The Momentum Blog
The frozen wastes of the north and the deep dark woods have been a permanent fixture in the Western imagination, and filtered through fairy tales, folk legends and finally into the modern equivalent: the fantasy novel. Some writers go even further and bring in the frozen wastes of the south (notably Lev Grossman in his The Magicians). They are usually far away, alluded to time and again as unsafe harbours for humanity. Rarely, if ever, does a book seem to plonk itself right in the middle of them. And yet, there is magic in those fields of ice, a magic that weaves itself through a growing literature of fantasy set in Russia.
When I hear the word ‘magic’, I think automatically of Harry Potter and wands and awfully British wizards who eat porridge for breakfast. Rarely does my mind venture into the more ‘visceral’ and defensive magic illustrated in tales of the Golem of Prague, or even closer to home with the myth and legend of my own country, India. It seems strange that I, such a big fan of diversity in fantasy, never really thought of the rich lore presented by a strange country like Russia. As Eve pointed out in her post, this land has a crazy, storied past, and its myths and legends have steadily begun to filter into the larger reading world.
My first brush with Russian magic was in tales of Baba Yaga, the terrifying witch who lived in a house that moved on chicken legs, and flew in a mortar, wielding a pestle to great effect. She seemed crueler, less easy to defeat than the Grimm witches in their houses of confectionary. I met Baba Yaga again recently, considerably more modern but no less terrifying, in Bill Willingham’s Fables graphic novels, where she was spy for the powerful ‘Adversary’.
Baba Yaga is a great symbol of what Russian magic and fantasy are to me: dark, grim and, more than anything else, completely unfathomable. We’re talking about stories that have emerged from, or are set in, a staggeringly huge country, one that houses a range of peoples, speaking a plethora of languages. It’s a country with a very famously unsettling past, with tales of dictators and labour camps and bloody revolutions. It even has a famous lost princess, one who inspired her own animated musical.
You know that’s the definition of success.
The ‘unknowability’ and terror of the Russian landscape is figured forth beautifully in J.M. Sidorova’s historical fantasy The Age of Ice. The book is a chronicle of Russian history, from the mid-eighteenth century to the early twentieth, and charts the story of Prince Alexander Velitzyn. Alexander has a power over ice and snow: the cold does not touch him as it does other men. In fact, he can surrender his body to the ice, wander naked into a blurring blizzard, and emerge untouched. He does not know where this power comes from, and most of the book is comprised of his quest to find out.
Then there’s Leigh Bardugo’s The Grisha Trilogy , also set in a fantasised Russia. The first book, Shadow and Bone, deals with a literal darkness that has fallen over a part of the land. In this part of the empire, the sun never shines, and the cold and dark have bred monsters and horrors. Passage through it is fraught with danger, but unavoidable for the sake of trade and progress. And so the Grisha, the magic workers of this empire, must do what they can to stave off these dangers and, if possible, find a way to dispel the darkness for good.
With its vast forests and fields of ice, it’s no wonder that Russia has spawned the sort of nerve tingling, chilling stories that it has. Characters in these books seem grimmer than their English counterparts, more aware of the brutality of the world and the harsh trials of existence. Winter is always just around the corner, with its long nights and freezing snows, its wolves and witches with iron teeth. Even the gods of this land seem harsher, crueler, bent rather on sacrifice and a serving of blood before helping their human supplicants. Just ask Shadow from Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.
And yet, there is no denying the beauty of the Russian landscape and the magic it holds. While settings seem bleak, they allow the characters themselves to shine forth brighter, make their struggles even more heroic when set against this harsh backdrop. The woods seem darker and certainly larger, but that only heightens the your regard for the characters who venture into them, undaunted. The land and the elements might never be conquered, and the gods might harm more than help, but the characters of these stories persist in their appointed quests, escape the witch in the woods and survive the onslaught of winter.
Remember, it’s no mean feat to escape Baba Yaga. She’s got two modes of transport, besides her feet. Find me an ‘English’ or German witch who has that. Doesn’t that simple achievement make you love these Russian heroes and heroines already?
When a massive sinkhole opens up and swallows a retired couple from Iowa it seems like a freak occurrence. But it’s not the only one. Similar sinkholes are opening all over the world, even on the sea floor. And they’re getting bigger.
People living near the pits begin reporting strange phenomena—vibrations, sulfurous odors, and odd sounds in the stygian depths. Then the pets begin to go missing.
When people start disappearing as well, the government is forced to act. Professor Matt Kearns and a team of experts are sent in by the military to explore one of the sinkholes, and they discover far more than they bargained for.
From the war zones of the Syrian Desert to the fabled Library of Alexandria, and then to Hades itself, join Professor Matt Kearns as he attempts to unravel an age-old prophecy. The answers Matt seeks are hidden in the fabled Al Azif—known as the Book of the Dead—and he must find it, even if it kills him. Because time is running out, not just for Matt Kearns, but for all life on Earth.
Book of the Dead comes out on December 11 in all good ebook retailers!
