Friday, 24 February 2017

Succession Matters

Succession/inheritance is not necessarily as straightforward as might be assumed. The archetype would be primogeniture (sometimes male), whereby the oldest child (perhaps eldest son) gets the lot, and the younger children end up with either nothing or very little.

This was certainly the case in England and Scotland. However, in Wales things were done differently. There, every son got a share of the land/wealth when his father died. Sounds more equal, but it also led to fragmentation of wealth and power, whereas in England/Scotland the estate was kept whole. This meant that political power in Wales was weaker because there was a larger number of weaker nobles, whereas elsewhere in Great Britain there was a smaller number of more powerful nobles. This is one reason why England kept thrashing Wales in wars.

Another unforeseen consequence of the Welsh system was that if you killed any of your siblings, you’d get more inheritance (or claim their territory if your father had already died). To an extent this was true elsewhere, but you’d need to be next in line to benefit.

A similar system was used by Charlemagne. Splendid leader of men, but his system of his inheritance was rubbish. It led to (his grandchildren, I think) splitting his empire (roughly France and Germany) into three parts. You can guess what happened next. Infighting, weakness, etc. The French bit shrank for centuries until gradually reasserting itself (which was aided by a combination of Henry II’s stupid compromise over Aquitaine and King John’s general treachery).

But there are other systems of inheritance available. The Montenegrins, before being shamefully shafted by the Allies after World War One when Serbia took over, had an interesting one whereby the nephew of the ruler took over. That’s odd, but does have certain advantages. The typical coup comes from a brother of the ruler or the uncle. But this system reduces that chance significantly, because the brother is likely the father of the heir, and the uncle may well be the ruler already. (As an aside, Montenegro was ruled by a prince-bishop, itself an interesting position).

Typically in history, the eldest inherited. But there is a drastic alternative: ultimogeniture. This involves the youngest getting the estate, the reasoning being that older children have had more opportunity to forge their own fortune. In old Mongol times, so I’ve heard, the youngest child would inherit the ancestral lands, and older children would only keep territory they had conquered.

The Rota system isn’t taking turns on a regular basis, but sees the crown pass from brother to brother (then to the eldest son of the eldest brother who ruled).

The election of Queen Amidala in The Phantom Menace might seem rather contradictory (after all, monarchy and elections tend to be different things). But there are real-world examples of both co-existing. One of the most famous examples would be the Saxon Witan, a group of senior figures in a kingdom who would choose as successor to a fallen king whomever they felt was best. This worked quite well when they picked Alfred to be King of Wessex.


Friday, 17 February 2017

Coins and money in history

As a child, I collected coins. Mostly old British (I did like the pre-decimal system of 12d in a shilling, 20s in a pound, 21s in a guinea, 5s in a crown, 2s in a florin. It was delightfully complex) but also a few foreign ones.

We think of coins as being small, round, copper, silver and gold-coloured. And that’s true for a surprisingly large amount of history.

But not all of it.

Pre-unification, China was split into several different kingdoms, each of which had their own currency. These were often in strange shapes, such as spades or knives, some with holes, some without. One, Chu, had small square coins of gold.

Qing-era Chinese coins from the 17th to 20th century
It wasn’t long before a different design was settled upon, though. Qin, the ultimate victor (Qin Shi-Huangdi uniting China and becoming the first emperor) opted for round coins very similar to what we have today in basic shape. Except the round coins had square holes in them. This was actually quite cunning. If you’ve read ancient Chinese classics (I recommend Outlaws of the Marsh) you may have read the term ‘strings of cash’. These refer to, er, strings upon which coins were placed. Hence the need for a hole.

However, there was still the odd return to fancy shapes, including the Yi Dao Ping Wu Qian, a knife coin (a round coin with a hole, from which a key-like limb stretched) which came into being in the 1st century AD.

In the West, Lydia was reportedly the first country to use metal coins. They were neither gold nor silver, but an alloy of the two called electrum. The immense wealth of Lydia, aided by the quality of its coinage, helped Croesus to fund the Temple of Artemis, a Wonder of the Ancient World. However, this didn’t stop him taking dodgy advice from an oracle and starting a war with Persia, which he lost (although Cyrus was a nicer chap than many of his successors and Croesus became his adviser and friend). The Persians themselves used both gold and silver (separately) in their coinage.

