Interview with Brian McClellan

Brian G Turner

Fantasist & Futurist
Staff member
Nov 23, 2002

Hi Brian, thanks for speaking with us - I appreciate you're very busy at the moment carrying out a lot of interviews and publicity.

First things first: I think I read somewhere that you had originally thought of putting powder mages in a 1920's environment, but decided to change it to a Napleonic-era setting after watching Sharpe. As fantasy tends to be overwhelmingly pre-industrial, did it worry you at all about what sort of reception you might get for a fantasy novel tagged "Muskets and magic?" For a debut author did you feel it was something of a risk?

It didn't worry me. In fact, I was really excited by the idea. I'd already written, edited, and sold the book before I had any clue that "Flintlock Fantasy" was a thing. I thought I was breaking entirely new ground and to be fair, so did my agent and editor.

It wasn't until I got my first "what is wrong with you, guns don't belong in fantasy" email that it even occurred to me that some people wouldn't find the idea as awesome as I did.

I think in the end it all worked out. Far more people seem intrigued by the thought of an industrialized fantasy world than put off by it.

The powder mages are one of the most imaginative features of your storytelling. It appears you've had these in mind for a very long time. What was your original inspiration for them, and what drew you to focus on them in your storytelling?

You mentioned my original idea of putting powder mages in a 1920's environment—that is true. I came up with the idea of powder mages while watching Public Enemies, and thought that Tommy gun-wielding sorcerers who could control gunpowder would be the pinnacle of cool. For the record, I still think that.

The idea just developed from there. I wanted them to be the focus of the story from the beginning, it's just the time period that changed.

You've mentioned online that you managed to get yourself an agent, but that you had to rewrite it before they would take it to publishers. Just how different was the revised manuscript by comparison? What aspects of the plot and character did you end up rewriting? I presume you were happier with the end result?

I ended up rewriting most of the first third of the book, as well as various scenes and sections from the rest of it. Taniel's POV was almost entirely revamped. I also added quite a bit. The final copy was about twenty thousand words longer than the original (160K words v. 140K words), and Nila's POV was not in the original manuscript.

I was immensely happy with the end result. It was a much better book than when it started out.

You've certainly been keeping busy with interviews and publicity, yet the second book The Crimson Campaign is due for launch early next year. That's quite a tight launch window. Does this mean the manuscript for that is already complete? Are there any parts of that story you think readers will especially enjoy?

I turned the final copy of The Crimson Campaign in to my editor on the 6th of May. April was a crazy month, what with book one coming out on the 16th and then book two due.

I think readers will really enjoy Nila's POV. It's still a minor one with only eight or ten scenes, but we get to learn a little more about who she is and where she is going, and she teams up with one of my favorite side characters—and no, it's not who you think.

One thing I really noticed in Promise of Blood was an undercurrent of Britishness. Are you surprised by that perception, or is that something you wanted to put in especially? I'm thinking on characters saying "Bugger!" and how Olem could easily be acted by Vinnie Jones. Or is that simply Wellington intruding on your research of Napoleon? :)

That was purposeful and I'm delighted that it came across (hopefully well). I actually had to tell the copy-editor to leave some of the "Britishisms" that they wanted to remove. In terms of character development, there's just as much Wellington in Tamas as there is Napoleon. I did a lot of reading on both of them.

You've mentioned how you've done a lot of research into the Napleonic-era for Promise of Blood. There seem to be two general camps regarding the issue of research for writing genre fiction: one says do as much as you can, the other says it doesn't matter as it's fantasy anyway. What were your personal reasons and goals for carrying out historical research, and how important do you think it is?

I agree with both sides. I think the research really helps give your world a setting, but I'm very much aware that the world is mine. Take the technology level for instance: I wanted it to have a Napoleonic feel, but I didn't want to feel pressured to give it an exact historical date (in terms of tech advancement). So I gave myself a historical window, about 1800-1835, and tried to stay within those limits.

To me, historical research is valuable inspiration. I get some of my best ideas by reading history books, finding out interesting things about my target time period, and then giving them my own twist.

Brandon Sanderson and Joe Abercrombie have already been mentioned as potential modern influences on your writing. Are there any classic fantasy novels or novelists you think fondly upon as early influences or simply great reading? And who among the modern writers are you especially keeping an eye out for?

Certainly Tolkien, Lewis, and Howard. Those were my earliest experiences in fantasy, and I still very much love all their worlds.

Other than Sanderson and Abercrombie, I love Brent Weeks, Daniel Abraham, Glen Cook, and Steven Erikson. I'm still waiting for Doug Hulick's second book to come out, and I've got a pile of to-read authors that I fully expect to add to my favorites: Howard Andrew Jones, Brad Beaulieu, and K.J. Parker.

Alexander Dumas. You've cited him as an influence elsewhere and I think we're going to see more modern fantasy writers do so. What is it about Dumas' writing do you think is especially appealing? Is it simply the period, or is there a spark in his characters and storytelling that especially appeals to you?

I'll be the first one to admit that my writing isn't necessarily "craft." I tend to be pretty bare-bones, and while I can appreciate poetic writing I'm all about story, characters, and setting. That's what I love about Dumas. It has a particular darkness to it that I find compelling, as well as light and hope, and his characters can be so incredibly multi-faceted.

We seem to be looking at a new wave of fantasy writing which you've firmly joined the ranks of. Why do you think the genre is becoming more ambitious? Is it simply a brief period of experimentation, or do you see the genre as growing to accommodate more ideas and interests?

I do think the genre is getting more ambitious. People are pushing the bounds of what epic fantasy is. We're developing past the classic hero's journey in order to discover more interesting stories and while we'll probably come full circle in ten or twenty years and see those formulaic narratives become very popular again, I think that the genre is indeed growing.

How far are you with the third book in the series, and when can we buy it? :) Do you have ideas popping around for what might follow the Powder Mage trilogy? And do you expect to stay in the same time period for a while yet, or do you think we really will see those Uranium Mages in future?

Haven't started the third book yet. Right now it is still just an outline and several pages of scribbled thoughts. I think the tentative release date is September of 2014.

I've got a lot of ideas floating around in my head. What comes next will depend on what my publisher wants, but here's three different projects I have notes for:

- Another series set just after The Powder Mage Trilogy in the same world, with new POV characters on a different continent.

- A young adult or middle grade novel heavily influenced by the Third Crusade.

- An urban fantasy with the same kind of feel as Jim Butcher's Dresdon Files (but a very different premise).

Lastly, the obligatory writing question: you got yourself an agent, then a publisher, and by all accounts, a very successful book launch. How much would you put this down to hard work versus luck, and what single piece of advice would you give to other aspiring writers to succeed?

I'll go with 50/50 on that! I'm very fortunate to have gotten such an awesome agent and I couldn't ask for a better publisher that really supported me through the launch.

The advice is: keep at it. Giving up doesn't get you anywhere.

Many thanks for the replies, and all the best with the rest of the series. :)