The Scourge of God Q&A
Q: What made you decide to write about Attila the Hun?
A: I’d been curious about Attila since childhood, when my parents gave me a history book that described the huge and bloody Battle of Chalons. Fought in present-day France in 451 A.D., it was one of the largest and fiercest struggles of ancient times, and it saved Western Europe from being overrun by Attila and his steppe nomads. Yet while most people have heard of Attila, few have heard of this battle, or a war that threatened the very existence of civilization. It is an amazing story.
Q: Is this novel a biography of Attila?
A: No. It is the climactic chapter of his life, told through the eyes of ordinary and extraordinary people struggling to survive in the storm he unleashes. Most of them, including the sly dwarf Zerco, the mutilated barbarian princess Berta, the Greek rebel doctor Eudoxius, the warlord Edeco, the bishop Anianus, the Roman princess Honoria, the general Aetius, and the scheming eunuch Chrysaphius, were real people. We meet them and their complex world -– a mix of opulent imperial cities and devastated barbarian kingdoms -– through the eyes of my hero, a Byzantine Roman named Jonas Alabanda. He journeys from Constantinople to Hungary to meet Attila, and later sounds the alarm across Europe before the final showdown at Chalons.
Q: Is this primarily a war story?
A: War, love and culture. Jonas falls in love with a beautiful Roman captive named Ilana, taken prisoner after the sack of her city, and they work together to escape and foil Attila’s plans. Another principle character is Skilla, a young Hun who has saved Ilana’s life from his fellow warriors and wants to marry her. The novel is not just the story of the rivalry between Jonas and Skilla, but of the clash of their cultures, the oppression and order of the Roman Empire versus the freedom but savagery of Hun life. I tried hard to make readers feel they were living in these competing worlds.
Q: How did you research the book?
A: I read what I could on both Romans and Huns, and then traveled to Europe to retrace Attila’s probable invasion route from Hungary’s Tisza River to central France. The Huns left little archeological evidence of their existence and many documents were lost in the ensuing Dark Ages, so reconstructing this age became a detective hunt involving visits to museums, Roman ruins, and the likely site of the battle. Its precise location has never been found: the ancients did not make battlefields into parks.
Q: Your books often spend some time describing landscape.
A: I believe humans react to their environment, and an historical novelist has to have an eye for terrain the way a general must. Fortunately, Attila’s path up the Danube, across the Rhine, and west to the Loire traverses some of the most beautiful country in the world. The challenge was imagining what it might have looked like nearly 1,600 years ago.
Q: Why write about such a remote time?
A: I felt, as I had when writing my novel Hadrian’s Wall, that the Roman period and its decline have parallels to our own. I believe America is the new Rome, for better and worse, and that human technological progress has not been matched socially. The slaughters of the 20th and early 21st Century are pretty barbaric. Whether we’re drifting into a new Dark Ages, or the best is yet to come, we’ll let history sort out -– but I think readers can find their own time echoed in this earlier one. There’s always another Attila.
Q: Perhaps the Huns were simply misunderstood.
A: The Huns, like all of us, were simply a product of their time and place. The harshness of the steppes created a cavalry that the civilized world had no way of coping with. The Huns frightened even other barbarians, but underneath it all they were still people who loved, wept and yearned. One of the lessons of history is how little human nature changes, and thus how the stories of the past -– to take a stand, to believe in a cause, to fight for what’s right -– are relevant today. I hope readers will enjoy this visit to a distant world but find it, however alien, with themes relevant to our own.