The recipe for my new book, Savage Magic
Where did the idea for your book come from?
It’s never been easy for me to answer this question. I have a flibbertigibbet of a mind that bounces around from one thing to another. Ideas bubble up and sink back down, and sometimes you end up with a foul-smelling soup which no-one would want to eat. But sometimes what comes together is tastier.
So, here are four of ingredients for my new novel, Savage Magic. They weren’t the only four ingredients, but they got me going:
Take one footnote
Writing historical fiction means reading a lot of history.
In fact, it’s in the pages of books by other writers that I find hundreds of ideas. I found this particular inspiration in the back of Caroline Alexander’s book The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty. There I discovered a snippet of biography about a very bad man.
His name was Sir Henry Tempest, and he was a baronet who had squandered his own fortune, as Georgian baronets were wont to do. Sir Henry found his own equivalent of a payday loan in the shape of an heiress called Susannah Pritchard Lambert of Hope End in Hereford. He dressed as a gypsy and approached her on the village green, telling her she would meet her future husband that night if she went to the local church. When she followed these instructions, she did indeed meet her future husband: Sir Henry himself.
Women were chattels in the Georgian period. Everything they owned became the property of their husband when they married. Once he had Susannah Pritchard Lambert, Sir Henry had her riches too, and she (and her father) were thrown out of Hope End. Lady Tempest (as she now was) was soon dispossessed entirely by her now-penniless father, and the story goes that she became a street-dweller north of London, known to locals as the ‘ghost of Holloway’.
This story appalled me. It seemed to encapsulate an awful truth that is rather hidden from us today: that women in the early modern era inhabited a powerless world of awful danger, like goldfish in a shark tank.
Add some misplaced feminism
Why misplaced feminism? Two reasons: firstly, I’m a male author, and approaching feminism while carrying the burden of a Y chromosome means taking a due degree of care. The approach I took was to focus on the mistreatment of women by men. Writing about bad men seemed to be surer ground for a male author.
Secondly, because my book was set in 1815, and, frankly, feminism is not something that would have been remotely relevant to the women of that time. But I did have a female character I wanted to push into the foreground: Abigail, the wife of my repeating character constable Charles Horton. Much of Savage Magic is told from Abigail’s point of view, as a patient in a private madhouse in the village of Hackney.
Stir in an amazing woman
My third inspiration was the amazing true story of an extraordinary woman. Her name was Mary Broad.
Mary was born in Fowey, Cornwall, in 1765. Mary was arrested in Plymouth for the theft of a silk bonnet, some jewellery and some coins - it’s not known how much she stole, but it was enough to make her a candidate for transportation. Mary was sent out on the Charlotte, a ship in the First Fleet bound for the new penal colony of Sydney Cove, in New South Wales.
Mary gave birth during the voyage, to a girl she called Charlotte, the name of the prison ship on which they sailed. When she arrived in New South Wales, she married another convict, William Bryant. Mary had a son with William. They called him Emanuel, a Hebrew name meaning God is with us. Whether the meaning was desperate or satirical isn’t clear.
A year later, Mary sailed into history.
In May 1791, William and Mary took their two children and, along with seven other men, stole a boat and some supplies, and escaped. Sixty-six days later the group arrived in Timor. But William got himself drunk (men, again), and blabbed about the true story in a harbour tavern. His timing was unfortunate - troops from Sydney Cove had just arrived to arrest the escapees. William was shot down by these troops, while Mary, her children and the other surviving escapees were put on a ship bound for England.
Her children died on the way home.
Back in England, Mary expected to be hanged, but her case was taken up by James Boswell and a public outcry ensued. She was eventually pardoned, as were the other four surviving men from Sydney Cove. Boswell gave her an annual pension of 10 pounds, and Mary, it’s thought, went back to the west country.
When I started writing Savage Magic, it was about Mary Broad - or at least, it was about a woman very much like her. Which brings me to my fourth inspiration.
Season with a walk
The Saxon coast runs along the south side of the Thames estuary, roughly from Gravesend to the Medway estuary at Sheerness. I walked it with two good friends, and along the way we came to a little church high on a hill, with a view of the estuary. It’s quite a famous little church because in its graveyard are 10 little gravestones gathered around two larger ones. Ten dead children, buried alongside their parents, all victims, it is thought, of ague (which may refer to a generic fever, or may refer to malaria).
In other words, this may or may not be the church in which Pip encounters Magwitch at the beginning of Great Expectations.
Which got me thinking.
What if Magwitch was a woman?
And from that thought, out popped Savage Magic.
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What I have always loved about science fiction is that it can remind us of the genuine and often shocking strangeness of the natural world, and that it can do so without losing sight of human fragility, human courage, and the drama of daily human life. That’s the line I tried to walk in the writing of Burning Paradise, and more generally in all my fiction: something strange, set against something human.
Burning Paradise features not one but two varieties of Something Strange. The story takes place in the present day, but in an alternate history which resembles our own except that the last century has been remarkably peaceful and untroubled—a world in which the Great War of 1914 was the last serious global conflict. The explanation involves a different kind of Something Strange: all this relative calm has been orchestrated by a non-human entity for purposes of its own.
The universe is a big place. Our galaxy alone is a treasure-box of stars, and most of those stars host families of planets. If life is common, many of those planets will be biologically active. Some of them may harbor highly evolved forms of life, perhaps even civilizations much older than ours. Which means any technology that’s both possible and useful has probably already been invented—perhaps used for centuries and ultimately abandoned, all long before the planet Earth condensed out of the dust halo of our nascent sun. And if that’s the case, where are these technology-using civilizations or their artifacts? Why haven’t we seen any evidence of their past or present existence? That question has been codified as “the Fermi Paradox” (after the physicist Enrico Fermi, who first proposed it). I don’t claim to have an answer, but Burning Paradise adopts one hypothesis that has long been suggested: maybe the aliens are here, in a form we don’t recognize or which has been carefully concealed from us.
Maybe that’s because the aliens don’t act or think the way we might expect them to. Come to that, maybe they don’t “think” at all. Consider insects: ants and termites build elaborate artificial structures and orchestrate complex social behavior, even though they lack anything we would recognize as moral or intellectual thought. What if the same is true of our hypothetical aliens?
Which led me (as these airy speculations so often do) down another, entirely different rabbit-hole. Philosophers have long pondered the concept of what has come to be called “the philosophical zombie,” a creature indistinguishable from a human being but which has no conscious experience, no sense of its own existence, no real sentience at all. Maybe, I thought, my aliens fall into that category: no more self-aware than termites or spiders, but complex enough to generate plausible imitations of human beings.
The notion of such creatures as parasites is a venerable one in science fiction. Many of us first encountered it in one or another film version of Jack Finney’s 1954 novel Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It’s a deeply creepy scenario, one that gave me more than a few nightmares after I watched the early black-and-white movie directed by Don Siegel (I was ten years old). But parasitism, scary as it is, isn’t the only option. What about symbiosis—a relationship between two species in which each gains some benefit in exchange for what it loses? What would it be like to discover that humanity was already embedded in such a relationship, and that the price of giving it up might be very high indeed? Would you choose human autonomy, even if it meant the end of peaceful human thriving?
That seemed like an interesting dilemma with which to confront a set of characters (my Something Human) who are uniquely vulnerable to such an alien entity—or who might pose a threat to it. Cassie Iverson, 19 years old, is one of those characters, along with her aunt Nerissa, an English professor, and her uncle Ethan, an entomologist and author of a book, The Fisherman and the Spider, in which he has encoded certain unspeakable truths about human history. Because of what they know, Cassie and her family find the whole apparatus of human and alien culture suddenly turned against them.
It was challenging and interesting to write the villains in Burning Paradise, precisely because they aren’t villains in the traditional sense—they aren’t vicious, angry, or immoral. What they are is utterly and completely amoral: they simply cannot factor morality into their calculations. Moral choices, for them, don’t exist. They aren’t inherently violent but they will use violence without hesitation if it appears to serve their purposes. And it often does. Which means Cassie and company are literally fighting for their lives, the result being a novel with more head-on action scenes than I’m accustomed to writing. (One early reader called it my “most propulsive” novel. I asked twice, to make sure she hadn’t said “repulsive.”) Creating a plausible, peaceful alternative history of the twentieth century was another challenge. I worked up a timeline I liked, most of which never made it into the finished book except as casual references to past events, the names of schools and highways, implicit political assumptions, and certain acts of large-scale engineering conspicuous by their presence or absence. The research itself was interesting and a constant temptation to neglect the act of writing in favor of just, well, learning something—about European history, the geology of the Atacama Desert, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis (the fungus that causes infected ants to climb trees). . .
But basically, once I found my theme and characters, the writing of Burning Paradise was straightforward. The story more or less carried me along with its own momentum, though not without the inevitable moments of fingernail-chewing doubt and the constant alchemical transformation of despair to elation and back again. At the copyedit stage my editor asked me to expand the conclusion a little bit, which seemed reasonable, given my bad habit of hinting at resolutions and figuring readers can draw their own conclusions.
I’m reasonably pleased with the finished product, but what I like best about Burning Paradise is that it hews pretty closely to the elementary relationship at the heart of it: something strange and something human, a story of three fragile human beings and what might be lurking unseen in the deeps of the night sky.
Robert Charles Wilson
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The story begins a thousand times, in a thousand different places. It begins every time I think: “I will remember this.” And then actually remember it. It begins on the street in Damascus when I was fifteen. The sweet stench of trash and shawarma. It begins in the heat on the balcony overlooking the El Jahez Park. It begins when Tareq asks if I like to shoot and shows me a nylon bag full of his dad’s Swiss automatic weapons.
Other places, other times. The house in Söderköping, small-town Sweden. That awful, never-ending spring. I’m lying on my bed, just reading. I play football, tennis, basketball – sure, all of that. But that’s just stuff you do. All I want is to read. I am thirteen years old and the ending of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold brings me to tears. Not just the night I finish the book, but the whole week. I read it again; I need to understand, I need to crack the code. Within those pages hides the key to how an author can make me feel something beyond the suspense, through the suspense. That’s when I make up my mind. I don’t know it then, but that is when the story begins to grow inside of me.
Five years later I live in the US, outside of Washington D.C. The schools are closed because it’s snowing and I get to spend a day on Capitol Hill with Alison who is an assistant to some senator from the South, whose name I have forgotten. I really don’t remember much, beyond the fact that she was a Republican and that it didn’t matter at all, not even a little bit, when I stood next to her in the elevator, mesmerized by her perfect American hair, her ambition, and her clear, blue eyes. I felt how that moment grew inside of me and beyond me. How the present wrapped itself around me. How it whispered to me: “You will remember this.”
Fast-forward several years. I am much older and I have lived in many places, in many countries, on several continents. I feel that the thirteen-year-old-me would have liked that fact. I have a family now. A small, fragile, entirely unfathomable family. It changes everything. The light falls from a totally different angle now and I finally sit down in front of the computer, one night when everybody else has gone to sleep. I am on Rue du Conseil in Brussels, right on the border between the boroughs Uccle and Ixelles, in that wonderful 1930s-apartment, with the rusty, rosebush-covered stairwell leading down to the garden. I open a new document and begin to write what a few years later will have grown to become the book that has just come out in the UK this summer. I don’t even know that it’s going to become a book then, much less that the book will get published, translated, and read all around the world. But I dream about it already that first night, around three in the morning, on the balcony, looking out over the capitol of Europe, shaky with caffeine, ambition, and nicotine.
That first night is followed by an endless sequence of nights as the document grows, the story unfolds, the code reveals itself before me. The thrill, the chase, all of that which made my thirteen-year-old self begin to read and which I had gathered unwittingly and savored since then. But hopefully also the other things. Those things that made my thirteen-year-old self cry. The grown-up stuff. The real and sad stuff, the betrayals and the language. And now, finally, the book is here. The Swimmer is a spy story that begins and ends in Sweden but, like its author, it moves in all kinds of directions in-between.
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YOU was the project that I started right after I finished SORRY. I was in a kind of lost & found situation. I’ve lost endless nights over writing SORRY and I had discovered a darkness in myself that I really didn’t expect to be there. After 150 pages I got scared by my own story, I put the book away for two years, wrote three children books in between to let the steam out. But a writer has to be loyal to his books and especially to his characters. So I came back and turned one winter into a long dark night. Afterwards I promised myself never to touch the SORRY-territory again. The good thing is, that the idea for YOU was born before I started SORRY and it was coming from a totally different direction - I had five girls as main characters, I knew they were sixteen, in love with their friendship and they didn’t give a shit about anybody. So I let them loose. I also had a mob guy, who never made his hands dirty. I called him Ragnar, he was from Norway and always in control. I gave him a brother, who wrote jingles for the radio and dreamed of being a gangster too. And then I let one of them die and the other turn angry. Last but not least there is this strange traveller, with whom I decided to open the novel. He comes from nowhere, and he disappears into nowhere. In between he is on a killing spree and the body count is so high that I started to doubt my insanity from time to time.
All these characters fit together in a macabre dark way and that is the beauty of the book.
My big inspiration are mainly novels, movies and music. That’s where everything starts. The books range from light to dark, there is no plan behind my reading. I always hope for the best with the writers I adore, but it’s like Russian roulette, you never know if a book is going to hit your or not. And then there is music. It plays a very very main part, because it gives the rhythm to the story. Every part in YOU has its own song reference and if you know the songs and the lyrics you open a second layer to the storytelling. There is always a soundtrack running while I am writing, some days it is full of power and some days it just breaks down to a piano or a cello. I change between bands like Scott 4, Tunng, Misophone, Ghinzu, Sun Kil Moon and Elbow to musicians like Pickering Pick, Thomas Dybdahl, Nicolas Jaar and Devendra Banhart to solists like Adam Hurst, Goldmund, Alan Miceli and David Darling.
The movies give me the editing, the pave of cutting a scene and turning the focus. The big change in TV-series changed my writing too. I learned to give my characters more room to develop.
With YOU I decided to write the whole story in the second perspective, because it turned out that for meit is the best way to get closer to the reader. Some writers like Jay McInerney already used the same perspective but they never used it in the way I thought it should be used: More intimate and closer. I think it is a good aim in writing to get under the readers skin. The challenge was for me mot only to talk directly to the reader, but also to draw him closer to the story. I turn him into the character, by telling him what he thinks, how he feels and where he is going. It gets very personal and as the reader you get the good and the really bad characters at the same time. You have to get through it, no matter what. In SORRY it was only one character written in this perspective. There were people who couldn’t read the novel because it was getting to personal - to identify with a killer, to be a killer. With YOU I open the scope. This book is an entry into over eight minds, it is at the same time a road movie where a lot of bodies are left behind and those who survive will wish they could turn back time and start from the beginning.
The novel has a lot of chaos and I was drawn to it. We did get used to the idea that there is a permanent chaos in our life and it is a little bit like with permanent pain - it stops bothering you, you get used to it and it is a bigger pain necessary to remind you that there is a lot of hurt awaiting you. We are always in turmoil, we are always hungry and greedy and overflowing with love and deep down overflowing with resentment. I think there is no balance, we can’t stay good and righteous, because there are too many people pulling the strings and looking for advantage. They hit us with new damage all the time, and we react with anger or grief but in the end, we go on, we hope for the best and try to adapt to the changes. A revolution would be nice, people just saying enough is enough, people really changing the world and economy and the way we slide down to despair, but we are too domesticated for revolution. We have everything at cheap costs, the phone and the internet and the TV are working, we find free sex on the web, we find cheap friends there too and it is even possible to shit your pants on YouTube and everybody loves you for being so open-minded. That is the new chaos you have to be afraid of. Everything is possible and nobody cares because they hope the spotlight hits them first. That’s the dark side. The light side is: everything is possible. Even the good ones being there and staying there. I am a believer in the good, although there is a lot of bad stuff going on in my novels. Sometimes I think I just have to understand the darkness well enough and everything will turn to light. Sometimes I hope my characters will do that for me.
I am often asked why my five main characters are sixteen. To be honest it is in many ways easier then writing about adults. There is a different rhythm, there is more fun and there is more craziness. You never know what to expect from them. And though I know I am the storyteller, still they surprise me in many ways and often i had to follow their lead. They are definitely my favourites. And that’s a lie that is followed closely by the truth - I really love my characters. Even if they go into motels to kill everyone, even if they hate their fathers, even if they are dead and frozen and still caring.
There is no sure thing where a book of mine will end up. As there is no sure thing where my characters want to go. I know, I can tell them to stray put in one place, but I wouldn’t be a good writer if I wouldn’t give them free rein. At the beginning of YOU I was thinking the whole novel will play out in Berlin. Suddenly I was in Hamburg. Suddenly everything took a very bad turn for the characters and they were on their way to Norway. You can’t predict your own writing. And if you do, you shouldn’t be a writer.
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“Perfidia”, opening book of the second L.A. Quartet by James Ellroy, arguably the most important crime writer in the world, is simply massive. But if you thought that spreading the story to over 700 pages means that Ellroy lost his edge, you would be wrong. His voice is as unflinching and sharp as ever, even more so. In fact, I would be so bold as to say that “Perfidia” might be his finest novel yet which is a bold statement considering that this is the man who wrote “L.A. Confidential”, “The Black Dahlia”, or the Underworld USA trilogy. But there’s indescribable something about “Perfidia” that makes it different to his previous output. While Ellroy has once again chosen to explore the seedy criminal underbelly of L.A., Perfidia’s historical scope and ambition are simply unprecedented. Similarly to another great American author, Stephen King, in “Perfidia” Ellroy actually tried to connect his entire body of work while at the same time giving his best efforts to write the next great American novel. And you know what? Against all odds, he succeeded.
“Perfidia” is set over a period of only 24 days and takes place during the tumultuous period between December 6, 1941 and the New Year. The Second World War is in full swing and in Pacific and Asia Japan is making huge strides with its military campaign. As the Pearl Harbour is about to happen, in L.A. the largest Japanese community in the USA is suddenly on the ropes. A series of murder or ritual suicides of a Japanese Watanabe family means that among the racial tensions, blackout and war erupting all around them, two police officers, police chemist Hideo Ashida and Los Angeles Police Department captain William H. Parker, are working day and night to solve the case. A note left on the scene alerts to coming apocalypse suggesting knowledge of what is about to come. Along the way they’ll meet many memorable and familiar characters which constant readers will remember from pages of previous Ellroy’s novel. So for example, Dudley Smith and Kay Lake both make a welcome appearance and help with the case.
Ellroy’s stroke of genius is that he has managed to create an atmosphere that constantly changes and continuously surprises the reader as the story unfolds. In fact, it is even hard to pinpoint what kind of book “Perfidia” really is. At moments it is a historical novel, while at others you’ll feel like you’re reading anything from romance to a full-fledged crime thriller. This means “Perfidia” can be enjoyed by both newcomers and experienced Ellroy aficionados alike but for much more fulfilling reading experience I would suggest reading at least first L.A. Quartet first.
In short, “Perfidia” is vintage Ellroy and more. Its story is full of tectonic movements, fascinating and dangerous characters with ambiguous morality, and events bigger than life itself. It’s brilliant in its complexity and vastness. Now, would you please follow me through this descent into darkness that “Perfidia” is? You certainly won’t regret it.
Review copy provided by William Heinemann.
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“The Art of Killing Well” is a perfect example of a recent trend in Italian giallo literature - the tendency do combine all of the things that Italians love the most in one handy package: tasty food, fiery relationships and, above all, a good scandal. You might think that this sub-genre owes it's success to the ascent of Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano series but you would be mistaken. The Mediterranean literature always had a panache for combining the two and even the great Camilleri is indebted to Manuel Vázquez Montalbán's Pepe Carvahlo who ate his way through most of his cases.
However, the main protagonist of Malvaldi's “The Art of Killing Well” is not an inspector. In fact, he's not even a member of the police force but just a lowly culinary writer in search of the finest delicacies that Tuscan hills can offer. Pellegrino Artusi is based on the actual historical figure. Artusi is an author of the legendary cookbook “The Science of Cooking and The Art of Eating Well” which for decades formed the centerpiece of every respectable kitchen in Italy. Malvaldi's Artusi is quite a spirited character. Despite experiencing some truly horrific events during his life, he still holds a firm belief that life is as good as it gets as long as you're guaranteed three hot meals a day. Even a possibility of skipping a meal fills him with dread and that is exactly what happens when a body is found in a castle cellar. Cellar is found locked from the inside but still it is obvious that the man inside was murdered. Local inspector is stumped by the circumstances and it is up to Artusi's finely tuned nose and his love of Sherlock Holmes to provide an insight. Slowly he ingeniously leads the inspector in the right direction while at the same time finally gaining a chance to explore the delicacies of Baron's castle kitchen at peace.
In the after-word Malveldi mentions that he planned to place “The Art of Killing Well” in English countryside and you can clearly see why. Him closed-room murder feels like it fell out of an Agatha Christie novel. Still, when you combine Christie's finely tuned touch for mystery with Italian humour and culture, the results are very very delicious. “The Art of Killing Well” is as close as you can get to a perfect summer read. Its mystery will excite you, its fine food will make you salivate but fear not – the last 20 pages are filled with recipes for some of tastiest Tuscan delicacies which you can try at home. I especially recommend Tuna pie – it's out of this world.
Review copy provided by MacLehose Press.
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I wasn't really prepared for "The Last Tiger" because my only experiences of reading Tony Black's work so far were his excellent crime novels. I was expecting something on par even though judging by the synopsis and the absence of dark tones on the cover art I should've known better. Apparently somewhere along the way, Tony Black has discovered a literary streak in him and what a change it has been! Having since read "His Father's Son", I can only express delight at this new found nuance in his talent because the depth of his writing these days is simply staggering while the pacing of the story, brought straight from his crime novels, is still here.
"The Last Tiger" is the sad tale of the untimely demise of the Tasmanian tiger. It is 1910 and twelve year-only Myko and his family are in Tasmania. Having fled from their native Lithuania threatened by Czarist occupation when the Russians took his father's farm, they were bound for America but having found themselves in this beautiful but rough land filled with wild animals and unkind people, they're once again filled with trepidation. As Myko's father finds work as a tiger trapper (unbelievably, the Tasmanian government paid £1 per head for dead adult thylacines and ten shillings for pups), Myko finds himself in the situation where the fate of last few tigers rests upon his shoulders. The society is dead set against the tigers and considers them pests while Myko on the other hand, sees something different in them. Everything is carefully placed for the conflict between the father and son.
Poetically written, "The Last Tiger" is likely to make you very sad and melancholic but sometimes those books are the best kind there is. Black speaks about important things and through the tale of the final throes of this wild but wonderful species, he actually talks about the humanity itself and the need to accept the very things we don't really understand. Similarly to Myko's family, the last tigers are slowly losing their ground and are only trying to survive in only way they can.
"The Last Tiger" is an vivid emotional journey which will, in the best possible way, provoke you with its exploration of loss, family, life and death.
Review copy provided by Cargo.
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I’ve lived with the Telemass future for around thirty-five years.
I wrote my first Telemass novel when I was nineteen, a weak effort of forty thousand words; the only decent thing about it was the idea of interstellar expansion linked by vast Telemass Stations, able to beam things – people and products – from star to star. In the ’80s I wrote four novels set in this milieu; these were a little better than the first effort, but not much. I wrote a few stories set in the Telemass universe, and then some of them started selling. Meridian Days, my first novel published in 1992, used the idea – but set at the end of the days of Telemass Stations, when it was becoming no longer financially viable to maintain thousands of stations strung out through the Expansion.
Then, around 2005, I had an idea for a series of novellas set in the Telemass universe – these were inspired by a few stories I wrote about Dan Henderson and his life in the coastal town of Magenta Bay, Delta Pavonis. I kept the town for the novellas, changed the name of the planet and its star, and got rid of Henderson. The first novella, Starship Summer, came out in 2007 from PS Publishing, followed in turn by Starship Fall, Starship Winter and Starship Spring. They are what I call Quiet SF, following the lives of a group of friends on the backwater world of Chalcedony and the universe-changing events that sweep them up.
The series sold well, and last year Pete Crowther at PS Publishing asked if I had any ideas for a further quartet of novellas.
I wanted to write more stories set in the Telemass Universe, but before the time of the Starship novellas. These would follow the format of the Starship tales: each would be independent of the rest, but, taken as a whole, they’d read as a novel, following the same character through a series of events, each novella set on a different colony world.
The first two volumes, Famadihana on Fomalhaut IV and Sacrifice on Spica III, came out from PS this year. Matt Hendrick is a Dutch ex-cop attempting to track down his daughter and wife, who are on the run from world to world. The twist is that his daughter is dead, kept in a suspended animation pod against the day when the disease that killed her might be cured. His ex-wife has run away with a lover, and the novellas track Hendrick’s progress around the Expansion; he meets weird and wonderful people, aliens, and customs along the way, and find himself in various adventures.
In Famadihana on Fomalhaut IV, he becomes involved with a strange religious cult which seeks to raise the dead through a bizarre alien burial rite. (Famadihana is the Malagasy practise of digging up the bone of ancestors and parading with them around the streets every seven years.) His wife has became entangled with the cult, and Hendrick follows them deep into the alien jungle, and then underground, in a bid to save his daughter.
Sacrifice on Spica III follows him from Fomalhaut IV to the world of Kallithea, Spica III, to which his ex-wife, lover and daughter have fled. He here becomes embroiled in a murder mystery involving an old lover, and a suicidal cult founded by a messianic human called Cavendish Sagar.
Each novella, as well as taking Hendrick to an exotic world, will pitch him into a different adventure and delve, along the way, into his past and what made him the person he is. Each will be stand-alone, a complete story in itself but, taken as a whole when published by PS in a single volume, will read as a novel.
I’ve recently completed the second draft of the third novella, Reunion on Alpha Reticuli II, set on the world of Tourmaline. Here, as the title suggests, Hendrick is reunited at last with his daughter as he attempts to prevent her falling into the hands of an alien faith healer. Along the way Hendrick falls in with – and falls in love with – the telepath Mercury Velasquez, who will assist him on Tourmaline and his final destination.
The final novella is still the germ of an idea in my head; but it will be a story of redemption, of triumph, set on another exotic colony world... and, yes – it will have another suitably over-the-top, alliterative title.
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I’ve been itching to write a steampunk novel for years. I like the idea, the ethos, behind the sub-genre. I like the idea of writing SF unconstrained by the shackles of science and technology – it can be as way-out and wacky as you can make it – and I like the idea of writing action-adventure.
Last year I pitched a couple of steampunk ideas to my editor Jonathan Oliver at Solaris, which came to nothing. Then Jon asked, “How about something set in India...?” which set me thinking. Over the next couple of weeks, Jani Chatterjee was born. She would be half-Indian, half-English, torn by loyalties to both camps, grieving the loss of her recently deceased father, and pitched into an adventure in which the future of the world is at stake... It would be set in India and Nepal in 1925, when the British Empire rules the world thanks to something they discovered, fifty years earlier, in the foothills of the Himalayas; it would feature evil baddies, aliens from other worlds, strange devices – as well as obligatory airships – much derring-do, seat-of-the-pants adventure, and would be an unashamed romp, while at the same time taking a little time out to address issues like the idea of Empire, racism, and the role of women in society... but above all it would be a thrilling chase through an exotic India. Jani’s assumptions would be challenged along the way: in each book, reality as she assumed it to be would be subverted by things she learns – and the expectations of the reader would, likewise, be subverted by what is revealed.
Jon and the team at Solaris liked the idea, commissioned the novel on the outline, and then I sat down to write it.
First, though, Dominic Harman supplied a fantastic cover – which has struck the aesthetic cords of various reviewers, along the lines of, “Mechanical elephants and steampunk... what’s not to like?” I gave Dominic the brief for the cover before I’d actually written a word. Oddly, the idea that a mechanical elephant might make an arresting image came to me before I realised that an artificial elephant would feature in the story. But, once the idea popped into my head, I had to make room for it.
Then I began Jani, and it whistled out in little over a month. It was one of those happy novels which wrote itself. Jani became a larger than life character, dictated where the novel should go, and I merely followed her. Alfie Littlebody, a secondary character, (A bumbling but well meaning officer in Field Security, opposed to the excesses of the Raj) also took off in ways I’d hardly envisaged when thinking about him before I started the book.
I had more problems with the ‘alien’, and his depiction. In the novel he befriends Jani – or perhaps uses her to his own ends – and persuades her to embark on a death-defying quest across northern India and into Nepal. The alien, Jelch, had to be obviously unhuman, but sufficiently human to pass visually amongst the folk of India. He also had to be of another world, yet understandable to the reader in his motivations and mind-set – always a hard trick to pull off when depicting aliens. Whether he works is down to the reader to decide, but so far the reviews haven’t singled him out as a weak point.
A couple of critics have said that the baddies are too one-dimensional, too evil – and here I hold my hands up. They were meant to be. This is melodrama, where we hiss at the baddies and cheers the goodies. The Russians are irredeemably bad, and Jani good, for the sake of telling a headlong action-adventure-chase tale.
At the end of book one, Jani, Littlebody, and Jani’s Indian friend Anand, are fleeing India bound for London aboard a vast airship – and bound for further adventures that will test their mettle to the limits. They’re being pursued by Russians, Chinese (little do they know it), evil aliens and even the British. The trio hold the future of the world in their hands, and it seems that the whole world is determined to halt their progress.
Their adventures will continue in the second volume of the Multiplicity series, Jani and the Great Pursuit.
All I have to do now is write it.
Order Jani and the Greater Game here:
As always if writing a series, you’re constantly on the lookout for story ideas that will ‘fit’ your character(s) and the world in which they live. Whether its contemporary, historical or off-world, you therefore become accustomed to zeroing in on certain ideas which will make writing the next story easier.
With all my books I try to use a real backdrop element to each one, which provides me with something to hang the story on. With the Harry Tate spy series, I find the easiest way is to keep an eye on the newspapers, since the world of espionage is never very far away and rarely can you ever get too surprised by what goes on. Bear in mind, what we hear about is only a tiny tip of the iceberg that is modern-day spying.
The idea for ‘Deception’, the third book in the series, came about when I read a piece about army deserters, and how they are faced with trying to find a new life with new documentation, few friends and almost nobody they can trust. Effectively, they’ve cut themselves off and face constant discovery, and the biggest task is going not so much ‘off-grid’, but trying to find a new place on it.
I was aware that with the current advances in weapons, IT and communications technology, and the high levels of education and training in today’s military, many personnel now have hugely saleable skills and knowledge compared with those going AWOL years ago. Any one of these may be a potential target for those interested in buying what they know, whether foreign governments, criminal organizations or terrorists.
Trying to imagine myself in the position of a deserter, I asked myself what else do they have to trade in return for a new life, ID, money and the chance to disappear forever?
The answer is, not much.
Few runners jump the wire with a firm plan in mind; they do so out of desperation, trauma, fear and often psychological problems. But having gone as far as it is possible in leaving behind their old life, they have to face a dark future, and the question of how to survive. So why not sell what they’ve got… what they know?
Of course, like every other field, there are different levels… and their salability is rated according to their skills and/or knowledge. For some buyers, the idea of an officer with an eidetic or photographic memory, exposed to the most secret information possible, but who now wants to start afresh somewhere new, is a prize worth bidding for.
Having tied together these two chunks of detail, I had to fashion it into a realistic storyline that fitted the persona and world of my main character, Harry Tate.
The synopsis of ‘Deception’
Harryis a former MI5 (Security Services) officer. His skill at tracking down runaways is second to none –and the Security Services need his help. A group of renegade former soldiers called The Protectory is preying on deserters from the British army, trading their military knowledge for money, a new passport and a whole new way of life. But these deserters aren’t just any group of military personnel worn down by battle, traumatized and sick of fighting; they’re high-value members of elite regiments, with specialized knowledge of Coalition systems, weapons, tactics, communications and planning. And none comes more high-value, Harry is told, than a young woman officer, Lt Vanessa Tan, a former ADC to the British Forces Commander, Afghanistan. Critically, she is said to possess an eidetic (photographic) memory, and foreign governments would pay top dollar for what she carries in her head.
The only problem is, nobody knows where she is. But The Protectory is hot on her trail with a buyer in mind, and they will stop at nothing to make sure they get to her first.
At first, Harry isn’t interested. But when he finds out that one of the driving forces behind The Protectory is George Paulton, his former MI5 boss (who tried to have him eliminated by a killer called The Hit - see ‘Red Station’), he’s soon in on the chase.
Being a series, I was able to bring in a couple of characters from previous books, where it seemed feasible. One such was Paulton, with whom Harry has a long-term score to settle, and another was Clare Jardine, a former MI6 (SIS) operative and a fellow inmate of Red Station, who has a lethal interest in cute knives and also has a lethal grudge against Paulton. But – and this was where the fun came in - Clare is damaged goods, and won’t let even Harry get in her way.
So that was the conflict chain: Harry, Paulton, The Protectory, and Clare… and a couple of real nasties in the background whose job it was to kill anybody who got in their way.
As a writer, I tend not to write in a linear fashion (that is, starting at page 1 and writing until I fall off the page at 300-or-whatever and type END). I’ve tried, believe me, and I wish it were that easy!
What I do is start with the roughest of ideas – sometimes even just an ending, which sounds crazy, I know. Other times it’s a scene that just grabs me and won’t let go. Then I write more scenes that come to me, sketching them out roughly at first and working on them later as the mood takes me. These scenes are rarely connected and might be in a completely random order, with no specific link; the main question I ask myself is, will this scene fit the story and add something to the tension and pace?
It’s the same with characters; most begin as rough ideas, but some come fully formed very early on. To aid this process, whichever it is, I browse the weekend colour supplements, because that’s where I find great faces; faces in close-up, faces in black-and-white, the kind of warts and all representations of faces that grab me right off the page. Once such face (which I used for a character in the Inspector Lucas Rocco French police series series, not the Harry Tates) was a famous British footballer from the seventies. It was a full-page black-and-white ‘mood’ photo which leapt right out at me and simply wouldn’t go away. The eyes were so dramatic, the lines of the face etched in shadow and so full of pain, almost, that it just was the face of a burned-out undercover cop I was creating. And it helped me write that character, because whenever I needed inspiration, I just looked at the photo and knew what he would be saying or thinking.
And it’s the same every time. Once I have a face, it’s easier to describe the person.
Writing therefore is a production of creating stepping stones, then linking these stones together to form a cohesive path.
Very few of my random scenes or characters will end up being discarded. This is because once I’m on the hunt for the storyline, I’m in the ‘zone’ and therefore able to focus on scenes that I know will generally fit. They in turn breed other scenes, and eventually the mass of stepping stones becomes a whole story, with the main ‘crunch work’ consisting of filling in the gaps between.
I’ve been asked – once by a military policeman, spookily enough – if there are or were specific people or events behind the creation of ‘Deception’. The answer is no, there weren’t. That would be too weird and intrusive in what is generally a personal tragedy for the people involved. But with the scope and spread of news coverage these days, there is a considerable amount of detail out there that helps a writer create a story with an element of realism without delving into personal histories. And so it is with all my books: I use a vague collage of what I have read about, been told about and what know myself, to create the story, rather than copying real-life events.
The most important element of writing ‘Deception’ was, however, that it was fun to put together. And so it is with all my books. If I don’t enjoy the writing, the research and the collation of ideas and scenes, it’s simply work. And I like to make it as easy and as fun as I can.
Hopefully, that translates onto the page for the reader.
Order Deception here: