Fantasy Author Interview: David Pilling on Bail

Fantasy sequel The Path of SorrowI often get asked how David Pilling and I go about co-writing our fantasy novels, The World Apparent Tales. One of the things we do is we each take ownership of specific characters and write their whole story. This means we can really get into the mind of each character and ensure they speak with the same ‘voice’ throughout the story.

With that in mind, I asked David a few questions about his character Bail, a ruthless cut-throat who plays a prominent role in The Path of Sorrow. I’ve removed all the vile language and graphic death threats and posted David’s answers below:

What was your inspiration for the character of Bail?

He’s a sort of anti-Aragorn figure i.e. a mysterious, charismatic wanderer with a hidden past. The difference is there is nothing remotely heroic about him: he is vain, selfish, greedy and rather cowardly. Sometimes he will fight like a cornered rat, but only because he has to..I suppose there’s more than a hint of Harry Flashman in his makeup as well.

What would you think of him if you knew him?

I would think that he was an appalling man, if entertaining on occasion. We would probably end up blocking each other on Facebook, which is at least preferable to hitting each other with swords.

Bail appears on the surface to be interested solely in his own welfare. Is there any compassion there, deep down?

None, or very little. That is partly down to his nature, but also to his upbringing. Bail has been alone all his life, and had to fend for himself at every turn. It’s only natural he should think of himself first.

Do you think some people have a natural tendency towards good or evil, or is everyone a product of their environment?

I think everyone is different, and born with certain characteristics. It may be possible to change those characteristics to an extent as a person grows to adulthood. It very much depends on the person. Could anything have prevented Harold Shipman becoming a mass murderer for instance, or was the impulse to kill written into his DNA?

Bail seems to be so ruthless that he has more of a struggle justifying an act of compassion than one of total self preservation. Is it difficult writing a character who never engages emotionally with another character?

Not at all. That probably speaks volumes for my own character! I think there is too much emphasis on compassion and emotional engagement in fiction. These values are promoted in our lives, because this is the modern world and we are supposed to be a developing species. Bail exists in a horrifically brutal sub-medieval environment in which any display of weakness could lead to his violent demise. Wolves don’t deal in compassion.

Bail’s life seems to have been a constant struggle for survival, from one squalid, brutal episode to another. Is he destined for something better, or will he never escape his past?

I can’t really answer that without giving too much away! You’ll have to wait and see…he certainly has the ambition, nous and sheer willpower to better his lot in life.

Besides co-writing fantasy fiction with me, you are a successful historical fiction author. How much inspiration do you gain from history when writing fantasy characters and world building.

Quite a lot. Certain historical figures have influenced some of my characters in The World Apparent novels, as well as bits and pieces of historical wars and political events etc. I try not to make those influences too obvious, though.

What fantasy and/or historical works are you working on right now?

I’m currently writing the fourth book in the Leader of Battles series, my Arthurian saga. The latest tale is based on the legend of Tristan and Ysolde.

* * * *

You can read a similar interview with me on David’s blog. I’m answering questions about Captain Wade, a flamboyantly murderous pirate who terrorises the high seas of the World Apparent in The Path of Sorrow and will return in the third novel in the trilogy.

The first two novels in The World Apparent Tales are The Best Weapon, followed by The Path of Sorrow. Both are available on Amazon on paperback and kindle. David and I are currently working on the third.


Mount Silverback: The World Apparent, Part 3…

The World Apparent fantasy map

Final map of The World Apparent. Actually only a small part of the world. There’s a lot more to discover.

Continuing our series of articles about the landscape and people of The World Apparent, check out my co-writer David Pilling’s post about Mount Silverback, the mountain fortress of the Knights of Occido.

The World Apparent, Part Two…

Fantasy The Path of Sorrow

“A song of hope and sorrow, born on the coming storm.”

Following the release of The Path of Sorrow, the second full-length novel in our fantasy series co-written with David Pilling, will now post a series of articles about the universe we have created, and the characters that populate it.

The seed of The World Apparent germinated from twin seeds buried deep in the dank, fertile soil of two pissed plant pots. Together, David Pilling and I watered our brains with regular dousings of London’s finest ale, gibbered, ranted, gesticulated and hammered our sweaty fists on beer-soaked tables, flecking each other’s glistening beards with warm spittle until the roots took hold and a new world sprouted its first succulent leaves.

I had an idea about how magic would work in The World Apparent. This idea was heavily influenced by the supernatural – the power of gods of demons. This is what defined the basic principles of The World Apparent. Our idea was that three delicately balanced planes exist; the Celestial Sphere where the gods dwell, the searing caverns of hell where the demons fester and rage, and The World Apparent, the physical plane where the living fight for survival.

Pilling's original sketch of The Word Apparent, done in The Albert pub on Victoria Street, central London.

Pilling’s original sketch of The World Apparent, done in The Albert pub on Victoria Street, central London.

Before humans crawled from the primeval ooze, there was just the physical plane, just this roughly spherical lump of rock. Then, after millions upon millions of years of cells mutating over and over and over again, the first human slipped screaming into the world and, quite literally, all hell broke loose. As men and woman cowered in the darkness, vulnerable to disease, starvation and the wild beasts that roamed their wilderness, they experienced range of good and bad emotions. So powerful were these vices and virtues that they manifested themselves.

First, fear and self preservation beget selfishness, jealousy, wrath, greed and many more emotions that caused those humans to commit terrible acts of violence and murder. Those selfish emotions became demons and hell was born.

But humans are strange beasts, because in the most harrowing, desperate situations, many found strength, courage and tolerance. Some even found love. These emotions drove them to heroic acts of bravery or selfless acts of charity. Thus the celestial gods were born and their sphere came into being.

Fantasy map

My sketch of The World Apparent, also done in The Albert pub on Victoria Street, central London.

So The World Apparent, The Celestial Sphere and the caverns of hell exist side by side, with boundaries that separate them and maintain a precarious balance. But the human mind is a powerful thing, it created the gods and demons after all, and some can transcend those barriers. These people are very powerful indeed, for they can tap into the supernatural powers that lie beyond The World Apparent. Some minds can even transcend the three planes, and journey into the void, where indescribable and ancient horrors have lurked for aeons. Those minds either perish or return more powerful than ever, for when you gaze into the void, the void gazes into you.

