Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, but those who do learn from history get to play the changes with it for their own work. Just ask Jacey Bedford, who uses a lesser-known bit of history to inform The Amber Crown.
They say if you’re going to steal, then you should steal from the best. History provides both stories and settings, and though I dick about with both, I draw heavily on the background radiation that history emits into the present.
My Rowankind trilogy (Winterwood, Silverwolf and Rowankind), also published by DAW, is firmly set in a Britain of 1800 with added magic. It contains some real historical characters plaited into the story in supporting roles. The Amber Crown doesn’t sit as closely to Baltic history as Rowankind does to British, but it still carries a distinct flavour.
A few years ago I was sitting at my desk, falling down a google-shaped rabbit hole, hopping from one random factoid to another, when I came across an article on the Livonian Brothers, the Teutonic Knights, and the Northern Crusades, and it set my mind racing. Like most people I always thought of the Crusades as being exclusively Jerusalem-focused and featuring Saladin and Richard the Lionheart in a hot, arid landscape. But the Northern Crusades were the Christian colonisation of the pagan Baltic peoples by Catholic Christian military orders. Separate crusades came in waves from the late 12th century through to the 14th. Until then I’d assumed that Christianity had trickled through to northern Europe at the same time as it spread throughout the British islands. How wrong I was.
Although I considered it, I didn’t actually set my book in that turbulent period, but the one thing that stuck with me was that the Baltic lands were Christianised much later than the British Isles, and that Pagan beliefs (and therefore magic) lasted longer there. That gave me an opening.
I set The Amber Crown in an alternate version of the Baltic lands: Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and their neighbours Sweden, Belarus, Prussia and Poland. My fictional kingdom of Zavonia is largely set where Latvia and Lithuania are today. At first I was going to call it Livonia, an actual region which has been (depending on the ebb and flow of history) a huge area which covered much of present day Lithuania/Latvia, or a tiny area, barely on the map. After The Livonian War (1558 – 1583) it had shrunk to about half its previous size. It was never a kingdom. It was parcelled off to Sweden after the 1626-1629 Polish-Swedish War. When I renamed the area Zavonia, I resolved the Swedish aggression by having a treaty marriage between the King of Zavonia and the younger sister of the King of Sweden (or Sverija as I called it). Prussia became Posenja, Russia became Ruthenia, Belarus became Bieloria, Finland became Suomija.
History tends not to drop plots and characters fully-formed into my head. It’s more like a gradual accretion of ideas that coalesce, and grow by the gradual accumulation of thought-particles until I have something that almost looks like a plot.
I started out with a single scene. Valdas Zalecki, captain of the king’s High Guard (his personal bodyguard) is taking one night off – one night in many months. He’s in the Low Town with his favourite whore on his knee, getting pleasantly inebriated when from high on the Gura, the Didelis Bell tolls the death knell of a king – the one he’s meant to protect. I didn’t know that much about Valdas as I wrote that scene except he was an honourable man moved to do his duty. He was the sort of strong man you night instinctively trust, but at that point I didn’t know his background.
Then history dropped another little nugget into my lap in the form of the Polish Winged Hussars, and I knew that was where Valdas had come from.
I shamelessly stole the hussars from Polish history, and transplanted them across the border to my Zavonia. If you want to be amazed, look them up. My critique group’s comments on the chapter in which my Winged Hussars appeared thought they were too far-fetched, totally unbelievable. I had to explain that they were real, the pre-eminent cavalry of their day who played a pivotal role in breaking the Siege of Vienna in 1683. The Polish Winged Hussars rode into battle with enormous wings made of eagle feathers on a frame strapped to their backs; the shock troops of their day. Their strategy was to ride slowly, in loose formation, towards the enemy. As they got closer, they closed in until they were riding knee to knee and then they charged, lances forward, the wind singing through their wings. Utterly terrifying.
I dropped Valdas into this historical background as the first of a trio of viewpoint characters, together with Mirza, a Landstrider witch-healer from the Eastern Steppes, and Lind, the clever assassin who killed the king and kicked off the whole story in the first place. (He was fun to write because he has more hangups than a closet full of coats, but that’s a story for another day.)
It’s a diverse set of characters in a high-stakes story of politics, magic, vengeance and redemption. There’s friendship, compassion and <ahem> sex. There is a muted love story in the background, but it’s not, by any stretch, a romance. Do the characters end up getting what they want? Possibly not, but they do get what they need.
I enjoyed writing it, I hope you enjoy reading it.