Indulge me for a moment, my dear fellows, for of late I have been editing steampunk fiction. This is an undeniable pleasure as I revel in Dickensian English expression, and I have a penchant for flying machines and sky pirates.
Steampunk came to be in the glorious decade of the 1980s with an esoteric community of Victoriana-inspired science and fantasy fanaticists. It is oft characterised by a blending of Victorian styles and methods of invention with modern or fantastical science: steam-powered or clockwork everything. Steampunk has grown from a small cosplaying subculture into a popular literary genre and its imagery is pervading mainstream media.
Take Doctor Who: The new title sequence is filled with cogs and Victorian London is regularly visited, including encounters with automatons. The Orient Express episode certainly puts it high on steam credentials, but some purists argue it’s all steam and not enough punk.
Also on the telly, there was an episode of Castle wherein Nathan Fillion (who should be in all things always) wore the Dr. Grimmelore Superior Replacement Arm – and looked fabulous, as he would in anything.
Most people would agree that the film Wild, Wild West is steampunk. Most people would also agree it’s terrible, but that’s beside the point. It’s set in the correct time period and features mad scientists, extraordinary adventures and rather impressive clockwork nemeses.
Let’s talk about Howl’s Moving Castle (is how I’d like to be able to start every conversation). I think there’s something of the steampunk about it: steam-powered omnibuses and dirigibles drive through Sophie’s town. The contentious point is the castle itself. Is that smoke coming out the chimney or steam? It is certainly powered by the fire (Calcifer) but is it steam or magic that moves the castle? These are the questions that keep me awake at night. That, and watching too many Miyazaki films in the early hours.
Hellboy is credited with adding Steampunk to the dictionary. A lexicographer for the Webster said, ‘”Steampunk” was overdue for entry, I’ll grant you, but if you look at the historical evidence for it, the bulk of the sustained general use starts in 2004. You can analyze the data…and find that “steampunk” has single-digit hits until 2003, and then really goes bonkers in 2004 as folks use it in movie reviews for “Hellboy”.’
There’s some retro-futurism in Hugo, particularly his mission to fix the automaton, and the fact that he lives inside a clock. Other offerings are on the “debateable” list, including 9, Hansel and Gretel, the RDJ Sherlock Holmes, and Van Helsing.
Purists aren’t necessarily delighted with the Hollywood adoption of steampunk as an aesthetic, saying that they’re missing the point. Steampunk is not just sci-fi in top hats or sticking cogs to your flying goggles; it’s an attitude: a reverence of history, industry, technology, and manners.
I think there will always be good and bad appropriations of sub-culture; let’s enjoy the good and hope the bad leads to people searching for something better. What do you think?
I’ve been watching the wildly popular new television series Outlander, adapted from Diana Gabaldon’s 1991 novel of the same name. It’s about WW2 army nurse Claire Randall who is visiting Scotland when she’s sent back in time 200 years, leaving her husband behind and needing to marry young and handsome highlander Jamie Fraser for protection. Outlander (the novel) is currently Goodreads #2 top romance of all-time, so this is a popular story that’s still selling strongly 23 years after its original release.
The television series features stunning Scottish landscapes and a regularly bare-chested male lead played by hunky Scot actor Sam Heughan, which might explain its popularity with non-readers as well. But according to blogs and reviews springing up across the Internet, the stranger in a strange land aspect of Claire coping with the primitive day-to-day life of eighteenth century Scotland is one of the most thrilling aspects of the story.
Unlike other historical dramas, this series looks at a time period through the fresh eyes of a twentieth century female character, allowing us to put ourselves in Claire’s shoes as she rebels against their patriarchy, is disgusted by their medical practices, and occasionally delights in the strangeness of it all – exactly as we might.
Of course, this isn’t the first stranger in a strange land story to enchant audiences.
Alice’s adventures down the rabbit hole into Wonderland have thrilled generations of children, and Avatar, where cripple Jake Sully saves the beautiful planet of Pandora, is the highest grossing movie of all time. Not to mention Edgar Rice Burrough’s hero John Carter, transported to Barsoom/Mars – a particular favorite of mine that was made into a Disney movie a few years back. I used to devour Edgar Rice Burroughs novels as though they were Mills & Boon when I was a teen, thrilling to the adventure of a ‘clean limbed fighting man from Virginia’ saving the princess and falling in love. Beyond the romance, I was falling in love with a genre that lets audiences see a new world through the eyes of a stranger.
A Princess of Mars was soon followed on my shelf by Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness and Frank Herbert’s Dune as firm favorites (along with Outlander). Not to mention that my first big crush was on Captain James Kirk of the starship Enterprise whose mission was to boldly go where no man had gone before…
I couldn’t get enough of characters going from one world into another, so it was also no surprise that I’d settle on stranger in a strange land stories as the theme I wanted to explore as a writer. Across, fantasy, romance and erotica, that theme is a constant, but my absolute favorite is my Shadow Through Time trilogy that begins with twentieth century Catherine falling through a Sacred Pool into Ennae and discovering that in that world she is Princess Khatrene, with a hunky champion of her own and adventures and romance more thrilling than anything I’d ever read.
