Soldier of Fortune

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

New cover

I've just received the new cover for Leader of Battles (IV) Drystan, once again designed by the talented folks at Morevisual!

More news on the book soon...

Monday, 2 November 2015

Leader of Battles IV

I've just completed the first draft of Part IV of the Leader of Battles series. This volume will be titled Leader of Battles (IV): Drystan, and is my version of the story of Tristan and Isolde - or Drystan and Esyllt as I call them in the book. 

Tristan and Isolde as depicted by Herbert Draper
This is one of the most famous romances and tragedies in the world, retold in many variations over the centuries. The core of the story is the adulterous affair between Tristan, a Cornish knight, and an Irish princess named Isolde. It seems to have predated (and influenced) the romance of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, and been inspired by French, Celtic and even Persian influences. 

The character of Sir Tristan or Tristram himself occupies a strange place in Arthurian lore. His origins are obscure: the oldest Cornish and Breton tales are lost, though there are echoes of them in the later Anglo-Norman legends. The original tales may have been entirely separate from the Arthurian cycle, but the Tristan en Prose or Prose Tristan of the thirteenth century, one of the most popular romances of its day, made him into one of King Arthur's most distinguished knights and a member of the Round Table. 

The 'Tristan' stone
There may be a historical basis for the legend of Tristan. Near the road leading to Fowey in Cornwall, an ancient stone, seven feet high and set in a modern concrete base, can still be seen. On one side of the stone is a worn Latin inscription that reads: :

(Drustanus lies here, son of Cunomorus)

In 1540 the antiquarian John Leland claimed to have seen a third line on the stone, now missing, that read:

(With the Lady Ousilla)

It has been suggested that these were the names of the historical Tristan and his lover Ousilla (or the Brythonic Esyllt), while Cunomorus might be King Mark, Tristan's father: Cunomorus translates 'Hound of the Sea', which in some versions of the legend was Mark's nickname. Cunomorus is also the Latinised version of the Brythonic name Cynfawr, identified by the ninth-century chronicler Nennius as the historical King Mark. 

The legendary Tristan and Isolde
As usual with Arthurian scholarship, little is certain. The veracity of the inscription on the stone is questionable, as are the historical existence of Tristan, his doomed lover and treacherous father. I chose to incorporate some of the older aspects of the story, and depict Tristan as an ambitious Dark Age princeling, greedy for power and fame. His mate Esyllt harbours similar ambitions, though she is rather more intelligent, doomed to live in a time when most women were treated slaves or brood mares. 

Leader of Battles (IV) should be ready for release by early December, and I'll post further updates nearer the time. 


Sunday, 4 October 2015

The flamboyant Captain Wade

Captain Wade, or someone very similar...

Today I'm hosting a Q&A with my friend and co-author, Martin Bolton. Martin talks about his character, Captain Wade, a notorious pirate captain who haunts, roves, plunders, steals, murders, burns, loots and generally makes a damned nuisance of himself on the high seas of The World Apparent: this is the fantasy world setting for our co-written novels, The Best Weapon and The Path of Sorrow. We're currently working on a third in the series, and there is scope for plenty more.

Take it away, Master Bolton...

1) What was your inspiration for the character of Captain Wade?

I wanted Wade to be eccentric and a slightly ludicrous. So my obvious inspiration was a Bond villain. There's a bit of Blofeld in there; instead of a cat, he's got a ridiculous mute midget assistant called Erlo. That's about as far as it goes, because, unlike you, I don't know much about Bond villains. The rest I just made up myself.

I started by dressing him as a bit of a dandy. Frills, oiled ringlets in his hair, fine jewellery and a long cigarette holder. He effectively talks to himself most of the time, but directs it at his assistant who of course never answers because he is unable to speak. His speech is flowery and somewhat poetic, even though he's usually talking about killing, burning and looting. 

I like the idea of someone talking like a poet whilst being a sadistic, murdering lunatic.

2) What would you think of him if you knew him?

I would think he was mental and completely unpredictable. I wouldn't lend him a fiver or invite him round for film night but if he needed the money he could do the garden and I would just keep the door locked. If he invited me to a stag do I would pretend I was away that weekend.

I would consider his advice on the best curtains to go with my wallpaper though.

3) On the surface Wade appears to be a typically greedy, selfish pirate, interested in only the gold, the precious gold, and the yo-ho-hos. Is there any compassion there, deep down?

I don't think Wade is driven entirely by greed. He considers himself too artful to be seduced by such base desires. Wade does enjoy the finer things in life but it's the 'game' that really makes him tick. He is amused by the power and control he has over the world and the people around him. He sees life as a game of chess. A battle of wits. And he is a very cunning man, so he enjoys this game immensely.

This need for control stems from his having been born into poverty. He grew up having to scrape a living from the dirt and never knowing where his next meal would come from. This is a powerless predicament, always at the mercy of those with more wealth and influence. This obviously profoundly effected him. He vowed that he would be powerful and enjoy the trappings of wealth, and as you are not taught morals when you have no parents, he doesn't care that his wealth is stolen.

Beneath all this lies a child, buried under a lifetime of brutality. I would like to think he does have the capacity for compassion, it'll just take the right experience to awaken it in him. Time will tell whether that happens...

4) Do you think some people have a natural tendency towards good or evil, or is everyone a product of their environment?

I think people are shaped at a very early age, right from the day they are born. I've never seen an evil baby. I've never seen a good one either. Just hungry ones, cold ones, hot ones, shitty ones. 

I grew up with some utter bell ends. But their parents were cock--eyed morons who taught them nothing of any use, so I can't really blame them.

5) Wade is a fairly eccentric character with a freakish band of companions. Do you plan to reveal more of his past at some point?

Yes I do. Wade's role in the World Apparent Tales isn't over. I'd like to explore who he is and why, and also give him some moral decisions to make and see how he copes.

6) Is Wade destined to remain a pirate all his life, or does he aspire to something greater?

Wade always aspires to something greater. In the The Path of Sorrow, he shows a few subtle signs that he is growing tired of his way of life. He thinks most of his crew are idiots, which is why he shows such fascination with Colken, who he finds a bit more complex.

I can't really say what will happen to Wade without giving a lot away, but there is more of his story to tell.

7) Besides co-writing fantasy fiction with me, you write short stories for a webzine called The 900 Club. What are your writing plans for the future?
The 900 Club will have been going for three years at the end of 2015 and it has been an extremely rewarding experience. Writing a new short story every single month is a challenge. It has given me more belief in myself as writer and I have learned a lot from my fellow 900 Club writers too. This will be my last year writing with them as I want to concentrate on doing some independent stuff. Hopefully can put what I've learned into practice.

At the moment, I am working on my share of the third World Apparent Tale (the follow up to The Path of Sorrow), which I am very excited about. After that I am thinking about putting together an anthology of fantasy short stories. Although, I am also considering writing a novel of my own. I expect I'll do both but I don't know which I'll do first.

8) Why is your writing partner (me, in other words) so attractive to the opposite sex? Is it my dusky charm, my heart-melting smile, my staggering intellect, or perhaps a composite of all these attractive elements plus a few extra?

My writing partner (you) is a malodorous hog of a man. The opposite sex are attracted to him in the same way people were attracted to public hangings in medieval times. They're drawn to him in the same way people were drawn to Joseph Merrick. They're just fascinated.

Dusky charm? Perhaps this is a misquote of the words “musky farm”. I don't know about heart-melting smile but I know he possesses eye-melting breath. And as for staggering intellect, well, I've seen him staggering so he's half way there.'

Thank you, Martin (I think). Below are links to The Best Weapon and The Path of Sorrow on Amazon:

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Hooded musings

Why have one arrow when you can have seven?
Those who follow this blog will know I have an interest in the legend of Robin Hood, and am one of those dreadful 'empiricists' who believe the legend has some foundation in historical reality. In fact I regard the legend as more of a composite myth - essentially fictional, but with bits and pieces of historical matter woven into the narrative by any number of anonymous authors and minstrels etc.

One of the most popular 'empiricist' theories, first suggested by Joseph Hunter in the 1800s, is based on a man named Robert Hode (or Hood) of Wakefield, who lived in the Wakefield area of West Yorkshire in the early 1300s. Hunter and other writers after him suggested that this man was caught up in the rebellion of Thomas of Lancaster against King Edward II in 1322, and outlawed after the rebel defeat at the Battle of Boroughbridge. He was (so the theory goes) later pardoned and served for a time as a porter or 'valet de la chambre' in Edward II's household.

This sketchy outline of Robert Hode's career would fit with the narrative of the Geste, a 15th century compilation of Robin Hood ballads and the first to try and provide the famous outlaw with some kind of career. In the Geste Robin Hood is indeed pardoned by a king named Edward (not Richard the Lionheart) and spends some time at court before leaving to go back into outlawry.

It's a neat theory, but one with massive gaps in the evidence. There's no clear proof that Robert Hode of Wakefield was ever outlawed, or the same man as the 'Robyn Hod' who served as one of Edward II's porters. Recently I've been researching the 14th century plea rolls held at the National Archives in London, and have found a bit of evidence that may help to close a few of the gaps.

Below is the record in question:

'King's Bench Plea Rolls, 1316:

An assize comes to recognise if Alice, who was the wife of Robert de Everingham, William le Corour, Thomas Page of Brotherton, Henry de Tikehull, Adam Pakock and Robert Hode unjustly, etc, disseised Juliana, who was the wife of Richard Farburne, of her free tenement in Farburne after the first, etc. And whereupon they complain that they disseised her of four acres of land with appurtenances, etc. And Alice has come and the others have not. But a certain Thomas de Wartre answers for them as their bailiff, and says that they have done no injury or disseisin thereupon. And as to this he places himself upon the assize....'

At first glance it doesn't look very exciting, just a standard land dispute. However, a few things stand out. Alice's husband, Robert de Everingham, was the last hereditary Keeper of Sherwood Forest. He was imprisoned in Nottingham Castle for various offences, and died there in 1287, quite possibly tortured to death for refusing to throw himself on the mercy of a jury. So here is Robert Hode (almost certainly the Wakefield man) in league with the widow of the Keeper of Sherwood.

The locations mentioned - Brotherton. Tikehull or Tickhill, Farburne or Fairburne - are all within the area of Wakefield and Barnsdale: Barnsdale, a wooded valley in the West Riding, is the setting for much of the early Robin Hood ballads.  See the map below (Barnsdale itself is a little way south of Ferrybridge):

It's also worth pointing out that the Everinghams were a rebel family: Robert's brother and Alice's brother-in-law, Adam de Everingham, definitely fought at Boroughbridge and was taken prisoner by the royalists. He had to pay King Edward the hefty sum of 400 marks to save his neck and buy his freedom.

Granted, this is still a long way from proving that Robert Hode was an outlaw in Barnsdale, or the model for the ballads of Robin Hood. However it does at least add to our knowledge of the man, and demonstrate his connections with a family of knightly rebels and certain ballad locations. More information may yet come to light. Now, back to those dusty old court rolls...

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Tobias the Minstrel...

Today I'm hosting a guest spot for the very lovely and talented Prue Batten, author of The Gisburne Saga (based on the character of Guy of Gisburne from the Robin Hood ballads, but very different...) and The Chronicles of Eirie.

Prue has just released Book One in a splendid-sounding new series set in and around the declining Byzantine Empire. The main character, Tobias, is both a minstrel and a dwarf - or vertically challenged, perhaps I should say - and below is the summary of the plot:

"Byzantium stretches a weakening grip across Eastern Europe, trying in vain to hold onto all that has made it an empire. Tyrian purple, the unique dye that denotes its power, is held under close guard by the imperial house.
However a Jewish merchant from Venice has sourced an illegal supply and Tobias the dwarf minstrel and his twin brother, Tomas, begin a dangerous journey to retrieve the purple and deliver it into the merchant’s eager hands.
But is this supply as secret as they had hoped?
Trade is cut throat, men are expendable, money is power and Constantinople provides the exotic backdrop during a time of scimitars and shadows.
This is Tobias – the story of a minstrel and a broken life…"

Below is the rather gorgeous cover

Here is a comment from Prue's editor, John Hudspith:

'Without doubt, Tobias is your most thrilling novel yet. Your skill regarding conveyance of rich settings and situation I was expecting, but it has developed further, sliding down into the contours of the human soul, plumbing the depths of connection.'

And here is the author herself!

Here Prue talks about the challenges of writing Tobias:

Writing Tobias stretched more than I could ever have imagined. Firstly the character is a dwarf, a little person, someone who has the condition; achindroplasia, and that alone required detailed research, particularly when placing that character in amongst the rigours of the Middles Ages. Add to that Byzantine history, a twelfth century city that was destroyed in later years and which made finding my locations almost impossible AND the fact that I have a very weak stomach for violence and it's safe to say I had a challenge on my hands. But I have never given up in the face of a challenge and I had grown to love Toby too much not to tell his story. 

I wanted it to be real, to pull at emotions and make the reader question just what he or she would do if placed in Tony's unenviable position. Toby (Tobias more properly) is the star of the show however. He is by nature an aesthete, being a troubadour, but he is also a spy and it was a challenge for me to combine the two into a believable character, in a believable setting and with a believable plot. I hope I've done little people proud and that readers will hold their breath as Tobias and his brother faces challenges that would leave most of us gasping...


Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Rise of the Wolf!

I don't usually do book recommendations and/or reviews, but couldn't ignore the new Robin Hood novel by Steven McKay, titled Rise of the Wolf. McKay has done something very different with the ancient story, as I tried to do with my own Robin Hood mini-series, and given Jolly Robin a much-needed shot in the arm.

Rise is the third in the Forest Lord series - the first two were called Wolf's Head and The Wolf and the Raven - and follows the further adventures of Robin Hood and his gang as they are hunted by the nefarious Guy of Gisburne. So far, so standard, you might think: Gisburne has been Robin's stock enemy since the Errol Flynn movie back in the 1930s, and featured as such in almost every version of the tale ever since. Perhaps the most memorable screen Gisburne was Robert Addie in the 1980s ITV series Robin of Sherwood, though McKay's version is very different from Addie's inept blusterer: the Gisburne in Rise of the Wolf is a snarling, deadly, one-eyed mercenary, burning for revenge on Robin and willing to do anything to get it. 

Mr McKay...
McKay's masterstroke was to pluck Robin from his comfort zone of the Richard I/John era and propel him forward in time to early 14th century, and the troubled reign of Edward II. Robin and his men are outlawed as a result of their part in the failed rebellion of Thomas of Lancaster, Edward's cousin, and condemned to be hunted like animals in Barnsdale Forest. This is true to the oldest surviving medieval ballads, in which Robin meets 'Edward, our comely king' - probably supposed to be Edward II, who was said to be very 'comely' or handsome, and who did embark on a tour of the northern forests towards the end of his reign. Intriguingly, there was a man named Robyn Hode among Edward's retinue when he went north, though he is described as a porter or 'valet de la chambre' rather than a former outlaw.

By placing Robin Hood in an entirely new environment, McKay succeeds in shaking off most of the well-worn clich├ęs: Robin is still hunted by the Sheriff and Gisburne, but the story takes place in a grim, gritty and entirely believable historical and political framework. This is no pantomime with men in green tights bounding through the sunny greenwood, waiting for their heroic king to come home and pardon them. The king is an incompetent, albeit a likeable one, and his nobles a bunch of bloodthirsty, self-interested marauders. England itself is a dirty and wretched place, which is no more than a faithful portrayal of the unspeakable conditions of the time: the early 1300s witnessed several terrible famines in England, appalling weather conditions, and a drawn-out, unwinnable war with Scotland that left much of the north country desolate and stripped of life.  

McKay's novels are the first (that I'm aware of) to relocate the legend in Edward II's reign. This is perhaps a bit surprising, since the theory of the 'historical' Robin Hood being one of Lancaster's rebels has been around for almost 150 years. It was first suggested by Joseph Hunter, a 19th century antiquarian, who claimed to have discovered proof that one Robert Hood of Wakefield, a Yorkshireman living in the early 14th century, was the real man behind the legend. Sadly, on closer analysis Hunter's theory doesn't stand up, for there is no proof that Robert Hood was ever an outlaw or rebel. 

That said, there remains the coincidence of Edward II's progress in the North, and the presence of a Robyn Hod in his household. Recent research has uncovered a man named John Littiljon, of Methley in Yorkshire, serving as a captain of archers in Lancaster's rebel army, as well as a William Scarlet, another Yorkshireman, among the rebel host. In purely historicist terms, then, it seems the early 1300s did have some kind of influence on the content of the ballads, though the actual process of history melding into fiction remains a mystery. 

So much for the history. Whatever the truth behind the legend, McKay's series is a brave, uncompromising step in the right direction, and the perfect antidote to recent feeble screen Robin Hoods. If there was any justice - which, as Robin Hood could tell you, there isn't - these books would be turned into a series of films. Until then, enjoy the printed word, and the rise of the wolf...

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Like leaves in Autumn...

The 21st of July marks the anniversary of the Battle of Shrewsbury, one of the most important battles fought on English soil. Had the result gone the other way in 1403, it's quite possible that England would have been carved into two separate pieces, with a King in the North and a King in London, and Wales would be much larger than it is (and probably independent of England).

These, at any rate, were the terms of the Tripartite Indenture, an agreement drawn up between  the Welsh rebel leader Owain Glyn Dwr, Edmund Mortimer and Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland. The indenture was drawn up in 1405, two years after Shrewsbury, but it seems likely that similar terms would have been agreed if the rebels had won the battle.

The battle was fought between a rebel army led by Northumberland's famous son, Henry 'Hotspur', so-called for his habit of dashing everywhere at high speed (pity the horses). Hotspur had won a glorious military reputation in the North, despite being on the losing end at the Battle of Otterburn. The Scottish victory at Otterburn, and the exploits of Hotspur and his rival, the Earl of Douglas, were forever enshrined in the Ballad of Chevy Chase. As the great Elizabethan knight, Sir Philip Sidney, said:

"I never hear the old song of Percy and Douglas, that I found not my heart was moved more than any trumpet..."

Hotspur was more than just a romantic figure, and the causes of the battle at Shrewsbury were grounded in hard political realities. Back in 1399, Hotspur and his father had helped Henry of Lancaster, Duke of Hereford, to depose Richard II and place Henry on the throne as King Henry IV. Richard conveniently died in prison, most likely starved to death, and the relationship between the new king and his allies quickly soured. Always short of cash, Henry owed the Percies huge amounts of money, and further angered them by forbidding them to ransom Scottish prisoners taken at the Battle of Homildon Hill. Compelled by these (and many other) reasons, the Percies raised the standard of revolt and marched south to raise an army in Cheshire.

Sweetly oblivious of all this, Henry was marching north to join the Percies to fight the Scots, and only heard of the rebellion on 12th July, when he had reached Burton-on-Trent. Instead of crying about it, he spun around and zoomed down towards Shrewsbury and the Welsh border.

Henry's speed probably saved his throne, not to mention his life. He seized the town of Shrewsbury before the rebels arrived in sight of the walls, and both forces set up camp on opposing banks of the Severn. Attempts at negotiation failed: it is said that Thomas Percy, Hotspur's uncle, deliberately spat insults at the king's envoys in the hope of forcing a battle. His hopes were soon to be realised.

Henry IV and his flattering hat
After some manoeuvring, the armies faced each other on a large open field. The size of the armies is uncertain, but both probably had somewhere in the region of 14, 000 men. Hotspur had recruited most of his men in Cheshire, including the dreaded Cheshire archers, skilled with the longbow. Some Welsh forces may also have joined him, but their leader Glyn Dwr was far to the west in Carmarthenshire, and had received no word of Hotspur's actions. Once again, as at Otterburn, the impetous northerner's desire for haste would prove his undoing.

About two hours before dusk, King Henry raised his sword as the signal to advance, and the sky darkened with a storm of arrows. The Cheshire archers inflicted stinging casualties on the royalists. One chronicler described the king's men falling "like leaves in autumn, every arrow struck a mortal man."

Rather than stand and endure the arrow-storm, men started to turn and flee. The entire royalist left wing collapsed, the Earl of Stafford was killed, and the King's eldest son, Prince Henry (later Henry V), took an arrow in the face. It would later require an especially skilled surgeon, using a mixture of honey and alcohol and an instrument invented on the spot, to extract the missile from the prince's flesh. The scar remained with him all his days.

Things looked bleak for the royalists, but the remnant of the army stood its ground. Hotspur now ordered the archers to cease and led a massed charge directly at the royal bodyguard, hoping to put an end to the battle by striking down his old friend in person. There followed a massive brawl, involving thousands of men scattered across the field, in which the royal standard was beaten down, and the standard bearer, Sir Walter Blount, slain. Hotspur's old enemy Douglas, now fighting on his side, was unfortunate enough to lose a testicle in the fighting (ouch, ouch, ouch!).

Still the royalists held firm. King Henry is reported to have ordered his son off the field, to have his wound tended, but the prince refused and led a counter-charge. Amid the dust and blood and confusion, the cry went up that the king was dead. A tremendous roar erupted from the rebel lines:

"Henry Percy, King! Henry Percy, King!"
Statue of Hotspur at Alnwick

The rumour was false. King Henry was very much alive and fighting desperately at the head of his bodyguard, while Hotspur was dead. During a lull in the fight he raised his visor to gulp in air, and was promptly shot by an unknown archer.

As usual in medieval battles, the death or flight of the leader spelled doom for his men. With Hotspur dead, the rebels had nothing left to fight for save pride. Most fled into the night - it was dark by now - though a few diehards fought on through the night until all were killed or captured.

The aftermath was predictably grim. Thomas Percy and several other rebel captains were subjected to the hideous ritualistic deaths of hanging, drawing and quartering, and their severed heads put on public display. Hotspur was initially given honourable burial, until rumours began to spread through Shrewsbury that he was not dead: instead he had escaped from the battle and would come again, like Arthur, at the head of a new army.

Henry quashed the rumours flat by having Hotspur's naked body exhumed and impaled on a spear between two millstones in the market place. It was later cut into quarters and exhibited again in Chester, London and Newcastle. Thus it could said that Henry Hotspur, the rock star of his time, ended by going on tour...