A sinister conspiracy brings the great city-state of Vermstadt to the edge of civil war. A brutal murderer slays the poor and eats their hearts. A plague of supernaturally intelligent rats threatens to overwhelm the metropolis. The invincible Silent Man rises from his grave to kill again and again.
Join Kormak as he attempts to piece together the links between these terrible events and put an end to them before catastrophe befalls the city.
City of Strife was the fifth Kormak book I wrote, even though it is being released as the fourth in the series. Yes, that’s right, I wrote a complete novel, Taker of Skulls, and I sat on it while I wrote this one. I even had what I thought was a good reason for doing so.
Taker of Skulls is a book about dwarves. It might best be described as Red Nails set in Moria. Weaver of Shadows, book three in the series, is about Elves. It just did not feel right to me moving directly from Dwarves to Elves without ever having seen anything of the human culture of the Sunlands. Oh, we’ve seen bits and pieces of it— the isolated villages and small towns of northern Taurea in Defiler of Tombs, and the long road to the Templar States in Stealer of Flesh but we’d not really seen very much of the core kingdoms. I thought I had better rectify this before sending Kormak on his way from the Elvenwood to the under-realm of Durea and I felt happier once I had come to that decision.
I really wanted to do something urban and, for no other reason than I had mentioned the great mercantile city-state of Vermstadt a few times in previous books I made up my mind to set the story there. This would enable me to look at a fairly sophisticated urban society, rather than the feudal hinterlands. Since Kormak’s world is essentially medieval and the Solar religion takes the place of the Catholic Church of that period I decided that Vermstadt was a cathedral city. This was to have some effect on the story as it was written.
For me, urban sword and sorcery has always conjured up one thing, the great decadent city-state of Lankhmar, long-term haunt of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. I didn’t want to try and recreate it because quite frankly that’s impossible. I have neither the gloriously depraved imagination nor the glittering prose style of Fritz Leiber, but I felt I could at least pay my own small tribute. One of the things I always remember about Lankhmar is the rats. Vermstadt was now a city over-run by a plague of rats and for rather sinister supernatural reasons at that.
As I’ve mentioned before most of my indie work has been love-letters to the sort of books I read when I was younger and this was to be no exception. Even though Fafhrd and the Mouser were on my mind, I knew it was going to be difficult to do a rollicking adventure in the style they were famous for. Kormak is a grim, solitary, avenging sort of hero so I needed to find another model for my plot. Fortunately, my youthful self spent as much time immersed in the detective fiction of Dashiel Hammet and Raymond Chandler as he did reading sword and sorcery so I took the plot of Red Harvest as my model. It has been put to good use in other places, most notably Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars. So there I had my jumping off point, A Fistful of Plague Rats. Down these mean streets a barbarian must go.
Vermstadt became a place where two very powerful merchant factions were being manipulated into civil war by a powerful supernatural force, a cathedral city whose Prelate was on his death bed and whose throne was going to be the spoils for the winner of this struggle.
I sat down and wrote my outline during the Xmas holidays. I started the book in a snowy January in Prague and the weather infected the setting of the story. Our hero arrived in a snow-bound Vermstadt to investigate the sudden mysterious deaths of a complete network of his order’s agents and confront some dark aspects of his own past career as an assassin.
About half-way through January I was in Hong Kong. (Hey, when I was a kid, I thought writers lived a glamourous life of jet-set travel and I decided to live the dream. Someone has to.) I’d like to think something of the hectic energy of that great trading port found its way into the text. Unfortunately I also found I had a problem— when I read the text I had written outlining the plot I thought, this does not make any sense. Don’t ask me how that happened. I suspect I probably had the flu when I was writing it. I was plagued by illness all last winter. Anyway, I had laid out a complex detective story with loads of suspects and, in classic Chandlerian fashion, I had managed to confuse even myself.
I struggled to resolve the situation as I travelled through Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Penang. I was having a great time but tieing myself into ever greater knots. It was not until I got back to Prague that it dawned on me that I really needed to strip the story back to basics in order to move the plot forward. I excised 25000 words (which was painful) and went back to the drawing board. This time it gelled. City of Strife became a streamlined tale of violence, vengeance and vendetta, of escalating war between two factions using magical means to achieve their political ends. Kormak got stuck into the Clint Eastwood role, the tough loner playing both sides against each other as he tried to figure out exactly what the hell was going on.
In the end Kormak managed to surprise me. He revealed himself to be even more ruthless and deadly than I thought he was and he had never struck me as someone you ought to cross at any time. The villains acquitted themselves well too, behaving with a good deal of cleverness and nastiness as the body count escalated and everything raced to an explosively violent climax.