Book Review: “Lords of Mars” by Graham McNeill

Lords of Mars, by Graham McNeill.

Lords of Mars, by Graham McNeill.

Forum moderator LordLucan brings us a review of Lords of Mars, by Graham McNeill.

Graham McNeil’s Lords of Mars, much like the preceding Priests of Mars, is a relatively slow book. Now, I know as an opening remark ‘slow’ doesn’t tend to bode well for the book about to be reviewed, but in this case I consider this far from a negative trait of this novel series. Too often, I think there is an unspoken compulsion with novels set in Warhammer 40,000 to keep up the pace as much as possible, like a breakneck roller coaster or a great big blockbuster action thriller.

“McNeill makes many wonderful asides throughout the novel; passing references to the deeper lore of the setting. These references are generally not related to the main plot, but show a deep love for the setting and a willingness to play around with knowing readers.”

 

Lords of Mars takes a much more leisurely approach to the overarching plot it is relating to the reader. Think of it more like an indulgent journey through the rich universe established by Games Workshop; a chance to take time to really see the Mechanicus in action at every level of its operation; from the lowly bondsmen to the ArchMagos, to whatever we’d class Telok and Galatea as. It is somewhat sedate, but when the scenery is so pleasant, the characters so rich, who wants to go too fast? If one wants to go on a sightseeing tour, you don’t take the bullet train.

Now, that is not to say the novel lacks for action. Indeed, there are several major battles that keep this novel firmly in the military science fiction genre. The action scenes are built up well, as the novel takes its time to set the scenes and ramp up the tension, before the sudden, frantic bursts of action erupt. There is no continuous rise towards a climax or crescendo, but more like multiple peaks of action occurring between the main focus of the series; the characters, and the lavishly detailed setting.

Tech Priests, from the art contained with Inquis Exterminatus.

Tech Priests, from the art contained with Inquis Exterminatus.

It is clear that McNeill delights in describing the outlandish and sublimely gargantuan alien vistas and structures the exploratory team encounters. McNeill effectively communicates the wonder and awe of the characters by invoking it in the reader. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than with the Speranza itself, the Ark of the Mechanicus and a true leviathan of a vessel.

Too often, science fiction writers are very blasé about the vast scales of their ships; bandying around terms like ‘multi-kilometre’ and ‘miles-long’ as if these terms are to be taken for granted.

But here, Speranza is a tremendous presence, a true floating industrial city, with vast regions where characters can simply vanish, where titan’s can be billeted like infantry, where worlds can be built within worlds, and where its gravity influences other vessels. Unfortunately, there isn’t as much detail on Speranza’s cognition this novel, but I fully expect the third book to remedy that.

“It is interesting that McNeill delves into the minds of these figures, and while superficially their thought processes seem inhuman, their underlying emotions remain very much in evidence, despite their efforts to quash emotion.”

 

McNeill makes many wonderful asides throughout the novel; passing references to the deeper lore of the setting. These references are generally not related to the main plot, but show a deep love for the setting and a willingness to play around with knowing readers. For instance, there is a sly reference to the ‘face of Mars’ which I won’t spoil, along with a great flashback to a period of Warhammer 40,000’s history we seldom get to see. As I said in the beginning, it is scenery and tangents, but they are pleasant and in no way detract from the overall effectiveness of the work.

The tech priests of the novel are delightfully strange and outlandish; most of them are ungainly chimeras of technology and biological matter, sculpted and fashioned into truly bizarre forms. It is interesting that McNeill delves into the minds of these figures, and while superficially their thought processes seem inhuman, their underlying emotions remain very much in evidence, despite their efforts to quash emotion. Kotov is an idealist and excitable, Braylock is ambitious, the two bridge tech priests (with two of the most fantastically unpronounceable names I’ve encountered for a while) act like bickering old men. But it is the Tychon family which provides the emotional heart of the Mechanicus characters, and their precise relationship is nicely developed through this novel.

A standard Enginseer, available at Games Workshop.

A standard Enginseer, available at Games Workshop.

Surcouf and the crew of the Renard prove to be an excellent foil for the bizarre and oft times deranged, Mechanicus characters. They are arguably the most grounded and ‘modern’ of the protagonist factions.

For outsiders to Warhammer 40000, they are the perfect reader identification characters, and I can see why McNeill uses them in the opening chapter first. They are funny and ready with quips and in-jokes at any opportunity; reminiscent of Firefly in many ways.

That said, I also enjoyed the bondsmen storyline and its mounting importance. It is not very often you get to see the mundane, unremarkable characters in 40K rise up from anonymity. Abrehem Locke and the gang are not the outlandish, larger than life heroes flooding the tabletop game setting of 40K; they are fallible and, individually, weak.

Their fortunes change during the novel however, as Locke challenges the infamously ‘grimdark’ status quo of this setting. It is good to see the perspective of the lowest rung of 40K society. However, I feel Locke’s everyman stance is marred by his implants and the ‘chosen by destiny’ plot line McNeill seems to be setting him up for. Julius Hawke, in my opinion, is a far better candidate for the everyman of 40K. He’s not particularly heroic, except when forced into it, he has a dark sense of gallows humour. He is selfish, but is no villain, and even his most heroic acts will never, ever be acknowledged by the powers that be. Julius Hawke is essentially the perfect representation of the majority of the lowly humans of 40K.

“My main gripe is one of structure rather than content. Lords of Mars feels like a middle segment of a continuum, rather than distinct fully formed novel in its own right.”

 

I often feel the Cadians are underused in these novels, but what little we see of them is always entertaining; their casual professionalism and easy humour makes them very endearing.

The Black Templars, on the other hand, I feel aren’t really necessary. They are often used by McNeill to initiate and drive the actions scenes, but otherwise, I don’t find them particularly compelling as characters. We have seen this all before in countless Black Library novels; the intensely honourable warrior monks, constantly introspective and ruminating upon courage and brotherhood.

From the cover of Priests of Mars, the first installment.

From the cover of Priests of Mars, the first installment.

Space marines always seem to draw attention to them, and I feel this is wrong here, as this is the Mechanicus’ time to shine. McNeill tries to spice up their storyline with more prophecy and future visions, but it is a wasted effort to me. I would have ditched the Space Marines in favour of more scenes with the Cadians. The novel does not need space marines present.

As for the antagonists, they are quite underwhelming and underused. The main antagonists have little explanation, and little to no character. The secondary antagonists get virtually nothing to do in this novel until the very end, other than menacing throwaway tertiary characters. Both these issues may be remedied in the next novel, but frankly after three hundred and fourteen pages, I don’t think it was expecting too much for McNeill to do something in this novel. In fact, this criticism ties into my only real, major issue with the book.

My main gripe is one of structure rather than content. Lords of Mars feels like a middle segment of a continuum, rather than distinct fully formed novel in its own right. It is obvious that this Adeptus Mechanicus series was conceived as a trilogy from the beginning. This is three volumes within a singular, huge novel, and I don’t appreciate it being divided over three releases.

The endings of each novel don’t seem like conclusions or climaxes in themselves, but as yawning cliffs, where the novels abruptly stop. It makes me want to read on of course, but in the most infuriating fashion. Though on reflection, this criticism is not quite the stinging barb I suggested it is; ‘This McNeill is so terrible; he makes me really want to read the next book… the monster!’

So overall, this is a slow, indulgent novel, which examines events, locations and characters with pleasing and exacting detail. Much like the Mechanicus Explorers themselves…

Follow the Bolthole at @BLBolthole. Graham McNeill can be followed @GrahamMcNeill.

Interview with Chris Wraight

He’s written about the Iron Hands, the Space Wolves and the White Scars. Is it because he’s a nice guy that he writes about the meanest bastards in Warhammer 40k so well? Who knows! But Chris Wraight has spared some time to speak to the Bolthole.

Not pictured: The pile of slain foes that are Chris Wraight's seat.

Not pictured: The pile of slain foes that are Chris Wraight’s seat. Or the happy, not-a-seat fan he just met.

He2etic: What is the writing process like for you? If you were to describe the process in what word, what would it be?

Chris: One word: difficult. More words: It varies tremendously. I tried to make a commitment not to write weekends and evenings, which sometimes works but tends to fall over when a book is due in. On good days it’s a fantastic way to make a living: creative, exciting and challenging. On bad days it’s just very hard work.

The internet is both a blessing and a curse, of course. I’m always very touched when people get in touch to say they’ve enjoyed something; equally, it’s very easy to find people who hated it. My favourite part of the writer-thing is probably the live events, particularly the Weekenders. Real people is what it’s all about. To chat to someone who enjoyed a book is both a buzz and a privilege.

He2etic: What kind of music and musicians do you think best exemplify the Warhammer and Warhammer 40k universes?

Chris: When I’m writing I normally listen to film scores, partly because I’ve always liked them (ever since Danny Elfman’s music for Burton-era Batman), and partly because I think a good BL book ought to be fairly cinematic: the job of the books in some ways as giving Warhammer the big-screen treatment on the page, and a score gets me into the head-space for that. Hans Zimmer would definitely be the composer for a 40K movie, and that strikes me as no bad thing.

“Real people is what it’s all about. To chat to someone who enjoyed a book is both a buzz and a privilege.”

 

He2etic: How do you approach character development? Do you prefer to see how the character evolves as you go, or do you put more planning into it beforehand?

Scars (episode 1), by Chris Wraight.

Scars (episode 1), by Chris Wraight.

Chris: Most of the characters are fairly well planned out in advance, especially so when taking on established canon creatures like Bjorn or Schwarzhelm.

People have (rightly) high expectations that BL versions of the Codex characters will stay faithful, and while you can’t please everyone it’s important to at least try to produce something recognisable.

Secondary characters, in my experience, tend to change more during the writing process. The Blood Claws in Battle of the Fang weren’t even in the synopsis, so their stories evolved along with the fighting.

In my most recent book, Master of Dragons, there’s a minor character whose role changed several times as I was writing, ultimately in a way that I ended up liking very much. You’re constantly making decisions as things go along, which is one of the pleasures of story-telling.

He2etic: Were there any particular pieces of fiction that inspired you when writing of the Iron Hands?

Chris: Fiction? Not that I can think of. The imagery for the Hands came more from films, I think. Terminator was in my head quite a lot, and I had James Horner’s score for Aliens on loop when writing the hive-scenes.

Wrath of Iron, by Chris Wraight.

Wrath of Iron, by Chris Wraight.

He2etic: You’ve written books set in both Warhammer universes. Do you find yourself preferring one universe more than the other in anyway?

Chris: I find writing Fantasy comes a little easier, if I’m honest. I think that’s partly due to the fictional world being rooted in a historical real one, at least to some extent. In books like Iron Company, for example, it was fun to think about how real blackpowder weapons functioned, and then translate that to the fantasy environment.

The human characters in Fantasy are also recognisably placed in a pseudo-historical setting – early modern Germany (or Medieval France, etc.). They have similar, albeit altered, concerns to people in real-world settings, so there’s something to latch on to there.

40K is different. It’s such a vast and extreme backdrop that the leap of imagination needs to be bigger. I find Space Marines very difficult to characterise, as well as the general sense of colossal, mind-bending carnage that’s taking place all the time.

I don’t think I’ve ever got it quite right, though it’s always fun having a try. One day I’d love to try something non-Space Marine-centric in the 40K field, like an Inquisitor novel or an Imperial Navy saga, though the audience for such a thing might be… small.

“Stepping up to doing it professionally makes things a bit different – it’s no longer an indulgent business of doing it when you fancy it or when inspiration strikes – it’s a day job, and you need to get words on the page at a pretty consistent rate.”

 

He2etic: If you could cast anyone to play the roles of main characters in your work, who would you pick?

Sword of Vengeance, by Chris Wraight.

Sword of Vengeance, by Chris Wraight.

Chris: The best suggestion I ever had was for Sean Connery to play the Khan. To see the full majesty of this idea, just Google ‘Zardoz‘.

He2etic: Do you have any long term projects for writing? For example, do you intend to someday spin your own franchise or complete a long novel series?

Chris: Right now I’m concentrating wholly on BL stuff and have lots of ideas for stuff in that setting. Despite writing a handful of novels in both worlds, there’s so much to learn and it’s still very much work in progress. I’m lucky enough to have been given the chance to write some Heresy material recently, and that’s a whole new landscape to get immersed in and try to understand.

Both Warhammer franchises are such huge worlds that there’s still loads I’d love to have a crack at. My ultimate wishlist would be (for 40K) a trilogy on the fall of Iyanden, and (for Fantasy) the Great War against Chaos. I can dream, I guess 🙂

He2etic: Who are your favourite characters amongst both those you’ve written, and by other authors?

Chris: In terms of stuff I’ve done, I’m probably fondest of the Fantasy characters: Magnus Ironblood, Pieter Verstohlen, more recently Imladrik in the War of Vengeance series. In 40K/Heresy stuff, I loved writing for the White Scars and like Shiban very much, as well as Targutai Yesugei (who’s really Graham’s character, but he very nicely let me continue his story).

As regards other BL authors, the primarchs are the most compelling for me, Russ in Prospero Burns and Magnus in A Thousand Sons being particularly memorable and nicely drawn.

“You can’t write about the world, even in a fantasy sense, without having lived in it. Get out of the house, meet people, travel, experience new things – you can only tell stories if you have them.”

 

He2etic: Are there any books, movies, television series or even games that you think are mandatory viewing for struggling writers?

I liked Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip for that, and of course there’s The Shining (all work and no play, and all that). In terms of sheer story-telling perfection, you can’t go wrong with a good Pixar film. The Incredibles was wonderful – funny and clever, Up was heartbreaking. Jim Swallow told me once that every up and coming writer should watch and study the original Die Hard to see how to construct a tight, smart three-act action story. I did, and he’s right.

Blood of Asaheim, by Chris Wraight.

Blood of Asaheim, by Chris Wraight.

He2etic: Any advice for new authors?

Chris: I get asked this from time to time, and never really know what to say. That’s not because of being precious or protective, just because, like a lot of authors, I’m not entirely sure how I stumbled into this thing, have very little idea how I’m still here, and no clue at all how long it will last.

Neil Gaiman talks about the Imposter Syndrome, and he’s quite right. However, in the interests of saying something rather than nothing, I have two thoughts:

1. Read your favourite books again and find out how they do what they do. Good writing, to an extent, can be learned.

2. You can’t write about the world, even in a fantasy sense, without having lived in it. Get out of the house, meet people, travel, experience new things – you can only tell stories if you have them.

He2etic: Have you always written? Was it something that came with time?

Chris: I’ve always wanted to write, and have done so on and off since being at school. Stepping up to doing it professionally makes things a bit different – it’s no longer an indulgent business of doing it when you fancy it or when inspiration strikes – it’s a day job, and you need to get words on the page at a pretty consistent rate. Like all writers, I’ve been learning on the way – making mistakes, screwing up, occasionally getting the odd thing right.

Sword of Justice, by Chris Wraight.

Sword of Justice, by Chris Wraight.

Writing in a shared world brings its own challenges. You’d like to think that you can being original ideas into the setting, things that strike you as being cool or interesting, but you’ve always got to be careful not to step outside the mythos or mangle it into something else. We get a lot of help from the editors with this, of course, but in the final analysis it’s our name on the cover. All fun, though frequently terrifying.

He2etic: What does a typical writing day look like for you?

Chris: I try to keep something like normal working hours. That means starting the morning around 8 or 9, breaking for lunch, writing a bit more in the afternoon and then stopping around 6 or 7pm.

The rules are designed to prevent insanity setting in and total desocialisation, but they tend to get waived when a book’s due in or there’s too much on.

This year’s been very busy, as it turns out. That’s great for a freelancer, but I reckon I’ll need a break once the current book (Stormcaller) is delivered. There are only so many seven-day weeks you can pull before everything starts to look a little hazy…

He2etic: When it comes to reading, do you have any guilty pleasures? Stuff you know is trash but read anyway?

Chris: No, not really. My reading’s been pretty good over the last few months, and I’ve been enjoying the things I’ve picked out. Movies and TV, on the other hand, are a different matter. I have a strange liking for Columbo. And Bullseye. Go figure.

Thanks again to Chris Wraight for his time! Tune in next week for another interview on The Bolthole.

Interview with Joe Parrino

Joe Parrino, one of the Black Library’s newest authors, lets us pick his brain non-Hannibal style. We spoke to him about the writing process and he had a fair bit to say.

Lord and Commander of the Chickens, Joe Parrino.

Lord and Commander of the Chickens, Joe Parrino.

He2etic: What is the writing process like for you? If you were to describe the process in one word, what would it be?

Joe: Systematic.

I struggled a long time with answering this question, and then, like a bolt from the heavens above, it hit me. Systematic. I write in a linear fashion. I start at the beginning and chip away at something until it is written.

Then I comb through it, making changes both minor and major until it resembles something I am happy with. Very rarely do I jump about and write later sections before I’ve laid the groundwork.

That said, I do get flashes of words, often bits of dialogue or character descriptions that fly in at random moments. A prime example of this would be the prophecy scenes in Nightspear, but those are the exception and not the rule.

He2etic:  Who are your favourite characters amongst both those you’ve written, and by other authors?

Joe: My favourite characters tend to be ones who wind up being rather minor in the story. Amonther Numeriel is one. I spent a long time thinking about his backstory. In my characters, I’m attracted a lot to tragedy. How much more tragic a backstory can you get with a survivor of Iyanden’s doom who thinks he’s failed his family?

“Places like Antietam and Gettysburg, Spotsylvania and Fredericksburg, held a mystique and influence over me. It instilled a love for history in me that I have never shaken.”

 

Prestoff is a favourite character of mine for an entirely different reason. I realised, on the train down to Nottingham for the Horus Heresy Weekender, just how much of me was in that character. His journey mirrored my own. I had just moved to the United Kingdom when I began writing that story and a lot of that uncertainty made its way into his character. Obviously our journeys diverge a bit.

He2etic: Speaking of characters… Going from writing about the Tau to the Grey Knights is a pretty drastic change in the philosophy of your characters. Aside from the codexes, what other sources did you draw inspiration from for your tales?

Witness, by Joe Parrino.

Witness, by Joe Parrino.

