Interview with Myke Cole (LEGION VERSUS PHALANX)
Today I am genuinely thrilled to welcome Myke Cole to the Fantasy Hive. I’ve followed his writing career since the release of his debut ‘Shadow Ops: Control Point’ in 2012, and seven years / eight books later he continues to be one of my favourite authors. One of the many reasons for this is because he is a warrior. Yes, he has served in the military and police, but I’m not talking about that type of warrior. I’m talking about the warrior that stands up for what they believe in.
In his recent release Legion versus Phalanx, his first non-fiction book, Myke draws upon his experiences and returns to the roots of what it is to be a warrior, in this instance, in antiquity. Myke was good enough to answer my questions on LvP, as well as his back catalogue and his writing career. I would like to thank Myke for his time and insights, and hope anyone reading this enjoys his answers as much as I did.
Myke Cole is a devoted comic fan and voracious fantasy reader who never misses his weekly game night. His fandoms range from Star Wars to military history. He’s a former kendo champion and heavy weapons fighter in the Society for Creative Anachronism. At the D&D table, he always plays paladins. After a career hunting people in the military, police, and intelligence services, Cole put these skills to good use on CBS’s hit show Hunted. Author of the Shadow Ops series and the Sacred Throne Trilogy, which begins with The Armored Saint, Cole lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Hi Myke, welcome to the Fantasy Hive. For those who don’t know you from your fiction, or your non-fiction, or the TV (ok, who DOESN’T know or has at least heard of you?!?), introduce yourself in less than 50 words.
I am not as good looking as Pierce Brown, have a less impressive beard than Pat Rothfuss, and am an order of magnitude less intelligent than Naomi Novik.
Legion Versus Phalanx, a non-fiction exploration of the titular topic, is a change from your previous fantasy fare. What made you decide to take on this topic?
I had a revival of my love of miniatures wargaming a few years back, and found myself gaming a lot of legion versus phalanx battles. I figured I’d read a book on the history behind them . . . and was shocked to find there wasn’t one.
Well, this is me we’re talking about, so now there is.
But the why of the thing changed as I did my research and realised that in many cases, the scholarship on the battles I was covering hadn’t been updated since the ‘80’s. In at least two cases, the existing theories had the battles in the wrong place.
That gave me chills. Tens of thousands of people died and their stories were effectively lost to history. I had a chance to right that wrong. In a weird way, it felt like reaching back in time and doing justice to those dead. There’s a great saying, “If you don’t tell your story, someone else will. And they’ll get it wrong.” I’m the first to admit that as a Jewish intellectual raised in the suburbs of New York, I’m an unlikely warrior, but unlikely warriors are still warriors. In the preface of the book I say ‘Every profession has its roots, and warriors are no different.’ LEGION VERSUS PHALANX is a warrior story. It’s mine to tell.
You’re no stranger to writing non-fiction, with multiple features published on Tor.com, and various articles in security publications. How did your approach to writing LvP to your fiction books differ?
It’s similar in some ways. In both cases, I outline extensively, effectively writing the book before I write the book. A nonfiction proposal (which is used to sell the book to the publisher, but also then becomes the foundation you build the book on) is a little different in that it includes a concept pitch, a bio, an estimation of the marketplace for the work, but it also includes an annotated outline and sample chapters. My novels are built on extensive outlines, often with enough snatches of prose (things that come to me while I’m outlining that I don’t want to lose) that it’s practically annotated. In each case, I usually have around 100 pages of writing done *before* the book sells. My best friend (and amazing fantasy writer) Peter V. Brett once advised me to “make the skeleton adamantium strong before you start slapping flesh on it.” The difference is that that is required to sell nonfiction. For fiction, it’s just smart writing.
During the research and writing of LvP, was there anything that made you sit back and go ‘wow’? Something that you hadn’t known before, maybe?
Absolutely. When I first planned the book, I had no intention of going to Greece to walk the battlefields of Cynoscephalae and Pydna (I also visited Thermopylae to survey Antiochus III’s holding action against the Romans). My close friend and mentor Michael Livingston is both a fantasy novelist and a professor of medieval warfare at the Citadel. He laughed in my face. “Myke,” he said, “a battle is its ground. You absolutely MUST walk a battlefield to understand what happened there.” At first, it made no sense to me. I had access to Google earth. I had land surveys, satellite imagery, accounts and descriptions. What difference would actually STANDING there make?
