Starting a new series is always exciting – new characters to develop and place in my fictional Saxon world and new challenges in bringing another period of time to life. It might still be set in Saxon England, but Saxon England endured for over six hundred years. In that time, kingdoms waxed and waned until ‘England’ as we would recognise it today formed and came to prominence. I might often write about Mercia. After all, I am a Mercian by birth – if a millennium too late – but there are so many stories to tell, it makes for compelling fiction, as well as non-fiction.
The complex political situation in Mercia in AD825, when Son of Mercia begins, called for something a little different to my norm. I usually write about people who lived and existed, even if their lives are fictionalised. This wasn’t the way to go for this new series, as readers will quickly realise. What then should I do?
Luckily for me and fans of The Last King books (which takes place from AD874 onwards – so nearly fifty years later), I’ve been developing a wonderful character. I’ve even been liberally scattering references to his earlier days in the narrative, and I must say, quite by chance. This then was a perfect excuse to take my fictional Icel and actually explore whether he genuinely succeeded in all of his exploits and boasts from the later series. This in no way means new readers need to know about Icel to enjoy the book, far from it. Instead, it’s a way for fans to engage with a character they know and for new readers to appreciate that my character has an intriguing tale to tell that will span many decades, none of them free from turbulence.
Icel is a dour character in The Last King. For every one of King Coelwulf’s wonderful success stories, Icel always has a counter and a means of deflating any sense of achievement that Coelwulf should quite rightly feel. For every Raider Coelwulf fells, Icel has already felled double, if not treble that number. Icel is a character to make my readers smile.
““In the reign of King Wiglaf, I faced a force of a hundred and one warriors alone,” Icel rumbles.”
Below is the readers’ first introduction to Icel in The Last King.
‘“In the reign of King Wiglaf, I first became a man,” Icel’s fond of saying, although he never explains what act made him a man. Again, I’ve stopped questioning him…Rudolf hangs on Icel’s every word. They’re an excellent match for each other, the boy who never runs out of questions and the man who never answers them.”’
What then did Icel do to become a man? Why does he never answer poor, eager Rudolf’s questions? Who is this man who’s been fighting for Mercia’s survival and independence throughout his entire adult life and continues to do so? How has he lived through these years, and what scars does he carry with him? These are all questions that will be answered throughout the series, but first, we must meet young Icel, a boy of no more than eleven, when the narrative begins in Tamworth, a capital of Mercia. Who was his mother? Who was his father? How does he even become a member of the Mercian kings warband? Along the way, I must ensure I keep my narrative true to events I’ve already narrated, but still, the scope for Icel’s tale is vast and enticing. I genuinely hope my readers will enjoy the story of Icel, the youth, in Son of Mercia, as well as Icel, the aged, jaded, and fierce Mercian warrior they will encounter fifty years later.
MJ Porter is the author of many historical novels set predominantly in Seventh to Eleventh-Century England and Viking Age Denmark. Raised in the shadow of a building that was believed to house the bones of long-dead Kings of Mercia meant that the author’s writing destiny was set.