Interview with Ulff Lehmann 15, Sep

1. So, tell us about Shattered Hopes.

It’s a book. (insert canned laughter). Ok, more serious answer. (insert canned applause, moderate). Shattered Hopes is the recently published sequel to my first novel, Shattered Dreams. It used to be bigger than its 150k words. Around 300k words, to be precise. David Wilson, my publisher, suggested I cut it into two parts because it was too big. Dreams, in comparison, was only 158k words or thereabout, so I looked for the perfect cliffhanger; and I think I found it.

When I was still planning to self publish I wanted a trilogy, because fantasy trilogy is a thing, and it’s cool. Now it’s a pentalogy, more of a tongue twister, but David’s correct, at almost 700-800 pages, it would have been freakishly huge. I should know, I had a proof copy of the initial version. If I make it big, this will be a one of a kind collectible… if not, a handy doorstopper.

Starting with Hopes, I have changed my approach. Gone are the in-chapter viewpoint shifts, now it’s like A Song of Ice and Fire, one chapter, one viewpoint.
The story begins almost immediately after the events of Shattered Dreams come to a close, things are shit, the enemy army is at the gates, and winter is coming. (Yeah, that’s a trigger phrase, but that’s actually something the defenders are hoping for because the besiegers can’t maintain the siege, if supply routes are snowed shut) And more shit is piling on… good stuff.

2. What separates your universe from other fantasy on the market today?

The realistic mythological approach, I believe. What’s that? I love mythology, Greek, Roman, German, Norse, Celtic, always been infatuated with the tales of gods and heroes and all the good stuff. So I approached my world that way. If you look at any of the old myths, everyone is, basically, Greek or Roman or Viking, even Etzel who appears in the German Nibelungenlied is a Germanic king, even though he is Attila. They all speak the “native” language, worship the same gods, etc, and it has to be that way because if the Greeks were, for example, to meet the Phoenicians with their different gods and whatnot, the entire thing would fall apart. How can the titans have formed the world and the gods created it, if there are other gods?

So I started with what I like to call creation fact. This is how it all began, and I developed it from there. There is only one language, yes, but over the years it changed, like every living language does. So while the language the, say, elves use is the same the humans learned, there are differences (not that I write things phonetically, but still) -- think American and British English. It’s the same gods that are worshiped everywhere, skin tones will, of course vary, but even that has an in-world explanation.

Since I wanted a more Dark Age-y feel to humanity, I made the conscious choice to have my humans be a young people. They are the inheritors of the elves, at least in the region the story takes place in, and they are technologically far less advanced than the elves of old. Where does the realism kick in? Well, the world is brutal. You don’t see knights in shining armor. There is no good or evil, people are, by and large, just people. (cue Depeche Mode) And while there are places where people fling shit out of windows, it’s not the places that also have running water.

3. Would you consider your work to be grimdark? Why?

I don’t know. My characters are flawed, for the most part, sure, but I don’t relish in having bronze broadsword cut through silver mail to have guts spill out onto the marble. If the Saw-esque torture porn of psychotic killers doing their super-heroic butchery on the pages while swearing like Hit-Girl on an acid trip is grimdark, then I would not consider it grimdark at all. If that is the definition of grimdark, I don’t want any part of that kingdom.

I’ve always loathed the good vs. evil shit that is going on in far too much fantasy, and I agree with you, Charles, that A Song of Ice and Fire has, ultimately, become the same black and white thing. The white walkers are evil, humanity is not. Sure, there might not be a straightforward goodness to most characters, but overcoming the evil from without is still the endgame.

Are there monsters in our world? Yup, some even rule countries. But I think most people just want to get by. You know, do what’s right, care for their kids, work, help others. The psychopaths are the exception. And even most of them aren’t categorically evil, because that would require a direct agenda other than “I do what I want because no one is my equal” or “The rest of humanity is but meat”. Good and evil are concepts that go along with monotheism. Even Loki or Hades weren’t evil, they just did their thing.

Look at our society; does the CEO of Monsanto see himself as evil because they produce toxins that fuck up the planet’s eco system? Most likely not, he just doesn’t care. That’s not evil, that’s sociopathic. Or sociopathetic if you will. You have people like Rockefeller who thought they were chosen by their deity to be grand, which was reason enough for him to manipulate and sabotage all his competitors. I bet he didn’t see himself as evil either, far from it.

So, taking a mythological world and populating it with real people, people who doubt, smile, fear, fight, even kill to make it just to the next day or week or month, that’s what it is… whatever that is.

4. What is grimdark to you?

To be honest, the bit of grimdark royalty that I read is as appealing to me as poking my eye with a chili peppers. What others might consider grimdark is, to me, merely realistic fantasy, scifi, or whatnot. The really revolting psychotic stuff is like rape porn, to me, shit I don’t want to watch, find in no way appealing, and don’t want to touch again.

