Tag Archives: fantasy

An image of a stained glass window, showing an elf, fading to a sketch; deleting characters is part of writing novels like The Fey Man

An Open Letter to Arvel, A Deleted Character

Dear Arvel,

No doubt you’re wondering why you don’t exist (insomuch as any fictional character can be said to exist). After all, you were a character in The Fey Man for many years before I wiped you from the page. Only me, and a handful of beta readers who found your name in a dialogue tag I missed, know you were ever there. And what did you do to deserve this fate? Not very much at all.

Don’t mistake me, Arvel, this wasn’t personal. I actually quite liked you. As the youngest of the Eastern elfs you had a naive air to you that humanised the elfs a little. You also didn’t really know why Neirin had brought you on his quest, and your ignorant trust in your master was quite sweet. But, initially, you had only one purpose: to die.

That meant you had nothing else to do, and I forgot you for pages at a time. So I gave you more to do. Being made a sailor by trade gave you a bigger role in Neirin’s plans and made you vital to his quest. But events in The Fey Man meant you never got to demonstrate that role. So, again, I forgot about you. Nice as you were, you were relegated to hanging around in the background.

I want you to know it wasn’t an easy decision to cut you from the novel. Because I liked you as a person, I kept convincing myself that you served a purpose. I thought you added depth to the world of The Fey Man, a further dimension to the story. I thought if I could just get one thing right, find one small tweak, that it would solve the problem of you.

But ultimately I knew you added only ambience, like mood lighting. I don’t mean to be harsh, Arvel, but you were dead weight. You were dragging the novel down, another character for the reader to remember with no reason for being there. You had to go.

Being a writer is a strange occupation; who else mourns a person who never existed? Sometimes I wonder if you might come back in some way. But I think you’ve developed too much of your own baggage. And I’m afraid your best qualities were given to other characters. Brega inherited your familial shame from the poor death of an ancestor. Judge Hullworth inherited some of your naivety. And someone else died (sorry, Arvel, even you’ll have to read The Fey Man to find out who).

So I’m afraid you’ll have to make do with almost existing, Arvel. At least your sacrifice made The Fey Man a better novel so, for that, you will always have my gratitude.

Yours,

James

Want to read the novel that Arvel was deleted from? Download your free copy of The Fey Man today!

The cover for The Fey Man

Writing Lessons from The Fey Man

They say that there’s no better way to learn writing than by writing. Which is certainly true. After all, you can’t find any bad habits, see any common flaws, or make any mistakes by not doing anything. And, although The Fey Man is the fourth novel I’ve written (but the only one to be published) it still had a lot to teach me.

Be Prepared to Sacrifice Everything

I cut a lot from The Fey Man. A whole character, Arvel, was scrubbed from existence. A subplot in which Tom ensured the new employment of his personal attendant before he left Cairnagan. Encounters with fay, men, even a few dwarfs.

All of these things slowed the story down at best and made it confusing at worst. Arvel had nothing to do, Tom’s attendant meant it took too long to leave Cairnagan, and the other plot elements prolonged the journey too much. I was sad to see them go, but the novel is better for it.

Made-up Places Need a Clear Geography

One of things my beta readers seemed to agree on was this: they struggled to picture the world of The Fey Man. How big it was, where one place was in relation to another, and so on. One reader thought the party was travelling north even though I’d mentioned south a dozen times.

Maps are one element that will help the reader, but I didn’t want to force her to flick back and forth. So I went through the manuscript and tweaked a lot of text to try and establish a sense of the world. I just hope I succeeded!

It’s Also About What You Don’t Write

At the beginning of this journey I had a tendency to spell everything out. Characters thoughts and feelings were shown with words, either the characters’ own or through narration. But that bogged down the narrative with constant exposition.

So I tried to cut a lot of that from The Fey Man. A lot can be said with a look, an action, even a silence. Tom often wondered what all those meant, but I tried to make those thoughts about Tom, not about exposition.

What have you learnt from your own writing? I’d love to know. Leave a comment and tell me all about it!

Cover to A Sorceror Slain by Dave Sivers

Review: A Sorcerer Slain by Dave Sivers

A Sorcerer Slain is a fantasy crime novel by Dave Sivers, the first in the Lowmar Dashiel series. I interviewed Dave back when he released the sequel and I must admit to making a terrible mistake: I didn’t read them sooner.

“I just happen to be a…” I clutched some appropriate-sounding words out of thin air, “- a Personal Inquisitor.”

And, just like that, I had embarked on a new career.

When I first heard that Sivers was writing fantasy crime, my first thought was that those genres were unusual bedfellows. But A Sorcerer Slain is proof they make an excellent match; it calls no attention itself, borrowing tropes from both fantasy and crime as it wills. So Lowmar Dashiel calls himself a Personal Inquisitor (a private investigator), he has a partner in the dwarf Grishen, and a poor relationship with true officers of the law. But the story takes place in the kingdom of Balimar, where magic is real and society resembles feudal England. At no point do these tropes clash and it was only when I was writing this review that I realised how good a job Sivers did in stitching together two genres with nary a seam.

I wanted to trust him – but I thought I’d better watch my back when I was around him. Just in case.

One of my favourite things about this novel is that Dashiel thinks like a real person. The crime committed is the murder of the Sorcerer Supreme (he would be the sorcerer slain), which threatens to topple the king and spark a civil war. With so many interested parties, no-one can be above suspicion. But I’ve seen too many crime stories where someone always is. There’s always someone the hero never suspects for a moment, and it’s always them that did it. Always. But Dashiel suspects nearly everyone at one point or another and I wanted to applaud every time.

“Good old Boxen,” I went on.  A little voice at the back of my head pointed out that my mouth was running away with my brain, but I was powerless to stop it. “How is his search going?”

“Search?” The militiaman eyed me suspiciously.

“For the ape that sired him.”

Dashiel is also a very likeable character. He’s a bit of a state at the beginning of A Sorcerer Slain; dishevelled, poor, hungover. His concern with this case is limited to his feelings for the main suspect. But he’s redeemed by an excellent sense of humour and the case changes him as the novel progresses. Instead of worrying about himself or the woman he longs for, he increasingly cares about the people he meets and the innocents who will suffer if he doesn’t solve the case. The change is actually quite dramatic yet gradual and it’s done very well.

You’re so busy looking at the so-called big picture, you can’t see the small one any more.

The only downside for me was the tangents. Dashiel is investigating a world-changing murder, with the potential to start a civil war and invasion from foreign states. Yet too many times Dashiel gets waylaid. Other investigations, attempts on his life, even a spot of epic fantasy battle. There’s always a good reason for each tangent, but after a while I started to wonder how Dashiel could let himself get so distracted with so much at stake.

I always say that highest praise I can give to a novel is that I would read the sequel. And this is an accolade I readily award to A Sorcerer Slain. The world and the characters Sivers has created are fun to read; I really enjoyed this novel and I can’t wait to read the sequel. If you like fantasy and crime, go and buy A Sorcerer Slain now. Trust me!

Annah Wooten's incredible artwork for the cover of The Fey Man

The Fey Man: Chapter One

The Fey Man is my debut novel, an epic fantasy about a man desperate to return to Faerie and the war of dragons that gets in his way. Here’s the first chapter to give you a taste.

The Easterners were arriving that night but Thomas Rymour didn’t care. The castle had been abuzz, with everyone from maids to cooks to visiting dignitaries gossiping about the reason for the visit. The Privy Council had been no different. Tom had sat through countless hours while rich men extolled their theory and used it to push their own agenda. And when Duke Regent had heard them all, he would ask Tom what he thought.

It was moments like that when Tom wished he could lie.

But at the moment he had peace. He was sat in Cairnagan’s barest and least popular tower garden, where the plants wilted and the view was poor and he could relax with a bottle of mead and a friend. Of sorts.

“You should really go downstairs, Tom.” Glastyn stood at the wall, watching the sunset. Glastyn was tall, beautiful, with dark flowing locks and a charm that never slept. Only his long, pointed ears suggested he wasn’t human. “It will be diverting.”

Tom sipped his mead. Duke Regent had tasked his vintners with reproducing a hundred year old recipe to make Tom feel at home. It was a noble gesture and Tom was grateful for it. But the drink wasn’t quite right. It served only to remind Tom he was far from home. But he drank it anyway. It was better than the sickly sweet wines the court favoured. “Diverting for who?”

“Whom.” Glastyn grinned.

Tom ignored him. “If you want to chase daughters and wives, I’m not stopping you.”

“But you are our only friend here.” A reminder that the reverse was true as well. “Come, there hasn’t been anything so exciting since we arrived. A feast! It will be almost like Faerie.”

Tom shook his head. “Since you arrived.” Tom had been at Cairnagan a few months longer. “I’ve seen a feast here. They’re nothing like Faerie.”

“It will be more like Faerie than this,” the fay grumbled. As dashing as he looked watching the sunset, Glastyn looked bored. He seemed to live for the court; he relished the politics, the frippery, the danger.

Whereas Tom had no patience for it. “I’m not happy with second best,” he said.

“It’s all we have, Tom.”

“Don’t remind me.” He topped up his cup of mead. He wasn’t allowed a glass.

“What if we take that away? Hmm?” Glastyn marched across the garden and snatched at the bottle. Tom had to twist in his seat to keep hold of it.

“Stop it.”

The fay ignored him, getting a pale white hand around the bottle and tugging it.

“Glastyn, stop.”

“Come, Tom, tip this filth away. We give better to the dogs in Faerie.”

“Iron nails, stop it.” And then a foresight intruded on his senses. Like any other, it dissolved the world around him, like red wine mixing into water until it was all he could see and hear and smell. This time he saw red, sensual lips. There wasn’t often a lot of detail in his foresights.

“We are your beginning and your end, Thomas Rymour,” she said. Her voice was odd, as if both Maev and Mab were talking at the same time. But that was impossible.

The foresight began to fade away and his senses returned to the present. He blinked and looked down. He’d dropped the cup. That was why he wasn’t allowed glasses.

“Another foresight?” Glastyn was stood over him. The bottle was gone. Knowing Glastyn he’d probably tossed it over the wall.

Tom nodded and opened his mouth to speak when the world disappeared in an instant. An image of an old man stabbed at Tom’s eyes like knives, the sound of his whisper was like a bellow in Tom’s ears. “Quiet, Tom. Don’t tell him anything.”

It was gone as quickly as it arrived and Tom was on his back, his chair upended. The back of his head throbbed and his lungs burned. He gasped like a man drowning.

Glastyn looked almost concerned. “Rather dramatic.”

“You might help me,” Tom managed, pulling his legs free of the chair.

“We’ve been trying to.”

He clambered to his hands and knees. Was he going to vomit? No. No, it was just a shock. He’d never had a foresight like that before. Sudden. Almost painful. And the old man. It had felt like he was talking to him, a message for the here and now. That was new.

“Too much mead, Tom?”

He shook his head, clambered to his feet.

“What did you see?”

For some reason he felt he should do as the old man bid: don’t tell him anything.

“I’m not sure,” he replied. Which was true. To an extent.

Glastyn wasn’t convinced. “You must know something. Was it your future? Someone else’s?”

“I don’t know.”

“Were we there?”

“No.”

“Was Maev?”

“Will you stop pestering me?”

Glastyn grinned as if he’d won a prize. “If you go to the feast.”

He should just tell him. What did it matter if Glastyn knew?

And yet. “Fine.”

* * *
The hall was dark and smoky and full of the stench of perfumes over the stench of the people beneath them. In a way, it was like Faerie, with laughing and dancing and drinking. Some stood in shadows, discussing plots and schemes under the cover of the music that filled the air. Servants wove between all with trays of food and drink, both delicacies and heartier fare. But that smell was not like Faerie at all. In Faerie it smelt of strange and wonderful flowers and it was always a warm evening with a fresh breeze. That night was hot and close.

“Does it make you homesick, Glastyn?” Tom asked.

“Yes,” he replied. He hadn’t changed outfits. But he didn’t need to; only Tom had the Second Sight with which to see him. “But then, most things do.”

Tom, on the other hand, had changed into one of the outfits Regent had ordered made for him. Cut to be fashionable, not comfortable, they were as brightly coloured as everyone else at court. Rather than the simple browns and reds Tom preferred, he was in yellow and blue, Regent’s colours. Worse, these clothes pushed and pulled at him in unnatural places. He felt silly, even though everyone looked as he did.

Glastyn smirked. “You seem uncomfortable, Tom?”

“You know I am.” Like all fay, Glastyn’s sense of humour often seemed cruel or mocking. Tom knew in truth that they laughed more at mortal customs and rules.

“Yet you do not tell your new lord and master.”

“He’s not my lord and master,” he replied. “You of all people know that.”

“Ah yes.” Glastyn raised his cup. “To our lord and master. May she welcome us back to the fold one day.”

Tom lifted his glass too and drank. He tried not to think of her. “Do you think you’ll be allowed to return?” he said.

“Oh yes.” There was no hesitation. “One day our queen will let us return. We have no doubts about that.”

“I envy you that.”

“Sir Rymour.”

Tom fought to keep his expression under control, forcing a gracious smile as he turned to the voice. “Good evening,” he said.

“Good evening, sir.” The man was a young knight, dressed in even more ridiculous clothes than Tom. Another knight and a few ladies followed in his wake. The knight sketched a bow and the others followed.

“Please,” Tom said. He couldn’t stand the scraping and bowing. “I am no knight. ”

They did not apologise. They were not showing him respect. They were showing everyone else that they were showing him respect. “Sir Rymour, you must know why the Easterners are here,” the knight said.

He swallowed a sigh. “I am as much in the dark as you.”

The man frowned. “But you see the things to come, do you not?”

“I do.”

“Then you must have seen something.”

Glastyn leant closer and whispered, “Yes, Tom, you must. Stands to reason.”

As tiring as the prospect of the conversation was, Tom had to smile. “Stands to reason,” he replied. “But I have seen nothing of the Easterners, young sir. I do not know why they are coming nor what they want.”

“And you still don’t care, do you?” Glastyn didn’t have to whisper; no-one else could hear him either.

“No, I don’t.”

His visitors were growing uncomfortable; no-one liked it when Tom spoke to people they couldn’t see or hear.

Glastyn sighed. “How uncurious of you, Tom.”

“I am curious about many things,” Tom countered. “A way to Faerie, for instance. And you could satisfy that curiosity, couldn’t you, Glastyn?”

“I could.”

“But you never do.”

“No.” Glastyn’s face softened into a sad smile. “We never do.”

