INTERVIEW: Brian McClellan Talks Epic Fantasy and “Promise of Blood”

Writer Brian McClellan began writing Wheel of Time roleplaying fiction in his teens, and has been writing every since. Living in Ohio with his wife, two dogs, a cat, and bees. Lots of bees. Promise of Blood, out from Orbit in April 2013, is his first novel and the first in The Powder Mage Trilogy.

Brian kindly sat down to answer some questions about his work.


Paul Weimer: Who is Brian McClellan?

Brian McClellan: Brian McClellan is a lot of things.

I’m a husband; I’ve been married a little over five years to the love of my life. I’m a geek; I read science fiction and fantasy, play far too many computer games like Civilization and Skyrim, and host a small tabletop gaming group every few weeks. I’m a beekeeper; I started my first honey bee hive last spring and harvested ninety pounds of honey last fall.

I’m also an author. My debut epic fantasy, Promise of Blood, is being released internationally by Orbit Books in April. I’ve been writing since high school (probably about ten years now) and have told myself since freshman year of college that I’d someday make my living writing fantasy novels.

PW: Where and with whom did you start reading Science Fiction and Fantasy?

BM:I actually started reading fantasy with my mom when I was a kid. Or rather, she started reading to me. Some of my earliest memories are of her reading C.S. Lewis to me before bed. As I grew older, I read Tolkien on my own, and then I went through a King Arthur phase. It wasn’t until middle school (around age 13 or 14) that I began reading modern epic fantasy, but when I did… boy howdy. I’d read anything I could get my hands on. I started off with David Eddings and Tracy Hickman, then moved on to the likes of Robert Jordan. Dune and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy were probably my earliest science fiction reads. I was introduced to the Star Wars movies at a very young age but didn’t read any of the books until my teens. I don’t read it any more, but I think I devoured everything up to the Yuuzhan Vong story line and I still have a few choice favorites on my shelves.

PW: What is it about Epic Fantasy, as opposed to other subgenres of SF and Fantasy, that draws your attention as a reader–and as a writer?

BM: Don’t get me wrong, I love all sorts of subgenres. But Epic Fantasy has always called to me. I think that it gives you a level of submersion not available in most other genres. Look at A Song of Ice and Fire or Wheel of Time. Each of those worlds has a cast of hundreds—if not thousands—of characters and dozens of fully realized cultures. You can’t get any closer to actually being in a magical world than that.

PW: Until recently, a lot of epic fantasy had paint-by-numbers approach to the types of protagonists and antagonists. Young person, possibly pastoral setting, fights evil. Throw in a mentor, and very likely inhuman protagonist. Ring the changes on that, again and again. While that has changed, it is still the standard paradigm. Promise of Blood, however, takes things in a different direction with its cast. What motivated you to create a sixty year old field marshal as the (cover) protagonist?

BM: I’ve always been fascinated by the great world-shakers of history. Specifically, Julius Caesar and Napoleon. These were men who looked around them and saw everything wrong with their world and decided to change it—and did! Whether you see them as villains or heroes or something in between, you have to respect that. When I came up with the concept of beginning the book with a coup, I knew immediately that I wanted to create a real world-shaker of a man. Someone with the nerve and experience to pull off a coup, and a whole myriad of reasons for doing it. A farm boy didn’t fit the bill He absolutely had to be a viewpoint character because I wanted to look in to the mind of a man who doesn’t answer to anyone. We so seldom see a character like that as the good guy because of the corruption that kind of power usually brings.

PW: With a character with decades of experience behind him, there is a lot of room of backstory that informs his actions, even if we the readers do not see it. How much or how much detail of Field Marshal Tamas biography do you know, as the author?

BM: Quite a lot. With a character like Tamas, it’s important to know most of the major milestones in his life; his childhood, his rise through the ranks, his marriage, foreign campaigns. There are some things I have put considerably more detail into than others, even if the reader never sees those details.

PW: Tell me about the other two legs of the character tripod: Inspector Adamat and Captain Taniel. How did they come to be?

BM: Taniel was my attempt to have a character that is more relatable to younger people, experiencing the same time in his life when most kids today have gone off to college and are trying to figure out who they are. He’s a little lost as an individual. He has a purpose, but doesn’t know if it’s his purpose.

Adamat came about because I knew I needed a different perspective. Unlike the other two, he’s not a soldier. He’s a working man with significant debts and a large family to feed and protect. There’s certainly a little bit of Sherlock Holmes in him. I loved the aesthetic of the Guy Ritchie film and the film itself—not just the character of Holmes—really helped inspire who and what Adamat was. There’s even a scene in Promise of Blood that is a mish-mash of my favorite scene from The Aeneid, and the bare knuckle boxing scene from Ritchie’s film.

PW: In Promise of Blood, you have Tamas and Taniel as father and son point of view characters and they have an interesting relationship. What models and inspirations did you use in creating their bond?

BM: None in particular. You might say that they are a composite of all the father-son relationships I’ve even seen. Both of them have expectations that the other can’t or won’t live up to. In some ways they are very close and in others they couldn’t be further apart. It was interesting to write from both perspectives.

PW: Given his age,and the subject matter, Tamas’ story (or at least the cover picture) seem to be inspired by Oliver Cromwell and Napoleon Bonaparte. Are there explicit parallels or allusions to post French Revolution France and the English Civil War in Promise of Blood?

BM: The book is inspired heavily by French history starting with the French Revolution and ending with the June Rebellion of 1832 (around which much of the plot of Les Miserables is centered). There are certainly both allusions and direct parallels, but most of them are skin deep. I don’t think there’s anywhere in the book where a reader would stop and complain that it’s just a fantasy retelling of the French Revolution.

PW: That is something I have heard as a minority complaint in connection with Guy Gavriel Kay’s work. Was that a worry for you in using historical parallels and allusions, that you would be accused of recapitulating history, directly, if you hewed too closely to French history?

BM: From the beginning, the story was so much different from our own world history that this wasn’t something I ever worried too much about. I don’t think there’s anything so overt that it would distract the reader.

PW: Speaking of worldbuilding, I see that while Promise of Blood is nigh, The Crimson Campaign, its sequel, has a cover. What was it like writing the sequel, as compared to the first book?

BM: Very different. The initial pitch for book two was a very different novel than The Crimson Campaign. I spent a couple of months trying to make that original outline work and it just wasn’t clicking for me. So I tossed the whole thing out and started over. When you’re not under contract—I wasn’t when I originally wrote Promise of Blood—that kind of thing is no big deal. But book two had a deadline and I kept having to ask for a couple more weeks and I felt terrible that I didn’t have it to them on time which made my writing worse and it was one big headache.

But I finished The Crimson Campaign and word came back from my editor just this morning that she loved it and thinks it’s even better than Promise of Blood

PW: What else did you discover about writing, the world and the characters, in the writing of The Crimson Campaign?

BM: I learned a whole lot about pacing from Promise of Blood, and The Crimson Campaign is the first place I was able to test what I’ve learned. I think it shows—in a good way. The world of the Nine Nations expanded greatly during the writing of TCC. A lot of it was already in my head from working on book one, but I really had to flesh it out and draw maps and make pages upon pages of notes about Adro’s neighboring countries.

PW: As a fan of cartography and worldbuilding, I will look forward to that. So, Promise of Blood is coming out on April 16th, and the Crimson Campaign comes out next spring. What, then, comes next for you?

BM: I believe that the hitherto-unwritten book three is penciled in for a September 2014 release.

I’m not really sure where it goes from there as this is my first time through the process. My guess is that if Promise of Blood does well, Orbit will want to see a proposal for the next series. I would love to follow in Joe Abercrombie’s footsteps and put out several standalone sequels in the same world as the Powder Mage Trilogy.

I have lots of ideas in my head. There’s an urban fantasy series kicking around in my head, as well as a young adult standalone. Another epic fantasy trilogy in a new world. I could probably spend ten years writing based solely on ideas already cooking.

PW: Ideas are easy. Execution, ay, there’s the rub. So, I want to thank you for sitting down to talk to me. Where can readers learn more about you? Are you attending any conventions this year?

BM: Readers can find me at www.brianmcclellan.com or on twitter @briantmcclellan.

I will likely be at Worldcon in San Antonio this year, but that’s the only one I’m planning for.

Thanks for having me, Paul. It was a pleasure.

PW: Thank you, Brian!