The most feared question a writer can hear is probably “Where do your ideas come from?” We fear this question because it’s basically unanswerable, pinning down the true genesis of an idea somewhere in the mass of neurones and synapses comprising a human memory is an impossible task. So, whenever the dreaded question comes up I tend to fall back on a flippant response, “I keep them in a jam jar in a cupboard under the stairs,” but it’s a flippancy born of fear, because writers, just like everybody else, don’t want to look stupid.
I’ve been asked many times where the idea for Blood Song came from and “the cupboard under the stairs” simply won’t cut it when I’m responding to a request for an interview. As I said in my recent Reddit AMA, the mundane facts are that the story hung around my head in various forms for years until coalescing into something I felt was worth writing down. No Damascene flashes of inspiration or thunderbolts of insight, just a long gestated idea the origins of which are lost to time. However, nothing grows in a vacuum and, whilst I’m unable to fully describe the journey from initial inspiration to finished book, I can certainly identify the influences that most informed my writing of Blood Song.
It’s probably redundant to state that I’ve always been a big fan of fantasy literature, starting at an early age with Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles. There are probably echoes of most major fantasy authors of the late twentieth century in Blood Song with David Gemmell as the most salient. However, any fantasy of worth can’t simply be a mish-mash of genre classics and the non-fictional influences on Blood Song are many and varied.
I’ve always been a history buff, some might say a history bore, and epic fantasy is an excellent medium for exploring historical themes within the context of an original narrative. In conceiving a world for my main character, Vaelin Al Sorna, to inhabit, I found myself drawn to the notion of a quasi-European late medieval society on the cusp of transitioning to an equivalent of the Renaissance. The Unified Realm is a monarchy that has partly eschewed feudalism for a centralised bureaucracy empowered by a standing army, a trend that was become more apparent in Europe by the mid-1500s. The Realm has the machinery of justice complete with courts, judges and trials, but these can be overridden by a single word from the brutally pragmatic King Janus. I also wanted to include art and science as important elements in this society as they were in the early Renaissance, artists have discovered perspective and scholars established the basis for rational astronomy.
But, as anyone who has read the book will know, the main theme explored is religion, particularly the Faith, the dominant religion into which Vaelin is inducted at a young age. Before writing the book I remember thinking a lot about religious conflict. The war on terror had begun in earnest and world events were taking a decidedly dark turn, making me wonder about what makes a human being kill in the name of an abstract idea. In conceiving the Faith, and the other principal religions in the book, I was keen to avoid any obvious, lazy allegories to real world beliefs. Consequently, belief systems in the book follow certain real world concepts common to major religions; ancestor worship, monotheism, polytheism and so on, without simply aping the rituals associated with such beliefs. The Faith grew out of my thoughts on the contrast between western and eastern religion and is a combination of shinto-esque ancestor worship and Aurelian philosophy centred on belief in a soul. In an effort to Europeanise what is essentially an oriental notion, I established an organisational structure based on six different Orders, each responsible for a different aspect of the Faith. The inclusion of a fierce antipathy to the idea of a deity was also highly useful in developing the plot and providing a basis for conflict which forms the other major theme of the book.
In formulating the various wars that would beset Vaelin’s life I wanted to reflect the complexities that usually underlie real world conflicts. The term ‘religious war’ is widely used in history but a closer reading usually reveals a more varied picture than people simply killing each other over which holy book they prefer, with economic factors often proving just as much an incentive. I also tried to make the conduct of military operations a credible part of the narrative whilst not getting too bogged down in the detail. My research on medieval warfare provided ample evidence of the brutality of battle in the pre-gunpowder age, but also some surprising parallels with modern war: moving large bodies of troops around has always been a difficult task, soldiers require extensive training to be effective and medieval commanders were just as concerned with logistics as any general today; a large part of the surviving correspondence left by Henry V of England concerns ensuring sufficient supply of arrows for his archers.
The consequences of taking a life were also something I wanted to explore in the book. Current psychological research indicates human beings have no instinctive need or desire to kill each other I wanted to depict the impact of doing so in a credible way. There was a famous study produced by the US Department of Defence after World War II that indicated only ten percent of combat troops actively fired at the enemy, most were deliberately firing wide for the simple reason they didn’t want to kill anyone. I saw Vaelin as one of the ten percent, a group that has no compunction about taking a life in a worthwhile cause and no tendency towards post traumatic stress when the war’s over. His Brothers in the Order, however, are not so fortunate and, deadly as they are, the weight of so much spilled blood eventually takes its toll, a toll that only gets weightier in book 2.