The Trojans are back!

The new novel from seven talented members of the H-team is published today – and as ever, they’ve been weaving old stories together in new ways.

Cover of A Song of War

I wasn’t involved this time (deadlines!) and I can’t wait to find out what the team have done with the story we all ‘think’ we know.  Meanwhile, they’ve been kind enough to drop by and answer a few questions.  The first thing I wanted to know was:

What is it about the story of Troy that’s kept drawing people back to it for thousands of years?

Stephanie: The classicists out there are going to string me up for this, but I see the story of Troy as one of the world’s first soap operas, or at least an ancient version of “Game of Thrones,” sans dragons and white walkers. There’s adultery, gory battles, death, sneaky traps, and tons of other emotional plot twists. Not only that, but the story has been added to over the ages to give it even more tragic layers. It’s also easy for everyone to find a favorite character to root for: wily Odysseus, brave Hector, misunderstood Cassandra, noble Andromache, and so many others.

Vicky: I think Stephanie nailed it. It’s chock full of great stories! But also I think it continues to fascinate because of the surprising depth and complexity of emotions it explores throughout. One the one hand, there is empathy for the defeated–particularly for Hector, who emerges as truly noble–and, at the same time, frustration and exasperation with the devastation that results from Achilles’ unchecked rage. So it ends up being not “just” a battle story, but a moving exploration of humanity and of the costs of war.

Cover of Penguin edition of The Iliad

How did you share out the characters? Was there anyone everybody wanted, or nobody wanted?

Simon: As a general writer of Roman fiction and lover of all things Roman, even the mention of the Trojan war sets me off blathering about Virgil, Aeneas and the founding of Rome by their Trojan forebears. How could I refuse the opportunity to write the tale of a man that might be considered the progenitor of Rome? I think if there was one writer in this book destined for one character, that was me and Aeneas! Plus, he’s cool.

Stephanie: I think we were all in utter agreement that no one wanted to write from Paris’ perspective. He’s an utter punk that we all wanted to kick to the curb at one point or another. For me, Cassandra leapt off the page of possibilities, jumping up and down and shouting, “Pick me! Pick me!” My passion is retelling the stories of misunderstood or maligned women in history, and Cassandra fits the mold perfectly.

Kate: Yeah, pretty much everyone hated Paris. I still remember Libbie cackling like crazy when she realized she’d get to kill him off. Otherwise, we all had our own obsessions in this story; everyone beelined for their own favorite and no one had to arm-wrestle over who got Achilles/Odysseus/Cassandra. A big advantage to having a huge cast of characters, when there are multiple authors involved!

Russ: I was made up to get Agamemnon because everyone hates him and I thought it’d be fun to try and write a story from his point of view (no baddie THINKS they’re a baddie). Agamemnon’s inciting incident for me doesn’t even occur in Homer’s story, it’s (mainly) in Euripides – the sacrifice of his daughter. Whatever the circumstances, that single act will have changed Agamemnon utterly… so for me, that was key to why he acts as he does. In truth, it was a pretty hard story to write in all sorts of ways, but it was fascinating to delve into the black soul of the High King (he insisted on capital letters for his title).

So, definitely ‘Nul Points’ for Paris there. Were you ever tempted to change the story because you really didn’t like the way things went in the original?

Simon: I (and the rest of the crew too, in fact) went a long way to try and rationalise all the magic and myth of the tale, to try and write a realistic, grounded and plausible version of Homer’s tale, while retaining the epic Greekness of the whole thing. Aeneas’ story, for example, is full of ghosts and visits from gods and the dead, and I tried to tweak this to fit the real world. In deciding how mythical we wanted the tale to be, we essentially walked that fine line between history and fantasy. We came down on the historical side this time.

Vicky: Right. As Simon says, we didn’t want to get too mythical or magical–because then it drifts into fantasy–but at the same time we had to make our characters believe in magic and the gods. After all, it wasn’t “myth” to them!H Team logo

Kate: I really would have liked to save Hector, dammit. His death gets me every time.

Christian:  I really wanted to write Achilles.  Despite Achilles’ modern rep as a sort of useless lie-about or a mere sword swinger, I’ve always been fascinated by him, and more especially by his status as the ‘perfect gentleman’ and ‘best of the Greeks’ among such figures as Pericles and Socrates. And, apparently alone, I’ve never really liked Hector, who seems too dense to see how he is being used by lesser men…  So I was happy to get to kill him (ducks… sorry Kate).

Libbie: I would have liked to save Hector, too. I’d counter that he’s a troubled character (as is everybody in “A Song of War”) but he was one of the few men in the story who was a genuinely good person, and who cared about the outcome for others. Overall, I really liked the way we cooperated to represent our world as a diverse landscape, with characters from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations. In the West, we tend to think of heroes, or even of characters in general, as one particular type of person: white, young, and heterosexual. I really welcomed the opportunity to shake up the way people envision Troy and ancient Greece by showing a broader range of the cultural mix that existed in those places and at that time.

Russ: The thing with “The Iliad” is – so much is actually unsaid. It’s a vast tale with (literally) a cast of thousands … So you can weave stuff in that you want to without actually changing the “facts” as it were. We wanted to keep it real as Libbie and Si say above, but aside from the “no Gods” rule, there’s still massive scope in the story to look at fresh angles.

If you could ask Homer one thing, what would it be?

Kate: Why do so many names in the Iliad begin with P? Priam, Penthesilea, Polyxena, Patrocles, Phoenix, Polites, Paris, Penelope, Polydorus, Peleus, Philoctetes, Phthia . . .

Libbie: I agree! The P names have always jumped out at me. It makes me wonder if there’s some kind of linguistic significance that we don’t understand as 21st-century Americans and Brits, but that would have been very clear to the original audience for these stories.

Vicky: I’d want to know all the different versions of the story that had been sung over time and why he wrote down these particular ones.

Christian:  I’m with Vicky. There were dozens of versions of these stories in the Ancient World; I know at least one in which both Achilles and Hector are cowards; one of the original ‘big names’ was Memnon, Prince of Aetheiopia… an African hero at Troy!  Anyway, so many questions about why Homer (s) chose this particular thread…  My other question (which really burns for me!) is ‘Where did you get the ‘Catalogue of Ships’  The Ship list, in Book 2, is probably much more ancient than the rest, and may contain evidence of the actual Bronze Age world… as opposed to much of the rest, which is 8th and 7th c. Iron Age did it survive?  Please tell us, Homer🙂

Russ: Was your wife really called Marge? It’s a question that has bothered classicists for decades and they need an answer.

If Homer (or Marge) would like to respond, or if anyone has a good word to say for Paris, there’s plenty of room for comments below. Meanwhile, big thanks to the team for taking the time to join me and since it’s publication day TODAY,  I’m off to check the Kindle and get reading!

If you haven’t already, here are some of the places where you can find A SONG OF WAR:

Amazon UK

Amazon USA



Barnes and Noble

Saturday, final stop on the Blog Tour – For Winter Nights

Many thanks to For Winter Nights, the final host on the Blog Tour!

If you haven’t yet discovered this excellent book blog, now is a good time to nip across there – not only for the chance to win a copy of Vita Brevis, but also to browse a splendid collection of reviews and articles, and to get some ideas for good books to fill those long winter evenings.

In case anyone wants to catch up, here’s the list of people who’ve been kind enough to host the tour over the past week. My thanks to all of them, and also to the fine folk of Bloomsbury UK (you know who you are!) who did all the legwork making the arrangements.

Blog tour schedule


Thursday on the blog tour – Roma Nova

Blog tour day 6, and thanks to the splendid Alison Morton for the invitation to join her love-me*-love-my-character series for a chat about Ruso. (*this part, as an Italian driver once said to my husband when discussing traffic lights, is ‘merely a suggestion’.)
Alison is the creator not only of thrillers but of a whole world, Roma Nova, in which Rome never fell but remains a modern European state – and believe me, you wouldn’t want to mess with it.

Competition fever!

There’s competition fever here at Downie Towers, with the caption competition running till the end of July, plus two more chances to win goodies. Apologies to those who’ve heard this all before, but in case you haven’t…

First, a chance to stock up your summer reading bag with books of your choice, or to win one of the splendid titles on offer:

Graphic showing titles on offer for Summer of History draw

Would you rather visit ancient Greece, or go to Tang Dynasty China? Meet the Jeffersons at Monticello, or travel to Paris in the 1920’s?  How about Ireland, or Alcatraz? To help you choose, there are links to all the authors and their books below.

Stephanie Dray, Laura Kamoie, Vicky Alvear ShecterCatherine Lloyd, Elisabeth Storrs, David Blixt, Sophie Perinot, Ruth Downie, Kate Quinn, Weina Randel, Jennifer Robson, Donna Russo Morin, Eliza Knight, Heather Webb, Allison Pataki, Stephanie Thornton, Kristina McMorris, Greer MaCallister, and Sarah McCoy

Books can be sent to winners in any country within reach of The Book Depository, which is all of these, so pretty much everyone can enter. Do it by 1 August!

Secondly, as of this moment there’s still time for US readers to enter the Goodreads giveaway draw for one of five free copies of VITA BREVIS. Go for it by 28 July!

Vita Brevis goodreads


“What’s new & old & read all over?”

Judith Starkston takes a good look at the current state of fiction set in the ancient world for the latest edition of Historical Novels Review. This is technically a members-only publication but the many writers who chipped in with our opinions are allowed to leap the fence and go public!

As writing is usually a solitary occupation I was fascinated to see what the other contributors thought. Hopefully you will be too – just click the slightly wobbly photo of the magazine cover below (sorry) to take a look.

Many thanks to Judith, the HNR team and all my fellow-contributors.

HNR May 2016


Badly dressed for the Bard

Big thanks to Fiona and the staff at the lovely Walter Henry’s bookshop in Bideford, who marked the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death on Saturday with tea and cake and fine hospitality. The collective noun for a gathering of  local readers, writers and historians should probably be ‘a gossip’ but we fell respectfully silent to listen to a sonnet by the late Bard, read by his living namesake, writer Liz Shakespeare.

Peter Christie explained why he believes Shakespeare came to Bideford: we know (I didn’t, but I do now) that the King’s Company came all the way to Barnstaple to flee the plague in 1605, so having travelled that far, surely they would travel down the road and play the only other big town in the area? Whose plays were being watched in contemporary accounts of money being ‘wasted’ on the theatre?

Finally Janet Braund Few entertained us with a demonstration of Elizabethan costume and manners. Something we clearly needed, since several of the wenches present had turned up wearing men’s breeches and in a further assault upon modesty, not one of the married ladies present had her head covered.  We had all, as the saying goes, let our hair down.

Rather than shock any sensitive readers with photographs of this scandalous attire, here is a picture of a bag.

Bag with pic of Shakespeare and "The Bard is my Bag" printed on it.

And here’s the book I bought to go inside it, recommended to me by children’s author and farmer (so she should know),   Victoria Eveleigh.




An honour!

Thrilled to hear that TABULA RASA is included on Nancy Pearl’s list of reads for 2015!  You can see the full list of recommendations here. Also, warm congratulations to Mick Herron, another British crime writer who’s doubly honoured by having TWO of his books on the list – a real achievement!

All this is rather nicely timed as it coincides with the launch of the paperback edition in the UK today, under its smart new cover:

TABULA RASA paperback cover

Suppose a part of Ancient Rome survived?

Portrait of Alison MortonFriends who followed the Blog Hop a couple of years ago will have met my writing friend Alison Morton. Alison’s created a gripping alternative thriller world, where her 21st century Praetorian heroines survive kidnapping, betrayal and a vicious nemesis while using their Roman toughness and determination to save their beloved country. Unfortunately, their love lives don’t run as smoothly. If you haven’t visited Roma Nova, now is a good time to start because…

Picture of Nova Roma box set…for a limited time only, there’s an e-books box set available. It contains the first three books ­­– over 1,000 pages of action adventure and alternative historical thrills in three novels which have 140 five star reviews on Amazon between them.

INCEPTIO – the beginning: New Yorker Karen Brown is thrown into a new life in mysterious Roma Nova and fights to stay alive with a killer hunting her… “Breathtaking action, suspense, political intrigue” – Russell Whitfield “Grips like a vice.  Excellent pace, great dialogue and concept.” – Adrian Magson

PERFIDITAS – betrayal: Six years on, where betrayal and rebellion are in the air, threatening to topple Roma Nova and ruin Carina’s life. “Sassy, intriguing, page-turning … Roma Nova is a fascinating, exotic world” – Simon Scarrow

SUCCESSIO – the next generation: A mistake from the past threatens to destroy Roma Nova’s next generation. “I thoroughly enjoyed this classy thriller, the third in Morton’s epic series set in Roma Nova.”
– Caroline Sanderson in The Bookseller.  Historical Novel Society indie Editor’s Choice Autumn 2014

The box set is now available at a special price of $5.99 on Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, and Nook

Grab it while you can!

The best of 2014…

I’m delighted and honoured to find that Tabula Rasa has snuck into the Best Books of 2014 list on Declan Burke’s “Crime Always Pays” blog. It’s alongside several books that I’ve been meaning to read, and some that I didn’t know I wanted to read, but now do.

Clearly there’s going to be a lot of crime (hopefully, most of it fictional) happening on the Downie Towers sofa in 2015.