Reader meet author: Kareem Mahfouz in conversation with John Gwynne
17 November 2016
By Rob Cox
It's a very happy day for us here as the mighty Wrath by John Gwynne has finally been unleashed. And to help celebrate the moment, who better to ask than Kareem Mahfouz, perhaps John Gwynne's biggest fan. Kareem has set up a Faithful and the Fallen Goodreads page which has over 500 members and is also one of John Gwynne's valued beta readers - so he sees the manuscript before we do!
In addition, Kareem helps Fantasy-Faction.com with events, has set up his own book review site and is even writing a book himself. Kareem's now channeled his enthusiasm for the series into a few questions, which John has been kind enough to answer for us below.
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KM: I’ve often described the series as being the perfect blend of action and emotion. And to me, the fact that we have grown up with many of the characters makes me care that much more about them. The Faithful and the Fallen is quite unique in today’s Grimdark heavy market – rather than having an overly dark or gritty tone throughout, the story blends epic and modern fantasy and then throws in a welcome historical fiction feel. But I think it is more than that. The good guys aren’t fighting to overcome great odds, nor are they trying to win a race to a finish line. Their battle isn’t even good vs evil. They fight because it is the right thing to do - and there is a sense of responsibility flowing through the tale. Do you set out to infuse the quartet with these themes? And are there any other messages you wanted to convey?
JG: Hi Kareem, I’m so pleased that you’ve been involved in this blog post for Wrath's release. Now, on to your question. Right and wrong – did I set out to infuse the Faithful and the Fallen with that theme? The short answer is: Yes. Kind of. The Faithful and the Fallen isn’t a sermon, and there are a lot of influences and inspirations that went into the melting pot, but a well-known quote became an early cornerstone of the whole series. The quote comes from a chap called Edmund Burke:
“All that is needed for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
Much of today’s Grimdark launches itself from the foundation that everyone is selfish, that we are all self-motivated, and so in reality there are no good guys or bad guys, just varying perspectives and shades of grey. It’s a more Darwinian, survival-of-the-fittest type of fantasy, and it’s great. I love Grimdark. But I wanted to write something that reflected my nostalgic love of fantasy and my inspirations, like Gemmell and Tolkien, (and let’s face it, there’s still a lot of grim in their writing,) and somehow merge it with contemporary sensibilities and a historical edge. So, nostalgic, grim, historical and contemporary! But edged with some hope, as well. Some of my core characters in the Faithful and the Fallen – Corban, I’m looking at you – do have that deep sense of morality that leads them to stand against what they perceive as evil, although it did take Corban a couple of books to reach that point! There are others that listen to that inner voice, as well, such as a certain brigand with a bow, but equally there are more than a few characters in the tale who would probably feel more at home in a Grimdark novel (Lykos, maybe?).
If you talk about themes in my writing – and I’ve never really focused too much on that, first and foremost my goal was entertainment; hopefully immersive, heart-wrenching, fist-pumping entertainment, but if I had to break it down I would say that one of the major themes in the Faithful and the Fallen is the power of choice. Not just the big, life-changing choices, but the small ones that you make in the quiet, secret times, the ones that no one sees except yourself, because, really, they’re life-changing as well.
KM: Like many great fantasy series, there are some magnificent beasts within your world. There are huge sabre toothed wolves we know as wolven. There are draigs, which to my mind resemble enormous monitor lizards, large enough to be ridden. We also see huge slithering wyrms that are bred for war, and of course we have giant bears! What I love about these larger than life creatures is that they are completely believable – despite the fact that you have the scope to go as crazy as you like in fantasy. What was the inspiration behind your imagined creatures? And did you deliberately set out to make them more familiar, rather than bizarre, to the reader?
JG: You’re spot on with the draigs – they are inspired by Komodo dragons, just bigger and meaner! I have a passion for Mythology, especially Celtic and Norse, and my original vision for the Faithful and the Fallen was to write a world that was almost real, or could have been real, a world that felt mytho-historical! (I think I’ve just invented a new word, there). It was inspired by ancient Europe, by the myths of Briton and Germania, of the frozen north and Frost Giants, by Boudicca and Julius Caesar, where the forests were dark and dangerous, but in my world humans aren’t necessarily top of the food chain. I think using historical periods and creatures as a frame of reference is a great way to settle a reader into your world. And as much as I enjoy reading about all kinds of weird and fantastical beasts, my twin passions have always been fantasy and history, so I wanted to blend them somehow in my world, to use ancient history as a framework, and then have some fun with it!
