Well, we've done it again. Tony Healey wrote it; I edited it, and now it's available for your reading pleasure. The first title in Tony's The Fallen Crown series, The Bloody North, is now live on Amazon. It's also only 99 cents for the e-book right now, so grab it! Anyhow, Tony has a bit more to say on the subject, so I'll let him do the rest:
ON WRITING 'THE BLOODY NORTH'
My first exposure to fantasy was The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis. I saw the old BBC adaptation of it (which I still think stands head and shoulders above both the animated movie and the more recent Disney motion picture) and then found a copy of it in paperback at a car boot sale. I was about nine at the time. I spent months afterward trying to track down copies of all the others. I succeeded, never paying more than about fifty pence for each one. Eventually I had all seven Narnia books lined up on my shelf, each one from a different edition.
A year or so later, I found a box set containing all seven, with cover art to match their respective BBC adaptations. I used that as my excuse for reading them all again from scratch. I still have that same box set now.
In my teens, my uncle loaned me a copy of Spellsinger by Alan Dean Foster, and I proceeded to bug him for the other five, tearing through them at a rate of knots. A few years back, I had the honour of having a short story of mine published alongside Mr. Foster. In that anthology (see: Resistance Front by Bernard Schaffer, Alan Dean Foster, Harlan Ellison, et al.) I dedicated my story to Alan, thanking him for Spellsinger.
If the work of C. S. Lewis had introduced me to fantasy as a genre (at the age I was when I read it, I honestly didn't pick up on all of the religious notes – it was just a good story), then Spellsinger showed me you could take traditional fantasy and inject it with facets of modern life.
From a very early age, we'd had three films on VHS I'd constantly watch, over and over again. The first was The Goonies – recorded off of the TV with commercials included. The other two were Watership Down and The Lord of the Rings.
After reading Spellsinger, my mind turned to those two cartoons I'd watched as a small child. So I read my way through Watership Down, and then tackled The Lord of the Rings at about the same time as The Fellowship of the Ring came out at the cinema. With Watership Down, I got to see world building on par with Narnia, but done in an entirely different way. Set in the world of rabbits, with their own language, their own beliefs, their own mythology. I found it completely fascinating.
The Lord of the Rings was a slog most of the time, but I have happy memories of the experience. It was a long work to tackle in my teens, but I managed it, just about. A recent attempt at a reread failed miserably. I simply lost interest. A lot of that comes from the books I am used to reading now as an adult. They're faster, more concise. To my mind, Tolkien's opus is a must-read for anyone. But I don't think many will delve back in for a second go. It's a huge undertaking. The Lord of the Rings is a classic work of fantasy that truly established a gold standard for the genre at the time. And there have been many attempts by other writers at recreating Middle-Earth in their own work, to varying degrees of success.
Coming out of my teens, The Dark Tower series and J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter were hugely influential to me. What Stephen King accomplishes with The Dark Tower is something he has tried often and succeeded at rarely. That is, telling a long story and holding the reader's attention from start to finish. Some – novels like The Stand and IT – have worked brilliantly. Others . . . ugh. But for whatever reason, The Dark Tower grips you from the first tantalizing sentence ("The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed . . .") and never lets go. It's a little crazy, it's a bit of a mash-up of multiple genres and sources, but that's okay. You take it in your stride. The Dark Tower is King's greatest work. A rich, hugely entertaining epic.
The very same can be said for Rowling's Potter series. I read them one after the other (luckily the last, The Deathly Hallows, was just coming out as I finished The Half-Blood Prince). My habit with those was to sit on the kitchen floor at night, cup of tea by my side and read into the early hours. I lived in a house with six other siblings at the time, so really the kitchen at night was about the most peaceful place for reading.
She did a fantastic job of world-building, of plotting each book out so that it was its own self-contained story, yet progressed the overall plot piece by piece. Readers were literally spellbound (forgive the pun) by the interactions between the characters and the relationships that developed along the way. By the progression of a plot that grew steadily darker and darker – and by what had happened in the past, before the books take place. Certainly the greatest, well-rounded character of the series is not Harry Potter himself, but Severus Snape. Dumbledore's machinations become somewhat omnipresent by the end, whereas Snape comes into his own in what is a truly heartbreaking series of revelations.
Recently, I found myself browsing the kindle store for something new to read when I came across The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie. I got the sample, devoured it in one sitting, and bought the rest of the book.
The next day, I found myself in town buying the whole trilogy in paperback and proceeded to read them one after the other. Abercrombie takes the conventions of the genre and turns them on their head. First of all, he does away with the stilted writing of the past and brings his contemporary voice to Fantasy – complete with swearing, sex, and some of the most complicated characters I've ever come across. Each and every one of them broken in some way.
Glokta, broken in body but not in spirit. Logen Ninefingers, broken inside as he tries (in vain) to turn away from the man he used to be. These two characters begin the story broken and end up whole by the end (though not necessarily better people as a result) whilst the character of Luthar begins whole and is steadily broken first in body, then in spirit. Abercrombie writes a kind of fantasy that critics and readers alike have come to coin "Grimdark." I guess it had its beginnings in the work of Robert E. Howard way back when, and I reckon there were the seeds of it in the dark deeds that went (mostly) unseen, in the background, throughout The Lord of The Rings. If Aragorn and company spent the majority of those books fighting nameless, faceless hordes of Orcs with little repercussions for their deeds, Abercrombie makes every kill resonate.
Men fight men, with all the horrific slaughter and detail involved. And when the fight is over, when most of them have died, the survivors are left with their guilt and their shame and their hurt. Left to deal with it all on their own.
It's no wonder, in Abercrombie's fictional setting, that Logen turned out the way he did.
But what some reviewers of The Blade Itself have criticized it, and its sequels, for is its lack of hope, and I have to disagree there. I found plenty of hope in The First Law trilogy. It's there, trust me. What Abercrombie does is to counter-balance these moments, these flashes of characters achieving the positive, with the darkness. If a character is winning in one chapter, the next time we meet them, their luck has taken a turn for the worst.
Is that fair? Probably not. But is it realistic to what we experience in real life?
I took a similar approach in The Bloody North, by having a character consumed with grief to the point where he'd almost stopped living. He just existed – until, that is, his company is slaughtered in front of him and he's left on his own. What ensues is a bloody path of vengeance as Rowan comes to terms with all that he's lost and his quest to destroy the man who took it all away from him. Along the way we get to know some of the world in which The Fallen Crown series takes place.
This just the first small chapter in a truly epic story. If you think The Bloody North sets the stage, well . . . wait till you read Book 2. Boy, oh boy, is it going to blow your socks off.
Next level doesn't cut it.
Thank you, Tony.Happy Reading!