Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Guest post by Evan Ostryzniuk, author of OF FATHERS AND SONS

I'm delighted to welcome back Evan Ostryzniuk, whose second novel in the English Free Company series set in the medieval ages, OF FATHER AND SONS: Geoffrey Hotspur and the Este Inheritance, is published this month. In this latest installment, Geoffrey and his companions travel to Italy and the land of the d'Este family, where the death of the marquis of Ferrara has left his eleven-year-old son as sole direct heir. Led by the skilled but reckless Geoffrey Hotspur, an orphan-squire and ward of the mighty Duke of Lancaster, the Company finds itself mired in the dangerous struggle between the Este heir and his rivals, confronting Geoffrey and Niccolo with the same question of, when does the boy become the man? 

Please join me in welcoming Evan Ostryzniuk!

The Este Inheritance and the War for Ferrara
The conflict that lies at the heart of my novel Of Fathers and Sons: Geoffrey Hotspur and the Este Inheritance was the civil war in the Marquisate of Ferrara fought during 1394-95 between two branches of the Este family. Internecine wars were common in the Middle Ages, but the struggle for the small but strategic territory in northeastern Italy was especially important for reasons ranging from the geopolitical to the cultural.

By 1394, a very fragile balance of power was keeping the peace in northern Italy, but tensions among the great and lesser city-states were running high. The absence of central authority combined with rapidly growing wealth and a sophisticated military culture had resulted in regular conflict between city-states. Meanwhile, the smaller city-state played the alliance game in order to survive, and few were more adept at this than the Este clan of Ferrara. The Este lords of Ferrara had been clever enough to remain friendly with its neighbors and the great powers for most of the 14th century, but this success also relied on an unbroken line of experienced marquises and stability within the clan. Twice the condominium amongst the branches of the family broke down during the century, which nearly cost the entire family its inheritance! However, as clever as the Este were, they did not always learn the lessons of their own history.

When the Marquis of Ferrara and head of the Este clan Alberto died in 1393, he left as his sole heir his son Niccolo, who was not only just ten-years-old, but also of illegitimate birth. Sure, the Roman pope okayed the whole deal in exchange for a few florins, but it was still a chink in the armor of the senior Este clan. However, knowing that the great powers might exploit the power vacuum in Ferrara and plunge the region into war, Niccolo’s regency council arranged for Florence, Venice, Padua, and Bologna to guarantee the right of Niccolo to rule.

However, while the regency council was taking care of external threats, they ignored internal ones. Some of the strengths of the late Alberto were his ability to centralize power, gather intelligence, exploit economic opportunities, and create an effective clientele, but this constantly shifting dynamic produced winners and losers. The losers included the city of Modena, which had been recently taken over by the Este, and several old and powerful vassal families in Ferrara, who resented the nouveau riche type that had grown rich under Alberto.

The straw that broke the camel’s back in fuming Ferrara was one of the aspects of the senior Este rule that made it unique. For several years the Este had been experimenting with feudal client relations, meaning that they wanted to get the most out of their vassals. Traditionally, vassalage, or the feudal system, was an exchange of obligations – a vassal pledged to serve the lord loyally in exchange for land. The ritual by which this was done was called ‘investiture’, whereby the vassal would kneel before the lord and vow to serve him faithfully. The catch for the lord was that he had to give away some of his wealth. During the course of their long rule the Este had created many categories of vassals, from city shop-keepers to wealthy barons. By the time of Alberto’s death, the senior Este branch had to manage over 700 of them! So, in order to accelerate the consolidation of power with Niccolo, the regency council, as instructed by Alberto in his will, decided that all Este vassals must undergo investiture at once. Usually, investiture was reserved for new vassals, heirs who had come of age, and rebels who wanted to return to the fold. For long-standing loyal vassals to be essentially stripped of their feudal contract and be obliged to kneel before a mere boy was considered to be an outrageous innovation.

The young Niccolo’s challenger for the Este Inheritance was his uncle Azzo, an old condottiere. His decision to seize the marquisate was not born out of simple greed. As played out in my novel, Azzo had a myriad of issues to contend with, ranging from the political to the personal. In addition, he had to create and effective fighting force out of the disparate elements of disgruntled vassals, small-time opportunists, and the hired companies that formed the core of any late medieval Italian army.

Niccolo’s situation was no less complex. As titular ruler, he should stand at the head of his army and defend his right to rule. As a minor, he was not prepared to take on this role and so was dependent on a regency council that may or may not have his interests at heart. He needed to defeat his uncle, yet preserve family unity. He needed to show that he was not a puppet in the hands of a deceitful cabal, but someone capable of ensuring the fidelity of his subjects. In short, he needed to demonstrate his prowess as the legitimate, strong and determined ruler, despite his age and lack of experience. How the boy went about achieving this lies at the heart of my novel.

Thank you, Evan. Best of success with the new book! To learn more about Evan Ostryzniuk and his work, please visit his website.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Guest Post by Anthony Riches, author of THE WOLF'S GOLD

I'm delighted to welcome Anthony Riches, author of the Empire novels set in the ancient world of Rome, including his most recent EMPIRE: WOLF'S GOLD. In this latest installment, Marcus Aquila and the Tungrians have been sent to Dacia, on the north-eastern edge of the Roman Empire, with the mission to safeguard a major source of imperial power. But the Tungrians must also come to terms with the danger posed by a new and unexpected enemy, one they will have to fight to the death to save the honor of the empire - and their own skins.

Anthony began his lifelong interest in war and soldiers when he first heard his father`s stories about World War II, leading him to complete a degree in Military Studies at Manchester University. He began writing the story that would become Wounds of Honour after a visit to a Roman fort on Hadrian's Wall in 1996. Highly praised for his accuracy and insight into the struggles of Rome's battalions, the Historical Novels Review says: "Anthony Riches brings alive the harsh reality of the Roman world – the period, people, and culture – in a frenetic and exciting novel which is well researched and tinged with humor . . . Difficult to put down, this is a welcome addition to the genre."

Today, Anthony offers this look at the foibles of being a disciplined writer. Please join me in welcoming Anthony Riches!

Life in the Hen House
Being quite spectacularly ill disciplined – just ask my business partner and our long suffering employees – I’ve been aware for a while now that I’m not at my best writing at home. Nowhere near it, as a matter of fact. Barely ten minutes into the day’s work I’ll have diverted to the internet to research something or other of some relevance, but from there it’s only a matter of seconds before I’m reading car reviews on the Evo website, looking at gorgeous stainless steel lever action rifles on the Marlin website or simply trawling Wikipedia to find out just who was the lead singer of Mud in 1975.

Having confided this shocking lack of discipline to my friend Eddie a few months ago, I then spent a few days writing in his office after receiving an invitation so sincere in its expression that it would quite literally been rude to refuse. Driving down into north London at a ‘going to work’ time of the day, I would sit at a table and tap away at my laptop while he went about his business. Was it quiet? No, it was a working office with all that entails (and Ed’s a forceful man when he gets going!). We drank tea, we chatted every now and then, and it was most convivial. And yet, despite all that, I routinely turned out two thousand words in less than three hours. Even I could do those maths – working a gentle five half days a week would equate to five hundred thousand words a year, with afternoons off for proof reading copy edits, stroking my chin while looking at proposed book covers and (more to the point) playing games on the PS3. The scales fell from my eyes. What had I been thinking all these years not to have realised what I was missing?

So, when I found the end of my most recent engagement looking like coming to an end a few weeks ago, I bought the local paper and sat on the train into London searching for somewhere internet free to go and hide for the purposes of writing. And there it was! ‘Small office space in rural location, would suit undisciplined writer due to lack connection to the internet.’ OK, everything after the word ‘location’ was in my head rather there in black and white, but all the same it sounded perfect. I galloped round to the farm in question for a look the next day (up the handy private road that cuts out most of the area’s horrendous traffic and the world’s worst level crossing – I swear those blasted gates must close when the train is leaving the previous station, and frequently close again thirty seconds after it has passed five minutes later – at the cost of 50p and a noseful of a sewage treatment works. I took one look and fell in love with the place.

OK, the ‘office’ is actually a converted hen house riddled with cracks and gaps that allow the cold in (I sit here writing this cuddled up to a gas heater and with a fan heater on hot standby), but it’s peaceful… well, most of the time. Yesterday a tree that overlooked the duck pond decided to rot past the point of no return and fall into the water with a creak tearing creak of splintering wood and a huge splash, and this morning a bird fell out of the rafters to sit (and then defecate) on my desk, missing the laptop by inches. A local metal detector specialist wandered by a week or so ago at the land owner’s kind instigation, to show me the 1900 year old bronze figurine of the god Mars he’d recently found, most likely from a votive altar in a Roman settlement on the site the farm now occupies. Pheasants and squirrels wander past every now and then to divert my attention from whatever deathless prose I’m in the middle of turning out, and the farm’s four geese go everywhere on land or water in line astern, and at quite hysterical speed when food is sighted -but all of these distractions are only momentary. Unlike the internet they don’t lead me off into dreams of German sports cars and large calibre firearms, or off in search of meaningless ephemera, and after a moment’s pondering I’m back on track to deliver my two thousand words. I did it yesterday; I’ve done it today, and damn me if I won’t do the same tomorrow.

And for me, let me assure you, that’s about as close to writer’s heaven as I can get.

Thank you, Anthony. Now, I need to go look for my own hen house :) To find out more about Anthony and his books, please visit his website.