Grimdark Historicals’ Rising Stars

It’s no news to any Grimdark fans that George R.R. Martin is often credited with the rise of grimdark fantasy, a modern form of ‘anti-Tolkien’ fantasy writing. Despite this, it’s often heard that Martin’s inspiration for A Song of Ice and Fire — grimdark’s most successful and popular fantasy series — owes a lot to Tolkien’s work. Curious to note then, that in his foreword to Maurice Druon’s The Iron King, Martin writes that “I have always regarded historical fiction and fantasy as sisters under the skin, two genres separated at birth”. In this same foreword, Martin also claims to have been inspired by historical novelists like Howard Pyle as well as Marcel Druon’s The Accursed Kings series which Martin also goes on to describe as “the original game of thrones”.

All of which would appear to address the following questions: can certain historical novels which inspired so much great grimdark fantasy also be said to be grimdark themselves? Can historical novels produce a genre of fiction that is characterised by disturbing, violent, or bleak subject matter and a dystopian setting? I certainly think that this is the case. After all, historical fiction is too broad a category to helpfully identify many of the sub-genres that abound within it. And it’s not the first time that we’ve seen Grimdark Magazine reviewers review historical fiction titles by the likes of Bernard Cornwell and Giles Kristian.

In this feature on historical fiction, Grimdark Magazine catches up with two highly talented and free-spirited historical novelists, whose work possesses disturbing or violent subject matter, if not also a dystopian setting. British-American author Alex De Campi is a daring and brave British-American career comics writer whose historical fiction debut The Scottish Boy is bursting with suspense. It’s a finely crafted novel which surprised many readers expecting to read an old-fashioned medieval romance about knight errantry, in that it explored certain sexual relations which existed within martial orders, which were highly dangerous at the time.  Our second author to watch is Scots novelist Steven A. Mckay, a relentless and unstoppable force of nature in the historical fiction indie circuit, renowned for his popular Forest Lord series which featured an exciting new portrayal of Robin Hood, as well as his more recent Warrior Druid of Britain series, featuring the larger than life protagonist Bellicus the druid. Interestingly for fans of all things Grimdark, McKay’s writing is also being used in Hood: Outlaws & Legends, an upcoming gritty and violent Xbox/Playstation game about the famous outlaw Robin himself.

Interview with Alex De Campi, author of The Scottish Boy (Unbound, 2020)

JVB: How’s life as a published novelist treating you? Living the dream? And how does being published novelist differ from being a comic book writer?

ADC: Gosh. It’s really cool but also no different at all. I’ve published a bunch of graphic novels, some though big bookstore publishers, and my second prose novel has been bought, so it’s not like I feel a sudden validation of “yes, I am a REAL writer!” I’ve known that for a while now. The challenge at this point is to keep publishing, and try to make the next book better and more successful than the previous. There’s so much I want to do in prose. I have so many stories. I’m actively angry that I have so many deadlines right now — I’m in the production stage on two graphic novels and revision stage on my second prose novel — and all I want to do is write some new stories. But, no time. (All you baby writers out there angry at yourself when you don’t write every day: sssh, it’s okay, you’re still a writer. Write when you can, and forgive yourself when you can’t.)

JVB: Before reaching debut novelist stage, you had to go through the hairy challenges of crowdfunding campaign on the Unbound platform followed by pre-publication serialisation on The Pigeonhole. Was it exciting? Would you do it all over again?

ADC: It was exciting with a big side order of terrifying. I didn’t have a great agent at the time I pitched my book (he was more a comics guy rather than a fiction guy) and he didn’t know what to do with my book or how to market it, but Unbound were honestly fantastic. Their editorial team is one of the best I’ve ever come across; I can’t say enough good things about their professionalism and attention to detail. And hey, it worked! Since crowdfunding The Scottish Boy, I’ve crowdfunded a sci-fi graphic novel I co-wrote with film director Duncan Jones, Madi, on Kickstarter, and I’m about to launch another Kickstarter for True War Stories, a military anthology I’ve been working on for a while. Look, times are weird right now. Crowdfunding is a tremendous way of getting books to people when publishers are on slow-down and shops are closed. I wish I could be Thomas Pynchon or JD Salinger and just live quietly on a farm, occasionally burping out a big novel that my agent and publisher take care of while I feed chickens, but you gotta play the cards you have, rather than the ones you wish you had.

JVB: Tell us what fascinated you about the time that The Scottish Boy is set in, what drew you to this historical period, what makes it so special? Do you prefer a man in armour to a man in uniform?

ADC: My favourite books growing up was D’Aulaires’ Greek Myths, a book of Romanian fairy tales, and Howard Pyle’s illustrated King Arthur stories. I’ve always loved knights, but I also love history, so instead of making up a fantasy medieval world out of whole cloth, it was really fun for me — like a puzzle, in many ways — to delve into the actual history and politics of the time and think, how can I make my story work with these constraints? I absolutely am going back to write more in this era; I have a heist book I can’t wait to begin work on.

JVB: The novel is written in the third person present, it reminded me a bit of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. How do you go about choosing a tense? Was it carefully chosen or did you dive straight into it?

ADC: I’m a huge fan of present tense, as someone who always ends up writing a suspense thriller, no matter how I start out. Present tense feels much more immediate to me than past; you’re in the moment. Like with all things involving writing, you try a lot of different things, end up in a bunch of cul-de-sacs, and then you get somewhere and instinctually you know this is right, this is my voice.

JVB: Myles Falworth vs Sandor Clegane: who wins? And tell us more about your influences growing up, what spurred you to write a historical fiction novel about medieval knights. Did you recognise more of your literary influences after you wrote the novel or did you know them all along beforehand? 

ADC: Myles Falworth for sure, if nothing else out of my loyalty to Howard Pyle and because of just how badly GRRM showed his ass at the Hugos last month.

Oh, I know all my influences. The aforementioned books of myths and tales, and then folks like Thomas Pynchon, Italo Calvino, Edward Albee, Cormac McCarthy a little bit… pulp writers like Ian Fleming and Raymond Chandler. Film is also a really big influence on me, and I think that and my comics background helps me as a storyteller to hone in on the most important elements of each scene to describe. Everyone always thinks I’m very descriptive, and I’m absolutely not, it’s all an illusion. It’s just, the few things I do describe, you remember them.

JVB: Those prolonged, gay sex scenes between two men. Written by a woman. How did you pull them off? Were they overdone? What did it feel like, writing them?

ADC: I did a lot of my early practice writing in fanfic, which often involves a lot of explicit scenes — and is very accepting of them. And you sort of forget, coming from that world, that a lot of stories aren’t explicit, or the explicit bits are really badly written. Writing sex is fun. It’s like writing a fight scene, except horizontal. There’’s the same considerations of blocking (in the theatrical / staging sense), momentum, and creating an emotional arc within a primarily physical scene. I think my books will always have a bunch of sex in them; it’s just how I write.

JVB: Probably an understatement to say that yours is a novel that breaks boundaries, which is often the case with grimdark. Should this always be the purpose of art?

ADC: No. I think the purpose of art is catharsis, and artists should not necessarily consciously be trying to break boundaries (therein lies quite a lot of self-satisfied but ultimately unenjoyable work). You shouldn’t be constrained by societal mores or audience expectation, but it’s a little cheap to be deliberately tweaking your audience to create a reaction.

JVB: What other projects are you working on? Will there be a sequel to The Scottish Boy?

ADC: There’ll hopefully be a sister book to The Scottish Boy — the aforementioned heist novel. Other than that,  I’ve got a graphic novel, Dracula Motherf***ker, coming out from Image Comics in October, and then Madi and True War Stories out in November. My second novel, Heartbreak Incorporated, comes out next year.

Interview with Steven A. McKay, author the upcoming ‘The Northern Throne’

JVB: So you went from writing original and historically respectable tales about the easily identifiable and legendary Robin Hood, to crafting your own legendary character of the druid Bellicus, protagonist of your The Warrior Druid Of Britain Chronicles. Which was harder to pull off?

SAM: Good question to start with! I would say neither was really “hard”, exactly. With the Robin Hood legend there’s an element of expectancy, as fans always want to see their favourite characters and, while they want them to be recognisable, they also want them to be realistic and for an author to put their own stamp on them. But I didn’t find it hard to do that, because the original characters and tales were already so rich and layered that I could just take the bits I liked and add to them. So, to an extent, that made my job easier, as the foundations were already there, I just had to build on top of them.

Now, you might think it would be a breeze to create new characters for my druid series, because, starting from scratch, everything would be from my own head so no-one could say it was “right” or “wrong”, BUT! Of course, everyone has an idea of what a druid was really like, and their religion or spirituality or whatever, so I inevitably had readers telling me “the druids didn’t do that” or even, genuinely, “the druids didn’t have haircuts like that!” As you know, you can’t please everyone all the time and there’s no point trying. I’ve had great fun coming up with these characters and stories and people seem to enjoy them which is all that matters really.

JVB: The period in which The Druid and Song Of The Centurion take place is very interesting, why did you choose a post-Roman period rather than a historical period when the druids were in their pomp?

SAM: Well, I thought it would be interesting to look at Britain when the Romans had left, and the changes that took place when the security they’d provided for the native tribes was gone. If I’d gone further back to a time when the druids were most powerful, it would have meant a big Roman presence and, to be honest, that market is completely saturated now. I wanted to do something a little different. So, going forward to a time when the druids were struggling to maintain, or rebuild, some kind of a foothold after the Romans had driven them underground, and the Saxons and Dalriadans and Picts were all trying to take lands and wealth from the rest of the tribes, seemed like an interesting idea. Especially since Christianity was on the rise. Of course, setting it in the fifth century also allowed me to use some Roman elements, like the centurion, so, best of both worlds really!

At one point I thought about making the druids more of a connected brother/sisterhood, almost like the Bene Gesserit in the Dune novels (the early ones of which are incredible) but…That would have been far too ambitious and would be more suited to a period when, as you say, the druids were in their pomp, like Julius Caesar’s time. By the early fifth century their network had been pretty much destroyed by the Romans which, thankfully, saved me from trying to create that kind of immensely detailed backdrop!

JVB: What do you love most about historical fiction nowadays, what do you hate most about historical fiction nowadays?

SAM: I love the fact that there’s so much available, and with the rise of Kindle it’s easier to get and cheaper too. Twenty years ago, all you could really find in the library or the book shops were novels about the Romans. There wasn’t even all that much Viking fiction! Nowadays, you can find all sorts of stuff, from Glyn Iliffe’s excellent Greek mythology books, to Matthew Harffy’s Saxon tales, Gordon Doherty’s Hittite novels and the excellent Audible productions of Rebecca Gable’s medieval stories. There’s everything you could want, all periods, and it’s easily accessible and fairly cheap. I think it’s fantastic.

As for hating anything? I can’t really say. There’s certain periods, and themes, that I personally don’t like – time-slip romance stuff for example, where a semi-nude medieval Scotsman in a kilt (who looks nothing like the Scotsmen in my town, by the way!) interacts with a modern female time-traveller. But I certainly don’t HATE it, I just don’t read it myself, you know? Good luck to anyone who enjoys that stuff, we all have our own tastes in things and I bet, for example, most people would bloody hate the music I listen to when I’m writing.

JVB: Your characters in the Bellicus chronicles are very deep and textured. They are also fallible and things also don’t go to plan, which is a true grimdark trait. They’re often also conflicted and grey. Can you talk us through the inspiration behind your characters?

SAM: Well, I have some rules for my books and one of them is to make the characters somewhat realistic. Even real villains have SOME redeeming qualities, you know, serial killers like the Golden State Killer, who are unquestionably the devil incarnate but have a spouse and children who love them and have no idea what they get up to at night. So, you can’t write realistic villains if you’re only ever going to bring out their dark side. I was quite proud of how I wrote the Sheriff in my Forest Lord books – I made him a dangerous foe but not like the cartoon villains of many previous incarnations in Robin Hood stories. He wanted to stop the “goodies” but not in some crazed, sociopathic way. And it’s the same for more heroic figures – they should have bad sides or weaknesses too, as we all have. It’s important to show those things, but I do like to have something of a line between each side. I just find it more satisfying as a writer and a reader to root for the “good guys”.

Now, with all that said, there was one “baddie” in my Forest Lord books who was pretty much psychopathic. I decided that, just once, I would give my heroes someone to fight who would stop at nothing to cause them pain. I think it made for an exciting, satisfying story but I wouldn’t make a habit out of it. It seems too easy somehow. People are more grey in real life, but we all, whether it’s someone living a thousand years ago or a thousand years in the future (probably) are driven by similar things like love, acquisition of wealth/power/status, loyalty, religion, lust, nostalgia, and so on. If you keep that in mind when creating characters, it helps.

JVB: The Druid, first instalment in the Bellicus chronicles, has to be one of the best historical novels I’ve read in a very long time, in terms of plot and suspense. Can you tell us a bit about your inspiration behind this historical fiction book? And maybe also a bit about the writers who most inspired you to write your own stories?

SAM: Thank you for the amazing compliment! I was inspired to write a story about a druid when I saw an old 1980’s TV show here in the UK, called Knightmare, being rerun. Merlin was in it, the stereotypical white-bearded old wizard and I thought, “Why is he always portrayed like that? He wasn’t always an old man, surely?” So that sparked off the whole idea of making my druid a shaven-headed, massive, young warrior. And when it came to giving him a sidekick I thought, well, how about a couple of wardogs? That’s a bit different, and it makes writing battle scenes interesting because it’s not the usual swordplay or headbutting or throat punching, now you have dogs attacking people too! Along with the headbutting and throat punches, obviously.

I should admit, Merlin does make a short appearance in The Druid and he has a long white beard but, hey, like the Robin Hood characters, people expect certain things. You don’t want to mess too much with a well-loved formula…

In terms of who influenced me, Bernard Cornwell is always the first name I mention. His King Arthur trilogy was just so good and made a huge impression on me when I first read it about twenty years ago. They were the pinnacle for me. Then there were guys like Ben Kane and Douglas Jackson and, more from a fantasy standpoint, David Gemmell. Wow, that guy could really write a great hero. Sometimes it’s good to break out of your preferred genre and read other things though. I surprised myself recently by listening to Jane Eyre on Audible and loving it! That led me to Rebecca and all of Daphne du Maurier’s work and then Wuthering Heights (which is certainly grim, dark and not much fun) and they inspired me to write my own Lucia which is very different to any of my other books.

JVB: Your next book is the third instalment of The Warrior Druid Of Britain Chronicles. Are you stopping at a trilogy or might the story of Bellicus go on? Any other historical periods or genres you’re next keen to visit with your writing?

SAM: Oh, the druid series will go on for more than three novels. I enjoy writing the characters so much, and Bellicus is still only in his late twenties, that I don’t see any reason to stop yet. There’s a lot to be done with a warrior-druid in this period and I really hope to explore it all, especially now with Arthur and Merlin coming into the story a bit more after being mere side characters in the first book.

Once The Northern Throne is finished my Roman slave-girl novel, Lucia, will be published in October on Kindle and in print, having been bought by Audible and exclusively available on that platform for the past year. Now that book is truly GRIM and DARK, being about a little girl who’s taken into slavery by the Romans and spends her whole life living and working in a villa in Britannia. I did a lot of research for that one and, honestly, it was hard trying to keep it light in places as the things those people suffered back then were horrific…But I was glad to finally give them a voice, because no-one at the time bothered to ask them how they felt or record anything like that, it simply didn’t matter to the people in power. I don’t think there’s another book like Lucia out there and I really hope it does well on Kindle.

After that, I’ll do another mystery novella with Tuck and John from my Forest Lord series, similar to Faces of Darkness last year which was loosely based on an unsolved mysterious stalking/death case from the 1980’s. Modern murder/unsolved cases translate well to a medieval setting I think and, again, those characters are a lot of fun to write so, although novellas don’t sell very well, I will do more because I enjoy writing them.

And then, phew, onto the next druid novel!

JVB: George R.R. Martin once famously categorised authors as ‘architects’ or ‘gardeners’. Architects plan everything ahead of time, whereas the gardeners sort of find out the story as it grows. Which camp do you fall into?

SAM: Definitely a gardener. You need SOME planning – some kind of foundation to build upon – but once that’s sorted, I like to let a book write itself as I go along, mostly. Personally, I would struggle to come up with a full novel’s worth of good plot ideas in one go – I get started writing and let chapter ideas pop into my head when I’m driving or in the shower or whatever. That way my brain doesn’t need to work too hard all at once! The way I write, a book is a snapshot of my personality over the course of six or seven months, rather than a few days.

In one of my Forest Lord books I had planned to kill off a certain person, mainly because I found his name irritating believe it or not, but, as I was sitting writing the scene the characters seemed to take on a life of their own and the whole thing changed. I ended up with another person getting shot by a crossbow bolt and I was as surprised as he was! It added a whole new element to the book so, although it messed up my plan, I went with it and I’m glad I did. Some things are just meant to be.

JVB: What can fans of Bellicus expect from The Northern Throne?

SAM: Well, going back to your earlier question about the characters being fallible, that comes to the fore much more in this book than it has in the previous druid stories. I won’t spoil it, but it certainly gives a certain person more of a human element. One of my beta readers didn’t like that part, and wanted me to change it, but my editor thought it was one of the best things about the whole book, and I agree, so it stayed in!

In general, The Northern Throne is a fleshing out of the situation in Northern Britain at the time, with the tribes vying for supremacy, while, in the background, the Saxons try to take control of the lands in the south as Arthur and Merlin try to hold them back. This is a darker book than Song of the Centurion, partially because it was written mostly during the COVID lockdown, and my feelings of fear and imprisonment translated to the novel without me planning it that way (a benefit of making it up as I go along rather than setting it down in stone before I even begin). As with all my books though, there’s a sense of hope throughout, and I think The Northern Throne is a satisfying, exciting read that really fleshes out the characters and leaves things wide open for the next in the series!

GdM reviews of historical fiction

You can check out more reviews of historical fiction by clicking on this link here.

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James Vella-Bardon

James lives in Sydney with his young family and a maniacal cavoodle. Recipient of a few international literary awards and nominations, he enjoys reading gritty thrillers filled with moral dilemmas and a real sense of danger. www.jamesvellabardon.com