, I moved to the 11th century and the events that led to the Battle Of Hastings in 1066. I am a firm supporter of King Harold II, so this story is written from the English point of view – stripped of all the Norman propaganda. The other book is the story of Emma of Normandy – Queen Emma of Anglo-Saxon England. She was married to Æthelred the Unready and then to King Cnut. One of her sons was Edward the Confessor, so a prequel story to the people involved in the subsequent Norman Conquest of England.

I turned to crime during the months of lockdown – fictionally, that is. I branched out into writing cozy mysteries. My Jan Christopher Series are quick read novellas set in the 1970s against the background of my years of working as a library assistant – with the twist of a murder mystery included. There are two in the series published so far, I plan more!

My favourites, however, are the Sea Witch Voyages. I wrote the first, Sea Witch back in 2005/6 when I wanted to read something as good as the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie – but for adults (with some adult content, some adult scenes and language, and some violence.) I couldn’t find what I wanted to read so I wrote it myself. I have just published the sixth in the series, Gallows Wake, with a short read novella prequel, When The Mermaid Sings as a bonus read.

So, three things that I care passionately about in my writing?

1) My Characters. I fell hopelessly in love with ‘my’ Arthur, mind you, I was in that man’s mind for more than ten years (it took me that long to write what eventually became The Kingmaking and half of Pendragon’s Banner!) I am even more in love with my pirate (well, ex-pirate now,) Captain Jesamiah Acorne.  Funnily enough, I did notice, a while ago, when looking through bits of The Kingmaking, just how alike Arthur and Jesamiah are! They are both rough, tough guys. Both formidable when angry, but quick to laugh, both determined, both loyal in their own way – both would willingly die for the woman they love, even though tempers often flare between them. Honour is important for both of them – although both are also ruthless when needs must. They both have a solid, reliable friend and I wanted to portray them both as men who cared, who hurt when their hearts were broken and who drowned their sorrows …

2) I care about creating a feeling of believability. ‘Harold’ and ‘Emma’ both had a lot of historical fact to base the outline of the stories on: history tells us that this, this and this happened, and when and where it happened. The novelist has to decide (OK, make up) the whys and hows. For ‘Arthur’ there is nothing to go on – let’s face the truth, King Arthur did not exist (although he might have been an amalgamation of several notable post-Roman war lords.) So for the ‘facts’ I researched post-Roman Britain and used what little we do know as the basis for my trilogy. I also extensively used my knowledge of horses.

For ‘Jesamiah’ some of the elements in the Voyages are supernatural or fantasy – the love of Jesamiah’s life is Tiola, a White Witch, a Wise Woman of Craft. To balance the ‘made-up’ bits I was as careful as I could be to get the ‘real’ bits right, in particular the sailing scenes aboard Sea Witch. I also used quite a bit of factual history from the early 1700s – although some I did ‘bend’ a little to suit my timeline (but I mention what I changed in my author’s notes.) I have absolutely no knowledge of sailing Tall Ships, though. Fortunately there are a lot of good books to use for research and I have a wonderful friend in the author James L. Nelson who checks my sailing scenes for me – and doesn’t laugh too loudly at my bloopers!

3) I suppose my third passion is for writing the book I want to read. ‘Arthur’ I wrote because I have never liked the later Medieval tales. I could never see Arthur as the sort of king who would go off and leave his country for years (although Richard I, did). Nor could I see Gwenhwyfar as being so stupid as to have an affair with Lancelot (who, actually, I didn’t like anyway.) The familiar tales, I believe, were written as propaganda to get men to go off on Crusade, and to justify Richard I, the Lionheart’s obsessions.

‘Harold’ and ‘Emma’, were the same, I wanted to write their stories as they ought to have been written. As for Jesamiah, well, he’s entirely made up, but as I said earlier, I wanted to immerse myself in a swashbuckling, enjoyable and engrossing adult nautical adventure … I didn’t expect that first Voyage, however, to turn out to be such a successful series!

Choose an excerpt or two to illustrates one of your three topics.

1a. From The Kingmaking

With a short, exasperated sigh, Cei strode over to the drunkard. As he was about to shake the man’s shoulder, he broke into a chuckle. Ah no, the poor tavern keeper could not give this one to the street.

Roused by Cei’s persistent nudging, Arthur staggered unsteadily to his feet.

It was only a short journey to the palace but, hampered as he was by the almost dead weight of his companion, it took Cei a while to reach their assigned rooms, where, laughing, he waved Arthur’s sleepy servant aside. “Go back to your bed, I shall tend your master.” He seated Arthur on the bed and pulled off his boots. “An enjoyable evening, I assume. Trust you to spoil it by getting yourself over full of wine.”

1b. Excerpt from Sea Witch, the first Voyage

Waking several hours into the fore noon to a thundering headache, Jesamiah staggered to his feet. He tottered to the  door, peered out, squinting at the brightness of the morning sun.

Rue stepped forward offering a pewter tankard. “Drink this.”

Hesitant, Jesamiah took it wrinkled his nose at the foul looking liquid. “What is it?”

“Old French recipe. Brandy, ground garlic with ’alf a pint of ale. Deux œufs – fresh-laid is that cackle fruit – a pinch of gunpowder and melted pork lard.”

Jesamiah sniffed again at the concoction. He poked a finger into it and picked out a piece of floating egg shell. “I don’t care for raw eggs.”

“Just drink it.”

Doubtful, Jesamiah raised it to his mouth. Changing his mind, offered it back.  “Later perhaps.”

“Écoute mon gars,”  Rue said finally losing patience. “Look, my friend, you lead us like the brilliant captain you are or we leave you ’ere in this God-forgotten emptiness, with as many bottles of rum as you please.”

Jesamiah looked from Rue to the tankard. Hesitant, he raised it to his lips. “It smells foul.”

The fouler the medicine, the quicker the cure, or so ma mere used to say.”

“What was she? The village poisoner?”

Both these scenes get across to the reader that the men have good, reliable friends, and that broken hearts can be dulled by drink, but not mended. The mending, of course, comes later in the stories!

THE VOYAGES

SEA WITCH   Voyage one

PIRATE CODE  Voyage two

BRING IT CLOSE  Voyage three

RIPPLES IN THE SAND  Voyage four

ON THE ACCOUNT  Voyage five

WHEN THE MERMAID SINGS  A prequel to the series

(short-read novella)

And just published…

GALLOWS WAKE

The Sixth Voyage of Captain Jesamiah Acorne

By Helen Hollick

Where the Past haunts the future…

Damage to her mast means Sea Witch has to be repaired, but the nearest shipyard is at Gibraltar. Unfortunately for Captain Jesamiah Acorne, several men he does not want to meet are also there, among them, Captain Edward Vernon of the Royal Navy, who would rather see Jesamiah hang.

Then there is the spy, Richie Tearle, and manipulative Ascham Doone who has dubious plans of his own. Plans that involve Jesamiah, who, beyond unravelling the puzzle of a dead person who may not be dead, has a priority concern regarding the wellbeing of his pregnant wife, the white witch, Tiola.

Forced to sail to England without Jesamiah, Tiola must keep herself and others close to her safe, but memories of the past, and the shadow of the gallows haunt her. Dreams disturb her, like a discordant lament at a wake.

But is this the past calling, or the future?

From the first review of Gallows Wake:

“Hollick’s writing is crisp and clear, and her ear for dialogue and ability to reveal character in a few brief sentences is enviable. While several of the characters in Gallows Wake have returned from previous books, I felt no need to have read those books to understand them. The paranormal side of the story—Tiola is a white witch, with powers of precognition and more, and one of the characters is not quite human—blends with the story beautifully, handled so matter-of-factly. This is simply Jesamiah’s reality, and he accepts it, as does the reader.”

Author Marian L. Thorpe.

BUY LINKS:

Amazon Author Page (Universal link)https://viewauthor.at/HelenHollick

Where you will find the entire series waiting at anchor in your nearest Amazon harbour – do come aboard and share Jesamiah’s derring-do nautical adventures!

(available Kindle, Kindle Unlimited and in paperback)

Or order a paperback copy from your local bookstore!

ABOUT HELEN HOLLICK

First accepted for traditional publication in 1993, Helen became a USA Today Bestseller with her historical novel, The Forever Queen (titled A Hollow Crown in the UK) with the sequel, Harold the King (US: I Am The Chosen King) being novels that explore the events that led to the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Her Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy is a fifth-century version of the Arthurian legend, and she writes a nautical adventure/fantasy series, The Sea Witch Voyages. She is now also branching out into the quick read novella, ‘Cosy Mystery’ genre with her Jan Christopher Murder Mysteries, set in the 1970s, with the first in the series, A Mirror Murder incorporating her, often hilarious, memories of working as a library assistant.

Her non-fiction books are Pirates: Truth and Tales and Life of A Smuggler. She lives with her family in an eighteenth-century farmhouse in North Devon and occasionally gets time to write…

Website: www.helenhollick.net

Newsletter Subscription: http://tinyletter.com/HelenHollick

Blog: www.ofhistoryandkings.blogspot.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/HelenHollick Twitter: @HelenHollick https://twitter.com/HelenHollick

Robert of Gloucester

Royal bastard, powerful magnate, capable commander – King Stephen’s man?


By Cathie Dunn

What if…Robert of Gloucester had not supported his half-sister, the Empress Matilda?
Would the mid-12 th century civil war that ravaged much of England, and Normandy by
association, have happened at all?


A Race against Time, my short story in the wonderful anthology, Alternate Endings,
published through the Historical Writers Forum, is set just before the period now widely
known as The Anarchy. It begins on December 1st , 1135, with the death of King Henry I at
his hunting lodge at Lyons-la-Forêt in Normandy.


Henry’s illness appeared quite suddenly, made worse by a meal of lamprey eels, apparently,
that didn’t do his constitution any good, and it didn’t give his administrators enough time to
consider the serious matter of a successor. Henry refused any discussions on the subject.
So the status quo remained that, as designated heiress, Matilda, Countess of Anjou and
former Holy Roman Empress, was considered Henry’s heir as his only surviving legitimate
child. But she was, of course, a woman, and one married to a rather unpopular and ambitious
young noble, Geoffrey of Anjou. It didn’t help matters that Henry had been quarrelling with
the couple before his untimely death. In short, the situation was a mess.


In A Race against Time, Robert of Gloucester, illegitimate eldest son of King Henry I, seeks
to scupper Stephen of Blois’ rushed accession to the English throne (and you’ll have to read
the story to find out what happened!), but what if Robert had stayed on at Stephen’s side, for
good?


After all, with Hugh Bigod claiming that Henry had released the barons from their oath of
fealty to Matilda on his deathbed, he opened the door for an alternative candidate – one more
suited to the responsibilities of kingship than a mere woman. It was a view that was shared
widely amongst the English nobles. Very few were surprised when Stephen – Matilda’s
cousin through his mother’s side – made a dash to Westminster and had himself crowned
with unseemly haste. Very likely, they approved of his ’decisive’ action.

The effigy of Robert of Gloucester’s tomb by: George Hollis, The Monumental Effigies of Great Britain, Public Domain.


As did Robert of Gloucester at the time, it would appear. Early on, the Empress’ older half-brother, a highly valued commander and astute politician, pledged his allegiance to Stephen. But by 1138, he’d seen enough, and was easily persuaded to pursue his sister’s claim to the
throne.


There were rumours of a strong dislike between the two men, and that Robert did not hide his disappointment in the new king. But how could Stephen have kept this man, whose sweeping lands in the west country stretched into south Wales, on his side?


With Robert covering his back, Stephen could have pacified the squabbling nobles. They’d have toed the line rather than challenge him and doing pretty much what they wanted. Perhaps Robert could even have kept Stephen’s brother Henry, Archbishop of Winchester, from scheming. He’d have had a task at hand to convince Matilda’s supporters to give up any hopes of her becoming queen, but they would likely have heeded his guidance.

But how could Stephen have ‘bribed’ this man who did not seek the highest power, who was no backstabbing traitor? Perhaps if Robert had been granted a position of high power, and in particular support against his enemies in the ranks of the barons, he may have stayed. If Stephen had been less dithering, less of a ‘good guy’, but come down harsh on the troublemakers, Robert would have supported him. If Stephen had been a decisive king, hard but fair, a medieval ruler not relying on his popularity amongst the peers, and if he’d not given in to their increasing demands. If…


Without Robert, Matilda’s chances would have been close to nil. She had friends, barons in
the west and south-west of England. But with her husband’s focus on reining in the small
uprisings in Normandy, she wouldn’t have had the influence or the manpower to stage an
attempt at claiming her throne. Without Robert, she’d never have made it to England. Perhaps
as a visitor, but never as a potential queen in her own right.


This would have also meant England and Normandy remaining divided – England firmly in
Stephen’s hand and Normandy in Matilda’s and Geoffrey’s. Normandy was her true home,
but her husband’s campaigns to consolidate his power and defend Normandy against raids
from the French may have counted for nothing without the backing of powerful magnates
such as Robert. A small duchy with a large, greedy kingdom on its doorstep, snapping at its
heel.


Matilda may have lost everything.


And Robert? Well, he’d have been in a high position of power, possibly responsible for
defence of the kingdom, or even for the upbringing of Stephen’s son, Eustace. Perhaps the
boy may have turned out a nicer character than he so clearly was. And maybe, then, he’d
have survived his father…


The balance of power would have shifted, had Robert of Gloucester remained at Stephen’s
court and in the king’s favour. The good folk of England wouldn’t have seen nearly two
decades of fighting, particularly across the south and west. There wouldn’t have been all the
burnt crops and destroyed fields and castles. And there wouldn’t have been all that needless
bloodshed.


But then, Robert of Gloucester was a man of principle, of loyalty and honour. Any personal
ambition of his never made him aim for top job itself, as he knew it to be wrong. Times had
changed. Also, it would appear, he didn’t suffer fools gladly, in that he preferred to see his
headstrong sister accede to the throne of England, rather than malleable, indecisive Stephen.
He gave the man the benefit of a doubt early on, and then chose his side, never again
wavering in his support for Matilda.


It is, perhaps, for those reasons that Robert, earl of Gloucester, is my favourite historical
character. And I dare say, he’d have made a fine King of England, even if he was born on the
wrong side of the blanket…


A Race Against Time, my short story in Alternate Endings


The King is dead. Long live the…Queen?

A Race against Time begins with the news of the death of Henry I, King of England and
Duke of Normandy. His illegitimate son, Robert, earl of Gloucester, has expected the news.
Like the other lords, he has sworn allegiance to his half-sister, Matilda, Henry I’s only
legitimate heir. But she is a woman!


When word reaches him that their cousin, Stephen of Blois, is on his way to London to seize
the throne, Robert and his fellow lords must decide how to proceed, fast.
Should they put a woman on the throne, after all, in her own right and with an ambitious
husband no one can control? Or is there perhaps another contender?

International buy link for Alternate Endings: https://mybook.to/AltEnd


About Cathie Dunn:

Cathie Dunn writes historical fiction, mystery, and romance. The focus of her current historical fiction projects is on strong women through time.


For many years, Cathie has been intrigued by the period in English history now known as The Anarchy, the mid-12th century civil war that affected England and Normandy. Although her current novel writing projects are set in other eras, she is planning to return to The Anarchy soon again, with a sequel to her romantic murder mystery, Dark Deceit.


In her spare time, Cathie loves to explore castles and ruins, allowing her to get ‘in the zone’ with her historical characters, fictional or real. She currently lives in the south of France with her husband and two rescue pets.


Website: https://www.cathiedunn.com
Twitter: https://twitter.com/cathiedunn
Review Blog: https://ruinsandreading.blogspot.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CathieDunnAuthor
Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/author/cathiedunn

The Welsh Dragon, by K.M.Butler

A Review

Henry Tudor—the victor of Bosworth who defeated Richard III to claim the crown and become Henry VII of England, beginning the Tudor dynasty – had a weak claim to the throne. Descended on his mother’s side from the royal prince John of Gaunt and his mistress Katherine Swynford, Henry was barred from the line of succession by this illegitimacy. But Henry’s father Edmund Tudor was half-brother to the king, through his mother’s second marriage to Owen Tudor, and this too brought a potential claim.

When Edward IV took the throne from Henry VI in 1461, amidst the complex politics and battles of The Wars of the Roses, Henry Tudor and his uncle Jasper fled to Brittany. It is the fourteen years that Henry spent in exile that is the focus of nearly the first half of The Welsh Dragon – a period of which little historical fact is known. Author K.M Butler therefore had a fairly free hand to imagine this time in Henry’s life.

Butler shows us a young man attempting to live a life free of the politics of court and crown, in love with a commoner, the competent merchant Jehane, and learning to be useful and skilled in trade. A small life, perhaps, but a free one. But his mother’s (and others’) letters from England, the emissaries who come, and his own sense of duty can’t let him forget who he is. Nor can his enemies: Henry’s life is frequently in danger.

History takes its course, and Henry accepts his role. Butler handles the complexities of factions, allegiances and intrigue well (a small caveat here: I am familiar with this period and the historical people portrayed here – for someone new to it, it might still be a touch confusing) and does not, thankfully, underrepresent the role of the powerful and politically astute women on both sides.

One of the enduring mysteries of this time is the fate of the Princes in the Tower, Edward IV’s last two legitimate sons, imprisoned by Richard in the Tower of London. While generally considered to have been murdered by Richard’s orders, there are other theories. The one proposed by Butler was new to me – but plausible.

Henry may have been reluctant, but his acceptance of the expectations of his birth and upbringing rings true; Butler portrays him as a sympathetic character who grows into maturity and what he sees as his duty, accepting his role in the larger tapestry of politics and history, rather than his personal desires. The book ends with the victory at Bosworth: it is the making of a king, rather than his reign, that is brought to vivid life in The Welsh Dragon.

Gallows Wake, by Helen Hollick

Gallows Wake is the first of Helen Hollick’s Captain Jesamiah Acorne books I’ve read, but it won’t be the last. Nor was it necessary to have read the previous books to thoroughly enjoy this one; Hollick expertly weaves enough backstory into the narrative to explain what’s happening without taking away from the focus and momentum of the story.

Forced to put into a shipyard in Gibraltar for necessary repairs to his ship, Acorne finds himself in danger from several sides. Both his distant and immediate past are catching up to him—and his wife Tiola, pregnant with their first child. With a brood of children saved from capture to take care of, both Jesamiah and Tiola have their hands full. But Tiola has her own past to reckon with, and she too is in danger, especially after her return to England without Jesamiah.

Hollick’s writing is crisp and clear, and her ear for dialogue and ability to reveal character in a few brief sentences is enviable. While several of the characters in Gallows Wake have returned from previous books, again, I felt no need to have read those books to understand them. The paranormal side of the story—Tiola is a white witch, with powers of precognition and more, and one of the characters is not quite human—blends with the story beautifully, handled so matter-of-factly. This is simply Jesamiah’s reality, and he accepts it, as does the reader.

I’m not a student of sailing ships, but the scenes on board ship felt authentic. The author’s nod to a classic story of the West Country amused me, but also helped set the mood and landscape. I look forward to reading the rest of the series, and I hope there are more to come!

Pre-order Gallows Wake on Amazon.

The Shadow of the Mole

What is sanity? What is real, and what is not? In the midst of the Great War, in the inescapable nightmare of trench warfare, a comatose man is found. He has no identification; he will admit to neither a name nor a past. He believes he is dead, and someone else inhabits his body.

The young physician Michel Denis, himself physically transformed by the war, sees the man, nicknamed The Mole, as a sufferer of shellshock, the term for what we would now call PTSD. His interest in the relatively new medical field of psychiatry encourages him to believe The Mole’s symptoms are both real and treatable—and perhaps a way for Denis to forget his own psychic pain and self-loathing triggered by the loss of an arm.

The Mole begins to write—in ‘automatic writing’—a strange and disturbing story of a dark sexual awakening of a young man with grandiose ideas of his own importance, filled with imagery and archetypes that could be pulled from the unexpurgated Grimm’s tales. His character, Alain Mangin, inhabits the night, mining its secrets both in his role as a investigator and for his own obsessive search for a girl and her brother from his past. But in this novel within a novel, where Alain Mangin may or may not be an alter ego of The Mole, even this shadow figure is unsure if the people he searches for are real or a product of his mind. But Mangin becomes peripherally involved in Dr. Joseph Breuer’s treatment of ‘Anna O’, an actual landmark case in the development of psychiatric treatment and analysis. Reality and the inventions of the mind intertwine in many levels in The Shadow of the Mole, and this is only one of them.

Sight is a recurring image in The Shadow of the Mole; eyes are a motif. Medical staff stop seeing people and see only wounds. Visions are not uncommon among the men in the trenches. Healing in Breuer’s approach comes from looking inward, and Denis believes this is key to treating shellshock and The Mole. But it forces him, too, to look inward, at his own childhood and his own self-revulsion. At the same time, looking outward, observation, is necessary as a doctor and as a witness to the hell of the first World War.

The Shadow of the Mole is a complex, challenging, demanding book, delving into the labyrinth of the human mind, of questions of reality and fantasy, of cruelty intentional and random, of free will and fate, of how we interpret our world through the apparent duality of science and mythos. The writing is evocative; the imagery sometimes horrifying, and the ending chilling. A book that will stay with me for a long time, for the quality of its writing and because it made me think.

Bob van Laerhoven


Bob van Laerhoven is a Belgian writer and traveller whose work has been translated into most European languages, as well as Russian and Chinese.
He made his debut as a novelist in 1985 with “Nachtspel – Night Game.” He quickly became known for his colorful, kaleidoscopic novels in which the fate of the individual is closely related to broad social transformations. His style slowly evolved in his later novels to embrace more personal themes while continuing to branch out into the world at large. International flair has become his trademark.
As a travel writer he has explored conflicts and trouble-spots across the globe from the early 1990s to 2004. Echoes of his experiences on the road also trickle through in his novels. During the Bosnian war, Van Laerhoven spent part of 1992 in the besieged city of Sarajevo. Three years later he was working for MSF – Doctors without frontiers – in the Bosnian city of Tuzla during the NATO bombings.
All these experiences contribute to Bob Van Laerhoven’s rich and commendable oeuvre, as the versatile author of novels, travel stories, theatre pieces, biographies, non-fiction, letters, columns, articles…
His work has received many accolades.

The Hercule Poirot Prize for best crime-novel of the year with “De Wraak van Baudelaire – Baudelaire’s Revenge”
Also for Baudelaire’s Revenge, the USA BEST BOOK AWARD 2014 in the category Fiction: mystery/suspense.
“Dangerous Obsessions” was voted “Best short story collection of 2015: in The San Diego Book Review.
“Heart Fever” was one of the five finalists – and the only non-American author – of the Silver Falchion Award 2018 in the category “Short Stories Collections.”
“Return to Hiroshima”, was listed in the top ten of international crime novels in 2018 in the British quality review blog “MurderMayhem&More”
“Alejandro’s Lie” was named the best political thriller of 2021 by BestThrillers.com

Where The Gulls Fall Silent, by Lelita Baldock: A Review

In a Cornish coastal village in the 19th century, the sea is both a source of livelihood and a source of fear, the ever-present power that can give or take. When the fish are abundant, life, although laborious,  is good; when they are few, life is hard. Superstition is never abandoned in a community so tied to the rhythms and vagaries of nature.

