Guest Post: The Balance of History and Fantasy Writing by Craig Cormick

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The Balance of History and Fantasy Writing
by Craig Cormick

So I’ve been set a challenge: to talk about how I balanced the need for convincing and accurate historical research while maintaining an exciting fantasy narrative in my novel The Shadow Master.

First a quick description of the novel. It’s a kick-arse tale of alternative history, love and conflict, madness and magic, with sword fights and mad clerics and assassins and bombs and magical shape-changers and dark catacombs and tall towers and an army of plague people – with everything except a car chase. And through it all is this mysterious figure, the Shadow Master, who is manipulating everyone towards his own ends. Sound interesting? I hope so. I know I’d read it (!)

Anyway – the story is set in Renaissance Italy – and never having lived in Renaissance Italy that presented a few challenges. You know that author’s mantra – Write about things you know. Well I dived into this book with opposite approach – Write about things you don’t know.
Here’s a story about how inspiration struck me to write the book to explain this.

My day job is as a science communicator, and I’ve been lucky enough to travel to lots of interesting places, including Antarctica for work – but a few years back I was at a conference in Florence in Italy, and while walking around the Galileo museum I got this idea – like one of those serendipitous moments that just appear in your head – pow! I thought, what if science behaved like magic?

I mean, what if, when Galileo invented the telescope, it actually transported you across to what you were looking at. And what if the early chronometers actually slowed down time? And what if when you strapped on Leonardo da Vinci’s flying harness you actually transformed into a giant bird?

And that became my vision – to create an alternate history world that was fairly similar to the world that readers knew from history, but was also different enough to be intriguing – but to work within itself.

But that meant learning a whole lot more about the Italian Renaissance than I knew about it.

And here is the historical novelist’s dilemma. You need to do a lot of research so that the era you are writing about is credible and accurate – but when do you stop researching and just sit down and write. It’s a bit like baking a cake – don’t do enough research and it’s like taking the cake out of the oven before it’s done (half-baked novels, we’ve all seen ‘em), but if you do too much research – it’s like leaving a cake in the oven too long, it gets overdone and you just can’t resist putting every fact you’ve discovered into the book and weigh it down with them (I’m sure we’ve all read a few of those too).

Fortunately most of my books to date have dealt with history and I think I’ve gotten the balancing act sort of worked out – but this book had another element to juggle – being a fantasy book dealing with an alternate history I had to make sure those elements worked.

And that’s the tricky thing with alternate history – the whole thing has to be believable, even though it’s playing around with known realities. And if you read some alternate histories you quickly find it’s another balancing act. If you tip too much to one side, then it starts becoming too far off the path from history and you lose people who want that element of historical certainty, and if you tip too far the other way, you’re seen as not being alternate enough and not challenging the reader.
I’ll tell you another story to explain this.

When I was studying music growing up, my jazz teacher used to tell me that you need to learn all the rules of music before you start breaking them and improvising. So you really need to do enough research to find out what the world was actually like in the time era you are writing of, and then you can start breaking the rules and introducing new elements.

It also gave me quite a bit of freedom. So when I found that dates clashed – such as Leonardo da Vinci’s life and Galileo’s – it didn’t matter. In my world they could live at the same time.

So I did a lot of reading and watched a lot of documentaries about the Medici’s and the Church and the artists of the Renaissance, but I looked at everything with a critical eye, thinking, how can I use that? Or can I turn that so it works in my alternative world?

There were times I was tempted to wander quite off the track and go into some far-fetched ideas (not quite as bizarre as Leonardo da Vinci being an alien shape-shifter from the future, but ideas that clashed just as much with the world I was creating). If it didn’t feel like it belonged it this world, I left it out.

There’s another instructional story to share: Michelangelo supposedly once said that to make a sculptor you just took a hammer and chisel and chipped away all the bits that didn’t look like the end shape you were after. I threw away a lot of really good ideas, that just didn’t look like they belonged in the alternate world I had created.

So hopefully all those facts give the book some credibility – capturing the atmosphere of the era, and the fantastical elements give it intrigue and creative satisfaction for the reader.
You’re going to be the judge on that one though – not me. Though I’d love to hear if you think I got the balance right.

Incidentally a highlight of the Galileo museum in Florence, if you ever get to go there, is finding Galileo’s mummified middle finger in a glass jar, turned to point at the main cathedral in the city. Payback for all the persecution he received from the Church. Check it out!

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About the author:
Craig Cormick is an award-winning author and science communicator who works for Australia’s premier science institution, the Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). He is a regular speaker at science communication conferences and has appeared on television, radio, online and in print media.

As an author he has published over a dozen works of fiction and non-fiction and over 100 short stories. His awards include an ACT Book of the Year Award and a Queensland Premier’s Literary Award. His most recent book is the young adult novel Time Vandals (Scholastic, 2012). You can find Craig online at his website craigcormick.com.

Author blog
Goodreads

Buying info:
UK Print & Ebook
Amazon.co.uk | Book Depository | Waterstones | WHSmith

North American Print & Ebook
Amazon.com | Amazon.ca | BarnesandNoble.com | IndieBound.org

Global DRM-Free Epub Ebook
On-sale 24th June from the Robot Trading Company.

Read an extract!

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Book Review: Witch Island by David Bernstein

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Witch Island
by David Bernstein
Samhain Horror
$3.85 (ebook) | $14.00 (paperback)
218 pages
Release Date: June 3, 2014
Review copy received from the author in exchange for an honest review

Plot Description:

“A witch’s curse from beyond the grave! ”

Witch Island used to be feared. Even the bravest would not dare go there. Legend said a witch had been burned alive at the stake, and upon her death she cursed the town. Terrified residents performed rituals to keep her spirit trapped on the island where she was buried.

Now, over a hundred years later, a group of high school seniors have decided to forgo the local graduation parties and have a small gathering of their own on Witch Island. They don t fear the legends. They scoff at them. But the group will soon learn these particular legends are nothing to scoff at. And Witch Island will prove far worse than they could have ever imagined. ”

Review:
Told through alternating sequences set in the past and as the story unfolds in the modern day, horror writer David Bernstein’s latest, Witch Island takes place in a small town in New York state where a witch was burned at the stake years ago. Unsurprisingly, the witch vows to curse and haunt the island forever, making way for the place’s eventual name, Witch Island.

In the modern day, we meet the main cast of university-bound young adults, including the central characters, Jim and Gwen. They each get their own “screen time” so to speak, revealing their concerns and what they want to do with the rest of their lives. Not to mention some skeletons in their closets that come tumbling out, some making a bigger impact than others.

Jim and his friends decide to head to Witch Island despite the fact that Jim’s brother died in a mysterious accident while there. Given the close quarters and the intervention of the malicious witch, it doesn’t take long for tensions to rise and for things to start going horribly wrong the minute they set foot on the island.

With a few swerves along the way and the witch playing her role as torturer and destroyer, the story comes to its inevitable close, but it does so kicking and screaming.

Witch Island is a bit raunchier than Bernstein’s other offerings, so if that’s your bag, you’re in luck. The violence factor is also quite high, so fans of his gruesome descriptions are in luck for that, as well. In some ways it’s a throwback to horror flicks of the early 90s like I Know What You Did Last Summer and the Scream franchise, so if you enjoyed them and films along the same lines, you’ll really dig Witch Island. Keep an eye out for my review of Bernstein’s forthcoming title, Relic of Death later this month.

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Book Review: The Vagrants by Brian Moreland

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The Vagrants
by Brian Moreland
Samhain Publishing
$2.80 (Amazon Kindle)
Release Date: June 3, 2014
Review copy received from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Plot Description:

” Beneath the city of Boston, evil is gathering. ”

Journalist Daniel Finley is determined to save the impoverished of the world. But the abandoned part of humanity has a dark side too. While living under a bridge with the homeless for six months, Daniel witnessed something terrifying. Something that nearly cost him his sanity.

Now, two years later, he’s published a book that exposes a deadly underground cult and its charismatic leader. And Daniel fears the vagrants are after him because of it. At the same time, his father is being terrorized by vicious mobsters. As he desperately tries to help his father, Daniel gets caught up in the middle of a war between the Irish-American mafia and a deranged cult of homeless people who are preparing to shed blood on the streets of Boston.

Review:
Horror author Brian Moreland’s newest offering switches locales and takes the reader to Boston, Massachusetts, with a prologue that foretells something bad is about to come down the pipeline. Our main character is Daniel Finley. He is a journalist who posed as a homeless person for six months to write a scathing exposé about the plight of poverty in America. Here, he meets people called Seekers led by a man known only as Mordecai.

