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…