I’ve always been drawn to fictional battles, brave fighters, heroic deeds, swords, banners, armors, horses… The Battle of Helm’s Deep from the LOTR trilogy never ceases to give me goosebumps (“Theoden king stands alone.” “Not Alone! Rohirrim! To the king!”), but the silent battle scene in the middle of Kurosawa’s 1985 movie Ran has to be seen to be believed. If you haven’t watched Kurosawa’s astonishing vision of King Lear, I highly recommend it.
I like history, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that the past sometimes finds its way into my books in the form of battles. I found inspiration for one such titbit in the stories of some of the braves warriors in post-medieval Europe – the Polish Winged Hussars and the Janissaries.
In 1621, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth clashed with the invading Ottoman army in Khotyn in Bessarabia, today’s Ukraine. (They’ll meet once more, some fifty years later, on the same battlefield.) Both armies employed their elite units — the Winged Hussars and the Janissaries. The former were light cavalry, the latter infantry, both well-trained and fireless, and perhaps because of that, the battle ended in a stalemate.
At first, the Winged Hussars were forged of the exiled Balkan warriors, who ended up in Poland as mercenaries in early sixteenth century. In the following decades, however, they were transformed into a heavily armored shock cavalry.
The Hussars were famous for their huge “wings”, a wooden frames filled with eagle feathers. The wings made a loud, clattering noise, making the cavalry appear much larger than in reality and frightening the enemy’s horses. The wings also protected the back of the rider from swords.
Interestingly enough, the Janissaries too were recruited from (but not exclusively) the Balkans. Thought devşirme system or “blood tax”, the young, healthy boys were taken from their families and sent to Istanbul to be incorporated into the army or educated for the Ottoman administration. Cruel as it was, this practice produced many great military leaders and high ranking officials, including numerous grand viziers.
Janissaries, the first modern standing army in Europe, were famous for their bravery and loyalty.
My character, Ahmed Demir, fought for the Ottoman army. He wasn’t a janissary; he was a member of Turkish aristocracy. Ahmed was — now you can learn a few Turkish words — a yüzbaşı (captain) as well as a heķim (doctor) — the modern day equivalent to an army physician. He had sihirbaz (wizard) blood in his veins; it would help him to survive Khotyn and, many years later, share his story with us.
Guardian of the Realm, the second book of the Red Cliffs Chronicles, has been released on KISS.
Out of my three books, this one is my favourite. At first, I didn’t plan to do two Red Cliffs sagas, but as I was writing the final chapters of The Two-Blood Legacy, a new story started to emerge. I changed a detail or two in The Legacy, left a couple of hints and clues that things might not be as they appeared to be, and Guardian was born. The biggest problem was that the hero of the future book (along with his best friend) was dead (well, presumably). It’s not easy to resurrect a character, let alone two, without being ‘soup-operatic’, but I think I didn’t fall into that trap. The best thing was, Guardian solidified its predecessor, making The Legacy more credible and convincing.
Writing the second book before completing the first allowed me to have my own version of intertextuality. My characters walk between the stories, and some of them have cameo-appearances in my contemporary collection of stories, connecting my two imaginary words. Those who read my earlier blogs may remember that I’ve been fascinated with the interconnections between works of literature.
Here is Guardian’s opening chapter.
The situation was slipping out of control.
“Mrs. Fontaine, please don’t make this more difficult than it has to be,” Sam Wakefield, Rosenthal’s sheriff, said. “I don’t want to handcuff you, but I will if I have to.”
Charlotte Fontaine squared her delicate shoulders and braced her hands on her hips. “Cuff me? How dare you, Samuel Wakefield? I’ve known you ever since you were knee-high to a duck.”
The formidable sheriff pulled on his best law-enforcement expression. “I’m really sorry, ma’am, but you have to come with us. You’re under arrest.”
That day’s public protest to save a historic city block from destruction, including the popular Cosmopolitan Hotel, seemed to me like a carefully staged event. Nonetheless, I had my own professional and personal reasons for supporting the demonstrations.
It was time to intervene.
“Oh, for chrissake, Sheriff,” I said, “you can’t throw one of Rosenthal’s most popular citizens in jail. This will backfire, you know.”
Sheriff Sam Wakefield (under normal circumstances, my friend), turned to me with a sly grin. “You, on the other hand, are certainly not a prominent Rosenthal citizen. Now please turn around.”
Before I could blink, cold metal closed around my wrists with a click.
The sheriff turned to his deputy. “Officer, escort Mrs. Fontaine to the car. And you, Elizabeth Chatwin,” here he gave me a little push, “you are under arrest for trespassing, creating a public disturbance, disorderly conduct, and reckless endangerment. So far. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can be used against you …”
“Great job, Sheriff, arresting two women!” Dr. Ned Prentice shouted as he maneuvered a big sign that read Save the Cosmo! “The city government, including the police, should’ve been on this side of the barricades, helping us save the Cosmo from those urban wreckers!”
Dr. Prentice was Rosenthal’s beloved physician as well as the vice president of the Save the Cosmo! Committee, the group of heritage-passionate Rosenthalers, who’d organized the protest. The president of the committee was my fellow arrestee, Charlotte Fontaine.
The sheriff rubbed his neck. “Give me a break, Doc! The owner wants to sell it; you know that.”
“Then the City could’ve bought it out!” someone else yelled.
“Yeah. It’s common practice for a city government to be in the hotel business. Move over, folks, let me pass.”
A young cameraman from the local TV station was recording the entire interaction, including our arrests. I jerked and kicked a little bit for the sake of some additional publicity for our noble cause.
“We want to save a building that is one of Rosenthal’s landmarks and should be protected as a historic site!” I said, looking straight into the camera. “And now they’re arresting a sixty-two-year-old woman with fragile health! Help us save the—”
Before I could say another word, the sheriff had me in the back of his car.
“I’m sixty, dear,” I heard Mrs. Fontaine say before the young deputy opened the back door of his cruiser and, holding her hand, helped her in.
The flashing lights on, both cars pulled away and toward the police station, a few blocks south.
Looking at me in his rearview mirror, Sam said, “That was low, Elizabeth. Fragile health, my ass. Look at her; she doesn’t look a day over fifty and she’s as healthy as a horse.”
“Ned Prentice’s brother is the judge. Mrs. Fontaine will be at home for her afternoon tea.”
“Yes, she will; you’re right. But you will not, hon.”
“I don’t care. I bet there’s a nice little room in your station where I can camp overnight.” I pressed my forehead against the bars between the front and rear seats. “Sam, you’re not going to charge me with all those offenses, are you?”
“Now, sweetheart, I’m afraid you don’t understand,” Sam said with a suppressed laugh. “You and your mob blocked the busiest street in town during rush hour—”
“Rush hour in Rosenthal? You must be kidding!”
“And placed the city in a virtual state of lockdown.”
“For about twelve minutes, until you and your forces crushed—”
“Forces? It was only me and my deputy.”
“Until you and your deputy crushed our peaceful protest,” I said. “There.”
“For which you never got permission from the city.”
“And why didn’t we?”
Sam signaled and turned left. “Because Lottie was advised not to apply for permission. Elizabeth, nobody in Rosenthal wants to see the Cosmo knocked down, but you can’t expect the city officials or the police to join the demonstrators. Lottie needed some media attention, and she got it. Her arrest was the cherry on top.”
“I was arrested, too,” I reminded him.
Sam winked. “You’re collateral damage.”
He pulled into the police parking lot, cut the engine and turned to me. “The City would buy out the hotel if there was money for that. It’s a historic building. Alas, our budget is smaller every year. Lottie and her committee know that, so they’re determined to find an investor who will restore the Cosmo before it’s too late.”
“The entire Baker Block is in danger,” I said. “It’s not only the Cosmo.” The historic block, which included the Cosmopolitan Hotel, was the heart of the city.
“Lottie’s clever. If she saves the hotel, the block block may be saved as well. I wouldn’t be surprised if she already has an investor in mind.”
“The whole of Rosenthal is helping her, in one way or another.”
“Including you and me. See, I risked the reputation of the police department by ‘crushing’ her protest, and you will get a criminal record.”
Oh my god! Criminal record! “Sam, you’re joking, aren’t you?”
“I have to charge you, for the sake of authenticity. But don’t worry; I bet Lottie’s lawyer’s already in the station waiting for us. He’ll bail you both out. Now let me uncuff you, honey. You must be uncomfortable. By the way, are you free on Thursday night? I need someone to stay with Jacob.”
Sam was the single father of a four-year-old boy. I loved Jacob and always looked forward to spending time with him. “I’ll make sure I am,” I said with a wide smile.
Most of the charges against us were dropped, except for causing a public disturbance. Which would’ve also been dismissed if Mrs. Fontaine, against her lawyer’s advice, hadn’t insisted we’d intended to cause it.
I’d had no such intentions, of course, but since I was the Save the Cosmo!’s professional consultant and Charlotte Fontaine’s friend, it was a matter of loyalty to support her statement.
The lawyer assured us we’d end up with some light community service.
“I’ll give you a ride, and then I’m going home,” I said to Mrs. Fontaine as we left the police station and walked toward my car. “All I need now is a cup of tea and a hot bath.”
