The Sheriff’s Catch by James Vella-Bardon

The great historical fiction authors, such as Wilbur Smith and Bernard Cornwell, have a new contender: James Vella-Bardon.

The award-winning writer’s debut novel, The Sheriff’s Catch, has just been re-released through Tearaway Press and offers a thrilling adventure of revenge and survival set during the time of the Spanish Armada.

By Timothy Arden

If you are a fan of historical fiction that strikes the perfect balance between fantastic thrills and amazing facts then remember the name of rising author James Vella-Bardon.

Already an award-winning writer, his sensational debut novel, The Sheriff’s Catch, has just been rereleased by his new publisher, Tearaway Press, with the promise of many more books to come.

Set towards the close of the 16th century, around the time of the Spanish Armada of 1588, The Sheriff’s Catch is a gripping, fast-paced adventure centred around a charismatic underdog fugitive.

The man in question, Abel de Santiago, is a renowned Spanish sniper who has served his nation well for several decades but whose fortunes tumble due to a tragedy that befalls him three years before.

The novel opens with Abel posted in the village of Willebroek, in the Spanish Netherlands, where Spanish forces have been entrenched fighting a long-standing Protestant rebellion.

He and his comrades—Ramos, Salva, Gabri and Cristó—travel a few days distance from the village they are barracked in, to partake in an ambush against a Protestant militia gone rogue.

Abel’s wife Elsien, the daughter of a local miller, does not wish him to go, leaving her and the unborn child she carries alone, but duty-bound, he sets offs with the expectation that the attack will deliver up some spoils to placate his comrades. For Abel’s company has not been paid in over two years, so that his comrades have long threatened the villagers of Willebroek as they seek to extort them.

The ambush, however, goes wrong, and Abel is injured and abandoned by his comrades. It is Elsien’s brother, Maerten, who eventually finds him and brings him back to the village, where he hopes to be reunited with his wife.

The Sheriff’s Catch, book one of The Sassana Stone Pentalogy by James Vella-Bardon, is a gripping and vivid historical underdog adventure.

The village, however, has been torched in his absence, and his comrades, led by the vile Sergeant Ramos, are responsible for the outrage.

Worse, Abel’s wife and father-in-law have perished in the conflagration and, when an enraged Maerten is arrested by a patrol of Spanish soldiers, Abel shoots one of Maerten’s captors dead.

Well aware that this act will cost him his life, he flees the village with Maerten, setting out on a personal mission of revenge that eventually brings him back to Spain, and finally to Seville, where he hunts down his former comrades.

Before he can strike them down, however, Abel suffers another act of betrayal that sees Maerten and him pressed into slavery and placed in a ship that forms part of the Spanish Armada.

As history relates, the attack on England—with the intent of dethroning the Protestant Good Queen Bess—does not succeed and Abel’s ship is battered in a ferocious storm as it attempts to return to Spain.

Shipwrecked, Abel is washed ashore on the coast of Connacht, Ireland, yet this is but a short reprieve from his woes as the English, who control the country, are actively hunting down any Spanish survivors with two purposes in mind: torture, followed by execution.

Abel is soon captured but, calling upon all his wits and bravery, he manages to escape his gaol, and takes with him a prize for his troubles—a priceless emerald ring which, unbeknown to its new owner, has far greater significance than mere monetary value.

Though hordes of English troops are on his tail, Abel is able to evade capture as he crosses the rugged Irish landscape seeking a way off the island.

He is diverted from this plan when he ends up rescuing a woman, Muireann, from a brutal force of English troopers, or “Sassenachs” as they are known locally.

A revered Irish poetess whose husband has been killed by the English, Muireann forms an unlikely bond with the fugitive Abel defined by their mutual sense of grief.

Guided by a desperate need to elude the Sassenachs, Abel agrees to assist the poetess in her quest to reach the lands of her own tribe, and to be reunited with her son.

But danger is never far behind and the pair are pushed to their limits as they make their way exhaustedly across a stunning yet hostile landscape, with the sheriff in hot pursuit and intent on retrieving the stolen ring.

The fruit of many years’ diligent research, The Sheriff’s Catch effortlessly transports the reader back to a brutal time marked by hardship, violence and persecution. 

Author James Vella-Bardon’s depictions of this era are so vivid that you feel you are walking alongside Abel every step of the way and, like him, always with your heart in your mouth in anticipation of the next hostile encounter.

Award-winning author James Vella-Bardon is quickly cementing his position as an historical fiction author par excellence. His novels, including his debut The Sheriff's Catch and his latest novel, Mad King Robin, are published by Tearaway Press.

A deserving winner of Best Novel and Best Historical Fiction categories at the 2019 International Royal Dragonfly Book Awards, the book is a remarkably confident literary debut and a spectacular start to an epic five-book story centred on Abel—The Sassana Stone Pentalogy.

Written in the first person and more charged than a barrel of gunpowder, bloodshed is never far distant, and is told in palpable manner. For instance, this passage from an encounter between Abel and one of his former comrades:

Cristó also stood up, raising his pike before him as he raced towards the fray. His pike caught the first enemy clean through the waist, with passing straight through the screaming man and ripping out of his back. The skewered man was whisked off his feet as Cristó’s step never faltered, with his spear point also passing clean through another man’s throat.

But the real reason the novel is so impactful is because of its focus on the characters, their motivations and feelings.

You are quickly hooked in, and on the side of an outsider and underdog the moment Abel is robbed of his wife and unborn child.

If the first half of the novel is driven by revenge, the second is propelled by survival. We feel Abel’s anger, his loathing for those who have wronged him, and we share his fear as the net draws tighter around him once he is alone in a foreign, unforgiving land overridden by his mortal enemies.

This is aided greatly by the author giving us access to Abel’s thoughts, such as when he embarks upon that fateful ambush at the book’s start:

As we drew nearer to the nameless wood, I realised that I did not, in fact, want to take part in the impending ambush or even the siege of Antwerp. I was sick of years spent fighting Spain’s enemies, and felt reluctant to leave Elsien’s family, who had provided me with both a hearth and a home.

Abel is heroic and a master of the art of war, yet he is also flesh and blood, and subject to the same worries and doubts as all of us.

While Vella-Bardon’s writing displays its own signature, readers will see favourable comparisons with historical fiction greats such as Conn Iggulden, Wilbur Smith and Bernard Cornwell.

And the author, originally from Malta but now living in Australia, is well on his way to finding himself among those exalted ranks.

This is in no small part being helped by his new publisher, Tearaway Press, which was actually formed by one of Australia’s most respected investment managers, Anton Tagliaferro, with the express purpose of helping to bring Vella-Bardon’s writing to the masses.

Over the coming months, further instalments of The Sassana Stone Pentalogy will be released—A Rebel North, Hero of Rosclogher, Trials In Tumult and Ring Of Ruse—and, in the meantime, once you’ve finished The Sheriff’s Catch you can also enjoy the author’s latest story, Mad King Robin.

This is a standalone historical adventure set at the beginning of the 14th Century which focuses on Robert the Bruce’s bid to free Scotland from the tyranny of English rule.

This wonderful riveting page turner—which again documents an underdog taking on a mighty oppressor—recounts The Bruce’s incredible journey and sacrifices, culminating in a bloody battle against the forces of Edward II.

And if that’s not enough, Vella-Bardon, something of a story machine, has recently added a short story, The Cream of Chivalry, to his website, free to those who subscribe to his newsletter.

In conclusion, reading The Sheriff’s Catch—or indeed any of the author’s work to date, given that he has more than earned a reputation as a virtuoso of historical fiction—promises unforgettable adventures in absorbing periods of history told from a totally fresh perspective. 

The Sheriff's Catch by James Vella-Bardon is out now on Amazon, published by Tearaway Press, priced at £10.71 as a paperback, £2.30 as an eBook. An audiobook adaptation of The Sheriff's Catch will be released on 15th July, priced £12. Mad King Robin is also available on Amazon, priced at £10.20 for paperback, and £2.35 for eBook. For more information, visit www.jamesvellabardon.com.

 

Q&A INTERVIEW WITH JAMES VELLA-BARDON

 

To mark the republication of his gripping debut novel, The Sheriff’s Catch, award-winning historical fiction author James Vella-Bardon speaks to us about the lengths he goes to when researching his stories, why the 16thcentury is such a fascinating period, and what the future holds now he is being championed by Tearaway Press, a publishing house launched solely to release his work. 

Q. You go to exacting lengths while researching your novels. Why is such extensive background research important to you? 

A. I am always mindful that I am writing about other peoples’ countries so I want to ensure that I accord them the utmost respect. I should also add that when researching historical detail in such depth, I can subsequently meld the research into the narrative in a seamless way. It’s also important to be able to distinguish between different accounts that contradict each other. So, for example, certain academics would write about matchlock firearms being unreliable weapons, since new recruits were told to only fire at horsemen when they could see the whites of their eyes. I decided to check this with a guy in the USA who actually builds these firearms from scratch and he assured me that matchlocks are in fact very accurate weapons. This was also confirmed by a 16th century Irish annalist, who wrote about how an Irish tribesman on the edge of a lake managed to shoot an enemy off the top of a castle built on an island in the middle of a lake. I subsequently deduced that new recruits were ordered to only fire at horsemen from close range not due to their firearms being unreliable but because of the new recruits’ lack of training.

While writing The Sheriff’s Catchand its sequels I read dozens of books about the 16thcentury and the Spanish Armada at the Fisher library at the University of Sydney. I had previously obtained a Doctor of Laws degree after publishing a dissertation entitled ‘The Self-Determination of Indigenous Minorities.’ This was a lot of work, however I must have done at least four times the amount of research when writing The Sheriff’s Catchand its four sequels, which form part of the series called The Sassana Stone Pentalogy. I also spoke to people outside academia, including reenactors to better understand all aspects of the period. I even travelled to the west coast of Ireland in 2012 and followed the little known ‘de Cuéllar trail’ along the Atlantic coast which was undertaken by many Spanish Armada castaways in Ireland who were fleeing the English colonists who wanted them all killed. This gave me an added appreciation of the sights and sounds of the place, as well as customs and proverbs used by locals, which of course all went into the books.  

Q. Why have you selected historical fiction as your chosen genre? 

A. Historical fiction is a broad genre which includes everything from romance to whodunnits. Personally speaking, I like to write what’s been described as ‘blockbusters with depth’. In essence, what this means is a pulsating, edge-of-your-seat rollercoaster like The Bourne Identityby Robert Ludlum, but with a rich, intoxicating backdrop set in the depths of history, so that the reader discovers all these vivid, forgotten worlds while having fun. The 1500’s, in particular, are such a great melting pot of various, competing civilisations, ranging from the Habsburg dominions and possessions spanning almost half of western Europe to the proud and plucky French Valois, the scheming Pope in Rome who divided Catholics as easily as he united them, the ruthless, weakening Venetians and the insanely brave Knights of Malta. Which is not to mention the wonders of the Ottoman world and the corsairs spread along North Africa, without mentioning all the intriguing subcultures of the Uskok pirates in what’s now Croatia and the Sea Beggars in Holland. I could go on and on and also mention the Tudors in England, Ivan the Terrible in Russia, Shah Tahmasp of Persia and Akbar in India, but in summary the 1500’s make for a highly exciting, stimulating backdrop.

Q. How did you come to be published and championed through Tearaway Press? 

A. It’s a fairy-tale story which you couldn’t make up. After having some success with an earlier version of The Sheriff’s Catch,published by one of the UK’s leading crowdfunding publishers, I ghost-wrote a few books in other genres and also did some work as a book reviewer while working out how to relaunch my career. While in Sydney I met with Anton Tagliaferro, who is a renowned fund manager here in Australia and who also a huge fan of my book. 

He told me that he was interested in launching a publishing company to help produce and promote historical fiction books such as The Sheriff’s Catch he suggested that I sign on to his new company. Those who know him will tell you that Anton is a highly enthusiastic individual—a real go-getter who’s also a voracious reader of historical novels. At first I hesitated, because I was a bit wary of getting involved with publishers again. 

Yet Anton insisted, and I must say he’s been nothing but brilliant to me. He’s brought in the best team available in the publishing industry, with The Sheriff’s Catchre-edited so that it’s even better than the first edition, with a brilliant cover produced by a highly talented Catalan designer. The editors are top-notch and there is real promotion now in place to seek to broaden my readership.

Q. What impact do you think being under the aegis of a publishing house will have on your writing career? 

A. I think that it will help me to reach a wider readership while also helping me to improve as an author. Some people think that being an author is solely restricted to writing a manuscript but nothing could be further from the truth. A writer’s job while being an author also means interacting with editors and formatters while also collaborating with marketers and publicists, amongst others. Working with this team of collaborators is the only way to attempt to make your work available to more readers.

The Cream of Chivalryby James Vella-Bardon is a free short story that expands upon the saga of Robert the Bruce, available for free to subscribers to his website newsletter.

Q. How do you get the ideas for your novels? 

A. The ideas for my novels are triggered by my readings about history. These include both works of fiction and non-fiction. At all times I am looking for a setting in which you have a clash of different cultures, as well as a setting that is relatively unknown yet which could spark great interest and challenge the way we look at well-known historical events. So, for example, The Sheriff’s Catchwas perfect in this regard, because it is about the Spanish Armada’s shipwrecks in Ireland. As a result of these shipwrecks, you got a clash of three cultures, which included the Spaniards which came from a counter-reformist background, the ‘late medieval’ Irish and the reformist English colonists. 

As if this clash of cultures isn’t diverse enough, you also had fierce Scottish mercenaries called ‘gallowglasses’ thrown into the mix, not to mention the Anglo-Irish, who were also referred to as the ‘Anglo-Normans’ or the ‘Old English’. These were the descendants of Norman families who had travelled to England with William the Conqueror, and who conquered parts of Ireland after the Battle of Hastings. Although they were Normans, they had by the 16th century adopted many Gaelic customs. 

Q. The life of an author can be challenging, especially when working independently. How have you kept yourself motivated through more challenging periods? 

A. The motivation to me has been the inspiration which I derive from history. I have always loved history, which I find to be a great teacher about the behaviour of people and societies. This has helped me to be better as an employee and also a father, while also helping me to better understand the world that I inhabit. For many years, writing historical fiction was an end-of-day release from the monotony I sometimes encountered in my everyday life; a chance to escape to a different time and let my creative juices flow. I find that the writing, of itself, is not the challenging part of being an author—the hardest part is trying to market your work and getting your stories into readers’ hands, which involves a lot of promotion.

As JK Rowling once said, “It’s talking to readers about your books which is the greatest reward of being an author”. I could not agree more, and although writing can often be hard work, it is all worthwhile when you can share your work with appreciative and discerning readers who take an interest in your creations and derive enjoyment from them.

Q. If you could travel back to one historical period, which period would you travel to, and why? 

A. It would have to be the 1500s, to be a fly on the wall to appreciate the diversity between the Irish Gaels who were natives to the land, the English troopers who were trying to dominate it and the Spaniards who practically appeared from out of nowhere and found themselves in the middle of it all. This is what I’ve tried to recreate and capture in my novel The Sheriff’s Catch, which tells the story of a reluctant member of the Spanish Armada who finds himself shipwrecked in Ireland. I would love to see first-hand the things that he ends up encountering, such as the dress and customs of the Irish and their clashes against their English oppressors, to cross match it against the picture of that world which I’ve created in my books.

Q. How did you come to the title The Sheriff’s Catch

A. I think the title of a book must be possessed of a hidden meaning or irony, or else be something that encapsulates the whole tale. Generally a title comes to me instinctively. So for example the name Mad King Robin, the title of a novella I recently published on Robert the Bruce, jumped out at me the moment I read my freshly written book. I suddenly realised the title  fitted with my attempt at freshening up the telling of the Bruce’s story. However, The Sheriff’s Catchdid not automatically come to me and I thought over it a lot. The overarching antagonist is the English sheriff of Sligo, George Bingham, every bit as ruthless as his older brother Richard Bingham, Governor of Connacht and also known by the Irish as ‘the flail of Connacht’ because of his brutality and ruthlessness. I then realised that I needed another word which represented the most pivotal part of the book, which essentially was the shipwrecks. I thought over it quite a bit, until it struck me that the Spaniards landing upon the beaches and being caught by the English and taken back to the town of Sligo were not unlike the herring that were caught and taken back to Sligo too.

One of the characters jokes in the town about the prisoners being led through the city gates: “Is this the latest catch?”. And then it instantly struck me—The Sheriff’s Catch—which also went hand-in-hand nicely with a catchy story . I love that my debut has that title. I think it’s the best title I’ve come up with so far, although as book titles go, I really do also like Mad King RobinA Rebel Northand The Cream of Chivalry.

Q. Why does Abel de Santiago make for a compelling protagonist? 

A. Santiago is compelling because he has what every protagonist must possess in order to be compelling: his human heart is in conflict with itself. This is because he is blinded by his anger, seeking to avenge his murdered wife despite the harm and setback it causes other people he cares for. He also gains possession of a mysterious emerald ring, which has a value beyond its own. Holding onto this ring represents a chance for him to atone for the harm he caused his former wife’s family by trying to avenge her death. Yet in hiding this ring in order to leave Ireland with it, he endangers his tribe who come under the eye of the Sassenachs who know he has the ring, understand what it represents and want it back at all costs. By hiding the ring, Santiago’s heart is soon in conflict with itself once more, as he imperils the lives of Muireann and the other brave Gaels who risked their lives to rescue and protect him from the Sassenachs.

Q. What can readers expect from you next?

A. I recently delved into the world of my favourite historical figure, Robert the Bruce, writing two stories about his battles at Bannockburn and Methven. The first of these is called Mad King Robin, which is a furious, non-stop action romp, and the second is a riveting short story called The Cream Of Chivalry, which is available for free to any readers who sign up to my website.

I am next looking forward to a releasing a sensational audiobook production of The Sheriff’s Catch,scheduled for publication on 15 July which has been narrated by incredibly talented historical fiction narrator Jonathan Keeble, who has also read many books by other famous historical novelists like Bernard Cornwell and Ben Kane. We’re next moving on to publishing A Rebel North, the sequel of The Sheriff’s Catch, in August. It is a highly exciting read since it describes how the survivors of the Spanish Armada have to learn to adapt to the culture of the Gaelic Irish who protect them from the English. 

Some of the Spaniards simply dismiss the Irish in the period as ‘savages’; however, other Spaniards discover a sophisticated world with a complex regulatory system called the ‘Brehon laws’. They also discover that they are in a part of Europe which was never affected by the Roman Empire and its institutes, so that women have the same status as men in the tribe, and the highborn tribesmen can vote for their leaders since primogeniture does not exist. These are but a few of the fascinating differences encountered by the Spaniards in this world although there are also many others described in the novel.  

Keep up with the top stories from Reader’s Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter.