Could Richard III actually sling a sword?

 

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Britain’s Channel 4 aired a fascinating documentary this past week, Recreating Richard III—a forensic investigation with a twist (spinal twist really). Historians have always questioned the battle prowess of Richard III given his back deformity and after his remains were conclusively identified, and the extent of his scoliosis seen, these doubts took on greater weight.

Step in Toby Capwell of the Wallace Collection and the Channel 4 team who set about trying to discover whether Richard could have actually dealt with the physical stress of medieval battle. Amazingly, and by chance, they linked up with a 27 year old reenactor with scoliosis. And, as it turned out, with the same degree of spinal curvature and shape as Richard III. Dominic Smee became Richard’s “body double” over a period of months, training in riding and swordfighting and even had a custom suit of armour made for him to account for his twisted ribcage and back.

The results were astounding and made for fascinating viewing as it turned out that even this degree of scoliosis would not preclude swinging a sword effectively. Dominic couched a lance, smacked the quintain, and sparred with foot soldiers. Even did a charge of 700 metres over broken ground.  Admittedly, endurance was a problem as his ribcage could not expand enough for his lungs and heart to pump effectively, meaning that he would run out of puff after a few minutes. As someone who used to reenact medieval combat in full armour, I know that feeling all too well and my ribcage is A1.

Some of the points were not all that surprising: turns out that riding in a medieval saddle provides more support and control than a modern one. Duh. The postage stamp of a modern English saddle is a joke to those of us who ride Western.  There was a parallel thread of analysis on Richard’s skeleton to provide clues on his diet. Turns out that after he became king, his meat and wine consumption went off the scale (leading researchers to claim this affected his overall health and could have contributed to physical failures in the field). But what about every other noble quaffing gallons of wine and eating a whole roast pig for lunch? Seems it was an even playing field in that respect. But at the time of his death, aged 32, his spine already had arthritis and constant pain would have been his companion. Far more likely a contributing factor to his demise perhaps.

For me, the answer was never in doubt. Far too many references in the historical record of Richard’s fighting prowess and not unexpected for someone who would have started training as a boy. Overall, a fun and compelling view and well worth catching if you can online.

Memento Mori

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It’s not your ordinary run-of-the-mill holiday snapshot I’ll admit, but to see it was both moving and slightly disturbing. We were in the Languedoc region in southern France last week and visited a medieval abbey in the hamlet of St. Guilhem le Dessert which lies tucked into a verdant hillside fed by mountain streams. The abbey crypt  contains the bones of Saint Guilhem, an advisor to Charlemagne and the the founder of the abbey who brought back three pieces of the True Cross from Rome. The abbey eventually became a major stopping point for pilgrims on their way to Spain and Santiago de Compostela. The crypt also contains this bit of installation art entitled “Memento Mori”. It’s actually a giant rosary comprised of  fetters and human skulls and is, depending on your point of view, very devotional or just plain macabre. I sort of liked it (which probably tells you a lot about me). The bottom of the rosary chain (which is out of frame) extends beyond the iron bars that seal off the crypt and terminates in two leg irons that lay unlocked and open upon the floor. Symbolic of the release to a better world, I suppose. At any rate, for the kids running around me it was probably as good as any ride in the Fun House at the amusement park.

But something else resonated for me. The opening chapter of my current work in progress, The Guns of Ivrea, is set in an underground crypt and involves a terrible discovery made there by the monks. It was more than a little spooky to see the place you had built in your mind’s eye now laid out for real before you. From the worn sandstone slabs and stones, eroded capitals on the ancient pillars, and the dust of ages on the dirt floor, if a writer ever needed raw material for his imagination, then here it was. We ended up visiting several medieval towns and their Romanesque churches and abbeys on our trip in the Herault region and each offered something unique in detail, evoking more images and scenes I have already written as well as some I have yet to scribble down. They say that travel broadens the mind, but for a writer, it can also supply the spark to bring fiction and the characters that inhabit it, to life.

