I’m a sucker for battle and swordplay in fantasy novels. It probably comes from my own martial arts background—I studied the Korean art of Tang Soo Do for five years and earned my first-degree black belt, then moved on to kung fu where after two years, I earned an intermediate rank in the White Lotus style. Shortly after that, I took up foil fencing at a studio in Southern California. While the studio is best known for stage fencing, I, having a bit of a masochistic personality, asked for the strictest teacher they had and ended up with a former Russian Olympic coach whose favorite word seemed to be “Again!” Between having gotten soundly beaten in my Chinese weapons training and being quickly humiliated by my fellow students in this western martial art, it became pretty clear to me that all the depictions in fantasy of farm boys who pick up a sword for the first time and show a preternatural ability with it are just… well, fantasy.
That’s why when I decided to use the weakling-to-warrior trope in my own novel, I wanted Conor’s progress to be based on something other than wishful thinking. Enter the training montage section of the book.
Sure, a lot more is going on in the time that Conor spends with the Fíréin brotherhood than just learning the sword (I’m really not giving anything away here… after all, the book is called Oath of the Brotherhood), but if I was going to have him fight some spectacular battles, I was going to make sure that he had legitimately earned the skills to do so. It’s one thing to be able to pick up a sword and defend yourself against the average landholder who doesn’t fight for a living; it’s another to hold your own against professional warriors. I gave him some natural talent with which to accomplish these feats, but mostly I gave him single-minded determination and a compelling reason to become one of Seare’s most skilled swordsmen.
While the making of a warrior might be a common theme in fantasy novels, the making of Conor into a warrior was based in sound, if somewhat brutal, reality.
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This week, I’ve been sharing the background and inspiration for my new release, the inspirational Celtic fantasy, Oath of the Brotherhood, as well as offering a chance to win your very own hardcover copy! (Outside US-winners will receive an e-book.)
To enter to win, simply complete the one time entries (newsletter sign-up/social media follows) and comment on any or all of the following blog posts. A comment on each individual post will get you an extra entry.
The Myth of the Magic Swordsman (live on Monday 1/18)
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While Oath of the Brotherhood is 100% fiction, I enjoyed using a backdrop of the real culture of Ancient Ireland from about the 3rd century to the 7th century for my fictional Seare. We tend to believe that the peoples and cultures outside Rome at that time were barbarians (partially thanks to the fact that most of our records come through the Romans…) but in truth, Ireland was an advanced civilization with customs and habits that are much more consistent with our understanding today.
- The ancient Irish loved bathing. – While people on the continent either didn’t have access to or were suspicious of daily baths, the Irish were extremely fastidious with their personal hygiene. Bathing was quite usual among the upper classes, and stories from the era reflect that guests were often offered the use of a bath when coming to a keep or monastery. There is also plenty of evidence that the upper class warriors would bathe while on the march or encamped during war, which suggests that cleanliness was of the utmost importance.
- The ancient Irish were obsessed with their hair. – It wasn’t just cleanliness that was important (though we’re told in many manuscripts that clean hair should be combed smooth after the daily bath), but fashion as well. Both men and women wore their hair long and in elaborate coils, which must have been done with some sort of primitive curling iron and suggests the interest of professional hairdressers. Men are also spoken of having their hair done in “hooks and plaits and swordlets.” The illuminations in the Book of Kells backs up this standard of fashion, as every figure within it, including the angels, has his or her hair elaborately dressed.
- The ancient Irish wore kilts. – We associate the kilt with the Scots after the 17th century, but drawings, carvings, and illuminated manuscripts well before the 11th century demonstrated that the garment was worn in Ireland as well. Likewise, the tartan pattern may have had its origins in Ireland, though traditionally the pattern is tied to a county or province and not a single clan. While this clearly would have been historically correct, the kilt is so strongly associated with Scotland that I decided not to incorporate into the world of Seare. Instead, men wear knee-length tunics, over which is worn a close-fitting jacket or vest and leg-coverings/trews/trousers, which is also consistent with Celtic tribes in the first millennium.
- The ancient Irish (almost) worshipped weapons. – Weapons in pagan Ireland were so important that they were sometimes treated as though they were sentient or outright worshipped. This gave rise to the practice of swearing oaths of them, a practice that I borrowed with the Fíréin and their oath-binding ceremony. Of course, the oath-binding sword was a little more special than the standard blade…and if the ancient Irish had’ve come across that in the course of actual history, it would be understandable that they’d think it had a mind of its own!
- The ancient Irish didn’t necessarily raise their own children. – There was a centuries-long tradition of fosterage, not just within the very wealthy, but in lower classes as well, where children would be sent to live with another family within the clan. They might be sent away as young as a year old and brought back at marriageable age (seventeen for boys, fourteen for girls). In the meantime, the children would be raised as a member of the foster family and be educated according to their station; sometimes this was done for love, others for payment. Regardless, the ties between foster-child and foster-parents were often stronger than those with their birth parents and considered sacred. While I’ve nowhere seen it spelled out why this is a principal feature of Irish culture, it seems reasonable that it was done to strengthen ties within a clan and outside individual bloodlines. Children could also be sent to literary or ecclesiastical fosterages, where they would be educated as scribes or priests. A number of early Irish saints were fostered in this manner, and it seems a reasonable way to educate acolytes for specialized service. As Oath of the Brotherhood begins, it’s differences on what constitutes an appropriate education that gets Conor in hot water and has him sent to a neighboring king as a hostage for their peace treaty.
While many of the other details of Seare were changed or completely invented, Ireland’s rich history and surprisingly advanced culture was the perfect canvas upon which to build a new fantasy civilization.
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Oath of the Brotherhood has had many, many iterations over the years. It was a book I started when I was still working full time in marketing: I’d spend my lunch hours researching and my evening hours writing. So somewhere in the land of unusuable 3.5-inch floppy disks are some renditions that I hope will never ever see the light of day. (Excuse me while I go set fire to them to ensure that fact.)
But while preparing for this launch, I started sorting through my old drafts and came across a version that I actually, surprisingly liked. This prologue didn’t end up in the final cut because, while it was a compelling introduction, it didn’t fit with the book’s pacing and took away some of the impact of the book’s reveals. So I got rid of the prologue completely, started with a variation of chapter one, and that’s the one that’s in the book that’s (hopefully) in your hand. Normally, I don’t share abandoned clips because they either don’t fit the final version of the story, but this one I feel introduces the secondary characters in an intriguing way…
Riordan climbed the long, winding flight of stairs in the ancient keep, his feet moving silently on the stone steps, only the slightest breath of air that guttered the candles to betray his passing. It was late, well past the time the other brothers, save for those on watch, should be in bed. The meeting had been carefully calculated to garner as little attention as possible, but even if it hadn’t been, he could make himself nearly invisible, the presence of others who possessed the same skills notwithstanding. Riordan was considered one of the finest warriors of the Fíréin brotherhood, and it was not simply because of his skill with the sword.
Still, even if the brothers themselves had little interest in the news he carried, there were others who did the bidding of the darker forces of the isle, who would give dearly to know the message he carried. Once, such stealth in the heart of the Fíréin’s power would have been unnecessary: the ancient keep of Carraigmór which overlooked Ard Daimhin was warded by powerful Balian magic, a type that had been long forgotten in Seare, as far removed from their little tricks of mind and shadow as the ocean from a raindrop. Now, its power was weakening, gradually, imperceptibly, insidiously. Shreds of mist appeared in the trees, or on the surface of Loch Ceo, as if merely waiting for an opening, an invitation to enter the walls of Carraigmór itself.
Riordan put away those dark thoughts as he approached the terminus of the corridor, which dead-ended into a closed door. He lifted his hand to knock, even though he knew it was unnecessary. The Ceannaire had undoubtedly known he was coming before his foot touched the first step. Sure enough, when he swung the door open, the single occupant didn’t need to turn from his post by the window to greet him.
“Is it done?”
The voice was pleasant, well-modulated, elegant even, at odds with the leader’s compact, powerfully built stature. His reddish-gold hair was bound in a single long braid as was the Fíréin custom, his face clean-shaven in contrast to the current Seareann fashion. When he turned, Riordan as always found himself struck by the youthfulness of his features, even though he had known Liam since they were much younger men. His eyes, however, held a newfound wisdom and sorrow, as if his mantle of responsibility had grown steadily heavier.
Riordan remembered he had been asked a question and bowed his head slightly. “It is done.”
Liam smiled then, an expression that lit his face and erased any shadow of pensiveness. “I take it was as easy as you expected?”
The formality lifted, Riordan settled himself in a chair and regarded his friend with an eloquent shrug. “He owes me. Had it not been for my foresight—and politicking—it might be Fergus sitting the throne of Tigh instead of Galbraith. I just don’t think he expected me to call in my favor on behalf of his son.”
“I’m sure he didn’t,” said Liam lightly, taking a seat across from Riordan. “Especially since Clan Maonagh has never been a friend of the Mac Nir.”
Riordan studied Liam closely. As always, he sensed the things that the Ceannaire left unsaid, the insights meant only for him. “It’s a long game you play, my friend.”
“We play,” corrected Liam, “and not long now. I was put into this position of leadership for a purpose greater than the Fíréin. I’ve always known that, but I hardly expected to see these times come to pass so quickly. Surely you feel it. The wards around Ard Daimhin weaken daily, even as the gifts grow stronger in Daimhin’s blood. We will see the High King sit the throne of Seare in our lifetime, mark my words.”
A chill rippled over Riordan’s skin, but he was not sure if it was from anticipation, or foreboding, or both After five hundred years of division and strife in Seare, the return of the High King was something to be eagerly anticipated, but from the few prophecies to which he was privy, he knew that the return of Comdiu’s chosen leader would be presaged by darkness and destruction.
“You think my nephew has a role to play in all this?” asked Riordan doubtfully.
“I know he does. To what degree remains to be seen. Comdiu only shows me what I need to know in order to do His work. And I know that the boy’s fosterage is vital to his future.” Liam smiled reassuringly then, and his voice took on a more calming tone. “Don’t look so worried. For all our planning and clandestine meetings, our Lord has matters well in hand. He hardly needs us to do His bidding to achieve His goals. Remember, the outcome is already written, the end of the journey known since the beginning of time.”
“’But the path of the faithful is perilous and fraught with sorrows as well as blessings,’” quoted Riordan.
Liam’s gaze went distant then, an unsettling look that made Riordan think he perceived things in his mind’s eye that were far beyond this small upper floor chamber. But he only said softly, “It is indeed, my friend, it is indeed.”
* * *
Hundreds of miles away, in a highland fortress across the Amantine Sea, a young girl awoke in her chamber, her heart pounding. Somehow, she knew that beyond the safe stone walls of her home, a decision of great importance had been made, one that would change the course of her life. It was a weighty revelation for a girl merely five years old, but she was long accustomed to messages being delivered this way.
“What’s wrong, poppet?” whispered the sleepy nursemaid from her pallet across the room. “Did you have a bad dream again?”
The little girl shook her head and lay back down again. Instinctively, she knew that these were not things one spoke of openly. As she drifted off to sleep once more, two images remained in her mind: a craggy, towering fortress carved from a mountain, and the face of a little blond-haired boy.
What do you think? Does this pique your interest for the book? Does it surprise you to find that books go through so many iterations before publication? Leave me a comment below as your daily entry to win a limited edition hardcover copy of Oath of the Brotherhood.