Fantasy, mystery, thrillers, horror, historical. . .I write it all, and review it too!

Feb 27, 2012

Medieval Mondays: Viking trading ships

The Vikings were some of the greatest shipbuilders of the premodern world. A lot of people don't realize, however, that the famous longship was only used for raiding and warfare. It was too narrow to safely take across the open ocean and would quickly swamp in heavy seas. Norsemen hugged the coasts with their longships when they went a-Viking.

So what boat did they use for their famous voyages to Iceland, Greenland, and Vinland (North America)? This one. It's called a knörr. Like all Viking ships it was clinker-built, meaning of overlapping oaken planks lashed together to naturally curved timber and fastened with iron rivets. Fitted with a square sail and a side rudder called a steer-board (hence the name starboard), they could carry up to 40 tons of cargo. they could be up to 60 feet long and carried a crew of 15-20 people.

Since knorrir didn't have much of a keel and the steer-board could be taken up, they could sail in as little as five feet of water and be run onto a beach. They had very little draft and thus bobbed along the surface of the ocean. It was also somewhat flexible, giving in heavy seas. This kept the hull from cracking.

Several reproductions have been made and modern sailors are universal in their praise of the knörr's seaworthiness. in 1932, a knörr called the Roald Amundsen after the Arctic explorer sailed one of the routes used by Columbus to the New World and made it there in only 2/3 the time it took Columbus! It was then sailed from Newfoundland to Norway.

The Vikings were smart with more than just shipbuilding; they were expert navigators too. They used a special crystal called a sun stone to determine the position of the sun on overcast days.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Feb 20, 2012

Medieval Mondays: Byzantine Greece

Today on Medieval Mondays we have a special guest post from historical novelist and travel writer Sean McLachlan. Sean recently wrote a travel series about Greece and included lots of medieval sites. Here's here to share some photos and insights with us. Once you're done, check out his Civil War blog and Civil War novel. Take it away Sean!

Hi everyone! Last month I traveled through Greece researching a travel series about how that country's tourism industry, museums, and archaeological sites were holding up during the financial crisis. Being in love with all things medieval, I made a point of visiting various Byzantine sites. I've always been fascinated with the Byzantine Empire.
This is Acrocorinth, a massive castle overlooking the famous city of Corinth. There's been a castle here since Classical times, perhaps earlier, and the triple walls and massive keep were rebuilt and strengthened by the Crusaders, Byzantines, Ottomans, and Venetians.

If you're passing through Athens, make sure to stop by the Byzantine Museum and see their amazing collection of art and artifacts.

Here's one of 400 icons on display. There are even parts of entire churches built into the museum galleries!

Also on display is this nice suit of chain mail and helmet. They look like they were inspired by Persian armor. Since the Byzantines and Sassanids were in almost constant warfare, I suppose this isn't surprising. There wasn't much on Byzantine arms and armor actually, because the Athens War Museum just down the street covers that topic very well.

Here's a reproduction of a medieval flame thrower at the War Museum. One of the reasons the Byzantines were so powerful was their use of Greek fire. While the recipe has been lost, it appears to have been an early form of napalm that was squirted from jets.

My favorite site was Mistra, a Byzantine ghost town with several decorated churches from the 14th and 15th centuries that still retain their painted interiors.
I hope you liked this brief trip through Byzantine Greece. Check out the links for more information and pictures!

Feb 17, 2012

Upcoming fantasy releases

It's been some time since I've given you an update on my writing. I'm hard at work on The Maze of Mist, a sequel to Roots Run Deep and the second book in the House of Itxaron trilogy. While all three books in the trilogy will be standalone novels, The Maze of Mist continues the tale of the House of Itxaron into the next generation. It will be released in the autumn of 2012.

You won't have to wait until then to read more of my work, though! I'm publishing the first two books of another fantasy series, the Timeless Empire series, within the next month. More news once I have it! The first two books are titled Hard Winter and At the Gates. Book number three, tentatively titled Occupation, will come out two months later. Here's a teaser:

His past has been erased, his future is uncertain, but he knows one thing—in the coming revolution he must choose which friend to support and which to betray.

The Dragonkin, magical beings that are half human and half dragon, have ruled the human race for centuries through cruel caprice, but now their authority is being challenged. The eastern territories have broken away, and a grain blight has left thousands of humans destitute. Assassinations and riots plague the cities.

While the empire’s future is in peril, one man struggles to reclaim his past. He is Recorro, a human scribe whose wife has been taken by the Gatherers, shadowy beings that prowl the streets during moonless nights. No-one knows where the Gatherers come from, or what happens to the people they take, but those who witness their passing are forever changed. Recorro can remember nothing about his wife beyond the fact that she existed.

Aimless and struggling with despair, Recorro joins the army gathering to crush the rebels. His unit is a motley band of desperate commoners, including Granja, a dispossessed farmer, and Ignazio, a holy man in a world that has more faith in magic than the gods. Their unofficial leader is Silone, a charming trickster who turns out to be a member of the Syndicate, an anarchic secret society that has infiltrated the army in order to overthrow the ruling class. Silone lost a son to the Gatherers and presents Recorro with convincing evidence that the Dragonkin are behind the disappearances.

Recorro’s best friend in the unit is Labertino, an aspiring mage who was kicked out of school for lack of talent. Early in the campaign he saves Recorro’s life, which makes Recorro feel protective of the weak and bookish youth. Soon Silone and Labertino come into conflict as the former student shows his loyalty to the Dragonkin and tries to keep Recorro from joining the Syndicate’s revolution.

Fighting against disease, starvation, the rebels, and their own differences, the unit tries to stay alive while everyone around them begins to take sides.

Feb 14, 2012

Medieval Mondays: the Hexamilion wall

The Hexamilion is the thin black line across the Isthmus
Medieval Mondays is actually on Tuesday this week because yesterday I participated in the Origins blogfest. Thanks to all those who stopped by!

Genre Author follower and occasional guest blogger Sean McLachlan has been traveling in Greece lately for his travel blog Gadling and writing a series of posts. Some of them are of interest to fans of the Middle Ages, such as the castle of Acrocorinth, the Athens War Museum, and the Byzantine ghost town of Mistra. His writing about medieval Greece gave me today's subject--the Hexamilion Wall.

As you can tell from the name, this was a six-mile long defensive wall. It stretched across the Isthmus of Corinth, the only land route into the Peloponnese, the southwestern part of Greece. This obviously strategic point had been fortified since ancient times, and a major wall was erected during the fifth century AD when Germanic tribes were terrorizing the Roman Empire. It was strenghtened in the seventh century and then gradually allowed to decline.

The Hexamilion became important again in the waning years of the Byzantine Empire. The Ottoman Turks were closing in and the Byzantines were anxious to protect the Peloponnese (hten called the Morea) because it was the only wealthy province left to them. In 1415, Emperor Manuel II Palaeologos had it repaired and improved into an impressive fortification with thick walls and numerous towers. This didn't stop the Turks, though, who smashed through it in 1423. It appears there was little fighting; the garrison was so outnumbered and demoralized that most of them ran. The Haxamilion was repaired, but breached again in 1431. Both attacks were raids and the Ottomans did not remain in the Morea.

Constantine Palaeologos, then Despot of Morea and destined to be the last Byzantine Emperor, repaired the wall, but to no avail. In 1446, the Turks came back, this time with a large amount of artillery. Constantine had garrisoned the wall with 20,000 men, but many were Albanian mercenaries who could not be relied upon. After two weeks of bombardment, the Turks stormed the walls and cut down the defenders. Constantine survived, but his wall and his army were destroyed. Sultan Murad signed a treaty with the Byzantines stipulating that the wall would not be repaired.

Not much left!
When Murad died and the warlike Mehmet took the Ottoman throne, the Byzantines repaired the wall anyway. Mehmet's armies easily passed through in 1452. A year later the Byzantine capital Constantinople fell and the Emperor Constantine was killed in action. The Morea held out until 1460, but now the Hexamilion was in ruins and failed to even slow the Turks down.

The Hexamilion was a great idea that didn't work. The Byzantines could never garrison it with sufficient numbers of quality troops to face down the large and disciplined Ottoman army. Little remains of it today. For more on the Hexamilion, check out this cool website about the excavations being carried out there by Ohio State University.

Both images courtesy Wikipedia.

Feb 13, 2012

Welcome to the Origins Blogfest!

Courtesy Wikipedia
On Mondays I usually have my series Medieval Mondays. Today, though, I'm participating in the Origins blogfest, telling the world how I got into writing. Medieval Mondays will actually be on Tuesday this week. I'll be talking about the Hexamilion, a six-mile wall the Byzantines built to try to stop the Ottoman Turks. Did it work? Come back tomorrow and find out!

My story is a pretty typical one. I got inspired to write because I grew up on science fiction, fantasy, and roleplaying games (anyone else out there a Gamma World fan?). I didn't write for a long time, though, because most of my creativity got sucked into my archaeology studies. Archaeology couldn't quite satisfy me, though. So much is left unknown. When you visit a place such as Avebury or uncover some spectacular find like the Sutton Hoo ship, pictured above, you're only learning a tiny percent of the story behind it.

So I got into writing to tell my own stories. One thing my readers often notice in my tales are the layers of personality my protagonists have. They are conflicted, multidimensional, often hypocritical, and nobody knows them completely, not even themselves. This is what makes people interesting, and as much as I love my field of study, archaeology will never be able to give us this.

Feb 8, 2012

More places to buy my books!

In the past few weeks the number of places to buy my books has dramatically expanded. My fantasy novel Roots Run Deep has always been available directly from Double Dragon Publishing, and the various Amazon incarnations such as Amazon and Amazon UK. It's also available at Barnes & Noble, and 8for those of you who like using Paypal) Fictionwise.

My mystery/thriller Murder at Mcmurdo is available direct from LL-Publications, Amazon, Amazon UK, all the other Amazons, and Barnes and Noble.

My latest book, a short story collection of RPG-inspired tales called Down in the Dungeon, was released by Writers Exchange Ebooks, and is now available at Amazon, Amazon UK, all those other Amazons, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords.

So now there are more ways to read the stuff by yours truly! More books coming soon!

Feb 6, 2012

Medieval Mondays: Reconstructions of Motte-and-Bailey castles

I've always been fond of motte-and-bailey castles. Perhaps that's because I've always been fascinated with the origins of things, like the world's oldest condom. Familiar to any student of the Middle Ages, these rough and ready fortifications provided a cheap and quick way to defend your territory.

For those who aren't as obsessed with castles as I am, a motte-and-bailey castle is an artificial mound (motte) with a keep and wall on top, and a lower enclosed area (bailey) surrounded by a wall. Both parts are surrounded by a ditch, the soil of which was used to make the Motte. An artist's rendering of one can been seen in the above photo courtesy Duncan Grey.

These castles had the advantage of being able to be built by unskilled labor in a matter of months or even weeks, as opposed to stone castles that required highly skilled artisans working for years. The most famous are those of the Normans, who needed lots of quick castles as they expanded through the British Isles.
Trolling through the Interwebs the other day I discovered that in at least two places there are reconstructions of motte-and-bailey castles. The one pictured above is Saint Sylvain d'Anjou dans le Maine et Loire, France. The photo is courtesy Wikipedia. The bottom one is from Turmhügelburg in Nienthal von Lütjenburg, northern Germany, and is also courtesy Wikipedia.
As you can see, neither has a very high motte. This was common, although we tend to think of them having very tall mottes, perhaps because the taller examples have survived better and were often maintained and had stone keeps built atop them at later periods. Windsor castle in England is the most famous example.

While they don't look like much, you must remember that the heyday for these castles was the late 10th through early 12th centuries AD. Siege technology was at a low ebb in Northern Europe, armies were small, and feudal levies wouldn't hang around long enough to commit to an extended siege. Thus the humble motte-and-bailey castle was a formidable defense.