Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Triarchy's Emissary published today

The Triarchy's Emissary
by Nyki Blatchley
Published by Fox & Raven Publishing
Available on Kindle from for £0.77
& from for $1.18
The gods have destroyed the Empire of Shebal, and the world is in chaos, at the mercy of warlords and tyrants. Edralit arrives in the city of Faiz with orders that she's to infiltrate the household of the dowager empress Novesh, who has plans to restore order—but orders from whom? Is she an assassin sent by the vicious Triarchy of the Mountains, or does she have another agenda? The young emissary is captivated by the charismatic empress, but will it stop her fulfilling her task—whatever that might be?
Buy a copy from or

Monday, July 22, 2013

In Search of the Holy Grail

About fifteen years ago, I started writing a historical fantasy novel set in the 11th century that largely revolved around finding the Holy Grail.  It was a good, if flawed, story which I've only recently acknowledged I'm not going to get published, but one of the things I'm now dissatisfied with is my treatment of the Grail.

At the time, I was aware of three broad models of what the Grail was.  There was the idea that it was the cup of the Last Supper (or, in some alternatives, a cup that had caught the blood from Christ's wounds on the cross).  There was the idea that it was a thinly disguised version of the Celtic cauldron of rebirth.  My interpretation was essentially a mash-up of these two, with a bit more emphasis on the second.

The third model was the one put forward in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, that the Grail legend was a metaphor for the descent of the Frankish Merovingian Dynasty from Jesus (the vessel containing the blood of Christ).  According to this theory, the name Sangreal, normally translated as Holy Grail, is actually sang real - royal blood.  I didn't think much of this theory at the time, and its subsequent notoriety from its use by Dan Brown hasn't endeared it to me any more.

Brown's interpretation, in particular, depends on the assumption that this genealogy is true.  This wouldn't matter, of course, if it were just taken as a good plot for an imaginative novel, but it seems to have convinced a lot of people.

The Merovingians were a Germanic dynasty, and it was normal for such dynasties to claim descent from one or the other of their gods.  The current Queen of the United Kingdom, by virtue of being a scion of the royal house of Wessex, is allegedly a descendent of the god Woden.  This kind of creative genealogy is common — by a similar method, I can possibly claim descent from the Irish High King Fionn MacCumhail.  The Merovingian conversion to Christianity was almost wholly political, rather than being symptomatic of a spiritual awakening, so it would have made sense for them to have "discovered" they derived from their new god.

Of course, the legend could still be based on a false tradition; but I've discovered a bit more about the origin of the Grail legend since I wrote that novel.  Curiously, some of these things rarely get mentioned in any of the endless discussions of the legend.

The earliest extant version of the legend as such (and I'll come back later to that qualification) is Perceval: or the Story of the Grail by the 12th century French poet Chrétien de Troyes.  Not a great deal is known of Chrétien's life, but he appears to have enjoyed the patronage of both Countess Marie of Champagne and Count Philip of Flanders.  He was one of a generation of French poets who took the Welsh legends of King Arthur and dressed them up in an idealised form of 12th-century chivalry. 

Although probably not the first, he was undoubtedly the best of the first wave of romance-writers, treating his subjects with an effortless blend of mystery, beauty and humour.  His treatment of Lancelot pokes fun at the excesses of courtly love, even while portraying the hero venturing into the hazards of a magical land, while an episode where Gawain is targeted by a little girl who's decided he's to be "her knight" is comedy of the highest order.

Nevertheless, his most lasting legacy is the unfinished Perceval.  This relates a number of adventures of the titular knight, but the key moment comes when he arrives at the castle of the wounded Fisher King.  At dinner, he sees a strange sight:

While they were talking of this and that, out of a room came a youth holding a white lance grasped by the middle; and he passed by between the fire and those seated on the couch. And everyone present could see the white lance with its shining head; and from the tip of the lance-head oozed a drop of blood, a crimson drop that ran right down to the lad's hand...Thereupon two other youths came, holding in their hands pure gold candlesticks inlaid with black enamel. The lads carrying the candelabras were extremely handsome. At least ten candles were burning in each candelabra.

A damsel, who came with the youths and was fair and attractive and beautifully adorned, held in both hands a grail. Once she had entered with this grail that she held, so great a radiance appeared that the candles lost their brilliance just as the stars do at the rising of the sun or moon. After her came another maiden, holding a silver carving-dish. The grail, which proceeded ahead, was of pure refined gold... *

Perceval longs to know the meaning of this procession and, most of all, who was served from that grail, but is afraid the question would be impertinent and so holds his tongue.  The next morning, he finds the castle deserted and, when he leaves to search for its inhabitants, the door is locked behind him.  He subsequently learns that, if he had asked the question he'd longed to, the Fisher King would have been healed, but he's now he's now condemned both the King and his land to misery.

Perceval vows to search — not for the Grail itself, but to discover the meaning of what he saw.  Unfortunately, Chrétien died without completing the work and without revealing the answer to the riddle.

This was the first appearance of the Grail, but the story wasn't entirely original.  It may have been based on the Welsh story Peredur Son of Efrawg, one of the stories collected in the Mabinogion.  I say "may have been" because the earliest extant version of Peredur is believed to date from later, and some scholars think that the influence was the other way round.  I think it's more likely, though, that Chrétien drew on an earlier, lost version of Peredur.  In the parallel scene to that quoted above, Peredur sees a severed head being carried, and it seems to me that the absence of the best-known element of Chrétien's story makes it unlikely that the Welsh author was drawing on the French.

Nevertheless, while Peredur is a very similar story, it doesn't feature the Grail, and it's fair to assume that Chrétien originated this crucial element.  However, this wasn't the Sangreal, or the Holy Grail, or even the Grail — merely a grail.  A grail was, in fact, not a cup at all, but a serving-dish.  The word subsequently fell out of use, and it's likely that the authors who rewrote and finished Chrétien's tale (some of whom weren't French-speakers in any case) didn't know what it meant.  It's during this phase of the legend that it became a cup and was identified with the cup of the Last Supper.

This doesn't mean, of course, that Chrétien might not have intended something very similar.  Although steeped in Celtic magic, his stories were fundamentally Christian, and it's entirely possible that the procession Perceval witnessed was meant to symbolise the Eucharist.  But the Grail was only an element of that procession, although an important one.

Since the Grail wasn't originally a cup, the legend can hardly have originated, as sometimes claimed, with the alleged discovery in Jerusalem of the cup used by Christ, giving rise to a whole raft of Templar conspiracy theories.  Since it wasn't originally called the Sangreal, there's no reason to believe it symbolised the royal blood, real or imagined.  And it wasn't an object to be found or possessed, merely a context to be understood.  John Boorman's film Excalibur perhaps comes closest to the spirit of the original, though he still portrays the grail as a chalice.

The concept may have been influenced by the cauldron of rebirth — a dish is a receptacle, after all, though it's quite a stretch to get from a cauldron to a dish.  This appears in Welsh legend, but is probably related to the Dagda's Cauldron, one of the four treasures of Ireland.  The others are the Sword of Victory, the Spear of Lugh and the Stone of Destiny (said to be the Stone of Scone, until recently housed in Westminster Abbey, but now returned to Scotland).  It's worth noting that a spear also figures in the procession, and Perceval is given a magical sword by the Fisher King.  Perhaps Chrétien intended to introduce a magical stone later on.

So does any of this matter?  Well, not if all you want to do is write a good story.  All legends develop, and a storyteller has the right to draw upon whichever stage of it suits his or her tale and to give it whatever twist is convenient.  Authors from Malory to Monty Python have written wonderful versions of the Quest for the Holy Grail, and I wouldn't want them any different.  As long as they don't start claiming that it's all fact.

What I do object to is the way that endless "experts" are overpaid for creating TV documentaries about the origins of the Grail legend when they clearly haven't bothered to read the original version, or at least consider its implications.  The story Chrétien tells is at least as intriguing as, and far more entertaining than, any fiction about cups found in Jerusalem or the descendents of Christ, and it deserves pride of place in the legend's history.

