Review – A Gathering of Ghosts

One thing that the Historical Novel Society Conference got right this year was the Goody Bags.

Yes, there was no special branded bag to show off – someone said there had been a delay, so we had plain cotton bags, mine was purple. It contained the usual collection of advertising leaflets, specially printed first chapters/short stories, book marks and cards, a bottle of water and a Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer.

It also contained a book; a full length 500+ page book and what is more, it was a book I wanted to read! A proof copy of Karen Maitland’s latest novel, A Gathering of Ghosts. When I got home, I ignored all the editing I planned to do and sat down to enjoy it. Since it is published today, 6th September, and I haven’t posted a review here for a while, I decided to write one. (The editing can wait a bit longer!)

Karen’s books are different from anything written by anyone else. They are usually set in a specific place, a long way away in time and place, away from the big picture of historical fiction, but at a local level they say everything about what is happening in the wider world.

A Gathering of Ghosts is set on Dartmoor, or Dertemora as the locals call it, a slightly different place with a character of its own. The year is 1316. Europe is in the grip of famine, caused by months of wet weather. Crops have failed, animals die and there is no avoiding the wind and rain.

The Priory of St Mary contains a group of women, Sisters of the Order of the Knights of St John. Under their Prioress, Johanne they are surviving better than most, from the donations to the Holy Well. But the local people consider the well, sacred to the old Goddess Brigid, belongs to them. On the moor, starving men mine for tin and no-one can stop them.

It is not long since the Knights Templar were destroyed. The Hospitallers benefitted from their fall, but are wary of suffering the same fate. Brother Nicholas arrives at the Priory. He knows that women cannot be trusted to run their own affairs; the sisters must be removed. At the same time a blind boy appears at the Priory. Is he a devil or an innocent requiring protection?

The scene is set for confrontation as women fight for freedom from the domination of men; the Sisters for their independence, the villagers for their sacred well and the old religion, and the starving women of the tinners from slavery.

And as the rain falls, the land itself stirs.

As I expected, it was a dark and fascinating book, full of history and legend – giant dogs roam the hills! There is magic, or is that just in the minds of those who expect to see it? There are extensive Historical Notes that explain many of the myths and stories the author has used.

One of the best books this author has written. I would have bought it myself, if I hadn’t been lucky enough to receive this free uncorrected proof copy.

Hardback £20.99

Ebook £9.49

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Historical Novel Society Conference, 2018

Writers, in general, tend to be wee, sleekit, cowran, tim’rous beasties and writers of historical fiction are no different. We hide, seeing nobody, ignoring even our friends and family, concentrating only on our research/writing/editing, only the occasional glance at Twitter for light relief and kittens.

However, collect 100+ historical fiction writers together in a Hotel and Golf Resort in Scotland and you can barely hear yourself think for the noise.

Yes it was the end of August 2018 and time for the Historical Novel Society Conference. I don’t know why HNS arranged all those Keynote speeches, and Break-out sessions, they could have just locked the doors and let us chat in peace.

Friday afternoon and attendees gathered, the main topic of conversation was where we were from and how far we had travelled. Naturally there were a lot of Scots, and Americans. The English seemed to be in short supply. For anyone who has never been to one of these events, the conversation then continues: Am I talking to another author, or someone else? What era? What stage – planning, writing, published? If so, how? Sometimes you find a “twin” and can end up in a deep and meaningful discussion in the type of mud and height of reeds in the fenland near Ely.

But what about the planned program? There were too many alternatives to go into detail, so I will just pick out what I remember.

Friday evening, after a buffet dinner,  there was supposed to be a talk by Robin Ellis, the original Poldark, but he was indisposed. Instead Graham Hunter, costume designer for Outlander and other films and TV, showed us some of the original clothes he had collected over the years, mostly survivals from the eighteenth century. He was informative and enthusiastic, but unfortunately let down by the microphone system – something that was to plague other speakers. The clothes were modelled by his assistant (Laurie?). Why don’t men look so smart nowadays?

This was followed by the Late Night Question Time Special, which was probably a bit too late for many.

Saturday was a beautiful day, what a pity we had to spend it indoors, but it was worth it. The first Keynote session was Alison Weir talking about Jane Seymour. Alison writes both fiction and non fiction and discussed the different constraints this puts on how you write. We heard a lot about the life of King Henry’s third wife and how difficult it can be to know what she felt about her position and what her intentions were. In non fiction we cannot say, in fiction we can take an educated guess. Alison also told us about a new theory about what caused the death of Jane. Fascinating.

Ben Kane talking about research, I think.

There was a pause for refreshments and for the room to be rearranged and it was on to the first Break-out Session. I had chosen Ben Kane on “Clash of Empires Rome v Greece.” Ben has written many acclaimed books on the Romans, but has decided on a change to the Greeks. He gave a brief run down on the world a generation after Alexander the Great, after the Roman army had been almost  totally destroyed at Cannae. Fighting broke out in Macedonia where Phillip V was surrounded by enemies. Rome intervened around 200 BC. What happened is told in Ben’s latest book, Clash of Empires, which of course I had to buy. An interesting talk about a little known period of history.

The next session was about using Ingram Spark, less exciting, but useful if I decide to  self publish my next book. This was followed by a buffet Lunch and then a session on writing Children’s Historical Fiction. I only caught the beginning and end of this as I had a pitch meeting booked. I don’t know why I put myself through it, but at least I wasn’t as nervous as last time, which I suppose is progress. Finding out about Children’s Historical Fiction would have been more helpful.

Later in the afternoon were more Plenary Sessions: The HNS Awards and reading of extracts from the winning entries, then “From Book to Radio/Screen. Paul Welsh and Trevor Royle discussed the differing methods of translating a book for transmission in other media. Both routes need much changes to the source material – in radio, how to suggest the things that cannot be seen, with film the difficulty is to capture the thoughts of the characters by the way they react to the world around them. Something to think about when writing.

We were then allowed a break. I went and lay on my bed for half an hour, before dressing for the Gala Dinner and Ceilidh.

As we gathered in the bar, we could hear a piper. He marched up and down outside (it was a lovely evening) and then he piped us into dinner.

I spoke earlier about the constant talk. As we waited for our food, we hardly noticed how long it took, although I heard some people gave up. Dinner was at 7.00 pm and it was after 8.00 before our starters arrived, perhaps too long, although it was very nice when it finally arrived.

The ceilidh, when it finally arrived was worth waiting for. By the number of people who asked how to pronounce the word, I realised that many participants had no idea what was to happen – some, I think were still mystified by the end. I will draw a veil over the proceedings, except to say that anyone who watched the dancing of the Gay Gordons will never forget it – those who took part probably still have the bruises – hilarious chaos.

On Sunday morning, people were already starting to leave – trains to catch etc. They probably don’t want to know, but they missed the best talk of the conference: the keynote speech by Sarah Dunant. This was slightly late in starting, I’m not sure why – had someone overslept? It was worth the wait though. Sarah writes about women’s lives in the Italian Renaissance, but today she was talking about the Borgias. Everyone knows about the Borgias – the pope and his family – the corruption, the poison, the incest. We had fun looking at some of the ways they have been portrayed in books and films, but was that the truth? Apparently not. Alexander VI was certainly not the most well behaved of renaissance popes, but he was by no means the worst. He was vilified because he was foreign, the family was Spanish. His daughter, Lucrezia gained a bad reputation from which, as can happen to a woman, she was unable to escape. The Fake News started almost immediately, never to let up. Until now, when Sarah Dunant has produced a possibly more accurate view of this famous family.

Sarah Dunant, Pope Alexander VI and someone else.

Something struck me when I came to write this post. I only bought two books at this conference. Fairly restrained for me, but I didn’t have much room in my luggage! They were books by the most informative and entertaining speakers, Sarah Dunant and Ben Kane. Is there any significance in this? Does being an engaging speaker help to sell your books. Something to think about!

The rest of the morning passed in a rush. The next session I attended was that of Margaret Skea on Stealing Stories, using real places and people and using them as a basis for your fiction. She explained how she used one castle she knew for the outside of her fictional version and a different one for the inside. She tried to use a real person as her main character, but found it too constricting, finally letting a minor imaginary character to tell the story.

At this point I would like to thank Margaret for all her work in organising the conference. She was continually on the move, solving problems, checking people were in the right place and allways with a smile on her face.

Galloping swiftly on to the final Break-out session: The Horse, a workshop with Jane Harlond on how to avoid making mistakes while using horses in our books. She even got us sitting backwards on our chairs to demonstrate the different stirrup positions when using a sword or throwing a lance. I wish we had had more time, but I learned a lot. I will certainly watch Poldark riding his horse along the cliffs in a new light!

Then it was time for the Historical Fiction Challenge, a series of questions to the panel and the audience. Despite the easy questions fed to the panel, the final winners were the audience. Congratulations all round. Then the conference was wrapped up, with an advert for the next, in USA in June 2019. I think I’ll wait for the next British event – I should have got my voice back by then!

My book on display (plus a few postcards I happened to drop nearby!)

I first went to a HNS conference two years ago. At the time I was still writing my first book. This time, that book is published  and the next is nearly finished. I enquired before the conference about selling my book there, but was informed that, due to lack of space, only speakers and helpers were allowed on the book stall – a very reasonable decision. However one of the speakers was Jeremy Thompson, Managing Director of Troubador Publishing Ltd and The Book Guild Ltd. He brought along a display for Matador Books and a few historical fiction books they have published. It included my book, Bright Sword, so although it wasn’t for sale, it was visible. Thank you Jeremy.

It was an amazing few days and wonderful to meet up with old friends and Twitter friends and to make new friends. See you all in 2020.

If you want to see more pictures taken at the Conference see the HNS website

And Finally, a picture to prove that I am unable to go to a HNS Conference and not get my hands on a sword!

 

Review – Viking Fire

Almost exactly a year ago, I returned from the Historical Novel Society Conference in Oxford, with a pile of books. I should imagine most people who attended were the same. A few weeks ago, I felt in need of a bit of Anglo-Saxon violence and started reading one of them, Shieldwall by Justin Hill. I had bought it because the author was on the panel of the session on “Battle Scenes: Guts, Gore and Glory.” There were only two Anglo-Saxon  writers on the panel, and I knew the other. So armed with my copy of Shieldwall, I barged up at the end and got it signed.

Justin Hill, Matthew Harffy, Harry Sidebottom, Douglas Jackson and Simon Scarrow talk Battles

I wish I’d read it earlier. I soon knew that this was something special. So when I noticed an offer of a copy of the next book in the series, Viking Fire, in exchange for an honest review. I jumped at it.

This is that review. Viking Fire is the second in the Conquest Series about the events leading up to the battles of 1066. In this book the focus is on Harald Hardrada, who won the first battle, at Fulford. He was then defeated, by Harold Godwinson, at Stanford Bridge. I must admit that I knew little more than that he was King of Norway. Why was he involved in this conflict?

Harald Sigurdson (Hardrada was a later nickname) had a long life – and what a life. The story starts, after a brief chapter at Fulford, when Harald is a boy. He idolizes his brother, King Olaf and when he is fifteen is allowed to stand beside him in battle. Unfortunately Olaf is killed and Harald is badly injured. He vows revenge on those responsible for his brother’s death – King Cnut, who takes the throne and his family. Harald must flee, grow strong enough to challenge for the throne.

Still recovering from his injuries, he has to navigate the mountains, in winter. Some offer help, others are enemies. When he reaches the coast, he must make a decision – catch a ship, but where? He heads east, into the frozen lands of the Rus. After years of fighting and trading in furs, he arrives in the Black Sea, captain of his own ship, to deliver a cargo of furs to the Emperor of the Greeks at Micklegard (Byzantium). He joins the Varangian Guard and rises to become one of their leaders, fighting battles at sea and in Greece and Sicily. He visits Jerusalem and becomes friendly with the Empress.

Having accumulated great riches he decides to return to the North to claim the throne of Norway. Not for the power, but for the good he can do, for Harald is an intelligent man. He sees the benefits that civilisation can bring to his homeland. He returns and briefly shares the throne with his nephew, Magnus, Olaf’s son. Magnus dies before they have time to come to blows, and Harald rules Norway for twenty years, building churches, founding Oslo, having children. By 1066 he is just over 50, growing old, why should he want to invade England? This book suggests one answer.

How is this long and exciting life packed into one average length book? Mainly because the author uses Harald himself to tell the story. Looking back on his life, he remembers the highlights, covering the journeys with a throwaway “I was with Jarl Eilief two years” or “Time and days seemed to merge into one long dream. I would wake to see thunderheads over Olympus or lookout towers over the burnt ruins of a pirate camp, and a few times dolphins raced the boat…” and their breath reminds him of an incident in Norway.

But when time stops, for a battle, the perils of the snow, an ordinary day on a Norwegian farm or the first walk through the streets of Byzantium, the writing is so clear that you are there, living Harald’s life with him, seeing each tiny detail; the heat, the taste of the wine, the excitement of the shieldwall and the pain of losing friends.

The book is full of “what ifs”: Harald could have stayed in Norway, become a farmer. He might have become Emperor of Byzantium. Or he might have beaten Harold Godwinson, and then William of Normandy, and changed history.

I loved the book, and look forward to reading more of the series.

I recently read King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett. I said that it was the best book I had ever read. Viking Fire by Justin Hill runs a close second.

Book Review – Death’s Bright Angel

One of the best things about the recent Historical Novel Society Conference was the Bookstall and the opportunity to buy a book and get it signed by the author.

I bought a few books, not too many – at least I could still lift my suitcase when I departed. Since the conference coincided with the 350th Anniversary of the Great Fire of London, I bought two books on that theme. I might buy a third; the reading by C. C. Humphreys at the Gala Dinner whetted my appetite.

I will write reviews of them all, but I start with Death’s Bright Angel by J. D. Davies. I didn’t actually buy this at the Conference. I had ordered it and intended to meet the author to get it signed. The book was released on 30th August but it didn’t arrive until after I had left home – thank you Amazon! I understand that copies arrived at the conference bookstall eventually.

Part of my haul from HNSOxford16

Part of my haul from HNSOxford16

Death’s Bright Angel is the sixth in the Quinton Journals series by J D Davies and Matthew Quinton has learned a few things. In the first of this series this Gentleman Captain knew nothing about sailing a ship – now he does. The book opens with a battle, a duel rather, between two ships. England is at war with both Holland and France and Matthew is searching the North Sea for their fleets. The ship he finds is French and they fight it out, cannons blazing and blood staining the decks, until one surrenders. Matthew wins, but his ship is damaged.

This theme continues. Success, but at a cost. He enthusiastically helps to burn the Dutch merchant fleet, an action to hit the economy of Holland and perhaps provoke rebellion. The destruction of a nearby, innocent village causes him to think again.

He is summoned back to England by the King and tasked with investigating a possible Dutch plot against the country. His pregnant wife is angry. She is Dutch and Matthew has bankrupted her father – his ships were among those burned. She has more to worry about when she discovers that her husband is working with the beautiful and enticing Aphra Behn, writer and secret agent. As the heat rises in early September 1666, Matthew Quinton, racked with guilt, must find the conspirators. What do they plan?

A fire starts in London, the East wind blows, the fire spreads. Should Matthew help to fight the fire or save his wife? Did the Dutch start the fire, or do they plan something worse?

This book is a thrilling race against time, combining action with a vast knowledge about the period. Historical characters make their appearances, King Charles II and his brother James, Samuel Pepys buries his cheese. The reader is there, in London during the Great Fire, walking, or rather running, through the streets, dodging the flames, pulling down houses and rescuing innocent people from xenophobic mobs.

There is more to this book, though, than a good read. Instead of the usual historical notes at the end, there is an essay, raising new theories about the causes of the Great Fire of London. The author is an expert on the period and has looked into original documents. When you consider that the burning of the Dutch ships occurred only two weeks before London’s fire, it would be difficult to conclude that there was no connection. Or perhaps it was just an out of control baker’s fire.

Two books for the price of one – what more could you want?

My next review will be The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor