Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Blog Interview with Author Ben Kane

In 2007 a wonderful thing happened to author Ben Kane and to readers of Roman era historical fiction, he landed himself a book deal.
It was the jumping off point for a succesful, long lasting career that has seen him publish six books to date (with another due out in 2013) and become a Top Ten Bestselling Author. A terrific accomplishment for a young man with many decades of career ahead of him if he chooses to keep writing, and a dream come true for an author who began his post academic life as a seasoned traveller, an avid lover of history and a fully qualified Veterinarian.

After a few fateful choices in regards to work, Ben Kane was able to combine two of those great loves, travelling and history, with writing for other people and it has launched him into a highly enriching, fresh new career as an author of historical fiction.

His first book , The Forgotten Legion (2008), a story set predominantly around Rome and the lives of four major characters, was followed up with two more books, The Silver Eagle (2009) and The Road to Rome (2010), to make it a trilogy that cemented Ben Kane's career as a serious author of historical fiction.
In 2011 Ben Kane successfully undertook to bring to life the incredible stories and events of the Second Punic War with Hannibal: Enemy of Rome. Currently Ben has the second book in this series (Hannibal: Fields of Blood) at the editors and is about to wet some ink on the start of book three in this Hannibal series.
A highly inspired and ambitious author, Ben Kane released another new series in 2012, the Spartacus series which began with Spartacus: The Gladiator and was soon followed by a sequel, Spartacus: Rebellion.

He has certainly been a busy man and although he is even busier than normal right now with training for a late April/early May charity walk, The Hadrian's Wall Romani Walk, with fellow notable authors  Anthony Riches and Russell Whitfield,  Ben was kind enough to steal a moment to sit and do this short blog interview.

Do you think it's important to be as historically accurate as possible in a HF book?

When I first started out as a novelist, I had a slightly cavalier attitude to this. That is something that has changed entirely in the 5 years since. I now do my utmost to be accurate. If there are really bad historical bloopers in a book I read, it puts me right off. Therefore I try not to do the same myself.

You were a career Veterinarian. What inspired you to try writing as a career? And do you miss being a Vet?

Utter desperation one night when I was ‘on call’. I got called out so many times one Saturday night that I came home at about 1 a.m. and made an oath that I would not be doing the same thing when I got to 40. I started writing that night. At the time, I was 33. I gave up veterinary medicine at 38.

 Do I miss being a veterinarian? Like a hole in the head. No, seriously, I miss the (nice) animals, and my dedicated clients. I don’t miss them that much, however. I love my job as a writer ten times more than I ever loved being a vet.

How important is social media to your advertising? And is it more or less useful than traditional advertising?

It’s important, but not that important. I think traditional advertising is still quite effective – billboards, ads in bookshops and supermarkets that sell books. What social media is most useful for is contact with readers, which I really enjoy.

Although the book is called Hannibal, he is not the main character.
 Can you tell us the story behind the title and who the readers will find as the main characters?

I originally called the book 'Soldier of Carthage', referring to Hanno, one of the main characters. However, my publishers reckoned that so few people would know where Carthage is/was, that sales would suffer bigtime. It’s a sad state of affairs, but I think that this was a good move. So they renamed it, with my permission. As a result, I have had some complaints from people who (understandably) thought they were buying a book about Hannibal. However, annoying people wasn't my intention!

You have done some travelling to historic sites relevant to your other books, such as Spartacus.
Have you been to any historic sites relevant to the Hannibal story?

Oh yes! I’ve been to Sagunto, what was known as Saguntum, in Spain. This is the city that Hannibal besieged to open the Second Punic War. It’s a huge hill set on a plain, and is a spectacular place to visit. In the summer of 2012, I went to Italy to visit Lake Trasimene, the site of one of Hannibal’s most famous victories. Each June, Italian and Spanish enthusiasts re-enact the battle. It’s an awesome sight, and was very useful to me when it came to writing that scene. I’ve also been to Cannae, in the far south of Italy, near the heel of the boot. This was the site of Hannibal’s most famous achievement, and in my opinion, it’s a must see location. There’s a hill nearby that allows you to visualise the whole battlefield, which is still farmland. It’s so atmospheric. I loved it!
In the next month, I’m going to Sicily, where the third Hannibal book will be set.

In Late April/Early May, you are walking Hadrian’s Wall in full Roman military kit. (The aim being to raise funds for Combat Stress and Medecins Sans Frontieres)
Are you looking forward to learning more on the civilisations you write about by walking in their shoes and what do you think will be the most taxing element of the journey?

I cannot say how much I am looking forward to this – immensely doesn’t even come close! I’ve been training for two weeks already, walking a 4 mile circuit around where I live, wearing a Roman helmet and carrying a 13 lb/ 6kg shield on my back. I’ve learned lots already, and I have no doubt that I will learn a lot more, about things as minute as the way to tie the laces on Roman boots, to the intricacies of hanging a sword off a belt well enough so that it doesn’t rub on the hip or the leg as one marches.

I think the most taxing element could be the weather – along Hadrian’s Wall, you can have four seasons in one day without any difficulty. If it isn’t that, it might be the boots, which have been handmade for me, and which are very comfortable. But. But because of the hobnails, they are lethal on wet rock…

Ebook or Paper?

Paper. I now have an e-reading device, which is very useful for travel/holidays etc., but I prefer the feel of a real book.


Please NB* In March the Ancient and Medieval Historical Fiction Group on Goodreads is doing a Group Read of Ben's book, Hannibal: Enemy of Rome. All are welcome to join in the read, even if you are not a member of the group.  feel free to drop by this Blog or the Facebook Page with your comments if you are not a member of A&M Group, or of course you could join the Group and comment on the Discussion Thread there.

You can find out more information on the Hadrian Romani Walk on Ben Kane's Facebook page:

- MM

Monday, 25 February 2013

Oh, Baby - Let's Make a Neanderthal

“I can create a Neanderthal baby, if I can find a willing woman.”

Did that grab your attention? If it did, then you are not alone. This quote comes from a translation of an interview George M. Church, a genetics professor at Harvard Medical School did with the German magazine Der Spiegel and while it did lose something in translation it is the gist of it.

According to current sciences, Neanderthals and their sister group the Denisovans – who have never been found through archaeology, but were found purely through sorting DNA - are the closest relatives to modern humans yet discovered. Somewhere along the chain of DNA, humans (not including the sub-Saharan Africans) bred with Neanderthals. This means we are all related to Neanderthal man. It is in our DNA and there is no escaping it. Not that we would care to.

This is where Professor Church and his colleagues come in.
In that Der Spiegel  interview he also said: "I have already managed to attract enough DNA from fossil bones to reconstruct the DNA of the human species largely extinct. Now I need an adventurous female human."
I guess this means that through the Neanderthal genome and human stem cells they can clone themselves a foetus which can then be implanted into a very adventurous woman?
I am sure he could find one of those when the time was right. There are plenty of adventurous women out there who would offer themselves up for this science.

And over in Russia, an adventurous Elephant can have an embryo implanted with a nucleus that would give the scientists the ability to create a cloned baby Woolly Mammoth. The Japanese have already done it, mastered the implanting of a cloned nucleus into an embryo that is, not cloned a Woolly Mammoth.

I have a certain view on cloning that has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with ethics. I cannot see any reason why any scientist would ever want to consider unlocking the pathways to Neanderthal baby. I am old fashioned like that.
But in the bright rooms of genetics labs around the world, fantasies about cloning extinct species such as the Neanderthal man and the Wooly Mammoth will continue to wet the lips and stimulate the appetites of scientists as they hunker down over hair and bone hunting for genetic material.

What the future will bring in regards to cloning of extinct species, we can only guess at. All I know is that I saw Jurassic Park. That was enough cloning fantasy for me. Let's cure cancer instead.


- MM

Friday, 22 February 2013

Those Old Grey Stones Aren't What They Used to Be

On a promontory of land outside of the Swedish fishing town of Kaseberga, stand two rows of standing stones. A boat shaped burial monument, 220 feet (67m) long and composed of 59 megaliths that stand like sentinels guarding the cliffs and the pounding Baltic Sea below.

It is called the Ales Stenar, or Ales Stones, and much mystery surrounds it. There is local legend that claims it to be the burial site for the mythical King Ale - hence the name of the stones - and that he lays in his tomb beneath the Viking era ship monument.
Whatever the reason for its construction, it has stood there as it stands today. Over 1400 years old. Since the end of the Swedish Iron Age. But does it have a bigger tale to tell? Have modern archaeologists unravelled an even more ancient mystery at the Ales Stones?

