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The story behind Valour by John Gwynne

Wednesday, 12 November 2014
Published in Book News

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...

John Gwynne
Order Valour by John Gwynne here:


It's always a little weird to talk about the story behind the second book in a series. Really, the story of its genesis is just that it is the next book, the next adventure that the first book's heroes undertake—but of course, that's not the whole story. It never is.

When you're writing the first book in a series—especially when it's a fantasy series—you need to spend a good deal of time building the world in which it takes place. But with the second book, that hurdle is gone. Now, your characters have a chance to fully inhabit and explore the world you've created. That's what I hoped to accomplish with Die and Stay Dead. In the first novel of the series, Dying Is My Business, I created an alternate New York City, one identical to the New York City where I live but with—well, let's call it a few additions. These additions range from magically protected safe houses on the Upper West Side to gargoyles living in a cave in the Palisades, from a dragon living beneath the city's sewer system to the tomb of an ancient, terrible, and not-quite-dead creature buried beneath the Cloisters. I also invented a secret history for this world, one that involves a group of eight, mysterious immortals known as the Guardians, who are tasked with watching over and protecting the world; as well as a terrible cosmic event known as the Shift that has turned magic into something dangerous that can infect, mutate, and drive mad anyone who comes in contact with it.

It was a lot of heavy lifting, but it paid off. It meant that with Die and Stay Dead I could expand upon what I'd already built and give Trent, the series protagonist who has only recently had his eyes opened to this secret world of magic and monsters, a chance to explore and make new discoveries. It allowed me to bring him to secret locales hidden all around the city, even one within the walls of the famous New York Public Library branch on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue (you know, the one everyone who's not a New Yorker knows from Ghostbusters). It let me open up the world beyond New York City with references to a museum of magical artifacts in England and an international black market for magical items. It gave me an opportunity to introduce other creatures inhabiting this world that we didn't get to see in the first book, including, in one section that a lot of early readers said really stuck with them, a scene where the dryads of Central Park flee from their trees in the face of oncoming danger. Exploring this world also afforded me the opportunity to introduce more characters who live in it, including Jordana Pike, a budding demonologist whom Trent begins dating. (Sorry, Trent and Bethany shippers!)

But what was most exciting—to me, at least, and I hope to the readers as well—is that the ability to explore this world also gave me a chance to explore its secret history, particularly with regard to the Guardians. In Dying Is My Business, they're only mentioned, referred to as the beings who are supposed to be keeping the world in balance but are apparently doing a really bad job of it, choosing to sit on their hands instead of getting involved. In Die and Stay Dead, Trent actually gets to meet them. And the verbal haranguing he gives them about their apathy in the face of centuries of misery, despair, and injustice remains one of my favorite scenes.

So what is the story behind Die and Stay Dead? In a word: expansion. It's an expansion of everything introduced in Dying Is My Business—the world, the creatures, the secret history, even the mystery of who Trent was before he lost his memories. And if I've done it right, I hope I have expanded the readers' enjoyment of the series, too.

Nicholas Kaufmann
Order Die and Stay Dead by Nicholas Kaufmann here:

The main problem with The Emperor's Blades, debut novel by Brian Staveley, is that it is simply a reviewers worst nightmare. The thing is that the year has just started. It is only couple of days young and here I find myself in the position where I have to make some rather bold claims about a book that I've just read. A book by a completely new author. I have to be sure that I'm prepared to swallow my words if I turn out to be wrong. Ah well. So to finally be done with the dramatics and say the conclusion which is usually placed at the end of the review, The Emperor's Blades is probably the best fantasy novel I'll read this year. It's been months, possibly years, since I've enjoyed a fantasy book this much.

So what makes The Emperor's Blades so special? At first glance it may look like your standard fare epic fantasy. Since this is the opening chapter of “The Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne” we are quickly thrown into the world filled with murky quasi-medieval politics and there's lot of ground to cover. Emperor of Annur has been killed and it's up to his children to pick up the pieces. Kaden is heir apparent and this unfortunate event catches him during his 8 year long education in a remote mountain monastery. On the other hand his sister Adare is already in the capital investigating the murder. She's already an experienced politician and becomes a Minister of Finance while their brother Valyn is doing his best to join Kettral, a elite warriors unit who fly gigantic birds as their transport of choice.

