See also Nathan’s review of A Quiet Vengeance
How did you come to decide to set your new book, A Quiet Vengeance, in the same world as your other series (The Brotherhood of the Eagle)? What were some of the pros and cons of doing this?
All my published novels so far have been set in the same fantasy world of Amuran and this has always been a bigger world than the setting experienced in The Brotherhood of the Eagle. Observant readers will have noticed a lot of references to places that aren’t shown on the map you find in the books (and you can check out the wider world here), including Samarakand, which is the setting for A Quiet Vengeance (AQV). So from that point of view, I already had a ready-made setting waiting to be used.
However, AQV’s origins come from a minor character found in Lost Gods called Tellian, a merchant from Samarakand. An idea formed around him, about exploring either his backstory or potentially a spin off where Tellian had to return to his homeland. As I began to develop the concept I quickly decided I didn’t want a huge Brotherhood backstory weighing him down, especially as this is supposed to be a standalone. I split Tellian’s character in two – there’s the part of him you find in Lost Gods and then the rest of him became Fasil of the Abitek, who you meet in AQV.
So this was very much a case of characters coming first, and the setting being necessary to tell their story.
In terms of pros and cons, there’s obviously a risk with effectively jettisoning an established and well-loved cast of characters and creating something completely new. However, because the wider world setting and history was already well established, including the pantheon of worldwide deities, it still felt like I was slipping into a familiar environment. The major pro was being able to show that wider world for the first time, enabling me to develop different ideas. In Brotherhood the male-dominated warrior culture ethos can be a bit constraining at times. In AQV I was able to explore different expressions of power in a more diverse and varied set of cultures.
Your new series is inspired by the cultures and histories of Western Asia. Was it difficult writing about a cultural context that (I assume!) you are not a member of? What were some of the challenges you faced?
I live in Derbyshire in England, so it’s a very different place to the Middle East and North Africa, which were the main inspirations for the setting of the story. There are certainly challenges to writing about a different culture from your own and you need to treat that task very respectfully and carefully. It’s really important that you don’t slip into cultural stereotypes or inadvertently give offence. When I was distributing advance copies of the book for reviews, my inner circle of ARC readers were tasked with helping me to identify any sensitivity issues for this reason.
Stemming from this, I think the key challenge when trying to stretch your creativity beyond your own experience is to keep it authentic. I think that comes mainly from the characters, rather than the setting. It’s crucial to ensure they’re true and consistent with the world and culture they come from. This actually applies to all fantasy settings, as I’m no more a Viking than I am a gangland criminal, coffeeshop owner or a banker.
This leads us nicely into the next question …
When you write a book inspired by real cultures (like the Norse in Hall of Bones), how close to the “real thing” do you feel like you need to keep it? When do you feel like you can deviate and do your own thing and when do you have to stick to history?
I’m writing fantasy rather than historical fiction, so I don’t feel a need to copy or slavishly follow events in our own world. In both Brotherhood and AQV it’s more about the aesthetic feel of a place and setting, rather than a faithful replication of somewhere real here on Earth. I describe Brotherhood as Viking-inspired fantasy rather than Norse (although the Norse tag has stuck and won’t go away!), because those stories don’t borrow in any way from Norse myth. Amuran has its own worldwide religion, which is a concept I’m still developing at the moment.
In AQV I did do research on Middle Eastern and North African cuisine, as food plays a significant part in that story for several of the characters. Some of the names for objects, officials and warriors are drawn from history but in many cases I simply made up my own names. I tried particularly hard not to use anything which has a religious connotation in our world, so in that respect I moved firmly into fantasy territory, rather than historical fiction.
One of my favorite things about A Quiet Vengeance was the “dual timeline” structure. How soon in the writing process did you decide to structure the book this way, and why did you decide that?
This is a perfect opportunity to mention I have written a blog on exactly this topic! To briefly summarise, about 20 years ago I read the sci-fi novel Use of Weapons by Iain M Banks, which famously uses not only a dual timeline but for one of those strands it’s a reverse timeline. It was the first time I noticed that structure plays a key role in how stories are told.
The dual timeline is needed in AQV because that structure enables me to create one of the central mysteries of the novel. We know from the outset that Nimsah and Dojan have a shared past, but the reader has to wait to discover how the Nimsah we meet as a child becomes the powerful financial figure we encounter in the present.
Can you give us a hint of what is next for Nimsah and Dojan in Book Two?
The honest answer is I really don’t know at this stage! AQV is the first in a series of standalone novels, so the idea is each story will focus on a different set of central characters. However, they inhabit a shared world, giving me an opportunity to bring in characters from other stories. I’ll have a better idea once I’ve completed plotting out the sequel to AQV, tentatively titled A Quiet Betrayal.
I have the third book of The Brotherhood of the Eagle on my imminent TBR, but Hall of Bones and Sundered Souls are very different books. Hall of Bones is very political and Sundered Souls is more of a military fantasy. Did you intentionally want these books to be so different, or was that just the natural progression of the story?
That’s actually the first time I’ve had those two books compared in that way, although I agree with your analysis now I think about it. In my view the political strand is strong throughout the series but the move from local clan politics into a wider military conflict was always the envisaged path of the series. In Lost Gods that continues, with the politics established in Hall of Bones continuing to have consequences. This is all wrapped together with a more traditional fantasy quest for some of our characters. I’ll be interested to see what you think of that.
Your books always have a lot of characters. How do you keep them all straight for yourself?
I maintain a detailed database summarising all my characters. This is a much expanded version of what you find in the novels themselves, detailing their physical appearance, weapons and armour, allegiances, achievements, history and so forth. This is constantly being developed alongside writing the novels, helping me to remain consistent and not forget key facts.
What are you writing right now?
I have four separate works in progress at the moment, although I have to confess with all the promotional work I’m currently doing for AQV I’m actually working on none of them!
Broken Brotherhood is the fourth and final instalment in The Brotherhood of the Eagle. It will be an emotional moment completing that series, which I began in 2011. I’m about 37,000 words into writing the novel at the moment and I plan to release the book in 2024.
I’m involved in The Anatomy of Fear fantasy horror anthology, which is an exciting project. I’ll be editing my contribution to the collection, working on an audiobook version of the story and also helping administer some aspects. Release is slated for October 2023, although the final date is still to be confirmed.
I’ll also be contributing a story, probably set in my Brotherhood universe, to another fantasy anthology called The Advent of Winter. This is another independent author project that should see the full collection come together in early 2024. Current number of words written for my story stands at zero … I keep telling myself there’s plenty of time.
Finally, I’m releasing a short story series called The Wolf Throne, a prequel of sorts to Brotherhood, free with my bi-monthly newsletter. This features a character called Ingioy Whiteoak, and if you’ve been reading closely you’ll notice she makes an appearance in Brotherhood. It’s another example of a minor character taking charge and turning into a project in their own right. Eventually, I hope this will become another standalone novel, although the stories are designed to work a bit like an epic fantasy soap opera, so it’s possible to pick up the narrative from any point. Time will tell whether or not this was a good idea!
After saying all that, if AQV takes off this year then some of this might change, and I may move A Quiet Betrayal up the agenda. We’ll see …
What is something that you have recently read, watched, or listened to that you would recommend?
I recently finished watching Seasons 6 of The Expanse, which is one of my favourite TV shows of all time. It’s so well-written and the characters are so nuanced and believable. I can see me starting again soon from Season 1!