Angus Watson Talks About His Skull-Smashing Fantasy ‘Age of Iron’


9780356502618-1Angus Watson is a journalist, occasionally reluctant adventurer, and author of the new fantasy novel Age of Iron. Angus and I recently exchanged a couple of emails about life in the Iron Age and why he chose to set his novel in such a dimly understood era.

More about Age of Iron:

Dug Sealskinner is a down-on-his-luck mercenary travelling south to join up with King Zadar’s army. But he keeps rescuing the wrong people.

First, Spring, a child he finds scavenging on the battlefield, and then Lowa, one of Zadar’s most fearsome warriors, who’s vowed revenge on the king for her sister’s execution.

Now Dug’s on the wrong side of that thousands-strong army he hoped to join ­- and worse, Zadar has bloodthirsty druid magic on his side. All Dug has is his war hammer, one rescued child and one unpredictable, highly-trained warrior with a lust for revenge that’s going to get them all killed . . .

It’s a glorious day to die.

You’re a writer and traveler, right? I’ve heard you’re an adventurous sort–been in a spot of danger here and there. Care to share?

I’m not adventurous, I’m a coward who forces himself to do the odd adventurous thing because A, we have only one life and these things must be tried and B, as below, other people make me.

One spot of danger was when I got lost in a cave, underwater, at night, a couple of hundred miles from the coast of Australia. SCUBA diving with my big brother, he insisted on going into a cave, ignoring my frantic signals that I thought it was a terrible idea. I had to follow him in and we ended up in a chamber with about seven exits and no idea which one we’d come in from. We tried one which narrowed to nothing, and had to edge backwards out of it. I was convinced that we were going to die. The next exit we tried wasn’t the way we’d come in, but it led back to open water. I haven’t dived in a cave or at night since. There’s no point, there are plenty of things to see on a nice shallow daytime dive led by an sensible dive master (i.e. not my brother).

We’re inundated with fantasy fiction set in idealized high medieval settings. How on Earth did you get the idea of setting a book in the Iron Age, and why? Was it in any way a reaction to “business as usual” in fantasy?

I was a freelance newspaper feature writer for ten years, being paid to do things like look for Bigfoot in Washington state, dive on the scuttled German World War One fleet at Scapa Flow and swim with sea lions off the Galapagos Islands (I recommend all of those). However I’d always wanted to be a novelist, but I had no idea what to write. Then I got a job writing about Iron Age Hillforts, specifically Maiden Castle, for the Telegraph. I’d become a bit fascinated by the period, roughly from 1000BC to 43AD, when Britain was a very busy, populous and advanced place covered in towering hillforts, but about which we know pretty much nothing. There would have been huge wars, epic love affairs, magnificent intrigues etc. but all the stories have been lost because the Iron Age Brit didn’t write (as far as we know), and the 400 years of Roman occupation that began in 43AD wiped out all oral histories (subsequent Saxon, Viking and Norman invasions probably didn’t help).

As I walked up the gigantic, prehistoric fortress of Maiden Castle with big bearded historian Peter Woodward, we had approximately this conversation:

Me: ‘So was it like Conan the Barbarian, with muscled men rescuing virgins from snake cults?’

Him: ‘As far as we know, yes. The visuals in a film like Conan the Barbarian are probably about as accurate a picture as we have of the Iron Age. ’

At that moment, I decided to write a book set in the Iron Age. It was not a reaction to “business as usual” in fantasy because at that time I had read very few fantasy books (not even Game of Thrones).

(in case you’ve read the book and are wondering, real life Maiden Castle is ‘Maidun Castle’, in Age of Iron. I really let my imagination go renaming it.)

Your book mixes history and fantasy (horrifying battle aurochs, magic). How did you balance it all out? Were you ever worried about putting in too much of one and not enough of the other?

There’s not a lot of fantastical goings on in Age of Iron. There are two reasons for this. One, I didn’t feel bound by rules about how much fantasy to include, and two, my idea was that a hundred years after the events in Age of Iron, we’re told that Jesus was walking about performing a few light magic tricks. My characters don’t use much more magic than Jesus did, which seemed realistic. So it’s not so much a fantasy novel as a historically based adventure novel with a supernatural peppering.
Having said that, the magic does ramp up a bit in books two and three, with magic-twisted warriors and a couple of epic-scale magic events.

As I understand it, Britain in the Iron Age was ruled by a collection of a dozen or so Celtic tribes, but beyond what the Romans wrote (and which Roman was doing the writing–and none of them were exactly sympathetic to their enemies) and what we can gather via archaeological research, we don’t know terribly much else about the era. Was this more of a gift to a fiction writer than I might think it was? Or was it a curse?

It was as gift to be able to make up my own world, within certain limits. There’s not much, so it’s possible to read most of the literature on the Iron Age. The more you read, the more you realize that the little we do ‘know’ is mostly best guess and far from certain. The strongest source is archeological evidence, but there’s very little of that. For example, an archeologist will find two bits of similar pottery in two villages and suggests that therefore these villages were ruled by the same tribe. Because popular history likes certainties, the archeologist’s theory gets combined with equally shaky evidence and suddenly we ‘know’ that this tribe ruled that area for a thousand years. In fact we don’t really know at all. We can see, to a degree, what homes, villages, roads etc. were like, but we don’t have a clue what the people actually did.

The Roman stuff is even more dodgy. It’s pretty much all Caesar’s diaries of his two invasions in 55 and 54BC. The first invasion was 10,000 soldiers, about the same size of William The Conqueror’s 1066 invasion of Britain. It stayed about a month. The second invasion was 25,000 legionaries and lasted a couple of months before sailing back to Gaul (France). After that, the Romans didn’t set foot in Britain for another hundred years. According to Caesar, he won every battle and departed victorious although with nothing to show for it (no tribute, no hostages. These were promised, says Caesar, but they never came). History accepts Caesar’s version as truth. I reckon it’s nonsense. I reckon he had his arse handed to him by the Iron Age Brits then lied about it to justify the expense of his adventure to the people and Senate back in Rome. The Age of Iron trilogy tells the story of how that might have happened.

(To back up what I was saying about archeology above, there is no archeological evidence whatsoever at all that Caesar ever came to Britain. Not a sandal, not a pilum point, nothing. I don’t think that means he didn’t come, I think it shows just how little archeology tells us).

Are there any historical personages in this story? Also, where – geographically speaking – does your story take place?

Book one is all southern Britain, books two and three are set in southern and central Britain, Rome, Gaul (France), Eroo (Ireland) and Germany.

A few historical personages are mentioned in book one, but it’s not until we meet the Romans in book two that I introduce real historical characters. Then there are loads – Julius Caesar, Cicero, Cato, Pompey, Crassus, Brutus, the German king Ariovistus, a woman called Clodia Metelli, a soldier called Publius Crassus (the more famous Crassus’ son) and many more.

Were I an Iron Age warrior, what would my options be as far as what I might carry into combat? Armor? Weapons? Would there be too much strategy involved once I take to the field, or should I just plan on grabbing a handful of javelins, painting my face blue, and running in the general direction of the front line?

According to history, your Iron Age warrior could select from swords, spears, daggers and slings. However, as I’ve banged on about above, this is just what we know. Just because we haven’t found any huge war axes, mighty war hammers, powerful longbows and funky ball-and-chain maces doesn’t mean that there weren’t any. All these latter weapons are in Age of Iron.
Armour-wise, horse armour, chainmail and helmets have been found. I have added a little to this.

For strategy, Caesar says that they used basic chariot warfare tactics. However, of course they had strategy. There’s a bizarre and totally acceptable prejudice against people in the past. We think of them as one great big thick lump of humanity – a bunch of dullards who ate, shagged and died and did nothing else. They weren’t. They were individuals, as intelligent and cunning as we are (and, like us, they were varying degrees of witty, stupid, passionate, boring, jealous, pedantic, stuck-up, deluded, brave, kind, cowardly etc. etc.) So of course leaders would have been capable of working out clever ways of choreographing their forces to win battles and wars. Some men probably did run screaming into battle with their faces painted blue, just as some men would today, but the majority probably did not. Dug (Age or Iron hero) talks about this in Age of Iron and adds his take on in-battle nudity.

Can you think of any more fantasy fiction in this setting? The only think I can think of is 2000 AD’s SLAINE.

I like Slaine, and it was definitely an influence. As homage, Dug leaps like a salmon at one point. However, although it jumps around in time a lot and includes more modern characters like Robin Hood and William Wallace, I think of Slaine as being set in the late stone age, a few thousand years before my book.

The Asterix books, however, are set at pretty much exactly the same time as Age of Iron. Asterix in Britain has a different take on how the British defeated Caesar.

I’m always looking for non-fiction books and documentaries about this period in history, and I bet some of our readers are too. Can you recommend some research materials?

Barry Cunliffe is Mr. Iron Age, or, more accurately, Professor Iron Age. For serious research, his books are unbeatable and there’s always at least one of them on my desk. For Roman research you are spoilt for choice. Rubicon by Tom Holland and Caesar by Adrian Goldsworthy are both good.

The Roman stuff is full of ripping yards and interesting detail, but we don’t know any stories from the British Iron Age, so that history is almost all archeological – a LOT of pottery analysis and that sort of thing. Unless you’re into that, I’d advise people who want to know about the British Iron Age to read the Wikipedia page, then go and walk about on a few hillforts and let their imaginations fly. The best hillfort is Maiden Castle, near Dorchester in Dorset but there are plenty of other excellent ones.

Can you tell me a little bit about the next book?

Book two – Clash of Iron – opens with a massive battle and ends with a supernatural disaster and a tragedy. In between we have the story of Caesar’s stunning but brutal real life conquest of Gaul, while our heroes in Britain face a range of terrifying and powerful foes. Several characters from the first book – Maggot the druid, Chamanca the vampiric Iberian and Atlas the Kushite, for example – take larger roles in the next two books.