Was that pity? Tom wasn’t in the mood for pity. “Then forgive me for my lack of curiosity.”

The knights and ladies were finding excuses to move away. They bowed and wished Tom a good evening, pledged their service should he need it and so forth. Tom watched them go.

“You are well-respected here,” said Glastyn.

“I’m a curiosity.”

“Aren’t we all?” Two ladies walked past, dressed in pinks and silvers. One smiled at Tom, the other ignored him. Glastyn watched both with a predator’s grin. “You do not have to stay, Tom. Tir is a very big place. You could leave.”

The thought had crossed his mind before. This court was no place for him. But where was? His place was in a Tir a hundred years dead. Now he was an antique in a modern world. Like the tapestries on the wall, he was out of place. “Here is as good as anywhere,” he said. He looked at the dancers. Their steps were precise and careful, for display rather than enjoyment. It wasn’t dancing. It was peacocking. “I have a bed, a roof and hot food. Leaving is likely to deprive me of those things and I’m too old to go without them.”

Glastyn snorted. “How many summers have you seen? Thirty?”

“Thirty-one,” Tom replied. “But it has been over a hundred since I was born. That’s what matters, Glastyn.” He stared up at the tapestries, supposedly from the time of King Emyr. They were frayed and tattered, though the images they depicted were energetic and vibrant. “Time decides how old we are.”

Glastyn drained his cup. It was not one he’d taken from a server, but one of his own, plain and old but always full of Faerie wine. A clever trick. “Speaking as an immortal, I can tell you that’s nonsense.”

“Speaking as a mortal, I can tell you it isn’t.”

The music stopped and the dancers bowed. In the quiet a murmur rippled across the hall and Tom saw Duke Regent step out onto the dais at the head of the hall. He was resplendent in blues and yellows, making them seem regal whereas on Tom they looked juvenile. He bowed with the rest of the courtiers.

Glastyn did not. “Oh look, he’s raided your wardrobe.”

Tom stifled a snigger. Perhaps the drink was affecting him more than he thought.

The hall was quiet as Regent crossed to the gold throne. Though not a tall man, he was imposing nonetheless. In his youth he had been strong and energetic, leading hunts, serving on the border, breaking many a heart. Now older, with the begin- nings of grey in his beard and wrinkles at his eyes, he still burned with morality and chivalry. Some of the courtiers muttered that Regent would rather the duchy fall into ruin than break a promise. But Tom admired that. There seemed too few people these days who believed in anything.

Regent rested a hand on the throne and faced the hall. “Play on,” he said. Then he pointed a finger at Tom.

“Duty calls.” Glastyn sounded amused. “Maybe I’ll seduce some pretty young thing while you wait on this duke.”

Tom ignored the jibe. “Don’t break her heart.”

“My dear Tom.” Glastyn grinned. “You of all people must know: we break our own hearts.”

He thought of soft, white skin in a wooded grove.

Moving through the throngs took longer than he’d expected. Many moved aside and avoided his eye, but some stopped him and asked him about his foresight. Had he seen what the Easterners wanted? Did he know what the harvest would be like? Would someone’s daughter recover from her summer sickness? He answered when he could, demurred when he could not. By the time he reached Regent’s side he was yearning for peace and solitude again.

But he bowed as best he could. “Your Grace.”

“Tom.” Regent was severe today. “I’ll have you at my side.”

“As you will.” There was no point in arguing.

“Would you sit?” Regent gestured to the second seat on the dais. This was Regent’s own seat, a wooden chair with intricate carvings inlaid with gold and richly furnished in soft cushions. Regent’s father had sat on Emyr’s throne whilst he’d ruled. But it was an unwritten rule in the family that the throne be preserved for Emyr exactly as it was. So, if the cushions were truly over nine hundred years old, it would make for a very hard seat. When Regent had assumed his father’s title, he had apparently said, ‘If I’m going to spend hours on my backside, it had better be in comfort’, before commissioning this chair.

“You will sit in the throne, Your Grace?” Tom asked.

Regent nodded. “It’s ghoulish, I know. But we must remind the elfs who they are dealing with. Whatever it is they want, they must remember they are speaking to the Keepers of the Throne.”

Tom said nothing. Even he knew that most people saw the people of the Heel not as caretakers, but as fanatics. But he could not say that. So he could say nothing. He just smiled. When you could not lie, silence was an ally.

“So, will you sit?”

Most courtiers would demur, say that they were fine and would be pleased to stand. But Tom’s back ached. And he could not lie. So he said, “Yes, please, Your Grace.”

Regent was not annoyed by the honesty. He nodded and hundreds of eyes watched Tom seat himself. He felt awkward, even more so when he saw Glastyn bow to him. The lady he was with giggled. He’d granted her the Second Sight; after all, he could not seduce her if she could not see him. Tom felt sorry for her, though he could not make out who she was. Knowing Glastyn, she already had a husband, someone important in the court.

Regent did not sit. “When will they be announced?” Tom asked.

“In a few minutes,” Regent replied. He stroked his beard, smoothing it. “I’m making them wait.”

That seemed petty. “Won’t that anger them?”

“Perhaps.” Regent smiled. He had the smile of a younger man, one who took pleasure in tugging the noses of others. “But that might give me the advantage.”

Tom nodded. Politics. He had no stomach for it. Even in Faerie he had been careful to be a neutral party, never picking one side over another. Unless you counted Maev. But that was different.

“What do you think they want, Tom?” Regent asked. “Any foresight of their intentions?”

He’d been asked that a dozen times. He shook his head yet again. “I’m sorry, Your Grace,” he said. “I still haven’t seen anything.”

Regent was disappointed and made no effort to hide it. “No matter,” he lied.

The duke was nervous, Tom realised. It made sense. Three generations of his family had waged war against the Eastern Angles, though in truth it was a war in name only. Fighting on the border was rare. Most of the troops spent their time glaring at each other over the border. But now the Easterners were knocking on Regent’s door and requesting audience. Most of the Heel had never even seen an Easterner. There was an air of excitement in the room. But Regent seemed uncertain.

“Perhaps they seek a truce,” Tom suggested. “Why else travel all this way?”

“Why else?” Regent stared at the great doors ahead. Tom’s words had only made his concern worse. He gave up. He’d forgotten how to talk to people a long time ago.

Glastyn and his prey were dancing. A few people were throwing her odd looks; to their eyes, she was dancing with herself. Courtiers muttered that the temporary madness that was striking the ladies of late was a sickness sent by the Western elfs. They gave her a wide berth.

“Who were you talking to?” Regent asked.

“A fay called Glastyn,” Tom replied.

“Ah.” Unlike many in the court, Regent believed the tales told about Tom. He had never questioned his foresight, his inability to lie, nor his Second Sight. “He is often here, is he not?”

A kingly trait, to remember so many names. “He is, Your Grace. He keeps me company.”

Regent nodded. He knew that Tom was often lonely. But Tom knew that, while the man did what he could, he put the needs of the Heel over the needs of Thomas Rymour. He would not send Tom back to that little hut on the hill while there were wolves at the Heel’s doors. Maybe he would never send him back.

“Let’s not wait any longer,” Regent said. He waved at a servant. “Send them in,” he roared, loud enough for all to hear.

The music stopped and the crowd parted, leaving a path from door to dais. Everyone leaned forward to get a look at the foreigners.

There was a collective gasp as the doors opened. Even Tom was impressed.

It was the dress he saw first. Four elfs, tall and all in black, robed from head to foot. These robes were decorated in white with images of bones, femurs and fibulas drawing borders whilst entire hands sat in corners. Ribs were stitched over some chests, others featured patterns of flowers done in bone or miniature battle scenes fought by skeletons. This was topped off by the masks, skulls that looked eerily real. They were at complete odds to the assembled court. No frivolity, no cheer. They were sombre and serious, the spirit of death itself.

They walked towards the dais. No, they glided, robes sweeping behind them and their movements full of a fluid grace. As if they were stalking Regent. Tom half-expected them to draw weapons and he was surprised how nervous he was by the time they stopped.

They knelt. No surprise assassination.

Silence filled the hall.

The herald had been so astonished by the elfs he had forgotten to announce them. He cleared his throat and stammered, “Lord Neirin Tarian, Shield of the Eastern Angles, Warden of the Faith, Fourth of His Name, Emperor of His Other Realms and Territories, Bearer of the Blood of Angau.” It would have been funny in any other circumstance. But no-one laughed. They were too awe-struck. “Lord Neirin, I present you to the Duke of the Realm, Regent for Emyr, Keeper of the Throne and Ruler in His Name.”

“Thank you, herald.” Regent spoke with an amused yet pointed tone; the man’s neglected duties had been noticed. The herald bowed, embarrassed.

Regent turned his attention to the elfs. “Greetings to you and yours, Lord Neirin. We are honoured by your presence here.”

“My thanks, Duke Regent.” The voice was muffled by the mask, but it spoke the human tongue flawlessly. “You have been most hospitable.” He rose without waiting for permission and his fellows rose with him.

Regent did not acknowledge the affront. “We have firm hopes that the animosities of the past can be finally laid to rest.”

“As have I.” Neirin was swift, blunt. “But I am here on a greater purpose, Your Grace.”

“Oh?” Regent’s eyes narrowed. “Indeed?”

“Yes, Your Grace.” The skull nodded. The eyes that looked out through the sockets were bright and eager. “I am here to save all of Tir.” It felt rehearsed. Planned. Neirin lifted an arm and pointed a finger at Tom. “And I need him to do it.”

Only Tom and a drunken lady of the court heard Glastyn say, “Are you curious now, Thomas Rymour?”

If you enjoyed the first chapter of The Fey Man, why not buy it now? It’s available in paperback or Kindle versions from Amazon, or in EPUB formats from Apple iBooks, Kobo, Nook or Smashwords.

Annah Wooten's incredible artwork for the cover of The Fey Man

Announcing The Fey Man

At the wizened old age of thirty, the journey to this point seems long. It started with childish stories often aped from the books and films I loved. It moved through a terrible science fiction trilogy. It grew through short stories. Now it feels like it’s about to hit the milestone I’ve always been travelling towards: in just two short months, you’ll be able to buy my first novel: The Fey Man.

The Fey Man is an epic fantasy about a man’s quest to return to Faerie and the war that keeps getting in his way.

It’s been inspired by Scottish folklore, fairy tales, Arthurian legends and the film Armageddon. Yes, you read that right. Click the link to find out more about The Fey Man.

I’ve been writing this book for about three years now and I can’t tell you how excited and scared I am that you’ll be able to read it soon. I hope you like it. I’ll be writing more about it in the coming weeks but, for now, I’ll leave you with Annah Wootten’s incredible cover art for the novel. Isn’t it great?

The cover of The Fey Man

A D&D dragon guards its treasure

The Best Fantasy Dragons

Writing about fantasy books almost certainly means I’ve been writing about dragons. They seem almost intrinsic to the genre, and while a dragon is by no means necessary for a fantasy novel, they do seem to inspire a certain fascination in us.

So while there are plenty to choose from, here are my five favourite dragons. Judge me if you will.

The Stone Elderlings

Robin Hobb’s later novels did feature “proper” dragons, but Assassin’s Quest featured dragons made of living stone. When the heros first stumble upon them they are dead and silent. But when they are quickened by magic and death, the stone roars into life.

The heroes sculpt their own dragon, too. Magic users can pour their memories, emotions and finally their very lives into the special stone. By doing so they create the powerful ally they need to save their people. It’s a wonderfully original idea and is in complete service to the story; rather than forcing the narrative around traditional dragons, she created something that fit her theme of sacrifice just perfectly.

Smaug

Can a list of dragons be completed without Smaug? The real villain of The Hobbit, perhaps no dragon has influenced fantasy literature more than Smaug. Tolkien took a lot of inspiration from Beowulf so Smaug shares many characteristics with the creature of that work: his hoard of treasure, his appropriated underground dwelling, his penchant for vengeance. But where the monster of Beowulf was mute, Tolkien gave Smaug a voice and therein elevated the dragon from mute monster to delightful villain. He’s vain and greedy and his love of riddles and language make him a pleasure to read.

Dragon Quest

Dragon Quest was a role playing game that got bought and rebranded by the company that owned Dungeons & Dragons. The dragons owe nearly all of their character to Smaug (evil, hoarding, clever, love riddles, etc.) and they have no depth. They’re simply big monsters for players to defeat. But in trying to create enough variety for dungeon masters and repeated playthroughs, they created different types and breeds of dragon that fascinated my young mind. And there was some truly beautiful art in the rulebooks too.

Granny’s Garden

If you played this game you already know what I’m thinking of: those damn baby dragons!

In order to rescue a child in this BBC Micro adventure, you need to tame four baby dragons. Each dragon either loves, likes or hates each of the four items of food you have. You have to figure out what order to toss them the food so you can isolate and tame each one.

Replaying this at the wise old age of thirty resulted in two game overs and a handmade chart to keep track of the dragons’ likes and dislikes. Playing at the tender age of five resulted in two dozen game overs, tears, bitterness and possibly minor acts of temper tantrum. So whilst these dragons should barely register on a list of the greats, you can see why they had such an impact on me nonetheless.

George and the Dragon

With St George being the patron saint of England, it’s hard not to come across this story as a child. The way I was told it was a terrible, fire-breathing dragon was terrifying a local village, stealing and eating their sheep. Good St George comes along and slays the mighty beast and the village is safe once more.

Turns out, it’s a bit more interesting than that. The earliest form of the legend has the dragon bearing plague, not fire, that sickened the land. The people tried to appease it with sheep and, when that did not work, their children, chosen by lottery. It’s only when the lottery picks the king’s daughter that St George happens along. And even then he promises to slay it only if the land promises to convert to Christianity, the swine.

So from a humdrum, fire-breathing monster to a plague-carrying instrument of religious blackmail. Doesn’t get more interesting than that.

Are these the best dragons around? Or have I missed some out? Tell me about your favourite fantasy dragons!

Smaug is the steroetypical treasure-hoarding dragon in The Hobbit.

Top Fantasy Novels: The Hobbit

If there’s one fantasy novel to rule them all, it’s Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It has such a far-reaching influence that it’s almost impossible to find any aspect of fantasy fiction that doesn’t owe the trilogy some sort of debt. But, despite that, I think Tolkien’s earlier novel, The Hobbit, is unfairly overshadowed by it’s younger brother. I think The Hobbit might be the better fantasy novel.

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

Certainly The Lord of the Rings is far grander, a battle between good and evil for the fate of the world and so on. It’s more serious in nature and therefore held in higher esteem. But if The Hobbit is more light-hearted than The Lord of the Rings, I say it is better for it.

We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!

The Hobbit sits much closer to traditional fairy tales in content and tone. It’s an adventure, a treasure hunt, with a dragon to vanquish and humorous events and coincidences along the way. The narrator speaks in a knowing tone, sharing asides and commentary intended to delight and surprise. A favourite is mine is the invention of golf, accredited to a Took’s fortuitous decapitation of a goblin.

I think this is why I prefer Bilbo to Frodo, too. Bilbo’s reticence to leave his home is funny and loveable, whilst Frodo’s seems confusing and naive. To want to stay in the warm because adventures make you later for dinner is cute. Refusing to help save Middle-Earth would have made Bilbo seem mean and selfish.

He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.

But, though this might be “just” an adventure, there’s still peril. Giant spiders. Ancient dragons. And, of course, Gollum.

Poor Gollum wasn’t such a bad guy in the first edition. But when it came time for The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien went back and made some changes to bring his character into line with the more mature tone of the sequel. Consequently, Gollum was no longer a fairy tale obstacle who happily bets a magic ring and parts amicably after losing. Now he becomes mean and violent and a very real danger. But the riddles remained and thus the real charm of their encounter.

So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their endings.

And, of course, this is still a Tolkien novel and it’s still set in Middle Earth. So there is plenty of folklore and languages for the people who like that sort of thing (me). There’s plenty of poetry, too, and beautiful lines that could only have been written by J. R. R. Tolkien.

A beautifully written, funny, charming fairy tale adventure, set it Middle Earth. Tell me why it shouldn’t be one of my top fantasy novels.

Dream from Neil Gaiman's The Sandman

Top Fantasy Novels: The Sandman

Let’s address the elephant in the room: The Sandman is not a fantasy novel.

I was going to write about American Gods, which is a fantasy novel, but I realised everything I liked about it was done better in The Sandman. So, although The Sandman is an urban fantasy horror comic series, I’m going to explain why it’s actually a great fantasy novel.

She’s realised the real problem with stories – if you keep them going long enough, they always end in death.

First of all, I’m letting myself count it as novel for of one simple reason: it’s got a beginning, a middle and an end. While most comics are spandex-filled soap operas, The Sandman was written with an end in mind. And certainly there are issues and even arcs that don’t feature the central character, Dream. But these feel more like sub-plots and, more often than not, those stories do in fact feed into the finale. The Sandman had a cohesive narrative you don’t often see in comics, but you see all the time in novels.

Only the phoenix rises and does not descend. And everything changes. And nothing is truly lost.

Say what you like about Neil Gaiman, the man has an ear for poetical prose. Regular readers will have noticed I pepper my reviews with quotes from the text. The Sandman has been the hardest to pick quotes from. It’s beautifully, honestly written, with lines that will make you stop and think and even change the way you see the world. It makes The Sandman very easy to love.

Things need not have happened to be true.

But why is it a great fantasy novel? Well, for starters, the main character is Dream. He’s the living embodiment of, well, dreams. If that’s not enough for you, the setting ranges from modern day Earth to the past, to Hell, to other worlds, to realms like the Dreaming and even worlds in the mind. Still not enough? How about a cast of characters from myth and literature? John Constantine and the Martian Manhunter rub shoulders with Odin and Bast. Robin Goodfellow and Titania mingle with Remiel and Lucifer. Gaiman pulls in mythology and folklore and legend from wherever takes his fancy. He also creates a number of secret histories (a story that reveals an unknown cause or meaning to historical events). It turns out that Dream had a hand in Shakespeare’s genius as well as the fate of Emperor Norton of the United States of America.

I have no liking for prisons, Master Li. Sometimes I suspect that we build our traps ourselves, then we back into them, pretending amazement the while.

That’s why The Sandman is one of my top fantasy novels. Yes, it’s beautifully written and it’s got a cohesive story quite rare to comics. But it’s an epic far greater if not grander than The Lord of the Rings. It pulls in so much fantasy that it’s almost bursting at the seams. And yet it never feels like a jumble of myths and cameos. Gaiman makes it seem like all the disparate characters and settings were always meant to be part of the same story. If you’ve read it, you know what I mean. And if you haven’t, I can’t recommend it enough. After all, how many fantasy novels are told with pictures?

George R. R. Martin's Game of Thones is one of the most famous fantasy series.

Top Fantasy Novels: A Game of Thrones

Surprise, surprise, eh? Seems we can’t get away from Game of Thrones no matter where we go. But there’s a reason for that: it’s a very good fantasy novel.

The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword. If you would take a man’s life, you owe it to him to look into his eyes and hear his final words.

George R. R. Martin does a brilliant job with his characters. Ned, Jon, Tyrion, Cersei, Daenerys, Arya (and so many, many more), all very different and all very complicated. Evil characters have redeeming features, good characters do evil things. Martin does an excellent job of keeping you hooked as characters you hate prosper and characters you love stumble into doom.

Because there are no happy endings in Westeros.

Why is it always the innocents who suffer most, when you high lords play your game of thrones?

One of the reasons A Game of Thrones has attracted so much attention is that it is a fantasy novel like no other. It is brutal, it is coarse, it is harsh and it has no remorse. Martin doesn’t tip-toe around the truth of the story. Characters have sex, get hurt, get maimed, and die. Love that character? They’re going to die. Hate that character? Well, they’ll probably die too; everybody does. In this way the novel is very fair: nobody gets what they want. Especially the reader.

A mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep his edge.

The reader doesn’t get an easy ride, either. There’s no summarisation or recaps or clues to help the reader along. Which is great; too many fantasy novels spoon-feed their world to the reader. But A Game of Thrones has a lot of characters, intrigues, histories and storylines to keep track of. You’ve got to pay attention to this book. But whilst that can make for a reading experience that requires a lot of work, it makes too for a rich and realistic world. You could believe this was all true, if it weren’t for the magic.

Winter is coming.

But even the magic itself seems realistic. Because, while there’s a hint of it in the prologue, there isn’t much magic at all in this novel. Like so many great lies, 99% of the novel feels true so, when the 1% finally arrives, it’s so much easier to swallow. It’s masterfully done and a pleasure to experience.

You wear your honour like a suit of armour…you think it keeps you safe, but all it does is weigh you down…

And that is where I think the true strength of A Game of Thrones lies. It feels very real, even when it’s telling you about impossible things. Martin does a marvellous job of selling a fantasy novel as almost a historical drama and fills it with compelling character and constant heartache to make sure you can’t stop reading. I’m certainly addicted to this fantasy series. Are you?

John Howe's beautiful cover to Robin Hobb's Assassin's Quest

Top Fantasy Books: Assassin’s Quest

Quests seem as integral to the fantasy genre as eggs are to cake. But while I know at least one person who bakes without eggs, Robin Hobb didn’t break with tradition with her Farseer trilogy. But not only did she save the quest for the last book of the trilogy, it doesn’t feel like a stereotypical fantasy quest at all. That’s just one of the reasons it’s one of my top fantasy novels.

I healed. Not completely. A scar is never the same as good flesh, but it stops the bleeding.

So here’s the premise of this quest: Red Ships are raiding the Six Duchies and King Verity has disappeared trying to find help. Our hero, Fitz and the titular assassin, sets out on a quest to find his king.

So far so humdrum, right? But this is Robin Hobb. It’s never so emotionally straightforward.

You see, Fitz went through a truly traumatic ordeal in the second book. He was abandoned, betrayed and broken. And, by the time Assassin’s Quest begins, he’s still pretty broken inside. He’s a mess of a man. In fact, he doesn’t even want to be a man anymore, let alone get involved in the affairs of the realm again. He’d be safer if he just stayed away.

But Fitz is too damn loyal. It’s like he can’t help himself. So, despite how scared and broken he is, he has to find his king. He doesn’t want to defeat a great evil or save the realm. He very much wants to go home. But he goes all the same. It’s fascinating and admirable and even moving in places.

You are confusing plumbing and love again.

That loyalty is one of the reasons Fitz works so well as a character, because a lot of the time he’s being grumpy and mopey. The other reason is his interactions with the others characters; Hobb has a marvellous ability for drawing complicated relationships. For example, Fitz and the Fool are closer than brothers and yet they fight and they argue. Fitz doesn’t always understand the Fool and sometimes he’s even put off and repelled by his friend’s odd behaviour. But that doesn’t stop their relationship being one of the sweetest and strongest I’ve ever read.

Those relationships are the core to the book and the series as a whole. Whilst there is a grand plot this book, perhaps more than the others, is driven by Fitz. His unstinting and self-flagellating loyalty to his king, his queen and his friends. His faltering friendship with the minstrel Starling. His bond with his wolf Nighteyes. The physical and mental scars he bears, his terrors and his fears. Everything he does is motivated by these relationships and makes this a very personal and emotional book.

It is only cold stone, carved so well as to appear alive.

This extends to the dragons of Assassin’s Quest. Dragons and fantasy novels go hand-in-hand but Hobb’s take on them in this novel is unlike any I’ve come across before. Hers are made a stone, a strange mix between art, weaponry and self-sacrifice. They’re carved using magic and animated with memories, emotions and eventually life-essence of the carver. It’s a fantastic idea on its own but what takes it from fantastic to sublime is how well it fits with Fitz’s story of sacrifice. It’s a clear example of the plot being driven by the characters and I just love it.

Truth is often much larger than facts.

So, yes, there’s a quest but, no, it’s not like the quests you’ve seen in other fantasy novels. And while you’ll have to read the first two books to get the most out of this one, when you do you’ll understand why Assassin’s Quest is one of my top fantasy books. And I suspect it will be one of yours too.

Or will it? Let me know what you think of Assassin’s Quest or which novels you think should be one of my top fantasy books!