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Exclusive Interview: Ari Marmell on His OPERATION ARCANA Story “Heavy Sulfur”

SF Signal is pleased to present a series of interviews with the authors of the military fantasy anthology, Operation Arcana edited by John Joseph Adams and available now from Baen books.

Here’s what Operation Arcana is about:

In the realms of fantasy, the battlefield is where heroism comes alive, magic is unleashed, and legends are made and unmade. From the War of the Ring, Tolkien’s epic battle of good versus evil, to The Battle of the Blackwater, George R.R. Martin’s grim portrait of the horror and futility of war, these fantastical conflicts reflect our highest hopes and darkest fears, bringing us mesmerizing visions of silver spears shining in the sun and vast hordes of savage beasts who threaten to destroy all that we hold dear.

Now acclaimed editor John Joseph Adams is sounding the battle cry and sixteen of today’s top authors are reporting for duty, spinning never-before-published, spellbinding tales of military fantasy, including a Black Company story from Glen Cook, a Paksenarrion story from Elizabeth Moon, and a Shadow Ops story by Myke Cole. Within these pages you’ll also find World War I trenches cloaked in poison gas and sorcery, modern day elite special forces battling hosts of the damned, and steampunk soldiers fighting for their lives in a world torn apart by powers that defy imagination.

Featuring both grizzled veterans and fresh young recruits alike, including Tanya Huff, Simon R. Green, Carrie Vaughn, Jonathan Maberry, and Seanan McGuire, Operation Arcana is a must for any military buff or fantasy fan.

You’ll never look at war the same way again.

In this “mission debrief” Ari Marmell talks to Andrea Johnson about his Operation Arcana story “Heavy Sulfur”…

Ari Marmell would love to tell you all about the esoteric jobs and wacky adventures he had on the way to becoming an author, since that’s what other authors seem to do in these sections. Unfortunately, he doesn’t actually have any, as the most exciting thing about his professional life, besides his novel writing, is the work he’s done for Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games. His published fiction consists of both fully original works and licensed/tie-in properties—including Darksiders and Magic: the Gathering—for publishers such as Del Rey, Pyr Books, Titan Books, and Wizards of the Coast. His most recent creation is the Mick Oberon series, urban fantasy/noir set in Gangland Chicago. Ari lives in an apartment that’s almost as cluttered as his subconscious, which he shares (the apartment, not the subconscious, though sometimes it seems like it) with George—his wife—and a cat who really, really thinks it’s dinner time. Find Ari online at and on Twitter @mouseferatu.

Andrea Johnson: What inspired this story?

Ari Marmell: The whole concept came from a single image, actually. I don’t recall why I was thinking about the first World War–it might have been a conversation with my wife; she’s a history buff–but I suddenly found myself envisioning a wizard in a gas mask, mustard gas billowing from his staff. Everything else grew from that one “picture.”

AJ: What makes the occult so fun to write about?

AM: For me, it’s the combination of mystery, fantasy, and horror that you can eke out of it. There’s so much variety to different occult traditions in the real world, to say nothing of those created specifically for modern fantasy. It allows the writer to explore a combination of the real/historical and the fantastic in a way that few other topics ever do.

AJ: “Heavy Sulfer” takes place during World War I. Can you tell us a little about the research you did on that time period?

AM: Mostly I did a lot of reading on trench warfare, since I knew the entire story would be taking place on the western front. I wanted to make sure I got the feel of it, the sense of life lived in these “burrows.” Added to that was some reading up on British military rank structure, as well as a bit of a refresher on the Goetia.

AJ: Where there any aspects of the story that were particularly difficult to write?

AM: Getting the “voice” right, I think. Using the proper terminology for the time and place; making the character sound old-fashioned and British without making the voice ring false or feel stilted.

AJ: How do you think alchamancers and poison-witches and the like might change modern warfare?

AM: That’d depend on how common they were, I’d think. If there are only a few, it’s not much different than having specialized soldiers or units in the real world. If they were a primary focus of military development, though? Modern warfare would look VERY different. Fewer drones or really big bombs, more clashing demons and soldiers performing defensive rituals when they hole up somewhere. I’m sure there’d be technological advancement, but I don’t think it’d look much like it does today. If nothing else, magic requires far less in the way of materiel–or at least drastically different sorts of it.

AJ: What is the appeal of military fantasy? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do readers love it so much?

AM: It’s both exciting and accessible. You have all the escapism of fantasy, but with a source of drama and a form of conflict that every reader today is familiar with, and likely has some very strong feelings toward. It’s an action-oriented shortcut to “I may not know this world, but I understand and sympathize with its people.”

AJ: What are some of your favorite examples of military fantasy, and what makes them your favorites?

AM: I’d say Cook’s Black Company is probably a solid archetype and helped shape the genre; I’m quite fond of those. I like Weber and Turtledove, although–and this may seem odd, given the nature of “Heavy Sulfur”–I really prefer Turtledove’s earlier traditional fantasy to his alternate histories. Barclay’s Chronicles of the Raven doesn’t get nearly enough attention; it’s sort of a higher-fantasy descendant of the Black Company. Feist’s Riftwar is a classic, of course. And lots of others, but this is turning into a laundry list.

I don’t know if I can put my finger on what makes them my favorites. I think it’s just the right combination of the escapism and excitement I mentioned earlier. If a book can grab me, make me want to keep going at 5 am, make me wish I could read faster, there’s not a lot more I can ask of it.


About Kristin Centorcelli (842 Articles)
Kristin Centorcelli is the Associate Editor at SF Signal, proprietor of My Bookish Ways, a reviewer for Library Journal and Publisher’s Weekly, and has also written for Crime Fiction Lover, Criminal Element, and Mystery Scene Magazine. She has been reviewing books since late 2010, in an effort to get through a rather immense personal library, while also discussing it with whoever will willingly sit still (and some that won’t).
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