And what of my novel?  I feel reluctant to perpetuate falsities that are already too widespread, even in the name of a good story.  Anyway, it would need plenty of fixing, even without that aspect.  Maybe someday I'll rewrite it, without the misleading version of the Grail legend.  Or maybe I'll write something actually based on Chrétien.  Or both.

* quoted from Arthurian Romances by Chrétien de Troyes, translated by D. D. R. Owen, published by J.M. Dent, 1987

Monday, July 15, 2013

Evolution of a Villain

When I first began to consciously write epic fantasy, in my mid-teens, the villain of my story, The Winter Legend, was the obvious type of Dark Lord, threatening to conquer and oppress the world for no very apparent reason.  That's part of the standard Dark Lord job description, after all.  He was a little different from most, since he was referred to as the Winter Lord, and his primary aim was to spread winter everywhere he conquered, though I imagine that wasn't entirely uninfluenced by the White Witch of Narnia.

At first, this Winter Lord, who eventually acquired the name Kargor, had little presence as a character.  Like Sauron, he was a distant menace, seen in occasional distant glimpses, but mostly by the effects of his oppression.  When he finally made a direct appearance, though, he pretty much ran the gamut of Standard Dark Lord Behaviour, insulting and abusing enemies and minions alike.  I think I resisted having him cackle, but little else.

Not that the character was entirely generic — I did put some thought into the psychology.  Kargor has a flame (now called the Tryst Flame, though it was unnamed back then) which ensures his invulnerability, and I did somewhat develop the duality of the confidence and the paranoia this gives him.

Nevertheless, there was little originality about him, even though the heroes (male and female) were evolving nicely from idealistic action junkies into vulnerable, reluctant heroes.  Fortunately, the version I wrote in the late 70s failed to interest publishers, and when I finally came back to The Winter Legend, ten years later, I'd evolved enough as a writer and a person to rethink my villain.

There were two main problems.  Well, three, counting the simple fact that the character was just plain clichéd.  The first was that I had another, more minor villain, a mortal king, who was almost exactly the same.  There was actually more justification with this character, Jekaini.  For one thing, he was very much in the tradition of rulers who are delicately balanced between insane and psychopathic — my original idea for him was a kind of mash-up of the Emperor Caligula, Adolf Hitler and Idi Amin.  For another, he only makes a couple of brief personal appearances, and the main point about him is the effects of his personal and political tyranny, especially on his children.  This worked well enough, but I didn't want two such similar villains.

The other problem was a more practical issue.  When we first meet Kargor, he's only recently been defeated and exiled, yet within a year he's established a kingdom and gathered a large, loyal following.  While minions might take abuse from a successful leader whose power they hope to share, why would anyone follow a powerless exile who clearly doesn't value them?

The revised character who emerged from my cogitations was very different: pleasant, charismatic, cultured and genuinely loyal to his friends and followers, yet still vacillating between confidence in his invulnerability and morbid terror of what might happen to him if he were to lose this.  Kargor's overwhelming concern is his own safety, and it's this obsession — treated very much as an addiction — that leads him conquer and commit atrocities.

As he develops through The Winter Legend (and as he'll be presented in the prequel I intend to start work on soon) Kargor shows every side of his character, from the personable man who adores his friends and is adored in return to the frightening image of someone who's willing to sacrifice anybody, however special they are to him, in order to ensure his own safety.

He also gives some hints of his earlier life, and the circumstances that led to the obsessions and grudges that drive him.  I've recently begun writing stories about that very young Kargor (then called Karaghr, or Kari) and his girlfriend Failiu.  Two largely clueless teenagers dabbling in sorcery they don't fully understand, they are charming, amoral and driven by insatiable curiosity as they wander through their world.  Nevertheless, in these stories (including The Temple of Taak-Resh) Kari and Fai are the people the reader's meant to root for, and I find it fascinating to explore this very different side of my villain.

It's been largely through this process that I've discovered a simple fact which, however many older and/or wiser people might tell us this, each author has to discover for themselves — that villains, like heroes, are nothing more or less than people.  They may be people we admire or people we hope we'll never encounter, but people.  It's when we let go of thinking about the creation of a Villain that we can finally start creating genuine villains.

Monday, July 8, 2013

My Golden Age: TV Sci-fi and Fantasy of the 60s

There's an old saying that the Golden Age of science fiction isn't any particular decade or era: it's fifteen.  Something similar is equally true of many things — most obviously pop music, but also classic TV.

The period when all the great TV shows were on depends entirely on your personal circumstances.  A lot of people I know rave about shows from the 80s, but I spent part of that decade without a TV, and I watched relatively little for most of the decade, so I missed out on many of these classics.  I even lost touch with Doctor Who during this period.

My personal "Golden Age", both for music and TV, was undoubtedly the 60s.  I began the decade in the infants school and finished it as a highly aware teenager; and, while rationally I accept that it's my bias, it seems to me that the whole era was bursting with creativity and imagination in a way that's never been rivalled since.

60s TV means various things to me — notably the era's brand of surreal comedy that culminated at the end of the decade with Python — but sci-fi looms large in it.  Fantasy much less so.  One or two of the US sitcoms we got included a slight fantasy element (Bewitched, for instance, in which an ordinary family sitcom had the twist that the wife was a magical being) but the only out-and-out fantasy show I recall (leaving aside talking animals and toys coming to life, which constitutes social realism for young kids) was Noggin the Nog.

Noggin was ostensibly aimed at very young children, but was one of those programmes that adults can enjoy on a whole different level.  It was narrated over still illustrations, which doesn't sound promising but worked well, and captured a magical feeling right from the regular opening words: Listen, I will tell you the saga of Noggin the Nog, as it was told in days of old by the men of the Northland as they sat around their great log fires. (That was purely from memory, by the way.)

In a pseudo-Norse saga, the young king of the Nogs encounters dragons, woos a beautiful princess from a far-off people, and fights his wicked uncle, Nogbad the Bad.  The whole thing's splendidly poised between serious use of fantasy tropes (such as a sword that gives its wielder absolute power) and tongue-in-cheek silliness.

In general, though, speculative TV of the 60s was sci-fi — some US imports, most of which I didn't watch, for some reason, but mainly home grown.  The great legacy from the previous decade had been Quatermass.  I was far too young to have seen these at the time (the first was on before I was born) but I own the 14-out-of-18 episodes that survive on DVD.

Quatermass set a very high bar for serious, grown-up sci-fi on TV.  This was no gung-ho space patrol: the hero was a middle-aged scientist using scientific principles to thwart various alien invaders of earth.  The first, The Quatermass Experiment in 1953, was technically primitive, but more than made up for that in storytelling, while Quatermass II (1955) and Quatermass and the Pit (1958) still look pretty good.

This tradition continued into the 60s, with serials like A for Andromeda, written by astronomer and science fiction author Fred Hoyle and featuring a young Julie Christie as the alien.  I didn't see that, either, but I do just remember a serial from 1962 called The Big Pull — very dark sci-fi, which finished with Earth apparently doomed and no-one to stop the alien force.

Later in the decade, the BBC continued its "grown-up" sci-fi tradition with Out of the Unknown.  In some ways, this could be described as a British answer to The Twilight Zone, but not exactly.  These were longer stories (an hour) and didn't have the quirky "house style" — this was simply a thread for sci-fi and supernatural stories, ranging from outer space to haunted houses, and from grimness to comedy, combining original TV plays with adaptations of stories by authors such as Asimov and Wyndham.

The overall standard was high, but some episodes stand out particularly in my memory.  The Midas Plague, a comedy set in a future where overproduction by robots means only the privileged can work and live frugally, while the unprivileged have to meet a punishing quota of consuming goods.  Immortality Inc., where life after death can be obtained, but only at a price — and the downside is that killing someone with "hereafter insurance" isn't considered murder.  The Uninvited, in which an elderly couple find their flat haunted by scenes of a murder that will be committed by the next occupant.  All great stuff.

Rather more sci-fi, though, was aimed principally at children.  The first I remember — and what got me hooked both on sci-fi and astronomy — was the Pathfinders series (1960-61) consisting of four serials: Target Luna, Pathfinders in Space, Pathfinders to Mars and Pathfinders to Venus.  These told of various expeditions, to the Moon, Mars and Venus, always with a group of children along for the ride (naturally).  I'm not sure how well they'd stand up now, but at six or seven, I found them awesome.

I remember other one-off serials. The Master (1966) was a strange story which, I only discovered on researching this, was based on a book by T.H. White, author of The Once and Future King.  Two children are kidnapped by a 157-year-old super-villain looking for a successor, but manage to overcome him. 

Object Z (1965) told of the panic caused by the discovery of an asteroid heading for the Earth, which eventually turned out to have been faked by a group of scientists trying to shock the world into laying aside its differences.  It showed the varying effects excellently, but somewhat spoilt the effect with a sequel where exactly the same thing happened — but for real, this time.

The Stranger (1964-5) was an Australian serial, long before the Australian film and TV industry came of age, about human-like aliens trying to peacefully settle on Earth without being noticed.  It was notable for showing both moderates and extremists on Earth and among the aliens, and the usual group of kids have to make sure the moderates on both sides win out.

However, perhaps the second most successful sci-fi product of British TV in the 60s (after the obvious) was a succession of puppet shows.  Gerry Anderson had developed his "Supermarionation" technique in shorts for very young children: The Adventures of Twizzle, about a mutant boy who could extend his arms and legs; Torchy, the Battery Boy, about an alien who fell to Earth; and Four Feather Falls, a magical western.  He then turned to longer sci-fi shows for older kids.  Supercar was about a futuristic vehicle, Fireball XL5 a "space patrol" story, Stingray about a submarine battling a hostile undersea civilisation, Thunderbirds about International Rescue, using their advanced vehicles to bring hope to hopeless situations, and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons about hostile, invisible Martians.  There were further shows later, but unfortunately, even by the time Captain Scarlet was on, I'd reached the "awkward stage" — too old for kids' shows and not yet old enough to realise that it didn't matter.

In general, Anderson's set pieces with the vehicles were far stronger than his handling of human characters.  These moved slowly and awkwardly, though it didn't really seem so at the time.  It was a shock to rewatch Thunderbirds many years later and find that the strings were visible.  They weren't when I was a kid, honest.  The vehicles, on the other hand, were handled with the same sort of models that would have been used in live-action shows, and they were the stars.

Still, the characters weren't irrelevant.  Certain males of around my age might still get misty-eyed if you mention Marina or Lady Penelope.  Or the Angels, of course.  Not a bad effect for puppets.

This is just a brief survey, and I'm sure I've missed out a lot — both shows I watched and have forgotten and those I never saw.  My family were never obsessive TV-watchers, and we had it off to read at least as often as having it on.  And, of course, as the decade progressed we were introduced first to a strange old man in a police box, and then to a starship on a five-year mission, and sci-fi on TV was never the same again.

Still, I hope this has shown that there was a lot more going on in the 60s.  Was it really the Golden Age?  Probably no more so than whatever decade you grew up in, but it was my Golden Age.  That's all that anyone can say.

Monday, July 1, 2013

At An Uncertain Hour is now Out of Print

I regret to inform you that has closed down, as of today, so At An Uncertain Hour is now out of print.  Kristopher Stamp has done a splendid job with StoneGarden, but he's reached the stage where he needs to move on to other things.  I'd like to thank him for publishing At An Uncertain Hour and for all the help he's given me.

The rights have now reverted to me, and I'm hoping to be able to reissue the novel on Kindle, and maybe even in a print format, as a self-published book.  My main reservation about self-publication is the editorial issue, since the choice is between paying a substantial amount for a freelance editor and issuing a book without a rigorous, professional editorial process.  In this case, however, I have the benefit of StoneGarden's original editing, so I can be confident that this aspect, at least, will be up to scratch.

The self-publishing process will be a learning curve, and I'm not sure how long it's going to take, but watch this space - the Traveller will return.