I saw on a forum the other day, that someone said “Here’s a link to Aaron’s blog: he’s nothing like the other BL authors.”
That’s pretty ominous, right there. My blood, it ran cold. Maybe that’s what Marketing are always on about when they say I should behave.
So, right. Yes. To business.
Helsreach is out today.
That sort of sneakalised up on me.
I’m not in a particularly good headspace at the moment, and part of that is tied to my beloved publisher, Black Library. I’m behind on deadlines (Breaking News at 11, right?), and finding it hard to focus on work, due to something I’m furious about behind the scenes. It sort of makes everything else taste like crap, and I have intense trouble with my temper when it comes to letting things go, even if they have nothing to do with me. Don’t ask what it is, I won’t bring it up again; I’m just trying to provide an overview. In short, I’m gutted I’m missing a close friend’s birthday party this weekend, and niggles I should be able to ignore are getting under my skin.
I’m sure it would all be solved if I could just speed up, but the days of me easily churning out 3,000-4,000 words in well under 10 hours are well and truly gone. And I’m sort of okay with that, honestly. I write all the better for it.
The first review I’ve seen for it is killer, and doubly interesting because it’s by someone who hasn’t read a 40K novel before. Behold: http://www.njoe.com/2010/04/16/a-galaxy-not-so-far-away-review-helsreach-by-aaron-dembski-bowden/.
My friends, guildies and countrymen who’ve read Soul Hunter, with no experience of the setting, have mentioned a few concepts and scenes where they struggled to understand exactly what was going on. Usually, this involves the warp, which is one of the defining characteristics of 40K, and one of the cooler aspects that sets it apart from a lot of other sci-fi. But it’s definitely a difficult idea to wrap your grey skulljunk around, because even after all these years, the setting’s most hardcore fans can’t agree on how it behaves. Of course, being Chaos, it can behave however it likes, but whatever. You know what I mean. It’s some high concept jazz, right there.
Helsreach, by comparison to Soul Hunter, is going to be a little more accessible, for better or worse.
But I wanted to cover something about what’s between the covers, because Helsreach was a very difficult book to write, it came out nothing like I’d expected, and I want to explain a little about why.
This information is a month or two old, and has done the rounds on various forums in the meantime, but it still sums up my thoughts on the process and the book that came out the other side.
Overall, honestly, it was a difficult book, and the characters are difficult to like. Conversely, I think it’s quite easy to respect them.
The coolest thing anyone has said about the book so far was this:
“While I don’t play any of the GW games, I read a lot of their material and I’ve always liked the Black Templars. While I don’t claim to be an expert on any of the Space Marine chapters, I am quite well read on the actual Templar Knights and I know my s**t when it comes to the military and in particular the airborne infantry.
I really enjoyed it. The Templars are some serious dudes and I think you captured that very well. You captured the military ethos very well, and although Space Marines tend to me a lot more extreme, the way you’ve portrayed the brotherhood side of it was fantastic.”
And honestly, that’s one of the most enervating, inspiring things anyone has ever said about my work.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to experience something 24/7 to be able to portray it convincingly in fiction. If you did, fiction would barely exist. And it’s easy to be misled anyway, like, say, being told someone is a race driver/soldier/travel agent and then giving their their descriptions of races/battle/booking plane flights extra credence, despite the fact they’ve never actually driven in a race/seen combat/sent anyone on holiday. “Your focus determines your reality,” said that guy in that piece of shit film.
This’ll be pretty long. I won’t hunt you down and kill you for not reading it.
*** *** ***
1. Everyone who has read it so far has either liked it, or loved it. What I’m seeing mostly is that people who don’t like the Black Templars as a Chapter, seem to really struggle to like most of the characters, because these guys are absolutely unforgiving, inhuman, cold-hearted knights. They’re the only Chapter that is still on the Emperor’s Great Crusade; they never defend – they always attack, so they don’t play well with other Chapters all the time (especially the humane ones like the Salamanders); and they’re the ones that ritually chain their weapons to their armour, so they never drop them. That’s not saying they’re the best, but it is saying they have a very different mindset to other Chapters – because they do. Hitting a Chapter’s unique perspective is a big part of Marine writing. And these guys are unbelievably hardcore, so Templar fans have loved it. But the people who prefer, say, Guard novels or less militant Chapters have tended to like the writing style, but not the characters so much, because they’re prototypical Templars. Grimaldus especially – he’s not a particularly likable guy.
2. For research, not only did I get photocopies of absolutely everything GW had in the archives, as well as using my own copies of Codex: Black Templars and Codex: Armageddon, I also spoke to one of the guys (on more than one occasion) that had written most of the official BT fluff published. And despite all of that, I’ve still seen one or two references here and there on forums, where people say “THIS HAS TO BE IN HELSREACH OR THE AUTHOR IS AN IDIOT”, and those thing aren’t in there (and never would have been) because Minor Point X never once showed up anywhere in all of the BT lore I read. You see that kind of thing mentioned about any book, by any person, in licensed fiction, and the advice is always to ignore it. The difference is, I actually care. I love the fluff, and go to a lot of trouble to include everything I can. (Really, my office is wallpapered with photocopies from GW’s archives.) So things like that always make me curious about a book’s reception.
3. The writing style is… different. With the greatest respect to a lot of BL’s back catalogue, I haven’t enjoyed a lot of it (same as I don’t enjoy a lot of sci-fi and fantasy overall), because a good chunk of it is – in my opinion – action pulp aimed at teenagers. I’m not trying to bite the hand that feeds, here. I know the American market is different to the UK one, and I’ve butted heads with various BL insiders on more than one occasion, with none of us giving ground, about how they underestimate their readership.
(Note: They’re a lot more informed than me, so maybe I should shut up, but fuck me if I don’t just love the sound of my own self-righteousness. I’m actually learning to drop this bone of contention and let another dog take it – as I said, this was all originally written a chunk of time ago.)
So, y’know, action pulp. There’s nothing wrong with that, I just don’t aim to write that way – and say what you will about pretension and delusions of grandeur, I don’t think I do write that way. Neither do several of the other authors who do hired gun work for BL.
I knew I was writing what was essentially a summer blockbuster action movie, since it was a Space Marine Battles book, and try as a I might, I’m not a fan of summer blockbuster action movies. I think Michael Bay makes boring films; the various X-Men/Wolverine films bored me to death; and 300 was one of the few films I’ve almost walked out of, because I found it so dull. That doesn’t mean there’s no violence or action (there’s plenty – even more than Rynn’s World, several people have said) but the struggles aren’t always defined by bolters and chainswords. What I found much more interesting was the way Astartes relate to each other and to humans, and the way Space Marines react when they’re locked into a situation where they’re not going to just deploy, win, and leave, like they usually would. They’re trapped there, and they’re going to die.
In that vein, people going into Helsreach and expecting a victorious crusade of ork-killing awesomeness are going to be disappointed. It’s a tale of how the Imperium almost loses a massive hive city, day by day, inch by inch, and the invaders pay for every road in blood. Grimaldus isn’t a young, cool and handsome god of war. He’s a knight wracked by internal conflict, who has been exiled to die a very worthless death on the surface of Armageddon, while his brothers are getting all the glory in the orbital war, led by High Marshal Helbrecht. He begs not to be left behind – the story is about how he comes to terms with it, and how he deals with the people of the city who keep expecting miracles from him and his small handful of knights. He inspires them, sure. He has some great speeches, and they see him as a hero. But he’s a difficult hero. He doesn’t understand the humans, and he’s bitter at being sent to Helsreach.
I talked about this on another forum, last week:
I think Helsreach is probably the deepest look into the Astartes mindset – at least that I’ve read, and I’ve read most of BL’s books – with regards to how they deal with humans. As a Chaplain, Grimaldus is essentially as austere and removed from humanity as a Space Marine can possibly be, to the point where I wrote him as essentially autistic. Especially in the first-person sections.
I think it made him unlikable just as often as it made him likable, and cold just as often as it made him sympathetic. In dealing with abandonment, friendship, the death of his ‘father’, the disrespect of his brothers, and human emotion and relationships – he was essentially, like you say, a child. Not childish, but definitely naive to a certain degree. Astartes aren’t good with humans, after all.
Insofar as Helsreach had a ‘point’, it was to present the most ruthless and distant type of Astartes, of the most uncompromising Chapter*, and show how different he was from humans. F’rex, half the time when he’s talking to Andrej, he doesn’t know how to respond to certain jokes or questions, so he just says nothing at all. He doesn’t understand how people can fall in love in war, or why their brains allow them to focus on such things. He doesn’t even understand how or why the more humane Chapters fight to defend the people of the Imperium, when he’s still fighting to expand the Emperor’s domain.
He didn’t even come to Armageddon to defend the people. He came there because he was told to go there. The people irritate him; they get in the way, they get killed, they keep demanding things of him when he’s expecting nothing more than a glorious death worthy of his Chapter. If anything, the most emotion he shows to humans is when they annoy him by their constant demands on his time. But he doesn’t hate them, he just… has no capacity to understand them. He lacks empathy for any other living being that’s not tied to his duty.
Which is why the only real bond he forms outside the Chapter is with the princeps of Legio Invigilata, who has spent countless years cut off from real human contact, floating in a coffin.
* – The Black Templars are the only Chapter still fighting the Great Crusade as originally laid out by the Emperor and primarchs, and they chain their weapons to their armour so they don’t ever, ever drop them. They’re also the closest to Legion size, and very much carry the flame of those ancient days with them.
I have to admit they’re pretty much the most uncompromising bastards out there.
The First Heretic is starting look like it’ll be longer than I’d planned. This is good, and this is bad.
It’s good because I like long Horus Heresy books. A Thousand Sons was about 3,000,000 pages long, and that was ace. But yeah, regarding The First Heretic? Mostly, it getting longer is bad. Which brings me to another aspect of this “just starting out” lark, and that’s the feeling of those early days where you live advance to advance, jobless in all other ways, watching your bank account erode day by day under the claws of invisible finance goblins.
My original expectation was for this bad boy to be the length of Horus Rising, at a chunky and solid 400 pages, with Fulgrim and its 512 pages as the cushioning fallback option. The problem with me and planning is that I suck at it, and figured I could hit my deadlines with the 400-page goal easily enough. So that’s what I made time for.
512 pages? Naw. Screw that. I’m going to build a desk instead, and go to Amsterdam, and take a week off after Helsreach, and plan some short stories, and start a new blog, and… so on.
Now, in a classic move of swinging and missing on the last stretch of a midpoint deadline, every chapter of The First Heretic is longer than I thought it’d be, and I’m worried that 512 pages is the eventual, inevitable outcome. We’re talking “longer”, not “too long”. If it was “too long”, I’d cut the thing to pieces and spare myself the headache.
So I’ll be approaching my midpoint word count deadline, and only 1/3 through the book, instead of 1/2. A delay at any stage will bombard the works with spanners, clanging them off people’s heads and fucking up the otherwise benevolent flow of their chi.
Helsreach was late. No, Helsreach was Late. Almost Biblically so. Even if my eyes fell out and my hands caught fire, The First Heretic wouldn’t be that late. We’re not talking career-killing levels of intense tardiness, here. But still, if The First Heretic is much later, two things happen. Other people make sad faces at me, and I don’t get other chunks of my advance until it rolls over the finishing line.
Me and Katie took a pretty big risk in the 2009-2010 spread, deciding to live advance to advance until I get royalties. I’m still so new to this that I don’t get royalties yet, and that’s largely okay. She works as well, and is in the middle of what looks like it could be a soul-saving jump to a better gig with better money. But still, we’re talking about my half of the deal. Living advance to advance means I need to work fast, but that’s cool – I always write fast. If I write slow, it tends to suck and I lose my grip on what’s going through my mind. My thoughts outpace my fingers, moving on from what I’m doing day to day, and I’m left in the dust between them both, trying to get them to hug and make nice so I can get my shit back together.
‘Remember the good times,’ I’ll say. Stuff like that. It’s all very emotional.
The First Heretic going slower than planned is a bad thing, and I don’t have it in me to rush – I’m already working eye-bleedingly hard on this, so piss off. I can round out my finances with short stories here and there, and I’ve got some insanely killer ones to write for the Black Library soon, all to be jammed in various sexy anthologies. But doing those – especially to cover for the missing cash of a late novel – is even riskier. They take about a week each, which slows the novel even more, and they anger the pantheon of editorial gods if you spend your time diving after a quick buck instead of finishing the main thing you’re supposed to be finishing, like the professional you’re supposed to be.
Black Library Live 2010 is in one week, and is the deadline for a few things, as well as being a plane-hopping jaunt of intense sociability. I may just be beginning to narrow my eyes in the first, creeping beginnings of terror.
On the plus side, it looks like we’re pinpointing a date for the wedding next year, and the perfect place to do it. There’s also talk of getting my parents over in a couple of months for an engagement party, so the opposing teams of parental units can rubberneck for the first time and swap stories over their spawn bouncing into wedlock. I look down the misty paths of the unwritten future with an expression of manly and rugged defiance. This expression adroitly covers the fact I’m panicking behind my eyes – which, by the way, are a rather handsome arctic blue.