The Raven’s Banquet is coming

on camera

 

 

I’m excited to announce that Solaris Books is publishing the next Richard Treadwell adventure, called The Raven’s Banquet, on 13 May. It’s actually a prequel and will tell the story of how Treadwell got into the soldiering business to begin with. Set on two timelines, 1645 and 1626,  the novel delves into dark places and the past actions of a youthful mercenary. These will intrude into the hero’s present predicament as he awaits trial for treason in the Tower. And readers will also learn more about his predilection for finding trouble of the supernatural sort. Think Platoon meets The Wicker Man. I’ve just completed some video interviews and readings at Solaris HQ and these will be posted on the Solaris website in the coming weeks along with the knockout cover that the team is putting together.

Raven’s Banquet will be available from the Rebellion Publishing store and from Amazon and other online retailers.

Here’s a taster of things:

Germany 1626: A War, a Witch, a Reckoning….

Richard Treadwell is a young man who dreams of glory and honour on the battlefield—and the plunder and riches that would follow. With the help of his father, he journeys to Hamburg to seek his fortune as a mercenary in the Danish army when it intervenes in the vast war that rages in northern Germany between the Catholic Hapsburg empire and the Protestant princes of the north.

But he brings with him an old secret—and the potential seed of his own destruction—as he descends into a horrific maelstrom of conflict and slaughter that quickly destroys his illusions of adventure, of right and wrong, and of good and evil.

When his fate is foreshadowed by a young gypsy woman, he discovers that he cannot outrun what he left behind in England and he soon finds himself thrown headlong into a series of bloody skirmishes alongside the Danes that strip him of conscience and harden his heart. The opposing armies close for a battle that will be the turning point in the struggle for the kingdom—and in the war for his soul. But even as Treadwell steels himself for the final contest against the forces of the Holy Roman Emperor, an unseen enemy stalks him within his own camp.

Fleeing the battlefield, his life takes an even darker turn when he stumbles upon a coven of peasant women dwelling deep in the forest of the Harz Mountains, women that have their own terrible secrets to protect—and a burning hatred to avenge.

The hero of Gideon’s Angel returns to tell how his journey into the supernatural began.

“They are attracted to you as salt attracts the beast in the field….”

Chatting with Solaris Editor Jonathan Oliver (left) and publicist Mike Molcher after we wrap the interview.

Chatting with Solaris Editor Jonathan Oliver (left) and publicist Mike Molcher after we wrap the interview.

Noel Coward: On writing

N CowardWent to see one of Noel Coward’s earlier plays, Fallen Angels, last week in Brighton. A very enjoyable light romp he penned back in 1925. It was well-acted and hugely entertaining. We stumped up a few quid for the programme book too and this was particularly good in that it contained a short biography of Coward and some quotable quotes. This one particularly caught my attention:

“When I’m writing I’m at my desk and hope that by lunchtime something will have happened. Sometimes it doesn’t happen until about ten to one. Sometimes it flows from the word go. You can’t tell. But you can only do it by doing it regularly. My advice to aspiring actors is to write, and try where possible in doing so to use a little critical faculty. Sit down at the desk and wait until something happens. Write. Work, and above all read everything you can lay your hands on. All of Shakespeare, all of Shaw, all Dickens. It’s quite enough to feed the brain and I find when reading a great classic I nearly always come away with knowledge and a penny.”

In popular memory, Coward comes across as a brilliant and witty dilettante, perfectly at home in the high society of his era, a cocktail in one hand and a cigarette in the other. We think of him arising at midday to dash off a three-act play before running out for a dinner with visiting Hollywood A-listers. But this was a studied persona he cultivated carefully. After all, he was an actor himself. In fact, Coward was a hard worker who often drove himself relentlessly in achieving what he wanted out of his craft. He may have affected an air of witty aloofness but behind this image was a writer who laboured long and hard, often insecure about how his work, and he himself, would be perceived by others. And his words of advice above appear sound wisdom based on experience. Don’t stop writing. Read everything you can.

OK, that’s weird

Coincidence or higher guidance?

When I had just begun to write Gideon’s Angel I was living in a perfectly positioned but somewhat tatty flat in London just opposite the Law Courts where the Strand turns into Fleet Street. And as I stood up there on the top floor looking down at the double-deckers and pedestrians coming and going, I tried puzzling out various plot angles for the 17th century historical novel that was forming in my head. I quickly realized that if the main character was bent on assassination of a major leader, he would at some point have to run into some of the famous of the time and not just his intended target. And if there was going to be a supernatural element to all this in the form of a parallel plot run by some deluded extremists, then that might require some other heavy-hitters known during Cromwell’s era.

I knew that Oliver Cromwell’s chief of intelligence and master spy was a man named John chancery laneThurloe, a London-trained lawyer. If my protagonist was also going to be a spy and rogue assassin, I would have to have him cross paths—or swords—with Mr. Thurloe. And it was just about this time that a rather sublime thing happened to me in London. I was walking up Chancery Lane, about two minutes away from my flat, when I looked up at a blue plaque on one of the buildings leading to Lincoln’s Inn. It was to honour John Thurloe, secretary of state, who had lived on the site.

Thurloe plaqueThat was enough of a coincidence to make me stop in my tracks and smile. But not long after, I was walking up the Strand, again no more than two minutes from home, when another plaque caught my eye. This was a green one very high up the wall outside the old disused Aldwych tube station near King’s aldwych tubeCollege. It was in honour of William Lilly, “master astrologer” 1602-1681 who had lived at a house on the site of the tube station. The proverbial light bulb blinked on and I remembered that King Charles had an astrologer who also ended up working for Cromwell. It was him. Once back at the flat, a bit of googling brought the information I needed and another character for Gideon’s Angel had been found. That’s the interesting thing about living in London. You just never know who your neighbours are going to be.

Lilly plaque

The Real d’Artagnan: larger than fiction

With the premiere of the BBC’s new drama series The Musketeers, a whole new generation is

The original and best: Charles de Batz Castelmore

The original and best: Charles de Batz Castelmore

now discovering one of the great characters of dramatic fiction: d’Artagnan. Hopefully, a few might be inspired to actually read the original book. The Sunday night drama is only the latest in a long line of screen portrayals based on Alexander Dumas’s 19th century novels of adventure, set in 17th century France.  In fact, the oldest film version of The Three Musketeers goes back to 1921. Most of these portrayals have been based to a greater or lesser extent on Dumas’s characterization of the iconic Gascon in Paris.

But the truth of the d’Artagnan legend, now firmly ensconced in popular culture, is far less widely known. Monsieur d’Artagnan was in fact an actual historical figure, famous in his own time and yes,  a musketeer of the king of France. Dumas had discovered a heavily fictionalized account of the life of Charles de Batz-Castelmore d’Artagnan written by a 17th century author named Courtilz de Sandras and based his romances on the story of d’Artagnan as portrayed by de Sandras. The real d’Artagnan had a life as every bit exciting as the character in Dumas’s books, but Dumas made some significant changes including setting the action of the novel several years before the real d’Artagnan ever even joined the musketeers.

Luke Pasqualino as d'Artagnan (sans chapeau)

Luke Pasqualino as d’Artagnan (sans chapeau) in the new BBC drama

In the books, d’Artagnan and his companions, loyal servants of King Louis XIII, work to thwart the plans of devious Cardinal Richelieu and his agents. In fact, the real d’Artagnan served as a trusted secret agent of Richelieu’s successor, Cardinal Mazarin, carrying out a number of diplomatic missions for him while he rose in the Garde Francaise and later in the King’s Musketeers (which had been disbanded earlier in 1646. With Mazarin as his patron, d’Artagnan served Louis XIV at home and abroad, eventually rising to become commander of the famed company. He fought in several major military campaigns, served as the governor of Lille after the city fell to French forces(you can still see the house he lived in) and finally met his death in 1673 while taking part in the siege of Maastricht against the Dutch. Indeed, he died after being shot in the throat while fighting alongside some very rare allies: the English. A young officer named John Churchill was there in the same trench, the future Duke of Marlborough.

Michael York needs a longer blade in the 1974 movie version

Michael York needs a longer blade in the 1974 movie version

When I decided to make d’Artagnan a significant character in my own novel, Gideon’s Angel, I wanted to model him on the real man and not the version in The Three Musketeers. With the action in Gideon’s Angel taking place in the early 1650s, this made it easy for me to write in d’Artagnan as a secret agent of Cardinal Mazarin, travelling to England to stop a plot to assassinate Oliver Cromwell. He’s young, confident, and brash, but also deeply honourable in his wary relationship with the novel’s protagonist, exiled king’s cavalier Richard Treadwell. It was tremendous fun writing scenes that pitted my jaded, war-weary middle-aged hero against this cocksure young French soldier with carte blanche and a “license to kill” from arguably the most powerful man in Europe.

