Welcome to the Dark Age



 

As you know, I’ve been working on The Triumph of the Sky, the sequel to my first-published novel, The Bones of the Earth. And I thought I should familiarize you with this fantastic, yet historical universe so you’re ready to find you way around when the book comes out.

The Byzantine Empire

The setting is the Eastern Roman Empire, which most of us in the West call the “Byzantine Empire.” But to the people who lived in it, it was the Empire of the Romans.

The story of The Triumph of the Sky begins five years after the end of The Bones of the Earth, so that’s 603 CE. The Empire had just been through a particularly tumultuous period, even for the Roman Empire.

I learned in school that the Roman Empire fell in 476 CD, when Odoacer, a Germanic soldier in the Roman Empire, deposed the teenaged last Emperor, Romulus Augustus. A year later, Theodoric and the Ostrogoths killed Odoacer and conquered most of Italy. Other “barbarian” tribes took over Gaul, Iberia, Britain and most of the rest of the Western Roman territories.

But the Eastern half of the Empire continued for another thousand years. In the sixth century, its capital Constantinople, on the narrow straits that separate Europe and Asia, was the largest and wealthiest city in the world. With walls six metres thick and 12 metres high, sea walls and the natural protection of the Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn on two other sides, it was considered unconquerable. Indeed, it would fend off all attacks for another 600 years.

An ancient drawing of Constantinople, facing roughly west, showing how the city was roughly triangular shape with water on two sides. On the right, northern side is the Golden Horn, a huge harbour. A heavy chain stretched across it at night or when the city was under threat, which would prevent ships from entering.

The walls of Constantinople: Wikimedia Commons.

The Eastern Roman Empire in 600 stretched from the Caucasus Mountains, east of the Black Sea, all along the southern Mediterranean coast to the Atlantic Ocean, and included Egypt, and as far north as the Danube River. Emperor Maurice, who ruled from 582 to 602, reconquered parts of Italy that had been lost to the Ostrogoths and Lombards.

The Roman Empire in 600 CE. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 602, troops revolted against Maurice. Their leader, Phocas, butchered Maurice’s family in front of him, then killed the Emperor and took the throne.

Possibly a bust of Emperor Phocas

Phocas was especially brutal, even for a Roman Emperor. He used mass torture to rule, and became the object of many plots and intrigues. Eventually, he was deposed and killed by the next emperor, Heraclius.

During Phocas’ rein, though the Sassanid Persians attacked in the east, taking Syria and Mesopotamia, raiding Anatolia and even at one point setting up a military camp within sight of Constantinople. On the north, Avars and Slavs, or Sklaveni, were conquering deep into imperial territory.

This is the political and military situation that surround Javor and the other characters of Triumph.

The people of Constantinople

The people of Constantinople were cosmopolitan, with a great range of ethnicities represented at every social stratum—even the Emperor. About 30 percent were literate, far ahead of western Europe and the rest of the world at the time. There were renowned schools and universities in many of Rome’s cities.

The key to Constantinople’s wealth was trade. It was located at a crossroads: where the land route between Europe and Asia crossed the major sea trade route from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. As a result, it had several huge markets, great ports and incredible numbers of people moving in and out all the time. Wealth brought about great demand in the city for art and other luxury goods.

The Christian Church dominated social life in Constantinople. The Emperor was the head of both the Church and the Empire, although the bishop, called the Patriarch, wielded a great deal of power.

Leo VI Prostrating before Christ, Mosaic c.900 CE, Hagia Sophia / Creative Commons

Byzantine Mosaic with Virgin Mary and Infant Jesus – Hagia Sophia (Istanbul) Justinian I and Constantine I present the Hagia Sophia and Constantinople to the Virgin and Child.

Even though the Church dominated social and moral life, there were still many slaves in the Roman Empire. At that time, most of them were prisoners of war, and their children. But another source was poor parents who sold their children into slavery to pay their debts and feed the rest of their children.

Politics: Blues versus Greens

The people of the city generally divided into two groups: the Blues and the Greens. This originated as racing teams in the Hippodrome, and like today’s sports fans, they could be fanatical. There were times after races when one team would massacre thousands of members of the other. The rivalry between the two sides reached a peak in the Nike riots in 532. I’ll go into that in more depth in a future blog. But the Blue-Green divide went far beyond the horse races: neighbourhoods could be Blue or Green, and there were social and religious divisions between them, too.

In short, the early 7th century in Constantinople was a complex time — arguably as complex as our own, in its way, with political intrigues, wars on more than one front, social divisions, and contradictions between religion, society, politics and money.

Till next time … keep your paddles in the water.

 

Army of Worn Soles: Battle of Poltava



On this day, September 18, 1941, the German forces invading the USSR captured the city of Poltava, Ukraine. My father-in-law, Maurice Bury, was in that battle. I wrote what he saw and experienced in Chapter 10 of Army of Worn Soles, the first book in the Eastern Front trilogy. Here’s a sample. 

 

Source: Wikipedia.

Chapter 10: Panzers

Kyiv was gone.

The rumours arrived well before the official news. On September 17, 1941, Stalin finally gave permission to General Kirponov, head of the Soviet 5th Army, to withdraw from Kyiv. Once the orders went out to withdraw behind the Dnipro River, the Germans pounced and took control of the city in less than twenty-four hours.

But the withdrawal order had come too late. “Hurrying Heinz” Guderian, the great Panzer general, had already crossed the Dnipro in Belorussia in late August and had penetrated far east of the Ukrainian capital, to the area around Romny. General Ewald von Kleist blasted past the Dnipro south of Kyiv by September 10. On the September 14, the two generals shook hands a hundred miles east of Kyiv—having trapped five Soviet armies, more than half a million men, in the huge pocket between their forces.

It had not been the first time, nor would it be the last. The Soviet 6th and 12th armies had been encircled and trapped near Uman in mid-August. And after the Wehrmacht’s capture of Minsk in July, they had captured another five Soviet armies.

General Kirponos had fought hard against the encirclement in September, but a landmine killed him. Only a few in his army managed to break out.

Part of the 38th Army under newly appointed Major-General Vladimir Tsiganov managed to escape the Kyiv encirclement. Maurice and his men joined the retreat, heading southeast to defend the bridgeheads between Cherkassy and Kremenchuk. The Germans sent more Panzer divisions, and in October, the remnants of the Red Army pulled back another one hundred kilometres. Soldiers dug into the eastern banks of the shallow Psyol River to protect Poltava, where Marshall Timoshenko had his headquarters.

Maurice’s unit took shelter in trenches built by the locals, but there were no bunkers this time. Food delivery became sporadic and the men griped continually about the autumn rain. The soft soil of the trench walls crumbled. The food was bad or there wasn’t enough. But they could not complain for long. The Panzers kept coming.

They stayed awake all night, squinting west across the Psyol River to the invisible, continuous rumble of heavy vehicles. Some of the men prayed. Commissars and officers moved up and down the lines, inspecting and admonishing the soldiers to vigilance and readiness. “At the first sign of the Germans, we counterattack,” they said.

Maurice doubted it.

That first sign came at dawn. As the sky greyed behind the Soviets, the early light picked out German tanks advancing along the roads, cautious yet swift.

Maurice’s fingers tingled as the rising sun revealed columns of armoured vehicles and marching men, officers’ staff cars and motorized cannons. The lines stretched for miles. The German army moved in unison, fast, alert and fearless like a predator.

Two Panzers ventured onto a small wooden bridge. They weren’t even fazed when the bridge collapsed under their weight. The water didn’t reach over the tops of their treads. The drivers down-shifted and continued on.

An officer shouted to Maurice’s right and anti-tank guns fired. Shells burst on the lead Panzer and flames erupted around the turret, but didn’t damage the tank. Its machine gun fired and then its cannon barked. Maurice saw Red soldiers’ bodies fling up out of destroyed trenches.

