Tag Archives: fiction

The Merfolk finally surface!

My mermen look better than this guy

My mermen look better than this guy

It’s publication week for The Guns of Ivrea, my first secondary-world fantasy which combines traditional epic swashbuckling with a slightly contemporary edge. Set in a renaissance-like Mediterranean world, the story revolves around a set of characters that couldn’t be more different yet find themselves implacably drawn together. It has
mermen and mermaids, monks and mantichora, pirates and princes, ship battles and tavern brawls, and some inter-species romance to boot.
Guns of Ivrea You see, I had a conceit to pen a novel that evoked a 15th century-style fantasy, something that might not have been out of place on a table in Milan, Pisa or Venice when the Borgias were throwing their weight around and daVinci was sketching, painting and experimenting. I don’t know if I succeeded but it was a hell of a lot of fun to write it anyway.

It was also a bit of a challenge. The mechanics of writing an adventure novel with an aquatic species of humanoid needed some thinking. People have been writing about merfolk for centuries, but to sustain a mermaid character at book-length, in particular one that has a huge amount of interaction with the world of land-dwelling men, meant I had to consider some new ways of imagining what merfolk would look like. I took a cue from dolphins so my merfolk are actually air-breathing (with great diving abilities like marine mammals), blue-grey skin, and can survive out of the water (for a time). The big difference is that they have two legs. Sorry to disappoint those who have a thing for scales and tails but a woman who is a fish from the waist down tends to put a limit on the scope of a fulfilling romance.

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Being an epic fantasy the book naturally has a variety of villains and villainesses, both major and minor. And with a few notable exceptions, most of the inhabitants could be considered to fall in the category of self-interested “grey” rather than white hats. Which, let’s face it, is the way of the world in much of real life. When I first started writing the novel my intention had been to be much more retro and binary: clear good-guys and clear baddies. But very quickly I realised that the possibilities and nuances of the “grey” character  would be much more interesting for readers—and the writer. You will find magic in The Guns of Ivrea but no duelling wizards with staffs. It is a much more subtle kind of magic that is supernatural and religious-based, rather than lightning bolts from the fingertips. I found this allowed more scope for building menace and dread around the leading dark character, Lady Lucinda della Rovera.

I’m currently in the final stages on a sequel entitled The Witch of Torinia, which will be published next year. That’s the thing with world-building in fantasy: once those people and places come to life, that world expands and those living in it take the ship’s wheel right out of your hands.

Read some of my short fiction

Rather belatedly, I’ve added a page on the blog for short stories, fragments, and unfinished projects that are still flying in a holding pattern and waiting for ground clearance.
mrLincolnThe first bit I’ve posted is chapter one of Camera Obscuraa melodramatic tale set in America in 1864 as the civil war grinds on. Good military intelligence is in short supply and Lincoln’s war cabinet is looking to new sources, even if they’re from beyond the grave.

 

 

Check back soon for a complete short story of contemporary weird fiction, Cast Iron, which recently appeared in the Journal of the British Fantasy Society. I’ll be posting that here in another week or two.

Robert E Howard’s “Solomon Kane” revisited

Wrote a retro review for the July issue of SFX Magazine which the editors have graciously allowed me to reproduce here. It was a very different experience reading R.E. Howard again after so many years–and not an altogether pleasant one. Have a read and let me know what you think.

 

The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane
Robert E Howard, (Del Rey, 1998)
Writer Clifford Beal considers Conan’s Puritan stablemate

Robert E Howard, who took his own life at the age of 30, was the father of kane
that
 subgenre of fantasy that would become known as “sword and sorcery”. Best known as the creator of Conan the Barbarian, Howard’s writings influenced a generation of fantasy authors, including Fritz Leiber and David Gemmell.

But before Conan, Howard had created a very different character in Solomon Kane, a mysterious Puritan loner who roams the darker corners of the world, fighting ancient and nameless evil in the early 17th century. Bursting from the pages of Weird Tales in 1928, Solomon Kane fought Lovecraft-inspired deities, demons, pirates and scores of hostile natives to rescue the helpless and right wrong wherever he saw it. Kane is far more conflicted and layered a character than Conan, and Howard portrays him as driven, if not downright psychopathic. In “The Blue Flame Of Vengeance” Kane remarks to a man he is helping: “It hath been my duty in times past to ease various evil men of their lives…” Which is an understatement.

To be sure, this is pulp fiction. You won’t find subplots or shades of grey here, and since these are largely short stories there is a definite headlong rush to get down to the business at hand, usually involving a good amount of swordplay and spilt blood. Anachronisms and cod “olde world” dialogue sometimes sound a sour note, but at its best, Howard’s writing is dazzlingly energetic, vivid and not without poetry. His descriptions of hand-to-hand fighting are compelling as they are brutal but even here there is a mastery of mood and intensity. In one scene, Howard’s imagery is chilling: an avenging Kane overpowers a murderous pirate in a knife fight and intentionally kills him by degrees, plunging in the tip of his dagger, one inch at a time.

kane2Yet there’s a darker side to the swashbuckling. Racial stereotyping was always present in pulp fiction and Asian or African physical features were often used as shorthand for moral turpitude and inferiority. Sadly, much of the writing in Solomon Kane follows this path. A few of the better-known tales such as “The Moon Of Skulls” are set in central Africa, where Kane encounters the remnants of an ancient civilisation ruled over by brutish savages. And here, black skin colour is equated with degenerate evil, with Kane portrayed as a white saviour intent on toppling the evil African queen Nekari. Even the last survivor of Atlantis, whom Kane tries to free from bondage, is worried about his ethnic purity: “I, the last son of Atlantis, bear in my veins the taint of Negro blood.”

But Howard and his characters are full of contradictions. Solomon Kane’s self-professed “blood brother” is a black African wizard and the only real friend that Kane has in any of the stories. And in “The Footfalls Within” Kane risks his life to free African villagers from Arab slavers and then guides them to safety. Solomon Kane’s tales are, like those of Conan, rousing epics, and as part of our pulp-era inheritance they deserve to be read. But like much of our past, it’s not all good. Today Howard’s writing, imaginative as it is, leaves a slightly bitter aftertaste.

 

 

The Real d’Artagnan: larger than fiction

With the premiere of the BBC’s new drama series The Musketeers, a whole new generation is

The original and best: Charles de Batz Castelmore

The original and best: Charles de Batz Castelmore

now discovering one of the great characters of dramatic fiction: d’Artagnan. Hopefully, a few might be inspired to actually read the original book. The Sunday night drama is only the latest in a long line of screen portrayals based on Alexander Dumas’s 19th century novels of adventure, set in 17th century France.  In fact, the oldest film version of The Three Musketeers goes back to 1921. Most of these portrayals have been based to a greater or lesser extent on Dumas’s characterization of the iconic Gascon in Paris.

But the truth of the d’Artagnan legend, now firmly ensconced in popular culture, is far less widely known. Monsieur d’Artagnan was in fact an actual historical figure, famous in his own time and yes,  a musketeer of the king of France. Dumas had discovered a heavily fictionalized account of the life of Charles de Batz-Castelmore d’Artagnan written by a 17th century author named Courtilz de Sandras and based his romances on the story of d’Artagnan as portrayed by de Sandras. The real d’Artagnan had a life as every bit exciting as the character in Dumas’s books, but Dumas made some significant changes including setting the action of the novel several years before the real d’Artagnan ever even joined the musketeers.

Luke Pasqualino as d'Artagnan (sans chapeau)

Luke Pasqualino as d’Artagnan (sans chapeau) in the new BBC drama

In the books, d’Artagnan and his companions, loyal servants of King Louis XIII, work to thwart the plans of devious Cardinal Richelieu and his agents. In fact, the real d’Artagnan served as a trusted secret agent of Richelieu’s successor, Cardinal Mazarin, carrying out a number of diplomatic missions for him while he rose in the Garde Francaise and later in the King’s Musketeers (which had been disbanded earlier in 1646. With Mazarin as his patron, d’Artagnan served Louis XIV at home and abroad, eventually rising to become commander of the famed company. He fought in several major military campaigns, served as the governor of Lille after the city fell to French forces(you can still see the house he lived in) and finally met his death in 1673 while taking part in the siege of Maastricht against the Dutch. Indeed, he died after being shot in the throat while fighting alongside some very rare allies: the English. A young officer named John Churchill was there in the same trench, the future Duke of Marlborough.

Michael York needs a longer blade in the 1974 movie version

Michael York needs a longer blade in the 1974 movie version

When I decided to make d’Artagnan a significant character in my own novel, Gideon’s Angel, I wanted to model him on the real man and not the version in The Three Musketeers. With the action in Gideon’s Angel taking place in the early 1650s, this made it easy for me to write in d’Artagnan as a secret agent of Cardinal Mazarin, travelling to England to stop a plot to assassinate Oliver Cromwell. He’s young, confident, and brash, but also deeply honourable in his wary relationship with the novel’s protagonist, exiled king’s cavalier Richard Treadwell. It was tremendous fun writing scenes that pitted my jaded, war-weary middle-aged hero against this cocksure young French soldier with carte blanche and a “license to kill” from arguably the most powerful man in Europe.

Douglas Fairbanks strikes a pose in the silent film of 1921

Douglas Fairbanks strikes a pose in the silent film of 1921

To be sure, Alexander Dumas did right by the memory of Charles de Batz-Castelmore as a brave man of adventure, and hopefully I have as well. But the real exploits of this remarkable Frenchman are every bit as compelling and exciting as those of the fiction. I recommend Odile Bordaz’s 2010 biography, titled simply: D’Artagnan.

Review: The Musketeers (BBC One)

Hell Bent for Leather

I really shouldn’t complain. It’s a rare thing to get TV drama and film to cover the 17th century musketeers1at all, so when something from that era comes along on the screen I want it to succeed and succeed well. And with a property like Dumas’s Three Musketeers, it ought to be knocking on an open door. Enter the BBC with its new reimagining of the classic tale. This coming Sunday episode 2 airs on BBC One and I fervently hope that it raises the bar from last week’s shaky opener.

musketeers2Episode 1 was an origin story of sorts, introducing us to the main characters while injecting a plotline that centred around the nefarious Cardinal Richelieu’s scheme to discredit our erstwhile heroes by implicating them in a series of murderous robberies in the countryside. It all leads to a somewhat predictable race-against-time story to prevent the execution of musketeer Athos after he faces a rather hasty trial. All the elements are there and the characters we know and love. But it’s a wild deviation from the Dumas storyline as you would expect from something that is trying not to cover the same ground galloped over gracefully by Richard Lester’s classic 70s swashbucklers.musketeers3

While I didn’t think any of the musketeers were particularly riveting characters and the repartee got a bit silly, Peter Capaldi entertains as Cardinal Richelieu. As the leading black hat in this romp he gets most of the best lines. The sets are good since most of it is filmed in the Czech Republic and likewise the weaponry is generally up to scratch (not a flintlock in sight thank God!). The swordfights, of which there are many, are staged competently if not always convincingly. Perhaps these will improve as the series moves forward (and they get more practice in).

Costuming is another story though. To be charitable I could call it “whimsical”. The musketeers are dressed like they had a rummage through the costume box backstage at Universal Studios. Rather than Frenchmen from 1630, they look more like a cross between leather-clad Sergio Leone-style Mexican baddies and extras from Game of Thrones thanks to some bizarre bits of armour tacked on to their shoulders. And what were those red leather ponchos that the Cardinal’s guard were running around in? Even Peter Capaldi gets a black, all-leather padded doublet, hardly de rigueur for a man of the church. Obviously, a lot of cows gave their lives in the making of this series. Gorgeous Maimie McCoy as the evil Milady de Winter walks around dressed for the most part like a streetwalker from 1870s Paris. All this jars the eye and I doubt it is accidental. The producers are striving for an edgy, “hip” feel that will appeal to a younger audience. One that’s heavily into leather apparently. Authenticity be damned.

I suppose I’ll keep watching for now—and hoping. For an actual proper review of the series and not my ramblings,  I recommend (and agree with) David Benedict over at The Arts Desk:  http://www.theartsdesk.com/tv/musketeers-bbc-one

British Fantasy Society reviews Gideon’s Angel

BFS_Logo_red_gradientVery nice review for the novel by the British Fantasy Society this week. “Gideon’s Angel is historical fantasy that smoothly combines real characters with fictional ones to create a gripping and entertaining story.” Check it out here: http://www.britishfantasysociety.co.uk/reviews/gideons-angel-book-review/ and for goodness sake get a copy before Andras, grand marquis of Hell, pays you a nocturnal visit!

 

 

I talk to SF Signal about writing, rapiers, and all-night diners in Providence

sfsignalLogov4

My thanks to John and Kristin over at SF Signal for taking the time to interview me about Gideon’s Angel, future projects, and writing craft. It’s a site that’s always chock full of interesting comments, posts and book and film reviews so well worth a visit. You can check out the post here: http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2013/07/interview-clifford-beal-author-of-gideons-angel/#more-79986CBeal photo

 

Daily Mail looks at historical fantasy releases this week

 

Daily_Mail

The UK’s Daily Mail takes a look in today’s paper at some recent historical fantasy releases including Gideon’s Angel. I’m pleased to see crossover within genre getting some high-profile attention like this as a category in its own right. You can check out the reviews here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/books/article-2377794/HISTORICAL-FANTASY.html

 

 

51 Shades of Grey: Has traditional good vs. evil had its day?

Over at Mythic Scribes, Codey Amprim has posted a thoughtful blog about the trend imagestowards “grey” fantasy in the last few years and how traditional black hats vs. white hats storylines seemed to have waned in genre fiction. http://mythicscribes.com/miscellaneous/is-black-and-white-fantasy-dead/

A lot of this trend is down to RR Martin of course, but there are others as well that are creating characters that embody both good and bad qualities—just like a lot of real life people. Westeros isn’t the only place where it’s difficult to tell who’s your friend and who’s not. I remember reading the Thomas Covenant books back in the 70s and being shocked by Donaldson’s handling of his “hero”. Many of Michael Moorcock’s characters such as Elric also come in shades of grey bordering on black. Even my own hapless protagonist in Gideon’s Angel has done quite a few things that are nothing to be proud of. As Codey points out in his post, grey can really help by throwing unpredictability into the plot and spicing things up.

It’s a bit of a red herring to debate whether this reflects a hardening of the society we live in today as some have done. People have been writing characters like this since—well, since they started writing stories. And I don’t think that writers will ever abandon good vs. evil storylines. The power of archetypes appeals to all of us in an almost unconscious way as both Jung and Campbell expounded years ago.

Injecting moral ambiguity into characters can be a great writer’s tool but Codey also notes there are significant drawbacks as well. Unpredictability can lead to a plot becoming directionless with  too many twists, dead ends, and dead characters. The result can be, as he puts it,  “endless repetitive soap opera” and waning reader loyalty and interest. Words of wisdom there and a warning to those who think grey is the new white.

Summoning Gideon’s Angel

I recently wrote a guest blog for Upcoming4.me which they’ve kindly allowed me to reproduce here. But wander on over to their website as they will shortly be running a giveaway with a copy of Gideon’s Angel to the lucky winner. http://upcoming4.me/demon trumpet

I’ve been living in the past for some time—the 17th century to be exact. I had immersed myself in the period for a number of years, first for historical re-enactment (armoured combat on foot and rapier fighting), and later, for researching a non-fiction book called “Quelch’s Gold” that was published in 2007.

I even did a fair amount of digging into family history, taking me to dusty stacks at the Public Records Office at Kew in London and the Massachusetts State Archives in Boston, further deepening my interest in the day-to-day life of the 17th and 18th centuries. But I had for some time been yearning to get back to writing fiction, something that had gone out the window with the arrival of kids and the demands of being a journalist. And I had many years before started a novel with a protagonist I really believed in, a novel that was somewhat flawed because I had tried writing it in an archaic tone, sprinkled with seventeenth century lingo. Accurate, yes. Readable? Well, maybe if you were from 1650.

And so, a couple of years ago, it was time to start fresh. Gideon’s Angel was the result. I resurrected my main character, Richard Treadwell, a conflicted middle-aged war veteran who has a knack for choosing the losing side. When the story opens it’s 1653 and Treadwell is living the life of an exile in France, working as a mercenary and agent for hire. He might still be a competent swordsman but he’s getting on a bit and old wounds have taken their toll. He has a mistress in Paris, a wife left in England, stacks of money, but an even bigger stash of bitterness and regret. It’s time for perhaps one last “big job”—a plot to kill the man he considers the chief architect of his misfortunes, Oliver Cromwell.

I could have written the work as straight down-the-line historical fiction. And I almost did. However, my imagination got in the way. The first short stories I had written in high school and university were fantasy and horror. And though long dormant, those seeds were still there when I started plotting the novel in my head. A few conversations with a good friend encouraged me to take a sharp left-hand turn and venture down that road once again.

So, why inject the supernatural into a political thriller set in Cromwellian England? I suppose because I knew it would ratchet up the tension and the thrills. But also, because I knew that what I had in mind for the horror elements would work rather nicely alongside everything else. The time period lends itself to fantasy and the supernatural. The mid-17th century was the twilight of the medieval mindset but old beliefs and superstitions die hard. It was also a time of incredible religious ferment and “end of days” mutterings. Bizarre religious sects had sprung up, predicting the imminent Second Coming but not before a time of evil incarnate and great strife. Turning Gideon’s Angel into a horror adventure was not a big stretch when you read the actual history!

imagesThe macabre elements, including my demons, are if anything, classical in nature. I was influenced by medieval manuscripts, paintings by Hieronymus Bosch, and the drawings of William Blake. Those and a little made-for-TV gem from 1972 called “Gargoyles” starring Cornel Wilde. Many years before the wonders of CGI special effects, Stan Winston’s monsters may have been only stunt men in green latex suits, but they scared me witless as a kid. All these images, ancient and modern, get mixed and described in the pages of the novel, successfully I’d like to think.GargoylesFilm

Taking the fantasy road allowed me to have Treadwell see things that others cannot, to build tension as he tries to convince others that these things are real and not imagined, and to raise the dramatic stakes from a mundane assassination plot to the very realm of England under mortal threat by the opening of the gates of hell. What fun.