Blood, Magic, and History–D.B. Jackson’s Thieftaker series
Blood, Magic, and History–By David B. Coe/DB Jackson.
On February 22, 1770, a mob of young men staged a demonstration in the town of Boston, as they had on several occasions in the weeks and months leading up to that day. The protests were intended to intimidate and publicly shame loyalist merchants who had been importing goods from England for sale in the colony in violation of nonimportation agreements (an 18th century term that basically means “boycott”) organized by leaders of the Patriot cause. On this morning, they converged on the shop of a merchant named Theophilus Lillie.
The night before, vandals, many of them no doubt now gathered in the street outside the store, has smeared the windows of Lillie’s establishment with tar and feathers. With the coming of morning, they had placed signs outside the building identifying Lillie as a violator of the agreements and an enemy of “liberty.” If their demonstration had followed a course similar to that of previous protests, the morning might have ended with the store vandalized, and Lillie beaten or tarred himself.
But on this day, a second man entered the fray. His name was Ebenezer Richardson, and as much as the patriots in the street disliked Lillie, they hated Richardson even more. He was an outspoken critic of Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty, an opponent of the nonimportation movement, and a suspected informer for the despised Customs Board. When Richardson tried to drive off the mob and tear down the offending signs, the mob turned on him. Richardson barely made it to his nearby house in one piece. But rather than remaining safely barricaded within his home, he continued to bait the young men, and finally appeared at a window with a musket in hand. Many in the street pelted the house with rotten food, snowballs, and stones. And, perhaps, predictably, Richardson responded by firing his weapon into the crowd.
He had loaded the musket with what was known as swan shot, and one of the pellets lodged in the lung of Christopher Seider, the eleven year-old son of German colonists. Several surgeons, including the renowned Joseph Warren, struggled to save the lad, but to no avail. Seider died that night.
The boy’s death marked the beginning of a spiraling cycle of confrontation and violence in Boston that culminated twelve nights later, on March 5, 1770, with another shooting, this one on King Street in front of the Customs House. That second shooting, which resulted in five deaths and a half dozen injuries, has come to be known as the Boston Massacre.
Why the history lesson? Because these events, beginning with the Seider murder and ending with the massacre, bracket the fictional narrative in my most recent novel, DEAD MAN’S REACH, the fourth and (for now) final volume in the Thieftaker Chronicles, the historical urban fantasy I have set in pre-Revolutionary Boston. In all of the Thieftaker novels I have tried to blend historical and fictional narratives in a way that feels both seamless and coherent. Seamless in that I want it to be as difficult as possible for my readers to determine where history ends and my fiction begins. And coherent in that I also want those two narratives — the real and the fantastic — to interact, to seem mutually causal, so that one feeds the other.
In no book in the series was this a more challenging or daunting task than in DEAD MAN’S REACH. The other Thieftaker novels (THIEFTAKER, THIEVES’ QUARRY, and A PLUNDER OF SOULS) all took place over the course of a few days. In combining my story lines with the historical record I had a limited number of events that I needed to pull together. The near fortnight that separated the first shooting from the last included a public funeral for Chris Seider, several confrontations and brawls between British soldiers and the citizenry of Boston, and even a massive blizzard that nearly crippled the city. I didn’t want to ignore any of these events. On the contrary, I made every effort to work them into the fictional plot that drives the action in the novel.
The result is, I believe, the finest work I have done to date. As I relate them, the events leading to the Boston Massacre now have a distinctly magical element, and my story, which revolves around a sorcerous war between my conjuring hero and a canny, powerful villain, would seem to have profound historical ramifications.
I have a Ph.D. in history; I take my history very seriously and I work hard to bring a level of historical authenticity to my fictional work. I will admit to feeling a bit odd about using an event as solemn and significant as the Boston Massacre in this way. But I take equally seriously my responsibilities as an author of fiction. My readers expect me to entertain them, and, at least in part, that means convincing them that the story I’m telling could be real. Hence the need for historical accuracy. And hence as well my desire to blend the various elements of the narrative — fictional and historical — as thoroughly and persuasively as possible.
The Thieftaker series, and this novel in particular, works because as I combine actual events with fictional ones, I also place my point of view character right in the middle of the resulting story. He becomes a guide for my reader; he doesn’t just witness history, he also responds to it on an intellectual and emotional level. He watches the shootings happen. His magic contributes to the violence. The lives at stake in the battles playing out in Boston’s streets are those of people he knows and loves. In this way, he becomes the bridge between the real and the unreal. Or, to put it another way and make use of an analogy I used earlier, he is the thread that tightens that seam, rendering it all but invisible. Because in the end, though he is a product of my imagination, his horror, his grief, his rage mirror the emotions of the men and women who actually lived through the violence of 1770.
David B. Coe/D.B. Jackson is the award-winning author of eighteen fantasy novels. Under the name D.B. Jackson, he writes the Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical urban fantasy from Tor Books that includes Thieftaker, Thieves’ Quarry, A Plunder of Souls, and, the newest volume, Dead Man’s Reach, which was released earlier this week, on July 21. Under his own name, he writes The Case Files of Justis Fearsson, a contemporary urban fantasy from Baen Books. The first volume, Spell Blind, debuted in January 2015. The newest book in the series, His Father’s Eyes, comes out on August 4. He lives on the Cumberland Plateau with his wife and two daughters. They’re all smarter and prettier than he is, but they keep him around because he makes a mean vegetarian fajita. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.
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