Marc Turner is the author of the Chronicles of the Exiles series from Tor. The first novel in the series, When The Heavens Fall has now been followed by the second novel in the series, The Dragon Hunters. Marc kindly sat down with me to talk about his series and epic fantasy in general.
PW: Briefly, could you tell us who you are and what you do.
MT: Hi, I am Marc Turner. I live in Durham in the UK with my wife and six-year-old son, and I enjoy reading, playing computer games and escaping into the countryside. As to what I do, that’s a question my wife asks me frequently. Alongside bouts of staring out of the window, and hours spent on social media, I occasionally find time to write the Chronicles of the Exile series. It is published by Tor in the US and Titan in the UK, and I would describe it as epic fantasy with a dark edge and a healthy dose of humour.
PW: The Chronicles of the Exile (COTE) series is what I glibly call Malazan Fantasy. Its Epic Fantasy, but notably with a strong note and emphasis on deep time events, gods, ancient elder races, parallel dimensions, strange powers, and a sense of events that influence things for millennia to come. What drew you work in this fantastic space rather than more traditional epic fantasy or other forms of secondary world fantasy?
MT: The Malazan reference is interesting, because Steven Erikson is the author whose work I would say has most influenced me, and to whom I am most often compared. No one puts the “epic” into epic fantasy like Erikson does. He reminds me of the reason I started reading fantasy all those years ago: for the chance to lose myself in a secondary world, and encounter wondrous new cultures, creatures, and magic systems. I love those elements in the books I read. Of course, character and story must always come before world-building, but if you can set those same characters and that same story against a backdrop of dragon hunts and undead armies, why wouldn’t you?
In terms of “deep time events”, I hope that the inclusion of an element of history in my world-building contributes depth to the book. I like to give readers the sense of a world that exists beyond the four corners of the story. When the characters enter stage right, the story-world shouldn’t just spring up out of the ground like one of those pop-up books. It will have existed long before this story began, and will continue to exist long after. Also, history can add mystery and drama to a setting. The COTE World is littered with the ruins of ancient civilisations. Very few people know how or why those ruins came to be, so anyone setting foot in them is going to be in for a surprise. And when I say “surprise”, I don’t mean the “friends jumping out to throw you a party” sort.
PW: What was the genesis of the CoTE World? Where did you begin? What sort of World Bible do you keep?
MT: If there was a genesis of the Lands of the Exile, it was in those maps that have “Here Be Dragons” or something similar on them to convey an area that is unexplored or dangerous. I wanted my entire world to be like that.
As to where I began with creating it, that’s difficult to say since the “beginning” was ten years or so ago. Before each book, I spend time thinking about the different civilizations and places that will feature in it. But only if they are integral to the story. So, in When the Heavens Fall, there are two ancient races, the Vamilian and the Fangalar, who could benefit from a session or two of group therapy. Theirs is a key thread of the novel, so I needed to know about both cultures beforehand. On the other hand, other races in the book such as the Endorions (who are able to change the speed at which they move through time) are little more than names to me.
In a recent review of Dragon Hunters, the reviewer said she felt like she could point to any place on the map, and I would be able to tell her about its history and inhabitants. That’s not quite true. I did put time into developing the story-world before I started writing in it, but there has to be a balance. Taken to extremes, that kind of development can become a displacement activity to delay doing any actual writing. Normally, of course, if there’s procrastination to be done, then I’m your man. But it simply isn’t worth my time to invent an encyclopaedia’s worth of detail that won’t appear in the books. That means I have to engage in a little smoke and mirrors. By dropping in a fact here and an aside there, I hope to create the impression of a living, breathing world, whilst at the same time not filling the book with needless information that acts as a drag on the story.
PW: When the Heavens Fall (WTHF) is the story of a powerful Book, sorcerers, gods, and kingdoms seeking its power. Why start the Chronicles of the Exile universe with *this* story and these characters?
MT: Again, that is a difficult question to answer, because I wrote the book so long ago. Probably the most I can say is that I liked the idea of someone challenging the Lord of the Dead for control of the underworld, because that would make for an epic confrontation.
As for the characters in WTHF, I don’t go into a book intending to populate it with a particular type of person. Occasionally a character springs fully formed into my mind, but more often I have only a vague sense of their personality at the start of the book. I do some planning regarding their background, as well as the events in their life that have most shaped them. I even put them on a virtual psychiatrist’s couch and give them a good grilling. But they are still largely strangers to me on page one, and it is only through telling their stories in the book that I will get to know them.
Having said that, the characters in WTHF do share some common attributes. First, they are all what I would call shades of grey. You won’t find traditional heroes in my books, if only because the other characters would kill them out of principle. For me, characters that are exclusively good are no more interesting (or believable) than characters that are exclusively evil. And of course if a character is morally conflicted, that just means I have more opportunities to make life awkward for them in the book!
