Review: ‘Eye of Medusa’ by David Guymer

—- An overview, in brief —-

I loved the actual science and efforts at serious sci-fi-ing of 40k. In depiction of characters and factions, Guymer works in some brilliant examinations of psychology of people, of astute insights on the human condition. It’s terribly compelling speculative fiction, through and through.

—- Anyway, on with the show —-

Some weeks ago, I picked up the first of the in-flight Iron Hands trilogy: “Eye of Medusa” by David Guymer. This is coming off the back of a year’s worth of Space Marine and Inquisitorial stories (which is also still underway), amongst some other fiction too. By the cover, I wasn’t entirely enthused (mainly as the art style’s not to my tastes, but you know what they say). Similarly, I had reservations about reading an entire novel on the Iron Hands and Adeptus Mechanicus. To put it mildly: they’re ostensibly quite boring, or at least at the inhuman ends of the continuum. Both factions being machine-obsessed, war-obsessed perfectionists whose central tenet might be summed up as “things that are human and humane are weak, the machine is strong”.

So, to my joy: I was wholly wrong in my misgivings. (And wholly correct in my disposal towards David Guymer as an author – I’d recently read his “Thorgrim“, which is a tremendous novel, albeit one of many tremendous Warhammer Fantasy novels.) In any event, I was very pleased with this turn of events.

In short: it was hugely creative, deeply psychological, and forged an excellent ‘hard SF’ edge to the mad baroque fantasy that 40k ought to be. Not by distracting asides into the nitty-gritty of real science, nor by invoking mindless streams of technobabble – rather, by seeding and decorating the world with what to me felt the right ideas and right observations, to make the setting not only be vile, but alive and vivid. Being fairly interested in both science and sci-fi, it’s pleasing to read a book that’s fairly relentless in its dedication to seeing the genre being done well.

As an aside: you may hear the phrase bolter porn bandied about; I prefer to chalk it up to the same bad name that’s given for a lot of women-targeted fiction: dick lit. Suitably disparaging. The idea being fairly simple: lasers and guns and bombs and explosions, not a huge degree of exploration of the human condition. Much of the Black Library fare is all-too-often written off by the online commentariat (even by myself, at times!) for being too heavy handed on focussing on action and not sufficiently deft at tickling my taste buds for character journeys, depictions, and plot. I digress.

In that regard: this is most assuredly not bolter porn, nor dick lit. Indeed, it has music! And kissing! And romance! Not integral to the plot in a overwhelming way, but neither were they casually disregarded or overlooked as irrelevant to the topics at hand.

Indeed, the psychology of this novel is in principle very simple. Ostensibly at the foremost of the story, you have the ambitions of a man proceeding with his job in the face of competent but questionable senior management, and difficult, but not entirely unhelpful co-workers. A companion plot is the ambitions of a woman proceeding in her job, in the face of competent but questionable senior management, and difficult, but not entirely unhelpful co-workers.

In essence, it’s fairly relatable. So to speak…

Within the lore of the setting, these two are further distinguished: one is a transhuman “Space Marine” – a genetically and technologically enhanced supersoldier, interfacing with his new duties. The other is a transhuman “tech priest” – a religiously and technologically enhanced supercleric, interfacing with her new duties. Should they be depicted on screen, I could envision they’d be easily interpreted as ‘inhuman monsters’ by audiences, is perhaps no insignificant detail. (And that exploration of humanity is never lost throughout, for my tastes at least.)

As you can see: there’s no shortage of dovetailing or rooms for literary comparison. My take, here and above, is deliberately trivialising: instead of being a “mere two-hander” depicting two similar-but-not-identical-strands, Guymer manages to weave these (and additional oddities, both in the lore, in the background, and in the narrative structure itself) to play with some incredible concepts and tell an absolutely staggering tail that sits in equal parts ‘slice of life’, ‘action scene’, and ‘psychological conspiracy thriller’.

It’s tense, mind-boggling, huge in scale and scope, yet also deeply personal and utterly compelling. It covers bias, it deals with the propagation of ideas (both figuratively, and also in terms of literal memes – “We should consider a purge of his meme-core.”), it looks at the causes, expressions, and impacts of anger, of abuse, of discipline.

It’s not mild in its take, yet it also manages to be exceedingly mature in its depiction – neither trivialising nor glorifying.

On a point of personal taste: I found it to be dense in detail. Not casually so – breathing life into strange decisions, making curious aspects of the IP’s setting dance with life in a way that previously seemed awkward and offputtingly peculiar. (Google the ‘Clan Raukaan’ supplement to see some brains dribble from the minds of some of the internet’s… finest?)

Indeed, there’s some brave (and in my esteem: very well-executed) structural choices in the prose. Flash-backs that aren’t explicitly explained, changes of opinion that aren’t adumbrated. These choices are ones I can imagine many writers struggling with (and, alas, editors! [Let alone readers…]). Yet, the limited use of them, the tact with which they’re applied leads them to be very effective. They illustrate the points they’re intended to, without being so intrusive or obscure that casual readers will be left outraged at the author’s time-wasting.

These elements of discontinuity, disjointedness, in retrospect are a large deal of my fascination with the book – it is not merely telling a story, but it is telling a convoluted story in a suitably uncomplicated way, something that should be lauded. (Such is the temptation to go the other direction: to overcomplicate relatively simple stories). This non-linearity (in a mathematical sense, in addition to the literary), isn’t such a curious choice, given the plot, but it is a brave and laudable one: the capacity to get it wrong, or execute it less than elegantly presumably haunts many authors.

(Perhaps the outrage or irritation at a perceived lack of elegance only really manifests in the minds of harsh and self-appointed critics who’ve been banging the same drum for many decades; a cohort that I certainly wouldn’t ever fall into! In any case, I’d encourage authors to disregard it, in the main…)

I mentioned the Clan Raukaan fiasco. That can be summarised as follows: some games developers wrote some new fiction to accompany a game supplement, one that introduced a huge new element to the lore, but that also diametrically opposed much of what had been written before. This inconsistence was vexing, for many. (I’d attest to it myself; it seemed needless contrarianism.) It introduced a whole new dimension of religiosity seemingly borrowed from elsewhere in the stories.

In context of this novel, if you set yourself the challenge of reconciling these two inconsistent accounts, I would attest that you couldn’t do this simply by telling a simple story in the conventional sense. Your usual bells and whistles not only wouldn’t be good here, but it’d end up propagating the inconsistency and perhaps even exacerbating the problem. (See also: Protocols For Sleeping Canines, Pedestrian Impacts Against Vespidae Nests etc.)

In the novel that Guymer’s actually written, in the moderate concepts and modest use of some structural conceits, he’s managed something astonishing. In parallel to the philosophies described within his novel, that are central to the variety of conflicts throughout, he’s literally lived and worked an aspect of his own story: a story that might as well be about breaking and fixing things that angry idiots on the internet are furious about.

In telling that story, I’d contend he’s managed to fix a thing and leave it far stronger and more detailed than it was before.

Hell, he’s told a hell of a story in amongst doing that. I loved it.

It’s one of the most intensely bleak and horrifyingly brutal books BL has published, yet it steered well clear of being stomach churning in its graphic imagery. With institutionalised abuse as one of the main concepts dealt with in the story, alongside genocide on a terrifying scale, and bizarre technocratic dogmatists front and centre… it’s easy to see where an author might go wrong. Intellectually, so many of the things herein are deeply repugnant, and yet Guymer gives categorically no warmth to the idea of rehabilitating or emulating the ideas in any way. What he does manage is something absolutely compelling: a hellish nightmare that nevertheless tells a deeply compelling story, being intellectually revolting without actually turning the stomach of the reader.

It’s not an easy book to sing the praises of, but it absolutely deserves praise!

Space Marine! And an Interview with a Legend

Space Marine

Its Friday, and today the Bolthole is bringing you something rather special – an exclusive interview with legendary British science fiction author, Ian Watson. As you should know, Ian Watson was involved at the very inception of Games Workshop deciding that their worlds were so epic that they deserved their own novels. Ian’s novels such as Space Marine, Draco, Harlequin and Chaos Child are both excellent stories in their own right, and were successful enough to encourage the start of what we all benefit from today, with the Black Library producing such an excellent range of tie-in fiction to our beloved worlds.

What follows are a couple of reviews of Space Marine, a novel widely regarded as a classic, followed by that exclusive interview with the man himself. So without further ado, and with less of my waffle, I hand over to fellow Bolthole member, Chun, for his take.

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The plot isn’t anything extraordinary: three young boys from very different class-strata of a Necromundan hive are drafted into the Imperial Fists, and we follow them as they undergo training and their first missions as Adeptus Astartes. But, oh, the execution…!

Gloriously, breathlessly, bonkers. I’m pretty sure that Watson was taking the piss with this, but he did it gleefully and in a never less than an entertaining manner. He delighted in dirty schoolboy humour, bordered on the homoerotic, pushed boundaries of horror (one Tzeentch possession scene is particularly vivid) – especially where the fourteen year old target audience is concerned.

Yet, thinking about it, perhaps Watson’s approach is really the only honest way to depict the grimdark of the 40th millennium: how could anybody maintain their sanity in such a universe? Even the super-human Astartes must succumb in one way or another – there are only degrees of insanity.

Not canon any more (squats abound!), but this still should be read by any 40k fan willing to look toward the true dark side of this most stygian of settings – which, even in the book’s inherent silliness, is here revealed in full. And it should be read because nobody else wrote about Space Marines like Watson did… I wonder if they would even dare these days.

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Thanks to Chun for that review. Inspired by this, I recently re-read Space Marine. Conveniently it is now available from the Black Library as an ebook. It is an enjoyable read that harks back to the Rogue Trader era of Warhammer 40k. Modern readers will no doubt find some of the lore conflicted, but its worth remembering that at the time of writing the universe was so much less defined than it is now, and the novel now stands as a convenient time portal back to that era. Of particular note is the sequence during which the lead characters hack their way in to a tyranid bio-vessel – and how the 1993 version of tyranids is so different to what we have now.

Well worth a read, as I said, and available on the Black Library website right now!

Now on with the interview!!

Hi Ian, thanks for agreeing to answer a few questions. Firstly, Space Marine, and the Inquisition trilogy which started with Draco, were the first “proper” novels set in the Warhammer 40k universe. I know it was a little while ago, but was there much input from Games Workshop at the time, or were you left to your own devices in terms of how you chose to interpret the setting?

Go back quarter of a century and Mr Big was Bryan Ansell, Managing Director/Owner of GW who wanted to read “real” novels by “real” novelists set in his beloved Warhammer domains. As intermediary Bryan hired David Pringle, editor of Britain’s leading SF magazine Interzone, operating from Brighton as GW books. David had already recruited half a dozen authors who regularly contributed stories to Interzone, but no one would touch Warhammer 40K with a bargepole. So it fell to me to read Rogue Trader and many other encyclopedic publications which Nottingham HQ proceeded to send me, including printouts of nonfiction work-in-progress such as the manual of Necromunda, and much else. Bryan Ansell did send me quite a long letter lovingly detailing the sounds which 40K weaponry should make, so that I should be geared up sensually to describe combat. As far as I’m aware (though beware of false memory!) I was given no instructions at all regarding plot or characters and I simply made up the story, within the constraints of what I knew about the 40K universe. I toured the 40K universe, and after a few years the GW games designers decided that they disapproved of a broad approach, compared with single-action novels set on single worlds. (Those are more compatible with games, of course.)

You’ve commented to me that the books went through a period of not being supported by Games Workshop or Black Library. Are you glad that they are again available to purchase through the Black Library, given that to many they were the first taste of Warhammer fiction they got.

I may be the only case of a proven good-seller (modesty forbids “best-seller”) being sabotaged by his own publisher. (In fact I’m probably not the only!) Example: (and I pour another glass of red wine to loosen my tongue)… GW’s chosen publisher Boxtree bravely decided to launch my Harlequin (= Draco # 2) as the first ever handsome somewhat expensive large hardback ‘Collectors Edition’ and sent a couple of hundred copies to Games Day at Birmingham, where I would be present to sign. When I arrived in Birmingham, Mr X of GW appeared surprised at this hardback initiative.

            Despite the price—of 15.99 Pounds in 1994—sales were brisk. Two hours later, Mr X came by my signing place and I happily reported, “All gone!” Now I thought that Mr X would be happy, but all he said was “Oh really?” and hurried away.  Next day, GW banned Harlequin from all Games Workshop Shops throughout the UK with the excuse that the book was too big for their shelves. I soon realised that the book was perceived as competing with cardboard boxes containing some bits of plastic (i.e. the games), costing about 30 quid, for which there was a much higher profit margin.

            A few days later, W.H. Smith banned GW books from their shelves in any towns where there was already a Games Workshop Shop. Now my books were doubly banned—from shops where they were already banned for a different reason!

            Okay, the Black Library did try to be supportive despite the dislike by the games designers for my books on the grounds of the books being too comprehensive and also, as the years passed by, no longer representing accurately the 40K world which the designers were busy altering. Thus the Inquisition War trilogy did come into existence, and Space Marine was finally permitted back into existence as a high-priced print-on-demand item, never to be sold in shops but only through GW’s website. By the time that this happened, tattered copies of the original paperback Space Marine were selling on eBay sometimes for as high as a hundred Pounds. This may be flattering for the author but is also distinctly frustrating financially. Better a 7.5% royalty on 5 Pounds than zero royalty on 100 Pounds…

Parts of the books, Space Marine in particular, seem to have been written deliberately tongue in cheek – was that intentional on your part, or just how it turned out?

Tongue in cheek? Superstrength lingual organ in between gluteus maximus buttocks? Are you trying to be provocative, Sir?

            Okay, a bit of a subtext developed of its own imaginative accord (honest injun!) while I was writing Space Marine. Novels need characters endowed with some personality. How to imbue a  Citadel Miniature, identical to a hundred others, with personality? Difficult! Probably Space Marines are ‘in reality’ biologically neuter. I can’t actually remember, and I’ve no idea if this topic has been explored elsewhere and elsewhen. But give me a monastery and I can’t fail to imagine certain urges arising, even if libido must be cathected elsewhere, as Freud might say. Supposing that Marines continue to possess any libido after their arduous physical transformation into superhumans.

            GW HQ in Nottingham did tell me that I would need to rewrite ‘naughty’ parts of Space Marine, but at very that moment GW Books in Brighton ceased, and it was 9 months until GW HQ hooked up with media packager Boxtree based in London as the new producer of Black Library fiction. In the meantime Nottingham forgot about me needing to rewrite bits of Space Marine, and I saw no reason to remind anybody, since those were bits that I particularly liked. Consequently Boxtree published Space Marine exactly as they had received it from Nottingham, unaltered. Consequently the book sold out but then spent a decade in the wilderness instead of being reprinted. By virtue of periodical humorous hints from me, the Black Library finally produced a print-on-demand edition, priced high, and not for sale in any GW shops where it might corrupt the young (and where the shelves might be the wrong size).

Would you have any interest in writing for Black Library or Games Workshop again, or has that ship sailed?

It’s a long time since I was in the demented mindset that conceived my four 40K novels, but also back then I pretty much had free rein, and I strongly doubt that this would apply today.

            However, EXCLUSIVE TO THE BOLTHOLE!!, I have just looked inside my 2009 copy of The Inquisition War trilogy and I found a piece of paper handwritten by me titled “INQ 4” which must be notes for a possible sequel to Chaos Child. “M’L pregnant”, says the paper first of all. That’s Meh’Lindi, my Assassin heroine. Was I affected by Ripley of Alien? No, no, now I remember! Meh-Lindi would be pregnant by Inquisitor Jaq, from the time when they copulated devoutly on board Tormentum Malorum. Next, Yes! “Jaq’s baby kidnapped by Tyranids; Jaq contacts the Hive-Mind.”And next: “Grimm rescues” and “Lex and Imperial Fists again.” Oh I see the way this is going. And finally: “Genost = Gnostic + Genes” (what does this imply?).

            Omigosh, a complete story-line! Including a heroic rescue by Grimm the Squat—whom editorial idiot vandals turned into banal ‘Grill the Tech Priest’ for a reprint of my 40K short story “Warped Stars”, just because Tyranids ate all of the Squats subsequent to my novels.

            No, no, I must not even think about writing this sequel. The games designer tech priests would ruin everything.

Our forum membership is made up of many amateur authors – have you any advice for those starting out?

Read a lot! Not just the area of fiction that you’re aiming your talents at but non-fiction stuff too. Astronomy, biology, history. Don’t imitate published authors whom you admire; try to branch out, be original, aim for your own unique narrative voice. Don’t get upset by rejections; carry on. If accepted, don’t rest on laurels; it might be two years till an accepted story is published, whether on paper or electronically—so get on writing.

            After you write something which you reckon is good, wait a week or two then read it again before you show it to anybody else. And never send something unread by yourself to another human.

            Oh, and don’t have hissy fits. This is counter-productive.

I know your writing career since writing Space Marine has been pretty diverse, with everything from script writing to erotica on your resume. What are you currently working on?

Along with a collaborator friend of mine, Andy West, I’m revising our “Plague Novel”, The Waters of Destiny, which originally appeared a few years ago as three ebooks published by Palabaristas SL, the epublisher set up by my wife, Cristina Macía, translator of Game of Thrones, author of cookbooks, mother of dragons.  We have withdrawn the ebooks because of the revised hardbacks and paperbacks coming next year (2018) from NewCon Press in the UK, though the book’s website is still at http://www.watersofdestiny.com/  The Waters of Destiny (approximately 200,000 words) is about how a fanatical Arab doctor of genius could, in the 12th Century, funded by the Assassins of Alamut, and within the mindset and medical technology of the time, have worked out the source of the big killer Black Death, and could have stored what he isolated, with terrible consequences for our present day. The big killer disease, which ravaged Europe during the Middle Ages, was a viral haemorrhagic fever (like Ebola) with a very high kill rate which spread from human to human, and was not Bubonic Plague which is spread by rat fleas. The history is confused because you could have outbreaks of Haemorrhagic Plague and Bubonic Plague at the same time. The Middle Ages were nasty that way, sort of like Necromunda. In fact before I began to write Inquisitor (= Draco) Bryan Ansell told me to read A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century by historian Barbara Tuchman. If you run out of Black Library fiction to read, A Distant Mirror is a good substitute. Anyway, the big killer Black Death has gone into hiding, back to its reservoir (in southern Ethiopia, perhaps). If this true Black Death—with its long infection period—re-emerges in our modern world instantly superconnected by air travel, there’ll be a ghastly global pandemic. The Waters of Destiny is about this, and also about religious fanaticism, both Islamic and Christian.

            I worked with a collaborator because neither of us could have coped on our own. The amount of material to find out about just expanded and expanded.

            Aside from this, I’m getting on with a sequel to my “spacetime opera”, The Brain From Beyond, published by PS Publishing in 2016. I ought to be much further ahead with this, but Cristina and I co-organised the Barcelona Eurocon (November 2017) which was a mountain of work—unpaid, just in case anyone thinks we profited except from the satisfaction of making hundreds of people happy 🙂 And then this thing happened and that thing happened: an event in Barcelona about Climate Change Fiction, an event about Frankenstein at El Escorial just outside Madrid, things which take time to prepare for. Besides, I have notes for half a dozen short stories which I’m hungry to get to. I don’t actually write very fast, and I rewrite a lot. I don’t even read very fast—so who am I advising to read a lot! 

Thanks again to Ian for taking the time to answer some questions. Meanwhile if you want an alternative view on Space Marine you could do worse than check out the review on Track of Words.

Let us know what you think of this post, on here or twitter, and be great to see you at the Bolthole, if you aren’t already a member!

First and Only – a classic, or better best forgotten? Ath reviews

Over at the Bolthole, we like to remember the good things. The Gaunts’ Ghosts series, written by the superb Dan Abnett, has been going since 1999(!). Over the coming months we will be taking a fresh look at the series, reviewing the novels and seeing how they fit into Warhammer 40k as we know it now.

Kicking us off is a review of the series opener, but is First and Only a classic novel, or merely the start of something greater? Athelassan has put together this excellent review for you. If you are interested in forming your own opinion, the novel is soon available in print through the Black Library as part of the “Founding” omnibus, incorporating the first three novels in the series.

 

Without further ado, I will hand over to Ath…

First and Only
By Dan Abnett, 1999

It is always hard to review a book like First and Only. This was, after all, the book that started it all: the first 40K novel published by Black Library, and the opening instalment in its longest-running and probably most successful series. Such a book is unavoidably compared to its successors and is difficult to appreciate without the shadow of that context.

The story, for those unaware, follows a regiment in the Imperial Guard, the eponymous Tanith First (and Only), so called because after its first founding the planet was destroyed by a Chaos fleet, leaving only one battalion surviving of the three initially raised. They’re fighting on the front lines of the Sabbath Crusade when they encounter a mysterious message encoded with unheard-of levels of security. This draws them into a situation with potential ramifications stretching far beyond the Crusade itself – and all the while they are struggling with a deadly rivalry with another regiment.

Their commander is Colonel-Commissar Ibram Gaunt and this is probably the novel in the series with most focus on him personally, giving us flashbacks to his childhood and training, and with incidents from his past coming back to affect the main plot. There is perhaps an air of the trite about this, the level of coincidence piling up as the story goes on, but never quite crosses the line into the absurd or the preposterous.

In contrast to Gaunt, most of the Tanith characters are fairly lightly sketched. Those who will become the core cast of the series are present and visible but at this point in the story they are hard to distinguish from the rest. The number of names thrown at the reader is large, and with a limited space to develop so many characters, the Tanith inevitably form more of a background to the plot than a fundamental part of it.

That is not to say that the characters feel like they are making up the numbers, but there is little scope to develop them beyond broad strokes. Some, like Rawne, are intriguing; others feel archetypal, like Corbec, the bluff colonel, Bragg, the amiable but slightly slow big fellow, or Larkin, the quirky sniper, who seem to have drifted in from central casting. Those au fait with Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series will spot some familiar faces, even if the names are changed.

In some ways, this makes this novel atypical of the Ghosts series, where normally Gaunt is more distant, and the main Tanith characters are the focus, with much more attention paid to their abilities and personalities. (It has always stood slightly apart from its successors even in appearance, the spine of First and Only‘s first edition having a red background while the next four novels had the same style but a green background). It is probably for this sense of not being a typical Ghosts novel as much as anything that the novel is controversial among fans of the series, with some considering it barely worth the read.

I would disagree with them. Something which I think this novel achieves better than any of its successors is to portray the faceless nature of war in the 41st millennium and the expendability of its human personnel. As the first novel, where the main characters of the series have yet to become apparent, there is a strong sense, rare in Black Library fiction and the Ghosts series in particular, that anyone can die, with characters being introduced on one page and immediately being killed without fanfare. The third Ghost to be named is (implicitly) executed by firing squad within the page. Some of the characters who receive most attention are revealed as decoy secondary protagonists who die before the book is out. That the characters are for the most part unremarkable without special abilities gives them an individual vulnerability and powerlessness entirely appropriate to the setting.

This is just as well, because much of the rest of it is rather at odds with the setting itself. Dan Abnett famously had an incomplete grasp of the intricacies of the 40K universe when this novel was written and as such a number of the details fall foul of a number of howlers which are sure to bother the more uptight afficionados among its readership. The MacGuffin in the plot, once revealed, seems almost impossibly significant while at the same time being strangely personal – and this is something which perhaps damages the rest of the series. Having saved the universe in their first book, how can anything the Ghosts face from now on measure up?

The prose is also a little hesitant and clunky in places, Mr Abnett perhaps still finding his feet with the format in his first full-length novel. It is by no means badly written but it is certainly less elegant and polished than his work would later become, and this may also account for the structure of the novel which borders on the cliché even if it never quite falls foul of it.

So the book has its flaws, but I would suggest these flaws are no more significant than those in the now-classic Inquisition WarSpace Marine or Genevieve. The book has enough about it that the fact its depth of imagination occasionally strays outside that which is strictly speaking sanctioned by the rulebooks feels like a positive feature as much as anything: it’s adding the sort of depth to the setting which I think the novels are ultimately supposed to be doing.

Similarly, I think that its differences from the rest of the Ghosts series are more of an asset than a liability. More than almost any of its successors this feels like an Imperial Guard novel, rather than a Tanith novel. Inasmuch as it is derivative, this is inarguable – albeit a criticism that remains valid for many other Ghosts books – but that derivation was at the core of what 40K used to be. In a universe with such little truly original context, an engaging story told well is about as much as we can ask for, and First and Only absolutely delivers on that.

Thanks Ath.

Talking of the classic Warhammer 40k novel, Space Marine, keep an eye out for a future review of the book, accompanied by a short interview with the author himself, Ian Watson!

See you in the Bolthole!

 

The Imperium of Man just got Darker!

Dark Imperium is both the name of the new Warhammer 40,000 boxed set available from Games Workshop and the name of the accompanying novel from Black Library written by Guy Haley, by all accounts a prolific and entertaining wordsmith. He kindly agreed to do a short interview with us which follows below.

Dark Imperium

But onto the book!

Dark Imperium catches us up with the recent events in the Warhammer 40000 universe as Games Workshop move the story on, and push the fragile Imperium of Man that bit closer to the abyss. Whether or not you approve of the changes, Guy Haley certainly brings the entertainment. It is a good and rapid read. Starting with the climatic fight between Gulliman and Fulgrim after the Horus Heresy has ended (you know, the one that put Gulliman in stasis for, oh about 10000 years!) we then skip forward to the here and now, and Gulliman’s efforts to stabilise the situation and restore the Imperium. In using Gulliman’s viewpoint, we get to see a fresh take on the Imperium, and how far it has fallen from the high ideals of the great crusade. The loss of knowledge, the increase in superstition, and some home-truths about how the Emperor may have manipulated the primarchs and indeed humanity by not necessarily furnishing them with the whole truth. I found this fascinating, and having not read many Black Library books recently, a really good way of getting back into the universe and looking at it through new eyes. Unsurprisingly, both the new Primaris Marines and the Death Guard from the new box set feature quite heavily, and things are nicely set up for an encounter between Gulliman and Mortarion as the trilogy progresses.

Overall then, Dark Imperium is a good novel, a fresh take on Warhammer 40000 and an entertaining read that I would recommend.

As I mentioned above, Guy kindly agreed to do a short interview for us…

Hi Guy, thanks for agreeing to do this short interview. How are you today?

No problem. I am surprisingly relaxed after a frantic couple of months. The deadline fear will return soon enough, but for now I’m spending a few days catching up on my BL reading before my next project. It’s nice to have time to read!

Dark Imperium is your latest novel for the Black Library. How did it feel to be responsible for helping move the background forward in line with the latest edition of the Warhammer 40k tabletop rules?

Well, I was really, really pleased they chose me. That they’d ask me to write such an important book sort of indicated to me how much BL value my work, so that did a lot to dispel my usual authorly insecurities. I mean, I’m surrounded by stellar authors like Graham McNeill, Aaron Dembski-Bowden and Dan Abnett to name but three of my very talented colleagues. To be given a book of this magnitude of importance suggests that maybe I might be good as them one day.

Did you feel under any particular pressure when writing the book?

Absolutely. This is the single most important event in 40k since the Horus Heresy! The background is all new, some of it was still being defined as I began writing, I had to fill in a lot of gaps to flesh out the game world into a novel. Now, we do that anyway, but in this case I was tinkering with the very engines of the universe, rather than, say, coming up with cult practises for a minor chapter. To make sure I got it write I had a lot of back and forth with the Games Workshop Studio, which was great, because it is really, really important to me that what is in the game books is in the novels, and what is in the novels is in the game books. There was a collaborative feel to the process that has only grown since I finished writing it. Unusually for me, the scope and scale of the story changed while I was writing, necessitating the addition of some fairly major chunks. I usually write what I write then get the thumbs up. This time we agreed I needed to put more action into my second draft. So it was a challenging book to write, but worth it.

And of course, this kind of book attracts far more attention than some of the things I write. Pretty much everyone who has ever played 40k is going to be interested in knowing what happens in the novel, even if they don’t read it. That brings a whole new level of scrutiny. That makes me sweat a bit.

The story opens with the climactic encounter between Gulliman and Fulgrim – was it hard to write that part – so long a part of 40k lore – and them move forwards 10000 years to the “present” 40k story and pick up with Gulliman suddenly in a different era and yet still continuing the same war?

Not really. The battle at Thessala is such an iconic moment in the lore that I was dead set on writing it. In a sense, I kind of shoe horned it in, I suppose, because I wanted to write it. My excuse is that I wanted this book to link all eras of 40k together – the Heresy, the pre-Noctis Aeterna and the new now, with little hints to 40k’s deep time histories. That it is the same war is kind of the point. The Imperium thought it won the Horus Heresy, when in many, many ways it did not. The effect of that realisation on Guilliman is a major theme to the story, and I’ll be continuing that in books two and three. Did I mention it’s a trilogy? It’s a trilogy.

I know you are a gamer – have you picked up a copy of the new boxed set yet? The Death Guard models are disgustingly beautiful!

Of course! I have the boxed set and the new indexes. I played my first game last week. Good fun, though my Orks died in droves, then I lost.

I actually have a Death Guard army too. You can read about how I’m going about updating it on the Warhammer Community Website in a month or so. I love the new Primaris Marines too, I’m dithering over whether I should paint them as Novamarines or Blood Angels. Before that though, I’m working on a promethium refinery built from the new Sector Mechanicus kits. That’ll be up in a couple of weeks. Actually, I need to get on with it, so I’m cutting this answer short.

You also have released a number of books outside of the Games Workshop universes, particularly your Dreaming Cities series. How do you find the process of creating a novel differs when writing within or without such predefined constraints?

One of the reasons I can write so many books a year (last year, I worked out I wrote 650,000 words of fiction, give or take) is that I vary what I write, and how I write it. In my “own” fiction, I can make up whatever I want, and sometimes that is liberating and useful. On the other hand, writing in a shared universe with lots of restrictions makes you more creative. Sometimes that means it is easier, sometimes harder. For me, the important thing is to make sure I do a variety of projects.

A  number of the Bolthole membership harbour dreams to make it as authors. What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given that has helped you become a successful author?

 

There is no one piece of advice, I’m afraid. I always wanted to be a novelist, but I was a journalist for twelve years before I got a publishing contract. I interviewed lots of publishers, authors and agents in that time, and grilled them for tips. They all said different things. Being a journalist helped me the most. It trained me to write, and produce material of a reasonable standard to tight deadlines. However, I have also met a lot of would-be authors who aren’t and won’t be journalists. These are my top tips for you: Seek out advice from people who are involved in the industry. Don’t pester. If they help you, be nice. Do not be offended if what they say is negative (it will be to begin with), or let it go to your head if it is positive (which, once you get past a certain point, it will be). Join a writing group – I found that really useful, as there was feedback and an incentive to produce material. But above all, write. Nobody ever became a writer by not writing.

Finally, I recently became a father and I know you have a son. How do you find time to write?!

A lot of people ask me this, but in actual fact it’s no mystery: writing is my job. I work for about six hours a day usually, sometimes in the evening but mostly during working hours. My boy is nearly nine, he’s been at school for years, and is at an after school club three afternoons a week. I got my first two publishing contracts just as the last magazine I was on, Death Ray, went bust. My wife went back to work full time, I stayed at home. Even then I was working. It’s a job. We all manage to find time to earn our crust. It is significantly harder though when it is a hobby or an ambition. I remember that. You have to carve out time then, and that can be tricky.

Thanks Guy!

You can catch up on Guy’s Ork army and his terrain project over on the Warhammer Community website.

Next week we will have a review of the iconic Warhammer 40000 novel Space Marine by Ian Watson which is 24 years young but still entertaining!

Expect more reviews in the following weeks. We are also putting together a project reviewing the many Gaunt’s Ghosts novels, and I intend to update this blog with my attempts to put together a Space Marine army based around the new Primaris Marines. See the forum and the twitter feed for more, and expect some updates when I’ve got them!

If you are interested in contributing to this blog please contact Squiggle over at the Bolthole forum or on twitter.

Interview with John French

After much faffing around here is the awaited interview with Black Library writer John French, just as we leave March allergies and April foolery.

Courtesy of The Black Library

Can you tell us about your novel Ahriman: Exile? The story and characters, specifically Ahriman. Is it action-oriented or slow-paced?

Ahriman: Exile is about Ahriman (of Chaos Sorcerer infamy) in the time after his banishment from the Planet of the Sorcerers. It starts with Ahriman in a very different place to what most people would expect. He has watched his Legion be destroyed by the Rubric he cast to save it. For once he has seen the limits of his knowledge, and seen that there are things that are beyond his grasp. The novel then follows his rise from that state to… something else.

How did you go on with writing for a famous Codex character such as Ahriman? Did Black Library approach you with the idea or was it your idea all along? I know that Black Library writers have favourite characters they want to write about.

It was an off the cuff remark that started it. I was trying to pitch another novel, and my editor was lukewarm about my idea. I said something like ‘well, I will just do an Ahriman book instead,’ and my editor blinked, then said ‘Ok, what would you do?’. It was not the response I was expecting, at all. At the time I thought that the Thousand Sons and Ahriman were being worked on by someone else. I also was fairly sure that they would not let me roll straight into such a key character. But there I was, with a big open ‘what you’ll you do?’ waiting to be answered. Luckily an idea came along just in time for me to reply. It changed a bit as I flesh it out, but the essence of that first idea became Ahriman: Exile.

What was the writing process for the book? Can you describe how you go about working on a novel?

I tend to start with a single event, character or circumstance. I prod that first concept around in my head. Then I talk to people about it (editors, friends, other writers), and see if their eyes glaze over. If I get that response then I start again. I am lucky in that I have very inspiring friends and colleagues, who are not short on opinions. The best reactions are the negative ones, the times when they think that I have missed the point, or ignored something important. That’s the really good stuff, because it adds layers and hard edges to bounce off.
After that I write the idea down in as few words as possible. Can the idea be expressed simply and directly? Yes – good. No – start again. I plan. Bullet points and key story beats are hammered out.
I realise that I need an extra subplot because otherwise the whole thing is going to be like head butting through breeze block walls. I change the plan. I start writing, and try to hit key milestones by set times.
I realise, yet again, that the plan is just a map to save me if I get lost, and will have to be changed
Characters come and go, change names, change gender, change their role in the plot, and generally cause trouble on the page.
Eventually – after all the ups and downs of thinking its going well, knowing it’s not, believing it’s great, and being convinced it’s not – a rough draft turns up.
My long suffering alpha reader gets to batter through my mistakes. I redraft, moving big chunks of text around, scrapping scenes, burning word count down, adding stuff in and chopping it out.I put together a reading draft that looks close to the finished deal. The reading draft goes out to my beta readers (thanks, guys). I wait in a state of nervous tension for them to tell me it’s dull, or makes no sense, or that the bit that I really like is, in fact, pointless. The comments come back. I read them, alternating between joy and despair.I redraft again.
It goes to the editors, and the nervous tension starts again. Comments come back. More drafts appear. It goes to the copy editors and proof readers. More drafts.
Print galleys appear – ‘last chance to change that hideous typo you spotted on page 76…’ And then, at long last, like a dust covered traveller riding through a city’s gate, it’s printed, and becomes real. Simple, no?

Is Ahriman a favourite character of yours?

So much hubris, so much self delusion, and so much power… Yeah, he is a lot of fun to write.

Did you draw inspiration from any outside influences such as films, books and music?

Music more than anything. Books and stories often have a song that just ends up bonding to them, and I suppose influencing the feel of the story. The Last Remembrancer and a song called Sanvean by Lisa Gerrard are linked in my head. For Ahriman the track Surface of the Sun from the soundtrack to Sunshine got played a lot.

Can you mention your favourite parts and least favourite of the book? The ups and downs?

I am fairly convinced that the bits which writers like about their own work are not the bits that others like, and it’s same with the stuff that writers don’t like. What I like or don’t like is really bound up with the writing process. For example I was so tired when I was doing the last sections of Exile, that I always flip back to feeling less than good when I think about them. On the flip side of that coin, I really enjoyed doing the cross cutting between characters when they are on the dead Astropath station.

What do you prefer to write, action scenes or character driven stories?
I love writing dialogue. For me that’s really were you see characters emerge, but if I didn’t like writing action 40k would be a hard setting to work in.

Writers have different patterns when they’re involved in their writing. Is the writing process for you a lonely one or do you become more social?

It’s essentially solitary for me. I write on my own, with the internet shut down, listening to a long playlist of music on big headphones. So… yeah, I shut the rest of the world out as much as I can. Having said that, when I am not at the keyboard I develop ideas by talking them through with other people.

What made you write for Warhammer 40k? Was it by chance or was it intended all along? If so, are you a big 40k fan?
I am a lifelong fan. I think I wanted to write professionally for 40k ever since I first encountered the setting.

Do you have any plans writing for Warhammer Fantasy in the future?

It would be interesting, but no plans at present.

Will you continue writing Arkham Horror novels? Do you see any similarities writing Lovecraftian horror and 40k fiction? Are they part of the same for you?

The Lord of Nightmares trilogy was a complete blast to write. In particular because I got to collaborate with Alan Bligh. It was also a great change of gear to write in the (well maybe a version of) the real world.
I think they are both very distinct worlds. I suppose there are common threads of horror, and the supernatural, but 40k has such a strong style that it is difficult to put it in the same pool as anything.

As a big Lovecraft fan I have to ask : Short fiction or novels, which one do you prefer?

The short fiction, no doubt. But I have to confess that I prefer Chambers and Clark Ashton Smith.

Can you remember what it was like when you started writing, and do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Professionally, or in general? In general, hmmm, not really, I wrote stories when I was young enough that memory gets a bit blurred.
Professionally, oh yeah. I still have the commissioning paperwork. I was so excited, but I was also terrified that I now had to actually deliver.
Advice…
Get proper, harsh feedback, and listen to it. You don’t have to follow it, but you should always listen to it, and spend time considering it. Get to know yourself as a writer, good and bad. This thing we do is a craft first and an art second; learn your craft. Don’t do things by accident.
Keep going.

What are your biggest influence in your work? Any films , novels, music, people?

Everything and anything.
But seriously, it’s difficult to pin down because some of the strangest and tiniest things might be the seed of an idea. I got the some of inspiration for the details of the summoning scene in Ahriman: Exile, from watching a video of people releasing lantern kites. Sometimes I think it would be cool to take a chapter from a book, and get a writer to do a big exploded multi-media mood board, showing some of the things that nudged into their mind as they wrote it.

Can you tell us about your interests?

I have a fairly varied set of interests, including a poor taste in music, running, history, a bit of philosophy, gaming, eating, sleeping, talking, and generally being a bit of an intellectual butterfly.

It seems that many fans of Black Library started reading fantasy as young children. Can you name your favourite books from your childhood?

Tricky…
Depends how young, but if you take a large chunk of time running from when I started to read books that just had words (or mainly words) to about 13, and in no particular order:
The Hobbit, Watership Down, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I was completely obsessed by Agatha Christie for two years somewhere around the 10 year old mark… Asterix and Obelix, everything by Terry Pratchett, all of the Sharpe books, The Witches, The Wooden Horse, The Lord of the Rings, I, Claudius (yes I was a bit young for it, but it’s a hell of a book), The Chronicles of Narnia (the demon god in The Last Battle left marks in my mind I am sure)… err, probably a quite few more that have slipped my mind.

Favourite music?

The choral Music of Thomas Tallis, most of DJ Shadows work (particularly Entroducing), any film score by Hans Zimmer, The Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy, Bruce Springsteen, Portishead, Faithless, The Portico Quartet, almost anything with Daniel Hope playing a violins in it…Yeah, you weren’t expecting that to make consistent sense were you?

Bestest food?

Pizza. Food of the gods.

Chaos or the Emperor? Describe why.

Chaos, because it is everything.

Best replies in my opinion, pizza and Chaos couldn’t be a better combination. Many thanks to John French for having patience with obsessive fan questions. Images courtesy of The Black Library.

Far Worlds: A Universe-Spanning Anthology.

Far Worlds

Across the unfathomably vast depths of space, the cylindrical nomad, known by some as ‘The Drift Engine’, travels the slow route between stars. Alone, it crosses the black gulf, where men freeze and stories die. But sometimes, it finds context amidst the void; intrigue, laughter, hate, madness and love, tales as diverse as life itself, in all its complex forms. The Far Worlds Anthology takes you on a journey to explore just some of these tales…

Good day my fellow Blogholers! It’s that time of a year again; the stars are right, and the latest Bolthole anthology, Far Worlds, is almost ready to escape its bonds and run amok across the universe (or the internet, whatever)!

This is the third of the anthologies produced and published by the Bolthole, and it has been my and He2etic’s[1] third time as co-editors, with ever-vigilant and grammatically merciless Hanna Gribble joining us as the final editor in our triad. This is also the third time the talented mister Mesones has lent his artistic skills to the beautiful cover art, pictured above.[2] But Manuel has gone above and beyond for this anthology, and has created illustrations for each of the main stories featured in the book.

Work started on our latest offering almost as soon as the last anthology, the engrossing Marching Time, was on the shelves. We have some returning authors, but also a slew of new faces, ready to impress you with their tales.

This year’s collection of short stories is linked together not by theme, as was the case in The Black Wind’s Whispers and Marching Time, but by setting. All the exotic far worlds depicted in the stories this year all takes place within the same universe, but otherwise could not be more different. We wanted to see our authors really go to town on creating whatever alien civilisation and story they wanted. No genres were off the table, from romance stories and comedies, to the more traditional speculative fiction and fantasy genres. Our only stipulations were that Earth could not be referenced, and that there were to be no shortcuts around the lightspeed barrier; if they wanted to leave their systems, it would be the long way round. Space is big, and we wanted it to feel big. Interstellar travel should feel like an almost insurmountable odyssey, not a long haul coach ride.

With such a vast canvas open to them, our authors have really delivered some great stories. Here are the main stories appearing in the anthology:

Anomaly, by Jonathan Ward
Rainer, by Heidi Ruby Miller
The Lost and Found, by Kerri Fitzgerald
Helzenthrax, by A. R. Aston
City Blue, by Edward Smith
Golden Planet, by Evan Purcell
A Pelnodan Bounty, by James Fadeley
Bequeathal, by K. Ceres Wright
Salvation Comes, by Simon Farrow
Endaris, by Michael J. Hollows
Alone, by Alex Helm
The War Room, by Michael Seese
Shard of Heaven, by Damir Salkovic
And finally, The Drift Engine.

In addition, a wealth of bonus flash fiction will be included to satiate your literary hunger. Overall, this will be the biggest, most jam-packed anthology yet, and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as we enjoyed writing it.

Thanks for reading!

[1] Real name James Fadeley to his friends, and the various bounty hunters on his trail…
[2] Lots of threes involved in this anthology it seems huh? Conspiracy theorists, feel free to go nuts!

Far Worlds will be released 25th March 2014, available at Amazon.com, in kindle and paperback format. For more information on the anthology and its authors, please visit our Facebook page, for author interviews, free goodies and art!

Writing Market News – February 7

Boothworld Industries Anthology

This is an interesting one. The Boothworld Industries Anthology is looking for stories with a shared premise of an evil corporation called Boothworld Industries participating in all manner of nefarious activities. Genre and setting are flexible, as it’s not a shared universe, just a shared premise. The one unifying idea is Boothworld Industries, but the implementation of that idea can change from story to story.

Deadline: July 1, 2014
Words: Any (1,500 – 7,500 recommended)
Pay: $20
Reprints: No

Boroughs of the Dead II

To be published by Myth Ink Books, Boroughs of the Dead follows on from the inaugural book in the series. Desired are horror and ghost stories set in New York City. Contemporary or historical are both acceptable for the setting, but the city must play a prominent part in shaping the story.

Deadline: February 28, 2014
Words: Under 3,500 (query up to 5,000)
Pay: $25
Reprints: Yes

Lock and Load: Both Barrels Vol. 3

Straying a little from the usual fare here, Both Barrels Vol. 3 will be an anthology of crime fiction published by One Eye Press. It’s nice to know up front that there are 25 openings for stories in this anthology. They are quite concise in what they are looking for:

“We’re looking for premium crime fiction from hard luck to whodoneits. We lean towards noir and the non-salvageable protagonist, but a good story is a good story.”

Deadline: May 11, 2014 (Do not submit before March 2)
Words: 1,500 – 4,500
Pay: $25
Reprints: Yes

Untitled Ares/Mars Anthology

Rounding out the lineup today as the non-paying market is a curious little collection being assembled by Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Intended to be a devotional anthology in honor of the gods Ares and Mars, the collection is looking for a wide range of material, including “prayers, rituals, hymns, essays, visual artwork, and short stories or plays.”

Deadline: August 1, 2014
Words: Unspecified
Pay: None
Reprints: Yes