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A Game of Bones: the finding of Richard III

Yesterday morning I was glued to my laptop, watching the press conference announcing the results of the research into the skeleton found in a Leicester car park last year. To cut a long story short, they confirmed that yes, the body is that of Richard III, beyond a reasonable doubt. I was immensely moved by the whole proceedings – after all, Richard is the most vilified king in English history, and this discovery goes a long way towards teasing out the truth from the Tudor propaganda.

But what is that truth? Well, for a start, it confirms that although Richard suffered from scoliosis (a twisted spine) which would have likely left him with one shoulder slightly higher than the other, he was not a “hunchback”, nor did he have a withered arm. So Shakespeare’s representation of his deformities is a gross exaggeration but not wholly without foundation. The remains and the facial reconstruction based on them even fit the portraits of Richard: a handsome young man with delicate, almost feminine hands despite his reputation as a great fighter. Indeed, far from making him appear the wicked king of legend, most portraits show a care-worn figure, perhaps troubled by chronic pain caused by his scoliosis.

Secondly, the Leicester investigation provides touching insights into the events of his death. The body bears several potentially fatal head-wounds, the most severe of which almost certainly killed him, but there are other, minor wounds that seem most likely to have been inflicted after death. Dagger cuts to the face, and stabs to the back and buttocks (areas that would have been protected by armour during the battle), all echo contemporary accounts which say that his body was stripped and tied across a packhorse for transport to Leicester.

None of this, of course, bears much relation to the real mystery associated with Richard: did he murder his nephews (or at least, cause them to be murdered)? I’m not one of those rabid Ricardians who believes he was practically a saint, viciously slandered by the Tudors – as we now know, there were grains of truth in the unflattering physical description presented by Shakespeare, so why not in his behaviour too?

My personal belief is that Richard fully intended to carry out his role of Lord Protector (as set out in his late brother’s will), but found himself thwarted at every turn by the queen and her ambitious relations. Richard was very popular in the North, his home ground, but he was little known in the South and may have been out of his depth at court. Remind you of a certain fictional character?

Rather than back down and see the Woodvilles rule through a child king, he declared the boys bastards (just as Ned Stark in A Game of Thrones tries to disinherit the Lannisters) and took the throne for himself. It turned out to be a disastrous decision, but at the time he might have felt it was the right thing for England, and the House of York. After all his own son, Edward, was still living at this point and his wife was young enough to bear more children.

So what about the princes in the Tower? To my mind there are two possibilities:

1. Richard realised that the princes would be too tempting a target for rebels, and so they had to die. Medieval kings were ruthless in protecting their interests, and perhaps Richard was no exception. Or maybe the king balked at such an act, just as Queen Elizabeth later hesitated over signing her cousin Mary’s death warrant, and it was one of his courtiers who acted in his name.

2. The princes were killed by a Tudor sympathiser looking to simultaneously blacken Richard’s reputation and clear Henry’s way to the throne. The boys’ deaths certainly made Henry Tudor’s job a lot easier. If they had been alive when he defeated Richard, he would have had to get rid of them himself – not a good start to his reign!

The problem is that both are plausible, so I don’t think we’ll ever know which is the truth. It wasn’t to Richard’s advantage to cover up their deaths so clumsily – if he had access to either the living princes or their bodies, why not put an end to all the speculation? – but then unlike a novel, real life doesn’t always make sense. At least his remains have been rescued from their ignominious fate and will now be buried with honour. Richard III was no better than many medieval kings, but I reckon he was no worse, either.

Eastercon 2012

This weekend I was at Olympus 2012, the 63rd annual convention of the British Science Fiction Association, affectionately known as Eastercon. Mostly I was there to promote my newly published novel The Alchemist of Souls, but thanks to guest of honour George R R Martin it turned into somewhat of a Game of Thrones fan-fest!

I arrived around midday on Good Friday to find the convention already well underway and my book selling like hot cakes on the Angry Robot stall. I was determined to take it easy, as I had a busy schedule on Saturday, so I spent the afternoon catching up with friends and drinking as little alcohol as I could get away with (well, I could hardly refuse the champagne that Lee from AR bought to toast my book publication, could I?). I took myself off to bed early and was up equally early next morning, ready to face the world. Literally.

Hmm, where shall I conquer next?
Hmm, where shall I conquer next?

First up was the biggest event of the weekend, for me at least: a panel called How Pseudo Do You Like Your Medieval? with none other than George R R Martin himself. I met him in the green room, and he proved to be very friendly and easy-going – the farthest from a primadonna author that you can imagine. The other panelists were Juliet E McKenna, whom I’ve known for several years, and Jacey Bedford, who carried herself with aplomb despite this being her first ever convention panel. We were ably moderated by Anne C Perry, better known as co-founder of Pornokitsch and the SFF literary award The Kitschies, and I soon forgot that we were being filmed and live-streamed over the internet.

After all that excitement it was time for a quick lunch before my reading. I’d managed to forget to sync a copy of my book to my iPad, so I had to borrow a paperback from the Angry Robot stall. Fortunately I did this before my panel, as they were rapidly selling out. In fact, by the time I went back down to the dealers’ room to do my signing, the only copy left was the one I had read from! A great result, although Lee is probably kicking himself for not taking twice as many copies…

The afternoon was enlivened by an extra session, not featured in the original programme – an hour with cast and crew members from A Game of Thrones. First up was a fight demonstration by Jo Playford, aided by Miltos Yerolemou (Syrio Forel) and volunteers from the audience. Of course it was all about how to make a fight look good whilst remaining safe – rather the opposite of what I try to achieve in my fiction! – but nonetheless interesting to watch (and Miltos was very funny, ad-libbing to the audience). After that was an interview with John Bradley-West, who plays Samwell Tarly. John hung around afterwards and I got to chat to him in the bar that evening. Well, I did say it was a bit of a fan-fest :)

The Radisson Edwardian - a typical convention hotel
The Radisson Edwardian - a typical convention hotel

My final duty of the day was a panel on world-building with Chris Wooding, Simon Spanton, Suzanne McLeod and Robert VS Redick. Thankfully that was in one of the smaller rooms, though still well-attended, and we had a good discussion comparing real-world and secondary world fantasy. The evening was a social whirl, meeting lots of new people as well as hanging out with big-name authors like Joe Abercrombie and the aforementioned Mr Martin, and by Sunday I was exhausted! On Sunday morning I just managed to get to my final panel, on fantasy in Shakespeare, then retired to my hotel room to nap and follow the convention on Twitter.

Monday morning was spent catching up with friends once more, and of course the obligatory photo perched on the Iron Throne (above), which had been set up in the hotel reception. My husband collected me around noon, and we headed home to Cambridge, via lunch at Carluccio’s in Chiswick. All in all, a fantastic if exhausting convention – I’m just glad that AltFiction, this coming weekend, is a much smaller event!

A final thanks to all my friends, of whom there are far too many to mention, though I will give special shout-outs to Mike Shevdon, Tom Pollock, Laura Lam and Kim Curran, all of whom have books out in the next twelve months. Here’s hoping you guys sell out too!

Winter is coming

Yesterday (Monday 26th) was the scheduled date for filming to start on the rest of Season One of “A Game of Thrones”, HBO’s adaptation of George R R Martin’s epic fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire”. To say that I’m excited is an understatement…

On a long walk to the post office yesterday, I was trying to work out why. I mean, I really enjoyed reading the first book, and I’m looking forward to the second, but I have other favourite fantasy series, including one that’s already been adapted for moving pictures – several of the Discworld novels have been thus treated. On the other hand none of my most favourite Discworld books have been adapted yet, which takes the edge off the anticipation. Also, Pratchett is an easy sell with wide audience appeal – adapting his work is almost a no-brainer.

When it comes to more serious fantasy, on the other hand, we have practically nothing. SF TV gets to be dark and gritty, at least at times, but fantasy TV is much more limited. For starters, it’s pretty much all urban fantasy: vampires, werewolves, and other monsters disrupting the lives of modern-day people. Secondly, for a generation brought up on the incomparable Joss Whedon, humour is almost obligatory. The only serious show that springs to mind is “True Blood” – which is of course a show about vampires. From HBO.

“A Game of Thrones” is neither urban nor humorous; it’s more like “The Tudors” or “The Borgias”, a sprawling epic of feuding dynasties set in a brutal medieval-style world. There are monsters out there, but they don’t make much of an appearance in the first book (and therefore the first season).

I think, therefore, that part of my excitement stems from the desire for non-fans of the genre to learn that there’s more to fantasy than vampires and boy wizards. Fantasy may not have the kudos of SF literature, which at its best can be the ultimate vehicle for a thought-provoking story, but it is much wider in range and style than public perception.

It’ll be interesting to see how the series is received by the TV-viewing public. Given HBO’s reputation for making top-quality drama, it has a good chance of success, even if no TV adaptation can ever satisfy the fan-boys. But one thing is now certain.

Winter is coming…

George R R Martin is not your bitch

To while away a train journey yesterday, I caught up on one of my favourite podcasts, “I Should Be Writing“, which just started running again after a hiatus in May. The first new episode was live from Balticon, and unlike the regular show was a tipsy, sweary and totally hilarious session (not the the regular show isn’t entertaining, just seldom laugh-out-loud funny). The highlight was a song by John Anealio, based on a quote by Neil Gaiman, which inspired this blog post.
The story’s a bit old now by internet standards, but a good story is worth retelling. That’s what we do, right?

A fan of George R R Martin wrote to Gaiman asking if Martin owed it to him, the reader, to finish his epic fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire”. Now I’ve only read Volume 1 so far, but I loved it and fully intend to buy the next book once I’ve finished my work-in-progress. Like the enquirer I do hope Martin finishes it in the not-too-distant future, though knowing how slowly he puts the books out, I am not hurrying.
However, as Neil Gaiman succinctly put it, “George R R Martin is not your bitch”. As writers, we don’t owe our audience anything – except thanks for buying our books. Readers have no idea how hard it is to write a novel. Well I have news for you guys; something that takes hours of your time to read can take weeks, months, even years to produce. It doesn’t matter how fast or slow one writes – in fact, writing slowly is much harder work, in my experience. No-one willing writes slowly if they can avoid it; it’s tough to maintain that momentum, the total involvement in the narrative that makes the story come alive. Slow writing is a sign of self-doubt, and we should be encouraging tardy authors, not whining that their books are late. Fan pressure is the side of success that I least look forward to.
So let’s hear it for Neil, George and all the other writers out there. There are a thousand struggling authors who would love you to buy (and read) their books. The wait for the next volume of ASOIAF will go much quicker if you find other books you like – and you might just discover a new favourite in the process.
And here for the record is Gaiman’s original post, which is of course far better written than my incoherent ramblings :)

A Game of Ebooks

Over the last few days I’ve been sorting out my writing den and shaking my head over the number of books and the inadequacy of my shelves to contain them all. Thus when it came to ordering a novel that I wanted to read – Gail Z Martin’s “The Summoner” – I decided to save space with an ebook. Should be easy enough, I thought…

OK, so finding an ebook edition of “The Summoner” was easy enough, but of course it’s always hard to buy just one book. I found myself looking at the very tempting package of George R R Martin’s “A Game of Thrones” and “A Clash of Kings” for the same price as one volume. How could I resist? I’ve been meaning to read “A Song of Ice and Fire” for years, mainly because it’s a modern classic of epic fantasy, so of course I clicked on the link.
That what when I hit the big problem. On mobipocket.com, GRRM’s books are not available outside the US. WTF??? I tried a couple of other vendors of the mobipocket format (the only DRM compatible with my iRex iLiad) and no joy there either. Eventually I found a single-volume edition of “A Game of Thrones” at Diesel eBooks, along with “The Summoner”, and was able to make my purchase. Yay!

As this recent blog post shows, Amazon seems to be trying to kill the mobipocket format in order to drive traffic to its Kindle-specific titles. This is just one practical reason why DRM is evil. It’s bad enough that hardware changes such as VCR->DVD have forced film-lovers to re-buy titles; now software changes are doing the same, with zero justification except to make money for online retail behemoths like Amazon. Once again they have given me a reason to continue boycotting their company.

Come the glorious day when I am published, I for one will be very careful about what digital rights I sign away…