Friday, December 30, 2016

Moving on to 2017

Incredibly—or so it seems—2016 is about to head for the hills of history. And what a year it was, full of surprises big and small. So, as has become my habit on this blog, I will use this last post of the year to check in on how things went and set some new goals for next year. The list for 2016 included:

(1) finishing the final draft of The Swan Princess and seeing it in print and e-book formats;
(2) making significant progress on The Vermilion Bird, preferably to the point of a full rough draft (even if it’s very rough);
(3) chairing a roundtable on the uses of historical fiction in the classroom, scheduled for November 2016 but not yet approved by the sponsoring organization;
(4) upping the number of my New Books in Historical Fiction interviews to one every three weeks, yielding eighteen for the year;
(5) maintaining my website and the Five Directions Press website—which means expanding the number of authors and titles available, filling out the More Books Worth Reading page, and keeping the news & events page up to date;
(6) posting to this blog every Friday;
(7) maintaining and strengthening my relationships with fellow writers; 

(8) continuing to improve my grasp of marketing, on both my own behalf and that of Five Directions Press; and
(9) completing three GoodReads challenges.

I actually managed to fulfill most of these goals. My NBHF interviews topped out at seventeen rather than eighteen, and the first draft of The Vermilion Bird is still only about halfway done—largely because the project has demanded more research than I expected (I am currently reading up on the complicated history of the Moscow Kremlin, for example, thanks to Catherine Merridale’s Red Fortress) but also because of a delightful development that I did not anticipate at this time last year: Five Directions Press has doubled in size, with six active authors and three associates.

As a result, we put out four books last year, with five to six planned for next year. Five Directions Press also added a monthly feature called “Books We Loved,” in which we recommend those titles we especially enjoyed: small-press, self-published, traditionally published fiction and nonfiction. The list goes up around the middle of each month. You can find it at or by liking us on Facebook. (You can also follow us on Twitter.) While there, don’t forget to sign up for our quarterly newsletter. We send messages only for new releases and the newsletter itself, and we never sell addresses. It’s the best way to stay informed about what we’re doing and to learn about us and other authors through our regular interviews. You also get access to free coloring pages based on our books and a chance to win our annual Christmas basket.

Which brings me to next year’s goals. I decided not to take on more reading challenges next year, because between research and my own books and interview preparation and 5DP authors and “Books We Loved,” not to mention the occasional library book group session, I barely have time to breathe. I’m also forced to cut back on the interviews again: every three weeks proved really hard to sustain. That leaves the following writing/reading goals for 2017:

(1) completing The Vermilion Bird and seeing it in print;
(2) starting The Shattered Drum, the last of my Legends of the Five Directions although I also plan a spinoff series set in Russia around the same time;
(3) conducting twelve New Books in Historical Fiction interviews;
(4) typesetting/proofing, producing e-books, and in some cases editing the Five Directions Press titles scheduled for next year—Rewind, West End Quartet, The Falcon Strikes, The Vermilion Bird, and A Holiday Gift, more or less in that order;
(5) maintaining my website and the Five Directions Press website—which means keeping track of the “Books We Loved” posts, expanding the number of authors and titles available, and keeping the news & events page up to date;
(6) posting to this blog every Friday;
(7) maintaining and strengthening my relationships with fellow writers; and
(8) continuing to improve my grasp of marketing, on both my own behalf and that of Five Directions Press—including finding more ways to get reviews.

Let’s see how I do. Meantime, Happy New Year, everyone!

P.S. Cat #3 is on his way home. In the end, it was a very successful visit, and Cat #1 hasn't had that much exercise in years. In fact, he is sleeping it off as I write....

Images: “Happy New Year 2017” Clipart no. 109785399, Sleepy Siamese © 2016 C. P. Lesley

Friday, December 23, 2016

Cat Wars

I’d planned to produce a writing post this week—or perhaps a history post—since I am off work and madly tearing through The Vermilion Bird. But the end of the week rolled around, and I decided history and writing craft were just too serious to use as topics this close to the holidays. So instead, I have a post about cats—because everyone knows the Internet loves cats, right?

It all began when the Filial Unit and his girlfriend decided to visit us for the holidays. As a mom, I’m genetically programmed to welcome such visits with unbounded joy. And when they floated the idea that their cat, a rescue animal who has lived with them for only a couple of months, might not do well with strangers coming in to feed him, the Mom program kicked in and I offered to host the cat, too—even though Sir Percy and I have two cats of our own.

Now, the new cat is a fine animal. He endured seven hours in the cat carrier with minimal fussing. He broke free of the confinement room and was exploring within hours. He’s coping well with new territory and new people, with just the occasional hiss or growl to let us know he hasn’t completely accepted us yet, but he’ll tolerate us so long as we give him some space. And the title of my post is somewhat misleading, in the sense that very little fur has actually flown so far. Even so, the acclimatization has been fun to watch. And not to get too heavy,  it might even say something about conflicts and their resolution—not only among cats.


First, the newcomer. Let’s call him Cat #3. After living who knows where, then in a shelter, then in a small apartment with two people, he’s naturally a bit nervous at a sudden transition to a full-sized house with four people and two other cats. He knows the basic cat drill: hiss a warning, growl if needed, hit out as a last resort, slink away if possible. But he has trouble figuring out when to yield and, especially, how to tell if Person or Cat X actually poses a threat.

Enter Cat #2, the only female in the group. She’s also a rescue cat, a feral kitten captured at six months, so she went from the outside world to a informal shelter with few cages but many cats to our quiet house with two adults who are around almost all the time. She has no desire to live anywhere else and a hyper-vigilant threat center that even eight years of daily reassurance can’t entirely reset. One hiss from the newcomer, and she raced for her favorite hidey hole. She stayed there for thirty-six hours until I dug her out and put her in a quiet room by herself, with food and water and a litter box. Since then, she’s reclaimed her spot in my study, but she’s still not sure about Cat #3 (who as I write this is inching his way up the stairs, one by one).

But the surprise hero of this narrative is Cat #1, our senior citizen. Cat #1 lives by Siamese (Cat) rules, of which the most fundamental is “Thou shalt snuggle.” He’s already suffered a certain amount of disappointment due to Cat #2’s propensity to flee at the very moments when, in his mind, snuggling is required. But diligent work on his part has won her over, most of the time. Indeed, just before the arrival of Cat #3, Cats 1 and 2 spent the entire evening huddled together on the couch, sharing an appropriately named Snugli. Still, there was some question as to how he might react to the arrival of an unfamiliar, younger tomcat.

It’s been an education for all concerned. Cat #1’s first reaction was to walk into the bedroom assigned to Cat #3 and his family—in the middle of the night, no less—and, ignoring all hissing and growling, to establish his right to the bed, after which he sauntered off to eat what remained of Cat #3’s dinner. Message: “My house, my rules. Get used to it.”

The next day, he followed Cat #3 around the house, stopping just close enough to elicit the first rumbling growl, then sitting there until it stopped before edging in closer. He did not look at Cat #3 while doing this, because staring is an aggressive act between cats. But he didn’t back down, either. After a couple of hours, Cat #3 gave up on the hissing and growling, at least with the other cats. He also became more accepting of the unknown humans, although he’s having none of that petting. That’s right out.

By the third day, Cats 1 and 2 are hanging out together as they always have, and Cat #3 has taken to roaming the house, often in the vicinity of the resident cats but not close enough either to cause trouble or to consider them friends. Cat #1 has socialized the newcomer with not much more than a sideways stare.

In all this back-and-forth, the cats have come to blows exactly once. Cat #3, preoccupied with the raising of the Christmas tree, did something that attracted the ire of Cat #1, who despite his fifteen years and kidney problems, let out an ear-splitting yowl and chased Cat #3 back to his borrowed room. Fifteen minutes later, tops, Cat #3 was back, his past sins forgiven.

Is that the end of the story? Unclear, as they still have a good week of reorienting to go. And the relationship between us and Cat #3, while developing, has grown much more slowly. We don’t read the signals as well, and we certainly don’t send them as clearly. Conflict avoidance demands effective communication, and communication, first and foremost, requires us to speak the same language. Guess I’d better go and brush up on my Cat.

Still, they are an example to the rest of us in this conflict-ridden world. So in the spirit of the season, peace and good will to all. Happy holidays, everyone, and best wishes for a stellar year to come!

Images: Wreath Clipart. no. 7597540; Cats 1–3 © 2016 C. P. Lesley.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Books for the Fireside

Alas, I let the week slip away in everything from holiday cards to preliminary typesetting for one of Five Directions Press’s spring titles—not to mention work—and even some reading for fun. So here is Friday, little more than a week before Christmas, and I have family arriving and no prewritten blog post. So I decided it was the perfect time for a recap of books read and scheduled to be read over the next month. Almost all are hidden gems: that is, good books by self-published or otherwise less well-known authors, any one of which can enrich your life by expanding your notions of books worth reading. For still more suggestions, see the monthly “Books We Loved” picks on the newsletter page at Five Directions Press. The most recent one went up just yesterday. After all, you may still have a bit of Christmas shopping to do....

I started out with Ann Swinfen’s The Bookseller’s Tale, first of her new Oxford Medieval Mysteries. Set in mid-fourteenth-century Oxford, the series features Nicholas Elyot. Set to become a scholar at Merton College, he chose instead to marry—at the time, one could not do both—only to lose his beloved wife to the Black Death. He now lives with his two children and his widowed sister and maintains a small scriptorium that supplies students with books to copy as well as a bookshop. On his way home one evening, he fishes a body out of the Cherwell that turns out to be that of a gifted young scholar. It soon becomes clear that the young man was murdered and that the authorities intend to do nothing about it. In post-plague Oxford, violence is not uncommon, but Nicholas’s inquiries expose a complex and troubling conspiracy in which the dead student has played at best a minor role.


The Bookseller’s Tale also introduces Emma Thorngold, cousin to the dead student and a gifted artist forcibly confined to Godstow Abbey as a novice. In The Novice’s Tale Emma, known to the nuns as Sister Benedicta, comes into her own. The abbess informs her that she has three weeks before she must make her final vows; when Emma protests, she learns that her stepfather has given her to the convent as an oblate, and she has no right to refuse. Nicholas offers to help, but Emma realizes that his intervention will increase the constraints placed on her. So she and her little Maltese dog make their escape in dead of night, only to be swept downriver in a storm. Before Nicholas can even begin to search, the abbey has alerted Emma’s stepfather, who arrives with killing hounds to hunt his errant ward down. And the battle is on, between Nicholas and the stepfather, as to who will find Emma first.


Caught up in richly described settings, rapid-fire plots, and sympathetic characters, I devoured these two books in no time flat. Alas, The Huntsman’s Tale is not due until March. But just as I was threatened with Swinfen withdrawal, I learned that today she released That Time May Cease, book 8 in the adventures of Christoval Alvarez, aka Kit. I have enjoyed this entire series—especially, as you might guess, Voyage to Muscovy—including The Play’s the Thing, which I have yet to review despite having finished it months ago. So I can’t wait to tackle That Time May Cease.

Before I get there, though, I have two other books in the queue: Marie Macpherson’s Second Blast of the Trumpet, which I featured in a recent blog post, “The Monstrous Regiment”; and Liza Perrat’s The Silent Kookaburra.<> I have started on Second Blast, where John Knox, just released from enslavement on a French galley, is frothing at the mouth to return to Scotland, where he plans to argue for the Reformed Faith despite opposition from the authorities. Fortunately for not only Knox but the reader (because his success would make for a very short book), Sir David Lindsay, a friend of Knox’s guardian and a closer relation than Knox knows, hauls him off to London on a grand scheme of his own. The support of a mercenary archer hoping to loot the spoils when Knox succeeds in overturning the Vatican promises future comic relief as well as potential skullduggery.

As for The Silent Kookaburra, I’m looking forward to this much more contemporary psychological drama and mystery from an author whose historical novels, especially Blood Rose Angel, I like very much. More on that soon.

In addition, my list includes Helen Rappaport’s Victoria: The Heart and Mind of a Young Queen and Daisy Goodwin’s Victoria. The first is history, the second fiction, but both are connected to the forthcoming ITV/PBS miniseries Victoria and are in preparation for my interview with Rappaport, scheduled for early January. They portray a Victoria we barely know: not the old lady in black who was not amused and mourned her dead husband until the day she died but a spirited, uncertain eighteen-year-old thrust at best semi-prepared into the most important world leadership position of her day while still fighting to separate herself from her mother’s overbearing attempts at control.

And when I finish all that, I can look forward to three unpublished titles by Five Directions Press: Ariadne Apostolou’s West End Quartet, Denise Allan Steele’s Rewind, and Gabrielle Mathieu’s The Falcon Strikes. So it seems that I will have material for quite a few more bookshelf posts in the months to come. Stay tuned!

Friday, December 9, 2016

The Flame Bearer

As someone who writes about warriors without ever having gone to war, I rely heavily on the perceptions of those more knowledgeable than myself—especially other novelists who excel at communicating the internal experience of having to choose whether to kill or to be killed. That choice—so stark and so meaningful for the person concerned—must, it seems, inflict permanent change on the person making it, on that person’s views of self and the world. 

No one portrays that moral and life challenge better than Bernard Cornwell. As Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin  notes on the back cover of The Flame Bearer and several of its predecessors, “Bernard Cornwell does the best battle scenes of any writer I have ever read, past or present.”

Indeed, following the career of Uhtred, Cornwell’s pagan Saxon hero, is an education in what warriors do and don’t worry about, when and where and how they feel. Cornwell and I talk about these topics in my latest New Books in Historical Fiction interview. We also talk about The Last Kingdom, the BBC television series based on the books, now available for streaming on Netflix. (My first interview with him—where we talk about the early stages of his writing career, among other things—is still available on the site and complements this one.)

The technology of war has, of course, changed since Uhtred’s day. My Russians and Tatars rely heavily on the composite bow, shot from horseback and at a considerable distance from the enemy, although artillery and firearms are already on the scene—if not reliable or fast enough, yet, to replace bows and arrows in the hands of skilled archers. Yet even in the sixteenth—or nineteenth—century, combat all too often ended in one-on-one encounters between men with knives or bayonets, a gut-wrenching (literally) fight to the death. The technology changed, but the internal experience remained much the same, and probably does to this day.

We discuss this point, too, in the interview, in terms of both history and historical fiction—because Cornwell is not only a novelist. Last year, just before the two hundredth anniversary of Wellington’s climactic battle against Napoleon, he released his first nonfiction book. The title says it all: Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles. It’s richly informative and written in a lively style, filled with character studies, action, and soldiers’ own record of their hopes, dreams, and disappointments. Letters, diaries, and memoirs detail the plans, the mistakes, the casualties and miraculous escapes—as perceived by the men themselves. We see them marching across wet ground, through “high, obstinate crops,” or positioning themselves on a high plateau “which is about to become a killing ground” (235). Best of all, we see the battle from all sides: British, French, and Prussian. Although, to quote one participant, “the carnage was dreadful,” it would be difficult to imagine it better described than it is here. The results are horrifying, inspiring, and educational, all at the same time.

And if you’re wondering why I write about warriors despite my lack of personal experience with their main activity, the reason is simple: in sixteenth-century Russia, as throughout medieval and early modern Eurasia, the main occupation of aristocratic men—and nomadic men at all levels—was to wage war. Even those lower on the social scale, male and female, could not escape war, which destroyed their fields, their livelihood, and their lives. To ignore that reality would condemn me to writing books that bore little resemblance to the societies I portray. I do try to stay away from the day-to-day experience of battle, but even that sometimes proves impossible. Whenever I find myself in that unwanted situation, books like The Last Kingdom series and Waterloo are where I turn for answers. 

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

Here at New Books in Historical Fiction, we don’t often interview the same author twice. Bernard Cornwell is an exception. As I note in my introduction to this podcast, since I last interviewed him in June 2014, he has published three new Saxon Stories (now renamed the Last Kingdom series) and a nonfiction history of the confrontation between Napoleon and Wellington at Waterloo. Meanwhile, the BBC and Netflix have released his first two Last Kingdom novels as a hit television series, again under the title The Last Kingdom. With so much new material to discuss, a second interview seemed like the least we could do.

The Flame Bearer (Harper, 2016) is the tenth novel narrated by Uhtred of Bebbanburg. Uhtred’s story, which began at the age of ten in 866, is tied up with the drive of King Alfred the Great and his children to create a single English kingdom out of four warring principalities—three of them, at the beginning of the series, under the control of Danish invaders. Uhtred—descendant of kings, Saxon ealdorman by birth, Dane by adoption, and warrior by both temperament and training—becomes Alfred’s secret weapon. A pagan lord never quite accepted by Alfred’s Christian court, a fighter for the Saxon cause who at heart prefers the Danes, Uhtred has one unchanging goal: to recover Bebbanburg, stolen from him in boyhood by his uncle and held in later years by his cousin, who refuses to recognize Uhtred’s prior claim.

By 917, when The Flame Bearer begins, the situation portrayed in The Last Kingdom has reversed itself. The one remaining Saxon kingdom, Wessex, has expanded through alliance and conquest to include Mercia and East Anglia. Now the last kingdom is Northumbria, still largely under Danish control despite the existence of Saxon-held Bebbanburg. Sensing weakness, King Constantin of Scotland pushes south, pincering Northumbria between Saxons and Celts. And Uhtred must again choose between observing his oath of allegiance and recapturing his home.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Future Past, and Past Future

Erika Johansen has been busy since I interviewed her in April 2015. Her Queen of the Tearling became a bestseller, as have its two sequels: Invasion of the Tearling and Fate of the Tearling, which slowly reveal the secrets behind Johansen’s invented postmodern medieval society. No small part of that has to do with the character of Kelsea Glynn, a nineteen-year-old hidden in early childhood from her enemies, then thrust without warning into a queenship for which her training and experience leave her unprepared. Kelsea has guts and intelligence and a pragmatism that serves her well. She’s also a typical nineteen-year-old, worried about her looks and unsure of her appeal. Even a queen, it seems, has to worry about those extra pounds, and Kelsea knows all too well that she is no conventional beauty.

As I noted in “The Re-Created Past,” the world of the Tearling is not a dystopia along the lines of The Hunger Games, Divergence, or other young adult favorites. Its invented medievalism—the reversion to an agricultural society ruled by hereditary kings and queens, in which education belongs to the few and slavery exists side-by-side with a powerful central church—nonetheless holds up a mirror to our contemporary obsession with technology, our refusal to respond adequately to climate change, and our increasing acceptance of social stratification even in what are sometimes called the “advanced democracies.” The recent presidential campaign in the United States, regardless of which candidate you supported, spotlights the necessity of vigilance—not to prevent statistically insignificant incidents of vote fraud but to preserve the very principles on which a healthy society functions.

In reviewing sequels, it is difficult to avoid spoilers. Suffice it to say that by undisclosed means, by the beginning of book 3, Kelsea finds herself in the enemy capital of Demesne. Some part of the history behind the Crossing has become clear, although more remains to explore, and the Red Queen of the Mort has acquired the precious sapphires through which Kelsea exercises her magical powers. The Mace, Kelsea’s most loyal henchman, wants nothing more than to free her from the Red Queen’s power, but Kelsea has appointed him regent, thus forcing him to balance his role as head of the Queen’s Guard, which demands that he place the queen’s safety above all, against the certain knowledge that Kelsea will have his hide if he endangers her people and her kingdom by making her release his highest priority.

With these pieces firmly in place, Johansen interweaves the story of her fictional present with an investigation into what happened to turn William Tear’s planned “better world” into the pseudo-medieval society that readers encountered in The Queen of the Tearling—bereft of the printing press and short on leftover books; subject to rigid and extreme social stratification, up to and including regular slave shipments to the neighboring kingdom of Mortmesne; dominated by a powerful and unforgiving church yet beset by violence, corruption, and sin of all sorts. Kelsea’s power, as we discovered in The Invasion of the Tearling, includes the ability to tap into the minds of specific people in the past—there a woman named Lily; here a young girl named Katie. Through these connections, Kelsea learns the story of the pre-Crossing world (in Invasion) and the post-Crossing decline (in Fate), experiences that continue to resonate three centuries later.

Perhaps it is the historian in me: although I enjoyed the not-quite-medieval society that Johansen created in her first book, I particularly liked discovering what had to go wrong for William Tear’s intrepid followers to abandon their homeland and what continued to trouble them once they found what appeared to be their refuge. At moments I was reminded of the Pilgrims on the Mayfair, their hopes and dreams and the brutal reality of the New World they colonized—a journey requiring a commitment every bit as intense and as final as the one Tear and his band make. At other moments, especially in book 2, I saw echoes of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. The characters of the present, especially Kelsea and the Red Queen, have grown and rounded over the course of the series, and their rivalry deepens and shifts until it reaches a satisfying end. But the situation of the original colonists has a special pathos, perhaps because it is closer to our own world—so close at times that the story provokes an anticipatory shudder.

That said, this is a series well worth exploring. If you loved The Queen of the Tearling, then the next step is obvious: finish the sequels. But even if Kelsea didn’t wow you on her first adventure, I recommend giving the series another shot. The factors that can cause a technologically sophisticated, liberal society to unravel merit the attention of any thoughtful person—and in this format, a reader, even on the couch after dinner, will find the information easy to absorb.