Kate Heartfield is joining us today to talk about her novel, Assassin’s Creed: The Magus Conspiracy. Here’s the publisher’s description:
The war between Assassins and Templars wreaks havoc in the Victorian era, in this breakneck thriller which opens up a whole new chapter of the Assassin’s Creed universe
London, 1851 – When Pierrette, a daring acrobat performing at the Great Exhibition, rescues the mathematician Ada Lovelace from a gang of thugs, she becomes immersed in an ancient feud between Assassins and Templars. But Lovelace is gravely ill, and shares her secrets with Pierrette, sending the acrobat in search of a terrible weapon which she’d been developing for a shadowy figure known as “the Magus”. Pierrette’s only ally is Simeon Price, Lovelace’s childhood friend, who belongs to a Brotherhood devoted to free will. With Simeon’s aid, they uncover a startling web of political assassinations destabilizing Europe. As they race to foil the Templars’ deadly plot, murders and bombs are everywhere they look, but hope is nowhere in sight.
What’s Kate’s favorite bit?
One of my favorite parts of writing novels is the research. I tend to write in historical settings, which means I usually have non-fiction books filling every part of my writing area that isn’t filled by my cat.
I jumped at the chance to write a book set in the Assassin’s Creed universe, not only because I’m a gamer myself, but also because those videogames play in and with historical settings. Assassin’s Creed: The Magus Conspiracy takes place in the middle of the 19th century in Europe. As with my other books, its story is woven into and around real events.
A fun thing sometimes happens when one is doing this sort of research for a novel, sweeping through books and diaries and journal articles, picking up unexpected shiny bits along the way. Sometimes history seems to have motifs, in just the same way that fiction does. Or as in a sonata, a theme rises first in one place, and then another.
I didn’t start out with any expectation at all that Lord Byron would be a presence in this novel. The poet, peer and piece of work died in 1824; the events of the novel begin in 1851. He just wasn’t in the plan.
His daughter was, though. Ada Lovelace never knew her father. She is best known today for her commentary on Charles Babbage’s proposed Analytical Engine; part of her work can be considered the first computer program, and she was able to understand and explain the idea’s significance as no one else had. I knew that she died in the early 1850s, around the time I wanted to start my novel. And since I wanted the novel to draw its themes from the social, technological and cultural changes happening at the time, it seemed natural to bring her in.
So I read a lot about Ada Lovelace, which naturally led to reading a lot about her admittedly fascinating, albeit frustrating, father. Despite or because of his many bad (and occasionally cruel) decisions, he was a celebrity, and his poetry was very influential in his own time and after his death at the age of 36 (the same age his daughter would reach before cancer took her.)
At the same time that I was reading about Ada Lovelace, I was doing the research to inform an invented character: Pierrette Arnaud. Pierrette is an equestrienne – a circus performer who does tricks on horseback. This was a popular form of entertainment in the 19th century. One of the most popular routines was “Mazeppa”, based on a figure in Ukrainian history and popularized in a poem written by – you guessed it – Byron. The dramatization in the circus involved being tied to the back of a galloping horse. So I had an equestrienne who befriends Ada Lovelace, and one of the most popular routines of the day was inspired by her father’s poem. Clearly, it had to go into the book. In the novel, Pierrette jumps at the chance to perform Mazeppa when the usual male performer in her troupe is injured. In history, the first female performer of Mazeppa (from what I can gather) was Adah Isaacs Menken, who became known for the role in the 1860s.
I thought I was done with Byron, but he kept whispering in my ear. I came across a bit of his doggerel about ballroom dancing; it went into a dancing scene. And you can imagine my face as I turned the pages of the memoirs of Felice Orsini, an Italian nationalist who tried to assassinate the French Emperor Napoleon III in 1858, and came across a Byron quotation. (Yes, it went into the novel.)
It’s not really coincidence – it’s just that Byron was part of the cultural life of Europe in the decades after his death. Of course various unconnected people would quote his poetry, or make references to his life. Sometimes, writing historical fiction can feel uncomfortably like imposing coherence, making a narrative out of disparate facts. But research shows us that facts are never as disparate as they seem. History, like fiction, is made of threads.
Kate Heartfield is currently writing the sequel to Assassin’s Creed: The Magus Conspiracy. Her historical fantasy novel The Embroidered Book was a Sunday Times bestseller. Kate’s novels, novellas, short stories and games have won or been shortlisted for several major awards, including three Nebula nominations in the novella and game writing categories. She is a former journalist who lives near Ottawa, Canada.