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Ancient Warrior Women Part II: Commanders

Some of Rome’s most formidable enemies were women. Here’s a look at five of them.

Last week I wrote about the archaeological evidence of women warriors in the bronze and iron ages. This week, I’ll take a look at a few of those who not only fought, but led forces against the Roman Empire.

Khawlah bint al-Azwar (بنت الأزور)

A 7th C Arab, Khawlah bint al-Azwar fought alongside her brother during the Siege of Damascus, when the army of the Rashidun Caliphatetook Damascus from the Eastern Roman Empire. When her brother, commanding the troops, was taken prisoner during the Battle of Sanita-al-Uqab (معركة ثنية العقاب‎) by the Byzantine Army, Khawlah bint al-Azwar successfully attacked the Byzantine rear guard with a small group of women. In two other battles against Byzantine forces, she again successfully led others – male and female – against their enemy.

Mavia, (ماوية‎,)

Mavia was ruler of the Tanûkhids in southern Syria in the last half of the 4th century. Riding against Roman rule in Phoenicia and Palestine, she defeated the Roman army several times, until they gave up and signed a truce. She was an able tactician: she and her generals had been studying Roman fighting techniques and tactics for over a hundred years. Her troops were nomadic, using guerilla warfare techniques – notably lancers on horseback – against the Romans. Later, after winning favourable peace terms from Rome, she would send mounted troops to support their fight against the Goths.

Amanirenas 

A leader of the Kush in the last century BCE, Amanirenas led her people against Roman forces in Egypt in 25 BCE, capturing several forts. Ongoing fighting saw the Kushites pushed back, but a treaty signed a few years later saw a portion of lands returned to the Kush, and after that, relations between Rome and the Kush were peaceable. (On a side note, Amanirenas was a kandake, the king’s sister whose son would be the heir. Kandake = candace, and is the origin of the woman’s name.)

Boudicca.

Leader of the Iceni rebellion against Roman rule in Britannia in 60/61 CE, after her lands were confiscated and her daughters raped, Boudicca’s forays against Roman towns and troops were so successful that the Emperor Nero considered withdrawing from Britain altogether. She was eventually defeated by the Roman general Suetonius in 61 CE.

Zenobia

A third-century queen of the Palmyrene Empire in Syria, Zenobia was regent for her  son  after the death of his father. Under her leadership, most of the Roman East came under her rule, including Egypt. In 272, Zenobia declared her empire free of Rome, made her son Emperor and herself Empress. After considerable conflict, Zenobia was captured; likely she taken to Rome to be part of the Emperor Aurelian’s triumphal procession, but after that her fate is unclear; contemporary sources differ.

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Ruskin’s Copper Shadow, by Jennifer Wineberg

A modern Victorian novel.

Ruskin’s Copper Shadow is set in Victorian times, and it has the feel of a Victorian novel, a mix of Dickens and Trollope and a touch of Wilkie Collins. Not quite a roman à clef, nonetheless the life and passions of its central character, the Canon, reflect and mirror in spirit some of the life of the polymath and social reformer John Ruskin.

John Ruskin

For a modern novel, the pacing is slow and the story, like a stream in summer, slowly meanders among characters and settings, but if you relax and drift along, the view is enjoyable. A debut novel based to some extent on some unexplained history in the author’s family, it examines the all-to-frequent occurrence in Victorian (and later) society – who fathered the child of a servant? It looks at the manners and expectations of Victorian society, and the gulf between the strict propriety of the Church and the upper classes, and humane behavior; it examines guilt and redemption.

Ruskin’s Copper Shadow won’t appeal to everyone. It’s very much an allegory: several characters have no identity beyond their titles: the Canon, the Magistrate; others are stock figures. But they were in Dickens, too, many times. Sometimes the reasons for the Canon’s behaviour are unclear, as that meandering stream divides and one stream goes underground for a while here and there, but it always re-emerges.  I enjoyed where its currents took me.

Amazon.com

Photo credits:

Featured Image: Wallington Hall, Northumbria: Glen Bowman, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Portrait of John Ruskin by W.& D. Downey, Photographers, London. Public Domain.

(By one of those strange 6 degrees of separation coincidences, the photographer William Downey was the grandfather (or maybe great uncle) of a friend of my father’s here in Canada.)

Chapter Length: Author Intent and Reader Response: #authortoolboxbloghop

How can chapter length serve the intent of the author, and affect mood, theme, and character?

Best-selling author James Patterson famously writes very short chapters, short enough to be read in a few minutes. Many readers like this. In part, it’s because a chapter or a few can be read between stops on the commuter train, or for ten minutes before bed, or on a coffee break. It also suits the genre: fast action, short chapters, focused on one event.

But I write historical fiction (of a sort), and this genre tends to longer chapters. The hero’s journey also underlies all my books, and again, this structure beloved of epic fantasy tends not to be expressed in short chapters. In my first trilogy, Empire’s Legacy, all three books have a chapter length around 5000 words. My new release, Empire’s Reckoning, has an average chapter length of just under 1700 words. Why the change?

I’ll start by saying it had nothing to do with Patterson’s reasons. The new book is still a hero’s journey, but it’s told in two timelines – the present and 14 years earlier, and with a structure that involves the protagonist recalling events from the past timeline. Memory is key to this story, and memories rarely occur in long unbroken segments. By breaking what the protagonist is remembering into shorter sections, it’s a better mirror of how memory works. (It also cues the reader that in each of these chapters, what the protagonist is recalling has its own value. In a long chapter, it would be easier for an important point to be lost in the flow.)

There’s a second reason, too. The narrator of Empire’s Reckoning is a scáeli, a position based on the skalds of Scandinavian society: storytellers, poets and musicians. By dividing the story into discrete sections, I was purposely mirroring the structure of a Scandinavian saga[i], because that is how Sorley, the narrator, would tell it.

That’s how I used chapter structure for my purposes. What about reader reaction?  Well, none of the reviews have complained, so far! More interestingly, three have used the world ‘saga’ in their write-ups. While I know this has a second meaning – a long family history – in literature, I can’t help wonder if the structure triggered this reference. Reader response is not always conscious.

I’ve just beta read another historical fiction book of almost the exact length of mine, and with the same number of chapters – and it’s written that way for almost the same reason. A two-timeline structure, involving a journey, and stories being told on that journey. There’s a classic story structure being mirrored here, too (I’ll give you a hint: the stories are told each night) and it worked extremely well, even though it’s unusual for the genre.

So, when you’re thinking about your chapter length, give some thought not just to Patterson’s reasons – they are completely valid, especially in today’s fast-paced world – but to how it reflects and serves the mood and message and even the characters of your story. I can’t imagine, for example, The Lord of The Rings being written in short chapters: it would go against the epic nature of the story. That The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has a chapter of one paragraph also makes perfect sense (as much as anything does, in a Douglas Adams book) given the nature of that tale.

What examples come to mind for you of the chapter length strengthening – or weakening – the mood or theme of a novel?


[i] Or at least in translation. When I took the sagas in school, this is what the translations looked like. I realize their original structure may well have been different, and differently presented.

Empire’s Reckoning by Marian L Thorpe – an Empire on the edge of history Reprised

A lovely and thoughtful review of Empire’s Reckoning.

Northern Reader

A group of countries on the edge of history, this is the story of a new arrangement, a new agreement between states that border each other, overlap and have to find a way to work together. A story which started in the Empire Legacy trilogy, this is a historical fantasy which looks at  a group of people at the heart of a political situation. It features Cillian, unwilling politician, linguist and thinker, his wife Lena, warrior, who narrated the original novels, and, Sorley, a musician who has taken over the narration. In this book he narrates the story of his experiences with the couple, as well as Druisius or Druise his companion, bodyguard and lover in two time lines, fourteen years apart.  It makes for a complex book, but the element that holds it together is the people, four people who appear in both timelines, strong characters that affect all…

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Empire’s Reckoning – Marian L Thorpe

A wonderful review of Empire’s Reckoning from Mai Taylor at Mai’s Musings.

