Friday, August 17, 2018

Interview with Linnea Hartsuyker

I made Linnea Hartsuyker's acquaintance when her publicist pitched her first book, The Half-Drowned King, to me for a New Books in Historical Fiction interview. You can find out more about that book below and in my blog post from that time, “The Power of the Sea.”
Even then I knew that The Half-Drowned King was the first part of a trilogy, so when I received a query about book 2, The Sea Queen, I jumped at the chance to set up a blog Q&A for Linnea, who in the meantime had also written a wonderful blurb for my own Vermilion Bird. (No tit-for-tat there: I’d have happily sent her my questions anyway.)

I’ll let her take over here, with thanks and a note that I’m looking forward to The Golden Wolf this time next year, especially having read that description at the end. And make sure you read right to the end, where you can find Linnea’s website address and social media links.

Congratulations on publishing book 2 of your series! For those encountering your novels for the first time, could you give us a capsule introduction to The Half-Drowned King, which precedes the new book?

Thank you! In The Half-Drowned King we first meet the young viking Ragnvald and his sister Svanhild. Ragnvald’s quest during The Half-Drowned King is to revenge himself on his stepfather and gain control of his ancestral land. But he has also seen a vision of a golden wolf who he must follow, and finds that wolf in young Harald of Vestfold, who is prophesied to become the first king of Norway.

As Ragnvald pursues his goals, his sister Svanhild flees from an unwanted marriage, and finds her escape in the arms of Ragnvald’s most powerful enemy, the sea king Solvi Hunthiofsson. Brother and sister both succeed in their aims, but end up on opposite sides of the fight for Norway’s future.

And where is your hero, Ragnvald Eysteinsson, at the beginning of The Sea Queen?

At the beginning of The Sea Queen, five years after the end of The Half-Drowned King, Ragnvald is in the service of King Harald as he battles to conquer all of Norway. While Ragnvald would sometimes rather be back at home, ruling his district, he also enjoys the success he has at Harald’s side. But in fighting one of Harald’s battles, he is involved in a bloody accident that will have repercussions for himself and many of his friends and enemies.

The first person we meet, though, is actually Ragnvald’s wife, Hilda—one of my favorite characters in The Half-Drowned King, at which point Ragnvald and Hilda were not yet married. Alas, their domestic life seems to be, to put it mildly, more complicated than either of them probably wants. What can you tell us about that?

Something I’m very interested in exploring in my writing is different kinds of long-term relationships. Vikings, living in the 9th–11th centuries, did not share our notions of romantic love. Love affairs occurred, and sometimes led to marriage, but most marriages were arranged between families. Also, the historical Ragnvald is known to have had sons by concubines other than his wife Hilda. So I wanted to present a complex marriage, based on affection and practicality more than on romantic love.

Ragnvald’s relationship with Hilda is further complicated by his affair with his stepmother—which led to a son only a few months older than Hilda’s eldest son. And finally, in an era without reliable birth control, the only way for women to be sure to avoid pregnancy was to avoid sex, and that too causes problems in Ragnvald and Hilda’s marriage.

Ragnvald is still, I gather, a strong supporter of King Harald, your own ancestor. But the situation in Harald’s court is also troubled, and not only Ragnvald but his stepbrother, Sigurd, get caught up in the conflict. What are their relative positions, and how are Ragnvald’s own impressions of Harald changing in this second novel?

One thing I love about The Heimskringla, the saga that tells us the most about King Harald’s rise and reign, is how ambivalent it is about kingship. It was written by the Icelander Snorri Sturlsson in the 12th century, as a compliment to Norwegian kings, but it also asserts Iceland’s independence—Iceland was something approaching a democracy at the time. So in my source material, Harald is both a mighty warrior and a successful king, but also a source of conflict.

I was interested in using this trilogy to explore the benefits and pitfalls of kingship, as well as how people and societies balance freedom and safety. Ragnvald believes in Harald’s quest to unite Norway, bring it into the wider European sphere, and protect it from raiders, but he is too clear-eyed not to see the negative things that come from that as well.

Sigurd, Ragnvald’s stepbrother, begins the novel following the path that many Norse took at that time, which was to escape Harald’s wars and new taxes for land overseas. He encounters those who wish Harald ill, and has to decide where his own loyalty lies.

My absolute favorite from The Half-Drowned King was, of course, Ragnvald’s sister Svanhild, who’s been living at sea with the trickster Solvi. What’s going on with them—and between them and Ragnvald—here?

Ah, Svanhild. She is everyone’s favorite, and so fun to write!

Sea-faring was dangerous in the Viking Age, and while Svanhild loves adventure, at the beginning of The Sea Queen, she is looking to settle down for the sake of her young son. Unlike Hilda and Ragnvald’s relationship, Svanhild and Solvi’s is based on romantic, sexual love, and is a strong partnership as well. But Solvi is not ready to stop exploring, or to give up all hope of ruling the kingdom he was supposed to inherit in Norway, and that puts him in conflict with both Svanhild and also Ragnvald again.

And where do things stand with book 3, The Golden Wolf? Any hints of or pointers on what to expect?

The Golden Wolf has been much harder to write than The Sea Queen. The Golden Wolf begins fourteen years after The Sea Queen. Not only are Ragnvald and Svanhild still main characters, but their children are growing into adulthood, and have their own conflicts and storylines. Svanhild may be a wonderful character, but she’s a difficult mother!

One of Harald’s tactics for uniting Norway was marrying every king’s daughter he could find, and that filled Norway with his sons, all of whom want kingdoms and responsibility. So in The Golden Wolf, all of the characters have to negotiate the problems that come from a king having too many ambitious heirs—the golden wolf has wolfish sons who threaten to destroy the tenuous peace that Ragnvald and Harald have made for Norway.


Linnea Hartsuyker grew up in the middle of hundreds of acres of forest outside Ithaca, NY. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from New York University. The Sea Queen is her second novel. Find out more about her at
Twitter: @linneaharts
Instagram: @linneaharts

Friday, August 10, 2018

Farewell, Kit

This Monday morning, I learned with both shock and sadness—on social media, of all places, a venue that so often appears trivial—that the writer Ann Swinfen had died unexpectedly the day before. It says a great deal about her family that in the first flush of their grief they thought to reach out to her many friends, followers, and readers to let them know of her passing. I’m not sure that under the same circumstances I could have mustered that much consideration. But I’m very grateful to them for making the effort.

Ann Swinfen is not yet a household name, although she was on her way to becoming one and certainly deserves that status. We never met in person, but I considered her a friend. Back in February 2015, I interviewed her about The Testament of Mariam, an early novel that she had reissued under her own imprint, Shakenoak Press, not long before. She really wanted to talk about her most recent book, This Rough Ocean, a novel
about her husband’s family in seventeenth-century England—or at least about the Chronicles of Christoval Alvarez, set in the Elizabethan period—but as always during the few years we knew each other, she was gracious, in this case about the fact that so few novels about biblical times came my way compared to those set in the sixteenth century and later.

Ann had published at least half a dozen novels with a commercial publisher before the company decided that no one wanted to read historical fiction. An accomplished editor and proof reader as well as a gifted writer, she responded by starting her own press, devoted to reissuing those older novels and producing, at a pace that left the rest of us reeling, more than fifteen new ones in the years between 2014 and now. Particularly remarkable, given the rate with which she churned them out, the books were good: meticulously researched, well written, well edited, with beautiful covers designed by JD Smith and excellent formatting. She exemplified everything a self-published author can be, even mastering the art of marketing in an online world. I had no need to match her in speed, but the consistency of her output impressed me, especially as I widened my acquaintance with her books.

Despite my temporary focus on Mariam in the interview, I soon followed up on the story of Christoval, née Caterina, and known to all and sundry as Kit. I read the first book, The Secret World of Christoval Alvarez, and fell in love with the main character: a gifted Portuguese doctor, trained by her father, who dresses as a boy for her own safety and so that she can practice her profession, who befriends a young actor named Simon, and who is in every sense a kindred spirit to my Nasan. I read the four or five titles already published and gobbled down the new ones not long after they came out. I even acted as historical consultant on the sixth book, Voyage to Muscovy. In return, Ann read the first three Legends novels and wrote an endorsement for The Swan Princess that I still treasure.

After a while, Ann developed a second series, The Oxford Medieval Mysteries (these are not her only books, just the ones I followed most closely). As counterparts to Kit and Simon, whose relationship naturally develops slowly because even in book 9 it’s unstated whether Simon knows of Kit’s masquerade (I’ve assumed he does since at least book 6), the second series presents Nicholas and Emma, living about five years after the arrival of the Black Death in England in 1348.

As explained in the opening to The Bookseller’s Tale, Nicholas lost his wife to the plague and is now rearing their two children with the assistance of his sister, who lives with them. Emma, a reluctant resident in a convent whom we meet in The Novice’s Tale, soon comes to return his affections, but they both know that her social standing far exceeds his, which in the fourteenth century poses a serious barrier to their chances of marrying. As the series continues, one local mystery after another throws these two together, but where they will end up remains uncertain. I had just purchased book 6—the last, as it turns out—when I heard the news of Ann’s passing, so I have that installment still to look forward to, but I regret that I won’t have the pleasure of following their story further.

The sense of community is strong among writers, especially among self-published or small-press and coop-published writers. There’s surprisingly little competition, perhaps because the world always has room for more good books, and a great deal of support. Ann exemplified that element of authorship, too. I will miss her.

And as a reader I will miss her too. I’d love to see Kit and Simon’s long friendship resolved. Maybe a half-written sequel will emerge, waiting for the right person to finish it. I’d offer to complete it myself if no one else wanted to step up to the plate. But that seems like too much to hope for.

So rest in peace, Ann, knowing that you leave your characters behind to carry your name forward. And farewell, Kit and Simon, Nicholas and Emma, and all the other wonderful creations you gave us. As Nasan would put it, may their journey continue in the worlds beyond this one, under the grandmothers’ loving eyes.

Image: Russia, Starry Sky, from Pixabay (no attribution required).

Friday, August 3, 2018

The Power of the Past

I wrote this post for the “All the Russias” blog maintained by the Jordan Center at New York University, and it went live just this week, so I grabbed the chance to post it here as well. If you’re interested in Russia more generally, both its past and its present, make sure to check out “All the Russias” for yourself.
Ten years ago, when I began writing a series of novels set in Russia during the minority of Ivan the Terrible, the last thing I expected was for the books to have present-day relevance. Yes, like most scholars of pre-Petrine Russia, I cut my academic teeth on Edward L. Keenan’s “Muscovite Political Folkways” (1986), an article that, however schematic and speculative, still resonates along the corridors of time in fascinating ways. But a lot has changed since 1538, whatever principles of Russian political culture continue to play out in contemporary life.

On the contrary, my goal in tackling the Legends of the Five Directions series was simple. Because I work as an editor rather than a professor, and publishing continues all year, I found it difficult to schedule the kind of intensive archival study necessary for serious academic research. I’d already begun writing fiction for fun, so why not put my PhD to work and get back to the subject I love?

What I wanted, more than anything, was to produce historical fiction that accurately reflected what scholars have learned about social, political, and cultural life in Muscovy, ideas developed in great detail yet still missing, with rare exceptions, even from college textbooks. The general public has little familiarity with academic history on Russia in general and Muscovite Russia in particular, and that observation includes novelists. As a result, historical fiction tends to get at best a mixed reception from scholars, often deservedly so. That’s true everywhere, but it’s especially true of fiction set in Russia. 

But there is no fundamental reason why historical fiction can’t conform to the general outlines of the historical record. It can never be wholly accurate, since it involves imagined feelings, invented dialogue, and characters who never existed or about whom little information survives. Novelists can’t say, “we don’t know.” They must fill in the blanks, decide among the available options, and craft the whole into an emotionally satisfying tale.

Fiction writers can, however, choose to respect the details we have, understanding that exact sequences and events are themselves clues to the underlying story. Pursuing that approach to historical fiction became my goal, and being a specialist on the sixteenth century, I believed I could accomplish it. If, in addition, I convinced a general audience that Russia had more in its past than vodka and communism, so much the better.

Then in March 2014, the very month in which I published The Winged Horse (Legends of the Five Directions 2: East), the Russian Federation formally annexed Crimea. Russian President Vladimir Putin justified his land grab by insisting that “Crimea has always been part of Russia.” Yet here was my novel, set on the steppe, in which a Crimea that was very much not part of Russia played a significant role in the events—fictional and otherwise—affecting my characters’ life choices.

If anything, Crimea in those days was Turkish, a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, although the sultans appear to have contented themselves with appointing its khans, calling on Tatar troops during military campaigns, and establishing strategic control of Crimea’s section of the Black Sea coastline. The Girei (Giray) clan that ruled Crimea allied with Russia under Ivan III (r. 1462–1505), only to fall out with his successor, Vasilii III (r. 1505–1533). 

Whether the falling out took place because Sigismund I the Old of Poland-Lithuania paid better, because Vasilii appointed a foe of the Girei clan to rule the subordinate principality of Kasimov, because Russia and Crimea went head to head in a contest to take over the rival khanate of Kazan, or some combination thereof, the result was a powerful, semi-independent, Ottoman-supported, hostile khanate on Muscovy’s southern border.

The khans of Crimea had grand ambitions, too: they sought to reestablish a single Tatar state with themselves at its head, replacing the disintegrated Juchid ulus, better known as the Golden Horde. With that goal in mind, the Girei dynasts defeated Ahmed Khan of the Great Horde in 1502, sent persistent demands to Moscow noting that Kasimov belonged to them, and did their best to install their own candidates in Kazan through means that included the assassination of at least one Muscovite-backed ruler, Jan-Ali, in 1535. These activities, too, put Crimea on a collision course with Moscow, which had its own plans to conquer the Tatar khanates.

Nor did the Girei khans stop with meddling on the steppe and in Kazan. Crimean Tatars regularly raided the Muscovite lands, stealing people and plunder; launched massive attacks on various southeastern fortresses; and burned Moscow to the ground more than once. And this despite an intermittent but prolonged contest between uncles and nephew for control of Crimea itself that lasted from 1523 to 1537.

Not all these events play starring roles in The Golden Lynx and its sequels—The Winged Horse, The Swan Princess, The Vermilion Bird, and The Shattered Drum (the last released in July 2018). But they form the backdrop of the series, in which Tatars of various khanates and hordes interact with Russians in circumstances both friendly and otherwise.

The Russia in these novels is an embattled state, despite its expansionist ambitions. Its juvenile leader—Ivan IV (r. 1533–1584), the future Terrible Tsar—has little authority at home or abroad, although every decision enacted by others takes place in his name. His mother struggles to keep him alive and in power; his government locks up his uncles to prevent them from usurping the throne. Foreign states perceived as enemies beat at the gates: Poland-Lithuania, Crimea, Kazan. And beyond Poland lies “the West”—not yet identified as such—with its Italian architects and artillery founders, its German doctors, its Greco-Latin learning and supposedly heretic religion, ready to invade and to judge.

Perhaps not so much has changed since 1538 after all.

Images: Legends of the Five Directions covers © C. P. Lesley 2012–18; Miniature depicting the Ottoman campaign in Hungary, 1566, with Crimean Tatars in the vanguard and Sergei Ivanov, At Moscow’s [Southern] Defensive Border (1907) public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Interview with Kate Braithwaite

Almost two years ago, I interviewed Kate Braithwaite on New Books in Historical Fiction  about her first book, Charlatan, a gritty and engrossing novel set during the Affair of the Poisons—an intrigue that touched, among others, the aging and soon-to-be replaced marquise de Montespan, mistress of Louis XIV. A month ago, I discovered that Kate was back with a new book, not too distant in time from the first but set across the English Channel, where the imminent death of Charles II has aroused fears that the ascension of his Catholic brother, the future James II, will reignite the religious wars in England.

But Kate can explain the rest of The Road to Newgate herself.

Kate, welcome! Although set in the same century as your previous novel, Charlatan, you’ve moved north for this one. It’s nice to see a book about the later Stuarts—rather than the Tudors, who get so much attention—but what drew you to this particular setting?

I stumbled across this story while researching Charlatan, and both novels are not only set in the same century but in the exact same few years, roughly between 1678 and 1682. While Paris was in turmoil with a poisoning scandal, London had a very different kind of upheaval, when one of the most infamous liars in history, a man called Titus Oates, created a major panic with revelations of Catholic plots to assassinate Charles II.
Titus Oates (Wikimedia Commons)  

What’s the story, in a nutshell?

In The Road to Newgate, a married couple, Nathaniel and Anne Thompson, get caught up in the events of Titus Oates’s Popish Plot. A Protestant magistrate is found dead in a ditch, sparking mass panic, but Nat, a writer, doesn’t believe the plot stories and becomes determined to prove that Titus Oates is a liar. Oates, a dangerous enemy to make, is also connected to the Thompsons through their friend William Smith, a man with a secret he is afraid to share. The story is about Nat, Anne, and William: about what they must do to expose Oates … and what it will cost them. 

Your main character is Nathaniel Thompson. Tell us a bit about him: who he is and what he wants from life.

Nat is clever, hard-working, and stubborn. He’s a man who has achieved a good position as Licenser to His Majesty’s Press and has done so without the benefits of a rich family or connections pulling strings for him. He has recently fallen for and married Anne, ten years younger than he is, and when the story begins, he is still adjusting to this new life where he has someone else to care for, other than himself and his work. He is not always the most sensitive soul and has a lot to learn as a husband! Although Nat’s decisions are made in good faith, the cost of his choices—costs borne by his family and friends—may be hard to bear.

Nat’s wife, Anne, is also a major character. What’s her background and her role in the book?

Anne comes from a different, more affluent background. She is the younger of two daughters and has married Nat in the face of family opposition. But having married the man she loves, she finds life more challenging than expected. Once the novelty of running her own household wears off, she struggles to find her feet. Nat is busy, and she is often alone. She wants to understand his work, but she has her own views and the couple don’t always see eye to eye. With Nat caught up in public events and bringing danger to their door, Anne has to find a way to assert herself in her marriage and take an active role in the events that unfold if she is to have the life with Nat that she imagined when she married him.

Nat and Anne have only recently married, as you mentioned, and Anne, as we learn early on, has reason to believe that she will soon have a child. That’s a lot of transition to deal with, and the events of the novel only increase the pressure. What do their varying—and developing—points of view contribute to your novel?

The challenge in this story was making the public, historical events personal to the characters. The Popish Plot is complex and political, but I was interested in looking at how a public crisis could affect ordinary people. By telling the story through Nat and Anne’s points of view, I hoped to personalize the public drama as it unfolded. I enjoy stories where I can read different characters’ perspectives on the same events. Nat always doubts Titus Oates’ plot stories, but Anne’s reaction is more in line with the majority of Londoners. The pressure on the marriage—the threats to Nat’s income, the pregnancy, Anne’s doubts about Nat’s actions—is a very important theme. A key part of the story is a murder investigation, and it was vital that Anne take a role there. The ability to switch into her point of view was essential to telling her story—I hope—convincingly. William Smith’s point of view and his story are integral to the plot but also add to the reader’s understanding of Nat and Anne’s characters and marriage, when we see them through an outsider’s eyes. I was also keen to portray Titus Oates on the page, and each of my three storytellers have important confrontations with him at various points in the book.

There is a certain contemporaneity, as Russians say, to this whole web of plots and conspiracy theories and counter-plots. Do you see echoes of this past in our present, and if so, where? More generally, what would you like readers to take away from The Road to Newgate?

I definitely see parallels to the world in 2018 in the story of The Road to Newgate. The explosion of propaganda, the terrible rhetoric against Catholics, the way Oates’ lies are so fantastic that people find it easier to believe he is telling the truth than imagine that someone could have made it all up—all these things resonated with me as I wrote. That said, this is a novel. My main aim has always been to write an entertaining, page-turning book. There are themes to think about and connections to be made; it is also a lesser-known slice of Stuart history that I’m excited to shed some light on. But these are not the most important take-aways. Above anything else, I’m hoping readers will care for the characters and get sucked in to wanting to know what happens to them. Oh, and want to read my next book!

Are you already working on another novel?

I am, although slowly! With a book launch and children off school for the summer, I’m not getting along with my next project quite as quickly as I’d like. But it does have a title —The Girl Puzzle—and it’s about Nellie Bly, a groundbreaking female journalist. There are two storylines at the moment, one of her as a young woman starting her career in New York City in the 1880s and a second later in life, in her fifties when, in the first scene, it seems she has just kidnapped a child.

Sounds fascinating. I look forward to finding out more. Thanks so much, Kate, for taking the time to answer my questions!

Kate Braithwaite was born and grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland. Her first novel, Charlatan, was long-listed for the Mslexia New Novel Award and the Historical Novel Society Award. Kate lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and three children.

Follow her on Facebook and Twitter, or find out more about her at She also maintains a second, light-hearted blog about the differences between US and UK English.

And on another note, for those who’ve been waiting, The Shattered Drum is now available for both print and Kindle and as part of my second Legends box set, which also includes book 4 (The Vermilion Bird). Click on the titles to access the various editions, and check out the links at and, respectively, for more information.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Marriage Politics, American-Style

As I’ve written elsewhere, in the time period and area of the world I study, most people saw marriage as an economic and political contract between families writ small and villages (among the poor) or between entire clans and patronage networks (among the elite). The desire of individuals for love and companionship, understanding and compatibility, played little role in the choice of marriage partner. Instead, the dominant factors included things like whose lands ran together, which woman needed a husband to plow the fields or which man needed a woman to cook and clean, and who had close ties to those in power and in favor. Not to mention the possibility of children, without whom the family, village, or lineage could not continue.

Health and fertility, especially among potential brides, also weighed in the balance, since bearing children was a wife’s primary responsibility. Personality had some importance, for sure, but only to the extent that it made a successful partnership more or less likely in the eyes of those charged with selecting the potential spouse. Parents and guardians, not the couple themselves, made that decision. Aristocratic fathers, to ensure that they had a free hand, secluded their virgin daughters within the household, keeping them as close as the ladies of any Turkish harem.

But that was Europe in the premodern era. Nothing like that could have happened in the Land of the Free and the Brave in the twentieth century, right? In my latest interview for New Books in Historical Fiction, with the author Robert Goolrick—whose new novel The Dying of the Light I also featured in last week’s post—we see that the United States in the Gilded Age, at least among its old landed and nouveau-riche entrepreneurial classes, was not so different from medieval Europe after all. The tensions created by selling one’s daughter to the highest bidder pervade this novel, determining much of its action as well as the complex and often contradictory relationships among its characters.

As always, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction. Goolrick is an unusually thoughtful and fascinating speaker, so make sure to listen in. You’ll be glad you did!

“It begins with a house and it ends in ashes.” So opens Robert Goolrick’s rich, lyrical new novel, The Dying of the Light (Harper, 2018).

The house is Saratoga, a colonial-era estate in Virginia that is at once a joy and a burden to the family that lives there, the Cookes. In particular, it determines the life trajectory of Diana Cooke, the eighteen-year-old heiress charged with saving her family and her home from poverty right after World War I. Diana reluctantly embraces her destiny, agreeing to marry Captain Copperton, a wealthy but uncouth man who doesn’t hesitate to remind the Cookes at every turn that he owns not only the house but them, in principle if not in fact.

But Copperton has one virtue in addition to his entrepreneurial abilities: he is a good father to the son he has with Diana. And it is, in the end, their son who unwittingly sets off the series of events that leaves Saratoga in ashes. Along the way, a cast of delightfully realized and often eccentric characters interact in sometimes predictable, sometimes surprising ways against the backdrop of Saratoga and its ever changing, ever inspiring river.

As for me, I am almost, almost through the massive list of projects surrounding the release of my last Legends novel, The Shattered Drum. Stay tuned for the formal announcement next week. If you’re signed up at Five Directions Press, you will receive the press release automatically. And if you’re not, why aren’t you? We send out no more than six mailings a year—mostly announcements of new titles—and since our resident designer, Courtney J. Hall, puts her creative talents to work on those mailings, they are always exciting to see.

Meanwhile, I hope to get back to writing—maybe as soon as this weekend. I can hardly wait!