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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Thunderbolt: Torn enemy of Rome

219BC—Carthage locks horns with Rome in a bloody war for survival…

When Carthage’s charismatic general Hannibal launches his army on a daring campaign across Spain to Gaul and over the Alps into Italy to bring predatory Rome to its knees, his cousin, noble-born teenager Malco is proud to take part in the glorious endeavor.

From the heat of the Libyan desert to the passion of great love, Malco—the Thunderbolt—battles corrupt politics, bears, wolves, dread mountain passes, and the massed Celtic tribes who would bar Hannibal’s path to victory. Through his eyes and the loves of his life—Giskon, hotheaded activist; Juba, Numidian warrior; and Trebon, dearest and eternal friend—this violent tale unfolds across the rich tapestry of history, of political intrigue, and brutal bloody war.

Finally, the deadly political infighting at home destroys Malco’s patriotic feelings, and he finds himself hating Carthage even more than his sworn enemy Rome. Malco is inexorably led to a moment of fateful choice that will determine the future course of his life, and that of those he loves.

Making Malco
I’ve been involved in writing (and editing) gay fiction for a long time and it suddenly struck me in that half-aware, half-dream state of waking up that I had never written anything fictional involving ancient Rome. This is a strange omission on my part since I’ve written two reference books on the subject, including The Complete Chronicle of the Emperors of Rome (Thalamus Publishing, 2005), and Roman history has always been a great personal interest. I looked at a number of mainstream novels by the likes of Lindsey Davis, Simon Scarrow, Harry Sidebottom, Ben Kane to name only four, and one thing stood out (apart from them not being gay…). As the victors wrote the history, so most modern novels are from the Roman point of view. I wanted to be different. I wanted to see the Romans as the enemy, and where better to view the great conquerors than from the Carthaginian perspective?

Many years ago I read a Boys’ Own adventure novel by the Victorian writer G.A. Henty called The Young Carthaginian. A stultifying read, but the basis of a plot. Obviously, the original had no gay element in any respect whatsoever. Working from memory and a couple of quick dips into Henty’s turgid prose, the outline of Thunderbolt emerged. Mine is the tale of Malco Barca (Barca is Phoenician for “Thunderbolt”), son of a noble Carthaginian family. It’s his coming of age story, told in a world in which same-sex liaisons among young males are more the norm than not, at the least tolerated as a part of growing up. But—as in Greek society of antiquity—as a young aristocratic boy matures he’s expected to marry and beget children while perhaps extending a relationship to a youth in the role of guardian, teacher, and lover. The notion of two youngsters continuing to have sex and love each other into adulthood is not the norm. Yet, for this to be a gay story, that situation has to be the case… my Malco must contend with his feelings for fellow Carthaginian Trebon in that they are not fading with adulthood, they’re even intensifying.

Their relationship had been bubbling in my mind for months, and suddenly it began to pour out in words and situations, but my Malco is conflicted in that he gives of his heart readily, which leads to a triangular situation, from which inevitably tension arises. How Malco resolves his mixed feelings for two lovers forms the second half of the story against the background of his growing and perfectly rational hatred for Carthage—the “Torn” part of the title.

There also has to be the history, and Malco’s growing up is set against the background of Hannibal Barca’s decade-long invasion of Italy in the Second Punic War. Malco Barca is, in fact, Hannibal’s young cousin, and so he is privy to the strategies and tactics of invasion and battle, which puts him right in the center of the violence and bloodshed. From a historical perspective, this is an interesting period for Rome. Well before empire, the growing commonwealth has only an uncertain hold over the central region of the Italian peninsula. Its legions are a century away from becoming the fabled killing machines and to counter the threat of invasion, the Roman consuls must rely on the dubious loyalty of Celtic and Ligurian tribesmen who more often than not hate Rome and see the Carthaginians as liberators.

In my first draft I included several sections from the POV of the Roman consuls engaged against Hannibal, but they weakened the drive of the story and Malco’s narration, since he cannot know what they are thinking.

Ironically, considering the Roman’s recruitment problems, the Carthaginians are even more heterogeneous in composition: Hannibal holds Rome to ransom for almost thirteen years with an army largely comprising Celts from Spain.

I always saw the novel in flashback to heighten the sense of nostalgia, and so it opens with ancient Malco narrating to his great grandchildren who—as a result of the decisions he has made in his life—are of mostly German descent. He tells them why Carthage had to die so terribly, but also warns them and their children to be ready to confront Rome’s rapaciousness.

I quote some lines from one of my beta readers:

I finished Thunderbolt but Malco is still with me. I don’t think I will forget him any time soon. The book is an endearing, stirring, and engrossing work of great historical fiction; and by great I mean it stands among the best I’ve read. Grandfather Malco is an amazing raconteur even when he edits himself to suit his young audience as with “The old man had left out bits of the tale, like holding hands and kissing Trebon.” Actually I am grateful you left out the most intimate details. Instead of a making the story a common gay romance with the lurid details of bodies entwining and fluids flowing, it is so much better as a book of serious literature featuring gay characters. Not only does that allow the story to reach people of all ages but also makes it a book that could have a general audience.

I shouldn’t like to mislead—there are explicit sexual scenes, but they do not dominate the novel, which is more concerned with character and the relations between characters, woven into a slice of dynamic history.

Roger M. Kean’s blog: Cityboiz Find him also at Goodreads

Buy links:
Amazon US Paperback / Kindle
Amazon UK Paperback / Kindle
Amazon Germany Paperback / Kindle
Amazon France Paperback / Kindle
Amazon Italy Paperback / Kindle
Amazon Spain Paperback / Kindle
Other ebook formats: Smashwords


  1. This sounds wonderful, Roger! I got hooked on how you write history with Felixitations, so I'm getting this one too :)

  2. Thanks, Thorny. You know I love you!

  3. Click on the book cover for Thunderbolt to see it at a larger size where Oliver Frey's stunning portrait of Malco comes alive with great impact.