SFF in Conversation is a new monthly feature on The Book Smugglers in which we invite guests to talk about a variety of topics important to speculative fiction fans, authors, and readers. Our vision is to create a safe (moderated) space for thoughtful conversation about the genre, with a special focus on inclusivity and diversity in SFF. Anyone can participate and we are welcoming emailed topic submissions from authors, bloggers, readers, and fans of all categories, age ranges, and subgenres beneath the speculative fiction umbrella.
We continue our ongoing new series of posts called “SFF in Conversation” with a guest post from Mark Charan Newton, author of the Legends of the Red Sun series as well as the upcoming Drakenfeld, the first in a series of pseudo-classical crime fiction set in a secondary world.
Please give it up for Mark, everyone!
First of all, thanks to the Book Smugglers for letting me rant on their website. I’ve been checking back here since the site first went online, believe it or not, and it’s one of the few I make sure to check in with – because I’m a fan of properly progressive bloggery!
So. Novel inspiration. What kicks it all off for me? Usually, when I’m at the start of writing a book, I find it’s helpful to be angry about something. I don’t recommend it for every writer, but for me I’m driven when I’ve got something to prove or say or show. But for Drakenfeld, I was in a weird position. I was angry with anger itself.
I’d noticed a trend in fantasy genre discussions. The trend has been accidentally given the name ‘grimdark’ to represent a certain kind of grittiness. Violence. Bloodshed, killings, psychopaths. It’s all fair game in these books. ‘Grimdark’ is a (accidental?) corruption of the Warhammer 40,000 slogan, ‘In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war’. 40k is deliberately and delightfully over the top. It’s intentional and controlled, full of irony. But I got the idea that it wasn’t so much the case for the fantasy fiction that was described as – and described itself as – grimdark. It was over the top, perhaps, without knowing about it.
So let’s call it gritty fantasy for now, because that’s a more reliable word. Gritty has almost become a sub-genre. Isn’t that weird, when you think about it? That readers, publishers and authors have started talking about violence (and other Bad Things) as a definable, marketable sub-genre? In fiction, here was a kind of unconscious creep. Readers and reviewers started to equate the level of grittiness – and by that, it was obvious we’re talking about the number of throats being cut – with their enjoyment of a book. They seemed to suggest that increasing violence had become a symbol of good writing in fantasy fiction, that any fantasy books that didn’t feature high kill-counts, shades of grey (i.e. murderers who kiss well) and high testosterone were old-fashioned or dull.
Which is crap, obviously.
But it didn’t seem that way. Every time I read a forum or blog review that seemed to delight in gritty fantasy, consciously or unconsciously celebrating violence because that’s what they thought made a good book, I thought I was going mad. What was wrong with people? I had two ways to respond. Carry on as normal, muttering at my computer screen and slowly going insane:
Or take my fight outside.
Which is – kind of – where I started with Drakenfeld. Let me explain. None of this is to say that killings and so forth are inherently bad things in a book – and skilled writers can weave great fantastical narratives out of murder and mayhem, and make powerful points with their prose. And it’s not to say that I didn’t want to include violence in anything I wrote.
I wanted to respond to the changing sentiment in genre discussion that I was observing a couple of years back, the sentiment that violence equated to a good book. I thought to myself that we can do better than that. It was also a bit of a challenge to myself as a writer. Could I get that same rush of adrenaline without stooping to violent pyrotechnics – which, potentially, possibly, I may have been guilty of in the past?
So that’s how the character Lucan Drakenfeld was born.
Lucan Drakenfeld is someone who, at heart, abhors violence. He is cerebral. He’s polite. He doesn’t have a fascination with heaving bosoms. He’s nowhere near as tough as his female bodyguard. But most importantly, he will always think before hitting someone with a sword. That’s not to say that he doesn’t hit anyone with a sword at all, but I wanted a character for whom violence always had to be significantly justified. Because killing someone in real life means that a daughter could go without a mother, son could go without a father, that a family’s income could be cut off (hey, not many worlds have social security nets). A child might well go down a dark path. To me, good writing would understand that sentiment, and a well-written character would have to understand what that meant within the novel.
All of this helped out naturally with the crime aspect of the novel. I was establishing an analogue of the classical world, since that was my geek penchant at the time, and still is (There’s a side topic about the Classical world being amazing to use as building blocks for a fantasy world, since it’s so sophisticated.) So, when setting up a crime novel, a reader needs to believe that the core crime is meaningful, and that it threatens the fabric of society in which said crime is set. That’s what makes it interesting, right? Why else would we care? Having Drakenfeld be of high standards – in a similar kind of way to how Hercule Poirot always had his Catholicism as moral compass – and actively care about, you know, people not dying, would really help cement the importance of establishing a meaningful crime in a secondary world. Going back to Poirot briefly – with him not being shorthand shades of grey and still complex – with him having absolutes that established a morality for society – it seemed to matter so much more when he had to question his own decisions.
A minor tangent. Stay with me. You remember Due South?
If you do, you’re showing your age… It’s one of the greatest TV shows on the planet (the double episode Victoria’s Secret always leaves me breathless) and anyone who says otherwise is objectively wrong. When I started to plan Drakenfeld, I had this show in the back of my mind. Why? It’s a very good example of how a character could be good and polite and honest, yet still complex and full of charisma, and make for a gripping story. More importantly, it was a great contrast to the gritty writing that you normally associated with police drama at the time. The show was incredibly sophisticated. It also proved that you don’t have to have lots of violence to make something mature.
With all of this bubbling away in my head, something clicked. I kind of had a plan for a book. I was really excited about it.
That really was platform from which I started the novel, but at the heart of things, I still hope wanted to create a cool mystery, an exciting fantasy adventure, with some progressive things going on in the background. All of that stuff was par for the course in whatever book I wanted to write, but I had things to say. So I got on my high horse and rode into, uh, Author Town in Ego Country. Or something.
I think it’s well trodden territory these days that authors shouldn’t really meddle in fan discussion online, and rightly so. Because if we’ve got something important to say, we can put it in a book – and Drakenfeld was my opportunity to do so. Whether it worked or not, well, it’s probably too late for me to worry about that now.
(I’m done with the ranting and the Bill Murray now.)
About the author: Even though I’ve a degree in Environmental Science, a life of books appealed. After working in bookstores, I moved into an editorial position at the Black Flame imprint, which published media tie-in fiction for the franchises New Line Cinema and 2000 AD. Later, I worked as a Science Fiction and Fantasy editor for Solaris, publishing novels into the British and American mass markets, before the publisher was sold on. My day job now is creating narrative background within a team for a Very Big, iconic game company based in Nottingham, UK. I don’t write the rules (or indeed novels), but help expand the world. It’s actually pretty difficult to explain, since the job is unique, but it’s a huge amount of fun. Not everyone gets to blow up planets for a living.
My own first mass market novels, the Legends of the Red Sun series, were published by Pan Macmillan (Tor UK), and iterations have appeared in the US, Germany and Italy. My new series is a pseudo-classical crime fiction set in a secondary world, and will be released in October 2013. The first novel is called Drakenfeld.
Read more HERE .