Today, I’m excited to be able to chat with C.M. Kerly, author of the Barclan series, epic fantasy at its finest. You can find my review for book one, The Hummingbird’s Tear, here.
Thank you for joining me to talk about the Barclan series and epic fantasy! Will you introduce yourself?
Hi, I’m Caroline, I’m from London but grew up in South Africa. I’m from a small town surrounded by farms, and at night I used to think the noises I could hear were ghosts at war with each other and the lights in the sky might definitely maybe not be stars but somehow magic. I suppose the noises might have been sounds from the neighborhood, and the stars were just stars, but I still prefer to think it was magic.
Can you talk a little bit about the Barclan series?
Okay, just the opener because it’s too vast to summarize easily. The series is set in an imagined world, in the kingdom of Barlcan. It starts with the reign of a very inept and timid king in a time when magic has become something rare which is to be feared and there are very few people alive who remember or know enough about it to believe it even exists. There are omens and very real-world signs that something is starting to move against the kingdom, but the king chooses not to see it. So, it is left to the prince, who does believe, to pull together the people whom he believes will give him a chance to fight back this threat that only he can see, that others think he is imagining.
Yes the story is fantasy, but it isn’t about magic and creatures and spells or vampires and dragons and cackling villains or magical maps and destiny that comes to those who least expect it.
My story, at its core, is about Control; do we really have control over ourselves, what are we willing to give it up for, and who are we willing to give it to.
What were some obstacles to writing the Barclan series?
In part, one of the hardest things writing a series of books like this, with that 80s Epic Fantasy feel, was knowing that they aren’t very popular right now. Knowing that the fantasy scene is dominated by specific names and if you aren’t part of the echo chamber of the style or type, you’ll never ‘make it’.
Which can sound crazy, right, but if you’re like me and your dream of talking to people about the stories, not making all the folding money, it can be daunting and when you spend six years writing three books, keeping motivated can be an obstacle.
What are some successes?
The limitless art of fantasy is the landscape for the story I’ve crafted, and is full of unique characters that are believable, plausible, and face situations that the reader can empathise with, creating that real connection between the page and the person. The characters are not clearly ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – there is more nuance within the characterisation. They are written so they each carry the overall theme of the story, but there are opportunities for the reader to themselves consider if what they are doing is good or bad.
The use of magic is not the driving force of the story. It isn’t spelled out to the reader and doesn’t overly feel cumbersome to the narrative. It is a device used to enhance the characters, not a tool to explain wildly ridiculous events put there to make the story stand-out. There is romance, adventure, deep relationships, sadness, joy, and laughter all set out, with something to satisfy even the most critical fantasy fan, in a thoroughly good, and complete story.
In The Hummingbird’s Tear, we meet two siblings who have very different characteristics which lead to two very distinct story arcs. How did you go about weaving the two separate storylines together?
It was a challenge. With Calem, who starts mute, I made the conscious decision to only give him two defining characteristics, the fire he can conjure and his silence.
I then had to flesh out Brennan, his complexity took months to develop into a real persona.
Then, it was using Brennan to tell Calem’s story at first, while doing it in such a way as to also give him his own spotlight. Using one character to tell the story of two, from the omnipotent writing perspective, is something I am quite proud of as it takes, in my opinion, quite a lot of craft.
One thing I did do was I kept detailed notes of each character, everything about them, even their habits, and I had personality charts drawn up and stuck to my wall in from of my machine of all the characters and I had their personal values listed out, their motivations, even a bit of origin stories for each of them. I had that on my wall for over six years, and that was to ensure I was always writing them truthfully, developing them and their arcs in believable ways that the reader could follow and empathize with, and making sure they were distinct.
The mythology and world history in The Hummingbird’s Tear is amazing. What came first in your series: the world or the characters?
I still have the first drafts of all three books, partly to remind myself just how wildly different the stories were before I finally settled on what needed to be told and picked which parts of all the versions to pull into the final book to tell their stories.
I started with Calem, the idea of writing a book about a character with no voice; how do you tell someone’s story when they can’t tell it themselves? I sat down and started writing. I didn’t really dwell on too much more than that, I knew it would be a fantasy story because all my really good short stories up to that point had been fantasy and that is my favorite genre. I was expecting it to be one book, I had no intention of writing three, but by the time I was halfway through writing it I had lived the whole thing out in my head and knew that it was too big, too vast, and too complex to be a single book. I wanted to do justice to all the characters I had created and that meant giving them a story worth telling.
The Barclan series has been called epic fantasy. Can you explain what epic fantasy is?
It is Epic but perhaps more 80s Epic than today’s Epic. What I mean is, there is a style of Epic fantasy which is giving time to establishing the world in which the characters share their story. It’s a style which I love, and I write what I love to read so my books have a definite type of pacing.
I don’t borrow from real world mythology or start with frantic bloodthirsty battles to shock and hook the reader; for no reason other than those tools aren’t what I’ve chosen for my story. I know they are all the rage at the moment and very popular, so I’m maybe doing myself no service by going against that current, but the heart wants to write what the heart wants to read I suppose.
I’ve created my own world, my own creation mythology, the Gods, the magic system, the geography, all of it, it took all in, maybe two years to craft it all as I was writing and rewriting The Hummingbird’s Tear, and all that had to be woven through the series. I have about 1,000 pages of content I wrote and created as I was building the world, my own archive if you will.
So, Epic because all the kingdoms are created and unique and have their own beliefs and customs and cultures and that finds its way into the story to enrich it. I move my characters across the kingdoms so I can bring the world to life. I have them comment on and have the Gods and mythology impact their lives, so it brings context to everything I’ve decided to include form the prologue all the way through. And I start each prologue with a little more of the mythology and world building, so the timeframe for the story is literally, since the world was created, so even the timescales are epic.
I’ve heard the terms “epic fantasy” and “high fantasy” used interchangeably. Do you see them as two separate subgenres?
They are different, but it’s an almost irrelevant difference and one that doesn’t, I think, give or take anything away from the genre and a distinction that doesn’t’ mean much to a reader or would have a large impact on their book choice. That sounds like a bit of a pretentious assumption on my part, but what I mean is, the differences are fairly limited, and fantasy readers tend to be open minded so the difference I don’t think is important and the two can work together.
If so, how is epic fantasy different from high fantasy?
High Fantasy is set in an imaginary place, and Low Fantasy, is an alternate version of a real place. So, because Barclan isn’t real, it fits into High Fantasy. I think that is the basic difference but while that’d be my answer on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, google probably knows more than me.
As for the Epic part, that falls to the scale. Epic fantasy in my understanding is on a grand scale, the story is set across multiple geographies and characters must travel or are set in distinct locations doing ‘things’ that advance the plot. Think questing stories.
I tend to think of the Barclan books as Epic High Fantasy because you start in one part of the kingdom, but you’ll go to towns, cities, a mine in the mountains, the bottom of the ocean, high mountains, and a desert to name but a few.
What drew you to writing epic fantasy?
I’ve always lived ‘somewhere else’ in my mind in part thanks to my dad who was a sailor and would tell me the most amazing made-up stories when he would come back from being at sea. He is an amazing storyteller and was never tight with his sea monsters, his outlandish characters, or his embellishments. But what used to keep me hooked, was how believable it all was.
As a child I was surrounded by books of all types at home and was never told whether a book is for adults or children, so as young as seven I can remember trying to read Lord of the Rings because our copy had the most amazing book cover and so I was curious, but it was too much for me at the time but I knew I’d come back to it. I was also reading things like The Faraway Tree, and Jack and the Beanstalk, and The Worst Witch, and the Narnia books so I’ve always gravitated toward the ‘other’ places, that feel comfortable.
We used to have a rickety old typewriter in the house, you know the type that you break your fingers hitting the hold metal letters that strike a ribbon and barely print the word? Well, that was what I started on, aged about eight, thinking that although I loved reading these stories, I had some pretty good ones of my own in my head and so it started.
Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I am embarrassed to admit I had to google pantser.
I am neither, or am I both? Put it this way, I try to be a plotter, and I plot, but when I sit down to write the plot, it’s as if the very act itself of plotting means I can’t use those ideas anymore and I just write.
I try to take a planned and methodical approach to it, but it’s a waste of time for me honestly. I do it in the hopes it means I will finish a book quicker, but no. A story takes as long to write as it wants, I have little control.
I sit, start writing, and entirely zone out and when I am finished have no concrete memory of the process of writing, and have written something completely unplanned.
The last third of The Hunchback’s Sigh was written in one night. I sat down about 7pm, looked up just after 5am the next morning, realized I had finished writing the book, and the series, and then had something to eat and got ready for a day at work.
That’s a lot of words to say, pantser.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, the Dragonlance books are fantastic and Raistlin is one of the most well developed characters I’ve ever loved. The books are so cleverly written to be effortlessly accessible and enjoyable to anyone.
David Eddings, his Belgariad books are some of the best I’ve ever read and I reread to this day.
Melanie Rawn, I adore her pacing and her style of writing captivates my imagination.
Janny Wurts, because everything.
And Raymond Feist, for writing the books I have been reading and coming back to my whole life.
What/who inspired you to start writing fantasy?
This sounds so bad but, I don’t think anyone truly inspired me. I’ve always wanted to write ever since I can remember, I wanted to be a writer because that’s how I wanted to tell stories.
But if there was one person who really pushed me, believed in me, and told me every day that I can do it, it’s my best friend Maddy who has read every piece of writing I’ve ever done and to this day never skips a chance to talk about the books.
Do you have anything on the horizon that you would like to share?
I am working on a collection of short stories set in Barclan, but not centered on any of the main characters from the three books. They pop up but as peripheral characters and only for a second.
For example, in the second book I write about a place called Phenly, and there are a few stories set there.
A story about what happens in a silver mine which weaves into the back story of the man who raised Calem and Brennan.
And I’m introducing some new places and new characters as a tie in to the next book in the series which I am writing at the same time which will take place about a year after the events that end The Hunchback’s Sigh but is not a direct continuation of the story. So I am branching out in the Barclan world and will be moving into stories set in the other kingdoms, specifically Vaden to the north.
And when I am not in the mood to work on either of those, Cotta’s backstory is a self-indulgent story I am writing just for me.