It ends here.

cybsfcfwiaak5qjWhere have I been…? Well, writing another bloody book, as it turns out.

The Hunter of Sherwood trilogy – AKA the Guy of Gisburne trilogy – comes to an end in February, when the final book, Hood, is published by Abaddon (9 Feb for Kindle, 28 Feb for the paperback). Publicity for this is now in full swing, so expect some interviews and guest blogs over the coming weeks.

You can pre-order the Kindle version on Amazon here, or the paperback version here.

It’s grim. It’s bloody. And Gisburne’s pyromaniac tendencies are once again to the fore.

Here’s the blurb:

The vendetta with Robin Hood has cost too much: blood shed, lives lost, friendships severed. Guy of Gisburne, knight and agent of Prince John, has had enough, and wishes to enjoy a little quiet on his own land. But Hood grows ever more troublesome, and if the barons of the North will not convince Guy to resume the hunt – nor even the rightful King, Richard the Lionheart, returned from long imprisonment – then perhaps the simple plea of a missing daughter’s father, and a promise to restore a good man’s name, will.

Hood has gathered an army – among them the insidious Took, the giant John Lyttel, the cutthroat Will the Scarlet, the brilliant but bitter Alan O’Doyle. Guy must now recruit an army of his own, calling upon some familiar old friends – and one all-too-familiar old enemy…

The stage is set: Sherwood, long a home to both men. The final confrontation begins…

The Red Hand deleted scenes – free ebook download

image001“Too much! Too much!”

That’s what my editor had said upon receipt of the manuscript of The Red Hand, whilst banging his head repeatedly on the desk.

So, I did the cutting thing – to the book, that is, not him. The end result has now been striding about the world since January, and, I’m happy to say, nabbing four and five star reviews.

But then there were the leftovers. Too good to waste. So, to mark the anniversary of Good King John’s darkest hour I cooked them up into a tasty ebook, which you can have right now, free.

To open and start reading right away, or to download and keep, just click on:

The Red Hand deleted scenes.pdf

God bless King John, and the Devil take the Lionheart!

They hate Muslims, don’t they?

I don’t usually respond to reviews. To be honest, I don’t really feel it’s any of my business. I’ve done my bit. The book is living its own life out there for good or ill. If there are any stupid slip-ups in it, chances are I know about them already and will nod my head in sheepish agreement with anyone who points them out. If they just don’t like it, well that’s fine too. You can’t please everyone. And you shouldn’t try. If you do, you end up ironing out the wrinkles. Wrinkles are character, and character is what those select few who really, really like it are really, really liking.

It’s also a slippery slope for a writer. Getting into discussions about the ideas, themes or characters in your book? That’s fine. But trying to argue why people should think it’s good? It’s just wrong. And futile. And not at all pretty.

An occasion involving Jeffrey Archer springs to mind. I vividly recall the sense of cringing horror that accompanied it – it makes me shudder even now. There’s the writer, puffed up with indignation and entitlement, angrily listing on his fingers all the reasons why he should be better appreciated. And all around, people falling silent in growing embarrassment, like the ever-widening circle of onlookers about the stamping, red-faced kid who just threw an epic tantrum in the supermarket.

So, of course, responding to a review is exactly what I am about to do. But there’s method in this madness. I hope.

The piece in question is Katie Richards’ assessment of The Red Hand in the Portland Book Review. It’s a short review, and in many ways pretty even-handed. It has both positive and negative points, and while the reviewer clearly wasn’t enamoured of it, it ends with an acknowledgment that some people may be. Can’t really argue with that.

But then, in the closing paragraph, there’s the bit that made me wince:

“Venables also seems to be tripped up by his modern urge to be accepting and multi-cultural, opening the book with Guy’s friendship with an Islamic knight, which breaks with the continuity of the time in which the story takes place.”

What’s different about this is not that it’s saying the prose is dull or the characters thin. It’s saying that in this period Christians and Muslims could not, would not, be friends, and that therefore the facts are wrong. As you may imagine, such things matter to me – but fortunately, they can also be put to the test.

First things first. It’s certainly true that some elements of the story and characters are “modern”. I would argue – and have argued elsewhere – that this is not only desirable, but inevitable. I’m not medieval and nor are my readers. Whilst one of the primary aims is to evoke the period – to paint a picture of those times that seems tangible and convincing, and perhaps even reveals some surprising truths about them – as participants in a story we also want something that we can relate to. To that end, many things undergo some translation into modern terms.

The most significant of these is so big that it affects almost every word in the book, yet we are so blind to it it passes without comment. The language. Virtually none of the words spoken by these characters are true to the times – an issue I have already discussed at length in a blog for Abaddon on historical fiction. For the most part, they would have spoken in one of two languages (or both): Anglo-Norman, or early Middle English. While we have words in common with each, they are modes of speech that are substantially different from our own, to the point of incomprehensibility.

In the book, all action, descriptions and dialogue are naturally rendered in modern English, and we are mostly unaware that there may even different languages operating. Think of a film set during World War II in which both the British and German sides speak English amongst themselves. We understand the Germans are meant to be speaking German, but readily accept the compromise. It’s what makes the work accessible, and the drama possible.

A good translation doesn’t just substitute one set of words for another, however. Sometimes the idiom needs to be translated into modern terms too. So, we have characters using phrases, puns and metaphors that would not have been in use at the time, but whose sense is exactly right for conveying the desired meaning to a modern audience. In the Abaddon blog, I use the example of Hood, trying to tempt Gisburne into a collaboration by saying: “We’d be the talk of the town!”. The words and the idiom are all wrong for a 12th century man, but the sense it conveys to modern readers is absolutely right. And there is nothing to offend, in terms of serious anachronism (one of my rules, such as they are); they had talk, they had towns, and they certainly had the notion of someone becoming notorious and the subject of gossip.

Other forces come into play here. Many of my influences are modern – the majority of them from cinema, as some readers may have spotted. I hope they do. There’s fun in that. Some may not want that from their historical fiction, but that’s OK too. I just don’t want to pretend to be what I’m not. And, while I would hope that the Gisburne novels present the period with all its ugliness, bigotry and cruelty intact – not because we should like them, but because it would be wrong to leave them out – I make no apology for gravitating towards characters of a more fair-minded and liberal bent. These are the characters I prefer to identify with. The idea that no such characters existed in those times is entirely false, although it is certainly the case that being such a character in the medieval world was a far harder struggle than it would be now. Such tensions also make for a good story.

This brings me to the key point: the friendship between an English knight and an Arab which, we are told, is a product of modern multiculturalism and out of kilter with the medieval reality.

The episode in question takes place in Jerusalem, now under Saladin’s control following the failure of the Third Crusade. Gisburne – who had briefly lived in the Christian-held city in the 1180s – encounters an old friend from those days: an Arab named Asif al-Din ibn Salah. Asif is not actually a knight, but a skilled fighter who knows the city inside out and who helped keep the peace in the Muslim quarter during Christian rule. Now, he finds himself working as an agent of Saladin – in effect, Gisburne’s opposite number. They are bound not only by friendship, but by mutual respect, and an understanding of what the other does. On this occasion, it transpires they also have a common enemy.

Such a friendship may well sound unlikely, given the general historical backdrop. But it shouldn’t.

If we know only one thing about the period in which the Robin Hood stories are traditionally set, it is that Richard the Lionheart was on Crusade – battling his way across the Holy Land at the head of a Christian army, intent in liberating Jerusalem. The fall of that city to Saladin’s forces in 1187, following the disastrous battle of Hattin – the 9/11 of its age – had come as a shattering blow to Christendom. For most of the century prior this, Jerusalem had been in Christian hands, and it had been a hard-won prize. When the First Crusade had taken it in the name of Christ in 1099, the religious zeal of the captors had been such that it ended in the wholesale slaughter of every Muslim they found – man, woman and child. The streets, it was said, literally ran with blood.

