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Guest Post: Bestselling Author Candace Robb

Have you ever wondered where an author’s ideas come from? How they develop from an image or idea and grow into story? My guest today, historical mystery novelist Candace Robb, is about to enlighten you.

CRobbCandace Robb is the bestselling author of 14 crime novels set in 14th century England, Wales, and Scotland, including the acclaimed Owen Archer series and the Margaret Kerr trilogy. Writing as Emma Campion, Candace has published historical novels about Alice Perrers  and Joan of Kent. Now she has begun a new historical mystery series built around her heroine Kate Clifford, a no-nonsense sleuth who is not only smart, but fierce when those she cares about are threatened. In this post Candace reveals how she first imagined Kate, and gives us a glimpse into her own complicated mental process as she invents characters, setting, theme and, ultimately, the blueprint for a mystery.


I discarded my original title for this post because I’d veered off in a different direction. Yet in rereading it, I thought it nicely described the seed from which the Kate Clifford mysteries grew, so I offer you—Kate Clifford and the Feuding Royal Cousins: the city of York’s response to the fall of Richard II and the Rise of Henry IV.

This will be a continual thread through the books, though of course the series will explore much, much more. Which is why my fascination with the fall of Joan of Kent’s son and the ensuing reign of King Henry IV shaped itself into a crime series rather than a historical novel, or a trilogy: I wanted the freedom to send out shoots in many directions. York stands in for the realm at a time of monumental change—King Richard II was the holy anointed king, so to those who believed in the divine right of kings, Henry Bolingbroke’s usurpation of the throne, however enthusiastically received by the barons of England, would have felt apocalyptic. Henry IV’s reign, in turn, would be fraught with bloody uprisings as many came to regret their support.

ServiceOfTheDeadBut whence Kate Clifford? After working with Alice Perrers and Joan of Kent, two strong women, although constrained by the gilded cage of the royal court, I wanted to return to my earlier work with women of the rising merchant class. Women of this class could enjoy far more independence than women of the royal court. Using situations I had come across in my research, I thought to create a 15th century woman of the merchant class intent on forging her own path, and show how that might be accomplished, albeit with some difficulty.

Implicit in this idea is a woman at a crossroads, someone who already has a modicum of freedom. In 1399, she might be a widow. A young widow in York. That married my two ideas: both Kate and the realm at a crossroads.

In late August a few years past, a young woman with dark, curly hair strode into my daydream—rather, she was striding down Stonegate (York) with a devilish glint in her eyes, flanked by two magnificent Irish wolfhounds.


Inspirational wolfhounds in Candace’s neighborhood.

I liked her, but the wolfhounds—the tallest of dogs, at this time often used as war dogs—why did she keep them in a city? Was she visiting from the countryside? She patted something hidden in her skirts. An axe. A small battle axe. She turned left onto High Petergate, she and the hounds moving as a unit, then entered an elegant house, where she was greeted with respect as “Mistress” by an elderly couple though they, too, seemed of the merchant class. This was not her home, though she owned this property. A guesthouse?

About this time I was reading the biographies of members of parliament for York 1383-1421 ( This intriguing woman might be a member of any one of the many wealthy, influential, powerful families in York who served as MPs. Was she a Holme? A Graa? A Frost? William Frost was a figure I found particularly appealing—many times mayor of York, an opportunist easily adapting to the new royal regime though he had worked closely with King Richard II for the sake of the city’s charter. Reading between the lines, he was a man with many enemies, perfect for a recurring character in a crime series. William was too young to be my sleuth’s father, but he’d work well as a cousin. However, the Frost family did not seem likely to be the source of a young woman who moved about with Irish wolfhounds and hid battle axes, no matter how small, in her skirts. Her mother might be a Frost, married into a family in a wilder area, where she had raised her children.

York Minster

York Minster

The Cliffords were a family of the northern border with Scotland, and Richard Clifford happened to be Dean of York Minster in 1399 (and Lord Privy Seal). Father a Clifford, mother a Frost—an excellent pedigree. Now what could I add to make my character even more likely to get caught up in politics in York? Ah—her late husband might be a Neville. The Nevilles had a presence at Sheriff Hutton Castle in the Forest of Galtres just north of York, and Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmoreland, was one of the greatest opportunists of the time. Perfect.

But why is she still walking around armed in the city of York, and why is she so determined to remain single even though she so wants children? Look to her late husband’s will. Wills are invaluable testaments to relationships and values. The ones that most intrigue me are those in which the dead seek to control their families from the grave with conditional gifts—I bequeath this to you on the condition that you do not remarry, or that you marry X, or until such time as our son attains his majority, or until such time as you remarry. By now my sleuth had a name, Kate Clifford—she preferred her family name to that of her late husband. And now she was the victim of just such a conditional will—that she would control her late husband’s business so long as she did not remarry, at which time the business would go to her brother-in-law. Of course I made said brother-in-law, Lionel Neville, a greedy, unlikable creature.

Mix into the mortar a violent past, a few surprise wards, and voila—the Kate Clifford series had a firm foundation. And now for the murder and mayhem!

Candace Robb did her graduate work in medieval literature and history, and has continued to study the period while working first as an editor of scientific publications and now for some years as a freelance writer. She was born in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, grew up in Cincinnati, and has lived most of her adult life in Seattle, which she and her husband love for its combination of natural beauty and culture. Candace enjoys walking, hiking, and gardening, and practices yoga and vipassana meditation. She travels frequently to Great Britain.

Candace’s current passion is exploring fuller and more plausible interpretations of the lives of women in the 14th century than are generally presented.  She also writes historical fiction as Emma Campion.

Learn more about Candace and her novels at her website,, on her Facebook page, and on Twitter: @CandaceMRobb.

You’ll find all of her books available for purchase at your favorite bookstore or on-line retailer. And look for her newest novel, THE SERVICE OF THE DEAD, featuring Kate Clifford of York, out now in hardcover, e-book and audio book formats.


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Vikings 4 Recap, Episode 10: THE LAST SHIP

Vikings4mIn this half-season finale, the brother-against-brother conflict that series creator Hirst has been driving toward since the beginning takes place. But first, how about those fighting platforms?

I have reviewed my research about Vikings, and nowhere can I find any mention of fighting platforms that were attached to the prows of Viking ships. Grappling hooks to bind ships together and form a fighting platform? Yes. Ramming one ship into another? Yes. But the platforms we see here, I’m pretty sure, have been invented by the creative minds of the production team.

Give them credit, they are trying to one-up themselves. That attack on Paris last season in Episode 8 was always going to be hard to top.


Photo: Jonathan Hession/HISTORY

For my money, having Rollo and Ragnar duke it out in hand-to-hand combat was not nearly as cinematic as last year’s battle for Paris, but there were some nice moments this time around:

Gisla, weeping, prays before a statue of the Virgin – and when the statue begins to weep we wonder what it means. Will the Franks win or lose?
The emperor dines (he’s always dining!) with Roland and Therese while the battle rages. When he has the slimy duo dispatched – clearly a well-planned execution – we discover just how devious, manipulative and cunning he truly is.

Emperor's To Do List: Utilize traitors, then dispatch accordingly.

Emperor’s To Do List: Utilize traitors, then dispatch accordingly.

Gisla prays before the virgin again, and now she places Rollo’s arm ring at the virgin’s feet. And the tide of battle turns against the Norsemen. In Kattegat the spamaðr is wailing. Is it just this battle that he perceives he is losing, or is it a larger battle – one between the gods for the devotion of men? I have always liked the conflict over religious belief that is woven through this series because it was so important to the people of that time.


Photo: Jonathan Hession/HISTORY

When the dust settles, some major characters have been badly wounded and we don’t know if they’ll survive. Ragnar is dragged aboard a ship and spirited away. Rollo lets him go. The battle is over. After his fisticuffs with Ragnar, Rollo is almost unrecognizable. The make-up crew must have had a field day with this. Throughout this series, I don’t think any of the characters has suffered more physical torment – and still lived – than Rollo.

Photo: Jonathan Hession/HISTORY

Photo: Jonathan Hession/HISTORY

In Paris, Emperor Charles is grateful, Gisla is grateful, the people of Paris are grateful, and Rollo weeps. Because he is alive? Because he has finally been accepted by the Franks? Because he has at last beaten his brother? Because every inch of his body hurts? All of the above, I suppose.

Now, the timeline jumps forward 8 years. I knew this was coming, but did not expect it to happen mid-episode. I think, though, that it was a wise decision to place the jump here rather than in the fall. It’s the perfect hook to keep us thinking about the show for the next few months. And we are given a glimpse only of what’s going on in the Viking world, not what’s taking place in Wessex or Frankia. So, what do we see?

After losing the battle in Frankia, Ragnar promptly disappeared. Not into thin air, of course. He just up and left. This seems unsurprising to me. He’s done it before. Remember how he climbed a mountain at the end of Season 2?

Final shot from Season 2.

Final shot from Season 2.

Ragnar likes to go away to think. Eight years, though, is a long time to think.

In his absence a smarmy Aslaug is queening it in Kattegat and someone named Thorhall has arrived from Wessex to report that Ragnar’s son by Kwenthrith (Magnus) is being raised at Ecbert’s court, and that the people who settled in England all those years ago are now long dead, butchered by the English way back when.

The sons of Ragnar are hanging out together, fishing, and we are introduced to the now-grown Ubbe, Ivar, Hvitserk, and Sigurd. They seem resentful that dad left, and now multiply father/son conflict by 4.



We learn that Floki and Helga survived the battle on the Seine, and we hear again about that map that Bjorn had in Episode 5. He wants to find the Mediterranean, and Floki, who is building boats for him, agrees to go along. So, more adventures ahead for them – and us.

And then, Ragnar returns to Kattegat, challenging his sons, asking which of them wants to be king.

“You know how this works. If you want to be king, you must kill me.”

Cut to credits. But there is still so much that we don’t know!

Where is Lagertha? Lording it in Hedeby?

When Æthelwulf returned from Rome to find his sweetie, Kwenthrith, dead, what was his reaction? Does he learn that she died by Judith’s hand? Is he still Ecbert’s willing slave?

Presumably Gisla has given birth to William Longsword. Are she and Rollo still getting along? Is Emperor Charles still alive? Who’s ruling Frankia?

What’s Rollo been up to? Who else has he had to fight in order to hold on to his lands in the intervening years?

There will be answers, and just to get us all excited, here’s a Preview of what’s to come.

Ragnar & his sons. Photo credit:

Ragnar & his sons. Photo credit:







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Vikings 4 Recap, Episode 9: DEATH ALL ROUND

vikings4.3iNear the end of the previous episode, Ragnar’s men were dragging their boats across country to circumvent Paris. At the beginning of this episode they’re still at it, and they will be at it for the next 55 minutes in our time. In 9th century time it would probably have taken weeks. And the sound of axes on wood permeates every Viking scene in this episode. That’s appropriate because “The close examination of the wood used in Viking ships indicates that the axe was by far the most important of the shipwright’s tools.” From Viking Longship by Keith Durham

Yet not everyone is swinging an axe. The sinister newcomers Harald and Halfdan lead a foray into a Frankish farmhold, murdering and raping to remind us that Vikings did those things. You may remember that Ragnar’s adventures back in Season One began with pillage and murder.

For me, the most significant scenes in this episode took place in Rome and were juxtaposed with scenes in Winchester: the crowning of Alfred and of Ecbert.


Photo: History Channel



I loved how it was done, shifting back and forth between the two ceremonies while the satisfied smiles of Ecbert and Alfred mirrored each other.


Photos: History Channel

AlfredInRomeIt’s beautifully done. Bravo, Mr. Hirst.

The timeline, though – as I’ve pointed out many times – is skewed. Ecbert was long dead (d.839) by the time Alfred made his first journey to Rome in 853. Alfred went to Rome again in 855 when he was 7, this time with his dad. On the way home Æthelwulf  married Judith, the daughter of the Frankish King Charles (NOT, as she is presented in this series, the daughter of Aella, or the one-time mistress of Athelstan, or the mother of Alfred, or the mistress of King Ecbert, or a ringer for Lady Macbeth. Sorry. I’m still a little sore about Judith.)

Here, Alfred’s two journeys to Rome have been combined into one.  Rome itself is still something of a mess, having been plundered by Goths and Vandals centuries before, but although we see broken statues and beggars in the streets, the Vatican interiors look pretty impressive and the churchmen are well-heeled. And that’s probably a good approximation of 9th century Rome.

I did wonder just a wee bit about Æthelwulf, who gazes proudly at this child (and what an adorable child he is!). Perhaps Mr. Hirst is hoping that viewers will have forgotten that this boy who is getting so much attention from the pope is not Æthelwulf’s son; that Æthelwulf’s real son, the older boy Æthelred, has been left behind in Winchester. Hirst seems to be ignoring this little twitch in his made-up story line, hoping we’ll forget this Alfred’s illegitimacy, (I haven’t), and focusing instead on what Asser says about the historical Alfred, that Æthelwulf loved him more than his other sons.

AellaEp9In Winchester King Aelle is not happy about Ecbert’s new crown. Indeed, he looks like he’s been sucking lemons. He complains that Ecbert has betrayed him; that they were supposed to divide Mercia between them. Ecbert tells Aelle to stuff it, but he shouldn’t be too smug. Historically he only held Mercia for one year before Wiglaf (who handed Mercia to Ecbert a couple of episodes ago) won it back.

Over in Paris Hirst seems to be adding subtext to the already bizarre personality of the emperor via a lascivious relationship with Therese and Roland, and making a not very subtle commentary on the moral laxity of the Frankish court. He contrasts Charles’ sexual adventures with Gisla’s denial of conjugal rights to Rollo, now that she’s pregnant. Per strict Christian precepts, the sole purpose of intercourse was procreation, so once a woman was pregnant, intimacy between husband and wife was to be avoided. If Rollo knew what was happening in the emperor’s bed, he’d be even more annoyed than he already is.

In Kattegat Aslaug is drinking away her sorrow over Halbard’s defection and sinking further into her toxic relationship with her youngest son, Ivar. (And by the way, the child actors in this show are marvelous.) She waves away the drowning death of Bjorn’s little girl, and we have to wonder if there can be any redemption for Aslaug.

Back at the Viking camp, the portaging continues while Floki has another vision, the sub-plot of Bjorn/Torvi/Erlandur plays out to its logical conclusion, and Lagertha’s pregnancy comes to an abrupt end. As Lagertha mourns her loss, a look comes over her – something is happening behind her eyes. We don’t know what it means yet, but the tableau of Lagertha facing the camera with Ragnar and Bjorn on either side of her, facing away, is telling us something.



The episode ends with Ragnar still sick and hallucinatory, with Paris in sight, with the ships on the river at last, and with a mid-season finale just ahead.





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Vikings 4 Recap, Episode 8: PORTAGE

Vikings-BR-Review-00This is the episode in which nobody dies in battle, but four characters are murdered; in which Floki works a minor miracle; and in which the gentle Judith turns into Lady Macbeth. I’m going to summarize events quickly because I want to get to the Portage of the title.

Let’s begin in Wessex, where King Ecbert the Awesome returns triumphant from battle, having defeated all of Kwenthrith’s enemies – or so she thinks. “I’m queen again!” she crows.

She’s wrong, of course. Ecbert is no chivalrous knight, charging into battle for the sake of his lady fair who, we know, is neither a lady nor fair. He did it for himself. And as he pores over a gorgeous map of early medieval England he breaks the bad news to Kwenthrith.

Photo credit:

Photo credit:

An aside: I LOVE that map. I so want to believe that something like it actually existed, despite the fact that no maps of England earlier than the 14th century have survived.

But back to Kwenthrith, who responds to Ecbert’s announcement that he’s King of Mercia now by calling him a monster and who can blame her? Such a disappointment. Realizing that Ecbert is no longer of use to her and is, in fact, a threat to her and to her children (including Ecbert’s unborn grandchild in her belly), she decides to slip away.

Failing that – and she fails miserably – she sneaks toward the king’s bedchamber one night with mischief on her mind. Ecbert’s guard Wærferth tries to stop her, of course, but he’s not wearing any armor and she leaves him behind, bleeding his life out. Well, we’ve always known that Kwenthrith was a nasty piece of work.vikings4.8e

Climbing aboard the king as he sleeps, she wakes him, gloating that once she’s killed him her unborn child will be the future king of Wessex. That’s presuming the child is a boy, of course. And that her sweetie Æthelwulf, his son Æthelred, the adorable Alfred, and the three other sons that Æthelwulf had but who don’t appear in this story don’t get in the way. None of that matters in the end, though, because Judith in the guise of Lady Macbeth arrives in the nick of time.

Photo credit:

Photo credit:

I was a little disappointed that Ecbert didn’t show more gratitude toward Judith, considering that she’d just saved his lying hide. But now that he’s king of both Wessex and Mercia, he must believe that her intervention on his behalf is merely his due. Men!

Speaking of men, over in Kattegat Halbard is offering his services to every woman in town, sometimes two at a time, and when Aslaug finds out she throws a royal hissy fit. It does her no good. He insists that he’s a healer and a prophet, and must do his thing. Aslaug is the only one who didn’t see this coming, and I don’t know about you, but I have trouble dredging up any sympathy for her.

But now let’s talk about something pleasant: Paris. Have you noticed that almost every scene set in Paris involves food? At least, whenever it’s not taking place in Odo’s creepy dungeon?



So, Odo warns the king not to trust Rollo; Rollo warns the king that Ragnar is not defeated as long as he still can breathe; Gisla simpers that she’s carrying Rollo’s child. The king looks goofily inscrutable, but the king is nobody’s fool. He decides to give the count his just reward at the hands of the slimy Therese and her slimier brother. I am absolutely thrilled that Odo’s sadistic story line is now behind us. Whew.

And now, at last, we come to the title of this episode: Portage. Everybody is blaming Ragnar for the defeat outside of Paris in Episode 7, and they’re right. But he responds by pulling a brilliant maneuver out of thin air. He proposes to haul the ships out of the water, up a cliff, and around Paris, then drop them back in the river and attack Paris from the north. And when he turns to Floki to ask if he can do it, Floki cocks his head to one side, as he always does, and says yes, Ragnar. Anything for you. And although we don’t believe that for a minute, for the rest of the episode, the Vikings are busy with their ships. And what Floki does looks amazing.

History Channel

History Channel

But it raises the question, Is this historical fiction, or is it fantasy? To answer that, here are a couple of quotes from The Viking Art of War by Paddy Griffith.

“Their boat portages, tactical canal-building and harbor-mouth boom-laying must have been organized in at least a rough equivalent to an ‘engineering spirit’…Even if we look no further than the Vikings’ boats and sailing skills, therefore, we are forced to admit that they must have known quite a lot about the basic principles of civil engineering.”

“Whether they came by sea or land, it was this ability to move armies with speed, surprise and precision which became an important feature of the Vikings’ art of war. It was the ‘pop-up’ factor which gave them many of their best victories…”

The Vikings were, indeed, resourceful in the overland portaging of boats, and we’re not talking about hauling a boat just a few yards here. We’re talking miles. So, yes, there is historical precedence for what Floki accomplishes in this episode at Ragnar’s request.

History Channel

History Channel

From VIKING LONGSHIP by Keith Durham. Illustration: Steve Noon

From VIKING LONGSHIP by Keith Durham. Illustration: Steve Noon

As for Ragnar, he’s still suffering from the effects of the betelnut leaves that Yidu has been feeding him. She’s run out of the stuff now, and you would think she would know better than to taunt someone who is as edgy as a cat on a hot skillet; but no. (Note: Since writing this, I have heard an interview with Dianne Doan, who played Yidu. Dianne’s thinking is that Yidu knew what would happen when she taunted Ragnar, and she did it on purpose. She wanted to be free, and suicide was her only option. This certainly adds depth to the scene.)

Photo Credit:

Photo Credit:

There are witnesses to Ragnar’s response to Yidu’s taunting. When the deed is done, he finds that his young sons Ubba and Hvitserk are watching.

And they are learning.




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Special Guest Post: Historical Novelist Elisabeth Storrs

elisabeth-storrs-tales-of-ancient-rome_mobile (1)Today I am delighted to welcome historical novelist Elisabeth Storrs, author of the Tales of Ancient Rome saga – three novels set in the late 4th century BC.
A graduate of Arts Law from the University of Sydney where she studied the Classics, Elisabeth’s inspiration for her novels was a sarcophagus that depicted a couple embracing for eternity. The casket was unusual because in this period of history, women were rarely commemorated in funerary art let alone in such a pose of affection. Her interest piqued, the research began. Eventually, Elisabeth’s discovery of a little-known story about the struggle between the Etruscan city of Veii and Republican Rome led to her penning of the Tales of Ancient Rome Saga, novels that immerse readers into a complex, ancient world filled with drama, love, loss and heroism. Now, here is Elisabeth, to tell you more.

elisabeth-storrsOne of the main themes in my Tales of Ancient Rome saga is an exploration of the lives of women in the ancient world through the portrayal of female characters from different cultures: a Roman bride (Caecilia), Roman prostitute (Pinna), Greek slave (Cytheris), Cretan courtesan (Erene), and also three Etruscan women: the aristocratic matrons Larthia and Ramutha, and lastly, the artisan (turned wet nurse), Semni.

What was the status and role of women in classical times? In both Greece and Rome they were chattels possessed by men. Athenian women were cloistered within women’s quarters and were restricted to household duties. In Rome they were second class citizens without the right to vote or hold property. Further, Roman women rarely ate with their men and could be killed with impunity by their husbands or fathers for adultery or drinking wine.

In early Roman and Greek cultures a woman’s primary purpose was to bear children in order to ensure the continuation of her husband’s bloodline. Their identities were defined by their relationship as either daughter or wife. Roman women were only known by one name, that of their father’s surname in feminine form. In death their remains were placed in a man’s tomb and they were not publicly commemorated. However, while Roman and Greek wives weren’t given the opportunity for education and social freedom – in Athens, courtesans were. These hetaerae “companions” were allowed to dine with men and drink wine at banquets while discussing politics, philosophy, literature and enjoying entertainments. Of course, they also provided sexual favours to the patrons who owned them.

In comparison, Etruscan women were afforded independence and education. They could share their husband’s dining couch and drink wine. They had two names denoting both paternal and maternal bloodlines. Some accounts also state that wives had sexual freedom and may even have been able to claim their illegitimate children in their own right. Also intriguing is historical evidence that high born women held positions as priestesses.

Tanaquil as painted by Domenico Beccafumi

Tanaquil as painted by Domenico Beccafumi

One famous Etruscan priestess, according to the historian Livy, was a seer named Tanaquil (Tanchvil in Etruscan). According to legend, her positive interpretation of an incident in which an eagle snatched her husband’s cap, then swooped down to replace it on his head, persuaded Tarquinius Priscus to go to Rome where he eventually become the first king of the Tarquinian Etruscan dynasty. As such Tanaquil was traditionally believed to be the “power behind the throne.”

So could the myth of a prophetess such as Tanaquil be based in fact? The Etruscans were indeed skilled in the art of foretelling the future from the flight of birds. And there is evidence from funerary art that women may well have been priestesses of high standing. The Tomb of Inscriptions is one such example. Members of several families were buried within its six chambers. Two of the ladies were designated as ‘hatrencu’. Extraordinarily, the women were not laid to rest beside their husbands and children which was usually the rule in Etruria for female burials in family tombs. Instead they lay in the company of women with different family names but bearing the same title of ‘hatrencu’. This collegial link has been persuasively argued as proving ‘hatrencu’ referred to a member of a priestly college concerned with a female cult dedicated to fertility and marriage.

In my latest novel, Call to Juno, I have introduced a new female character who melds the legend of Tanaquil with the hatrencu buried in the Tomb of Inscriptions. She is Tanchvil, the high priestess of the Temple of Uni, who like the mythical Tanaquil divines the future from the flight of an eagle, Antar.

Tanchvil carefully removed the hood. The eagle’s head and breast were flecked with gold, his dark plumage shiny. If he chose to flap his enormous wings he could break free even before his mistress had loosened the leather restraints. And what was to prevent him from turning and ripping her face with his beak?

The hatrencu lifted her arm to send Antar skyward. Caecilia felt the swish of air as the eagle rose, his pinions extended, seeking the thermals. Holding her breath, she waited to see to which quadrant of the heavens he would fly. His wings stretched in perfect symmetry; the raptor spiraled higher, gliding over the southeast of the city before heading northeast. Then he hovered for a moment before diving and swooping upward again.

A strong thread exploring the concepts of fate versus freewill is woven throughout The Wedding Shroud and The Golden Dice, the first two books in the Tales of Ancient Rome saga. The theme continues in Call to Juno. Tanchvil’s role is crucial in prophesying the fate of Veii in the final year of its ten year struggle with Rome. The hatrencu warns Queen Caecilia and King Mastarna to be wary of the fickleness of Uni, their city’s regal goddess. For the Romans also worship her and seek to entice her to forsake Veii and take up residence in Rome as Juno the Queen. Both enemies call to Juno Regina to favor their cities. What destiny lies in store for them?

call-to-juno-by-elisabeth-storrsPraise for Call to Juno: A Tale of Ancient Rome by Elisabeth Storrs
“An elegant, impeccably researched exploration of early Rome and their lesser known enemies, the Etruscans. The torments of war, love, family, and faith are explored by narrators on both sides of the conflict as their cities rush toward a shattering, heart-wrenching show-down. Elisabeth Storrs weaves a wonderful tale!” Kate Quinn, author of The Empress of Rome Saga

About Call to Juno:
Four unforgettable characters are tested during a war between Rome and Etruscan Veii.
Caecilia has long been torn between her birthplace of Rome and her adopted city of Veii. Yet faced with mounting danger to her husband, children, and Etruscan freedoms, will her call to destroy Rome succeed?
Pinna has clawed her way from prostitute to the concubine of the Roman general Camillus. Deeply in love, can she exert her own power to survive the threat of exposure by those who know her sordid past?
Semni, a servant, seeks forgiveness for a past betrayal. Will she redeem herself so she can marry the man she loves?
Marcus, a Roman tribune, is tormented by unrequited love for another soldier. Can he find strength to choose between his cousin Caecilia and his fidelity to Rome?

Who will overcome the treachery of mortals and gods?

Elisabeth Storrs lives with her husband and two sons in Sydney, and over the years has worked as a solicitor, corporate lawyer and corporate governance consultant. She is the Deputy Chair of the NSW Writers’ Centre and one of the founders of the Historical Novel Society Australasia.

Call to Juno:
Triclinium blog:

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Vikings 4 Recap, Episode 7: THE PROFIT AND THE LOSS


Ragnar to Rollo: When everyone wanted you dead, I kept you alive! This is how you repay my love?

The main theme of this episode is Ragnar’s conflict: with his brother, with the French, with his wife, and especially with his addiction. This episode is all Ragnar, and Travis Fimmel portrays him brilliantly as haunted, despairing and ravaged.


Ragnar with his drug supplier, Yidu (Dianne Doan). Photo Credit: Jonathan Hession

Clive Standen as Rollo merely has to stand on a tower looking mournful and occasionally raising his finger to direct his men.

Photo credit: Jonathan Hession

Rollo oversees the defense. Photo credit: Jonathan Hession

Over in England, Linus Roche as Ecbert, wearing 14th century mail and a gorgeous cloak, has merely to listen attentively as he is offered the crown of Mercia on a platter. In Kattegat Aslaug watches benignly as Halbard comforts the women that the Viking warriors have left behind. They are place holders this week, because this episode belongs to Ragnar, and actor Fimmel is at the top of his game.

As for the historicity of this attack on Paris, you can find tidbits if you look really hard. Details seem to be drawn from an account of the vikings’ 885-86 siege of the city. The French had erected a tower on the Seine, and they used it, along with a bridge, to keep the attackers at bay for months. So here we see two towers, although in my imagination the tower at Paris was much larger and higher, and it was very close to the city itself. You can see them in the image below.

19th c depiction of the Siege of Paris.

19th c depiction of the Siege of Paris. You can just make out stone towers on the far left and far right.

In 885 the Parisians used trebuchets to fling stones and flammables at the vikings, and Rollo does the same here, flinging sacks of oil at Ragnar’s ships and setting them aflame.

Historically, the Norsemen would have fortified their camps in case of enemy attack, but Ragnar has not done this – a sign, perhaps, of his deteriorating mental skills brought about by his addiction. Nor did he send out scouts to explore the area around the tower before his land force attacked and found themselves in a marsh, another error that attests to his failing mental powers.

Lagertha's force in the swamp. Photo: Jonathan Hession

Lagertha’s force about to be swamped. Photo: Jonathan Hession

At the end of the show Ragnar is talking to a severed head, but hey, we’ve seen him do that before. (Has he shellacked this thing, so he can carry it around with him?)

It is clear from the previews that Ragnar will be blamed for this defeat, but the title of next week’s show, PORTAGE, implies that he might pull a rabbit out of a hat. When the vikings were frustrated at Paris in 885, some of them pulled their boats out of the Seine, dragged them around Paris (portage), and plundered further up river. That may be what Ragnar does next or, as happened in 886, the fleet may split up and leaders take their ships in different directions with some remaining at Paris to carry on the attack.

Post battle, Floki’s bizarre in-body experience as Halbard is difficult to read. Is this Halbard-as-Odin channeling comfort to Floki? Or is it Floki’s nascent power as a spamaðr connecting him to Halbard-Odin? Or is it a little of both? As usual, we are left with hints and questions that will keep us tuning in to get the answers.

Travis Fimmel as Ragnar. Photo: History Channel

Travis Fimmel as Ragnar. Photo: History Channel




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Vikings 4, Episode 6: WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN

vikings_usurper5seriableIn watching this episode, I was particularly struck by the way children are used to bolster conflict and to convey the theme of betrayal that runs all the way through.

It begins right away with Lagertha who gives this advice to young Guthrum, son of Torvi and Erlandur.

Photo Credit:

Photo Credit:

Keep your friends very close because some will die too soon… And the others, the others will betray you.

She could have added, Some friends will betray you and because of that they will die too soon, since she was standing on the grave of the lover who betrayed her and paid the price.

In the next scene Ragnar bestows arm rings on two of his sons, boys who look to be about 9 and 10. The rings are a sign of the boys’ allegiance to their king and father, Ragnar. If you swear an oath on this ring, Ragnar tells them, you must keep your word, or you will sacrifice your honor and your place in Valhalla.

These words add import to something we saw in an earlier episode, when Rollo gave his arm ring to Gisla. It was a pledge of his fidelity to her and to Frankia; yet at the same time he was breaking his oath to his king and brother (and by the way, this would not be the first time that Rollo has betrayed Ragnar.) By the end of this episode the stakes for Rollo are enormous as, with Ragnar’s fleet en route and Paris at stake, the emperor tells him You are the difference between failure and triumph. Rollo will once again be put to the test, forced to choose between betraying his new family or his old one. No pressure, Rollo.

Photo Credit:

I’m starting to get used to the haircut. Photo Credit:

But, back to Kattegat and the sons of Ragnar. They are an endless source of conflict between Ragnar and Aslaug. He dismisses her objections that they are too young to go with him to Paris, and gets in a dig about her affair last season with Halbard. This was a betrayal that Ragnar cannot seem to forgive or forget, but for Aslaug that liaison was all bound up with her love for her damaged son Ivar – still suckling, by the way, at age 5.

Photo Credit: History Channel

Aslaug with sons Sigurd and Ivar. Photo Credit: History Channel

And when, after Ragnar leaves, Halbard shows up again and is greeted happily by Aslaug,  Ragnar would certainly see this as another betrayal. (Bear in mind that Halbard is the name that Odin uses when in disguise, so there is an element of the mystical about him, and Aslaug certainly believes that he has healing powers.) Ivar greets Halbard with giggles that are creepily reminiscent of Floki’s and that just adds to Ivar’s strangeness.

Over in Wessex, Ecbert the Awesome has decided to send 6 year old Alfred on a pilgrimage to Rome, and says that Æthelwulf will go along to protect the child.

Alfred. Photo Credit:

Alfred. Photo Credit:

Alfred’s response is to run and hide in a corner and no wonder, since this character has been wrenched from his own historical timeline. Of course he’s freaked out. Yes, Alfred made that journey to Rome with his father Æthelwulf, but by that time Ecbert was long dead and Alfred’s grown brothers were already ruling territories in England. And on their way home the company stopped in Paris where Æthelwulf, probably in his sixties, met and married a 12-year-old Judith who was NOT Alfred’s mum, although in this show she is his mum while Æthelwulf who was his father isn’t, so no wonder the poor kid is weirded out. But yes, Ecbert did in fact attack Mercia, and in this VIKINGS’version of history, by sending Æthelwulf with Alfred on an 1100 mile walk, the wily Ecbert has cleverly deprived Queen Kwenthrith of her lover and defender (although Kwenthrith was never really a queen and is just as lost in time as Alfred), and thus Ecbert has paved the way for his betrayal of Kwenthrith and his conquest of Mercia.

There will be 20 episodes of Vikings this season (10 + 10) and there will be an 8-year time jump, presumably in between; the younger characters that have been introduced will step into larger roles. So, ignore the wibbly-wobbly convoluted historical timeline and get ready for more betrayals and more conflict set in a time when war never ends.

Photo Credit:

The sons of Ragnar Lothbrok. Photo Credit:


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Vikings 4, Episode 5: PROMISED

Vikings4mThis episode opens with Lagertha’s all-girl war band practicing their sword strokes and chanting:

Freyr, we summon you. With the blood of this sacrifice, now is the time.

History Channel

History Channel

That chant will have enormous significance by the end of the episode. But first: I love the title this week! PROMISED plays out in so many relationships.

In Wessex, Kwenthrith is singing the same old song that we’ve heard before.
“You kings must invade Mercia,” she tells Ecbert, Æthelwulf and Ælla. She certainly has delusions of grandeur in a world where women rulers were completely unacceptable. The role of an Anglo-Saxon queen was to counsel, not rule. Yet Kwenthrith declares herself “the only legitimate ruler of that poor, ravaged, raped land” of Mercia. And…no. That is never going to happen.


Look at that face! Ecbert is so done with Kwenthrith.

Although the men agree to an alliance and promise to place her back on the throne, there are meaningful glances exchanged between Ecbert and Æthelwulf that do not bode well for Kwenthrith, Ælla or the promises that Ecbert has made to them.

Judith, having asserted, at least to herself, that she is a free woman, is in fact not free at all. She may think she is free of her husband. But their scene together, in which she refuses to service him in bed, sheds light on royal marriages throughout the medieval period. They were political alliances, not love matches, with a distinct double standard that Judith does not seem to recognize although she should, having already lost an ear because of her extramarital activities. (Do these people not remember ANYTHING that happened last season???) A king needed to be certain that his wife’s child was, in fact, his. So although the husband in a royal marriage might do as he wished when it came to sleeping around, the wife could not. Because Judith’s lover is the king himself (her husband’s father) she has a kind of advantage there. She’s chosen to sleep with the current ruler, not the ruler-to-be.



King Ecbert, who has made a promise never to marry again, now offers Judith his dead wife’s ring. Is this a promise of something? Can we believe anything that Ecbert says or does? Well, yes, we can. But I’ll get to that in a minute.

In Kattegat Lagertha promises Kalf that she will marry him. And anyway, she is carrying his child. But she made another promise to Kalf last season in Paris, and that is the one that she will keep and the one that will refer back to that opening chant to Freyr. Freyr was the god of fertility, well-being and prosperity, and sacrifices were made to him at weddings and harvest celebrations.The opening chant is a foreshadowing of a wedding and a sacrifice, with Lagertha as bride and high priestess. In this show, Lagertha is the only woman with real power, and she uses it to add an item other than ‘something borrowed’ and ‘something blue’ to her wedding gown accessories.

Sorry VIKINGS. I love you, but this is a way too modern gown. Photo: History Channel

Sorry VIKINGS. I love you, but this is a way too modern gown. Photo: History Channel

Moving on to Ragnar, he promises Yidu that he will tell her his secrets when she tells him the truth about her parentage. Their relationship is a strange one, sexy and threatening at the same time, but it seems clear to me that despite Yidu’s efforts to control Ragnar through his growing dependence on her drugs, nobody can really control Ragnar. Not even Ragnar.

Lots of tension, sexual & otherwise, between Ragnar and Yidu. Photo: History Channel

Lots of tension, sexual & otherwise, between Ragnar and Yidu. Photo: History Channel

Among the youngsters, Bjorn is looking promising as a leader. He has secrets – a map that nobody else sees (although we’ve seen it a couple of times now) that I find utterly intriguing. I want to know more about that map. Bjorn is emulating Ragnar more and more – in his silences and in his facial expressions. He seems to be mastering that inscrutable, threatening, not-quite-smiling, creeps-me-out gaze as he listens to Harald Finehair natter. At the same time, Ragnar seems to be looking for a way to go his son one better, so he has adopted bloody-looking teeth and chin (reminiscent of Skorpa in The Last Kingdom), and a manic intensity at knife-throwing that I would find mildly off-putting if I were trying to converse with him.

Another promising young ‘un is darling little Ivar who gives us a glimpse of what he will become in the future: the fearsome viking Ivar the Boneless. And as a mother I could not help wondering why there was an axe in Ivar’s little wagon. Aslaug was right, what happened was not Ivar’s fault. It was hers. The scene, I’ve learned, was drawn from one of the sagas about a Viking hero other than Ivar.

Over in Frankia Rollo promises Odo that he will defend Paris. How he will do this without any Viking warriors – having slaughtered them all – remains to be seen. Historically, Rollo and his shipmen added to their Norman power base between Paris and the Channel through force of arms. Here, Rollo appears to be without armed followers to fight beside him, and I’m wondering how Hirst is going to backfill that plot hole.

Rollo, the viking with a sexy princess & nice duds, but no warriors. Photo: History Channel

Rollo, the viking with a sexy princess & nice duds, but no warriors. Photo: History Channel

The subplot of Emperor Charles vs. Odo vs. Roland continues. It strikes me that Charles is as cunning as Ecbert. He stutters with fear, he quakes, he pleads with Roland to promise to spy on Odo for him. And then, when he is alone, he smiles a wicked smile. It was all an act. But to what end?

And now, back to Ecbert the Awesome. Alone in the church Ecbert speaks to his God. The king knows that he is going to suffer in purgatory or hell, and he admits that he would like to return to God’s good grace. But his first concern is his kingdom.

“I would sup with the Devil if he would show me how to achieve my earthly goals.”

Photo credit:

Photo credit:

Ecbert reveals his true nature, and for once, I believe his every word.

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A Tale of St. Patrick

St. Patrick, Salisbury Cathedral. Note the snake. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

St. Patrick, Salisbury Cathedral. Note the snake. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

As you may imagine, given my first name, I have a vested interest in St. Patrick’s Day.  Indeed, one set of great grandparents was Irish – Bridget and Patrick Curtin. They arrived in New York in the 1860’s, most likely from County Cork, although my sister, the family genealogist, has yet to find any verification of that. But whether Cork, Galway or Sligo – they were Irish.

No doubt you are aware that St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland; he is the bishop who drove snakes from the island; and he is the saint in whose honor cities in the U.S. pour green dye into their rivers in mid-March.

Chicago River. Photo credit Andrew Bracewell

Chicago River. Photo credit Andrew Bracewell

In honor of Ireland’s favorite saint, then, here is a story about Patrick that you may not have heard.

Patrick was sent to Ireland in A.D. 431 to be the island’s first bishop and to convert the pagan Celts who lived there. He seems to have had a rough time of it. The Celts were stubborn and wanted him to prove that what he told them about the joys of heaven and the punishments of hell were true.

Perturbed by their stiff-necked resistance to his message, Patrick set out to pray on the matter. He went to a lake, Lough Derg – today it’s the largest lake in County Donegal.

Lough Derg. By Kenneth Allen, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Lough Derg. By Kenneth Allen, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Unfortunately, a massive water serpent lived in the lake, and the thing swallowed him whole. It took him two days and nights to cut his way free. The serpent’s body turned to stone, creating two islands in the lake – Saints Island and Station Island. (Sure, and the Irish are great story tellers, are they not? Do you see a snake theme here anywhere?)

To continue: Patrick went into a cave on one of those islands to ask God to show him how to go about converting the stubborn Celts. God responded by taking him on a nocturnal trip to Heaven and to Hell. Apparently, after this intervention Patrick was so eloquent about what he’d seen that the pagan Celts were convinced. In the years following Patrick’s death, ecclesiastical settlements were established on both islands, and pilgrims flocked to them. By the 12th century Patrick’s Purgatory on Station Island had taken precedence over Saints Island because it laid claim to the cave where Patrick had had his visions, and its promoters promised similar visions to the penitent and prayerful. To be admitted, pilgrims had to go through many ecclesiastical hoops, not to mention the difficulty of getting to Ireland and Leogh Derg in the first place.

Pilgrims Approaching St. Patrick's Purgatory. By William Frederick Wakeman (1822-1900) - Scanned from D. Canon O'Connor: St. Patrick's Purgatory, Lough Derg, James Duffy and Co., Dublin 1903, plate facing p. 208., Public Domain,

Pilgrims Approaching St. Patrick’s Purgatory. By William Frederick Wakeman (1822-1900) – Scanned from D. Canon O’Connor: St. Patrick’s Purgatory, Lough Derg, James Duffy and Co., Dublin 1903, plate facing p. 208., Public Domain,

As for Patrick, given the number of stories that have attached to him he is as much myth as real. Did he ever really go to Lough Derg? Possibly. Possibly it was a pagan holy place like so many of Ireland’s caves, wells and streams, and Patrick may have gone there to appropriate it for Christian use. In any case, Patrick’s Purgatory is still on Station Island, although the cave was long ago replaced by a basilica. You can visit if you like – not as a tourist (no cameras allowed) – but as a pilgrim in search of renewal and peace.

Station Island Basilica, Lough Derg. By Andreas F. Borchert, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,

Station Island Basilica, Lough Derg. By Andreas F. Borchert, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,

As for the story about the giant serpent, I would not put too much credence into that. And to my knowledge, the blue water of the lake has never yet been dyed green on March 17. The Irish leave that sort of thing to the Yanks.

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day.


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Vikings 4, Episode 4: JOL

vikings4.3iIn which:
Ragnar swallows a snake
Bjorn fights a troll
Floki gets his palm licked
King Ælla berates Judith
Rollo consummates his marriage
And Ubba defeats Harald Fairhair

That pretty much says it all, but here are a few details.

It’s Yuletide. Yule. Jul. Jol.
The residents of Kattegat celebrate the mid-winter festival by painting their faces and parading with torches.


Photo: History Channel

They reminded me of a group of players I saw in London two years’ ago doing that exact same thing.

VikingsEpisodesmallSome things never change.

Photo Credit: History Channel

Photo Credit: History Channel

But Floki is not in a party mood.
Instead he goes to see the spamaðr, who speaks to him in his usual riddling fashion; but the tete-a-tete ends with the spamaðr licking Floki’s palm. This is interesting. Usually, it’s the spamaðr who gets his palm licked by those who consult him, so I’m guessing that his words and this action indicate that Floki will step into the spamaðr role. Later, Aslaug brings Ivar to Floki and asks him to teach the boy about the gods, and this too seems to underscore Floki’s latest career move.

Photo: History Channel

Photo: History Channel

Ragnar receives two Jol presents. Aslaug gives him her pretty slave Yidu, and Yidu gives him a hallucinogenic drug to ease the emotional pain she senses exuding from him. It leads to the bout with the snake, as well as some other weird behavior. But there’s an underlying theme here, similar to something going on in Wessex.

Photo: History Channel

Photo: History Channel

Yidu resents being a slave; Ragnar sets her free. In Wessex Judith has bargained with King Ecbert for her freedom so that when her father rebukes her as a bad wife and a bad mother, she defies him. I am free, she says.

But we have to wonder if either woman is really free. Ragnar tells Yidu that she is free to stay or to go. But, go where? She doesn’t even know where she is. Judith claims she is free, but she is only as free as the men whom she answers to will allow. There’s no telling where this particular thematic thread will lead. It may go no further than to equate the daughter of a king with a captured slave. The medieval woman’s lot.

Bjorn, being smarter than the average bear (sorry), outwits the troll sent to kill him.

Photo: History Channel

Photo: History Channel

When he asks the troll who sent him the fellow does not answer, and since we have never heard him speak, we have to wonder if he is capable of speech. This confrontation appears to have been Bjorn’s ultimate challenge, so he returns to Hedeby and then to Kattegat, looking more Ragnar-like than we’ve ever seen him.

Over in Paris Rollo confounds Gisela and the entire Frankish court by speaking to them in their own tongue. He gives Gisela an arm ring and convinces her that he is not a beast. She softens toward him and, well, you know. Later she dolls herself up and they celebrate the Yule together in the buttery beneath the hams. Did anyone else think that she looked frighteningly 21st century, as if she’d just stepped off the cover of Vogue? It was a stunning transformation and looked like it belonged in some other show.



About Gisela: Writer Hirst, I think, has decided to give Rollo just the one wife. Historically Rollo had two, and it was the second wife, Poppa, who was the mother of his son, William. But just as Judith over in Wessex is a combination of Æthelwulf’s two wives, (and really, you know, she is NOTHING AT ALL LIKE EITHER OF THEM) Gisela is a combo-wife as well.

We’ve pretty much left historical accuracy behind, and Hirst is just manipulating characters and events to suit himself. Enjoy it for the entertainment factor, but don’t give it much historical credence.

Finally, in Kattegat we have a new antagonist. King Harald Finehair arrives to challenge Ragnar.

Photo: History Channel

Photo: History Channel

Historically, Harald united southern Norway under his rule as a result of the battle of Hafrsfjord, so we may be heading in that direction this season. But Harald hasn’t made a good beginning. Aslaug’s suspicion radar is on high alert, young Ubba beats him at Hnefatafl, Bjorn bristles at just the sight of him, and in the final moments of the episode Ragnar, spotting him, says “And you are?” with his menacing not-quite-a-smile that always sends chills down my spine.

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