“Fire!” Andrei and Orest pulled their triggers and the kick-back of the rifles geysered dirt into the air. Damn, Maurice thought. If that doesn’t draw the Germans’ attention, nothing will.

The shells went wide.

“Reload.”

Machine guns erupted from behind and a German armoured car carrying dozens of soldiers exploded, throwing bodies high into the air.

Maurice’s men fired again, and this time one shell hit a tank front-on. The shell stuck, burned into the metal plate and burst, but did not penetrate the armour. The tank reversed gears and drew back from the riverbank. The Panzers halted on the west bank, waiting.

All at once, shells began falling behind the Soviet lines, bursting and burning among the men. The Germans had turned their heavy artillery guns on the Red Army.

“Down, boys,” Maurice said, pulling his helmet as low as he could. It’s hopeless. If a shell doesn’t land in this trench and kill us all, it’ll only be sheer luck.

Soviet guns answered, sporadic and uncoordinated. They were aimed generally westward, in contrast to the German shells, which seemed demonically guided to Red Army targets.

When the heavy fire relented, Maurice chanced a look over the trench. The German tanks were advancing again. Somewhere, a heavy anti-tank gun fired, hitting the lead Panzer square on. The explosion blew its treads off and it lurched sideways into the river, crippled, smoke pouring from its front plate.

But more Panzers splashed through the river. Behind them came soldiers, running from cover to cover, firing their fast submachine guns. As they climbed onto the near bank, some hit landmines and fell, crippled, but more Panzers drove around them.

To his right, eastward, came a deep rumble. Maurice saw hulking Soviet KV heavy tanks, looking twice as high as a man, crawled forward on their wide treads, firing cannons and machine guns.

Why are they moving so slowly, he wondered. He saw their tracks moving, churning the earth and sinking into it. They’re too heavy for the soft ground. They were impervious to enemy fire unless it was point-blank on, but they were soon immobile. The Panzers just went around them.

“Pull back,” Maurice yelled, and the boys picked up the guns and ammunition and ran, crouching low as they could to the next trench, where they joined several other odalenje. Maurice’s boys hurriedly set up the guns and aimed at the Panzers.

They were too late.

The tanks swept past them, crushing wounded men under their treads. Andrei and Nikolai swung their gun around. “Aim at its back,” Maurice said. “FIRE!”

The gun whooshed and the shell hit the Panzer’s cylindrical fuel tank, oddly exposed on its rear deck behind the turret. The tank’s rear end lifted high and Maurice thought it would flip over. Shards of metal flew in every direction and the tank’s hull split and burned. The explosion rang in Maurice’s ears for minutes.

“Let’s get them, Lieutenant,” Orest said. He stood to pick up the gun, and Viktor, his loader, looked at Maurice wide-eyed. “We killed one tank. Let’s get more of the bastards.”

Big Eugene stood too, submachine gun at the ready. “Get down,” Maurice said. He grabbed Orest’s uniform and pulled him to the ground. Big Eugene dropped as a shell burst thirty metres away. Maurice saw him crawl back to the trench, flat on his belly.

Army of Worn Soles

A Canadian is drafted into the Soviet Red Army during World War 2, just in time to be thrown against Nazi Germany’s invasion in Operation Barbarossa. Caught in the vise of the Nazi and Communist forces, Maurice Bury concentrates on keeping his men alive as they retreat across Ukraine from the German juggernaut. Now the question is: will they escape from the hell of the POW camp before they starve to death?

Army of Worn Soles is the first book in the Eastern Front trilogy, which tells the true story of Maurice Bury’s experiences in the Second World War.

Find it on Amazon.

Sample Sunday: The Red Army takes Estonia from the Nazis



Today in the history of the Second World War on the Eastern Front

1944: The Red Army breaks through near Narva, Estonia. — World War II Database 

A description of the following events from Walking Out of War.

From Walking Out of War: Book 3 in the Eastern Front trilogy

Battle of Narva, 1944 Image source: Wikiwand http://www.wikiwand.com/en/Battle_of_Narva_(1944)

When the train passed a station with a sign that read Narva, Maurice realized they had reached Estonia, which the Germans called Ostland. Its history was complex. Home to a sizable German elite minority for centuries, Estonia had been independent after the fall of the Russian Empire during the Great War. In 1939, the Molotov-von Ribbentrop Pact ceded the Baltic states to the Soviet “sphere of influence,” and Germany evacuated tens of thousands of ethnic Germans from Estonia and Latvia before the Soviets took over. The Soviets deported thousands of Estonians to Siberia and killed thousands more.

When Germany invaded in 1941, many Estonians saw it as a liberator from Stalin, as many had in Ukraine. And as in Ukraine, the hopes for independence were soon proven to be lies. Germany set up Reichskommissariat Ostland, a huge buffer zone between “greater Germany” and the occupied areas of the USSR. Nazi Germany confiscated all the state property that the Soviets had confiscated a year earlier and imprisoned or killed the Estonian political, intellectual and commercial leaders that had not escaped. The German Reich minister for the occupied eastern territories began “germanizing” Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The Nazis set up concentration camps and murdered tens of thousands of Estonians, including over 4,000 Jews. By the end of 1944, the Reichskommissar could declare Ostland “Jew-free.” The Nazis exploited Estonia’s resources for their war effort and used Estonians as slave labour.

Which means the country is filled with partisans fighting both the USSR and Germany. Just like Ukraine.

As evening fell, the train stopped at an improvised army base, a muddy field in the midst of forests. The crops that had once grown there had been burned by war and churned by vehicles and marching feet. A few trees still held leaves, colourful in the fall, but most had been blackened and broken. Skeletal ruins of a town and farm buildings were grey against the red sunset.

Red Army soldiers in Riga, Latvia, 1944. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

“The Estonian-Latvian border is ten kilometres west of here,” said the earnest Lieutenant Vasilyev. “The Germans hold the border town of Valga. We’re going to take it in the morning.”

Maurice looked at Mykhailo. He was shaking. Old Stepan looked glum, as usual, and Young Olesh was pale even in the red sunset.

Maurice took a deep breath and let it out slowly. I’ve been in action. I’ve been in far worse situations, when we were running from the Germans. I survived. I will survive tomorrow, too.

They camped, groups of three making little tents of their chenilles, or greatcoats: one on the ground, two draped over their rifles, propped up as poles. They would sleep alongside one another in shifts: every few hours, they would change around, so each of the three had a few hours in between the other two, and thus the warmest place in the tent.

The sergeants woke them quietly before dawn. They packed their gear, pulling on their greatcoats against the chill. Maurice tightened his helmet strap and checked his rifle magazine was full. The sergeant led them to their starting position. Groups of two odalenye, or twenty-four in total, would accompany a tank. “Let the tank do the hard work,” said Nikolaev. “Your job is to protect it from enemy infantry. The tank will be your protection, but remember that it’s also the target for Fritz’s artillery. In the town, watch the windows and don’t trust the civilians. A lot of partisans favour the Nazis and will kill any socialist comrade they can.”

Or maybe they just want to be free from both Germany and Russia, Maurice thought. “Keep low, boys, and keep your eyes focused ahead for Fritz in hiding places,” he told his comrades.

The Lieutenant stepped in front of them. “This is our first experience in carrying out deep operations. The shock army will hit as soon as there’s light. Keep your head down as the planes strike. The tanks will move fast, striking deep. We’re the second echelon,” he said, and Maurice thought he sounded disappointed. “When they’ve broken through, we follow into the breach and occupy the town, destroy any remaining resistance and take over their bases, ammunition, vehicles. Our regiment’s specific objective is the railroad station. When we get there, we’ll set up the Maxim as a defensive weapon. If the enemy counterattacks, follow your training. Fire in short bursts. Don’t waste ammunition.”

A colonel stepped up behind Lieutenant Vasileyev, his battle uniform perfect. “We’re going to liberate Valga today,” he said, catching each man’s eye in turn. “That means we are freeing Latvia from the Nazi tyrant, restoring the rule of the people of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Latvia, and tomorrow, Lithuania as well. Other than partisans, this town is part of the Soviet Union. Stavka will not tolerate looting or abuse of the civilian population. Is that understood?” He did not wait for a reply, but walked away to repeat his message to the next group.

Sergeant Nikolaev summed it up. “Hands off the women and especially the girls.”

The sky lightened behind them, and then a line of planes buzzed past overhead. Maurice had faced the blitzkrieg in 1941. He knew what it was to be overwhelmed by a fast, unstoppable foe.

But nothing could have prepared him for the Red Army’s assault on the German invaders in 1944. The line of planes hitting the enemy stretched in both directions as far as he could see, and explosions lit up the western horizon with a hellish light. They felt the earth vibrating, felt the heat on their faces.

Katyusha rockets. Image source: World War II today.

As the sun’s first rays lit up the field, Maurice saw the artillery raise their barrels and begin firing: mortars and cannons, long-range artillery pieces and something new: the Guards Mortars, the innovative rocket launchers that became known as the Katyusha. They looked like the pipes of a church organ mounted on cantilevered assembly on the back of one of the now-ubiquitous Studebaker trucks. Maurice watched a crew load fourteen metre-long rockets onto the rails. The rails rose, pointing at an upward angle toward the enemy. Then with an unbearably loud but almost musical sound, they fired. Rows of multiple rocket launchers sent a volley of thousands of shells toward the Germans. Nothing could survive that, Maurice thought.

Then the shock armies raced westward. First came tanks and armoured cars, all carrying men with a grim but confident air. Looking at them, Maurice knew they had no illusions that some of them were going to die, but they were going to destroy the enemy.

Soviet infantry advance alongside T-34 tanks in the summer of 1944. Image source: World War II Today.

Hundreds of vehicles poured past Maurice’s position. The Germans returned fire, but that did not slow the shock troops. As the day brightened, the men could see the German positions in the town of Valga, about two kilometres to the west. Smoke billowed up from dozens of spots. Buildings crumbled as shells from Soviet tanks and cannon struck.

Successive lines of Soviet tanks, trucks, guns and men moved across the fields toward the first buildings of the town. Men fell, trucks burst into smoke and fire but the shock troops kept moving forward.

Walking Out of War: The Eastern Front, book 3

Ukraine, 1944: After the Soviets burned the Ukrainian city of Ternopyl to the ground to crush the stubborn Nazi occupiers, they rounded up every remaining Ukrainian man around for the Red Army’s final push on Germany. Maurice Bury, Canadian citizen, Ukrainian resistance fighter and intelligence officer, is thrust once again into the death struggle between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR.

Fighting across the Baltics in the autumn of 1944 is tough and bloody. Then the Red Army enters Germany, where they’re no longer liberators—they’re the long-feared Communist horde, bent on destruction, rape and revenge. The Communists are determined to wipe Nazism from the face of the earth. And the soldiers want revenge for Germany’s brutal invasion and occupation.

Get it on Amazon.

A story that twists like the Rio Grande



Review of Place of Skulls by Caleb Pirtle III

One of the most satisfying literary discoveries is a truly unique story. This is particularly rare in the mystery-thriller genre. Many thrillers seem to be emulating another derivative book, trying to ride a bandwagon to market success. Far too many read as if the author were trying to write an episode of his or her favourite TV show.

So when I opened Place of Skulls by Caleb Pirtle III, I was prepared for disappointment. But what I found were realistic characters, solid writing and a satisfying, completely original story.

The plot twists and turns, but holds the road.

Place of Skulls is the fourth in Pirtle’s Ambrose Lincoln series, a spy-thriller set during the Second World War. A lot of authors give their main characters a huge character flaw—alcoholism, a history of abuse, a physical disability—and Lincoln has what seems to me to be the most debilitating for a spy: amnesia. Ambrose Lincoln has no memory of his past, and cannot remember why he knows the things he does and cannot account for certain skills he has, such as the ability to pick a lock with a hair pin.

But he does have ghosts—at least one. He’s followed by a dead man only he can see, and only at night, the ghost of a man he killed in a military engagement that he cannot remember.

A rich Dallas oilman named Eliot Bergner hires Lincoln to find whoever killed his brother, Danny. “Danny B.” is a DEA officer who was investigating the smuggling of drugs from Mexico into the U.S., carried by poor, desperate migrant workers. One night, his mutilated body arrives in Texas in an empty boxcar. But not before he sends a message to his brother, Eliot—an observant Jew—that he has found incontrovertible proof of Christ’s appearance in Mexico before the Spanish Conquest in 1492.

Drugs and religion: that would seem to be enough for one book, but then the author adds the idea that Nazi Germany is lacing the cocaine and heroine the migrants are smuggling with Thallium, a potent and undetectable poison. Their idea is to addict as many Americans as possible, and then kill them.

As if that’s not complex enough, shady U.S. government operatives are about to launch an invasion of Mexico to stop the influx of addictive poison, but because Mexico is a sovereign nation that, at the time the story is set, has not yet declared which side of the war it’s on (which would have to make it between December 7, 1941 and May 22, 1942, when Mexico declared war on Germany), they have to keep it secret, even from the President.

No, it’s not impossible to make this story plausible.

If any author had come to a publisher with an idea for a novel about a detective finding incontestable proof that Jesus Christ came to Mexico before 1492, and getting caught up in a US government plot to invade Mexico to throttle the drug trade, mixing in Nazi spies, he probably would have been advised to pick an easier mystery to pen. But Pirtle handles the challenge well, giving the readers just enough information as the plot builds to keep us readers turning pages.

There were a few places where I was afraid the novel would become excessively Christian, where a plot point could only be explained by a miracle or an answer to true faith, but thankfully, Pirtle avoided that. Everything made sense, and while there is a definite religious motif to this book, it makes sense.

The characters ring true.

Author Caleb Pirtle III

Pirtle gives us a wide range of believable characters, all with strengths, weaknesses and flaws. I loved some of them, and detested others, but I reacted to each one. All their actions and reactions logically proceeded from their situations and personalities, with no unbelievable transformations. Eliot Bergner’s agonized family relationships add some surprising depth to the story. I suspected the femme fatale at first, but Pirtle’s iron-tight plot made her completely believable.

The author  gives us a satisfying closing.

Pirtle also avoids a facile story arc. Lincoln struggles against drug cartels, traitors, cowards and ghosts, all of whom leave scars. At no point do we know for sure who’s going to survive the next battle, and it’s never certain who’s going to win.

Pirtle doesn’t cut corners. The book has been produced professionally, meeting or exceeding the standards of commercial fiction. In fact, this book was much better than the commercially published stuff I have read lately.

5*

Visit Caleb Pirtle III’s website for links to buy this and other books.

Happy 150 Canada



 

Image courtesy University of the Fraser Valley

And Happy Independence Day, USA

Today is the 150th anniversary of the Confederation of Canada, the day when three British colonies in North America became the first four provinces of Canada. Ultimately, after a lot of arguing and angst, it led to what the world now sees as Canada, stretching across the top half of North America.

Some personal images in celebration of Canada 150. Here is one of the few of my pictures to survive my trip down the whitewater Missinaibi and Moose Rivers to Moose Factory last summer, at the put-in. That’s a monument to the early explorers of the fur trade route.

And in three days, Canada’s neighbour to the south (mostly, but there’s also Alaska to the west), the United States holds its annual celebration of its declaration of independence from Britain.

The close association of the two days always prompts comparisons between the histories and cultures of the two countries, and I won’t belabour them here.

But it is a good time to consider our history, and as many people, particularly Canada’s first peoples are pointing out, not all of it is wonderful.

Yes, Canada presents itself as the happy, nice country. And for the most part, that’s true. We are, today, vocally and for the most part tolerant, open, accepting and supportive. We have a good social safety net, public health care, liberty of conscience and religion and speech. We have strong public education and equal opportunity—mostly—for all.

But we do have flaws, and the U.S. does, too, and it is important to recognize these on our annual national day. Despite our claims of equality for all, Indigenous people in Canada (and the U.S.) still do not enjoy the same opportunities, rights or standard of living of most of us—certainly they do not receive what Canada promises. Hundreds of Indigenous communities across the country have not had clean drinking water for decades.

The status of women in Canada and the U.S. still lags behind that of men. Visible minorities do not get the same treatment from society, business and even institutions as white Canadians and Americans. We may not feel comfortable about that, we may wish all were equal, we may be striving mightily to achieve true equality for all, but we have to admit that things are not ideal.

Time to celebrate

But today, and Tuesday, are days to celebrate what is good about our countries. It’s time to be happy, to appreciate what our respective countries do for each of us, and what we can do for our fellow citizens.

We have to acknowledge the mistakes of the past, so we can redress them and avoid repeating them. But a day like the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the current country—which is a wonderful place to live for most of the people here—is a time to look forward to how we can make it even better.

Here are some more of my photos of this country.

An iconic Canadian image: Lake Louise in Banff National Park.

Another iconic Canadian image: Moraine Lake in Banff, the image that used to be on the back of our $10 bill.

 

A picture of my two sons in front of Lake Louise about nine years ago.

Some of the inukshuk sculptures in the Ottawa River last summer.

A collection of Canadian images just would not be complete without a shot of the Rideau Canal in Ottawa.

I could not resist publishing this one: the 13-year-old Super Nicolas standing on a glacier, halfway up the mountain — as far as it was safe to go without mountain climbing equipment — above Lake Louise.

Rapids on the Dumoine River in western Quebec.

Along the Mattawa River in northern Ontario.

And what would a Canadian photo collection be without a picture of a grizzly bear?

Happy birthday!

What I’m working on now: A new book



After publishing 10 books in the past two years (wow—I just blew my own mind), I am not slowing down, but I am changing direction.

I had a writing and publishing plan.e72b9-bonescoverfinalforweb

Two years ago in July, I published two books in two different Kindle Worlds: Torn Roots in the Lei Crime Kindle World, based on Toby Neal’s Lei Crime series; and Jet: Stealth in the Jet Kindle World, based on the bestselling series by Russell Blake.

Up to that point, I had published only three book-length titles:

  • The Bones of the Earth, book one of a planned Dark Age trilogy, a historical fantasy
  • One Shade of Red, a spoof of Fifty Shades of Gray
  • Army of Worn Soles, the first book in my Eastern Front trilogy, based on the real experiences of my father-in-law in the Red Army during the Second World War.

My plans at that point were to complete the Eastern Front trilogy (done!), then move to the second and third books of the Dark Age series. I also thought I might intersperse those projects by writing and publishing
stories that would tie together into a paranormal-occult-romance novel, Dark Clouds. I had written four chapters, publishing them on various platforms. A lot of people liked the first chapter, which stands alone as a story called The Mandrake Ruse. You can download it for free.

At that point, I had never even heard of Kindle Worlds, and never considered writing fan fiction.

Then Toby Neal diverted me.

Near the end of 2014, Toby Neal, bestselling author of the Lei Crime series and other books, and a prominent member of the BestSelling Reads authors group, selected a few authors to write for her brand new Lei Crime Kindle World. The idea was to publish a novella, something between 10,000 and 40,000 words, based on the characters and situations of her mystery novels.

I was excited and, to be honest, flattered to be one of the first invited to this project. And it also solved another problem for me. I had an idea for a light-hearted thriller with characters based on my family, but I could not make the plot work. When I got Toby’s invitation to write a Hawaii mystery, the plot, setting and characters fell into place.

However, there was one big problem: my main character was a geologist, and I knew nothing about the geology of Hawaii. I wasn’t getting the details I wanted from books or the Web. So I booked my next vacation to Maui, and what I experienced added a lot of realism to the book. And while I missed the first launch in April 2015,
I did manage to write a book, re-write it, get a cover, get it edited and proofread—and share a beta draft with Toby Neal herself—in time for the “second surge” in July.

While I was working on my first Lei Crime book, Russell Blake invited me (and several others) to write for his new Jet Kindle World, too. Its first deadline was the same as the second one for Lei Crime: July 31, 2015.

So, while Torn Roots was with beta readers, editors and proofreaders, I wrote a short, fast-paced thriller called Stealth, introducing two more characters based on people I know: Van Freeman and Earl LeBrun. And I met the deadline without cutting any corners.

My writing went fast in a new direction.

Since then, I wrote and published two more Lei Crime novellas and one novel. I was invited to another Kindle World, based on Emily Kimelman’s Sydney Rye series about a kick-ass woman detective and her giant dog, Blue. I’ve written two books for this series, both featuring Van and LeBrun.

Now, it’s time to get back to the original plan.

Don’t get me wrong—writing the Kindle World books has been a blast. I really enjoyed the characters and situations I created, and to judge by the reviews, my readers have, too. And I think I will find it irresistible to return to them, putting them in more impossible situations.

But I want to get back to the next book in the Dark Age trilogy. Last year, when I was waiting for medical attention after breaking my knee, I worked out the plot outline for book 2, The Triumph of the Sky. (Guess which song inspired that and I’ll send you a personalized, signed e-copy of The Bones of the Earth.)

The Dark Age trilogy is what I call “historical magic realism.” It’s epic fantasy, but set in a real time and place: the sixth-century CE Eastern Roman Empire, often known now as the Byzantine Empire. But the people there at the time called themselves “Roman,” even though most of them spoke Greek.

The Bones of the Earth, book 1 in the trilogy, was about Javor, a poor Sklavenic boy from beyond the Empire’s borders, who travels to Constantinople, the capital of the Empire, searching for answers about his parents’ death and his great-grandfather’s magical dagger. The second volume will tell the story of Javor as a young man, living in Constantinople with a wife and family, going on several adventures and contending with deep, supernatural forces. It’s based on a number, just as the first volume was. I’ve made some progress: two chapters written. In a future post, I’ll post some advance samples when I’m happy with them.

But don’t get too excited. Triumph is going to be a big book, like Bones was. But I’ll keep you up to date on progress, and I’ll have lots of contests and giveaways along the way. One of the first will be a giveaway to anyone who can deduce or guess which number figures prominently in the plot of The Bones of the Earth, and later another one for the number that’s the basis of The Triumph of the Sky.

See you soon!

Live blogging from my event



 

 Here I am at the Coles The Book People location in the Billings Bridge plaza in Ottawa for my second-ever book signing event. On the table, I have the three paperbacks in my Eastern Front trilogy: Army of Worn Soles, Under the Nazi Heel and Walking Out of War. 

Traffic isn’t all that heavy—it’s mid-day at the beginning of what looks like a beautiful long weekend. This might have worked better outdoors.  

It’s interesting to watch the shoppers go by. They seem to come in waves. The babies come in groups—one moment, the mall is quiet; the next, three squalling babies in a phalanx of strollers are crowding the mall in front of my table. 

Most people just walk by, not even looking. They’re not here for books. Some people slow down and look at the books on my table. Occasionally, one will stop and talk.

People seem delighted to meet authors, and eager to share what they know about either the war, history or even books. And a few buy books. One lady even bought the whole set, since I’m offering a special price for all three.

It’s a very different experience than marketing e-books online. I like talking with people interested in the subject, or history. And the tactile aspect of a paper book, rather than the virtuality of e-books, well, satisfying.

I may try this again some time.