Publication Day is the climax.
For years you’ve been stitching together the great cadaver of your imagination, chopping a bit off here, adding a new limb there, applying the current of your hope and your will, shocking your halt-footed, barely sentient creation into a sad, unwilling and desperate existence. You think nothing of the trauma it will face, scorned, spurned and derided as it staggers through the back alleys and city sinks. Your book wants a place in the world- better it had enjoyed a more natural birth, the longed for new face to bring joy to all, with a place and family to call its own, a place of safety - for then the reality of rejection, denial and indifference would have less sting...
Erm - sorry about that: sometimes the metaphor swings his scythe and carries you off into perd...
OK. No more metaphors.
Actually my darling Song of Ages is well homed and loved by me at least. Perhaps publication day was more like the birth after a long gestation and not anything like an orgasmic, heedless explosion of self importance and self promotion.
Whichever it was the anti-climax was real.
What was I expecting? That everyone would be bowled over by the hints of entertainment evident in the blurb? That everyone offered a free book would leap at the chance? That every one of those happy-go-lucky people would be overwhelmed by the beauty, the scope, the imagination and the joy of this new fantasy that they’d be determined to make their approval concrete and leave a review on the Amazon page? Well, a bit of that.
It is a hard lesson to learn that something very special or very fortuitous has to happen before even those tentative first steps can be made. It is so difficult.
But maybe I’m just rubbish at marketing.
I just got a good review from Rex Sumner on the pages of the British Fantasy Society’s website.
I’d sent it in to be added to the mighty slush pile schooling myself to accept that it may well not be read at all. But there it was - right at the top of the BFS bulletin e-mail, cover picture, title and well considered thoughts - not too damming, not overly enthusiastic, but not bad. I counted this review as acceptance that at the least The Best of Men was entitled to consideration as a worthwhile piece of fiction. I still do.
But there’s that Anti-Climax again. Has the review led to a single extra sale, or review copy request? Not a one. I’ve been trying my best to just give my book away but - and this does astonish me - no one at all wants to read it.
The thought strongly occurs to me that maybe, just maybe I’m not the only writer struggling so. And I don’t mean struggling to make a living - I mean struggling to get picked up out of the free books box at the jumble sale. To get a page turned.
Of course, I won’t give up on this, no matter the difficulty. In a way much of life is about dealing with the anti-climactic situations the world - and our ambition - throws at us. Because you see, I know deep down that my book is pretty damned good and I suspect very much worth reading.
I’ve just got to figure a way of getting it out there, limping and bruised or not. One day it will find a home in the hearts of fantasy readers - sometime, somewhere.
If you’re interested in the BFS review it’s here: http://www.britishfantasysociety.org/reviews/coincident-by-wilf-jones-ebook-review/
The amazon page is here: mybook.to/BestofMen
Published today on kindle: COINCIDENT, the first of The Best of Men serial editions.
The Best of Men is an epic fantasy novel with a difference in style that you may or may not like. It isn’t George Martin, though I have to warn it is quite as violent, and it isn’t Peter Brett - there’s no ‘young lad becomes hero’ stuff here - but I think you’ll find it as entertaining as any fantasy you have read.
For me part of the entertainment is in being invited to think about what I read. I don’t want action to rule everything, and I don’t want fantasy to be emotionally empty. In The Best of Men I set out to create a book that should make the reader shiver, and cry and get angry. The Best of Men is the first volume of the Song of Ages trilogy. If you stay the course you will discover that tears are balanced with joy, evil countered by humanity, and despair conquered by hope. And it’s quite often funny too.
COINCIDENT will cost you just 0.99 pence or cents. If you don’t have a Kindle you can download a free kindle reader app from the Amazon page. Click on the cover or here.
THE BEST OF MEN
SONG OF AGES
An epic fantasy of monsters, gods, warriors and wizards, of heedless villains and decent everyday people.
available as a kindle edtion
now at £/$ 4.99
COINCIDENT - The Best of Men Pt 1
is available as a kindle serial edition
at 99 cents / pence
If you read and enjoy the The Best of Men it would be great if you could visit the Amazon site to leave even a brief review.
It is only by recommendation that books become successful. Your comments, good or bad, will be very much appreciated.
A pair of gryphons guard the Oslo National Gallery. I can see them from here in the Kaffebrenneriet opposite. And they can see me. They don’t look directly at me - that would give the game away - but I can tell a haughty sneering glance when I see one.
They can see I’m writing and by some mysterious intelligence they know what I’m writing about and why I’m writing it. Because they know I want entry into their domain – a world of fantasy – but not as a reader this time. I want to be the writer. I want admittance into the ranks of successful world creators. But the gryphons don’t think I’m good enough.
“Who are you to think you should fly with us? Move along old man,” they say. “If you had the wings you wouldn’t still be down there at street level. We know your sort. Oh, we know.”
And who am I? An unread writer, that’s what. Or perhaps I should make that “little read” though it feels like exaggeration. As far as I know there is no particular society of fantasy writers who’ve made it, but I do wonder that there isn’t a Society for the Unread. There are quite a few of us and we all need a bit of peer support.
Today I made Coincident available for pre-order as a kindle edition. An odd title for an epic fantasy novel you might think. Well, you’d be right. Actually Coincident is the first part of the novel The Best of Men.
The thing about epic fantasy is it tends to be epic in size as much as in subject. The Best of Men is no exception, weighing in at 250,000 words – this would be around 750 pages of an average b-format paperback. (Amazon count it as 585 pages but that figure is based on a 9x6 inch paving slab that you wouldn’t want to pull off the shelf never mind support it while reading.)
For regular readers of epic fantasy such width and depth and volume are to be celebrated of course. It’s what we want. But 750 page monsters are not easy to publish, especially if you are a debut author.
Firstly there’s the problem of sales. Would you, dear reader, pay $5 for a debut book by an unknown and largely un-reviewed author? And self-published at that! No? Even if I tell you it’s really good? Erm… No. Don’t worry I forgive all scepticism and perfectly understand.
Secondly there’s the problem of getting those reviews. And this is a killer. In fact I have sold some copies, and they have been read and two or three reviews have appeared on The Best of Men Amazon page. But size is proving to be something of a problem. If everyone who had so far bought the book could have read it in 30 days from publication and posted reviews, I would be a happy bunny indeed. But who reads 750 pages in 30 days? I’d have to be retired or redundant or rich to spend that much time reading in a month.
For both of these reasons I have decided that from a marketing point of view 750 pages is just a little too big for a first novel.
Luckily The Best of Men in organised into four distinct parts, each the length of a small novel – the sort of kindle offering regularly sold at around $2.99. But I’m intending to publish Coincident, Intrusions, The Evil that Men Do and Lessons in Conflict, serially from March through to June, each at only 99 cents or pennies. Yes, financially speaking I’m shooting myself in both feet. Just as well I’m not trying to make any money.
You may not know that a book offered on kindle at $2.99 or more earns for the publisher 70% of the cover price (less a downloading fee). If a kindle edition has a price point of less than £2.99 then the royalty plummets to 35%. So I’m targeting a mighty 27p a download.
Now the question is, given that I’m clearly not trying to make myself rich at the expense of good folk like you, and given that I’m pretty certain I can offer you entertainment of epic proportions at a more manageable size and price, would you consider buying or pre-ordering a copy of Coincident?
Of course were you to buy the single volume edition of The Best of Men, an impressive $3.25 would be mine to spend on gewgaws and trinkets – or more likely a pint of beer, but I‘d almost rather you didn’t. I would be happier with less money but more readers. And I mean that honestly. You see I have put my heart and soul into creating the Song of Ages trilogy. Family aside, that bright shiny first volume is the greatest achievement of my life. It needs to be read.
Why not give it a go? I know that no author and no book ever has universal appeal, so it is possible you may hate it. But I don’t think you’d hate it more than quarter of a cup of bad coffee, or half a tasteless melon, or a fifth of a stale sandwich. Cent for cent this may be the best dollar you’ve spent this year. Or it may be 99 cents to write off.
What’s that? You need to know what the book is about? Monsters and heroes, Gods and men, life and death, good and very evil indeed. You could browse this site but it’s best to check out the amazon page.
That’s it, sales pitch over. Thank you for your interest in reading this far.
One final thought is, if you do download and read Coincident, it would be kindness itself if you could leave a review on the Amazon page. It needn’t be extensive or even positive. 5 stars and fair words would be fantastic but I’d rather get an honest review.
Right, now I’m off to wax some feathers – you never know, it might work.
If you have any comment I can be contacted @wilfkell or email@example.com
We interrupt this blog to have a moan – and it’s all to do with that catch 22:
You can’t sell a new book by a new author without getting reviews; and you don’t get reviews if you haven’t sold any copies.
In this brave, new world of self-publishing there are undoubted opportunities and there are brick walls. Yes we can Print on Demand, and we can publish digitally without the costs associated with traditional publishing. We can do it ourselves without having to wait until some grey eminence – an agent or editor - deems our work worthy of publication. But you have to understand that without one of those influences, working with a team of marketers, publicists and production managers, the chance is you’re very likely to get absolutely nowhere.
I’m sure there have been self-publishing successes but, in common with traditionally published authors, whatever the skill and energy and intelligence put into the process, there is always a large chunk of luck involved. When that realization hits-in the self-publishing world can seem a cold and lonely and immensely frustrating place.
This is the fantasy:
You’ve written a damn fine book; you’ve commissioned a kick ass cover that screams “Buy Me!” The copy you’ve sweated over on the Amazon product page is smart and universally appealing. The Amazon “hot picks on kindle” e-mails will start to roll out. Every recipient will immediately want to engage with your creation. You are not after sales of course – you just want to be read. But you do want all those happy new readers to be so impressed with your novel that they’ll read voraciously and get through those 700 pages in a week. Desperate to tell the world they’ve discovered a treasure, a work of art, a masterpiece, each of them will high-tail it to that Amazon page with a selling review already penned and ready to paste in under those five bright shiny stars.
One review will lead to another sale (or hundreds maybe), which will lead to more reviews and more sales, and a huge hike in your sales and popularity ranking, prompting thousands more of those Amazon e-mails. This virtuous circle will then spiral up into an infinity of fame, praise and reward.
You did remember I said it was a fantasy?
The reality may well involve a spiral but the direction of travel may not be the same.
What really happens is that you publish your kindle edition at a fair price, unaware perhaps that Amazon is going to afford you ONLY thirty days of hot pick e-mail promotion. Unaware perhaps that you should be selling your magnum opus at 99 cents or pennies rather than $6.99. It appears that you think you’re already on a par with George Martin and Peter Brett and therefore worth every dollar.
Then you wait for it all to kick off. You check the sales report daily, or more than daily. A copy here, two there. Thirty days later, and thirty copies sold you realize that it isn’t going quite to plan. Your thirty copies didn’t raise your ranking sufficiently to prompt further Amazon marketing activity. After that first month your sales fall off a cliff into the deep waters of the sea of invisibility.
But not to worry, you still have that countdown deal for Christmas week. The price will be 99 cents, then $1.99, then $3.99 before returning to that impossible $7.
And it works! Well, sort of. Ten books in two days, but then silence falls.
Guess what: ten copies in two days is not enough to get that ranking high and keep those e-mails rolling. Promo over the precipice beckons.
It’s time to decide whether you should stuff your dreams in your pockets and just chuck yourself off - or whether you should fight.
In my case the Song of Ages has lived with me for thirty years – a constant companion. “Thirty years?” you cry, “but that’s too long for any novel. Real writers churn them out twice a year.” Well maybe. But it has been thirty years of discovery, thought, research, practice, experimentation, labour and reading, reading, reading. The bulk of the writing happened over the course of three very intense years. Refining what was produced then perhaps another five. The family, the day job necessarily take precedence. But those intense years of writing and the painstaking labour of critique and rewrite and copy editing led eventually to the publication in October 2014 of The Best of Men.
The publication was the culmination of a lifetime’s work.
And it is a thing of joy, to me and to any reader of course, a creation of wonder, an entertainment of drama and delight. It makes me cry, it makes me laugh, it makes me angry.
OK so there’s another fantasy involved here: it is that out there in the wide world there must be readers just like me – they want the same things I do from the epic fantasies they buy: adventure, real characters, challenging ideas, a created world that has depth, a landscape to get lost in, and a confident writer who has complete authority over his or her creation.
And so, should I embrace that fantasy, fight to find those people and rescue my precious Song of Ages from that dull grey formless sea?
My children and marriage aside, The Song of Ages is the greatest thing I have achieved in all my life.
Of course I’m going to fight.
If you’re in the same boat then you should too.
If you have any comment I can be contacted @wilfkell or firstname.lastname@example.org
I have friends who can’t stand fantasy- can’t be doing with all the swords and elves and magic. Curiously most of those so afflicted seem to really love a good horror movie. A large chunk of mankind is at it’s happiest scared half to death. Of course we don’t really want to get eaten or kidnapped and tortured and so what we’re looking for are those controllable sources of terror – movies and novels and news reports. Some of us are in it for the chills and thrills; some of us are in it because we’re fascinated by the monsters themselves – be the monster a human mass murderer or some blood soaked vampire or a malign ghost that invades your dreams. I suspect the fascination is at least partly rooted in the question: “Could I be that monster?”
Whatever the reason the reader is attracted to such beasts, monsters are great for the writer. Take Hilary Mantel and Wolf Hall. Have you ever come across such a monster as Thomas Cromwell’s father in those first shocking opening pages? With monsters you know that you are going to have an impact on your readers. In a book like mine, so based in the very question of what distinguishes the good from the evil, I was pretty certain I’d need a good few of my own.
Monsters are a varied bunch.
