Guest Post: “Tower of Babel” by Aidan Harte

AidanHarte-AuthorPicMasons, like writers, learn the hard way to choose their foundation carefully. The strength of that first stone defines the structure, sets the tone. Accordingly, Chapter One of Spira Mirabilis begins with blasphemy. The Last Apprentice of Concord whips up a Children’s Crusade and instead of sending them to fight the approaching coalition led by Contessa Scaligeri, he sets them to construct a new cathedral. This is a recreation of the Tower of Babel, that structure torn down by an outraged God who then “confounded the language of all the Earth,” for good measure.

Finishing The Wave Trilogy, I found myself toiling in Babel’s shadow. This influence can be partly ascribed to the setting – cathedral building was medieval society’s engine, the focus of mathematics, engineering, art and devotion – but what troubled me was what Nimrod’s Tower says about creation. It condemns all creation as a blasphemous encroachment. What more damning indictment of the hubris of storytelling than a tower reaching to heaven, swatted aside by the greatest creator of all? The Middle East’s attitude to idolaters has always swayed between hostility and ambivalence. No accident then that Scheherazade, like Babel, springs from the fertile soil between the Euphrates and the Tigres. The lovely slave girl forever spinning yarns to keep her head from tumbling is, I like to think, the patron saint of storytelling. Her story reveals the secret of all stories: once you get in the habit of it, it’s easier to keep going than to stop.


There’s always a new twist, a cliff-hanger to escape, a long lost uncle to appear, a reconciliation or – better yet – a quarrel to be had. The deeper one is immersed, the more improbabilities one will accept. Watch the end of any Hitchcock film; it will seem overwrought, even silly, but only because you haven’t earned the heightened emotions the last act demands. Plenty of wonderful stories, like political careers, simply capsize before the finish line. The final season of The Wire is a catastrophe, but it seems churlish to say so. Instead we echo the builders of Babel: ‘Shame how it ended, but wasn’t she splendid?’

It’s a bittersweet thing to leave a place you’ve lived in for years but I’m finally saying addio to Etruria. No matter how much we rehearse farewells, they are almost always anticlimactic. Only a committed Austinian can recall the last lines of Pride and Prejudice:

“With the Gardiners, they were always on the most intimate terms. Darcy, as well as Elizabeth, really loved them; and they were both ever sensible of the warmest gratitude towards the persons who, by bringing her into Derbyshire, had been the means of uniting them.”

I know – yawnsville, right? Dear Jane is simply putting the chairs away and turning out the lights, but we’ve enjoyed the evening’s entertainment so much that we can’t complain if it ends in diminuendo. First impressions matter. Endings? Not so much. That last Parthian shot won’t mar a wonderful story or salvage a dull one. The battle’s won or lost long before then. Famous farewells, then, are necessarily a rare species. There’s Gatsby with his green light and boat going nowhere and Sydney Carton doing that far, far better thing. My favourite comes from Tracy Chevalier’s The Girl with the Pearl Earring. ‘A maid comes free’ is the final bittersweet flourish which makes this poignant tale linger.

Parting pickings are slim because it is a truth universally concealed that most writers are too preoccupied leaving the stage with dignity to craft something beautiful. But endings should be fashioned as carefully as the keystone that completes the arch, and not afterthoughts. Readers are well used to preposterous final acts when the air suddenly escapes. The sound of that rushing air is usually a Calvary horn. When it toots, it’s time to get your coat. The technical term is Deus Ex Machina, or God from the Machine. The phrase, as every eager Lit Grad know, originates in Greek theater when Zeus or one of his progeny would drop down and resolve things with a thunderbolt.

In Spira Mirabilis I throw a spanner in the divine machinery, asking what if God wants to help, but is powerless. I posit that God was not merely offended by Nimrod’s Tower, He was threatened. The Apprentice’s Tower is a knife to sever earth and heaven, and Contessa Scaligeri is the only one who can stop him. High stakes then. Does it come off, or does it come crashing down, leaving me with the poor hod-carriers at Babel, unpaid and gibbering nonsense?

