Two years after beginning the saga he started with 2015’s Clash Of Eagles, writer Alan Smale has brought his alternate history trilogy to a close with Eagle And Empire (hardcover, digital). But while some writers plan out their trilogies to the last detail, in talking to Smale about this last book, he admits that while he did that to, not everything went to plan.
It’s the thirteenth century A.D., in a world where the classical Roman Empire never fell. In the first book, Clash Of Eagles, the 33rd Legion under General Gaius Marcellinus landed on the eastern shores of the newly-discovered continent of Nova Hesperia — our North America — and marched west seeking gold and glory. Naturally enough, they faced stiff opposition from the peoples that already live there, and eventually suffered military disaster when confronted by the Mississippian Culture at its height. The first book followed Marcellinus’ adventures in this strange new world and his attempts to claw out some kind of new life for himself there. He attempts to help the great mound-builder city of Cahokia, on the banks of the Mississippi where St. Louis is now, but his actions have dire and unforeseen consequences.
Eagle In Exile followed on immediately from the events of the first book, and spread the canvas even wider. Cahokia faced internal strife and a determined enemy in the Five Tribes of the Iroqua, and another assault from the legions of Rome. And even Rome isn’t the worst threat that Cahokia and the entire continent of Nova Hesperia have to face, because a new invading force is now coming from the West. Exile took the reader all along the Mississippi River in a Norse longship, and off into the Great Plains.
Now, in Eagle And Empire, the Mongol Horde have arrived on the western shores of Nova Hesperia, and they’re taking no prisoners. Pushed back by the forces of Imperial Rome in Asia, Genghis Khan now aims to conquer Nova Hesperia instead. And as the Horde advances across the Great Plains, leaving death and destruction in their wake, Gaius Marcellinus and his Cahokian and Roman friends are desperately searching for allies and making their preparations for the great final battle that’s to come: a battle for the future of North America. The action ranges all across the continent, and there are scenes in the third book that I’d been looking forward to writing for years.
The action of all three books plays out over about ten years. We’re very much focused on the same characters throughout, and watching them grow and develop amid the turmoil and devastation of the Roman and Mongol invasions of North America. Between the events that close out end of Eagle In Exile and the beginning of Eagle And Empire another cold Cahokian winter has gone by, and the Roman occupation of Nova Hesperia has gotten more entrenched. It’s a time of anxiety and tension, which soon erupts into conflict.
I wouldn’t have thought of that tagline myself, and I didn’t pitch it that way, but actually it’s a pretty awesome description. I certainly have the strong Native American background, but with Romans tramping around messing everything up instead of the Spanish, English, and French. It’s probably as good a description as any.
Also, one of the things I really enjoyed about Rome was its ability to explore the mindset of people who really don’t think in the same way as modern humans do. They definitely don’t have the Judeo-Christian mindset that I grew up with. Their motivations and patterns of thought come across as very different, in a way that feels very authentic. And to some extent I’ve tried to show that different-thinking aspect of my characters too: my Romans and my Cahokians think rather differently from each other, and from us.
I often see Clash Of Eagles compared to Gladiator. Since Gladiator is one of my favorite movies, and blends humanity and strong characterization with breathless action, I’m flattered by the comparison.
In our previous interview about Clash Of Eagles [which you can read here], you said that when you first pitched this series to your agent, you had Clash Of Eagles already written, and detailed outlines for the second and third books, which would become Eagle In Exile and Eagle And Empire. How close is Eagle And Empire to what you had in that original outline?
Overall, the books are very close to my original plan. I think the main difference is that I tended to overstuff the outlines and then have to pare them back once I was deep in the writing. There are sequences that I thought would be cool when I wrote the outlines, but turned out to be superfluous when I wrote the books. But the major plot beats, the character arcs, where everyone ends up at the close of Book Three, how the climax plays out, and even the details of the final scenes in the third book, they were all in my original outline, and a lot of the details were already set in my mind long before I even wrote Eagle In Exile. I always knew where these books were going, and how the trilogy had to end. That never changed.
Even with the detailed outline for Eagle In Exile and Eagle And Empire, was there anything you thought to do in Eagle And Empire that you then realized you couldn’t do because of something you’d done in Clash Of Eagles and Eagle In Exile?
Nope. It was mostly the other way around: plot twists and character developments that worked better and more naturally than I’d anticipated. “Oh yes, actually that makes perfect sense, because…” Because of some little detail that I’d put into the first or second book, that now comes into sharp relief.
So are there any authors or specific novels that you see as being an influence on Eagle And Empire that were not inspirations, or maybe not as big of inspirations, for Clash Of Eagles and Eagle In Exile?
Hmm. Wow. No, I don’t think so.
What about non-literary influences, like movies or TV shows, were any of them an influence on Eagle And Empire?
A movie that certainly affected my visual sense of the Mongol Horde — the appearance, the humanity and inhumanity, and the desperate scary glory of Mongol horse archers — was the Russian movie Mongol: The Rise Of Genghis Khan, which was directed by Sergey Bodrov, and starred Tadanobu Asano [Thor]. In that movie, I could see a lot of the details I’d read about while doing my research, and seeing them helped to make them come alive for me. It helped the scenes in the Mongol camp in Eagle And Empire, as well as the battle scenes.
Another major non-literary influence on Eagle And Empire was the two-week trip I took to Mongolia in 2008, and various other trips to Chaco Canyon and the desert southwest in the years since. Travel has informed both the plot and the setting of these books. During the writing and editing of the Clash Of Eagles series, I’ve been to the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site three times, to various Native American sites on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve…. I love traveling, and I love the way being in the physical space of a scene’s location can really flesh out the action, the emotional connection, everything.
Last influence question, I promise: Given that Eagle And Empire is the end of a trilogy, did you look to any other trilogy ending books or movies for ideas of what to do?
I’ve been reading trilogies and other series-books all my life, so I’ve probably soaked in quite a bit of book-knowledge over the years. But I didn’t specifically deconstruct any other trilogy-ending books to guide me in writing my own. I knew I needed a really spectacular finish. I knew I needed to tie up my characters’ plot arcs, and come up with what I hope are satisfactory resolutions on many levels. I was always aiming for that, and I’m very happy with how it turned out.
If anything, I think my reading taught me more about how to do second-books. The common problem with middle books in a trilogy is that they’re “soggy.” Sure, they move the plot forward, but their main job is to put all the pieces in place for the big finish. That was a trap I wanted to avoid. When I wrote Eagle In Exile I knew it had to stand as an exciting novel in its own right. Sure, it sets the stage for the big confrontation with the Mongols in Eagle And Empire, but the plot is solid and fairly self-contained, the characters all have their own stories, their own very particular arcs. Readers seemed to respond very well to that in the reviews, so that makes me happy.
Now, during the day, you work as an astronomer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. These books are pretty far removed from space flight and planets and the other stuff you and your coworkers deal with every day. But were any of your coworkers get really into your books? Like to the point where they were constantly asking you if the third one is done yet, when is it going to be done, can I read it when you finish, I promise not to tell anyone…
I get a huge amount of support from my friends and coworkers at NASA, and elsewhere in the astronomy community. At a recent astrophysics conference, I must have gotten at least as many hallway questions about the Clash Of Eagles books as I did about my day job as a researcher on Galactic X-ray binaries. And my emails indicate that a lot of my readers are scientists. I don’t remember anyone begging to get a copy prior to publication, but that’s probably because they’d be smart enough to realize that I’m not able to do that. They’re happy to buy in its final form, in the bookstore.
Going back to that previous interview we did, when we talked about why, as an astronomer, you were writing historical fantasy as opposed to sci-fi, you made the comment that you, “…had wondered what a space program derived from ancient Rome would look like, and whether I could make a story out of that. Maybe one day…” With this trilogy done, is that the plan, to write a “Romans in space” book?
I’m tossing various ideas around in my head. I have a fairly detailed outline for my next book almost ready to go to my agent, and I’m excited to know what she thinks. I’d rather keep quiet about it until I have a deal for it in place, though; just about anything can change in the creative process, and I wouldn’t want talk about an idea and then be unable to do it. But I think it’s safe to say that my next book will be alternate history set in the past, and will have significant scientific and technological elements.
By the way, did anyone ever point out how the guy on the cover of Eagle In Exile looks a lot like Ian Astbury of The Cult?
I guess that didn’t occur to me, but now you mention it, there is a resemblance. I actually saw The Cult on one of their US tours in the ’90s.
Earlier we talked about how the press materials said Eagle And Empire is like, “The Last Of The Mohicans meets HBO’s Rome.” Speaking of those things, has there been any interest in turning this series into a movie or TV show?
As yet, no one has optioned it. But who knows, maybe that will change once the third book comes out and people can see the whole story.
I’ve always thought it would make a terrific miniseries for HBO, Showtime, Hulu, Amazon, or whoever. Though if someone wanted to make a trilogy of Clash Of Eagles movies, I’d certainly be happy to have that conversation.
If it was being made into a movie or TV show, who would you like to see cast in the main roles, and why them?
There was actually a Twitter thread about this a couple of years ago among a group of my fans, and I was surprised at the range of people suggested for Gaius. None of them felt quite perfect to me, but perhaps I’m picky. I do recall that Moon Bloodgood [Falling Skies] was strongly favored for Sintikala. She could certainly play the role well, but her background is American and Korean rather than Native American, so that probably wouldn’t fly. I did look through a number of Native American actresses, but perhaps I shouldn’t play favorites…
Lastly, if someone has enjoyed Clash Of Eagles, Eagle In Exile, and Eagle And Empire, what work of historical fantasy would you suggest they read next and why?
I recently enjoyed Daniel Godfrey’s New Pompeii, though that’s a time travel thriller more than it’s a historical fantasy. Dan’s second book [Empire Of Time] comes out in June 20th, and I’m looking forward to it.
I also liked a duology of alternate history books by Steven Barnes, Lion’s Blood and Zulu Heart. They’re set in a very different America, where the invading and colonizing forces from the east comes from the African continent rather than from Europe.
Going way back in time — in both senses of the phrase — into an extremely different alternate history, I only recently read 1984’s West of Eden by Harry Harrison, where intelligent dinosaurs and hominids coexist, sort of, on the American continent.
Having said all that, none of the books I just mentioned are really all that similar to mine in topic or tone, but they’re books that I really enjoyed reading, so maybe other people will too.