Mai's Musings

When I heard that Marian L Thorpe was writing a follow up trilogy to Empire’s Legacy, I was over the moon, and I am delighted to be able to introduce it to you all today, as I join the blog tour for Empire’s Reckoning, the first book in the new series. Many thanks to Marian, and to Rachel at Rachel’s Random Resources, for inviting me to be a part of the tour, and for providing me with a copy of the book.

BLURB:

How many secrets does your family have?

For 13 years, Sorley has taught music alongside the man he loves, war and betrayal nearly forgotten. But behind their calm and ordered life, there are hidden truths. When a young girl’s question demands an answer, does he break the most important oath he has ever sworn by lying – or tell the truth, risking the destruction of both his…

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#BlogTour #RachelsRandomResources @rararesources / #GuestPost : Empire’s Reckoning – Marian L Thorpe @marianlthorpe

Here’s my guest post from The Magic of Worlds, on a tantalizing idea about sheep bells.

The Magic of Wor(l)ds

– ‘The Magic of Wor(l)ds’ blog is a hobby, reviews and other bookish stuff on this site are done for free. –

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Today I’m on the ‘Empire’s Reckoning’ blogtour, organised by Rachel’s Random Resources.
To promote this book I have a guest post written by its author, but before I let you read it first some ‘basic’ information.

About the Author :

Empires author photoNot content with two careers as a research scientist and an educator, Marian L Thorpe decided to go back to what she’d always wanted to do and be a writer. Author of the alternative world medieval trilogy Empire’s Legacy, Marian also has published short stories and poetry. Her life-long interest in Roman and post-Roman European history informs her novels, while her avocations of landscape archaeology and birding provide background to her settings.

Social Media Links:
Website
Twitter
Facebook author page

Synopsis :

aCY3hbgMHow many secrets does…

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Warrior Women: Archaeological Evidence

Lena and her fellow female warriors in my books draw on traditions from across a wide range of dates.

“But the world changes. In all the women’s villages of the Empire, this week or next, a soldier like myself will arrive to ask to live in the village, to take up a trade.” Casyn paused, for a breath, a heartbeat. “And to teach you and your daughters to fight.”

Empire’s Daughter

So begins the major conflict of Empire’s Daughter, the first book in my Empire’s Legacy trilogy. My protagonist Lena’s journey from fisherwoman to soldier, and the life-changing effects on her and the women of her village and her land is its theme and story. Lena is already competent with a hunting bow; now she must learn to use other weapons.

“But how realistic is this?” one of my reviewers asked. Far more so than people of my age were educated to believe, based on archaeological evidence coupled with advanced DNA analysis techniques.  In recent years, analysis or re-analysis of skeletal remains of bodies buried with weapons and other grave goods associated with warriors have shown up to a third of these are women.

In 1941, a grave was excavated at Birka, a town in Eastern Central Sweden and a centre for trade during the 8th–late 10th century. This was an exceptional grave: on a raised area between the town and a hillfort, the goods buried with the warrior included “a sword, an axe, a spear, armour‐piercing arrows, a battle knife, two shields, and two horses, one mare and one stallion; thus, the complete equipment of a professional warrior. Furthermore, a full set of gaming pieces indicates knowledge of tactics and strategy, stressing the buried individual’s role as a high‐ranking officer.”[i]

So, of course, this was a man. Except she wasn’t, when the DNA work was done in 2017, confirming earlier analysis of the bones that had strongly suggested the skeleton was female. More than a ‘shield-maiden’ of the sagas, this was the grave of a high-ranking commander.

The Hårby Valkyrie, c 800 CE, Denmark. Gilwellian / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Later in the Empire’s Legacy series, Lena learns to use a bow from horseback as a weapon of war, a bow she’s never seen before: triple-layered and powerful. In January of this year, results of excavations in the western Russian village of Devitsa revealed two, or maybe three, generations of warrior women buried in one mound: Scythians from about 2500 BCE. Ranging in age from  12 or 13  between 45 to 50 years old, these women were buried with daggers and arrowheads and spears, and in the position of a someone riding a horse.[ii] Over a third of Scythian graves containing women also contain weapons, with skeletal remains showing injuries consistent with war wounds – and with changes to bone structure indicating long hours spent on horseback and using a bow.[iii]

(Archaeoolog.ru, via https://www.smithsonianmag.com)

Key to the involvement of Scythian women in warfare was likely the Scythian bow, a composite bow. Lena first sees one when she visits the horse archers’ training ground:

Compact and deeply curved, it reminded me of the bows we had taken from the plains riders. But I had never seen one constructed like this. It had three layers, I realized as I examined it: a central layer of wood between horn on the inside and what looked to me like sinew along the outer curve. As I compressed it to fasten the bowstring, I felt its resilience.

Empire’s Exile

Composite bows combine a smaller size with higher power, making them especially useful on horseback or from a chariot.  

“If you think about it, a woman on a horse with a bow, trained since childhood, can be just as fast and as deadly as a boy or man.”

Adrienne Mayor

Lena and her fellow female warriors in my books may draw on traditions from across a wide range of dates, but I write the history of an alternate world based on ours, not a faithful interpretation of events. Could she have wielded these weapons in defence of her land?  Recent research says a resounding yes.

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[i]    https://doi.org/10.1002/ajpa.23308

[ii] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/tomb-containing-three-generations-amazon-warrior-women-unearthed-russia-180973877/

[iii]   The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World, Adrienne Mayor, Princeton University Press, 2016/

Featured image: Statue of Boudicca at Westminter: Paul Walter: licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

A Landscape of the Heart: Building the World of my Books, Part 1.

Norfolk has a firm hold on my heart, my imagination, and a place in the construction of my fictional world.

The English county of Norfolk, as those who have been following my blog for some time know, is my second home. When I will see it again, in the wake of COVID-19, is another question, but it has a firm hold on my heart, my imagination, and a solid place in the construction of my fictional world.

Anyone who knows Norfolk – and my books – may now be asking how?  A flat land, for the most part; arable, with little rivers and chalky soils and patches of reedy fen. Not the hilly, sheep-grazed moorland that so much of my world encompasses. No, the influences are more subtle.

Firstly, Norfolk was part of the Danelaw, the part of England under Scandinavian rule. Twenty-nine existing places in Norfolk have ‘thorpe’ as a suffix or prefix, and while this happens to be my last name, its meaning ‘outlying hamlet, small village’ is from the Norse þorp, and from it I take my settlement names in Linrathe and Sorham.  In fact, Ingoldstorp, mentioned several times over the series, is the name of the village (Ingoldisthorpe, pronounced Inglesthorpe) just north of the one where I have spent my winters since retirement.

The next village north from that is Snettisham, and I borrowed Snetti’s name, too, for a minor character. There are more examples, but I won’t belabour this point. But in the last paragraph I wrote ‘twenty-nine existing places’.  There are also thirty-three ‘lost’ villages in Norfolk with ‘thorpe’ in their names, and it is these missing settlements that also inform my world.

Deserted medieval village is the correct term for these abandoned settlements.  In many cases there is nothing but a few lumps and bumps on the ground, and perhaps the ruins of a church. (Or sometimes, a church still in use, but standing in the middle of nowhere, apparently.) The reasons for abandonment are many, including land enclosure and parkland created for manor houses. Others suffered as rivers changed course or land flooded. But in Norfolk, one reason was simply depopulation.

Norfolk is now 40th of the 48 counties of England in population density, the number of people per unit of land. But in the middle ages, it was the most populous county, and its county town, Norwich, the second city of England. Until the plague: first the Black Death in 1349; then, two centuries later, a third of its population died in the  epidemic of 1579, and another third in 1665.  

The land Lena inhabits is like this, a depopulated land, villages scattered and distant, too few men to defend the land against threats from two directions. The reasons for the Empire’s depopulation and that of Norfolk are pretty much the same, although the Eastern Fever isn’t the Black Death.

But while Norfolk – and the Empire – are depopulated lands, they both have long histories. If Lena rides east from her coastal village, she will come to the military road, running north and south, wide and paved. If I walk or drive east from my Norfolk village, about, in my mind, the same distance, I come to a Roman road, running north and south. No longer paved; no longer very wide, but a reminder, every time I walk it, of a time there was a Roman fort on the coast, and villas along the ridge overlooking the Wash, and the coins in use bore the likenesses of emperors far away.

Peddar’s Way Roman Road, Norfolk

Danes and Romans; disease and depopulation; all these are important aspects of my books, influenced – sometimes consciously, sometimes not – by what I know. Not reproduced, but borrowed, moulded and transmuted into a different form, almost recognizable, almost history.

map of Scandinavian place names https://www.mygen.com/users/outlaw/Outlawe_Viking_Origins.htm

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Vikings and Buddhas

Viking-era trade created a network across and beyond Europe.

In Empire’s Reckoning, my newest book, the protagonist Sorley has returned home after an absence of a couple of years. His brother’s family has come out to greet him, but one member is missing.

I looked around, not seeing my half-brother. “Where’s Nyle?”

“Gone trading,” Roghan said. “He’s nineteen now, and there’s little for him here. So he took a place on a ship heading east to trade furs and amber.”

“East?” I said. “Down the Ubë?”

Sorley’s home is in the very north of his land, an area which I envision as equivalent to the Norse areas of early-medieval Scotland. And, as the Netflix series Vikings – if nothing else – has brought to more common knowledge, the Scandinavian people did explore, and trade, eastward.

Scandinavians, in fact, are often credited with creating a trading network in Europe, but that may be because the archaeological record is more perceptible for the Viking era than any other. Much of that network, in truth, already existed in the Baltic and the coastal areas of the North Sea. The Frisians dominated this trade, using early forms of the cog (a flat-bottomed, rowed boat) to transport goods along the coastlines and into river systems.

Viking keeled boats, however, allowed for open ocean travel, and while initially the Vikings came to raid, increasingly, they stayed to trade. The trading city of Dublin arose in this manner, and all around Northern Europe, Scandinavians took over or replaced existing trading sites such as Hedeby in Jutland and Eoforwic (York) in England.

 Further east in Europe, commercial trade along water-based routes created new economic centres in Eastern Europe, which trace their beginnings to the appearance of the people we call Vikings (or Varangians). Sorley’s half-brother and the ship he’s on are playing an important role  in the creation of the early framework of my pseudo-Europe’s economy.

Scandinavian traders travelled the river systems as far as Byzantium and even into the Arab world to obtain goods. They brought those goods back, both to emporia along the route, and directly to Scandinavia. Viking-era trade created a network across and beyond Europe, bringing items as rare as an Indian Buddha figurine, a north African bronze ladle, and Arabic coins back to their homelands.

Can you blame Sorley’s half-brother for wanting to be part of this?

The circa 6th C bronze Helgo Buddha, found on the Swedish island of Helgo, an important trading centre from the 6th – 11th C. The Buddha probably arrived in Helgo via Swedish merchants who traded east, along Russian rivers such as the Volga. © Swedish History Museum

For more information on the Helgo treasure:

http://irisharchaeology.ie/2013/12/the-helgo-treasure-a-viking-age-buddha/

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Featured image: https://about-history.com/knarr-the-oldest-norse-merchant-ship/

How many hours? Planning research for a historically-based novel: #authortoolboxbloghop

For my first two books, I was lucky – years of immersing myself in the Roman and post-Roman history of Britannia meant I had little actual research to do, except fact-checking. But the third took me into the library.

The books I write are quasi-historical: they are set in a world with strong similarities to northern Europe after the decline of Rome. There are significant differences, but many of the events that shape it are based on real history. For my first two books, I was lucky – years of immersing myself in the Roman and post-Roman history of Britannia meant I had little actual research to do, except fact-checking. But the third took me out of the Britannia analogue – and into the library.

As I prepare to write the fifth full novel in the series, I am expanding into both a geography and a political history I know less about. So it’s time for more research, and in this month’s #authortoolboxbloghop, I look at how I do that.

When I say research, I mean major research, not the quick Google search for ‘how many public bread ovens were there in Rome’. (One for every 350 people, roughly, if you care.) Without giving too much away, the plot of Empire’s Heir, the next book, takes place mostly in Casil, my Rome analogue, and involves the politics of power as they rest in a high ranking, and therefore highly marriageable, young woman.

So, what major topics did I need to research this time?

Setting: Rome in the 4th C, which is the time in Rome’s history I chose to base my physical city on;

Character background: the education of an heiress to a country’s leadership in early-medieval Europe;

Politics: the politics and practicalities of marriage alliances.

(In other books, it’s been battles, and ship construction, and travel times between Rome and Britannia, and Viking travel into continental Europe and Byzantium…whatever you’re writing about, you need to define what you’ll have to spend time researching.)

Let’s look at those topics one at a time.

Setting:  Part of one of my earlier books takes place in Casil, so I’ve already done a fair bit of research. Three sources have been particularly useful

  1. Video reconstructions
  2. Ancient maps
  3. A research trip to Rome, with a private guide. (I realize this is a luxury out of the reach of many, but good guidebooks to ancient Rome could have been substituted, especially used in conjunction with the video reconstructions.)

What I have now are sources to refer to, and a fair understanding of the geography of Rome. Between watching the videos, taking an on-line course on ancient Rome, studying the maps and actually going to Rome, I’ve spent about two weeks – call it 80 hours – on this prior to beginning to write the book. I need to spend another 10 or so, I think, working with a map and the structures of buildings in conjunction with the plot of my story.  Where are the stairs she’ll need to access? How long did it take to get from the Forum to the Pantheon on foot?  What’s the easiest route for a character who is physically disabled to travel?

Character background: the education of an heiress to a country’s leadership in early-medieval Europe. I’m using a number of sources here, some on-line, more not: several new books on early-medieval women wait to be read. I did both a literature search, and asked some friends whose research area this is, to find the books to read. 40 hours here, for a solid understanding.

Politics: the politics and practicalities of marriage alliances.  Again, more reading; some will be covered in the other books; some will be separate. I estimate 30 hours.

In total, I expect to spend 160 hours in major research prior to writing. Four forty-hour weeks. Some of it’s already done, so now perhaps I have 80 hours to do, or 2 full weeks. But I can’t devote 40 hours a week to research – while I work as a writer & editor full time, that includes all sorts of other writing (like this blog post), my editorial work, and promotion and marketing. Call it 6 weeks, then (providing I don’t find myself going down fascinating rabbit-holes of trivia.)

As fascinating as I find all this, I can’t focus on one subject for too long. So I will divide it up –  a couple of partial days spent on the mapping and logistics (which I love, and can easily hyperfocus on); a couple of partial days spent on reading. The advantage, too, of doing it this way will be the cross-pollination of ideas that will occur – because while I have an overall plot outline, it will be the research that fills it out and provides details and plot twists I won’t necessarily have thought of. But it also means I won’t start the actual novel until September.

Sometimes I envy writers who get to make it all up!

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