Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Interview: David Guymer, Author of Headtaker.

Hi David, welcome to WWaS (Written With a Sword). Congratulations for being nominated to the shortlist in the David Gemmell Morningstar Award. For those readers who have yet to ‘meet you’, tell us a little about yourself.
According to my Goodreads profile I’m a fantasy author living in East Yorkshire. Add to that wargamer, scientist, comic book fan and Star Trek addict and we’re about there.

So, how did you go from being an occasional scientist to writing? Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I’ll answer the second question first. No. I always wanted to be a scientist, which is what I trained to do and for which I wholly blame watching too much Star Trek in my formative years. The urge to be a writer came on gradually, these little ideas niggling away at my brain, growing fat on all the attention and ever more demanding until I had to start writing it down. I’d written material for roleplaying adventures and gaming campaigns before and at that stage it wasn’t a lot more than that, but that desire to tell a story with the world I’d made luckily didn’t stop there. My high fantasy opus has been half finished for a good 3-4 years now, but I still hope to get back to it one day.

Have you conducted any mad scientist type of experiments? In your debut novel ‘Headtaker’, we’re introduced to the Skaven, and for those not familiar with the Warhammer universe, the Skaven are a race of giant rats known for their dark sorceries, haphazardly brilliant engineering, and savagery. Any Skaven-esque inventions?
I’m not particularly dexterous unfortunately. I get excited when I manage to change my bicycle tyre without detonating the inner tube. A little knowledge of genetics and technology though is certainly no hindrance to writing about a race that has successfully crossed rats with ogres and is responsible for giving the Warhammer world gas bombs, gatling guns, and the Black Death.

Seeing we’ve mentioned it, tell us about ‘Headtaker’ in 50 words or less – what’s your ‘elevator pitch’? 
A decades old feud between two kingdoms of dwarfs and orcs takes a turn anticipated by no one when the wildly egomaniacal and probably mad skaven warlord Queek Headtaker is assigned the task crushing the dwarfs. But Queek was never one for obeying so-called superiors.

How long did it take to plan and write the ‘Headtaker’? Do you have a writing routine?
It took me about 6 months from the first plans to the final edits, which, though I’ve gotten a little bit faster since, is still about the time it takes me to complete a novel. On ‘Headtaker’ I tried to write 500 words a day every day, usually in the evenings after work, and then blitz it at the weekends. I still work on top of writing unfortunately, but I find it much easier to get 3000-4000 words done in a single sitting than I used to – which is convenient as I now have a 3 month old baby girl vying for my attention when I get home! On a related note, for anyone else wanting to squeeze more words out of less time I’d recommend 2K to 10K by Rachel Aaron. It’s transformed the way I write.

What inspired you to write ‘Headtaker’?
The ugly truth is that I was asked to write it – I’d blooded myself on a few short stories for Black Library and they knew I was a bit of a “skaven guy” so it was a natural fit for everyone. The idea for the plot though came largely from reading ‘Thanquol’s Doom’ by C.L. Werner. The theme running through that book is about the contrasting attitudes of the dwarfs and skaven to progress and how the dwarfs’ resistance to it will ultimately be their downfall. Maybe this is also the contrast between an American author and a British one, but I thought the opposite could be the case and wanted to show the conflict between breakneck innovation and slow-and-steady from a different point of view. After that the various characters and storyline slotted in nicely and, thanks to a very willful and entertaining lead, was the easiest book to finish that I’ve yet written.

Now that ‘Headtaker’ has been released into the wild, are you happy with it? Anything you’d change?
Very happy actually. My writing’s come a long way since which you’d expect so another round of editing probably wouldn’t hurt. I don’t think there’s anything I’d actually change though, except perhaps a few tweaks to the finale to tie up some loose ends

What was the hardest part of writing ‘Headtaker’?
This is actually a much harder question than “what was the easiest part” as quite unlike my more recent works, ‘Headtaker’ pretty much fell out of my brain onto the screen. If I had to point the finger at one aspect in particular then I suppose it would be in writing some of the chapters, particularly in the middle, where several groups of characters are doing lots of VERY exciting things in different places. Making sure that all flowed naturally involved a bit of scene re-ordering and re-writing which was much less fun than writing it in the first place so I guess that must’ve been the hardest part!

The story follows two major storylines, that of the Skaven, and that of the Dwarves. Which are you more like?
I so much want to say skaven, but I know I’m a dwarf really. I complain but don’t actually complain, don’t talk about my feelings, don’t spend my gold, assure the neighbours everything’s fine even when the garden’s overrun with goblins, and just have a beer instead.

I’m pretty sure that you’re not a mutant rat in disguise (and if I’m wrong please don’t eat me!), nor are you a subterranean miner with a thirst for ale and gold. How did you go about researching the characters’ roles and ‘getting inside their heads’?
Which just goes to show how good my disguise is doesn’t it? I’ve been playing Games Workshop games and reading Black Library books for a long time so there was no difficulty for me in segueing between skaven, dwarfs, and goblins. Like any race born of the human imagination, they’re rather like actual humans but with certain characteristics taken to extreme. The skaven are fast-living, treacherous, and cowardly. Dwarfs are stubborn and prideful. Goblins are mischievous and cruel. The best characters I’ve found though, and this is based solely on reviews that I’ve read, seem to be those that are based within these traits but differ from them in some important and memorable way. So we have Queek Headtaker, so certain of himself that he actually leads his armies from the front; Sharpwit, a skaven of such experience and cunning that he’s lived long enough to see through the self-aggrandisiment of the skaven race; Thordun Locksplitter, a compulsive thief and an expatriate dwarf who was raised amongst humans. Give a character enough individuality and, though it’s kind of a cliché, they make their head a much more accessible place for both writer and reader

What would you like readers to take away from ‘Headtaker’?
I hope they’ll go away smiling, taking the memory of Queek and Sharpwit and company with them for a long long time.

What does it mean to you to be nominated for the David Gemmell Morningstar award?
As I mentioned to my editor when the longlist first came out – you only get one chance to win a debut author prize, so yeah it means a lot. It’s nice to just make the shortlist and get a day in the big city for the awards ceremony, but obviously I want to win it!

David Gemmell is regarded as the ‘big daddy’ of modern British heroic-fantasy. Who is your hero?

I don’t know about “hero” as such, but there’s a lot of interaction between the authors at Black Library and plenty of names to look up to and aspire to emulate career-wise. I’m talking people like Dan Abnett, Graham McNeil (A Legend Award winner, as we’re on topic), James Swallow – people who’ve sold millions of books and seen it all. If I can take anything from reading their work and sitting politely in hushed reverie in their presence then I’ll be praiseful.

What can we expect next from you?
I’ve recently taken over the Gotrek & Felix series so epically carried by first William King and then by Nathan Long. It’s the sixteenth book of a series that’s been running for twenty years so it’s kind of a big deal for me. The first of the new books, ‘Kinslayer’ is out later this year.

Do you read other books in your own genre? Who is your favourite author?
I’m going to cheat and give my TWO favourite authors – Joe Abercrombie and China Miéville

Do you have any pearls of wisdom that you’d like to share with would-be writers?
Write something and then get it read. Submit to competitions that offer feedback, join a writing group, taking a writing class – there’s no substitute for an external critique. I took a correspondence course before I had a short story pitch accepted through an open submission window at Black Library and it improved me immeasurably. It was stupid too because the stuff I was getting pulled up on was mostly stuff I knew was wrong but having it pointed out to me by another person really made me notice and address it.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Book Review: The Grim Company by Luke Scull.

The Grim Company
The Grim Company by Luke Scull

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Good: A promising debut set in a truly epic world, with gritty, relatable characters, and a page burner of a plot (yes, that's right, a page burner).

The Bad: In my opinion I don’t think there is a lot that is BAD about ‘The Grim Company’ – I’ve seen the pointed finger on a lot of reviews, but I’ll try and clarify my thoughts on the ‘grimdark’ and ‘Abercrombie mk2’ here.

The Ugly Truth: The Grim Company is a hugely impressive debut. Yes, it’s Grimdark. Yes, it’s comparable to Joe Abercrombie. But if you’re going to write a grimdark novel OF COURSE you’re going to be compared to JA. It’s like writing a novel about elves and dwarves but hoping not to be compared to Tolkien. What the Grim Company does do, and does very well, is entertain. It’s unashamed of its roots, which to me is all that counts. Don’t shout and scream that it’s ‘just a copy’ – it’s not. It’s a tilt of the hat, a nod in the direction of, but in my opinion it’s a very strong contender in today’s fantasy market able to stand on its own two legs (unless you’re an unfortunate mage like Eremul, of course!).

For Those That Like: David Gemmell, Brian McClellan, magic based stories, grimdark, gritty characters, tyrant-overthrowing-plots, and oh alright then I’ll say it, JOE ABERCROMBIE.

The gods are dead.

Magic is dying.

Freedom isn’t far off being terminal, either.

Dorminia is a city under siege from within. The Tyrant of Dorminia rules with the approach of: hear no evil, see no evil, do no evil. ‘Evil’ being anyone with motive to oppose him. His mindhawks can hear the thoughts of the people, the city watch see everything, and if anyone steps out of place then Salazar’s magically powered Augmentors sort it out. Swiftly.

But ‘evil’ is in the eye of the beholder. One man’s hero is another man’s villain. Salazar himself is a hero for overthrowing the gods hundreds of years ago, but what about the men who seek to overthrow Salazar?

Two ageing barbarians, one with bad knees and the other with a bad temper, aren’t your typical everyday heroic pair. Nor is a cocky hot-headed youth who claims to be a hero at every opportunity. And a ‘half mage’ with no legs barely scratches at being 'half man', and there’s no such thing as a ‘half hero’. But together with a band of rebels, they seek to bring down Salazar and liberate Dorminia.


Luke Scull’s ‘The Grim Company’ is his debut novel, and the opening to a brand new epic fantasy series. ‘The Grim Company’ is a story of the unlikeliest companions thrown together to bring down an enemy that even the gods couldn’t defeat. The odds of their success are grim (see what I did there? Ok, I’ll stop!).

You need a fitting start to a tale in which the gods are dead. It needs to be a cataclysmic intro, something world-shattering to live up to the epic setting. What to choose, what to choose…oh, I know! A tidal wave. Eureka. Wait…

…A TIDAL WAVE?!? In the first five pages?

Certainly sets the tone, doesn’t it?


