Stealing from the fantastic past

The fantasy novel A Blight of Mages by Karen MillerDid you know that Henry VIII, famously infamous Tudor king of England, was the first English monarch to build a public toilet block? Well, he was. And if you’re wondering why he built it, that’s because he couldn’t stop his male courtiers from pissing inside his palace.

Hard to believe, isn’t it? Henry was the most magnificent, the most awe-inspiring, the most kingly king England had seen in a very long time. He was charismatic, athletic, intellectual . . . and ruthless. Everyone remembers him for the six wives and the two beheadings. What a lot of people don’t know is that he also had executed – or judicially murdered – more people than any monarch before him, or after. Over two hundred people killed: men, women, young, old, guilty – or simply inconvenient. They died because Henry wanted them dead.

And yet . . . despite his indisputable, terrifying power . . . he couldn’t stop his male courtiers from pissing inside his palace. On the floor, up the walls, in the corners – they were incorrigible, those male courtiers. And Henry couldn’t stop them. He couldn’t stop the massive thieving by his servants, either. His household budget was always ridiculously in the red because he couldn’t stop his underlings from pinching things, double-dipping, fudging accounts, eating more than their fair share, selling food out of the kitchens.

More power than any man or woman in his kingdom . . . and still, Henry was powerless. An extraordinary paradox, isn’t it? Surprising. Intriguing.

Discovered in the ruins of an ancient Hittite city (they were a people who thrived at the same time as Rameses II’s Egypt) was a cache of clay tablets – the letters of the day. Thriftily, the tablets had been re-used, sent back and forth between correspondents. Among them was found this exchange (paraphrased):

Son: Dear Dad, please send me more money.

Dad: Dear Son, what the hell???? I sent you money last month. What am I, made of shekels? What are you spending it on?

Son: Oh, Dad, you’re so mean. You give Billy money whenever he asks for it. You always liked him better than me. It’s not fair.

True story, I swear!

It’s these kind of anecdotes that make the sometimes overwhelming task of doing research for my fantasy novels so much fun. History is often bogged down in a mind-numbing recitation of dates, and which king or queen came when, married which prince or princess, fought in what battle. I think that’s how it often gets taught in schools, at least – and much to its detriment.

Because really, history is about people. And while they might have lived and died centuries before our own, their humanity survives – and it’s that humanity, re-imagined, that makes fantasy fiction so rewarding to read and write. Because as the French say: the more things change, the more they stay the same. I mean, what modern day parent can’t identify with that despairing Hittite dad? And what beleagured child doesn’t feel the pain of his hard-done-by son?

Those who critique and comment on the fantasy genre often wonder why so many authors choose the European medieval period as an historical period to plunder.

I can’t answer for anyone else, but I know why I’m drawn to Europe’s sprawling history: the period spanning from the final collapse of the Roman Empire and its partition into the Western and Eastern empires, through to the installation of Henry VII on the throne of England, gives us some of the most fascinating, dynamic, cataclysmic and downright exciting events the world has ever seen. There were religious, political, social and economic upheavals, the rise and fall of dynasties, conquest, epidemics . . . and the devastatingly personal journeys of men and women born into wealth and privilege, or who found their ways to it by marriage, circumstance . . . and murder. Add magic to the mix, the element of supernatural surprise, and why wouldn’t a fantasy writer leap at the chance to explore and reinvent that incredible past in fiction?

I would. I do! And I think it’s why so many readers of fantasy fiction love it, too. If drama is conflict, then that’s a period of history with enough drama in it for several thousand epic fantasy novels.

This month I have two books coming out, both of which grew out of my ongoing love affair with history: the paperback release of A Blight of Mages (UK | US) and, under the pen name K. E. Mills, Rogue Agent #4 Wizard Undercover (UK | US | ANZ).

The fantasy novel A Blight of Mages by Karen MillerBlight tells the tragic story of Morgan and Barl, whose doomed love set in motion the events of the Kingmaker, Kingbreaker and Fisherman’s Children duologies. It was an interesting experience, writing a prequel novel. It certainly had me sympathising with George Lucas, who faced the same challenges when he wrote the Anakin Skywalker back story. I think the amount of ‘history for pleasure’ reading I’ve always done really helped me to look backwards in time and unpick the interwoven threads of Lur’s cultural tapestry, so I could bring to life the almost-Renaissance world of the original Doranen mages.

The Rogue Agent series draws on a different historical period entirely – the late Victorian/early Edwardian era of Great Britain. Generally speaking, more recent history is less engaging for me. But this period saw the infancy of the women’s movement, and the last gasp of a lifestyle doomed to die in the trenches of World War I. It’s a lot of fun, playing with that social history while exploring the adventures of a young man – Gerald Dunwoody – whose magical nature is slowly but surely transforming him into something that some people think is too dangerous to live.

In Wizard Undercover, Gerald is called on to prevent the sabotage of a marriage alliance between nations who’ve been at war, on and off, for years. If he fails, the backlash will plunge the world into chaos. But in order to succeed, he’ll have to cross a thaumaturgical line – and complete his transformation into a wizard without limits.

I’m hugely proud of both books, and I hope you enjoy them.

Up next is the first book of The Tarnished Crown, my new epic historical series. The research for this saga is truly daunting – and exhilarating. I’m watching dvds, I’m reading many, many books, I’m studying swordplay, and I’m visiting some of the most amazing places in Europe. I swear, sometimes it feels as though my brain is going to burst. I have maps, I have timelines, family trees, photos . . . this is the largest, most complicated and intricate world I’ve ever invented. It’s also, hands down, the most terrifying – and rewarding.

I believe the best stories, in the end, tell us about ourselves. They show us ourselves at our most heroic and our most craven. They take us on a journey deep inside the human heart, mind and soul. That, to me, is the power of fantasy fiction. It’s also the power of history. Put them together, and you’ve got an unbeatable combination.

You can read an extract of A Blight of Mages here and and extract of Wizard Undercover here.