Interview with Mark T. Barnes (ECHOES OF EMPIRE)
We’re very happy to have Mark T Barnes to talk about books and writing. His Echoes of Empire series is among my favourites and really opened my eyes to what modern epic fantasy could do (apart from endless grimdarkness, of course). Here’s a bit of background from Mark before we get to the questions:
I’m a graduate of the Clarion South 2005 workshop, and though I’ve written and published short stories I’m more comfortable writing long fiction.
The Echoes of Empire series were my first novels. The first of the series, ‘The Garden of Stones,’ was a finalist for the David Gemmell Morningstar Award, and in the Top 20 novels for the Legend Award. The Echoes of Empire fantasy trilogy includes ‘The Garden of Stones’, ‘The Obsidian Heart’, and ‘The Pillars of Sand’. All three novels have been Top 10 Best Sellers on Amazon.com, and I’ve been a number one best seller on Amazon in Australia. Most recently I had a short story, ‘Zodiac’ published in the ultimate edition of Dimension6. It’s an undead western set in the NeverNever (Limbo) and part of a wider set of stories in an alternate Earth.
I was a competition athlete growing up, focusing on swimming (butterfly), water polo, and volleyball. I’ve studied a couple of different martial arts styles, taught tai chi, and have recently returned to archery and started with a European-style sword fighting school. An addition to writing I’m a musician and an artist, focusing these days on photocomposition for writing related projects. My Instagram and Facebook page have samples of my artwork.
At the moment I share my home with three rescue cats, Odin, Frey, and Sif who manage to fill the house with their antics, generally on my desk and while I’m trying to work. In addition to writing I own and operate a freelance professional services company specializing in organisational change management. When I’ve the chance I enjoy going on adventures. My most recent was a fantastic trip to Cambodia with a lot of attention on the ruins and history of Angkor Wat and the Khmer Kingdom.
I’m represented by the gentleman and scholar John Jarrold of the John Jarrold Literary Agency.
We’re here to celebrate books, so let’s open with a great book you’ve read recently:
I confess that I don’t get to read as much as I’d like while I’m writing. My most recent read of new work was John Gwynne’s ‘Malice’, and ‘The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane’ by Robert E Howard. I’ve also recently reread ‘Dune’ by Frank Herbert and am halfway through ‘The Shadow of the Torturer’, part one of the Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. Herbert and Wolfe are two of my favourite authors.
Moving on to your own published series, Echoes of Empire, I especially liked the fact that you stuck strictly to three POV characters. Each of them was great, and they work very well together, but I often think the villain, Corajidin, steals the show. Villains rarely get so much “screen time”, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit sorry for him along the way, even though he does such evil. Could you talk about what inspired the choice of those three, and especially him?
I wanted to tell a tale where the reader got a 360 degree view of the story. That meant for me having characters at once in collaboration and opposition depending on where outcomes met, and were in conflict.
I see Corajidin more as an anti-hero than a villain, at least at the start, cause that changes as his story develops. He was framed as an ideologue, nationalist, and a patriot clinging to the lost glories of his people. He has relatable motivations and was the first character I developed. In the first draft he was the first POV readers saw. I had to change that because I didn’t want readers to imprint on a character with such a destructive path. It’s easy for anti-heroes and villains to steal the show because they often represent the darker parts of ourselves without the filter of social approval. Corajidin got equal screen time because he pushes one third of the narrative along, and is most certainly an active POV. I wrote Corajidin the way I did to give people an antagonist that had real and compelling motivations. The character who some might see as having justifiable reasons for his actions. Because he’s relatable there is going to be a level of sympathy for him, despite the fact he faces the consequences of his choices.
Indris was developed next as the moral and ethical opposite to Corajidin. A man with a difficult and hidden past, he is very much self-made, a man who refuses to be anybody’s puppet or mouthpiece. He’s a scholar and a man of both thought and action, driven by a moral and ethical compass where he’s compelled to do what he sees as right in a world so often inundated with despair. To a degree Indris is all of us who’ve said at some point that enough is enough, and steps in to take a stand against what he perceives is a danger to the many. Unlike Corajidin, Indris is driven in part by guilt and no small part of empathy and compassion. They’re things Corajidin doesn’t allow into his line of sight.
Mari as the contagonist dwells between both. She has the longest story arc and the undergoes the most change in the trilogy. Raised in Corajidin’s – her father’s – shadow, she’s been exposed to one way of thinking and privilege. She turns her back on that to live by her own developing code and meets Indris at a time when she’s conflicted about her own family and the part they intend to play in world-changing events. Mari is an enabled, independent, and capable woman who takes more control of her life despite the potential consequences. Mari also takes more accountability for her choices, and stands firm in her decisions to be an agent of positive change. In some ways she’s the person her father could have been, but for the right nudge.
Alongside the characters, there are so many great worldbuilding elements in EoE, a lot of which I hadn’t seen in fantasy before (or often enough). This includes a slew of new races and creatures, magic that merged with physics, and everything from airships to Lovecraftian eldritch horrors. I’d be interested to hear how the world developed. Had you always planned to throw the kitchen sink at it, as it were?
Thanks. I appreciate that you enjoyed something different. The ‘Echoes of Empire’ definitely isn’t for everybody because it is a little different, but it has resonated with a lot of people.
I definitely didn’t want to give the readers the kind of world they’d seen before. The world of Ia is layered and complex with a long history. It seemed reasonable that a new world would have new species, and be based on different cultural imperatives. The world was originally born in an old roleplaying campaign I wrote, called ‘Mythic’. It grew over time though nowhere near as fast as when I wrote the novels.
I tend to ask a series of ‘what if?’ questions when I world build. The biggest ‘what if’ for Ia was ‘what if a technologically advanced race comes to a world of industrialised magic?’. The humans, aka the Starborn, were an inciting event for change. Human science and the arcane science of Ia had parallels in reliable and repeatable laws. The use of math and formulae to produce and effect. But it was the sight of flying machines, energy weapons, advanced healing machines, etc that led to a rapid period of change. The war between the species left much of the world on its knees. The rebuilding brought disparate elements into a somewhat unified whole. The indigenous cultures saw their world would never be the same. Humans had no way of leaving, their technology and resources spent. Ia is a world of shared common ground with an ongoing simmering hostility because nobody actually won the conflict.
As Charles Caleb Cotton said, ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.’ That’s where skyjammers and flying ships came from, crystals as energy sources, even arcane attempts, failures, and successes at genetic engineering. The arcane sciences expanded at the realization of broader vistas. Rather than traditional wizards I went for the concept of scholars who are intellectuals, inventors, archaeologists, soldiers, and practitioners of arcane arts. In a world without religion they represent the closest thing to it, with their own agendas and plays for authority.
It is a rich and realized world that some people have described as ‘mage punk’.
To a degree it’s the kind of fantasy world in which I’d enjoy living. It’s spiritual as much as it is intellectual, where compassion and empathy are concepts people live by. Capitalism is kind of a small ‘c’, and we’ve not borked the planet with rampant industrialization. The presence of those eldritch horrors you mention give the people of Ia a sense of unifying responsibility: if we off each other like it’s a national pastime then the balance of power shifts to the ancient and malign madness that’s always waiting to have more influence. Once we start on that slope we might not be able to climb back.
I’ve seen your fantasy empire described as variously Middle Eastern- and South/East Asian-inspired, but suffice to say it’s not the standard “medieval European” setting. Was there anything in particular that influenced this? Do you think your antipodean perspective had anything to do with it? (Australia and New Zealand certainly have a great fantasy legacy, often doing things a little different, and so I’ve often wondered about this.)
My ancestry is a combination of Scandinavian with English/Irish and some other northern European elements. It would’ve been easy to and maybe instinctive to write stories inspired by my Viking and Celtic ancestors. We already have a lot of that. I wanted to paint a story with different colours and textures.
Australia is a bit of a cultural kaleidoscope. I was educated in schools with kids from different cultures; I’d friends with Greek, Chinese, Indian, Italian, and other backgrounds and the differences were never a negative thing. The idea that any one culture is better than another, or to judge somebody on their ancestry or gender or religion, never occurred to me. The world was always a melting pot. I can walk into Sydney and see without trying too hard people from dozens of backgrounds all in the same bustle of activity without fear or favour. The world is so much bigger and more colourful to tell stories of western society. I wanted to celebrate my respect for different cultures and histories.
It wasn’t a stretch to want to write something that wasn’t purely white Anglo Saxon because despite being settled by the British, Australia already had an ancient and established Indigenous Australian culture. It was never part of Europe and since settlement we’ve had people from around the world come here to live and build what Australia is today. It’s those influences that informed the many cultures of Ia.
