Radovan & the Count Reread: Queen of Thorns

Cover by Matthias Kollros.

Cover by Matthias Kollros.

Please pardon another digressive preamble.

Fantasy was not my first fandom. The earliest nerdy genre I remember loving was ghost stories. Whenever the Weekly Reader came around class, I loaded up, as much as my allowance allowed, on “50 Great Ghost Stories” or “100 Tales of Haunted Houses” and stuff like that.

A few years later, I got hooked on classic horror movies via our local Creature Feature, hosted by the wonderful Count Gore De Vol (Dick Dyszel). At more or less the same time, I began reading science fiction, starting with A and working my way toward Z at the local library. My first favorite author arrived when I reached B for Bradbury, who incidentally also gave me my first taste of fantasy, although I didn’t yet differentiate it from SF.

The big hook came during a visit to my grandmother. I was her least favorite grandchild for reasons best illustrated when I refused to eat an egg for breakfast. I detested eggs. Grandma ordered me to sit at the table until I ate the nasty thing. I proved equally stubborn and sat there until my mother gathered enough courage to defy her mom and break me out of breakfast jail.

After that, I was bored and sulky. To my rescue came my cousin Frances, who produced a copy of The Hobbit and suggested I give it a try, even though it wasn’t science-fiction. I devoured the book in an afternoon and persuaded my father to take me to a bookstore to buy The Fellowship of the Ring. Two days later, I finished The Return of the King.

As with so many other readers, Tolkien’s epic launched my love of fantasy literature, although I soon gravitated more toward sword & sorcery than to epic fantasy. Still, I dug the Big Fat Fantasies so popular in the 80s, including the blockbuster Dragonlance novels, which also turned me on to tie-in fiction. By the time I started writing tie-ins myself, I drew more from Howard than from Tolkien, but I still felt that love of sweeping conflicts and high magic.

Hold that thought as we delve into mild-to-moderate spoilers.

Before Master of Devils, I’d pitched ideas for a story set in Kyonin. Certain elements of the proposal didn’t fly with the Pathfinder developers. Yet after a year had passed, their concerns had relaxed enough that they approved a revised pitch. The biggest differences were that Radovan and Varian stuck together for almost the entire novel, and I came up with a different way to reveal some of the secret of Radovan’s accursed ancestry.

After the gothic horror mystery of Prince of Wolves and the wuxia adventure in Master of Devils, I felt I’d established the boys as sword & sorcery heroes in atypical settings. Perhaps it was time to pay homage to epic fantasies.

In most of my previous tie-in fantasy fiction I’d avoided non-human characters—one of the reasons I decided both Varian and Radovan would be half-humans—and I’d never done much with elves. (TSR editor Kim Mohan reinforced my inclination toward human characters by describing our tie-in novels as “elfy-welfy stuff.”) Thus, I was ready to embrace epic elf fantasy.

Art by Eric Belisle, © Paizo, Inc.

Oparal of Iomedae. Art by Eric Belisle, © Paizo, Inc.

Of the supporting cast, only Varian’s then-nameless father existed in the earlier pitch. Fimbulthicket, Kemeili, Oparal, and Caladrel were all born during the outline process. While I typically choose real-world names for human characters, for elves and gnomes I depended on the examples in the Pathfinder Campaign setting. In fact, I lifted the names Amarandlon, Caladrel, Oparal, and Variel (the coincidence was too good to pass up) directly from the Pathfinder Chronicles Campaign Setting, revised as the Inner Sea World Guide.

Fun Fact: The family name “Morgethai” is an Easter Egg for fans of the iconic characters.

My earliest idea of the plot was much more violent, much of a running battle between our heroes and wave after wave of demons; I was thinking of James Cameron’s Aliens as the template for the action. Yet as the outline progressed I found more and more ways to turn the story into one of exploration and discovery—not only of Varian’s personal history but also that of the elves of Kyonin. The lands of Kyonin also gave me lots of opportunities to reflect the relationship between Varian and Radovan.

When creating the supporting cast, two bits of setting lore got me excited about them as characters. Fimbulthicket as a bleachling gnome, one whose lack of new and exciting experiences has begun to drain the life out of him, suddenly made a much more compelling connection to Variel Morgethai. And Oparal as a Forlorn elf had a connection to Varian, both outsiders among humans and elves alike.