So in celebration of all things stranger in a strange land, Momentum is offering the first book of my trilogy, Destiny of the Light, for free so you have your own vicarious adventure in an otherworld. And as one book-blogger said, “If you love your fantasy to be slightly gritty but with plenty of swoony romance, Destiny of the Light is for you!”
Earlier this year, a friend and I were discussing the possibility of going to Comic Con in Delhi, India. I wanted to go in costume, of course, so I told him he would have to play the Drogo to my Danerys Targaryen. He seemed amused, but then asked me, quite seriously, where I was going to find the blonde wing to pull off Dany.
For some reason, this irritated me. It irritated me further when I tried to think of characters from the SFF Hall of Fame, and realised that, if we were being super faithful to things like hair and skin colour, the only one from Martin’s saga I could convincingly portray would be someone who wasn’t even in the books: Talisa Maegyr. And really, even that was a stretch.
Diversity in SFF has become a hot topic. Readers all over the world have begun to come to the conclusion that heroes and heroines of fantasy and science fiction books need not always look, sound or act a certain way. As a result, characters (and not only the ‘bad’ ones) are getting darker, shorter, maybe even turning female. But the prevailing tone of pseudo medieval Europe, kings and Elves and deep dark wolf infested forests, remains dominant.
Up till ten years ago, I didn’t think it could be changed. And then, at the very impressionable age of 15, I picked up a book that changed my life and taught me a wholly new way in which fantasy could be written and how I, as a non-Western, non-‘mainstream’ reader, could consume it.
That book was Samit Basu’s The Simoqin Prophecies. Set in the ‘Gameworld’, this is the first of a (wait for it) trilogy that follows the adventures of three principal characters: Maya, a spellbinder, Asvin, a handsome prince, and Kirin, a seeming wildcard. The premise of the book is that of your typical fantasy novel: weird things are happening all over the known world, a dark lord is seemingly rising and a prophesied hero has been found to stop him. A motley group assembles to ‘train’ said hero, and it looks like everything is going according to plan, until, of course, it all falls apart. Things do have a way of unraveling quickly in fantasy universes.
Yes, the recipe is fairly standard. But Basu, rather than setting his story in a pseudo historical-with-a-magic-twist version of Europe (Ye Olde Manor with Dragons, as it were), creates an East-centric world. Think of that: a fantasy world where countries that sound a whole lot like India, Arabia and China are at the centre of events, where England is a far-off, once great power and where all the main actors are, incredibly, not Caucasian.
As you might imagine, this was a big deal for me, who’d grown up reading books mostly about plucky white children (or young adults) having adventures in faraway lands or secret magical universes where only the villains were remotely dark. Don’t get me wrong. I love Harry Potter, and wouldn’t change anything about it, but actually finding a universe where it was a given that the characters looked and spoke like me was refreshing.
After that of course, I discovered a few more ‘diverse’ books. There was Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, which, despite all its flaws, I loved for the simple fact that there were whole nations of people of varying ethnicities, and none of them could be automatically classified as ‘evil’. One of the rulers and most powerful political figures in the whole world, in fact, is described as a ‘dark porcelain doll’, and no one thought anything of it. Ursula le Guin crafted a markedly non Europe centric world in her Earthsea Quartet, with characters hailing from all corners and cultures of a island world. Strangely enough, the most ‘backward’ country in this world was ruled by fair skinned, blonde haired people—the total opposite of what Tolkien, in his extremely segregated world, had built.
When I read a book, I’m not automatically looking for characters I can physically identify with, and the lack of the same only strikes me on rare occasions, like the Comic con scene. I don’t believe the writers who don’t have coloured leads are any ‘worse’ than those who do, or that their literary merit depends to any extent on this sort of criterion. But finding those characters, or people who speak in a register not automatically associated with knights and Camelot, is certainly a perk. It makes me feel included, stresses that people who look like me, or who don’t exclusively look a certain way, are also rightful denizens of these other-worlds.
Like I said, I’d never consciously thought of this until I read Basu’s book, and for that reason, it’ll always hold a special place in my literary life. The Simoqin Prophecies was my springboard to other, non-Tolkien-derivative kinds of fantasy, and showed me that writers could use other stories and cultures to craft their universes. It’s certainly showed me that fantasy, something I suppose I’d unconsciously slotted as a very ‘West’ genre, could be written in a myriad of ways, that the world has hundreds of myths and legends waiting to be harnessed and played out anew in the covers of a book. Thanks for all the lessons and conventions, Tolkien, but I think it’s time some of us moved out of medieval Europe, and into the unexplored, wolf and oliphant-infested wilds.
I’ve been reading the gorgeous and fantastical Trinity: The Koldun Code by Sophie Masson. Set in Russia, this got me thinking about all the extraordinary things I’ve heard about that vast country: some even more ridiculous than Putin’s manly photo shoots . These facts about Russia are stranger than fiction and read like writing prompts, or a game of Mad Libs that got out of hand.
Right, I’ll stop Putin it off.
There was a television hoax in 1991 that convinced a solid proportion of the Russian population that Lenin had consumed so many psychedelic mushrooms that he had become a mushroom himself. Someone from the Party had to come out with an official statement which said, ‘Lenin could not have been a mushroom as a mammal cannot be a plant.’ More correctly, it’s a fungi – but Lenin wasn’t! Who wouldn’t read the children’s book ‘Lenin the Mushroom’?
Boris Yeltsin in his pants on Pennsylvania Avenue with a pizza: not a winning guess in Soviet Leader Cluedo, but what happened on a state visit to the USA in 1995. Apparently he’d had a bottle of vodka to himself and had gone out in search of a slice. The secret service escorted him back to his room. Feels like a surrealist short story: actually happened. Please someone write a series wherein world leaders get drunk and go for pizza. Netflix original waiting to happen.
Here’s another fact about Russia to Chekhov your list: 22% of all the trees on Earth are in Russia. That makes for a glorious setting; one quarter of the country is forests. Potentially there are nooks of this vast land that no human has ever been to. Just imagine what could be hiding, then write a fantasy novel about it and sent it to me. Thanks.
Speaking of hiding, secret cities were created in Soviet times, mainly to hide nuclear sites and associated industry. Many of these still aren’t mentioned on maps or in official records and are off-limits to foreign visitors: whole cities, full of people, officially don’t exist. I see a tale of espionage adventures and confused postal workers: the eternal struggle to deliver letters to non-existent addresses.
This is a country that in its history had an actual tax on beards, named vodka after ‘water’, and turned up to the 1908 Olympics 12 days late as they hadn’t quite got the swing of the Gregorian calendar. Russia has a rich and multi-faceted past and present, waiting to be Borodin fiction (borrowed in…sorry that one was tenuous).
If anyone can think of a pun for Gorbachev, please Tweet me @EveProofreads. Cheers!
If you are reading this, congratulations! You have not died in the first stages of the zombie apocalypse and are ready to begin creating a new world out of the ashes of the old.
Now, before you break your arm patting yourself on the back – look out the window and check to see where you are. I know that the headlong fleeing from a former civilisation can leave you disorientated so take your time. Where are you? What’s the weather like?
Here’s a helpful chart.
These may seem like stupid questions. “The weather?!?” you’re shouting, “The weather is cloudy with a chance of zombie!” Quiet, you fool! Noise attracts them!
Loose lips and all that.
There, this manual has already saved your life. You’re welcome. The following is why the weather is so important and try not to interrupt me again, or you will die.
Why the Weather is so Important.
Look at it this way – The rate of decomposition of a human body used to be measured using Casper’s Law or Ratio (it is now unknown if that refers to The Friendly Ghost).
I measure the rate of decomposition!
Basically, the body will decompose faster the more oxygen it receives post-mortem, allowing for temperature variations. So in a warm, wet climate a body will decompose faster than in a cool dry climate even if both bodies are completely exposed to these elements.
So…if you’re still following and haven’t been eaten because you were reading when you should have been paying attention, here are some examples of climates and whether they are ‘good’ for zombies.
The tropics are a terrible place to be a zombie, which obviously means it’s a good place to be alive. Not only will the warm climate and consistent rainfall rot a dead body faster, the biosphere is filled with all sorts of insects that just love a corpse. Not romantic love either.
Added Bonus: The warm climate means clothing is optional. You wanna repopulate the earth right?
…of societal collapse.
Smells like rotten.
There is a reason training videos in the Pre-Times were all set in woods or forests, this is the perfect place for zombies to…Survive? Live? Exists? Continue to Be?
English – it’s still a test.
The training videos from the Romero School, up to and including Season 17 of The Walking Dead, all featured wooded areas. With a temperate to cool climate and not as many flesh devouring insects as the Tropics a healthy zombie can continue to be for many years.
This? No, I’m fine. Hi-five?
Added Bonus: There is clearly no added bonus, get out of the Temperate zones.
Mountains and Tundras
Cold preserves, ask your oldest relative about the ol’ timey device we called a fridge. You want to deal with Ice Zombies, the by all means surround yourself with snow and subzero temperatures and all that malarkey.
Dress yourself in jumpers and such. I’ll be in my shorts in the Tropics.
Added Bonus: Really?!?
Just the absolute worst. It’s a dry heat, with no real insect life, which will allow your zombie neighbours to hang around for millennia. You want to have to deal with zombie neighbours for millennia? Be my guest. Whatever, I’ve just re-invented the Pina Colada so I’m all set here on my warm wet beach.
Of course, it’s in a plastic cup. Civilisation DID end.
Added Bonus: You’re in the desert, attracting the undead horde, which makes me even safer. So thanks for that.
A: Hi Nina! It’s great to be chatting with you today. I’m a big fan of your work and am looking forward to picking your brain. So tell me, you’ve written three SFF books now. Is the process getting any easier for you?
N: In short. No. It’s still the same chronic rewriting and second guessing for me, but I guess in ways that’s not necessarily a bad thing – it makes for a thorough knowledge of the story, from every conceivable angle.
Number 3 for you too! (Congratulations!!) Is it getting any easier for you?
A: I’ve released 3 books, but I had them all written before I got the first one published. So, for those ones, I can only really comment on the editing process – which I do think is getting easier. I’m definitely more attuned to what I need to look for, thanks to what has been picked up in the past (which hopefully makes my editor’s life easier!). I’ve only just recently written a brand new novel, so that was my first experience at writing again – and as it is a completely stand-alone novel not linked to the Aurora series in any way, it was a good test for me. There were days that it was slow going, and others where I seemed to race along, but I think that’s par for the course. I do think my writing has improved though. I’m certainly editing out the mistakes of the past before they’re committed to the page!
So what sparks your inspiration? After you have that first idea, how do you go about turning that into a fully fleshed story?
N: Good question and I think there’s been a whole heap of inspirations for all my books – people, stories, movies, art, poetry, music, animals, places – pretty much everything I come into contact with! I think it’s probably the same for a lot of writers and artists as well. Once the idea for a story pops up then I’ll go into planning mode, so world, characters, storyline – everything goes down in whatever order I’m feeling like.
But tell me more about your Aurora Series – there are 3 books out now and more on the way – did you do an overall plot and planning at the very beginning or have the stories evolved as you wrote?
A: The story evolved as I wrote. It was only supposed to be one story, but as I wrote I seemed to undercover more and more story lying underneath. The good news for readers, though, is that I have now plotted the whole series and it will come to a definite end around book 7/8. I recently received a comment from someone suggesting that I was writing more books (and stretching out the story) for the commercial aspect of it, but this is completely untrue. The story itself dictated how long it would be. I have this (rather major) over-arching plot and several subplots that need to be tied up, and they can’t be tied up in one single book. At least, not if I want it to be realistic! Anyway…
Tell me, what do you find the hardest thing about this writing business?
N: Time, I think…. Just getting the time to sit down and write – it’s been an insanely busy year, but I’m hoping next year will be a bit different. And also I think what you touched on above, it can be difficult to put stories out there and pause for judgement. On the flipside, it’s also a massive privilege and mostly awesome (everything is awesome!) to have people reading our books. That’s living the dream! And speaking of dreams – I think it’s that time. I think we need to talk characters…
Can you tell me a little bit about the leading men in your Aurora series – just a teaser for readers who haven’t started the Aurora series yet?
A: The leading men in the Aurora series are far from perfect, but they each contain elements of the perfect ‘man’. Saul Harris has the maturity, experience and the leadership skills to captain the Aurora team. He’s firm but fair, and because of this he has the team’s respect and trust . . . Daniel ‘Doc’ Walker, is intelligent and caring – two traits required of the medic and ship’s 2IC. He’s easy going, but when required he becomes the soldier he needs to be. Throughout the series his easy-going character is tested, and the ‘perfect’ guy proves that he makes mistakes too . . . James McKinley is hard man, and a courageous one at that – a key trait for Harris’ right-hand man in the field. He pushes people to prove themselves, but he also pushes himself to be the best. As the series unfolds, his hardened external layers are slowly removed, and the man hidden inside comes to light…
Now, I am a big fan of the leading men in your books (Copernicus and Darius to name a couple). So for readers who haven’t started your books as yet, tell us a little bit about them?
N: I’m going to say for Copernicus, tall, dark and dangerous and Darius – he has a hard exterior but there’s love there – somewhere on the inside – (and I have to say McKinley is my fav Aurora boy, but they’re all great). But I’m thinking we shouldn’t forget about the girls either – your leading lady, Corporal Carrie Welles, sharp shooter and elite soldier. She’s just starting out but she’s already been to hell and back.
When you write female characters do you find yourself naturally writing tougher ladies, is it something you wanted to do purposely. And if so, why do you think that is? (for either)
A: I like to write tough women, but I also like them to have their weak moments. That is what makes them human and I think what makes them appeal to readers. I come from a line of strong women – my mother and my grandmothers – whom I dedicated Aurora: Darwin (and the whole Aurora series) to, so I suppose it’s bred into me in a way. They are women who have just picked themselves up and carried on when faced with hardships. Sometimes strong women make the mistake of being too strong and not allowing themselves to be weak or ask for help, and it is at this point that they seem to fall apart, because they can’t cope with not being perfect. This I think, is a big driver for Carrie Welles in my Aurora series. She is a woman who has to look deep inside herself to pull the courage out that she needs to survive, and she is also a woman who has to lower her defensive shield to admit when she is wrong or needs help, and to allow love to enter her life…
You also write strong women, and they seem a little damaged in a way due to the secrets they keep, but because of this they’re fighters – and survivors. What drives that in your writing?
N: Good question… I think I’ve always been attracted to the idea of the survivor – the person who can take every hit, psychologically and physically, and still keep going. For me that really defines a hero – not because they’re incredibly brave, or gifted, or perfect people, but because they never stop, despite the scars and damage.
Now I understand you’re working on a book that is outside of the Aurora Series, can you tell me a little bit about it and what it’s been like venturing out of your universe?
A: Yes, the new book is called The Time of The Stripes and it’s another sci-fi, but set on Earth, current day. It’s told from multiple perspectives and follows the immediate events surrounding a worldwide phenomenon. It’s a pretty tense drama, so readers of the Aurora series will hopefully enjoy it. It’s been a very interesting process to write! In some ways it’s been difficult in that I’m having to build characters up from scratch again – especially after spending so long with my Aurora characters, who I know like the back of my hand. It had also been a while since I’d written anything new so that harsh reminder of just how long it takes to write a novel was a wake up call! On the plus side, it’s been great to try my hand at building another world, in part to prove I could, but also just for having an opportunity to try something new and take that breath of fresh air was wonderful. But now I’m ready to crack on with more of the Aurora series!
So how did you find the experience of going from the The Last City/The Forgotten City to The White List?
N: It was pretty cool – I’ve always got a few writing projects going at once so it wasn’t too much of a leap, but there’s always those readjustments, where you have to find the right voice for the character, but overall it was great.
So thank you very much for chatting with me AB – any final advice for aspiring writers looking to get their work out there?
A: Study the market as best you can, be prepared to work hard, and learn patience! Writing and getting published is a marathon, not a sprint.
And what advice would give them?
N: I completely agree with you and I’ll just add in – don’t give up!
A: Yes! Good point. Well thanks for chatting with me today, Nina! It’s been great getting an insight into your wonderful books!
N: Thanks AB! It’s been great chatting with you too!
Justin Woolley, whose zombie dystopia A Town Called Dust is coming out soon, joins us to talk about the living dead.
We wake in the middle of the night to the sound of sirens and car alarms. The phones are dead. The TV is an endless emergency broadcast about remaining in our homes. Outside the dead are rising. We’re all screwed. Time to bust out the shotgun. The zombie apocalypse is here.
Zombies aren’t exactly pleasant. They are withered, decaying, slack-jawed corpses, with pieces of flesh periodically falling off, leaking body fluids from every orifice and smelling like the possum that got stuck in my grandparents’ chimney for three weeks. They have the conversational skills of an avocado and if you invite them over for coffee they just keep trying to suck your brains out of your eyeholes. So why do we love them? What is it about zombies and the zombie apocalypse that seems to spawn a never-ending collection of films, books and video games? Why are we fascinated with a plague of rising dead that will destroy civilisation and leave us, the gritty survivors, to make what life we can in a world where our brains are the most sort after delicacy?
Zombies are hot property. From films like Night of the Living Dead, Evil Dead, 28 Days Later, Zombieland to books I Am Legend, The Forest of Hands and Teeth, World War Z, Patient Zero to video games Resident Evil, Dead Rising, Left 4 Dead, The Evil Within and now TV with The Walking Dead, zombies are a pivotal part of pop culture and a stable of the horror genre but they aren’t exactly as new as we might think.
The zombie legend has its roots in African and Haitian voodoo in which a voodoo practitioner would raise a newly deceased person from the dead to act as their slave. These zombies are a lot more like a convenient corpse-butler than the contagious brain-eaters we know and love today. Zombie-like creatures known as ghouls are also referenced in Arabian literature as far back as the 9th century. These creatures were known to have influenced Mary Shelley when she wrote what might be the most famous piece of zombie literature, Frankenstein. Much of the early zombie tales focused on the animating of a single corpse, the rise of a single monster. We really have Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend and then George Romero’s film Night of the Living Dead to thank for bringing us the idea of the relentless zombie horde.
So, what is it then about the zombie horde that seems so enduring? I believe the appeal of the zombie apocalypse is two-fold, the zombie horde frightens us, but it also holds a mirror up to humanity.
The zombie horde is terrifying not necessarily in the pure grossness of zombies, they aren’t winning any beauty contests obviously, but their true horror is in the fear of the overwhelming. We all feel overwhelmed sometimes, that we have too much to handle, that the world is going to crush us under the weight of our circumstances. The zombie horde is simply this feeling amplified. The idea that you kill one zombie and ten more take its place. It is a flood we realise we cannot hold back. What is frightening about zombies is how committed they are. They’re not going to stop off for a power nap or quick coffee, they don’t procrastinate, they just keep coming. It’s impressive really isn’t it?
From a metaphorical standpoint the fear of zombies is also the fear of facing of death. The zombie apocalypse provides a scenario in which you quite literally face death; the living dead are coming at you from all angles. If you can kill enough zombies you overcome death and you get to live a little longer. Then, once you inevitably fall to the unstoppable zombie horde you become a walking corpse too, trapped in death forever. What a cheery thought.
Zombie fiction strips away all that we usually consider safe. Everywhere we usually turn for support is gone. Suddenly your Mum wants to eat your brain, society offers no protection and even death is worse than usual. But even with all that the zombie apocalypse is also appealing to people because it is the type of apocalypse we can fight. A killer plague, run-away artificial intelligences dropping nuclear bombs, an big old asteroid sending us on a one way ticket to extinction, all these things leave us powerless but a zombie, hell, I’ve played loads of computer games, give me a shotgun and a baseball bat and let me at them.
Of course, like all good stories, the zombie apocalypse reflects a side of humanity. In a very real way zombies are simply humanity boiled down to our primordial, destructive nuts and bolts. The zombie wants to crack open your skull like a boiled egg and doesn’t much care for the ethical, moral, environmental or political dilemma of this. Zombies don’t care for anything except fulfilling their insatiable need to feed. Zombies, like humanity, leave a trail of destruction in their wake. In the end perhaps we believe humanity is the real horde.
We love the zombie apocalypse, or any post-apocalyptic fiction for that matter, because it allows us to ask questions about the nature of humanity. If our civilisation is torn down and the rules are gone, what do we become? Will humans become vicious creatures willing to kill each other to survive? Or will we hold on to some semblance of law and order? In the end zombie fiction such as The Walking Dead explores the idea that the real danger existing in a world full of zombies might just be the humans that remain.
So, perhaps there is deep metaphorical meaning to zombie fiction, or perhaps zombies are just plain awesome. Either way, stock up on canned food and ammunition, because I don’t see zombies dying any time soon.
1. What inspired you to write the Trinity series?
I could say that what inspired me was my lifelong fascination with Russia, and that’s true. I could also say that it was inspired by my long-held desire of writing a big urban fantasy series, one that blends the everyday and the magical worlds, the natural and the supernatural, against a modern setting which makes the whole thing even more striking. That would also be true. And I wanted it to have other elements I love too, such as a good spice of romance and a sharp tingle of mystery. But Trinity might just have stayed as an idea in the back of my mind, if it hadn’t been for a chance glimpse on the Moscow Metro: a young man in modern jeans and leather jacket, but with the timeless, striking face of a prince or a legendary warrior, such as I’d seen that very day in paintings in the Tretiakov Art Gallery.
In that instant, just before the young man got off the train, Trinity really came alive. For there was Alexey Makarov taking shape in my mind, and there was Helen’s voice describing him. And I knew I could not rest until I had told their story.
2. Russia is such an evocative setting, how did you come to choose it?
As I mentioned, I’ve been fascinated by Russia since I was a child, when I read Russian fairytales, and later, Russian novels. My father (who comes from France) loves Russian music and art, so we were exposed to a lot of that at home. Much later, I visited Russia (I’ve been there twice now) and loved it—it was just as interesting as I had imagined it, in fact even more so! It’s such a mix of so many different influences—hugely diverse, enormously paradoxical, and extremely addictive.
3. Speaking of Russia, magic is such an ingrained part of their culture, how did this influence you?
Heaps! Russia is the absolutely perfect urban fantasy setting—you hardly even have to make anything up! From the Parliament trying to regulate witchcraft to the businesses who employ wizards to the scientists studying DNA for evidence of psychic talents to the ‘energy vampires’ who people firmly believe in, this is a place where the supernatural and paranormal are taken for granted by many, many people. And yet it’s also totally modern, with very high literacy and education levels.
4. What was your favourite scene to write, and why?
My favorite scene is the one where Helen and Alexey meet for the first time, in the woods. Everything changes in that moment for Helen, and it is truly magical, in all kinds of ways. Writing it gave me goose bumps!
5. What can we expect in the second book The False Prince?
A new threat on the horizon as a figure from the past resurfaces and causes havoc both natural and supernatural at Trinity. Watch this space!
Trinity: The Koldun Code is released on the 13th of November.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Ginny Weasley. You could put this down to reading The Half Blood Prince again, where she leaps out of the background of the mill of Hogwarts students and assumes the vaunted title of ‘love interest’ for our hero. You could also pin this down to certain ruminations brought on by events unfolding around me, but that’s quite beside the point.
What’s the deal with Ginny Weasley? She’s smart and pretty and a wonderful Quidditch player, so obviously she’s got all the elements needed to be a popular girl. In the course of two books, she dates three boys, not a staggeringly high number, but certainly more than any other girl in the series (besides, significantly, Cho Chang). She’s capable of attracting a snooty Slytherin, Blaise Zabini, and of impressing the selective Slughorn. Evidently, she’s quite something in the Potterverse.
And yet, for all her awesomeness, Ginny is never made privy to the secret of the Horcruxes, never becomes part of Harry’s inner circle in his mission to destroy Voldemort. Sure, she has a vague idea that he, Ron and Hermione are up to something of crucial importance to the war effort, but she doesn’t know exactly what. Nor does she seem to push too hard to find out what it is. Harry’s reasoning for leaving her out of things is clear: he doesn’t want to endanger her. And Ginny, being perfect, accepts this without question, even going so far as to say ‘I knew you wouldn’t be happy unless you were hunting Voldemort. Maybe that’s why I like you so much.’
Hey, I just realized Ginny uses his name too.
Ginny, for all her awesomeness, is something Harry has to protect, and in order for him to do that, he has to deny himself both her company and any obvious display of attachment (in this case, dating her). But, at the same time, if we are to believe Dumbledore, his ability to be attached to Ginny, to ‘love’, is the power that holds him in his stead against Voldemort. This is underscored when, in the Forest, it is Ginny’s face that bursts into his mind when the Dark Lord levels the Avada Kedavra at him.
Ginny is the centre of what I have rather creatively dubbed the Loving Hero Paradox (TM). This paradox plays out every time the hero of a fantasy or superhero saga resists love/shuts beloved away because he is afraid that she will fall prey to the evils of the foe, but then, ironically, relies (un)consciously on his feelings for her to distinguish himself ideologically from the villain he fights. This happens time and again in novels/movies where there’s a good versus evil fights; consider Rand in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time or even Peter Parker in the Sam Raimi directed Spiderman.
In Harry’s case, the turn away from Ginny is a rather half-hearted move, considering the wizarding world is so small that their association with him makes the Weasleys a well-known and obvious target anyway, even without the addition of romance. Besides, just because he wants her to stay out of it doesn’t mean Ginny actually sits around tamely waiting to be rescued. She’s one of the leaders of the internal resistance in Hogwarts, going so far as to attempt to break into Snape’s office in a misguided attempt to steal the sword of Gryffindor.
Of course, this move begs the question of what on earth the kids hoped to achieve by doing that. How were they planning to get it to Harry? Did they really know that Harry needed it? I don’t recall Harry ever telling Ginny that Dumbledore had left him the relic. This is one of those random moves that Rowling pulled in Deathly Hallows that requires a deal of explication.
What really bugs me about the Loving Hero Paradox is the fact that it’s so very… male. the only female character I’ve seen pull this ‘oh I can’t be in a relationship because I have better things to do’ line is Katniss Everdeen (and hey, it’s completely justified in her case because honestly, I don’t think she really knows what she feels for either Peeta or Gale until far into the books) and Egwene in Wheel of Time. And even Egwene wasn’t averse to a little romance—she just didn’t have time to deal with Gawyn’s drama until she had cemented herself as leader at a crucial juncture in the war against the Shadow.
Perhaps this has to do with the fact that not all that many fantasy/superhero novels or movies are centred on a female protagonist, and so we don’t meet all that many heroines who have to choose between being publicly in love and saving the world. When there are more such gems floating around in the market, we might be able to take a more informed call.
So no, I don’t support Harry’s rather lousy move of breaking up with Ginny at the end of Half Blood Prince. Not only did he choose to do it in a public location, in full glare of the media, at a funeral (man, what an ass. He’s worse than Peter Parker in some respects), but he also was stupid enough to believe that Ginny would sit tight and stay safe on his say-so. He really didn’t know her very well, did he?
I am so glad she proved him wrong.
Write three books for us, they say. It’ll be easy, they say.
The Momentum team have me working harder than an Ork in Mordor, delivering more books to the ravenous hordes. Because I’ve got a reasonably demanding job, it means writing time is at a premium. I try to scribble 500-1000 words a day, and more on weekends. But I’ve also got another ace up my sleeve.
The 10k Day.
Friend and crime writer supremo PD Martin introduced the concept to me. Though I don’t think she invented it, I’m giving her the credit. The Momentum team were so amazed by the concept when we caught up for drinks that they asked me to write a blog about it. I think they think I’m lying.
How does it work? It’s a stream of consciousness vomiting of words onto the page. It’s hard, it’s tiring, it’s relentless and it’s not very much fun. But it’s a fantastic way to get a lot of words down fast. 10,000, in fact. Words are important when you’re in the novel business.
So if that’s what’s cooking, what are the ingredients?
- Quiet place.
- Mobile phones, internet, spell check, TV, radio, PS4 turned OFF.
- Snacks and water.
- Scotch (optional).
- Writing buddy (optional).
The key is having enough well plotted scenes to get you to 10,000 words. You don’t have time to think. You also don’t have time to look back. Never look back. Once a word is down, push forward! No editing! No elaborate, perfectly crafted writing here. Expect lots of [INSERT DESCRIPTION HERE].
It’s all about bludgeoning your manuscript into submission then fixing it later.
The schedule I usually stick to:
- Write from 9.00am-11.00am
- Break from 11.00am-11.15am
- Write from 11.15am-1.15pm
- Lunch from 1.15pm-1.45pm
- Write from 1.45pm-3.45pm
- Break from 3.45pm-4.00pm
- Write from 4.00pm-6.00pm
It sounds impossible. It’s not. It is very, very hard though. I did a handful of these for The Foundation, and I’ve done one so far for State of Emergency. Most of the time I hit the 10k halfway through the last session. Even if you don’t quite make it, you’ll still get a lot of words down.
It doesn’t work for everyone, but it may work for you. If not, some of the things your mind cooks up when you have to write 1250 words an hour are interesting, if nothing else.
Steve P Vincent’s first book, The Foundation, was published by Momentum in September 2014. Connect with him on: