I thought my admiration for Shakespeare couldn’t be higher. Then the story broke last month that he was a tax dodger.
Predictably, the story garnered a bemused reaction. I say predictably because most of his biographers have struggled to square the man who imagined Lear to the frugal fellow who bequeathed his long suffering wife his “second-best bed”. There’s an underlying assumption that real artists should be unworldly chaps who only contemplate elevated subjects, and certainly nothing so vulgar as cash. But is it really so surprising the Bard wanted to keep his money out of the Exchequer’s claws? Aside from the little we know about his life, he makes Debt the hinge of several of his plays. I submit that it is not Shakespeare’s behaviour that needs explanation but the bizarre assumption that writers ought not to mention one of the few subjects that engages everyone.
It seems doubly odd that that it shouldn’t be more of a consideration for Fantasy writers considering that war so often is. War isn’t dolce or decorum, and it’s not bloody cheap either. In fact it’s just about the most expensive things States do. A battle can change history, and so can trying to bankroll one.
In 1344, England’s King Edward III defaulted on his loans, wiping out the two most eminent banks of the day, the Bardi and the Peruzzi of Florence. This created a vacuum in which a family of lowly pawnbrokers could rise to power. A domino of bankruptcies crosses the continent because one man maxed his credit card. Perhaps this intricate pattern isn’t beautiful but at the very least it suggests another way of looking at the world, something the best art forces us to do. We think our world is unprecedentedly connected, and it is, but lines of credit girded the world long before broadband cables. Money, above all, is liquid. The stuff gets everywhere.
So much for seed capital, the complicated business of the battle itself is enough to make the most bullish turn tail. Fantasy readers know you’re in trouble when the kingdom’s armies are summoned to muster on the third night of Alderöch by the Rock of Doom and everyone arrives on time, flying splendid pendants and resplendent in armour. The horses are shod. The infantry is not only wearing in matching uniforms but perfectly drilled. Everyone’s well fed and fit to fight.
Whether you’re on Barsoom or Middle Earth, it’s not that easy.
Read about Caesar’s or Marlborough’s wars in France and you’ll find it wasn’t leading cavalry charges worrying those commanders so much as dull question of what’s for dinner. Armies never just show up. Some overworked quartermaster has to open his purse to see to that. I’m not saying what’s missing from contemporary Fantasy are dry logistics, that what is urgently needed are more scenes with Splaäg the Orc agonising over purchase orders of stockings, or Bjorn Dragonblood haggling with his farrier. All I’m saying is that a smidgen of consideration to the nitty gritty wouldn’t go astray. Indeed the nitty gritty can be a rich source of drama and humour – Joe Abercrombie makes this trick, besides everything else, look easy.
The name of the family that profited by King Edward’s bad faith of course was Medici. Florence’s most famous family are the inspiration for the Bombelli family in my Wave Trilogy. Fabbro, a sociable and ambitious merchant in Irenicon, becomes mayor in The Warring States. The business of running a town, the bribery, horse trading, compromises and chicanery causes him to lose his way. He becomes a weather vane trying to appease everyone – especially his spirited daughter Maddalena. His many sons meanwhile have spread throughout the city states of Etruria, becoming lenders to Doges, Dukes and even Concordians.
There’s plenty of pure fancy in The Warring States, but the Bombelli’s fairy-tale rise to power is quite plausible: the Medici went from coin changers to popes and queens in three generations. What magic made it possible?
I’ll give you a hint. It wasn’t Dragon’s blood . . .