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Monday 31 October 2011

Something eerie on the airwaves

I've been reading the Binscombe Tales and I’m trying to decide if Mr Disvan should be played by Ian McShane or Derek Jacobi. Yes, they’re very different actors. But Disvan is a complex character – serious and politely formal, sure, but also sometimes mischievous. Ruthless but sometimes compassionate. Anciently wise but sometimes childlike. It’s as if Odin took up residence in a Surrey village and drove a fast car with fluffy dice under the mirror. Except that Disvan has both his eyes, so whatever the answer may be to his mystery, that’s not it.

I’m talking about radio, of course, not television. I haven’t gone completely potty. The Binscombe Tales are far too original and idiosyncratic for British TV. Even on the radio, I can’t see us getting either of those great thesps. (Unless they’re fans of the books – well, you never know.)

Why am I thinking at all along such far-fetched lines? Because, to mark the publication of the Binscombe Tales books today (in print and ebook editions) by Spark Furnace Books, Jamie and I are going into the recording studio with Jamie’s brother Peter (an actor who starred in Jamie’s Heart of Harkun BBC serial) and producer Paul Weir to start the ball rolling on a Binscombe Tales audiobook. We’ll do a couple of stories to start, and when people catch on that the Binscombe Tales really are a work of dark brilliance – pardon the oxymoron – then it's time to see if Sir Derek will take our call.

Friday 28 October 2011

Publication day

It's a big day for us on Monday. That's when Fabled Lands LLP are officially launching their book imprint Spark Furnace with the publication of John Whitbourn's classic ghostly series The Binscombe Tales. These were originally written in the early 1990s and have been collected in many anthologies such as DAW's Year's Best Fantasy. To celebrate, Jamie, Tim and I are being taken to a publication day lunch at Wiltons Restaurant off Piccadilly by Fabled Lands LLP's head honcho, Franklin L Johnson. (Must remember to dress smartly for a change.)

Talking of slap-up meals, here's the skinny: Spark Furnace are releasing the stories as three paperbacks (UK here, US here) and in ebook form via Smashwords - or, if you'd rather sample them in chapbook form, as six Kindle books (UK and US).

One of the things that's amazing about the Binscombe Tales is how many now-famous horror and fantasy concepts appeared first in these books. John Whitbourn's story "Eyes" is virtually a prototype in low key for the entire Final Destination series of movies, and this excerpt from the story "Hello Dolly" anticipates the Amy Pond storyline on Doctor Who by almost two decades:
Linda Disch applied her scarlet lips to a Bloody Mary before proceeding. ‘One morning,’ she said, ‘I was playing there with all my dollies and that, when I felt something strange. The wall behind me seemed to have some give in it. It shouldn’t have. It’d always been just a nice plain, solid wall, it made me safe and protected. I wasn’t worried though. Children don’t have much fear, do they, Mr Oakley?’

You obviously didn’t go to prep school, I thought—but kept it to myself.

‘Leastways, I didn’t have much scare in me,’ said Linda. ‘I just took things in my stride in those days.’

‘But what about this wall?’ I asked (she seemed to be dallying).

‘It wasn’t a wall anymore, Mr Oakley. It was a door.’ Linda was wide-eyed with wonder, as if the incident was only five minutes in her past. ‘I looked up and saw there was a big brass doorknob above my head. When I got up I found the wall was now a great oak door—keyhole, panels, the lot.’

‘And when you tried the handle?’ I asked, urging her on once more.

‘Oh, I didn’t, Mr Oakley. I was brought up to knock before I entered rooms, and somehow I didn’t fancy doing that. What I did do was have a quick squint through the keyhole.’


‘Nothing. It was all old and grimed up. You couldn’t see a thing.’

‘I see.’

‘Well, I couldn’t. I was just standing there and gawping, wondering how I’d missed noticing this room before. Then I saw that the door was a poor fit. There was a fair gap at the bottom, half an inch or so. Straight off. I shimmied down on to my tummy and tried to see into the room.

‘There was light in there from a window or something, because I could see bits and pieces of what was beyond. A ray of sunshine was lighting up the gloom. “There’s no carpet,” I remember thinking. “How come Mum stands for that?’” It looked dirty and dusty, all neglected and forlorn. There was faded wallpaper starting to curl off in places and sheets of yellow newsprint lying about. It occurred to me that perhaps even Mum and Dad hadn’t found this room yet. But there again, how could that be? They knew everything. They wouldn’t miss a part of their own house, surely.

‘Then a pair of feet crossed my line of vision, great grey slabs of feet, slowly pacing up and down the room, in and out of that beam of sunlight. I must have gasped or something, because the feet stopped in their tracks as though I’d been heard. They changed direction and headed straight for me...'
STOP PRESS: (I always wanted to say that.) If you live in Surrey, England, pick up a copy of local newspaper the Surrey Advertiser this week, as it features an interview with John Whitbourn in which he talks about his writing, his forthcoming novel (based at the time of the Gordon Riots) and his roots in real-life Binscombe, where his family have lived since the Civil War.

Wednesday 26 October 2011

Red planet and red braces

Last year I ran a post about Thirst, an RTS game concept set on the kind of prehistoric Mars that used to be as familiar as the back garden to readers of Planet Stories. I planned to work on it with Sam Kerbeck, Martin McKenna and some other ex-Eidos developers - until the dotcom bubble burst and 9/11 shocked us all, and between those events investors quaked in their socks and ran and hid.
What I forgot when I wrote the original post was that the pitch for the game got a wee bit further than my 'flu-induced intro storyboard and some design notes on the back of an envelope. Martin worked it all up into quite a nice presentation, as you can see from the sample slides here. And it wasn't just eye candy either: Sam's incredible 3D graphics engine proved how good the finished product could look on PC screens.
Trouble was, the venture capital offices around London by then looked like Escape from New York. In one company, called Nuclear Melon or Fuchsia Clementine or something (I kid you not, they grew up listening to pomp rock, those VCs) I swear I felt broken glass crunching underfoot. There was a whimper from under one of the desks, the kind of sound a man only makes when he's seen his stock options plummet by more than the GDP of an emerging nation. Yet the traumatized VCs calmed down when they heard our pitch; one fellow fluttered his pink tie and, I think, even smiled in a timid way. Had we thought to take doughnuts we might have enticed them out and got our startup funding even then. But no. So Mars remained arid, gamers moved on, Britain's welfare state buckled a little more, and investors throughout the land had to slum it for a few months without the comfort of a third home in the Algarve.

Sunday 23 October 2011

Pain is his wine, and death his meat

Down Among the Dead Men is one of my own favorites of all the gamebooks I wrote, ranking equal second (after Heart of Ice) with Doomwalk. Partly that's 'cause it's pirates - with magic, but in almost an historical setting, not high fantasy. Leo did his best work ever, really pulled out the stops for this one. And even though the gamebook craze was dying out (this was 1993) Mark Smith and I had both put in more than our 10,000 hours, so if we were ever to be masters of our craft it was then.

I've always felt there's something more to be done with Dead Men. It was one of the story ideas that Leo and I pitched to David Fickling for his comic The DFC. So in another universe, instead of Mirabilis, we're now busy creating an 800-page fantasy comics epic about pirates. Recently Fabled Lands LLP has been looking at doing some new with it - and I can't tell you any details yet, but those plans are pretty exciting. So watch this space for more on that. (No, it's nothing to do with the new gamebook I mentioned in the last post. That's a whole other top secret FL project.)

In case you never read Dead Men, here's the introduction that sets the scene:
'Pirates!' The roar of cannonfire thunders across the waves as the word leaves the captain's lips. Hurtling out of the billowing plumes of smoke comes a barrage of iron shells. Each is larger than a man's fist, and strikes with a force that splinters the oak beams of your ship and shatters men's skulls like eggs. The mainmast takes a direct hit and topples, crushing the sailors standing under it.

A grappling hook latches onto the rail. The pirates are getting ready to board. Rushing to the side, you see their sinister vessel drawing alongside. Black sails flapping in the breeze like a carrion-bird's wings, her prow has the face of a medieval gargoyle. You read the name painted on her bows: the Belle Dame. But there is no look of beauty about her, nor hint of mercy on the faces of the brigands lining her rail.

A crewman standing beside you utters a groan of fear. 'It's Skarvench's ship.'

'Who's he?' you ask, having to shout over the din of cannon shots and the pirates' battle-cries.

He stares at you as though you are a simpleton, and then remembers that this is your first voyage to the New World. 'The worst man that ever lived,' is his blunt reply. And then the ships come together and the pirates are upon you.

Rushing headlong into the terrified crew, the pirates cleave a swathe of gory death across the ship's deck, their cutlasses rising and falling like scythes. You see the ship's officers valiantly fighting to defend the helm, but they are hopelessly outnumbered and soon butchered at their post. The fierce grins on the pirates' faces tell you that they expect easy pickings. You narrow your eyes as anger wells up inside you. You know that you will die today, but you feel no fear - only a cold determination to sell your life dearly. Two pirates lunge towards you. You duck the swing of the first, catch his arm and throw him against his crony. The sword intended for you ends up embedded in a pirate's belly, and his knife comes up by reflex to slash at the man who has inadvertently impaled him.

'Two down...' You turn, and then for the first time you clap eyes on Skarvench himself. He stands on the rail, grasping a grappling-line in one hand and a pistol in the other, whipping his sea-dogs into a killing frenzy with his evil laughter. His broad back and gangling limbs make him look like a massive crow. His beard is as long and lank as seaweed, and a single eye blazes beneath his bald brow - the other is covered by a leather patch.

He is raising his pistol. You are rooted to the spot under his baleful stare. It can't be fear you're feeling, surely...

'Ah, matey,' he says with a brown-toothed grin. 'Got to kill you again, have I?'

Again? You have no time to ponder this enigma. In the next instant, he fires his pistol and your whole world goes black.

* * *

You sit up with a gasp, sweat soaking your clothes. 'You've 'ad that dream again, eh?' says a voice.

You look around, your memory trickling back as the dream recedes. The slow creaking of a ship's timbers, the unhurried heave of the waves... you are in the stuffy confines of the Belle Dame's bowels. Sailors snore fitfully around you, catching some sleep between chores. In the glimmer of an oil lamp sits Old Marshy, the ship's carpenter, whittling at a stick of wood. He glances across at you, shaking his head sadly. 'It was two years ago,' he says. 'Don't know why you can't stop 'aving the dreams.'

'Dreams? Nightmares!' you say, mopping the sweat away. As you do, you feel the scar across your forehead where Skarvench's bullet struck you. A finger's breadth to the right — one less tot of rum for Skarvench's breakfast that fateful morning! - and your brains would have been blown out. As it is the bullet grazed you, leaving only the visible mark on your head and the scar of hatred deep in your heart.

Now that the nightmare has washed away, you recall the two years that have passed since that day. When you were first brought aboard the Belle Dame, Skarvench deemed you too insignificant to ransom and too close to death to be worth pressing into service. He would have cast you into the deep and never had a qualm - that was the fate of most who survived the battle - but Old Marshy undertook to nurse you back to health. You can well remember the weeks it took to get your strength back – weeks experienced like glimpses through broken glass, because of fever. You remember Old Marshy holding the wooden spoon of gruel to your lips until his thin arms trembled with tiredness, urging you to eat. You remember the shouts of the pirates as they toiled in the rigging, and their drunken laughter under the stars at night. And most of all you remember Skarvench, looming through your thoughts like the embodiment of cruelty, striding the deck and waiting for you to die.

You did not die; thanks to Old Marshy you regained your strength. But death might have been better than the living hell you have had to endure these two years as an ordinary seaman aboard the cruelest ship to sail the Carab Sea. Skarvench metes out discipline as the whim takes him, reveling in the suffering of others; pain is his wine, and death his meat. Often you have had to stand by and watch a man whipped for the slightest mistake. Sometimes you have felt that whip yourself- all to the raucous laughter of Skarvench and his vicious pirate band.

'All hands on deck!' Hearing the command, you shake the other sailors awake and hurry up out of the dingy confines of the orlop deck into the blaze of daylight.

Skarvench stands on the poop deck. The ox-like first mate, Porbuck, gives you a shove and growls, 'You, get up in the rigging.' As you climb, you glance out to sea. A small ship lies off the port bow and the Belle Dame is rapidly closing on her. You see a tall wooden crucifix standing amidships; she has no cannon. That is foolhardy: 'Go to sea on a prayer,' as the adage goes, 'but take a keg of powder too.'

You understand the reason for the other ship's lack of weaponry when you get a better view of the men lining her rail. They are all monks!

Skarvench's voice goes snarling across the water. 'Heave to or be blown out o' the water!' he calls. 'We'll be takin' your treasure, holy or not!'

'We have no treasure,' calls back one of the monks. 'We are poor brothers of the Savior, travelling to the New World to spread His message to the heathen.'

Skarvench smiles — always a sign of his bad temper – and says, 'Is that so? Well, I know of no place more heathen than the ocean bed.' He leans on the poop deck rail and calls to the master gunner: 'Mister Borograve, prepare to give 'em a broadside. I want their shaved heads sent forty fathoms deep, where heaven can't hear their mealy-mouthed prayers!'

The monks know they cannot outrun the Belle Dame. As Borograve orders the cannons primed, they begin to sing a hymn. It is a glorious and peaceful sound that reminds you of the meadows and villages of your homeland. Most of the sailors pause in their duties, overcome by the melancholy beauty of the song. Even one or two of the pirates look uneasy at what they are about to do.

'Prepare to fire,' says Skarvench, keen as a hound at the scent of a kill.

'No!' A carpenter's hammer goes flying through the air and strikes Skarvench's head with a crack loud enough to carry up to where you sit in the rigging. Skarvench remains as steady as a rock, his hand flashing out with startling speed to snatch the hammer out of the air as it falls. Then he turns. His face is a mask of white fury. The fact that there is a stream of blood flowing from his temple only makes him look all the more terrible. His gaze bores along the deck and finds:

'Mister Marsh! This your hammer, is it?'

Old Marshy quails, his one jot of boldness used up. 'B-but, Cap'n... they're holy men! I don't think...'

Skarvench tastes his own blood on his lip and savors it with his tongue. He gestures to a couple of the pirates, and Old Marshy is seized and dragged up to the poop deck. 'Lay his head on the rail there, lads,' says Skarvench in a voice like honeyed venom. He raises the hammer. 'You're right, Mister Marsh; you don't think. That's the trouble with having nothin' in your brain-pan, see?'

Far too late, you realize what Skarvench is going to do. You give a gasp and start down through the rigging. But even as you act, you know there is nothing you can do...

The hammer smashes down. It sounds like a wineflask breaking. The ordinary seamen look away in horror. The pirates grin gleefully like their captain, excited by the grisly sight. The corpse slumps to the deck.

'God curse you, Skarvench,' you mutter under your breath as you reach the foot of the mast. 'I'll see you dead for that.'

'You're not alone in wishing that,' whispers a voice, 'but I'd stow such talk unless you want your own skull under the hammer next.' You look around to see three of the crew - Grimes, Oakley and Blutz - men who, like you, were taken off plundered ships and forced to work for the pirates. 'We've a plan,' continues Grimes in a low voice. 'If we stay aboard this devil ship our days are surely numbered, so tonight we plan to jump ship. We're scheduled to take the evening watch. We'll lower the jollyboat with a few supplies, then strike out towards Port Leshand.'

'Five hundred leagues of open ocean in a tiny boat like that!' you gasp. 'It's near certain death.'

'Better than certain death, which is what we can expect here,' mutters Oakley. 'Look, you've got a reputation of being a handy customer to have along in a tight spot. To be honest, we haven't got much of a chance without you. Now, are you with us?'

You glare back up at the tall stooped figure on the poop deck. He stamps to and fro, the brain-smeared hammer still in his hand, annoyed that the monks made their getaway while he was distracted by Old Marshy. You'll make him pay for his crimes one day, but you know the moment is not yet right. You turn to Grimes and the others and give a swift nod. 'I'm with you,' you say.

Now turn to 1.
Some trivia: (1) This introduction was the last part of the book that I wrote. (2) I put on Danny Elfman's soundtrack to Batman Returns, walked around the room dreaming this bit into existence, then went to the keyboard and wrote it all down about as fast as I could have spoken it aloud. (3) Old Marshy is a nod to my friend Ian Marsh, former editor of White Dwarf magazine and our editor on the Virtual Reality series to which Dead Men belonged. (4) Ian also got kind of a namecheck as Captain Numachino in Fabled Lands book 6 - which he edited and typeset. (5) The name of the protagonist of Dead Men, though never mentioned in the text, is Angel Bones.

And if that prologue has given you a taste for piratical adventure on the high seas, I notice there are some copies of the book still available on Amazon. They may be worth snapping up. I mean, you'd be happy to own a first edition Harry Potter, now, wouldn't you?

Saturday 22 October 2011

The fiend in his lair

Here's Jamie proudly brandishing a copy of Dark Lord: The Teenage Years in yesterday's edition of The Argus, the Brighton newspaper read by famous local figures as diverse as Pinkie Brown and Nicholas van Hoogstraten. Jamie is pictured in his "study" (actually a pile of books, magazines and curios that slightly resembles the home of Stig of the Dump - if Stig's den were more cramped and had been randomly furnished with Roman swords and elvish knives).

It's great that Dirk Lloyd is getting such a lot of media attention - not only because it is a great concept and a very funny book, but because it's unlocking the possibility for Fabled Lands LLP to do lots of other projects dear to our hearts. The new gamebook we're working on was green-lit because of the buzz around Dark Lord, and there's even talk now of a Dirk Lloyd gamebook. It looks like a busy year ahead.

Friday 21 October 2011

Now turn to 1

Here's an ultra-cryptic clue about the new gamebook Jamie and I will be working on over the next few months with the far-sighted folk at Profile Books. If you can figure it out from this picture then you're a mightier Jedi than Derren Brown, but don't fret as we'll be making the official announcement in a few weeks. All I can say right now is that it's completely different in tone, style and setting from any gamebook we've worked on before, and is the sort of thing that will get even non-gamebookers wanting to turn the page.

Monday 17 October 2011

Murdoch press bow before Dirk's evil majesty

I've been saying that Dirk Lloyd was going to conquer the world, and it's happening sooner than I thought. Yesterday, the Sunday Times crowned Dark Lord: The Teenage Years their children's book of the week. They know evil genius when they see it.

It can't be long before all the other British newspapers jump on the bandwagon - followed by their US counterparts when Bloomsbury (who just bought the rights for a mid-five-figure sum after a fierce bidding war) start releasing the series in America early next year. And not long after that you should be able to watch the fabulous NBC television series. I wonder who they'll cast as Dirk. A very scary child indeed, no doubt.

Details of Dark Lord and other Fabled Lands properties in our Spark Furnace online bookstore.

Thursday 13 October 2011

Sokara so good

Greywood Publishing have just released the first of twelve supplements for the Fabled Lands role-playing game and, if this one is anything to go by, the series is set to be one of the greatest RPG experiences ever.

The book focuses on Sokara, with city maps, new rules, monsters, characters, items and scenarios. Amazing cartography by the legendary Gillian Pearce, drool-worthy art by a host of luminaries, editing by Andrew Wright and gorgeous layouts by author, typographer, graphic designer, publisher and full-on Renaissance Man, Jamie Wallis.

Naturally I'm going to say I like it, but take a look at the reviews this series is garnering. If you want a quick, comprehensive RPG system that lets the adventure come first, Fabled Lands is the one to pick. And P W Gresty, no stranger to these parts, has serendipitously just posted a Fabled Lands scenario, "Many Happy Returns", on his blog, giving new characters a great jumping-off point for their quests.

Golnir next. And wait till you see the beautiful cover artwork for that by a certain (and even more legendary) Mr Gary Chalk!

Saturday 8 October 2011

Samurai smackdown

I said I had only one more of those Fighting Fantasy proposals - the ones Jamie and I submitted to Puffin just before being commissioned to do Keep of the Lich Lord. Turns out I was wrong; there were two more, and I'm going to save up the outline that I had been thinking of for a later post, but meanwhile here's the one I had clean forgotten about.

I'm pretty sure Jamie must have come up with this pitch, as it is similar in concept to a fifth title in the Duelmaster series that he wrote (and that was even fully illustrated) but that Armada Books then declined to publish. Which is a shame because Duelmaster was a great series, and if anyone could pull off the ultimate martial arts gamebook it would be our Mr Thomson!

You are one of the brothers at a martial arts monastery in the land of Hachiman. One evening, the monastery funeral bells are rung and you are saddened to hear the chanting which declares the death of the old Soryo (abbot). A new Soryo must be appointed, and it is the tradition of your Order that this will be determined by a series of martial contests.

You are one of the best warriors in the monastery, but at first you have no intention of entering the contests. You are interested only in your unceasing quest for perfection in the martial arts, and you fear that the position of Soryo would require you to spend too much time on simple administrative tasks. However, as you make your way back to your cell after meditation one evening, you overhear something that changes your mind completely. Unaware that you are passing by, another monk, Nintoru, and his cronies are discussing the forthcoming contests. "When I am Soryo," snarls Nintoru, "I will end this practice of giving shelter and training to the peasant rebels in the hills. Our monastery will put its military support behind the Shogun's forces, and any rebels venturing here will be seized and handed over to him."

You are sickened to hear this. It is well known that the Shogun is an evil man whose oppressive taxes have caused thousands to starve and driven thousands of others to a life of banditry. As a powerful military force, your monastery has always sided with the peasants, as it is the teaching of your faith that the powerful fighting secrets that were imparted to the Order also carry a great responsibility to defend the weak. Nintoru has always struck you as a secretive and venal man, even though his martial skill is the equal of your own. Now it is clear that if he becomes Soryo he intends to overturn everything the monastery stands for. To curry favour with the Shogun, he is prepared to betray hundreds of downtrodden rebels and send them to torture and death. You cannot allow such a thing! You must enter the contests after all - you must confront Nintoru in a bid to become the new Soryo. And you must win.

The principal feature of this book is the combat system, which allows readers to decide from a range of martial styles which techniques they will develop for use in their battles. Observing Nintoru's progress in the initial bouts will give some idea of his strengths and weaknesses, and hence suggest techniques that might work against him.

The later contests are not simple face-to-face battles in an arena or dojo, but complete tests of initiative, strategic thinking, courage and fighting skill. The protagonist will have to descend into the ancient catacombs deep below the monastery and engage Nintoru in a prolonged running battle involving wits as well as strength.

Monday 3 October 2011

Top of the world mwahaha

He's here at last - and the world may never be quite the same again. I'm talking about Dirk Lloyd, the boy with the soul and the intellect of the Lord of all Evil. Sauron as a schoolboy, Tom Riddle's more sinister younger brother, Darth Vader Junior - call him whatever you like, as long as you remember to add "Master" in suitably respectful tones.

The first Dirk Lloyd book is officially out this week, though if you live in London and have been into Waterstone's any time in the last fortnight you may have seen it already. The UK edition, that is; US readers will need to wait a few months, but Jamie and I got the news in the last few days that the US rights have just sold to Bloomsbury for a good five-figure sum, so Dirk will soon be conquering America too.

This is the first of the all-new concepts that Jamie and I dreamt up for Fabled Lands LLP. We've kept pretty busy since, so there'll be more news on the way soon, but in the meantime you can get the first instalment of Dirk's adventures on Amazon now, with book two coming in the spring. There's more info on the Spark Furnace of course. And here's a taste of what it's like if you live in Dirk's world: