Fantasy Authors in Conversation: Anthony Ryan and John Gwynne

Authors Anthony Ryan and John Gwynne discuss their novels THE PARIAH (US | UK) and THE SHADOW OF THE GODS (US | UK) as well as historical influences on their works. And much more!


Anthony Ryan: Hi John. Congratulations on The Shadow of the Gods, which you know I enjoyed immensely. It’s probably best if we deal with the big important questions first, to wit: what’s the difference between a sword and a seax?

John Gwynne: Hi Anthony, great to be here chatting to you. I’m so pleased you enjoyed The Shadow of the Gods, and I love your question about a seax, but before I get to that I’ve just got to say this; Vaelin Al Sorna [the main character in Ryan’s Raven’s Shadow series] is one of my favourite characters in fantasy, like, ever. He’s iconic and I imagine he will be remembered in the Fantasy Hall of Fame alongside characters such as Druss and Logen Ninefingers.

Okay, now that I’ve got that out of my system, onto the difference between a sword and a seax.

A seax is essentially a big knife, used during the Viking era for all manner of tasks. It’s a single-edged blade, with a broken back tapering to a point. Little to no crossguard, with the blade ranging in size roughly from 6 inches up to about 14 inches in length, although there are variations either side of these dimensions. The Norse were a practical and pragmatic people and the seax was a multi-purpose tool, useful for cutting kindling, chopping vegetables, gutting and skinning a meal, and stabbing your enemy (particularly useful whilst in the shield wall, which would be cramped conditions with little room to swing a blade, much like the Roman gladius). A sword during the same period was longer, tended to be double-edged and with a more prominent crossguard.

Another difference is the way the seax and sword would be worn. A sword would be scabbarded and hung from a baldric or belt to hang roughly diagonally across the hip. A seax would have a scabbard with two or three suspension points and usually would hang from your belt horizontally across your front, roughly around the area of your upper thighs. This was a comfortable position for rowing.

Just to blur matters a little, there were also examples of a langseax, or long-seax during the Viking period, which is a blade with the same design as a seax (single edged, broken back, small or no crossguard) but being longer, of a roughly similar length to a sword. I’ve read various theories on why the langseax was used, and one of the ones I like the most is that the long-seax was used for ship combat, because there would be no danger from a single-edged sword in a back-swing of cutting rigging. So much of ancient history is filling in the gaps and educated guessing, so as to whether that’s true or not, I don’t know, but I like that logic.

Onto my first question to you, Anthony. I’ve recently read your latest novel due to be published later this year, The Pariah, which I loved. I felt a strong medieval and Robin Hood inspiration in its setting and style, though this is a much grittier tale, with a heavy dose of revenge thrown in. Can you tell me a little about your inspirations for The Pariah?

AR: Vaelin does appear to be a fan favourite for a lot of people. He’s furloughed for the time being but will be back eventually.

In terms of inspiration, it’s usually impossible for me to narrow down a genesis for any of my books, since they tend to come together over a period of years as a result of accumulated ideas. For The Pariah I knew I wanted to write a medieval fantasy but from the perspective of someone who starts out at the lowest tier of society. I also didn’t want him to be a farm boy or blacksmith’s apprentice since that’s been done to death, so my protagonist became an outlaw. Despite the modern romantic attachment to Robin Hood and the whole notion of being a rebel in a feudal society, criminality in medieval times was a brutal and often short business since most crimes were punishable by death. Outlaws tended to be outcasts, people denied any other occupation in an era when not having a job could mean starvation. Also, the notion of starting a character at the bottom and seeing how high he could climb appealed to me. When piecing together the setting, I read up on those aspects of medieval history that were likely to be most important to the story, particularly the way society was ordered and administered. Of course, since it’s me, I also did a deep dive on medieval warfare, focusing mainly on the Hundred Years War. However, I wasn’t fully faithful to real world history when crafting the story (or the battles) – I’m always happy to substitute my own inventions for factual details if it serves the narrative. One of the advantages of writing fantasy over historical fiction is that, when necessary, you can just make stuff up.

Speaking of research, I’d be interested to know how you approached putting together the world of the Bloodsworn series. It’s clearly a Norse-inspired setting but the history and cultural aspects have certain key differences, e.g. the pantheon of gods is completely different to the Aesir. I’d also be interested to know if there was a real-world inspiration for the roaming warrior bands that are such a feature of the story.

JG: I really got that level of detail about outlawry in medieval times coming through in The Pariah, and it made it an altogether different and unique experience from much medieval fantasy that I’ve read. It took that Hollywood Gloss off of all things Robin Hood. I also love that you’ve used the Hundred Years War as a frame of reference.

Moving on to your question about how I went about putting the world of the Bloodsworn Saga together, there was a little of what you said in its genesis; part of it is the cumulative effect of experiences over many years. The original seeds were sown when I was a child and fell in love with those tales from Norse mythology about Beowulf and Grendel, and tales about the Norse gods, Thor, Odin, Loki and the gang. Dig a little deeper into that mythology and you come across giant serpents, berserkers and talking wolves. I’ve also been a lover of history and have always found the Viking era fascinating, and that love of the Norse sagas and their history has led me to picking up a shield and spear as an adult and becoming a Viking reenactor.

I think that is probably the WHY I decided to write a fantasy story set in a Norse world, but to answer your question of HOW … I did a lot of research and read A LOT. Norse mythology, Viking era history, Scandinavian folklore, and just made notes as I went through it. Historical details, cool stuff from mythology, interesting creatures and stories from folklore. Anything that sparked some passion or had me sitting back in my chair and smiling, saying ‘Whoa, that’s cool,’ went down in the notes and I threw them all into the ‘Bloodsworn pot.’ I was mindful that I didn’t want to copy Norse mythology, in that I didn’t just want to write about Odin and Thor and Loki, or write about them with different names. I wanted to use Norse mythology and history as a springboard into a new world, one that would hopefully feel historically authentic, uniquely Norse, but also one that felt fantastical, with a seeping, pervading sense of rune-magic and danger. That’s why I invented a new pantheon of gods, but one that played on those Norse sensibilities, so I made them all shapeshifters, and based them on creatures that feature heavily in Norse mythology – the serpent, wolf, bear, dragon and so on – and then I had them all kill each other in a Ragnarok-like cataclysmic battle. That is the ‘history’ of this world. Talking of the creatures that are still living and populating this new world, though, I read a lot about the vaesen, which is a Norse term that covers all those creatures of Scandinavian folklore and mythology, such as trolls, wights and draugr. I found a few that were less well known, such as the nacken and the froa, but I also made up a few of my own, like the tennur, who are winged, hairless rat-like creatures that have an obsessive taste for human teeth.

You asked if there was a real-world inspiration for my roaming bands of mercenary warriors. The answer to that is…kind of. Beowulf is one of the major inspirations for this series, in that he leads a band of warriors to hunt down a monster, (my characters are less heroic and more self-serving, though), but Beowulf is a saga-tale, with no historical evidence for its truth. There are historical figures who led bands of Norse warriors and fought for money, though. A well-known example of that is Harald Hardrada, who eventually became the King of Norway and who famously lost his life at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066. For many years before he became king of Norway he was a warrior-for-hire, fighting first for the Rus Princes in what is now North-Western Russia, and then further south, for the Emperor of Byzantium (now Istanbul). The stories tell that he accumulated such wealth from his exploits that it dwarfed the coffers of any of the Scandinavian Kings.

So, I have another question for you, Anthony. You mentioned the genesis of your books coming from an accumulation of years. Could you tell me a little more about how you got into writing in the first place? And do you have a similar crafting process for every series you write, or does it vary with each story?

AR: I’ve always written, ever since childhood when I found out it was a thing people did as a job. I spent my 20s and a good portion of my 30s doing the classic thing of collecting rejection letters from magazines I sent my not-very-good short stories to – yes, paper rejection letters (this was a while ago). I also had a pretty long and tortuous learning period as a novelist, most of which consisted of starting books I never finished – probably the most valuable lesson you can learn as a writer is to finish what you start. Ultimately, it was only when I actually finished Blood Song, a process that took about six and a half years, that people wanted to pay me for my words. Even then I was obliged to self-publish it at first as every agent I sent it to sent it back with yet more rejection letters for my collection. Once the self-published ebook began selling and I got my first publishing deal with Ace, it didn’t take long for me to transition to full-time writing. Sadly, I never got to enjoy the ‘stuff your job’ and walk out moment I’d always wanted, since I quite liked my boss and actually enjoyed my job. Quitting was really a matter of financial and physical necessity as the exhausting experience of writing my second book whilst holding down a day job convinced me it was time to take the plunge. Although I always wanted to be a full time writer I’m pretty sure I’d still be writing even if Blood Song hadn’t taken off it the way it did – my impulse to create stories is just too strong.

In terms of my writing process, writing Blood Song was a much more organic process than all my other books because I had the luxury of time. Thanks to the relatively short timescale I had for the sequel, Tower Lord, I established an outlining system that I’ve refined over the years but haven’t changed much. Once the overall idea has gelled in my head I’ll start by researching the historical period relevant to the setting and make notes on elements I want to include. These are usually pretty fragmentary and I end up only using a fraction of the detail in the final book, but it helps in solidifying the world in my mind. I usually vaguely summarise the plot of the entire series in a couple of paragraphs, mainly to make sure I have an ending. I also draw a basic map and make a list of principal characters with a short biographical sketch. One tip for budding fantasy writers is to come up with a naming convention for your characters and write as long a list of names as you can – prevents you getting stuck during the course of writing. Before starting each book I write a chapter-by-chapter outline which isn’t particularly elaborate, just one paragraph per chapter, but it helps to firm up the shape of the plot and gives me an idea of the final length. I should stress that I have deviated from every outline I’ve ever written and only rarely refer back to it in the course of writing. Outlines are really just a security blanket for me and I’m always happy to stray from it when better ideas inevitably occur in the process of writing, especially so in my new series the plot of which changed a great deal. More recently, I’ve begun tracking my daily process on a spreadsheet. I find it helps in planning my schedule and also as a motivator since it’s a good feeling when all those word counts start to add up to something.

Speaking of the writing process, how do you go about it? I was impressed with the fight scenes in The Shadow of the Gods and wondered if your expertise as a re-enactor helps when putting them together? Also, what’s your writer origin story?

JG: That’s so interesting, Anthony and I like the balance of structure and creativity that you mention. I’m frequently surprised and stunned by the world of publishing, especially when I hear about rejection letters relating to a book that I consider stellar, and Blood Song is right up there. It’s a seminal text, in my opinion, and belongs in the Fantasy Hall of Fame. A kind of ‘go-to-text,’ so to hear that you had rejection letters for it is mind-boggling to me. I suppose it reinforces the fact that reading is such a subjective experience, and reminds us all that publishers are just as much in the dark as anyone else as to what makes a great (and successful) novel.

If it’s okay I’ll merge your question 1, ‘my writing process’, and question 3 ‘writer origin story,’ as they are kind of related. I came to writing quite late in life – during my 30’s, and really it came about by chance. My daughter Harriett is profoundly disabled and my wife and I both care for her from home. I used to teach at Brighton University, but there was a period of time where Harriett was extremely ill and so I stepped out of teaching to help my wife Caroline with Harriett’s care. During this time Caroline suggested that I try writing as a hobby. I told her not to be silly, that you need some key ingredients for that, including characters, plots and a large dose of talent. Caroline persisted in encouraging me to give it a go, and then my children got in on the conversation, and I had been thinking about finding a hobby that I could do from home. So, I thought why not, and that is when I began working on my first book, Malice. That’s my ‘origin story.’ :)

As far as my writing process came about, I had never had any kind of training or experience in creative writing, and the only way I knew how to write was how I’d been taught to write essays and dissertations at University. My tutor’s mantra was always ‘read, read, and then read some more!’ Basically, do ALL the research. So that’s how I went about writing and that’s pretty much how I do it now. I research the history and mythology of periods that interest me, I research as many details that I can think of that will help to create a believable world – how swords were made, wolf pack behavior, how Viking ships were made, how did Vikings fight, what did they eat, how did they cook, make clothes, farm, and so on, and I add that to the world and characters that are forming in my head. Over the years I’ve honed it and learned to become a little more focused and specific with the research, and I’ve also learned where the line is when I can stop researching and start writing. That’s kind of the big picture of how I go about my writing. Thinking about how that breaks down into an average day, I squeeze in writing sessions ( or research sessions, depending on where I am in the whole process) between the care my daughter Harriett needs, along with the other demands of life. Usually that means two or three sessions of writing a day, usually for a few hours each time. Also, headphones are essential. I listen to a lot of music that helps me get into my ‘writing place,’ and cut out the household noise (there can be quite a lot of that).

And finally, onto my fight scenes. I’m so glad you enjoyed them in The Shadow of the Gods. Obviously so much of combat is in the imagination, but I do think that being a Viking re-enactor has helped me to write combat with some extra layers. There are lots of little details that you pick up through experience that you just wouldn’t think of (or I wouldn’t, anyway). For example, on the first day that I went to my re-enactment group I was handed a battered, round shield with an iron boss, a spear and a helmet, and taught the absolute basics of shield and spear work. After about 10-15 minutes my shoulder muscle was burning and it soon reached the point where I had to step out of the action so that I could lower my arm, just to let my shoulder recover a little. I’m reasonably fit, but using muscles in a different way really took its toll. Also, I learned pretty quickly that when you’re putting your weapons kit on that you put your gloves on last, because it is almost impossible to buckle up your weapons belt or the buckle of your helmet’s chin strap with gloves on. Another detail I learned is that a coat of riveted mail is HEAVY, and it rubs especially on the shoulders. Using your weapons belt to take some of the weight is essential. Talking of coats of mail, there are many details I’ve learned from being a Viking reenactor that have nothing to do with writing bad-ass warriors. My first experience of wearing mail was getting stuck in it. I was at the traders section during the reenactment weekend of the Battle of Hastings. I became completely ensnared in the mail, unable to see, and all I could hear was laughter…it’s harder being a Viking than it looks. And all of these details are without even stepping into line and forming a shield wall, or facing other re-enactors in combat. There are so many more details like this to draw upon from some experience of re-enactment, and I hope that using a few here and there adds deeper layers of authenticity to the combat in my books. My goal is that the combat feels gritty and authentic, with none of the Hollywood gloss or glorification.

I remember when I first read David Gemmel, who is one of m-py all-time favourite authors, that his combat felt far grittier and more realistic than I was used to, and he has been a great influence on my writing. I’ve read that you’re a great Gemmel fan, Anthony, and when I read Blood Song I really felt that it embodied those Gemmel sensibilities that I loved, that wonderful blend of pacing, characters and realism, but with a real sense of hope seeping through it. Has Gemmel influenced your writing? And if so, how? Are there other writers who you would mention as inspirations to you?

AR: David Gemmell remains a key influence for me and is probably my all-time favourite fantasy author. I first discovered his work in 1989 when I moved to London and randomly picked up a copy of Wolf in Shadow in my local comic shop in Camden Town – it’s still my favourite book of his even though it’s quite different from the works that made him famous, like Legend and Waylander (which are also great, of course). His mix of character, pace and pathos is something I’ve tried to emulate, although my work tends to be a lot longer than his. I also always appreciated his take on heroism – his heroes are usually tragic figures who enjoy scant rewards for their actions and are often destined to be overlooked in history, which I think is highly reflective of the real world. We tend to remember the kings and politicians who start wars rather than the people who fight them.

In terms of other writers, like all modern fantasy authors I owe a large debt to George R.R. Martin, as well as the originators like Tolkien and Robert E. Howard. However, my love of fantasy writing really began with Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles which I discovered around the age of 11 or 12. Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books were another important part of my early reading, especially her take on magic. Robin Hobb’s Assassin and Liveship Traders books also had a big impact on my work in their ability to bring a sense of realism to a secondary world. I don’t limit my reading to fantasy, however, and consider myself just as influenced by crime and horror fiction. I’ve always been a big Stephen King fan – I read the Gunslinger series from the very beginning and consider it a seminal work in dark fantasy. I also particularly loved The Dead Zone, It and, more recently, his Bill Hodges trilogy which began with Mr. Mercedes. Other faves are Peter Straub, James Ellroy, William Gibson, Iain M. Banks, R. Scott Bakker, Robert R. McCammon and Kim Newman, especially his short stories. I also read a great deal of non-fiction, especially history as I find it a great well of inspiration. I’ve read a lot of military history but have been making effort to broaden my horizons into social and economic history too.

In addition to books, I’ve always been a big film and TV fan. I was obsessed with Star Wars for much of my childhood and loved shows like Star Trek and Blake’s 7 – which, for our non-British friends, was a kind of low budget dystopian anti-Star Trek (and overdue a Battlestar Galactica-style remake). I also loved the old historical Hollywood epics like El Cid and Quo Vadis. Recently, for obvious reasons, I’ve watched pretty much every major TV series. The quality of television these days is somewhat astounding so choosing favourites is hard, but I thought Perry Mason, Lovecraft Country, Servant and For All Mankind were all excellent.

Talking of television, I’d be interested in knowing what you thought of the Vikings TV series. Also, do you have a favourite film or TV battle scene? (I’ve got my own list and wonder how closely yours matched mine).

JG: Anthony, that’s so interesting reading about your influences, and I must say I am struck by the similarity between our tastes. The very first fantasy book I remember, and definitely the one that sparked my love for fantasy and started me on that slippery slope of hobbits and dragons and minotaurs and all-things-fantasy was ‘The Book of Three,’ the first book of Lloyd Alexander’s ‘The Prydain Chronicles.’ Stephen King had a big impact on teenage me, as well, with Salem’s Lot and It. Also, I was obsessed with Blakes-7.

To answer your question about what I think of the TV show Vikings. I enjoy it, there’s a lot that’s entertaining in it, but you can’t go into it expecting something historically authentic. Most of it isn’t. It’s loosely based on some of the Norse Sagas with a sprinkling of history, but I don’t think the writers intended it to be considered as historically authentic. Most of the clothes aren’t authentic, and elite, wealthy warriors would most definitely NOT go into battle without wearing a good helmet and a coat of mail. Most of the combat involves helmetless warriors in leather or just bare skin. It is what it is, good fun that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Favourite film or TV battle scene…rubs hands together… Soooo many. Pretty much every battle scene from The Lord of the Rings films, with a special shout-out to Amon Hen at the end of the Fellowship. The duel at the end of Rob Roy, I LOVE that duel. The ambush in The Last of the Mohicans. The opening battle at the beginning of The Revenant. Such a kaleidoscopic, frantic scene that is both chilling and beautifully shot. Really captures something of the chaos and horror. And I’d have to give mention to the film Braveheart. I remember going to see that at the cinema when it first came out and it felt groundbreaking to me. At the time most films with swords, whether they were historical epics or fantasy, felt heavily choreographed, balletic, and had that Hollywood gloss that glorified combat into good guy/bad guy. The combat in Braveheart felt horrible and chaotic and bone-crunchingly authentic. As if you were standing there with them. That film had a great impact on me, and was inspirational in the way that I try to write combat.

This is so much fun Anthony, going back and forward with our questions like this, and now I obviously have to hear your list of favourite combat scenes from film and or TV. Also, I’m wondering how you felt the first time you saw one of your books on a bookshelf in a shop? Do you remember the specific moment – where you were and so on?

AR: You’ve already mentioned a couple of my faves – Last of the Mohicans, the historically absurd but entertaining Braveheart, and the battles from The Lord of the Rings movies (Pelennor Fields is my favourite). In addition, I’m a big fan of the climactic sea battle in Master and Commander, the daft but fun spectacle of Zack Snyder’s 300, and the rain-spattered blood-bath of Kenneth Branagh’s take on Agincourt in Henry V. However, for sheer emotional punch, and historical accuracy, it’s hard to beat the assault on Fort Wagner at the end of Edward Zwick’s Civil War epic Glory. Honourable mentions for Gladiator, The Last Samurai, Saving Private Ryan, Zulu and the Avengers movies.

I’m also not averse to a good shoot-out scene, the climaxes of Phil Janou’s State of Grace and Kevin Costner’s Open Range being particularly impressive. For one-on-one fight scenes the first three Jason Bourne films are at the top of the list, though I also really liked the realism of Ridley Scott’s The Duellists and the quip-filled delight of Indigo Montoya vs the Great Pirate Roberts in The Princess Bride.

As writers we should probably also pay tribute to literary battle scenes, my personal favourite exponents of the art being R. Scott Bakker, George R.R. Martin, Bernard Cornwell, and (of course) David Gemmell. I also greatly enjoyed the space battles in Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet series.

I do remember the first time I saw my own book on a bookshop shelf – it was in the Waterstones at the Bluewater consumer dystopia near Dartford in July 2013 when the Blood Song hardcover came out in the UK. In common with other landmark moments in my writing career, I found it a curious mix of pride, triumph and anti-climax. I didn’t feel an urge to pick it up and wave it around whilst shouting “I wrote this!” In fact, after the first rush of excitement wore off I mostly wondered if it would be weird to actually buy a copy of my own book – I didn’t. Instead I just took a picture of it sitting on the shelf with my phone, bought the latest James Ellroy and went home. (OK, I may have surreptitiously moved my book from the shelf to the front table).

What was your first experience of seeing your book on a bookshop shelf like?

JG: That’s a wonderful ‘Hall of Fame’ of battle scenes there, both literary and in film.

My first experience of seeing my book in a bookshop was on the publication day of my first novel, Malice. My editor at Tor UK, Julie Crisp, invited me to London for a celebratory meal and to sign some stock at Goldsboro Books and London’s Forbidden Planet Megastore, and it was at Forbidden Planet that I saw the book put out onto shelves for public purchase. It felt a little bit otherworldly, to see my book alongside authors like Raymond Feist, Joe Abercrombie and George R.R. Martin (they all had hardbacks out at around the same time).  It was a surreal, wonderful day. One of my sons, Edward, kept me company and I look back on the day very fondly. A vivid memory is of walking back to the Underground through Covent Garden, it was mid-December, so dark and cold and all of the Christmas lights were lending their magic to London. A very happy memory.

Well, thanks so much for this opportunity to chat to you, Anthony, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it and found it both interesting and enlightening talking about your inspirations and experiences. Thank you, and I’m looking forward to the launch of The Pariah.

AR: Many thanks to you too, John. This has been a lot of fun and I’m very keen to read book two in the Bloodsworn Saga.

Ready to dive in? Check out HE SHADOW OF THE GODS (US | UK) by John Gwynne while you prepare for the upcoming release of THE PARIAH (US | UK) by Anthony Ryan on August 24th!