My Dark Age adventure, Shieldwall: Barbarians! is Young Adult, meaning, in this case, Sharpe or Conan but without the shagging, and with slightly more moral compass - really you can read it as being "in the tradition of" Harold Lamb and the Pulpmeisters of Yore and ignore the YA tag. When I wrote it, I had in my head "Robert E Howard does Rosemary Sutcliff (but not that way (though they would have made a lovely couple))".
It's also an old-school young officer story, albeit with a barbarian prince as the protagonist, and it's set in the Dark Ages during Attila's invasion of Europe.
All this seemed like a good idea at the time.
It all started with, "Daddy, how did the Roman Empire fall?"
My son "Kurtzhau" must have been 7 at the time. He was going through a Roman phase and had discovered Rome Total War... a game which certainly improved his reading skills and granted him a precocious knowledge of Ancient Geography. (It also turned out to be a hell of an educational tool. "Daddy, I took too many cities at one go then my empire collapsed."/"That's called Strategic Overstretch, son.")
So I trotted out the answer I'd learned at university: one or more of the following killed the empire-- Religion. Disease. De-Romanisation of the army. Barbarians. Economics. Tax dodging by the rich.
"Yes, but how. What exactly happened?"
So like a good parent, I dug out my old history books, bought some new ones. Found out what actually happened.
Holy Shit! It's epic stuff.
True, the broad sweep is pretty gradual. It doesn't really fall so much as... well it's like one of those psychology tests: is it a bearded lady or a hot girl in a fur coat?
Faced with a failing population and endemic tax dodging by the rich, the Romans pad out their Western empire with semi-independent barbarian settlements. The barbarians probably always think of themselves as separate kingdoms but acknowledge the Emperor as overlord and to an extent pose at being Roman. Over the years, that acknowledgment becomes more nominal and the pose less earnest. Then King Clovis I sneezes and the Roman cobwebs blow away to reveal Early Medieval Europe.
However, the devil is in the details. Rome burns. Two emperors and a great general die by related violence. There's Attila's invasion, the French Helm's Deep - the First Siege of Orleans - where I put my hero - and Chalons (I can never spell Catalaunian Fields), a battle so apocalyptic it sounds suspiciously like Ragnarok.
Jordanes, writing a generation after the event, has 100,000 dead on the field after the clash. That's obviously an exaggeration, basically chronicler speak for "Lots". However, if you assume an error by a factor of ten, then a typical 10% casualty rate, you get perhaps 50,000 a side, plausible given the armies involved (remember, "novelist", so plausible is my benchmark), pretty much Waterloo but with cold steel.
Just like at Waterloo, when the sun came up on the second day, nobody could move for exhaustion and shock. In this case there was still fighting to be done, but Attila slipped away - or did Count Aetius let him? - in order to invade Italy, retreat, then die under suspicious circumstances.
Wow wow wow wow! I had forgotten how very cool this all was (as long as you didn't have to live through it.)
This, plus listening to a lot of Viking Metal, resulted in Shieldwall.
I'd already been tinkering with the idea of writing a YA story, something for Ranger's Apprentice fans to move on to.
Commercially, the idea was, "They're going to read Bernard Cornwell when they are older; let's take some money off them now." However, my main motivation was wanting to write something my son could read - the magnum opus my agent was shopping owed too much to the War of the Powers (Am I the only person who remembers that series?). I also wanted to follow in the footsteps of Ronald Welch, the YA writer I read when I was a kid.
Welch was a WWII veteran turned grammar school teacher. He wrote what we would now call YA books about young officers finding their place, and he did it in just about every major conflict involving English combatants from the Horns of Hattin, through Marlborough's campaigns, to his chronologically last book, Tank Commander, which is an utterly awesome tale of World War One, culminating in the Battle of Cambrai, the first modern tank assault.
We're not talking trash here. Each book was well researched, the writing is good - he even won a Carnegie Medal for Knight Crusader, which puts him in the same ballpark as Rosemary Sutcliff. As far as I can see, his star faded after his death, not because of his quality as a writer, but because he became unfashionable:
- His books simply have boy cooties. They are about young men learning leadership and responsibility while being shot at and shooting back without qualms... doing their job in adverse circumstances.
- He's not an anti-imperialist. I don't think he's pro-imperialist either. He just tells things as they were with people accepting the ethos of the time. His characters generally show matter-of-fact respect for other cultures, but don't question their own right to be in Palestine or India or wherever, or question very much at all.
- He's not anti-war. His fight scenes also go all the way up to 11 on the Conan Scale. I don't think he likes war, but - having fought in WWII - he sees it as necessary, and the experience itself as worthy of writing about.
This last, bears further examination.
Modern war books aimed at younger people tend towards:
OMG my best friend just got killed. Look at that dying horse. War is Hell. At least I and my friends will (drum roll) Preserve Our Humanity.
Ronald Welch, who pulls absolutely no punches, by the way, is more:
OMG my best friend just got killed. You there, put that dying horse out if its misery. War is Hell. Watch the left flanks chaps and some of us will get to live through it. I said WATCH THE DAMNED LEFT FLANK!!
It's all about taking responsibility, keeping presence of mind, in just about the most hostile human environment.
Very few young readers will grow up to be soldiers. Many of them, however, will face crappy situations. At work when a project implodes. Socially when people turn on them. In a family when a child is very sick, or when a marriage breaks down or turns abusive...
In all those circumstances, there are points neither for maintaining a personal moral hygiene nor for being sensitive. If everybody is going to get through this thing, somebody has to watch the left flank. That person may well be you.
And that's the kind of book I wanted to write.
I wrote it for boys because I have a son, and, frankly, a rampaging early Dark Age warband more easily lends itself to male rather than female agency. (This isn't a zero sum game; I'm planning something for my daughter with a female protagonist. I'm also tinkering with an SF ensemble piece with viewpoint characters who just happen to be diverse in terms of gender, orientation and romantic arrangements. However, I only have one pair of hands to type with.)
I was also interested in exploring the consequences of the - call it - "rugby club masculinity" I myself flinched from as a youth. For this reason, I had Hengest, my protagonist, partly raised in a Roman household as a hostage. A bit like Hiccup in How to Train Your Dragon, the jocks-with-spears lifestyle does not come naturally to Hiccup. He has to learn to negotiate the monkey games and somehow save his warband from terminal testosterone poisoning. (Unlike Hiccup, Hengest racks up quite a high personal body count while he does this.)
The setting posed certain challenges to a writer of a broadly liberal mentality.
I dealt with the issue of ethnicity as a marker for allegiance by being both factual and matter of fact about it. The real facts are, contrary to earlier scholarship, the different tribes weren't actually ethnically homogenous, rather they included whoever they picked up. This was especially true for Attila's army, really a mobile multi-cultural empire. And it was easy to be matter of fact, since nobody in the early Dark Ages really looks particularly good from the comfort of a modern coffee shop.
Gender was harder since this was deliberately a story set in a man's world. I made sure it was clear that manly men doing manly stuff wasn't the only show in town. The female characters have their own agendas and agency, just not usually on screen. Where the paths do cross... well that would be a spoiler.
Violence? I believe that the right kind of violence does solve some problems (take a look at the map of Europe). And, I enjoy both reading and writing good fight scenes. However I think it's important that violence should have consequences... not so much handwringing Aesops as physical attrition, unpleasant ends, and personal tragedy.
So I had great fun writing the thing, took Hengest all the way to holding the breach at Orleans (several sequels planned if it sells) and sent it off to my agent.
He liked it and sent it on to publishers.
We are talking a pinball machine level of bounciness here.
My book rattled around without finding a home. In the course of this, it got what I hope will be the most frustrating rejection email of my career: An editor loved it, thought it was a "classic", spent a page and a half discussing its virtues, then passed on it because they were "only comfortable marketing Fantasy".
But the editor had every right not to gamble on the book if their gut told them not. Hence, with considerably less to lose - with a cover by Hugh Hancock - I put the book out myself.
It's not the only book like it. On Kurtzhau's Kindle you'll find Bradford's Young Samurai, Scarrow's Gladiator and there are battered copies of Jim Eldridge's excellent Black Ops books on his shelves. What other YA military/action adventures have you come across? What did you grow up reading?
In hindsight, I should have set my book in Fantasy Land with a dark lord and orcs. I would have, except the AD450s are so damned cool! To visit this war-torn era yourself from the safety of your own e-reader -- shameless plug! -- click through and buy Shieldwall: Barbarians! (UK, Amazon-free Epub).
Well that's my stint over. It's been great fun, and I've enjoyed the comments. I'm a bit hung over and bruised -- last night was German Longsword Fight Night at my HEMA club -- but I'll stick around to join in the cut and thrust of debate. If you want more of the same, find me at my regular spot over at Black Gate Magazine, at my own site www.mharoldpage.com, or on twitter.