Second, all of the characters in WTHF are searching for fulfilment in some way. When I started writing, I was stuck in a job I didn’t enjoy, and trying to find a way out. Put crudely, I faced a choice between the security of “9 to 5”, and the fulfilment of doing something I loved – writing. Most of the characters in WTHF are similarly trying to find their way in life. For example, Luker feels like an outsider within the Guardian order, but the Guardians are all he has known, so turning his back on them isn’t something he can do easily. Other characters face similarly difficult choices: Parolla must choose between revenge and family, and Romany must choose between red wine and white.
PW: The Dragon Hunters (TDH), by contrast, in locale and construction feels like a low fantasy take on the COTE World, and almost like a rebooted take on same. What drew you to tell a smaller story after the epic nature of WTHF?
MT: Interestingly, I read a review of DH that said it was more epic than WTHF, because it encompassed the lives of a greater number of characters, and it resulted in more serious ramifications for the world. I would probably agree with you that the story is “smaller”, though, in the sense that it takes place in a more confined area and over a shorter period of time – just four days. But it’s still crammed with fantastical creatures and locations. So whilst it might have less magic in it than WTHF, that’s only in the sense that the Atlantic has less water in it than the Pacific.
The contrasts between the books did not arise out of a conscious decision on my part; they simply resulted from the different stories I wanted to tell. I guess that raises the question of what makes a “typical” story in the COTW World. The characteristics common to my books – aside from the towering creativity and the quality of the storytelling (ahem) – are the interweaving storylines, the gritty characters, the dark humour, and the detailed world-building. Given those elements, there is clearly a huge variety of stories I can tell. WTHF and DH probably represent opposite ends of that story scale, though. The next book in the series falls somewhere between the two.
PW: There is only the thinnest of connections between WTHF and TDH, which appear to take place near-contemporaneously. Was it always your intention to tell stories separated in space but not in time?
MT: There are more connections between WTHF and DH than might immediately be apparent, but I take your point. It was always my plan to make each book a distinct and complete story. As a reader myself, I know how frustrating it can be when you read a novel in a series, and it finishes with no hint of a resolution in sight. So in each of my books, the ending ties up most of the story-threads at issue, while leaving a number of other threads to take forward into later novels. I find that type of book more satisfying to read. As an author, it is also more fun to write, because you can concentrate on bringing the storylines together for a climactic finale. You can therefore read DH even if you haven’t already read WTHF.
(Interviewer’s note: Exactly. The Dragon Hunters stands extremely well on its own)
PW: “There’s a Devil Watching Over You” is a short story set in the COTE universe and features a character, Luker, from WTHF. Do you have further plans for exploring some of the other characters in the novels (or new ones) by means of short fiction?
MT: I’ve already written the first draft of another short story featuring Luker and Senar, and I’m waiting to find the right home for it before I give it a polish. I’ll also be writing a story for Fantasy Faction’s Guns and Dragons anthology which will take place in the Rubyholt Isles – the setting of Red Tide.
As an aside, the point-of-view character from “There’s a Devil”, Safiya, will return later in the COTE series. What’s more, she will bump into Luker again. I wrote that particular scene recently, and I can tell you they were *thrilled* to see each other again.
Oh, and look! Here’s a link to “There’s a Devil” at my website. How did that get there?
(Interviewer’s note: There is also a narrated version at Marc’s website, narrated by Emma Newman)
PW: What comes next in the COTE universe?
MT: Next comes book three, Red Tide. It’s out in September this year, and features (among other things) an entire nation of pirates, a man who can make his dreams manifest in the waking world, and perhaps another sea dragon or three. I’d say it’s my most ambitious book so far, and the response from my beta readers has been very positive.
PW: What have you read lately to inspire elements of the COTE universe? What have you read recently to unwind and relax?
To inspire elements of the COTE universe? Nothing that I can think of. And to be honest, I’d shy away from that sort of influence. When I was writing WTHF, I remember reading new books with a degree of dread, because I was terrified I might find that someone else had already used one of my ideas. It didn’t happen with WTHF, but it has happened with something else I wrote.
To unwind and relax, I recently read The Tiger and the Wolf by Adrian Tchaikovsky, which had great characters and excellent world-building. I’m currently reading an ARC of Tom Lloyd’s Stranger of Tempest. It’s early days, but I’m really liking it so far.
PW: Where can readers find out more about you and your work?
MT: At my website, www.marcturner.net, on Twitter, on Facebook, and on the databases of crime-fighting agencies around the western world. Maybe.