KM: I have spoken to countless fans of the series and the one question everyone eventually asks is: ‘who’s your favourite character?’ I make no secret about mine being the lovable rogue, Camlin. But with such a great cast of characters I often wonder who would come out on top in a Hunger Games scenario! So who’s your money on? Who would survive all the trials you could set them?
JG: You’re absolutely right, I’m being asked more and more frequently who my favourite character is. I struggle to narrow it down to one, and it can change on different days. Today, and he’s always high on the list, to be honest, is Gar, Corban trusty protector. Even though he’s not an actual point of view character, I consider him a main character, and, at least in my head, he’s pretty fleshed out. Also Tukul, his da. I always enjoyed writing Tukul’s POV.
To answer the second part of your question, who would be most likely to survive, Hunger-Games style. I’d have to say Maquin. He’s probably the unluckiest character that has ever been written! But his experiences have stripped everything away and turned him into an ego-less, remorseless, utterly focused killing machine, with a worrying fondness for knives!
KM: I’ve read a lot of fantasy and historical fiction over the years - and one thing I think many authors fail to achieve is a great (not just good) battle scene. But you certainly score highly here.
What I love about your battle scenes is that we’re thrown into the action through the eyes of a particular character – then you build on this to give us the bigger picture. I never feel lost or disconnected from the action - and I always finish those scenes feeling as if I’d walked out of the battle myself. What has contributed to your ability to write those scenes? Your author picture certainly hints at some experience with weaponry.
JG: I can’t tell you how pleased I am to hear that, Kareem. I love reading a good battle-scene, and it’s always been my hope to write battles that feel immersive but not confusing. Braveheart has always been my template there – it’s not just books that have been my inspiration for the Faithful and the Fallen. Spartacus and Braveheart are right up there! My goal is always to show the harsh reality of conflict, without glamourizing it. There are many great writers of battle-scenes and combat in general – Miles Cameron and Joe Abercrombie spring to mind, although for me I think the master is Bernard Cornwell.
I couldn’t say why you think my battle-scenes are effective – I wish I could say it’s because of my extensive experience re-enacting, or some such endeavour, but the truth is I’ve observed more than I’ve participated. Perhaps it’s from all those years of refereeing! Sorry, I meant to say parenting! Although I am seriously giving consideration to joining a Longsword club – I’m in the process of tracking down the right one for me.
KM: Within your world there are many references to The Seven Treasures: Axe, Spear, Dagger, Torc, Cup, Cauldron, or Necklace. In the books, we learn a few of these can grant their bearers spectacular abilities. If you could only pick one, which would you *not* want your enemy to possess and why?
JG: Probably the Starstone Cup. Drinking from it brings a lot of bonuses that would be undesirable in an enemy. Basically it’s like a supernatural vitamin pill, or a not-quite-so-potent enhancement serum that turned Captain America into the man he is… It enhances all your senses, gives you longer life, and gives a nice physical boost – faster, stronger, and so on. It doesn’t make you invincible or super-human, and it depends what your starting point was, but basically it will make you much harder to fight and defeat. So, that one should definitely not fall into the hands of an enemy! No thank you.
KM: Something I and many readers would like to know is - if you have a favourite fantasy weapon?! I believe you have a small collection. This is especially given the arsenal mentioned during the series. I have seen you in a photo carrying a huge Dane axe, is that the one?
JG: I do like a good axe, I can’t deny. And yes, you’re right, I do have a growing collection of weaponry. In order of purchase – my Dane axe, Medieval hand-and-a-half longsword, Roman Gladius, Viking one-handed sword, Medieval double-bladed axe, Medieval single-head axe. And a Norse spangenhelm (helmet with eye-sockets), which I think is beautiful. Actually, they all are. So, three swords, three axes! You’re probably right, though, I think the Dane axe has a special place in my heart. It’s ever since I read the tale of Stamford Bridge, where King Harold of England fought Harald Hardrada, the last great Viking King. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us that a huge Viking berserker clutching a massive double-bladed great-axe blocked the narrow crossing of Stamford Bridge, and single-handedly held up the entire Saxon army. Bear in mind that this is a historical account, not a poetic saga! The Chronicle records that he slew up to forty Englishmen. He was finally defeated when an Anglo-Saxon soldier floated under the bridge in a half-barrel and thrust his long spear through the slats in the bridge, mortally wounding him.
And we know that Harold’s Huscarls, his personal honour-guard, all wielded Dane axes. So they weren’t just clumsy weapons, they were used by the elite warriors of their day – no doubt with exceptional skill.
I’ve infected my boys with the weapon-bug, too. Edward is the proud owner of a boar spear and a seax, and William has ‘Sting’ mounted on his wall.
KM: So finally, Wrath is here! The 17th of November is a date many people have been eagerly awaiting. The series has built up to an almost unbearable climax. We have cheered, we have cried, we have (I have . . .) yelled ‘Truth and Courage!’ And we have suffered perhaps one of the greatest cliff-hanger gaps in modern fantasy history. You of course must know I’m referring to how Ruin ends… I actually wouldn’t be surprised if fans have been offering you grand sums of money to know the conclusion of that particular thread. I even spoke to one person who said they didn’t think they would be able to carry on reading if the result swung a certain way. So that shows you how invested your fans are in the story. So without giving too much away what can fans expect from the final installment of The Faithful and the Fallen?
JG: I have received more than a few emails about that ending. I knew it was pretty mean when I wrote it, but it was one of the few things that I had seen clearly from a very early stage. I did waver for a moment when it came to actually writing it – could I really go through with doing that – but sometimes you have to go with your gut instinct. For me Ruin was always my Empire Strikes Back, and in my mind the ending would have been dramatically lessened if I hadn’t stuck to my instinct.
Although, I have had threats…
What can you expect from Wrath? Well, hopefully an end that will result in tears and laughter, in fist-pumping and Truth and Courage-yelling! I find it incredibly hard to assess any of my books, I’m just too close to them. What I aimed to write in this last book of the Faithful and the Fallen was a constant escalation of action and tension, a ramping up of conflicts, with a steady drip-feed of satisfying and (hopefully) edge-of-your-seat moments. It’s not giving anything away to say that the book ends with a big battle. A very big, 160-page battle. That felt like present-opening time, when all the threads finally came together for the last time, many of them fourteen years in the making and writing. I must confess to shedding a few tears at the end, as it was a bittersweet experience – saying goodbye to so many characters that have come to feel like part of my life.
Whether it’s turned out as it did in my head, I can’t say, I’ll have to leave that to you and other readers to decide. I just hope you all enjoy it!
KM: I would like to end by saying a huge thank you for your vision and to everyone involved in making my favourite series become a reality - and, I think, a blistering success. If the good people at Tor will allow me a final question . . . Have we seen the last of The Banished Lands???
JG: You’re most welcome, Kareem, and thank-you for taking the time to put this Q&A together, I’ve really enjoyed the questions. Also I must say that this series wouldn’t have happened without yourself and others like you, people that have enjoyed and embraced Corban and his band of companions.
And you haven’t seen the last of the Banished Lands. I have a new series in the works, Of Blood and Bone, a trilogy, this time. Book 1, provisionally titled DREAD, is finished, going through edits and due for publication in November 2017. It is set in the Banished Lands, taking place 130 years after the events of Wrath. Really it is about how the survivors deal with the consequences of that last battle, the Day of Wrath. Mostly it features an entire new cast of characters, with maybe one or two familiar faces. I won’t say too much here, for fear of giving anything away in Wrath, but suffice to say that the Banished Lands are once again in peril, and that there is more than a fair share of conspiracy and betrayal. Things may seem peaceful, but in the dark places something lurks, a growing dread . . .
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John will be signing copies of Wrath at Forbidden Planet, Covent Garden this Saturday 19 November from 4pm! Find out more here.