Joe: I grew up in Maryland and, about once a month, my dad would take me to the local battlefields of the American Civil War. Places like Antietam and Gettysburg, Spotsylvania and Fredericksburg, held a mystique and influence over me. It instilled a love for history in me that I have never shaken.

This is what first brought me to 40k, that sense of future history that is very much inspired by the past of our own world.

In writing Witness I actually drew a lot of inspiration from that childhood experience and what I was going through at the time. The American Civil War has always fascinated me and the Brindleweld are modeled very much after the armies of the period.

There’s even an explicit reference to this. There is just something about the long marching lines, the drums and fifes and the streaming flags has always resonated with me and this was distilled into the Brindleweld Ninth Division.

“I also watch HBO miniseries, period dramas, etc. I can’t really put my finger on specific works that inspire my writing… Generally, it is more a means of me absorbing the information and my subconscious synthesising it into useable material without my explicit attention.”

 

I spent a long time thinking about the Brindleweld regimental culture and what it would mean for the humble Guardsmen to encounter a Space Marine, let alone a Grey Knight. I wanted to bring across the religious rapture that would surely occur when encountering the very proof that the God-Emperor exists.

The Patient Hunter, by Joe Parrino.

The Patient Hunter, by Joe Parrino.

The influence for the tau came from a bit more esoteric place. At the time I was studying a lot of political theory and I spent a long time considering what tau political structures would work like. I found myself asking questions like ‘Do the tau believe in private property?’ and ‘What would the appeal of the tau be to the unwashed masses of the Imperium?’

Due to the constraints of such a short story the questions weren’t fully able to be explored, but they linger beneath the surface. As someone who has always had a keen interest in languages, I sat for a long time with the Lexicanum article on the tau lexicon and tried to immerse myself in their language. This led to the heavy use of tau words and concepts when we get into Vre’valel’s perspective.

For Nightspear, I tried to tackle the story in another direction and explore a different style. I wanted to delve into the eldar method of storytelling and veer the writing to mirror the non-human perspective and thought process. I looked at oral storytelling and how that functioned. Because I lived in Scotland, I also took inspiration from Scottish myths and legends. This is especially prevalent in the naming conventions for the eldar.

He2etic: Thus far, you’ve written 40k exclusively. Have you given much thought to Warhammer fantasy tales at all? If you could, what would you like to write about in the Fantasy universe?

No Worse Sin, by Joe Parrino.

No Worse Sin, by Joe Parrino.

Joe: Warhammer fantasy was actually my introduction to the GW IP.

Way back when, in the misted hazes of my youth, it was Trollslayer by William King that first caught my eye and started me down the path. Once upon a time I even started collecting and painting Fantasy armies (Dwarfs, Tomb Kings and Wood Elves). Very shoddily, I might add, but they still sit enshrined on a shelf in my house.

Since then, my tastes have been inclined towards 40K, but I haven’t forgotten my roots. I still pick up the odd book or three from the Fantasy side of things, especially if it has dwarfs in it. I was a huge fan of Stephen Savile’s Von Carstein trilogy.

The Vampire Counts have snagged upon something in my psyche (despite being a complete pansy about zombies) and I would love to write something involving them.

He2etic: Are there any dream characters or settings you want to write about? Such as in other franchises?

I would sacrifice my left eye to be given a chance to write about the Alpha Legion. I find them absolutely fascinating and would love to get a chance to delve into the XX Legion. The Inquisition is another area I would like to explore.

In terms of other franchises, there aren’t too many that I actually follow. I tend to read universes spawned by specific authors (typically fantasy ones) rather than other franchises. Growing up, I used to be a huge Forgotten Realms nerd, but that was replaced by Warhammer Fantasy and 40,000.

Maybe, given half a chance, I’d love to do something in Joe Abercrombie’s fictional setting, but I’m much too enamoured with his own take on it to slice off a bit for myself.

“I have recently started plotting, planning and writing a novel of my own devising in the aforementioned world loosely inspired by the Jacobite Rebellions of the 18th Century.”

 

I’m in the midst of planning, plotting and writing a fantasy novel loosely inspired by the Jacobite Rebellions of the Eighteenth Century. So obviously I would like to write something set there.

He2etic: We’ve asked other authors before what kind of music they listen to while writing and the answer is frequently “lyric-less soundtrack” type answers, so we’re spicing it up. What composers do you think best capture the tone of the Warhammer 40k universe? And of course, what do you prefer to listen to while writing?

Joe: When writing or planning I tend to listen to a lot of Hans Zimmer. His work conjures a sense of movement and excitement for me. Building from very slow parts to fast sweeping pieces, his work conjures a narrative of his own. Its much too light hearted in my mind, though, to perfectly encapsulate the grim darkness of Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40,000. It does make for great pieces of music to write to.

For composers that capture the Imperium I would fall back to Strauss II. His waltzes are what an Imperial citizen (provided they had the wealth and status) would relax to.

The Brindleweld would listen to a variation on the music their real world counterparts once enjoyed. They’d kick back around a campfire and in their parlours and listen to fiddles, banjos, pianos and reminisce of the glory of war and the melancholic hope to return home.

Eldar music, in my mind, exists on several different planes at once. I think it’d be something that conveys emotion in a much better way than modern human music does, conveys images psychically and is heartbreakingly beautiful to listen to.

Nightspear, by Joe Parrino.

Nightspear, by Joe Parrino.

I’ve got a strange habit when it comes to music. I’ll often find and fixate on one track or one album and that will usually last a week or more. Then I jump off to something else that catches my ear. I do return to albums, but usually after a few months, when I happily rediscover them lurking in my library. The cycle then repeats.

He2etic: If you could cast anyone to play the roles of main characters in your work, who would you pick?

Joe: I don’t really visualise actors in the roles of my characters as I write. This question threw me for a bit of a loop.

Russell Crowe and Mark Strong immediately spring to mind. Mr. Crowe looks perfect for some upcoming Space Marines of mine while Mark Strong’s voice is perfect for any Son of the Imperium.

He2etic: Do you have any long term projects for writing? For example, do you intend to someday spin your own franchise or complete a long novel series?

Joe: I have recently started plotting, planning and writing a novel of my own devising in the aforementioned world loosely inspired by the Jacobite Rebellions of the 18th Century. Not content to just use one aspect of history, I’m also lifting inspiration from the American Civil War and the American War for Independence. Basically, the novel and the series that may some day follow, are my love letter to the parts of history I have always been obsessed with. Hopefully, between projects for the Black Library, this series will take more shape and emerge onto bookshelves at some point in the distant future.

