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by Sandy Auden

Mark Chadbourn talks about his new Fantasy series, The Sword of Albion which takes us into the treacherous world of spies in Elizabethan England; and debut novelist Sarah Pinborough gives us the inside skinny about desolate futures, self destruction and getting new novel A Matter of Blood published.

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June 2010
Mark Chadbourn Draws The Sword of Albion To Defend England

The Sword of Albion (UK)

Embarking on a brand new fantasy series, Mark Chadbourn has slipped into an earlier era and brought to life Sixteenth Century England through the eyes of a womanising spy called Will Swyfte.

Will is off enjoying himself with a couple of young ladies when he receives news that there's been a daring raid on the Tower of London. The truth is known only to a select few: that, for twenty years, a legendary doomsday device, its power fabled for millennia, has been kept secret and, until now, safe in the Tower. But it's been stolen and Walsingham's spies believe it has been taken by the Enemy -- creatures who have waged a brutal war against mankind since time began; creatures who will use this doomsday device to inflict a terrible disaster upon England's green and pleasant land. It falls to Will Swyfte to follow a trail of murder and deviltry that leads deep into the dark, venomous world of the Faerie...

Swyfte may have arrived in a book trilogy, but he was originally destined for the big screen, as Chadbourn explains: "I was putting together an idea for a movie through a UK Film Council initiative and was thinking about doing a spy thriller, but set in Elizabethan times when England's spy network first became truly established. As I worked on the period and character, I decided there was a vast amount of material there -- certainly enough for more than one novel -- so I junked the movie idea and went straight to a publisher.

"The character of Will had lots of different levels, and I liked the idea of slowly stripping away the masks over the course of a few books."

As Will crossed onto the page he remained in the Elizabethan setting, a very rich time for a story. "As mentioned, the Elizabethan era was the dawn of the modern spying age and that provides a unique setting, right at the beginning," says Chadbourn. "Also, that period is really the foundation of the modern world on many levels, and it echoes our current culture eerily.

"You had global geo-politics, wars being fought abroad for control of resources, state-sponsored torture, the first truly effective use of international spies, a rapid increase in new technology that was changing society at every level and more. I liked that resonance."

Will can't try to save the country on his own though and others are recruited to help. "I knew Will's basic story -- that he was scarred by the mysterious disappearance of his love when she was in the middle of a cornfield during broad daylight -- but as I started working on the plot, the other characters started to fall into place. I wanted to play off Will's character, which is really about the conflict between the public face he is forced to present to the world as part of his spymaster's scheming, and his private troubles. Pretty much all the characters have other faces that are revealed as the story unfolds. I also needed to look at the kind of people who became spies in that era and the terrible dangers they were under. It was a brutal, hard, frightening, and short, life."

Along with new characters, Chadbourn has introduced new themes to this series. "The past books were more about philosophical, spiritual or mystical concerns. This book is all about the gritty here and now. It's about the things people have to do to survive in the real world, the toll those choices take upon them, the kind of terrible dilemmas they have to face, and really, what motivates them to keep doing it.

"There may be a few familiar core issues touched on briefly -- like the sense of another reality encroaching on our own and needing to be repelled. This is a core fantasy trope, but here I've used it very differently from previous books. Allegorically, more than anything. But every single writer has their own deep themes that they come back to form different perspectives."

One thing most definitely staying the same is the level of detailed research that has gone into creating a convincing Elizabethan England but it's not something that comes easy to the author. "If it feels easy, you're not doing it properly. In historical fiction, you have to get everything right, and everything needs to be researched -- clothing, houses, furniture, food, transport, the look, smells and sounds of city streets, the hierarchy of the Court and working life, the very different way men and women treated each other, armaments, sailing, life on board ship…

The Silver Skull (US) "When you're doing research, you don't normally collect 'facts.' You try to get a holistic, nuanced view of the entire world you're examining so all the individual pieces need to sink into a morass. One of the most interesting areas was about life aboard an Elizabethan galleon, though, which was all new to me. It was as strange and alien to our modern senses as being aboard an SF-nal FTL ship." 

While some of the research is book-based, other parts took Chadbourn to different physical locations. "I went to London, Edinburgh and Spain. It's important to root yourself in the realities of your characters.

"Edinburgh is one of my favourite cities. It's an interesting place, because it's directly connected with its ancient past in a way that many other modern cities aren't. I'd discovered a lot of historical information on previous visits that really interested me, and that fit with the themes of this story. It was good to go back and soak up the atmosphere again, and re-visit old haunts." 

It's not just physical locations that get visited, writing the book involves a certain amount of emotional travel too. "You go to some dark places when you're dealing with characters who have to make impossible choices in terrible situations. Examining, say, the kind and degree of torture that was a fundamental part of state security back then -- and in some areas still is today.  

"And you have to live it to write about it. Not a pleasant experience. One slightly odd reviewer seemed to think I was condoning torture simply because I included it in the story. Very bizarre. If you're writing about spying in this era, it would be a betrayal of the history not to look at the use of torture. But it was also an important part of the protagonist's character and personal dilemmas." 

These darker scenes are an essential aspect of Chadbourn's storytelling. "I know there is a certain kind of fantasy reader who likes total escapism, or at least a softer form of fiction that doesn't have too much reality in it. I'm not interested in that at all. To me, fantasy needs to come alive, and to come alive it has to reflect realistic concerns -- how we live, who we are.

"Real life has a lot of darkness in it. You don't have to dwell on it, but if you show the darkness, it makes the light brighter. If you only show the light you get a saccharine, sanitised fiction, and that's not the kind of thing I'm interested in writing."

So expect more disturbing deeds and demanding situations in the next volume too. It's called The Scar-Crow Men and centres of the murder of the playwright and spy Christopher Marlowe in 1593. 

The Sword of Albion (UK)/The Silver Skull (US) is out now. The Scar-Crow Men is due out from Bantam Press publishers in 2011.

For more information

Sarah Pinborough Draws Blood -- Lots Of It -- In New Novel

A Matter of Blood It can be difficult to get readers to pick up a debut author, to take a risk on someone they haven't read before but Sarah Pinborough has already been published in the US, has been nominated for a British Fantasy Award and her first UK novel, A Matter of Blood, is an addictive blend of crime noir and dystopian futures and well worth picking up.

The story is set in a world where the recession has left it exhausted. Crime is rising in every major city. Financial institutions across the world have collapsed, and most governments are now in debt to The Bank, a company created by the world's wealthiest men.

But Detective Inspector Cass Jones has enough on his plate without worrying about the world at large. His marriage is crumbling, he's haunted by the deeds of his past, and he's got the high-profile shooting of two schoolboys to solve -- not to mention tracking down a serial killer who calls himself the Man of Flies. Then Cass Jones' personal world is thrown into disarray when his brother shoots his own wife and child before committing suicide -- leaving Cass implicated in their deaths...

Pinborough's novel came out of her desire to do something different. "Leisure launched my career in the US but I wanted to stretch my wings away from the more formulaic horror novels," she says. "I started with a PS Novella The Language of Dying and then I wanted to try writing crime with a difference and started mulling over some ideas. I planned to take six months out of teaching to write it on spec, but as things turned out I was lucky enough to sell the trilogy before I'd written it."

It was bought by UK publishers Gollancz. Pinborough says: "I was short-listed for the British Fantasy Award for best novel in 2008, and it was a very strong short list that year with Dan Simmons, Mike Marshall Smith and Joe Hill also on it. At Fantasycon (Gollancz Senior Editor) Jo Fletcher asked Stephen Jones why I didn't have a UK deal and did I only write Leisure-style horror, and he was very kind about my work. On the back of those two things, she emailed and asked me if I'd do lunch with her.

"Over the weekend before the meeting I planned out the trilogy and wrote the first eight pages of what turned out to be A Matter of Blood (not the prologue -- that went in at the edit). After we'd had our lunch, Jo asked to see the pitch, really liked it and took it to acquisitions. Thankfully, they really liked it too! Since then they've also bought my YA trilogy, so I think Gollancz now own my soul, and I'm happy for them to have it!"

The book she'd sold her soul for was a mixture of crime and the supernatural. "I didn't want to entirely leave the 'unusual' behind, and after reading John Connelly and Michael Marshall's The Intruders, I realised that you could do crime with a difference.

"When I started thinking about the book idea, the newspapers were filled with stories of banks going under and global meltdown. As well as such a future fitting perfectly with the story I wanted to tell, I was quite fascinated about where it could all lead -- and what I could make up for that -- plus I've always been a sucker for a dystopia..."

Struggling through that dystopia is the intense and much maligned Detective Inspector Cass Jones. "Cass was always just Cass in my head. I don't remember him evolving into who he is now. I think we're all a blend of good and bad and often are too eager to hide too much of one or the other. I don't really know which bits of him are me. Maybe the self-destructive elements combined with a driven need to achieve."

Cass may have arrived fully formed for Pinborough but what about the complex story?

"The pitch was one paragraph long -- well, one paragraph per book. After the sheer joy of Gollancz buying the book, I had that awful moment of looking at that paragraph and thinking, "oh bugger. Now I've got to make all that work." I felt sick for a couple of days and then it slowly began to come together, thankfully, or this would have been a very short-lived career!"

And how did she manage to keep track and develop all the interlinking stories in the first volume alone?

"I'm quite a controlled planner -- I think you have to be if you want a book like this to pay off properly with no massive leaps of faith.

"The story got more complicated as I went along, with more things weaving together than I'd originally planned, and there were a lot of late nights scribbling in notebooks with arrows pointing to ideas that could link. It was definitely the hardest brain work I'd put into a book thus far, but I was pleased with the result. Now I have a planning sheet for each thread and then weave them together from there."

Part of that controlled planning includes giving the reader a sense of closure at the end of first volume. "I hate people that leave a book mid-story. I think it's cheating the reader. I wanted all the crime elements of the book to be resolved, with only the supernatural subplot with questions unanswered. That way if people are interested enough they can buy book two, but without feeling they have to find out who was guilty in book one. I think it's important for every book of a trilogy to have its own arc, as well as feeding into the central one."

And Pinborough isn't hanging around in progressing that central arc. "The second book is already in with [my editor] Jo Fletcher. I'm currently writing the second one of the YA trilogy so I won't get to the final book until about September, I should imagine. I know the producer of the company that have bought the TV option is keen for me to get there, because, (although he's read the second book) he wants to know how it's all going to end. I don't think I filled him with faith when I answered, 'Yeah, so do I.' Ha!

"In the second book, the supernatural arc comes more to the fore and is more obviously interwoven with the crimes Cass finds himself investigating. The story is also less contained than the first book -- one thread involves terrorism and the government. There was a lot of research for that which nearly killed me. I'm not a natural researcher."

But you'll have exercise some patience before you can get your mitts on that new volume. It's called The Shadow of the Soul and it'll be published by Gollancz in March 2011, at the same time as the mass-market paperback of A Matter of Blood.

For more information

Copyright © 2010 Sandy Auden

Sandy Auden is currently working as an enthusiastic interviewer/reviewer for SFX magazine; a tireless news hound for Starburst magazine; and a diligent interviewer/reviewer for Interzone magazine and SF Site. She spends her spare time lying down with a cold flannel on her forehead. For background information, visit

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