I'm a professional writer of epic fantasy novels and assorted shorter fiction which includes forays into SF, dark/urban fantasy and occasional tie-in fiction. I review across the speculative genre online and in print magazines, notably Interzone and Albedo One. I've also written genre criticism and related articles. I'm currently serving as a judge for the Arthur C Clarke Award and for the James White Short Story Award.

How I met the Warlock of Firetop Mountain

As regular readers will know, I rarely blog between Christmas and New Year. As well as the holiday season, we have a slew of family birthdays from 20th December onwards so it’s a very busy time of year. This year however, I did write a guest blog for Jonathan Green, who’s been running a Kickstarter to fund a book celebrating thirty years and exploring the history of Fighting Fantasy Game Books. I’m thrilled to say the project is now funded – but there’s still time to get involved, and there are some great rewards up for grabs here.

And while you’re thinking about it, here’s that blog post, to explain why I’m backing this particular project.

I encountered Fighting Fantasy gamebooks not too long after they first appeared. I’d gone up to university in 1983 and that’s where I’d discovered Dungeons & Dragons, Traveller, Aftermath, Toon, Heroes, Car Wars and other tabletop role-playing games which instantly appealed to my lifelong love of fantasy and science-fiction. Such gaming offered me a whole new interactive and participatory way of engaging with such stories. After all those books which I’d read, wanting to slap some sense into the hero who persisted in doing something so dumb that surely only an moron would go ahead. Now I could shout across the table to stop the idiot paladin about to open the grim portal or ominously rune-engraved box. I could be the one suspiciously interrogating the apparently helpful peasant giving directions to the dragon’s den. Now I could be the one rolling a critical fumble and getting skewered by a kobold. (As with just about everyone playing AD&D in that era, our group played a highly personalised and modified version of the rules).

I have wondered since why SF&F meshes so well with table top gaming. I think it’s because speculative fiction invites engagement with the narrative to a far greater extent than other fictions. SF&F isn’t reflecting the world as we know it, offering us insights into the reality we inhabit. It’s constantly asking us to imagine ourselves somewhere else, where the rules we think we know don’t necessarily apply, whether those are the laws of physics or society. The eternal question of SF&F is ‘what if…?’ That wish to step through the barrier of the pages and participate directly in the stories ourselves naturally follows. Indeed, portal fantasy has been a staple of the genre since Alice first fell down the rabbit hole and Lucy entered the wardrobe. Who would have imagined that a handful of weird-shaped dice could satisfy that longing?

Which was great as long as I was at university. But come the end of term time, I had to go home and in those long-ago pre-Internet days, there was no way of finding like-minded souls back in Dorset. How could I continue that direct participation in story-weaving that I’d got so used to enjoying?

Fan fiction? That was also something I’d encountered for the first time at university, through the dubious medium of a much-copied photo-copy of ‘Spock in Manacles’… Setting aside the literary merits of that particular work, I was familiar with the motivation behind fan-fiction. More than once, during a particularly tedious English lesson discussing the Romantic Poets, I would stare out of the window and indulge in a light reverie about Blake’s Seven, mentally writing myself into an episode never to be seen outside my own head. The thing is though, such episodes weren’t particularly satisfying and not only because I still had such vast amounts to learn about characterisation, pacing, exposition and all the other facets of writing craft. The main problem was, there were never any surprises. I knew what was hidden behind the curtain or in the talking box because I’d thought it up in the first place. All in all, I found such indulgent daydreams as unsatisfying as playing chess against myself.

Then someone lent me a copy of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. I forget who it was but I’m pretty sure they were in the same fix as me outside of term time. Now we had a solution! Solo gaming within a system that played fair in the sense of punishing stupidity as well as rewarding intelligent thinking and still with the added edge of unpredictable dice rolls landing you in no-win situations. Because game systems should be fair but as the Goblin King reminds us in Labyrinth, real life simply isn’t. Which was great, because the endless variations and possibilities meant you could play the book time and again. Even once you’d won, you could go back and see where the roads not taken might have led.

I love the way these books endured despite the arrival of computer games. I remember playing early attempts at those and being very unimpressed, both by the quality of the writing and plotting and by the inadequacies of the graphics. Fighting fantasy game books offered far superior game play for a good long while as well as the fabulous pictures inside my own head, spun off the wonderful cover art and the line drawings inside. It’s only in recent years that computer games have come anywhere near matching such visuals, never mind such intricate storytelling and replayability.

So of course I’m backing this project. I am intrigued to learn more about the history of these books. How the idea first originated, how they came to be published and who was involved in their creation and development and why. Quite apart from anything else, I bet I’m not the only one currently writing epic fantasy fiction with such fond memories of flipping through an increasingly creased paperback, pencil between teeth and dice ready to hand.

Christmas knitting, cooking and some reflections on family history

You might want to settle down with a cup of tea and a mince pie, since this does run rather long, even though these are only the briefest of the stories I could tell…

I’ve been knitting for my new nephew this year. I like to knit and sorting out needles and wool always makes me think of my Great Aunty Ivy, eldest of my maternal grandmother’s sisters, who taught me to knit and crochet when I was about nine. When she died, all her needles, hooks and the Singer sewing machine that had been a wedding present to her in 1919 came to me. It still has the instructions including notes on the correct needles to use for whalebone and an attachment for goffering the frills for maids’ caps.

Ivy hadn’t been expected to live to be married, having had a life-threatening goitre requiring a drastic operation in 1917. Gynae complications meant she could never have children and then she was widowed in the early 1950s, when her husband had a brain haemorrhage. But you just have to get on with life, she told me. So she did, robust in her opinions and in her vegetarianism, a staunch advocate of that since the 1920s. Woe betide anyone foolish enough to dismiss a meat-free diet as hippy faddishness in her hearing.

Born in 1900, she was, as she liked to tell us when she visited my grandparents at Christmas, the last Victorian in the family. Not that she had much time for ‘Victorian values’. I remember, one summer visit in my early teens, as we sat knitting together, her making some remarkably forthright enquiries as to what I knew about the facts of life. Once she was satisfied that I was properly informed, she told me about the day she and Betty, her other sister, had needed to reassure my startled grandmother returning from a bike ride with a bloodstained skirt. Ivy had only recently learned the full facts herself, on her wedding night when her husband had found himself patiently explaining what he was trying to do with and to her. None of the women of that generation had any objection to me, my siblings and cousins co-habiting before marriage. Very sensible, they called it, out of their husbands’ hearing.

The last conversation I had with Aunty Ivy, not long before her death, included her asking me all about the boyfriend I was living with, since he had been invited to my grandparents’ 80th birthday party, mostly so my Grandmother could meet/inspect him. Ivy, at 88, had been too frail to attend. Apparently the report was sufficiently favourable that they had decided between them he would make an excellent husband. They weren’t wrong. We’ve been married since 1989.

I’ve been thinking on my Grandmother today as I do some Christmas baking. A recent newspaper article agonising about how to bake a decent chocolate cake baffled me. I was taught to make a sponge mix with one quarter of the flour by weight replaced with cocoa powder. Job done. I’ve also made mince pies today, using the pastry recipe my Grandma taught me; half fat to flour, fat consisting of half butter* and half lard*. They always come out beautifully.

(*goat butter since I can’t eat cow’s milk and Cookeen if vegetarians are expected)

Grandma worked in ladies’ fashions at Bourne & Hollingsworth, Selfridges and lastly at Harrods in London before the Second World War. She was there during the Abdication Crisis, when the shop girls regularly overheard the Countess of Wherever discussing the scandalous details of Edward’s infatuation with Wallis Simpson with Lady Whosit in the changing rooms. When the first reports appeared in the foreign press, all the staff were summoned to a meeting where they were told if anything appeared in the British newspapers, they would all be sacked, regardless of whether or not such tale-telling could be traced back to the shop. My Grandmother was quietly unimpressed by bombastic male authority, I realised, even when Grandpa was laying down the law as he tended to on a fairly regular basis.

