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An Imagined History

The Scots of Dalriada: Fergus Mór by Rowena Kinread

Feargus Mòr Mac Earca may have been a 5th century ruler of Dál Riata, the Gaelic kingdom that encompassed parts of modern-day Scotland and Ireland. While there are doubts about his historical authenticity – think of him as somewhat more historical than Arthur and at about the same level as Ragnar Lodbrok—the kings of Scotland from Kenneth MacAlpin onward claim descent. With few contemporary records to go by—most of what is written about Fergus Mòr is from many generations later—author Rowena Kinread is free to imagine and enlarge his story.

The jealousies and conflicts among the rulers and potential heirs to various 5th century kingdoms are believable, a portrait of the complex and shifting loyalties among the boys of one family, when any one of them could be determined to inherit the kingdom: it went to the most worthy, not the oldest, by the decision of a council. Brother could turn against brother—or stand by his side in support. Nor does Kinread shy away from the violence and brutality of the time, whether in war or in casual violence against both men and women—and from both men and women.

The book’s style is unusual, passages of present-tense, omniscient narration interspersed with scenes that are largely dialogue. (I did wonder if Kinread was attempting to echo the way some English translations of the Ulster cycle are presented, the way Dorothy Dunnett echoed first the sagas and then ecclesiastic writings in King Hereafter, her imagined history of Thorfinn, Earl of Orkney.) Within the narration are some lovely descriptions: ‘the leather bridles…polished until they shine like dogs’ noses.’ While most of the book’s action unfolds in a linear timeline, the first eight chapters do not follow this pattern—pay attention to the chapter headings! 

The Scots of Dalriada: Fergus Mór is published by Vanguard Press, one of the imprints of Pegasus, a hybrid publisher in the UK. Their editorial team has done the author no favours. Typographical errors are too frequent – I counted six within seventeen pages. The use of modern or otherwise anachronistic terms—a pregnant character refers to ‘the first trimester’—jolted me out of the story many times, as did inaccuracies in the setting: ‘vultures circling’. (Ravens, yes. Vultures in the northern UK, no.)  

Kinread’s imagined history of Fergus Mòr’s rise to power and the eventual kingship of Dalriada has a good story at its heart, in places effectively told. A better editor could have made it shine.

Myths in the Making: The Winter Knight by Jes Battis

Myths are mutable things, changing, overlapping, blurring—but persistent. They shape tropes and memes, underlie both the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we are told, and may create, at a level we may only barely understand,  our expectations of the world.

But what if you are a myth?

In a Vancouver where not all places (or inhabitants) belong to the world-as-we-know-it, myths live. Valkyries, Norns, the men and women of Arthurian legend. They are college students, translators, administrators, musicians, living, on the surface, apparently normal 21st century lives. But they have not forgotten who they are, their past lives recalled in snatches of memory and dream and stories told, and their power remains.

A series of grisly murders leads Wayne and Hilde deeper into their family stories, the repeating patterns that have shaped each iteration of their lives. Not every recurring story is the familiar one—Vancouver is not Camelot, but something closer to the castles and forest and lakes of medieval poems like Gawain and the Green Knight, with their potent, obscure symbols, multiple interpretations, and characters largely forgotten in recent retellings. And like those medieval stories, The Winter Knight is both a story of a surface quest, a tangible challenge, and a story we’d now call ‘coming of age’, of internal battles and internal change.

There’s always someone who goes after the beast and tries to tame it. Some knight who thinks they’ll turn it into a trophy. But you can’t. It’s as old as shadows, as old as flickers on the cave wall, as old as graves. You can’t bind that. Only live with it.

Battis creates moods and settings with a light touch, using a few words masterfully – and creates both a contemporary and a timeless sense to the story. Battles are fought with both the tools of the past and the tools of the present, and the two are sometimes melded into one. Ultimately, The Winter Knight is a hopeful story, for all its deep understanding of the difficulties and compromises of accepting the expectations of family, the stories that shape us and the pieces of each we keep and discard. Myths are mutable: perhaps, even when we are the myth, fate is not all.

The Winter Knight is published by ECW Press:

Planted in Pennies

‘I’ve been thinking about seeing. There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises. The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But—and this is the point—who gets excited by a mere penny? If you follow one arrow, if you crouch motionless on a bank to watch a tremulous ripple thrill on the water and are rewarded by the sight of a muskrat kid paddling from its den, will you count that sight a chip of copper only, and go your rueful way? … if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get.’

Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

I was hoping for warblers. 8 a.m. May 9th, 15C —there should be migrant warblers feeding high up amongst the sun-warmed buds of maple and poplar. But there were none. The wood was quiet: too quiet, for a May morning.

I can give many reasons for the lack of songbirds – some of then depressing, some simply the nature of migration: after a week or more of rain and cold, we now have clear nights and a moon nearly full – and birds moving north as fast as possible. But my head and heart both know there are fewer birds every year.

I mourn this loss, deeply. I have found myself, this year, strangely reluctant to walk the woods and fields, to witness, aurally and visually, the declining number of birds. Late last year, I read Barry Lopez’s last book of essays, Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World. I was thinking of it as I walked the too-quiet paths this morning.

Because the world is still ‘planted in pennies’, and had I not been out this morning, I would have missed so much. A pair of spotted sandpipers, flying low over the water of the maple swamp, as graceful as swallows. The flash of green and copper of a wood duck; a brown creeper, probing for insects under bark. The osprey breaking off branches for its growing nest on a light standard over the soccer field; the crow devouring a frog (fresh road kill? or predated?) up in a dead tree. None of these sights are ‘chips of copper only’, but glints and glimpses to be treasured in the moment and in memory. Embraced, as Lopez says.

Image by brands amon from Pixabay 

There is no life without loss, whether it is the loss of bird species to destructive land use, pesticides, avian flu or climate change, or the loss of those we love to accident, disease, age or simply lives that converge. (This is much on my mind, largely, but not entirely, because it is the major theme of my novel-in-progress.)  But as abundance diminishes, should not the pennies matter more?

There will be warblers, one morning. I still have faith.

The Abdication, by Justin Newland: A Review

Justin Newland’s The Abdication is a complex, layered, philosophical novel. Like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, it explores the concept of free will against obedience to an authoritarian higher power: the protagonist, Tula, is seeking the guidance of the angels of the town of Unity in her quest for a spiritual life. To reach Unity, across the forbidden Via Angelica bridge, she must first pass through the human town of Topeth, ruled by avarice and corrupt religious leaders.

The Abdication is deceptively simple, seen through the eyes of a young woman on a journey to understand the visions she has and the voices she hears. The town – Topeth – she believes a haven is instead a place of terror and corruption, turned away from its founder’s vision of a community where human free will can be allowed to grow and develop. The proper expression of free will, she learns, is hard; it is easier to obey a set of rules, even when they are the rules of a vindictive, false religion in league with a destructive, profit-driven elite.

Newland has created a world that feels both familiar and strange. Tula inhabits a world that seems to be ours: there are references to ancient Earth cultures; the flora and fauna are real. The mythology of Unity and Topeth is based, in my limited recognition and understanding, on Abrahamic teachings – pre-Christian interpretations of both gods and angels and the powers of both.

Aspects of The Abdication reminded me of two books from my childhood: a youth’s version of The Pilgrim’s Progress, and Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies: the former for the allegorical obstacles the protagonist must overcome on the journey to the city of their desire and enlightenment; the latter for the motif of the shedding of skins on the way to becoming the purest self.  Throughout the book, the image of winged beings, both helpful and threatening, repeats, reinforcing and reflecting the idea of angels as many people imagine them, and perhaps also suggesting the revelations of the ending.

If I have one niggle with The Abdication, it is the almost non-stop action of the last chapters. For a book asking hard questions about the balance – in a world where gods and angels are real and powerful – between blind obedience and the exercise of free will, there was little time for the reader to contemplate what Tula has learned and the choices she makes. It felt a little like the last chapters of a thriller, where, as the protagonists reach the climax of the plot, rapid reversals leave the reader barely able to draw breath.

Overall, The Abdication is an intriguing book, leaving me with the feeling that if my understanding of the religious underpinnings of its world-and-mythology building was better, I would have found it even more captivating. Even without that, its questions about what free will means and the choices made in its pursuit made it both challenging and compelling.

