Book Review – The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea – historical murder mystery

Here’s the blurb;

When Rósa is betrothed to Jón Eiríksson, she is sent to a remote village. 

There she finds a man who refuses to speak of his recently deceased first wife, and villagers who view her with suspicion. 

Isolated and disturbed by her husband’s strange behaviour, her fears deepen. 

What is making the strange sounds in the attic? 

Who does the mysterious glass figure she is given represent? 

And why do the villagers talk of the coming winter darkness in hushed tones?

The Glass Woman is an intriguing tale of Iceland in the late 1600s.

I make no bones that I am fascinated by Iceland, perhaps not during this time period, but earlier, when the country was being settled. I tried this book on the off-chance – Jane Eyre in Iceland – yes, please.

And indeed, it is a dark tale, told from the viewpoint of Rosa. It is dark, frightening and claustrophobic, and reads very much like a much more modern Icelandic ghost story I read recently. It makes you shiver, it makes you feel for Rosa, but then everything changes and the book is not at all what you think it’s going to be.

I found the story intriguing and engaging, and if it’s not Jane Eyre in Iceland, it’s because the book is actually much harsher.

A wonderful story, thoroughly enthralling.

The Earls of Mercia Series – what possessed me?

Somehow, and I have no idea how, I’m about to release Book X (yes X) in the Earls of Mercia series, and that doesn’t include the three direct side-stories, or Lady Estrid, which could also be said to be a side-story, books. I decided it was time to take a hard look at myself, and why my very first historical fiction project is proving to be the longest so far.

The Earls of Mercia inspiration

The last century of Early England is a place well-trodden by non-fiction and historical fiction authors, so why did I choose to tell it through the eyes of a handful of people who almost slip through the historical record unnoticed because of the ‘giants’ of the period?

History is filled with those who get swept aside because other events overtake their achievements, and so it is with the Earls of Mercia. They were a family who ‘ruled’ continually from 993 to 1066 – a feat not even achieved by the Wessex royal family, begun by King Alfred, during the same time period. In the annals of the time they’ve been pushed to the side by the likes of Eadric Streona, King Cnut and the family of Godwine, by the events of both 1016 and 1066, and also by the fact that when the family married into royalty, it was destined to be short-lived.

I ‘discovered’ my first character – Ealdorman Leofwine – while meandering down the aisle in a university library. By rights, I shouldn’t have been there, not in that section, and equally, I shouldn’t have gone on to write my dissertation about him, but I did, but only after I’d made him into a fictional character. So just what was it that made him so appealing as a character?

As I read about the family, in Stephen Baxter’s, The Earls of Mercia, Lordship and Power in Late Anglo-Saxon England, I was flabbergasted that this character existed and yet hadn’t been put to good ‘use.’ Ealdorman Leofwine, his sons, grandsons, and great-grandchildren were witnesses to all of the events I’ve mentioned above. Not only did they witness them, but they were involved as well. I remember picking up and reading Frank Barlow’s book on the Godwines and being disgusted that Ealdorman Leofwine, Earl Leofric, Earl Ælfgar and his sons and daughter get little more than the odd mention. The desire to tell a story only about the Godwines excluded the perfect foil for them. I couldn’t allow that to stand.

But, how to tell the story of a century, of four generations? Initially, my idea was to tell a retrospective story, through the eyes of the great-grandson who did survive the tumultuous events of 1066, using the idea of a scribe writing down the family’s history while he was imprisoned at the request of William the Bastard for well over a decade. I still have the words I first wrote. But, that was not the route I eventually went down. No, I wanted to make Ealdorman Leofwine more than just someone’s ancestor, I wanted to make him a person in his own right, even if I do harbour the suspicion that he might have been retrospectively given greater influence than he might have claimed. 

And that is the path that I’ve continued to tread. My overarching ambition is to tell the story of the years from 993-1066, but each player must have their own story, they must all be allowed to live, before they die; they must all be people in their own right. And now, as I begin to retell the story that so many are familiar with, that of the reign of Edward the Confessor and the events that led to 1066, I’m pleased by my decision to ensure the Earls of Mercia have their own story to tell – and also by the fact that because of that, other historical characters are also having their story retold a little – the oft-forgotten or misunderstood characters, and that means kings as well as earls and great ladies. 

I’m pleased that people who read about the Earls of Mercia are able to consider that the Godwines were not quite the ‘top-dogs’ they might appear to be from such a distance. Not that it doesn’t involve playing around with what some might call the ‘facts’ but that is the joy of historical fiction – in getting to know my characters, in playing around with the information that we do have, I can find other possibilities, and they are not quite as far-fetched as it might be believed.

I began writing the first book in the Earls of Mercia series in 2011. Since then I’ve been slowly working my way backwards through Early England, as well as slightly forwards in Denmark. It has meant that the first two books in the series have undergone some subtle changes as they’ve been rereleased in paperback and the copyright returned to me by my publisher. So, for any who haven’t started the books yet, it isn’t necessary to start with book 1, or even book 2, but if you’re going to, then the paperback version – The Earl of Mercia’s Father – is the correct edition to read. But I genuinely hope, that it should be possible to pick up any of the books and still be able to understand what’s happening and enjoy the individual title.

The English King, Book X, is released on January 28th, and Book II, The Danish King’s Enemy, has just been rereleased.

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Welcome to today’s stop on the blog tour for Betrayal by the Historical Fictioneers

Today, I’m delighted to welcome the Historical Fictioneers and their new book, Betrayal, to the blog. Here’s the blurb;

“Betrayal, treachery, treason, deceit, perfidy—all names for the calculated violation of trust. And it’s been rife since humans trod the earth.

A promise broken

A mission betrayed

A lover’s desertion

A parent’s deception

An unwitting act of treason

Betrayal by comrades

Betrayal by friends

Could you resist the forces of misplaced loyalty, power hunger, emotional blackmail, or plain greed? Is there ever redemption, or will the destruction visit future generations and even alter history? These questions are still with us today.

Read twelve tales by twelve accomplished writers who explore these historical yet timeless challenges from post Roman Britain to the present day.”

This sounds like a fascinating project, and the authors have been busy answering my questions (yes, all of the authors:)) Enjoy.

How did the collection come about? (whose idea was it)?

Charlene Newcomb 

The popularity of short fiction has been on the rise, and many of my author acquaintances have been writing shorter works: some as reader magnets they offer for a newsletter sign-up; others for their websites or on retail sites.

I was working on a series of short stories myself when an article landed in my inbox. A group of suspense/mystery writers had collaborated – with great success – on a free anthology. In that case, eight authors contributed to their book. Their individual ‘fans’ were thrilled to get a free story, and at the same time, they introduced their readers to authors they might not know. This sounded like a great way to tempt lovers of historical fiction to sample a new author, a new era. You’ve heard the old adage: ‘don’t re-invent the wheel.’

In November 2019, I broached the idea of an anthology with Cryssa, Annie, and Anna, who I’d met virtually through our work as co-editors of the English Historical Fictions Authors blog. Anna & I also met face-to-face at the HNS Denver conference in 2015, and I met Cryssa at HNS in Oxford, UK, in 2016. This was supposed to be the year I met Annie, but… COVID19.

Fortunately, these ladies were on board for the idea. We created guidelines for the stories and talked themes, word count, cover design, costs, and marketing before reaching out to eight more writers. And lo and behold…we give you Betrayal!

Will Jane Reader devour every story in the anthology? Will Joe Reader discover a new author, a new era, that intrigues. We all hope so!

Why did you choose the theme of “Betrayal” for your books?

Cryssa Bazos

When we were considering what could connect all the stories, we couldn’t rely on a unifying event like the Norman Conquest since we all write different eras. This meant that theme needed to be the unifier. Betrayal is a primal emotion. It stirs up our deepest fears. One can’t be betrayed by an enemy. Only those closest to us, the people who know our vulnerabilities and our weaknesses can wield this power against us. Each story explores betrayal in its many facets—shifting alliances, deception, intrigue, vengeance, and treason. Ultimately, they all examine the calculated violation of trust.  

