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Archive for the month “February, 2013”

Character creation part 4: Luka, a second look

When first creating Queen Viarraluca, I borrowed a narration and character motif from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. What I’ve essentially tried to do is give readers a hyper-intelligent, insightful character, but only give glimpses of her intelligence and insight through the point of view of other characters. In the same way that readers only get glimpses of Holmes’s intelligence through the lens of Watson’s narration, I try to only give glimpses of Viarra’s intelligence and insight through Zahnia, Elissa, the queen’s soldiers and army officers, and various other characters. (To give credit where it’s due: I also based this a great deal off of Timothy Zahn’s character Grand Admiral Thrawn, an infinitely insightful military genius who is always shown through the POV of his subordinates.)

I think Viarra’s key motivation in all things is the protection of her people and becomes a warrior queen for this reason. She’s an accomplished archer and horsewoman, but prefers to fight on the front line beside the hoplites. She marches into battle beside her soldiers, knowing the motivation it gives them to fight for and protect their queen—knowing that it gives her soldiers heart to see their queen and commander sharing the same dangers they face. I want readers to see her as self-sacrificing in this way, to know that she is willing to die to protect her subjects, this willingness being tempered only by the knowledge that she can’t protect them further once she is dead.

As well as being hyper-intelligent and charismatic, Queen Viarra is incredibly tough. I try to show her toughness early on in the prologue during and in the wake of an assassination attempt on the royal family. All of her family is murdered and Viarra is critically wounded by the assassins. To show her subjects what she is prepared to endure for their sakes, the queen rides through the streets wearing just a sheet and her bandages and stitches. And despite the pain and blood-loss, she publicly confronts the duke behind the assassination.

“Your majesty?” Ronnius inquired, looking up at his copper-haired queen. Viarraluca set her right hand on his shoulder, then nodded down at her escort. Derron signaled to the honor guard and took the reins of the queen’s horse. The honor guardsmen stepped to form a box around their new monarch, and the procession stepped off at what Ronnius hoped looked like a slow, stately pace. In truth, it was a slow, gingerly pace to keep from further agitating the queen’s injuries.

There was no cheering from the crowd as the honor guard made its way to the assembly hall—no cheering and only the occasional whisper. Indeed, an overwhelming sense of awe seemed to have fallen over the crowd on either side and behind them. Any conversation or commotion ahead of them immediately ceased as citizens moved to make way for the procession.

The lack of colorful clothing in the crowd seemed to add to the somberness of the situation. Ronnius remembered a merchant friend once telling him that the variety of colors in a group of citizens is one of the most telling indicators of a city’s economy. Most of the assembled citizenry wore earth-toned garments or that red-violet color that came from those bitter, wild berries that grew on different parts of the island. The only exceptions he saw were faded colors that the islanders no longer had access to. And with no new merchants selling dyes or dyed textiles in their markets, the color shortage was likely to continue for a long while. Ronnius took this as a sign of things that needed to change—of trials their island faced and problems their new queen would need to overcome.

Periodically Ronnius looked up to check on her majesty, her unkempt copper hair gleaming in the morning sun. She kept her right hand on his shoulder and left hand on her knee as she rode sidesaddle next to him. She never looked down at him, but kept her jade eyes and elegant face fixed forward. While most of the buildings in the city were bare of paint, a few of them bore paint or whitewash as the procession neared the assembly hall.

The procession stopped only once on the journey, when the white horse stumbled over a loose cobblestone in the agora, eliciting a gasp from the crowd. Ronnius felt the queen’s grip tighten on his shoulder and he looked up in horror to see that elegant face contorted in agony. Viarra sat hunched forward, left hand clutching a wound on her right side. Her eyes were clinched shut, but tears rolled down each side of her majesty’s nose and down each cheek.  Derron noticed as well and signaled the vanguard to a halt.

“Your majesty?” the general asked quietly.

“Don’t move,” came the rasping whisper from between clinched teeth. Ronnius set his left hand on her arm to steady her and placed his right hand on the hand clasping his shoulder. Her breaths came in and out as painful hisses.

The procession stood still for what seemed like ages, concerned murmurs fluttering throughout the crowd. Someone gasped as scarlet drops oozed from between her majesty’s fingertips. Ronnius realized with sickening dread that the small but sudden jolt had torn her stitches, not just on the surface, but possibly internally as well. No one moved for agonizing minutes, Viarraluca’s battle with the pain playing out on her face. It was agony that would have felled a lesser human being. In the back of his mind, Ronnius doubted whether a greater human being existed.

The escort and crowd finally began to relax as her grace slowly straightened herself out. She let go of her side and of Ronnius’s shoulder to tear a large section of her skirt to use as a bandage. The tear exposed nearly all of her right leg, but the makeshift bandage held, to the relief of all present. Viarraluca wiped her hands on what was left of her skirt and signaled the vanguard to continue.

“Give me your hand,” she whispered to Ronnius. He extended his left arm up to her, and she grasped his wrist in her right hand, using her left hand to hold the bandage tighter against her wound. He could feel her squeeze tighter whenever her pain increased.


The pose is based off of “Lovisa Coldeyes” by Brian Snoddy. Looking back at this drawing, I don’t feel like Queen Viarra is as beautiful or imposing as I imagine her to be. But I hope this gives an idea of her personality and demeanor.


Battle scenes, part 1.2: Defense of Kel Fimmaril, the soldiers

Dress up that line.

Hoplites standing at rest. One of the troubles with using computer game screen captures is that all of the hoplites look identical.

When writing the battle for Kel Fimmaril, I used Ancient Greek technology and tactics similar to those used during the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars. As with armies of the time, the infantry makes up the largest percentage—often as much as 80% of the army. These infantry are generally supported by cavalry and lighter, ranged soldiers. For this battle, Queen Viarraluca’s army has around 2,500 soldiers: 1,800 hoplites, less than 200 archers, 400 skirmishers and slingers, and less than 100 assorted cavalry. The attacking army comes from the city-state of Andivel and its client cities. The invaders have over 4,000 soldiers total, but have a similar breakdown of light versus heavy troops—albeit sans cavalry.

As in most Ancient Greek warfare, both sides in my conflict use hoplites for their mainline infantry. A hoplite was a heavy foot-soldier who fought using a large, round shield known as an aspis or  hoplon and a 7′–9′ spear called the dory. They also carried a short sword as a backup weapon: generally a xiphos (a short, stabbing sword) or kopis (a curved, slashing sword similar to the Spanish falcata). Contrary to what we see in movies like 300, hoplites of the time period did not fight bare-chested, but wore leather, linen, or bronze armor. (I mean helmets, capes, and leather briefs? How the hell will that protect from enough Persian arrows to blot out the sun?) Other than some of the poorer, yeomen hoplites, it was rare for them not to have at least a simple set of leather armor. (Trust me that Leonidas and his company were not poor, yeoman hoplites.) Both sides fight in a phalanx, the attackers stacking their formation eight men deep, while the defenders have to stack 5–6 men deep to match the enemy’s length.

Both sides also have access to ranged infantry such as archers, skirmishers, and slingers. Most archers during Ancient Greece used fairly rudimentary short bows, more effective for hunting than combat. Their range and armor penetration was fairly mediocre, something I try to play upon throughout the battle scene. As it was, arrows were more likely to cause injuries than fatalities even against unarmored opponents. Thus both sides of the conflict tend to prefer skirmishers, or light infantry armed with javelins and either a short spear or sword. Like hoplites, skirmishers came in different weights depending on how much gear they carried. Lighter ones like Kel Fimmaril uses bore just a small shield and maybe a helmet for protection. Heavier ones like those used by the attackers from Andivel might have a larger shield and armor of leather or linen and might be used to reinforce the hoplite formation once they’d expended all their javelins. In addition, the defenders of Kel Fimmaril employ slingers against the soldiers of Andivel. As use of slings was more common among the island city-states of the ancient Mediterranean than of the mainland, it seemed fitting to have Queen Viarra’s army employ slingers in the field. Slings are something of an underrated weapon in historical studies. True, they were a simple weapon that could be difficult to master, but they were often employed to devastating effect against heavy infantry. A skilled slinger could propel a small rock at speeds which man-propelled projectiles would not surpass until the invention of the crossbow. The attackers from the city of Andivel learn this the hard way during the beach storming.

One of the other benefits the defenders of Kel Fimmaril have over the attackers is access to cavalry. As cavalry was particularly difficult to transport over water, most city-states just opted not to bring horses along when attacking an island nation. Bear in mind, however, that cavalry during the time period—especially Greek cavalry—wasn’t especially heavy. A tightly packed formation of heavy infantry was more than sufficient to stop a cavalry charge, even if the charge came against their flanks or rear. Horse was instead used against archers and light infantry in loose formation, or for keeping the opponent’s cavalry off of friendly archers and light infantry. It wasn’t uncommon in ancient battles for the cavalry not to see any action until one side routed the other. If their side won, they’d be employed in running down fleeing enemy soldiers. If their side lost, they’d be employed in covering the retreat by hitting the enemy flanks if they broke ranks to pursue.

The following excerpt is from the defenders’ cavalry charge part way through the battle. Captain Vola, the cavalry commander, divides her horsemen into two units and hides them in the trees on opposite sides of the battlefield. At her signal, each cavalry unit charges from the trees to attack the enemy’s skirmishers.

Cavalryman Atten spurred his horse out from the tree line at Captain Vola’s trumpeted signal. He followed his captain as they and the forty-six other heavy and medium horsemen charged toward the formation of enemy skirmishers. The skirmishers turned and ran as they saw the oncoming horsemen. You’ll just die tired, Atten told his foes silently as his unit thundered toward the battlefield.

As always, Vola led the cavalry charge. Atten rode behind and to her right, lowering his lance as they approached the enemy skirmishers. He aimed the weapon at a retreating back as he closed on a doomed skirmisher. When the spearhead was just inches from the man’s back, Atten gave it a quick push for extra momentum, piercing the skirmisher’s linen armor and breaking the weapon off as the man collapsed. The cavalryman whipped the spear back around, pointing the bronze spike on the lower end forward.

Ahead of him, he could see that Captain Vola had kept her spear intact, slaying one running soldier and knocking down another. Atten threw his broken spear into another skirmisher, then drew his sword, swinging it at retreating heads as he pressed deeper into the disintegrating enemy formation. As he was at the front of the cavalry squadron, his horse was more likely to knock men out of the way than to trample them, but this tended to knock them off balance to be run down by other horsemen.

Moments later the horsemen emerged out the other side of the retreating formation. Atten followed his captain as she veered left, circling out and away from the battle. He looked back at the routing skirmishers, estimating that they’d killed or wounded close to half of the sorry bastards.

Once again, screen captures courtesy Europa Barbarorum, a total-conversion mod for Rome: Total War.

Book Review: Roman Conquests, Macedonia and Greece

Using a Barnes and Noble gift card I got for Christmas, several weeks ago I ordered Philip Matyszak’s Roman Conquests: Macedonia and Greece, published in 2009. I finished reading Friday afternoon and decided to type up a quick review for the blog and for anyone interested in the history. Doctor Matyszak ranks among my favorite contemporary historians on Ancient Greece and Rome (perhaps second only to Adrian Goldsworthy) and is author of such texts as Ancient Rome on 5 Denarii a Day and Legionary: The Roman Soldier’s (Unofficial) Manual. I’ve long been curious about the Roman conquest of Greece and Macedonia if for no other reason than that these are so often glossed over in comparison to other Roman conquests like Carthage, Gaul, and Britannia. While I’ve read bits and pieces of these campaigns in Plutarch and Livy, as well as modern historians such as Goldsworthy, this is the first volume I’ve encountered that dealt specifically and solely with the wars against Macedon and the more classical Greek city-states.


Image courtesy Creative Assembly’s Rome: Total War

One trait I genuinely appreciate in Matyszak’s writing, in this book as well as his previous texts I’ve read, is that he has a very effective style of narration. It has the feel of someone telling a story, rather than some formal, academic style. He writes like someone who wants to create interest in his topic, rather than some academic who is writing strictly for an academic audience. The language is relaxed and accessible, making it easy to follow for folks outside the history field. In addition, Doctor Matyszak isn’t afraid to make light of the historical figures, cultures, or fighting styles with occasional pithy comments, observations, and comparisons. More than once he calls out various generals and statesmen on both sides of the conflict for treachery, miscommunications, bad decisions, or plain incompetence. He early on refers to Greek politics as a “snake pit” and gives constant examples throughout the book to reinforce the analogy. Indeed, the deliciously underhanded infighting amongst the many factions involved in this conflict was likely my favorite aspect of the book. Back-biting political f***ery at it’s finest.

In terms of scholarship, I greatly appreciate Doctor Matyszak’s fairly neutral stance on the right and wrong of these Roman conquests. At no point does he attempt to justify the battles, death, and conquest in terms of pro- or anti-imperialist sentiment as so many scholars have done since Edward Gibbon. Nor does Matyszak attempt to impose the framework of modern, Judeo-Christian morality upon a people who existed before Christianity. When he does explain possible reasons for the brutal actions of the Romans or Macedonians, he does so on their terms. Yes, the Romans were a brutal people. But it was a brutal reality in which they existed. Yes, the took slaves. Yes, they murdered surrendering soldiers. Yes, they burned cities and killed innocents. But guess what: so did everyone else for thousands of years before them.

If I have any issue with Macedonia and Greece—and this is entirely a personal preference—I’d have liked to see more maps. The text does include seven maps of the areas of interest within Macedon and Greece at the beginning, as well as a section of full-color visuals in the center. But when reading and researching military campaigns, I prefer to have visuals spread throughout the text, especially maps of the terrain and diagrams of significant battles. Additionally, I’d have liked somewhat more detailed descriptions of some of the battles that Matyszak glossed over in his efforts to focus on the politics and the effects of these battles. But, again, this is more of a preference than an actual objection.

All in all, I found Doctor Matyszak’s book to be well written and well researched. I definitely recommend it to anyone with an interest in ancient or military history.

Character Creation part 3: Elissa

Elissa is the favorite slave, closest handmaid, and oldest friend of First Empress‘s title character, Queen Viarraluca. Taken from her people in the north as a child and sold into slavery, at seven years old Elissa was given as a servant and companion to the five-year-old Princess Viarra. In the story’s prologue Elissa is the only surviving handmaid in an attack on the King’s estate, just as Viarra is the only surviving member of the royal family. Despite having no combat training, the handmaid feels guilty over the fact that the queen ends up critically wounded defending both of them from the assassins. After the attack, Elissa begins training to fight in order to protect her majesty in the future.

Elissa is probably the character who has given me the most to think about and the most decisions to make. Early on I was writing a scene for chapter 2, where Elissa is training to fight so she can learn to protect her queen, when I realized that some of the young handmaid’s feelings for her queen really kind of bordered on lust. While I have no objection to lesbianism, the realization kind of startled me because it was completely unintended. And while I could go back in and perhaps tone those feelings down, I don’t think I want to. I think I’m kind of intrigued by the idea of Elissa being completely in love with her queen, but not feeling worthy of that love.

This leaves me with a lot of interesting decisions in terms of character development and the overall direction of the relationship between the queen and handmaid. First off, Queen Viarraluca is easily the most perceptive and intuitive character in the story: I can’t imagine that she is unaware of Elissa’s feelings for her. So I’m kind of trying to figure out what the queen will do about it. As a slave and servant, Elissa doesn’t seem like the sort to share her feelings for her mistress, and is even less likely to attempt to initiate such a relationship. Equally complicating is the fact that the queen will eventually be expected to marry in order to (a) cement a political alliance with another kingdom or city state and (b) produce an heir to her throne—and I fully intend to have the queen bear a son later in the story.

There’s always the option that the queen does nothing or has some ‘let’s just stay friends’ talk with the Elissa—some middle-of-the-road option where they stay close friends and Elissa continues lusting privately. This strikes me as one of the less interesting options, however. Another possibility is that something does happen between them, but they decide to avoid future complications by pretending it didn’t happen. On top of feeling very sitcom-ish, this doesn’t fit well with Queen Viarra’s character. Her majesty doesn’t do anything by accident—she is the hyper-intelligent sort who’s always in charge of every situation she is in. Losing control in a moment of passion feels entirely out of character.

On the other hand, I find myself presented with an entirely different set of dilemmas if Queen Viarra does in fact share Elissa’s passion. First off, if queen and handmaid are truly in love, why have they not acted on these feelings prior to the story’s opening? I’ve thought of several reasons, most of them relating to politics and the queen’s duty to her people, but I can’t come up with a reason those might suddenly go away, allowing my protagonists to be together. Additionally, one key plot point is that Queen Viarra receives an arcane device that gives her eternal youth (identical to the one Zahnia has). Elissa does not have such a gift. Thus eventually Elissa dies and the queen must go on without her. Does then the queen have to watch her love grow old and die, knowing that she can’t grow old and die with her? Or does Elissa get taken from her sooner? Perhaps by assassination or shipwreck or even death in combat?

Every time I think of a resolution, I think of reasons my resolution won’t work. Or at least won’t work as well as I’d like.

The following excerpt is from a scene from chapter 2.

Elissa set her shield and helm next to the near wall and sat with her majesty on one of the benches. “I wish I had time to help you train,” Viarra said as Elissa doffed her sweaty hoplite armor.

“I wish I’d learned back when General Derron and Captain Kellor were teaching you,” Elissa replied, setting her armor aside. “But I suspect that would have been harder to hide from your father than you teaching me to read.”

Her majesty laughed. “I suspect you’re right,” the tall queen agreed. “And I think teaching you to use a sword would have raised more objections from Father than if we’d gotten caught reading steamy romance stories together.”

“I miss that,” Elissa admitted, her heart feeling weighed down with the nostalgia. She laughed as a thought came to her. “If things ever calm down around here, we should do that again sometime. We should sneak off by ourselves with just a blanket and a couple smutty adventure scrolls.”

“And a jug of wine,” the queen sighed, closing her eyes. “No war… no worries… no politics… just you and me reading aloud in funny voices and giggling at the overwrought prose and unrealistic sex scenes.”

Elissa laid her head on Viarra’s shoulder. “So there is going to be a war,” the handmaiden said quietly.

The queen nodded, laying her head against the top of Elissa’s. “We have at least two weeks, but there’s no question it’s coming. We’ll have to be ready.”

“Will you fight in the battle?” Elissa asked, though she was pretty sure of the answer.

“I intend to,” the queen said. “I’d prefer to fight on the front line beside the hoplites, but all three of my military advisers made me compromise on that. I’ll be leading a detachment of archers instead.”

“May I fight beside you?”

“If you wish. Can you shoot a bow?”

“No, but as you said I have at least two weeks to learn.”

“Start spending your downtime out on the archery range,” her majesty suggested. “Kellor and I will be too busy to instruct you, but I’ll bet you can find some of the yeomen archers who’d be happy to teach you. May I ask why you want to be part of the battle so badly?”

“I want to save your life someday,” Elissa answered, feeling tears in her eyes. It wasn’t a rational answer, but it was a sincere one.

Queen Viarra sat up and turned toward her handmaid. Elissa looked up to see tears in her majesty’s eyes but laugher in her smile. The queen brushed a lock of hair out of her friend’s eyes, then leaned in and embraced her. In return Elissa wrapped her arms around the woman she loved and lay her head on her shoulder. The handmaid held her queen close, loving the feel of those statuesque curves through their tunics and hoping her desire wasn’t obvious.

Part of Elissa treasured that embrace as if it was the rarest gem. Part of her wanted it to be something more. No part of her believed she was worthy of either.

Battle scenes, part 1.1: Defense of Kel Fimmaril, the politics, setting, and lead-in


Hoplites versus hoplites. Not precisely what the battle of Kel Fimmaril looks like in my head, but it’s a fair enough representation of what hoplite combat may have looked like. Click for larger.

Chapters 2 & 3 of First Empress features the first in-depth battle scene I’ve ever written. Originally it was far briefer and only shown in chapter 2, but I sent a draft to a friend of mine who knows more about military history than anyone I’ve met and… let’s just say his enthusiasm was contagious. He had so many ideas for the beach storming and the field battle that I just couldn’t keep everything confined to one chapter.

The technology level within the story is somewhere equivalent to Ancient Greece during the mid-Iron Age—so figure some time around the Persian Wars or Peloponnesian War, if it helps to have a real-world comparison. Indeed, I based the battle and tactics as closely as I could on my past research on Ancient Greece, even going so far as to call the infantry hoplites and the warships triremes. Like most open-field battles of the time period, the battle is fought between two phalanxes of hoplite spearmen, with archers, skirmishers, and cavalry as support. I drew heavily upon descriptions from Herodotus and Thucydides, as well as various modern historians.

The battle comes about after Queen Viarraluca declines an extortionary treaty from the larger, stronger city-state of Andivel, which basically amounts to threatening to invade if the queen doesn’t pay a tribute. This playground-bully mentality was pretty much the norm throughout Ancient Greek history, when the only pretext for invading one’s neighbors might be a perceived weakness on the part of the other city-state. By refusing to be bullied, the young queen finds her island city-state of Kel Fimmaril under attack from a larger, better trained, better equipped army—one intent on sacking and looting her city, likely planning to capture and sell her subjects into slavery.

The queen’s army has around 2,500 soldiers: 1,800 hoplites, less than 200 archers, 400 skirmishers and slingers, and less than 100 assorted cavalry. The attacking army from Andivel has over 4,000 soldiers, and while I don’t give exact numbers, I have the defenders estimate the enemy breakdown to be three-quarters hoplites with the rest being a mix of archers and skirmishers (no cavalry, however, as it is a pain in the ass to move horses by boat, and the attackers won’t need them for the siege anyway). Regardless, the army and officers of Kel Fimmaril know that they can’t beat the attackers in open field and have to depend on the city’s walls for defense.

More hoplites

In terms of brilliant ideas, charging headlong into a hoplite phalanx was akin to picking up a hedgehog bare-handed.

The following is an excerpt from the opening scene from Chapter 2:

Ronnius had to keep his hand near his chin to hide the occasional smirk as he watched the drama unfold before him. Still in her archer’s armor, Queen Viarraluca sat across the table from the sniveling emissary from Andivel, fixing the poor idiot with an unblinking look of calm disgust. Apparently used to dealing with people afraid of his leaders, the sweating moron had lost his poise over a quarter-hour ago. He’d smugly sat down at the table, looking to dominate the conversation. Within minutes, Viarra had him reduced to stuttering and trailing off. He was even starting to flinch each time the queen moved or spoke.

“You aren’t going to weasel your way out of this,” Viarra told the emissary. “If you haven’t figured that out yet, you’re denser than I thought—and trust me that I believe you quite dense. Tell your tetrarchs and council that the terms of this alliance are completely unacceptable. It is an attempt at bald-faced extortion and my people will not be harassed in this manner.”

“The only missing piece of rhetoric was, ‘nice little island you have here; it’d be a shame if something happened to it,’” Captain Kellor commented from where he sat.

“When your tetrarchs are ready to offer an agreement that doesn’t amount to us paying them to not invade, I’ll be happy to discuss terms,” her majesty continued, folding her hands in front of her.

“Y-your majesty,” the sweating emissary replied, “I urge you to see reason. Your army—”

The queen cut him off with a cold glare. She stared the sniveling emissary down until Ronnius was fairly certain the dumb bastard wet himself. “You’ve tried this line of reasoning already. When you start repeating your arguments, it means you’ve run out of them.” Viarra stood up and pushed the emissary’s stack of letters and contracts back to him. “I think we are done here. Go back to your tetrarchs and tell them what I’ve told you. I recommend not coming back until they have a less one-sided proposal to offer.”

The emissary gathered his documents as he stood. “Very well,” the moron answered, “I shall leave with the next tide and inform my superiors of your uncivilized refusal of their treaty.”

“My apologies if I seemed discourteous, ambassador,” the queen said, bowing. For a moment the emissary looked like he thought he’d won that round. “Perhaps I should send them the head of their messenger in a basket,” she continued. “Would that be considered more civilized?”

The emissary’s face sank at her suggestion. He grabbed the last of his parchments and beat a less-than-dignified retreat across the garrison courtyard.

Further reading:
The Histories, by Herodotus
The Peloponnesian War, by Thucydides
Roman Conquests: Macedonia and Greece, by Philip Matyszak
Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, Thomas Cahill


Um… ouch…

Screen captures courtesy Europa Barbarorum, a total-conversion mod for Rome: Total War.

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