Blog Blitz/Q&A: Triumph in Dust (Twilight of Empire #6) by Ian Ross

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I’m delighted to be taking part in the final day of the blog blitz for Triumph in Dust by Ian Ross, the sixth book in the ‘Twilight of Empire’ series.  I’m thrilled that Ian has agreed to answer some questions about the book and his approach to writing.

If you missed earlier stops, you catch up here:

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Triumph in DustAbout the Book

When  the simmering  conflict  between  Rome  and  Persia threatens  once  again  to ignite  into  open  war, there  is only  one  man  the  Emperor  Constantine  can  trust to  hold  the  eastern  frontier.

Aurelius  Castus,  retired  general  of  the  empire, has  fought  long  and  hard  for  Rome.  When  the  summons  comes  to  command  an  army  once  more,  he  obeys  with  a  heavy  heart. Is  he  still  the  fearsome  fighting  machine  of  old? Will  his  young,  ambitious  officers  respect  and  follow  a  great  soldier  of  former  days?

But when  tragedy  strikes the  imperial  household,  Castus  must  race  to  defend the  last  bulwark  standing  against  the  might  of  Persia.  In  the  pitiless  heat  of  the  Syrian  desert,  engulfed  by  whirling  sandstorms  and  facing  a  fearless,  treacherous  foe,  Castus  knows  that  the  fight  ahead  will  be the  fiercest  he  has  ever  known,  and  will  very  probably  be  his  last.

Format: ebook (426 pp.)    Publisher: Head of Zeus
Published: 1st December 2018      Genre: Historical Fiction

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Q&A with Ian Ross, author of Triumph in Dust (Twilight of Empire #6)

Ian, welcome to What Cathy Read Next. Without giving too much away, can you tell us about Triumph in Dust?

Triumph in Dust is the finale of the ‘Twilight of Empire’ series, which follows the fortunes of a Roman soldier and military commander named Aurelius Castus, in the early decades of the fourth century AD. This is the era of the Emperor Constantine, and just as the first book in the series, War at the Edge of the World, involved the emperor’s initial rise to power in Britain in AD306, so this book revolves around the events at the end of his reign thirty years later.

Castus by this point has fallen from imperial favour; but when the emperor needs an experienced soldier to prepare the armies of the east for a war with Persia, there is only place he can turn. However, events do not run as smoothly as Constantine might like, and very soon Castus finds himself in sole command of the eastern frontier, vastly outnumbered and facing both the onslaught of the entire Persian army, and the murderous political machinations of those behind the scenes of Roman power.

Triumph in Dust is the sixth book in your ‘Twilight of Empire’ series.  How do you approach meeting the needs of readers who have followed the whole series and those reading Triumph in Dust as a standalone book?

Quite a bit of time has passed between the events of the fifth book and this one – ten years – so I hope that readers coming to this novel fresh will quickly be able to pick up the situation without any confusion. I’ve been eager with each book in the series to keep the internal references as clear and self-explanatory as possible. But I know that a lot of readers are following the series from one book to the next, and there are plenty of details and ongoing characters throughout to reward them for their loyalty!

The central character of the ‘Twilight of Empire’ series is Aurelius Castus.   How has he fared since the reader encountered him in the previous book in the series, Imperial Vengeance?

When I first decided on Castus as a central character I was keen that he should be a man of his age, and that his career should be believable and should follow the known trajectory of a military man at that time, albeit a very successful one. I didn’t want a superhero, or a character who constantly rushes from one scene of crisis and adventure to the next.

The finale of the fifth book in particular was very dramatic and involved some very high stakes – Castus barely escaped with his life – so it was important, I thought, to give him a bit of time off! In the intervening years he’s been enjoying a well earned retirement, living in relative luxury in a secluded villa with his wife and family. For a man who has risen from nothing, this is very much the good life. He’s got older, but gained in maturity, and now he knows how much he has to lose. Of course, it can’t last…

How do you approach your research for your books? Do you enjoy the process of research?

I always enjoy the research very much. In the years I’ve taken to write these six novels I’ve read scores of books and visited some fascinating places too. Triumph in Dust is set mainly in the furthest eastern provinces, a quite different environment to the Latin west, or Greece. Discovering the strange hybrid world of Syria and Mesopotamia, where Romans and Greeks mingled with Persians and Syrians, was tremendously enjoyable in itself.

I had the most fun researching the Saracens – the nomadic desert Arabs who were only just, at this time, appearing on the historical scene, but who within a few hundred years would transform the world under the banners of Islam. Many aspects of their society and culture at that time were not at all what many people might expect. Often I get the most satisfaction from exploring what seems the most familiar, and trying to expose the alien or unusual within it – and vice versa.

Are there particular scenes in the book you found especially challenging – or rewarding – to write?

I’d expected that I would find it a challenge to write about Castus as an older man – he’s 61 during the main part of the story. But in fact I found it very easy to picture him like that, and soon came to enjoy writing about this transformed version of a familiar character – older, far more grizzled and temperamental, confused by a changing world and with the threat of mortality hanging over him, but still as determined and resourceful as ever.

But there was one aspect of this novel that I knew would be hard to convey. The centrepiece of the story concerns a city under Persian siege. Without wanting to give too much away, the Persians attempt an unusual method of breaching the city walls; this method is described in several of the sources, but each describes it slightly differently, and overall it seems extremely unlikely, and perhaps physically impossible! I needed to discover, first of all, how the Persians might have accomplished this unusual feat, and secondly find a way of portraying it that the reader would be able to follow and, more importantly, believe… Strangely enough, that involved watching a lot of videos of flash floods, and reading about their effects. I leave to others to judge the success of my portrayal…

What’s your favourite and least favourite part of the writing process?

I have to confess that I probably find the planning and research process most enjoyable; at that point, the novel is an unlimited arena of possible scenes and stories. Once I start putting the words on the screen the potential begins narrowing, and it’s more a matter of trying to keep everything within the boundaries of the narrative.

My least favourite parts, of course, are the inevitable moments when I find myself stuck at what appears to be a dead end. Before getting started I try to plan as scrupulously as possible, but there are always moments when plot strands or characters don’t work as I’d intended and everything seems to unravel. Usually the problem is purely technical and fairly simply fixed, and just involves backtracking and trying things differently, but when you’re writing to a tight deadline it can feel catastrophic at the time. I’m sure even the most cautious writers must experience this.

If the ‘Twilight of Empire’ series was to be made into a TV series (and wouldn’t that be wonderful), who would you choose to play Aurelius? I’m feeling generous, so I’ll let you choose two actors if you like: one to play the young Aurelius we meet in War at the Edge of the World and one for the not quite so young Aurelius of Triumph in Dust.

It’s strange how many people have asked me this very same question! I’ve found it hard to answer in the past; I’ve always had a very clear idea of what Castus looks like, and I can’t think of any actors who resemble him all that closely. Funnily enough, though, it’s getting easier now he’s older. Older actors tend to carry a bit more bulk and have a rather more weathered and less glamorous appearance. But I’d still prefer to leave the casting to the (entirely imaginary) director!

Is there another historical period you would be interested to write about?

I could probably get interested in just about any period of history, given a suitable starting point. The past is huge and varied, and packed with drama. There are certainly particular periods that interest me more than others, and sometimes I struggle to keep my mind on what I’m supposed to be writing about! I think the Roman era is going to command my attention for quite a bit longer though: the more I discover about it, the more fascinating it becomes.

Which authors do you admire and enjoy reading?

Lately I’ve been enjoying Pat Barker’s ‘Ghost Road’ novels all over again, inspired by the World War I centenary. I’ve also been rereading Cormac McCarthy, and filling in the gaps in my knowledge of Bernard Cornwell’s books. Toby Clements’s ‘Kingmaker’ quartet is excellent stuff, Christian Cameron is always superb, and I greatly admired Robert Low’s series on the Anglo-Scots wars from a few years back. I discovered recently that Low is writing a novel set around Hadrian’s Wall in the early 3rd Century AD, so that will certainly be one to look out for.

What are you working on next?

There are a couple of projects I’ve been planning and researching for the last few months, and I’m not sure at present which I’ll attempt first. But I have a notion that I’ll jinx anything I start talking about before I’ve started (or even finished) writing it, so I’ll keep both of them under wraps for now!

Ian RossAbout the Author

Ian  Ross  was  born  in  England  and  studied  painting  before  turning  to  writing  fiction.  He  has  travelled  widely,  and  after  a  year  in  Italy  teaching  English  and  exploring  the  ruins  of  empire  reawakened  his  early  love  for  ancient  history,  he  returned  to  the  UK with  a growing  fascination  for  the  period  known  as  late  antiquity.  He  has  been  researching  and  writing  about  the  later  Roman  world  and  its  army  for  over  a  decade.

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