All this paints a picture of bitter conflict, in which Christians and Muslims seem to be bent on each other’s annihilation – a scenario that has curious resonance with the modern world.

But, as with the modern world, the reality is far more complex. For the Crusaders coming from Europe, many of whom may never have left their own countries before, it would have been easy to hate this unseen enemy in a faraway land. But other Christians were already there. They had been living in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the Holy Land for a hundred years, and calling it home.

Following the bloody conquest of Jerusalem in 1099, Muslims had been banned from living the Holy City. As time went by, however, tensions dissipated, and by the 1140s, under the more enlightened rule of King Fulk and his queen, Melisende (whose name I borrowed for a key female character), the ban was lifted altogether.

Simon Sebag Montefiore, in his epic biography of Jerusalem, relates how in 1140, Unur, the Atabeg of Damascus visited Jerusalem, accompanied by the Muslim writer Usamah bin Munqidh, who recorded all he saw (2012, p.267).

It is far from the picture of antagonism and hatred we might expect to find. On a visit to the Dome of the Rock, Usamah himself “walked over to pray in the Temple of Solomon, formerly al-Aqsa, [and was] welcomed by his Templar friends, even though he was openly reciting ‘Allahu Akhbar’…” (2012, p.274). In the moments that followed, Usamah was accosted by an angry Christian, who told him he was praying wrong. The Templars dragged the man off, apologised to Usamah for the intrusion, and informed him the man was a newcomer from the Frankish lands, ignorant of their ways. Clearly, those ways included a perhaps surprising level of tolerance and respect for Muslims.

This is not an isolated incident, nor was such tolerance reserved for nobility. Muslim peasants came into town daily to sell fruit in the city. The Hospitallers – an order of Christian knights second only to their more famous brothers the Templars – nursed Muslims and Jews alongside Christians in their hospital “and even had a kosher/halal kitchen so they could eat meat” (2012, p.271). Of the Crusader inhabitants themselves, some now spoke Arabic, lived in Arab-style houses that they had built for themselves and even ate Arab food. Many had also adopted Arab styles of dress, which were better suited to the climate. When, in 1174, Baldwin IV – the famous “leper king” – became ruler of Jerusalem, it was an Arab doctor who oversaw his treatment (2012, p.290).

By the time of Gisburne’s stay in Jerusalem, then, it had indeed become a multicultural city – the meeting place of three great religions, a centre of trade, a melting pot of cultures and a focal point for pilgrims from around the world. It was not without its tensions, of course. But even as these were mounting during the 1180s, with the rise of Saladin, life went on. One of the world’s leading historians of the Crusades, Thomas Asbridge, tells us that “a pulsing current of commerce continued unabated throughout these years, connecting the two worlds of Christendom and Islam” (2012, p.331).

Given this reality, friendships between Christians and Muslims were not only possible, but inevitable. They were a fact of life in the city where cross-cultural interactions – over food, over trade, over almost anything – happened on a daily basis, and one that made the looming conflict all the more tragic.

Often, the research that goes into a novel is not obvious. To some extent, it shouldn’t be – it should just tell a cracking story that evokes a real sense of time and place. And it varies. Some authors research down to the finest detail. Others make a lot of it up. Most, like me, are somewhere in between. The history we learned at school is so often about generalities – the big achievements, the big changes, the big battles. A novel, however, is about specifics, and sometimes those specifics may seem at odds with what is “supposed” to be happening. But that’s life. Overall, my experience is that if there is something surprising or seemingly anomalous in a historical novel – one that challenges our assumptions – it has probably been put there for a good reason.

A historical novel is a window onto a lost world – at its best, a means of bringing it vividly to life. Sometimes, it is not what we expected or assumed. While we may sometimes fall into the trap of considering the past an alien world, such novels have the potential to remind us that our ancestors were every bit as complex, creative, intelligent, loving, eccentric and flawed as we are.

