In this post, author Nathan Hawke visits to answer questions about his fantasy trilogy. THE CRIMSON SHIELD, COLD REDEMPTION and THE LAST BASTION tell the tale of Gallow, a warrior determined to stay true to his beliefs in a chaotic world at war. All three are available as paperbacks and ebooks.
Let's get right to the questions.
Mark: Most fantasy novels are set at a Medieval or even Renaissance level of technology. One of the aspects I enjoy about your series is that the technology seems more Dark Ages--spear and shield, axe and sword. Was this a conscious choice to do something different?
Nathan: Yes, and there are several reasons for that. I have an alter-ego who’s been writing fantasy for some time and the settings there are drawn from early renaissance Italy, and from Arabia and China of a similar time. What I find these settings all have in common is a great deal of opulence, concentration of huge wealth and power into the hands of a small number of individuals, marvellous works of art and architecture and a great deal of politics.
In that regard, I wonder if there might be a general trend in fantasy for the vogue to be moving steadily forward in time. We already have some great fantasy taking characters akin to the musketeers and setting them in a magical fantasy world – in five years perhaps in the next great swathe of fantasy everyone will carry flintlock pistols instead of swords. So part of my reason was simply to step away from that and move to a setting quite different to the ones I was already using.
Another reason was that I happened to be in York for the Jorvik Viking Festival when the suggestion was first made to do something different. A part of it, for me, too, was I wanted a certain tone. I think SFX, when they reviewed The Crimson Shield, muttered something about too much A Song of Ice and Fire influence in the story; and I can see some similarities – the dirt, the blood, little focus on anything that’s actually fantastical, the focus on character instead – but in part exactly the thing I was trying to get away from was the current penchant for very grey characters – no stand-up heroes, no cardboard villains, the replacement of some notion of higher ideals with a self-obsessed “what’s best for me?”
Much as I love that sort of characterisation (my alter-ego has followed that path with gleeful enthusiasm), I find myself missing the fictional heroes of my youth, the lone wolf whose sense of serving some greater purpose or duty overcomes or replaces their greed or sense of vengeance. It’s a character trope that fits with ‘simple times’ and belongs very strongly in the Western genre as well. I don’t know if there’s some sort of unconscious social commentary thing going on with fantasy at the moment – a sort of ‘oh, look, if everyone acts like a self-serving s--- with no shred of social conscience, everything either stays crappy or gets even crappier’ but I found myself very much wanting to write a character who wasn’t like that, someone with a sense of values and purpose I’d be happy to aspire to. In a way, the desire for that character drove the setting towards one in which one man really could make a difference.
Mark: Gallow's world is well formed, but I can't help searching for comparisons with our own history. I see the Lhosir as a Viking culture, but it's trickier with the others. Are the Marroc based on the Britons, or perhaps the Saxons? Their use of long knives made me think of the Saxon scramasax knives. And are the Vathen horsesoldiers something like the Huns or Magyars? I'm curious what cultures inspired you.
Nathan: I really didn’t hide the Viking influence behind the Lhosir at all, did I? Of the three cultures in The Crimson Shield, that one was pretty shameless and blatant, a premeditated theft. The Vathen are much more deliberately nebulous. Historically, Europe received wave after wave of mounted invaders and I didn’t particularly pick one, largely because the Vathen are, as far as most of the characters are concerned, an ill-defined and unknown threat. I haven’t chosen yet because I don’t have to, but I suspect if I come back to the Vathen in any depth then they’ll be something of a hybrid.
The Marroc were constructed as a culture that didn’t fit very well with the Lhosir (I can see the Lhosir and Vathen getting along fine if they didn’t slaughter each other to the last man standing first). So they started off based on Saxons but were warped more away from that and made more passive. I was trying to set up a clash of ideologies between “be true to yourself” (Lhosir) and “be true to your community” (Marroc) and that skewed both the Lhosir and the Marroc away from their historical starting points. Then to dump Gallow in the middle, caught between them and trying to reconcile these two different views of the world.
Mark: There is a strong element of horror in these stories, particularly with the Shadewalkers--these undead, implacable killers that come down out of the mountains during snow storms and murder innocent families on remote farms. Those scenes really freaked me out. Do you read horror, and what influenced the development of these creatures?
Nathan: Um… would it be deeply, deeply sad of me to say Skyrim? There I was, starting off on writing these books with a very Norse feel and at the same time playing a game with a very Norse feel and, well, it’s full of dragons and draugar and I already had the dragons covered elsewhere and so the draugar sort of… crept in. And then that led me into the Fateguard and Beyard (who made Cold Redemption the best of the three books if you ask me) and the entrance to the Aulian tomb under Witches’ Reach . . . so yes. That’s what nudged the shadewalkers into the story in the first place. I do read horror, no more or less than any other genre but I like it when it’s done well. I like the creeping dread type of horror, the sense of cosmic forces beyond control or understanding. Lovecraftian horror, which I think fits very well with a fantasy setting. I’m glad I freaked you out. I consider that a success J
Mark: The action scenes are intense, and you don't flinch away from portraying the confusion and violence of close combat, plus the psychological after effects of killing a fellow human being. Do you train in martial arts or did you go to school in a really rough neighborhood?
Nathan: I grew up in a town of retired colonels and it could hardly have been less rough. I have done several martial arts on and off over the years but I’m not sure that’s helpful – if anything it’s possibly counter-productive since martial arts tend to emphasis discipline and control and most real fights (best I can tell from my pretty limited experience) show little of either.
I can recommend this to anyone planning on writing a battle scene: go and hang out with your nearest medieval, Viking or civil war re-enactment group (for civil war, go as a pikeman – the musket block is much more civilised). Get kitted up and go out onto a battlefield with a hundred or so folk on each side. Make sure you’re in the shield wall or in the pike block. Re-enact for ten minutes. By this time you will discover that you are soaked through with sweat, absolutely exhausted and gasping for breath. You may well have shouted yourself hoarse without realising it. You will have discovered that in close combat in a massed battle you can barely move. There is no finesse, it’s largely brute strength and good kit. The adrenaline rush is quite something and once it wears off you will feel utterly battered. Bear in mind that everyone around you was actively trying not to hurt you, even though they frequently failed. You will find you have the stamina to go at it again before long but even if you don’t you’re going to hurt the next day in all manner of places you didn’t even know you had.
You could get yourself off down to a Motorhead/Guns’N’Roses/Prodigy/Pendulum/all-of-the-above gig (depending on your age) and go play in the mosh pit for the beginnings of a similar experience and then imagine everyone with shields, armour, sharp metal things actively trying to hurt you, but the intensity really isn’t the same. On the other side of things I’ve had cause to talk to people who have been in vehicles hit by roadside bombs multiple times and seen their friend in the next seat have his leg blown half off, to people who have shot and killed others and who have seen men beside them die. It’s second hand but you get to hear the raw story and see the emotion. The filter of Hollywood and TV frequently kills all that.
Mark: I know others have compared your work to David Gemmell, but for me it has the feel of Robert Howard's sword and sorcery stories, and the driving pace I associate with Edgar Rice Burroughs. Will you tell us some of your favorite authors?
Nathan: All sorts for all sorts of different reasons. I like deeply involving characters (Donna Tartt: The Secret History, not genre at all). I like deeply complicated and intricate expositions of how things work interspersed with fast wit (Anything by Neal Stephenson). Grimy weirdness (Peter Higgins: Wolfhound Century). Labyrinthine politics and murdering (the first two Song of Ice and Fire books). And speed and pace and a story that GETS ON WITH IT so yes, Gemmell at his best and I grew up more of a swords-and-sorcery lad than a Middle Earth boy and I did read a lot of Conan. Gavin Smith when he’s not being wrong about lasers and Star Wars. That Stephen Deas bloke has a stab at doing all of the above at once and generally failing but I gather his dragons are pretty sweet ;-). All the other Gollancz authors, they’re all brilliant too… And then you have authors I read simply for their sheer use of language – Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes springs to mind and M John Harrison’s Light. KJ Parker’s Scavenger books. Elizabeth Moon: The Sheepfarmer’s Daughter – that would be a good one to pick up if you liked Gallow.
Mark: What's your next project? And will we see more Gallow?
Nathan: Gallow is pretty dormant at the moment. The three Gallow books came out about six months ago and they didn’t take the world by storm. Gollancz have been supportive but at the moment it’s a case of wait and see. If sales of the second and third books grow then I’m hopeful we’ll see some more of him. There might be a short story or two or maybe a novella in the interim.
As Stephen Deas I have Dragon Queen coming out in paperback in April and its sequel, The Splintered Gods following in June and am hard at work on the last of that trilogy. Gavin Smith and I have a linked pair of SF novels coming out later in the year: Badass aliens, sweary SAS men – they fight! I also have The Royalist coming out later this year, a historical crime thriller set during the English civil war. But what comes next next…? I dunno. What takes your fancy? If not more Gallow then maybe some actual Vikings. I quite fancy some Bronze Age action. A military task force caught in deep space between two warring alien cultures. A noir version of The X-Files set in the 24th century? Magicians of the Great Depression? A band of mercenaries escorting an insane wizard across a hostile wilderness? Ezio vs. Geralt fanfic? Anything’s possible…
Mark: Many thanks to Nathan Hawke for this interview. Be sure to check out his author site (www.nathanhawke.com) because it has one of the coolest fantasy maps I've seen.