Thursday, 19 September 2013

Review: The Hundred Years War, by Christopher Allmand

A few days ago I finished reading The Hundred Years War, by Christopher Allmand.

Initially it surprised me in two ways. Firstly, it was a little shorter than I expected (under 200 pages), and it also dealt with the war according to themes rather than a chronological account of what happens. Allmand divides his book into chapters dealing with a given subject (Institutions, for example) rather than dealing with the war decade-by-decade.

It was a bit of a surprise at first, but the method worked well and enabled the author to go into some detail regarding various aspects of the period (how mercenaries worked, the importance of sea power etc).

Because of the lengthy nature of the war (the book covers 150 years or so) great detail regarding arms, armour and so forth isn’t gone into, but we do get some information about such, and more about the increasing role of cannons. These new devices altered the defensive capability of towns (reducing them, basically) and thereby fundamentally changed the way war was waged. Technological progress changed the game from raids (generally leaving alone well-protected, walled towns and cities) to siege (when the advantage shifted to the aggressor from the besieged).

At the start of the book are several maps which give a good picture of the state of play between England and France, with the area of English influence varying wildly over time.

The writing style I found pretty easy to understand, although here and there Mr. Allmand does seem to make sentences a little lengthier and more convoluted than need be the case. I never felt lost regarding time, as the author generally refers not only to whoever was king (or kings, one of each country, of course) at the time but a year or range of years.

For a broad look at how the Hundred Years War proceeded, how it affected the English and French kingdoms and how it was involved in substantial military, financial and social changes this is an excellent book. I particularly found interesting the way that cannon shifted methods of war, and how taxation changed from being temporary and for a specific purpose to permanent (and often frittered away…).

If you want further reading on this area, I can recommend Philippe Contamine’s War in the Middle Ages, and the light-hearted but entertaining and informative Knight (Unofficial Manuals).


Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Competition for a free copy of Sir Edric’s Temple

In my limitless benevolence I’ve decided to try a free giveaway for Sir Edric’s Temple. All you need do is click here, and guess the mortality rate in Bane of Souls to one decimal place. (NB do read the guidelines. They’re pretty simple but should help you guess a bit more accurately).

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Stargate: SG-1

The UK free-to-air channel Pick TV has just finished its run of Stargate: SG-1 episodes. I haven’t watched every single one (annoyingly, I missed a critical one when a certain cast member was changed, which I also missed when it was aired originally) but I have seen the vast majority.

Anyway, after many months of watching the series it seemed fitting to write a review. I’ll endeavour to keep spoilers to a minimum (incidentally, I haven’t seen the subsequent made-for-TV films that were made with the SG-1 cast).

Stargate: SG-1 followed the original Stargate film. Two characters (played by differing actors in the shift to TV) were retained, namely Colonel Jack O’Neill and Dr. Daniel Jackson, an archaeologist. Dr. Jackson’s character is relevant to a sci-fi show because a race of alien parasites known as Goa’uld pretend to be gods, and (although they use advanced, and often stolen, technology) take on roles from various mythologies. As a result, the lore of the past is relevant to the current state of play in the galaxy.

In addition to O’Neill and Dr. Jackson, the main team (SG-1) consists of Captain Samantha Carter, an airforce pilot/scientist and Teal’c, a laconic alien. The two other regulars for most of the show were General Hammond, their commander, and Dr. Janet Fraiser, the head of the medical staff.

Generally, I loathe the term ‘for all the family’. It tends to be used about children’s shows to try and make them sound less ‘kiddy’. But SG-1 actually is something anyone can watch and be entertained by. I was watching it (when first broadcast) whilst at school, and at that time a relative (with whom I suspect my viewing habits do not frequently coincide) also watched it. I’ve been watching it for months now, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

So, what’s good about it?

Humour. Whilst in sci-fi a certain suspension of disbelief is necessary, the general lack of humour (or good humour) in certain shows grates a bit. It isn’t overplayed in SG-1, and is both entertaining and well-delivered. One of the last episodes ended thus:

Great characters. There isn’t a weak link in the initial cast, and there’s a great group dynamic. Later on Ben Browder and Claudia Black both join, which I found a bit surreal because I’ve also watched most of Farscape (in which they both also star, making later SG-1 feel a bit like I’ve fallen into a parallel universe).

Good lore/backstory. The ancient myths referred to (mostly Egypt, initially) are perfect because they’re familiar enough not to need extensive explanation/info-dumping but unusual enough that they’re not hackneyed and have room for some interesting revelations.

It’s an odd feeling not having SG-1 to watch anymore. The closest comparison I can think of is when I finally finished Outlaws of theMarsh, which is a bloody enormous Chinese classic of over 2,000 pages. When I reached the end it seemed strange not to spend an hour or two a day with Song Jiang and Li Kui anymore.


Thursday, 12 September 2013

Never too old to fight

“Kids grow up so fast these days” - grandparents from every age.

In epic fantasy or historical fiction it can sometimes be tricky to decide how old someone must be before they realistically fight, and how old is too old. History teaches us that there’s a pretty enormous age range for fighting.

Alexander the Great

Alexander, as well as winning every battle he ever fought, also has the distinction of starting very young. In fact, he was just 17 when he commanded the cavalry at the Battle of Chaeronea. His father led the Macedonian army, and Alexander destroyed the elite Theban Sacred Band.

The reassertion of Macedonian hegemony over the Hellenistic world began when Alexander was 19, and the conquest of the Persian Empire occurred when he was in his 20s. Despite his youth he was strategically and tactically astute, and held the respect and loyalty of men old enough to be his father or even grandfather.

Hannibal Barca

Hannibal accompanied his father Hamilcar to Iberia when he was just a boy, and learnt there how to be a soldier. When Hamilcar was killed his son served under Hasdrubal the Handsome, who was assassinated, before taking command himself. Hannibal’s glory years during the early part of the Second Punic War were in his 30s. After the war ended he led Carthage for a short time, before going on the run as an anti-Roman mercenary. During his time he still showed he had tactical ability, not least by the brilliant use of snakes in a naval battle (he had them collected, put into pots and then hurled onto the decks of enemy ships). He died in his 70s, by his own hand.

Julius Caesar

Caesar is best known two campaigns, the Gallic Wars and Civil Wars. The former occurred when he was in his 40s, and the latter in his 50s. Despite perhaps seeming a little old by the end of it there was never a question of him using age as an excuse to evade the hardships of soldiering. Indeed, on the battlefield he enjoyed great success and won both wars. Not unlike a British political party in the Commons, his adversaries may have been in front of him, but his enemies were behind him.

The Silver Shields

Not a man but an army unit. Believed to have been the hypaspists (elite foot soldiers comparable to the Companions on foot who served under Alexander) they became a critical and feared force during the wars of the Diadochi that ensued after Alexander’s death. Despite their relatively advanced age (hard to be certain but 50s and 60s seems likely) they were not an enemy one wanted to see on the battlefield, and their expertise (and morale-boosting presence) ensured they could command an above average fee from their paymaster.

Lysimachus and Seleucus

These two men were both Companions of Alexander, and both were to live more than twice as long as their famous leader. Although lesser known than the names above, both held sway over tremendous swathes of territory. Seleucus had the lion’s share of what had been the Persian Empire, and Lysimachus held most of Thrace and Asia Minor. The two men fought for their entire lives (on the same side initially, but after the Battle of Ipsus, see below, they squabbled amongst themselves). By the time they met for the final climactic Battle of Corupedium both men were in their 70s.

Antigonus Monopthalmus

However, even Lysimachus and Seleucus were younger than old Antigonus. He became, for a time, the predominant successor to Alexander. However, his power was such that four rivals (Cassander, Lysimachus, Seleucus and Ptolemy [debatably]) united to oppose him. At the Battle of the Five Kings (the Battle of Ipsus) he faced a combined army approximately equal to his own. Despite being 81, he commanded his forces along with his son Demetrius Poliorcetes, and was killed by a javelin when his son led the cavalry too far from the battle and was unable to return and save his father due to Seleucus’ elephants (cavalry are terrified of elephants). [Demetrius’ cavalry also included a young cousin of Alexander the Great, called Pyrrhus].

So, just taking a fairly narrow band of history from about the mid-4th century BC to the mid-1st century BC there are clear examples of leaders on the battlefield ranging in age from 17 to over 80. Although the older ones may not have fought personally, it seems highly likely that those in their 50s and 60s were still doing so.


Friday, 6 September 2013

Kuhrisch influences

From the very start of planning Bane of Souls I wanted Highford to sit at the meeting point of three countries. Whilst inside Felaria’s border, it’s also very close to Kuhrisch and Dennish territory. This meant that, although the story is largely confined within Highford’s walls, I could elaborate a little upon the peoples beyond and hopefully make the world more immersive.

The Dennish and Felarians are (magic aside) fairly typical medieval fare, with a monarch at the top, nobility and clergy below and peasants at the bottom. There’s more to it than that, particularly regarding how magic is integrated into the world, but as a shorthand summary that’s fairly accurate.

However, when writing up the background work for the two kingdoms I decided I wanted the third to be substantially different, and so the Kuhrisch came about. The Felarians/Dennish have a strong sense of hierarchy, and whilst social elevation is possible the vast majority start and end life wherever they happen to be born on the social ladder.

By contrast, the Kuhrisch have almost no hierarchy whatsoever. Men and women are born into different clans, but none has a legal advantage over the other. There are Godi (men who handle matters of laws, akin to a magistrate) and elders (men who handle matters of tradition), but neither role is a paid position. Those who are considered to abuse what power they have as a Godi or elder tend not to last very long.

Instead of laws (of which there are few), most Kuhrisch behaviour is dictated by tradition. Indeed, the lack of kings and nobles means that the Kuhrland is less like a medieval kingdom and more like the Hellenistic world of ancient Greece (albeit usually more co-operative and less prone to internal warfare). It is not fealty to the crown that defines the Kuhrisch, but belief in the same gods and practice of the same customs.

This means that the Kuhrisch are far freer than the Dennish and Felarians. There are almost no taxes at all to pay (and most of those that exist are not really taxes but donations to the God of Plenty).

Magic is reasonably widespread in the kingdoms, but in the Kuhrland it is almost completely absent. Because of this, the Kuhrisch (whilst being considered heathens by Denland and Felaria) see those who possess magical gifts as afflicted with a curse. The Church of the Divine teaches that those with magic are touched by the gods, whereas the Kuhrisch consider arcane ability to be black magic, the work of demons. After all, if it were the work of gods then many Kuhrisch would possess it. On the very rare occasions a Kuhrisch does have such power it is attributed to a non-Kuhrisch parent or ancestor, and at the minimum causes the individual to become outcast. A Kuhrisch with magical abilities may be killed outright without it being considered a crime, though this is not mandatory.

The personal names are typically taken from German and Gothic history (though I might use some Icelandic ones in the future, in the same way I bastardised the Godi for the Kuhrland). Fritigern, Athanaric, and Winguric are all Gothic names. Place names are all German.

Incidentally, the new background for the blog is a map of part of the Kuhrland. A full size (warning: it's pretty big) version can be found here. Geldfels is more or less north of Highford.