Questions have long been asked of the stones and the reasons for them being there. Could they be older than Late Iron Age? Could they have been moved from somewhere else? An older site perhaps? And what is the cause and explanation of the distinctive cut marks that flaw the weathered surfaces of those massive 1800 kg (4000 lb) megaliths?

In 2006, archaeologists threw some of their modern resources at the monument. Using magnetic sensors and radar, they scanned beneath the Ales Stones and came up with a larger structure. A circle, 541 feet (165 m) in diameter, with a 65-foot by 25-foot rectangle in the centre.
Going forward in time to late October 2012, they finally dug a small trench at the site.
What they found rewrote the history of the stones and the history of the local area.

While not finding a skeleton, they did discover the imprints of large boulders.. Giants which had been removed long ago and likely reused in the Viking Ship monument. The shape, the placement, suggested that the site was in fact a Neolithic site, with a burial chamber – called a dolmen, which consisted of some upright boulders and a horizontal boulder under which a body would be placed – most likely for a chieftain or neolithic clan chief and dating as much as over 5500 years ago.
Quite possibly, it is older than Stonehenge.

While they have some answers as a result of this dig, I think it is without doubt that the mysteries surrounding these amazing stones have only gotten deeper. The more ancient the site, the slower it will be at giving up its secrets.

- MM


Monday, 18 February 2013

First There Came Little Attila

Attila by William Napier
The first thing you should know if you are thinking about reading this book, or indeed purchasing it, is that it is not adult Attila. This is William Napier's interpretation of Attila's childhood. This book is about little Attila.

If you want Attila as a full force barbarian adult, uniting tribes and giving Romans the fright of their lives, then this is not the book for you. Book Two and Book Three are the books for you (or so I hear as I have only read this one, to date) and I would recommend you read this first book and accept it for what it is. The story of a child, a small, feisty, quiet, sullen, ferocious child. As he dwells with the Romans as a hostage and then later as a small, but not as small, feisty, quiet, sullen, ferocious teenager.

As for the story itself. As presented by the author William Napier? Well I went from impressed to not so impressed, to giving up.

The writing is how I usually like it. Rich in detail and description and colourful characters. Some to hate, some to like. Where I felt it fell down was with dialogue and the occasional scene that just tried too hard to be something powerful, but turned into something that failed to match the quality of other sections of the book. There was also a tendency for William Napier to play to his strengths, 'description', only he would go too far. Get carried away with himself and churn out some descriptions that were a little desperate or over the top.

The dialogue on occasion was modern. There was too much swearing, which does not help the reader slip from real life to the historical world portrayed in the story. It was not uncommon to find a character saying variations of the F word three or more times in one spurt of dialogue that may be only two short sentences long. I can tolerate the odd modern swear word in a historical fiction, but not so frequently that it feels like I am down the pub on a Friday night.

These scenes and dialogue that let the rest of the book down finally got to me and I ended up skim reading the final 100 pages or so of the book. I am told that in the section that I skim read there was actually some fantasy leaking in. Now, I am fine with fantasy elements such as supernatural if it can be rationally explained by the reader, but apparently this fantasy part was not rational or explainable. It was true fantasy. I wish authors would not do that to straight historical fiction. It loses a lot of readers and can ruin a story. Especially if it is in the last quarter of a book.

For all of these reasons - but mostly because I lost interest enough for me to not want me to go on - I nearly gave it 2 stars. Only I had to consider the fact that I was also in a rush to finish it. I was on a tight schedule. Perhaps if I had not been, I would not have skim read the final 100 pages and I would have continued to 'just' like it.

3 stars (out of 5) to me means that I like a book. I don't have to really like it, that could mean 'just' like it, and as far as Attila by William Napier is concerned, I did 'just' like it and maybe that is enough to want to continue to Book Two. I hope so. Only time will tell.

- MM

Saturday, 16 February 2013

The Staffordshire Hoard Strikes Again

Outside of the United Kingdom, when you think 'hoards' in Britain, you would not be blamed for thinking of the bounteous Eighth Century Sutton Hoo Hoard in East Anglia with its stunning gold and silver helmet inlaid with garnets, elaborate brooches, plates and drinking horns, being pulled out from a tomb under a boat burial.

Yet, what of the Staffordshire Hoard? Made up of over 3500 items and totalling 5.094 kilos of gold, 1.442 kilos of silver and 3,500 cloisonné garnets (that may have come from as far away as Sri Lanka or India) being mostly items of war such as pommel caps and hilt plates. It is a far larger hoard than Sutton Hoo and no less astounding.

Fish and Eagles Zoomorphic Mount - Click on link for more images
In July 2009, Terry Herbert packed up his sandwiches, his thermos of tea and his metal detecting equipment for a day out on a farm field in Hammerwich Parish, near Lichfield, Staffordshire.
What he found would not only change his life, and the life of the farmer who owned the field, but it would make the world of British Archaeology positively quiver.

Strewn throughout that ploughed ground was the largest Anglo-Saxon find ever made. The Staffordshire Hoard. Found in a location not far from the ancient Roman thoroughfare, Watling Street, which is believed to have still been in use when the hoard was first buried.

The find was as impressive in archaeological terms and cultural implications as the Tomb of Tutankhamen in Egypt. It brings with it a plethora of knowledge to soundlessly pass on from the Eighth or Ninth Century to not only academics and historians, but also to the artisans who specialise in replicating Anglo-Saxon craftsmanship.
One item even had a biblical inscription, written in latin and mispelled in two places, that read 'Rise up, O Lord, and may thy enemies be dispersed and those who hate thee be driven from thy face'

Stylised Seahorse - Click on link for more images
Archaeologists descended on the site to retrieve all artefacts. They even enlisted the help of the Police to scan the field in search of more metallic finds. It was assumed that the majority of the treasure was found. But it was not.

Recently, in December 2012, after the farmer ploughed his field again, more finds came up from deeper down. Only 100 metres away from the first site. Of 91 pieces, 81 were confirmed as part of the Anglo Saxon treasure. Some matching pieces that had already come from the field with the original hoard.

An inquest was held in January 2013 and the 81 pieces were officially classified as treasure and of an age over 300 years old. This now means that there will be a valuation done in March 2013 and the items will become available for sale.
The original Hoard, with moneys raised from donations and fundraising, was purchased by the Staffordshire County Council and neighbouring authorities and is currently being displayed in four museums.

It is hoped that the same authorities will be able to raise the funds for these new 81 pieces and the finds can be included into the current collection.


For more information on the displays and the hoard visit the Staffordshire Hoard Website

- MM


Thursday, 14 February 2013

Norman Mercenaries Take a Bite Out of Italy

Mercenaries by Jack Ludlow
I find that when it comes to historical fiction not enough is written of this era or these people. The Normans. What little is out there encompasses the events surrounding and including the Norman Conquest of England more than anything else. There is also some scattering of historical fiction that is set with the Saxons pre Conquest, and then the Normans post Conquest. But unless you are willing to skip over into the historical romance and Chick lit historical fiction (which I am not), then even these are few and far between.
When I found Mercenaries I had little expectation and if I did expect anything, I did not expect much. I had heard nothing about the book or the two following books that make up this trilogy. I have never read a Jack Ludlow either so that was breaking new ground for me as well.
Despite all my reserves going into the book I found that I actually enjoyed it and for me it was a 4 out of 5 stars book.

Mercenaries is set in Italy mostly. Pre Conquest, pre everything that the majority of people associate the Normans with. And in my experience, the majority of people seem to think they came from nowhere a few years before they set sail for England and then assimilated and vanished soon after, which technically, in regards to the vanishing, they did. Being Northmen and Vikings by blood, that's what the Normans did best. Conquer, mix with the populace, assimilate and dilute their blood. They wiped themselves out by doing this, which isn't exactly a bad thing mayhaps as I have heard some speak of the Normans in the same breath as the word Nazis. I will give that debate a wide berth however.

Kicking off on the Norman and French border in 1033, we are introduced to our main characters as children, William and Drogo de Hauteville. Sons of Tancred de Hauteville. Real characters from history brought to fictional life. In fact most of Ludlow's characters are based on real men. Some I was familiar with, and some I was not.

The book does not stay with William and Drogo as children for long and within a hundred pages they are young talented warriors setting out to become mercenaries in Italy. They are successful in their new careers and soon cross paths with Guaimar, the heir to Salerno. Another real life character who was responsible for persuading the Emperor, Conrad Augustus, to clash with Pandulf of Capua.
Following this, William and Drogo find themselves moving on to new battle grounds against the Saracens, where they cement their reputations as formidable leaders and warriors.

The flaws of the book were not too aggravating. There is no flowery or poetic prose and I missed it. While the writing is technically okay, it lacked in historical description and the characters were rather one dimensional.
I also have a greivance with the edition I had. It was over 400 pages, but the font was more like a large print copy. Printed for those with poor eyesight. The spacing between lines was broad, and the font too big. I saw another edition had about 288 pages and I suspect that is the edition I would have preferred to read as the large font edition messed with my concentration. Took away some of my ability to absorb the story. This factor does not reflect in my rating though.

There is promise of a great trilogy here with the Conquest Series by Ludlow. And since this is an era that I have much interest in, which as mentioned earlier is oft neglected by historical fiction authors, I will definitely be going on to read the next two books in the trilogy.

- MM


Tuesday, 12 February 2013

I Will Raise You One Silver Sceatta

The Dark Ages. The period between Romans leaving and the Normans arriving. 410AD to 1066AD. What do you think when you see those words, The Dark Ages?
King Arthur? Saxon Invasions? Viking Invasions? A nation lost in time? As sunk under the burden of history and academic conjecture as the mythical Atlantis?
Tribes spread throughout Britain, who would rather shiver in their primitive Grub Huts than relocate to that gleaming deserted Villa on the hill? With its warmth giving insulated walls, Hypercaust system, plunge pools and steam rooms?

Maybe in some places in Britain this was the case. No doubt it is hard to prove otherwise, on the current evidence, what was happening region by region in Britain at this time. But at least there are archaeological finds from some areas that show proof of a thriving community, post Roman Britannia, as undeniable.

Such as the 2012 discovery in York, in the York Minster Undercroft, of a coin – a sceatta – which not only dated a layer of the deposits in this dig to the Eight Century, but also gave up evidence of an Anglian mint and the moneyer's name, Eadwine. A well known minter for the Northumbrian Royal Court.
So there was money and plenty of it, which would indicate that York was a city of its time. Perhaps thriving, trading and flourishing in post Roman York (Eboracum) under the hand of the Anglo-Saxons. A place of enough wealth and economic links to lure a Norse culture across the seas to its walls, where they in turn used their own unique methods of conquer, habitate and populate to mould it into a Anglo-Scandinavian community called Viking York (Jorvik). 
 Not a Dark Ages wasteland then. Not a shadow strewn complex of crumbling Roman edifice. The wind stalking empty buildings and eroding all traces of a once provincial and urbane society.
No, not that at all.

In modern York. As it is known today. Each February they hold the Jorvik Viking Festival. http://jorvik-viking-centre.co.uk/festivals/. This year a talk will be held on the York Minster Discoveries and then in late Summer an exhibition will be opened where you can see this silver Sceatta for yourself. What a treat if you can get there.

- MM

Monday, 11 February 2013

It's a Revelation! - or is it?

REVELATION by C. J. Sansom
I may consistently give these C.J. Sansom books 4 out of 5 stars (with the exception of the third in the series, Sovereign, which I gave 5 stars to), but I do thoroughly enjoy them.
For me they are the perfect holiday read, or windy wet weather read. Sit in a corner with a cup of tea, curl up under a thick quilt in bed, lock yourself away or escape every evening to its pages.

C.J Sansom recreates the Tudor world with an ease that all historical fiction authors should aspire to. The stories are not always fast paced or addictive, but for me it is not really the power of the story or plot that keeps me coming back again and again, it is the power of the author to open a window in time through which I feel and see and smell Tudor England.
It happens everytime I pick up one of these books. They are most reliable in that respect.

In this fourth instalment of the Matthew Shardlake series, our window is into 1543 London. Henry VIII is courting Catherine Parr, the Parliament has brought in controversial anti-reformist legislation - the legislation that includes prohibiting women and the working classes from reading the bible – and religious radicals and conservatives are pulling apart the cultural and social fabric of the city.

Within this maelstrom, Matthew and Barak are confronted with an all new horror. Gruesome deaths the like of which they have never seen. The like of which the city has never seen. Orchestrated with the methodical cunning and pathological cruelty that we relate now to being the potential handiwork
of serial killers. But in the Sixteenth Century, a time of intense religious fervour, some can only fathom it as demonic possession.
Running parallel to these killings is the story of a young man, Adam Kite. His peculiar and desperate behaviour having landed him in The Bedlam, Shardlake is appointed to the boys case and he must solve the riddle of this young man's mind before the conservative powers would have him burned or some such other grisly fate.

If there is anything I can point to as a negative with this book - a negative for me at least - it would be the amount of religious discussion inserted into the story. For other readers it would be appropriate and interesting, and while I do agree with its appropriateness (as the country was alive with religious debate) I would not agree with it being interesting. I would have shaved it back a degree as it got in the way of the semi thrilling hunt for a killer or killers.
- MM

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

The Rise and Fall and Rise Again of The Mary Rose

After 34 years of service in war against the French the pride of the English Tudor Navy, fully equipped with cannons and guns of various make and construction and manned by over 500 men (and quite possibly up to 700 in 1545) many of whom were Longbowmen, met her ending when she sank in the Solent about a mile off the dock at Portsmouth on July, 19, 1545 with King Henry VIII watching from his vantage point in Southsea Castle.

And there she lay, an English Queen of the seas, taking most of the crew with her, given over to the salty embrace of her own Portsmouth Harbour, her guns silenced for an eternity.


 In the 1800's a pair of professional divers found the site and while some excavation and exploratory work was undertaken in the late 1970's it wasn't until the early 80's that serious excavation work began and in 1982 she was finally lifted from the sea bed. 437 years from the date of her unforeseen demise.

Of all the myriad of finds and artefacts the excavation has uncovered and brought back to the light, perhaps the most disquieting of finds are the skeletons of the young crew of the Mary Rose, most under 30 and averaging 5 foot 7 inches in height. Some as young as 13.
Over 500 had been on board that ship (although some say as many as 700 could have been crewing it when she went down), only 40 reported as surviving and 179 skeletons, part and full, found in varying locations amoungst her deteriorating timbers. Hauntingly, some were still located where they had been manning cannons in the galleys before she sank.

Yet here we are in the 21st century and what was an audio tour and the Mary Rose Exhibition has received a $35 million injection to become the 'new' Mary Rose Museum, opening late Spring 2013, where some of the 19,000 artefacts will be displayed and windows will allow visitors to view the hull as sprays are turned off and final conservation work begins.

 So if you are travelling to the U.K looking for things to see or a local passing by Portsmouth one day after Spring 2013, swing by the new Mary Rose museum and get lost in a time of a lavish, infamous and unforgettable history.

Photos courtesy of The Mary Rose Museum 

- MM

Put a Face to a Name - Richard III Unmasked

We know Richard III as the last King of the House of York, the last of the Plantangenets and the last English King to die in battle.  He also lasted fairly well in a grave under a carpark in Leicester where he was finally brought back to life on February 6th 2013 via his dna and a startling facial reconstruction.
So it was all true. Everything we were led to believe.  Shakespeare said he was a crookback (scoliosisto us now). And the brutal death blow to the head. Supposedly at the hands of a Welshman and his halberd when the King's horse bogged in marshy land. Someone did a lot more than that however, as the skull was found to have signs of 10 blows to the head which I imagine did more than simply remove his helmet.
He then appears to be hurriedly buried under the floor of Greyfriars Church his wrists possibly still bound together.
What a wondrous thing archaeology is.

Facial Reconstruction of Richard III - courtesy Channel 4

- MM

Monday, 4 February 2013

Welcome as I prepare to take flight

Welcome to my first post as Medieval Mayhem. This will take some time to set up as I am still learning the site.
The purpose of this blog is to post about books and history, amoung other more random things. The blog will also be connected to the Ancient & Medieval Historical Fiction Group on Goodreads and you can catch me there if you are game.
I will post reviews of books as I read them with the group or as I read them on my own and I will mix it up with some thoughts on history from time to time.
So stick with me folks. I hope to make this a fun blog to follow! Only right now, I am still growing my flight feathers.