And - my first guest blogger!

I'm very pleased to host an excellent new writer, Amanda McCrina. Amanda is the author of "His Own Good Sword" and is now working on the sequel, as well as a standalone novel called "Aquae". I was fascinated by her worldbuilding and how it shaped her characters, so that's what I asked her about. Thanks, Amanda, for agreeing to blog for me and giving me such full and thoughtful answers! You can read excerpts from Amanda's books, and purchase her novel, at her website; there's a link on the sidebar.

1. Your historical fantasy is set in a world that's a lot like Roman Britain. Were you always interested in the Roman empire? do you remember how and why you got interested? And do you think this setting is particularly relevant today?

I've had a vague interest in Rome since middle school, when I first read Rosemary Sutcliff; her Roman-Britain novels remain some of my favorites. But really it's only been in the last couple years that this has turned into a full-blown academic passion. I spent a semester in Rome in 2009--an unbelievable experience for a history major; there's nothing quite like the feeling you get when you round a corner on a modern city street and see the Pantheon right in front of you! So that semester was definitely a formative experience, not only for me as an amateur historian but as a writer (it didn't hurt that these were Hemingway's old stomping grounds, either). Reading Ursula le Guin's Lavinia soon afterward sealed the deal; I've never read another novel that captures the Italian ethos, ancient and modern, as fully and beautifully as hers does. I have many other historical areas of interest that I'd love to explore in writing, but none of them mean quite as much to me as Rome.

As for its relevance today--the obvious route here is to talk about imperialism and decadence and violent spectator sports, but this has been done since Tacitus, and shouldn't be surprising to anybody (though that doesn't make it any less pertinent). But really, though it's cliched to say so, it's impossible to understand the course of Western history and thought without an appreciation of Rome.

2. A part of what I mean by the final question above: the Vareno seem quite racist against the Cesini in some ways, but Cesini soldiers serve the empire and your hero is of mixed heritage. Is this meant to reflect the American experience?

I'd be lying if I said I didn't think the American experience played some part in it, if only subconsciously. Historically the Roman Empire didn't have the sort of overt racist dynamic we see in His Own Good Sword. The army in particular was a bastion of diversity. Africans served, Jews served--men from every corner of the Empire. Technically citizenship was required if you wanted to join the legions rather than the auxiliaries, but in many cases that requirement was simply overlooked. That isn't to say racism was never an issue, but Roman prejudices weren't usually along racial lines: one of the most powerful women in Roman York was African. In His Own Good Sword, Cesini are admitted into the army, but very few of them serve as officers (Aino is an exception, but there are extenuating circumstances for that...) and most of them face racial discrimination. As Tyren acknowledges, he's "Vareno enough" that he and his family escape this, at least for the most part. But it's always at the back of his mind, because he does have that link to the Cesini that his fellow officers--and the rest of the Vareno elite--don't share.

To sum it all up briefly: yes, I do think this is probably more a reflection of the American experience than the Roman one.

3. Another thing that seems to interest you is the soldier's ethos. Tyren and his father and brother are all, in their different ways, soldiers of the empire. It seems to me that having as your protagonist a young man from such a duty-bound culture is a good way of exploring duty as it relates to individual morality.

I'm glad you picked up on that. (It sounds so pretentious to say that, since this is another thing that probably only came out subconsciously!) I think there are two very different conceptions of "duty" at work in the story. Tyren exemplifies one, his brother Tore the other; their father Torien is torn between them. In some ways I'd say Tyren is more idealistic than Tore--or perhaps that's the wrong word. Tyren has loftier ideals than Tore. He's concerned with the fundamental morality of the Empire itself. Tore is concerned with morality as the Empire defines it. Torien, perhaps even more than Tyren, knows the system is inherently flawed; it was responsible for the deaths of his father and brother, after all. But he's trapped within it anyway, burdened with his duties as governor and as paterfamilias. (Tyren doesn't fully understand that; his disrespect for his father stems from his inability to appreciate how thorny Torien's dilemma is. He doesn't have the considerations his father does; he doesn't count the cost the way his father must--at least not until the end of the story.)

By the end of the story, Tyren has come to the conclusion that he can no longer reconcile his individual sense of morality with his sense of duty to the Empire, as he'd tried to do up to that point--Muryn's pointless death prompts that realization. Torien has already come to the same conclusion, but it's the realization that the system will take his son from him as it took his father and brother that finally spurs him to action.

4. I'm also interested in the similarities and differences between Vareno and Cesini culture. There is no one at all like the priest - the peaceful man - in Vareno culture. He seems far ahead of his time, and I'm wondering if his ideas will recur.

I'm glad you asked about this, since I didn't devote much time to it in the book. There are actually many similarities between Varen and Cesin: both originated as agrarian tribal peoples--much like the people groups of ancient Italy, in fact. They have a common religion and many of the same social mores and structures. Four-hundred years of cultural exchange have blurred the distinctions between them. Even linguistic differences have been chipped away: Tyren's name could be a Cesino name, Maego's could easily be Vareno.

The priest, Muryn, is an interesting character. I can't say he represents a fundamental difference between the two cultures; the Cesini are not primarily a peaceful people, so he's very much an anomaly even there. (And I do think there are some Vareni who are unsatisfied with the violence inherent in the system.) The irony of the story is that Muryn believes the corrupt system may be changed from within; his death convinces Tyren that change is only possible from without. But--while I can't say too much without potentially spoiling Book Two--I don't think that's the last we'll see of Muryn's ideas.

I loved these questions, Mary! Thanks so much for asking them. Please do let me know what you think, and if anything else occurs to you!