I’m headed to Loncon3

OK, folks, it’s bearing down on us like a runaway double-decker on Hampstead Hill. It’s Loncon3:LONCON3_logo_270w the 72 World Science Fiction Convention held at the London ExCel Centre from 14-18 August. This one looks set to be huge with a packed programme and many multi-media events in addition to the usual literary discussions and panels.

I’ll be taking a seat alongside Anne Lyle, Elizabeth Hand, Laura Goodin and John Clute for a panel session on the Sunday (1500-1630) called:

Imagining London: History and Fantasy

 

And here’s how the organizers bill it:

London has long been a rich venue for fantastical storytelling. But  how has the image of fantastic London changed over time? How was fantastic London created in the work of writers like Dickens, Stoker  and Doyle, and how does that vision differ from the historical-fantasy  London’s writers are creating today? Which aspects of London have  consistently attracted writers, and which aspects have been unjustly neglected?

I’m dusting off my 19th century fantasy tomes and revising to prepare for what should be a fascinating discussion come the day.

SF Chronicles interview

chronicles-logo-3Last week, Brian Turner over at SF Chronicles kindly asked me for an interview about writing historical fiction and he’s graciously allowed me to share it with you here. So, read on, or better yet, go check out the SF Chronicles site itself: http://www.sffchronicles.co.uk/forum/548768-interview-with-clifford-beal.html

 

Many thanks for talking with chronicles. :)

Very happy for the opportunity!

First things first – The Raven’s Banquet is a cracking book, but only appears as an eBook on Amazon at present. Are there any plans for Solaris to launch a paperback as yet?

Actually, Solaris has published a special limited edition paperback, initially available only through ForbiddenPlanet.com so readers can grab a copy via their shops or the internet. Solaris may offer it on their website at some point and there will be copies at upcoming cons this summer and autumn. It’s a beautiful edition with an exciting cover and endpaper illustrations.Raven's Banquet

One immediate problem I can see with the novel is where to place it, in terms of genre – on the one hand, it’s potentially ‘historical fiction’, but on the other, could be ‘flintlock fantasy’. I think I’ve seen you describe yourself as an “historical fantasy writer”. Do you see yourself as a cross-over writer, or do you prefer one pigeonhole over another? And did you have any problems getting Gideon’s Angel accepted for publishing because of that?

I do see myself as a historical fantasy writer but I hate to have my work pigeon-holed into neat little categories. Genre fiction has exploded in the last 20 years into so many sub-categories that it’s all become a bit muddled if you feel the compulsion to put fantasy into neat little boxes. Historical fantasy, urban fantasy, horror, alternate history, all of these could describe Raven’s Banquet and Gideon’s Angel but my aim was to just write historical adventure with a fantastical twist. Certainly, with “crossover” works you run the risk of falling between two stools. With marketeers running the major publishing houses these days at the expense of editors, if you can’t shove a book into a clearly definable category (and a ready existing market) it risks rejection. Shame really.  I’m pleased that Solaris champions works that are chimeras and I think genre readers benefit from it.

 

One of the more interesting things about your writing is the use of inflected language to create something of a period feel. Did you ever worry that this might be a risk, and alienate some potential readers? Or did you always see it as an essential part of the setting and atmosphere itself?

This is always a tough call when you write historical fiction. Too much modern slang and you can destroy the spell you’re trying to create. And on the other side, if you strive to accurately recreate period language and cadence you run the risk of readers not having a clue what your characters are saying. But I agree that some form of period speech is essential in creating that realistic setting and conveying the atmosphere of a time gone by. I sought to achieve a balance in the language by providing enough cues and archaic phrasing to make the reader understand this is set in the 17th century but not to make it obscure and a turn-off. I’d like to think I got this balance right and luckily most readers seem to agree.

 

Historical research obviously plays a role in your writing, and there’s a long debate on how much fact can be dispensed with by fiction in fantasy writing. How do you personally balance the demands of the story vs the demands of the historical record, and do you find it difficult?

To paraphrase an expression, “History: you really could not make this s**t up.” So many amazing and interesting things have happened in any given time period that for me it’s more a case of grafting on the fantastical to what really transpired. I’d like to think I was fairly meticulous in researching time and place in both the Treadwell novels. But I included only what was absolutely necessary for the reader to know about the politics or intrigues at the time to build the plot and atmosphere and one certainly doesn’t have to understand the English Civil War or the court of young Louis XIV to follow the story in my novels. It’s all about the characters and the plotlines and I have avoided throwing in lumps of exposition to set the scenes. Hard to do that anyway when you write first-person narrative. And I’ve never intentionally changed events, customs or places to fit a storyline which is something often seen in cinematic treatments of history. I find Braveheart toe-curlingly awful. Speaking for myself, I haven’t had trouble squaring the circle between accuracy and storytelling. I just try and let the reader absorb the atmosphere of the 17th century without giving an overt history lesson and let the plot drive things along.

 

FC-BC (GIDEON'S ANGEL) US smallYou now have two Richard Treadwell stories out, but what plans do you have for the future? Do you plan to keep with him as a serial character, or do you have different projects bursting to get out that you hope to share with us son?

I absolutely love Colonel Treadwell in all his shades of moral greyness. I have an outline for another Treadwell adventure, this time set in Massachusetts in the 1650s. Think Puritan ayatollahs, unhappy Indians, and a Lovecraftian horror based on an actual native legend. But that’s on hold for the moment as I’ve begun an epic fantasy series for Solaris set in a secondary world very much like renaissance Europe—only with mermen. And manticores.  I suppose you’d call it a traditional epic fantasy but I see it as historical too. Sort of as if someone from 1490 was penning a  “contemporary” fantasy using the mythological.  It’s called Valdur and should be out next summer.

 

One of the problems with writing about war is that inevitably its unpleasant nature will have to be described. You give us a glimpse of the horrors in The Raven’s Banquet, but you don’t flood the reader with it. Do you find it a challenge to determine how much violence to show, and how concerned are you about pushing a reader’s boundaries of comfort?

For me, the subliminal is usually preferable to an outright gore-fest. Not because it is necessarily bloody but because it can get very boring.  Having severed limbs and spilled entrails every few pages quickly desensitises you—or puts you to sleep.  The build-up and suspense leading to the violence of murder or battle can lend itself to providing character insight while the brutality itself becomes a graphic depiction of those drives and motives. If writing fiction is painting in words, sometimes not showing something allows the reader’s own imagination to take over. That said, I haven’t shied away from bloodletting in my novels and it’s difficult to write about a soldier’s life without describing violence. Again, it’s a question of balance. I found it difficult to write a scene in Raven’s where torture is inflicted on a hapless merchant. But it had to be described to show the immensity of what was happening to the main character and his slow slide into depravity.

 

Now that you’re establishing yourself as a fiction writer, which other books would you cite as particular influences? And are there any fantasy authors currently being published that you especially keep an eye out for?

Michael Moorcock has always been a great influence on me as a writer and I’ve been reading him since the early 70s. He seamlessly blends good history and high fantasy in many of his works and as a storyteller he is second to none. The Warhound and the World’s Pain is a particular favourite of mine, as it’s set in the 17th century. But all of his novels have brought me immense pleasure over the years. I’m looking forward to his “White Friars” series which is out in November. And although it’s not fantasy,  I have greatly admired the scope and prose of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin books. Now that is true literary historical fiction. Readers today are spoilt for choice in fantasy with so many great voices out there. I’ve got a copy of Mark Alder’s Son of the Morning on my desk and I’m looking forward to diving in soon. If you haven’t heard, it’s the Hundred Years War but this time God and Lucifer pick sides to actively support!

 

The inevitable writer’s advice question! Are there any particular tips or recommendations you would pass on to aspiring writers, to help them on their journey?

It may sound trite, but nevertheless it’s as true today as it has always been: Don’t give up. Keep scribbling, keep reading others, and never be afraid to rip up your prose and rewrite it. I’ve never regretted a single rewrite I’ve done and invariably your work will always benefit.

 

Many thanks for speaking with us – it’s been a pleasure, Cliff. :)

 

 

Robert E Howard’s “Solomon Kane” revisited

Wrote a retro review for the July issue of SFX Magazine which the editors have graciously allowed me to reproduce here. It was a very different experience reading R.E. Howard again after so many years–and not an altogether pleasant one. Have a read and let me know what you think.

 

The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane
Robert E Howard, (Del Rey, 1998)
Writer Clifford Beal considers Conan’s Puritan stablemate

Robert E Howard, who took his own life at the age of 30, was the father of kane
that
 subgenre of fantasy that would become known as “sword and sorcery”. Best known as the creator of Conan the Barbarian, Howard’s writings influenced a generation of fantasy authors, including Fritz Leiber and David Gemmell.

But before Conan, Howard had created a very different character in Solomon Kane, a mysterious Puritan loner who roams the darker corners of the world, fighting ancient and nameless evil in the early 17th century. Bursting from the pages of Weird Tales in 1928, Solomon Kane fought Lovecraft-inspired deities, demons, pirates and scores of hostile natives to rescue the helpless and right wrong wherever he saw it. Kane is far more conflicted and layered a character than Conan, and Howard portrays him as driven, if not downright psychopathic. In “The Blue Flame Of Vengeance” Kane remarks to a man he is helping: “It hath been my duty in times past to ease various evil men of their lives…” Which is an understatement.

To be sure, this is pulp fiction. You won’t find subplots or shades of grey here, and since these are largely short stories there is a definite headlong rush to get down to the business at hand, usually involving a good amount of swordplay and spilt blood. Anachronisms and cod “olde world” dialogue sometimes sound a sour note, but at its best, Howard’s writing is dazzlingly energetic, vivid and not without poetry. His descriptions of hand-to-hand fighting are compelling as they are brutal but even here there is a mastery of mood and intensity. In one scene, Howard’s imagery is chilling: an avenging Kane overpowers a murderous pirate in a knife fight and intentionally kills him by degrees, plunging in the tip of his dagger, one inch at a time.

kane2Yet there’s a darker side to the swashbuckling. Racial stereotyping was always present in pulp fiction and Asian or African physical features were often used as shorthand for moral turpitude and inferiority. Sadly, much of the writing in Solomon Kane follows this path. A few of the better-known tales such as “The Moon Of Skulls” are set in central Africa, where Kane encounters the remnants of an ancient civilisation ruled over by brutish savages. And here, black skin colour is equated with degenerate evil, with Kane portrayed as a white saviour intent on toppling the evil African queen Nekari. Even the last survivor of Atlantis, whom Kane tries to free from bondage, is worried about his ethnic purity: “I, the last son of Atlantis, bear in my veins the taint of Negro blood.”

But Howard and his characters are full of contradictions. Solomon Kane’s self-professed “blood brother” is a black African wizard and the only real friend that Kane has in any of the stories. And in “The Footfalls Within” Kane risks his life to free African villagers from Arab slavers and then guides them to safety. Solomon Kane’s tales are, like those of Conan, rousing epics, and as part of our pulp-era inheritance they deserve to be read. But like much of our past, it’s not all good. Today Howard’s writing, imaginative as it is, leaves a slightly bitter aftertaste.

 

 

Have pen, will travel: a couple of recent guest blog posts

DuffelWith Raven’s Banquet now having flown the nest and work well under way on the next fantasy series, I’ve penned a couple of  guest blogs for some super websites.  Have a look at the excellent Fantastical Librarian blog, run by Mieneke: http://ow.ly/xcbTr 

And John over at the award-winning  SF Signal website asked me to blog about the experience of writing historical fantasy which you can read here: http://ow.ly/xccp9

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The Raven has Landed…well almost

We’re one week away from the launch of The Raven’s Banquet, the prequel to Gideon’s Angel. Published by Solaris Books on 13 May as an ebook, there will also be an exclusive first-edition paperback on sale through Forbidden Planet megastores beginning on 17 May. Forbidden Planet London will also be hosting a signing on Saturday 17 May from 1-2pm at Shaftesbury Avenue so if you’re in the Big Smoke come on down and pick up an autographed limited edition while the ink is still wet. And for those fans of the genus Corvus out there, here is a look at the magnificent cover.

Raven's Banquet

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