Friday, October 12, 2018

Ins and Outs of Time

I suspect that the general public doesn’t often think of historians as detectives. Detectives in fiction, on television, and in the movies can be rumpled or sexy, old or young, male or ever more often female, but their lives are usually exciting. They hunt down clues, they pursue criminals in the flesh, they place themselves in physical danger and not infrequently risk their lives. In real life, the job tends to involve more grunge work and fewer thrills, but it still confers respect.

Historians are more likely to be viewed as stuffy. Professors in fiction hardly ever act like real scholars, but unless chasing their students or engaged in similar acts that would raise eyebrows at most universities (which is different from saying they never happen), professors fall into detection only by accident, like any other fictional crime solver.

But that assumes that the only detection that counts involves stopping present-day criminals in the act. In fact, scholars of all sorts love mysteries. That’s one of the reasons people become scholars in the first place: to answer unanswered questions, big and small. How does the universe work? What combination of proteins will defeat cancer? Why did Richard III lose at Bosworth Field?

It’s this kind of detection that forms the background to Kate Morton’s new book, The Clockmaker’s Daughter, released on October 9. The novel opens in the summer of 1862, when a young experimental artist invites a group of friends to his home, Birchwood Manor. The house party ends in tragedy, although it will be the end of the book before we discover all the details.

Instead we shift forward 155 years, to London in the summer of 2017, where Elodie Winslow, an archivist (a profession generally and just as undeservedly considered even more boring than history), discovers an old satchel hidden in a desk. The satchel contains an initialed leather journal and a woman’s photograph, among other items, and is labeled with the name James W. Stratton, a reference to the prominent Victorian businessman and philanthropist to whom the archive is dedicated.

Elodie, like any good archivist or historian, is immediately hooked. Who is the woman in the photograph? Who kept the journal, and why does it contain a sketch of a house that Elodie remembers from childhood stories? What connects the satchel with James Stratton, and why was it hidden for so many years?

Even though she’s supposed to be preparing for her wedding to a wealthy businessman of her own, Elodie can’t resist trying to answer these questions and the many more that appear as soon as she answers the first set. In the process, she—and we—uncover a considerable amount about her family’s past and its previously undisclosed connection to Birchwood Manor. As a historian myself, I loved every minute of it.

But that’s only one thread of this remarkable and compelling novel. Although I looked forward to talking with Kate for New Books in Historical Fiction, I recognized as soon as I got into her book that it would be difficult to discuss the novel without giving away crucial elements of the story. So when it turned out that scheduling one more event into an already daunting three-continent book launch wasn’t really feasible, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I felt certain that it would have been an interesting conversation; on the other, dodging so many unmentionable plot points seemed like a challenge and a half. Writing this blog post instead solved that problem.

Because that summer house party has consequences, as well as a history of its own. And while it would be impossible for Elodie to discover everything about those events no matter how much effort she put into her research, we as readers do get that chance. At the heart of the story is Birdie, the clockmaker’s daughter of the title, whose fate is more entwined with the whole than Elodie can even imagine.

Find out more about this and Kate Morton’s other novels at her website.

Friday, October 5, 2018

War of the Wolf

We rarely publish interviews back-to-back on New Books in Historical Fiction, but in this case the scheduling made it essential. I’ve had a chance to speak with Bernard Cornwell several times now about his bestselling Saxon Tales (also called the Last Kingdom series after the television series based on it). He’s a thoughtful and engaging writer, and interviewing him in print or in person is always a pleasure—a privilege, too, given his extraordinary success. So when his publisher asked if we could run the interview on the simultaneous UK/US release date of his newest novel, I agreed.

It was no hardship. War of the Wolf has charms of its own. As the eleventh in a series that already spans more than fifty years, it must cope with the challenges posed by time: both the need to develop its main character steadily throughout his extended life span; and the need to keep the story line of each book new and interesting even as the long arc of the series as a whole draws to its close.

The novel succeeds at both tasks. I won’t say how Uhtred moves on from the position he reached at the end of the tenth novel, The Flame Bearer, because that would spoil the plot of that book for new readers. But I will say that War of the Wolf still managed to surprise me. Although few of the characters we met in The Last Kingdom survive into this latest novel, the vast sweep of the larger story extends into a second and even, it seems, a third generation. The pagan Danes remain undefeated, and the antagonist here appears in a guise Cornwell admits in the interview that he has long avoided. And perhaps most impressive in a novel so focused on war at its most hands-on and brutal, his hero, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, continues to evolve. Once a brash young recruit, to borrow a modern term, who succeeded as much by luck as by skill, he has become a seasoned commander without losing his inimitable sass.

And in an unplanned but fascinating coincidence, toward the end of the interview we discuss a topic that, although somewhat peripheral to Uhtred’s emerging England, is quite closely tied to last week’s interview about Leslie Schweitzer Miller’s Discovery: the question of priestly celibacy in the Catholic Church.

Historians and historical novelists, but perhaps not so much the general public, have long known that between Emperor Constantine’s endorsement of Christianity as the state religion in the fourth century and the High Middle Ages approximately nine hundred years later, most priests lived with either wives or mistresses. The enforcement of celibacy in the priesthood by the church hierarchy took a long time to complete. The famous lovers Héloïse and Abelard—he a canon and she the niece of one—were caught in that transition.

Now, Jesus of Nazareth belonged to a different time, one in which many people in the Roman-run province of Palestine held the apocalyptic view that the Last Days were at hand. By the fourth century, never mind the twelfth, it had become clear that the Second Coming would be delayed. So the views common among the medieval priesthood should not be construed as evidence that Jesus himself married; he may have considered earthly ties a distraction from the greater enterprise of salvation, as many of his followers clearly did. Or he may have married years before he began his ministry, as most young Jewish men did, only to lose his wife or leave her for what he perceived as a higher cause. It’s unlikely we will ever know for sure.

But either way, no one can entertain doubts about where Uhtred stands on the question of celibacy—and of Christianity more generally. And if you do wonder, reading War of the Wolf is an excellent way to find out the answers.

As usual, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction

As seems appropriate for a character as resourceful, skilled, and self-confident as Uhtred of Bebbanburg, he goes from strength to strength. In addition to a set of bestselling novels, collectively dubbed The Saxon Tales, Uhtred has a television series to his name: The Last Kingdom, just renewed for its third year by Netflix.

Here in his eleventh adventure, War of the Wolf (Harper, 2018), Uhtred should be enjoying the fruits of his labors over the last ten books, but of course, that story would be no fun to read or to write. Instead Uhtred, now past sixty, receives a summons to travel south to protect the fortress of Ceaster (Chester) on behalf of Aethelstan, the son of King Edward of Wessex. Uhtred soon realizes that the summons is a ruse: the greater danger lies in the North, in the person of the Dane Sköll and his warriors, who dose themselves with henbane to harness the power of the wolf. Sköll also has the support of a powerful sorcerer, who Uhtred comes to believe has cursed him—especially after Sköll attacks the city of Eoferwic (York), where Uhtred’s son-in-law rules, with devastating effect.

Bernard Cornwell does not disappoint, and this latest entry in the Last Kingdom saga sees Uhtred at the top of his game and England a bit closer to its eventual unification, a goal that Uhtred both supports and fears as it becomes ever clearer that his kingdom, Northumbria, and his pagan religion increasingly pose the only barriers to King Edward’s success.

For my two previous podcast interviews with Bernard Cornwell, see New Books in Historical Fiction for June 2014, The Pagan Lord, and December 2016, The Flame Bearer. Our written Q&A about his non-Uhtred novel Fools and Mortals appeared on this blog on January 12, 2018.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Hidden Truths

Leslie Schweitzer Miller’s debut novel, Discovery—the subject of my latest podcast interview—can be characterized as a group of connected mysteries wrapped in a love story. It starts in 1885, with the arrival of Abbé François Bérenger Saunière in the small town of Rennes-le-Château, high in the French Alps. As Schweitzer Miller explains in the interview, this priest, a historical character, left a mystery behind him: how he managed to amass a huge fortune while serving a poor parish first assigned to him as a kind of punishment post. And although we don’t know historically whether any connection existed between Bérenger Saunière and the unsolved murder of his close friend Father Antoine Gélis (also a historical character) in 1897, no novelist could resist imagining such a connection.

Deeper links develop between the story of the two priests—the wealth of one and the brutal death inflicted on the other—and a question that has roiled the establishment of biblical scholars for some time: was Jesus of Nazareth married?

Discovery is not the first novel to tackle this last question. Most notably, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code included it as part of the rationale for that novel’s complex and overlapping set of puzzles. But as one might expect from a practicing psychiatrist, Schweitzer Miller focuses her novel less on the solution to the mysteries per se and more on the human connections between her characters and the impact of the discoveries on their beliefs about the world and their feelings for one another.

In particular, she traces the love that develops between her modern-day heroine, Giselle Gélis, and the archaeologist David Rettig as they travel together across southern France in pursuit of a solution to the double mystery of Rennes-le-Château. Their journey forces them to confront that deeper biblical question, and their differing responses to what they find in turn threaten their relationship—even more than the fellow scholar determined to get in their way.

As usual, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction

When Giselle Gélis runs into David Rettig at a biblical studies conference, she’s not expecting a life-changing experience. On the contrary, the thought foremost in her mind is escaping the creepy colleague who seems oblivious to hints of dislike and even outright putdowns. But Giselle and David hit it off, despite their differences of personality and the reality that any relationship between them can only be long-distance: she lives in France while he’s based in Israel.

In an attempt to spend time together, Giselle and David agree to undertake a journey across southern France, from just below Marseille to Toulouse. It’s supposed to be a vacation, casually devoted to learning more about each other while unraveling a mystery associated with Giselle’s uncle, murdered late in the nineteenth century in a crime that was never solved, between stops at luxury hotels and meals at fabulous restaurants. Instead, Giselle and David stumble over a discovery that challenges  doctrine fundamental to the Christian religion, and with it her faith and their future as a couple.

Discovery (Notramour Press, 2018) skips back and forth between Giselle and David’s present and her uncle’s past, with at least one foray even deeper into time as the underlying mystery is gradually revealed. Leslie Schweitzer Miller  juggles these multiple realities with aplomb, bringing to life not only the breathtaking scenery of the mountains around Rennes-le-Château (pictured on the cover above), where the central action takes place, but the contrasting time periods and the characters who populate them.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Magic Mushrooms

After a crazy summer caused by my own determination to spiff up the entire Legends of the Five Directions series as it came to an end, things have calmed down at last. Well, almost. I’ve recorded three podcast interviews in about six weeks, which meant reading three books and drawing up three sets of draft questions, as well as checking three audio files after the fact—the interview is the easy part. But that’s more or less done, too, and since I have the next book read and the date not yet scheduled, there’s a bit of free time to think about my new series.

For reasons I won’t go into, the first of my Songs of Steppe & Forest, Song of the Siren, has been substantially done since last spring. It’s out now with my favorite historical consultant, and once I get her comments, I’ll make any needed changes and it will be finished. Songs 2, Song of the Shaman, is still at that very preliminary fun stage where anything seems possible. I have a rough list of story events and a goal, motivation, and conflict chart for the leads, but those structural elements are just to keep me honest, by which I mean that when I go roaming off into the wilds of story, they act as a crude form of compass to remind me where home is so I can wend my way back.

The reason I can’t move quickly just yet is because I have at best a rudimentary sense of how it would feel to become a shaman, or even of what shamans do. It doesn’t help that shamanism itself, at least in the areas I cover, got whomped by the Bolsheviks along with every other form of religious expression. Today it’s undergoing a revival, which is an improvement over its being treated like a banned substance but nonetheless raises another, different sort of barrier between the contemporary experience and that of my characters five hundred years ago.

That brings me to the main topic of today’s post. When I mentioned the title to my friend Gabrielle Mathieu, who herself has a series of historical fantasy novels involving psychotropic drugs, she immediately asked, “So did they use psychedelic mushrooms?” I said I didn’t think so, because the research I’d done up to that point suggested trances were induced solely by drumming and chanting. She then quoted me title and page of a book suggesting that Siberian shamans did. So I poked around a little more, including in the book she mentioned, and discovered that she was right. Many shamans did, including those on the Eurasian steppe. Not all, by any means, but a lot.

Better yet, from a fictional point of view, the psychedelic mushrooms in use in Central Asia, the steppe, and Siberia, although not themselves deadly, have relatives that can send you to the other world permanently if you make a mistake or fall victim to a con artist or just misjudge your dose. Most of them don’t have antidotes even today. But they do have identifiable symptoms and consequences, and thanks to Gabrielle’s wonderfully illustrated book, I now know what they look like.

I also decided my heroine must have a reason not to employ the mushrooms herself. Without chemicals to facilitate the trance state, she naturally struggles to live up to her mentor’s and her own expectations. That makes it easier for her to doubt her own powers, but it also adds to the triumph if she can succeed in the end. And as the stakes rise in the story, her inner conflict intensifies: should she give in to temptation, risking her life, or stick firm to her resistance, even if it means risking the lives of others?

I’m still trawling YouTube for chants, drum sounds, interiors, philosophies, and anything else I can find that will flesh out my characters’ spiritual world. And of course, I’m reading everything I can find to cull sensory details and modes of thought, the more esoteric those details the better.

But at least I have the magic mushrooms to fall back on—not to take myself, of course, but to feed to my characters!

Image: Amanita muscaria (fly agaric), the preferred trance agent of Eurasian shamans; © 2006 Onderwijsgek, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Interview with Karen Brooks

I so wanted to talk with Karen Brooks on New Books in Historical Fiction. We were all set, too, until I realized we live so far apart the only way the timing could work would be if one of us wanted to get up at dawn or stay up until midnight. Fortunately, she was willing to answer written questions instead.

An actress, children’s playwright, academic, and social commentator as well as a writer of fiction, Karen Brooks has had a fascinating career that has already produced ten novels. Today we’re discussing her latest, The Locksmith’s Daughter, published by William Morrow in July 2018. It follows her heroine, Mallory Bright, through the turmoil of Elizabethan London and the flourishing espionage network headed by Sir Francis Walsingham. Read on to find out more.


Your career has already covered a range that includes both acting and academics. Where does your decision to write fiction fit into that overall progression, and what drew you to the particular story that became The Locksmith’s Daughter?

I think the one thing in common with all the different jobs I’ve had is words. As an actor, I had the privilege of breathing life into others’ words; as an academic, I was able to teach and research and write my own by standing on the shoulders of giants. But as an academic, you use words in a particular way and with a particular purpose. And let’s face it, when you publish an article in a scholarly journal, you’re lucky if three people read it. ☺ But I was mainly exercising the rational part of my brain. I always read—nonfiction and fiction—but the desire to be creative with words became overpowering. So I began to write fiction. Short stories at first and even a play, but soon I branched out into novels. It was like I was trying to have a balanced word diet, feed my imagination in all sorts of ways.

The Locksmith’s Daughter
came to me as a consequence of watching a locksmith named Bruce fix the ignition in my husband’s car after he snapped the key in it. He had to give him a new lock and key, and I watched him do this. I began to think about locks and how they most often were used to protect things, to keep secrets. Once I started thinking about secrets, I thought of secret keepers and spies and then, bang! The idea for a female spy embedded in a male-only network and at a time when secrets were not only currency but often the difference between life and death—the Elizabethan era—came to me right there and then. 

When we meet your main character, Mallory Bright—the locksmith’s daughter of the title—she’s already, as they used to say, a “woman with a past.” In her own words, “Only God … knew how akin I was to the prodigal son, and how great a wastrel.” What can you tell us about her history and her character—in the sense of her personality?

Mallory is a strong woman who has been (temporarily) beaten by poor choices and some terrible people. Educated, confident, attractive, she was also very young when she fell victim to a charming con man and had her trust badly abused. She thus loses a great deal of her self-esteem and confidence. When the story opens, she is still vulnerable, physically safe but emotionally fragile. The story is about her learning to regain self-trust and love, learn her place in the world, as much as it is anything else.

