Archives for February 2014

Taker of Skulls Author’s Notes

Taker of Skulls is about the dwarves of Kormak’s world. They have been central to the mythology of the series from the very start. Kormak’s signature weapon, his sword, the badge of his calling and his order, was created by them. They had been mentioned in passing in previous volumes but all we really knew about them is that they dwell beneath Mount Aethelas, the fortress-monastery of the Order of the Dawn. They had rebelled against the god-like Old Ones, and created weapons that allowed mere mortals like Kormak to slay their former masters. 

Obviously dwarves carry a freight-load of their own mythology to the average fantasy reader– the beards, the shortness, the drinking, the vast underground Moria-like cities. I wanted to give a very different take on dwarves but still keep them recognisably dwarf-like. Dwarves are a fantasy race I have brooded on over the years.

Most of the Kormak books have taken a specific part of his world and explored it. When I decided to write about dwarves I knew it was going to have to be set in a vast abandoned underground city. I also knew it was going to have to explore some of the central myths of the world. Why did the dwarves rebel against the Old Ones? Why did they side with the humans? What actually happened to them? Why were they a dying race, hiding away from other peoples? 

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that Taker of Skulls is, in some ways, Red Nails set in Moria. The few of you have not read the classic Robert E Howard story should rush off and read it now. It’s a claustrophobic saga set in an isolated, sealed city where two decadent factions split by a fratricidal civil war are locked in brutal conflict using weird ancient weapons and dark sorcery. It’s a powerful expression of Howard’s dark vision, a story of ever-mounting violence in which the fatal struggle is finally resolved by Conan and his companion, the beautiful pirate Valeria. I read it as a teenager and it has haunted me ever since, just as much as Beyond the Black River ever did. There was also an excellent Marvel Comics adaptation with art by Barry Windsor Smith (then plain Barry Smith) which I owned in King Sized format and re-read almost as often as I did the Howard original. 

As I was thinking of the ruins of the dwarf city, in my minds eye it became populated by the savage decadent tribesmen of Red Nails. In this case, the tribesmen were the degenerate survivors of the once proud dwarven nation of Khazduroth, lurking in the ruins of their greatest city. And they needed bitter enemies to stalk through the rubble. I decided on goblins because it seemed very iconic. In the endless darkness, a total war between the two factions was being fought out that had reduced both sides to pale shadows of what they had once been. The dwarves became Mad Max style survivalists, the goblins became twisted mutants driven by ancient hatred.

I needed a reason for Kormak to be sent to Khazduroth, so enter the enigmatic sorceress Karnea, friend of the Order of the Dawn, expert on all things Dwarven, one-time lover of Kormak’s boss, the Grand Master of Aethelas and a woman with a mission within the ruins of the newly-rediscovered city. Kormak is told to protect her with his life… or else. And, as it turns out, she is seeking something very important indeed to Kormak’s Order. Along with Karnea came her bodyguard, the sinister mercenary Boreas.

I needed an opponent for Kormak to fight, someone who would give even the mighty Guardian pause. That turned out to be Graghur, the Taker of Skulls, an Old One returned to the newly re-opened city for his own strange purposes. He turned out to be part of the ancient struggle that had led to the destruction of the city. 

There were echoes of Dungeons and Dragons in the setting. Moria is arguably the first and most archetypal dungeon crawl. I thought it would be nice to take a look at the dungeoneering sub-culture of the Old Kingdoms.  So Khazduroth has been newly rediscovered and around it has grown up a boom-town culture of dungeon explorers, plundering it for ancient artefacts. There are echoes of Deadwood and the tent-cities of the California goldrush in Varigston and the prospector camps outside Khazduroth. The camps also provided the fourth main character of the story, the prospector Sasha, hired to be Karnea’s guide into the vast ruins of the Dwarven city.

Once I had the mission, the setting, the opponent in place it was simply a matter of pointing the characters in the right direction and watching them go. The tale turned into something like Raiders of the Lost Ark set in the ruins of a huge underground city, full of chases, traps, massive battles and weird sorceries. It revealed many of the lost secrets of Kormak’s world and gave some insight into what the Old Ones once were and how they fell. It was an absolute blast to write. Hopefully, it will be too read as well.

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Taker of Skulls Released

That’s the fifth book in the Kormak series, Taker of Skulls, released. It’s a rip-roaring adventure in which our bold monster hunter is dispatched on a potential suicide mission among the ruins of the once-great dwarven civilisation of the  Kingdoms of the Sun. The book features demented hordes of mutant goblins, survivalist dwarves and one of the most terrifying Old Ones Kormak has ever faced.

Taker of Skulls is available,, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords. It may be available on Apple’s iBookstore by the time you read this but, as ever, Apple are a law unto themselves.

As a special introductory offer, the price will be $2.99 or the local equivalent until midnight Thursday Central European Time when I will be raising the price to the usual $4.99 or equivalent. If you’re interested right now is a great time to buy!

Just to whet your appetite here is the blurb for the book.


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 an ancient order sworn to protect humanity from the servants of the gathering darkness.


Kormak is ordered to guard the enigmatic sorceress Karnea  with his life as she ventures into the Dwarven city of Khazduroth. What awful knowledge is Karnea really seeking amid the ruins of an ancient civilisation? Why has the sinister and mighty Old One known as the Taker of Skulls chosen this moment to return to the place where he was once worshipped as a god? And will anyone survive the deadly journey into the forsaken homeland of the once proud dwarves.

Join Kormak as he battles his way through a gigantic underground city in search of one of the most dangerous secrets of the Old Ones.

Looking Forward In 2014

I’ve been somewhat remiss in updating this blog over the past few months. That’s down to a number of factors — a deadline crunch on Fall of Macharius, the fact that I am looking after my toddler two days a week while my lovely wife returns to work and some complications brought on by changes to the type and dosage of my diabetes medication. All of this has meant time and energy have been in short supply and the blog has suffered accordingly. Things have settled down a bit now and I have been giving some thought as to what needs to be done to get this site shipshape. 

Over the past few years the site here has simply grown organically. I have made things up as I went along, adding pages here as a new book was released, writing a blog post there as the fancy took me. Recently it occurred to me that things around here could benefit from a bit of organisation.

I want to add sections for each of my books and series with proper introductions and a list of titles and articles all set out in a logical order. I want to give over a section of standing pages to all of my Black Library work and to my Kormak and Terrarch series. I want to break out the section on indie publishing for those people who are interested. In practise this simply means altering the headers and menus at the top of this page, adding a new introductory page and moving on. The main problem is finding the time.

I’ve a been making a list topics I want to write about as well. I want to write Author’s Notes for all of my Black Library work as well as articles on subjects that keep coming up again and again at conventions and Weekenders such as Grey Seer Thanquol and my secret Skaven heritage. I want to keep writing about technology that interests me and reviewing software and hardware as I use it. I also really want to write more about gaming and do a few more reviews. Recently I have been getting very much into the Old School Renaissance and back to my gamer roots. There are a few essays I have been planning absolutely forever such as Magic and Military Fantasy and The Influence of Gaming on Modern Fantasy Fiction. Hopefully I will get round to writing them this year. 

I’d also like to make this blog more interactive, which brings me to the point of this post. If there’s anything you would particularly like me to tackle in upcoming months, let me know in the comments below or by email and I’ll give it a bash.

Happy 40th Birthday Dungeons and Dragons

I am coming a bit late to this party but better late than never. The end of last month saw the 40th anniversary of the release of the very first edition Dungeons & Dragons. D&D is a game that has had a huge effect on the world. Not only did it create a modern role-playing game industry, it has had a huge influence on the way computer games have developed. Look at any modern MMO or CRPG and you will see the DNA of D&D. Look at almost any shooter set in vast room and cavern worlds and you will see its influence.

I would also argue that it has done a considerable amount to influence the development of the modern fantasy novel. A good proportion of modern fantasy novels seem to concern themselves with the levelling up of their heroes from innocent young swineherds to potent masters of their class. They also spend an enormous amount of time explaining complex magic systems. This was not at all common back when I was a lad.

I can still remember my first encounter Dungeons & Dragons. It was in the old Science Fiction Bookshop in West Crosscauseway in Edinburgh back in 1977. That’s not quite 40 years ago but it’s getting on for it. I picked up the white box edition, three very short booklets in a small box, and I couldn’t make head nor tail of them. It was only when I attended the inaugural meetings of the old Grand Edinburgh Adventuring Society a few weeks later that it began to make any sense at all.

When I understood what I was playing, it hit me with the force of religious revelation. I kid you not. You’ve got to remember that this was back in the 70s before modern computer games with immersive graphics, before the SF and fantasy film revolutions that started with Star Wars. The sub-culture had not yet gone mainstream. Computers were not everywhere.  This was something completely new.

I was a teenager who had grown up reading J R R Tolkien, Robert E Howard and Michael Moorcock. Most of my teenage years had been spent obsessing about stories set in fantasy worlds and now I had a chance to participate in just such stories. It was like finding the door to Narnia in the back of my wardrobe. I could step into another world. It changed my life. It affected my choice of career and my choice of friends. I can honestly say that my life would not be what it is today if it had not been Dungeons & Dragons.

Over the course of the years D&D and I have parted company occasionally but we’ve kept in touch. In the 1980s I mostly switched over to playing Champions. I only really looked at D&D when Oriental Adventures came out and then not for long. In the 1990s I was interested in a number of things that TSR released – Planescape being the best known of those and I played a bit of AD&D but not much.

I got really interested in D&D again when the third edition was released. God knows how many supplements I bought but it was a lot. I was particularly fond of Keith Baker’s Eberron and Fantasy Flight’s Midnight.

I can’t say I was terribly thrilled by the fourth edition. I thought it was well done but I also thought that it was a solution to a business problem rather than a gaming problem. I think it was designed to sell accessories such as miniatures and playing mats rather than immerse you inside the story being created in your head. I stuck with Pathfinder and, more recently, gotten into the Old School Renaissance in a big way. It has really renewed my interest and taken me back to my roots in the style of gaming that was common back when I first got into the hobby.

In any case I just wanted to say Happy Birthday, Dungeons & Dragons!