Interview with Michael Baker

Interview with Michael Baker

Write on: Sat, 08 Sep 2018 by  in Blog Read 9305

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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Last modified on Saturday, 08 September 2018 22:01
C.T. Phipps

C.T Phipps is a lifelong student of horror, science fiction, and fantasy. An avid tabletop gamer, he discovered this passion led him to write and turned him into a lifelong geek. He is a regular blogger on "The United Federation of Charles".

He's written Agent G, Cthulhu Armageddon, Lucifer's Star, and The Supervillainy Saga.