“Deliverance Lost” – by Neil Roberts
Gav Thorpe is one of those authors I’ve been aware of for longer than I originally realised – I even read his first published short story (see below). He worked on White Dwarf magazine when I used to read it, and I’m very familiar with his work for Black Library. He’s had a pretty busy couple of years of late – with fiction releases through Black Library and Angry Robot – so I thought it would be a good time to get in touch and ask him a few questions about his writing, upcoming projects, and more.
You’re currently writing an Eldar series for Black Library. How would you introduce a new reader to the series, and where do you see it going in the future?
The Eldar are one of the major non-human factions of the Warhammer 40,000 universe, and have been previously under-represented in Black Library fiction. My intent for the series was to take a definitive look at this strange race, examining their society, their warfare and, most importantly, their different mindset. The Eldar provide an opportunity to write and read a different sort of science-fantasy than commonly seen with the fiction that concentrates on the Imperium of Man. It is ultra-tech, highly psychic and embedded in a different mythos to the human race’s view of the galaxy. The three books look at the various aspects of Eldar life; the Warrior, the Seer and the Outcast, giving a variety of perspectives on a single chain of events.
It is a self-contained arc, so once the three books are done, the story will be told, but just like mankind, the Eldar are a broad race with many different stories to tell. I don’t think I’ll be returning to the main characters from this trilogy, but there has been a lot of interest in some of the secondary characters, and maybe I’ll explore their lives in more detail in short stories and future novels.
Your Eldar series is one of the few with non-humans as its protagonists. What (if any) were the challenges of writing from the Eldar perspective?
The challenge with writing any alien perspective is the tension between creating strange, different viewpoints and beliefs, and making the characters at least partly understandable and their motives credible to us human readers. Go too far one way and the narrative will be incomprehensible; too far the other and we end up with humans with pointy ears. For the Eldar, the challenge was to present three particular facets of their society and personality: their Path lifestyle, their psychic nature, and their extreme emotional state.
The whole series deals with the Path, in which an Eldar focuses on a single facet of their personality to the exclusion of everything else, perfecting not only physical and temporal skills, but also dealing with some aspect of their inner nature, whether that is anger, fear, ambition, sense of mortality or whatever. In regard to their psychic nature, I wanted to embed this into their day-to-day life, so that it is not just spectacular battlefield pyrotechnics (of which there are plenty in Path of the Seer!) but also an innate bond between the Eldar and their Craftworld. The last facet, their extreme emotional state, is perhaps the trickiest. The Eldar feel in a way that is far grander than humans, experiencing highs and lows at every opportunity. This meant dialing up their emotional responses to eleven, so that every setback might be a disaster and every victory is the greatest triumph ever, every slight the worst insult possible, every friendship a bond that goes deeper that simple comradeship. It can verge on melodrama at times, so I have to make sure the emotional journey feels credible within the Eldar mindset, even if it sometimes seems excessive to the readers.
Your Deliverance Lost novel is out in January. It’s your first full-length Horus Heresy novel. What can you tell us about it? What was it like writing for the series?
Working on the Horus Heresy has been both joyful and fraught. Getting to play in the huge sandpit of the Heresy, with Primarchs as characters and whole Space Marine Legions fighting it out, is a wonderful opportunity for a type of storytelling not found in the ‘present day’ 40K fiction. Against that is measured the huge expectations of the fans; when previous novels have become New York Times bestsellers you feel some pressure to deliver!
The story of Deliverance Lost expands on an event that has been established previously in the background of the Heresy, that of the terrible losses suffered by the Raven Guard Legion and the attempts of their Primarch to rebuild their strength with some profound consequences. The new twist on this known background is the involvement of the enigmatic Alpha Legion, who are experts in stealth and manipulation. The fates of both Legions become entwined, and so there are revelations for fans of the Raven Guard and Alpha Legion, as well as moving the greater story of the Heresy forward.
Alongside your fiction for Black Library, you have written a fantasy series wholly your own. Can you tell us a little bit about this series, and what new readers will find? Also, where do you see it going in the future?
The Crown of the Blood is published by Angry Robot, and my short pitch for it was: A fantasy version of HBO’s Rome. It takes place in a Bronze Age world, very different from the medieval style of Warhammer. The main character, Ullsaard, begins as a general of the Askhan Empire, which is a blend of ancient Rome, Macedonia and Persia (mostly…). Ullsaard gets drawn into some serious politicking by the Blood, who are the ruling family of the empire, and eventually realizes his own ambitions. There is a broad cast of characters, some of them vying for power and position, others simply trying to survive these tumultuous times.
If we think of Black Library books as a sort of PG-rated fiction, this is definitely an 18 certificate. There is swearing and sex, and the violence is brutal and bloody, but that’s as much a reflection of the society the characters live in – especially the military – than any deliberate attempt to make it a more ‘adult’ book.
The first arc is planned for three books, with the third instalment planned for release next summer. It’s hard to talk about future developments without giving away too much about the grand finale, but I have been chatting to Marco from Angry Robot and it would be cool to expand upon the world created in some way, though probably not continuing directly from the narrative of The Crown of the Blood.
What inspired you to write the Crown series (Crown of the Blood and Crown of the Conqueror)?
As well as the HBO series Rome, my main inspirations come from ancient history. Ullsaard is a blend of Phillip and Alexander of Macedonia, with a healthy lump of Julius Caesar thrown in. I wanted to create a world that wasn’t propped up by the standard pseudo-medieval fantasy archetypes – knights, castles, elves and dragons – and so the fantasy elements are low key, though as the series progresses their importance becomes clear. I didn’t want to shine a big spotlight on the fantastical but just assumed it into the background, trying to make it feel everyday. With that said, I’m also a fan of whimsy in fantasy fiction, so couldn’t stop myself having giant cats being ridden by the characters, massive dinosaur-like behemodons and there is a strange caste of wizardy-priesty types behind the scenes. It’s fantasy, but not overly magical, if that makes sense.
Where do you draw your inspiration from generally, and who or what would you say are your greatest influences?
I have drawn inspiration from all over the place, in terms of the people I was reading when young (and still read). On the whole, the genuine inspiration comes from our own history, which quite often contains characters, encounters and episodes more entertaining and unbelievable that the fictional creations of others. I read something – that the ancient Greeks had steam engines as ‘toys’, for example – and I think of how that could be changed slightly for a fantasy story. There are several key events in The Crown of the Blood that are directly inspired by reported actions of Phillip, Alexander of Julius, which are so suitably legendary or heroic that they didn’t need much alteration to fit in with an epic fantasy story.
How do you enjoy being a writer and working within the publishing industry? Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
I love being a writer! I get to work from home, I have tremendous freedom to choose my projects and I get to make up stuff for a living. There are some downsides – lack of a regular pay packet being an obvious one – but it would be very hard for me to return to a stable office environment again. I’ve been lucky to work with great editors, both at Black Library and Angry Robot, and have enjoyed a charmed path to being published; I have avoided the trauma of slush piles and rejection letters that lots of writers have to endure.
I schedule my projects to write 3,000 words a day, and that’s always what I aim for. In theory, I start in the morning and finish by the evening, working regular hours, but often I won’t get started until after lunch. Sometimes I come up short, other days I’ll write 5,000+ words. The hardest part is balancing time spent planning and thinking about future projects and time at the keyboard actually writing current works. However, I have learnt that the more effort put into preparation, the less problems arise when it comes to the long typing part.
When did you realise you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
I’ve always been creatively-focused, from my early days wanting to be an illustrator, through to being a games developer for Games Workshop. Lacking the required skill and patience to be an artist, writing seemed to be a good fit. Even at school I would try to twist every English or Art assignment into something fantastical, and I was always creating rules, characters and scenarios for roleplaying and miniature games.
I got my break by being part of Games Workshop’s design studio when the Black Library was founded. My first short story was published in Issue #2 of Inferno! Magazine, and everything built from there. As an indication of my ambition, it is worth noting that my story detailed the meeting between Sigmar and King Kurgan of the Dwarfs, one the most pivotal events in Warhammer history! I got lots of great feedback on that – the manuscript came back with more red than back ink – and it was on those first short stories that I learnt about constructing a narrative. The writing itself is a bit clunky, and I am always learning what I can do to hone my writing craft, but the essential elements of character and storyline are there.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
I am terrible at answering these sorts of questions! I really don’t spend too much time thinking about other writers or the wider genre, I just concentrate on my contributions. I think that there is no single genre of fantasy or sci-fi these days, it is constantly dividing, growing, sub-dividing and developing. I’d love to dabble in all of them, trying my hand at urban fantasy, alternate history, steam punk, sci-fantasy, hard sci-fi (perhaps not paranormal romance!). There’s never enough time, and though I hope I’ve got thirty years more writing ahead of me, there will always be a new area and new characters to explore. I’m looking for a challenge every time I start a new project, and genre writing has plenty of scope for that.
For my Black Library work, I hope that it shows that tie-in fiction (and writers) has merit in its own right, so that as well as giving established fans what they know and love it can also bring in readers who have no relationship with the tabletop games and no existing experience of the Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 worlds.
With The Crown of the Blood, I just wanted to create a storyline that is all about ambiguity and realpolitik. Good and evil aren’t external concepts imposed on people by righteous kings and dark overlords, but are defined by the actions of characters and the morals of their societies. Also, I wanted to write an extended narrative that had nothing to do with the well-worn quest storyline, but had a more evolving, amorphous goal. I have nothing against ‘classical’ fantasy of this type, and have read lots of it, but I wanted something that felt more akin to a fictional history than a romance adventure.
What projects do you have currently in the pipeline?
I have just finished a couple of novellas for Black Library, and am about to start Path of the Outcast, the third Eldar book. I have The Crown of the Usurper coming up to finish off the trilogy for Angry Robot, and I’m embarking on a new Warhammer 40,000 series following the Dark Angels Space Marines. There’s also plenty of short stories and audio dramas to fit into my coming schedule. I also have a couple of other irons warming in the fire at the moment, for novels, but it’s too early to talk about them.
Who are you reading at the moment (fiction and/or non-fiction)?
Iain M. Banks’ Matter – I’m a massive fan of the Culture in particular. Just finished The Warded Man (I picked up the U.S. version on a recent trip, it’s called The Painted Man in the UK) by Peter V. Brett. I’m also dipping in and out of The Fall of Empires by Cormac O’Brien, a non-fiction study of the causes of the collapse of the great civilizations of antiquity.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
I am a pro-wrestling nerd. It might not surprise folks that I cheer the bad guys more often than the good guys… You’ve gotta love a quality villain.
What are you most looking forward to in the next year?
I’m looking forward to a host of new things. 2010/11 sees several of my current series ending, so I’ll be starting on a bunch of fresh work, which means lots of thinking time, scribbling ideas on flip charts and Making Up Stuff, which is my favourite part of the whole process.