Wednesday, February 11, 2015


One of the more striking features of human culture is the consistency with which we enshrine scoundrels as heroes. Without fail, literature across the world describes as holy or laudable men whose only acts of which we know are violent, promiscuous, greedy, deceitful, and even almost stupid. What we know of some is only as much as that they supposedly ascribe to a certain faith, or are monarchs, or born of divine forbears. Virtue as many of us prefer to view it is rarely in blazing evidence, but we are always assured, this man is the elect of G-d, the sacred head of his people, the savior hero to venerate.

This isn’t over, of course – see also: Captain Kirk, and the fact that even as a decades-long and sincere fan, my pointing out he was all but a sociopath would draw ire (if not blood) from those who worship him as The Best Captain. We can’t forgive a pretty and demonstrably media-whore-ish newscaster for saying he was in a combat situation on a helicopter once, but venture to point out that Shatner played an overcompensating neurotic and you’re in for trouble.

Of all the things I’ve been concerned about in writing The Ax and the Vase – lack of diverse characters, bigotry in profound disagreement with my own philosophy, writing about the royal guy rather than “real people” – portraying a king with expansionist tendencies on the grandest of scale and someone liable to dropping axes into skullbones as a heroic main character is the least of my qualms.

I hate battle scenes, always have, but have taken that with a wry kind of backward-gratitude as the ultimate demonstration that we as authors do not choose our subjects; they come to us. Meeting the challenges of this work may have been the perfect learning material for me as a novelist, and I’ve never made life too easy on myself.

But Clovis’ extreme ambition and the potential ugliness of his character, viewed *outside* the first-person? These issues don’t get me losing sleep.

Maybe that is the challenge for my readers. Maybe it’s the way I justify focusing on the rich king – he hardly gets to sit on a pedestal, though the POV throughout presents him absolutely straight-faced. The guy is all about glory and his own power, with attention to his faith and his family always filtered through expediency. His love and his conviction may be perfectly genuine, but they always SERVE something beyond the spiritual or emotional.

Clovis is little different from any modern politician or head of state who got there by any means possible, and who gains ever more using every tool available. Other men, negotiation, and the sword – these are all office supplies, and their utilitarian ends are not intrinsically praiseworthy. Nation-building and origin stories are not in themselves honorable, myths not necessarily hagiography.

Was Rome’s ouster from Gaul a moral, a necessary – a GOOD – act? We understand it to be; the story of Clovis’ first great battle, and the execution of the Roman Syagrius, is one of triumph for the Frankish people. But was the triumph of one king, was his consolidation of what became the modern nation of France, a fine thing? We receive a tale of destiny and incredible success – but this is the success of one man, one royal court, one burgeoning country; it does not preclude the possibility any other fate might have been better for Gaul in that generation … or in the many, many generations since.

We receive the tale of the Decline of Rome – sometimes viewed as a wistful inevitability, Barbarians at the Gate and all – sometimes viewed as the triumph of native peoples reclaiming self-hood from an empire. The truth is, one conflict or another, one hero or another, Gaul might have become one under some other king’s banner … or some other faith. Would another outcome have been as magnificent?

Almost surely, if the authors of some alternate history had voices to sing their own praises. And they would have been just as Clovis himself was; expedient, sometimes violent, sometimes lovingly human, always serving some ambition.


Anonymous said...

I was just reading your comments on JR's blog, and I wanted to stop in and just let you know I'm rooting for you. You have had a request for partial's and fulls, which, to me, IS a great sign. Question for you; does The Axe and The Vase start off with the Author's Note? (read your excerpt and your pitch)

DLM said...

Aw, thank you Donna! The AN is at the end of the novel, glossary-style, very much influenced by the way Mary Stewart and Colleen McCullough did in their Merlin/Masters of Rome series. The AN entries can be found in their entirety in a number of 2014 posts linked on that page - unfortunately, I wasn't really thinking, so chronologically they fall in reverse alpha order.

For readers who aren't Janet Reid readers (one - why!? oh you're not writers - so what, her blog is great!), I was moaning yesterday about how I haven't gotten a request from an agent in weeks. And I've never gotten an offer at all! Boo, hiss.

Colin Smith said...

Are you going to Bouchercon in Raleigh, NC? Even if you're not writing mystery/detective, Janet, Donna, Terri Lynn Coop and I will all be there. And some other people (Donna Andrews, Karin Slaughter, Kathy Reichs...). We can either celebrate together or commiserate together, depending on where our writer journeys are at that time. It's not that far from you. Whaddaya say? :)

DLM said...

It sounds fun, and writing events are so revitalizing - love them. Unfortunately, I can't afford it (I haven't been on a vacation in like 5 years now!). Keep me and Goss posted on all the fun.

Anonymous said...

Diane, just keep chugging along. Remember the well worn "you can't win if you don't play," analogy.

The reason I asked about the AN - and am glad you said it was at the back - is simply because I loved your pitch - Clovis' voice comes through so well. And while I found your AN fascinating, I figured it wasn't the starter for the book, although I HAVE seen AN's at the beginning of some.

And I second Colin. Wish you could come to Bouchercon 15!

DLM said...

Wow, thank you for the compliment on the pitch. Having it first-person actually happened at a writing conference, and I loved the way it felt at the time, and now that it's been a while, I hate it of course. I try not to be the "woodland creature" Janet says we are, skittish and finding imaginary things to be afraid of, but we're all only human. :)

Can't even imagine putting a Note like mine at the top - no way! It's a glossary, a reference. I don't even count it in my word count, and would ax it (har) without a second thought if an agent/editor said it had to go. Every reader so far says they've used it, though. I love background and resources as a reader, so I enjoyed creating this as a writer.