He2etic: Are there any novels you would consider required reading? Are there any movies or television series that inspire your work?

Joe: There are several authors that I always recommend to friends when they say they want to get into Fantasy or Science Fiction. Joe Abercrombie and George RR Martin always top the list.

In terms of TV, I watch a lot of historical documentaries and tend to derive a lot of inspiration from them. I also watch HBO miniseries, period dramas, etc. I can’t really put my finger on specific works that inspire my writing (outside of a few documentaries like the Civil War). Generally, it is more a means of me absorbing the information and my subconscious synthesising it into useable material without my explicit attention. Sometimes I will get inspired by a particular phrase of snippet of sound that I hear on TV or in a movie, but those are rare moments.

Big shout out to Joe Parrino for his time today! You can follow him @jtparrino

Follow the @BLBolthole on Twitter for updates, articles and more. This blog’s art was crafted by Manuel Mesones, and you can check out his portfolio.

Interview with Nathan Long

Nathan Long takes a few minutes to tell us about what it’s like being a writer. A veteran screenwriter of 15 years before becoming an author, Nathan has a fair bit of thought to share with us today.

Character-craft Master Nathan Long.

Character-craft Master Nathan Long.

He2etic: What is the writing process like for you? If you were to describe the process in what word, what would it be?

Nathan: Wait, is that two questions or one? Uh, my one word answer would be, “Structured.” By which I mean, I build a structure for each story before I write it. I almost never “wing it.”

He2etic: What kind of music do you listen to while you write?

Nathan: Mostly soundtracks, Conan, Lord of the Rings, etc. But I try to match the music to the subject matter I’m writing, so if it’s something science-fictiony I might write to trance or electronica.

“I tend to come up with plot ideas before I come up with the characters to put in them, so my character creation is strongly influenced by the role the character needs to fill.”

 

He2etic: Who are your favorite characters amongst both those you’ve written, and by other authors?

Nathan: Favorite characters by other people: Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser by Fritz Leiber, and Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser. Favorite characters by me: uh, it’s really hard to choose. I like them all because they all give me the opportunity to write in different voices and explore different aspects of my psychosis… er, I mean personality.

He2etic: What are your strongest influences when it comes to character creation?

Jane Carver of Waar, by Nathan Long

Jane Carver of Waar, by Nathan Long

Nathan: I tend to come up with plot ideas before I come up with the characters to put in them, so my character creation is strongly influenced by the role the character needs to fill.

For instance, with The Blackhearts, I didn’t come up with Reiner first, then build the story around him, I came up with the idea of “The Dirty Dozen in the world of Warhammer” and then sat around thinking about what kind of person would lead such a group.

He2etic: Are there any dream characters or settings you want to write about? Not just those in the Warhammer universes, but in other franchises or even of your own make?

Nathan: I have plenty of my own characters that I am dying to bring to the public’s attention, but, yes, there are a few established characters I would love to write. Top of the list would be Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and in fact I actually wrote an F+GM fan fic, which you can find on the ‘Free Stories’ page of my blog.

Others would include Solomon Kane, Catwoman, the Creeper, the Aliens franchise, the Bordertown series, Buckaroo Banzai, and I’ve always wanted to adapt a kids story called the Weathermonger into a movie, though I think the BBC might have beat me to it.

“I would say screenplays require tighter, simpler plots than novels, and a focus on a fewer number of characters.”

 

He2etic: What are your favorite drinks, both alcoholic and not? Do you occasionally partake while writing?

Nathan: I don’t drink alcohol, but I drink absolutely gallons of tea when I write. My favorite is oolong tea. It is the nectar of the gods.

Bloodborn, by Nathan Long

Bloodborn, by Nathan Long

He2etic: If you could cast anyone to play the roles of main characters in your work, who would you pick?

Nathan: Hmmm. Good question, but I’m really bad at this. Lets see…

Ulrika – Tilda Swinton (Well, she’s a bit old for the part, but someone like Tilda Swinton, only 20.)
Reiner – Tom Hiddleston (The guy who played Loki.)
Jane Carver – Sadly, there are no actresses I know who look like I imagine Jane looking.

He2etic: Do you have any long term projects for writing? For example, do you intend to someday spin your own franchise or complete a long novel series?

Nathan: Yes. Jane Carver was planned as a four book series. I have no idea if the last two will ever be written, but I would like to. I also have a few other novel ideas that could easily become series, and right at the moment I’m getting set to announce an on-line comic that I’m writing, which I hope will go on for a very long time. I can’t tell you anything more about it yet, but there will be an announcement in the next few months.

He2etic: Are there any novels you would consider required reading?

Blackhearts the Omnibus, by Nathan Long

Blackhearts the Omnibus, by Nathan Long

Nathan: As follows…

The Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series by Fritz Leiber
The Flashman Papers series by George MacDonald Frazer
The Sea Hawk and Captain Blood by Raphael Sabatini
The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
House of Stairs by William Sleater
The Bordertown Series by Terri Windling and others
The Jeeves series by P.G. Wodehouse
Last Call and The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers

…I could go on…

He2etic: What advice do you have for anyone trying to make the transition from novel and short story writing to screenplay writing?

Nathan: Hmmm. I can’t really answer that question, since I went entirely the other way. I started as a screenwriter and became a novelist. I would say screenplays require tighter, simpler plots than novels, and a focus on a fewer number of characters. A screenplay is usually about one or two heroes doing something in a fairly short period of time. A novel can be about generations of heroes and take place over centuries.

“I really enjoy telling the smaller, more self contained stories that fall between the cracks of the big momentous things…”

 

He2etic: What’s your favourite part of writing a story?

Nathan: Hmmm. I like all of it, for various reasons, but I guess my favorite parts are the initial plotting phase, where I work out the ending, and all the little twists along the way, and then the polishing part at the end, where I fine-tune everything and add the last details.

He2etic: What is it that draws you to the Warhammer universe? Is there anything it permits you to do that you can’t find anywhere else?

Gotrek and Felix: The Fourth Omnibus, by Nathan Long

Gotrek and Felix: The Fourth Omnibus, by Nathan Long

Nathan: I like that the world is already built, and that it is so clearly defined. World building is fun for me, but coming to a world which already has a well-documented history and established rules makes creating stories in it almost like creating stories set in the real world. You look at the history, see the stories that have already been told about it, then try to find some place or some event or some time that nobody’s touched yet.

I really enjoy telling the smaller, more self contained stories that fall between the cracks of the big momentous things that the history books (or the army books) tell us about, and the richness and depth of the Warhammer background allowed me to do that.

He2etic: And the least favourite part of writing?

Nathan: The first draft is often a slog. Some scenes I love writing, and I breeze right through them, giggling to myself along the way. Others, particularly descriptive passages and stuff where people are traveling, are a grind, and I try to get them over with as soon as possible. My writing tends to be a little light on that stuff, and now you know why.

He2etic: What does a typical writing day look like for you?

Gotrek and Felix: The Third Omnibus, by Nathan Long

Gotrek and Felix: The Third Omnibus, by Nathan Long

Nathan: Hmmm. Up at 8:30. Have breakfast and noodle around on the internet until 10. Write until 12:00. Have lunch. Write until 3. Have a half hour nap. (Yep, sorry, I’m old.) Write until 6 or 6:30. So basically six hours of writing time. But if I’m on a deadline I’ll often work until I reach a certain word count, no matter how long it takes. Sometimes 3000 words have taken me until 11:00 at night.

He2etic: Finally, do you have any guilty pleasures when it comes to reading? Stuff you know is utter trash, but you love reading anyway?

Nathan: I don’t read as much as I used to, so I am more selective now when I do read, so less trash these days. But back in the day I burned through Pier’s Anthony’s Xanth books and the Saga of the Exiles books by Julian May.

Neither of those series were trash, exactly, but definitely popcorn books.

Follow the @BLBolthole on Twitter for updates, articles and more. This blog’s art was crafted by Manuel Mesones, and you can check out his portfolio.

 

Interview with Darius Hinks

When not strumming away at his guitar, Darius Hinks spends his time crafting novels for the Black Library. With his new book Orion: Tears of Isha about to be released, Hinks found some time to speak with us about it, and remind us that it often takes a character to craft a character.

He2etic: What is it that draws you to Warhammer over Warhammer 40k? What are your favourite things about the two universes?

Man of wonder, Darius Hinks.

Man of wonder, Darius Hinks.

Darius: Well, I live in Nottingham, so I have hands-on experience of a grimy, plague-ridden, semi-feudal society. That’s probably part of it.

The other thing that draws me in is the endless stream of lunatic heroes that spew out of GW’s design studio. The Warhammer universe is like some kind of weird cake stand, stacked with bizarre, gaudy characters. And they’re all just waiting for someone to pick them up and drop them into a novel.

I don’t really have a preference between the two settings. I look out for the characters I think no one else would tackle and see if I can fit them into a narrative. It’s just worked out that they’ve mostly been in the Warhammer setting.

He2etic: What do you think about the artwork for your novels?

Darius: The covers have all been spot on, but Sigvald in particular is just as I imagined him. If you peer closely at his expression it’s quite unnerving. He’s got such a dangerous gleam in his eye. It’s clear he’s about to do something entirely inappropriate. The artist was a chap called Cheoljoo Lee and I think he’s reet clever.

“It’s a long-held ambition of mine to write something this epic and it’s great to be on the home stretch and see all the threads coming together.”

 

He2etic: What hobbies do you enjoy? And what armies are your favourite?

Darius: I recently ‘painted’ some ogres, but I used orange and they now look like really angry fruit. My main hobbies are reading and trying to make music. I just rattled through Neil Gaiman’s latest children’s book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and I thought it was brilliant and terrifying. He’s great at describing parents from hell. There’s a good kitten in it too.

He2etic: What is the writing process like for you? If you were to describe the process in what word, what would it be?

Orion: Tears of Isha, by Darius Hinks

Orion: Tears of Isha, by Darius Hinks

Darius: I’ve always been annoyed by authors who whinge about writing. It’s hardly the coal face, is it? At the moment, though, I’d have to describe the process as ‘challenging’.

I’m on book three of the Orion trilogy and I’ve left myself more far loose ends than I know what to do with. It’s like the literary equivalent of Twister and if I don’t finish it soon I’m going to sprain something.  (I might ask JK Rowling to write it for me under a pseudonym.)

But it’s still great fun. It’s a long-held ambition of mine to write something this epic and it’s great to be on the home stretch and see all the threads coming together.

After Orion, I’m planning on cleansing my palette with something non-GW and then, if they’ll have me back, working on some smaller Warhammer books that require less mental wrestling.

He2etic: What kind of music do you listen to? Is it important that you listen to music while you write?

Darius: I used to listen to all sorts of music when writing, but for the Orion books it’s mainly been classical. It’s the usual suspects  – Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven etc. I tried listening to The Rite of Spring (seemed appropriate) but my cats kept rioting.

When not writing, I mainly listen to slacker indie guitar bands led by singers who can’t hold a note. I hate singers who can actually sing. Apart from Chan Marshall of Cat Power. Her voice is so perfect that I can forgive her for occasionally being in tune.

“I do find it vaguely unnerving when I read back through some of the really bloodthirsty stuff I’ve written. Some sections of Tears of Isha are so vile I had to skip over them when checking the proofs.”

 

He2etic: Can you tell us more of how the Warhammer Hero novel Sigvald came to be?

Darius: I couldn’t quite believe that no one else had snapped him up. He was such a gift. Only a few paragraphs of information existed about him, but it was all gold: a deranged, all-powerful, hedonistic, vain, funny, tragic antihero – what more could an author ask for?

He2etic: How do you write such gritty and realistic action scenes?

Darius: As I said, I live in Nottingham. Ahem… Actually, I’m not sure. I grew up reading gruesome horror novels (Clive Barker, etc) so maybe that’s it.

Warrior Priest, by Darius Hinks

Warrior Priest, by Darius Hinks

I do find it vaguely unnerving when I read back through some of the really bloodthirsty stuff I’ve written. Some sections of Tears of Isha are so vile I had to skip over them when checking the proofs. I imagine I should seek some kind of person-centred therapy, but writing is cheaper.

He2etic: Do you have any long term projects for writing? For example, do you intend to someday spin your own franchise or complete a long novel series?

Darius: As I mentioned earlier, I’m working on an idea for a non-GW book. It’s fantasy, but not in the sword and sorcery sense and it won’t go beyond the synopsis stage until the final Orion book is finished (or my editor will kick my face off).

In terms of a series, there’s 40K character I’ve had my eye on for a while. I think he would be perfect for ongoing adventures, but it will depend on whether any other authors nab him before I get to him. I’m not going to mention his name as I’m hoping no one else has noticed how cool he is.

He2etic: Can you tell us more about your work for the Black Library?

Darius: I lose track of all the stuff I’ve written for BL over the years. I wrote a batch of short stories about ten years ago. There’s one I have quite fond memories of, called Calculus Logi.

The first book I wrote was called the Witch Hunter’s Handbook and the first novel was called Warrior Priest. I’ve written a few novellas and the Orion books are my first trilogy. I think I’ve written about seven or eight books but I might be making that up.

Sigvald, by Darius Hinks

Sigvald, by Darius Hinks

He2etic: Who are your favourite characters amongst both those you’ve written, and by other authors?

Darius: My favourite characters from my own books are a husband and wife duo called Jonas and Isolde. They inhabit a section of Warrior Priest that flowed through my fingertips so easily it was more like reading a novel than writing one. It’s the piece of writing I’m most proud of.

They’re villains, really, but I’ve always had a soft spot for them. I’d like to think that they’ll still be out there, entertaining mysterious guests at the Unknown House, long after I’m dead and gone.

Actually, I’d quite like to live with them, in their strange, musical, magic-filled rooms, with all the bears, weird instruments and piles of forbidden books.

My favourite character from a real book is Charles Arrowby from a novel called The Sea, The Sea. He’s a vile, arrogant antihero, but he’s hilarious. And it’s great fun watching him change from git to slightly less gitish git.

Thanks again to Darius Hinks for the interview! Follow the @BLBolthole on Twitter for updates, articles and more. This blog’s art was crafted by Manuel Mesones, and you can check out his portfolio.

Book Review: “Headtaker” by David Guymer

Headtaker, by David Guymer

Headtaker, by David Guymer

Today, forum moderator Ath brings us a review of Headtaker, by David Guymer.

The Skaven are well-established in Warhammer fiction, their first appearance dating back to the classic Skavenslayer stories in the early 1990s, and their portrayal has remained relatively consistent since then. They are a darkly comedic bunch, on the one hand horrifying monsters intent on devouring the world of men, but on the other, treacherous, arrogant and incompetent enough that their plans never quite fall into place and dissolve into bickering and finger-pointing. This can make them challenging to read, as the constant plots and backstabbing sometimes seem in danger of becoming predictable and repetitive, but when done well they are thoroughly enjoyable.

“Mr Guymer is not afraid of tackling some of the more common complaints about the Skaven head-on…”

 

Queek Headtaker, by Games Workshop Artist Mark Gibbons.

Queek Headtaker, by Games Workshop Artist Mark Gibbons.

As far as I’m aware, this novel is both David Guymer’s first full-length Warhammer fantasy story, and the first time Black Library have issued a Skaven-centric novel not written by either William King or C.L. Werner. The eponymous Queek Headtaker has been a special character on the Warhammer tabletop for some time, but, other than a brief cameo in a Thanquol novel, hasn’t really appeared in the fiction or background until now. This book therefore represents an opportunity to do something new and different with the Skaven, and largely succeeds in that goal, while remaining faithful and respectful of the precedent set by Messrs. King and Werner.

The plot revolves around an attempt by the Skaven to attack the Dwarf fortress of Karak Azul, a major manufacturing hold, to disrupt the Dwarf infrastructure. Meanwhile the Dwarfs of Karak Azul have plans of their own to punish the local orcs and goblins for a previous humiliation. The real focus of this book, though, as with most of the Warhammer Heroes line, is on the characters, rather than the plot itself.

Queek is an unconventional Skaven character. He has no interest in the usual politics that the Skaven preoccupy themselves with, nor does he display any real sense of self-preservation, enjoying a good scrap and preferring to fight in the front lines. It seems he has maintained his position through the favour of his clanlord, together with his personal ferocity and the loyalty of his lieutenant, who actually organises his army. He is widely believed mad, although it is hinted at various points that this might at least in part be an act designed to disorient political rivals. He makes a refreshing change from the Skaven as traditionally portrayed, while still remaining distinctively one of them.

“Most disappointingly, the Dwarf plot ends without a real resolution, which leaves the reader hanging.”

 

The main character, however, is not really Queek himself, but Sleek Sharpwit, an envoy of the ruling Skaven council sent to supervise Queek’s mission. Sharpwit is even more unconventional than Queek, an almost entirely original Skaven character. Mr Guymer is not afraid of tackling some of the more common complaints about the Skaven head-on; one memorable scene has Sharpwit lamenting Skaven short-sightedness where, following a collapsed tunnel, they would rather dig through it and trust to luck rather than take the time to clear it properly. Sharpwit is accompanied – and constantly hindered by – the more conventional Skaven Grey Seer Razzel, who resents his position of authority. I found Sharpwit’s efforts to manage Queek and Razzel and play one off against the other while retaining his own position to be some of the highlights of the novel.

We also see something of the Dwarf characters who stand in the way of the Skaven: Thordun, a young Dwarf from the human Empire who is seeking to make his fortune in the Dwarf lands, and Handrik, a Dwarf elder and friend to the king who is trying to make right a recent embarrassment.

“…the book does a great job of continuing the strong Warhammer Heroes novel line and is probably the best entry in that series for some time. It should appeal to existing Skaven fans as well as those who have struggled with previous portrayals…”

 

While the Dwarfs are generally realised well, Thordun’s story is one of the weaker plot threads, as the character and his human sidekicks seem to be used largely as a means of creating conflict among other characters and driving more interesting plot developments. Handrik is a strong and memorable character, though, displaying generosity of spirit combined with a badly injured pride and a stubborn melancholy.