Justin Newland was born in Essex, England, three days before the end of 1953. He lives with his partner in plain sight of the Mendip Hills in Somerset, England.
Justin gives author talks in libraries and does books signings in Waterstones, WH Smiths and indie bookshops. He has appeared at literary festivals and regularly gives media interviews.
He writes secret histories in which real events and historical personages are guided and motivated by numinous and supernatural forces – that’s history with a supernatural twist.

Creating King Arthur – in Post-Roman Britain

By Helen Hollick

Pendragon’s Banner Celebration Tour April 2023

Thirty years ago in April 1993, one week after my 40th birthday, I was accepted by William Heinemann (now a part of Random House UK) for the publication of my Arthurian The Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy. It had taken me more than ten years to reach that stage of my dream to become a real writer – more than that if you count that I had been scribbling stories since the age of thirteen.

So why King Arthur? I had never liked the Medieval tales of knights in armour, the Holy Grail and courtly chivalry – I couldn’t stand Lancelot (what on earth did Guinevere see in him?) Why did Arthur go off on a religious quest for so many years? For me, none of those tales had the believability that writers today create in their novels of historical fiction. Arthur and the people of his court, if they existed, (and it’s a very big IF!) had no place in factual history after the Norman conquest of England. Those Medieval tales are merely entertaining stories, with the Holy Grail quest perceived, perhaps, to encourage men to join the Holy Crusades, and maybe the Arthur story mirrors the fact that Richard I spent many years away on his own ‘quest’ and very little time in his kingdom of England.

I was intrigued, therefore, when I discovered that there were earlier tales of Arthur, not only pre-Norman but pre-Anglo-Saxon. These were the Welsh legends, stories and poems of a warlord who fought against the incoming Germanic tribes. To place an Arthur figure during the upheaval and chaos of fifth-century Britain made sense. The period is not known as The Dark Ages for nothing, for written evidence, the whys and wherefores, are few and far between – we are, very much, ‘in the dark’ for the years around 430-550 AD.

So this is when I set my Arthurian tale, it is fiction – let’s face the fact, ‘Arthur’ as a king did not exist. (Sorry!) But even if he didn’t exist the earlier stories about him are wonderfully exciting.

I researched, as well as I could, the detail of post-Roman Britain (no internet back in the 1970s/’80s!) using archaeological evidence to add into the many, many imagined fictional bits, which include the Welsh tales and writing of clerics such as Nennius, who mentioned twelve battles that Arthur (supposedly) fought.

My character of Arthur, therefore, is a fifth-century warlord, passionate about fighting for his rightful place as King, and fighting as hard to keep it. As passionate, is the love of his life, Gwenhwyfar, who in my tale remains loyal to her lord, Arthur, despite their many ups and downs, hopes, fears, achievements and disappointments. Despite their laughter and tears.

I wrote my Arthur as a real man – warts an’ all. He is not the Christian king of the Medieval tales, he is a soldier, leader of the cavalry, the Artoriani, a man trying to sort the chaos Rome left behind, a man living in a world of upheaval, where Christianity is still in a state of embryonic flux, where pagan beliefs are still very much to the fore, and a world where Britain is changing, through battle and peaceful settlement, from a Province of Rome’s authority into the emerging kingdoms of Englalond – Anglo-Saxon England.

But maybe, just maybe, my story as told in the Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy is the base for how the enduring legend of King Arthur really happened…

© Helen Hollick

Helen’s new, self-published, editions with beautiful covers designed by Cathy Helms of are, alas, only available outside of USA and Canada, where the same books are published by Sourcebooks Inc. (The new covers were offered – free – to Sourcebooks, but the offer was declined.)


The Boy Who became a Man:

Who became a King:

Who became a Legend… KING ARTHUR

There is no Merlin, no sword in the stone, and no Lancelot.

Instead, the man who became our most enduring hero.

All knew the oath of allegiance:

‘To you, lord, I give my sword and shield, my heart and soul. To you, my Lord Pendragon, I give my life, to command as you will.’

This is the tale of Arthur made flesh and bone. Of the shaping of the man who became the legendary king; a man with dreams, ambitions and human flaws.

A man, a warlord, who united the collapsing province of post-Roman Britain,

who held the heart of the love of his life, Gwenhwyfar – and who emerged as the most enduring hero of all time.

A different telling of the later Medieval tales.