But I’m glad I listened. Because Mike was absolutely right. There are so many factors, from experiencing climate, to on-the-ground line-of-sight, to reckoning distances (and fatigue) on foot that I would have missed if I hadn’t gone there. I will never make that mistake again.
On the phalanx side, what is the most interesting or unique fact about its use?
Modern people just cannot reckon the size of the thing. I mention this in the book – if you take the approximately 16,000-man phalanx at Cynoscephalae you have 1,024 squads of phalangites deployed 16 ranks deep, with each man getting just three feet of space to stand. This means the phalanx covers a frontage of over half a mile. The first five ranks levelled their pikes, creating a thicket of sharp iron pike heads, with 5,120 of them in the “killing zone,” the part you’d have to get through to close with the phalangite and kill him with a sword or six-eight-foot spear, five for each of the guys in the front rank. The soldiers in the next 11 ranks would incline their pikes at a 45-degree angle, and then gradually inclining up until the last man held his straight up. So, in addition to the 5,120 pikes pointing at you, you’ve got 10,880 more pointing up – roughly half the total trees in New York City’s 843-acre Central Park.
Can you imagine looking at that thing on a battlefield? It must have looked like a legit metal forest.
And, switching over to the other side, what about the legion?
The most amazing thing about the legion is (in my opinion) the thing that hands-down made Rome the military super-power of their age – the ability of the recruitment system to generate massive amounts of manpower on a moment’s notice. In the first two battles of the Pyrrhic War that I cover in the book (Heraclea and Asculum), the Romans suffered devastating losses, and yet were somehow back in the field in the same year. It was so amazing that Pyrrhus’ companion Cineas remarked that the Romans were like a Hydra (the mythical dragon where when you cut off one of its heads, two more grow back). Even more incredible was the Roman recovery after Cannae, one of the greatest military disasters in history. If you believe some scholars, the Romans lost as many as 70,000 men in a single battle . . . and yet they never gave up, and managed to replenish the legions to the degree where they were fighting again within the year and effectively winning the war just 14 years later.
Which begs the question, if you had to choose a side to live and fight and die for, which would it be and why?
The phalanx is more interesting to me in terms of arms, equipment and the sheer intricacy of the formation, but I would never want to fight and die for a Hellenistic king. The Roman republic, for all its flaws, was at least a representative government, with the abstracted notion of civitas and rights for all that sit well with me. American democracy (the smoking ruin that it currently is), made a lot of improvements on the Roman republican system, but it certainly traces its legacy to it. I certainly would be more inspired by the SPQR banner that represents the will of a people, rather than having the portrait and name of a single king on my shield.
It’d be criminal of me not to talk about your other books. Over the past seven years you’ve knocked out two complete trilogies in the Shadow Ops world, which is likened to ‘Black Hawk Down’, and two of the three novellas in The Sacred Throne series, epic grimdark fantasy which explores some all too-real themes.
Of all the books in your back catalogue, do you have a favourite? And if so, why?
Absolutely. It’s THE ARMORED SAINT, the first book in THE SACRED THRONE trilogy, hands down. I love it for a lot of reasons. It’s easily the best writing I’ve ever done. And I’ve said before that writing it was a self-imposed test, to see if I could break out of the military ghetto and write in the wider genre. It was a long, hard fight. That short book took me three years to get right, so it’s extra special to me to see it published and so well received. But most of all, it’s Heloise. In creating her, I grew to love her, and seeing her succeed is like cheering on an old friend.
Each book has a range of characters, each different from the last. Which of these do you identify most with?
That depends on the state of the world, but right now it’s certainly Oscar Britton, the protagonist from my first novel CONTROL POINT. Britton is an army officer not just in title, but in his soul. The military institution is a home for him, which makes it doubly rough when he’s forced to choose between his allegiance and what he knows is right. In Trump’s America, I feel that way every day.
If there is anyone reading this who hasn’t read a Myke Cole book, where would you advise them to start?
Absolutely start with THE ARMORED SAINT. THE QUEEN OF CROWS is already published, and I’ve just turned in THE KILLING LIGHT to my publisher, so odds are by the time you’ve finished books 1 and 2, book 3 will be ready for you. If you prefer contemporary military fantasy (think Harry Potter joins the Navy SEALs), then please start with GEMINI CELL, read THE REAWAKENING prequel trilogy, before moving onto the SHADOW OPS trilogy starting with CONTROL POINT.
