Book Corner: The Last of the Romans by Derek Birks

Northern Italy.

Dux Ambrosius Aurelianus has served the Roman Empire with distinction.

His bucellarii, a small band of irregular soldiers, have helped to bring a fragile peace to the beleaguered empire in the west. But, with the empire now at peace, his master, Flavius Aetius, decides to chain up his dogs of war.

Ambrosius and his men are left to idle away their days in a rural backwater, but Ambrosius’ boredom is brutally swept aside when old rivals seize the opportunity to destroy him.

Pursued as a traitor by the imperial guard, Ambrosius takes his loyal band, along with other dissident soldiers and a Saxon girl, Inga, into the mountains.

Since nowhere is safe, Ambrosius travels north, across the crumbling ruins of the empire, to his estranged family in Gaul. But there too, he finds nothing but conflict, for his home town is now besieged by a small army of rebellious Franks.

Freedom and peace seem a world away. 

Whatever course the soldier takes, Ambrosius and his bucellarii will need to muster all their strength and skill to survive.

At the twilight of the empire, they may be the Last of the Romans…

I have to admit that I loved Derek Birks‘ books on the Wars of the Roses, but was a little dubious about this excursion into the late Roman era. I enjoy reading some Roman novelists, such as SJA Turney and Gordon Doherty, but I do prefer the medieval and I was concerned that I might not enjoy The Last of the Romans as much as other Roman stories or, indeed, Derek’s Wars of the Roses series. I needn’t have worried.

The Last of the Romans opens as the Roman Empire is falling apart and follows one man, Ambrosius Aurelianus, and his small band of soldiers as they try to escape the clutches of vengeful assassins. We follow the small cohort of soldiers as the escape northern Italy across France, with the constant threat of attack nagging their every step. The reader is drawn into their desperate fight to survive and escape, the bucellarii’s loyalty to their dux tested to the limit.

Ambrosius Aurelianus has always been a personal favourite of mine – he has links to my ‘local’ – Conisbrough Castle – and is a contender for the legendary King Arthur. The Last of the Romans tells the story of Ambrosius’ career in the Roman army, before his arrival in Britain. The book draws a portrait of the man as a great warrior and leader, driven by a need to survive and protect those who follow him and trust him.

For the past three years Rome’s supreme military commander, the Magister Utriusque Militiae, Flavius Aetius, had sent Ambrosius wherever trouble erupted across the failing empire. Wherever an army was too many, or an assassin too few, he and his band of disparate bucellarii were despatched – and death went along for the ride. They slew every zealot, every ambitious politician, every fool and murderer, across the empire from the west coast of Galicia to eastern Thrace. In truth, Ambrosius and his comrades did little else but send men to an early grave.

Since he was recruited in Gallia, he reflected that his own fortunes had become inextricably harnessed to those of Magister Aetius. He could not resist a grim smile of admiration for the man who, against all the odds, still held the fate of the western empire in his firm grip. Without him, Ambrosius would still be a renegade bandit living among the Franks in north-western Gallia. Instead he was the commander of an elite band of mounted warmongers and carried the rank of dux. He was both feared and despised by his enemies – and very likely by some of the imperial guard as well.

Thus, Ambrosius slept alone; yet, there she lay… half-covered by the coarse blanket. So, yes, he was getting soft. But then, after the sudden demise of the Hun king, Attila, everything had changed. Peace had come to Rome – albeit a fragile peace brokered by exhausted combatants, but a peace all the same. And, in the wake of peace, it seemed that the wolf must remain caged. So, Ambrosius found himself marooned in this shabby caupona on the shores of a lake far from the imperial court. While he preferred to remain at the inn, most of his bucellarii made frequent visits to nearby Verona where they were no doubt even now exhausting whatever coin they had left.

“Even you need to stop killing eventually,” Aetius had told him. “Believe me, you need a rest from it; I know that better than anyone: killing eats into your soul…”

The Last of the Romans is a departure from Derek Birks’ usual era, the Wars of the Roses. And as a consequence, he has moved away from a period of history that is constantly discussed and analysed, to one where the sources are few and far between. He has had to reconstruct a world that has not existed for 1,500 years. the landscape and architecture of late-Roman era France is described in fabulous detail, transporting the reader to the time and place where Roman law was breaking down, and native leaders were battling – against each other and the Roman regional commanders – to fill the void.

As you would expect from Derek Birks, the action is never-ending. The story moves at a fantastic pace, leaving the reader little time to catch their breath. The battles are meticulously choreographed, while appearing totally chaotic; the battle to survive only rivaled by the relentless pursuit of their enemies. The Last of the Romans brings the fall of the Roman Empire into vivid, colourful perspective.

What makes this book impossible to put down are the characters, the heroic Aurelius Ambrosius, loyal Marcellus and Inga, the freed slave whose bravery earns her a special place in the heart of the bucellarii. There is love, loss, confusion, courage and hatred. Through Ambrosius Aurelianus and his small band of men, we see the individual struggle to survive amidst the greater catastrophe and upheaval that always accompanies the end of a civilisation.

The Last of the Romans is a gripping adventure. Exciting, enthralling and fast-paced it is an amazing novel for the author’s first excursion into the era. It works perfectly as a standalone novel, but I truly hope Derek Birks decides to continue the story – I am desperate to know where Ambrosius and his bucellarii go next!

The Last of the Romans is now available on Kindle from Amazon and will be released in paperback shortly.

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About the author:

Derek was born in Hampshire in England but spent his teenage years in Auckland, New Zealand, where he still has strong family ties. 

On his return to England, he read history at Reading University and for many years he taught history in a secondary school. Whilst he enjoyed his teaching career and it paid the bills, he found a creative outlet in theatrical activities, stage-managing many plays and outdoor Shakespeare performances.
Derek always wanted to write and began, aged 17, writing stories, songs and poetry – in fact virtually anything. Inevitably, work and family life took precedence for a long period of time but in 2010 Derek took early retirement to indulge his passion for history and concentrate on his writing. He is interested in a wide range of historical themes but his particular favourite is the late medieval period. 

Derek writes action-packed fiction which is rooted in accurate history. He also produces podcasts on the Wars of the Roses for those interested in the real historical background to his books. Check them out on his website at: https://www.derekbirks.com/history-podcasts/

His historical fiction works include: 
Rebels & Brothers – a 4-book series set during the fifteenth century, which follows a fictional family, the Elders, through their struggle to survive the Wars of the Roses up to 1471.  The Craft of Kings – a sequel series which finds the Elder family ten years later in 1481. The latest book in this series is book 3, Echoes of Treason, which is set during the short and turbulent reign of Richard III.

He has recently embarked upon a new Post-Roman series and the first book is out now: The Last of the Romans

Apart from his writing, he enjoys travelling – sometimes, but not always, to carry out research for his books. He also spends his time walking, swimming and taking part in archaeological digs.

He was a regular presence at the Harrogate History Festival, is an active member of the Historical Novel Society and you will also find him each summer signing books – and selling them – at the Chalke Valley History Festival outside Salisbury in Wiltshire.

His books are available on Amazon in the UK and US.
You can find Derek at;
Amazon
Blog
Facebook
Twitter 

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My books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is available now on kindle and in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon, in the US from Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

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©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly


Guest Post: Katharina by Margaret Skea

It is with great pleasure that I welcome author Margaret Skea to the blog today, talking about her latest book, Katharina: Fortitude, the history behind it and giving you a little teaser from the book itself.

As crazy ideas go, thinking of writing what could best be described as a fictionalized biography of Katharina von Bora, the escaped nun who married the reformer Martin Luther, ranked highly.  It had popped into my head, seemingly from nowhere, but once there, as crazy ideas so often do, it burrowed its way in so far no amount of rational thinking would dislodge it.

There were plenty of good reasons not to write her story.

Reason 1. I knew almost nothing about her, and it seemed that nobody else knew much about her either.

I did find a slim volume, of some 89 pages, written by a native German within the Luther Foundation, Martin Treu, well placed to have found any information there was to find. But the opening words were hardly encouraging.

It is impossible to write a biography of Katharina von Bora. The scanty and often enough fragmentary nature of the evidence allows for only a biographical sketch…’ Hmm.

Katharina

Reason 2.  I didn’t speak or read German, so whatever ‘fragmentary evidence’ existed, I couldn’t even read it for myself. Not the best start.

Reason 3. I was in the middle of writing my third Scottish novel, and there was a publisher waiting for it to be delivered, so the timing wasn’t exactly ideal. However, the Luther 500 anniversary was only just over one year away, so I knew if I was going to write about her it had to be immediately.

And there she was, hovering at my shoulder, shadowy and insubstantial, but refusing to go away. So the Scottish book set aside, I began to plan how I could make this crazy idea a reality. I read and re-read the 89 pages of the little book until I knew them almost by heart and scoured every other source I could find (in English) that made any reference to her at all.  Treu had also set me a challenge – he wrote: 

The lacunae in the sources have tempted authors and authoresses to fill in the gaps with their own imagination.’

Well, yes, that is, after all,  what historical fiction writers do. But he went on:

The result is frequently a picture that says more about the writer and their time than about the person and journey through life of Katharina von Bora.’

Ah, that was different – I didn’t want to write about my time, or me, I wanted to write about her time and about her.

The Lutherhaus portal commissioned by Luther as a gift for Katharina

But pessimistic as he was about anyone’s chances, I did find some wee nuggets in his book, and in others, that gave me a starting point, despite that there is dispute over her parentage, her birthplace, the circumstances surrounding her admission to two different convents, and little direct evidence of her character.  Retracing her steps  in Saxony, which involved driving over 1000 miles, gave me a real sense of her environment, including the terrain she travelled, the architecture, and artefacts, and many aspects of her life and times.  There were some surprises, too, particularly in relation to Martin Luther and his almost modern attitude towards her, as well as the discovery of many myths that needed to be dispelled. But perhaps the biggest challenge was finding a ‘voice’ for her and so I began to write snippets in 1st person present tense. And what started as a preliminary experiment continued throughout both books and the story truly became Katharina’s.

I hope I have done her justice and that readers will get as much enjoyment in reading as I found in writing it. 

Here is the opening section as a wee taster:

Chapter One

Wittenberg June 1525.

Martin Luther

The music stops, the sound of the fiddle dying away, the piper trailing a fraction behind, as he has done all evening. I cannot help but smile as I curtsy to Justus Jonas, his answering twinkle suggesting he shares my amusement.

‘Thank you, Frau Luther,’ and then, his smile wider, so that even before he continues I suspicion it isn’t the piping amuses him, ‘For a renegade nun, you dance well.’

It is on the tip of my tongue to respond with ‘ For a cleric, so do you,’ but I stop myself, aware that should I be overheard it would likely be considered inappropriate for any woman, far less a newly married one, to speak so to an older man, however good a friend he has been. And on this day of all days, I do not wish to invite censure. Instead I say, ‘I have been well taught. Barbara saw to that. She did not wish me to disgrace myself or her, and there is a pair of slippers with the soles worn through to testify to the hours of practice she insisted upon.’

‘She succeeded admirably then.’

All around us there is the buzz of laughter and chatter, an air of goodwill evident in every flushed face. Martin is waiting at the foot of the dais, and as we turn towards him, his smile of thanks to Justus is evidence he too is grateful for the seal of approval, of me and of the marriage, our shared dance a tangible sign to the whole town that Justus Jonas at least has no reservations regarding our union. Over his shoulder I catch Barbara’s eye and she nods also. I nod back, but am unable to suppress altogether the inner voice, tonight there is drink taken, tomorrow some may feel differently.

As if he can read my mind, Justus says, a new seriousness in his tone, ‘You have not made a mistake, either of you.’ He waves his hand at the folk clustered in groups along the length of the room. ‘Look around. When the difficult times come, as no doubt they will, remember tonight and the number of those who came to wish you well.’

                             *                            *                       *

The first challenge is not long in coming. We stroll home in the moonlight, accompanied by those guests who will spend the night in the cloister with us, adding their acceptance to our union.  Among them are Martin’s parents, and three councillors from Mansfeld, snatches of their conversation penetrating my thoughts.

Hans Luder’s tone, though gruff, cannot mask his satisfaction. ‘It is a good day’s work, and glad I am to see it, however long the wait.’

Martin’s mother’s voice is sweet and low, but bubbles with amusement, like a sparkling wine as it is poured into a glass. ‘Old you may be, but I trust your end is not yet nigh.’

There is an answering chuckle from one of the councillors,  ‘Indeed,’ Frau Luder, ‘So do we all.’

Lutherhaus

Hearing him, I tuck my arm into Martin’s, the momentary disagreement regarding Cardinal Albert’s gift forgotten, and look up at the myriad stars: pin-pricks of light in an ink-flooded sky, and my heart swells.  Frau Luther – the spelling may be different, but the status is the same and a title to be proud of, and though our marriage is already two weeks old, it is the first time I have felt it truly mine. The music still rings in my ears, memory of the dancing, the coin in the chest: all symbols of the regard in which the doctor is held and in which I now share, spreading a warmth through me from the top of my head to the tip of my toes. Jusuts is right. This is not a mistake, or not on my part at least. And, pray God, he is right about Martin also. We part from the company at the door of our chamber, and the light from the oil lamp flickers on the bedspread Barbara Cranach gifted to us. It is the last thing I see before sleep, the first when I wake, a talisman-harbinger of good things to come.

About the author

Margaret Skea is an award-winning novelist and short story writer. Short story credits include Neil GunnFish, the Historical Novel Society and Mslexia.

Growing up during the ‘Troubles in Northern Ireland it is perhaps inevitable that her writing often focuses on the pressures of living within conflict. Her debut novel Turn of the Tide, was the Historical Fiction winner in an Harper Collins-sponsored competition. It also gained her the Beryl Bainbridge Award for ‘Best First-Time Novelist 2014’.

Katharina: Deliverance, a fictionalised biography based on the early life of the reformer Martin Luther’s wife, was placed 2nd in the Historical Novel Society New Novel Award 2018.

The newly released, Katharina: Fortitude, is the powerful conclusion to Katharina’s story, but both books can easily be read as a stand-alone.

In an attempt to embrace the digital age she now has her own website at www.margaretskea.com and you can also follow her on Twitter at @margaretskea1 or on FB https://www.facebook.com/MargaretSkeaAuthor.Novels/

Book link: https://books2read.com/u/4j11BX

I would like to say a HUGE thank you to Margaret for such a fabulous post and wish her every success with Kathariana: Fortitude .

Kathariana: Fortitude came out 2 weeks ago and has been entered into the Kindle Storyteller Award. The competition opened in May, and yet Katharina is already at #65 out of over 5,000 entries. To be in with a chance of winning it needs to get into top 10. The book is currently on sale at 99p, so why not give it a go? I have! Just follow the link: https://books2read.com/u/4j11BX

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My books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is available now on kindle and in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon, in the US from Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

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©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly and Margaret Skea

Book Corner: Joanna of Flanders, Heroine and Exile by Julie Sarpy

The new research in this biography solves the riddle of the disappearance of Joanna of Flanders early in the Hundred Years’ War, a leader described by David Hume as ‘the most extraordinary woman of the age’.

Joanna of Flanders, Countess de Montfort and Duchess of Brittany, vanished from public life after 1343 amid the Breton Wars of Succession during the Hundred Years’ War. As wife of the late Duke John de Montfort, Joanna’s rightful place was in Brittany as regent of the duchy for their five-year-old son and heir, John of Brittany. Famed for the defence of Hennebont in 1342 during her husband’s imprisonment, she, along with her children, had accompanied Edward III to England in February 1343 and never departed. She resided in comfortable obscurity at Tickhill Castle, Yorkshire, until her death around 1374.

What happened to her and why? Her extended absence should have provoked more suspicion, but it did not. Edward III certainly orchestrated her relocation from London to Yorkshire and sanctioned her indefinite detention.

Delving deeper into her story the answers to those two questions explore the complexities of medieval social structures, notably in the care of the vulnerable and the custody of women. The 19th-century Breton historian de la Borderie asked if Joanna’s ‘many tests had reversed her intelligence and thrown her into the abyss of madness’, a position accepted by many modern historians – but not by Julie Sarpy.

When my publishers, Amberley, asked if I would like to review Julie Sarpy’s Joanna of Flanders: Heroine and Exile I jumped at the chance. I first came across Joanna of Flanders when writing an article about her son, John V, Duke of Brittany; and I remember thinking, ‘I must look into this woman’. I have not yet had the opportunity (though I will write a blog post if I ever get the time). So, although I was aware of Joanna, I know only the bare bones of her story. Which is why this book intrigued me so much!

Julie Sarpy has done an incredible job of researching the story of Joanna of Flanders. Her investigation has uncovered some remarkable facts about Joanna’s life, the times she lived through and the treatment she received at the hands of her supposed ally, Edward III. This is a balanced, in-depth study of a woman who deserves her time in the limelight. Joanna of Flanders is, in short, an amazing woman, whose story deserves to be known by a much wider audience.

I have to admit to a personal interest in the tale, in grew up not far from Tickhill Castle, South Yorkshire, the site of Joanna’s imprisonment. And though everyone in the area knows about the castle’s connections to King John, to the de Warennes and to the dukes of Lancaster (it is now owned by the duchy of Lancaster), no one seems to know of its role as the prison of poor Joanna.

Joanna of Flanders’ life has not been given its full measure. One wonders how such a remarkable woman has been lost to the ages and ostensibly marginalised. For Joanna of Flanders, Countess of Montfort and Richmond, Duchess of Brittany, was, in her time, the heroine of Hennebont, the pivotal siege during the first half of the Breton Civil War (1341-1365) that prevented the French from taking over Brittany and routing the English early in the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453). That was no small feat for anyone, especially a fourteenth-century woman. In fact, she seems to have been exceptional in many ways. Medieval French chronicler and contemporary Jean Froissart professed Joanna of Flanders ‘to possess the courage of a man and the heart of a lion.’ Breton historian Dom Lobineau said of the Countess of Montfort, ‘no adversity could crush her. her consistency in the most desperate circumstances always reassured those who attached [themselves] to her.’ She marshalled men and resources, unlike her rival the Breton-French Jeanne de Penthievre’s husband. Joanna of Flanders rallied her husband’s supporters, the pro-English Montfortist faction, in his absence during the Siege of Hennebont and then secured the safety of his heirs in England, with the aid of Edward III.

Julie Sarpy’s investigation into the life and imprisonment of Joann of Flanders is a fascinating study. The author follows the evidence from the records and chronicles of the time and reconstructs Joanna’s story, dispelling the false stories of her madness and clearly presenting Joanna of Flanders as a political prisoner; a remarkable woman whose imprisonment was essential to furthering the ambitions of her ally, Edward III.

Well written, entertaining and informative, this is an engaging and enjoyable book that should attract any history fan who wants to learn more about Joanna’s life and the wider story of the the Breton Civil War. From the first page, the author draws you in with the mystery of Joanna’ imprisonment and the teaser of who may benefit from having her out of the way. Julie Sarpy then takes you through the complexities of the Breton ducal family, the background and prosecution of the war before concentrating on Joanna’s imprisonment, the reasons behind it and the legal implications.

This is a thorough and absorbing study of a woman who has been largely neglected by history. It’s a story that deserves to be heard and that has been told, in Joanna of Flanders: Heroine and Exile, with remarkable skill and judgement – and a little sympathy for the heroine. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

About the author:

Originally from Louisiana, Julia Sarpy is a subject specialist librarian and adjunct faculty at Nova Southeastern University. She received her doctorate in European History from the University of Houston. A UCLA alum, she also hold master’s degrees from University of North Texas and Southern Methodist University.

Joanna of Flanders: Heroine and Exile is now available from Amberley Publishing and Amazon in the UK and will be released on 1 October 2019 in the US; it is available for pre-order on Amazon US.

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My books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is available now on kindle and in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon, in the US from Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

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©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly