Why We Need Camelot

Arthurian lore is stitched deeply into my new book, Pendragon, published in just a few short days.  This is a story-telling tradition that may well go back one thousand five hundred years.  Perhaps even longer, if – as some think – Arthur was not a real, historical figure but based on a mythic hero arising out of tales of Annwn, the Welsh Otherworld of gods and magical beings.

Arthur matches the promise embedded in T H White’s title, The Once and Future King, by returning time and again in fireside tales, books, films, radio dramas, comics, and in every one slightly reinvented to speak to the concerns of the time in which the story is being told.  That’s because Arthur’s true importance is as a symbol, rather than as an historical figure.

And it’s a consideration of this element which lies at the heart of my telling: why do we need the myth of King Arthur so much that we keep bringing him back in new forms?

Pendragon is set one hundred years before Arthur was supposed to have lived and looks at how the man, the legend, both entwined, might have arisen out of historical events.  It’s decidedly and defiantly different from the Arthurian fiction you may be used to – no re-telling of oft-told tales.  All the familiar elements are there, but we come at them from oblique angles in the hope that the reader might see them in a new light.  In that way it’s a meditation on the meaning of King Arthur, as much as being about Arthur himself.

Or as the review from Parmenion Books says:

Pendragon…. the name just screams Arthur, Genevieve, Lancelot and all that goes with it. Well take that preconception and throw it out the window. Not since Bernard Cornwall took on the Arthur myth has any writer provided such a new and innovative view of the Arthurian story.

This constant reinvention of Arthur is a turbulent process, but the anchors remain the same to hold the idea fast – Excalibur, Camelot, the Round Table and the rest.  And they too are symbols, more powerful than their mundane appearance suggests.

Folklore speaks to why we keep calling Arthur back into our world.  He is the hero who sleeps beneath the hill with his loyal band of followers, waiting to be summoned in the hour of England’s – or the world’s – greatest need.  The saviour.  The ideal.  The non-religious symbol of something greater than ourselves that speaks to the highest callings – of service, of sacrifice, of the values, the striving for goodness, that bind us all together.

There are times when we need Camelot more than ever.

This is one of them, I think.

The UK has never been more divided.  The US too.  Divided socially, politically, geographically, financially, divided in how we see ourselves, in our purpose.  It’s important to look to greater principles to find those ties that bind, if divisions are ever to be overcome.

And lest we forget, symbols are more powerful than words, more powerful indeed than the men and women who purport to lead us.  Countries which marshall their national symbols thrive.  Those which don’t, struggle.  The USA, a country built on symbols, now almost wholly communicates with them.  From images of an eagle, or stars and stripes, or the gunslinger standing alone in desolate landscape, we understand very complex, multi-faceted ideas about the philosophy of that nation.  And that communication is more powerful than anything when the USA is selling itself across the world.

King Arthur is also a symbol of Britain.  He sells a layered but powerful idea of who we are as a nation.  As we edge out into an uncertain world, we need that too.

Tolkien, Fantasy And The BBC

Interviewed live on the BBC the other day. I was talking about the influence of Tolkien and the large and still growing impact of fantasy in literature and popular culture in a debate with Oxford University scholar Dr Stuart Lee and the author Robin Hobb. Stuart and Robin are both knowledgable people, as you’d expect, but also good fun to be around, and we got into some interesting areas.  The general consensus was that fantasy is no longer the red-headed stepchild of the literary world, and now has a degree of respectability. Which kind of irks me. I always liked the outsider status, and that sense of fantasy as a transgressive genre. I don’t want to be part of the club.

I’m an old hand at TV interviews, but it still gives me a thrill to walk into the iconic Broadcasting House in London’s West End.  Old media has a buzz about it, even now, and in that place you feel bound into the long tradition of the BBC and broadcasting in general. The green rooms are still a bit shabby and the studios oddly unreal out of the context of the box in the corner of the lounge.

And my editor will be pleased to know I remembered to ramble, briefly, about Pendragon (published on July 13), King Arthur and the connection between history and myth.

The Swords Of Albion Redux

When you write a series of fantasies about swashbuckling Elizabethan spies, you don’t expect them to take on a contemporary relevance.  But here we are.

Elizabeth is on the throne.  A technology boom is underway.  We have a flowering of the arts and a rapidly growing capital city.

There’s talk of buccaneering trade deals.

And now…war with Spain?

It’s the sixteenth century all over again.

As yet no supernatural enemies besieging Britain, and I’m still looking for our Christopher Marlowe, who appears in book two.  See for yourself how little has changed in four hundred and fifty years.  You can sample the books here:

The Sword of Albion

The Scar-Crow Men

The Devil’s Looking Glass

Umberto Eco – The Roadmap To The 21st Century

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Been a hectic start to 2016. New TV pitch optioned, new TV script started, new novel pitch underway, and I’m well into the next novel from my pseudonym, James Wilde.  This book should be out in January 2017, six months earlier than the usual cycle, so the clock is ticking. But it will be of particular interest to Age of Misrule readers.

But I wanted to say a few brief words about Umberto Eco, who died yesterday.  His novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, is one of my favourites, dovetailing as it does with my particular interests of conspiracy theories, the nature of truth, reality and imagination, and, above all else, the power of myth, both ancient and modern.

Eco casts a shadow over the 21st century.  Before the turn of the millennium, he was already dealing with ways of writing and thinking that are becoming prominent in this century.  And he should hold a special place in the heart of readers who love imaginative fictions and great writing.

There are still 20th century people abroad who belabour the world with that century’s binary thinking – literary or genre, say, the kind of people who believe there are still boundaries around what we do.  Eco loved his cultural tropes, his comics – he wrote a great piece about Charles Schultz’s brilliant Peanuts comic strip which you can probably find online somewhere – his detective fiction, his fantasy (or magical realism for those who find that word sticks in their craw).  The Name of the Rose managed to be both massively literate, an intellectual dissection of religious thinking and repression, a historical tract, and a gripping murder mystery.

Foucault’s Pendulum takes your hand and leads you slowly away from the real world into a labyrinth of paranoia where anything might be true, or nothing.  Eco claims he invented Dan Brown in this novel, and the author then took on a life of his own and wrote The Da Vinci Code.

Eco showed us how we can think about stories once we throw off the shackles of the last century.  He will be missed for his work, but remembered for his road map.

New Fiction For You – The Halloween Country

Here’s the first chapter of a project bubbling in the background. No publisher planned yet. No idea when I might get to it. But I have the whole story in my head. If you like it, spread the word – I might be encouraged to finish it sooner rather than later – and leave any comments below.

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IN THE WOODS, A FOREST

 

“A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.” ~ Oscar Wilde

 

The dead never leave us.

When you sleep, they whisper in your dreams. Sometimes they will chastise, or they will lie, for they like nothing more than to show their power over those still lost in the fog of life. And sometimes, if the need is great enough, they will come with warnings. This is a Truth, as Yagzid’s father had told him when he was a boy, and which he had passed on to his own children.

The hut was cold and his breath steamed. Yagzid eased himself up from the clean straw of his bed, inhaling the fruity tang of horse dung. A few embers still glowed in the hearth. His dream lingered. When he closed his eyes again, he could see the figure looming out of the shadows, half-ivory, half-sable, and though the face was unclear, Yagzid could feel the fierceness of the gaze. There had been a voice, like bones tumbling upon ice. A message delivered in urgent tone, but the language was strange and indecipherable.

Yagzid shuddered.

His joints ached from the chill as he hauled himself to his feet, pulling on his hide breeches, and his furs and his leather hat. He clapped his hands to warm himself and then slipped on his shoes and stepped out into the morning. The sky was silver. He winced as the north wind cut right through him. Beyond the village, the flat steppes slumbered under hard ice.

He trudged over frozen whorls of mud to his neighbour’s hut. Hoppal was a sour man. He liked his drink too much and he scorned friend and enemy alike. But Yagzid knew the squat man still mourned his wife, and missed his sons who had followed the great river into the west, and so he forgave him. In the enclosure, Hoppal tended to the horses, muttering to himself as he tossed handfuls of fresh hay. The steeds roamed around him like wilful children, stamping their hooves and snorting white clouds.

“No snow today,” Yagzid said, pretending to scrutinise the sky.

“Fool. Those clouds are filled with snow,” Hoppal replied.

“There will only be a little, though.”

“It will come so hard your roof will bow and likely break. If you do not have enough meat stored, you will starve. Do not come asking me for scraps.”

Yagzid nodded. He watched the horses for a long moment, remembering his father teaching him to ride when he was barely old enough to walk. He missed the comfort of those days. “I had a dream last night.”

Hoppal continued to throw out hay as if he had not heard.

“A man, stepping out of the shadows. Bigger than a man. A giant, perhaps. And when he looked at me, I thought that I might die,” Yagzid continued.

The other man came to a halt, rigid, and then he slowly turned and glowered. “I had that same dream. As did Baina, and Yeinis…” He looked across the trails of grey smoke rising from the morning fires. “Every man here. And no doubt every woman and child too, if you asked them.”

Yagzid furrowed his brow. A dream shared by all? He felt a queasy apprehension. “What does this mean?”

Hoppal hunched his shoulders and returned to feeding the horses. He did not want to be troubled by such thoughts. Yet Yagzid knew he would not be free of the dream’s spell until he had answers. He trudged back among the thatched huts and found Baina hacking at a carcass with his best knife. From there he visited Yeinis cutting the black peat for the fires, and then he wandered to the longhouse where the women had gathered around Monas who had her blood-week.

Everywhere the tale was the same. A dream of dread, and a warning.

As the grey clouds gathered overhead, Yagzid took his bow and hunted grouse. He mended the enclosure fence and broke the ice on the horses’ water troughs. Nothing distracted him. He could feel the suffocating blanket of his worries press down. When he found himself repeatedly peering across the white wastes towards the horizon, he made his way back to the hut where he found his wife hovering over the stew for the night’s meal.

“You must eat without me tonight,” he said. He thought about making up some story – a bolted horse, perhaps – but he could not bring himself to lie to her. “I go into the woods.”

A shadow crossed her face, but she nodded and he felt thankful that she did not question him. “Come back to me,” she murmured, she prayed.

Pulling on his thickest furs, he strode out north, bowing his head into the wind. He’d only walked this path once before, but few walked it more than once. The answers they found at the end were usually enough for a lifetime.

After a while, the snow began to fall. Hoppal had been right after all. Eddies of flakes whisked around, and the world began to close in. Soon, a band of charcoal smudged the white landscape ahead. A tangled wall of stark trees loomed out of the flurries. Deep shadows nestled beyond. The wood brooded at the back of the village’s collective mind, always, home of food, deer, rabbit, grouse, home of enemies, the packs of wolves who roamed out to the edge of the settlement in the heart of winter. And haunted too, so the old women said. Peer among the trees at twilight and you would see black-eyed faces staring back. The wood and dreams, then, were one and the same. A half-world somewhere between life and death.

Pushing his troubling thoughts to one side, Yagzid picked his way over snaking roots along the narrow path into the trees. Light faded. The boom of the wind in his ears ebbed. A stillness descended, punctured only by the crunch of his feet. The path was well-marked and he knew better than to stray from it. He smelled damp wood, and occasionally a hint of smoke. Not far now, he reassured himself.

Yet as the path plunged past outcropping rock and frozen streams glinting with hoar-frost, his nostrils wrinkled at a familiar odour. His thoughts flew back to Baina and the hut where the cattle were drained from a cut at the throat before they were prepared for the pot.

His brow furrowed as he peered through the trees. Stepping over the trunk of a lightning-blasted fir, he looked across a clearing to his left. Bodies, what remained of them, were strewn across the frozen ground. Yagzid’s throat narrowed and he croaked a prayer. Glistening organs laid bare to the bitter air. Skulls split, chests ragged, limbs twisted and torn. He counted four dead, a hunting party perhaps. One face was turned towards him, eyes rolled back to white. Unfamiliar. Not from the village, then. That gave him some meagre comfort.

Through gritted teeth, Yagzid sucked in a deep, calming breath, and as he did he realised the remains steamed in the cold. Fresh. His eyes darted all around. Would that he had brought something hard and sharp to defend himself.

The crack of a breaking branch retorted. He whirled and squinted through the flurries. Another crash ahead. Now his heart began to thunder. The magnitude of the sounds shaped an image of something huge and powerful. Yagzid retreated a few steps along the path, but he was afraid to show his back to whatever stalked around him. Instead he became as rigid as the hard earth, and he hoped that whatever hunted would not catch his scent.

Snorts reverberated, drawing nearer. After a moment, a bear crashed into the clearing. If the beast reared up on its hind legs, it would be half his height again, and it was as broad as a cart. The fur was dark brown, shading into black in the thin light, the snout still sticky with the blood of its victims. Grunts rumbled deep in its throat, like a saw tearing through wood. Yagzid had killed a bear once. He remembered how the blood bubbled up when he drove the spear through its heart. But it had taken eight of them from the village to bring it down, and Divash had lost his arm.

That huge head moved slowly from side to side, surveying the clearing, searching, perhaps, for the source of the spoor it smelled on the breeze. And then it turned its full attention towards him. Yagzid jolted. The black eyes burned with a fierce intelligence of a kind he had never seen in any other animal.

“Step off the path so I can see you clearly,” it said.

Yagzid felt all the warmth drain from him.

“Step closer,” it growled.

A voice in the back of his head told him that if he did as the bear commanded he would never see his wife again. “What thing are you?” he croaked. In silence, the bear levelled its searching gaze for a long moment. Yagzid felt insects crawling inside his head. “What are you?” he whispered once more.

“You should not have come here, Yagzid.”

He trembled at the sound of his name rumbling from the bear’s throat. He imagined predatory eyes watching him every night from the deep dark, evil circling his life while he went about his business oblivious. “Why have you come here?”

“Step forward and I will tell you.”

Yet the demon-bear did not attack, even though he was defenceless. This puzzled him for a moment, until he realised that he had been asked to leave the path three times. “I will remain here,” he replied with as much confidence as he could muster.

The beast growled. It swiped at one of the bodies with its huge paw, spattering blood across the snow. “Your father despises the man you have become.”

Yagzid flinched. His father had been lost in the crashing white water of the great river during the spring floods, five years gone. His body had never been found. With one long, black claw, the beast toyed with a pale string of entrails , as it toyed now with him. Demons lied, every man knew that. But still he saw his father’s face and felt a deep despair gnaw at his heart.

The bear seemed to tire of him. It flicked the entrails to one side and looked around the clearing one more time before heaving its bulk away. As it reached the tree-line, it half-turned and once again fixed its unearthly, unblinking gaze upon him. “This world has slumbered long, but soon it will wake. Cold, it will be then, Yagzid. Too cold for the likes of you.”

The bear lurched away with a rolling gait. As it moved among the stark trees, a strange thing happened. Yagzid saw the sparse woods ahead appear to open in upon themselves, as if they were a scene painted upon a barn door. Beyond lay a lush forest, dense and shimmering in a summery glow. Shafts of sunlight punched through the verdant canopy. Once the bear had pushed its way into the undergrowth, that place closed off and the wintry woods reappeared.

Yagzid gaped. As he blinked away his tears of fear, he saw that the snow had stopped falling and the drifts now reached above his ankles. Surely only moments had passed, not the hour or more it would have taken for the white folds to reach that depth? He shook his head to clear his lurching thoughts, muttered a prayer of thanks for his survival, and then hurried along the frozen path in case the thing changed its mind.

The day grew colder. Yagzid could see the turfed roof of the house as he neared the heart of the woods. It was barely discernible from its surroundings, yellowing grass poking through a mound of snow perched atop low walls of mud bricks and timber the colour of iron. Gnarled trees and banks of bramble pressed tight against it. A thin trail of grey smoke rose up into the tree-tops.

Yagzid slowed his step, torn between his apprehension of what lay ahead and his fear of what was at his back. When he had steadied himself, he edged along the moss-stained, cracked flagstones of the path and hammered on the door. All was silent. After a moment, he shivered as he heard a heavy tread approach the entrance. When the door swung open, a blast of warm, smoky air swept out, tinged with the aromas of strange spices and old dust. Yagzid took a step back. A figure almost as large as the bear loomed in the doorway. His long hair and beard were the colour of slate, and streaked with silver. His skin was darker than Yagzid’s and some had suggested he had come from the hot lands far to the south. His eyes were almond-shaped. His hands looked like they could crush a man’s skull between them. Furs and leather swathed him, despite the warmth of his home. Naram Sin had not aged a day since the last time Yagzid had visited, ten years gone. He remembered his father, and his grandfather swearing to this fact over their honey beer. “Naram Sin is one with the rocks of the earth,” his grandfather had slurred before coughing up a mouthful of phlegm and spitting it into the fire.

“Naram Sin,” Yagzid said, bowing his head.

“Why have you come here once more?” There was a lilting tone to his voice that belied his fierce appearance.

“I am afraid.”

“All men are afraid. That is the nature of men. You fear for yourself?”

“For my wife, my children, my village, the world.”

Naram Sin nodded as if this were the only correct answer. He stepped to one side. Yagzid edged in, his eyes wide. Even with the door open, the interior was gloomy, as if the light refused to enter. A log crackled in the hearth, and the flames sent shadows leaping. Circles and spirals and eyes and symbols that seemed to be some unfamiliar language had been etched in charcoal on the walls and floor. The skulls of small birds and woodland creatures hung on leather thongs from the high rafters. They made a chinking music as they stirred in the breeze.

Naram Sin slammed the door and Yagzid jumped. There was something too final about that noise. His neighbours in the village said some who visited this place for answers never returned home. Naram Sin would look into their hearts and judge them, and if they were not deemed worthy he would take their heads with his axe and bury their remains in shallow graves in the wood, a feast for the rats.

“Speak,” Naram Sin demanded. Restless, he prowled around the hut.

Yagzid felt unsettled by the constant movement, but he clasped his hands in front of him and tried not to stammer. He told of his dream and his fear that it was a warning from the dead. When he said this vision had been shared by all in the village, Naram Sin came to a sudden halt. Yagzid shuddered as eyes grown cold fixed upon him. “This warning,” the other man enquired, “what was said?”

Yagzid shook his head. “It was in some foreign tongue, I am sure. But whatever was said, I was filled with dread as if a part of me did know the meaning of those words.”

Silence fell across the hut for a long moment and then Naram Sin moved his lips. Yagzid heard a sound that could have come from anywhere. Though it was not loud, his ears rang and his head spun. He reeled back a step.

“Was that what you heard?” the other man asked.

“I…I cannot be sure. But I think it was.”

The other man bowed his head for a moment. Shadows flooded across his features.

“What does this dream mean?”

“It was not a dream,” Naram Sin muttered. He glanced towards a large chest near the hearth, his gaze lingering as if he was weighing a response.

“There is more.” In a halting tone, Yagzid described the scene of slaughter and his encounter with the thing that had pretended to be a bear. “And then…and then…” he continued, his words tumbling out with gathering speed, “a forest, a summer forest, appeared in the winter woods as if from nowhere, and the bear went into it, and…” His voice grew hushed. “…the forest was gone.” Yagzid lowered his eyes for fear the other man might think him mad. “Did I truly see this?”

Naram Sin smiled, a tight and unsettling expression with no hint of humour. “There are many ways of seeing the world, Yagzid. We take the information we are given and construct our view accordingly. Are we right to do so? Sometimes. But there is always more information.”

“What do these things mean?”

“They mean, young Yagzid…” He said young, though Yagzid had seen forty summers and had started to feel the cold in his bones. “…exactly what the bear told you. The world is waking from its long slumber.”

“That is not a good thing?”

“No. That is not a good thing.” Naram Sin tugged at his beard in deep thought for a long moment, and then his shoulders slumped and he heaved a deep sigh. He strode to the chest by the hearth and flicked open the lid. He drew out an axe and weighed it on the open palms of the hands, nodding as if greeting an old friend. Ancient, it seemed, the blade notched, the haft bound with worn leather straps.

Yagzid threw himself backwards. He stumbled over a stool and crashed on to his back. “Do not take my head with your axe!” he cried.

Naram Sin examined his weapon, his brow furrowed. “An axe. Is that what you see?” He looked back, grinning, not without kindness. “I will not take your head, Yagzid.”

“No?”

“Not this day, at least.”

As Yagzid hauled himself to his feet, Naram Sin stripped off his furs. He found a leather harness in the same chest, strapped it on and slipped the axe on to his back. Once his furs were on, there was no sign that he carried a weapon. He plucked up a sack and moved steadily around the hut, throwing things into it.

“What now?”

“Now, I must venture out into the world.” His voice was heavy.

Yagzid gaped. As long as anyone in his village remembered, Naram Sin had never left the woods. His father and his father’s father and his father’s father’s father had all said the same. He felt troubled, as if the very rhythm of nature had been disrupted.

*      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

 

Naram Sin set Yagzid back on the way to the village with strict instructions not to stray from the path, for it was in truth a Songline and he was safe as long as he walked it. And then the bear-like man forged north, out of the woods, with his head bowed into the wind. The sun was setting and soon frost glistened in his beard. He marched across the frozen steppes until he came to a long bank of snow stretching in both directions as far as the eye could see. Lurching up the incline, he left deep foot-holes behind him, the only marks upon the world he had made in many a year. He crested the summit and skidded down the other bank until he came to the wide west road. As he watched the fat, red sun slip towards the horizon, he waited, feeling the bitter chill grow around him.

Eventually, he heard what sounded like the roar of a great beast in the east. He looked towards the sound, feeling a brief sting of regret for what he was leaving behind. Lights blazed in the growing gloom. The blare of an air-horn tore through the stillness. The eighteen-wheeler rumbled towards him from the direction of the Palvodar oil refinery on its way into the west.

Naram Sin stepped out into the road and held up his hand.

 

New Worlds, No Maps

Stepping into that strange liminal space of thinking about a new book.  Exciting, certainly.  Scary too.  Strange connections are made as the universe, or the unconscious, recognises what you’re doing, pulling things out of the aether and thrusting them under your nose.  Images, music, places, people, dreams, serendipitous discoveries, all have a part to play.

I might document a few here, without comment.  Will it be possible to see where I’m heading from outside my head?  That would be interesting to know.  Perhaps there really is more clarity from that objective viewpoint.

I have an idea of the *kind* of book I want to write, but that’s about all the restrictions I’m placing on myself.  The general direction.  North by northwest.  But no destination is in mind.  I like the thrill of setting out for the horizon and seeing where I finally roll up.  It has to be new.  I’m not interested in repeating what I’ve done before.  I want to discover things, for myself as well as for the people who read my books.

Reports from the journey may pop up on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Google+, Pinterest, on Jack of Ravens and Posterous.  Interested parties should look for the tag #oneiroi

Finding Fantasy In The Past – The People

There are ethical problems wrapped up in writing historical fiction. Should you use a real, once-living person as a character in your fiction? Their lives reduced to nothing more than plot points and themes? In essence, a human being’s existence shackled to the pursuit of the writer’s own ego?

Would you want some future author to make you the bad guy in their little story, the walk-on joke, the mumbling idiot, the obstacle?

And let’s face it, we don’t even know what the people around us are truly like, never mind those who existed hundreds of years ago. In those cases, we often only have a few scraps of paper to sketch out the things they did, with little hint to their motivation.

This becomes even more of an issue in fantasy, where the historical characters are divorced from the realities of their lives. It’s something I’ve certainly struggled with while writing the Swords of Albion books, which utilise a host of real people from the Elizabethan age. To be honest, even after writing I find it hard to decide if it was the right thing to do. I justified it to myself by my attempts to make the historical figures as true to how contemporary accounts described them, but that still leaves a great deal of psychological gap-filling.

The Sword of Albion and The Scar-Crow Men are set around the Court and Government of Queen Elizabeth, but she plays only a secondary role. I have less interest in the cosseted lives of Kings and Queens than I do in the men and women who do their bidding.

The stories concern spies, who had, for the first time, become a powerful weapon of the state in this era. And so in the first book one of the central characters is the spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, a dour, puritanical man who suffered much personal misery in his life, but who gave his all in service to the Queen. His successor in The Scar-Crow Men is Sir Robert Cecil, a clever, cunning politician who battled against prejudice and mockery for his hunchback and short stature – the Queen called him her ‘Little Elf’. These two men represent different approaches to power and control, one quite honorable, the other self-serving. They act as counterpoints to the flawed, vacillating central character, the spy Will Swyfte.

Swyfte’s friend is the acclaimed playwright Christopher Marlowe, a contemporary of Shakespeare who wrote Dr Faustus and Tamburlaine among other plays. He was something of a rising celebrity at the time. He may have been a spy (there is some evidence); he may have been gay. In the books, Marlowe is another counterpoint to Swyfte, a man slowly being destroyed by the dark business of spying and the demands placed upon him by service to the state. Marlowe allows the reader to see Swyfte’s strengths and flaws more easily.

Despite my antipathy towards the lives of Royalty, the fact that important people play important roles is inescapable in this era. The common man was mainly concerned with simple economic survival. And so, as Swyfte travels the known world in his spying, we encounter James VI of Scotland (and future James I of England), Philip II of Spain and Henri of Navarre, the future Henri IV of France. Each one responds – and responded – in different ways to their regal status, and again, each one allows us to see Swyfte in a different light.

Dr John Dee is a key figure in both books, and the third, to come, and he really is the link between the history and the fantasy. Dee, who tutored the young Elizabeth, was both a scientist and an occultist, an inventor and mathematician who communed with angels and cast magic circles. Many of the themes I’m tackling have Dee at their centre.

There are others – Sir Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, the Earls of Leicester and Essex, the master criminal Laurence Pickering, the King of Cutpurses, who may or may not have been an invention of the Elizabethan equivalent of the tabloids. Each one was chosen carefully for what they said about Will Swyfte, in the same way that any writer chooses supporting fictional characters.

I hope I did them justice, but know in my heart I didn’t. No writer could.