Greetings grimlings! This issue I join you from a dingy bar in Ellinburg where I have finally cornered Peter McLean for a chin wag. In case you are unfamiliar, Peter is the author of the fantastic series The War for the Rose Throne which started with Priest of Bones. If you haven’t read this series (which still has two more installments coming), I highly recommend rectifying that situation posthaste!
Peter, thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule and welcome!
[GdM] Let’s start off with your leading man—Tomas Piety. He is an interesting contradiction of a man. A priest from the army who basically came from being a small-town mob boss and then returned back to it after playing preacher in the war. What inspired such a complex character for you?
[PM] Ah, Tomas is a reflection of the archetypical gangster transposed into a fantasy world. He’s the abused working-class kid who worked his way up from petty crime in the slums to organised crime in the big city, and built a criminal empire with his younger brother. The whole priest thing was a strange development. I had the title “Priest of Bones” written on a post-it note on my desk long before I had the faintest idea what it meant. It was just one of those shower thoughts, you know? I thought, “That would be cool”, but at the time I had no coherent idea what “that” actually was. Once I had put together the Elizabethan-but-sort-of-post-WWI vibe I wanted, the idea of Our Lady of Eternal Sorrows just came to me. She is the death goddess that the conscript soldiers worship in a desperate attempt to persuade Her not to take their life today. When their company’s priest falls in battle Tomas, being the only other soldier with any leadership experience, is chosen as his natural successor. He’s not a religious man in the slightest, but he has an innate ability to make people want to confide in him, to say their confessions.
And of course, the war had a huge effect on him as it did everyone else who fought. I was really going for the Great War experience with his memories of Abingon, the horrors he lived through that he will never forget. So much fantasy focusses on epic wars, but there is often little acknowledgement of the legacy that war leaves in its wake. That is something I’ve been trying to redress throughout this series.
[GdM] Now onto Tomas’ second—Bloody Anne. I have to say that as far as supporting casts go, she is one of my favorites. Loyal as hell to Tomas and a hard-nosed, badass in her own right. We all see constant criticisms online when men write strong female characters. Was it hard as a man writing Bloody Anne? Also, was she inspired by anyone you know?
[PM] Oh gods I absolutely adore Bloody Anne. I basically wrote her as the best mate I wish I had, in the same way I have always wanted Druss the Legend to be my dad (no, I’m not all that much younger than Druss now, shut up). Was it hard to write her as a woman? No, I don’t think so. I have met a fair number of women in my 48 years of life, and am actually married to a real live one. Women aren’t a different species, and I’ve never really understood the perceived problem with this. Anne is, I hope, a living breathing person in War for the Rose Throne like anyone else is.
[GdM] We’ve seen Tomas evolve as the series moves on and he matures. Without spoiling too much, recent installments of this series have shown his role even as a crime boss drastically change due to what I—in the interest of remaining spoiler free for the readers will call—outside pressure. Will we be seeing Mr. Piety expand his operation into a bigger arena in future stories?
[PM] Oh, and then some. The archetypical gangster’s story arc can only go in a few directions. He dies, he turns snitch, or he goes into politics. Again, trying to avoid spoilers, but bear in mind we have the fantasy equivalent of the CIA/MI6/Gestapo involved in this and… yeah. Tomas’ life gets a lot more complicated after Priest of Lies.
[GdM] One thing I really liked about the Rose Throne setting is it focuses more on the gritty underbelly of the world and the magic system doesn’t overpower the story. It is used sparingly and not a tool to drive the plot forward. What was your thought process like when building this world in your head?
[PM] I write the sort of books that R.J. Barker so wonderfully described as “historical fiction but if a wizard had been there”. Some people call that grimdark but as absolutely no one can agree what that actually means I’m a bit over the term, to be honest. But gritty underbelly, definitely. This is a semi-industrial world where the working classes in the cities toil in factories and mills, and many people can’t read or write. The City Guard (police) are corrupt as all hell, and the people actually in charge aren’t who everyone thinks they are. So, nothing like the modern world whatsoever…
I wanted to have magic, because it’s ultimately a fantasy series, but I wanted magic to be an uncommon thing, feared and mistrusted. Even those few cunning folk who can work magic don’t necessarily know how they do it, or fully understand what using their powers is actually doing to them. That’s something you see a lot more of in Priest of Gallows.
[GdM] Let’s shift gears for a moment. Something we’ve bonded over online besides fantasy books—a mutual love of martial arts. For the readers, what is your background in martial arts and how does that influence your writing of fight scenes?
[PM] I haven’t trained for years now but when I was younger I studied a system based on Chinese Wudang kung fu. I got up to black sash level and taught for a few years, but eventually found I didn’t have the time to do everything I wanted to do. Something had to go if I wanted to work and write as well, so I dropped the martial arts in the end. I think the main thing I learned, that has definitely carried over into my writing, is that real fights are brutal and extremely short!
[GdM] And you knew this one was coming. We both love good whisk(e)ys, you preferring scotch. Does it play any role in your creative process, or is it simply a reward for putting in good work?
[PM] You know the expression “creative juices”? Creative juice is a light amber colour and comes in a bottle with “Whisky” written on it.
[GdM] What kinds of things sparked your early love of fantasy? I feel like maybe there was a D&D influence in there somewhere.
[PM] I did used to play occasionally (AD&D 2e, I’m that old), I but was already a fantasy lover before I discovered it. I kinda grew up with it, really. My mother was an English Lit teacher and Tolkien scholar, and my dad was a big SF reader so I’ve always been surrounded by the genre.
Mum first read The Hobbit to me when I was about six or seven years old, and I loved it. I read Lord of the Rings myself when I was a bit older, and then went on to hunt down other things. This being the early 80s there was nothing like as much fantasy about as there is today but I devoured Sword of Shannara and then discovered Michael Moorcock and then David Gemmell, and didn’t look back from there.
[GdM] Which part of the whole writing/publishing process do you find the most challenging? Which part is the most fun?
[PM] Honestly, I find writing the first draft the hardest thing. If revisions are like sculpting your statue, drafting is dragging the block of marble into the studio to start with. Hard work, but necessary. I think the most fun is working on developmental edits, once you have your editor’s feedback. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some of the best editors in the business, and having an experienced eye on your work is invaluable.
[GdM] When you complete this series, what is next for you? More books in the same setting or are you plotting something entirely new and different?
[PM] I’ve got something completely different in mind. Something much more “fantasy” than War for the Rose Throne. Although I’ll be sad to leave Tomas’ world behind, his story is very much told by the end of the fourth book. Never rule out a spin-off though, I’d love to do one if there was enough interest.
[GdM] And finally, this is your chance to sell the audience on your up-and-coming wares. Tell us what you have coming out and when.
[PM] Well the third book of the War for the Rose Throne quartet is Priest of Gallows, which picks up where Priest of Lies ended. That’s out May 27 this year, and will be followed by the fourth and final book Priest of Crowns in 2022.
For anyone who wants to keep up to date with what I’m up to, I’m @PeteMC666 on Twitter, or my website is at Talonwraith.com
[GdM] Peter, again, thank you so much for taking the time. Now, where do they keep the real whisky in this place?
[PM] Thanks for talking to me!
Read The War for the Rose Throne by Peter McLean
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This interview was originally published in Grimdark Magazine Issue #26.