Aaron Dembski-Bowden

Don't worry. None of this blood is mine.

It lives in the sink…

As I enter the last couple of weeks before my deadline (and even typing that gives me a sinking, weak feeling that reminds me of when I had meningitis and couldn’t walk from one side of my hospital room to the other) I’m basically nocturnal. I catch about 3-5 hours sleep during the day, between driving Katie to work and picking her up, and spend the rest of the time working.

This isn’t the first time it’s happened. In fact, it’s happened three times now. Each time it does, I look at the stuff I’m writing in a mad dash for the finish line as essentially cursed. I tend not to be all that happy with my writing even when I have ages to do it, but I reserve a special loathing for the shit I get done when my back is to the wall. It’s not always the end of a novel, either. It might be a few chapters I skipped in a bad mood “to come back to later or whatever”, and so on. Usually, it’ll be the parts I write very early on and literally can’t stand the sight of come the end. They have to be rewritten. They just have to be.

When it comes to editorial feedback, reading circle opinion, and the reviews that follow, I’m always wrong. The bits people like best are always the parts I struggled with the most, and the ones I’m least happy with. I’ve given up trying to understand why.

Anyway, being nocturnal has its disadvantages. One of those – in a sensory aspect, surely the biggest one – is that night is dark, and when it’s dark, humans can’t see a fucking thing. Add that general rule to the fact I live in the middle of the countryside, miles from civilisation, and you’ll come to realise not only am I excellently situated to survive the zombie apocalypse, I’m also seventeen miles from the closest streetlight.

In short, if the moon and stars are behind the clouds, it’s as dark as the Abyss.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking “Hey, Aaron, it’s 2012. Houses have electricity, and electricity can be converted to light via glass bulbs and filaments and stuff like that.” Well, dubious phrasing aside, you’re right.

In some cases, that only makes the situation worse. Such as at 2:30am yesterday, when I came downstairs for my 36th coffee only to hit the light and recoil – physically cringe and recoil – from what I saw in the sink.

Allow me to explain.

Me and Katie, see, we’re not exactly loaded. We’re not dirt-eating poor folk any more, but for a couple of years, while I was waiting for royalties, we were pretty fucked. As someone who is so middle-class that I’ve genuinely told beggars asking for change “Sorry, I’ve only got notes”, being poor was an unpleasant surprise, but sadly comes with the whole territory of being a writer. But, as I said, things are looking up a lot. They’ve levelled out the last year or so. Things are good. I thank The First Heretic for that, and by proxy, all of you lot for buying it.

But my point is this. As a kid, I was spoiled by a Mum who gave me pretty much every toy I asked for. Not all of them, but if I rrrrrrrreally wanted something, she’d usually find a way to get it. I was never short on rad toys. Maybe I didn’t have every Star Wars action figure, or every single Autobot ever, but I had a chunk of every money-sucking license I was in love with at the time.

The flip-side of that comes around now, when I have a lot less money coming in than my Mum and Dad back then, so I’m already looking at my bank balance and feeling the first stirrings of sadness at Fuchsia having to miss out on cool toys she really, really wants. I’m aware – obviously I’m aware – that there are more important things in the world than cool toys. I became aware of that on the shallowest level when my Mum would occasionally cry that she couldn’t afford to get me X, Y or Z, and I’d always think “Mum… I have a lot of stuff already, I think I’ll live.” I’m sure Fuchsia will think the same, as I’m sure all sane kids do when they reach that level of awareness.

But anyway, as Currently Poor People, we’re recycling Katie’s old toys. As in, her family have dug them out of basements and attics and barns (HA HA COUNTRYSIDE), and now we’re washing them for Fuchsia to play with when she shows up. I find it even more heartbreaking because Katie’s toys were already Poor Person Toys, whereas I had rad shit like a Millennium Falcon and Powermaster Optimus Prime. I was also the first kid in my school to have Ultra Magnus. True (and awesome) story.

So there we are, washing these old, old dolls and cars and stuff. We wash them in the kitchen sink. Even looking at them brings me out in strangely intense middle-class future-father angst of being a shitty provider for my family, but that’s just background to the real story.

Imagine you’re walking downstairs at 2:30am. You’re tired. You hate what you’re writing. You need coffee.

Your beloved bride, to whom you’ve been married for just over a half a year now, sleeps the sleep of the innocent upstairs. You’re trying to be quiet, since she’s 8 months pregnant and doesn’t sleep all that well now. The fact she’s pregnant mere seconds after coming off the pill is something you’re secretly proud of, and occasionally you cup your balls in private, saying “Damn, I’m a good shot” to yourself. For the sake of this visualisation, that’s the kind of guy you are. Basically, an idiot.

Imagine all of this. Those of you reading this who lack balls; an easy simulation can be achieved through getting two eggs in some cling film, and hanging them between your legs. Please note, that’s gross. I mention only for accuracy of simulation for those who prefer a practical approach to the imagination.

Anyway, imagine all of that. Now imagine you walk past the sink – your head filled with thoughts of your pregnant wife, your future daughter, and the Grey Knights you’re writing about upstairs.

You hit the light.

You see this:

I’ve never, in all 31 years of my life, thought so many things at once. And they were all bad. All of them.

A snapshot image of my mind would’ve looked like this:

“OH HOLY FUCK KATIE HAD THE BABY AND THE BABY IS DEAD AND THE BABY’S IN THE SINK AND FUCK IT’S IN PIECES AND CHRIST AND FUCK.”

And that’s why you shouldn’t spend an entire month on minimal sleep and 30 cups of coffee a day.

January 21, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 29 Comments

A Political Prisoner

January 12, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | 22 Comments

Questions Answered

Way, way too many questions to do them all, guys. Sorry about that. I’ll try to hit the more relevant ones.

I cut and pasted the questions directly, to save myself some time:

  • “What have you found hardest about writing for the Grey Knights?”

Two things: one practical, one creative.

The practical difficulty was simply that the Grey Knight codex dropped while The Emperor’s Gift was already underway, and the changes in the lore meant that a lot of what I’d written was suddenly invalidated. Some bits needed rewriting, some bits needed scrapping. That’s contributed pretty massively to me missing this deadline, actually – which is weird, as for once the reason isn’t just me fucking around and writing slowly.

The creative difficulty is a pretty easy answer, too. It comes down to the fact that every single one of the Grey Knights is psychic. You already have the fact none of the Adeptus Astartes interact with humans (or with each other) in “normal” ways. Now you have their absolute bleeding edge elite warriors – the very limits of what you can do to a human body – and have to deal with the fact they’re also psychic.

The characters in The Emperor’s Gift are bonded closer than a Space Marine squad from any other Chapter could ever be. They speak psychically as often as with their voices, and they can sense each other’s emotions and thoughts as easily as you or I can read someone’s expression. Each of them is ferociously psychic on his own, but they excel when they channel their powers through their Justicar.

  • “What’s the news about you doing a 2-parters about Abaddons rising as new Warmaster? And will Void Stalker be the definite ending to the Night Lords series or is there some potential to sequals?”

There’s no news on the Abaddon series, because even if I knew I was doing it, it’s waaaayyyyyy too early to announce it. It might happen, it might not. I look at my notes from time to time, then feel guilty at my sliding deadlines, and try to get back to the serious business of finishing my current projects. If I ever did it (in my notes it’s called “The Abaddon Thing” or “Rise of the Warmaster”), then it’d probably be a long series, not a duology, anymore.

As for Void Stalker, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the end of the Night Lords Series, but it’s very definitely an end to that particular era.

  • “Putting the existing lore aside, which references (especially historical) did you look up? For the Night Lords you referred to the Mafia, in this case the Grey Knights may have something in common with the Knightly orders of the Medieval age. Was it difficult to make them distinct from the Black Templars, even if they have something in common (heraldry etc) ?”

The Grey Knights are so distinct that it’s almost impossible to make them like anyone or anything else. They’re humanity stretched to its absolute limit, with a more sacred and secret duty than any other living beings in the galaxy. From reading a lot of Dark Ages and Middle Ages jazz through the years (much of which was for RPG work), I’ve got a pretty solid grip on the ins and outs of knightly life. There’s not a lot of it that applies to the Gee Kays, but they definitely have a knightly atmosphere around them, especially on Titan, in their fortress-monastery.

  • “Like the cover art more there than when I first saw it. Looking forward to TEG!”

Me too. And, me too.

  • “What will you bring to the table writing Grey Knights that is different from the previous Grey Knights novels with Justicar Alaric?”

That’s actually dead difficult to answer. I’m not sure. I mean… a different writing style, I guess. I write differently to Ben Counter. It’ll be my approach to characterisation and description,  and TEG focuses on a newly-inducted Grey Knight, trying to find his place after being placed in a very honourable squad with a long and noble history.

I think it involves a little more interaction with humans (the squad spends much of its time with an Inquisitor and her warband), and there’s probably different types of interaction between the squadmates themselves, and their enemies. It’s my take on the Grey Knights, really. I want to show a very deep slice of what it’s like to live as one of them.

  • “Did you get headaches writing for Grey Knights?”

Sort of. It’s written in the first person, like Eisenhorn and… a bajillion other novels… which was a new experience, but it’s not been any harder than writing in the third person. I’ve been writing as slow as I usually do. It’s just different, rather than worse.

  • “We are coming up on 6 years since the first Horus Heresy book was published, I know the series is very popular, but being in the know, any idea how much longer it will stretch out before they get to the end?”

I mention that at about 24:25 minutes in: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=6xxJMo5tl04.

  • “How did recent fluff regarding the Grey Knights exterminating Daemons on their home-turf ( inside the warp) and Draigo making the Dark Gods cry like pristine Japanese schoolgirls with his Chuck Norrisian round-kick, affect your work and do you agree with the changes?Also, don’t you think that making the Grey Knights unbeatable kinda makes them ridiculous ?”

Uh.

It affected my work “a lot”, in that I had to trash a lot of it. That hurt, but it comes with the territory. I wasn’t even annoyed, just pretty demoralised for a while. It also meant that instead of writing a duology, I decided to do just the one novel, and move on to another project. Some of the rewrites happened because of me making it one story instead of two, but most came about because a lot of the lore simply changed underfoot. You shouldn’t take that as me ragging on the new design philosophy for the Grey Knights, as it’s nothing so blunt and simple. Stuff changes all the time – you can’t be a baby about it, it’s just the nature of the beast when it comes to working within an established IP.

As to the “unbeatable” thing, I don’t think it makes them ridiculous, but I can’t speak objectively, really. I can say that (on a personal level) their new incorruptibility diminishes a lot of what I liked about them. It changes a lot of what I found noble about them into something else. There’s a world of difference between “No Grey Knight has ever fallen to Chaos because of their constant effort and absolute purity” and “Grey Knights simply can’t fall to Chaos because of what they are, so they’re free to use the weapons of the enemy if they wish.” I’m not saying one is better than the other. Both are interesting takes on the elite order. They’re just very different in theme, atmosphere and characterisation.

