Friday, 29 June 2012

An interview with Terry Mancour, author of the Spellmonger Series

I'm delighted to say that top writer and fine fellow Terry Mancour, author of the excellent Spellmonger Series, has agreed to an interview. Enjoy!:

Q: I was a bit surprised when I checked your author page on Amazon that you'd written Spartacus (the Star Trek TNG book), which I read, and enjoyed, quite some time ago. Why did you choose fantasy rather than sci-fi for your new series?

TM: I’ve always been fascinated by both sci-fi and fantasy – my two favorite authors growing up were Heinlein and Tolkien – and I was as happy playing with spaceships as I was castles.  After the initial success of Spartacus, I faced the prospect of following up my first book with something original – which I knew would never be as successful as Spartacus.  I felt more confident with fantasy than sci-fi at the time, so I started putting Spellmonger together.  Spellmonger was my second novel, and I know it feels like a second novel.  That’s not to say it isn’t good, but it isn’t great.  And it wasn’t intended to be.  After Spartacus I got a lot of great advice from other sci-fi writers, and Larry Niven encouraged me to work on my craft before I tried to push for more commercial success.  So while I was submitting new Star Trek proposals and getting them shot down, I started Spellmonger as a kind of workshop, something I could experiment with and write for my own amusement.  After I gave up pursuing a lucrative career as a licensed series writer, I had this little novel sitting around that wasn’t half-bad.  I submitted it to all of the big fantasy publishers and got rejected for perfectly legitimate business reasons.  So I published it on my own.

Q: Which fantasy series inspired you, both in general terms and regarding what you wanted to portray in the Spellmonger Series?

TM: As I mentioned, Tolkien was my biggest fantasy influence – I’ve read the trilogy and the Hobbit over 250 times since my adolescence – so the danger of doing something hopelessly derivative was always there.  As much as I love Tolkien, I’m not nearly good enough to do that kind of High Fantasy justice.  And while I am also thoroughly geeking out about Martin’s brilliant Game of Thrones series, I didn’t want to do what he did either.  So the author I was most influenced by for Spellmonger has to be Steven Brust’s deliciously complex and entertainingly-written Dragearan series, notably the Vlad Taltos books. 

Brust is, in my opinion, one of the top three fantasy writers alive today.  I’d say he was the literary heir to Roger Zelazny, one of the most brilliant voices of the New Wave era of sci-fi.  His Vlad Taltos series, beginning with Jhereg, is probably the closest to what I’ve patterned the Spellmonger series on.  Not setting-wise – Dragera and Callidore are very different in many ways, while both technically adhere to standard fantasy tropes – but in terms of style.  One of the things about the Vlad Taltos series that I always liked was the first-person narrative.  It’s difficult to pull off believably, and it’s incredibly difficult to sustain over several episodic narratives, but Brust does it effortlessly.  His lead character goes from being a sneering underclass teenaged punk to a cynical and mature man who finds himself influencing world events, without losing his essential core.  If I can keep that kind of standard for Minalan in Spellmonger, I’ll be quite pleased with it.

Q: What's your favourite fantasy book or series (excepting your own, of course)?

TM: The Lord of the Rings.  I have read it exhaustively, and I have a reverent awe for the magnificence of Tolkien’s construction.  The more I study it, especially the evolution of his work over the course of decades which can be found in his voluminous notes, the more impressed I am at the tender care this man took with his creation.  I think we’ve gone past the point where you can take 30 years to work on a book, and then spend another five just typing it and editing it, which is a little sad.  But then again, there can never be another Tolkien.

Q: Writing a series (whether a trilogy or a saga like Wheel of Time or A Song of Ice and Fire) can be quite daunting. Did you map out the entire series' plot before beginning the first book, or did you prefer to have a more organic approach to the books that followed Spellmonger and take each one as it came?

TM: While I wrote Spellmonger as a stand-alone experiment, I relish the idea of a long-running series.  It’s a challenge to keep the reader’s level of interest and encourage a fan base by giving them more of what they want at the same time.  With Spellmonger, I envisioned a long, multi-book series from the beginning and planned accordingly.  Before I was done with the first manuscript, I had Warmage and Magelord plotted out, and had good ideas for at least four other books (working titles, in no particular order: Knight Magi, Footwizard, Court Mage, and Archmage), but the more I work on the series, the more new books I want to add.  New plots have been born for Seamage, Enchanter, Resident Adept, and High Mage. At this point, I feel confident that we’re looking at a ten book series, at minimum, and perhaps more.  Whether or not I’ll still have an audience by the last books or not is debatable, but I’ll write them even if I’m the only one who reads them. 

Q: What one piece of advice would you offer an aspiring writer?

TM: Write. 
Really.  Quit bitching about getting rejected, quit bragging about the stuff you’re going to write, quit talking about it, quit blogging about it, quit going to cons and geeking out over other writers, if you want to be a professional writer you sit down at the keyboard and write.  Write until your fingers fall off.  Write whatever you can, whatever you need to, and ensure you go back and re-write it into something decent if it’s good.  Realize most of your stuff is going to suck and accept that . . . because each failed idea is compost for your next flash of brilliance.  But if you don’t write, and write a lot, you’ll never make the English language your bitch.

Q: What aspect of writing do you find most challenging?

TM: The re-write.  “Great works are never completed, only abandoned”.  I re-wrote Spellmonger 5 times before I published it, and each iteration was painful.  Warmage only got one re-write, but then Spellmonger was my second book and Warmage was my 15th. (I have four or five pseudonyms under which I write a wide variety of stuff).  Both will be re-released in a re-edited form by the end of the summer, giving me one last chance to screw around with it.  But I still will find fault with it in places for years to come.  Not because it’s bad, but because I’m getting better as a writer.

Q: Writing is a slightly odd occupation, in that it offers authors almost total freedom. Do you like to take a structured approach (daily word count targets, tightly defined lore etc) or prefer to take a more laid back approach?

TM: A little of both.  My process is organic, simply because I work a full-time day job as a copywriter and then act as primary care for my three kids after work.  Therefore I have to write in the cracks between picking up the kids, cooking dinner, and dealing with homework.  I write into the wee hours, of course, but if I’m really obsessed with a concept I can find myself getting up before dawn to grind out a few thousand words before work, or setting up the laptop and typing while I’m waiting in car line. 

My basic process includes juggling multiple projects.  In addition to the Spellmonger series, I’ve also got a sci-fi series (the Tanith series, a continuation of pulp-era sci-fi author H. Beam Piper’s novel Space Viking . . . think of it as “Atomic Punk”), a “fan” series of books (Firefly – over at they know me as “ScrewtheAlliance”, and I’ve got two and a half Firefly “fan” novels, Kaylee’s Lament, The Treasure of Lei Fong Wu, and Unfinished Business which is, ironically, incomplete) and then work under three other pseudonyms in dramatically different genres.  So right now I’ve got Secret Project #1 on the front burner (my agent called and someone in Hollywood liked it), then Magelord, then the next Tanith book, Trask’s Odyssey, then Secret Project #2, Unfinished Business, and three separate Spellmonger short stories.  And then I’ve got at least four more books on the back, back burner.  I find that having something to work on while I’m stuck on something makes me more productive.  Oh, and my process also involves large amounts of caffeine and small amounts of Irish whiskey.

Q: Except for Minalan, who is your favourite character to write?3

TM: Probably Pentandra, with Tyndal a close second.  But it’s still hard to say, because I’m still getting to know them.  Writing Pentandra is like writing an over-sexed, hyper-ambitious Hermione who becomes addicted to power.  Writing Tyndal is like writing an obnoxious teenager who suddenly got handed power and wealth far beyond his station.  But then some of my supporting characters are a hell of a lot of fun, too.  In Spellmonger, Zagor was neat.  In Warmage I really enjoyed writing the nasty little piece of work known as Rardine for some reason – although writing Isily was fun, too.  And in Magelord, apart from some new characters I honestly am having the most fun with Sir Cey.  Yes, the taciturn castellan returns.

Q: Magelord (the third Spellmonger Series entry) is due next year. Will it be the final book in the series, and, if not, can you tell us how many books there will be?

Q: Magelord is pencilled in for 2013. How's it coming along?

TM: I’ll answer both of these at once.

Magelord will definitely not be the final book of the series.  And it won’t be out next year.  It will be out this year. 

In 2011, I published three books under my own name on Kindle, Spellmonger and the two Tanith books.  Spellmonger succeeded beyond my expectations, and was lucrative to the point where I was financially inspired to drop everything and finish Warmage.  Then Warmage came out this year and was even more wildly successful, overcoming the Curse of the Second Book.  To date, I’ve sold over 10,000 copies of Spellmonger, and more than half of those readers have gone on to buy Warmage.  That has financially inspired me to re-arrange my writing schedule to put Magelord as a higher priority.  At the moment I’m about half-way through with it, and if it wasn’t for the sweet scent of Hollywood money in the air I’d probably be done with it by now.  But as soon as Secret Project #1 is in the can, I’ll return to it and finish it off.  At this point, I’m hoping to release it in early-to-mid Autumn of 2012.

But wait!  There’s more!  Before its release, I’m also planning on publishing three short stories filling in gaps in the story.  One involves Tyndal’s daring escape from two agents of the Censorate in Minalan’s home town.  One involves a curious thing that happens to Minalan on the way to collect his reward after Warmage.  And the third covers the wedding of Minalan and Alya, just before the events in Magelord. 

Each one will be initially put on sale for the ridiculous price of 2.99 for ONE MONTH.  This is only because that’s the lowest price Amazon will let me set and allow the story to be in its Prime lending category, which allows Amazon Prime members to borrow the story for FREE.  After 30 days, I’ll drop the price to .99 cents for everyone else.  If you aren’t an Amazon Prime member, then PLEASE wait until the price drop before you buy it.  I don’t want to get accused of trying to hustle anyone by selling a 40,000 word short for the same price I sold a 120,000 word novel.  And I will likely bundle all three stories together in a mini-anthology for less than the cost of all three separately, before all is said and done.  And they might even wind up free at some point as a marketing device.

This might seem needlessly confusing or needlessly greedy on the surface, but it is actually more reflective of the current market.  Kindle has changed everything in publishing the way Napster changed everything in music.  Now that the author, not the publisher, is in command of the process, then it falls to the author to make marketing-based decisions.  That’s not always a bad thing.  Oftentimes the author is actually better in-tune with the marketplace than a publisher is, and realizes a niche or a need that a publisher doesn’t.  I get 2-3 fan requests a week about when the next book will be out, and my hardcore fans are, well, hardcore.  I think the current market encourages not just big ugly novels, but the literary equivalent of “DVD extras”: short stories and supporting literature to flesh-out the property.

Consider that J.K. Rowling, despite becoming richer than Paul McCartney on Harry Potter books, found as much success with writing little one-offs about Quidditch or Wizard history for her fans.  These are little value-added works that give depth to her series but don’t screw with her plot.  And the fans LOVE THEM.  I’m no J.K. Rowling, but if I have a few thousand fans who want to know what happened on the night Tyndal left Talry, or about Minalan and Alya’s wedding, or why Minalan’s witchstone has quadrupled in size by the time Magelord opens, then this gives them something to chew on between books.  It also allows me to add background without bogging down the main narrative with a lot of exposition.

But that’s not all . . . I’ve also begun to discuss the possibility of a Spellmonger graphic novel in conjunction with some of my contacts in the Comic industry.  We’re still at the preliminary stages, but I think it would be a hoot and there seems to be enough interest. 

So that’s the scoop:  Magelord THIS year, not next year.  The next book (probably Knight Magi) will be out in 2013.  Three interstitial short-stories before then.  Lots of confusing pricing. 

And as far as what Magelord is about, just consider that when you defeat the goblin army, marry the girl of your dreams, and semi-retire to your stately manor castle for a well-earned Happily Ever After, things might not go as smoothly as you plan . . .

Thanks for the opportunity to speak about my work.  And as an EXTRA BONUS, here’s an excerpt from Chapter One of Magelord . . . EXCLUSIVE to your readers:


Chapter One

The Domain Of Sevendor

Sevendor was a mess when we got there, with a pall of neglect hanging over it as potent as any spell.  You could tell the moment you rode into the village. 

Now, I’m not the kind of spellmonger  – or newly dubbed Knight Magi, or even a Magelord – who looks a gift horse in the mouth, but when His Grace, Duke Rard of Castal (and about half of Alshar) granted me an estate along with my knighthood and other honors to reward me for stopping (or at least slowing down) a goblin invasion, I had assumed it would be a picturesque feudal land with jolly peasants, green fields, a stout castle and a treasury full of coin. 

It’s not that I had chosen my boon poorly – quite the contrary.  I had spent almost a week researching my options in the dusty corridors of Wilderhall, under the gimlet eye of Lady Arnet, the Mistress of Lands and Estates for the Duchy of Castal.  The Duke had specified the exact level of landed fief from which I could choose – rated by some arcane system the Ducal Court alone understood – and Lady Arnet had presented me with dozens of acceptable holdings on the Duchy’s books, each folio wrapped in leather and sealed with her official seal.

After researching each one and then agonizing about my choice, I had finally made what I had thought was the best one for my purposes: a small estate in the northwestern Castali Riverlands, only four hundred miles away from the town of my birth.  My new fief was situated in the northern foothills of the Uwarri range, near the frontier with Remere.

As far away from the goblin hordes as I could safely get, in other words, and still be close enough to the front to be of some use.  And it had . . . other advantages.  It had been one of the regions helpfully suggested by the Tree Folk, for one.  I still wasn’t certain why, but I assumed they had a good reason.  But I had been far more interested in other factors at the time I selected it.  And it was quite the prize estate . . . on parchment.

According to the meticulously kept tax records and correspondence from the Ducal caretaker, the Domain of Sevendor was supposed to be a well-tended, prosperous little estate, snug in the charmingly-rugged foothills, with a sturdy little castle, a secondary tower fortress, three prosperous villages and five hamlets within its demesne.  Sevendor had been developed for three hundred years, and was one of the former cadet estates of the famous House of Lensely. 

House of Lensley is one of the wealthiest families of the eastern Castali Riverlords, but in all honesty their power peaked about a hundred years ago.  There’re still plenty of Lenselys around of course, despite the House’s proclivity for killing each other off in spectacular duels.  But while Lensely, was a rich and prosperous noble House (The Count of Lensely is the traditional head of the Riverlord’s League, and there are a couple of powerful local Lensely barons still lingering around) Sevendor hadn’t been under Lensely control for two generations, thanks to an ongoing inheritance dispute between rival branches.

That was the reason the Duchy had taken control of it in the first place.  It had been confiscated by the Coronet as a fine to one of the younger Lensely barons for killing someone he shouldn’t have at the wrong time and in the wrong place. 

Lady Arnet patiently tried to explain it to me while my patent of nobility was being drawn up, but I hadn’t paid much attention.  I was the first wizard in two centuries who held land in service to a noble lord, breaking the Bans.  I was excited.  I wasn’t interested in the story.  I wanted to hurry up and get to the tiny little sliver of history she had carefully removed from her dusty old books, not listen to a long droning recitation of the colorful history of the domain.  Perhaps I should have.

Sevendor was never any great prize.  While technically in the Riverlands, it was a seventy miles south of the nearest navigable river, a hill-country fief that hugged the valleys of the small but respectable mountains to the south.  It was one of those odd slivers of territory that doesn’t quite fit neatly into a region, a marginal property unblessed by the bountiful croplands of the river valleys. There was another parcel forty miles northwest I could have chosen, Ormacar, that would have been twice as large, half again as fertile, and which had two castles and four villages.  But I had my reasons for choosing Sevendor.

Sevendor was a vale in the northern the Uwarri Range (hardly mountains at all, compared to the majestic Mindens or the grand and rugged Kulines), a strip running east to west about six miles long and three and a half miles wide at the widest point,.   It was a kind of double-blind vale, two valleys stretching to a common gap to the north, separated by a low ridge. 

The smaller eastern area, known as Brestal Vale, had the better croplands, while the larger western vale, Sevendor proper, boasted an itinerant stream through its midst and several hundred acres of timberlands.  Neither lobe was particularly fertile, but the peasants farmed corn, beans, rye, millet, oats, garenth, goats, turkeys, and the occasional cow or sheep or llama and managed to stay alive.  

About all the apocrypha I could recall from Lady Arnet’s briefing was that Sevendor once had a history as a horse breeding farm; there was a substantial nut grove, pecans in particular, on the castle grounds.  The cadet branch of the Lensleys who had ruled there had exported a significant, though not substantial, amount of produce, before they’d lost it.   According to the historical record, in its prime Sevendor produced over three hundred bushels of corn for export, seventy bushels of nuts, and two hundred turkeys. 

But yields weren’t what they used to be.  Sevendor’s prime was over a century ago.

The geography was what had sold me on it, but not for the usual reasons.  The stream wasn’t very large, certainly not navigable by anything bigger than a canoe.   It ran cautiously through the center of the vale throughout most of the year and flooded spectacularly every spring, according to the dusty reports.  The croplands were marginal, and wouldn’t support more than a few thousand people without importing food.  It abutted three larger estates, all local nobles of distinguished lineage and honorable repute – which didn’t impress me in the slightest.

It had provided a modest twenty conscripts for the recent Farisian campaign, and three generations ago it had sent over three hundred militia to the disastrous Battle of Goez during one of the innumerable frontier disputes between Castal and Remere.  But the little domain had never really recovered from that.  None of the Castali at the Battle of Goez survived, Lady Arnet told me, and that had left Sevendor depopulated, with fewer and fewer peasants on the rolls every year.  Or, at least up to six years ago, the last time any reports were made.

I liked Sevendor partially because it was remote, and out of the way, naturally protected by mountains, yet but a quick two-day ride from the river port Sendaria to the north on the Bontal River, should I feel like doing any trade or need to get back to more civilized parts in a hurry.   It wasn’t a large land, it was easily manageable, yet it had great potential for development.  I was also counting on its modest size and productivity to keep it from seeming too alluring to my neighbors.  Property rights in a feudal society usually gets settled with lances.

Sevendor was too far from civilization to be considered more than a wardland, and its complete lack of strategic value left it unhampered by growth.  In other words it was an utterly average country knight’s estate.  It had been governed from afar for generations, appended to various high lords’ titles as an afterthought, traded in dowries and weregilds, and largely administered by proxy.  No actual Lord of Sevendor had set foot on the property for forty years.  And no Lord of Sevendor had been in residence there for a century and a quarter.

And it showed.

The neglect was obvious, from the moment we crossed the unwarded, unguarded, overgrown  frontier through the hill pass.  The country was pretty enough – pleasantly-forested hills, the tallest of which grew bald and rocky at their summits.  There was a distinct scent of decaying vegetation that cut through the crisp winter air.  But once the caravan crossed the point where the map included with my patent, I started to realize that things were amiss.

I pulled Traveler’s reigns to stop him, while Sir Cey and my brother-in-law Sagal both rode up beside me.  I stared at the derelict, burned-out pile of rocks that was supposed to be the watch tower to my fief, noted the weeds growing thick within, and I started to get anxious.

“This is Sevendor’s frontier,” I said, quietly.  “That’s supposed to be a three-story stone tower known as . . . Hyer’s Tower.”

“Hyer really needs to do some maintenance,” quipped my brother-in-law.

“That tower was taken in battle,” Sir Cei’s experienced eye informed him.  “Four, five years ago.  Milord Minalan, I mislike this.”

“You think you mislike this?” I asked, with a mirthless chuckle.  “This is my reward for saving two duchies.  I’m starting to wonder if it was worth the trouble.”

“Where to?” asked Cei.  He glanced at the split in the road – and “road” is a generous term.  It was a roughly-worn path overgrown with weeds and only occasionally flagged.  But it split, one road going south and the other heading west.

Sevendor Castle is west,” I nodded, as the rest of the caravan began coming into the vale.  “South is Brestal Tower, the other holding.  We’ll start at the main castle.  I only hope it’s in better repair than the outbuildings,” I said, as I nudged Traveler to the right. 

“May the gods grant it so,” Cei said, automatically, and followed.  He didn’t sound encouraged.  But then Cei never sounded encouraged about anything.

The next indication that something was wrong was the boundary stone that indicated where one fief ended and the Sevendor began.  Two hundred yards past the ruined tower the west road took a decided turn for the worse, and there we found it, overgrown by weeds but noting the location of the frontier.

“This seems to be out of place,” I commented idly.  “Remind me to move it back where it belongs later.”

“My lord Minalan, traditionally such stones are used—”

“I know what they’re used for, Cei, and I know what it probably means.  But it’s getting dark and I don’t like the look of that sky.  Feels like snow.”  He couldn’t argue with that – he was used to Bovali winters, which start much earlier than in the Riverlands and rage much harder.  But there was no mistaking the smell of snow in the air.

It was a good ten minutes on that rough road before we saw any sign of humanity.  Peasants, of course, bundled up in homespun and furs against the chill, dutifully trudging about their business, herding goats or moving dirt or chopping wood.  There weren’t very many of them, though, and they didn’t look very jolly.  They wore uniform gray homespun, hemp or linen, and crudely woven straw hats.  A few had cloaks of wool, leather or fur.  No one waved or bowed.  They didn’t even look frightened of our party, or curious.  Growing up a commoner, I did more complaining about the nobility than cheering, but I also knew that a good Lord can make a land and its people prosper, and a poor one doom it to misery.  These people had misery in buckets.

“I’m glad we packed rations,” Sagal said, his eyes wide as we rode past a peasant woman hacking at the dry earth with a fire-hardened stick.  She was as thin as a bare blade. 

“Don’t stare,” I chided.  “It isn’t polite.” I nodded to the collection of huts on the north side of the road.  Stone, wattle and daub, with a roof of thatch, and none in good repair.  There were a few wide-eyed children playing in front of the huts, but they scattered and hid as soon as we approached.  The road had evolved into a simple track through the brush only wide enough for a single horse or light wagon.  The brush on the sides was more brown than green, and the prevalent form of plantlife seemed to be rocks.  They grew everywhere.  The few frozen cultivated fields we passed were full of them. 

“This looks like . . . “ Sagal began, quietly and darkly.

“. . . an excellent opportunity to prove what magic can do for a mageland,” I finished. 

He chuckled.  “That’s one way to look at it.”

As we followed the road across the little dale towards the village, we began to pass a few mean houses – only slightly better than the peasant huts, really.  They were separated by discouraged looking groves of pines, raethwood, and hawthorns, or untrimmed hedges.  The people we passed barely looked up from their fieldwork, and I saw only two or three draft animals in evidence.  It wasn’t quite as depressing as Terrorhall, where the Soulless pantomimed real life, but it reminded me of that. 

“They can’t farm all of this by hand,” Sagal said, confused.  “Even a hillfarm needs a beast or two to . . .” He was right.  I’d seen one donkey and two llamas, but that was about it as far as beasts of burden went.

“These people can’t afford the silage,” I noted, in a quiet voice.  “Goats are about the best they can do.  Look at how few fields they’ve planted.  And how steep the hillsides are.  Not much possibility of a lot of hay.”  We passed a few more lonely crofts and cottages along the way, but I didn’t really start to get depressed until we hit “town”. 

The tiny village outside of the castle was essentially a ring of ancient stone sheds, about fifteen families, and some smaller shacks.  I counted four that had been burned out and not rebuilt.

The tax records had indicated that Sevendor paid for seven hundred hearths, although there hadn’t been a payment since the Duchy took over the estate.  Each hearth meant someone was paying for the privilege to bake their own bread, the primary form of direct taxation.  Now each “hearth” could mean a family of anywhere from three to thirty, but on average it meant about five people, in my experience.  There should be thirty-five hundred people, therefore, at that tax rate.

But there couldn’t be, not based on what I was seeing.  The village may have held seventy hearths at one point, as the records indicated, but it had but a tithe of those now.   And most of those were peasants, too, not tradesmen.  Between them they farmed about three hundred and twenty acres, one third of it “mine”.  But less than half of that had looked under cultivation.  Sevendor was a ghost of its former self.

As we rode through the village I watched the furtive glances of the adults and the curious stares of the children, both through eyes grown gaunt with malnutrition.  There was no central building, although one house seemed a little more sturdy than the others.  There was no taphouse.  No inn.  No blacksmith.  No cooper, no woodwright . . . and certainly no spellmonger.  Rugged-looking goats avoided the rangy dogs who loped wolfishly between the huts.  The well in the village square was rough-cut and muddy.

“This place is disgusting,” Sagal noted under his breath.

“Someone has some things to answer for,” I agreed, my ire rising.  “This place has had the life and vitality raped out of it by someone.”

Sir Cei sneered in contempt as he nodded.  “Malfeasance or simple incompetence, its still neglect. There is no excuse for this.”

“This place is . . . awful,” Sagal noted, shaking his head in amazement.

“I think we should go speak to this knight,” I agreed. 

The local castellan, I’d learned at Wilderhall, was a landless knight who had a few powerful friends at court, and who took the job to enjoy the perquisites of lordship without any of the real responsibility.  Officially he oversaw taxation, local justice, and was in charge of keeping the lands in good repair – everything a legitimate lord of the land would do.  Since the bridge we crossed on the way into the village was damn close to rotting out under our horses’ hooves, the stocks on the other side occupied by two emaciated rogues, and every piece of homespun we saw was threadbare, I could surmise that the caretaker was better at the first two tasks than he was the last. 

And I would have to have words with him.


Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Review: Warmage (The Spellmonger Series), by Terry Mancour

The second book in the series continues to follow the first person adventures of Minalan, the warmage and leader of the High Magi who knocks political heads together to try and establish a defence against the invading gurvani.

The chapters (excepting a bit at the end) flit between the front line and a few months previous when the protagonist sought to gain political recognition of the threat and backing for his defence. This works well, and it's pretty clear (not least because the chapter headings include a time and location) what happens where.

A small gripe is that early on I think there's too much catch-up info-dumping (explaining to/reminding the reader of what occurred in Spellmonger). With a direct sequel there is a need to remind the reader instead of diving straight into the action, but I think it's a shade overdone.

Minalan's magical randy adventures are just as engaging and easy to read as in Spellmonger, and I do like the way that certain mercenary units and individuals come into play. Reminds me a bit of The Black Company or Best Served Cold (although Warmage is not, and does not seek to be, as grim as the latter).

The political challenges Minalan faces are well-written, and I also like the increasing importance of certain secondary characters (Penny, Azar etc), and the growing subplot of Duke Rard and Duchess Grendine and their machinations.

Some have raised issue with the fact that he loves Alya but doesn't mind having sexy time with one or two others, but I think that the "I could be dead tomorrow" justification that the mage uses is entirely plausible.

The only other slight flaw I'd raise is that a bit more time spent checking for errors would've improved the book. It's pretty big and typos and other odd problems are bound to happen, but it's still a little noticeable.

On the whole, I very much enjoyed the second in the Spellmonger Series, and am looking forward to Magelord (Book 3), which is scheduled for next year.


Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Bane of Souls arrives at Barnes & Noble

Bane of Souls is now available as a Nook Book from Barnes & Noble. It's also come out at the Apple store (rather weird seeing a listing in iTunes, but there we are). So, if you prefer iBooks to eBooks or would rather have a bit of Nookie, Bane of Souls is available.

Incidentally, I think there's just the Blio store (Baker & Taylor) and Sony to go now (the latter takes a bit longer due to a different system to most retailers).


Monday, 25 June 2012

The Last of Us Gameplay Trailer

The Last of Us is an intriguing game. There's no release date, but it sounds like it'll be around the end of this year or the start of the next.

The game revolves around a pair, Joel (the player character, a slightly grizzled sort) and Ellie (a fourteen year old girl). Unusually for Videogameland they have a father-daughter type relationship, which is an interesting direction for developer Naughty Dog to explore.

The world they're in is a post-apocalypse one, where the human race has been decimated and civilisation toppled by disease. No, don't yawn. It's slightly more original than it sounds, as the disease isn't, strictly speaking, zombieism but a fungal woe that really does exist (although I don't think it affects humans and make them uglier than Yasser Arafat).

I can take or leave apocalypse worlds, but the premise is interesting. I've seen a few videos, and both Joel and Ellie seem well-written and very well-acted. The gameplay trailer I'll embed below has shifted the game from the Maybe to the Probably column, for me. There seems to be a heavy emphasis on realism, with bullets being relatively rare and the combat visceral and intense. I also liked the apparently real time menu, and the fact that a bandage and alcohol can be combined into a Molotov Cocktail or used to make a medical kit.

Here's the video:


Thursday, 21 June 2012

Tomb Raider Controversy

I've mentioned before that I was thinking of getting the new Tomb Raider reboot game (unhelpfully entitled just Tomb Raider), which has now been pushed back to March 2013. The game has recently hit the headlines for the wrong reasons, however.

Below there are some general spoilers.

There's been some controversy over a scene that has sometimes been described as an 'attempted rape'. I'm pretty sure it's included in the video linked to below (around 2:22), though I think 'attempted rape' overstates what happens significantly. However, the suggestion of what might have happened is quite apparent.

The game takes place with a younger, very inexperienced Lara Croft who doesn't really know her arse from her elbow when it comes to tomb raiding (initially, at least). However, (and it might be exaggerated due to the necessarily condensed and exciting nature of trailers) it does look like the game's gone overboard in making her weak and vulnerable, and I felt a bit uneasy watching much of it.

She gets, at least, groped, attacked by a dog, bound several times, wounded and the voice actress (who does a very good job) makes her seem extremely vulnerable. As the game progresses she will become more proficient and tougher, but some have already said they won't buy the game on the basis of the way she's presented (because the 'attempted rape' scene feels wrong, largely).

But would there be this reaction if she were a he? Naked Snake got electrocuted, tortured, lost control of his bladder, almost had his eyes stabbed out and did lose an eye to a gunshot. He was, of course, a skilled soldier so the two situations aren't directly comparable but it's the closest equivalent that jumps to mind.

There's a very interesting take on it by Susan Arendt, over at the Escapist, which is well worth a read for those thinking of buying the game.

I slightly disagree with her regarding the portrayal of women in the media (almost every advert seems to have a moronic man failing and a wonderful woman succeeding) but generally I think it's accurate.

I don't know whether I'll end up buying the game, at this stage.


Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Review: Spellmonger (The Spellmonger Series), by Terry Mancour

This is a fantasy story written in the first person, and it’s really rather good.

The protagonist is a spellmonger in a sleepy little village, where he's effectively retired from his previous line of work as a warmage. Unfortunately for him, war erupts and rather disturbs his formerly peaceful life, forcing him to return to action.

Mr. Mancour does a very good job of managing to mix the right proportions of the fantastical with the realistic. The protagonist, Minalan, is likeable and engaging, and he has the petty foibles and occasional virtues of any realistic person. Similarly, a number of other characters (his apprentice, his rival Garkesgu and Sire Koucey) are all nicely fleshed out, whilst remaining clearly in Minalan's shadow.

I shan't spoil the story but it progresses at a fairly swift pace early on before slowing for necessary plot reasons which see the tension rise until the book's end. The author does change the time perspective, jumping from the present to Minalan's early life and working through his mage training and his campaigning (perhaps a third or a quarter of the book's spent in the past). This works well from the off, and helps to further establish the protagonist and his outlook on life.

The fantasy world does have certain typical elements (mostly human with some goblins) but the goblins are nuanced beyond being just arrow fodder, and the additional races (not seen too much, except for the Tree Folk) seem interesting.

If there's a criticism to be made, it must be that a little more time spent checking and correcting errors would've been useful. Typos and similar problems are common (normally I wouldn't mention them, but there are quite a few).

However, the book is very enjoyable to read and I've already begun the sequel: Warmage.


Sunday, 17 June 2012

Thaddeus enters the Amazon

Bane of Souls is now for sale at Amazon!

Unlike other retailers, where it will be automatically distributed by Smashwords, I opted to publish directly on Amazon. This is because there's a slight technical delay (the two firms are working on integrating distribution, I think) and I didn't want to have several weeks or months between Bane of Souls being out at most retailers and Amazon.

The layout of the book is pretty much identical to the Smashwords version (you can buy a wide variety of formats at Smashwords, including a Kindle version) although it's probably a bit more convenient if you're into Kindle because it can be downloaded directly through the wireless.

There will probably be a few days to a few weeks* until Bane of Souls is out at other major retailers, but all that should be automatic. Happily, this means I can get back to writing Altmortis (which will be a bit grimmer than Bane of Souls) and start trying to do some marketing and persuade more people to buy Bane of Souls.

So, if you bought it and liked it, please do let like-minded friends know it's worth a try and perhaps write a review. The biggest challenge facing new authors is actually getting noticed as there are so many books out, and it can really help if honest reviews point out strengths and weaknesses, and word of mouth can play a big role in garnering interest.

*Just checked and Bane of Souls has also just come out at the Diesel eBook Store in the ePub format (which is used by most eReaders, except the Kindle). You can buy it here.


Saturday, 16 June 2012

Preview: Dawnguard (Skyrim DLC)

Bethesda have decided that the DLC for Skyrim is going to be come in a small number of hefty chunks, as opposed to lots of little ones.

Personally, I prefer this approach (as much as I like anything about DLC). The first DLC/expansion is entitled Dawnguard. Spoilers abound below.

Dawnguard will initially be released for the Xbox360, with the PS3/PC versions coming a bit later. It introduces the Volkihar vampires and the Dawnguard, a group of vampire hunters who appear to have nothing to do with the Vigil or Meridia, despite earlier speculation about the name.

These two factions will offer the player a choice. Join the Dawnguard and you get a new fort to live in and crossbows, join the Volkihar and you get a castle to live in and the ability to transform into a vampire lord. The two factions will battle to defeat one another, though how involved this will be is uncertain. The Civil War in Skyrim took quite a while (unlike some other questlines, such as the Companions, which were pretty brief).

There will also be access to a new plane of Oblivion: the Soul Cairn, which is filled with the undead.

Players will also have access to new dragon shouts as well as new skill trees (for vampires and werewolves respectively). There will be about a dozen new enemy types, although it sounds like they'll be mostly modified versions of existing foes.

I really like the sound of the Dawnguard and Volkihar, but I'm also pretty annoyed with the introduction of two new skill trees. That's core gameplay, and should've been included with the game proper. Extra spells, shouts, armour, weapons and so on are welcome additions but the perk trees are not something that should be used as add-ons, I think.

The DLC itself looks like it'll be pretty cool, but I won't be buying it myself. I'm going to wait and see how much the Game of the Year (GOTY) edition is, and how good the extra DLC looks and consider buying the GOTY edition if it looks a reasonable deal.

For more information on Dawnguard specifically and the Elder Scrolls/Skyrim more generally, it's well worth visiting the excellent Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages here:


Thursday, 14 June 2012

Review: The Civil War, by Julius Caesar

The version I got is by Penguin and includes the Civil War, the Alexandrian War, the African War and the Spanish War and was translated by Jane Gardner.

I actually first read it some years ago and wasn't too enamoured, so I thought I'd re-read it and see whether my perception had changed.

The book is written, probably, by four separate authors, with the Civil War by Caesar and each of the subsequent three sections by different writers. It covers the period from just before the war actually began to the destruction of the anti-Caesar forces in Spain some time later.

Caesar's own writing covers what many would consider the most important part of the Civil War, ranging from the preamble to the defeat of Pompey at Pharsalus, with some adventures in Spain and the setback at Dyrrhachium along the way. It has a rather mechanical feel to it. The writing offers a reasonable level of detail but it wasn't, for me at least, very engaging. This is helped somewhat by the fact that the historical period covered does have many exciting events and is of great importance, but I never felt especially enthused by it. Whilst a certain level of bias is inevitable (no-one can be truly objective when writing about how they won a war) it does seem to be fairly minimal.

The Alexandrian War is probably my favourite part. Still offering as much detail as the Civil War, it seems a bit more engaging and the writing style is not as stark as Caesar's own. This part covers the events that occurred in Egypt, where Pompey fled and was slain, and the Egyptian battle for the crown into which Caesar became entangled.

The African War, rather obviously, happened in Africa. With Pompey dead the war is in the hands of a Scipio (although not one on a par with Africanus or Aemilianus) and King Juba, the leader of Numidia who had sided with the Pompeians. I found the level of detail a bit more lacking in this section, although the war itself did seem quite interesting. The writer was not as good as the previous author.

Lastly, the Spanish War, which dealt with Gnaeus and Sextus Pompeius, the sons of Pompey. They'd gone to Spain and were chased there by Caesar. I have to admit that I found this to be the weakest section of the book, as it never really grabbed me and seems to be somewhat lighter on detail than the earlier sections.

The period covered is fascinating and important but I found the book overall to be somewhat lacklustre. I'd sooner recommend Theodore Ayrault Dodge's military history/biography Caesar, to be honest. However, for people especially interested in classical history it may be a worthwhile purchase as there are few books written by men of such significance as Caesar. For him, I think it's just as well he was a better general and statesman than a writer.


Monday, 11 June 2012

Review: Dragon's Dogma

I've just finished playing this, and have completed it once (and begun a new game plus with the same character). It's a free-roaming RPG for the PS3 and Xbox360, and I played the PS3 version. An internet connection adds to the experience but is not essential.

Character Creation

Perhaps uniquely, Dragon's Dogma has the player not only create the player-character but also a permanent sidekick (the main pawn).

There is no racial option, but height can be altered dramatically and pointy ears are available.

There's quite a lot of customisation on offer, mostly through a large array of presets with more detailed options for each body/facial part also available. Stance, musculature, fat, scars, arms, legs and torsos can also be independently altered. You can even give them different coloured eyes.

In brief: there's a very good set of options allowing for a broad range of characters to be created.


Dragon's Dogma has fantastically good gameplay. There are nine classes (vocations) to choose from (three starting, three advanced and three hybrid) and they fundamentally change the way the game is played. They all have genuine advantages and weaknesses, and there isn't a class I don't want to play at some point.

The pawn system (which could've been better named) involves your main pawn and two support pawns. The main pawn levels up with the player-character but is never directly controlled. As per the player-character, the main pawn is outfitted and given a vocation/skills by the player, and acts as your permanent sidekick.

Support pawns are summoned through rift stones and are computer-generated or come from other players (if you're connected to the internet). Getting a pawn of your own level or lower is free, but a higher level pawn costs rift crystals, a second currency used only for this purpose and in a single shop.

Likewise, your own pawn can be hired (either by the computer taking pity on you or through the internet by other players), and gain experience of areas, enemies and quests. You'll also receive a certain number of rift crystals in return for this. It's a cool and innovative way of using the internet, and whilst the game is single player it does add a nice communal touch (and it's a warm and fuzzy moment when your pawn gets highly rated and comes back with a ton of rift crystals).

Enemies broadly vary between two main types: a standard-sized foe and a massive one. The massive ones can be devastating all by themselves, but can also be climbed and damaged so that they drop weapons or get stunned. The smaller ones look less fearsome but a gang of bandits can and will give you trouble for the early-mid levels.

There's a reasonably good variety of enemies, and they do have upgraded versions (goblins are grunt standard, a strong version is the hobgoblin and so on). Some have criticised the range of enemies, but there's a nice mix from mythology, with griffins, chimeras (chimerae?), a hydra, a dragon, cyclopes, and ogres all making an appearance alongside goblins, bandits, wolves and harpies.

The character and main pawn can be decked out in a wide variety of clothing, with many body parts having separate armour and clothing slots, which I really like. It adds to the options for customisation, and all clothing/armour can be upgraded if sufficient money and (sometimes) extra items are possessed by the player. You can equip borrowed pawns but the items you equip them with are a permanent gift.

The menus are somewhat clunky. It is nice being able to see how your character/pawn looks with new armour, but the buy, sell and enhance options are all entirely separate and there's a separate menu for items and for equipping them. Not a serious issue, but it could've been better done.

Saving is poorly done because there's just one save slot. Now, this game has one of the most easily versatile player (and pawn) approaches I've seen for some time, so you might ask why anyone would want a second save slot. Well, it would be nice to have an extra character, and if the save gets corrupted (not happened to me but have heard one or two reports of this) then, unless you've backed it up, you're screwed. Happily, the save can be backed up with a flashdrive, but it would've been far better to give the player multiple save slots.

There is fast travel but it's highly limited and requires a special item which is slightly expensive and not very common. Some have complained about this as questing involves trekking out to do it and then back to base. This can sometimes be tedious, but it also makes returning home a real achievement and actually means that the day/night cycle matters. Not only is night pitch black, it is also when more serious monsters come out to play, making getting back home in the dark a more trying ordeal. Overall, I think it works pretty well.

Difficulty: this has been whinged about by many a reviewer. I don't know why. The game's challenging and doesn't use level-scaling, so if you go into a level 25 area at level 5 you'll get slaughtered, but if you return at level 35 you'll kick arse. Generally, the difficulty is spot on, as the game is challenging without being frustratingly difficult. Ensuring your party is balanced and your borrowed pawns are more or less the right level is important. Actually defeating major enemies feels like a serious achievement rather than an inevitability.

In brief: the gameplay is absolutely fantastic. In a world of hand-holding simplicity Dragon's Dogma stands apart as a challenge for the player to meet.


A weaker spot for the game, which is a shame. The story starts out well, and it ends (there are multiple endings and I've just seen the one) well, but the vast majority of the game in the middle doesn't really develop the story. There's also a weird incident in the castle of Gran Soren I won't spoil which, at the time, seems massively significant for the player but just seems to be forgotten about by everyone after it occurs.

The world itself is exciting to play in but could use rather more development and some specific lore to stop it feeling so entirely generic. This is also true of Gran Soren, the capital, which works perfectly well but feels like it's entry 1 in 101 Stereotypical Fantasy Cities.

I don't want to say much more because the ending (whichever path you take) is somewhat surprising, and I don't want to spoil them.

In brief: good start, an original end but is depressingly absent in the middle.


A mixed bag, this one. The music is good, excepting the opening menu music, and the little jingle when you slaughter a massive foe is reminiscent of the old RPG days when you'd get victory music after a turn-based triumph.

The sound effects are also good. My character began as a mage and then became a sorceress, and it was always cool to hear a wall of flame erupt or the excellent and devastating maelstrom spell whirl through the air. If your character gets severely low health then the screen darkens, the sound muffles and you can hear her (or his) heartbeat, which is a nice touch.

The voice-acting is a bit of a weak link, though. It's good at times, and not so elsewhere. The actors may also be hampered somewhat by a slightly poor effort at ye olde English which has led to some clunky phrases and a serious overdose on the word 'aught', which is used far, far too often. I hope the chap who did Vagrant Story's brilliant translation is employed for Dragon's Dogma 2, which is reportedly already under development.

In brief: good music and effects, but the voice-acting could use a better translation and some better performances.


Character faces could be better, but perhaps I'm being picky. The transition from dawn to brilliant sunshine and then through dusk to absolute darkness works very well.

The effects of spells are well done, and it's great to see that when you cast a very high end spell (high maelstrom or high bolide, for example) the game doesn't skimp on the effect. There are few more joyous sights than seeing an entire gang of bandits slain by a giant whirlwind or crushed by meteorites raining from the sky. Especially pleasing is that when fighting a massive foe you can set parts of their body ablaze, which looks great.

The landscapes look nice, and there's a little bit of variety between grassy, rocky and wooded areas. I really liked the armour/clothing variety. I'd been worried from some of the pictures that there'd be an abundance of chainmail bikini style armour, but most of it looks good without plumbing such depths (or attaining such heights, if that's your kind of thing).

In brief: the graphics are pretty good generally and especially so in combat.

Bugs and other issues

I don't want to jinx the game but I don't think I came across an actual bug.

The save slot issue I've mentioned already, and some quests will be cancelled, sometimes without warning, if you accept a certain different quest.

The difficulty is, for me, pitched perfectly, but if you played Skyrim on normal and thought it was pretty tough then this game might not be for you. 

The framerate can very occasionally slow a little, but this happened rarely and wasn't too serious.

It's not a problem with the game itself, but on-disc DLC is the work of Satan. I really hope this doesn't make a repeat appearance for the sequel.


I very rarely pre-order games, especially on a whim, but this has turned out to be a surprisingly good game. The combat is the best in an RPG since Vagrant Story, the pawn system is innovative and works very well and the story (whilst conspicuously absent in the middle of the game) is a fresh take on the old 'dragon threatens the world' plot, which has become rather common in RPGs of late.

There are rough edges, but they're minor compared to the excellence of combat and the sense of actually beating a game instead of just jumping through hoops. I knocked half a point off the score due to a lack of extra stuff for a new game plus.

Score: 8.5/10


Friday, 1 June 2012

Bane of Souls is on sale now!

 Yes, the epic tale of friendship, honour and huge numbers of people getting murdered is now published and available to buy from Smashwords:
As I've written on the book's official website ( because it's now more difficult, for technical reasons, for books to be shipped directly from Smashwords to Amazon it's my intention to directly upload an edition to the retailer. With luck, the Smashwords version will be shipped to many other retailers once it gets the green light, which will take at least a few weeks.

I hope you all give the sample a try, and download the full book if it's your cup of delicious tea.