In Oparal, I wanted to show a negative stereotype of paladins on the surface with something with more dimensions just beneath the surface. I was much more interested in Fimbulthicket and Kemeili as I began writing the novel, but by the end I realized I wasn’t done with Oparal. There was much more I wanted to reveal from her own point of view rather than the boys’. Fortunately, this revelation came after James Sutter and I began discussing a follow-up book, so I revised the conclusion to point her toward the events of King of Chaos.

Fun Fact: I cut the original first chapter, which was set in the coastal city of Greengold and gave some foreshadowing of the Walking Man, intending to expand it into a story called “Killing Time.” It bears no resemblance to the web story of the same title, however, and remains unfinished in my Queen of Thorns folder.

One of the things I loved about researching Queen of Thorns is that, while there was more setting material for Kyonin than there had been for Ustalav or Tian Xia, it was still limited to one big article in the Second Darkness Adventure Path and the Elves of Golarion sourcebook. Plus, James Sutter is the author of the Kyonin article, and more than any other Pathfinder developer, he’s happy to let me loose on his creations. It doesn’t hurt that our creative sensibilities are simpatico. I often find that the locations that interest me most are those that he’s written.

 

 

 

Creative Colleagues: Angel Leigh McCoy

Angel McCoy

Angel Leigh McCoy

Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

Since the mid-90s, Angel Leigh McCoy and I have had a sort of virtual nodding acquaintance. While we’ve worked and played with many of the same people, we’ve actually met only a few times, usually just long enough for a round of handshakes and collegial nods. The last was in the lobby at the World Fantasy Convention in Toronto, where we paused long enough to agree that it really was strange that we hadn’t run into each other more often, considering our past jobs and our many mutual friends.

Thus, I wasn’t terribly surprised to learn that Angel was launching a fiction magazine inspired by my favorite television show of all time. Her Another Dimension Kickstarter takes its cues from the great Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.

That’s all I need to say, isn’t it? Hie thee to the Kickstarter campaign!

1. What is it about The Twilight Zone stories that makes you hold them up as an example for the fiction you’re looking to publish?

Over the past six years, I’ve read hundreds of short horror stories submitted to a couple different slush piles, and I’ve noticed a trend. So many of the stories I see have no teeth. They rely on gore, sex, or shock value to produce a sense of horror. They have no twist at the end that makes you cringe just that little bit more. They don’t take you anywhere you didn’t already expect to be going. So many of them are left open-ended, with the onus placed on the reader to “decide what happened.”

I don’t know what causes this. Perhaps the craft of writing the short story has gotten swallowed by the large number of writers who don’t understand that it is a craft. There’s the feeling today that anyone can write, and it’s just not true. The stories on The Twilight Zone were well-crafted tales of horror that began and, more importantly, ended. They didn’t rely on gore or shocking sexual/violent situations to be scary. They made you think and wonder if maybe this could happen to you one day. They were character-driven, not disgusting-new-way-to-torture-driven.

I know there are skilled writers out there who take their craft seriously and who don’t write in stream-of-conscious mode. They work and rework their stories, bring them to a horrifying conclusion that makes your belly drop. I’m looking for those writers.

I can be very specific about the things I look for in a story:

  • That it has a fleshed-out main character.
  • That it creates a sense of dread.
  • That it makes you examine your own choices and your society.
  • That it doesn’t leave the reader wondering what the hell just happened.
  • That it actually has an ending that ties the story off, usually a twist of some sort that makes it all the more horrific.

Rod Serling was a master craftsman. His stories had all these elements. Richard Matheson, as well, understood what makes a good short story. In more recent days, the TV show Black Mirror has hit the note I’m seeking. If I could impart their knowledge and their craftsmanship to all the writers striving to make it in this crazy publishing world, I’d be ecstatic.

2. How important is the twist to stories in general? Have audiences become too clever for the average twist to work? Or does “literary” fiction simply not value plot as highly as genre fiction does?

Those stories that manage to surprise me (and I will admit, they’re few and far between) make me instantly love and respect them. But, the surprise isn’t enough. It has to be a twist on what’s already been coming with the story, and it has to follow the logic of the story. You can’t just toss in a random scary clown at the end and say, “Boo!” You have to lead up to it.

The twist is as much about taking it one step farther as it is about throwing in a curve ball. An example in the horror genre would be in the Black Mirror television show. If you haven’t seen this, I strongly recommend it. It is on Netflix. In several of its episodes, there is a twist that I, at least, wasn’t expecting. In one episode, called “White Bear,” you think you’re watching a woman flee from hunters in a strange future world, only to discover that something completely different is happening, and even that she’s not the person you thought she was. I don’t want to give away spoilers. Just go watch this TV show. It’s very much The Twilight Zone evolved to fit a more evolved audience.

Audiences are quite clever (and world-weary, media-numbed, and cynical), but then writers are clever too. Good writers don’t just tell the obvious story but look for the added twist of the blade that will make it all the more interesting for the reader. They think about the meta of the story, the larger implications of it.

3. In terms of prose, do you cleave to the “clear window” philosophy or do you enjoy more poetic language?

Both have their time and place, though I will admit that the moment I can’t see what’s happening in my mind’s eye is the moment you’ve lost me as a reader. There’s both an art and a craft to writing, and the craft isn’t just about spelling. It’s about choosing the right words to clearly convey what you want the reader to imagine/experience/feel/know in any given moment of your story. If you feel that going purple is the right move, then do it. But, do it on purpose, and do it so that it works. Just spilling purple ink all over the page doesn’t make good writing. You’re not there to show your cleverness with rhyme, alliteration, metaphor, hyperbole, or an abundance of fancy adjectives. Those things can actually be quite distracting and short-sighted. You’re there to convey a story.

Cover by Anja Millen

Cover by Anja Millen

4. What are the scariest story, novel, and movie that you’ve ever seen?
Woo, this is the hardest question of all. There are so many! I have to admit that my choices are affected by the fact that I was an impressionable young woman/girl when I encountered them. They scared me and, dare I say it, even scarred me.

As an adult, I don’t get scared, but I do get horrified. And that’s an important distinction. I never really think that Hannibal Lecter is coming to eat me. And yet, there’s something about his personality as portrayed that takes cannibalism and makes it truly horrifying.

“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. This story may well have been the one that taught me not all monsters are hairy and have fangs.

The Exorcist. This novel stuck with me for decades, and I’ve never forgotten it. I read the book before I saw the movie.

This one gets a tie: Carrie, the original, not the remake. This movie had me so tense by the end that, when the (spoiler) comes out of the ground, I burst into tears and then cried for ten minutes. I was, admittedly, 13 years old at the time. But, I’ve never forgotten that moment. And the other was Jaws. To this day, I hate being in deep water and even have the occasional moment of panic in concrete swimming pools.

5. What advantage does prose fiction have over film and games?

With prose, the writer has powers and opportunities that the filmmaker and game designer don’t. You can be clearer about what’s happening, describing things that most people would miss if watching a movie or playing a game. You can build the reader’s experience with greater control of their emotional journey. You have more time and space to build to your climax with prose. And you can describe the invisible thoughts and feelings of the characters in greater detail.

With a film, you have to choose carefully what you show from moment to moment. Thus, they tend to have a narrower perspective than prose. It’s the old complaint that the movie doesn’t play exactly like the book. There’s a reason for this. The creative philosophy is often one of cutting to improve rather than one of embellishing to improve.

The same is true with video games. You’re limited in what you can show and share about a character’s thoughts, feelings, and activities, depending on the point of view (which is usually quite limited). You have to tell the story within a much smaller box than if you had a whole novel in which to allow it to unfold.

While the sight and sound is good and can relay a lot of information in a very short time, it’s still not as hardy as a good novel.

Keep an eye on Angel’s latest acts of horror at her website.

Creative Colleagues: Fred Fields

Fred Fields

Fred Fields

Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

I first met Fred Fields at TSR, when I was in periodicals and he in the art department. We didn’t spend much time together, but he was always friendly and cool, and nearly every month I’d see his latest work on the cover of one of our latest products. His was one of the styles that helped define the Forgotten Realms novel line.

Fred has recently launched a Kickstarter campaign for an ineffably beautiful and hideous Cthulhu dice tower, available unpainted, airbrushed, or painted by the master himself. Check it out, especially the video of his sculpting the tower.

1. As an artist who often uses life models, you also envision some unearthly subjects. Do you draw purely from your imagination? Or do you start with a real object/creature and add variations?

Well, you hit on an interesting point. Mixing photo reference and imagined things and making them look like they belong together is a challenge. If I take photo reference of people, props, costumes, and places, then how do you make the imagined creatures artistically fit into the mix? Early in my career I would just make up creatures. They never really looked like they belonged in the paintings with the other characters. I know that some illustrators would sculpt their creatures. I knew I could sculpt a bit so I started sculpting small maquettes. I’d sculpt monsters and photograph them in the same lighting that I shot the characters in. Suddenly the monsters seemed to not only belong in the painting but they became more believable. More alive!

2. Many illustrators of the fantastic are drawn to the Cthulhu mythos. What is it about those subjects that most appeals to you?

Well, I came late to the party. I was not a big reader as a kid. I started listening to audio books while I work. I decided that there were a ton of classics out there that I needed to explore. “The Call of Cthulhu” was one of those classic stories. When I worked for TSR, I did a painting for a cover depicting a mindflayer. At the time I’d never heard of Cthulhu. Once I became aware of the story that visually influenced the mindflayer, I really wanted to paint a Cthulhu. There are so many different ways that he has been depicted. The descriptions in the story are just enough so as to let the imagination fill in the dark and slimy blanks. I think every illustrator enjoys depicting a classic character while putting their own mark on it, especially if it’s been depicted by some of the great illustrators. It’s like walking in the footsteps of giants.

Sculpture and painting by Fred Fields

Sculpture and painting by Fred Fields

4. Since you weren’t a big reader, what attracted you to fantasy illustration? Who were some of the artists whose works drew you to embrace their subject matter?

I always had an affinity for Fantasy movies. I grew up on Jason and the Argonauts, The Seven Voyages of Sinbad, Dragonslayer, Bakshi’s The Hobbit and Fire and Ice. I was fairly young when my parents bought for me the first two Fantastic Art of Frank Frazetta books. I’m not sure why they knew I would like it, but it was my first glimpse into the world of fantasy art. In fact it was my only window. I pored over those books. I knew every brush stroke of every painting. My drawings began leaning toward what I was seeing. Every time Frank put out another art book, I bought it. I was really limited to the books that the local book shop carried. I later picked up The Fantastic Art of Boris and Michael Whelan’s first art book. It wasn’t until I was older that I began looking back in time at the works of the old masters.

4. Working in different media can require a writer to adapt mentally, but I can hardly imagine how difficult it is to move between sketches, paintings, sculptures, and other visual arts. How do you adapt?

I actually find each shift as a breath of fresh air. If I’ve done several paintings in a row and get a chance to do a sculpture, it’s a welcome change of pace. Sketching is the foundation for both paintings and sculptures, so I do that rather often. Honestly I see the different disciplines as different spokes of a common wheel. It’s all art to me. But if I go too long without painting, I get anxious and grouchy.

5. Just as writers draw inspiration from films, often for their scripts and performances, I imagine the same is true for visual artists. Are there particular filmmakers whose works inspire you? Art directors? Make-up artists? Special-effects? 

I draw from a lot of different places; paintings, film, stories, song lyrics. My favorite films don’t necessarily inspire me artistically. Some do but most don’t. The Godfather isn’t going to give me ideas of how to paint a wizard. I do sometimes seek out genre movie to fit a project. I appreciate CG art and effects when it’s believable. I appreciate directors who know how not to overdo the CG art and effects. CG art and effects should be used to enhance a movie, not overwhelm me or distract me from a bad story. I appreciate make-up special effects. Back in the TSR days, I had a subscription to Fangoria Magazine.

I think that when it comes to inspiration it isn’t so important where you get it from but that you get it and on a regular basis. You can’t just continue to take from the creative tank. You have to nourish and replenish the tank and do it often. I get more inspiration from a Museum than anything else. It makes want to rush home and paint.

Check out Fred’s Kickstarter, and keep tabs on his future projects at his website.