The Sheriff’s Catch by James Vella-Bardon

Sponsored Content 19 June 2022

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.

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