Here is an excerpt from a World Apparent Tale we are yet to publish, which I think sums up The World Apparent quite nicely:

“As I drift through and between the three planes of existence, each mirroring the last, I occasionally catch a glimpse of the void. The place that existed before even the physical realm of men. The infinite chasm beyond The World Apparent, with its endless dimensions and crushing, incalculable vastness. The contemplation of which would drive even the immortal minds of gods, themselves as young and minuscule as man’s basest desires, to eternal despair.

I shy away from such terrifying glimpses, not just through a healthy fear, but through a sense of preservation. To know the limits of one’s own consciousness is to resist the temptation to discover the ancient alien horrors that dwell in the abyss, beyond the physical plane and its spiritual parallels.

In stark contrast to the void are the lives of men, by their very nature trivial and temporary, even fleeting. Yet their lives are governed by powerful things: love and hate, hunger and greed, honour and pride. Emotions so powerful they drive men to incredible acts of strength and heroism, and despicable crimes of brutality and murder. So strong are the hearts and minds of men they unknowingly created the Celestial Sphere and the searing caverns of Hell. They dictate the course of events in the physical plane, known to gods, demons and men as The World Apparent. A world of chaos.”

All this we thrashed out over several gallons of fabulous booze. After I demonstrated the proper use of a pen to my drooling, gibbering, feverishly drunken co-writer, Mr. Pilling, he used all his powers of concentration to scrawl what appeared to be a chimp’s cry for help on the back of a beermat. At length, I managed to acquire a note pad, and Pilling produced what he referred to as a ‘map’ and what I referred to as something I wouldn’t even put on the fridge if my four year old niece did it. On the contrary, she’d have been packed off to the zoo to have fruit thrown at her by tourists.

The World Apparent fantasy map

Final map of The World Apparent. Actually only a small part of the world. There’s a lot more to discover,

Despite Pilling’s lack of hand eye coordination, I liked his idea, so I briefly sobered up and set about translating it into a legible map. Pilling’s idea centred around ‘The Girdle Sea’, which basically looked like a thick belt running across one side of the world, with the southern lands beneath being warmer and more tropical, and the northern lands getting steadily colder the further one travels north. The coldest being The Winter Realm, an icy island in the middle of the sea. There was also a large continent far the west called Temeria. Not unlike the Americas, Temeria has a variety of different climates, from tundra to desert to mountains to temperate forests.

The World Apparent is now in its infancy, the more we write, the more we will explore this world and the more it will grow. I can’t wait to drink some more beer and write the next World Apparent Tale.

The next post I write will be about my inspiration for the rain forest south of The Girdle Sea and the people who live there: The Djanki. In the meantime, please write responsibly…

The World Apparent, Part One…


Following the release of The Path of Sorrow, the second full-length novel in our fantasy series co-written with David Pilling, we want to post a series of articles about the universe we have created, and the characters that populate it.

David Pilling kicks off and talks about his inspiration for The Winter Realm, an icy island to the North of The World Apparent. More will follow here soon, but in the meantime, pop over to his blog and have a read…

The Path of Sorrow: A World Apparent Tale (II)

Fantasy sequel The Path of Sorrow

“A song of hope and sorrow, born on the coming storm.”

To celebrate the release of our latest epic fantasy novel, The Path of Sorrow: A World Apparent Tale, we are making two other World Apparent Tales available for free on kindle for the period 9th-11th May inclusive.

The Peace of Elias (a short story) and The Best Weapon are free to download until midnight on Monday.

Fantasy Short Story The Peace of Elias

After the cataclysmic events of The Best Weapon, an uneasy calm has descended over the world. The Winter Realm and the Old Kingdom are ruined by war, while the people of the southlands have retreated to their deserts and jungles, to lick their wounds and wait for better days.

Fulk the No Man’s Son is now the lord of Silverback, and commander of the surviving Templar knights. Considered a heretic by many of his followers, he struggles to contain his unearthly powers. His half-brother Naiyar has returned to the deep jungle of his youth, where he prefers to live alone, isolated from his tribe. Both men notice the stars shift in the sky, and become aware of the rising of a new god.

On a remote tundra in the heart of the great continent of Temeria, a peaceful nomadic tribe is attacked at night and wiped out by a mysterious enemy. There is only one survivor, a boy named Sorrow. Hunted by Templar Knights, bloodthirsty pirates and an army led by an increasingly desperate slave-turned-sorcerer, Sorrow’s chances of survival are slim. He finds an unlikely saviour in the form of Bail, a ruthless assassin, and the pair realise they must stay together to stay alive…

The Path of Sorrow is Book Two of The World Apparent tales, and continues the story of the half-brothers Fulk and Naiyar.

The book also features a host of new characters and explores Temeria, the vast western continent mentioned in The Best Weapon, but not visited. Below is the first chapter from the book.

The Path of Sorrow: A World Apparent Tale

“A song of hope and sorrow, born on the coming storm.”

They came at night, the rumble of their hooves masked by the crack of thunder and the incessant hiss of torrential rain.

He was a six-year old boy, huddled for warmth with his parents and his sister under a pile of wolfskins, when they were woken by the shriek of a woman.

His mother sat up, confused and frightened. More shouts, more screams, rising to a storm. He could see nothing in the darkness, save for the deeper shadow of his father flinging back the pelts as he leaped out of bed.

His father moved wordlessly toward the door. His sister stirred, rubbing her eyes and groaning. He felt his mother’s arms sliding around him, encircling him and his sister as she tried to sooth them and hide her own fear.

Pausing to snatch down the spear that hung over the low doorway, his father crouched to pass through the door.

As the flap opened, the inside of the hut was briefly lit by a flash of orange flame, illuminating his mother’s terrified expression and outlining his father’s sinewy, tattooed neck and shoulders. Then the flap was closed again and in the instant dark he was left with an image, a ghost burned onto his retinas for all time, dancing in front of his eyes. The last time he saw his father alive.