‘The Grim Company’ comes out swinging, and throughout it doesn’t pull its punches. Look, I’m not going to go into the similarities that other reviewers have pointed out just yet, because I think that ‘The Grim Company’ can stand on its own two feet and fend for itself in terms of originality. Sure it’s grimdark fantasy, which is all the trend at the minute, but it has its own unique spice. I won’t bore you to death with examples but here’s a tidbit for you. Without spoiling anything, Scull introduces the concept of deep-sea mining at one point in the story. DEEP SEA MINING IN A FANTASY?!? Stick that in your originality pipe and smoke it. Then you have the concept of the Augmentors, warriors with a specific talent or trait magically magnified. Yes, this concept (or at least the base idea of it) has been used numerous times in fantasy, but it’s execution in the story is fantastic and makes for some fantastic character development and twists.


Scull shamelessly man’s his ‘Grim Company’ with the unlikeliest of heroes, even though each stereotype is likely to appear in every other grimdark fantasy novel out there. BUT, and I must emphasise this point, BUT Scull does it SHAMELESSLY. Ageing barbarian with aches and pains, getting too old for the life of a warrior; a crippled and bitter intellect, seated at the heart of a conspiracy yet he can’t sit down or stand up without risking sh**ting himself; and a hopeful young hero, talented, brave, destined for greatness, that is if he can stop his ego from running away from him. They’re all familiar to a fantasy fan, but don’t be put off by thinking this is a copy-paste cast. It’s a testament to Scull’s writing that he can take such familiar characters and breathe new life into them. I myself fell in love with the characters. Yes I can see the similarities. Do I care? No. They’re individual to me.

Setting & World building.

The plot and the setting are fantastic. Who doesn’t like an epic backdrop to a fantasy? And it doesn’t get much better than dead gods who's corpses leak magic. Seriously, top this, go on, I dare ya.

Style & Craftsmanship.

Scull’s style is refreshing. I mean when you weigh it all up he has PACKED ‘The Grim Company’ with ideas and characters. When you try and list them all down, it seems like it won’t work on paper. There's just so much going on. But it does. It really, really does. The pacing is fantastic, never relenting. It’s not so much a page turner as a page burner.


But the heart of the matter, I guess, the thing that everyone wants to know:

…is ‘The Grim Company’ just another grimdark, or is it (as a minority of reviews/readers suggest) a blatant copy of other things out there (He-who-shall-not-be-named!).

In my opinion?


‘The Grim Company’ is its own story. I used this word earlier, SHAMELESS. It is shameless in its use of characters, tone, and even word choice. But what does it have to be ashamed of? Nothing if you ask me. It’s a damn good read from a damned good author. I’m not going to point out the similarities for you, because in my opinion that’s not me doing justice to Luke Scull or ‘The Grim Company’.

If every reader in the known world wants to know the TRUTH about this similarity binge, I’ll give you a truth. You might not be able to handle it, but here it is.

Is ‘The Grim Company’ a mirror of Joe Abercrombie’s ‘First Law’ series?


As a debut novel, ‘The Grim Company’ is better.

View all my reviews

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Interview: Luke Scull, Author of 'The Grim Company'

Following on from the previous posts, we've reached the midpoint of the David Gemmell Morningstar coverage. There's no going back now! But that's not to say that this next author is of middle-ground mention, not in the least. I read Luke Scull's debut 'The Grim Company' when it was released last year, and I have reread it in anticipation for the awards. For a debut its damn good, and even on my second run through I found myself caught up in the adrenaline written in between the lines. So, let's hear Luke's side of it...
Luke Scull - Author & Game Designer extraordinaire!
Hi Luke, welcome to WWaS (Written With a Sword). Congratulations for being nominated to the shortlist in the David Gemmell Morningstar Award. For those readers who have yet to ‘meet you’, tell us a little about yourself.

I'm a video game designer turned novelist. I'm in my early 30s and currently living in the south west of England, which in recent years has become a safe haven for my kind. When I'm not writing fantasy novels or designing fantasy games, I'm reading fantasy novels or playing fantasy games. Occasionally I venture outside to hurl weights around a gym and exchange manly nods and the occasional chest slap with the largely middle-aged women and OAPs who frequent the local sport centre.

So, how did you go from video game designer to writer? Have you always wanted to be a writer?

I've always been interested in narrative of one kind or another, starting with the LARP scenarios I would create for my brother when we were children. I would place needles in the carpet and make him walk over them, before battering him with my broadsword +5/plastic vacuum attachment accessory. The journey to Mount Doom was a veritable walk in the park compared with making it through one of my games.

I've been a video game writer for about 10 years. I wanted to see if my skills could transition to writing a novel. The Grim Company was originally intended as a practice run for a serious attempt at a book some time in the future. I guess things went better than expected.

With a second name so close to ‘skull’ it’s little surprise that you went for the grittier, and excuse the second pun, ‘grim’ side of fantasy. Was this something you had planned for, or did the story darken/realise of its own accord? 

Having such a grimdark-friendly name was obviously fate at work. The only other avenue open to me was Olympic rower, and even with my prodigious physical gifts I'm not certain I'd have improved Team GB that much.

When I began writing The Grim Company I was already working on a teen-rated fantasy CRPG set in a pseudo middle-eastern fantasy world. I had to make the two projects very different, to avoid feelings of repetition or crossover. With my gaming project taking place in an "exotic" setting, I decided to go in the other direction with the novel and play with some familiar tropes whilst embracing an edgier tone.


Seeing as we’ve mentioned ‘The Grim Company’ tell us more, but in 50 words or less – what’s your ‘elevator pitch’? 

The Grim Company is an epic fantasy about a group of anti-heroes set in a world of long-dead gods, rampaging demons, and immortal tyrants. Among fantasy novels written by white men living within 10 miles of Warminster, it has few peers.

How long did it take to plan and write ‘The Grim Company’? Do you have a writing routine?

The book took me around 10 months to write in haphazard fashion. I don't really have a routine. I tend to think and edit during the day, and write at night when I'm feeling more creatively inspired – possibly spurred on by guilt at having wasted yet another day Googling myself, brooding over some negative review that happened three weeks ago, and answering the door to the postman dressed only in my underpants.

What inspired you to write ‘The Grim Company’?

Free time and a desire to see if I could write a book. When my now-agent e-mailed me after reading the first 12 chapters or so online, I knew I had to finish the story. Writers are supposed to approach agents and face years of rejection before someone eventually says yes – yet here I was being invited to London having made no effort at all to get published.

Now that ‘The Grim Company’ has been released into the wild, are you happy with it? Anything you’d change?

Yes and yes. I have somewhat mixed feelings. I suspect this is not uncommon.

On one hand, The Grim Company went to auction with half a dozen publishers bidding, got some nice advances and great reviews, and made it to the shortlist for the David Gemmell Morningstar Award. It's also been translated into eight languages as of this interview.

On the other hand… it's pretty much the first draft of the first novel I ever attempted. It's me at about 50% of my potential. It's very good in parts; a little raw and perhaps not strikingly original in others, as befits both my lack of experience and my original intent of simply writing for my own amusement before things got serious. I dare say that in five years I'll look back and frown darkly at certain things. I could rewrite it as a significantly better novel right now, with the experience I've gained between books one and two.

Still. To moan that my first book is merely good but flawed, and not one of the many, ahem, masterpieces I will no doubt write in time, would be churlish. I've been very lucky in so many ways.

What was the hardest part of writing ‘The Grim Company’?

Realising just how much rewriting needed to be done on a sentence level to improve my early prose. As a game designer, the plotting and structural sides of writing a book came naturally – even the dialogue, after a shaky start. But bringing my prose up to standard was a lengthier process, as I simply hadn't done anything like that before.

The story follows multiple major characters including narcissistic rebel Davarus Cole, barbarians Brodar Kayne and Jerek the Wolf, Yllandris the power hungry sorceress, loyal and honourable Barandas sworn to Magelord Salazar, and Emerul the legless Half-mage. Which are you most like?
I'm a combination of Cole's lack of awareness, Jerek's black temper and intolerance, Eremul's bitterness and cynicism, and Kayne's age-related physical afflictions. Needless to say, my wife is a very lucky woman.

What would you like readers to take away from ‘The Grim Company’?

A fervent desire to pre-order the second in the trilogy as soon as possible. That, and to be entertained. Maybe even chortle a few times.

What does it mean to you to being nominated for the David Gemmell Morningstar award?

I'm not generally a big believer in awards. All that really matters are sales figures. They're the most honest way of measuring whether or not you are succeeding as a writer. Some people will hate me for saying that, but there it is.

The Gemmells are an exception to my award apathy. I approve of the public vote, which for its many failings is still infinitely preferable to, for example, cliques manipulating award nominations in yet another proxy for America's endless culture war (sorry Americans: I love you guys, really). I approve of the fact the Gemmells help commemorate a great man and author. That enough people voted for The Grim Company to propel it to the shortlist warms the ashes of what I once called a heart.

70,000 votes cast is phenomenal – long may the Gemmells continue to grow.

David Gemmell is regarded as the ‘big daddy’ of modern British heroic-fantasy. Who is your hero?

I don't have a hero per se. Instead I'm going to name my biggest influences: Tolkien, Martin, Pratchett, and Joe Abercrombie, the last of whom I'm often compared to, though tonally and stylistically I've been writing in a very similar way for many years. Here's a quote someone wrote about my early games, released between 2002-2006:

"They're frankly kind of a downer. The very first subquest has you investigating the horrific death of a tavern maid at the hands of her abusive boyfriend. Friendly NPCs die (and kill each other) in droves, bad guys win and everyone and their dog are either dying of cancer or have been abused as children or something. It's all a bit grim and joyless."

So there you go.

What can we expect next from you?

My second novel, Sword of the North, should be out early next year, and will hopefully be a much stronger and more innovative novel than the first. Dead Man's Steel will likely follow in 2016.

After The Grim Company trilogy is finished, I would like to tackle some standalones, possibly in the same setting (the Age of Ruin).

I'm also considering writing outside the fantasy genre. Over the last 10 years I've worked on multiple established RPG franchises, designed a new CRPG setting, and written two fantasy novels in the Age of Ruin, with a third to follow. That's a lot of time spent in secondary worlds. The prospect of working with the real world for a change is enticing. (Go somewhere exotic! Conduct on-site research! Interviews!) I have one or two ideas in mind…

Do you read other books in your own genre? Who is your favourite author?

I try to read broadly within the genre. I have 40 books on my 2014 Goodreads challenge, including some of my fellow finalists' books that I own on kindle. If I don't win the Morningstar award, I'm getting them refunded.