On the Antipodean theme, what’s the SFF scene like down under these days? It always seems a shame communities are so geographically separated, because the internet brings us all together but it’s hard to replicate that in real life.
It’s a horrid confession to make but I’m not terribly active in the SFF scene here in Australia. My agent, John, is located in the UK. The publishing deals on which we works for me generally originate there, with connections to the USA and other parts of the world.
Australia is a huge country with a small population and I think most of the SFF writers here know each other, or of each other. Our conventions are small things compared to what people experience in the UK, or the USA. I’m trying to get more involved in the convention scene, and more active with writing short stories where I target Australian markets first.
I know it’s been a little while since Echoes of Empire came out, and that you’ve written some follow-up books. Have you ever thought of self publishing them? The world seems a lot more accepting of hybrid authors these days.
Self-publishing is definitely an option for everybody. There are more upfront costs and consequences to self-publishing such as editing, typesetting, artwork, promotion and marketing, etc. that a publisher will usually take care of, at least in part. If an author has an established reader base it’s easier. Building a brand and an audience from scratch is not without its difficulties, though the rewards at the end of the risks can prove worthwhile.
Having an experienced and well-known agent, I tend to be more interested in the traditional publishing deals. Publishers assess each submission on its merits and in the context of other work they’re considering. Having had an award-nominated and positively reviewed series of books doesn’t necessarily mean everything I write will end up with a deal. That’s the nature of the industry, but John represents all my new work with major publishers as a first step.
At the moment I’m looking into publishing a collection of short stories set in different worlds, with different characters. I’ve written a few novels over the past years that haven’t been picked up. There’s an option there to review them and follow a self-publishing route, or to rewrite and reuse for new traditional publishing deals.
So, the big question: what are you working on these days?
I’m polishing the second novel in a new fantasy quadrilogy. John has the first novel and it’s with publishers for consideration so we’ll see what we see.
I’m dividing my writing time between polishing a finished work, writing short stories about established characters such as Indris and Mari as well as new characters, and planning a standalone novel.
What’s the most (and/or least) helpful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
You have to write every day, and write what you know. That advice is the absolute worst! It’s different for everybody and I found that advice to be garbage for me.
Tell us about a book that’s excellent, but underappreciated or obscure (I love a hidden gem!).
The entire Echoes of Empire series? More than once I’ve heard it called the best series of which nobody has heard. (I’m not gonna disagree, but I’m glad you said it, not me!)
Other than that, Patricia McKillip’s Riddle Master series is a great read, and the Vlad Taltos books by Stephen Brust.
Finally, a Fantasy Hive staple is what we like to call a ‘shark elevator pitch’? (It’s exactly the same as an elevator pitch, but with sharks.) (Well, one shark. Which, by the way, is currently picking between its rows of teeth to try and dislodge the remains of the last author who stepped onto its elevator.)
Ahem. So: why should readers check out your work? A shark elevator pitch of your own book(s) in no more than three sentences – go!
I’m an Australian. We have sharks everywhere. Possibly even in elevators cause that wouldn’t surprise me one little bit. Probably hanging out with its crew of venomous spiders and snakes, and a crocodile.
The pitch for the Echoes of Empire series was: ‘When civil war breaks out in Shrīan, the ancient rivalries of the Great Houses threaten even further conflict. Indris, a knight of the Sēq Order of Scholars, returns against his instincts to a city he had forsworn to level the balance of power, thereby saving his people from further suffering. With overtones of Macbeth the dying nobleman, Corajidin, has driven his nation to civil war due to visions promising him both the monarchy of his country and prolonged life. Indris, born to a rival Great House, reluctantly accepts the task of finding a missing man, the only one able to steer the teetering nation towards peace. It is the deadly warrior-poet, Mari, Corajidin’s headstrong daughter and Indris’ lover, who becomes the conflicted foil between two men who would otherwise destroy each other.’ (That’s five sentences, Mark, so I’m afraid it’s the shark for you!)
Why read my work? If you like engaging characters, if you’re interested in baroque and imaginative worlds, if you want to read something a little different, and you don’t mind savouring language and dialogue, then I’m the author for you.
I can definitely second that recommendation. So, to wrap this up, where can people find you on the internet?
Thanks to James for having me, and to the wonderful people at the Fantasy Hive for reading. I hope you get to read and enjoy my work!
Thanks Mark, I’m certainly looking forward to reading whatever you write next!
Mark T. Barnes is the author of the Echoes of Empire series, published by 47North and available now.