The road to The Godbreaker

On 23rd June (in the UK), The Godbreaker is released. This is the third and concluding volume in my epic fantasy series, The God-King Chronicles. This is a very long blog post about how I got here.

Back in the 90s, I was reading fantasy literature like my life depended on it. I’d polished off The Lord of the Rings before I finished primary school, but then I found the big, chunky series: The Belgariad and The Mallorean, The Elenium and The Tamuli; the never-ending Wheel of Time; The Dragonlance Chronicles and The Death Gate Cycle; Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, one of my all-time favourites; but also the Earthsea Quartet, and The Song of the Lioness; and then the slightly more obscure books you find in high school libraries and jumble sales, like The Renshai Chronicles, and anything by Douglas Hill. Then of course I discovered A Song of Ice and Fire, and so things progressed.

The effect of all that fantasy was to make me want to write epic fantasy myself, and so I’d fire up the Amiga 1200 we had and get to work. Most was fairly derivative; nothing ever went particularly far. Starting stories wasn’t the problem, it was finishing them that was the trick.

When I was seventeen and at Sixth Form, I had a Careers Advice meeting. One of the outcomes of the discussion, when I got it all written up later, was “you like writing and it is one of your strengths, but do not think that being a professional author is a realistic career choice”, which was the main prompt for me to do a degree in Communication Studies with the intent of doing a postgraduate in Journalism and then becoming a journalist of some sort. As it turned out I didn’t get on the postgrad course I went for, and ended up starting work for a homelessness charity instead, where I worked for the next fifteen years. To be honest, while I might – might – have made more money out of journalism, I have no regrets about the completely unexpected career path I ended up following. Working in homelessness was gruelling, occasionally hazardous, and often lacked anything resembling job security, but I honestly think I found out more about how the world works for the least fortunate members of society than I would have in journalism.

Crucially, given that I wasn’t writing for my job, I still had the urge to write in my spare time (some authors, like Kameron Hurley, write for a living and then also write novels: I applaud them). Being a big fan of The Dresden Files, I tried writing urban fantasy, and finally found out how to finish a novel; I told myself to either complete one, or accept that it wasn’t lack of time or “too many ideas” that was preventing me, but that I simply couldn’t do it. I did it. I managed to get both an agent and interest from Del Rey UK. It went all the way to the final acquisitions meeting before being turned down, but I was told that they were very interested in what I was going to write next. So, what would that be?

(the notion of not writing anything next never occurred to me. Some people have told me that they would have been crushed by getting so close but being turned down: I took it as proof that I was nearly there, and also as a personal challenge that made me determined to do something that could not be refused – an approach which has served me well in creative endeavours, but one I heartily discourage when it comes to interpersonal relationships because that’s harassment)

I talked to Rob, my agent at the time, about this. Basically, I said, I have a lot of different ideas that I could write about, so it makes sense for me to write the one we’re most likely to sell. Rob had a chat with Michael Rowley, the editor at Del Rey UK who’d been interested in my urban fantasy, and came back with a list of the sort of things they might be interested in. Steampunk was already on the way out (unfortunately for my steampunk James Bond idea), and publishers felt that we were past the urban fantasy boom as well. They would have potentially been interested in science-based hard sci-fi, but I didn’t feel I had the physics chops for that. “Epic fantasy is always popular”, Rob said, and I wondered about it. I’d been carrying my ideas for epic fantasy around since those abortive attempts in the 90s, and even then there were a few chapters lurking on my hard drive, restarted and restarted again. However, I didn’t feel I could do it justice; I was still a new writer, at least in terms of actually finishing novels, and I felt like I wanted to cut my teeth on something a bit less demanding. In the end, I drew on my love for Warhammer 40,000, Necromunda and Firefly to come up with Dark Run, and so the Keiko series began: pulpy, grimy space opera that was great fun, but wasn’t intrinsically linked to my own feelings of self-worth. Being a published author was great, but this was, to my mind, something I was doing while I waited to get good enough to write the epic fantasy.

Time went on. Dark Run was followed by Dark Sky and Dark Deeds, both of which got starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly. The Keiko series wasn’t doing anything particularly ground-breaking, but it seemed to be doing what it did do fairly well. However, Del Rey UK had been swallowed back up into Penguin Random House, and sales of Dark Deeds through Saga Press in the US weren’t lighting the world on fire. I originally had two more volumes in mind for the Keiko, had we got there, but my publisher wasn’t biting my hand off for another book in that setting, and my own opinion on the series had started to change. The world had changed since I’d started writing it, as had I, and the storyline I’d laid out no longer felt like the right way to go. I could have adapted the storyline, and had the sales been there for the Keiko series then I would have happily continued it, but I wasn’t distraught to break it off.

The Brexit vote had happened, and I was angry about it. When Terry Pratchett wrote the introduction for the updated version of The Carpet People he talked about how when he was sixteen he thought fantasy was about fighting wars, whereas when he turned forty he realised it should be about trying to avoid them. I was coming to the same conclusion. I didn’t want to write about conflict between nations, given my own had just started one with itself and its most immediate neighbours. I wanted to write about cultures coming together and tolerance triumphing over prejudice and hatred; in addition to this, I wanted to explore the nature of monarchy, and of religion. What was more important: what was true, or what people believed to be true, and what that made them do?

I’d spoken with my Saga Press editor about my ideas for this fantasy series, and they seemed interested. When we actually sent a proposal over, it came back with a refusal, saying that they thought we were “in a post-peak-Viking world”. By this point I was writing for Games Workshop, and it might have been easy to continue down that route, writing in someone else’s IP. However, personal challenge again: I took out everything I could that even hinted at ‘Viking’ from the Tjakorshi (with limited success, because most people in the Northern hemisphere will see “sea-faring raiders and traders” and think “Viking”, even when they’re no longer in longships, are wearing clothes modelled more on those of traditional sub-Arctic peoples, and their weapons bear a closer resemblance to those of Polynesian peoples) and went for it again.

In the end, Orbit (via Jenni Hill) picked up The Black Coast, the first volume of The God-King Chronicles, for the UK, and Solaris (via Michael Rowley again) did the same for US distribution. It had taken some work to get there – the actual length and breakdown of the series had been reworked a couple of times in line with changing agent feedback about what the market might want – but it was done. I was now an epic fantasy author. Some of my old characters had even made it in: Alazar Blade and Marin had slightly different names now, but they’d been with me since my earliest drafts on the Amiga 1200. Ravi, who joined them in The Splinter King, was another one, and it was always the plan that she would take the fall for a theft Marin committed, he felt guilty for it, and they ended up hanging out from there. Nari the God-King was a survivor from then as well. However, Daimon and Darel, Saana and Zhanna, Jeya, Bulang, the City of Islands, Tila and Natan: they were all new.

Having succeeded in writing a fantasy novel that got me contracts from publishers, I now had to follow it up. I had to write the second and third novels, and not drop the ball. I never finished off the Keiko series in the way I’d planned, so I still didn’t know if I could actually stick the landing; and now I was doing it with the series that meant the most to me. What would happen if I got towards the end and realised that I’d built everything up only to be incapable of finishing it in a satisfactory way?

In the end, of course, the decision on whether I manage that will lie with the reader. However, I am happy with it. Not every character gets a happy ending in The Godbreaker, but I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that they don’t all die. I wanted to write about hope, about the notion that things can get better if people are capable of working together, and seeing past prejudices towards common interests. That doesn’t mean not fighting, of course, because there will always be people who will take from others unless they’re stopped by force. The key is knowing who to fight, and when to fight them (and indeed, on whose behalf to fight: something I feel about quite strongly at the moment in the real world, as anti-trans rhetoric and political policies increase in volume and vehemence).

It’s fair to say that The God-King Chronicles isn’t going to get a series adaption on HBO any time soon. It probably won’t win any awards, either. However, I’ve been privileged enough to read reviewers and bloggers talking about how much they’ve loved this novel, or that novel, or the series. People have talked in glowing terms about the various genders used in the City of Islands (something I originally designed because I was trying to think of a society into which my various nonbinary and gender non-conforming friends would comfortably fit), or the normalised queerness of the Naridans. There are people I don’t know, people I’ve never met, who have proclaimed to the world how much they love what I’ve written, and that is one of the best feelings. Not only because it’s an ego boost (although y’know, it definitely is that), but also because it’s so gratifying to have created something that reaches someone on a personal level that they haven’t found elsewhere: although that being said, there’s definitely a problem with the fact that such representation is rare.

Society can’t achieve something that it can’t imagine. With The God-King Chronicles, I’ve done what I can to promote the idea of a society that sees past old biases and discovers strength in diversity, while acknowledging that sometimes you’re going to have to fight for it; and also, sometimes there are fights you can’t win, or at least not at the moment. And with that, the epic fantasy series is done. It’s finished. The novels I’ve carried around with me for thirty years or so, in one form or another, will be out in the world. It’s a bit terrifying, because while I hadn’t written them they were this light of potential in the back of my brain, the knowledge that these ideas could be awesome if I could get them right. Once they’re out in the world, that’s it; I’ve used them, and committed them to paper, and the work that probably means the most to me out of anything I’ve written is there for people to judge, flaws and all, rather than being something theoretical and pure for the future.

And where do I go from here?

Well, the immediate answer is “I’ve got two Warhammer 40,000 novels scheduled for release later this year, so keep your eyes open for them if you’re interested in that”. As for my own stuff… We’ll have to see.

As ever, the problem isn’t a lack of ideas: it’s working out which ones are going to pay the mortgage…

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