So far so good but what sets The Emperor's Blades head and shoulders above the competition is the pacing and the glorious writing. The story is so intricately woven together that the process of turning each subsequent page provided me with such pleasure. Staveley avoids the trap of excessive world-building by building and enriching his characters instead. And while Adare is one character that should have been explored more, by the end of the book I learned how the rest of the cast breathes and lives. This is an excellent and refreshing approach and on which pays off in so many way.

To conclude, in my opinion, The Emperor's Blades is one of the most important fantasy books of the year and judging by the storm it is causing around the web I'm not the only one who thinks so.

Order "The Emperor's Blades" here:
Amazon US | Amazon UK
Thanks to Pan Macmillan / Tor UK for providing a review copy

If you like your science fiction in shape of epic, sprawling, interstellar space opera things can't get much better than with new novel by everyone's favourite Peter F. Hamilton. Setting the story in his acclaimed Commonwealth universe is only adding another layer of cream to an already rich tea. And indeed, “The Abyss Beyond Dreams”, first novel in the two part series titles Chronicle of the Fallers is every Hamilton's reader dream book because it covers long anticipated back story of one, Nigel Sheldon, a name which might be familiar to you from the Void Trilogy.

Story takes place in 3326 when Nigel Sheldon is visited by Raiel who consider The Void to be the menace to the entire universe. The Void is still a mystery. A strange construct found at the core of the galaxy with its own physics, timeline and rules as Nigel finds out when he eventually enters. He's on a mission to find out what happened to Captain Cornelius Brandt and seven starships that disappeared as they came nearby. Once inside he discovers that many different life-forms have been sucked into the Void. This bizarre, twisted world at times feels like a science fiction version of Alice's rabbit hole with telepathy, time travel and all mod cons. It also comes with its own set of politics and dead set against humans which descended from Brandt colony ships, are Fallers, fiercely aggressive but intelligent species of biological mimics who absorb other biological entities using eggs. Human society within Void has slowly reverted to autocratic way which loosely resemble ship's hierarchy and they developed civilization on Beinvenide. Nigel is in an impossible situation. He must work with the Fallers to discover their secrets and yet they're destroying the very things he holds dear - human society within the Void.


It is certainly a fascinating premise and personally, I think "The Abyss Beyond Dream" could be Peter F. Hamilton's most imaginative novel yet. The world within The Void is simply buzzing with innovative ideas and the story itself is paced just about perfectly. I'm not sure whether Peter F. Hamilton has done something differently this time around or is it simply a consequence of book having mere 750 pages (conservative by his standards) but I've really enjoyed this roller coaster ride inside The Void. However, if you haven't read any of the previous books sharing set in the Commonwealth universe expect to be hopelessly lost. There's simply too much to take in so I suggest you go back to the beginning. 4000 plus pages may seem right now like a daunting task now but I promise the time will just fly once you start.

Quite simply, "The Abyss Beyond Dream" is Hamilton's love letter to his readers. It's set in everyone's favourite universe and it has everything you'd expect from Peter F. Hamilton's book - epic scope, engaging story and twists to die for. Second book, "Night Without Stars" can't come soon enough.  

Review copy provided by Pan Macmillan.
Order The Abyss Beyond Dreams by Peter F. Hamilton here:

I realized one night while drinking vodka in a Mongolian ger that if I were going to write a book, I needed to spend more time in Asia. That trip to Mongolia had nothing to do with books or writing. It was a vacation, pure and simple – horseback riding, getting lost, eating lots and lots of goat – but while there, I realized that the cost of living in Mongolia (and places like it) was so low that if I saved scrupulously for a year, I could quit my teaching job and move there to write. The dollars necessary for a year in Asia would have lasted about forty-five minutes in Boston or New York. So I saved, I quit, and I went.

The great thing about living in countries where you don’t speak the language and don’t know anyone is that there is very little to distract from the task at hand. Whether I was in Laos or Cambodia, China or Vietnam, the routine was pretty similar: get up in the morning, eat a fifty cent breakfast of noodles or rice, read for an hour, write until lunch, dawdle over tea and soup (again, fifty cents or so), write until afternoon, then go for a very long run.

