On James Burke’s Novel ‘Book of Bravery’

‘Book of Bravery’ tells the story of one good man who learns what is truly worth fighting for. (Image: Mohammed Hassan/ Pixabay )

At the heart of this era-hopping, original, and ultimately satisfying book is the journey of one good man who learns what is truly worth fighting for. 

Book of Bravery, by Australian author James Burke, plays out this adventuresome story over a two millennia stretch of history. In each of its 14 chapters, we start with these beautifully crafted black and white illustrations in the style of a graphic novel by artist Don Marc Noceda. 

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The story opens, it’s 53 B.C., and we hear from our narrator, an immortal named “War,” who leads us to our central character, Quintus, a Roman Centurion in battle. Roman soldiers, including Quintus, are captured in the Battle of Carrhae and are taken to China. Fate takes a turn and Quintus finds himself in the hands of a Taoist master where life as he knows it is fundamentally changed.

Quintus no longer appears to age that much and we see him in different places and historical periods, (through the rise and fall of empires). He moves from ancient Rome to China, Eastern and Central Europe, Ireland, and by the 1950s, he finds himself in America, which leads us up to the current time.

Book of BOB
‘Book of Bravery,’ a novel 2,000-plus years in the making. (Image: via James Burke)

War isn’t the only otherworldly character in this story disguised in a human body. We also come to know of the characters Death and Famine. And then there are some base villains making deals with the underworld who pop up in each era in search of Quintus seeking retribution.

Although he moves through 2,000 years, every page of the book was engaging and compelling, and I had to slow down in order to make it last. 

The scenery and times change, and our main character adapts accordingly, just enough to go unnoticed. He has a karmic debt that keeps coming back at him and he is often faced with tests as Hell tries to drag him down.

He even manages to have a family during one of the eras and this proves to be a rich and also heartbreaking time for him, it is not without challenges. He continues through the times somewhat exhausted and always ready to put his life on the line for what though?…for you.

The book reads in some places like it is breaking through a wall and talking directly to the reader, and it works well.  As we make our way into modern times, the world is beginning to crumble and disasters are striking more frequently.

Ultimately, this is a battle between good and evil with a return to tradition, layered with many areas a reader can find meaning. This short novel feels well thought out and the pacing is just right. As the world gets more complicated and time goes on, our main character loses many of his supernormal abilities he once had and is becoming more ordinary. We are left to wonder if Quintus is up to it and can make it through or what will he have to sacrifice to complete his mission?  

We also come to know of the characters Death and Famine. (Image: Screenshot via YouTube)

The most subtle and poignant scene of the whole book for me is one where Quintus helps some persecuted prisoners of conscience escape, as a side note to his mission at hand, and that scene personally was the standout scene of the book — an incredibly selfless, gallant act that was so elevating as I read it.

It’s bold, compelling, and spirited, and impressive that the writer pulls it all off. The book is classed as Historical Fiction and although it’s geared toward a young adult, I think this book will be enjoyed by young adults and beyond. Before I started to read the book, I had thought it might be more suited for a male audience, but it didn’t take me long at all to change my mind about that. I could connect to the main character and this story feels like a breath of fresh air, universal and necessary.   

Based for the last 11 years in Thailand, the author, James Burke, agreed to answer some questions for us below:

1. How did you come up with the idea for the book?

Book of Bravery is an adaption of an un-produced screenplay I wrote titled Man of Myth which initially came from an idea way back in 2009 of a Roman centurion blessed with everlasting life after he saved some persecuted Christians, but that idea greatly changed after doing research, which opened up the possibility of that centurion character going to the Far East where he is taught longevity and other supernormal skills by an old Taoist who sets him up on a mission to save mankind.

Quintus finds himself in the hands of a Taoist Master where life as he knows it is fundamentally changed. (Image: Screenshot via YouTube)

2. What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

I do a fair bit of research — books or online. It’s hard to put a time figure on it — but I do enough reading to give myself confidence in what I am writing about and the characters within it.

3. How long did it take you to write?

It’s all a bit of a blur! I was doing it part-time at nights, so the original screenplay might have taken a few years. In 2016, I decided to turn it into a novel and began working on it; it was finally published in 2020.

4. Who is the illustrator and what was your process for collaboration?

An artist in the Philippines named Don Mark Noceda did the drawings that fronted each chapter in the book. I briefed him with what each image should look like to be done within his own style. He was provided with other images, photos, etc., as guides etc., and the actual scene from the book that the drawing needs to represent. He’d draw a sketch and then would send it to me for feedback, then he’d make any changes needed and he would then do the inking.

Hand-drawn graphic illustrations at the start of each chapter. (Image: via Don Mark Noceda)

5. What did you edit out of this book?

About 10 percent was cut from the first draft in the final editing stage; i.e., there was a lot more involved in the part set in the diner, but it just bogged down the story too much, so a lot of it was cut and made simpler. There was also more about reincarnation which was cut as it was deemed a bit too repetitive or it slowed down the story. In earlier drafts and in the screenplay, there were other characters who had their reincarnation backstory explained, but in the end,

were cut. Reincarnation was in the end only used when it helped move the story forward. Some parts of the novel were changed after feedback given, i.e., that character motivation didn’t seem right, etc. In early drafts, the main character Quintus also had a lot more supernormal abilities than what finally went to print. 6. How many hours a day do you write? While writing this book, I did maybe a couple of hours at night. My day job is a news editor, so I write there as well. 7. How has the book been received so far? Positive so far and it has been received well by a wider range of readers than I expected. 8. Are the characters inspired by

anyone you know?

There are bits and pieces of people I know who helped in forming some of the characters and bits and pieces of myself in some of the characters as well. Quintus is a saintly kind of character, similar to that of a character called Witt in the Terrence Malick film The Thin Red Line. The Witt character was kind, calm, but very courageous and selfless — a man also aware of other worlds. I’d never seen anyone like that portrayed in a film, and it really inspired me to create a character that was similar; human but saint-like without being preachy or overly pious.

9. What was your hardest scene to write?

Some of the action scenes I found difficult to write — especially the confrontation in the Reno diner and the final scene on the mountain. For some reason, I find them a bit dull to write, which is odd given they are “action scenes”!

10. When did the title come? Were there any others?

Book of Bravery became the name after the otherworldly narrator’s character became solid, as it’d be the kind of name he’d like to call the story. It had been called Man of Myth before that as a screenplay when no narrator was used.

11. What is your favorite childhood book?

The Hobbit

12. Do you believe in writer’s block?

For sure. For me, it occurs if I don’t do enough research or haven’t thought the story out enough before typing away. If I’m tired or uninspired, also doesn’t help. A writer needs to be enthused about what he or she is doing, or it won’t just happen.

The book’s protagonist Quintus draws inspiration in the character Witt, from the film ‘The Thin Red Line.’ (Image: Screenshot via Youtube)

13. Are you working on any other novels at the moment, what’s next?

There’s another old screenplay of mine I’d like to turn into a novel, but with this COVID-19 issue, I think it’ll be on the backburner for a while.

14. Are there any challenges you had to overcome in writing the book?

I was working during the day and have a family, so my window of opportunity to do work was late at night when I wasn’t really at my freshest. I had to drink a lot of coffee!

15. If there is one takeaway message from your book that readers could get, what would that be?

It’s a simple story, yet I think there’s plenty that could be unpackaged between the lines from it if the reader wants to. But for one message, I guess it’s the importance of tradition. It’s only mentioned once or twice in the book, and there’s no reason given on why tradition is important; that’s left for the reader to figure out.

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