How does Mallory become involved with Sir Francis Walsingham? What does participation in his spy service mean to her?

Sir Francis, it turns out, is a family friend—someone her beloved father has known for decades. Mallory is shocked to learn this, but when she does and is invited to become part of Walsingham’s spy network, she understands the opportunity being given to her. She seizes it as a way of regaining a sense of self and proving to herself and others that she’s worthy. After all, there’s no greater service (at that time) than to queen and country. Mallory will learn the high cost of that.

Even from the back cover, we know that Mallory, sooner or later, becomes disenchanted with Walsingham’s spy network. How does that happen, and what effect does it have on her life?

Ah, I have to be careful here … if I say too much, I give away the plot! LOL! Basically, as I said above, the book is about secrets and those who keep them and why. The price to be paid for keeping secrets, for locking them away, is very high, and what it extracts from a person, what it demands of them, is enormous. Keeping secrets requires a level of betrayal—to the self and others. When Mallory starts to understand this, she begins to question what she’s doing and who she is becoming … where she is giving trust and who’s abusing hers. But she’s committed to a cause and, more importantly, has been entrusted with the greatest of secrets. When doubt sets in and she queries her purpose, she transforms from a great political asset to a dangerous threat and thus must be dealt with.

There’s no way we can cover the richness and complexity of your 600-page novel in a blog Q&A, but there are two other characters I’d like to mention. Who are Caleb and Nathaniel, and what can you tell us about them as people and their roles in Mallory’s story?

I love Caleb.
Caleb is an actor and playwright in Elizabethan London. He exists in the period just before William Shakespeare took London by storm. Astute readers might note, however, I still use some Shakespearean phrases (“bat of an owlet’s wing,” etc.). This because I thought, like most writers, Shakespeare would have picked up common patois and deployed it in his plays and poetry and so put some of his phrases in characters’ mouths, including Caleb. Caleb is a boarder in Mallory’s home and has known her for years. He is a great friend to her as well as being flamboyant, irreverent, loyal, and kind. He’s also very talented.

Ah, Nathaniel. Nathaniel is a lord who, like Mallory, has a past. He is physically huge. Tall, broad-shouldered, and, as a consequence, often in fights—or was—as men see him as both a threat and a way of testing their own masculinity. As one of the only surviving members of his family, when we meet him, he has responsibility for his younger sister, who is a sweetie. He doesn’t suffer fools and is also a great supporter of the arts and therefore a patron of the group of players to which Caleb belongs. Nathaniel and Caleb are also friends and have great respect for each other. It’s through Caleb that Nathaniel and Mallory meet.

And what are you working on now?

I have just completed the final edit of my next novel (due out next year), The Chocolate Maker’s Wife, which is set in Restoration England (1660s). This was a time when not only was there war, plague, fire, plots, and plans, but chocolate was considered a naughty, decadent drink (it wasn’t eaten back then). It made its way to English shores via South America and Spain and France and into the newly established chocolate houses of London. These were places where news was exchanged (it was also the era when journalism as we know it was born), gossip flourished, and nefarious plots were hatched. The novel is about a young woman and her rise to the top of the chocolate game—how she makes a deal with the devil to succeed and the cost of this to her and others.

I’m also writing my next book, which is set in Scotland in the early 1700s and focuses on the fishwives of Fife: their strength, independence, great camaraderie, and the threat they posed to certain sections of the community. It’s about what happens when a few of them are accused of witchcraft. It’s set during the height of the “witch craze” and is based on a terrible true story. I’m loving writing it while at the same time being torn up with sadness and anger at humanity’s capacity for cruelty.

Thank you so much for such great questions and for having me on your blog.

And thank you for your answers, Karen!

Karen Brooks, the Australian-born author of ten novels (and counting), is an academic, a newspaper columnist, and a social commentator. She lives in Hobart, Tasmania. Find out more about her at

Image © Stephen Brooks.