Interview: Brian Ruckley on writing epic fantasy, and his powerful new novel THE FREE

Next week sees the publication of THE FREE by Brian Ruckley, and marks the return of one of epic  fantasy’s prodigal sons.

Brian Ruckley burst upon the fantasy scene back in 2006 with WINTERBIRTH [UK / USA / ANZ], a novel that encapsulated the gritty, visceral style of storytelling that would become so popular in the fantasy genre a few years later.

WINTERBIRTH – along with its sequels, BLOODHEIR [UK / USA / ANZ] and FALL OF THANES [UK / USA / ANZ] – spun an epic tale of ancient feuds, deadly politics and devastating battles. These novels are notable for many qualities, not least their deep characterisation, absorbing worldbuilding and a highly evocative atmosphere.

After his brilliant and bloody tale had concluded, Brian delved into dark historical fantasy with THE EDINBURGH DEAD [UK / USA / ANZ] – a chilling supernatural crime novel set in Victorian-era Edinburgh.

Now, with THE FREE, Brian has returned to his epic fantasy roots and delivered an exhilarating novel full of desperate battles, terrifying magic, and a host of memorable characters.

We sat down with Brian – well, in a digital sense – and asked him about his return to epic fantasy.

Welcome Brian! THE FREE marks your return to writing heroic fantasy, after you dipped your toes into dark historical fantasy with THE EDINBURGH DEAD – how does it feel to be writing in this genre again, and what tempted you to return to it? 

It feels pretty good to be swimming in the heroic fantasy sea again. It’s a fun genre that gives you plenty of freedom to let your imagination run loose for a while, plenty of scope to go heavy on the action and the drama. THE EDINBURGH DEAD was always kind of a specific project for me: it’s a dark fantasy, but one very specifically set in my home city and tied to a specific, almost surreally horrible, bit of its real world history that I’ve always been interested in. THE FREE is just what it says in the title: it’s me being free again to do whatever I want, in terms of plot, world, characters, magic. All that good stuff. A couple of reviewers have already described it as ‘a blast to read’ and ‘a lot of fun to read’, which counts as job done to me, and just goes to show that if you’re having fun on the writing side, the readers can often tell.

Your Godless World trilogy was a sprawling fantasy epic in a similar vein to Game of Thrones, with a large cast-list and a healthy dose of political intrigue (not to mention plenty of bloody battles). THE FREE retains the same gritty quality of storytelling, but feels far more reminiscent of David Gemmell or Fritz Lieber, focusing on fewer characters and with an emphasis on fast-paced action. How and why did this stylistic change occur?

There are lots and lots of reasons for the change. Here’s a few, all mixed up. You don’t always get to choose what story idea is at the forefront of your mind, ready to be written. THE FREE was that idea a couple of years back, and it was pretty obvious that it wasn’t a sprawling epic; it just didn’t need thousands of pages to get to the very particular ending that was built in to the idea. I’d be lying if I pretended to be disappointed about that. Sprawling fantasy epics are all well and good – they’re what made me a fan of the genre, after all, back in my younger days – but it’s a pretty demanding and draining business to write one. Anyway, the older I get as a reader the more I find I like my fiction to-the-point, with momentum. It takes slightly different writing muscles than the epic does, and for whatever reason I had a sense that I needed to give those different muscles a work-out.

Also, it’s partly because: movies. But we’ll get to that in the next question.

Was there any particular influence that inspired your creation of Yulan and The Free? In the novel’s acknowledgements you name-check classic films such as Seven Samurai and The Wild Bunch – how important were these movies to your creative process?

The movies ended up being a really big part of the whole process. Not just because their influence helped shape the book; also because, in bigger picture terms, it’s the first time I’ve ever written anything where I’ve consciously and deliberately decided to be influenced, and to try to learn from and really think about that influence. Back in the mists of time, I had an idea for a big, big story (a sprawling fantasy epic, funnily enough). Bit by bit, I squeezed that down, I threw away huge chunks of it, and realised I only really wanted to focus on certain characters, a certain plot line. And as I mentally kneaded that idea, I realised ‘Oh, this is Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch. That’s what it needs to be like.’

I don’t remotely have the space here to get into all the consequences of that realisation, but I could pretty much do this entire interview only talking about those three movies. Although I’d probably need to mention spaghetti westerns as well (and 13 Assassins. Have you seen 13 Assassins? That’s one amazing film …). Anyway, the point is: it might not always be obvious, but somewhere deep down almost everything in THE FREE, from the plotting and pacing to the characters and their arcs to the tone and the set-piece pyrotechnics, owes a bit not just to those particular films but to the movie medium itself. This was at least partly me trying to write a book that in the next universe over is not a book at all but a movie, and a very specific kind of movie at that. That doesn’t make a lick of sense, does it?

The magic in your Godless World trilogy was deliberately subtle. In THE FREE however, the magic is far more prominent and plays a much greater role in the story. It’s also terrifying! What inspired you to take this new direction?

Movies. Fun. A sense that there’s a certain kind of fantasy that has magic at its heart, and I wanted to play with that a bit more than I have in the past. Readers have been nice enough to say I write good action scenes, and I wanted to push that further in THE FREE. Do some properly vivid action, involving not just swords and brawn but smarts and magic. I had what I thought was a neat basic idea for a magic system up my sleeve, and a particularly fun manifestation of it called Permanences (you’ll have to read the book to see what they are, but it’s kind of in the name I guess). It all implied – or at least made possible – a much more dramatic kind of magic than I’ve previously written, and a particular kind of escalation that kept me entertained: there are plenty of hints and indications about what’s magically possible early on, but as the book progresses each application of magic gets a bit more dramatic, a bit more costly, a bit more spectacular. The way I designed things, truly powerful magic really is a bit of a last resort in this world, so the fact that it actually shows up as much as it does in THE FREE is a dead giveaway that things get kind of desperate, kind of fast.

There’s a long tradition in epic fantasy of farmboys of dubious birth who end up saving the world. THE FREE also features a farmboy – Drann – but his personal journey is markedly different to those of his numerous counterparts in other novels. Were you deliberately looking to invert this particular genre trope?

Well, sort of, but it’s not the main point of the character. Drann is as he is for various other reasons as well – from a practical point of view, he gives an outsider’s perspective on who the Free are and what they do. His relationship to them, collectively and individually, is never static, always a bit uncertain, exploratory. It adds an interesting … I don’t know, friction? Prickle? … to a lot of what’s going on. But yes, he was never intended to have what you might call an entirely ‘traditional’ character arc; indeed, THE FREE really isn’t his story at all if you ask me.

To be fair, isn’t it a while since people really wrote the ‘farmboy saves the world’ thing anyway? Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems like secondary world fantasy moved on from that a while back. In Drann’s defence, I’ve also got to point out that there’s nothing remotely ‘dubious’ about his birth; he’s from good, earthy farming stock and a (kind of) loving family. Dubious my … oh, and I’ve got to also at least suggest that – going back to the movie thing – you could say I’m inverting a prose fantasy trope with Drann, but perhaps it would be more accurate to say I’m echoing (pinching? Homaging?) a very specific character and his arc from a couple of movies that have Seven in their title.

THE FREE is a standalone novel, as opposed to a trilogy or even longer series. How did this change your approach to planning and writing the novel? Did you find it easier than writing a trilogy? What drawbacks does it impose, and what advantages does it offer?

To take your questions out of order, did I find it easier? Well, kind of. The end was always in sight. I didn’t have the space – on the page or in my head – to lose focus. I guess it’s a bit easier not to lose focus when doing so really isn’t an option. It’s a bit easier, for me anyway, to plan out the plot and structure of a story told in a single novel than one that takes multiple volumes. Constraints are an under-appreciated positive when it comes to writing, I think. It makes distinguishing between needs and wants both more important and a bit easier: what you might instinctively want in there, as the author, isn’t always the same as what the story, or the reader, actually needs. I’ve always suspected that the shorter the story you’re trying to write, the more you’re likely to learn about the craft of writing.

The drawbacks and advantages cut both ways, I think. You obviously don’t have as much space for world-building. Leisurely exploration of the intricate, wonderful world you’ve dreamed up isn’t going to work. That could be frustrating, but equally it enforces a clarity about what’s important, it makes you fill in the world by hint, or indication, or small detail; sometimes that might prove more intriguing for the reader than the lengthier version that’d be possible in a longer tale. You don’t have quite as much room to do a deep dive into every single character, but it’s surprising how economically you indicate a character’s nature when you have to.

THE FREE is your fifth novel, which means you’re practically a veteran novelist now! How do you feel you’ve developed as a writer since the publication of WINTERBIRTH back in 2006? Have you found that the writing process has become easier as you’ve become more experienced?

I deleted my first answer to this question and decided to do this instead, because why not? My nutty pet theory about what writing and stories are:

Any given story (as far as novels are concerned, anyway) exists in three forms. First, the intangible, glorious conception in the author’s head. The mix of images, feeling, emotion, drama that seems improbably cool and exciting when you imagine it. Second, its physical manifestation as ordered words on a page or a screen. Third, the intangible experience that physical manifestation creates in the mind of the reader – another mix of images, feeling, emotion, drama etc. These three forms are not – never – quite the same as each other.

So what the writer’s trying to do in the process of writing is translate the story as accurately and effectively from the first form to the second. My experience of this – like, I suspect, a great many writers – is invariably one of at least partial failure. The story in my head is generally awesome, to be honest; the one on the page never 100% as utterly awesome. Because writing’s hard, you know? But the written text has become a closer approximation to what was in my head with each novel I’ve written. An important part of ‘developing’ as a writer as far as I’m concerned is getting better at representing that mental conception – its mood, its energy, its meaning – in words on a page, and in that sense yes, I think I’m developing bit by bit. The original conception can still be flawed or misguided, stinking the place up, of course; that’s a different aspect of the writer’s job that I’m not talking about here.

The translation from the second, written form of the story into the third, which only exists in the reader’s head, is a collaboration between text and reader. The writer has no direct influence over the third and final form of the story except that crucial one: how accurately and effectively they’ve re-created their own vision and experience in that text.

Nutty, like I said. And hopelessly incomplete, of course; but nobody ever said nutty pet theories had to be complete, right?

Finally, you have mentioned in previous interviews that you’re a fan of George R. R. Martin, Steven Erikson and Scott Lynch, among others. What recent fantasy releases have you enjoyed? And speaking of George R. R. Martin: have you been watching the Game of Thrones TV series?

Funny (peculiar, not ha ha) thing: I’ve read hardly any new fantasy releases in the last few years. Once I was writing the stuff professionally, I found reading it got a whole lot less straightforward, as recreational activities go. There are lots of reasons for that, some of which I’m sure folks can imagine. I do still re-read some older stuff now and again.

And yes, of course I’ve been watching GoT. I’m pretty sure it’s part of my job description these days, isn’t it? I’m way behind, though: only just starting on season 3. I like it a lot – better written and better acted than most stuff on TV, most of the time. Will I get in trouble if I mention a minor gripe, though? I understand the budgetary constraints etc. etc., but the narrative/editing tricks and glosses applied to avoid having to show any substantial action other than the few set pieces they seem to budget for each season is starting to jar me out of the story. Like I say, I get why it’s happening, but when you start actively noticing – and even worse, anticipating – that ‘Oh look, they’ve avoided another action scene’ moment, I find myself made very conscious of the whole thing’s artificiality. Probably just me, though. And it almost certainly doesn’t apply to those who haven’t read the books, I guess.

It’s still a great show, and it’s remarkable the thing ever got made to such high quality, but it’s just a reminder that books have one permanent advantage: unlimited effects budgets.

Thanks Brian!

THE FREE is published next week, in paperback, ebook and audio editions.