Although I hate to admit it, I wasnt much of a reader as a child. Perverse, right? I played a lot of sport; rugby, soccer, fencing, swimming, and as for reading, well, I just wasnt into it. In fact, I was made to repeat a year at school because I was always out of my chair and messing around distracting my classmates.
Then, when I was thirteen or fourteen, I suffered a bout of mono, (I know, I know, otherwise known as kissing disease) and spent several weeks away from school. It turned out to be an auspicious event. I was home all day every day and bored out of my mind, so my mother bought me a book. There were warriors with axes on the cover and she knew me pretty well. That book was The Crystal Shard by R.A. Salvatore and it changed my life. There, in my hands, was the key to another world. This story of Bruenor the dwarf, Wulfgar the barbarian, Regis the halfling, and Drizzt the displaced dark elf, captivated me absolutely. It wasnt just the fighting, the monsters and the magic that enthralled me. I think even then I was drawn in by the authors skill at getting under the skin of the human condition. I found that I cared for the characters and lived every moment with them. Ok, it was the fighting, the monsters and the magic. But I dread to think what would have become of me if my mother had not bought me that book. In fact, as I write this Ive just been on to Amazon to buy The Crystal Shard, as this interview has made me think I ought to have it on the shelf in my study as a reminder of how it all started for me. So thank you for that!
I went on to read Terry Brookss Shannara series: The Sword of Shannara, The Elfstones of Shannara and The Wishsong of Shannara, and I loved them. Eventually, of course, I got to The Lord of The Rings and I realized how much the Shannara books (though brilliant on their own terms) and other fantasy novels had drawn on Tolkiens world. Of course, Tolkien drew on the old Norse sagas and the likes of Beowulf, but if you read the blurb for The Sword of Shannara it sounds like The Lord of The Rings just with different namesand a sword instead of a ring.
The Amazon blurb reads: Long ago, the world of the Four Lands was torn apart by the wars of ancient Evil. But in the Vale, the half-human, half- elfin Shea Ohmsford now lives in peace – until the mysterious, forbidding figure of the druid Allanon appears, to reveal that the supposedly long dead Warlock Lord lives again. Shea must embark upon the elemental quest to find the only weapon powerful enough to keep the creatures of darkness at bay.
The thing is that it doesnt matter. Terry Brooks is brilliant and I have such fond memories of those stories and can still remember where I was when I read certain passages.
Then one day I picked up a Bernard Cornwell novel, one of his Sharpe books, and from that day on Ive tended to read more historical fiction than fantasy. Ive always been drawn to conflict. To make war is all wrapped up in what it is to be human and will always be. Unfortunately. Im fascinated by conflict, horrified by it, and utterly compelled by it. In historical terms, Im intrigued by warriors and great leaders, men who inspired thousands to fight and die for their cause; men like Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Napoleon, Nelson. These men must have had such force of personality. I imagine you would have felt the charisma coming off them. These characters also make great subjects for historical fiction authors. Velerio Massimo Manfredis trilogy on Alexander the Great is superb. Unfortunately, I havent been able to read him since he changed his translator, which just shows how important your translator is.
I loved David Anthony Durhams Hannibal: Pride of Carthage. Its a weighty tome but drew me in completely and Ive always admired Hannibal Barca. Anyone who could unite disparate peoples and give Rome a run for its money must have been something special. Stephen Pressfield (Gates of Fire, The Afghan Campaign, Tides of War) is another author who writes conflict brilliantly. He knows how warriors think. He has the knack of showing how, although the way in which wars are fought has changed beyond recognition, the mind of the fighting man has not. Perhaps somewhat predictably though, my favourite author is Bernard Cornwell (and not just because he was kind enough to read Blood Eye and Odins Wolves and say good things about them) because in my opinion he is a craftsman who has mastered his art. His stories flow effortlessly and he weaves in rich historical detail with the lightest of touches.
I read Cornwells The Winter King sixteen years ago. Along with the other two in the Warlord series it has lingered in my mind ever since. I hope one day that someone says the same about one of my books.