Category Archives: News & Blog

These aren’t the druids we’re looking for…

Just before we all vanish off into our own domestic worlds for Christmas I though it would be nice to share a moment of humour with you from my trip to Chester last week to join Deva Victrix’s Saturnalia parade (Deva Victrix being Chester’s very own re-enactment and tourist guide company with several men who actually get paid to walk around in armour and talk about Roman history, lucky, lucky b——-!).

Having been kindly invited to join both the march through the city and the guys’ celebratory feast afterwards, I drove north in a state of some excitement, especially as the previously incessant rain had chosen to hold off for a few hours. After a very interesting visit to the site of  Park In The Past – of which more in another post – with Paul Harston, the team’s centurion and motive force (who’s also kind enough to tolerate my own slightly dog eared centurion impression) I ended up outside the team’s HQ next door to the Grosvenor museum dressed in my battered kit and ready to march along behind the guys and watch in quite amusement. Not really a joiner, me…

Nothing of the sort was to be permitted! ‘Here’s your place in the line Centurio!’ and ‘Here’s your torch!’ – the latter bringing a huge grin to my face…

IMG_3530[1]

…and we were off, marching in two files into town to tell the citizens of Chester just what Saturnalia was – see separate blog – and wow the kids with our blazing torches. And as we marched one of the younger guys behind me – Deva Victrix is one of those units with a healthy crop of men of an age that would actually have qualified them to serve, and not just a bunch of old blokes like me – piped up in that unmistakeable Merseyside humour:

“Centurion?”

“Soldier?”

“This old fella says these aren’t the druids we’re looking for?”

I know. I gave the punchline away in the post title and it might seem a bit lame, but I was tittering off and on for the next half an hour. Needless to say the guys put on a great show, complete with an emperor who liked the sound of his own voice, a bevy of Roman beauties and a great turn out of ugly soldiery, and the celebratory feast afterwards ended up in a moderately messy manner with drinks spilled, men (and women) staggering about and the consumption of vile coloured alcoholic fluids well after midnight. All as it should be. And I learned the Deva Victrix’s marching routine too, joining in lusty shouts of ‘Deva – Victrix!’ and ‘Something or other I never quite discerned – Minerva!’, although I totally failed to pick up the marching song  – something about a restaurant with bedrooms up the stairs?

Anyway, the film is viewable here…https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qvlYnPLaCR8 Enjoy. You might just get a glimpse of Yours Truly, bedraggled centurion’s crest – it never recovered from the pouring rain that day on the outskirts of Capua – battered scale armour and silly grin. These aren’t the druids you’re looking for…priceless.

And do check back in after Christmas for news of the Roman research and tourism facility that Paul plans to build in the North West. I promise you’re going to be deeply impressed.

All that remains is to wish you all a Happy Christmas! Have a lovely time, drink and eat way too much and I hope you all get your heart’s true desire! Now where’s that Sloe Gin gone..?

Cheers!

 

The First Chapter

What makes a great first chapter in ‘my’ sort of historical fiction – I say ‘my’ because to be honest with you reader, I don’t read much that I’m not hoping will meet my expectations of an enjoyable read? Put simply, there are three things I need in the start of a book – any work of fiction – to make me want to stay the course and find out if this author and I can do business in the future.

The first of them is immediate impact. I want something that grabs me by the throat and either growls menacingly in my ear that I’d better keep reading, because there’s more of whatever it is that the jacket image and burb promised me would be found within. In Joe Abercrombie’s quite exceptional ‘The Blade Itself’ (yes, it’s fantasy, but very, very superior fantasy to which no historical fiction fan should be turning up a nose) it was Logen Nine-Fingers fighting for his life against the Shanka. In my own debut I chose to pit sixteen legionaries, a retired centurion and a callow youth against a far stronger barbarian warband on the road from Lincoln to York, taking an early opportunity for sword play and bloodshed under the most desperate of circumstances.

