Brian McClellan’s debut fantasy, Promise of Blood, has caused quite a splash in the SFF community. It blends fast-paced story-telling with a new and interesting world, and a plethora of interesting and engaging characters. Brian has already featured on Civilian Reader a few of times already. He has written two guest posts – on his favourite novel, and also Protagonist Ages in Epic Fantasy – and I have reviewed the novel already, too. He was kind enough to take some time to answer my questions about his fiction, writing practices, and more…
Let’s start with an introduction: Who is Brian McClellan?
I’m an epic fantasy author. I wrote Promise of Blood, a flintlock fantasy novel out now from Orbit Books, and the sequel, The Crimson Campaign, which will be out in February of 2014.
I also garden, make homemade jams, play computer and tabletop games, and read. I'm married to an awesome woman who is not only my best friend, but my first editor on everything I write.
Let’s get the typical question out of the way: Your latest novel, Promise of Blood, was recently published by Orbit. How would you introduce the novel to a potential reader?
I went into Promise of Blood wondering what would happen if a typical medieval fantasy world progressed into an Industrial Revolution in much the same way as our own world did. How would magic effect the politics, religion, and day-to-day life? What role would sorcerers play in society? How would advancing technology effect sorcery?
These questions form the basis of the world and in this world one man decides to end the tyranny of his king. Promise of Blood begins with that coup and follows what happens afterword: internal strife, predatory neighbor nations, and religious beliefs at which most modern men scoff.
The novel is inspired by your interest in history. What, or who, kindled this spark of interest, and how would you try to instill it in another person?
As a kid, I fell deeply in love with the King Arthur mythos. I was absolutely convinced that every bit of it was real and was very disappointed to learn that it was not, in fact, accurate history.
When I accepted that those stories weren’t real I moved on to epic fantasy but I never really gave up my love of the very cool—and very real—people and nations from throughout our history. As a teenager I read books on the Ottoman Empire, China, on Rome and Greece... everything I could get my hands on.
I think it’s important to teach kids about the fascinating parts of history. So often classes are just a droning list of dates and names. Tell them about how George Washington had his horse shot out from under him, or about The Ten Thousand and their Anabasis.
Your novel is the first in a new wave of “gunpowder fantasies”, set in a more advanced, industrialised fantasy setting. What made you pick a period like this? Was it a perceived gap in the genre/market? And which came first, the decision on era or the idea of powdermages?
The powdermages came first, because the original idea was to have a magic system based on gunpowder but set in the 1920s (think Tommy guns and bank robberies). That being said, I only stuck with that original idea for a couple of days and then changed it to the one I have now.
It fit so well because I did see a gap in the market. What happens to these fantasy worlds when gunpowder is discovered? When kings begin to die off, and new lands are discovered?
Speaking of powdermages - which are wonderfully cool, by the way: they are just one type of mage in your world, joining the Cabals and also the voodoo-esque magic that Ka-poel uses. How much time did you spend developing these different magic systems, or did they evolve more organically as the story was written? Will we see further expansion of these three types of magic in future novels?
I spent a couple of weeks developing the world (including the magic) before I started writing the narrative, but it did evolve as I went along. Sometimes you find that the magic doesn’t fit the story and needs to be changes. For instance, the Privileged magic was far too open ended and I had to spend a bunch of time working on the rules and restrictions – even though I don’t actually talk much about them “onscreen.”
My first foray into writing was in the third grade. I won a class creative writing contest with a short adventure story, but it wasn’t until I was about seventeen that I realized I wanted to be a writer.
I don’t ever really look back on the time. It’s very frustrating to know where you want to be and know that there will be years, maybe even decades, of hard work ahead of you before you read it. I’m glad I had the learning experience, but I’m happier still to be where I am today.
Do you consider yourself, to use George R.R. Martin’s terminology, a story architect (lots of planning, strict structuring) or gardener (allowing for a more free-formed, organic and evolving approach to writing)?
Hah! How about a garden architect? I put in raised garden beds and trellis the vines, and I like to prune things along but in the end it’s going to grow how it grows.
What was the hardest thing about writing and/or planning the novel, or the series as a whole?
Something I discovered over the course of this last winter was that the second book was infinitely harder than the first. I knew where I wanted to go with it and, after I’d written about twenty thousand words, I realized it wasn’t going to work at all. So I had to scrap the whole thing and start from scratch.
The Crimson Campaign is finished now, but it was a real struggle to get through.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
I think the genre is awesome. There are so many fantastic authors doing so many cool things: Brandon Sanderson, Joe Abercrombie, Brent Weeks, Daniel Abraham, and so many more. There are new authors breaking in, and established authors writing new stuff.
The second part of your question gets tricky, because I don’t want to sound presumptuous.
That being said, I want to be somewhere between Brandon Sanderson and Joe Abercrombie. I love Joe’s grit, but Brandon’s work is so accessible and I really wrote Promise of Blood with the hope of fitting in that space in between.
If you could invite five authors to dinner (alive or dead), who would you invite and why?
Mark Twain, Xenophon, Alexander Dumas, Robert E. Howard, J.R.R. Tolkien.
You ask me why? Did you read that list? It needs no further explanation.
What other projects are you working on, and what do you have currently in the pipeline?
Book two of the Powder Mage Trilogy, The Crimson Campaign, is finished and will be out in February of 2014. I’m currently working on a short story that takes place about two years before Promise of Blood, and over the summer I’ll be writing book three.
I’ve been writing down ideas for a follow up series that takes place in the same world some time after book three.
There are tons more ideas floating around inside my head, but that looks like it’ll be the immediate project.
What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?
Nothing, right now. I wish I had more time for reading. So much stuff that I want to get to...
My immediate to-read pile includes Abaddon’s Gate by James S.A. Corey, and The Thousand Names by Django Wexler. I’m really excited about both of those.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
I started beekeeping last spring. It’s a very fun experience, and my first year grossed me over 90 lbs of honey that I use in a great deal of my cooking (and on bread!).
In addition to the material reward, honey bees are having a very hard time these days and they are an important part of life on this planet and I’m happy to add to that in what small way I can.
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
I’m looking forward to reading more, and getting The Powder Mage Trilogy finished up and my next series started. I’m sitting in an important period, career-wise, and the sky is the limit.
Promise of Blood is out now, published by Orbit in the UK, US and AUS/NZ. The Crimson Campaign will be published in 2014. Be sure to check out Brian’s website for more information and updates, as well as follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads.