Longsword by David Pilling

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Cometh the hour, cometh SORROW...

Switching from historical to speculative fiction, Part One of 'Sorrow', the first of a series of mini-sequels to my fantasy novel, "The Best Weapon", co-written with my good friend Martin Bolton, is due to be released by Musa Publishing at the beginning of September.

The wondrous thing about writing fantasy as opposed to historical fiction is that the writer can just make stuff up, and not have to justify any of it to The Ricardian Society. "Sorrow" was a joy to write in that regard, as Martin and me (Martin and I? A writer really should know his grammar) got stuck into the fabric of the fictional universe we created between us.

Much of The World Apparent, as we called it, was created in London pubs when we both worked at the Tate Gallery, and the cities and oceans and continents first came to life scribbled on the back of beermats or in puddles of stale booze. The pub, as William Shakespeare might have agreed - he is said to have died after a mammoth drinking session with his mate Ben Johnson - has always been the hub of all the best in British creative thinking.

"Sorrow" takes place a few years after events in The Best Weapon. The World Apparent is still an unstable place, wracked by factions and vicious civil wars, and threatening to slide back into barbarism at the drop of a broadsword. Into the maelstrom wanders Sorrow, a mysterious little boy who everyone suddenly wants a piece of...

To give a better idea of the setting and background to all this, I thought the following review of The Best Weapon taken from Amazon might be useful:

 'To me, most of the sword and sorcery fantasies follow the same storyline. The Best Weapon, on the other hand, offers a new twist on the genre with a tale with an original plot. In this world, gods are petty, selfish beings more intent on their own position amongst the others. The Lords of Hell are twin demon brothers, two scheming, conniving beings. When the brothers perceive an approaching threat, their only recourse is to create two brothers out of clay and place them into the wombs of woman at opposite sides of the world where they will grow and mature until the demon brothers can make use of them.

One brother, Naiyar, is born into the Djanki tribe, a fierce, warlike people, bent on conquest. The other brother, Fulk, is born to a woman in the far north where the remnants of the Old Kingdom have taken root. Orphaned at an early age, he is taken in by the Knights Templar, and ancient order dedicated to supporting the rightful king. Or at this time, the infant queen, the king recently dying with no male heir. Through trials and tribulations, events point to the brothers meeting, but what they might do then is unknown.

The rhythm and tempo of the book flows well, despite bouncing back and forth between the two brothers and some assorted characters such as the Archpriest Flambard, the regent of the Old Kingdom. The character voice is appropriate, and the details of this world are well thought-out and logical.

One point I liked was the transformation of the Archpriest from a scheming, but not horrible man, to someone evil after being "touched" by one of the Lords of Hell. With only a few sentences here and there, the fact that this is a transformation out of the Archprinest's control is evident.

I also liked the fact that the various characters had their own individual voices and speech patterns. Too often, each character in a book speaks with one voice, that of the author. But in this book, I could read a quote and recognize the character. The two brothers, in particular, ahd their own identities (I wondered that as the book has two authors, if each one took one of the brothers and penned his dialogue.) Of course, by making them different, they came across differently. I felt that of the two, Naiyar was the more colorful, complete, and complex character.

William Mallet, the Master-at-Arms for the Templars was perhaps my favorite character. Initially seeming to be a callous tyrant, the authors gradually coaxed out a fuller picture of an honorable and brave man. We were never directly told this, but his true character was revealed by his actions.'

Monday, 20 August 2012

PIRATES!! (but no Johnny Depp...)

"Ende oec mede dese lede Crabbe,
Warp oec in sine swabbe,
Dese dede opt water grote scade,
Hine dede niemene genade..."

No, I've not been overdosing on merry pills - these are the words of the Antwerp chronicler, Lodewijk Van Velthem, recording the antics of the notorious Flemish pirate, John Crabbe. Translated into modern English they read something like: "'And in addition to the harm these men wrought, Crabbe also contributed his share. He wrought great damage on the seas, showing mercy to no one. Now he appeared here, now there..."

Van Velthem signed off by saying of Crabbe and his associates that "Such is the evil company of robbers - they do not keep to what they promise; and in the end themselves are deceived."

John Crabbe, however, was immune to any form of deception. In a long and wildly varied career as a pirate and seafaring mercenary, starting in about 1305 and ending with his death in England in 1352, he enjoyed the kind of success that later small-time buccaneers such as Blackbeard and Calico Jack (the inspiration for Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow, incidentally) would have killed for. He is also the latest villain to make an appearance in the ninth of my John Swale Chronicles, a splendidly amoral character, if little-known these days, and one I couldn't resist including. 

Born some time in the late 13th century in Muiden, a small town on the Flemish coast near the mouth of the Zwin, Crabbe had an inauspicious start to life. His surname was a fairly common one in Bruges and other places in Flanders - for instance, there was a Clais Crabbe recorded as living in 1347, and Crabbe's nephew, 'son of Peter Crabbe' (recorded as 'Crabbekin', possibly to avoid confusion) served as a pirate aboard his famous uncle's ships. 

John Crabbe's name first appears in connection with piracy with a robbery committed near the port of La Rochelle on the Bay of Biscay, in 1305. Here he and his crew forcefully seized a a ship called the 'Waardebourc'  belonging to one John de la Waerde, a merchant of Dordrecht. The pirates made a thorough job of it, snatching 160 tuns of wine and all the goods on board, torching the ship and holding the crew to ransom. De la Waerde appealled for justice and recompense to just about everyone, including Philip the Fair, King of France, but even with the help of the Count of Flanders it proved impossible to bring the slippery Crabbe to justice.

Nothing more is heard of the pirate for a few years, but in 1310 he struck again. This time he bagged an even richer prize, a ship belonging to Alice the Countess Marshal carrying a fortune in gold, jewels, expensive cloth, silver, and other items valued at 2000 pounds sterling. The ship was sailing peacefully in the Strait of Dover between Dover and Whitsand when Crabbe's ship, the De La Mue, descended on it. This time the King of England requested that the hapless Count of Flanders bring his wayward subjects to justice, and once again Crabbe slipped the clutches of the law. 

It turned out he had made good his escape to Aberdeen in Scotland, where he cleverly re-invented himself as a merchant and a soldier-for-hire, assisting the Scots in their endless wars against England. In his absence he was convicted of robbery, and condemned to a particularly nasty death - breaking on the wheel - if he ever returned to Flanders. But return to Flanders he did, many times, to sell goods from plundered English vessels in Flemish ports, and no Flemish official had the nerve to lay a hand on him. This is unsurprising, for by 1315 Crabbe had won fame and reputation as a tireless and ruthless freebooter, and not a man to cross.

Crabbe made himself indispensable to the Scots, advising them on the defence of Berwick-upon-Tweed when the English attempted to recapture the place in 1318-19. The Scottish chronicler John Barbour was moved to praise Crabbe in verse, saying that "John Crabbe, a Fleming was he, a man of great subtlety..." The pirate took advantage of such plaudits to wring favours from the Scottish government, and by the time he appears in my tale - 1332 - he was a respected burgher of Berwick, and in receipt of handsome payments for supplying the town with arms and stolen goods. 

He is, however, about to be pitched into a new war between Scotland and her old foe England that even John Crabbe, with all his experience and resourcefulness, might be hard put to survive...


Friday, 17 August 2012

"A most marvellous thing happened that day..."

...or so said the Lanercost chronicler, describing the events of the 10th-11th August 1331. The chronicler's definition of 'marvellous' might not be everyone's, as he was enthusing over the great piles of dead soldiers that lay on the field of Dupplin Moor - "the pile of dead rising up from the ground was more than a spear's length in height", drooled the chronicler, clearly experiencing a tight little thrill of ecstasy at the thought. Well, a medieval monk in an isolated monastery had to get his kicks where he could.

Sir John Swale, the much put-upon knight of Cumberland and 'hero' of my series of historical tales - courtesy of Musa Publishing - is about to experience the slaughterhouse that was the Battle of Dupplin Moor in the forthcoming instalments of his Chronicles, "The Mercy of God" and the appropriately-titled "Dupplin Moor". Driven by his endless quest for revenge on the Scottish knight who murdered most of his family, and to rescue his sister from slavery, he joins the army of the Disinherited led by Edward Balliol, would-be King of Scotland. At Dupplin Moor Balliol's vastly outnumbered army finds itself squaring up to over three times their number of Scots, led by Scotland's regent, the Earl of Mar.

The reasons behind Balliol's invasion are complex. Son of John Balliol, the man remembered by history as 'Toom Tabard' or the 'Empty Coat' for his short and hapless reign as King of Scotland, Edward spent much of his early life in exile in France, dreaming of returning to Scotland to claim his inheritance. Evidently a proud and arrogant man, he refused to marry while in exile, for no French noblewoman (as he thought) was worthy to marry a future King of Scots.

His chance came in 1329, when Robert I of Scotland - Robert the Bruce of spider-bothering fame - died of leprosy and left his kingdom to his infant son, David II. David's right to rule was challenged by "The Disinherited", a group of Scottish and English nobles who had lost their lands in Scotland as a result of opposing the Bruce. After two years of scheming, Henry Beaumont, the chief of the Disinherited, sailed to France to meet with Balliol and plan for his much-delayed return to power and glory. With the young and ambitious King of England, Edward III, urging them on and offering covert military support, Balliol and his cronies started preparing for war...the results, as John Swale is about to discover, were unpleasantly gory.