Douglas Fairbanks strikes a pose in the silent film of 1921

Douglas Fairbanks strikes a pose in the silent film of 1921

To be sure, Alexander Dumas did right by the memory of Charles de Batz-Castelmore as a brave man of adventure, and hopefully I have as well. But the real exploits of this remarkable Frenchman are every bit as compelling and exciting as those of the fiction. I recommend Odile Bordaz’s 2010 biography, titled simply: D’Artagnan.

Review: The Musketeers (BBC One)

Hell Bent for Leather

I really shouldn’t complain. It’s a rare thing to get TV drama and film to cover the 17th century musketeers1at all, so when something from that era comes along on the screen I want it to succeed and succeed well. And with a property like Dumas’s Three Musketeers, it ought to be knocking on an open door. Enter the BBC with its new reimagining of the classic tale. This coming Sunday episode 2 airs on BBC One and I fervently hope that it raises the bar from last week’s shaky opener.

musketeers2Episode 1 was an origin story of sorts, introducing us to the main characters while injecting a plotline that centred around the nefarious Cardinal Richelieu’s scheme to discredit our erstwhile heroes by implicating them in a series of murderous robberies in the countryside. It all leads to a somewhat predictable race-against-time story to prevent the execution of musketeer Athos after he faces a rather hasty trial. All the elements are there and the characters we know and love. But it’s a wild deviation from the Dumas storyline as you would expect from something that is trying not to cover the same ground galloped over gracefully by Richard Lester’s classic 70s swashbucklers.musketeers3

While I didn’t think any of the musketeers were particularly riveting characters and the repartee got a bit silly, Peter Capaldi entertains as Cardinal Richelieu. As the leading black hat in this romp he gets most of the best lines. The sets are good since most of it is filmed in the Czech Republic and likewise the weaponry is generally up to scratch (not a flintlock in sight thank God!). The swordfights, of which there are many, are staged competently if not always convincingly. Perhaps these will improve as the series moves forward (and they get more practice in).

Costuming is another story though. To be charitable I could call it “whimsical”. The musketeers are dressed like they had a rummage through the costume box backstage at Universal Studios. Rather than Frenchmen from 1630, they look more like a cross between leather-clad Sergio Leone-style Mexican baddies and extras from Game of Thrones thanks to some bizarre bits of armour tacked on to their shoulders. And what were those red leather ponchos that the Cardinal’s guard were running around in? Even Peter Capaldi gets a black, all-leather padded doublet, hardly de rigueur for a man of the church. Obviously, a lot of cows gave their lives in the making of this series. Gorgeous Maimie McCoy as the evil Milady de Winter walks around dressed for the most part like a streetwalker from 1870s Paris. All this jars the eye and I doubt it is accidental. The producers are striving for an edgy, “hip” feel that will appeal to a younger audience. One that’s heavily into leather apparently. Authenticity be damned.

I suppose I’ll keep watching for now—and hoping. For an actual proper review of the series and not my ramblings,  I recommend (and agree with) David Benedict over at The Arts Desk:  http://www.theartsdesk.com/tv/musketeers-bbc-one

I love it when a plan comes together….

Writing historical fiction, even historical fantasy, places certain demands on an author that are different from those in writing science fiction or epic fantasy (with the possible exception The Cockpitof steampunk). Capturing the feel of a bygone era requires careful research in order to gain that fidelity of time and place. OK, not all readers might know the difference or spot anachronisms unless they’re obvious—like a Mongol warrior burning down a village with his Zippo—but many do. And there’s nothing that will kill reader interest faster than a clunker in the setting that breaks the spell.

Some of the crucial scenes in Gideon’s Angel are set in the palace of Whitehall in London in the year 1653. Today, the only remaining portion of that once huge and sprawling complex is the Banqueting House. Most of Whitehall burned to the ground back in 1698, never to be rebuilt. My challenge was to describe the palace through the eyes of my characters, a place I could never visit (unlike Hampton Court). Luckily, I had some help. There were a few architectural plans done of the palace in the mid to late 17th century and they still exist. Also, a couple of paintings show the palace from the same time period. This one by Hendrick Danckerts in 1675 was particularly key. It pictures the west side of the complex from St. James’s Park. By studying the floor plan and the painting, I was able to whitehallwrite a vivid climax that not just described accurately that part of Whitehall including a rickety external staircase and Oliver Cromwell’s apartments, but also used key buildings, such as the Cockpit theatre (the domed part of the palace to the right of the painting) to set an otherworldly showdown between good and evil. Probably the most amazing performance ever witnessed in the Cockpit!

Was this level of verisimilitude really necessary? True, I could have made up the whole layout and floor plan and many readers would have been none the wiser. But there was a reason for doing this other than for the sake of historical accuracy. The real incentive of using the surviving sources, these echoes in time, was that these gave me enhanced clarity and detail to fire my imagination all the more.  And I honestly believe I’ve written a far better scene because of it.

Anti-Santa makes a comeback

Say hello to Krampus

225px-Krampus_at_Perchtenlauf_KlagenfurtMy mother Face-Timed me yesterday, rather upset, to say she had received a “very disturbing” Christmas card from my sister. It showed a sleigh and children but instead of Santa there was a jet-black, horned and cloven-hoofed demon driving. Pictured with a red tongue that would put Gene Simmons of KISS to shame, the creature was stuffing a frightened boy into a wicker basket. Turns out this was a Wilhelmine-era German Christmas card showing Saint Nicholas’s seldom-seen other half, Krampus. In Central European Christmas mythology,  old Saint Nick was always a double act: he would reward good children with sweets and toys while the bad kids got a visit from Krampus instead and a lump of coal. If you were really bad, Krampus would take you on a one-way trip to Krampusland. Great parental leveraging tool.

225px-Gruss_vom_KrampusI should have known this tradition having been married to a German woman for many years but strangely didn’t. However, Krampus celebrations are not universal in Germany, having started in the Alpine regions and then spreading into Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In the Netherlands and northern Germany, St. Nicholas’s “helper” is “Black Peter”, usually portrayed as a man in blackface makeup. In recent years, some have called for Black Peter to be cut from parades because of perceived racist overtones. But the southern tradition of the hairy, horned demonic creature who accompanies St. Nick on his travels actually predates Christianity as he was once part of pagan winter rituals. It was most probably grafted onto Christmas when that festival displaced Yule in early medieval times. For most of the 20th century, civic and church authorities had repressed this ancient tradition, and in many places, St. Nick lost the flip side of his coin. But that is beginning to change and Krampus celebrations are having a bit of a comeback in southern Germany. After I decided to blog about this, I saw that the Guardian ran a short piece on the same subject yesterday. They put the resurgence of Krampus down to a societal reflex against the commercialization of Christmas and all the saccharine trimmings that accompany it. Sort of getting back to one’s roots really.krampus kidCostumed performers are now popping up everywhere (including some big US cities) during the Feast of St. Nicholas on 6 December, prancing through the streets and frightening the bejeezus out of little kids. Sweet. I think I’m a bit envious the tradition wasn’t around for me when I was a kid. Beats the hell out of Rudolph and his red nose.

 

 

The “Protectorate” declared in London 360 years ago this week:

England’s short-lived republic was bold, imperfect, novel and short-lived but we’re still debating the same issues today

oc2Well, folks, it’s history time and this week is the 360th anniversary of the founding of the Protectorate government in a unified Commonwealth Britain under Oliver Cromwell. “So what?” you may well ask given that a fair few years have passed since then. But I would argue it’s worth stopping to think about this very unusual period in British history and the echoes of it we hear today.

The action in my novel Gideon’s Angel takes place in the months leading up to Cromwell’s effective “kingship” in December 1653. The book revolves around two plots to assassinate him before the Protectorate is established, one Royalist and one infernal. And amongst all the action and swashbuckling, incantations and demon-summoning, there are some interesting themes about who is good and who is bad. I paint Cromwell as a sympathetic figure, a man trying to square an impossible political circle in the ashes of a horrific civil war. He polarized opinion in his own time and continues to do so in ours. And he has received rather a bad rap in our collective memory not least for the brutality of the campaign he waged to subdue Ireland. Yet the Protectorate that he and the few men in his inner circle forged, was a system of government way ahead of its time and one that later influenced the men of the Enlightenment both in Europe and North America.

To quote the website of the Cromwell Association: “Firstly, the Cromwellian Protectorate was the first truly British government in our history, the first to lay serious claim to rule over and to pull together the disparate nations of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Secondly, the Protectorate was the first and so far the last government in our history to be empowered and to operate according to the terms of a detailed written constitution.”

We in the UK are still arguing about the need for a written constitution today, and the need for a reformed (or abolished) House of Lords, or a state church. The Protectorate only lasted a few years and much of what it established was undone in the Stuart Restoration. And it disappointed those true republicans who thought that it was a monarchy in all but name (It was briefly debated that Cromwell ought to become King Oliver but he chose “Lord Protector” instead). But it was a novel experiment in modern government and for all its faults, not a bad effort compared to what had gone before or even what came after.

Again, to quote the Cromwell Association: “The new regime generally held true to the path Cromwell set for it in December 1653 – “to act for God and the peace and good of the Nation, and particularly…to consider and relieve the distress of the poor and oppressed. We should remember and commemorate it.”

Not everyone will agree with that sentiment but Cromwell and the Protectorate are part and parcel of our history and the ripples from that political experiment can still be felt.

 

 

Authors reviewing authors

Is it an “ethics alert” or “just business”?

I was never really a committed book reviewer. Sure, I’ve got a shelf on Goodreads, albeit rather sparse compared to some folks on that site (just keep forgetting to add all of my books), and I have in the past given out stars and comments on some of the books there. Just had too much fun reading books, lots of them, and not writing about them after I’d done so. But since joining the ranks of published novelists, I’ve begun feeling somewhat queasy about the idea of authors reviewing authors. And I’m not sure why.scratch

All authors started out as readers you might say, so why can’t they continue to write as readers and review the works of others? Well, they can and do. Some rather well. But with the rise of the internet, there are now channels other than the Sunday papers and book sections with which to post book reviews from both professional literary critics and the proverbial man-in-the-street. Reviews are an important fact of publishing life now that Amazon rules the roost. Some authors are even developing a whole new form of OCD in which they incessantly Google their work daily to check their reviews (what! moi?). This leads to “coping behaviours” in psych parlance—like writing your own reviews of your novel under clever pseudonyms. Or how about “reviewing circles” where author A promises to review author B’s book in return for similar treatment?

I think part of the reason I’m uneasy about this is because for people reading my reviews, it might call into question my motives for writing them. If I pen a good one, some might say I was looking to curry favour, like fishing for that next cover blurb from Stephen King. Slam a fellow scribe’s lifework and I’m just a jealous hack settling scores. Scratch my back I’ll scratch yours is a powerful driver, especially for authors who are insecure and fretting at the best of times. Wanting to be liked and having one’s work liked is also a basic emotion. Would writing a review—good or bad—affect how my novel is reviewed in future?

I don’t have a definitive view on this, rather a vague sense of disquiet. Like that unidentified noise in the cellar. At night. When you’re all alone. I suppose there are exceptions to everything but how often do you see artists writing as art critics? Or chefs blogging as restaurant reviewers? Perhaps something to be considered (and I might try it if I can get motivated enough to start writing reviews again) is for authors not to review in their own genres. That would at least remove most of the suspicion from readers’ minds. I first published non-fiction history before moving over to historical fiction and fantasy. I’d feel more confident reviewing non-fiction if I was no longer writing it for publication myself. Just a thought. What are your views on authors reviewing authors? I’d be happy to post some responses to this blog once I get a chance after checking my Amazon rankings. Again.

‘Zounds it’s Halloween Hounds!

Reading and book signing in Surrey on All Hallows Eveshingle

Before heading down to my British “hometown” of Brighton for the upcoming World Fantasy Convention (31 Oct-3 Nov) I will be doing a reading and signing of Gideon’s Angel in Old Oxted, Surrey at the Crown Inn on the 31st.

The Crown is a 16th century coaching inn, now a famous local pub, and they’ll be hosting me as I read a suitably chilling scene from the novel. More than likely this will feature a 16th-century coaching inn and the unwelcome arrival of a five-foot high Black Dog straight from the gates of Hell. The landlord will lay on some food and stoke the roaring hearth fire while you can get your pint and a copy of Gideon’s and settle in for a cosy fright night.crown inn

Check over your shoulder as you walk up the medieval High Street and drag yourself in from the chill around 7:30pm. My dulcet tones from about 8pm.

The Crown Inn, 53 High Street,  Oxted RH8 9LN