ANGUS MACALLAN is better known to fans of historical fiction as Angus Donald. When he’s not writing books about Robin Hood as a crime boss, he’s producing excellent fiction in other genres. His latest is the fantasy novel GATES OF STONE, due out soon. We caught up with him to find out more…
STARBURST: What’s the elevator pitch for Gates of Stone?
Angus MacAllan: Game of Thrones in Asia.
And how would you pitch that to someone who has only ever seen Game of Thrones?
I’d say, if you liked Game of Thrones, you’ll absolutely love Gates of Stone. My heroine Katerina Astrokova would eat Cersei Lannister for breakfast! She’s much more hardcore – and only 16 years old.
How would you describe the Empire of the Ice-Bear to an elderly relative?
The Empire of the Ice-Bear is sort of like 10th-century Russia but much bigger. It is a sprawling confederation of seven principalities, each with different national characteristics, that stretches from Frankland - Germany/France - in the west to the Celestial Republic – China - in the east. The main action in Gates, though, takes place in the Laut Besar – which is a warm tropical ocean, far to the south of the Empire, which is a little bit like 18th-century Indonesia and is studded with lush islands and infested with Malay pirates. The Laut Besar is the only place in this world that produces obat, an opium-like drug. The great national powers come to the Laut Besar to trade obat, and struggle bloodily with each other to control the incredibly lucrative production of this very addictive and destructive narcotic.
What character is the most fun to write?
Princess Katerina Astrokova. She has absolutely no moral qualms about doing anything: she will murder, manipulate or even marry anyone in order to get what she desires – which is power and wealth. But she can also be trusted always to keep her word. And she can be generous and kind, too, when she’s in the mood. But, at heart, she’s the ultimate kick-ass bitch-queen
And which character seriously needs to have a word with themselves?
Prince Jun from the tiny island of Taman, in the east of the Laut Besar, really needs to grow up. He’s a spoilt little princeling who thinks only of his own pleasures. He gets a rude awakening when a sorcerer invades Taman, kills his father and shatters Jun’s pampered life. He’s a bit of a dick at the start of the book, but he grows on you.
If Gates of Stone was set in another world, how different would it be?
Totally. The world of the Laut Besar is unique. Its obat-production drives the plot as well as providing a host of colourful characters – pirates, missionaries, gangsters, magic-wielding priests, cannibals, and weird and wonderful animals. If I set Gates of Stone somewhere else, it would be an unrecognisably different book.
Why epic fantasy?
I loved Game of Thrones, as well as reading all the usual suspects like JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis and Stephen Donaldson when I was a youngster. And I always wanted to create my own world. I have written a lot of historical fiction - 11 novels so far - and I think there is a good deal of crossover between history and fantasy – although many of my histfic colleagues would deny it. You ask why – the truth is, I don’t know. I had an idea for a world, for a story, and some interesting characters to put in it – and I just started typing.
How does magic change a society?
It takes away personal responsibility. And breeds paranoia. In societies that still firmly believe in magic, when something bad happens to you, people believe that it must be as a result someone wishing you ill. For example, if you get drunk and fall in a ditch on the way home, it’s an evil spirit that pushed you into the ditch, not just your own feet getting tangled after a dozen pints of beer. That evil spirit was probably conjured by your neighbour – who secretly hates you. I spent six months in Indonesia as an anthropology student in the 1980s, studying magic and sorcery in Balinese society. It was eye-opening, and on occasion, very frightening. But the magic in Gates of Stone is based on the magical practices I observed and recorded all those years ago in Bali. In a way, Gates of Stone is a result of my time spent as a young anthropologist.
Which writers inspire you?
I really like Joe Abercrombie, and Mark Lawrence is excellent, too. Outside the fantasy genre, I like George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman books. I love the early spy stories of John Le Carre. But it was Bernard Cornwell’s Arthurian trilogy The Warlord Chronicles that inspired me to try my hand at writing nearly twenty years ago.
What fantasy tropes do you personally avoid the most?
Deus ex machina. I really hate it when the hero is in a tight spot and suddenly somebody new turns up to save him/her. Or he remembers he has a magic do-dad that can do this or that. Or the eagles swoop in and carry him to safety… All the solutions should already be there in the plot to get the hero out of the mire in the nick of time.
How would you describe your process?
Edit, edit, then edit some more. My first drafts are usually pretty dire. And it takes re-writing, re-jigging and restructuring and honing over many months to produce something that is fit to be read.
Simpsons or Futurama?
Simpsons – I quite like Futurama, too. But it’s not as much fun as Springfield.
Tigers or Bears?
I have some wonderful, massive, usually gentle but occasionally ferocious creatures in Gates of Stone called ‘Ghost Tigers’ who play a crucial role in the plot. I love them. I’d like one as a pet or to guard my house. But I also want to put some Ice-Bears in the next book.
Truth or Beauty?
Truth is beauty, doncha know! And beauty is truth.
GATES OF STONE is available from February 19th from all good suppliers of excellent fiction.