The next thing that brings a knowing smile to my face – for I find simple surrender to a book far harder now that I exercise the writer’s craft for reward rather than simple enjoyment – is something counter-intuitive, something the reader finds unexpectedly intriguing. And it’s even better if they are drawn against their will to admire something that, taken in isolation, they might have looked down on. In ‘The Blade Itself’ the next main character we meet is the counter-intuitively sympathetic cripple, Inquisitor Glotka, as he tortures a confession out of a tax evader while in turn bound to the ruthless will of his master Arch Lector Sult. Should we sympathise with Glotka? Understand his history and I assure you that you’ll have taken him to your heart within a dozen pages.

In ‘Wounds of Honour’ I end that first battle with the crucial intervention of the Tungrian auxiliaries, men whose second rate status by comparison to the legionaries usually condemns them to the background in both history and fiction. And yet with the battle won they make it all too clear that they despise the legion men, and consider themselves the true embodiment of the soldier’s ethos. It’s a hard conceit to resist, that the real hard men were the unsung heroes who always got sent into the fight first to soak up the casualties and make life easier for the legionaries (which was pretty much the truth).The reader’s preconceptions are upset within a few minutes reading, and his or her mind is now open to a new reality.

And lastly, the first chapter has to introduce this alternative world (vividly so in Abercrombie’s case, simply two thousand years in our collective rear view mirror in my own) in a way that releases that throat grip I was talking about earlier and replaces it with a hook that pulls the reader deep into the story, making it impossible for them to consider putting it aside. And there’s a secret to doing this that separates the literary sheep from the goats, best embodied by that rather gnomic phrase ‘show, don’t tell’. I heard that said a hundred times before I really, truly understood what it meant, and how to follow the instruction, so in the interests of decreasing your frustration at hearing it for the umptieth time, allow me to elucidate.

If you tell your reader what’s happening in the background of your story you will in pretty short order risk inciting boredom in them, and that’s never good. Your story will start to feel very much like a long winded history lesson on the subject of a period or character they may actually understand better than the author (or worse, merely think that this is the case, which is much the same thing). Let’s be frank, all that research didn’t make you Harry Sidebottom (unless you are Harry Sidebottom, in which case mine’s a beer, big man), and even Harry keeps his history light. So, given that you are absolutely forbidden to embark on a long monologue on the subject of whatever it is you’re writing about, what are you to do? Two things:

  1. Only use a percentage of your research on the page. Get the key points that explain your backcloth down, and leave the rest to the reader’s own interest or (probably preferable) put it into a ‘historical note’to go into the book for the reader to peruse if they want to. Many will, more of them won’t, or will skip it. Patrick O’Brien used to write learned explanations of Napoleonic naval warfare in his books, and I blithely ignored them because for me the genius of the Aubrey & Maturin series lay in the two main protagonists’ character and interaction, not in knowing exactly how sailing ships worked (philistine that I am).
  2. Have your characters tell either the reader or (my preference) each other what’s going on. Inquisitor Glotka was crippled by his captors’ tortures during a recent war, but that information is passed on to the reader by his master, Arch Lector Sult, and not by the masterful Abercrombie. And here’s the other joy of having your characters fill in the backstory – if you’re any good at the joyful task of imagining that is the real secret of great writing (once you can actually write coherently) – they will have opinions, a world view that will leak out onto the page and tell you about both the background and where they fit into it.

In Wounds of Honour my hero Marcus is educated as to just why the auxiliaries look down on their legion colleagues by his companion Rufius, ex-legion centurion, in a passage that tells us just as much about the former officer as it does about the Tungrians (and during which he also manages to start the process of informing the reader as to just who Marcus is). Once you’re good at it this becomes automatic, but in the meantime here’s a rule for you to follow: if none of your characters has spoken for more than ten lines of script, start asking yourself why. There may be a good reason, but it’s more likely to be a bad one.

So, to summarise, if you want me to start getting excited about your book when I pick it up the three golden rules are:

  • Get my heart racing on page one – give me some action!
  • Give me a conundrum to tease at by page ten – get me thinking.
  • Paint your backdrop by page thirty, and make it real – make me want to inhabit this version of reality that’s in your head for the next 300 pages.

If you can achieve that much then you’ll have me dangling from that finely crafted hook gasping for more.

The Ravenstone Valley in pictures

When Trajan sent fourteen legions across the Danube to subjugate Dacia in AD105 over half of the total number available to him across the entire empire – it was ostensibly with the intention of subjugating a deeply troublesome Dacian king, Decebalus. But there was an additional incentive for Rome to deal with this fractious neighbour on the north-eastern frontier, an obvious and deeply attractive subtext to the emperors expansionist venture. And when his successor Hadrian drew back from Trajan’s conquests in the east seemingly of his own free will but with a clear eye to their indefensibility – there was never any question that Dacia would be remaining firmly under imperial rule. Why? The answer was that Dacia was blessed with gold, with over 250,000 kilos of the metal in its royal treasury and enough remaining in the mines, it was said, to pave the road to Rome with solid gold cobbles.

And when I set to researching book five in the Empire series, The Wolfs Gold, it wasnt hard to work out what should be the epicentre for the storys action the mining settlement of Alburnus Maior. There is evidence of gold mining in Transylvania, both archaeological and indeed metallurgical, that dates back to the Stone Age, but under Roman occupation the process was industrialised to degree possible given the technology of the day. Alburnus Maior was established as a mining town under Trajans rule, with Illyrian colonists from Dalmatia shipped in to provide a compliant workforcewho thenset about tunnelling into the Carpeni Hill, retrieving the gold that could be reached by the relatively primitive methods that were available to them. Largely mined out in terms of the technical means available by the early third century, the settlement was probably a shadow of its former self by the time the Romans left in AD271.

Mining continued off and on over the intervening two thousand years, with an increasing burden of heavy metal pollution being inflicted on the valleys ecosystem by large scale activities under the Austrian empire and latterly by the communist rulers who came to power after World War 2. But with the turn of the 21st century a new and far more serious threat to the surviving Roman remains has emerged. Thepreviously relatively undisturbed Rosia Montana, as the area is now known, taking its name from the river Rosia that flows down the valley, has been earmarked for mining on a scale that would have astounded the Romans.

The Rosia Montana Gold Corporation plans to produce 225 tonnes of gold, and 819 tonnes of silver over a 17 year period, digging out four mining pits over two hundred hectares and in consequence storing 250 million tonnes of cyanide heavy tailings the rock slurry thats left after the chemical separation of their precious metal component in a 360 hectare pond behind a 185 metre high dam. While the plan is currently tied up in an environmental assessment, and mired in a web of environmentalists, activists, archaeologists and (perhaps most effectively) lawyers, all focused on both the environmental risks of cyanide leaching and the loss of these unique Roman sites, money, as ever, talks.

Think about it. 225 tonnes of gold is equivalent to about eight million ounces of the metal, and at current prices – $1200 an ounce thats a cool $9,600,000,000, or getting on for ten billion dollars. Even taking the current abandon with which money is thrown around in the global currency system, thats still more than enough money to focus a lot ofminds on means of taking the brakes off the current development restrictions. In the face of opposition from the Roman Orthodox Church, the Romanian Orthodox Church, the Romanian Unitarian Church, Greenpeace and the European Federation of Green Parties and indeed the Hungarian government (although RMGCs Canadian home government is predictably in favour), the Romanian government nevertheless attempted to pass a law to bypass environmental and heritage regulations in 2013. With such an evidently naked attempt to get the project started major protests were certain to result, and the countrys Senate stepped in to veto the idea.

And there the plan rests, currently stymied but clearly not going away. My money would on the likelihood that love the love of money will always find a way in the long run, and that this precious snapshot in time of a Roman mining town will eventually be destroyed in the name of the greater good. And so I invite you to enjoy with me the pictures that one of my readers, Bogdan Botar, has sent to me from Romania.

In his own words:

I just started to read the Wolfs Gold, and I find the story very gripping. It may come as a surprise to you, but what has impressed me the most so far is the accuracy with which you describe the area around Alburnus Maior (todays Rosia Montana). You must have studied the area map very thoroughly. I can certainly appreciate that since this is the place where I spent many of my summer holidays as a child and I still visit the region regularly. The location of the village has most probably remained unchanged since the Roman times. The valley leading to Rosia Montana and the surrounding gold mines may not be named Ravenstone Valley but guess what, the peak to the south overlooking the village is called the Ravens Stone! Were you aware of that?

P.S. Just a final and important note. Currently, the area around Rosia Montana is threatened by a highly controversial mining project, which if approved will have catastrophic effects on the local environment and beyond. Id also like to send you a few pictures of this beautiful area. Might also be of interest for some of your readers.

And so here are those photographs thanks Bogdan, for sharing your memories with us and showing us an aspect of Roman history that might now be with us much longer. Captions courtesy of Bogdan Botar. Click on the photos for a bigger image.

1: The Raven Stone look closely and youll see the birds head.

raven stone 1

2: A view of the Raven Stone circled and Rosia Montana (Alburnus Maior) on the right of the picture

raven peak alburnus maior 2

3: A view of the Raven Stone and left of it the main (open pit) gold mining site. Until the 1970s this was a very different landscape – one round mountain towering over the Raven Stone full of mine shafts and to some extent hollow on the inside. Apparently there were some interesting constructions inside including a large hall and something referred to as the “Emperor’s throne”(!) all dating from Roman times. Sadly, as I mentioned it was completely erased (turned to gravel) in the 1970s.

raven peak area oposite site view 3

4:A view of the village itself (Rosia Montana) taken from the Raven Stone peak. If you look closely you can see some mine openings nearby I guess the equivalent of Rotunda Mine on your map)

raven Alburnus maior 4

5: An area view of Bucium – this is just a nice landscape of the surrounding areas (just a couple of km away from Rosia Montana).

raven area view Bucium 5

6: These are basically the hills forming the northern flank of the valley. The lake in the picture is also shown on your map.

raven nothern flank 6

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And finally, heres the map that Bogdan referred toif you want to know any more, The Wolfs Gold is available from all good booksellers!

A swordid blog post

I was quietly browsing the web for a maker of handmade Roman swords a few days ago (well let’s face it, it beats writing) when I found something that looked perfect:

http://www.raven-armoury.co.uk/gladiuspomp.html

It wasn’t just the fact that the entire sword is handmade. Or that it’s a perfect replica of a Pompeii gladius. What shouted ‘buy me’ was the fact that the wooden fittings are nearly two thousand years old! Dated to AD70, the wood was excavated in London, enormous tree trunks that had been squared off and used as piles for a Roman dock. I’ve never touched anything half as old, so of course I hotfooted it to Thaxted. And what a cool place the Raven Armoury workshop is. The sword was lovely, perfectly balanced in a way that exceeds the feel of any other replica I’ve ever handled, and I purchased it in a heartbeat – one of the pleasures of having a little spare cash sitting in my writing account is the ability to splash out on the occasional writing related toy – but there’s much more to Raven than my lovely gladius (which I will collect once the blade has been polished to perfection).

Simon showed my some truly amazing examples of the sword smith’s art.?

A bastard sword that felt perfect in the hand, and made wonder just how much damage a man could do to unarmoured opponents on the battlefield with a blade like that to throw around;

http://www.raven-armoury.co.uk/c1350bstd.html

A scimitar that literally floated out of its scabbard and felt like I was holding a piece of exquisitely balanced thin air;

http://www.raven-armoury.co.uk/stainless%20evo.html

And a ceremonial dagger based on one made for a Middle Eastern monarch that is simply exquisite;

http://www.raven-armoury.co.uk/brightjambiya.html

Better yet, he showed me pics of some Roman lorica segmentata…

http://www.raven-armoury.co.uk/lorica.html

…and a Gallic helmet…

http://www.raven-armoury.co.uk/gallichelm.html

…that look exquisite. There are only two problems with making Raven my armourer of choice for my Roman wardrobe.

  • 1. Time – Simon has a FIVE YEAR waiting list.
  • 2. Cost – You really, really don’t want to know what it costs to get Roman kit made to these exacting standards. But let me assure you, my gorgeous new gladius is a snip by comparison.

Of course I have no scabbard for it – *yet*. For the time being I’ll be happy to take the piece to my talks and invite the audience to touch the oldest piece of wood they’ll ever lay hands on, unless they happen to be archeologists. And Raven will be bashing out a run of these swords in two or three years time, Simon tells me. When he does get round to making more Roman weaponry I shall be at the head of the queue for a ‘jewellery quality’ scabbard in which to sheathe this lovely thing. And possibly a companion piece, the waisted Fulham gladius…

http://www.raven-armoury.co.uk/roman.html

It looks gorgeous. And I am a pushover for a pretty sword!

The present day ‘Fang’

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Readers of The Eagle’s Vengeance may find themselves wondering whether the Fang, the Venicone fortress atop the range of hills that runs past modern day Stirling, ever actually existed, or has Riches simply made it up in the search for good ground across which his characters can then play? Well, for the avoidance of doubt, it existed.

These days the Venicone (and then Maeatae) fortress that I’ve quite cheekily named ‘The Fang’ is called The Dumyat, and it’s an easily walkable hike up from Stirling (easy if you choose the right path, that is!). The view from the top is nothing less than stunning, as you’ll see from the pictures I’ve attached, taken back in 2008 when the idea of a return to the Antonine Wall was tickling the back of my mind without the series being in the right place for it to happen for a year or two.

Taken from the north-east of the fort’s historic location, these pictures illustrate just how sheer the southern slope of the hill is, while the other pictures illustrate the view an attacker would have had and show the vestigial remains of a stone wall that was once part of the defences that once stood proudly over the flood plain of the Dirty River (a stream so flooded with silt that the raised bog of Flanders Moss was well nigh impassable until large parts of it were cleared in the 18th century) are still there, if you look hard enough. It’s easy to imagine what a difficult place it would have been to assault, even with the Roman expertise at siege warfare. Recommended, if you live close enough to make a visit.

Reflections on the Wall Walk

And so here I am, sitting in my office after a weekend of relaxation, reflecting on the Wall Walk.

As expected, it was pretty hard. You really do need to be a hardened hill walker for 84 miles in six days, across some violently undulating terrain, to be anything other than ferociously hard work. The physical side was made harder by the weight we were carrying – weapons, shields, helmets and, in Russ’s case, a great big heavy iron mail shirt weighing another ten kilos, work over a heavy padded arming jacket that makes the wearer sweat buckets even without the armour’s weight.

But here’s the odd thing: I did the same walk three years ago wearing exactly the same kit that Russ was wearing this time round, and managed to do the proper line of the wall (unlike this time, where I followed the military way which runs behind it for a good few miles, in order to avoid the worst ups and downs). I do recall being shattered at the end of every day last time round, but I did achieve it. OK, so I’ve dipped into my sixth decade since then, but I weigh about the same, which leaves me wondering what the difference is.

Perhaps it was the training. In 2010 I trained around a state park in South Carolina, in dripping humidity and wearing twenty pounds in weights, whereas this time round it was pretty much all on the flat and in nicer conditions.

Perhaps it was being led every step of the way in 2010 by my redoubtable agent Robin, whose catchphrase was a very simple ‘onwards!’. I don’t know. What I do know is that I’ll be doing it again sometime, and this time I want to have a go in lorica segmentata to see if that’s more tolerable than mail. Russ tells me it’s much nicer to wear, and I’m planning to try some out pretty soon to see what I think. Some more training beckons…

And the good news – with your help we’ve raised over £12,500, which is much, much more than we ever expected, and we’re strongly encouraged to do it again, perhaps somewhere else in Europe. Appian Way, anyone?

Photos will follow once I have them all in one place and collated.

The Agony and the Ecstasy…

OK, so here’s a pre-bed update. In brief, the agony and the ecstasy sums it up about right. The agony? Blisters (I now have a few), wearing a 5 kilo helmet all day, sore shoulders from all the kit hanging off me, getting wet a few times and lots of squidgy mud.

The good bits? Walking with Russ, Ben and Mike, who’s a lovely guy and very tolerant of my Tourettes, seeing the Wall, and rediscovering just how bloody hard it is to shlep along up hill and down dale in kit (and I’m not the one wearing the iron sweatshirt). A big dose of the realism so important to the historical novelist.

Anyway, we made it to Lannercost and our amazing B&B – cordon bleu food, most of which I managed to force down despite having a small dose of the lurg, and now that the muscles have started to relax it’s not quite as heavy. Russ and I may walk the miltary road (100 yards back from the line of the wall) tomorrow in order to stay in the game rather than aggravating our various sores and cankers with going up and down a lot, but I’m sure Ben will be doing his best Mountain Goat impression.

See my Facebook page (Anthony Riches Author) for some photos.

Night all!

Wall Walk Day 1

Firstly a huge apology to the people who turned up to Waterstones in Carlisle expecting to see three authors, including myself, at 1400 today. Our taxi driver started the rot by driving us most of the way to Maryport before admitting she had no clue of where she was or where we were going, making us an hour later getting started than expected, and then the two re-routings from the wall path that we had to make cost us more time. We actually reached the shop at 1645, just in time to watch them close the place. So we’re all sorry.

The day was OK, but very long at 17 miles, and we all suffered from the first day aching feet and shoulders that are inevitable when you kick off such unaccustomed physical activity. Tomorrow, hopefully, will be a little more relaxed, at 13 miles…we shall see. I’ll blog properly on the first two days tomorrow night.

Night all!

Audio Book of ‘Wounds of Honour’

Hi all,

A few of you have written to me previously asking when there’ll be an audiobook of ‘Wounds of Honour’ – and the usual answer is that I really don’t know, since this is down to Hodder & Stoughton as a commercial decision. It’s not as cut and dried as you might think from the reader’s perspective that the generation of this audio would make commercial sense, since it’s quite expensive (several days of a decent actor to do the voice, studio time, editing…it all adds up.

So, if you want to see the audiobook (or rather hear the audiobook!), then please do the following to encourage my lovely publisher to go this one extra mile on top of all the other things they do for the Empire series:

– write to carolyn.caughey@hodder.co.uk and ask when the audiobook will be coming out (and she’ll pass your requests on to the right people);

– and, if you use twitter, tweet at @hodderbooks with the same question.

The more of you that encourage Hodder to do this, the more likely it is to happen. Over to you!

p.s. There’ll be a late Roman uniform update very very soon now. My kit is ‘in the post’!

More Wall Walk kit news

With a month to go to the wall walk (if you’ve missed the previous posts, the quick update is this: Riches, Kane and Whitfield plan to walk Hadrian’s Wall in full Roman kit at the end of April in aid of Medecins Sans Frontieres and Combat Stress, please donate at www.charitygiving/benkane) I’m slowly getting the equipment together. My recent additions have been these:

2013-03-25 18.23.55

Exhibit A: A gorgeous pair of wool leg wrappings with brass hooks sewn into them, making it the work of a moment to wind them around the ankle, work the wrap up to just below the knee and them secure the wrapping with the hook. Like an army puttee from the last century, only better (smoother, longer and easier to fasten). I purchased them from Historic Enterprises in the US, a supplier I can only recommend in the most fulsome of terms. They’re strictly Saxon in terms of the way that HE sell them, but it’s known that the late Roman armies used them and I’m delighted to have another pair of such high quality.

Exhibit B:

2013-03-21 17.56.03 2013-03-20 20.59.44 2013-03-20 20.59.31

And this, a handmade shield made for me to order by the wonderful Amy Wallace at Comitatus (a re-enactment group specialising in late Roman). Note the hand beaten iron boss, the brilliantly thought out carrying system which uses leather straps held together with leather thongs to provide a wonderfully comfortable carry – this is important when it’ll be on my back most of the time! – and the authentic Tungrian colours. I got the colour scheme from the Notitia Dignitatum, a late 4th century list of the imperial chanceries and their military units. It’s a bit different from the shield I carried last time (to see the kit I wore in 2010’s assault on the wall, just go here…http://www.anthonyriches.com/charity-wall-walk-in-aid-of-help-for-heroes/)

Photo

So, all I need is the soft kit from Claire Marshall and I’ll be ready to get dressed up and show you a 21st century take on the late Roman warrior. Albeit a tubby little late Roman warrior old enough to be in the 4th century version of the Home Guard!

There’ll be more kit news soon, hopefully!