Longsword by David Pilling

Monday, 25 May 2015

Mount Silverback

Among the desolate flats of the Western Province, a particularly bleak region of the Winter Realm, rises a single spire of rock. This lone mountain is known as Mount Silverback, after the permanent caps of white ice gleaming on its lofty heights.

Seen from the plains below, it looks like a castle of sorts built into the side of the mountain. Seven round towers are visible near the summit, built on a series of uneven precipices linked by steep wooden staircases and paths hacked out of the rock. From the highest peak flies a great banner, rippling forever in the freezing winds that sweep across the plains and buffet the mountain. The banner displays a black sword against a stark white field, symbol of the priest-knights that dwell inside Silverback.  

This is the outward face of the Temple of Occido, a grim warrior-cult dedicated to the worship of Occido, the God of War. The Templars that reside in this remote and inhospitable spot chose it for precisely those qualities. Here, far away from the other settlements of the Winter Realm, they are free to commune with their savage deity and pursue their secretive, ritualised existence. 

The Templars play an important role in The Best Weapon, the first of the epic fantasy novels I am co-writing with Martin Bolton. One of the central characters, Fulk the No-Man's Son, was adopted by the Templars as an orphan, and raised to follow their grim code and grimmer religion. He is privy to some - not all - of their secrets, and knows what many outsiders don't: the core of Mount Silverback is essentially hollow, with hundreds of halls and winding passages carved out of the living rock by long-dead hands. 

The first Templars discovered these deep chambers, bare and apparently deserted, when they first came to explore Silverback. They wasted no time in occupying the place, and in hiding or rubbing out the peculiar symbols and diagrams carved onto the walls. The existence of these, as well as certain passages that led down down into unexplored catacombs deep under the mountain, were carefully hushed up. So far as the knights of Occido are concerned, what they don't know (probably) won't hurt them. 

I took my inspiration for the Temple, and its reclusive inhabitants, from various cells of my fractured mind. The Temple itself, perched on a high mountain far away from the rest of civilisation, was inspired by dramatic images of Buddhist temples in Nepal and Tibet, such as the one to the right. 

Occido, the belligerent God of War, was inspired by Mars, the Roman God of War, though he has a slightly cruder, more shamanic quality. The Templars envisage him as a gigantic warrior, clad in armour of steaming, red-hot iron, faceless behind the stern visage of his helm. All that can be seen of his face is a pair of red eyes that glow like twin fires. As befits a god of war, Occido is pitiless, heartless, and entirely fixated on death and slaughter and military glory. These are the things prized by the Templars, making them a fairly joyless bunch to deal with, though very good at fighting. 

The Templars themselves are obviously inspired by the historical Templars, though unlike their real-life counterparts they play little to no part in politics, and do not allow themselves to become corrupted or softened by worldly riches. Hidden away on their mountain, reliant on mysterious resources to survive, they resemble the inmates of a prison who have chosen not to escape.  

Still, this brotherhood of strange and rather unpleasant men - they are almost all men - have played an important part in the history of the Winter Realm, and are fated to do so again in The Best Weapon and its sequels. The black sword of the Temple will once again fly over stricken battlefields, and the war-shout of the knights of Occido will cause the enemies of the realm to quake in their boots...

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

The World Apparent, Part One...

Following the release of The Path of Sorrow, the second full-length novel in our fantasy series co-written with Martin Bolton, I want to post a series of articles about the universe we have created, and the characters that populate it.

World-building is a fascinating process, as well as a challenge: unlike historical fiction, where everything is set up and ready to go, you have to create the backdrop before writing the story. To that end we spent many evenings - usually in various central London pubs - ranting at each other about the geography of our fantasy planet, the names of the countries, oceans and cities etc, and whose turn it was to stagger to the bar.

Thus The World Apparent was born on a series of damp beermats and notepads, first as a barely decipherable squiggle (drawing is not my strong point) and then as something rather more impressive and easy on the eye, courtesy of Martin Bolton, who is a talented artist as well as an insufferable clown. Below is the world map we eventually agreed on.

To avoid arguments spilling over into bloodshed, we decided to carve up the world between us: I chose the northern half of the map, developing the history and layout of the Winter Realm and the Old Kingdom, while Martin took the lands south of the Girdle Sea. Temeria, the big continent to the west, was more or less a blank space until we fleshed it out for The Path of Sorrow. Other parts of the map will be explored as and when we invent them.

I had great fun shaping The Winter Realm, the teardrop-shaped northern island at the top of the map. Since this was fantasy, I was able to slap together lots of different elements to create a land of snow and ice, ringed on all sides by impassable mountains, and with only one entrance/exit. This is the Iron Gate, an enormous man-made barrier on the southern tip of the island, raised and lowered by a complex mechanism of chains and winches. The sentries on the rampart have absolute control over who can sail in or out, making the Iron Gate the most important fortress on the island. 

The Winter Realm is populated by the descendants of refugees from The Old Kingdom, the continent immediately to the south, who fled when that ancient realm was devastated by civil war and a series of earthquakes. Harsh conditions - the land is covered by snow for all but three months of the year - mean that the population remains low, no more than half a million souls thinly spread over the rocky, inhospitable plains and mountains. 
Cardinal Flambard, by Zennor Matthews

The culture of the Winter Realm is (naturally) medieval, vaguely 11th-12th century Western Europe, and with few refinements. There is only one real city, founded by the first refugees on one of the few patches of fertile land, and home to a few thousand people. The city is named Hope, and from here the Winter Realm is ruled by a series of kings who claim direct descent from the leader of the refugees. By the time of The Best Weapon, the last king has died, leaving only an infant daughter to succeed him. Until she comes of age, the land is governed by a regent, Cardinal Flambard. Flambard is a grotesque, corrupt, cynical, hugely intelligent and politically able man, a mixture of Baron Vladmir Harkoonen (from the Dune series by Frank Herbert) Cardinal Wolsey, Narses and various other svengali figures culled from fantasy, history and my imagination. 

The rest of the Winter Realm is bare and desolate. Much of it is howling wasteland, with lots of scattered baronies and strongholds. One of the larger of the ugly stone bastions dotted about the land is Clifford's Mount, an imposing pile of grey rock on a mound, known as Evil Hold by the local peasants due to the brutal nature of the lords who reside there. 

Fulk, by Zennor Matthews
The only major settlement in the western part of the island is Mount Silverback. This enormous spire of rock rises from the windswept flatlands that surround it, like a great finger pointing at the sky, and is home to the Temple of Occido. Occido is the War God, the most bellicose of the pantheon of gods that dwell in the Celestial Sphere. His worshippers on the mountain are a reclusive cadre of Templar Knights, the best fighters in the Winter Realm - possibly in the whole world - and semi-independent from the Kings at Hope. 

One of the two main characters of The Best Weapon, Fulk the No-Man's Son, begins the story as a young recruit at the Temple. Orphaned while still a baby (hence his name) he was adopted by the Templars and raised amid the strict martial temple-fortress of Mount Silverback. Fulk, however, is destined to become much more than just another priest-knight of Occido...

More on the Winter Realm, and The World Apparent in general, to follow!

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Two books for one...sort of...

I have a double announcement to make - two 'new' books have been released at the same time on Kindle and paperback. One, The Path of Sorrow, is co-written with Martin Bolton and forms a sequel to our first effort, The Best Weapon. The other is the third and last episode (for now) in The White Hawk series, set during the turbulent civil wars between Lancaster and York.

There will be all sorts of freebie competitions and prizes happening in the next few weeks for both novels, so keep your eyes peeled! I will post something more detailed in the near future...