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Exclusive Interview: Myke Cole on His OPERATION ARCANA Story “Weapons in the Earth”

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” Myke Cole talks to August S. Evrard about his Operation Arcana story “Weapons In the Earth”…

Myke Cole is the author of the military fantasy Shadow Ops series, which has been described as “Black Hawk Down meets the X-Men.” As a security contractor, government civilian, and military officer, Myke Cole’s career has run the gamut from Counterterrorism to Cyber Warfare to Federal Law Enforcement. He’s done three tours in Iraq and was recalled to serve during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. All that conflict can wear a guy out. Thank goodness for fantasy novels, comic books, late night games of Dungeons & Dragons, and lots of angst-fueled writing.

August S. Evrard: Why goblins? The Black-Horns seem very loyal and faithful to each other (with exceptions, of course) — was this an intentional act to showcase another side of a usually maligned race? As a bonus question, how many goblin names did you come up with that you didn’t use for this story? I am imagining a large skin-bound tome adorning a mantlepiece filled with unused goblin names.

Myke Cole: When I wrote the original Shadow Ops trilogy, I needed to develop an indigenous and sentient race that could serve as a metaphor for US military relationships with Iraqi and Afghan contractors in those respective theaters of war. I’d already decided that all the monsters used in the Shadow Ops universe needed to be taken from extant literature. The idea here is that all magical creatures are real, natives of the Source, who found thin spots and crossed over to the Home Plane and were observed and documented there. I read a lot of Pliny the Younger for Control Point and a ton of Hindu mythology comic books for Fortress Frontier. Goblins popped up during this research, and that became the genesis for their role in the series. Keep in mind that it’s goblins because that’s the race that has the tightest relationship with the US military. If I was writing the Shadow Ops books from the perspective of the Indian military, it would be the Naga.

Bonus answer: I had always envisioned the goblins as having a lot in common with stone aged cultures, because they’d been able to enjoy comfort and safety due to magic as opposed to technology (you don’t need to invent a boiler to heat your house when a Pyromancer can just do it for you. Heck, you don’t need a construction industry when a Terramancer can just grow you a house). Stone age cultures usually had a much closer relationship with nature, and so I envisioned the goblins as having the same kind of declarative/descriptive names as the Oglala or Lakota. I actually only needed the names I used for the story, and came up with them fairly quickly. I keep an up-to-date and running lexicon on goblin culture, with some names and language notes, but it’s nothing like Peter V. Brett’s massive Krasian index for his Demon Cycle series. The one rule I had was no cow or horn based names. Those are high honors among the Black-Horns tribe, and aren’t given out lightly.

ASE: This story, to my mind, doesn’t carry a lot of the trappings I’ve come to expect from military genre tales. For instance, there’s no millimetre descriptions, long loadout lists or excessive acronyms. But at its core, there is instead a story of comraderie, individual heroism, and the lessons inherent in becoming a leader. What do you think defines military fantasy, if anything? More specifically, what makes this story military fantasy?

MC: Weapons in the Earth is a Prisoner of War (POW) story. I deliberately wrote it that way, with the goal of pointing out that there are many faces to the military experience, and most media only presents us with one. I was really excited when This Little War of Mine (a video game from 11-bit Studios) came out, as it focused on the experience of refugees and not that of soldiers. Military subgenre literature almost always focuses on the warrior experience, be it tragic or glorious. This is true for my own work. What it rarely addresses are the HUGE ripples that military engagements send out, affecting huge civilian populations, the direction of cultures, or industries, or the physical environment. With Weapons in the Earth, I wanted to strike a blow toward setting that right, toward telling the WHOLE story. Weapons in the Earth isn’t a piece of gear-porn, or a laydown on Order-of-Battle. There isn’t even much organized fighting in it. But it IS a military story, and I hope it makes folks think about the other side of war.

ASE: You have many references to humans, but it’s all part of the worldbuilding. What was your intent with keeping humans in the background? Should we expect to see Twig & Co showing up in the next Shadow Ops book?

MC: The next Shadow Ops book has the working title of Render, and will be set on the same timeline as Breach Zone (Gemini Cell and Javelin Rain take place many years before Control Point, before the Source’s existence is known). It follows the story of Render, one of the members of the Houston Street Selfer Gang, after the events of Fortress Frontier. The outline right now is confined to the Home Plane, but no outline has ever made it through to a finished novel without a few twists and turns. I won’t know what will happen until I sit down to write it.

The humans in Weapons in the Earth are deliberately in the background. One of the goals of the piece is to show how the impact of military conflict has changed the intertribal dynamic between goblin bands. Again, showing how war sends out RIPPLES that change everything. Humans vs. goblins is too binary, too simplistic. I wanted to get at the meat of how the whole universe changes every time an army gathers.

ASE: Music and magic have gone together before, but I found the song of Earth magic strongly compelling. The connection with the kine, the kinds of magic that could be performed in concert with the earth, the emotional state required for sorcery all built a very real feeling system of magic. What sources inspired you in the creation of goblin magic?

MC: I have always striven to have my magic system work “scientifically” and be bounded by hard rules. Pat Rothfuss’ Sympathy and Brandon Sanderson’s Allomancy are prime examples of this done well. When the reader knows exactly what to expect from a magic system, they can truly be worried for the protagonists, who can be genuinely held at risk according to establish “laws of nature.” If your reader is thinking “Oh, crap! How are they going to get out of this one?” You’re doing it right.

With the magic in Weapons in the Earth, I was dealing with a system that was already well established in the Shadow Ops trilogy. and so all I had to do was think about how a stone-aged culture would interpret that. Scientifically, magic is an elemental force that suffuses the Source, and is conducted through the limbic system of the Sorcerer’s brain. Goblins have more sensitive limbic systems, and so come up Latent much more often. It was pretty easy, given the bounds of how my magic system works, to dream up how a goblin Sorcerer would experience it.

ASE: Twig is searching for stillness, but only finds it in the heart of chaos, after he’s lost everything he cares for — do you believe finding inner peace can only come with great loss, or can we find that stillness in ourselves without having to sacrifice everything and go through hell?

MC: That is certainly the way it has been for me. The truest moments of calm I have known in my life have been in the midst of violent crisis (a law enforcement encounter, natural disaster response, getting shot at). It is only afterward that I have panicked or gone to pieces. From talking to fellow crisis responders and armed-service members, I know that experience is fairly common.

But Allah loves wonderous variety, as Morgan Freeman tells us in one of the worst Robin Hood retellings ever. People come to different things in different ways.

ASE: 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?

MC: The soul of any story is conflict, and I cannot think of anything that produces more ready-made conflict than war.

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

MC: Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series is almost never credited as a military fantasy, despite it being about the Napoleonic Wars with a dragon-mounted aerial corps. That she isn’t celebrated as a military writer is a travesty, and a source of constant frustration for me. It’s an amazing series. Start with His Majesty’s Dragon if you haven’t already.

Perhaps my favorite military fantasy novel is also never credited as a military fantasy – Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes. The entire novel chronicles a few days in a single battle, and is one of the major influences in Breach Zone.


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).

1 Comment on Exclusive Interview: Myke Cole on His OPERATION ARCANA Story “Weapons in the Earth”

  1. Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin) // March 6, 2015 at 1:33 pm //

    Thanks, Myke. I think the series wobbles a bit as you into it, but I agree with you about the first few volumes of Temeraire. 🙂

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