5. Tell us about your protagonists.

Drangar Ralgon – a broken man on his path to uncovering more of his past.
Kildanor – a warrior bent on helping Drangar find peace.
Ealisaid – last of the Phoenix Wizards, a novice mage with delusions of grandeur.
Rheanna – a priestess of the god of justice, one of the Riders, warriors who kill wrongs.
Jesgar – a spy in training.
Anne – warleader of the invading army.
Urgraith Mireynh – High General and warlord of the invaders.
Lloreanthoran – an elven mage with a mission.
Darlontor – leader of the Sons of Traksor.
As you can see, it’s quite a list and I can’t really talk about that much since it’s all tied to the story somehow. Suffice it to say that there’s a lot going on and to explain one story thread would also unravel the rest.

6. What inspired you to write this universe?

I wanted to get away from good vs. evil, shining heroes vs. vile villains. I wanted something that is wholly my own. Sure, I put a twist on almost every cliché in the book, my elves are vicious, my humans aren’t much better, but I didn’t want the “oh – an orc kingdom here, let the gnomes live there” D&D-ish approach. There’s a reason the elves are farther along than the humans, it may not make sense to most readers, but it has to make sense to me. There has to be a logic to everything on a grand scale. Developing languages doesn’t interest me, especially when there’s bronze broadswords to avoid.

One day, I’d love for someone to just take a step back and look at what I created and say something like “Damn, that is brilliant…” not as praise, I couldn’t care less about that, but appreciation of the logic that went into the world. I want things to be there for a reason, not the haphazard shit with “wouldn’t it be nice to have a Viking culture next to this renaissance society?” or “Hey, there’s a huge desert with this city in the middle” with no river or major roads that people still use, you know the shit that actually causes cities to be built. If they’re missing, people will abandon these places. Cahokia, Pi Ramesse, Petra, all places that were abandoned because the circumstances changed!

7. Who is your favorite character?

Truth be told, I have two. Drangar, of course, since he’s been with me since 1992. And the squirrel I killed off in Dreams. And YES! I know people hate me for it. But I needed at least one hero in the story. (Heroes are those that give their lives to save others, the rest are survivors.)

8. What would you say the themes of your book are?

In the end, I think, it all boils down to choices and living with the consequences. Who am I? Part is my surroundings, part is my parents. We’re all so many parts of something or other, and in the end we must decide which parts we allow to dominate our lives. Some parts we can’t escape, or if we try, we cut off a part of ourselves. Which are the parts worth keeping? Which are save to discard?
Life… life’s the theme.

9. What sort of things bother you in fantasy today?

To be perfectly honest, I barely read fantasy anymore. First it was because of it distracting my own work, now it’s that and I have discovered a passion for crime/thriller books and such. But in essence it’s the same thing as I addressed over various prior answers. Lack of consequence, realism, even normal physics. Sure, one might say that physics have no place in fantasy, but since the people still wear boots, use rain coats, and horses, we can be sure that gravity does work, rain still falls down, and mounted movement is still more comfortable than walking. So yes, this stuff matters, and a city without fresh water for fields and such is about as useful as nipples on a Batsuit.

10. How has the response been to your book so far?

Shattered Hopes has just been released, but the reactions so far have been very positive, but only time will tell.

11. Would you recommend any other indie fantasy writers?

See 9, but Dyrk Ashton comes to mind, his Paternus stuff is out of this world. Damien Black, his work, the level of detail and the richness of his world reminds me ofKen Follett. I’ve a few books lined up that I’m giving a try soon. (Once I’ve finished Lucifer’s Star by this dude called Charles Phipps, mad as a hatter, I tell ya! And I love him for it.)

12. What can we expect from you next?

Right now we only have the ebook version of Shattered Hopes out. The city map my friend Faith has been sweating blood and tears over for over a year now requires a further touch up for the print version of Hopes, when that’s done, the dead tree version will be released. After that I have a short story coming out in an anthology edited by Charles Phipps (shameless plug, I know, but still).

Shattered Fears, the third book in the series, is complete, but we haven’t determined when to release it yet. Another short story is in the works. All the short stories take place in “Drangar’s world” (for lack of a better word), including the one published in Booknest’s own Art of War. (plug again!) And last but not least I’m developing something super insanely amazing for Charles Phipps’s Lucifer universe… seriously, I almost shat myself when I came up with this idea.

Purchase Shattered Dreams
Purchase Shattered Hopes

Interview with Michael Baker 08, Sep

1. So tell us about The Thousand Scars.

I’m pleased you asked! The Thousand Scars is only the first step into what I hope will be a long writing career, and the first of my Counterbalance series. The Thousand Scars tells the brutal story of a land in turmoil, as two desperate superpowers battle for survival in a war of terror and clashes of morality. A complex series, it involves bloody battles and sieges, vengeful necromancers, rampant mercenary companies, a young man desperately searching for a new home, and powerful conspiracies. For good or evil, The Thousand Scars shall bleed the world…and they will save it. Or will they? If you’re fond of brutal battles, rich fantasy worlds and deranged necromancers, you will hopefully enjoy this as well!

2. What separates it from other examples of its genre?

An interesting question for certain. I would say maybe that it covers the POV of what some would call the villains as the good side? Possibly. Counterbalance is full of darker factions all with their own agenda. It also has a lot of focus on military, particularly influenced by Greek, Persian and Roman cultures. I’d say that’s rare?

3. Would you consider it grimdark and why?

Ha! I was quite surprised to see people view it as grimdark, and even more surprised when you dubbed it among the best in the genre you’ve ever read. Which alongside the likes of Rob Hayes and Mark Lawrence, is something I’m pretty proud to be included in. See, I wouldn’t completely view it as grimdark as people say. There are some seriously brutal characters and scenes throughout the first book, with worse planned onwards, but I like to sprinkle a little light in the worlds I create, just in time to snuff it out again. Grimdark is usually reserved for a dark, bleak world with no hope and where nearly everyone in it are assholes. And you would be absolutely right! I do have some genuinely good and decent protagonists however, and they play a vital role in the series.

4. What is grimdark to you?

See my earlier reply on question three. Grim, violent and bleak, but with still fleshed out characters. Having a violent world is no supplement to a good plot or character development!

5. Tell us about the protagonists?

Gladly! Counterbalance is a fairly complex, character-heavy series, but I can focus the storyline on five characters:

Tyrone Cessil: The main character at least early on, and the guy whom you’ll see the most. He was once the heir to one of the Great Families of the Empire, but found a life as a scholar in Valare instead, running away from his duty. When war comes to his doorstep, he’s forced to lead a new life for survival, finding himself in unfortunate and deadly company.

Tyir of Irene: Necromancer, fugitive, murderer and mercenary commander, he is the cause of so much suffering throughout Harloph, with many enemies. His path from a protected man into a tyrant hellbent on vengence is one of the core of the series, but does his path change when he meets Tyrone in similar circumstances?

Lance Ironheart: Who was once a respected diplomat and trader in the capital, he’s now on the run. Exposed for his transgression against Bawsor, his home and family are ruined and he fled south with old friends. He has something to prove, a fear to stop and an old enemy to question. He has powerful allies, but can he survive what he’s discovered?

Nazir Cessil: Tyrone’s father, Nazir finds himself in a bitter struggle to survive in the Great War, as Bane Aldmer’s grip on the Empire tightens. He has concerns for his mortal enemy, but can he focus on the right enemy while faced with horrifying truths about his superiors?

Bane Aldmer: De-facto Emperor of Bale after the previous ruler’s assassination, Aldmer is a young man of great skill and powerful allies behind him. Desperation of loss has convinced him to turn to deadly magic to win his war with the Dominion. Ruthless and with a desire to defend his homeland, he has a dark side every bit as cruel as his adversaries.

6. What's the political-military situation like in the world?

Violent and miserable? Sit back and enjoy. I’m going to make a list of all the major factions in Counterbalance and their current situation. It’s quite the long read.

The Bale Empire – Dominant power on Harloph. Its war with the Selpvian Dominion of Klassos has brought it to its knees, forcing a military coup that conspires to unleash the Counterbalance. They have strong allies in the Pharos Order and the Barta League, but their relations with the rest of Harloph are strained at best with much violent history between them and the other powers. The Faxian tribes have never been conquered, and Uslor has recently won itself independence from the Empire’s control.

The Selpvian Dominion – Largest power of Klassos. Five long years of war with its greatest rival Bawsor has bled both forces dry after the Dominion’s alleged assassination of Empress Adriena of Bawsor. Their territory is so large and unwieldy they have to keep

Kingdom of Beiridge – A destroyed kingdom of Klassos that sided with the Empire during the first years of the war. What was once a protectorate state of the Selpvian Dominion, they rebelled against their rule during the Counterbalance War, where their considerable strength alongside that of Bawsor achieved great victories during the first years. Unfortunately after two massive defeats in the third year of the war, Beiridge never recovered, and its capital city Terroira was besieged and destroyed by the Dominion at the end of the fourth year.

The Whisperers – Espionage organization in the Whisper Isles off the east coast of Harloph. While its origin and ideals are unknown they have a fierce reputation and calibre, but their services are extremely costly and not just in gold coin.

The Pharos Order – Religious “survivors” of New Valia, founded after their namesake. Long-term allies with the Empire. Made up of three major factions set in the Sepulcher, Bawsor and the Kahal. After forming a pact with the fledging days of the Empire, they are each other’s strongest allies.

Although they are known for brutal reprisals throughout Harloph and seen as many as an evil organisation, there are good-hearted Pharos Order people, and they often charity and support the poor with weddings, dealing with people and looking after the sick and wounded, many of the “healers” in Harloph being from the Order. In total, the Pharos Order can muster about 80,000 fighting men, although their military is not the strongest. They have deep enmity throughout Harloph for past events, but they are misunderstood, and strive for peace throughout the realm.

The Barta League – A series of neutral trading cities in the east of Harloph. Prior to the Great War, they enjoyed a lucrative and profitable alliance with both Bawsor and the Dominion. The League’s area is made up of the rich and wealthy, who pay no taxes to the Empire, although both sides enjoy lucrative trading partnerships. This is probably the wealthiest faction in Harloph, and it’s home to many exiles and criminals whom have fled the west. Valare is the strongest of the seven, with a long history and a powerful fleet.

Faxia – A mountainous tribal people in Western Harloph. Their trade is volcanic glass, unique to Harloph. A poor but barbaric land, Faxians have never been conquered by an invading power. Used to serve the Empire as mercenaries before attitudes hardened again. Ferocious and skilled warriors, a harsh and rugged landscape. During the time of Counterbalance, they are dealing with harsh food shortages leading into starvation. The hard life makes the Faxaens (sometimes called Vulcranos) some of the hardiest and toughest people, although they live isolationist lives.

Voyava- The remains of New Valia, where old traces of Valian magic remain. Voyava is known for its religious prophets who can see into the world, called “Oracles”. A pacifist people, but capable of mustering great power. Voyava eventually became a haven for people who took in Pharos as one of the New Gods, but disliked the influence of the Order whom followed Valian footsteps. Voyava is known for its oracles and prophets due to their relatively unrestricted access “into the Mora”, although the difficulty of offensive sorcery makes them only observers. There are many grounds of old Valian ancestry, and the Voyavan people are a relatively comfortable race, with few ties to Harloph.

Seen as a place of peace and religion, the tribes nonetheless command a huge military presence, able to muster over 100,000 men in times of war. They mostly employ large numbers of nomadic horsemen and mounted archers in war, but Voyava has some large cities in its mountinous depths. Because Voyava is so close to the Corpselands, Voyava struggles with harsh climate and some food shortages, but it’s wealth of natural resources (and Valian artefacts), allows them to get what help they need from the Order and Uslor through trade contracts. Voyava is a deeply religious land, dedicated to peace and only mobilising if their lives from outside are threatened.

The Keidan- A religious, feared sect in Harloph, rumoured to be the last pure Valian settlers. They take on acolytes for training, many of whom are converted to the faith of their goddess. They are mostly isolationist, with little interest in the outside world. However, their magical prowess and survival probably makes them the most powerful faction in Harloph. Existing for thousands of years, the Keidan focuses mainly on its own self study and harvesting of knowledge. They do take in acolytes for training and expertise from around its lands, many of which are “converted”. Their soldiers have no faces and wear no visible armour, but their very nature implies fear. The Keidan itself is a huge underground fortress similar to Sirquol, known in Valian as “Wall of Flesh”.

Uslor – Once part of the Bale Empire, it is now an independent power fraught with internal fighting and brutal barons. The Uslorian land is war-torn and in turmoil from a recent earthquake in the region) extremely volatile and constantly beset by internal strife and quarrels. As a result, Uslor is heavily militarized at all times, and fickle. Many Uslorians sell their services to outside parties, such as the Kahal civil war and later, Tyir’s rise in the east. They have violent relations with both the Order and the Empire, and remain neutral in the Great War north.

Kahal – In the centre of Harloph, a rich and populous land torn by internal strife and the Order’s violent occupation. Victim of several major wars, including the Voyavan prophet Telijin and the seat of Pharos priest Archon Kramer. Surrounded on all sides, with the prickly and war-torn Uslorians and Pharos Order to the west, the no-mans land separating Kahal and the Empire to the north, and the religious Keeper faction and deadly Skyini clans to the east and south. With the great peril facing the Irenian people to the south, the Kahal suffers a massive influx of refugees from the south, leading to more insurgency.

Out of all the regions/factions in Harloph, the Kahal is probably the one with the bloodiest history. Even before the Order’s assimilation, tribal wars were many and brutal. The Order takeover was not taken kindly, resulting in one of the deadliest wars in living memory (before the Great War of Counterbalance, that is)

Made up of many different rural clans as well as large urban centres, Kahal is a place full of persecution, executions and starvation, with a low-intensity rebellion against the Order ever since the bloody civil war. They are disciplined and fierce warriors, many of whom join Tyir in his war against the Empire and the Order. It is heavily fractured as a result of past events, and such is a hotpot of violence and constant warfare despite the overall good control of the Order. This region is a ruthless and harsh land, undergoing more atrocities under the Kramerian doctrine of the Order.

The Keepers are an organization dedicated to protecting the ancient grounds of Yurn and Sirquol, a deeply peaceful and religious faction designed to guard the legacy of Valian hero and the Order’s man-turned god Pharos, who saved the world during the Chaos. Although they are affiliated with the Sepulcher, they are completely separate from them, and made up of those who wish to dedicate their lives and souls in Pharos’s name. They are allied to the Order, but view themselves superior and isolationist. They think they are the ones who uphold all of Pharos’s teachings and wisdom, and as a result they managed to avoid much of the brutal wars between the bickering sides.

However, they have a dark and bloody history of torturing/imposing the ban on magic and purge from after the chaos, so they are in a constant state of war with the dangerous clans of the Skyini, as well as the Kahal and Irene. Their very presence blocks Irene from travelling into Kahal, making for many hotspots of violence and terrorism against the Keepers.

Irene is a “shit cesspit” of Harloph, and the birthplace of the notorious necromancer and sellsword captain, Tyir. The poorest region, it is made up of countless clans and people desperately trying to survive on the southern fringes of Harloph, relying on fish and cold game to survive. Many survivors of the Chaos were hemmed into the boot of the continent Crops often fail and people constantly try to migrate north. However, there is a wealthy supply of gold, silver and golwood in Irene, which is a good reason why so many decide to stay and make a life of it. It is still a decent populace, but poor and harsh. However, it is pretty sparse in these days, with very harsh and cold weather. Because of the Chaos, much of southern Harloph is now inhabitable, pinning the poor Ireneian people in the end of the world. They lack the technology of the north, using simple weapons like bows and slings in battle, but are a constant thorn in the Keeper’s side, and their constant migration into the richer south has been a hotspot for many wars, sandwiched between the remnants of the Gaols, the Skyini and the Keepers.

The Skyini are a multitude of clans living in relative comfort east of Yurn, sandwiched between Kahal and the Gaolian Mountains. Powerful and dangerous, they command a large professional army despite their tribal status, and have evaded assimilation from the Order or the Empire. There have been wars, but the Skyini have never been fully defeated, although they used to inhabit large parts of Northern Harloph, before a century of warfare pushed them back. Despite this, they are still promiment in their culture, heavily based in the old Agassemi civilisation, which fell shortly after the Chaos. Heavily based around Gallic and Macedonian culture. The Order under the New Magnus turns to the Skyini wealth, cannibalising it and enslaving many hundreds in their quest to finding the last Moment. Many Skyini finally join Tyir.

The Thousand Scars are a mercenary/merchantile force founded by Tyir of Irene. Founded by the renegade scientist and alchemist in the Kahal, they quickly gain notoriety as the necromancer turned his attention to the might of the Pharos Order. Having been imprisoned by the Keepers during his life, Tyir harbored a corrosive hatred for anyone who wore Pharos’s name. During the brutal Sorn rebellion, the Thousand Scars mounted a campaign of terrorism in support of the rebels, slaughtering thousands of Redure government troops and Pharos Order defenders. As the Order gradually wrestled back control of the rebellion, Tyir’s crimes and necromancy rumors reached them, and Hinari ordered a huge bounty on him. Tyir was eventually defeated and captured on the banks of the river Iris, but the Thousand Scars managed to escape destruction, when Tyir blackmailed the captor into letting them go. Despite heavy losses, they continued their brutal resistance, switching to guerrilla tactics. Tyir escaped execution thanks to an inside Order man (Lazarus) and they fled to Valare. From there, Tyir kept funding terrorist campaigns against the Order and continuing his experiments. During the events of Counterbalance, Tyir rebuilds the Thousand Scars, switching from guerrilla to all-out war. His path of revenge leads Tyir into acts akin to his cruel past, but will they forgo their own ambitions for the greater good?

Mercer Duston: Has to be mentioned, because he is an old exile of the Empire. Banished for betraying the ideals of the League and marching on their cities (an act punishable by death, since the Barta League pledged neutrality during the Temp of Sornaotor)He has regained a lot of strength in the lands to the east (remember the League’s stance?) and initally is willing to defend his home against the Dominion. However, the ruthless king Vultor begins to question Mercer’s loyalty, and the old wounds against all that he has lost seeps in.

The Ironhearts. Originally a mercenary company in Beiridge by the late Gollet, they switched allegiance to the disgraced friend of Gollet, the diplomat and trader Lance Ironheart. Superbly trained and disciplined, they are perhaps the most elite fighting force in Harloph at the current time. Made up of 2,500 men initally, they recruit more when Lance has to flee the Empire. They go to Tarantown, kick out the Order garisson and start investigating the rumours in the Empire, relying on Lance’s many contacts. Lance is a gentle and kind man, not used to leading an army, but the commander Triad in Krause, Slanos and Isran are all formidable and experienced captains, whose allegience/loyalty to Lance is ironclad.

Vence – A protectorate of Bawsor, they enjoy relative autonomy, but keep up tax payments to the Empire in exchange for protection. Keeps a control over the old lands of the Empire where it was forced to withdraw from overextension. Depends heavily upon the Stewards of the South for military support.

The Harbonlands – A strip of territory hotly disputed between Bawsor, the Pharos Order and Kahal, a mesh of villages, towns and strongholds where fighting is rife for control of the rich lands. This poor region is often the hotseat of constant battle, piracy and warbands.

Pyra – The “Bow and Sail”, a small coastal nation to the far west of Klassos. The finest archers in the known world, made of the mystical stelwood tree. While Pyra as a nation ceases to exist, being harvested by the Selpvian Dominion and Bale Empire, its legacy as a powerful beacon of history still remains, with most of its military reforms still seen and practiced throughout the continent to this day. Pyran stelwood longbows and practices are a treasured luxury.

So that’s just a little teaser. There’s at least a dozen other little factions as well, all fighting for their own agenda.

7. What were the inspirations for The Thousand Scars?

A Song of Ice and Fire, Lord of the Rings, Time Commanders and Total War games. They were the crux of me building the world and the series. And of course, the swathe of ancient miltary history!

8. I noticed a definite Greek-Persian theme to the world. Was that deliberate?

To an extent, and I’m happy you spotted the theme! I based the human cultures in Counterbalance using a lot of ancient and medieval history. Military fantasy is one of my go-to reads; I find it fascinating.

For example, Imperial Bawsor (The Balian Empire) I created using a combination of Roman military hardware and medieval feudalism, mixed with ancient Greeks. Its rival nemesis the Selpvian Dominion I took aspects from Macedon, Carthage, Parthia and ancient Achaemenid Persia as inspiration for its massive but ungainly territory, mixed with fantasy and magical elements. There are some incredible ancient weapons and tactics I incorporated into the Counterbalance series, and like ancient history I pit different styles together. The disciplined infantry might of the Balian Legion battles the vast mobility and diversity of the Selpvian Army. There are many factions in Counterbalance that employ old tactics like the Greek phalanx or spearwall, with some rather magical archery in the Pyran stelwood forests. There’s a lot happening in my world.

As for the Pharos Order, I took elements from the Papal States, Greek cities and a little bit of LOTR archery and the elves. I took a lot of influences from real-world history into developing the land of Harloph, which is where the bulk of Counterbalance takes place. The Order I will be the first to admit get a lot of hate from other factions in the world because of their history and ideals, and are not the first ones to get poorly treated.

9. What is it like being an independent fantasy author?

It feels very strange! But first, I think it’s a good idea for me to talk a little about my journey and how I got to this point. Not many people know about my history.
I’m currently 28 years old, and for most of my life have loved reading and writing fiction; it’s a great feeling being able to craft your own world and tales with a stroke of a finger on the keyboard or a pen. Onto this. Back when I was maybe 10 or 11, I was creating a fantasy world around which eventually became the skeleton of the world I have now. I also wrote a story called Attack of the Silver Serpent, which I found in my room earlier this year while I was tidying it. Here is a picture down below of the monstrosity.

Image: Michael…that is a green serpent. I cringe reading it now, but it was a fun little thing I wrote when I was ten.

Back to the world. It took a very long time before it took shape, “borrowing” writing books in my English class to type up the battles and lore. I’m happy to say they never got those books back. Whoops. Unfortunately, it seems I have misplaced a lot of this, but I hope that some of it will be salvaged.

Think Time Commanders with loads of information about the armies and battles. This was the original inspiration, and I loved that TV show. Most of it was not brought forward into my fantasy world of today, but some elements remain. Eventually I stopped working on the world and just got on with more boring things like school, education and degrees.

Then time went on, into university. I graduated in 2011 with a degree in History, and quickly ran into the “I’ve graduated. What the hell do I do now?” dilemma. I admit, I took my degree out of interest rather than a business plan, but I do not regret doing it. I always followed my gut instinct on doing things I wanted to do, rather than conform to a life of work and death. Of course, work is vital, but humans should enjoy their life, not just spent the entirety of it training to work to pay bills then fade. I never wanted that.

Next came the slew of health problems. Irritable Bowel Syndrome is messy and really took it out of me during the 2011-12 period, and barely a day went by where I wasn’t in agony from stomach pains. Coupled with a very difficult year in 2012 with problems at home and my continued struggle in finding a job culminated in a nasty bout of depression, which I am not afraid to hide. It was a hellish year, but thankfully I was able to get help.

Dealing with the diagnosis…was not easy. I felt I was letting everyone down, and I had to deal with a few unhelpful people who tried the “people have it worse than you” card. In this mess and while I was starting to recover from the dark period, I watched the first season of Game of Thrones, and frankly it blew my mind. (Although now Season 7 has happened, it’s really dropped in quality. Which is a shame. I’ll save my rant for that series for another happy time.)

With the help of useful friends, I secured the first copy of A Song of Ice and Fire and begun reading. Reading George R.R. Martin’s work changed me for the better. Furthermore, it got me thinking of my fantasy world and wondered if I could make it a reality. By this point, I had not touched the world in nearly a decade, but I had already had some experience with writing long fiction, but that was mainly fan-fiction. (Very poorly made fanfiction, I might add, but it was popular at least) In the middle of another failed rewrite of that fanfiction during one of my recovery periods, I realised I could use that knowledge and lessons learnt to work on my own novel.

I thought: “If people could do it, I can too!” And I began my journey then. Call it a rebirth, but it was the start of a long, enjoyable and frustrating journey. It took many years and many harsh lessons, but I feel in a decent place right now. I still struggle with my mental health daily and deal with my Chronic Fatigue Syndrome diagnosis late 2014, but I’m still here, and I’m still alive, which is what counts. There were many times when I didn’t think I’d make it.

10. How has the reaction to your books been so far?

Surprisingly positive. I didn’t come into The Thousand Scars with much, if any confidence. Even now I still find I cannot read my own book due to my own insecurities about it. Down below is some quotes discussing the book.

"In some ways this reminds me of indie Malazan. One of the better unknowns I've read lately."
"The Thousand Scars is grimdark and it is gloriously so. I am going to state that with the exception of WHERE LOYALTIES LIE by Rob J. Hayes and THE GRAY SISTER by Mark Lawrence, it is the purest example of the genre I've read this year. It's also great."

Most people agree the beginning is the weakest point of the book, and there are some teething troubles to fix. These are things I plan to address in the future, and The Aegis Mora should address all of that feedback onwards. I’ve learned a lot of lessons with The Thousand Scars. Already I feel I’ve improved. It took two years to write a first draft of The Aegis Mora, compared to four years for the first book!

11. What can we expect from you next?

That’s hard to say. I’ve decided to take future books away from my current publisher (I want to see what I can accomplish elsewhere), so there is going to be a significant lull unfortunately in getting out books. Currently I am editing THE AEGIS MORA, book two of the Counterbalance series, as well as working on a standalone novel set in the same world as Counterbalance called THE SKELETON EYE, which is a heist novel.

12. Are there any other indie authors you'd recommend?

So many!  Dyrk Ashton, Michael R. Fletcher, Rob Hayes, Devin Madson, Ben Galley, Graham Austin King, Charles Phipps (cough), Lindsay Buroker, Ty Authur and so many more. I’d be here all day otherwise. Thanks for having me!

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Interview with A.M Justice 04, Sep

1. So, tell us about A WIZARD'S FORGE.

A Wizard’s Forge is about a young woman’s effort to recast herself as someone strong and powerful in order to wreak revenge of a man who stripped her of everything she cared about. The story follows a forge theme as Vic (short for Victoria) is forcibly taken from her homeland, sold into slavery, and then escapes and becomes a warrior known as the Blade. Meanwhile, there are many signposts that suggest she has a larger destiny, which begins to be fulfilled near the end of the novel, when she acquires some phenomenal telekinetic powers. So it’s an origin story, where a weak nobody becomes an empowered superhero, of sorts.

2. What makes it different from other fantasy series?

I think the fact that it’s a mashup of so many themes and tropes from speculative fiction sets it apart. It’s science fantasy set on a lost space colony, and it uses a lot of tropes from high fantasy, including a hero’s journey and a special talisman. As you’ve pointed out in your review, Vic resembles a “typical” YA heroine in the beginning of the book, when she’s a teenager. But the main focus of Vic’s story is how she copes with being a survivor of human trafficking and sexual abuse yearsafterward, when she’s an adult soldier.

3. What was the inspiration for the series?

Readers familiar with Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books may recognize the lost space colony setting, and Vic is sort of a combination of Lessa, the protagonist of Dragonflight, and Menolly, the protagonist of Dragonsong. Latha’s guild-based economy was also inspired by McCaffrey’s Pern, particularly the Harper’s Hall. The story also contains subtle echoes of the fairy tale Rapunzel.

The giant insects came out of my nightmares when I was a kid. The creatures from movies like Them! and Twenty Million Miles to Earth, which used to be shown on Saturday afternoons or late at night back on independent broadcast TV stations back in the 1970s, embedded themselves in my subconscious. As a result, I am both fascinated and horrified by insects. I used to work as a production editor for an entomology journal, where I learned a lot about their physiology. Believe it or not, I never read Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, but when the movie came out, I thought, hey, it’s the Kragnashians!

4. A Wizard's Forge deals with some very dark and serious topics. Why did you decide to deal with them the way you did?

I’m a pantser so the dark themes developed as a natural consequence of the plot. Everything began with Vic being kidnapped by pirates and sold into slavery in a “be careful what you wish for” scenario. Vic is frustrated with the people in her homeland not taking her seriously or finding her attractive—and then she’s kidnapped and held captive by someone who is obsessed with who she is, or actually, who he thinks she will become. Lornk believes he knows something about Vic’s destiny, and his entire goal is to control her so she’ll fulfil it in a way that benefits him. He uses seduction and sexual abuse as tools to gain her compliance, but she escapes before he can finish the job of securing her devotion. Her personality is completely broken down, but it’s not rebuilt yet. Thus, she spends the rest of the novel trying to repair that damage.

5. Is it hard to write relationships in your book when there's such terrible trauma hanging over them?

Not really. I’ve thankfully not had to endure psychological abuse like Vic undergoes, but I can imagine how I would react if I did. She and I share a lot of traits, extreme reserve being first among them. Like her, I’m slow to recognize the interest of potential romantic partners and inclined to dismiss signals as either mockery or simple friendship. In Vic’s case, her first “romantic” experiences come in an extremely  abusive relationship, so it’s even harder for her to accept normal, healthy romantic interest when she encounters it. She turns a blind eye to Ashel’s overtures because she doesn’t believe she’s worthy of his affection, and doubts he sees her in that light. Ashel has to explicitly declare his intentions for her to begin to see that relationship as a possibility, and then she still cannot acknowledge her own feelings for him.

6. How have readers responded to your work?

It’s been a roller coaster at times: people seem to either love it or hate it. Early on I had some negative reviews from readers who seemed to want a more black and white story, where Vic felt only hate for Lornk and wanted to kill him, period. They strongly disliked the fact that she has Stockholm syndrome, even though this reaction to her captivity and abuse is well documented in real life (just look up Stockholm syndrome or battered woman syndrome). However, I value those negative reviews because they’ve helped shape the book’s readership, steering people away who don’t want to read about those themes. As time has marched on, the response from readers has been increasingly positive. I’m also thrilled that male readers seem to like Vic’s story as much as female readers. I never set out to write a “woman’s story,” and I’m glad that men seem to enjoy it and get a lot out of it.

7. Would you consider your book science fiction, fantasy, or science fantasy?

It definitely straddles the divide between fantasy and science fiction, so is properly called a science fantasy. There is even a (pseudo)scientific explanation for the “magic” in the book, although Vic won’t learn it until the sequel.

8. Who is your favorite character after the lead?

That’s weighted 50/50 between Ashel and Geram. I love them both. Ashel was written to be a pastiche of a fairy tale prince, but I’ve worked hard to layer in complexity into his character and explore what is really going on inside the head of the nicest, most talented, best looking guy in the land. On the outside, he’s everything Vic isn’t: he’s completely at ease with himself and his place in the world, but we discover he harbors quite a few insecurities and inner demons—a struggle that will only get worse in the second book.

I love Geram because he’s so noble—he’s the kind of guy who would throw himself on a grenade to save a comrade, even if it was someone he disliked. Geram also will face some challenges to his nobility in the second book, which I hope readers will find intriguing.

9. What are the ups versus downsides of being an indie author?

I’m a controlling person with high standards, so I like being in charge of all the decisions. The downside is, I don’t always make good decisions—particularly when it comes to marketing—so some of my efforts haven’t been very successful.

10. Any tips for being an indie author?

Don’t try to get the editing done on the cheap. A good editor is hard to find, and you usually get what you pay for.

11. What do you think the key for writing female heroines versus male in fantasy are? You've been mentioned in other interviews to have strong opinions on the subject.

I have written a lot on this topic (for example, “Heroes, Heroines, and Heroism,” “What’s the Matter with Mary Sue,” a discussion of gender and heroism with Allan Batchelder, and “The Problem With Abandoning the Strong Female Character”), but the key to writing realistic female (and male) protagonists is simple: create people, not characters. (In fact, I think this rule applies to all characters in a book: protagonists, antagonists, and the supporting cast.) In other words, avoid stereotypes and flesh out each character to make him or her a three-dimensional human being. How do you do that? Here’s where the adage write what you know comes into play for the speculative fiction author. Base your characters’ personalities and behavior on real people you know or you’ve observed. (Tip: pay attention to how people talk and interact with each other in real life. Eavesdropping on strangers in restaurants, parks, and airports can be really enlightening.) I certainly don’t know any kings or queens, but I do know a lot about family dynamics and how parents’ and children’s ambitions and desires can clash and create resentment and disappointment as well as pride. That is the sort of thing authors should draw upon when creating characters.

12.What can we expect of you next?

I have some short stories coming out in various anthologies and A Wizard’s Sacrifice, the sequel to A Wizard’s Forge, should be out next year.

13. Do you have any other indie authors you'd recommend the works of?

I haven’t read very widely in the indie world—something I’m trying to rectify during this year’s SPFBO competition. I would recommend a few stand-outs (some of which your readers probably haven’t heard of):

C.C. Aune: The Ill-Kept Oath was my favorite read of 2016. It’s an Austenesque novel of manners, written in the style and language of the regency period, but in which two young women inherit a magical legacy from their dead parents and slowly become ensnared in the opening moves of a magical rebellion against the British crown. I love Aune’s prose—she’s one of the best writers out there, whether indie or traditionally published—and I love the way she tells this story in authentic detail.
Graham Ing: Ocean of Dust is a really good YA novel about a teenage girl who is pressed into service aboard a merchant ship in a world where the oceans are composed of an extremely fine silt and the ships are powered by the static charge moving through the dust. It’s a great seafaring adventure and coming of age story.

E.P. Clark: The Midnight Land is one of my favorite feminist novels. It follows a princess on an expedition to survey the northernmost reaches of her nation’s territory, in a land that resembles pre-Christian Russia. The princess is an underdog character who has a low opinion of herself, based on the abuse she’s taken from family members, but along this journey she discovers that the so-called weakness people criticize about her—her empathy—is actually an incredibly dangerous power. The story is filled with all sorts of interesting creatures from Russian folk lore, and the world flips gender relations upside down in some very creative and fascinating ways.

Rob Hayes: Everybody knows who Rob is, now that Where Loyalties Lie won last year’s SPFBO. I haven’t read that book yet, but I was really impressed with The Heresy Within. Rob is a great writer and I look forward to reading his later work.

C.T. Phipps: That guy ain’t too bad a writer. I did love his Wraith Knight with the love a thousand kittens and I’m excited to read Wraith Lord.