Author’s Notes: Stealer of Flesh

I know, it’s a bit silly to be writing up the Author’s Notes five months or so after the book was released but what the hell– I’ve been busy and I’ve been sick and these things get done in their own time. 

Stealer of Flesh is a book that Amazon made possible. Seriously. All of my life I have wanted to write something like it but I was born at the wrong time. In order to explain that we need to rewind to when I was a very young teenager. I grew up reading, among other things, lots of good, old-fashioned sword and sorcery;  Robert E Howard’s Conan and Solomon Kane; Michael Moorcock’s Elric, Corum and Hawkmoon books; Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique and Hyperborea and Averoigne stories and many more. These were not the sort of fantasy novels or series that fill the shelves these days.

For the most part they were relatively short books, often made up of collections of short stories or novellas. They very often featured a recurring hero or heroes in a quasi-medieval fantasy world. They were often very dark, and while they featured magic, it was not the sort of Swiss Army Knife tech substitute easily adaptable to a fully developed game system that we see in a lot of modern fantasy. It was often something that inspired awe and dread, fear and horror, in about equal measures. The stories were tales of a swordsman or swordsmen (only very occasionally woman like Jhirel of Jhoiry) fighting against wizards and monsters. They were fast-moving, hard-hitting and a product of a pulp sensibility. I loved them then as I love them now.

By the time I was a full-time professional writer, the time for such stories seemed to have passed. Somewhere down the line the market changed. Fantasy books got longer (and longer and longer), old-fashioned sword-swinging heroes went out of fashion. Magic became a good thing, a new form of power-fantasy for an age that put more emphasis on the intellectual and on technique. (I strongly suspect the rise of Dungeons and Dragons and such role-playing games had something to do with this but that’s a topic for another day.) It became almost impossible to get the sort of sword and sorcery books I wanted to write into print. They were too short and too focused for the era of fat-book fantasy. I got close once with Trollslayer which was a collection of the Gotrek and Felix short stories but that was about it. I took to writing long-form novels and my short story writing was put on hold to say the very least.

Back in 2005 though I wrote a story called Guardian of the Dawn about a monster-hunter called Kormak. I had the vague plan of building a fantasy world by writing a series of short stories. Guardian was picked up by Howard Andrew Jones then the editor of the Flashing Swords website. The story was popular and many people asked for a sequel. I thought the character had potential and I set myself to writing some.

I immediately ran into some problems, the main one being that I make my living from writing, and short stories are not an economical way of supporting myself and my family. The obvious solution was to write a novel. I tried and I tried and I tried. I just could not wrestle Kormak into the form or at least the variant of the form that was needed to sell to a publisher, you know  a 90-120,000 word quest fantasy. I wanted to do something shorter, punchier, more like the series of my youth. I added sub-plots, I tried to do epic quests, I spliced in multiple story-lines, I outlined, I wrote 35000 words and abandoned it because I just could not make it fly. It did not want to fit the shape I was trying to force it into. Oh well, I thought. I’ve abandoned projects before, I’ll abandon them again. Time to move on.

Fast forward 6 years or so. It’s late 2011 and I had just released the first of my Terrarch novels as an e-book on Amazon’s Kindle. I was thinking about the possibilities opened up by this new publishing format and distribution system. It dawned on me that I was not limited to the word count limits and formats of conventional publishing. I released Guardian of the Dawn as an e-book and it sold very well, better than the first novels in the Terrarch series had on their release. It seemed possible that there was a way to proceed with the Kormak series after all. I could release them myself as short stories and then collect them together at the end. There was no need to worry about finding someone to publish them. I could do that myself with the minimum of fuss.

So, working in the inevitable intervals that occur in writing books and in my spare time and on my weekends, I started work on another Kormak story. It was set in a city, and it involved him in a hunt for a body-shifting demon. He met an attractive lady thief and an expatriate mage and there were hints of things darker and deeper in the background. I called the story Stealer of Flesh. It was novella length by the time I finished it and I was pleased. 

I realised that the story hinted at a much greater arc. It began in medias res near the climax of Kormak’s hunt for the demon prince Razhak and spoke of a hunt across the length of a continent. I decided I would write about that hunt and how it started. So I wrote The Demon Unleashed showing how a cabal of immortality seeking sorcerers had freed Razhak using Kormak’s own enchanted blade. It came to me then that I could write a book somewhat like Moorcock’s Stormbringer, which was a collection of linked novellas released individually that eventually built into an epic novel. 

I pushed on. Next came the Wolves of War, as Kormak’s hunt for the demon took him across a land haunted by ethnic cleansing werewolves and refugees from that terrible struggle, a place where Light and Shadow were just masks worn by old historic hatreds.

I had a false start with the next story although it came with a truly haunting opening, Kormak riding across an icebound lake filled with frozen corpses. I could not quite make it gel though so I pushed on.