What was the once piece of advice you were given about writing historical fiction that has proved invaluable? 

Elizabeth St. John

I wish I had been given the advice personally, for it came in an interview I read with Hilary Mantel, a historical fiction author I greatly admire. “My chief concern is with the interior drama of my characters’ lives,” she said, shortly after winning the Man Booker prize for Wolf Hall. “From history, I know what they do, but I can’t with any certainty know what they think or feel.” 

That one sentence gave me the confidence to move from extensive research to writing the fiction that became my trilogy, The Lydiard Chronicles. I could use my learnings to form the foundation of my characters, knowing I was free to weave their deeds, loves, friendships and enemies into their thoughts and feelings. 

Tony Riches

I’d written three books before I was persuaded to employ the services of a professional historical fiction editor. Before then, I’d used a general editor who had an interest in history but focused on spotting typos and making sure the commas were in the right places. 

The editor who supports me now is able to take a much deeper view of my writing, as she checks for consistency across a series. Most importantly, she also provides developmental comments to support my revision process, and it able to fact-check details to help with historical accuracy.

This service can be expensive, but in the UK the costs can be reclaimed against tax. Although I find editing one of the least satisfying aspects of the writing process, I always look forward to seeing what comments my editor has made.

Helen Hollick

Do your research as best as you can, but recognise when it is time to stop researching and start writing.

Alison Morton

I come from the formal end of history with a masters’ degree so I’m strict about getting the facts right by using three different sources. That’s the problem, of course. Sometimes there are none. Our job, according to writing friend Conn Iggulden, is to fill those gaps intelligently. So, we are back to thorough research, but fired by our imaginations.

Mercedes Rochelle

I don’t pay a lot of attention to how-tos, but I did read Stephen King’s “On Writing”. He said something I really took to heart. To paraphrase it, he said your first job is to entertain someone who had a hard day at work and just wants to relax. That statement gave me pause. I’m so worried about getting the story “right” that I sometimes forget that it has to be entertaining. The reader probably doesn’t care about the historical accuracy if it gets in the way of a good story.

 Derek Birks

The best piece of advice is to remember that historical fiction is not ‘about’ history. Like all fiction, it is about a story. Do your research, but don’t let it swamp the story. Your readers may admire your attention to period detail in descriptions of clothing or buildings, but they won’t be reading your work at all if your story does not hold their interest. 

Historical fiction defines when and where your story is set, but that is no substitute for skillful storytelling. Sometimes you have to rein in your interest in history to ensure that every chapter end persuades the reader to follow your tale to the end.

Anna Belfrage

Many years ago, I sent my first WIP to an editor. The lady in question had been one of the teachers at a writing course I took and I really admired her writing, so it took some courage to send her my manuscript. Overall, she was very positive—except for one thing. “Scrap all attempts at writing period dialogue,” she wrote. “You have no idea how they spoke back then, I have no idea, the reader has no idea. The only thing we know for sure is that we probably wouldn’t understand them—or they us. Instead, write vivid and gripping dialogue so as to really hook the reader.” Yes ma’am, I thought, feeling my shoulders sag with relief and have since then concentrated on using dialogue to drive scenes rather than set them.

Judith Arnopp

When I first began writing one of my university professors instilled in us the importance of thorough research. ‘Don’t be sloppy,’ he said, and went on to show us the importance of thoroughly researching from every perspective. Once you’ve read all you can, select the point of view from which you wish to write, and stick to it. I’ve written about many people from the Tudor period and they often appear in more than one book but they are never the same. People change depending on who is viewing them. Margaret Beaufort when written from Elizabeth of York’s perspective in A Song of Sixpence is initially a rather interfering, annoying mother-in-law but in The Beaufort Chronicle, which is written from Margaret’s own point of view, she is quite different. Viewpoint is important. It is also crucial that the opinion of the author does not interfere with that of the protagonist. In the author’s note I sometimes add the codicil, ‘The views expressed in this novel are not the author’s own.’

Annie Whitehead

I’m not sure that I ever have been given advice specifically about writing historical fiction. But one thing I always try to bear in mind is the Dorothy Dunnett Quotation which is used as a banner for the Historical Writers’ Association/Dorothy Dunnett Short Story Award, of which I was the inaugural winner, and for which I am now a judge: “History is all very well, but it’s just the showcase. It is the arena in which your characters will perform, and which supplies the conflicts, stresses, dilemmas and the struggles they’ll get through.”

Cryssa Bazos

Live the scene. Walk through the events, not as a historian with the benefit of hindsight, but through the eyes of your character who can’t know that a battle is being lost (and why), or the true cause of a fire that destroys their city. Instead, tap into how your character would be feeling during these key moments, be it fear, rage, tenderness or love. Explore their world through what matters to them. If we look back on the historically momentous occasions of our age, we’ll find that we process these events through the lens of our own limited perspective, and in the end, it’s the people around us who make the most lasting impact on our lives.

Charlene Newcomb

A critique partner at my weekly writers group asked why I wasn’t using the real (okay, legendary) Robin Hood when I introduced a very Robin-like character in a story I took for the group for feedback. I had a flimsy excuse: ‘oh, he’s been done before by some very talented writers.’ They convinced me to introduce my own Robin-who-is-not-yet-Hood. I was bringing my own perspective, coming into the legend from a different angle. That story, Robin, and other characters from the legend, ended up being an important part of my novel Men of the Cross and ultimately drove plot arcs for Books II & III of my Battle Scars trilogy. My current work in progress, Rogue, takes the legend a step further.

Amy Maroney

Early on I was advised to let the research be my guide. While I write outlines, I also know that in the course of doing research, I will go wildly off course and the book will be better for it. So many wonderful characters and plot twists come straight out of history. The old adage “truth is stranger than fiction” crosses my mind a lot when I’m doing research. Often I’ll use a sort of collage of real events to come up with a plot point, or I’ll honor a long-forgotten person whose name crops up once in an obscure document by using his or her name in my story. I love those small moments of juxtaposing the real with the imagined.

Why do you think historical fiction continues to fascinate?

Elizabeth St. John

Our fascination with the past often comes as a result of wanting to understand and connect with our present. There is, I believe, a certain reassurance to read of surviving great peril, overcoming terrible odds, enduring overwhelming sadness or loss. When we look for meaning in our own lives, looking back at the past can be consoling, offer hope and inspiration for a way forward. Many of my readers tell me they particularly enjoy the perspective of less well-known people, who may have moved in influential or royal circles, and were observers of great historical events, yet lived and loved much as we do today.

And, I think we all enjoy the travelling through historical fiction into another world, a past that is just out of reach but still evident in ruined castles, captivating portraits and fascinating insights from documents left behind. 

Tony Riches

The history books offer us the bare facts, and even those are often disputed, but rarely put the flesh on the bones. History is about the lives of real people, who lived and died, and historical fiction can help to ‘fill in the gaps’ in a narrative which for many can be inaccessible.

It’s also intriguing to explore the differences in cultural attitudes to such things as love and marriage, childbirth and death, crime and punishment. I’ve also enjoyed learning about the less well-known people around the central figures, such as kings and queens.  

The best historical fiction transports the reader, evoking the sights, sounds and even the smells of a different time and place. For me, the fascination is to begin to understand the motivation of figures from history, and to discover why they acted as they did.

Helen Hollick

Because, until Back To The Future becomes true, or Dr Who turns up in the TARDIS, it is the only way that we can travel back through time – and not worry about getting home again for dinner.

Alison Morton

Wanting to know where we come from is a timeless urge but wanting to have a glimpse in a vivid way about how people in the past lived is a strong part of that. Well-written historical fiction gives us the feel of how people tried to make sense of their lives in vastly different circumstances. They were still people, after all.

Sometimes we take a rather idealised view of the past, but as with anything in fiction, it’s an imagined landscape. And sometimes, we wonder how we would act and behave in those times. Historical fiction gives us, from the safety of our armchairs, an emotional connection to the slaughterfields of Cannae, the elegance of the Belle Époque, the dangerous headiness of Byzantium, being under siege in a medieval castle or caught up in the exciting revolutionary transition of the 19th century.

Mercedes Rochelle

Speaking for myself, once I discovered that history is about real people and real situations (not just names and dates), about love and hate and deceit and disappointment, I was hooked. I’d much rather learn about an event that really happened than a legend from someone’s head. I’m still not sure most readers feel the same way I do, but since history repeats itself, why not be prepared.

Derek Birks

The sheer diversity of historical fiction is what keeps readers coming back to this genre for more. It retains its appeal because of its immense variety and breadth of scope. Readers can enjoy romance, action, thrillers, or crime in stories set in any period of the past – it’s like being in a time machine without all the distracting technology. The contrasts between time periods are stark but whether you want to read about World War Two or Roman Britain, historical fiction offers it all. 

The Betrayal anthology illustrates this very well with twelve authors writing stories set over a vast expanse of time and employing different writing styles to tackle the same underlying theme.

Anna Belfrage

I think it offers an element of escape. We also tend to believe that life was simpler then, things less complicated and complex. To some extent, that is probably true as the majority of those alive in the past had little time to spend considering anything but how to find food and somewhere to sleep. But no matter the era, the people who live in the times would laugh out loud at the notion that their lives were simple. Take the political machinations in republican Rome, or the complexities of the English Civil War—whatever else you’d call them, they sure weren’t simple! Still: escaping to the past offers a breather from our time. And well-written historical fiction will not only expand the reader’s knowledge about a period, it will usually shed further light on the human condition as such. 

Judith Arnopp

There are many different reasons. As an author, I read a lot of non-fiction as part of my research, and while it informs, it can be quite dry. Historical Fiction not only tells us what happened, it helps us feel it. A non-fiction account of an execution will tell you what happened and why it happened but a fictionalised version, while based on the same contemporary account, makes the reader suffer alongside the victim. Fiction promotes not only understanding but empathy so the reader shares the protagonist’s pain.

Annie Whitehead

I think that reading fiction, generally, is a form of escape. The reader wants to be transported far away from the everyday. And where better to escape to a more simple world, a more romantic world even, than the past? Okay, the past wasn’t always pretty, but isn’t there something more appealing about a horse ride than a trip in a modern car? Perhaps the reality wasn’t so lovely but we can imagine the beautiful houses, built when architecture wasn’t just about functionality. I think there is also an appeal because of the link to the fairy tales we were told as children, which are centuries old, and usually had old-fashioned illustrations, so there is a sense of comforting familiarity, too.

Cryssa Bazos

I’ve heard it said that we read to either escape or to learn. Historical fiction allows us to do both. This genre takes us to places where we could otherwise never go. Given the chance, who wouldn’t want to go back in time and experience historical events first hand—to be with Elizabeth I as she stares down the Armada or to ride along with Charles II during his nerve-wracking escape from Parliament? But historical fiction also offers opportunities to learn, not just about the past but also to make sense of the present. History tends to be cyclical and it’s not hard to recognize echoes of the past in today’s struggles. There’s always a comfort in having a roadmap.

Charlene Newcomb

Historical fiction gives a reader a glimpse of a past they rarely see in history textbooks, textbooks that mainly consist of names, events, and dates. Those texts may – or may not – be accurate or complete, and they rarely factor in the human component. So historical fiction fills in the gaps. It makes history come alive and can transport the reader back in time. Perhaps it reveals more about the famous, or the infamous, but even being introduced to an ordinary person in extraordinary situations brings a better understanding of the past. 

Amy Maroney

Great fiction can bring history to thrilling life. Historical fiction allows us to escape into utterly different worlds that still resonate with the familiar. There is nothing like connecting with a character from the past who is motivated by the same goals and feelings that we have today. We can empathize; we know what it’s like to struggle through life’s challenges and exult in life’s triumphs. But we have the extra bonus of hindsight when we read these stories of the past. Anyone who has nodded off with boredom reading dry history books and then becomes obsessed with the same events and time periods by reading masterful historical fiction knows the power of this genre. 

Curious? Betrayal is available now. https://books2read.com/BetrayalAnthology

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MEET THE AUTHORS

Judith Arnopp

A lifelong history enthusiast, Judith Arnopp holds an honours degree in English/Creative writing, and a Masters in Medieval Studies. Judith has written twelve novels to date, nine of which are based in the Tudor period covering women like Elizabeth of York, Anne Boleyn and Mary Tudor, but her main focus is on the perspective of historical women from all roles of life. The Beaufort Chronicle: The Life of Lady Margaret Beaufort (three book series) covers the transitional period between Bosworth and the death of Henry Tudor. She is currently taking a break from Tudor women and writing from the perspective of Henry VIII in “A Matter of Conscience.”

Cryssa Bazos

Cryssa Bazos is an award-winning historical fiction author and a seventeenth century enthusiast. Her debut novel, Traitor’s Knot is the Medalist winner of the 2017 New Apple Award for Historical Fiction and a finalist for the 2018 EPIC eBook Awards for Historical Romance. Her second novel, Severed Knot, is a B.R.A.G Medallion Honoree and a finalist for the 2019 Chaucer Award.

Anna Belfrage

Anna Belfrage wanted to become a time-traveller but ended up as a financial professional with a passion for writing and history. She has authored the acclaimed time travel series The Graham Saga, set in the 17th century, and the equally acclaimed medieval series The King’s Greatest Enemy, set in 14th century England. Anna has also published The Wanderer, a contemporary romantic suspense trilogy with paranormal ingredients. Her latest release, His Castilian Hawk, is a story of loyalty and love set against the complications of Edward I’s invasion of Wales.

Derek Birks

Derek Birks lives in Dorset, England, though he spent his teenage years in Auckland, New Zealand, where he still has strong family ties. For many years he taught history in a large secondary school before turning his hand to writing historical fiction. His stories, set both in the medieval period and late antiquity, are fast-paced and action-packed—almost no character is safe. He has also produced a series of non-fiction podcasts on the War of the Roses. When he is not writing, he enjoys travel, walking and watching films.

Helen Hollick

First published in 1994, Helen Hollick became a USA Today Bestseller with her historical novel, The Forever Queen(titled A Hollow Crown in the UK), with the sequel, Harold the King (U.S: I Am the Chosen King), being novels that explore events that led to the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Her Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy is a fifth-century version of the Arthurian legend, and she writes a nautical adventure series, The Sea Witch Voyages. Her non-fiction books are Pirates: Truth and Tales, and Life of a Smuggler. She lives in an eighteenth-century farmhouse in North Devon, runs Discovering Diamonds, a review blog for historical fiction, and occasionally gets time to write . . .

Amy Maroney

Amy Maroney lives in Oregon, U.S.A, with her family. She spent many years as a writer and editor of nonfiction before turning her hand to historical fiction. When she’s not diving down research rabbit holes, she enjoys hiking, drawing, dancing, traveling, and reading. Amy is the author of the Miramonde Series, a trilogy about a Renaissance-era female artist and the modern-day scholar on her trail.

Alison Morton

Alison Morton writes the award-winning Roma Nova series featuring modern Praetorian heroines—tough but compassionate women. She puts this down to her deep love of Roman history, six years’ military service, a Masters in History and an over-vivid imagination. It was hot that afternoon when, staring at a particularly beautiful mosaic, she started wondering what a modern Roman society would be like if run by strong women. Now, Alison blogs, reads, cultivates a Roman herb garden and drinks wine in France with her husband.

