A big welcome to D.B. Jackson who is here to telling us about The Politics of Historical Fiction and celebrating the release of DEAD MAN’S REACH, Thieftaker #4 (published on July 21, 2015 by Tor Books).
The Politics of Historical Fiction
Last week, Tor Books released DEAD MAN’S REACH, the fourth volume in my Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical urban fantasy set in pre-Revolutionary Boston. Like the other Thieftaker novels (THIEFTAKER, THIEVES’ QUARRY, and A PLUNDER OF SOULS) this newest installment features a mystery set against the backdrop of a key historical event leading toward the American Revolution. In this case that event is the Boston Massacre, which, in my novel, has a magical component.
My protagonist in the series, Ethan Kaille, is a thieftaker — sort of the 18th century equivalent of a private detective. He is also a conjurer, living at a time when suspected witches were still persecuted, and he lives in constant fear of being hanged as a witch. He is other things as well: a former sailor in the British navy, an ex-convict who was convicted of mutiny and served a dozen years at labor on a sugar plantation in Barbados. And he is a loyalist — a supporter of the Crown and Parliament. At least he begins the series that way. His politics evolve over the course of the four books.
When THIEFTAKER first came out, a number of readers objected to Ethan’s political views. They told me — in conversations, through emails, and even in some online reviews — that he would have been a more sympathetic character had I made him a Whig, a supporter of Samuel Adams, the Sons of Liberty, and their cause. To which my response has been, yes, of course he would have been. But would he have been a more realistic character? I don’t think so.
Ethan’s father was a British naval officer, and so Ethan’s enlistment was, in many ways, a foregone conclusion. His time in the navy, however, was not a happy one. He served during the War of the Austrian Succession, and after his ship, the Stirling Castle, engaged in the Battle of Toulon, his captain was court-martialed, though not convicted. Soon after, Ethan prevailed upon his father to help him leave the navy, something his father did reluctantly. Their relationship, always strained, grew worse. Perhaps at that point it would have been natural for a disillusioned young man to turn his back on his father and his country as a sort of personal rebellion. In Ethan’s case, though, I felt it more likely that he would cling to his loyalty to the Crown, and by extension his loyalty to his father, as a way of salvaging the last shred of their relationship.
I also believe that while Ethan’s Tory leanings might make him slightly less appealing to some in my American readership, to many others it makes him far more interesting. Making my colonial era hero an adherent to the patriot cause would have been easy and predictable. I chose a different path, one that was more challenging and ultimately more satisfying.
The Thieftaker series begins with a murder committed the night of the Stamp Act Riots of August 1765. The plotting of the book has many twists and turns, but the historical element of the story is fairly straightforward. In the aftermath of the imposition of the Stamp Tax, Boston’s citizenry engages in a series of public demonstrations that grow ever more destructive. On the night of August 26, a mob led by Ebenezer MacIntosh (yes, that really was his name) attacks the homes of several Crown officials, including Thomas Hutchinson, the Lieutenant Governor, doing extensive damage. Ethan, who is a law-and-order kind of guy, finds their disregard for law and property disgraceful. Later in the book, he meets Samuel Adams and several others involved in the organizing of the demonstations, and expresses his contempt for their tactics.
But Ethan’s views begin to change in THIEVES’ QUARRY, book two in the series. This book takes place three years later, in the fall of 1768. A series of confrontations and riots during the previous summer, have convinced King George III to approve a military occupation of the city. (And in the book, the occupation coincides with the apparent murder by magic of nearly one hundred men aboard a ship in the British fleet.) Ethan still does not approve of the lawlessness of the Sons of Liberty and their followers, but he sees the occupation as a vast overreaction on the part of the Crown, one that he believes will eventually lead to bloodshed. He is not yet ready to ally himself with Samuel Adams, but he has started to question his unwavering loyalty to the empire.
Skip ahead two books and another year and half to DEAD MAN’S REACH, and we find that Ethan’s misgivings about the occupation of Boston have deepened. As this most recent book begins, a confrontation in the streets of Boston leads to the fatal shooting of Christopher Seider, an eleven year-old boy, by a loyalist merchant. This actually happened on February 22, 1770; the ensuing escalation of tensions and violence over the following two weeks culminated in the shootings on King Street that we now know as the Boston Massacre. And I don’t think I’m giving away too much about the book when I say that the events leading to that bloody night, and the shootings themselves, complete Ethan’s conversion to the cause of liberty.
In the larger scheme of the series, Ethan’s political evolution constitutes a minor subplot. But it is a recurring theme throughout the books. Discussions of political events repeatedly place him at odds with his love, Kannice Lester, and his closest friend, Diver Jervis. They add tension to his frequent interactions with Samuel Adams and other historical figures. And, most important, they contribute to the realism of Ethan’s character. He is very much a man of 1760s and 1770s Boston. Even if he does not begin on what we, as twenty-first century American readers, think of as the “right” side of the fight for liberty, not to mention the winning side, his views are consistent with the character I created and the setting in which I placed him. Sometimes making “unpopular” and difficult choices with our characters actually make those characters come to life more vividly. To my mind, that was certainly the case here.
David B. Coe/D.B. Jackson is the award-winning author of eighteen fantasy novels. Under the name D.B. Jackson, he writes the Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical urban fantasy from Tor Books that includes Thieftaker, Thieves’ Quarry, A Plunder of Souls, and, the newest volume, Dead Man’s Reach, was released on July 21. Under his own name, he writes The Case Files of Justis Fearsson, a contemporary urban fantasy from Baen Books. The first volume, Spell Blind, debuted in January 2015. The newest book in the series, His Father’s Eyes, comes out on August 4. He lives on the Cumberland Plateau with his wife and two daughters. They’re all smarter and prettier than he is, but they keep him around because he makes a mean vegetarian fajita. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.
DEAD MAN’S REACH by D.B. Jackson
Available on July 21, 2015 by Tor Books
Boston, 1770. The city is a powder keg as tensions between would-be rebels and loyalist Tories approach a breaking point. One man is willing to light the match to ensure that he has his revenge.
The presence of the British Regulars has made thieftaking a hard business to be in. Ethan Kaille has to resort to taking jobs that he would otherwise pass up, namely protecting the shops of Tories from Patriot mobs. When one British loyalist takes things too far and accidentally kills a young boy, even Ethan reconsiders his line of work. Even more troubling is the fact that instances of violence in the city are increasing, and Ethan often finds himself at the center of the trouble.
Ethan discovers that some enemies don’t stay buried… and will stop at nothing to ruin Ethan’s life. Even if that means risking the lives of everyone in Boston, including the people that Ethan loves most.
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