It is impossible to write Fantasy without, at some point, having guards. Things which are important need to be looked after! They need to be kept free of inquisitive people and opportunists. Doors need to be watched and important people need to be protected. Not unlike our own world.
The problem you run into is that guards have been turned into clichés.
“The reason that clichés become clichés is that they are the hammers and screwdrivers in the toolbox of communication.” ― Terry Pratchett, Guards! Guards!
I won't argue that we should try to do away with clichés, to try would be impossible. However, working to make these slightly tired mainstays of writing more palatable and believable is something that can add depth and create a memorable scene.
In the opening of The Broken Lance I have a file of Angels guarding the rear of the tenement they were attacking. They did not know if anyone would try to escape through their field of fire and so rather than being an ambush they were guarding. Another mark in their favour is that the Steel Angels are the elite of Har Nast's military. They feature regularly throughout and are the most ethically conflicted group that Dietrich deals with. Making them inept, prone to laziness or even afflicting them with momentary lapses of weakness doesn't work. If they are the elite they must have earned that status. If they have earned their status then escape for The Prophet and her followers would require some heavyweight intervention. Which they didn't get.
It was remarked upon that the deaths of The Prophet & Co was a surprise. The reader in question had made a decision about who was on the good side and who the bad in that section of story. That decision then influenced a set of assumptions about who would live and what would happen.
The fact that the guards at the rear of the building were alert enough and quick enough to stop the escape of the target wasn't something that the reader had thought of.
This event is at the beginning of the book for a very good reason. Dietrich does not play by the established rules (as you will see), and neither do his friends or his foes. Guards are the simplest element of a story like this. They are holding all the keys and guarding all the doors (to paraphrase "The Matrix"). If they are alert or even eager, then getting past them becomes more difficult and the rewards for doing so are greater.
Imagine a city patrolled by keen-eyed watchmen, every bit as dedicated, professional and frightening as Orwell's Thought Police. What would drive them to that I wonder?
Saturday, 22 March 2014
Broken Lance, the first book, is in the final stage of editing. In the meantime, what follows is the first scene of the series. Enjoy.
The light moved slowly across Har Nast, slowly illuminating the buildings and the few people who were moving through its streets.
Along one of the steep and terraced streets closer to the squalor of the docklands, a place still dark and likely to remain dark for another hour or more, Angels descended.
They moved lightly, two files of ten men approaching the terraced buildings from the top of the street where the wagons waited. Two more files were moving up from the bottom of the street. On a neighbouring roof, the fifth file of the platoon were staring intently down at the cramped yards and back doors of the tenement. They spoke quietly and held their crossbows ready. Their eyes flickered from the doors to the moat of brick walled yards and rubbish strewn alleys before darting back again. A quiet joke got a few small smiles but no laughter. The sergeant judged the light and moved from man to man, tapping shoulders and quietly giving orders. The smiles faded as the Angels knelt and rested their bows. The sergeant cocked his own and carefully fitted a bolt before taking his place. The steel limbs of the bows thrummed with tension.
Silver steel masks and deep blue silk tunics lined either side of the door to the tenement. An officer in black silk with a bright crimson sash nodded. An Angel, huge even by their standards, grinned before running his hand across his shaven head and hefting the ram at his feet. He braced, feet planted wide apart and swung the ram. Heavy iron impacted into the cheap pine door and the wood burst apart, the noise sounding a terrifying knell to the people within. Three files of Angels rushed through the door and into the building as the ram bearer stepped aside. The other file and the officer waited outside, uncoiling rope halters and nooses.
Inside, smaller doors were broken down and dark uniforms entered. Crowded homes of one or two rooms were invaded and the terrified occupants cowed with long truncheons and unflinching violence.
One of chamber held a family, silent and frightened. They filed out meekly and held their hands up for the waiting ropes.
One chamber was filled with stinking day labourers. Bachelors new to the city who worked the long hours for copper half pennies given to unskilled workers. A sometime stevedore with a neck like that of a bull screamed an oath to his prophet and his god in the mongrel tongue of Har Nast before attacking an Angel with a stool leg. The Angel stepped back and avoided the enraged assault. He drew his dagger and took the stevedore apart. The other workers watched in shock as their friend died. A second Angel entered the room and the following chaos was short lived. The Angels wiped their blades clean and wiped the soles of their boots on the thin carpet before moving to the next chamber, calmly and quietly, like lumber workers moving to a new glade.
On another floor in another squalid single-roomed home, a mother stabbed at one of the intruders with a carving knife so often sharpened it looked more like a needle with a handle than a knife. The Angel grunted in surprise and split her skull with his truncheon. His face was calm as he looked at the small tear in his uniform before gathering her terrified children to him and roping them up with bloodied hands. A young boy began to cry as the rope was drawn tight and they were dragged away.
As sunlight began to illuminate the front of the building, the four dozen survivors of those who had lived within were led out bound with ropes, daubed in blood, dazed and confused. They were herded to the top of the street and crammed into the wagons.
At the rear of the building the followers of the Prophet scrambled over the walls to escape, the Prophet herself with them, all of them in the fine new robes they had tailored so recently. They threw themselves over walls and fell to the other side, cloth flapping around them like the wings of great pink and orange crows. Plunging down into the shadows like ships over a waterfall, each worshipper was steered by a feathered rudder that sprouted with a dull thud in their backs. The Prophet gained two between her shoulder blades, a third in the small of her back and a fourth which cut through her dark hair and buzzed off into the distance as she fell.
The tenement quelled, the Angels turned it upside down, rooms smashed and pawed over, the remaining doors kicked in and locks broken. They found the small altar in the basement. The incense was still smouldering and the cramped chamber was still warm from the interrupted ceremony. The altar was simply decorated with herbs and flowers gathered from weeds growing in the cracks of the pavements: a sad and pathetically hopeful symbol of defiance.
The printing press was discovered in a secret partition of a room in the attic, along with the pamphlets already printed and the stacks of paper ready for more. On a lectern under a grimy skylight lay the handwritten book of words, rumoured to have come from the God of Compassion.
They piled the papers, smashed the wood and emptied the trays of lead letters onto the broken cobbles and filth in the yard at the rear of the tenement. From windows and yards, cautious and frightened faces peered. They saw the kindling doused with oil and with no ceremony, lit. Their task done, the Angels left.
Friday, 14 March 2014
Elves in modern fantasy tend to take after Tolkien’s model of slightly built, immortal, ecologically minded tree dweller. There are some variations on this of course and some writers have inverted the type/stereotype to produce dark elves, who are basically the same but ‘evil’.
My problem is that the evil portrayed is never really anything too scary. Evil in this context usually boils down to being a simple opposition to whatever the main protagonist wants. These elves have become little more than humans with pointy ears and an aversion to masonry. In a few instances they are shown to be a wiser, parent race or something quite alien. However the name ‘elf’ has, to my mind, become synonymous with a creature more akin to a faerie than an elf. And as for the custom of making them physically weaker than men, something which Tolkien saw no need to do, I have no idea where this comes from or what advantage this would have for the species beyond allowing the human characters to have an edge.
Dark Places, as those of you who have read it will know, involves elves. These are my variety of elf. They are not nice, they do not live in trees or much care for them except as something which they possess. In Dietrich’s world people do not worship elves willingly, nor do they side with them in war or venture forth to seek out their age old wisdom. In Dietrich’s world people are terrified of the elves. They make altars and leave offerings in places they think will please the elves or near to their lairs. They don’t do it with much ceremony – instead they deposit their offerings and scuttle home to bar their doors and shutters before praying to all the gods they know of that their children will be safe for another night, that their flocks and herds will survive the week and that their unborn children will be alive and in possession of the correct number of limbs.
These are elves as the Germanic tribes and Dark Age Anglo-Saxons might have known them. They might be the manifested spirits of the land or they might be a very alien and cruel race which enjoys pain and suffering as an end in and of itself. They don’t form societies that anyone would understand. They don’t partake of human politics and they certainly don’t help people out. Their gifts have barbs in them, their games are designed to hurt and their jokes leave people bloodied and grieving.
The elves are scattered throughout the world that Dietrich lives in. They are not a race in decline, they have no distant home to go to or pine for, they don’t need people and they are not threatened by most people. They are the lords of the land and people live in their realm on their goodwill and apathy alone. They are marking time, content to leave things as they are for the time being. Of course, this apathy is likely to fade as the men of Har Nast are in the habit of burning them out…
Wednesday, 12 March 2014
Dietrich’s Way, The Broken Lance, is the first novel in a series. What began as an exercise soon spiralled away from me and took on a life of its own, the characters I had created demanding that their stories be told and often taking the story into directions I had not intended.
The story follows a man called Dietrich. He is not a young man, nor is he innocent and optimistic. Rather the opposite in fact. He is a product of his society and while he tries to be the best man he can his idea of what a good man can be is drastically limited by his upbringing, cultural view and personality.
When we first meet Dietrich, he is living with the consequence of the biggest decision in his life, one which has taken a severe toll on him. He is very much a man trapped by choice and struggling to conform to societal norms. In short, he is a barely restrained, self-destructive loner.
My main aim in writing the story of Dietrich was to create a world unlike other fantasy worlds I had read and to follow a hero unlike others I read about.
Dietrich’s world has no name, it has no maps with neat borders and establish kingdoms. These are both deliberate decisions. I wanted to create a world that, whilst established (in the context of the story), was also unlimited. If you need to think of a map imagine one that is largely empty in a world that is largely unexplored. There are huge expanses of empty paper in which lurk cities, forests, villages, mountains, lakes, rivers and the lairs of monsters.
I wanted to create a sense of real adventure, of the unknown. I wanted my characters to be very much on their own as they head into the unexplored and unknown wilds.
In being ignorant of the world they are venturing into the characters will find themselves truly adrift and mired in a real adventure. Something that the reader will hopefully get a sense of as well.
Dietrich is very much a product of his society. To put it simply I wished to create a morally ambiguous and belligerent city-state. Not a kingdom, with power and money behind it or an empire but rather the seed of both. Har Nast (as his city is called) is a state in the process of becoming something more, something bigger. Its strengths lie in its vast army and the fanaticism of its citizens. In a world in which gods, faeries and demons roam freely, a militantly atheist state is something to be wary of.
There are two terms which are used repeatedly throughout.
The first is; Fey.
The Fey are people who willingly, or out of necessity, worship a god/s, spirit, faery or other entity. Some are granted powers in return, the vast majority are left alone. The Fey form most of the world’s population and Har Nast is at war with all who will not relinquish their beliefs.
The second is; Other.
The Other is anything un-natural, supernatural, divine, demonic and strange. It is a blanket term used to label anything from beyond the borders of reality. In the mouths of the people of Har Nast it is a curse and an insult.