This is the story of King Arthur as it might have really happened…

“Helen Hollick has it all! She tells a great story and writes consistently readable books” Bernard Cornwell

“If only all historical fiction could be this good.” Historical Novels Review

“… Juggles a large cast of characters and a bloody, tangled plot with great skill. ” Publishers Weekly

“Hollick’s writing is one of the best I’ve come across – her descriptions are so vivid it seems as if there’s a movie screen in front of you, playing out the scenes.” Passages To The Past

“Hollick adds her own unique twists and turns to the familiar mythology” Booklist

“Uniquely compelling… bound to have a lasting and resounding impact on Arthurian literature.” Books Magazine

The Kingmaking: Book One

Pendragon’s Banner: Book Two

Shadow of the King: Book Three

(contains scenes of an adult nature)



New Editions available worldwide except USA/Canada

Available USA/Canada 




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 has also branched 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 Tale sand Life of A Smuggler. She lives with her family in an eighteenth-century farmhouse in North Devon and occasionally gets time to write…


All Helen’s books are available on Amazon:

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Her Blog:


Twitter: @HelenHollick

Follow Helen’s Celebration Tour

Water and Blood, by Rik Lonsdale

A Review

When disaster strikes, you want your family around you—don’t you?

When the collapse of an Antarctic ice sheet causes catastrophic, world-wide flooding and the disintegration of society, Lucy Marchand thinks she’s safe on her family’s smallholding in the west of England. But family tensions that could be ignored when they were buffered by a larger society begin to become evident when her older brother Ben flexes his way to a position of power within the family.

Set against a dystopic world all too easy to imagine—and already real in parts of the globe—Water and Blood is a psychological study of narcissism, manipulation, and the responses of a family trying to survive, and trying too to believe that one of their own has their best interests in heart.

The choices made by each individual in on the smallholding are distinct, and the reasons behind their decisions believable and layered. Each person has a point at which they either say ‘no more’ or embrace the philosophy of the leader. Many things influence that choice, especially when it becomes a question of your own life or death. As winter deepens and starvation threatens, does morality matter at all?  

I read Water and Blood in two days, and found it hard to put down. Well-paced, it asks some probing questions about how societies, even in microcosm, work. A solid debut novel, Water and Blood is out March 22. My thanks to the author for an advance review copy.

All purchase links at

The Call of Home

I walk steadily up the slight incline, my boots thumping rhythmically on the hard soil. Nearly two millennia past, Roman troops were doing the same: the track follows the line of a Roman road. It’s likely older than that; bronze age barrows lie to either side, on the high ground above the river valley below, and it ends very close to the place the wooden circle of uprights known as Seahenge was uncovered.

Within a few miles of my temporary, inherited house are three ringed enclosures (hillforts, as they’re generally known, whether or not they’re on a hill) that date to Iceni times. One corresponds with Tacitus’s description of the Iceni defensive structures during Boudicca’s rebellion. The line of another Roman road which approaches that hillfort lies to its south, perhaps a response to the Iceni uprising, perhaps part of the Saxon Shore defenses.

The Romans stayed another four hundred years, before Rome’s wars and finances made them withdraw. More invaders – or migrants – arrived from the continent, the people we call Saxon and Angles. They built in wood, not stone, except for the round towers of a few churches, leaving their mark in place names, a few roads, and moot hills. The Vikings arrived in the 800s and were ousted – at least in rule – in the 900s. The settlers stayed, though, and both archaeological finds and place names attest to this. And then it’s 1066 and William of Normandy winning at Hastings, and the rulers – not just the king, but the landholders and princes of the church – change again.

After that, sheep bring wool-wealth to Norfolk, huge churches in every village, and a Hanseatic port at King’s Lynn. The plague arrives, some medieval villages disappear, and the population plummets. In the 17th century agricultural improvement – fen drainage and sea-wall construction, then the work of ‘Turnip’ Townsend and Coke of Norfolk in crop rotation and soil improvement – slowly move Norfolk from grazing to crop production. The Enclosure Act changes who has access to land, and where. Hedges are planted. More medieval villages disappear,  because major landowners move them off their deer parks. New roads are built, others disappear, to become bridleways and footpaths.

Because of all this, and my family’s long connection (on one side) with west Norfolk, I love this place. I could claim it’s in my DNA, which reflects the series of migration – violent and peaceful – that I’ve encapsulated here, but the scientist I once was raises an eyebrow at that statement. It is, I think, more about stories: my grandmother’s, my father’s, the cousin who made me her executor and beneficiary. Environment, too: I was brought up in a house where history mattered.