I have a few favourites. Martin, of course. Abercrombie. The usual neckbeard suspects. I'm also a big fan of Mark Lawrence, who is both a great (and horrifyingly fast!) writer and a very nice guy. Daniel Polansky is an undiscovered gem of an author: I predict that in a few years he'll be getting the same recognition Matthew Woodring Stover is receiving now in various "Name me an underrated author" forum threads.

Do you have any pearls of wisdom that you’d like to share with would-be writers?

Be humble. Accept criticism and advice from folk better qualified than you until the moment you're certain you've learned enough that you can safely ignore it. Find readers you trust.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Book Review: 'The Path of Anger' by Antoine Rouaud

UK Gollancz cover art.
The Good: Strong characterisation for the two leading protagonists that contributes directly to the plot’s development, inspires emotional empathy, thought-out execution of the story to tie-up the loose ends and throw in twists in a complex and changing structure.

The Bad: The world-building comes across as lack lustre, some of the flashbacks are a little clunky, and there are a handful of mistakes/errors (though I’ll put these down to ‘lost in translation’).

The Ugly Truth: A character driven struggle, fuelled by tragedy and fanned by revenge, ‘The Path of Anger’ by Antoine Rouaud puts a fresh spin on familiar staples. Whilst the master & apprentice, and the empire & republic are oft found in fantasy and sci-fi (thus drawing immediate comparison to Mr Vader, himself) ‘The Path of Anger’ approaches this with a deeper emotional connection to the characters, built upon a lifetime of friendship and hardship – taking the familiar and chartering into newfound territories. Honour, loyalty, betrayal and revenge…what more could you ask for?

For Those That Like: European-medieval fantasy, knights and dragons, kings and castles, chivalry, stories based on the fall from grace, and greater ties to religion and the meaning of life, the universe and everything. For fans of Brent Weeks, Pat Rothfuss, and (oh, all right I’ll say it!) Star Wars.

They took everything from him.
His apprentice.
His emperor.
His life…
But now he’s going to take his revenge.
Dun-Cadal Daermon was a general, once. A knight of renown, favoured of the emperor, and above all else a man of honour. But that was years ago – these days he sports a wine jug and a hangover rather than sword and armour. The Empire might be lost to the depths of history, but Dun the drunk seems determined to drown his sorrows and himself in the depths of his cups.
When Viola, a historian of new republic, comes searching for knights of the Empire, she finds more than she was expecting with Dun. Now, after what seems like an age, the Sword of the Emperors’ is on the verge of rediscovery, though what use it will be to the republic is anyone’s guess.
With memories stirred by Viola’s questions, Dun’s past has seemingly come back to plague him as flashbacks stalk his thoughts – but when a killer strikes in the fashion of an Imperial Assassin, it seems the ghosts of Dun’s past have returned to haunt him.

Antoine Rouaud’s debut ‘The Path of Anger’ takes readers on a journey to familiar shores, but it’s journey and not the destination that matters. Published by Gollancz in the UK, the novel has had a simultaeneous international release, going toe-to-toe with some of this year’s biggest releases. Combining elements of historical fiction and heroic fantasy, Rouaud has put himself on the map as a new and exciting talent – certainly one to watch out for on the horizon!


‘The Path of Anger’ tells the story of Dun-Cadal Caermon, a fallen from grace general and war hero of the now overthrown empire. When a stranger comes looking for a lost relic – the Sword of the Emperors – Dun-Cadal is dragged kicking and screaming into his memories, reliving his triumphs and failures, even as they threaten to catch up with him. All the while a bigger purpose lurks in the background – one of a book that foretells the futures and fate of mankind.

Dun’s story is a nice solid underdog tale as he fights to return to his former glory. Whilst the rebel and empire backdrop might not be the first of its kind, the characters’ individual stories and the overarching ‘book and the sword’ piece are intriguing and entertaining enough to ensure a good read.


Dun-Cadal Caermon is the star of the show. He’s a tragedy in its truest form. Once hero, now zero, we see all sides of Dun from his days of former glory to his present state of despair and drunkenness. To have such a weak hero is a nice change, and for me I found myself empathising and relating to him all the more so for this. He’s not a one-man-army as you’d see in fantasies, nor is he a daisy. He’s also not a two-dimensional cardboard cut-out or a weeping emotional complex. He’s human, and that’s something we can all understand.

Frog is just as interesting – even his name crooks a brow at the mention of it. As Dun’s apprentice, he’s determined to be the greatest knight in the world. But he’s afraid. Terrified even. And we all know what fear leads to… I jest, ish. When Frog is afraid he lashes out, and he’s grown up in fear so there’s plenty of pain to be dished out.

Other characters exist within ‘The Path of Anger’ but I only want to mention the above two as much of the page time is dedicated to them.

Setting & World Building

‘The Path of Anger’ is set in a European-medieval fantasy world with elements of France, Italy, I could argue Egypt around the Naaga, throw in a little bit of Germany and the United Kingdom…you get the idea. The ideas are there, I just couldn’t put my finger on it. The world building is lacklustre, and through the thin veneer it’s not that I could see cracks, it’s that I couldn’t see anything standout and special.

I could pick apart the Empire and Republic thing again, the master and apprentice, and even go so far as to compare the animus to the force, but by drawing these conclusions I risk denying myself of a damn good story.

Style & Craftsmanship

The story is told through the eyes of Dun primarily (I’ll say no more as per spoilers rules) via present day and memory flashbacks. It works for the most part, but there were times that the flashbacks inhibited progression, came across as clunky, and came across as a little samey (when a single scene was retold from a different perspective).

The pacing at times dropped off the curve, particularly towards the middle, but the finale was probably one of the best that I have read in a long time.

I’ll put down the odd grammatical error here and there to lost in translation, but on that note, to have taken the entire manuscript from French to English and end up with something this good…bravo!

Final Thoughts

‘The Path of Anger’ is a hugely entertaining debut and one to which I will subscribe for the rest of the series. The familiar elements made me feel at home as the reader, but there’s enough going on behind the scenes and beyond the norm to keep me hooked. I hope to have presented a balanced account in this review, but in all honesty I’m already leaning to one side on this, and I’m not ashamed to say which.

May the force – I mean animus – be with you!

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Author Inteview: Antoine Rouaud - 'The Path of Anger'

As part of the on-going series of posts covering the David Gemmell Legend Awards, I invited Morningstar nominee Antoine Rouaud to talk about his debut 'The Path of Anger', published by Gollancz in the UK. 'The Path of Anger' isn't just one of the hottest releases in the UK, it's everywhere, with simultaneous releases in France, Germany, Holland and Spain!

Please note: English is not Antoine's first language, and my French is limited to 'Where are the pants? Oh, the pants are in the church' (a story for another time), so between us we have managed to conduct the interview to best fit. Whilst some of the wording may have been edited for clarity, the answers remain the same. I took the explicit decision not to change the wording so as to preserve Antoine's character and charm.

Hi Antoine, welcome to WWaS (Written With a Sword). Congratulations for being nominated to the shortlist in the David Gemmell Morningstar Award. For those readers who have yet to ‘meet you’, tell us a little about yourself.

Thank you very much, it's really a great thing for me to be nominated in such a prize as the David Gemmell Morningstar Award. It's really incredible and i'm really honored. So, who am I ? Just a little guy from Nantes, in the west of France, a nice place to live - and the birth place of Jules Vernes! I grew up with his universe, and with the story of my city, too. Its history is hard and dark with slavery during the 18th Century, but also bright and clever with a lot of artists, and a good part of "surréalisme". 

I have always written – and since I’ve been able to I’ve created stories. I worked in radio for a while, and realized audiostories which are still available on internet. Now, I'm still living in Nantes, and working hard on the second book of ‘The Book and the Sword’. 

So, how did you go from being in the world of radio to writing? Have you always wanted to be a writer?

Yes, indeed. It was my dream... as I dreamed about being an actor, writing stories for cinema, composer... As I said above, I have always written – different things, different stories. I took my chance when I met Stéphane Marsan from Bragelonne. I spoke to him and proposed to him my book. What happened next was just unbelievable. 

What does it feel like to have your debut novel simultaneously released on an international level, in multiple languages?

Nothing Special... maybe a strange sensation of explode myself. Seriously, the good word to explain what it feel like is unbelievable... again.  

Tell us about ‘The Path of Anger’ – what’s your ‘elevator pitch’?

It's a strong relation between a man who wanted to be a dad, and a boy who want to be the greatest knight in the world. It's a story of both, with their different ways of thinking, one from an ancient world, the other ready to build a new one. It talks about what we can learn from each other, and what we need for grow up. 

And, not forgetting, there’s a dragon, and it’s set during a dark period when a revolution tries to bring hope to the common people. 

How long did it take to plan and write ‘Path of Anger’? Do you have a writing routine?

No writing routine really. I just wanted to make the best I could. It takes me... let me think... six month for writing all ? Maybe a little more but not so much. 

What inspired you to write ‘Path of Anger’?
Especially tragedies. From Shakespeare to Corneille... And Greek tragedies. I wanted an epic story. And tragic too but not for free. I tried to write it with a meaning, some way to think about our lives. It's why the base of the Trilogy is built on a book which is contain the destiny of all mankind. 

Now that ‘Path of Anger’ has been released into the wild, are you happy with it? Anything you’d change? Have you changed from the process?

 More coffee. More stress sometimes... but more confident too. I'm really happy. Now, I have to work more and more for write the sequel! 

What was the hardest part of writing ‘Path of Anger’?

Corrections. The corrections with my publisher. Because you have to doubt about your script. You have to put your ego aside. You have to understand all the critic are made for the better of your story. Then, you have to write again, correct what it seems wrong. That was the hardest part. Finally, the biggest part. 

The story follows two major characters, that of Dun-Cadal the knight, and Frog the boy from the saltmarsh. Which is your favourite?

 I love both ! No one is black or white. They both have their weaknesses and  strengths of mind.  Which is important for a story I think. Having characters who want to love and hate. 

Are you the mentor, like Dun-Cadal, or the apprentice, like Frog?

I think I am more closer to Frog. With more anger. I was like him when I was a teenager. Without a sword, special power and the desire to kill everybody of course. 

What would you like readers to take away from ‘The Path of Anger’?

I want the readers turn the last page of my book and think about what they just read... what happened to the characters, why they choose what they choose... And think they had a really great time. 

What does it mean to you being nominated for the David Gemmell Morningstar award?

It means a lot. It's really an honour. My first book ? Released in all those countries and nominated ? ... amazing. I'm proud of it, I try to live that. But I have to think about the next step, the most important step. Make a good, very good, second book. For those who trust me, those who loved the first one. I have to try my best. 

David Gemmell is regarded as the ‘big daddy’ of modern British heroic-fantasy. Who is your hero?

I don't think I have one. I like so many authors, I learn about them. No-one especially is my hero. Or, all of them are. 

What can we expect next from you?

To finish the Trilogy and make it a great one? The Path of Anger is my first novel. I can do more. I want to make the sequels good enough, even better.  

Do you read other books in your own genre? Who is your favourite author?

I had to read some books recently. I was curious and didn't know so much about this genre in fact. So, I read Pierre Pevel, Scott Lynch, Mark Lawrence and enjoyed it. Especially ‘The Lies of Locke Lamora’ which is a great moment of adventure. 

Do you have any pearls of wisdom that you’d like to share with would-be writers?

Just write. Write, write, continue to write. What you want, when you want. Try to be your own critic first and then, when you will seems ready, go. Even you don't succeed with a story, the next one maybe will be the good one. Writing is not a question of skill. It's a question of will. 

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Guest Post: 'The Villain's Point of View' by Mark T Barnes

Where would the hero be without their villain? The protagonist, without the antagonist? The conflict between two forces, whether directly or indirectly, openly or secretly, has been a staple of storytelling. Hero and the villain don’t always start as such, nor do they always end up as such, but at some point in both character’s journeys they will oppose each other in one way or another. Readers should have as strong a reaction to the villain as they do to the hero, and like the hero the villain should develop over the course of the story, reactive to their changing situation, and with the intention of being victorious.

The antagonist serves many purposes. At their core they are the foil to the protagonist, set at odds by contrasted values, goals and outcomes. Villains and heroes execute different plot roles: often it is the villain who develops the origin of the conflict, while the hero provides the solution, or vice versa. A villain does not need to be evil to be effective, but like the hero they should believe strongly in what they do. In some cases the difference between a villain and a hero is purely a matter of perspective, motivation, and means to achieve what are similar ends. Antagonists can teach us as much about our nature than a hero, relieved as they can be of social restraint and the pressure to do right. Villains often do what we wish we could do, were it not for the consequences.

To me the best villains are those who have clear motivations, are consistent in the pursuit of those motivations, and can generate a level of understanding in the reader. Making the antagonist sympathetic in some way is also a useful tool so that readers engage with the villain whether they want to or not. A good antagonist can make an excellent point of view character, providing a 360 degree view of the story as well as a different lens through which we can examine the protagonist’s actions and motivations.

In the Echoes of Empire series there are a number of villains but the most prominent is Corajidin of the Great House of Erebus: a nobleman and a statesman; a nationalist and to a degree an idealist; intelligent; educated; and with firm opinions, a course of action, and the will to see it done. In the early days of writing The Garden of Stones, the first novel in the EoE series, Corajidin was never a point of view character. It wasn’t until first readers had read Act I that they saw some value in telling a third of the story from the perspective of the man who set events in motion. So in addition to the points of view of Indris and Mari, I added Corajidin and additional avenues of telling the story opened up. Rather than hearsay and conjecture, the reader had the direct perspective of the villain and knew not only what Corajidin wanted to achieve, but why.

Corajidin begins the story as tragically flawed and misguided, but his motivations are clear and his methodology understood. As the story unfolds either his expectations for his own future need to be managed, or his course changed. To satisfy a self-serving agenda within a veneer of national pride and sentiment, what little decency remained to him was shredded away as he dug deeper into his id and ego to do what he believed needed to be done. As a point of view character the reader joined Corajidin on his self-destructive journey and was with him through his entire decision making process. The same insight into the villain was provided in The Obsidian Heart and The Pillars of Sand, where the reader held on as Corajidin sunk deeper into a circumstance of his own making.
At no point in the novels would I describe Corajidin as a nice person. Though it does not excuse him, he is a product of his nature, his nurture, and his need, no different from many people in positions of authority who are forced to make compromises. In Corajidin’s case those compromises had a domino effect throughout the story from which he refused to escape. In many ways his ultimate fall from what he could have been under different circumstances was as tragic as the fall of any hero.
The villain’s point of view can be an effective tool, and one writers can use to keep the reader immersed in the story from all perspectives.

Mark Barnes lives in Sydney, Australia. He is the author of the epic fantasy Echoes of Empire series, published by 47North. The series includes The Garden of Stones (released May 2013), and The Obsidian Heart (released October 2013). The Pillars of Sand is the third of the series, due for release in May 2014. In April 2014, The Garden of Stones was selected as one of five finalists in the 2013/2014 David Gemmell Morningstar Award for Best Newcomer/Debut, with the winner to be announced in London in June 2014.
 You can find out more at www.marktbarnes.com, his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/marktbarnes.author, or follow Mark on Twitter @MarkTBarnes.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Book Review: 'The Garden of Stones' by Mark T Barnes

The Good: An truly epic debut that raises the newcomers’ bar for world building and beatific writing, a complex and dynamic storyline and empathic characters who drive their own stories as well as the main plot.
The Bad: At times heavy on the purple prose which can detract from the pace, and the lull following the high-octane opening was a little jarring.
The Ugly Truth: Puts the ‘epic’ into ‘epic fantasy’ – ‘The Garden of Stones’ is a hugely impressive novel, all the more so as it’s Mark T Barnes’ debut. Every sentence, paragraph, page and chapter is masterfully crafted, breathing life into the truly original world and giving it a depth of ages and realism that takes it from ‘good’ and shoots it right into the ‘great’.
For Those That Like: Sprawling worlds set within rich tomes of history, bloody wars and even bloodier political battles, high and epic fantasy backdrops, deep and troubled characters. For fans of Steven Erikson, Brandon Sanderson, and Ursula Le Guin.
The future holds only death for Corajidin – that is until prophecy decrees he’ll rise to rule his people.

The key to his survival lives in the past – to secure his tomorrow he must connect to his ancestors.

Between now and then, he would plunge the Great Houses and the Hundred Families into civil war, assassinate the rulers of Shrian, desecrate the history and memory of a city swallowed by time, and risk all out conflict with the other nations including the humans.

But one man stands before Corajidin and his destiny – Amonindris. And he has taken his stand today.

Mark T Barnes’ debut ‘The Garden of Stones’ is as rich and as deep as the world and history it is set in. Published by Amazon’s own 47North, the novel stands shoulder to shoulder with other releases from larger presses and publishing houses, whilst standing aside not only in terms of origin but also execution and originality. Combining epic storytelling seen in fireside tales and the wealth of information from a fantasy-styled encyclopaedia, Barnes paints a masterpiece in worldbuilding and wordsmithing.

‘The Garden of Stones’ tells the story of Corajidin, the dying ruler of house Erebus, as he plots and schemes to usurp the rulers of Shrian, and in doing so secure not only his personal and family destiny, but also his survival. Standing against him is warrior-poet Anomandaris, an infamous warrior and sorcerer of renown.

The tale is a good one, and set within the backdrop of rich history, I for one felt that every development in the plot was leading to ‘something bigger’. The characters’ and their decisions drive the central plot, and whilst each have their own individual stories to follow, I felt more in-tune with the overarching tale.

‘The Garden of Stones’ is populated with a wide array of exotic characters, from Angoth witches to lion-men Tau-se, Elementals to souls inhabiting mannequin vessels.

Amonindris is the hero of the tale. He’s a tragic case, having lost his wife, and to me seemingly having lost his greater purpose in life, we as the readers are treated to his philosophies and thoughts, as well as his sorcerous and martial moments of general badassery. Like other reviews, I drew parallels to Steven Erikson’s Anomander Rake, which is first and foremost down to the primary similarities in name and characterisation, but that isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy reading him. Quite the contrary in fact – whilst Amonindris (mostly referred to as Indris) is a ‘think first act later’ type, this makes for further opportunity for the reader to uncover the stunning backdrop of Shrian and the world around the character.

Corajidin is the ‘bad guy’ of the tale – though he doesn’t quite see it that way. He’s dying, and without knowledge of the Awakening – a ritual by which he can connect with his ancestors and the world of Ia – he’s as good as dead already. Blinded by his own mortality, ambition, and love for his family, Corajidin sets out to kidnap the ruler of Shrian to force from him the knowledge of the Awakening, to not only secure his survival, but also his seat of power. Corajidin is one of the most enjoyable ‘villains’ that I have read in a long time, adding the perfect balance of perspective to the tale.

The last major character that I’d like to mention is Mariam, Corajidin’s daughter, and knight colonel of the Feyassin. Torn between love of her father, and loyalty of her duty, Mariam’s decisions shape much of the events in the story. She’s headstrong and heart-strong, feisty but not fearless – making for one of the best female characters in recent fantasy.
Setting & World Building

The land of Shrian is presented as a blend of the Orient and Mediterranean, shaken into a cocktail with fantasy flavours. Multiple humanoid and non-humanoid races, airships and dragons, a bestiary of critters, and a magic system based on algorithms and equations – ‘The Garden of Stones’ has pretty much got it all.
Style & Craftsmanship

As the reader, we’re dropped into the middle of the plot right from the get-go. As an avid fan of Steven Erikson’s Malazan series, I’m no stranger to this approach, but I think in this case the execution  stumbled somewhat. As the opening comes to a close, just as we’re getting to grips with what’s going on, the pace falls away and we’re given time to question and think – when really we should continue to be dragged along. Needless to say, one the pieces are set out on the board the plot does move along at a sufficient pace, and I’m looking forward to how this develops in book two.

Barnes explores the deeper thoughts and morals of each of the characters, but at times this detracted from the pace on a chapter by chapter base. I mentioned above that the plot does achieve sufficient pace once it gets going, but several chapters dropped off the march at times, turning into a few pages of hard slog before it picked up again.

With such fantastical fantasy settings, the temptation to divulge into lengths of purple prose is ever present, and ‘The Garden of Stones’ falls victim to this on more than one occasion. Whilst I’m not keen on reams and reams of paper describing the eggshell blue horizon speckled with clouds and a fat sizzling yolk of a sun, I have to admit that the descriptions were eloquently beatific, and did add to the overall depth of the world.
Final Thoughts

‘The Garden of Stones’ is an epic start to what I think will turn out to be an epic saga. It really does have it all, and whilst it might not be for everyone at first glance, it really does have something for everyone. Now that the scene is set and the characters are in play, I for one am looking forward to seeing how the different sides come together and seek to win in this game of ever rising stakes.