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New Slaves to Old Darkness, or, What if King Arthur was Evil?

Other Thoughts on Writing Scourge of Fate

Back in December I wrote about the Chaos-tainted inspiration behind my latest novel, Scourge of Fate (out today here!). In brief, I have always been enthralled by the decades-old literary tradition that makes the forces of Chaos in Warhammer Fantasy so unique. I love the idea of “normalising” the mortal servants and warriors of Chaos, establishing just how their societies and cultures work, and how they philosophise about the all-powerful, nebulous beings they worship. It’s not enough to just be a spiky, black-armoured warrior after all, because unless you’re truly far gone down the Path to Glory, even the spikiest have to eat, drink, talk and sleep. What is it like to deal with the more mundane aspects of life in the Realm of Chaos? In short, does the Varanspire have a bakery?

That article can be found here. I’m following up with a sequel today though, not just because Scourge of Fate is getting its hardback release, but because there’s still more to be said about the inspiration behind it.

When I was a child my mother bought me Tales of King Arthur, illustrated by Rodney Matthews. It remains to this day a wonderful book, full of lavish artwork depicting a host of stories from Arthurian legend – the Sword in the Stone, the Lady in the Lake, the Knights of the Round Table, the Green Knight, and many more. I read it from cover to cover over and over, so much so that my mother maintains to this day that I am Arthur reborn. The tales it told had a strong impact on me growing up, and segued very effectively into my love of 5th edition Warhammer Fantasy, which hit not long after.

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There are many fascinating aspects to the tradition of Arthurian tales, unsurprising given many of them are eight centuries in the making. I was especially intrigued by the powerful, baleful presence of the ‘Black Knight’ trope in a lot of those legends, the dark-armoured warrior who arrived unannounced and with sinister intent. Such a character probably holds responsibility for my early infatuation with the Warriors of Chaos. When it came to writing my own first fantasy novel, I really wanted to not only emulate that in the Warhammer setting, but to get behind the great helm, if you will – find out who this brooding warrior was, where he came from, why he did what he did.

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The similarities between Rodney Matthews’ style and that of early Games Workshop artists like Wayne England made it easy to get into both.

The initial pitch for Scourge of Fate was therefore quite simple – what if King Arthur was a Chaos Knight? Luckily my editor loved the idea, and much of the rest of the plot rolled from there. I deliberate aped aspects of classic Arthurian legend, from a jousting tournament (in this case between the Nurgle knights of the Order of the Fly and the Silver Knights of Tzeentch, both classics from the setting of the World That Was), and the escalating quest style that sees the antihero, Vanik, setting out to prove himself and getting caught up in a lot more than he bargains for. On a less subtle note, there are also lots of name drops relating back to Arthurian stories. Caradoc, a Knight of the Round Table, for example, becomes Sir Caradoc, Varanguard of the Seventh Circle, the Bane Sons. Caelia, the Faerie Queen and mother of the Faerie Knight, becomes the leading daemonette to the Court of the Seven Virtues, etc. Oh, and there’s a talking sword, of course. And Merlin is a Gaunt Summoner.

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Fun Chaostifications of Arthurian tales aside, Scourge of Fate also owes inspiration to my more overarching passion for military history. Although I’m an Early Modern historian (roughly, 1500s to early 1800s) first and foremost, I’ve done a fair bit of work on medieval warfare throughout my University studies, and have always enjoyed medieval historical fiction like Bernard Cornwell’s Grail Quest series. Pitching into my first Fantasy novel provided a valuable pace-changed from the six previous Warhammer 40,000 books I’d writen – there were no more bolters or vox transmissions, no hololithics or battle barges in high orbit. I got write about something I’ve always wanted to cover, a straight-up medieval-style pitched battle. I had a chance to weigh in in with the axes and the swords and the maces, the blood and the mud and the rain, the rotting-egg stink of gunpowder and the thunder of a full, knightly cavalry charge. I loved every second of it.

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I hope you’ve enjoyed this little behind-the-curtains peek at the thought processes that went into writing Scourge of Fate and, if you buy the book itself, I hope you enjoy that as well. It was certainly the sort of story I’ve had on my mind for a while, and getting to realise it was a privilege.

Glory to Archaon, the Knights of Ruin and the Eightstar!

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New Slaves to Old Darkness, or, Does the Varanspire have a Bakery?

Thoughts on Writing Scourge of Fate

Anyone involved in either Warhammer or Warhammer 40,000 can point to a personal favourite faction in the lore, the side that gives them the greatest enjoyment whether on the tabletop, via the background, or both. I’ve been asked who my own favourite faction is a fair few times. When it comes to Warhammer Fantasy and its heir and inheritor, Warhammer: Age of Sigmar, my answer is always the same – Chaos.

That wasn’t always the case. I first laid eyes on the servants of the Dark Gods in a pamphlet I was given by a relative, aged 7. There they were, the first ever plastic Chaos Warriors, listed alongside the other core units of the varies armies that inhabited the rulebooks of Warhammer Fantasy’s 5th edition. I wish I could say they immediately gripped me, but brazenly lying about the patronage of daemons is rarely wise. My first two White Dwarfs, issues 233 and 234, coincided with the release of the first ever Vampire Counts Warhammer Armies book (before it they’d been homogenised with the forces of Khemri as the “Undead”). It was the Aristocracy of the Night, particularly the noble order of the Blood Dragon, which first hooked me on that sweet hobby goodness.

But the Chaos gods are both cunning and patient, and many are the paths to damnation. The Eightstar’s alignment with my own life would come about just four years later, in 2002, with the release of the Hordes of Chaos Army Book. This now-legendary tome was penned by some of the greatest games designers and background writers to have ever worked for Games Workshop, namely Gav Thorpe, Rick Priestly, Anthony Reynolds and Alessio Cavatore. It brought together, for the first time, the myriad forces of Chaos – mortal, beasts and daemons – under a single banner. Even more importantly, it put flesh on the bones of what it meant to be a Chaos worshipper in the Warhammer Fantasy setting, and provided reams of fantastic background material to go with what was a hugely enjoyable set of tabletop rules.

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How could anyone see cover art like this and not fall immediately into the service of the Dark Gods?

Chaos is more than deeply integral to the Warhammer setting, it is utterly engrained. It was there almost from the beginning. Any hobby veteran will tell you with authority that the genesis of a lot of what is great and good about both the Warhammer and 40k settings today began in the Realm of Chaos books, Slaves to Darkness and The Lost and the Damned, published in 1988 and 1990 respectively. Sadly they were before my own time, but I was fortunate enough to be around for the great Chaotic Renaissance of the mid-2000s. The evocative work of Hordes of Chaos, built on the Realms books, was followed by the Liber series. Starting in 2003 with Liber Chaotica: Khorne and ending in 2006 with the combined volume known simply as Liber Chaotica, it remains to this day my favourite piece of work produce by Games Workshop, bar none. The background is more than engrossing. It isn’t just a worldbuilding tome, but a living, breathing story that drags you in and gives you a little taste of the intoxicating madness that, we are told, lies at the heart of every Chaos worshipper’s devotion. Deciphering it from cover to cover will certainly change anyone’s opinions about the setting and the nature of the reality it assumes.

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Artwork has also played a huge part in enriching the lore right from the start, especially early artists such as Ian Miller and Wayne England, to name just two. The above iconic image by Miller was solely responsible for inspiring the Slaaneshi manorhouse featured in Scourge.

After partaking in this gold standard of background material, teen Robbie most assuredly had his boots planted on the Path to Glory. A hefty Chaos miniatures collection was assembled (about 7,000 points in 6th edition currency), dwarfing my own rival Vampire Counts and Skaven armies. Hundreds of battles were fought the length and breadth of the Old World over a period of a decade, as I formulated the background of my host and charted the adventures of its Chaos Lord – Vargen, champion of the Norscan tribe known as the Vargs. He fought alongside the Everchosen during the Storm of Chaos and competed in tournaments across the UK. When I got into the Unversity of Edinburgh, I celebrated by raising him up – as I’d ascended to the next stage of education, so Vargen ascended to daemonhood, and became the Prince of the Apocalypse.

And that is where the story of my relationship with Chaos might have ended. An ongoing fan with a deep appreciation to the fantastical lore that has helped build up the very core of Warhammer over the years.

Then I got chatting with Josh Reynolds.

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The Liber Chaotica’s artwork is also “insanely” gorgeous.

Josh, as maby of you will know, is Black Library’s most prolific Age of Sigmar author. I think he’s quite possibly written every faction to date, and always seems to be brewing up fresh plots. It just so happened that I’d reached a brief lull in my novel schedule when I got talking to him about, well, the usual stuff – the myriad glories of Chaos, the Eightfold Path, the essence of ageless daemonhood, that sort of thing. We talked about how badass the Varanguard, Archaon’s new bodyguard in the Mortal (and Chaotic) Realms, were. Gee, they sure deserved a novel, right?

Turns out Josh had already had some preliminary thoughts. Also turns out that, gentleman that he is, he was more than happy to let me take the lead and cook up my own Varanguard novel. And thus, with the blessings of that little-known fifth (or is-is it sixth?) Chaos God, Joshmar, Scourge of Fate was born.

I had two objectives while writing Scourge. The first was to try and distil as much of that old timey Chaos goodness from books like Realms, Hordes and Liber and give a little bit back to the Warhammer universe – less a homage and more some sort of daemonic spawn offspring. The second was to worldbuild. Specifically, I wanted to give the experiences of a Slave to Darkness a grounding in reality, one that made the reader empathise (however reluctantly) with a character who could otherwise have been dismissed as just a bad guy in spikes and fur.

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That was what I enjoyed most about the older lore, especially as laid down in books like Hordes. Only a fraction of the forces of Chaos are wholly removed from mortal concerns. The vast majority of those not yet blessed with daemonhood are tribesfolk who could have hailed from any number of real-world, historical cultures. My favourite depictions of the forces of Chaos played that aspect up, providing believable antagonists and anti-heroes in great novels such as Dan Abnett’s Riders of the Dead.

In fact I think it was Dan who described it the most succinctly. Chaos worshippers are the ultimate bad guys, but what does it mean to be a bad guy in the Warhammer universe? How does a bad guy actually live his life? Is it just about killing babies every day? No. How would the logistics of that even work? More prosaically, I wanted to know what a Champion of Chaos did when he wasn’t slaughtering in his patron’s name. What did he eat, where did he sleep, what did he wear when he wasn’t going into battle, how did he think about the Chaos Pantheon and his place as a worshipper within it – the very philosophy of Chaos itself, a subject wonderfully enriched over the past few years (especially in 30k) by authors like Aaron Dembski-Bowden.

I distilled those thoughts down to a single, easy question that I set myself as I wrote. Does the Varanspire have a bakery? I mean, most mortals still need to eat, right, hence the “mortal” part? And it didn’t seem likely that they all consumed nothing but the raw flesh of their butchered enemies every day. Certainly for the countless marauders not yet blessed with the Gifts of the Gods, there had to be a more “mundane” aspect to their diet? Some had to eat… bread, right?

Setting out the bakery in the Varanspire was my goal in writing Scourge of Fate (and do bear in mind that this is a metaphor… I’m not sure I actually discuss a literal bakery in the novel). What is Chaos, not as a cosmic evil, not as a horde of spikey bad guys, but as a complex and dangerously tangible belief system that both lifted up and damned characters often irregardless of whether they chose to embrace it or sought to resist it? Of course there is no single answer to that question, it’s everyone’s personal quest, but I hope that readers at least enjoy my very own attempt to tread it out on the Path to Glory.

Oh, and I also got to give Vargen a place in Black Library fiction, so that’s pretty neat too. Way to go, little guy.

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If any of this rambling remotely takes your fancy, you can find Scourge of Fate as an ebook here. It’ll be released in physical formats in 2019.

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2017 – A Writing Year in Review

It’s certainly been a long time since this blog was last updated. I’ve got a few excuses on hand however, most of them relating to it having been a busy 2017. Work-wise (and, indeed, generally) my past twelve months have been pretty great. I’ve written three novels, had three published (all for Games Workshop’s publishing arm, Black Library), and managed to press on with my PhD in-between.

2017 started with a bang – or, more accurately, a rend-and-tear, as my sort-of-but-not-really-first-novel Carcharodons: Red Tithe hit the shelves. People seemed to enjoyed reading it almost as much as I enjoyed writing it, so that bodes well for Carcharodons: Outer Dark!

April rolled round with the release of both Dawn of War III and its accompanying novelisation. Getting to write that book having grown up playing the games was a huge honour, and it was also the first time I ever saw my name on the cover of a book in Waterstones, a childhood dream come true.

The summer was filled up mostly with writing Outer Dark, though I did also find time to write a Carcharodons appetiser, Death Warrant, which acts as a sort-of prequel to Outer Dark.

In November I not only had my fourth novel, The Last Hunt, released, but I also got to attend the Black Library Weekender and meet (and be on a quiz team with) Dan Abnett. Needless to say this was probably the highlight of the year.

It all ended nice and busy too, with two advent calendar stories released in December – my first foray into 30k with a Primarchs audio (which was also a great honour to get to write, especially since Perturabo is one of my favourites) and a prequel short story to my forthcoming Ultramarines Primaris novel Blood of Iax, which I wrote between August and November.

In all it’s been a hugely rewarding and enjoyable year, and if next year is anything like it I’m looking forward to it immensely. I hope everyone has a happy New Year, and would like to thank you all for the immense support that has quite literally made it all possible. I’ll finish off with a promise to keep this blog updated more regularly (my tumblr, Facebook and twitter are all far more prolific), and add a pic of one of my favourite authors, Dan Abnett, who I was lucky enough to meet at the Black Library Weekender.

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Bestseller Status: Achieved

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I already mentioned it in passing in my personal review of 2016, but it turns out that plea to download my latest novel and help me on my way up the Amazon sales charts worked out. Thirty six hours after release Carcharodons: Red Tithe beat several hundred thousand other ebooks into the number 74 spot on Amazon UK’s kindle sci-fi chart, officially making it an Amazon bestseller. It also peaked at number 30 on the UK iBooks download chart.

I wasn’t actually expecting to run for bestseller status. Amazon is actually relatively “easy” for authors to break onto, there’s a whole cottage industry behind manufacturing Amazon bestsellers. The basics involve getting a load of people to buy it all at once, usually at some ungodly hour. I was initially going to try this myself before realising it’s now very tricky for Black Library to make bestseller status because the releases are spread out over multiple platforms. So Red Tithe has:

  • Amazon kindle releases (which are in turn spread over regions like UK, US ect).
  • iTunes releases.
  • Hardback releases (which are only via the Black Library site or in Games Workshop stores, so wouldn’t register on any bestseller lists. Likewise with the ebook if it’s downloaded direct from the Black Library website, it “doesn’t count” when it comes to calculating bestsellers).
  • Paperback releases (which are over Amazon and in bookstores like Waterstones, so do count towards bestseller lists, but by then most people have the ebook or the hardback…).

All of which is why I’m both impressed and delighted that so many people have supported me. If I’m right about how this all works, the kindle sales themselves are probably only about 1/3 of the overall sales. I want to thank everyone who pitched in, it was such a monumental effort but it worked. Oh, and a special shout-out to all you crazy kids who’ve bought both the ebook and the hardback, that’s what I call superfans.

A sequel is now looking extremely likely!

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2016 – A Writing Review

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For developing my writing – in terms of both style and as a profession – 2016 has been the busiest and best year of my life. To that end, I thought it would be worth a review of the past 12 months, if only for my own train of thought, so I can establish where I’ve come from and where I’m going.

January: The new year started with me halfway through writing Legacy of Russ. Whether or not it can be called my first true novel or a collection of short stories, it was certainly fun to write, not least of all because it included characters I’d grown up reading about and who are loved and revered by tens of thousands of fans the world over. For an introduction to writing professionally, I couldn’t have asked for either a better or more intimidating assignment!

February: This month saw me wrap up Legacy and write my first audio drama, Vox Tenebris. It was tricky acclimatising to the differences between standard short stories and audio script writing, but it was a lot of fun to do.

March: Saw the second release of my first Black Library story. Deathwatch 4: Redblade originally appeared online as a Black Library ebook in October 2015. It was now repackaged in a print anthology to support the release of the new Deathwatch board game. It was certainly exciting being involved in another set of stories that linked directly to a miniature release, and all the hype that entails. This was also the first time I got to see my own Black Library work in print. On the writing front, I was given the green light to start Carcharodons: Red Tithe.

April: This month was spent writing Red Tithe. The first of Legacy’s short story serial format came out as well. At the end of the month I also received word that my editors wanted me to write the novelisation of Dawn of War III. As someone who’d been playing the Dawn of War games since the age of twelve, that obviously blew me away.

May: Mostly spent finishing Red Tithe’s edits, and included more of Legacy’s short story releases. These continued, roughly two a month, all the way until August.

June – September: Towards the end of June, and until the first week of September, my time was taken up writing and redrafting Dawn of War III. A lengthy post about the complexities of liaising with a gaming company over script and storyline will likely be forthcoming in the future! In between Dawn of War I also wrote a short story prequel to Red Tithe, entitle The Reaping Time. The start of July also saw the release of Heartwood – my first Age of Sigmar short story, written in November 2015, in the Sylvaneth anthology.

October: saw the release of Vox Tenebris, while I wrote my first Blood Bowl short story, Fixed. It was a lot of fun, in a wacky kinda way, and it was a privileged to get to visit the “Old World,” sort of.

November: was spent starting on The Last Hunt, my first White Scars novel.

December: A glut of releases to coincide with the ongoing Scars work. Firstly Fixed and then The Reaping Time were released as part of Black Library’s advent calendar program, then Red Tithe itself got an early Boxing Day e-premier. It became an Amazon bestseller about 36 hours after release – a fitting end to the year!

Overall I really couldn’t have asked for a more productive or fulfilling 365 days. In that time I wrote four novels, two short stories and an audio drama, a total of an estimate 320,000 words, or 877 words a day. All of it would have been meaningless without the hard work of my editors and everyone else on the Black Library team, the support and understanding of my friends and family and, certainly not least of all, the incredible contributions in time, money and enthusiasm from everyone out there who’s ever read one of my stories or interacted with me, here or elsewhere. Thank you for helping to make this year such a success.

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