Let’s see when the dust settles.


Aidan Harte is the author of The Wave TrilogyIrenicon, The Warring States and Spira Mirabilispublished in the UK by Jo Fletcher Books. Spira Mirabilis will be published on March 27th (eBook) and April 3rd (hardcover).

Also on CR: Interview with Aidan Harte, Guest Post (Yesterday That Never Was), Excerpt of Irenicon

Guest Post: “The Yesterday That Never Was” by Aidan Harte (Jo Fletcher Books)

Today, I bring you a guest post by Aidan Harte, author of the historical fantasies Irenicon and The Warring States. Here, he discusses how authors perceive and play around with the historical periods they can write in…



AidanHarte-AuthorPicFantasy and Historical Fiction are in essence extreme forms of Travel Fiction. They take us to destinations that can’t be otherwise reached. Historical Fantasy is a hybrid for brave souls looking for untraveled paths in unmapped lands. Its terrain is more expansive than it was – as the world tilts, reorienting itself to an Eastern pole, the West is no longer the default setting.

Anyone writing Historical Fiction must accomplish two, unfortunately contradictory, things:

1. Immerse the reader in another era.

2. Keep him from drowning in it.

The same onus falls on the writer of Historical Fantasy but he has an extra challenge – after building a believable world, he must test it to breaking point by introducing unbelievable elements. Happily, that’s not as difficult as it sounds. Privately, each of us believes that everyone who died before we were born was a sucker. They don’t know what we know and we can never forgive them for it. Just as the untraveled believe absurdities of foreigners, we patronise to people imprisoned in the past’s dusty mausoleum in a way we’d never treat those lucky enough to cohabitate the same point in time and space as us.

All this is to say that the average reader, whatever he tells himself, really has no trouble believing that citizens of olden times were credulous as slow-witted children. Given that, the introduction of supernatural elements is a doddle. Dragons are only marginally less improbable than the Charleston. Our condescension is not altogether without wisdom. The fact is that people living in pre-scientific societies did not delimit the supernatural from the everyday as rigorously as we Moderns. The average medieval chap would be surprised to see a unicorn, but not nearly as much as you – I’m assuming that you’re not reading this blog from an explored tract of the Amazon.

ClarkeS-JonathanStrange&MrNorrellIn the end, the fantastical elements in any novel are distracting fireworks that count for little if the bedrock of character, plot and storytelling is absent or faulty. The art is to find an intellectual and emotional connection between the reader and the past. I’ve praised Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell before, but some things bear repeating. Susanna Clarke inhabits her chosen milieu completely. Her infectious wit and generosity draws us helplessly in. The manner she treats the squabbling magicians bursting into Regency England as kindred spirits to the Romantic poets is inspired. It’s not the spells we remember so much as the awkward double act of Strange and Norrell, the noble manservant Stephen and the masterful Duke of Wellington.

That effortless marriage of voice and subject was a continuing inspiration for my Wave Trilogy, although the tone is very different. Irenicon and its sequel The Warring States are set in Etruria, an Alternate History Italy. The most challenging part of realising this medieval world was not creating the mysterious Waterfolk, or the flamboyant martial arts, or the baroque arch-villainy of Bernoulli. All that was pure imagination and came easy. What I really sweated over in the first book was rendering the conflict that was tearing the small town of Rasenna apart. It wasn’t that I lacked inspirational material; anyone perusing a history of medieval Italy will find conflict aplenty, but all the research in the world doesn’t help when you can’t see the living people underneath. You have to be able to smell their breath. It took me a while to understand why the Guelphs and Ghibellines keep quarrelling. The minutia of titles, dates and details obscured the human passions. The truth is that it wasn’t an abstract quarrel for primacy between the Holy See and the Holy Roman Empire that kept the city-states boiling. The factions’ banners were pretexts, vaporous as the shadow battles over “hinge issues” that animate the election years of our democracies. What was and is at issue was power. Who holds it. Who wants it. Once I realised that, realising the inherent drama was easier, though I still had work making a world of guilds, priests, contessas, and strange Italian names inviting to modern readers.


This business of making readers at ease can be taken too far. The past remains another country. The average medieval person had views on morality that make the Taliban look easy going. Saints and relics occupied a space in 14th century Italy filled by iPads and smart phones today. I’ll buy just about any anachronistic mechanical contrivance in my Steam Punk novel, but nothing jars more than Victorian characters with the mores of 21st century hipsters. Why ever leave the sofa if we’re all the same?

We travel to experience the world’s variety but some contemporary authors, certainly those writing Literary Fiction, tip toe and genuflect around the issues of race, gender and age. This is patronising in a terrible new way. The joy of traveling is to see strange sights, people we’re not used to, smells that make us dizzy, flavours that make our tongues beg for mercy. Victorian authors, God bless their jodhpurs, had none of this pusillanimity. When Ryder Haggard had a yarn to spin, he waded into the unknown with aplomb – sensitivities be damned – and readers love him it.

FromHellThe sense of discovery is part of Historical Fantasy’s continuing appeal. It’s increasingly hard to imagine life Before Google, that benighted era we left behind in 1996. The world BG was a world where ignorance, speculation and rumour were the rule. The past is a place where the most fantastical things are routinely accepted. If an unmapped world could contain Australia and the Americas then why not unicorns and dragons too? The most ambitious Historical Fantasies pull us over the borders into the unknown. Peter Ackroyd (in Hawksmore) and Alan Moore (in From Hell) take the reader on tours of two very different Londons and make a convincing case that doers of dreadful deeds make their own reality. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian can be read as Historical Fantasy. Its setting is clearly the 1850’s Mexican borderlands but the villainous Judge Holden – polyglot, immortal, alchemist – is an ogre direct from the Grimm’s fairy tales. Or perhaps he’s just a flamboyant fraud. Or perhaps he’s a figment of the narrator’s imagination. McCarthy’s expansive, elusive prose allows for many interpretation.

At its best, Historical Fantasy pits its constituent parts – History and Fantasy – against each other. That inner tension, that vast uncertainty, is why we love it. Ultimately none of us are quite as sure of ourselves as we pretend to be. How pleasant to go somewhere now and again, where absolutely nothing is certain.


Aidan Harte’s IRENICON and THE WARRING STATES are both out now, published by Jo Fletcher Books in the UK.

Also on CR: Interview with Aidan Harte, Excerpt of Irenicon

Excerpt: IRENICON by Aidan Harte (Jo Fletcher Books)


Here’s an excerpt from Aidan Harte’s debut historical fantasy novel, Irenicon, the first in the author’s The Wave Trilogy. For more on Aidan’s work and more, be sure to check out the interview he did for Civilian Reader. Irenicon is the first in a series. The sequel, The Warring States, was published earlier this year.

Read on for the first chapter of Irenicon…





And when the wise men returned with report of a new-born King of the Jews, Herod was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children in Bethlehem from two years old and under.

Amongst the lamentation of the mothers, the voice of Mary was heard in mourning. Her child, with the rest, was slain.

And behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and flee into Egypt: for Herod will seek the Mother, to destroy her also.

Barabbas 2:1–13



Madonna! Where was he?

If the boy got hurt, the Doc would mount her head on a stick next to the Bardini banner. Valerius might be a handful but the little stronzo was their only Contract this year. Besides, a dead Concordian would imperil all Rasenna. Sofia’s dark eyes flashed with anger and she swore again: in her haste she had forgotten her banner. Being unarmed in Rasenna used to be merely careless. These days, it was suicidal.


Valerius ran down the sloping streets with his head in the air, pursued by his shadow made strangely large by the blood-washed light. Smashed roof-slates crunched underfoot like leaves in an autumn forest. He followed the trail of the topside battle as it moved downhill towards the river, focused on the jagged red slash of evening where the towers leaned towards each other across the emptiness. The Concordian had the pale blond curls, soft skin and, when he tried, the disarming innocence of a cherub. Now, scowling, he resembled something fallen and impious. Sofia, only five years older than Valerius, watched him like his mother. He had endured this ordeal since his arrival last Assumption, but to return to Concord unblooded? Ridiculous.

The hunt was practically the whole point of a year in Rasenna – that was what his father had paid for, not endless drills and lectures on banner technique. So when this chance came to sneak out, Valerius took it, vowing to get the General’s money’s worth. Two households in combat: what a story! This was Rasenna’s real meat: raids and rogue bandieratori. He wasn’t in real danger; this was still Bardini territory. Sofia wouldn’t be far away.

He couldn’t see the individuals leaping between rooftops, just the banners they wielded. Bardini black outnumbered Morello gold four to six, and the Morello were retreating – noisily. These boys weren’t bandieratori, they were like him, just bored students looking for fun. So it was an unofficial raid, then; the gonfaloniere would never sanction such a pointless attack.

Valerius followed through one backstreet after another, concerned only with keeping up. A black flag vanished behind a corner. He turned it himself and saw nothing but swallows listlessly drifting on air rising from the empty streets.

No Morello, thankfully. No Bardini either. Valerius stopped to listen. The wall he leaned against was built around the ghost of an Etruscan arch, the gaps between its massive blocks stuffed with crude clay bricks, bulging like an old man’s teeth.

He could hear the river now, but not the battle. He had been in Rasenna long enough to know that most raids ended ‘wet’. How could so many raiders disperse so swiftly? It began to dawn on him that Bardini flags need not be wielded by Bardini.

How could Sofia be so irresponsible? He was the Bardini Contract, the Bardini’s only Concordian student, and that made him an obvious target for the Morellos; he should be protected at all times. The General would hear of this.

‘Keep calm, Concordian,’ he rebuked himself, just as the General would have. He knew northern streets pretty well after a year, didn’t he? Not like a Rasenneisi, not as lice know the cracks, but well enough. He looked for clues to his location. That ceramic Madonna, perched in a streetcorner niche and drenched in blue-white glaze, that would orientate a Rasenneisi. The ghastly things all looked the same. The superstitions of Rasenna were not the answer; he would rely on Concordian logic. The raiders had led him down and south. If he followed the slope up he would eventually reach the shadow of Tower Bardini and safety.

He turned around. Now he had a plan it was easier to fight the urge to run for it. Yes: he was impressed with his courage, even if he did keep glancing overhead. If only his footsteps wouldn’t echo so.

At last, something familiar: the unmistakable drunken tilt of Tower Ghiberti – the Bardini workshop was close after all. Valerius’ relieved laughter trailed off when a rooftop shadow moved. Another silhouette emerged on the neighbouring row. And another. Lining the tower tops, above and ahead of him. He counted seven, eight, nine – a decina – but forced himself to keeping walking. Whoever they were, they were interested in him alone. It was not a flattering sort of attention.

Behind him someone landed on the ground and he was torn between two bad choices, to turn defiantly, or to run.


‘Sofia! What are you doing?’

‘Exceeding my brief. Doc said babysit. He didn’t mention

stopping you getting yourself killed.’

‘I wouldn’t be in danger if—’

‘I said keep walking!’

He whipped his head round to continue the argument, but went suddenly mute. Anger enhanced the Contessa’s beauty. Her dark eyes were wide and bright, her olive skin glowed like fire about to burn. She looked fabulous just before a fight.

‘What do we do?’ Valerius asked, his confidence returning.

Her wide-shouldered jacket was a bold red, in contrast with the earthy colours favoured by most bandieratori. She was not tall, but she held her head proudly. Below her large brow and sharp Scaligeri nose were the smiling lips that graced statues of cruel old Etruscans.

But she was not smiling now and her pointed chin jutted forward. ‘You’ll do as I say. I’m going to help these gentlemen get home. Give me your banner.’

‘I don’t have it,’ Valerius whispered, losing hope again.

‘Madonna. This is going to be embarrassing. I’m not exactly in peak condition.’

Valerius looked down at the sling on her arm. Without a single banner, against a decina, even Sofia…

‘What do we do?’

‘When I say run, run – Run!


Sofia led the way through the maze of narrow alleys, not looking back or up. She knew by fleeting shadows overhead and loosened slates smashing around them how closely they were pursued. She skidded to a stop when they reached Piazzetta Fontana. The alley leading north was blocked by five young men. And now Valerius saw what Sofia already knew: they were not students. They were bandieratori. Their ruckus had been part of the deception.

Sofia pushed Valerius into an alley on the right – it was barely a crack between two towers, but it led north.

‘Run. Don’t look back.’

He didn’t argue.

She boldly stepped forward. ‘You bambini must be lost in the woods. You’re on the wrong side of the river.’

There was consternation as the southsiders saw who they had been chasing. ‘What do we do?’ asked one.

‘Her flag’s black. That makes her Bardini,’ said the tallest boy with assurance.

‘I don’t know – if Gaetano—’

‘Show some salt! There’s one of her and lots of us. Haven’t you heard who broke her arm?’ The tall boy continued talking even as he approached her. ‘She’s hasn’t even got a flag—’

Way too casual. Sofia was ready. She dodged his lunging banner and snatched it away in one movement and his jaw had no time to drop before she floored him with a neat parietal-tap. By the time she looked up the others had vanished, gone to get Valerius before she got them. Sofia returned to the narrow alley and vaulted left-right-left up between the walls.

Etrurians said that Rasenna’s towers were different heights because not even the local masons could agree. But they made good climbing, and bandieratori jumped between towers as easily as civilians climbed stairways. The upper storeys were peppered with shallow brick-holes, invisible from the ground, which had originally supported scaffolding but which now allowed the fighters to scale what they couldn’t jump.

With only one working arm, Sofia knew her climbing was awkward and inefficient. Even so, when she made topside she took a moment to catch her breath and scan the endless red roofs, feeling no need to hurry despite their head-start. This was her territory, and she knew every roof, every crumbling wall. They did not, and in the wan light of dusk they’d have to be cautious.

In the heat of the chase the boys let one of their number fall behind, and it wasn’t long before Sofia caught up. His falling scream was cut off by the crash of broken slates.

Two down, out-classed on strange rooftops. Normally in this situation it would be each raider for themselves, but these three knew that their only hope of ever getting home was to regroup and turn and fight together. They were waiting on the next tower Sofia leapt for, and gave her no time to recover her balance. Two of them launched a noisy attack to make her retreat, while the third slipped behind. As Sofia dodged flags she was struck in the back of her knee.

‘Ahh!’ she cried as she landed on her back, sliding a little before halting herself. She had no time to rise before she felt a flag-stick prodding against her neck. She lay still before the pressure crushed her larynx.

‘Beg your pardon, Contessa.’

Sofia ignored their giggling. She still had the advantage. She knew every tower bottom to top, their flags, the fastest routes, how old they were. She kicked her heel and a slate came loose, then several fell in its wake and the tower shed its skin with a shudder that drowned out the boys’ shouts as they all slid and tumbled together. Sofia went over the side with the rest of them, but she reached out and grabbed the unseen flagpole. She didn’t look down. No need.

She heard them land with the slates, breaking all together.

Sofia hauled herself onto the flayed rooftop, then climbed back down. She found Valerius waiting streetside with an amused expression on his face which, like his clothes, was splashed with blood. The boys’ bodies lay where they’d fallen, perfectly arranged in a semi-circle around him as if hunting him even in death.

‘Where’s the rest?’ she asked, more to herself than Valerius. She had been occupied, yet the others hadn’t gone for the Concordian. Wasn’t he the prize?

Valerius ignored her, more interested in rolling the corpses to see their last expressions.

‘Show some respect!’ she snapped. ‘The dead are forgiven.’


‘Come here,’ she said, pulling Valerius towards her.

‘Oh Sofia, I was frightened too!’

She pushed his embrace aside roughly. ‘I’m checking for wounds, cretino!’

But no, none of the blood was his. Doc’s charge was intact, the Contract secure. ‘You got blooded, Valerius. Satisfied?’


It was a blade-sharp February, but this winter’s night the alleys around the workshop were ablaze with torches. Groups of Bardini bandieratori gathered on the corners, banners up, tense and jumpy. Sofia nodded to a tall young man slouching against a wall, his hood pulled low. The other boys intended to keep darkness at bay with a constant uproar, but Mule contented himself with silence. A flatfaced boy, he had a drooping eyelid that suited his sleepy air. Nobody had ever called him stubborn, and that was enough in Rasenna to earn him his nickname.

‘What’s got so many flags out?’

‘Burn-out,’ he said. ‘Ghiberti’s.’

Sofia saw the ruse now and swore. ‘We going over tonight?’

Mule shrugged. ‘Check in with the Doc. He was worried about you.’

‘He was worried about Payday here,’ said Sofia, angrily pushing Valerius forward. ‘Move it, will you?’

She led him to Tower Bardini. Black flags bobbed aimlessly around the base of its ladder. The single calm face in the crowd looked up. With no neck to speak of, the Doctor’s bald head hardly broke the hill of his shoulders. He made no large gesture when he saw her, just raised his eyebrows. Sofia nodded back and pulled Valerius out from behind her. When he saw the Concordian, the Doctor paled.

Sofia patted Valerius’ cheek and held up a blood-smeared hand. ‘Don’t worry, Doc. It’s not his.’

‘Are we safe now?’ Valerius asked.

She nodded briefly, keeping her eye on the Doctor’s reaction as he approached.

Valerius stepped forward and slapped her. ‘Show me some respect!’

The Doctor leaned forward and grabbed Sofia’s arm before she could strike back.

Valerius stuck a finger in her face. ‘Noble or not, you’re still just a Rasenneisi!’

The Doctor put his sturdy frame in between them. ‘We apologise, my Lord. My ward forgot her place through her zeal to protect you.’ His fingers tightened around her arm. ‘Right, Sofia?’

‘Right,’ Sofia managed through clenched teeth.

Valerius looked sour for a moment, then nodded. ‘Fine. I’m hungry after all that. Doctor?’

The Doctor released Sofia and bowed to Valerius. ‘I shall await you.’

Valerius watched him leave, then turned, smiling, to Sofia, the guiltless cherub once more. ‘I thank you for saving me, Contessa,’ he said stiffly and then, lowering his voice, ‘Look, sorry I had to do that. Concord’s dignity—’

‘Demands no less,’ Sofia said. ‘No apologies but mine are necessary, my Lord.’

‘Oh, Sofia! Don’t be so formal. Let’s be friends again,’ he said, and leaned forward to kiss her cheek.

She watched him scurry up the tower’s ladder. Had he stayed, he would have recognised the glow surrounding her. It was not her throbbing arm that had made her angry – and not even Valerius; the Concordian was acting properly, in his own way. It was the Doc, and that she was party to his appeasement. Distrusting herself around either of them, she decided to retire to the Lion’s Fountain. Mule and his brother were probably at the tavern already. The smoke of another burn-out tasted bad in every mouth. First, though, she grabbed a workshop flag. It wouldn’t do for the Contessa to be caught unarmed twice in one day.