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“Shakespeare Stole Othello” – the Assassini Trilogy and the Shakespeare Connection

THE EXILED BLADEFans of Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s Assassini trilogy can’t have failed to notice the numerous quotes from Shakespeare that preface each act. With the release of THE EXILED BLADE [UK | US | ANZ] – the final novel in this wonderfully dark historical fantasy – we thought it was the perfect opportunity to ask Jon to explain this Shakespearan link.

The quotations at the start of novels exist to…

Do what exactly? Provide a fig leaf of respectability? Prove the writer’s heard of Camus or Kierkegaard? Flatter the reader that this is a worthwhile book? I think (I hope), that if used properly they exist like clues in a noir and raise a wry smile from the reader when she puts down the books, and thinks, ‘Ahh. So that’s how it fitted…’ In the course of Tycho’s story I used the following quotes in the following order. There are two per book, for parts one and two. All from Shakespeare and all (but the first) from the plays referenced* in the story…

‘…What a hell of witchcraft lies

In the small orb of one particular tear…’

A Lover’s Complaint

‘May the winds blow till they have waken’d death!’


‘These violent delights have violent ends…’ Romeo & Juliet

‘Now could I drink hot blood, and do such bitter business, as the day would quake to look on it…’


‘There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now ’tis not to come , if it be not to come, it will be now…’


‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine…’


Individually they echo what is about to happen in that section, Together they mirror the story arc within The Fallen Blade, The Outcast Blade and The Exiled Blade, as Tycho learns what it means to be human, and those around him discover what it’s like to let a dazzling darkness into their midst. His is a story of redemption, because everything I writes is, in some sense, a story of redemption. It’s also a story about responsibility, and prices we pay to become or remain human.

Shakespeare stole Othello’s story from Giovanni Cinthio, just as he stole Hamlet from Saxo Grammaticus, and Romeo and Juliet from Arthur Brooke or William Painter, who both used it before him. He also happily pillaged much of Boccaccio’s back catalogue. So I have no regret in stealing in my turn. In The Fallen Blade and The Outcast Blade, Lord Atilo is Othello, the Moor of Venice, and Desdaio is the ill-fated Desdemona. And while I agree with the occasional reviewer who felt Desdaio got a raw deal . . . Precedent rather fixed her fate.

Lady Giulietta, who spans all three books, is obviously Juliet from Romeo and . . . While Tycho, mistaken for a Romaioi (Byzantine) noble is her star-crossed lover. Duchess Alexa combines elements of The Tempest’s Prospero; the island (Venice) is hers and A’rial (Arial) is her pet witch. She’s also Queen Gertrude from Hamlet, with steelier nerves and a straighter spine; which casts Prince Alonzo as Hamlet’s step father, and means poor mad Duke Marco is Hamlet himself.

The three tragedies are divided over the three novels; with Romeo and Juliet being the big arc; and Othello and Hamlet being smaller spans sitting inside and swapping half way through the second book. At some point, I hope, the three will be bound as one (as happened with the Arabesks), and the whole arc with its progression from dark into light will be clear. Although stealing from the master has a certain joy. The less joyful part is that his characters fates are predetermined (pace poor Desdaio). And though a writer can afford to play fast and loose with the occasional outcome it has to be occasional.

Obviously enough, the Assassini novels form a love story in which half the characters are insane and their love is unwise (which sounds like life to me). The emotional template is the tragedies and the sensibility broodingly Jacobean – at least I hope so! But I’ve allowed myself and the characters hope. As Prospero says at the end of the Tempest, ‘The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance.’

Tycho is allowed a choice.

* Referenced: fancy word for wholesale stealing of characters, plots, and motifs.

Ghosts too numerous to number

My favourite mention of The Fallen Blade so far calls it, ‘Two books occupying the same page space.’ And describes those as, ‘An adventure fantasy with a smidgeon of romance, great hordes of vampires and werewolves and, of course, plenty of swordplay.’ Mixed with, ‘A fantastic evocation of Renaissance Venice… the beauty of the culture it gave birth to and the merciless, brutally violent and Machiavellian politics that ran alongside it.’ [Guardian, UK]

My favourite, simply because that’s *precisely* what I was aiming to do.

When a reader commented on Facebook that the only thing the review missed was the, ‘Shakespeare casserole… delicious, and not too filling,’ it was time to crack open a cold beer. Because riffing off the first half of Othello was part of the fun. And I’m already enjoying myself riffing off the second half (and the first half of Hamlet) in the second book, which I’m now editing.

When I told my brother-in-law I was going to set my next book in Venice he looked at me and said, ‘My, that’s original.’ (Management consultants like stating the obvious). And, obviously, Venice has been the setting for so many novels and poems and plays and films it seem impossible that anyone could find anything new to say. But the point is, everyone who goes sees a different city.

Venice is what you bring to it.

It mirrors back at us what we’re interested in.

First find your story…

The Fallen Blade came out of a single image in my head of an impossibly-beautiful boy chained naked in darkness to the bulkhead of a ship. He snapped awake to reveal amber-flecked and inhuman eyes. The ship was in the Venetian lagoon and I realised the boy knew no more about himself than I did.

That gave me Tycho, although I didn’t then know what species of inhuman he was or what origin story lead him to being the first Vampire into Europe and the survivor of the last Viking outpost in North America.

After ten SF novels I realised I was about to write fantasy!

Venetian first, Christian second…The Venetians had no hesitation living up to that maxim. They transported Crusaders to the Middle East, but called ahead to protect their Middle Eastern trade deals by telling those living there that the western armies were coming. Half of Venice is built from bits looted from elsewhere. The Duke’s palace and cathedral alone use pillars stolen from mosques, synagogues and other churches. As a people the Venetians were treacherous, avaricious and two-faced and proud of it! You don’t get to build a thousand year empire and become the richest trading power in the Mediterranean by playing nice.

It’s cliché to say Venice is a fantasy in itself and there’s something unworldly about its atmosphere, that it’s a city of sex and death hiding its darkness under all that glitz and glitter, but it really is. The damn thing’s been standing in that lagoon for centuries and dying and fighting a watery death for every one of them. And I defy anyone to go there and not feel ghosts are watching.

How could I resist it as a location for a fantasy novel? (more…)

How I Write

People have asked over the years how I write and I’ve replied with everything from 200 word bullet-point heavy ‘This-Is-How-I-Do-Its’, to 5000 words academic walk throughs covering initial inspiration to delivered script.

Every writer is different. A friend of mine writes 500 perfect words a day and never revises or goes back. No idea how he does it and wouldn’t want to try. Another friend is cross because she can’t get her output up from two novels a year to three. (I work seven day weeks to manage one).


All my books come out of a single image. In The Fallen Blade it was Tycho chained naked to the bulkhead of a ship. He opened his eyes and proved he wasn’t human. After that, it was a simply a case of working back to see where he’d come from and working forward to see where he was going. When writing I see the places in my head and hear the words spoken. Without that I couldn’t do it. (more…)