Though Grandma and her neighbour did listen to the ARP warden who told them off for going out and stamping on incendiaries in WWII, to put them out before the flames took hold. Air raids were a constant threat as she lived on the South Coast with twin baby girls and a husband away doing air traffic control for the USAAF. One particularly bad night, she couldn’t face going down to the shelter for the third or fourth time so she simply got under the bed with both babies and the dog. That’s where she discovered my Grandfather’s tobacco ration from the Americans, which he was drawing even though he didn’t smoke. Remembering cigarettes were supposed to calm the nerves, she broke open a packet of Lucky Strike and lit up. Because you just had to get on with things. There was no point in making a fuss.

When I make my mince pies, I used the pressed steel tins we got from my husband’s grandmother. Well greased, things never stick to them and the pastry is never soggy on the bottom. Steel, not stainless steel, mark you. So they need to be washed promptly and then put in the cooling oven to dry.

I met Nan when I was living here during a year’s medical leave from university. That was a tough year for all sorts of reasons and I used to go and see her when I needed some company. She was calm and quiet and welcoming and we talked about days gone by in the Cotswolds and her life in service as a daily cook to a local wealthy family and what was on the telly and oh, all sorts of things. She and my husband and his brother were all very close since she had helped see them through the tragically early death of their mother from cancer. In one of his last conversations with her, she told my husband ‘you should marry that girl’. He told her that he would, even before he’d asked me. Like my Aunty Ivy, Nan could see we were right for each other long before we were certain.

I have had to replace the basin for the Christmas pudding this year. Nan’s has developed an ominous crack so we’ll use it for fruit from now on. When I was younger, family Christmas puddings always came from my step-father’s mother. Granny was the eldest of nine born on a Lincolnshire farm just before the First World War. Her mother died young so she pretty much raised her brothers and sisters. She still found time to help out her neighbours though, particularly the ‘city girl’ a local gamekeeper married. Other locals were inclined to look on with disapproval. Granny called round to see how the new bride was getting on – and found her in tears, trying to pluck a hare. So Granny helped her skin and cook it, and kept an eye on her thereafter. Right into her latter years, Granny was quite capable of stopping to wring a pheasant’s neck when she saw a car clip one and leave it injured by the side of the road. And take it home for Sunday lunch.

She trained as a nurse and worked ‘on the District’ all her professional life, with that same blend of compassion and practicality, driving her Morris Minor all round South Yorkshire. She spent the Second World War nursing the wounded as well as raising her young son with her husband away serving as a radio operator on Lancaster bombers. Just getting on with it.

Meantime, my Granny McKenna was getting on with things in Plymouth, all through the air raids while her husband worked as a fitter in the Royal Dockyards and she raised three children including one hospitalised with osteomyelitis after breaking his leg. The doctors wanted to amputate but Granny wouldn’t let them, insisting that she would nurse my uncle through the bone infection and she succeeded. She did all this while wearing a fearsome back brace of leather and steel which fascinated me and my brother as young children. As a young woman just over from Ireland, she’d been hit by a brewery dray and when she’d recovered consciousness, she walked to the hospital with a broken ankle and several fractured vertebrae.

She’d come over to England to be as a priest’s housekeeper, initially working at the De La Salle teacher training college in London. An orphan from the Magdalene Laundries, that’s what she’d been trained up to do with her life. Except she met my grandfather who was working as a groundsman at the college and that was that. In her sixties, when she applied for her first passport, Granny McKenna discovered that the details the nuns had supplied about her original name, age and birth date were all incorrect. So she simply celebrated two birthdays for the rest of her life. There was no point making a fuss. Incidentally, she needed a passport to go on a parish trip to Lourdes. Not on her own account, you understand. She was going as a helper for those unfortunate souls who needed such a blessing.

These are my foremothers and I always find myself remembering them with admiration and affection at Christmas.

Defiant Peaks – competition results

You will recall that I set readers a challenge a few weeks ago, to ask me for a sentence from a book I haven’t written yet. The results are here and they’re very well worth reading.

What I particularly love is the way that these readers’ familiarity with my writing sees them asking many of the same questions which I was asking myself as I wrote Defiant Peaks. Indeed, they touch on several of the characters and plot-asides which they’ll find mentioned in that book. And that’s as much as I’ll say to avoid spoilers.

Apart from CE Murphy who sets me one of those out-of-genre challenges which we writers love throwing at each other.

And apart from Adrianne, who came up with an idea firmly rooted in the Tales of Einarinn that has simply never occured to me – and yet, as soon as I read it, it made such perfect sense. Of course that would happen! (And what would happen next? Oh, I’d love to find out…)

So on that basis, Adrianne is the overall winner. That said I had such fun doing this that I reckon everyone deserves a book. Adrianne can have more than one to mark her achievement.

So we’ll sort that out via email, and meantime, I must now resist the temptation to start writing another short story collection to follow up on all these ideas. Including the space-chameleons.

Epic fantasy and Women. Girls and Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks

There’s clearly something in the air again. This past week has seen some excellent posts challenging those hide-bound readers who want their epic fantasy to stick to outdated straight, white, male-driven narratives, arguing in their ignorance that this is historically accurate whereas narratives including women with autonomy and agency are political correctness gone mad.

In case you missed one or more of these, here are some links – and if you’ve seen one I missed, please flag it up.

Scott Lynch responds to a critical reader – “God, yes! If there’s one thing fantasy is just crawling with these days it’s widowed black middle-aged pirate moms.” You’re picking up the sarcasm there? Good. Read the whole thing, it’s awesome.

Foz Meadows offers “PSA: Your Default Narrative Settings Are Not Apolitical”

prompted by –

Tansy Rayner Roberts “Historically Authentic Sexism in Fantasy. Let’s Unpack That.”

Cheryl Morgan rounds up those same links and adds a few pertinent thoughts of her own.

For the sake of completeness, I’ll also link back to my own piece for Bad Reputation on the problematic representation of women in fantasy

Mind you, does anyone else find it tiresome that we still – men and women alike – have to keep pointing out these self-evident truths to the wilfully blinkered?

So let’s work on making it impossible for those types to deny women’s interest in and involvement with epic fantasy fiction and gaming without physically shutting their eyes and sticking their fingers in their ears while chanting “la-la-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you”.

Here’s a good place to start. Jonathan Green is running a Kickstarter “You are the Hero” to fund writing a history, indeed a celebration of, 30 Years of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. As you’ll see from the page, he plans on interviewing a broad range of chaps to ensure a comprehensive exploration of these ground-breaking gaming books.

Um, yes. Chaps. Everyone man jack of the writers, artists and other creative types listed. You won’t be surprised to learn that I have genially queried this – and I’m sure you’ll be as pleased as me to learn that Jonathan is extremely keen to find more of the likes of me, who played through these books just as avidly as our brothers back in the day. I’m just as interested to find out how many of us there might be.

So if you are a fighting fantasy fan of the female persuasion, do let me know. If you’re happy for me to pass on your detail to Jonathan, do say so. Clearly whether or not he contacts you will be up to him; it’s his project and I can’t speak for what material he might need. But we can at least ensure he has such resources to hand.

Today – an in-depth interview with SFX Magazine

I thoroughly enjoyed doing this interview with SFX’s Alasdair Stuart, discussing all sorts of things from the early days of my writing career to the way my books have developed and how I arrived at The Hadrumal Crisis trilogy. He asked some really interesting questions so hopefully you’ll find the answers offer you something new to think about too.

Click here to read the full interview

Defiant Peaks – Is This The End?

This is the question I’m getting asked most often at the moment. The obvious answer is, well, obvious. Yes, this is the final book in the Hadrumal Crisis trilogy so it brings this particular story to a conclusion.

Yes but, people persist in asking, is it, y’know the end? Trying to fathom what they mean, I realise that at least some folk have been a bit unnerved by my remarks over the past couple of years about this final book’s cover art. I’ve explained on panels and at conventions how writing this series has set me thinking more deeply than ever before about the way that Einarinn’s elemental wizards actually have an understanding of matter at the sub-molecular level. Which is great for them but a bit tricky for me since I went down the Languages and Humanities path at school rather than doing Science. Thank goodness for those marvellous history of science programmes which the awesome Professor Jim Al-Khalili has been doing for BBC Four.

I have been wondering precisely what Archmage Planir is doing in that final picture ever since I first got Clint Langley’s awesome artwork. Well into the writing of this series, I have honestly had no clue. Is it, I have wondered aloud more than once, something akin to The Manhattan Project? The Hadrumal Project? Will Planir end up quoting Robert Oppenheimer; “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Okay, now I realise where some of that nervousness is coming from, especially from people who’ve already read Dangerous Waters and Darkening Skies. Anyone expecting that this trilogy’s middle volume would be mostly focused on getting characters in place for the big battle to come must have got a bit of a shock reading that. As Defiant Peak’s back cover notes, “Archmage Planir and the wizards of Hadrumal have unleashed their devastating magic…”

So I can see that readers could be a bit nervous about the possible consequences for the end of the series if Archmage Planir decides it’s never too late to escalate. Especially since those readers who are familiar with my previous books now have very well-founded suspicions about just who and what Hadrumal’s wizards will be facing. “The Archipelagans are baying for wizard blood, enraged at magic invading their domains…” Yes, and it’s not just the Aldabreshi Planir has to worry about as this series sees everyone – me included – learn a lot more about Hadrumal’s internal rivalries, wizardry in Solura and the different groups perfecting Artifice’s enchantments elsewhere.

Not that everyone asking this question is quite so apprehensive though. A few people have simply asked me because they realise this is my fifteenth novel set in the same world and with a continuous timeline threaded through the different stories told in each of my four epic fantasy series. Haven’t I said everything I’ve got to say with these characters and through this milieu? I have been writing shorter fiction in an increasingly wide range of other worlds and styles lately so isn’t it simply time for a change of scene?

You won’t be surprised to learn that most of those asking this aren’t primarily genre fans. One central aspect of epic fantasy fiction which I have always adored as a reader is the way that these stories generate questions and asides which the main narrative can’t spare the time to focus on. I’ve never felt that those ‘but what if’ and ‘how come’ and ‘but who’ loose threads detract from fantasy tales. They add depth and interest, a sense of a complete world continuing on when that final page is turned, and besides, real life is just as full of tangents and unknowns. Like so many other writers I’ve often found that pondering answers to those questions leads me to a whole new story. This has been a staple of epic fantasy writing ever since reading The Hobbit prompted us to wonder just where Gollum’s magic ring had come from and what it might signify.

So, is this the end? Oh, come on, do you honestly expect me to answer that? Read the book and find out for yourself!

It’s Midwinter in Caladhria – and pretty chilly in the Cotswolds as it happens

“SHE STOOD AMID the silent statues and contemplated the crystal urn holding her husband’s ashes; footed with silver leaves and crowned with a five-petalled flower sparkling in the light of the shrine’s candles.”

Those of you in the UK picking up a copy of Defiant Peaks (published today!) will now discover that this story opens at the Solstice celebrations in Halferan Manor, Caladhria. Midwinter in Einarinn is Souls’ Ease Night and Lady Zurenne is taking a private moment in the manor’s shrine before guiding Lady Ilysh through her duties accepting seasonal tithes from their tenantry in the great hall and leading the celebrations afterwards. Meanwhile Corrain is attending the quarterly parliament where the country’s nervous noblemen are debating new laws to forbid anyone having dealings with wizards, after seeing just what havoc Planir and Hadrumal’s senior mages can wreak when they put their mind to it. Magewoman Jilseth is spending the festival in Relshaz, paying little heed to mainland politics or religious observance. She’s more concerned with keeping a weather eye on the Aldabreshin Archipelago after recent events, as well as lending her talents to fathoming the secrets of the ensorcelled artefacts which the Archmage has now acquired.

So everyone’s set fair for a peaceful and prosperous new year? Not exactly…

Naturally, you won’t be surprised that we decided against using ‘Winter is coming’ on the back cover copy. The thing is though, there are a goodly number of fantasy books which aren’t set in Westeros with winter as a theme or a thread, as the latest SF Signal Mind Meld makes plain. As always, I find the other authors’ answers as fascinating as thinking about the original question. Do check out all the suggestions – and comments – and find out why my pick is Barbara Hambly’s ‘Darwath Trilogy’.

