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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Guest post from Gordon Doherty, author of LEGIONARY: VIPER OF THE NORTH


I'm delighted to welcome Gordon Doherty, author of LEGIONARY: VIPER OF THE NORTH. Set during the Gothic Wars of the Roman Empire, this is an exciting and dramatic account of an unexplored time in history. Gordon is praised in his native United Kingdom for his painstaking research and stirring prose. 

Please join me in welcoming him today as he shares this guest post explaining the background and genesis of his work:


The Gothic crossing of the Danube in 376AD is considered a defining moment in history, one that threw the Eastern Roman Empire into turmoil and possibly led to the fall its western counterpart. Some suggest that, in a matter of days, up to one million Goths spilled across the river and into the empire while others estimate more conservatively at around one hundred thousand.  Even at the lower end of the scale, and despite the Goths entering the empire in truce, such a monumental population shift could only ever lead to one thing: War.

Yet, for many hundreds of years prior to the crossings, the Germanic peoples inhabiting the lands immediately outwith the empire had never come together so markedly – in-fighting , tribal pride and Roman subterfuge ensuring they remained politically and militarily fractured. So what provoked the Goths to cross the great river in 376 AD with such unprecedented unity and conviction?

The answer lies far to the east, on the craggy and windswept steppes near modern-day Mongolia. This was the land of a people we have come to know as the Huns. At some point, probably in the 1st century AD, these hardy, nomadic horsemen began an inexorable migration westwards. Some believe they were driven from the east by aggression from the Han Chinese or by a confederation of rival nomadic peoples. Whatever their stimulus, the Huns seemed set on chasing the setting sun, sending entire peoples into flight as they moved west. This triggered what historians now describe as ‘The Great Migration’, a momentous gravitation of population from the east towards Europe. The Huns’ mastery of archery and mounted warfare saw them subjugate almost every tribe they came across in the steppes and then Scythia. The Roman historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, tells how peoples such as the Alani, the Agathyrsi, the Anthropophagi, the Budini, the Geloni, the Melanchaenae and the Neuri all fell under the Hunnic yoke. These tribes were then pressed into service for the Hunnic advance on the next westerly target: Gutthiuda, land of the Goths and the last buffer between the Huns and the Roman Empire.

In late 376 AD, the Gothic armies were fractured, with many rival ‘Judges’ competing for ultimate power. But when the Huns appeared en-masse on their northern borders, these squabbling warlords at last set aside their differences, with Fritigern emerging as their leader. But, caught unawares by such a ferocious army of invaders, the unified Goths quickly realised that they could not stand their ground and fight. So, like every other people who had found themselves in the Huns’ path, the Goths fled for their lives; to the south, to the Danube and to the Eastern Empire. The border legions garrisoning the forts along the River Danube were under-strength, poorly equipped and ill-prepared for any major border activity. Added to that, they found themselves as the guardians of Thracia and Moesia after Emperor Valens had summoned the bulk of the field armies of those provinces to the Persian frontier.

So when Fritigern and a sea of Gothic warriors and families appeared on the northern banks of the Danube appealing for sanctuary, the legions had no option but to allow them entry. Ammianus, writing some years after the event, describes the subsequent Gothic crossing of the Danube as fervent and troubled;
‘The crowd was such that, though the river is the most dangerous in the world . . . a large number tried to swim and were drowned in their struggle against the force of the stream.’
Emperor Valens is thought to have applied some retrospective spin to this tumultuous event, lauding the Goths as ready-made reinforcements for the patchy border legions. In reality, however, it was the first of many dark days for the empire. Famine soon gripped the overpopulated refugee camp and the surrounding Roman settlements. This, combined with a succession of Roman atrocities – including beatings, murders and the selling of Gothic children into slavery in exchange for rotting dog meat – set Fritigern and his people on the march to Marcianople in search of food. Then, at the gates of the city, he was the subject of a bungled assassination attempt by the local Roman commander. With that, the last vestige of Roman-Gothic truce evaporated, and Fritigern rallied his armies to strike back. The Gothic War had begun. What followed would push the Eastern Empire to its breaking point.

The ‘Legionary’ series is set in the Eastern Roman Empire, and follows the adventures of the impoverished border legions stretched across the Danube frontier in these troubled years.  ‘Legionary: Viper of the North’ is the second volume in the series and picks up where the first left off, taking the reader right down to the front ranks and into the eye of the storm, weaving a tale around the Gothic crossings and the chaos that ensued.

