Book Corner: The Errant Hours by Kate Innes

A headlong journey through the physical and spiritual dangers of Plantagenet Britain, in all its savage pageantry. Welsh Marches, July 1284 – the uprising in Wales is over, the leader gruesomely executed, the dead are buried. But for Illesa Arrowsmith, the war’s aftermath is just as brutal. When her brother is thrown into the Forester’s prison on false charges, she is left impoverished and alone. All Illesa has left is the secret manuscript entrusted to her – a book so powerful it can save lives, a book so valuable that its discovery could lead to her death. When the bailiff’s daughter finds it, Illesa decides to run, and break her brother out of jail by whatever means. But the powerful Forester tracks them down, and Illesa must put herself and the book at the mercy of an unscrupulous knight who threatens to reveal all their secrets, one by one. Inspired by the seductive art of illuminated manuscripts, The Errant Hours draws from the deep well of medieval legend to weave a story of survival and courage, trickery and love.

Every now and again you come across a book that draws you in and makes you lose entire days to reading. For me, The Errant Hours by Kate Innes was one of those books: I lost the whole of last weekend to reading the final 200 pages because I HAD to get to the end. Of course, I now wish I’d taken a little longer over it, but this was a book I needed to devour. With just short of 400 pages of beautiful prose, a unique storyline and the perfect combination of intrigue, betrayal and love, The Errant Hours is a perfect book for lockdown or those long, dark, winter nights.

A brother-sister relationship most of us can relate to, family secrets and mysteries and a beautiful, valuable book all come together to create The Errant Hours by Kate Innes. Illesa Arrowsmith losing her home to her creditors and helping her reckless brother escape the Forester’s prison is only the start of her adventures; adventures that will lead her to the heart of the court of Edward I and into the political turmoil of the English conquest of Wales. While the national political climate contrasts perfectly with the turmoil in Illesa’s own life as she attempts to uncover her own origins and her feelings for Sir Richard Burnel, the knight who could be both protector and her accuser.

‘Illesa!’

She ignored the angry whisper and went back towards the torchlight. The guard’s head had changed position. She stood still, watching him. A thin stream of saliva came from the corner of his open mouth. His jerkin was unbuttoned. The iron chain was wound around his belt and the end hung down behind the bench.

Illesa slowly undid the buckle and loosened the chain, pulling it, link by link, off the leather belt. Gathering the chain in her hand, she pulled it up. There was a dull clang. The guard grunted and shifted on the bench, but his eyes remained closed. The ring holding the keys was caught between the wall and the bench. Illesa held the chain in her left hand and knelt down. She reached under the bench, her arms stretched around the guard, straining not to touch him. Her fingers brushed against the keys, and she let them rest on her palm. Illesa let the chain slip slowly out of her left hand until she held it, and the keys, in her right hand. She got shakily to her feet and ran to the cell door.

‘Where is the lock?’ she whispered.

‘Here, follow my hand.’Illesa saw the vague whiteness of Kit’s fingers; she put her own on top of them, feeling for the keyhole with her thumb.

‘Got it,’ she said, fumbling with the larger key.

It slid easily into the hole, but as she turned it there was a terrible screeching sound of metal against metal. Something hit the floor with a loud thump and a gasp of pain.

Kit pushed the door, nearly knocking Illesa over as he ran out of the cell.

‘Follow me!’

Kate Innes must have done a remarkable amount of research to produce such a historically accurate work of historical fiction. Although her leading characters are fictional, the supporting characters are very much historical fact, with Edward I, Eleanor of Castile, young Prince Alphonso and John, 6th Earl Warenne all making an appearance. I didn’t know one of the Warennes would be making an appearance in the story – it was such a lovely surprise!

I particularly liked Kate Innes’ portrayal of Earl Warenne as a brutal, brash lord who spares little thought for the niceties – he certainly comes across as that in my research for my own forthcoming book on the Warennes, Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey. In fact, I think Kate Innes was a little more generous with Warenne’s personality than some chroniclers were!

The fictional characters, Illesa, her brother Kit and the knight, Richard Burnel, are the central actors in the story. Their personalities, appearance and relationships are wonderfully ‘fleshed’ out. Illesa is a strong female character, but one that is not out of place in 13th century England. A young woman with determination and capability, she is also all-too-aware of the limitations forced on her by her sex.

A beautifully crafted tome, The Errant Hours by Kate Innes is a unique insight into 13th century England. The narrative flows freely and Illesa’s story will keep the reader entranced from the first page to the last. I cannot recommend it highly enough and have already put book 2, All the Winding World, on my Christmas list.

The Errant Hours by Kate Innes is available from Amazon.

About the author:

Kate Innes was born in London and lived and worked in America and Zimbabwe. She is now based in Shropshire, and it is the history and natural beauty of this area that provides inspiration for both her fiction and poetry.

She originally trained as an archaeologist and a teacher, and then worked as a Museum Education Officer around the Midlands, writing poetry in her spare time. After the arrival of her children, Kate began work on her medieval novel ‘The Errant Hours’ which was published in 2015.

The Historical Novel Society selected ‘The Errant Hours’ as an ‘Editor’s Choice’, and it was added to the reading list of the Medieval Studies Department at Bangor University. It is one of Book Riot’s ‘One Hundred Must Read Medieval Novels’.

Her second novel, ‘All the Winding World’ is a sequel to ‘The Errant Hours’, set ten years later. It is due to be published on the 22 June 2018.

Kate has been writing and performing poetry for many years, usually with a particular focus on animals, art and the natural world. Her poem ‘Flocks of Words’ won first prize in the ‘Imagined Worlds’ Competition held by the Friends of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Her first collection, also called ‘Flocks of Words’, was published in Spring 2017 and many of these poems form part of a performance with the acoustic music group ‘Whalebone’.

Kate runs writing workshops, gives illustrated talks, works collaboratively with communities and undertakes commissions and residencies.

http://www.kateinneswriter.com

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My Books

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and 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.

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Book Corner: Lucia by Steven A. McKay

What makes life worth living for a slave of Rome?

The promise of vengeance no matter how long it takes.

At eight years old, Lucia is torn from the life she knew. Her village burned to the ground and parents murdered by Romans, she is kidnapped, sold and shipped abroad to the Villa Tempestatis in Britannia to serve the young Roman army officer Castus.

Faced with a bleak future of decades of servitude to her master, as well as sadistic brutality at the hands of his manageress, Paltucca, she finds herself fixated by one thought alone: vengeance.

Yet Villa Tempestatis, with its picturesque surroundings in Britannia’s green countryside, offers a life that’s a little easier than elsewhere in the Roman empire. The slaves form strong bonds of love and friendship, enjoy feasts and holiday celebrations together, and are even allowed, sometimes, to start a family. Many of them are happy enough with their lot.

Despite that, every moment of Lucia’s life is blighted by her hatred for Castus and Paltucca, and only seeing them both destroyed will bring her a measure of peace, even if it takes decades of work and planning…

From the moment you read the dedication in the front of Lucia, you will know you are in for an emotional rollercoaster:

Dedicated to all the men, women and children forced into slavery and forgotten by history.

And you would be right!

Lucia is one of those novels that will stay with you long, long … long after you have read the final page and closed the book (probably with a tear on your cheek). To say it is thought-provoking would be an understatement. This is one of those stories that will really get under your skin.

I have read everything Steven A. McKay has written, from his unique take on the Robin Hood stories to his wonderfully atmospheric Warrior Druid of Britain series, but Lucia is on another level. It is probably his best writing yet. It is a story that is at once desperate and uplifting, a story that touches you deep in your soul.

Set in a splendid villa in Roman Britain, Lucia captures perfectly a life of slavery. The brutality, the feeling of helplessness, the inhumanity is contrasted with the compassion, the humanity and the sense of family and comradeship with fellow slaves. Steve A. McKay clearly and cleverly depicts the blurred lines of the master and slave relationship and the slaves serve the Roman family, being detached from it and at the same time an integral part of the family life.

The villa was a wonderful sight on a July day like this, with its white plastered walls and red-tiled roofs seeming to glow in the sunshine, while its position on the hill afforded superb views of the land around: well-tended fields of corn and grain; groves of trees once sacred to the native Britons; and the sparkling waters of the narrow river that flowed past the western wing, providing their water for drinking, cleaning, cooking and, of course, bathing.

Sometimes, on particular beautiful days, Lucia forgot about her previous life, as the daughter of a warlord in Germania. Forgot about her previous existence before she was captured by the Romans who had destroyed her village, slaughtered her people and sold her at the market to her master.

It had been a year already since Publius Licinius Castus, a young Roman officer himself, had bought her from that terrible slave-market and shipped her here, to his lavish country villa in this damp land.

Villa Tempestatis

A lump came to her throat as an image of her parents – happy, smiling down with pride on their beloved daughter – came to her, and she angrily brushed away the tears forming in her eyes before they had a chance to streak her grimy cheeks.

Yes, sometimes she was able to forget her previous, free life in Germania, but it was never long before reality returned and she felt her spirit crushed so hard that it almost stopped her heart from beating.

The beauty of the villa and its surroundings hid the pain of dozens of slaves who had lived here over generations, young and old. Some of them, like Paltucca, were able to adapt and even thrive in such conditions, while others wilted and eventually, under the weight of what they’d lost, rendered themselves useless to the master. Those unfortunates soon disappeared, never to be heard of again.

Lucia wondered if she would end up like that one day, sold to be worked to death in a mine perhaps, when the stolen memory of the joy of her childhood became too much to bear.

Lucia explores the life of a girl forced into slavery by the Romans at the age of 8, and her relationship with her master and her fellow slaves. The book does a wonderful job of depicting not only the life of a slave but also their emotions, the fact that they do live their lives despite a lack of freedom, that they lived, loved, even raised families. It clearly demonstrates the contrast between the acceptance and cooperation that you still have to live, despite not being free, and that deep, constant yearning for freedom.

Lucia is one of those books for which you can write an awesome review – and yet, still know that your review will never do the book justice. It is, beyond doubt, the best thing Steven A. McKay has ever written, simply because it makes the reader re-evaluate the way they think and feel – and takes them to a depth of their soul they probably have never visited before.

Touching a topic that has affected lives throughout history, and yet seems just as relevant today; slavery. Lucia plays on all your emotions: anger, pity, empathy, love and hate. At times, Lucia is a hard book to read, but is essential reading on so many levels. Steven A McKay has written a truly riveting depiction of the life of a slave.

This is how books should be written, with passion and compassion. If you only read one more book this year, it should be Lucia.

Lucia is now available from Amazon

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About the author:

Steven McKay was born in 1977 near Glasgow in Scotland. He live in Old Kilpatrick with his wife and two young children. After obtaining his Bachelor of Arts degree with the Open University he decided to follow his life-long ambition and write a historical novel.

He plays guitar and sings in a heavy metal band when they can find the time to meet up.

You can check out his website here. Steven also has an Amazon Author page and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

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My Books

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and 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.

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: The Northern Throne by Steven A. McKay

Bellicus the Druid and his friend Duro, a former Roman centurion, have already suffered a great deal in recent years but, for them, things are about to get even worse.
Britain is changing. The Romans have gone and warriors from many different places seek to fill the void the legions left behind. In the south, the Saxons’ expansion seems unstoppable despite the efforts of the warlord Arthur, while north of Hadrian’s Wall various kings and chieftains are always looking to extend their borders.

In Dun Breatann, Bellicus believes the disparate northern tribes must put aside their differences, become allies, and face the Saxon threat together, under one High King.

Or High Queen…

Small-minded men don’t always look at the bigger picture though, and, when Bellicus and Duro seek to form a pact with an old enemy, events take a shocking and terrible turn that will leave the companions changed forever.

This third volume in the Warrior Druid of Britain Chronicles is packed with adventure, battles, triumph, and tears, and at the end of it a new course will be set for Bellicus.

But at what cost?

One of the highlights of my reading year is when Steven A. McKay publishes a book, This year I have had the pleasure to read two! Steven has a book, Lucia: A Roman Slave’s Tale, coming out in October, which is incredibly thought-provoking – but more of that one nearer the time…

This summer the 3rd book in the Warrior Druid of Britain series was finally published. It seems like it has been a long wait since book 2, Song of the Centurion came out, but it has been well worth it! Steven A. McKay takes us on another, suspense-filled adventure with Bellicus the Druid and his Roman friend, Duro.

Bellicus’ story started with The Druid and a rescue mission into the heart of Anglo-Saxon England to recover young princess Catia. It continued in Song of the Centurion where Bellicus and his friend Duro, the former Roman centurion, fought to save Alt Clota from the machinations of its enemies and the growing paranoia of its king, Coroticus. Each story has led us to The Northern Throne, an adventure that proves more perilous and personal for Bellicus and Duro.

Set in the time of King Arthur and the Saxon invasion of Britain, the story takes us north of Hadrian’s Wall and into the lands of the Scots and Picts. As with the previous novels, Arthur is a supporting character, making a handful of cameo appearances, though I suspect his time will come, when he and Bellicus team up to fight the Saxon threat.

“Nicely done, lads,” Gerallt said approvingly. “With the Votadini taken care of, and the Dalriadans in disarray, all we have left to deal with are the Picts.”

Bellicus bodded. If they could defeat Drest it would put Narina in a very strong position. Ultimately, the druid would like to see her crowned High Queen of all the northern lands, and it seemed that day might be close. A Damnonii High Queen would nullify the growing threat the Christians’ posed to the old ways, while allowing the united tribes to face the Saxon threat at the side of Arthur and Merlin. The druid just had to find a way to steer events towards such a favourable outcome.

“How long have we got before Drest arrives in Alt Clota?” Gerallt asked the messenger, disturbing Bellicus from his reverie.

“At the speed they were marching when I observed them,” the messenger reported, “I’d say about 3 or 4 days, my lord.”
“That should be more than enough,” Duro said, resting his left hand on the pommel of his spatha. “If we leave here tomorrow at sun-up, we’ll be able to head them off on the road before they get anywhere hear Dun Breatann.”

“And we’re thirty men stronger now, too,” Gerallt said, smiling grimly. “We’ll be able top ambush the Pictish bastards just like we did the Votadini.”

“Hopefully you’re right, and we do surprise them,” Bellicus muttered, gazing hopefully into his half-empty cup. “Because if Cefin’s numbers are accurate, Drest’s army still outnumbers us.”

The triumph of these books is in Steven A. McKay’s portrayal of Bellicus the Druid. An author could easily fall into the realm of fantasy and explain the druidic rituals as magic. That is not the case with the Warrior Druid of Britain books. Bellicus is a clever, educated man who has studied the nature of humanity. Insightful and intelligent, he knows how to read people, their actions and expressions, and how to interpret their intentions.

His years of training have made him a well-respected, authoritative character and he uses his skills to great advantage. There is an air of mystery about him, but he is also portrayed as a man who is all-too-human, and whose flaws and pride can sometimes lead him into trouble of his own making.

And that is what makes these books so special!

The characters in The Northern Throne are wonderful creations, each one vivid and individual, from the heroes such as Duro and Bellicus, to the villains such as Drest and down to little Catia, the princess who is growing up and trying to find her role in the world, who is learning to fight, to command and to judge people for herself.

Steven A. McKay skillfully recreates the landscape, people and legends of 5th century Scotland. His knowledge of the area, and its traditions, shines through on every page, transporting the reader to the stark fortresses, wooded valleys and fast-flowing rivers; taking you on an astonishing adventure without leaving your seat. He brings all this together in a rich tapestry that forms the backdrop of these incredible stories.

The tension is high throughout The Northern Throne. One crisis leads to another, loyalties and friendships pushed are to the limits; and love and betrayal are two very fine lines. This combination makes for a thoroughly absorbing tale which entwines history, legend and myth and takes the reader along on Bellicus’ heroic journey.

In short, The Northern Throne is a wonderful, engaging adventure that, once again, leaves the reader desperate for the next instalment.

The Northern Throne is available now from Amazon UK.

About the Author:

Steven McKay was born in 1977 near Glasgow in Scotland. He live in Old Kilpatrick with his wife and two young children. After obtaining his Bachelor of Arts degree with the Open University he decided to follow his life-long ambition and write a historical novel.

He plays guitar and sings in a heavy metal band when they can find the time to meet up.

You can check out his website here. Steven also has an Amazon Author page and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

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My Books

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and 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.

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: Faces of Darkness by Steven A. McKay

CROFTUN, ENGLAND AD 1328
Lady Isabella de Courcy is found alone in a room bolted from the inside, unconscious, and with a dagger brutally forced through her hand into the floorboards beneath, but this is just the latest in a line of similar, terrifying incidents. For months now she’s been stalked by some shadowy tormentor who leaves no trace of his movements and has never been clearly seen by anyone, even Lady Isabella.

Can the bailiff, John Little, along with his friend – the legendary friar, Robert Stafford – uncover the truth and, more importantly, will they be able to save the troubled victim before she ends up dead?

This new standalone tale from the author of The Druid sees the return of two much-loved characters from the Forest Lord series and is based on a shocking real-life case which remains, to this day, unsolved.

I have been a fan of Steven A McKay‘s writing for several years now. His Forest Lord series, retelling the story of Robin Hood in Barnsdale Forest, rather than Sherwood, was a refreshing new take on the outlaw’s legend. And the 2 books in his new series, Warrior Druid of Britain, the Druid and Song of the Centurion are among the finest books I have read in recent years. So Faces of Darkness had quite a lot to live up to.

And it did not disappoint.

Faces of Darkness is a novella featuring two of Robin Hood’s best friends, Friar Tuck and Little John, and is a detective novel-cum-psychological thriller of impressive quality. The story revolves around Lady Isabella de Courcy, who is being tormented by a mysterious stalker no one has seen. Friar Tuck and Little John are brought int o investigate the matter.

“Did you see him, Isabella?” the nobleman was demanding, in a hard tone of voice which Tuck felt inappropriate given the young woman’s ordeal. It wasn’t his place to interfere in the dynamic of their relationship though, and unbidden, he began to inspect the rooms for signs of what had taken place.

“No,” the lady sobbed. “Please, Adam, my hand is really hurting. Can you fetch me something for it?”

“Anne,” de Courcy said irritably. “Go and fetch some wine for the lady, hurry.”

“No,” broke in Isabella, eyes wide. “I can’t stay in this room another moment.” Tuck turned to look at her and realised there was a length of fabric tied around her neck, which also bore tell-tale red bruising. Clearly, she had suffered a most violent assault – no wonder she wanted away from the scene of the crime.

“John,” he said. “Could you help Lady Isabella to the room we came from? Would that be acceptable, Sir Adam? Aye? Good. Anne will make the place comfortable, with some unwatered wine to numb the pain a little and …” he stood next to the bed as the injured woman rose to her feet. “Fear nothing, my lady. If the person who did this to you is still around, Little John will deal with them.”

“You can be sure of that,” rumbled John who, at over six-and-a-half feet, had to stoop to avoid hitting his head on the doorframe. “You’re safe with me, my lady.”

Faces of Darkness is quite a departure for Steven A. McKay. A psychological thriller, it could be set in any era, but he has ingeniously set it in the world of his Forest Lord series, so that the astute Friar Tuck and redoubtable Little John can take the lead in solving the mystery, giving the reader the comfort of familiar characters in a story that is both emotional and evocative.

The novella keeps you guessing the true cause of Lady Isabella’s misery to the climactic end. There were several points where I thought I had solved the mystery, only to be disabused of my theory a few pages later, which, of course, makes the book even more riveting!

This is fabulous story that has only one downside – it is too short. I would have loved the book to be a full-length historical novel. It was enthralling! Here’s hoping that Faces of Darkness sparks a new career for Friar Tuck and Little John, solving medieval mysteries.

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About the author:

Steven McKay was born in 1977 near Glasgow in Scotland. He live in Old Kilpatrick with his wife and two young children. After obtaining his Bachelor of Arts degree with the Open University he decided to follow his life-long ambition and write a historical novel.

He plays guitar and sings in a heavy metal band when they can find the time to meet up.

You can check out his website here. Steven also has an Amazon Author page and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

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My Books

Coming soon! 

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England will be released in the UK on 30 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from Amazon UK and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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 tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK, Amazon US and 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.

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Book Corner: Fortune’s Child by James Conroyd Martin

Theodora: actress, prostitute, mistress, feminist. And Byzantine Empress of the civilized world. Stephen: handsome Syrian boy, wizard’s apprentice, palace eunuch. And Secretary to the Empress. How does this unlikely pair become such allies that one day Empress Theodora asks Stephen to write her biography?

From a very young age, Theodora, daughter of a circus bearkeeper in Constantinople, sets her sights well above her station in life. Her exquisite beauty sets her apart on stages and in the eyes of men.

Stephen, a Syrian lad of striking good looks, is sold by his parents to a Persian wizard, who teaches him a skill in languages that will serve him well.
By the time Destiny brings them together in Antioch, Theodora has undergone heart-rending trials and a transformation, while Stephen has been sold again . . . and castrated.
Discover the enduring bond that, however imperfect, prompts Theodora—as Empress—to request palace eunuch Stephen to write her biography.

This is a true rags to riches story, of a girl from the lowers echelons of society who rose to be empress of Constantinople. Fortune’s Child: A Novel of Empress Theodora tells the story of Empress Theodora, born in 500, into a poor Greek family; her father a circus worker for the Greens, who rose to be Master of the Bears. Theodora’s future was to be an actress, a popular one, but little more than a prostitute in the eyes of many, and with no prospects to ever improve her situation, unless she forced matters.

Although a novel, Fortune’s Child: A Novel of Empress Theodora flawlessly blends history and story-telling to draw the reader into the exotic world of 6th century Constantinople and the East. Recreating the life of Theodora and the world in which she lived, James Conroyd Martin takes you on an adventure that explores every aspect of Theodora’s world, the challenges, grief and struggles that she had to face to climb out of the fate into which she was born and make her own fortune.

This is a novel that will take you through the full range of emotions. It is not all glamour and success, but neither is it all dull and gloom. The author imbues a humanity that invokes both sympathy and compassion for the title character, even when her actions are less than noble.

It is late at night when a soft knock, almost imperceptible, comes at the door. I open it to find Theodora standing there, a finger to her lips. She is dressed in a purple bedchamber robe. She wears no veil or headdress. Her hair falls about her face like an ebony frame about the portrait of a ghost. I stand aside and she enters, gliding like some visitant saint into a monk’s cell.

But she is no saint. And since I am no monk, I take the comfortable chair.

“You know the circumstances of my birth, Stephen, how my mother kept me from being … abandoned – exposed to the elements.”

I nod, taking up a kalamos.

“The story is legend by now. Of course, it may be quite accurate, but my mother would relate it as a way of upbraiding a thoughtless and unappreciative daughter who would drolly mimic the ways of the adults around her, as well as the pretentious airs of an older sister. I was two when the mid-wife was called again and mother gave birth to a third child – alas, another girl.” She pauses, appraising me, her biographer. “Take what I tell you, Stephen, and bring my life to parchment. Breathe life into my past.” The empress grimaces as she settles in without complaint against the hard back of the chair, bringing her hands together in her lap, the interlocking fingers pale as moonbeams against the purple of her robe. “I shall begin, Stephen, where my memory begins.”

For my pettiness in my choice of chair, I feel a tinge of guilt, but I dust away and begin taking the notes that will become her biography.

Sixth century Byzantium is a period that is not often featured in historical fiction, which is such a shame, if Fortune’s Child: A Novel of Empress Theodora is anything to go by. It is a thoroughly engaging read, immersing the reader in 6th century Byzantium, through the sights, sounds and smells of Constantinople; the challenges and prejudices faced by lower class women, however beautiful and alluring, and the rules and restrictions of the privileged classes and the imperial court.

It is, at times, a hard book to read, when the reality of a woman’s lot and the prejudices and attitudes Theodora had to face and overcome. And yet, she never seems to forget her roots. The author avoids melodrama to bring you a story that is, at once, the story of Theodora and of her biographer, and how their lives are intertwined with Theodora’s own rise through the ranks of society.

As you read the novel, you can understand why James Conroyd Martin chose to tell Theodora’s life, it is as mesmerising and engaging as Theodora herself must have been. From the first pages the reader is immediately and irrevocably invested in the story of this incredible woman. I cannot recommend it highly enough – it is a must-read. Many aspects of it will remain with you long after you have finished the last page.

Fortune’s Child: A Novel of Empress Theodora by James Conroyd Martin is available in hardback, paperback and ebook from Amazon UK.

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My Books

Coming soon! 

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England will be released in the UK on 30 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from Amazon UK and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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 tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK, Amazon US and Book Depository.

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©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Book Corner: Allegiance of Blood by Mark Turnbull

Sir Francis Berkeley strives to protect his wife and family from the brutal effects of the English Civil War. But aside from the struggle between king and parliament, the allegiances of family, friendship and honour entangle him at every turn and prove to be just as bloody.
As a witness to treason on the field of Edgehill, Francis is drawn into a fast-moving world of espionage and politics. Against a backdrop of some of the major battles and sieges, Francis’s fight to reunite his family opens up very different conflicts with which to contend.
Everything is at stake when the war comes to a little church one December morning. Can the family survive the parliamentarian onslaught as well as their own feud?

I have to admit, the English Civil War is not one of my more familiar periods of history. So a book on it – be it fact or fiction – has to be really good to hold my attention. Allegiance of Blood by Mark Turnbull is one such book. It is a wonderful novel based around the struggles between the English Parliament and King Charles I and the divisions this caused with the country – and even within families. It centres on the story of one royalist, Sir Francis Berkeley, and his experiences following the battle of Edgehill on October 1642.

Allegiance of Blood beautifully weaves together the personal life and tragedies of the hero, Berkeley, with the greater drama that is overtaking England and the embattled King Charles I. Fast-paced and full of action, the story highlights the many conspiracies and conflicted loyalties that plagued the soldiers on both sides of the war; where brothers fought brothers, friends found themselves on opposing sides and families were torn by politics and ideologies.

The story is augmented by Francis’s proximity to the great and the good. Taken under the wing of Prince Rupert of the Rhine, the dashing cavalier general, and given promotion and responsibility, Francis fights to further the royalist cause, even against his own family and friends.

“After years of watching others, I see I have been spied upon myself.” Harbottle paled with realisation. “A secret that will die with you.” He squeezed the trigger, only for a flash of yellow and a hiss to taunt him upon its smoking misfire.

Francis seized his sword and sliced at Harbottle’s leg; a streak of crimson filled the gash. Before the blood had time to soak into his breeches, Francis punched the man in the face and then in the stomach. Harbottle, winded and with a broken nose, careered backwards into a shelf of pewter plates that jangled across the floor around them.

“You betrayed every man who lost his life that day.” Francis caught his breath and grabbed the remaining letters. “Cowardly son of a whore.” Clutching them in his other fist he held them up in vindication of all the lost souls of Edgehill who’d been sold out by this self-centred dog. It took all of his restraint not to skewer Harbottle on the end of his sword that instant.

“I’m no such thing.” Harbottle panted, claiming that swimming against the popular tide took much more courage. “My family’s future will not be dictated by attachment to one of two corrupt factions.”

“Perhaps you’ll soon come to realise the futility of your two-faced strategy.”

“Your battlefield memories are little more than the ramblings of a lunatic,” Harbottle replied.

“I suspect these letters contain more than mere ramblings.” Francis warned that Harbottle would soon be swinging from a noose. “A constricted throat will put an end to your betrayal of the King.”

With the appearance of his subordinates, revealing that the street was rapidly being cleared of rebels, Francis’s prediction took a step closer to reality. Every passing day of peace negotiations had seen royal dominance loosened bit by bit, because every fresh day brought Parliament’s field army closer to London in its bid to defend the city. Brentford’s fall evened out the balance of power, but what remained to be seen was whether Francis could tip the scales against Harbottle and prove the man’s duplicity.

After a slight tendency to over-description in the early chapters, Allegiance of Blood proves to be a wonderful novel, exciting, entertaining and addictive. It draws you in, taking you through all the motions as you experience love, battle, betrayal and grief. The imagery is sublime.

The history is impeccable and Mark’s extensive research shines through, but does not overshadow the story. The characters are a wonderful, disparate group, from the Puritan brother-in-law, drunken father-in-law, to a loving wife. And then there’s Francis himself, a loyal royalist who is often caught between his unwavering allegiance to the crown and family and friendship loyalties which serve to test that allegiance.

Mark Turnbull skilfully brings together all the aspects of war; family and friendships riven apart, betrayal, espionage, sieges and pitched battles – and a family secret! He weaves a wonderful, sweeping story, which draws the reader into the essence of the wars between parliament and king.

Allegiance of Blood by Mark Turnbull is available in paperback and ebook from Amazon UK.

About the author:

After a visit to Helmsley Castle at the age of 10, Mark Turnbull bought a pack of ‘top trump’ cards featuring the monarchs of England. The card portraying King Charles I fascinated him.
Van Dyck’s regal portrait of the King and the fact that he was executed by his own people were the beginnings of Mark’s passionate interest in the English Civil War that has lasted ever since.
In the absence of time travel, he thoroughly enjoys bringing this period to life through writing. He has written articles for magazines, local newspapers and online educational sites. He has also re-enacted battles with The Sealed Knot and for several years edited the Historical Novel Society’s online newsletter.

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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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©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Book Corner: Interview with Tony Riches

Tony RichesThis week I’m talking to best-selling historical fiction author Tony Riches who lives in Pembrokeshire, one of the most unspoilt areas of the UK. Hi Tony, thanks for agreeing to be a guest interviewee on my blog, History…the Interesting Bits.

Hi Sharon I’d like to start by congratulating you on a great blog – it’s good to see a balance of well researched history and historical fiction.

Thank you Tony, that’s lovely to hear. So, what made you become a writer?

I wrote articles for magazines and journals before tackling my first book just over four years ago. (I self-published a short ebook about how everyone can use the principles of Agile Project Management and was a surprising success.) I went on to write several non-fiction books on subjects as diverse as the story of Scott’s Antarctic ship, the Terra Nova, to Atlantis, about the last flight of the NASA Space shuttle. Now my focus is very much on historical fiction – and I have become something of an expert on the rise of the Tudor dynasty

Who are your major writing influences?

I read widely, so it is hard to single out influences, although some of my favourites are C.J. Sansom (I’ve just finished reading his impressive book Lamentation, about Queen Katherine Parr), as well as Anne O’Brien and Conn Iggulden.

Most novels tend to look at the Wars of the Roses from the Yorkist side, what made you choose to tell the story from the Tudor point of view?

I was born within sight of Pembroke Castle, so feel a special connection with Henry Tudor, who was born there. Everyone knows about King Henry VIII and his daughter, Queen Elizabeth Ist – but I was surprised to discover there were no books about Owen Tudor, the Welsh servant who married a queen and founded the Tudor dynasty. I discovered several accounts of the life of Henry Tudor (who later became King Henry VII) but there were no novels that brought his own story to life.

The idea for the Tudor Trilogy occurred to me when I realised Henry Tudor could be born in book one, ‘come of age’ with the help of Owen’s son, Jasper Tudor, in book two, and rule England in book three, so there would be plenty of scope to explore his life and times.

If someone said they wanted to make a film of your books, who would you pick to play Owen, Edmund and Jasper?

I’m currently in the process of having audiobooks produced of OWEN and JASPER and find it fascinating to hear their voices from over five centuries ago, so can imagine what it must be like to see them made as a film. I’ve always thought Welsh Actor Michael Sheen would be great for Owen – and perhaps Ioan Gruffudd (famous for playing Horatio Hornblower) as Jasper Tudor. Edmund is a bit of a shady character (I’ve never forgiven him for what he did to Margaret Beaufort) although I recently visited Carmarthen Castle where he died and his impressive tomb in St David’s Cathedral. How about another great young Welsh actor, Iwan Rheon, (who you might know as Ramsay Bolton in Game of Thrones.)

How long do you spend researching a novel before you start writing?

I’ve developed a great ‘system’ over the years of spending a year researching, followed by about nine months writing the book while it’s all still fresh in my mind. I have a wonderful collection of books on Wars of The Roses and the fifteenth century, and I particularly enjoy visiting the actual locations I’m writing about. (I’m off to Josselin in Brittany soon, to see the châteaux where Jasper and Henry spent their long exile – and will be positing about it on my writing blog.)

What comes first, your storyline or your research?

I have to decide where to start the storyline, then I start the research notes. For example, in OWEN I decided to begin with his first meeting with Queen Catherine of Valois, as little is really known about his life before then and I could easily work it in later.

indexYou’ve also written a novel about Warwick, the Kingmaker, so which are you, Yorkist, Lancastrian – or on the fence?

Richard Neville, ‘Warwick the Kingmaker’ was a fascinating character to write about, as I explored his motivation for changing sides. Personally, like Jasper Tudor – and his nephew Henry, I would like nothing more than to reconcile the houses of Lancaster and York. I have great sympathy for Edward of York, and have even tried to give his younger brother Richard the benefit of the doubt.

Owen is told in the first person. It works really well – makes the story more personal for the reader. What made you write it in that way?

I’d already written the first two chapters when I read Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, and was struck by the power of her use of the present-tense. It was a huge risk to re-write it in the first person present-tense but I enjoyed the challenge.

How do you organise your writing day?

I’ve learnt to ‘deal with’ social media early in the morning to prevent it distracting me from writing. My ‘system’ is to aim for twenty-five chapters of about four thousand words, to arrive at a completed first draft for editing of about a hundred thousand. I keep track of my daily word count on a simple Excel spreadsheet, which allows me to see how well I’m doing at a glance.

What do you enjoy most about writing?

There is nothing better than having feedback from a reader who says they’ve really enjoyed one of my books. I’d like to think in some small way I’ve also helped readers understand the rise of the Tudors a little better, and it’s my ambition to present a more balanced view of the often overlooked King Henry VII.

What is the worst thing about writing?

I should know better by now but I must admit that a harsh comment in a review can trouble me for days. One reviewer recently pointed out that I’d failed to explain the reason for the Wars of The Roses!

How long does it take to do a project from start to finish? Do you write one book at a time, or have several on the go at once?

I’m happy to produce one new book a year. I enjoy sailing and kayaking, so I usually begin writing at the end of the season in October and aim to send a first draft to my editor by Easter the following year. The process is so intense I don’t think I could manage to juggle two books at once.

Who are your favourite personalities from history? Is there anyone you would particularly like to write about, but haven’t yet?

It would have to be Jasper Tudor, who put his loyalty to Henry Tudor and Margaret Beaufort before everything else. As for those I haven’t written about yet, there are some fascinating members of the court of Henry VIII I’ve already ‘penciled in’ for potential future novels.

You’ve written about the Wars of the Roses and the Romans, what other historical periods would you like to write about?

I’d like to slowly make my way towards the Elizabethan period, as I was looking at an original portrait of Queen Elizabeth 1st recently and saw the knowing look in her eye. There are plenty of books about Elizabeth but still plenty of scope to explore her life and times.

Do you ever get writer’s block? If so, how do you get around it?

No, I suffer from the opposite, which is waking up with my characters voices telling me so much I can hardly write it all down quickly enough. I keep my laptop by the side of the bed now, and have been known to write a whole chapter before breakfast.

Owen and JasperDo you find social media – such as Facebook and Twitter – a benefit or a hindrance?

Twitter is a great way to build an international readership and has enabled me to have best sellers in the US and Australia – something which earlier writers would only have been able to dream of.  As a consequence, I’ve invested less time in Facebook, although there are some great groups there which I follow and contribute to when I can.

We have had Owen and Jasper, so what will be the last book of the Tudor trilogy?

I’m busy with the research for HENRY – Book Three of the Tudor Trilogy now.  I’ve just read Alison Weir’s excellent new book about Katherine of Aragon and was disappointed to see Henry portrayed as more than a little sinister and insensitive, so it looks like it’s up to me to present an alternative point of view.

What is your next project, once The Tudors is complete?

I’m looking forward to entering the court of Henry Tudor’s tyrannical son – through the eyes of someone who knows him particularly well….

 For more information about Tony’s books please visit his popular blog, The Writing Desk and his WordPress website and find him on Facebook and Twitter @tonyriches.

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Thank you very much, Tony Riches, for that marvellous insight into the life of a writer. Thoroughly entertaining.

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My book, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK and worldwide from Book Depository. It is also available on Kindle in both the UK and USA and will be available in Hardback from Amazon US from 1 May 2018.

Be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.