Friday 28 May 2021

Join The Coffee Pot Book Club with Derek Birks @Feud_writer @SharpeBooks

Land of Fire 
(The Last of the Romans Book 3)
By Derek Birks

Publication Date: 23rd April 2021
Publisher: Sharpe Books
Page Length: 294pp
Genre: Historical Fiction

Late Spring, 455 AD.

After a brutal winter struggle against the High King Vortigern, outcast imperial officer Ambrosius Aurelianus has led his weary followers to south-west Britannia in search of his mother's kinfolk. But Vortigern, thirsting for revenge is already forging a dangerous alliance against him.

Taking refuge in a ruined Roman fort near the decaying town of Vindocladia, Ambrosius finds an ally in Lurotriga, the widowed queen of the Durotriges. Though still sworn to his Saxon lady Inga, he is soon beguiled by the British noblewoman.

Between Inga and her new rival there can be no compromise and their enmity threatens to cause a rift between the Britons and Saxons of Ambrosius’ company.

If Vortigern attacks before the fort is repaired Ambrosius fears the outcome. He must find allies fast but, in a land of squabbling rival tribes the Roman encounters more enemies than friends. A treaty with neighbouring Dumnonia offers Ambrosius some hope, but commits him to defend the south coast against Scotti raiders. Ambrosius’ forces are stretched perilously thin putting the lives of Lurotriga and others at risk.

As Ambrosius prepares to pursue Vortigern for a final reckoning, his quest to discover his mother's kin suddenly delivers a startling revelation, but will it help him to defeat the High King?

Heavily outnumbered in the thick forests and steep valleys of Vortigern's homeland, Ambrosius must rely upon the fighting spirit of his small force of bucellarii and raw recruits. But sometimes courage alone is not enough.
Mary Anne: Huge congratulations on your new release, Land of Fire (The Last of the Romans Book 3). Could you tell us a little about your new book and what inspired you to write it?

Derek Birks: The Last of the Romans series is set in Post-Roman Britain in the fifth century. It’s a time and a subject that I have always been drawn to. We know so little about that period that attempting to write fiction embedded in actual events is pretty much impossible. Nevertheless, I set out to write the story of a British hero, Ambrosius Aurelianus. This book, Land of Fire finds Ambrosius in 455 AD in south-west Britain trying to establish a safe haven for his followers, whilst the British High King, Vortigern plots his destruction.

Mary Anne: Ambrosius Aurelianus and Vortigern are characters that are very difficult to pin down historically, and many of the stories about them can be found only in folklore. How did you approach researching their lives, and did you come across any unexpected surprises?

Derek Birks: As you say, researching the period is a nightmare since it’s difficult to be precise about any event, let alone discover any certain detail about those who lived at the time. We have names and precious little else – in the case of Vortigern we cannot even be sure whether Vortigern is his name or his title.
I started by examining the few written sources that survive from the period to glean what I could from the sporadic references to Ambrosius. Inevitably, what I found was extremely limited so that there were not just holes in my research but vast chasms. 

Beyond what is known, I wanted to give Ambrosius some context. Where might he have come from? What did he do before he became a prominent British leader? Of course, that meant making things up and the first two books in the series are complete fiction as far as our hero is concerned, though I have striven to achieve accuracy as far as possible with settings, lifestyle and so on.

In this third book, Ambrosius is in south-west Britain which is an area that he is directly associated with in some of the written texts. So we are much closer to at least a possible reality in Land of Fire. One of the many problems is trying to decide upon place names. Anything Saxon is way too early, but did folk still use the Roman names or did they use British ones? In the end, research in this period can only take you into the foothills of the topic; for the rest of the journey to the summit, you are on your own!

Mary Anne: Does one of the main characters hold a special place in your heart? If so, why?

Derek Birks: I am particularly fond of several characters in the story but I suppose there is one that sometimes ‘steals the show’ and that is Ferox. Ferox is a dog, but not just any dog. Bred from ancient Molussian stock, he is a war dog born to fight alongside his master – and he does so with great enthusiasm, though not always much precision. I gather he has also become a bit of a favourite with some readers.

Mary Anne: What do you think is the most challenging aspect of writing Historical Fiction?

Derek Birks: My background is in history, which I taught for many years so, for me the challenge is to be as accurate with the history as possible. Even in the fifteenth century that can be difficult but in the fifth, as I’ve said, it’s nigh on impossible. But for all writers of historical fiction, you have to have a sound historical knowledge base at the start. The challenge then is to weave your story into the history without overburdening the reader with information dumps. Your writing must drive the plot whilst at the same time adding a drip feed of description of places and people.

Mary Anne: What advice do you have for aspiring Historical Fiction authors?

Derek Birks: In essence, writing historical fiction is very little different from writing any other fiction: you need to be secure in your subject matter and you need to have a very good story to tell. In your case the subject is a period of time and you need to have a feel for the period in which you set your story.  

As well as telling a cracking story, you need to immerse your readers in the essence of the period and that means its sights, sounds, smells and tastes. People want to know how your characters feel about what they are experiencing. By harnessing the more visceral aspects of a character you can bring the period to life by allowing the reader to see the story through the senses of the character.

But, as with all fiction it matters little how well you create the period if your story does not seize and hold the interest of the reader. The story is everything, so strip it down to its essentials before you start writing. Try to cut out any paragraphs, pages or even chapters that do not drive your story onward or develop your characters. That can be hard but it is worth doing. You have to ensure that, at the end of every chapter your readers will want to read on. 

June 455 AD, on the south coast of Britannia.

Ambrosius Aurelianus lay on the headland summit of Iron Hill with the midday sun warming his back. Looking down on the tired old port, nestled against the south side of the river estuary, he wondered why anyone would want to raid it. It was a mere remnant of a once thriving settlement – a trading outpost now almost devoid of trade. 

Here and there a spiral of smoke drifted up to mingle lazily with the sea-borne haze while, below his vantage point several figures trudged stiff-legged up the winding hillside track. They were making for the smelting furnace over to his left where men and boys toiled each day to rake out a glowing ball of precious iron. No sooner was it out than the workers, their faces burnished by the heat, began hammering the ragged lump of white-hot metal into life. Watching the sparks fly was somehow entrancing – if only, thought Ambrosius the sins of men could be so easily beaten out.

Dragging his gaze from the iron workings, he looked to the west and was relieved to see a column of riders weaving a careful path through the marshy ground towards the twin earth banks. The latter, constructed by the ancients to protect the settlement from a land assault, were abandoned long before Rome’s empire consumed Britannia. No-one now stood watch upon the crumbling rampart and only heath grass attempted to scale the earth banks. Soon his men would pass through the entrance and dismount to await his orders. 

The previous day his new allies in Durnovaria had sent word - not for the first time - that a flotilla of small vessels had been sighted heading eastward along the coast. The people of Durnovaria and its hinterland knew all about Scotti raiders for, in the past the barbarous seafarers had been known to ravage farms and settlements for many miles inland. But only a handful of local folk remembered those times now and Ambrosius found the recent reports scarcely credible. 

Beside him his fair Saxon lady, Inga shifted uncomfortably. 

“They should be here by now,” she groaned. “These raiders - if they’re coming at all…” 
“You could have stayed behind at Vindocladia,” he told her.

She pulled a face. “I see little enough of you, as it is.”

Inga had every right to be annoyed for it was the third time he had raced south to patrol the coast without finding a single Scotti boat. Once again he had left his half-repaired Roman burgus at Vindocladia to intercept a non-existent foe and he was already regretting it. Yet what choice did he have? His new alliance with King Erbin of Dumnonia – his only alliance – required him to answer any calls for help from Erbin’s friends in Durnovaria. In return King Erbin had promised not to support the High King, Vortigern’s vengeful pursuit of Ambrosius. 

 “So, here we are again,” grumbled Inga, “and still… no Scotti. I begin to doubt these folk exist at all.”

 He stood up. “Come on,” he said, offering his hand.
Taking it, she allowed him to pull her to her feet and then contrived to remain in his arms, pressing her breast against him. “There are better ways for Ambrosius Aurelianus to spend his time,” she murmured, “don’t you think?”

Beside her, the war dog, Ferox gave a weary groan.

“Peace, Ferox,” chided Inga.

“He always spoils the mood,” said Ambrosius, laughing as he kept one arm around her waist while they sauntered along the headland. Several times he gazed seaward but a light haze obscured all save the high ground on the nearby isle which Romans called Vectis. If there were any boats offshore, he would not see them; especially as Scotti vessels were small, light craft – or so he was told – for he had never seen one himself. 

 “Your hair grows longer, Roman,” observed Inga, idly twisting a rust-coloured lock around her finger. 

“And not so Roman now, eh,” he said, with a sheepish grin. For as the months passed, less and less remained of the outcast soldier from Rome’s western empire. True, he still possessed the tools of his trade: spatha, helmet and shield, but little else; and here he was, arm in arm with a Saxon, trying to carve out a new life at the arse-end of the world.
“I think the mist is getting thicker,” said Inga. 

“It should be thinning by now,” he grumbled, as they crossed back over the raised ground and returned to peer down once more upon the inner harbour. “But, as long as we can see down there, that’s all that matters.”
In the distance he surveyed once more the gravel hard where fishermen had drawn their small boats high up above the tideline. Close by, a rickety wooden jetty thrust a stubby finger out into the estuary channel and Ambrosius smiled to see children playing on the foreshore. But his grin of satisfaction froze, half-formed as a vessel emerged from the mist. 

“What’s that?” asked Inga, clutching his arm.

After a tense moment, he chuckled with relief for it was just a single ship and not a Scotti vessel either. If anything, it looked Roman in origin. 

“A trader,” ventured Inga.

“Could be,” he said, but something about the ship irked him and, by the time Inga’s grip tightened upon his arm he worked out why. The vessel was a navis lusoria, made for short, coastal journeys and river navigation; but its arrival here disturbed him far more than any Scotti incursion.

“That’s… your ship,” cried Inga. “Our ship…”

 The previous year Ambrosius had brought them, against all odds to the shore of Britannia in just such a navis lusoria. Their ship was built to patrol the Rhinus River but it was very like the one he saw below. This one could, of course have been any vessel… except that it certainly looked exactly like the ship stolen from him at the onset of winter by his embittered half-sister.

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Derek Birks was born in Hampshire in England but spent his teenage years in Auckland, New Zealand, where he still has strong family ties. He now lives in Dorset.

For many years he taught history in a secondary school but took early retirement to concentrate on his writing. Apart from writing, he spends his time gardening, travelling, and walking. 

Derek is interested in a wide range of historical themes, but at the start of his writing career he focused on the late medieval period. He writes action-packed fiction which is rooted in accurate history. His debut historical novel, Feud, is set in the period of the Wars of the Roses and is the first of a series entitled Rebels & Brothers which follows the fortunes of the fictional Elder family. A second series, The Craft of Kings, followed and the final book of that series, Crown of Fear, will be published later in 2021.

Since Derek’s interest in the Wars of the Roses period goes beyond fiction, he has produced over forty non-fiction podcasts about the subject for those who want to explore what really happened.

Derek’s most recent fictional series features a change of time period and setting. It starts with The Last of the Romans, an Amazon bestseller, set in turbulent fifth century Europe and it centres upon the shadowy historical figure of Ambrosius Aurelianus. Two more books have been published in the series: Britannia: World’s End and Land of Fire.

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See you on your next coffee break!
Take Care,
Mary Anne xxx