Juliet McKenna Interviews Mark Charan Newton
To celebrate Mark Charan Newton’s new fantasy epic Drakenfeld being released on paperback over here in the UK, Mark Charan Newton has been interviewed by another hugely popular author, Juliet E. McKenna, exclusively for Fantasy-Faction. Topics covered include balancing the fantastical and the historical, the fact Mark’s character IS NOT an anti-hero, the portrayal of women and much more.
Juliet’s questions are in bold orange and Mark’s answers are in our usual grey. Enjoy!
Every epic fantasy writer draws on history for inspiration and you’ve spoken about researching the Classical world (Rome and Ancient Greece) for Drakenfeld’s setting. Having done all that work, why not write a straight historical novel?
The most honest answer is that I enjoy building my own worlds. There’s a huge amount of satisfaction from creating these artificial places, fleshing them out, seeing them become real and populating them with your own characters. It helps me download my niggles about the real world. Plus you can try more experiments with culture and themes, more so than historical fiction. You can just do more, though I don’t wish to discredit that genre at all.
Mind you, thinking about straight historical fiction, it’s pretty fantastical as it is. The further back you go in time, the less reliable the sources are. Much of Roman history was recorded by extremely wealthy men, so our view of that world is filtered heavily. Imagine David Cameron writing about Britain, and his descriptions being what people of the future think of us now? I doubt they’d match up, so how can we trust our sources to give us something anywhere near reality?
I’m also interested when genres meet. I don’t think I’ll ever be a writer of core genre, because I’m interested in that blurry line where one spills into another, and you can’t quite pick them apart. Until it’s almost impossible to tell what’s history and fantasy.
In a genre with more than its share of antiheroes at the moment, Lucan Drakenfeld is a good guy. He’s there to uphold the rule of law and order. What led you as a writer to him as a central character?
Drakenfeld was written with a couple of core concepts in mind, but the main one was a conscious response to the trend for grimdark fantasy. I’m not saying that I dislike that subgenre at all – I enjoy many an entertaining grimdark yarn, and have written grimdark stories myself. But it’s been high fashion for the past few years to ramp up the violence with spurious claims to ‘realism’in fantasy (whatever that means). So Lucan Drakenfeld was a conscious rebellion against that, for better or worse. He was my attempt to write a decent human; with flaws, as he’s a little priggish at times and thinks a lot of himself, but hopefully that can entertain in different ways. Ultimately, he’s someone who thinks rape and gore is not something to wallow in, but something which affects people’s lives massively. That a death can echo through families for many years after the act. That set of ‘good’values, to me, can make as valid a claim to ‘realism’as grimdark, because those are the values we aspire to in our everyday lives. And with a character who’s so good, it’s rather entertaining for the author to put them through hell and back.
One thing people often think they know about the ancient world is how thoroughly women were repressed. A bit of research quickly shows how very much more complex that question is amongst historians currently. What’s your thinking behind this story’s women and their roles in the action?
You’re absolutely right, and women were far more powerful in history than we tend to believe. Figures such as the legendary Empress Theodora of the Byzantine era are among the most interesting and powerful characters in all of history, for my money. Women had pretty much equal rights to men during Anglo Saxon Britain, something conveniently forgotten by those who make claims in their own work that it’s just how things were for women. Imagine what life would be like if it wasn’t for the Norman conquest and those rights hadn’t been taken away?
Perhaps those old interpretations of a repressed history for women are just the usual cultural blindness, the inherent sexism within our culture. But I think this is where I can once again champion the fact that I’m not writing about the real ancient world anyway. I’m writing fantasy, consciously. Women in the Royal Vispasian Union can be senators and warriors, just like men, because it is a world I have created myself. I choose to have them in positions of power – and for any author who creates their own world, it also requires a decision to not take that option.
In fact, the contrast between Leana – Lucan Drakenfeld’s sidekick – and himself, is a deliberate gender reversal. He’s the softer one, a little more sensitive, while she’ll happily punch someone in the face if it means getting things done quicker. But generally speaking, in Drakenfeld the idea is that women and men were created equally – bearing in mind, at the same time, I’m not going to hit the reader over the head with the fact.
All good books have depth and subtext relevant to the modern day, and there’s a subtle political dimension to Drakenfeld which I find interesting. How much of that was deliberate? Did you have to dial that aspect back at any point, to make sure it didn’t become intrusive?
Politics has become an important part of my reading for the past decade. I tend to frame the construction of secondary worlds around the political make-up from the very start. In the past, I have been guilty of banging various political drums in my fiction – I get that now. It was perhaps too much in places. So you’re right, I was aware of a need to be more subtle about it in Drakenfeld. Now I think: have the politics there, but don’t let it get in the way of story. Make points if I need to, but don’t let the fiction be a vehicle for politics. I can’t quite scrub myself of political thought entirely though.
For a lot of readers, epic fantasy means magic and supernatural creatures. How far do you see these elements influencing Lucan’s world?
I wanted to keep the supernatural elements to the minimum. This was partially to echo the kinds of superstitions of the ancient world – trading in curses, ghosts etc –but also in response to the weirdness of what I’d written before. I needed a break from that. There’s also a locked-room murder at the heart of Drakenfeld, so if there were too many supernatural options , that could potentially ruin that intricate mechanism the mystery depends upon.
This is absolutely not to say there aren’t and will not be magic or supernatural creatures in the world. I’ve hinted at a few things in the first book, and expand on more as the series progresses. Though I’m aware that the wider readership can be turned off by Very Weird Things in fiction. If I can create a world with enough fantasy to please fantasy fans, and not too much to put off historical or crime readers, that’s all to the good.
Drakenfeld has just been released in paperback. You can order it online from Amazon, WH Smiths, Waterstones, Foyles or your local independent. Or you can walk into a physical store to pick it up. If you are travelling in the UK, you will be pleased to know that WH Smiths have got behind it, so it should be seen in their travel stores at airports and train stations too. Here’s the official blurb:
The monarchies of the Royal Vispasian Union have been bound together for two hundred years by laws maintained and enforced by the powerful Sun Chamber. As a result, nations have flourished but corruption, deprivation and murder will always find a way to thrive.
Receiving news of his father’s death Sun Chamber Officer Lucan Drakenfeld is recalled home to the ancient city of Tryum and rapidly embroiled in a mystifying case. The King’s sister has been found brutally murdered – her beaten and bloody body discovered in a locked temple. With rumours of dark spirits and political assassination, Drakenfeld has his work cut out for him trying to separate superstition from certainty. His determination to find the killer quickly makes him a target as the underworld gangs of Tryum focus on this new threat to their power.
Embarking on the biggest and most complex investigation of his career, Drakenfeld soon realises the evidence is leading him towards a motive that could ultimately bring darkness to the whole continent. The fate of the nations is in his hands.