The Next Big Thing – Defiant Peaks

I am loving the story-prompts from the previous post/competition. The challenge is going to be not writing a whole paragraph… Keep the suggestions coming!

While I work on the queries so far, have a read of my answers to the ‘Next Big Thing’ challenge that’s been doing the round of writers lately. I was tagged by Tom Lloyd, a writer whose books sit on my TBR shelf, awaiting my release from Arthur C Clarke Award judge-duties, which is currently taking up all my reading time.

So here are the questions we’ve all been answering –

What is the working title of your next book?

My next book is ‘Defiant Peaks’, published in the US 27th November and in the UK 6th December 2012.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

So far I’ve written a dozen books in three series set in the world of Einarinn, and it’s been firmly established that wizards don’t get involved in warfare. So the idea here was… what if they do?

What genre does your book fall under?

Epic fantasy – but if you think that means simplistic swords’n’sworcery, square-jawed heroes rescuing damsels in distress, think again. These days epic fantasy is multi-layered and thought-provoking, taking on the genre’s early assumptions about heroism, politics, gender and a whole lot else, within the framework of action and adventure.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I can never answer this. Overall, I’d like to see unknowns take the lead roles, so viewers come to the characters without preconceptions, as we did with Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia all those decades ago. Famous actors doing cameos for the high-level wizards? That could be a lot of fun. But the problem with me saying, ‘how about Ralph Fiennes for so-and-so, or Judi Dench for her,’ is some people will go ‘ooh yes,’ some people will go ‘oh, no’ and some people will look puzzled and go ‘Voldemort? And ‘M’?’ So I will leave that up to everyone else’s imagination. Until HBO come knocking on the door…

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

For generations the edict has held, that wizards don’t get involved in warfare, but there’s always someone who thinks the rules don’t apply to them…

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It’ll be published by Solaris Books, in the UK and the US.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Six months for the first draft and then two more to turn that into the final draft sent to my editor.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Over the years, reviewers have been kind enough to compare my writing to Robin Hobb, George RR Martin, Kate Elliott, David Gemmell, Stan Nicholls and Barbara Hambly’s fantasies. We’re all looking at the core strengths and themes of our beloved genre from new perspectives.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I’ve already mentioned the ‘what if wizards do get involved in wars?’ prompt. As to who , this trilogy has definitely been inspired by my readers. A good many have been asking for a story exploring elemental magic more deeply and showing more of Hadrumal, the wizard city. Quite a few have wanted to know what happened next to the characters in my short story, The Wizard’s Coming (now available as a free ebook). Those emails definitely focused my thoughts as I contemplated my options at the end of The Lescari Revolution.

What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

Have a good look at the cover art. Just what do you think that wizard is doing? Bear in mind that he is the Archmage, most powerful of all the wizards who’ve showed just what devastation they can wreak, if they see fit, in the first two books of this trilogy…

Hello, US and Canada, on your Defiant Peaks Publication Day!

I’ve been wondering how to do a book-giveaway to celebrate Defiant Peaks hitting the bookshelves and just lately, there’s been a very interesting game doing the rounds of writers, where readers ask for a sentence from a story the author hasn’t actually written (yet).

This strikes a particular chord with me because as I was writing Defiant Peaks, I had to curb repeated impulses to tell some of the stories going on in the background as these events unfolded, not least because that would have distracted from the main plot and the points of view would have been all wrong. You’ll see what I mean when you read Defiant Peaks.

So how about you ask me for a snippet from an unwritten story? Everyone can play, and I’ll give away two books to the best suggestions, one to celebrate the US edition and one to celebrate the UK publication on 6th December. So you have time to think of a good question and I have time to come up with some good answers. It doesn’t have to be an Einarinn story you’re asking about, and if the winners already have the full Hadrumal Crisis trilogy, I’ll happily substitute another of my books.

How does that sound?

US publication 27th November 2012
Read the book and find out exactly what Archmage Planir is doing here…[/caption