I’m joined today by Thaddeus White, one of my favourite comic-fantasy writers (check out his Sir Edric series). As well as comedy, Thaddeus also writes epic fantasy and he has a new fantasy, Kingdom Asunder, with a pretty divine cover, which released on 24 November.
I took the chance to ask a few questions about the world Kingdom is set in. Firstly, I wanted to know about writing the project.
You have written other books in this world (Bane of Souls, and Journey to Altmortis) – how did it feel to work in a parallel story, rather than in the more conventional series format?
A: I like the approach of having independent books (or, in this case, trilogy) set in the same world. It means you can keep the advantages of past world-building and, when desired, pick up old characters without needing to worry about constantly keeping a very long story thread running (which can also cause delays, as we’ve seen with some mega-fantasy series).
You have a number of female characters in the book – how do you find writing females in fantasy and what approach did you take to it?
A: I was acutely aware before I started that medieval war is a very masculine environment, so I was keen to create the female characters first to ensure they were strong, distinctive but still fit into a world which (magic aside) is recognisably medieval. Writing the women first had the unexpected side effect of making them (particularly Karena, Sophie and Charlotte) the most interesting characters.
In terms of psychology, I think the differences between men and women can be overestimated. However, when dealing with a medieval mindset, the social attitudes lead to great differences. There have always been exceptions (Adea and Olympias were women leading opposing armies in the 4th century BC, and Sichelgaita, Robert Guiscard’s second wife, commanded soldiers in the 11th century), but generally women had advisory political roles in unofficial capacities (relatives or wives of rulers). I slightly stretched that to give more agency/authority to the major female characters.
KA is very epic in tone and approach – what is it about the epic fantasy world you enjoy most?
I like mingling things that are broadly in line with history (castles, swords, knights, executing people for cutting down oak trees etc) with the fantastical (sea serpents and magic). The scale is something else I enjoy, it’s almost akin to writing your own history. There’s also the intriguing conflict between an accurate (in a fantasy-based context) portrayal of medieval morality rubbing up against a more open-minded [for most of us...] modern approach.
Inclusive with writing epic fantasy is a huge amount of worldbuilding – what did you start with first, in terms of the world, and how has it grown. In terms of keeping track of continuity etc, do you have any tools or tips you could recommend?
A: This is one of the major advantages to returning to a world I’ve written two novels in already. Although I did have a spot of work to do adding to my background info, most of the ideas for the world were already either outlined or fully fleshed out back from when I did the world-building for Bane of Souls.
I adopted the approach of having a document full of major character profiles, and another with world information (religion, patron gods of cities, lord names etc). The one tip I’d give is not to overdo it. Try and create information that’s only useful for telling the story. At one point I was looking at writing about which drinks were favoured in each major city, took a step back, realised that was tosh (I was either time-wasting or creating something unnecessary that would be crowbarred in and look clunky) and stopped. Your job when world-building is to create the background for the story, you’re not putting together a travel guide to showcase your wonderful world.
As Lao Tze never said, world-building for fantasy is like cooking a small fish. Don’t overdo it.
You have a number of battle scenes in Kingdom Asunder – how do you go about capturing battle and ensuring the scene is both easy to follow and engaging?
A: The action fixes on one character and stays with her (or him), I didn’t attempt to tell a whole battle’s story at once but let the reader see it through the eyes of one participant. This was also a great theatre for letting rip with magic, or the horror of medieval warfare.
Then, being nosy, I wanted to delve a little deeper into the world and its characters.
Your tag-line is ‘What crime is more unforgivable than treason?’ which does rather beg the question of what themes you hoped to pull on within the novel.
A: One theme I enjoyed was on precisely that point. Being vague to avoid spoilers, there’s a group that betrays their lord, but who end up as his captives. There’s then a conversation between the lord and his advisers about what to do, which picks out why both mercy and brutality make sense in medieval morality. Some advise him to be merciful, on the basis that sparing the soldiers strengthens his forces and if he doesn’t people may be reluctant to surrender to him in the future. Others advise him to execute them all, pointing out that if anyone can rebel and know they’ll be forgiven, it’ll encourage rebellion because it’s safe even if you fail. In a world without police and firm law and order, actions which today may seem tyrannical were often welcomed in the past as strong leadership.
