Ben Kane was born in Nairobi in 1970, returning to Ireland when he was 7. From an early age he loved reading all things historical, devouring classics written by authors like Henry Treece, Rosemary Sutcliffe, T.H. White and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In 2006 Kane began to work on a new idea, something that quickly became The Forgotten Legion. After a long process, the manuscript was sent out to publishing houses and in July 2007 a bidding war ensued between six of the biggest publishing houses. Preface, a new imprint of Random House, won the war, and he was signed for a three-book deal in September 2007. Since then, rights have sold to the USA, Italy, Greece, Russia and Spain. Ben kindly spoke to Fantasy Book Review in April 2009.
You were born and spent the first seven years of your childhood in Kenya. Do you believe that this has given you a greater interest in the world around you than if you have been born and raised in Ireland alone?
I certainly do. Since being a small child, I’ve felt ‘restless’; I wanted to travel back to Africa (which I did while in university), and to see the world in general. We had a World Book encyclopaedia at home, and I used to read whole country sections, wondering what they’d be like to visit. Even now, having visited more than 60 countries and with a very young family, I haven’t lost the travel bug. Once it’s with you, it’s there for life.
How extensive was the research you carried out whilst writing The Forgotten Legion?
Extremely extensive. I spent many hours and days reading entire textbooks on Rome, the Republic and its armies, and I was constantly dipping into them while writing the book. Suffice it to say that my Roman library now far exceeds my veterinary one, and that isn’t especially small.
Of all the places in the world that you have visited, which place still holds a permanent and indelible place in your memory?
I can’t pick just one – it’s too hard when there are so many places which were utterly amazing. I’ll go with three – Hadrian’s Wall, especially the part near Housesteads, for evoking the ancient world so well; the sun going down over Nanga Parbat (one of the ten highest mountains in the world, in Pakistan), turning the snow and ice every shade of orange and yellow and pink under the sun; and Antarctica, for its sheer wild beauty and unspoilt landscapes.
Did your veterinary training help with the passages regarding animal sacrifice and divination?
It helped enormously. With an animal sacrifice, I essentially described the techniques of a post-mortem, as I have had to do myself many times. My medical knowledge is very useful in describing combat too, and the treatment that injured soldiers received afterwards. It’s a pet hate of mine when authors describe things like this inaccurately. I can recall someone describing how a legionary stepped out in front of a charging horse and killed it with a smashing blow to the head from his sword. With a horse’s skull being more than 6 inches thick, the chances of a man being able to deliver such a blow from a sword to a galloping horse are slim to none! He would have just been ridden down.
How is work on The Silver Eagle and The Road to Rome progressing?
The Silver Eagle was finished about two months ago, and is currently in production. It will be published on the 4th of June here in the UK. The Road to Rome is still in its infancy, but the entire plot is mapped out, and I will be getting to grips with it in earnest over the next month or so. I have recently been writing the plotlines for a new trilogy as well…
What were your feelings while the six major publishing houses gave battle over your manuscript?
Shock, disbelief, elation, and finally pure, unadulterated joy!
In your biography you mention going on an Arvon Foundation Course. What more can you tell us about this?
The Arvon Foundation was recommended to me by a friend who had done the MA in Creative Writing at Bath University. I researched it a bit, and found that one of their centres was quite near where I was living at the time – in Shropshire. Deciding to go on a course for me was a way of committing myself more fully to the idea of becoming a writer. As well as spending lots of time writing, I was prepared to spend money on learning to write. The atmosphere there was amazing – I met other people who also loved writing, which made my ‘hobby’ far more real to me. Until then, I had partially subscribed to other people’s belief about it – that it was an eccentricity, and would never be realised. A totally science based career like veterinary medicine is very hard to break out of. After the course though, I was utterly determined to succeed.
One thing that I really liked about The Forgotten Legion was the way that you allowed a glimpse into a character’s future. Chapters ended with brief sentences along the lines of “It was the last time he saw Rome” and I thought that this greatly improved suspense. Is this simply an example of your natural narrative style or is it a skill that you have learnt?
I’d love to say that it’s a natural style, but like so many parts of writing, it is something that I have learnt to do. With the feedback that I got from The Forgotten Legion hardback – from friends and from readers who contacted the publisher or wrote reviews on Amazon, I realised that it is a powerful tool to keep the reader engrossed. As those who read The Silver Eagle will find out, I have kept up the suspense in this book too!
Who, in your opinion, has been the finest exponent of historical fiction?
What a difficult question. I think I’d have to go with Rosemary Sutcliffe, for the sheer power that she had on my imagination as a child with her outstanding novel, The Eagle of the Ninth. But she’s fighting off Conan Doyle, Henry Treece and Bernard Cornwell.
What does the remainder of 2009 hold for Ben Kane?
It’s busy, and very exciting, I’m delighted to say. My wife has recently given birth to our second child – a little girl, so she will take up a lot of time, as will our 2 & ½ year old son. I have The Road to Rome to finish, as well as lots of public appearances – York Roman Festival, the Living History weekend at Kelmarsh Hall and plenty of book signings. There’s talk of literary festivals later in the year too, which is very encouraging. My website is up and running now too www.benkane.net, where readers can see my blog, and later in the year short stories will appear there. These will be parallel tales about the characters in The Forgotten Legion – ‘out-takes’ if you like.
Romulus and Fabiola are twins, born into slavery after their mother is raped by a drunken nobleman on his way home from a good night out. At 13 years old, they and their mother are sold: Romulus to gladiator school, Fabiola into prostitution, where she will catch the eye of one of the most powerful men in Rome, and their mother into obscurity and death in the salt mines. Tarquinius is an Etruscan, a warrior and soothsayer, born enemy of Rome, but doomed to fight for the Republic in the Forgotten Legion. Brennus is a Gaul; the Romans killed his entire family.He rises to become one of the most famous and feared gladiators of his day - and mentor to the boy slave, Romulus, who dreams night and day of escape and of revenge. The lives of these four characters are bound and interwoven in a marvellous story which begins in a Rome riven by corruption, violence and political enmities, but ends far away, where Romulus, Brennus and Tarquinius find themselves fighting against the Parthians and overwhelming odds.
The Forgotten Legion – ten thousand legionnaires made captive by the Parthians – has marched to Margiana on the edge of the known world. In the midst are Romulus, Brennus and Tarquinius, all men with good reason to hate Rome. Together the trio must face the savage tribes which constantly threaten the area. But other, more treacherous enemies lurk within the ranks of the Forgotten Legion itself. When all hope is lost, the three friends’ character will be tested to the upper limit.
AD 9, German frontier: Close to the Rhine, a Roman centurion, Lucius Tullus, prepares to take his soldiers on patrol. On the opposite side of the river, German tribes are resentful of the harsh taxes about to be imposed upon them. Suspicious that there might be unrest, Tullus knows that his men's survival will be determined not just by their training and discipline, but by his leadership. What neither Tullus nor his commander, Governor Varus, realise is that ranged against them is the charismatic chieftain and trusted ally of Rome, Arminius, who has long been plotting to drive the Romans from the tribal lands east of the Rhine. As Varus’ legions prepare to leave their summer encampment, thousands of warriors – directed by Arminius – are massing nearby. Eager to throw off the Roman yoke, the tribesmen prepare a deadly ambush. Only the gods can save the Romans now...
"For this reviewer, part one of the novel is not bad, though it struggles as though the author is chafing to get into the action. The conversational interaction between non-legionaries is laboured at times, punctured by small vignettes of ever-growing action as we move from bar brawls to minor skirmishes. It’s clear that part one is a taster for the greater part of the novel – part two… which excels and leaves the reader well pleased and satiated. To that end, Ben Kane has produced a novel that will while away a good three or four hours of your time and will pique any reader to learn more about this infamous battle. I look forward to seeing how Centurion Tullus gets his revenge in the coming novels."