Last year, Mark Charan Newton introduced us to the Sun Chamber's star (sorry) investigator: Lucan Drakenfeld, who, alongside his ruthlessly efficient friend Leana, managed to stop a series of hideous crimes in the nation of Detrata.
The Drakenfeld series - a fusion of Golden Age detection and modern epic fantasy - now continues with Retribution, in which Drakenfeld and Leana tackle a new case... in a new country. We managed to pull Mark out of his allotment long enough for him to answer a few questions...
Pornokitsch: The action of Retribution moves from the ancient culture of Detrata to the wilder, only recently ‘stabilised’ country of Koton. You’ve mentioned that Detrata was inspired by the Roman Republic; what influences went into developing Koton?
Mark Charan Newton: There were still a handful of Classical influences in Koton, but it was more of a deliberate contrast against those more formal structures. That contrast came from, to borrow from Borodin, those people "In the Steppes of Central Asia". I wondered how it would be if more nomadic cultures were not forced, but encouraged via a ruler to adopt a more Classical culture as their central political philosophy. With that loose inspiration in mind, bits and pieces were grabbed from elsewhere in history, but this was one of those more consciously made-up and/or fantastical peoples. A thought experiment.
PK: How do you create countries with distinct atmosphere and personality while still making them part of the same world?
MCN: That was always part of the plan from the first book, to create those distinct countries, but the answer comes in two parts. The first is that it was more about keeping creativity fresh than anything else. I love creating new cities and new landscapes in particular - it’s part of the fun of being a fantasy writer. That’s what I need to keep me writing, in a sense.
But the Royal Vispasian Union is deliberately made up of contrasting cultures - in fact, it needs the contrasting cultures for the wider story arc to function. Part of the fun is to make them dysfunctional and functional where appropriate. It was based, in one sense, in an absurd glance at the European Union. So when you now look at clashing cultures being distinct and yet part of the same world, with the EU in mind it’s a little more easy to see.
PK: The two countries also have very different types of leadership. In Drakenfeld, the ‘civilised’ Detrata has a decadent monarch and a belligerent Senate. In Retribution, we’re introduced to one of the series’ most fascinating characters, the visionary (and intimidating) Queen Dokuz Sorghatan. Is there a lesson here? Do the leaders shape their nations, or the other way around?
MCN: Looking at Classical history, it was easy to see how tyrants and dictators got shit done. There was one vision (their own, no matter how weird or corrupt) and that vision continued uninterrupted and unchallenged for years. Think about the change of governments in whatever pseudo-democracy we now live in: with politicians being voted in and out, there’s a huge amount of short-term focus. Budgets are raised by one lot and slashed by another. Looking back, there’s very little coherent vision on that sort of politics.
So it wasn’t so much a case of leaders being able to shape their nations, but dictators being trying to force nations to be a certain shape. In a way, Queen Dokuz Sorghatan is a dictator (though in the true ancient world sense, not in the cigar-munching, AK-47-wielding sense). She is imposing her will on a nation. But she’s still a dictator nonetheless.
PK: It strikes me that the Drakenfeld books differ from traditional fantasy epics because they’re about the causes, not the effects. Lucan Drakenfeld investigages the economic, political and social factors that underpin cataclysmic, Empire-spanning events.
But, from another point of view, there’s probably some dashing young Sun Legion cavalry officer or Detratan stableboy who is running around thinking he’s the Chosen One and this is all about him.
So, really, the question is, why are you writing such ‘boring’ fantasy?
MCN: Ha! You know, it extends from the reasons I was writing fantasy in the first place. I wanted to write about the personal story amidst the epic events. What happened, for example, when some important things were going on in a character’s life - and the big epic stuff started to happen around that. The Drakenfeld books are a bit more conscious of the politics and economics of it all, but it’s still that same underlying notion of the epic events somehow interrupting how things are right now.
PK: After teasing us with mentions of magic in Drakenfeld, there’s some outright supernatural weirdness in Retribution. Does the presence of magic writing a mystery more difficult? How do you make the mystery ‘fair’ to the reader while also containing something supernatural?
MCN: It’s a strange trade-off, one that I’m never wholly convinced works in the genre. Or rather, rarely works well. In a nutshell: yes, the presence of the fantastic makes crime just that little bit more unbelievable. If, for example, ghosts can walk through walls and commit a murder, it feels a little bit of a cop-out, particularly because the nature of crime fiction is to provide the reader with a puzzle. Fantasy could end up breaking that puzzle.
It was more of a challenge in the first book, as it featured a locked-room mystery, so for Retribution I could turn up the weirdness just a little more. But I think you can still make things fair by ensuring the mechanics of the crime aren’t given a helping hand by magic. It’s really the same old criticism that used to be hurled at the fantasy genre - Gandalf-ex-machina – that magic could get characters out of a tricky situation and cheat the reader. Just don’t cheat when it comes to the crime!
PK: Lucan Drakenfeld suffers from seizures - a situation that doesn’t define him as a character, but does impact how he sees the world (and vice versa). Is it important that Drakenfeld struggles in this way? And what advice would you give to other authors trying to write characters facing challenges of this nature?
MCN: I’m not sure it is important that he is challenged in this fashion. But it is important I write about individuals who have things to deal with, be that a perceived affliction or even emotional issues. That’s not out of some sense of duty or honour (though in some sense, I do think writers have a duty to give airtime to people other than straight, white, abled males).
But if you’re writing about these people, it’s that rule of: do your research. Speak to people who have suffered similar sorts of issues. Get to understand what it’s like. Then you can not only educate yourself and empathise with a wider range of the human condition, but you’ll also have some interesting interactions between character and plot. It’s good for everyone involved!
PK: The end of Retribution hints towards an escalation of sorts - with the events of the first book coming back to haunt Drakenfeld and his world. Is this a sign of things to come?
Yes and no… History doesn’t have a beginning or end, so in the first book I wanted to drop him right into the middle of something. Plenty has happened before (which hopefully I’ve touched upon in the short story "The Messenger"), and plenty can happen afterwards. At some point I would quite like to leave the character stuck somewhere in history, with his story not quite finished. That would feel very true to the nature of what inspired his creation: history.
Retribution is out now from Pan Macmillan. The second volume in the Drakenfeld series, it stands perfectly well on its own - or you can start from the beginning with Drakenfeld. Mark blogs about all sorts of things (mostly booze and/or plants) at markcnewton.com and can be found on Twitter as @MarkCN.