Corsair

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As 2016 slinks slightly shame-facedly away towards the box called ‘The Past’, I now have three – yes, three! Count them! – novellas out in in the wild and available on your e-reading device of choice.

All three of them are stand-alone stories set in the world of The Free. In fact they’re prequels to the novel, explaining how some of that world’s most famous warriors and magic-wielders wound up as comardes in the ranks of the greatest mercenary company there ever was: the Free. The explaining is dressed up in some fairly full on action and adventure, of course.

Long enough to satisfy, short enough to be easily digestible. Novellas have always been one of my favourite fiction formats, so I’m delighted to have got some under my writerly belt.

And, I can’t help but observe they’re staggeringly good value: currently $1.25 in the US, a mere 99p in the UK. Bargain. Treat yourself for the holidays, that’s what I say …

You can read them in any order, but here they are in what you might call in-world chronological order:

CORSAIR

For years the Free have sold their martial and magical skills to the highest bidder, winning countless victories that have overthrown kings and shaken empires.

Yulan is a newcomer to their ranks, keen to prove himself worthy of the Free’s name. When corsair marauders ravage the Hommetic Kingdom’s coastline, Yulan gets his chance.

His mission is simple: travel to the corsairs’ island fortress, persuade their self-proclaimed king to sign a peace treaty, then head home with sword unbloodied.

Yet the crumbling fortress holds many secrets, and blades speak louder than words. Soon Yulan must fight not just for the glory of the Free, but for his very survival.

Amazon UK, Amazon US, Google Play, and also available everywhere else you get e-books from …

EXILE

Wren is a Clever, someone who can shape the unseen forces of the world. Such powers are more a curse than a blessing, and Wren has been running all of her life – from the consequences of her actions, and from those who would use her abilities for their own ends.

Now she finally has a direction. Rumours talk of a legendary Clever living in the Hommetic Kingdom’s borderlands, a man who can teach her how to control the forces that rage inside her – if she can find him.

Yet enemies from Wren’s past hound her every step, and a horde of ferocious barbarians ravages the very lands that she must travel. Somewhere in this chaos, the Free – the most feared mercenary company in the world – are fighting against the invaders. Surely they would help her in her quest . . .

Or perhaps the Free will need her help even more.

Amazon UK, Amazon US, Google Play, and also available everywhere else you get e-books from …

TYRANT

For years the Free have sold their martial and magical skills to the highest bidder, winning countless victories that have overthrown kings and shaken empires.

Brennan is proud to serve in the Free’s ranks. He has blooded his sword to defend the company’s ideals of honour, freedom and justice, and he will gladly do so again. It is this devotion that now sees him riding hard on the heels of a band of slavers, who have burned two villages to the ground and escaped with sixty prisoners.

It has fallen to the Free to hunt the slavers down and rescue their captives – a simple task for soldiers of their skill.

Yet the Slavers have fled into the Empire of Orphans, a dangerous land of rumour and intrigue, where every step the Free take will bring them closer to the deadliest enemy they could ever face: the Orphanidons of the mad emperor.

But the Free have never backed down from a challenge.

Amazon UK, Amazon US, Google Play, and also available everywhere else you get e-books from …

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I wrote this mini-essay ages ago – it was intended for publication elsewhere, but that never happened. To be honest, I’d forgotten about it but then the trailer for the re-make of The Magnificent Seven came out and … well, why it reminded me of this will be obvious once you read on!

It’s timely for another reason, mind you. It’s mostly about The Free, my most recently published novel, and some of the specific influences on that book. As I might have mentioned here, The Free is getting some companion e-novellas now. The first, Corsair, is out now everywhere e-books are sold, ready for your downloading and reading pleasure. So seems like a sensible time to revisit this discussion about what was going on in my head when I wrote The Free in the first place …

I’ve always got little movies playing in my head when I’m writing, especially action scenes. Not the details, but things like movement, its pattern and rhythm, and – bizarrely – lighting. So basically, my little mental movies are kind of blurry but full of movement and very well-lit.

When it came to writing The Free, though, things got a whole lot more specific. Once I had the basic story in my head I realised it had a lot on common with particular movies that I really like, and I decided to dig around in those commonalities and see what popped up. It was a first for me; usually (I think) my influences are a bit more subterranean and a good deal less conscious. This time, for better or worse, I was paying close attention.

The movies in question are Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch and to an extent 13 Assassins. Not enough people have seen the last of those: it’s kind of a modern, streamlined version of Seven Samurai, turned up to a violent eleven. It’s beautiful, brutal and clever stuff.

So, I thought, what do I like about these movies, and what would a novel that tried to achieve a similar effect look like? Not all of the answers I came up with actually made it into The Free, but some did. It wound up being a book that’s deliberately reminiscent of those movies, but not a slavish retread – it has its own story to tell. Some of the similarities are pretty obvious (if you’ve read the book, you’ll know what I mean), others maybe not so much, and it’s a couple of the latter I wanted to discuss here.

Exhibit One: Endings. All four of the films I’ve name-dropped are to a greater or lesser extent about endings in particular ways and combinations that I reckon are interesting. They share an elegiac tone, and underneath their narrative skin are positively thick with the notion of ending, or passing. The end of the age of gunslingers or samurai, the age of the individual man of violence (women of violence too, in The Free). The ending of specific lives; lives of which we see only the final few days, but they’re days that seem to sum up the years that have preceded them. I like that model. Beginning a story right near its end appeals to me.

The other thing about these movies and endings is that in all of them, from early on, the plot’s end-point is made very, very clear. In three of the four movies, you even know where the climax is going to take place, who the antagonists will be, what the specific numerical odds against the protagonists will be, within the first … I don’t know, twenty minutes maybe?

On some level, all of this is back to front. You might even call it spoilerific. I don’t go quite that far in The Free, because I couldn’t resist putting in one or two twists, but the sustained action of the last 80+ pages of the book is in a sense the obviously intended destination, and I assume – want, even – the reader to recognise that from pretty early on.

The thing about having what you might call a ‘flagged climax’ like this is that it pulls the plot and narrative towards it. It exerts a sort of gravitational tug that by its nature puts a bit of momentum and energy and tension into the tale. The fact that you know the shape, if not the detail, of Seven Samurai’s ending from very near the start imbues the whole movie with a rich cocktail of meaning and foreboding and questioning.

Exhibit Two: Otherness and violence. Much of the distinctive magic and tone of all these movies resides in the otherness of their central characters. They exist in tightly defined ‘bands of brothers’ socially and psychologically isolated from everyone else – but I reckon their otherness is also fundamentally about their relationship to violence. How they in particular use violence, how they view its purpose, and how its application has shaped, bonded and isolated them.

The thing that struck me, though, was that in the case of the movies with seven in the title, many different views (and consequences) of violence are represented both within and without the central band of brothers. Violence is what defines many of these characters, but it does it in radically different ways. I don’t make a big thing of it in The Free – it’s supposed to be entertainment, not meditation – but nevertheless it’s there; everyone in the book, consciously or unconsciously, has their own particular reason for enacting violence, and feels its effects and consequences in different ways. The central characters are mercenaries, but simple greed is not one of the reasons. Because that would be kind of dull, right?

And the other thing about violence, of course, is that it’s exciting. The movies I’m talking about are all, in their different ways, steeped in the horrible beauty of violence on the screen. They’re not celebrating it exactly, but they undeniably embrace its visceral, choreographed appeal when presented as spectacle. It’s an abiding puzzle to me why something that most of us, if confronted with it in real life, would find horrible and traumatizing is so exciting and engaging to watch in a cinema.

To make violence both cruel and exciting, horrible and fascinating, folly and triumph, that’s clever. Embodying mutual contradictions without breaking the narrative vessel they’re contained within can be a challenge, but I think it’s worth trying, particularly in the case of violence. And in that I’ve always thought Seven Samurai is the champion. Its final battle scenes, amidst mud and teeming rain, are so loaded with contradictory beauty and horror, tragedy and triumph, it’s a wonder the thing doesn’t fall apart. But it doesn’t, because it’s a masterpiece.

The Free gave me an excuse to think about it and those other films – not masterpieces perhaps, the other three, but well worth a wee think – and that if nothing else made the writing process fun.

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Here we are, back with Moving Pictures on a Friday, because this caught my eye:

Not even sure I knew it was coming, to be honest. Maybe I did and then forgot. Either way … five things about it:

1) That’s one film that really didn’t need remaking, don’t you think? Not that that ever stops a remake nowadays, I guess. So fair enough. Have at it, Hollywood!

2) Denzel’s sporting some fine facial hair. Not as good as Yul’s bald pate, but at least a little bit eye-catching.

3) Chris Pratt is going to be in every big film from now on. Is that the plan? Because I like him a lot, but it’s starting to get hard to see him as anything other than CHRIS PRATT. Whatever character he’s playing is disappearing behind the fame that is CHRIS PRATT.

4) Looks rather like they might have one token good Native American and one token bad Native American.  I really, really hope they don’t play those tokens and then have them fight each other to the death, because if the good Native American’s purpose in the plot is to kill the bad Native American that’s just … well, it seems like a lousy idea, that’s all. Deeply last century.

5)  Have I mentioned that I wrote a book – The Free – partially inspired by The Magnificent Seven? Or, more accurately, inspired by the film M7 itself is a remake of: Seven Samurai.

Have I further mentioned that there are three e-novella prequels to The Free coming out this year? Oh, I have: all the details are here. Anyway, the first of those prequels is available right now, everywhere e-books are sold. It’s called Corsair, and it’s over 20,000 words of mayhem and formative character moments in a world where magic is dangerous, unpredictable and at best a double-edged sword. A little taste of my version of The Magnificent Seven!

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I’ve got a new novella out today! The first of three, in fact, that’ll be showing up over the course of the next few months.

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Here’s what it says on the Orbit website about what’s happening:

“Drawing comparisons to films like Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven, THE FREE received widespread critical acclaim upon publication, and received starred reviews from both Publisher’s Weekly and Library Journal.

The good news is that the adventures of The Free don’t end with this novel – far from it! The world that Brian has created is too large, and the history of the Free too bloody and tumultuous, to be explored in just a single novel. So we’re very pleased to announce three new novellas that will explore the eventful past of this famous mercenary company, all of which will be published this year.”

So, yes. These novellas are set in the world of my novel The Free, and they’re all stand-alone prequels to that book.

You don’t need to have read The Free to make sense of them – nor, come to that, do you have to read them to make sense of The Free – but they do fill in a little bit of the backstory for some of the main characters in that book, explain how some of them wind up where they do, that kind of thing.

So if you’ve read The Free and would like to know little things like … oh, I don’t know … what was young Yulan’s first big mission, or how did Wren and Kerig meet, or what actually happened when the Free chased slavers into the Empire of Orphans … well, these novellas might be what you’re looking for.

And if you haven’t read The Free, these novellas are for you too. Perfect way to sample the world and the characters without straining your wallet!

The first of them – Corsair – is available now in any and, as far as I know, all places where e-books are sold. Exile, the second, will show up in June; Tyrant, the third, will poke its head up above the battlements in September.

The e-book  of Corsair is awaiting you on Amazon UK, Amazon US, B&N/Nook, Google Books … all the usual places.