A Review and Author Interview: Anthony Riches – THE EMPEROR’S KNIVES

The Emperor’s Knives by Anthony Riches, published by Hodder & Stoughton

ISBN: 978 1 444 73191 in hardback for £14.99 and also available as ebook

 

A brief disclosure. I know Tony Riches.

That’s hardly surprising. If there is a writer in the crime, historical or thriller market I don’t know, he or she must be pretty new to the market. I’ve been reading, writing and drinking with people from the business for twenty years now, and I’ve been fortunate to meet with all of them.

So, yes, I know Tony.

But when it comes to works like THE EMPEROR’S KNIVES, I have to make comments.

A couple of weeks ago, I had to fly to the US. Now, I know many people who pack one Kindle and don’t worry about reading. Which is nice for them, but it doesn’t work for me.

I’m infinitely happier with a book containing paper than an electronic doohickey. I’ve tried electronics – I tend to be an early adopter – but although I’ve attempted to consume books on ereaders, I’ve never found the experience pleasurable. There is something about the way that the thing works on my eyes, something about the way the pages turn, something about the lack of sensory alteration when you get to a third, a half, two thirds of the way through the book that just feels wrong to me. Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not a dedicated luddite. I love ebooks – for other people. They just don’t hit my own sweet spot.

So, there I was, on Delta, from Heathrow to Atlanta, and I opened Tony’s book.

Tony has several essential qualities (apart from buying rounds). One is his utter commitment to his research. He knows the period he concentrates on. Many writers conduct a little research into their periods, but Tony lives it. Along with Ben Kane, he has marched Hadrian’s Wall in full Roman armour of the period, as well as carrying the correct weaponry. He takes his research seriously. It’s not the case that a writer can sit in a quiet study and imagine everything about his period. To really understand how a warrior felt in his armour, it’s a good idea to wear it. Tony does.

I don’t know what his wife says to that.

In this, the seventh volume of his series, Tony has brought his young hero, Marcus Aquila, back to Rome itself, to find the men who were responsible for the murder of his family. He has to face them, no matter what the risk to himself. Four men: a senator, a gang boss, a praetorian officer, and finally a gladiator – he must confront and kill them all. No easy task for a man since they are all powerful in Rome. But the legionary won’t give up. Even when he realises he must pitch himself against Rome’s greatest gladiator.

This is a book that feels perfect, written by one of the best historical writers today, and with this Anthony Riches is on his very best form. There is something about the characterisations of the main characters that makes them come alive. The nastier types are superbly, oleaginously bad, and all, from them to Marcus and his friends, are convincing, realistic and believable.

I read THE EMPEROR’S KNIVES in a couple of sittings. There were plenty of distractions, from in-flight movies to bars, but I sat and read. If you like historical fiction, especially Roman, I recommend you try this!

 

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An Interview with Anthony Riches

 

Tony, this is an amazing story, but the more so because you’ve woven the plot over seven books (so far!) – When I began, I thought I was writing one story. Did you too, or did you have the idea for the series from the very first title?

Thanks Mike. I guess when I started it was one story, but I very quickly realised that a) I’d have to offer more than that to a publisher and b) there was a slow burning revenge plot to be played out. I always knew that Marcus would be going back to Rome at some point, but (for example) I didn’t come up with the idea of the Knives until book five. Some of the plot weaving has been cleverish writing – but it’s in the minority next to the stuff that was just serendipitous.

 

The characters have all developed really superbly over the seven stories. Did you find that new characters were appearing and you kept them because you liked them, or was it a planned journey?

A colleague told me a while ago, when I was working with him in the States (writing in a walk in cupboard) and blocked, that all I had to do was invent more characters and let them do the heavy lifting. And it worked. I think of characters to support the plot, keep the ones I really like, and let them bubble under until their time for fame (and sometimes death) arrives. Having a large cast allows me to rotate them, so to speak, and thereby keep the reader guessing. There’s no real planning involved, from a ‘strategic’ perspective, although I do have one or two of them earmarked for specific books in the future.

 

You have set your scenes in the books in wonderful locations, from England to Romania to Rome. Recently you marched the length of Hadrian’s Wall in full Roman kit. Do you find that you have to visit every location to get the most from the action?

It really helps. I wish I’d gone to Romania for The Wolf’s Gold, but I just ran out of time what with the day job. I have a job that I really enjoy, which makes it all too easy to lose sight of the writing priorities (and let’s face it, these days more than ever the job has to come first). I’ve roamed the Wall (and the Antonine version, to a lesser extent), driven around the land between them, been to Tongres in Belgium (Tungria), had a few goes at Rome, and my real frustration now is that I can’t get to *REDACTED* for the next book! Mind you, the internet is obviously a godsend in that respect – I mean, Google Earth…just amazing!

 

I know that you have a full set of Roman armour and weaponry. I’d imagine that wearing such gear would give you a special understanding of how the soldiers must have fought and lived – do you find that?

Several full sets! Tungrian auxiliary, late Roman infantryman, and now a lovely set of early Principiate centurion kit. And I’ll tell you what it gives you – sore feet (those boots are brutal) and a huge appreciation of just how hard they must have been. And it makes you hate car drivers, while you’re footslogging around and they’re flying past bipping their horns at you! As for fighting in the stuff…they must have had muscles on their muscles!

 

The great thing about your novels is the strong characters – male and female. Have these developed and grown in your own mind as you have progressed with the stories?