I’ve been here eight weeks; I’ll be here just about another two. It’s not the first long stay – we wintered here after retirement until the pandemic, January to March of every year, trading Ontario’s snow and ice and cold for the relative warmth and good walking of west Norfolk. But it’s the first time I’ve been here alone, my husband staying, for good reasons, in Canada.

I find myself like my character Sorley, torn between who he loves and where he loves. Because part of me wants to stay. This land and its long history is the wellspring of my creativity, the source of my invented lands and their histories and the details of worldbuilding readers love. I lay my fiction lightly on this place, seeing it reflected all around me.

But in Canada are the people I love: my husband, my extended family, my friends. And, a city I love in a different way, for its cafes and bookshop and trails for bike and foot; for its university and the two rivers and the farmers’ market, and for the writing community I’m part of.  So in 12 days, I will go home, both gladly and sadly.

The question of what and where home is echoes through my books, one of the themes of the series. In the work-finally-in-progress, Empire’s Passing, it will be a key question for my MC Lena. “I had always turned for home. But where is home for the tamed falcon, when there is no falconer to hold out his arm?” Some of the intricacies of that question – and its answer – will be shaped by my own divided heart.

The old order changeth…

Yesterday all the planters and garden statuary that my cousin and her partner had collected over their forty years in this house were removed, going to new homes. Nearly at the top of the long sloping garden, one remains, a Grecian figure carrying wine jugs. It draws the eye, now all the distractions are gone.

The house is free of boxes and much of the furniture, too, cleared two days past by the auctioneers. A door long blocked by a bookcase is now open, creating flow and light in the house. There isn’t a lot left to do, except some cosmetic improvements and the slow bureaucracy of probate.

And with the clutter, both mental and physical, gone, my mind is bubbling with ideas and dialogue and scenes for  the book I’ve had to put off for the last few months. There is flow and focus and illumination, thoughts pushing themselves out of my subconscious like the bulbs bursting into bloom in the garden.  

Empire’s Passing, I already know, is a complex, multi-layered book, not surprisingly. The last book of a long saga has a lot of threads to bring together, questions to answer, farewells to be made. The title is a deliberate nod to ‘This too will pass’, the adage that reminds us that all things, good or bad, are fleeting. “For one brief shining moment…” But there will be hope too, at the end.

It’s going to be a challenge. But one I can finally give the time and attention it needs.

Image by Greg Montani from Pixabay 

You might just like….

What are all these blue books?

This is my list (find it at

(Hold on, you might be saying. What’s’ not our world’ about the non-fiction The Old Ways, by Robert Macfarlane? Well, it’s a way of seeing the world that isn’t, in my opinion, mainstream, although I wish it were, so I slipped it in. )

And if you’re a reader of my books, you probably think worldbuilding is important, so check out these other recommended books with outstanding worldbuilding.

Time, Vision, Reality: Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker

Alan Garner’s books are understood not intellectually, but in gut and bone and perhaps in a long collective memory. Deeply seeded in and emerging from a specific landscape, Treacle Walker tells us a tale of a boy with a lazy eye who one day meets a rag-and-bone man offering a trade: for rags and bones he gives a pot and a stone. The boy invites the man into his strangely adult-less house, where time is measured by the whistle and clack of the train that passes by at noon every day. And from there the boy–and the reader–learn that time and place may be fluid; that the past and the present may intertwine; that vision and sight are not the same thing; that objects are more than they seem and dreaming and being are inseparable.

Treacle Walker is a brief book, without a superfluous word. Language matters, has power; words can invite something in or keep something out, summon or banish. As brief and spare as Treacle Walker is, it is not simple. Its imagery is that of reflection: of the real and the virtual (as defined in the science of optics) and the place at which they diverge – or converge. The mirror, the train that divides the day in two; the boy’s two eyes that each see different worlds, if he frees one from its obscuring patch.

There are echoes of the surreality of Alice through The Looking Glass; there are echoes of earth magic and childhood games passed down for generations; there are echoes of others of Garner’s books. There is no definitive way to put Treacle Walker neatly into a genre, or even to say what it’s about, except that it is something both rich and strange.