Earlier, you may have noticed I used 12d rather than 12p to describe pre-decimalisation British pence. This was not a mistake. Just as the Russians sometimes claimed to be the Third Rome, the British Empire quite liked emulating the Romans. The ‘d’ is for denarii. Yes, I know we didn’t use denarii then, but that’s still what it stands for. In the same way that the £ sign is effectively an L with a line through it (for libra pondo, the Latin for a pound by weight), the imperial British did like the Roman links (they weren’t alone in that, of course. Just look at the architecture of America’s chief political buildings).

The Romans used not only silver and gold but also large amounts of bronze in their money. Bronze bullion weighing about 3lb, in fact, which is not only money but also a doorstop, or a last ditch weapon if someone tries to mug you.

When Augustus became the first emperor, the Republic gave way to the Empire and coins from then on bore the image of the man (or men) who claimed to be emperor. This feels very natural to us (well, those of us living in a monarchy). Prior to this, images of the gods or of Romulus were commonplace.

However, Rome ended up with a money problem. The problem was caused by the donative, which was effectively a massive bonus every soldier in the army got when a new emperor took over. It doesn’t take a genius to see that this could cause soldiers (especially disaffected ones) from trying to impose a new emperor, to get the bonus (imagine if you gave every child in class £5,000 every time they got a new teacher. Teacher life expectancies would go down rather quickly). Not only did this cause mass instability and civil war (especially in the third century), it also caused massive inflation. This meant the prices of ordinary goods increased rapidly, making them less affordable for ordinary folk, who didn’t get a placating bribe thrown at them by a nervous new emperor.

Related to this was the debasement of the coinage (debasement being when the silver or gold content in a coin was diminished in favour of far less valuable, base metals). This meant more coins could be made but their ‘real’ value declined. Historically, people were very aware of this, and they’d know the ‘same’ coin from five years ago might be worth more than one made yesterday. Paying large numbers of soldiers (separate from the inflation-stoking donative) was another factor, as sufficient coins had to be minted, and if a massive military effort was under way there simply might not be enough silver to do it without reducing the content in each coin.

Debasement and inflation were not problems unique to the Romans. Henry VII was careful with cash, but Henry VIII was not. He spent a fortune, which then meant he ran out of money and chose to ransack the monasteries. During his time, the coinage was debased significantly, which in turn led to very high inflation.

It’s also worth noting inflation can happen in weird ways. The Black Death of the 14th century immensely reduced the work force. This meant both that farm labour was more valuable, increasing wages, and food scarcer, increasing food prices. However, the cost of things like swords declined. Because so many people had died, there were a lot of weapons and suchlike that belonged to the recently departed. Inflation, therefore, was affected in opposite directions for different things but caused by the same plague.

During the medieval period, there was another type of coin which did not survive to the imperial British era: the mark. The mark was two-thirds of a pound, or 13s 4d in old money. It’s an interesting value, and looks quite clunky to modern eyes, used as we are to 100p in £1. However, it could be handy. Suppose you wanted a vile criminal to be taken. You might offer fifty pounds for him alive, and fifty marks for him dead.

Generally, from the Qin period to today, coins have been round. There are variations (the new British £1 will be twelve-sided, or a dodecahedron) but they’re basically all the same. Now and then a funky shape shows up, but, essentially, coins now are round and occasionally have a central hole.

Historically, silver and gold were used to determine value, that value varying in practical (though not nominal) terms according to the percentage of precious metal used. Nowadays, coins have very little inherent value (with rare exceptions, such as gold sovereigns).

Which does raise an interesting point. The actual coins you have are worth almost nothing. But because society all agrees to pretend they have value, they do.

Anyway, a bit of a ramble (just for a change), but there we are. Coins. They’re marvellous. You can even use them to buy my excellent new book, Journeys, featuring stories by Adrian Tchaikovsky, Julia Knight et al.,


Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Interview with Anna Dickinson

It’s one day until Journeys comes out, and I’ve been joined by Anna Dickinson, one of the fantasy anthology’s contributors (alongside myself).

1. Could you tell us the title and a one or two sentence premise of your story in Journeys?

"Tomas and the Virgin"

A boy and his father set out to capture the vanishingly rare Golden Roc. The hunt ought to be routine-- Tomas and his father are professionals, after all -- but the virgin they're using as bait just won't do what she's told.

2. When writing short stories for anthologies, do you prefer to have them be stand-alone or tied into your other works’ worlds?

Stand-alone. Then I can go wherever I like with them.

3. Over the time you’ve been writing, have you changed the way you do things, whether streamlining the process or moving from spontaneity to planning, or vice versa?

My first foray into writing was totally unplanned, and took me forever to finish (actually, it still might not be completely finished -- I keep meaning to go back to it). Since then, I've tried to have a general idea of where I'm going, although that's not always where I end up.

I can't plan things out in detail because it sucks all the joy out of the writing process for me. If I get stuck, I'll use planning to work out what I'm doing, especially the conflict diagrams from Storyteller Tools by Harold Page.

4. Besides fantasy, the genre of Journeys, do you write in other genres or in differing styles (grimdark, high fantasy etc)?

I mainly write YA contemporary fantasy, with mobile phones and buses and supermarkets, so Journeys was a bit of a detour from my comfort zone. I really enjoyed it, and now I'm working on a Regency romance (with magic!) to see what it's like to write about another historical period. Unfortunately, although I intended the romance to be about muslin and ringlets, it's turning quite dark.

5. What are your inspirations? Are they mostly historical/literary, and how much do other modern writers influence you?

I find this a really hard question to answer. There are authors I love and would give an unspecified number of fingers (or toes) to write like: Diana Wynne Jones. Holly Black, Patricia McKillip, for example, but inspiration is a slippery thing, and ideas tend to just appear.

6. If readers enjoy Tomas and the Virgin which of your other works would you recommend they try?

I don't have much else published yet, but if people like Tomas, they'd perhaps also like Lara, the heroine of THE BOY BY THE LAKE in Woodbridge Press's THE HAUNTING OF LAKE MANOR HOTEL. That story's full of bone-filled lakes and man-eating trees. There's kissing, too. [Excellent recommendation, as the authors of that anthology are renowned for their talent and attractiveness. Also, check my story in it too – TW].

7. Beyond your own work, what do you like to read?

All sorts of things. The authors I mentioned above, fantasy, YA, classics (especially Austen and Dickens). I'm currently reading THE GODDESS PROJECT by Bryan Wigmore and chewing my nails off in envy; I just finished THE CALL by Peadar O Guilin (I'm still a bit traumatised). I loved Melina Marchetta's fantasy series, I have a secret enthusiasm for Tessa Dare's comic Regency Romance, and when Nathan sent us the prompt, I started re-reading The Belgariad (I remembered the series as being mostly journey, which it is).

8. In between answering inane questions and writing, how do you like to unwind?

Unwind, you say? When I'm not writing or reading or faffing around on social media pretending to have opinions on things I don't know about I'm responding to the cries of "Muuuuuuum!" when my kids can't find their socks/ a glass of water/ a school book.

Thanks, Anna. You can find out more about Anna and her writing here:


Friday, 10 February 2017

Interview with Juliana Spink Mills

I’m delighted to say I’ve been joined by Juliana Spink Mills, one of the authors (alongside myself) who contributed to forthcoming fantasy anthology Journeys (available for pre-order now, publishes 15 February).

1. Could you tell us the title and a one or two sentence premise of your story in Journeys?

My story for Journeys is called Fool’s Quest, and it follows a trio of mercenaries who have been hired by the king to track down the raiders who kidnapped his daughter.

2. When writing short stories for anthologies, do you prefer to have them be stand-alone or tied into your other works’ worlds?

I prefer writing stand-alone pieces, because they give me a break from the worlds I’m writing about in my longer works. Stand-alone short stories also give me a chance to play with something new without committing to an entire novel.

3. Over the time you’ve been writing, have you changed the way you do things, whether streamlining the process or moving from spontaneity to planning, or vice versa?

I used to be a rigid outliner when I first started out. It was the only way I could get to the end of a novel – I had to know from the start exactly where I was going each step of the way. I’ve loosened up a little now, and I find I work better with a rough general outline, more of a ‘connect the dots’ manner of writing. Though I still do detailed outlines for specific segments, like action or fight scenes that need careful choreographing.

4. Besides fantasy, the genre of Journeys, do you write in other genres or in differing styles (grimdark, high fantasy etc)?

I also write ‘light’ science fiction, like my story In Plain Sight in the Aliens – The Truth Is Coming anthology (Tickety Boo Press, 2016). And my Blade Hunt Chronicles series (Woodbridge Press) is a YA urban fantasy.

5. What are your inspirations? Are they mostly historical/literary, and how much do other modern writers influence you?

When starting a new story, I often begin with a setting or a specific feel I want to capture. History can play into it; one of my current projects is inspired by the 1980s gold rush in the Brazilian Amazon. As for other writers, I think if you read a lot, like I do, it’s hard not to be influenced to some extent. Though I think that having been an 80s teen may explain my fondness for car chases, fireballs, and narrow escapes – I blame movies like Die Hard, Indiana Jones, and The Goonies for that! [TW: +2 cool points for Die Hard/Indiana Jones references].

6. If readers enjoy Fool’s Quest which of your other works would you recommend they try?

Because of the fast pace of my short story, and the teen main characters, I’d definitely recommend my brand new YA novel Heart Blade, the first in a 4-book series.

7. Beyond your own work, what do you like to read?

Nowadays, I read mostly fantasy, though I’m pretty eclectic as to what I pick up within the genre – epic, urban fantasy, steampunk... Anything goes, really. I also enjoy science fiction. I’ve always loved kidlit, and since I focus mainly on YA and middle grade as a writer, I tend to mix up reading ‘adult books’ with books aimed at younger readers.

8. In between answering inane questions and writing, how do you like to unwind?

Reading, watching way too many SF/F TV shows, walking the dog. My Friday night longsword class is also a great way to end the week and unwind!

Thanks, Juliana. If you enjoyed hearing about Journeys and Heart Blade you can find out more about Juliana's writing here:
Twitter: @JSpinkMills


Saturday, 4 February 2017

A delicious new serial

In my ongoing bid to afford luxuries such as food, shelter, and the works of Titus Livy, as well as trying to release more books this year I’m also going to write a serial.

The idea would be to release it monthly, usually for 99p/c (occasionally free). E-books make this sort of thing much easier to do, the low price point should be attractive and the regular nature will, hopefully, help keep readers engaged.

The idea I have is for a mish-mash of Robin Hood and Ancient China, following a number of heroes but focusing on two called Wandering Phoenix and Roaming Tiger.

What I want to do is get a plan for the first twelve parts initially outlined and get at least the first few actually written prior to releasing part one. The style will be inspired by Outlaws of the Marsh, my favourite of the Ancient Chinese classics I’ve read. So, expect a heavy dose of action and plot twists, and light description.

My main focus this year remains getting Traitor’s Prize finished and released (incidentally, Kingdom Asunder’s paperback will hopefully be ready in a week or two) but there are necessarily waiting periods and sometimes taking a break can help see things with fresh eyes. So, when that happens and I don’t have anything else on, I’ll be working on Wandering Phoenix and Roaming Tiger’s adventures. A release date will depend both on getting enough written and when Traitor’s Prize is ready (I don’t want to release them too close together). I’ve done about two-fifths of the planning, so I’d guess Q2 or Q3 will be a likely release for the first part, but I’ll be sure to bang on about it ahead of time.

Of course, if you can’t wait that long and/or want something with a more Polish flavour, you can pre-order Journeys for 99p. Not only does it have stories by Adrian Tchaikovsky, John Gywnne et al., it also includes Black Sails, by me.