The Big Idea: Kate Heartfield
Author Kate Heartfield brings us an original story based in the wildly popular videogame series Assassin’s Creed universe. Come along as she unwinds the history of her newest novel, The Magus Conspiracy.
Queen Victoria survived eight attempts on her life over the course of her reign, by seven assassins (one guy tried twice). Alexander II of Russia wasn’t as lucky – he dodged several attempts, but they got him eventually. It’s hard to think of a head of state of their era who didn’t get very close to an assassin, or a would-be assassin, at least once.
The latter half of the 19th century in Europe was an age of knives and bombs and ideologies. The widespread revolutions of 1848 mostly failed to overturn governments, but they shaped the rest of the century nonetheless. The next decades saw an evolution of communism, anarchism, and liberal nationalism – and a pushback from authoritarianism.
All of this was in my mind as I set about writing a novel about a brotherhood of assassins in that time and place. The Magus Conspiracy is set in the universe of the Assassin’s Creed videogames, with their opposing factions: the Brotherhood of Assassins, which fights for individual freedom, and the Templar Order, which fights for control so the Templars can shape what they see as a better world.
I wanted this novel to be satisfying for fans of the Assassin’s Creed games and to respect what I love about that universe, but to also be accessible and interesting for readers who have never played one.
And while I definitely wanted the novel to feel just as immersive in its own right as parkour on beautifully re-created rooftops, and just as exciting as a successful stealth mission, I was also eager to dig into the games’ philosophical underpinnings in fiction. (My first degree was in international and comparative political science, which may explain why I am that kind of nerd.)
The real history of the 19th century has a lot of parallels to our own time (and influences on our own time), but it’s also remote enough now that it offers us a way to examine how political violence does or doesn’t lead to more political freedom.
Assassinations in particular can have wide and unpredictable consequences (the most famous example probably being the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914.) Setting aside the ethical question of whether or when it can be right to take a life, the strategic calculation is seldom simple. And frequently, assassins’ goals may encompass more than just removing an individual from the world.
Take, for a more recent example, the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in 1942 in Prague. Heydrich was a high-ranking Nazi, and one of the main organizers of the Holocaust. He was one of the most utterly evil mass murderers in human history, and history sheds no tears for him.
It would have been completely unsurprising for Heydrich to be assassinated by anyone in Prague at any moment (assuming they could manage it) simply out of retribution or a sense of justice. And that desire for retribution did factor into the plan mounted by the Czechoslovakian government in exile. But it also wanted to demonstrate the strength of its country’s opposition to the Nazis, as a signal to the Allies. It wasn’t just about fighting the war with Germany; it was also about what the peace would look like afterward. The Special Operations Executive in Britain helped train two assassins. The resistance on the ground wasn’t sure whether the assassination would be worth the inevitable reprisals.
And when Heydrich succumbed to a lingering death after a grenade attack on his car, the Nazis’ vengeance on thousands of innocent people was indeed terrible. Was it worth it, to change the geopolitical landscape? Was it worth it, to show the world that Nazis were not beyond the people’s reach?
The axiom in Assassin’s Creed that “nothing is true and everything is permitted” suggests that consequences make a better guide to ethical decision making than a set of universal rules created by people, who are themselves fallible. But the consequences of assassinations can be difficult to weigh.
Assassinations and attempted assassinations in the 19th century also had consequences beyond the rather satisfying one of reminding powerful imperial tyrants of their own mortality. Governments often responded by regressing to illiberalism and developing that century’s version of a war on terrorism.
So as I considered how to weave the real events of history into an Assassin’s Creed story, the first question in my mind was what strategic purpose many of these assassinations might have served, and who might have been behind them – and whether they made any mistakes.
I said on Twitter the other day, in response to a great Cory Doctorow post about how Tim Powers constructs secret history, that my own approach to building a narrative out of historical events sometimes feels like a corkboard with photos and string. I look for connections and try to build a narrative that feels inevitable, so that by the end of it, the reader feels like of course there was a secret Brotherhood of Assassins and a secret Order of Templars behind these events; it just makes sense.
I love stories like this because they’re entertaining, but I also think one important thing historical fiction does is remind us that we are always building stories out of events. The way I just told the story of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich may not be the way someone else would tell it. They might emphasize different things, ascribe different motivations.
Unlike some characters in the Assassin’s Creed universe, we have no way of visiting the past to learn from it. We only have stories, which are, among other things, a way of asking questions.