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Ben Kane on Hannibal: Fields of Blood

Writing.ie | Magazine | Historical Fiction | Interviews
Fields of Blood

By Ben Kane

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Although I was born in Kenya, my parents were both Irish. We returned to Ireland when I was seven years old, and my father found a job in County Louth, where I spent the remainder of my childhood. I was a keen reader from an early age – perhaps it was because there was no TV in the house. The realm of fiction allowed me to venture into other worlds, to escape the permanent fixtures of rain and grey clouds, and the omnipresent news of the Troubles. At the time, the local library allowed its members to borrow just two books a week. This wasn’t nearly enough for me, so I joined under my middle name as well, telling the librarian that ‘Mark’ was my little brother. When this too proved insufficient to my needs, I joined the mobile library that came to our village twice a month. By the time that I was about twelve, I’d exhausted the children’s sections of both libraries ― having read every Famous Five, Hardy Boys and adventure book that they had ― and moved onto the adult sections. There I devoured countless westerns by Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey, thrillers by Jack Higgins and historical sagas by Wilbur Smith and Bernard Cornwell.

Legends and myths of every type, but Greek and Roman especially, were also grist to my mill. It was revelatory to find stories that were actually set in the area where we lived. Places named in the Táin Bó Cúailnge were no more than a few miles away. There was Ardee, site of the mighty battle between Cúchulainn and his friend, Ferdia. Dundalk’s name derives from the dún or fort that Dealga built. Eamhain Mhacha, the capital of the Ulstermen, was in Armagh. Yet it wasn’t just legendary sites that were local to me. Incredible historical events had taken place there too.

Monasterboice had its round tower, built to protect the local monks from Viking raiders. Carlingford was named by the Northmen, and the whole eastern/southeastern seaboard had been populated by them, from Dublin to Waterford. It didn’t stop there either: Brian Boru fought the Vikings at Clontarf; Strongbow led the Normans into Wexford; Edward the Bruce, Robert’s younger brother, was defeated with his army in 1318 near Dundalk. Ireland’s history continued to be rich if tragic from then on, right up to the twentieth century and the triumph of independence.

Ben Kane 2I found this history fascinating, and read every novel I could find that was set in Ireland. Patricia Finney and Walter Macken were two of my favourite authors. Yet Irish historical fiction wasn’t my only interest. I gravitated towards tales of history from all over the world, devouring everything from Asterix the Gaul to Rosemary Sutcliff’s iconic The Eagle of the Ninth, from Conan Doyle’s Sir Nigel to Henry Treece’s stirring tales of Romans, and Vikings. I loved the previously mentioned Bernard Cornwell’s novels about Sharpe, and Wilbur Smith’s African tales, as well as John Masters’ books about India.

When the time came, why then did I choose to study veterinary medicine rather than history, or English? It’s a question that I have revisited many times as a full-time author. The answer is simple. For all my love of history, I had no concept at seventeen that one could just ‘become’ a writer. I loved animals, my dad was a vet, and I’d read too many James Herriot books. Career guidance at my school was all but non-existent in 1987. Veterinary it was.

Science based degrees don’t lend themselves to flights of imagination. Perhaps inevitably, my love of history was subsumed for a number of years. It didn’t go away, however. Backpacking trips in the late 90s took me all over the world, but it was a trip in 1997 that really rekindled my interest in times past. I travelled alone through Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan into China and Pakistan, following part of the ancient Silk Road. In the ruins of Merv, a city that had been destroyed by the Mongols in the thirteenth century, I read a line in my guidebook that Roman legionaries had ended up there in 53 BC, after a great defeat by the Parthians.

That can’t be true, I thought. To my surprise, it was. I looked into it later, and found that a large Roman army had been all but wiped out at a place called Carrhae, which is now in southeast Turkey. Most of the survivors were taken captive and marched hundreds of miles to east, where they served out their lives as border guards for their captors. Almost no other details remain of what happened to these men, but these little gems of information were enough for the seeds of The Forgotten Legion, my first published novel, to be planted in my mind.

Not long after, the superb film Gladiator came out. It had been decades since the ancient period blockbusters Ben-Hur and Spartacus had been in cinemas, and Gladiator was a runaway success. In my mind, it was this movie that reawakened many people’s interest in ancient times, and more especially in the Romans. Novels about Rome also began to appear, including Conn Iggulden’s books about Julius Caesar and Manda Scott’s retelling of the Boudican rebellion in Britain.

By this stage, I had grown very weary with being a vet. Contrary to what most people think, it’s not the job it’s cracked up to be. Seeing those novels in bookshops made me wonder about writing fiction, but I did nothing about it until 2002, when I worked for a year in the environs of Hadrian’s Wall during the Foot & Mouth Disease crisis. The rural location of the wall, the ruined forts and the stunning scenery make it easy to imagine the Roman soldiers who lived and died there. Massively enthused, I bought a dozen textbooks on Rome and began writing. A couple of years were to pass, however, before I started to take it really seriously. During the worst weekend ‘on call’ I ever experienced, I swore to myself that I would not do this for the rest of my life. Instead, I thought naïvely, I would become a bestselling author of military historical fiction. At one in the morning, I sat down and began writing a novel. What started as an interest and a drive to change career soon became an obsession, and more. My enduring love affair with writing is still going strong. Best of all, four years after that terrible weekend, I signed my first book deal with Random House. I haven’t looked back since.

(c) Ben Kane

Ben Kane’s latest novel Fields of Blood is out now.

Hannibal’s campaign to defeat Rome continues as he marches south to confront his enemy. With him is a young soldier, Hanno. Like his general, Hanno burns to vanquish Rome. Never has the possibility seemed so likely. But a stealthy game of cat and mouse is being played as Rome’s generals seek to avoid confrontation. Eventually the two armies meet under a fierce summer sun. The place Cannae – the fields of blood.

The battle will go down in history as one of the bloodiest ever fought, a battle in which Hanno knows he must fight as never before – just to stay alive.

Find out more about about Ben at http://www.benkane.net

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