Publishing eight books in seven years is pretty damn impressive. Publishing eight books in seven years, starring in a TV series, and holding down a full time job is VERY impressive.
For those writers (unpublished and published) reading this, what’s your secret to producing quality work at such a pace?
Honestly, I don’t recommend people do it my way. I live a life wildly out of balance, and it has cost me dearly. I haven’t been able to give the kind of attention to my personal and family relationships that they deserve. I am literally working whenever my eyes are open, or else beating myself up for taking a much needed break. I have had to give up all the sports I loved (I used to be both a kendo and SCA champion, I was a solid boulderer, and even fenced for a bit), and had to resign my military commission to make time to pursue my artistic career. I’m usually doing two books a year and a TV project (either pitching a show, or doing screen tests for a show I’m on), and I often feel pulled in too many directions at once.
Why then, do I do it? Why not slow down? Because I am not convinced that my artistic career will last. Because I believe I have to make hay while the sun shines. Because I do not feel safe in the knowledge that there will always be publishers willing to pay me for my writing, and TV networks willing to put me on the air. I am constantly trying to drive my career to the level where I will feel that sense of safety, but when I’m fully honest with myself I know that I will likely never feel that way.
My advice to writers is, don’t look at me. Look at Peter V. Brett and Pat Rothfuss and Scott Lynch and Naomi Novik and Robin Hobb and China Mieville. These writers ALL have LONG gaps between books, but when their work comes out, it’s ALWAYS amazing. This is because they are taking the advice I give out, but never heed myself – done right is always better than done fast.
If you could have any of your books produced in a different format (e.g. film, TV, game, theatre, comic etc.) which series would it be, what format would you choose and why?
Funny you should mention. I am currently working with animation studio School of Humans to develop LEGION VERSUS PHALANX for TV. They have patented an animation technology called Trioscope that finally perfects the art of painting over live-action actors. It looks absolutely amazing, and can full render massive ancient battles between 40,000 combatants without losing any of the detail or emotion of the dramatic performance. This would be impossible for live-action film. I’m incredibly excited to see what we can come up with, and will keep my fingers crossed we can get real interest from a network.
If we had a time machine and could go back in time and share a ‘secret’ about the publishing world with the yet-to-be-published Myke Cole, what would it be?
You’re on your own. Publishing is not some great machine that you can just hand your manuscript to and forget about it. From cover design to marketing and publicity to editorial, the author is the project manager and the ultimate responsible party for the success or failure of a book. You must be intimately involved with every aspect of your book’s production, stem to stern.
Looking ahead to the future (and let’s hope the time machine can help us out here), considering your conquests in fiction and non-fiction, and TV, it begs the question: What is NEXT for Myke Cole?
I just turned in THE KILLING LIGHT (the third book in THE SACRED THRONE trilogy) to Lee Harris at Tor. He will have edits for me, but the book is truly done. After that, I have two books under contract with Angry Robot about the future US Coast Guard on the moon. The first is titled 16th WATCH, and it will be followed by 16th SUNRISE. I’m currently attached to a new investigative TV show, and I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to announce that project sometime early in 2019. I’ve mentioned the work I’m doing with School of Humans on LEGION VERSUS PHALANX. Lastly, I’ve spoken with Osprey and they’re keen to have me do another history book for them, and I’m working on the proposal as we speak. Nothing is set in stone, of course, so I don’t want to give details. I will, however, hint that in writing the proposal, I am inhaling the complete history of Sparta from its founding to its final subjugation by Rome.
And last, but certainly not least, sticking with the theme of the future and, dare I say it, ‘legacy’, in years to come, if there’s one thing you’d like for readers to take away from reading your books (maybe a line of prose, a lesson learned, or an emotion) what would you like that to be?
That anyone can do anything at any time. Literally everything I’ve ever achieved in my life was impossible until five seconds before it happened and then suddenly it wasn’t. In both my fiction and my nonfiction I write about people overcoming impossible odds, and that’s a lesson that my real life is enforcing for me every single day. We are truly only limited by ourselves. Whatever it is you’re striving for, don’t you dare give up on it.
Myke Cole is the author of military fantasy series SPECIAL OPS and the fantasy trilogy SACRED THRONE. His first work of non-fiction, LEGION VERSUS PHALANX, is available now from Osprey.