The Sheriff’s Catch by virtuoso author James Vella-Bardon is a stunningly impressive historical adventure which sheds light on a little-known aspect of the Spanish Armada: the English’s merciless pursuit of shipwrecked Spanish soldiers in Ireland.
So vividly written and well-researched, The Sheriff’s Catch makes you feel like you are directly witnessing the historical events it describes. It is told through the first-person narrative of its engaging protagonist, Spanish sniper Abel de Santiago. And that’s the best position to be in, as you wouldn’t wish Santiago’s situation on your worst enemy.
The novel is set during the tail end of the 16th century—a period marked by religious conflict, war, hardship and plague. We are first introduced to Abel in 1585 while he is serving in the village of Willebroek, in The Spanish Netherlands, where the forces of King Philip II of Spain have, for many years, been fighting the Protestant resistance.
The Spanish army has few friends here, hated by so many for its greed and aggression, but Abel—a veteran with a noble heart that has not been hardened by conflict—has found himself a beautiful wife and through her a new family to look after.
Elsien, the daughter of the local village miller, is pregnant with his child and looking forward to a bright future with Abel. She is, therefore, sad that he must leave her side temporarily to travel out to ambush a force of mercenaries gone rogue, and wary of his unsavoury comrades: Ramos, Salva, Gabri and Cristó.
She has good reason to be afraid, for the Spanish soldiers have not been paid for many years so that Abel’s comrades have resorted to threatening her father for protection money, and likewise the village under the guise of a ‘fire tax’.
Abel is unable to believe that his comrades would carry out their threats but he is forced to re-evaluate when the raid goes wrong and he is left injured and abandoned by them.
He is rescued by Elsien’s brother, Maerten, but when they get back to the village, they find that Elsien’s house has been destroyed by fire—a conflagration caused by none other than Abel’s own comrades.
Rushing to the house of his wife and father-in-law, Abel finds it a smouldering ruin. Any hope of them having escaped unharmed are soon dashed when he finds their bodies nearby.
Despairing, grief-stricken, enraged by the betrayal, he seeks revenge, going rogue and travelling to Seville with Maerten on a mission to track down and kill their murderers.
But when disaster strikes again, he and Maerten find themselves galley slaves on a ship forming part of the famous Spanish Armada, which is bound for England to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I.
If you know your history, you’ll know the Armada failed in its objective. What you probably won’t know is that numerous Spanish ships that survived the battle ended up being struck down by ferocious storms on the retreat back to Spain.
So that Abel is in fact shipwrecked on the western coast of Ireland, which he soon finds to be about as forgiving as the merciless waves of the Atlantic. The English forces in Ireland are searching for any Spanish survivors and he is soon captured by the brutal sheriff of Sligo, destined for torture and execution.
He manages to escape but takes with him a priceless emerald ring that has far greater significance than he imagines, meaning that the sheriff and his troops will not rest until Abel is caught and the ring retrieved. The rugged Irish landscape becomes the fugitive Abel’s home as he tries to hide from English troops and hostile Irish tribes alike.
While in hiding, he encounters Muireann—a renowned Irish poetess and skilled horsewomen whose husband has just been killed in a late-night raid. After deciding to help her return to her own tribe, and to her only son, Abel must use all his wits and resourcefulness to keep them safe as they make their way through dangerous lands.
The Sheriff’s Catch has all you could ask of a novel—action, suspense, pathos—with the added benefit that, thanks to author Vella-Bardon’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the times, you learn so many fascinating historical details along the way.
These facts about the people, the attitudes, and the events that form the backdrop to the narrative, are never intrusive, being masterfully integrated to add colour and meaning.
Abel’s quest arrests the reader’s interest and this is kept throughout thanks to how well-defined a character he is. We are privy not only to his derring-do but also his thoughts and emotions. The supporting cast are equally brought to life with their own motivations and feelings. I particularly enjoyed Abel’s growing bond with Maerten as they both seek revenge for their loved ones.
Although Abel initially dislikes him, after months spent united in their mission, he comes to feel a strong sense that he is responsible for him, that he has to “ensure the youth’s future by any means necessary”.
I also enjoyed the nuances of Abel’s character. We see him living up to his reputation as a skilled and confident soldier, but we are also aware of the hurt, the fear, and regret he carries within. As the character relates:
Despite my own sense of vindication and years spent shooting people, the praise of others for my deathly work always left me feeling on edge.
‘I take no joy in the memory,’ I snapped, as I rose hotly to my feet, ‘for our mission is one of justice! Not bloodshed, but justice!’
The hardships he endures, both internally and externally, are, meanwhile, written with an immediacy that ensures their authenticity, such as when he is reduced to the life of a ship-bound slave:
At night we collapsed upon each other along the bench, doing our best to avoid touching the blackened sticky floor at our feet. My back was often raw from Dimas’s lashings, yet sleep always claimed me due to sheer exhaustion. It was an inhumane toil that we exerted in the hottest months of summer, so that our bodies constantly dripped with sweat.
But it is not just me who rates The Sheriff’s Catch—the first book in The Sassana Stone Pentalogy (to be followed by A Rebel North, Hero of Rosclogher, Trials In Tumult and Ring Of Ruse)—so highly.
Originally released by UK crowdfunding publisher Unbound in 2018, The Sheriff’s Catch won the Best Novel and Best Historical Fiction categories at the 2019 International Royal Dragonfly Book Awards.
It was also a finalist in the Wishing Shelf Independent Book Awards, Eric Hoffer Awards and the Independent Author Network Book Awards, where the author was a finalist in the ‘Outstanding Historical’ category.
Since then, Vella-Bardon has found a new publishing home with Tearaway Press, established by one of his biggest fans—one of Australia’s most respected investment managers, Anton Tagliaferro—purely to release his work.
And it’s not hard to see why. The sheer quality, historical integrity and emotional resonance of The Sheriff’s Catch is certainly not a fluke, as the Australian-based author’s newly released sophomore entry, Mad King Robin readily attests.
The character referred to in the title is none other than Robert the Bruce, the famed Scottish leader who, in the 14th century, did the unthinkable: stand up to the armoured might of England, and win.
While the time periods and protagonists are different, both The Sheriff’s Catch and Mad King Robin are aligned in telling stories about pivotal historical eras from the side of the underdog, bringing a totally fresh viewpoint to them.
There is also a related short story, The Cream of Chivalry, which provides even more insight into The Bruce’s life and times. Even better, it’s available for free if you subscribe to the author’s website.
In conclusion, then, if you see a book with James Vella-Bardon’s name upon the cover then you are guaranteed a brilliant read, and not just if you are fond of historical fiction.
For beyond the settings, these are universal stories that examine the human condition—told in an action-packed way that will get the pulse beating.
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.
AN INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR JAMES VELLA-BARDON
Thanks to a new publishing deal, award-winning author James Vella-Bardon’s acclaimed historical adventures will find new audiences around the world. We caught up with the Australian-based writer to learn more about his work, his passion for history, and dedication to telling stories from uncommon perspectives.
Q. What has been the greatest challenge you have faced as an author, and how did you overcome it?
A. There’s been too many to mention, yet I suppose the hardest one was the fact that I grew up in a small country where I had no blueprint or benchmark in terms of how I could become a successful author. Malta in the eighties’ was an extremely limited place which was somehow finding its way out of 15 years of extreme socialism, so that even chocolates and toothpaste from abroad were unavailable while we were kids and many things were banned, with a real sense of fear pervading the place. There were only two English bookshops on the whole of the island at the time, both in the capital Valletta. Growing up, I won a several national essay competitions organised by the British High Commission to Malta and I was always creating and writing new stories. But I just could not see a way to becoming a successful author until I emigrated to Australia in my mid-20s. Upon reaching Sydney I was quick to enrol in courses at the Writing NSW centre and met other authors who had previously seemed like gods on Mount Olympus to me. I wrote and wrote for years, trying to refine and develop my style, eventually also getting published in the UK which was a dream come true. So I suppose the short answer to your question is this: I resolved my challenge by emigrating to Australia where I really began to follow my dream of becoming an author.
Q. There are a plethora of history books on almost every era and topic. As such, what do you think historical fiction delivers to readers that non-fiction can’t?
A. I agree that historical fiction is an extremely broad umbrella, one which captures all genres ranging from whodunnits to romance novels to thrillers. The latter category, concerning what was once called the ‘historical adventure’, is of particular interest to me. It’s a genre that achieves two aims at once: to provide the reader with a riveting, ‘unputdownable’ tale, while also teaching them about a particular period of history. If the characters are engaging and the plot is based on an addictive storyline, readers can learn a lot from good historical fiction without it ever having to feel like learning – as well as reading material which is never as dry as a non-fiction book.
So, for example, in The Sheriff’s Catch one gets to feel the desire for revenge of my protagonist Abel de Santiago before he is press-ganged to join the Spanish Armada, as well as his desperation to survive when he is hunted by English troopers in Ireland. While reading about his challenges, you also learn about the constant setbacks encountered by the Spanish Armada even before it fought against the English at the battle of Gravelines. Which is not to mention the horrors encountered by the Spaniards who ended up shipwrecked in western Ireland—which is the extreme western periphery of Europe that was crawling with wolves and hostile English troopers at the time. I am pretty sure that the same vivid and emotional responses cannot be experienced by the reader when reading non-fiction about the same period of history.
Q. How would you sum up The Sheriff’s Catch?
A. The Sheriff’s Catch is a revenge rollercoaster romp which turns the dial up to 11, and which transforms into a harrowing struggle for survival. The protagonist is a Spanish marksman named Abel de Santiago, who deserts the Spanish Army of Flanders to hunt down his wife’s murderers. Along the way he is reluctantly press-ganged to join the Spanish Armada, yet his troubles turn from bad to worse when his galley is shipwrecked along the western coast of Ireland. After barely managing to escape his English captors with a priceless emerald ring, he rescues an Irish princess from ruthless English troopers. Together they strike up an unlikely partnership in order to find a way back to her tribe which will help secure their safety.
Q. Why did you decide to write about the Spanish Armada shipwrecks in Ireland?
A. First of all, I wanted to tell the story of the Spanish Armada which most of us have never heard about. It was a ragged and beat-down fleet which was fought by the English navy, an English navy that was made up of more ships which were smaller, swifter and which also carried a lot more cannon. The English ships did not engage directly with the Spanish ships and basically sailed through them time and again, showering them with cannon shot.
Many people do not know that the Spanish Armada was beset by ridiculously bad storms on its journey north to England, which are unheard of in summer. One of the tempests even managed to blow all of the Armada’s ships out into the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, with the fleet also afflicted by food and water shortages due to the duplicity of army contractors.
Very few people heard of the Spanish galleys being shipwrecked in Scotland and Ireland. The Protestants in Scotland led by Melville were surprisingly merciful towards the Spanish castaways, yet the Spaniards who were shipwrecked in Ireland did not meet with any such luck. This is because the English Viceroy in Dublin only had 2,000 men in his garrison, half of whom were Irish and he lost his head upon learning that so many Spaniards were landing in rebellious Ireland .He instantly ordered that they all be captured and killed. All of these events related to the Armada make for suspenseful and dramatic action sequences in my book.
Q. You are currently working on The Sassana Stone Pentalogy, set during the time of the Spanish Armada. However, you have chosen to cover this period from the perspective of a Spanish soldier rather than English. Why is that?
A. Growing up I read many historical novels which were told from the point of view of an English protagonist. I could mention Richard Sharpe, Horatio Hornblower and Harry Flashman as a few of the many examples of protagonists who recount the world through an English prism. As an author of Maltese-Australian background who has been greatly exposed to English culture but also to many others, I thought it would be refreshing and original to create a protagonist from a culture which was in fact the dominant European culture at the time. The Spanish Empire was an empire on which the sun never set, as compared to England which was still a small and relatively unimportant kingdom, albeit one with growing imperial ambitions. I wanted to create characters who had access to all of Spain’s possessions, and who went through the incredible struggle for survival encountered by all Spaniards who were shipwrecked in Ireland, most of which ended in tragedy.
Q. To date, you have written about periods between the 14th and 16th centuries. Do you think you will stick to this period, or expand to other eras, and why?
A. It is not excluded that I will expand to other areas, although I’ve really enjoyed writing about events in the 14th to 16th centuries—which were a time of great changes in medieval Europe. There are so many stories which one can tell from this period about Imperial Spain and the Protestant movements and rebellions all over Europe, yet there are many other interesting things I can think of, such as the Normans, the Ottomans and the Carthaginians to name but a few, not to mention dramatic periods like the Crusades or World War II.
Q. You have recently been signed to Tearaway Press. How do you feel about this?
A. I feel highly excited and motivated. It’s the sort of break that any budding author would dream of. These guys are great—they are as excited about the books as I am. Anton Tagliaferro, the CEO, shows great belief and trust in me and he gives me a great amount of liberty to be creative. But he contributes greatly with his vision and coordination and his business sense—it’s amazing to be able to work and learn from him. He is a true gentleman and so patient, but also possessing great tenacity and charisma. He’s like the character played by Sean Connery in Highlander, always pushing me to embrace what I’m about and do what I need to do. Everything he does always has to be bigger and better; there truly are no half measures with Anton—it’s all or nothing.
Q. As a reader of historical fiction, what is your own literary bugbear in the work of others that you will always avoid, and why?
A. One thing that particularly annoys me is how certain authors will distort recorded facts and say, for example, that two very famous historical characters were brothers when they were never recorded to be brothers at all. It is even more annoying when they don’t reveal that they took that liberty in the novel’s historical notes.
Q. When not writing, how do you like to unwind?
A. Apart from watching satire like Archer on Netflix, I don’t mind the odd documentary if it’s excellent, like Ottoman or The Lost Pirate Kingdom. I also listen to lots of podcasts, generally on long walks through the Australian bush with my dog. I’ve listened to practically everything ranging from Fareed Zakaria’s GPS to The Foreign Desk to Gideon Rachman’s interviews. The pick of the bunch has to be John Sweeney’s highly revealing Taking On Putin, which I also helped crowdfund.
Q. Why is historical fiction important?
A. In better understanding our history we can also better comprehend the events unfolding in the world today, while also trying to see the other side of the story by increasing our critical thinking. History has shown time and again that one person’s tyrant is another person’s hero. Historical fiction can prompt us to ask why this is the case, why someone like an English Viceroy in Ireland, or an English king like Edward Longshanks oppressing Scotland, behave the way they do. During today’s rising geopolitical tensions and information wars, we need more people to understand their history to call out the disinformation being spread by warmongers and extremists. Historical fiction can help us to do just that.