Busy Times

Just a quick note to followers of this blog to apologize for my lack of posts in the last few months – things have been busy at work – lots of travel and things to do. But, I am planning to get back to the writing and the blogging more now that the nights are drawing in. Will probably go back to the posts about magic in Chaucer shortly and possibly some stuff on things that interest me such as the Field of Glory PC game and other things related to medieval and fantasy.

Watch this space as they say …

Magic in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

Folio 20v from Thomas Norton The Ordinall of A...
Folio 20v from Thomas Norton The Ordinall of Alchemy England: c.1550-1600 MS Ferguson 191 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am working on a project at the moment to improve my understanding of the beliefs towards magic in the Middle Ages – specifically fourteenth century England, where I set much of my historical fantasy. I would like to know more about what people of this time thought about magic.

One of my first stops is to look at some of the references to magic in the literature of the time – so where better to start than the best known writer of the time, Geoffrey Chaucer.

I am going to look in more depth in this series of blog posts at each

example, but I am starting here with a quick summary of the instances I have found so far in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

How am I defining references to magic? I am not including stories set in antiquity where pagan gods intervene on behalf of the characters, such as the Knight’s Tale where Saturn causes the death of Arcite. Neither am I including purely supernatural interventions of the devil – such as the Pardoner’s Tale. If someone summons a demon that’s fine, but I don’t think there’s actual magic in the Pardoner’s Tale.

Here are the tales that I have found so far with major examples of magic in their narratives:

Canon Yeoman’s Tale

The Canon Yeoman actually assists his own master in the practice of alchemy and the whole of his tale focuses on that magical art in quite a lot of detail. I’m looking forward to digging into this one in more depth as it should reveal quite a bit about the practice of alchemy in fourteenth century England.

 Wife of Bath’s Tale

A man is fooled into thinking he is about to meet 24 maidens, but they magically disappear to be replaced by an old hag – a witch effectively.

Friar’s Tale

On the way to extort money from a widow, the Summoner encounters a yeoman who is apparently down on his luck. The two men swear brotherhood to each other and exchange the secrets of their respective trades, the Summoner recounting his various sins in a boastful manner. The yeoman reveals that he is actually a demon, to which the Summoner expresses minimal surprise—he enquires as to various aspects of hell and the forms that demons take.

This could be a bit like the Pardoner’s Tale, but I’m including as the medieval practice of necromancy involved the summoning of demons.

Squire’s Tale

This tale includes a number of magical items such as a brass steed that can teleport, a mirror that can detect enemies and friends, a ring that allows the wearer to talk to birds and a sword that deals and heals deadly wounds. Also the tale includes a digression on astrology.

Franklin’s Tale

Aurelius needs to remove all the rocks on the coast of Brittany in order to win the hand of a lady. He does this by employing a magician.

***

I am planning to do a blog post for each of the examples above to look into the portrayal of magic in more depth.

Book Review: Edinburgh Dead by Brian Ruckley

Edinburgh Dead

Edinburgh Dead by Brian Ruckley

Here’s the blurb from the author’s site:

Edinburgh 1828: it’s a city populated by mad alchemists who treat Frankenstein as textbook rather than novel and by a criminal underclass prepared to treat with the darkest of powers. And one officer, from the recently formed Edinburgh City Police, must follow the trail of undead hounds, emptied graves, brutal murders and mob violence into the deepest and darkest corners of Edinburgh’s underworld – both literal and magical – and back again to the highest reaches of elegant, intellectual Edinburgh society.

It’s 1828, an ex-soldier, Adam Quire, is investigating death of what seems like a vagrant – but leads him to house of Ruthven. The plot of the novel involves raising the dead, grave-robbing.

Edinburgh Dead is a good historical thriller, with a touch of pseudo-science and magic thrown in. Although it has some of the elements of a detective novel there’s not really a lot of detection involved. Its more about tracking down the bad guys against the odds. Quire doesn’t get a lot of help from the rest of the police.

The atmospheric setting of Edinburgh is one of the highlights. Ruckley captures the weird layout and architecture of the city particularly well, I think.

I wouldn’t say it was perfect – as mentioned the detection part of it isn’t that sophisticated. Also there’s a flashback to Quire as a soldier during the Battle of Waterloo that I thought probably wasn’t necessary.

In conclusion, this is not a trashy zombie book. The risen dead element is kept in proportion and in fact there’s not too many zombies at all, which means that when they do appear the effect is much more powerful.

Buy Edinburgh Dead at Amazon.com | Amazon.co.uk

New Short Story Published: Judge a Book by its Cover

Judge a Book by its Cover - eBook copyJust to let anyone know who reads my stuff that I have a new short story out. It’s called Judge a Book by its Cover.

Unusually for me its a contemporary fantasy story – I tend to base most of my writing either in the historical past or a fantasy world. I feel its kind of on the edge between fantasy and horror – that’s sort of the theme of the story.

Anyway, here’s the blurb and how to get it. You can read a brief extract from it here.

A creative writing student wonders what the difference is between two genres of fiction: horror and fantasy. Like his new girlfriend says: “Perhaps it’s like the difference between pizza and a grilled cheese sandwich?” But when he asks his tutor the answer he gets leads to a truer definition of “Horror” than he ever expected.

Judge a Book by its Cover is a fantasy/horror short story.

You can buy Judge a Book by its Cover in eBook format from the following retailers and several others to numerous to list!

Amazon.com | Amazon.co.uk | Barnes & Noble

Kobo | Smashwords | iBooks

The Perils of Making eBooks Free

Free books
Free books (Photo credit: randomduck)

Free ebooks can be a great way of getting the word out to potential readers about your books. This helps by putting your book into “others also bought” lists, putting it on free best seller list and hopefully getting reviews.

But there can be some downsides. These are some of the ones I have experienced:

  • Freebie collectors: lots of downloads and very few reviews. Why because people basically download free stuff and hoard it with very little intention of reading it – or maybe with the best intentions, but then don’t bother.
  • Reviews of free books tend to be more critical. Usually I think because the reader got a book that wasn’t really what they were looking for – they misunderstand what the title is about because they haven’t considered their purchase very much. For instance one of my publications – Alt Hist magazine states clearly in the blurb that it contains all sorts of historical fiction, but got criticized recently by a reviewer because it wasn’t just alternate history. I guess they just looked at the title.
  • “Good for a freebie, but I wouldn’t pay for it”. Well thanks for that review! I have also seen a review of a free book that complains the book was too short! But it’s free, what is your problem! If I was charging it would probably be $0.99 – which I think is a legitimate amount for a short story. If they enjoyed the read would they really not even pay that much for it?

I think these issue can also happen to a certain extent if you price at $0.99. People who collect freebies and bargains don’t often seem to make informed decisions!

But having said that I have definitely had some success with making titles free. Usually for a limited time and then putting the price up again – as this does help with getting into related title lists.

But writer beware, some readers value their free downloads higher than anything they might purchase! :)

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Jake Savage – Character Profile – a man and his demons

Hell has its DemonsIf you have read my latest novel, Hell has its Demons, then you might be interested to find out more about one of the main characters: Jake Savage.

Here’s the character history I wrote for him while I was planning the novel. Hope you enjoy it! The cover of the book might be Jake – you never no – it’s not only hell that has demons – Jake does too.

Jake’s family moved to St Brett’s when he was 11, a year after the Plague first struck in 1348. His young sister died, but otherwise his family was relatively unharmed. The village where they lived all but disappeared though. His father sold the small plot of land they held and left the village before their lord could demand the fine payable for villains leaving his manor. They arrived in St Brett’s and found that they were able to get a burgess plot on the cheap – the abbey desperate for money with half the town’s tenants having died.

As a child Jake was entranced by stories of knights and seeing them go past in their armour, with their fancy ladies – visiting the abbey for instance or coming into town for the fairs that happened three times a year. He was taken in by the romance of these stories and the pageantry of the knights he saw. He would later bitterly resent the wealth of these nobles and his own foolish hope that he might become a knight too.

His father earns a living through a variety of enterprises, becoming most successful at brewing and running a tavern. John is a shrewd businessman and also sees opportunities for speculating on the trade of cloth manufactured in the town. He encourages others to invest capital into ventures, thereby avoiding risk, but takes a good share of the profits. He uses his son, Jake, to ensure the shipments reach their destination safely – Jake is physically intimidating and also John trusts him. Jake is party to occasional deception of John’s business clients. Jake travels to London and ports in East Anglia on business.

From the age of 16 to 17 John is able to send his boy Jake to the grammar school briefly. Jake learns quickly but can’t stand the discipline of study and the hypocrisy of the monks. He is expelled for a prank on the teacher – who will later be an obedientary or abbot?

The Abbey observes the success of the cloth exports from St Brett’s and the lack of income it derives and seeks to impose levies on St Brett’s merchants – whereas previously it could tax merchants coming to fairs at St Brett’s to buy produce.

These taxes affect John and his associates – a group of wealthier burgesses who control the cloth trade and regularly drink in his tavern. In 1361 when the abbey imposes these tolls the burgesses rebel and the abbey’s tax-collector is murdered.

His Mother died during second coming of the Black Death in 1362.

In 1363 when the abbey bring in local gentry to support their collection of the tolls there is street-warfare. The abbey is briefly besieged. The Abbot promises to withdraw the new tolls, but asks instead for increased tolls for use of the Abbey mills. John is happy with that – he has organized house fulling mills in the workshops of his suppliers.

Jake is supportive of all this activity and helps his father – they are always seen together and effectively control what happens in the town.

Jake is a keen sportsman, football, archery and poaching in the Abbey’s forest.

Jake has some of his own money now and plans to set-up on his own. He buys his own tavern.

Jake marries in 1365 a girl called Edith. She died in childbirth as did the child. Jake has given up on being a father now. Is it worth bringing a child into such a world?

Jake’s tavern is struggling to make a profit. He has become more distant from his father. He no longer represents him on business trips – he doesn’t have time – he is running his own business now, but also morning his dead wife and child.

The conflict with the abbey has died down. The abbey still demands its rights and seems to exert more control – but only over the lesser people of the town – John and his cronies have come to an arrangement. In 1367 they form a new fraternity and pay for an endowment to the abbey. Jake has offended his father by going off on his own and rejecting his advice – his father is quietly cutting him out of his dealings and making him suffer for going against him.

Jake finds Margery and her mother camped out on his doorstep one cold morning early in 1369. He is ready to turn away the two beggars who have appeared from nowhere, but something stops him. He lets them in and cooks them some hot food. His housekeeper, who has taken a shine to him which he hasn’t realized, immediately takes a dislike to them – witch she calls the old woman, who mutters superstitiously under her breath. Jake allows them to board at his house. The old woman does not last the winter. Jake and Margery become lovers, the housekeeper is sacked and Margery lives with Jake (in sin). She has a hold over him.

His father is jealous of Jake’s romantic success and plots against him, first having others accuse him in the abbey’s canon court of fornication. Jake promises to marry. John tries something else, pointing out Jake’s poverty to Margery.

Jake leaves St Brett’s in 1369 (when he was 31) after his father marries Margery (when she was 27). Jake tried to kill his father and Margery shortly before he left in an angry confrontation.

Jake joins a retinue being assembled to support the Black Prince’s forces in Aquitaine. From 1370 to 1374 involved in chevauchées, sieges and skirmishes in various parts of Western France. Involved in war crimes – but this is part and parcel of being a soldier? Jake has become cynical – life has dealt him a cruel hand so he feels it is alright for him to take it out on others. He has realised that only get what you can take in this world.

In 1374 effectively becomes an outlaw in France with a gang of other unpaid soldiers. They capture Roger and some other clerks on their return from Avignon. They plan to ransom the priests for money. But for Roger their plan fails, the other priests are worth something, but not Roger. The other soldiers plan to kill Roger and take his stuff. Jake protects him and saves him. They part. Jake returns to England, but ends up in gaol. Roger hears that he is in gaol and helps secure his release if he will become his servant. Roger is on his way to Oxford to take up a post as Master of Astronomy at the University.

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Field of Glory – Choosing a Medieval Army – Castile

If you don’t play this rather niche PC conversion of a tabletop wargame, then please look away now! I do and I love it. Always have liked wargaming since I was a kid and Field of Glory Digital hits all the right buttons for me. I was a bit doubtful at first because of the hex layout, but I have fallen in love with it now.

I took part in one of the Field of Glory leagues recently, and have just been invited to take part in another one. Last time I had a late Roman army – lots of cataphracts and horse archers alongside doughty legions. I got whipped pretty much – only winning 1 or 2 games out of 10!

Undeterred, this time round I’m thinking of trying my hand at the High Medieval league. I’m thinking of going for a Spanish army – such as the Castilians or Aragonese. What attracts me is the mix of unusual troop types – such as light cavalry jinetes, alongside more traditional knights, spearmen and crossbows. I have been doing some test battles recently – trying to fend off Swiss and Low Country pike armies to see how the proposed Castilian army matches up. With these Field of Glory leagues it seems that you really have to know how to use your army effectively – the AI is quite good, but can usually be beaten, so I’m doing some test runs at the moment to see how well I can do with my medieval horde plus jinetes before committing my choice of armies to the league.

I am also tempted though to play the masochist and try out a French army – you know the ones who kept on getting beaten up by the English. More on this soon!

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Free Historical Fiction: Stonehearted 2: Chapter 7

First look at chapter 7 of the next volume of Stonehearted. The first volume is By the Sword’s Edge. The second volume doesn’t have a title yet, so I’m going to call it Stonehearted 2 for now. I started writing the second volume towards the end of last year and am making fairly good progress on it at the moment. I thought it would be fun to post here each completed chapter as I write them. They’re only drafts at the moment – no fancy editing, so probably riddled with typos and inconsistencies. Once I have finished this volume I’ll publish it in print and eBook format and announce it on this blog.

Other chapters from Stonehearted Volume 2 can be found by clicking here.

Chapter 7

 

Wulf sniffed. He knelt from where they lay amongst the bracken on the edge of the wood and peered back into the trees. “I can smell piss,” he hissed. “Louis, go and tell them to stop pissing. If there’s someone standing next to a tree and tinkling then the English might see him. Or worse smell the bastard.”

Louis nodded and, leaving his heavy cross bow where he had been crouching next to Wulf, he made his way along the lines of French soldiers, keeping his body low trying not to raise it above the level of the abundant bracken on the edge of the woodland.

He could smell the piss as well, but he didn’t see any men standing. All of the men were crouched down as they had been ordered to, their weapons hidden. Piss wasn’t the only thing he could smell. There was fear there as well. These weren’t fighting men who were ready for what might happen in a battle.

The company of men that Wulf had been given to command were a motley collection. Mostly poorer men of the militia drawn from the town of Domont, and the rest were peasant’s levied from the Sire de Bognac’s manors that stood in the direct path of the English march on Paris. Perhaps eighty men at all, armed with sharp farm tools, scythes, pitchforks for the peasants, and poor spears and knives for the militia. The townsmen’s richer neighbours, those who could afford armour, swords and polearms had joined the Sire de Bognac and his retainers on the field before them.

As he caught his breath behind a tree, he noticed one of the militia glance at him. A young lad, probably an apprentice of only fourteen, not much more. Louis sniffed again. “You?” he whispered.

The lad blushed and looked away.

Louis crawled over to him and grabbed him by the arm. “Heh, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. All men feel scared before a fight.”

“But we don’t stand a chance,” said the lad. “Won’t we all die?”

“Where did you get that foolishness from?”

“Some of the lads that what they said. They said stay at the back, so you can stand a chance of running off as soon as you can. That’s the only way to live, they said.”

“Don’t listen to them. We have a plan.”

“But the English … There’s so many of them.”

“Don’t the English bleed as well? And don’t forget its them who will be attacking. Many will be killed by arrows, and then when they’re busy with the Sire de Bognac’s men, we’ll take them by surprise. It will be easy. Like killing dumb animals. It’s cruel almost.”

The lad looked up towards the field. “See how many there are, though. There’s hundreds of them.

Louis looked as well. It was time for him to get back to Wulf’s side, to load a bolt on his crossbow. A party of English were mounting up and forming into some sort of line to attack. Not all them, thank Christ, but perhaps a hundred or so at least. If only they had more archers. They could play havoc with the horses by shooting them from under the English. The same kind of trick that the English bowmen were fond of playing on French knights in the past.

It took him perhaps a minute to crawl to where Wulf was positioned at the centre of the hidden company. Wulf glared at him as he moved his crossbow aside to crouch down next to the big mercenary.

“You were gone a long time.”

“Raising the spirits of the lads,” Louis replied.

“As long as they at least raise their weapons to the enemy that will be good enough,” Wulf replied.

He’s getting talkative as this goes on, Louis thought. They hadn’t spoken much on their ride out of Montdidier, but Louis felt like he was getting to know, and even like, the gruff soldier.

The English were starting to move. The mounted men were urging their horses forward across the field, and Louis could also see some others on foot coming up behind them. Archers perhaps. Louis remembered his own crossbow and grabbed a bolt from his quiver and placed it in the groove for it. He’d have to stand or perhaps lie on his back with his leg and the crossbow in the air to pull the rope back.

Wulf glanced at him and shook his head. “Sword or axe better. If you shoot into the melee you could kill one of ours.

With reluctance, Louis put the crossbow to one side. He covered it with some bracken. He didn’t want anyone stealing it. Instead he took the axe from his belt and drew his sword. Two weapons were better that one, surely.

Wulf looked at him again and shook his head again, but he was smiling this time. “Quite the hero now,” he murmured, but didn’t offer any more advice. Wulf gripped his own weapon, a short spear with a wicked long curved blade and spike at its point, and a tough iron butt at the base. Louis had watched Wulf practicing with it the day before and had been impressed with the skill with which the mercenary handled it, using both ends to attack the stuffed dummy on which he trained.

The English horsemen were trotting now, and were couching their lances and pointing them at the French before them. They weren’t waiting for the men on foot behind them. There would be no deadly volley of arrows from the English war bows to soften up the French lines. Louis could see the French soldiers bracing themselves for the charge, their own spears and pole-arms being held to form a pin cushion of points to deflect the English attack. A few men with crossbows fired off their bolts as the English horsemen came in. They might get another round off, perhaps, if they loaded far enough. The English were still coming slowly at a trot, but when they came within perhaps fifty yards they spurred their horses into a gallop. The sight was impressive and terrifying.

“Old-style,” muttered Wulf. “Let’s see if it still works.”

“There’s more of the English,” said Louis. “They’ll come round the sides of the Sire de Bognac’s company.”

Wulf nodded. “And that’s when we’ll have at them. We’ll need to be quick though. It could be over quickly.”

But it didn’t work out like that. As the English charged, over the space of what seemed like ages, but was perhaps only a minute, one, then two and then three of the Sire de Bognac’s company dropped their spears and ran from the back of the formation. They were militia, not experienced in fighting. The Sire’s retainers in the front ranks held their ground, but realised what was happening behind them. Their rear ranks were melting away.

“God-damn!” grunted Wulf. “The charge is working. These were our best men, but still green as spring grass.”

“We’ve got to help them,” hissed Louis.

“Do you think this lot have any chance at all against that?”

The English cavalry was now upon the French line and most of the militia and some of the Sire’s retinue had already broken. The rest were simply swallowed up by a sea of armoured English men-at-arms. The horses didn’t ride over the Frenchmen left—no horse however well trained would plunge itself straight onto a spear or spiked pole-arm—but instead went to the side of the small pockets and individuals left. The English jabbed lances at them and then drew swords, maces and axes to chop down at the French on the ground. It was not long before the Sire and his men yielded in surrender.

Those that had fled were ridden down by some of the more enthusiastic English, skewered in the back or knocked over by a warhorse. But for many the English didn’t bother to pursue. Those who fled were not nobility and they would fetch only a pitiful ransom. Instead the militia plunged through the woods where Wulf’s company hid. Wading through the bracken. “Save yourselves! Flee!” shouted one man as he came past.

Wulf stood. “I hate to agree, but he’s right. There’s nothing to do be done here. Let’s go.”

***

If you want to read the first volume of StoneheartedBy the Sword’s Edge, then click here.

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Read some Free Fiction – samples of Hell has its Demons and By the Sword’s Edge

If you would like to read some free fiction from me then the Prologue and first two chapters from Hell has its Demons are now available – see the links on the Free Fiction page, or go to the page for Hell has its Demons.

You can also read the first two chapters of By the Sword’s Edge for free as well – again check out the Free Fiction page or the page for By the Sword’s Edge.

Regular readers of this blog will also remember that I am posting early draft chapters of the second volume of Stonehearted online – the sequel to By the Sword’s Edge. You can find a link to those chapters on the Free Fiction page and also by clicking here.

 

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