Gordon Doherty on his newest novel, Rise of the Golden Heart, and his Byzantine series tracking the road to Manzikert
GD: Exploring the evolution of the Roman Empire makes for a fascinating journey and it washed me through the centuries and to the east like a sliver of driftwood. From the magnificence and invincibility of the Principate, to the end of the Pax Romana and on into the rise of the Eastern Empire. Here, the turmoil of the 3rd and 4th centuries really stoked my imagination: the empire’s expansion had long since halted; the legions were no longer invincible and their enemies were shrewd and numerous; Christianity was burgeoning, and the old Pagan ways were in their death throes. The havoc wreaked by the Gothic Wars and the arrival of the Huns in the late 4th century inspired my Legionary series. From that moment, I fell in love with the setting: Thracia and Anatolia with Constantinople perched in between, lands that would endure the brunt of the Great Migration from the eastern steppes.
On my journey went, through the years of newfound greatness under Justinian, to the Arab invasions that brought enemies to the walls of Constantinople and then the inexorable rise of Islam. I soon arrived at a juncture even more desperate and pivotal than the coming of the Huns. Eastern Anatolia in the 11th century. The armies of the Seljuk Sultanate are poised on Byzantium’s ever contracting borders, ready to crush the scattered few who stand defiant and extinguish the guttering flame of the empire forever. The Strategos trilogy was inspired by the image of those hardy defenders, surely all too aware of their heritage, never far from echoes of the lost greatness, but ready to fight and die regardless.
RL: Tell us a bit about the main characters, and how the trilogy is planned.
He grows to lead the Byzantine border armies as the eponymous strategos, but he is by no means a partisan figure. Indeed, the first volume Born in the Borderlands is anchored firmly in the cultural melting-pot of 11th century Eastern Anatolia, and explores Apion’s journey into adulthood where he finds out in the most brutal fashion that good and evil coexist in the hearts of all men, Byzantine or Seljuk.
At the dawn of Rise of the Golden Heart we find Apion in a dark place, scarred by the events of his upbringing, his innocence long gone and a harsh reality looming before him: that the empire is in terminal decline and the Seljuk war is doomed to end in defeat. He has lost everything, and at this lowest ebb, he seeks only two things – the oblivion of battle and the slightest glimmer of hope that fate can be defied. At this juncture, something happens at the heart of the empire, Constantinople, that promises to deliver both his wants. A new emperor rises to the throne, a man who promises to revitalise Byzantium’s armies, to drive the threats from her lands and to bring peace to Anatolia for the first time in living memory. When Apion joins the new emperor in setting out on campaign for Seljuk Syria, he will encounter the sharpened steel of the Seljuk war machine. More, he will come face to face with his past.
Island in the Storm, the planned conclusion to the trilogy, will draw Apion to a pivotal moment in Byzantine history. He will tread on the fabled plains of Manzikert. That much is certain . . . how he will fare there is yet to be decided.
RL: What are the major sources for what you write?
GD: The primary and contemporary sources lend a spine of historical authenticity to my work. The chronicles of Jordanes (Getica), Zosimus (Historia Nova), Ammianus Marcellinus (The Roman History of), and Michael Attaleiates (History) have been invaluable in piecing together the past for my Legionary series and my Strategos trilogy. They provide the bones of my stories and offer up the first stirrings of fictional slants that could be woven around the facts.
The secondary sources tend to provide a more objective take, particularly the more modern of these. Like archaeologists carefully peeling back the layers of earth from an ancient ruin, the authors of these works strip away the layers of panegyric or invective from the original sources and often what they reveal can be just as startling as any buried treasure. My top reads in this category are: Haldon (Warfare State and Society in the Byzantine World, The Byzantine Wars), Norwich (Byzantium trilogy), Gibbon (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire), Treadgold (Byzantium and its Army) and Heather (The Goths).
RL: Most people who know anything of this history know it as the precursor of the Crusades, and the beginning of the Fall of Byzantium. Does that influence your writing at all?
GD: Absolutely. There is a fatalistic vein that runs through the Strategos trilogy. As you say, many readers will probably know how things turned out for Byzantium in the period in which the story is set. Indeed, most of the characters in the story are well aware of the decline of their empire. The once-powerful thematic armies are now ragged and scattered – men are armed with clubs and hoes and few possess armour or shields. The imperial court in Constantinople is riddled with parasitic individuals, coveting power and riches and ignorant to the ominous threats on their borders. While they might not have foreseen the Crusades, many Byzantines must have feared the fall of their empire given these weaknesses. And as they saw Byzantium as the chosen empire of God, this must have been tantamount to the end of the world to them.
RL: Is there a religious element to the stories? Or a supernatural element? Are you conscious of the belief structures of your characters?
GD: Absolutely. This has played out organically so far. I am something of an agnostic with leanings towards pantheism, so perhaps I was looking for some kind of answer in the writing of the Strategos trilogy. In Born in the Borderlands, Apion comes from a staunch Christian background, but the events he witnesses in his brutal adolescent years drive his faith from him. In Rise of the Golden Heart, we find him questioning all gods, and the very nature of man itself. All the while, he is guided and reassured by a mysterious crone who appears to him at his darkest moments. Some might see her as supernatural, others may see her as a religious figure of sorts. In a way, she is both, and one day I may write about her origins.
RL: I discovered your books through the HNS Award when I was delighted to longlist you: one of several strong Indie books that I read, and that I thought could work successfully mainstream. What’s the hardest thing about publishing your own work?
GD: If I could focus on the two aspects I love, researching and writing, I would be a very happy fellow. However, being an indie means that I need to manage the entire publishing process end-to-end. This entails writing, editing, redrafting, proofing, cover design, formatting for various devices/editions, publishing and marketing. It is hugely time-consuming and has been a massive learning curve for me. I have a collection of documents, calendar reminders and scrapbook notes that collectively form a process of sorts, but I’m still learning. The upside to indie publishing is complete control over all of the aspects mentioned. I suppose going mainstream would mean trading a degree of control for an easing of the workload. I’ll maybe try it one day!
RL: I gather that you are planning to write a book together with SJA Turney. Can you let us know anything about that?
GD: If I told you, I would have to kill you . . . I jest. I had the pleasure of spending a weekend on Hadrian’s Wall with Simon and his family a short while ago. There, we put our wits together to find a place in history that played to each of our strengths. Simon writes primarily in 1st century BC Pagan Europe and my Roman works are set in the 4th century AD, an era of burgeoning Christianity. With those parameters, we sought a middle ground, something to link our areas of expertise . . . a bridge, if you will . . . ☺
RL: If you had to name one author who has influenced you more than any other, who would that be?
GD: David Gemmell brings characters to life like no other. I still recall my tears at the end of his Troy trilogy. When editing my own work, I always make sure I’m reading or re-reading one of his works as a benchmark of quality.
You asked for one author, but, as a source of inspiration and advice, my good friend Simon Turney deserves a big shout. His words of encouragement led to me becoming an indie in the first place, and his excellent novels are a benchmark for all with similar ambitions.
Visit Gordon’s website & blog: www.gordondoherty.co.uk