The History In Your Fantasy
My third book, titled Ruin, is published in the UK on 16th July. Now, that may not mean much to a lot of you guys, but to me, it’s OUTRAGEOUS! I began writing back in 2002 as a hobby, and to see my first series be picked up by Tor UK and now reaching its third book is a fantastic and surreal feeling.
So, some details for you. Ruin is part of an epic fantasy series called The Faithful and the Fallen, which I began working on in 2002. It is book three of a planned four-part series. It’s quite a sprawling epic that juggles a lot of balls. Here’s a quick idea of what’s involved: angels, demons, giant-clans, betrayal, wolven, draigs, giant bears, wars, feuds, magic, coming-of-age, blood-sucking bats, flesh-eating ants, betrayal, a God-War, an ambitious prince, a young warrior looking to make his mark, dark forests, an outlaw with a conscience, a loyal shield-man battered but never broken and hell-bent on revenge, politics, betrayal and shield-walls. Lots of shield-walls. And did I mention betrayal?
When it came to writing The Faithful and the Fallen a lot of influences went into the pot. The fantasy I’ve read, of course, consisting of the usual suspects – J.R.R. Tolkien, Lloyd Alexander, David Gemmell, Robert E. Howard, David Eddings, G.R.R. Martin…and many, many others. And then there were my other passions: Ancient history – I’ll talk some more about that in a minute. World mythologies – Celtic and Greco-Roman, Norse and Slavic, Eastern. Also a pile of the cool stuff, about how swords were made 2000 years ago and about wolf-pack behaviour and bears and Komodo dragons and ancient battles and axes and war-hammers and…well, lots. Then of course a bundle of those ancient texts that started the whole fantasy thing off in the beginning – Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Beowulf, Milton’s Paradise Lost, some Blake, Dante, Machiavelli, its all gone into the pot.
When you sit down and think about writing fantasy, thoughts usually circle around the Holy Trinity of plot, character and worldbuilding. They’re all essential and worthy of discussion, but this time I’d like to focus on the history in your fantasy, and how it contributes to worldbuilding.
Fantasy is usually found alongside sci-fi in most book shops, often the section is actually called ‘sci-fi and fantasy.’ They are clearly very closely related, could even be called siblings that revel in a mutual glee of the fantastical, the creation of new worlds, escapism, heroes, anti-heroes, magic, battles, dragons and (sometimes) spaceships. But give fantasy, particularly epic fantasy, a closer look and it’s clear it has some serious blood-relations to history, too. History has been the playground that fantasy authors have pillaged since writing began, it’s the writer’s guide to worldbuilding. Mixing fantasy with history has a strong pedigree, going back at least as far as Homer and those adventurous and tricksy Greeks!
As far as modern and contemporary writers go, just off of the top of my head here’s a list of people that have taken history and had some serious fun with it.
David Gemmell frequently drew upon history, but one of my favourite examples from his huge body of work is the Lion of Macedon, where he wrote about the childhood of Alexander the Great, with added magical weirdness. By now everyone’s heard of how the War of the Roses inspired GRR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, with added dragons. Joe Abercrombie’s Shattered Sea trilogy has Norse/Viking and early middle-ages romp stamped all over it. Miles Cameron’s The Red Knight and its mercenary company is very definitely inspired by the Hundred Years War, with added dragons/wyverns. Mark Charan Newton’s Drakenfeld is a crime caper set in a world very similar to the Eastern Roman Byzantine Empire. Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven is set in a world reminiscent of 8th century China. Mazarkis Williams Tower and Knife trilogy has a definite Persian feel. Bernard Cornwell’s the Warlord Chronicles – a pseudo-historical take on the Arthurian legends – reeks of history. Naomi Novik’s Temeraire is set in an alternative Napoleonic Wars, with added dragons. Brian McClellan’s excellent Powdermage Trilogy uses the French Revolution as its inspiration.
I could go on, the list is pretty endless. The point is that history and fantasy seem to be very much comfortable bed-fellows, and it makes sense why. History gives a great frame of reference for worldbuilding. It provides us with context, with scenarios that are familiar and that an author can then stamp their own particular vision upon. And it makes things simpler for the reader as they slip into a new world where everything isn’t a new creation that they have to wrap their heads around. Where technology for example is consistent with a historical period, or the monetary system, religious orders, clothing, weapons, armour, farming, fighting.
When I began writing the Faithful and the Fallen I read a lot of ancient history. One particular period fascinated me at the time – starting with the Roman conquest of Gaul and invasion of Briton, and ending with what used to be called The Dark Ages, and is now referred to as the Early Middle Ages. This was a period when everything was in flux, when empires were rising and falling and cultures were clashing. I spent a lot of time reading about the Romans and Celts, about that clash of cultures, about Caesar’s Gallic War, about ‘divide and conquer,’ about Boudicca’s revolt and ‘the barbarian horde,’ and of course about a ton of battles, such as the siege of Alesia and the Battle of the Teutoberg Forest.
One of the great things about writing fantasy, though, is that it has a freedom to it. History is a wonderful resource, but it can also become a cage. When combined with fantasy it can become something new. I love the historical period of Rome’s expansion into central and Western Europe, and I wanted to write something that felt real, that felt grounded in history, but I also wanted to write something that was fantastical. That was otherworldly, that felt more like myth that maybe could have been history. So of course I added dragons, though mine aren’t the Smaug type, they’re more like Komodo Dragons on steroids, with anger issues. And I added giant bears, and white wyrms, and wolven. And giant clans that were more reminiscent of Goliath than the Greek Titans, and mixed them into a Celtic/Romano world, with a dash of Old Norse.
So really the moral of the story is, when you’re worldbuilding, think history, then just add dragons.
Ruin was released on July 11th 2015 and has already picked up a bucketful of 5* reviews. If you’ve already read the first two books there is no-doubt you’ll be picking this one up very soon (if you haven’t already), but for those who haven’t you’ll want to start with Malice and allow it to throw you straight into Valour before picking this title up. For those of you who have enjoyed the previous two books, here is the blurb and cover for Ruin:
The Banished Lands are engulfed in war and chaos. The cunning Queen Rhin has conquered the west and High King Nathair has the cauldron, most powerful of the seven treasures. At his back stands the scheming Calidus and a warband of the Kadoshim, dread demons of the Otherworld. They plan to bring Asroth and his host of the Fallen into the world of flesh, but to do so they need the seven treasures. Nathair has been deceived but now he knows the truth. He has choices to make; choices that will determine the fate of the Banished Lands.
Elsewhere the flame of resistance is growing – Queen Edana finds allies in the swamps of Ardan. Maquin is loose in Tenebral, hunted by Lykos and his corsairs. Here he will witness the birth of a rebellion in Nathair’s own realm.
Corban has been swept along by the tide of war. He has suffered, lost loved ones, sought only safety from the darkness. But he will run no more. He has seen the face of evil and he has set his will to fight it. The question is, how? With a disparate band gathered about him – his family, friends, giants, fanatical warriors, an angel and a talking crow – he begins the journey to Drassil, the fabled fortress hidden deep in the heart of Forn Forest. For in Drassil lies the spear of Skald, one of the seven treasures, and here it is prophesied that the Bright Star will stand against the Black Sun.