Interview: Marthese Fenech, Author of Falcon’s Shadow.
Tell us a little bit about your recent sequel in the Siege of Malta trilogy, Falcon’s Shadow
MF: The hostility between the Ottoman Sultan and the Knights of St John incites the collision of two great empires, intertwining the fates of characters separated by faith, loyalties, and vast distances.
Beyond military conflict, the men and women of this series must confront corruption and oppression, treachery and disaster in a turbulent time that saw the flourishing Renaissance at odds with the repressive Roman Inquisition.
The first novel in the trilogy, Eight Pointed Cross, takes place decades before the Great Siege of 1565—the storm had been brewing for quite some time. Eight Pointed Cross introduces two families, one, living humbly on the island Malta, the other, affluent, living in Istanbul. This novel culminates with the lesser-known but decisive 1551 Siege of Gozo, an event that saw the tiny island emptied of its entire population.
Falcon’s Shadow picks up in the immediate aftermath of the first novel and sweeps from quarry pits to sprawling estates, tumultuous seas to creaking gallows, the dungeons beneath the bishop’s palace to the open decks of warships. Chance connections are made, secrets revealed, and betrayals exposed against a historical backdrop. Fates will collide at the Battle of Djerba, a momentous clash which unites lost kin, only to tear them apart once more.
Why sixteenth-century Europe and why Malta?
MF: My parents are Maltese, and frequent visits to the island from the time I was very young piqued my interest in its opulent history. Life under the rule of the Knights of St John fascinated me most. Malta also lends itself very well to beautiful descriptions—gifted with four compass points of natural beauty, the smell of the sea constant no matter how far inland one might venture, ancient temples that predate the pyramids of Egypt. It’s easy to find oneself swept up in its architecture and narrow lanes.
In July 2000, I travelled to Malta for a pre-college vacation. I intended to spend my days at the beach, my nights bar-hopping, and every second sharing laughs with good friends. I checked off every box, every day.
But this trip became so much more when my friend suggested we go to the capital city Valletta to check out the Malta Experience, an audio-visual masterpiece that showcases the island’s incredible seven-thousand-year history.
The moment the Great Siege of 1565 played out on the screen, everything changed. Suddenly, the battle I’d heard so much about came to life for me as never before.
The siege tested the resilience and fortitude of this little island and its people in ways I could hardly comprehend.
It’s an underdog story for the ages.
Just like that, the idea to write a novel based on this epic battle took root.
An eighteenth-century French writer said, “Nothing is better known than the Siege of Malta.”
Yet, so few people I’d encountered outside of Malta had even heard of it.
Perhaps, in my small way, I could help remedy that.
Twenty years, many miles, and a few thousand cups of tea later, I’m launching the second book and completing work on the third of my Siege of Malta trilogy.
The story was just too big to fit into a single volume.
What draws you to historical events as the backdrop for your writing?
MF: Telling stories is something I loved to do as far back as I can remember. Creating images with words seemed to be a kind of magic.
Most of the stories I wrote as a kid were entirely cast with talking animals. Even now, in my Siege of Malta series, I tend to treat animals more delicately than humans. While I no longer write about talking animals, my Siberian husky has a little cameo in Falcon’s Shadow (no dialogue, of course.)
When I was a teenager, I went to see the movie Speed ten or eleven times. A crush on Keanu Reeves inspired me to write a cheesy thriller—my first attempt at a composition involving people. Mostly, I wanted to prove to myself that I could start and finish an entire novel. It took me two years writing part-time while I was in high school, but I managed to complete it.
Not long after that, the film Braveheart drew me to the historical genre, a love further reinforced by Gladiator, which coincidentally, is filmed in Malta and features several of my friends as extras.
In high school, history was my favourite subject—incidentally, one of my brothers is a history professor at the University of Northern Iowa. I loved to learn about daily life in the Middle Ages, communication and the importance of scribes and town-criers, the development and enforcement of laws, the cause and outcome of battles, the roles of different institutions, the use (and misuse) of medicine, the creation (and banning) of art and literature, and most of all, the perspectives of the people, their motivations, their resilience.
Despite the passage of time, people want and need many of the same things today as they did in the past. Beyond necessities for survival, people crave human connection, acceptance, recreation, fellowship, justice, knowledge, a sharing of ideas, progress.
This realization gave me the confidence to tackle historical fiction—I didn’t have to create characters I could never relate to simply because they lived five hundred years ago. And while living in sixteenth-century undoubtedly presented its own set of challenges and struggles, the human condition remains the same. The story needs to revolve around the characters and their experiences—the setting becomes virtually incidental.
From the ancient streets your characters roam, the fortresses they defend, the seas they sail, and the dungeons they escape, tell us a bit about the process and research that goes into your writing.
MF: The research process is one of the most rewarding aspects of the genre. I love to dig into the past, see what I might unearth.
When I set out to write Eight Pointed Cross, I built a home library comprised of history and military texts, including the siege diary of Francisco Balbi di Correggio, a Knight of St John, who helped defend Malta during the Siege of 1565. Ernie Bradford’s the Great Siege of Malta also proved to be an incredible resource, providing intricate details of the siege and the factors that led to it.
I consulted with historians in Malta, Turkey, Canada, and the US, who answered endless streams of questions and pointed me towards useful resources.
Although research, creativity, and imagination are the keystones of world-building, plot construction, and character development, hands-on, immersive experiences add authenticity.
It’s not enough for me to read about a place or look at pictures. I need to immerse in it, its smells, sounds, and tastes; its languages, people, and pace. These sensory details then make their way into my scenes. The musty smell of a cellar, for example, might invoke a description of a dungeon. The way a slant of light touches the forest floor might inspire a scene in the woodlands just outside Istanbul.
Battles feature prominently in my novels. As such, I thought it important to feel a fraction of what my characters may have felt while defending Malta during a mid-summer siege.
One August day, I took the bus to the seaside village of Birgu, one of my main settings, and spent an afternoon on the wall of Castile—essentially, a stone oven. For three hours, I stood on that battlement and wrote detailed notes describing everything I felt, like the way the sweat would bead and run down my face or arm, pool in the dimple of my knee. I ignored every impulse to find shade or drink water. Though effective, it was hugely reckless and idiotic, and I was rewarded with heatstroke and a day spent in bed, shivering, sweating, cramping, and convinced I contracted the plague.
But it was still nothing compared to what those who fought in the Siege likely experienced. From May until September, they boiled tar over open flame and handled incendiary weapons beneath a relentless sun. How the defenders endured such heat while clad in fifty pounds of armour is beyond me.
I also spent time in Istanbul, a living museum, every street-corner a testament to the city’s vivid past. Lively exchanges with locals inspired a cast of Turkish characters, including a very kind and helpful shopkeeper, an equally unpleasant staffer at my hostel, and five or six kittens that worked together to steal a cooked chicken.
In my first novel, I introduce Katrina, a strong female protagonist who wants to learn archery. For Kat, finding someone willing to teach a girl the bow in sixteenth-century Malta would prove a challenge. For me, the challenge began once she found that person. I’d need to describe her struggling through lessons and finally mastering the skills. Skills I did not possess. As I developed her character, I knew I had to learn archery.
And so, I signed up for a two-day workshop, which I thought was a beginner archery lesson. It ended up being an intensive, archery certification course. The other students knew not only each other but all the technical terms. They frequented archery ranges and competed around the country. I hadn’t so much as picked up a bow since gym class ten years earlier. Despite my mistake, I stayed—might as well learn a few things in case of a zombie apocalypse.
Learning to teach archery proved to be an unexpected gift. Katrina’s instructor would have to demonstrate the proper technique. As you’ll discover in Falcon’s Shadow, Kat becomes the teacher. Although it was important for me to learn how to do the thing, it was as important for me to learn to teach it so I could write believably from an archery instructor’s point of view. I could now write with the confidence that comes from experience. Amazingly, I passed the final exam and am technically a certified archery instructor. In the years since my certification, I’ve taken archery lessons—but certainly never taught any.
Many styles of weapons were used throughout the siege. I took up axe-throwing and went to a gun range, where I shot a variety of guns and felt the incredible kickback—something I needed to experience because muskets and arquebuses were the matchlocks of choice at the time in which my novels are set.
Though my books are fiction, they feature actual historical figures—but even when writing a character based on a real person, I need to fill in his or her thoughts and body language. And, in many cases, dialogue and actions. I conduct thorough research on every historical individual so that I can develop a clear picture in my mind of his or her physicality, body language, facial expressions, demeanour, and personality.
History helps out by supplying some of the person’s actual dialogue. Of the lines I make up, I try to stay true to what he or she would likely have said. For instance, I wouldn’t have Grand Master Valette, a man of iron discipline and unshakeable faith, suggest a night of carousing and gambling at the local tavern. I might find inspiration in great feats, like Chevalier Romegas and his wild, reckless courage against an Ottoman fleet, or Dr Giuseppe Callus, a Maltese patriot who attempted to negotiate more say for the people in their governance, or I might find inspiration in quiet, sweet moments, like when Sultan Suleiman wrote poems to his beloved Roxelane.
Immersing readers in a different time period can be tough. What advice do you have for readers who might be too intimidated to read historical fiction?
MF: The human condition is timeless. Themes are not specific to the genre.
While historical facts should hold, the details should not overshadow the story. The challenge for the writer is getting it as accurate as possible while still keeping the story compelling—a veritable balancing act.
Historical fiction allows the reader to not only understand what took place but to be touched by it, to gain empathy, to connect with those who lived it. This genre brings history to life in a way textbooks can’t always manage. It makes the past personal, provides the human side of history, allowing readers to acquaint themselves with historical figures by illuminating their personalities, perspectives, motivations, and emotions. The reader comes to see the characters, know them, care about them, as happens with all genres. Historical fiction is not the mere recounting of facts and details; it is the telling of a story through character. The time in which that story is set becomes secondary.
Reflecting on our history can teach us important lessons. What lessons should readers walk away with from Falcon’s Shadow?
MF: History is not consigned to the past. It surrounds us. It interacts with the present and future constantly.
Even though my books are set five hundred years ago, I write in the present tense to make history immediate. Current. Relatable. Immersive.
My job is to pull history from the past and show how it has shaped us and continues to shape us, that it is relevant and informs much of our decision-making, whether or not we realize it.
Past is prologue.
We are witness right now. And may we all be on the right side of history.
I strive to portray both sides of the battlefield fairly, with heroes and villains operating within each sphere. I hope readers will root for Maltese and Turkish characters alike, cheer for their successes, lament their losses, and wish for them to prevail—despite that they can’t all prevail.
Rather than focus on the big players exclusively, I tell the story from the perspective of regular people—ones not bound by oaths or position or politics but average people flung into situations beyond their control, determined by geography and religion, and choices made by the governing powers.
Likewise, instead of concentrating on one specific culture or history, I tried to intersperse a variety of histories from several locations to help readers better understand the different, sometimes clashing cultures and perspectives of the day. My books offer glimpses into not only Malta and Turkey’s past but also North Africa’s and Continental Europe’s.
I aim to give a balanced view of institutions while staying true to the reality of the era. The Church, for example, is usually vilified in novels and films, often rightly so. However, I juxtapose the evil of the Inquisition with a compassionate, progressive-minded character, Fr Anton Tabone.
I hope Falcon’s Shadow imparts to readers that the vast majority of people truly believe they are on the side of righteousness, that heroes and villains are a matter of geography and often misguided perspective, and that it is critical to question the narrative one is fed. We have much to learn from cultures separate from our own.
Christians and Muslims were raised to distrust one other. Both groups justified killing the “infidel” and worked to dehumanize their “enemy” through stories and depictions, easy enough to accomplish among a mostly illiterate population. Access to information was extremely limited and controlled, especially in sixteenth-century Malta. Town-criers shared only what was deemed necessary. Peasants accepted whatever they were told as they did not have an opposing point of reference. And encountering someone of a different culture was unlikely unless that person had come to invade their homeland—not exactly conducive to debunking cultural myths.
My protagonist Domenicus realizes this when he is press-ganged into a Christian-led invasion of Zoara. As a Maltese peasant who experienced constant raids of his home by corsairs, he views North Africans as the villains, the monsters in his nightmares. But his perception changes when he is forced to join an attack on a sleeping village. He becomes the monster in someone else’s nightmare. For him, the experience is a life-altering revelation.
Throughout my novels, “enemies” show one another kindnesses. They start to see each other as human beings, forge friendships. The true enemy is ideology. The moment divisive, false notions are stripped from the equation, what remains are people who have far more in common than they have differences.
What can readers look forward to in book three?
MF: Set for publication in 2021, the third book will feature the culmination of all battles—symbolic and literal—with the Great Siege of 1565.
It begins on the eve of one of the bloodiest battles in history. The elite Ottoman army departs Istanbul, the seat of Sunni Islam, with a force 50,000 strong, a great host heading for Malta intent on crushing the Knights of St John once and for all.
In the final book of the trilogy, characters will face hopeless odds and endure terrible losses amid hurtling cannonballs and exploding mines, poisoned wells and crumbling ramparts.
But there will be the forging of unlikely allies also, the creation of unexpected bonds. And most of all, there will be the triumph of the human spirit. Fate will meet fire. Watch the world ignite.
Anything else you would like reader to know about your recent work or historic fiction in general?
MF: Historical fiction is important, perhaps now more than ever. We often say those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. But we need to do more than just know history. We need to feel it. To empathise and understand. To see it as more than just a bunch of stuff that happened a long time ago. History abounds with the terrible consequences of atrocities none of us wants to see duplicated. Gaining empathy is the first step in preventing harm. This genre can guide our decisions and alter our behaviours for the better.
Regarding my recent work, I’m very happy to share that Falcon’s Shadow reached number one on Amazon’s Bestseller list within mere hours of the novel’s release for pre-order. The digital version will be officially available as of July 7, with the paperback following on July 21, and the audiobook slated for release in late August.
Article originally Published in the August/September 2020 Issue The Historic Edition.