Kerensa and her mother live, physically and socially, at the edge of the village, never quite part of the community. The reasons for this slowly unfold in this beautifully described novel, revealed both as understood through a child’s eyes and then, as she grows to maturity, through a deeper comprehension. Not all is what Kerensa has thought, nor is it as one-sided as she believed. As she matures, she overcomes both the village’s concerns and her own sense of not belonging, finding love and acceptance – only to have the tides of time and change threaten the village and their way of life.

Image by Prawny from Pixabay 

Author Lelita Baldock’s writing is evocative of place and time, the details of life in fishing village brought into being by a deft hand and an eye for what matters: the sound of the sea, the smells of fish and blood and sweat, the rock of a small boat on the waves. Where the Gulls Fall Silent has no events of national importance, no battles with sword or guns, but the story told is one of both defeat and victory on a small scale, a human scale; social history revealed through the lives of ordinary men and women. Men and women who both dream and are pragmatic; who have strict precepts for living but also a deep capacity for forgiveness; who can ride the peaks and troughs of a life tied to the sea and the land.

Where the Gulls Fall Silent is not a romanticized view of life in a fishing village: life is hard, death always close, moments of peace and security rare and fleeting. A difficult life, one that leaves its mark on people, as Kerensa learns – but one not easy to leave behind. The beating of waves can merge permanently with the beating of a heart, the sea always calling.

If I had any quibble with Where the Gulls Fall Silent, it was in its last few chapters, which are perhaps an unnecessary epilogue to the true story. Leaving the future after a certain point to the reader’s imagination would have been my preference, but regardless, the book is one that will stay with me for some time.

Recommended. No star rating, because I don’t give stars in most cases. Wondering why? My reasoning is here.

Inspiration and Memory

Image by GeorgeB2 from Pixabay 

I had an aunt (well, my father’s first cousin, but as she was of his generation we called her aunt) who lived a life that seemed to me both exotic and exciting. Born an estate-worker’s daughter on a large rural farming and shooting estate in Norfolk, England, her mother died in a death pact with her lover when my aunt (I’ll call her Polly) was very small. Her father remarried, and sent the girls (Polly and her older sister) away to a boarding school which was a female equivalent of Dotheboys Hall, from what I can tell. Perhaps his new wife didn’t want them around. Perhaps he wondered if they were his at all.  But away they went.

But my family was and is full of strong women, so as soon as she could, my grandmother rescued Polly from the boarding school and basically employed her as an au pair, helping take care of my father and his sister while my grandmother cared for her dying father. (Older sister had left by then, found employment, soon married and disappeared from the family.)  And probably because of connections through the family who owned this large estate, Polly found herself taken on by a very wealthy industrialist’s family as a nursemaid, and then by another as a companion/secretary….and somewhere along the way she met a very eligible, well-placed Danish man and married him. Just as World War II broke out.

He and she were part of the Danish resistance: he spoke fluent and impeccable German and had connections in Germany, so he was thought to be a collaborator. She was his English wife, and beautiful, and ferried gun parts and more around Copenhagen strapped under her skirt. When dementia was taking its toll on her mind in her last years, she’d tell these stories over and over again: how she learned to take the guns apart and put them back together again in the dark; about flirting with German officers while carrying false documents, remembering the danger.

They survived, the war ended. The business he worked for flourished, and when they came to North America (via Cunard steamers – she hated flying) to mix business and pleasure, hobnobbing with the Kennedys at Hyannis Port (she didn’t like Jack), they took time to visit her cousins – my family, and that of my actual aunt in Alabama. Then her husband died, suddenly, and she was left well off and well connected.

She took herself of on an around the world cruise, had an affair, thoroughly enjoyed herself. For the next twenty-five years or so she travelled, entertained, mixed with people who were the equals of that family who owned the big estate in Norfolk. And then age and dementia took its toll. She died at 95, well taken care of in a private nursing home in England.

Why am I thinking about her?  Because today I introduced a new character to my work-in-progress, my MC Eudekia’s grandmother. And when she says to her granddaughter ‘My dear, how lovely to see you,’ and offers her cheek for a kiss, I heard that—unexpectedly—in  Polly’s voice. And I thought what a perfect inspiration for this character, who is ambitious for this granddaughter of hers, who knows the power of sexuality and how to use it, who won’t listen to those who say that the man Eudekia loves is socially beyond her grasp.

I’ve written before how my mother’s and my aunts’ service during WWII inspired the first book of the Empire series, Empire’s Daughter. This inspiration is a bit more direct.  I’m looking forward to seeing how it turns out; how many of those stories find their way into a book set in a fictional world 1500 years earlier.

Hag of the Hills, by J.T.T. Ryder: A Review

Complex and detailed. Hag of the Hills is a hero’s journey with a difference. In the second century BCE, Brennus of Skye is a warrior’s son who isn’t allowed to be a warrior, until invasion changes that fate. But his journey to heroic status spirals around the geology and mythology of his island. His forward momentum is inexorable, driven by the words of a local deity and his own conviction that he must honour both his oaths and the visions granted to him – but with many mistakes, fears, denials and reversals.

Hag of the Hills is not a conventional Celtic-based fantasy book. I’d hesitate to call it fantasy, rather than a form of magic realism. The Sidhe are a real part of Brennus’s world, whether is it is the Cailleach or giants or the shape-shifter who speaks in words later attributed to the bard Taliesin. But they are not earthly beings, as often in fantasy, but remain other-worldly, real but inhabiting a different realm to which Brennus is given occasional access.  

Ethnobotanist Wade Davis has written:

 “The world can only appear monochromatic to those who persist in interpreting what they experience through the lens of a single cultural paradigm, their own. For those with the eyes to see and the heart to feel, it remains a rich and complex topography of the spirit.” 

The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in The Modern World

And this is what J.T.T. Ryder, an archaeologist specializing in Iron Age northern European cultures, has attempted to show us: that rich and complex topography experienced through a different cultural paradigm. Is it successful?  In my opinion, yes, for the most part.

Brennus’s world is one in which Cuchulainn walks in memory and stories are told of war-elephants crossing the Alps; where men leave Skye to fight in Thrace, where the stone tools found in caves are left by the Sidhe and the bronze sword in a barrow belongs to an ancestor: a world both intensely rooted in its geography and conscious of a wider world beyond, known through trade and commerce in soldiers and slaves. This duality is echoed in others: as well as the Sidhe and the everyday world, there are few shades of grey in Brennus’s world: he is either an oath-keeper or an oath-breaker, a free man or a slave, a warrior or a coward.

Whether purposely or not, this sense of duality is echoed in Ryder’s prose, which frequently changes tenses within a paragraph, creating for this reader a feeling of dislocation. Jarring at first, as the novel progressed I found it added to the veracity of Brennus’s experiences. Unconventional to 21st century prose, perhaps, but echoing the blending of past and present that Brennus’s cultural paradigms encompass. Time is a construct not experienced by all cultures in the same way.

(What was less effective for me was the use of modern words and terms, which took me out of the immersive and different world I was experiencing and returned me to ours. ‘Fetal position’ is one example.)

We are used to epic hero’s journeys, from Odysseus onward. Brennus’s is not epic; it is extremely local, both in geography and psychologically. Much of what he works towards may make readers uncomfortable: honour, revenge, a glorious death – and while there is near-constant action, the real journey is in Brennus’s mind – not a comfortable or familiar place to be, but one I found worth experiencing.

Siege

by Alistair Tosh
Edge of Empire: Book I

Edge of Empire – and the edge of my seat. I had the privilege of reading Siege during its development, and I loved every page – and that’s saying something, because books that focus on battles don’t usually hold my interest. Yet this one did, because of the humanity of the characters that are involved in the fighting.  Here’s its author, to tell us more about the history behind this spectacular debut novel.

 
The ancient battle of Burnswark
A guest post by Alistair Tosh


 Walter Baxter. CC 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Burnswark Iron Age hillfort, near Lockerbie in the southwest of Scotland, is a unique site.

In part because of its isolated location and suitability only as pastureland, the archaeology below its turf has remained largely intact. It is a beautiful place, overlooking the silver waters of the Solway Firth and the fells of the English Lake District beyond and the heather-covered mountain of Criffel dominating the Scottish side.

It is a changeable location. When standing on its distinct flat-top summit, one moment you can be in brilliant sunshine with a cooling breeze, enjoying the 360 degree views. The next instant a hard wind blows in off the Irish Sea, cloudcover lowers, shrouding all before you. It is then that the hill takes on a more forbidding character.

I visited it many times in my childhood, often cycling there with friends during the long summer holidays. I saw the mounds of the Three Brethren, that my school history teacher told me had been platforms for Roman ballistas. But it was not until I started research for my first book ‘Siege’ that I truly began to understand the site and the ferocious battle that had taken place on its ramparts between the legions and the local tribe. 

The hill is held in a vice-like grip by two siege forts. The one to the north is unusually elongated, clearly designed to prevent the escape of the defenders as final defeat beckoned. To the south the true siege fort, or more accurately assault fort, lies hard against the hill’s base, only a mere 130 metres from the hillfort’s main entrances. Three huge gateways, ten men wide, cut through its deep north facing ditches to enable rapid deployment of troops.

The three ballista platforms sit to the fore of each of the gateways. Fist sized, carved stone balls have been found on the hillforts summit. This ammunition was not designed to shatter walls, but rather to shatter bodies. Metal detectors identified and aided recovery of hundreds of lead sling ‘bullets’, lemon shaped and heavy. Under test conditions it was established that they had roughly the same kinetic energy as a modern handgun.

A second and unique type of sling ball was uncovered. This one was smaller and capable of being slung in groups of 3 or 4, like an early form of grapeshot. But what was most startling was the 5mm holes drilled in its side. When ‘fired’ it emitted a sound like an angry wasp. You can imagine the racket that a barrage of these, shot by experts, would make. Certainly an early form of psychological warfare akin to the terrifying effect inspired by the screaming of diving Ju-87 Stukas during the Blitzkrieg in early World War II.

Additionally multiple arrowheads were located, of the type used by the renowned archers of the Hamian auxiliary regiments, from modern day Syria. This topped off by the finding of several scorpion bolts. A century of a legion had one or two allocated to them and  when fired by practised hands were both accurate and devastating, especially on unarmoured bodies.

It is hard not to pity the warriors of the local tribe, possibly the Novantae, who had gathered on its summit. Exposed and forced to take cover, faces pressed into the earth as they were assailed by wave after wave of thousands of missiles, their screams of fear and agony filling the air, accompanied by the sound of a swarm of angry wasps.

Finally, when the Roman commander, possibly the veteran Quintus Lollius Urbicus fresh from the Bar Kokhba Revolt in Judea, was satisfied, he would have sent in his legions, through the three 10-man wide gates, in testudo formation. In the battle’s aftermath, it is hard to imagine there were any survivors left for the slave markets.

                                                                         
 
 Alistair grew up in the Dumfriesshire countryside for most of his childhood. A region of southern Scotland filled with ancient place names such as Thorthorwald and Caerlaverock. But it was his visits as a boy to the site of Burnswark hill and hearing the tale of the Roman siege of the Iron Age fort that fired his love of Roman and Dark Ages history. From there the kernel of the stories for the Edge of Empire took root.

On leaving school he began a 35-year communications career. Firstly with the Royal Navy, that included covert riverine and seaborne operations during the height of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, before moving into the corporate world. Military life is unique, and Alistair aims to reflect an authentic view of that experience and its language in his stories. When not writing or spending time with family, Alistair, his wife Jenny and Hurley the cockerpoo love to walk in the hills of both the UK and Andalucia.

Why I Don’t Write Actual Historical Fiction

In my work-in-progress, Empress & Soldier, the last third of its story overlaps with about a quarter of my third book, Empire’s Exile.  In Exile, we see this section through the eyes of the narrator, Lena, and the characters of the soldier Druisius and the Empress Eudekia are peripheral (although very important) to the story.

But Empress & Soldier is told through the alternating viewpoints of Eudekia and Druisius, and so we are seeing the same events through different eyes – and discovering some those events can have very different motivations and interpretations. That’s not the problem: I enjoy exploring the ‘what ifs’ of different perspectives. But everything that happens in this section of Empress & Soldier must fit the chronology of events in Exile. Actions must occur within a framework that is set. Just like a real historical novelist, I can’t change what has already happened.

For me, working within this constraint is a huge challenge. It’s not how my brain works. I’m used to saying ‘oh, look, I really like how The Battle of Maldon is described, so I’ll borrow that but change its outcome.’  Now I can’t even change a conversation, a dinner served, a walk through the city. At the same time, these things are now background events, most happening off-page. My focus is on what Druisius and Eudekia are thinking, doing, feeling, learning—from and alongside the actions and events that already exist.

Which is, of course, what writers of real historical fiction deal with, in every story—and the more recent the history, the more records of events, the more constraints there are. I am not sure I could do this for an entire book, let alone more than one!

This is how I’m handling it: by a detailed analysis of each chapter (and each scene) in Exile that is reflected in Empress & Soldier.  This is an exacting and layered process that is very different from the creativity of writing, and is remarkably tiring.  But it must be done, and once it is, my mind will switch back to writing mode—and another challenge: how much of Lena’s story do I retell? (Enough for a new reader to understand what’s going on. Not too much, or I risk boring a returning reader. A fine balance.)

I occasionally consider writing a novel based firmly in historical fact. To save my temper, my hair, my liver—and perhaps my marriage— I don’t think I will.