This, to me, is what good historical fiction can do – get the reader to look beneath the surface of places and periods, and find out the specifics of what really made them tick. But for that to happen, you do have to entertain the possibility – however remote – that the author may actually be right.

Sources cited
Asbridge, T. (2012) The Crusades: the War for the Holy Land. London: Simon & Schuster
Montefiore, S. S. (2012) Jerusalem: The Biography. London: Phoenix

“A gorgeous black voltage arc…”

TheVikingDeadGermanVersionThe wonderful thing about The Viking Dead having been translated into German (thanks to Michael Preissl of Voodoo Press) is that all of a sudden, new reviews are popping up. The great disadvantage for me is that, despite my O-level German, I have almost no idea what they’re saying.

Thank God, then, for the technological miracle that is Google translate. Here’s what Carmen Weinand of Horror and More had to say, according to Google’s totally awesome translation engine:

The Viking Dead by Toby Venables, not to be confused with The Walking Dead (although I like the pun), is a horror tome of a special kind.

Did you get the pun? Me neither. But never mind, let’s move on…

The author was previously not known to me, but Michael Preissls (Voodoo Press) tireless search for exceptional fabric, it is thanks to them that this has now changed. And this extraordinary novel is definitely.

This is good stuff – I strive to be definitely with all my fabric.

If you feel slain as a reader in the first moment of numerous Scandinavian name literally, you put a little later already irretrievably stuck in a dark, sinister atmosphere. Brave Viking, horrible creatures, and finally a young lad who will say goodbye forever from his childhood, make this story into an immersive experience.”

I’m liking this more and more. Go on…

“Linguistically, we find ourselves naturally in some old-fashioned climes again, but harms the reading fun in any way. On The Contrary! Toby Venables it goes first to a little quieter, but then builds a gorgeous black voltage arc that its full force finally proposes to the reader in a bloody showdown for the ears. So I like that. You can feel it coming. And when it comes, it brings a out of the shoes.”

OK, that’s it. Reviews will never, ever get better than this. But it’s not over yet.

“The Viking Dead shows the reader that the Vikings not only drink mead and battered helmets bulge. THIS Vikings have other problems. Toby Venables knows the truth about the blood on their weapons. Okay, that’s not entirely true. I am now also inaugurated – and have not looked back. I would be happy to recommend this tome on.”

So, there you have it. A gorgeous black voltage arc. Bulging battered helmets. And shoes.

Thanks to Carmen for what was once, I firmly believe, a wonderful review – and to dear Google, for translating it into… whatever that is. On the positive side, I don’t think Skynet’s quite ready to take over just yet.

The Name of Galfrid’s Horse

Guy of GisbourneRecently, the nice people at Abaddon posted some deleted scenes for my novel The Red Hand (see links on these blogs). Today, for World Book Day I’m posting another that is exclusive to my own blog. It’s short, it’s sweet (I think so, anyway) and it is comedy gold. OK, maybe bronze… (Pragmatic note: as with the previous deleted scenes, if you have the novel and wish to know where this bit fits, the date will tell you exactly where to stick it.) Enjoy.

 

The road to Berughby – 15 May, 1193

Gisburne felt guilty. He hated feeling guilty. Maybe he should’ve let Galfrid in on the plan from the start. It had been a simple omission at first; then it became a joke. His squire always knew everything – it amused Gisburne to make him guess. But now, it had stopped being funny.

Gisburne decided it might be a good thing to at least try to make conversation. He turned and looked Galfrid’s palfrey up and down – a fine chestnut mare with a white flash upon her head. She could amble as smoothly as any horse he had ever seen.

“So,” he said, “how’s this new nag of yours working out?”

“Good,” said Galfrid, matter-of-factly.

“Good,” Gisburne nodded. “And her temperament?”

“Fine,” said Galfrid.

“Fine?”

“Very fine.”

Gisburne nodded slowly. Clearly Galfrid was not going to make it easy for him. Gisburne wasn’t exactly an adept at small talk, either – usually, they travelled hard, and conversation was sparse, except when it was urgent, and to the point. Or when Galfrid was honing his sarcasm. “Well then…” continued Gisburne. “Given her a name yet?”

“I have.”

Gisburne waited patiently for the rest of the answer. It never came. He sighed. “And may we know what it is?” A note of irritation was entering his voice now. They had been travelling less than half an hour, and already the road to London looked to be getting longer. “Fauvel?” he ventured. Galfrid shook his head. “Sorel? Star, perhaps?”

Galfrid cocked his head and raised his eyebrows as if to say: Good guess – but no…

“Something more elaborate then?” Gisburne tried to think of the least appropriate name for this docile plodder. “Thunder?” He would provoke Galfrid into an answer, one way or another. “No, I know – Warlord! I beg your pardon – Warlady…

“Mare,” said Galfrid, bringing the speculation to an end.

Gisburne turned and looked him squarely in the eye. The squire stared straight ahead with an impenetrably inscrutable expression. “Mare?” said Gisburne.

“Yes.”

“So, she’s a mare, and you’ve called her ‘Mare’…”

“Yes,” said Galfrid.

Gisburne sighed. “Well, it’s accurate. And a fine temperament, you say?”

“Very fine,” said Galfrid. “Steady.”

“Steady.” Gisburne turned and looked ahead. “Hm. Fine if you like that sort of thing, I suppose.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Gisburne shrugged. “You know. Steady. A bit dull…”

“Dull?” There was a note of outrage in Galfrid’s voice. He had taken the bait.

“You know my preference. A decent stallion.” He slapped Nyght affectionately on his sleek, black neck. “Bolder. Braver…”

“Dafter.”

“Dafter?” It was Gisburne’s turn to sound outraged now. Nobody insulted Nyght. Nobody.

“More impulsive. More bloody-minded…”

“Nyght is perfectly even-tempered,” insisted Gisburne.

“Was he being even-tempered when he kicked the Earl of Norfolk?” said Galfrid.

Gisburne cursed inwardly. Trust him to have heard about that. It had happened last time Gisburne was in York – but the plain fact was the Earl had deserved it. “If Nyght hadn’t taken the initiative,” Gisburne said, “I’d have done it myself.”

Galfrid thought about that for a moment. Then he nodded, and said: “A mount should always be sensitive to its master’s needs.” Gisburne grunted in agreement at Galfrid’s wise words.

And so, having reached an accord, they rode on in contented silence.

More Gisburnalia!

6dIn case you missed them (like I’d give you a chance…) there are two more ‘director’s cut’ deleted scenes from Gisburne opus The Red Hand on the Abaddon blog:

Eleanor of Aquitaine – in which Gisburne and Galfrid meet the most powerful woman in Christendom, and lose the heir to the throne.

and

An Unexpected Visit – in which a dejected and directionless Gisburne plays host to an old friend, who just happens to be dead.

There’s one more to come, which will be exclusive to this blog. You lucky people.

 

Ghosts! Zombies! And Eleanor of Aquitaine!

6dThe plan was for The Red Hand to be a short, sweet second volume of the trilogy. That was the plan. Somehow, though, it grew and grew. It grew so much that I had to hack off some bits to make room for other bits.

Never one to discard a fresh body part, I kept them on ice – and now the nice people at Abaddon are presenting these deleted scenes on their blog for your delectation. The first – in which Gisburne, Galfrid and John tell ghost stories around a fire – is up today, here.

There will be two more, posted on Wednesday and Thursday morning this week, in which we lose the heir to the throne and meet the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Gisburne has an unexpected guest – who just happens to be dead. Enjoy!

Then three come along at once

2014 was not the easiest of years, and I can’t say I’m entirely sorry to see it go. At times, in terms of workload, it felt like it had been sent to test me – to make me find out what my limits really were. I did. It wasn’t fun. But it was instructive, at least. I now know not to have another year like that.

Its last hurrah came in the form of a flu-like virus – the one that has you coughing day and night for weeks, which seemingly everyone suffered from – which then led to the early stages of pneumonia. Terrific. Only now am I feeling normal again (well, as normal as I ever did). 2014 just didn’t want to relinquish its grip without a fight.

Well, it didn’t have everything its own way, and all that work wasn’t without issue. As a result of it, I have three books out in three consecutive months.

image-serviceDecember saw the publication of The Zombie Renaissance in Popular Culture – an academic tome that grew out of the Zombosium at Winchester University in 2011, where I gave a paper. The book is a collection of chapters by a variety of authors and academics on all aspects of zombies in our culture, the very last being my own contribution. Snappily titled Zombies, a lost literary heritage and the return of the repressed, it offers a brief overview of recent zombie literature, and then deals with one of the great fallacies of zombie lore: that it has no literary heritage. It does – and it’s Viking. Viking zombies. They’re just my thing.

Read about them here.

image001In January, Hunter of Sherwood: The Red Hand, the second volume of the Gisburne trilogy, was published by Abaddon (one of the imprints of Rebellion, who publish 2000AD). It was meant to be a short and snappy second book. It wasn’t. It was huge. A monster. Some of this had to be trimmed back for the sake of everyone’s sanity, but this means there will be some ‘deleted scenes’ available, featuring events and encounters not included in the final novel All of these will be posted on the Abaddon blog as well as here. Anyway, at the time of writing, the eBook has got 25% off in the Rebellion online store January sale (to which the above link will take you) but you can also find it on Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats. Reviews are starting to come through on Goodreads, and they’re very pleasing – all 4 and 5 star reviews. Thank you to all who have taken time to review it (and read it, of course).

TheVikingDeadGermanVersionFebruary will see the return of an old friend. My first novel, The Viking Dead, is to be published in a German version by Voodoo Press. It’ll also be available on Amazon. OK, so this one’s cheating a bit – I mean, I didn’t have to write it all over again, and it wasn’t me translating it – but hey. Three books is three books.

In your face, 2014…

Free Guy of Gisburne!

The second of the Hunter of Sherwood trilogy (the Guy of Gisburne novels) out January 2015

The second of the Hunter of Sherwood trilogy (the Guy of Gisburne novels) out January 2015

No, he’s not in chains – not quite yet. But if you want a piece of him, he’s available to you, right here, right now – for nothing at all.

Yes, the lovely people at Abaddon (my publisher) have posted a teasing sample from The Red Hand here. Well, not teasing exactly – more like a couple of whacking great chapters. These are the opening moves of the new book – what I like to think of as the pre-credit sequence. The scene unfolds in the sewers of Jerusalem (sly homage there to that paragon of historical authenticity, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) and the contents of said sewer system are about to hit the fan in a majorly apocalyptic, flamey, burny kind of a way. If you are a fan, and you’d like to be hit full in the face with that, um… action… or if you’d just like to try a taste (yum) then click away now.

Look what’s arrived…

IMG_0716This nice big box turned up full of books. Yes, Gisburne returns in the second book of the Hunter of Sherwood trilogy, The Red Hand – a story of death, murder, killing, assassination, slaughter, execution and hurdy-gurdies.

It’s out in the UK in January 2015, and you can pre-order on Amazon. In the US it’s out slightly sooner – 30 December – and transatlantic Gisburneheads can buy it here. The perfect remedy to post-Christmas gift disappointment.

I also now have an author page on Amazon which gathers the various tomes together, including the just-published ox-stunner The Zombie Renaissance in Popular Culture, to which I contributed the closing chapter (on the literary heritage of zombies in general, and the Norse undead in particular).