Thank you, Gordon! To find out more about Gordon and his books, please visit his website. Gordon's books are available at most online stores both here and in the UK.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Isabella of Castile and Her Myth

Note: This is a revised version of an essay published during my blog tour for THE QUEEN'S VOW.

Isabella of Castile is one of those historical characters who generate strong reactions. When I told my friends that I was writing about her, I heard everything from, “Oh, are you sure you want to tackle her?” to “Didn’t she burn everyone?” to flat-out: “I'd never read a book about her. She was a monster.”

Now, it may seem odd but those reactions excited me. I’ve always been fascinated by famous women with controversial reputations, as evidenced by my previous novels about Catherine de Medici and Juana la Loca, who is Isabella’s daughter. But I must admit that while growing up in Spain all I heard about Isabella (in Spain, she’s properly known as Isabel) was that she was this near-saintly queen who united Arag√≥n and Castile through her marriage to King Ferdinand, conquered Granada, sent Columbus to find the New World, and . . . Well, that was about it. I’d also visited her tomb in Granada as a child, but I was more taken by the lurid fate of her willful daughter, Juana, the queen who went mad out of love— an interest that eventually resulted in my first novel, The Last Queen.

It was while writing my first book that I began my research into Isabella’s life. I focused mainly on her later years and found myself affected by her struggles, even as I deplored her religiously motivated actions. She outlived two of her beloved children only to die at the age of fifty-three, leaving behind a bereaved nation and uncertain future. No one could argue she was both stoic and indefatigable in her commitment to her country. But, I found myself asking, who was she before she became queen? How did this young and inexperienced princess sent to live far from court become the first female ruler of a united Spain? How did her experiences in her youth define and shape her later years? These questions obsessed me, and so I came to realize I had to write more about Isabella.

Nevertheless, when my editor accepted my proposal, I understood that I’d set myself a formidable task. For though Isabella has all the hallmarks of a formidable heroine, she's also shrouded by dark condemnation, often seen as a narrow-minded fanatic who gave rise to the Inquisition and callously evicted the Moors and Jews from Spain. Infamy clings to her name; as history has been revised by more enlightened times, she’s borne the brunt of it. I’d confronted historical calumny before with my characters, however, and my task as a writer is never to judge what happened but rather to try and reveal why. I also try my utmost to not view the past through the prism of the present. The world which Isabella of Castile knew was vastly different from our own, and its contradictions must have shaped her in unexpected ways.

First and foremost, no one can argue that Isabella was exceptional for her era. She's also, like so many of us, a bundle of contradictions.  Publicly and privately, she fought the dictates of society and its prohibitive limitations on women, intent on forging her own path. Nevertheless, she was rather traditional in her outlook on her duty as a wife, yet paradoxically she was a mother who insisted on raising her own children in a time when queens rarely did. She also faced a unique set of circumstances as a ruler that had proven the bane of her predecessors—a fractured kingdom weakened by centuries of strife, overlaid by an uneasy religious amalgam that made Spain both tolerant, and conversely, rife with divisiveness. Isabella inherited a land that was crumbling and in desperate need of unity if it was to survive the hostile encroachments of neighboring powers. Destined to become Spain’s architect, who would guide her new-born country into the Renaissance age, she achieved the impossible. Yet, like many rulers before and after her, she also made tragic mistakes - and those mistakes blackened her reputation irreparably.

The Queen’s Vow portrays the complex, fallible woman behind Isabella’s legend. From her forgotten youth when no one believed she was destined for greatness, to her plunge into the cesspool of her half-brother’s court and the unexpected loss that propelled her into a dramatic fight for her throne, as well as her passion for a prince she was forbidden to wed and courage as a neophyte ruler, which molded her into the queen who changed the world, her story is one of grandeur and passion, triumph, tragedy and sacrifice. It is a story of a princess who defied the odds, of a devoted wife and mother who endured heartbreaking betrayal, and of a devout woman torn between duty to her subjects, her faith and her country. It is a story that I believe the majority of us have never heard.

Was Isabella of Castile everything that has been said about her? Or, has history only given us part of the truth?  I leave you to find out. I sincerely hope you enjoy The Queen’s Vow.