On a related note, a thread that runs through all three books (I’m redrafting the second and currently writing the third at the moment) is how far it’s legitimate to go to win power or preserve the kingdom. Is it acceptable to tell lies and betray people if that gets you victory? Or to kill innocent people if it gets you allies and ends the war months or years sooner? In a medieval world, these are very much Machiavellian grey areas and I tried to paint them as such and avoid a more modern, black and white approach to such horrendous acts.
Let’s delve a little deeper – in terms of the world did you base it on any other world or, indeed, on anything historical in our own world?
I read a fair amount of medieval history to try and get the flavour right (and because I like it). Kingdom Asunder doesn’t aspire to be spot on with 13th or 14th century history, but I wanted to avoid any glaring errors. As well as biographies of William Marshal, Edward I, Roger Mortimer, John Hawkwood and Edward III, and the works of Allmand and Contamine on the Hundred Years’ War, I also read a fascinating and very useful book by Sean McGlynn, entitled By Sword and Fire. It does a fantastic job of explaining morality and cruelty in medieval warfare, and how that made sense for the time (which usually involved being extremely harsh, but could also sometimes be surprisingly merciful). I can highly recommend it (but note it isn’t for the faint of heart).
Favourite characters? Anyone you really enjoy writing, or just love the world view of?
Karena and Sophie. Karena’s a cross between Tywin Lannister and Livia from I, Claudius: clever, ruthless and utterly single-minded when it comes to victory. Sophie’s a bit of a tomboy, a little more conflicted by morality and burdened by trying to balance doing what’s right against the risks she runs thereby.
An honourable mention goes to Sir James Seidmore, a secondary character. He’s a cross-dressing knight, an idea I got when I read in the Knight: The Medieval Warrior’s (Unofficial) Manual of Sir Ulrich von Liechtenstein, who was a genuine medieval transvestite (and expert jouster). He (James) also adds an elegant and wry sense of humour which helps off-set the generally laconic or grim jokes most of the other characters prefer.
If you had to choose a scene that you felt encapsulated the book or world, could you? If so, would you like to share it?
There’s a short chapter in a church which has just two characters in it. I can’t go into much detail because it’s near the end, but it highlights the undercurrent of treachery running through the book (and its sequels). After all, it takes a friend to betray you.
And, because I am the nosiest of the nosiest, I wanted to ask the elusive Thaddeus some questions about himself.
You’ve been writing a number of years now, with a huge output of short stories, longer work, novels and series – what is it about writing that appeals to you?
‘Huge output’ sounds good (I was filling out an author bio for another blogger and realised between March 2016 and January 2017 I’ll have contributed to five books [three anthologies and two solo books] which is quite a lot). I’ve always loved writing, ever since I was four or five. I had some difficulty speaking as a child, so my verbal skills were a bit poor and I threw myself into literacy instead. The escapism and satisfaction of writing cunning and brutal men, moral ambiguity, twisting plots and ruthless she-wolves is something I really enjoy.
If you had to choose a favourite medium/genre from those you write, what would it be and why?
In terms of writing a first draft, probably Sir Edric (fantasy comedy). It’s just a totally self-centred git cocking about, aided by a heroic manservant who’s crippled by pathological loyalty to a man who absolutely doesn’t deserve it. When comedy writing’s going well, it’s literally spending the day making yourself laugh.
However, you can’t do everything with comedy. There’s more depth and subtlety possible with larger scale, multiple POV stories, as per Kingdom Asunder (and you can still have levity in serious books). It’s more satisfying to tie together multiple plot strands and have inter-weaving character arcs (not to mention redrafting comedy is hell, because you end up reading every joke a dozen times so by the final proofread none of them seem funny).
Is there anywhere I can follow you and keep in touch with your books?
Many places. There’s my Twitter account @MorrisF1, my website (best place for updates): thaddeuswhite.weebly.com and my rambly blog which has things like book reviews, interviews and occasionally interesting mutterings about history: thaddeusthesixth.blogspot.co.uk
And, of course, here are some Kingdom Asunder purchase links (NB in the first week of release, the price is $2.99, as a thank you to early buyers. After that it’ll go up to $4.99):
Amazon US - https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01N8UF799/
Amazon UK - https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01N8UF799/