Everything has been building to this.
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Here’s a first look a the initial draft of the cover of Pendragon – A Novel Of The Dark Age which is published on July 13. After the long-running Hereward series, this is a new story, delving even further back in history.
Here is the beginning of a legend. Long before Camelot rose, a hundred years before the myth of King Arthur was half-formed, at the start of the Red Century, the world was slipping into a Dark Age…
It is AD 367. In a frozen forest beyond Hadrian’s Wall, three scouts of the Roman army are found murdered. For Lucanus, known as the Wolf and leader of elite unit called the Arcani, this chilling ritual killing is a sign of a greater threat.
But to the Wolf the far north is a foreign land, a place where daemons and witches and the old gods live on. Only when the child of a friend is snatched will he venture alone into this treacherous world – a territory ruled over by a barbarian horde – in order to bring the boy back home. What he finds there beyond the wall will echo down the years.
A secret game with hidden factions is unfolding in the shadows: cabals from the edge of Empire to the eternal city of Rome itself, from the great pagan monument of Stonehenge to the warrior kingdoms of Gaul will go to any length to find and possess what is believed to be a source of great power, signified by the mark of the Dragon.
A soldier and a thief, a cut-throat, courtesan and a druid, even the Emperor Valentinian himself – each of these has a part to play in the beginnings of this legend…the rise of the House of Pendragon.
Pre-order it now from your favourite bookshop or sign up for a copy here.
Step away from the tourist attractions and London has plenty of secrets waiting to be explored. I spend a lot of time walking around various corners of the country, prowling into places I probably shouldn’t be, and recently I had a nose around behind the scenes at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden which offered up its fair share of surprises.
It’s got a long, storied history – the current building dates from 1858 (two previous opera houses were destroyed by fire) – and it’s regularly reinvented itself. Builders have been knocking holes in things for the last few years, but now it’s just about ready for the 21st century.
The design is still fantastic, though, right?
With the focus understandably being on what’s taking place on the stage, most people don’t realise there’s a hidden city – or at least village – behind the scenery. More than a thousand people working around the clock, in shifts: the opera house is always open.
The vast acreage behind the stage is a series of interlocking squares which can be moved mechanically around into any formation, like one of those puzzle games you used to get in Christmas crackers. It’s got the biggest lift in Europe, the size of an articulated lorry, used for moving cages of scenery and props up and down three storeys, once they’ve been transported from the off-site storage facility. All of the scenery and props are kept.
Apart from an astonishing costume department, smaller theatres, screening rooms, the rehearsal studio for the ballet and many more, there’s an actual armoury, with a resident armourer. These are lethal weapons – axes, swords, not the least – so they’re all kept under lock and key, with restricted entry.
And what would an opera house be without a phantom? Although it’s not been widely publicised, my guide revealed there’s a section of the old building where the staff won’t work alone at night. Strange sights, strange sounds, cold spots and a presence. Ghosts are stories that hang around forever.
The Tower of London has a real pull for anyone who loves history. It spans the life of England in all its forms, from pre-history, through Roman Britain to the modern age, a great story – or ten – for every era.
I spent a day there recently, ambling around under an Autumn sun. It was the first time I’d been since I was a boy, but the memories of that early visit came rushing back, I think because those stories had sent roots deep into my unconscious. This is how stories work, and why, in ancient times, they were used to teach important knowledge, the truths coded into every line.
That’s something I’m very interested in at the moment: the parallel history of the world, one based on abstracts and intangibles, where stories, myths, legend, folklore, are created by people and then ripple out and affect everything around us as if they were real.
Sometimes facts are the least important thing when it comes to understanding the world at large, and history. It’s what people believe that shapes their actions, and as we can see in the headlines nearly every day, people believe a lot of strange things.
The Tower of London is a great venue for considering this alternative approach to history.
Legend has it – and also the first description of the Tower by Fitz-Stephen who died in 1191 – that the “mortar is tempered with the blood of beasts.” The stories that rolled out suggested this was a magical defence, blood as a spell of protection, and a fitting way of telling the people that their land would be kept safe by this castle which became the symbol of England’s strong defence.
And, of course, there’s the famous legend that the kingdom and the tower will fall if the six ravens ever leave the fortress. Charles II was the monarch who insisted they be protected, for that very reason. That’s another legend that reaffirms a belief in the indomitable nature of the English.
The myth of England is a powerful force that provides a foundation for patriotism and ties people together in the need for common struggle. We’ve been building on it for years, and that isn’t going to stop just because we are, allegedly, wiser and less superstitious.
I’ve just delivered the manuscript of my next book to my editor at Penguin Random House and to my agent. The Dragon has some similarities with my Hereward series, and a great many differences.
It’s about another of the three great heroes of England (Robin Hood is the third), in this case King Arthur. Except it’s not. It’s set a hundred years or so before Arthur’s legend was supposed to have sprouted, in the dying light of Roman Britain.
The book goes into some very new areas. One thing I’ve always wanted to do with my writing was push at boundaries. The danger with that is that readers are very comfortable where they are, thank you very much, and don’t really want to wander off into the shadowy thickets. But I believe the job of the author is to offer something new – it is a novel after all – and to take some risks rather than to keep ploughing the same old furrow. But that static approach is not creatively rewarding, to be honest, and I also don’t think it’s playing fair with the reader.
The Dragon is about a particular moment in time when everything changed. I think…I hope…that it will enrich an understanding of history. The research has certainly been intense, in a period, at the start of the Dark Age, when the historical record runs somewhere between fragmentary and scotch mist.
When I was writing my last series of books, about the English rebel Hereward who led the resistance against William the Conqueror after the Norman invasion in 1066, I began to think about how legends were formed out of the world around us. Within a hundred years of Hereward’s death, stories were circulating about how he carried a magical sword and slayed giants. Not true, yet true, because it explained what he and his endeavours meant to the people of England in living memory of his struggle. History and symbolism bound together.
This book is about the creation of the legend of King Arthur. I’ve looked at elements of the Arthurian mythos and how they might have arisen out of the history we know. But the more important question is: why did the legend of King Arthur come about in the first place. Why did we need it? Why do we still need it?
This, then, is an historical novel about the invisible hand of history, the things that can’t be found in the sub-strata, or in the few surviving fragmentary writings. Legends, faith, religion and the need for gods and heroes in a harsh world.
It’s about the dream of King Arthur, and of Camelot, and how it might have formed from the mists by the will of men in an age of destruction and war.
(Here’s the Amazon link – no title there yet – or you can already pre-order it from your favourite bookshop.)
The sixth and final book in the Hereward story is published today.
Get it from your favourite bookshop, or order it here.
Here’s the blurb:
1081. And so the bloody battle for the crown of the Holy Roman Empire begins.
Within the city of Constantinople itself, three venal factions will go to any lengths – will, it seems, kill any who might stand in their way – to seize the throne.
And outside the city’s walls, twin powers threaten a siege that will crush the once-mighty empire forever.
To the west, the voracious forces of the most feared Norman warlord are gathering. While in the east, the Turkish hordes are massing – theirs is a lust for slaughter.
And in the midst of this maelstrom of brutality and betrayal, Hereward and his English spear-brothers prepare to make what could be their final stand . . .
1073 – under the merciless sun of the east, a dark force has risen – a Norman adventurer who could rival the feared King William for bloody ambition. He has conquered his land, he has built his fortress and he has amassed his army. And now he has taken Constantinople’s ruler as his prisoner…
It falls to Hereward to rescue this precious captive. For this great English warrior-in-exile and his spear-brothers, it will mean mounting a raid that could prove the most dangerous and deadliest of their lives. Assisting them in their task will be an elite and legendary band of fighters, the Immortals – so-called because they believe they cannot die in battle. But it will not be enough – for enemies hide within the jewelled heart of Byzantium: vipers who spread their poison, who want to see the English dead at any cost and who are to transform a mission that was at best dangerous into an adventure that is now suicidal. . .
With this rousing adventure full of brutal sword play, treachery, camaraderie and honour, James Wilde continues his bestselling account of the action-packed life and times of England’s great and now, thanks to his his fiction, perhaps not-so-forgotten hero – Hereward the Wake.
Get it here, or at your favourite bookshop.
Want to give the Hereward series a try? Now’s the time. For the entire month of June, Amazon will be promoting the first book in the series, just in time for the summer holidays. You can get the Kindle version here for just £1.99.
I am not what you would call an indoors person.
I’ve always enjoyed the outsider lifestyle on lots of levels. And, for me, adventure has always been a key part of appreciating life and the world.
For a week, I slept in a tent in the Arctic Circle. -20C, -30C with windchill. Waking with snot frozen on your face was not a pleasant experience. Nor was getting set on fire by an exploding lamp.
Most days I’m out on my mountain bike or running through the wilds, here in Mercia. I’ve climbed mountains, walked deserts. But it’s not just a matter of pitting myself against nature (hint: you never win), nor is it purely about solitude and the meditative act – even though it’s a proven way of boosting creativity, vital for any writer, artist or musician.
For me, it’s as much about connecting with history. Our story is written on the land. (My old university professor pioneered the study of aerial photographs to discover the hidden secrets humanity had left there.) One of my favourite pastimes is walking the old ways – the drovers roads, the old straight tracks, the five thousand year old lines across the landscape. It’s a way of learning, of connecting with who we were through direct physical contact.
I have a notion of walking a few of these ancient pathways and posting a few photographs here across the summer, if anyone is interested.
A great many writers of historical fiction, fantasy and heroic fiction have been inspired by David Gemmell’s evocative writing and muscular plotting. From the publication of his first novel in 1984, he established a position in bestseller lists across the globe and was prolific in his output.
But sometimes it’s very easy to see the work and not the person behind it. What many people don’t realise is how supportive David Gemmell was of many young writers trying to gain a foothold in a notoriously brutal industry. He was tireless in his responses to queries from would-be authors, taking the time to craft personal advice and guidance that would help them on their own personal journey. My friend James Barclay was only one such writer who went on to great things after David offered his initial support.
David didn’t wade through reams of pages of unpublished manuscripts. No writer has the time for that. And in this day and age it’s hugely frowned upon. Many agents insist that their clients don’t read the work of unpublished authors because of the possibility of litigation – not because any author would willingly steal the work of someone else – they have enough ideas of their own that they’ll never have the time to write. But because the way this bizarre, creative business works is that things seep into the vast unconscious, stew, change and eventually bubble to the surface again with no hint of where they came from.
But David was always quick to respond to anyone who contacted him, with a friendly word, or advice on who and how to approach.
Sometimes that’s all you need. Just a word, a nod of the head, a sense that, yes, keep going, we’ve all been there, you can do it.
And on a separate note, and just to update everyone who’s been in touch, I’ve now completed the copy edit of Hereward: The Bloody Crown. It’s on schedule and will be published in July as planned. Here are the details on Amazon.