In his twenties, Angus Watson’s jobs ranged from forklift truck driver to investment banker. He spent his thirties on various assignments as a freelance writer, including looking for Bigfoot in the USA for the Telegraph, diving on the scuppered German fleet at Scapa Flow for the Financial Times and swimming with sea lions off the Galapagos Islands for the Times. Now entering his forties, Angus lives in London with his wife Nicola and baby son Charlie. As a fan of both historical fiction and epic fantasy, he came up with the idea of writing a fantasy set in the Iron Age when exploring British hillforts for the Telegraph, and developed the story while walking Britain’s ancient paths for further articles.
by Angus Watson
Age of Iron author Angus Watson lost touch with fantasy novels for most of his adult life, but when he found them again he fell so hard that he wrote an epic fantasy trilogy.
Seven years ago I was a full time freelance features writer for newspapers, mainly the Financial Times and the Telegraph. I was happy with my lot. If you’d told me that I was about to give it all up to write a massive fantasy trilogy and have it published by Orbit, the world’s largest fantasy publisher, I would have said, no, terribly sorry, I think you’re mistaking me for a nerd.
Yet I’ve just finished writing the third book in the Iron Age series, an epic historical fantasy trilogy that has consumed the last five years of my life. The first book, Age of Iron, came out last September, got great reviews and is selling like hot potatoes. Book two, Clash of Iron came out this April and went equally well, and Reign of Iron, book three, is out this September.
So what changed to turn me from a sceptic to a both-feet-in-the-fantasy-bucket turbo geek?
I was a nerd child, totally teed up to become an adult fantasy fan. I liked comics, Marvel and DC, but my favourite were Asterix books. I didn’t realise until I re-read a load for research, but Asterix is a historical fantasy set at exactly the same time as my books (you might spot characters influenced by Asterix, Obelix, Vitalstatistix and Getafix in Clash of Iron).
Books-wise, I loved Narnia and Watership Down, both fantasy, and the Hitchhikers’ Guide series. The latter is sci-fi, but sci-fi is just future fantasy.
Films – well it was Star Wars all the way. When Return of the Jedi came out I was eleven years old and had already read the novel of the film twice. I had about as many Star Wars toys as you could shake a lightsabre at. I was aware of Lord of the Rings, but my big brother Tim was so into Tolkien that it put me off, and I was busy with my Star Wars toys anyway.
I was more than ready to become a super geek.
I wanted to be cool. Would Han Solo have played Dungeons and Dragons? I thought not.
Then I lost fantasy completely in my teens, probably because of an overbearing and tragic image consciousness.
At school I strutted about and worried about my hair. There were people playing fantasy board games and I was drawn to them, but they were not the cool people and I wanted to be cool. Would Han Solo have played Dungeons and Dragons? I thought not. Luke Skywalker would have done, which reinforced the point.
Probably because I studied English for A Level, and then had many friends at university studying literature, and because I thought I was a thrillingly bright intellectual, even though I was studying geography, I stopped reading anything that was set in another reality. I stuck to the classics like Dickens, Hardy, Austen, Voltaire and Tolstoy, great American authors like Persig, Vonnegut and Irving, and modern ‘literary’ authors like Ian McEwan, John Fowles and Graham Swift.
I enjoyed these books, even loved some, but I was reading them at least partly to be seen to be reading them. At university, then travelling the world with a backpack and then trundling to pointless office jobs on the London Underground, I liked reading a book whose cover yelled: ‘Look at me! I am clever!’
But all this time my love of fantasy was bubbling like the magma underneath the Yellowstone super volcano, ready to burst out and change my world. I never considered reading a fantasy novel, but in my twenties I found myself subscribing to 2000 AD and trawling comic shops for old Strontium Dogs and Slaines. My brother introduced me to the crack cocaine of video gaming, and I morphed from countless hours playing Doom and Command and Conquer to even more countless hours in the fantasy realms of Dungeon Siege, Dragon Age, Fable and – king of them all – The Elder Scrolls. I enjoyed the Conan films very much, and thought the Lord of the Rings series were about the best films ever.
But I STILL didn’t realise that I wanted to read fantasy books. I was lapping up games, films and comics that were entirely derived from fantasy novels, but still I couldn’t see that fantasy literature had any value.
“I’ve told you before, I’m not reading your nerd rubbish.”
When I was thirty or so I left office work, took a writing course, and became a full time freelance features writer. I wanted to write a novel, but I had no idea what to write. My literary tastes had become less pretentious and I was into historical novels, Patrick O’Brian and George MacDonald Fraser particularly, the excellent comic crime books of Carl Hiaasen and others, so I had a vague idea my book might be historical and would try to have some humour in it.
But I had no ideas for settings, characters or story.
In my mid thirties, my older brother Tim handed me The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie and The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. He’d been reading fantasy for ever, a book a week, and had often banged on about Terry Goodkind, David Gemmell et al. I’d always ignored him and returned to the latest Julian Barnes. This time he was persistent.
‘You have to read these’ he said.
‘I’ve told you before, I’m not reading your nerd rubbish.’
‘You will like these. Try either. If you don’t like it after seventy pages give them both back. But you will like it.’
Tim, as always, was right.
I was stunned. Abercrombie and Lynch’s books were so good, right up there with the best books I’d ever read, maybe even at the top of that pile.
It wasn’t just the characters, wonderful worlds and gripping plots, it was the attitude of the books. They were beautifully witty and intelligent. They understood that all humans are fallible, mocked pomposity, celebrated humility but at the same time allowed that greatness and heroism is possible. I’ve long had three central life tenets:
- The only route to happiness is to impress yourself regularly (usually by achieving something that wasn’t easy)
- We are all equal
- We are all dicks
With their heroes who were basically kind and decent, refused to take anything seriously – themselves especially – and, when they really had to, did the job and did it well, Lynch and Abercrombie’s books seemed to celebrate my maxims.
I had never imagined – or at least had forgotten – that fantasy books could be good books. Screw the pretentious idiots who say that books with orcs and magic cannot be ‘literary’ fiction, I thought. Abercrombie and Lynch have at least as much literary merit as anything that Ian McEwan and the gang churn out.
I had discovered what I wanted to write.
I went fantasy crazy, reading David Gemmell, Robin Hobb, Robert Jordan and others. I stumbled upon a little-known author who I really must recommend called George R. R. Martin.
I still loved historical fiction though, and had a second moment of revelation on a hillfort in Dorset when I realised that if I wrote about an unknown period of history, I could make up my own world and mix the fantastic and the historical. So I’ve put magic into the British Iron Age. And do you know what? No historian can tell you with certainty that there was no magic in the British Iron Age (well they can and they might (see maxim three above) but they’d be wrong).
My epic fantasy set in the Iron Age was taken on first by an agent, then by Orbit. My fantasy reading slowed down because I was too busy writing Age of Iron.
I haven’t given up on reading ‘straight’ literature entirely, and I may even write some, but I have realised that life is too short to base your book choice on what other people are going to think about it. Of course, now we’ve all got Kindles, who’s ever going to know? On that note, here’s a business idea that anyone who wants to tap into the show-off market can have for free: E-readers that display the title of the book you’re reading in big bright letters on the outside of the machine.
As for my fantasy reading, there’s no stopping me now. I’ve recently finished Den Patrick’s excellent The Boy with the Porcelain Blade, I’m a few pages into a debut novel from one of my Orbit contemporaries, Stephen Aryan’s Battlemage (and enjoying it very much so far), AND I’m reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe out loud to my wife’s growing stomach every evening (she’s pregnant, not binge eating). But which fantasy book should I read after that? Give me a shout at @GusWatson on twitter and let me know…