Fantasy and Females

You’ve always got to be careful writing a blog post with the words ‘fantasy’ and ‘women’ in the title lest you melt the server with the wrong sort of web traffic. What got me thinking about this was the current barrage of fanboy vitriol about the new Captain Marvel film.

To recap, Brie Larson plays Captain Marvel, the superhero hinted at in the conclusion of Infinity War last year on a 90’s style pager. In the comics Captain Marvel (in the non-Shazam Marvel iteration) has undergone a number of changes over the years. He started as a male hero called Mar-Vell who was an alien superhero from the Kree world who links with Rick Jones of Hulk/ Captain America fame so that Rick ‘summons’ Captain Marvel when he knocks his wristlets together. Captain Marvel became a popular character fighting against Thanos, and ultimately died of cancer in the comics. That fina storyline was an especially poignant and mature story that resonated with fans. After that Captain Marvel had a new incarnation as a superhero in the Avengers, an African-american female cop called Monica Rambeau. After her we had another three or four versions of Captain Marvel (one a child of Mar-Vel) until Carol Danvers took on the name as a change from her pre-existing identity as Miss Marvel. Danvers had been in the comics since the 60s, and gained her powers merging DNA with Captain Marvel in an explosion, and emerged in the late 70s as a hero, lost her powers to Rogue from the X-men, and then regained them to join the Avengers. So a well-established character, and not exactly one that’s been gender-switched as part of some illuminati plot to de-masculinise the Marvel male fan-base.

So with the first Marvel film to have a female lead you’d expect the wide Marvel/ comics fan-base to embrace this seminal moment after a decade of films with muscle-men focal characters. Ummm, not exactly. A core of ‘fans’ clearly felt that the idea Captain Marvel might be pulling Thor/Hulk/Cap/Iron Man’s butts out of the Thanos fire didn’t seem to appeal. I’d imagine it was the same group that grumbled about Black Panther being too political about racial issues…

So naturally when Brie Larson (who, after all is an Oscar winning actress who gained her accolade in a film about a rape-victim locked in a shed) stoked the dissatisfaction by making a comment about the lack of diversity amongst film critics, both in terms of race and gender: ‘Am I saying that I hate white dudes? No, I’m not. What I am saying is if you make a movie that is a love letter to a woman of color, there is an insanely low chance that a woman of color will have a chance to see your movie and review your movie.” She references the Annenburg study which analysed reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and found 76% were written by males, and 82% by white critics. That a female actress known for her advocacy work should make the comments isn’t really surprising but it clearly got social media fired up, and the whole thing erupted into some quite vile rhetoric. Negative ‘reviews’ had been posted before the film was actually released.

Oddly it brought to mind the vitriol that was created when the latest Star Wars trilogy dated to have a female lead in the form of Rey. Now the Star Wars fan-base is famous for having extremely passionate fans who lament anything that falls short of the original trilogy, and I’d agree the Last Jedi didn’t really hit the spot, but back when Force Awakens casting was announced the grumbles about both Rey and Finn grew beyond any form of objectivity and descended into straight up offensive rants on social media and blog posts. This repeated concept that the world has been hijacked by social justice warriors and females is perpetuated both in the media and in the surreal world of politics, presenting the average white male as some kind of bullied and endangered species.

(And don’t even get me started about the response to a FEMALE Dr Who….)

As a fantasy reader (and writer) I’ve been interested to look at whether fantasy fiction falls foul of the same prejudices that are plaguing films. Fantasy literature evolved through the last century from the pulp fantasy fiction of Robert E Howard, and Fritz Lieber, the epic fantasy of Tolkien and Terry Brooks, and the darker work of Moorcock. The stereotype fantasy hero of a muscle bound warrior with a chainmail-bikini wearing female hanging off his pectorals was perpetuated by artwork of the period (classic Boris Vallejo).

Ove the last twenty years the stereotypes in fantasy have been eroded. In anticipation of the TV series being released I’ve finally commenced on reading the Wheel of Time series, and whereas the trio of Rand, Mat, and Perrin are the focal characters (at least initially) the female cast command equal dominance, not least due to the focus of magical power being amongst women (Nynaeve, Egwene, Moiraine, and Elayne). Jordan’s characterisation of them is enjoyable and well-rounded, if at times he falls down in their joint desires for the troubled Rand.

Arguably the most influential series of the last twenty years is George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, filmed for TV as the phenomenally successful Game of Thrones. Martin’s evident affection for his female characters in the books is greatly developed by the HBO writers of Game of Thrones. In fact the surviving male characters are often portrayed as both flawed and foolish, such as Jon Snow or Tyrion Lannister. In contrast the dominant characters now are Daenarys, Sansa, Arya, and Cersei, and all are excellently written and superbly acted. It’s encouraging when you realise the influence GOT is likely to have on commissioned fantasy pieces for the TV, which with the boom in Amazon Prime and Netflix is truly the future of the fantasy adaptation.

When Robert Jordan predeceased the conclusion of his epic series, the writer Brandon Sanderson took over the reins. Sanderson isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, some finding his style a bit light for the current vogue of dark fantasy, but I rate him highly. His first work Elantris was superb, and his Mistborn series is excellent. Sanderson writes female protagonists well: Sarene in Elantris, and Vin in Mistborn are realistic and strong female characters, and arguably the key characters in both works.

Of the other works that spring to mind, Robin Hobb is probably my favoured author for female characterisation in fantasy. Her works are superb, a succession of trilogies that advance a storyline about the return of dragons and their elderling servants to a troubled world. Her most famous books focus on the relationship between a royal bastard Fitz and the androgynous Fool, but her other works based around the use of living ships enjoy several strong key female characters (Althea in Liveship Traders, and Thymara and Alise in The Rainwild Chronicles). Perhaps unsurprisingly Hobb writes them extremely well, making them fallible and flawed, yet ultimately strong women in the plots.

From my own work, I based my female characters on much of what I liked from Hobb, Martin, and Sanderson. Emelia, the key character of Darkness Rising, struggles with mental illness as a consequence of her Wild-magic, makes poor choices for good reasons, is passionate, heroic, rash, and volatile, yet ultimately wins the day. Orla the Knight of the Air, and Marthir the Druid bot start the series as strong dominant characters who go on journeys of self-discovery, again not always making sensible and altruistic decisions on the way. I felt that they reflect the evolution of fantasy fiction to provide realistic and interesting female characters as a counterpoint to the well-established male tropes in fantasy (loveable rogue, stoical warrior).

In fairness to Marvel and Star Wars their female lead characters haven’t always been met with resistance. Rogue One’s Jyn was a great lead character, but I suspect she was received well more from her presence in a fan favourite film—Rogue One is a real nod to the Star Wars fans, a grimy view of the Empire and the Star Wars mythos. Similarly Jessica Jones, in the Marvel-Netflix series, is a grittier heroine with a drink problem, arrogance, and demons aplenty. Despite the critical acclaim of the character and series the show has fallen by the wayside with the current plans for Disney’s streaming service leading to the end of all the (excellent) Netflix Marvel shows.

So my prediction for the next series with strong female lead? The adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and the awesome Lyra. It’s being done by the BBC this year, and I’m hoping for an improvement on the Golden Compass film (which I enjoyed, but didn’t really capture the books’ magic).
And I’m hoping with Star Wars 9 on the horizon, and Marvel’s Phase 4 to feature Black Widow’s solo outing, that the respective fan-bases can take a leaf from DC (and the great response to Wonder Woman) and fantasy fiction and embrace great, well-written female leads.

All Hail the Pumpkin King

The abrupt appearance of pumpkins and shops clogged with cobwebs is enough of a clue to even my sleep addled brain that Halloween is nearing. I have mixed feelings about this time of year. I love the cold fogs that we get in my elevated patch of Yorkshire, those mists that soak up sound so readily and make my boots muffled as I walk the dogs with my head lamp bobbing away. The actual night of Halloween less so. Sure when I was a kid I loved the macabre festival nature, and the infiltration in the Eighties of the Americanised Trick or Treat (which no-one had heard of in Leeds until ET came along). As an adult, less so—given that my primary role is trudging around in the drizzle whilst my kids beg at doors in costume.

Now I’ve always been aware that Halloween was one of those hijacked events, a bit like Easter—where the Christian faith had built a new meaning on a day/period/festival with more pagan origins. But it wasn’t until I researched for my new book—The Spectral Assassin—that I discovered the beliefs about Halloween were especially relevant to my new book, and the Nu Knights series.
So, from the new book we discover more than we really wanted to know about Halloween from Aunt Gaynor, whilst her son Nick cringes nearby…

‘Trick or treat?’

The three children regarded Gaynor with eyes half way between hope and doubt. She tugged her shawl around her shoulders and smiled.

‘However such a wondrous festival has been corrupted by the commercial taint of Americanism I shall never know. Are you aware of the Gaelic origins of All Hallows Eve, children?’

The tallest of the children was dressed as a werewolf and he shrugged. ‘Is Gaelic what dad likes on bread at Pizza Paradise?’

‘Umm, that’s garlic, child. No, Halloween is a corruption of Samhain, the Gaelic festival at the middle point between autumn’s equinox and winter’s solstice.’

‘I told you we should’ve skipped this house,’ hissed a second child dressed in fairy wings.

‘It was held that on Samhain that the barriers between worlds were weaker, more malleable, and that those of the faerie world, and other such lands, were more able to cross into ours.’

‘Mother!’ Nick said, pushing past Gaynor. He held forth a bowl with a dozen brown squares inside. The children took them with all the zeal of picking up a dead crow, before leaving.

‘Granola, mother, really?’ Nick said.

‘I can hardly give them chocolate formed in the bowels of a multinational corporation can I?’

Nick glanced at the trio of children as they skipped off to the next cottage, and then closed the door.


Samhain is one of the four Celtic seasonal festivals (the others being Bealtaine, Imbolc, and Lughnasadh) and is the event marking the end of the harvest period and the commencement of the winter period. For some pagans it marks the Celtic new year (for others this is Imbolc). The belief was that at these times that the barriers between worlds were weaker—so called ‘liminal times.’ So for the Celts that was the barrier between the normal world and that of the faeries that had become weakened and thus it was a day when the faeries could more easily enter the world.

The boundaries between worlds, in the case of the Nu-Knights series ‘alternate worlds’, are often dangerously thin. These rifts are perceived by two of the key characters—Sam, and his schizophrenic older brother, Ben. In the first book—the Infinity Bridge—we learned that the rifts were windows into realities where history had taken a different course, so called alternate worlds. We also discovered that passage was possible—in the Nu-Knight’s case via use of an EMP (electro-magnetic pulse). Perhaps Samhain and other liminal times were instances where the passage between alternates was somehow easier, the rifts more frequent or more stable… And of course, in the multitude of alternate worlds, there may even be one where magic is real, and faeries are rife.

On Samhain the Celts also believed that the weakening of barriers occurred between our world and that of the spirits of the dead. Accordingly the spirits were honoured and remembered at feasts, and they also believed that the presence of spirits allowed their priests—the Druids—to more readily predict the future. At these celebrations the Celts brought food for feast, had slaughtered animals for the winter, and often wore costumes of animal heads and skins. Pieces of the bonfire were then taken to homes as protection.

The common traditions of Halloween can be seen evolving from Samhain. The apple was a symbolic fruit of the afterlife and immortality (yeah, seriously) and the game of apple-bobbing comes from the ancient feasts. More recently (as in 16th century recently) the tradition of wearing costume and journeying from door to door was observed. The costumes harken back to those Celtic feasts and were felt to protect one from the spirits by impersonating them (presumably if you had a crap costume then you’d be sleeping with the light on in case you’d offended some spirit). Agreeably in the 16th century the costumed pagans would go around singing for food rather than candy, but I was fascinated to see just how far back the costumes of ‘trick or treat’ went.

All Saints Day (also called All Hallows Day) was a Roman Catholic holy day from the Dark Ages, originally in May but later moved to November. There’s debate as to why this happened, with some historians believing that the Celts influenced the Catholics to change to coincide All Saints Day with Samhain. Whatever the reason, the amalgamation lives on as All Hallows’ Eve (or Even, or E’en).

So what does the weakening between the worlds mean for Sam, Nick, Annie, and Ben? Nu-Knights 2: The Spectral Assassin is published next month, five years after the first book. Watch out for the cover reveal soon, and then get ready for an adventure even more exciting than the first book.


These re-boots are made for walking…

The latest iteration of Spiderman arrives next week and judging by the multitude of teaser trailers and quirky vignettes for sporting events it’s going to combine all the things that have made Marvel films such as success (namely humour, straightforward plots, fun characterisation, and solid action scenes).

Yet there’s a little irritation inside me that once again, we have a re-boot of the Spiderman films. Now this time there’s a commercial reason: after all Spidey was previously out-with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and then popped up in Captain America 3: Civil War in an Incredible appearance on Iron Man’s team. Yet, for me as a 45 year old comics veteran, this is my fourth Spiderman re-boot. I started in the late 1970s with Nicholas Hammond’s Spiderman, which ran as a TV series with three feature length episodes also getting a cinema release. Then, after far too long a wait, we had the three Sam Raimee films with Toby Maguire (and a great set of villains). This, along with the X-men franchise, really paved the way for Marvel’s success with their MCU (Iron Man, Cap, Thor, and the Avenger films and spin-offs). Sony tried to get back into the game after the Spiderman trilogy had wrapped up, opting to ‘re-boot’ rather than continue onwards.

This re-boot had some great features. It took Peter Parker back to being a high-school kid, agreeably a far cooler one than my memory of him in the original Ditko comics. For two films, with the Lizard, Electro, and the Rhino (briefly) as villains we had a younger fun Spiderman, yet still one that existed outside the MCU franchise. I think these films, despite having used Doc Ock, Green Goblin, Sandman, and Venom in the prior trilogy, had great potential and I was sad to see Andrew Garside’s version disappear.

Now in the latest version we have Peter quite distinctly a kid, clearly a bit of a muppet, with the influence of the egotistical Tony Stark somewhere in the plot. I like the idea of him being a kid, and I also like the idea we don’t seem to be heading for a heavy origin story at present—in the sense that he already exists, has made an appearance, and at most we’ll have a flashback story rather than having to endure the same tale for the ?4th time.

So what am I grizzling about? To anyone under 15 the Maguire Spiderman films will be ancient history, and the re-boot would at least allow a fresh version of Doctor Octopus and Green Goblin (although they would be difficult actors to top for a new bie, Heath Ledger managed to improve upon Nicholson’s Joker). It’s the idea of having to re-boot continually. It’s pervasive in films and comics and TV now. You get a sense that there is no original ideas, that the only way to write a fresh tale is to take something that was established, with characters that are recognisable, and ‘put a new spin on it.’ It gets frustrating.

Take Batman. I’m not a huge DC fan, but I enjoyed Batman when Tim Burton did it, and indeed (after taking Prozac) when the Dark Knight films came along with Christian Bale. Yet now we have Ben Affleck (who I really like) as another Batman, agreeably as part of other films. Gah! And how many times have they tried to re-kindle our waning interest in Superman? At least Wonder Woman feels fresh, having only had a TV series under her golden lasso.

Sometimes the re-boot masquerades as ‘re-imagining’: this riles me up even more! It’s like the film equivalent of a crap cover version. Westworld, The Omen, Psycho, Footloose, Fame, Alfie, Get Carter, Magnificent Seven, Annie, Amytyville Horror, Carrie, The Mummy, Planet of the Apes, Star Trek, Ghostbusters. Some good-ish, some not so good-ish ( I leave that to your discretion).

In the pipeline we have new versions of American Werewolf, Death Wish Big Trouble in Little China, The Birds, Blue Thunder, , Don’t Look Now, Escape from New York, Dune, Jumanji, , Jacob’s Ladder, Black Hole, Splash, Flatliners Bill and Ted… the list is huge, and in some cases you cringe that a perfectly good film of its time is subject to a re-do that can’t be any better than the original. Disney’s current trick of live action versions of classic cartoons is a strange entity—not quite a re-boot, a re-make, or a re-do, but often something quite different and special (Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast, and Cinderella spring to mind).

It can be done cleverly. Star Wars 7: The Force Awakens is, to all intents and purposes, Star Wars: A New Hope. Droids escape with secret plans; desert living teenager turns out to be Jedi material; big scary weapon in hands of dude with mask; mentor-type pops his clogs and gives inspiration. Yet the delivery felt as if a new story was being developed, and with enough references to old characters who had all aged. It ticked the box for me.

The re-boot in superhero films, which is where we commenced, isn’t entirely unprecedented. In particular DC comics flush out their backstory with an literary enema every so often. Given that some characters have had eighty years of stories, one can easily see how the continuity becomes a real nightmare. The DC Universe evolved from the late 1930s through to 1960s in a so-called Golden Era, where cross-overs occurred, team mags developed, and several versions of the same hero were written (such as Hawkman, Green lantern, and the Flash). It became hard to rationalise how Batman was seemingly younger in the early 1960s than in the 1940s, and that the character was quite different (i.e. he didn’t carry a gun!). So in the 1960s, in the Flash, the idea of parallel universes was developed. Here we had a Golden Age Flash (with winged Hermes hat) meeting Silver Age Flash. This alternate world concept was used generously over the 60s, 70s, and 80s, with an Earth-one, Earth-two, etc, etc way of labelling. Yet that simply got even more confusing, a bit like an out of control time travel story, and in 1985 DC tried to re-boot it all by having a cross-over series called Crisis. This had promise, but subsequent stories muddied the continuity, and indeed limitations of this approach, and now each decade DC has a re-boot (Infinite Crisis; Flashpoint; the New 52; Rebirth).

Oddly it was an idea that seemed to inspire the re-boot of the X-men franchise actually in series. I gave up trying to make sense of the X-men film continuity long ago. What happens in X-men 3, then Wolverine: Origins, then X-men Origins: First Class, then The Wolverine, is so higgledy piggledy that the only option left to the writers was to blitz it all with a good old time travel/ alternate reality instalment in Days of Future Past (which I must say I thought was superb); pulling together the characters from X-men 1-3 with the First Class. Unfortunately the indications are that the character Jean Grey in X-men: Apocalypse will go onto become Dark Phoenix, if the title of the 2018 movie is anything to go by… thus rehashing X-men 3…!

Perhaps what irritates most about re-boots and re-makes is that in many cases there was nothing wrong with the original that a revised version can improve upon. A lot of the films scheduled for a re-make are ones that hold a special place in our heart: I think especially of Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, American Werewolf, and the Birds from that list above. In a nostalgic way we attach fond memories of ourselves and our lives to the era in which we saw the film, often repeatedly, and like a cover version done poorly begrudge the trampling of our past. And I do wonder whether the generation before me felt the same way when films such as 1984, Cape Fear, The Champ, The Good Thief, Miracle on 34th Street, and Scarface were released—all films I enjoyed in my youth, yet all re-makes (if not re-boots). And let’s not forget Hitchcock re-made his own film, the Man who Knew too Much… and when asked said ‘Let’s say the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional.’

That Tricky ‘Second Album’

It’s one of those givens for ‘bright new thing’ bands that after stunning debut albums, the second album never quite lives up to expectations. I’m sure everyone will throw out their exceptions, but for me The Killers, The Stone Roses, The Enemy, Mumford and Sons, and the Fratellis I can recall the deflation at listening to the eagerly anticipated second releases.

And films can often suffer the same issues, especially when not being planned as a series. Although loved by hard-core fans, I struggled to love Back to the Future 2 after worshiping the first; Hannibal was a poor shadow of Silence of the Lambs; Matrix Reloaded was best left without loading, and sometimes the third and beyond disappoint (Phantom Menace, Batman and Robin, Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull thingy).


As a fledgling author, I can feel the pain of sequels. The first offering, especially in music, is often a synthesis of years on the road, eliminating crap songs, finding what works and what doesn’t, and the evolution of a fresh voice, a fresh way of displaying your art. We go through a similar process ourselves as writers, albeit on a more individual scale. We begin with scribbling, brainstorming narratives and styles, taking critique and refining. Some of us write short stories, dabble in genres, until we find one that suits our written ‘voice.’ And then, for some of us, that’s enough to write something more ambitious—a novella, or a novel.

I cut my teeth on fantasy fiction, first of all writing a piece based on Role-Playing Games for friends, then short stories for an on-line fanzine. The latter was critiqued by other authors, sometimes unfairly, but usually constructively, until it passed the ‘publishing’ test. Finally I worked up the bravery to write a fantasy novel, which evolve into a six book series (from a planned long single volume, similar to Stephen’s Epic Fantasy with Dragons).
In the midst of the six book Darkness Rising series, my kids nagged me into writing something lighter and more sci-fi based. Being fervent Dr Who fans (the term Whovian still rankles a little for me), I put a lot of alternate reality, televisual action into it and the kids loved it. It took a few rewrites and jiggles, but end-product—the Infinity Bridge—is probably by favourite single thing I’ve written. Naturally, the kids want more. And, indeed, having put the book up on Wattpad (the international Empire of Shaun Allen, as it shall be forever known ** proud colleague moment**) and reviewed on Goodreads, it seems there are readers not just loyal to me because I control their allowance who want to read some more of the ‘Nu Knights.’
And there the difficulty began. Although I’d written Infinity Bridge as having the potential for a series, the book is still fairly standalone. The events that occur in it, and how would they pan out in the course of time, were never fully fleshed out for a whole ongoing series. Not long after I published it, I had some great ideas for plots, and especially sub-plots of where I could take the characters, and began furiously typing these down. And as they hit the virtual page more ideas arrived, and evolved, and story arcs, and set-ups for books 3 and 4, and…

Boom. It’s written, and it all ties together in my brain, and I think ‘hot diggety, it’s ready to go.’ And then my steampunk mentor reads it, and says… ohhh—kayyyy, see what you’re doing here, but it’s like you’ve tried to do a dinner party for ten, including a vegan and someone who’s gluten intolerant, and served starters, main and dessert on one huge plate. That’s my analogy by the way, hers are far more exquisite. Too many ideas, too many characters, in too confusing a plot.

Now I’m embarrassed to say, that beyond a few paragraphs, and extra material to flesh a sub-plot out, I’ve never actually rewritten any of my work. As in never done first draft, second draft/ revision etc. Largely this was because I kind of actually just wrote as a hobby, mainly not really caring who read it, and with no expectation or precedent. Also, in a rather childish way, I get the buzz from that initial flurry of plotting, evolving the narrative and plot as I go along. It worked for Ian Fleming, why not me? So to tackle this rough diamond I have created, and refine and polish it until it’s worth putting on display is new territory for me. And I’m simply not sure how to do it—but then, when I evolved from short stories to novels I wasn’t either, and learned the best way—by others experience and mistakes, and by becoming part of a collective of like-minded motivated (and, honestly, more talented) writers.

Stephen King’s advice to new writers was to first and foremost be a reader—to digest everything on offer, in as many genres and styles as you can. In doing that you become acutely aware that some mainstream authors, usually riding on their success, have fallen into the trap of not refining their diamonds. I read some books and want to get a red pen and slash through the padding and indulgence that even top authors (and I’m thinking of George RR Martin especially here) put in their weighty tomes. And I hope it’s a sign of my progress of a writer that it’s time to do so to myself.
Nu Knights 2: The Spectral Assassin will be out this year.

The Story So Far

Having recently completed my own writing challenge, namely finishing a series of fantasy books that I set about commencing six years ago, I’ve taken the opportunity to reflect upon the journey. Before you worry that this’ll turn into a mawkish post about what I learned about myself, and the industry, and all the wondrous people I’ve met (I have, but that’s not what I’m blogging about), console yourself with the title of the post. The Story So Far…

One of the difficulties of writing a six book series is deciding what to put into each book with regards the prior events. The problem spirals as the sheer complexity of events expands throughout the epic. Now, not being a vastly successful mainstream author, it’d be unlikely that anyone would pick up my series half way through, although possible. And the books themselves are meant to be a part of a series, not standalone with a common thread/ milieu running through. Yet, given the books came out roughly one a year, I don’t flatter myself that my readers are so obsessed with my work that they remember very last detail from the prior one… I know I don’t!

When I began editing and rewriting sections of book two to cope with the fact it had originally being the last 40% of a mega-volume one (for those that don’t know, Darkness Rising 1 and 2 were originally Dreams of Darkness Rising, and clocked in at Tolstoy length, so was split) I began considering my ‘story so far’ options. Option 1 is some slightly clunky prose between characters where they reminisce and ruminate on recent events to the degree that the reader can catch up. That’d read like…

Emelia smiled wrly at Jem. “It’s funny to think that my latent Wild-magic powers were so successfully manifested at the time you and Hunor sneaked into Lord Ebon-Farr’s rooms, fought that hidden Air-mage, and procured that darned blue crystal that turned out to be part of a prism of power.”

“And all the stranger that that would then lead to Ebon-Farr’s niece, Lady Orla pursuing us across to Azagunta and capturing us, before flying to Thetoria, fighting a demonic humour, and setting Aldred on a course of investigation that would lead him far away.”

With a flicker of nostalgia, Emelia began to recall all the events that had lead up to that fateful day…


AAaaaarrrggghh! Stop, just stop. No-one talks like that out with TV fantasy series. Yet it’s slightly preferable to the… ‘Story so Far’ info-dump that by book six would run to eight blooming pages!

It was our own literary goddess Alison DeLuca who edited Darkness Rising Book 2, and when faced with the info-dump story so far section I’d written to start the book, she got her virtual red pen, drew a big line through the forty paragraphs, and simply commented ‘we’re writers, we can find better ways of doing it than that.’
Challenge accepted.

Six books, five ‘story so fars’ and because of the plotlines and structure, several disparate groups and POVs , often in ignorance to one another. How to maintain originality…?

Well, here were my top five:

1. The Dream Play (book 3: Secrets)

Emelia, whose dreams are so significant to the plotline, and who through dreaming becomes linked with the main protagonist , Vildor, recants a ‘story so far’ by dreaming she is watching a play.

I know this place. It is a hall of deception, and for this I am glad. For all here wear cloaks of secrets, which wrap around their souls with the strength of iron.

I am seated in the decayed stalls, and before me the first Act has commenced. At my side sits Emebaka. She holds my hand with her own tiny scaled one. Her eyes glitter like diamonds in the winter sun. I make to speak, but she shakes her head. The dream must command my attention. My wayward mind needs order—I need to reflect on all that has passed.

There are children on the stage, stuttering their lines like nervous suitors. The faded backdrop is of the Splintered Isles. A man is taking a sack of gold, and the children are wailing as they are carried off stage.

My father is selling me. To the Eerians.

No more spoilers!!!

2. The Prayer (book 4: Loss)

In this ‘story so far’ the knight, Sir Unhert, offers a prayer for his companion, Aldred. This allows a reflection on their actions, and the second ongoing plotline in the series.

Blessed Torik, hear my prayer.

I have never been a devout man. I placed my faith in the strength of steel and the might of griffons, yet this day I ask for your forgiveness in this matter, and your aid. There is one I hold dear who lies dying before me, every passing day taking more of his vitality away, stolen like a thief in the dark.

And though we are far away from the majestic peaks of Eeria, and your great temples in Coonor, I know that my prayer will carry on the four winds, across the ravines and gullies of the Emerald Mountains, to your omniscient ears.


3.The Crystals (book 5: Broken)

This one was quite random: the crystals, the focus of the quest and the goal of both Vildor and Jem, begin discussing the current situation. I was proud of this one, as it was fairly off the wall, and I think worked well.

That, and more. We must understand if we are to prevail. We must understand if we’re to be whole again—our four primary facets, and our newer darker aspect.

Then I shall go first, sister. For is it not the wind that drives the water, the wind that fuels the fire? I was first to be found, two centuries from when we were cast asunder by the jealousy of a son.

The emperor who bore me, whose blood is barely dry?

Hush, brother, let our sister speak. Let her tell you how she came to be here in this desert of flame.

4. Words (book 6: Redemption)

This was a tiny bit of a cheat, as I used a character from a prior book (Orla’s old flame, Muben) as a storyteller, who learns of the historic events and their precursors by meeting a goddess. Very Greek. I figured by book 6 most readers would just want a recap of key events that are relevant to the finale.

Words. Words as keen as a magnate blade, or as dull as a mace. They can freeze a man’s heart, or ignite his soul. And words… words are all I have.

When I was a young man I craved books. The intricacies of the script held such majesty, such power, that even before I could read them they made my spirit soar. Their wonder became my life, my livelihood, as I slipped the chains of my Eerian masters and took to the infinite roads of Nurolia.

The druids of Artoria, they carry their words on their flesh. Whorls and swirls of ancient scripture cover them like walking parchments. I often wonder if you took the contents of my skull and smeared it across the ground would it leak ink not blood. For words, dancing together in fables and tales, flow through me.

I sit watching as the fire peters out, my audience dwindling back to their farmsteads, I reflect upon one word. Ty Schen—that’s what they call me in Mirioth. It means ‘chronicle.’ They come from miles to hear the stories, the histories, and the legends. Yet once I had another name, one given to me by my late father, in the tongue of my homeland, the Sapphire Isles.

Oh, I know, I’m a tease… leaving you with that excerpt… of a recap! And finally, I used this device in couple of books…

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000037_00032]

5. The Journal (books 2 and 3)

Very similar to the letter idea (which I used in book 4, and turns up in a later book for someone else to read), I used the idea that some of my characters would write a journal as a recap device. It felt less contrived than the joking dialogue method I tried above, and served the purpose in earlier books where the plotline was perhaps easier to realistically summarise from a key character’s point of view.

It feels odd writing this in the pages of Livor’s journal, but it’s what he would have wanted, what he would have told me to do if we had had a chance to speak more in life.

Is there folly in conversing with the dead? Once I would have said so. Once life was simple—you lived life to the full, embracing every moment as if it were your last—and then you died. You died like my mother did, rotted by a wasting disease. You died like my father did, killed by his traitorous servant, a Dark-mage

So now I’m editing the sequel to my sci-fi/ steampunk series, The Nu-Knights, I’m toying with different ideas: files/ dossiers, diaries, confessions… The nature of the series makes it easier to do succinctly, and as a gradual dialogue in the story, so perhaps I’ll not need one for book two.

What about you other authors out there? How do you tackle it? And for the readers, is info-dump a big turn-off, or do you accept that fantasy=massive amount of summarised plot detail in first five pages?

And that length of post, probably needs a summary of its own!!!


The lighter shade of Darkness

A lighter shade of dark
I’m down to the last few proof reading tweaks of my epic fantasy series, Darkness Rising, and it seemed an appropriate time to reflect upon whether I’ve succeeded in what I set out to do with it six years ago.
For those who haven’t read it (yes, I’m sure there are some of you out there…) it’s a six book series which follows the adventures of Emelia, a young girl liberated from ‘servitude’ by two thieves, Hunor and Jem. Emelia, in classic fantasy fashion, discovers she has an ability in Wild-magic, an unregulated branch of sorcery despised by the rigid Orders of elemental magic, and ‘psychic’ in style (emphasis on telekinesis, pyrokinesis, telepathy etc). The trio embark upon a quest to pull together the pieces of a magical prism before the bad guy, Vildor, an undead sorcerer can enact his nefarious plan.

So what were my goals when I began the epic journey of writing six books totalling over half a million words? It’s a really good question, and I suppose I could boil to down to:
1. To finally finish a literary project
2. Creation of a new world with an in-depth history, with enough variety of culture and race to provide a good backdrop to the quest
3. A fantasy yarn that would draw on traditional elements of the genre, without becoming too stereotypical, and that would avoid the current trend towards dark-fantasy
4. To try and throw some fresh elements into the genre, and synergise my love of comics and role-playing games with the work


Well, number one is a tick. Woot! The Darkness Rising series represents my first attempt at anything beyond a short story. It was odd how it began and then grew. Initially I planned a chunky single volume, which then transformed into a two book project. Before I knew it I’d introduced a second key plot-line, that of Aldred and his own mission to cure his father of a curse, and finally a third, with the everyman character of Torm (a friend of Emelia’s from book one) and his curious relationship with the disgraced Arch-mage of Air. The three plot-streams remain fairly independent until books four and five when they all collide and then go bonkers. Was it padding, or did it add to the story? I suppose the reader is the best judge, but to my mind the idea of having two key characters (Hunor and Ekris) who are enemies was great fun, and having Torm progress from a minor character to one in whom the reader can empathise with (especially his raw heroism in the face of terrible odds at the Siege of Keresh) felt a good choice too.

So what about goal two? What I needed when created the world was an empire that had fallen apart (by civil war), magic that had had its hey day, events that would lead to Wild-magic arriving and what the reaction of the established Orders would be, and some suitable spats between adjacent nations. I also needed a rationale behind a ‘common’ tongue, given the rather cosmopolitan nature of my characters –and one of the former Empires provided that (the only legacy of the Eerian Empire was good roads and an Imperial tongue). Much as the characters and plotlines evolved, so did the political and cultural milieu of the world. The areas I’m most proud of are the Goldorians (with their pseudo-Puritan rejection of magic) and the Artorians, cleft into north and south, with opposing world views and religions. I had great fun with the Pyrians also—a nation who had learned their Imperial from works of Eerian literature and were thus intrinsically verbose and long-winded (as exemplified by Ygris the Fire-mage).
So did the series draw on traditional epic fantasy and steer clear of darkness, the book title excepted? I recall when I began the series being paranoid about stereotypes in fantasy—poring over websites that mocked the typical content of pseudo-Tolkien and Eddings. I lamented that I had a heroine rescued from ‘captivity’ who in a short period of time becomes a skilled warrior and sorceress; that I had an ancient evil threatening all; an artefact that would save the day; a quest, with a fine bunch of fellows, one of whom is a wise mentor; a ‘common’ tongue; magic used like superpowers; dark knights; adventurers…


Then I got over myself. Who cares if any of that is in there? Those things are raw material, components to mix up and throw around and try and do something a little bit cheeky with. So, yes, Emelia is a skilled warrior after tutorage by Hunor and Jem. But given that she combines intelligent use of magic with sword play, why wouldn’t she be? And she’s bested on a number of occasions. She’s hardly unbeatable—her Wild-magic comes at a price, that of bipolar disorder, and a terrifying link with the main antagonist, Vildor. She does daft things, makes mistakes and poor choices. Ultimately, we come to love her more for it as we see her wade through the doldrums of depression and self-loathing. The ancient evil is not quite so clear cut either. From a very sadistic beginning we see Vildor in increasingly sympathetic light, always knowing he is despicable and evil, yet having some concept of his background and evolution. We see the twisted obsession of Xirik, his lieutenant and lover, and ultimately the real driver behind the ambitious plot. Sure there’s a quest, in fact there are several, but it doesn’t run as smoothly or as linearly as we’d expect as we head into the latter third of the series. New players come into the arena, the sinister creator of the crystals, Vaarn, throws an unexpected spanner in the works.

My concept for the magic is unashamedly RPG-based: elemental magic focused through gems of power, fragments of the great crystal that shattered in the myth of creation. And the Orders of magic are constrained by regulations, a Codex, that came into place after the Era of Magic ended rather badly. They rake in the cash from cynical use of sorcery to manipulate nature, from the weather alteration of the Air-mages, to the tidal influences of the Water-mages. And up against this ‘establishment’ with its snobbery and manipulation, comes the Wild-magic. A sorcery that springs up in an individual during adolescence with no consideration of social class or wealth or education. Hence it is persecuted by the traditional Orders, as something anarchic, not least as it affects the mind or neurological system of the wielder (Emelia, Jem, and Lemonbite being our first encounters with that). And through this I tried to make allusions towards society, and persecution, and happily drew from sources such as the X-men comics (itself drawing from themes of the Holocaust and genocide).


The tone of the series is deliberately light. Sure you can dig deeper into themes of religious persecution, fear of death, existential dread, mid-life crisis, mental illness and self-harm, class war, vengeance and betrayal, but on the other hand you could happily read the series and hardly consider any of those themes. I’m a big fan of George RR Martin, Joe Abbercrombie, and Steven Erikson yet the darker end of fantasy can become quite fatiguing. Repeated negativity, violence, horror and gloom results in desensitisation and, especially for the TV adaptation of Game of Thrones, escalation. GoT is like a fantasy drug—we crave more and more, eager to ramp up the gore and gloom, hoping each shock is more grisly than the last. As a lad I grew up reading traditional fantasy of Tolkien, Eddings, Brooks, Moorcock (agreeably very cynical) and Hickman-Weis’s Dragonlance. In later years, when I began reading around the genre to prepare for the Darkness Rising series I read Hobb, Vance, Zelazny, and Poul Anderson, mixed in with Lynch, Erikson and Martin, and loved the gentler approach to characterisation and plot they had. So that was where I wanted my tone: exciting, adventurous, but nothing that would pull in an 18 certificate when Zack Snyder decides to adapt it for HBO…

So, an epic journey for me as well as the characters—and one in which I’ve met my own bunch of companions: Myrddin Publishing , and the sorcerous talents of Connie, Ceri and Alison and their influence on my books. Some of my old DnD pals (Giles and Nik) acted as excellent sounding boards, and in Nik’s case, an editor for book four. And my restless brain moves onto further projects—the slightly neglected YA sci-fi series, the Nu-knights, will be getting a new book by end-2016, and a secret alternate history project is in its infancy…

Steampunk and Me

There’s a certain irony as I sit here in unseasonal October sunshine outside my house that I’m about to write a piece on the fascinations of Steampunk. When I begin pondering one of my favourite genres I almost always visualise belching chimneys, foggy cobbled roads, gaslamps, cogs, cogs and more cogs, with a dash of airship and automaton thrown in for good measure. What is it about such atmospheric images that fascinates me (and many others) so? What’s the enduring appeal of Steampunk?

The genre is considered a relatively new one, although its origins in the Victorian science-fiction of HG Wells and Jules Verne clearly shows its beginnings from over a century ago. The term was first coined in relation to the work of Jeter, particularly the remarkable novel Infernal Devices, but really gained momentum with the popularity of The Difference Engine by Gibson and Sterling. In this book the creation of a steam-powered computer and its influence on an alternate history really captured the essence of steam punk—variations of technology based on steam and clockwork, with alternate histories/ realities.


Although those works were the early ones in the newly named genre there are, of course, several notable books with the Steampunk ethos before Jeter and Gibson. Moorcock’s Nomad of the Time Stream, Harry Harrison’s A Trans-Atlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!, and Tim Power’s awesome Anubis Gates were all pioneers in the (as then unnamed) genre. Personally I loved Bryan Talbot’s work on Luther Arkwright, which counts as one of the finest works of comicdom ever for me, and was a huge inspiration for my own novel, The Infinity Bridge.


But what is it about the genre that appeals? I think one of the key reasons is the Victoriana aspects. There’s a romanticism about the Victorian era, partly because of the literature we have come to love from the time (Dickens, Austen, the Brontes, Elliot, Hardy, and Wilde), and partly because of the seminal nature of the historical events of the time. For the British it was a time of Empire, and often we forget the rather atrocious treatment of the colonies, especially of Africa and India, and focus on the utter British-ness of the culture. It seemed a time of heroes, and of valour, and of values and integrity, and this nobility of the time with its intrinsic reservations, and politeness, and precise manner of talking, contrasts so vividly with the slang ridden, often selfish nature of modern society.


So take this time of reservation, and its stylishness, and throw into it alternate history and science fiction and you have something rather cool. There was a definite beauty to the imagery of the era—brass, clockwork, cogs and gears—the mighty steam trains of the time are still stunning to regard. In this modern age of plastic and minimalism the grandeur of Victorian technology seems all the more appealing. And take this technology and then advance it into fiction—giant brass robots, airships, huge Nautilus-like submarines, clockwork cybernetics—and you have far more style than the sterile realms of modern CGI laden science-fiction.

Finally, to me, there’s also a rather naughty appeal to Steampunk. As we sometimes drown in a sea of excessive political correctness it is fun to escape into an era where our heroes are rather unwittingly non-PC. And beneath the Victorian primness there is always a seedy undercurrent, of backstreets, and smog, and opium dens, and bordellos, and supressed sexuality, which seeps out as the drama of our fictional world unfolds.

So what about you other Steampunk fans? What’s the appeal for you? Is it the style, or the stories? The Victorians and their subtle hypocrisy, or the romanticism of an era already steeped in classic literature? Whichever, its appeal is only set to grow and infiltrate media previously ignorant to its brass-coated charms.