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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.

Book review: Among Thieves, by Douglas Hulick

I first came across Among Thieves when talking to my editor about the cover design for The Alchemist of Souls. Marc was thinking of commissioning Larry Rostant, who does a nice line in brooding historical dudes, and used the UK cover of Among Thieves (below) as an example of the look he was going for. Then I met Doug himself on Fantasy Faction, and he was such a nice guy that I couldn’t not read his book. I’m very glad I did, as it turned out to be right up my (dark, rat-infested) alley!

Among Thieves is the story of Drothe (no surname – he’s too cool for that!), a “Nose” or informant in the pay of one of the crimelords of Ildrecca, the capital of a Renaissance-like empire. There are hints of a wider world outside, but the action of the book is confined to the city itself, particularly the seedier quarters where a “shadow empire” of organised crime holds sway. Drothe works for an Upright Man, one of the lower-level bosses who have carved up the city between them but who are themselves pawns in a larger game played by the Gray Princes, near-legendary figures known only by epithets such as “Longreach” or “The Piper’s Son”. Hulick’s use of historical thieves’ cant, supplemented by invented slang, gives shape to what could otherwise be a bewildering array of forgers, fences and hired muscle, as Drothe investigates what seems to be a minor mystery (an undecipherable code found on a smuggler) and finds himself way in over his head.

This is certainly the most action-packed book I’ve read since The Swords of Albion – poor Drothe rarely escapes a chapter without another chase or fight (and a good deal of resultant pain and injury). The pace develops gently at first, allowing the reader time to get to know the world, but by the halfway mark the plot revelations and action set-pieces are coming thick and fast. The fight scenes in particular are very detailed – Hulick is an aficionado of renaissance swordsmanship – indeed almost a little too detailed and blow-by-blow, but this is first-person narrative so I’m willing to cut Drothe a little slack for being hyperaware in combat. I know from firsthand experience (not fighting, I must add) how time really does seem to slow down when your adrenaline spikes!

It’s not all swordplay, however; this is a world of magic too, from minor charms used by the criminal fraternity to spells of earth-shattering power forbidden to all but the emperor. Mostly, though, magic seems to cause more problems than it solves – an approach I heartily endorse. (On a purely personal level, I was interested to note the parallels between this book and my own, though I won’t go into detail here for fear of spoilers – you’ll just have to read them both ;) )

Overall, a cracking debut, and I’m really looking forward to reading the sequel, Sworn in Steel, which is due out later this year.

Book Review: Servant of the Underworld, by Aliette de Bodard

One of my favourite genres outside fantasy is historical crime, so a series that combines both is an irresistible lure to me. I was very glad, therefore, to come across de Bodard’s Obsidian and Blood series, set in the pre-Columbian Aztec Empire.

Disclaimer: Aliette and I share both a publisher and an agent. I take this, not so much as bias, as an indication that our tastes are similar and attract a similar audience. It should not surprise anyone, therefore, if I enjoyed this book!

Servant of the Underworld is de Bodard’s debut novel and the first in her series about Acatl, High Priest of the Dead in the city of Tenochtitlan. In it, Acatl finds himself embroiled in the case of a missing priestess when his brother, a knight of the prestigious Order of the Jaguar, is found in her room covered in blood. Acatl has always been jealous of his more successful brother, but concern for his sister-in-law and her children, as well as a dogged sense of honour, drive him to pursue the case despite his misgivings.

By choosing to set a novel in the Mexica Empire, de Bodard has a tough task on her hands. Most readers will probably have some basic ideas about the Aztecs, thanks to Indiana Jones and similar sources–cue mental images of step pyramids, crystal skulls, and of course human sacrifice!–but the details of daily life are less familiar and, thanks to a fragmentary archaeological record, incomplete in any case. Writing fiction in such a setting therefore requires a mixture of historical research and fantasy-style world-building, not to mention the ability to present this world in an easy-to-absorb fashion.

Take the matter of names, for starters. The language of the Mexica Empire, Nahuatl, is agglutinative, meaning it produces long polysyllabic words. Add to that a Spanish-derived orthography and you end up with names that are difficult for any English-speaking reader to parse and remember: Ceyaxochitl, Neutemoc, Quiyahuayo. Thankfully de Bodard is careful not to introduce too many characters at once, and her protagonist at least has a short name, but added to the unfamiliar culture it makes this a hard book to get into at first. Unfortunately there’s no real way around this unless one resorts to translations of names, and not all names translate into English in any case. I suspect this is one reason why non-Eurocentric real-world fantasy is relatively rare. An Anglophone writer creating a secondary world is free to invent names that are easily comprehensible to an English-speaking audience–Gandalf, Elric, Rincewind–whereas one writing about a real, historical culture has no such option.

The second difficulty de Bodard faces is the reality of the religion of this period, notorious for mass sacrifices (of humans as well as animals) which presents a real barrier to reader sympathy. Characters slit the throats of animals to power their spells, or speak casually of the deaths of men, women and children that are required to placate their gods. De Bodard softens this impact by never dwelling on the gory details–which is appropriate, since to her characters this is all very normal and unremarkable–but it is an ever-present shadow nonetheless.

What holds the story together and keeps the reader turning pages is the steady presence of the amateur detective, Acatl, who is himself a fish out of water: an unambitious parish priest promoted higher than he feels competent to deal with. Acatl’s humility and caution also help to balance the fact that he wields powerful magics; powers that could all too easily overwhelm the plot in the hands of a more assertive character (or a less skillful author!). Occasionally I felt that Acatl went a little too far in the direction of humility, and his constant fretting about his relationship with his brother became a little repetitive, but this was a minor detraction from the pleasure of spending time with him.

One advantage of writing a crime story in an unfamiliar setting is that the reader knows too little to be able to guess the ending, and yet the challenge to the writer is that the identity of the killer still has to make sense. I felt this was handled pretty well in Servant of the Underworld, with the escalation from an apparently simple murder to a major conspiracy at the highest levels of the Mexica world presented in digestible chunks. I confess that I’m not a terribly analytical reader, however, so it’s quite easy to slip clues past me under cover of an exciting storyline!

The book is not quite as long as its page count would lead one to believe. In true epic fantasy tradition there are several appendices, including a dramatis personae, an Aztec glossary, and an essay about the background to writing the book. This latter gives some interesting insights into de Bodard’s writing process, as well as explaining how much fact vs fiction has gone into the novel. The one thing I felt was lacking was a pronunciation guide for the names; I was driven to search the web for guides to Nahuatl, but finding a reliable one that adequately covered the names used in the book proved a difficult task.

Overall I enjoyed this book a great deal, and will definitely be reading the second volume, which is already waiting on my iPad!

Book Giveaway: June

May winners

Congratulations to Katherine A (Telling Lies for Fun and Profit) and Stephen Winter (The Poison Throne) – I’ll be in touch!

June giveaway

Write Away, by Elizabeth George

Elizabeth George is one of the most successful writers of crime fiction in the world. Her twelve novels have appeared on bestseller lists in the UK, USA and Australia, and several of them have been dramatised by BBC Television as the Inspector Lynley Mysteries. She has also written a collection of short stories and edited a crime anthology.

Now she shares this wealth of experience with would-be novelists, and with crime fiction fans. Drawing extensively on her own work, and that of other bestselling writers including Stephen King, Harper Lee, Dennis Lehane and many others, she illustrates her points about plotting, characterisation and technique with great clarity.

She also includes extracts from her own Journals – the diaries she keeps as writes each of her novels – and these give us an unprecedented insight into the creative mind, with all its highs and lows.

Bartimaeus: the Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud

This month’s fiction giveaway is a YA fantasy, the first volume of a trilogy.

Bartimaeus is a wisecracking Djinni (pronounced “Jinnee” we’re reliably informed) unlike no other. Summoned from some otherworldly place to do the bidding of a pipsqueak trainee magician called Nathanial, he sets about his given task reluctantly but with aplomb.

Stroud’s fantasy world is familiar, yet fascinatingly different. It’s almost Victorian London, yet Magicians hold overall power and inhabit parliament. The writing is captivating, the story intelligent and mesmerising. It’s difficult to imagine a more scintillating collection of characters and situations. Unmissable. (Amazon review)

Same rules as always – only UK/EU residents may enter, owing to postage. Leave a comment below, saying which book you’d like (or either, if so inclined!), before noon (UK time) on the first Saturday of July. Please use a valid email address in the comment form so I can contact you to get your snail-mail address if you win (don’t put either in your comments, for security reasons!).

Good luck!