  • “Do you have much freedom to play around with the established canon or does the Ordo Black Librarius keep a close eye on such things?”
I never really get in any canon trouble. Also: https://aarondembskibowden.wordpress.com/2011/03/11/second-article-loose-canon/
  • “Your Dark Angel short story “Savage Weapons” was epic in the latest HH anthology. Have you considered writing a “contemporary” Dark Angel novel/short story, set in the 41st Millennium – or are the Dark Angels given over to Gav Thorpe?And Merry Christimas!”
Many thanks. Dead proud of that story. I’d love to write a Dark Angels novel or series, but time is a factor, and I have almost none of it. If I was going to write about a loyalist Chapter, I’d be likely to choose either:
– The Blood Angels or one of their Successors.
– The Dark Angels or one of their Successors.
– A Chapter that Forge World has done a lot of work with, like the Red Scorpions.
– Create my own Unforgiven Chapter.
Merry Christmas to you, too. Ya wee scamp.
  • “Are they planning to do an audio version of this book? And did the cyber mastiff really make it into the cast list?”

I think so. But the amount of psychic speech involved makes my head hurt to think of how they’ll do it.

And yes, he did.

  • “You’ve written short stories for the Flesh Tearers and Crimson Fists, would you ever consider writing more with them (single novel or series)?”

Sort of. I wanted to write for the Flesh Tearers a while ago, but it was refused first because it’d be too close to the Blood Angels series that Jim was doing. That was also when I was very new, and the word “No” featured more often than it does now. More recently, I know a friend of mine is hoping to get more involved with them, so I’d not pitch for them out of respect for him.

As for the Crimson Fists, I have a lot of love for those guys. They’d be in the Top Ten choices for a loyalist Chapter I’d write about, but I’m still (jokingly) bitter my 14-page pitch for a Crimson Fist trilogy was vetoed when Rynn’s World was already being written in secret.

  • “You seem to like finding the empathetic, likable element to the traditional 40K “bad guys,” even as their evil is undeniable. With the Grey Knights being about as “good guys” as they get, how are you looking to give us an emotional hook into them? Are you going to do the revere and dirty them up a bit, or do you have somethin more devious in mind?”
In a lot of ways, the Grey Knights are less human than, say, Talos and First Claw, or even Grimaldus. Those guys were human children, taken and brainwashed, fueled by either duty, hatred or both as they waged war down the centuries. Grey Knights are beyond even that. They know nothing at all of human life. They remember none of it. They spend their entire lives seeing things that would drive humans insane, and can never share their secrets.
I think the most interesting angle with them is just how different and angelic they are. Like that moment when the little girl asks Grimaldus of the Black Templars if he’s a hero, and he has no idea what to say. He has no context to judge what she means, and no capacity to see the world from her perspective. He has honour badges on his armour, and a history of glory in warfare, but a simple question like that means almost nothing to him. Can he save those people? Would a hero, by their standards, do that? All he wanted to do was die in glory. To the Adeptus Astartes, that was the definition of heroism. To the human refugees looking to him as a saviour… not so much.
Grey Knights operate on that austere, inhuman level all the time. Humans are a complete mystery to them. I think that’s what’s interesting about them.
Y’know, plus all the daemon-killing.
  • “Will you finish it on time?”
Nope! In fact, it’s already late.
  • “So with Void Stalker in the bag and The Emperor’s Gift being all shiny with it’s cover art, are there any other Astartes Chapters or Legions that you’d like to write about?”
Whatever’s likeliest to get Forge World to make models of it, in the spirit of ultimate collusion and sexy teamwork.
  • “As a writer do you find it challenging at times to keep in tune with the IP, of all the authors for BL/GW you seem in my opinion to be one of the few authors who ‘gets’ 40k. I know that is of course subjective but from my perspective if we look at the IP say from the ‘gaming’ point of view, reading Codices or White Dwarf there appears to be an angle which is, make the army we have just released utterly awesome-skyrim+9-to-the-max even if it goes against current lore or seems completley out of character based on existing lore. Do you just try and avoid or ignore work that has an air of marketting to the teenage demograph, or do you try and incorporate the new lore and make it work within the context of existing BL work.”
Look for the mature angle in everything. Look for what you can make into compelling, convincing fiction. I don’t write novels for kids, and I get more than my fair share of editorial feedback that says “Take this out…” and “Tone that down…”.
The most recent example was when Octavia, the Echo of Damnation’s Navigator, was symbiotically linked to the warship’s machine-spirit while they flew through the void. And the soul of the machine was so galvanised and thrilled to be hunting through the warp and destroying enemy vessels, that its primal pleasure at fulfilling its raison d’etre was starting to bleed through the link into her mind. She usually had the strength to control the machine-spirit, but she was exhausted and wounded, and her body responded in a primal and human way, as raw pleasure coursed through her mind and beyond. I knew that it wouldn’t go through editing, so I changed it.
I edited it down like crazy, and it was still cut, even when it was just a final sentence about her trying to fly the ship and ignore a distractingly pleasant ache between her legs.
So, in short, anything relatively adult along those terms will be axed anyway.
I’m always sort of awkward when I have to sign something for someone younger than 16 or whatever, though. It’s not about trying to write for adults or kids; it’s just a matter of writing what feels right and not dumbing anything down.
A lot of adults like the movie Blade, right? To me, it’s one of the worst things humanity has ever done, and childishly shallow beyond belief. One man’s paradise is another man’s poison.
  • “Although there are a number of reasons I say this (im sure you have heard the rage before) the one that set me off was the Grey Knight Dreadknight, which on a personal level I feel looks like a giant baby carrier, something my local GW Manager will not let me say out loud in his shop (I hate those Deomcracies of one). But the justification for the model and concept was ‘wouldnt it be great for Astartes to go toe to toe with a Demon, when all previous lore, and I think a fairly central theme to 40k is the idea that humanity isnt going toe to toe with anyone, everything prior to this model is the one guy, normally with a massive hammer holding out against impossible odds against things bigger, meaner and probably way better in bed that he has ever been.”

About going toe-to-toe… That’s true, sure. Going toe-to-toe against helpless odds is where the pathos is, I guess. I wouldn’t dispute that, but I don’t think it means the Dreadknight has no place at all. It’s just a new dynamic. It’s not any one person’s place to say whether something is Absolutely Right or Absolutely Wrong for the setting. 40K is all about shades of grey, and a billion possibilities.

Personally, the Dreadknight is one of the aspects of the Grey Knight changes that I’m not putting in the novel. It’s not that I think the concept sucks, or anything. It’s purely a matter that (like you, but less… angry) it diverges from what I like about that particular aspect of 40K. As writers, we’re all free to put in and take out what we like and dislike about the setting, by focusing on what we enjoy.

For me, when it comes to fighting daemons in 40K, it’s a seminal and quintessential deal of the whole license. It’s the lone man with a broken sword, fighting through his wounds against a creature twenty times his size. It’s that cold, cold moment when he looks up… and up… and up… and realises he’s absolutely fucked. He’s going to die. But he has faith, and he has a hammer, and he’s the only one left to hold the line. Being equal to the daemons isn’t something that interests me, but I can see why a Grey Knight would invent the Dreadknight. I just prefer the Warhammer: Mark of Chaos trailer-style daemon fight, or Inquisitor Rex standing against the towering form of An’ggrath, or Gandalf against the Balrog.

You’ll notice Gandalf doesn’t try to kill the Balrog. He shouts “You shall not pass.” He’s holding the line, not trying to carve his name in its heart. They’re both 40K-style actions, it’s just that one resonates with me more.

  • “What is ‘The Emperor’s Gift’?Did you collaborate with the artist on the cover art?How good is ‘heretically good’?”

1. It’s a nod to a line in the Grey Knight codex. “A Grey Knight’s psychic presence is anathema to creatures of the warp, utterly unpalatable to a Daemon’s dark appetites and thus entirely immune to corruption. Such was the Emperor’s gift to the first Grey Knights; a legacy renewed in each new generation of Battle-Brothers.”

Incidentally, sometimes the capitalisations in 40K confuse the hell out of me.

2. I did, but much less than usual. I sent a few notes, that was about it.

3. No idea, dude. You’d have to ask Dan.

  • “Is this a story arc likely to turn into a series?
    Are we going to see many (if any) characters appearing from other established books (yours or other authors) or codexes?”

1. …depends on reader feedback, I guess. It’s not my plan, but there’s a lot of scope for it. Spin-offs, especially.

2. Yeah, but not many. The first book originally had zero “famous” characters like that, but with the story evolving as it did (and becoming one book instead of two) there are now a few famous types nosing about here and there. Which is weird, as it wasn’t the original intent. None of them are main characters.

  • “I second the question about Abaddon ! A rise of the warmaster dualogy would be great ! By the way, when does prince of crows take place ? Will it feature the dark angels and the Lion again also and the tsagualsa battles between night lords and dark angels or will it be about another event / time ?”

The Prince of Crows takes place at the end of the Thramas Crusade, when the Night Lords have literally just lost to the Dark Angels. The Dark Angels aren’t in it much; it’s mostly about the Night Lords dealing with the fallout, and a lot of Curze’s introspection about where he’s at in life.

December 20, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | 36 Comments

Any Questions?

With Void Stalker behind me, and getting achingly close to wrapping up The Prince of Crows (for The Primarchs next year), it’s time to bring The Emperor’s Gift home into its second draft.

Well, there that is.

Any questions? If there are any, I’ll answer them in a follow-up blog post tonight or tomorrow.

December 19, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | 53 Comments

Short Extract from The Emperor’s Gift

1,000 Facebook friends today. Admittedly, 200 of them are just normal Facebook friends rather than readers, but I thought the other 800 might find this interesting.

Here’s an extract from Chapter Eight of The Emperor’s Gift, my Grey Knights novel in progress.

First draft, obviously. And as always, it may never show up in the final book.

But I like it lots, so here it is.

—   —   —

—   —   —

I still recall the first time I trained in the void, wearing a featureless, honourless suit of thin ceramite only barely approximating a knight’s true armour. To look down was to see the nickel-dull skin of the strike cruiser Unforsaken; to look up was to stare into the far reaches of absolute space, where distant stars winked in reply to my silent stare. I hadn’t been human in some time – the Emperor’s Gift wrought too many changes in me even then – but such a sight couldn’t fail to move me. Nothing prepared me for it. And how could I be ready? I’d seen little beyond my cell within the monastery and our fortress’s great stone chambers, forever ringing with the sound of crashing weapons, even when all voices fell to whispers.

I looked into the dark for a long time, hearing nothing but the slow, uneven rhythm of my own two hearts. Never had I felt so alone, so unsure of my worth in the endless, hostile expanse of space humanity claimed as its galaxy.

Saturn was a tilted orb to my left, oppressingly vast despite its distance, its curdled skies making my stomach coil. I remember how I raised my hand to it, as if it was a bauble to be drawn from the night sky. From so far away, it looked no larger than my palm. Deep below the cruiser’s hull, I could make out the curvature of Titan itself: milky with poisonous cloud cover, yet the only home I knew. To fall from my footing would be to plunge through its rancid atmosphere, ending my training as ashen particles enslaved by the nitrogen winds.

I looked away again, out into space. Far, far beyond Saturn lay the sun itself, and even with its corona crown it was a remote, pulsing speck.

In that moment, I felt what ancient generations must have felt when they first sailed to the stars. Should we have come here, so far from humanity’s cradle? Was this manifest destiny, to reach out into the black and carve an empire upon the rocky bones of conquered worlds?

Our masters tell us that to consider every perspective is a dangerous virtue. On that night, I learned why. Blessed is the mind too small for doubt. Humanity’s champions should never question our right to own the stars.

I carried that lesson with me when I first swore to serve the Inquisition. I carry it with me now, as a knight in the war our species must never see.

April 26, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | 21 Comments