Some of the homeless start defecting to the Seekers, which causes alarm bells to go off for Daniel. Mordecai seems to have the allure and mind control of a cult leader, thinking himself a messiah of the homeless who will deliver them to salvation. Or so he claims. But there’s a much darker, more twisted story than Daniel or anyone else could imagine. By the time his book comes out two years later, he’s only scratched the surface of what he went through when he nearly succumbed to becoming part of the Seekers.

Daniel thinks that with the book deal and author’s advance, as well as a loving girlfriend, Connie, that things might finally be starting to look up for him. He does an autograph signing that no one shows up to except for a man at the end who identifies himself as Professor Holloman, who teaches sociology at Harvard.

Holloman asks Daniel to come along with him to what turns out to be an abandoned subway tunnel where Daniel discovers unique graffiti. Subway tunnels, as it turns out, are one of the places that Seekers go to worship. Their temples, if you will. To add to the weird visions he’s been getting of vagrants he used to know, Daniel keeps hearing that they’ll find him again and that it’s time for him to join them. Holloman also says that there are more of these devotional places for Seekers in other big cities including New York and Philadelphia.

The second conflict in the book comes about when Daniel decides to pay his dad a visit in Southie, a rougher part of Boston. They haven’t spoken for several years and have always had a strained relationship, but Daniel’s dad helped him pay his way through college so Daniel wants to pay him back now that he’s making more money.

Trouble is there are faces from the past in this neighbourhood that Daniel’s dad had to get mixed up with and got into debt with—namely, Irish mobsters. The enforcers tell him in no uncertain terms that unless he pays a certain amount of money, they’ll return to make life very difficult for his father.

Unfortunately, Drake O’Malley, the ringleader of the Irish mob, is not the nicest guy to say the least. When Daniel says he can’t pay any more than Drake is demanding, Drake orders Daniel to force a group of vagrants out of a building he’s sold to some people in New York. That’ll only reduce the debt by half.

As the mystery unravels further, we discover there are Ancient Gods that Mordecai serves and, without spoiling anything, let’s just say it ain’t pretty. It’s not long before the mafia gets caught in the crossfire, including Drake himself.

Mordecai reveals his sinister plans and it’s up to Daniel to figure out a way to stop it all. The building that they’re in near the end of the book, it’s worth mentioning, was built over an abandoned subway, and also used to be a slaughterhouse. You do the math.

Although Mordecai’s basics and past were covered off, I would have also liked a bit more character development as he felt rough around the edges at times. He had a few inconsistencies, particularly with his dialogue. One minute he’s channeling Deepak Chopra and the next he sounds like a far more foul-mouthed version of Ralph Cramden. Despite that, he is a more difficult foe for Daniel to conquer than the mobsters on his tail, and he fulfills his role in the story.

With the other characters, I would have liked to see a bit more complexity. However, Daniel’s father came across as more nuanced and complex than he appears to be on the surface, which added nicely to Daniel’s woes.

Daniel plays the underdog the reader will want to root for and Moreland does a good job depicting how precarious it is for Daniel to retain the ability not to fall under the hypnotic sway that Mordecai has over others. But deep down, Daniel knows that Drake O’Malley isn’t his real problem and that he has a much worse one in the Seekers.

The ending wraps everything up for the most part, leaving a few tenuous threads loose, but otherwise it’s an enjoyable supernatural thriller. If you liked Moreland’s previous books and short fiction, you’ll enjoy The Vagrants. You’ll also like this book if you enjoyed the film The Departed and you like crime thrillers. Moreland’s best book in my mind remains The Dead of Winter, although it is indeed difficult for any author to top him or herself. Some books have a different flavour than others. Far from being one of those authors who just keeps on cranking out more of the same stuff, Moreland brings a fresh diversity to each one of his works, which is great news for his fans. I look forward to seeing what he comes up with next.

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Book Review: Damoren (Valducan, Book 1) by Seth Skorkowsky

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Damoren (Valducan Volume 1)
By Seth Skorkowsky
Ragnarok Publications
Release Date: April 16, 2014
380 pages
$11.51 (paperback) | $5.03 (Kindle)
Review copy purchased online

Plot Description:

Fourteen years ago a pack of wendigos killed Matt Hollis’ family and damned his soul. Now, Matt is a demon hunter armed with a holy revolver named Dämoren. After a violent series of murders leaves only fifty holy weapons in the world, Matt is recruited by the Valducans, an ancient order of demon hunters. Many of the knights do not trust him because he is possessed. When sabotage and assassinations begin, the Valducans know there is a spy in their ranks, and Matt becomes the core of their suspicions. Desperate to prove himself, and to protect Dämoren, Matt fights to gain their trust and discover the nature of the entity residing within him.

Review:
The best way I can describe Damoren, a new urban fantasy novel from Seth Skorkowsky, is to say it’s sort of a cross between The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher mixed with a healthy dose of Supernatural and a dash of Hellboy.

Things start off with a young boy, Matt Hollis, who witnesses a demonic attack on his family as well as a man who busts into his house and appears to be fighting the hellish creatures. Matt becomes something to worry about for the man, a hunter named Clay, who notices that Matt has a lot of traits of demons and yet he isn’t one. He turns to his weapon, Damoren, which is part gun and part sword, for guidance. It’s a special kind of weapon. With that, the first chapter ends with a momentous decision and a big bang (pun intended) that sets the tone for the rest of the novel.

Fast forward to when Matt is all grown up. He’s pursuing a lead somewhere in Calgary where he finds out there’s much more to his presence than the elusive aswang whose trail he’s been on. He finds a red envelope with his name and finds out that there are some very interesting people who wanted to get his attention. Those folks are Valducans, members of a society of demon hunters that has existed for centuries. Although they say they mean him no harm, Matt isn’t so easily persuaded, especially because Clay told him to steer clear of their order. We also discover that Clay has a history with them and that it didn’t end well, to say the least.

Matt finds out he’s by no means unique in the sense that he’s not the only demon hunter with a holy weapon that can do some serious damage. He finds himself in a house with the rest of the Valducans. Although most of them tolerate Matt, while a few in particular take a shine to him, notably a hunter named Luiza, others are not so welcoming. They don’t trust Matt because to them he is a demon or at least gives off enough demonic energy that he gives them cause for alarm. One of them, Malcolm, seems to despise Matt from the beginning, creating an uneasy tension between the two that makes their passages all the more interesting.

Aside from creating memorable characters with interesting backstories the reader can really get into, Skorkowsky’s real strength lies in his unique world-building. One of the most critical components to a compelling urban fantasy tale is in how intricate the world-building—the consistency of the rules of the world, and how the author blends everything together to create a satisfying reading experience. I can’t say enough good things about the fascinating aspects of the history of the holy weapons, the history of the order of the Valducans, the mysteries behind Matt’s “is he or isn’t he” demonic vibes that seem to give him leverage in battle (including the very cool ability to heal by touching the blood of a dead demons), and finding out why the conclave of these hunters is so important.

Too often we see urban fantasies that focus mostly on a big American city, or some Canadian ones more recently, some UK ones (I’m sure there are also Australian ones but not any that I can think of off the top of my head). That can get dull after a while. Needless to say, I’m always more intrigued when the action in any story shifts to Europe, so I was pleased with the European locales in this novel, including Italy, which was a nice change of pace.

Although there are a few werewolves and vampires that make sure the central characters have their hands full, there are enough eclectic, not-often-seen demons in the mix to freshen things up here, as well, including the aswang and the Oni, which is sort of like a troll but kind of like a dragon too, and just generally not the kind of demon to be trifled with.

Interspersed among the main narrative are snippets of historical entries from past members of the Valducans that contain information about ghouls or demons in the Old World vs. the New World. While I think some of them were more interesting or relevant than others, or may have been good material for a “bonus features” type of section at the back of the book, they were short enough and placed strategically enough that they added to the story.

Near the end of the book, the mysteries of why Matt is the way he is and why he has certain enhancements start to unravel and things become clearer, built up with subtle hints and cues. Things get progressively worse for the central characters and it leads to an all-out epic demon brawl to basically stop demons from running the show on Earth, with some bad-ass Mortal Kombat style action thrown in that leads to a satisfying conclusion.

Far from giving readers what now seems like the requisite “dun dun dun!” cliff-hanger ending, Skorkowsky wraps things up with Matt and sends him on his way, but at the end of this book there was a preview for Hounacier, which is another one of the holy weapons belonging to another hunter, Morgan. If the teaser included with Damoren is any indication, this second volume in the Valducan series is going to be just as thrilling and action-packed and I can’t wait to read it when it comes out.

Skorkowsky does a great job early on of establishing the parameters of his world-building, the rules under which his demons operate. In this universe, “demons” are more like an umbrella that includes everything from vampires, werewolves, wendigos, and other more eclectic creatures like the Arabic ifrit and the Asian aswang. Demon hunters must use holy weapons to destroy both the body and the soul of a demon, which, once the creature is dead, emits a different coloured glow depending on the type of demon.

So, to sum things up, as some other reviews have pointed out, if you’re a fan of Jim Butcher’s style of urban fantasy, you can’t get enough of Supernatural and you like original urban fantasy that places less emphasis on the romance (although there is an appropriate romantic subplot that’s far from filler, and far from being there for the sake of being there) and you like your world-building, but you especially like your demons, buy this book.

It’s been a long time since an urban fantasy novel has knocked my socks off—probably hasn’t happened since I read Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey a few years ago, which in case you haven’t read that, is also a must-read for die-hard urban fantasy fans.

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Book Review: Piercing the Veil by Mason Bundschuh

Piercing The Veil - Mason Ian Bundschuh

Piercing the Veil
by Mason Bundschuh
Samhain Publishing
$2.11 (Amazon Kindle)
Release Date: March 3, 2014
Pages: 66
Book purchased online

Plot Description:

Do you really want to know what’s on the other side?
Simon is a brilliant grad student eager to get ahead. So when a professor offers him a secret research position at a cutting-edge lab on the cusp of proving an impossible theory, Simon thinks it’s a dream come true. But the math doesn’t add up and the other technicians working the graveyard shift don’t seem quite right somehow.

When students start disappearing from Simon’s university, he realizes there may be a horrible connection to the research at the lab. He suspects his coworkers may not be entirely human after all. And the disappearances are getting closer to home.

If you’ve ever wished that Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory would get a chance to star in a sci-fi thriller, you’re in luck. The protagonist of Piercing the Veil is Simon, who, incidentally, is also a “too smart for his own good” physics geek. He’s fascinated with dark matter, which is why it’s puzzling to him when students start to disappear on campus and he learns that the explanations might not be so simple. He wants to gain access to a super top-secret project that Professor Akeley, one of his stodgy instructors, holds the keys to.

Akeley lectures on the anomalies of dark matter and this sets the stage for suggesting that the disappearance scene in the first part of the story may have its roots in science gone bad. The professor sets up a tricky equation that seems impossible to solve. Simon likes a challenge. As with all things of this nature, there’s a reason why “be careful what you wish for” is still such good advice.

Simon’s friend, Sara (with no ‘h’ as she’s adamant to point out on more than one occasion) is like the Penny to Simon’s Sheldon. She’s a fellow student at the university, a friend of the girl who disappeared in the first scene of the story, and although Simon seems fine with the company at first, albeit reluctantly, he draws inward more and more and shuns her, much to her disappointment. He realizes that even though he may be a genius in the physics department, he’s a clueless dolt when it comes to romance, and although he exhibits some regret for this, he’s singularly focused on solving Akeley’s equation.

The reader gets an explanation of what ‘piercing the veil’ refers to when Akeley has a sit-down with Simon, calling him “ruthless” and saying that this is a necessary trait “if you want to make it in this world.” It’s a grim assessment, but nevertheless one that rings true in today’s society.

As Simon descends deeper into a labyrinthine maze of doom that leads to one horrifying discovery after another, we get a reveal of the true puppet master villain behind all the disappearances, how they’ve been doing it, and why. Simon learns the hard way that being curious doesn’t always prepare one for the truth, as he hears from someone else. Things lead to a riveting conclusion and the kind of ending that lulls the reader into a false sense of safety until the very last second, making for that much more of a satisfying read.

Although I’m not fond of science fiction, particularly hard SF, Bundschuh balances the need for furthering the narrative with helping the reader to understand the important physics bits and at the same time not overwhelming the reader completely with expository or dense explanations. It’s a quick read that fans who like their sci-fi dark will enjoy as well as horror fans who enjoy sci-fi themes. The story also has a lot of depth and intriguing layers that highlight not only the author’s skill but also a story with substance.

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