There's always something Marmite-y about Greg Bear. Either you really enjoy his books or you simply can't be bothered to finish them. Luckily for the purposes of this review I'm firmly in the first camp so each time one of his titles gets published I know I'm in for a treat. I simply enjoy his action packed, cleverly thought out old school science fiction and that's that. While many consider his 2010 generation ship saga “Hull Zero Three” to be a book preceding "War Dogs", since 2010 when it was originally published Bear was in fact a very busy bee. For starters he published an immense trilogy of novels set in the Halo Universe. In typical Bear fashion his Halo:Forerunner trilogy was not just another Halo novel catering to the masses but a feast of high concept action which in equal measures confused and delighted many fans of the franchise. It is this trilogy of Halo novels that, in my opinion, holds the key to his new trilogy, first installment of which is his latest novel "War Dogs".
To put it bluntly, "War Dogs" is military science fiction of finest order which brings together massive conflict on an epic scale that Halo is best known for and Bear's worldbuilding skills. Set in the future after the first contact was made, human race is in the position where it can enjoy the benefits of knowing a more advanced spacefaring species The Gurus. Gurus are miles ahead when it comes to technology and are generally scientifically more developed but are lacking one very crucial thing when it comes to survivability - an ability to wage war. As a species which is very experienced in all matters of causing destruction, human race is asked to help them in their conflict against the Antagonists, malevolent race hot on Gurus' heels. In fact, the Antagonists already set their camp on Mars and it is Master Sergeant Michael Venn, combat expert specialized for off-world missions, who must together with his small team tackle the much more powerful Antags or perish trying. However, once they drop on Mars events quickly escalate beyond their control resulting in such glorious chaos which is a pleasure to read.
If you like Greg Bear's work and you can ignore headline-baiting names like The Gurus, The Antags or Skyrines which for a while made me feel like I'm reading The Sun, "War Dogs" offers an explosive ride across the red planet - that is once after you've passed the initial slow-burning entry. Indeed, for the most of its parts "War Dogs" does feel like a set up for what's coming in the subsequent books but as soon as you get down and dirty with Master Sergeant Venn the results are simply extraordinary. Caught in an unpredictable environment all the training that his team has goes out of the window and luck is suddenly as important as experience. The desperation of a modern soldier is palpable and it is often only the intuitive reflexes that make the difference between life and death. By the end Venn and his team are already battle-weary but their part in this war is only beginning.
"War Dogs" is Bear's best book in years but only if you're ready to commit for a long haul - this is after all just the first third of the story and next two books are still far in the future. The whole set up is engaging and while it does play with some of the more familiar tropes in science fiction its pitch-perfect delivery feels entirely refreshing. An opening to a series well worth checking out!
Review copy provided by Gollancz.
Order War Dogs by Greg Bear here:
The Knight was born of a project I had been nurturing for a long time: writing a historical saga. Or rather, a pseudo-historical saga, since I wanted to move away from real history in order to invent a world of my own. But the models I had in mind were several great series of historical novels, some of which may not be well-known outside of France: The Accursed Kings (Maurice Druon) or Fortunes of France (Robert Merle). But also North and South (John Jakes), for example. In short, I wanted to recount a troubled ‘historical’ period through the destinies of several characters.
Initially, I intended to write short novels that, in France, would be released directly in mass-market paperback. I planned to write two or three per year. But as I kept writing, it seemed to Stéphane Marsan, my French publisher, that my project was growing in scale and that the short novel format was no longer the most appropriate. Stéphane felt that my project deserved a format commensurate with its scope. He persuaded me of this and I found myself writing a big book . . . which would even become the biggest I had ever written! (Although I eventually broke my record with the sequel: L’Héritier.)
The Knight represents a lot of labour and its delivery was at times difficult. But I don’t regret it and I must confess I’m fairly happy with the result. The book is selling well in France and I hope it will be well-received in Britain because I have plenty more stories to tell. The Knight is merely the beginning. With L’Héritier (The Heir, released in France in November 2014), I’ve completed a first duology set in this universe, but I’m already thinking about a stand-alone volume and a trilogy that will bring new characters into play. So I know I’m far from being finished with the High Kingdom. Long may it live!
Order The Knight by Pierre Pevel here:
Valour is book two in a four book series titled ‘the Faithful and the Fallen.’ Malice and Valour are already on the shelves; book three, Ruin, is written and going through the editing process, and at the same time I am writing the fourth and final book (whilst my mind is under attack from ideas for a new series). It’s been an amazing ride, and one that’s swept up my whole family along the way.
It’s a strange feeling, writing the last one, as ‘the Faithful and the Fallen’ has been a huge part of my life for...counts fingers... twelve years now. Crikey, that’s a large chunk of time, during which the characters have grown in my mind to become - almost - real people. (Yes, I am slightly insane, as my wife and children will happily attest).
It’s a bittersweet feeling, writing the last book. It feels really cool to finally be writing scenes that I’ve been imagining for over a decade, and incredibly satisfying, but also sad to see the end, sometimes quite literally, of a lot of characters. People do tend to die in my books. Frequently. But here I am writing about the end when I haven’t told you about the beginning...
I’ve come pretty late to writing, and even then it came about in quite a convoluted manner. My daughter Harriett is profoundly brain injured and needs a high level of round-the-clock care. My wife was her main carer, while I laboured away at university climbing the academic ladder and teaching. Harriett's health deteriorated to a point where it became clear that I was needed at home, so I stepped out of teaching and joined my wife as Harriett’s full-time carer. That’s also when I started writing - prodded by my wife and kids, whom I’ve always told stories to - part over-active imagination, part big-kid syndrome. So for me writing began as a hobby.
I’m forty-six now, so I started writing/working on ‘the Faithful and the Fallen’ when I was thirty-four. I may not have written anything before then (apart from a pile of essays and the odd dissertation at university) but I’ve always read. As far back as my memory functions reading and stories have been part of me. One of my earliest memories is my primary school teacher rounding us all up and opening the first page of ‘The Book of Three,’ by Lloyd Alexander. After that it was a slippery slope of Hobbits and Ring-Wraiths, giant spiders, wooden horses, dragons and minotaurs and knights searching for grails. Mixed into that came a growing love of all things historical.
Once I’d decided that I was going to have a go at this writing malarkey I came to the abrupt realization that I didn’t actually have the faintest idea of how to write a novel. The only way I knew how to write was the way I had learned at university. Read, read and then read some more. So I did - the stuff that I get passionate about - ancient history, especially the Romans and Celts, but also a truck load about the Greeks and the Steppe and Persia, about Boudicca and Attila the Hun, about Remus and Romulus and the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, notes about the theories of Atlantis, about how swords were made 1000 years ago and about wolf-pack behaviour and bears and Komodo dragons and swords and axes and war-hammers and...well, lots. Also world mythologies, again Celtic and Greco-Roman, Norse, Slavic, Eastern. Then of course Beowulf, Milton’s Paradise Lost, some Blake, Dante, Machiavelli, its all gone into the pot. I think I probably researched more than I needed to (about two years!) firstly because I enjoyed it but also if I’m honest towards the end because I’m a procrastinator and was a little anxious about starting and finding out that I couldn’t do it. Eventually, though, with a good deal of prodding from my wife and children, I began to write.
‘Malice’ was my first novel, and because it was the first thing I’ve ever written creatively when I started writing it was for an audience I can count on my fingers - my wife and three boys. And me, of course. So by that logic I tried to write something that would appeal to all of us. In my mind it was a game of two goals; firstly I wanted to write something that was epic, a la Tolkien and Braveheart, (films were almost as influential in my mind as books - films such as Braveheart, Gladiator, Last of the Mohicans, Spartacus), and at the same time I wanted to write something that had a heart, something that felt intimate, built around characters, reminiscent of the multitude of Gemmell books that I’d read as a teenager. So epic and intimate became my mantra.
Once I finished Malice I gave it to my wife and children to read, plus a few mates. Feedback from them was good - but hey, what did I expect from family and friends. So I started googling how you get a book published, and became promptly very disillusioned and resigned to anonymity. Nevertheless I purchased the Writers Handbook and started looking at agents that specialised in fantasy. One chap’s name kept cropping up, both in the Writer’s Handbook and in my online searches.
John Jarrold. He had worked in the business for over three decades, running fantasy imprints such as Orbit and Simon and Schuster, editing authors such as Michael Morcock, Guy Gavriel Kay and Robert Holdstock, as well as representing contemporary writers like Mark Charan Newton and Adam Nevill. He became my ‘dream agent,’ the man always at the top of my list, so it was no surprise that John was the first agent that I approached.
To my surprise and very great pleasure John loved Malice and agreed to represent me. That was a good day. Mead was consumed.
John worked with me editorially for a while and then put ‘Malice’ out to publishers. Soon after there was a pre-emptive offer from Tor UK. This was just before Christmas 2010. Needless to say I accepted and there was much celebrating in the Gwynne household that Christmas, involving more mead drinking and enthusiastic jig-dancing.
Since then it has been a roller-coaster tale of writing and editing - structural edits, copy-edits, page-proof edits - the amount of work and effort from my wonderful editor Julie Crisp and the team at Tor that goes into polishing a book from its submission stage to being ‘on-the-shelf’ came as quite a shock to me - plus many cover-art discussions (now that is great fun, one of my favourite bits) and a very pleasant trip to the David Gemmell Awards where Malice won ‘best fantasy debut of 2012,’ a huge shock and immense joy. After I was picked up off of the floor I have been grinning about that pretty much ever since.
And now I’m writing book four, as well as feverishly writing notes on the new tale that is bombarding my mind. But that’s another story...
Order Valour by John Gwynne here:
This story had many different configurations. Some were in the near future, some in the far future. I rewrote it several times trying out various scenarios, and none of them worked. In reality, I just wasn’t a good enough storyteller, yet. I moved on to dabble in screen writing, which was very hard for me. It’s a restrictive format, with specific requirements within the story structure. It was an excellent lesson for me. I happily returned to novels with a new set of skills.
I had written two screen plays that made quarter finals in a couple contests. That made me feel the stories were good enough to flesh out. The first one I rewrote at least five times before I gave up. It wasn’t until someone questioned the vague setting that I made a breakthrough. Setting adds a unique flavor to the story. I was so focused on the plot that I hadn’t noticed the great yawning lack. Once I firmly placed the story geographically, it worked.
When I came back around to make another stab at writing this story, the first thing I did was place it. I tossed all the other versions and started from scratch with the basic back stories of a few characters in mind. I wanted to place it in the near future. One of the things I knew would impact the world in the future was the weather. So I had a place, western North Carolina, and a time of changed climate. The hot days are hotter; the cold more brutal. The middle of the country has been scoured by tornados and wind storms until it is uninhabitable. That was the bedrock for my world building.
During the SARS epidemic, in 2003, an entire apartment building was quarantined. I wrote a short story about how it must feel to be quarantined in your own home for days. The authorities struggled with how it would impact the economy. Schools, theatres and clubs were forced to close. No one shopped or went to work. I remember hearing that one entire city shut down for three days, trying to stop the contagion cycle. Soldiers were patrolling to keep people inside. I wondered what would happen if it lasted longer, or was more lethal. How would emergency services respond if thousands of people were dying?
I had to do some research on population numbers. If the country only had about 30 million survivors, could they be so spread out that groups would be isolated? According to the 2013 census, California has over 38 million people. It would be like taking the whole population of California and spreading it across the thousands of miles of the entire country. Or in historical terms, about equivalent to the country’s population in 1860.
Also, I had to think about what people would do if the government fell apart. Would you stay in your home or flee to family or friends? Stay where others are for safety in numbers, or seek isolation to avoid contagion? I think the answer changes with every person’s experience. So it makes sense that the general population scattered to whatever made sense to the individual. And it also made sense that some people would try to take advantage of the situation, while others tried to plan for long term survival.
I created a number of questions in the first book. For the second book, I am going to have to do a lot of behind the scenes writing to create histories and hierarchies and power struggles. A lot of that will be for me to refer to as I am writing. Some of it may never see the light of day, but I need to prepare it, in case I need it in the future. There’s a lot going on in this world. Depending on the direction of the story, the reader might not see something until the second, third or fourth book. The more preparation I have ahead of time, the easier it will be to weave into the story line.
Order Lethal Seasons by Alice Sabo here:
She’d come out of the ground headless, with someone else’s skull lying loose in her casket.
According to my morning’s Chicago Tribune, the exhumation was supposed to be routine, a modern forensic examination of the victim of a 1948 unsolved murder. Certainly no one had anticipated she’d been buried with someone else’s head—not the sheriff whose predecessors had never effectively worked the case; not the state’s attorney, who’d fought the exhumation; not even the small town’s mayor who’d pushed for the fresh look—at first at the request of a constituent who’d heard old-timers laughing conspiratorially about the murder, then because, some said, he’d gone crazy and begun hearing directly from her ghost.
For me, at first, the switched heads were simply tantalizing nuggets I could work into one of my upcoming Dek Elstrom mysteries, to fool readers into thinking I’m more imaginative that I really am. I figured I could fashion any number of fictions about why a body might come out of a grave sporting, loosely, someone else’s head.
The newspaper story, though, hinted at mysteries beyond why a killer would need her head or, even more bizarrely, bother to replace it with another: Why had the case languished? Why had the sheriff and the states’ attorney fought the exhumation? Was the mayor crazy, hearing from ghosts? Where, exactly, did one go, back in 1948, to get a spare head? And whose head was it?
Not quite mindful that I was in the midst of finishing my third Elstrom novel, due in weeks, and owed the fourth to my publisher in less than a year, I began researching old newspaper accounts. The facts were simple enough: Mary Jane Reed, 17, and Stanley Skridla, 26, had been out drinking on a June night before ending up at a rural roadhouse around midnight. The evening must have passed amicably enough, for they’d then driven the short distance to the local lovers’ lane.
Stanley was found alongside the lane the next morning, shot dead. Strangely, his car had been driven the short distance back to the roadhouse.
Mary Jane Reed had disappeared.
A massive search was undertaken along the nearby river and across the surrounding fields. Five days later she was found, lying easily visible, beneath a tree in a spot that already been searched several times. Though she’d been killed by a single bullet fired into the back of her head, the lone crime scene photograph—why was only one taken?—showed the bullet wound carefully covered by leaves. She was fully dressed except for the slacks folded neatly on her back, and her body lacked any signs of the decomposition that would have resulted from being left out long in the hot June sun. Where had she been for five days?
Numerous leads were pursued but none panned out. Now, almost sixty years later, the new autopsy didn’t pan out either; she’d been too long in the ground. It yielded no new clues to the killer.
Or had it? None of the old newspaper accounts, some of them quite lurid, mentioned anything about a beheading. How could that have been kept quiet?
I called the mayor. Intriguingly, he now owned the roadhouse where the young couple had last been seen alive—except, of course, by whoever killed them. He was eager to talk to anyone interested in the long-ignored case. I drove the eighty miles west from Chicago.
The mayor was coolly methodical as he laid out detail after detail about the long-ago killings, of the people and the places, the jealousies and the rumors and the strange silences that descended whenever he asked local old-timers about the case.
He told me who he thought killed Mary Jane Reed and Stanley Skridla.
He shrugged, admitting there were other viable candidates. “It’s been sixty years; most everybody’s dead,” he said. “Still....” He let the thought dangle, unfinished.
A seventeen year old girl’s murder had gone unsolved, and mostly unremembered, for almost sixty years. Surely Mary Jane was owed more than that.
Perhaps…my thoughts sped up…a telling of her story through the relaxed constraints of truthful fiction.
But to do that, I’d have to know who’d been the most likely killer. And that demanded understanding why her head had been switched and who’d conspired to keep that secret—something that had eluded everyone involved in her recent autopsy.
Even the mayor, the person most knowledgeable about the case, could only offer vague theories. None made sense.
Mary Jane Reed rode with me every minute of my way home, and she stayed close during the next days, weeks, and months as I finished my third Dek Elstrom novel and wrote the fourth. I stole moments, sometimes hours, and often whole days to study the old press clips reporting the deaths of Mary Jane Reed and Stanley Skridla, and to reread the notes I made during my visits with the mayor—yes, I drove back to the roadhouse another half-dozen times, each time returning home with more fresh questions than answers to old ones.
When, at last, I was free to begin the story of Mary Jane Reed, I wrote like a man possessed by devils, except they were details, the hundreds I’d accumulated in my months of on again, off again researching. Deciding which mattered and which to shrug away went well at first, and the first sections of the book, the chapters presenting the events of the murders and the manhunt that ensued, fell quickly into tight shape.
And then, as I knew I would, I slammed into the wall that had always been waiting: Who’d needed her head, and why?
I’d hoped I could puzzle it through by writing. I composed a dozen scenarios, and then a dozen more. No invention worked; I could make no sense of why the skulls had been switched.
Until my mind wandered, unbidden, to the image of a fence post—a simple weathered chunk of wood that likely I’d never actually seen. It set something rocketing loose in my consciousness, something small and bright that had been hiding in plain sight.
I understood why her head had been needed, and why another was given.
I had my killer.
Order Silence the Dead by Jack Fredrickson here:
A few years ago the bottom rather fell out of my world and that left me with a big problem. What are you supposed to do when your whole belief system falls down around your ears? When you find that the only thing that used to make sense turns out to be a phantasm and that you and almost everyone else on the planet has been taken for a ride.
The answer is that you either pick up a gun or you pick up a pen.
For a wishy-washy liberal like me the gun was never a solution but I could instead write about someone who was much braver and firmer in their resolve and not afraid to resort to violence where necessary.
My failed belief system had been Science itself and indeed I had made a successful career as a physics professor but had begun to harbour grave doubts about the whole thing. Whereas once I had been entranced by many of the ideas in physics like multiple universes and cats that were simultaneously dead and alive, I suddenly realised that rather than yielding profound insights into how the universe worked this was instead a sign of massive desperation. That either we weren’t even close to understanding the universe or perhaps, and this was the real heresy, that there was nothing to understand in the first place. That all our laws and principles were like the lines of latitude and longitude we project onto the surface of the Earth. These help us navigate around but they have no effect on the planet which goes serenely about its business with or without them.
When I looked into this further I found to my relief that I wasn’t the only one harbouring these crazy thoughts. I found myself in the company of weighty historical figures like Nietzsche and Feyerabend and Husserl. Amongst the dusty academic texts I found evidence that such heresy extended beyond physics to mathematics and indeed to all the sciences.
Unfortunately these ideas are often couched in dry and opaque academic prose and so I am in the process of writing a non-fiction book which presents these concepts in language accessible to a non-academic reader.
The trouble is that writing a non-fiction book can be rather boring. To make my work a bit more interesting I decided to write a thriller called ‘The Heretic’ in parallel but based on the same central concept. This thriller could contain all the violence and sex that was of necessity sadly lacking from the non-fiction book.
‘The Heretic’ deals with the idea that if we don’t understand how the universe works at all then our research runs the risk of unearthing vast and destructive effects that we cannot even begin to anticipate: effects that could be of extinction level for all life on Earth. Our protagonist becomes aware of such a danger and has to prevent it occurring but not by resorting to measures as benign as picking up a pen.
To give the central character’s back story some authenticity I found myself mining my own experiences from a voyage on a merchant navy ship down to Chile in the 1970s (this was the equivalent of my ‘gap year’ though that term hadn’t even been coined then). It was a nasty time as the democratically elected government had just been toppled in a CIA backed military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet. People in their thousands were being ‘disappeared’ then tortured and killed, some of them on a training vessel for naval cadets berthed not far from us (see ‘Esmerelda BE-43’ on Wikipedia if you’re interested). I saw and experienced some terrible things and used these in the book, though at each point giving them a few extra turns of the screw so my character ends up even more messed up by them than I was. In fact I found writing about all this quite cathartic.
So in the end the book is about a messed up man doing messed up things in a messed up world. They should have used that for the blurb.
Order The Heretic by Fergus Bannon here:
Thailand, 1990. While travelling, I came across a paperback Doc Savage collection at a bookshop near Surat Thani railway station. It contained four stories featuring the Man of Bronze and his team of sidekicks, the “Fabulous Five”. I had a ten-hour train journey ahead and needed something to read, but that wasn’t the only reason I bought the book. I was already a Doc Savage fan thanks to the early-70s Marvel comics adaptations and the 1975 Ron Ely movie, but had never read any of the original pulp novels from the 30s and 40s. Even the relatively recent Bantam Books reprints were almost impossible to find in the UK back then. Now, at last, was my chance to visit the source, to mainline some of the pure stuff.
I can remember how bitterly disappointed I was by the poor quality of the prose. These were stories churned out at a rate of knots by a team of hacks, principally Lester Dent, under the house name of Kenneth Robeson. The writers were paid by the word and oppressed by punishing deadlines, and boy did it show. Circumlocution, periphrasis, repetition, said-bookism – every literary sin under the sun, they committed, and plentifully.
It wasn’t what I wanted out of my own fiction back then, or anyone’s fiction. I was a high-minded young man, with one published novel under his belt and a vague desire to change the world with his writing. The book, though it passed the time, repelled me in a way. With a faint sense of disgust I left it on the train after I disembarked, for some other backpacker to find.
Twenty-odd years on, I am older and if not wiser then more experienced and sanguine. With now over fifty books to my credit, I can appreciate far better the qualities that Dent and his ilk – Walter Gibson, who wrote most of the Shadow series; Norvell Page, who gave us the sinister Spider; Harold Ward (Doctor Death); Kendell Foster Crossen (the Green Lama); countless others – brought to their work. Yes, they were hardly great wordsmiths, but what they did supply was storytelling with an undeniable power, a narrative thrust that was propulsive and irresistible. Through garish characterisation, absurd plots, lurid violence, and abundant fisticuffs, they created adventures designed to keep you hooked all the way through to the end. The sheer momentum they were able to generate took your breath away. I read their tales with awe and admiration, and the prose, through it sometimes still makes me wince, doesn’t offend me nearly as much as it did. It’s good enough; it does the trick.
When my publisher Solaris suggested I should write a series set on far-flung planets, each world distinctly different from the others, I immediately saw a way to dovetail the concept with my newfound admiration and enjoyment of the classic hero pulps. I was keen to produce something just as dynamic and plot-driven, but with a central figure who was no chisel-jawed superman like Doc Savage and had no mysterious powers like the Shadow, someone with a few more dimensions and angles to him, a skilled everyman who was undeniably on the side of good but was compromised and flawed as well.
Taking a leaf out of my exemplars’ book – the cheap-cut, yellowing pages of a pulp novel – I made a conscious decision not to stint on the action. If a couple of chapters went by without incident, I would introduce a new threat. The story would never stand still. Navels would not be gazed at. Introspection would be brief at best. Pace was all.
I also made the decision to impose a ban on paragraphs longer than three sentences. I’ve always found that making rules for myself helps expand my imagination and forces me to think harder. I work well under constraints. The three-sentence thing wasn’t something I stuck to religiously in World Of Fire, but I did my best.
The book is the first volume in what I hope will be a long-lived series which brings a flavour of the hero pulps to an intergalactic setting. There’s a Cold War in space between the human race and an AI civilisation, and we have a man at the forefront of it, part spy, part footsoldier, Dev Harmer, doing his best to keep the peace and maintain the uneasy balance of power.
I wrote it in a blaze of speed, channelling the ghosts of the pulp fictioneers of the between-the-war years who thought nothing of polishing off a 60,000-word novella in a week. It’s designed to keep the reader turning the pages and leave him or her breathless at the end and eager for more – and, I hope, unwilling to leave the book behind on the train, unless it’s with the intention that some fortunate stranger will pick it up and enjoy it too.
Order World of Fire here:
The origins of this novel go back several years to a short story of the same name, published in the British science-fiction magazine Interzone in 1995. The story was set on an island-continent set in a sea of molten lava on a colony planet; as sometimes happens, a story doesn't lose its grip on my imagination even when it's been written and I started to realise there was something bigger here, and that this world with its molten sea would make a terrific setting for an epic fantasy. Once I'd made that leap, the rest of the world started to fall into place, and increasingly I found myself thinking in terms of an end of era story, with the world and its people heading relentlessly towards catastrophe.
The original story revolved around the dynamic between two main characters, Leeth Hamera, the son of a wealthy merchant who has run away to escape the pressure of expectations, and Chi, the enigmatic leader of a small band of renegades living beyond the reach of the law on the island-continent. In the novel Leeth becomes the trusted sidekick of Chi, who turns out to be the son of an aging mage who, in his final years, decided to pass his Talents on to a new generation. Set against a backdrop of impending disaster, the mage’s children come together to resist a rogue church leader who is trying to use ancient earth magic to strengthen his grip on power – with potentially devastating consequences. It’s a big book, with lots of twists and turns, and fantastical settings, and lots of history and conflict between the siblings and those around them.
For me, writing a book like this was a complete departure. I've always prided myself on the variety of my writing output, following the ideas rather than any career plan: I've never wanted to fall into writing the same old story (or genre) over and over again. I've written hardish SF, near-future cyberpunk thrillers, horror, far-future SF and more, but the closest I'd ever come to out and out fantasy was my 1997 novel Lord of Stone, a post-war story about the death of magic as secularism robs it of its power - in other words, a fantasy about a world that's losing what makes it fantastical. Epic fantasy on a broad canvas, and in what turned out to be a big fat volume, was new territory.
One of my favourite responses to the novel is an Amazon reader review (http://www.amazon.com/review/R2V86A51XGFPQ0/), not for the title ("The best high fantasy I've read in years" - okay, not *only* for the title) but because the reader totally got my approach: "What makes Riding the Serpent's Back such a rewarding high-fantasy epic is that it's infused with a sort of science sensibility." That's exactly what I set out to do: most good fantasy is based on rules and internal consistency with those rules but my aim was to take this one step further, to write a fantasy where magic isn't special, it's just an everyday part of how the world works: it can be understood as a science, just as if it were medicine or physics. When I realised this it made complete sense of the story's history: whether science fiction or fantasy, my approach would be the same - I wanted to reappropriate the realist fantasy approach I'd taken with Lord of Stone and apply it to epic fantasy.
That Amazon review goes on to say, "I'd say this was a tour de force, but everyone assumes that novels described thus must be short and twee. Riding the Serpent's Back is anything but that. It's a big rambunctious, ambitious delight that I hope is going to have a sequel real soon." If I was more career- minded, that's exactly what I'd do: write that sequel (I already have it mapped out). Maybe one day I'll do exactly that, but Riding the Serpent's Back was written to stand alone on its own terms so a sequel isn't required and, as I say, I'm the kind of writer who follows the pull of ideas rather than ever doing anything sensible like sticking to a career plan!
Keith Brooke is the author of fourteen novels, six collections, and over 70 short stories; his most recent SF novel alt.human (published in the US as Harmony) was shortlisted for the 2013 Philip K Dick Award. He is also the editor of Strange Divisions and Alien Territories: the Sub-genres of Science Fiction, an exploration of SF from the perspectives of a dozen top authors in the field. Writing as Nick Gifford, his teen fiction is published by Puffin, with one novel also optioned for the movies by Andy Serkis and Jonathan Cavendish's Caveman Films.
Order Riding the Serpent's Back here:
I thought for this piece it would be fun to do something a little different and look at things that were in drafts, early or late, that didn’t make it in, and why not. I knew at the outset that I was writing a fantasy novel in a culture that was roughly equivalent to England in 1800 technology-wise (with some aberrations, such as gaslamps and functional plumbing), that it was going to be a love story, and that it would have dragons, but an awful lot of things changed in the mechanics of actually building the world and the story.
In the very first draft, Corin had a cousin. He stayed in until the last draft before submitting to a publisher. I wanted Corin to have a confidante, but the cousin couldn’t really carry his weight as a character of his own, so he was finally pruned.
Early on, Tam was the granddaughter of the palace librarian. This got changed for several reasons: it came out hokey; it was too big of a class gap for a realistic romance pushing the edges; I wanted her to be a lot more knowledgeable about science, so it made more sense to have a scientist father; and it didn’t really give her a good personal reason for being invested in the story.
Aram had a different name and was (unintentionally) a lot less forceful as a person. Corin’s mother had a lot more of a role, but it was all connected to a really terrible subplot. Tam’s parents also had a lot of on-stage time, but it was mostly repetitive and didn’t help the story move.
There was a scientist/experimenter type person, so I could have scenes with experiments and also really sexist men hating Tam, but again, he couldn’t carry his weight on his own, and the subplots weren’t really going anywhere with him either. The good stuff from him got re-assigned to Liko.
In the earliest drafts, the issue was the war with Sarium and Mycene, and the dragons were more incidental. The war plot alone never really held together, because it turned into a kind of complicated and not very interesting mish-mash of guessing at people’s motives without anything really happening.
Even when I got the first two-thirds or so of the book sorted out, I didn’t know what to do after the attack on the palace. Tam split for home, where she waited around for something to happen and kept the marriage secret from her parents. Corin went to Mycene and snuck around the Emperor’s palace to try to find the dragons there. Lots of different variations of these two basic plotlines took place, none of them really working. I finally figured out that I needed Corin to stay in Caithen, but even given that he still had a magical confrontation in the Emperor’s palace at the end. Realizing it all needed to take place in the mountains and not move around so much was one of the big realizations that held the book together.
The other big change needed was to bring Tam and Corin together for the ending, instead of having them doing the resolution of separate (and not very interesting) plot lines. I had wanted the tension of not knowing if the other was alive or dead, but since the reader knew it wasn’t very convincing, and it didn’t move the story forward at all. The characters worked best on the page when they were with each other, and once I reunited them a lot of things fell into place.
Some of the other subplots and plot variations included complicated and elaborate betrayals; Tam being captured and rescued in various forms; an attempt from within Mycene to overthrow the Emperor; the occupation of Dele (which still occurred, but is now offstage); conflict between the Mycenean and Sarian leaders in the occupied palace; hidden weapons caches; and a peasant girl who learned things she shouldn’t. She was intended as sort of an anti-Tam, uneducated and poor, in order to show the grim side of class structure, but there was no convincing way to make her story intersect with the main one. There was too much going on as it was, so her plot got eliminated. It could still be a decent story, but it’s a very different story and trying to force it into the main plot just didn’t work.
Magic, both that done by the dragons and that done by other people, took a lot of different forms. The writing problem I really had with magic was that I was using it as a tool to resolve plot holes, which never works. The tighter my plot got, the less magic I needed. Dragons could make portals, but that became unnecessary once I got over the need to whisk Corin in and out of the Mycenean palace. Conversely, a lot of magic stuff got thrown in because it seemed cool and then was never used. In one draft, the wizards were actual shapechangers, which would still be interesting but only served the story as a way to further complicate the messy betrayal subplots. In another version, the Sarians had magic spells that were woven into cloth and could be use to magically bind people together. I still like this idea, and a variation of it is actually quite important in the Moth and Spark sequel underway, but again, it just muddled things in the story.
The biggest change I made to the magic was the removal of another supernatural evil force. It was basically one of the ancient Greek Furies, and it was pretty much pure monster. It was creepy and bad, and I liked tapping into a different mythos, but it overburdened the story and didn’t have a good reason in the plot. It was not a confusing thing, but there were already enemies and magic enough that it was superfluous.
One of the cuts that was hardest to let go of was a scene where Tam is in a cave and finds the skeleton of a wolf. She makes a pan pipe out of one of the bones, and it brings a wolf, which may or may not be “real” to her as a guide. Animal magic has always fascinated and drawn me, and I still managed to work wolves in a bit, but once I took her out of the cave there was no reason whatsoever for the wolf.
What I essentially learned about magic is that a little can go a long way. I knew this (Gandalf, for example, hardly does any magic in the Lord of the Rings), but I still felt like I had to make it more magic. The problem that created for me is that one of my strengths as a writer is in the details of worldbuilding and portraying daily life, so magic made me flounder around in the aether and became vague instead of compelling.
As a writer I have a “throw it all at the wall and see what sticks” method, which has the advantage of letting my creativity run wild. But it’s also a pretty inefficient way to write, requiring a lot of revision and a bit too much time trying to push things I love into a story that doesn’t want them. Writing is a little bit like parenting: I can shape my story and put limits on it, and I know what my raw material is, but the story will take on an independence of its own. I’ve been writing for years, and I am still learning to listen to the story that wants to be told. But that’s one of the things I love about it: when I sit down to type, I can’t be sure where I’ll go. Every day is unpredictable.
Order Moth and Spark by Anne Leonard here:
A war that has torn a kingdom apart for three long years.
The first professional standing army England has seen since the Romans.
The coldest winter for a hundred years.
Ten thousand men crammed into one small town with no escape.
I liked history at school right up until the point we started to study it with any sort of seriousness. For the first few years we did Romans and Egyptians and Greeks and the Norman conquest and that was all fighty and interesting, but we never really looked too much at the reasons behind why anything happened the way it did (or maybe I'm wrong, and I just wasn't paying enough attention). But for the last couple of years, coming up for O-levels as they used to be, history all went horribly wrong for me. I had a great teacher. Mr Utting, if I remember correctly (hello Mr Utting if you're out there). The fact that I remember his name after all these years says something. He was possibly the best teacher I ever had, and his brilliance was managing to hold my attention and remain engaging while teaching a subject that felt like trying to eat plasterboard.
I can only imagine someone exam board had something of a senior moment when they were setting the syllabus: you've got two years, so what shall we study? I know, let's study the history of Europe over the last couple of hundred years, because that's pretty relevant to where the contemporary UK finds itself, and if you can understand how Europe was shaped and formed and ended up the way it is, well then you're a long way to having learned something useful. So, how do we get all these youngsters interested, eh? I know, let's cut out all the bits the boys will be interested in – the French revolution will all those gory beheadings, the Napoleonic wars, minor incidents of the first world war and the second world war, and so forth, those irritating practices of colonialism and empire-building. In fact we'll quietly ignore the fact that there was, in fact, a world outside Western Europe, and never mind how competitive empire-building led to the First World War. No, we'll teach you about the other French revolution that no one ever remembers (1848. Louis Napoleon. Lamartine. General Cavagnac! I still remember, god help me), how Germany and Italy were made into united countries, the Crimean war (but not why) and then we'll skip right along to the Weimar republic without having much to say about how what the First World War was all about, we'll not mention the social changes it brought about in Britain (where we live) or anything about Ireland (right next door and those were the days when, if you were English, terrorism meant the IRA). If there was one lesson to learn from the history of Europe over the last century, it's surely the rise of German National Socialism (which we covered), and, rather critically, why that was a BAD THING. But no. We studied the rise and then didn't take that any further, thus carefully avoiding any insights into how the aftermath of the First World War led directly to Hitler and the Nazis and all that. It was, it seemed, a single-minded effort to drain the subject of anything troubling or unsettling, of all possible vibrancy, interest, colour and purpose.
I dropped history as soon as I could and went off to be a scientist, because in science we got to make things explode, and that was fun. I think it took me about twenty years to get over that. I started reading up on fragments of history again when my writing hobby started to take off into something more and suddenly I was writing several books a year instead of one book every several years (dear fantasy writers – you will find no greater source of inspiration for weird and wonderful settings than a broad sweep through global human history). It took off some more when I was invited to submit a proposal to ghostwrite a historical novel with a few fantasy elements that would have been the next in an ongoing (and pretty successful) series. I didn't get the gig, but it was a serious offer with money up front just for a decent proposal, so I went and diligently read the novels and looked up the history and found out several important things: firstly, that it was really quite easy to poke holes in the factual historical setting of the existing novels. Not big world-crushing holes, but holes nevertheless, and yet those books had done well and no one seemed to mind. Second, that doing historical research was far more interesting than I feared, and, thanks to the internet, nowhere near as difficult either. Best of all, I liked it. When the whole ghostwriting gig fell through, it was a disappointment for several reasons, and one of them was simply that I'd wanted to do it. I'd wanted to write that story.
I was busy, and so I didn't. A year later I started on The Royalist instead.
So that's a better answer, but still why this one? Why not Romans like everyone else. Well, frankly, not Romans like everyone else because everyone else. I came to The Royalist in a desire to grow from fantasy into historical fiction because I'd found my love of history again, but without a clue as to what period or part of a period to choose, and when I started looking, the problem was that EVERYTHING was interesting. Look, I had a Romans idea, right, I just didn't use it. And a Greeks one. And a Babylonian one. And don't get me started on Byzantium and Renaissance Italy. I'd love to go there if only they sold a little better. Admittedly I didn't have a Vikings story, but that was probably because I was all viking'd out after three Nathan Hawke novels. Actually the historical fiction I really wanted to write was Neal Stephenson's Baroque Saga. Irritatingly Neal Stephenson had already done that, but what I really like about that series is Stephenson's obvious fascination with how things work, science, sociology, absolutely anything and everything. It's not just about the way things were but they why, and how changes rattle through time and acrete and become something new and unpredictable. It's the history and philosophy of science degree I never took, potted up in three doorstopper volumes. . .
I'm digressing, aren't I. If you're interested in the history and philosophy of science, read the Baroque Saga. Do it.
So if could have been any history, any period, any setting, but it ended up being the English Civil war in part because of my agent, in part because the Baroque Saga picks up English history shortly after the end of the Commonwealth, in part because of a bunch of lunatic friends I had back in the day who managed to drag me along to a few Sealed Knot re-enactments on the grounds that I'd get to drink a lot of mead and hit people with a big stick, but the trigger (in plot outline terms, the lock-in) was when I found out about Crediton. What the heck is a Crediton, you ask? Well, Crediton is a small town in Devon, and in 1645, Parliament's New Model Army spent the whole winter there, and that just astounded me. I didn't get it. How did they not starve? How did they not freeze? How did they not go entirely mad? How did the army not rip itself apart? The more I looked into it, the more the whole rather opaque business of the civil war and what it was really about (don't expect me to be able to answer that, not now, not ever) started to fascinate me.
But most of all what caught my imagination was the New Model itself. In 1645, with the war waxing and waning with no obvious end in sight, Parliament created the first professional standing army in Western Europe since the Romans. It swept across southern England and destroyed everything in its path. It crushed the king and hoovered up the remains of every army it passed, and then it went to sleep for the winter in Crediton. They had created a monster, and how could I, as a fantasy author, not be gripped by its story.
So yes, a none-too-willing William Falkland heads off to Crediton because there's a mystery to be solved, but as much as anything The Royalist is about the monster, not the man.
 I made that up. But it was a cold one, in the middle of the Little Ice Age.
 I went to Crediton not so long ago when I happened to be in passing. I'm glad I'd written The Royalist already at that point.
 I think.