David Gilman's Master of War is a fast-paced, gripping piece of historical fiction set during the Hundred Years' War. What sets it apart though is Gilman's fascinating protagonist, Thomas Blackstone, who, through bravery and skill in battle, rises from stonemason to knight.
I asked David Gilman a few questions about his new book:
The first thing that struck me about Master of War is the incredibly rich historical detail. It creates a very sensory reading experience—it is visually vivid but also engages with the sounds, the smells, the tastes and the textures of the time. How did you approach your research and did it take you a long time?
It took more than a year to research and write the first book in the Master of War series, basically because I did not know anything about the period. Like other decisions in my life 'it seemed a good idea at the time.' More seriously, I had intended to have the series start in Italy where Thomas Blackstone was a condottiere—a contracted mercenary leader, as were most soldiers of that time. And then I thought of how he would have reached that point in his life. I stepped back a few years and his character emerged more clearly.
The first section ‘The Blooding’ is predominantly focused on warfare and battle strategy. (It’s quite overwhelming—like watching the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan over and over again). Was it important to you to get the weapons and tactics as historically accurate as possible? It was a bloody era wasn’t it?
We cannot comprehend how brutal that era was. Our sensibilities are far too refined. A fighting soldier can only see what goes on around him, it's so visceral you have to write from the gut, going with them as they use fear and aggression to stay alive. The writer's advantage is being able to show other points of view. It was also quite a contradictory time when we look at the aspirations of the nobility and knightly class to embrace the Arthurian legend and live within a chivalrous code. That code did not extend to anyone below the privileged classes. I certainly wanted to be as accurate as possible in my depiction of that time but not to let the research dictate the story. When you delve into a story like this you're bound to make mistakes somewhere along the line—and believe me there are readers who relish them! But I try and get it as right as possible. I spent ages identifying exactly what type of sword he would seize in the battle. I followed routes and diversions the invasion forces took, used actual events and characters then tweaked them to suit Blackstone's journey. As an example, the burning of the barn in Normandy where English soldiers rested for the night is factual. I put my young, untested archers there to create an even more tragic event that helped drive the plot and the character's development. As you mentioned, it is important to create a sense of place and time, something a reader can almost taste and smell, but to also find the means of developing a main character that a reader can be drawn to. Perhaps I have been in too many dark and smelly places!
Thomas Blackstone is a great underdog; going from village stonemason to celebrated knight. Do you think that the war—as terrible as it was—gave some people the opportunity to rise above the conditions of their birth in a way that peacetime didn’t permit?
Fighting men lived for plunder. Archers and soldiers went among the dead to loot the bodies of silver belts, rings, buckles—anything of value. The plunder after the vicious battle at Caen made men rich and the ships returned to England laden with booty. The King would buy important prisoners from knights and then ransom them. There are instances were men-at-arms formed their own bands of routiers, (little more than brigands) sometimes thousands-strong, raiding across France, and their captains had themselves knighted by their own lieutenants. Others, often sanctioned by the King, seized castles and land to enrich themselves. There were self-made English captains who married French widows whose husbands had been slain and who needed men to protect their land and ensure their children could reach maturity. War was a land of opportunity. I wanted Thomas Blackstone to be honoured in a different way through eye-witness accounts of what he did on the battlefield—and why he did it.
You’ve had a range of interesting jobs in locations all over the world including working for the Fire and Rescue Service in South Africa and for the British Army—were you able to draw on some of your own experiences in writing Master of War?
I was a teenager when I worked in Fire & Rescue and it was a great learning curve. I discovered so much about myself and the human condition. It was some years afterwards—being considered too old—that I joined the army. These experiences are probably buried fairly deeply in the psyche but seem to be on tap when I want them. (Or am I kidding myself? They are probably not so deeply buried as I think. That might account for a lot!) Being fearful is an emotion you have to contend with and managing fear is something you learn to do. There were face-to-face instances with armed men that could have escalated into extreme violence that needed a softly-softly approach. It's a whole gamut of emotions you go through. Imagination is one of the most useful weapons in a writer's arsenal but having direct experience helps get the adrenaline going. Blackstone experiences fear, the shudder down the spine, the sweat that breaks out—but battle hardens him. I did not want him to be a cardboard cut-out hero, but to have him deal with the challenges I set him. That, hopefully, fills out his characterisation.
You’ve also written YA fiction and you’ve written for TV. Was it a difficult to make the transition to adult historical fiction?
I don't feel that to be the case. I started my career writing for radio, everything from thrillers to sci-fi, and across all the formats including plays and long-running series. I count myself extremely fortunate to have worked in radio as it's the perfect visual medium—like novels—because so much is contributed by the listener/reader. The trick is to create those pictures in the mind. My YA novels were dramatically paced and put my teenage hero Max Gordon into quite fearful situations. What was interesting was the breadth of readership I had with the series. Lots of dads read them first. As far as I know the youngest reader was nine, the oldest seventy-five.
He’s obviously writing in a completely different genre, but George RR Martin is said to have based his Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series upon medieval society and warfare. Do you think he has something to contribute towards our understanding of the era? Are you a fan?
Epic fantasy has a huge fan base. These two genres have much in common and fantasy writers have enormous freedom, especially if they see a time in medieval history that inspires their own creations. I used to read Donaldson, Eddings, Gemmell, some years ago but then I drifted away. I go back and forth to be honest. I haven't read George RR Martin (and I know I should because he has a huge range of work) so it's probably up for discussion as to whether he contributes any understanding to the era. I'm not certain how fantasy can make such a contribution—that's down to historical fiction writers who might have a tougher job on their hands because of what is known, but their skill of weaving fictional characters into known history creates a wonderful excitement of its own. Coincidentally, Clive Mantle from A Game of Thrones reads the audio book for Master of War.
Master of War is the first book in a trilogy; what have we got to look forward to in Thomas Blackstone’s story—can you give us any hints about the next book?
I might go beyond a trilogy, I'm not sure yet, but the next story rips into Blackstone's life in a big way. Friendship and family are under assault and there's a killer wreaking havoc. The Norman lords plan to depose the King of France and Thomas Blackstone is caught up in the backlash. Daring attacks, loyalty to his friends, love for his wife and children, all lead to a determined act of vengeance and the Battle of Poitiers where there is an unexpected outcome for Blackstone.
Master of War by David Gilman was published by Head of Zeus on the 16th of August 2013.