(I return to the blog-o-sphere with a note I shared on Facebook, not long ago. I’m hard at work on my next book, the oft-mentioned “Orc Novel”; here, I go into its genesis . . .)
What has become A GATHERING OF RAVENS had its genesis in a dream. According to my old blog, that dream occurred on 15 August 2006:
“I woke Tuesday morning to a vivid dream-image: A figure standing atop a precipice of broken rock, sword in hand, long black hair drifting on the wind and obscuring a non-human face. Below, surging up a narrow gorge, comes a horde of veiled warriors clutching saw-toothed scimitars, spears, and wickedly-curved knives. This is the only part of the dream I fully recall; the rest is hazy. On the surface, it seemed common enough for me – pulpy and obviously inspired by too much REH and too many Frazetta paintings. But the emotion is what forced me awake, like I was witnessing the tail-end of some heart-and-gut-wrenching saga. Immediately I jumped up, fired up the laptop, and started throwing stuff on paper. By breakfast I had four single spaced pages of notes, history, background material, and research topics.” (“When Ideas Attack”, posted 17 August 2006).
By 14 October 2006, I revealed that the thing I’d been working on – dubbed the Unnamed Fantasy Project – would be a novel featuring Orcs (from a close reading of posts, I seem to have kept the Orc part under wraps for fear of being put off by the nay-sayers). I had enough info to post an introductory snippet:
“The gods made them warriors; Mankind made them invincible.
“Forged in a brutal environment of isolated valleys and snow-clad peaks at the Roof of the World, the Orc tribes of the Zhrokari Mountains had known no masters save the gods of sky and rock; being warlike, neither had they known peace. For a hundred generations clan fought clan, tribe fought tribe, to the pleasure of their savage gods.
“But, two centuries ago, when an army of Men dared set foot in the fastness of the Zhrokari, the independence of the Orcs became their greatest liability. They were zealots, these Humans, followers of Ash’a, the God of the Blade—those pious warmongers who had subjugated the East, men whose harsh and austere Faith had forged a holy empire from the ghost-haunted ruins of ancient Nerona. The tribes resisted, but without a leader strong enough to overcome centuries of in-fighting their resistance was in vain. The followers of Ash’a descended upon the Orcs in a rain of cleansing iron. Those not slain outright found themselves shackled and driven south, into the lowlands, to begin a new life in bondage to the Prophet of a foreign god . . .” (“A Secret Revealed”, posted 14 October 2006).
As you can see, the book was initially going to be a created-world fantasy, set in a world called Tharduin (used as the setting for my Orc short-story, “Amarante”). I went on to write:
“The Orcs … are one part Vandal, one part Afghan tribesman, and one part Mameluke; they possess none of the near-clichéd attributes of their literary brethren. They’re not inherently evil or blighted; they have no aversion to sunlight; they don’t require a powerful non-Orc will to guide them; they are not green, simple-minded, or piggish.” (“A Secret Revealed”, posted 14 October 2006).
Such are the vicissitudes of the writing life that what became known simply as “The Orc Book” got pushed onto the back burner as I wrote THE LION OF CAIRO, worked on SERPENT OF HELLAS, and finally put writing aside to take care of my terminally ill parents. But because it was a project dear to my heart, I kept tinkering with the Orc Book – trying my hand at secondary world building and trying to nail down some of the specifics of their culture. But it wasn’t until 2008 that I started to question whether or not I should play to my strengths as a historical writer or trust my unproven world building skills:
“I could eschew a wholly created world altogether and attempt to insert Orcs into our own mythological past – mixing Greek and Germanic myth with REH’s “Worms of the Earth” (themselves a riff off Arthur Machen’s tales of the Little People). Steve Tompkins of The Cimmerian illuminates the problem of taking Orcs out of their milieu far better than I can. He writes:
“ ‘. . . to reconfigure them as an unlovely-but-arguably-racially-profiled warrior-race, unrestricted free agents looking for a destiny of their own is to risk losing the plot. It’s precisely the fact that they were gengineered in the hells beneath the halls of a Dark Lord – “And deep in their dark hearts the Orcs loathed the Master whom they served in fear, the maker only of their misery” – the tension between slavery and sentience that characters like Gorbag and Shagrat evince, that renders them so compelling.’
“Though he does make a fine point, I’m nevertheless leaning toward inserting Orcs into ancient myth as the spawn of Phorcys and Ceto, a brother-and-sister duo who gave birth to some of the most fearsome denizens of the Greek mythological landscape. The use of Phorcys is especially noteworthy since, according to Robert Graves’ notes in his two-volume The Greek Myths, Phorcys/Phorkys becomes the Latin Orcus – a Roman god of the underworld whose name is at the etymological heart of the word Orc. But still, I’m faced with the very problem Steve Tompkins elucidates so well: without a Dark Creator to fuel their hate and their fear, Orcs tend to slip into clichéd roles, savages who serve either as sword-fodder or one-dimensional foils.
“What might work is to have them be slaves of Hades (much like how the race of Cyclops serves Hephaestus as forge-workers), who toil never-ending on the great palaces and prisons of Tartarus. Punishment for some transgression, such as fighting on the wrong side in the Titanomachy or perhaps for stealing the secret of ironworking from the Cyclopes (Hades could have seen some worth in preserving the Sons of Phorcys from the wrath of Hephaestus). It’s still quite rough, of course, and there’s a great deal of time between now and the moment I needs must commit something to paper.” (“Orcish Antiquities”, posted 9 November 2008).
The idea of moving Orcs from their original genre elicited a great deal of conversation, both pro and con. But, in my mind there existed an extremely good reason to make the switch from straight fantasy to historical fantasy: the existing oeuvre of great books with Orc protagonists already populating the bookshelves. It begins with Tolkien, who started it all, and runs to Stan Nicholls (undoubtedly the godfather of the modern Orc book), Christie Golden, RA Salvatore, Morgan Howell, Mary Gentle . . . I wondered if another pure fantasy featuring Orcs could stand out in that stellar crowd. Because of Tolkien’s love for the Northern Thing, Orcs seemed a great fit for Norse myth. But I wanted to take it a step beyond:
“ … its core conceit is the idea that Tolkien’s inspiration for Orcs came from a cycle of Norse myths unknown to us until recently. This cycle identifies a race of creatures descended from the Dvergar (dwarfs) that haunt caves and fens — Grendel and his monstrous mother from Beowulf are degenerate members of this race of “mythological Orcs”.” (Scott Oden to Patrice Louinet, via email, 12 October 2012).
This leads up to where we stand today. The initial draft of A GATHERING OF RAVENS (which, until August of 2012 was known as GRIMNIR after the protagonist; prior to that, it was known as ORC: A TALE OF THE FORSAKEN, and before that it was FORSAKEN: THE FIRST CHRONICLE OF THE RAVEN; its first title was simply, UNTITLED) is a few hundred words from being completed. Then I’ll hammer out – quickly – the finished draft that my agent and editor will deconstruct and make better; then, if all goes well, it will come to you, Gentle Readers, hopefully by the end of 2014.
It has been a long road to get this idea even this far – a road fraught with disappointment, detours, sadness, and triumph; now, it has even more road left to travel – a more difficult road, at that. I hope you’ll come along for the ride.