Yes, I suppose they have. Julius, the Tungrian first spear, is a good example. He started out as an almost ‘baddie’ figure in my mind, and then suddenly there he was in the big man’s role, after a story in which his underlying vulnerability was suddenly revealed to us all (including me, to a degree). I guess if they weren’t growing as the series progressed the point would come where the reader would stop being interested in them.(Note to self – grow characters more often!)

 

Many writers depend upon a solid routine to be able to write. I know that you have a busy work life in a highly pressurised job – how do you find time to write?

It comes and goes. Sometimes I can rip off two thousand words in a couple of hours, sometimes I struggle. The one thing I always do is be scrupulous in keeping work and writing separate – anything else would be a slippery path. And the trick is to write every day, if you can, even when – especially when – you’re not in the mood. It can be amazing what will suddenly leap from your subconscious onto the page!

While I’m writing I cannot read other people’s books. I learned a while ago that I was starting to copy the style of the person I was reading. Do you find that too, or do you write in your own way even when you read other works?

Not a problem for me, in that I’m not that self aware a writer. Am I influenced? Undoubtedly. Do I know it? Not often. And I do have a style that’s my own, which has grown over time, and which I think is fairly impervious to transitory influence. Mind you, I’ve been reading a lot of very varied stuff for the HWA Debut Crown judging that I’ve volunteered to help with this year, so if Marcus turns up in a ruff and waving a rapier about, don’t be too surprised!

 

When you first start to think about a new book, do you spend a deal of time with a detailed plan, or does the story come to you as you write?

Nope, I get stuck in straightaway. I’ll always know the beginning and the likely end, and after that it’s a question of getting words on paper and seeing what comes out. I do tend to grow the story as I go, which sometimes means going back and inserting supporting events of characters, but it seems to work for me even if it does sometimes make me feel like a bit of a fraud compared with the master story tellers who have it all mapped out before they begin!

 

Some people write best in the morning, while I am better in the evening. Which suits you best?

During the day! Weekends are productive, for that reason. I struggle to crawl from my bed early enough to write much, and in the evenings I can be pretty tired, what with the commute into London and back, and the full on nature of what I do. I do write much better in the day – it’s just a shame I can’t afford to go full time. One day…

 

You must be one of the top four Roman legionary writers today, along with Ben Kane, MC Scott and Nick Brown. Is this a particularly tight-knit genre, do you think?

That’s kind of you. In truth I could name you a good deal more purveyors of high quality Roman military fiction – Simon Scarrow and Harry Sidebottom, for example, or on the self published side Simon Turney and Gordon Doherty, so I don’t think it’s all that tight knit. I think there are a lot of people writing about Rome, and I’m not sure we’ll all survive the inevitable reduction in traditionally published authors that must happen at some point – although I do think the internet will enable those of us that want to keep on writing for our own fan base to do so, which can only be a good thing.

 

Before too long, you will have to find the end of the base plot of the series, I would assume. Does that mean that you’ll continue with a new strand, or will you develop a new theme with different characters?

I’m going to write 25 books in the Empire series (and you know about long series’, eh?), as long as they keep selling. There’s a long way to go to AD211, Marcus will be 50, with wars, civil wars, huge battles and intrigue to keep us going. Commodus isn’t the half of it, as there’s a military strongman by the name of Septimius Severus lurking in the wings. And I think the initial arc ended – to a degree – with ‘The Emperor’s Knives.’ Now we can go and see some more of the empire, always remembering that the revenge Marcus sought isn’t complete yet…

 

Many writers move from action/thrillers into crime, whether modern or historical. Do you think you’d like to work with a different period or genre?

I started out as an (unpublished) thriller writer, and that first book, Eleven Target, is still waiting to get onto the page. One day… I’m not bright enough for crime though.

 

When I am writing, I tend to splurge words out in a hurry, and regret it later at my leisure as I edit the story into a more rational form. Would you say you write with a view to editing hard, or editing lightly because your first draft is more refined at the outset?

I tend to go over the script a lot towards the end, tying up the loose ends that result from my ‘inventive’ style of writing. This means that by the time I’m happy with the story the edit’s pretty much done. I don’t seem to need much editing (touching wood as I say it), simply because it’s been polished so much before my editor ever gets to see it.

 

What are the best things and worst things about writing?

Best thing: the best thing for me is meeting the readers – and the nicest thing ever was the utterly dumbstruck teenager who wandered up to me with his mum at an event with that look in his eye that I’ve felt before as a reader. He was just gobsmacked to meet the person who wrote that stuff he loved so much (been there!), and to know you’ve touched someone simply with the power of the written word is really amazing.

​Actually I’ve just thought of an equal favourite – those moments when the words hitting the page bear no relation to what I intended to write. Quite amazing! And sometimes quite scary. I’ll never forget the shock when a bunch of tribesmen lifted a severed head over their line and I realised who it was that they…I…had just killed!

Worst thing: Having to write when I’m just not in the mood!

 

That’s great, Tony. Many thanks, and happy writing. Personally I’m looking forward to many more in this series. I want to know what happens to the men from the Tungrian!

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Comments
4 Responses to “A Review and Author Interview: Anthony Riches – THE EMPEROR’S KNIVES”
  1. That just might be the best author Q&A I have ever read. Have a large gin! #ginclub

    Like

  2. Sandra Griffiths says:

    Dear Mike – great interview. Went out and bought book 1. I have now stormed thru the first 3. You were right- great series. Glad you did the interview might not have found Anthony Riches otherwise.

    Sandra

    Like

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