First of all I wanted to have those beasts we call monsters but are actually animals. Just because they have sharp teeth and a propensity for tearing people limb from limb doesn’t actually make them evil. They’re big and brutal and dangerous but in the end they’re inclined to kill so they can eat. And so in the first volume of the Song of Ages trilogy I give you Pangalori – 50 metre long snake like swimmers; the deadly shoals of Schiff and a curious bestiary entry on the pale, heart stopping goggalog. Can we condemn them as evil simply because they spend their time killing? Probably not. As well call a tiger or a wolf pack evil.
Perhaps being evil, instead of good, is entirely dependent upon the exercise of choice. On Earnor there are plenty of highly sentient creatures – either natural or supernatural – endowed with the gift of free will.
Take the dragons. Most of them stand aloof from the concerns of mankind and spend their days engaging in lengthy conversations, wrestling with their peers or watching their peers wrestling. And they’re very fond of ornament. But they’re not all good guys. They have been known to raze entire cities. And a few of them enter unholy alliances with other sorts of monsters. I won’t dwell on the circumstances.
But like wolves and Pangalori, dragons are, as we know, native to the earth. There are other creatures actively banished from the free air of our existence. Demons live in another place and only come to the earth when summoned. Created by the evil twin Ah’remmon, once King of All That Is, in mockery of his father’s creation, demons are terrible beasts all filled with his insatiable urge to rend and destroy. There are four demons called in the course of The Best of Men, but my favourite is the Noser from The Twist Inside (Song of Ages v 2). I tried to get a good deal of MR James style creepiness into that one.
I have a problem though with demons and the nature of evil. Are they evil because they were created by the God of Evil? Are they evil because they have not a good thought in them? Well probably, but some would complain that they behave badly but only according to their nature. They are made that way. Doesn’t that put them on a par with the tigers and wolves?
And so I decided to play with a couple of other demons. Both have managed to avoid banishment by imitating the creatures of the earth. They walk (and fly!) among us. They have free will and make choices. One of them, Acchulpa, is easy to spot and it’s easy to understand her motives and choices. But I’ll let the reader figure out the identity and choices of the other. There is a possibility that a demon can be not a monster.
Is that the full tally of monsters? Oh no. The supernatural extends into the middle order. Some nature gods are wilfully life thirsty, they demand sacrifice. Occasionally we’ll come across a hag or a wight or a boggart. But the greatest of monsters in The Best of Men are nothing to do beasts or demi gods. The biggest monsters are men.
Franner and Creel are callous torturers; the mercenaries of the Black Company specialize in murder and utterly indiscriminate rape; their commander Morgan Trant is a voyeur who delights in the crimes they perpetrate; Gaspar Semmento, the sorcerer, is a straightforward sadist; his colleague Kelsly obsessed with bleeding people in sacrifice to his patron god Azrazel. There are more.
I’ve created a parade of monsters – animal, supernatural, human. Will we find in them any redeeming qualities? Probably not. But the thing is, if you want to write about heroes and courage then you’re going to have to write about the monsters too.
The Problem with cosmological gods is that they’re both too big to have fun with, and represent too small a pool of characters. With only the godhead Zurvan and his twin sons to call upon I feared that events within the Song of Ages might get to be a bit predictable. I wanted variety: gods that could come to your rescue, or take against you; gods that can make you smile, or get you annoyed, or make your skin crawl. Gods that could more easily interfere with the plot.
And so below that cosmological trinity, I ordained another layer of divinity: the middle order gods, along with all the supernatural hangers-on and adjuncts you might expect – the wights, the boggarts, the fae etc. These middle order gods would be nature gods, set on the Earth in the act of creation to bring order to the tides and the winds and the fertility of the world, and to provide equally both comfort and challenge to mankind.
I decided that these must be the gods known through all the ages of the earth. I’ve written their Earnor names in the general glossary. You’ll find there Pidra, Hammerhand, Uovin, Neath and several more. Rather than burden this piece with their descriptions, here’s a link to the page.
In the world we know people do a lot of praying.
On Earnor the amount and intensity of praying has varied over the 8000 years of this new creation. There are places and times when fervid petitions form the basis of all action in society; there are places and times when a secular understanding of the world abandons all notions of religion or the supernatural. And everything between. Earnor is a living, evolving world.
At the time of the story told in The Best of Men, 3057 PF, the nation of Masachea still counts Ah’remmon as Lord of All That Is, but there’s a weariness at the heart of society and a growing distaste for the rituals of the Black Magi. Legally the country is ruled by the Celebrant, but he is little more than a figurehead installed to tie the church to the state. In reality the Chief Sirdar holds ultimate power. The Sirdar is Priest General of the Church of the One King but don’t think that as a priest he is a man of deeply held beliefs. The Sirdar uses the established church only to maintain control – it is so easy that he has become something of a lazy tyrant.
Across the Hurgal Mts in the Nation of the Seven Pars religion is either largely ignored - beyond a general belief that Ahura, God of the Just, overlooks all human life - or it is localized with communities celebrating the influence of various nature gods in seasonal festivals. There are no priests, and no sign of a church in Ayer, the nation’s capital.
Among the many polities that make up the wide country of Aegarde we can find a bewildering range of churches and beliefs. In volume 2 – The Twist Inside – we’ll see one of these churches close up.
The state of G0thery is too busy to be bothered with gods. An industrial fever has taken hold. Business and Mechanics and Science rule the day. People mostly don’t even believe in magic anymore. They’ll learn.
So what is the point of all this? Can’t I just ignore religion and get on with the action? Well no.
To start with I find it difficult to accept even fantasy worlds where people don’t behave like people. Religiosity is part of what we humans are, as is atheism. It’s in the mix of what prompts human behaviour and should be reflected in some way.
But it’s more than that. Importantly the tendency towards religious adherence is deeply involved in the story of A Song of Ages. It is significant to the plot.
Am I sure this is epic fantasy? Oh yes.
Is there some religious propaganda going on here? Categorically not.
Fret not, the next entry will be much more fun – it’s all about monsters.
Triangles aren’t mechanically strong. If you push on any one of the sides the structure is more likely to collapse than to stand against the pressure you exert. Oh there are little tricks you can employ to do with mitres, and superglue, nails and screws, but of itself the triangle is only strong if equal or proportionate pressure is placed on each side. If you get the pressure right according to the dimensions of the triangle then the situation is reversed and the triangle becomes strong.
In my Song of Ages series the triangle that provides the foundation of the world of Earnor is made from the trinity of constructs: Science, Magic and Religion. A risky business. The triangle is rarely equilateral – the length of the sides varies through history, and the weight of expectations pushing against each of these sides is inconstant. I expect everything to collapse. I want everything to collapse so that I can see what will be left behind.
Let’s talk about the metaphysics and the religious consequences.
Not all fantasies need Gods, but many do. Right at the beginning of this project I decided that my subject was the nature of good and evil and my premise was that both ends of the continuum and everything between were the property and preserve of human beings. Not supernatural forces. The odd thing was I found it easier to explore that idea by giving the world of Earnor a well-structured theological base that embodies good and evil. Literally: I needed a god of good and a god of evil both stomping about the world getting involved.
The obvious pattern to follow was perhaps the Zoroastrian model. Ahura Mazda, the creator god, the Spenta Mainyu (progressive spirit) who lives in the brightness above, set against the Angra Mainyu (destructive spirit) who lives below and seeks always to bring everything to chaos. In Middle Persian the Angra Mainyu is named Ahriman. I went to Heffers in Cambridge and got myself a book of collected and really very ancient Zoroastrian texts. I was at once enthralled and yet frustrated. I was looking for a clue, for a key piece of information that would let me understand a new theology for my world. There was much about Zarathustra himself in the “zand of lost Avestan texts” but none of it appealed to me; I wandered through the Gathas, was intrigued by the vision of Heaven and Hell from Arda Viraz Namag – a sort of precursor to Dante’s Divine Comedy. None of it really worked. And then I came across reports of a Zorastrian heresy of the 5th century BC.
“Theopompus says that, according to the Magians, for three thousand years, alternately, one god will dominate the other and be dominated, and that for three thousand years they will fight and make war, until one smashes up (sic) the domain of the other.” (Trans J Gwynn Griffiths, Plutarch’s De Iside et Osiride, ch 46, pp. 193-5.)
Liked that idea. I read the next passage: Versions of the Myth of Zurvan and his Twin Sons. I’m not going to give you a quote but you should know that reading the passage provided the spark of revelation that created the heart of my story. Not some religious epiphany of course – I am not prone to religiosity – but that was the moment when it all pretty much clicked into place. In this heresy Zurvan, that is Time, is the creator God, and he makes the world of men, and to govern this world of men the God decides he must create from himself a son. But unfortunately within the womb of time this son becomes divided into a spirit and person of good, and a spirit and person of evil. Ahura and Ahriman. (The passage is quoted as “From an Armenian Source” in the book Ed Mary Boyce, Textual Sources for a Study of Zoroastrianism, Manchester University Press, 1984, Chap 8, pages 97/98.)
I can’t tell you any more about this part of the religious background to the world of Earnor because I might spoil the story, but look at that: Zurvan the father who cannot help but beget both good and evil sons who are destined to fight each other through all the ages of the earth.
And it is that duality, and the trauma of Zurvan’s existence, that becomes the source of the Power Inherent that runs through the world of Earnor. The struggle, the conflict between the two great forces of existence endows those involved in the struggle, at whatever level, with power according to the measure required.
All I needed now was a hero, with all the power of Ahura in the struggle, to make the picture complete.
I flicked backwards to page 90 of the book cited. Hadn’t I just skated through something important? The chapter section 7.1 was titled “On the coming of the Sayoshant”. The Sayoshant, the just man, would be the saviour of the world. In the texts he is sometimes called The Best of Men.
And that’s enough for now. Next time we’ll leave the more cosmological aspects of religion and get closer in to the Gods of the Earth.
Fantasy Gods Magic World Building
One of the most common complaints in all of fantasy literature is that Gandalf doesn’t do enough magic. We all know that he holds “a power beyond the strength of kings.” But how is that shown? Aragorn says “Do I not say truly, Gandalf, that you could go withersoever you wished quicker than I?” Do we ever see Gandalf translocate? We do not. Do we see him blasting orcs to smithereens? No. For myself I loved Gandalf as he was, but always wanted to see that moment when he just let rip and showed what he was made of.
I’m clearly not the only one who wants a bit more magical action. In the book Tolkien skates over whatever confrontation there may have been between Gandalf and Saruman: “They took me and set me alone on the pinnacle of Orthanc” is all we get. Not so with the film. Peter Jackson gives us a wizards’ duel between the two – all staffs, and grunts and telekinesis.
And how about JK Rowling? She wanted magic to be central to her stories. She gave us wizards and witches with wands and spells that do terrible things to people. JK gave us translocation, and transformation, levitation, potions and curses. She even gave us domestic magic that can do the dishes and deliver post.
In 1982 I decided to work out what it was I wanted from fantasy in terms of magic – what I wanted to put into a world that I would create. Not long out of university the first idea was that I wanted Magic to be a discipline you could learn like any other. And there would be varied forms of magic to learn. That was an easy enough notion.
Too easy, I thought.
No, there had to be something else, and it all revolved around the questions: “Where does the magic come from; why does it exist?”
I always did like to make things more difficult than perhaps they had to be.
Sometime between 1982 and 1985 I decided that the best way to answer those questions would be to institute a Collegium Magi on the Isle of Errensea – I’m so vague about the date because the relevant section of my notes was cited as being “in Exercise Book 1” which I cannot now find.
But a college for wizards! What ho!
Not exactly an original thought even in the eighties.
This college would teach a rounded education. Students must learn Natural Sciences, Liberal Arts, Languages, History, Politics and Geography, as you might expect, and of course they must learn Magic. Oh I didn’t want to write the story of a college of magic – I just needed it to exist. Because then I could pull apart what “magic” in the Song of Ages books would be all about.
The discipline of Magic as taught would cover many approaches – the teaching would be eclectic, not hide bound by a particular ideology – but it would be possible to delineate most elements within two key areas: the realities of magic as revealed in The Books of Lore, and the theory of magic as described in the Texts of Power.
The Books of Lore are extensive. They encompass the List of True Names; they enumerate the spells used to create different effects; they list third parties to be invoked (or run from) in the use of intervention; alchemy and potion making in practice is described in detail, with elements and substances organized into tables and lexicons. And so on. The Books of Lore tell you what you need to know and how you need to act in order achieve results.
The Texts of Power are all about why magic works – and as you might imagine they offer evolving insights into the nature and purpose of the world of Earnor.
The theories described within the Texts of Power are often contradictory, consensus is rarely achieved. We may find old notions of Sympathy and Contagion challenged by ideas regarding the mechanics of linguistics and of formulae, and based on the undeniable efficacy of the Language of Command; and yet some passages will expound upon the existence of a spirit world and its controlling influence as the basis of all happenstance, mysterious or otherwise. One powerful line of thought insists that all such notions are nonsense and that magic is merely the exercise of will, and dependent only on the power of will an individual may possess.
In only one instance can the Texts be understood to maintain an incontrovertible truth that has overridden all other theories.
It is that the ability to perform magic is dependent upon the Power Inherent.
Without the Power Inherent any person may have the ability to speak a command, to create admixtures of elements, to perform a ritual. But without the spark that comes from the Power Inherent there will be no conclusion to those efforts.
The world is full of people but only a percentage of them can reach within themselves and liberate enough Power Inherent to make magic work. But each of those so blessed will have abilities and limitations that are entirely their own.
Let’s take two wizards from The Best of Men: Tregar MacNabaer and Roar (pron Ro’ arr) McAndre. (Incidentally not all wizards are men in the Song of Ages books, as a whole numbers male and female are equal, but it is undeniable that the Council of Errensea employs a preponderance of male agents.)
Tregar is a healer wizard. His use of the Power Inherent is largely directed towards making people well. If challenged to a duel he would most likely take up a sword. But when laying hands on an injury something in his mind explodes with vision and understanding, and employing techniques he has been taught he can often reverse the damage done.
Roar’s greatest ability is in using the Power Inherent to communicate – without words, over great distances with any sentience he chooses. However he is also competent at using the Power in other more aggressive directions. For example he can cause pain, he can push a man off his horse without physical contact, he can control the physical actions of others.
Tregar would insist that Roar is the more powerful wizard – but in this case the difference is more a matter of direction than level. Common people have various talents – some may be good at presentation, or spatial awareness, or empathy: they may sing, or play football well, they may write books. But the book writer may also be quite good at football. So it is with magic and the Power Inherent.
But don’t think that the Power is of constant and universal strength. Some people really do have more than others. Seama Beltomé is the most complete wizard of his age. He is gifted in many expressions of magic. His knowledge is vast, his experience unparalleled, and his attention to learning technique obsessive. He strives for perfection. But so could many. In Seama’s case this striving is married to exceptional strength.
Seama can draw through himself a torrent of energy unavailable to lesser wizards, and he can express that power in any manner he sees fit. Sometimes. Never mind the subtleties of disguise, of far-seeing, interrogation or command, Seama can put his weight upon the world. He could blast his enemy with lightning, he could topple a building, or hold back a flood.
The Collegium Magi founded in the year 0 PF – now mostly known as the College of Errensea – has been teaching magic as best it can for 3000 years. But it has never managed to gift anyone the slightest degree of the Power Inherent. People either have it or they have not.
Or to put it more accurately: they either have access to it, or they do not.
Because although it may seem that the power comes from within the individual, in reality the Power Inherent runs through all of existence. Magic occurs when human beings become conduits of that Power and have learned how to control it.
I’ll tell you about the origins of the Power in my next Best of Men blog:
“Gods – who’d have ‘em?”
How do you create a world for your fantasy?
My Song of Ages, I kid you not, was begun even before I left university in 1981. Since I was 13 I’d been an avid reader of fantasy and science fiction. Just the other I day I visited the Ice and Fire wiki page. What caught my eye was the “Inspiration” section. It was as though someone had asked me to write down all my favourite authors. All those stories, all those worlds. Back in the eighties my biggest fantasy was that I could create stories, create a world that was half as good as Andre Norton’s Witch World or Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast.
I asked myself what it might be like.
My degree was in sociology and religious studies, with a sideline in psychology. The raw material on how human beings behave in societies, and the belief systems they put in place to give order to their lives had been a large chunk of my staple diet for three years. But the part of it that really fascinated me was the way value judgements about peers are inevitably based on the secular and religious rules we create as groups. So we (speaking loosely here) in a societal way feel bound to condemn anarchists and terrorists, to sneer at and regularly persecute non-conformists, and we tell ourselves that these people are intrinsically bad.
And when we overlay such conclusions with highly developed religious belief systems we start to talk about heathens and infidels and blasphemers, and how the wrath of God will be visited upon the unbelievers. And these unbelievers are perforce a little bit more than just bad - are they not evil?
But what is evil? What is good? Surely being evil is about something a bit more serious than the odd blasphemy? Being good is surely some way beyond being visibly righteous?
I wanted to write a book, a fantasy about good and evil rather than simply being entertained by the clash between the two.
You’ll have to forgive me - I was young and a bit arrogant at the time. Age has given me a little perspective on life, and also a better understanding of how stories have stand up for themselves, to live on their own merit - they must never EVER try to be an exposition of some sort of pseudo intellectual theory.
But at least the idea, however faulty, got me started.
The question was: In what sort of world could I look at good and evil best? No great surprise but for me it absolutely had to be a world of men and women - not elves and dwarves. And it had to be a world not historically placed because there’d be too much baggage, too many excuses for groups of people to take umbrage at the abuse of the things they hold dear: the actual saints, the recorded miracles, the creeds handed down through the millenia, the dogmas they embrace.
So I put my world, the earth, into a future. Oh I’m not going to give you spoilers. I can’t tell you how this future comes to be - it’s part of the plot. But one thing I had to have was an established future. I wanted the residents of this new Age to have developed societies with the potential to progress and to recreate, in a new way, the modern technological world we now know.
I was and am fascinated by the Enlightenment and the dawn of the industrial age. Hell, I’m from Lancashire, half way between Manchester and Liverpool. There are many hotspots of the Industrial Revolution thoughout the UK and across the world but I feel at liberty to claim a bit of that heritage as my own - for good or for ill.
An 18th Century equivalent then. A time when the Late Medieval world was challenged by the advances of the Early Modern. That’s the sort of world where I could easily expect those explosions of new thinking in science, and in philosophy, in theology and humanitarianism to be springing up all over the place. Of course this new thinking presupposes the prevalence of the old order that will in some places be stronger than in others, though it may be jaded or even decadent.
So, I remade the earth, settled on the continent of Asteranor, and divided that into four nations - each of them distinct entities, varied in organization, and history and religious bent, and also in degree of development.
Masachea - Land of the Flesh. A corrupt nation too long in the tooth, and too bloody in the tooth to even begin to think about progress.
The Nation of the Seven Pars - a fine nation wrested by courageous rebellion from the Masachean Empire of Blood. A bastion of truth, bravery and enlightenment.
Aegarde - the protectorate. The most chaotic of the four - an agglomeration of many states and polities, Dukedoms and Baronetcies. Feudalism sits cheek by jowl with fabulously rich cities, mundane municipalities, religious autocracies and plain commonsense villages.
And then of course there is Gothery. Named after the ancient tribe: the Gothae, and not because they wear black and have dodgy obsessions. No, Gothery is the seat of revolution - Industrial Revolution. If there’s going to be progress towards anything like the technological modern society we know, this is where it will start.
So there you have the beginnings of my world of Earnor. A place where I can explore to my heart’s content all the glories, the idiocies, the joys, the cruelties, the decency and the indecency of mankind.
Is this really a fantasy you’re writing, you ask - an epic fantasy?
Next blog we’ll talk about Magic.
It’s difficult trying to identify beginnings but in 2002 something very important happened to me.
I visited Jane Johnson in her office at Harper Collins in Hammersmith. Jane Johnson is head of fantasy and science fiction (and probably a lot more). For many years she’s been responsible for the Tolkien estate books, she edits George RR Martin among so many other great fantasy writers, and she is an exquisite novelist – my favourites being the aka Jude Fisher fantasy trilogy Fool’s Gold and the historical novel The Sultan’s Wife.
So how did I get the meeting? Slightly embarrassed to admit that it was because I was working for Harper Collins at the time, as a sales rep. In my time I’ve sold lots of the books you’ve probably read. But Jane knew I did a bit of writing too. Six months past I’d been privileged to have Jane look at, and critique(!) my extremely faulty Ministry Rat. I had to make up for that. Now she wanted to let me know what her reader thought of my latest offering: part 1 of The Best of Men.
The report was comprehensive – I got to keep it. There was enthusiasm for the “really interesting story” and the engaging characters, appreciation for my ability to draw out the horror of a scene – “he’s very good at gore” – but of course there were some negatives. The writing was “patchy” and the whole thing “needed a lot more work.”
The Best of Men wasn’t going to be Harper Collin’s next bestseller – not then and perhaps not ever.
But this was not a negative occasion at all. Because Jane said: “This is definitely what you’re good at. Stick with epic fantasy, Wilf. You can write.”
There’ll be people out there ever brimming with self-confidence. This story will pass them by. They may not understand the impact of those words.
For most of my adult life I had been writing. But in my head you couldn’t call yourself a writer until you were published. In my head there was always a little demon reminding me that I wasn’t published. And I wasn’t published, obviously, because I couldn’t write. “You’re no Ian Banks, no Guy Gavriel Kay. Why do you even bother?” You see I really thought that people were either novelists or they were not. It seemed clear that I was not.
But then there was that moment in Jane Johnson’s office. “You can write.” Was it permission? Was it affirmation? Both. And it was encouragement.
In our daily lives there are meetings, conversations, arguments and a gazillion e-mails that fly by every minute, every hour. Most of us struggle to keep smiling. But some people know that something good can come from every encounter face to face, or mail to mail. And some of those people understand that the good needs to come from themselves. Jane understood that and because she is a generous and intelligent woman she decided to give me something precious. But it was more precious, I suspect, than she quite expected.
There are moments that can change everything, there are people whose words can blow away the past. Jane is not mentioned on the acknowledgments page of my novel. I didn’t have the gall to graft her name into my product – she is after all found in the acknowledgments of many more worthy and established fantasy writers. But I seriously feel the need to say a huge thank you to her for those words, and for that moment.
So there we are. This is a thank you for Jane Johnson. But also it’s a reminder to anyone who needs it that what we are, and what we do, and what we say has a tremendous impact on all the people we meet. So let’s be kind and positive in all our encounters. And perhaps we should always pause for a second to think about what would be the very best thing to say – not for ourselves but for the person we’re talking to.
The postscript to this is that eventually I finished The Best of Men and have just self-published on Kindle. I hope the book does that moment proud. If you want to take a look you could use the Look Inside section on the Amazon page. But don’t think you have to! Thank you for reading this far.
“You can write,” she said. So I did.