Longsword by David Pilling

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...