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The Sultan, the Vampyr and the Soothsayer

Historical Fiction

When Vlad Dracula is taken hostage with his brother by the Ottoman Sultan and his guards, even the palace soothsayer, the shrewd teller of fortunes, is unprepared for what he learns…

An epic tale of two fathers and their sons; a compelling story of prophecy and intrigue at the fifteenth century palace of the Ottomans and a fictional exploration of the myth of the vampire.

Winner of the Hislibris award 2012 for historical fiction


Historical Fiction

A solitary child, Leonardo’s only intimate is Lisa Gherardini, the girl who spies on him in his workshop. Spurned by his tutor, he is sent by his despairing father to Florence as an apprentice. But success requires sacrifice and conformity, and Leonardo’s gift is more of a heresy than a vision. Forced to leave Florence, he places himself at the mercy of the power-thirsty Duke of Milan… ​

From the glittering court of the Medici to the mortuaries of Milan, Gioconda vividly imagines Leonardo’s lonely struggle to convince others of his vision of the world.

Inspiration behind GIOCONDA

I started to write GIOCONDA in the wake of a visit to a supermarket. Shopping seems an unlikely font of inspiration, but I somehow fell upon a print of the Mona Lisa in the aisles, and that set me thinking about who she was and what the portrait signified.

Much later, when the first draft of GIOCONDA had been written, I made the pilgrimage to Florence and Anchiano, Leonardo’s birthplace outside Vinci. It’s a pretty, country path that takes you through the valley to his house. Leonardo’s father was the local notary, Ser Piero da Vinci, and the house registered in his name at the time of Leonardo’s birth stands on a hill overlooking the view that Leonardo sketched as a boy before his departure for Florence. Inside the thick stonewalls of Ser Piero’s old home, Leonardo comes to life: his bizarre reverse writing covers all the walls, and his sketches of the surrounding countryside lie in a glass cabinet in one of the rooms.

I booked into the Hotel Mona Lisa in Florence. It was hard not to and the hotel did not disappoint; Lisa was on every wall of the lounge: with or without a moustache, big breasted, small breasted, modern, retro and surreal. I had planned on finding Leonardo’s bottega, where as a young apprentice he first picked up a brush, but an inquiry at the tourist office drew a blank. ‘There were many bottega workshops during the Renaissance,’ they said apologetically, ‘but most are lost to memory.’ It took a visit to the archives and a long, confused conversation with the national library about membership, but by the end of the second day I had a tenuous indication. I traced the old address to the new one, and set off eagerly, driven by emotion. But when I finally found what seemed to be the place, instead of a bottega or museum was an old abandoned storehouse with a cafe on the end of it. The whirr of espresso machines – coffee, not art.


Inspiration behind The Sultan, the Vampyr and the Soothsayer

The initial idea for The Sultan, the Vampyr and the Soothsayer came after I visited Istanbul in 2012. One of the sultanate’s most famous hostages was Vlad Dracula, whose family played a major role in defending Christendom from the Turks, although I didn’t know that at the time. What fascinated me about the remains of the Topkapı Palace at Istanbul was the harem, which was a real labyrinth of courtyards and rooms. It struck me as a prison, which is effectively what it was, even though many historians stress the power that women had at one point in the seraglio of the Ottoman court. Nevertheless, it was a kind of female prison. And then there was the Romanian side of the story: Dracula’s family history. Some time later I discovered a rare book on Romanian folklore in a library when I was in France doing some research for an article on European travel. The book is out of print now; if that book was not the last copy in circulation, it was certainly one of the last. It was a documented exploration of the myth of the Romanian vampire, complete with bibliography. Reading it did give me the shivers at times, but the combination of Vlad Dracula and the Ottoman court was too enticing to pass up, and the rest of the story just slotted in place.

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