Are Historical Fiction Novels Still Relevant?

Daily News
| The European | 21 July 2022

We should all make time for historical fiction, says publisher Anton Tagliaferro, as it can provide important insights into the present world.

Anton Tagliaferro is one of Australia’s best known investment managers and founder of Investors Mutual Ltd.

By Anton Tagliaferro

In today’s world we are constantly bombarded with information and entertainment from a variety of sources, from streaming services and podcasts to eBooks and social media.

As such, the position that we should make time in our already saturated schedules to read historical fiction—a genre that has never enjoyed the same popularity as, say, romance or thrillers—might not seem that important, especially as many of us already have smart devices crammed with content to work our way through in those rare free moments.

However, quality historical fiction—and by that I refer to the work of those authors who put in significant preparatory research, and do not dare distort recorded fact—is possibly the most rewarding literary pastime you will find, being equal parts entertaining, informative and instructive.

As philosopher George Santayana once put it, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” and therein lies the greatest value of the genre.

Much more than pure escapism—though there’s nothing wrong with that—historical fiction educates us about how our predecessors approached real-world issues, and how those actions panned out—for better or worse. The one thing any student of history will know well is that however many centuries pass, the same basic types of problem reappear over and over again. Intolerance, inequality and iniquity, for instance, are not made anew with each new war or persecution but follow the same paradigms. 

It’s vital that, collectively, we remember our ancestors’ trespasses, as well as their triumphs, so that we can see where things are heading, and hopefully intercede to prevent tragedies before they occur in the world, or at least mitigate them.

Take, as a topical example, the recent invasion of Ukraine, which has left so many people shocked and horrified, and so many more displaced or dead.

This situation of courageous resistance before a larger, dangerous oppressor has been witnessed many times over, and we know from the rich lessons of the past that it is only through unity with the victims can we hope to halt tyrants and restore peace.

Of course, various history books will give the same insights into today’s global politics and social issues, but I believe that their potential audience will always remain limited simply because of the heavyweight nature of these titles.

While there are a few authors who have the knack of popularising history without trivialising it, many confound it by the density and dryness of their prose.

By contrast, historical novelists use their imagination to weave actual events within gripping, emotive and unforgettable stories.

They are, in effect, armchair time machines transporting the reader to a time and place very different from those we know, yet often surprisingly similar beneath the surface.

As well as painting a picture of those times in terms of their social dynamics, power-plays and tensions, they enable the reader, through the eyes of the characters portrayed, to see through the eyes of individuals operating in those conditions.

Moreover, these individuals are often the ordinary folk—the forgotten voices of history and yet, largely, the ones most impacted by events.

So, then, we both come to learn about the issues of yesteryear, and to understand the minds of those involved—some we will empathise with; others we may well condemn.

What comes across most, though, is that sense of connection—of how our world’s current problems are deep rooted with those of our ancestors. Their effective responses or missteps are a valuable resource that can help inform our own.

As you may surmise, I am an avid reader of historical fiction and two of my favourite novelists are Bernard Cornwell and Conn Iggulden. Both have sold millions of books and I have learnt much from them.

For example, Cornwell’s ‘Saxon Stories’ series—which has been turned into a very successful Netflix series, The Last Kingdom—recounts how King Alfred united England against all odds to push out foreign invaders.

James Vella-Bardon is a prodigious literary talent, to the extent that seasoned investment manager Anton Tagliaferro has launched a publishing company solely to release his novels.

Another historical fiction author, albeit not yet a household name, is James Vella-Bardon. I discovered his work in 2020, with his award-winning debut novel The Sheriff’s Catch, which follows the adventure of a Spanish soldier, Abelardo de Santiago, who is posted to the Netherlands to fight in the Protestant Wars of the late 16th century.

Santiago is later then press-ganged into the Spanish Armada, only for him to be shipwrecked on the coast of Western Ireland in 1588 while the defeated Spanish Armada’s fleet, seeking to navigate its way home, was overwhelmed by huge storms which sunk many ships.

Worse still for the survivors, Ireland in those days was largely occupied by the English Crown which maintained a 2,000-strong garrison in Dublin which was used to brutally suppress all rebellious Irish tribes. These English forces were ordered by the Lord Deputy of Ireland to capture and kill all Spanish castaways.

From reading this stirring novel I discovered the little-known fact that hundreds of Spanish soldiers were shipwrecked in Ireland, as well as new insights into the tragedies that befall us through religious intolerance and xenophobia, among many other things.

For me, what is most fascinating about The Sheriff’s Catch, and Vella-Bardon’s subsequent novels such as Mad King Robin (which concerns Robert the Bruce’s fight for Scottish Independence in the 14th century), is how they vividly describe the resistance of a native people against a larger, dangerous oppressor.

This struggle for self-determination resonates loudly given the recent invasion of Ukraine, and brings home the point that the conquest of smaller countries by greater powers is, alas, nothing new.

Through his immense imagination and incredible talent, the author has managed to turn little-known stories of history’s underdogs into enthralling adventures.

In fact, I was so impressed with the work of James Vella-Bardon that I decided to launch my own publishing house, Tearaway Press, expressly to publish and market his historical novels, and to bring them the wider readership they deserve.

In conclusion, while the past in not necessarily always an accurate guide to the present and future, there are more than enough parallels to warrant our attention. As Mark Twain once noted, “History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme”.

Sitting down with a well-written historical novel, after a strenuous day watching investment markets, is one of the things I most look forward to, and I recommend the same to anyone seeking a form of escapism that simultaneously enlightens.

The Sheriff’s Catch by James Vella-Bardon is out now on Amazon, published by Tearaway Press, priced at £10.71 as a paperback, £2.30 as an eBook. An audiobook adaptation of The Sheriff’s Catch will be released on 15th July, priced £12.

Mad King Robin is also available on Amazon, priced at £10.20 for paperback, and £2.35 for eBook.

For more information, visit www.jamesvellabardon.com

The novels of James Vella-Bardon celebrate the underdog. His latest, Mad King Robin is masterful historical fiction that entertains and educates in equal measure.

Q&A Interview With Anton Tagliaferro

Anton Tagliaferro is one of Australia’s best known investment managers, named among the world’s ’99 Greatest Investors’ and the founder Investors Mutual Ltd. In recognition of his long and distinguished career, and extensive charity work, he was recently awarded the Order of Australia. Now, in his 60s, he has just entered the publishing market with the launch of Tearaway Press, dedicated to bringing the historical novels of rising author James Vella-Bardon to the masses. We spoke with Anton to learn more about why he has committed his time and resources to this exciting new venture.

Q. You have launched a publishing company, Tearaway Press, especially to publish the novels of historical fiction author James Vella-Bardon. What has led you to have such belief in him?

A. I have been a lifelong fan of historical fiction, with my favourite authors being the likes of Bernard Cornwell, Conn Iggulden and Simon Scarrow. I love being taken back in time and learning about history through these novels because while being entertained by reading a good story one is also learning about how different people lived in centuries gone by. I came across James Vella-Bardon after I read his debut, The Sheriff’s Catch, and being extremely impressed. I believe James’ work is of excellent quality. After getting to know James, I realised what a creative, prolific and talented author he was. After many meetings with him, I decided to become involved in his journey to becoming an established historical fiction author.

Q. You are an avid reader of historical fiction. How do you think James compares to the masters of the genre such as Bernard Cornwell and Wilbur Smith?

A. I have read historical novels for most of my life and I believe that James’ books are of the same quality as some of the best authors in the genre. I am not the only person who thinks highly of James’ books. In fact, if you have a look at the reviews of The Sheriff’s Catch and Mad King Robin on platforms like Goodreads, you’ll find many reviewers from around the world, ranging from places like Finland to South Africa, comparing James with leading authors as diverse as Robert Ludlum, George R.R. Martin, Ken Follett and Diana Gabaldon. He’s also been compared to the likes of Clive Cussler and Wilbur Smith.

Q. James is clearly a writing prodigy but what do you add to the mix that was previously missing?

A. James’ strengths are his extensive knowledge of history and his talent at being able to convert historic events into brilliantly told stories. The Sheriff’s Catch is the story about a Spanish Armada survivor who is shipwrecked in Ireland and it is an incredibly original story. James’ recently released book Mad King Robin narrates the lead up to the success against all odds of Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn and it is also a fast-paced and enjoyable book.

My strength is that of running a business: I built Investors Mutual Limited (IML) from scratch in 1998 and it went on to become known as one of Australia’s most respected value fund managers. While IML was a great success, it was a huge challenge starting a new fund manager and this was only achieved through lots of hard work and persistence.

I am hoping to bring those same values of hard work and persistence to promoting James’ books. I have a very strong belief in James’ undoubted talent as an author and my aim is combining his great talent with my business experience to help both James and Tearaway Press become a great success.

Q. What do you hope to achieve for James through Tearaway Press?

A. I am a big believer in James’ talent as an author and he has plenty of ideas for other books he wants to publish in the future. Given that The Sheriff’s Catch achieved such good success and lots of acclaim, the next thing we are looking do is release the audiobook version of the book in mid-July. The audio book is a fantastic production and renowned narrator Jonathan Keeble has done a phenomenal job of bringing the book’s unforgettable characters to life.

I should also add that The Sheriff’s Catch is the first instalment in a five-novel series called ‘The Sassana Stone Pentalogy’. The second book in this series, A Rebel North, is scheduled for release on August 15th, 2022. There is currently a bit of planning going into this. 

We recently also released a novella called Mad King Robin which is a fast-paced story of James which recounts the story about Robert the Bruce and the lead up to the epic Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.

So Tearaway Press is not short on new initiatives while James is kept busy writing all these fantastic books. The main focus of Tearaway Press is to find ways of commercialising James Vella Bardon’s amazing talent by creating the following that his books deserve.  

Q. The publishing world is a challenging commercial environment, especially for a new entrant. What gives you confidence that you will succeed?

A. There is no doubt that the publishing industry is an extremely competitive industry; one that has gone through substantial changes in the last 20 years as eBooks and online retailers have taken huge market share away from bricks-and-mortar bookstores. 

Having said that, my business success at IML was also achieved in a highly competitive industry. I remain confident that the combination of James’ incredible talent (which I believe in 100%) and my drive for success will help us achieve our target of making James’ books a commercial success.   

Of course, it will take time to achieve. But with hard work and persistence I believe we will get there, simply because I am convinced of the high quality and appeal of James’ books.

Q. You are a noted fund manager by profession. Your relationship with James could be seen as a modern form of literary patronage. Do you think you have set a template that other businesspeople should follow?

A. I am happy to have had a very long and worthwhile career in funds management, and I am happy to be retiring soon from IML to let the younger people there run it. Of course, the world of investing and stock markets will always be in my DNA and I will continue to manage my own personal funds.

Having said all this, there are two main reasons why I set up Tearaway Press. The first is because I believe 100% in James’ writing talent—he is an incredibly prolific, creative and brilliant writer. The second is that I relish a new challenge, and I believe that helping James become successful will be an incredibly satisfying outcome to have been involved with when this happens. 

Q. Do you, as publisher, have any say in the eras or historical figures that James writes about?

A. The stories that James creates are all his own—he has an amazing knowledge of history and an incredibly imaginative mind, and he has this wonderful ability of creating a great story that he welds with history. James did bounce the ideas for his last two books off me. They’re two little gems about Robert the Bruce. One is the novella Mad King Robin and the other is a short story called The Cream of Chivalry. Readers can obtain a free copy of The Cream of Chivalry if they sign up to James’ website at www.jamesvellabardon.com

Q. James’ latest book, Mad King Robin, has just been released to wide acclaim. Why do you think this novella resonates so much with readers?

A. I must admit I did not know much about Robert the Bruce before I read Mad King Robin. I believe the novella has resonated so well with many readers because we are living in times when a nation fighting for its sovereignty and ideals of freedom are back in the daily news given the Ukraine–Russia war. For a few decades now, many people have been taken into watching fairly mindless shows like Master Chef or The Kardashians, the likes of which seem to have dominated our TV screens and with many people regarding historical dramas as largely irrelevant and almost archaic.

The war in Ukraine has brought home to roost that a clash of cultures can still lead to dreadful conflicts taking place—as has actually happened throughout human history. It’s left many people scrambling to make sense of the invasion and I think historical fiction like Mad King Robin becomes an important reference point for people to understand that bloody conflicts between major powers and smaller countries fighting for independence is nothing that unique, unfortunately.

Q. What can we expect next from James Vella-Bardon?

A. Aside from the audiobook version of The Sheriff’s Catch narrated by award-winning actor Jonathan Keeble, arguably the leading narrator of historical fiction, we are also looking to release A Rebel North, the second instalment in The Sassana Stone Pentalogy, in August. The next three books in the pentalogy—Hero of Rosclogher, Trials in Tumult, and Ring of Ruse— are also all written and Tearaway Press intends to release them over the next 18-24 months. 

As for what will follow that? James has sent me lots of ideas and synopses of books he has already created, ranging from ones set in the Ottoman Empire to the Venice of the Doges, as well as stories from World War 2 and the Normans.

James’ amazing creative ability has to be seen to be believed—books simply pour out of him  on a constant basis! This is one of the reasons why I am so looking forward to being involved in publishing all these fantastic works in the next few years. 

Q. James’ novels could work well as films or TV series. Do you have any plans to head in this direction?

A. Many people have commented about how The Sheriff’s Catch would make an incredible movie so yes, I definitely believe James’ novels could work well as a film or TV series.  

There are so many new streaming services now like Netflix and Apple TV + which are all looking for original content, so this is definitely something we are looking at. We’ve already had early stage talks with Emmy Award-winning producers of the likes of Game of Thrones to scriptwriters who worked in big-productions like American Sniper. Having said that, converting a great novel into a screenplay for TV or for a movie involves a large degree of work and investment. 

Another area we are looking at is video games since we believe The Sheriff’s Catch could be made into a pretty fascinating video game—and the level of demand for video games from younger generations is quite incredible.

At this stage, though, our first priority is to get The Sassana Stone Pentalogy published and grow James’ readership numbers, while we also look at these other very interesting and potentially lucrative areas.

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