“The King of High Adventure,” Starlog.
“Immediately convincing, classically brooding,” The Cimmerian.com.
To the world at large, he is a mercenary and assassin, a brutal killer with a deadly blade. In reality Kormak is a Guardian, one of a near-extinct order sworn to protect humanity from the servants of the gathering darkness.
The Ghul are the Stealers of Flesh, an ancient race of demons who possess the bodies of humans to work great evil. Now one of them has been freed from its ancient prison using Kormak’s own Dwarf-forged sword and the Guardian must pursue it to a haunted city on the edge of the world.
Stealer of Flesh contains four-linked novelettes that tell the epic tale of Kormak’s hunt for a prince of demons. In it he encounters a conspiracy of demented mages, an army of werewolves, Orcish blademasters and a beautiful alchemist and her insane poet brother.
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.