If the book has a real weakness it is in its final act, where I found that the number of concurrent subplots and characters, and the cutting between them, made the story rather difficult to follow. Most disappointingly, the Dwarf plot ends without a real resolution, which leaves the reader hanging.

Queek Headtaker, model available at Games Workshop.

Queek Headtaker, model available at Games Workshop.

As always, I found it a little frustrating to have the possibility of real world development dangled during the course of the book; while the book doesn’t exactly return things to the status quo as is common with such Black Library novels, it still falls short of giving us anything in the way of progress. The Skaven characters have a more satisfactory conclusion.

Overall, the book does a great job of continuing the strong Warhammer Heroes novel line and is probably the best entry in that series for some time. It should appeal to existing Skaven fans as well as those who have struggled with previous portrayals, and should also be accessible as a standalone novel (although the absence of a map is not helpful in this regard). Throughout, Headtaker manages to remain faithful to the setting and background while at the same time is unafraid to attempt something more original, an effort which I thought was on the whole very successful.

Follow the Bolthole at @BLBolthole. David Guymer can be followed @WarlordGuymer.

Interview with Sarah Cawkwell

Author Sarah Cawkwell found some time in her crazy busy schedule to talk about the writing process.

Author. Mother. Secret hetwoman. Sarah Cawkwell.

Author. Mother. Secret hetwoman. Sarah Cawkwell.

He2etic: What is the writing process like for you? If you were to describe the process in one word, what would it be?

Sarah: One word… hmm. It’d be a toss-up between ‘exhilarating’, ‘frustrating’ and ‘fun’. Because it’s all three of these things at once.

For me, the writing process consists largely of finding time to do any at all around a full-time job and running a full-time family.

The life of the full-time writer is not mine, alas, and so I have to find those spare hours in a day that already could do with having twenty seven in it!

 

“Flaws. I like characters to have believable flaws. I can’t bear Perfect Heroes.”

 

He2etic: What kind of music do you listen to while you write?

Sarah: Anything without lyrics. Usually, I tune in and turn on to Streaming Soundtracks or listen to film music. If I listen to something with lyrics, I end up accidentally typing them in.

He2etic: Who are your favourite characters amongst both those you’ve written, and by other authors?

Sarah: I have quite a few favourite characters in literature in general. In my own stuff, the hapless hero Gilrain, from The Ballad of Gilrain in the Tales from the Nun and Dragon anthology published by Fox Spirit is probably at the top of the list. Correlan, the Techmarine from The Gildar Rift is also rather fun to write, being decidedly sarcastic.

The Gildar Rift, by Sarah Cawkwell

The Gildar Rift, by Sarah Cawkwell

I love Garro and James Swallow’s Garro audio dramas are utterly wonderful.

He2etic: What are your strongest influences when it comes to character creation?

Sarah: Flaws. I like characters to have believable flaws. I can’t bear Perfect Heroes. Where’s the scope for learning? Where’s the room for improvement?

I like to at least try to create characters people care about. Even if it’s just to say ‘I hate him. I hope he dies in a gory manner whilst people point and laugh.’

He2etic: Are there any dream characters or settings you want to write about? Not just those in the Warhammer universes, but in other franchises or even of your own make?

Sarah: Star Wars. I’d love to write something in the Star Wars EU. I’ve been a huge Star Wars fan since the age of about seven years old and it’s never quite gone away. I have written a few little stories in the Doctor Who universe as well.

“My advice is to read anything and everything, particularly if it requires you to step outside your usual genre comfort zone!”

 

He2etic: What are your favourite drinks, both alcoholic and not? Do you occasionally partake while writing?

Sarah: I’m not much of a one for alcohol. Generally if I go out anywhere, I drive, so I don’t drink at all. If I do, it’s usually wine of some description. (I prefer red over white, and for a change of pace, I *love* real ales).

Valkia the Bloody, by Sarah Cawkwell

Valkia the Bloody, by Sarah Cawkwell

He2etic: What is it about Warhammer and its 40k brother that you love the most?

Sarah: The hopelessness of it all. The lack of happy endings.

The background itself is so richly detailed and utterly enjoyable to work within that I frequently feel remarkably honoured to be allowed to build my tiny sandcastles in the Black Library sandbox.

He2etic: If you could cast anyone to play the roles of main characters in your work, who would you pick?

Sarah: Nobody. Absolutely nobody.

I really don’t like the idea of casting people from my books. Weird, perhaps? Yes. But I much, much prefer the pictures I have in my head as to how people look. There’s nothing worse than seeing a film adaptation of a book and going ‘but that’s not how xxxx looks in my head!’ It’d be so horribly disappointing.

He2etic: Do you have any long term projects for writing? For example, do you intend to someday spin your own franchise or complete a long novel series?

Sarah: I have a few ‘back burner’ projects going on in my own universes, but I only add to them when I have yet another half hour in my by-now thirty hour days.

He2etic: Are there any novels you would consider required reading?

Sarah: I have a few favourite books that I consider to have great re-read value. They are The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas (my favourite book of all time), The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon, Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins, American Gods by Neil Gaiman… actually, my advice is to read anything and everything, particularly if it requires you to step outside your usual genre comfort zone!

Tales of the Nun & Dragon, from Fox Spirit Books

Tales of the Nun & Dragon, from Fox Spirit Books

He2etic: Are you working on a new novel for the Black Library? More Silver Skulls perhaps?

Sarah: As ever, I’m not allowed to discuss Current Projects [tm]. Suffice it to say that something of a silver nature may be floating somewhere in the system…

He2etic: On writing Space Marines, what runs through your head when you have moments where a Marine interacts with a human? What defines the dynamic for you?

Sarah: Awe. Absolute, incredible awe. If it was me meeting a Space Marine, I’d be completely blown away by the majesty of them.

He2etic: Do you find yourself preferring to write in Warhammer or 40k more? And why? Or what aspects do you prefer about either universe from a writing standpoint?

Sarah: I have no real preference. As a long-time fantasy reader, I think that WHF gets a massively raw deal in terms of readership. There’s some pretty quality stuff in that universe, but it gets shoved aside in favour of the big lads.

Follow the @BLBolthole on Twitter for updates, articles and more. This blog’s art was crafted by Manuel Mesones, and you can check out his portfolio.