Fantasy Focus: Historical Fantasy Featuring N.C. Koussis

This year I’m doing a new series on my blog: Fantasy Focus. Each month, I’m focusing on a different fantasy subgenre. Fantasy is such a broad genre with so many different things to offer. So far, there have been focuses on Comedic FantasyRomantic FantasyGrimdark, Urban Fantasy, and Epic/High Fantasy.

This month I’m focusing on Historical Fantasy, that fascinating subgenre that adds the fantastical to real places and times.

I’m privileged to talk to N.C. Koussis, author of The Kiln of Empire.

Thank you for joining me to talk about your writing and about historical fantasy!

Thank you for having me!

First, will you tell the readers a little bit about yourself?

I’ve been writing full-time since March 2019 after a series of injuries and family bereavements left me a nervous, anxious wreck. After being inspired by my incredible wife to start a creative project, I took up writing, because I’d always loved it. I had written stories when I was a kid but got discouraged by wanting it to be perfect. I loved Star Wars and Lord of the Rings and, more recently, Game of Thrones, so fantasy was the natural choice of genre for me to write in. I still have a day job, of course, and I run a local writers’ club. I’m also currently studying a PhD in neuroscience.

Will you talk a little about The Kiln of Empire?

I’d love to! The novel is set in a fantasy Constantinople, but imagine instead of Christianity, they worship their ancestors. From the afterlife, the Ancestors (as they’re known) bestow on their lineage powers—imagine a baker, who blessed by his forefathers, bakes bread that never goes stale. A potter whose glazes never chip. And of course, there’s the power structure baked in (pun intended): the ruling class are basically superheroes. The Ischyroi that rule the northern province have the strength of ten men. There’s the other side to that, as well: if you’re not blessed, if you’ve done something to majorly piss off your ancestors, they curse you. Now instead of baking bread that never goes stale, now your bread never rises, no matter how much yeast you put in. So, there’s a whole dynamic around that. You can never truly know what your forefathers think of you, either, though the clerics in the novel claim to know through auguries.

The novel opens in the middle of a revolt against the ruling family, due to a series of blunders by the emperor and a Senate who has whipped up fervor in the people, because they want to see him topped off. I won’t spoil it, but the main character, the emperor’s granddaughter, is forced to make a series of decisions to stop things from going from bad to worse.

Your writing is considered historical fantasy. How would you define that subgenre?

That’s a difficult question! If I was to take a stab, I would say that it’s fantasy that is far more grounded in reality. Generally, the world has followed a similar path to our own, with maybe a little creative license for magic flavor or some other exploit. Game of Thrones would probably be a step too far into high fantasy, but you can see the obvious elements of historical inspiration. I think it actually started as a much more grounded series without the magic, dragons, and the Others, though I’ll probably get a bunch of angry fans in the comments telling me that’s wrong! I think a good rule of thumb is if you can see the historical inspiration very clearly, and it’s not too different from our world (it could be set on Earth), then that’s historical fantasy.

What first drew you to writing historical fantasy?

It sort-of fell into my lap, really. I’ve always been fascinated by the Eastern Romans; by their heroes who were not only incredible fighters and generals but cultured men and women, who loved poetry and read and wrote voraciously, and were incredible orators, too. Some of our most famous speeches come from the Greeks, Syriacs, Illyrians, and the Romans, etc. who came from all over to live in Constantinople, the greatest city of the age. If it wasn’t for the Eastern Romans coming west and taking all their knowledge with them (and also having it plundered by the Venetians and Franks in the Fourth Crusade, look it up) then the renaissance wouldn’t have happened, and Europe might’ve looked very different to today.

I want to tell their stories, because until recently, historians have largely ignored them. And I say ignored, not forgotten. As though Rome fell and Europe plunged into a Dark Age, and there wasn’t a second Rome just a few thousand miles east that lasted another thousand years. I have my own theories as to why, but I’ll leave the historiography to actual historians. As to why fantasy—historical fiction didn’t inspire me because I still love fantasy and magic, so I wanted to bring those elements in as well.

How do you balance the historical with the fantastical?

Another tough question! If I was to describe my process, I suppose I start with a basis of history, then bring fantastical elements in and thoroughly think about all the different facets of how society would change if that magic/exploit was real. Like a what if scenario. Throughout the process, I try to keep it grounded as much as I can.

I think it’s interesting that you start with the historical aspects! I read somewhere that George R.R. Martin did something similar (with his basis being the War of the Roses), although whether that is accurate, I can’t say with authority. Would you say that there are some similarities between historical fiction and urban fiction in the real-world basis?

For sure. Keeping things grounded keeps the suspension of disbelief strong, which is very important to maintaining reader immersion.

Does writing historical fantasy require a lot of research?

Hell yes! At least a couple hundred hours in total over the past couple of years went into researching The Kiln of Empire. In that novel, I’ve had to do so much research into how people lived in the Eastern Roman Empire, especially across the class spectrum, because ordinary people lived very differently to the patrician class. I think people like to see that genuine care for history and realism, even in this subgenre of fantasy. Just because it’s fantasy doesn’t mean you can make things up wholesale!

What are some obstacles to writing in this subgenre?

The time it takes to research, I suppose. It’s not quite as much as historical fiction, but it’s close. The size of the market, as well! Speculative fiction is a pretty small market, at least when compared to evergreen genres like crime or romance, so a subgenre of that is going to be even smaller.

What are some of its strengths?

Yeah, on the flip side, I think if you find your people, you can find the most loyal following that a writer could ask for.

How do you get in “the writing zone”, so to speak?

It’s difficult, I won’t lie. I have ADHD, so I can’t speak to neurotypical brains, but personally I’ve got two modes: hyperfocus; or so anxious I can’t focus on anything and get overwhelmed. I guess I’m glad for the moments of hyperfocus, where I’m able to write for hours and find that I’ve written thousands of words. But on the other edge of that sword is that I forget to go to the toilet and eat and drink. That’s probably not the healthiest thing! I make sure I have a goal, too, however small (say, let’s write 100 words today). I find that more often than not I end up writing way more than 100 words. One of the biggest things I can recommend that has helped me is to just sit down and start writing something, even if it’s crap. You can always go back and edit later.

Who are some of your go-to authors?

Guy Gavriel Kay, Robert Harris, Emily St. John Mandel, and Nnedi Okorafor. They all have very different styles, but I feel like I become a better writer and a better human after reading them, and they’ve all inspired me in different ways.

Do you have any projects in the works that you’d like to talk about?

I’m working on the prequel to The Kiln of Empire which should be drafted later this year (it currently stands at 38k/110k, but I’m giving all my focus to BITP). I’m also putting together a novella set in the same world that I should be able to give out to people for free. I’ve also thought about making all my e-books free like I’ve seen some authors do, when I release them. I can’t give the specifics, but I’m working with some people at the moment for BITP, so if you want to keep updated, make sure you follow my blog!


About the author:

NC is a Greek, Anglo, and Kamilaroi man who swam with a great white (once) and nearly drowned in the Zambezi (twice). Between ill-advised water adventures and checking heads as a neuroscientist, he writes fiction that reimagines the past with a splash (or a deluge) of magic. He runs his local university’s writers’ club, which provides advice and workshops for emerging student writers. Yell at him on Twitter at @NCKoussis. His blog at nckoussis.substack.com is about his writing journey and historical inspiration for characters, places, and cultures in his novels. His latest novel The Kiln of Empire will hopefully be coming soon.

Fantasy Focus: Urban Fantasy Featuring G.E. Newbegin

This year I’m focusing on some of the amazing subgenres that fantasy has to offer.  So far I’ve focused on comedic fantasy,  romantic fantasy,  grimdark, and epic fantasy.  This month I’m excited to be focusing on urban fantasy. 

I am privileged to interview G.E. Newbegin,  author of Pyramidion. 

Hi G.E.! Thank you for being willing to chat about urban fantasy with me!

 

No worries – glad to!

 

Will you introduce yourself and talk a little bit about Pyramidion?

 

Sure – I’m G.E. Newbegin, a newly self- published Australian author, with two books released and another not far off. I live in Melbourne with my wife and two kids and I talk about cybersecurity for a day job. If you’re wondering – yes, I’ve tried to write sci-fi, but sci-fi is HARD. So I gave up.

Pyramidion was my debut novel, which I released in June 2021. It took me about a year to write, edit, rewrite again after my editor pulled it apart, typeset and ultimately publish, all of which I did while working from home. So… if your readers are thinking about what to do with their downtime while working from home? Don’t work more, write!

I wanted to write a horror fantasy, but as I worked through the story, it turned into an action-adventure that some readers have compared to Indiana Jones. While that character wasn’t a direct influence, I will happily accept the comparison!

Pyramidion tells the tale of Luke Nixon, who is propelled on a globe-trotting adventure (and beyond…) after seemingly losing everything, encountering gods and demons along the way. There are some common themes with this kind of story (secret organisations, bloodlines, alternate history), but it’s my take on these ideas. It’s fun, but can be dark in places, just like real life.

 

Pyramidion has the concept of a huge loss, which propels Luke on a life-changing adventure. Do you think a strength of urban fantasy is that it allows for a realistic exploration of themes such as loss and grief?

 

Honestly, I think most genres can explore these same themes, but being set in more familiar territory means readers can empathise more readily. Adding “fantastical” elements means you can explore things in ways that reality might limit you…

 

How would you define urban fantasy?

 

It’s a tricky genre to define, because in some ways, an urban fantasy could be any fantasy set in a city, but I generally define the “urban” component as a “contemporary setting” – so, any fantasy set in a familiar, modern setting. Pyramidion is set in the real world, but there are fantastical truths hidden from the populace.  Stories like Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, Twilight, the Sookie Stackhouse novels, and many more besides can be considered Urban (or Contemporary) fantasy, among others – books tend to fit into several molds.

 

What drew you to writing urban fantasy?

 

To be honest, it was simply the idea that came to mind, and it worked best for me. Since I wanted to touch on “real” themes, such as mythology and religion, for example, I found it easier to set the story in modern times. There was a point I was considering setting the story in a world of my own, but given I wanted to use real myths and legends, it probably wouldn’t work.

I’ve just released a second book in April (“The Fathomless Sky Lake” – a novella, not the sequel to Pyramidion, which I am working on right now), but this time I’ve decided to go all in on fantasy – in fact, even the sequel to Pyramidion will lean further into fantasy. I guess it depends on what suits the story more.

 

What were some obstacles to writing Pyramidion?

 

Being my first novel, motivation was the biggest obstacle. I’d considered myself a writer since I was a child, but all I had to show for it was a bunch of half finished manuscripts (most of which have been lost to time).

The other obstacle was research – how much do you REALLY need to know about something in order to write about it effectively? You can quite easily waste time going down a rabbithole that you really don’t need to. On the other hand, not enough research can stand out to some readers. So there’s a need to balance different kinds of work – the only work that gets you closer to finishing is the writing itself.

 

What were some successes?

 

Finishing the book in the first place. Convincing myself I could do it. Building the courage to put it out in the public eye.

But for me, the biggest success was having strangers – people I have never met and probably never will – read my book. That was a success in itself, and every bit of feedback, both good and bad, encourages me to work harder.

 

Who are some of your favorite authors?

 

I mostly read sci-fi, horror, and fantasy, so many of the usuals would top my list – JRR Tolkien, GRR Martin, Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, Joe Abercrombie, Gene Wolfe, Robert Jordan, Brandon Sanderson, Mark Lawrence, Jim Butcher, Richard Morgan… And if I can recommend a new author I’m enjoying at the moment, Christopher Ruocchio, who has released a really riveting and well developed space opera with his Sun Eater series.

Where to purchase:

Pyramidion

Fantasy Focus: Urban Fantasy Featuring Jamie Jackson

This year I’m doing a new series on my blog: Fantasy Focus. Each month, I’m focusing on a different fantasy subgenre. Fantasy is such a broad genre with so many different things to offer. So far, there have been focuses on Comedic FantasyRomantic FantasyGrimdark, and Epic/High Fantasy.

Today, I’m privileged to talk with Jamie Jackson, author of the Adventures of a Villain-Leaning Humanoid series.

Hi Jamie! Thank you for joining me to talk about urban fantasy!

First, will you tell readers a little bit about yourself?

So, I’m basically Doug from Up.  I’m easily excitable, loud, and often distracted.  I love fantasy and science fiction but will read any and all genres I can get my hands on.  I’ve worked backstage in theater and behind the scenes documentaries about movies and TV shows are my favorite things to watch.  I’m also married to an awesome and supportive man, have three kids, and two dogs.

Will you talk a little bit about Fear and Fury?

So, it’s the first novel in my urban fantasy superhero series, Adventures of a Villain-Leaning Humanoid.  It has a 4th wall-breaking 1st person narrative, Greek mythology retelling, and a cast of ruthless, morally grey heroes going up against some epic villains.  The first book is essentially Meg’s “origin” story, when a previously unknown villain makes her his next target, she has to turn to the heroes she’s spent her life trying to avoid for help.

I love that your main character, Megaera, is a “self-described not-a-hero”. How did you get in the “zone”, so to speak, when writing a more self-centered character?

I’ll be honest, I have no idea.  I like to think that I thought about if I was hero, what kind of hero would I hope to be, and then wrote the opposite of that.  But she just showed up as a petty, and somewhat self-centered person to start with.

Your book is considered urban fantasy. How would you define that subgenre?

I would say urban fantasy is anything occurring in a modern setting that has fantastical elements, either magic, superheroes, the paranormal, etc.

What first drew you to writing urban fantasy?

I wanted a world that had cell phones.

In truth, it’s a genre I enjoy reading, and for my first real novel I wanted to write something where there wasn’t going to be an overwhelming amount of world-building.  When it’s a universe like ours, we already know most of the rules for how things work, so for a project I was attempting while involuntarily homeschooling it was the ideal genre to write in.  And the idea for Meg had been knocking around in my head for a while already. 

What are some difficulties with writing urban fantasy?

Realism! You have to balance the line of what could realistically occur in our world with modern elements like technology and still being able to exaggerate it without losing your readers benefit of the doubt.

What are some strengths in this subgenre?

I think one of the strengths is that since it occurs in the modern world, it can be easier for readers to relate the situations the characters get into.  And as a whole I think we would love for there to be magic in the modern world, and urban fantasy gives that to us.  It’s also flexible with the amount of creatures, mythology, and magic you can put into your story. The genre runs the gamut from werewolves and vampires to the fae and gods and goddesses being a part of those worlds.  And it tends to blend sci-fi, fantasy and horror.

Who are some of your go-to authors?
Craig Schaefer, Rachel Aaron. I’ve read the majority of Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series. Right now I have a huge backlog of indie author books I’m working through, but the authors of the ones I have read are all on my instant buy list.

Purchase links:

http://mybook.to/FearandFury

http://mybook.to/TormentandTarnish

http://mybook.to/ScornandSorrow

Fantasy Focus: Urban Fantasy Featuring Peter Hartog

This year I’m doing a new series on my blog: Fantasy Focus. Each month, I’m focusing on a different fantasy subgenre. Fantasy is such a broad genre with so many different things to offer. So far, there have been focuses on Comedic Fantasy, Romantic Fantasy, Grimdark, and Epic/High Fantasy.

I’m excited to have the opportunity to interview Peter Hartog, author of The Guardian of Empire City, an urban fantasy series.

Hi Peter! Thank you for being willing to talk about urban fantasy with me!

First, will you introduce yourself to the readers and tell them a little about yourself?

Thank you for inviting me! My name is Peter Hartog, and I’m an over-the-hill self-published urban science fantasy author with two teenage boys, a demanding day job, and a house full of three rescue cats and an 80-pound golden retriever named Ollie. How my wife manages to keep us all straight is a testament to her incredible organizational and management skills, as well as her infinite patience. I don’t know where I’d be without her steering the ship.

I grew up in Massachusetts (go Ashland Clockers!), then moved to Georgia two years after my graduation from Brandeis University. Got married, got divorced, stumbled into a career in underwriting, got remarried and now enjoy the many misadventures of raising two crazy boys along with our fuzzy menagerie.

I’ve loved storytelling since I could walk. Growing up with my older brother in the late 70s, when we weren’t outside rolling in the dirt, playing catch, riding our bikes, or just exploring the world, we read books, assembled model warships, played with action figures, and generally built stories around what toys we had. I’d act as the narrator, and my brother would always be the hero. We had space adventures, superhero battles, even pretended we had a talking zoo.

Stories have always captured my imagination, whether I write, watch, listen or read them. I’m a proud card-carrying nerd (I keep a Harry Dresden business card in my wallet) who still sits around a table and rolls dice on Sunday nights with his gaming group of over 30 years. When I’m not working to save humanity one commercial property insurance policy at a time, I’m reading, watching shows and movies (Star Trek > Star Wars), listening to music (I’m forever stuck in the 80s), playing tennis, cooking, cheering on my New England sports teams, GMing or playing in tabletop games, and occasionally putting virtual pen to virtual paper.

Will you talk a little bit about The Guardian of Empire City series?

Both Bloodlines and Pieces of Eight follow homicide detective Tom “Doc” Holliday and his eclectic crew of investigators as they attempt to solve the strange and unusual by any means necessary. The stories take place in Empire City, one of fifty-two walled human enclaves that survived World War III and the horrors that followed. As a result of massive nuclear detonations weakening the fabric of reality, magic returned to the world as well as one-way portals that infrequently introduce new and sometimes frightening interdimensional beings. One such group, called Vellans, are intelligent, civilized humanoids who fled from their alternate Earth to find refuge on Holliday’s Earth.

After years of recovery from the war and pandemics that followed it, and through the aid of Vellan technology and knowledge that taught humanity how to harness the power of magic into usable energy, humanity endured to what it is today. The people of Empire City have jobs, there’s trade and travel with other enclaves, and life goes on.

And with all that also comes politics, greed, taxes, marriage, divorce, and murder.

The GoEC combines the genres of urban fantasy with science fiction and crime thriller to provide an exciting blend of whodunnit and magical shenanigans.

If I’m being honest, the GoEC series came out of nowhere. Prior to writing it, I was an avid fan of the classic fantasy stories by the usual suspects. I read plenty of classic literature in high school and college, but my go-to escapism was the pure fun of high fantasy. I ran dozens of D&D campaigns for my friends. I even managed to write five chapters of a fantasy novel, but it never went anywhere.

Like many urban fantasy authors, I’ve read Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden. I’d grown tired of sword-and-sorcery stories. While they weren’t necessarily cookie-cutter, my mind grew bored. Dresden was a refreshing read. It combined the mainstay elements of what I had been enjoying for decades colorfully painted upon a modern-day canvas. From the pop culture references, the humor, the larger-than-life villains, the crazy cases, the series’ appeal was immediate.

Around the same time, I’d begun watching the television shows Person of Interest and The Blacklist. From there, my mind started churning with possibilities.

I realized I wanted to create something different, a genre-mashup that combined the stories I’d grown up with coupled with the familiarity of today’s world. But it wasn’t enough. Butcher had already covered that with Dresden, so I thought further on what I could add to separate myself from the gold standard of urban fantasy. Did I succeed? You be the judge.

Around the spring of 2014, I started writing a story about a down-on-his-luck private investigator working out of Boston. It didn’t go anywhere because it felt too much like Dresden fanfiction.

But the seed that had been planted when I first read Dresden germinated further in my subconsciousness.

I began asking myself a simple question: “What if?”

What if, instead of having a modern setting, the world had evolved in some ways, remained the same in others, and history diverged?

I loved the glitzy, glittering cityscape scenes and massive scope of Ridley Scott’s futuristic and dystopian vision in Blade Runner. I’d never played Shadowrun, never read Gibson’s Neuromancer (it’s on my TBR), never read any cyberpunk. But I started seeing images of a dystopian New York called Empire City. I imagined what life would be like after a nuclear holocaust. Why humanity would want to restore civilization, how people would come together either to return to what they once knew or gather beneath the banner of some other socio-economic and/or religious focus.

And then I sprinkled magic on top of it.

I took these ideas, wrote an outline, developed side characters, and approached my gaming group with the idea of GMing it. The concept of writing a novel, let alone two, hadn’t even entered my mind. The players came up with character ideas (all of whom are represented in the novels in some form except for Doc Holliday), I built the world around them, and the Special Crimes Unit was born. The game ran about a year and was a smashing success. After the Bloodlines game, I developed two more cases: Pieces of Eight and The Devil’s Share (my current WIP).

Enamored by the games I ran and the setting I’d created, I began novelizing Bloodlines in 2016. For once, the words came easily to me. No longer stymied by writer’s block or a lack of inspiration, I made steady progress until I self-published in 2018.

As for the stories themselves, I leaned heavily into the tropes that I’ve loved since I was a kid: the down-on-his-luck hero with a heart of gold; the crusty, inveterate heavy with a dark past; the mysterious and ethereal alien; the sharp, ebullient kid with a shadowy dark-side. Villains embraced their villainy. There’s good and bad, and stuff in-between. Pulpy dialogue, cinematic scenes, flowery writing, bad jokes, pop culture and music references.

I know the GoEC series isn’t ground-breaking. It’s not unique, nor is it the greatest fiction you’ll ever read (although I do think it’s pretty good, but I’m biased that way). At the end of the day, my imagination craved a change of scenery. I’d been stuck in a rut, gotten bored with the same old-same old, and needed something new.

So, I followed some of the best writing advice I’d ever been given: write what you want to read.

Your series focuses on a detective solving mysteries of the fantastical nature. Did writing the case element present unique challenges? 

I’d never written crime fiction. I don’t personally know anyone in law enforcement, either. I had no idea where to begin. But the internet can be a wonderfully helpful tool, and research is your friend. I read police procedurals, searched the NYPD website and associated websites, watched copy shows on television and on film, and tried to provide just enough realism in the stories for the average reader. Are there mistakes? Probably, but so far no one has pointed them out.

I also have the benefit of writing urban science fantasy which means I can bend or break the rules. The setting isn’t 21st century New York. The NYPD has its policies and procedures, but that doesn’t mean Empire City’s police shares the same. Sure, there are reflections, but I can diverge however I want. Funny thing is, I tried to keep that aspect of the stories grounded as best I could.

Holliday starts off thinking he’s dealing with an ordinary, yet weird, crime. And as the reader tracks his progression, they’ll see how his view shifts considerably but only after he experiences the extraordinary. Despite possessing his own magic (with its own problems), and living in a world powered by magic, I developed a skeptical, world-weary main character whose arc takes him to where the reader expects him to go.

One of the most interesting aspects of my research were autopsy reports. The gruesome, yet clinical detail involved, a fresh reminder of humanity’s awful capacity to harm one another. It wasn’t just the science and nuts-and-bolts side of things. Reading sample reports and how the medical examiner conducts their job was both enlightening and frightening.

While both stories involve magic, Empire City’s world-building uses the mystical as a pragmatic foundation for its existence. Simplistically, magic is an energy source drawn from Nexus nodes, previously invisible vessels of power brought to light because of multiple catastrophic nuclear detonations. Holliday remarks early in Bloodlines how the Vellans (interdimensional beings who found refuge on Holliday’s Earth) taught humanity to harness the Nexus nodes, saving civilization from ruin. The average citizen considers magic akin to electricity. Magic is used to heat water, power machinery, keep the lights on. 

This blending of magic and technology granted me a lot of freedom. Moments such as examining the crime scene, reviewing the remains at the medical examiner’s office, sifting through digital files via holo-technology, and digging through the victim’s home and personal effects came off as both hand’s on and clinical minus the sense of the arcane despite magic being omnipresent. Yet, like himself, Holliday is aware of others who can wield magic to uncanny effect, and not just to turn the light off in the other room.

I’m hopeful this grounding of Holliday’s reality to give the reader a sense of place and time is balanced by the fantastical elements that comprise the rest of the story.

Your series is considered urban fantasy. How would you define that subgenre?

To me, urban fantasy is taking magic, magical creatures, magical places, magical items, and everything associated with those things, moving them from castles and dungeons, airships and dragons and dropping them into a 21st century (or later) modern day setting.

As you’ve read previously, I consider my books to be urban science fantasy because my timeline is set in an alternate future. When exactly, I leave vague. But it’s not too distant that the 21st century and everything that came before was forgotten. 

What first drew you to writing urban fantasy, as opposed to another type of fantasy?

I never expected to write the GoEC series. I figured I’d eventually put together a classic high fantasy story because that’s my first love. But the words wouldn’t flow. The ideas never stuck. The characters all fell flat.

Then Special Crimes and Detective Tom “Doc” Holliday popped into my head. The words quickly followed.

I think the familiarity of New York and Boston helped the most. Rather than create a world from scratch, I picked on places that I’ve enjoyed visiting. By transforming them in some way, I get to play in a familiar sandbox and mold it into something else just for the fun of it.

What are some struggles with writing urban fantasy?

Authenticity. If you’re going to use New York City, then the setting needs to live up to the alternate “reality”. Sure, I’ll change specific places, but the reader needs to know they’re still in New York, regardless of the year or what’s happening in the story itself. Dialogue is another challenge. You want readers to hear the distinctive accents, to see the neighborhoods and how they reflect the character and architecture that has defined New York as the melting pot for so many beautiful cultures, past and present. 

What are some strengths to this subgenre?

Urban fantasy is like tofu. Tofu by itself doesn’t have much of a flavor (at least, not to me), but when you combine it with other seasonings and sauces, tofu takes on the best (and worst) of those aspects.

The urban fantasy sandbox is deep and varied. It allows the blending of so many fun genres, and if balanced correctly, creates the potential for a deep and meaningful setting and story.

Who are your go-to authors?

In my formative years, the list icnludes JRR Tolkien, Terry Brooks, Raymond Feist, Ray Bradbury, Michael Moorcock, Barbara Hambly, and Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman.

Lately, I’ve been reading Michael Connelly, George RR Martin, Jim Butcher, Andy Weir, Fonda Lee, Patricia Jackson, and Ben Aaronovitch.

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t shout out the TREMENDOUS talent of a host of indie and self-published authors out there including Douglas Lumsden (who writes my absolute favorite urban fantasy series everyone should read), Jonathan Nevair, T.A. Bruno (a 2021 SPSFC Finalist!), Krystle Matar (an SPFBO7 Finalist!), Jeff Speight, Peter James Martin, and Leigh Grissom.

Is there anything on the horizon you’d like to talk about?

I’m slowly working my way through The Devil’s Share, the third book in The Guardian of Empire City series. It’s been slow going because my day job has been brutally busy, but I still manage to write here and there. I have a wonderful critique group who keeps me on my toes and sharp and are some of the most supportive writers I’ve ever met, thanks to Twitter. 

The audiobook for Pieces of Eight will be produced at some point in 2022, as well. I’m also toying with the idea of merchandise, specifically coffee mugs. For anyone who knows Holliday, then you understand. And if you haven’t read Bloodlines and Pieces of Eight, what are you waiting for? 

About Peter Hartog:

A native son of Massachusetts, Peter has been living in the Deep South for over 25 years. By day, he’s an insurance professional, saving the world one policy at a time. But at night, well, no one really wants to see him fighting crime in his Spider-Man onesie. Instead, Peter develops new worlds of adventure influenced by his love of science fiction, mysteries, music and fantasy. Whether it’s running role-playing games for his long-time friends, watching his beloved New England sporting teams vie for another championship, or just chilling with a movie, his wife, two boys, three cats and one dog, Peter’s imagination is always on the move. It’s the reason why his stories are an eclectic blend of intrigue, excitement, humor and magic, drawn from four decade’s worth of television, film, novels and comic books.

Website: peterhartog.com

Twitter: @althazyr

LinkedIn: Peter Hartog

Books:

mybook.to/BloodlinesEBook

mybook.to/PiecesOfEight

Fantasy Focus: Urban Fantasy Featuring Matthew Samuels

This year I’m doing a new series on my blog: Fantasy Focus. Each month, I’m focusing on a different fantasy subgenre. Fantasy is such a broad genre with so many different things to offer. So far, there have been focuses on Comedic Fantasy, Romantic Fantasy, Grimdark, and Epic/High Fantasy.

Today I have the privilege of chatting with Matthew Samuels, author of the excellent urban fantasy, Small Places.

Hi Matthew! Thank you for being willing to talk about urban fantasy!

My pleasure! Thank you for having me on your site 😊

Will you introduce yourself to the readers and talk about your writing a little?

I’m Matthew Samuels, and I write sci-fi and fantasy; I’m the author of the solarpunk / hopepunk exploration books Parasites and Dusk, and urban fantasy title Small Places, which is about a guy who meets a cranky old witch, who is investigating the source of highly irregular weather in the UK. I live in London, UK.  

Small Places is interesting in that the main character, Jamie, is dealing with adversity in his “real life” which is sort of echoed in the adversity in the fantasy element. How did you go about keeping that balance between the two kinds of struggles?

Despite the challenges that writing urban fantasy presents, it does also lend you a hand, because you can reflect on how regular people would act if confronted by these things. So yes, Jamie meets some fantastical creatures and a witch, but his mum is also very sick and there’s a girl he likes in town, and these things are always going to creep into your mind, however all-consuming the other stuff is. Sometimes – like in real life – one of these things takes up more brain space than others, and other times, things get completely pushed to one side and Jamie feels guilty for forgetting about it. I’m not quite sure if there’s a trick to keeping this balance; it’s really just about trying to keep it believable, given everything that’s going on! A good editor definitely helps – my partner read Small Places quite carefully, and some parts of the book changed quite a lot afterwards. 

I really loved the divided attention and subsequent feelings of guilt that Jamie experiences in Small Places. It’s such a completely human reaction. Do you feel that urban fantasy allows for a deeper exploration of the human condition?

Yes and no – I don’t think it’s unique to urban fantasy. Some of my favourite reflections on the human condition come from sci-fi books like the Rama series by Arthur C Clarke and the Galactic Mileu set by Julian May, but I also love what Charles de Lint has to say about absolution, forgiveness and dealing with difficult circumstances in life, in an urban fantasy setting. I do think that sometimes genres outside of low fantasy can get sucked into the ‘we’re in a supernatural setting, so we should focus on heroes and adventure and all this amazing stuff’ but if the Marvel Universe has shown us anything, it’s that adventures are more satisfying and believable when they’re about ‘real people dealing with issues who happen to be superheroes, rather than superheroes just being superheroes, which I think is where some of the DC films come unraveled. Urban fantasy is in a good place to start these reflections because you’re dealing with regular folk from day one, rather than people who regularly leap tall buildings and zap aliens, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s exclusive! 

Small Places is an urban fantasy. How would you define that subgenre?

In my mind, urban fantasy is a section of low fantasy, which takes place in ‘our’ world. Urban fantasy is distinct from the likes of Harry Potter only because it takes place in urban environments, rather than separate places like Hogwarts (or in the countryside!).  

What drew you to writing urban fantasy?

One of the first fantasy novels I read growing up was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and the idea that there could be something fantastical just around the corner was an absolutely magical prospect to me. After I’d read it, I spent quite a lot of time poking into old wardrobes or opening doors several times hoping that there’d be something back there! As a teenager I watched the BBC adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, absolutely rapt for much the same reason (I don’t think it’s aged well, but the book is obviously fantastic) and then discovered Clive Barker’s Weaveworld as an adult, not to mention Charles de Lint, Erin Morgenstern and Laurell K Hamilton. 

Perhaps more to the point, urban fantasy stretches your mind in a way that other genres don’t, because of the possible believability (more on this later!) – after all, there are weird, wonderful and beautiful things in the regular world. I used to spend quite a lot of time in a club called Shunt, which was a performing arts club underneath London Bridge Station, with just the strangest selection of artwork and things to explore. There’s also the Vaults under Waterloo, and experiential events like Secret Cinema. I’m quite a big fan of urbex photography (in particular, RomanyWG’s work), which continues to be an inspiration for any long-forgotten places that I’m writing about. 

When you put all of this together, urban fantasy has the ability to conspire in your mind and whisper ‘what if…?’ in the dark hours of the night.  And I’ve always written, for as long as I can remember (I still have some of my early works which I’d describe as either ‘loving fanfic’ or ‘hideous and derivative’ depending on my mood) and with inspirations like that, how could I not want to write in the genre?

What are some obstacles to writing urban fantasy?

Believability is key. When you’re blending the real world and a fantastical world, there’s the question of ‘why haven’t they been detected’? The memory charms in Harry Potter are a bit of a quick fix around this, but in Small Places, we have very well hidden and virtually inaccessible faerie realms. The first rule of the faerie is often ‘stay out of the way, but in an urban setting that’s much, much harder. Books like the Rivers of London series bypass this by simply having the magical world ‘out’, whereas in Neverwhere it hides much more carefully, and has people fall between the cracks and vanish if they do pick up on it, which is a slightly terrifying prospect.

I agree with you on that! The idea of a person just disappearing mysteriously if they pick up on the “other” hidden in plain sight is definitely a scary one. Did it take some time to decide how your faerie realms would exist in conjunction with the real-world setting?

Yes, it was a tricky one because – especially in very urban settings like London – it’s hard to do anything completely out of sight! Neverwhere gets around this very neatly by having people just ignore the things that are uncomfortable to them (which we all do sometimes) but it was hard working up a mechanism that would be secure, unlikely to be triggered by accident, and also relatively easy to conceal. The ‘fantastical combination lock’ idea eventually appealed because it seemed to tick a number of those boxes all at once, whilst still giving some narrative flexibility. 

What is the best thing about writing urban fantasy?

It’s really the same thing: believability. If you’re writing something fantastical that’s also set in the real world, there’s a small chance that a question worms into your brain – as Morpheus says in The Matrix, ‘like a splinter in your mind’. That question is ‘what if there is something else?’ and I think that’s both terrifying and wonderful to consider at the same time. The other (non-low fantasy) genres are great escapism, but urban / low fantasy can just feel a bit more real. I’ve walked past the spot in London where Richard meets the Marquis de Carabas for the first time in Neverwhere, and I love that flicker of slightly disquieting recognition that you get, that feeling of ‘well, maybe?’ that sticks around no matter how old you get.

You also write science fiction (books one and two in The Navigator series are available now). Are there similarities between how you write for those two genres? Or are they completely dissimilar? 

There are definitely common elements in terms of the need for good plotting and characters, but with sci-fi, you have a lot more flexibility because you set the rules. Being able to create entire planets, space stations and alien creatures gives you a lot more wiggle room than being stuck on earth in a contemporary setting!

Who are some of your go-to authors?

Where to start? 😊 As well as the guys I’ve mentioned previously, I’m a huge fan of Iain M Banks, Jacqueline Carey, Julian May, Steph Swainston, Jay Kristoff, David Wong, Becky Chambers, Brandon Sanderson and Laini Taylor. I’ll also read outside SFF, and am a big Tana French and Stephen King fan.

Do you have anything interesting coming up that you’d like to talk about?

 I’ve just published the second book in the Navigator (Sci-Fi) series, and was hoping to continue my other long-suffering urban fantasy title, Wild Court, which takes a fantastical look at the decline of empathy in society, and is two-thirds written, but my brain has refused. Instead, I’ve been spending time planning out a high fantasy title exploring the war between heaven, hell and mankind, featuring a devious demonic heroine with a disability who teams up with a captured warlock’s apprentice in an effort to escape from hell. I’d done some planning on it a while ago, but had a sudden realization about the MC, then things started to fall into place, and before I knew it, I’d written four thousand words of plan. There’s still a fair bit to do, but I scribbled down the opening line “When I was growing up, I had six brothers and sisters; by the time I was 16, I’d murdered three of them” and knew it was something I really wanted to explore more.

That’s a killer line, in multiple senses of the word. I’m excited!

Thank you 😊

To Purchase Small Places:

UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Dusk-Matthew-Samuels/dp/B09XSZPLWK/
US: https://www.amazon.com/Dusk-Matthew-Samuels/dp/B09XSZPLWK

Fantasy Focus: High and Epic Fantasy Featuring Jason & Rose Bishop

This year, I’m doing a new series: Fantasy Focus. Each month will have a week-long focus on a different fantasy subgenre- fantasy is as varied as its creators’ imaginations! If you’ve missed them, there have been fantasy focuses on comedic fantasy, grimdark and romantic fantasy. I’m excited to be talking about high fantasy and epic fantasy this month.

I’ve been privileged to chat with Jason and Rose Bishop, authors of the Storm’s Rising series.

Thank you for being willing to talk about high fantasy and epic fantasy with me!

Thank you for having us! It’s one of our favorite topics.

Will you introduce yourselves?

Well, we’re Jason and Rose Bishop, a husband-and-wife team, married twenty-seven years and currently co-authoring the Storm’s Rising epic fantasy series. We met in college, and quickly discovered we both had a passion for fantasy stories and role-playing games such as AD&D and Pathfinder. In fact, it was during our gaming sessions that we unwittingly began building the world of Cyrradon, created some of the historical figures that became the basis of the saga, and thought up some of the pivotal events leading to the story we’re writing now.

On the personal side, we’ve taken on a wide variety of interests and hobbies over the years, including bicycling, motorcycling, guitar playing, fly fishing, home brewing, making mead and cider, and all kinds of home meat production (sausages, salamis, smoked/cured meats, etc.). We had a long phase of very near homesteading, where we raised much of what we ate, including a huge garden, a sustainable greenhouse with some hydroponics, chickens, ducks, geese, goats, pigs, and horses (we didn’t eat those). We found we love those primitive DIY skills, like canning and preserving, fermentation (kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, sourdough) and we think a lot of that goes into our stories and contribute to their complexity.

Can you talk a little bit about the Storm’s Rising series?

The Storm’s Rising series is our reach for the kind of story we would want to find on the shelf to read for ourselves. It’s a tale that begins with several young folk who had some serious drama in their past they were never fully aware of. And as in real life, eventually that drama comes along and sweeps them into it. But the story itself, as we’ve hinted at, began way before page one of book one. It’s somewhat of a “coming-of-age” story, somewhat of a “chosen one” story, and somewhat of a lit-RPG. We think the best thing about the books are its characters. Some of them we created on our own, others were inspired or outright created by our kids when they got old enough to game with us. But all of them have become like family to us, and they surprise us just as much as real people do with the things they say and the decisions they make. We’re not really in control here, we just document what they do! We even have songs we’ve attributed to many of them, that sort of capture the essence of each character for us!

Overall, the series tells the story of a group of heroes known as the Five, whose formation occurred centuries ago following an event called the Great Reavening. Their purpose is to somehow undo the damage that was done to Cyrradon, and to the nature of life, death, and time in that horrific event. Each member of the Five bears an amulet, handed down from generation to generation, one of five powerful artifacts that mark and aid them as mortal champions of the five gods who oversee the elder races of the world. There are dark powers both mortal and immortal vying to take advantage of the brokenness of the world to dominate all life. And believe it or not, our villains are as complex and relatable as our MCs (with theme songs of their own). But of course the MCs don’t know any of this at the beginning, and that’s the beauty of the epic fantasy: the reader is right there alongside them, learning things piece by piece as they do, puzzling it out one shattered fragment at a time.

The best part of the story for us is the way the MCs grow. At first, they know nothing of each other, and very little about themselves or their past. They come from different cultures with lots of preconceptions about the other races and especially mixed breeds. So seeing them grow into their own potential, learn to trust each other (or not), learn to work together (or not), and learn that the world they live in is so much bigger and more deadly than they’d ever known, is really a privilege for us to witness. 

What were some obstacles to writing The Call (book 1)? I know you have had an interesting journey into the world of indie publishing.

It’s been a long road, and one we didn’t actually know we were on for a long time. As you know, we started building our world and our story long before we ever thought it would be a book, much less a massive series of books! Rose, who was usually our DM when we gamed, had an extensive pile of notes, maps, story ideas, character bios, etc., from our gaming sessions, so that gave us a great start. Then I (Jason) used some of my spare time working night shifts to dream up a lot of the histories of Cyrradon, and that ended up being a huge resource, bigger than we planned. So the first obstacle was really deciding how to put it all together. We knew there was no way our story could be told in just one book, so our first concept was a five-book series. Five heroes, five amulets, five gods, right? But by the time we got the first draft of book one down, we knew even five wasn’t going to be enough. 

The next obstacle came gift-wrapped in all the preconceptions of what a debut novel should look like according to the big names in publishing. Around 80,000 words, a complete novel in one volume, professionally edited and published, amazing cover art, etc. And it was about this time we got neck deep in the churn of query letters and rejections. At that time, our perception of indie authors was not complimentary. We were led to believe that self-publishing was for folks who just didn’t have what it took, and we were beginning to wonder if that was us. Then, fortunately for us, a certain steamy romance novel began making headlines and we learned it had originally gained popularity as an independent work, then got picked up by one of the big five, topping the charts internationally and even becoming a series of movies, despite being by most accounts rather terribly written. We knew our writing was better, beyond any doubt. We had to reevaluate our definitions of what was “worthy,” and whether we wanted to allow the ‘big five’ to determine that for us. We decided we did not.

Of course, there was another obstacle of the “elephant in the room” variety: the whole notion of a man and wife writing a story together and avoiding divorce in the process! We had to learn a lot about each other. How to communicate, how to manage our expectations, how to concede to one another in some regards and let go of our own “darlings” to move forward in others. In a lot of ways, we changed how we write as we realized where our strengths lay. We developed our roles and became much more comfortable in them. In the beginning, we both would write scenes independently, then hand them off to the other to go through and edit or critique. This was fraught with pitfalls, because as any writer knows, no matter how you plan out a scene, it always develops legs and arms you didn’t anticipate. We began finding these appendages fighting with one another and creating conflict in the story and in our relationship. Over time, we shifted to what could be called a “framer and painter” format. Rose is the architect (in our writing, and coincidentally as a profession); she puts the framework together and makes sure the plotlines and the critical elements of the story stay true. I’m the fluff guy (Rose says ‘artist’); I put all the pretty stuff on the outside, write the dialogue, develop the characters, and so on. So, when we’re crafting a new scene, Rose takes the lead until we have the mechanics figured out, then I take the stage for the drafting. It’s been an exercise that has strengthened not only our story writing, but our marriage as well.

What are some successes?

[JASON] I’d say our successes are built in right after our failures. Like the example with our thoughts toward indie authors, that failure led us to the success of being primed to accept some formative advice we received one day in early 2020 from a wise gentleman named Paul. He said two things we wouldn’t have been ready to hear prior to that smutty bestseller hitting the news. The first was, “There are over seven billion people in the world. All you need to be successful is 200-300 thousand of them to like your story.” This was like a light switch, flooding my brain to the very darkest reaches and making all the little doubting critters scamper off. Then he followed up with, “Now, just throw your story up into outer space and see what happens.” And that was it. We went through the book one last time, an out-loud reading at home with the family, and when we were done, we hopped on Kindle Direct Publishing and hit ‘submit.’ Then we cracked open a bottle of a massive Belgian style ‘dubbel’ homebrew we save for special occasions and celebrated!

There have definitely been more successes along the way. Getting positive reviews are always a success that has us on cloud nine for days. Finishing each new novel, getting that author proof in the mail and getting to hold it, smell it, flip through the pages and see all the hard work in our hands! Sending “thank you” copies to our beta readers. Every new follower on social media, everyone who reaches out just to say hi, or tells us something about how the book affected them or prods us for when the next one might be coming, these are all the successes that matter the most to us. We’re proud to be part of the indie tribe because it means we did it on our own. That’s a success in and of itself.

[ROSE] Jason found a great cover artist company, JD&J Cover Artists, who took our ideas and made them real. We also have a fantastic group of beta readers whose input helped us to fill in some blanks and remember that our readers don’t know the world as intimately as we do. Formatting the books was difficult, but doable. It taught me a lot of patience.

I know Storm’s Rising is considered epic fantasy. Can you talk a little bit about what epic fantasy is?

It’s a high fantasy that’s bigger than the books. The story has its origins way before chapter one. And throughout the reading of the story, the reader is overwhelmed with a grandness of scale, depth, complexity, and history that transcends the words on the page. Like scenes from a movie, the characters are right there in the foreground moving the story along, but all the while there is a complete, mature world behind them just begging to be admired and explored, and crying out of a history so rich nearly all of it has passed out of memory and become legend or perhaps even myth. 

Some conventional sources assert the terms ‘epic fantasy’ and ‘high fantasy’ as interchangeable. We don’t believe that for a second. In our mind, a high fantasy world (i.e., a world separate from our own, where realities are a bit different, and everyone carries a blade or uses magic) is where an epic fantasy tale can occur. But simply being high fantasy does not make it epic. Convention would also have us believe to be an epic fantasy it must (1) be a massively voluminous story, (2) about an orphan or outcast who grows up to be the chosen one to save the world, from (3) an unavoidable, unescapable evil. And further that the story (4) be the type of tale that is told and retold through generations, so old that you and your parents and grandparents even cannot recall a time when the story did not exist. So why then do we call ours epic? Okay, maybe we’re jumping the gun a little on number 4, but we have the first three dead to rights! The last one is up to our readers and time to tell. But we don’t have any doubts that lovers of classical fantasy sagas who read our story won’t dispute the label.

What drew you to writing that sort of, really, vast type of book?

No surprises here, it was having read fantasies of the epic variety before and knowing that’s what we wanted to craft for ourselves. We’ve never been satisfied with ‘garden variety’ anything. An epic fantasy requires a hero; we have multiple. An epic fantasy requires a villain; we have three pretty consistent bad guys you might choose to hate, with a handful of other minor villains for flavor. An epic fantasy requires an artifact of rare and mythic power; depending on your take on this, we either have five (the amulets) or we have none at all (we don’t exactly have a quest to find all the McGuffins, horcruxes, etc.) We’re okay with whichever you decide is the case.

One thing that differentiates our story from the traditional epic fantasy is that even though our MCs have skills they hone and lean on through the story, they’re not necessarily prodigies in the making. The typical epic starts with that orphan or outcast youth who has incredible fighting or magic using potential that ends up being the key to resolving the conflict. We veered away from that, preferring instead to show how heart, courage, and sacrifice could be the keys rather than puissant skill at arms or the magical equivalent.

Regardless, we wanted to take the time needed to tell the story completely, to lay it out with broad strokes so the reader can look forward to a journey they’ll enjoy start to finish. We wanted to delay as much as possible the inevitable moment when the reader is forced to turn that final page and decide what to do with the rest of their lives. That’s what we would want as readers. There’s nothing worse than just getting to the point you understand what’s going on and you love the characters, and then the story wraps up and you’re done. Or worse, you buy the next book in the series and all the characters you just met aren’t even mentioned again! What even is that? (If you know, you know.)

Perhaps the best part of writing epic fantasy is the allure of the world, in spite of all its flaws and dangers. Yes, there’s an overarching threat that promises to snuff out everything good, with nowhere to go and no way to escape it. But despite all that ugliness on the surface, it’s still a place you find yourself wishing you could go.

Are you more pantsers or plotters?

This is a tough one! It’s the classic argument of predestination versus free will. Are they mutually exclusive, or can they coexist? 

Any good writer, we think, needs to be a bit of both, pantser and plotter. While we love the planning phase (see our blog post on the ‘sticky note’ story boarding method we use), once we start actually writing we often see our characters making some pretty wild choices! Sometimes even choices that send our plotline off in directions we couldn’t have predicted. Or we’ll throw in a minor character for flavor in a certain scene, and then watch that character somehow grow into someone far more significant than we had designed. But you know, once it happens and Rose and I look at each other and say, “Oh, he definitely would have said that,” or “That’s so perfect!” then we’re committed and we just have to figure it out. So at that point, I suppose we become pantsers! Until the next scene, when we have it all planned out like before, and it happens again.

Who are some of your favorite authors?

Top of the list goes J. R. R. Tolkien, for pretty predictable reasons. He defined the genre for us and set the bar for world-building so high we will likely never reach it. Despite having a world-building file nearly big enough now to publish as its own novel, and even despite having created our own elven language, we doubt we’ll ever get to the Silmarillion level. He’s the godfather of epic fantasy, and always will be. 

Others well-deserving of praise in both our minds include David Eddings, Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman (and many others of the Dragonlance and Ravenloft sagas), Joe Abercrombie, Terry Brooks, Tad Williams, John Flannagan, Simon Hawke, John Gwynne, Warren Murphy & Richard Sapir, Leo Tolstoy, Judith Tarr and David B. Coe. All of these authors had some formative effect on us in terms of what we enjoy reading, and how we write our own stories.

About the authors:

Epic Fantasy Authors at Legends of Cyrradon

Visit our WEBSITE

Latest release: Storm’s Rising Book 4: Eye of the Witch

FREE audiobook preview of Storm’s Rising Book 1: The Call (click above)

Follow us for news, previews, blog posts and more!

Author Page – https://www.amazon.com/author/jasonandrosebishop

Twitter – @cyrradon

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Facebook – @cyrradon

Goodreads – Jason Bishop / Rose Bishop

Wattpad – jasonandrosebishop

Email – legendsofcyrradon@gmail.com

Fantasy Focus: High and Epic Fantasy Featuring L.A. Wasielewski

This year, I’m doing a new series: Fantasy Focus. Each month will have a week-long focus on a different fantasy subgenre- fantasy is as varied as its creators’ imaginations! If you’ve missed them, there have been fantasy focuses on comedic fantasy, grimdark and romantic fantasy. I’m excited to be talking about high fantasy and epic fantasy this month.

I had the pleasure of talking to L.A. Wasielewski, author of the Alchemist trilogy, about her work, epic fantasy, and spiced potatoes.

Thank you for being willing to talk about high fantasy and epic fantasy with me!

Thank you for the opportunity!  Every chance I get to scream how much I love high fantasy, you better believe I’m going to jump on it!

Will you introduce yourself?

I’m L.A.!  I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember—first fanfiction (before I even knew it was a thing. I just loved a video game and wrote stories about it), then original fiction.  I still write fanfic from time to time when the mood strikes, but I don’t have a lot of free time for it anymore.  When I’m not writing, I’m trying to keep my ravenous, swiftly growing teenager fed and this year, giving him a homeschool education because of the continuing situation with coronavirus.  I play video games when I can spare a moment, mostly Fortnite, Fallout, and Elder Scrolls.  And if Mama’s Family is on, you can bet your butt I’m sitting and watching.  

Can you talk a little bit about The Alchemist Trilogy?

The Alchemist Trilogy is an adult high dark fantasy adventure.  It follows Ryris Bren, talented alchemist who also harbors secret magical ability (forbidden/shunned in his world), as he embarks on a new life journey to the capital city to open his very own shop—away from his father.  He’s trying to forge a life of his own, out from under his father’s shadow.  A routine ingredient harvest turns into a life-altering event and, well…hehe.  You’ll have to read to find out! 

Since Ryris is an alchemist, there is a lot of his profession and knowledge in the story, and he finds ways to use alchemy any chance he can get, even if it’s on the battlefield.  He never loses his roots—even when he’s been taken so very far away from them.  Mixed in with all the violence, dark themes, action, magic, and adventure is a lot of humor, sass, and snark—and some romance, too!  I always love stories that have a good mix of everything, and I think I’ve achieved that!  At least I hope I did!

What were some obstacles to writing?

Personally?  These last two years, with all three of us in the house pretty much all the time, presented challenges.  I’m not able to get any time alone to write.  Especially this last school year, when I’ve been doing homeschool, there’s pretty much no time at the end of the day, and I’m exhausted anyway, or don’t have the motivation to write.  I’m hoping that once my child goes back to public school in September (fingers crossed!), that I’ll get some of that motivation and time back.

Writing-wise?  Even though I’m writing fantasy, which gives me free reign to create any character/environment/situation I want and have it be as fantastical as I want it to be, there are certainly times where I get blocked.  An idea that seems so incredible in my head, so vivid—can be an absolute bear to get on the page, and when I finally DO get it in words, it’s hot garbage.  Writing the last book in my trilogy, The Alchemist: Awakening, was without a doubt that obstacle.  Long story short: the original outline was 70% scrapped and had to be re-tooled, and I was plagued with a lot of self-doubt and frustration as I tried to finish the book.  It took nearly a year to get that original draft out.  I completed the first draft, and literally 4 days later, our schools closed due to coronavirus, and everything came to a screeching halt.  That was a low time.  Even though I had a finished draft, there was so much work to do, and I had no motivation or time to do it.

What are some victories?

My biggest victory was finishing The Alchemist: Awakening.  After all the frustration of having to completely re-work the outline, the boundless time pulling my hair out trying to write the damn first draft, and then having coronavirus smash into our lives—it was my own little miracle when I finally held that proof in my hands.  It was 18 months from start to finish. This was without a doubt, the hardest book to write, complete, and polish.  I’m incredibly proud of it now, but holy cats did it take an extraordinary amount of effort on my part.

I know your series is described as high fantasy. Can you talk a little bit about what high fantasy is? What separates it from other fantasy subgenres?

When I think about high fantasy, my mind immediately goes to big, epic stories with a lot of characters, filled with magic and monsters, high stakes, and sweeping environments just ripe for the picking on adventures.  Almost like an open-world RPG or a Dungeons and Dragons campaign.  And when I write my stories, that’s where I’m taking my inspiration from a lot of the time.  Big worlds, intriguing characters, excellent adventures.  Stories that can go on and on, spread into series after series, generation after generation.  When I read high fantasy, and hopefully when people read mine, I like to be able to feel like I’ve just been dropped into a lived-in world.  You feel welcome, like you’re walking into a warm, somewhat-smoky village inn, and the server drops some spiced potatoes and a mug of ale in front of you and you just watch the world go by—and happen to overhear a bunch of companions planning their next big adventure.  That adventure is your story—their story.  The world feels familiar, even when it isn’t.  One of the things that I always loved about high fantasy, the works of Weis and Hickman in particular, was that the world seemed to still go on around the main characters.  Life kept happening, from everyday commerce to going to school, to farming, smithing, and medicine.  The main story was happening—but so was life.  Everyday regular people continued their lives while the main characters went about their journey, helping them when they could, staying out of the way when they needed to.  It always made the worlds seem so believable, even when they were set in a fantasy environment.  That’s what I hope I’ve achieved in my books, and my readers seem to think I’ve done just that!  

I think that high fantasy is a broader genre title, and that a lot of fantasy books can fall into that category without being exclusively “high fantasy.”  Like mine, I’d classify as Dark High Fantasy, with definitely epic vibes.  But there’s cozy fantasy elements (I love that term, Dan Fitz!), horror elements, etc.  I think the term “high fantasy” allows people to write sweeping stories and include all sorts of sub-genres within their books.  If that makes sense?

What drew you to writing high fantasy?

As a kid, I picked up Forging the Darksword, by Weis and Hickman, when it was first released (whooo, I might be old 😉), and I was HOOKED.  The same with Fred Saberhagen’s Swords books.  So, when I decided to write my own original fiction, I took a lot of inspiration from those stories, and all the other sprawling high fantasy I’d read since childhood and ran with it.  It was always a genre I was familiar with, and knew I could do well.  Fantasy has always been very comforting to me, a place to escape to when life kind of sucked.  I wanted to create my own stories, and hopefully, give readers that same feeling I had when I read high fantasy.

I know you tend to outline your books in advance. I’m curious: how far out do you plan?

Especially because I write high fantasy, sometimes with a lot of characters and places that I need to keep track of, it’s essential for me to plan to the very end.  That doesn’t mean I don’t leave wiggle room and allow myself to completely change and add things as I go, but I’ve got to have the outline down so I know where the story is going, otherwise I’m terrified I’ll write myself into a corner.  But, even with outlines, you can still encounter those types of problems—like I did with The Alchemist: Awakening.  Since I had planned the trilogy so far ahead of time, the story had some significant changes by the time I got to book three, and I had to do some reconstructing.  But I was SO THANKFUL that I had that outline, and the bones of the story was there, otherwise I would have been in a heap of trouble, I’m sure! 

With my next high fantasy project, The Secret Bad-Assed Ladies Fantasy Project* (*not actual title!) I’m getting out of my comfort zone and trying to write without a proper outline.  These books are planned as shorter, adventure-type stories with the same cast of women, and not necessarily meant to be read in order like my last series.  That’s not to say I don’t have a world and characters/lore fleshed out in a whole bunch of documents and in my head, but there are no traditional outlines for the books. Just a list of “adventure ideas” that I’ll pull from as I write.  It’s been a challenge—but a fun one!  I’m only a few chapters into the first book, and right now it’s more of a “dink around when I get a smidge of time between homeschool lessons and life stuff,” but it’ll see the light of day sometime in the next few years, I’m sure.  These ladies are pretty damn cool, lemme tell ya! 

You’ve mentioned in previous conversations that the DeathGate Cycle by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman is what originally drew you to fantasy. Did those books (which are so great!) affect your writing at all?  

I could gush all day about how much I admire and respect Weis and Hickman, and how much they have influenced me as a reader and a writer!  Their worlds are so unique and beautiful, and filled with so many enthralling places and people, that when I started to create my own fantasy stories, I drew from what I learned reading them to help myself generate my own environments.  I think readers come to expect sweeping, awe-inspiring, visually-stunning (in your imagination, at least) worlds from fantasy—especially high fantasy—so I was grateful that I had read so many of their stories as a kid/teen.  It gave me a leg up, I think, in being able to create my own vistas and characters. 

Do you have any other inspirations when it comes to your writing?

I play a lot of Elder Scrolls games, and just seeing those incredible landscapes as I adventure has always been sort of an inspiration.  The world for The Alchemist Trilogy has (in my mind) a very Skyrim/Cyrodiil feel to it.  The Bad-Assed Fantasy Ladies project feels totally like Elder Scrolls: Oblivion to me as I imagine the world.  Both book series are a medieval-type fantasy world, so having that visual representation already in my mind has been immensely helpful when imagining what my environments look like.  

For many people, high fantasy is what first comes to mind when they think of the fantasy genre. Yet it seems that it’s much more difficult to find nowadays. Would you agree with that?

 Yes and no?  I think a lot of the time, people tend to go to the traditionally-published high fantasy first, because it has had (especially the older stuff like Weis/Hickman, Saberhagen, etc.) decades of attention and hype.  But what people don’t realize, or maybe don’t want to even try, is that there is such a vast catalog of indie and self-published authors out there creating some absolutely incredible, mind-boggling high fantasy.  It’s just a matter of getting out of that “trad publishing comfort zone” and trying indie and self-pubbed books.  As indies, we have complete control over what does or does not go into our books, and I think it makes for some pretty incredible, unique, and boundary-pushing stories. 

As far as high fantasy goes, who are some authors I need to be reading? 

Indies: Dan Fitzgerald, Deck Matthews, Thomas Howard Riley, Sean R. Frazier, Lilith Hope Milam, Mason Thomas…just to name a few.  Oh, and…me?  😉 

Traditionally published:  Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman.  Without a doubt.  They might be older books (although there’s NEW DRAGONLANCE IN AUGUST OMG!!!), but they’re GREAT  books.  Darksword, Death Gate, and Dragonlance shaped who I am today as a reader and writer.  And yes, Jodie, I know YOU have read Weis/Hickman, lol.  But everyone else should, too!  

About the author:

L.A. Wasielewski is a gamer, nerd, baseball fan (even though the Brewers make it very difficult sometimes), and mom. When she’s not writing, she’s blasting feral ghouls and super mutants in the wastelands, baking and cooking, and generally being a smart-ass. She’s very proud of the fact that she has survived several years with two drum kits in the house—and still has most of her hearing intact.

You can find L.A. Wasielewski here:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/LAWasielewski/

Website:  http://www.lawasielewski.com/

Fantasy Focus: High and Epic Fantasy Featuring A.C. Cobble

This year, I’m doing a new series: Fantasy Focus. Each month will have a week-long focus on a different fantasy subgenre- fantasy is as varied as its creators’ imaginations! If you’ve missed them, there have been fantasy focuses on comedic fantasy, grimdark and romantic fantasy. This month’s focus is on high and epic fantasy, the subgenre that comes to most people’s minds immediately upon hearing the word “fantasy”.

I’m excited to have the opportunity to be able to chat with A.C. Cobble, author of several books including The King’s Ranger series.

Thank you for being willing to talk about high fantasy and epic fantasy with me!

Will you introduce yourself?

Hello, my name is AC Cobble. I’m a full-time fantasy writer living in the Houston, TX area with my wife, three boys, and two dogs. I enjoy eating and drinking, gardening, traveling, more traveling, and of course writing books!

Can you talk a little bit about your work?

Yes, I’ve completed three series called Benjamin Ashwood, the Cartographer, and The King’s Ranger. There’s a fourth coming soon, and I’ll share more about that at the end! The Cartographer is pretty dark and sexy, while Benjamin Ashwood and King’s Ranger are fun adventure tales. Think small parties going on epic journeys and facing impossible odds. They’re a good match for fans of Raymond E Feist or Michael J Sullivan.

What are some obstacles to writing high fantasy?

We all stand on the shoulders of giants, and sometimes it’s difficult to do so in high fantasy while also delivering a new and exciting story. Said differently, high fantasy readers have firm expectations, so how do you deliver on those in a surprising way?

What are some successes?

For me personally, I really enjoy taking the ideas I grew up reading about, and spinning them in a more modern and interesting (to me) way. My books don’t feature a Chosen One, for example, because in my experience no one is the secret daughter of the king, or a grandson of the most powerful wizard, or whatever. Heroes aren’t made that way, but there are heroes! A lot of my work toys with the ideas of what real life good and bad guys might look like in a fantasy setting.

Can you explain what high fantasy is?

<coughs uncomfortably> Maybe? I’m not one for hard definitions on subgenres, and I think there is plenty of overlap in the fantasy ones, to the point no one really knows for sure, which makes the categorization pointless if we can’t all agree on it! But to me, the most important elements of high fantasy are a fictional world and a lot of magic. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is the archetypal high fantasy. Most of the books I’d categorize as “what I grew up reading” or “classic fantasy” are high fantasy.

I’ve heard the terms “epic fantasy” and “high fantasy” used interchangeably. Do you see them as two separate subgenres?

I use high and epic fantasy interchangeably as well, and books are frequently both, but I think there are some different implications to the terms. And it’s worth noting that in some areas important to authors and readers, like Amazon categories or bookstore shelves, you only get one choice. Amazon doesn’t list high fantasy, for example, so if I’m talking to an Amazon shopper, I say epic even if it’s not necessarily an epic tale.

If so, how is epic fantasy different from high fantasy?

Epic fantasy usually is high fantasy, but it involves large consequences. World-shaking events, the end of times, or just everyone dying in some terrific bloodbath. And because the stakes are big, the books are normally big, and come in long series. Said differently, you can write a book and call it high fantasy, but when you add eight more to the series, it’s epic fantasy.

What drew you to writing high fantasy?

It’s what I read the most of growing up, so it was a natural fit when I began writing. I’ve stayed in the genre because it lends itself well to a deeper exploration of themes. Literary snobs might be clutching their pearls right now, but in high fantasy, you craft the world, and you can set the stage however you like. We can look at real, important issues, while still having a bit of fun with it.

The King’s Ranger looks at family and was heavily inspired by my own experiences as a father. Benjamin Ashwood examines what it takes for an individual to rise up and battle against an entrenched system. The Cartographer is about someone of privilege turning their back on that luxury, fighting for what is right, and the sacrifice that entails.

I know most people don’t read my books for the themes. They want the swordfights, and fireballs, and dragons, and I’m Ok with that, but it’s important for me as an author to craft a deeper layer. High fantasy is a blank canvas which allows me to do that however I want.

Are you a plotter or a pantser?

Okay, I’ll give you a little more. I start out with an outline that looks like a list of the chapters with one to three high level bullet points. X Character goes to Y Location and fights Z bad guy. I generally stay true to that structure, but all of the details in between are pantsed.

Who are some of your favorite authors?

I think Josiah Bancroft has the most interesting prose of working authors. China Mieville has the biggest imagination of anyone I’ve read. P Djeli Clark, ML Wang and Fonda Lee are on my most watched list because I think they’ll take fantasy in exciting new directions. Will Wight is busy opening doors people didn’t know were there and has amassed a seriously rabid fan base in the process. Alec Hutson, Phil Tucker, and TL Greylock are writing books similar to what I want to write. Michael J Sullivan’s books are ones I love to kick back and relax with. Robert Jordan is probably my biggest influence. And I could go on for several more pages…

What/who inspired you to start writing high fantasy?

True story, several years back I was reading a book that was so horrible I thought I could do better. I can’t remember the author or the book (which is probably for the best), but I honestly thought if they could do it, I could do it too. I’d always been into D&D, Magic the Gathering, etc, and I loved imaging stories, but I’d never really told any of them.

So I sat down and got to work. I spent about three years on that first book, and no one but my wife knew I was writing it. Hit publish, then when it was live, announced I was a writer. Still not sure if I managed to surpass that forgotten author, but it changed my life giving it a try!

Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time was my single greatest (positive) influence, but the political climate in the US at the time informed the conflict in my new world, and my travels gave it shape. That’s still what drives me; blending real world inspiration into a fantastic story.

Do you have anything on the horizon that you would like to share?

I’ve started work on a new project called Conspiracy: Wahrheit Book 1. I’ve finished the first draft already, and truly, I think it’s my best work yet. There’s a Kickstarter for it which ends April 22nd, but the project is already fully-funded and we’ll be able to offer some of the rewards until close to the retail release in August. These will be big books with interior illustrations by Felix Ortiz, available in ebook to read on any device, signed paperbacks & hardbacks, and audiobooks narrated by Travis Baldree at half the cost of retail! I tried to balance each offering so it’s better for both me and the reader to get the book via Kickstarter rather than the retailers—but for those who want it the old fashioned way, it’ll be available that way too!

The Wahrheit series is similar in tone to my Benjamin Ashwood or King’s Ranger books, but BIGGER. Think multiple points of view, big battles, coming of age, spies, assassins, more in dept research, ancient mysteries, world-spanning conflict, and in a first for me, dragons! I’ve got artwork and several sample chapters up on the Kickstarter, so if it sounds interesting at all, go check it out!

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/author-ac-cobble/a-new-fantasy-novel-conspiracy-wahrheit-book-one?ref=bj6osp

About the author:

AC Cobble is the author of The King’s Ranger, Benjamin Ashwood, Cartographer, and upcoming Wahrheit series.

Wahrheit is a giant, sprawling epic fantasy. It features political intrigue, spies, assassins, world-spanning conflicts, huge battles, intricate characters, and dragons! It’s for fans of Benjamin Ashwood and the King’s Ranger, but MORE.

The King’s Ranger is a clean, action-packed adventure. Rew, the titular ranger, wants only to manage the wilderness he is responsible for, but the arrival of three youths in his jail cell force him to embark on an epic journey. To protect the youths, he’s forced to confront a darkness in his past and join a swirling conflict that will envelope the entire kingdom.

Benjamin Ashwood is AC’s take on the classic farm boy with a sword fantasy story. It starts much like they all do, but in Ben’s world like the real world, heroes are made not born, and the good guys don’t always win. Try it today and find out why this series has sold hundreds of thousands of copies!

The Cartographer is a little sexier and a little darker, but has the same sense of fun and adventure as Benjamin Ashwood. Think world spanning travel and exploration, occult rituals, dark seductresses, bodies dropping like flies, and bar fights. Fans of Rhys will love Oliver and Sam. Join the adventure today!

AC Cobble’s books have been published in English, German, and Polish. For series artwork, maps, the newsletter signup, the blog, and more, head over to: https://accobble.com/.

Fantasy Focus: High & Epic Fantasy Featuring Coby Zucker

This year, I’m doing a new series: Fantasy Focus. Each month will have a week-long focus on a different fantasy subgenre- fantasy is as varied as its creators’ imaginations! If you’ve missed them, here are links to my fantasy focuses on comedic fantasy , grimdark and romantic fantasy.

This month I’m focusing on High and Epic Fantasy. I’ve been privileged to chat with Coby Zucker author of the epic fantasy, Nomads of the Sea.

Thank you for being willing to talk about high fantasy and epic fantasy with me!

Thanks for having me!

Will you introduce yourself?

My name’s Coby Zucker. I’m a 24-year-old debut fantasy author from Toronto, Canada. For my 9-5, I’m a journalist. Currently I work in the wild west of gaming and esports. 

Can you talk a little bit about Nomads of the Sea?

I can talk a lot about Nomads of the Sea but for the sake of your sanity I’ll keep it brief. 

Nomads is an adult fantasy epic that spans continents and multiple POVs. The setting for the main plot is heavily inspired by Southeast Asia, though the world is big and also encompasses a more traditional medieval fantasy world. It’s a bit grim, occasionally funny, and—hopefully—an all-around decent read (especially if you like giant shapeshifting bears, the interplay of medicine and magic, and big beefy tomes with lots of worldbuilding). 

Have I sold it hard enough?

But yeah, Nomads is really just a passion product from a bored grad student whose summer job was cancelled during the first wave of COVID. It was my first, but certainly not my last, foray into writing novels.

What were some obstacles to writing Nomads of the Sea?

Amazingly, writing Nomads went pretty smooth. Since it was my first book I had to learn my personal writing cadence and style, but I settled into those things fairly quick. If we really want to get into the nitty gritty, one of my biggest challenges as an author was writing compelling characters that didn’t think the way I think, or act the way I act.  

Also romance. I’m not a romance person by nature so that took some trial and error. 

Really most of the obstacles came after I’d finished writing the book. Learning how to revise, compose, publish, and market a book was way harder than writing it.

What are some successes?

To be honest, just getting the novel into the world was a huge personal success. As for the book itself? I guess I’m happy with how it all came together. I like the characters, I like the world, and I’m honestly just excited with how the whole writing process went. Creating a full novel was something I’d always wanted to do, but I never knew if I had the chops.

Nomads of the Sea has been called epic fantasy. Can you explain what epic fantasy is?

Well Wikipedia defines epic fantasy as… 

I’m just messing with you.

Basically, epic fantasy is, at its core, a subgenre of fantasy defined by its scale. Epic fantasy is expansive worlds with full casts of characters, huge plots that span years, and big ol’ chonky books. Occasionally, it’s none of those things. That’s probably not a helpful answer but everyone has their own definition of epic fantasy so it’s hard to give a catch-all. For me, if it’s fantasy and it has a big scope, that’s epic fantasy. 

I’ve heard the terms “epic fantasy” and “high fantasy” used interchangeably. Do you see them as two separate subgenres?

I actually do, even though you’re right and they are often lumped together.

In your opinion, how is epic fantasy different from high fantasy? 

You already know how I define epic fantasy so I would contrast it against high fantasy, which, in my mind, is more a comment on the world of the book itself. Whereas epic fantasy is about the scale of the book.

High fantasy is often seen as “Tolkien fantasy” with elves and dwarves and dragons and all that good stuff. Really it’s a little broader and many phenomenal authors are drawing on diverse mythologies to create unique high fantasy worlds (that’s not a knock on elves and dwarves and dragons by the way. They’re still dope.)

People will use the term “secondary world” to characterize high fantasy. Basically it just means a world that’s not too Earth-y. And yes, high fantasy is often epic fantasy, which makes it all the more confusing.

Take all this with a grain of salt. I’m by no means an expert. Just a guy who likes to read and write fantasy books.

What drew you to writing epic fantasy?

It’s right there in the name. It’s freakin’ epic. 

All respect to people who want to write a slice-of-life novel about Elmer, whose biggest problem in life is he’s run out of yarn (great idea for a book by the way, someone hop on it), but if I’m writing, it’s going to be about monsters and heroes and giant battles and high stakes plots. 

Also, as someone who comes from academia, there’s nothing more liberating than making shit up (am I allowed to curse?) Obviously epic fantasy still requires research but it’s nice to not feel beholden to detailed footnotes or the laws of physics.

Are you a plotter or a pantser?

Little of column A, little of column B. But I’d say I’m mostly a plotter. I definitely need to know the beginning, the middle, and the end before I start writing. But part of the joy of making a book for me is discovering new things about the story along the way, solving problems as they crop up, and confronting situations from my characters’ POVs.  

Who are some of your favorite authors?

Anne McCaffrey, Joe Abercrombie, Jack Whyte, Christian Cameron, Fonda Lee, Robin Hobb, Brandon Sanderson, Mark Lawrence…

There’s probably others but I’ll stop myself before I just name every amazing author I can think of.

What/who inspired you to start writing epic fantasy?

There’s not really a “who”, unless you count my family, who helped foster my love of reading sci-fi and fantasy books. 

The “what” is a desire to create something wholly my own. It’s fun to delve into another author’s world but building something from the ground up was an entirely new experience. One I’m now addicted to. 

Do you have anything on the horizon that you would like to share?

Nothing in particular. I’ve been able to get Nomads of the Sea into the hands of a few awesome bloggers and vloggers so keep an eye out for their reviews. Maybe they’ll be able to convince you to get Nomads where my unhinged ramblings have failed. 

There will be more books coming from me in the future. Hopefully not the distant future. 

About the Author:


Coby Zucker is a 24-year-old part-time fantasy writer who lives in Toronto, Canada. He writes about more mundane subjects for his day job. Follow him on socials for updates about his writing. Nomads of the Sea is Coby’s debut novel.

Fantasy Focus: Grimdark Featuring M.L. Spencer

Banner Credit: Beth Tabler

This year, I’m doing a new series: Fantasy Focus. Each month will have a week-long focus on a different fantasy subgenre- fantasy is as varied as its creators’ imaginations! If you’ve missed them, there have been fantasy focuses on comedic fantasy and romantic fantasy. This month, I’m taking a walk on the grittier, darker side of fantasy- grimdark!

Today I’m excited to be talking with M.L. Spencer, author of the Rhenwars Saga and the Chaos Saga. Thank you so much for chatting with me about grimdark and fantasy in general!

Will you introduce yourself and talk a little bit about your work?

Hi my name is ML Spencer, and I am the author of the Rhenwars Saga, The Chaos Cycle, and the Rivenworld series, which so far consists of my best-selling novel Dragon Mage. Of those series only Chaos and Rhenwars could be considered grimdark, although there are some seriously grim and dark moments in Dragon Mage.

What were some obstacles to writing?

Wow. Right now I’m experiencing a ton. My biggest obstacle to writing is my own brain, which gets in the way often. If I grease the wheels it runs smoothly, like a pampered machine. Ungreased, however, and that machine breaks down and starts to falter. Eventually, with enough neglect, it stops working entirely. That’s the slump I’m currently in. After I finished Dragon Mage I entered a period of writers block that was the most excruciating of my life. On top of that, I was also dealing with some physical and mental issues that made writing impossible at the time. Eventually, I fell out of the habit of writing, and now here I am, struggling to pick it back up again, which is not an easy thing.

What are some victories?

I think my biggest victory was the success of Dragon Mage. I had hoped it would be well received, but I had no idea it would achieve the success in accolades it did. I think a lot of that was due to Petrik Leo, a book blogger who gave the novel so much airtime. Because of Petrik’s recommendations, word spread to Reddit, Instagram, and Twitter, I’m pretty soon the sill started coming. I still stand in awe of Petrik’s reach, and to this day I am so incredibly thankful for him.

Grimdark seems to be one of those subgenres that is a little difficult to define. How would you explain grimdark?

For me, the definition of grimdark is easy. In fact, I’m a little confused that there is any debate about it. Grimdark is the opposite of Noble Bright, which is to say the mood is grim and the stakes seem hopeless and probably are. There are no knights in shining armor, but rather ragged or broken main characters with few positive traits that we can cling to. Instead of a happily ever after, all we are promised is a train wreck. It’s like gazing at an auto accident as you drive by. You dread what you’re going to see, but you can’t stop looking. That is the essence of grimdark.

Why do you think it’s so difficult to really “define” grimdark?

I have no idea. I think because there are some high fantasy novels that can include very dark moments and gnarled characters. But to me there still is a difference. There is still hope at the end of the day. We have some security that her favorite characters are not going to be killed off. The world is wholesome and worth saving, and we know that somehow, our characters are going to pull off this elevation.

Not so with grimdark. In grimdark, there is no safety net.

What draws you to grimdark as an author?

I was drawn to grimdark initially because it is a better vehicle for injecting realism into fantasy. It’s hard to truly explore human character and a high fantasy setting, because there are some boundaries where you just can’t go. A great example is swearwords. Readers typically don’t expect them in some won’t stand for them in their high fantasy. And god help the author who kills off a favorite side character, even though that character’s death precipitates a cataclysmic shift in the main characters worldview that is worth exploring.

Which authors are on your must-read list?

There are so many.

Mark Lawrence

Joe Abercrombie

CS Friedman

Andy Peloquin

Ed McDonald

Rob Hayes

Jesse Teller

Ben Galley

Do you have anything on the horizon that you’d like to talk about?

I wish I did.  Just plodding along writing Dragon Mage 2, which is utterly and hopelessly non-grimdark. Perhaps that is why I can’t seem to tame this beast 😊

About the author:

ML Spencer lives in Southern California with her three children and two cats. She has been obsessed with fantasy ever since the days of childhood bedtime stories. She grew up reading and writing fantasy fiction, playing MMORPG games, and living, as mom put it, “in her own worlds.” ML now spends each day working to bring those worlds into reality.

Purchase links:

The Rhenwars Saga

The Chaos Cycle