“What you need is a glass of wine,” she said and slid her arm through mine. “I’m throwing a party tonight, to celebrate our success, and you’re coming with me.”
This could be a perfect chance to learn more about Mrs. Fontaine’s grand plan. I was part of it, after all.
“Sure,” I said. “But can we stop by my house, just for fifteen minutes? I need to change into something more party-appropriate.”
“No, you don’t,” Mrs. Fontaine said and took a step back, her eyes scanning over my attire: a light beige coat, a knee-length turquoise dress and three-inch-heel pumps in the same color. “You’re already dressed for a party, darling. You were overdressed for the protest.”
Back in February, I was contacted by Crazy Maple Studio (CMS), the creator of Chapters Interactive Stories (an interactive story game and visual novel app). They recently launched a novel platform called KISS and offered to market my books through it.
I asked them to send me a sample of the distribution contact. My sister, a copyright and trademark agent, didn’t find anything alarming in it, so I singed a one year non-exclusive contract allowing CMS (KISS) to market my books to their reading community.
The Two-blood Legacy was released today. I’m not thinking about possible profit, I’m just curious to see whether or not my books will finally meet their readers.
Hopefully they will. Last night, while I was going through the entire book in search for the best lines CMS would need to do more personalized graphics for me, I realized something big: If someone else wrote The Legacy, I would truly enjoy reading it.
JP McLean, thank you for the title and your help with the blurb!
Some past events and long-dead people crop up in The Red Cliffs Chronicles—the 1621 Battle of Khotyn, the 1588 Battle of Gravelines, the 1793-1794 Reign of Terror; the fifteenth-century Turkish cartographer Piri Reis, Voltaire, Alexander Dumas, Victor Hugo and so on. I like throwing bits and pieces of history into my novels and then tweaking them to fit my narrative purposes.
Holy Roman Emperor Josef II, man ahead of his time
One particular man has his cameo appearance in all my stories—Holy Roman Emperor Josef II, a statesman I deeply admire.
Along with Catherine the Great and Frederic the Great, Josef II has been considered one of the three most important Enlightenment rulers.
History doesn’t call him “Josef the Great”, but to me—and I’m not alone–he is the greatest among the three of them. His vision was broader, more modern, more humane. More idealistic. He didn’t possess the ruthlessness of the other two and, unlike Catherine and Frederick, didn’t eradicate his powerful opponents to enforce his reforms and thus give them a chance to consolidate.
As someone said, he wanted too much, too fast, too early.
There isn’t better proof of this statement than Josef II’s reformation of the legal system: in 1787, he abolished brutal punishment and death sentence.
The radical changes Josef II initiated didn’t take root during his lifetime. His triumph, however, although postponed, was ultimate—his reforms became the bedrock for modernization of the Austrian Monarchy and its pathway to democracy.
According to many accounts, the emperor was a contemplative, lonely man with melancholic blue eyes. He died relatively young, without children — his only daughter didn’t survive childhood. His first wife, whom he adored, didn’t love him in return; just the opposite happened in his second marriage. Reading and learning about him, I couldn’t help but ask myself the question that often pops into a writer’s mind – what if things were different?
And this is how Josef II ended up with an alternative biography, much happier than his official, imperial life story had even been. But then, when I took over telling it, he wasn’t an emperor anymore. Just a man, free to dream and love.
In this a small excerpt from Chapter 35 of Guardian of the Realm, in which our heroine meets an interesting man.
“… Dr. Gerhard Falkenstein bore an astonishing likeness to Josef II, the Austro-Hungarian Emperor and one of my favorite historical figures. I tried hard to ignore the fact that Falkenstein had been the alias the Emperor had used for his travels as a commoner since I didn’t know what to do with it. I couldn’t find even a remotely reasonable explanation. Dr. Falkenstein was a pleasant, quiet man and had light blue, somewhat melancholic eyes, like the man whom he resembled. His Midwest American accent was a welcoming reality check. The Emperor had liked to travel, but no history book mentioned that he’d reached Colorado. The solemn Dr. Falkenstein couldn’t be his relative either. It was well known that the Emperor’s only child was a daughter who had died very young…”
Image (public domain): Anton Von Maron (1733-1808) Kaiser Joseph II. (1741-1790) mit der Statue des Mars 1775 , 242 x 172.5 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Bilddatebank
I really enjoyed this mystery novel set in the early 1960s Egypt and was sorry to part with it, which is always a good sign – an emotional and mental relationship with a book doesn’t happen out of nowhere.
It has a thrilling plot, believable, multifaceted characters, and a delightful touch of spookiness. It also has somethingelse, and I’ll try to explain it.
