I don’t read enough fantasy. Actually, I avoid it like ebola.
The problem is, I write fantasy, and I also edit it. A lot of it. As with Sherlock Holmes, my mind is a cardboard box filled with whatever I happen to be working on, and there is simply no room for anything else. But at least I’ve edited books for the likes of David Dalglish, M.R. Mathias, and Mitchell Hogan, and the majority of my other fantasy-writing clients are up to date with the field, so I glean what I can from their work.
I’ve not always been such a slacker, though. I grew up reading little else other than fantasy—R.E. Howard, Lin Carter (Thongor rules!), L. Sprague de Camp, Michael Moorcock, Tolkien, Stephen R. Donaldson; at some point I read C.S. Lewis. I flirted with Anne McCaffrey, and remember The Sword of Shannara being passed around the local D&D club, but I think someone must have dropped it down the oubliette beneath the gaming table, where it probably still lies to this day, dog-eared and moldering.
In 1984 I won a school award for English Literature. My prize: the recently published Legend (Drenai Saga Book 1) by newbie heroic fantasy writer, David Gemmell, who just happened to live in nearby Hastings, and frequented my favorite coffee shop in Eastbourne. It was the cover that sold Legend to me, despite the disproportionate kneeling figure of Druss; it was predominantly grey, and the blurb was compelling to a teenager. Learning later on that the epic siege of Dros Delnoch was a metaphor for the cancer Gemmell feared he was facing only served to cement that book’s place as one of my all-time favorites.
Gemmell rather thoughtfully released a new book whenever I was about to embark on a long journey. I spent many interminable train rides between Eastbourne and Aberystwyth when an undergraduate, and subsequently flew several times between England and Australia when I lived variously in Sydney, Melbourne, and Perth. With Gemmell’s passing, lengthy trips became unbearable.
I looked in vain for a successor to Gemmell’s particular brand of Heroic Fantasy, but nothing seemed to fit. I’d already read all the decent old school Sword and Sorcery. I’d also read The Hobbit six times by age 11, and LOTR twice. I’d exhausted all the extant Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, but there was nothing else that appealed to me. After a while, I gave up.
With the exception of Lord Grimdark, who I find a rather jolly, thigh-slapping sort of a fellow, I am woefully ignorant of the modern field. I must be the only person living who’s never seen an episode of A Game of Thrones. A few months ago, I did make myself read the opening chapter, just so I’d have some idea what it was all about. I was a bit out of practice, and it took me a few pages before I could fully identify with the point of view character, who then went and died. My fantasy reading muscles were so atrophied, I lacked the strength to move on to the next character and the next scene. I will get there someday. Tomorrow, for sure. Maybe.
So, rather than bluffing my way about the current trailblazers in the genre, I’d like to talk a little about the kind of fantasy I am familiar with, and the kind of fantasy I try to write.
Fantasy, like any other genre, comes with its own set of expectations, its own implicit writer-reader-publisher psychological contract, be it rationally explained magic systems, science masquerading as sorcery, good always triumphs, (often at a huge cost in 80s Heroic Fantasy), or more recently, the Beyond Good and Evil, dog-eat-dog, There is No Exit atmosphere of Grimdark.
There are also familiar types, themes, and settings. Genre readers, after all, love the comforts of the recognizable, and while originality is trumped as supreme, it is often cliche that sells. And not just cliche, but tradition, or rather, “in the tradition of”, and the unspoken rules his implies.
I struggled with “the rules” of magic for quite some time, perhaps nowhere so much as with the tendency to slavishly rationalize things that, for most of us who haven’t pored over medieval cabalistic grimoires (cough), are inherently occult and mysterious. I wanted magic to be magic, not some kind of pseudo-science. I wanted demons, spirits, divinity—Arioch and the Lords of Chaos, not the mechanistic meta-narrative that explains away all such phenomena in the manner of Doctor Who.
The other pull that I’ve consistently resisted is the urge to hold a mirror up to real life, by which I mean a mirror not at all dark, but one on loan from the masters of Socialist Realism. There has been a trend of late to focus on the gritty and the realistic, to show characters (predominantly human) in all their naked ugliness, and while this has advanced the genre in unexpected directions, it is ultimately not why I read fantasy.
For me, fantasy is a branch of Idealism, and a telling of myths, where everything has a thematic or semiotic value. It is not, however, an intellectual pursuit, or a poetic tour de force like Graves’s The White Goddess, which is where I probably went wrong in the early days.
There was also a “rule” that the protagonist in fantasy should ideally be an ordinary person, through whom the reader can explore an unfamiliar world vicariously. G.K. Chesterton went so far as to suggest the protagonist should be young or adolescent, certainly of pre-cigar-smoking age. G.K. was a major influence on Tolkien, who in turn influenced C.S. Lewis. Lewis had children for his protagonists; Tolkien had hobbits, which are pretty much the same thing. Where the two Inklings differ is in their attitude to world building: Lewis’s characters are translated to a fantastical world, whereas Tolkien’s already live there (for the folk of the Shire, though, it’s almost as jarring as coming from another world, a kind of subversion of Plato’s cave, where Frodo, Merry, Pippin, and Sam emerge from the “darkness” of idyllic ignorance not into light, save for small elven pockets here and there, but into a world smothered by shadow).
Chesterton also recommended that the protagonist be human, and for the most part, fantasy leads are human (even hobbits are basically middle class Englishmen with a little less height and no need for socks).
There have been exceptions (Drizzt, Gotrek, the orc books of Stan Nicholls, the dwarf books of Markus Heitz—see, I know stuff, I just haven’t gotten round to reading it!)
[As an aside, when I was 13, I was determined to write an original fantasy novel, one that in no way emulated Tolkien. I began many drafts, each time studiously avoiding hobbits as characters. My races were different, although they kept ending up at three-feet tall and with hairy feet. But, man, I was a child of the 60s, and snatches of Leonard Nimoy’s The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins often insinuated their way into my subconscious. I could see no way out of this Tolkien trap, and so I mercifully gave up.]
In the early days of my “mature” writing phase, I was forever being told that emulation was the key: “Give them what they want,” one former publisher told me. By “they”, I assumed he meant the readers, but could equally have meant the acquisitions editors. “If it’s not similar to something that’s been a major hit in the past three years, no one will touch it,” was the rest of the sagacious counsel.
Well, I thought about the advice but didn’t take it. At one time, Stock Aitken Waterman’s creations were popular in music, but I was listening to Roy Harper. These days, it’s Demi Lovato and Lady Gaga, but my study is awash with Jethro Tull.
More than that, though, writing is no leisurely pursuit. It’s a torment, a bloody sacrifice. I’ve lost count of how many pounds I’ve gained from sitting at a keyboard for hours on end. And as for the whiskey… Writing fantasy has curtailed my lifespan by at least ten years; editing, another twenty.
So, if I’m going to write, I need to care about what I’m writing. I have to be the primary creator, not a re-hasher of other people’s work. That doesn’t mean every element of everything I write is original. Far from it. In some respects, originality is the death of good art. We all, to a greater or lesser extent, make use of conventions. If nothing else, they enable communication; and convention doesn’t have to be static: it’s there as a point of departure, even a point of subversion.
My impression is that most writers have their heads screwed on far tighter than me, and they understand the business end of things much better. There’s a whole slew of Tolkien impersonators churning out doorstep volumes of “High Fantasy.” The J.K. Rowling copycats are an army without number, too. The followers of GRRM and Abercrombie are even darker and less forgiving than their masters; even when they leave out the ironies and the subtle humor, they still achieve a good degree of success—so long as there’s “iron” in the title, and the tough guys come from “the North” (which in no way resembles Cimmeria), there are readers out there waiting.
But each sub-genre tends to grow tired very quickly, leading frantic writers to push the envelope as far as it can go in every direction (the film Iron Clad comes to mind—note the title). In the main, this means genre writing tends to be self-referential and, as it tires, comes to focus on one or two characteristic elements, which are pursued ad absurdum. So, in the gritty, “realistic” kind, limbs fly, blood gushes, heads are stuck on spikes (I’m actually a little guilty there); graves become marriage beds, betrayal is rife, and there is a pervasive atmosphere of cynicism underpinned by the kind of dialectical materialist philosophy that would have Chairman Mao dancing a merry jig, and Richard Dawkins gloating, “See, I told you there was no such thing as magic!”
It’s all a bit too clever for me, and a bit too miserable. And it’s in danger of becoming far too naturalistic.
When I studied drama many years ago, I was of the opinion Shakespeare should be played naturalistically. I argued my case and applied Stanislavski’s method to my own performances. A few years later, I realized I was wrong (blaming the director, of course), and promptly took up the opposite position: Shakespeare should never be played naturalistically. Thank God for John Barton and his books on iambic pentameter.
The same applied to writing fantasy. I’d always loved Sword and Sorcery, but at some point I, too, got swept along with the modernist phase. I started to write what was “realistic” but could very well have substituted “tedious”, “depressing”, or “jaded”. Nevertheless, I kept experimenting, searching for the elusive Philosophers’ Stone of fantasy. Ultimately, I came to believe that fantasy shouldn’t just hold up a mirror to “real life”; it should show us what real life could be, and what we are capable of becoming.
One thing did break through the mud-brick walls of my mind, though: I couldn’t turn back the clock and write the kind of fantasy I’d grown up reading. The genre, even during the 80s and 90s, had become much more sophisticated, not only in terms of plot, but also characterization, politics, magic systems, and the finer points of worldbuilding. Somehow, I needed to navigate a course between the old and the new: something multi-layered, with tight point of view, characters who had real emotions and relationships, who were changed by the events of the story; intrigue, politics, history, and yet underpinning it all, a sharp sense of conflict, magic, gods and demons, heroism, and, while there might be a considerable blurring of morality, an ultimate sifting of right from wrong, good from evil, and the tantalizing possibility of redemption.
If I’d thought about all that from the outset, I would no doubt have put a brick through my computer screen and taken up horticulture. Instead, the themes and ideas that have come to characterize my own brand of fantasy have been forged in the furnace of trial and error, and through hundreds of thousands of words.
I found I had my greatest success when I just got on with it and didn’t worry about being over-the-top, irreverent, funny, gory, or tragic. Even better when I focused on what I liked, and on what the readers who had been kind enough to email me their appreciation liked. Once I stopped caring about what was currently popular and what would sell, things improved markedly. The emails kept coming, and the bills kept on getting paid.
I focused simply on telling the stories I had in me, embellished of course with dramatic technique, most of it stolen from Molière. The big challenge at first was to stop sounding in any way literary (no easy matter, coming off of a diet of English “Men of Letters”). The more I wrote, the easier it became, until I think I discovered my own voice. And then, slower than a legless sloth dragging its torso through treacle, I realized successful story-telling was all about the characters, specifically their relationships. It was a complete “Duh!” moment, and I think the revelation hit me as a result of the books I was editing. Some of them, even when the prose was wanting and the story lacking, had something that readers responded to, and slowly, terribly slowly, I came to realize it was character relationships; but it was also about giving the characters room to breathe, or in some cases, enough rope to hang themselves.
Once the characters are given primacy over world-building, and when they are permitted to steer the plot in unexpected directions, it all starts to hang together. Fantasy then becomes a vehicle for exploring the themes, conflicts, and experiences common to us all, but often rendered bigger, or layered in symbols and images of mythical proportions. The main purpose is to entertain, but in order to do that, there must be a bond of identification between reader and protagonist, and that is achieved, not simply through likeness; it is achieved through the emotions.
I already had a few novels under my belt when I set about rousing the chagrin of G.K.C. and writing a short story in which the protagonist was a dwarf, and not just your typical beer-swilling, John Rhys Davies in a tamoshanta kind of a dwarf, either. For one thing, my dwarf had no name (and there’s a story behind that that makes Grimdark look like Enid Blyton). For another, he suffered with bi-polar disorder. There were elements of the stereotype there, too (he does drink a lot, he wields an axe, and he employs the Scottish term, “laddie” rather a lot—a nod to David Gemmell’s Druss).
The Nameless Dwarf short story, The Ant-Man of Malfen, was published in Pulp Empire, and I surprisingly had emails from readers asking for more. I already had a wealth of background material and a vague outline for a protracted story arc, and so I set out to write a series of four novellas and one novel. Even if the experts didn’t want a dwarf protagonist, a handful of readers, so it seemed, did.
The idea behind what became the five episodes of The Nameless Dwarf: The Complete Chronicles (Original Novellas 1-5) was to take the reader on a graduated journey from comic-book fantasy, through Sword and Sorcery (particularly the more phantasmagorical elements in Moorcock and Lin Carter), before moving into full-blown Heroic Fantasy with a massively epic conclusion.
Thankfully, the majority of readers got that, and the series became my bestseller. It enabled me to abandon the slave pits of Eastbourne for the life of a full-time writer in Florida. Nameless almost singlehandedly paid the mortgage and kept me in Châteauneuf du Pape.
But The Complete Chronicles wasn’t without its flaws. Because the original short story had focused on one brief episode, which I built the rest of the story around, I needed to fill in a lot of background. In the main, this worked quite well, but what emerged was a compelling backstory that was never actually shown. I started receiving requests to write the background, to tell the story of the terrible events that led to the shameful stripping of this dwarf’s name.
And I foolishly ignored them! The idea of writing such a tragic tale, swimming in blood, was about as appealing as cutting my toenails with a scythe.
Instead, I continued the story with Return of the Dwarf Lords (Legends of the Nameless Dwarf Book 4), a follow-on 100,000 word novel, which revealed a lot more about Nameless and the origins of his people.
At this stage, my writing had evolved through working on a series of other novels, and Nameless was really coming into his own. By the time Return was finished, I’d enjoyed some totally unexpected success with an audiobook of the Shader trilogy, which in one month made more in royalties than all my ebooks and print books together. I decided, therefore, to bring out an audiobook of Return of the Dwarf Lords, and to use a well-known narrator. I approached Tom Baker’s agent (Doctor Who number 4). Tom was interested, and we went so far as to book the studio, but at the last minute things fell through. Tom, it seemed, had heard the rumors.
Before I could go after Shatner, I was picked up by an agent who wanted me to complete the Nameless Dwarf story arc. That meant putting a hold on the release of Return of the Dwarf Lords and writing an origins novel (which became Carnifex: A Portent of Blood (Legends of the Nameless Dwarf Book 1)). I then had to take all the events from the Shader series that featured Nameless and turn them into a pure Nameless Dwarf book. It was a monstrous task that saw me writing for 8-10 hours a day. I cancelled all editing work, imbibed copious quantities of whiskey, and lived and breathed the Nameless Dwarf for six months.
The four books of the new series (book 3 is a revised version of the old Complete Chronicles) ran to over 500,000 words.
The story is rife with tragedy and themes of redemption. There are explorations of friendship and loyalty, the nature of evil, mad science, sorcery, god-like beings, and the use and refusal of power. That said, the emphasis, as I believe it should be in all fantasy—in all fiction—is on entertainment. The peaks are pretty darned heady, and the troughs abyssal; and binding it all together, there is a complex protagonist who, for many, is as lovable and funny as he is brutal and bloody.
Influences? There are plenty, most of them infecting my work at an unconscious level, but some more explicit. It’s hard not to see elements of Stormbringer in the dreaded black axe, the Pax Nanorum. Gemmell’s heroic fantasy, with its grittiness and ideals, is there, too. There are debts to Donaldson, and there are nods to Howard and Abercrombie.
Book 1, Carnifex, is my favorite story out of everything I’ve written. Besides Husk (2014), it’s the book that adheres most closely to Aristotle’s Unities of time, place, and person. Carnifex recounts how it all began for the Nameless Dwarf. It’s a tragedy of Macbethian proportions, but it’s also riddled with camaraderie, good humor, and a thread of hope that I believe David Gemmell would have approved of. The blurb is below.
CARNIFEX: A PORTENT OF BLOOD
LEGENDS OF THE NAMELESS DWARF BOOK 1
For more than a thousand years, the dwarves have hidden away from the world in their ravine city of Arx Gravis.
Governed by an inflexible council whose sole aim is to avoid the errors of the past, the defining virtue of their society is that nothing should ever change.
But when the Scriptorium is broken into, and Ravine Guard Carnifex Thane sees a homunculus fleeing the scene of the crime, events are set in motion that will ensure nothing will ever be the same again.
Deception and death are coming to Arx Gravis.
The riddles that preceded Carnifex’s birth crystalize into a horrifying fate that inexorably closes in.
But it is in blood that legends are born, and redemption is sometimes seeded in the gravest of sins.
For Carnifex is destined to become the Ravine Butcher, before even that grim appellation is forever lost, along with everything that once defined him.