Author’s Notes: City of Strife

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 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.

You can pick up the book at,, Smashwords and Barnes and Noble right now. The price is a very affordable $2.99 or the equivalent in your local currency. The iBooks and Kobo versions will be along when the Powers That Be at the respective e-stores decide. There will be a print version in a month or two.

12 Replies to “Author’s Notes: City of Strife”

  1. I’m really fond of this Kormak book, possibly because I read a lot of those same books growing up. I mourn those missing 25k words, but maybe they helped wind up the plot to the ferocious velocity it gathers towards the end. Everyone has a treat waiting with this one.

    1. Thanks, Michael :). I may well do a Director’s Cut web-page at some point. There is a scene where Altman reveals he was the investigator on the Cathedral murders investigation five years ago that I regret taking out.

  2. I really enjoyed all your Spacewolf books years ago, so I was extremely excited when I got a Kindle and found out that you’re still writing great action adventure stories- I’m totally digging Kormak, and I’m looking forward to seeing the Dwarves in action! Keep up the good work!

  3. Great stuff man,

    Im really happy you are going the ebook route. After giantslayer came out I couldnt find anything of yours anywhere, I would keep going to the BL and amazin looking for new stuff from you, I saw something called the “terrarch” series, but for some reason every search had thise books in a foreign language. eventually I gave up. In the past few years Id see BL occasionaly putting out novels by you which I would buy and download on the same day, but it never occurred to me you were writing things outside of them. I remember when the first Kormak story came out on a sword and sorcery web site, I think I read it at least a dozen times, it was simlly a beautiful and powerful story.

    So when I stumbled on the Kormak series yesterday you can imagine my excitement, Put it this way, imagine you found 4 lost books by Michael Moorcock that were more awesome than the originals. I felt like a kid who just found a small treasure.

    The first of the books really made my day for another reason. Man, the book I loved most up until now was Trollslayer precisely because of the short story format, and it was great to go through another book of yours like that. Im glad you did that again, and fwiw I hope you do another short story format now that you are self publishing(?).

    I intend to go throuh the rest of your novels on Amazon, the terrarch series (seriously, EVERY search had these books only in Czech or Russian, I couldnt find anything on it), the sky pirate book, etc, Im really looking forward to the one you set in Vicotrian London, although I have a nasty feeling I am going to fall in love with it. I say nasty because, man, lets face it, the trouble with good books is that you can never get enough of them.

    Anyway,before I sign off, I just want to lesve an observation – the thing Ive always loed about your work is that you arent just fair to your characters, I get the feeling you genuinely care about them, that you treat them honestly and with love. I dont know if that makes any sense given that you clearly show some characters as being throrough bastards who deserve and need killing, you dint try to justify them, you show them as who they are. Well, thats how I see it.

    Well, Im off to go throu everything else I can find of yours!

    1. Thanks, Ron. Your comment really made my day. Sorry to take so long to respond. I am child care duties today so it has mostly been spent chasing my toddler round the flat. No time to get online. On the characterisation front I generally have two rules. One is to create characters I like and respect and then torture them– it’s a good formula for drama. And when I am writing from someone’s point of view, they are always the hero of the story, at least in their own eyes if no one else’s. I think it makes things more convincing that way. Again– thanks!

    1. Thank you, Phil. I will be starting work on the revision next week–the main draft of the book has been done for ages but I needed to deliver Fall of Macharius before I could move on to it. I am guessing it will be December now before Taker is ready to go.

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