Tag: fantasy


Mourning Wasp & Mind Meld

I’ve written a post on the Tor UK blog about China’s challenge, where he would sketch out some fabulous creature, and I would have to write it into The Broken Isles.

I could of course be flexible in these decisions, as there was no small print – I merely took delivery of the wasp. As it happens, there was a way around this challenge. I knew that a monster was arriving, but I didn’t know what. So I could pretty much structure the novel with a lacuna, a vacancy for whatever was coming. Also, I didn’t just want this to be a one-scene monster, I wanted this to play a pretty inclusive role in the book. That, surely, was more in the spirit of the challenge.

Check out the rest of the post to see how I went about fitting in China’s Mourning Wasp – the final sketch is actually printed in The Broken Isles, which I’m rather chuffed about. Also, I was featured on the latest SF Signal Mind Meld, talking about the genre’s desire for monarchies in fantasy fiction.

Even today, we’re under the illusion we have democracy, but it’s much more wishy-washy than true ancient Athenian democracy, where power was genuinely more equally distributed, and more citizens played a role in the functioning of society. Today our monarchs and empires now are largely trade-based hegemonies, imperial campaigns given the spin of delivering peace through drone bombings. We are now subject to political and financial kings and queens…

Take a look at what else I have to say – there’s quite a line up of authors on this one.


First Drakenfeld Novel: Finished

So, that’s a wrap. I’ve sent in the finished manuscript for the first Drakenfeld novel, tentatively titled A Death Divine (though that’s not confirmed yet).

What’s it about? Well, if I could summarise that in a paragraph, I probably wouldn’t have written a book; so I take it as a good sign that I can’t. Essentially it’s about a guy called Lucan Drakenfeld. He’s an officer for an organisation responsible for enforcing the law that binds a continent, and kings and queens, together in a royal union. It’s pretty much his story – he returns to his home city of Tryum when he receives news of his father’s death, and there’s lots for him to cope with on arrival such as burying his father’s ashes, and he spent most of his life living in his shadow. That’s the backstory. From there, Drakenfeld and his assistant are summoned in the middle of the night to investigate a very high-profile murder, which takes place in a locked room (or locked temple to be precise), where despite hundreds of potential witnesses, no one saw anything related to the killing. From there, all sorts of stuff happens.

The aesthetics for the world, as you might have guessed from various blog posts over the past year or two, is very much borrowed from the ancient world. The more I examined classical cultures – Greece, Rome, Byzantium, Carthage – I was increasingly surprised. These were staggering cultures, massively more sophisticated than I’d ever realised, and even though they were very distant, they feel uncomfortably close to our own. Fantasy writers often borrow from history, usually the middle ages for the most part, whether it’s a conscious or unconscious act. Using classical culture as the starting point allowed me so much more freedom.

A few very general notes about the book:

  • Whereas I tended to work forwards for the previous series of books, I had to start at the end and work backwards for this one. That’s because at heart it is a crime novel. I didn’t want to write a pastiche piece of sub-noir crime fiction either, since the crime genre is vast and nuanced. Imagine an author who wanted to write fantasy and ended up writing the usual fantasy-by-numbers? Indeed, fantasy fans would be pretty pissed-off. So this book had to function perfectly as a crime novel, too, which meant I had to change my approach to planning.
  • One aim of this book was to write a mature piece of fiction that did not rely upon violence alone to get its thrills. That’s not to say it isn’t rough at times, but there’s been a noticeable trend in fantasy fiction in particular to try and gross-out or be full-on in graphic violence, a celebration of death, which is a stark contrast to our real-world attitudes. I’ve often said that violence really, really does not make a book mature, so instead of mouthing off about it, I wanted to plug that idea into a book. It ended up with Drakenfeld being cerebral in a world full of macho posturing, where he tests his logic and faith against matters, rather than hitting out with a sword. After all, people are far more useful to him when they’re alive.
  • This is the first time I’ve written in first person, and I’ve found it far more natural than writing in third-person. It started off as a challenge to myself, but first-person seems so much more useful, especially for a crime novel. As a result, I enjoyed it: perhaps because of its intimate nature, I really connected with the story, themes and characters more than previously.
  • I’m far more aware of not white-washing a cast of characters than I ever used to be. There’s been some great debate online in recent years which, if authors care to take it all in, they can learn a lot from. Previously in my work race has been split down the species line, so this time I had to be more accurate.
  • As mentioned before, I wondered if I was relying too much on weirdness for the excitement of novels, rather than the excitement and cool coming more from the structures of story. I also am increasingly convinced that readers tend to be put off by really surreal characters or events in fiction, and it prevents them from taking in certain ideas or themes. The challenge, then, was to get my kicks from elsewhere.
So there you go. It contains a lot of topics about fiction that I’ve been thinking about recently, but instead of blogging about this or that idea or notion, I’ve decided it’s really best if I just put that thinking into a book instead. When I was a freshly minted author, I had a tendency to assert my position or thoughts on various subjects with alarming regularity, but it really isn’t necessary. So I just shut up and did it.

And personally I believe this book far better than anything I’ve done before, from the prose itself (more sensual than brutal) to the structure. Writers can learn a lot with each book they write, so with a series done, hopefully I’ve done just that. If anyone was put off by previous work, I like to think this book is different enough, and far more considered, that they’ll give it a shot.

I’ll probably have more details over the next few months, but I think we’re currently looking at a publication date for summer next year. And thanks to those of you who read early drafts to give feedback. I’ve not really done that before, so you were an immense help.


The Line Between the Historical and the Fantastic

Where does one begin and another end? Where do the genres break down?

I’ve always suspected historical fiction is the same as fantasy fiction, but without the confession that it’s really fully committing genre. But I’m genuinely interested in the mental territory where the two actually meet (and, for the purposes of this post, not in the ‘history with magic’ sense).

Previously I’ve talked about how most fantasy fiction tends to borrow its aesthetics from the Dark Ages. But what about when you more consciously attempt to build a secondary world from the bricks and mortar of ancient history?

I’ve just spent a year recreating a fictional classical age. I did a lot of research, from building design to trade routes (indeed, I’m the type of person to find that interesting), and built a world from those components. I like to think that it could now sit just off our maps of the ancient world – a forgotten continent, perhaps. It’s a lot more progressive than things were back then, but then again, history reminds us that cultures have been occasionally surprisingly progressive. There’s a blog post on the subject of male authors writing about women as inferior, and using history as their defence for doing so – which isn’t really true, but I’ll save that for another day. (Edit: on the same day as this post, Daniel Abraham comments on this same subject.)

I suspect, as tends to be the way for pseudo-historical books, people will tend to ask ‘But is it Fantasy?’ Aside from the obvious, ‘Well, yes’, I think those sorts of questions, which come up all the time when we look at series like A Song of Ice and Fire, speak about our perceptions of fantasy. That it’s got to have a bit of magic in it, or that it needs a weird creature or two. Sometimes building a secondary world doesn’t seem enough to invoke wonder.

Anyway, as discussed ages ago, historical fiction and fantasy fiction are close friends. But a question that I came up with to challenge myself at the end of writing the recent Drakenfeld book was: Why didn’t I want to write this as a historical book, in a real-world ancient setting, as opposed to it being a secondary world?

I suppose there are certain freedoms for the fantasy writer. Creating the above, more ‘progressive’ world was one benefit. The sheer geekery of geofiction was another. The closer I looked, though, the less of a distinction I could find. Even if I’d started writing in, for example, Byzantium, I’d be still creating a secondary world of sorts. Some streets of that ancient city would have to have been created out of my imagination in precisely the same way that I’d created a fantastical city made up of ancient world pieces. The mental process was barely any different. They were both fantasy. They were both historical. One had the surrounding of an already well-documented city; the other’s stone was carved from already well-documented places.

It’s an interesting mental point to reach and I’m always fascinated by where genres break-down and begin to merge with each other. Ultimately, both of them seem to become lost in each other’s territory, though I’m still not sure if I answered my own question.

That said, I would, in future, like to write a consciously fantastical spin on the real ancient world. As with most writers, I’m making notes on books that are probably years away…


Interviews & Links

There’s a brief chat with me over at Rowena Cory Daniels’ blog, in which I say Many Things, and talk a little bit more about the new series:

The lead character, Lucan Drakenfeld, is a bit like a young lawyer-slash-detective, and certainly the polar opposite of a private eye (if anything, he’s a public eye). I’m really trying to steer away from noir pastiche because I feel that would be disrespectful to crime readers. The book is as much a crime novel as it is a fantasy novel. Imagine a mainstream writer trying their hand at a fantasy novel, and filled it with a paint-by-numbers story – they’d be strung up by the fanbase, which is why I’m not doing a paint-by-numbers crime novel, either.

There’s a video interview with my agent, John Jarrold, for those of you who are interested in tales and tips of publishing.

And I review a book about making compost for the Ecologist. More interesting than you might think…


New Two-Book World Rights Deal With Pan Macmillan


Bella Pagan, Senior Commissioning Editor at Tor UK, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, has acquired world rights to the first two volumes of a fantasy series by Mark Charan Newton. The agent was John Jarrold.

The first book in a series provisionally titled DRAKENFELD introduces the eponymous hero, an investigator. The series is set in a fantasy world, but will appeal to fans of historical mysteries. In this opening volume, Lucan Drakenfeld is called home after the death of his father – but is immediately thrown into the investigation of a royal death. He also finds that his father’s demise is not as clear-cut as it at first appears…

Pagan said ‘Mark writes compulsive adventures set in utterly convincing new worlds – he’s a terrific writer. I couldn’t ask for a better start to my new position at Tor UK than this first deal’.

Tor UK have successfully published three fantasy novels by Mark in the Legends of the Red Sun series since 2009, with a fourth to appear in the summer of 2012. They have been strongly acclaimed by China Miéville, Peter F Hamilton and reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic.

The first book in the new series will be published in 2014.

Contact John Jarrold or Chloe Healy for further details:

Chloe Healy: e-mail: c.healy@macmillan.co.uk phone: 020 7014 6000 twitter: @UKTor

John Jarrold: e-mail: j.jarrold@btinternet.com phone: 01522 510544

21st November 2011

A little more? It’s very much a fantasy novel, but equally a crime novel, with a locked-room mystery at the heart of it. Whilst I’ve dabbled with the odd crime sub-plot before, it was mainly a pastiche – Drakenfeld is much more committed to the crime genre, perhaps along the lines of the CJ Sansom novels. (It needs to be rewarding for readers of both genres.) The world is very much a classically inspired setting (Ancient Rome in particular), and there virtually no weirdness. I’m also really enjoying writing the Drakenfeld novel, much more so than any of the previous series, and especially the locked-room element: the impossible crime.

The publication date is provisional: as a book-a-year writer, I presume that would be a 2013 release, but I think there’s a bit of flexibility, what with this being a new series and Pan Mac wanting to get everything set-up properly.


Worldbuilding with objects

From the BBC website – A History of the World.

The coin raises the issue of how much contact the Corieltavi tribe (the local British group living around Hallaton in the Late Iron Age) had with the Roman world and how early this occurred. This coin would have been over 200 years old when it was buried in the mid 1st century AD, around the time of the Roman conquest of Britain in AD 43. Did the coin arrive as part of a diplomatic gift from the Romans in the hope of easing their passage into Leicestershire? Or did the coin gradually make its way to Hallaton from the continent via trade with other Iron Age tribes? The fact that the coin was found in a ritual deposit made around AD 43 also perhaps indicates the tensions felt by local groups caused by Roman interference.

It’s an interesting project, to look at history through objects. It’s also a useful way for fantasy writers to view their own worlds. The Denarius coin was not some explicit magical item. People carried them. People paid for things with them. They went on journeys in pockets or purses. But when the coins were found out of their usual context, they threw up so many interesting questions.

And what a great plot driver: What’s object X doing in location Y? How the hell did it get there and who was involved in that transportation?

Think about all the stories that instantly spring up from that initial question. That’s one of the reasons I’m becoming increasingly interested in history recently – especially classical history, and especially when viewed from a writer’s perspective.

Inanimate objects – and I do want to stress I’m not talking about magical trinkets, but more mundane ones – say much more than you might think. Their appearance can have profound effects in creating a realistic world (if indeed that is the aim of worldbuilding or geofiction in the first place). Their presence in your fiction can give your creations culture. How were these things used? What was the function? What did it say about certain civilisations?

And when you look at many more objects from history, you realise that ancient cultures were more sophisticated than we like to believe. I’ve spoken before about the backward-looking aesthetics of fantasy fiction: a focus on objects, then, strikes me as a great way to add complexity to your aesthetics.

When we’re dead and buried, of course we’ll have our writings and so on for people to pick apart, but surely it’s the objects we leave behind that will help give definition our current culture, be it an iPhone or a plug socket. Even if future generations can’t quite work out how they were used, unanswered questions still show how much depth the real-world possessed.

Such rules could easily apply to your own world, too.


Genre Yearnings & Interview

I was chatting with a friend the other day about crime fiction and the differences with it and fantasy fiction. Soon I began to wonder if fantasy is really a genre at all. (For today, let’s just leave out the whole ‘marketing categories’ and ‘genres aren’t a useful term to assign individual books’ debates.)

In crime fiction, there are mechanisms. The law is broken. There is a crime. Someone has to solve it and the wide variety in the genre comes from the different settings, political backdrop and the detective at the centre. Morality is questioned. The genre – on the whole – has some clear, definite frameworks in place; playing with that framework is where an author’s skill separates the cheaper fiction from true literary masterpieces, and manipulation of the narrative can have a truly powerful effect on the reader. The genre category informs the literature, to some extent.

Fantasy, however, is more a descriptive term – a vague aesthetic. It doesn’t tend to obey logic, and in essence should not obey convention – there is inherently an unlimited potential and yet readers tend to become obsessed by aesthetics and tropes to sculpt a kind of mechanism that isn’t explicitly there.

There’s a yearning to make genre happen out of thin air.

Perhaps there’s an emotional framework here? Maybe that’s why fandom is so strong. I don’t know, I’m just thinking out loud.

Finally, there’s an interview with me in today’s Mail & Guardian (South African newspaper), in which I talk about creating fantasy cities as well as the latest two releases:

As for cities appealing to SFF fans and writers, it has to be because they’re the perfect way to represent another world. Cities are where people, commerce, social trends, the arts, government, all meet in one vast, sprawling, horrible and beautiful place…

Read the rest here.


Christopher Priest – The Islanders

Christopher Priest is an illusionist. If you have read some of his previous novels, you will know to expect to have the rug pulled from under your feet. You will know that the people you see on the page aren’t who you expect them to be or, if they are, they will be more slippery than Michael Gove’s bottom lip.

Entering the Dream Archipelago, Priest’s heady collection of microcosms and forgotten places, was a welcome treat for a fan. And for fans, there are Easter eggs galore: take the presence of writer, Moylita Kaine, whose first manifestation in The Islanders comes as a writer of fan letters to another novelist. We read about her first efforts to become a writer, and that she has finally written a novel, called The Affirmation.

The Affirmation? I thought to myself. Priest wrote a novel called The Affirmation, of course, but I did a little digging. I recalled a short story, ‘The Negation’ (1978) which was first included in a rare collection called The Infinite Summer, and then later the Dream Archipelago book. ‘The Negation’ featured Moylita Kaine as an established novelist. In The Islanders, she crops up again several times, and also (I think) the character with whom she interacted in ‘The Negation’, a minor finale playing out decades later. These connections between books and time will please many of those who have read a lot of Priest’s output: they’re not explicit, they’re elegant inclusions, all part of Priest’s dreamscape.

But back to The Islanders.

There are no maps or charts of the Dream Archipelago. At least, there are no reliable ones, or comprehensive ones, or even whole ones.

Chaster Kammeston, a novelist who will make an appearance later in the novel, explains this in his introduction. The book is presented as non-fiction, a strange collection of tales or accounts, letters, confessions and so on, from the Islanders of the Dream Archipelago. Nothing is certain, as the reader is plunged into mock-travel guide accounts of the many (and there are indeed many) islands that make up the Archipelago. Mixing the island names and patois, the reader is given time to absorb Priest’s fragile reality.

It seems an odd way to go about presenting a novel – if indeed by now it seems a novel – when suddenly the plot appears in an unconventional, non-fiction manner. Characters are reappearing in others’ accounts. Events begin to match up, overlap, contradict each other. Subtleties become extremely important: or, if you’re a Priest fan, possible further deceptions. The reading experience is extraordinary. It’s like a magic eye puzzle: the closer you are to the text, the less you might see. You must be vaguely passive, absorbing the shapes within, to see anything of note (and even then you might be deceived), and yet remain at all times alert. Adam Roberts, in his splendid review, discusses the phrase ‘Ergodic literature’ with reference to reading the novel.

The central plot? That depends on both what you mean by ‘central’ and ‘plot’. Certainly some of the key narratives include: a murder of Commis, a professional mime artist, and those who were involved in and around the theatre at the time, their stories before and thereafter; a radical social thinker, Caurer, and her relationship with literary sensation Chaster Kammeston, his reputation and his death (note: he wrote the introduction to the novel); add to that a famous debauched painter, Dryd Bathurst, a creative tunnelling artist, those who seek to map islands with drones, those interested in the spurious trial of the man executed for supposedly murdering Commis; and keep in mind that all of these and many more micro-narratives connect or glance off each other in all sorts of subtle ways. Ultimately you begin to wonder what the plots actually are, if indeed there are any, or if it is all a vast, blissful game in a setting comprised of multiple cultures, topographies, economies and currencies.

I should also stress some of the beauty here. Priest has always written in a minimalist, deliberately mannered and very English style, which serves his fiction perfectly, because it does not get in the way of the underground complexities. Often, some of the above narratives are heartbreaking, mesmerising, or achingly tender in places. This is certainly his most refined prose.

Ultimately, it is a remarkable book that seems to be a logical continuation, even summation, of all of Priest’s themes to date. What’s more, all of this literary playfulness does not detract from the fact that it is a wonderful, entertaining novel.

It has been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a reading experience this much.


Bored of the Weird (Fiction)

The final book in the Legends of the Red Sun series is now in with my editor, where I await her Imperial thumbs up or thumbs down. So I now have a fresh piece of paper before me, and on this I won’t be writing what gets categorised by some as Weird Fiction*.

This is mainly for two reasons.

1) I’m bored with it.

2) I don’t think most modern readers really respond all that well to things that are out-and-out Weird.

The first is simple. I’ve written four books which grew increasingly weird and experimental, and I need to clear my head. I don’t want to be one of those writers who keeps churning out precisely the same thing book after book – because that would kill the whole process for me. I enjoy having new territories to explore.

The second reason is more complex, and your milage may vary. From a casual gander at the blogoshpere and forums over the years, I think bloggers and readers – on the whole, in general – really celebrate traditional fantasy, without much appreciation for hybridisation of genres. (I don’t mind this at all; it’s just how it is out there.) Readers tend to dislike being taken out of that experience by and large. Experimentation and innovation is seen as not coming from narrative trickery or prose style, but from messing about with archetypal characters.

I can’t understand why people enjoy aesthetic conservatism, and who don’t enjoy trying different things. Perhaps it’s because readers like something that’s vaguely familiar, something which they can jump into easily. It’s accessible. It’s reassuring when they take their heads away from reality. And conservatism in this sense is different than borrowing from the Dark Ages: for now, I mean it in terms of the anti-weird.

Also, whenever I speak to general book clubs, I’ve got a sense that there are definite barriers to genre: and one of those is definitely the inability to imagine something strange and surreal. (That’s an audience I’d like to reach out to, admittedly.) Some people just don’t like strange things, but that doesn’t put them off reading fantasy – if you see what I mean. More than ever, modern audiences are interested in story. I think the Weird gets in the way for many. The Weirder the fiction, the greater the barrier.

So all these signs, to me at least, tell me I should try to take aim elsewhere. I’ve read it in the entrails. I know there’s a good niche market out there for Weird Fiction. I know some of my readers probably enjoyed the strangeness the most, but there’s more styles out there for me to experiment with and right now I’d like to concentrate on a smart and powerful story without relying on the pyrotechnics too much, without trying to gross people out, without trying to impress surreal images upon an diminishing appreciative audience for those things.

So part of this is me wanting to expand my horizons, sure, and part is me contemplating who I’m aiming future novels at, but for the foreseeable future consider me hanging up the tools of Weird Fiction.

*Weird Fiction? Means different things to many people, I guess, but I always take it for having absurdities, unusual aesthetics, creatures and so on; something to give either an unsettling or alienating experience perhaps. In a broader sense, I’ve always appreciated it to contain experimental style or themes.