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Friday Five: 5 Classic Classics by Mark Charan Newton

We're delighted to host Mark Charan Newton for this week's Friday Five. Drakenfeld (out now!) is a novel that combines the best of historical (lavish setting!), detective (twisty plot, clever characters!) and fantastic fiction (epic stakes!). If there are two things I harp on about a lot it is a) learning from other genres and b) using the freedom of secondary worlds to explore big ideas. And, well, Mr. Newton's done them both. 

Mark was kind enough to drop by and talk about his influences for Drakenfeld - specifically, some of the (very) classic books that helped inspire the atmosphere and tone of the city of Tryum.

DrakenfeldDuring the writing of Drakenfeld, I got a little bit obsessed with the classical world. I totally lost myself within the work of the writers and artists of the time. My plan was to deconstruct the classical world and then reconstruct it in a new arrangement for the book itself. In my head, I hoped my setting could sit just off the map of the ancient world. But as I was doing this, during this classical binge, I thought there were some tremendous books that readers of fantasy fiction could enjoy.  I guess choosing a mere five texts isn’t quite enough to do it justice, but here are five crackers that I reckon you should check out.

The Twelve Histories - Suetonius

This is the National Enquirer or Heat Magazine of the ancient world. Scandalous, full of gossip, not entirely (or "at all") reliable and very bitchy. Written during the reign of Emperor Hadrian, actually a very approachable and concise assessment of the lives, habits, interests and actions of Julius Caesar and the following eleven Emperors. Part of the problem with it is that it’s based on accounts - and incredible biases - of the historians at the time. And part of the issue with this sort of thing is that Caligula and Nero are made to look like cocks, and this portrait of them has echoed throughout history. Reality? They probably weren’t as bad as Suetonius makes them out to be, but boy did he make things interesting.

Secret History - Procopius

If you thought that Suetonius was a gossip, Procopius was even worse. It’s his account of one of the most fascinating points of the classical world for me - the Byzantine reign of Emperor Justinian I, his wife Theodora, his commander Belisarius (whose story is epic in itself) and his wife Antonina. There’s so little written about the Byzantine era compared to the earlier Roman Republic and Empire, but it’s every bit as fascinating in my opinion. Procopius makes it even more fascinating, largely by painting Justinian as an actual demon. (Just in case you wondered how reliable it was.)

The Alexiad -  Anna Komnene

There’s not much classical history written down by women. So how about a chunk of history written by a princess, scholar and physician? (That is also a side jab at anyone who doesn’t include powerful women in their fantasy books and uses “Because, history” as an excuse.) The Alexiad is Anna’s account of life during the reign of her father, Emperor Alexius I, in the mid 12th Century. I’ll be honest - it’s a little dry compared to other classical texts, and that’s no fault of the translator, I’m sure. But it’s got a chunk of Byzantine history around the First Crusade as well as a chunk of epic battles, enough to whet the appetite of many an epic fantasy fan.

Sixteen Satires - Juvenal

Now, a good stack of classical history was written by the very rich, because those were the ones who could afford a decent education and who could afford to write in the first place. As a consequence, you get a pretty slender view of life for the most part. Now, Juvenal was no exception to the wealthy writer syndrome, but his Sixteen Satires gives a decent look at those who aren’t super wealthy and who are busy raiding other nations/carving their names into the history books. So here’s a book - no, a sequence of poems - that looks at sheer exuberance of Rome’s underbelly. An examination of the slaves, whores and lawyers, every bit as much as the poking fun at politicians. It’s where Alan Moore got the concept of “who watches the watchmen” (Quis custodiet ipsos custodes - don’t worry, my Latin ain’t great); though its original concept was a satire of the moral behaviour of women rather than any kind of superhero.

HowdyThe Natural History - Pliny the Elder

What the f*ck, one might ponder, was Pliny the Elder smoking when he wrote his Natural History. For the last text of the five, I’ve chosen what is basically an encyclopedia of the ancient world, addressed to (written explicitly for?) the future Emperor Titus, in AD79. Ish. Pliny covers a huge array of subjects, from botany to meteorology, and pulls together a stack of accounts and observations of the day. The thing is, it’s written as people saw the world at the time, so naturally it’s bat-shit crazy and full of wonderful things to pillage for your own fantasy novels. I mean, it has descriptions of things like this (see right).

That’s one of the Blemmyes, in case you were wondering.

Drakenfeld is out now - and you can pick up copies here, here, here and here. Basically, no excuse. Mark's also over on the Book Smugglers talking about violence in fantasy and, in the distant past, he once took part in our best Friday Five ever.