Gate of the Dead | David Gilman | 2016 | Head of Zeus | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book
This week sees the publication of Gate of the Dead, the third book in David Gilman’s fantastically exciting and brutal Master of War series that brings the Hundred Years War to life through the story of Thomas Blackstone, once an archer and now a powerful knight in his own right. I’m delighted to present below an interview with David Gilman but, before that, here is a review.
It is 1358 and Sir Thomas Blackstone is banished from England. With his loyal men beside him, Thomas is a mercenary in Tuscany, caught up in the violence between cities that is tearing Italy apart. His job is to protect Lucca and its surroundings from the rapacious forces of Milan. And what Thomas sees and experiences in this lawless country is appalling. A chance to escape the bloodshed comes in the shape of a mortally wounded messenger who carries a message from the King of England’s mother, Queen Isabella. Thomas is recalled back to England to take part in a tournament alongside the Black Prince, a man Thomas assumed could no longer stand the sight of him. But an invitation from the Queen is not lightly ignored.
Of course, this is the mid 14th century and the rest of post-plague Europe is as lawless and brutalised as Italy and Thomas’s journey north is not an easy one. And Thomas is a man who makes enemies and his latest is in pursuit. So begins a series of bloody adventures that take Thomas and his men back to England and an uncertain welcome, before Thomas is returned to the continent and thrown into the heart of a peasants’ revolt in France that almost defies belief in its savagery and bloodlust. But Thomas is on the trail of his wife Christiana and their family and there is nothing he won’t endure to protect them. It’s just as well because Thomas will be tested to his very limit.
David Gilman, again, achieves wonders with his recreation of the Hundred Years War. But a strong part of its appeal has been watching Thomas Blackstone grow from the young stonemason archer who fought at Crécy. He’s a man who inspires loyalty and over the books I’ve grown attached to a fair few of his band of men – their banter provides welcome light relief, for us and for Thomas. Unfortunately, this being a novel of war, the headcount suffers. Fact and fiction are well mixed, with Thomas’s personal experiences of conflict, survival and love set against the backdrop of war between kings, petty nobles and armies.
I do like the way Gilman treats the women in his novels. They have strong roles and a great deal of influence, especially Christiana, while having to endure enormous stress. It’s difficult to know who to worry for most in Gate of the Dead – Thomas or Christiana. In Gate of the Dead, I was particularly fascinated by its depiction of life in medieval Lucca in Tuscany. This is a city I visit regularly and it’s brought to life here in a way I haven’t imagined before.
All of the Master of War novels are bloody and uncompromising in their portrayal of war and violence and Gate of the Dead is no exception. This is, though, the darkest of the novels. It is episodic in structure as Thomas moves around Europe from one crisis to another but the tension builds throughout, leading to a shocking climax that I doubt I’ll forget.
Congratulations on Gate of the Dead – another fine book in this wonderful series, The Master of War. What inspired you to write about the Hundred Years War?
Thanks, Kate. Gate of the Dead, like the other books in the series, feels very much alive to me. Thomas Blackstone and the men who serve with him have developed a life of their own and become such strong characters. Ideas for stories tend not to leap out of the imagination but tend to sneak up and take you by surprise. I saw a painting of a Englishman in the Duomo in Florence. He was dressed in his finery on a wonderful war horse. It turned out to be John Hawkwood who served Italy as a condottieri – a soldier of fortune. After the great battles in 14th century France when King Edward III defeated the French in two great decisive battles, many soldiers were paid off (if they were paid at all) and became soldiers for hire. The Italian city states particularly prized the English and Welsh because of their fighting skills. The question that would not go away was how did this Englishman rise to such prominence? And who exactly was my character going to be?
Gate of the Dead is set during the mid-14th century, one of the bleakest episodes in the last thousand years! What is the appeal of writing about this time – and would you have liked to have been alive then to see it for yourself?!
The medieval period is often considered nothing more than sheer brutality. But that’s how wars were fought in those times. Close quarter fighting of the most vicious kind meant that for any one man to stand out he had to be stronger and more courageous than most. A knight’s honour was closely linked to his fighting ability on the battlefield. King Edward III valued his fighting men and he rewarded commoners as well as noblemen and knights. It was a time of enormous conflict and Edward was as courageous as the men he led. And, of course, Edward’s greatest weapon in his arsenal of outstanding knights and noblemen was the English and Welsh bowmen. The breadth of history, personal, political and social, gave me a vast field of research and interest to write about.
Where did the inspiration for the character of Thomas Blackstone, once an archer and now a knight, come from?
Starting the series with a man from a humble background meant that he was skilled in the art of survival on a day-to-day basis. Thomas Blackstone had physical strength and was imbued with sufficient compassion and duty to care for his younger brother, so when this village boy was thrown into a terrifying war I already had characteristics that would cause him conflict. A nobleman’s and knight’s chivalric code embraced good manners and an idealism that was only applied to those of equal or more senior rank, so creating a situation where a common man from the ranks of archers was thrust into a higher social order meant I could develop his character with more depth.
How many books do you envisage the series having? Do you know how the series will end or does it develop as you write it?
Gate of the Dead is the third book in the series and Thomas Blackstone will have his fourth outing in 2017, and there’s a fifth book planned for 2018. As a character he can have a long life and there are enough elements already laid into the books to be embellished and developed further. Writing these books is an adventure. When I sit down to start the new story I have no idea where it will take me or the characters who inhabit my life on a daily basis. My study can get a bit crowded at times. Historical events often trigger the time and place where he is placed.
How difficult is it to mix history with fiction?
It has its challenges. No author can change historical events but characters can operate within the historical context of where they’re placed. The big events – the great battles, the kings and queens, those elements can’t be messed about with too much, but, as an example, who’s to say how such important characters in history might, or might not, have reacted in certain situations. I do a lot of cross –referencing in my research to try and get the facts as correct as possible, but even academics and historians are not always in agreement. I think that provided the fiction is well grounded in time and place there can be some flexibility. It’s fiction.
Your novels also feature strong women, something I don’t take for granted in historical fiction. How important is it to you to give women representation in your books?
Women often played a subservient role in medieval times, but as always, there were exceptions. I remember coming across a French noblewoman by the name of Blanche de Harcourt when I started writing the Master of War series. I scribbled her name on the back of envelope – which I still have because she was part of the genesis for Thomas Blackstone. At first I could find out very little about her but then, slowly but surely, she emerged. A noblewoman in her own right, independent of her husband, she ended up creating her own army of mercenaries. There were times in that period of history where women were forced to take on the mantle of responsibility for their families – particularly when their husbands and sons were killed in war. They were hardy, resilient women and I have always wanted strong female characters in my books. It’s not always easy to realistically bring female characters into the story mix, given that it was such a male-dominated era – but I hope that so far my female characters have developed satisfactorily into the fabric of the stories. Blackstone’s wife Christiana, is an example. She’s a strong-minded, but vulnerable woman who faces challenging events that I believe female readers can identify with even through modern eyes.
Is there another period of history that appeals to you to write about?
So many. My ideas are stacked up like ghost planes over Heathrow. World War II is always a great pull, and for some time I’ve had a storyline sketched out. Elements of the 1920/30s and emigration to North America also interest me and I have a female character lined up as the protagonist. It’s a tough story to tell and is firmly based on facts and the personal recollections of those involved. I also have a series in mind which has an Anglo-Saxon character in post-Norman invasion times, who moves on to take part in another great empire’s conflict. I have recently completed a standalone novel – The Last Horseman – written in between my Master of War series. It is set in 1899, begins in Dublin, Ireland and follows a character, an older man, who is embroiled in the Irish politics of the time. He journeys to South Africa at the time of the Anglo-Boer war. The “Last Horseman” will be published mid-2016. Other ideas aside, I will be staying with Thomas Blackstone and the 14th century for a while yet. He has a long journey ahead of him.
Which authors have inspired you to write?
This is always a difficult question to answer. So many authors, so many books, but there’s also another element involved. When I was young I not only read everything I could lay my hands on but also listened to a lot of radio drama. So the ‘reading eye’ and the ‘listening ear’ both stimulated my imagination and inspired the storyteller within me. It’s a real mixed bag of authors. Early works I remember are those by Norman Mailer, Alistair Maclean, Neville Shute, Wilbur Smith, Robert Ruark, William Wharton, Saul Bellow, James Clavell, Helen Dunmore, Edith Pargeter, Josephine Tey, … the list goes on because there’s something in every novel that piques my interest and triggers my own imagination. As the years progress my reading has become even more diverse. Every book offers something special. Have just finished Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. I am currently reading Sebastian Faulkes’ Where my heart used to beat.
What’s your favourite novel of 2015?
Terrible question. Pitting one author against another is like comparing your best friends. I probably need more time to think about the answer. As an example, I am (still) enjoying the Richard Burton diaries but was gripped by Jo Nesbo’s The Snowman. (I don’t always read the most currently published novels.)