When I was about nine years old a group of local lads threw me into the deepest part of the Marine Lake, a huge man-made pool made by damming off an area of the harbour with a massive concrete breakwater. I had not yet learned to swim.
It was sunny. The sky was blue. My mouth was filling up with salty water. I was trying to shout for help while flailing around in water too deep to stand in. It washed over my eyes and blurred my vision. The concrete ledge was covered with broken barnacles that ripped my hands bloody as I tried to pull myself up. The kids who had thrown me in watched me scrabbling away and laughed. They did not realise I was drowning in front of their eyes. Eventually, after what seemed like ages to me, but which could only have been moments in reality an older boy saw what was happening and dived into the water and pulled me out. Nobody thought it was funny then.
While swimming in the sea a few years later I was stung by a Portuguese Man O’ War. My leg turned blue and I was taken to hospital and given an injection with a very large needle, which was not an experience I enjoyed particularly. I have loathed these creatures with their poisoned web of stingers that can stretch a hundred feet through murky water ever since.
Our house was on top of a hill and I could see the sea from the upstairs window and it used to trouble me when I thought of what could be lurking beneath the waters of the bay. I had a book with a picture of a battleship seen from the air. Beneath it in the water a vague outline was visible. It belonged to an enormous tentacled monster rising from below. It was much bigger than the ship. As a kid I used to look out the window and think of that.
I’ve never had any difficulty imagining dead Cthulhu dreaming in his sunken lair at R’Lyeh. I’ve never, ever had any difficulty imagining horrible things beneath the waves. All of which is just a long-winded way of saying that I have a very ambivalent relationship with the sea. It scares and excites me in about equal measures. The Queen’s Assassin is a book that was inspired as much by my fear of salty water as it was inspired by the horror stories of HP Lovecraft’s Deep Ones and old, dark oceanic gods.
In many ways all of the Terrarch books are about the things that terrify me. In Death’s Angels our heroes met the minions of the sinister Spider God, Uran Ultar. I have always hated and feared arachnids. You’ll need to read The Serpent Tower to see which of my phobias it deals with, saying any more would be a huge spoiler. (It’s not snakes—I have had a full-grown python wrapped around my neck and it did not bother me in the slightest.)
In this book, we encounter the squid-like Quan. They are a very Lovecraftian race indeed with their enormous living mother-ships that spew shoals of their feral seed into the waters and their slave Kraken that can pull galleons below the waves with ease. The Quan are vampiric soul-eaters who feast on the life force of living things even as they pull them beneath the water. They are intelligent and they have made a deal with the rulers of the great seaport of Harven. They protect the city and its giant fleets and in return are rewarded with human sacrifice. To alter the course of the war that erupted in the previous books in the series, half-breed Rik and Lady Asea, the scheming Terrarch sorceress he serves, must seek an alliance with the Quan. Unfortunately, they have opposition in the shape of Rik’s long-lost father who is just as vampiric as the Quan and already in league with them.
The Queen’s Assassin is a book about things long hidden below the surface coming into the light with terrible effect. The Quan are emerging from below the waves and an army of the dead is starting to emerge from the graveyards of the world and all of it is part of a monstrous master plan conceived by beings ancient and terrible.
This is a very dark book, the darkest in the series so far and those preceding it were by no means all sweetness and light. It is full of wicked sorcery, backstabbing and assassination, a goodly number of these dark deeds being perpetrated by the ostensible heroes in their desperate effort to save their world.
Rik continues his rise. He is learning sorcery from Asea and is now an unofficial agent of the government, an assassin for the Queen. He is still not at home in the world though and he is about to become less so as he encounters the remaining members of his sinister family, the last remnants of a clan of genetically-engineered super-killers who don’t have any reason to let him live and a lot of reasons for wanting him dead. As well as being reflections of my fears, these books are love letters to the pulp fiction of my youth. In the Shadowblood we see a twisted reflection of Roger Zelazny’s wonderful Jack of Shadows. The forebears of all these Elder Races can be found in the works of HP Lovecraft and Karl Edward Wagner. The Quan have a good deal in common with the Scylrendi, the demonic alien race of Wagner’s classic Darkness Weaves. There are echoes of Richard Lester’s Three Musketeers films as well in the duels and swashbuckling action.
Despite all the darkness and horror, The Queen’s Assassin was a lot of fun to write and I hope it is fun to read as well.