Charlene Newcomb

Charlene Newcomb lives, works, and writes in Kansas. She is an academic librarian (retired) by trade, a U.S Navy veteran, and has three grown children. When not at the library, she is still surrounded by books trying to fill her head with all things medieval and galaxies far, far away. She loves to travel and enjoys quiet places in the mountains or on rocky coasts. But even in Kansas she can let her imagination soar.

Tony Riches

Tony Riches is a full-time author based in Pembrokeshire, Wales, UK, and is best known for his Tudor trilogy. After a career in the Royal Air Force he held senior roles in the National Health Service and Local Government. When researching his books Tony likes visiting the actual locations and discovering elusive primary sources. In his spare time he enjoys sailing and sea kayaking.

Mercedes Rochelle

Mercedes Rochelle is an ardent lover of medieval history, and has channeled this interest into fiction writing. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, she received her B.A in Literature at the University of Missouri before moving to New York to “see the world”. The search hasn’t ended. Today she lives in Sergeantsville, N.J with her husband in a log home they had built themselves.

Elizabeth St. John

Elizabeth St. John spends her time between California, England, and the past. An acclaimed author, historian and genealogist, she has tracked down family papers and residences from Lydiard Park and Nottingham Castle to Richmond Palace and the Tower of London to inspire her novels. Although the family sold a few country homes along the way (it’s hard to keep a good castle going thee days), Elizabeth’s family still occupy them—in the form of portraits, memoirs, and gardens that carry their legacy. And the occasional ghost. But that’s a different story . . .

Annie Whitehead

Annie Whitehead has written three award-winning novels set in Anglo-Saxon England:To Be A Queen, about the life of Æthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians; Alvar the Kingmaker set in the turbulent tenth century when kings died young and not always of natural causes, and Cometh the Hour, the story of King Penda the pagan king. Her nonfiction books are published by Amberley Books and Pen & Sword Books and she was the inaugural winner of the Historical Writers’ Association/Dorothy Dunnett Society Short Story Award.

A Writing Year in Review – 2020

It’s been a funny old year, I think we can all agree on that. While, at times, I’ve really struggled to focus to write, I’ve also been lucky to chance upon a good number of characters that I really enjoy writing about – Coelwulf and his comrades – not that it makes it easy, but it makes it enjoyable, sometimes in a sick and twisted way. So here goes, a review of just what I’ve been up to during the weirdest year in living memory.

For the first time with any great degree of consistency, I’ve tried to track what I’m doing on a day to day basis. It’s been intriguing, but only lasted for about a third of the year, you’ll see why as we go.

I finished A Conspiracy of Kings, the sequel to The Lady of Mercia’s Daughter in January, ready for release in February. I’m really pleased I returned to Lady Ælfwynn because it moved my mind onto the project I’d been considering writing for a few years – about King Coelwulf of Mercia. I think that if I’d not written A Conspiracy of Kings, Coelwulf might still be waiting for me to start his story. But luckily, I did start to write about him in January, with a scene that has still to make it into any of the books, and in February I started with how I hoped to begin the story. Looking at my notes for the year, once I’d started writing the first book, it was all a bit of a whirlwind and a first draft was completed by the end of the month. One day I wrote 10,000 words. It seems he was really in my head. Those two years of thinking about writing about him, had paid off with a great character just waiting to come out of my imagination.

I’ve said elsewhere that there were quite a few influences on The Last King, the film, The Gentlemen directed by Guy Ritchie, the one that really made me think I should do anything I wanted with the storyline – make it bloody, make it brutal, make it sweary, and give it the ‘hook’ at the very beginning of the book. Another influence was the idea of a sportsperson at the height of their game – someone so good that they don’t really consider it anymore, and in fact, are a bit surprised that others aren’t there with them – that was the sort of warrior I wanted Coelwulf to be – already fully-formed with no backstory to wade through before getting on with the story of ‘right now.’

After finishing The Last King, I immediately pressed on with the follow-up, which became The Last Warrior. By now, it was March, and my part-time job as an exam invigilator was about to be suspended for the rest of the year – and of course, we were about to be plunged into Lockdown Part One. I had Coelwulf and pals to keep me going – and keep me going they did. By 8th April, my diary states that the first draft of The Last Warrior was complete, and I’d placed The Last King on Netgalley because I was really curious to see what people thought about it. I’d also reached out to a few people and given them advanced copies to read. The response was overwhelmingly positive as reviews started to trickle in throughout April. But now I turned my mind to Lady Estrid, and the eleventh century in Denmark.

Map of England in the 870s – a compilation of roads, rivers and places – and a nightmare to research and put together in one place.

Again, Estrid was a character I’d considered writing about for some time. She was a bit part character in my Earls of Mercia books, but she seemed to me the perfect vehicle for writing about comparable events in Denmark, as opposed to England, in the eleventh century.

I am fascinated by all of the Scandinavian countries in the ‘Viking’ Age, and beyond. But, I’m certainly no expert on what was happening.

My diary says I started writing the book on April 9th, but I know I’d written about 5000 words in February (to enter a competition that I didn’t win:)). I gave myself about two weeks of working on Lady Estrid, a breather as it were, and then went back to the edit for The Last Warrior. I know some people wait months between a finished draft and an edit, but I don’t like to wait quite that long, although I do think even a little bit of ‘distance’ can help the process. At this point, with very little else to do due to Lockdown, my notes become really detailed about editing and words added, but I won’t bore with those little details. Suffice to say, I’m normally someone that adds words rather than deletes them throughout the first edit – I tracked the words added, but not deleted, and how many pages I edited in a day.

At this point, I was also hoping to do a quick edit, and finish off my NaNoWriMo project from the previous November. Throne of Ash is a historical fantasy, and goodness me, it has bedevilled my year. So much so that I have it to thank for the number of books I’ve written about Coelwulf. At the moment, it just doesn’t ‘work’ and I know it just doesn’t ‘work’ and I still can’t quite work out how to make it ‘work’ but it will. Eventually. Or it won’t, and it will just continue to drive me a bit bonkers. But hey, I’ll share a mock-up cover all the same. (I like to have the cover designed before I start a book.)

The Last King was released on 23rd April. The next day, I began work on book 3 – which at the time I was calling The Last Lord, which quickly changed to The Last Sword, and then became The Last Horse. Throne of Ash was pushed aside, and so too was Lady Estrid. The women in my life, (Throne of Ash’s main character is a woman) were giving me grief. Coelwulf, Rudolf, Edward, Pybba and Haden were much easier going – the banter, the fighting, the ‘scenario’ – it all just fit what I was able to write at that time.

I know what you’re thinking – I was slightly over-achieving at this point – don’t worry, it’s all about to come to an abrupt stop because Lockdown was about to change. I’d had a month where not much had been any different, (I’m a writer, I write, I spend most of my time at home anyway) but now my other-half was furloughed and now began the great ‘walk,’ which I’ve also spent much of the year doing (a walk almost everyday building up to the point where I now go for my walk, rain or shine, sleet or snow.) Now my routine really suffered, and would continue to do so for months. It’s not a complaint, but I’m aware that I need my routine to accomplish all the tasks I set myself. I was still trying to write every day but my word count was down to 1000-2000. But, at least the story still wanted to be told.

By the middle of June I was doing a final edit on The Last Warrior, and the book was released on 25th June, just as The Last Sword had become known as The Last Horse, and I was happy that the first draft was complete. By 1st July, I’d noted in my diary that The Last Horse was ‘completed.’

People were really enjoying The Last King, and by the time The Last Warrior was released at the end of June I had three times as many preorders as I’d had for my ‘new’ series.

By now, some of the restrictions had been removed because Lockdown had ‘allegedly’ come to an end, but I remained local, although this was when my weekly, and now twice-weekly, walks at Cragside began. This was also when I attended (virtually) the International Medieval Congress hosted by Leeds University. I spent an enjoyable week attending so many talks and really reconnecting with my love of academic history. I purchased many, many books on my time period, and really hope they do the same next year, as it meant I could keep up with my almost daily walks.

I was also back to Lady Estrid, and editing The Last Horse, both must have been finished in August, but there’s a note on 11th August saying that Lady Estrid was ‘finished.’ (It wasn’t, but that’s a story for later on – I thought it was finished.) I turned my mind back to the next book about Coelwulf.

But, big things were happening for The Last King throughout the summer months. I’d managed to get an international BookBub deal for it and I’d taken the book on tour with The Coffee Pot Book Club (check here for details of the posts) and was also running a promotion on The History Quill in August.

The Last Horse was released on 27th August, and now I’d had more than double the preorders that I’d had for The Last Warrior, which had been triple the preorders I’d had for The Last King. I think my readers liked Coelwulf – and so did I.

By now I’m into September, and I had to have day-surgery to remove half of my thyroid, so again, things slowed down a bit – although I used the experience when writing The Last Enemy. And I was also into Tier 3 restrictions. By now, my notes have become really sporadic and I can’t track what I was doing to any degree of accuracy as earlier in the year. I think everything was coming off the rails a little bit – two difficult books, surgery, which knocked me more than I thought it would, and Lockdown. It wasn’t easy going with the writing and it was started to frustrate me – I needed my routine back but it was to be a few more months before it returned.

I’d spent my time pummelling Lady Estrid into submission. It had taken a great deal of time to edit, and I’d also written many more words from when I’d so confidently stated it was ‘finished’ in August. The ending was changed, the beginning was changed and I added to many more of my characters. I think in the edit I added about 15k words, and removed some of the elements that were giving me bother.

At some point, I finished The Last Enemy, and was back to editing it, and Lady Estrid, making use of Netgalley and The History Quill, was about to be released to a mixture of feedback – a bit of a Marmite book but one I was really pleased with. It had been a hard slog, over six months of thinking and writing about it, and with a bit of inspiration from Anne O’Brien’s The Queen’s Rival, I hoped I’d accomplished what I’d set out to do – a history of Denmark from the 1020s to 1050 – through the eyes of Lady Estrid, and her large, and extremely influential, far-flung family.

And then to November and NaNoWriMo once more. Did I think about finishing last year’s abandoned project? I didn’t, not at all, but instead took myself to the 1940s for a project I’m calling The Custard Corpses, and also a return to the Earls of Mercia books. Throughout November, I got my ‘routine’ back. I remembered all the restrictions I needed to place on myself to achieve what I wanted to achieve, the fact I prefer to write in the morning, and the knowledge that I can easily write at least 2000 words a day, even when I don’t really want. (I take part in NaNoWriMo every November and have done since 2013. I can’t stress how good it is for reinforcing all the things I know, but often forget, and because I always allow myself to step aside from my usual writing projects, how freeing it can be.)

At 50k, I put The Custard Corpses to one side, and powered through The English King – another story that took a while to find its way – but which did with enough ‘routine.’ The Last Enemy was released at the end of November, and the number of preorders continued to exceed my expectations, as did the number of people reading and reviewing and rating. Thank you to you all.

And to top the year off, I’ve also had the copyright restored to me for the second Earls of Mercia book. It’s a long and tedious story, but suffice to say, it was all reedited and rewritten during 2019 but I only had the paperback rights, and now I can release it in ebook as well. So, The Danish King’s Enemy is mine once more – a new name, a big section rewritten, a new cover, but still the same old Ealdorman Leofwine. If you’ve read one of the previous incarnations, please consider popping a review on the new one. It would be a huge help. And if not, it is in Kindle Unlimited, and it’ll be on special offer at the end of January 2021 too.

I can’t say I’m unhappy with what I’ve written in 2020, but it has been a challenge – not just because of events in the wider-world but also because my characters didn’t always behave – I’m looking at you Lady Estrid, and Throne of Ash.

But, 2020 has been fantastic in terms of the readers and reviewers that I’ve met along the way. I couldn’t have done it without them encouraging me on – demanding to know ‘what next’ for Coelwulf. I’m grateful to have been able to interact with them, and it’s shown me how powerful Netgalley can be, if the book finds a willing audience. I’ve also discovered a huge array of non-fiction books that I’ve been using to help me with my works in progress – and for that I’m grateful to the VIMC in Leeds. Without that my passion wouldn’t have been reignited and without that, I wouldn’t have powered myself through Lady Estrid, and she might well be mouldering in a corner, like other, abandoned projects.

For those thinking that I’ve written too much this year, remember, it has been Lockdown for nearly nine months, in my head, if not in others. I’ve only had my characters to distract me from the wider world. As a comparison, I released seven books in 2019, two of which were largely written in 2018. In 2020 I released six books, one of which was written in 2019, and another book which is ready for January 2021. I’ve managed about the same workload – I have suffered with my routine, and my motivation, but have taken great joy in the response my books have received.

And so to 2021. I have three books to edit and finish, and then I’ll return to the world of Coelwulf. I hope you, as my readers, will stay with me, but if not, thank you for spending 2020 with me. I hope I’ve managed to distract you from events outside our own front doors, and I will continue to try and do so. If you want to follow me, I have a newsletter which can be joined here.

Stay safe, people. I hope 2021 will be ‘better’, although I think for many of us ‘better’ is not quite what we once thought it would be.

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A Fiction Reading Year in Review – 2020

I know I won’t have been the only one to have struggled to find books engaging throughout 2020but there are two trends that have mainly characterised my reading throughout the year. I’ve either found myself in Early England (before 1066), or in the loving embrace of cosy 1920s murder mysteries. I don’t think it’s possible to get further apart.

But there are some books that have fallen outside of those two trends, and two of these books, have been my standout books of the year.

Anne O’Brien’s The Queen’s Rival was a true treat.

I was lucky enough to get an advanced copy from Netgalley so didn’t have to wait until the summer to enjoy it.

Here’s the blurb:

One family united by blood. Torn apart by war…

England, 1459: Cecily, Duchess of York, is embroiled in a plot to topple the weak-minded King Henry VI from the throne. But when the Yorkists are defeated at the Battle of Ludford Bridge, Cecily’s family flee and abandon her to face a marauding Lancastrian army on her own.

Cecily can only watch as her lands are torn apart and divided up by the ruthless Queen Marguerite. From the towers of her prison in Tonbridge Castle, the Duchess begins to spin a web of deceit – one that will eventually lead to treason, to the fall of King Henry VI, and to her eldest son being crowned King of England.

This is a story of heartbreak, ambition and treachery, of one woman’s quest to claim the throne during the violence and tragedy of the Wars of the Roses.”

I loved this book, and more than that, O’Brien’s choice to tell her story almost exclusively through letters inspired me when I was struggling to write Lady Estrid, and gave me a means to tell a complex family story. But, even without that, I highly recommend this book. Anne O’Brien tells engaging and captivating stories of England’s forgotten women, and that is just the sort of book that appeals to me.

It’s available now in ebook, audiobook and hardback, and when I wrote this, the ebook was only 99p, an absolute steal.

Next up on my list of excellent reads is Camelot by Giles Kristian.

Here’s the blurb:

Britain is a land riven by anarchy, slaughter, famine, filth and darkness. Its armies are destroyed, its heroes dead, or missing. Arthur and Lancelot fell in the last great battle and Merlin has not been these past ten years. But in a small, isolated monastery in the west of England, a young boy is suddenly plucked from his simple existence by the ageing warrior, Gawain. It seems he must come to terms with his legacy and fate as the son of the most celebrated yet most infamous of Arthur’s warriors: Lancelot. For this is the story of Galahad, Lancelot’s son – the reluctant warrior who dared to keep the dream of Camelot alive 

Camelot had a wonderful feel to it, and while, I wasn’t quite as enamoured of it as I was Lancelot, the sort-of prequel, I still can’t recommend it enough. The way Kristian evoked the Arthurian legend was amazing. No matter how much I ‘knew’ what was going to happen, I still wanted the characters to triumph, and that, was a little piece of genius.

Camelot is available now in hardback, ebook and audio book.

One thing I’ve noticed is that I really didn’t read a lot of fantasy this year, which is strange for me. When I did read, I found solace in some tried and tested favourites, Mark Lawrence’s The Girl and the Stars, Katharine Kerr’s return to Deverry with the wonderful Sword of Fire and Terry Pratchett – I’ve been trying to listen to some audiobooks, and although I’m still not sure I like it, I have found the Terry Pratchett audiobooks to be great entertainment, especially as I’ve read all the books in the past. I have the last book in Peter Newman’s Deathless Trilogy to read as well, but I’ve been saving it up because it’s going to be a real treat.

(I’ve just noticed that Mark Lawrence wrote a review for Sword of Fire on the cover. How funny. But, I’ve been a fan of Katharine Kerr for well over twenty years – maybe that’s why I like Mark Lawrence as he clearly is as well.)

But to return to historical fiction, I have stepped, just once or twice, further back in time than the Early English period to the Romans and the Greeks.

Sons of Rome by Turney and Doherty was a fantastic read, each author taking the part of one of two characters, interchanging their lives in a format that worked so well. I have book 2 to read now and I’m excited about that. And also The Gates of Rome by Conn Iggulden was a stellar read, and I’m still quite cross about the ending! He better put that right if there’s a sequel. I’m also going to give an honourable mention to Derek Birk’s Britannia World’s End. I really, really loved the first book. The second book was not quite as stellar but was still a welcome return to the characters from Book 1.

I’ve also taken on some beta reading projects this year, and have been really impressed by the quality of fiction that people are writing. I’ve been taken to Australia and New Zealand at the time of the gold rush, to Ancient Egypt, to Tudor England, 17th century Paris, 19th century Italy and now I find myself in 19th Century America. I hope these books are released and then I can share my reviews. I read books listed on Netgalley and also on The History Quill. If you love getting your mitts on books before they’re released, I highly recommend both of them, and The History Quill especially if you’re after fresh new voices in historical fiction.

But finally, I will mention the books I’ve read from the Early English period. I’ve not read as widely as I might have liked, but it can be hard to read what you’re writing about at the same time. I’ve spent some time with Matthew Harffy’s creations with Fortress of Fury and A Time For Swords. I’ve also returned to the world of Christine Hancock’s Bright Helm and I can assure that she has a new book, hopefully next year, which readers are going to really, really enjoy – a slight diversion from Byrhtnoth but still very much mentioning him. I’ve been lucky to read a really early copy of it, and I love it already. Bring it on!

I have the last Uhtred book to read, War Lord, but I’ve been saving it up for the holidays.

But, the thing that has really got me through the year has been a vast selection of murder mystery books. The majority have been set in the 1920s in the UK, but I have just discovered E M Powell’s Stanton and Barling mysteries set in the 1100s. These are so entertaining, if quite gory, and what I enjoy most about them, is I’ve never yet guessed who actually committed the murders! The same could be said for the Posey Parker mystery books by L B Hathaway which elevate the 1920s murder mystery to a whole new level. The Verity Kent murder mysteries are also excellent, and have a theme that runs through them all.

So, what I can take away from this is that much of the year has been spent reading cosy murder mysteries, although not many of them have been that cosy. It seems that I need a good mystery to help me unwind and one that’s not too gritty, and one that’s certainly set in the past.

Thank you to the authors who’ve kept me entertained this year, and happy reading everyone. I’m looking forward to more in 2021.

(This post contains Amazon Affiliate links.)

Welcome back to The Danish King’s Enemy – The Earls of Mercia Book II.

It’s taken a while, and the completely edited and slightly re-worked second book in The Earls of Mercia series has been available in paperback for about a year, but finally, I’ve had the ebook rights restored to me, and I’m able to share it with you all.

Now, I’ve changed the name again (I know, sorry) but it needed something to mark it as different from its two previous editions (Ealdormen and Viking Enemy) as it’s not quite the same book it used to be. It’s better – infinitely better – and more importantly for me, and hopefully for my readers, it now ‘fits’ much better with the stories I’ve written about Lady Elfrida. I’d made brief mention of her when I initially wrote the book, but I needed to bring her into it more, and indeed, I’ve done just that.

So, a new cover, a new title, and some additional bits and a few bits taken out, but still, Ealdorman Leofwine and his trusty allies, taking on King Æthelred, King Swein of Denmark and the rest of the ealdormen in England.

I hope you enjoy, and if you happen to fancy popping a review on the new edition, that would help me hugely. Thank you. Happy reading.

Here’s the blurb;

“Every story has a beginning.

Leofwine has convinced his king to finally face his enemies in battle and won a great victory, but in the meantime, events have spiralled out of control elsewhere.

With the death of Olaf Tryggvason of Norway, England has lost an ally, and Leofwine has gained an enemy. And not just any enemy. Swein is the king of Denmark, and he has powerful resources at his fingertips.

In a unique position with the king, Leofwine is either honoured or disrespected. Yet, it is to Leofwine that the king turns to when an audacious attack is launched against the king’s mother and his children. But Leofwine’s successes only bring him more under the scrutiny of King Swein of Denmark, and his own enemies at the king’s court.

With an increase in Raider attacks, it is to Leofwine that the king turns once more. However, the king has grown impatient with his ealdorman, blaming him for Swein’s close scrutiny of the whole of England. Can Leofwine win another victory for his king, or does he risk losing all that he’s gained?

The Danish King’s Enemy is the second book in the epic Earls of Mercia series charting the last century of Early England, as seen through the eyes of Ealdorman Leofwine, the father of Earl Leofric, later the Earl of Mercia, and ally of Lady Elfrida, England’s first queen.”

The reworked and edited book 1 – The Earl of Mercia’s Father is available in paperback. Hopefully, I’ll get the ebook rights restored to me in 2021.

And book X, The English King, will release on 28th January 2021.

Until them, I am running lots of promotions on the Earls of Mercia books so have a look each week.

(This blog post contains Amazon Affiliate links).

To celebrate the release of The Last Enemy, my interviewer unexpectedly caught up with Rudolf, a member of the king’s warband.

Ere, what you up to?

Oh, hello, I’m here to interview King Coelwulf about his latest book.

Really, I wouldn’t think he’d do that. He’s make some excuse about having no time, or some such. Oh wait, did Lady Cyneswith set this up?

Yes, she did, and I’ve already spoken to her. But tell me, do you know the king? You seem to know who everyone is.

Of course I do. I’m Rudolf. His old squire, and now member of his warband. Why?

Would you like to talk to us about his latest book?

Well, I suppose I have the time. If you’re quick, and I don’t get caught. I’m supposed to be showing young Hiltiberht the ropes, and Haden can be a real handful.

Tell me, what’s King Coelwulf like? As a warrior?

Bloody lethal. You don’t want to be facing off against him. I’ve never seen anyone kill so quickly. And the moves he can do? I wish I had even half of his skill. I mean, he says I’m a good warrior and all, but I make up for my lack of skill with speed. And he doesn’t have that because he’s so bloody …. Um, because he doesn’t need to do that. Sometimes, I swear the enemy make it look so easy it’s as though they’re falling onto his seax or sword.

He’s quite good then?

Better than good. I’ve never seen anyone fight the way he does. Well, apart from Icel, and Edmund, and maybe Hereman. But, certainly, the Raiders stand no chance against him.

I hear he even camps in the woodlands and forests? It’s not really the sort of thing a king should do, is it?

Now, you see here. He was a warrior long before he was king. King Coelwulf only has one aim, to kill all the Raiders. To drive them from Mercia and make sure they don’t come back. He’s not into all that fancy clothes, and court etiquette, or sleeping in a bed of silk sheets. They’d be too damn cold, anyway. He’s told me. No, the king of Mercia is a damn warrior, and the only man capable of defeating the Raiders, and the Welsh, if it comes to it. 

And, have you read the new book?

Got no time for reading. I’m sure King Coelwulf told you that, and he’s right. I’d like a good night’s sleep without interruption more than I’d like to read a book. Maybe a scop could tell the tale. But, that would be Edmund and I’d have to listen to him tell the tale. He’s good, of course he’s good, but he probably wouldn’t mention me as much as I might like.

To all the young lads who do read the book, what would your advice be? How could they get into King Coelwulf’s warband?

Well, they should probably have joined it a while ago, and at the moment, there’s a few squires that need training up, so there’s no room, not for a while. So, I’d tell them to wait, and while they’re waiting, learn a few things, like how to clean saddles and seaxs. It’s a mucky job, but someone’s got to do it. And with King Coelwulf, you’ve got to earn his respect first. And then, well, once you’ve got it, you’ve got to keep it. A hard man, but a great man. Mercians should be pleased with their king. He’ll keep them safe, or he’ll die trying. You didn’t find the old king doing that. Far from it in fact. He’s scuttled off to Rome, or somewhere like that. Gone to pray for his soul. He’s got a lot to need forgiveness for, abandoning his kingdom like that.

Oh, sorry, I’ve got to go. 

And there you have it. A few words from Rudolf, King Coelwulf’s old squire. I hear he fights incredibly well, and offers some important advice for any would be members of the king’s warband.

If you haven’t read my earlier interview with King Coelwulf, then you can find it here. And I also interviewed his Aunt, which can be found here.

The Last Enemy is available now in ebook and paperback from Amazon.

Connect with me on twitter, or join my mailing list.

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Lady Estrid is on ‘tour’ with the Coffee Pot Book Club – check out the posts so far

Lady Estrid has taken herself on tour with the fabulous Coffee Pot Book Club. She what she’s been up to, and thank you to everyone for hosting her, and the Coffee Pot Book Club for arranging.

November 2nd Mary’s Tavern (Excerpt)

November 9th Gwendalyn’s Books (Review)

November 16th Judith Arnopp’s Official Blog (Excerpt)

November 23rd Brook Allen’s Official Blog (All about the historical Lady Estrid)

November 30th Sylv.Net (Excerpt)

December 7th Madwoman in the Attic (Review)

December 14th Elizabeth St John’s Official Blog (Interview)

December 21st Let the Words Shine (Five facts you didn’t know about me)

December 28th Candlelight Reading (Excerpt)

January 4th The Writing Desk (Letter writing in the eleventh century)

Lady Estrid is available now in ebook and paperback.

Thank you to all the hosts for allowing Lady Estrid onto their blogs, and to The Coffee Pot Book Club for being so, so, so good at organising everything. Thank you.

(This post contains Amazon affiliate links, which means that at no cost to you, Amazon rewards me.)

Welcome to today’s stop on the ‘Fire and Ash’ blog tour by Thomas J Berry

Today, I’m delighted to be hosting the Fire and Ash blog tour by Thomas J Berry, and I’ll be sharing an exciting excerpt from the book. But first, the details.

Here’s the blurb:

“Five men and women in Ancient Greece are set on a dangerous journey of self-discovery during the bitter conflict of the Peloponnesian War.

While mighty Athens struggles to rebuild after a devastating campaign abroad, the feared warriors of Sparta prepare to deliver the final blow in a decades long war. No one is safe anymore as the conflict shifts across the Aegean to the shores of wealthy Persia. Old colonies, once loyal to Athens, are eager to rebel and the Great King is willing to pay anything to regain his control over them. These coastal plains set the stage for massive battles and heartbreaking defeats. This time there will be only one true victor.

The news coming out of Sicily ripples across the cities of Ancient Greece like a thunderbolt and it is left to the poor and desperate to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives. One young mother is suddenly faced with a horrible tragedy and struggles against all odds to make a new life for her family. An eager boy looking for adventure enlists in the new Athenian ranks but finds life on campaign a lot more than he bargained for. A Spartan officer in the twilight of his years struggles to adapt to a young man’s army and an exiled Athenian strives to earn his way back into the graces of his beloved city. The harem girls in a Persian court meet a handsome foreigner and one risks everything for a chance at love.

As the conflict between Athens and Sparta builds to a final showdown, five men and women struggle to come to terms with their changing world. What will they find in the ashes when peace finally comes?”

But enough of that. Here’s the excerpt,

“A few moments later, the tent flap opened, and two figures entered. Memo looked up and smiled at the newcomers. Doro and Three-Fingers stood before him looking a bit anxious. 

“What’s wrong, fellas? You look like death warmed over.”

“We saw Alcibiades this morning, but he left before we could talk to him,” Fingers stated simply. “Hadn’t heard from the man in years.”

“I spoke with him briefly,” Memo admitted. “But I had to practically throw myself in his path.”

“We noticed you bent his ear a bit,” Doro said enviously. “What did he say? How does he account for himself these days?”

“He and Timandra keep to themselves at Pactye,” Memo explained. “The Thracians are his only friends up in that region.”

“Is that all he said?” Doro asked, sounding a little disappointed. 

“Well, he did mention something, but it’s probably not important.”

“Spill it,” Fingers said. “Where Alcibiades is concerned, nothing should be overlooked. He’s a military genius and you know it.”

Memo looked at his friends. “He thinks the Spartans are playing us. Last night, after we retired from the straits, he spotted a pair of their ships lagging behind their main body. They weren’t aggressive, just…hanging out, watching us. He thinks they were spying on our movements for some reason.”

“Lysander doesn’t want to do anything but watch these days! It’s driving me crazy,” Fingers retorted in disgust. 

“They can look at us all they want as long as they keep their distance,” Doro muttered. Then he laughed loudly. “Perhaps they wanted to join us for supper!” 

“Did he mention this to the Generals?” Three-Fingers inquired. 

“I don’t think so. I was close enough to hear much of their exchange and I wrote it down so the Council will receive a report on his surprise visit. I’m sure they’d be interested in hearing what he’s been doing.”

They talked for a little longer but soon Doro and Three-Fingers departed, ready to board Twisted River, a newer trireme captured from the Chians a few months ago. He knew their attitude toward the Spartan leadership was common among the crews. Lysander had developed a reputation as a skilled commander, yet he had turned passive since the Athenians arrived on the scene. 

Konon was due back today and perhaps he’d bring some good news with him. Perhaps even a letter from home if my wife was able to get a note off. He had last seen Alexandra when he returned to state his case at the trial of the Generals a year ago. It had been a quick visit, but he had tried to make the most of it. She was 37, nine years his junior, and had spent much of the last decade raising their three children without him. He told himself he was simply doing his part for the war effort. Such excuses rang hollow, however, when he finally saw his 21 year-old-son or his two daughters and wondered where the time had gone.

Julius had matured in many ways, he noticed, especially his height. The young man stood just over six feet tall and could wield a sword and shield if he was pressed into service but preferred more skilled vocations. On his last visit, Memo learned about his legal appointment in the capital. His son was crafting bills and helping to defend poor folk in drafty, marble courtrooms. He was proud of the young man Julius had become and was chagrined at not being there to see him grow up.

Life had changed little for his two youngest. Eurynome was 11 this year and Rhea nine. They spent most days helping their mother and the two family slaves with household chores. Nomy enjoyed working the loom but hated the smell of fresh dye while the little one was being tutored in herbal remedies and poultices by an old practitioner. When this blasted war is over, he thought, I’ll be able to return home and become a father to them once more.

Despite the hardships, he knew his family fared better than most. His own father had been a respected diplomat in the city and accumulated a substantial house, servants, and investments before he passed away years ago. Alexandra now lived frugally off the interest his estate provided and the funds Memo send her from his pay. Somehow, she made it all work, but he knew it wasn’t easy.

He rose from his table and walked outside to a lonely camp. Most of the men were now at sea in one of the 180 warships lined up against their Spartan adversaries. Tydeus was a conservative type but that wasn’t surprising. Most of the democrats had lost their lives on the tympanon boards. There weren’t many to choose from when the city finally cooled off and started looking for replacements.

It seemed ironic how quickly the Assembly had a change of heart after the executions. With their bloodlust satiated for the moment, they realized they needed new leadership for the large fleet still in Persian waters. Konon was the obvious choice but he couldn’t, and shouldn’t, do it alone. Tydeus was sent forth, together with Menandros, Philokles, and Adeimantos. In true democratic fashion, the five generals were instructed to alternate command between themselves daily to avoid a concentration of power. It was an interesting experiment, Memo thought, but it had its drawbacks.

Tydeus possessed a calm, steady demeanor while Philokles had earned an ignoble reputation with both friend and foe. At the beginning of the summer, he had captured two Chian vessels and threw the crews overboard, drowning hundreds of men. A few years earlier, he made a motion before the Council that all prisoners of war should have their right thumb cut off so they will never pick up a sword against Athens again. Fortunately, the resolution was not passed for it could have led to similar retribution against their own soldiers captured in the field. 

As the ships returned that evening with nothing to show for their efforts but empty bellies, Memo met his companions as they disembarked along the sandy beaches. The Twisted River had backed into its position and was lifted onto four logs to dry out overnight. The constant patrol on the water this week had further aggravated some warping along the starboard side and the Captain wanted to add more tar to its hull after the men took their meal. As thousands of sailors started up the narrow paths leading towards distant towns and markets, the work remained unfinished. It would be well after dark before they returned.

The following morning, Memo greeted Konon as he emerged from the officer’s pavilion. His flagship, the Equinox, was being prepped for a day at sea and would join the rest of the armada as they faced off once more against the Spartans. The men were growing hungrier by the day, with little to find away from camp and few provisions coming down from Sestos. He asked the General when things were going to change but he only got a non-committal response.

“Philokles is in command today and I will leave that decision to him,” Konon replied casually. He had eaten his fill at Sestos the night before, so hunger was not a paramount issue at the moment. If Lysander wanted to delay battle, Konon had no objection. He had all the time in the world.

Memo spent the day writing formal letters to the city governor at Byzantium, two island towns bordering on revolution, and a daily report of the fleet’s activities, or lack thereof, in the Hellespont. The Council would soon tire of the General’s patient attitude and force Konon to use his superior numbers for what they were intended. Crush the Spartans and force them to retreat from the region. He added one last letter to the pile as well, a personal note to Alexandra. He smiled as he sat back in his chair. Regular correspondence with family back home was just one of the perks of his job. 

The sun was falling from the sky at a slow but steady rate. Helios was guiding his golden chariot towards the western horizon and soon Doro and Three-Fingers would meet him for their evening walk into Sestos. He hated the journey. It was ten miles overland and it took them almost three hours to cross through the deep streams, grassy plains, and thick underbrush to reach the markets before they closed for the day. 

He looked out across the water and saw the vessels approaching at a leisurely rate. There were 180 triremes on the water today, including the state ship, Paralus, which had arrived from the capital two days before. It was meant to ferry important dignitaries around and serve as the official ambassador of the empire. Its presence here meant only one thing. Athens was watching Konon’s activities with great interest.

Memo crossed his arms and gazed across the waters, but shadows obscured the distant port of Lampsacus on the opposite coast. He wondered if the two ships Alcibiades had reported were still watching them. Maybe there was a simple answer for it. As the Twisted River was pulled up along the beach next to dozens of other warships, Memo put it out of his mind. His friends disembarked and they headed off through the brush towards the markets at Sestos.

Ten minutes later, he heard a distant shout and turned his head back towards the camp for a second. As he did so, his eyes widened in abject terror. The horizon was full of warships, rowing like the very demon dog of Hades was chasing them. And they were heading straight for the Athenian beach!”

Curious? Then you’ll be pleased to know that the book is available now, using the links below.

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Meet the Author

Thomas Berry received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy from St. Bonaventure University.  He takes pleasure in extensively researching both historical fiction and non-fiction stories.  In his spare time, he enjoys long distance running and has completed several marathons.  He currently lives with his wife and children in New Jersey.  You can learn more about Thomas and his historical novels at his website, www.thomas-berry.com.

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(Thank you to Coffee Pot Book Club Tours @maryanneyarde)

To celebrate the release of The Last Enemy, my interviewer caught up with Lady Cyneswith.

I’m very honoured to have caught a few moments with Lady Cyneswith, the aunt of King Coelwulf. Thank you for finding the time to speak to me.

“Well, I’m sure you’ve discovered that my nephew is a very busy man, a bit rough around the edges some times, and so I’m delighted to speak with you on his behalf, smooth away any ruffles he might have caused.

Yes, I confess, I had noticed that he was short on time when I tried to speak with him earlier.

Short on time, and economical with his words. He is the king, you know, but of course, his priorities are with defeating the Raiders. I think there are those who don’t quite appreciate the persistence of the enemy. It takes a strong and decisive leader to defeat them, and we should be pleased to have one. Much better than our previous king, who gave up Mercia in exchange for his life. Shocking.

I speak for the whole of Mercia when I say we are so pleased to have such a man leading us. Some new, vigourous, blood was needed to ensure Mercia stayed together.

Our previous king, Burgred, was not blessed with the military requirements for the post. But then, I won’t be alone in believing that Burgred should never have been king. He only achieved what he did because of the manipulation of the natural right of succession.

So, you believe that all the kings since King Coelwulf, first of his name, were usurpers?

I make no bones about that. Mercia wouldn’t be in such peril if my family line had retained their hold on power, as they should have done. But, now is not the time to dwell on that. It’s important to think of the future, and of what is yet to be achieved, but which will be, and soon.

I asked King Coelwulf if had a few words to explain why people should read the latest book.

I imagine he said something along the lines of, ‘I don’t have time for reading, so I wouldn’t.’ And, of course, he means that, but it is difficult for him to appreciate the fascination others have with what he’s trying to achieve. So, I would say, read it and discover just what risks your king, and his warriors and ealdormen are making to ensure Mercia’s freedom. Read it, and understand the peril and take steps to ensure your freedom as well. 

And, have you read the latest book?

I have yes, and I’m pleased to say there’s a slightly bigger part for me in, than usual. Of course, it’s difficult with all the fighting to find room for the women of Mercia, but I’m sure that one day, in the not too distant future, Mercia will have female warriors to keep her safe. After all, anyone can learn to chop off someone’s head, or slice them through the neck, the skill, of course, is in staying alive afterwards.

Um, yes, quite. Thank you for that. I wondered if I could get a few words from you about King Alfred of Wessex.

No, not really. I don’t speak about neighbouring kings, and I’ve never met the man. Now, if you asked me about the king of Gwent, then I might have something to say about him, but you haven’t, and so, I don’t.

Could I ask you about the language used in the book? It’s quite strong in places.

While I have no particular need to hear such words, I can well appreciate that, on occasion, they might be warranted. After all, our king and his warriors are risking their lives every time they enter a battle against our enemy. I put it down to the rush of adrenaline, and hope everyone else does the same.

I asked King Coelwulf about his warriors, do you have any particular favourite amongst them?

I take pride in teaching all of the men some simple techniques to treat wounds received in battle. It’s important to know how to heal as well as to maim. My favourites are obviously those who listen carefully and learn what I teach them. 

Thank you for taking the time to speak with me.

It is of course, my pleasure, and my duty, as the king’s sole surviving relative. Under his leadership, Mercia will once more be great again.

And there you have it. An interesting interview with Lady Cyneswith, a most formidable woman. I should think she’d be as lethal on the battlefield as her nephew is proving to be.  If you haven’t read my earlier interview with King Coelwulf, then you can find it here.

The Last Enemy is available now in ebook and paperback from Amazon.

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