Tuesday, 6 September 2011

On Writing Ashkar the Magnificent

How to write a book in which the main protaganist spends the story dead? This was the idea that intrigued me and motivated the writing of Ashkar the Magnificent. I'll confess that the germ of the idea came from elsewhere (don't they always?). I'd been struck by the plot twist in a film from the early 80's called Dragonslayer in which the sorcerer Ulrich of Craggenmoor, played by Ralph Richardson, apparently makes a mistake which kills him at the start of the film, only to return at the end -- having foreseen how everything will unfold -- to deal the deathstrike to the dragon of the film's title. And thus Ulrich, despite spending most of the film dead, returns and wins the day. His 'mistake' is revealed to be his greatest triumph.

So this was the core idea that I chose to employ for Ashkar. Yet, a problem with having your protagonist dead, as well as conceiving of him as a remote and prodigiously powerful wizard, is that it's hard for your readers to get to know the man. This is obvious in retrospect, but I was young and brash in those days and just set to it, swept up by the idea and eager to hammer the thing out to see where it would go.  Indeed, Ashkar's remoteness was not contained, but infected the two principal characters that I chose to tell the story through: the sentient sword, Prax, and the mysterious girl, L'Lan. Both of these were conceived as elements of Ashkar's being, split from him and incarnated at the moment of his death, both as Jungian avatars. Prax was the embodiment of Ashkar's animus and L'Lan was his anima. Since neither was a whole person (Prax in particular, lacking any organic or moving parts), I deliberately wrote them to be austere and uninvolved creatures, with limited, one-dimensional motivations - simply to rejoin at all costs.

In this endeavour I believe I was successful. I recall a rejection letter for the book that I received from one agent in the US who wrote back that "curmudgeon" though he was, he had never read a book with such indifferent and remote characters. Success! Perhaps I'd overdone it. In this book I had ended up creating a story where the villains were the empathetic characters, though neither was exactly likeable. The oafish Morkain bumbles his way along to disaster at the end, and ambitious Starg was at least full of energy. The heroes, alas - one is dead, and bits of him wander the world, cold, severe, difficult for the reader to emotionally engage with. Possibly this is the book I meant to write all along.

Prax's inspiration I can trace back to an article I read either in the magazine Dragon or Avalon Hill's General in the late 70's. Most likely it was the former, since the article dealt with what would now be called a session report of an evening of Dungeons & Dragons. In this particular session, one of the player characters was a sword - or rather a pair of sentient swords - who controlled a mindless golem. Somehow this idea stayed with me across the years before writing Ashkar and I was always looking for the opportunity to put such a character into a story of my own, though why is a question I can't answer. Possibly I was just attracted by the pure strangeness of the concept.

In style, Ashkar, like most of my early stories, was heavily influenced by the writing of Jack Vance, who I had admired from my earliest teens. Even the title of the book echoes Vance's Rhialto the Marvellous, though Vance's fine humour makes his title ironic, where Ashkar is purely descriptive.

And the setting? The lands of the Inland Sea I had conceived for my earlier book The Seas of Blood, which was written for Puffin's Fighting Fantasy series. I developed the world somewhat more in the (alas) unpublished Darksoul, and again used it in Ashkar. It is a lawless region of independent city states, each striving for predominance over its neighbours: magic, fantasy and blood-thirsty pirates are its primary tropes.