Author Marian L. Thorpe creates an "empire on the edge of history"
Essays, poetry, short stories, peer-reviewed scientific papers, curriculum documents, technical guides, grant applications, press releases – if it has words, it’s likely Marian L Thorpe has written it, somewhere along the line. But nothing has given her more satisfaction than her novels. Combining her love of landscape and history, set in a world reminiscent of Europe after the decline of Rome, her books arise from a lifetime of reading and walking and wondering ‘what if?’
Pre-pandemic, Marian divided her time between Canada and the UK, and hopes she may again, but until then, she resides in a small, very bookish, city in Canada, with her husband Brian and Pye-Cat.
Welcome, Marian. You are an author of historical fiction. Please tell us why you chose that genre . . . or did it choose you?
I think it chose me. It’s interesting that my three ‘apprentice novels’ – the ones that will never see the light of day – were all contemporary, but the books I truly loved (and love) are almost all historical in some aspect. When I started writing Empire’s Daughter, I was, in my mind, writing fantasy, but one whose world I built around what I knew, which was the early-medieval history of Britain. But I wasn’t terribly interested in dynasties and wars, although both are important in the series. My father, who was an amateur historian of the Plantagenet and Tudor periods, had taught me the importance of social history, how the major events of any time has unintended and lasting influences on everyday life and the people of towns and villages and farms. So that’s what I wanted to address.
Tell us about the books themselves. I believe you have five novels and a novella in the Empire’s Legacy series? Where did the inspiration come from?
There are two converging inspirations for the series. One was the experience of my mother and other women of my family in Britain and Denmark during WWII. Britain conscripted women from 1941 onwards into non-combatant roles – although both my mother and aunt volunteered, serving in the Signals Corp as teletype operators. My father’s first cousin had married a Dane, and was part of the Danish resistance. So I took that basic concept of women’s conscription, of being asked to help defend your country because the men couldn’t do it all – and changed it a little, into a combatant role – but my real interest was how it changed the traditional lives of women.
The second inspiration was simply my love of the British landscape, the way layers of history survive side by side (or on top of each other); how the Roman occupation is still tangible through the routes of major roads, through Hadrian’s Wall and the remnants of forts; through the Vindolanda and Bloomberg tablets and letters, which give us a glimpse into the humanity behind the history. And of the people who were there before the Romans came, and were there – but changed; they must have been – when the Romans left.
How much research did the stories require, and how was that done?
By the time I started Empire’s Daughter – I was about 40 – I’d been reading early-medieval British history for over twenty years. It started with a fascination with Arthurian legend but quickly expanded and spread from that: I wanted to know the real history, although the stories still resonate (and in Empire’s Reckoning, I have used at least three aspects of the legends, although turned on their heads a bit.)
One of the Christmas presents my now-husband gave me early in our relationship were copies of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and The Domesday Book. So, Daughter needed almost no research: it was all in my head, except the sword lessons. For those I did research!
The real research began with the second book, although I had a pretty good background to build on through courses in Scottish history I’d taken in university. We went to Hadrian’s Wall in March so I would know what it felt like in the winter. After that I took several university courses on Roman and early-medieval European history. I have a stack of history books that would kill me if it fell over.
In 2020, just before the world realized the seriousness of the pandemic, I went to Rome for a whirlwind research trip. I continue to research: each book brings forth new aspects of my characters and my world, for which I need to have a solid basis; so right now I’m reading about powerful Roman and Byzantine women for one character, and the life of Roman soldiers for another.
You are often congratulated for your detailed and perhaps exquisite world-building. Do you agree with that assessment from reviewers? How do you weave the words without attacking your readers with information dumps?
I think I have to acknowledge this is a strength, simply because so many people have commented on it. Because I write first-person, and both my memories and my imagination are very sensory-based, I write what my character is not just seeing, but hearing, feeling, tasting, smelling. And with first-person, the reader can only know what the character knows. In the first half of Empire’s Daughter, where Lena is in a familiar environment, if a brand-new situation, the new characters allow her to consider her familiar environment through their eyes, and explain, but only as the situations arise. After that, everything’s new for her, too — and so we learn about the world alongside her.
The “world” does not exist. While it is a very human plane, it is your creation. Why did you decide to approach your novels in this way?
Well, for two reasons. One is a bit tongue-in-cheek: I’m simply not disciplined enough to be bound by real history – I’d get annoyed by the restrictions of sticking to timelines and facts. The other, more serious answer, is tied into the answer to question 8. I had concepts I wanted to challenge and ideas I wanted to put forward, ones that would and do make some readers uncomfortable. Doing it within a speculative fiction setting can be less threatening, because the reader can distance themselves somewhat – and yet consider how these ideas relate to our own world. I know how important speculative fiction was in shaping my own views on many things, and I’ve had readers tell me that my books have led them to reconsider their own ideas and assumptions.
Your characters are also very clear, very distinct from each other. From a craft perspective, how do you create them?
I wish I could tell you. My characters simply appear in my head, almost fully formed. Their backstories usually emerge somewhere in the novels – at least for the main and major supporting characters – but it feels more like discovering things about a friend you know rather than inventing. Voice is the hardest thing – Lena (the narrator of Books 1 – 3) is not the narrator of later books, and finding the first person voice of the new narrators, all of whom have been supporting characters earlier – can be a challenge. I know how they speak, what makes their voices stand out; how they think, their internal voice, is another matter.
Are there certain messages or morals you hope to express, and if so, why?
The overarching message is spoken by the character Casyn in Empire’s Daughter: “We cannot shape the circumstances to fit our lives, only our lives to fit the circumstances. What defines us, as men and women, is how we respond to those circumstances.” This goes back to my interest in social history and social change, but taken to the level of the individual.
The other message, which may become clearer over the course of the series, concerns attitudes towards people who would in our world and time be described as LGBTQ+. I didn’t want to write “representation;” I wanted to write a world where how sexuality is expressed is simply part of who a person is.
But as the series progresses, we see that not every land in my world has this freedom, and attitudes towards both same-sex relationships and women as equals will challenge my protagonist’s world view. Lena’s journey (literal and figurative) into new lands and ways of thought, and her creation of a “found family” that challenges convention, parallels her involvement in conceiving a political structure that is equally unconventional. Here I’m looking at social history and structures at the individual level, but extending outward to the possibilities for new sorts of state and political alliances – without suggesting a Utopia is possible.
Are there more books to come in the Empire’s Legacy series? What are you working on now?
Two more – or at least that’s the plan. Currently I’m working on Empress & Soldier, which is a second entry point into the series. It’s narrated by two characters who appear towards the end of Empire’s Exile and remain important in the subsequent books: the soldier Druisius and the Empress Eudekia. It will intersect with that last section of Exile, but from their viewpoints.
After that, Empire’s Passing (working title) is the last book in this series: without giving too much away, the narrators will be Lena again, now in her 50s, and her son Colm – and its ending takes the series full circle.
Please tell us how we can find your books, as well as yourself on social media.
My social media links:
Empire’s Legacy (box set of first three books): https://rxe.me/54VVP1
Empire’s Reckoning: https://rxe.me/SFY7WB
Empire’s Heir: https://rxe.me/MY4LRC
Thank you so much, Marian. What a pleasure it has been to learn more about your work.