The writing drove me crazy; the running made me sane again. After hours hunched over a keyboard trying to come up with names for immortal generals, calculating how many miles a giant, man-eating bird might reasonably cover in a day of flying, struggling to map out continents and palaces, secret training islands and long-dead cities, I could feel my dry eyes bulging, the muscles in my back starting to cramp, and so I’d save everything, drink half a liter of water, and run.

I tried to pick towns that would accommodate my habits. Luang Prabang is a wonderful spot in northern Laos where you can run for miles along the Mekong, but my suffering of choice was a small hill in the center of town with a little monastery on top. It was 247 steps up (if memory serves), and I’d run them over and over. Sometimes a little crowd of monks would gather at the summit. At first they looked at me with a baffled wariness usually reserved for creatures dying of brainworm, but, as the days passed, they moved from confusion to good-natured taunting. “Faster!” they would shout as I approached the top each time. “Faster!” It was the only English word I ever heard them say, except for one time when I stumbled on the steps. “Not smart,” said an old monk, shaking his head.


The mountains outside Lijiang, a Chinese town on the border of the Tibetan plateau, are considerably larger, higher, and colder. There were no monks at the top of the nearest peak, a rocky promontory above Black Dragon Pool, but the gorgeous view of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain was best appreciated in solitude.

I tried to run in Beijing, but the air on a good day had the consistency and color of ash, and the traffic made any kind of athletic exercise outside a park suicidal. I did find a nice circuit around the Forbidden City, and while I ended every workout with diminished lung capacity, I enjoyed looking up at those towering walls as I ran, imagining them as they might have looked to the eyes of someone from the 15th century. The palace must have seemed like the work of gods.


Likewise, the endless temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, some of which have been meticulously preserved, some of which are claimed by the jungle. The sheer magnificence of the ruins suggests the might of the Khmer Empire and the vision of Suryavarman II, who commissioned the most jaw-dropping of the structures. I would pause in my running, panting and soaked with sweat (Cambodia was as hot as Lijiang was cold), to pore over the reliefs carved into the stone, intricate depictions of battles and worship, daily life and stories of the divine. I could have stayed there for months, had I not been laid low by a little bout with dengue fever. After that, I was determined to get far, far away from mosquitoes for a while.

This is starting to sound like a post about running or living in Asia rather than a post about writing, but the two experiences were inextricable. The Shin monks in The Emperor’s Blades owe much to those saffron-robed Buddhists in Luang Prabang. When Kaden is sent to run the Circuit of Ravens, or when he flees into the high peaks of the Bone Mountains, I think of the frigid Himalayan wind pouring down out of Tibet. When Adare strolls around inside the Dawn Palace, there are spots in the Forbidden City that I can’t get out of my mind. And when I imagine the Annurian Godsway, I picture the sweeping avenues of Angkor Wat, some wide enough for several tractor trailers abreast, flanked by their imposing statues of nagas and gods.

I went to Asia because I could afford to write there, but looking back, it’s impossible for me to imagine having written the book anywhere else.

Brian Staveley
Order "The Emperor's Blades" here:

Amazon US | Amazon UK

REVIEW : Extinction Game by Gary Gibson

Wednesday, 17 September 2014
Published in Book News

For years Gary Gibson has been one of my favorite science fiction writers and I've always felt that he's been unfairly dismissed by the SF community and award ceremonies but then again when was the last time Peter F, Hamilton, Neal Asher or Alastair Reynolds won anything? I've always found his stories to be magnificent in scope and his imagination intriguing so each new book was a reason for small personal celebration. However, with Extinction Game Gibson decided to shake things up a bit. You can't really say anything against Gibson's wish to do so as he's been steadily banging out space operas for some 10 odd years.

From the opening page Extinction Game feels a bit local when compared to his other stuff. Most of the plot takes place on a post-apocalyptic desolate Earth but it here's where the main twist and that glorious imagination come to their full force. Earth we are introduced at the beginning is just one of the many parallel, alternate and most importantly, devastated Earths. From each of these comes a single person, a last human alive rescued in the final moment by the Authority, a shadowy organization. Together they for a crack team of pathfinders tasked with recovering weapons and data from other Earths struck by apocalyptic events. Jerry Beche, a main protagonist and the only survivor of deadly viral attack on his Earth, is struggling to cope with this new situation and mistrusts both his new secretive masters and his team. But when things suddenly escalate beyond control, he'll have to make a choice and decide whom to eventually trust.

There's no discussing that Extinction Game is very different to other Gibson's output but constant readers will still find plenty to enjoy here. The way the story is present is reassuringly familiar and I was hooked up from early on because of its interesting premise. Alternate worlds always leave plenty of place for the authors to go completely bonkers. There physics and climate to play with but in this case Gibson stays mostly on the line. I suspect there was simply too much to tell to go full board. Between all the action, setting up a stage, and plenty of twist there wasn't must space to play with. Therefore certainly hope there's a sequel in the making as the whole setting is simply too good to be wasted on a single book. And not to forget, there's plenty of unanswered questions. But even if it turns out that Extinction Game is just one off, the main fact about it is that it is simply a damn good read. It's perhaps not Gibson's best book but I've simply stormed through it with that same sense of wonder and excitement that accompanied reading of his other work. What more can you wish for?

Review copy provided by Tor UK.
Order Extinction Game by Gary Gibson here:

The Ultra Thin Man started out as just a title. It wasn’t even consciously linked to Dashiell Hammett’s noir novel The Thin Man until years later. I had no idea what the book would be about. The novel actually began way back in the early 1990s. As a way to stay in touch, my brother and I did some collaborative writing that hashed out some of the character and setting bits and the start of a plot, but we had no idea then where it would lead.

After years without an outline and just a dozen chapters, it was time to approach it more seriously. It had been ten-plus years since that title popped up. We both had lives and commitments, and always, without fail, I’d go back to the book and find myself fascinated—and more than a little curious—about where it was headed. Finally, after a five year stint with no new words, I asked my brother if I could write it on my own. He said yes.

The novel continued to languish. I had started my own small press magazine, Talebones, in 1995, and a micro book press, Fairwood Press, in 2000. I was teaching full time. I returned year after year to the The Ultra Thin Man, but found myself unhappy with that opening (about 20,000 words or so). I can’t tell you how many times I rewrote those early chapters.

In the middle of 2009, I closed down Talebones. Starting that September, I wrote every day. I’d finally decided to forget the opening and just move ahead. I wrote practically nonstop, refusing to go back to any earlier chapters except to leave notes for myself to attend to later. I was still teaching full time. Still running my micro press. I completed a rough draft four months later, the day after New Year’s. This was a space opera, to be sure, but also a mystery. I made sure to pay homage to noir fiction and film, realizing that without any conscious thought, I’d already done as much. I even discovered a few happy accidents upon re-reading Hammett’s The Thin Man.

I am not an outliner. I find that knowing where I’m going spoils the story for me. I’m more of a follower. Ultimately, I had two private detectives on the run, trying to solve a mystery of interstellar importance. I told them to solve it for me and I’d follow along and write it all down.

I did some things in the novel that riffed on identity. The characterization of Dave Crowell and Alan Brindos definitely challenged me, due to their lack of knowledge about their own past lives. I chose to play on the paranoia behind not knowing who you are, or—more specific to the novel’s plot—who anyone else is. In my universe, humans and aliens coexist, but what else is out there? The universe is huge. I’m reminded of the movie Contact, and Matthew Mcconaughey telling his daughter that if there isn’t any extraterrestrial life out there, then it’s an awful waste of space. There’s always something out there bigger—or at least different—than you are. That aspect, along with the characters’ own doubts, propelled the story forward.

Without an agent, I sold The Ultra Thin Man to the first editor who saw it, at Tor Books, but even that was after an 18 month long wait. Included during that time was a short rewrite request. I found an agent soon after, and the novel was on its way through the process of becoming a real entity.

A sequel is in the works, and I’ve been approaching it much the same way I wrote the first, without an outline. But I’m not waiting a dozen-plus years. I’m excited to find out how it all turns out.

Patrick Swenson
Order The Ultra Thin Man here:

We Will All Go Down Together's subtitle is “Stories of the Five-Family Coven,” and that's where this all began—over a fifteen-year period, when I slowly realized that many of the short pieces I was writing shared characters and a world, at which point I began to ask myself why that was. The world involved was, from the beginning, a variation on my own: Toronto, Ontario, Canada, where I've lived my whole life, much of it labouring under the assumption that to be Canadian is to be boring, bland, mildly ridiculous...a knock-off version of someone else's overbearing cultural influence, British up until the 1960s, American afterwards.

But this gets to wear on you, particularly if you're interested in A) genre and B) horror, so I deliberately set out to create a version of my home town/province where things could be just as dark, weird and inherently dangerous as in any other country, while still sharing many of the characteristics of CanCon (“Canadian Content,” the standard by which we reckon our cultural product output) that I find most “Canadian”: the detached body horror freakishness of David Cronenberg, the snarky-anarchic humour of Ivan Reitman, the casual fabulism of Denis Villeneuve. 

What I ended up with was six previously published stories and four written from scratch, including a novella which hopefully brings all the characters and their various threads together for a slam-bang conclusion. Because the six previously published ones all appeared in fairly disparate and obscure places, I think it's likely that most people won't have read all of them—but better yet, they definitely won't have read them in context, which is what this book provides.

All the characters are linked by a personal mythology which traces back to Scotland in the Burning Times, when their ancestors came together to form what was (briefly) called the “Five-Family Coven.” The families in question—Druir, Roke, Rusk, Devize, Glouwer—are made up of monstrous creatures, to one degree or another: a Fae changeling who married the head of a noble Scots family, a British border lord descended from hereditary magicians, and three witches. All therefore had a vested interest in upsetting the “natural” balance of the world, but at the last minute, the aristocrats turned against their non-aristocratic counterparts, and just like today, money talked; the witches were burnt while the border lord managed to skate unprosecuted, and the changeling relocated her threatened family via time-travelling magic from Dourvale, Scotland in the 1600s to Dourvale, Ontario at the turn of the 20th century.

Since then, the Coven's descendants have intermarried and interbred incestuously, even while simultaneously pursuing a passionate vendetta with each other. By the new millennium, the people who represent these various factions include a former Catholic priest who runs a magic object pawnshop, the star warrior in a secret order of monster-killing nuns, a woman who runs a ghost-removal service, and the most powerful—yet totally uncontrolled—spirit medium in Canada. They, their various friends and allies are all drawn into the search for a folksinger stolen by the changeling's family, which sends them hunting through the wilds of rural Ontario for a town that exists in two places and eras at once, where their ancient quarrel will finally be brought to an end. (There are also angels, evil and otherwise, but all equally terrible.)

The trick, overall, was to braid the existing stories together by picking up on the hints of a greater narrative lurking inside them, which meant creating new characters, re-interpreting older ones, and generally figuring out my world-building on the fly. The single most difficult aspect was continuity, because I hadn't looked at some of these stories since I'd written them, which made the editing process a very nit-picky variety of hell, but I'm proud of the result; it examines a lot of the themes which inform most of my other work, particularly the idea of both reconciling yourself with and distancing yourself from your own heritage (especially the more negative aspects thereof), and also puts together a lot of my lifelong thoughts about the inherent pitfalls of being Canadian. So in a way, black magic and time travel aside, it may well be the most realistic thing I've ever written.

In terms of direct inspiration, meanwhile, a very large puzzle-piece was provided by the introduction of folk music, which is where I originally got a lot of my early ideas about British and Scots folklore, including the Fae and witches. My parents divorced when I was nine, which meant that I travelled on my own to and from Australia to visit with my father at a very early age, and one time when I was eleven, I returned to find that my Mom had purchased a record by Joan Baez called Baptism, a celebration of poetry in music which includes a song she made out of Henry Treece's poem “The Magic Wood.” I was heavily jet-lagged and it was the middle of the night, but this song freaked me out so badly that I couldn't sleep after I heard it. It's the one I quote at the very beginning of the book, whose chorus concludes with the admonition: You must not go to the wood at night.

So there you go. Google it and play it on repeat while reading, at least for the first story. You probably won't thank me.

Gemma Files
Order We Will All Go Down Together here:

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
Order Burning Paradise here:

The story behind The Godless by Ben Peek

Thursday, 14 August 2014
Published in Book News

When I was a teenager, I lived on a steady diet of fantasy novels.

It was both the early nineties and the late eighties and I owned a lot of band t-shirts for bands I will, in truth, not admit to owning, anymore. (Much to my regret at the time, I never owned the Metallica t-shirt for the album Ride the Lightning. It featured a pristine white toilet with a sword being thrust out it. Beneath it was the tag line, Metal Up Your Ass. This should tell you all you need to know.) I had long hair. I had a vaguely uninteresting set of report cards that characterised me, politely, as a slacker. Indeed, that is what I was. I was gloriously free of ambition. I had no plans for the future and no interest in the future and it left me with a lot of time to fuck around, fuck off, and, er, read fantasy novels.

I read everything I could get my hands on. Margaret Weis and Tracey Hickman were my early teen idols. I purchased all of their books. I read the original Dragonlance Trilogy multiple times. I read Forgotten Realms books. I read Dark Sun books. I read Thieves World books. I read Raymond E. Feist's Magician before he rewrote it. Then I read the rewritten version (it was better, but it made the following books worse). I read Terry Brooks. I read David Eddings. I read both their first books or in the case of Eddings, first series before I read Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, so I had no idea how heavily they ripped him off until I read his books as well. I read Lynn Abbey's novels. I read Melanie Rawn's books. I read David Gemmell's books. I read everything that offered a sword, a castle and a dragon it helped if it was on the cover and I read right up until I was given a copy of Robert Jordan's The Eye of the World, the first book in the Wheel of Time.

I had just finished High School in a fashion that can only be described as without distinction. I had plans to go to University if I got decent marks, or to find a job, but they were distant plans, months away plans, because before then, I had plans to fuck off, fuck around and, y'know, read fantasy novels.

I made it about half way through before I put it down.

I had no real specific complaints, except that I had seen it before. A few nights later, I told a friend that it just didn't do much for me. We might have been driving in his car at the time. After all, we had free time and licenses and a really, really small pool of cash. With the hindsight of someone in his thirties now, I suspect the reason I wasn't so interested in the book had more to do with being eighteen, with being free of school, and with a new world to explore, and I suppose, in a fashion, I knew that at the time as well.

In the years after that, I still read. A whole new world of literature opened up to me, and I found it, and embraced it, with all the love I had given fantasy. I met women. I found a whole new world of music. I got better clothes. My conversation improved. I might have developed a vague amount of ambition, but lets not get too ahead of ourselves, here. After all, I put a lot of time into becoming a writer, and nothing says still a slacker like shirking real world responsibilities for art. Somewhere around this time, I became a projectionist, and then ended up with a doctorate, and I lost my shit and got my shit together in the ways that you do. Women came, women went; so did friends and, yes, my hair as well. But I kept all my fingers and toes, and all my eyes and teeth, and I take only a minimum amount of medication, which puts me about on even with the experience of my twenties, I suspect. But it was not so shocking, and not so amazing, that it needs a lot of detail spent on it. I enjoyed it. You might not have.

But then, around four, five years ago, I hit a rough patch in my career as a writer. On the urging of an editor of a major publishing house, I had written a book, and he, for his part, did not read it. I ditched my agent and got a new one. My new agent ditched me. A new editor and publisher agreed to buy the book. And then they did not. It isn't much of a story: a lot of writers have experienced it, but for all its frequency, it really does suck. It forced me to step back and to ask myself why I was doing what I was doing. I had put fifteen years into my career. I was broke. I felt I had lost the gains I had made, which was silly, because the gains I had made in craft could not be taken away from me. But I felt that I had to start over, and if I had to start over, maybe, I thought, I should just start over at something else. I could become a public speaker. A journalist. A teacher. An Olympian ping pong champion. I could hunt dinosaurs through time...

Well, you know how it goes.

Ben Peek
Order The Godless by Ben Peek here:

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