Longsword by David Pilling

Friday, 27 December 2013

Caesar's Sword reboot

As we emerge, blinking and groaning and rubbing our aching bellies, loaded down with the weight of turkey and sherry and all the rest of that Christmas cheer, into the cold, unforgiving light of the New Year, I thought it worth advertising my re-launch of CAESAR'S SWORD (I): THE RED DEATH. 

The first book in this planned trilogy was released in February, since when it has sold well and achieved some good reviews, but I thought it was time for a re-boot: New Year, new cover! Below is the fantastic new book cover designed by the folks at More Visual Ltd:

The book will be available FREE as a download for Kindle on Amazon from 1st-5th of January, so if any of the good people who happen to be reading this fancy obtaining a free copy and leaving a review on Amazon, that would be very much appreciated :)

For those who don't know, the Caesar's Sword trilogy is my attempt at melding some of the Welsh aspects of Arthurian legend with the history of the Later Roman Empire, specifically during the reign of Emperor Justinian I (527-65). The following is a summary of the plot:

"It is the year 568 AD. From his monastic refuge in Brittany, King Arthur’s aged grandson, Coel, begins to write the incredible story of his life. Now a monk, he is determined to complete his chronicle before death overtakes him.

His tale begins shortly after the death of his famous grandfather at the Battle of Camlann. Britain is plunged into chaos, and Coel and his mother are forced to flee their homeland. They take with them Arthur’s famous sword, Caledfwlch, once possessed by Julius Caesar. Known to the Romans as The Red Death, it is said to possess unearthly powers.

When he grows to adulthood, Cleo enlists in the Roman army under General Flavius Belisarius, the most famous soldier of the age, and serves in the Roman invasion of Africa. He makes an enemy of the corrupt Empress of the East, Theodora, and falls into the clutches of Gelimer, the mad King of the Vandals.

Caesar's Sword (I): The Red Death follows the adventures of a British warrior of famous descent in the glittering, lethal world of the Late Roman Empire. From the riotous streets of Constantinople, to the racetrack of the Hippodrome and the bloodstained deserts of North Africa, he must fight to recover his birthright and his pride..."

The sequel - CAESAR'S SWORD (II): SIEGE OF ROME is nearly finished, and should be available in the next few weeks! 

Caesar's Sword (I): The Red Death

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Blog Hop winner...

A few days have passed since the 'Casting Light on the Darkness' blog hop, and it's time to announce the winner...Alison Bahmuller! A signed paperback copy of my novel, Nowhere Was There Peace, will be winging its way towards Alison as soon as possible. Congratulations to her, and thanks to you all for participating.

Oh, and a belated Merry Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous New Year to you all!

Friday, 20 December 2013

Casting fire upon the darkness...

Today sees the launch of an epic blog hop involving over thirty authors, including Julian Stockwin, Helen Hollick and Manda Scott. The theme is 'Casting Light upon the Darkness' - as you can see by the lovely graphic logo above, designed by Avalon Graphics - and there are lots of great free prizes on offer. Simply browse (or hop) the links posted at the bottom of this page to see the posts by other bloggers and enter competitions.

I am offering a free paperback copy of my medieval saga, Nowhere Was There Peace, set in England during the baronial wars of the 1260s, and published this year by Fireship Press.

If you are interested in winning a copy, just leave a comment under this post and I will select a winner a few days after the 21st!

For the hop I have chosen to write about the age-old mystery of Greek Fire, the terrifying incendiary weapon employed by the Byzantine Empire to quite literally cast light upon their enemies. 

The Empire survived for over a thousand years until the capture of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453 and the death in battle of the last Emperor, Constantine XI. Without Greek Fire, the steadily shrinking Byzantine state would probably not have endured for so long, and how this vital weapon was made remains a mystery to this day.

Medieval depiction of Greek Fire in action
Greek Fire was by no means the first incendiary weapon to be used in warfare: for instance, the Assyrians were using flaming arrows and pots packed full of combustible substances as early as the 9th Century BC. However, unlike earlier weapons, something about Greek Fire seems to have captured the imagination of contemporaries. 

One of the earliest possible references to it date from the early sixth century, when the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I used a sulphur-based compound to incinerate a rebel fleet. It was certainly in use by the seventh century, when Constantinople was twice besieged by the combined land and sea forces of the Arab Caliphates. After four years of warfare, the Emperor Constantine IV led out his fleet in a head-on assault. His ships were equipped with Greek Fire, and the naval battle that ensued resulted in the total destruction of the Arab fleet.

These accounts suggest that Greek Fire was used primarily as a naval weapon, and carried into battle by single-deck warships called dromons, converted to house the devices needed to heat and pressurise the mixture. The specially trained crew would then direct it through a nozzle or hose, spraying enemy ships with unquenchable liquid flame. Greek Fire was notorious for burning on water, so a hideous death awaited enemy sailors even if they jumped overboard.

The Byzantine army in battle
The Byzantines were nothing if not inventive, and all sorts of variants were introduced over the centuries. Some manuals describe jars being stuffed with Greek Fire and thrown at the enemy, like early hand grenades, and caltrops smeared with tow and soaked in the substance being hurled from catapults. Cranes were fitted aboard ships and used to drop 'bombs' onto enemy ships, while siphons were fixed to the prows of Byzantine ships, so they could ram the enemy and hose him with fire at the same time.

The siphons were elaborate affairs, made of brass or iron and shaped like the heads of lions or other wild beasts. Their mere aspect was frightening, their jaws wide open to shoot Greek Fire through their mouths, as though they were vomiting over the enemy.

Greek Fire continues to fascinate because of the centuries-old mystery surrounding its composition. Knowledge of the formula was a closely guarded state and military secret. This is unsurprising, since the Byzantines could not afford their secret weapon to fall into the hands of their many enemies. The term 'Byzantine complexity' might have been invented to describe the process of keeping the formula secret: even the engineers and technicians who worked with the stuff were only made aware of certain components, while being kept ignorant of others. This meant that no-one could blab the secrets of Greek Fire to the opposition.

Many generations of scholars have tried to reconstruct the formula for Greek Fire from informed supposition and fragments of surviving sources. Certain clues can be gleaned from Byzantine military textbooks and descriptions of other incendiary weapons, such as the following from the Alexiad, written by Anna Komnene, daughter of the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I:

"This fire is made by the following arts. From the pine and the certain such evergreen trees inflammable resin is collected. This is rubbed with sulfur and put into tubes of reed, and is blown by men using it with violent and continuous breath. Then in this manner it meets the fire on the tip and catches light and falls like a fiery whirlwind on the faces of the enemies..."

No precise description of the formula for Greek Fire exists. All we know for certain is that it burned on water, could be extinguished only by sand, strong vinegar or urine, and that it was a liquid substance. Strangely, for a pre-gunpowder weapon, the discharge was apparently accompanied by a loud bang and lots of smoke. The demoralising effect on an enemy, who faced being turned into a human torch if he stuck around, can only be imagined.

Greek Fire being expelled through a portable siphon
For all that, it was not a 'perfect' weapon. It had a limited range and could only be deployed in ideal weather conditions, with a fair wind and a calm sea. Muslim navies developed various forms of protection, either staying out or range or covering their ships in flame-retardant felt and hides soaked in vinegar. 

The records indicate that Greek Fire was used often and decisively for many hundreds of years, and was still in use in the 12th century. For some reason - perhaps the secret of making it had been lost - there is no record of it being used against the Crusaders when they sacked Constantinople in 1203. Nor was it deployed in the final battle against the Turks in 1453.

One of the latest and most colourful accounts of this terrible weapon come from the Memoirs of the Lord of Joinville, written during the Seventh Crusade in the mid-13th century. I'll sign off with this epic description from the memoir of Greek Fire in action: 

 “... the tail of fire that trailed behind it was as big as a great spear; and it made such a noise as it came, that it sounded like the thunder of heaven. It looked like a dragon flying through the air. Such a bright light did it cast, that one could see all over the camp as though it were day, by reason of the great mass of fire, and the brilliance of the light that it shed.” 
And below is the list of our lovely bloggers! 

  1. Helen Hollick : A little light relief concerning those dark reviews! Plus a Giveaway Prize
  2. Prue Batten : Casting Light....
  3. Alison Morton  : Shedding light on the Roman dusk  - Plus a Giveaway Prize! 
  4. Anna Belfrage  : Let there be light!
  5. Beth Elliott : Steering by the Stars. Stratford Canning in Constantinople, 1810/12
  6. Melanie Spiller : Lux Aeterna, the chant of eternal light
  7. Janet Reedman   The Winter Solstice Monuments
  8. Petrea Burchard  : Darkness - how did people of the past cope with the dark? Plus a Giveaway Prize!
  9. Richard Denning The Darkest Years of the Dark Ages: what do we really know? Plus a Giveaway Prize! 
  10. Pauline Barclay  : Shedding Light on a Traditional Pie
  11. David Ebsworth : Propaganda in the Spanish Civil War
  12. Debbie Young : Fear of the Dark
  13. Derek Birks  : Lies, Damned Lies and … Chronicles
  14. Mark Patton : Casting Light on Saturnalia
  15. Tim Hodkinson : Soltice@Newgrange
  16. Wendy Percival  : Ancestors in the Spotlight
  17. Judy Ridgley : Santa and his elves  Plus a Giveaway Prize
  18. Suzanne McLeod  : The Dark of the Moon
  19. Katherine Bone   : Admiral Nelson, A Light in Dark Times
  20. Christina Courtenay : The Darkest Night of the Year
  21. Edward James  : The secret life of Christopher Columbus; Which Way to Paradise?
  22. Janis Pegrum Smith  : Into The Light - A Short Story
  23. Julian Stockwin  : Ghost Ships - Plus a Giveaway Present
  24. Manda Scott : Dark into Light - Mithras, and the older gods
  25. Pat Bracewell Anglo-Saxon Art: Splendor in the Dark
  26. Lucienne Boyce : We will have a fire - 18th Century protests against enclosure
  27. Nicole Evelina What Lurks Beneath Glastonbury Abbey? 
  28. Sky Purington  :  How the Celts Cast Light on Current American Christmas Traditions
  29. Stuart MacAllister (Sir Read A Lot) : The Darkness of Depression

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

RIP Ripper Street

Something a bit different today. After castigating the BBC's recent efforts at historical drama - namely The Tudors and The White Queen - I thought it only fair to applaud the effort that went into Ripper Street, and mourn its premature demise. After just two series, the BBC have cancelled the show, quoting poor ratings and the need for 'creative renewal', whatever that means. 

Bye then

For those who haven't seen it, Ripper Street is a melodrama set in 1890s London, and follows the adventures of the local police of H Division in their efforts to retain a semblance of order in the chaotic, poverty-stricken slums of Whitechapel. The title derives from Jack the Ripper: though Jack himself has vanished from the streets shortly before the beginning of the first series, the police are still weighed down with guilt at their failure to catch him. That failure, as we know, was never redeemed. Inspector Frederick Abberline, who in reality was in charge of the Ripper case, features as a character, though for some reason Clive Russell plays him with a Cockney instead of a West Country accent (Abberline was from Dorset).

Frederick Abberline

The series has been much-praised for its realistic depiction of life in one of the poorest and most crime-ridden quarters of Victorian London, and for not pulling its punches in depicting the often brutal and illegal methods employed by the main character, Inspector Reid (Matthew McFayden) and his hard-nut sergeant, Bennet Drake (Jerome Flynn, playing a Cockney version of Bronn in Game of Thrones). The recreation of Whitechapel itself can hardly be faulted, with its narrow, crooked streets and alleys, beggars, matchgirls, tarts, pimps, and grimy urchins. No prettied-up version of the past here. Whitechapel is liberally coated in shit, and the people look suitably grimy, pale, underfed and exhausted.

The crimes that H Division deal with are usually extremely bloody, often political - the second series in particular has dealt in themes with some relevance to 2013, with homosexuality tackled in one episode, Irish 'terrorism' in another, corrupt bankers etc  - and clumsily handled. No-one could accuse the upright, violent sobersides Reid of being a particularly brilliant detective, and I sometimes wished Sherlock Holmes would turn up (it was the right period) to sneer at his methods. However, that would probably result in Holmes being escorted to the cells by Drake for a quick beating.

No, Reid, that is not a clue

I'm not wholly convinced that the series is as realistic as it claims. Despite all the stabbings and garrottings and gory fistfights, it is sometimes guilty of the usual sin of TV historical drama i.e. imposing modern values on the past. Episode Five of Series Two, 'Threads of Silk and Gold', was particularly guilty of this. Dealing with the issue of (male) child prostitution, it packs in as many abusive Victorian terms for homosexuals as possible, and depicts Sergeant Drake as a casual homophobe. Being an innately decent man, however, despite his rough habits, he eventually learns the error of his ways and appreciates that gay people are no different from the rest of us. This is designed to appeal to the thinking of a modern audience, and bears no relation to the grim reality of 19th century attitudes towards homosexuality: the chances of a rough, uneducated Whitechapel police sergeant changing his attitude towards 'mollies' were about as great as mine are of winning the Eurovision Song Contest.

Nit-picking aside, Ripper Street was a compelling watch, and got better as it went on, losing the slightly disjointed feel of the first series and successfully fleshing out the characters. One of my peeves was Adam Rothenberg, playing the dissolute American surgeon/rogue Captain Homer Jackson. He was practically inaudible in some of the earlier episodes, speaking through his nose while chewing on a cigar, but someone seems to have told him to speak up. Once I could hear what he was actually saying, the darkness and cruel wit of Jackson came into sharp focus.

Overall, then, the ambition and gorgeous production values of Ripper Street are to be applauded, even if it occasionally fell flat. The cancelled third series, with all the bugs ironed out, could have been spectacular, but the BBC apparently knows better than we mere peasants. More space is needed in the schedules for the likes of Strictly Come MasterChef Celebrity Dancing (or whatever) so you can stick your interesting, well-made, thoughtful period dramas, and get ready for a further barrage of glittery tat.

PS: Just caught a story in The Guardian that the producers of Ripper Street are in talks with LoveFilm to film a third and maybe even fourth series, so perhaps all is not lost...

Monday, 2 December 2013

Casting some light on the darkness...

This is a preview announcement - he said without a trace of pomposity - of the 'Casting Light Upon the Darkness' blog hop due to begin on the 21st December. 

There will be 24 lovely authors taking part, of which I am the least loveliest. The theme is not confined to history, though most of us are authors of historical fiction. As ever with blog hops, there will be lots of goodies and free prizes on offer (just in time for a cheap Christmas), so be sure to check back in on the 21st!