(Edge of Empire, Book One)
By Alistair Tosh
Publication Date: 16th February 2022
Publisher: Sharpe Books
Page Length: 426
Genre: Historical Fiction / Ancient Rome
Lucius Faenius Felix arrives in Britannia to command the First Nervana, a renowned cohort drawn from the homelands of the fierce Nervii tribe. The soldier has been recently cheated out of his ancestral estates - and is still grieving the mysterious murder of his father.
Along with Cai Martis, a veteran cavalry Prefect, the young officer uncovers news of a conspiracy. The resurgent Novantae, a ferocious tribe, led by the determined war-chief, Barra, aim to put the Romans to the sword and win back the province.
Surrounded and cut off by their enemies, Lucius and Cai must lead their cohort through hostile territory. Conquer or be conquered.
The Romans attempt to send a message through enemy lines.
The First Nervana make a desperate final stand behind the walls of their fort.
Did the message get through?
Lucius and Cai know all too well what is at stake. Victory or death.
Mary Anne: Congratulations on your debut novel, Siege (Edge of Empire Book 1). Could you tell us a little about your new book and what inspired you to set your story in the Ancient World?
Alistair: Thanks Mary Anne, I’m delighted to feature on the Coffee Pot. I'm a regular reader.
My debut novel Siege is the first of a trilogy. It is an historical adventure set in the wilds of second century northern Britannia. At its heart is the relationship that develops between two men. Lucius Faenius Felix, an inexperienced Roman Tribune, of the patrician class, given command of the First Nervana, a Germanic auxiliary cohort. The other, Cai Martis, is a grizzled, veteran cavalry Prefect and warrior of the Nervii tribe. Their story takes them through bloody, terror filled battles against the tribes of the north. Lucius’s ordeals will ultimately transform him from callow youth to a battle-hardened war leader with dreams of recovering his lost family lands. Cai, feeling his mortality as his time with the Nervana nears its end, seeks the love of the beautiful and strong-willed Alyn, widow of his childhood friend. But, as the fearsome Novantae tribe and their allies sweep across the land once more, threatening the province, both men must stand their ground in a final desperate battle that will mean victory for the Nervana or its destruction.
In terms of what inspired me, I've had bits of the story in my head for years. As a lad growing up in the countryside of Dumfriesshire in southern Scotland I regularly visited Burnswark Iron Age hillfort on my bike. I saw the remains of the two Roman siege forts and the grass-covered mounds of the ballista platforms, called the Three Brethren locally. I wondered what it must have been like for the defenders in what was surely a brutal, terror filled, battle. But it was my research into the likely events and the political backdrop to it, that really highlighted where the story lay.
Mary Anne: When researching this era, did you come upon any unexpected surprises?
Alistair: Yes, quite a few, but two in particular. Firstly I always understood that the Roman army’s way of carrying out warfare was brutal and aimed at the total subjugation of its enemies. But what I hadn’t truly realised was the way in which it used fear, and even psychological warfare, as a weapon long before they closed in for hand to hand fighting. This is clearly shown at the battle for Burnswark. The largely unarmoured warriors of the local tribe faced a barrage of thousands of lead sling bullets that had the same hitting power as a modern handgun. There were smaller versions that had holes drilled into their sides that buzzed like angry wasps when slung. Fist sized, anti personnel, stone ballista balls and many arrowheads and deadly accurate scorpion bolts were uncovered at the site too. The tribesmen must have spent most of the battle lying, terrified, with their faces pressed into the soft earth of the hill’s summit.
The second is the use of cavalry. Most often when we consider the Roman army in Britannia we think of the legions or the auxiliary infantry standing watch on Hadrian’s Wall. But in reality it was the cavalry units that did much of the day to day work. They were highly mobile, making them effective on patrols and as scouts north of the Wall. They made speedy messengers, giving warning of sudden threats and incursions. They also ensured food security, protecting local farmland and guarding supply trains, and not to forget helping in the collection of taxes from local chieftains. They simply kept the peace.
I have tried to reflect both elements accurately in Siege.
Mary Anne: Why do you think this period in history is still really popular with readers?
Alistair: I think it’s because the period is filled with famous historical characters that fire our imaginations. But it is also a period that has many gaps in our knowledge and understanding that allows an author to fill in with good stories. Take the Antonine Wall in Scotland for example. Built by the Romans and 36 miles long between the river Clyde and the Firth of Forth. We know almost nothing about the campaign that led up to its construction, other than what has been uncovered in the archaeological record.
Mary Anne: What do you think is the most challenging aspect of writing Historical Fiction during this era?
Alistair: For me it was getting the descriptions of things as close to reality as possible. What was the land like nearly two thousand years ago? Was it forested or had the land been cleared for agriculture? What was it like to live in an auxiliary fort for a soldier and what did the civilian settlement below its ramparts look like? Lots of questions that research can only partly answer.
Mary Anne: Does one of the main characters hold a special place in your heart? If so, why?
Alistair: Yes for me it is Lucius. He did in fact exist and was the Tribune of the First Nervana Germanorum. An altar stone raised by him to the god Jupiter on behalf of his cohort was found built into the wall of a small church near to Birrens fort. In the story Lucius is an inexperienced youth, but in reality was almost certainly a seasoned veteran. But even so, for a Roman of the patrician class to take command of a regiment filled with Germanic tribesmen, recruited from the Nervii tribe in what is now central Belgium, must have taken some nerve and would have presented considerable challenges on the edge of the Roman world.
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Alistair grew up in the Dumfriesshire countryside for most of his childhood. A region of southern Scotland filled with ancient place names such as Thorthorwald and Caerlaverock. But it was his visits as a boy to the site of Burnswark hill and hearing the tale of the Roman siege of the Iron Age fort that fired his love of Roman and Dark Ages history. From there the kernel of the stories for the Edge of Empire took root.
On leaving school he began a 35-year communications career. Firstly with the Royal Navy, that included covert riverine and seaborne operations during the height of 'The Troubles' in Northern Ireland, before moving into the corporate world. Military life is unique, and Alistair aims to reflect an authentic view of that experience and its language in his stories. When not writing or spending time with family, Alistair, his wife Jenny and Hurley the cockerpoo love to walk in the hills of both the UK and Andalucia.
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