Along the way the stories and fragments provided me with glimpses of Kormak’s world, of how the demon race that Razhak was a member of had come to be, and of the ancient empires that had shaped the world. It was an odd place, with echoes of Tolkien filtered through Robert E Howard. It was a place that looked a bit like a traditional epic fantasy world but seen through the lens of realpolitik. People claimed to represent the Light and that their foes were of the Shadow but mostly they behaved like the amoral denizens of an old-style sword and sorcery world, which is to say like most people have behaved through most of history. At the centre of it all stood Kormak, watchful, decent, struggling to do the right thing in a world where what was right was often hard to get at.

I rewrote the novellas as I went along incorporating all the new information as it came up. My original plan had been to release them as I wrote them, but I realised if I was going to be constantly rewriting and adding new bits of history I could not do that. No matter, I would just run with it. I was keen to see how it all turned out. I wrote a final novella, This Way Lies Death as a capstone to it all. The whole story of the chase came to a climax in the haunted city on the edge of the world where the demons had been born. 

And so I was done. All I needed to do was put the stories together and release the e-book, which is what I did. I never did get the frozen lake story finished in a way I liked so I left it out but I am sure that some day I will find a way to complete it. 

21 Replies to “Author’s Notes: Stealer of Flesh”

  1. It turns out that we have much, much more to thank Amazon for than I’d ever imagined! You already know how much I love your Kormak stories Bill, but you don’t know that I fear that he is essentially even more doomed than Gotrek. Why? Because he doesn’t _want_ to die. Please, please let him find a way to retire safely to a farm somewhere. Please. 😉

    1. Thanks John– I honestly have no idea of where things are going to go with Kormak. One ominous part of the series’s DNA is Stormbringer. A large difference between Kormak’s career and Gotrek’s is I can blow up the whole world if I want to. Not saying that I do– just saying that it’s possible.

  2. You’re right, Bill. Current published books are missing truly mysterious magic world. All these worlds look like fallen from some D&D game. All have rules and tables and soul of classic fantasy literature is gone. Unfortunately, I haven’t read your book yet, but I’m going to. I really hope it will be pleasant surprise in this way. Cheers from Prague. Martin 🙂

    1. Thanks Martin– I am perhaps being a little unfair :). There is one big name fantasy writer who still works on magic being mysterious and terrifying, George RR Martin. It is very rare now.

      1. Speaking of which, honestly, I think George’s world is sometimes filled with very weird things. You know, women gives birth to some creature is not exactly terrifying just weird. In addition I have impression that all of indecency is just pretended, is an end in itself. A lot of people appreciate it, but I think George’s books turn pale in comparison with raw and rough Trollslayer, not to mention mysterious Lord of the Rings.

        1. That’s a very flattering comparison, Martin. I have to say though that I found the opening sequence of Game of Thrones , with the Night’s Watch members bickering and isolated in the haunted woods, frightening in a way that I have not been frightened since I was an eleven yeard old reading about the Nazghul in The Lord of the Rings.

          1. I had the same feeling from starting part. In the course of time my impression got worse though. Too many conspirational discussions, even though only a few of them have real impact on the plot or world. Too little desperate men lost in a forest while chaos and doom goes around.

            Many authors write The Three Musketeers-like pulp fictions in a good seam, but only a few can create their own right short The Murders in the Rue Morgue story to be glorified, with empty stomach though, forever. 🙂

  3. Good to see Moorcock getting a mention. While I still like Stormbringer and it’s ilk, my favourite was always the ‘Dancers at the End of Time’ series, cleverly written and cleverly resolved. No swords involved but it’s classic time-bending stuff. Likewise, Game of Thrones remains rivetting, series Two recently finished here in NZ with a huge range of cliffhangers set up for a third series. It reminded me of Stephen King’s suggestion – kill your darlings. Works for me.

    1. Martin is certainly not adverse to killing or otherwise harming his characters :). I’ve liked pretty much all of Moorcock’s stuff I’ve read. I was always fonder of his fantasy than his SF though. The man had a genius for it that meant I always regretted the way he abandoned his earlier, pulpier work. He followed the path he felt he had to though.

      1. Hawkmoon and The History of the Runestaff was always my favourite Moorcock. Looking back from the vantage point of some 30 years, I suspect it was the proto-steampunk setting which did it for me. 🙂

        1. Loved the Runstaff series and I agree the setting was a huge selling point, John. Never saw anything quite like it until Nemesis the Warlock and Warhammer 40K came along. As for proto-steampunk, Moorcock was, as ever , in there at the beginning with Oswald Bastable. My final tribute to the great man is to say that he did my favourite book dedication ever: “To my creditors, an unending source of inspiration.”

          1. Steam punk started for me with “The Adventures of Luthor Arkwright”, which I read in an independent comix title (“Near Myths” I think) back in 78 or so.

  4. Just finished this book which I came to after reading guardian of the dawn. I couldn’t put it down, really enjoyed it and I’m looking forward to more stories about Kormak. Keep up the good work!

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