The chaos outside grew louder, screams and war-shouts echoing with the thunder of hoofs and ring of steel. The family lay huddled, not daring to move, praying it was a nightmare and they would wake soon to a bright dawn and a fresh breeze carrying the smell of grass across the steppe.

His heart was beating hard now, giving him a sick feeling that seemed to seep through his entire body. He had never felt true fear before, but now it was creeping up on him and filling his world. His sister was whimpering, his mother trying to soothe and hush her.

With his fear came incomprehension. His life, and that of his family and his entire tribe, had been peaceful and secure for as long as he could remember, which made the shock of violence all the more unacceptable, all the more terrifying and brutal.

The flap opened again, but it was not his father. A stranger, bulky and muscular, unlike any man he had ever seen. The stranger’s body was covered in iron, face almost hidden behind an iron mask, and he carried a long curved sword in his right hand.

The sound of slaughter grew deafening, filling the hut like smoke, but the iron man did not flinch or show any emotion.

The boy hid his face, sobbing, for what seemed an eternity.

His mother screamed, making him curl into a foetal position beneath the pelts, hiding his head in his arms as she was dragged out of the hut. His sister screamed too and clung to their mother. Refusing to let go, she too was pulled into the chaos outside.

“Sorrow!” she cried her son’s name, and was gone.

Reality hit Sorrow like a fist to the chest. He reached out feebly and his weak cry for her died in his throat. His mother. His entire world. All he had known in his short life. She had dried his tears when he cried, washed his cuts and soothed him when he fell, fed him and loved him. Gone, wrenched away by a demon in the night.

Sorrow was frozen with fear, waiting for the stranger to come back and take him too, but no one came. He was helpless, empty, his heart pounding, shaking convulsively, his breathing deep and fast. Lights spun and danced beneath his eyelids, his body trembled violently, making him feel as though he was boiling like the water in his mother’s cooking pot.

His mother was gone. The knowledge was inescapable, crushing, enraging.

He did not think about what he did next, rather he watched his actions from inside himself, as though from within a bubble.

Sorrow ran out of the hut and into the massacre of his people. The ring of thorn bush that surrounded the encampment, protecting it from wild animals, was now in flames, trapping the people inside.

There was no sign of his family. To his right a small boy was running, screaming, chased by another iron man wielding an axe. The axe swung through his quarry’s skull, splitting it like an egg.

Nearby an unarmed man tried to shield his wife from two raiders. He lifted his arm in a vain effort to defend himself. One attacker impaled the arm with a falchion and the other stabbed him in the throat. Blood spattered on Sorrow’s face as the man dropped. The woman turned and fled and the two warriors gave chase, laughing.

Consumed by rage, Sorrow arched his back as an irresistible force inside him threatened to explode, like an ocean tide surging inexorably into a narrow cave.

Staring at the night sky, he screamed, tears streaming down his face, his eyes reflecting the fires that were consuming everything he knew and loved.

His roar was cut off by a sharp blow to the back of his head. Sorrow glimpsed a flash of blinding light and then pitched forward into darkness.

* * * *

“Remember, blue-eyes, just stand there, nice and quiet, and don’t say anything. Don’t even nod your fucking head. I want you still as a statue, and about as vocal. Got it?”

The man currently known as Bail, the sixth or seventh name he had assumed in his chequered life, nodded obediently.

He was careful to maintain eye contact with his employer. Eye contact was important. General Harsu judged men on the firmness of their handshake and ability to meet his eye. A man with a limp handshake and a shifty expression was, in Harsu’s opinion, up to no good.

Bail had been in Harsu’s employment for almost ten months. Ten months of spying, of forgery and blackmail, of narrow escapes and bloody battlefields, and now it had come to an end. The wars were over, and all the surviving commanders had agreed to get together around the negotiating table to hammer out a peace treaty.

Bail was permitted to ride aboard the General’s own chariot, reckoned a great honour. The chariot’s only other occupants were the General himself and his driver, a pretty, smooth-skinned young man, naked from the waist up, who held the reins and gracefully plied his lash on the team of snow-white geldings pulling the vehicle.

Behind them trotted the General’s escort, two hundred mounted lancers, splendid in dyed plumes and animal skins. Their faces were covered by iron masks forged and painted in the image of Harsu’s own snarling face, a tribute to their commander’s vanity and his desire to remind the enemy who they were fighting.

Though they lacked saddles and spurs, and their mounts were mere ponies compared to the massive knightly chargers of Bail’s homeland, Harsu’s Harriers were an impressive and ferocious body of men. They were disciplined, well-led and equipped, and in the past ten months of fighting had thoroughly earned their reputation as the most feared cavalry corps west of the Girdle Sea.

The landscape they were riding through was flat and featureless, with not a tree or a scrap of cover in sight. A range of yellow hills lay far to the north, while to the west and east the land broke up into a series of ravines, rocky steppe, and wind-haunted passes. To the south-west the land degenerated into a desolate horror known as the Burned Earth, which any person in their right mind took trouble to avoid. Directly south, where General Harsu and his retinue had come from, was barren plateau all the way to the Jabal Kish, the great mountain range that stretched from the coastal plain and bit deep into the southern part of the continent.

“Look there,” grunted Harsu, pointing with his crop to the north-west. Bail strained his eyes in that direction and made out a column of dust.

“That will be General Bashar, rot his eyes and lungs,” said Harsu. His vulpine face, which always put Bail in mind of one of the bearded devils painted on the frescos of Harsu’s palace, contorted into a sneer. “His mouth stinks with the lies he has crammed into it. Be wary of their stench, blue-eyes.”

Bail nodded again and forced a smile. During his crooked life he had assumed many names and disguises, but blue-eyes was not to his taste. It was a perfectly accurate one, since his were the only blue pair of eyes in a land of greens and browns, but it denoted a lack of respect. Despite, or perhaps because of, his dubious past and stained character, Bail craved respect.

“What a parcel of vipers to deal with,” said the General, reaching out to caress his driver’s bare shoulder. “They will all be there. General Saqr, that hypocrite who mouths devotion to the Gods even while he plunders their temples. Bashar and Assur, and that hairy bitch Anma. What sins must Temeria have committed, blue-eyes, to be punished with such people as rulers?”

Bail’s hands twitched. He longed to reach for the knife at his belt. It was a slender curved blade of native design, serrated on the inside, and he had often fantasised about using it on Harsu. The brute had a thick vein in his neck that throbbed during his frequent rages, and Bail liked to imagine the hot red blood that would spurt forth if he sliced through it.

He shook himself out of this dangerous reverie. A large tent had come into view, about half a mile to the north, and pitched around it were the brightly decorated banners of Harsu’s rivals. Fire-breathing dragons snapped and twisted in the wind, serpents swallowed their own tails, falcons pecked out the innards of fallen soldiers: their imagery was lurid, vicious, and crude, hinting strongly at the characters of the generals themselves.

Gathered round the tent were two hundred or so lancers, all drawn up in battle array and keeping a suspicious eye on Harsu and his entourage. They reluctantly parted ranks to let his chariot through and exchanged venomous glances with the Harriers. Only a week earlier they had been trying to kill each other on the battlefield.

Harsu treated his former enemies to a mock salute. “Move aside for your Emperor,” he bellowed, “blood of the Gods, you were wise to surrender! Faithless dogs, who dared raise your swords against me! I had your comrades gutted on pikes, tied to stakes and burned alive, aye, and their innards fed to my hounds. Reflect on that, you scum, and be grateful.”

Bail could almost feel the hatred as the chariot rattled to a halt outside the tent. He had seldom felt so nervous, and was shivering with more than the cold when he stepped down from the chariot and got onto his hands and knees for Harsu to use his back as a footstool.

The General was a big man, and Bail winced as his weight threatened to crack his spine. Then Harsu stepped off him to confront the richly-dressed group waiting outside the tent.

Like him, they wore ankle-length coats of scale armour and (with the exception of Anma, who could only manage a small moustache) sported long spade-shaped beards, sleekly combed and glistening with oil. Jewelled sabres hung from their belts, encrusted with enough precious stones to feed a small kingdom for a year.

“General Harsu,” smirked General Saqr, a little viper of a man, his trim beard dripping with oil just as his voice dripped with insincerity. “It is an honour to meet you in a time of peace, rather than over crossed swords on the battlefield.”

Harsu snorted. “You’ve never been near a battlefield in your life, Saqr. If you had, you might have sniffed the shit your men left behind them as they fled. Let us not waste time on pleasantries. I have won this war, and you are gathered here to offer me the Silver Crown.”

“We are here, on mutually agreed neutral ground, to discuss a treaty,” interjected Anma. Bail supposed that she was a woman, though it was difficult to tell from the moustache and bull-like physique. She wore armour like any man, and her heavy face reminded him of a mastiff.

The other Generals shifted and looked uncomfortable. Bail knew that they knew that Harsu spoke the truth. The war was effectively over. Their armies were broken or cowering behind the walls of besieged towns, and the treaty was only called that to make them feel better. In reality, it was a submission.

Harsu grinned and fingered the ends of his forked beard, relishing their impotent hatred.

“Come, then,” he said, nodding in the direction of the tent, “let the horse-trading begin.”

* * * *

The interior of the tent was dark and cool, and the flaps were closed to give the generals some privacy. Harsu and Anma had expressed a preference to conduct the treaty in the open, so the soldiers might see that the fate of their country was decided fairly and above board, but they were outvoted.

“These matters are best resolved in private,” said Saqr in his smoothest tones, “and what do soldiers understand of politics? They are there to obey orders and kill other soldiers, not to think.”

His voice of reason was enough to persuade Harsu and Anma, though the latter usually had no time for Saqr’s wheedling. Regardless, all five Generals were soon gathered around the long table, which was the tent’s only furnishing.

Each attended the meeting with one bodyguard only. Bail acted for Harsu, but unlike the other bodyguards, who bristled with weapons and attitude, he wore no armour and didn’t even carry a sword. Instead he wore the garb of a common Temerian infantryman, a thick, belted jacket with long sleeves, tight-fitting trousers, and sandals.

On the table was a campaign map of the western half of the continent, bordered by the waters of the Girdle Sea and the North-East Ocean. The map belonged to General Assur and was a beautiful piece of work, a sheet of white silk with the contours of the land, cities, mountains, and rivers picked out in gold and silver thread.

It was also dotted by symbols painted in the shape of two crossed scimitars. These marked the battles fought during the last ten months, and it was a measure of Temeria’s suffering that few areas of the map were free of the blades.

“There, not two weeks ago, beneath the shadows of the Mountains of the Sun,” crowed Harsu, pointing at one of the symbols, “my archers shattered your vanguard, General Assur, and sent the survivors fleeing for safety. The prisoners, you may recall, had their right ears cut off and sent to you as an early birthday present.”

General Assur, a saturnine, fleshy, and softly-spoken man, considered a great epicure but no soldier, said nothing. Chuckling, Harsu stabbed his finger at another part of the map.

“And there are the Plains of Ash-Kent, where I smashed General Anma and Saqr’s so-called elite Guard divisions. Many men bled the ground red that day. So many, in fact, I believe the local tribes have re-named it the Bleeding Heart Desert.”

Anma made a growling noise, but General Saqr laid a calming hand on her shoulder.

“Gently, gently,” he murmured, “General Harsu, may I beg you not to dredge up the past? We are here to forge a peace, not pick over the bones of old quarrels.”

Annoyed, Harsu pulled out a roll of paper tucked inside his belt and tossed it onto the table. “You are here to accept my conditions,” he shouted. “Sign that document, before my patience runs out.”

Saqr contrived to look even shiftier than usual. “Please, great one, can you read it to us? My eyes fail me.”

“Along with your self-respect,” grunted Anma. “Read your damned bit of paper, Harsu, and get it over with.”

Harsu shrugged his massive shoulders and picked up the treaty that his scribes had penned only the night before. Clearing his throat, he began to read.

“Harken to the commandments of Harsu Puzur-Ashir, degenerate and defeated ones, on pain of your lives, limbs, and property. General Harsu, Lord of the Desert of Sighs, henceforth to be known as Harsu the Conqueror, Emperor and Overlord of Temeria, bids you all to recognise him as your suzerain lord and swear fealty to him and his progeny, for as long as they shall last. And to recognise that you shall be inferior to him in all things, and that you hold your palaces and chattels, your servants and lands and authority, directly as a gift from him, that he may take or bestow as he sees fit…”

While his master droned on Bail quietly shuffled sideways until he was standing directly behind him. The stuffy interior of the tent rang with Harsu’s pompous oratory, but all eyes were not on the self-proclaimed Emperor. Rather, they were fixed on his bodyguard.

Bail flexed the fingers of his right hand and a stiletto slid into his grasp. He stepped forward and thrust at a certain point just below and to the right of Harsu’s left shoulder-blade. From careful study of the General’s armour, he knew that here was a weak spot, a gap between his ornate back-plate and the scale mail underneath.

Bail was a skilled and practised killer, and the stiletto punched smoothly through skin, muscle, and flesh, neatly skewering Harsu’s right ventricle.

A great deal of blood followed, but not much noise. The would-be Emperor uttered a grunt, like a surprised pig, and toppled face down onto the table.

General Anma clucked her tongue and rolled her eyes.

“Oh, really!” she exclaimed. “A barrack-room knifing, is that the most subtle idea you three could come up with? And why didn’t you tell me you were planning to kill him?”

“My map!” yelped Assur, gazing in horror at the dark stain gradually spreading over the map from under Harsu’s body. “He’s bleeding all over my map! It’s irreplaceable!”

“Oh, nonsense, Assur, you are rich enough to afford a dozen like it,” said Saqr, “but I fear our hired killer has been a little rash. Explaining Harsu’s death to his men outside is going to require some tricky diplomacy.”

“Answer my question,” Anma persisted, “why wasn’t I informed of this?”

Saqr made a vague gesture with his immaculately kept hands, while the near-hysterical Assur squeaked at his bodyguard to get Harsu’s corpse off his precious map. “You lack the necessary subtlety. To be blunt, we feared you might bray the details of the plot and thus doom us all.”

“Assur’s right,” said General Bashar, who had wandered over to study the table with ghoulish interest. “There’s blood all over this side of the map. Who would have thought he had so much blood in him? The North-East Ocean is covered in the stuff!”

“Perhaps it should be renamed the Bleeding Heart Sea,” remarked Bail, and the Generals all turned to look at him.

“We gave you no permission to bark, dog,” said Saqr, a trifle testily, “and in truth you ought to be whipped for your performance today. Could you not have waited until Harsu was safely asleep or alone with you in some private place, before sticking the knife in? You have placed us in a most awkward situation.”

Bail shrugged. “I have waited to kill him these past ten months,” he replied, calmly wiping his bloody knife on the edge of the sodden map, “now seemed as good a time as any.”

“Except it wasn’t!” hissed Bashar. “There are scores of his lancers outside, waiting for him to emerge as Emperor. They will have our guts when they see he is dead!”

“Yes, your timing left much to be desired,” said Saqr. A smile crawled up one side of his face. “However, there may be a remedy.”

Bail tensed as General Anma placed a meaty hand on the hilt of her sword. “You mean, let’s kill this foreign shit and claim he murdered Harsu of his own volition,” she rumbled, “Nice idea, Saqr, but I do wish you would just speak your mind. Guards, have him!”

Bail had been expecting it, and moved quickly. He was over the table and almost at the exit before the four bodyguards had drawn their swords.

Only Anma stepping into his path stopped him from making a clean getaway. The other Generals hung back, aesthetes to a man, deploring bloodshed that didn’t occur at a safe distance.

“Help! Murder! Treachery!” Bail howled at the top of his voice as Anma lugged out her sword and unleashed a cut at his head. Lithe as a snake, he rolled aside, flowed to his feet and sprinted through the tent flaps. At the same time he slashed his own cheek with his knife and threw the weapon away before emerging into daylight.

“Treachery, treachery!” he screamed at the nearest soldiers, who were shocked to see this bleeding apparition staggering out of what was supposed to be a peaceful parley. They were not Harsu’s men, so he dodged through their line, clutching at his self-inflicted wound, and ran towards the Harriers.

Their commander, a tough one-eyed veteran named Sargon, spied Bail and spurred towards him. “What happened?” he demanded, “where is the General?”

Bail held up his hand, now dripping with blood. “Our master is slain, most treacherously slain, by those jackals in the tent!” he moaned, “they tried to kill me too…fly, Sargon, before they kill us all!”

The old soldier turned pale. “The fuck we will,” he rasped, and turned to his soldiers. “Brothers, our noble commander is dead!” he roared, “after me, at the double!”

His troop roared and shook their lances, and the fragile tension erupted. The soldiers immediately outside the tent, General Assur’s men, scrambled to form a hasty shield wall and bellowed for their comrades. More cries went up, mingling with droning war-horns and the whinnying of frightened horses.

Bail weaved and ducked through the throng. He thought he heard the voice of General Saqr, bleating for calm, along with the bass rumble of General Anma, but paid them no heed. Harsu’s chariot had appeared just in front of him.

The pretty young driver, whose name was Asu, appeared dumbstruck by the sudden melee, and raised no objection as Bail vaulted over the guard and thrust the slack reins into his hand.

“Drive! Now!” he bawled, and Asu sprang into life. Grabbing the reins, he cracked his whip at his already nervous horses. The beasts surged into a gallop.

* * * *

The warrior knelt on his raw knees and scrubbed the deck of the infamous pirate ship, the Jagged Blade. His ears ached as well as his knees, for he was being bawled at by the first mate, a rat-like tyrant named Silt.

Six months previously, the Jagged Blade, a sleek black vessel that knifed through the sea like a hunting shark, had boarded a fishing boat and slaughtered all the crew but one. The exception was Colken, who had become a fisherman out of necessity but was a warrior by birth and training. He had killed four of the pirates and crippled two others, before being finally subdued and thrown into the stinking bilge.

Silt would happily have left him there to die, since the first mate was unwilling to forgive or forget the humiliation of receiving a sound beating before his subordinates and the weeks of pain in his broken jaw. He had vowed to kill Colken, but he couldn’t do so just yet for fear of Captain Wade.

The captain of the Jagged Blade had been sufficiently impressed by Colken’s performance to order Silt to release him and make him one of the crew, which only served to intensify his hatred.

Silt was a wiry little shrew, born to a barmaid in a harbour tavern somewhere in the Western Isles. The Isles, a famous nest of pirates, attracted some of the most disreputable characters in the World Apparent, plying their trades as thieves and cutthroats without the inconvenience of laws. Any one of a thousand of them could have been Silt’s father.

Consequently, he was a bad tempered bully with a little-man complex and a sadistic streak. He was a good head and a half shorter than Colken, who dwarfed him, and most of the crew, in every physical aspect. His tiny, black eyes blinked over a filthy beard that failed to hide the permanent expression of disdain on his rodent face. That expression had deepened since Colken’s arrival.

Colken kept his eyes fixed on his work. He had made some progress endearing himself to the rest of the crew, but he still got the same daily abuse from Silt. And, for the time being at least, there was nothing he could do about it. Silt was second on the Jagged Blade and to kill him would mean Colken’s life. But his patience was wearing thin.

“Scrub harder you useless louse!” Silt’s repertoire of insults was not extensive, but that just made them all the more grating. Frustrated at Colken’s refusal to react, he aimed a vicious kick at his ribs.

Colken’s hand shot out and caught Silt’s foot before it could make contact. He gazed up at his tormentor, wondering whether he should kill him or wait for a better opportunity to escape.

Colken’s decision was made for him, for there was a shout from the crow’s nest. The ape-like lookout known as Gristle had spotted a sail on the horizon to the north. Colken released Silt’s foot, and the first mate turned immediately, producing his eye-glass and pointing it toward the distant ship.

“Stations!” he yelled.

If there was one thing Silt liked more than goading Colken, it was the prospect of plunder, preferably easily taken, and that was exactly what his little black eyes peered at now.

Colken fetched his grappling hook and took up his position, which was at the starboard rail. His job was to wait until the Jagged Blade drew up alongside its quarry, throw his hook aboard the other ship and help to pull the vessels together. After that was the easy part, or easy for Colken at least; leap aboard the snared vessel and kill until he was told to stop. He had been trained from infancy to be good at such wanton killing, in his distant home in the deep jungles south of the Girdle Sea.

He had fallen easily into the lifestyle of a pirate, despite the questionable morality of piracy playing on his conscience. He had justified his actions by the fact he had no choice. Six months ago, as he lay starving in the bilge, he had been given an ultimatum by Silt: become a pirate and serve Captain Wade aboard the Jagged Blade, or become food for the sharks.

He knew he would escape, he had to, but if Colken had one surviving virtue after months of indiscriminate murder, it was patience. Opportunities to escape a ship in the middle of the high seas don’t come very often, but he was determined that when one did, he’d be ready. For now he had to do his job and try not to get killed.

So while men raced back and forth following the orders barked by Silt, Colken lined up at the rail with the rest of the boarding party. Fifty of the most vicious, bloodthirsty thugs on the ship, armed to the teeth with an array of weapons ranging from the functional to the exotic—depending on each ragged individual’s particular taste in butchery.

It was a warm day in mid-Harvest. The Jagged Blade had been sailing east on a choppy sea, the sails flapping in a brisk, balmy southerly wind. Upon sighting the distant sail, Silt ordered the galleon brought around to larboard. The sails were fully unfurled to take advantage of the breeze and they quickly gained speed in pursuit of their prey.

The tiny, white sails on the horizon gradually became clearer. The shouts from the crew grew ever more excited as they closed on the other vessel. It was a two-masted flute; a fat-bottomed merchant ship built more for capacity than speed.

The hapless ship was no match for the Jagged Blade. She was a sleek, three-masted vessel, stolen from a fleet of brave but sea-sick knights from the Winter Realm some fifty years previously. Manned by over two hundred ruthless killers, her black-painted hull sliced through the swell like a freshly whetted cutlass gutting a fat man’s belly.

The Jagged Blade slid in a great arc as she turned north, then continued to bear round to larboard in a giant half-circle that eventually brought her up the stern of the slower flute.

As they gained on their quarry, Colken could make out figures rushing back and forth on the upper deck, casting barrels over the side in a vain attempt to make their ship pick up the pace. Silt cursed at every barrel lost to the depths.

He could also see a coat of arms embroidered on the white sails. It showed two horses, one red and one blue, rearing up either side of a red and blue shield. In the centre of the shield was a horse-shoe which appeared to have been embroidered in gold thread and shone bright in the sun. He had heard that the horse-shoe was a symbol of good luck in the Winter Realm, although whichever family this coat of arms represented, it had apparently not worked.

By the time the Jagged Blade came alongside the hapless flute, Silt was in a vile rage, having watched the crew of the smaller vessel empty most of its cargo overboard. His red face seethed with fury as he spat and swore at the boarding party.

“On my command, you swaggering half-wits! Hook her and pull! As soon as she’s pinned, kill everyone! Bring me anything of value!”

For the first time Colken caught sight of the name painted on the hull. The Queen Heloise.

“Another family fleeing the strife in the Winter Realm,” cried Silt, “out of the frying pan and into the fire!”

A great chunk of sun-burned muscle to Colken’s right, known as Scutum, nudged Colken in the ribs. Criss-crossed with the white arcs and nicks of scar tissue from innumerable fights, Scutum was a wall of battered flesh. His anvil jaw creaked open to show a vast cavern sporting five or six brown teeth as he wheezed his amusement at the Winter Realm’s recent tendency to provide prey for the pirates of the Western Isles.

The truth was, there was civil war raging in the island kingdom following the death (or murder, as the rumour went) of its infant queen, and those without the stomach for the ensuing fight for power, or simply too much to lose, were fleeing west and south, to start again.

Unfortunately for them, these waters were patrolled by ruthless pirates, and without a heavily armed escort or some prior arrangement with the Raven Queen, the mysterious female monarch who ruled over the pirates, the refugees were doomed.

Scutum laughed again. “Another ship named after their dead queen! How many have we taken? Five? Six?”

Colken shook his head silently and gazed down at the deck of the Queen Heloise and the thirty or so grim-faced men in red and blue livery preparing for a fight to the death. He had to admit, they didn’t look like a pushover, but they were outnumbered two to one just by the boarding party.

This fight should be over quickly.

Saxons, Dogs and Rock & Roll Witches

Ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, here is my dazzling reposte to my friend and fantasy co-writer, David Pilling’s blog post entitled ‘Uhtred Shmutred’, which is of course, utter swill. His post lays out his criticisms of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicles, which tell the story of Uhtred of Bebbenburg, a ninth-century Saxon raised by Vikings as a pagan warrior.

The difference between me and David, at least in terms of this particular little set to, is quite simple:

Pilling's magical box of facts

Pilling’s magical box of facts

David has the benefit of having studied history at university and of being a very studious, intellectual man of some moral fibre, who has a disturbing fixation with the facts. He writes historical fiction for a living. He’s good at it. He spends a considerable amount of time researching these ‘facts’ of his to make sure he gets this ‘history’ of his correct. He’s a clever lad, but then, my dad’s a member of Mensa with an IQ higher than I can count, and he didn’t understand that a vacuum cleaner needs to be emptied.

I, on the other hand, have a grade F in GCSE history from one of the worst performing schools in the country (at the time, it’s a bloody academy now and the kids get ipads. Unbelievable.). This is what gives me the advantage! I can look at Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicles with the eyes of a reader who wants to be told a story, not a scholar or a writer of historical fiction. I can take the story on its own merits, and here’s why.

The Vikings. Pagans, warriors, fearless adventurers. They make for a good bit of story telling, don’t they? They were good story tellers too. In fact, I think Norse mythology is the most fascinating and imaginative body of fantastic tales history has to offer (although I haven’t heard all the stories ever told in the world). J R R Tolkein thought so too, much of his inspiration came from Norse Mythology, and this is clear in his creation of Arda and Middle-Earth. Consequently, you’ll see its influence in a lot of high fantasy.

As Mr. Pilling points out, Cornwell presents a vivid, visceral world. He also creates many diverse, interesting and colourful characters. Some of those characters existed in reality, and Cornwell may well use a bit of poetic licence to make them fit his own story, but he explains why he does this in his notes at the end. Where he is ‘unfair’ to someone, he openly admits it. His books are essentially good stories, and the writer never once pretends these are totally accurate depictions of historical events.

As for his portrayal of a pious Alfred and his ‘poison dripping priests’, I think my esteemed friend has been too quick to simply judge this as ludicrous and biased. This is a realistic portrayal of what people will do in the name of religion – history is full of tragic and barbaric acts committed by supposedly holy people. Look at the Catholic Church, or Muslim Extremists, or those nutters at The Westboro Baptist Church who turn up at soldiers’ funerals shouting about how god hates fags (they couldn’t find Nimoy’s, you’d have thought god would have told them where it was if he hated ‘fags’ so much). Cornwell has done nothing but write a realistic portrayal of priests in a time when organised religion was even more extreme and insane than it is now. To say this is bias, or that somehow Cornwell is trying to say paganism is ‘better’ by portraying Uhtred as a pagan warrior hero who loves to kill priests is a bit of an over reaction.

You ain't nothin' but a hound dog...

You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog…

This brings me to ‘singing witches’ and ‘magic tunnels’. I didn’t feel that Cornwell was ‘pushing an agenda’ with this. I think Mr. Pilling’s sense of personal outrage has sent him over the edge, now he’s joined the paranoid legions of conspiracy theorists. Next thing he’ll be saying J K Rowling is hypnotising children and commanding them to enslave the elderly. No, as he does so well in the Warlord Chronicles (the Arthur books), he uses paganism as a fantasy element, and it is done more subtly than my good friend gives him credit for. He creates situations where pagan ‘magic’ is used, but it is never confirmed whether this magic actually worked or if it was just coincidence. Merlin, for example, claims to to be casting some spell or other when Derfel and his boys are trapped by the Irish, only for a mist to blow in and mask their escape. It is left up to the reader; did Merlin do it or did some mist just naturally occur? This is often how people started believing in magic. I mean, I could do a rain dance and then claim the credit when it pissed down, but in England that won’t hold much water (snigger).

In the Harlequin series, this fantasy element is replaced by a supernatural or celestial aspect, where the main character, Thomas of Hookton, hears the voice of an angel urging him on to good deeds. What’s this, Pilling? The hero of a Cornwell novel, in league with an angel? Aren’t angels generally Christians? Hang on a minute, Thomas of Hookton actually finds the holy grail, doesn’t he? The point is, Cornwell loves to play with this fantasy or supernatural element, and it does give his stories a magical quality, but it doesn’t go so far as to make them far fetched. He very much concentrates on the characters and what drives them, keeping the story real and grounded.

Uhtred: beautful British name

Uhtred: beautful British name

Anyway, on to the main to the main focus of the Saxon Chronicles, Uhtred of Bebbanburg. He’s lovely, isn’t he? Well, no, he sacrificed his dog to Odin. That’s profoundly mental. It would be all over Facebook if someone did that now, we’d be signing petitions and all sorts. But I get David’s point; Uhtred wins every fight, shags all the women and has dazzling wit as well. He’s a bit like me between three and six pints. You might say this isn’t realistic, well maybe not, but on the other hand, somebody had to be like that, didn’t they? Somebody won all the fights. And it is those people all the stories are written about. I don’t want to read a story about a man who is half decent in a fight, is occasionally mildly amusing and hasn’t been laid for a year. If I want that I’ll stick my Al Murray DVD on. No, it’s a story about a Viking warrior, so he’s got to be the hardest, cleverest, most promiscuous bastard the world has ever seen, otherwise I’ll want my money back.

Just one more point on the subject of Uhtred’s invincibility. If a ninth-century Viking warrior loses a fight, he’s generally brown bread, right? The Saxon Chronicles are written from the first person perspective, so it’s sort of a necessity to keep the main character alive. If Uhtred had died in his first fight, the series would have been a lot shorter. I suppose you would be happy then, wouldn’t you, Pilling?

The only reason I ever read historical fiction is because I was recommended Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles as a teenager. It was a brilliant interpretation of who the true Arthur might have been. It brought the myth into reality by putting Arthur in the shoes of a real man. Not a king but a ‘Warlord’ striving to halt the Saxon invasion. Cornwell makes historical fiction accessible. Of course we should be wary of inaccurate history lessons (don’t get me started on the national curriculum) and not be swayed by hidden agendas that may lie behind an author’s words. But any author who opens up a genre to readers who might normally shy away, and does it with such aplomb, should be applauded. Let’s face it, we’ll never completely agree on history, that’s what makes it so interesting.

Thoughts on A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin

* note added 18/03/15: As there is some interest in this post, I will send a free paperback copy of our fantasy novel The Best Weapon to the person I deem to have posted the most interesting comment, even if they disagree with me and curse me for a filthy cur. Which I am.*

Firstly, this is not a review, it is more a summary of my thoughts on George RR Martin’s fantasy series on a personal level and in relation to the fantasy genre in general. The books have had such a big impact on the genre, it is hard to discuss fantasy fiction without A Game of Thrones and its sequels being mentioned. If you are a fan of fantasy/speculative fiction, whatever your opinion of Martin’s defining work, it is impossible to ignore it.

Secondly, I should say that I have read all the books in the series that have so far been released, and I have enjoyed them. This post is not intended either to recommend the books or to dissuade anyone from reading them, it is just my thoughts and opinions having read all the books so far released. I haven’t seen the HBO series, this entire post relates to the books.

Thirdly, this post is meant for the eyes of those who have read A Song of Ice and Fire (all of it so far, I mean) so that they can discuss/respond/tell me I’m talking out of my arse, all of which they are welcome to do. If you haven’t read it yet, be warned, this post will have spoilers and may well ruin your enjoyment of it, so don’t read any further!

I am a big fantasy fan and this series was recommended to me by many people, some of whom were of the opinion that this is the thing to read if you want good fantasy. While I enjoyed the books, I am inclined to disagree with that assertion. There are several fantasy books/series I would recommend ahead of A Song of Ice and Fire, if someone asked me to, but I suppose it depends on the individual’s tastes.

Having finished book five of A Song of Ice and Fire (A Dance with Dragons: Part 2 After the Feast), and looked back over all five books (two of which were actually two books, so that’s really seven) I found myself with mixed emotions. To be blunt, I found these books hard going. While Martin creates good, multi-faceted characters and builds atmosphere well, I found the narrative far too dense and the story lines too long and rambling. Endless descriptions of food and clothes make it feel like a cross between a far-fetched cookery programme and some sort of medieval fashion show, making every scene drag on until I just want it to get to the point. If I’m honest, I think the editing needs a lot of work. Or, more to the point, the books need to be edited, because there is too much pointless narrative. Not only that, but I think this gets worse as the books go on, until the last two books (or rather four as they’re split) are like wading through treacle with lead shoes on.

As for the story lines, while some of them kept me interested, such as Cersei’s attempts to manipulate people for her own gain spectacularly backfiring, others seem to go on and on without any real direction. Daenerys, for instance, has an interesting story as she develops into a strong, single-minded woman and overcomes many obstacles to achieve everything required to carry out her ambition of invading Westeros. She has a massive army, she has dragons, she has loads of cash, and then she just sits there while I read scene after scene about her doing nothing very much at all but getting busy with some mercenary. What’s baffling is that no real reason is given for her not seeing out her plans. It feels like indecision on the part of the author, or delaying tactics while he brings the rest of the story in line. Either way it is dull and it goes on too long.

As I said, it really depends the individual’s tastes, but one of the main reasons I enjoy fantasy so much is the way an author can play with extremes. But one extreme is pointless without its equal and opposite. You can’t have darkness without light. What is the point in having bad people doing bad things without there being some redeemable characters somewhere. I’m not saying there has to be a clear definition between good and bad, or totally good or evil characters. People by their nature are never entirely one or the other, I’m saying there has to be a balance. I found A Song of Ice and Fire to be a relentless series of harrowing acts of sadism and violence without relief. By the time “the red wedding” happened, I just wasn’t surprised. I just didn’t care any more. Why? Because if there is only darkness, with no light for contrast, I stop caring about the darkness.

I’ve said Martin creates good, multi-faceted characters, and he does, but what’s the point if I’ve stopped giving a shit what happens to any of them? Okay, there are some more noble characters, but they all get killed off pretty quickly. The only ones left are children, which is fine, but they’ve done nothing after seven books and the rest of the story hasn’t been written yet so I can only comment on what I can actually read.

This leads me neatly to my final point (for now), and that is that Martin’s writing lacks something which I think is essential in fantasy, and this is my biggest disappointment with this series. I’m not saying Martin lacks a sense of humour, but he has obviously not seen fit to include it in his books. Not once, in all seven of these long, long books, did I laugh. Sure, Tyrion makes the odd dry quip, and he is the closest thing to funny in the whole thing, but an occasional one liner is not enough amongst this much gloom. A fantasy should be full of ups and downs, like the voice of a good narrator. I’m afraid A Song of Ice and Fire is distinctly monotone.

Despite all this, I did like these books, but in my opinion they are vastly overrated. Good fantasy? Yes. Essential fantasy reading? No. Someone recently asked me to recommend some fantasy books as they hadn’t read much and wanted to get into it. I happily gave them a list of my favourites. A Song of Ice and Fire wasn’t on it.

This is one of many subjects David Pilling and I have been debating in the pub. You can see his response to this post on his blog on Thursday 19 March.