I’ve been dazzled by Ancient Egypt since I was a child. You don’t need to believe in pseudo-scientific hypotheses about its origins to become fascinated with Egypt – I certainly don’t — but once you learn a little bit more about this incredible civilization, you can’t ignore the mysteries, the unknown and unexplained that surround it. Once you stand in front of the pyramids, the temples, the colossal statues of the old kings and queens, or the granite boxes in Serapeum, you realize and, even more, you feel that the official Egyptology answers are not only insufficient but also as illogical as the most outlandish alternative theories. Better still, you understand, on some deep, cosmic level, that the Egyptian puzzle doesn’t have or doesn’t need the ultimate answers; the great part of the appeal of this old, old world is in its resistance to be fully explained, in its ability to keep its secrets. In a paradoxical way, this great mystery connects us to Ancient Egypt much stronger than any definitive explanations ever would.
I felt that tie when I was there. France Leighton, the heroine of the novel, felt it too. This bond gives Audrey Driscoll’s story a unique dimension, and it’s the reason why She Who Comes Forth and I clicked together. All the other qualities aside, the undisputable beauty of this novel lays in the fact that the author was able to evoke the enigmatic and timeless substance of Egypt and the mysterious connection between this land and us.
The first book I read in 2021 was A Court of Thorns and Roses (Sarah J. Maas). It took me forever to finish it.
Last January, I remember, I blitzed through seven or eight Lisa Gardner’s novels with a thrilling satisfaction, even though suspense isn’t my cup of tea, and then continued with the same pace and an array of authors for the following six months. Reading has always been my salvation, my sanctuary, my deepest need. Since I discovered the written world, books were my closest friends: I read classics, popular fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, great books, not so great books… everything but magazines and newspapers (once I left journalism for good, that is).
And then, sometimes this summer, just like that, it stopped. Old TV series on YouTube, documentaries, podcasts and video clips about quantum physics (not that I understand much of it :-)), mental health, and acrylic painting have become my new form of escapism. I could neither read nor write; my imagination, my most treasured “possession” and such a huge part of me since I could remember, vanished, as if someone turned it off.
What’s to blame? COVID, my age, depression that I’ve been wrestling with for years? Reading and writing (and medications) had been my greatest allies against my congenital melancholy and many life’s challenges. So what to do now?
And that’s not all; there are my books, too. My attempt to “embrace obscurity” didn’t work out. It’s one thing to tell myself it doesn’t matter; I’m writing for myself, but it’s another to see my novels sitting on Amazon with no reviews, no sales, no recognition at all. The library e-copies were doing fine for several months, but the constant flood of new electronic books has made it impossible for an unknown author to stay visible for long. The Smashwords editions are still free and there have been over 2000 downloads but I don’t know how many of them go to samples and how many to the full books. How many people read them? Between 4 and 2000+ although I can be sure only about those four since they “favorited” me. And again, no reviews, no ratings, either good or bad. Nothing. Silence.
Together with COVID, the death of my best friend in July and the months-long worry for my critically ill cousin, this complete invisibility of my novels pushed me even deeper into despair and — of course — I started entertaining some not helpful thoughts: I shouldn’t be writing at all. My stories are not good. If they were, they would find their readers, right?
This way of thinking won’t make me sit in front of my computer and start writing, I know, but it seems I can’t find the way out. My wise older sister says I’m too hard on myself. She thinks I should let it be, give myself time and stop torturing myself. Yes, but how?
The debacle with my books and my family issues aside, does anyone else experiences the COVID-induced absence of inspiration and motivation?
How do you cope with it?
I got sidetracked. This post was supposed to be my observations about the book that took me three long weeks to read. Disturbance in my reading habits wasn’t the only reason, but I’ll leave it for the next post.
I don’t think about the past often, but every now and then something brings it back against my will and turns me inside out. This time it was an article, written by a friend of mine and once-time colleague, about the magazine I used to work for. You can see me on the photo below, sharing the chair with my friend Filip.
Her article was an overview of the magazine’s 30-year history through the five addresses it resided at. I was there when it was at its first, which corresponds with the time of war (1992-1996).
That war was an unimaginable horror and, like every other challenging times, brought out the best and the worst in people. In a way, however, it simplified things — life became black and white. You knew your friends from your enemies, you knew the right from the wrong, you knew who to trust. It didn’t let you compromise with your moral principles and conscience.
Our offices back then were situated in a 1930s building, on the top, seventh floor, which originally served who knows what purposes. It had low ceilings, small windows and squeaky parquet. In the hallway stood a row of seats salvaged from the old movie theater, “Odeon”. To paraphrase my friend, in those tiny, overcrowded rooms, connected with a long, curved corridor, on those “Odeon” seats, the ethical concepts and professional standards of our magazine took shape. Between the sixth and seventh floors was a locked gate, a pitiful attempt to stop the anonymous telephone callers who threatened to come to kills us, or throw the bomb, or worse. Much better protection was Maria, the building manager then in her sixties, who would warn us if some suspicious characters were on their way up. More than anything else, that gate and that no-nonsense woman symbolized the pressures we worked under.
These were the worst years of my life: I lost my home, my friends, all my material possessions, part of my identity. My family was scattered all around the world and I became a refugee in my own country. Yet at the same time, they were among the best. I’d had some crucial things I never found here: the sense of belonging, the job that I was proud of, and (save for very few) true friends.
The times were dangerous, but I resided at the right address.
Jasmina Hanjalic is my high school friend, the author of several books of poetry and short stories, and an ER doctor.
This poem is based on a true event, and it’s Jasmina’s intimate reaction to its absurdity. I had the pleasure of translating it, and I just hope I’ve caught some of its power and essence. A big thank to Kristin Muraki for her valuable inputs.
TO THE MOTHER OF THE ONLY SON
A story has been broadcast
about a mother–and the wife of a prime minister at that–
who has, proudly and with joy, seen her only son
off to the war to give his life for the homeland.
If I could talk to her, just for a half an hour,
I would ask her: Mother of the only son,
do you know what the homeland is?
If you think it’s the country you were born in, think again:
the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire,
the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire…
they all perished.
Do you know, Mother of the only son,
that the country of my birth is no more,
wiped out at the whim of those in power?
I would tell her about another mother,
Nazija from Klisa, near Zvornik,
and her six dead sons,
six sunken graves in the homeland soil.
Do not offer to any army your son, to whom you gave life.
From time immemorial,
the homelands have been thirsting for the blood of our children.
Momčilo Gavrić, 1914, age 8. Photo by Nena Metikoš. The image is public domain.
There are very few things more depraved, more cruel, more immoral than child-soldiers.
Yet, this post is a homage to a boy-warrior, the youngest soldier of the Great War. His story is unique, though–he wasn’t recruited; nobody used him for military propaganda; there was no “children brigade” in the army he joined. His name was Momčilo Gavrić, he was eight in 1914, and the war just happened to him and to a good part of humankind. (The war to “end end all wars”, as it was called; in truth it was just a prelude to even more horrible slaughter and destruction that will soon follow.)
At the very beginning of the war, in August 1914, Austro-Hungarians attacked his village, in central Serbia, then a small, independent kingdom. They annihilated his entire family, among many others — his mother, father, grandmother, three sisters and four brothers, all perished within minutes — and burned the village. Momčilo (the meaning of his name name is “bold guy”) survived by pure chance–earlier that day, he’d been sent away by his father to do some chores. Fleeing from his home after the massacre, Momčilo stumbled upon a Serbian artillery unit. Not knowing what to with the shell-shocked child, the commander, Major Stevan Tucaković, let him stay with them until they found him a new home.
Momčilo Gavrić and his caretaker (?) salute to the Major S. Tucović (1916). Photo by R. Šuković. The image is public domain.
It never happened. Behind them, in front of them, on the left and on the right was only destruction and devastation. The boy stayed. The commander had a uniform made for him and assigned a comrade-in-arms to be Momčilo’s caretaker.
With his “adopted family”, the 6th Artillery Division, Momčilo went through all the major battles. He was demobilized in 1918, age eleven, in the rank of lance sergeant, the youngest one in all the armies of the Great War.
Later, he was sent to England, where he finished school at Henry Wreight School in Feversham.
Later still, he married, worked, got arrested twice by Germans during WWII, had some disagreements with the new government after the war and spent some time in jail.
Other than that, he had more or less ordinary life. He lived to be eighty-seven.
Imbedded is a song, relatively recent, about a soldier returning home after the Great War.
I have two more stories from WWI for this Remembrance Day. One is about the most decorated woman of the Great War and the other one about a military trumpeter.
An ancient alliance. An epic battle. An immortal love. Meet Astrid Mohegan and Jack Canagan—a young wizardess unaware of her legacy, and a handsome wolf-man hesitant to take over his responsibility. Until their paths cross.
Man by day, wolf by night, Brian Canagan lives a lonely life on his splendid mountain estate. Until he meets his match—the brilliant and sassy Elizabeth Chatwin. Risking unforeseeable consequences of exposing his world to Elizabeth, Brian will lure her into it, hoping that she has enough courage to love him—both the man and the beast.